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Keywords:

  • Palo;
  • Cuba;
  • Kongo;
  • manumission;
  • materialism

ABSTRACT

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. A CALL
  4. PALO
  5. INFLUENCE (MA’ KALUNGA)
  6. READING THE FETISH INTO PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS
  7. A PROBLEMATIZATION FOR PALO
  8. “PRENDA-NGANGA-ENQUISO”
  9. PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS IN 19TH-CENTURY CUBA
  10. NOT OBJECTS
  11. HEALING HARMING
  12. CONCLUSION
  13. NOTES
  14. REFERENCES CITED

Cuban-Kongo praise of the dead in Havana turns insistently around complex agglomerations of materials called “prendas,”“ngangas,” and “enquisos.” This article addresses the ontological status of “prendas-ngangas-enquisos,” which practitioners of Cuban-Kongo affliction practices care for as entities that determine the very possibility of their healing and harming craft. Cuban-Kongo societies of affliction, in Havana collectively referred to as “Palo,” stake their claim to influence others in and through these entities. In this essay I seek to position the influence generated in prendas-ngangas-enquisos as a problem for Euro-American materialism, to be addressed not through symbolic or representational solutions but, rather, by refocusing the problem itself via alternate distributions of its epistemological, historical, and ethnographic elements. Contextualized within ethnographic description, I first propose that prendas-ngangas-enquisos do not conform to dialectical logic, and should thus be positioned conceptually as something other than “objects” or “fetishes.” From there, I consider Creole turns on the term prenda and explore scholarly accounts of 19th-century Cuban slavery and manumission, which I place alongside what is known about pawn slavery among BaKongo people prior to and during the Atlantic slave trade. Having established a basic series of conceptual and historiographic coordinates, I then suggest ethnographically how prendas-ngangas-enquisos come to command others, thereby guaranteeing Cuban-Kongo healing and harming sovereignty in Cuba today.

This essay is about turbulence and influence. It is about Cuban-Kongo praise of the dead, which in Havana in known as “Palo.” It is about forces that underwrite subtle registers of dominance and subordination, and the craft of shaping these. In this regard, this essay is about everyday contacts that define nondescript, if hierarchically intensive, interactions in the lives of people, both historically and contemporaneously. The multiple arrangements of these contacts on the part of people and other agents are what I define as “influence.” This study of influence in Palo is simultaneously an inquiry into the often mystifying and nearly imperceptible conditions under which one person comes to determine the material conditions, the life, of another. It follows that my study of influence in Palo is consistent with the material conditions of life itself and grows out of them, just as it grows from historical connections and juxtapositions. So, this is at once a study of Cuban-Kongo materiality and history. Specifically, it is a study of complex agglomerations of the dead that take the shapes of urns and iron cauldrons stuffed with healing and harming substances. These agglomerations of the dead are known in Palo's Spanish Kikongo Creole speech as prendas, ngangas, and enquisos.

A CALL

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. A CALL
  4. PALO
  5. INFLUENCE (MA’ KALUNGA)
  6. READING THE FETISH INTO PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS
  7. A PROBLEMATIZATION FOR PALO
  8. “PRENDA-NGANGA-ENQUISO”
  9. PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS IN 19TH-CENTURY CUBA
  10. NOT OBJECTS
  11. HEALING HARMING
  12. CONCLUSION
  13. NOTES
  14. REFERENCES CITED

Like the bell at a horse track the phone rings. My sleep clouds with regret as the sound reverberates off the 1950s terrazzo floor and travels up the airshaft to wake the neighbors. It is the dead of night, when the dew has cooled the crickets and the frogs into lethargic poses. The racket will become the talk of the building tomorrow. Again, the phone rings and I hear it as if it were gigantic, rattling down the short flight of stairs from the sidewalk into Caridad's basement apartment. The Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) in her building changed leadership about a month ago, and the retired military prosecutor now in charge, Julio César, is treating the building like one of his old cases. He has been poking into people's movements and he's been busy shaping up the building's Guardía, or Watch Committee, so that it's on top of comings and goings. At first jokingly, but now more pointedly, Julio César is pressing Caridad on the room she rents me because she has no license from the housing and tax authorities to have me in her home. It doesn't help that word in the building is that I work with “The Religion”(la religión), as it is popularly called in Havana, and that certain neighbors in this classless neighborhood of El Vedado have made a point to Caridad (and to Julio César) that they aren't happy about the “class of people”(la clase de persona) who come visit me—black folks from neighborhoods like El Carraguau, and from Guanabacoa across the harbor. The next time the phone rings I’m on my knees scrambling for it. I reach it taunting myself with “Julio César, Julio César, Julio César,” as if counting the transgressions that will do Caridad in. Before I hear the voice on the other end I know it is Isidra.

I know it even without the telltale click and buzz from the 78- prefix, which is the neighborhood of El Cerro. Isidra is the only person I know in Havana who would call at this hour.

“¿Oigo?”[“Yes?”] I whisper into the phone as I slip from my room into the kitchen, where the drone of the fridge will muddle the echo of my voice in the airshaft. “¿Oigo?”

I can hear Isidra breathing on the other end, almost as if she were sleeping. Before I can ask what's going on she speaks softly and disjointedly, “Ramón, come here.”

“It is so late,” I say, beginning to plead with her.

“Just come,” she says, in a terse one-word command, “Ven.”

This is not the first time Isidra has called in the middle of the night, nor the first time she has simply demanded that I come to her. I have been Isidra's student in the Cuban-Kongo practice called Palo Briyumba for nearly a year, and my willingness to join her is a given part of our relationship.1 In the months at her side as a student of her craft we have each been rolled by the powers of Palo, and as I ride through the predawn streets of Havana toward her house near the bus terminal I am morose.

PALO

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. A CALL
  4. PALO
  5. INFLUENCE (MA’ KALUNGA)
  6. READING THE FETISH INTO PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS
  7. A PROBLEMATIZATION FOR PALO
  8. “PRENDA-NGANGA-ENQUISO”
  9. PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS IN 19TH-CENTURY CUBA
  10. NOT OBJECTS
  11. HEALING HARMING
  12. CONCLUSION
  13. NOTES
  14. REFERENCES CITED

Palo is the “left hand” of African-inspired healing in Cuba. It is little known outside Cuba, and “minor” compared to Santo (Ocha, Lucumí, or “Santería”), the popular and prestigious “right hand” of African, specifically Yoruba, inspiration presently ascendant in Havana and in the Cuban Diaspora. In terms playfully synonymous with Robert Hertz's right–left coupling, where right stands for righteousness and beneficence and left for the maleficent and impure, Santo is perceived by those who teach and practice African inspirations in Cuba as a mode of “cooling” or “refreshing”(para refrescar) relations among the living, the dead, and the divine, so as to heal those afflicted with misfortune. To the Yoruba-inspired right hand of Santo corresponds Palo, the Central African, specifically Kongo-inspired left hand to which is imputed danger, ill will, and unfortunate losses. Palo is the heat Cubans fear among African inspirations in Havana—and what they seek to transform clouded horizons when all healing has failed. Palo thrives in an atmosphere of dread that is carefully cultivated by its practitioners and those afflicted by its craft.

The word palo has broad currency in Cuban Spanish, but when it refers specifically to Cuban-Kongo societies of affliction its meaning lies in the artistry of pun and insinuation surrounding this word in all of its Cuban Spanish iterations.2 Most obviously, the word “Palo” invokes the sticks that are important among Cuban-Kongo substances for healing and harming. The sticks, palos, are prominent in the cauldrons and urns, called “prendas,”“ngangas,” or “enquisos” (or nkisos), which are at the heart of Palo societies of affliction, and with which this essay contends.4 In pragmatic works of healing, these sticks are used as kindling to set fire to the fate of a healer's rival, or to burn out ill-intentioned dead permeating the body of a healer's client. From this it is easy to conceive of Palo as do Cubans of all stripes—as a dangerous “flame,”“heat,” or “fire”(¡la candela!). In the context of a Cuban-Kongo society of affliction, the word “palo” also refers to the force (fuerza) of sovereign trees deep in the forest, which are praised in Palo songs and practices as the source of the volatile kindling bursting out of “prendas-ngangas-enquisos,” trees seen as dwelling place, more precisely as versions, of the dead.3

John M. Janzen (1982:3–23, 1992:1) allows us to see Palo's strong affinities with southern African Ngoma affliction practices, what he and Victor Turner (1968:15–16) call “drums of affliction.” Palo materials and healing-harming practices make clear that Ngoma-like societies of affliction traveled the sea lanes of the middle passage aboard those “Baltimore Clippers” Paul Gilroy (1993:4, 13) has invoked as “living, micro-cultural, micro-political system[s] in motion.” On the Caribbean side of the Atlantic, Ngoma societies from the Congo River Basin were transformed in Cuba to sustain their enslaved Central African associates, their Creole children, and their children's clients and initiates, during centuries of near-boundless servitude. The Kongo societies of Lemba and Nkita are directly cited in Palo's Kikongo-sourced Creole song and verse, and in its initiations, music, and routines of keeping potent substances for healing and harming. In Palo, these substances are the prendas-ngangas-enquisos, bristling with timber sticks and fire.

INFLUENCE (MA’ KALUNGA)

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. A CALL
  4. PALO
  5. INFLUENCE (MA’ KALUNGA)
  6. READING THE FETISH INTO PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS
  7. A PROBLEMATIZATION FOR PALO
  8. “PRENDA-NGANGA-ENQUISO”
  9. PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS IN 19TH-CENTURY CUBA
  10. NOT OBJECTS
  11. HEALING HARMING
  12. CONCLUSION
  13. NOTES
  14. REFERENCES CITED

Pedaling to Isidra's I am overcome by dread, dread at the cold—dread at the silence of the city at this hour, dread at the subordination that has me en route. As I approach the frigid shadows of the banyan trees that engulf Avenue G where it crests after its long rise from the waterfront malecón and begins its slide toward the Plaza de la Revolución, my thinking shifts to the encounter ahead. I traversed these banyans at this hour once before, on another night when Isidra called me to her side to sing and offer obeisance to her prendas-ngangas-enquisos as she struggled amid aggressive flows of the dead that engulfed her in a Palo attack. On that occasion we sang all night and into the next morning, the whole time threatened by nameless misfortune. The thought of another such session sinks my heart, which is racing as I crown the hill.

