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The "Lettered City" and the Insurrection of Subjugated

Knowledges in Latin America

Juan Ricardo Aparicio, Mario Blaser

Anthropological Quarterly, Volume 81, Number 1, Winter 2008, pp. 59-94


Published by George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/anq.2008.0000

For additional information about this article


Access provided by Latin American Studies Association (4 Aug 2017 14:08 GMT)

The “Lettered City” and the

Insurrection of Subjugated
Knowledges in Latin America
Juan Ricardo Aparicio
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Mario Blaser
York University

This article explores how the knowledge practices of some academic-intel-
lectuals are shifting in such a way as to signal a radical departure from the
“traditional” role that academic-intellectuals have had in Latin America.
This re-direction is part of a much larger process, namely, the gradual rejec-
tion of the modern project by increasingly larger sectors of the Latin
American population, and their ongoing efforts to bring about “worlds and
knowledges otherwise.” In effect, some of the social movements and pat-
terns of mobilization that have become highly visible in Latin America at
the turn of the 21st century are probing the modern project—including
established knowledge practices of academic-intellectuals—according to
expectations, logics and standards other than the ones that have dominat-
ed for the last two centuries or more. In particular, the article suggests how
these avenues, once opened by social movements, local intellectuals and
other sites of knowledge production regarding the intellectual-political proj-
ect in Latin America, have productively contaminated the dominant regime

The “Lettered City” and the Insurrection of Subjugated Knowledges in Latin America

of power/knowledge (the “lettered city”) that has been in place since colo-
nial times. A focus on three cases where this contamination is currently tak-
ing place points to possible directions in which a reconfiguration of the
dominant regime of power/knowledge might proceed. These developments
include the relative equalization of diverse knowledge practices through the
proliferation of sites of encounter between them, but also a disposition to
allow for the contamination of academic-intellectuals’ knowledge practices
by the insurrectional movements’ non-modern knowledge practices.
[Keywords: Social movements, Latin America, intellectuals, modernity,
coloniality, subjugated knowledges, the Lettered City]

In a recent interview, the Bolivian vice-president and intellectual from
the Left, Álvaro García Linera, accused sectors of the Indigenous move-
ment of being romantic because they claim a role for Indigenous world-
views in shaping the Bolivian state. Pointing to the five hundred years of
interaction and mingling between them, he denied that such worldviews
could be radically different from the dominant modern one: “ En el fondo
todos quieren ser modernos” (Deep inside, everyone wants to be modern)
(García Linera 2007:156–157). The transmutation of “ cultural hybridity”
into veiled denials of radical differences is common and contributes to
the strong tendency, even among sympathetic scholars, commentators
and policy makers, to dismiss an important pattern in contemporary
Latin American social mobilization, the ongoing challenge to the domi-
nant regime of modern power/knowledge. This dominant regime of
power/knowledge establishes the epistemological and social conditions
necessary for any action (discursive or otherwise) to be taken seriously as
making “truth claims” or as being reasonable, and thus traces the limits
of what is possible or even thinkable in politics and beyond. Yet, what lies
outside of these limits does not disappear just because it is not “within
the true” (Foucault 1972:224). On the contrary, sometimes it pushes back
and contests the very regime that shapes the limits of what counts as pos-
sible. In this article, we present a work in progress, a possible reading of
certain developments in the Latin American epistemic/political field that
we understand as symptoms of such pushing back. We speak of an “insur-
rection of subjugated knowledges,” that is, an insurrection of “knowl-


edges that have been disqualified as inadequate to their task” (Foucault

1980:81–82). These knowledges are nowadays part of wider patterns of
social mobilization contesting neoliberal rule but go beyond this to chal-
lenge the very regime of power/knowledge that disqualifies them.
The coming to power of Leftist parties and politicians has prompted
political analysts and commentators to speak of a “Left turn” in Latin
America, albeit with qualifiers distinguishing between different kinds of
“Lefts” (see Vol. 17 no. 4 of Journal of Democracy, 2006). Yet the generic
label used to describe these processes occludes the profoundly diverse
societal visions and experiences that underlie them. For instance, Escobar
distinguishes between three coexisting and at times intermingled political
projects in Latin America:

Alternative development, focused on food security, the satisfaction of

needs and the well-being of the population [without contesting the
overarching notions of progress or development]; alternative moder-
nities, building on the counter-tendencies effected on development
interventions by local groups and toward the contestation of global
designs; and alternatives to modernity, as a more radical and vision-
ary project of redefining and reconstructing local and regional
worlds from the perspective of practices of cultural, economic, and
ecological difference (Escobar In Press).

We think it is useful to think of the three projects as being expressed

through patterns of mobilization rather than through specific social
movements. In other words, the three projects might co-exist in diverse
mixtures within the same social movement as tendencies that can be
traced in particular patterns of mobilization. In this sense, part of our
contention here is that the insurrection of subjugated knowledges is a
central component of those patterns of mobilization expressing the proj-
ect of “alternatives to modernity.”
The emphasis on patterns of mobilization sets clear limits to the
scope of our argument in this article. We are not interested here in map-
ping the degree to which the project of alternatives to modernity
embodied by the insurrection of subjugated knowledges correlates with
one or another social group, movement or governmental agenda, but
rather to signal its presence as one set of patterns of mobilization
among others. Thus, our focus is not meant to deny the existence of the

The “Lettered City” and the Insurrection of Subjugated Knowledges in Latin America

other patterns or projects; rather we mean to bring the insurrectional

patterns associated with alternatives to modernity out of the shadows
that those other projects, being much more visible and obvious within
the current regime of power/knowledge, cast upon them. Our goal here
is three-fold: foregrounding the insurrection of subjugated knowledges
within wider patterns of social mobilization; highlighting the configura-
tion of power/knowledge that has been historically implicit in dismissals
of subjugated knowledges such as those expressed by García Linera; and
signaling both the promises and limitations of the effects that the insur-
rection of these knowledges might have in the contemporary configura-
tion of power/knowledge in Latin America.
We begin with a brief discussion of a fundamental assumption of this
paper that can be easily misunderstood, the idea that there is something
outside modernity. In the second section we discuss what insurrectional
patterns of mobilization entail and how they relate to non-modern knowl-
edge-practices. We then move on to characterize the configuration of
power/knowledge that these patterns of mobilization are challenging.
Next, we present some developments that we see as indications of how
the dominant configuration of power/knowledge might be affected by
insurrectional patterns of mobilization, as well as the limits of this
impact. In the conclusion, we address some challenges posed to those
who want to study the insurrection of subjugated knowledges.

Modernity and its Outside

Asserting that there is an outside to modernity is tricky and requires first
and foremost questioning modernity’s own self-image, especially its self-
constitution in opposition to “tradition.” Anthropologists have made
important contributions in this direction by showing that so-called “tradi-
tional societies” have never been isolated, unchanging, backward and
outside of history—in short, that they have never been “traditional” in
the terms set by the modern imagination (see Fabian 1983; Wolf 1997).
However, while one side of the dichotomy established by modernity to
constitute itself has been contested to the point of revealing it as imagi-
nation, the other side of the dichotomy has come to contain all of reali-
ty. In effect, attending to the tropes that dominate in the academy nowa-
days, it seems that if there are no traditional societies, then we are all
modern. A number of problems emerge from this move, among them the


tacit acceptance of modernity’s terms to conceive difference. This prob-

lem is evident in the quick equation of any claim of non-modernity with
an argument about traditionalism, which is in turn equated with an invi-
tation to ignore the real world of interactions and a thoroughly enmeshed
present. With the parameters of the discussion set in such a way that the
alternatives are either true modernity or unreal traditions, few can con-
ceive of something real existing outside modernity.
The consequence is that in throwing out the bath water of tradition the
baby of radical difference has been thrown out too, as revealed by García
Linera’s denial that Indigenous worldviews can bring something substan-
tially different to the reformulation of the Bolivian state. In this way the
original anthropological attempt at foregrounding “coevalness as the
problematic simultaneity of different, conflicting, and contradictory
forms of consciousness” (Fabian 1983:146) has been subverted. Granted,
nowadays dominant tropes of multiple or alternative modernities (see
Gaonkar 2001; Kahn 2001) still allow for the play of difference, but only
within the bounds of a modernity defined in such a way as to mean every-
thing contemporary in general and nothing in particular. 1 The challenge,
then, is to recover a meaningful understanding of modernity and its speci-
ficity; recognizing that there are other life-worlds (different from the
modern one but certainly not traditional); and grasping the power
dynamics and the productivity of their mutual engagements.
Some of this challenge has been taken up by a loosely connected Latin
American research program on modernity/coloniality and decolonial
thought (MCD). Since the 1990s, a heterogeneous group of scholars located
both in Latin America and the United States has been discussing the consti-
tutive relations between modernity and coloniality, on the one hand, and
between these and non-modern societies, on the other hand (see Escobar
2004; Mignolo 2007). Regarding the first point, it is useful to recall one
aspect of Bruno Latour’s argument that what he labels the two “Great
Divides” central to the modern constitution are intrinsically connected:

