A Review of Beyond the Lettered City: Indigenous Literacies in the Andes

Transforming the Andes

by | Sep 12, 2013

Photo of book, Beyond the Lettered City: Indigenous Literacies in the Andes

Beyond the Lettered City: Indigenous Literacies in the Andes by Joanne Rappaport and Tom Cummins (Duke University Press, 2012)

In the spirit of full disclosure, I begin by stating that the co-authors of this award-winning book* are both close, long-time friends of the author of this review. I attended graduate school in anthropology at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, with Joanne Rappaport in the 1970s, and I have been in close contact with Tom Cummins ever since we coincided on some of our earliest respective field research in Cusco, Peru, in 1981. Cummins and I currently co-teach a General Education course at Harvard, “Pathways Through the Andes.” While I will grouse about one aspect or another of this book—as is perhaps inevitable, when evaluating the work of one’s almost-siblings—I first hasten to state that Beyond the Lettered City is an exceptionally important, path-breaking contribution to the study of the transformations of society and culture in the northern and central Andes from the time of the Iberian invasion until the early 18th century.

The regional setting sets this work apart from the vast majority of works centering on Andean subject matter. The majority of studies of colonial Andean societies focus on the central Andes, with particular emphasis on Peru and (to a lesser extent) Bolivia. The territory of the latter two nation-states— in the colonial era called, respectively, Lower and Upper Peru—lay at the heart of Tawantinsuyu: the Inka Empire. The northern Andes, the region from Colombia down through Ecuador, received less attention from colonial historians. Rarer still are works that meaningfully draw together the peoples, cultures, histories and environments of the northern and central Andes into a single work of deep historical analysis; this is precisely what this extraordinary work accomplishes.

The central significance and major contributions of this work are, first, that it provides a guidepost for Andeanists to develop a more expansive, integrated perspective on the proper account of colonial history in the region. Unlike other works, the book does not solely concern the central Andes, much less separate accountings of the central and the northern Andes. Second, it builds this new, integrated narrative through a deeply anthropologically informed mode of the construction of history and, simultaneously, a recognition of the centrality of writing and literacy in the histories of the (largely) non-literate populations of the Andes in the colonial era. The great insight of Rappaport and Cummins is that there is no contradiction in this last statement (“the importance of literacy for the illiterate”).

The key to Rappaport and Cummins’s approach to the topic not just of literacy but of what they term “indigenous literacies” is the centrality of writing in the formation of settled, urban spaces in early colonial Latin America. The central theorist of this perception was the great Uruguayan writer, academic and literary critic, Ángel Rama (1926-1983). In his book, The Lettered City, Rama had laid out the principal tenets of both modernism and transculturation in relation to the Latin American experience of conquest and then the long era of colonialism, terminating (but only formally) in the continental movements leading to independence from the European overlords (Spain and Portugal) in the 19th century. Rama’s book has had a profound impact on students of Andean literacies, partially inspiring the present work, as well as another book published by Duke University Press, Salomon and Niõ-Murcia’s, The Lettered Mountain (2011). As taken up by Rappaport and Cummins, Rama’s work opened scholars’ eyes to the fact that the Spanish American world was “…a ‘lettered city,’ a social constellation built on an ideology of the primacy of the written word; within this system, the urban landscape was constituted as a literate scenario for indigenous conversion and domination, structuring the exercise of power by native actors and Spaniards alike. Legal documents functioned as prime vehicles for transforming native perceptions of time, space, and the discourses of power…” (2012:3-4).

The above description points to the initial, central (though not complete) set of dynamics the authors examine in their book. The difference here is that whereas Rama saw the primary source of actions and creative transformations within the European administrative and ecclesiastical bureaucracies acting on indigenous communities, Rappaport and Cummins offer a much more dynamic and reciprocal account, in terms of foreign and indigenous actors and forms of action. The latter is implied in the subtitle: “indigenous literacies in the Andes.” In part, what allows the authors to investigate more insightfully and convincingly than did Rama is the huge body of documents produced by and on behalf of Andean peoples in their confrontation with the imposed bureaucracies. This offering would be enough of a contribution, particularly given how extraordinarily rich these sections of the book are. However, Rappaport and Cummins move beyond it to indigenous actions in a number of “fields” not strictly delimited by writing and reading. That is, the authors take the performances of literacy to be constituted as well by a whole range of practices linked to the order, disciplinary practices and knowledge that came along with the European technology and arts of writing and reading. The latter involved native consumption of and participation in places (e.g., the new towns, known as reducciones and/or resguardos), institutions (tribute, censuses) and material productions (e.g., painting, music, etc.) that were integral elements of the imposed systems of power and knowledge. Most interesting and striking in this regard are the detailed discussions of the indigenous objects—keros (drinking cups), mantas (shawls), and other precious items—appearing in church murals, wills, and other productions.

