God's Agents: Biblical Publicity in Contemporary England . Matthew Engelke. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. 320 pp.American Ethnologist

About

Authors
JAMES S. BIELO
Year
2014
DOI
10.1111/amet.12100_12
Subject
Anthropology

Text

Book Reviews

The Cooking of History: How Not to Study Afro-Cuban

Religion. Stephan Palmie´. Chicago: University of Chicago

Press, 2013. 368 pp.

ALEJANDRA BRONFMAN

University of British Columbia

Twenty years after Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1995) and its arguments against essentialism and cultural nationalism, Stephan

Palmie´ draws from Bruno Latour and Ian Hacking (among others) to continue the critique of what he refers to as the “densely heteroglossic contexts of the production of ‘properly disciplined’ ethnographic and historical documents” (p. 251). The documents and practices under scrutiny compose what has been called Afro-Cuban religion, although it is his intention that readers emerge from his text with an understanding of the fragility, complexity, and historicity of “Afro,” and “Cuban” and “religion” as both objects of study and categories that undergird identities and spiritualities.

What Palmie´ demonstrates brilliantly and with enormous erudition and wit is the entangled and co-created nature of various iterations of Afro-Cuban religion, implicating both observers and practitioners in the messy and surprising tales of their making. If he seems intent on challenging the assumptions of many historians and anthropologists, he also takes on his own career, and in that sense the whole book might be understood as a long review of some of his early work, a refutation of the spirit with which anthropologists produce knowledge and then rip away its moorings and proclaim it a self-contained and self-evident object.

The objects in question are many and range from early19th-century secret initiations in the dockyards of Havana to a 20th-century court case in Hialeah, Florida, over giant African snails and their role in Afro-Cuban ritual to the global proliferation of websites, associations, and practitioners. Throughout, Palmie´ insists on uncoupling blackness and Africanity as he traces genealogies of their conflation. In Cuba, the presence of socially white practitioners and even founders of Abakua´, known as an African-derived secret society, was not necessarily unusual but nonetheless shocking to anthropologists working within a framework of “pure” cultural origins. At stake in acknowledging this is the recognition of enslaved Africans as historical agents, rather than timeless icons, and a critique of simplistic racial politics in North American academic circles. Blackness and

Africanity, argues Palmie´, need to be understood as distinct, and only a careful history of their eventual fusion will undo the “obvious misrecognitions [that] indicate little more than the outer perimeters of a vast morass of conceptual confusions” (p. 155).

Careful histories will also unsettle assumptions about the significance of the search for origins. Palmie´ is interested in the mediating power of texts, tracing the elaboration and circulation of founding texts and their role in translations between observers and observed, confounding the clarity of this division of labor in the process.

While attending to textual equations of Yoruba and Lucumı´—as if both were unchanging across time and space— he points to Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz’s use of 19thcentury ethnographies of Africa as sources for his own studies of African-derived practices in Cuba and traces the ways that Ortiz’s own equivalences were taken up in subsequent accounts—by both observer and observed alike—thus doing away with uncertainty about origins or potential diversity across Cuba, Brazil, and Africa. The objects these texts created were taken up and defended by practitioners and anthropologists in different ways. The looping and chatter across what Palmie´ calls the “ethnographic interface” animate many of the book’s stories. The point is to move away from a fruitless search for origins and ask instead, “how did it eventually ‘sink in’ among practitioners of Afro-Cuban religion to a degree where, as at the Eighth Global Orisha

Congress in Havana (2003) Cuban babalaos could sit down with their Nigerian counterparts, Brazilian maes and pais do santo, Trinidadian Shango worshippers and North American Yoruba-Reversionists and all agree that they are practicing essentially the same religion” (p. 51).

The ghost of Ortiz, whose career and writings seem to inspire and inform much of the theoretical musings, haunts this book. Many of Palmie´’s astute analyses of the often-cited, but frequently misunderstood, author offer a welcome corrective to the bifurcated perspectives on his long and variegated career. Yet Palmie´ himself misses some elements that would muddy his own interpretation. He argues that the Cuban lawyer, jurist, and student of AfroCuban culture and religion followed a clear trajectory from racist Lombrosian to participant in and promoter of those cultural practices he previously excoriated. While Ortiz may indeed have been one of the primary advocates of AfroCuban culture to a general public in the 1940s, his penal code of 1926, calling for further development of the field of criminal anthropology, indicates a more complex career.

AMERICAN ETHNOLOGIST, Vol. 41, No. 3, pp. 590–616, ISSN 0094-0496, online ISSN 1548-1425. C© 2014 by the American Anthropological Association.

All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/amet.12100

Book Reviews  American Ethnologist

Throughout, Palmie´ applauds the metaphors with which Ortiz proposed to understand what we call cultural change, in particular the notion of cooking and constantly adding to a pot of ever-changing ingredients. He develops this idea in a diverting coda, but in the end he wonders about the utility of the metaphor. The exercise yields an intriguing comparison between saltfish and ackee and amala´ con quimbombo´ (identified as traditional dishes in Jamaica and Cuba), even as it underscores the futility of invoking any metaphor in trying to account for cultural change. To be sure, the musings about food, cooking, and authenticity offer another point of entry into the bundle of questions the book poses. Palmie´ allows them to take on a little too much analytical weight, and then retracts it, returning to musing about the collective composition of Afro-Cuban religion, about which we will never again think the same way.