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Hermeneutic Communism, a local critique, or why Zabala and Vattimo are wrong regarding South America as model

by Ana Fernandez Miranda-Texidor


How and why did the thesis of Hermeneutic Communism fail in a South American context such as the Ecuadorian? What can we learn from art and ancestral spirituality that perhaps other disciplines are not showing us?

Key words: Hermeneutic, communism, interpretation, univocity, Eurocentric, weak thought, Being, nothing, metaphysics, nepantla, underneath, conocimiento, spirituality.


           I write this essay on the wake of Jair Bolsonaro's extreme right wing electoral victory in Brazil; by now, 2.3 million Venezuelans have left their country due to extreme poverty; the Citizens Revolution robbed the state of Ecuador of 70 million dollars paid in bribes to corrupt dealers. Perhaps this is the expected colophon to a well-announced death: Latin America blames the left for its wreckage and for, the well known now, turn to the far right.  In their work Hermeneutic Communism Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala propose as models for their thesis the governments of Chavez (Venezuela), Lula (Brazil), Correa (Ecuador) and Evo (Bolivia) in South America. In this paper I will argue that it is precisely in the theory where the main conflicts arise. In an attempt to explain what I consider the flaws of the theory itself I would argue that it purports a univocity, that is, a univocal interpretation that clearly goes against the grain of an extremely diverse pluricultural1 society such as the Ecuadorian.

          Vattimo and Zabala explain how a renewed interpretation of communism and hermeneutics could possibly mean a new role model, which, according to them, would bring social wellbeing to the countries where it is applied.  The praxis of these models has shown us that those same subjectivities that could have been politicized and empowered were harmed by authoritative implementations of the theory. The main problem with the philosophical layout lies not in its premise, which could be right, but in the belief that it could work across the board. One sole interpretation would mean that other voices are silenced. There is after all a problem with the consideration that science and ‘facts’ are proofs of our being in the world and the tendency to measure and calculate things in a descriptive fashion tends to overpower other visions and ways of seeing this same world. Communism, Russian and Chinese interpretations of it at least, have been keen on facts and ‘scientific truths’. Heidegger would say: “Metaphysics is inquiry beyond or over beings, which aims to recover them as such and as a whole for our grasp.” (Heidegger 106) Metaphysics, in Heidegger’s view negates the nothing; that in the presence of anxiety we try to hide in the banality of incessant chatter, only proves it. Metaphysics denies the nothing with facts that seem to prove A truth.

           A new interpretation of communism would find itself in the predicament that it is a time to show 'productively' its ability to change the world. In Vattimo and Zabala’s parlance: "The task of philosophy today is not to describe such movement but rather to learn to interpret it productively.” (V&Z 5) The error might be precisely in its productive interpretation. The theory of hermeneutics from Heidegger, to Gadamer and Vattimo aims at new disclosures for old meanings. Marxism’s interpretation of the human being as labor power and thus as capital to be exploited may prove to be reductive to the extent that, there are other subjectivities and other Cosmologies in South America apart from the proletarian. Non-human and animistic conceptions of the world are at work here. It seems they might have not been taken into account in that hermeneutic interpretation.

          As they state at the beginning of their book, Vattimo and Zabala will not refer to the Soviet Union or Chinese models of communism but rather to the "South American (democratically elected) communist governments, which are determined to defend the interests of their weakest citizens. We believe this is the region of the world that best represents the communism of the twenty-first century." (V&Z 5) In this statement it seems to be implied that these governments really were knowledgeable of the theory behind their vision. Vattimo and Zabala’s definition of hermeneutics is not the traditional interpretation of the hidden meanings of biblical or judiciary texts, but, in their own words: “hermeneutics instead struggles for conflicts of interpretations, that is, against the conservation of natural laws, values and principles.” (V&Z 6) The risk that arises from such a theoretical notion is that when practiced in a large scale, the governments employing it, seem to forgo all other interpretations, giving way then to a one voice, one law type of state.  The same metaphysics they are trying to escape absorbs them and turns them into the purveyors of truth, dialogue and realism; conversation and interpretation long gone, the excluded subjectivities turn into the first detractors of the theory.

           In the Ecuadorian case many communities were excluded from the practicalities of the experiment because they began sensing its authoritative and totalitarian intentions, especially in the terrains of art, spirituality and education. Other voices that might have held different views or approaches to the topic from the trenches of the indigenous and social movements in general, challenged the univocity of this notion of Hermeneutic Communism.

