Rethinking Peruvian Studies: De-Essentializing the Andeano - 1


William W. Stein



In the last half century both the intentions of Andeanist researchers and the context of research have changed radically. When I began to prepare in 1950 for field work in Peru’s Callejón de Huaylas, there existed only a handful of library sources I could use for orientation and they served more to disorient me than to furnish guides. Without models and with little more theoretical foundation than a vague distrust of history and a rather severe faith in progress, I plunged into work in a place called Hualcán; and only the kindness and gentleness of the Hualcaínos saved me from running in terror from otherness, they having overcome their fears that I was about to steal their fat(1) and I having decided that writing down in field notebooks everything I could see or conceive of was better than the shame of ethnographic decompensation. I had come to Peru with a longing to have an authentic experience "elsewhere," to encounter some genuine essence in place of the pretense, sham, and fake values in my "here and now." Chris Bongie (1991:20), inspired by Joseph Conrad, remarks that such an "idea without a future" promises only "a present that is conditioned by an absolutely lost cause."(2) I was defeated before I started.

At mid-century the notion of "peasant studies" had not yet appeared and I thought I was in Peru to live with Quechua-speaking "indians." But I recall my disappointment at the discovery that the "elsewhere" I found was not "pure" enough for me. It consisted of poor people. I was made aware of the class/ethnic distinctions in the valley by mestizos, the bilingual intermediaries who oriented me, and I believed that "integration" would solve all problems. I saw the oppression in people’s lives but I did not see the meaning of Peruvian peasant life. Peter Gose (1986:3) illustrates this meaning with a description of the peasants of Huaquirca, Apurímac:

These people are peasants, not just as a matter of occupational fact, but also as a matter of cultural value. The way in which they work their fields and pastures is fundamental to their sense of who they are, and this expressive dimension of their work regularly spills over into what we might want to call "ritual." Growing crops is not just a means to an end for the commoners of Huaquirca, even though they want to eat well and have abundant provisions for the coming year at harvest time. They also grow crops as an end in itself, to make the earth come alive.

Since I had brought so much of my "here and now" with me, I made many mistakes in listening and unlistening to people, translating, interpreting, and writing. This will come as no surprise to you, whether you know my work or not. An ethnography contains an autobiography, and so you can perhaps read through the text of my book on Hualcán (Stein 1961) to the perplexity which formed as well as crushed many of my intentions there and led me to compose a chronicle of the impossible..

Such is the nature of Andeanist discourse. I employ the term "discourse" here in Michel Foucault’s (1972:38) sense: "Whenever one can describe, between a number of statements, such a system of dispersion, whenever, between objects, types of statements, concepts, or thematic choices, one can define a regularity (an order, correlations, positions and functionings, transformations), we will say, for the sake of convenience, that we are dealing with a discursive formation." I also endeavor to follow Foucault’s (27-28) model in treating a "discursive totality" in order to "rediscover beyond the statements themselves the intention of the speaking subject, his [or her] conscious activity, what he meant, or, again, the unconscious activity that took place, despite himself, in what he said or in the almost imperceptible fracture of his actual words; in any case, we must reconstitute another discourse, rediscover the silent murmuring, the inexhaustible speech that animates from within the voice that one hears, re-establish the tiny, invisible text that runs between and sometimes collides with them. The analysis of thought is always allegorical in relation to the discourse that it employs. Its question is unfailingly: what was being said in what was said?" Thus, "in one way or another, things said say more than themselves" (110). The advantage of discourse on discourse is that, in pointing to what people are saying and meaning, it frees one from concern with the intensity and frequency of what people may or may not "believe," or the longevity of what they "believe," not to forget the price, profit, marginal utility, and capitalization of their "beliefs."

Discourse takes place in a field of symbolic power. Pierre Bourdieu (1993:80-82) replaces the concept of "linguistic competence" with one of "linguistic capital": "Linguistic capital is power over the mechanisms of linguistic price formation, the power to make the laws of price formation operate to one’s advantage and to extract the specific surplus value ... When I bring in the notion of the market I underline the simple fact that a competence has value only so long as it has a market ... That is what I mean by linguistic power relations: they are relations that transcend the situation, irreducible to the relations of interaction as they can be grasped in the situation." He continues:

[I]f a field functions as a censorship, that’s because someone who enters the field is immediately situated in a certain structure, the structure of the distribution of capital. The group does, or does not, grant him [or her] the right to speak; it does, or does not, credit him. In this way the field exercises a censorship on what he might like to say, on the deviant discourse, idios logos, to which he might wish to give vent, and forces him to utter only what is appropriate, what is sayable. It excludes two things: what cannot be said, given the structure of the distribution of the means of expression—the unsayable—and what could be said, almost too easily, but which is censored—the unnameable ...
[O]ne needs an analysis of the social conditions of the constitution of the group in which the discourse is produced, because that is where one finds the true principle of what could and what could not be said there. More profoundly, one of the most effective ways a group has of reducing people to silence is by excluding them from positions from which one can speak. Conversely, one of the ways for a group to control discourse consists in filling the positions from which one can speak with people who will only say what the field authorizes and calls for. (91-92.)

