The Metamorphosis of Heads by Denise Arnold, with J. Yapita


Pittsburgh : University of Pittsburgh Press , 2006 .

In The Metamorphosis of Heads, Denise Arnold, with linguist Juan de Dios Yapita, develops a theory of Andean textuality grounded in solid, ethnographic detail, and supported by elegant linguistic description of a rural Aymara community in Oruro, Bolivia. Arnold focuses on how Aymara worldview is expressed through woven cloth, which she maintains to be a local form of text. Specifically, weavings, braids, and kipu (knots) are created and interpreted by the Aymara in order to assert and secure their identity from outside influences (e.g., the Church, State, and globalization). This book will intrigue visual anthropologists for its description and analysis of woven texts as visual objects that carry multiple meanings. Explicitly, Arnold is interested in the meanings associated with the processes of weaving and knotting, not necessarily the designs or icons themselves.

Arnold addresses a system of Andean visual communication through woven texts to present a broader understanding of Andean literacy, which she couches in the 1994 Bolivian education reform. Being “literate” connotes the idea of script in two dimensions, yet the author suggests that Andean literacy involves three dimensions (weaving, dance, and song) which manifest varying levels of resistance. For Arnold, the reform is steeped in Western notions of literacy and ignores the inherent literary skills of the Aymara. She asserts that the Aymara appropriate outside forces and re-create them through their three-dimensional texts for the benefit of the community. Borrowing from Viveiros de Castro, this process is referred to as “ontological predation” (Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, From the Enemy's Point of View, University of Chicago Press, 1996:8).

The book's title effectively summarizes Arnold's textual theory and the use of “ontological predation” within the Andean community. Throughout the book, heads refers to political leaders (historical: Inca or Spanish; or modern: the Church, Bolivian State, or community) and people (enemies, warriors, wives, babies). The “heads” of these Others are “consumed” by locals in a variety of ways and, in the process, are transformed so as to acquire positive, localized meanings. One example of this “head complex” is how Aymara schoolchildren memorize Spanish words (in the State-mandated curriculum), which the parents visualize as “furrowing the local plots like a plough team and grazing like sheep in the [local] pastures,” effectively “planting letters like seeds and transforming them to weave a new vegetative covering” (107). In effect, the students are consuming Spanish knowledge (coming from the head) through reading, writing, and praying, which is then reassimilated in a woven template under their own control. When voiced, these words are believed to bring the results they desire, such as crops or rain for the fields.

In part 1, Arnold introduces the fundamental components of her argument through a thoughtful, ethnohistoric review that assumes the reader is already familiar with Andean cultures, the influences of the Inka state, the Spanish conquest, and the Republican era. She recounts the Spanish introduction of alphabetic writing to the New World and details its ramifications for indigenous Andean literacies. In the Andes, literacy is based in fleece, reflecting the primary mode of production (camelids), and is expressed through knotted strings and woven cloth. On the other hand, Europeans introduced an alphabetic, written literacy based on paper (wood), and did not recognize the Andean form as legitimate. Arnold shrewdly exposes access to land as the common denominator between these two literacies, and asserts that the imposition of Western literacy upon the Andean cultures paved the way for the Spanish to colonize the continent.

With this in mind, Arnold develops her Andean textual theory that weaving knowledge is a legitimate form of literacy, and that it reflects the worldview of the indigenous people, serving as a subversive device against the authority of the Other. Derrida's study of Western writing systems greatly influences her theory, especially Derrida's recognition that writing is activated by the voice, speech is structured as writing, and that these textualities give rise to notions of Self and Other. With that, she borrows Mignolo's etymology of text—that which weaves or interlaces ideas together—and develops a solid position for Andean weaving practices as forms of text. Building upon these concepts, Arnold incorporates Leinhard's ideas about the secondary practices that derive from textiles (e.g., song, music, and dance) which are analogous to those found in Andean weavings.

