Embers of the Past: Essays in Times of Decolonization


Embers of the Past is a powerful critique of historicism and modernity. Javier Sanjinés C. analyzes the conflict between the cultures and movements of indigenous peoples and attention to the modern nation-state in its contemporary Latin American manifestations. He contends that indigenous movements have introduced doubt into the linear course of modernity, reopening the gap between the symbolic and the real. Addressing this rupture, Sanjines argues that scholars must rethink their temporal categories. Toward ...
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Embers of the Past: Essays in Times of Decolonization

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Embers of the Past is a powerful critique of historicism and modernity. Javier Sanjinés C. analyzes the conflict between the cultures and movements of indigenous peoples and attention to the modern nation-state in its contemporary Latin American manifestations. He contends that indigenous movements have introduced doubt into the linear course of modernity, reopening the gap between the symbolic and the real. Addressing this rupture, Sanjines argues that scholars must rethink their temporal categories. Toward that end, he engages with recent events in Latin America, particularly in Bolivia, and with Latin American intellectuals, as well as European thinkers disenchanted with modernity. Sanjinés dissects the concepts of the homogeneous nation and linear time, and insists on the need to reclaim the indigenous subjectivities still labeled "premodern" and excluded from the production, distribution, and organization of knowledge.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Embers of the Past is a major statement on nation-building and nation deconstruction. Arguing that the construction of nations on the bases of modernity and linear history facilitated the rise of Europeans and the decline of Latin American communities, Javier Sanjinés C. unravels not only those concepts but also others including Eurocentrism, capitalism, multitude, indio, criollo, leterado, and iletrado. He calls for the disarticulation of Western thinking and metaphors, the debunking of 'universalism' and 'progress.'"—Ileana Rodríguez, author of Liberalism at Its Limits: Crime and Terror in the Latin American Cultural Text

"In Embers of the Past, Javier C. Sanjinés takes as his point of departure the problems of modernity and Western models of development in present-day Bolivia. Yet this fascinating book can be usefully applied in any society with a significant subalternized or racialized population. Sanjinés reveals ethnicity as a complex process of reworking and reinventing culture, a process that relates the present with the ancestral past in more composite ways than one would have imagined."—Arturo Arias, author of Taking Their Word: Literature and the Signs of Central America

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822354444
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 9/30/2013
  • Series: Latin America Otherwise Series
  • Pages: 248
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Javier Sanjinés C. is Professor of Latin American Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of Michigan. He is the author of books including Mestizaje Upside-Down: Aesthetic Politics in Modern Bolivia.

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Essays in Times of Decolonization


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5476-5



It is time to go beyond elitist representations of mestizaje; beyond discursive modifications, made from the vantage point of power—as in Mexico and Bolivia, with their nationalist conceptions of mestizaje, which have turned it into a fixed, reality-homogenizing concept. Today, there is a need to complicate mestizaje with the shifting syntax of recent migrations, deepening the process of fragmentary multicultures. In what follows, I will explain this process through an important example from the modern Andes.

The Peruvian literary critic Antonio Cornejo Polar saw his fellow Peruvian, the indigenista writer José María Arguedas, as juggling mestizaje with transculturation. In his book Los universos narrativos de José María Arguedas (1997: 227–266), Cornejo Polar argues that in Arguedas's tragic posthumous novel, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (1973; translated as The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below, 2000), the character named Asto—a migrant from predominantly indigenous highland Peru to one of the country's booming coastal cities—never fully assimilates into modernity, nor does he comfortably adapt to the historical time of modernity.

A peripheral modern, the migrant Asto never entirely ceases to be a migrant, not even after he permanently settles in his new space and modifies it in his own image and likeness, because behind him, he always has the experience of his origins—not his recent past, but the more distant "ruins," which force him to see reality from a different perspective, in conflict with the forward-looking, rectilinear gaze of modernity.

