Voices From other Worlds

Vents Vīnbergs

Thoughterritory — 11.08.2020

On the Peruvian Anthropologist Professor Marisol de la Cadena, University of California (Davis)

In Latin America, conflicts between indigenous communities and multinational corporations, which have been granted concessions by governments to search for and extract minerals, build river dams, cut down forests and establish industrial livestock and monoculture plantations, have been on the rise for many years. Although modern technology allows the depletion of natural resources on an unprecedented scale and with much greater efficiency, it is generally accepted that it is no longer comparable to the brutality of the colonial era—it is completely legal and in the interests of the people themselves. And yet, they continue to protest, refusing to sell the land they own, or to leave land designated for processing. From the government’s and corporations’ point of view, this is illegal sabotage or absurd, inexplicable stubbornness, so they oppose this disobedience either through legitimate police force, arrests and criminal prosecution, or, in their view, equally “dirty” methods—threats and violent intimidation. On the other hand, the arguments by which indigenous peoples base their non-cooperation are not considered legally binding in the courts and often even their supporters and defenders find them useless or contrary to the rational thinking of modernity and common sense.

Marisol de la Cadena, a prominent professor of anthropology, has been fighting for the rights of Latin American indigenous peoples since her first years of study in the early 1980s. Finding a language that would make their worldview legally and politically significant has become a lifelong job. It all started with Marxism, which has always been popular with revolutionary students and intellectuals. The young de la Cadena wanted to educate indigenous peoples, who were considered to be illegitimate “farmers”, and “open their eyes” to racial inequality and free them from their own ignorance.

She recalls: “Our task as revolutionaries was to change them into modern subjects, individuals with ‘class consciousness’—a term that was synonymous with something like a structurally situated historical consciousness. Once transformed into historical subjects, ‘peasants’ would realize that what we call their ‘myths’ were only stories. Modern history would then replace mythology as their cosmology—they would become subjects of the nation-state, we would all be equal. It was an equality in modernity. It was hard for me to follow that script—perhaps if I had not been a fieldworker it would have been easier. The script implied the implementation of a hierarchy—and being ‘in the field’ (which we can translate as ‘living with peasants for long periods of time’) the idea of the ‘superiority of (my) historical consciousness’ crumbled. To begin with, I would not have survived without those that were supposed to be non-modern inferiors. And to continue… I was also confronted with my ignorance of Quechua, with the historicity of allegedly ahistorical myths, and with the political astuteness of those that were supposed to be followers. They could lead! And they were leading—except no urban leftist intellectual cared about that leadership.”[1]

Their way of life and perception of the world could not be described in either political or scientific language that operates with discrete and clearly defined categories, and could not be reduced and disqualified as a folklore, religious system or popular superstition that has no place in political debate. It was always something more than could be easily explained. After completing her studies in Durham (England), Paris and Wisconsin, de la Cadena returned again to the Andes to “de-colonize” her thinking, and together with the inhabitants, to seek a language that would promote an understanding of their experience and way of life that is so multifaceted that it doesn’t obey modern logic. One of de la Cadena's analytical tools with which she has become famous is the use of contrast, or “negativities”, a method she borrowed from the work of British anthropologist Marilyn Strathern. “Attaching a negative grammatical form to (usually) unquestioned categories, my goal is to displace their capacity to enact presences that may also make absent or impossible what does not fit those categories. Yet, displacing is not the same as cancelling; thus, negativities retain the presences that the category asserts, while showing they are exceeded by that which they may cancel.”[2]

“It is this, but not only” is the characteristic form in which de la Cadena expands on the concepts of human, nature, community, property, religion and others that are common in both academia and in political struggle. “It's nature, but not only.” “He is a man, but not only.” She calls these opportunities for thought-expanding “onto-epistemic openings” and one of the most creative neologisms in her arsenal is the “anthropo-not-seen” or untranslatable pun, which encompasses the imperceptible impact on people's lives, which the alarm-bell-ringing Anthropocene concept usually excludes.

This way of perceiving other, but no less real, worlds goes hand in hand with the avoidance, equivocation and ambiguity inherent in the Quechua language, which de la Cadena also uses in her work, not by breaking the standards of academic tradition, but by enriching and exceeding them.

This is most evident in her book Earth Beings. Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds  (2015), which is the result of more than a decade of conversations with father and son Mariano and Nazario Turpo, runakuna, as they call themselves in their own language. Since the beginning of Spanish colonization, the word has come to be translated as “people” or “persons”, but for the Andean peoples it has always meant “people, but not only”.

This concept is inextricably linked to, but not limited to, the tirakuna, or “earthly beings”, the mountains, rivers, forests, and other entities. It also includes the inter-relationships of all these beings, which cannot be described in modern business language. One of the most recent examples that de la Cadena uses to explain this elusive bond of all things with all others, is the case of the Andean woman Maxima.

For several years, she has been terrorized by an international mining company that wants to buy her land to drain the age-old mountain lakes under which there are gold and copper deposits. After giving up an impressive amount of money and offering to build new ponds elsewhere, the company's mercenaries launched a campaign of intimidation, attacking her children and recently, for example, destroying the family's trout farm. De la Cadena interviewed Maxima and describes the conversation as follows:

“What can I be if I’m not this?  [the word ‘place’ is not uttered—instead feet are stomped.] This is who I am, how can I go? Like they [guards from the mine] pull out my potato plants, they will have to pull me out. Have you seen a potato plant pulling itself out? I cannot [pull myself out]—I  will die [the word ‘here’ is not uttered] who I am, with my bones I will be [once again ‘here’ is not uttered] like I am now.”

The anthropologist emphasizes that everything implicit and unspoken is not the simple speech of the “peasant” and the inability to find the “right” words, but that in this language and in the perception of the world it is impossible to distinguish between existence and the environment in which it takes place. If there are no such mountains and lakes, there will be nothing of her, and vice versa. Maxima has no “property” to sell to a corporation – she is part of that nature.

But it’s not only that. Even forced Christianisation and later, the voluntary integration of Catholicism into this network of relations and interactions, could do nothing to this message of life of the Andean peoples. This is not about the life of a few “backward savages”, but about the “life-spirit” of many millions of Latin Americans, which cannot be legally regulated, but in order not to destroy it, we need to change our thinking, language and the norms of political and economic rationality. And not just those.

De la Cadena quotes 16th-century Spanish clergyman Cristóbal de Albornoz, who fought against “idolatry” in Peru, destroying the cult artifacts of the ancestral cult: “It’s impossible to take from them this superstition because the destruction of these guacas would require more force than that of all the people of Peru in order to move these stones and hills.”

In the Anthropocene, the great mining industry of today has such power, and if the usual language of business and politics does not change, it will in a short time completely “legally” destroy everything that 500 years of colonialism could not do with all its cruelty.

Marisol de la Cadena's lecture “Runa: Human but Not Only” took place on August 13, 2020 as part of a series of online lectures and talks organized by RIBOCA2.

RIBOCA2 website

[1] From her interview in the NatureCulture magazine

[2] How de la Cadena describes her work:

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