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For comparative studies of poetic traditions, dealing with the challenges of addressing non-Euro-American forms of expression while coming from a Euro-American inheritance involves an active effort to denaturalize premises of universality of literary values. In order to carry out a meaningful dialogue with Indigenous poetic forms, for instance, we first need to engage in a practice of self-reflexive questioning about the assumptions underlying the very notions of creativity we articulate. Borrowing from Gilies Deleuze and Felix Guattari's characterization of minor literature (18), I suggest that deterritorializing or "minoritizing" Euro-American literary frameworks implies fostering a political sensibility to emergent poetics and collectivities, as well as developing an increased awareness of the taken-for-granted character of perceptions proper to the Euro-American emphasis on individuated subjectivity--and of its tendencies to obscure its situatedness.

Let me clarify at the outset that when I say "Euro-American" or "we," I do not refer to a reified, unchanging, monolithic construct, but to discursive traditions that dwell in North American and Western European categories, vocabularies and frames of reference, regardless of being located in Europe or in the Americas, and whose perspectives are to a large extent informed by Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian lenses or filters--even if not in stable, homogenous ways. Moreover, this clarification is important to prevent us from falling into the trap of a Manichean dichotomy between a readily familiar Euro-America versus a presumably unfathomable non-Euro-America.

From this perspective, this article seeks to contribute to preparing the ground for practices of cross-cultural engagement that are more symmetrical and well-informed, and to go beyond stereotyping, romanticizing, or reading otherness as incommensurably alien. The main idea put forth here is that contrasting modes of creativity exist between lowland Amerindian poetics and fundamental presumptions of Euro-American literary modes of composition. A brief discussion of Pedro de Niemeyer Cesarino's ethnographic research among the Marubo, a Panoan people from the Javari Valley (Western Amazonas, Northwestern Brazil), (1) advances this argument, illustrating how a dynamics of unfolding and differential replication involving different beings that proliferate across the cosmos constitutes one of the main thrusts of poetic composition in Amerindian forms of expression--in a manner that is distinct from the Euro-American idea of ex nihilo creation as an event arising from an identifiable and fixed subject.

In the following sections, we will see how these regimes of creativity, in spite of not regarding the element of individuality as of paramount significance in composition, position shamanic verbal arts specialists as actualizing, realm-connecting mediators, rather than ego-grounded, stabilizing authorial sources. In the light of this discussion, which addresses Marc Brightman, Carlos Fausto and Vanessa Grotti's recent anthology on Amerindian forms of ownership, Pedro de Niemeyer Cesarino's study among the Marubo, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro's observations about poeisis (production) and praxis (action) in Indigenous Amazonia, my goal is to facilitate and refine the conversation between literary theory and Amerindian poetics.


In Ownership and Nurture: Studies in Native Amazonian Property Relations, Marc Brightman, Carlos Fausto and Vanessa Grotti propose the idea of "altership" to emphasize how humans in Indigenous Amazonia are not exactly creators in the sense of an individual author (20), but rather alterers, "capable of othering themselves and switching perspectives in order to appropriate new songs and new names" (21). By presenting that proposal, the ethnologists are interested in making explicit the contrast between the individuation of property in Western property relations and the multiplicity of alterities that constitutes forms of ownership in Indigenous Amazonia.

This is not the same as saying that a notion that could be related to a property regime does not exist among Indigenous groups in the region (also when the complex relationships they establish with the State and market economy are considered), but that the specificity of the idea of Western property as the institutionalization of ownership, predicated on assumptions of individualism and possession, needs to be acknowledged--in other words, its presumed universality has to be challenged. It cannot be simply generalized to Indigenous Amazonia, where "personhood extends far beyond the human," "the subject-object distinction is by definition fuzzy (even inapplicable)" (Brightman, Fausto and Grotti 11), and ownership is above all a relational phenomenon which has more to do with rights over relationships with others--be them persons, parts of persons, or things--than with people with respect to things and ideas (8).

As far as what I am here calling creativity among Indigenous peoples in Amazonia is concerned, it is telling that, as Viveiros de Castro puts it, "things and beings normally originate as a transformation of something else," which means that "the idea of creation ex nihilo is virtually absent from indigenous cosmogonies" ("Exchanging" 477). Viveiros de Castro's elaboration makes it clear that cultural implements or institutions originate in Amerindian mythology by means of borrowing what animals, spirits or enemies possess: "there is no absolute beginning, no absolutely initial act of exchange. Every act is a response: that is, a transformation of an anterior token of the same type" ("Exchanging" 477).