Weak thought and Hermeneutic Communism

          According to Heidegger the term hermeneutics refers to the excavating of semantic layers in certain words and concepts that were perhaps long gone in order to elicit new meanings for present questionings. In Heidegger's words: “If the question of Being is to achieve clarity regarding its own history, a loosening of the sclerotic tradition and a dissolving of the concealments brought by it are necessary.” (Heidegger 66) In other words a destructuring of the ideas and preconceived precepts that we have come to accept as unmovable. Heidegger himself talks about the possibilities of Being only in its perception of the nothing, only when being is held out to the nothing it becomes a Being: “Being itself is essentially finite and reveals itself only in the transcendence of Da-sein which is held out into the nothing” (Heidegger 108). Now, being held out into the nothing, the rare moments that anxiety allows us to perceive this uneasiness, because we cannot live in it at all times, lets us grasp the nihilation, the negation that is death. Death, which is nature, and so denying or running away from death he would deny himself. As Georges Bataille writes: “For the man who negates nature could not in any way live outside of it, he is not merely a man who negates Nature, he is first of all an animal, that is to say the very thing he negates: he cannot therefore negate Nature without negating himself.” (192). That is where Marx with its materialism and the denial of (death) the spirit, is an antithesis to ancestral indigenous beliefs. And perhaps this is why neither hermeneutics with its authoritative one voice interpretation, nor communism with its disregard for spirituality could really offer respite or alternatives to these South American countries. Because Marxist ideas are indeed preoccupied overall with the being laborer, with a constant worry about the means of production that leave aside other interpretations by other cosmologies. These other interpretations take into account Being in the sense that Heidegger interprets Being, not at all the well being of beings but Being that is held out into the nothing: Dasein. In that sense we will see how this Dasein as being held out in to the nothing has all to do with that anxiety given to beings in the voyage of the sacred plants, plantas maestras2.

          Vattimo and Zabala write: “If Marxist philosophers until now have failed to change the world, it isn't because their political approach was wrong but rather because it was framed within the metaphysical tradition.” (V&Z 1) In this metaphysical tradition Vattimo and Zabala make reference to what Heidegger himself calls metaphysics:

Only because the nothing is manifest can science make beings themselves objects of investigation. Only if science exists on the basis of metaphysics can it advance further in its essential task, which is not to amass and classify bits of knowledge but to disclose in ever-renewed fashion the entire region of truth in nature and history. (Heidegger 109)

And they mention metaphysics as a tradition to which philosophers like John Searle and Fukuyama adhere, bringing all reason to the doings of capitalism in what Vattimo and Zabala call ‘framed democracies.’3 Explaining how hermeneutics can provide a new interpretation of communism, they are able to lay down the fabric of a very interesting, although not so novel idea (since Enrique Dussel had already talked about it in the Philosophy of Liberation in 1985) of the possibilities of what they call “weakened communism” one that does not support violent revolts: This is how they describe it:

Unlike Alain Badiou, Antonio Negri, and other contemporary Marxist theorists, we do not believe [in] the twenty-first century calls for revolution because the forces of the politics of descriptions are too powerful, violent, and oppressive to be overcome by a parallel insurrection: only such a weak thought as hermeneutics can avoid violent ideological revolts and therefore defend the weak. (V&Z 3)

This could be accomplished, they contend, within a fabric of alterations and organic changes that would have, they believe, lasting effects. Exposing their ideas of weak thought Vattimo and Zabala introduce us into a very important and poignant terrain. Of course metaphysical thought has been the thought of the winners, those who have written History, but the weak, which have nowadays become the vast majority of the population of planet Earth, are not those who write history. As Vattimo and Zabala put it: “While metaphysics, or which is the same, the politics of descriptions is the philosophy of the winners who wish to conserve the world as it is, the weak thought of hermeneutics becomes the thought of the weak in search of alternatives.” (V&Z 2) In this line of thinking the notion of weak thought as developed by Vattimo talks about the respect of minorities, differences, and especially the weak. In their own parlance “It is important to emphasize that the negative connotation of the term “weak” does not allude to a failure of thinking as such but rather to the consequences of the transformation of thought brought about by the end of metaphysics, hence as a possibility of emancipation” (V&Z 97) Weak then refers to those who do not control the means of production, who are left out and do not have a voice in the media, who are continually discriminated and unheard. They define the weak as “the discharge of capitalism, that is of metaphysical realism, and they are what Heidegger called 'Being'; Derrida, the 'margins of philosophy'; and Walter Benjamin, 'the tradition of the oppressed.'” (V&Z 7) Being in this case is the one who is able to ontologically reflect upon itself, the one on the margins of society, the one left behind, people who nowadays populate the slums of the world: immigrants, racialized women, indigenous and African descent populations, in sum three-quarters of the world.

