Reseña de Madina Tlostanova sobre Taken from the Lips

Madina Tlostanova

On Sylvia Marcos’s Journey along the spiral of Nahua Gender and Eros

Sylvia Marcos’s Taken from the Lips: Gender and Eros in Mesoamerican Religions strikes me not only as a fascinating anthropological study, but also as a contemplation on the future of anthropology as a discipline within the major rethinking of humanities and social sciences. I would call it a perfect example of de-colonial humanities as its author re-works the very mode of cognition at the base of anthropology when she defines her own method as “adaptive and creative resistance”, embodied in the Zapatistas’s project of the “re-appropriation of a spirituality rooted in their soil”.

Marcos makes her personal intellectual genealogy a part of her research, where both the subject of the study and the subjectivity of the author who regards her material as a “part of her own ancestral past” , form a unity, leading away from the Western assonances, silences and voids of subject-object relations, and towards a powerful, truly dia-logic result, based on building a community of learning as a spiritual bonding grounded in coalitions with the intellectuals, activists, politicians, both on the regional and global levels. Throughout the book the author treats the indigenous tradition as living, changing, variable within itself and not fixed or given once and for all. This cosmology is presented as slipping out of the Western logic of either/or, assuaging what the Western culture would interpret as contradictions in the all-penetrating act of balancing the change and the continuity. This makes the book drastically different from traditional anthropology which is fixed within the paradigm of modernity juxtaposing its myth to the constructed idea of tradition.

It is from here that the familiar accusations in romanticizing the past usually come and are often used against decolonial intellectuals. But the book itself is the best argument against such claims. Marcos’s study presents a temporary spiral, not because of its link with the Hegelian dialectic of synthesis, but due to its connection with and the conscious recreation of the specific mode of cyclical motion with a variation, characteristic of Mesoamerican culture, the state of “extreme dynamic tension and not a pragmatic compromise between the opposites” , which is multi-logic by definition. She revisits in the spiral mode the many versions of the past which are unstable, changeable and yet retain certain recurrent and always recognizable and reconstructable elements.

The concept of homeorrhesis, offered by Marcos, i.e. “the balance of conjunctions in flux” refers not only to the equilibrium of Mesoamerican cosmology, but also to her own book in which there are several point of confluence which hold together the non-linear structure of this work that rejects the vector logic of the written discourse and attempts to reconstruct a different logic of the oral tradition. As a result it becomes a book about its own creation in which the composition is no less important than the content. Marcos’s work is a comparative book in a specific sense. It deconstructs the methodology and epistemic grounds of comparative studies as an instrument of imperial reason, when she juxtaposes the two ways of formulating theory, shifting the geography of reason , from its absolute Western position, and putting forward what the universalist comparative studies always attempted to hide. Such a shift leads Marcos to the changes in her scholarly approach – from descriptive and monologic to penetration into the very way of thinking and perception of the world by indigenous people which is the key to the understanding of often disjointed details, as it makes sense of them, allowing to see the design of the carpet as a whole, not only its separate ornaments.

This method is based on the understanding of the universe as a complex interaction of similarities and differences in which there is no longer one correct point of reference. Although Marcos mentions M. Foucault’s works as a part of her own genealogy, her project is much more radical than Foucauldian archeology of knowledge and more promising. This is not a position from within the Western culture (however critical) but from the border in which all the elements are on equal terms and their study is not biased by exclusively Western analysis. Marcos reconstructs the chronotope of Mesoamerican culture in which there is no strict division into time and space and there emerges a non-divided space-time linked to the spiritual dimension of life that Vernadsky would call a “noosphere”. The eurocentric meaning of chronotope theory, its axiological linear model of time/history and Western objectification of space, become obvious when we examine the chronotopes of indigenous cultures. Here there is no subject-object division, no idea of completely temporal thinking and no notion of space, alienated from the human being.

In Mesoamerican culture, as Marcos shows in her book, space is measured horizontally, rather than vertically because Western hierarchy of up and down, paradise and hell, good and evil is lacking. When we deal with thinking at the borders the usual understanding of chronotope would not work because the normative elements of modernity with its characteristic urge to see the present as modern and civilized, and the past as traditional and barbarian (or, in W. Mignolo’s words, “translate geography into chronology”, as a specific act of coloniality of power and of knowledge ), are not being used here as the absolute point of reference. The Mesoamerican chronotope is a border, in-between, protean, transitory, unfinished and non-final chronotope, falling out of the simple dichotomy of space and time. A crucial difference between Marcos’s position and that of Bakhtin or Foucault is that she deals from the start with tremendously asymmetric power relations between the two cultures, based on racial, religious, gender, social, economic and other aspects of imperial and colonial difference and coloniality of power. Both Foucault and Bakhtin remained blind to this element. Marcos’s project of archeology of knowledge turns out particularly complex and hard to fulfill and often based on association, because today the Mesoamerican oecumena is known mainly by the archeological data and the descriptions of Spanish missionaries.

