Real food

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Danilyn Rutherford. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.1.030


Real food

Danilyn RUTHERFORD, University of California, Santa Cruz

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

Let us set ourselves before this reality.
—Émile Durkheim1

It is not a comfortable experience when one’s research topic melts into thin air. But in anthropology, for better or worse, it happens all the time. “What is it to study ‘something?’” Stephan Palmié asks himself at the beginning of his wry, rich The cooking of history, a book that resets the bar when it comes to the reflexivity for which our discipline has long been known. The “something” he has in mind is “Afro-Cuban religion,” also known as Santeria or regla de ochá, an object of study that seems to exist, if you believe the Library of Congress and countless practitioners in Havana, Miami, New York, and, believe it or not, Manila. Hundreds of books line the bookshelves under its call number—BL2532.S3—but as Palmié shows, it’s not clear in what sense this thing is “Afro,” “Cuban,” or a “religion” at all. Like others before him, Palmié comes to the conclusion that the phenomenon [542]he is investigating is “constructed.” The origins of Afro-Cuban religion are supposed to stretch back to the most ancient of times, but in fact it is the product of British colonialism, Cuban nation-building, American multiculturalism, and Cold War–era geopolitics, mixed up with the work of scholars like Palmié himself. In the 1980s, when Palmié was trained, we anthropologists were like so many killjoys at a birthday party, popping our predecessors’ balloons when it came to the legitimacy of categories like “culture,” “nation,” “gender,” and even “ritual.” Like eating Doritos and store-bought birthday cake, it was a cheap thrill. But for Palmié, this bursting of bubbles is just the first step in a more ambitious and rigorous operation. Palmié dispels illusions in order to set us before a different reality: the reality of the processes through which ethnographic objects, like Afro-Cuban religion, emerge.

Instead of Doritos and store-bought birthday cake, Palmié serves us a stew—a Cuban stew, at that—simmering on the fire of history, a blend of elements and influences sourced in different times and places, their flavors more or less distinguishable, depending on how long they have been in the pot. In the case of Afro-Cuban religion, the first set of ingredients comes courtesy of the Reverend Samuel Johnson, a Christian convert in what is now Nigeria who narrated a glorious past and bright future for “the Yoruba.” Other than among the missionaries who raised Johnson, this label, “the Yoruba,” had little resonance at the time he was writing. And yet it was destined to become a widely known ethnic identity, in no small part due to its recognition by scholars and others as the Old World origin of a New World thing. This thing—a “religion”—came into being in the same period and through the same process as did “the Yoruba”: conversion involved the identification of what Christianity was replacing, a traditional religion made up of heathen superstitions and rites. From this point on, more ingredients got thrown into the pot: regulatory and celebratory forms of talk and action focused on this non-Christian “belief system”—by missionaries, scholars, Communist critics, and modernizers, not to mention participants in a recent congress who proclaimed that Afro-Cuban religion was a new “world religion,” given its profundity and spread. Then there are the ingredients that went into making this dish “Cuban”: the multiracial confraternities, or “nations,” which acted as the birthplace of regla de ochá; an Africanity less associated with people’s bodies than with their practices; a modernizing regime that first targeted “black wizardry” for eradication before making it into a defining element of Cuban identity in this society built on the backs of former slaves. Anthropologists and other scholars have continually slipped in spices—terms like “syncretism,” which became something to be celebrated or rejected; descriptions of rites, which provided recipes for new generations of adherents; etiologies and etymologies to be traced. But scholars have been more than just cooks; they have been cooked, subjected to ongoing changes in the broad-ranging conditions that shape academic careers. In the face of these forces, scholars have become initiates, just as initiatives have become scholars: what Palmié calls the ethnographic interface has proven easy to cross. Afro-Cuban religion emerges from Palmié’s analysis as something that is decidedly not nothing. It is not deflated. It does not vanish. Instead, it is made to appear as solidly anchored in a site where multiple lines of causality converge. We come to see it as standing at the crossroads of trajectories followed by people, objects, texts, and ways of speaking, routes an anthropologist can trace, [543]if never completely, since there is no beginning to the kind of trips that lead to the stoves where such dishes are made.

