Antonio Cuadrado-Fernadez 

Creative-(ex)tensions: Indigenous eco-poetics as counter-hegemonic discourse 
Research Paper presented by Dr. Antonio Cuadrado-Fernandez at the 1st International Symposium “Re-founding Democracy”. Barcelona, 21 - 23 May 2015. 
Short abstract: In this paper I aim to use a phenomenological approach to the Indigenous poetry of Hadaa Sendoo (Mongolia), Humberto Ak’abal (Guatemala), and Walissu Youkan (Taiwan) in order to propose an alternative notion of identity based on the writers’ shared sense of interconnectedness to the environment. In this way, the embodied experiences emerging from the poems can be articulated in a common empowering counter-hegemonic discourse against the ontological and epistemological foundations of global capitalism. Similarly, the paper proposes that the poetry projected in this articulatory, empowering discourse from three bioculturally diverse regions shows paths towards alternative ways of living in the Anthropocene. 

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to present this paper in this symposium.  
I’d like to start with a quote by Francophone anti-colonial writer from Martinique, Aime Cesaire, a quote that connects beautifully with the spirit of my talk:  
“I have a different idea of a universal. It is of a universal rich with all that is particular, rich with all the particulars there are, the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of them all”.
Whatever happened to the anti-colonial, humanist spirit emanating from the thoughts of Cesaire and also Sedar Senghor, Frantz Fanon or Jean Paul Sartre, the truth is the postmodern theories that were supposed to channel this spirit into concrete action have failed to persevere in the enormous task of creating emancipatory horizons for an increasingly violent neo-colonial world. Part of the problem might be attributed to the tepidity of postcolonial theory when addressing postcolonial struggles in terms of cultural difference and identity politics, which has advantages and disadvantages.

Focusing on identity and cultural difference has been helpful in giving visibility to the numerous spatial trajectories (nations) and cultures emerging after the decolonisation process in mid-twentieth century. Within the umbrella of cultural difference and identity, issues of gender, ethnicity or class can be highlighted and receive an individualised and highly localised treatment. In other words, criticism of  postcolonial literary texts focuses mainly on the writer’s biographic micro geographies.  

However, there are reasons to believe that the mere celebration of cultural difference known also as postmodernity might not be sufficient to address the pressing realities of corporate globalisation, a point that is amply referred to by Fredric Jameson when he rightly claims that “this whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror.” 

More specifically, the reason why the empowering message of anti-colonial writers has been diluted is the incapacity of postcolonial and other postmodern theories to transcend the subject-object dualism on which modernity was solidly grounded.  
Postcolonial theory “speaks” the language of poststructuralism which deconstructs space conceived mainly in terms of binaries: subject boundary  object, self boundary world, mind boundary body. It is in this scenario where the idea of culture has ended up fetishized as a commodity in the service of the capitalist-neoliberal ideology from which cultures were supposed to be liberated.  

“[P]erhaps in the case of space, the scientific legitimacy of atomistic imagination has been of critical importance in providing a background to a cosmology of an essentially regionalised space, to claims for the belongingness of people with its place, for the  
necessity of boundaries against incursions from an essentially foreign outside […]” 

It is difficult to conceive of an articulating postcolonial discourse if space is deployed in discrete, isolated entities, if the postcolonial writer is represented as mere cultural distinctiveness, exclusively in terms of its biographic relation to place, however important cultural distinctiveness may be. It is clear the alternative to political stagnation is political articulation. In this sense, the work of Argentinian sociologist Ernesto Laclau opens a theoretical and practical path in that direction, when he claims that:  
“There is no way that a  particular group living in a wider community can live a monadic existence  –  on the contrary,  part of the definition of its own identity is the construction of a complex and elaborated system of relations with other groups”. In other words, the mere celebration of cultural difference is clearly not enough in a world where the former colonial structures of domination have been expanded and refined under the ideological umbrella of neoliberal capitalism, deeply affecting the chances of survival of Indigenous (and non-indigenous) communities.  

