Modern Maya made by magazine

Mayan People Within and Beyond Boundaries
May 12, 2000

This book by Danish anthropologist Peter Hervik is a study of the village of Oxkutzcab, a predominately indigenous community on Mexico's Yucatán peninsula. It might be better titled "Mayan People and Their Observers Within and Beyond Boundaries", because this work is as much a critique of postmodern anthropological analysis as it is a study of Maya people in rural Yucatán.

This is not a traditional ethnography as such, since "ethnographies" - the descriptive accounts of "exotic peoples" viewed through the lens of scholarly "objectivity" - which once comprised the canon of the discipline,have fallen from favour in anthropology. Instead, postmodern theory holds that old-fashioned ethnographies are embedded not only in a highly paternalistic and "orientalist" tradition, but that the writer's "authoritative voice" conveys a false "objectivity" that denies his or her own interpretive and highly subjective treatment of a text. In postmodern discourse analysis, texts (which may be in any form) are the matrices of authority, but they must be weighed against the disclosure and understanding of the interpretative schema of both the observer and the subject. This goes beyond the obvious affiliations or overt biases of the observer to include the cognitive, historical and perceptual elements that constitute the observer's "gaze". Hervik is a postmodernist, but he strongly disagrees with the notion that the anthropologist's "exotic explorations" in the production of texts is the object of the discipline. Nevertheless, it should come as no surprise that his study is at least as concerned with the Maya's observers as it is with Maya subjects.

One of Hervik's key points of departure is the very term "Maya", which is seldom employed by the people in Oxkutzcab. They identity themselves instead as "mestizos", a term that elsewhere in Mexico means a person of mixed indigenous and European descent but that here is a culturally based marker of native identity. Hervik finds that those few locals who do use the term "Maya" do so self-consciously, having adopted the semantic distinction used by outsiders.

In one of the most accessible chapters, Hervik explicates this construction of "Maya", which, he argues, is largely the invention of National Geographic magazine. Basing his arguments principally on an earlier scholarly critique of the magazine, Hervik asserts that National Geographic inextricably linked the contemporary "Maya" in Yucatán and Guatemala with the great civilisation of writers, temple-builders and warrior-astronomers that dominated the region until AD 900. This effort was one part of the magazine's successful strategy to commodify third-world peoples in a fashion that was exotic but non-threatening to its middle-class North American readership. To this end, National Geographic consciously crafted a myth of cultural continuity that linked the Classic Maya to the local inhabitants of the region today.

Hervik argues that although the 20th-century "Maya" had no agency in this process and did not share this vision of their ancestry and heritage, they have been under the "gaze" of their observers for so long that the myth of cultural continuity has started to take root in Oxkutzcab. This is evidenced, Hervik suggests, by more use of the word "Maya" by cultural brokers in the community, who have found a social space as emissaries between the "mestizos" and the external seekers of all things Maya. Hervik thinks this could potentially be a healthy change, in that the "Maya" have agency in this process, which is imposed less by external dictates than it is constructed from "shared social experience. It is this process of sharing that provides us with the unique entry into an understanding of how shared moral spaces are constituted and transformed."

Virginia Garrard-Burnett is senior lecturer in Latin American studies, University of Texas, Austin, United States.

Mayan People Within and Beyond Boundaries

Author - Peter Hervik
ISBN - 90 5702 340 7
Publisher - Harwood
Price - £30.00
Pages - 214

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