On Exceeding Baroque Excess: An Exploration through a Participatory Community Workshop

Mario Blaser

‘To put it simply, the baroque was a culture in tension. It was indeed repressive but it was also (and therefore) about the transgressions of lively excess, about “obeying without fulfilling”’. This thought (which I take from John Law’s introduction to this volume) is attractive because it is, or so we have been told, constitutive of a mythical place I feel I belong to – that of Latin America. Walter Mignolo has argued that Latin America is an idea that emerged ‘in the process of the transformation of the colonial Creole baroque ethos into the postcolonial Creole “Latin ethos”’ (2005: 65).

The short version of the story goes like this: in Europe the baroque emerged as a response to the Protestant reformation; when it came to the Spanish colonies the baroque took two different forms. On the one hand, there was a version of the baroque that expressed the distinct aesthetics of the peninsulares (the expatriate European elites at the top of the colonial administration), but it also operated as an instrument of empire geared to awe the Indians. On the other hand, there was a ‘civil society’ form that expressed the emerging ‘critical consciousness’ of the Creoles of Spanish descent, who were socially and economically subordinate to those European expatriates.

Mignolo bases his notion of a ‘civil society’ baroque on Bolivar Echevarria, from whom he translates the following passage:

There were the Creoles from low social levels, the Indian and Afro-Mestizos, those whom, without knowing it, would end up doing what Bernini did with the classical canon of painting: these mixed groups of lower social strata endeavored to reestablish the most viable civilization, which was the dominant one, the European. They intended to wake it up and then to restore its original vitality. In doing so, in invigorating the European code over the ruins of the pre-Spanish code (and with the remainders of the African slaves’ codes brought by force into the picture), they would find themselves building something different from their original intention; they would find themselves raising up a Europe that never existed before them, a different Europe, a ‘Latin American’ Europe (Bolivar Echevarria, in Mignolo 2005: 63).

Commenting on this passage, Mignolo points out that not only is ‘Latin America’ an anachronism (this entity would not exist until the nineteenth century) but also that ‘this political project in practice as well as in consciousness was still defined by the Spanish and Portuguese Creole elites, who kept their backs to the Indian and African populations co-existing among them’ (2005: 63). In effect, after the independence wars in the nineteenth century, these Creole elites displaced the peninsular elites and set themselves the task of building polities that had Europe as model and vector. Though the identity of the postcolonial nation was imagined on the basis of the Creole baroque (that is, a hybrid Latin America), the project was about ‘the restoration of the most viable civilization (said Echevarría) – the European, and not the Indigenous or African’ (Mignolo 2005: 64).

Mignolo’s take on the Creole baroque and its relation to Latin America foregrounds two points I engage with in this chapter. The first is that a baroque sensibility is inherently neither dominatory nor transgressive. Which of these forms it takes depends on specifically situated relations. In Europe, and in relation to the Reformation, the baroque was intended to sustain the status quo. In the New World, but only in the relations between creoles and ‘peninsulares’, the baroque exceeded and transgressed its original conservative intent, becoming a vehicle that articulated the aspirations of the former. The second and connected point is that transgressive excess can also be exceeded. The realisation of the Creoles’ aspirations implied a shift in, but not an end to, the subordinate positions of Indigenous and Afro-descendants, whose aspirations exceeded what was articulated through the Creole baroque.

This suggests the potential fruitfulness of exploring the character of excess carefully and empirically to see how it gets composed as transgressive or otherwise. What I seek to do in this chapter is recount a ‘community participatory workshop’ that took place in an Yshiro Indigenous community in Paraguay.1 In what follows I do not experiment with style. I do not seek to perform a baroque way of knowing. Rather, and like some of the other contributors to this volume, my concern is with excess – and the uses of excess. Nonetheless, at the end of the chapter I hope that I have something to say about the baroque or at least that I have raised some questions which may be pertinent to our understanding of its uses.

Setting the Stage

Over the last two decades or so, the geographical area where the Yshiro live has endured an aggressive advance of cattle-ranching enterprises that have clear-cut forests and built fences that parcel up the land. The process has been rather dramatic. Indeed, the region is close to the top in the world’s ranking of forest loss (Coca and Reymondin 2012). As a consequence, the region has also become the target of a range of public and private initiatives aimed at curbing the loss of ‘biodiversity’ associated with this process. The main initiative has been the establishment of a Biosphere Reserve that, under the umbrella of UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Programme, encompasses over 7 million hectares. Over 1 million hectares of this Reserve are in protected areas designated as National Parks (UNESCO 2006). One of these, the Rio Negro National Park, is located right in Yshiro traditional territory.

On the ground, the existence of these programmes and initiatives translates in a range of ways which include restrictions on access to the natural resources still available. Being directly or indirectly dependent on the forest, the Yshiro have found themselves caught between a staggeringly fast process of deforestation and increasing restrictions on access to whatever is left. By 2005 it had become evident to them that their future capacity to live in and from their territory was under severe threat.2 This triggered a series of discussions among the Yshiro leadership in search of a joint response. In my role as an advisor and researcher with Unión de las Comunidades Indígenas de la Nación Yshir (UCINY) – the organisation that federates the Yshiro leaders – I was tasked with setting up and garnering resources for a process of internal discussion and consultation within the communities.

