Archive for December, 2008

People of the Torres Islands

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia), Torres Islands on December 31, 2008 by salul

This is a post I’ve been wanting to construct for some time now. They are recent images of some of the people I hold dearest and closest, and my thoughts go out to them at this time of calendrical endings and beginnings. (I will deliberately leave their names out for a day or two, so that viewers can concentrate on faces and images rather than categories of people; but eventually I will put them in, along with brief bio information that I think may be of interest.)






Islam in Melanesia: New (religious) wine in old (typically exoticised) bottles

Posted in Melanesia, Vanuatu on December 31, 2008 by salul

A little over a year ago the subject of the spread of Islam in Melanesia made its way to into mainstream media. A cursory review of the manner in which the story first broke and began to spread, rapidly crystallising around a number of predictable issues – regional (Australian) security, Islam as an inherently radical or extreme religion -, and which include a repetition of prejudices by which Melanesians are perceived as peculiarly “tribal” societies, (and which in this case appears to be a condition that makes them strangely suited to receiving the message of Islam) is the subject of this post.

I will avoid rehearsing the basic facts and figures regarding the growth of Islam in the South West Pacific, first, because they can be quickly cobbled together from the above, and other easily accessible, scholarly and online sources, and, second, because from the outset I am of the opinion that the spread of Islam does not appear to be following radically different paths of adoption, adaptation and religiously inspired indigenous innovation when compared with the first (19th cent.) and second (recent 20th cent.) “waves” of evangelisation in the Pacific. Naturally, because Islam is not Christianity there are and will be various elements within these forms of adoption and innovation that are bound to produce novel phenomena, but on the whole this is about the introduction into Oceania of yet another major world religion that is based on dictates of salvation and condemnation, which draws its authority from a specific written corpus and offers a coherent infrastructure for worship and the gathering of the faithful; so, nothing tremendously new.

Instead, I want to focus on the manner in which the above mentioned media representations reproduce some of the tired tropes by which Melanesian societies continue to be framed as peculiarly “clannish” worlds whose dynamics are largely determined by timeless forms of subordination to “customary” values and practices. The fact that these representations are further belaboured by various forms of Islampohobia in this particular instance is actually more like icing on the cake rather than a particularly novel phenomenon in the continuing exoticisation of Pacific islanders.

Tracing these tropes in the net-related content that I’ve come across is actually rather straightforward, because it appears that most authors, bloggers, scholars and journalists alike, settled for reproducing a set of stereotypes which Ben Bohane first laid out in the Pacific Magazine article cited above.

According to Bohane, the spread of Islam in Melanesia has been aided by the inherent cultural and spritiual-religious coincidences between Melanesian “culture” and the Islamic faith; in his words, these include:

1.- A tendency to “tribal” social organization:

There are indeed cultural parallels. First among these may be the fact that Islam developed from a tribal Arabic culture also and maintains decision-making bodies (shurias) that are similar, in their social organization and un-hierarchical nature, to Melanesian chiefly councils.

2.- A deeply rooted (timeless, really) penchant for engaging in (presumably “tribal”) feuding and associated forms of “payback” 

The notion of “payback” is one that resonates strongly in both Melanesian and Islamic tradition, ie the notion of “eye for an eye.” Although Christian influence is strong, Jesus’ example of “turning the other cheek” has not, it must be said, been largely adopted by Melanesians. 

3.- Polygamy (naturally)

Polygamy and gender separation (such as Men’s Houses and Women’s Houses in Melanesia) are part of both Pacific and Islamic culture. Seddiq in Vanuatu even suggests that since his people traditionally sat on mats on the floor, mosques feel more natural to them than sitting in Church pews. 

4.- The stubborn refusal to accept fully modern secular values (id est, the separation of Church and State). The manner in which Bohane goes about validating this last claim is all the more troubling insofar as it is grounded as follows in the words of a bona fide Melanesia/Pacific scholar (who should know better)

Scott Flower, a PhD student at the Crawford School of Pacific Policy at the Australian National University in Canberra, is one of the few to take the growth of Islam in Melanesia seriously, with a regional view.

