The knowledge economy and its cultures

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Rosemary J. Coombe. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.3.018


The knowledge economy and its cultures

Neoliberal technologies and Latin American reterritorializations

Rosemary J. COOMBE, York University

Cultural goods are increasingly significant under neoliberal conditions of regulatory restructuring that favor investments in informational capital in so-called “knowledge economies.” Linguistic difference, linguistic practice, and increasingly standardized genres of representation have been constitutive of new technologies of government and reterritorialization in Latin America in the last quarter-century as global policy regimes that valorize diversity have been interpreted and implemented. The argument is presented through a critical multiscalar survey of recent ethnographic research in Latin American contexts in which we can trace the ways and means through which international trade, intellectual property, and biodiversity regimes have influenced representations and management of knowledge to effect new forms of spatialization. Indigenous social collectives constituted as self-managing communities have embraced possessive, if not necessarily proprietary, attitudes toward traditional knowledge, plant genetic resources, and food sources, learning to mark goods and services to indicate culturally specific conditions of origin. As culturalized communities become subjects of neoliberal government, however, they are called upon to project their distinctive assets so as to make them politically and economically legible to new interlocutors. This has provoked new forms of reflexivity around assets, goods, values, and norms, and provided new resources for rights-based struggles in an emerging field of cultural politics in which neoliberal multiculturalism is vernacularized in more embedded markets and more pluralist polities.

Keywords: biodiversity, cultural property, diversity, heritage, intellectual property, knowledge economy, traditional knowledge, Latin America

[248]Linguistic anthropologists have long been concerned with “how notions of difference become entangled in market projects” (Reyes 2014: 370) and the diversification of commodity forms and values in contemporary knowledge economies. I extend this line of research by exploring the ways in which the legal and political forms of informational capitalism made available by global policy regimes that valorize linguistic and cultural diversity have been taken up in Latin America in the last quarter-century.1 This era was marked by a major expansion of global trade regimes; the extension of internationally enforceable intellectual property (IP) rights to protect genetic resources and recognize traditional knowledge (TK); new environmental protections for biological diversity; and transnational development projects that sought to frame cultural knowledge as proprietary assets. In the process, Indigenous social groups have been configured in neoliberal terms as responsible communities holding collective proprietary rights over resources they are increasingly encouraged to culturalize.

This essay is indebted to Susan Gal’s pioneering work, which extolled us to more carefully consider how cultural commodification is linguistically accomplished, while attending to the politics of language ideologies, the dialectical relationship between hegemonic and counterhegemonic discourses and the work of translation, under conditions that valorize diversity (Gal 1989, 2015; Gal and Irvine 2000). I address this challenge by considering the constitutive force of language and linguistic practice in extending informational capitalism. Language has become an object for governmental intervention and a legitimating proxy or index for locating and asserting forms of cultural distinction. The introduction of knowledge economies is accomplished by neoliberal governmental technologies that circulate as specialized genres for managing cultural diversity as a resource. Such genres offer rhetorical and technological opportunities to express collective forms of autonomy that contest informational capitalism’s neoliberal logic. Moreover, when language becomes a significant measure of diversity, semantic terms become key symbols in political struggles to define the meanings and objectives of community cultural governance. [249]Ultimately, I suggest that we need less distanced critique of the correspondences between neoliberalism and cultural identities and more ethnographic work that explores the spaces opened up for situated subaltern projects by knowledge economy politics and the affordances of neoliberal forms of government.

The argument is built not by a singular case study but through a critical multiscalar survey of recent ethnographic research in Latin American contexts in which we can trace the ways and means through which international trade, biodiversity, and IP regimes have shaped representations and management of cultural knowledge to effect new forms of regional territorialization. The analysis proceeds chronologically from more theoretical explanations of neoliberalism and early general global shifts in policy norms to explore the ways in which these were taken up in transnational projects located in Latin America, adapted to specific concerns, and used to articulate new forms of autonomy. It should become clear that the relationship between global policy norms and local projects is never unidirectional: community norms, protocols, and technologies frequently “scale-up” in turn to influence transnational policy practices.

I proceed as follows. First I situate these broad developments in a shifting global political economy characterized by regulatory restructuring and the need for new technologies of subjectification in so-called “variegated neoliberalism” (Brenner, Peck, and [250]Theodore, 2010), suggesting that extensions of the commodity form into local cultural fields encourage new forms of political articulation and assertion, providing a summary overview of these processes in Latin America. I introduce internationally driven practices of ethnodevelopment in the early 1990s which standardized practices for making culture legible and suggest that the affordances of such technologies were adapted in rights-based struggles to promote alternative and influential Indigenous aspirations for development. I then summarize how processes of global IP expansion (including the incorporation of plant genetic resources and the potential recognition of TK ) were resisted by increasingly organized Indigenous peoples in the region. Simultaneously, I show how new configurations of language, culture, and genetic diversity were articulated in scientific research and NGO politics to forge the policy object of biocultural diversity—a hybridized form that combined natural, cultural, and informational goods into a dynamic assemblage and enabled Indigenous cultural practices and protocols to become internationally significant models for local government and policy. Finally, I show how geographical indications and other marks indicating conditions of origin (MICOs)—IP vehicles that function through speech genres to differentiate goods in markets—are now used to communicate alternative norms and values in new forms of regional territorial differentiation.

Neoliberalism, governmentality, and the cultural community

Critical scholars increasingly understand neoliberalism not as an ideology or a process of state withdrawal but rather as a reconfiguration of the state through projects of regulatory restructuring in which new authorities exercise governmental powers (Braithwaite 2008; Grabosky 2013; Drahos 2014), which tends to intensify uneven development and create new forms of territorialization (Brenner, Peck, and Theodore 2010: 184). Such “variegated neoliberalism” emphasizes market-based relationships—property, contract, and intensified practices of standardization, certification, and audit that enable interrelated forms of global exchange and local governance—in which effective governance is measured by asset management (Comaroff 2011). Neoliberalism is also marked by new forms of subjectification as transnational authorities constitute collective subjects as targets for governmental power by recognizing communities as responsible subjects (Creed 2006; Miller and Rose 2008; Brenner, Peck and Theodore 2010; Rose and Miller 2010; Coombe 2011b; Coombe and Weiss 2015). Cultural studies theorist Tony Bennett presciently identified the twenty-first-century emergence of a constitutive form of governmental rationality focused on the mobilization of self-regulating communities whose attachment to cultural identities and assets needed to be cultivated (Bennett 2000: 1421–23).

Cultural goods are increasingly significant resources (Coombe 2009) under conditions of regulatory restructuring that favor enhanced investments in informational capital— forms of intangible goods which can be harnessed for investment, exchange, and the capture of rents in market economies. Communicative resources and means of social reproduction may be understood as social capital which should be invested in to encourage new forms of accumulation. Culture is reified and animated as an asset base that can be competitively leveraged by communities to market distinctive places, goods, and experiences. Appearing to possess cultural distinction also provides collateral for attracting developmental investment and attention, receipt of which provides further demands for making cultural goods legible to new publics and interlocutors.