So the Internal Great Divide [between Nature and Culture] accounts

for the External Great Divide [between Us and Them]: we [moderns]
are the only ones who differentiate absolutely between Nature and
Culture, between Science and Society, whereas in our eyes all the
others—whether they are Chinese or Amerindians, Azande or
Barouya—cannot really separate what is knowledge from what is

The “Lettered City” and the Insurrection of Subjugated Knowledges in Latin America

society, what is sign from what is thing, what comes from Nature as
it is from what their cultures require (Latour 1993:99).

While Latour’s overarching argument is that through hybridizing prac-

tices the moderns constantly contradict the purified domains of Nature
and Culture set up by the modern constitution, the centrality of this
divide as the ontological grounding of modern institutions (for example,
representational politics, science and, more generally, the modern
regime of truth) is hardly debatable. 2 What this research program, MCD,
brings into this picture is the idea that the divide between Nature and
Culture and the divide between modern and non-modern are historical-
ly co-emergent and co-sustaining. This means that the performance of a
modern world in which the distinction between Nature and Culture con-
stitutes an ontological assumption necessarily involves keeping at bay
the threat posed to it by the existence of worlds that do not operate on
the same assumption. And this is done by denying these worlds any real
existence. For the moderns, these worlds just exist as errors, mere
beliefs, or romantic yearnings. 3 Here is where coloniality emerges as a
constitutive element of modernity, for the difference between moderns
and non-moderns becomes in a modernist framework “ colonial differ-
ence,” a hierarchical relation in which the non-modern is subordinated
to the modern. Which social group actually stands for the modern can be
historically variable (albeit not arbitrary); the invariable element is that
the modern constitution, through the institutions it grounds, operates as
the vector that orients those social groups’ practices, making them sup-
posedly superior to those deemed non-modern.
The subordination of non-modern worlds is often imposed initially
through openly violent means (i.e., military campaigns, persecution of
idolatries, forced schooling, forced displacement from “unproductive”
lands and the like) and only later through more subtle means of the kind
that many analysts, building on Foucault (1991), characterize as govern-
mentality. Thus, it is important to keep in mind that “[c]oercion and nego-
tiations work hand in hand in the terrain of governmentality, with the for-
mer delivering the target populations to the domain of the latter” (Ghosh
2006:526). This is especially the case when the target population oper-
ates, at least partially, within a different regime of power/knowledge, for
their subjectivities are not shaped (wholly or, in some cases, at all) by the
modern governmental apparatus and its regime of power/knowledge


(Foucault 1991:103). We will return later to this point in the context of dis-
cussing the role of neoliberal governmentality in the insurrection of sub-
jugated knowledges, but we want to stress that we are not saying that
those subjectivities are not affected by, or somehow in contact with, the
modern regime of power/knowledge. However, we also maintain that this
does not qualify them as being “within” this regime either.
The dynamic relation generated between a modern/colonial govern-
mental apparatus and its non-modern target is precisely one of the issues
that the “decolonial thought” part of the MCD research program address-
es. Our work here is intended as a contribution to this aspect of the pro-
gram by building on the idea that there has always been an exteriority to
modernity/coloniality and that, in connection to this, there has always
been knowledge otherwise, often linked with struggles for social transfor-
mation and social justice (Mignolo 2000; Dussel 2000; Escobar 2004b).
Thus, in parallel to the critical traditions that have attacked inequalities
and injustice from within the epistemic bounds of modernity, there have
always existed contestations emerging from other regimes of
power/knowledge exterior to the modern ratio. Felipe Guaman Poma de
Ayala ([1615] 2001) and Quintin Lame’s (Castillo-Cardenas 1987) mani-
festos are early examples in the written record of critiques of domination
from epistemologies based on different ontological assumptions than the
modern one. Moreover, following Price, Fox Tree and Nonini (this issue),
we can think in similar ways of the wrongly labeled messianic movements
among Indigenous peoples; these were political movements contesting
the status quo but articulated according to another logic. Of course, as
these authors have pointed out, from the perspective of modernity these
critiques and these movements lacked proper rationality and goals and,
thus, they could not count as real and valid politics, hence their lack of
visibility as properly political. As we will see, and not surprisingly, the
insurrectional patterns of mobilization we want to focus on here contest
this forced invisibility, among other things.

Social Mobilization and the Insurrection

of Subjugated Knowledges
From the late 1980s onwards, a long brewing return of “difference” has
become increasingly visible in Latin America, first through a politics
squarely based on identity, such as Indigenous and Afro-descendant peo-

The “Lettered City” and the Insurrection of Subjugated Knowledges in Latin America

ples’ movements as well as women’s and gay/lesbian movements, and

later in a more expansive politics of autonomy including these move-
ments but also movements of peasants, pauperized urban dwellers and
unemployed workers (Alvarez, Dagnino and Escobar 1998; Warren and
Jackson 2002; Assies et al. 2000; Postero and Zamosc 2004; Chatterton
2005, Esteva 2001, Zibechi 2005). The politics of identity of the “new
social movements” was key in illuminating how “culture” and “politics”
are intermingled in struggles that, while addressing very practical con-
cerns of survival, are also “over meanings” (Alvarez, Dagnino and Escobar
1998; Edelman 2001). The increasing focus on issues of autonomy that
many social movements have privileged makes it even more evident that
while culture is politicized, what stands for the political is culturally spe-
cific, making the Latin American political field a space radicalized by the
emerging visibility of previously disregarded subjectivities and knowl-
edges (Alvarez, Dagnino and Escobar 1998). In effect, in many (but not all)
cases, the struggle for autonomy brings forward the possibility and plau-
sibility of a politics other than the one conceived within the narrow, yet
until recently insurmountable, limits of modernity. This is especially the
case with those struggles that express themselves through insurrectional
patterns of mobilization.
These patterns of mobilization have been especially visible in the
Zapatista uprising of 1994 (see Esteva 2001; Higgins 2004), the Argentinean
revolt of 2001 (Zibechi 2003) and the Bolivian revolts of 2003 and 2004
(Gómez 2004; Mamani Ramírez 2005). But they are also distinguishable
among other patterns present in more durable processes of social organ-
izing and mobilization like those of the movement of unemployed work-
ers and sectors of the movement of recovered factories in Argentina, the
movements of landless peasants in Brazil and Paraguay, sectors of the
Indigenous movements in Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile, and the Peace
Community of San Jose de Apartado and the Process of Black communi-
ties in Colombia, to mention a few. In spite of the significant differences
across these uprisings and movements, we can identify some commonali-
ties that tend to be present when patterns of mobilization embodying the
insurrection of subjugated knowledges emerge. These are: a) a politiciza-
tion and defense of social and cultural differences linked to the notions
of autonomy and territory, and b) a form of political action that is non-
statist, eschews the logic of representation, and favors a logic that we
might call relational.


