Sylvia Marcos’s Taken from the Lips as a Post-secular,
Transmodern, and Decolonial Methodology
It is no secret today that the scholarly study of religion in the West has been largely complicit with a long imperial history of evangelizing and allegedly civilizing non-Western peoples. The study of religion has also been at the center of figuring out whether some of these non-Western subjects could be properly qualified as “other” or not, that is, whether they were in fact human. Having a religion for a long time was considered to be a fundamental component of any culture that deserved its characterization and recognition as properly human. So, absence of it indicated the possibility, if not justified the idea, that such culture was non-human or not entirely human.
In more recent times, presence or lack of humanity has been identified not necessarily by whether a given group has religion or not, but by whether it has certain phenotypical and biological features, which is connected to the possibility of participating in modern civilization. Here, the scholarly study of religion and the theory of religion have played an important role as well insofar as they have provided descriptions and hierarchies of religion that have helped to determine their degree of compatibility or lack thereof with modernity. This has been arguably one of the most important uses or applications of the study of religion, whose relevance increases today as many are convinced that cultural and religious differences will be more determinant of conflict among ethnic groups, nations, and regions than ideological differences in the twenty first century.
Yet, while the study of religion continues to serve the interests of the consumption and control of non-secular and non-Western perspectives, there are also approaches that are critical of this, and yet others that unapologetically introduce new goals and methods. It is precisely in this way that I characterize and will further comment on Sylvia Marcos’s monograph Taken from the Lips: Gender and Eros in Mesoamerican Religions. Marcos’s Taken from the Lips offers a post-secularizing, transmodern, and de-colonial methodology that combines insights from areas such as anthropology, history, and philosophy, but at the same time surpasses typical pitfalls in these areas.
It is important to understand the methodological innovations in Taken from the Lips, as well as the way in which Marcos overcomes limits in religious studies, that she was trained as a clinical and social psychologist influenced by anti-psychiatry discourse and the psychiatry and sociogenesis of Frantz Fanon. Like Fanon’s, her work involves the observation of the links between the individual and society, as well as the questioning of the position of the neutral observer. She engages in a form of participant observation that results in a contribution to scholarship and to the communities with which she participates. Marcos was also shaped by her work in the Intercultural Center of Documentation (Centro Intercultural de Documentación-CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, México, directed by Ivan Illich. This institution functioned as a “center” where many of the young scholars whose work was shaped by twentieth-century “Third World” theorizing and decolonization movements, including liberation theologians and philosophers, met and did research. Marcos cultivated there an ethos of interculturality beyond multiculturalism, similar to the ways in which indigenous movements today utilize and defend the notion of interculturality.
In addition to interculturality, Marcos’s training involved the adoption of a transdisciplinary approach before (and beyond) more recent defenses of interdisciplinarity in the academy. Different from interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity does not seek to combine existing disciplines, but rather questions their ontological status and seeks to forge conceptual tools that are adequate to the problems and questions addressed. In Marcos’s work, these problems and questions emerge out of a peculiar training as well as dialogues with indigenous women and feminists of color in the United States and elsewhere.
I have indicated before that Taken from the Lips is a post-secular, transmodern, and decolonial work. It is post-secular because, first, it doesn’t partake of the secularization thesis according to which modernity gradually leads to the disappearance or confinement of religion to the private. She finds what she calls religion in both the private and the public sphere, and her approach does not posit a radical division between the two. Marcos’s approach is also post-secular in that it resists making a firm differentiation between whatever appears as “sacred” and the secular. Rather, consistent with the idea of fluidity that she finds in Mesoamerican religion, whatever appears as “sacred” has elements of the secular, and vice versa. Another feature of its post-secularity is that the author breaks the division between her as the secular cognitive subject on the one hand, and the presumed object of study as the typical representative of the religious other. Theory emerges in Taken from the Lips at the intersection of subject and object, at a point when the subject not only observes and documents, but is herself transformed and learns. This learning is reflected in the way in which the book itself is written and in the way the author combines methods of investigation. In the process of writing the book, Marcos becomes a curandera (female healer) herself, opening new vistas to overcome the blindness of much religious studies theorizing.