In the conceptual language mobilized by Viveiros de Castro, poiesis / creation / invention / production belong to the same paradigm, one that presupposes a primary cause, while praxis / transformation / exchange / transfer belong to a different one, pertinent to the Amerindian world, which presupposes a constant dynamics of differential unfolding--"production creates; exchange changes," as he sums it up ("Exchanging" 478). What I am referring to as creativity --and creativity in Amerindian poetics, specifically--though, points to poiesis or "making" precisely as a mode of transformation through an engagement between humans and non-humans. In this manner, I choose not to rule out the category of creativity that is part of our Euro-American literary idiom, but to deviate from its majoritarian conception--to deterritorialize it, to open it up for altership and othering likewise--while emphasizing the need for nuancing our understanding of it when addressing songs and narratives coming from non-modern worlds such as the Amerindian.

To what extent, though, does this choice lead us to reconsider the Aristotelian distinction between poeisis (production) and praxis (action) that Viveiros de Castro evokes? Although my goal here is certainly not to offer an in-depth comparison between scholarships on Amerindian thought and Classical Antiquity, it is important at this point to note that praxis, according to Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, finds its telos (fulfilment, goal, purpose) inside itself. Above all, what matters is performing a particular activity in a certain way. In contrast, the completeness that poiesis seeks lies outside the activity, i.e., it finds its telos in an exterior product.

In Aristotle's consideration of praxis and poiesis as mutually exclusive, the key issue has to do with locating the telos inside or outside activity. Both action and production are subjected to the dualistic constraints of interiority and exteriority. While collaborative studies between ethnologists and classicists would be necessary to subsidize a more consistent comparative approach to this matter, one may notice that in the highly transformational dynamics of Amerindian creativity--in which action and production are given not as essences that have an inside or an outside, but rather as collective assemblages that are not co-optable as demarcated products by an individual subject--it is debatable whether poiesis and praxis would be antithetical to one another--if these terms are to be considered as counterparts to Indigenous modes of making and doing. In other words, what happens is that creativity and transformation are here tied up in an inextricable knot.


Among the Marubo, an aspect that reiterates the non-validity of an interior / exterior dichotomy has to do with the demiurge spirits involved in the emergence of the cosmos: no separation between a Creator Spirit to created matter is presumed. "There is no fixed center of reference," as Pedro de Niemeyer Cesarino explains. There is no "human of the moderns, nor God of Christian metaphysics, nor individual author capable of radiating its meaning to the cosmos" ("Donos" 157). As I have noted elsewhere, modes of creation and enunciation proper to lowland Amerindian shamanic traditions such as the Marubo emerge from processes of physical and intellectual transformation which enable negotiations with spirit-masters who own animals, spirits and other nonhuman persons across different sociocosmic realms. As Indigenous Amazonian specialists teach us, accessing knowledge from such owners requires strictly committing to the pertinent bodily changes, and remaining aware that the circulation of such knowledge must be carefully monitored (Pinheiro Dias 21).

Cesarino, who has been developing a thorough and long-term investigation of Marubo verbal arts, has been arguing consistently and systematically for the need for a contrast between the logic of Amerindian shamanic creativity --as a form of mediation of relationships that persons establish in a cosmos populated by a multiplicity of alterities--and the logic tying intellectual property, individual authorship and creative imagination that is widely spread in Euro-American poetic regimes. One becomes fluent in this form of mediation, as Cesarino shows, through continuously engaging his "double" (an alternative translation for what others would refer to as "soul") with the spirit beings that are incorporated into his body ("Multiple" 135).

Doubles dwell inside a longhouse located within the body of the shaman, through which spirits sing. They have the ability to travel across different realms and landscapes of the cosmos and to meet the various persons inhabiting it, acquiring knowledge that would be inaccessible otherwise, in ordinary circumstances. Such an ability makes it possible, therefore, for knowledge to circulate between the transformational dimension of the spirits and social life in the villages and cities in the forest. This makes it clear why songs and narratives, for the Marubo, do not originate from an individualized, sovereign subject, but rather from the doubles' wanderings in this transformational dimension.


As Cesarino explains, accessing this transformational dimension depends largely upon "ritual technologies" that might be able to make the shaman into a "body-people"--in other words, "into a kind of recursive space or multipositional event in which the multiple voices of others are brought into play" ("Doubles" 201). The young Marubo shaman Robson Doles Dionisio, for example, pointed out to his kinsfolk that he was not like them. Following the incorporation of spirits into the longhouse within his body, he became like the bird spirit. "I am another person," he affirmed ("Multiple" 123).