This approach has important implications. Palmié shows us that reflexivity can increase the reality anthropology has at its disposal. In a similar spirit, I have tried to make the case for how we might reconsider the supposedly bad old days of the reflexive turn as a warrant for what I have called “kinky empiricism,” an empiricism that is as rigorously tuned to the factors that go into the making of the apparatus of observation as it is to those that produce the phenomena we explore (see Rutherford 2012). The cooking of history provides a recipe for practicing what I have tried to preach in calling on anthropologists to affirm the empirical value of the knowledge they produce.

Nevertheless, I think there’s more to say. Let me offer an example from my own early fieldwork. In 1992, I boarded a ship bound for Jakarta from Biak, an island belonging to the troubled Indonesian half of New Guinea. I was with a dozen Biak villagers, who were on their way to perform in a national “festival of oral tradition.” Upon our return, the publicity from this event set off a revival of wor, the song and dance genre the singers had brought to the event. I first told the story of this episode as one in which Biaks did something they had avoided in the past: they saw themselves from the perspective of more powerful outsiders, including members of President Suharto’s repressive New Order regime. In reviving Biak tradition, they remade themselves to meet others’ expectations and fulfill others’ desires. I was primed to narrate the episode in that way by what I’d been exposed to as a graduate student at Cornell, where “tradition” was a dirty word, in no small part due to the term’s use as an excuse to justify the violence that upheld Suharto’s rule. But I came to see that neither the Jakarta bureaucrats nor I were the only ones stirring the pot. The recognition wor received on a national stage led not to the eradication of difference but rather to its valorization: a fetishization of the foreign, which for Biaks included the experience of displacement that came from seeing oneself through unfamiliar eyes. Instead of descending into nothing, this thing—Biak tradition—whose invention I had followed in real time, took on the weight of a multitude of histories. In tracing these histories, I was forced to track not only different understandings of the ingredients of identity but also differences in how people come to see themselves as others see them—or not. Only by taking this broader view could I account for the fact that the very same Biaks who seemed to be acting like good Indonesians in 1993 had risen up five years later in support of independence for a separate West Papuan state.

This lesson I learned in Biak—that one must document not only the fact of contact but also the conditions through which contact has consequences—takes me to the first topic I’d like to add to the conversation Palmié has opened. For Palmié, anthropology is history; to grasp what something is, one must know where it has been. We must track the fleeting encounters through which ideas travel: as when a French scholar turned ritual specialist meets a Cuban cultural entrepreneur, say, or an African American activist reads a missionary’s report. But at the same time, we must consider the capacities and proclivities of the elements that come together in these encounters, which include both people and things. Émile Durkheim had a way of talking about this problem. For Durkheim, the “reality” behind religion was famously society. The representations that make up religion, he argued, “are the [544]product of an immense cooperation that extends not only through space but also through time; to make them, a multitude of different minds have associated, intermixed, and combined their ideas and feelings; long generations have accumulated their experience and knowledge” ([1912] 1995: 15). But behind this “immense cooperation” lies something Durkheim called “collective effervescence”: a sentiment born of bodies and minds moving in unison, beside themselves together, breaching the boundaries of the self. Contemporary anthropologists have tended to treat what Durkheim presented as two sides of a puzzle separately. Palmié’s study shows us one way to describe the stuff of our studies: it exists in the form of the pathways that lead, say, from Haitian kitchens to the world of haute cuisine. Work on affect, ethics, and embodiment by William Mazzarella (2013), Andrea Muehlebach (2012), and others shows us another. These scholars find the substance of anthropology within the historically divergent, yet at the limit common apparatus that defines humans as social beings. Each approach is equally materialist, each is equally attuned to the impossibility of drawing sharp boundaries among persons, and each is equally reflexive in their recognition that anthropology is a human practice like the practices of those we study. Yet the latter goes further in forcing us to flirt with universalism, posing questions we have avoided in the past, for good reason but arguably in bad faith. There is no way to produce a description, ethnographic or otherwise, without doing violence to the singularities we confront in our work; implicitly, we generalize whenever we write.