            Framed democracies are what Vattimo and Zabala call those democracies in which an asymmetric dialogue prevails in order to establish a one sided truth. It is important to say that in the theory of Hermeneutic Communism, an ethic of interpretation should prevail, and the voices of many should be allowed to emerge: “As we will see, the foundation of truth through dialogue fixes thought within framed democracy: a conservative moralized order where the democratic is only what legally enters the order established by metaphysics.” (V&Z 19) Instead, in conversation many voices emerge, a polyphonic search of tones is in place.

          If conversation, as Vattimo and Zabala say, is the path for an active hermeneutics there is a possibility that these conversations could lead to anarchism and disorder. And they add: “While the inevitable conflict that takes place in a conversation refers to a latent anarchism, relativism and weakness of thought, dialogues impositions instead require a realism capable of conserving political order.” (V&Z 19) This is in effect the disorder that is not possible for states to consent to, because it may signify a letting go of control. This is where the “fact searcher” in all of us, and more specifically as part of these governments, comes to revert those fine ideas.  In Vattimo and Zabala's own words: "Unlike in description, for which reality must be imposed, interpretation instead, must make a new contribution to reality." (V&Z 4) In effect, interpretation may come from anyone, but a clearing is needed in order for that interpretation to matter. In other words, it is important as Heidegger says to “let beings be as the beings which they are” (Heidegger 125).  If not, a Socratic dialectic of sorts in which the master declares his truth and the slave admits its truthfulness, takes place. Paradoxically it is Vattimo and Zabala themselves who expose the downfalls of it: “Principally through the use of dialogue as the ‘moralization of politics’, that is as the apparently peaceful exchange of opinions—but, as we know, even Plato's exemplary dialogues aimed to conduct one of the two interlocutors (often the slave) to recognize the truth that the other already knew from the beginning." (V&Z 19) The clearing I make reference to is a safe place where thinking and dissenting can find solace. There is no conversation possible without such space or locus for it to happen.

          The communism that Vattimo and Zabala propose is not a violent revolt, instead it is a weakened communism, in which alterations are to take place within democracies that are not framed in the metaphysics of logic and science. They propose a government made in consensus that watches over its weakest, and lends voice to all its differences. It is a welfare state that offers social security to its people, health, education and well being, as the Ecuadorian Citizens Revolution would call it: the "Sumak Kawsay", appropriating a Kichwa phrase that means "Living well".  All this would be done in a "weak" manner, with alterations that in some way reflect the architecture of slums and favelas, weakly, thus tying interpretation to the end of metaphysics. Vattimo and Zabala write:

In sum, weak thought becomes a (strong) theory of weakening as an interpretative sense of history, a sense that reveals itself as emancipative because of the enemies it has attracted. Weak thought can only be the thought of the weak, certainly not of the dominating classes, who have always worked to conserve and leave unquestioned the established order of the world. (V&Z 96)

In short, a sufficiently good utopia turned praxis. To explain this interpretation of communism Vattimo and Zabala talk about the failed turns of both capitalism and communism and its fact based view of the world: "To soviet communism absolute scientific claims, capitalism opposed the truth of market laws. Both these ideological positions, with all their concrete political implications, were outcomes of absolute philosophies of history dominated by the idea of development." (V&Z 114) They both had metaphysical principles dominating their discourses, so it is important to bring a turn through hermeneutics, an interpretation of a weakened communism so as to be able to move ‘molecularly’4 towards change and conversation. The idea of "the impossibility of overcoming metaphysics while at the same time establishing the capacity to live without legitimization and grounding values." (V&Z 97), this is where the enchantment of the theory lives.

          Having said this, we have also seen the disenchantment that the theory may bring when proven unable to be applied to the practicalities of everyday life. We are after all human and thus, fully unpredictable. What happened to the European left also happened to its South American version. Vattimo and Zabala explain the disenchantment in Europe in this way: "But the left that referred to communism underwent a process of corruption, leaving the left unrecognizable to its own followers, as recent electoral results in various states in Europe have demonstrated, by bringing to power right-wing governments in Germany, France and England." (V&Z 118) This idea implies that a South American government of the newly invented Socialism of the XXI century would provide the thrills that no other framed democracy would in these times. The exoticized notion of a country where things are 'emerging' in a way that Europe doesn't see any longer brings on a version of things that tends to follow a performative pattern ready to please the Eurocentric view. As Levi-Strauss would so candidly say:

Being human signifies, for each one of us, belonging to a class, a society, a country, a continent, and a civilization: and for us European earth dwellers, the adventure played out in the heart of the New World signifies in the first place that it was not our world and that we bear the responsibility for the crime of its destruction; and secondly that there will never be another New World. (Levi-Strauss 393)

In reality much is different from the idyllic version of life in this New World that is imagined and is still fantasized upon.  It seems like the chronicle of an announced death. Urgent reinterpretation must happen, and it probably should come from a critic from our own cultures.