My misgivings won't change that we will be working among the dead tonight. Isidra taught Palo as an intimate receptivity to the dead, from which Palo craft and healing emerge.5 By her understanding, the dead were felt as faint pulses amid a broad and generic mass of the dead she called “Kalunga.” She also perceived the dead as discreet responsive entities, such as we might call “ghosts” or “spirits.” But she began with Kalunga, which she also called “el muerto” (“the dead one,”“the ambient dead”) and that she described as a vast, anonymous sea of the dead.6 In unverifiable sensation and fleeting visceral insinuation, like a vibration, or a turn of the stomach, or the sudden shallowness of one's breath, she taught her initiates to feel Kalunga at the limits of their bodies and those of others.7 Palo craft, which for Isidra and other Palo healers is always prenda-nganga-enquiso craft, rests on the understanding that the dead outline the forms bodies assume, and saturate those shapes. By virtue of their persistent turning as eddies in the vast, uncertain sea of the dead, these shapes, or bodies, endure.8 This is to say that “the body,” a human shape or life, is itself a persistent turning and returning within the ambient mass of the dead called “Kalunga.” Thus constituting the very body that perceives them, the sensations Isidra affirmed in her teachings as Kalunga become an ambience of expectation that underwrites the very possibility of relation in Palo.9

Isidra has called me to assist her with a “problem,” that is to say, with an unexpected or unsettled flow in her experience of Kalunga. Anthropology normally refers to problems like this as “sorcery,” a term practitioners of Palo sometimes use liberally to refer to their practice. In the plain terms of Palo, Isidra faces the practical problem of turning forces of the dead that have become turbulent. To succeed will be to effectively determine her fate, or another's, which is no small part of self-determination. Isidra and I will each grapple with this problem of turbulence and self-determination in our own way tonight, but our struggle will be a common one: to accomplish turns of the dead such that each of us arrives, by practical means, to new understandings and new problems.10 It is impossible not to feel the chill in the air, and the chill in my stomach, as turns of the dead impinging on my very course.

Isidra has left her front door cracked. Down the hall the closet where she keeps her prendas-ngangas-enquisos is open. Beyond this, Isidra lies prone on the cold tile of her dining room. Her forehead is pinned to the ground in front of an urn. This urn is Madre de Agua (“Water Mother” or “Mother Water”). A candle burns inches from Isidra's head covering. The candle is indispensible as a signal light and a fuse in the swirling, combustible flows of Kalunga and one would be foolish to visit with an agglomeration of the dead like “Ma’re Agua” without one. Without looking up Isidra has pulled me to her side and we are inches from Ma’re Agua. She is singing in a low tone, a song that by its melody and cadence might be from the countryside where she grew up. But she is muffling her voice, catching her words in her mouth, and I can't make them out.

I want to move back, but Isidra redoubles the force of her singing, and without ever revealing her words keeps me pegged to her side. The strength of her voice becomes the index of her insistence in this moment, and of confidence in her power over me. Many times while working together her resolve in instants like these worked to settle the edges of my fear, and under the cover of her determination my curiosity grows. This is her design, but she would give credit to the dead, which she works assiduously to keep vital and near her.

The song draws us both into flows of the dead Isidra has previously established in the reaches of Kalunga that surround her, flows bounded and determined by turns worked by her time and again in the washes of this anonymous sea of the dead. I have been instructed to feel these flows as repetitions of myself amid the inchoate sensations that suffuse us. My voice picks up the tune as I fall predictably into these flows of Isidra's making. To make of a flow, to introduce a flow, to determine an inflowing of forces against other forces, this is what I am calling “influence.” In this case the inflowing of force is through her song, and my humming, my droning now with her, is plain evidence of her influence on me. This is the basic dynamic of relations in Palo, and what remains of the night will be spent establishing new flows and maintaining older ones by turning the forces in songs and materials into new versions of “ourselves.” Isidra and I return again and again to the refrain of her song until our voices become a simple counterflow to the considerable turbulence that engulfs us.11 Isidra promised moments like these from the very start, and asked that they be placed in the foreground of my writing about Palo: moments when amid the intensities and disorientation Palo cultivates and deploys, a tenuous but sweet confidence emerges to redirect one's fear, to redirect one's fate.

Ma’re Agua (also known ominously as Ma’ Kalunga), is a prenda-nganga-enquiso, which teachers of Palo like Isidra build and keep under their care. It is in and through these agglomerated materials that teachers like Isidra work the turbulences that draw people to Palo. Prendas-ngangas-enquisos take the form of packed cauldrons or, as in the case of Ma’ Kalunga, as urns packed with innumerable and varied substances. They can also take the simpler forms of shells, stones, or figurines. Ma’re Agua is gendered feminine in a matronly way, just as other urns are feminized as younger women (Chola Nkengue) or as childless women raging like storms against the forces of aging and death (Centella Ndoki).12

Prendas-ngangas-enquisos are inspired like so much in Palo by the creative spark that crossed the Atlantic with BaKongo and other central African peoples. Prendas are uniquely Cuban forms of Kongo minkisi (nkisi, sing.), which are turns of the dead shaped into collections of substances that defined, in the 19th century, Kongo notions of causality and property. Prendas, like 19th-century Kongo minkisi, are powerful versions of the dead synonymous with curing and affliction that are drummed up at the heart of Kongo-inspired societies of affliction.13 This is not to say that prendas are essentially Kongo forms but, rather, that they are Creole entities specific to the encounter between Kongo-inspired forces and Cuban Catholic and Yoruba-inspired forces, encounters that are as yet unreconciled.

Like so many Kongo minkisi, the materials gathered into prendas-ngangas-enquisos always include earth, sticks, animal remains, and human remains, among countless other turns of the dead. The webs of insinuation that cast Palo as the principal mode of African-inspired sorcery in Cuba are spun out of these agglomerations of often base materials. Once generated, they command those who care for them to keep them moist and pungent with daily offerings of cane liquor and cigar smoke. Prendas-ngangas-enquisos are singular, which is to say profoundly important, versions of the dead that have precipitated at the margins of intensive eddies in Kalunga, the vast sea of the dead.14

READING THE FETISH INTO PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. A CALL
  4. PALO
  5. INFLUENCE (MA’ KALUNGA)
  6. READING THE FETISH INTO PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS
  7. A PROBLEMATIZATION FOR PALO
  8. “PRENDA-NGANGA-ENQUISO”
  9. PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS IN 19TH-CENTURY CUBA
  10. NOT OBJECTS
  11. HEALING HARMING
  12. CONCLUSION
  13. NOTES
  14. REFERENCES CITED

Prendas-ngangas-enquisos are profoundly important products of Creole Atlantic healing practice and Cuban Creole material and social innovation.15 That they have been historically overlooked by English-language scholarship on African Diaspora material culture is as astonishing as the prendas-ngangas-enquisos themselves.16 An important exception to this lacunae is the work of a small group of art and ethno historians who have recently initiated English-language scholarly investigations of Cuban-Kongo material culture. Among these are Robert F. Thompson (1984), David H. Brown (1989), and the more contemporary representations of Judith Bettelheim (2001) and Stephan Palmié (2002, 2006).

This scholarship is marked by the use and elaboration of the excellent intellectual and art history resources of Robert F. Thompson, who convincingly addresses the question of African influences in Cuban praise forms (1984:121–126). Like Thompson, the analysis of these scholars demonstrates a tremendous sympathy for material things, if not always for the praise forms that surround them. Their relationship to prendas-ngangas-enquisos is interpretive, reading them as text-objects that do not disrupt a largely unproblematized representational epistemology.17

Among the gestures I find important in this scholarship is that it consistently refuses to name prendas-ngangas-enquisos explicitly as “fetishes.” This is striking, considering that prendas-ngangas-enquisos are New World turns, or versions, of Kongo minkisi, which have been at the heart of historic and recent discussions of “the fetish” in art history and cultural criticism.18 This reticence to refer to the “fetish paradigm” to describe and analyze prendas-ngangas-enquisos reflects a critical stance that implicitly seeks for prendas-ngangas-enquisos a new language more apt to convey their singularity against the grain of major explanatory discourses, of which the discourse of the fetish is a powerful example. The work of these scholars suggests that writing about prendas-ngangas-enquisos in terms of the “fetish” is a limited enterprise. I agree with this appraisal because in nesting prendas-ngangas-enquisos in the now overly familiar terms of the fetish what will be undervalued is the determining force of prenda-keeping. Missing such transformative and unpredictable aspects of Palo life will ultimately lead to a poor problematization of prendas-ngangas-enquisos themselves. In fact, because of what Adorno (1973:11–12) called the “self-sufficient totality” of concepts with regard to the material world, the fetish paradigm effectively resists the possibility of being transformed itself, spectrally occluding its logic even as it seeks to wholly explain the enchantments of this world. This is hardly an insignificant observation, and it explains why current scholarship seems anxious about the term. What is at stake at the moment is making explicit, or not, the engrained set of metaphysical assumptions operating at the Hegelian heart of contemporary fetish discourse.19 Which is to say that the concept of the fetish and its attendant cultural discourses, although wonderful for explaining Euro-American experiences such as the commodity form, transgressive desire, and the modern work of art, to give a few examples, is exhausted in the case of prendas-ngangas-enquisos and cannot usher them into new, complex problematizations.20

The work of Stephan Palmié (2002, 2006) deserves special mention here, as he has done the most contemporary and theoretically ambitious work among the historians and art historians at the center of recent prenda-nganga-enquiso scholarship. In two major texts dealing with Cuban-Kongo prendas-ngangas-enquisos, Palmié provides us with a fascinating case study for how creative thought, in attempting to affirm matter beyond the concepts of subject and object, will struggle brilliantly at the limits of Hegelianism before ultimately surrendering to the epistemological efficiency of its dialectical reason.21 In the case of Palmié, this is evident in the Euro-American materialist and moral matrices to which much of his analysis corresponds.22 Even though Palmié goes to lengths to not refer to prendas-ngangas-enquisos as “fetishes,” it is the architecture of the fetish form as this is worked out by Marx and William Pietz that coordinates his analysis.