“Melanesian people generally do not comprehend or desire the separation of religion and the State. The centrality of religion in their daily life is very important,” he says, suggesting an inherent feeling towards living in a theocratic State; whether it is in kastom, Christianity or Islam.

Flower argues that Muslim communities in each country will continue to grow in size and number because, like Christianity, Islam and its associated organizations provide islanders with public goods (such as health and education), a moral and spiritual system, and access to other global networks and opportunities, prestige and alternative paths to social and political power.

To be fair to Flower, he provides slightly more nuanced opinion in some of the further quotes that Bohane reproduced. Nevertheless, if accurate, the above citation is quite telling of the manner in which Melanesia continues to be represented in the most important Australian centres of regeional analysis (I’m sorry to sound pedantic, but that stuff about a theocratic state is just bollocks).

In the final part of both his Pacific Magazine and Sydney Morning Herald articles, Bohane pursues – rather unsuccessfully – a connection between the growth of Islam in Melanesia and the threat of radical Islam and terrorism. To the extent that his representation is mostly informed by an interested party (OPM leader and spokesperson), it seems to me that this connection remains extremely feeble, and does not warrant much comment in respect of the exoticisation of Pacific islanders – although it speaks to the perceived need to consistently conjoin the subject of Islam with radicalism and (in  this case mostly Australian) security concerns.

However, the real clincher in these representations lies with that pervasive feature of Melanesian life, the pig.

Bohane then diligently  reminds us that, [p]igs are going to be an issue when it comes to spreading Islam in the Pacific. For most islanders, pigs are more than just domestic animals that clean up the scraps. They are revered as symbols of wealth and as important commodities for gift exchange, marriage, reconciliation ceremonies and compensation. Some communities even have mystical pig cults [sic and double sic!!].

Hence, the presence of poor old Sus scrofa parodically contradicts the “inherently natural” coincidences that Bohane previously drew between Islam and “customary” Melanesia while at the same time providing a nearly perfect (because politically correct, or presumably indicative of Bohane’s cultural savvy, or both) closing argument with which to declare the possibility that Islam may yet be “indigenised” and integrated in peculiarly Pacific ways by local communities – a truism which, to most scholars of religious history and contemporary religious processes in Oceania, holds no surprises and points not to possibilities but to age-old processes in respect of the local adoption of non-local religious teachings, be they Islamic, Christian or other.

“Mating”, by Norman Rush

Posted in Readings on December 29, 2008 by salul

I’ve just finished reading this book.mating

It was first recommended to me in 2003 by a traveling American ophthalmologist whom I met in Lhasa, and whose name escapes me just now (I’m feeling too lazy to dig around in my Tibet notebooks). But I only got around to reading it recently.

I liked it.

And it happens to be apt for comment here since it involves an anthropology student who is finalising fieldwork in Africa. The author, Norman Rush, is no newcomer to Africa or anthropology, since he was head honcho of the Peace Corps in Botswana (where this story takes place) for something like 3 to 5 years between the late 70s and early 80s. As I understand it, the story takes place sometime in Botswana during the early 80s.

Without more ado, the basic storyline. However, I do not wish to re-summarise what has already been aptly summarised, so herewith a very brief synopsis offered by the publisher and reproduced by the good people at that wonderful Chicago emporium, Powell’s books (ok, so I’m feeling too lazy today to write my own summary – it’s my blog, I make the rules),

The narrator of this splendidly expansive novel of high intellect and grand passion is an American anthropologist at loose ends in the South African republic of Botswana. She has a noble and exacting mind, a good waist, and a busted thesis project. She also has a yen for Nelson Denoon, a charismatic intellectual who is rumored to have founded a secretive and unorthodox utopian society in a remote corner of the Kalahari — one in which he is virtually the only man. What ensues is both a quest and an exuberant comedy of manners, a book that explores the deepest canyons of eros even as it asks large questions about the good society, the geopolitics of poverty, and the baffling mystery of what men and women really want.

There are various points of entry for a comment on this book. From a literary point of view, the deliciously pedantic originality of the voice of the main character appears to have caught the eye of various reviewers; from the viewpoint of volunteers or people involved in international development, it also holds some pretty insightful characterisations of the worlds that they seek to inhabit; from the POV of an anthropologist, it cannot be said to be about anthropology, but certainly offers descriptions and reflections that will strike a chord with many of our confrères. Since these last two groups (dev people and anthros) are not really represented in the available reviews on mainstream websites, it is to their/our interests that this post is directed.