Like the “grounded utopianism” discussed by Price, Fox Tree and

Nonini (this issue), these insurrectional patterns of mobilization emerge
in relatively autonomous places where the presence of the state and of
capital is weak or distant, either because they never fully reached these
places (as in some rural areas) or because they have renounced their pres-
ence in the wake of neoliberal reforms or in pursuit of better profits (as
in urban slums and abandoned industrial towns). In any case, the point is
that neither the state nor capital fully organizes the life of peoples in
these places, which thus become territories where the shape of social life
and reproduction is to a higher degree than in other places in control of
their inhabitants. 4 Each place has its own singularities and therefore every
constituted territory is different, a difference that is, in some cases, con-
sciously embraced and defended against new attempts to control or inter-
vene in them, either by the state or capital (Escobar 2001). It is when this
happens that what we call insurrectional patterns of mobilization start to
become distinguishable from other patterns. For example, those embody-
ing these insurrectional patterns ask little or nothing from the state.
Rather they tend to disassociate themselves from the modern state and
the capitalist market and assert the sovereignity to organize their own
existence. In some cases, the corollary of this rejection of the modern-
state is the idea that a polity hospitable to radical autonomy requires a
reconfiguration of the state-form to a point that would make it other than
modern (see Esteva 2001).
The rejection of the modern state and capitalist market as organizing
vectors of social life also expresses a rejection of representation as the
overarching logic for politics. In effect, as Zibechi (2005) argues, the legit-
imacy of the state rests on the claim of being the ultimate representation
and suture of a fragmented social body. Thus, representation “operates in
the absence of social ties.” Similarly, the legitimacy claimed for the capi-
talist market by neoliberal ideologues like Hayek (1973) is that, through
pricing, it provides the perfect representational mechanism to sort out
the competing interests of individuals. Closely related to these concep-
tions of the political is the idea that the necessary dispersion produced by
the inherent diversity of perspectives in human society can be overcome
by appealing to a supposedly unified reality. Here is where modern poli-
tics also functions as a politics of truth. In effect, although not in theory,
the claim that the state or the market constitutes the suture of a frag-
mented society is related to a claim that they operate on the basis of true

The “Lettered City” and the Insurrection of Subjugated Knowledges in Latin America

knowledge produced by expert institutions, that is, that their actions

respond to an accurate representation of a single and undisputable reali-
ty which of necessity overcomes differences.
By contrast, the presence of strong social ties, forged through communal
life within the territory, provides an alternative vector through which the
social can be realized. For example, the former Bolivian minister of educa-
tion and Indigenous intellectual Félix Patzi sees in the communal system,
which still constitutes the basis of Aymaras’ and Quechuas’ ayllu economies,
a basis for the construction of present-day alternatives to the neoliberal sys-
tem, and to modern politics in general. A central characteristic of the com-
munal system is that it tends to avoid concentration of power or the emer-
gence of a power that can position itself in a relation of exteriority to the
community (Patzi 2004:181).5 Thus, even though the communal system
does not imply a complete lack of hierarchies and internal stratification, it
can nevertheless be contrasted with the state-form associated with modern
politics. For instance, while modern politics addresses the internal differ-
ences of society through overarching institutions that are based on the prin-
ciple of representation and stand as an external power to the society they
govern, communal politics addresses differences through institutions that
are based on the principle of relationality and operate by delegating tasks
rather than power (see Patzi 2004; Zibechi 2006).
Moreton-Robinson explains that in Indigenous cultural domains “rela-
tionality means that one experiences the self as part of others and that
others are part of the self” (2000:16). When political, economic and intel-
lectual institutions such as communal assemblies, communal labor, com-
munal rituals, and the delegation of tasks embody this principle, they tend
to operate by ceaselessly co-adjusting internal differences through consen-
sus which can then be translated into directives given to delegates that
“command by obeying” the assemblies. In this way the separation between
society and its political, economic, and intellectual “organs” is forestalled.
This is precisely what the communal system and the insurrectional pat-
terns of mobilization share in common. The effort to sustain and/or gener-
ate institutions that foster communal bonds and avert the emergence of
powers exterior to the community, all the while attending to everyday
needs, is evident in a variety of settings including the Zapatistas’
autonomous Mayan communities in Chiapas, Mexico (Earle and Simonelli
2005; Stahler-Sholk 2007); the recovered factories and neighborhood
organizations of unemployed workers in Argentina (Fernández 2006;


Neuhaus and Calello 2006); many of the rural and urban grassroots organ-
izations that supported the coming to power of Evo Morales in Bolivia
(Mamani Ramírez 2005; Zibechi 2006); and Black communities in the
Colombian pacific region (Escobar In Press), to mention a few. In a way, we
can say that what the insurrectional patterns of mobilization are doing in
these settings is to produce and strengthen communities by performing the
principles of the communal system as best as they can.
Paradoxically, as the cited works show, neoliberal policies played an
important, albeit unwitting, role in making this possible and more visible.
On the one hand, big agro-business and natural resource extractive
economies associated with free trade expanded into relatively marginal
rural areas, thus assaulting the subsistence base of many relatively
autonomous communities. On the other hand, the state surrendered its
role as the central vector of modernization in favor of a capitalist market
that pushed people to fend for themselves. In conjunction with this shift-
ing role of the state, neoliberalism promoted the following: political
decentralization; the transfer of whatever was left of social welfare func-
tions to organizations of civil society; and a series of new citizenship
rights, including cultural rights enshrined through the notion of multicul-
turalism. These processes and policies prompted a number of responses,
including the self-organization of rural communities (Indigenous, Black
and Mestizo) in defense of their territories, and the emergence of strong
communitarian bonds in urban spaces abandoned by the state, where
people displaced from the rural areas met the “industrial displaced,” that
is, the masses of unemployed created by structural adjustment.
While the structural reforms of the state attacked many of the leverage
points previously used by popular movements to struggle for social justice,
the reforms also opened new avenues to pursue social justice, such as mul-
ticulturalism. As one analyst put it, within the wider frame of neoliberal
governmentality, the granting of cultural rights by the elites was intended
to “cede carefully chosen ground in order to more effectively fend off more
far reaching demands” (Hale 202:488). However, as is clear in the Bolivian
and Ecuadorian cases, social movements upholding the banner of cultural
difference also used the ceded ground as a spring-board to launch demands
that, emerging from subjectivities that exceed the mould provided by the
modern regime of power/knowledge, are more far-reaching than what even
the Left could conceive of. The vice-president of Bolivia makes this clear
when he refuses to take seriously the demands for a truly pluricultural state

The “Lettered City” and the Insurrection of Subjugated Knowledges in Latin America

made by those sectors of the Indigenous movement that he deems roman-

tic. These are precisely the sectors that display the patterns of mobilization
associated with the insurrection of subjugated knowledges seeking to shape
the state in such a way that not only will make it anti-neoliberal but also
will make it hospitable to rather than tolerant of non-modern forms of
organizing social life (see Esteva 2001).
As we pointed out in the previous section, the dismissal of non-moder-
nity as unrealistic is itself part of the mechanism by which moderni-
ty/coloniality protects itself and upholds the modern constitution as the
ontological grounding for politics. In this sense, one just needs to connect
the dots, formed by the ontological divide between Nature and Culture
and the Hobbesian and Lockian vision of the state of nature as the
grounding for conceiving the social contract, to understand why for García
Linera “all struggles pass through the state—even the struggle against the
state passes through the state” (cited in Zibechi 2005b). Similarly, one can
trace a connection between Indigenous relational cosmologies, in which
the recognition of the worth and importance that the autonomy and dif-
ferences of others (human and non-human) have for the well-being of the
cosmos is central (see Arquette, Cole and ATFE 2004; Cajete 2000;
McGregor 2004; Viveiro de Castro 2004; Fernández Osco In Press), and
insurrectional patterns of mobilization that uphold notions of situated
and partial truths that must be co-adjusted for consensual decision-mak-
ing and action, thus contributing to the continuing performance of com-
munitarian bonds, all the while attending to everyday needs.
By linking the insurrectional patterns of mobilization to Indigenous
cosmologies, we do not seek to render them exotic; rather, the point is to
emphasize that these patterns of mobilization are made “unrealistic” by
the colonial difference precisely because they embody “worlds and knowl-
edges otherwise.” 6 The cosmologies expressed through these patterns of
mobilization, while submerged and constrained, have always been oper-
ative (not to be confused with unchanging) wherever they found space.
Therefore the main discontinuity that we are witnessing now is not the
emergence of something entirely new but the “thinning” of the modern
blinders/stoppers that kept other worlds and other politics invisible and
confined. This thinning, we argue, is the result of ongoing internal and
external challenges to modernity/coloniality that open a window to imag-
ine a reconfiguration of the regime of power/knowledge that has domi-
nated in Latin America since the European conquest.