Palmié's strengths are those of the historian, without which it is impossible to apprehend what prendas-ngangas-enquisos might be. He has spoken lucidly into a historical void, and brought into the language of normative social science what is Kongo about these formidable social agents.23 His synthesis of Kongo minkisi and the literature that addresses these substantial entities in 19th-century BaKongo life is done forcefully, which it needs to be to properly address the considerable Kongo references in contemporary Havana Palo. Palmié's readings as a historian give a more solid backing to the aesthetic readings of David H. Brown, as when he supports Brown's suggestion that the sticks that protrude from many prendas-ngangas-enquisos can be read as representations of the fortified walls of runaway slave encampments, or, as Palmié fleshes out, the military aesthetics of the near-mythic 19th-century Cuban matiabo guerillas.24 This exciting research, which I consider the heart of his contribution, however gives us little in terms of new ethnography, and what his matiabo work ultimately demonstrates is that when researchers train the resources of history on Palo, speculation becomes a necessary length.

Palmié's matiabo hypothesis, which validates historical speculation as method, is the creative element in his scholarly handling of Cuban-Kongo prendas-ngangas-enquisos.25 His overarching contribution is to display the difficulty of the problem prendas-ngangas-enquisos pose for Euro-American observers and scholars. Palmié highlights this as much by stating it explicitly as by demonstrating considerable difficulty with prendas-ngangas-enquisos himself.26 To say that Palmié struggles with Cuban-Kongo material culture is not to denigrate his work, which I value greatly, but simply to say that prendas-ngangas-enquisos are difficult unto confusion, such that scholars are at a loss when attempting to explain, synthesize, order, or otherwise control them. What remains of this essay will be an attempt not to dispel this confusion, but to find a language for it, a new problematization.27

To linger with Palmié's text is to eventually come to appreciate the difficulty prendas-ngangas-enquisos pose for him, and to appreciate this difficulty as the result of posing the problem of prendas-ngangas-enquisos within a Hegelian epistemology. Hegelian thought, when confronted with substances that reject their inequality under the laws of dialectics, reduces the full potential of these substances to the easily stabilized, and easily recognized, “object.”28 It is to appreciate that Palmié's treatment of Cuban-Kongo prendas-ngangas-enquisos ultimately frays apart not because of any intellectual flaw, for his tapestry is intricate and deftly woven, but because he has executed his weave on a dialectical loom with its warp and weft of subject and object. Despite intuitively knowing the pitfalls, Palmié takes for granted the warp of the subject, and onto this he casts the threads, colors, and decorations of prendas-ngangas-enquisos. Thus set up, what he comes up with for prendas-ngangas-enquisos when he is finished describing their relations with people is, not surprisingly, some permutation of “the object.” Palmié knows he is in epistemologically murky waters, and is delightful in his explicit statement that Kongo minkisi, and by extension prendas-ngangas-enquisos, “wreak havoc” on Western distinctions of subject and object (Palmié 2002:169, 173). But, as his 2002 chapter progresses, he cannot avoid adding to this havoc because his Hegelian resources offer him few concept-making possibilities other than dialectical negation to address the confusion prendas-ngangas-enquisos inspire. In fact, as he builds concepts to address the problem of nonconformist matter it is his reliance on the negative that ultimately introduces much of the confusion to his piece. Unable to recognize the root of the epistemological mayhem around him, Palmié's analysis eventually negates prendas-ngangas-enquisos into the only conceivable category by which they might be recognized by his readers—that of “the object.” Thus, Palmié's formulations of “self-contained objectification of power,”“sacred objectivation,”“objectified presence,”“power objects,”“objectified sacred knowledge,”“personalized objects,” and most telling, “the total object” to name Cuban-Kongo prendas-ngangas-enquisos.29

These formulations are emblematic results of Palmié's choice of Hegelian renderings. However, this choice is not without analytical consequences, and it quickly remits him to Marxist formulations where objects are brought to life and people are made into objects.30 It is here that Palmié comes closest to explaining prendas-ngangas-enquisos through the concept of the fetish, albeit updated through Marx's commodity version of such.31 This Marxist moral dimension, which in its disdain for the world of (alienated) things and in its utopian aspirations is very Protestant in the end, sees objects “coming to life” as a bad symptom of a social ill, that of people having become like objects.32 Palmié transposes these judgments to suit Palo, which he places within a similarly Protestant moral framework wherein Palo is at times described as “reversed and perverted,”“ghastly,” and “grisly.”33

Having accomplished the conceptual and moral negation of Palo, Palmié then extends these judgments to his analysis of Cuban religion in general, depicting the relationship between Yoruba-inspired Santo/Ocha (Santería) and Kongo-inspired Palo as a moral opposition between good and bad, the disinterested Ocha healer and the entrepreneurial Palo witch, the kinship-integrating Ocha gift, and the cannibalistic Palo commodity.34 This opposition is then resolved into a coherent “system” by sublimating Palo as a minor power destined to operate in the shadows of Santo/Ocha's “spiritually” ascendant light.35 In fact, these philosophical and moral positions in Palmié reveal not so much a Santo/Ocha-centric point of view (which characterizes his work), so much as they reveal that the intellectual resources he brings to bear on Palo are inevitably Hegelian.36

Other Hegelian oppositions come to cloud his analysis, importantly his adoption of the master–slave relationship as Hegel has described this, and that I treat below.37 More pernicious yet is his application of a Hegelian matter–spirit binary. This last choice is his most unfortunate, for once adopted his analysis can only “enter and divide” Cuban-Kongo materiality, separating forever the dead from the matter they give body to.38 This separation is accomplished when Palmié elevates the dead into “spirits.”39 Just as Hegel does in the Phenomenology of Spirit (1977), so Palmié lifts the dead from matter by insisting on their passage into the realm of Geist, of Spirit, and its foreboding, fateful, shadows. In “spiritifying” the dead, Palmié separates the dead from matter and subscribes to Hegelian epistemological premises that would construct the world as an opposition between the ideal spirit and fallen world of matter, and between the will-to system and non-sense of sensation.40

It is at this point that I would like to intervene, suggesting epistemological resources for Palo other than the dialectical looms of subject–object and spirit–matter. Such epistemological looms are very good for arriving at delightfully executed interpretations, representations, and solutions for prendas-ngangas-enquisos and Palo in general, but not so good at arriving at their just as delightfully executed problematizations.41 The problem-making practice I propose privileges the asymmetrical connection of entities, rather than their opposition into perfectly discreet quantities or qualities. In this case, my problematization of Cuban-Kongo prendas-ngangas-enquisos is supported by resources I have drawn from Palo teaching, and also from the work of Deleuze and Latour. In this case, I fold prendas-ngangas-enquisos in on themselves and then nurture the contacts established at the folds by allowing the proliferation of connections to stage new problems. For me, some of these problems bear the terms parataxis, nonlinearity, networks of influence, force, and becoming.

A PROBLEMATIZATION FOR PALO

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. A CALL
  4. PALO
  5. INFLUENCE (MA’ KALUNGA)
  6. READING THE FETISH INTO PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS
  7. A PROBLEMATIZATION FOR PALO
  8. “PRENDA-NGANGA-ENQUISO”
  9. PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS IN 19TH-CENTURY CUBA
  10. NOT OBJECTS
  11. HEALING HARMING
  12. CONCLUSION
  13. NOTES
  14. REFERENCES CITED

It is significant that my teachers of Palo, Isidra and others, never referred to their prendas-ngangas-enquisos as fetiches (fetishes), a term available to them in Spanish. This simple fact is enough to orient me away from the notion of the fetish as an organizing concept for my writing on prendas-ngangas-enquisos, let alone the practice of their keeping. In fact, it is prenda-keeping that most steers me away from the concept of the fetish. It is in prenda-nganga-enquiso-keeping and making where a theory of prendas-ngangas-enquisos, and therefore of Palo, is most likely to be found. What becomes evident in these practices is that prendas-ngangas-enquisos are agents of association in that they connect the living to the dead, and the living to one another, in complex feedback loops of becoming.42 Repositioning prendas-ngangas-enquisos as agents in a network of forces, where the value-neutral turning and overturning of the matter of sensation is the means by which difference is generated, carries important philosophical consequences that I outline below, including important critiques of object-status and of conventional “matter–spirit”-type materiality.

Ultimately, the process of problematizing prendas-ngangas-enquisos calls for another sense of ethnographic methodology, which I have described elsewhere as finding for Palo a “foreign language within our own.”43 The defining feature of my foreign language for Palo will be historical speculation, ethnographic description, and philosophical analysis that playfully and critically overturns dialectical modes of confronting (and subordinating) “objects.” Specifically, I propose an analysis that values prendas-ngangas-enquisos not as “objects,”“objectivations,” or any other derivation of object status but, rather, revalues them as “agents” or “influences” in a paratactic series of nonlinear, unequal equivalences we might call an “association” (or a “network”). In treating them thus, I ask that the conceptual figure we commonly refer to as “the subject” be kept at arms length, a difficult task when “the subject” itself emerges prominently from the nonlinear connection of agents and influences that I’m calling “association.”44

The alternate problematization I suggest for Palo finds its foreign voice in the terms parataxis, nonlinearity, turbulence, and influence. My hope is that this problematization will mark differences within black Atlantic ethnography and also mark differences in a larger ethnographic readership by refusing symbolic, semiotic, representational—in short, “readable”—solutions for prendas-ngangas-enquisos. The prenda cannot be reduced to a sign, however close to the world a sign might be conceived.45 The method I follow here is to implicate prendas in the world around them by seeking their material rather than semiotic connections to the world and to people's lives. It is by this means that I hope to account for these substantial social agents. This problematization only succeeds by first ceding that prendas-ngangas-enquisos actively resist the Euro-American scholarly demand for comprehensive explanation. I hope to make evident that prendas-ngangas-enquisos persist as prendas-ngangas-enquisos precisely because they resist this Euro-American will-to-explanation and its attendant philosophical demand for systemic coherence and closure.

