- Turning the Pot Upside DownWhat About the Cooking of Religion?
Stephan Palmié, Raquel Romberg, The Cooking of History, Afro-Cuban religion, Africa, Cuba, Yoruba, Santéria
The Coking of History presents a complex, erudite portrait of the making of “Afro-Cuban religion” over the last three centuries as an object of study and a religious “tradition” by a host of social agents—religious experts, anthropologists, journalists, state agents—driven by variously situated agendas, entitlements, dislocations, and relocations. These agendas are masterfully traced by Stephan Palmié, allowing readers to follow the convoluted genealogies of the study and practice of Afro-Cuban religion. He shows how these genealogies have emerged by distinctively highlighting the role of Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States as well as their respective imaginaries in shaping the labor of expert practitioners-cum-entrepreneurs and anthropologists-cum-practitioners. In this process, Palmié has also considerably raised the bar of reflexivity in the fields of history, anthropology, and social theory.
One of the more potent imaginaries engaging these various actors in their shared debates, wars, alliances, and competitions in this book is the idea of “origins.” African, Africanity, and Africanization or rather Yorubanization, and Cuban or Cubanness appear as key modifiers and players in these arguments. They appear and disappear in Palmié’s account as productive fata morganas that reflect on and shape the racial/ethnic politics of and for culture and religion. Of all the actors in this process, Palmié concedes that religious practitioners are vital to the cookery, both aware of, and partners in, the constructions of Afro Cuban religion, “though their predicaments are somewhat different than ours” (7).
Indeed, the audience for Palmié’s narrative seems to be fellow historians and anthropologists, given the prescriptive subtitle “How Not to Study Afro-Cuban Religion” and the frequent use of “we” and “our” in describing the ethnographic interface with religious practices throughout the text. No doubt I’ve been interpellated as an anthropologist who has produced historical and [End Page 225] ethnographic materials on Puerto Rican Brujería, Espiritismo, and related Afro-Latin vernacular religions, and my commentary should be understood in this vein.1
The power of knowledge/representations produced by academics, especially those working on social-cultural-religious issues, has become a taken-for-granted reality by now for anyone working in these fields. The power of state ideologies and the recruitment of intellectuals—master chefs of sorts—in constituting the value of cultural objects and subjects is also a recognized issue among social scientists. I therefore find the most engaging arguments of the book in the sections where Palmié adds to these circuits the politics of religious practices, the “wars” of santeros/babalaos, and the academic and state interfaces that at times have fueled them and at times have scavenged on them. I will not even try to put these convoluted processes in culinary terms; Palmié has done it in an exceptionally learned manner, pointing all along to the “lasting ‘reality effects’ “ that emerge from “contingent articulations between the language games of practitioners and scholars” (10). He takes readers along to investigate the details of past and actual “wars” in academic-religious-state arenas, especially focusing on the “ethnographic interface,” and for that I am equally enthralled and thankful.
Accepting the challenge of The Cooking of History, I want to tease out a bit the rather benign if crafty metaphor of “cooking” (cf. 98–112), devised in the footsteps of Levi-Strauss, Wittgenstein, and Don Fernando Ortiz. Following my own cooking for this forum, I wonder about competing recipes, ingredients that have been excluded, thrown out of the pot or strained after-ward, those put into secret pots, or ingredients that never even got to be cooked because they had been eaten raw, had been aging or rotting away from the eyes of academics and entrepreneur-practitioners.
Without aiming to cook Palmié’s goose, I wonder what the cooking of history by such master chefs has done for the everyday “cooking” of vernacular religious practitioners of Santería, Lucumí, La Religión de los Orichas, Regla de Ocha, Regla de Ifá, or any other name of the sort that vernacular...