The Configuration of Power/Knowledge in Latin America

It is noteworthy that for many participants in social movements, it is from
Indigenous communities and the countryside where the insurrectional
patterns of mobilization proceed to “contaminate” the political practices
of marginalized urban dwellers. Thus, a member of the Argentinian
movement of unemployed workers would recount that, in trying to find
long-term answers to their marginalization, people in the movement
“started to study Marcos and his Zapatistas, and from them we learned a
new way of doing politics…We also went to places were there was a del-
egation from the MST [Brazil’s movement of Landless Peasants]…” (MTD
2002:31). More explicitly the Argentinian “militant-investigative” collec-
tive Colectivo Situaciones has argued that the Zapatista movement has
“expanded its strength not on the basis of inviting others into the indige-
nous-peasant world, but by offering us all [those in the cities] elements
that, based on their cultures, can circulate among us…in a new way”
(Colectivo Situaciones 2005a:19). This reveals an unusual direction in the
flow of knowledge.
Historically, in Latin America, knowledge has flowed from the “ let-
tered city” outwards. The “ lettered city” is the term coined by literary
critic Angel Rama (1996) to illustrate the geographical and symbolic con-
figuration of what we call here the modern regime of power/knowledge.
In effect, within this regime of power/knowledge, the city is the locus par
excellence of modernity and the cradle of the (lettered) intellectual, who
is in turn the epitome of the modern subject. From this perspective, the
countryside emerges as the margins of modernity, the locus of the tradi-
tional or primitive and its stereotyped incarnation, the Indian.
Considering the continued existence of these old margins, it can be
argued that the unruly “ territories” emerging in urban spaces on the
wake of neoliberal reforms constitute “ new margins.” These “ new mar-
gins” are (experiential and physical) places produced as modern by the
developmental-state (the Latin American version of the welfare-state)
later to be sidelined and excluded by the neoliberal wave of moderniza-
tion. Out of these experiences, people in these margins find nowadays
that the promises of modernity are either empty or extremely onerous,
thus becoming open to see in the practices of those places that were
never fully shaped by modernity, viable alternative worlds and politics
not envisioned by their own (modern) traditions of struggle based on
political parties and unions. As the new margins learn from the old mar-

The “Lettered City” and the Insurrection of Subjugated Knowledges in Latin America

gins, some inhabitants of the “ lettered city,” that is, some modern intel-
lectuals, begin to see the previously invisible prose of “ intellectual oth-
ers.” In effect, with its own specificity, some intellectuals in the lettered
city have been affected by a similar process as the new margins. In other
words, increasing disaffection with modernity from within has been cou-
pled with increasing visibility and viability of alternatives from without.
Before discussing how this process has come about we want to clarify
that we use the term “modern intellectuals” to stress the specific regime
of power/knowledge that grants authority to these knowledge-producers.
In the configuration of this regime, the academy/university plays a central
role as the privileged site of reproduction of the tenets of modernity and
is therefore invested with great authorizing power. This means that, in
this regime of power/knowledge, the authority to speak truth and pre-
scribe appropriate actions is more often than not sanctioned by the acad-
emy. Moreover, in this regime, the category of intellectual implicitly con-
notes some degree of familiarity with the language of the academy,
although it doesn’t necessarily imply insertion in the academy. In this
sense an individual might never have attended university, yet to the
extent that his/her practices and visions of the world are informed most-
ly by the knowledge historically produced in this site, he/she can be cate-
gorized as a “modern intellectual.” Qualifying in this way the category of
intellectual, we seek, firstly, to stress the specific role of the academy-site
within the configuration of the modern regime of power/knowledge, and,
secondly, to signal the existence of different, albeit subaltern, configura-
tions of power/knowledge which produce their own “intellectual Others.”
Overall, since the 19th century, modern intellectuals and universities in
most of Latin America have been enrolled in a project of nation-building.
Nation-building basically meant the modernization of society and, thus, the
evacuation of diversity from the emerging nation-states, rhetorically
through assimilation, integration and development; in practice through
violent physical and symbolic suppression of the non-modern which, as we
pointed out before, was embodied by the Indigenous populations and more
generally the countryside, and the lower classes. The knowledge guiding
the transformation of society could not be other than modern, which as we
pointed out had its privileged locus in the “lettered city.” Thus, conceptu-
ally and spatially, the project of modernity has consistently unfolded from
the “lettered city” outwards (Rama 1996). While this has been the basic con-
figuration of power-knowledge, some successive small changes within the


“lettered city” are noteworthy because of their eventual aggregate signifi-

cance in the re-configuration of power/knowledge.7
The first change can be described as the politicization of the “lettered
city,” which started to take place after the end of World War II. Until then,
modern intellectuals and universities were envisioned mostly as providers
of the knowledge to build the modern nation. They incarnated the scientif-
ic-technical reason which bestowed upon the state the authority to ration-
ally “lead” the activities of their citizens (Castro 2000). The exclusions,
inequalities and injustices endured by large parts of the Latin American
population were conceived as temporary “technical problems,” the conse-
quence of the incomplete character of modernization rather than of mod-
ernization per se. It was implicitly assumed that with the application of bet-
ter knowledge (i.e., produced by modern experts) and better education (i.e.,
the diffusion of modern truths), deliverance from exclusion, inequalities
and injustices would ensue, in short, that modernity would at last settle in.
However, the project of building the modern nation began to be debated in
different terms in the context of the Cold War and the liberation struggles
of the 1960s and 1970s. In effect, “technical problems” started to be under-
stood by many as actually being political problems stemming from struc-
tures of inequality actively sustained and protected by those benefiting
from them. This opened a great divide between those who embraced a view
of academic knowledge as neutral and those who not only contested this
view but saw claims of neutral academic knowledge as being a disguised
alignment with the elites’ interests (see Guerra and Maldonado 1979;
Ribeiro 1969; Archila 2003; Mato 2000).
The second change, which built on the consequences of the first, can be
described as some modern intellectuals’ discovery of the subaltern as pro-
ducer of knowledge. 8 A common premise among these modern intellectu-
als was that established science is the science of the bourgeoisie and
“therefore favors those who produce and control it,” making it suspect of
collaborating in maintaining relations of domination (Fals Borda 1991:5;
see also Freire 1970; Colombres 1996). The corollary of this premise was
that the knowledge produced by the dominated (subaltern knowledge) can
be critical for transforming society and the relations of domination that
characterize it (Fals Borda 1991:5; Colombres 1996:29). Yet, given the
hegemonic power of dominant knowledge, the liberating potential of sub-
altern knowledge is submerged by the history of repression and humilia-
tion through which the present order has been naturalized (Fals Borda

The “Lettered City” and the Insurrection of Subjugated Knowledges in Latin America

1979a, 1979b; 1984; Freire 1970). And it is here where the “committed
intellectual,” with his/her methods, is necessary as a catalyst for subaltern
knowledge to become realized. The limitations as well as the potential of
each, the dominated groups and the “committed intellectual,”can be over-
come in their dialogical collaboration, for as Fals Borda argues “the sum
of knowledge from both types of agents…makes it possible to acquire a
much more accurate and correct picture of the reality that is being trans-
formed” (1991:4; see also Freire 1970; Colombres 1996).
The “committed intellectuals” tradition, while still committed to mod-
ern notions of truth, constituted an important attempt to reconsider how
knowledge was intertwined with power in the Latin American context. 9
However, from the mid 1970s onwards, this reconsideration began to be
truncated by the establishment of right-wing military dictatorships which,
besides forcing “committed intellectuals” into exile and silence, brought
along with them a new wave of modernization, now in the garments of
neoliberalism. With the violent suppression of the Left and, later, with the
demise of the communist bloc, the neoliberal agenda could now be
applied with relative impunity throughout the last quarter of the 20th
century. Neoliberal modernization reconfigured in many ways the shape
of Latin American societies, most importantly for our argument, by con-
tributing to further changes in the “lettered city” and, as we have already
argued, by inciting the spread of insurrectional patterns of mobilization.
Changes in the “lettered city” had two complexly interconnected sources
(albeit in no way linked by direct causality): the general reshaping of the
university system under structural adjustment and the spread of “post-
modern” theories in the social sciences and the humanities.
Under structural adjustment, public universities (in general, the most
prestigious and politically involved) became increasingly concerned with
issues of efficiency and productivity, and, along with the general trends in
the economy, lost ground to private schemes while making job insecurity
(euphemized as flexible labor) the norm. Many professors, researchers
and alumni were forced to seek jobs as consultants and/or NGOs staff,
both of which tend to have very specific and focused scope of action and
a predominantly technocratic approach to social problems (Fals Borda
1991; Gill 2000). The rigors of job insecurity, plus the disarticulation of
the networks of social and political support, contributed to a general cli-
mate of cynicism which seemed to be (and to some extent was) exacerbat-
ed by postmodern trends. It is no surprise, then, that from the perspec-


