Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

2.5. Societies and Cultures as Polylogues
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Arne Haselbach (Wiener Denk-Werkstatt / Vienna Thinktank, Vienna)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Amerindian Rhythms in Polylogues: From Transculturation to the global presence of Hybrid Cultures

Maria Teresa Medeiros-Lichem (Vienna University)


Upon receiving the prestigious Garcilaso de la Vega Award in 1968, the Peruvian novelist and anthropologist Jose Maria Arguedas (1911-1969) delivered his famous speech "Yo no soy un aculturado" ("I am not an acculturated one"), in which he elucidates his project of unifying the elements of the two major cultural traditions in Peru, the Spanish-criolla and the Amerindian. From the outset of the Spanish colonization, both streams, the criolla and the quechua cultures had lived side by side in an asymmetric relationship, in which the dominant power imposed its worldview by means of a hierarchical, rigid, legal, administrative and religious system that subjugated and displaced the ancient flourishing American civilizations and modes of living. Arguedas's cultural project was to break the barrier that separated the two cultural identities. (In fact, he spoke of "nations"). The path toward integrating these two cultures could no longer be the historical one, in which:

[T]he vanquished nation renounces to her soul, even if only apparently, formally, and that it takes the soul of its vanquishers, that is to say, it should become acculturated, assimilated.(1)

He then proceeded with his well-known sentence:

I am not acculturated. I am a Peruvian who proudly, like a happy demon, speaks as a Christian and as an Indian, in Spanish and in Quechua.(2)

Profoundly acquainted with both ways of life, the ancient Andean and the modernizing Spanish heritages, Arguedas contextualizes the two currents in his narrative reflecting Peru's cultural diversity. His works have been analyzed by major Latin American scholars, such as Angel Rama, Fernando Ainsa, and Antonio Cornejo Polar, as an example of the cultural phenomenon of transculturation

The term Transculturación was a neologism invented by the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz in the 1940s to replace the concept of "aculturación," which meant the "beheading" of the native American cultures by the European civilizing forces. Transculturation is a concept that better expresses the "different phases of the transitive process from one culture to another," because it implies not only the acquisition of culture, but also its interaction with the new cultural phenomena, the native American. Briefly, the expression acculturated refers to the loss of one's own culture, of the language, history and tradition, while transculturación implies overcoming the trauma of the Conquest, colonization and modernization by the way of re-vitalizing the cultural roots. Silvia Spitta, in her study Between Two Waters, Narratives of Transculturation in Latin America, observes in this phenomenon a complex process of cultural, literary and linguistic re-creation emerging out of the cultural shock and the violence inherent in the process of colonization (2-3).

In this context, Arne Haselbach's definition of polylogue as "the interactive processes actually taking place among human beings" in a given cultural setting,(3) may be extended to the Latin American constellation and to the processes and interactions taking place in the transculturation between the aboriginal cultures in Latin America and their European counterpart. If during our first encounter with Europe and through the colonial experience, the dominant system inhibited and discredited the manifestations of the original American cultures, the centripetal forces of these ancient civilizations have managed to survive and emerge in a cultural patrimony that today has a pronouncedly positive value in the definition of a Latin American identity.

The works of the Peruvian anthropologist and writer José María Arguedas are a good example of these developments. His writings reproduce the unknown voices of those silenced inhabitants of the Andes with their magic imagination capable of reaching into the invisible world of animated nature. In an effort to preserve the elements of this indigenous cosmic-vision, José María Arguedas integrates myths, legends and tales recovered from the Andean rural communities in the frame of the neo-regionalist novel.(4) Well versed in both languages, Arguedas intertwines the oral tradition and natural wisdom of the native idiosyncrasy with the rational and historical perspective of the Hispanic legacy.

The writings of Arguedas exemplify this integration of cultures, as he chooses the tool of the Spanish tongue and the structure of the realistic novel, but he shapes his prose with the syntax and rhythm of the quechua speech, a factor that results in a language of unusual lyricism. By adjusting the genre of the novel to transcribe the Andean culture, Arguedas has accomplished a process of transculturation and has thus been able to make a major contribution to Peruvian literature. The Uruguayan critic Angel Rama, in his book La transculturación narrativa en América Latina (1982), points out that the work of Arguedas has revitalized indianist literature by incorporating myths, allegories, and symbols that are profoundly rooted in aboriginal thinking. With his writings, Arguedas postulates the existence of an independent quechua culture. To illustrate how transculturation is reflected in literature, let me briefly comment on his short story "La agonía de Rasu Ñiti" of 1962.

