The narratives about the reality of the pandemic have become so dense that I feel unfit to carry out an even slightly structured analysis of the impacts of everything that is going on. I’ve exposed myself to too much informational stimuli and analysis that examine the context of the pandemic as it relates to the economy, bioethics, health care systems, the impact of quarantine on mental health, structural inequality and its consequences, and even interesting analysis on fake news.
Discussions about whether the effects of the pandemic will lead to the end of capitalism or its renewal as something even stronger take up a large part of debate in different online forums. I admit that I don’t have enough elements to guide me through this shower of ideas, and then to come up with a diagnosis that would allow me to think about taking more or less defined positions. In the midst of all of this content, I’m particularly interested in the impacts and the responses to the pandemic that are being produced by Indigenous communities (pueblos).
As I looked for that information, I came across a well known yet particular phenomenon: in many online spaces, knowledge that has been generated in Indigenous communities about the body and health are described as possible alternatives to confront and even “cure” COVID-19, there are even those who go to extremes to explain how rituals of “Toltec science” can create a protective shield against the coronavirus. Predictably, there are then those who say that Indigenous knowledge about the body and health are totally useless, that they’re believed only by naive and ignorant people, and that only scientific knowledge can confront a pandemic.
These discussions are not new, of course, and they remind me of the impossibility of translating between distinct systems of knowledge and validation. The Mixe system of production and socialization of knowledge has its own spaces and mechanisms, just as the system of production of scientific knowledge has its own spaces and mechanisms of production, which is done in specific languages, validated through a system of peer review, generated in particular institutions, and validated through prizes and publication in specialist journals. None of this occurs without defined historical conditions or ethical questions, or outside of a particular economic, social or cultural system.
The scandal unleashed by the statements of French doctors who suggested that tests for a vaccine for the novel coronavirus could be carried out in Africa force us us to go back and ask questions about the historical relationship between colonialism and scientific production, to give just one example.
How much scientific knowledge has been based on colonial exploitation? Science is a system for producing knowledge, and it is but one of many that exists in the world; like the Mixe system of generating knowledge, science is subject to history, to the economy and to the cultural and social dynamics within which it is developed.
The biologist César Carrillo Trueba has explained how, from the western tradition, relations with other systems of knowledge production can be established in one of three possible approaches: disdain, idealization or validation. Open disdain is the easiest to detect, I’d say at this point I’m almost used to how the Mixe system of knowledge about the body and the world are discursively equated to quackery or ignorance.
In contrast, Carrillo Trueba makes plain how idealization is the other side of the coin of disdain: from this perspective the search is for essential knowledge in Indigenous communities that is opposed to the wickedness of western science. The traditional medicine of our communities is presented as pure, primitive and natural knowledge, stripping it of its historicity and its complexity. The idealist perspectives reinforce the idea of the “noble savage” and, in many cases, create dynamics of extractivism and unjust cultural appropriation.
Aside from disdain and idealization, validation seems to me to be one of the most dangerous mechanisms, because it is both imperceptible and apparently well intentioned. Carrillo Trueba explains how knowledge from some traditions is validated, leading to the fragmentation of those systems by only accepting one aspect of knowledge as valid. Validation is a complex phenomenon that I will not describe here, and which Carrillo Trueba has explained very well. I would rather focus on the the linguistic operation that I think is a key part of validation: the act of naming
As a friend explained the workings of certain herbs for curing a fever in the Mixe tradition during a forum, a professor interrupted him saying that that wasn’t science, “Mixe science” he said proudly. “It’s not science and that’s a good thing,” I thought of responding. The Mixe system for generating knowledge does not function socially the way the scientific system does: we don’t have indexed journals or specialized prizes, nobody counts how many times their article is cited in order to measure its impact, and we don’t have to negotiate with corporations in order to finance specific research, among other differences.