“PRENDA-NGANGA-ENQUISO”

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. A CALL
  4. PALO
  5. INFLUENCE (MA’ KALUNGA)
  6. READING THE FETISH INTO PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS
  7. A PROBLEMATIZATION FOR PALO
  8. “PRENDA-NGANGA-ENQUISO”
  9. PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS IN 19TH-CENTURY CUBA
  10. NOT OBJECTS
  11. HEALING HARMING
  12. CONCLUSION
  13. NOTES
  14. REFERENCES CITED

My problematization begins by following William Pietz and focusing on one term in the complex assemblage I have been calling prendas-ngangas-enquisos.46 I want this problematization to ride, in part, on the term prenda. There are two reasons for this. The first is to begin an evaluation of the term itself, prenda, to discern its import in the study of Palo. Recent work, such as that of Palmié (2002) and Routon (2008), clearly favors the more Kongo-sounding term nganga. Should those of us who study Palo decide to employ the term prenda alongside nganga and enquiso, as practitioners do, or neglect it, our decision should include at a minimum a sense of the word's possible discursive formation. However, such scrutiny of the term will inevitably be negative in character, and I would loathe for the genealogy of the term prenda, which I explore below, to be reduced to an exercise in judging the fitness, or not, of the term. Because of this I insist on the second reason for choosing the word “prenda” for my problematization: to focus on the term's profoundly recombinant, or Creole, quality, and through this emphasize that prendas-ngangas-enquisos are in all of their analytic elusiveness entities particular to the connections established in the fate-making confrontations between Kongo, Spanish, and Yoruba peoples in 19th-century Cuba. To establish this is also to gather evidence for a realist version of Palo, as opposed to “representationalist” or “interpretationalist” versions, most of which claim a materialist basis.47

“Prenda” is a Spanish word with a remarkable proliferation of meanings and translations into English, with “pawn,”“collateral,” and, by extension, “jewel,” being the most common.48 The reference here is not to “pawn” in the sense of chess, but to pawn in the sense of exchangeability (as in a “pawn shop”), which is anyway a likely etymology for the piece in chess. In Cuba today, valuable jewelry, especially rings, bracelets, necklaces, and watches worn by men, are referred to by this term. Other, specifically Cuban, definitions play on this term, and like pawn, collateral, and jewel, refer to value, especially the value of debt, both economic and moral, and how this is overcome. Prenda, for the sake of the genealogy of morals I now propose, means “thing of value,”“thing of worth,”“quantity to get me out of debt”—“force of revaluation.”Prenda nganga, the formal term by which all prendas are named in Palo, is composed by connecting prenda to “nganga,” which in 19th-century Kikongo (the language of the BaKongo and BaKongo-influenced people brought to Cuba) meant “sorcerer” or “healer.”49“Prenda nganga” is thus a healer's “jewel,” her or his guarantee against the afflictions of an indentured life. As a Kongo-inspired healer's pawn, as that which relieves healers and their clients of liability in a system of debt or servitude, the word “prenda” thus refers to a past where slavery could be overcome by manumission, just as it speaks to a future thrown open by the prospects of open-ended revaluation.

Now, as regards prendas-ngangas-enquisos themselves, and what role they may have played in 19th-century Cuban slave society, if the word “prenda” itself in its many Spanish iterations does not refer us at once to an understanding of Cuban-Kongo healing as intimately bound up with notions of indebtedness, then perhaps a very common type of contemporary prenda-nganga-enquiso broadly known in Palo as “Lucero,” or “Morning Star,” might close the deal. In fact, Isidra kept a Lucero in the same closet from which she had pulled Ma're Agua on the night she called me to her house; most people who practice Palo do. Importantly, Lucero prendas often include as a part of their names, which can be quite long, the phrase “saca empeño,” or “extricates from debt.”

Imagine a prenda-nganga-enquiso like this before you. Its name, Lucero Mundo Saca Empeño, could translate liberally as “Morning Star-(Breaker-of-Night-Light-of-the-World)-End-of-Debt.” Lucero prendas-ngangas-enquisos are usually on the small side, a gallon or so in volume. Lucero's three small feet support a load of human and animal remains, grave earth, and a crown of sticks, palos, among so many other substances. The whole of Lucero shines with the patina of countless animal offerings. Feathers cling to the sticks just as little bundles of paper lodge between them. A small candle is lit for Lucero, and the dead in which it soaks. This entity, which in most Cuban revolutionaries who are ostensibly atheist subjects (and in most Cuban Catholic subjects) inspires feelings of revulsion or dread, is to the healer who keeps it a jewel, una prenda, shining like the morning star, radiating its light toward a dawn in which debt will be relieved, and the person revalued.

PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS IN 19TH-CENTURY CUBA

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. A CALL
  4. PALO
  5. INFLUENCE (MA’ KALUNGA)
  6. READING THE FETISH INTO PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS
  7. A PROBLEMATIZATION FOR PALO
  8. “PRENDA-NGANGA-ENQUISO”
  9. PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS IN 19TH-CENTURY CUBA
  10. NOT OBJECTS
  11. HEALING HARMING
  12. CONCLUSION
  13. NOTES
  14. REFERENCES CITED

Palmié has convincingly suggested, and I agree, that prendas-ngangas-enquisos date to at least the 19th century, if not earlier.50 If we are correct, then I would add that the indebtedness toward which prendas-ngangas-enquisos were directed was surely the “indebtedness” of Cuban slavery. To support this, it is important to keep in mind that Cuban slavery in the 19th century was never without its connection to the possibility (even if very remote) of purchasing one's way out of servitude. This was especially true in urban areas, such as Havana, the very areas where the term prenda took such vigorous hold. Self-purchase claims, law suits, and settlements circled intensely around the Cuban legal institution of coartación, which I suggest converted slavery, for slaves, into a devious kind of debt.51 It is the complex financial operations of coartación (and in the 1880s of the patronato policy of gradual abolition), among other debts, that I believe Cuban-Kongo prendas at one time addressed.

Rebecca Scott (1985:13) defines coartación as “gradual self-purchase.”52 Hubert Aimes, on whom most of the historians who treat the institution draw or comment, describes coartación as a specifically Cuban Creole turn on the “Four Comforts” of the medieval Spanish slave regime, one of which was “to purchase freedom by labor.”53 By the late 18th century “purchase of freedom” in Cuba included gradual payment and had become a highly complex financial and legal process, whereby slave and owner agreed to fix, or “adjust,” the monetary value of the slave.54 To the master, this was the slave's sale price. To the slave (once a down payment was made on this sum she would be called “coartada”), this became the quantity against which she would then direct her labor until she was free. In her struggle to gather the necessary funds, the slave made use of another institution of Spanish slavery, that of the peculium, or inalienable property, which Herbert Klein (1967:196) tells us the Spanish slave regime inherited from Roman slave law. In the case of Cuba, Klein (1967:196–197) calls this inalienable property a “private fund,” which could be built up by a slave.55 It was on this fund, or trust, that a slave could incrementally, determinately, and tenaciously purchase her freedom.56

Coartación-like manumission arrangements existed in other parts of the Americas, notably Brazil and ostensibly in other Iberian colonies.57 But certain aspects of coartación appear uniquely Cuban, and have baffled scholars to this day because historians have been unable locate precedents for these in Roman or Spanish slave law. These aspects, dating from the time when coartación was common law in Cuba, are the provisions that a coartada slave would have full management of her peculium including the right to keep a predetermined amount of revenues from skilled services. But most baffling to historians is the provision that once a down payment on one's purchase price was made, the slave rented out by her owner from then on would receive a share of revenues commensurate with the percent she had paid against her debt.58 These common law slave-side amortization provisions were contested by slave owners.59 Below, I suggest a genealogy for these extraordinary common law provisions in a Creole assemblage of precedents, which includes, significantly, BaKongo protocols for slave valuation.

On first pass, I am suggesting that Cuban-Kongo prendas-ngangas-enquisos sought in some way to address the debt aspects of urban slavery in 19th-century (and prior) Cuba. It is important for my argument that coartación, although rare, was a significant institution in Cuba and surely aspired to by most slaves.60 Vital to keep in mind is that because of the hurdles presented by the system of courts, uncooperative owners, and high down payments, it was usually Creole, Cuban-born slaves and those who had relations with free people of color who achieved coartada/o status.61 We have to assume that bids for coartación resulted in countless instances of court-mediated claims that ended in deception, fraud, and outright corruption, surely to the benefit of owners.62 In fact, crucial to my argument is that just as coartación became a “common” path to freedom for a very small number of slaves, to the vast majority it must have appeared distant and impossible, in fact converting whatever hope coartación offered into a kind of immutable, petrified debt.63

My hypothesis is that the term prenda or prenda nganga emerged from a situation in which enslaved people brought to Cuba apprehended the institution of slavery-coartación as a miserable and tenacious debt where liberty literally hung in the balances of ledger books and the signatures on tattered sales receipts.64 Prior to the 1880 abolition law (which revalued all slaves into debtor-clients), those fortunate enough to win a coartación would confront overwhelming but not insurmountable debt, to be overcome by a mixture of unbelievably good luck, patience, tenacious striving, and the help of others. Thus, a slave built her peculium, her fund, or “trust,” against fated debt. In the case of those for whom coartación was impossible—the newly arrived, the destitute, the rural, the illiterate, in short, the vast majority of all slaves forced to labor in Cuba in the 19th century—the debt of slavery would have assumed the full violence of inextricable debt, for which new kinds of trust would be invented. It is my contention that prendas-ngangas-enquisos are the Cuban-Kongo version of such a trust. A trust based not so much on financial security (fideicomiso) as on the confidence (confianza) that the dead comprising material life could be turned, via the manipulation of prendas-ngangas-enquisos, toward the revaluation of one's enslaved status.65

At this point it is plausible to assume that the “prenda nganga,” the healer's jewel, is a “syncretic” product in a dialectical sense, with BaKongo minkisi bundles being brought to bear on the intractable affliction of debt-unto-slavery. The weight minkisi brought to the equation was placed against the intellectual, religious, and legal terms of order by which their fates were cast. Newly turned-out prendas-ngangas-enquisos would have brought the destabilizing powers of the dead to bear on these terms, so as to expand narrow openings in Cuban slavery and so seek a daybreak where the darkness of infinite debt reigned. If this is at all plausible, Cuban-Kongo prendas-ngangas-enquisos might then be seen as synthetic instances of Kongo material culture syncretically absorbed and sublimated into the emergent customs of Creole slavery in Cuba.

