Other Powers:
Tylor’s Principle, Father Williams’s Temptations,
and the Power of Banality
stephan palmié
Let me begin with a reflection on the title of this book, Obeah and Other
Powers, for it strikes me that whatever it is we are talking about here, and
whatever the term ‘‘obeah’’ may have meant at any one time, and in any one
context, the fundamental epistemological problem we face remains uncannily
akin to the way in which the Barbados Council, in 1789, summed up the state of
their knowledge about the practice of obeah on the island: ‘‘Of their arts,’’ the
council members wrote then, ‘‘we know nothing.’’∞ Or do we? Clearly, as
Elizabeth Cooper in this collection aptly puts it, apropos the semantic volatil-
ity of the term ‘‘ñáñiguismo’’ in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century
Cuba, what we are looking at is neither a ‘‘thing’’ nor a ‘‘group,’’ and least of all
perhaps a ‘‘system’’ (of beliefs, ritual, or what have you). It is ‘‘something in the
making—a process—both on the ground and in the official records.’’ Sign and
referent, in other words, lead independent lives. What Edwin Ardener called
the ‘‘language shadows,’’ cast on the pages of our archives by certain ‘‘on-the-
ground’’ facts, were already hopelessly compromised by a historiographical
version of Heisenberg’s dilemma (where every attempt to pin down the object
of inquiry obscures the path of its historical morphing and vice versa).≤ What is
more, as Lara Putnam points out in this book, the source of our troubles also
lies in the fact that the referents of the signifying practices we encounter in
our documentation were never simply ‘‘natural kinds,’’ but rather ‘‘interactive
ones,’’ in Ian Hacking’s sense.≥ In other words, unlike plants or chemical
compounds that remain indifferent to their naming and description, the phe-
nomena in question reacted to their uptake into discourse—at least to some
degree, though usually in anything but foreseeable ways. As a result, we are
dealing with a tangle of several complexly articulated histories. These con-
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