Validation operates through linguistic recognition when knowledge that has been generated through a different system is named, and is accepted as “science.” This recognition has at its center an implicit idea, which is that scientific knowledge is, in essence, superior, and that recognizing knowledge produced in culturally distinct systems is to elevate them. Calling knowledge generated in a different system “science” implies a hierarchy of systems of knowledge, upon which western science sits on top. To begin with, in terms of narratives, validation shows how the west refuses to take its place as an equal in a world of diverse systems of knowledge.
This same operation of validation through naming also takes place with other phenomena. There are multiple and diverse women’s movements in the world, of which each struggle by women connects to their context, their aims and their needs, every movement presents its own prioritization of demands or desires, and in which these are proposed and discussed in multiple languages in constant contrast. In some cases the priority could be the recognition of women as holders of communal land title, in others it could be the decriminalization of abortion, or in others, as K’iche’ sociologist Gladys Tzul explains in this extraordinary interview, women’s desires could be focused on the possibility of reading and interpreting the Quran from a feminist perspective.
The priorities of women’s struggles are established in different ways. But validation is at work when a diversity of women’s movements are named feminist. The struggle of the women of my community has as its central demand access to a fundamental communal good –the spring from which we have always drawn water– is not feminist and that is a good thing, our struggle hasn’t read feminist texts and isn’t organized in waves.
This should not, in any way, be read as an anti-feminist perspective. Rather, it is about recognizing that, just as science is a particular system of knowledge among many distinct systems of knowledge in the world, feminism is one of many kinds of women’s movements that exist in the world. In order to dialogue in conditions of equality, we must begin from the act of naming. The validation that comes from naming exposes a power relation: one side has the potential to legitimate the validity of the other side via a label within their own system.
Validation also takes place in other actions, which may appear unrelated. All languages in the world have poetry, daily language in some circumstances takes other shapes and creates an extraordinary linguistic moment in which words create an aesthetic effect. In the Mixe tradition, this poetic function is related to ritual, and it is most commonly exercised in that context. These inner manifestations of the poetic are often named literature, and this, again, is an act of linguistic validation.
Literature is a specific manifestation of the poetic function of language which is inscribed in a system determined by publishers, in which objects called books are for sale in stores, rituals like book talks and systems of validation like literary awards or author grants. The Mixe poetic tradition has its own systems of creation and functioning. Tseltal shamanic chants, Mixe prayers and Zapotec ceremonial speeches are all part of a non-literary poetic tradition. In a world of poetic manifestations, literature is but one concrete example, from which it is not necessary to validate the rest.
We must also consider that these distinct systems of knowledge in the world, the various women’s movements, and the different poetic manifestations influence each other, that they are systems open to interaction; however, we cannot forget that colonialism traverses these relations and explains the phenomenon of validation through naming. Not all systems of knowledge production are science, not all women’s movements are feminist, not all poetic manifestation is literature. Validation, which hides the diversity of ways of being and doing, is not necessary.
In order to attempt a balanced approach, it is important that western tradition be considered within the multiplicity of the world: science as one of many systems of knowledge production, feminism as one of many women’s movements in the world, and literature as one example of the poetic function of language among many others.
One among others, one among others. Maybe in this way, the knowledge and manifestations of western traditions can stop being used as synonyms of universal knowledge, a supposed universal knowledge that contrasts with other examples, which it declares localized. All knowledge, including western knowledge, is local, as it is situated within specific historical, social and cultural circumstances, from which each responds to the needs and unique experiences of the societies that develop it.
Ending validation through naming could be a good way to begin to decipher the codes that allow us to transit between diverse traditions, and even, from different places, allow us to begin to ask what tools we have from multiple traditions to confront everything that this pandemic brings, in very diverse aspects of human existence. Diverse tools to try and understand this very complicated situation we are now in. Many eyes, for a better reading of the world.
This article was originally published in El País, and was translated by Toward Freedom with permission from the author.
Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil is a Mixe linguist from Ayutla, Oaxaca. Follow her on Twitter @Yasnayae.