Monday, March 13, 2006


Monday Arguediana

Peru Tourist Board imageDespite everything, readers still come to Arguedas looking for the voice of the subaltern. Arguedas is presented as a privileged translator between Quechua and Spanish, indigenous and Western, archaic and modern. "Speaking and writing from within," his is "an authentic, autonomous, testimonial, and metatestimonial voice" (Sandoval xxxvi).

Yes, critics are usually prepared to concede that nothing is ever quite so simple: the subaltern remains always somehow inaccessible; translation is acknowledged to be a risky, imperfect affair; and claims of authenticity and autonomy give way to the realities of transculturation, mestizaje, and the like.

But still, it is as though with Arguedas we can have our cake and eat it. Theory, precisely the theory that cautions us against such Romantic fantasies of authenticity, can be both affirmed and negated at the same time. We can deploy a theoretical discourse and yet bask in the aura of otherness.

Mignolo Local Histories coverThere's more than a hint of this attitude in Walter Mignolo's influential work. His writing is densely packed with theoretical references and convoluted phraseology, including relative neologisms such as "coloniality of power," "border gnosis," "loci of enunciation," and "pluritopic hermeneutics."

Yet, beneath it all, what's at issue is a remarkably untheoretical inversion: those previously silenced should now be permitted to speak. Take for instance the following complex paragraph that presents the core argument of his book Local Histories / Global Designs:
That colonial modernities, or "subaltern modernities" as Coronil (1997) prefers to label it, a period expending from the late fifteenth century to the current stage of globalization, has built a frame and a conception of knowledge based on the distinction between epistemology and hermeneutics and, by so doing, has subalternized other kinds of knowledge is the main thesis of this book. That long process of subalternization of knowledge is being radically transformed by new forms of knowledge in which what has been subalternized and considered interesting only as object of study becomes articulated as new loci of enunciation. This is the second thesis of this book. The first is explored through a cultural critique of historical configurations; the second, by looking at the emergence of new loci of enunciation, by describing them as "border gnosis" and by arguing that "border gnosis" is the subaltern reason striving to bring to the foreground the force and creativity of knowledges subalternized during a long process of colonization of the planet, which was at the same time the process in which modernity and the modern Reason were constructed. (13)
Put to one side, if you will, the infelicity and even ungrammaticality of expression here--the lack of agreement, for instance, between subject and main verb in the opening sentence. Ignore also the repetition, apparent contradiction, and unnecessary complication.

Mignolo's basic points are in fact straightforward: that modernity promoted one form of knowledge over other forms; and that those other forms of knowledge are now re-emerging from their former suppression.

And though the articulation of such subaltern knowledges is clearly part of a political struggle, for Mignolo there is apparently little reason in theory why we should not have access to the voice of the other, given the right conditions.

The theoretical work required, it seems, amounts merely to a set of successive redescriptions, by which subaltern knowledge is renamed as "new loci of enunciation," only to be renamed once again as "border gnosis" and yet again as "subaltern reason." The theorist, then, becomes a translator and phrasemaker who re-presents subalternity within a suitably rarified frame of reference, so that it comes to seem equivalent, and so implicitly acceptable, to the allegedly mystifying discourse against which it is said to be arrayed.

So however laudable this project of discursive salvage seems at first sight, it's soon clear that such an unproblematic conception of desublaternization does little to overturn the applecart of Western reason: it merely assimilates "subaltern knowledge" to "colonial knowledge" (hence, in the paragraph above, "colonial modernities" and "subaltern modernities" are quickly conflated) and any concept of subalternity, or indeed of coloniality, disappears.

Ultimately this is a consoling exorcism of colonial guilt, whereby an author such as Arguedas can be taken up and celebrated for providing little more than costumbrismo: local colour and the image of difference rather than difference itself. And surely in a story such as "The Agony of Rasu-Ñiti", the most indigenist of all his work, is that not what he provides? No wonder the story is so celebrated. Despite or perhaps because of its anomalousness, it offers a glimpse of what Arguedas's readers want all along: the ventriloquy of "an authentic, autonomous, testimonial, and metatestimonial voice."

The question then is how to read Arguedas otherwise. How perhaps to misread him, to stumble in our reading, to stutter as his awkward, barely literary prose often stutters and threatens to break down, so that subalternity is truly brought to light, or made present, without being wished away by our desires, precisely, for presence. How, in short, to ensure that it is difference that is presented, for the first time; rather than a fantasized sameness that is re-presented, familiarly meeting our expectations.

(And how to do this without being subject to the same critique: of deploying a theoretical discourse and yet basking in the aura of otherness?)

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