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Seeing and Being Seen

Seeing and Being Seen

Hilary E. Kahn
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    Seeing and Being Seen
    Book Description:

    The practice of morality and the formation of identity among an indigenous Latin American culture are framed in a pioneering ethnography of sight that attempts to reverse the trend of anthropological fieldwork and theory overshadowing one another.

    In this vital and richly detailed work, methodology and theory are treated as complementary partners as the author explores the dynamic Mayan customs of the Q'eqchi' people living in the cultural crossroads of Livingston, Guatemala. Here, Q'eqchi', Ladino, and Garifuna (Caribbean-coast Afro-Indians) societies interact among themselves and with others ranging from government officials to capitalists to contemporary tourists.

    The fieldwork explores the politics of sight and incorporates a video camera operated by multiple people-the author and the Q'eqchi' people themselves-to watch unobtrusively the traditions, rituals, and everyday actions that exemplify the long-standing moral concepts guiding the Q'eqchi' in their relationships and tribulations. Sharing the camera lens, as well as the lens of ethnographic authority, allows the author to slip into the world of the Q'eqchi' and capture their moral, social, political, economic, and spiritual constructs shaped by history, ancestry, external forces, and time itself.

    A comprehensive history of the Q'eqchi' illustrates how these former plantation laborers migrated to lands far from their Mayan ancestral homes to co-exist as one of several competing cultures, and what impact this had on maintaining continuity in their identities, moral codes of conduct, and perception of the changing outside world.

    With the innovative use of visual methods and theories, the author's reflexive, sensory-oriented ethnographic approach makes this a study that itself becomes a reflection of the complex set of social structures embodied in its subject.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79567-9
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiii)
    (pp. 1-13)

    I can see but not be seen. From a lofty window I observe a standoff. Two masses of young people are facing each other in the street below.LadinosversusGarifuna. Armed with buckets, bags, and boxes, all brimming with white flour, the youths are determined not only to catch the opposing team’s banner, but also to blanket their opponents with sticky white “ash.” When an individual becomes separated from their group, he or she is tugged and shoved until covered in flour by the opposing team. Without receiving physical injury, but symbolically transformed through ethnic bleaching, these individuals are...

  5. Two FIELD(S) OF ENGAGEMENT: Livingston and Proyecto Ajwacsiinel
    (pp. 14-33)

    Fieldwork—the keystone of ethnographic uniqueness and a fountain of qualitative data—is often overshadowed by anthropological theory, particularly at the point when field experience is compressed into ethnographic text. Conversely, ethnographic film tends to have its analytical theory stripped away from the intricacies of methodological practices that, because of the tangible (and technical) means of photographic representation, seem fundamentally embedded in film and video. Physicality marginalizes film and other visual products within academic arenas where palpable methods are subordinate to the intellect of theory (Prosser 1998:97–99). This ethnographic product attempts to reverse this trend. Method and theory are...

  6. Three CYCLES OF DEBT: Colonialism, Coffee, and Companies
    (pp. 34-51)

    We can only speculate as to how the pre-contact Q’eqchi’ conceptualized their social and cosmological universe, although they likely were engaged in a paternalistic, quasi-contractual relationship with invisible deities. Archaeological and epigraphical research reveals that pre-Columbian Mayan gods were ritually and regularly fed with the blood of sacrificial human victims, animals, and kings (Freidel et al. 1993:201–207). Supernatural beings had their ravenous appetites satisfied so that the universe was maintained in equilibrium, crops grew, and rain fell (Sharer 1994:539). Deities wavered between positional identities of outsider and ancestor, capable of both benevolent and malicious deeds (McAnany 1995:81).

    Similarly, indigenous...

  7. Four ENVISIONING POWER AND MORALITY: Tzuultaq’a, Germans, and Action-in-Place
    (pp. 52-69)

    Q’eqchi’ individuals and communities have intimate relationships with the hills, home to their beloved Tzuultaq’a mountain spirits.¹ Social exchanges with these deities actualize and reinforce the socioeconomic and cosmological structures that in the past and present have placed the Q’eqchi’ in a position of laboring, respecting, and paying debts to fearsome outsiders. Tzuultaq’a deities manifest as mountains, animals, and natural objects. When made visible because of a breach in the moral code, they are seen as light-skinned male or female humans or serpents. Tzuultaq’a own and govern the land from their homes deep within the recesses of the earth.² They...

