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Andeanizing philosophy

Andeanizing philosophy Rodolfo Kusch and indigenous thought

Philip derbyshire

The belated English translation of Rodolfo Kusch’s Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América (originally published in Spanish in 1970)* introduces this Argentine author to an English-speaking audience for the first time. What makes his work interesting is that it takes indigenous thinking seriously as philosophy – that is, as a contribution to truth rather than myth.

Kusch refuses the default setting of anthropology, where the thought of the other is a local mapping of the world; rather, he sets out the truth claims of indigenous thinking and uses them to provide a critique of a tradition he regards as epistemologically erroneous and ethically dangerous. In this sense, indigenous thinking lies on the same conceptual plane as European thought and is coeval with modernity rather than belonging to a superseded epoch. Whilst such strong claims may turn out to be problematic, they provoke serious thought about the relation of European thought to its supposed Others and what emerges from their encounter.

The book arrives under the auspices of Duke University Press’s Latin America Otherwise series, with a ringing endorsement and long introductory essay by that series general editor, Walter Mignolo, who claims that Kusch ‘relat[es] mestizo consciousness and border hermeneutics’ and that his work is ‘deeply illuminating’ of Du Bois’s ‘“double consciousness” and Anzaldúa’s “mestiza consciousness”’. Kusch thus appears in English assimilated to Mignolo’s own project of ‘border thinking’. His translators make the claim that Kusch offers not merely a critique of ‘the logic of control’ that underpins Western thought but the possibility of another ‘more organic’ logic from which to reconstruct a sense of community as opposed to ‘ideology-bound’ forms of ‘building collectivity’. Kusch, like Cheríe Moraga, the thinker of Chicana consciousness, recovers a ‘form of thinking rooted in América’, a form of living that is ‘body to body collective activity that pulls the cosmos towards a renovation of life understanding of identity [sic]’. Kusch, then, is placed in a new genealogy of ‘border thinkers’ and seen as the herald of ‘liberatory, non-reformist, de-colonial, intercultural’ activity. The translation becomes instrumental to a politics whose main site of enunciation and reception is the US academy and in the process the complexities and particularities of Kusch’s writing – especially his own misreadings and misprisions – are overlooked and the rifts of his thought are sutured or ignored.

Arguably, then, there is a tension between text and appropriation, in part facilitated by the decision to translate this volume of Kusch’s work first, which leaves its antecedents and development slightly obscure, despite the long introductory essay. And, of course, the very belatedness of the translation means that Kusch’s singularity looks like the now-commonplace strategies of post-colonial critique and puts his work in the shadow of a much more articulate discursive production on and from the Andes. [1] Though the translation is serviceable, its occasional errors and general awkwardness also make already difficult thought less accessible to critical reflection. Nevertheless, Kusch’s work should be read as a contribution to a transculturation of philosophy and ‘thinking’ and the construction of a wider surface of comparability. The current attempt to construct a form of politics in Bolivia that engages indigenous conceptions of the social demonstrates the stakes and risks of such a mobilization.

This article frames the book via an account of Kusch’s context and earlier thought that stresses his debt to Heidegger. It goes on to outline the arguments and claims of Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América and raises what I see as the main problems with Kusch’s approach. Finally, it offers a critique of his conclusions and some further reflection on Mignolo’s appropriation of the text. * Rodolfo Kusch, Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América, trans. María Lugones and Joshua M. Price, with an Introduction by Walter D. Mignolo, Duke University Press, Durham NC and London, 2010. £16.99 pb., 978 0 82234 641 8.


Rodolfo Kusch was born to immigrant German parents in Argentina in 1922. He was educated as a philosopher, graduating from the University of Buenos Aires, but subsequently worked as a psychologist before undertaking anthropological fieldwork in northern Argentina and Bolivia – perhaps the most significant encounter of his intellectual life, whose fruits emerge in his extensive writings over the next fifteen years.

His work and commitment to the pueblo did not endear him to the dictatorship that came to power in the coup of 1976, and (like many) he chose internal exile, in the northern province of Jujuy, in Maimará, close to the Bolivian border, where he died in 1979.

