domingo, febrero 01, 2009

Nelson (1999). A finger in the wound.

Diane Nelson. 1999. A finger in the wound. Body politics in Quincentennial Guatemala. Berkeley: University of Berkeley Press.

Chapter 1 Intro:
Nelson uses the metaphor of a wounded body politics, and a finger that deepen the wound in a still postcolonial and post-civil war Guatemala with multiple sub-divisions and tensions en carne viva. In the introduction she set up her journey through a highly complex and very frequently re-visited social landscape: ethnic relationships, nationalism and the state, gender violence, modernity vs. tradition, and racism just to mention some. But she manages to give new insights and a fresh look to what was going on in Guatemala at the late 1980s and beginning of 1990s. Nelson says that her book is not only “an ethnography of the state as it emerged from thirty years of civil war and military dictatorship” (4), but also is an ethnography of the emerging Maya’s and Ladino’s identities that are intricately related with the reconfiguration of the nation-state as a producer of articulations between modernity and tradition, nation and ethnicity. Nelson tries to grasp the articulations that cause, and are the condition of, Quincentennial Guatemala as a moment of danger and fear. Following Hall she defines articulation as “a relation, a joining that creates new identifications and social formations” (2). She also defines Quincentennial Guatemala as the “sickening fear, the fierce exhilaration, and the doggedly persistent hope of these intricately articulated emergings” (4).

An important thing worth to remember is that Nelson is analyzing a process, and she reminds us that 20 years ago (in 2009 this means 30 years ago) “Maya” in Guatemala was either part of Archeological knowledge, something of the distant past; or when referring to linguistic difference; or when government were making tourism promotion. However, for 1992 it was clear that Maya people were following a deep reorganization through indigenous activism with pan-indigenous goals (to move beyond the local ethnic differences). But Nelson is aware that identity should not be seen as “easily taken” or “willfully discarded” (5), instead identification occurs through the small buildup of slight effects of “orthopedic change”, and she takes orthopedic in a Foucaultian way, is an endless recurrence of sites of power that are historically overdetermined, and through “unconscious investments and resistances” (5). Nelson ultimate aim in this book is to show how ethnic, gender and nation-state identities are reciprocally produced, and those they do not exist outside their relationship to each other.

History as Catastrophe: First of all, between 1978 and 1984 an estimated 70.000 people (mostly indigenous) were killed, 40.000 disappeared, and more than one million (1M out of 8M, to compare with Canada would be if 4.25M would have to escaped) flee the country during the civil war. The military contra-insurgency literally wiped out hundred of indigenous villages in the highlands and created a political economy of violence that was loaded with feelings of fantasy and paranoia.

Because Nelson focus is indigenous activists, she made the distinction that themselves do between “cultural rights groups” and “popular” sector with a more classic leftist and Marxist class orientation. She focuses only in the first group because she considers the latter organizations underestimate the power of race and racism and she will concentrate in organizations that focus on linguistic, education and development issues. But she always has in mind the inter-relationship between Maya organizations and the Ladinos reactions, and how they in turn are forced to think critically of their own identity. Both identities are embedded in myriads of meanings and stereotypes; Indian is sometimes coded as female, others as child. Therefore, the Quincentennial Guatemala is a strange site for ladino identification because it recognized it’s own body politics as wounded. But also is central here the role of the state, a schizophrenic state, that on the one hand tried to wipe out or force assimilation Maya indigenous people but on the other used them as tourist resource and workers. This double bind in Batesonian terms of love and hate is what characterizes the relation between Guatemala’s state and Maya organizations.

Nelson relies in the idea of “body image”, how a subject represents his/her own body, other bodies, and how other people represent the subject’s body to talk about the wounded body politics, because the body image is required to manage any prosthetic. But she is also concern with multiple dimensions of popular culture such as pleasure and laughter and therefore jokes, movies, fashion, and science fiction would be central. Her approach to these issues is using a “methodology of fluidarity”, a “practice and analytics that combine solidarity –being partial to, as in the side of, the people I work with- with an acknowledgement of how partial, how incomplete, my knowledge and politics have to be” (31).

