Latin American Research Review 40.1 (2005) 223-236
[Access article in PDF]
Shape-shifters, Giants, and Alternative Modernities
Michael A. Uzendoski
Amazonian research has now transcended the stark division of cultural ecologists and the structuralists and has embarked upon more multi-stranded and dynamic views of cultural processes, culture areas, aesthetics, material forms, and ecological realities. The result is a compelling collection of recent books that moves research forward in [End Page 223] exciting ways. Rather than define Amazonian peoples and cultures by what they lack or how they are constrained, these books show how Amazonian peoples create their worlds not just by what is "given" but what must be made. My main argument in this review is that Amazonia is a place at the fore of "alternative modernities," or sites of creative adaptation by which people question the present order by way of cultural knowledge (Gaonkar 2001, 1-23).1 In Amazonia, this questioning and its ensuing struggles are focused upon issues of the sociality of nature. On the one hand, modernity objectifies nature as a domain of extractable resources. On the other, Amazonian perspectives insist that nature is a living and sentient being whose actions and multiple personalities impact the daily lives of human actors in complex ways.
I first examine Native Amazonian social philosophies and knowledge systems. I then move on to discuss a series of related questions: historicity, regionality, race and poetics, and ecology. I end by revisiting the issue of alternative modernities through a discussion of value and interactions with nature.
Amazonian Social Philosophies
I first consider two edited books on Native Amazonian social philosophies that address the central question of how people make their social and material worlds. Their strengths are their abilities to show broad themes and common philosophical principles underlying Native Amazonian cultures, cultures that span different regions and have distinct colonial histories.
The Anthropology of Love and Anger addresses Native Amazonian social philosophy. As Overing and Passes write in their introduction, they seek "to capture the perspectives of Amazonian peoples with regard to the more noticeable tenets of their 'sociologically wayward' sociality" (2). The authors make a convincing case for difference by arguing that Western frameworks of society distort the very processes they seek to comprehend. There are many strong essays in this volume and each deserves to be read carefully. From these essays we might begin to conceptualize what "society" and social knowledge means in Amazonian terms.
Part I of the book stresses the creation of convivial relations. Echeverri discusses the cosmic relationships among salt, sexual substance, and the truths of "first love" among the Uitoto of Columbia. Gow examines Piro sociality through a complex synthesis of daily rhythms defined by suffering, helplessness, compassion, consolation, death, and the [End Page...