Reality effects

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Kristina Wirtz. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.1.028


Reality effects

Kristina WIRTZ, Western Michigan University

Comment on Palmié, Stephan. 2013. The cooking of history: How not to study Afro-Cuban religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stephan Palmié’s The cooking of history heralds a new level of disciplinary reflexivity in what we should hereafter feel very unsettled about blithely calling “Afro-Cuban religion.” What distinguishes his approach to questions concerning the ontological status of our ethnographic objects and categories is his attention not only to history but to historicity, in tracing the world-making projects through which those objects and categories have come into existence. The stories he tells toward historicizing “Afro-Cuban religion” suggest a dialogical field of action in which “anthropology” and perhaps even “history” itself are just as much at stake as their objects of study.

Having contemplated the increasingly crowded shelves of BL2532.S3, Palmié observes a multilingual cacophony of ethnographies, histories, religious manuals, glossaries, and books of photos, songs, drum rhythms, legends of the orishas, and even recipes. Tracts shelved under different call numbers, too, are abundantly cited on this shelf: notably, Yoruba dictionaries and Cuban colonial histories, studies of Brazilian and North American religion, and even legal proceedings in several disparate jurisdictions. These multifarious texts invoke an array of what Paul Johnson (2007) calls diasporic horizons, looking variously to Africa and Cuba, and to their diasporas, and therefore to the wider Atlantic World, and the subsequent “dialogues” (pace Matory 2005, Yelvington 2006) among religious practitioners across the Americas and Atlantic Ocean. It is far from clear how (or even to what extent) scholarly and theological tracts jammed in together on the shelf should be differentiated, especially given the number of scholar-practitioners counted among authors. Contemplating the state of affairs for which library shelves are metaphor and metonym, Palmié seeks to historicize the unfolding ethnographic interfaces that have coalesced various practices into a unified, knowable object of discourse. This [530]objectification is variously labeled “Santería,” “Regla de Ocha,” “Yoruba tradition,” “Orisha worship,” “Lucumí religion” (or, for a brief moment, “Lucumí Christian morality,” Palmié 2013: 55–56), or even “witchcraft” (see Wirtz 2004), depending on who you ask, but everyone seemingly agrees that these differently sourced labels all apply to more or less the same “religion.” This, as the many cases explored in his book illustrate, is about the only point of agreement.

Palmié’s central concern is to show how deeply scholars are implicated in these often contentious processes of cultural objectification—the discourses through which particular ethnographic objects and historical relations become knowable. Along the way, he shows the ethnographic interface itself to be an illusion, a convenient fiction of two ontologically distinct and separate domains of practice, one scientific and the other spiritual. This fiction is maintained largely by humanist scholars, unwitting heirs though we may be to our missionary and colonizing predecessors in the Western pursuit of disciplinary truth. The frisson at the interfaces of our various pursuits creates “reality effects” including disciplinary and categorical boundaries (Palmié 2013: 10). But Palmié directs our attention to the ways in which ethnographic objects “lead double lives”: they not only change over time “in fact,” but “because we come to them from historically no less changing epistemic vantage points.” Therefore, he argues:

the figures we inscribe from fleeting observations … are no less subject to history than the empirical grounds from which our discursive efforts call them forth. Acknowledging the essential rather than accidental historicity of both subjects and objects of study is a step in the right direction. (Palmié 2013: 8)

There are broad implications, then, for his argument concerning how we, whether scholars or religiosos or both, understand the ethnographic and historical fictions we perpetrate about “discoveries” of our objects of study. But Palmié’s goal is more specifically to explore how “the two—Afro-Cuban religion and its anthropology— emerged together over the course of a long twentieth century” (2013: 256). Both are “a deeply heteroglossic configuration co-assembled, and cooked over time, by members of different, and themselves changing communities of practice and interpretation” (256). With wit and a depth of understanding earned through decades of research, Palmié examines the metacultural activities of “scientists” and “wizards” alike—to borrow his previous formulation (Palmié 2002)—showing the duration and degree of their mutual dependency in creating what now looks to be a (Great) “Tradition” whose relative purity, inventedness, and value as signifier of African “survivals” and creolizations alike are hotly contested among practitioners, scholars, and other stakeholders, including government entities of Cuba, Nigeria, and the United States.

Consider the case Palmié explores in chapter two, where he traces the transatlantic ethnonym “Yoruba” that now delineates a West African ethnic identity and language—a Herderian primordial “nation” sharing what is only recently regarded to be a unitary language that extends across West Africa’s postcolonial national borders. This idealized entity is taken as the ground or primeval source for transatlantic claims regarding particular religious phenomena such as the orishas and the sacred language Cuban practitioners attribute to them, whether glossed as “Yoruba” [531]or its putative ethnogenetic predecessor, “Lucumí.” The work of historicizing the current relations between these entities serves to anachronistically project them back in time. More contemporary African “sources” from dictionaries to ethnographically observable religious practices, and even authoritative figures such as the Nigerian babalawo and scholar Wande Abimbola, are taken up—or volunteer themselves—to stand in for a primordial “chronotope of Africa” as precursor to today’s “Afro-Cuban religion” (Palmié 2013: 28–29). Such construals can become hotly contested in the transnational politics of African diasporic religion and scholarship, as when Cuban or US-based practitioners (of “religion” or its ethnography) accept the chronotope but locate the purest of African survivals not in contemporary postcolonial Africa, but among those most conservative of preservationists, the descendants (via genealogy or relational praxis; Palmié 2013: 26) of African slaves, whether in Matanzas, Miami, or Oyotunji Village.