Indigenous poetry and the methodology 

The previous analysis of the glory and pitfalls of multiculturalism can also be applied to contemporary Indigenous poetry. Traditionally, Indigenous poetry has been the vehicle through which Indigenous communities have expressed their worldviews, protest and resistance against colonial and neo-colonial forms of exploitation. 

However, this poetry has mainly been analysed and approached from the standpoint of its cultural distinctiveness, on the writer’s biographic micro geographies, on what makes him/her distinctive from “other” writers, as if poetry were the crystallisation of individual thought. But this approach fails to acknowledge the potential cross-cultural connections that pervade the poems and it fails to notice that the worldviews it projects are sustained on place-based epistemologies, rooted in oral tradition, which is an embodied and emplaced form of knowledge. In this sense, despite the obvious cultural differences, the poetry of Hadaa Sendoo (Mongolia), Humberto Ak’abal (Guatemala), and Walis Nokan (Taiwan) share a profound cognitive and sensory engagement with the physical environment.  

And despite the poets’ different modes of land occupancy (Akabal ascribes himself to Mayan mostly agricultural form of life; Sendoo to the nomadic lifesteyle of the Mongolian steppes and Walis Nokan to the hunter-gatherer and fishing Indigenous tribes of Taiwan), their imagery projects an image of land as a network of meaningful places, entities, and experiences of transmission rather than a stage or a backdrop where events simply occur. The environmental logics underpinning the imagery in their  poems can be read as multisensory, relational, open ended, dynamic creative processes of engagement with the environment, challenging contemporary mechanistic, commodifying and capitalist modes of production. What is needed is a method of reading that articulates the reader to the writers’ embodied perceptions, from what neurophenomenologists call empathy. From this perspective, empathy and cooperation are built into the hardware of survival as we are biologically social animals that learn by imitating, sharing, observing and ‘placing ourselves in other personas.’ 

In this interaction of the reader with the writers’ Indigenous worldviews, the analysis aims to articulate bodily experience to the writers’ environmental logics.  Now, how is this type of phenomenological reading possible? Inspired by neuroscience and  phenomenology, new research in cognitive linguistics and poetics reading, Cognitive poetics views the language of literary texts as rooted in the body’s perceptual system.

In general terms, cognitive poetics explains what happens in the mind when literary texts are read, focussing on conceptual and sensory information emanating from the text as the reader  progresses. In other words, cognitive theories help us understand what happens in the mind as readers cross the space of the text. Cognitive poetician Reuven Tsur defines reading as a spatial orientation because the part of the brain that gets activated when we read is the same that operates when we attempt to find orientation in space. Particularly, Tsur argues that there are two types of reading  — rapid and delayed categorisation. With the latter, reading is a linear, concept packing activity; we cross the text as we travel by bus or train from place to place,  point to point — the important is the destination, the meaning of words. On the contrary, a delayed-categorisation type of reading is slower and allows the mind to extract the rich sensory information that emanates from the text. Once this space is opened for ‘navigation’ the conceptual and sensory information is analysed by readers as they enter and enact such information in the different geographical, temporal and social mental spaces created by the writer.  

Psychogeography of Indigenous poetry 

A journey through the poetry of Humberto Akabal is a journey through the cognitive and sensory dimension of his Qitz language, which is the language he uses to write the poetry that he later translates into Spanish. Akabal is one of the most internationally recognised Indigenous poets, he has won numerous awards, and, above all, he fiercely defends the Indigenous worldviews of his Mayan community, which pervade his poetry. As we will observe in the other two Indigenous  poets, Akabal’s relationship with nature is reciprocal; it is a relationship between two living beings, which in turn is an inherent part of the writer’s identity and of Indigenous collective identity as well, because to Mayans, human’s ultimate humanity resides precisely in their capacity for metamorphosis. This can be seen in one of his beautiful  poems, “Color of Water”, where he metamorphoses with a tree, in an image of splendid simplicity: I search for my shadow / And I find it in the water. / I have branches / I have leaves/ I am a tree… / And I look at the sky / As trees look at it:/ The color of water.  