Is the migrant's itinerant life a displacement, a spatial-temporal change that complicates the stability which narratives of identity grant to mestizaje? Cornejo Polar seems to think so. He relates itinerancy to the lack of a fixed center that is the hallmark of the mestizaje metaphor. According to Cornejo Polar, the migrant loses his totalizing sense, which, as a worldview, restrains mestizaje as an organic representation of reality. When the migrant loses his roots through his itinerancy, his reality also suffers an enormous loss of coherence and organicity. Itinerancy elicits a hodgepodge of signs, which, hailing from ancient, ancestral times, invoke in their very confusion new situations of instability and disorder. Put another way: while the mestizo class in power strives to organize its complicated social and discursive order toward clear political ends, subjecting it to a search for an identity that is as homogeneous as it is brittle, the migrant seems to let his erratic behavior throw reality into disorder, contaminating everything.

This disorderly displacement explains the behavior of the outstanding examples of highland migrants in Arguedas's novel, which contrasts the alienation they encounter in the city with the authenticity of a past that stubbornly and violently refuses to disappear altogether. It isn't the immediate past, the so-called historical past, that we are called on here to recover, but rather the mythic past, which is rehabilitated by the complex and conflictive characters who inhabit this open and inconclusive novel. Their stories are multiple, told by multiple voices, among which the presence of myth and magic is fundamental. Indeed, the alternation between present and mythic past, the coming and going between randomly eventful modern life and the world of ancient memory, expresses the impossibility of moving ahead on one level without settling some scores on the other. And when two worlds of unequal power and prestige come into contact, a culture conflict takes place that is basic to an understanding of the narrative. Let's look at one revealing passage about this conflict, the spatial-temporal struggle that Cornejo Polar observes in this novel.

Asto, one of many highland migrants who go down to the coast en masse, arrives in the boom town of Chimbote dazzled by legends of its wealth. Chimbote is the reality with which Arguedas confronts him. Understanding it—a new and intricate city, a cutting-edge city—is a real challenge. He must become familiar with its disorder and diversity. Here, the immediate past, close to the migrant's recent history or memory, grows feeble and recedes when confronted with all the opportunities that the present offers him. Chimbote, a no-man's-land, a borderland city, a myth of the dispossessed, represents the possibility of radical change. This change is underwritten by the high wages that capitalist industry offers the migrant. But the city does not only enlighten and attract; it also burns and kills. Nothing is guaranteed. The only sure thing is that migrating means betting on change.

Adapting to the norms for behavior in this new sociocultural reality, Asto doesn't shrink before this challenge; on the contrary, he steps up to it and gets comfortable with the modern capitalist machinery of Chimbote. This machinery encompasses the need to set up a strategy for recapturing the money paid out as salaries by creating bars and brothels, which, incorporated into the least visible strata of the empire, entail the destruction of the wage-earners' moral strength. The story focuses on Asto when he first enters an elegant brothel and asks for a prostitute named "Argentina." Dazzled by the money and by the blond prostitute, the Indian denies his identity: "Me criollo ... from the coast, goddamnit; me from Argentina, goddamnit. Who highlander now?" (2000: 42). This rejection of his past, this transformation from poor campesino into prosperous fisherman, allows Asto to leave his insecurity and fear behind. But his adventure, almost lost in the multiplicity of voices in the novel, acquires a new dimension only when it is suddenly displaced to another "history," which takes place "two thousand five hundred years ago" (2000: 53). Sustained by this system of brusque displacements, the correlations between the level of plot set in the present and the level of myth from the remote past cannot go unnoticed by the reader. Asto repeats acts carried out by Tutaykire ("Wound of the Night"), while Argentina becomes the "harlot virgin" of the legend, both tales ending with the alienation and annihilation of Asto (2000: 54). Myth is transformed and brought back to life, once more relevant, and the narrative becomes transcendent, profound, and amazingly powerful.

