Connections and disconnections

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Catherine J. Allen. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.003


Connections and disconnections

A response to Marisol de la Cadena

Catherine J. ALLEN, George Washington University

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

My thanks to Marisol de la Cadena for her response to our commentaries about Earth beings (2015). I am glad we have this opportunity to continue the conversation. Regarding her response to my own comments, there is little to which I take exception. I would, however, like to revisit the issue of representationalism, and briefly respond to some issues within the present debate.

In my initial response to Earth beings, I took exception to de la Cadena’s statement that “ayllu relations cannot be represented; the separation that this requires (between subject and object, signifier and signified) severs the inherently relational character of beings in-ayllu” (2015: 134). I raised the khipu as a counterexample. I am not sure what she means in her rejoinder by “analytical accelerations,” although I gather she means that colonial/modern modes of representation sever khipus from their operational context within the ayllu. I quite agree. Nevertheless, we know that khipus were used to represent things and relationships in powerful ways that facilitated Inka administration of a highly centralized, expansive, oppressive (but not modern) state.1

My point was not to enter into a conversation about khipus, interesting as that may be, but to express reservations about what seems like over-hasty framing of the analysis within the postcolonial critique of representation. Ironically, I have argued for at least twenty years that using representation (or metaphor) as an analytical concept in Andean contexts has a distancing effect, causing us to see symbolism [12]when we should more accurately see consubstantiality and mutual enactment (Allen 1997, also 2016). These arguments were empirically based and—while I felt I was exploring a new conceptual space—I did not generalize to a rejection of representation per se, nor did I ascribe a moral/political valence to my semiotic orientation (beyond the moral imperative to think clearly). While I agree that Western modes of objectification (among other factors) have shaped the engines of modernity, I don’t see what we gain by turning “nonrepresentationalism” into an ideology.

Ayllu-as-process is richly documented in the ethnographic literature. I’m gratified that de la Cadena draws frequently on my work and I think this positions me to counter her dismissal of the bulk of Andean ethnographic literature as uninteresting (see, for example, de la Cadena 2015: 95, 101). Although I understand that Earth beings was not written primarily for Andeanists, I agree with Canessa that, in a book whose subject is the ayllu, we need a more comprehensive, on-the-ground treatment of how an ayllu works. De la Cadena glosses the ayllu’s mode of relationality as uyway, “always-mutual care,” cautioning that this does not imply egalitarianism: “intra-caring follows a hierarchical socio-natural order; failure to act in accordance with in-ayllu hierarchies of respect and care has consequences” (2015: 103). What consequences? What are these hierarchies and how do they fit into this panorama of intra-caring? A short section could have addressed these questions and clued-in readers to the extensive and insightful literature on the subject. “Always-mutual-care” does not convey the inner dynamics of ayllu relationality as an often-brutal process of mutual consumption. Thus, in spite of her disclaimer, it’s likely that non-Andeanist readers are left with exactly the idealized impression that de la Cadena wants to deny.2

Reading de la Cadena’s response along with Hornborg’s rejoinder was an ironic experience of partial connections. I share Hornborg’s frustration with opaque postcolonial discourse, but more interesting are points of convergence and divergence in their respective positions. In his 1994 article, Hornborg articulates a position similar to de la Cadena’s, that “modernity is a strategy of conceptual encompassment of local life worlds,” noting that “to confront modernity through public discourse means to be absorbed by it” (Hornborg 1994: 259, 260). Similarities of position are also evident in a more recent article that advances relationality as a corrective to the Cartesian suppression of “relatedness”: “nothing could be more revolutionary than to try to rekindle some of our pre-modern attitudes as we confront the demons of our own making” (Hornborg 2006: 11).

There is, nevertheless, a very significant difference in their positions: Hornborg argues against using ontological difference as an analytical tool. “Only by keeping Society and Nature analytically apart can we hope to progress in the demystification of that ‘hybrid’ web in which we are all suspended, and which more than anything else obstructs our pursuit of ‘relatedness’” (2006: 10). This certainly runs counter to de la Cadena’s “ethnographic cosmopolitical proposal” to diverge from “the [13]established partition of the sensible” through a de-colonial practice of politics (2015: 281). The difference leads Hornborg, as well as Canessa, to misunderstand de la Cadena’s proposal. She is not advocating that we subscribe to indigenous ontologies, which would be impossible: “I can acknowledge earth-beings through Mariano and Nazario, but I cannot know them the way I know that mountains are rocks” (2015: 63). Acknowledgement—respect that does not require agreement—is what she wants to bring into the public sphere. Canessa is concerned that this “politics of ontological disagreement” implies that anything goes, that any position is as good as any other. This is not what de la Cadena intends, but I think Canessa flags a genuine problem. I have no difficulty in acknowledging (although not sharing) Mariano’s ontologically distinct position. But what about parties whose positions I don’t respect, like creationists; or even abhor, like neo-Nazis? Where do we draw the line? Ultimately, I don’t think that a “politics of disagreement” is workable in other than exceptional local contexts. Nevertheless, Earth beings conveys an admirable and provocative message about the importance of learning to converse across radical difference.


Allen, Catherine J. 1997. “When pebbles move mountains: Iconicity and symbolism in Quechua ritual.” In Creating context in Andean cultures, edited by Rosaleen Howard-Malverde, 73–84. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 2016. “The living ones: Miniatures and animation in the Andes.” Journal of Anthropological Research 72 (4): 416–41.

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

Hornborg, Alf. 1994. “Environmentalism, ethnicity and sacred places: Reflections on modernity, discourse and power.” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 31 (3): 1–10.

———. 2006. “Knowledge of persons, knowledge of things: Animism, fetishism, and objectivism as strategies for knowing (or not knowing) the world.” Ethnos 71 (1): 1–11.

Yates-Doerr, Emily. 2016. “Mushroom worlds and earth beings: A resurgence of postrepresentational anthropology.” Medicine Anthropology Theory 3 (1): 171–78.


Catherine J. Allen
Department of Anthropology
George Washington University
2110 G St., NW
Washington, DC 20052


1. Note that imperialist expansion was not, in the Inka case, driven by Western modes of objectification.

2. For example, a review of Earth beings by an anthropologist who works outside the Andes includes as its penultimate sentence, “To long for the purity of the prose of Mariano’s in-ayllu (in which there is no separation between event and its narration, signifier and sign) is to long for the impossibility of the perfect, stable translation” (Yates-Doerr 2016: 176).