The poet doesn’t need sophisticated imagery to find who he really is; he just needs to look at his reflection in the water to find himself fused with elements of nature. If we adopt a delayed categorisation type of reading we can reproduce in our mind the image of a man and a tree as one; an image where the poet has inherited part of the attributes of the tree, and the tree part of the attributes of the poet. From the perspective of cognition, this is called conceptual  blending, which is the capacity developed by humans during the Palaeolithic to innovate, which gave them the ability to invent new concepts and to assemble new and dynamic mental  patterns. The results of this change were awesome: human beings developed art, science, religion, culture, refined tool use, and language. In this respects, the proponents of conceptual  blending suggest that human imagination is the product of bodily interaction with the environment. 

Particularly, conceptual blending is based on the idea that the mind operates by eliciting associations that allow humans to operate in and interact successfully with the world, in that sense, it is like a metaphor, that is, the mind works like a metaphor. In the case of the  poem, the metamorphosis might be explained as the result of a complex perceptual process of interaction with the environment in which the tree and the human body are cognitively mapped initially to produce a new emergent entity. 

Likewise, with a delayed categorisation type of reading, it is possible for readers to elaborate the sensory information emanating from this image, as if the writer were as robust and resilient as the bark, as rooted in the land as the tree, as adaptable to change as the tree…Conversely, the tree can be imagined as the flexibility and sensitivity of a human body…. 

Hadaa Sendoo is a Mongolian poet and translator whose poetry has been translated to more than 30 languages and he has been widely published everywhere. The poetry of Hadaa Sendoo takes the reader to the plains of Mongolia, to the smoke of the yurt, to wandering camels, to nights filled with stars traversed by nomadic families. This is an ancient life-style threatened by the prospect of the mining boom of Mongolia’s earthly fortunes. Hendoo’s  poetry is an elegant yet powerful vindication of his communal worldviews rooted in nomadism and in his poem “The ruins and reflection” he also recurs to metamorphosis to conceptualise the steppe as a human body, which serves as a metaphor to project the resilient ecology of the steppes : Have you died? You seem like a dry sea / But you are the fleshing steppe / From your peaceful eyes / I know you have already forgot / Kublai Khan’s sadness / And Togoontumur Khan’s shame / You are only but sunk in sleep on the land / Your hair is  bits of tiles / Your body is rocks / You are the troubled sea. 

This poem is a good example of how humans perceive the world through the body used as a reference, like much cognitive theory suggests today, and that landscapes embody emotions and memories derived from personal and interpersonal experience. 

As cultural geographer Christopher Tilley suggests, “Knowledge and metaphorical understanding of landscape is intimately bound up with the experience of the human body in place, and in movement  between places. The significance of places in the landscapes is continually being woven into the fabric of social life, and anchored to the topographies of the landscape”.  

Thus, if we read this blend as the interrelation of the sensuous ingredients of both body and the geography of the steppes, the perceived effect is one of pleasurable affinity between humans and land, but also resilience and strength. The separation between body and environment seems to disappear as the distinction between body and land is difficult to discern. In other words, self and environment merge into a hybrid entity where body and environment are cognitively and sensuously connected. 

To sum up, if the earth is conceived as tissue-clothing, the earth is seen as a potentially flexible entity to which the indigenous body is fully adapted because  both the body and the earth are perceived as having the same shape. If readers know that a nomadic way of life requires a perceptual attuning to the shapes of the physical world, it is easier for them to understand the conceptualisation of earth as a body. But there is also another interesting aspect in the poem, the auditory space that readers enter through the interpellatory “Have you died”, which is used to address the steppe as a humanised entity. As readers enter this space, they may wish to elaborate its acousticity, the sonority of the poet’s voice addressing the steppes in the open air, its resonance in the sky as the wind  blows…. 