The world that gradually unfolds in Taken from the Lips is a rich one filled with theories that come out of lips and that are expressed in practices that defy the splits between sacred and secular as well as between modern and traditional. This is also what makes this work not only post-secular, but also transmodern. The concept of transmodernity was first formulated by philosopher and historian Enrique Dussel in The Invention of the Americas: Eclipse of “the Other” and the Myth of Modernity. I have argued that this book represents a qualitative shift in Dussel’s historic-philosophical work in that it is concerned not only with establishing the relevance of Latin America for world-history, or with showing the extent to which European modernity is partly constituted by its relation to the Americas, but with spelling out an understanding of 1492 from the perspective of indigenous peoples, and particularly the Aztecs and Mayas of North and Mesoamerica. He aims in this book to “change the skin and to see through new eyes” in order to articulate one possible understanding and critique of 1492 from an indigenous point of view. Transmodernity refers in part to the expression of reason and critique from the point of view of those who have been invisibilized or dehumanized by modern discourses and practices. It is also a project that “subsumes” valuable aspects of modernity and incorporates them in a liberation project that affirms positive components of what are often regarded as traditional or premodern perspectives.
I refer to Marcos’s Taken from the Lips as transmodern because it recognizes Mesoamerican practices and epistemology as viable discourses and forms of life that not only have endured through time, but that also can keep enduring and have much to offer to those who are born in that universe of thought and practices and to others. This does not mean that Dussel or Marcos believe in pure traditional elements that have not been touched by modernity. They both accept that today’s practices and ideas are the result of multiple exchanges and sometimes impositions. And what they seek is not necessarily to undo these exchanges, but rather to understand them and to forge a world where these exchanges could occur in more horizontal relations than they have done under the dominance of the myth of European superiority.
Now, Dussel and Marcos believe that there is as a sort of nucleus or fundamental set of symbols and ideas that come specifically from the non-European side of practices that are found today. These symbols and ideas are the ones that are always found mixed or combined in some way with practices or ideas of different provenance. Dussel has argued that those, in some cases millenary ideas, have survived and find themselves today in many cultures. His idea of transmodernity calls for a world where they are allowed to flourish, not by affirming them uncritically or by trying to give them expression as if the world has not changed, but in creative forms that are open to multiple relations that advance the recognition of the humanity of everyone rather than in reactionary or oppressive ways. I believe that Marcos shares this or a very similar view with Dussel. However, while Dussel has focused on formally criticizing Eurocentrism and in elaborating a philosophy of liberation that places European philosophers as the primary interlocutors, Marcos’s Taken from the Lips offers an example of a different expression of the transmodern view that Dussel and others defend.
One only has to compare Dussel’s The Invention of the Americas with Marcos’s Taken from the Lips in order to understand the fundamental similarity and difference between the two approaches. The very titles of the books themselves indicate the difference in the projects: while Dussel wishes to investigate critically how the Americas were invented by the Europeans, Marcos seeks to understand what comes out of the “lips” of the indigenous Mesoamericans. The word “lips” in Marcos’s title is important because it makes reference to orality, which she considers indispensible to understand Mesoamerican thought. Consider that she concludes the book by calling for a “hermeneutics of orality” to understand indigenous religions and overcome the fixation on alphabetic culture. In The Invention of the Americas, Dussel calls for a “hermeneutic of 1492 from the Other’s perspective” and he makes what I take as an important and valid contribution to the creative and critical reconstruction of important elements in Aztec and Maya thought. However, his hermeneutic and the “change of skin and eyes” that Dussel defends, does not involve a systematic form of “taking from the lips,” that is, a serious consideration of orality and an intense dialogical engagement with contemporary indigenous communities who could help to further understand indigenous ideas and practices. These ideas and practices can serve not only to critique the West, but also to formulate alternatives to modern ideals from perspectives other than those of Bolívar and Marx, just to name two pillars in Latin American leftist thought. This is not to say that Dussel’s engagement with indigenous thought is not itself the result of his being challenged by and of having some exchanges with indigenous communities. And it is not to say either that Bolivar and Marx do not offer elements for the elaboration of a transmodern position in Latin America. What it means is that Dussel’s idea of transmodernity demands more radical forms of dialogues than the ones that he, as philosopher, historian, and theologian has pursued. Transmodernity is a challenge that he has posed to Western thought in general and that his own work still needs to express in a more consistent manner. While much of his critique of Eurocentrism is fundamental for critical thinking today, his thought demands other critical and constructive interventions, other vistas that works such as Marcos’s have begun to address.
