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By Paulo Ilich Bacca (Lecturer in International Legal Ethnography, National University of Colombia)

The following ethnographic exercise is encapsulated in a twin-track anthropological approach characterized by the methodological possibility of interacting smoothly between worlds that are both contradictory and complementary. I illustrate the potentialities of this methodology in a conversation with Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, sociologist and public intellectual of Aymara descent, who is a leading scholar of Andean and subaltern studies, and an exemplary thinker of the double bind.

Talking about indigeneity with Rivera is to speak of a world that is indigenous and non-indigenous at the same time. Rivera recounted growing up in an environment where the understanding of Aymara language is a spontaneous experience:

I grew up in La Paz and there were two women who took care of the home. They spoke Aymara all the time and one of them took care of me and while holding me in her aguayo (multicoloured woollen cloth) would tell me stories. Somehow, I was bilingual by means of my sense of hearing – I could not speak but I was very familiar with the sounds of Aymara (there was a lot of onomatopoeia). I was eight-years-old when she passed away and I have felt an orphan since then; indeed, my mother was never able to “replace” this woman.

According to Rivera, her instinctive appreciation of the Aymara world was the legacy she received during that moment of her childhood. She related that period with a lot of affection since it shaped her temperament and determined her vocation for Andean cosmologies as well as her spiritual connection with Aymara mythical beings such as the fox and the condor. However, Rivera noted that this ‘learning curve’ has always been an unfinished process, indeed, a practice of life that is always to come: she was around sixteen when she began taking Aymara lessons, but feels that she does not speak the language well and is in an unending process of learning. Interestingly, Rivera’s conclusions regarding this route are inextricably connected with the possibility of developing the social sciences using a double bind logic.

In Rivera’s view, behind the physical elimination of Aymara amawt’as (philosophers) and yatiris (healers) during the sixteenth-century Spanish conquest of the Americas, lies the ‘spiritual’ annihilation of the philosophical uses of the Aymara language. Thus, she considers it necessary almost to reinvent the words’ philosophical meaning by taking into consideration their metaphorical senses in daily life. And this is precisely what Rivera has done in her unparalleled work: departing from the pragmatic use of Aymara words, she has been ‘scratching’ their allegorical connotation in order to project a philosophical reflection based on indigenous sources of knowledge. In so doing, Rivera is working an Aymara idiosyncratic translation of what Spivak has termed concept-metaphors, that is to say, the possibility of unveiling the deep philosophical roots of expressions that tend to remain unnoticed for most anthropologists and ethnographers although they are fundamental in day-to-day indigenous activities.

The metaphorization of daily-life concepts is inherent to the polysemous character of Aymara language, and it is by using this polyphony that Rivera has been working with the contradiction (located at the very heart of double bind logics) as an epistemological tool to explain Andean social realities. One of Rivera’s key concept-metaphors is encapsulated in the Aymara concept of the ch’ixi. Rivera told me:

I have reinvented the practicality of this concept by exploring its allegorical and epistemological power. Pragmatically, ch’ixi is the stained sheep, the spotted toad, the smudged snake. It is a descriptor, a keyword; however, its most abstract and philosophical dimension has not been developed and this is because after the assassination of the amawt’as and yatiris in colonial times, the language has been impoverished by the translations conducted by priests such as Ludovico Bertonio (1557-1625) and Domingo de Santo Tomás (1499-1570), who have expurgated Aymara concepts and ideas that were incomprehensible to them, subsequently removing the philosophical potential of indigenous languages.

In an interview given to Francisco Pazzareli, Rivera explained that the ch’ixi as a concept-metaphor embodies the quintessence of an Aymara double bind, namely, an Andean gesture to work with the contradiction as a way of moving between opposite worlds. Thus, for instance, the snake is not only ch’ixi for being spotted but also for being an Aymara mythical animal who is undetermined in cosmological terms: it belongs to both the world above and the world below, it is both masculine and feminine, it is both rain and a vein of metal, it is symbolized both as lightning striking from a great height and as a subterranean force. And this is precisely the way in which Rivera traces the epistemological signs of Aymara cosmologies within the contemporaneity of a modern Bolivia that is torn between the (post)colonial legacies and the political force of the indigenous movement.

By challenging the official discourse, according to which the colonization of the Americas supposed the harmonious mestizo fusion of European and indigenous cultures (in which Western imaginaries overlay indigenous cosmologies), Rivera projects a reverse process of analysis in which Aymara cosmologies are capable of turning mestizo imaginaries into something else—something with indigenous soul. In so doing, Aymara cosmologies endow Western narratives with a potent new immediacy by taking the threads of indigenous laws and weaving them in their own modern way. This does not occur following the mestizo logic of fusion but by making reference to paradoxical structures as the inspiration of a double-bound reasoning. When I asked Rivera if she is indigenous and non-indigenous at the same time, her response was categorical: ‘of course, being indigenous is a becoming. It is not an identity, it is a search’. 