From Heidegger to Marx and from Dussel to Anzaldúa

          Other philosophers from the global south have thought the problems of the weak of the earth, from Enrique Dussel's brilliant Philosophy of Liberation to Gloria Anzaldúa's Decolonial Feminism. These visions challenge the latter categories of thought because they no longer think beings as such in their Eurocentric definition, but expand the concept to Other subjectivities and “alternative epistemologies” (Anzaldúa 32) with a critique from a local point of view. As Dussel would say it: "The trans-modern conversation is between critics of their own culture and from the critical resources of their own cultures." (Dussel 3)  

          In the seventies Theology of liberation already was on the path of a new vision which grew from communist ideas and the animist ancestral traditions of commonality and notions of love and recognition of the Other (in the sense of Levinas). That is why Dussel incurs in a sharp criticism of the Eurocentric understanding of Abya-Yala’s5 time. He says:

 The peripheral world will never be able to be “developed”, nor “center”, nor “late”. Its path is another. Its alternative is different. What is not taken into account in this Eurocentric ideology is that there is no such “before”. Since 1492 the periphery is not a “before” but an “underneath”: the exploited, the dominated, the origin of stolen wealth, accumulated in the dominating exploiting center. (Dussel 5)

          This ‘underneath’ is a category developed by Anzaldúa in her concept of alternative epistemology, an approach to a cosmology from the peoples of the Americas. The ‘nepantla’6 or third space is conformed to inhabit such a difficult borderline as is the mestizo culture, always in between worlds. Her vision could help us discover an interpretation of commonality instead of communism or capitalism that could truly be a way for peoples of the Abya-Yala to overcome the capitalist vicious cycle of eternal crisis and inhabit systems that are more in tune with a sustainable caring for the Paccha Mama or territory. Visions as those of Anzaldúa and the shamanic traditions of healing bring a different concept of ‘conocimiento’:

Perceiving something from two different angles creates a split in awareness that can lead to the ability to control perception, to balance contemporary society’s worldview with the non-ordinary worldview, and to move between them to a space that simultaneously exist and does not exist. (Anzaldúa 28)

This space is no longer imposed as a central univocal narrative from the governments and holders of power, but one that is indigenous to the land and works for smaller communities in harmony with their guardian spirits and knowledge of sacred plants and rituals. It is interesting to read though, how Vattimo and Zabala think Hermeneutic communism could give such space to those Other, as they say: “Without venturing into a comparative anthropological analysis of different cultural models, South American socialism appears to be the realm in which a possible alternative to the dominant capitalist vision of the world can take place, because it is not framed within a disciplinary, or as we have called it throughout this book, metaphysical vision of the world.” (V&Z 135) It was, in fact, the other non-metaphysical subjectivities where the notion of ancestral shamanism and spirituality is still alive, that were silenced. Attached to the popular cultures and communal experiences is that sense or conocimiento to be gathered and relished for the well being of all.

           It is told in the Chronicles of Guamán Poma de Ayala7, and the old Kichwas confirm it, that Atahualpa, lord of the Inca nation in Kitu was taken hostage by the Spaniards for a ransom of one room full of silver and one full of gold. The conquistadors received the rooms filled with gold and silver but later killed Atahualpa anyway. They beheaded, dismembered him and then proceeded to spread his limbs to the four corners of the earth. Says the myth that the tribes of these four corners of the earth have to recover those limbs and voyage to put them back together. This myth is very similar to Anzaldúa’s “imperative” of Coyolxauhqui which is to heal and achieve integration.  When fragmentations occur, she says, “you fall apart and feel as though you’ve been expelled from paradise. Coyolxauhqui is my symbol for the necessary process of dismemberment and fragmentation, of seeing that self or the situations you’re embroiled in differently. (Anzaldúa 20)

           It was dismemberment, in fact, what the whole region experienced as the conquest took place, and its contemporary processes cannot be separated from that traumatic experience of collective fragmentation. The ancestral rituals that still take place in the indigenous traditions, nowadays more and more popular within mestizo culture, offer a way to put together those very old notions or conocimiento that was almost wiped out in the conquest. Groups that live in the Amazonian jungle have recovered the knowledge of animism, the respect for the non-human, the master plant teachings and farming the land sustainably. The voices of the tribes and mestizo cultures are many and they do not conform to one interpretation, they are always shifting. Thus, the negative to accept one sole way of doing things, in the model of the Citizens Revolution, was to be expected.

