The state of Mesoamerican studies (a personal view)


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.

2 Responses to “The state of Mesoamerican studies (a personal view)”

  1. It’s very interesting yours characterization of Mesoamerican researchers in Mexico. If I understand well, [1] the first “hard core” group and [2] second “generally related to contemporary Indigenous studies.” (i’m not shure what you are exactly mean by this sentence) they are not interested in datas gaining by current fieldwork research (I think you prefer term ‘ethnographic’) methods.

    It’s remind me about situation in Amazonian study 40 years ago. When the boom of fieldwork research in Amazon was growing up rapidly. Anthropologist was encontered with a lot of ethnographic situations which they didn’t understand of course (And they could’t understand it then, because there wasn’t theorethical concepts to describe it at the time). Most of explanation at this time came from (theorethical) anthropologist or powerless (impatient) ethnographers who was describing amazonian ethnographic cases in terms of African data explanations. Conceptualisations (about society) from Africa’s study was imputed to the amazon societies (until now in common use are term of TRIBE reffering to amazon Indians).

    Only long therm fieldwork among amazon societies (which case of Viveiros de Castro’s fieldwork among Arawete, could be great example) brought a notion of native concepts of the world, and Amazon anthropology got it own advanced description…

    • Thanks for these thoughts as well. Two quick comments: the Indigenous studies reference should be explained. I wrote in haste, and was translating literally from the Spanish, “estudios indigenistas”, which, as understood amongst Mexican anthropologists, is to do with a form of engaged ethnography (which in reality has often drifted into a sort of politicised ethno-antics, but that’s a long story and best left for another post). So, estudios indigenistas, indigenist studies? Studies about modern Middle American Indigenous groups, often with a socially-responsible agenda in mind. But there is more to it than that.
      As for the issue of the similarities with Amazonîa 40 years ago, no, not really. And that is the problem, you see. That Mexican ethnographic data is quite substantial, but theoretically poor because it has not undergone that sort of enrichment process that one has seen in Amazonîa for some time now. That is why this whole “hard core” analytic framework is not neutral – it is operating as a sort of paralyzing agent over the potential revolution and diversification of anthro concepts as a result of Mesoamerican studies.

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