Citro, Silvia: Cuerpos significantes. Travesías de una etnografía dialéctica. Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos, 2009. 351 pp. ISBN 978-950-786-643-2. Price: $ 16.00

This book is clearly inspired by a wish to blend theory and praxis, and to engage in a multidisciplinary and intercultural dialogue. The author claims that underlying these issues there is a political dimension where the dialogue attempts – not always successfully – to democratize social relations and ethnographic knowledge. And the language chosen for these dialogues is dialectics, which allows broaching contradictory terms and solve them by means of an ongoing synthesis, always unfinished. This emphasis on the dialectic movement also explains the structure of her work. Recapturing Hegelian dialectics – departure, becoming, return – the book reads like a journey where the author offers three different itineraries. The first one – theoretical and methodological – introduces her innovative proposal: a dialectic approach to the study of corporality, the result of the dialogue between anthropology, philosophy, and psychoanalysis.This model is applied to the study of the uses and representations of the body – particularly in the world of rituals – by the Toba or qom aborigines from eastern Formosa (Argentina). To this end, the second journey is historical and depicts the genealogy of the body for these peoples, while the last is ethnographic and takes us through their ritual performances. The syntheses achieved on each of these journeys are presented as openended epilogues.

The book is profusely illustrated with photographs and comparative charts that enrich the understanding of the different subjects.

On closer inspection, the first journey opens with an overview of the theoretical contributions to body and performance studies to date. Citro finds a tension between both lines – some schools underline the reproductive character of the body in social life while others emphasize its transformative and active aspects. She, therefore, attempts to create a theoretical link between these contradictory views. She thus proposes the notion of “meaningful bodies,” which comprehends the material and symbolic nature of bodies, as they are historically carriers of the hegemonic cultural signifiers and can, in turn, transform them or create new ones. On the other hand, in her analysis of the participating observation and its embodied character, Citro states that ethnography involves both a factor of distance (observation) and of closeness (participation). In order to analyze the meaningful bodies, the author chooses a methodological approach – ethnography of and from the bodies – which implies a dialectical opposition of two traditionsin the study of the bodies: Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and its incorporation to anthropology with the line that Ricoeur called “hermeneutics of suspicion” (Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud and their followers). The model of closeness-participation rooted on the first tradition describes the practices of different social actors as well as the meanings they give to them. And then she focuses on the movement of distance-observation implied in the hermeneutics of suspicion in their attempt to explain the role of prior conditions in the construction of those discourses and bodies we ethnographers encounter in our fieldwork. A final synthesis shows how those meanings and practices, in their historical context, acquire new configurations and meanings in the dynamics of social life.

This first journey contains a provocative hypothesis – namely, there is a common experience of corporality with two dimensions. One is the indivisibility of the subject from the world, stated by Merleau-Ponty in his study of body perception, and the other the recognition of the body as the locus of the force that drives the subject to transform the world, described by Nietzsche in his studies on the power of will. Citro finds these experiences in her ethnography of the Toba – the first in their representations and the second in their ritual dances.

The second journey takes us through the main historical processes of the Toba in order to explain their present situation. Rather than ethnohistory, it is a genealogy of the Toba bodies and imaginaries which helped in the successive formation of four imaginaries (hunterswarriors, rural workers, evangelios, and Peronist) identified by Citro as the foundations to understand the past and present identitary disputes of these groups, and revealing the symbolic matrix on which they are based.
The hypothesis here states that the aboriginal religious movement called Evangelio has favored the conflictive social reproduction of the qom, in a pendular oscillation between integration with and autonomy from the white world.

The third journey describes and explains the role of the meaningful bodies in Toba ritual performances and everyday life. Her hypothesis is that the ancient aboriginal rituals have coalesced at present in the evangelio rituals, while these cults also allow the appropriation and reelaboration of different elements from mainstream society. As a complement to this hypothesis, Citro claims that the conflictive diversity of the Evangelio churches causes a dynamic complex of relationships and power
struggles according to the ritual role of each gender and age group. Because age and gender roles are crucial in their celebrations, this last journey moves through the adult-elders, youngsters, and women performances in the Evangelio rituals. Although among the Toba the elders are the natural political and religious leaders, both youths and women dispute their power. Therefore, Citro points out that while those four imaginaries are key to the self-adscription of Toba identity, they are constantly in question, producing peculiar appropriations of these meanings that are inscribed on the perception of their corporality: “powerful” elders, “interstitial” youths, or “threatening” women.

“The Comeback” is the epilogue of this journey. Just as the book starts with the words of a Toba interviewee (Pablo Vargas), it ends also with a fragment on the history of his people written by him. Citro explains why. In the Hegelian system the final synthesis is attained through a comeback on itself. In ethnography this implies a return to the fieldwork, and that is why her book ends at the point where Vargas starts. And they (not the author) are telling us here that it is time to quit contemplation and do something so that the voices of others may be heard.

This work is most relevant not only for the so called “Anthropology of the Body” but also for anyone interested in cultural dialogue and leveling social disparities.
However, if this text has an impact on us, we know we must wait for the others’ synthesis.

by Rodolfo Puglisi

Publicado en Antrophos Journal, Anthropos 105.2010