Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Birgit Brander Rasmussen, "Writing in the Conflict Zone: Don Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala's El Primer Nueva Corónica Y Buen Gobierno," Queequeg's Coffin: Indigenous Literacies and Early American Literature

In Andean society, numbers served not only a quantitative but also a qualitative purpose, and the mathematical nature of quipus corresponded to what Galen Brokaw has called “a numerical episteme.” Andean society was characterized by a high degree of numerical literacy and organized its social and philosophical thought according to an episteme rooted in numbers. The number ten was key in this epistemology, and social groups or villages (called ayllus) were organized according to the decimal unit of ten. Guaman Poma’s survey of Inca society corresponds to this decimal organization, with its ten “calles.” In addition to the decimal-based system of social organization, the number five organized both historical and geographical paradigms in the Andes, as evident in the separation of Cuzco into four parts organized around a “fifth” part, the center. The pair constituted another important numerical unit. A preference for pairs reflected the philosophical notion that singularity signified incompletion and also dangerous imbalance. Pairs represented balance and a completed unit. This philosophy, based on the concept of pairing and the privileging of dualism, pervaded Andean society and thought. Arithmetic, whether addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division, was central to the “art of rectification” by which Andean society sought to maintain balance and equilibrium in moral and social terms. Numbers and their arithmetical manipulation then provides “a process by which indigenous Andean culture shapes the raw, quantitative nature of time, space, and social organization into numerically significant contributions” based on its “ontology of numbers.”

In Andean epistemology, numbers can therefore be understood as parallel to words as the privileged signifiers through which reality was understood, represented, and manipulated. Like other kinds of writing, quipus then reflected the privileged forms of representation in Andean society. Indeed, Brokaw has argued that “the Andean ontology of numbers and the conventions of khipu textuality developed together dialogically, even informing and influencing the other.” The Aschers coined the term “cultural insistence” to explain the ways in which the main ideas, values, and organizational structures of a given culture manifest themselves in material and representational artifacts. They note that cloth was such an important component of Inca culture that it can be seen as “characteristic of Inca insistence in and of itself. At every turning point in the life history of an individual cloth played a key role.” The Aschers argue that portability was equally characteristic of Inca “insistence” and that the most common artifact used to carry things was a piece of strong cloth. The quipu, then, appears to have combined numerous central elements of Andean cultural insistence as a cloth-based, highly portable system of literacy based on an epistemology of numbers.


  1. Ibid: Unlike Urton, Guaman Poma may have had access to historical quipus that retained their narrative range, even as the quipus and those who kept them had been forced underground. Furthermore, he was a cultural insider and native speaker with a conscious agenda to "give credence" to Andean culture as a civilization on par with Spain. This project reflects knowledge of the region's history and of its indigenous textual tradition, its many verbs, and their relationships to the strings, knots, and colors of the quipus. In fact, Guaman Poma's text does not simply assert the validity of quipus as a form of literacy; it is also marked by the textual logic, the "semiotic conventions," of quipus. The manuscript expresses Andean culture in ways that help us understand quipu textuality, as well as how such indigenous forms of literacy shaped Guaman Poma's narrative and rhetorical strategies...

  2. Ibid., continued: What does this have to do with the Corónica? The drive toward reconciliation and the concept of complementary duality, as meta-textual principles rooted in the logic of quipus, link Guaman Poma's text to broader Andean literary and social conventions. In his manuscript, this drive to reconcile dual narrative operates on a number of levels. His division of the manuscript into two sections reflects the quipu convention of dual accounts that functioned as halves of a larger whole and that, in the precess of coming together, had to be "consolidated." The first part of Guaman Poma's manuscript describes a somewhat idealized pre-conquest world of order and reason. This section "consolidates" Andean and Christian histories by knotting them together into a larger narrative and conceptual structure which conquest has now brought together. Importantly, Guaman Poma represents the two worlds as coeval even before each becomes aware of the existence of the other and their destinies become forever intertwined. For example, Guaman Poma's description of the birth of Jesus is embedded within his history of the Inca, in what he calls "Edad de Indios (Age of the Indians)." Guaman Poma locates the birth and crucifixion of Jesus temporally within the reign of the second Inca, Cinche Roca Inca: "Del nacimiento de Nuestro Señor y Saludor del mundo Jesucristo: Nació en tienpo de Cinche Roca Ynga quando fue de edad de ochenta años. Y, en su tienpo de Cinche Roca Ynga, padeció mártir y fue crucificado y muerto y sepultado y rresucitó y subió a los cielos y se asentó a la diestra de Dios Padre (Of the birth of our Lord and Savior of the world Jesus Christ: he was born in the time and reign of Cinche Roca Ynga when he was of the age of eighty years. And in his time of Cinche Roca Ynga, he suffered martyrdom and was crucified and died and was interred and resurrected and ascended to the heavens and sat at the right side of God the Father)" (Corónica 90). Similarly, depictions of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, as well as of the apostle Saint Bartholomew, occur between images of the second and third Inca. In this way, Guaman Poma represents the two worlds and their histories as linked and contemporaneous in both narrative and pictorial terms, even before contact.

    The second part of the manuscript describes a post-conquest world of abuse and disorder but again attempts to consolidate that narrative with the possibility of reform and a return to order. In this section, Guaman Poma is not linking separate meta-narratives or reconciling Andean Spanish narratives of the past. Rather, he is joining together and attempting to bring into accord narratives of abuse and the possibility of reform. The two separate parts of the manuscript complement each other, providing distinct accounts that are held in a tense but dialogic relationship to provide a larger account of "one tenor."

    However, Andean and Spanish accounts cannot be in agreement the way that paired quipus traditionally were. In fact, the different histories and epistemologies that Guaman Poma engages are more often in conflict, and this tension cannot be easily resolved. While textual difference between paired quipus was traditionally resolved by a process of reconciliation that erased it, in the Corónica Guaman Poma negotiates difference of an entirely different magnitude, and he is in no position to offer clear reconciliation. Indeed, part of the his project is to insist on the validity and viability of distinct Andean narrative and textual forms in the face of the Spanish drive to erase that indigenous difference. In place of reconciliation, Guaman Poma insists on a tense and unresolved coexistence that doesn't require the erasure of difference.