An Andeanist, Frank Salomon (1982:32-33), writes of Andean "chronicles of the impossible," the small corpus of indigenous narratives of conquest times:

As always, the defeated fail to make themselves clear. They necessarily speak partly through ideas and myths not their own, and partly through those that are too much their own to be readily conveyed in a foreign vehicle. Unlike any kind of writing generated inside one cultural tradition, the writing of the defeated tries to speak through two qualitatively different systems of thought at the same time ...
This literature therefore belongs in a class by itself, a class different from either myth or history, and in fact opposed to both. Myths, we learn from structuralism, solve upon the plane of thought what cannot be resolved practically, while history as it is written attaches a retrospective intelligibility to the events which were unintelligible as people lived through them. Only the defeated writers make insolubility their home ground. Their position is untenable but they will not budge from it; and in their unflinching contemplation, they have something to say to many whose situation, while not so extreme, is perhaps not entirely different after all.

In writing on the writing of Andean writers, Salomon constructs an Andeanst discourse on Andean discourses. As Wallace Chafe (1994:44-45) says, "In writing, the language producer and receiver usually do not share the same space or time. It is in fact one of its major benefits that writing allows language to be carried from one place to another and to be preserved over long periods of time. Nothing is without its costs, and writing sacrifices the benefits of copresence—above all, direct and immediate involvement with another mind ... Written language is usually desituated, the environment and circumstances of its production and reception having minimal influence on the language and consciousness itself." Thus, The "something" that old texts "have to say" in a different context may depend more on the affect the reader contributes than that with which the writers wrote. Yet I find it easy to empathize with Salomon’s empathy.

In the terms of psychoanalytic discourse, anyone whose ego has been squeezed, or worse, between a harsh, conquering, demanding superego and an insatiable id can identify with the peasant populations of the Andes who have been paying tribute to their conquerors for centuries, enduring their incorporation into their countries as something less than citizens, and being spurned as an inferior race. Yet, Brooke Larson (1998:324) points out, Andean colonialism has "to be studied ... as a fundamentally contested historical process." Thus the resemblance, the metaphor, dissolves under close scrutiny. Or has it dissolved? Am I not in this essay contesting Andeanist discourse at the same time I am writing it, doing ethnology and metaethnology together? And saying something of the "unsayable, because it goes without saying"?

However much Andeanist ethnographers project their wishes and desires into the ethnographies they produce, we are not Andeans but Andeanists. And Nathan Wachtel’s (1994:105) extreme observation that "the anthropologist, inevitably taking advantage of his privileges, and gathering information which he then delivers to the outside world, performs the work, metaphorically, of a vampire," has "something to say" to all of us. At the same time, Wachtel (139) says of the community he studied: "While I got mixed up in the history of Chipaya, Chipaya also got mixed up in mine." Maybe, then, we can view both him and Chipaya as "heroes of the resistance."

My own ethnographic encounter was something less than heroic. In her admittedly "somewhat cartoonish characterization of the Romantic impulse," Nancy Fraser (1989:93) points to its lionization of "the figure of the extraordinary individual who does not simply play out but, rather, rewrites the cultural script his sociohistorical milieu has prepared for him." I am not such a hero. While I was looking toward the construction of an "exotic project" I also viewed the Hualcaínos I lived with as pre-modern, and my mission as one of assisting them to modernize, to open their eyes. Consequently, I was engaged in what Bongie (1991:22) exposes as a "duplicitous act of simultaneously renouncing and, as it were, re-announcing the exotic, affirming and negating it." Thus, I found myself attempting to preserve what had disappeared. Bongie (26) writes:

The exoticist project ... attempts to re-present what has "always-already" been lost and forgotten; only once this project has been exhausted does the possibility of truly remembering the exotic arise—of remembering it, that is, as what can never be truly remembered, as what is absent, vanished.