Despite the seeming commonsensicality of the notion that Africa (wherever and whenever it is located) logically preceded its Diaspora, Palmié effectively challenges this logic by choosing a broader spatiotemporal scale of analysis—the Atlantic World—to show how the chronotope of Africa with its unidirectional historical progression has masked more complicated chronotopic relationships. What Palmié’s careful exegesis of the historical record shows is the extent to which the ethnogenetic processes producing the “Yoruba” people and language were coeval with, rather than prior to, the efforts in places like Cuba and Brazil to coalesce and codify what were thereafter recognized as the “religions” of Santería and Candomblé. Only later—much later—could anything called the “Yoruba” origins of these New World practices be recognized. Beyond their coevalness, “Yoruba tradition” and its diaspora can now be fairly said to coconstruct each other. He points out the convergence of diversely situated individual and corporate agencies, engaged in what was already and always self-consciously reflexive, agentful action, a scaffolding jointly (but seldom cooperatively) constructed by earlier generations of scholars, missionaries, colonial and state officials, and priests across the Atlantic World (another ethnographic object-in-the-making) whose often self-conscious efforts were directed toward various projects of nationand religion-building.

Palmié organizes much of his argument in terms of a different chronotope, the “cooking of history,” which he adapts from Fernando Ortiz’s famous metaphor for Cuban “transculturation” as a stew blending distinct (African, European, indigenous) origins into something new. Rather than dwelling on the stew’s primordial origins—its ingredients—as do most invocations of Ortiz, Palmié suggests a novel reading of the ajiaco as a stew of history-in-the-making that continues to bubble, continually transforming relations between past and present so as to prevent us from ever recovering an objective past (the “raw” ingredients) free from its “cooking.” Moreover, disdaining the somewhat mechanistic metaphors that endure in claims about cultural “survivals,” “creolizations,” and “syncretisms” (this latter the subject of historical deconstruction starting in chapter three), he points out the agency manifested every step of the way by all of the involved parties, sometimes with deliberate reflexiveness about what was being accomplished and often, too, with additional unintended or unanticipated consequences. As he puts it:

[532]I have sought to acknowledge the open-ended historicity of all knowledge as part and parcel of a recursive pattern spinning out ever-new predications of past and present as it spirals onwards into the future. To phrase it in Don Fernando’s terms, whatever knowledge we produce about the everevolving ajiaco that we claim as our “world” instantaneously enters into the process of cooking, too. (Palmié 2013: 253)

As the argument unfolds, it becomes clear that Palmié sees in his historical project not so much a jumbled “stew” as what in passing he calls a “confection” (2013: 8, 12), which brings to mind the exquisitely delicate structures of spun sugar so important to Sidney Mintz’s (1987) exegesis of Atlantic World history. Rather than dissecting which “roots” are in the stew (look, a bit of cooked yuca alongside the quibombó), or how the stew is “digested” (as he says, ingesting àmàlà has yet to make anyone Yoruba—see 2013: 239), Palmié describes many chefs in the kitchen constructing “recipes” for “Afro-” “Cuban” “religion” (e.g., 250–51, 254). How fitting these poetics that his final case concerns an actual cookbook, and in particular uses the contrasting cases of Jamaican “creole” ackee and saltfish with Cuban “Yoruba” ritual cornmeal with okra (amalá con quibombó) as metaphors for creolization versus Afrogenesis positions on the origins of African Diasporic culture.

This debate, invoking the ghosts of E. Franklin Frazier and Melville Herskovits as it inevitably does, is where most discussions start (for two recent, excellent such interventions, see Brown 2003; Yelvington 2001), but it is where Palmié ends. His devastating conclusion, for those wishing to resolve questions of origins once and for all, is that both positions partake of the same semiotic ideologies and thus endlessly refract one another in light of the irresolvability of what categories such as “African” and “creole” actually represent, and why. In short, given the open-ended recursivity of what Clifford Geertz (1973) described as “turtles all the way down,” our very attempts at historical interpretation feed back into shaping what we can even recognize as history.

We might consider two critiques of this analysis. For starters, some might wish to claim that anthropology has already exorcised its essentializing demons. It is true that Palmié constructs his argument out of ethnographic and historical materials and theoretical insights that are for the most part already familiar to scholars, sometimes from his own previous publications. But what he has accomplished in this book is novel and exciting for those of us working in the same “kitchen” precisely because he took up all those bits and pieces lying about and plain for all to see to demonstrate the extent to which our very efforts to sort out origins and attributions have “cooked” one particular confluence of histories and practices into its current confections. Lest anyone claim that Palmié’s critique is now a commonplace of anthropology, I think we could productively explore our ongoing disciplinary complicity in interpellating quite a few “dragons” beyond those Palmié identifies (2013: 14).

