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Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practices across Andean Worlds

I read Marisol de la Cadena’s Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds as a semiotic ethnography of knowing in that it circulates around the topic of representation—both its presence and absence in making sense of Quechua knowledge co-laboring with Mariano and Nazario Turpo. De la Cadena is deeply concerned with the work of cultural translation as an anthropologist although at times words are slippery in the process of translation. “Words wander off on their own, without content, without resemblance to fill their emptiness; they are no longer the marks of things; they lie sleeping between the pages of books and covered in dust” (Foucault 1991, 48 cited by de la Cadena 30). Perhaps because of this concern, the way she writes this ethnography is distinctive (even the very structuring of the book itself. I am not sure if those who read the physical book noticed but on Kindle version, there are particular sections in each Story and Interlude that appear in smaller fonts. I wonder the reasoning behind this interface choice by the author.) Not only does she attempt to know the Quechua world but also, she gives importance to the state of not knowing fully at times. By leaving things as they are, she “questions the basic premise and promise of ethnography—namely to translate between lifeworlds that, although different and distinct, remain partially and asymmetrically connected” (loc 211 Foreword). Among various themes that interest me in the book (I particularly enjoyed the discussion on ahistorical constitution of archive in Story 4), I will focus on the concept of knowing in this response due to the lack of space. 

I am particularly interested in de la Cadena’s discussion on knowing. In Interlude 1, a person can be selected as a yachaq or “a knower” (47) by the earth-beings is through a lightning strike and a possession of suerte. The former seems to play a greater role in yachaq selection. Mariano explains that one cannot know (how to do anything) (48). In this case, one cannot become a yachaq—a knower who knows how to cure animals, how to read human body parts, urine, etc. De la Cadena does not necessarily go into details of the translation work that is being done on the concept of Cuzco’s knowing and English verb know. However, this discussion brings about my own semiotic reflection on the concept know in Burmese. In Burmese, one can thì things like information, news, data, facts, and more. It is however different from tat through which one acts out what she thì. Sometimes, one action precedes the other and sometimes they co-occur indicating that they are inherently not the same. For the lack of one or the other concepts, in English, both of these ways of knowing can be translated as the same. Here, I do not mean to downplay or relativize the role of yachaq with the interjection of this story but to highlight the very gap in ethnographic knowledge when the very action of knowing is intricately localized and the concepts must be translated or untranslatable. 

As ethnographers, in another words, embodied knowers (or at least attempted ones at that), knowing is important for us. De la Cadena points out what an ethnographer would do if there is no knowing achieved. Her argument is central to the discussion of partial connection that disrupts the notion of duality in the act of knowing—either you know something, or you don’t. She presents this need for disrupting dualism at both micro (linguistic) level and macro (historical) level. In this disruptive process, we become “fractal bodies” that “resist being divided into ‘parts and wholes’” (32) and also become partially connected. Partial connection does not mean that we are not fully connected with our interlocutors (again be wary of dualities!) De la Cadena gives a material example of partial connection—a kaleidoscope. A kaleidoscope is built of intra-connected fractal parts. Our schemata of knowledge are therefore like the inner infrastructures of the kaleidoscope—intra-connected fractals working together. By being a fractal in her partially connected world with Mariano and Nazario, de la Cadena reaches at the nexus of their ways of knowing and hers across similarities and differences. 

Here, I am reminded of semiotic theories on signs, symbols, and icons and their relationships to the signifieds. Echoing Peircean semiotic theory, knowing can be understood as an act of interpreting that semiotic relationship between a signifier and a signified. (See the makeshift chart of a Peircean semiotic theory that I draw below.) But the signifiers are not necessarily universal nor are the signifeds as de la Cadena outlines. As ethnographers, we are positioned as conscious interpretants. How do we dispose of our somewhat unconscious interpretant roles in our own way of knowing and acquire those of the others? As de la Cadena shows, there will always be a gap in those two roles but even in that gap, our worlds as we know them are always partially connected and therefore, we will always be whole. Sometimes, we just need to step out of our own world and give time to be amazed at how fractal we are.

© 2023 By Lion with a Flowing Mane.

All Myanmar Image Courtesy by Chu May Paing.