And since I am feeling rather lazy, I will simply sit back and fling a few quotes from passages that reflect just a little bit of the manner in which Rush represents his budding anthropologists’ descriptions of the expat reality she is observing:

There are more whites in Africa than you might expect, and more in Botswana than most places in Africa. Whites accumulate in Botswana. Parliament works and the courts are decent, so the West is hot to help with development projects: so white experts pile in. Botswana has almost the last hunter-gatherers anywhere, so you have anthropologists and anthropologists manque like me underfoot. […] And then Botswana is a geographical receptacle for civil service Brits excessed as decolonization moved ever southward. These are people who are forever structurally maladapted to living in England. […] They’re interesting from the anthropological standpoint, but there are too many of them. Then you have white cooperants and volunteers, a hundred in the Peace Corps alone.[…] And then there are the missionaries. 

I think I tend to exploit missionaries, which I really have to not do if I’m going to be negative toward them behind their backs.

I think one of the things that I find so appealing about some of these passages are the timeless quality of some of the processes and personae that Rush evokes. To say nothing of their ubiquity (yes, the above applies, with some obvious differences, to Vanuatu in 2008). But then there is also the undisguisedly mordant self-presentation of the narrator herself, in respect of the expatriate society which she observes.

I needed a métier, but the right métier. Then I knew.

I would be a docent, presenting Botswana as an institution with obscure holdings. It was clear I was perfect for addressing a true need. Whites in Botswana needed to feel they had come to an exotic place. After all, they were in Africa. But Botswana is frustrating. Gaborone was built from the ground up in the nineteen sixties, and except for the squatter section along the Lobatse road, it looks more like a college town in the American Southwest than anything else. There’s no national costume. In the villages cement block structures with metal roofs are driving out the mud and thatch rondavels. For entertainment in the towns you have churchgoing, disco, karate exhibitions, ballroom dancing competitions, beauty contests, and soccer. The interesting fauna are in the far north, unless an occasional ostrich or baboon excites you. Except for the fantasy castles of the rich and the diplomatic corps in Section Sixteen, housing in Gaborone looks neither modular nor pitiful. The culture looks familiar but feels alien. The Batswana are not what you would call forthcoming. They murmur when they talk to whites. They have a right to be sick of whites and to show it a little. They want to be opaque at the same time that they’re working on their English and ordering platform shoes from South African mail order houses. The Batswana won’t invite you to dinner, so another avenue of enlightenment is closed to whites. Batswana will without fail accept your invitations to dinner, although they frequently won’t show up. Meal reciprocation is not in the culture. This puts whites off […] There are barriers. Americans suffer the most. They come to Botswana wanting to be lovely to Africans. A wall confounds them. Behind it is something they sense is interesting. I could help them.


Neither the author nor the reviews that I have looked at deny that much of what passes for descriptions of Botswana have to do with descriptions of foreigners in Botswana. Hence, there is very little on the people and mores of Botswana itself; although they do show through, even if through the perceptive filter of the white female anthro student. The absence of indigenous African voices is not due to lack of interest or diligence from Rush, in fact, I think he quite honestly never set out to write African voices into his book; somehow I suspect he would never have felt qualified to do that. So he focuses on what Euroamericans might think they perceive, as in the following passage:

Europeans will go into villages in Africa and not infrequently see people not at work at anything discernible, not doing a task or hurrying en route from one task to another. There is what to us looks like lavish standing around, alone or in silent groups, people sometimes but not always leaning against a tree or a wall in a sort of self-communing state. And then you have the ultrarural population, people on cattle posts tens and hundreds of miles from anywhere, without amusements of any kind that you can imagine other than listening to Springbok Radio or Radio Botswana if they’re lucky enough to have a radio. When you see them these are not depressed or unhappy people, or bored people, insofar as anything like that can be determined from the outside.

That wonderful expression, mi stap nomo, inevitably comes to mind.