Chapter 3: State Fetishism and the Piñata Effect.
Nelson says, “Although most agree that the Guatemalan state is politically exclusive, ethnically discriminatory, and economically monopolistic, it may be precisely because of this insecurity, this tenuousness, that the state is also open in some ways” (84). This is what she calls the “Piñata Effect”: the idea that if you shake it, you’ll take the sweets. This attraction and repulsion to the State not only from the Maya’s but ladino’s (and other minority groups) point of view create multiple tensions, desires, and jokes. One central notion here is that the nation-state is in ruins. Perhaps because ladinos now are recognizing that are not an homogenous category (there are struggle between which ladinos will control the state apparatus). Or, perhaps, because class is interpenetrated with ethnicity and so what was a given now it is not any more. In any case, Maya are becoming cultural stronger but ladinos feel cultural weaker, and so it is projected an identity crisis onto the nation-state. But at the same time the process has produced a certain denaturalization of the relation ladino-national identity-control of the state: now ladino’s identity is a problem. Before culture was a sign of Maya’s powerless but now that they are organized culture made them more fashionable (and relatively more powerful), whereas, in contrast, ladino’s identity become more problematic.

There is the image of the ruin, the state is in ruins, the ladino’s identity is in ruin, Guatemala lives for and of the (Mayas) ruins; all this fueled by the sense that the state has no legitimacy after decades of military and civil elite government (with no clear line between both) and under constant suspicious of being a bunch of corrupted and ignorant people. Indeed, the state was a military state, and by the 1980s the counterinsurgency had affected directly or indirectly almost all Guatemalan families. During 1985 and 1996 many things remained the same (violence and assassinations were still happening) but others started to change. In 1996 there was the Peace Accords and the feeling of “democratic spring”, although Guatemala kept being a militarized state (the Army still today holds an enormous economical, political and legal power). Nelson also considers Chatterjee’s idea that the colonies were the first places in which the metropolis tried modernity, and she shows how in Guatemala the highlands were a “modern laboratory” in which model villages as state policy reterritorialized the indigenous villages in order to gain a better control and particular forms of governmentality in the “counterinsurgency war”. But in this process, Nelson also shows how the “new” army was the only state institution that really understood indigenous issues (trying to transform the womanized Maya into masculine bodies in the army, using Maya symbolism, etc.).

The “state” is neither different from the “civil society” but not the same, there is a complex intricate relation of interpenetration in which state policies tried to fix in a double way of stabilizing (homogenizing, erasing and dominating) and repairing Maya culture (Maya language unification and approval of new laws protecting indigenous rights). These paradoxes, Nelson asks, can be grasped with the idea of state fetishism? And what about the idea of “piñata effect”? For Nelson it represents the contradict sense of hitting the state for being corrupt, racist, and responsible of ethnocide and at the same time waiting to gain the power and resources that are magically projected onto the state. Both Maya and ladino relations in the topography of the state are overdetermined by what Zizek calls “ideological fantasy” (I made a typo, that now I’ve found interesting to consider, I typed indeological fantasy), a sort of dreamwork process through which social relations take contingent forms. The tension between “Maya” and “ladinos,” as heterogeneous as they may be, was also centered in terms of modernity and tradition. The visible emergence of Maya organizations made clear that national and ethnic identities, and modern and traditional claims, are not given but subject to struggles and contestations. Things changed and Maya organizations started to adopt the symbols of modernity while at the same time contested ladinos’ use of Maya images, especially gender uses of Maya women, for their own particular interest.