I had been working with the Yshiro communities since 1991, and in 1999 I collaborated with them in the creation of UCINY as part of a very similar process to the one the Yshiro leaders were seeking in this case. This meant that I was not surprised to find the work arduous, as the creation of a common strategy had to overcome important internal differences of a kind that I had experienced before (see Blaser 2010). Indeed, the Yshiro communities are far from being homogeneous. Thus, though this is simplistic, to get the idea across quickly, one way of talking about this is in terms of a continuum between traditionalists and non-traditionalists. The terms are variably used by the Yshiro themselves and point to a cluster of characteristics which tend to be associated – although not as consistently as the labels would make it appear. Thus, traditionalists are likely to be illiterate, know little or no Spanish, be heavily dependent on direct use of natural resources for subsistence, and participate in practices that involve earth-beings. In the present context it will suffice to say that this term seeks to capture two main points: the existence of entities that do not fit modern distinctions between cultural, natural, and super-natural domains; and the degree to which these entities are thoroughly imbricated with particular places.3 Non-traditionalists, in contrast, would more likely have some degree of literacy, be relatively more fluent in Spanish, more likely to be in some form of permanent or seasonal wage-labour, and either be committed Christians who reject anything associated with ‘cultura’ (a term that glosses relations with earth-beings), or at least be quite sceptical with regard to the validity of traditionalists’ values and understandings.

These differences suggest that what went under the label of ‘territory’ was not exactly the same for different groups in the communities. Consequently, different people conceived the processes affecting this entity – and how to respond to them – in different and not necessarily compatible ways. For example, at one end of the spectrum there were a few non-traditionalists for whom ‘territory’ meant little more than having a little bit of land to build up an economic base for family-based farming mixed with waged jobs. For these people the key solution to the threat posed by a disappearing forest was to secure jobs. At other end of the spectrum there were knowledgeable traditionalists for whom access to the entire territory was crucial not only for the Yshiro’s ‘economic’ survival, but also to avert the ongoing disappearance of the yrmo. For the moment, let me just indicate that the yrmo connotes a localised symbiopoietic tangle of relations in which practices such as hunting, visiting places, initiation rituals, and careful protocols in relation to earth-beings are crucial.4 In this sense, while in some contexts the term yrmo can be legitimately understood as equivalent to ‘traditional territory’, this would only be a superficial rendering of it. I will return to the point later. For the moment I focus on the community discussions.

Since most people expressed views that fell somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum described above, it became evident that for the majority, securing the territory was a basic condition for their survival, regardless of whether one conceived of this in its extensive or restricted meaning. Thus, the result of the process of community discussions was a simple yet ambitious mandate for the Yshiro leaders and UCINY: to recover and secure control of the Yshiro traditional territory by any possible means.

After considering several options, the leaders finally decided that the best initial strategy was to attack the Paraguayan government’s lack of consultation in setting up conservation programmes in the area, and to see if UCINY could win a ‘seat’ among the partners running the conservation programmes. From that position, the leaders anticipated, UCINY could pursue several lines of action, such as persuading the government to buy and/or expropriate private ranches and restore the property to the Yshiro; enticing environmental NGOs that had been promoting carbon-offset programmes to partner with UCINY to buy lands in a consortium; and progressively gaining de facto if not de jure control over the management of the Rio Negro National Park that was the nucleus of the protected area in Yshiro territory. The strategy gravitated around the fact that institutions like the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) were financing several conservation projects in the protected areas. These institutions require project proponents (in this case the Paraguayan government) to consult with the local peoples affected by the projects they finance. In 2007, the Yshiro leaders sent a letter to the Paraguayan Secretariat of the Environment making clear that they would tell the funders that the agency had lied when it asserted that the National Park was being established with the agreement of the local population, and that in fact the local population still had no participation in what was taking place in their traditional territories. The participatory workshop I discuss here was part of the Paraguayan government’s response to the Yshiro claim.5

The stated aim of the workshop was to ‘harmonise’ the ‘development’ needs of the Yshiro with the conservation plans underway in the area. Between 45 and 50 people attended, including a team of technicians from an NGO carrying out the exercise (including a participatory methods facilitator), male and female leaders from the various Yshiro communities, a large group of community members who had heeded the call to participate in the participatory workshop, and me in my role as advisor to the leaders. The reader should bear in mind that at least a third of the participants had little to no knowledge of Spanish (the language used by the facilitator), for another additional third many of the words and concepts being used were rather foreign, and the Yshiro assistant in charge of translating himself struggled to find appropriate words in Yshiro to convey what the facilitator intended.

Creating Accomplices

Participatory methods like those deployed in the workshop are fundamentally instruments of planning. What distinguishes them is that they are staged in such a way as to evoke a feeling of involvement in the ‘target population’; or such, at least, is the expectation. In fact, many ‘practitioner manuals’ stress the ludic, aesthetic, and theatrical aspects of the methodology as crucial to attracting participants and developing in them a sense of ownership of the results (Steyaert and Lisoir 2005; Chevalier and Buckles 2011). In contrast with the austere setting of a pedagogical (or top-down) intervention, where people usually play the role of audience to an expert, the participatory workshop is full of movement as people group and regroup, conversational circles are formed, furniture is moved around, role-play is enacted, floors and walls are used as drawing boards, and colourful sticky notes are fixed all over the place.

