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.