In sum: I recommend this book. Highly so. Of course it has a few dents here and there, but it never really fell flat. To end I found it very satisfying indeed. Have a look at it. Or, better yet, if you already have and you think the above opinion may be a bit loony, let us know.

E la nave va…the primitivist “nave” regarding Melanesia, that is.

Posted in Melanesia on December 28, 2008 by salul

I had been wanting to provide a link to this post from Rex in SM for a while now. Well, here it is. No further comment for the time being, since I think he has pretty much said all that need be said.

The reception of Amerindian perspectivism in Mexico

Posted in General Anthro, Mesoamerica on December 27, 2008 by salul

Having covered some basic background information regarding the Mesoamerican regional tradition of scholarship, I want to come back now to how I have perceived the reception of EVC’s thinking and perspectivist reflections amongst Mexican colleagues. To this end one last bit of context is useful.

Two years ago I was kindly invited by my good friend and colleague, Johannes Neurath (Museo Nacional de Antropología, whose researchers are under the aegis of INAH) to attend a seminar series that he and Saúl Millán (Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia, ENAH) had been co-organising on a relatively regular basis. The main purpose of this more or less monthly seminar was to bring together scholars and postgrad students of Mexican anthropology in order to discuss important readings in anthropology. As it happened, some of these readings began to extend beyond the usual boundaries of Mexican anthropology, to include German, British and Brasilian exemplars, both old and very recent. Thus, I was fortunate to have participated in the discussion of the work of Alfred Gell, Marilyn Strathern and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, the last of whose ambition to produce a generalised framework for the analysis of Amazonian – and only to a certain extent more generally Amerindian – cosmologies and shamanistic practices struck a chord with a few of the emerging scholars from INAH and ENAH.

As we discussed these issues within and beyond the seminar room, it became clear that Viveiros’s ideas had already begun to have an impact on Mesoamerican research for at least three or four years prior to our discussions. In particular, this was in evidence among researchers interested in the phenomenon of nagualismo. Anyone with even a passing notion of this phenomenon would find it natural that Viveiros’s perspectivism – which, grosso modo, applies to the exchange of (cosmological) perspectives within the context of human-animal relations – is a natural ally of the analyst interested in the human-animal relations and transformations arising from nahuales and tonalli. I confess, however, my almost total ignorance about the details of nagualismo, to the extent that it seemed no more than superficially obvious that it should constitute the natural sphere of “first contact” for the importation of perspectivist ideas to Middle America.

Happily, a few months ago I was fortunate to have hosted, for a few days, a bright young MA student from UCL (bonjour, ma chérie Miriam!) whose interests in nagualismo around the town of Cuetzalan, in the Northern sierra of Puebla – which has become a classic stomping ground for several decades of nagual-related ethnographic explorers – allowed me to think about and read a little bit further on this particular linkage of traditions and theoretical frames.

For the sake of clarity I reiterate that the conjunction that was made between EVC’s now famous JRAI paper on Amerindian perspectivism and nagual-related scholars in Mexico preceded both the above mentioned seminar and EVC’s recent visit to Mexico, and that this unfolding debate was therefore germane to the reception of perspectivism amongst Mesoamericanists. But another important point here is that these incipient comparativist exercises have not yet been vented into any relevant publications, and have therefore been maintained at a level of “interest” rather than specific impact in terms of local output.

So, where does that leave us, in terms of the most promising territory for cross-theoretical fertilisation between Amazonîa and Mesoamerica?

One answer was provided during discussions with Viveiros by Neurath, who suggested, on the basis of his current rethinking of ritual practices and ontology among the Huichol of the Western Mexican Pacific coast, that an admixture of gift exchange á la Melanesia (après Knut Rio and others) as well as Amerindian-style perspectivism with “Mesoamerican characteristics” is apparent in some key spheres of thought and action within Western Mexican Indigenous groups.

A second answer, and one that I find very stimulating because it provides the most sophisticated first attempt that I have yet come across to think through both ethnography and anthro theories, comes from my aforementioned friend, Miriam Lamrani, whose recent MA thesis at UCL is a serious effort at engaging with the nahual-related literature (mostly dependent on “hard core” Mesoamerican frames of reference, which she criticizes) and Amazonian perspectivism.