The presence of the mythic past in the present reveals the existence of a deep cultural conflict. Indeed, what Asto faces is not an individual conflict so much as an ethnic one, which rips to shreds the assumption that we belong to the national homogeneity that we had taken for granted until well into the last two decades of the twentieth century. Today, however, we have become conscious that, far from such reality-simplifying notions of homogeneity, ethnicity is a complex way to rework, to rethink, to reinvent culture, connecting the present with the ancestral past, the past of "ruins," so different from the recent past, the historical past. And this connection between present and remote past has its own tremendous ambiguities, which keep the cultural world from having clear and conclusive divisions. Therefore, ethnic groups occupy spaces with permeable boundaries, from which identity can be negotiated with great flexibility. Deep down, who is Asto? An Indian? A mestizo? In the cultural conflict brought about by his migration to Chimbote, Asto cannot be categorized as one or as the other: he has become both. So even the most "primitive" and most isolated people end up in contact with other societies, particularly with the dominant societies, from which coloniality is reinforced. In the same way, continuity and rupture are facets that can be found in the personality of the migrant, and they are tremendously important in the ideological construction of ethnic groups. In this sense, the memory of the past—the kind of memory that brings myth into the present—cannot be measured by the rationalistic criteria of whether particular events are true or false; the proper measure is how strong and convincing they are in the migrant's consciousness, how much they set him apart, and how much they disengage him from the homogenizing political arena. Thus, the migrant creates an ethno-national cultural conflict, not merely an ethnic conflict.

In the case of Arguedas's novel, the presence of the mythic past in the present complicates the already chaotic situation of Chimbote even further. One of the foxes, transformed into Don Ángel Rincón, cannot find the words in Spanish to express the chaos of Chimbote, and instead refers to it by the Quechua term lloqlla, meaning "an avalanche of water, earth, tree roots, dead dogs, and stones that come rumbling down on the bottom of the current when the rivers are loaded with the first rains in these beastly Andean foothills" (2000: 91). This "human lloqlla," the only way to describe Chimbote, is not a comparison but a crude metaphor—a catachresis—that apprehends and sheds light on its reality.

There is no doubt that the process of describing Chimbote as an avalanche is metaphorical. I would like to add, however, that migrating, as an individual process that is at the same time a collective one, means feeling a kind of homesickness in a present that should be full but that too often is frustrating; it means feeling nostalgic for a "back then" and an "over there" that you suddenly discover aren't from your experience of your immediate past, properly speaking, and discovering too that you cannot draw a straight line from this past to the future. This suddenly discovered "back then" and "over there," as in Asto's experience in the novel, are the "here" of sleepless but fragmentary memory and the "now" that runs forward but also delves down deep, vertically, into a thick time that accumulates but doesn't synthesize the experiences from some past of ruins, the product of a mythic time left behind long ago that continues to perturb the present angrily and violently.

I am speaking, then, of a sui generis present, of a "here" and a "now" that, in a way distantly reminiscent of the orgiastic chiliasm of the Anabaptists,= is now joining forces with the activist demands of the oppressed strata of society. As in present-day social movements, these demands are eventually transformed into activist movements of specific social strata. These postponed desires, buried in memory, suddenly gain social and political importance, thus giving rise to a subaltern consciousness that, unlike the "proletariat's consciousness of itself," becomes the point of departure for the historical earthquake we are currently living through. It is this incorporation of the remote past into the present, this use of the past as a resource for the present (Eller 1999), that gives the current movements their specific role in the dynamic development of society as a whole.

This present, which to me seems to govern the actualization of the past that is buried in memory, becomes an explosive agent in daily life. The "here and now" of thousands of migrants, who remodel the city, who impress a different rhythm on it and give it a different physiognomy, also creates a "proposal" that profoundly subverts the foundations of the hierarchical political/social order. Thus, the fact that they were constituted far from traditional social institutions shows that the movements resulting from indigenous migrations in the present entail setting in motion a new way of thinking that, quite unlike full modernity, is connected with eschatology (pachakuti, the world turned upside-down). And nothing would be more mistaken than to try to understand these movements exclusively from the point of view of modernity, seeking to frame them in a historical time that doesn't suit them and that today is in crisis. Modern and archaic at once—that is, half-modern, superficially imbued with the ideology that governs the teleologically oriented movement of a time that goes chasing after goals decided upon in advance—the indigenous migrant, the essential component of today's movements, bears a way of thinking that, in tension with the modernity that she also participates in, has roots in much more underground, vital, and elemental regions of her psyche.