The workshop followed this pattern. The activities took place in the school of the largest and (for outsiders) most accessible Yshiro community. We occupied a large room and formed a series of concentric semicircles facing a wall where graphics, large sheets of paper, and sticky notes were progressively pinned up as the activities advanced. During the day and a half of the workshop, the facilitator deployed at least six different ‘techniques’ displaying an abundance of forms and elements. The workshop began with the facilitator pinning a large white card on the wall with the words ‘desired scenarios’ written in red and inviting participants to think collectively about it. He explained what he meant by this: ‘think for a moment what you would need for the community to be satisfied and happy’. Then he explained how the exercise would proceed: people would form groups of four individuals that would discuss the topic and designate a spokesperson who would report verbally to the rest of the groups after ten or fifteen minutes.

I approached one of the groups to listen in on the discussion. The four people in the group very quickly started talking about the mandate the communities had given to UCINY, that is, the recovery of territory. Something similar may have happened in the other groups, for when other spokespersons reported back to the whole meeting the message was quite consistent: what was important was access and free movement within an extended territory.6 The facilitator wrote the words ‘general goal = recovery of territory’ on a large sheet of paper. And with this he started another exercise aimed at answering the question ‘why is territory important?’ Again participants were divided, but this time into pairs. The aim was to pair someone who could write and speak Spanish with someone who could not, since the result of the discussion had to be written on a card. Each pair had to discuss and note down five reasons why territory was important, and each reason should be expressed in no more than a brief line. When they read from their cards each pair would have an opportunity to expand on what they had written.

Once everyone was ready the facilitator started to invite spokespersons to present and discuss the reasons they had come up with, and as people were talking he wrote new labels on the large sheet of paper. At the end, three labels (‘economic’, ‘cultural’, and ‘environmental’) ended up as the main reasons for ‘why is territory important?’ Although at this point we took a break, through subsequent exercises the labels were used as domains containing ‘specific problems’ and their potential solutions expressed as goals. In the rest of the workshop, exercises further subdivided these specific goals into smaller objectives to be achieved through specific tasks.

In each instance, the same pattern was repeated. The facilitator would pose an ‘issue’. He would provide a specific procedure to think about that issue (e.g. think of an individual response, discuss in a small group, open general discussion); a specific form to express the thought (verbally, written, or drawn); and a specific form to inscribe it (cards, large sheets of paper, or inserted into pre-formatted graphics). These inscriptions would then be ‘summarised’ as labels or bullet points at the end of each exercise, and they would in turn, provide the starting point for the next exercise. In this way the workshop moved sequentially from establishing a set of ‘desired scenarios’ for the communities, to breaking down the scenarios into a number of domains within which specific objectives had to be established, to a definition of conditions needed and obstacles to be sorted to achieve the objectives, and finally to drafting a road map of actions (including the distribution of individual or institutional tasks and responsibilities).

At first sight this might look like a simple movement from the general to the specific, but on a closer look it is clear that at each step, through translation and inscription, the desires, visions, and values of participants were being guided in specific directions. For instance, during the exercise to define the reasons that made territory important, participants expressed concern about increasing obstacles to hunting and fishing as a way of subsistence. Translated into a ‘problem’, the concern ended up within the domain of economics. The corresponding solution/objective teased out of the discussion was (again) inscribed as a written label that read as ‘generating economic alternatives’. The subsequent exercises in this ‘domain’ were geared to breaking down this ‘large objective’ into smaller ones that could be tackled through specific tasks. In a similar way, concerns with access to places of ‘ritual’ importance were translated and inscribed as another large objective: ‘protecting cultural heritage’ and its associated smaller objectives and tasks. And again the same happened with concerns expressed by some Yshiro as ‘the animals are being left without a house’, that were translated and inscribed into the objective ‘protecting natural resources’. I will return later to what was ‘lost in translation’ through this process. First, however, I would like to point out a few resonances I find between the workshop as an artefact and the baroque.

For a casual observer not familiar with the Yshiro communities and their language, the workshop would have seemed highly successful, at least in engaging participants. And indeed, the abundance of forms and elements in the staging of the workshop did facilitate participants’ engagement. Almost everybody actively took part and the atmosphere was largely relaxed and fun, in part because participatory techniques are designed in a game-like fashion, but also because for many Yshiro the prompts from the facilitator were somehow perplexing or confusing, which led to much teasing among them (in their own language). In any case, people’s participation lent plausibility to the facilitator’s claim that the workshop had helped to generate a plan based on the community’s desires, visions, and values, even though the process of translating and inscribing what participants expressed also implied guiding them in specific directions. This recalls Maravall’s comment, mentioned in the introduction to this volume, that the baroque was in part a ‘guided culture’ created in the face of an enquiring individualism and its freedoms, which responded not by simply imposing silence but also by guiding and turning spectators into accomplices.

But, if the baroque was intended to control and guide an emerging culture of individualism and freedom, what was this workshop trying to guide as it harnessed participation? And why, in this case, did guidance require participation?

Commanding without Repelling

The history and the value of ‘participation in development’ planning are large and contested topics (see Cooke and Kothari 2001; Hickey and Mohan 2004). The practices associated with the concept have many roots, and the paths that led to its mainstreaming as a tool of governance are also multiple. However, in relation to indigenous peoples, it is clear that ‘participation’ did not become a central concern for governmental and other agents of ‘development’ until the mid-1980s when these groups’ political mobilisation and increasing visibility on the international stage began to render moot the expectation that they were either ‘absent’ (i.e. extinct as viable societies) or on the way to becoming so (see Blaser 2010). Here there were peoples with relatively increasing political clout claiming the right to self-determination and to being different. What could possibly be the content of such claim of difference? And what implications could it have for the political economy of the nation state?