tive of an intellectual and political Left tradition that had sought to fulfill
the promises of modernity, the postmodern attack on its central tenets of
truth, progress, freedom and the like, seemed a little suspect. This was the
case because these ideas reached Latin America as more governments
heeded neoliberalism’s claims of being the ineluctable path to moderni-
ty, all the while generating more inequalities and exclusions.
While many Leftist “ modern intellectuals” rejected postmodernism,
others carefully distinguished different intellectual productions with
that general label, rescuing in particular the poststructuralist critique of
metanarratives, and their regimes of truth. However, a vexing question
was left lingering: how to confront the injustices and exclusions pro-
duced by a particular metanarrative and regime of truth without ground-
ing oneself in another metanarrative and regime of truth that will of
necessity generate new exclusions and inequalities? The poststructural-
ist’s somewhat unsatisfactory proposal was to entrust this task to the
“ ascetic” intellectual. In effect, for the poststructuralists there is no log-
ical connection between critique and prescription since critique does not
(cannot) reveal “ the Truth.” Thus, the (postructuralist) intellectual needs
to be “ ascetic” in order to safeguard his/her critical activity directed to a
given regime of truth from the temptation to prescribe another truth
that, of necessity, will be exclusionary. In this way, critique becomes a
permanent task through which intellectuals keep open the process of
articulating truths by contesting established and emerging regimes of
truth and their exclusionary powers (see Bernauer 1990). It is in this con-
text that Deleuze’s definition of being on the Left as a problem of never
ceasing to be minoritarian makes sense (see Deleuze and Parnet 1997).
In practice, though, Leftist intellectuals tended to hold on to a very
orthodox modern conception of truth and knowledge, outfitting them-
selves with the tools of critique and deconstruction to attack “ neoliber-
al truths” but without considering the exclusions generated by their own
emergent truths. Again, García Linera’s position with regard to insurrec-
tional patterns of mobilization is symptomatic of this.
More by default than by design, insurrectional patterns of mobilization
provided a different response to the challenge posed by post-structuralism.
Recognizing that epistemology is a central dimension of the operations by
which difference is turned into inequality, step by step many social move-
ments have brought their own “traditional” or “local” knowledge-practices
to bear on the debates about social projects (Rappaport 2005; Fernández

The “Lettered City” and the Insurrection of Subjugated Knowledges in Latin America

Osco In Press; MTD 2002; Casas-Cortés, Osterweil and Powell this issue). In
particular, knowledge-practices connected in some way to relational cos-
mologies seem particularly suited to accomplish the task that the post-
structuralists trusted to the ascetic intellectual. In effect, as in post-struc-
turalism, there is in these knowledge-practices a heightened suspicion of
the exclusionary powers of metanarratives and regimes of truth and, thus,
a concern with keeping open the processes of articulating and enacting
temporary and partial truths. However, in contrast to the post-structural-
ists, the insurrectional knowledge-practices signal that the task of keeping
open the processes of articulating and enacting truths must be carried out
by the collective, not by the ascetic intellectual. In effect, by furthering the
mutual encounter of multiple situated truths, these knowledge-practices
help (not always successfully, though) to produce “working” truths while
keeping the diversity that grounds them from being glossed over by emerg-
ing and temporary consensus.
Insurrectional knowledge-practices enact what Foucault (1980:33)
could only envision as a program of action, a “new politics of truth” in
which specific prescriptions for actions can be produced while the wider
project aptly described by the Zapatistas as “building a world in which
many worlds fit” gets to be performed. Given that the central point in
these knowledge-practices is “doing them” rather than in producing
knowledge as accurate representations, their success is not measured in
instrumental terms (i.e. “we have achieved a certain goal because we pro-
duced an accurate representation of reality”) but in terms of the extent
that they contaminate with their logic more sites and practices (i.e., “we
have formed a community because we acted as such”). Insofar as these
patterns of mobilization enact a relational way of understanding and
relating to others, we argue that their intellectual production can be
understood as an anthropology, in the widest sense of the term, that is,
as an active and creative exploration of commonalities between different
worlds. Through these knowledge-practices, the problem these patterns
of mobilization address is that, to use Latour words, “no one has the
answers—this is why they have to be collectively staged, stabilized and
revised” (Latour 2005:138).
Not surprisingly, the insurrection of subjugated knowledges has found
an audience prone to be enrolled as interlocutors: some “modern intel-
lectuals” who took poststructuralist critiques seriously, beyond their util-
ity as tools for deconstructing neoliberal discourses. This has translated


into an interesting development that, we believe, opens up a window to

foresee some possible directions in which a reconfiguration of the domi-
nant regime of power/knowledge might proceed. This development is the
relative equalization of modern and insurrectional knowledge-practices,
the proliferation of sites claiming to foster a fruitful encounter between
them, and the inklings of a certain disposition among some “modern
intellectuals” to allow for the contamination of their knowledge-practices
by those of “intellectual Others.”

The Reconfiguration of Power/Knowledge in Latin America?

The relative equalization of knowledge-practices has as a first symptom the
evident fact that knowledges that before were simply disregarded as noth-
ing but anthropological curiosities are now considered important. Like any
symptom, this is only an indicator, and it might very well be deceiving. For
example, in development and conservation circles indigenous understand-
ings that were previously labeled superstition are now labeled knowledges,
yet as critics have pointed out, the acronym IK (Indigenous Knowledges)
refers to certain kinds of knowledges that are disassociated from their
implicit ontological assumptions about how reality is constituted (Banerjee
and Linstead 2004; Briggs and Sharp 2004; Ellen et al. 2000; Noble 2007;
Nadasdy 2003). In this way, rather than being taken as competing claims
about reality, IK are actually incorporated within “universal science” as
one input among others. Tolerant incorporation bespeaks the acceptance
of inequalities, rather than a challenge to inequalities, and is not the kind
of symptom that we are referring to. What we have in mind are a few
emblematic cases that represent the attempt to foster an encounter on
equal terms between modern and non-modern knowledge-practices. The
cases that we will briefly present are not intended to be exhaustive, they
just indicate a tendency. We make no claims about their success. What is
important is holding them in contrast to the dominant forms of conceiving
knowledge and the production of knowledge in the “lettered city,” and
also to certain attempts within the “lettered city” to generate a similar ges-
ture of dialogue and cross-fertilization.

Universidad Intercultural Amawtay-Wasi

The Intercultural University Amawtay-Wasi stems from the efforts of the
Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) to create a

The “Lettered City” and the Insurrection of Subjugated Knowledges in Latin America

system of intercultural and bilingual education. This effort resulted in the

official creation of the University with state accreditation in 2004. The
University was officially launched on March 21, 2005, with the sponsor-
ship of CONAIE and with diverse funding sources (including the European
Union and UNESCO). During the inauguration, the rector stated that the
University is meant for “all societies, even the non-indigenous ones, and
must include African-descended people and foreigners interested in
learning the sciences developed by their elders” (University Website:
In the Intercultural University Amawtay-Wasi, the academic years are
organized along five Centers of Knowledge (Centros de Saber) that all “stu-
dents” have to go through and that relate to specific domains of experi-
ences, such as living in the community, reconciling humans and technolo-
gy, and constructing the intercultural project, among others. Some of these
centers include the Yachay Munay, dedicated to exploring knowledge and
the capacity to observe and understand diverse cosmovisions and philoso-
phies; and the Munay Ruray, which has as its main goal the promotion of
“good living” and the construction of “a world that supports intercultural
coexistence and the articulation of humans with the community, the plan-
et and the cosmos” (University Website). There are also three cycles of
knowledge; Runa Yachay, related to ancestral knowledge; Shtkatk Yachay,
related to western knowledge and finally the Yachaypura, related to inter-
cultural knowledge. The “class sessions” move between different places
and even incorporate the original communities from which the “students”
come, since they, too, are also learning communities (comunidades de
aprendizaje). The University Amawtay Wasi conceives these communities as
a “strategy for multiplying and potentializing the opportunities to partici-
pate in collective learning processes, culturally and socially significant for
youths and adults of all ages [and based] on the principle of learning as a
life-long process” (Universidad Intercultural Amawtay-Wasi 2004:230).
The conceptual architecture of the intercultural university is based on
Indigenous principles and cosmologies. For example, the central concept
of interculturality is based on, among other things, the principle of rela-
tionality. Relationality is conceived within a cosmovisional framework
whose basic assumption is multiplicity. The image that best captures this
notion is one of diverse threads weaving themselves into a tapestry. In
this context, knowledge is conceived not as an isolated “thing,” extracted
out of a context, but rather as the emergent result of communal effort.