Chapter 6: Bodies that splatter.
There is certainly a battlefield of the allegedly integrated national ethnicity of mestizaje shaped by the elites’ racializing and womaining discourses and practices that interconnect nation, gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality as reciprocally constitutive. The tortured and wounded and massacred splattered bodies are polysemic and mean differently according to each specific body and the particular audience (for the army is an enemy that in 40.000 times had to be disappeared, for the Maya is a sign of injustice and impunity), and this also means that Guatemala as an ethnic-nation is split (“a nation that is not one”). The body politics of Guatemala also splatter because it is in constant malfunction, ladinos, mestizos, and Maya are mutually constituted as others, the political production of difference is what makes splattered bodies and what can help us to understand some of the national fixations with the Maya as woman and ladino as man (woman as the “universal donor” to the blood politics of mestizaje). For Nelson, this fixated claim that in Guatemala everyone is mestizo, and because of this the racialized body does not count and only culture counts, creates the belief produced by elites and ladinos that “because we are all racially mestizo, then we can escape racism” (240). But instead this shows the fragile instability in which ethnic and racial categories are built in Guatemala in which a ladino is anxious to be taken as an Indian and where ladino elites are trained to “see” (through some kind of false consciousness) the difference between Indian and white bodies while at the same time hide that they may actually be mestizos.

Chapter 9: Global Biopolitical Economy
Maya are a source of all kinds of labor and forms of cultural and material production that depend on the state regulation and on contingent articulation of identifications, which Nelson calls “prosthetic dependence on gendered bodies” (350), and she describes the way gender and sexuality are linked with a body politics as a biopolitical economy. But a third-world biopolitical economy, with a wounded and incomplete body politics, it is also a source of inner and outer conflicts. For instance, Maya culture was considered as an obstacle to the development of Guatemala in both left and right narratives (its backwardness and its incapability for revolution). But the same Maya culture helped Guatemala to organize its participation in the global economy after 1985. And Guatemala was not the only Latin America country that during the 1980s and 1990s was object of IMF and World Bank neoliberal policies intended to “adjust” and modenize the pre-modern and traditional nation reducing the state (and leaving it open to the penetration of international policies) but at the same time re-producing culture as a “productive resource” when tourism became the main industry (fueled by the same images of pre-modernity and tradition that were supposed to be erased). Here Nelson brings again the idea of prosthetic, this medium that inter-connects different bodies politics images: between Maya and ladino, women and men, poor and rich, modernity and tradition, which all work inseparably together.

But ultimately, Indian women as the concentration of indianness are key to both the national and international biopolitical economy. They are working in many cases in unpaid jobs and supporting their families, speaking out in the peace process (in which Rigoberta Menchu is only one of them), they are pushing to reconsider machismo within Maya organizations, but they are also the images that attract tourists who would look for them when traveling to Guatemala. But now that the constant articulations of identities made the state and Maya organization reformulate themselves and one to another, now that Maya identity is powerfully shaped by the state and vice versa, still many more contradictions are being inscribed and explode in more prosthetic relationality because these bodies politics are gendered, racialized, imagined, and fantasized in vulnerable and incomplete fluid ways.

After this overview I think I don’t find much to criticize or even to problematize Nelson’s work because it is a very fresh and rich study with a broad aim and profound intrincacies. She is conscious of her own gringa position and she takes a political and epistemological stand on the side of the heterogeneous Maya collective, and especially on the Maya women. Her emphasis on the relational aspects of history and bodies politics the need to see the interconnections and mutual influences between gender, race, ethnicity, nation, sexuality, modern and traditional discourses and practices, and national discourses of mestizaje is what I found very interesting about her book. The only question I have is now, in 2009, ten years after she wrote her book, how cynical (disbelieve in politics) and/or pragmatic (believe in micro-politics) Maya women and men, Maya organizations have become in relation to the spaces of maneuverability within their own organizations, with the state, and with international agencies? How much pragmatic cynicism or cynical pragmatism is part of our everyday experience as citizens of the modern states in which more or less all feel that talking about, acting upon, and producing a practice in relation to our inequalities and inner divisions is like putting a finger in the wound?

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