The next question might be whether a negative (“how not to …”) can produce a positive. As a fellow traveler of Palmié’s into the conundrums of “Afro,” “Cuban,” and “religion” I find myself bereft of an unproblematic label for what it is that I study. In one online forum I frequent, posters raised practical questions about the implications for teaching courses on topics such as “African Diasporic religion.” As [533]Palmié himself concludes, more deliberate disciplinary reflexivity about scholarly historicity as an ongoing confection is in itself a good thing. And if we can convey to students the indeterminacies and ever-emergent qualities of our most cherished categories of study, all the better for the future of our collective scholarly endeavors. In addition, to borrow fellow commentator Michael Silverstein’s shorthand, Palmié’s “cookbook” does provide some useful recipes. In teasing out the range of agentful actors and semiotic ideologies in play for several historical and contemporary cases of ethnographic interfaces explored throughout the book, he models what Martin Holbraad (2012), drawing on Cuban Ifá divinatory logics, might call a “motile” anthropology, in which we accept that ethnographic investigation, like Ernst Gellner’s history, has the properties of a self-writing game (Palmié 2013: 253). But, crucially, this is a multiparty self-writing game, since anthropologists’ efforts interact with the self-representational efforts of those studied, who of course study us back (for one of many such examples, see Metcalf 2002).

I read Palmié’s intervention as offering a robust and semiotically informed alternative to the usual approaches of anthropology’s current “ontological turn.” While acknowledging the profound importance of ontological frames in epistemological “finds,” Palmié’s argument works against the trend of treating ontologies as ready-made worldviews, ripe for “discovery,” whose moments of interface produce scholarly insight into the different worlds “we” and “they” inhabit. As much as he works the metaphor of “interface” as a two-way interaction (religion and its anthropology), the implications of his analysis go beyond comparing how santeros are busily confecting anthropology for their purposes even as anthropologists confect Santería for theirs. The “reality effects” he shows involve ontological boundarywork dialogically producing meaningful “worlds,” rather than contact between fully-formed, preexisting ontologies producing clashes (per Sahlins’ [1985] “structure of the conjuncture”) amid occasional coincidences. Indeed, “we” and “they” share more than separates us, particularly in our tendencies to displace our politically interested machinations onto our “fetishes,” whether those be divinatory oracles or the ethnographic objects we have construed them to be. At least for the everexpanding domains in which “Afro-Cuban religion” matters, the Atlantic World has been made recognizable through firstand second-order practices that are irremediably hybrid and that therefore resist sorting into what the natives do versus what their ethnographers do.

Ontologies, then, are neither raw nor cold, but in a continual process of cooking. Understood as “historically contingent articulations,” (Palmié 2013: 10) ontological frames are themselves “motile.” What Palmié describes as the “discovery” guided by what is already at least potentially “knowable” is akin to what Holbraad (2012) describes as the motility of knowledge produced through divination in Ifá, where it is not to be understood as describing an already set future—a predetermined destiny—that is then discovered. Rather, a pathway toward something newly recognized as knowable is created, bringing what are merely potentialities into social relevance by acknowledging them. Doing so, Holbraad argues, creates the very pathway of the future that divination is “about.” In like fashion, historical and ethnographic “divination” is itself a historically active, intensively dialogical process and an act of historicity that produces meaningful “worlds.” What delectable new confections can we imagine?[534]


Brown, David H. 2003. Santería enthroned: Art, ritual, and innovation in an Afro-Cuban religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The interpretation of cultures. New York: BasicBooks.

Holbraad, Martin. 2012. Truth in motion: The recursive anthropology of Cuban divination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Johnson, Paul Christopher. 2007. Diaspora conversions: Black Carib religion and the recovery of Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Matory, J. Lorand. 2005. Black Atlantic religion: Tradition, transnationalism, and matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Metcalf, Peter. 2002. They lie, we lie: Getting on with anthropology. New York: Routledge.

Mintz, Sidney. 1987. Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin Books.

Palmié, Stephan. 2002. Wizards and scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban modernity and tradition. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

———. 2013. The cooking of history: How not to study Afro-Cuban religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1985. Islands of history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wirtz, Kristina. 2004. “Santería in Cuban national consciousness: A religious case of the doble moral.” Journal of Latin American Anthropology 9 (2): 409–38.

Yelvington, Kevin A. 2001. “The anthropology of Afro-Latin America and the Caribbean: Diasporic dimensions.” Annual Review of Anthropology 30: 227–60.

———, ed. 2006. Afro-Atlantic dialogues: Anthropology in the diaspora. Santa Fe: SAR Press.


Kristina Wirtz
Anthropology Department, M.S. 5306
Western Michigan University
1903 W. Michigan Ave.
Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5306