Tag Archives pluriverse

Transformative Methodologies | Listening differently, hearing more clearly: a decolonial approach to fostering dialogue between plural knowledges

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)[1] 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.”[2]
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)[3]. 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.

[1] 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).

[2] Author’s own translation.

[3] Author’s own translation.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Agustina Solera is a Post-Doctoral Researcher for Prince Claus Chair in Equity and Development at ISS.

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The Global North’s superhero complex and how Escobar can help us save ourselves by Carolyn Yu

This week Arturo Escobar is delivering a lecture at the ISS on the topic of post-development. Escobar’s work on rethinking development is crucial in a time when the development field is still plagued by a superhero complex. This article sketches how his work contributes to the deconstruction of the Global North’s own portrayal as a saviour, and serves as a background to his lecture.

Oddly enough I find myself thinking of Hollywood superhero movies as I sit here writing about Arturo Escobar’s upcoming visit to ISS. Online advertisements relentlessly propose that I watch summer blockbusters while I am busy reading about Escobar and his work on development.

When I watch these blockbuster superhero movies, I always think about the extras running around getting squashed in the carnage, and how the audience is invited to see that the only solution to the tragic situation is a superhero to calm the chaos. In the latest generation of movies, we now have the trope of the self-aware superhero. Now, superheroes realise that in their interventions they have inadvertently killed many victims, or even that their very existence as superheroes relies on the villains and inevitably leads to the chaos, as they relentlessly save lives. As the movie draws to a close, the storytellers set up a sequel for the next summer by continually justifying the need for superheroes, and the plot neatly sidesteps the growing question of the superhero’s own involvement in creating the mayhem.

The superhero mentality can be heard also in the development industry. We don’t want to be involved but we have to be involved. How can we stand idly by and do nothing when the world is so full of inequality and unnecessary suffering? People are literally dying in front of us!

The saviour complex is a romantic story for the privileged among us in the Global North; private citizens and development practitioners alike. It is very tempting to leap into action when we are confronted with carefully constructed images like that pesky fly on that starving baby’s cheek. We hear horrible stories of oppression, poverty, and disease; yet, like this recent generation of superhero movies, we fail to question deeply enough the role of the interventionist countries in creating or exacerbating the story.

Escobar’s remedy

Now, to Arturo Escobar’s visit at the ISS. This celebrated anthropologist who has provoked many existential crises for development scholars and practitioners asks uncomfortable questions. He points to how the Global South has come to be seen as an impoverished and underdeveloped world and most of all, how it is framed as a place where the rescuers from the Global North can intervene (Escobar 1992).

His work on post-development is a call for all of us who are living a world of privilege to critique why rescuing and changing other peoples’ lives is still at the heart of development. Escobar states that whatever the context, it is the need to develop itself that must be questioned. At the core of development, you are dealing with an external definition of what the world should look like.

Escobar argues that development is not merely a bug that needs to be recoded and re-released– it is a faulty framework. Why is it that standards of living are largely produced by the privileged of the Global North, and why is their help needed at all? Buzzwords such as inclusive and sustainable development can only go so far when ideas of progress and good living are still overwhelmingly dictated by development institutions and governments from the Global North. Instead, development thinkers should be searching for alternatives to development.

Escobar, originally from Colombia and teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, shares alternative imaginaries and narratives to development drawn from his research and dialogues with Indigenous Colombian, Afro-Colombian, and peasant communities in Latin America (Escobar 2018). He shows how these societies are exercising their ability to live in line with their identities and their relations with not just other humans, but also to non-human and non-animal beings.

His argument is not that we must return to pre-colonial ways of living. This ignores how cultures, environments, and people change over time. We cannot ignore the problems and struggles that may have existed in history. Instead, the challenge is to recognise how industrialised, developed countries do not always have the answers about how to change ways for the better. This is a major shift away from the mainstream message of development with its linear views of what is progress and what is failure. Otherwise, imperialism and colonialism will continue to thrive through an imposition of foreign standards and norms (Escobar 1995).

Escobar sees today’s challenge is to think of a “pluriverse” — a world where many worlds fit. The concept he borrows from the Zapatistas of Chiapas (Escobar 2018: 16-17). He suggests that this new imaginary will expand our imagination of what is possible. His argument is for radical interdependence and understanding peoples’ roles in constructing the realities around them. His work provides ways forward that complicate the power dynamics inherent in our privileged world’s superhero complex.

The development industry needs to deconstruct its own portrayal as a saviour and recognise its continuing role in erasing pre-existing relations and forming new oppressions. Rather than continuing the same patronising imagery of a world of passive victims, Arturo Escobar’s radical interdependence imagines a radical equality, of worlds where no singular individual is the eternal consummate hero; of narratives that are complexly interwoven without one story overshadowing the rest. Global situations and conflicts may be dire, but we need a paradigm shift where foreign intervention is not always the default answer.

Escobar, A. (1995) ‘Introduction: Development and the Anthropology of Modernity’, in A. Escobar (ed.) Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World, pp. 3-20. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Escobar, A. (1992) ‘Planning,’ in W. Sachs (ed.) The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power, 132–145. London, New York: Zed Books.
Escobar, A. (2018) Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham, London: Duke University Press.

Carolyn Bliss Photo (1)About the author: 

Carolyn Yu is a recent graduate from the ISS MA program, majoring in Social Policy for Development and specialising in Women and Gender Studies. She is coordinating the events surrounding Arturo Escobar’s visit to ISS.