Marcos’s Taken from the Lips can be thus read as a critical response to the still lingering imperial forms of religious studies, as well as a complement to, as well as, in a way, a more consistent expression of a transmodern methodology than the one that appears in decolonial works such as Dussel’s. One way in which Marcos’s methodology complements and radicalizes the ideas in The Invention of the Americas is that Marcos combines ethnohistory with ethnography in order to understand the ideas that she finds in colonial texts and códices. Consistent with the Mesoamerican ideas that she identifies, the meaning in writings from the past illuminate and are illuminated, not simply by Marcos’s own interpretive horizon, but by the practices and discourses that she knows and with which she engages as a result of her participatory research. In this sense the past appears to be connected to the present, and the present with the past, another feature of indigenous cosmology.
Marcos performs a similar logic in her approach to philosophy and practice. For her, philosophies are not simply abstract ideas that can only appear in systematic and rational discourse. Her approach to philosophy rather emerges from the idea that:
Cognitive frameworks pervade our thinking, influence our conceptions of causality, and guide our sensory perceptions. At all times, we are immersed in a knowledge system that organizes the way we conceptualize the material world around us. When we confront popular and traditional medicines, we can discern—if we are perceptive enough—that underlying them is a knowledge system intimately bound to cosmology. (1)
As she puts it in the context of her reflections on the work of curanderas:
Conceptually, traditional medicine is like a woven fabric of which we have intriguing fragments, but not the overall pattern. Recovering it requires a kind of anamnesis which systematizes a conceptual weave. A way of achieving this is by interviewing curanderas who are deeply rooted in their traditions or who have received a spiritual and mystical initiation, and then compare these interviews with the oldest available testimonies…. It is only gradually that, for the patient researcher, some patterns begin to emerge from elements that, at first glance, seem diffuse, disconnected, bereft of interrelationship. (4)
Marcos conducts interviews, but doing interviews by itself does not mark the radicality of her approach. That is why Taken from the Lips does not read like an ethnographical work, but rather like a conceptual historical-philosophical and anthropological treatise. In Taken from the Lips Marcos appears less as a professional anthropologist or interviewer, and more like an active participant in a conversation that involves practices, rituals, and concepts. She tries both to understand logics with which she is not familiar and to translate them to herself and others. This could very well be why, as she reports in the book, she is frequently asked by indigenous women movements to participate in their encounters.
It is using this methodology that Marcos informs us of Mesoamerican ideas of the body that differ from classical Western and enlightened ideas about embodiment, and that seem to provide elements for a more radical affirmation of our own humanity as corporeal beings. She also finds “an episteme of gender equilibrium” as fundamental to Mesoamerican thought. While some ideas of her characterization of gender can be challenged (see Maria Lugones’s review in this issue), the identification of issues of gender difference and sexuality at the core of Mesoamerican thinking gives additional indications of elements that complement the critique of 1492 from an indigenous perspective that Dussel provides in The Invention of the Americas. Marcos’s text makes clear that if we want to know about Mesoamerican thought we need not limit our view to the tlamatinime (wise men or Aztec philosopher priest) as Dussel and others tend to do, but that we should also seek to understand the rich conceptual world of the curanderas.
 In the presentation on Marcos’s book at the 2006 meeting of the Caribbean Philosophical Association in Jamaica, I contrasted Marcos’s decolonial approach with the colonizing efforts of scholars such as Max Müller in his understanding of Indian religions and sacred texts. One can also contrast her approach with Mircea Eliade, for instance, who has been criticized at large by Russell McCutcheon in Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). See also in a similar line of critique to foundational work in religious studies Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).