Kusch belongs to an intellectual generation marked by dissatisfaction with the state of Argentina – its politics, culture and way of life – that would lead many to Peronism and nationalist populism. Others would follow another Argentine tradition to seek solutions to this felt crisis in Europe and its various ‘-isms’; still others would see salvation in the pop culture of North America; and a few, like Oscar Masotta, would combine such various allegiances in serial or contradictory assemblages. [2] Kusch expressed his dissatisfaction philosophically by a rejection of the central figures that had come to mark the Argentine philosophical tradition. In a reflex common across the cultural field, Argentine philosophy is marked by importation of paradigmatic figures, both minor and eccentric – Ortega y Gasset and Count Keyserling – and major – Heidegger and Sartre. These add to a native tradition of positivist naturalism that had been consolidated in the early development of psychology and sociology in the work of Ingenieros and Ramos Mejía (itself perhaps pendant to the work of Taine and Spencer). Kusch characterizes this tradition as ‘academic’, even as the work of Heidegger and Sartre provide him with his definition of philosophy as ‘the phenomenology of the everyday’ and his emphasis on the non-separation of philosophy from everyday life echoes the vitalism that informed the Argentine field with the dissemination of the work of Max Scheler (the most translated European thinker in 1940s’ Argentina).

The crisis of mid-century Argentina could not find an internal resolution: its solution had to be found elsewhere and Kusch is unusual within Argentina in turning to the indigenous cultures of America to provide the wherewithal for diagnosis and cure for the cultural malaise of modernity.

There was no important indigenist tradition in Argentina, [3] in large part because Argentina had not been home to complex urban cultures prior to the Spanish conquest of the kind whose material and ethnological legacies provided the basis for the cultural politics of post-revolutionary Mexico and 1920s’ Peru (although the Inca polity had extended south of modern Bolivia into the mountainous north of Argentina).

What indigenous cultures had been present in the national territory had been acculturated early (in the North) or been the object of campaigns of extermination in Patagonia and the Chaco. The ‘indigenous’ had been assimilated to ‘barbarism’, the antithesis of civilization, in a long tradition initiated by the work of Sarmiento. As Kusch himself observed, ‘to be an indigenist in Argentina is mad’. So, when he first engaged with ‘the indigenous’ in his 1953 essay ‘The Seductions of Barbarism’, there was a sense of blasphemous profanation of national self-definition.

This already grants him a singular importance in an Argentina that saw itself as a part of Europe misplaced on the American continent.

In turning to the indigenous, Kusch revisits and revalues the world-historical event of the conquest and the incorporation of America into the European domain. Here he parallels the narrative of ‘first modernity’ developed by Enrique Dussel, where the space and peoples that now denominate Latin American are seen as having been central to the very definition of Europe as a subject. [4] The ‘otherness’ of the cultures of the Americas provided a problematic difference whose subordinate accommodation within the imaginary of Renaissance religion, science and politics constituted both the identity of Europe and the categorial framework that it deployed in its ordering of the world. The moment of conquest marks the emergence of anthropology and its ambivalent relation to its objects, but also the transformation of anthropology into a philosophical universalism for which differences become moments of the same. The great inquiries into indigenous beliefs undertaken by the sixteenth-century friars had as their aim the understanding of native religion the better to combat and extirpate it. The histories and genealogies that were drawn up had a functional aim of governance and control, even if such texts always allowed for resistant dissemination.

For Kusch, the return to anthropology allows a dismantling of the universalist claims of philosophy:

the encounter with the repressed and negated in the form of living others permits him to offer a critique of European categories. In part, this is only possible because for Kusch the conquest and incorporation were incomplete: America is a riven continent. This division is expressed topographically: the urban is the site of the European and is marginal to a predominantly rural continent. Similarly, an upper rational stratum covers irrational depths. The journey from one to the other, the anthropological journey par excellence, is itself philosophically productive. The account of such journeys then becomes the privileged locus of philosophical work, and the staging of these trajectories and encounters is a central moment of the rhetorical construction of his essays. This maintenance of concrete distance, difference and spatiality distinguishes Kusch from Lévi-Strauss, whose re-encounter with the Latin American other (notably in Brazil) folds back into a new universalism, an abstraction that reconstructs European thought but confirms the subalternity of the ‘primitive’ moment (its materiality) as mere instance.

For Kusch, the content of indigenous thinking, and not merely its form, has truth value.


Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América first appeared in Mexico in 1970 and is one of the central works in Kusch’s œuvre, along with the as yet untranslated América profunda (1962), La negación en el pensamiento popular (1975), Geocultura del hombre americano (1976) and Esbozo de una antropología filosófica americana (1978). It illustrates his methods and concerns as well as the central problems with his work and with what we might call his philosophical style. What object is he constructing under the heading ‘indigenous and popular thinking’? And how does he do it? What does he think this thinking as? And how does his thinking express or transform what he is thinking about? The enmeshment of his own thought in what he would endeavour to escape from brings him close to the twentieth-century tradition of antiphilosophical philosophy.

