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  • The Raw and the OvercookedSome Comments on Stephan Palmié’s Cooking of History
  • Peter Pels

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

What does Stephan Palmié’s new book offer to someone who is neither an expert on nor particularly interested in Afro-Cuban religion? The introduction on call number BL2532.S3 (under which books on Afro-Cuban religion are shelved in the Chicago University library) promises reflections on the anthropology of classification and categorization; the reference to Fernando Ortiz’s pioneering essay “The Cooking of History” suggests an elaboration of his thoughts about the anthropology of globalization; while the title seems to have much in store for the student of religion and the transatlantic study of race—especially where earlier work by the author provided fascinating peeks into the rich material from which he can draw.1 However, The Cooking of History—like the ajiaco stew’s “incessant bubbling of heterogeneous substances” to which Ortiz compared cubanidad (97–98)—does not advance a research question that relates these ingredients to each other in a systematic fashion. It leaves me with the feeling that the book mistakes the multiplication of ingredients (often too raw to digest or, more often, long overcooked) for good cooking.

Maybe Palmié’s main goal is to slay the “dragons” of an essentialized “African religion” that anachronistically persists in Caribbean modernity because it is thought to be functional for black lower class life (14). But even in the Caribbean, this is largely yesterday’s news. (I’d rather read Ortiz’s classics about it.) I did not find an explicit analysis of whether and how the category “Afro-Cuban religion” differs in form and social content from other forms of cultural classification (such as “religion” or “race”). The Cooking of History never explicitly addresses the debate about the anthropology of [End Page 218] globalization opened up by the likes of Appadurai, Ferguson, Hannerz, or Tsing. Neither does The Cooking of History employ a recognizable vocabulary for advancing our understanding of religion—especially where it studiously avoids the two most momentous innovations in the anthropology of religion of the past decades, the turn to material culture and the turn to secularism and the political theologies of the modern state. Finally, it does not theorize race (except by repeating Palmié’s earlier argument that blackness is different from Africanity).2 It ignores how religion and race are globally related in the first place, and why one needs an analytic of the modern state to understand that. I believe that The Cooking of History remains so undertheorized because of Palmié’s commitment—not unusual in the politically correct climate of much American anthropology—to a radical symmetry in analysis. In Palmié’s case, this symmetry—which many copy from Bruno Latour’s mistaken attribution of it to his own project3—suggests that arguments from divination procedures are equal to arguments from empirical research (220, 262). The book thereby throws the baby (or maybe the toddler) of social scientific theorizing out with the bathwater instead of trying to teach it to stand on its feet.

The introduction to The Cooking of History poses the problem of classification: doesn’t the category “Afro-Cuban Religion” confront the same irreducible variability in the real world that any typology faces (6)? Do not all people make their world inhabitable by generalization, and subsequently act “as if “ their concepts are real (7)? Or is “Afro-Cuban religion” a special kind of classification? Palmié poses, but does not answer these questions. He does not even analytically distinguish between them. Yet the problem of essentialism (applicable to the categories “Afro” and “Cuban”) is surely not the same as the problem of anachronism or ethnocentrism (that is, when we apply the word “religion” to places and periods that lack the meanings the concept carries now); nor does the problem of inclusion in a class (are you a Santero or an anthropologist?) seem identical to the problem of turning (anthropological) texts into (Afro-Cuban) lives (or vice versa). Yet Palmié seems to think there is a way out of all those dilemmas at the same time...


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pp. 218-224
Launched on MUSE
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