Many Peruvians—but no Andeanists I know—believe that "indians" are bad for their country and should be "educated" or "developed" or "integrated" out of that state of otherness. It is a modern carryover of the colonial association, reported by Irene Silverblatt (1987:195), of "witchcraft, maintenance of ancient traditions, and conscious political resistance." Linda Seligmann’s (1995:207) critical comments on both the Shining Path movement and the Peruvian state are relevant: "Though their ultimate objectives may differ, both ... have placed inordinate emphasis upon the power of education and ideology to transform ‘bad indians’ into ‘good indians.’ They also share a common desire to rob peasants of their identities in order to shore up their own identities and political power." The opaqueness of Quechua and Aymara to monolingual Spanish speakers makes "indians" subversive of public order, and so it is easy to understand how military and paramilitary troops can take pleasure in slaughtering unarmed peasants.

As a very young anthropologist, I believed myself to be disinterested(3) and culture-free. Yet, though I tried to move beyond the false belief I was immersed in, as Olivia Harris (1995:16) comments, I found it difficult "not to privilege the coming of the white people," or to utilize the field experience narcissistically.(4) I think that I and many others of my generation, in writing our ethnographies of peoples we saw as blind, to paraphrase Jacques Derrida, failed to comprehend that we were writing ethnographies of the blind, of ourselves, while we could also—and paradoxically—see our others as possessing more vision and wisdom than ourselves.(5)

What a contrast with today! We now have several library shelves full of marvelous ideas about living Andean peoples, their history, and their ethnohistory, research models for coming generations. It is possible to prepare for the field with a sense of problem and direction. In this context research becomes a social rather than a solitary activity, one in which ethnographic texts construct each other.(6) Alone, I tried to perform a "community study," unsuccessfully, I might add, for I soon discovered that, like it or not, I was engaging with a region the boundaries of which were uncertain and not with the small sealed-off social universe I had hoped for. But the Hualcaínos were in no way timeless. They traveled to the desert coast on the west and the subtropical regions to the east to work and trade, and half of them managed to make a living without getting enmeshed in peonage with the small estates that squeezed them from below. They were proud of their skills in feeding, clothing, housing, and reproducing themselves (though infant mortality was high). Not so the Vicosinos, microholders who lived on an hacienda a two-hour walk to the south, over foothills of the mountain range that closed the Callejón de Huaylas off on the northeast.

The personnel of the Vicos Project(7) were plunged into the same set of ideas as I was. We call these now "development discourse."(8) In confronting Vicos poverty, the Project researchers characterized these farmers with microholdings as "incapable of feeding themselves."(9) They chose an odd metaphor to characterize the Vicosinos, one which seems to picture them as infants or small children who must be fed by caretakers, but it turned out simply that the people must engage in wage labor off their farms and outside the hacienda to complete their subsistence. So Vicosinos could feed themselves. I think that the researchers had only the best intentions of improving life for the hungry people by modernizing farming—in addition to their desire for career enhancement, which is not exactly a sin in the world we know—, but they unconsciously impressed an infantile and degrading image of Vicos into what they wrote, as well as one which placed Vicosinos outside history. Mary Louise Pratt (1992:61) likens the task of such modernizers to "advance scouts for capitalist ‘improvement’ to encode what they encounter as ‘unimproved’ and, in keeping with the terms of the anti-conquest (a utopian and more innocent version of their own authority, as opposed to brutal forms of conquest), as disponible, available for improvement." Such an

improving eye produces subsistence habitats as "empty" landscapes, meaningful only in terms of a capitalist future and of their potential for producing a marketable surplus. From the point of view of their inhabitants, of course, these same spaces are lived as intensely humanized, saturated with local history and meaning, where plants, creatures, and geographical formations have names, uses, symbolic functions, histories, places in indigenous knowledge formations.

The authors of the unintended insult have, as Homi Bhabha (1994:66) says, "employed the concept of ‘fixity’ in the ideological construction of otherness."(10) That is, they gazed at Vicos and saw stasis.(11) They saw a history that was to begin with them. Thus, pre-Project Vicos was converted into Anne McClintock’s (1995:30) "anachronistic space," an empty, timeless region "passively awaiting the thrusting male insemination of history, language, and reason." The developers appeared to anticipate that if the Vicosinos mimed(12) them Vicos would emerge from a childlike condition to full adulthood, repeating in this way the progression of humanity "up" from a primal state.