           The 2008 constitution of Ecuador recognizes Nature its own rights, and the non-contacted peoples of the Amazon the right to remain so. Article 57 cites:

The territories of the peoples in voluntary isolation are of irreducible and intangible ancestral possession, and in them all types of extractive activity will be banned. The state will take measures to guarantee their lives, enforce their self-determination and will to remain in isolation, and safeguard the observance of their rights. The violation of these rights will constitute a crime of ethnocide that will be typified by law.8

It is the nature of Socialism of the XXI century to try to usher “development”, by creating work, education and health for all. Nevertheless this way of imposing is what I have referred to as an authoritative interpretation and an univocal assumption that all human beings are equal and we all must need the same to be happy and fulfilled.

          As the last year of the government of Correa approached, his administration tried to silence the concerns of thousands of people who wanted to preserve the Yasuní reserve from being exploited for oil. Yasuní is the territory of people in voluntary isolation. The Socialist government was oblivious to their concerns, and more so, to the welfare of those beings human and non-human. Social movements were dismantled, political parties erased. The social tissue was cut out and polarization became the norm. Divide and conquer was the strategy. The indigenous movements were used in a metonymic9 manner as trampolines to acquire power just to be later discarded. Women were vilified, and their role seemed to be there only to uphold masculine hegemonies. In a few words, all the fabric of society was torn apart, dismembered.

Opera Onowoka and 1 x 1000

            Two artist’s voices bear witness to the failure of Hermeneutic Communism as a theoretical proposal with serious and problematic flaws. Their work throws in evidence how a lack of ethical stance towards social movements and indigenous peoples, greedy politics and plain nearsightedness on the part of the Socialism of the XXI century governments, have pulled the region into profound conflicts and helped detouring it into the hands of the new far right.

          The work of artists Saskia Calderón and Willman Chicha focus on the dramatic effects the policies of such governments had in the peoples of the Amazon, specifically the Tagaeri, Waorani and Xiona tribes. Each pueblo is or has been part of the vision these two artists have on the excruciating battle of the indigenous animistic conception of the world brought against these other notion of development through an imagined well being for all.

           In Opera Onowoka artist Saskia Calderon explores through performance a Tagaeri-Taromenane technique of vocalization that is induced through vomiting, much in the way the Amazonian tribes learn and get purified with the ancestral teaching plants “plantas maestras” through induced vomit. In a void white cube context, where Saskia is wearing a white dress, her face painted with white lines, she introduces her hand in her mouth and provokes vomit, which then she expels through her mouth as a black liquid that has the appearance of petroleum oil.  She repeats the operation over and over again. In this case the master plant is not working through her, but a very toxic substance. Consciousness or conocimiento will not be unconcealed to her, but, with time, illness. Her critique is directed to the governments oil processing that cuts open the body of the Paccha Mama and extracts her blood producing great harm to the communities that live from its bounty. She uses the attributes of western art: white cube, minimal economies of gaze, performativity as understood in the cannon of contemporary art, as well as the attributes of the Tagaeri-Taromenane tribes, face-paint and vomit induced chanting. In the words of Anzaldúa:

Chamanas, curanderas, artists, and spiritual activists, like nepantleras, are liminal people, at the threshold of form, forever betwixt and between. They move among different realities and psychic states, journeying beyond the natural order or status quo and into other worlds. (Anzaldúa 31)

Calderón’s performance although a strong critique to the feats of the then government of the Citizen’s Revolution, did not have much incidence in the real world outside of the artistic realm. She works from the ethnological perspective, one in which Levi-Strauss’s words resonate: “A few hundred years hence, in this same place, another traveler as despairing as myself, will mourn the disappearance of what I might have seen, but failed to see.” (Levi-Strauss 43) Most audiences did not really grasp what she was talking about. This, in the words of artist Wilman Chicha, is one of the reasons why he stopped making art:

I saw that contemporary art does not have any real incidence in what is going on in the world of these tribes. If we do not do anything about it, at least what is in our hands, learning through the knowledge of the Shamans and leaving a life close to the territory or the land, we will still feed the same paradigm we are trying to surpass. (Chicha 1).

