Reseña de María Lugones sobre Taken from the Lips

Cosmology and Gender in Sylvia Marcos’ Taken From the Lips: gender and Eros in Mesoamerican Religions

María Lugones

Sylvia Marcos’ Taken from the Lips: Gender and Eros in Mesoamerican Religions is a remarkable book, philosophically original. As she focuses on Mesoamerican religions and practices of healing, she opens a world of sense underlying practices of daily life that places us at the conceptual heart of Mesoamerican cosmology. The book is complex, exacting, encompassing, methodologically innovative, beautifully written. It is brilliantly supported by a lifetime of research. As I attempt to understand decolonial possibilities, Marcos’ Taken from the Lips will remain a central reference, one to which I will keep coming back. Here I begin my engagement with her insights and methodological strategies by unpacking one aspect of what interests me in the work, the relation between cosmology and gender. I mean the engagement to be generative.

I will put matters pointedly by saying that in marking the crucial relation between Mesoamerican cosmology and gender Marcos presents us with a paradox: on the one hand, everything in the Mesoamerican cosmos is understood–at the deepest levels–in terms of gender; on the other, the Mesoamerican cosmology and epistemology does not contain the very concepts that give gender meaning. She herself points out that the modern concept of gender is problematic as it is grounded on anatomical distinctions and assumes fixed dichotomous characteristics. (14) So, on the one hand, “From the daily rituals, to cooking, weaving, healing, and giving birth, gender is always a key to any profound understanding,” (13) gender is everywhere and everything is gendered. Gender in Mesoamerica is “a root metaphor for everything existing in the cosmos and in society.”(15). But, on the other, “to be relevant to the Mesoamerican universe, gender must be freed from assumptions of fixed dichotomous characteristics grounded on anatomical distinctions.” (14-5)


The logic of duality is crucial here. Marcos notes [like Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui et al note with respect to the Andean universe (), in ][1]that todo es par, todo esta en par, todo es dualidad.(13) These claims refer to the cosmos. This duality lives everywhere: outside/inside, above/below, day/night, hot/cold, male/female. But duality does not imply dichotomy. The terms of any duality in Mesoamerica “are not mutually exclusive, not static, not hierarchically organized…all elements and natural phenomena were construed as a balance of dual valences.” (14) The fluid duality is always “kept in balance through a homeorrheic equilibrium.”(13, 25) Everything in this duality of opposites is in flux, so the opposition itself shifts, there are no fixed characteristics that make the thing what it is outside of the seeking oppositional balance in fluidity. The body itself is permeable and in this relational flux. Thus the dimorphic characterization of the sexual difference is logically incompatible with this understanding of the body.


Marcos’ use of ‘gender’ carefully avoids characterization beyond homeorrheic duality. She claims that the Mesoamerican cosmos is gendered without intending to equate ‘gender’ and ‘dual’ precisely because of the difficulty in giving ‘gender’ any further meaning. When she says that “the dual male and female unit…was the ultimate expression of the pervasive concept of duality permeating all reality from daily practices to cosmology,” (14) she clearly means that duality and gender are not the same. But the sliding into the equation is, I think, why she understands the cosmos as gendered.[2] But Marcos is careful not to move from the claim that the cosmos is gendered to reading everything in the cosmos in terms of reproduction, generation, biology. That, in some way, would be to invert the relation between cosmos and social, human, life. Marcos’ original methodology seems to me precisely to move from the cosmos to the social and thus gender is read in terms of the logic of duality that permeates, constitutes, the cosmos. Duality in Mesoamerica, like in the Andean cosmology, is the way of being of the cosmos and of everything in it, and again, to say that this makes the cosmos gendered is to render the relation between duality and gender tautological. Again, that’s why I see the paradox.


Marcos tells us that in trying to understand Mesoamericans in their own terms, she “started to grope for appropriate words.” (13) The paradox that suggests itself to me as I read Marcos is easily resolved by adding a disclaimer about the meaning of gender. One can simply add that it is a specific meaning of gender that is relevant to Mesoamerica, one shaped by local contexts. (15) But that is not easily accomplished, since the very propriety of the word is what makes it necessary to empty it of meaning. How much meaning can one evacuate without losing the word as meaningful and thus as not one to choose over any other word? One cannot just say it is about the same thing (as if pointing to the referent) since that is precisely what is at issue.[3] What is one pointing to? The sexual difference? The behavioral difference? This is precisely what Marcos makes clear we cannot do, assume a univocal referent across the colonial imposition. This is part of what is philosophically so interesting about her method. So, it is important to see that it is not a naming, but, may be, it can be a translation. Why introduce the translation at all? Why not leave the signs and sounds which are meaningful in the specific Mesoamerican contexts and discuss them in a way that enables us to introduce—as Marcos does– important ways of conceiving the universe, people, relations, practices without the deep problems that ‘gender’ introduces?[4]