At this point the concept of ‘ethnodevelopment’ came to do several forms of conceptual work. First, it indexed the end of the assumption that ‘Indians’ were an absence (actual or future) embedded in more or less tempered Rostownian notions of development as modernisation (i.e. the unilinear trajectory to be followed by everyone and leading to the status of ‘developed’ society). Secondly, it provided a workable placeholder for the ‘unknown’ inherent in indigenous peoples’ claims to self-determination. In the mid-1980s, Rodolfo Stavenhagen (1986), one of the earlier proponents of the concept, pointed out that claims to self-determination, and more generally claims articulated in terms of ethnic identity, certainly implied demands for a better life. However, the argument followed that these demands could not be simply equated to a claim for development understood as economic growth and modernisation. Rather, they implied a diversity of visions as to what a good life would consist of and how to achieve it (Stavenhagen 1986). Thus, ethnodevelopment was proposed as a term to account for this diversity and as a practice to be fostered in contradistinction to the ethnocidal practices implied by development as modernisation.

Ethnodevelopment went on to have a successful career in development circles, particularly as it eventually found comfortable accommodation within the panoply of neoliberal reforms being rolled out across the world after the collapse of the Soviet bloc (see Andolina, Laurie, and Radcliffe 2009). In this space, ethnodevelopment and participatory methods quickly became entangled. In effect, participatory methodologies promised to turn the ‘unknown’ content of notions of a good life implicit in indigenous claims for self-determination into something knowable and amenable to governmental intervention. It is precisely at this point that the idea of ethnodevelopment showed its workability; as long as it required governmental intervention for its realisation, a door remained open for participatory methodologies to guide the ‘unknown’ into acceptable forms. This does not imply a malevolent intent. Quite the contrary – in many cases guidance was and is conceived as helping indigenous communities and organisations to gain a ‘realistic understanding’ of the context in which their impetus for self-determination, or whatever demands they have, must unfold. Significantly, however, this ‘guidance’ moves away from open coercion, and thus from repelling those being guided, by folding the coercive character of the enterprise into a sort of external and mute ‘reality’ – or ‘reality principle’. In other words, there is an implicit claim that the direction given by those ‘guiding’ participation is not an arbitrary imposition but a response to ‘reality’. All of this was quite evident in the Yshiro workshop.

The NGO that ran it was tasked with helping the Yshiro come out with a ‘development’ plan that would be in synergy with the ongoing conservation projects and policies promoted in the area. As is usually the case, the NGO’s mandate had a number of unspoken constraints. These were ‘issues’ that, while central to the topic of the workshop, had to remain out of bounds. For instance, it went without saying that an expanding cattle-ranching industry was an unshakable fact and would remain such. Similarly, it went without saying that different governmental schemes for the protection of natural resources were there to stay. Neither of these issues was up for discussion. Thus whatever came out of the workshop had to be something that could stand between these two ‘elephants in the room’. It is not that the NGO staff running the workshop or the Yshiro participants could not see how central these issues were to the whole discussion. The point is that as soon as there was any sign that these issues might be brought to the fore, their scope and their assumed ‘scale’ pulled them into the background again. When a few Yshiro started to vent their frustration as to why the government was just creating protected areas instead of stopping cattle ranchers from clear-cutting the forest in their properties, the facilitator pulled the discussion back ‘on track’.

Guys, guys, let’s keep on topic. Yes, it is true the ranchers keep cutting down trees, but we cannot do anything about this here in this workshop. You have to petition the government, speak with the diputados [parliamentary representatives] to modify the laws. In the meantime we have to be realistic and work with what we have.

The magnitude of the work required to ‘tame the elephants in the room’ was used to indicate that the ‘site’ to address such issues was elsewhere and not in the workshop. By pleading the need to keep on topic the facilitator was implicitly imparting a command to the workshop participants: ‘help us stage a credible participatory process from which “we” (you and us) can draft a realistic development plan’. It does not take much to see how in one event a participatory workshop mimics the overall form of engagement that is commanded from indigenous peoples in a liberal multicultural society: express your vision/difference in a way that we can work with, or, to use Povinelli’s words, make yourself doable for us (Povinelli 2001). But as has been noted before, the baroque makes it possible to obey without fulfilling, so let us explore how participants in our workshop did this.

Obeying without Fulfilling: Transgressions, Digressions, and Equivocations

The community mandate to recover control over the territory was important for leaders and community members engaged in the participatory workshop, but many were also clearly aware of the bounded kind of ‘participation’ that the event would offer. Indeed, participatory methods have been deployed regularly in the Yshiro communities at least since the late 1990s (see Blaser 2010). Thus, some of the participants – especially former and current leaders – engaged in the theatrics of the process not primarily for the overt aim of generating a development plan, but as a way of gaining a foothold to pursue more ambitious goals. Insofar as these goals run counter to the mandate to remain ‘realistic’ (i.e. not seeking to counter the double process of destruction and protection of ‘natural resources’), a transgressive element was present in the staging of the participation.