His first significant essay, ‘Seductions of Barbarism’ (1953), is diagnostic, addressing the spiritual malaise of America, [5] the ‘neurasthenia’ brought with the city.

The cause of the malaise is the ‘scission’, the split that rends and troubles the region, detaching consciousness from the land. ‘The indigenous’ is the other of the urban consciousness that inhabits the ‘fictional’ city. In Kusch’s essay it has a phantasmagorical air, designated as ‘vegetal’ and ‘demonic’, a principle of rootedness or a ‘social unconscious’. It is illustrated by Aztec and Maya motifs – most saliently the Mesoamerican figure of Quetzalcóatl – and Kusch’s use of archaeology is often clumsy. The ‘indigenous’ is a cipher, a derivative abstraction rather than a real presence. Most problematically, culture is racialized: the ‘indigenous’ persists in the mestizo, the bearer of popular consciousness who is determined by the biological inheritance that allows him to be a return to pre-Columbian categories. This biologically transmitted demonism is then deployed as an explanatory principle to account for a ‘deep history’ of America. Sarmiento’s hierarchized binary, the two traditions of America, civilization and barbarism, is inverted. In this philosophy of history, the ‘indigenous’ is a ground for renovation – a site of potential – which exists biologically in the mestizo, who is the potential subject of a new authenticity beyond the artificiality of the colonial and post-colonial forms of America.

Barbarism identified with the rural masses is the positively valorized ‘law of the earth’ that returns after repression by the Conquest.

In this early essay, we can see the constants of Kusch’s thinking: the unsatisfactory state of Argentina now written as the problem of Latin America; the possibility of a redemptive transformation; the bearer of redemption as the indigenous or popular other. If any desire informs the work it is a desire for wholeness, another constant that finds here an organicist expression in botanical metaphors. Later this yearning for the absolute is articulated ontologically. But the status of the subject in all this is problematic. ‘Indigenous’ is not prima facie equivalent to ‘people’. The ‘Indian’ has a particular historical and cultural referent, whereas the ‘people’ emerges from the complex discourse of post-Independence nationalism and critical populism.

But this ‘people’ is only crudely definable in ethnic or racial terms, and the connections between ‘indigenous’ and ‘popular’ (in the sense ‘of the people’) are opaque, buried in the claim of biological inheritance and the centrality of the racial category mestizo. It is Kusch’s lived encounter with Andean culture that inflects this biologism in a culturalist direction, even if it never suppresses it. The indigenous subject takes on concrete form through the documentary writings of post-Conquest Peru, in the work of Guaman Puma and Santa Cruz Pachakuti Yamqui, [6] and in the everyday world of the Bolivian highlands. The generalized ‘native’ of this first essay takes on a specific cultural form in América profunda, the Andean, but this always risks becoming paradigmatic of all American or nonEuropean forms. Most signally, a radical topographical difference gives way to common existential experience that is lived in contrasting ways.

In América profunda Kusch outlines a schema of cultural development (‘an epic of consciousness’ in a later formulation) that bears striking parallels with Adorno and Horkheimer’s 1944 Dialectic of Enlightenment. The foundational experience of both European and Andean subjects is desamparo, vulnerability before nature. The difference that marks out their respective stances towards the world is a difference of the conceptual and material work done to manage that vulnerability. Europe, here seen as the urban civilization whose epitome is imperial Rome, produces a subject detached from a world constituted by objects:

vulnerability is overcome by mastery of the external world made objective. The American subject, on the other hand, remains within the world, endures that vulnerability through a ritual invocation of its potential opposite, shelter: the subject is passive, a moment of a wider process. These differential responses are contrasted ontologically: the European subject is, in the sense of being someone (in Spanish ser alguien); the American subject is, in the sense of being in a place (in Spanish, estar). The primary experience of the ‘wrath of God’, the terror in the face of nature, is transformed in the first case into ‘the wrath of man’ and becomes a moment of domination and aggression.

In the second case, ‘wrath’ is placated by ritual and becomes transformed into the basis of fecundation.

These differing responses to a primordial vulnerability have massive historical consequences. The European subject becomes a nomadic agent of conquest reproducing the split world of primary separation. As self-subsistent yet dependent on the objects it manufactures and dominates, a slave one might say to its own techné, it can travel, but it can only reproduce the same world: it is never rooted in a particular terrain, its being is universal but empty. Its problems are soluble by the manufacture of more objects or by the exercise of power on the world. The American subject by contrast inhabits a world and a terrain; its being is specific and full, but also at risk. The dangers of the world are not overcome by a manipulation of the world but by a bringing of the world (and, importantly, the god that is immanent within it, both chaos and fecundity) within the subject, aligning subject and world in a harmony that will guarantee fertility and abundance.

