In the Museum of Maya Culture: Touring Chichen Itza

By Todd, James E. | Anthropological Quarterly, July 1998 | Go to article overview

In the Museum of Maya Culture: Touring Chichen Itza


Todd, James E., Anthropological Quarterly


In the Museum of Maya Culture: Touring Chichen Itza. QUETZIL CASTANEDA. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996; 341 pp.

This historical ethnography provides a refreshing perspective on the strategic relationships among anthropology, tourism, and Maya culture(s). In a profound effort to investigate the "invention" of Maya culture in Yucatan, Castaneda's "Guidebook to the Archaeology of Chichen Itza" is a palimpsest: each chapter sets out to reveal a layer of a complex stratigraphy of discourses, texts, practices, histories, and events which (re)constitute and (re)invent the space and place of the archaeological site of Chichen Itza. The result is an outstanding intellectual work that broadly uses postmodern and literary theory in order to give the reader tours of the many cultural inscriptions which comprise the "museum" of Maya culture at Chichen.

Castaneda argues that Maya culture, anthropology, and tourism are not homogenous entities. Instead, they share an interdependent history of collusion and complicity, which has allowed them to perpetuate. This guidebook, then, serves as an ethnographic map to present the numerous possible analytical approaches - or "departures" (p. 2) - to these intersections of discourses and practices, through history, theory, and autobiography.

By examining the history of the production of anthropological knowledge surrounding Yucatan, Castaneda illustrates how the "rediscovery" (p. 5) of the "Maya" in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led to the area becoming the "target of massive scientific intervention" supported by both the U.S. and Mexico. After extensive investments by the Carnegie Insitution of Washington and the Mexican government, the "scientific laboratory" (p. 6) of Yucatan and Chichen Itza paved the way for the institutionalization of Maya studies in conjunction with the establishment of tourism activity. Castaneda argues that because the relations among anthropology, tourism, Maya societies, and governments have shared the common ground of complicity and collaboration, it is ridiculous to ask whether tourism has had an "impact" (p. 9) on the people of nearby Piste and other villages. Instead, Castaneda challenges us to understand historically how anthropological practices and discourses have invented Maya culture and civilization according to our epistemological predispositions. This invention has contributed to the production and maintenance of the tourism industry in Yucatan. However, the Maya themselves are active agents and subjects in this invention process, whether as informants, workers, or "culture-bearers" (p. 8), and their participation in this invention process has also been critical. The task for Castaneda, then, is to provide an analysis that helps to show how anthropological and tourism practices and discourses are related to the politics of identity, not only at the local level of Piste and Chichen, but at regional, national, and international ones as well.

Castaneda's theoretical approach primarily owes a debt to de Certeau, and secondly to Foucault and Derrida, as emphasis is placed on doing an archaeology, genealogy, and deconstruction of Maya culture at the museum of Chichen and the town of Piste. Operating within the dual assertion that "culture is text" and "text is culture," and that cultures are both invented and continually reinvented, Castaneda is able to contextualize anthropology's role in Maya cultural imagination. He uses de Certeau's notion of a scriptural economy to discuss, or rather imagine, how Maya culture is (re)inscribed, (re)lived, (re)embodied, (re)imagined, and (re)invented in the contexts of various economic, social, political, and historical vehicles at Chich6n Itza. Castaneda goes on to note:

What seems to me to be at stake is the problem of culture, not only as a practical issue but as a theoretical/critical question in relation to modernity: What is the invention of culture (in the register of truth) and the culture of invention (as an economy and technology of the real)? …

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