His criticism towards his own work 1 x 1000 shows the commitment he has for a path that he has decided to take, that of learning the ancestral way of life, in harmony with the territory and the sacred medicine Yagé. He does not consider himself an artist any longer, nor does he believe in the artist as seer or shaman, but he works cultivating the land, helping the younger heal and recording the everydayness of the Xionas in the northern regions of the Ecuadorian Amazon forest. His critique points towards the socialist regime of Correa, but then he also states that no system communist or capitalist has an answer for the cataclysm we are approaching: “Only spirituality that is everywhere, but we have forgotten how to perceive it, could show us the way. We need the knowledge of the Shamans in order to be able to learn from it again” he says. (Chicha 3)

          The voyage that is presented in the ceremonial teachings of sacred plants, lets the seer look and discover Being and consciousness. Anzaldúa talks about the chiasm between western and non-western ways of knowledge. She writes: “Science denies reality to fantasy because scientific belief sees only the literal as real.” (Anzaldúa 37) Statement that coincides with what Heidegger said about science: “The presumed soberness of mind and superiority of science become laughable when it does not take the nothing seriously.” (Heidegger 109). In Heidegger’s thought Da-sein is being held out into the nothing, which permits being-there to pose the question about Being. There is a moment in the ceremony of the teacher plant where this being held out into the nothing appears clear, as a ‘conocimiento’ or consciousness through an altered state of anxiety that brings being-there into the realm of Being. It is this no-place a locus of communion with “phusis” as understood by the Greeks, nature as part of one and one as part of nature. It is effectively the encounter with the negation of Death that brings beings to that almost unconceivable perception of Being. The consciousness opened in these altered states of mind and body is not the concept of “Natura” that the Latins understood, in which man is superior over all beings and dominates nature; “Phusis” instead is the force of nature within and without. The domination of nature, which is what the global North has been engaged in since “Lex Natura” with its metaphysical connotations has ruled. It is this concept of domination that clashes with a perception of nature within and without, human and non-human that some indigenous groups still hold.  Notwithstanding the similar understanding Heidegger and the voyage with the sacred teacher plants share, Heidegger is still a philosopher of language, as he says: ‘Because plants and animals are lodged in their respective environments but are never placed freely in the clearing of Being which alone is “world,” they lack language.” (Heidegger 230) I would contend that the effects of the plant in the human body entice a communication with nature that reveals the ‘language’ of plants and animals to Being.

           It seems as if the notion of “letting beings be” might be what Hermeneutic Communism proposes. Nevertheless in one of their models the Ecuadorian government of Rafael Correa’s speech argued that the exploitation of mines and gas oil is needed for the development of the nation. He justified the extraction of oil and minerals from territories occupied by indigenous people. He held the well being of some Ecuadorians, over the well being of indigenous peoples. Which is where the discourse of the weak by Vattimo and Zabala falls apart. Although they suggest that: “Contrary to metaphysical conservative realism, hermeneutic communism allows other cultures to suggest different visions of the world, visions not yet framed within the logic of production, profit and dominion.” (V&Z 138) The evidence shows us otherwise.

            Before his withdrawal from the contemporary art world Chicha worked on the 1 x 1000 series. A group of one thousand photographs taken from diverse mestizo individuals fully costumed in Waorani attire, arch, arrows, a piece of liana or thread to tie around the waist which at the same time holds the prepuce for men, a single liana or thread for women, various face ritual decorations and other accoutrements. The models where propped against a red background, the photographer was the only clothed individual in the room, thus bringing an element of scopophilia to the scene. The artist appropriated the attributes of the Waorani tribe to bring these individuals to literally put themselves in the shoes or clothes of the Other, in order fro them to intuit what might feel to be the face or the mask of exteriority. Which reminds us of Dussel’s words:

Suddenly the glassy stare of the instrumentalized is transformed into a penetrating gaze. It is not a stare that objectifies the one at whom it is directed, but a look that personalizes; it is the look that makes one responsible for the liberation of the face that poses itself to rejection and demands justice. It is the demanding look that gives rise to mercy, justice, rebellion, revolution, liberation. (Dussel 63)

It is in this gaze that the artist recognizes his fate as he was able to see the face of the Other. Such is the power of that gaze that when confronted with that exteriority through the sacred medicine he feels unable to go on as before. What he describes is the strife of “being held out into the nothing” (Heidegger 103) as an event where he has had to let go of the ego trip of the artist to see what truly means to know the nothing. There he feels interpellated by the sacred plant, as if he was being asked for an account of his own anxieties and it is on that sense that he experiences the fear of looking at death in the eye, a void where he feels a need to respond for the use of the attributes of the Other in the context of the art world. It seems as if the great ideas and explorations that occur outside of such context, need to be kept outside of it. This attitude might produce in some way a decolonization of the gaze and the perception.