By delineating some of the contours of this political economy of community “culture,” I respond to a larger call for greater specificity in the anthropology of neoliberalism (Li 2007; Clarke 2008; Ferguson 2009: Gershon 2011). If, in one stream of social science, neoliberalism is seen to transform the way that knowledge is owned, produced, circulated, and authenticated (Inda 2005), in others it is explored as a history of governmental technologies (Busch 2010). I explore a particular intersection of these tendencies, in fields where cultural knowledge is harnessed through new technologies of subjectification (Ong 2007; Hilgers 2010) made available in international fields of policy. As I have argued elsewhere, however, principles of international policy and the technological means by which they are extended may be adopted and adapted by social movements and newly “empowered” communities who may use these governmental technologies to assert aspirations and imaginaries that exceed a neoliberal calculus (Coombe 2011a, 2011b, 2017; Coombe and Weiss 2015).

These projects of cultural governmentality are accomplished through global institutional outreach and transnational networks of activism. This work is done primarily not by states (who often oppose the implementation of such policies) but by multilateral organizations, NGOs, and new social movements, who play constitutive roles in the processes by which peoples come to identify as Indigenous, and understand themselves as holding TK or as constituting culturally distinctive local communities (Coombe, Malik, and Griebel 2017). Cultural resources are assessed, monitored, inventorized, and certified for new goods, services, and markets by multilateral actors, local and transnational NGOs, new social movements, and [251]corporate as well as state powers. The extension of proprietary rights in new forms of commodification both enables and may serve to impede global market integration; efforts to embed universalized market-based exchange relationships are often met with new assertions of local specificity, autonomy, and place-based movements (Prudham and Coleman 2011) in the double movement of the commodity (Polanyi [1944] 2001).

Latin American neoliberalism, for example, was associated with greater strengthening of municipal government, community organization, and collective institutions, and linked to transnational fields of networked powers. This formal rescaling of governance did not necessarily “empower” local actors because an enhanced emphasis upon responsible communities could also legitimate devolutions of power that entrenched social marginalization and neglect (Hale 2011). Processes of decentralization, however, when coupled with transnational sources of support and rights-based instruments, also afforded opportunities for communities to challenge neoliberal orthodoxies, establish greater social autonomy, express and model new forms of citizenship, and assert local controls over market processes in more embedded economies.

Community organizations in Latin America (often linked to new social movement coalitions encouraging collective participatory political deliberations) became more powerful at all scales of decision making. Neoliberal regulatory frameworks were resocialized to forge institutions in “knowledge sharing, policy transfer, and institution building that . . . challenge[d] neoliberal orthodoxy via alliances oriented towards alternative, social democratic, and/or eco-socialist models” (Yates and Bakker 2013: 76–77). Multisectoral, multiscalar alliances also reestablished the legitimacy of forms of technology and governance rooted in Andean, Amazonian, and other regionally identified cultures in rejections of modern developmentalism that simultaneously reconfigured citizenship along pluricultural lines (e.g., Rappaport 2005; Escobar 2008; Gow 2008; Osco 2010; Walsh 2010; Erazo 2013; Natera 2013; Yates 2014; Shepherd 2010).

Such examples illustrate how efforts to expand market relations into culturally defined zones of life tend to incite new forms of struggle, knowledge mobilization, and identity formation. We are witnessing a proliferation of projects of reterritorialization that are legitimated on grounds of cultural difference and animated by global policy principles in which collective subjects become legible as “communities” holding distinguishing assets (Coombe 2011a, 2011b). In these contexts, rights-based discourses and practices provide normative resources and strategies with which to express people’s experience of the limits of neoliberal governmentality (Coombe 2007; Li 2007; Goldstein 2012; Kingfisher and Maskovsky 2008), particularly as they fulfill its participatory demands.

Cultural properties and technologies of cultural legibility

Ironically, the preoccupation with preserving and maintaining “diversity” against the forces of an imagined global homogenization has provided legitimacy for a new arsenal of technologies of standardization (Busch 2011): standards provide significant mechanisms for governing at a distance (Gibbon and Henriksen 2012;[252] V. Higgens and Larner 2012) that construct “a particular field of visibility” (Miller and O’ Leary 1997: 239) and provide “a platform for new forms of self-presentation and audit” (W. Higgens and Hallstrom 2007: 685). This was particularly evident in the World Bank’s recognition of the rights, territories, and cultures of Indigenous peoples in Latin America in the early 1990s and its subsequent investments in “ethnodevelopment” (Andolina, Radcliffe, and Laurie 2009). Drawing upon research advocating participatory development using the strength of Latin American grassroots organizations, the World Bank mobilized Indigenous peoples and targeted investments in Indigenous culture as a means to alleviate rural poverty.

Early World Bank-financed projects identified, demarcated, and registered Indigenous lands,in processes that both recognized existing and encouraged new Indigenous identifications, organization, and cultural reaffirmation. The first of these was the 1995 Ecuador Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian Peoples Project, which involved local capacity building, land tenure regularization, and cultural heritage activities. Distinctive communities were mapped using language, geographic location, self-identification, and affiliation with a local Indigenous organization as indicators of recognized difference. Project managers ascertained what goods people identified with, engaged people to establish quality standards for these, identified marketing channels, and encouraged communities to mark such goods with trademarks, certificates of origin, or protected labels. NGOs designed training exercises in participatory planning and project administration, as well as exercises in community development, ethnography, and communications skills, to create a generation of leaders to sustain and reproduce such projects. The procedures and parameters of these projects are standard ones, now reproduced globally as more culturally diverse peoples are named and mapped, their knowledge is collected, and their “traditional” products are transformed into goods that might be “protected” by IP. Such projects were most often deemed successful by experts when they were linked to environmental conservation and affirmed Indigenous peoples’ traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) in natural resource management (Davis and Partridge 1999). Social scientists originally dismissed most forms of ethnodevelopment as depoliticizing measures of “neoliberal multiculturalism” (Hale 2002, 2004)—cultural marketing efforts focusing upon Indigenous assets as forms of social capital held by subjects who were entrepreneurialized by external experts (Colloredo-Mansfeld 1998; Andolina, Radcliffe, and Laurie 2009; DeHart 2010) that failed to address issues of structural racism. In response, Indigenous peoples— and the anthropologists who supported them (e.g., Rhoades 2006)—popularized the alternative term “development with identity,” a concept more clearly related to collective rights to self-determination simultaneously evolving in international Indigenous rights negotiations (Tauli-Corpuz 2008).

Since the turn of the century, neoliberalism has been significantly “interrupted” in Latin America (Goodale and Postero 2013) by utopian political projects that redirect market economies toward social concerns and revive participatory politics “through processes of cultural self-determination at a variety of scales” (Yates and Bakker 2013: 70). These often involve a revitalization of “traditional” political forms, including the centrality of the ayllu in land reform, concepts of intercultural communication in citizenship, communal models of labor, and structuralist models of symbolic social reciprocity between communities in regional knowledge [253]networks. Whether we consider these “postneoliberal” (Postero 2007; Escobar 2010; Gustafson and Fabricant 2011) or just particular expressions of the ways that neoliberalism has been “rolled out” in Latin America, it is evident that new political imaginaries and territorializations are emerging under conditions of informational capital and its standardizations.

