The reception of Amerindian perspectivism in Mexico

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.

5 Responses to “The reception of Amerindian perspectivism in Mexico”

  1. Indeed I’m perceiving Miriam’s MA thesis as very valuable! I’m not familiar with concept of nagualismo and I can’t present arguments in particular case, but idea of amerindian perspectivism is presented in her paper well.
    Moreover in this short parts of paper we can take notice of author’s scholarship. The topic is difficult but narrative is cleary, and there we have a lot of references to the authors of topic.

    Comparatives trough continents in case of amerindian perspectivism are proposed in papers cited by Miriam: Pedersen, Villerslev or Bird David.
    Conception of amerindian perspectivism is a very fertile tool of interpretation which emerge from anthropological fieldwork (many anthropologist like Tania L. Stolze, Aparecida Vilaca, Carlos Fausto and off course Viveiros de Castro and more…) what means that it is realy anthropological tool of interpretation. Anthropology don’t have a lot of conceptions which emerge from recontruction of native worldview.

    What about last comment via Alfredo Lopez Austin I hope they establish fertile dialogue (Miriam’s papers suggest it is posible) It will be interesting!

  2. Adriana Estrada Says:

    I would like to know who wrote the first articule. I am very interested in this topic an in the possibilities of applying in mesoamerican analisis, anthropological concepts from diferent cultural regions. Very interesting. Would you lend me the complete bibliographical reference of Miriam’s work?

  3. It is obvious that INAH is working to attract attention of Anglo world to the fact that it has ignored naguales. Their invitation in Oct. ’08 to 50 scientists of Latin America and no gringos to an ENAH study of IS THERE VALUE IN STUDYING NAGUALES obviously will attract Anglos with a mite of open mind.

    • I appreciate your comment, but I’m not so certain one can attribute such clarity of purpose to INAH. In this case, it is a rather reduced set of INAH-related colleagues (3 in all, with a few postgrad students) who have organized the events mentioned in my post; and unfortunately they do not represent any kind of general consensus among their wider community. As for ENAH, even though its staff and students are intertwined with INAH in various ways, their events are usually organized independently of one another. It has been some time since I’ve been meaning to write a follow up to this post, since the working group which I discuss here have continued their meetings and begun to expand their readings and topics, as well as invitations to scholars from various continents. At present, things have shifted from looking at Amerindian perspectivism to talking more broadly about current interest in indigenous ontologies. Again, this necessitates a new posting, which I hope to turn my attention to soon.

      • johnshoemaker Says:

        I was amazed at your familiarity with INAH until I read your post more carefully. I spent Nov. and Dec. In Mex.; asked the sub-director of ethnology at the Museum of anthropology of the conclusions of the ENAH study. HE DIDN’T ANSWER. i feel when a person in an official position does that he is clearly making a statement. Like when the State Dept. or a Senator doesn’t reply.
        I have only studied this nagual thing in Mexico. A chemist/alchemista friend took me to a church near DF that has had a mural on ceiling of stylized confrontation of crusaders on horses, armor, lances, swords galloping toward a big yellow lioness and a dog standing behind a tree like a man. In 1842 an artist drew a picture of the ceiling on the wall.
        The psychiatrist who helped Casteneda write his first four books had strangers appear to show me uncommon things. I feel the e-publishing in ’08 of Daniel Brintons paper on Nagualism written in 1893 at the same time as the ENAH study isn’t mere coincidence.
        Does your Amerindian interest include Huautla, Oaxaca, Catorce San luis Potosi, Palenque Chiapas?

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