Without more ado, I think it appropriate to quote extensively from bits of her MA thesis (sic, with no editing on the style, which is not of the essence for the time being), specifically those that help to clarify the ways in which perspectivism may productively (but partially and cautiously) be brought into this picture.

Amazonian perspectivism can be narrowed down to the postulate that the “point of view creates the subject” and every subject experiences his own conception of nature (Viveiros de Castro 1998: 476). As a consequence, in Amazonian ontologies, the corporalities are multiples (multinaturalism) and the unity is spiritual (Viveiros de Castro 1998: 478; 2007). I advocate that such is the case of Mesoamerican cosmological conceptions of personhood. The difference with its Amazonian neighbor is that, in Mesoamerica, occurs a peculiar type of ontology, namely the non-human alter ego as a component of the personhood. Thus, as proposed by Holbraad and Willerslev, to prove the intellectual robustness of the perspectivist theory, I propose to ‘stretch’ it through a cross-cultural comparison with the Mesoamerican case (2007: 330).

Such as in Inner Asia (Pedersen 2001: 413) it is unambiguous that indigenous people in Mexico are animists. It has been demonstrated in the course of this essay that human and numerous non-human beings are endowed with spiritual powers in an inherent logic encircling the landscape and to some extent, animals. That means that not all non-humans are endowed with spirits, which allow one, as Pedersen points out, to break away from the Tylorian perspective endowing with souls all physical entities (2001: 414). However, Descola in his classification of animist theories classifies ‘Mesoamerican cultures’ in his analogical category on the assumption that, the multiplicity of external soul entities signifies a set of relations between cosmos and society (Descola 2005: 146, 2008: 9, 14). 

As we have seen so far, almost all humans have non-human counterparts and accordingly, some animals have human counterparts. As Pitarch explains, it is only one of the various components that created the person (1996a). Therefore I argue that by contrast to the ‘transcendent Asian inner perspectivism’ in Mesoamerican cultures, changes of perspective are not restricted to the nagual/shaman strictu sensu since the Mesoamerican individual has another standpoint on the world through his tonal (Holbraad & Willerslev 2007: 331). Accordingly, if the nagual resembles the Amerindian shaman as an ontological hybrid (Viveiros de Castro 2006: 146; 1996a: 90), the existence of the tonal changes slightly the rules of the ‘perspectivist game’ to paraphrase Holbraad and Willerslev (2007). 

…the interesting point of view for this theory lies in the concept of animal companion. Here it is not only human see themselves as human and animal see themselves as human. The human perceives himself/herself also as non-human through the animal companion. During the lifetime, the bond is unbreakable.


These animals act as alter egos, ethnographies underline that the animal soul totally identifies with the ‘I’ (Gossens 1975: 457). This association of human and non-human in the social realm parallels Pedersen ethnography (2001). However the domain of ‘change of perspective’ is not infinite.  (Lamrani, 2008: 55-58)

What I find particularly satisfying in Miriam’s work is that she is successfully (even if incipiently) offering us a neat demonstration not only of comparativist exercises across the Americas, but truly across continents, given the inclusion of key stuff from Inner Asian research. This, I believe, is the kind of work that, once matured, can point the way in fascinating new directions for Mesoamerican research, and for the potential to rework current ethnographic data – of which we have a surplus of published matter, but very little in the way of new thinking.

Naturally, there is much more that can be said regarding the reception of perspectivism in Mesoamerica, but aside from the engagement of locally-based colleagues such as Neurath, and the initial explorations in recent papers on ritual life by Alessandro Questa (doctoral student specialising on Nahua-speaking groups of the Central Plateau, or Altiplano Central, of Mexico), there is not much more that I have yet witnessed regarding specific comparativist exercises as a result of the irruption of EVC’s stuff into the terrain of Mesoamerican research.