Kusch’s ontological distinction here has uncanny echoes of Adorno and Horkheimer’s characterization of instrumental reason and the notion of mimesis. But whereas for Adorno and Horkheimer, the (Hegelian) subject has only its own internal moments as resource for overcoming its diremption, Kusch’s different subjects encounter each other in a moment of dialectical fusion: phagocytosis, a term that plays a central role in América profunda, only to vanish in the later work.

The subject of domination, ser alguien, is ‘phagocytozed’ by estar – that is, absorbed by its other into a new, fecund, integrated whole. The biological metaphorics – phagocytosis is a process by which one cell absorbs another – continues the organicist thinking of ‘Seductions of Barbarism’ but also suggests the way the ontological split will be overcome at the level of corporeal reality. The power imbalance of European domination is not confronted directly but undermined by a slow and steady infiltration, transforming the subject of infiltration in the process. Kusch does not simply valorize estar against ser alguien, but suggests that the two modes of being are two halves that do not make a whole. Rather, some form of dialectical ‘reintegration’ is necessary – and it is the destiny of America to provide the lead in this new form of community.

Here we have a fusion of three lines of reflection:

the implicit teleologies of Hegel (the self-alienation and self-reappropriation of spirit as the trajectory of history) and Jung (the notions of mandala and ‘integration’ mark the traces of the Swiss psychoanalyst) and the urge to unity and complementarity that are seen to mark Andean culture. [7]

The consciously anti-revolutionary status of ‘phagocytosis’ should be noted. Although it could be read allegorically in a quasi-Maoist fashion, with the countryside enveloping the city, phagocytosis is differentiated from the violent revolution that Cuba was suggesting as the cure for social ills. Anti-Marxism features as another constant in Kusch’s thought.

América profunda reflects on a seventeenth-century text by Santa Cruz Pachakuti. In Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América the sources are more varied: field work in Bolivia yields numerous encounters which are deployed against readings of classic post-conquest narratives and interpretations of archaeological material at the Bolivian site of Tiwanaku. The form of reflection becomes more discursive, almost deliberately abandoning the standard logic of presentation and development.

Here there might well be an internal mimesis of his object. At one point Kusch says of Guaman Poma’s work that the ‘indigenous flavour is to be found in the lack of both clarity and syntactical co-ordination in the text’ (113). The antagonism to normative philosophy becomes more pronounced, reflecting a deeper engagement with indigenous categories and the life of the Bolivian campesinos. But the form of the text perhaps also expresses a felt anxiety about Kusch’s own position ‘in between’, since his existential project is a form of self-undoing via the other and his writing is the means by which he achieves it. It is not addressed to that other, but rather to his similars in the city. Much of the rhetoric of the book is characterized by doubt and a reflexive unsureness about its own speculation.

Most signally, it is clear that Kusch cannot speak Aymara or Quechua. His is a text in Spanish that relies on translations by others (the great colonial dictionaries) and addresses a Spanish-speaking audience. In the classic sense of Cornejo Polar, Kusch’s work is heterogeneous; that is, it speaks of cultural objects made by one group in a language alien to that group and aimed at a third audience. [8]

Kusch’s focus on thought or ‘thinking’ means that he presents the defining (and symptomatic) contrast in America as that between an implicit thought lived in the street and the campo or countryside, and a formal, reflexive thought constructed in the academy. Clearly, indigenous and popular thinking is not the thinking of the academy. The latter is a function of an imported conceptualism that responds to a historical necessity found elsewhere. Kant and Heidegger are expressions of the experience of the European middle classes in determinate historical periods. The experience of America is other and can only be badly translated through the language of philosophy. Instead we need to turn to the languages that describe American experience in situ: Aymara and Quechua for the regions that provide Kusch with his existential impulse to transcoding philosophy. For example, the Aymara term utcatha provides an understanding of lived reality as ‘mere being’ but ‘linked to the concept of shelter and germination’, an understanding that is more apposite to the experience of America than (Kusch’s example) Dasein, which reflects the diminished being of the German bourgeoisie. Here, then, European thought is provincialized avant la lettre, its universalism returned to its local particularism.

Thought is again split between two forms of subject.

The first, the European, has a relation to the world that is one of knowledge and instrumentality: the threat of nature is overcome by its manipulation as problem.

