Writing’s edges and the sex of Earth beings

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Valentina Napolitano. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.1.043


Writing’s edges and the sex of Earth beings

Valentina NAPOLITANO, University of Toronto

Comment on de la Cadena, Marisol. 2015. Earth beings: Ecologies of practice across Andean worlds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Anthropology is often more interesting for what we miss than for what we think we “get.” In the early 1990s, Orin Starn warned his fellow anthropologists that they had been missing an ongoing “revolution” in the Peruvian highlands.1 Today, in Earth beings, Marisol de la Cadena (2015) warns us that, having focused on revolution and subsequent neoliberal reforms, leftist anthropologists may have then missed movements of repetition, ecological relations of obligation, and their political implications.

The work on repetition and obligations that de la Cadena puts into brilliant focus in Earth beings springs from her collaborative exploration of divergent ways of being from the Andes. Growing from de la Cadena’s decade-long conversations with Mariano and Nazario Turpo, both indigenous Andean shamans (the father a paqu, Andean shaman; the son, too, but with weaker powers), this book is the story of emplaced human-nonhuman relations, their related politics in local land disputes, and how the “irrationality” of earth-beings, by transgressing the legal-illegal [560]distinction, is de facto a critique of the modern state and its disavowal of indigenous worlds. It is also a critical reflection on how current shamanic practices are misapprehended by regional, national, and transnational leaders and institutions that promote or partially represent them.

The resultant book is a remarkable achievement, not only merely in the compelling case it makes for ecologies of nature-humanity practices, but above all, at the level of method and authorship, where it models a concept of anthropology as of colaboring and writing “from” rather than “about” a specific place and land. Earth Beings is a work that exceeds the limits of the space I have here as there is no room to detail the treatment of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s perspectivism, to detail all of the aporias that mark the encounters of Mariano and Nazario Turpo with earth-beings, haciendados, state regimes, make-do archives, transnational and national cultural heritage spaces, and with de la Cadena herself. I will rather restrict myself to highlight what strikes me as three key areas of reflection that this brings productively to the fore.

Firmly situated within debates on indigeneity and decolonization practices (cf. Simpson and Smith 2014), Earth beings is an assemblage of multiple interludes on the nature-humanity divide. By queering the colonial and Christian conversion’s impulses to translate Otherness (of the Indian) into Sameness (of the Christian),2 Earth beings introduces a nuanced interrogation of the affective and effective relations between runakunas (people of the ayllu) and tirakunas (earth-beings) in the region of Ocongate, east of Cuzco. This book shows that the potency of a place cannot be separated from the linguistic forms that make it present by engaging with earth-beings such as Ausangate (mountain being entities that escape modern and secular representations by operating as “more than one and less than many”). Tirakunas are made present by language: they are when they are mentioned (de la Cadena 2015: 25). In tension with, and diverging from colonial representations, as well as later modern biopolitics of abandonment—representations that characterize the depiction of the Altiplano Andino—Ausangate unravel and are present through the animation of stories in place. Understood in this sense, successful indigenous protests cease to be signifiers of a historical, linear, and cumulative past, and become instead a constant presence in the landscape. De la Cadena explains that mid-twentieth-century conflicts over land titles, and later partial evictions in Lauramarca region involving runakunas, hacendados (the “owner of the will”), and state officials are better grasped as particular force-movements in space and time. Mariano, Nazario, and their fellow runakunas index this land dispute as queja Purichiy (literally, “walking the grievance”). What we learn is that grievance itself is not a signifier of (past) action, but a force, an orientation in space and time still present to this date in the landscape and in people’s life, despite the resolution of the land dispute in 1968.

