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Local versus Imperial Knowledge: Reflections on Hiram Bingham and the Yale Peruvian Expedition
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Nepantla: Views from South 4.1 (2003) 67-80

An informal empire, in order to build hegemony, requires the production and circulation of truthful representations about the regions that fall under its gaze and influence. Without reliable regional knowledge (geography, resources, production, culture, and history), the flows of investment and management that emanate from the center would have greater difficulty consolidating the center's presence, “conquering” the region's markets, or exploiting its resources. Museum collections, photographic exhibits, books and articles, and maps are some of the means through which a center displays knowledge accumulated about peripheral regions. These representations embody the center's will to know and, at the same time, reveal fragments of a larger project of incorporating the Other (the peripheral region) into the dominant field of visibility.

Scientific expeditions launched from central universities bring back a harvest of new knowledge that helps the center to assess the economic potential of a peripheral region and to understand the “character” of subaltern communities. Archaeological explorations, in particular, delimit a field of study and, by so doing, place a region in a subaltern position vis-à-vis universal history and the developed nation-states. The artifacts of colonial regions acquire mimetic value in the showrooms of metropolitan museums. There, they speak of the greatness of the empire and of its discovered antiquities. In neocolonial situations (where nation-states place some limits on the expansion of the center), we also find ambitious projects of knowledge that attempt to discover and incorporate the antiquity of the Other and which, for this reason, can also be called imperial projects of knowledge. What is different in neocolonial contexts is the nature of the native response. Here the “field” is not part of the political domain of the metropolis and, consequently, the extraction of artifacts may encounter legal and political challenges. In the “field,” foreign scientists come into contact with local cognitive projects that embody other presuppositions and other objectives. The defense of national culture stimulates local intellectuals to challenge the construction of “imperial knowledge.”

In this essay, I take one of these moments of imperial intervention, the Yale Peruvian Expedition of 1911–15 (YPE), as a point of departure to reflect on the uneven construction of knowledge in centers and peripheries. The context for this expedition was the expansion of U.S. influence in Latin America as a result of both official policy (Pan-Americanism) and growing interest in the region by the U.S. business community (see Salvatore 2002). The YPE was one of numerous efforts by U.S. universities to claim the South American field as a territory of engagement for U.S. scientists. Competition for primacy and prestige among Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and other U.S. and European universities sent scientific adventurers to the Amazon basin, Lake Titicaca, the Apurinac valley, and other sites of suspected archaeological interest.

A minor incident in the history of inter-American cultural relations, the encounter between Hiram Bingham and the Peruvian indigenistas reveals the existence of quite different conceptions of knowledge (imperial versus local) and also quite distinct uses of the past (or “antiquity”). The YPE shows that moments of imperial expansion can generate tension around the question of cultural property. Scientific missions deploy in a foreign “field” all the contradictions of central universities and academic knowledge. Commonly, the collection of evidence leads to the transgressing of cultural boundaries and thus can provoke reactions from local scholars and residents. In the case of the YPE an expansionist project of knowledge raises new questions about “cultural property.” Who is entitled to study and write the nation's (here, Peru's) prehistory? What is the place of the nation's antiquity in the history of humanity? Who is the rightful custodian of ancient ruins and artifacts?

This scientific expedition, and the reaction it provoked, can give us some insights into current discussions about the uneven globalization of knowledge and the development of scientific communities north and south of the Rio Grande. Yale was at the time an undergraduate college in transition to becoming a research university. It was trying to develop an array of graduate programs...



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