Prendas-Ngangas-Enquisos: Turbulence and the Influence of the Dead in Cuban Kongo Material Culture

Peer Reviewed


 October 28, 2012 via Ochoa.

In "Prendas-Ngangas-Enquisos: Turbulence and the Influence of the Dead in Cuban Kongo Material Culture," Todd Ramón Ochoa queries the ontological status of complex “agglomerations of the dead that take the shapes of urns and iron cauldrons stuffed with healing and harming substances” called “prendas,” “ngangas,” and/or “enquisos,” and their role in Cuban Kongo affliction practices. Ochoa's vibrant storytelling combines with a deep historical analysis of the negotiation of value in  nineteenth-century Cuban slavery and manumission, considered alongside what is known about pawn slavery among BaKongo people prior to and during the Atlantic slave trade.

Ochoa outlines the difficulties scholars have faced in attempting to explain prendas-ngangas-enquisos, most frequently considered as “fetish objects.”  Ochoa develops a language of “turbulence” and “influence” to provide lenses for understanding how prendas-ngangas-enquisos can command or “influence” others.  Ochoa seeks 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.” Ochoa argues for and performs a creative ethnographic approach that demands the invention of new concepts, problems and writing strategies.

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

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

About the Author

Todd Ramőn Ochoa is currently in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill . He has written widely on Black Atlantic culture, African-inspired religion in Cuba, Cuban-Kongo materiality, ritual and practice, critical theory and contemporary philosophy, theory of religion, prohibition and power, and writing and ethnographic practice,. He is the author of the forthcoming Society of the Dead: Quita Manaquita and Palo Praise in Cuba (University of California Press, 2010).

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. What is the difference between realism and materialism?

2. Why should “the influence generated in prendas-ngangas-enquisos” be “a problem for Euro-American materialism?” Euro-Americans aren't held "under this influence," or are they? Is the problem “merely academic?” What are the effects of a “staged” confrontation between dialectical logic and Cuban Kongo practice?

3. Has could the “intimate receptivity” to the dead that the author learned from Isidra change listening practices in ethnographic data-collection and analysis? In everyday life? Could we glean from Isidra, for example, techniques for oscilating between more “global” and “pointed” modes of listening and consciousness?

4. The author writes about expanding the task of ethnography to include the creation of concepts, and then to “grow these terms into a new problem for prendas-ngangas-enquisos that is better staged than the interrelated problems of 'the object' and 'the fetish'” in which previous analyses have been nested. It seems to point out a number of productive uses of theory in ethnography: 1) draw on diverse philosophical conceptualizations to help situate and understand ethnographic material, 2) use ethnographic material, in turn, to question these conceptual tools and generate new concepts, 3) use these new concepts to open up new problem-spaces. What are the differences between generating new concepts, terms and problems?

5. Why does the author choose the Hegelian subordination of “objects” as an important target? He writes about shifting from a vision of “objects” and “subjects” to “”points of convergence in an association.” The latter “are capable of producing revaluations of the relations of dominance and subordination immanent to association itself.” The subject is a target too. "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." What are the dangers of seeing the world as a "dialectical universe of subjects who act and control, and objects that receive action and only submit to control?"

Related Reading

Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santeria (2003), by Margarite Fernandez Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini Gebert, especially chapter 3 "The Afro-Cuban Religious Traditions of Regla de Palo and the Abakua Secret Society."

"Palo Monte Mayombe and Its Influence on Cuban Contemporary Art," by Judith Bettelheim, in African Arts, Vol. 34, 2001

La Lucha for Cuba: Religion and Politics on the Streets of Miami (2003), by Miguel A. De La Torre

"Cuba: Religion and Revolutionary Institutionalization," by Margaret E. Crahan, in Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 17, 1985

"Deterritorialization and Reterritorialization of the Orisha Religion in Africa and the New World (Nigeria, Cuba and the United States)," by Erwan Dianteill, in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 26, Issue 1, 2002

Archaeologies of Materiality (2005) by Lynn Meskell

Black Religion and the Imagination of Matter in the Atlantic World (2009), by James A. Noel

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