As Kusch puts it: ‘the end of knowledge is solution’.

The world is analysed and then recomposed according to the principle of causality. The second subject, the Andean, seeks salvation. Here knowledge is closer to ritual and implies a form of augmentation, whose term in Aymara, yachacuni, brings it near to sowing and germination. In the first case, knowledge is the rectification of a problem, a dysfunction. In the second case, knowledge is an expansion, a moment of fertility. These contrasting modes of knowledge indicate a relation to what might be termed propositional truth.

In the first style, the subject is not implicated in the assertion of a proposition about the world: truth is external. In the second, the proposition includes the subject who utters it: the world it refers to has the potential to destroy the subject. So we have a causal thinking that entails a reduced manipulative subject, and what Kusch calls a ‘seminal thinking’ that implicates the subject in the threatening but fecund world.

These styles of thinking are associated with respective cosmologies. The ‘disenchanted’ or ‘enlightened’ world of ‘evaporated’ being is dominated by causality; the ‘mythic’ world that is ‘stretched between the Teacher of Being and the Chaos of Non-being’ is infused by seminality. But the urban world of manufactured objects is haunted by the absence of the second modality of thought: for Kusch, a stunted, undeveloped or infantile version of seminality is present in the drive to solution – a frenzied production and manipulation of objects is a displacement of a drive for an internal transformation.

This leads to a stress on what might be described as the existential moment of being (in Spanish estar, one of the two verbs ‘to be’), the modality of being that characterizes the Andean world, against the mode of being of the urban subject. Estar is to be exposed, to experience the así (the ‘thatness’) of the world, the contingency that the world is at all. Estar turns out to be the place of a clearing where the two forms of thinking – causal and seminal – intersect and offer a potential reappropriation of the absolute. Heidegger is invoked as the European thinker who saw the importance of estar but who gets its value wrong: the Heidegger of Being and Time remains in thrall to the Greek metaphysics of being and evades the issue of the inadequacy of ser by rushing to a frenzied activity marked by the centrality of time. There is an inauthentic estar which is mere survival (the figure of Agamben’s ‘bare life’ is not too distant) and an authentic estar which is akin to dwelling.

The providential absence of industrialism is just what gives the space for estar to elude the fate of ‘enterprise’: ‘Latin America is a world without an Industrial Revolution, at the margins of the West’. Estar – even though a Spanish term and hence in Kusch’s historical linguistics a creation of the Spanish ‘people’ who sought to distinguish realms of ‘being’ – takes up a possibility of existence that is characterized by the term pacha in Quechua. The primordial moment of exposure is a disclosure of the unnameables that bound the cosmos. The space of estar, then, in its non-degraded mode, entails a demand on the world for fullness, a longing for completion: the sense of the absolute, which is the unity of opposites, the totality that just is (beyond ser and estar?). The rip in being which is the space of estar, lived either as dwelling or dispossession, is only tolerable through seminal thinking.

The ethical seriousness of Kusch’s project can hardly be gainsaid and the recuperation of a devalued cosmo-vision is to be endorsed. But the problems of his methodology are perhaps more obvious now than when his work first emerged, and the philosophical work he does has its own difficulties.

First, as indicated above, the category ‘indigenous thought’ has a shifting aspect in Kusch’s work. The tendency to construct a homogeneous notion that makes continent-wide cultural productions expressive of some fundamental existential stance – where Mexica, Maya,

Andean and Amazonian forms all reflect a fundamental estar – would now be seen as deeply problematic.

On the one hand, the real differences between, say,

Mesoamerican and Andean forms are occluded (the profusion of Mexica ‘gods’ against the abstemious and austere personae of Inca theology) or are reduced to surface phenomena of an underlying relation to nature.

On the other, the characterization of the Inca polity as governed by an urge to equilibrium is deeply mistaken.