But it seems that, rather than a syncretic sublimation, where minkisi-like healing practices would have been imported as subordinate elements within the immutable structure of Cuban Spanish slavery (on which they would then be left but to comment as social texts), Cuban-Kongo prendas-ngangas-enquisos might to be something very different. In fact, they appear to be new Creole turns on long-standing BaKongo institutions of debt slavery, ransom, and pawn exchange. Wyatt MacGaffey, the scholar of Kongo life to whom we owe a debt of our own for his impressive body of work on Kongo religion, politics, and society, has described slavery (1986:9–11, 25–39; 2000:154–156) as a significant social institution for BaKongo people prior to their enslavement by Europeans. In fact, MacGaffey tells us that slavery regulated important aspects of political life inside and outside BaKongo community.66 He and others, such as the missionary Karl Laman, tell us that slavery was largely organized around notions of debt, payment, and descent-based kinship relations.67 As minkisi played important roles in all major exchanges, it is not surprising that they mediated slave transfers and, more importantly, the transformation of slave, or free, status.68

MacGaffey describes the indigenous institution of slavery among the BaKongo in a variety of instances.69 Slavery in the lower Congo River between 17th and the 19th centuries existed within a matrilineal village–clan–house–lineage social arrangement.70 Villages were composed of clans, and these were divided into houses, which in themselves were divided into descent lineages. The important distinction was that between “free” and “slave” lineages.71 Only free lineages within houses owned land.72 Importantly, free lineages also shared debt.73 Like land, slave lineages were owned by houses and could be transferred between houses of the same clan, but not between members of the same house.74 As a result slaves were more likely to be exchanged to pay a house debt.75 Within houses slaves were considered prestige goods, which, after the growth of the European trade, were distributed in the course of political competition along with guns, gunpowder, fine cloth, and ivory.76 Exchanges of slaves determined social stratification among powerful members of society, and they could be killed on prestige occasions.77 They constituted, in combination with land, the basis of a house's wealth.78 This said, a slave's living conditions and economic role within a house or village did not differ from those of someone in a free lineage. In MacGaffey's terms, the slave lineages, which could themselves own slaves, existed as a form of social dependence within a community and were not forced labor.79 What determined slave status was lack of access to resources for self-determination, these being family genealogies that could establish a person as member of a free lineage, or the eloquence to literally transform, through speech, a slave lineage into a free one.80

Now, what is important for the discussion of Cuban-Kongo prendas-ngangas-enquisos, besides the fact that slavery-as-debt was not new to BaKongo people when they encountered Europeans, is that “manumission” was most always a possibility. The most common avenue to manumission was the “redemption” of a slave through fees paid by their free kin.81 Otherwise, slaves could redeem themselves through hard work and “accumulated possessions.”82 In fact, Laman writes, “among their rights is also the right to receive a share in what they earn” (emphasis added).83 In this, Cuban slavery in the 19th century (and prior) resembled BaKongo slavery as much as, if not more than, precolonial Spanish slavery.

This includes the understanding that in every event of “redemption” for BaKongo people minkisi played important roles.84 In fact, MacGaffey (1991:129) cites a particular nkisi charm, addressed by the proper name Lunkanka, which sanctioned the transfer of slaves between lineages. In other cases, slaves and others indentured by debt could also appeal to Lunkanka when they fled their house, perhaps a common event on the eve of a ritual slaughter. Lunkanka was renowned for her ferocity, which included the twisting of necks, breaking of arms, knotting of the intestines, stifling a person's breath, and causing hemorrhages. She provided a powerful guarantee, indeed, for those who had no other hope, money, kin, or trust, of any sort.

So it appears that it was the complex kinship and debt networks that constituted BaKongo slavery, and their authorizing minkisi medicines that encountered Spanish slavery in the 17th century, not just BaKongo “bare life.”85 In concrete terms, one mode of slavery and debt mitigation met another. As Kongo slavery was itself mitigated via minkisi, it is not surprising that in their meeting the prenda-nganga-enquiso was born. And from this encounter between hardly incompatible slave regimes I suggest that not only did the prenda-nganga-enquiso emerge but also the Creole complex of slavery-coartación itself. If BaKongo slavery and the minkis that grounded this practice were not among the social resources in the emergence and transformation of Iberian manumission laws into the Cuban custom of coartación, then they surely played into the institution importantly, at least for the enslaved. I assume that prendas-ngangas-enquisos could have accomplished in the 19th century what they accomplished for the slaves of the BaKongo and what they accomplish today in Havana, which is the transformation of immutable, fated, debt into something else, something open and indeterminate, and not without its cost in the harm of another. In this I expect prendas-ngangas-enquisos offered BaKongo slaves, their children, and their affliction clients in 19th-century Cuba powerful modes of revaluation, exchanging lives for freedom in a world where human life was poorly valued.86 In this way, I suggest that prendas-ngangas-enquisos spoke to those enslaved BaKongo who brought the minkisi spark to Cuba, their children, their clients, and very likely to slave owners, just as they do to people who keep them in Cuba today, as a people yet to come, on the precipice of new values and new valuation.

NOT OBJECTS

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. A CALL
  4. PALO
  5. INFLUENCE (MA’ KALUNGA)
  6. READING THE FETISH INTO PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS
  7. A PROBLEMATIZATION FOR PALO
  8. “PRENDA-NGANGA-ENQUISO”
  9. PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS IN 19TH-CENTURY CUBA
  10. NOT OBJECTS
  11. HEALING HARMING
  12. CONCLUSION
  13. NOTES
  14. REFERENCES CITED

If contemporary Palo and the brief history of 19th-century Cuban slavery-coartación that I offer above make a suggestion at all, it is the need to reposition prendas-ngangas-enquisos within the problem the term prenda proposes. This is the problem of debt, monetary and social. Prior to my etymological and historical speculation, I have proposed that it is best to not address them in the language of “the object,” or in the language of the “fetish.” Prendas-ngangas-enquisos are certainly not objects as these exist in a dialectical universe of subjects who act and control, and objects that receive action and only submit to control.87 They are far too active in revaluation for this to be the case. But this is the fate of objects in Hegel's world.88 How to imagine prendas-ngangas-enquisos as something other than “an object”? What follows from the proposition that prendas-ngangas-enquisos are not objects?

As “agents” of revaluation, prendas-ngangas-enquisos are not objects in any kind of dialectically normative fashion.89 Prendas-ngangas-enquisos do not endure the infinite creativity of “subjects” that live Cuban-Kongo lives, nor are they infinitely mutable by such subjects.90 Yet these are Hegel's conditions for the object, conditions Bataille assumes and struggles with to great profit in his Theory of Religion.91 That prendas-ngangas-enquisos are not objects will become, I hope, a recognizable refrain in the foreign language within our own that I propose for Palo.

Prendas-ngangas-enquisos are agents, or entities, that revalue. They do so actively and consistently in their associations with other agents of revaluation, like Palo healers and their clients who know prendas-ngangas-enquisos firsthand. These associations array into multitudinous webs of concatenated forces that are always transforming, changing at their edges and at their cores. Such webs could be called “networks-of-becoming,” in which prendas-ngangas-enquisos seek to physically extend themselves via the bonds that connect them to others.92 This physical extension is the material shape of their influence within the web of forces they help comprise and in which they participate, which is to say, Cuban-Kongo societies of affliction.93 In concretely suggesting that prendas-ngangas-enquisos are extending into and across such bonds, I am also saying that they grow.

This growth is the first of two conditions prendas-ngangas-enquisos propose in their language for a status beyond the object. This is what prendas-ngangas-enquisos “want,” if they can be said to want anything at all. They want to continually receive and consume, so as to extend outward, at times explosively.94 They revel in the instability of form that growth implies, and delight in the layer upon layer of fluids and substances they consume. Like Isidra's Ma’re Agua, they want most of all to be fed the fates of initiates, who they love to have gathered around them in feasts of praise, and through whom they extend their influence in individual Palo praise associations. Along the way to so lavish an offering, they delight in drumming, dancing, and meals of sacrificial blood from fowl, goats, rams, and other creatures. The greatest joy of their keepers is to have the dead that course through them suffuse the bodies of those around them, so that the dead might become actual in possession. In the Palo theater of possession, the living offer gifts and gestures of obeisance while prendas-ngangas-enquisos deliver access to a series of encounters with the dead that revalue petrified configurations of fates and lives.

In growing, prendas-ngangas-enquisos propose a second “condition” for themselves beyond “the object.” Namely, that in growing prendas-ngangas-enquisos transform the material and social bonds that integrate them into the webs of force that comprise a Palo society of affliction. These transformations are themselves multitudinous, sometimes stabilizing bonds, and just as frequently dissolving them. To bind, better yet, to produce a bond: this is a critical part of a prenda's potential (as Pietz points out in the case of the fetish). But socially, much of their power lies in the promise of radical transformation, or revaluation, such that a bond completely changes form. What is at stake here is the transformation of one value into another, of one bond into another. This creative revaluation, to the point of dissolution, is what brings prendas-ngangas-enquisos closest to Cuban-Kongo understandings of Kalunga, the vast indifferent sea of the dead, from which they emerge.95

In these ways, in their potential to form and extend bonds, and in their capacity to decimate bonds in the act of producing new ones, prendas-ngangas-enquisos exceed what we have come to call “the object.” I hope they also skirt what has come to be called the “subject.” They do so, I hope, by turning the discourse on the object into and over itself, such that “the subject” becomes a much less important, if not irrelevant, way of thinking about action, or life, in Palo praise associations.

In becoming entities that revalue by growing, prendas-ngangas-enquisos are thus received by people who live Palo, like Isidra, as much more than “objects,” or “fetishes.” People who care for them connect to them as more than “representations” of slavery or “texts” on lived affliction or misfortune. Here, I diverge significantly from my art historian and ethnohistorian colleagues, who “read” Cuban-Kongo materials as representations of such. Rather than being objects, fetishes, or social texts, prendas-ngangas-enquisos are in Havana today, just as they seem to have been in 19th-century Havana, formidable nodes in dense webs force. They are agents and sites of attachment and dissolution. Like all points of convergence in an association, they are capable of producing revaluations of the relations of dominance and subordination immanent to association itself. Prendas-ngangas-enquisos cease being “power objects,”“social objects,” or “social facts,” which is where our best social science has placed them. They turn instead into agents or entities with which one connects, and thereby transforms, in the webs of association we have previously called “the Social.”96

So, prendas-ngangas-enquisos as I am problematizing them refuse two of the great reductions of idealist processes, these being limited objectification and limited representation. It is here that we might extend what is least Hegelian in Pietz's definition of the fetish, that being the irreducible materiality of prendas-ngangas-enquisos.97 In fact, rather than submit to dialectical operations that seek to capture matter in the webs of negation and total explanation, prendas-ngangas-enquisos to grow through the affirmative agglomeration of matter, and, thus, spread before all else. The dynamics of their growth are those of Cuban-Kongo materiality as this is understood through a realist–immanentist description of Kalunga, el muerto, the Dead One.98 Prendas-ngangas-enquisos seek, as nodes that distribute force in webs of associations, to expand, grow, and aggregate other quantities to themselves. They do this not as subordinated “contents” to be read, but as concretely agglomerated associative entities in themselves.

