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Chilam Balam Ah P’izté’ Project in Memory and History: Antecedents and Agenda
By Quetzil E. Castañeda, Project Director

The Chilam Balam Ah P'izté Project in Memory and History is a research program with a pre-history or, at least, a history of prior incarnations. It emerges from previous investigations of the role of anthropology in the life and history of Maya communities, cultures, societies, and civilization. In his early work, Castañeda studied the archeological creation of the modern ruins of Chichén Itzá as a site for tourism and how the community of Pisté, México, has emerged in relation to the anthropology and tourism of the nearby ruins. Although both archival study of historical documents and fieldwork study of oral histories was necessary for this earlier project, most of the material was not used to the full extent possible. For years this data has been kept in reserve as basic sources for a proposed future historical ethnography of social life of Pisté in the decades before and during the time of the archeological reconstruction of Chichén (1923-1941). While such a project remains the open horizon of the research on memory and history, the question of what specifically to do with this material and how — which includes rich ethnographic data collected in the 1930s by Morris Steggerda and narratives about this time period elicited by a number of octegenarians by Castañeda — has triggered a series of possibilities.

Initially, I had conceived of a project in oral history that would contrapuntally speak to the history of the community as collected/written by Steggerda and other anthropologists that have provided descriptions of Pisté in the course of their late 19th and early 20th century travels in Yucatán. The two main points of interest in this projected study is, first, the active ethnographic elicitation of a “native” point of view of the lived experience and history of the reconstruction of Chichén Itzá — in other words: a history of anthropology from the subject position of the “object” of anthropological studies. In other words, the oral histories would work to “resuscitate” or “flesh out” through contradiction, opposition, and differentiation the written ethnographic and historical record itself with the histories/memories of the persons about whom that history is written. Since such a history would articulate in interesting ways to the writings of both participating anthropologists — e.g., Le Plongeon, E.H. Thompson, Sylvanus G. Morley, Anne Axtell, Eric Thompson, Morris Steggerda, and many others — and the historians of these anthropologists — e.g., Von Hagan, Brunhouse, Adamson, and others — the second point of interest is the way in which the historiographical operation that would tack back and forth between the written/literal histories and the spoken/oral histories to problematize history itself. In this regard, the project was conceived as working within the problematization of history that Michel de Certeau delineated in his historiographical study, The Writing of History, and implied a radically different conception of the phrase “Maya anthropology” as not only an anthropology of the Maya but a Maya vision of and constitutively active participation in Maya anthropology.

Work on this project was conducted alongside other primary research and thus did not realize its potential when it faced the pragmatic questions of what next. For on the one hand, the need for a full blown historical study always loomed over the shoulder given the vast amount not only of “official histories” of second hand sources as already mentioned, but of archival records for the Carnegie Institution of Washington (the philanthropic sponsor of 18 years interdisciplinary research at Chichén Itzá) as well as for each of the prominent anthropologists whose biography intersects with Chichén and Pisté. A solidly responsible social and cultural history of this topic requires a thorough study of the politics and economy of the anthropological and archeological investment in Yucatán. This need then had always been somewhat “threatening” not merely for the magnitude of the task posed, but for an ethnographer not properly trained in the historical methods of archival research. Thus, although the goal of doing a history of the transformation of Yucatán into an archeological and ethnographic wonderland of Maya Culture for tourism (as well as for the nation) has been displaced from the present moment as an indeterminate future possibility within the long range Field School agenda, the project itself is of critical importance and of such immense scope that it demands the dedication of one or more persons of the highest capacities. Further, I have continued to collect, from archives and special collections, historical materials of different types — documents, photographs, film footage, and object artifacts — that would be useful resources for the investigation of this broad topic.