This narrative reproduces the cosmic vision of the quechua spirit through the rituals of the death dance of the "dansak", the musician and chief of an indigenous community in the Andean mountains, who senses that his last hour is approaching and prepares himself to die in a dancing ceremony. Rasu Ñiti ('he who flattens the snow' / "el que aplasta la nieve") dresses up in his formal clothes, and in communication with the magic forces of nature, he transmits "the spirit of the condor," of "Wamani," to his young successor, who shares in this ritual of death and initiation. In seven steps of well differentiated rhythms, the dance reproduces the passage from life to death, or rather to immortality, and the process of re-incarnation of that spirit in his successor, his disciple Atok'sayku ("que cansa al zorro"/"he who exhausts the fox"). (5) Arguedas does not only mold his prose to the quechua syntax, but he also structures his plot according to patterns of Andean music. The presence of music in this story is evident not only because its main character is a dansak, a musician who holds a sacred function, but also because the violinist and the harpist, with their different melodies and rhythms, serve as communicators or links with the animated cosmic spirits. The plot of the story is constructed on the basis of the seven steps of the death dance, named: Entrance, "fire ant", "scissors' fight", "river of blood", "at the edge of the lightening". At this point, the melody suddenly changes and the priest-musician dies. The last two steps are danced by the new "dansak;" they are called: "To light the star" and "the rooster's singing". The Wamani or spirit of the condor rests now on his head. The 'father' Rasu Ñiti has been born again.

A vivid communication with an animated nature and its spirits runs through the story. The rhythms communicate the changing nature, the gentle rain or powerful river currents; the premonitions to the impending death represented by the blue fly.

A remarkable detail in this story is Rasu Ñiti's vision of the landlord on horseback, when he says: "the god is growing. He will kill the horse" ("el dios está creciendo. Matará al caballo" 254). This prophetic phrase has been interpreted by the Peruvian critic Cornejo Polar as "a joyous exclamation that refers to the myth of the reconstitution of the body of the Inkarri" ("exclamación jubilosa que se refiere al mito de la reconstitución del cuerpo del Inkarri" 164). This myth relates the messianic hope that the defeated Inka will return as a victorious king (Inka -rey) to reconstruct an independent quechua nation, liberated from the colonializing social structures.

And last but not least, important transcultural elements in Arguedas work are his language innovation in the idioms and the subtle syntactic incoherences that translate the aboriginal mind. According to Fernando Ainsa, these irregular expressions are not to be disregarded as 'linguistic degenerations", but rather seen as a "fertilizing seed " ("semilla fecundante" 501-2), as the "recovery of cultural expressions" that help project the cultural diversity in the Latina American narrative. These elements constitute a "transcultural" expression seen from within, from the angle of the "magic mind of the Indian", from the location of his mythology and cosmology which include, in the words of Ainsa, "all that can be seen and also all that cannot be seen" ("tanto lo que se ve, como lo que no se ve"134).

In this sense, Arguedas' writings may be read as an example of "learning in polylogues," as a "communicative transaction" by which the various cultural groups in the Andean region "learn" about one another, learn how the Other thinks and feels, a process that may help understand the motivations behind each other's acts.

It is in this aspect of the validity of the multiplicity of languages and logical patterns that Julia Kristeva's polylogical discourse interlocks with Arguedas's transcultural proposition. The interference of semiotic and even dissonant rhythms in a dominant colonial structure, have penetrated the solid construction of the Europe-related, rational -symbolic order, and added its personal cultural sign, a fluid ingredient in a plural dialogism. The indigenous vision, speech forms and music have been inscribed in the text, or to put it into Kristeva's words:

A measured language carried away into rhythm to a point beneath language: violent silence, instinctual drive, collided void; and back again -the path of jouissance. (1974, 179)

The death dance in Arguedas' "La agonía de Rasu Ñiti" with its exhilarating rhythmical variations reproduces what Kristeva calls the "consciousness in rhythm and instinctual drives" (179) and may also serve as an illustration of Kristeva's poly-logical stratified discourse described as:

Rhythmic language [which] thus carries a representation, but it is indeed a striated [channeled] representation and vision. The eye cannot be excluded by the ear; the representation reverberates, sound becomes image, invocative instinctual drives encounter the signifiable, realistic poly-logical object. (1974, 180)

In this intersection between two civilizing currents, the process of transculturation represents an attempt to bridge the abyss between classes and races in Latin America. In the literary scene, the work of women writers, like the Mexicans Rosario Castellanos or Elena Poniatowska, is of transcendental importance for incorporating the voices of the periphery into the center of discourse. From the outset of the feminine narrative in Latin America, women have been conscious of their condition of subjugation, and their position of disadvantage in the distribution of power. In her novels, Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974) questions the mechanisms of power in the conflictive master-slave relationship that ruled interracial and gender exchanges in the land since colonial times. Her novels are an attempt at understanding the motivations behind a subordinate behavior, the vehicles of resistance in the construction of subjectivity and the possible role of women characters as agents of rupture and change. Balún Canán (1957) can be read as a novel of power-knowledge relations in a class and race context, where the stream of evil held by the dominant class for centuries reaches a turning point at the moment when the subjugated acquire knowledge, learn the language of the master and establish a "reverse discourse" that subverts the balance of power. In an interview Castellanos says that what drew her to write on ethnic subjects was to understand

the factors that determine the attitude of the oppressed in relation to the oppressors, the treatment given by the powerful to the weak, the range of reactions of the subjugated, the stream of evil that is inflicted by the powerful on those who are weak, and which comes back again to the powerful. (1965)

