Validation as Capture
"Perhaps in this way the knowledge and manifestations of the Western tradition will cease to be used as synonyms for universal knowledge" writes Yásnaya Aguilar.
Originally written in Mexican-Castilian on April 19th, 2020 for El País.
Validation as Capture
By Yásnaya Aguilar
The narratives surrounding the core truth of the pandemic became so dense that I feel unable to make a halfway structured analysis of the effects of all that is happening.
I have been exposed to too many informational and analytical stimuli that make arguments in the context of the pandemic on a variety of topics:
the impact of quarantine on mental health,
structural inequality and its consequences,
and even interesting analyses of the use of fake news.
Discussions on whether the effects of this pandemic will “declare the end of capitalism” or “its rebirth with greater force” occupy a good part of the discussions that were being raised in different virtual circles of analysis.
I confess that I lack elements to draw conclusions that could guide me in the midst of a hail of arguments, and then generate a diagnosis that would allow me to even think about taking more or less defined positions.
In the midst of all this content, I am particularly interested in the effects and responses of indigenous people to the pandemic.
In search of this information I also came across a particular but already known phenomenon: in different virtual spaces the knowledge about the body and health that has been generated by indigenous peoples was narrated as possible alternatives to face and even "cure" covid-19 to the point of people explaining the rituals through which the "Toltec science" can create a kind of protective shield against the coronavirus.
On the other side, as an easily predictable reaction, are the disqualifications that claim that the knowledge of indigenous peoples about the body and health is completely useless, typical of gullible and ignorant people, and that only scientific knowledge can cope with the pandemic.
These discussions are certainly not new, and remind me of the constant impossibility of translating between different systems of knowledge and validation.
The Mixe system of production and socialization of knowledge has its own spaces and mechanisms, just as the system of production of scientific knowledge has its own spaces and social mechanisms of production.
It is carried out in certain languages, validated by a peer review system, produced in certain institutions, validated by awards and publications in specialized journals; all this does not escape defined historical conditions, ethical issues, nor a given economic, social and cultural system.
The scandal unleashed by the statement of French doctors about the idea of testing the vaccine for covid-19 on the African continent makes us raise again questions about the historical relationship between colonialism and scientific production, to mention one example.
How much of scientific knowledge has not been generated on colonial exploitation?
Science as a system of knowledge production is one of many in the world and, like the Mixe system of knowledge production, it is subject to history, economics and the cultural and social dynamics of the context in which it is developed.
The biologist César Carrillo Trueba has explained that, from the Western tradition, the relationship with other systems of knowledge generation can be established from three possible approaches:
or through validation.
The open contempt is easily detectable. I would say that I am almost accustomed to the Mixe knowledge system about the body and about the world being discursively homologated to simple charlatanism or ignorance.
On the other hand, Carrillo Trueba makes evident how
“idealization is the other side of the coin of contempt, from this position a search is made for an essential wisdom in the knowledge systems of indigenous peoples that are opposed to the evil western science – while the traditional medicine of our communities is presented as pure, primitive and natural knowledge, thus removing all historicity and complexity.”
Validation as Capture
Idealizing positions only reinforce the idea of the wise "noble savage" and, in many cases, generate dynamics of extractivism and cultural hijacking.
In addition to contempt and idealization, validation seems to me to be one of the most dangerous mechanisms because it is imperceptible or apparently well-intentioned.
Carrillo Trueba explains how
certain knowledge from other traditions is validated by fragmenting the whole system and only accepting a part of that knowledge as valid.
Validation is a complex phenomenon that I will not replicate here and that Carrillo Trueba has explained very well. I would rather focus on the linguistic operation that seems to me to be an important part of validation: the act of naming.
While a friend of mine was explaining in a forum the functioning of certain herbs for the cure of fever in the Mixe tradition, a professor interrupted him saying that this was science,
"Mixe science" he said proudly.
"It is not science. And it is good that it is not," I thought in response.