But alongside transgression, there were also digressions. Thus without running directly against the grain of the workshop, many were involved as a way of positioning themselves to better tap into the material resources that would likely be made available through an ethnodevelopment plan. So for those for whom a lot of what was being done in the workshop made little sense or for those who were sceptical about the lofty, if reduced, goals that the plan might actually achieve, it was still worthwhile helping to stage ‘participation’. Later they could demand reciprocity from the NGO and the leaders, for example through temporary paid jobs on ‘the project’. And again, in some cases digressions were also part of the transgressions. For example, as with other projects, the leaders were expecting to use travel expenses paid for by this project to meet lawyers who would help them make their land claims.

Interestingly, neither the transgressions nor the digressions went undetected by the NGO team, although they dealt with them in different ways. The primary importance that the control of territory had for the Yshiro was openly expressed in the first exercise, where people were invited to imagine the best possible future scenario for the communities. As we have seen, the facilitator managed the potential for transgression implicit in this ‘vision’ by progressively translating this desired scenario into (apparently) more specific objectives, all the while guiding the translation into conformity with a ‘reality’ that was not up for discussion. The NGO team was also not oblivious to the ‘narrow interests’ (i.e. digressions) that drove many to participate. Apart from the facilitator, the rest of the team consisted of veterans of ‘development work’ in the countryside. One was quite candid about his scepticism, commenting privately about the number of participatory projects he had seen to come to a halt as soon as resources to keep people interested were withdrawn. As an example, he mentioned a ‘herbal medicine garden project’ he had run years before in one of the Yshiro communities:

We supported a few families with food and equipment for a while so they could dedicate themselves to the task. But as soon as the aid was finished, they left the crops to die. Pulled out the wires in the fences and sold them. Supposedly they were interested in doing it for themselves, but I now realise that they were only interested in the food and equipment we gave them.

For seasoned development workers such as the team members, it was obvious that these kinds of interests were driving a good proportion of the non-leadership participants. Yet they had no other choice but to turn a blind eye to it, for otherwise they would not have the participatory process and plan that was expected up the chain of command by the Paraguayan government and financial institutions. In short, there was a convergence of interests on both sides to keep staging participation.

‘Commanding without repelling’ and ‘obeying without fulfilling’ were possible because almost everyone understood what the game was about. Ironically, the few Yshiro that participated without intending to transgress or digress were those that could not understand the game, and were thus ‘unworkable’, not only because what they said could not be translated into a ‘realistic plan’, but also because it just did not make sense.

There were a couple of traditionalist elders who had felt quite mobilised by the months of discussions about recovering control of the territory and who eagerly participated in the workshop. It is very common that from the perspective of non-indigenous peoples, a traditionalist elder appears as the epitome of ‘cultural difference’. A sense of reverence and awe is displayed in the face of their utterances. It was no different in the workshop. Every time one of these elders intervened the NGO team paid full attention, took notes, and filmed, following the translation as if they had received ultimate words of wisdom, even if they could make little sense of what was being said! Let us take a look at one of these interventions during the exercise I mentioned above, when the facilitator had asked why it was important to have a territory.

As I noted above, the facilitator had invited people to form pairs, matching a person who could not write with one who could. The card of a pair formed by a traditionalist elder and a young man read: ‘Cannot sing; el monte (the bush) is being destroyed; cannot hunt, no food’. The pair was invited to explain. The young man said he could not explain. He had just jotted down a translation of what the elder had said, but he did not understand what he meant very well. The elder, Don Ramon Zeballos Bibi, started to speak, and the young fellow translated:

I am a shaman. All those animals that are there are my children. I am their child as well. If I sing, those animals come out [come into being]. If I do not sing there are no animals. When I was a child I ate pitino [anteater]. I was not supposed to eat it. Prohibited!! But I ate anyway. I was hard-headed. Then I got sick. And that guy came. The owner of the pitino. ‘You are very hard-headed, you will not withstand my power. You will die now’. But I spoke to him. That guy has a daughter, she was fat, beautiful girl. I spoke to that guy to let me marry his daughter. Then I married her […]

At this point one of the leaders, an individual fitting the ‘non-traditionalist’ description mentioned earlier, interjected with ‘this is not the place for monexne [traditional stories]’. Don Ramon gave him a mean look as he continued,

Then, that pitino owner let me go. Now he is my father-in-law. He gives me his song, to bring about the pitino. If I don’t sing, there are no more [anteaters]. Nobody will eat pitino. Nobody will be able to hunt it. Then that owner gets mad. There, around nepurich [a place within the Yshiro territory] I have to go. But now there is a patron [cattle rancher] that does not allow anyone to pass [through his property]. He is destroying the yrmo [the word was translated into Spanish as monte (bush) by the young fellow]. I have nothing for [i.e. materials to make] peyta [maracas]. How can I sing? All those animals are not coming out any more, they no longer have their house, because nobody take cares of the yrmo [monte].

For a brief moment after the elder finished, the facilitator looked disconcerted, glancing at his Yshiro assistant as if expecting an explanation. But none was forthcoming. Then he picked up the card that the young fellow had written and his face looked as if he had found a life raft in the middle of the ocean. He started to talk as he moved towards the large sheet paper with the heading ‘Why is territory important?’ ‘So, what Don Ramon is reminding us is how important the cultural traditions of the Yshiro are, and how this will get lost if the forest is destroyed. So it is not only the food that gets lost’, he said as he underlined the words ‘economic reasons’ that had been written before, ‘but also the culture’, and below the previous label he wrote ‘cultural reasons’. He turned around, smiling, and called the next pair of participants to discuss their card.

