Mistranslating relationism and absolving the market

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Alf Hornborg. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.005


Mistranslating relationism and absolving the market

A response to Marisol de la Cadena

Alf HORNBORG, Lund University

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

Although I disagree with its central conclusions about the ontology of tirakuna, I found Marisol de la Cadena’s book Earth beings (2015) to be commendably readable and accessible. The methodological jargon was not inflated to the point of obscuring the author’s position. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same thing about some parts of her response to the Hau book symposium. I am frustrated by anthropological arguments that are so opaque that they are largely incomprehensible, even to people who have identified with the field for several decades (Hornborg 2017). It is almost tempting to dismiss such styles of discourse as bluntly as David Bloor (1999: 97) dismissed the jargon of Bruno Latour: “it is obscurantism raised to the level of a general methodological principle.” A text that does not contain the keys to its own deciphering, but builds on allusions to other texts that the reader cannot be expected to have read, is simply incomplete. To recycle obscure refrains like, “it matters what relations we use to think other relations with,” does not promote clarity. I am afraid I do not understand what de la Cadena means by phrases like “analytical accelerations” or “de-accelerating interpretations.” Does this disqualify me from participating in the discussion, or should it perhaps be incumbent on de la Cadena to express herself more clearly?

De la Cadena rejects my assertion that differences in class and purchasing-power are common parameters through which power can be gauged and challenged—somehow implicating my position as reinforcing such differences—but we will not make those differences go away by subscribing to a runakuna ontology. Had [20]I attended the Lima meeting that she mentions, I would have acknowledged the promotion of such a perspective but probably observed that I do not share it. As de la Cadena herself has noted, that ontology was not what saved Ausangate. To imply that my phrase “accommodation to modernity” is “benevolent” is quite misguided, but my critique of modernity would focus on unraveling its own cultural peculiarities rather than resorting to ontologies that have proven incapable of resisting it. An anthropology that truly transcends coloniality must seriously subject modernity itself to cultural critique—not simply by attempting to resurrect that which modernity has supplanted but by identifying its own cultural logic.

It is also quite misguided to suggest that I have claimed that neoliberalism does not have “colonialist and modernist aspirations for uniformity,” or that I have positioned myself “within that uniformity.” The underlying uniformity of neoliberalism pertains to the universal solubility of exchange values—commodifying Andean “shamans” and mountains alike—but the insidiousness of neoliberal logic is that the superficially democratic approach of multiculturalism tends to render the specific cultural content of human lives arbitrary, as long as people adhere to the premises of the market. Rather than endorsing this dissolution of meaning—as something more existentially profound than adopting a fashion, enjoying folk music, or choosing a restaurant—a truly de-colonial anthropology would need to expose the cultural foundations of the market itself. Neoliberal concessions to diversity are instrumental to market logic at the submerged level where this logic is rarely questioned.

Contrary to de la Cadena, I have argued that to talk about people’s relations to mountains is not equivalent to talking about those people or those mountains. Relations should not be objectified into features of people or landscapes. It is finally unclear if de la Cadena thinks of earth-beings as denoting human-environmental relations or features of mountains. Does Ausangate actually have agency? Can earth-beings purposefully cause bus accidents? De la Cadena’s ambiguous translation of runakuna relationism risks converging with the touristic reification of rural Peruvians into “shamans” and their mountains into “earth-beings”—precisely the objectified selves and objectified landscapes that are so diagnostic of modernity.

I would not agree with de la Cadena that my analysis is “hasty” or that I need to be “calmed down,” but I admit to having certain convictions about the logic and the consequences of extractivism, and about the implications of these convictions for political positioning. These convictions do not include attributing animateness to mountains or endorsing attempts to communicate with them—no more than I believe that prayers will stop climate change. While indigenous claims about the sanctity of a mountain may at times serve to protect it from extractivism (Hornborg 1994), to sympathize with the political effects of those claims is not equivalent to subscribing to indigenous ontology.

I am disappointed that de la Cadena has not responded to several of the questions I posed in my review, so I repeat some of them here. Should anthropologists be prepared to adopt any conviction they encounter, or is skepticism or even denial at times appropriate? Does the Christian God (and associated artifacts) have political agency? Is the exclusion of earth-beings from legal discourse more deplorable than secularization in general?[21]


Bloor, David. 1999. “Anti-Latour.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 30 (1): 81–112.

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 31:245–67.

———. 2017. “Dithering while the planet burns: Anthropologists’ approaches to the Anthropocene.” Reviews in Anthropology 46 (2–3): 61–77.


Alf Hornborg
Human Ecology Division
Lund University
ölvegatan 10, Lund