epistemic diversity, Maria Iñigo Clavo

narrator Maria Iñigo Clavo
term epistemic diversity
published September 2019, Barcelona
affiliated institution MACBA

Looking for models of epistemic diversity triggers challenges that make visible the limitations of our Western methodologies. My focus will be on two questions: firstly, how we might find symptoms of these limitations through an epistemological dialogue, which provides an opportunity to know them better to overcome them; and, secondly, how to search for new political models that could emerge.


Diversity vs. difference

In the context of multicultural criticism in the 1990s, we understood the dangers of speaking about cultural diversity and the self-complacent postmodern umbrella that did not challenge this colonial order but merely administrated a landscape of subordinate and commodified cultures. On the one hand, it was important to return to the narration of history to recognise the genealogies of these colonial powers. This was the main achievement of postcolonial theory: to reconnect cultural studies with a history of cultural power relationships. On the other hand, the concept of difference appeared as a contestation of the idea of diversity. Through difference, we could get rid of this capitalist umbrella and get back to the Deleuzian idea of the self, which could be fully acknowledged in its singularity without comparison with any original or any same.


Cultural difference vs. colonial difference

Authors such as Homi Bhabha took the concept of culture to defend the idea of cultural difference as that place of negotiation between spaces of utterance in cosmopolitan contexts.[1] This culture-based difference was contested by authors including Aníbal Quijano to underline the fact that culture was, after all, the tool of colonialisation par excellence. Speaking about “cultural difference” was thus simply another Westernised form of definition that used the tools of colonial domination. So, from Latin American contexts we started to speak about the colonial difference to acknowledge the living power relationships that were at stake.



What is “culture” ultimately? Among certain Tupi peoples, “culture” is not → translated from the Portuguese language. It is simply a tool for visibility, for getting funding, for participating in political struggles. What culture is for them is something different, something else. This means the sense of (Western) “culture” is involved in the language of macro-politics.[2] Lina Bo Bardi, in Brazil in the 1950s, spoke about pre-artisanship to defend the idea of popular culture as detached from the market, “popular” as something that exists in the cracks of the official and insists on maintaining what the official wants to erase: popular knowledge.[3] In the text of her exhibition of popular art, displayed in front of the São Paulo Art Biennial in 1959 (the main symbol of Brazilian internationalisation), she remarked: “We could have chosen Central America, Spain, Southern Italy, or any other place where what is known as ‘culture’ has not yet arrived” (Bahia em Ibirapuera, 1959). Thus, she was already thinking of the distinction between Western “culture” (in quotation marks) and popular culture.



The decolonial perspectives developed in Latin America and now so popularised globally have a very strong legacy in their 20th century theorisation, closely linked to Marxist and nationalist macro-politics. There is a strong tradition of intellectuals’ participation in politics and parties in these countries during the revolutionary process, and especially up until the 1970s. This meant that the language of this genealogy of decolonialists during the nineties – which shaped a great part of the hegemonic Latin America postcolonial theory – has an important structuration from this macro-political tradition. That is why Boaventura de Sousa Santos takes such concepts as “baroque” or “anthropophagi” as the banners of Latin-American political identity, without taking into account their participation in internal colonial ideologies.



Besides, one consequence of the Euro-American language of civil rights in the postcolonial debate is the strong fixation on identarian positions and the legitimation of strategic essentialism for political purposes. I still think this essentialism could be an efficient tool to question racist cultural and discursive stability in Latin America, as it activates an absent civil-rights vindication of these countries’ sub-citizenships. But I agree with Rita Segato[4] in calling these identities “canned” (enlatada), looking (once again) for the construction of universality, overlooking changing migrant identities, detaching them from history – Segato notes the necessity of affiliation to the history of identity – and other power relationships. This is precisely how modern Western epistemology operates, by separating. For example, the concept of the Afro-Brazilian was not based exclusively on race, but was also strongly linked to spiritual/candomblé practices that have been consolidated through collaborations between white and black elites (both local and international) since the 1930s in Brazil.[5]



It is impossible that Western societies do not essentialise themselves, as the Mayan anthropologist Aura Cumes has stated.[6] That is why Bhabha insisted on the compulsive fixation of the stereotype and its ambivalence in the colonial encounter in Western culture during the 19th century, creating relationships of hate and desire with its colonial objects. This Western process of fixation is still alive in the macro-political postcolonial language. Segato wonders if there is not an alternative approach that can use the very tools of oppression to achieve → liberation, which for me means to interrogate effective political frameworks beyond the modern macro-political strategies that are reproducing this oppression when forgetting common class struggles.


It is interesting that Segato defines this postcolonial political identity as “subject-origin-shamed”, as susceptible to receiving this model of “canned” identities. Shame is an emotion that can become chronic → after a traumatic experience of rejection but can also appear when the subject experiences regret towards themselves. I wish to extend this emotion of shame to the figure of the guilty – the other who is subject-origin-shamed in the processes of recognising itself as the figure of the oppressor, taking advantage of their privileges, → disappointed in themselves. Could this shared shame be a space of utterance or of the production of knowledge? I would like to think that museums could contribute to performing collective mourning and heal this toxic shame through acknowledgment.