HEALING HARMING

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. A CALL
  4. PALO
  5. INFLUENCE (MA’ KALUNGA)
  6. READING THE FETISH INTO PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS
  7. A PROBLEMATIZATION FOR PALO
  8. “PRENDA-NGANGA-ENQUISO”
  9. PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS IN 19TH-CENTURY CUBA
  10. NOT OBJECTS
  11. HEALING HARMING
  12. CONCLUSION
  13. NOTES
  14. REFERENCES CITED

Prendas-ngangas-enquisos do this by collecting around themselves infinitesimal forces at the limits of sensation.99 In the language of Palo, what they gather together is the dead (el muerto, los muertos, Kalunga). They agglutinate these forces and sensations into an atmosphere “charged”(cargado) with potential. This atmosphere around prendas is felt, and it is best conceived as a sustained tension within Kalunga, the immanent and indifferent sea of the dead that suffuses Palo lives. The atmosphere felt around prendas-ngangas-enquisos is the closest one ever comes to “knowing” Kalunga in a regular sense, outside of possession. From this atmosphere, those adept at Palo craft produce tiny pulses, deploy low-frequency waves, and generate larger disturbances in the anonymous flows of Kalunga, so as to transform the bonds of an association. In operating on such infinitesimal, “uncertain” sensations, prendas-ngangas-enquisos bring together into binding connections, or associations, the limited potentials from many individual lives. In this way, those associated through a Cuban-Kongo society of affliction have their potentials gathered, secured, and “invested” into subsisting, coherent feedback loops of transformative force. Those who join have their energies and potentials literally connected with the energies and potentials of others, such that a “fund,” or “trust,” is established in the prendas-ngangas-enquisos themselves. “Security” emerges, one that only a prenda-nganga-enquiso can guarantee, and in which all members of a Palo association share. The connected potentials of many people are what we call “value,” or “values,” and those of Cuban-Kongo societies of affliction have been consistently thrust against rival “values,” such as those of a slave society, and of an individual's monetary debt in bondage.100

CONCLUSION

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. A CALL
  4. PALO
  5. INFLUENCE (MA’ KALUNGA)
  6. READING THE FETISH INTO PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS
  7. A PROBLEMATIZATION FOR PALO
  8. “PRENDA-NGANGA-ENQUISO”
  9. PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS IN 19TH-CENTURY CUBA
  10. NOT OBJECTS
  11. HEALING HARMING
  12. CONCLUSION
  13. NOTES
  14. REFERENCES CITED

Verse after verse Isidra sings, purposefully concealing her words. To not hum with her although I don't know what together we are singing would be to disrespect her and her prendas. Despite the considerable disorientation of singing in this way, the effort of mimicking the rhythm and my focus on capturing Isidra's words pushes me beyond the initial encounter with Ma're Agua, and slowly grants me a minimal composure. This is when I realize that the force of the dead churning around and through Ma’re Agua electrifies Isidra's body. She is not so much hiding the words to her song as failing to articulate them as she assumes a version of herself that is unfamiliar to me, but practiced to her. Her style of possession is mild and I have been grateful for this throughout our work together.

As I pick up the tune with more competence, at this point still humming, my body relaxes into its kneeling position and Isidra loosens her grip on my wrist. My work is now plain for me to see: I am to remain here with my teacher as the dead roil us and the forces that organize us are lost to the turbulence of the dead that surround Ma’re Agua, this radiant version of the dead.

The dead comprising material existence are all around us, and in us, they are the matter of our bodies. Isidra and I each understood this differently, she working the eddies and currents of Kalunga, me working to follow her and in the process not lose sight of biological matter as I understand this, itself a version of countless ancestral lives. These are the dead we are turning tonight, diverting them into versions of themselves that will stabilize each one of us. All hope of this rests with Ma’re Agua, Isidra's “trust” in a moment like this. “Palo es mi confinaza,” she would say when facing a challenger. Ma're Agua is in this moment the paid and collected debts of the Palo association to which Isidra belongs, and on whose dead she draws daily. In fact, Ma're Agua's very shape was comprised of countless “minor” investments by the association's dead, who gave it everything. It was these forces on which she drew and that she sought to change. To turn these forces, these dead, was to reaffirm what had secured her in the very moment in which she transformed what no longer did. Again, this would happen only through Ma’re Agua—her “security.”

The turbulence she faced with Ma’re Agua was substantial. Shocks, pulses, and pushes of force through Kalunga, the ambient dead, unsettled her, just as they unsettled me. Seeing her in this shape committed me to seeing her through her struggle. There was no doubt for her that the very matter that comprised her was being shaken by the attack, which she attributed to an old mentor in the Palo association to which she belonged. A week later, after she was fully recovered, she would say that she had faced a horde of the dead that had been turned against her. Countless forms of betrayal and envy were rallied against her, each a throb in the washes of Kalunga in which we struggled. Each aggressive pulsation was countered with the force of her song, which was how she called her responsive dead and sought to introduce counterflows, forceful fluctuations, into the most turbulent dead around us. Her song also joined us. Again, the refrain is what establishes a difference in the flows of Kalunga, the ambient dead. It is hardly the only of Palo's resources able to do this, but in this moment it was the shape of Isidra's possession. And, as each song flowed out of Isidra to reach Ma’re Agua, the prenda-nganga-enquiso, true to Palo, returned the song. “Canto saca canto,” she said. One song draws another.

Ma're Agua was covered in the blood of a duck Isidra had killed for her, and as she glowed in the glory of the animal’s spent life, in the uselessness of the death that adorned her, the prenda-nganga-enquiso exceeded herself and overcome the repetitions of the dead that lent her stability from day to day. In the force of her baseness, in the blood and lush mass of feathers that covered her, in the soaking aspirations of cane rum I delivered as her supplicant, in the cloud of cigar smoke that enveloped her, and in the prone body of her keeper at her feet, she crossed into modes of feeling, and of matter, that are called “Palo.” There before us she grew, in size and in influence, and she brought us along. Together, the three of us sank into the matter of force and receptive bodies, to tremble in what certainty there was, which was but the contingent uncertainty of open revaluation.

This is the grace of prendas-ngangas-enquisos: to destabilize, to dissipate, and make anew what is fixed and given, as each version of the dead that enters their field, or passes through it, is at the same moment transformed. The living are drawn to this potential when the collection of forces that organize their lives becomes oppressive, and impossible to turn toward good fortune. But the transfers of force over which prendas preside are ambivalent and hold no easy formula for healing. Rather, they promise only disruptions of what has become inevitable. Such disruptions are neither painless, nor devoid of risk, but the people who come within the atmosphere of change a prenda-nganga-enquiso like Ma’re Agua generates find themselves willing to try their fates with her coupling of visceral surrender and social destabilization, which is to say, with the sovereign coupling of healing-harming and outcomes unknown. Of values yet to come.

NOTES

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. A CALL
  4. PALO
  5. INFLUENCE (MA’ KALUNGA)
  6. READING THE FETISH INTO PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS
  7. A PROBLEMATIZATION FOR PALO
  8. “PRENDA-NGANGA-ENQUISO”
  9. PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS IN 19TH-CENTURY CUBA
  10. NOT OBJECTS
  11. HEALING HARMING
  12. CONCLUSION
  13. NOTES
  14. REFERENCES CITED

Acknowledgments

Acknowledgments.  A version of this article was presented as a paper to the Department of Anthropology at University of California, Berkeley, in October 2005 and was greatly improved by the questions of faculty and students there. It was rewritten in 2009 and would not have been finished without the generous and optimistic support of my colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The writing has benefited greatly from the critical and creative reading of Mike and Kim Fortun and two anonymous readers for Cultural Anthropology.

1. Palo, which I have elsewhere called a “society of affliction,” divides in Havana into four distinct “branches”: Palo Briyumba (also called Villumba and Biyumba), Palo Mayombe, Palo Monte, and Palo Kimbisa. These versions of Kongo-inspired praise each harbor distinct ritual vocabularies, song repertoires and drum beats, as well as healing and harming crafts.

2. See Ochoa (2007:478–479).

3. I would add to these translations and definitions of palo the playful translation of timber, or better, timbre—to the particular tone, vibration, or resonance each stick brings to the vast sea of the dead that permeates and saturates Cuban-Kongo lives. For vibration in this context, please see Ochoa (2007:483), Fortun (1999:65–109), and Grosz (2008:51).

4.  Enquiso or nkiso is Palo-Kikongo Creole speech from nkisi. The missionary and author of a significant 19th-century English–Kikongo dictionary, W. Holman Bentley, cites: “Nkixi, 4, n., a charm, an enchantment, a fetish, medicine. –ankixi, a., a fetish. nzo (2) nkixi, a grave” (Bentley 1887:383; also 82, 322, 503–507). See also K. Laman (1936:721) and Cabrera (1984:125, 126).

5. See Ochoa (2007:483).

6. See Ochoa (2007:482).

7. See Ochoa (2007:484–488).

8. See Ochoa (2007:490).

9. See Ochoa (2007:483).

10. Kalunga, the ambient mass of the dead, is never static, wholly coherent, or completely comprehensible. As such, one cannot speak of finding answers or solutions, let alone certainties, there. At best, working practical transformation in the chaotic flows of Kalunga is about distributing the forces that stage a problem such that a new, more important problem appears. I am indebted in my appreciation of “problems” both to my teachers of Palo, who were never settled with the dead, and to Deleuze (1994:153–167) for distinguishing an epistemology of problem making within the traditional metaphysics of truth, representation, and falsehood. DeLanda (2002:166–188) and Rajchman (2000:16–29) both offer articulate commentaries on Deleuze's problem-oriented epistemology.

11. For the refrain as stabilizing counterflow to immanent or chaotic forces, see Deleuze and Guattari (1987:299–312) and Grosz (2008:51–54).

