Versions of the Dead: Kalunga, Cuban-Kongo Materiality, and Ethnography

Abstract

The Cuban-Kongo society of affliction known as Palo educates its initiates in the visceral apprehension of Kalunga, the vast sea of the dead. Kalunga is taught as unstable and unverifiable experience at the limits of sensation—chills, goose bumps, or a fluttering in the chest or stomach. Building on an account of this teaching from fieldwork, I draw from anthropology and philosophy to account for Kalunga's role in Palo materialism. In this article, I elaborate a writing strategy explicitly critical of "representation" and suggest the creation of a "foreign language within our own" as a way of handling ethnographic "content." This "new language" for Kalunga is assembled from Palo terms, and from the turning of terms in the writing of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, G. W. F. Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Karl Marx. I arrive at a description of Kalunga as a paratactic discourse, and a "plane of immanence," from which are assembled, and into which are dispersed, "versions of the dead," including "objects," and "subjects."

Multimedia

The Palo and Lukumi Organization

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. Why is Ochoa intially resistant to acknowledging the goosebumps and other physical sensations as central to his research?

2. How does Isidra use language to establish herself as an authority on Palo?

3. Explain the differential views of Yoruba derived religions and those influenced by Central African (Kongo) traditions.

Classroom Activities and Assignments

Have students (in groups or individually) create conceptual maps laying out the arguments of the various theorists Ochoa references. Then students will trace their contributions to the development of Ochoa's 'minor language' for Palo.

Have students search for U.S. news articles citing Palo and related Afro-Caribbean religions such as Santeria or Candomble. Analyze the perspectives and attitudes presented in these articles with respect to history, politics, economics and migration.

Editorial Overview

How might we write in a way that incorporates at least as much 'presentation' as 'representation'? How might we create a 'foreign language within our own' as a way of handling ethnographic material? How might we then encounter the dead – or more preciely, "versions of the dead?"

In his innovative essay "Versions of the Dead: Kalunga, Cuban-Kongo Materiality, and Ethnography," Todd Ramón Ochoa combines resources from anthropology and philosophy to grapple with this complex problem, creating a language for the dead and matter as they are expressed in the Cuban-Kongo society of affliction known as Palo. Palo practitioners are adept in the visceral apprehension of Kalunga, "the vast sea of the dead," through techniques that defy ethnographic description - perceptions of unstable and unverifiable experience at the limits of sensation, such as chills, goose bumps, or a fluttering in the chest and stomach. Building on his lived experience of this teaching from extended fieldwork, Ochoa presents Kalunga's role in Palo materialism. We sense Kalunga via a "paratactic discourse," murmuring on a "plane of immanence", from which are assembled and into which are dispersed "versions of the dead:" stabilized repetitions along planar, nontranscendent lines, of which the 'objects' and 'subjects' of standard social scientific discourse in anthropology are but one effect. Ochoa evokes a new kind of materialism unique to Palo practices, and establishes the basis for analyzing the healing and harming that distinguish it amid Cuba's formidable religious mélange.

Ochoa, currently in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, grapples with his primary informant's language by importing it into English language ethnography not as a "translation," but as "a foreign language within our own." This, so that Palo's dead might survive its encounter with the text and "continue to resonate, vibrate, with a force of its own." Ochoa pursues this strategy because Palo's basic assumptions about the status of matter, the dead, and the living, resist assimilation into the prevailing ethnographic modes of analysis that adhere to regimes of knowing organized under the signs of negation, identity, and being. In the new language, composed of familiar terms found in Hegel and Marx, and not-so-familiar terms found in Nietzsche and Deleuze, Ochoa reiterates his key informant's articulations and repetitions, aiming to accomplish again what she does with her words: to assemble a language for Palo's dead that is suffused with sensation, a writing that is "touched," materially, by the dead. He achieves what Deleuze and Guattari ascribed to Kafka: a sensitivity to the precariousness of writing that conjures the disruptive potentials of minor languages as they are grafted onto major ones. Finding terms that neither elevate nor amplify a minor tongue in the English language requires not just the translator's art but also the subversive's creativity, born of a willingness to cross planes of reference without pretensions that translation can transcend difference. Ochoa's approach has profound methodological implications for ethnography, for it suggests how as cultural analysts we may bypass the notion that representation be thought of as a simple act of translation.

This essay is a brilliant synthesis of philosophy and narrative evocation. It channels fundamental questions of discourse and power, of generating and maintaining authority through representation, of the ethics of the encounter of content with form, and likewise, of fieldwork with disciplinary precedents. It is certain to be of profound interest to cultural analysts, linguists, literary critics, philosophers and to anyone interested in the politics and poetics of representation.

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