There are technological affordances as well as political agendas at work in these transformations. In his discussion of campesino struggles for land rights in rural Paraguay, Kregg Hetherington (2011) reflects upon the primacy given to information in neoliberal practices of development and government, where promises of transparency and accountability have maintained vitality while other aspects of neoliberalism have lost luster. Under the “economics of information,” democracy and capitalism are fields in which rational choices made with complete and transparent information deliver optimal social choices. Information, however, is not simply knowledge abstracted from the context in which it is created, “it is knowledge in commodity form” (ibid.: 5). The discourse in which information figures adopts colonial, representational models such as mapping, cataloguing, registering, and archiving. As new technologies enable new means of mining information for new forms of capital accumulation, the demand for transparent representations has proliferated. Rather than critique representational logic, Hetherington suggests that we “treat it as a social fact, as part of the way much of the world now accounts for the real, builds social relationships and institutions, and dreams about the possible” (ibid.: 7). His campesino informants did not resist ideas of transparency and bureaucratic reform but embraced them, adopting new political practices through which they insinuated themselves into this very process.

Neoliberal governmentalities “become obsessed with the technical elements of document use, with constructing better registries, better databases, more streamlined protocols” (ibid.: 235 n. 17), precisely, I would suggest, because of the redistribution of regulatory authority amongst public and private agencies at multiple scales. Anthropologists of neoliberalism have long approached the reconfiguration of state powers by acknowledging governmental technologies (e.g., Ong 2007)— mundane programs, calculations, apparatuses, techniques, forms of examination, and processes of assessment, through which “governing at a distance” is accomplished. Certainly this tendency is apparent in the transnational regimes through which informational goods like biodiversity and TEK are now governed. If states are called upon to provide maps, and audited inventories of their diversity resources, communities are also expected and sometimes required to make their cultural distinctions legible to others.

The design and use of plant inventories, species audits, cultural countermappings, TEK registers, and heritage databases are but a few of the genres through which cultural resources are represented and cultural distinction rendered legible in forms of governmental power. To enjoin others “to write things down and count them” is to exercise a form of government by way of technologies (Rose and Miller 2010: 285) and genres that provide predictable means for organizing knowledge for presentation and circulation (Gershon 2017: ch. 2). The use of technologies for such purposes invariably enrolls other authorities and expertise that extends both networks and norms. When residents of a locality take the measure of their patrimony, traditions, customs, and identities, they are inevitably engaged in a reflexive [254]and normative process. Moreover, global institutional and donor demands for participatory political processes encourage deliberations that tend to encourage communities to make their collective norms of governance more legible to themselves and better enable projections of community political legitimacy. As informational capital invites the adoption of possessive and competitive relations to cultural goods, it also spurs political considerations of the kinds of legibility that limit or enable community agency. Far from stabilizing information or excluding politics, technical networks create new spaces for contestation (Hetherington 2011: 8).

Neoliberal projects of protecting or safeguarding culture, then, are not merely processes of commoditizing or “privatizing” a social commons of symbolic goods, but involve forms of entification, entextualization, and standardization asserted in characteristic genres and exercised through new forms of governmental technology. Anthropologists have been urged to more closely examine how neoliberal governmental technologies are used, because, as James Ferguson suggests, they may be used differently, “repurposed, and put to work in the service of political projects very different from those usually associated with that word” (2009: 183).

Community subjects and their properties are made legible to various authorities through technologies that may be appropriated for new ends. Moreover, such vernacularized technologies may “scale up” and travel because international policy-making bodies seek out community “best practices,” assembled and disseminated through “clearing house mechanisms” to show that policy objectives have been achieved. Often this involves disseminating standardized but customizable protocols and toolkits to manage relationships of knowledge sharing. This was especially evident in the processes through which TK simultaneously became a policy object attracting governmental interventions and a vehicle for political assertion.

Intellectual property and its traditional entanglements

Informational capital rests upon a specific legal architecture that privileges knowledge-based goods protected as IP in global trade regimes (Drahos with Braithwaite 2002; Drahos 2005; May 2010; Drahos 2014) starting with the World Trade Organization (WTO). When considering cultural assets, the most significant aspect of the WTO was its incorporation of the 1994 TRIPs Agreement (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property), which began a process of globally “rolling out” a range of so-called minimal standards for protecting IP, which were further extended in later bilateral trade agreements. It is one of the great ironies and founding contradictions of neoliberalism that the competition it encourages rests not on freer trade, but on enhanced protections for monopolies in knowledge goods.

Trade-protected IP, coupled with powerful new digital and genetic technologies, ensured the extension of commodified exchange relations into new zones of life and livelihood (Busch 2010). Fields from medicine to agriculture have been transformed, while apprehensions of global homogenization and corporate prospecting have triggered new attention to the specificities of local traditions and TK. The negative economic, social, health, and cultural consequences of such new forms of commodification were quickly protested; social countermovements emerged to insist that IP should not be governed entirely by economic considerations. The [255]World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) was put under new pressure by developing country governments, other UN bodies, and NGOs who insisted that IP must be adapted to meet a wider range of human rights objectives and global development commitments. WIPO set out to make IP relevant to communities whose collective creative work and innovation had been outside its purview. The propriety of adapting IP for the needs of so-called traditional communities attracted considerable critical anthropological attention. It is not my intention to weigh into those debates, the merits of which have been surpassed by events on the ground. Instead, I will suggest that the ways in which WIPO addressed the need to protect TK and ensure “access and benefit sharing” under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), while reaching out to “new beneficiaries” to consider their customary means of managing knowledge-based resources, were complementary strategies of neoliberal government.

Most early WIPO efforts seemed dedicated to ensuring that CBD objectives were operationalized in contractual terms that privileged market-based exchanges between corporations, state institutions, and communities. After it became apparent that conventional IP vehicles were inappropropriate for encompassing TK, the organization sent out regional “fact-finding missions” to ascertain the needs and concerns of collective holders of TK assets. Founded in 2000, the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property, Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge, and Traditional Cultural Expressions (IGC) began to actively engage communities as holders of potential IP in TK as well as “traditional cultural expressions” (formerly the domain of UNESCO under the rubric of folklore). WIPO’s new programs (e.g., Creative Heritage Cultural Documentation and IP Management Training Program, Regional Training Program on the Protection and Licensing of Traditional Knowledge) served to “empower” local communities while constituting them as clients for its own expertise. A new institutional logic of “governing from a distance” through community—autonomized groups located and enrolled in the government of their “traditions” as resources—comes into view.

