- Fluent Selves: Autobiography, Person, and History in Lowland South America ed. by Suzanne Oakdale, Magnus Course
. Edited by Suzanne Oakdale and Magnus Course. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014. Pp. xiv + 319. $75.00 (cloth).
This volume takes its title from Kenneth Rexroth’s poem “Lute Music.” This poetic reference sets the tone for a book that delves into an ethnographic exploration of what Rexroth would call the “endless epiphany of our fluent selves.” In Amazonia, two things drive this fluid working and reworking of the person: one is the body, the other is discursive practices. Amazonian personhood is always a work in progress. It requires individuals and societies to build their trajectories from multiplicity to individuality in physical and discursive form. The challenge in this volume is to tackle this process by analyzing biographical and autobiographical narratives.
The book’s first section, “Neither Myth nor History,” contains chapters by Casey High, Peter Gow, and Hanne Veber. As the title suggests, what these have in common is a repositioning of biographical and autobiographical narratives vis-à-vis myth. They explore different aspects of this relationship in regard to personhood, identity, and historical consciousness. They also present interesting parallels in the way in which biographical narratives have changed due to historical circumstances. All of the chapters in this section concentrate on indigenous groups of western Amazonia in Ecuador and Peru.
High’s chapter discusses Waorani victimhood. His goal is to explain why we can find an emphasis on victimhood in some Waorani personal accounts, while at the same time young men praise themselves as warriors like “the ancient ones.” Does this constitute a contradiction, a historical change, or something else? High’s answer does not depend on reducing history to myth or myth to history, but on the porous nature of narrative genres that parallels the openness of Waorani personhood. Young men describe themselves as warriors instead of victims in response to their new position in their historical situation. Furthermore, they are not restricted to a single mode of historical consciousness. They see their society as different from that of their parents; however, they are not replacing “traditional” myth with historical narrative, but making their own modern life history look more like myth. This is an insightful conclusion that sheds light on the contradictions of historical change in Amazonia.
Gow’s chapter on exemplary personal experience describes as well the blurring relationship between history and myth among the Piro (Yine) of Peru. Piro narratives of personal experience are fundamentally different from Euro-American biography in that they do not assume the individual as a singularity; instead, they construct the individual from a conceived personal multiplicity. Individuals are therefore a social product that is singularized at a given point through discourse. This point resonates not only with Amazonian ethnography but also with Melanesian ideas of personhood. Veber addresses in her chapter a related topic among the Asheninka of Peru, considering the relationship between biographical memories and history. She shows how these memories help the Asheninka to remain open to the future and help the people take a position in their own history.
The second part of the book presents chapters by Pedro de Niemeyer Cesarino and Magnus Course. Cesarino’s deals with the impossibility of conceiving Marubo person-hood in terms of individuality, a point very similar to Gow’s. Cesarino grounds his discussion in a description of the process of transformation and initiation of a Marubo [End Page 99] shaman. He presents narratives of self-transformation in the process of achieving a state of yovevo, a spiritualized state that is achieved by shamans and can be approximated by others. This transformation can be derailed by dark spirits. Individuals are then not entirely responsible for their antisocial behaviors since they are inhabited by yovevo spirits and cannot always escape being coopted by yochikea specters.
While Cesarino insists in the impossibility of conceiving the individual in Marubo shamanic discourse, Course give us a sense of the multiplicity of ideas about personhood in autobiographical narrative in Mapuche narratives about destiny. Mapuche narrative about destiny shows ideas that sustain the individual...