Within this framing, landscape becomes intimately political but in ontologically divergent ways to those promoted and imagined by local authorities, the Peruvian state, and transnational heritage-making institutions (see the Washington [561]Smithsonian Museum). This is a living landscape, where the water lagoon is still the blood trace of the defeated haciendados, and holes on the ground are still the shelters where runakunas hid and tirakunas still live while walking the war (guerra ganar). Again, these are not the ontological worlds inhabited by the state apparatus, local bureaucracy, and Christian heritage, which have produced and imposed a certain regime of understanding (based on the imagination of individual actors’ repository of will and consciousness, within a genealogical, cumulative historical time). Yet, these worlds remain partially connected, in time and place, to Mariano’s and Nazario’s ontological worlds. In fact, if different ontologies are copresent in de la Cadena’s argument they are not exhaustively homologous, nor antithetically exclusive. They are onto-epistemic processes that partially connect (or compose “equivocation,” in Viveiros de Castro’s words) and animate multiple human-nature divides as well as the theoretical systems we have thus far developed about them.3

To say it in other words and more simply perhaps, divergent onto-epistemic stances coexist in de la Cadena’s study like different radio wavelengths. One does not preclude the transmission of the other, but they are not always intelligible to each other. If I am allowed to pursue this metaphor, what happens if the radio broadcast is in different languages? If we admit the presence of conditions outside our ontological standpoint, is this admittance already a drive to translation and incorporation into our own worlding? If God and religion in the Andes is already problematic and, as de la Cadena argues, a colonial “language of translation,” earth-beings should be understood to be incompatible with a language of “spirits,” and instead appreciated as runakunas—tirakunas relations taking forms in place.

This impulse, or drive to intelligibility has a long history that should give us pause whenever we risk conflating Andean Christian heritage and a monad-like Christian ontology. In the Possession of Loudon, Michel de Certeau describes in detail how the body of spirit-possessed nuns became the battleground for new forms of modern and “scientific” intelligibility. Perhaps at its core, what de Certeau’s study shows is that a (Christian) drive to intelligibility comes always at a price. In his account of seventeenth-century France, the price (a giving up, so to speak) was, among so much else, the autonomy a convent of nuns had from the long, patriarchal arm of the church. Nuns’ spirit-possessions, expressed in their uttering a language that they should have not been able to speak, saw a new form of intervention. That was a newly born scrutinization of the female body by a set of medical and confessor experts, the expression of the birth of a new and medical language—with the consequence that, after that scrutinization and later canonical legal assessment, the female convent was dismantled. Hence, even within Christianity the drive to intelligibility is only one side of the story, and it has often come at a cost. There is unintelligibility between worlds, and partial connections within Christianity too.

Therefore, Earth beings contributes to the contemporary critical discourse on indigeneity and decolonization practices not only via exploring divergence, processes of equivocation in translation, and partial connection between worlds, but also by prompting us all to make ecologies of practice a key area of study at the center of any living world.[562]

A second, equally complex aspect of Earth beings that demands mention is the manner in which the book implicitly engages with a long tradition of Andean anthropology. Situated within this tradition, de la Cadena’s work shifts the Andean “cosmos” away from the symbolic and toward the political. Whereas in the early 1980s, Tom Zuidema was taken by a cosmos as a classification of suyus (a quadrilateral spatial division, which center was Cuzco), a conceptual taxonomy that integrated “astronomy, cosmology, and sociopolitical structure” (1981: 169), cosmopolitics here is the generative tension between different ecologies of practice, or worlding. This tension in de la Cadena’s view is informed by a relations of divergence—a faltering, a refusal to an obligation of intelligibility, translation, and ultimately Sameness between worldings (de la Cadena 2015: 280). What cosmopolitics and its relation to “modern” politics can or might entail, in anthropology at large, is one of the main contributions of this book.

This work should also be read within the rich tradition of life histories in the Americas. In the early 1990s, when Ruth Behar’s Translated woman (1993) opened up a much-needed critique of the Writing Culture debate through a feminist ethnographic engagement with a Mexican peddler woman, we learned that we could not afford to ignore the complexity of gender positionality in any ethnographic practice. Blanca Muratorio’s The life and times of Grandfather Alonso: Culture and history in the Upper Amazon (1991) alerted us to the cunningness of the rhetorical features of indigenous oral narratives in Highland Ecuador, situating irony not only at the center of social interaction but also as a puzzling limit to its understanding. Framing Alonso’s life history as the exploration of a dialogue between dominant and subordinate cultural ideologies at play rather than a “self-centered dialogue between ethnographer and subject” (1991: 14), Muratorio already understood how forms of humor, irony, and contradiction shaped “alternative coherence to confront Christian cognitive categories and other acts of white conquest” (4).