Active thinking

The culture of guilt and punishment present in our debates in recent years is proof of how our modern system of jurisprudence has been internalised in our society and everyday life, how modern institutions weigh down upon us. Often this looks as if the political problem should be embodied in the figure of guilt in Western society. In our current fragmented landscape, how might we protect active thinking against the reactive one that uses a language of guilt, blaming our peers, and personal self-defence? In this → process of the collective construction of knowledge, mistakes are the most valuable resources and tools we have for collective → learning, in which each place of utterance could highlight the blind spots of another.


Our other we (nuestras otras nosotras)

Winaq is a term that Mayan translators Ajb’ee Jiménez and Hector Aj Xol Ch’ok[7] use to speak about the expansion of regimes of personhood in some Mayan epistemologies, a category that is based on communication and the interrelation of individuals and on an important attachment to history and ancestralism. Being a human is not a guarantee of being considered a person/winaq, as this will be something to be activated in a relationship, interaction, and communication. This idea of personhood is based on the transitional and community-to-be, the same in the difference and – which is more important – speaking with other communities using what Jiménez and Aj Xol called our other we, “our heart is attached to them.” Indigenous scholars such as Sara Hunt have insisted that when Western academics try to understand Amerindian cosmologies they seek to fix them (as our epistemology does), which is to miss the processual knowledge of their communities, the importance of the “becoming” in which something/someone comes to life and receives the status of personhood.[8] Could these categories help us? Or would they quickly be absorbed by the Western Hegelian language of fixation, separability, and determinacy.[9] Could these concepts of continuity between parts promote other community inscriptions?



What if we return to the concept of diversity – not as relativism, but as an attempt to create a system of equivalences – to get back to the collective and in partnership with the concept of epistemology as a way to challenge this separation and create new models of conversation and coexistence that, it is to be hoped, will lead to new ways of political action beyond modern strategies?


I took the concept of epistemic diversity from the context of the UFSB (Federal University of Southern Bahia) curriculum and the “Encuentro de Saberes” (Meeting of Knowledges) project launched at various universities in Brazil. This project was born from the struggles of getting quotas in Brazilian universities since 2002. It was greeted with very strong resistance among the academics in Brazil, as there was a strong tradition among social scientists and anthropologists that reinforced the official argument that inequality and poverty were a cultural question and not a racial one. As Segato pointed out, she could not accept this sense of “culture”.[10] All this literature will be contested by new generations of scholars in the future that are now starting to have access to the classroom – even though the system of quotas is under threat from the Bolsonaro government. “Encuentro de Saberes” consists at the moment of the introduction of artisans, masters, indigenous agents, and Afro-Brazilian activists into the classroom, which contributes to modifying the hierarchies between scientific and popular knowledge. This was a way to look after all these forms of knowledge denied by Western academia, to re-evaluate them in society and address the precarious and devalued place they now have in communities. The idea was that these presences could gradually change the structure of Eurocentric, Western academia in a transversal way.[11]


This project could be an example of the politics of reparation in museums and universities: rather than being places where these forms of knowledge are represented, they would become sites of utterance that could change institutional rules. For these communities to attain access to self-representation from within their own epistemological frameworks connects to their access to rights. In this project, history and the way we tell history would be a fundamental tool for epistemodiversity: as the Māori anthropologist Linda Tuhiway Smith claims, “to hold alternative histories means to hold alternative knowledges.”[12] Which institutional strategies could we bring to attempt this epistemic diversity? How to hold a dialogue when sharing neither vocabulary nor methodological frameworks? What I think is very interesting about this project, is how it would make visible the limits (and limitations) of our epistemology to better understand the barriers for a transgressive transformation.


We can now analyse, in the following two examples, certain frictions in these attempts to create epistemic diversity and how our tools reveal their limitations in this process.


Epistemological counterpoint

One of the criticisms of Jose Carvalho’s decolonial theory is precisely what he called “epistemological counterpoint”. In its original sense, a counterpoint is a form of music in which one or more melodies are added above or below a given melody, blending into a single harmonic texture.[13] This is when Western scholars acknowledge something that they could name as ethnomathematics, ethnomusic, ethnomedicine – reinforcing their standards of highly rigorous Western disciplines used as a framework for this ethno-derivation. So, the challenge would be to recognise epistemological sovereignty and show our capacity to have a conversation when there is no shared vocabulary and no shared methodological framework. The challenge of teaching is now related to empowering our students to validate and authorise their cultural and epistemic potential to contribute to a global dialogue from their own experience. This involves obtaining new competences – that is, lecturing and learning from our students’ cultural experiences and, at the same time, constantly rethinking and questioning our own frameworks.[14]


