Wizards and Scientists

Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition

Wizards and Scientists

Book Pages: 416 Illustrations: Published: March 2002

Author: Stephan Palmié

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Caribbean Studies, Religious Studies

In Wizards and Scientists Stephan Palmié offers a corrective to the existing historiography on the Caribbean. Focusing on developments in Afro-Cuban religious culture, he demonstrates that traditional Caribbean cultural practices are part and parcel of the same history that produced modernity and that both represent complexly interrelated hybrid formations. Palmié argues that the standard narrative trajectory from tradition to modernity, and from passion to reason, is a violation of the synergistic processes through which historically specific, moral communities develop the cultural forms that integrate them.
Highlighting the ways that Afro-Cuban discourses serve as a means of moral analysis of social action, Palmié suggests that the supposedly irrational premises of Afro-Cuban religious traditions not only rival Western rationality in analytical acumen but are integrally linked to rationality itself. Afro-Cuban religion is as “modern” as nuclear thermodynamics, he claims, just as the Caribbean might be regarded as one of the world’s first truly “modern” locales: based on the appropriation and destruction of human bodies for profit, its plantation export economy anticipated the industrial revolution in the metropolis by more than a century. Working to prove that modernity is not just an aspect of the West, Palmié focuses on those whose physical abuse and intellectual denigration were the price paid for modernity’s achievement. All cultures influenced by the transcontinental Atlantic economy share a legacy of slave commerce. Nevertheless, local forms of moral imagination have developed distinctive yet interrelated responses to this violent past and the contradiction-ridden postcolonial present that can be analyzed as forms of historical and social analysis in their own right.


“[A]n important book about the historiography of Cuban religion as well as the Caribbean’s contribution to the emergence of Atlantic modernity. . . . This book’s value is not limited to its significant contribution to Caribbean studies, but instead, it is important for anyone to read who seeks to break free of conceptual categories that have become too comfortable—and thereby too limiting.” — Kevin Birth , Anthropological Quarterly

"[A] very thought-provoking analysis. . . . [T]he writing is lively and carefully wrought. . . . [C]ompelling." — Susan D. Greenbaum , American Anthropologist

"Intriguing. . . . Stimulating. . . . The book will interest not just readers concerned with Cuba and the Caribbean, but also those concerned with the ways that people in the present construct the past and their relationship with it, a relationship often coded as the modern and traditional." — James G. Carrier, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"[R]emarkable. . . . [T]his exhaustive . . . discourse on cultural theory is always lucid and provocative. Palmié has set a new standard for the historiography of slavery and black culture in the Americas." — Joseph M. Murphy , American Historical Review

"A book of extraordinary breadth, Palmié's volume on Cuba offers a complex series of ruminations on postindependence Cuban history. . . . [B]rilliant. . . . [I]t raises a challenge that all future historians studying modern Cuba, the Caribbean and beyond, will be unable to ignore." — Lauren Derby , The Americas

"Palmié forcefully reminds scholars that placing the Afro-Cuban experience in categories derived from other times and places has resulted in minimizing the degree to which the innovations and creative process in formulating new identities were part of what he would label 'modernity,' and not an unchanging and static 'traditional' past." — Matt D. Childs , Latin American Research Review

"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." — Reinaldo L. Román , The Historian

Wizards and Scientists is a tour de force. Palmié’s material is extraordinarily interesting and original and his theoretical explorations are virtuosic. This work will become a new benchmark for scholarship on modernity and the Atlantic world.” — Rosalind Shaw, Tufts University

“Palmié unlocks and explores the fascinating world of oracle and historical divination in loving detail and with unrivaled narrative power. Wizards and Scientists is an extraordinary achievement.” — Robert A. Hill, University of California, Los Angeles


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Price: $29.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Stephan Palmié is Assistant Professor of Caribbean History at the University of Maryland.

Table of Contents Back to Top

Prologue: Evidence and Presence, Spectral and Other


1. “For Reasons of History”: Jose Antonio Aponte and His Libro de Pinturas

2. Genealogies of Morality: The Afro-Cuban Nganga as Wage Laborer, Slave, and Maroon

3. Una Salacion Cientifica: The Work of Witchcraft and Science in Cuban Modernity

Epilogue: Carnal Knowledge

Appendix: Aponte’s Library




Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Honorable mention, 2004 Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Award, Caribbean Studies Association

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2842-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2828-5
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