Thus, “the idea is not to create a knowledge space reserved only for
Indigenous peoples, but to build fundamental [curriculum] contents con-
ducive for the experience of interculturality,” a notion that allows “for
the acceptance of diversity and the construction of a more equitable and
tolerant world” (Universidad Intercultural Amawtay-Wasi 2004:164–165).
Currently, the university offers three undergraduate programs in the
Munay Ruray center (agroecology program), the Ushay Yachay center
(intercultural multilingual teaching program) and the Ruray Rushay cen-
ter (architecture and territorial planning program). All three programs
confer professional and specialist degrees through coursework that lasts
from six to ten semesters each.
For the university, the conceptualization of interculturality, as an ide-
ological principle of the Indigenous movement’s political project, is dif-
ferent from the idea of liberal multiculturalism. Within this conception,
interculturality implies a dialogue between equals, a mutual accommoda-
tion of diverse life-worlds, and not the subordinating accommodation of
diverse life-worlds within the overarching framework imposed by a dom-
inant modern life-world (see Walsh In Press, Rappaport 2005). In this
sense, interculturality is key in the construction of a new “anticolonialist,
anticapitalist, anti-imperialist, and antisegregationist” democracy that
guarantees, according to the Confederation of Ecuadorian Indigenous
Nationalities (CONAIE), “the full and permanent participation of the
[Indigenous] peoples and nationalities in decision making” and fosters
“the exercise of political power in the Plurinational State” (CONAIE
1997:11, quoted in Walsh In Press).

Universidad de la Resistencia
The history that lies behind the University of Resistance is the violent dis-
pute over the extraction and monopoly of legal and illegal resources in the
Apartadó region of northwestern Colombia by different actors since the
1980s (Uribe 2004). Today, the industrial production of bananas, along
with the introduction of illegal coca crops and the military dispute over
key corridors, has turned what was a frontier region four decades ago into
a strategic area for actors ranging from international and national
investors of capital, guerrilla groups (FARC and EPL), paramilitaries and the
Colombian State. The violent struggle led in the 1990s to one of the most
tragic episodes in the recent history of Colombia. In certain rural areas,
military clashes between the armed forces, guerrillas and paramilitary

The “Lettered City” and the Insurrection of Subjugated Knowledges in Latin America

groups forced more than 4,000 peasants to flee for their lives to nearby
urban settlements. Assassinations of community leaders and crude viola-
tions of human rights were common, as was the negligence and incapaci-
ty of the authorities to investigate and prosecute anyone.
It was precisely in this violent environment that several communities of
Afro-Colombians, Indigenous people and mestizo peasants, accompanied
by religious organizations and NGOs, declared themselves Peace
Communities (Uribe 2004). In these collective pacts, they not only declared
neutrality in the middle of the conflict, but also proclaimed horizontal and
participatory models of society for the recuperation of their autonomy and
sovereignty over their actions and decisions (Memorias del Seminario
Taller con Comunidades de Riesgo 2003). In February 2004, as a reaction
to the general spread of violence in the region and to the passive reaction
of authorities (which the communities blame for much of the suffering),
twenty of these Peace Communities created RECORRE, an acronym for the
Spanish words, Redes de Comunidades en Ruptura y Resistencia (Network of
Communities in Rupture and Resistance). One of the central components
emerging from these meetings was to launch the University of Resistance.
The University of Resistance was to be the platform for sharing expe-
riences of resistance and survival among the different collectives, rang-
ing from alternative agricultural practices to traditional medicine. The
guiding principle of the university is to work collectively and advance
through four axes of research and action: food sovereignty, traditional
medicine, alternative education and traditional or customary law. As one
of the leaders of the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartadó told one
of us, the aim of these encounters was to share and benefit from the dif-
ferent experiences and strategies that each collective had been using to
survive amidst violence. He mentioned, for example, that the Indigenous
communities brought their knowledge on traditional medicine, the Black
communities shared their experience in negotiating territorial rights,
and the villagers from San José talked about their strategies for surviving
during military blockades. They also exchanged seeds and information
about the importance of preserving them during armed blockades or
intense armed conflict. This university has no fixed classroom or space,
no permanent professors, and does not confer degrees or diplomas to its
participants. It is organized through sessions taking place in areas of con-
flict. In fact, the organizers do not want to have their sessions in areas
lacking internal strife.


Most significantly, the University of Resistance does not cater to spe-

cific racial or ethnic groups but rather to a wider community, in this case
the victims of the widespread violence in Colombia: Afro-Colombian
communities, Indigenous communities, internally displaced peasants
whose crops have been fumigated under eradication policies, relatives of
disappeared or kidnapped people, among others. A recent informal ses-
sion, attended by one of us in San José de Apartadó, focused specifically
on memory and reparation within the context of a potential though still
utopian scenario of forgiveness and justice in Colombia. Even mothers of
policemen and soldiers kidnapped by guerrillas joined the meetings with
victims of paramilitary forces. In conclusion, there is not a single subjec-
tivity here. The work of co-adjusting different experiences and episte-
mologies is constant in the scarce (although significant) activities of the
university. However, we do not want to claim that this work is free of dif-
ficulties and reversals, particularly considering that up to this point, with
very scarce resources, the university has only met twice. The lack of
resources for transportation and sustenance of the delegates from each
community has been a permanent obstacle during these years. In fact,
the first “ courses” were exclusively dedicated to explore and share expe-
riences about the concepts and practices of “ food sovereignty” or “ food
autonomy” (soberanía o autonomía alimentaria). Discussion on the other
axes of research and action (traditional medicine, alternative education,
traditional or customary law) has been delayed for future meetings.
During the first encounter in San José de Apartadó, students met for
almost a month; each community sent a single student. Their classes,
lasting almost eight hours a day, were held in the fields. The community
in San José prepared to receive more than 70 students, collecting enough
food and improvising small shelters to host them. A third encounter of
the university dedicated to the discussion of “ customary and
autonomous law” (derecho propio) is being planned and will be held in a
coastal mountain range inhabited by Indigenous and peasant groups.

Colectivo Situaciones
The Argentinian Colectivo Situaciones emerged in the late 1990s along
with the increasing visibility of the patterns of mobilization that we have
been characterizing as insurrectional. Only one of the collective’s mem-
bers is currently employed in a university, although the original space
from which the group came was the academy (Pers. Comm. January 2005).