Empirically based scholarship on these activities is sparse. WIPO has been accused of promoting a “neotribal entrepreneurialism” (Farhat 2008) likely to entrench new inequalities between communities on culturally essentializing grounds. This, however, endows remarkable powers upon an institution which has no capacity to implement law and few resources to influence state agendas. Opponents of early CBD and WIPO efforts are very fond of Shane Greene’s work on the “incorporation” of “the Aguaruna” people in the Peruvian Amazon—by virtue of biodiversity negotiations with respect to their TEK (Greene 2004)—and the shifting range of that cultural identity, as people organized at ever higher scales of legibility to make the international alliances necessary to forge the world’s first Indigenous “know-how agreement” providing shared benefits in the form of royalties from resulting patents. The new forms of community definition, incorporation, and deliberation needed, the hopes inspired and expectations dashed, the divisions and disillusionments, were presented and read by critics as great tragicomedy that revealed the follies of constructing cultural identity and the artifactuality of both tradition and community.

Critics of bioprospecting have rarely, however, commented upon Greene’s later work (2009), in which he reflects more empathetically upon this painful process of [256]entrepreneurial ethnogenesis. Distancing himself from the easy critiques—of Indigenous self-essentialism and corporate victimization—he explores the means by which some Aguaruna leaders “customized” the Indigenous and environmentalist subject positions internationally made available to them through rights-based activities. They engaged with neoliberal forms of capitalism, he suggested, to express new forms of inclusive cosmopolitan citizenship and transnational solidarities that accepted some and contested other market values in the articulation of paths to a future of their own design. A leader who appears to be an opportunistic “cultural essentializer” in Greene’s early account emerges here as a visionary statesman—skillfully revitalizing traditional political institutions (such as the ipaamamu) to achieve security in both transnational advocacy networks and global IP markets.

Amazonian and Andean Indigenous peoples were well represented in early WIPO and CBD discussions as their cultural distinctions independently became sites of NGO and state investments. As Patrick Wilson summarizes, neoliberal multiculturalism in Latin America was articulated through state and NGO practices reconfiguring culturalized “communities” mapped onto landscapes. “Ethnographic research has linked the emergence of indigenous social movements to neoliberal reforms that coalesced around shared cultural identities to exploit incoherencies and opportunities in neoliberal state practices [such that ] indigenous rights appeared to be an effective tool for collective resistance to neoliberal policies” (2008: 128). In Ecuador, local governments constituted historically marginalized Indigenous peoples as communities in need of infrastructural services. They did so particularly in those Indigenous Amazonian communities that appeared to have the best social capital to mount “eco-ethno tourism” enterprises (Hutchins 2007). Rural communities came to compete for attentions in terms of their capacities for sustainable development by demonstrating their commitments to investing in Indigenous cultural difference. The state coopted Indigenous rights discourses into regimes of reterritorialized power mapped via “grids of intelligibility” that cemented cultural landscapes tying Indigenous people to places ripe for developmental investment. Wilson quotes one county official who explained that “indigenous peoples have culture” and that “this cultural difference makes indigenous peoples key resources for ethno-eco tourism, the cornerstone for municipal development” (2008: 135). Other Indigenous residents “were to be re-oriented toward artisan and craft production” (ibid.). From the state perspective, Indigenous culture became reducible to its exchange value in the making and marketing of commodities without regard for kinship or subsistence patterns.

Organized Indigenous peoples in Ecuador, however, are no strangers to global neoliberal environmental policies. They have made transnational alliances with NGOs and helped to articulate international Indigenous rights principles for close to twenty-five years. Moreover, they have been actively and articulately resisting IP models for their TK since the early 1990s in transnationally networked place-based social movements that have associated territories, land and resource rights, cultural identity, and sustainability using rights-based development norms (Coombe 2005). For example, lowland Kitchwa community engagements with ecotourism, Frank Hutchins (2010) observes, indigenize capitalism by embedding communal forms of property and labor into their enterprises and advocating legal reforms that better recognize their collective projects.[257]

There is considerable evidence of Indigenous and other community resistance to IP models for protecting biodiversity, TK, and cultural heritage. Encountering these concepts in development projects, and environmental social movement and NGO attentions, communities found new ways to position themselves in policy rearticulations. In peasant movements, people asserted farmers’ rights to cultivate and save seed, opposing the genetic modification of their landraces and patents and plant breeder’s rights, while rejecting public domain and common heritage arguments that would reduce their contributions to mere information available for the capital accumulations of others. Instead they described their agricultural stewardship as a tradition based not on possession but on inalienable responsibilities of nurture in which seed exchange was represented as a form of intercultural dialogue. Such movements—which began as food security coalitions anticipating the dangers of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the TRIPs Agreement – are now transnational in reach (Fitting 2014; Siniscalchi 2014; Thivit 2014; Wright 2008a, 2008b).

Neoliberal socionatures? Valuing biocultural diversity

In reviews of linguistic anthropology, it has become trite, if necessary, to assert that “the notion of cultures and societies as discrete bounded entities has given way to thinking of sociocultural phenomena in terms of flows and networks, historically contingent discursive practices and bricolage” (Graber 2015: 350). It is also typical to acknowledge “strong language ideologies that naturalize links between a discrete language, a people, and a territory” (ibid.: 351) as well as concerns with language death, endangerment, and linguistic diversity (Black 2013), without exploring their interrelationship. Kathryn Graber suggests that (unnamed) others embrace “linguistic difference as grounds for other sorts of social and cultural difference,” ascribing more importance to linguistic difference than scholars acknowledge (2015: 352). Indeed, as we shall see, such imaginaries of linguistic difference have had considerable influence in emerging countermovements to neoliberal conservation measures.

Dominant multilateral environmental regulatory institutions attempted to construct biodiversity as a world currency subject to international surveillance and scientific control, dominated by a logic that assumed that conserving it required it to be converted into goods and services with monetary value (Turnhout, Waterton, Neves, and Buizer 2013). CBD recognition of Indigenous and local communities’ TEK as relevant to the conservation of biological diversity first posited the latter as a “resource” best valued through market mechanisms. Hence the emphasis on securing access to and sharing benefits from the development of useful genetic resources into (patentable) goods and using market-based contracts to achieve this. Multinational control over plants and species was consolidated by closely held proprietary corporate databases, while sequestering research findings to enable the patenting of genetic modifications in practices deemed “biopiracy.” Global interest in biodiversity and TEK appeared to be fatal to Indigenous peoples unless they united in defense of their own knowledge and livelihoods (Agrawal 1995), an achievement partially realized through the global recognition of Indigenous rights and transnational movements protesting the growth, scope, and duration of IP rights.[258]

CBD deliberations pertaining to TEK quickly became a progressive platform (McAfee 1999) for insisting upon alternative, more holistic understandings of biodiversity as the product of diverse ways of knowing the natural world rooted in different ways of inhabiting ecosystems. Drawing upon Sapir–Whorfian studies showing an intimate connection between human linguistic structures and perceptions of environments, the marginalized area of ecolinguistics2 (Steffensen and Fill 2014) was revitalized in a famous keynote paper given at the Ninth World Conference of Applied Linguistics in 1990 (Halliday 2001). The global crisis in biodiversity loss was linked to language loss, an observation welcomed by social scientists and conservationists independently indexing common threats to cultural and biological diversity. Extensive fieldwork mapping linguistic ecologies in the early 1990s was influential in garnering support for this position (Maffi 2005); correspondences between ethnicity and genetic diversity in crops assumed new significance (e.g., Brush and Perales 2007).

