Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Places to Think with, Books to Think About: Words, Experience and the Decolonization of Knowledge in the Bolivian Andes

Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Places to Think with, Books to Think About: Words, Experience and the Decolonization of Knowledge in the Bolivian Andes

Article excerpt


In Bolivia today, indigenous peoples' political struggles are interlaced with issues of knowledge and truth. Indigenous cosmologies and "traditional" systems of knowledge are not only being politicized in an unprecedented manner; they also make possible a reading of reality and the national political process that differs from and undermines dominant views.

In order to introduce the topic of this article--Aymara epistemology--I would like to mention a name which is not usually brought up in discussions on indigenous peoples and the decolonization of knowledge: the 18th-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. I do so not in order to impress the reader with rare references, but in order to contrast the modern, colonial epistemology of Linneaus' scientific reason (see, e.g., Jensen 2009) with a subalternized indigenous epistemology. In his Systema Naturae (1735), Linneaus recognized the status of humankind as a particular species within the animal kingdom. He had problems, however, in coming up with a solid argument for distinguishing human anatomy from that of apes. The ultimate criterion he used to distinguish humans from apes was the intellectual faculty of reason. Only humans, Linneaus claimed, have rational and systematic means of producing and conveying actual knowledge of the world and of themselves. Or, as Tim Ingold sententiously frames the argument: "There are no scientists among the animals" (2000:238).

In 2010, a friend of mine, a young male Bolivian Aymara intellectual and indigenous activist whom I will call Antonio, likewise traced the distinction between humans and other-than-humans to the sphere of knowledge, but his grounds for doing so differ radically from those of Linnaeus. Human knowledge as transmitted through language, is pure 'siwsawij Antonio claims--i.e., it is talk, opinions, views and judgments of particular individuals. As such it is knowledge of a particular kind: it is knowledge concerning the opinions of other humans and nothing else. It is thereby significantly different from the non-linguistic, experiential knowledge that is lived-through and gained in, from, with and within the world; with and from plants, mountains, lakes, animals, and not least, certain knowledgeable places in the landscape, so called wak'as. This kind of knowledge, my friend claims, is 'ukamaw,' the way things are. While humans may tell lies, other knowledgeable constituent subjects of the world do not (with the exception of a few animal "tricksters"). While Antonio probably would agree with Linnaeus that there are no scientists among the animals, he also resolutely assures that there are no charlatans among the plants, no liars among the mountains.

Martha Hardman (1986) has shown that Aymara speakers constantly use linguistic 'data-source marking' (usually by adding suffixes) in order to indicate whether they are speaking from personal experiential knowledge, from knowledge acquired through language, or from non-personal knowledge. In this article, the two first categories will be discussed in some detail. When Antonio distinguishes between the 'siwsawf nature of the knowledge acquired through human language and the 'ukamaw' nature of the personal knowledge acquired through non-linguistic interaction with other knowledgeable subjects in the world, he is, according to Hardman, using an Aymara linguistic logic that is "so pervasive that speakers consider the matter to be part of the nature of the universe" (1986:114). Consequently, the failure to indicate from what kind of knowledge one speaks is indeed looked upon with suspicion: "Those who come into the community from outside and state as personal knowledge facts which they know only through language (e.g., things they have read in books) are immediately categorized as cads" (Hardman 1986:133).

This way of distinguishing between different kinds of knowledge according to their source and supposed reliability has interesting implications for the current process of 'decolonization' of the Bolivian university and the recent establishment of 'indigenous universities' as integral parts of the 'decolonizing' state politics launched by the Evo Morales administration since 2006. …

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