  1. The image of the slaughterer, a vampire who sucks the fat or vital energy from people, exists throughout the Central Andes. In some places called pishtaco, in other places ñakaq, and elsewhere kharasiri, he is a white man who inspires terror. Anthropologists are sometimes taken for these fearsome beings and, as will be shown later in this essay, sometimes take themselves as such. See Peter Gose (1986), Nathan Wachtel (1994), and Mary Weismantel (1997).
  2. Bongie (1991:77) proposes the term "conscious fetishism," or "affirmative deconstruction," for "a ‘guilty’ (weak) re-enactment of [a dream] whose precondition is the absence of what (never) was." I will elucidate this in the forthcoming discussion.
  3. In an essay entitled, "Is a disinterested act possible?", Bourdieu (1998:89) concludes that, whether or not it is possible, "it is better to seem disinterested rather than interested, as generous and altruistic rather than egotistical."
  4. Harris (1995:20) concludes: "Alongside the perennial fascination amongst Europeans with the idea that they are treated as gods, there is a more recent interest in seeing ourselves reflected back from the eyes of those others, no longer necessarily as gods, sometimes as demons, sometimes merely with acute mimetic realism ... . We have moved from a convention of the invisible observer, the authoritative voice of objectivity, to a new more reflexive position, one that takes pleasure in the otherness of ourselves, the Europeans, as seen through the eyes of exotic observers."
  5. In his analysis of drawings of the blind, Derrida (1990:2) begins with two hypotheses, first, that a "blind man can be a seer, and he sometimes has the vocation of a visionary," and, second, that "a drawing of the blind is a drawing of the blind." He continues: "Double genitive. There is no tautology here, only a destiny of the self-portrait. Every time a draftsman lets himself be fascinated by the blind, every time he makes the blind a theme of the drawing, he projects, dreams, or hallucinates a figure of a draftsman, or sometimes, more precisely, some draftswoman. Or more precisely still, he begins to represent a drawing potency at work, the very act of drawing. He invents drawing. The trait is not then paralyzed in a tautology that folds the same onto the same. On the contrary, it becomes prey to allegory, to this strange self-portrait of drawing given over to the speech and gaze of the other. The subtitle of all these scenes of the blind is thus: the origin of drawing. Or, if you prefer, the thought of drawing, a certain pensive pose, a memory of the trait that speculates, as in a dream, about its own possibility. Its potency always develops on the brink of blindness. Blindness pierces through right at that point and thereby gains in potential, in potency: the angle of sight that is threatened or promised, lost or restored, given. There is in this gift a sort of re-drawing, a with-drawing, or retreat, at once the interposition of a mirror, an impossible reappropriation or mourning, the intervention of a paradoxical Narcissus ... ."
  6. Rosaleen Howard-Malverde (1997:6) offers this "conception of the text-context relationship": "While ... context can rightly be said to be constructive of text, from another perspective, context can also be taken to be constructed by text in processes of interactivity. Thus conceptualized, context itself becomes a phenomenon shaped in social interaction."
  7. This research and development project, which took over an hacienda near Marcará, Ancash, is known in North America as the "Cornell-Peru Project" and in Peru as the "Proyecto Perú-Cornell." While I believe that Peru should come first, to save confusion I refer to it as the Vicos Project. Professor Allan R. Holmberg’s work there in the early 1950s was funded by the Carnegie Corporation.
  8. I elaborate on these views in "Chapter 3. Food and fetish: the potato experiments," in Vicissitudes of Development Discourse in Peru, The Modernity Project at Vicos, which is currently being translated for publication in Lima. I hope eventually to publish a North American version of this book. "Development discourse" is identified by David Ludden (1992:247-248) as one based on an organic analogy: "Economic development appears to be a process of quantitative growth and structural change that, like growth and differentiation among cells, occurs in the object world, independent of the numbers that measure it and the conditions that affect it." Thus: "‘Underdeveloped’ and ‘developing’ imply immaturity and unrealized potential; development discourse is replete with the assumption that the realization of potential lies in mature capitalism." He adds: "Imperialist politicians project power from the heights of capitalist maturity and routinely speak as adults talking about children, in the rhetoric of national superiority, responsibility, philanthropy, and self-defense. ... In this way, the language of history and politics defines the world by development, its absence, and its spread from the West."
  9. Holmberg and Dobyns (1965:1) begin their study of the Project’s intervention in production at Vicos by stating the course of agricultural development there as a "transition by a population of Andean Indian farmers from less than subsistence production, incapable of even feeding themselves, to more than subsistence farming—commercial agricultural producers on a modest commercial scale."
  10. Bhabha (1994:66) continues: "Fixity as the sign of cultural/historical/racial difference in the discourse of colonialism, is a paradoxical mode of representation: it connotes rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy and daemonic repetition."
  11. This myopia was prevalent at the time they wrote. In my work on Hualcán (Stein 1961) I had occasion to refer several times to the static character of life in the community. The point is neither to damn the Vicos researchers or to beat my own breast. Myopia can easily be corrected.
  12. What the Vicos Project ignored was what Michael Taussig (1993:250) speaks of as "the power of the copy to influence what it is a copy of."


© William W. Stein, 1999,

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