Scientists publicly asserted the inextricable link between cultural and biological diversity in the Declaration of Belem at the First International Congress of Ethnobiology in 1988, with over six hundred biologists, botanists, conservationists, and Indigenous representatives creating an influential alliance. Linguistic ecology and biocultural diversity were merged in the 1990s to inform measures to protect TEK, understood as a human rights issue. “Endangered Languages, Endangered Knowledge, Endangered Environments” was a 1996 conference that brought together “scholars and practitioners in the linguistic, social, behavioral, and natural sciences, along with members of indigenous peoples,” to identify avenues for the investigation of what became known as “biocultural diversity” (Maffi 2005: 602). Communities of interdisciplinary scholars and a committed network of advocates marshaled research to influence deliberations on how best to implement the CBD Article which obliged state parties to protect the “knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity” (CBD 1992).

A separate body was deemed necessary to further these negotiations. Holding its initial meetings in 1998, the CBD Working Group on Article 8 (j) was one of the first international arenas in which Indigenous peoples were allowed (and eventually funded) to participate as interlocutors in their own right. The ensuing deliberations are too complex to detail here, but Indigenous peoples’ representatives increasingly rejected IP rights in favor of in situ means of protecting TEK and biological diversity. Principles for the management of community-conserved areas, codes of conduct for research, culturally appropriate forms of knowledge documentation, criteria for impact assessments, sui generis regimes drawing upon Indigenous customary law, capacity building for Indigenous women, and landscape-focused language revitalization projects were given priority. By 2005 the United Nations Environmental Program had accepted linguistic diversity and the numbers of speakers of indigenous languages as a proxy for the current state of TK [259]and its innovations and practices, due to the close relationship between language and TEK, for assessing state progress toward biodiversity conservation targets.

These negotiations produced a wide range of technologies for addressing the tensely imbricated projects of protecting biodiversity, indicating sources of genetic resources, and compensating TEK holders. Standardized Western scientific metrics used to measure and represent biodiversity were rejected as failing to adequately grasp the differences in perception that TEK encompassed (Baker et al. 2013). Material transfer and access and benefit-sharing agreements, community mapping exercises, TEK databases, germplasm banks, species inventories, participatory monitoring of subsistence activities, and biocultural protocols were all neoliberal “technologies” forged to render local socioecological life legible to a greater range of actors (universities, scientists, anthropologists, supportive NGOs, and their donors). If most of these were originally designed to provide transparent information to support eventual market transactions, they were soon rearticulated as means to assert local rights and responsibilities. Significantly, Indigenous peoples began to take more intimate possession of such projects, asserting not only their rights, but also their historical obligations to steward biocultural heritage in resilient territories. Such articulations of collective self-determination combined normative rhetorical resources from Indigenous, environmental, conservation, heritage, and human rights regimes in a diversity of local projects (Pretty et al. 2009).

Indeed, “the right to responsibility” is now evoked to “facilitate duty-bearers” by “natural justice” NGOs seeking to empower communities to maintain resilient landscapes and sustainable livelihoods (Jonas and Jonas 2013), particularly in regions where states do not recognize those with TEK as Indigenous. The increasing numbers of peoples who identify as Indigenous is closely related to growing social countermovements against extractive industries (which includes biotechnology), neoliberal reforms of governance (Vadjunec, Schmink, and Greiner 2011), and the growth of informational capital in activities of political articulation in which legal discourse, regulatory technologies, and rights norms are taken up in distinct ways (Coombe 2017; Coombe, Malik & Griebel 2017).

Latin American reterritorializations

As diversity in language became a proxy for biocultural diversity and new genres for organizing knowledge became means for both reconfiguring governmentality and asserting community autonomy, hybridized natural and cultural territories were delineated. Such “socionatures” (Bakker 2010: 728; Radcliffe 2016)—have emerged at the conjuncture of multiscalar regulatory restructuring and local political dynamics. Certainly markets and market proxies have been deployed as mechanisms of environmental governance, entailing greater corporate involvement in resource ownership, extensions of IP, biotechnological innovation, and the certification of new standards in commodity chains. However, as the biodiverse properties of natural worlds came to be understood to be the cultural products of local peoples under the CBD, new ethics of care and affective connections to territory were also expressed (Yates and Bakker 2013). Possessive and passionate attachments to [260]ecosystem management came to inform Latin American neoliberal reterritorializations (cf. Coombe 2017).

International Indigenous rights movements’ rejection of assimilationist models for development and the biocultural tendencies of global biodiversity preservation are both understood by geographers of Latin America to be countermovements to neoliberal marketization (Anthias and Radcliffe 2015). For example, in Bolivia, mapped correspondences between Indigenous peoples, languages, and biodiversity justified new projects of government that legitimated community autonomies and galvanized Indigenous politics. If protected conservation areas and Indigenous communal territories sometimes overlap, in most cases TCOs (Original Communal Lands) are fragmented territories in which non-Indigenous actors are already embedded, resource claims are still contested, and extractive activities are ongoing. Neoliberal multiculturalism is seen in the way that corporate responsibility statements enroll Indigenous communities in new markets for traditional products, gas rents are channeled into market-based rural development projects, and payment for ecosystem services become a means by which ethnic territories maintain economic viability (ibid.: 264). Such state dispensations rarely provide the kind of autonomy Indigenous leaders seek, but serve as platforms “to pursue their own, more substantive visions for territory,” which include “transforming colonial power relations, exercising resource sovereignty, and increasing political participation” (ibid.: 267). Anthias and Radcliffe (ibid.) describe this as one of many examples of Indigenous peoples appropriating spaces afforded by neoliberal multiculturalism to assert more radical agendas.

Environmental governance increasingly involves Indigenous respatializations. When language becomes the measure of new opportunities, semantic terms assume new political salience at all levels of government. Now representing itself as an Indigenous state, the Bolivian government has taken up Indigenous linguistic concepts like Living Well (Vivir Bien, Buen Vivir, Sumaq Kawsay, Sumaq Qumana) and Earth Mother (Pachamama) in areas such as climate change, agrobiodiversity, conservation management, and food security (Zimmerer 2015). State adoption of Indigenous symbols of legitimation and agendas of decolonization under the government of Evo Morales may be read as a cooptation of social movement protagonism. Similarly, since 2006, Buen Vivir has formed a central plank of Ecuadorian public policy objectives that have little correspondence with social movement aspirations rooted in Indigenous models of sumak kawsey (Kichwa for life in plenitude) (Radcliffe 2012, 2015: 863). Indigenous environmental rights advocates challenge the use of such linguistic terms in association with state agendas of nationalized resource extraction and highway development, making these key symbols in the politics of neoliberal reterritoralizations.