My argument here develops through a set of questions that the paradox enables us to ask and which raise issues in the politics of gender/ translation/coloniality. The problem that I see in Marcos’ use of ‘gender’ is one most ethnographic texts hide,[5] but also one that most feminist texts hide.[6] The paradox that she leaves visible is important because it makes the discussion of the translation possible, it does not close the door to the revealing the coloniality of gender, it opens the door to questions that tie colonial translation and colonial imposition. We need to see the colonial imposition, and to see not just the idealized norming of bourgeois colonials into cilivized men and women but also see how that norming is used to hide the dehumanization of the racialized-colonized as uncivilized. We also need to see that the coloniality of gender domination was resisted. [7]


Why use the English word “gender” for this metaphor for everything in the cosmos as paired in a very particular way, one incompatible with the modern western binary? Is this a colonial translation? Does Marcos mean this to be a translation? Does the translation take into account the coloniality of gender? What moves Marcos to find a word for the relation that is such a problematic word? It is also a relatively recent word in this usage, and it is peculiar in that its use has enabled feminists to hide the dark side of the modern colonial gender system. So, what hangs in the balance? Why is the paradox itself interesting and worth maintaining rather than resolving? The question is in some ways a question of translation, of what is hidden by translation into the very languages of colonization and domination that introduced gender systems constitutive of colonial domination.


Many ethnographers note not just the discrepancy but the incompatibility between the precolonial social and cosmological arrangements and the colonial modern, rigid, separable-terms, dichotomous understanding of gender. But while many of them, having noted the incompatibility, say that by ‘gender’ they mean the traits and behaviors assigned to people of different sexes, Marcos takes no such way out. That could not be because she agrees with the arguments for the claim that the sexual difference is gendered. That is, it is not descriptive but normative and gender provides the norming mechanisms constitutive of the sexual difference and thus sex cannot ground the gender distinction. She could not because these arguments are internal to the modern colonial understanding of both sex and gender. Marcos makes clear that the meaning that she is unveiling is not within the European modern tradition. Indeed, the use of ‘gender’ in Marcos must be understood as aware of the anatomical grounding being a “commonplace of the modern intellectual tradition. ” (15) Moreover Marcos tells us that Mesoamerican understandings of the body itself preclude the rigid dimorphic differentiation. Her strategy is decolonial in this sense of being able to read what is hidden to us by and through Eurocentered practices and disciplines of thought and to read from Mesoamerican knowledges (saberes) and memory, both knowledge and memory understood as inseparably embodied. Her aim is to discover the cognitive processes proper to the peoples native to Mesoamerica. I argue that the use of the concept of gender is problematic, but it is clear throughout that Marcos attempts an understanding apart from the west, from within Mesoamerica, searching for a nucleo duro. (4)


I have argued for the paradoxical relation between cosmos and gender in Marcos’ Taken from the Lips. I have also argued that the paradox is generative as it enables us to see the profound difference between the Mesoamerican cosmologies and social arrangements and the European imposition of the coloniality of gender. It also enables us to see how deeply disruptive the colonial imposition of gender has been and to see the resistance to it in the daily practices informed by the cosmology that Marcos unveils for us.[8] It also enables to appreciate the further decolonial possibilities in Mesoamerican resistance as the cosmology is shown by Marcos to underpin the practices of every day life. I want to end by arguing for two further claims that unless faced will entice us back into these colonial translations, or, to put it differently, into uses of gender that further the coloniality of gender precisely at the moment when we are pushing against it conceptually.


That gender, not the word, but the phenomenon is a colonial imposition certainly does not allow or enable us to dispense with it. Rather, it gives us a different insight into the complex gendering of relations in colonization and its impressive role in undermining indigenous and other colonized communities. It requires that we look at colonial gendering through a complex set of lenses that privileges those that exhibit rather than hide the “coloniality of gender,” the gender system that normalized the dichotomous binary as a mark of civilization as it understood the colonized as not ‘quite’ human, as beasts, both conceptually and in the ordering of labor and sexual practices, and thus as not gendered. The dichotomous hierarchical binary ordered the relations among bourgeois European men and women, but it was held over the colonized as an ideal that justified any brutal means towards them and their communities’ unachievable transformation and inclusion into the civilized, a transformation in nature.(Lugones, 2003) But, and this is crucial to the decolonial turn, it also demands that we understand the social present through persistent knowledges that inform persistent practices, perceptions, speech. This marks a resilience, which Marcos tells us, “the neo-Zapatista movement has turned into a politically coherent historic project.” (xv)