Most significant is the use of Viveiros de Castro's notion of “ontological predation”—the Amerindian appropriation of the Other through a struggle to replenish the Self. The “head complex” is a cycle of destruction and construction, like consuming the body of one's enemy to increase one's strength. Arnold argues that the Aymara appropriate the “heads” of their foes and generate new things from them. Heads take on significance at multiple levels, e.g., weaving practices, kipu knots, and trophy heads, which reflect their cyclical worldview or ontology.

Part 2 is divided into four chapters rich in ethnography, each addressing one aspect of the “head complex.” Particularly interesting is chapter 5, which investigates gendered literacies and textual practices within the Aymara community (the duality of Andean culture), as girls and boys develop separate skills by watching and learning from their elders along a series of “pathways” (women: animal husbandry and weaving; men: warring and braiding). This is in distinct contrast to the state educational system that dictates a Western curriculum based on reading and writing, one Arnold describes as imposing the values of knowledge presumed to be universal.

Weaving homologies express different stages and transitions along the educational pathway in the community. As children grow, they master social and literary skills, “unraveling themselves.” Such textual skills transfer to knowledge of counting for musical practice, song, narrative, and choreography (124). Young adults are ready to marry when sufficiently “unraveled.” Arnold argues that “marriage rituals allude to an ideal couple of warrior and weaver, experts in the creation of a new harvest of babies from the spoils of the dead” (127). When married, men and women become “complete persons” (plied), and are ready to begin the cycle again (fill the loom), teaching and raising others (warping the loom) based upon their knowledge and experience. Likewise, a single person is considered to be a “loose thread” (129).

Part 3 focuses on the function and meaning of weaving, braiding, and kipu, detailing the myths and beliefs intertwined in the production of cloth, as well as the numerical logic associated with the use of kipu. These last six chapters demonstrate the authors' textual theory, and discuss how ideas expressed through weaving (memory, vocal power, the continuity of life) are transferred to written text. The regular evoking of the Inka during libations or toasts (read from kipu) reflects the ongoing relationship Aymara have with the past as the Inka represents their textual authority, as the figurative head and hands of all and the creator of writing (kipu). Through knots, Aymara summons his memory by which “you are obliged to give yourself up, blood and bone, manual labor, and trophy head in war” (271). Subsequently, these texts “only live through the vocalization of knowledge incarnate in the threads and knots of the kipu, or warp or weft of the cloth. Without vocalization, these texts remain as dead and mute beings” (268). In essence, all things woven come from living beings (e.g., sheep, llamas, trophy heads), and when appropriated through sacrifice, are transformed into something with meaning such as kipu. That meaning is then released from the object when it is read aloud.

Originally written in Spanish and published in Bolivia as El rincón de las cabezas (2006), Arnold's own English translation critiques recent education reforms for not addressing or acknowledging Andean literacies. The Metamorphosis of Heads chides the government for ignoring the literacies of Andean cultures, suggesting that through a series of cover-ups, it has disguised the fact that “Bolivia does not read” as Westerners read (287). Arnold argues that the “preexistent textual repertoire of weaving, as alternative writing practices, are among the most complex in the world” (282), such that when children begin the two-dimensional practice of reading and writing in rural elementary schools, they are building upon a three-dimensional textual literacy already developed from an early age. Arnold proposes that the Ministry prepare a new “mental architecture” and recognize alternative approaches to textual practices according to regional historical experiences of education (287). By so doing, the State could expand educational opportunities to address rural children's needs which emphasize their visual and semiotic skills, as well as their organizational and conceptual frameworks which allow them to bridge multiple literacies.

This book is recommended for advanced graduate-level seminars concerning semiotics or Latin American cultures, especially the Andes. The linguistic and ethnographic content makes for dense reading if one is not familiar with Aymara or the history of the region. Arnold's interpretive contribution about Aymara worldview and weaving production contrasts well with recent works by Abercrombie, Albó, and Gisbert. Visual anthropologists will appreciate the discussion on the similarities between visual and linguistic structures, visual expression through images and icons, performance and social memory, the technical discussion on knot tying, weaving, and the meanings created through these processes.