Rivera’s reflections range from the personal to the methodological and from the epistemological to the collective. She once described herself, during our interactions, as an ‘abajista’—a Spanish term that she uses in opposition to the ‘arriviste spirit’ that characterizes the Bolivian upper middle class. Indeed, belonging to an upper middle-class family, Rivera never expected to join the ‘elite’ but rather to become an urban Aymara woman.

According to the Argentinian intellectual Verónica Gago, Rivera refers to herself as a ‘non-identified ethnic object’, and has also reclaimed the label sochologist (fusing the word sociologist with chola, Bolivian term for an urbanized Aymara woman), a term once used to discredit her. She similarly plays with the term birchola (combining chola with birlocha, a name for women whose dress indicates upper class aspirations, and were among the social categories that Rivera investigated in El Alto, the indigenous-dominated city above La Paz. Gago sees these amusing word plays as simultaneously a merciless critique against the essentialization of the indigenous. She quotes from a conference address by Rivera: ‘We are all Indians as colonized peoples. Decolonizing one’s self is to stop being Indian and to become people. People is an interesting word because it is said in very different ways in different languages.’

The idiosyncratic way of displaying an indigenous becoming is not only an asset for Rivera but also an Andean performative act that can be seen in different practices of the Aymara mind-set. A central Aymara principle that passed from Rivera’s personal experiences to her methodological endeavours is captured in the possibility of reading Western sources using Aymara rationalities. Thus, for instance, Rivera’s work clearly demonstrates the principle of selectivity with which Andean communities transform Western properties such as Spanish grammar/syntax and classical European ways of dressing, as well as the epistemological parity demanded in indigenous social struggles.

I read in a fragmentary and selective way, from my point of view, you have to put what is lacking in an author […] and furthermore the different philosophical traditions should be placed on an equal footing […] that is to say that the words of an indigenous sage are connected with an inherited collective knowledge—they have an intellectual genealogy and you do not have to put them as ethnographical data separated from theory. Rather, I believe we have to engage in a dialogue between philosophical and theoretical conceptions of the world.

In this way, not only are indigenous epistemological tools capable of nurturing collective experiences, as is indeed the case with Aymara cosmologies, but also Western systems of knowledge can resonate in a comparable way with indigenous cosmological frameworks. This synergy vividly appeared in the course of a face-to-face interaction between Rivera and Spivak, in the context of Rivera’s simultaneous translation of a conference presented by her comrade in La Paz. Gago recounts that in so doing Rivera showcased the indiscipline of the text and of linear translation. Finding no Spanish translation for Spivak’s term double bind, Rivera instead came up with an exact equivalent in Aymara: pä chuyma, which means ‘having the soul divided by two mandates that are impossible to fulfil.’  Rivera says that these translation exercises reveal that all words are being questioned today: ‘This is a sign of Pachakutik, of a time of change.’

Talking with Rivera spontaneously about this event, she told me that most people in the audience were Aymara speakers, which alerted her to the convenience of translating the idea of the double bind to Aymara rather than Spanish. On the spur of the moment and without any kind of previous preparation, Rivera began to talk about the pä chuyma in Aymara, explaining to the public what Spivak had said. Spivak, double-bind-thinker par excellence, immediately incorporated the Aymara double-bind-pä chuyma in her own English speech, which according to Rivera was a very sympathetic gesture: ‘Spivak once told me that she makes theory with the guts, so she fully understood’ (we laugh).  Rivera continued explaining to me that the Aymara have a three-way logic: something can be and not be at the same time, which is tantamount to the possibility of having an included third. ‘I think that is what makes possible such a compatibility with Gayatri. She also thinks that one needs to live with the pä chuyma; that it is necessary to coexist with the contradiction, and that the contradiction must be converted into a purposeful referent rather than an obstacle to the subject’s integrity. For Bateson, the contradictory subject is schizophrenic because is imprisoned by two conflicting demands that deny each other’s right of communication and it is a collective schizophrenia that produces a sort of paralysis. Instead, added Rivera, for Spivak, the contradictory subject embodies an incomparable creative power’.




Paulo Ilich Bacca is a Lecturer in International Legal Ethnography at the National University of Colombia

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the position of ILAS or the School of Advanced Study, University of London