I will return to the leader’s comment shortly, but now, and in order to illustrate the magnitude of what got lost in this translation, I want to offer an alternative, a translation as ‘controlled equivocation’ – that is, a translation that is keenly aware that we are mostly forcing Yshiro concepts into the straightjacket of our own conceptual toolbox even as we try to make the latter hospitable to the former (see Viveriros de Castro 2004).7 The key terms on which my translation hinges upon are the words yrmo and monte. When Don Ramon spoke he used the word yrmo, which the young man translated into Spanish as monte, and I translate into English as bush. Bush and monte share a similar semantic cloud. But this is not the case with yrmo. When used to indicate the thick of the forest in contrast with the edge of the river, the term means something like the Spanish and English words. But that is as far as equivalence goes; for, as I earlier noted, the yrmo more precisely refers to the symbiopoietic tangle of relations and practices that constitute the Yshiro world. In effect, Don Ramon first speaks of a relation that carries with it obligations (to sing) so that pitino (anteaters) come into being and people can eat them. Then he says that he can no longer go to a place where he can get the material to make maracas to play along with his singing because the patron (cattle rancher) doesn’t let him pass. So he cannot sing any longer, and the animals are not coming out. And it is precisely because the cattle rancher is interrupting these yrmo-making practices that he is destroying it.

The translation of Don Ramon’s intervention into ‘cultural reasons’ was certainly crude and partly obeyed the need for planning clear cut and workable categories, but it also conformed to a common equivocation – and one used by the facilitator. This was to assume that one aspect of Don Ramon’s speech spoke of culture (the references to the animal owner and the singing) and another about nature (the destruction of monte). Evidently he could not immediately figure out how the two parts connected for Don Ramon, and thus he offered a somewhat flimsy explanation: if one was destroyed the other would disappear too. But this make-do explanation aside, the facilitator just followed the beaten conceptual track. Whatever connection he was trying to illustrate, what Don Ramon said would surely somehow fit the nature/culture divide. This is certainly an uncontrolled equivocation.

Now, it is important to stress the nature and scope of the difference between obeying without fulfilling through transgression and digression, on the one hand, and obeying without fulfilling through equivocation, on the other. While the first two exceed what is expected by commanding without repelling, they sustain a relation of mutual intelligibility with it. In effect, transgressing or digressing were perfectly intelligible to the NGO team: the implicit command to be ‘doable’ was a way of recovering territory and tapping into resources. Likewise, most Yshiro participants understood perfectly what they needed to do to keep this form of commanding going and to avert the alternative based on open coercion; they know how to make themselves minimally workable.

Yet, notwithstanding their intelligibility, transgressions and digressions also carry the shadow of equivocation. While the NGO team can understand the aim of recovering territory as part of Paraguay’s political economy (and even as part of the politics of culture), for many Yshiro the significance of this aim exceeds what political economy and the politics of culture can encompass. It means something that can only approximately be conveyed as enhancing the symbiopoietic capacity of the Yrmo. But this excess remains very much muted, almost undetected, not least because those who transgress or digress want it that way. The point becomes clearer if we look at the incident involving Don Ramon and the leader who interrupted him.

Notwithstanding the facilitator’s attempt to capture it, Don Ramon’s intervention clearly exceeded the partial two-way intelligibility of transgression and digression; it was rather evidently unworkable for the NGO and the development network. For some leaders, making this unworkability evident raised the spectre of open coercion. In effect, it is this to which the leader responded. I have seen reactions such as that of the leader in many settings where governmental and development agents come into contact with community members. As soon as someone starts to make references to the yrmo in ways that clearly indicate that it is something else than ‘the bush’, some leaders become very fidgety and uncomfortable. In this case the leader was particularly rude, showing a lack of respect towards traditionalist understandings. But the concern expressed is more general and has to do with leaders having learnt to expect the consequences of giving the impression that the Yshiro are ‘unreasonable’ people who cannot speak about ‘reasonable’ things, and thus do not deserve a seat in the ‘participation game’.

There are some Yshiro, however, who stand on the other side. For instance, Don Veneto Vera, another respected shaman and a good friend of mine, did not waste time with euphemisms to explain to me why he never takes part in these kinds of events:

These people [those organising workshops in the communities] cannot know the yrmo. You tell them about the tobich8 but they do not change and then they fuck up everything. They are different. Their work is different. It’s better to stay here in the yrmo working with the weterak [initiated youth] and they stay there in the school working with the teachers on their project.

Brief though it is, the commentary is extremely thick in implications that I can only skim over at the cost of substantial simplification. The quickest way is starting with the reference to the weterak. These are young males who are initiated into the tobich. Among other things, the initiation involves a substantial amount of instruction conveyed through stories not very different from the kind Don Ramon shared in the workshop.9 It is expected that the initiation and the instruction will produce a transformation of the individuals being initiated, increasing and developing their eiwo, a fine-tuned capacity to discern what needs to be done in particular circumstances. I will expand a little more on this later, but for now let me just point out that developing eiwo is itself very important to the sustenance of the yrmo, as the latter’s status or quality partly depends on how the Yshiro conduct themselves.