The “Lettered City” and the Insurrection of Subjugated Knowledges in Latin America

According to their own account, the group’s practices took shape out of a
perception of inadequacy between, on the one hand, the figures of the
militant and the university researcher and, on the other hand, the emer-
gence of new elements of sociability immanent in insurrectional patterns
of mobilization. In both figures they see an approach from the outside
which does not respond well to these patterns’ demands for “a new dis-
position to feel and think” (Colectivo Situaciones 2005b:606). These
“demands” are in turn characterized as an “extended elaboration whose
fundamental point of origin was the failure of revolution in the decade of
the 1970s” (2005b:606).
The Colectivo’s modality of engagement, militant research, has involved
using workshops to articulate with collective experiences/experiments
such as H.I.J.O.S. (acronym of an organization formed by children of the
disappeared during the Argentinean dictatorship of 1976–1983), the
Movement of Unemployed Workers of Solano (MTD), Movement of Peasants
from Santiago del Estero province (MOCASE), among others (see the
Colectivo’s webpage: www.situaciones.org). Militant research’s organizing
concept is that of “composition (processes of interaction, collective val-
orization, systems of productive compatibilities)” concerned with the “pro-
duction of (an) encounter(s) that produces subject(s)” (Colectivo Situaciones
2005b:604). Here the concern is with producing consistency between expe-
riences that neither emerge as already unified nor accept “an external,
imposed, state-like union” (2005b:607). The Colectivo envisions the labor
of research militancy as “tuning up,” and thereby strengthening, elements
of an emerging sociability. Hence, their concern with the question of how
to carry out this “tuning up” without enacting knowledge-practices which
are at odds with this emerging sociability,

Research militancy takes shape…as a series of operations when in

the face of concrete problems (or of anguish that stubbornness turns
into productive interrogations): how to establish bonds capable of
altering our subjectivities and finding some sort of community in
the middle of today’s radical dispersion? How to provoke interven-
tions that strengthen horizontality and resonances, avoiding both
hierarchical centralism and pure fragmentation? And, to continue in
this line, how to co-elaborate thinking in common with the experi-
ences/experiments [i.e., insurrectional patterns of mobilization]
that have been elaborating hyper-intelligent practices? (607)


As one can see from these brief characterizations, these are very dif-
ferent sites and experiences, from rural to urban and in between; from
positions that expressly and decidedly reject the state to positions asso-
ciated with the idea of interculturality, an idea that implies a thorough
transformation of the modern-state into a pluricultural state. There are,
however, two fundamental similarities between these sites/experiences.
First, they all express an attempt to foster a form of producing knowl-
edge that mimics, with an uncertain degree of success, the knowledge-
practices that characterize insurrectional patterns of mobilization. That
is, a permanent work of co-adjustment between different subjectivities
and formations, an effort to avoid the imposition of truths, and an
emphasis on keeping the production of knowledge embedded in the
community. In short, besides addressing pressing problems, the goal in
these sites is to perform communities. Second, they constitute complex
sites of encounter between insurrectional and modern knowledge-prac-
tices, where collaboration, contamination and contestation seem to be at
play simultaneously. Let us look at this in more detail.
In many of these sites, intellectuals trained in the “lettered city” partici-
pate as active members and collaborators, yet there is an expectation that
their contributions should adapt to the specific forms of producing knowl-
edge that characterize the insurrectional patterns of mobilization. Thus,
within their specific conditions, these sites tend to generate intellectuals
engaged in social struggles through, among other means, the mutual equal-
ization and contamination of diverse knowledge practices. We do not claim
that this puts an end to the violent imposition of a single epistemology; but
that, at least, some “intellectuals” steeped in the “lettered city” are learning
in these sites that, to paraphrase Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2004), the
struggle for social justice cannot be disentangled from the struggle for cog-
nitive justice. This means that the problem is not who has knowledge and for
what, but rather how knowledge is produced and with what consequences.
In this sense, it is important to highlight that these sites are not “discovered”
by the “lettered city” as interlocutors that could help to complete an accu-
rate picture of reality, as the “committed intellectual” tradition expected.
Rather, these subjugated knowledges are actively contesting the privileges of
the “lettered city.” Thus, the label of “university” is used by some of these
experiences strategically to indicate the relative equalization of which we
speak. As we have argued in our discussion of the insurrectional patterns of
mobilization, there is a contestation of modern institutions’ claim to have a

The “Lettered City” and the Insurrection of Subjugated Knowledges in Latin America

monopoly on true knowledge, in this case by proposing a university other-

wise, a university which is distinguished not by the content of the knowledge
it produces but by the kind of knowledge-practices that it sustains.
It is worth noting that the ceaseless work of co-adjustment fostered in
these sites implies the possibility of unpredictable encounters and articu-
lations between formations such as the university and alternative nodes
of knowledge production that appear insurmountably different. From
these kinds of encounters some “modern intellectuals” turn into Trojan
horses that try to introduce their “contaminated” knowledge-practices
within the “lettered city.” While this signals further possibilities for a
reconfiguration of power/knowledge, the path is full of challenges and
the opportunities for unwitting reversal abound. Perhaps the best way to
illustrate the point is by reference to some examples of attempts at intro-
ducing other knowledge-practices into the “lettered city.”
In contrast to the tolerant/extractive framework dominant in develop-
ment and conservation circles, there have emerged in the last few years
some attempts from within the academy to generate a well-grounded dia-
logue between academic knowledge and “otros saberes” (other knowl-
edges). As an indication of this trend, during 2006–2007, the Latin American
Studies Association sponsored research collaborations between academics
and Indigenous and African-descended peoples through the project “Otros
Saberes/Otras Americas.” This initiative responded most directly to an ongo-
ing proliferation of “collaborative methodologies” being produced at the
various interfaces between producers of knowledge in the North American
and Latin American academy and social movements in Latin America (see
Leyva Solano and Speed n.d.; Mallon 2005; Rappaport 2005; Warren 1998;
Hale 2006), but also resonated with many of the concerns of the MCD
research program that we consider ourselves to be part of and have intro-
duced earlier in this paper. Besides the fact that the institutionalization of
collaborative and dialogical practices does reflect the usual “trendification”
and to some extent re-discovery of old ideas in the academy, it is important
to address more substantial limits that affect even the most innovative and
critical approaches. Among these works, a common thread is the valoriza-
tion of other knowledges (or knowledges otherwise) with regards to their
liberating potentials. Yet, in most cases we “modern intellectuals” stop
short of truly engaging with these knowledges on their own terms, and thus
remain entrenched in our position of authority, reproducing the current
configuration of power/knowledge.


As academics, we engage with the works of “intellectual others” but do

not find ourselves compelled to mix, meld and bridge their categories and
ours. In effect, when we engage “intellectual others” the tendency is to
assume that collaboration and dialogue is about the “alignment” of our
research agenda to the interests of our interlocutors and partners, and/or
about making visible their knowledge practices. In contrast, when “intel-
lectual others” engage with us they do a work of bridging, mixing, and
melding categories from different traditions of knowledge (modern and
theirs) and thus, for example, they reconceptualize a concept like the uni-
versity through indigenous cosmologies, principles and paradigms, as in
the case of Amawtay Wasi. In part, this problem is compounded by the
fact that, from the perspective of most modern intellectuals, the visibili-
ty of “intellectual others” depends on their capacity to do this bridging,
mixing and melding. Total illiteracy in the language of the “lettered city”
implies complete invisibility. Symptomatic of this is that the “others”
recently recognized as intellectuals in academic circles are in one way or
another familiar with the language of the “lettered city” through training
in institutions of formal education (see, for instance, the profile of vari-
ous “intellectual others” in Warren 1998; Rappaport 2005; Mignolo 2000;
Leyva Solano and Speed n.d.). Indeed, with rare exceptions, intellectual
Others who do not speak the language of the “lettered city” seem to still
be off the radar screen of “modern intellectuals.” Of course, this speaks
of power differentials and signals that decolonial thinking is still mostly
shouldered by intellectual others. 10 It is important however to highlight
that these problems (related to power differentials between different
regimes of power/knowledge) must also arise in different degrees in the
sites of encounter generated by the insurrectional patterns of mobiliza-
tion. Thus, the actual dynamics of engagement in these sites, and the
challenges and obstacles faced by projects of dialogue and contamina-
tion, remain to be ethnographically investigated. Yet, investigating insur-
rectional subjugated knowledges poses some challenges in itself. These
are the focus of our conclusion.