12. This gendering mirrors the Santo/Ocha gendering of its principal feminine sovereigns, or Orichas: Yemayá, Ochún, and Oyá. Such mirroring has been treated by scholars working on African-inspired religion in Cuba as a kind of dialectically subordinated syncretism, where references to Santo/Ocha sovereigns in Palo provide evidence of a broader conceptual debt Palo owes to Santo/Ocha. This is evident in Palmié (2002:27, also 331 n. 10), for example. I would like to counter this by suggesting that such references are rather affirmative claims by Palo, incursions you might say, into territories Santo vehemently defends as its own.

13. See Janzen (1992:12, 72, 108).

14. See Cabrera (1984:246) and Cabrera (1979:129). For my use of “singular,” see Deleuze (1990:100–108).

15. My use of Creole is here oriented by Eduard Glissant (1989) and suggests a “power formation” wherein disparate resources (such as those called “Spanish” and “Kongo”) are mutually affirmed in relatively unstable couplings, rather than synthesized into static “identities” via dialectical negation. It is following Glissant's insistence on the affirmative agglutination of disparate resources into plural Creole entities that I choose to hyphenate the multipart prenda-nganga-enquiso.

16. Spanish language treatments of prendas are more common. The best is Lydia Cabrera (1979). Others include Castellanos and Castellanos (1992), Bolívar Aróstegui and González Días de Villegas (1998), and James Figarola (2006).

17. For critiques of representational epistemology, see Foucault (1973:208–211; 217–249), Latour (2005:9, 16, 30), and Deleuze and Guattari (1987:219).

18.  William Pietz has given us an articulate consideration of the fetish in his important contribution to the delightful and noncompliant publication RES (1985, 1987, 1988). Despite the ambitions of the 1985 piece, Pietz's articles are first and ultimately a history of a European concept, brittle at the seams where one attempts to stretch it, for example, to ask questions about African and African-inspired materials and substances. Pietz's accomplishment is to have given us a singular European history of consciousness, but the history and theory of the fetish he presents gives us only the start of an African or black Atlantic history of consciousness.

19. Despite the best efforts of many authors, this Hegelian heart can be detected by its steady dialectical rhythm: matter–spirit (Pels 1998:99), subject–object (Pietz 1985:14), immanence–transcendence (Pels 1998:99), and knowledge–senses (Pels 1998:100). Of the authors who have grappled with the dialectical discourse of the fetish explicitly, Pels's (1998) effort is to me the most exciting in its propositions at the limits of Hegelianism.

20. The well-known volume by Apter and Pietz (1993) provides an excellent collection of texts where the fetish paradigm works to superb effects.

21.  Palmié (2006:859 n. 12) explicitly recognizes the importance transfiguring, if not overcoming, reified understandings of subject and object before he consciously slips back into just such an epistemology.

22. See Palmié (2002:160–163, 165; 2006:862–864).

23. See Palmié (2002:168, 170, 178–189).

24.  Palmié (2002:185–189) provides a lucid, if romantic, account of 19th-century Cuban matiabo societies.

25. See Palmié (2002:190).

26. See Palmié (2002:168, 169).

27. The contrast between dispelling confusion and finding a new language for it is an epistemological one. Prendas-ngangas-enquisos will not fit the mold of Platonic, Cartesian, Kantian, Hegelian, or Marxian concepts. To communicate them, we scholars will need to be creators, of new languages, new concepts, and new juxtapositions—not a role we are normally comfortable with. See Ochoa (2007:479–481).

28. My use of the word recognized is intended with the full Hegelian connotations of recognition: negation, Aufhebung, and eventual subordination of the object to a perfectly coherent system (Hegel 1977:111–114).

29. See Palmié (2002:25, 166, 169, 188, 332 n. 16, 346 n. 57; 2006:854, 861). Palmié tries very hard to escape the fateful language of “the object” by devising phrases like “complex assemblages” (2002:168), “mystical catalysts” (2002:169), “personalized agent” (2002:170), “human and non-human entities” (2002:171), “spiritual alter” (2002:174), “miniscule metaphoric machines” (2002:170), and “a life-form constituted through ritual action” (2006:861). One of my disappointments with his two interventions is that he does not grow these terms into a new problem for prendas-ngangas-enquisos that is better staged than the interrelated problems of “the object” and the “the fetish” in which his analysis is nested.

30. See Palmié (2002:165).

31.  Palmié (2002:165, 173; 2006:853). What Palmié leaves implicit Routon (2008:637) makes explicit. Routon's contribution is welcome for its ethnographic richness, which Palmié's, favoring history, lacks.

32. See Palmié (2002:165, 2006:863, 868).

33. See Palmié (2002:166–168, 173, 185; 2006:859, for grizzly).

34. See Palmié (2002:168, 176–181, 193–194).

35. Palmié's “Ocha- or Santo-centricity” is plainly observed throughout his text (2002:168, 171–173, 190–191, 193, 195, 333 n. 24). It contains a model of “syncretism” that posits the absorption of Cuban-Kongo religion into a Yoruba-determined matrix in the 19th century (2002:163, 195), instead of a nonabsorption hypothesis, wherein Kongo inspirations would enjoy cosmological sovereignty on par with Santo/Ocha.

36. See Palmié (2002:165). Following his absorption hypothesis, Palo (the absorbed–negated element) becomes a “crass opposition” within Santo/Ocha, thus delivering a Hegelian–Structuralist description of syncretism (2006:863, 866, 872). An alternate, nondialectical description would state that Palo and Santo mutually became what they are in affirmation of one another. Such a description would characterize their continuing transformations of one another as one of hierarchically neutral production of differences and the affirmation of divergences from one another and from Catholicism.

37. See Palmié (2002:176).

38. For a version of Cuban-Kongo materiality that differs from Palmié's matter–spirit binary see Ochoa (2007:488–492).

39. See Palmié (2002:13, 165). This formulation, which is standard for ethnographic audiences, is ultimately the source of such of his terms as mystical warfare and mystical alters.

40. See Deleuze (1994:164–166). Palo-authorized knowledge does not fare well when subjected to this decisive epistemological commitment. Thus, Palmié describes conceptual self-descriptions by those who practice Palo as “purely pragmatic native considerations that, by themselves, do not explain much” (2002:195). Once accomplished, the evacuation of “native considerations” from Palo renders prendas-ngangas-enquisos as wholly subordinated to the textual readings of the analyst and reduces them to representations to be “interpreted” for truth values.

41. See Deleuze (1994:153–167).

42. See Ochoa (2007:491).

43. See Ochoa (2007:479–481). In this case I am expanding a sense of what is exciting about creating foreign languages within our own as ethnographic practice to suggest that this is also a valid method for the making of ethnographic problems.

44. See Ochoa (2007:479–481, 490–491). My sense of association comes from Latour (2005:159–190). I am indebted to one of my reviewers for citing the work of Quentin Meillassoux (2008) and Graham Harman (2009), who present significant replies to Latour's handling of Deleuze from a position of “speculative realism.” Of Meillassoux's concepts, the one that immediately lends itself to my treatment of Palo is what he calls “the great outdoors,” or that mass of matter that happens without the subject, outside its steadfast enclosure and independent of it, in a world that includes the subject but is not limited by its imaginings (Meillassoux 2008:7). This “exteriority” (to slide back into Deleuze's terms) is precisely what Palo seeks to cultivate a relationship to—the forest, el monte, the indifferent “ancestral statements” ever emerging at the limits of Palo life. The advantage of Meillassoux's “great outdoors” is that it remits us to a reality prior to “subjects” and “objects” that is convincingly able to generate these.

45. I am conscious of recent efforts in semiotic anthropology, especially those of Daniel (1996) and Keane (2003), to approximate matter and sign via Peirce. I suggest that the problem with such Peircean-inflected treatments of the matter of social life ultimately seeks a comprehensive “capture” of matter and therefore flirts with metaphysics at just the moment a material connection is said to be made.

46.  Pietz (1985:5–6) is systematic in forecasting his interlocutors, which he expects to occupy positions he calls “particularist” and “universalist.” I expect Pietz would place this essay into the particularistic camp because it attempts to exclude prendas-ngangas-enquisos from the fetish discourse by virtue of locating them in “particular” historical and pragmatic practices.

47. The emerging distinction between realism and materialism stands to lay bare the metaphysical underpinnings of our most ardent materialisms. Few of us will be exempt from revaluation, including those of us who have found resources in Latour to explore the limits of subject and objects. For this distinction, see Bataille (1985:15), DeLanda (2002), Meillassoux (2008), Harman (2002, 2009), and Brassier (2007). Again, I am grateful to one of my CA reviewers for pointing me in the direction of this emerging debate in Deleuze scholarship, inspired by a Heideggerian response to the version of Deleuze we find in DeLanda (2002), and to Latour.

48.  MacGaffey (1991:129), although he does not comment on the term prenda, is very familiar with pawn status.

49. For nganga as “sorcerer” or “healer,” see Bentley (1887:371) and Laman (1936:683).

50. See Palmié (2002:162–163; 185–188). Palmié's image of Cuban slavery is compelling for just how clearly it depicts abject human suffering. His portrait, accurate in its depiction of Cuban of slavery at the limits of life and death in the 19th century, lacks subtlety in light of what is known about Cuban slavery in this period, especially in Havana. Palmié turns his depiction of Cuban-Kongo abjection into a dubiously redemptive narrative as it sinks into tropes of a noble people perverted by their humiliation into depredation and cannibalism (2002:171–181).

51. Cuban manumission through self-purchase has been a thorny problem for historians of New World slavery for over a century (Aimes 1909; Bergad et al. 1994; Corwin 1967; de la Fuente 2004; Klein 1967; Scott 1985; Tannenbaum 1947). Historians appear to agree that coartación was a customary institution in colonial Cuba in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and codified by royal decree by the late 17th or early 18th centuries (de la Fuente 2004:359, and Klein 1967:196).

52. See also Klein (1967:196).

53.  Aimes (1909:412) lists the “Four Comforts”: “Free Marriage; The right to seek a new master, if ill treated; To purchase freedom by labor; To purchase freedom of family.” In coartación, the “right” to seek a new master is expanded within the “right” to purchase one's freedom by labor, such that once having made a down payment a slave could seek a new master without having been “ill treated.”