Marcos manages to tore through the layers of official discourses and gather bits and pieces of occasional subversions in these texts, reconstructing the specific Mesoamerican system of gender relations and the dual interpretation of gender, which she presents as the key to the understanding of duality as a basis of the whole indigenous cosmology. She is equally careful with both indigenous sources and their Spanish interpretations, when attempting to understand their internal logic and the nature of their limitations, paying attention to how the confrontation between the two worlds was enacted, to the dynamics of their trans-cultural interaction. Marcos successfully gets rid of the tenets of Western philosophic thinking, particularly in analyzing specific Mesoamerican corporeality, essentially open orality and the “pearls” of Mesoamerican wisdom and poetry, based on the complex metaphoric – fluid, changeable and associative, far from the fixed allegorism of the European literary and theological thinking of the time. The oral tradition is aptly compared by Marcos with the river, which may change its path and character, but always remains the same river. Her approach is based on the strive to understand the past in its own terms, with its own world views, its own sense of gender and gendered spaces and times. It is a trans-epistemic inter-penetration and dialogue based on the reconstruction of the buried and silenced voices. Instead of Western concept of syncretism as assimilation, Marcs votes for the “interpenetration of civilizations” as a “switching of images and invocations aimed at eluding punishments by the agents of the conquering faith” . This is a position of a trickster fooling the more powerful forces by cunning and wisdom, close to the model of transculturation as it was formulated by F. Ortiz and later rethought in the de-colonial project.

Not only Mesoamerican cosmology, but also Marcos’s book itself is an example of a constant multiple translation between the indigenous and Western epistemology, of the dynamic interaction of various under-currents in the river of Mesoamerican cosmology. This layering of various influences is true not only of Mesoamerica but of other regions of the world caught in between various imperial traditions, such as the indigenous epistemologies of Eurasian borderlands, Caucasus and Central Asia. Here we find the same fluidity and plasticity of dualities and understanding of the universe and life as consisting of “complementary sides on a spectrum of continuously interacting and mutually redefining fluid shades” , which combine in an infinite number of ways without losing their duality. Here there emerged a specific duality of faith similar to the one described by Marcos. Hence Islam acts for many traditional healers from Caucasus and Central Asia in the same capacity as Christianity for Marcos’s curanderas. It is a certain semiotic system which adds separate elements, contrapunting the core of pre-Islamic indigenous cosmology, and considerably transforms the tenets of monotheism and written tradition. The indigenous oral traditions in many locales of the world are a reservoir of not only wisdom which the so called modern human re-discovers for himself today with much delay, but also of political and social activism.

Establishing the dialogues between the representatives of these often partly alive traditions all over the world is a necessary step for the future, if we want to survive as a species. One more aspect of Marcos’s book which I find important for rethinking of gender studies in the 21st century is the interpretation of gender in Mesoamerican cosmology as completely different from the Western fixed dichotomous division into sex and gender, which still often lies in the basis of the majority of mainstream variants of feminism and is connected with the typically Western and Christian dichotomous juxtaposition of the body and the soul, the mate-rial and the spiritual, etc. Marcos weaves the link between gender and the specific understanding of the all-penentrating duality in Mesoamerican culture, based on fluidity, openness and non-hierarchical structure. That is why it is important not to artificially impose the categories, assumptions, and the fixed gender roles of Western feminist analysis onto such locales and not to distort the meaning of their cosmologies. In this respect the concept of homeorrheic intro-duced my Marcos which describes the relations between masculinity and femininity and the cosmic equilibrium is particularly important, as it overcomes the limitations of western thinking, based on the exclusionary oppositions, and reaches instead for the concept of dual unity, based on fusion and blending of the masculine and the feminine and on the possibility of defining both the biological sex and gender through the changeable social relations and roles and the spiritual supernatural characteristics. Particularly important is Chapter 9 “Beyond Mesoamerica: the Hermeneutics of Orality”, where she comes back in the spiral way to the question of rethinking of humanities and to the necessity of creation of the dialogic anthropology, using as an example the methodology for the study of indigenous religions that she herself elaborated for this book.

The oral traditions not only should be studied in their own terms, but also cannot be regarded as historically fixed and archaic because they are continuing today, incorporating and creatively reworking, hybridizing the colonizing traditions (but retaining their own core at that) and thus it is necessary to study synchronously this contemporary phenomenon or rather a process of orality within the frame of ethnography of the present which would have to be social and even political, as well as focused on the rehabilitated and reconsidered filed studies. As Marcos aptly points out, anthropology should become participatory , the ethnographer should be part of the world she or he describes, establishing close inter-personal relations with the subjects of her/his research, in order to avoid sliding back into othering as a methodological basis of traditional anthropology, betraying its historical links with missionary or civilizing discourses. This is a revolutionary turn for Western anthropology which has remained under the enchantment with Western principles of objecitivity. Participatory anthropology advocated by Marcos, develops all over the world and particularly in the ex-third and second-world countries .

The epilogue of the book is in fact a beginning of a new spiral, not an end of her study. Behind the concepts that Marcos introduces in her work – “sexual spirituality”, “embodied thought”, “homeorrheic equilibrium”, “gender fluidity” – there lies a bottomless universe of meanings and possibilities of research which the scholars not only from Mesoamerica, but also from the rest of the world, would now have a chance to understand and start working with.

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1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    Greetings! Very useful advice in this particular post! It’s the little changes which will make the largest changes. Thanks for sharing!


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