The authors show how native elites and, in many cases, commoners as well, appropriated, innovated on, and in many cases subverted the imposed institutions, procedures and forms of expression. This resulted in a range of indigenous-inspired productions, such as paintings in local churches; documents of various types (wills, land holding descriptions, disputes over local lordships, etc.); and ritual performances that combined Catholic and indigenous characters, images and themes, all of which affords broader forms of “transculturation” from those originally envisioned by Ángel Rama. Their extraordinarily rich exposition of the latter forms of appropriation and production in Beyond the Lettered City is what carries the project initiated by Rama to its greatest heights of realization. In this regard, the work presents to the reader an almost ethnographic level of description and analysis of the everyday lives of natives, from Bogotá to Latacunga and points south. I would argue that this represents the greatest and unique contribution of this book. Historians and social scientists of various stripes have long bemoaned the fact that the written record of colonial administrative regimes is principally produced by, and represents the interests of, the foreign (Peninsular) or criollo elites. By mining rich lodes of local documents, paintings, and various other expressions of native appropriations of European-imposed, colonial policies, institutions and technologies, Rappaport and Cummins give the reader a “thick description” of the daily lives of the local elites and commoners in communities throughout the Colombian and Ecuadorian Andes.

As is true of all works, with only a few exceptions (e.g., Michaelangelo’s painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, etc.), there are a few things left wanting in Beyond the Lettered City. In this reviewer’s view, principal among the things overlooked (except for one exculpatory footnote: pg. 264, note #6) is the barest of attention to what was the subject matter of the vast majority of colonial documentation: numbers, numerical data, and administrative statistics. The term “alphabetic” is used throughout this work to designate the script of these colonial documents, yet most of the texts illustrated and cited in the book employ Hindu-Arabic numeral cyphers. The written text on a page from a visita (“town visit”) on pg. 230 is literally framed within cyphers. My use of the phrase “vast majority” to characterize these types of documents is no exaggeration. In his study of the some 34,000 legajos (bundles of documents) deriving from Spanish administration in the New World and preserved today in the Archivo de Indias in Seville, Gómez Cañedo in Los archivos de la historia de America: período colonial español (Mexico, D.F., 1961:12-13) found that, other than those labeled as Indiferente (“miscellaneous/unclassified”), the largest collections are those categorized under the headings Contaduría (‘accountancy;” 1953 legajos) and Contratación (“trade contracts;” 5873 legajos). Spanish administrators were obsessive enumerators, and they clearly transmitted this preoccupation to the Andean natives (although central Andean accountants had their own such records, in the form of knotted string records).

Now, I understand that the authors are not interested in examining numerical data. That’s fine; we all have our particular interests and contributions to make. However, I think I am raising an issue here about something much more basic in document production practices. For instance, when a native cacique or cacica wrote, or had written for him/her, a date—e.g., 1615—that string of cyphers represented the litigant’s buying into a completely different, alien theory of history from an Andean one. For whoever writes “1615” (or any such date in the Gregorian calendar system) participates in a system of historical causation, teleology, and redemption that is wholly grounded in European Christian theology and conceptualization of history. In short, buying into—i.e., using—Hindu-Arabic numerals was not an innocent act of employing an alien form of notation; rather, it was to submit to a Western disciplinary system of power and knowledge that bound the indigenous subject ever more firmly into the imposed, Western European epistemology and theory of history. I submit that if we were to examine these numerical records more closely, with the sharp and critical eyes Rappaport and Cummins apply to the texts, paintings, and new towns of the colonial Andes, we might identify therein a surprising, creative and subversive record of indigenous numeracy to equal that of the remarkable record of indigenous literacies detailed in Rappaport and Cummins’s groundbreaking work, Beyond the Lettered City.

*Beyond The Lettered City was recently awarded the Latin American Studies Association’s Bryce Wood Book Award for the outstanding book in the social sciences and the humanities for books published in English in 2012.

Spring 2013Volume XIII, Number 1
Gary Urton is Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies and Chairman of Harvard’s Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on pre-Columbian and early colonial Andean intellectual history, drawing on materials and methods in archaeology, ethnohistory, and ethnology. He is the author of many articles and editor of several volumes on Andean/Quechua cultures and Inka civilization. His books include At the Crossroads of the Earth and the Sky (1981), The History of a Myth (1990), The Social Life of Numbers (1997), Inca Myths (1999), and Signs of the Inka Khipu (2003).

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