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  • Minerva Airlines
  • Stephan Palmié

The Cooking of History, Afro-Cuban religion, Africa, Cuba, Mikhail Bahktin, Fernando Ortiz, Kenneth Burke, irony, historiography

“Languages of heteroglossia, like mirrors that face each other, each reflecting in its own way a piece, a tiny corner of the world, force us to guess at and grasp for a world behind their mutually reflecting aspects that is broader, more multi-leveled, containing more and varied horizons than would be available to a single language or single narrator.”

—Mikhail Bahktin

“[R]epresentations of human difference, rather than reflecting objective facts, are primarily inventions, interventions and legacies of interventions in the social relationships that they (also) try to depict—by all parties.”

—Peter Pels

These days, to say that anthropology may be an inherently ironic, perhaps inescapably ironic, enterprise is to carry coals to Newcastle.1 Yet just as the latter expression has its own history (it seems to date back to the fifteenth century), so does the former assertion. Irony presumes a distance, affording, for example, the hindsight that since coal-mining is largely dead in northern England, “carrying coal to Newcastle” now has acquired a doubly ironic [End Page 117] ring.2 Just so might anthropology’s long and rather consistent tendency to peg its assertions of disciplinary advancement on distancing itself from its own past be reread with hindsight. There is a vast and growing literature on just this moment, and this is certainly not the occasion to review it. To be sure, the scorn Boas poured on the practitioners of the “comparative method,” Malinowski on untrained “practical men,” or E. E. Evans-Pritchard on the armchair theorizing of Lévy-Bruhl soon enough fell on themselves, as new would-be priest kings began to prowl their sacred groves.3 Yet instead of fading into a consensus phase of Kuhnian “normal science” appropriate to a mature discipline, this moment has only increased in recent decades.

Slightly (but really only slightly) misquoting Hegel, we might say that Minerva’s owl has done a lot more flying in our discipline, since it began to dawn upon anthropologists (and historians of the discipline) in the waning twentieth century that—no less than its older sister discipline of history— anthropology had staked its raison d’etre on carefully crafted “fictions of facticity.”4 Ever since, Minerva Airlines has done brisk traffic in the service of a mode of introspection that shuttles readers and their writers from expositions of the follies and crimes of the ancestors, to harangues about ethnography as structured by inherently unequal power relationships, to queries about the [End Page 118] tenability of the culture concept in an age of globalization and identity politics, and (lately) on to questions about whether a shift from ethnography to ontography might not herald the end of anthropological representationalism as we’ve known it. Oh my, we might say. What a pickle we got ourselves in. Here we go: beating ourselves up for prattling on in heteroglossic languages contaminated by unsavory pasts that return just as we so earnestly try to shake them! Let’s hurry, then, to regain the “edge of irony” before our own pronouncements are overtaken by it.5

This may sound frivolous. But it merely aims to convey that there may be more productive uses of irony. Kenneth Burke insisted on precisely this, when he argued that “true irony” cannot be based on a sense of “superiority over the enemy,” but must be grounded in a “sense of fundamental kinship with the enemy, as one needs him, is indebted to him, is not merely outside of him as an observer but contains him within, being consubstantial with him.”6 Though I would not use a vocabulary of enmity when it comes to my inter-locutors, I could not but agree. Contrary to the misgivings of the one historian of our discipline among the participants in this forum, I thus do not at all think that “the history of the anthropology of cultural classification and its historical conditions” is easily brushed aside as “irrelevant to the understanding of Afro-Cuban religion,” or anything else, for that matter.7 There is no accounting for our present endeavors without knowing...


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