This poetic technique asserts Indigenous land as a unique entity replete with cultural meaning, against marketing and commodifying criteria that strips off its centuries old significance. Finally, with the Indigenous poetry of Walissu Youkan we travel to the hunter-gatherer territories of the Atayal tribe in Taiwan. The poet is a well-known poet, teacher and activist who has devoted his entire life to the protection of the Taiwanese Aborigines' lifestyle against mass assimilation, racism, environmental destruction and the commodification of their culture as object of ethnic tourism. 

About Atayal  
1. Birth Prayer / The baby is about to be born / Come quickly, come, my child / Come out and meet us / Grandpa has a little tribal dagger ready / Waiting for the first animal of your hunt / Grandma gets her weaving machine ready / Waiting to make the first fine clothes for you / Here it comes, here is the baby / A pair of eagle's eyes, flashing / Limbs strong as leopard's / A bear's heart, the voice of a waterfall / Fine-grass-hair, a mountain body / A perfect baby / From the bottom of the mother's soul / Formed an Atayal (841-43). 

In this powerful, epic poem, the features of the new-born babe are called into existence by images drawn from a hunter's habitat. Similes align the baby with natural landscape and wild animals to which its future is tied. As seen in the previous poems, conceptual blending can help us understand the profound interrelation between Indigenous individuals, community and environment as the new-born baby acquires and the natural elements become one indissoluble entity: The distinct identity construction works by image-identifications with objects in the wilds, including landscape, plants, and animals. Language and biodiversity are thus tied as the conceptual blend projects a particular way of occupying, engaging with and shaping the natural environment which will nurture the baby’s cultural, physical and spiritual life.  

Cognitive Mapping V: Ecopoetics as counter-hegemony 

The cognitive mapping opens up a potential space of shared consciousness where readers access the writer’s sense of dislocation through the poems’ conceptual and sensory information. This space is crucial for the readers’ realisation of potentially shared concerns and struggles, and opens the space of the political. In this sense, the common empowering discourse must be based on the writers’ shared concern with the loss of cultural and  biological biodiversity underlying the poems’ sentient imagery. 

The conceptual and sensory information of the poems can be seen as a link between nature and culture as the metaphors are expressive of worldviews that emerge from constant dialogue with the environment. The importance of the cognitive mapping lies thus in the fact that the biological and cultural diversity underpinning the sentient metaphors increase the resilience of natural and cultural systems which operate like an autopoietic feedback loop. It is thus crucial to articulate the poems’ imagery as part of a larger network of resistance against the loss of cultural and biological diversity. We could summarise Ernesto Laclau’s articulation theory by representing the relation between local demand and global oppression in a diagram where the oppressive form, whatever shape it takes, is separated from the rest of society whereas the  particular demands are represented with a semi-circle that “makes their equivalential relation  possible” (Laclau, 2000: 304):


    Ө   ═   Ө   ═   Ө   ═   Ө   ═   Ө   ═   Ө   ═   Ө   ═   Ө   ═   Ө
    D1      D2       D3       D4       D5       D6       D7       D8      D9 

In this diagram GC stands for the different manifestations of global capitalism, separated from the rest of demands by a discontinuous line as the interests of local demands and hegemonic  power are not convergent in a global-capitalist type of economy; however, the line is discontinuous as local struggles are not immune to the effects of global capitalism. The semi-circles D1…D9 for the particular demands, split between a bottom semi-circle representing the particular Indigenous worldviews as seen in the poems. The top semi-circle represents the common opposition to the project of global capitalism. This leads to one of the particular demands representing the whole chain as an empty signifier. For instance, the metaphors of humanised nature seen in the three poems share an anti-system critique against the commodification and exploitation of Indigenous land by corporate capitalism. 

Particularly, this anti-system critique appears as conceptual and sensory information retrieved by readers during the reading process.  

In other words, the readers’ journey through the textual geographies enacts  “dense interactions and emotional and affective exchanges” that “are expressive of the continuing process of the formation of collective identities” (Slater, 2004: 201) and contribute to the formation of “[…] a counter -hegemonic globalisation from below that not only challenges the neo-liberal doctrine of capitalist expansion and a resurgent imperialism” (Slater, 2004: 221). 


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