Such a characterization can hardly account for the extraordinary dynamism of its last century, its expansion across the length of the Andes and its relation to history and religion, as it retold the genealogies of dominion and the configurations of the sacred. Nor can it make sense of the transformations of the land that are an integral part of Andean society: solutions might have symbolic overcodings but irrigation systems and mountain terracing are nevertheless solutions to real problems of resource management. This leads Kusch to ignore the power systems of pre-conquest America – either refusing to engage with any analysis of Inca modes of rule through consciously manipulated symbolic recomposition or the ‘biopolitics’ of population transfer, or claiming that inequalities are a function of a legitimate preference for a ‘seminal’ economy over leftist ‘causal’ reform. A tendential idealization is the obverse of a staunch critique of progress and modernization.Second, the status of post-conquest accounts of Andean belief is much more problematic than Kusch allows. Recent scholarship on the work of Guaman Poma and Santa Cruz Pachakuti points out how complex a weaving of Andean and Christian elements is involved in their production. Rather than being univocal texts that can be read transparently, they are rather semantically ambiguous essays in their own right, testing the limits of permissible equivalence between native and European designations, collocating patterns and motifs, eliding material that might have been considered ‘idolatrous’, and so on. Written when the effects of the Counter-Reformation made selfinvigilation a more urgent requirement for indigenous writers (whose purpose in writing was anyway tied up with the demands of evangelization), the texts are neither simple statements of native belief, nor fully accomplished syncretic productions. They are complex negotiations of what it is possible to believe and assert, products of an active dialogue by the subaltern.

And this perhaps is also true of the vernacular materials that Kusch adduces as supports for his reading of the ‘indigenous’. Elements of a pre-conquest belief system might survive in the logics and stances of Kusch’s native informants, but they may also be testimony to complex changes over time. There is a presumption of stasis, the persistence of the residual, which places the indigenous subject where he is later to be found.

Third, there is the problem of Kusch’s binary thinking, his drive to produce antithetical accounts of clearly differentiated subjects, whose totalized homogeneity at the level of theory belies the posited practice of phagocytosis or estar siendo, the later ‘unity of opposites’, and requires persistent rebinarization. On the one hand, he overlooks the ways in which his European subject arrives at moments of critique and rearticulation that echo his own critical alternative, and, on the other, he ignores the ways in which ‘causal’ thinking is at work in indigenous pratice.

Kusch is clearly indebted to Heidegger in characterizing differences of culture as differences of being, and for thinking of these differences as having authentic and inauthentic modalities. Whereas the Dasein of Being and Time attains authenticity in resoluteness towards death, for Kusch this moment of Heidegger’s thought merely reflects the attenuated being of the individual caught up in German industrialization. Yet Heidegger himself comes to abandon this form of thinking Being on the basis of Dasein and sets out on a critique of technology and ‘calculative’ thinking, himself posing a redemptive other form of thinking in what is usually translated as ‘meditative’ thinking (Nachdenken). The latter is a form of openness to mystery, and ‘releasement towards things’ that leads to a new ground, which, citing Hegel, Heidegger sees as the source of a new rootedness and fecundity. [9] Despite Kusch’s animadversions, then, later Heidegger, the paragon of causal thinking, arrives at something like seminal thinking.

On the other hand, notions of causality are surely at work in the extraordinary taxonomies and accumulation of empirical data in ethno-botany and herbal lore that were part of the armament of traditional healers.

Illness might well be a disturbance of health and wholeness, but restoration of health involved specific measures requiring agents and the manipulation of objects. Kusch needs the binaries, but they always threaten to collapse or mutate, and indeed his whole project is that they should. Yet it is arguably the diremptive moment that endears him to Mignolo.

Coloniality and beyond

For Mignolo, Kusch exemplifies a form of thinking that is not philosophy, which for him is tainted with the power–knowledge mechanisms of coloniality. Mignolo wants to suggest that engaging with the thinking that was subalternized during the expansion of Europe in the Americas allows thought to escape that coloniality in a way that critique from within ‘Western thought’ cannot. So the critical thinkers of the West – Derrida,

Foucault, or earlier Nietzsche and Marx – are limited by deep structural ontological commitments premissed on colonial forms of power. Only a thought outside has a hope of offering a place to think. Mignolo makes a number of claims about coloniality, which he understands (after Aníbal Quijano) as the condition of the world produced by the great expansion of European empires from the fifteenth century onwards. Coloniality is not merely a form of rule or exploitation, the construction of subjects of power and accumulation.

It presupposes a set of epistemological relationships:

not merely the subject and objects of knowledge, but the form of knowledge imposed upon the colonized spaces are linked with the colonial project of subordination and exclusion. His famous example is the way in which alphabetization of the Indian languages translates a form of knowledge – analytical and causal – into cultural forms that have other ontological and epistemological commitments.

Coloniality is the central mechanism by which a unified Western subject is produced by social and epistemological elimination (of Islam and Judaism in Spain at the perceived inception of modernity) and homogenization (more problematic, but work done on knowledge to render it serviceable for the project of domination). Coloniality always reproduces the site of origin of history, again subordinating other histories to a claimed universal narrative: so the histories of the Andes or Mesoamerica (Tawantinsuyu and Anáhuac in Mignolo’s slightly suspect hetero-imperialist renamings) as told from the point of view of their inhabitants are reduced to superseded anteriorities of the Conquest.

