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Truth in Motion

The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination

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.  

344 pages | 3 halftones, 6 line drawings, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2012

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Latin American Studies


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

Andrew Apter

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. 

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

“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

Roy Wagner

Table of Contents


 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 Humility 

Appendix A: The Naming and Ranking of Divinatory Configurations 
Appendix B: “Papers of Ifá”: An Example 

Works Cited 

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