In her prose, Rosario Castellanos captures the plurality of languages and multiple levels of consciousness that co-exist in a society where more than one vision pervades. Her language and worldview incorporate the Voices of the Other Mexicans and of those who have been excluded from participation in the power structures.

And to finish, a last question: Where do we stand now at the beginning of the 21st century under the "global" presence?

In the field of the "unifying aspects of culture" in Latin America, we are in an open process of re-definition and re-localization of the centers of enunciation. Latin American cultural intellectuals such as Néstor García Canclini, Santiago Castro-Gómez, Enrique Dussel, Walter Mignolo, Hugo Achugar, Nelly Richard and many others articulate our will to overcome our epistemological subaltern condition in a spirit of post-occidentalism, by which Mignolo means a Latin American critical perspective that transcends the categories of Western thought, a resistance against monological impositions that interpret us in our 'Otherness'. García Canclini speaks of the "hybrid cultures" that result from cross-cultural exchanges in the struggle for cultural dominance and power, with the added elements of the market-oriented consumer societies. In our imaginary (or imagined cultural community), the process of acculturation has been replaced by one of "inter-fecundation," to use the concept of Fernando Ainsa, or "cross-pollinization," the metaphor coined by the Chicana social scientist Gloria Anzaldúa. What will be our next step? Maybe the utopia of attaining an identity that will replace the authority of Eurocentrism with the authority of a consensual trans- or inter-cultural discourse which listens to a diversity of de-colonized voices of those who resist a neo-colonization of knowledge and the mind and who want to define themselves beyond the Occidentalization of Modernity.

© Maria Teresa Medeiros-Lichem (Vienna University)


(1) The original text reads: "Que la nación vencida renuncie a su alma, aunque no sea sino en la apariencia, formalmente, y tome la de los vencedores, es decir que se aculture." (Arguedas 1971, 297)

(2) "Yo no soy un aculturado. Yo soy un peruano que orgullosamente, como un demonio feliz, habla en cristiano y en indio, en español y en quechua" (Ibid.).

(3) Haselbach (2000), 3.

(4) The term "neo-regionalist" refers to the second phase of the artistic movement that emerged in Latin American culture that privileges the interaction with its Amerindian roots.

(5) This dance was prohibited until the 1960s as it was considered to be linked to "diabolic cults," but under the government of the revolutionary Velasco Alvarado (1968-1974), it became an important cultural patrimony of Peru and an "Artistic symbol" that was adapted for the stage as the "Danza de las Tijeras" (The scissors dance) by the National Folkloric Ballet.


Ainsa, Fernando (1986). Identidad cultural de Iberoamérica en su narrativa. Madrid: Gredos.

Arguedas, José María (1962). "La agonía de Rasu Ñiti". Cuentos. Prólogo de Mario Vargas Llosa. Caracas: Ayacucho. 250-256.

-----. (1971)."Yo no soy un aculturado." El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. Losada 296-298.

Castellanos, Rosario (1957). Balún Canán. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Cornejo-Polar, Antonio (1997). Los Universos Narrativos de José María Arguedas. Lima: Editorial Horizonte.

García Canclini, Néstor. Hybrid Cultures. Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity. Trans. Christopher L. Chiappari and Silvia L. López. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press 1995.

Haselbach, Arne. Learning in Polylogues. On processes of social insertion into overlapping cultures. in: LLinE - Lifelong Learning in Europe, 4/2000, pp. 196-200.

Ortíz, Fernando (1940). Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar. Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho 1978.

Kristeva, Julia (1974). "The Novel als Polylogue." Desire in Language. A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Leon S. Roudiez, ed. New York: Columbia UP.

Rama, Ángel (1982). Transculturación narrativa en América Latina. México: Fundación Ángel Rama.

Spitta, Silvia (1995). Between Two Waters: Narratives of Transculturation. Houston, TX: Rice UP.

Zevallos-Aguilar, Juan. La danza de las tijeras de José María Arguedas. ¿Construcción de la cultura quechua? Mabel Moraña, ed. (1998). Indigenismo hacia el fin del milenio. IILI.

2.5. Societies and Cultures as Polylogues

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For quotation purposes:
Maria Teresa Medeiros-Lichem (Vienna University): Amerindian Rhythms in Polylogues: From Transculturation to the global presence of Hybrid Cultures. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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