- Electric Santería: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transnational Religion by Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús
In Electric Santería, Aisha Beliso-De Jesús provides a welcome ethnographic reconsideration of transnational religious flows connecting contemporary Cuban religious practitioners into a global field of African Atlantic religiosity. What distinguishes her intervention in an increasingly crowded field of study is an innovative theoretical approach to “form[s] of sensual travel and electrifying mobility” (p. 6). As her electrical metaphors suggest, this ethnography is especially sensitive to the world-making effects of currents and connections, as these produce what she describes as “assemblages” of spiritual energies, physical sensations, traveling media and bodies, and international networks of information and affect, in order to suggest how religious practices partake of gendered, racialized, and sexualized postcolonial and (neo)imperial orders. [End Page 120]
Beliso-De Jesús’ multi-sited ethnography of religious flows, then, moves us beyond an increasingly stale analysis of transnationalism that simply compares what are too often assumed to be stable, primordial identities and practices “here” and “there” (or worse yet, in trying to adjudicate authenticity or origins), and that goes no further than asking how migration affects religion or how technology mediates dispersed religious community. Instead, Beliso-De Jesús expressly questions the universality of underlying assumptions of religious transcendence and mediation through space and time. Drawing in particular on Matthew Engelke and Charles Hirschkind’s debate over the universality of mediation in religion (Matthew Engelke, “Response to Charles Hirschkind: Religion and Transduction,” Social Anthropology 19:97–102, 2011; Charles Hirschkind, “Media, Mediation, Religion,” Social Anthropology 19:90–7, 2011), she argues for abandoning an analytic that is tacitly (even at times overtly) informed by Christian theologies of transcendence and transubstantion and the pervasive dualisms these generate (e.g., sacred/ profane, public/private, local/global) (pp. 72–5).
She instead adopts Karen Barad’s relational physics of “entanglement” (in Meeting the Universe Halfway, Duke University Press, 2007) to propose centering her ethnographic analysis on what she calls “copresence.” As developed in her introduction and first chapter, “copresence” derives from the emic Cuban folk religious notion of presencias that describes the “complex multiplicity” of embodied sensations of spirits in interaction with the living (p. 7). But rather than limiting this concept to the performative entanglement of the living and the dead producing specifically religious experience, for example, as manifested in spirit possession, she makes the crucial move of using “copresence” to describe our experiences of being-in-the-world and social relations more generally—that is, all of what we experience as reality (“ontology” being the mot du jour). Of “copresence,” she says: “It is a somatic experience of walking with (copresence) rather than solely a mind that is reaching toward an unobtainable (transcendence)” (p. 75). And so she uses “copresence” to describe not only spirits and santos (deities of Santería), but persons, bodies, ritual objects, videos and other technologies, entire religious lineages, and even affective, corporeal, and relational schemata (producing configurations of “race,” “gender,” and “sexuality”; pp. 32, 38) that partake in “trance-nationalism.”
The copresence at the heart of her ethnographic study is eminent santero Alfredo Calvo Cano, a lifelong, deeply rooted resident of Matanzas, Cuba, who nonetheless became an international presence through his formidably large transnational network of godchildren, including Beliso-De Jesús herself. The book opens with a preface entitled “Despedidas” (Farewells) commemorating Calvo Cano’s life, and the book’s epilogue, “A Death at Dawn,” revisits her experience of his passing and funerary rites.
The house of her godfather, Calvo Cano, in Matanzas, a recognized house-temple and tourist stop, centers Beliso-De Jesús’ ever-wider ethnographic radius. His influence on her choices as santera-ethnographer shine through, for example, in her respect for the secrecy of ritual practices and esoteric knowledge of the initiated, her rejection of “revelatory ethnography” and its effect of exoticizing the subject of study (p. 25), and her attention instead...