54. This complexity is evident in Aimes (1909:414, 420) who cites royal decrees (real cedulas) dealing with the tax structure pertaining to sales of both adults and their children within coartación arrangements. Aimes (1909:423) also cites the technical problem of determining how torts were settled in cases where slaves in coartación arrangements caused damages for which their owner might be liable. “Adjusted” in de la Fuente (2004:359).

55. The fund could be added to when the slave hired herself out on holidays or Sundays, of which according to Klein (1967:197) there were some 75 per year in Cuba. She had to the “right” to keep “anything above the fixed return demanded by the master.”

56. We must keep clear that coartación was achieved against massive odds in what was surely an opaque, hostile, and corrupt system of manumission. To begin, a slave was required to make what was certainly an almost insurmountable down payment to activate her full “rights” within a coartación arrangement. Once this payment was made, her “liberties” would have included the “right” not to have her price raised, and the “right” to change masters at will so long as she could find another willing to buy her in her in her “limited” coartada status.

57. See Aimes (1909:417) and Tannenbaum (1947:54–59).

58. See Aimes (1909:418, 422–424) and Tennenbaum (1946:54–55); Klein (1967:61–62, 75, 78, 196–200); Scott (1986:82); Bergad et al. (1995:122).

59. See Aimes (1909:424–425).

60.  Aimes (1909:428) places the number of full coartaciones, meaning the full purchase of freedom in the mid–19th century at some 6 percent per year of the slave population, or some 2,000 slaves per year. Scott (1985:14) revises these coartación numbers down, saying Aimes erred in his calculation although she does not describe his error. Scott (1985:82) further describes the expansion of normally urban coartación appeals to the countryside in the 1870s. However rare coartación may have been in the countryside, by the 1870s, says Scott (1985:106), “a circuit of money exchanges had now been introduced to replace a relation of direct control—and not necessarily at the planter's initiative.” A recent study of the Cuban slave market between 1790 and 1880 (Bergad et al. 1995:122–131) places the total number of slaves in coartación arrangements at 13 percent of all sales. This number would have been weighted heavily toward cities such as Havana and Santiago de Cuba, where skilled slaves found demand for their artisanal labor.

61.  Klein (1967:197–198) states that coartación was more likely achieved by Spanish-speaking Creole slaves who could maneuver more ably than those who could not speak Spanish. In fact, African-born slaves were forbidden from initiating a coartación arrangement until they had spent at least seven years on the island.

62.  Scott's (1985:141–171) descriptions of corruption and class nepotism in the Juntas de Patronato in the 1880–86 period tell us something about what slaves prior to this period must have faced when striving for freedom via coartación.

63. If coartación itself is not enough to grow a think hedge of real or perceived debt around the condition of enslavement in 19th-century Cuba, then the appearance of the 1880 abolition law, or patronato (“patron–client” policy of gradual emancipation) in the last 8 years of slavery surely would have. Scott (1985:123–127) describes the patronato as changing the status of all of the enslaved from “slave”(esclavo) to “beneficiary,” or “client”(patrocinado), a status conceived as “intermediate between master and former slave.” It was understood that starting in 1880 all slaves were scheduled for emancipation within eight years. Liberty would be granted gradually, and would take the form of “tutelage” to be paid off either through labor, through a private amount set by the slave and her owner and to be paid for in good Spanish gold, or through a state-regulated “indemnity” paid to the owner cum patron (Scott 1985:129–130). Even within the mass self-purchase implied by the patronato, coartación-like purchases never rose to 50 percent of liberties granted in the patronato period (Scott 1985:151–157, 169).

64. See Scott (1985:154).

65. Rebecca Scott (1985:147) tells the story of a woman named Petra who in 1880 finished paying off her slave debt with 11.5 ounces of gold in a private agreement with her debt patron. We cannot know how long she worked for her gold, let alone guess where she kept it while she saved it. But I can imagine a pouch stuffed down into a prenda-nganga-enquiso, perhaps one named Lucero Mundo Saca Empeño.

66. MacGaffey describes a thriving slave culture that surely existed prior to European contact (2000:215). About the imposing Kongo capital Mbanza Kongo, on which the Europeans stumbled and that they destroyed, MacGaffey writes, “slavery had been the economic basis of the capital from the beginning” (2000:213, 215), likely sometime in the 13th century.

67. See MacGaffey (1986:9–11; 2000:32, 71–72, 153) and Laman (1957:132–134).

68.  Laman (1957:134) describes oaths sworn by slaves that they will not flee being guaranteed by minkisi. MacGaffey (2000:153) describes minkisi used to regulate the behavior of errant slaves.

69. See MacGaffey (1986:9–11, 25–39) and (2000:32, 71–72, 152–159).

70. See MacGaffey (1986:24–34).

71. See MacGaffey (1986:9–10, 24–27).

72. See MacGaffey (1986:24–25).

73. See MacGaffey (1986:25) and Laman (1957:99).

74. See MacGaffey (1986:25).

75. See MacGaffey (1986:30).

76. See MacGaffey (1986:28).

77. See MacGaffey (1986:28–29). Slaves were occasionally sacrificed at funerals and other ritual occasions, but in general were not killed.

78. See MacGaffey (1986:29).

79. See MacGaffey (1986:30). For a contemporary description of what “social dependence” might have looked like, Kwame Anthony Appiah's semiconfessional autobiographical statement (2007:15–17) about ancestral slaveholders in his family in Ghana (and the continuing consequences of slaveholding for his family) is a concise and eloquent statement.

80. See MacGaffey (1986:26, 30, 32).

81. See MacGaffey (1986:31–32) and Laman (1957:132).

82. See Laman (1957:132, 134).

83. See Laman (1957:134).

84.  MacGaffey (2000:158) recounts the extraordinary account given by a man called Ngambula, who described himself as a child who was pawned into slavery to settle a dispute. His surrender by his kin was mediated by the Lemba society, which was organized around minkisi medicines and that is to this day referenced in Havana Palo. In time, through good fortune and no doubt through the expert manipulation of minkisi, Ngambula overcame his slave status and became chief of the very community to which he had been surrendered.

85. For “bare life” counterpoised to a life outfitted with resources for social transformation, see Agamben (1998:65–67, 89–90, 104–115).

86. All said, Rebecca Scott (1985:159–166) describes the Cuban 19th century as a shifting sea of slave revaluations, where the encounters among slaves, planters, the Spanish Crown, the Catholic Church, abolitionists, free people of color, and plantation store managers were forever struggles over how the value of a slave would be turned, if not legally then in the balance sheets of an owner's finances. The froth of revaluations she describes in one of laws passed, slavery converted to debt via coartación or the patronato, cash debt converted to gold-against-slave-debt via pig flesh, the whole time shifting government regulations constantly disorienting the price of freedom. It is not surprising that Kongo minkisi, themselves already formidable agents of revaluation, emerged as significant agents at the root of Cuban-Kongo alliances, which it to say, of Palo. In a scene of unbearable hardship, the prenda-nganga-enquiso emerges at the heart of Kongo-inspired praise houses as the guarantee that the society of affliction, the cablido congo or “nzo congo,” will meet its obligations to its members, just as Lunkanka provided a guarantee in Laman's version of Kongo slavery. In fact, Scott (1985:163, 265–269) addresses the role cabildos (which she calls “mutual aid societies”) might have played in collectively securing the freedom of their members. She does not, however, speculate that in doing so Kongo societies of affliction in Cuba continued long-standing BaKongo practices of collective debt holding and debt payment. Neither does she propose that prendas-ngangas-enquisos were the law (the Rule—La Regla) around which Kongo-inspired societies grew and operated.

87. See Hegel (1977:104–111, 115–119).

88. See Hegel (1977:104–111, 115–119).

89. In my treatment of prendas as “agents” I am indebted to Bruno Latour (2005:63–86).

90. See Hegel (1977:115–119).

91. See Bataille (1992:27–42).

92. My understanding of the networks and the local is owed in this case to Latour (2005:174–246).

93. I would like the word “participate” to carry all the possible reference of Leenhardt'sDo Kamo (1979), wherein the “selfhood” of indigenous New Caledonians is described as distributed across a community of multiple entities “the self” has chosen not to dominate, and with which “the self” participates. Latour (2005:70–74) echoes this understanding in terms of objects.

94. Prendas-ngangas-enquisos are hardly agents of conservation or utility. They are rather solarlike in their voluptuous consumption. That said, like the sun, they may be “put to use.” But this use must be subordinated to their larger role in receiving, consuming, and expending. My gesture here in making utility relative to expenditure is indebted to Bataille (1985:116–129; 1988:9–41).

95. See Ochoa (2007:490).

96. I take the distinction between “the Social” and “association” from Latour (2005:159–172).

97. See Pietz (1985:9–10).

98. See Ochoa (2007:490).

99. See Ochoa (2007:483). Michael Fortun, in his description of “entangled states” (1999:65–109), provides an exciting approach to the anthropological description of infinitesimal materiality and how this is concretely felt.

100. For the connection between “value” in a moral sense, and value in an economic sense, I am indebted to Nietzsche's“Second Essay” the Genealogy of Morals (1967:57–96) and to Deleuze (1997:126–135) for grappling with this text.

Editors Note: Cultural Anthropology has published several essays on the varieties of religious ritual, including Jean Langford's“Gifts Intercepted: Biopolitics and Spirt Debt” (2009), James Siegel's“The Truth of Sorcery” (2003), and Emily Chao's“The Maoist Shaman and the Madman: Ritual Bricolage, Failed Ritual, and Failed Ritual Theory” (1999).

Cultural Anthropology has also published other essays that offer new readings of materialism. See, for example, Stuart McLean's“Stories and Cosmogonies: Imagining Creativity beyond ‘Nature’ and ‘Culture’” (2009) and Todd Ramón Ochoa's “Versions of the Dead: Kalunga, Cuban-Kongo Materiality, and Ethnography” (2007).

REFERENCES CITED

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. A CALL
  4. PALO
  5. INFLUENCE (MA’ KALUNGA)
  6. READING THE FETISH INTO PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS
  7. A PROBLEMATIZATION FOR PALO
  8. “PRENDA-NGANGA-ENQUISO”
  9. PRENDAS-NGANGAS-ENQUISOS IN 19TH-CENTURY CUBA
  10. NOT OBJECTS
  11. HEALING HARMING
  12. CONCLUSION
  13. NOTES
  14. REFERENCES CITED
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