Transnational Andean social movements in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador now use these linguistic terms as expressions of “alternative, holistic belief systems or cosmovisions premised on collective well-being and harmonious relations with nature” (Zimmerer 2015: 316) in which communities and nonhuman organisms are also rights holders. Indigenous NGOS dedicated to revitalizing traditional technologies in biodiversity management were influential in “scaling up” these terms in transnational movements, rooting “the meaning of Living Well in concepts that have been argued to resemble the perspectives of political ecology . . . environmental [261]protection with social solidarity, anticipatory social ecological learning for adaptability to climate change, and, more recently, a social-movement based perspective on rights to biocultural resilience” (ibid.: 316–17, citations omitted). Nearly all regions of Bolivia, Karl Zimmerer suggests, recognize Indigenous stewarding of biological diversity because “community environmental governance is related to indigenous support networks” (ibid.: 322) in European foundations, global social movement alliances, and transnational NGOs. Early forms of neoliberal multiculturalism that decentralized powers to communities have evolved, however, such that nonstate actors use the concepts of Living Well and Earth Mother to influence the direction of national agricultural policy, food security agendas, and strategies of crop research (ibid.: 318).

From more localized perspectives in the Ecuadorian Andes, anthropologists report similar forms of heightened community reflexivity about biocultural knowledge, seeds, and cultivation methods as heritage goods that need to be revitalized (Rhoades 2006). This is manifested in seed farms, and gardens such as the Farm of the Ancestral Future, established to bring back crops “symbolic of the recovery of our traditions” (Fueres, Flores and Ramos 2013: 111), which also revived rituals of communal work or mingas. A new tourism certification, “Runa Tupari (“meet Indigenous people” in Quechua), enables communities to share their cosmovisions and their lives in Pachamama (Mother Earth)—an entity that now has constitutional stature in Ecuador.

In situ conservation of plant genetic resources in the Andes is asserted as a decolonizing form of cultural repatriation—reparations for the loss of Indigenous germplasm suffered under the long hegemony of modern, global agricultural practices that privileged ex situ forms of conservation. Indigenous socionatures linking language, territory, and worldview are proposed as bases for “resilient strategies and technologies” to address global issues of ecosystem management, food security, and climate change (Gonzales 2013: 91). Stewardship of local biocultural diversity is a “not-quite-neoliberal” subject position embraced by communities in the Andean region as both a responsibility and an opportunity. Despite its positioning within Indigenous cosmologies, communal provisioning, and customary law, it would be a mistake to see such efforts as entirely outside of the commodity circuits. Both development practitioners and Indigenous leaders see hope for positioning specifically Andean crops in niche markets, and international NGOs and national programs are invested in marking, marketing, and packaging Indigenous crops (Rhoades 2013: 283), which, as we will see, is not atypical in the appropriation of neoliberal affordances.

Many Amazonian communities have also used rights norms and ideals of heritage safeguarding to forge territorial autonomies in which their environmental responsibilities are linked to supports for traditional medicine, bilingual education, and control over archaeological sites that provide income opportunities (Hutchins and Wilson 2010; Vadjunic, Schmink, and Greiner 2011; Caruso 2014). Leaders of “the Cofan nation” in eastern Ecuador have embraced a subject position as custodians of the Amazon holding valuable knowledge as “forest caretakers,” because, they say, “without our forests, we are no longer Cofan” (Cepek 2011a). They dutifully produce reports on the ecology of their homelands and the cultural activities which sustain it (Cepek 2008, 2011a, 2011b).[262]

The monitoring of the extensive lands Cofan regard as their territories is supported by millions of international donor dollars. Such funding, however, is accompanied by onerous demands for paper trails that are next to impossible to provide in humid Amazonian informal economies. Cofan complain that the objectives of protecting biodiversity have been sacrificed for the true purpose of transforming them into new kinds of subjects (Cepek 2011a). In short, they are overwhelmed by the need to continually make their maintenance of diversity generically legible. They may preserve their ecosystems in Cofan ways, but they must do so through standardized vehicles of transparency and accountability which apply “equally” in major North American cities and remote rainforest regions. To maintain their position, they have had to adopt new record-keeping systems, wildlife censuses, community contracting businesses, byzantine accounting practices, and the creation of legalized paper trails that they experience as baffling forms of discipline. Not all neoliberal technologies of government can be easily transformed or repurposed.

Neoliberal environmentalism has simultaneously enabled and obstructed Cofan political aspirations, but it has come at a price—and expectations of efforts for which compensation is not always forthcoming as reliable wages. They have, in a sense, been “responsibilized” as neoliberal subjects, without being provided means of livelihood security. Not surprisingly, they seek to use their designation as official guardians of federally protected lands (who hold the same powers as government park rangers) and the inventories of diversity and indicators of landscape resilience they manage as means to secure territorial rights. Indeed, comanagement of protected areas involving local communities and state actors is globally favored by environmentalists as an in situ form of biocultural diversity conservation with potentially significant benefits for Indigenous peoples, pastoralists, forest dwellers, and those who practice shifting cultivation. In optimistic visions, it is a new paradigm in which

new shared understandings of ecology, biocultural diversity, and human rights can advance environmental justice . . . [in] areas that are both environmentally rich homelands and places of restitution, return, reinhabitation, and cultural rediscovery and rejuvenation for those who have been displaced and dispossessed by past protected area policies. . . . Such protected areas can be an important means of decolonization and indeed of remaking the Fourth World. (Stevens 2014: 306)

Early ethnographic studies would have suggested that such prognoses were premature. Paul Nadasdy (2005) influentially argued that comanagement of conservation areas was an antipolitical, disempowering tool enabling state expansion into Indigenous territories, but that diagnosis was made prior to international recognition of Indigenous rights. Emily Caruso (2011) returned to her doctoral fieldsite in 2009 to test this thesis in the Ashaninka Communal Reserve (the Reserve), one of many Peruvian protected areas established in the Amazon at the request of Indigenous groups. Although her early fieldwork supported Nadasdy’s position, her later visit indicated that the federation representing the Reserve’s twenty-two beneficiary communities (CARE) had reworked the Reserve’s Master Plan to better reflect Ashaninka cultural perspectives and provide more representative and effective community participation (ibid.: 609). Rather than the state gradually replacing Indigenous modes of thinking and acting, Caruso found that CARE actively [263]appropriated technical language and engaged in community ethnographic practices to pursue self-determination (ibid.: 623), and thereby helped determine the parameters of a new national model for Indigenous communal master plans. CARE became the reigning expert on Indigenous participation in Peruvian Reserve decision making; its expertise is now regionally recognized.

Like most Amazonian landscapes, Ashaninka managed territory is replete with memories, creation narratives, human and nonhuman agencies, and dangerous and sacred places, which Ashaninka disregard at their peril (Caruso 2014: 161). The territory is literally ancestral according to diverse stories of Ashaninka people transforming into plants, animals, and landscape features, and cultivating, collecting, and hunting are the customs by which both the landscape and Ashaninka identity are coproduced (ibid.: 163). Comanagement, Caruso concludes, is neither inherently “empowering nor disempowering, but the fruit of constant negotiations” that provide important sites for the development of Indigenous–state relationships (2011: 610), in which new autonomies may emerge in assertions of agency based on Indigenous ontologies.

