Recent debates on decolonising research have highlighted the importance of accounting for plural knowledges by seeking to foster a dialogue between them. Yet, a dominant modern rationalist approach informing how we understand the knowledges we encounter and produce through our research is impeding this objective. A diversity of languages is used to share and represent knowledge – and not all of them can be captured and understood by modern rationality, writes Agustina Solera.
“The people (el Pueblo) do not speak the same language that we do. Their alphabet doesn’t have letters; only shapes, movements, gestures.
And it is not that the people are illiterate, but that they want to say things that we no longer say.”
Rodolfo Kusch, 1966, Indios, Porteños y dioses
In the chapter ‘La Zamba y los Dioses’ (‘Zamba and the Gods’) from his 1966 book Indios, Porteños y Dioses (Indians, Porteños and Gods), Argentine philosopher Rodolfo Kusch contemplates the ritual meaning of Zamba, a traditional Argentine music genre and folk dance that is performed in pairs and with handkerchiefs in hand. In the colony, Zamba was the term attributed to the mestizo descendants of indigenous and black people, arising during the independence process as a show of affection for the mestizos. Kusch, recognised as a key antecedent for decolonial thought thanks to his in-depth research on indigenous and popular Latin American thought, in this work wonders which senses are evoked through Zamba – which meanings emerge through the movement of bodies, the rhythms, the gazes, the cadence, or the energetic swishing of handkerchiefs.
Kusch’s examination of this form of expression sets the scene for my discussion of the link between languages and transformative methodologies. It is clear that Zamba is a form of non-verbal communication that is used in popular culture to say those things that cannot be expressed orally or in writing – or that its adherents do not wish to say in any other way than through music or dance. And, as the ethnographic research I did with the Mapuche community near the city of San Martín de los Andes in Patagonia, Argentina in pursuit of my PhD showed, trying to render these forms of expression meaningful by assuming a rational lens results in the failure to capture the sensitivity and spirituality of such ways of communicating. Zamba, like other forms of cultural or social expression, must be understood in ways not based solely on a modern rationality.
From the modern-Western knowledge perspective, a dialogue of knowledges becomes possible only when the exchanges coexist within a framework of modern rationality; exchanges can only occur when communities share the same language. By language I mean any system of expression used to represent meanings. From this perspective, the senses that cannot be expressed through the resources considered genuine in knowledge production become insignificant and subsidiary (Palermo, 2004). This is inherently problematic, first and foremost because the untranslatable is ignored – those things that are inexpressible in logical-rational terms, precisely because they come from other logics and other ways of seeing, feeling, and making sense of the world. If in the immense universe of meanings present in the encounter with others, those ones that cannot be translated to the specific understanding of rationality, are excluded, then what is the point of opening up our research process toward other ways of knowing? Aren’t those ‘insignificant’ senses – the ones that have been able to survive continuous domination and impositions – the ones that have transformative potential?
Different representational resources are needed for dialogue across different ways of knowing; these are rooted in transformative methodologies. Such methodologies would be transformative since they would challenge not only the privilege attributed to one valid form of knowledge (modern-Western) over others, but also the superiority attributed to the resources considered valid to represent life experiences.
Resistance and re-existence
Mignolo (1992) denounces the colonisation of language and memory in Latin America, enabled by introducing the Roman alphabet and the discursive genres (or frames) associated with it to this region. Alphabetic writing was imposed as a way to preserve that which was previously transmitted through glyphs, pictograms, and oral stories. According to him, the graphic languages used before the conquest to share knowledge could be silenced by alphabetic writing.
Yet, the languages spoken with the body could not be completely colonised. All those who keep alive indigenous languages up to the present are proof that knowledge can still survive when shared in non-written ways. Zulma Palermo (2012) argued that not only expressions of resistance, but also expressions of re-existence emerge through languages that confront the canonical principles of modern rational knowledge. From a critical perspective of what has led to refusal and self-ignorance, the processes of re-existence refer to ways of re-elaborating life, of revaluing what has been denied (Albán Achinte, 2013).
Let’s go back to Kusch and the endless meanings that can be found in Zamba. He cannot translate into words what’s so fascinating about Zamba, nor can anyone who has witnessed this form of expression. The argumentative reasons are difficult to be found; the fascination seems inexplicable: “In the end, it is something very simple; it is only a dance that takes place in a special moment of any popular celebration. … A man and a woman… braid a circle while flipping handkerchiefs to the rhythm of guitars and a kick drum, and that’s it. And yet, the Zamba fascinates us … Why? Is there something else in it? … Have we put in it what we have forbidden ourselves to show?” (Kusch, 2007: 287-289). And it is acceptable not to understand that which is not expressed in a modern rationalist manner. Dialoguing, accessing, or even noticing the colorful fabric of cultural plurality will hardly become possible through a monochromatic canonical gaze.
Representational resources are a primary part of methodological procedures, since they are the rationalities in which the meanings that constitute a scientific investigation are sustained (Peyloubet & Ortecho, 2015). Languages are part of the tools used to represent, interpret and translate the meanings that emerge in the encounter with others. Hence the importance of reflecting on languages when thinking about transformative methodologies, as well as the importance of reflecting on the scope of the resources that scientific institutions consider valid for producing knowledge and the possibilities that other-than-verbal-centered languages may create.
Alban Achinte, Adolfo (2013). Más allá de la razón hay un mundo de colores. Modernidades, colonialidades y reexistencia. Casa del Caribe y Editorial Oriente.
Kush, Rodolfo (2007). Rodolfo Kush: Obras completas. Tomo 1. Fundación Ross. Rosario, Argentina.
Lugones, María & Price, Joshua (2010). Translators’ introduction. In W. Mignolo, I. Silverblatt & S. Saldívar-Hull (Ed.), Indigenous and Popular Thinking in América (pp. lv-lxxii). New York, USA: Duke University Press.
Mignolo, Walter. (1992). “La colonización del lenguaje y la memoria. Complicidades de la letra, el libro y la memoria”. Coord. Iris M Zavala. Discursos sobre la ‘invención’ de América. Ed. Amsterdam, Holanda.
Palermo, Zulma (2012). “Mirar para comprender: artesanía y re-existencia”. Otros Logos. Revista de estudios críticos. Nº 3. 223-236. Universidad Nacional del Comahue. Neuquén, Argentina.
Palermo, Zulma (2004). “Ricardo J. Kaliman, Alhajita es tu canto. El capital simbólico de Atahualpa Yupanqui”. Revista de crítica literaria latinoamericana. Nº 60. pp. 392-394. Lima.
Peyloubet, Paula & Ortecho, Mariana Jesús. (2015). Desafíos empíricos, crítica semiótica y una apuesta por la introducción a nuevos lenguajes. Signo y Pensamiento, 34(66), 14-27. https://doi.org/10.111447javeriana.syp34-66.decs
Solera, Agustina (2018). Movimientos decoloniales en la Patagonia Andina. Reflexiones para una conversación desde el territorio. (Decolonial Movements in Andean Patagonia. Thoughts for a conversation based on the territory). Doctoral dissertation. Centro de Estudios Avanzados, Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, Universidad Nacional de Córdoba.
 Pueblo points not to ‘‘the people’’ as an abstraction, but to the concrete, disoriented human manyness that contains the possibility of community. (Lugones & Price, 2010: Ixi).
 Author’s own translation.
 Author’s own translation.
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About the author:
Agustina Solera is a Post-Doctoral Researcher for Prince Claus Chair in Equity and Development at ISS.
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