Reseña de Karen Torjesen sobre Taken from the Lips

Taken from the Lips:  Gender and Eros in Mesoamerican Religions

Response from Karen Torjesen

The brilliance of this study lies in the problems posed, their origins in the genuine, open, untheorized encounter with a curandera, the willingness to listen, not just as anthropologist to ritual, but as a philosopher to the cosmology and theories of the body.  What Sylvia Marcos calls cognitive frameworks, “knowledge systems that organize the way we conceptualize the world around us.”  This is the ground from which the most radical, the most innovative and the most relevant scholarship comes, but it is a very difficult, painful, long and laborious process to give it birth, for it means learning to think against the grain, to question the fundamental epistemologies that shaped the entire academic enterprise.  It is also a lonely process, for it is work outside an established field, with known parameters and an established consensus.  It takes courage and tenacity.

Marcos’ method is a particular kind of ethnography (closer to participant observer) rooted in a profound respect in which the researcher not only suspends her own cognitive framework, but it goes beyond that to enter into an alien and unknown cognitive framework.  Evidently, it is only surrendering one’s own map of the world and its familiar and comforting coordinates that one can enter into a new world.

Sylvia Marcos in some sense functions more as native informant than a translator.  She crosses comfortably between the two worlds of Western academic discourse and Maya, Zapotec and Aztec traditions of communal knowledge.  As a scholar she has spent long hours over many years in the liminal space between the two worlds studying each of them carefully from the standpoint of the other.  I liken her to a native informant, not only because of the stance she has taken viz a viz native knowledge, but also because she has been trusted and invited by indigenous women’s groups to speak with them and also on their behalf in their political struggles with the Mexican government.

However her work as a native informant goes beyond transmitting insider modes of knowing to those on the outside, as an insider she does the work of a Western philosopher, abstracting from the particularities of beliefs and practices to the foundational cognitive frameworks that order them and give them meaning.  Thus as a translator between the cultures of Western scientific knowledge and indigenous knowledge she seeks to created mediating constructs that will render indigenous knowledge intelligible within a radically different conceptual system.

On one level, perhaps unavoidably, Sylvia Marcos study of gender and eros in MesoAmerican religions, is a comparative enterprise.  Following a set of issues that feminists have been struggling with for the last four decades, Sylvia’s study traces the connections between cosmology, gender, the body and eros in MesoAmerican world views.  Western feminists have critiqued the Platonic western philosophical tradition in which a transcendent deity is remote from physical life, the body is isolated from the soul in an oppositional dualism, women’s association with body devalues them in relationship to men’s association with the soul and its rational capacities and eros is a force of chaos, remote from the divine.  In her exposition of the cognitive frameworks of MesoAmerican thought she tracks the contrasts with Western cognitive frameworks.  Nonetheless her commentary serves in the main to continually remind her readers that to understand the Nahua constructions of gender and the body they will have to consciously step outside their own frameworks of thought.

The real achievement of her study is to render intelligible through a philosophical discourse a radically other conceptualization of the cosmos, therefore of gender, the body and finally eros.  Because I am a feminist scholar of the Western philosophical and theological tradition I will probe the comparative dimension of her analysis.  In doing so I will probe comparisons that for me highlight some of the most intriguing and illuminating structures of Nahuatl knowledge.

Unity vs Duality

Eros did have a place in Western cosmology, a central one, so the differences between the two cosmologies are particularly instructive as they impact gender and the body.  Neoplatonism, the fully elaborated systematic development of Platonic thought, holds that the cosmos is generated by the self-expressive energy and power (dynamis) of the One, the unity and origin of all things.  Eros is generated by an orginating principle of oneness rather than a cosmic duality as in Meso-American systems and the corresponding assessment of embodiment is as a diminished mode of being.  In the movement from unity to multiplicity the self-expressive energies of the One are divided, producing particularity.