He criticizes relentlessly what he considers his last series:

It has no importance, he says, it’s a frivolous, almost disrespectful gesture, a total lack of knowledge of the symbols and the attributes, just a masquerade, for those symbols and cultural objects have a profound significance that artists in the contemporary art world use in whichever way they see fit. Although it awoke debate and important conversations and controversy, in the very end it didn’t have any repercussion beyond cultural appropriation and for that the sacred medicine has made me respond. (Chicha 4)

 To this statement I must add that I do believe in the power of artists as seers and shamans, even if they themselves don’t see it. I agree with Anzaldúa’s vision that in western societies artists might act like the Promethean myth, stealing the fire from the God and following their own ego and limitations; instead, “In other stories, the artist surrenders to the creative process, the creative urge –in other words to god– and allows the story/artwork to be channeled through her.” (Anzaldúa 40) The western capitalist art world purports an ego driven search for trends and stardom; instead a spiritually driven search from mestizo or indigenous artists (and other artists in the world as well) is deepened in that creative urge that allows spirit to be revealed. As seers and shamans they might bring a different vision into their communities, to make present the understanding of an-Other way of living in Planet Earth. By an-Other way I mean a way of becoming-beings within a consciousness of the negation we live in and aware of the face of the Other at all times; one with nature as phusis, respectful of animal, plants, soil and all other human and non-human entities.

          I am aware of the criticality this view of a world might encounter. It does not stem from a reactionary position of privilege against the needs of the proletarian majority. It is the vision that a handful of artists and philosophers or shamans have decided to follow in light of an imminent cataclysm of unprecedented projections. It is a path of mending and healing the wounds of Mother Earth through awareness of the nothing that engulfs us, and the fine line that unites us earthlings of all species throughout our body-spirit-consciousness.


          As we have seen throughout this essay, the models that Vattimo and Zabala propose as examples of how Hermeneutic Communism works in South America, have failed profoundly. I argued that it is in the theory where the thesis fails since hermeneutics requires univocity, that is, a univocal interpretation that goes against the grain of an extremely diverse pluricultural society such as the Ecuadorian. Moreover communism upholds the idea that it is in the means of production and the proletariat where the revolution must occur, always conceiving the indigenous and other social movements as metonymies that follow suit.

          Furthermore, what seems to be the problem with such an interpretation is that it paradoxically remains metaphysical in its perception that one such elucidation could work for all communities no matter how different. If the theory supports truly interpretation then we would have needed a polyphonic debate happening throughout the territories: decentralized communitarian people's governments implementing their own practical necessities. However, since one vertical disposition to apply this interpretation was used, it annulled all other voices, descent was asphyxiated, and entire communities were silenced. This said, we are to ask ourselves if it is really possible for hermeneutics or interpretation to remain open to other voices in conversation, or if it is its nature to stand as the only authorized voice. The same metaphysics they are trying to escape absorbs them and turns them into the purveyors of truth, dialogue and realism; other conversations and interpretations are extinguished. As a result the excluded subjectivities turn into the resentful detractors of the theory.

          The practical responses from the models used by Vattimo and Zabala are not at all beneficial to the theory. Even if Hermeneutic communism could be applied as a model for government, such a proposal vertically installed by state disposition with its metaphysical methodology cannot be implemented in communities who have lived in trade, sacred rituals and animistic harmony with nature. The authoritarian configuration it ushers, with decrees and laws that come from a technocrat’s desk in the city, not by the praxis of communities made in their own territories, tends to fail as alarmingly as the capitalist market economy has failed to “trickle richness” from above.

           The voices of philosophers and artists from the local perspective give us a different light over the application of Eurocentric views to a territory that is completely different as Enrique Dussel says, and comports a notion of ‘underneath’ (Dussel 5) in it, that escapes the categories of European modernity. Gloria Anzaldúas vision of ‘nepantla’ a third space for mestizaje to live between worlds, in transition, is also a valid vehicle to understand such a complex territory. Unique notions of spirituality that are in themselves non-metaphysical are present in the work of the two artists in this essay. Their voices are a manifestation of the importance of animistic conceptions of Being and cosmologies of a decentralized non-human ground. In this sense, the spiritual conception of the peoples of the Amazon regards Being in a Heideggerian sense “as held out into the nothing”, in its encounter with life and death within the conocimiento through sacred rituals and teachings. It seems that consciousness is not able to come from governments and lawful decrees but from the questions of Being titself, close to the territory and spirituality that is available as part of a pertinence and presence in it. For this reasons, because I see a tautological problem with trying to escape metaphysics with a sole interpretation, and spirituality missing from Marxist materialistic philosophy I believe Hermeneutic communism is not a suitable thesis for South American countries.