Which takes me to a second topic I’d like to add to the conversation, and that is science. Palmié draws a distinction between “yeast cells, cytoplasm, DNA fragments, or computer programs” and “religions, cultural heritages, legal definitions, and anthropological descriptions”; as objects of investigation, the latter “anticipate, and sometimes prompt, moments of self-‘invention’ … giving rise to novel configurations in which we might recognize however unwitting anthropological ‘contaminations,’ but that are socially real and significant nonetheless” (Palmié 2013: 262). Here Palmié is referring to the “looping effect” that Ian Hacking (2006) has attributed to classifications created in the human sciences (see also Hacking 1999). But recent work in science studies suggests that the contrast between these types of research objects might not be as sharp the one Palmié draws. Physicist and philosopher Karen Barad (2010) has written of how experiments perform what she calls an “ontological cut”: a carving out of subjects and objects in events of measurement that create, for certain purposes at certain moments, discrete entities in the world. These entities include, for Barad, the neutron and the electron, but the Cuban or the Yoruba could qualify as well. By this view, the processes we impute to human beings are distinctive versions of broader features of an unfolding universe: indexical expressions bring into relevance a limited set of a broader range of human capacities and traits, just as a two slot apparatus brings into relevance the potential of light to act as a wave. In this sense, light, like the “average American,” is what Hacking calls a “reactive type.” Once we are able to see our practice as one among many varieties of empirical inquiry, we open the possibility of collaborating with former rivals. Cultural anthropologists have tended to be allergic to quantitative approaches, given their complicity with modern forms of governance (Hacking 1990). Yet demographic data can reveal the likelihood of certain bodies to undergo certain experiences: critical information for anyone eager to track the emergence of [545]phenomena like “Afro-Cuban religion”—or any of the other institutions that populate our irreducibly entangled worlds.

In the end the problem is ethical, as well as epistemological. When anthropologists pay heed to the entanglements through which our knowledge is created, we find ourselves compelled to confront all the debts we have incurred. Palmié ends his book by addressing his informants.

If you happen to read this, and I imagine some of you will, consider that we all were who we were at the time. A good part of what made us drift toward each other may have been my desire to figure out what the aspects of your lives I had come to conceive of as so “intriguingly different”—that is, “Afro-Cubanly religious”—were “all about.” I now know that this is a fairly innocent, but nonetheless arrogant, and ultimately thoughtless reason for barging into your life. But since you—and, yes, perhaps the oricha—allowed me do so regardless, here’s what I can tell you I learned in the process: you may not think of it this way, but I imagine we found some things together. Our own particular concerns may have propelled us toward different kinds of inventions based on such findings. But I nonetheless think that we ultimately cooked up a dish, far more yours than mine to be sure, but one in which my presence was, and (for all we know) may even still prove to be, consequential—in some way or the other. And if you disagree with what I wrote, perhaps then all I can say is: so much the better. It might keep a “tradition” going. One that is neither fully yours not mine, but—if in a somewhat curious sense—ours.

This passage is infused with both nostalgia and hopefulness. The cooking of history raises questions that could stop us in our tracks. But it also provides us with a way of moving forward, together, in the company of others involved in the production of all those things we once thought we simply explored. There is threat, but also promise in this time of revelation.2 Too many cooks may spoil the broth. But we are going to have to open up the kitchen if we are going to feed the beast that anthropology now has the chance to become.


Barad, Karen. 2010. Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. (1967) 1978. “Structure, sign, and play in the discourse of the human sciences.” In Writing and difference, 351–70. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Durkheim, Émile. (1912) 1995. The elementary forms of the religious life. Translated by Karen E. Fields. New York: The Free Press.

Hacking, Ian. 1990. The taming of chance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 1999. The social construction of what? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

———. 2006. “Making up people.” London Review of Books 28 (16): 23–26.

[546]Mazzarella, William. 2013. Censorium: Cinema and the open edge of mass publicity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Muehlebach, Andrea. 2012. The moral neoliberal: Welfare and citizenship in Italy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

Rutherford, Danilyn. 2012. “Kinky empiricism.” Cultural Anthropology 27 (3): 465–79.


Danilyn Rutherford
Department of Anthropology
University of California, Santa Cruz
1156 High Street
Santa Cruz, CA 95064


1. The full quote reads as follows:

It is not from our prejudices, passions or habits that we should demand the elements of the definition which we must have; it is from the reality itself which we are going to define. Let us set ourselves before this reality. Leaving aside all conceptions of religion in general, let us consider the various religions in their concrete reality, and attempt to disengage what they have in common: for religion cannot be defined except by the characteristics which are found together wherever religion is found. (Durkheim [1912] 1995: 24)

2. Compare Derrida ([1967] 1978).