Finally, in choosing a definition of gender that “brings us closer to what it means in Mesoamerica” (15) Marcos points to Judith Butler’s decoupling of gender from the natural body and to her emphasis on gender as performance. (15) I am emphasizing here that the very concept of gender involves a translation, one that necessarily brings us back to the modern colonial concept, its history, and its critical engagement by and with Western feminism. I see this move as both problematic and unnecessary as Marcos has introduced an understanding of homeorrheic dualism that applies to everything in the Mesoamerican cosmos, including social relations. But it is important to note that accessing Butler’s critique of both the hierarchical rigid gender dichotomy and the intractable, rigid, bounded sexual dimorphism and the relation between the two does not make either the critique or the result applicable to the Mesoamerican organization of the universe. Butler makes clear that her critique is of the western concepts of sex and gender. Marcos is trying to provide an understanding of the term past the modern colonial understanding, one that enables us to use the concept of gender with a meaning that is friendlier to the Mesoamerican world of meaning. But doing so hides the colonial imposition of gender and gives Marcos’ analysis a postmodern character that it shouldn’t have, that it cannot have. Butler understands the critique as internal. That Butler does not make enough of the coloniality of gender in her internal critique is very clear. Indeed she acknowledges colonization but colonized and precolonial meanings do not enter her discussion as constructing the modern capitalist gender system that she critiques. Thus her critique itself is occidentalist. She hides the coloniality of gender as many western feminists have done. That the organization of the social did not center the subordination of ‘women’ and thus, that there were no women in those organizations was intolerable to colonial domination. The coloniality of gender was and is no more nor less constitutive of the meaning of gender of white bourgeois women than of the animalization, non-gendering, of the colonized. This tie is still in need of postmodern analysis. Marcos’ digging into the epistemic underside enables us to see clearly that the introduction of the gender dichotomy is a dominating colonial introduction.


Maria Lugones


Binghamton University




Dean, Carolyn. “Andean Androgyny and the making of men” in Cecilia Klein ed. Gender in Pre-Hispanic America. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks. 2001.


Joyce,Rosemarie A. Gender and Power in Prehispanic Mesoamerica. Austin: University of Texas.2001


Klein, Cecilia. “None of the Above: Gender Ambiguity in Nahua Ideology, in Cecilia Klein ed. Gender in Pre-Hispanic America. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks. 2001.


Lugones, Maria. “Heterosexualism and the Modern Colonial Gender System.” Hypatia.2003.


Lugones, Maria. “The Coloniality of Gender and the Colonial Difference.” Forthcoming.


Marcos,Sylvia. Taken from the Lips: Gender and Eros in Mesoamerican Religions. Leiden-Boston: Brill. 2006


Marcus, Joyces. “Breaking the Glass Ceiling: The Strategies of Royal Women in Ancient States” in Cecilia Klein ed. Gender in Pre-Hispanic America. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks. 2001.

Pozo, Maria Esther & Jhonny Ledezma, “Género: trabajo agrícola y tierra en Raqaypampa”, in Maria Esther Pozo & Nina Laurie, eds. Las Displicencias de Género en los Cruces del Siglo Pasado al Nuevo Milenio en los Andes. 2006

Rivera Cusicanqui, Silvia, Filomena Nina Hiarcacho, Franklin Maquera Cespedes, Ruth Flores Pinaya. Taller de Historia Oral Andina. La Mujer Andina en La Historia. Ediciones del THOA. 1990.


Silverblatt, Irene. Moon, Sun, and Witches. Princeton University Press. 1987


[1] This important collectively authored includes first person accounts in Aymara with translations into Spanish. The complementary oppositional duality of chacha warmi is expressed in narration of tasks of every day life.(Rivera Cusicanqui et al, 1990)


[2] Irene Silverblatt makes the same claim for the Andean world. Silverblatt reads the duality of opposites in Santa Cruz Pachacuti’s drawing of the cosmos as gender. (Silverblatt 1987)


[3] That there is something obviously the same to which everyone is pointing becomes manifest in texts that are otherwise circumspect with respect to the meaning of ‘gender,’ ‘sex,’ ‘man,’ ‘woman.’


[4] Given my understanding of Andean cosmology and social organization, I would not translate the Aymara chacha warmi as man woman. I would no translate it at all.


[5] The ethnographic texts I have in mind are often thoughtful about the issue, but they end up presupposing some aspect of the modern colonial meaning, in particular the claim that gender is grounded in the sexual distinction. Consider the following examples: Dean 2001;Pozo & Ledesma, 2006; Silverblatt, 1987; Klein, 2001; Joyce, 2001; Marcus, 2001.


[6] It is also one that feminisms of color consistently raise: the question of the relation between the subordination of white bourgeois women and the dehumanization of non-white women. The imposition of the racial distinction pointedly functions in ‘gender’ terms. Thus, anytime that we use the terms, particularly theoretically, we need to ask: given this use, are we seeing women of color?, are women of color ‘women’?, is the use hiding the racial relation between white and non-white ‘women’ or does it make the racial relation visible?


[7] By ‘the coloniality of gender’ I mean the imposition in colonial modernity of gender systems that imposed very different understandings of white, European bourgeois men and women and colonized and enslaved peoples. See Lugones 2003, 2008.

[8] A full discussion of Marcos’ complex work as well as of the claims presented here are included in Decolonial Feminism (Lugones, in progress.)



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