Charles’ reflection on De La Cadena

De la Cadena response
Marisol de la Cadena’s article, “Indigenous Cosmopolitics,” offers a brilliant extension of the work on “multinaturalism” offered by Vivieros de Castro and Latour, putting their work into conversation with Isabelle Stengers to explore the implications of a multinatural politics. Rather than framing indigenous politics in terms of multiculturalism or belief, De la Cadena instead argues that they should be understood as speaking from a different world than their mestizo counterparts. While the multiple worlds can be in conversation with one another, they should not be thought of as either equivalent or reducible to a single nature, a unified physical world. Using Andean political struggles over resource extraction as her empirical base, De La Cadena demonstrates how self-identified indigenous activists have successfully enrolled “earth-beings” such as mountains or rivers as political actors in their struggles.

One of the contributions of Indigenous Cosmopolitics is that it begins to reframe indigeneity. Postcolonial critiques often point out that indigeneity, as a signifier or as a category of being, comes to have meaning in terms of its contrast to the dominant culture. This tends to lock indigenous identity into a static past, resisting the acculturation of colonialists. If Westerners are secular, indigenous are spiritual, Westerners are aligned with culture while indigenous people come to be seen as closer to nature. This flattens indigenous identity, denies it dynamism, and locks it into an oppositional relationship with its colonial others.

Instead, De la Cadena makes use of contributions by Marilyn Strathern and Eduardo Vivieros de Castro to demonstrate how Andean indigenous activists can both enter politics on their own terms and engage in political struggles across worlds that do not neatly match up. First, she introduces Strathern’s idea of “partial connection.” Partial connection “refers to a relationship composing an aggregate that is “neither singular nor plural, neither one nor many, a circuit of connections rather than joint parts” (2004:54). Partial connections create no single entity; the entity that results is more than one, yet less than two” (p. 347). Second, she makes use of Vivieros de Castro’s idea of “equivocation.” Different actors in a struggle may use some of the same key words, but they do not necessarily refer to the same thing. For a Western environmentalist, a mountain may refer to a physical thing composed of rocks and plants, which forms the beginning of a watershed. For Mariano and Nazario Turpo, the Peruvian ritual specialist with whom De La Cadena worked, the mountain was alive, a being in its own right. While they may have worked with environmental groups to protect the mountain, using the language of western environmentalists, they were still, in important ways, referring to different mountains.

Using these concepts, I think one of De la Cadena’s important contributions is to point out how syncretism, usually associated with religion, also applies to politics. It allows for an understanding of indigenous politics as strategic, dynamic, and capable of speaking with Western worldviews while not being subsumed by them. It allows her to push past understandings of indigeneity that insist on static, ‘traditional,’ values or cultural interpretations that may respect their beliefs but still undermine their veracity.

These two concepts may be helpful in my own research into rites of passage ceremonies. I work with an organization, The School of Lost Borders, whose members work to reinterpret and reintroduce ‘traditional’ ceremonies such as the vision fast to contemporary American and European culture. The work is often one of translation. Lakota and Cheyenne practices and knowledge are put into conversation with Jungian psychology and the American wilderness tradition. Participants in their programs learn to engage the land and nonhuman others as intentional beings in their own right who may participate in the psychological lives of humans in meaningful ways. In some ways, it is an attempt to adopt what is often thought of as an “indigenous” worldview, a way of inhabiting a world full of “earth-beings.” Participants sometimes struggle with self-conscious doubts about the process, wondering if they are simply projecting internal processes onto an inanimate external world. Critics have charged that these ceremonies are an act of cultural appropriation, an act of further colonization.

While it’s important to consider these concerns, I wonder if the work of organizations like The School of Lost Borders may be better understood as working to negotiate equivocations and to foster partial connections. Just as De La Cadena seeks to “slow down reasoning,” these experiments in inhabiting the world in an animist fashion may be thought of as efforts to nurture partial connections between worlds, to inhabit a different world. De la Cadena wrote that she and Nazario could never inhabit the same world, but that they could ally with each other and fight for causes there are important to both of them. I worry that this assertion is limiting. She is dismissive of “new agers” interested in shamanism, but I think this forecloses on the possibility of learning to appreciate and inhabit multiple worlds. Experiences like the vision fast ceremony may offer poignant felt experiences of earth beings that facilitate the translation of equivocations. Stathern’s partial connections demonstrate that the gulf between worlds is not insurmountable. Connections may be nourished while also allowing that the subsumption of one world into another is neither possible nor desirable.

-Charles Carlin

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