Duality is the fundamental and organizing framework for Meso-american cosmology and Marcos would argue also for the structuring of society.  Duality allows a mutual openness of categories, a fluidity between the two poles, and a resistance to stratification.  The implicit comparison with Western cosmology encourages the question: Is gender an instance of duality, as hot and cold, or is it rather than an originating principle?  Is gender defined by an origninary and more primal concept of duality, or is gender the primary framing concept and duality an outworking and implication of gender?

Fluidity vs Substance

The notion of fluidity is crucial for this cross-cultural philosophical engagement, for it is the point of the clearest differentiation from Western philosophical thought.  The more fundamental problem for understanding gender complementarity comes not from the Western Christian ideas of gender hierarchy, but from the western idea of substance substantia, a translation of the Greek notion of essence.  Stability, impermeability, and a hypostasized self-existence were the markers of substance in the Western cognitive frame.  Change, fluidity, hybridity were manifestations of a degradation of a primary stable, impermeable and self-existent substance.  The Christian God was only the highest instantiation of substance in this sense.  Whether it is what is operative in western thought is a one or two sex theory of gender, the crucial difference is the notion of substance behind the concepts of gender.  This is what post-modern theorists have critiqued as essentialism.  So for example the critique of homosexuality that it is “against nature” is based on this idea of the stability of gender differences.  What is the relationship between the cosmological fluidity of gender and the gender and sexual identities in Mesoamerican cultures?

Mesoamerican Religions or Traditional Religions

There is a hidden irony in the work Sylvia Marcos does in excavating the pre-Hispanic cognitive frameworks for the body, gender and cosmology.  As a translator between two cultures she must struggle to create space for them against a Western cosmology in which the body is not permeable, gender is not fluid, and the principle of the cosmos is duality, but oneness.  The irony is that the Platonic philosophy of the Greek cultures that Westerners claim as their ancestry and its progeny, Christian theology, were systems of elite thought that originated in the liminal spaces outside the main streams political and social life.  In fact, the traditional views of the body and the cosmos in the cultures of Greco-Roman antiquity and those of Medieveal Europe as it was being Christianized held similar notions of the permeability of the body, healing practices based on proximity and similarity, dualities of hot and cold, wet and dry.  The microcosm mirrored the macrocosm and symbolic action relied the multiple and fluid ways everything signified everything else.  Just as in the Mesomerica of the conquista, the suppressed knowledges of the ancient Mediterranean and Medieval Europe can also be excavated.  Is comparative work possible between traditional cultures of Europe and the Mediterranean and Mesoamerican cultures?  Would it be possible to delineate a sophisticated cosmovision for these peoples as well, whose cultural knowedge is designated as “folk beliefs” or popular religion when it is not denigrated as superstition?  Would such comparative work be productive on traditional cultures of the body, cognitive systems behind healing practices, the role of cosmovision in sustaining healing practices, a social order and gendered relationships.

Individual Body vs Social Body

It is also possible to read this study as a phenomenology of the body.  In this case not the isolated individual body of Western cosmology that grounds the political premise of the citizen, as a rational, free, autonomous decision maker, but a phenomenology of the social body, the community.

The permeability of body can also be read as descriptions of the complex relations between the individual and the group.  Clearly the problem of the evil describes the dangers hidden resentment within the social body, the susceptibility to “susto” and to “perdida de la sombra” reflect the vulnerabilities of maintaining psychological balance and integrity within a network of complex relations.  The fluctuating and fluid dualities of masculine and feminine, hot and cold that individuals must negotiate express the urgency of the struggle for balance within the social body.

I am not proposing a reductionist reading that attempts to transpose an alien anthropology and cosmology into a familiar register. Rather since reading Austin Lopez Mateos’ The Body and Ideology, I am taken with the idea that keen analytic minds were at work behind these Nahual conceptualizations of the body.  Read phenomenologically as observations on the construction of self within communitiy, do the Nahua concepts of fluid animic entities provide new ways of thinking about the self in society?  What happens when we make the shift from viewing the self in society, not so much as a self-interested decision-maker, and read the Nahua construction of the self in community as a way of accounting for the precarious balance that all of us who are embedded in social processes must maintain?

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