We might consider what Cesarino calls "ritual technologies" as inseparable from the notion of Amerindian creativity at stake. Making the shaman into a "body-people" through them depends on a replication that creates people, not on a creation of things by people. It is in this sense that the notion of creativity pertaining to an ego-grounded individual makes no sense among the Marubo. Also, nothing exists on its own for them, since everything--songs, animals, trees etc.--has owners and masters. But there is a huge difference between these notions of ownership and mastery and the Western conception of private property.

In either case, as we understand that a characteristic mode of creativity configures the ritual technologies supporting shamanic practices, an emphasis on aspects comparable to those pertaining to the realm of techne (craft, skill, expertise) seems to stand out. There is an ongoing relationship between these ritual technologies and the body as the site of differentiation and, consequently, of craft, skill, and expertise. For instance, in the Marubo case, invisible geometric designs drawn on the bodies of shamans replicate the way several longhouses constituting the cosmos--or, to put it otherwise, the longhouse-cosmos. Considering Indigenous Amazonia more widely, Viveiros de Castro offers the following formulation when describing animal clothes worn by shamans in Indigenous Amazonia: "The animal clothes that shamans use to travel the cosmos are not fantasies but instruments: they are akin to diving equipment, or space suits, and not to carnival masks. The intention when donning a wet suit is to be able to function like a fish, to breathe underwater, not to conceal oneself under a strange covering" ("Cosmological" 482).


This article sought to offer some elements and considerations that may be helpful to understand some of the basic precautions that should be undertaken in studies addressing creativity in Amerindian poetics. Instead of immediately perceiving Indigenous songs and narratives as yet another sort of literary tradition that could be broken down into often employed, recognizable categories, such as character and metaphor, I suggested it is important to take one step back and think about how doubles are not commensurable as literary characters, but are best described as actual persons.

Also, it is important to consider that what doubles experience in the different positions they occupy across the cosmos is not commensurable as subjective creations emerging from a literary imagination, but are best described as actual events. It is important to realize that the acquisition of poetic formulas that compose a song depends on engaging in bodily transformations through ritual technologies that enable negotiations with the spirit-masters who own them.

In conclusion, drawing attention to those precautions and to aspects of Amerindian modes of creativity such as altership, bodily transformations and the role of ritual technologies in the acquisition of knowledge--as well as to the absence of a fixed, identifiable center in means of composition--may contribute to a movement of deterritorializing and "minoritizing" in literary theory.



Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. W. D. Ross. Kitchener: Batoche Books Limited, 1999.

Cesarino, Pedro de Niemeyer. "De duplos e estereoscopios: paralelismo e personificacao nos cantos xamanisticos amerindios." Mana 12.1 (2006): 105-34. Web. 2 Jun 2015.

--. "Donos e Duplos, relacoes de conhecimento, propriedade e autoria entre Marubo." Revista de Antropologia 53.1 (2010): 147-97. Web. 2 Mar 2013.

--. "Doubles and Owners: Relations of Knowledge, Authorship and Property among the Marubo." Ownership and Nurture: Studies in Native Amazonian Property Relations. Ed. Vanessa Grotti, Carlos Fausto, and Marc Brightman. New York: Berghahn Books, 2016. 186-209.

--. "Multiple Biographies: Shamanism and Personhood among the Marubo of Western Amazonia." Fluent Selves--Autobiography, Person and History in Lowland South America. Ed. Suzanne Oakdale and Magnus Course. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2014. 121-43.

Deleuze, Gilies and Felix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Trans. Dana Polan. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

Grotti, Vanessa, Carlos Fausto and Marc Brightman, eds. Ownership and Nurture: Studies in Native Amazonian Property Relations. New York: Berghahn Books, 2016.

Pinheiro Dias, Jamille. Peles de papel: Caminhos da traducao poetica das artes verbais amerindias. Doctoral Dissertation. University of Sao Paulo, 2017. Web. 5 Jun 2017.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. A Inconstancia da Alma Selvagem. Sao Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2002.

--. "Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute" 4.3 (1998): 469-88. Web. 3 Jun 2015.

--. "Exchanging Perspectives: The Transformation of Objects into Subjects in Amerindian Ontologies." Common Knowledge 10.3 (2004): 463-84. Web. 3 Jun 2015.

(1) According to the most recent census conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), there were 896,917 Indigenous individuals in the country in 2010, constituting a diversity of 253 peoples speaking over 150 Amerindian languages. See the website of Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a non-profit organization working in partnership with native associations on environmental and social issues, for a frequently updated database of Indigenous peoples living in the country (
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Author:Dias, Jamille Pinheiro
Publication:Romance Notes
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:3BRAZ
Date:Nov 1, 2017

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