This helps us to better understand Don Veneto’s comment on the impossibility of the NGO staff knowing the yrmo. It is not simply that they misunderstand what is said. They are different kinds of people because they are not transformed by being exposed to the tobich and thus they cannot behave in a way that contributes to the sustenance of the yrmo. Instead they ‘fuck it up’! What is the best course of action in this case? The answer is to leave them alone to do their ‘project’ with the Yshiro who understand them (i.e. the teachers); keep them away as far as possible from meddling with that which they cannot know (i.e. the yrmo); and keep working with those who can do it (i.e. the initiated men). In short, for people like Don Veneto the command to participate poses a risk for the yrmo, and so, having decided to disobey and ignore it, they keep playing their own game; a game whose exact rules and stakes we do not know – and perhaps should not know.

Knowing Excess?

In his introductory chapter, John Law suggests that baroque as a mode of knowing seems to offer a set of techniques ‘for recognising and relating to absence or Otherness’, and asks whether it offers ‘ways of knowing excess within the contemporary academy? Of recognising the whole that is, at the same time, a hole in our artefacts of knowing or experiencing?’ Engaging these questions diffractively with the help of my previous discussion I see two ‘patterns’ and a connection between them that might be worthwhile pursuing.10

Let me call the first pattern ‘excess as an illuminating shadow’. To a large extent, the ‘excesses’ manifested in my discussion can be conceived as the shadow cast by the ‘thing’ that is known and serves as the ‘measure’ to determine what falls beyond it (i.e. the excess). For example, the ‘recovery of traditional territory’ sought by UCINY only becomes recognisable and say-able as excess in relation to the realistic ‘development project’ sought by the NGO. The latter constitutes the ‘measure’. Of course, the ‘standpoint’ is crucial in defining ‘the measure’ of excess. In effect, the ‘recovery of traditional territory’ sought by UCINY and the realistic ‘development project’ sought by the NGO exceeded each other. Which one was the measure and which was in excess of the measure depends on whose standpoint we consider. In a similar fashion, I could make the excess implicit in equivocation manifest for the reader only in relation to the ‘measure’ I sought to build, that is the interplay between commanding without repelling and obeying without fulfilling. To put it in other terms, the yrmo can be grasped as excess only in relation to something else (the measure), which in this particular case I provided in the form of a relation of mutual intelligibility between commanding without repelling and obeying without fulfilling. This relation, that I made known for the reader, is the ‘measure’ that casts an illuminating shadow into that which was not included, the excess. Excess then emerges as co-constituted and co-constitutive of a standpoint and a ‘measure’, that which is known.

I will call the second pattern that my little diffraction generates horror ignotum. To see this, I begin with the promise held by participatory methods in relation to ethnodevelopment. As it might be recalled, this promise consisted in turning the unknown content of indigenous visions of a good life into something knowable and amenable to governmental intervention. Of course the way of knowing implicit here is in many senses closer to the standard academic styles that stand in contrast to the baroque. However, I feel in the imperative of participatory methods to know the unknown something similar to the horror vacui to which Carlos Fuentes referred; it is worthwhile quoting him at length:

The Baroque […] is the language of peoples who, not knowing what is true, desperately seek it […] Góngora, like Picasso, Buñuel, Carpentier or Faulkner did not know; they discovered. The Baroque, language of abundance, is also the language of insufficiency. Only those who possess nothing can include everything. The horror vacui of the Baroque is not gratuitous – it is because the vacuum exists that nothing is certain. The verbal abundance of [Carpetier] or [Faulkner] represents a desperate invocation of language to fill the absence left by the banishment of reason and faith. In this way post-Renaissance Baroque art began to fill the abyss left by the Copernican Revolution (cited in Parkinson Zamora and Kaup 2009: 25).

In this passage, Fuentes is trying to characterise a source of the baroque’s drive towards ‘abundance’ of forms, and finds it in the horror of the vacuum, the vacuum being the absence produced by the Copernican Revolution. Yet, as Parkinson Zamora and Kaup point out, in his own works Fuentes uses the ‘abundance’ of baroque language to interrogate another ‘absence’, the one created by the European invasion of the New World, the absence of the Natives. Along similar lines, we can see participatory methodologies as an abundant ‘form’ that interrogates a similar absence, or better an absence that has turned into a presence – the Natives that would not go away but rather stake a claim to remain and be different. As an abundant form, participatory methodologies spring from horror, but in this case horror ignotum (horror of the unknown). Horror ignotum grows from the impossibility of accepting the presence of things, such as Indigenous visions of a good life that cannot really be known, and with which, nevertheless, one has to live with. And here we come to the connection between the ‘diffraction patterns’ that might raise questions for the baroque as a way of knowing excess.

If we accept that excess is more properly conceived as a relation that also involves a standpoint and a measure, we may ask about the standpoint and the measure that co-constitute the excess that the baroque promises to help us know. Perhaps an answer might be gleaned from the equivalence suggested in the introduction between knowing excess and ‘recognising the whole that is, at the same time, a hole in our artefacts of knowing or experiencing’. Might it be the knowledge that there is ‘a whole that is a hole’ that operates here as the measure co-constituted with the excess? And might it be representation itself that operates as the standpoint co-constituted with the measure and the excess? Van der Port (this volume) refers to this whole that is a hole as ‘the-rest-of-what is’, a term to conceptualise a ‘vacancy, [a] “beyond” all representation’. Representation is crucial here, for it is the impossibility of representing it that throws ‘the whole’ into sharp relief as excess. But the idea of a whole that is somehow external and exceeds it is as crucial to representation as the other way around. Hence we see how representation, the lack and the whole as excess, co-constitute each other.