Betrayal and Researching Insurrectional

Subjugated Knowledges
Researching insurrectional subjugated knowledges without questioning
modern assumptions about what constitutes knowledge might very well

The “Lettered City” and the Insurrection of Subjugated Knowledges in Latin America

constitute a betrayal of these subjugated knowledges. To fully grasp the

point we need to stress the centrality of territorialization/autonomy in
these insurrections. We pointed out before that this was tied to the capac-
ity of specific places to organize social bonds according to a vector and
model that is the communitarian experience, which implies the ceaseless
co-adjusting of multiple experiences in co-existence. Knowledge in this
context is relational, emergent and contextual. Its truth-value goes hand
in hand with its conduciveness to such co-adjusting of multiplicity. This is
radically different from knowledge as an accurate representation of real-
ity, better achieved as the observer is more detached. Keeping this differ-
ence in mind, we wonder in what sense are our modern knowledge-prac-
tices conducive to co-adjusting multiplicity when they reproduce power
differentials that, as we indicated in the previous section, force others to
adjust to us without a similar gesture on our part? Are we contributing to
the production of a common world in which many worlds fit, or are we
still imposing our world? The knowledge-practices of the insurrectional
patterns of mobilization are what they do, and we completely miss this
point when we try to capture what they are in the form of plain descrip-
tion, without letting them do with us what they do, i.e., shape communal
bonds. Taking these insurrectional knowledges-practices seriously neces-
sarily implies a transformation of our knowledge-practices in a way that
will make the latter relevant for the politics of the former.
We want to conclude by opening up a discussion on the specificity of
our situation as intellectuals within the “lettered city.” We would like to
signal that our claim of being some sort of Trojan horse does not gloss
over power differentials. On the contrary, it is exceedingly clear to us that
if our situation/site is of any relevance to insurrectional patterns of mobi-
lization, it is because of the role that the “lettered city” has as a key node
for the reproduction of power relations in the present socio-epistemolog-
ical regime. The challenge then is how to deploy this centrality and speci-
ficity in a way that erodes the inequalities currently associated with this
regime. And here lies the crux of what seems an intractable problem for
intellectuals of the “lettered city”: the authority of their knowledge, its
status as expert knowledge, appears to be wedded to inequality. This is
evident in the issue of expert language: it is often said that in order to be
truly democratic and horizontal our intellectual production has to be
accessible to the non-expert. Otherwise we protect our exclusive authori-
ty and the inequality that separates the expert from the non-expert. But


here several things get confused: expertise does not always imply inequal-
ity, and authority does not always connote imposition.
Perhaps a good way to think about this issue is through the example of
the konsaho (shaman) of the Yshiro people of Paraguay, with which one of
us is familiar. The konsaho is an expert and as such he/she manages a lan-
guage that is not accessible to just anyone, but only to those who are them-
selves konsaho or in the process of becoming one. No Yshiro would have
the idea that everyone should be a konsaho—this is something deter-
mined by particular vital trajectories—yet konsaho are indeed vested with
authority to the extent that they prove themselves to be beneficial to the
community of humans and non-humans that co-form the yrmo (cosmos).
Interestingly, being beneficial depends largely on the konsaho’s capacity to
co-adjust the multiple “threads” (social bonds) that come to meet in
his/her persona. It is precisely because a person is recognized to have a tal-
ent to do this co-adjusting consistently well that he or she becomes and is
recognized by the community as an expert konsaho. But this is not some-
one who looks at the world from above and from a distance, rather it is
through his/her disposition to entangle his/her self in open-ended rela-
tions with unforeseeable consequences (both in identitarian and bodily
terms) that the konsaho gains authority and respect. In other words, the
konsaho is an institution in a permanent state of becoming. Perhaps the
“lettered city” can be construed in this way, where our expertise becomes
such to the extent that we open this (personal and institutional) site to
become one of the nodes where multiplicities meet and co-adjust in co-
existence, always keeping in mind that we cannot be everywhere (and
nowhere), that we all operate in the specificity of our sites. Hence, for us
it is not so much in the simplicity and accessibility of language (which
assumes un-difference) that the possibility of eroding inequalities lies, but
in the kind of articulations/translations that the “lettered city” can allow
within itself, and in partnership with other sites of practices.

We would like to thank Artura Escobar for his inspiration, encouragement and support.
The Social Movements Working Group collective at the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill has been an incredibly supportive and friendly environment to develop our
ideas. Marisol de la Cadena, Catalina Cortes Severino and Elena Yehia have also been key
interlocutors for us to develop the ideas presented here. We are thankful to them all.

The “Lettered City” and the Insurrection of Subjugated Knowledges in Latin America

If we accept the proposition that the diversity of cultures has always been produced
through the mutual interaction of diverse cultures, the question then becomes why we
should call the present state of diversity of cultures “modern”? The “modernness” of
all this diversity needs to be proven rather than axiomatically asserted. This is where
the imprecise quality of pluralized modernity becomes apparent for in order to show
how a given place is modern one would need some criteria of what it means to be so.
It is evident that there is no agreement among analysts about what these criteria would
be, except perhaps for the unstated assumption that being modern is related to having
somehow experienced the consequences of European expansion and colonialism. If
this is the case, then the problem is to prove that in the ceaseless history of encoun-
ters of a given culture with others, and the ensuing transformations generated by such
interactions, the encounter with the Europeans is the most relevant for the culture in
question, so as to warrant our defining it as being modern. Thus, our point is not deny-
ing that modernity might be multiple, but that the claim that there is nothing but
modernity (pluralized as it might be) needs to be proven, and in order to do so we need
clear criteria of what it is to be modern.
This does not mean that modernity is homogenous. The ways in which the modern
constitution can be conceived of may vary greatly as the diverse schools of modern phi-
losophy attest. Nevertheless, this diversity is not limitless.
On the notion of multiple worlds or multiple ontologies see Mol (2001); Latour (1993,
1999, 2004); Haraway (1991, 1997).
At the same time, it must be pointed out that many of these marginalized places can
turn, or are actively turned into “borderlands,” spaces overridden by the logic of war,
criminal networks, and all kinds of violence, which in turn “call for” and justify state
interventions backed up by further violence (Duffield 2002).
We wish to stress that we are not arguing that all communities (Indigenous or other-
wise) operate according to the communal system. In effect, there are important differ-
ences between, say, the Indigenous communities of hunter-gatherers in the
Paraguayan Chaco, where communal institutions have so far effectively truncated the
emergence of permanent hierarchies (see Bartolome 2000; Renhaw 2003), and the
communities of handicraft producers of the Otavalo people in Ecuador, where “rein-
vented” communal institutions (see Korovkin 2001) might actually operate as vehicles
to reify economic differences (see Colloredo-Mansfeld 2002), thus making it question-
able whether we can properly speak of a communal system at all. In short, when we
speak of the communal system we are not describing specific communities but a form
of organizing social life and action that specific communities might manifest, or not,
in varying degrees and in different forms.
“[W]orlds that are more just and sustainable and, at the same time, worlds that are
defined through principles other than those of Eurocentric modernity” (Escobar
It is important to notice that while these developments had a specific character in
Latin America, they were part of larger trends spanning beyond the region. Debates of
this kind existed before but were not of the magnitude of the 1960s and 1970s.
This “discovery” had parallels in other intellectual spaces. For instance, we can think
of the pioneering work of E. P. Thomson (1971), and more generally the Centre for
Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), James Scott (1976, 1985, 1990), and in anthro-
pology, Michael Taussig (1980), June Nash ( 1993) and Commaroff (1985) as different
examples of an emphasis on understanding the agency of subalterns as so many
expressions of different historical consciousnesses and moral economies. Among many
Latin American modern intellectuals, this concern took the shape of a veritable “tradi-


tion,” that of the “committed intellectuals.” Prominent among these committed intel-
lectuals were Orlando Fals-Borda (Colombia), Adolfo Colombres (Argentina), Paulo
Freire (Brazil), Darcy Ribeiro (Brazil), Guillermo Bonfil Batalla (Mexico), Stefano Varese
(Peru), and others. It is important to highlight the strikingly different understanding
between this and a previous “discovery” of the Other as knowledge producer that was
popular among intellectual elites through the early part of the 20th century and is
known as indigenismo. Indigenismo was concerned with an idealized Indigenous past
that could be reclaimed by mestizo intellectuals as a heritage with the same standing
as the European heritage. In contrast to the committed intellectuals’ concern with con-
temporary subaltern groups and their knowledges, indigenismo dismissed contempo-
rary agrarian Indigenous people’s cultural productions and knowledges as devoid of
any real value (see de la Cadena 2000; Rama 1982).
As Mato (2000:493) argues, Freire, a central proponent of the “committed intellectual
tradition,” recognized the implicit danger of sustaining a notion of Truth “by being
particularly critical of [the] notion of consientizaçao (critical consciousness) which he
found contradictory to his ideas [of dialogue] because it suggested that there is one
individual [the modern intellectual] who already has a critical consciousness and
another who does not.”
Decolonial thinking makes reference to the idea of thinking from a “double con-
sciousness” or from two different traditions, the dominant modern and the subalt-
ernized Others (see Mignolo 2000).

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