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  • The “Knower” and the “Known”— Complex Articulations
  • Peter Geschiere

Stephan Palmié, Peter Geschiere, The Cooking of History, Afro-Cuban religion, Africa, Cuba, Yoruba, Santéria

When I first read Palmié’s intriguing title, I started off on the wrong foot: I interpreted The Cooking of History to imply the shifty “cooking up” of something. But when I saw the book’s striking cover—a small army of cooks stirring an unidentifiable mixture with big spoons in a huge cauldron in the midst of what looks like a hungry crowd—I got the message: we have to study history as a vast cooking process in which all ingredients constantly change shape, are fused with others and thus take on new appearances (or disappear, melting into each other). The subtitle explains things further: it will be about those who think they study something called Afro-Cuban religion—in practice mostly anthropologists, often with a strong historical slant—and who apparently have to reconsider what they have been doing. The injunction seems in danger of being didactic. But luckily the first pages make clear that its special target is the author himself, who offers his own experience up as a striking example of “how not to study” this topic.

The notion of “the cooking of history” comes from Fernando Ortiz, a fascinating figure and in many senses a catalytic presence in the crystallization of the concept of “Afro-Cuban religion” (the term he came to prefer, but we will see that it is precisely the constant metamorphosis of this notion that is the quintessence of such historical “cooking”). Ortiz, born in 1881 and originally a criminologist, was initially very worried by the “fetishism” that Cuba’s slave population—and notably the negros brujos (black sorcerers)—had brought with them from Africa and given new dynamics on the island. But in the course of his long life, Ortiz became ever more interested in the creative mixture of this African heritage with other elements, notably from Catholicism; and as his vision of Cuban society evolved, it was precisely this mixing that more and more became for him the hallmark of an original Cuban identity. The same Ortiz also played an important role in the striking volte-face by the Castro regime in 1975 (more than ten years after the revolution) from [End Page 207] condemning this popular religion, in good Marxist fashion, as the opium of the people, to celebrating it as a crucial element of national culture. In many respects Ortiz seems to have been Palmié’s great inspiration in writing this book. Precisely the former’s capacity for never-ending metamorphosis makes him a striking example of this book’s main message: we must distance ourselves from the outmoded but still persistent view in which the knower assumes his or her own fundamental separation from the object of knowledge. The challenge is to accept that we are part and parcel of the crystallization of our data: our labels form these data, but in return the data and the labels take on a life of their own, re-shaping us, the “knowers.” Palmié qualifies the “ethnographic interface” therefore as a “membrane,” passing on vibrations in both directions.

Toward the end of the book the author develops this idea of the knower formed by what (s)he pretends to know even further. There he again picks up an informant’s suggestion—central in his earlier Wizards and Scientists, Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition (2002)—that he (Stephan Palmié) also had a spirit guiding him: a “tall, strongly built and very black man” of Congolese origin. For this informant, it was clearly this spirit that drove Palmié to this quaint interest in African cults in Cuba (170). Subsequent experiences forced Palmié to take this divination unexpectedly seriously: other informants later showed him the house where a man called Palmiés had lived—indeed a sturdy person who claimed Congolese origins. This in turn led our Stephan Palmié into speculating how this man’s family might have taken on the name of its former owner. In earlier chapters the formative powers of the known on the knower are illustrated in a more general sense...


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pp. 207-212
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