The encounter in Tenochtitlan or Cajamarca always has a European point of view. To evade this ‘monotopism’ it is necessary to shift focus and to speak à partir de, from another positionality, the border, the place where the hold of coloniality weakens, where another thinking occurs. Hence Mignolo’s endorsement of Kusch’s project, or at least his reading of it: he sees Kusch as an example of ‘mestizo consciousness’, attempting to think à partir de indigenous thought, even as he remains grounded in immigrant European thought (German thought in America is not German thought in Europe, he observes). His claim is that Kusch does not understand the mestizo biologically, a claim I have already disputed. Mignolo also elides the problem of the relation between ‘indigenous’ and ‘popular’ by making the ‘popular’ mestizo, but without clarifying the particularity of its content.

In Mignolo’s introduction to Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América, the great nineteenthcentury Argentine poem Martín Fierro is posited as a form of mestizo writing: Mignolo claims Kusch’s reading of the poem as a ‘paradigmatic example of border thinking’. However, this precisely evades the question of the ways in which the poem is an imaginative recuperation of a devalued form of existence and its subordination through a certain positivist capture of territory and subject. In the second part of the poem the gaucho Martín Fierro voices the form of law and the substance of positivist naturalism, even as he ‘conquers’ the black representative of ‘barbarism’.

What this foundational work of both the Argentine state and Argentine literature actually exemplifies is a complex and unstable space of articulation and dialogue. Mignolo’s reconfiguration of the term mestizo remains in thrall to a biologism and to a certain homogenization, just as his history itself performs the epistemological operation of unification that he claims is enacted by the Western subject.

If Mignolo refuses the heterogeneous nature of Western thought (in part for the worthwhile aim of re-engaging with subordinated forms of knowledge), then he also homogenizes the heterogeneous forms of non-Western societies. Kusch’s idea of the seminal economy is made universal and Mignolo characterizes all of ‘the connected part of the planet’ and the Andes and Mesoamerica as operating within its terms, save for the ‘market economy’ of the imperial West.

Now this seems close to an economic Manicheism, both occluding the particularity of the Americas and denying the dynamic market forms of Ming and Qing China. [10] Mignolo’s ‘grand narrative’ seems to enact a horror of complexity even as he invokes its necessity.

As Mignolo’s work has become more radical over the years (compare his more nuanced account of Kusch in his 2000 Local Histories/Global Designs), [11] he has come to find the constraints of Western metaphysics even more powerful. The rejection of coloniality comes to be a rejection of any possibility of internal critique, even as this problematizes Mignolo’s own stance: the performative contradiction of writing his critique in English or Spanish within a conceptual framework embedded in a Western subjectivity. But this disavowal of self-implication in the parameters of Western thought is accompanied by a disavowal of the desire at work in the positing of the redemptive indigenous subject, which entails an apocalyptic misreading of non-Western thought. Redemption is only possible through the thought of the other. But this places a particular demand on the indigenous subject to be the subject of salvation, a form of neocolonialism all too common in Latin American (and other) thinking about the ‘indigenous’.

Mignolo might retort that his ‘border thinking’ is not a search for a pure outside, but rather a demand for a thinking that begins with the experience and history of other subjects. His political theodicy implies that the suppression of that possible site of enunciation is a function of Western power/knowledge but articulates that suppression primarily as conceptual. Yet he is at pains to criticize Kusch for his treatment of women on grounds that owe much to ‘Western’ extensions of notions of democracy but might find difficulties in the ‘traditional’ apportionment of gender roles in some documents of the Bolivian Movimiento al Socialismo.12 What grounds this critique of complementarity other than a conceptual and practical politics derived from Western feminism? And if this is the case, then the legacy of the West is not wholly negative.

The problem here is one that constantly emerges from the critical challenge of post-colonialism. If the self-image of the homogenous Western subject as uniquely charged with truth and the future is overthrown, how do we assess those knowledges subalternized in its ascent? And how do we assess the particular truth claims (and indeed notions of truth more generally) articulated by the ascendant West?