          However critical of Hermeutic Communism, I am not advocating ‘the alternative’ progressive development that capitalism offers; both systems, flawed as they have been proven to be, offer no way out for the singularities that different subjectivities are.  Furthermore, the visions that the right or left propose are all framed within a system that dominates nature and adheres to the civilizing paradigm. If we choose to un-frame ourselves from it following spiritual paths that are available to us from Other subjectivities and visions we might enter into that place that Heidegger talks about: being-there. If we choose to turn off the incessant chatter that prevents us from perceiving the nothing, we might be nearest than near.

          The western tradition of poet philosophers encounters then the non-western tradition of consciousness or conocimiento through ritual and sacred medicine. It is the artist-philosopher the Shaman of western societies who could mend the broken fabric of humanity re-membering in some way the Atahualpa myth that searches to bring together his scattered limbs. After all, no matter how different, we are tribes of the earth. In Anzaldúa’s words:

We attempt to heal cultural ‘sustos’10 resulting from the trauma of colonial abuses fragmenting our psyches. Pitched into states of nepantla, we step through the gates of change. Fragments and contradictions are stirred en la olla and cooked to a new soup. During this process, the ego/I’s will is ousted as the self’s sole authority. (Anzaldúa 91)

It might be a possibility for artists and chamanas as Anzaldúa calls us to experience that ‘being held out into the nothing’ or nepantla, and help ourselves re-member the broken limbs, mend and sew together the patchwork of Earth. But we might have to descend to the depths of anxiety and touch upon that nothingness that is death, the Coyolxauhqui imperative upon us, in order to gather our conocimiento again, to drag it outside of the trips of the ego and the fancy tentacles of the art world.


1.     Pluricultural is the name given by the 2008 Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador to the diversity of nationalities or cultures inhabiting the territory. 2008 Constitution of Ecuador
2.     “Plantas maestras” or Teacher sacred plants are plants like Yagé and San Pedro which bring consciousness or conocimiento when taken within ceremonial contexts.
3.     Framed Democracies is what Vattimo and Zabala call those democracies in which science has fulfilled “its liberal essence and its ideal of objectivity” Vattimo Gianni, Zabala Santiago, hermeneutic Communism
4.     Molecular refers to Deleuze and Guattari’s flexible nature of war machines. Deleuze Gilles, Guattari Felix, One Thousand Plateaus
5.     Abya-Yala is the name given by the Inka nation to the territories that went from Patagonia in the South to Alaska in the North
6.     Nepantla is what Gloria Anzaldúa calls a “third space” between the Mestizo Chicano world and the Anglo-European world. Anzaldúa Gloria, Light in the Dark
7.     Guamán Poma de Ayala, Felipe, Chronicler of the Inka nation. Cronica del Buen Gobierno
8.     Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador 2008, article 57
9.     Metonimy as used by Ernesto Laclau to refer to the indigenous movement in Ecuador and its relationship with the government of Rafael Correa. Ernesto Laclau interviewed by Mauro Cerbino Marxism and Populism
10.   “Sustos” or scares, is the term which Anzaldúa uses to name anxiety or fear.


Anzaldúa, Gloria. Light in the Dark, Duke University Press, Durham and London 2015

Bataille, Georges. ‘Hegel, Death and Sacrifice’ in Hegel and Continental Philosophy edited by Dennis King Keenan, State University of New York Press 2004

Dussel, Enrique. The Invention of the Americas, Eclipse of the Other and the myth of modernity, The Continuum Publishing Company, New York 1995

Heidegger, Martin. “What is Metaphysics” in Basic Writings, Harper Collins Publishers 1977

Levi-Strauss, Claude. Tristes Tropiques, trans. by John and Doreen Weightman, Penguin Books, London 1955

Marx, Karl. Capital, A new abridgement, World's Classics, Oxford University Press, Oxford New York 1995

Taussig, Michael. What color is the sacred? The University of Chicago Press, London 2009

Vattimo Gianni, Zabala Santiago, Hermeneutic Communism, From Heidegger to Marx. Columbia University Pres, New York 2011

Calderón, Saskia Opera Waorani, performance 2015

Chicha, Willman, Interview with the artist, October 2018. 1 x 1000, photography 2014

Constitution of the State of Ecuador 2008, Article 57

Artist Saskia Calderón,  Opera Onowoka , Performance, 2015

Artist Saskia Calderón, Opera Onowoka, Performance, 2015

Artist Wilman Chicha , 1 x 1000  photographic installation 2014

Artist Wilman Chicha, 1 x 1000 photographic installation 2014