Knowledge – spirituality

The Meeting of Knowledges project raises new questions about how such forms of knowledge should be allowed to be present in academia precisely when, as Michel de Certeau indicated, there is a common perspective among all sciences in about what is to be carefully excluded.[15] So here is one of the challenges, and the project soon reached the conclusion that is not possible to separate spirituality from knowledge production. The invited teachers – sabedores (“those who know”) – included spiritual practices in their lectures on medicine and curative plans, turning the classroom into a ritualistic space. So, spirituality is precisely what cannot be captured by rationality – prendre (capture/trap) appears in Eduard Glissant’s explanation of the etymology of the French word comprendre (comprehend, understand). In 2016, the Federal University of Minas Gerais included a series of courses by spiritual leaders of the matrix of African religions in its curriculum, as the university community was interested in learning more about them. But can – or should – spirituality be taught? Is it possible for an institution such as a university to deal with the contradiction of acknowledging precisely what science has dismissed in its very constitution?[16] In this case, what is at stake is not just our resilience to having an interlocution without sharing methodologies or epistemological frameworks, but also challenging the Western capacity to deal with the unknown and opaque, and to escape the fantasy of control provided by the sciences and their performance of Hegelian separability and determinacy.[17] Thus, it means to deal with the → untranslatable, the indeterminate. What would be the political consequences of not fixing and incorporating what has not been named or perhaps should not be named?[18] Could we learn ways to heal without naming? Both fiscally and emotionally in our Western culture?


I would like to think that creating frameworks for epistemological sovereignty could help us to find new strategies to amplify our political landscape of emotions, irrationality, senses, spirituality, doubt, → vulnerabilities, uncertainness, fragilities, instincts, intuitions… But I do not want to suggest that these epistemologies are somehow pure and separated from Western culture, or that they could be defined (and fixed) in a simplistic way. For example, in the 1980s the Maya movement in Guatemala spoke about Mayan nationalism as a modern concept and imposed a certain kind of spirituality as identarian ownership of the community. While this is no longer active it still has resonance among some people. The May 2019 exhibition Resistance now! – curated by Kaingang MA students at the Museum of Archeology and Ethnography at the University of Sao Pãulo – presented artefacts of their community as part of the Museum collection. They did not call into question the display grammar of the discipline of ethnography– and the ceremony dance that opened the exhibition in which we all participated was preceded by a tribute to Jesus Christ.

[1] Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994).

[2] Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, Cultura con Aspas (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2010).

[3] Teshome Gabriel, Third Cinema in the Third World: The aesthetics of liberation (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1982), 54.

[4] Rita Segato. La nación y sus otros (Buenos Aires: Prometeo libros, 2007).

[5] Roger Sansi, Fetishes & Monuments: Afro-Brazilian Art and Culture in the 20th Century (Oxford: Beghahn Books, 2010).

[7] Abj’ee Jiménez and Hector Aj Xol Ch’ok, Winaq. fundamentos del pensamiento maya, non-commercial attribution (BY-NC).

[8] Sarah Hunt, “Ontologies of Indigeneity: The Politics of Embodying a Concept.” Cultural Geographies, vol. 21, no. 1 (2014), 5.

[9] Denise Ferreira da Silva, “On Difference Without Separability”, Incerteza Viva: 32nd Biennial of São Paulo, eds. Jochen Voz and Julia Rebouças, exhibition catalogue (São Paulo: São Paulo Biennial, 2016) 57–65.

[10] Segato (2007), 149.

[11] There is a potential debate on whether it is better to create departments of “popular forms of knowledges” or to continue considering them as guests.

[12] Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous People (London: Zed Books, 1999).

[13] José Carvalho, Juliana Florez and Mancel Martínez, “Encuentro de Saberes, hacia una Universidad pluriepistémica”, Saberes nómadas, derivas del pensamiento propio, eds. Nina Cabrá and Camila Aschner (Bogotá: Universidad Central Bogotá, Serie Encuentros IESCO, 2016).

[14] Rita Segato, La crítica de la colonialidad e ocho ensayos, Y una antropología por demanda (Buenos Aires: Prometeo, 2015).

[15] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 74.

[16] Boaventura de Sousa Santos wrote “Ciencias sociales no somos capaces de mirar la espiritualidad porque no hay indicadores para eso, como no hay indicadores para la felicidad… pero necesitamos una epistemología que dé cuenta de eso”, La Sociología de las Ausencias y la Sociología de las Emergencias: para una ecología de saberes, ed. Boaventura de Sousa Santos (Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2006).

[17] Ferreira (2016).

[18] Of course, an epistemological dialogue does not suggest a cultural purity of agents that are not involved in the Western way of life (lecturing at Central Saint Martins, I was once questioned by a philosopher whether there really was a different epistemology among indigenous people). There are some comments on this question in the list of the “top ten” ways to dismiss indigenous knowledge made by some indigenous scholars from Canada: “secondary and subservient relation to other fields of study” (which ultimately means to question its credibility). Cheryl Suzack, “How the Academic Institution Silences Indigenous Faculty: Top 10 Strategies”, Second Annual Indigenous Women’s Speakers’ Series. Politics, Knowledge, Ecology, Culture (Toronto: Centre for Feminist Research York University, 2019).