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  • Object LessonsAfro-Cuban Religion at the Ethnographic Interface
  • Kate Ramsey

Stephan Palmié, Kate Ramsey, The Cooking of History, Afro-Cuban religion, Africa, Cuba, Yoruba, Santéria

Those familiar with Stephan Palmié’s scholarly corpus and particularly his Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition (2002) will recognize the roots of questions that lie at the heart of his indispensable new book The Cooking of History: How Not to Study Afro-Cuban Religion. Most particularly, how did the object “Afro-Cuban religion” come into being over the course of the past century and what are its bounds? The existence and coherence of such an object—Afro-Cuban religion—would seem hardly questionable at this point. For one, its borders are defined and content stabilized by a capacious U.S. Library of Congress call number identifying an ever-growing number of publications on the subject. Yet each of those constitutive terms (Afro/Cuban/religion) seems a good deal less self-evident when subject to Palmié’s historical detective work and rigorous analysis. His insights on the making of this object and its internal heterogeneity have critical significance not only for the field of study that he interrogates in this work, but also for social scientific and humanistic scholarship at large.

Palmié is especially interested in the role that anthropologists have played in the production of “Afro-Cuban religion” as an object since the early twentieth century, often in unacknowledged collaboration with practitioners. Thus, The Cooking of History focuses in particular on what he terms the “ethnographic interface” in the creation of this “conceptual ‘boundary object’ ” (11). He acknowledges that, of course, numerous other agents have been and continue to be actively involved in such processes, not least government officials, lawmakers, Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy, journalists, publishing houses, and so on (258). However he makes a strong case for privileging the particularly intense and productive joint effort of anthropologists—himself included—and practitioners in fashioning an object that has proceeded to take on a life and dynamic of its own over the decades. A key [End Page 233] point is that the process of knowledge production has never been unidirectional; rather, anthropologists and practitioners have long reciprocally recruited one another to advance their respective aims and projects. In so doing, they have mutually shaped the construction of “Afro-Cuban religion” as an object and field, and, at the same time, as Palmié explores in intricate detail, informed one another’s practices. Thus, “Afro-Cuban religion” and its anthropology developed in tandem over the course of the twentieth century.

The Cooking of History is rich in metaphors and analogies to evoke these processes, sometimes drawn from communications technologies past and present—whether switchboards or multiuser domains. However, as befits his title, Palmié makes cooking his most frequent metaphor. In doing so, he takes his cue from Fernando Ortiz, the first and arguably most influential ethnographer of Afro-Cuban religion, who played an outsized role in the creation of this object and the field now delimited (in the United States) by the LC call number BL2532.S3. Ortiz is probably best known internationally for proposing the concept of transculturación—a critique, in part, of North American theories of acculturation that assumed structurally weak groups would assimilate to a dominant culture, without acknowledging that the process worked in the other direction as well. Emphasizing that transculturation should be understood as an ongoing historical process, Ortiz makes an ever-simmering pot of ajiaco (a Cuban stew) the sometime figure for his theorization of the continual “cooking of history” (97). In Palmié’s reading, this ajiaco explicates anthropology’s relationship to its objects of study, reminding us that anthropological knowledge has played a constitutive role in the making of “Afro-Cuban religion” and continues to do so. As he writes: “our inscriptive agency” has always been “part of the world it aims to ethnographically render” (8).

Palmié’s analysis of key flashpoints in the production of “Afro-Cuban religion” across the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries sheds a fascinating new light on these histories, beginning with the publication of Ortiz’s 1906 Los negros brujos. This “founding text of Cuban...


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pp. 233-238
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