On the other hand, the fieldwork based study of the collective and individual memories and histories of Pisté in relation to anthropology and tourism entered into an inevitable and regrettable moment of impossibility which necessitated an entire conceptual shifting. The project so long as it is conceived as primarily based on the memories of those who had worked with the archeologists in the 1920s and 1930s has only a certain window of opportunity, which has unfortunately closed. Too often surviving octogenarians were men that had in fact lived a life with minimal connection to the archeological world of the Maya or were spouses of men who had been the masons and field hands that reconstructed Chichén Itzá. The problem with the latter category of informant is that due first to human and especially Maya reluctance to talk about what another person experienced with third parties and second the strong Maya cultural conventions of those days by which domains of activity defined according to age and gender hierarchies were strongly sealed off from each other. Thus, a woman who had spent four or five decades with a man who had spent his life working with archeologists would have little to say about her husband’s non-domestic experiences; likewise, children of such persons, who in the 1980s and 1990s are grown adults, may have very little to offer in terms of reflections on the life of their parents outside of their own immediate biographic experiences with them. These factors led to a shift in perspective and in conceptualization of the object of study away from “the Maya history of Maya archeology,” to a more general and open problematizing of history and histories as constituted through multiple forms of memory and experience forged in transnational and transcultural processes of sustained and pervasive duration.

These difficulties however raise another issue that is too often pushed under the rug of being a practical and methodological problem, which is that of how does one ask about experiences conceptualized in cultural and subjective modes incommensurate with the asker’s conceptualization and valorization of those experiences? Either, as fieldworkers learn, one asks a seemingly infinite number of questions that draw an insurmountable blank or “blanket of snow” much like when a TV station goes off the air or one’s questions begin to be tautologically answered back within closer and closer approximations of the language and values presupposed by the question, which in turn are reiterated in terms of those approximations. This is dialogue. Dialogue is the secret nature of the interview situation modeled on an “observer” interviewing an “informant” as the neutral elicitation of statements uncorrupted by hypothetical externalities such as the interviewing observer. It is this dialogical interaction — an intercultural communication — that dialogism holds is the creative moment of the reinvention of meanings, worlds, and cultures. If so, intercultural dialogue is also transcultural and a moment and event of transculturation through which worlds of meaning and identities are forged through a differentiation based in repetition and appropriation of alterity. This is not mimesis, however, which copies an identity to make an image of likeness as the Same (but different), but a “copying” that appropriates and repeats likeness as difference or rather as différance whose reiteration differentiates — i.e., calls forth (meanings, identities, differences) to constitute them as differentiated (worlds and cultures) in their identity. [With regard to these theoretical issues, see G. Deleuze, Repetition and Difference, and J. Derrida, Of Grammatology.]

Dialogical encounters, intercultural communication, transculturation, whether in the everyday life of groups or the fieldwork practices of ethnography, are elements constitutive of the situation under investigation. Thus, to pose some human collectivity or cultural artifice of that collectivity as an object of study is to already implicate the subject who does the studying, and their practices of studying, of the postulated object within the constitution of the phenomenon as part of the object of study. This necessity of including the subject of study within the object of study is redoubled in the context of this projected research on Maya-anthropology where the subject matter at stake is already the history of anthropological intervention in a Maya community through the community’s collective remembering of that history. The relations of complicity, refraction, speculation, differentiation, transculturation multiply and enfold upon themselves as they saturate the possibilities of subjects and objects of study and rendering them, as well as the research that envisions them, impossible.

From this problematization of Maya and anthropology as Maya anthropology a radically distinct mode of fieldwork and ethnography would be called into practice in which there is no object of study other than the study of its own process as the articulation and remediation of “Maya” and “anthropology” in the radically revalorized mode of Maya Anthropology. In this vision of ethnography difference is forced into nomadism since alterity is displaced from its reified guise of the Other as the enabling ground of fieldwork. The Chilam Balam Ah P'izté Project in Memory and History is precisely an experiment about (or “of” and “in”) Maya Anthropology theorized in this manner. Such an experiment is an experiment of itself: It is in this sense that experimental ethnography is experimental, that is, it is an experiment without the pretension of a teleology outside of itself, without a telos that seeks transcendence from its own means and process.