I will end this post here, realising full well that I have provided only a tidbit in terms of the direction which some of the discussion and conversations that took place between Mesoamericanists and EVC. For the time being, perhaps the most enduring picture that I retain from EVC’s lecture at the Instituto de Investigaciones Antropologicas (UNAM), was of Alfredo Lopez Austin, one of our local giants of Middle American research, listening attentively to Viveiros, that other giant of Amazonian research, and sometimes offering bits of interesting data for comparison, but never quite diving into the fray of the complex challenges that EVC’s material offered up. It was, valga el cliché, a sort of metaphorical image of the manner in which representatives of both traditions have to date barely begun to establish a fertile dialogue.

“Australia”, the film

Posted in Uncategorized on December 26, 2008 by salul

For the past couple of weeks I had anticipated attempting to produce something like a film review in this blog regarding the above, but it turned out to be such a dismally crap piece of work that any seriously thought out critique almost seems a waste of time – at least when weighed against the presence of other more interesting topics that have been on my waiting list for a while.

My recommendation? Don’t waste your time or money on this bloated, overrated and disfigured turkey. It don’t deserve it, by almost any standard of the imagination: the story is appallingly bad, the acting is equally terrible and the cinematography never even scratched the surface of possibilities offered by the wide open landscapes proper to the Top End of Down Under. I was kind of hoping the cinematography would provide some relief from the idiocy of the film. But it was not to be. 

He dicho.

The state of Mesoamerican studies (a personal view)

Posted in General Anthro, Mesoamerica on December 25, 2008 by salul


Tamoanchan, Codex Borgia

Tamoanchan...a hard core divine being

Reflecting on the four lectures by EVC mentioned in the previous post, I want to emphasise that there was a multiplicity of themes thrown around for discussion; more than can be adequately mentioned in the brief space of a blog. However, there is one issue that merits a few more words; it is to do with the reception of perspectivism and Viveiran ideas by the gathered audience of Mesoamericanists. Why has EVC come to be of interest, and by what standards are some of the elements of his theoretical discussion being taken up by scholars of Middle America?

In order to answer these questions (in the next post), I think it unavoidable to first refer to the panorama of the “localised [regional] tradition” (as per R. Fardon et al.) that I have observed since my gradual re-establishment of linkages to Mesoamerican studies colleauges based here in Mexico. In sum, I have observed much of the same with which I was familiar from my undergrad years, with a few novelties.

By much of the same, I mean specifically a tendency amongst Mesoamerican scholars to organise themselves into discreet groupings whose overall sense of belonging I sometimes playfully think of, in generalised and therefore simplistic terms, as fundamental binary opposites: namely, those made up of a first group who are primarily concerned with evidence and data emerging from long-held archaeological and historical views and methodologies (this is what I think of as the hard core of the “hard core”, in reference to an increasing tendency to fall back on Alfredo López Austin’s much abused concept of “núcleo duro”, or hard [cosmological] core, as a primary framework for the organization of their descriptions and interpretations of the so-called “Mesoamerican tradition”, for which see this and that)…

…and, second, those concerned with a more fluid and often maddeningly over-studied but under-represented ethnographic tradition of research, which is generally related to contemporary Indigenous studies. This second grouping is not antagonistic to the first, but often is seen by the first grouping as somehow falling within a subordinate role in terms of the ambitions behind the production of knowledge of and about Mesoamerica. Part of this subordination, it has to be said, is self-inflicted insofar as there is a great deal of theoretical delay within the Mexican anthropological tradition, many of whose proponents continue to take authors such as Geertz, Turner, CLS and Mary Douglas as the alpha and omega of theoretical innovation.

(again, I have to stress that I am WAY oversimplifying here, but like all simplifications this characterisation has its purpose, namely to allow me to discuss in as brief a space as possible a very complicated local scholarly context…as I see it, anyway)

I note, en passant, that there is a third sub-sub grouping which is generally identified with the work (recently trendy amongst some American scholars interested in Latinidad and Chicano studies) of García Canclini, and, by association, Renato Rosaldo. To make it plain from the outset: I am not much interested in them and they do not really come into the picture of this or the following post.

