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Truth in motion: The recursive anthropology of Cuban divination, Martin Holbraad, U Chicago Press, 2012

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Joining a growing collection of anthropological work on Cuban religious practice, Martin Holbraad’s Truth in Motion: The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination, U Chicago Press 2012, has just been released.  More than simply presenting ethnographic data, Holbraad sets out to use his ethnographic insights to rethink disciplinary presumptions of anthropology as well.

From the web:

Embarking on an ethnographic journey to the inner barrios of Havana among practitioners of Ifá, a prestigious Afro-Cuban tradition of divination, Truth in Motion reevaluates Western ideas about truth in light of the practices and ideas of a wildly different, and highly respected, model. Acutely focusing on Ifá, Martin Holbraad takes the reader inside consultations, initiations, and lively public debates to show how Ifá practitioners see truth as something to be not so much represented, as transformed. Bringing his findings to bear on the discipline of anthropology itself, he recasts the very idea of truth as a matter not only of epistemological divergence but also of ontological difference—the question of truth, he argues, is not simply about how things may appear differently to people, but also about the different ways of imagining what those things are. By delving so deeply into Ifá practices, Truth in Motion offers cogent new ways of thinking about otherness and how anthropology can navigate it.


Review comments:

Andrew Apter
Truth in Motion is very much an intellectual journey, a rigorous engagement with Cuban divination and theories of meaning. It is extremely original, innovative—indeed daring and radical—in its invitation to replace our entire bedrock of representational semantics (and its associated distinctions between words and objects, signifiers and signifieds, judgments and facts, substances and attributes, etcetera) with a more generative ontology of ‘inventive definitions.’”–Andrew Apter, University of California, Los Angeles

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
Truth in Motion is an exceedingly well-thought, sophisticated piece of ethnological and conceptual analysis, with philosophical underpinnings both solid and clever. It is an ambitious and provocative work, which will certainly spark off quite a few welcome debates. His argument is complex, at times vertiginously so—any engagement with recursivity has this cognitive effect, and this book takes recursivity as far as it can go—but it throws a wonderfully clear light over one of the more shadowy zones of the Anthropological Exchange, to wit, the precise nature of the relation between the conceptual presuppositions of ‘observer’ and ‘observed’ in the ethnographic ‘encounter.’”–Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.


Roy Wagner
“Martin Holbraad’s Truth in Motion is the Gödel’s Proof of anthropology, the paradox of the inconsistency that proves its own consistency by going back and taking a parallax on it. As Gödel allegedly told Einstein: ‘You have mistaken space (“dimension”) for time; the true past is really past (gone) and irrecoverable by human means—it is not what you remember, which is still present.’ Basically he was telling Einstein that every aspect of temporality—duration as well as the ‘presence’ of time—is beyond human ratiocination. Translated in Holbraadese, it means that most of our perceptual encounters and all of our ‘spiritual’ ones are experiences with radical, unmediated, and undefined alterity (‘otherness’)—the uncanny shock and awe of chaos. The only recourse we have—the thing we call ‘perception’ or ‘thinking’— is to generate false alibis or interpretive rationalizations for something that is beyond all possible analogies. Skeptical? Still don’t believe it? Now is the time to put your unbelief to the test: read this beautiful book.”–Roy Wagner, University of Virginia
The Book’s Agenda
Rudiments of Argument and Strategy
Recursive Structure
Introduction: The Question of Truth in the Historiography and Ethnography of Ifá Divination
Truth as an Ethnographic Object
Ifá in West Africa and the Prestige of Truth
Afro-American Religion and the Politics of Its Representation
1. Truth in Anthropology: From Nature and Culture to Recursive Analysis
Evolutionism, “Diffusionism,” Constructivism: The Fall of Truth
Toward a Recursive Analysis of Truth
2. Truth Beyond Doubt: The Alterity of Divination
Divination in Anthropology
Evans-Pritchard on Oracles
Boyer on Divination, Causal Indices, and Truth
Divination and Indubitability
Desiderata for an Analysis of Divinatory Truth
3. Living Ifá: The Matter of Truth
True Encounters
Divinatory Regulation: Javier’s Initiatory Career
Divination and the Path of Initiation
The Matrix of Initiation and the Propulsion of Paths
Living Ifá
Speaking Ifá and the Economy of Learning
4. Mythical Transcendence and Ritual Elicitation: The Cosmo-Praxis of Ifá Divination
The Problem with the Problem of Transcendence
Myth and Transcendence
Ritual and Immanence
The Cosmological Problem of Divination
The Liturgy of Ifá Divination
5. The Ontology of Motion: Power, Powder and Vertical Transformation
Ontological Non Sequiturs
Motile Practice—A Choreography of Nuts
Motile Discourse—Talking of Paths
Motile Cosmology—Aché in Divination
An Interlude on the Analysis of Motility—or, the Power of Powder
Motile Ontology—Potential Relations and the Direction of Motion
6. Divinatory Metamorphosis: Symbolism, Interpretation, and the Motility of Meaning
The Problem of Symbolism and the Motility of Meaning
Interrogating Orula
“Speaking the Signo,” “Interpreting the Paths”
Motile Meanings in Divination
7. The Event of Truth: Coincidence, Revelation, Bewilderment
Coincidence, Paths, and the Event of Truth (or Bewilderment)
Motile Truth, Representation and Their Mutual Eclipse
Skepticism and Misunderstanding
8. Definition and Obligation: The Truth of the Oracles
No Lies, No Mistakes
Divination and Definition
Divination and Obligation
Initiation as Ontological Transformation
Conclusion: Anthropological Truth
Divination and Anthropology
Ontography as Antidivination
Epilogue: On HumilityAppendix A: The Naming and Ranking of Divinatory Configurations
Appendix B: “Papers of Ifá”: An ExampleNotes
Works Cited

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