The baroque as a set of techniques holds the promise of helping us know (grasp, acutely experience, and so on) this whole that manifests as the excess illuminated by the lack of representation. But then, and to paraphrase Carlos Fuentes, is the baroque the way of knowing of people who, not having knowledge of ‘the-rest-of-what is’, desperately seek it? Is horror ignotum driving this pursuit? If this is the case it might be appropriate to ponder the consequences of this drive. The full weight of the point can better be conveyed through a contrast.

When Don Veneto says of the NGO staff that they cannot know the yrmo, he is not referring to an incapacity to represent it accurately in their minds. In fact, as with other (so-called) indigenous ‘epistemologies’, knowing is not here conceived as involving representation. Rather, it is always already performative of what is there to be known (see Burkhart 2001). Deploying the institution of the tobich, Don Veneto and other initiated older men change young men in ways that enable them to know/do the yrmo. This is why developing eiwo is crucial to the sustenance of the yrmo. The NGO staff are different. They do not change so they cannot know/do the yrmo. But notice that the NGO staff’s inability to know/do the yrmo does not translate for Don Veneto into the attribution of total ineptitude. They are perfectly capable of doing ‘their project’. How these different knowings/doings might intersect with each other down the road is an open-ended question that occupies many of the conversations that the Yshiro individuals I most respect have among themselves and with me. But what is certainly clear is that there is a difference between these knowings/doings. And this is not a difference between one being ‘real’ and the other a ‘mistake about the real’. Rather, these doings/knowings stand in the presence of each other as real performed worlds.

Adopting a ‘standpoint’ which is not that of representation but that of performativity casts a different light (or illuminating shadow) on ‘the-rest-of-what-is’, and what knowing it might imply. Let me put it this way, ‘the whole’ in this case is nothing other than a multiplicity of ongoing knowings/doings, for properly speaking, if some-thing is not being done there is no-thing. This means that what occupies the role of excess here (without being exactly the same) is not some-thing that escapes knowledge (as is the case with ‘the whole’ in representation) but rather the possibility of knowing/doing some-thing differently or newly. Some consequences follow from these points.

Horror ignotum, or the unrestricted drive towards knowing the whole, is seen, if not with alarm, at least with the suspicion a foolish pursuit deserves. It always implies consequential interference between different knowings/doings. For Don Veneto, NGO staff members have shown that they cannot know the yrmo as they know ‘their projects’, and conversely he does not feel he can do the yrmo by doing their projects. It is better that each stay on their own. While many of my Yshiro friends consider that these interferences might be necessary or inevitable, they also agree that they need to be carefully staged. Finally, the positive value of knowing/doing ‘excess’ (i.e. some-thing that is not being done) is not a foregone conclusion. In contrast to the scenario proposed by representation, where (by definition) lack postulates the drive to incorporate excess as a good, the scenario proposed here suggests a sort of precautionary principle. This is that some-things are better left unknown/undone or at least un-interfered with. This precautionary principle is hard to digest for ‘academic knowledge’ and kindred practices like ‘participatory methods’, for which more knowledge is always better. The consequences of this expanding reach on other ways of knowing/doing worlds are plain to see, at least in the Yshiro territory. Then the question that comes to mind, and with which I conclude, is this. Does a baroque way of knowing have something different to offer in this regard? Could it take on this precautionary principle? Or might it actually just end up adding more techniques to escape the ghost of horror ignotum?


1 A contribution by Penny Harvey in the seminar that originated this volume inspired me to see the possible connections that could be established between the Baroque and the participatory workshop.

2 For a short documentary illustrating this process, see Blaser (2013).

3 The term ‘earth-beings’ was first advanced by Marisol de la Cadena (2010).

4 Helmreich (2011) proposes the term to stress the centrality of relations rather than unity to the processes Francisco Varela labeled ‘autopoiesis’. These are processes through which living things call forth the conditions of their own existence through ‘interactions and transformations [that] continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and … constitute … [them] as … concrete unit[ies] in the space in which they exist’ (Varela, cited in Helmreich 2011: 688).

5 Since 2007 there have been numerous consultations and workshops involving the Yshiro communities and a myriad environmental NGOs that are the actual on-the-ground managers of conservation programmes in Paraguay. Although UCINY has sustained ambivalent relations with these NGOs, at times collaborative and at times confrontational, the general consensus among the leaders is that the relations have to be sustained. In this context, and given my involvement with UCINY, I have taken measures to avoid creating unnecessary resentments among these circumstantial partners. Thus, I have changed details or remained deliberately vague about some of them to conceal which organisation and fieldworkers conducted this particular workshop for informed readers. This does not affect the core of the argument.

6 The consistency is not surprising if we consider that the topics had been discussed for several months in the communities before the workshop.

7 Equivocations imply the use of the same concept to refer to things that are not the same. An equivocation takes place when there is a failure to understand that, while using the same term, interlocutors are referring to different things.

8 Tobich is a place, a clearing in the forest where young males are initiated.

9 For a more detailed (yet still simplified) rendering of what is implied in the initiation ritual, see Blaser (2010).

10 I take from Karen Barad (2007) the idea of ‘reading’ something (in this case the Baroque as a way of knowing) diffractively. What this entails is to create interferences through contrast in such a way that new, potentially illuminating questions can emerge.


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