Irony is hinted at, though not explicitly engaged by de la Cadena when she recounts Nazario Turpo’s all-expenses paid visit to Washington’s Smithsonian Museum to help set up an installation. The despacho, burning coca leaves, is represented in the installation inside the museum, but it can be acted out only outside the building: nobody among the museum staff was particularly interested in the actual despacho (the performance). Nazario carried it out then somewhere near by, beside the museum building. So he ironically inhabited the fine line between what he helped to set up and display, which actually was not (it was the representation of the despacho), and what it was (the actual make-do of the despacho) could not be contained within and had to be performed outside the museum. In Earth beings, explorations of life histories become inquiries into life-worlds. This inquiry then assumes a particular orientation: to question the onto-epistemic stance that drives to “secure” intelligibility between worldings. Instead, de la Cadena illustrates what may happen if we do not follow that drive, and we accept divergence (not difference) between worldings. We may become part of new and generative forms of equivocation.

Through this fine-grain ethnographic exploration, de la Cadena dwells on another classic tenet of Andean anthropology, the ayllu. Ayllus here are not territorial systems, products of cultural points of views, or the sum of kinship’s materiality produced by gendered, individual labor. They emerge instead as ecological nodes [563]in relations of care and obligation. Olivia Harris’ well-known analysis of ayllu explored it as a social structure composed of gendered as well as collective labor that benefited the community as a whole, and redistributed wealth equally among its members, and among other communities. Ayllu is then understood as a historically changing and ritually based social structure, made through labor-in-common (Harris 2010: 225–26). For de la Cadena, instead ayllus are living-in-common forms that bestow affective and ritual labor on personeros, runakunas, and earth-beings. But if Harris and anthropologists alike have placed gendered and ritual labor at the center of socialities in the Andes, de la Cadena’s work is surprisingly devoid of a gender and sexuality analysis. Sexuality as a generative, if at times violent, predatory, and even cannibal force—much present in Highlands and Lowlands ethnographies—is noticeably absent in de la Cadena’s account.

This brings me to my third and final point, on an area that is underexplored in Earth beings, perhaps also in other current ethnographic ontological explorations. The ontological worlds de la Cadena engages with are partially lived and sensed by sexed bodies, by bodies oriented through desires in space. Mary Weismantel in her classic work on Cholas and Pishtacos: Stories of race and sex in the Andes (2001) helped to refine our understanding of Andean4 socialities through the lens of sexuality and race as modes of exchange. The predatory nature of sexuality in the Andean world is unescapably colonial. Gift and predatory economies have coexisted for a very long time. Lived through both the bodies of market women (cholas), whose lived and imagined kinship does not fit bourgeois ideals, as well as through the affective incursion of white predatory entities (pishtacos) into local communities and ayllus, sex and race are expressions of profoundly unequal forms of exchange. The force of sexuality and race in economies of estrangement, exchange, and accumulation are, for Weismantel, the missing analytics in leftist scholars’ analysis of cholificacion. For de la Cadena, a missing analytics on divergent ontologies, instead, is what has prevented those same leftist scholars from productively engaging cosmopolitics, and appreciating indigenous leaders’ refusal to engage as active “leaders” in peasant-state confrontations (2015: 64).

De la Cadena’s argument emerges out of a “colaboring” with male leaders, whose status is guaranteed by a patrilineal line of shamanic descent. Women, in this book, appear only in peripheral vision, so to speak. Could we then interrogate de la Cadena’s nonrepresentational take on divergent worlds, and the generative potential of aporia between a lettered and an unlettered class (if the shamanic male line of descent does, indeed, constitute such a class) through Weismantel’s reading of antagonistic, predatory, and intrinsically violent encounters of coexisting racial and sexual formations? In other words, how might de la Cadena’s exploration of incommensurable ontologies change if the world of sexual difference, so peripheral in her account, were to be pushed more clearly into view? If sex is an attribute and an act of bodies as well as an orientation of desire in movement and place, are [564]ecologies of practice sexual? What is the sexual economy between (un)intelligible ontologies? I am here bringing attention to the relation between divergent ecologies of practice and the orientation of desire intrinsic to their partial connections.