The Mixe system of knowledge-generation does not function socially like the scientific system. We do not have indexed journals or specialized awards, no one counts how many times an article is cited to measure its impact, nor do we have to negotiate with companies to finance specific research, just to mention a few elements.
Validation operates from linguistic recognition when knowledge that has been generated in a different system is named and accepted as "science".
This recognition has an implicit idea, that scientific knowledge is superior by essence and that to recognize as science the knowledge generated in culturally different systems is to elevate it in rank.
Calling knowledge generated within a different system "science" implies hierarchizing systems of knowledge by placing Western science in the most prominent place.
Validation evidences how the West refuses to take its place in the world of diverse systems of knowledge in an egalitarian manner, at least narratively speaking to begin with.
Validation within Social Movements
This same operation of validating via name happens with other phenomena.
In the world there are diverse and multiple women's movements, each women's struggle corresponding to its context, challenges and needs. Each movement presents its own main demands or wishes. And these are raised and discussed in multiple contrasting languages.
In some cases, a priority may be the recognition of women as possessors of communal land. In another case, it may be the decriminalization of abortion, or in another case – as the K'iche' political scientist Gladys Tzul explains in an extraordinary interview – women's yearnings may center on the possibility of reading and interpreting the Koran in a feminine key.
The priorities of each of the women's struggles are set differently. Validation also operates on the diversity of the women's movement when every women's struggle is called feminism.
The struggle of the women of my community whose main demand at this time is access to a fundamental communal good such as the spring from which we have always drunk is not feminism and it is good that it is not, our struggle has not been fed by the texts of feminism nor has it been organized by waves. This in no way should be read as an anti-feminist stance.
It is a matter of recognizing that, just as science is a particular system of knowledge among the different systems of knowledge in the world, feminism is one of the many women's movements that exist in the world and that in order to be able to dialogue in equality it is necessary to begin with the act of naming.
The validation from the name evidences a power relation: one party has the capacity to legitimize by means of a label, in its own system, the validity of the other party.
Validation in the Arts
This validation also happens in other apparently distant phenomena. All the languages of the world exercise the poetic function of language, the everyday language in certain circumstances takes other forms and creates an extraordinary linguistic time where words create an aesthetic effect.
In the Mixe tradition, the poetic function is related to ritual, and it is at that moment that it is exercised predominantly. These poetic manifestations are often referred to as literature, thus exercising, once again, an act of linguistic validation.
Literature is a specific manifestation of the poetic function of language that is inscribed within a system determined by publishing houses, objects called books that are sold in stores, rituals such as book presentations or validation systems such as literary prizes and creative scholarships.
The Mixe poetic tradition has its own systems of creation and functioning. Tseltal shamanic chants, Mixe prayers, Zapotec libanas are part of non-literary poetic traditions. In the world of poetic manifestations, literature is only a concrete example from which it is not necessary to validate the others.
We must also consider that the different systems of knowledge of the world, the different women's movements and the different poetic manifestations influence each other, they are systems open to interaction; however, we cannot ignore the colonialism that runs through these relationships and that explain the phenomena of validation through the name.
Not all knowledge generation systems are science, not all women's movements are feminism and not all poetic manifestations are literature.
There is no need for this validation that hides the diversity of ways of being and doing. To attempt a balanced approach, it is important to insert the Western tradition within the multiplicity of the world: science as one of the systems of knowledge generation, feminism as one of the many women's movements in the world, and literature as one of the manifestations of the poetic function of language among many others.
One among others; one, among others.
Perhaps in this way the knowledge and manifestations of the Western tradition will cease to be used as synonyms for universal knowledge, a supposed universal knowledge that contrasts with the other manifestations that are accused of locality.
All knowledge, including Western knowledge, is local, for it is situated in its specific historical, social and cultural circumstances and each responds to the needs and experiences of the societies that developed it.
To cancel the validation-through-naming can be a good start to try to decipher the codes that help transit between diverse traditions.
And we could, perhaps, from different places, ask ourselves what tools we have from multiple traditions to face all that this pandemic brings in the very diverse aspects of human existence. Different tools to try to understand this dense situation in which we now find ourselves.