These debates parallel debates within the philosophy of science after the challenges of historicism (Kuhn), methodological scepticism (Feyerabend), sociologism (Bloor) and feminism (Harding). The intimations of answers in these cases lie in weaker, more flexible and dialogic notions of truth and knowledge. Similarly, answers to the former problems seem to lie in the opening up of the space of reflection to the numerous traditions of thinking that pre-date and parallel the rise of modern Europe. But such an inclusivity cannot ignore the contributions of Western sciences and philosophy, nor the ways in which they produce the possibility of their self-critique. The encounter can only be a consideration and critique of multiple sources of thinking, all examined under the sign of self-reflective argument. In Kusch, as in Guaman Poma, dialogue means argument, the deployment of forms of rationality (each expanding what might be included under such a heading): the making coeval of ‘notions’ from different traditions of thinking precisely requires articulation as the form of production of truth.

The critical requirement for reading Kusch is recognition that his own dialogic work is done on ‘indigenous’ thought productions that were already dialogically engaged with Christianity (and Augustinian Tridentine Catholicism at that), as well as on contemporary folk beliefs that are posited as ‘timeless’ but that may betray traces of multi-sourced construction. His work is to engage in the production of systematicity and totalization, enacting what is surely the primordial desire of philosophy. But pace Mignolo et al., Kusch’s work is only suggestive of how the task of critical dialogue might be pursued.

Some of the most interesting models of such a dialogue are taking place now in Bolivia, where pachakuti, revolution, has brought new subjects to political power. There, the state is attempting a project of industrialization, especially around mineral extraction, whilst seeking to embed notions of communality and nature derived from traditional social forms within the constitution and quotidian political practice. The results are often messy and contradictory, even risible as in the recent celebration of Inti Raymi as ‘year 5574’ of the Aymara calendar, which cut against anthropological disciplinary knowledge: the Aymara did not have such a calendar and the notional date is imaginary. Yet such inventions of tradition are part and parcel of the West’s own imaginaries, and risible results can equally well flow from bien pensant attempts to see these subjects as ‘multitude’, ignoring the complex cultural forms that constitute them.

Mignolo places Kusch side by side with Ernesto Laclau, as articulating different approaches to the ‘popular’, but one might equally well look at how Laclau’s model of discursive surface could provide a way to read Kusch, as an example of the messy process of rearticulation.


1. ^ Here the work of Denise Arnold and Juan de Dios Yapita is exemplary, for instance their The Metamorphosis of Heads: Textual Struggles, Education and Land in the Andes, Pittsburgh University Press, Pittsburgh, 2006.

2. ^ See Philip Derbyshire, ‘Who was Oscar Masotta?

Psychoanalysis in Argentina’, Radical Philosophy 158, November/December 2009, pp. 11–23.

3. ^ Though the Argentine national anthem does refer to Argentines as ‘sons’ of the Inca, a legacy of the legitimation crisis of Independence and its search for forms of creole authority. See Rebecca Earle, The Return of the Native, Duke University Press, Durham NC, 2007, p. 3.

4. ^ Enrique Dussel, América latina: dependencia y liberación, F. García Cambeiro, Buenos Aires, 1973; a recent restatement of his position is in ‘Europe, Modernity, Eurocentrism’, Nepantla, vol. 20, no. 3, 2000.

5. ^ This is a Latin American genre whose examples include the Mexicans Samuel Ramos and Octavio Paz – especially the latter’s Labyrinth of Solitude (1951) – and the Argentine Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, with his X-Ray of the Pampa (1933).

6. ^ Wamán Puma (Guaman Poma) was an indigenous writer of seventeenth-century Peru, whose New Chronicle and Good Government, a compendium of information and reflection on Inca history and contemporaneous political and social problems, was addressed to Philip III of Spain, although it was lost until its fortuitous rediscovery in Copenhagen in 1906. Juan Santa Cruz Pachakuti Yamqui was writing in Peru at the same time, and his Account of the Antiquities of this Realm of Piru (c. 1600) is the focus of Kusch’s commentary in América profunda.

7. ^ For an English discussion, see Sheila Arup, ‘Symbolic Connections in Pachakuti Yamqui’s Cosmological Diagram’, in Arte, história e identidad en América: Visiones comparativas, Instituto de investigaciones estéticas 37, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico, 1994.

8. ^ See Antonio Cornejo Polar, Escribir en el aire: Ensayo sobre la heterogeneidad socio-cultural en las literaturas andinas, Editorial Horizonte, Lima, 1994.

9. ^ Martin Heidegger, ‘Memorial Address’, in Discourse on Thinking, trans. John M. Anderson and Hans E. Freund,

New York, Harper & Row, 1966, p. 57.

10. ^ See Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2000.

11. ^ Walter Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges and Border Thinking, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2000.

12. ^ See, for example, ‘Socialism comunitario’, in Nueva Crónica y Buen Gobierno, 24 November 2009.

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