Here a related question is how earth-beings become troubled. As life forces in movements they have moments of genesis, transformation, decay, and possibly suffering, too. By entering in kinship relation with runakunas, tirakunas need ritual repetitions; they shame while they are constantly in a bind of making runakunas obliged to them, they make them ashamed. Can an onto-epistemic analysis of relations of care, obligation, and shame do without the tensions of sexuality, desire, and impulses of predation and cannibalization? I am not sure they can. Every effort to move away from given dichotomies of culture and nature, of state representatives versus indigenous leadership should be encouraged, yet life-worlds here are still (partially) sexualized entanglements of obligation. If sexuality is a tension point between materiality, human and the not-human, partial connections are also lived through, and generative of sexual forces. Earth-beings are not governed by regimes of modern intelligibility, yet they are still material, elongating presences of desires, potencies, and failures. Perhaps we should indeed be queering the sex of earth-beings.


Behar, Ruth. 1993. Translated woman. Boston: Beacon.

de Certeau, Michel. 2000. The possession at Loudun. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

de la Cadena, Marisol. 2015. Earth beings: Ecologies of practice across Andean worlds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Escobar, Arturo. 2007. “Worlds and knowledges otherwise.” Cultural Studies 21 (2): 179–210.

Harris, Olivia. 2010. “‘Trocaban El Trabajo en Fiesta Y Regocijo’: Acerca del Valor del Trabajo en Los Andes Históricos y Contemporáneos / ‘They Turned Labour into Fiesta and Enjoyment.’ On The Value of Labour in the Historic and Contemporary Andes.” Chungara 42 (1): 221–33.

Muratorio, Blanca. 1991. The life and times of Grandfather Alonso: Culture and history in the Upper Amazon. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Napolitano, Valentina. 2016. Migrant hearts and the Atlantic return: Transnationalism and the Roman Catholic Church. New York: Fordham University Press.

Simpson, Audra, and Andrea Smith, eds. 2014. Theorizing native studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Starn, Orin. 1991. “Missing the revolution: Anthropologists and the war in Peru.” Cultural Anthropology 6 (1): 63–91.

Weismantel, Mary. 2001. Cholas and Pishtacos: Stories of race and sex in the Andes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.[565]

Zuidema, R. Tom. 1981. “Archaeoastronomy in Mesoamerica and Peru: Comment.” Latin American Research Review 16 (3): 167–70.


Valentina Napolitano
Department of Anthropology
University of Toronto, St. George
19 Russell Street,
Toronto, ON M5S 2S2


1. Starn argued that anthropologists working in the area for a long time failed to see the “revolution” of the Shining Path: “I believe that anthropologists still concerned with the interpretation of highland life need to break decisively from Andeanism. Two related moves seem to me crucial. One is to dismantle the binary logic of Andeanism: Andeanism/European, indigenous/Western, precapitalist/capitalist, pagan/Christian, traditional/modern. Instead of presuming the separateness of the Andean and Western we might begin to approach the plural identities in the mountains as particular ways of living built from inside far-reaching webs of power and meaning” (1991: 85).

2. In my own work I have explored this long-existing and originally colonial tension as problematically located in pedagogical impulses of the Catholic Church vis-à-vis contemporary transnational Latin American migration to Europe (Napolitano 2016).

3. De la Cadena engages in particular with the work of Bruno Latour, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, and Gilles Deleuze.

4. The “Andean” as part of an “Andean world” (in the singular) requires problematization. Part of the decolonial narrative with which we should be careful is its use as a timeless, cultural expression circumscribed to a particular territory (Escobar 2007). However, I use it here to point to the production of a scholarly body of work in this area. I am aware, though, of the limitations to use such a term.