Such efforts might be considered in the context of a growing Latin American interest in Rural Territorial Development (Ramirez-Miranda 2015), a European concept that emphasizes the need to differentiate territories and render them identifiable as economies of resources, places, heritage, knowledges, and lifeforms that can be mobilized for new purposes (OECD 2006). Significantly, European IP regimes provide means to integrate such territories into global markets and to capitalize upon local biocultural diversity, in what have become highly politicized food systems in Latin America. Although Indigenous ontologies seem distant from the biocultural qualities that European certification regimes have conventionally upheld, the importation of these differentiating technologies into the Indigenous Americas has embedded these into new regimes of value.

Marks indicating conditions of origin: Community as intellectual property

Contemporary food systems increasingly use semiotic systems to structure social space. As Jillian Cavanaugh and Shalini Shankar argue, Northern Italian producers “use regional identities and aspects of heritage to construct and market cultural productions they hope will be construed as ‘authentic’ in global markets”; their specific agency is demonstrated in their attempts to create an image of cultural heritage in which “[a] people, devoted and committed to a place, show affective attachments to the fruits of their land, their culture and their traditions in reiterative practices that thereby elide the modern production processes from which these goods emerge” (2014: 55). There is, however, nothing very specific about the agencies exercised in such semiotic practices. The forms of authenticity used to define such typical products are deliberately cultivated in a specific European “mode of production,” the criteria for which are enshrined in EU Regulation 2081/92 (Tregear 2003). The rhetorical tropes used to assert “typicality” in rationales for seeking marks indicating conditions of origin (MICOs) and in their characteristic forms of advertising are generic ones in which a standardized “social imaginary” is reproduced (Aylwin and Coombe 2014; Coombe, Ives, and Huizenga 2014).[264]

Producers demonstrate the authenticity of their products in a context shaped by multiscalar IP regimes providing enhanced protections for particular goods whose characteristics must be rooted in unique socionatures, ideally performed as intrinsic to community cultural heritage. If contemporary global capitalism creates “the ideal conditions for producer-based claims to authenticity and legitimacy” (Cavanaugh and Shankar 2014: 52–53), it does so by way of encouraging the use of technological assemblages – standardized forms of government for capturing rents from marketable distinctions – in which language is used in stereotypical ways to effect new territorializations.

The growing valuation of local cultural specificity as a means of capturing monopoly rents has accelerated in a political economy of capital accumulation premised upon the superiority of investments in informational goods (Harvey 2001). MICOs include IP vehicles such as geographical indications, appellations and denominations of origin, and collective and certification marks. Such marks for certifying distinction are regulatory means of territorialization that draw borders around places of production, effect new forms of social differentiation, and support community identities (Coombe and Aylwin 2011). In European Union programs for rural development, these governmental interventions were deliberate outcomes of neoliberal state decentralization trajectories. The essence of this mode of production (Ray 2002) is its integration of cultural, financial, natural, and social capital into a form of territorial IP (Ray 1998).

If such regulatory strategies have their roots in Europe, they are nonetheless increasingly promoted across the Global South via bilateral trade agreements and European development funding, touted as sustainable development strategies to prevent cultural diversity loss, preserve biological diversity, prevent depletion of TK, and stem rural-to-urban migration by encouraging communities to “use their traditions to exploit growing niche markets” (Parrott, Wilson, and Murdoch 2002: 242). The use of MICOs has accelerated in the twenty-first century under conditions in which communities are encouraged to take greater responsibilities for their own reproduction, ideally through market-friendly measures in which they invest in developing and marketing their own distinctive assets.

The recognition of TEK in biodiversity conservation, its reconceptualization as biocultural heritage, and the other valorizations of community cultural assets we have considered put new demands upon MICOs. Economists, botanists, agricultural researchers, Indigenous rights advocates, church groups, food policy analysts, and rural development practitioners produce ever more studies of these legal regimes, extolling the opportunities they present for developing countries, rural communities, and Indigenous peoples. Communities are interpellated through such work, and enrolled in practices of audit and certification to mark their identities, practices, and products in new networks of partnership that tie their objectified traditions of practice into intensified regimes of accreditation. As Cavanaugh and Shankar recognize, authenticity must be legitimated in commodity chains through inspection reports and quality protocols. Cultural difference is thus made credible and legible in circulating manifestations of standardized technologies of neoliberal government.

This search for monopoly rent based upon values of authenticity, culture, collective memories, and tradition may, however, have unintended consequences, [265]opening what David Harvey describes as a “key space of hope” (2001: 109). If conditions are ripe for projecting cultural distinction into markets, opportunities also emerge for communicating other forms of value between producers and consumers. It is beyond the scope of this essay to explore the myriad projects in which edible biocultural heritage and traditional foodways have become the subject of new valorizations and municipal revitalizations in Latin America, but it is clear that agrobiodiversity is a terrain of struggle in which diverging positions on campesino farming systems and differential modes of market integration are expressed (Verschuuren, Subramanian, and Hiemstra 2014) and increasingly marked.

Local communities may seek ways of engaging markets that support distinct economies. Farmers working with social movement activists and marketing experts in the Los Lipez region of Bolivia created a denomination of origin to open international markets for their quinoa crop. In his ethnographic research, Andrew Ofstehage found that the mark was used not to displace other channels of cultivation, production, and sale, but to subsidize these in “a more resilient life sphere of agricultural production” (2011: 103). Historically, quinoa was known as an Indigenous crop because it figured in Indigenous spirituality, its cultivation was discouraged by the Spanish, and it was retained primarily in places not subject to agricultural modernization programs. In many areas its diversity was maintained by marginalized Indigenous women.

An internationally funded graduate school in Cochabamba (AGRUCO) advocating agrarian development rooted in Andean customary foods to maintain “social and ecological harmony with natural-spiritual worlds” (Zimmerer 2015: 316) has taken special interest in quinoa. With the help of La Via Campesina, it invests in community-based Indigenous research to revalue local TK, maintain crop diversity through in situ germplasm banks, and improve quinoa value chains, while maintaining smallholder production of what is regarded as a distinctive cultural asset. AGRUCO legitimates its work through a regional concept of food sovereignty understood as a political and cultural community right to control the principles and government of local food systems.

The denomination of origin “quinoa real de Lipez,” obtained with the assistance of a Danish NGO, is only available to quineros from the San Agustin area, whose topographical conditions ensure that the local crop must be planted and harvested manually by traditional methods that produce a much larger grain. Ofstehage suggests that local quineros are proud of the distinctive terrain, mythological origins, and traditions of labor that make their grain unique, but he does not see MICO initiatives as likely to displace the national cooperatives to which farmers maintain loyalty, or to threaten the livelihoods of female intermediaries. Rather, he reads it as simply one more form of cultural marketing in what is already a multichanneled cultural economy—an integrated split market and moral economy that Indigenous peoples seek means to maintain.

