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Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition.

Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition. By Stephan Palmie (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002. Pp. xi, 399. $21.95.)

The author's learning makes this book extraordinary. But it is his meticulous unlearning of ethnographic and historical givens that makes this an indispensable volume, one that renders customary interpretations discomfiting for their complicity in violence. For Stephan Palmie, the execution of colonial rebels like Jose Antonio Aponte and the persecution of republican wizards are analogous, at least structurally, to the present-day trafficking in sex and mastery with jineteras. Such episodes expose violence as a way of "making sense" of modern (and largely Afro-Cuban) hybrids. They also reveal subaltern practices aimed at capturing victimizers through engagements in moral dialogue.

In investigating what he calls pointedly religious "formations," Palmie rejects the presumptions of antiquity and African origins of Afro-Cuban "traditions." Nor is he satisfied with creolization models that suppose the existence of once--unpolluted cultural streams. Instead, he shows persuasively that modernity and tradition emerged in tandem from politicized processes that were also constitutive of the Atlantic system. Instead of describing faiths, Palmie depicts the "ecology of representations," in which science and Afro-Cuban traditions conjured up their differences through their accounts of the past and the production of "quasi-objects." The most notable of these artifacts--"mixtures between humans and things or between nature and society"--are slaves, wizards, and, in the case of palo monte, objectified agents called minkisi (55).

In Palmie's judgment, Aponte and his fellow hybrids required disciplining because they challenged authorized accounts of modernity. Aponte's lost book of paintings diagnosed excess and objectification as conditions of modernity. The craftsman's "conspiracy of images" haunted authorities with its intimations of systematic misappropriation (107). Aponte was not interested in facts, but in visions of what was conceivable under the dominant regime of knowledge.

Scientists put the past to other ends. To extirpate witchcraft, which republican law summoned, but found difficult to apprehend, men like Fernando Ortiz cast Afro-Cuban practices, many of recent origin, as contagious "African" atavisms. Such narratives authorized campaigns for the seizure of black bodies and led Afro-Cubans to counter with their own conjurations.

Wizards invoke differences between traditions for their own purposes, too. Palmie contends that from regla de ocha's perspective, palo operates in an amoral framework of commodified social relations. Paleros heap abuse on minkisi, which can be used to heal, to activate them. But, like other slaves, these quasi-objects are apt to cannibalize their masters. In contrast, ocha is made to stand for reciprocal exchanges with the divine, regardless of the character of the relationships. With characteristic acumen, Palmie declares this a flawed "indigenous sociology" often echoed in scholarship (195).

Palmie's ecology exposes seldom-noted linkages between practices classed as Afro-Cuban and others. Spiritism, he observes, permitted the integration of ocha and palo's understanding of the dead. Following Palmie's provocative lead, students may ask what niches Protestant and Catholic "traditions" occupied; Palmie discusses those formations briefly.

Wizards and Scientists demands and deserves careful reading. Palmie's prose is peerless, but deeply layered. His analyses are founded on scrupulous assessments of archival and ethnographic data that, as the author concedes, cannot make facts of his views. In this regard, Palmie's book is not unlike that by Aponte. Some may spot conspiracies; others will find themselves haunted.

University of Georgia

Reinaldo L. Roman
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Author:Roman, Reinaldo L.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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