This use of the experience of the past as a resource for the present is characterized by the kind of sudden displacement we noted in Arguedas's novel. For the Indian immigrant, the present becomes the breach through which what was once intimately his, what once resided in the deepest recesses of his psyche, such as myth, blossoms in a sudden outburst, takes over the outside world, and transforms it. Somewhat like the chiliasts of past centuries, he lives yearning for this change: his metaphors, such as the lloqlla that the migrant perceives in the city, or the pachakuti, which expresses the untimely overturning of reality, are psychological situations that cannot be conceived in terms of modernity. In this sense, his metaphors, his symbols cannot be made to fit the modern "history of ideas." These metaphors are not the jewels of national culture; they are crude symbols that the migrants spin from analogies with the sensations of everyday life. This aspiration to join the immediate present has little to do, as I have said, with optimistic hopes for the future or with the experience of the past that governs conservative thought. The attitudes of the migrants who make up social movements are characterized by tense expectations that define those attitudes as a need to revive the old "ruins" of the ancestral past—by using them in catachresis.

If the mythic past, as a resource for the present, abruptly transforms the outer world, catachresis is the rhetorical device that best describes its symbolic construction. As with lloqlla, used to describe and explain Chimbote in Arguedas's novel, catachresis, the crude origin of metaphor, must rely on "what this means is" to translate the ancestral term into an exercise in mestizo language ("human avalanche"), thus giving rise to metaphor. Born from vernacular language, these metaphors are as unpoetic as they are rudely expressive, and they have both blinding limitations and enduring power.

The transformation of catachresis into metaphor comes at a high cost, however: to be established as a metaphor, the word lloqlla had to be torn from its rustic, catachrestic, mythic origins, because otherwise its laborious synonymy would have been shuttered. What I mean is that, for the fusion to be possible, one of the two terms has to yield, narrow its differences, leave the place that culturally belongs to it, in order to facilitate the production of the new meaning. Let's not forget, however, that we still have the hermeneutic option of revealing the warp and woof in this laborious process of enunciation, of allowing the subaltern catachresis to make a comeback, and of listening—as Arguedas does in his novel—to the interactions of the many disparate consciousnesses and languages to be found in its convoluted origin. For Cornejo Polar, this is the strategy that best illuminates the multicultural texture of language, as well as the deep political anxiety that we might take what is obviously varied, scattered, and heteroclite, and make it all uniform.

The past as a resource for the present—as what I call an "ember of the past"—governs my critical view of modernity. The past as resource—which I reinterpret as myth incorporated into the present as a "wager," not as a rational certainty—organizes my reading of every chapter in this book, which is dedicated to exploring the crisis of historical time.

The statement "the present is another time now," with its chiliastic overtones—Karl Mannheim said that "the only direct, identifying characteristic of Chiliastic experience is absolute presentness" (1997 [1936]: 195)—is the slogan that several insurrectionary movements in the Andes have used to express the feelings of indigenous consciousness at historical moments of insurgency. I wonder, however, whether this "different time" evoked by indigenous consciousness is substantially distinct from historical time as perceived by revolutionary movements that grew from the middle classes. In other words, do indigenous people perceive the insurrectionary present differently than a middle-class urban revolutionary would? But even within the consciousness of the dominant culture, does the middle-class revolutionary have a vision of the past and future that diver from conservatives' perceptions of time?

Excerpted from EMBERS OF THE PAST by JAVIER SANJINÉS C., David Frye. Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


ABOUT THE SERIES....................     ix     

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS....................     xi     

FOREWORD BY WALTER D. MIGNOLO....................     xiii     

DECOLONIZATION....................     1     

ONE THE CHANGING FACES OF HISTORICAL TIME....................     29     

TWO IS THE NATION AN IMAGINED COMMUNITY?....................     57     


METAPHOR IN BOLIVIA....................     143     

NOTES....................     183     

REFERENCES....................     197     

INDEX....................     209     

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