The projection of distinction through MICOs is evolving to assert novel identifications and values. New ways of using fair trade certifications, for example, are being developed to further support Indigenous Amazonian practices of “biocultural regeneration through ritualized action” (Apffel-Marglin 2011: 198), which encompass Kichwa language revitalization, spiritual farming practices, and a renewal of traditional soil technologies. Other hopeful articulations include direct [266]trading mechanisms between Indigenous Peruvian feminists and Canadian cooperatives (McMurtry 2009), and the use of collective trademarks to certify goods and services both as produced in compliance with Andean Indigenous legal principles (Argumedo 2013) and as indicators of practices that maintain the resilience of biocultural heritage territories (IIED 2015).


Neoliberal informational capital and its knowledge economies have made language central to new political economies and political ecologies in which culture has become an important economic and political resource and diversity an unruly asset. I have argued that the processes through which culture is reified, objectified, and commodified under international policy regimes include new forms of neoliberal governmentality in which community subjects are given new incentives and provided with new technologies to represent themselves as collective subjects bearing distinctive cultures and safeguarding valuable diversity. Communities are the subjects of increased entreaties to assume possessive if not always “proprietary,” relationships to an ever greater range of cultural goods and culturalized practices under multiple international policy regimes.

When neoliberalism governs through culturalized communities, its subjects are called upon to project and protect their distinctions, so as to make their distinct identities politically and economically legible to new interlocutors at a diversity of scales. To the extent that such transnationally networked forms of government tend to provoke new forms of reflexivity around goods, values, and norms, however, they may simultaneously provide opportunities for peoples to express desires for government otherwise. Increasingly they do so through new assertions of rights in an emerging and confounding field of cultural politics that should challenge anthropological complacencies about the relationship between neoliberalism and cultural identity. Indigenous resurgence and culturalized identities are not merely derivative byproducts of neoliberalism, but may be accomplishments of political articulation under conditions of globalizing power, diverse markets, and new forms of governmentality that provide distinctive fields of opportunity and instill new aspirations. If the vocabularies of political indigeneity now globally extend to embrace a greater range of the world’s most marginalized peoples, this may be because they enable traditions to serve as dynamic resources for imagining alternative futures.

The regulatory fields of power and recognition in which contingent assemblages of community identity are forged are charged with contradictions, shaped by diverse rhetorical frames, and governed by specific technologies. As James Clifford puts it, if neoliberalism opens possibilities for culturally based movements, channeling diversity in particular ways, the politics of the possible is not thereby exhausted: “spaces opened from above are also being [re]created from below” (2013: 39). The relationship between the agencies of policy intervention and the site of culturalized subject formation is mediated by technologies of government whose genres offer particular affordances. Ethnographies of neoliberalism might better explore how people occupy policy regimes and the subject positions they afford, customize [267]technologies to make their communities legible, assert local rights, and legitimate alternative proprietary imaginaries in processes that indigenize, customize, or otherwise render multiculturalism in the vernacular.


The author wishes to acknowledge the significant intellectual support provided by Ilana Gershon, Andy Graan, and Eugenia Kisin, and the research assistance of Marc Griebel, Ali Malik, and Joe Turcotte. Funding for this project was provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Norwegian Research Council, pursuant to the collaborative research grant known as CUFF, the Cultural Logic of Facts and Figures, from 2012 to 2015.


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L’Économie du savoir et ses cultures: Technologies néolibérales et re-territorialisation en Amérique Latine

Résumé : Les biens culturels sont de plus en plus importants dans le contexte créé par les conditions néolibérales de restructuration régulatoire, qui favorisent des investissements accrus dans la maîtrise de l’information, les prétendues “économies du savoir”. Dans le dernier quart de siècle, la différentiation linguistique, la pratique linguistique et, de plus en plus, des genres de représentation standardisés sont devenus constitutifs des nouvelles technologies de gouvernement et de re-territorialisation en Amérique Latine. Ces transformations sont le produit de l’interprétation et de la mise en place de régimes de gouvernance globaux valorisant la diversité. L’argument de cet article est présenté comme une discussion à plusieurs échelles de récents travaux ethnographiques en Amérique Latine, au travers desquels nous pouvons voir comment le commerce international, les droits d’auteur et les régimes favorisant la biodiversité ont influencé les représentations et la gestion du savoir, déterminant de nouveaux modes de spatialisation. Des organisations indigènes auto-gérées ont adopté des attitudes possessives sinon des revendications d’exclusivité par rapport aux savoirs traditionnels, à la génétique des plantes et aux ressources alimentaires - faisant preuve d’une maîtrise des méthodes de marquage de biens et services qui permettent d’indiquer des conditions d’origine spécifiques. A l’heure où les communautés culturalisées deviennent des sujets de la gouvernance néolibérale, elles sont aussi appelées à projeter leurs avantages distinctifs de manière à être lisible politiquement et économiquement face à de nouveaux interlocuteurs. Ceci a généré de nouvelles formes de réflexivité autour des avantages, des valeurs, des normes et des nouvelles ressources pouvant être mobilisées dans les luttes civiques d’un champ émergent de politiques culturelles, dans lequel le multiculturalisme néolibéral est vernacularisé dans des marchés plus connectés et des sites politiques au pluralisme croissant.

Rosemary J. COOMBE is Tier One Canada Research Chair in Law, Communication and Culture and a Full Professor in the Department of Anthropology at York University. She holds a doctorate in law and anthropology from Stanford University. Her award winning book The cultural life of intellectual properties: Authorship, appropriation, and the law was reprinted by Duke University Press in 2008. Many of her publications on intellectual property, cultural heritage, and human rights are available online.

Rosemary J. Coombe
York University
4700 Keele Street North
Toronto, ON
M6S 3P8


1. This essay does not present the results of a single case study but rather poses a provocation to linguistic and ethnographic inquiry in a terrain delineated by transnational neoliberal policy in which possessive attachments to culture are evoked, provoked, and performatively enacted to do political work. It is derived from a research project that began by exploring the globalization of intellectual property, moved into the environmental politics around “traditional” knowledge, following both Convention on Biodiversity and World Intellectual Property Organization deliberations and the unfolding of UNESCO regimes for “safeguarding” intangible cultural heritage under the Convention on the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The work involves multisited institutional ethnography at different scales. In addition to archival work and institutional ethnography, I have done community-based heritage research with First Nations groups in Canada and my graduate students have done fieldwork and internships with indigenous NGOs in some of the sites I consider pertinent . Because the work is comparative, however, I am reliant upon the empirical fieldwork and publications of many other anthropologists and geographers for my evaluations of how the intersection of these transnational forces play out in particular local contexts. The forthcoming volume is provisionally titled Informational capital and its cultures: Neoliberalism and the proprietary imagination.

2. Ecolinguistics was long discredited due to misgivings about tendencies toward geographical determinism in a criticism that predates contemporary ecological understandings of the human–environment relationship.