- Speculative Realism, Visionary Pragmatism, and Poet-Shamanic Aesthetics in Gloria Anzaldúa—and Beyond
I felt a calling to be an artist, but an artist in the sense of a shaman—of healing through words, using words as a medium for expressing the flights of the soul, communing with the spirit, having access to these other realities or worlds.—Gloria Anzaldúa, Interviews/Entrevistas
It is by now almost a commonplace among many feminist scholars to criticize or even reject the "linguistic turn" in poststructuralist thought, insisting that poststructuralism's intense focus on language removes thinkers from the embodied, material world. Adopting a dichotomous, oppositional stance and defining poststructuralist thought in overly simplified terms, these critiques are somewhat reductive and thoroughly immersed in the binary Eurocentric philosophical traditions they condemn.1 However, rather than criticize the critiques, this essay takes a different, more speculative approach. Drawing on indigenous theories of participatory language and Gloria Anzaldúa's work, I develop a transformation-based writing practice that I call poet-shaman aesthetics: a synergistic combination of artistry, healing, and transformation grounded in relational, indigenous-inflected worldviews.2 I focus especially on the physical dimensions of Anzaldúa's writing, where the words she uses, the metaphors she creates, emerge from and connect with her subjects and have physiological and other material effects. Poet-shaman aesthetics represents an entirely embodied and potentially transformative intertwining of language, physiology/matter, and world. As I hope to demonstrate, poet-shaman aesthetics represents a linguistic "turn" indeed, but not the more commonly [End Page 51] presumed turn away from material reality and our embodied flesh-and-blood world.
In poet-shaman aesthetics, words do not simply point to this externalized material reality in some correspondence-type mode. Words neither serve merely as a veil between ourselves and a more real (that is, more tangibly material) world nor create our reality in some poststructuralist approach (i.e., the "linguistic turn" I referred to above). My claim is far more extreme: in poet-shaman aesthetics words have causal force; words embody the world; words are matter; words become matter. As in shamanic worldviews and indigenous theories and practices—in which words, images, and things are intimately interwoven and the intentional, ritualized performance of specific, carefully selected words shifts reality—poet-shaman aesthetics enables us to enact and concretize transformation.
Stories and metaphors are as real as dogs, cats, baseball bats, the idea of God, nuclear fission, human beings, the chair you're sitting on right now, Buddhism, and bricks. LeAnn Howe makes a similar point:
I'm saying flat-out that speech acts create the world around us. And those are primary, foundational. We can look at verbs and verb tenses, especially in Choctaw, as a way of moving the mountain through the act of speaking. That speech act is as powerful as number theory to nuclear physics. Many non-Indians put all their faith in numbers, the power to add them up to create or destroy. Natives, I think, on the other hand, put our faith in speech. What is said. That's why if you speak of death to an individual or a thing, you make it happen.(Qtd. in Squint 2010, 219-20)
In Indigenous philosophies, words are not simply representational; they are causal. Language can have material(izing) force.
I borrow the term "poet-shaman" from Anzaldúa herself, although she uses it only once—in the aptly titled "Metaphors in the Tradition of the Shaman," where she describes her artistic vocation as a new form of shamanism. In this brief essay, drafted shortly after Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza's publication, Anzaldúa explains that when she wrote her book, she was "trying to practice . . . in a new way":
The oldest "calling" in the world—shamanism. . . . The Sanskrit word for shaman, saman, means song. In non-literate societies, the shaman and the poet were the same person. The role of the shaman is, as it was then, to preserve and create cultural or group identity by mediating between [End Page 52] the cultural heritage of the past and the present everyday situations people find themselves in. In retrospect I...