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Ethnohistory 48.1-2 (2001) 366-368

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Book Review

A Finger in the Wound:
Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala

A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala. By Diane M. Nelson. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. xix + 427 pp., maps, glossary, bibliography, index. $55.00 cloth, $22.00 paper.)

Diane M. Nelson is an evocative speaker, employing disconcertingly vivid metaphors while juxtaposing the comic with the deadly serious to illuminate the often surrealistic quality of Guatemalan state machinations–an "Eduardo Galeano on acid" approach to ethnographic representation. Nonetheless, I approached A Finger in the Wound skeptically, unconvinced that her playfully serious metaphors could be sustained in an ethnography of this length. Reading the book, however, convinced me of her skills as both an ethnographer and a writer. In it Nelson employs irony and intellectual playfulness while not losing sight of her subjects as individuals and intentional actors, she is self-reflective without falling into the quagmire of [End Page 366] narcissism, and she is politically motivated without dogmatically rejecting alternatives.

The book examines cultural politics in Guatemala on the eve of the Columbian quincentenary in 1992. Its title and leitmotif come from a saying by many non-Indian Guatemalans (ladinos) that Maya culture is "a finger in the wound" of the Guatemalan national body politic–a view characteristic of a ladino Endzeitstimmung heightened during the international quincentenary celebration of all things indigenous. Nelson is primarily concerned with power and the ways in which it is constructed and deployed in the contexts of Guatemalan ethnic and gender relations. Her analysis draws heavily on the theories of Marx, Freud, and especially Foucault. Indeed, a modified Foucauldian notion of orthopedic state functions underwrites her model of dynamic state/individual relations: "Powerful practices such as the law, schooling, and the use of language work with individual bodies to produce the body politic rather than simply repress an already-existing self" (5). As Nelson acknowledges, this is fluid ground, for "in those sites meant to ‘fix’ them, to turn them into ladinos, the Maya are repairing their communities, formando activists" (162). She shows how both hegemonic and subaltern claims to authority and power are pursued through legal means, especially in the junctures of international treaties and state laws, and her ethnographic descriptions behind the public facade of state and nongovernmental organization bureaucracy are revealing.

Nelson notes that power is linked to culture as well as to economics–and increasingly so in these postmodern times. She thus examines the construction of the political (as manifest in "the state") through the cultural and documents ways in which notions of culture are (ab)used in the pursuit of political power. She writes that in Guatemala "much of the state’s power comes from the way it links the power of the modern with the magic of ‘culture’" (74). Nelson is much taken with the magical realist qualities of Guatemalan cultures, and she employs innovative and risky interpretive techniques to convey this magic. She relies heavily on body metaphors to examine ways in which Maya culture and the state are perceived by Guatemalans–from rape and incest to clothing and transvestism. For the most part these metaphors are revealing, although a few seductive analogies become tedious in their repetition (e.g., bandaging the wounded body politic). Another of Nelson’s approaches to uncovering the conscious and subconscious magic of culture is the analysis of humor, especially effective in her discussion of jokes told about Guatemala’s Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú. Although generally refreshing, Nelson’s analytic playfulness is at times strained, such as in her discussion of "Pink Freud"–Freud read through the lens of Marxism. [End Page 367]

Nelson characterizes her approach as one of "fluidarity," a dynamic condition marked by murky, contingent, and ever-fluctuating moral relations that stands in contrast to the concreteness of solidarity. As all anthropologists are painfully aware, exerting one’s solidarity with those with whom we work is not an easy matter. Individuals have different intentions, different dreams, different fears, and thus there is no single position with...


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