In addition to the above, there is another (loose grouping), which, I would venture, tends toward the interstices of history and ethnography and is far more passionate about current international trends within both disciplines. It is within this third grouping that I would lump together (whether they like it or not!) those colleagues with which I commune more often, such as F. Navarrete, J. Neurath, Guilhem Olivier, Dana Levin, Ethelia Ruiz Medrano, and a few others. It is from the conversations and readings that I hold in common with them that I have constructed my view of a hard core of the hard core, which necessitates a definition at this point. In López Austin’s own recent words, the hard core refers to a

common cultural base upon which diversity was built up. This base has been named [initially by him, one should note] the hard core [núcleo duro] of the Mesoamerican tradition. If one delves deeper into agricultural techniques, social and political organization, the taxonomy of the cosmos, concepts of the structure and function of the cosmos, religious beliefs and practices, simbology and many other aspects of human life, it will be proven that they all sink their roots into the aforementioned hard core, which in good measure still survives up until today. (translated from Dioses del Norte, Dioses del Sur: Religiones y cosmovisión en Mesoamérica y los Andes, 2008:20)

So what has this to do with the reception of perspectivism amongst Mesoamericanists? Much, and slightly not so much.

The issue with the hard core of the Mesoamerican tradition (thus, intentionally generic and all-encompassing), is that it has largely dominated Mesoamerican studies as they have unfolded in Mexico for well over two generations. Notwithstanding its clearly defined structuralist, symbolic and somewhat functionalist underpinnings, all of which are susceptible to multiple lines of questioning and critique, there continues to be a surprising uniformity of thought and practice amongst Mesoamericanists, young and old, in respect of employing the analytical framework of millenarian continuity proffered by the “hard core” version of Indigenous Middle American values, myths, symbols and practices. Importantly, these include the notion of coherent polities and ritual “systems” derived from a not-so-sublte progressivist notion of socio-political complexity, which, in turn, has its roots in outdated historical analyses which view the achievement of a significant peak of pre-Columbian social “development” with the with the construction of the Mexica [Aztec] “State”, with its accompanying politico-religious apparatus (what ALP refers to as the Zuyuan regime).

(EDIT: to be fair to ALP, and his son and collaborative author, archaeologist Leonardo López Lujan, they do not subscribe to crude or wholesale progressivist ideas, but nevertheless their choice of key terms, such as State, in combination with a set of linkages between complexity and civilizing achievement – from which phenomena such as writing systems, urbanization and large-scale polities emerge -, inevitably convey problematic notions of socio-historical progression.)

These notions of politico-economic complexity and polity-building are directly relevant to the issue of perspectivism in that, among other things, they establish a model wherein Mesoamerica constitutes a sort of macro scenario which is dominated by sedentary (urbanised) “centres” of cultural, political and economic control, administration and diffusion of core values, with concomitant “peripheries” of semi-nomadic, small-scale and disperse social groups (the term “tribal” is often evoked here) whose state of politico-economic progression remains stunted and largely subordinated to the imprint of the centre in all sorts of ways. 

In such a scenario, the notion that ontologies might  be fluid (cf. Goldmand and Ballard 1998), precisely because they are not constrained by the fixity of millenarian cosmological frameworks and macro-cultural generative centres, is almost impossible to contemplate. Hence, they dynamism introduced by Viveiran arguments regarding creativity and non-Cartesian (transversal) fields of disjuncture becomes an almost totally alien concept to the average Middle American ethnographer.

This, anyway, is how I see the crux of the matter. Or part of it, anyway. (Although I so hope there will be counterarguments by some of those who read this bloggish barrage of words)

Alfredo López Austin (foto Carlos Cisneros, La Jornada)

Final note: This is not the place to embark upon a detailed critique of the hard core concept, but I do want to add that I hold ALP in the highest regard, both personally and professionally. He was my mentor and has been a very dear friend; more to the point, his life’s work is testament to the enormous contributions that he has made to Mesoamerican studies, and needs no invidiously critical revisiting. However, insofar as concerns historical and anthropological debates, there are problems with the framework described above, and some of these problems arise from a lack of theoretical innovation, critique and rethinking in Middle American scholarship. It is within the context of those problems, which have had profound consequences for both academic and popular characterisations of Mesoamerica in Mexico, that one has to approach the issue of how perspectivism and certain other writings (for example, those of Marilyn Strathern) are beginning to make their way into the regional tradition of Middle American ethnohistory and anthropology, which will be the subject of the next post.