    (pp. 70-89)

    Imagine a ravenous outsider who, after an initial bite of difference, salivates to consume more. This is not an image unique to Guatemala or to the Mayan people. It can be applied to many relationships, whether colonial, filial, cultural, or economic. Though Q’eqchi’ people may direct the process through ritualized action, consumption is clearly associated with foreign paternalism. Like Tzuultaq’a, who ingest sweet copal smoke and indigenous bodies in exchange for security, foreign owners of fincas or hotels and restaurants consume local labor and foreign dollars while they also protect and pay their workers. Foreign treasure hunters and tourists are...

    (pp. 90-108)

    Mariano once told me a story about a gringo who planned to go to a local cave to remove the treasures inside. The gringo was an incapable and slow walker (Q’eqchi’ people always complain about gringos’ lack of physical endurance), so he and his two Q’eqchi’ guides had to spend the night in the bush. During the evening, the gringo had a dream. He was inside a cave filled with chickens when he heard a voice that told him that only natives were permitted to see the cave and its contents. He was warned that he would be punished if...

    (pp. 109-140)

    The Q’eqchi’ interpret social relations through an imaginary guided by visual metaphors, although perception is not exclusively based upon sight (Howes 1991:167). Intricately wrapped up with concepts of collective and self identities are nonvisual senses that, like the nuances of fieldwork, are typically de-emphasized in academic research and ethnographic products.The Q’eqchi’ use all their senses—tactility, sight, hearing, olfaction, gustation, and temporalizing and spatializing processes—in the phenomenological maintenance of their cosmological and socioeconomic worlds. They pay respect to Tzuultaq’a through the offering of sweet-smelling pom smoke. They recognize Q’eq whistling through the sky during his nightly escapades when he...

  11. Eight DÍA DE GUADALUPE: Identity Politics
    (pp. 141-159)

    Town has become more and more crowded. Relatives from Belize, Guatemala, and the United States have come to celebrate the opening of Livingston’s fiesta season that lasts through New Year’s Day.¹ Morning Mass ends to the sound of pulsing drums and rhythmic blowing of the traditional local instrument, the conch shell. Young children wearing indigenous dress dance frantically in front of the altar, up and down the aisle, screaming, laughing, and bouncing with the beat. Two Q’eqchi’ families, one of which I know, remain standing within the pews as they curiously watch the explosion of body movement in the aisle....

    (pp. 160-175)

    One day while I was in Livingston a young Garifuna man committed suicide. He was a popular youth and the funeral was too emotional to be translated into ethnographic text. My field notes simply read “so much wailing, crying, agony, fainting.” The town mourned this tragedy. The next day I went to Crique Chino Barrio Nuevo, where a number of Q’eqchi’ people told me that the young man had raped a woman and that the police had been after him. To avoid going to jail, he killed himself. None of this was true. For a moment I was angry and...

  13. Ten I AM A CAMERA: Vignettes of Ethnographic Vérité
    (pp. 176-190)

    The torrential rain echoed Tek’s and my tears as we hugged during our first goodbye.¹ She feared it was our last. It was not. On a Sunday morning, almost two years after our initial tearful goodbye, I watched her husband stand motionless in the back room of their house. Roberto’s body appeared to hang limp over his skeleton and his eyes were fearfully empty. He was lost. The house would normally be full of activity at this time of day, but Roberto stood frozen in the middle of the silent house. Then he moved toward the cardboard boxes that held...

    (pp. 191-198)

    As I conclude this exploration into the Q’eqchi’ imaginary and its embodiment in practice and perception, I reflect on the multiple and multifaceted fields of action through which internalized culture reveals itself in observable manifestations. I contemplate how metaphors of visibility, reciprocity, consumption, respect, and ownership are symbolic acts of morality that forge and maintain the Q’eqchi’ imaginary. I consider the primacy of ethnographic vérité, the intimate links between the global and local, the merging of method with theory, and the role of vision in maintaining power, authority, and cultural imaginaries. I pore over engaged types of ethnographic research that...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 199-212)
    (pp. 213-216)
    (pp. 217-234)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 235-242)