Immediate reactions to this formulation might be that this presents an extreme version of reflexive anthropology in a most autistic, narcissistic, tautological, and self-legitimating form that blasphemously goes about waving banners of objectivist science while scandalously detouring from the “big” or significant questions of science in any of its three modalities. From the perspective of “hard” science, this vision of experimental ethnography is, clearly illegitimate since it does not aim to “reveal” (or even produce) facts, much less Truth, to be added to the ceaseless accumulation of knowledge while erroneously using the language of methods and experimentation to signal the misguided fieldwork being conceptualized. From the perspective of “soft” humanist sciences, this construction of fieldwork is inhumanely and inhumanly objectifying — signalled by the scientific rhetoric of experimentation — since the Other is not deployed as the anchor and target of an aestheticizing subjectification of persons as the mirror of alterity and, thus, the proper object of study. From the perspective of politico-instrumental science there are no lessons or laws to be re-applied elsewhere since there is nothing to learn — no lessons, no rules, no recipes or methods to generalize into prescriptive statements of universal or specific applicability for the resolution of issues elsewhere; here there is only the continued “un-resolvement” of questions posed experimentally for exploration in particular historically constituted scenes of engagement that is presented as its own agenda.

Each, in their specific formulations and treatment of their subject matter, of the three projects that comprise The Field School in Experimental Ethnography work within this theoretical framing that is neither that of physical nor humanist-social sciences and that also does not belong to the instrumental-political rationality of policy or practical-applied sciences. Experimental ethnography abides by a logic and vision of science that hypothesizes a different configuration of power, knowledge, and practices, by which to operate. To propose such a reworking of the agenda and the criteria by which to evaluate its process is itself an experiment. A hypothesis to explore.

Subsequent to the 1997 field season, a long term research agenda of the Chilam Balam Ah P'izté' Project in Memory and History emerged. In relation to the expectable pains of an initial trial year, the undergraduate level of the student participants, the particular mix of interests and available student participants, and, perhaps most significantly, the time needed to develop a more profound knowledge of both the ethnographic situation and the archival materials, work in the memory/history project remained more preliminary than the other two areas of The Field School. The students who worked in this area focused on the creation of valuable fieldwork experiences of cultural immersion, language learning, and participant-centered participant observation — see following selection from student portfolio. However, significant analytical ordering and substantive data processing of the diverse resources for the memory/history project was achieved. This was a fundamental step that involved processing of data found in the various published and unpublished Steggerda documents, re-tabulation of the financial records of the Carnegie’s economic support of archeological projects from 1914-1956, sorting and cataloguing Carnegie and E.H. Thompson photographs secured from the Peabody Museum of Harvard, and the work on genealogical information for families that appear on 1930s censuses and that presently reside in Pisté. While these activities continued throughout the year and into part of the 1998 season and, as other resources are brought into play, will continue, the 1997 season succeeded in establishing the groundwork for a program of research activities and fieldwork that will extend into the next millenium.

The goals of open collaborative research — which parallel ideas in critical pedagogy — continue to set a framing limit on the definition of specific activities. Nonetheless, the specific mix of research participants are determining factors in our ability to conceptualize the research process for a given year and affect the type of community participation and collaboration that can be sustained. To address this issue, the 1998 season has programmed two installations, one early in the 6 week season and one at the close which would be installed in conjunction with the annual Ah Dzib P'izté' Art Expo. The first is conceived as a “show-casing” of the project or announcement and call to the community of the project and its possibilities. The second installation remains an open question, as well as the fieldwork relations that led to it. Strategic thinking is necessary in orchestrating the material that can be deployed as triggers in both the mis-en-scenes of interviewing and installed field sites so as develop over the years a working ethos of collaboration and expectation with the community.

Despite the principle of open-endedness, collaboration does not mean that there is no leadership or guiding ideas and decisions. Thus, specifically on the horizon of this project are the following: the compilation of the heterogeneous texts of the Steggerda dossier and the bilingual production of an historical ethnography of the community in 1930s based on these materials; fieldworking study with the descendents of Martin Dzib, Steggerda’s interpreter and informant, that can lead to book studies and installations; successive ethnographic installations over a period of several years based in the extensive genealogical and census materials that Steggerda has provided with increasing collaborative participation and revisioning of the project en route; and a fieldworking study of the life and lives of the community in relation to the 1920s-1930s reconstruction of Chichén Itzá through the extensive use of both the photographic and textual archive as installed triggers for the performative enactment of history and memory. The indeterminacy of this experimental work has not frightened funding agencies, for not only has the 1998 field season been funded with a small seed grant, but the 1999 season has been awarded, with a commitment for the 2000, a major grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in conjunction with the Mexican Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (FONCA) and the Bancomer Cultural Foundation.




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