Derrida, Deleuze and difference in the Sumak Kawsay debate

by Dylan Inglis

As governments worldwide struggle to find alternatives to unsustainable modernist models of progress, a glimmer of hope flickers by way of the integration of the Andean cosmovision-cum-concept of Sumak Kawsay – under the denomination Buen Vivir [living well] – into Ecuador’s national constitution. An alternative cosmology which confers rights to the more-than-human and is based on axioms of responsibility and reciprocity, Sumak Kawsay (SK) swims against the general global current of neoliberalist individualism and its integration into policy has provoked much debate over its semantic and epistemological contours. It is demonstrated that the calls to preserve a faithful working understanding of the Andean philosophy in theory and policy are in delicate (perhaps incommensurable) tension with contrasting accusations that defending a certain version of the concept runs the risk of re-creating romanticised or archaic essentialisation of indigeneity. I take Cuestas-Caza’s (2018) article on epistemic communities in the Sumak Kawsay debate as an example of how scholarship can enrich discussion on issues of meaning and the legitimacy of knowledge but can also contribute to impasses in the academic episteme around the legitimacy of research and knowledge about Sumak Kawsay. As the moralistic nature of such work is totalising and often destructive, I instead follow recent speculative scholarship (Alonso González and Macías Vázquez, 2015) in suggesting the potential force of a turn to ontology in the Sumak Kawsay debate. Viewing the notion of ‘difference’ as key in this context, I outline how the scholarship of Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida can offer a reappraisal of ontological difference. Pursuing post-structural difference reasserts the responsibility of academic work to suspend judgement around the integrity of interpretations of Sumak Kawsay and instead stretch the uneasy aporia of the incommensurability of these debates. Rather than staying debate based on static essences and binary structures, a post-structuralist view of difference points to the immanent multiplicity and absence of being and shifts interest from the identity of Sumak Kawsay as an essentialisable floating concept, to a view of it as a dynamic assemblage whose transformative potential should be maximised.

Sumak Kawsay

Although humans have always altered their environments, current global consumption rates are endangering the very life systems upon which humans depend (Daszak et al., 2000). Growing recognition of the limits to ‘progress’ has precipitated political allegiance to sustainable development, which allies improvements in quality of life with the recognition that these improvements must respect the finiteness of natural resources (Parris and Kates, 2003, Sachs, 2012). Nonetheless, it is widely recognised that pledges towards sustainability uphold a notion of progress incommensurable with maintaining the health of natural systems (Banerjee, 2003). It has been posited that ways of understanding ‘the human’ and ‘nature’ in asymmetrical binary terms is at the core of the socio-environmental crisis, and a slew of alternative projects have emerged since the 1970s that re-work this binary, with degrowth and feminist movements adopting strong anti-modernity discourses, although these movements have seldom been embraced in mainstream politics (Demaria et al., 2013, Warren, 1990; Escobar, 2015).

One notable exception in the political arena is Sumak Kawsay and its adoption in Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution (Conaie, 2007). Translated into Spanish as Buen Vivir, Sumak Kawsay has its roots in non-Western Andean cosmologies based upon principles of communitarian, ecological and cultural harmony (Gudynas, 2011). Also defined as ‘living in plenitude’, Sumak Kawsay must thus be understood bearing in mind the cosmovision and political project of indigenous populations based on an intense reciprocity of kinship between human and more-than-human beings (Macas, 2010; Viteri Gualinga, 2002). This means that the Ecuadorian constitution confers rights to nature alongside the rights of Ecuadorian human subjects and thus gives legal standing to environmental health and equilibrium (Martinez and Acosta, 2017; Estermann, 2013). Although the lack of a political voice has historically furthered the marginalisation of autochthonous Andean populations in the Ecuadorian constitution, a combination of the impending environmental crisis, pledges from foreign actors to assist monetarily in Ecuador’s protection of natural resources and a wider discontent with the unkept promises of modernity and progress, have culminated in Ecuador becoming a symbolic standard-bearer for the protection of nature (Acosta, 2015). Sumak Kawsay is also a post-colonialist venture: following a history of violence and marginalisation of indigenous populations, recognising local ways of knowing hopes to restore justice to indigenous populations and foster social equality (Santos, 2015).

However, despite early euphoria around the political attention afforded to Sumak Kawsay, academic research has highlighted contradictions between the maxims of Sumak Kawsay and the devastating extractivist agenda of the Ecuadorian government (Beling, and Vanhulst, 2014). It has been argued that in translating the way of living of Andean people into a part of the national constitution, Sumak Kawsay has become something else altogether, and that rather than underpinning care and reciprocity, it has been used as a smokescreen for a business-as-usual approach on the part of political leaders (Hollender, 2012). Thus, it has been posited that Ecuador is engaging in ‘cognitive extractivism’ of certain aspects of Andean cosmology and appropriating it to gain and retain political power (Simpson and Klein, 2017; Vanhulst and Veling, 2014). Academic research has also identified problems on a conceptual level, with Fierro (2009), for example, criticising political and academic efforts to equate Sumak Kawsay with Western philosophies of self-realisation such as Eudaimonia, which makes the human subject the core centre of concern and thereby invisibilises the Sumak Kawsay’s emphasis on communitarianism and relationality with the more-than-human (Ryan and Martela, 2017; de Zaldívar, 2013).

Another conceptual problem highlighted in relation to Sumak Kawsay revolves around the issue of essentialism and binary difference (Acosta, 2013: Gerlach, 2017). The idea that there is an essence to the concept of SK is a core assumption that anchors debate, and it is suggested that the retention of the ‘original’ meaning of the term in policy is crucial to avoid surrendering the concept’s identity to an unfaithful or over-diluted application in mainstream neoliberal government (Bretón et al., 2014). Yet, over-ardent fidelity to the ‘indigenous essence’ of the term is problematic on various levels, most notably because it reproduces a staunch binary between Western and Indigenous epistemes (Radcliffe, 2017). There is no simple divide between cosmologies in Ecuador, and the loose categories of indigenous and non-indigenous populations can rarely be simply drawn. Emphasising the primacy of indigenous knowledge and definitions over Western re-appropriations is an important part of social-justice movements (Valverde, 1999), but is haunted by the risk of re-creating the indigenous ‘other’ as existing in a pre-Modern vacuum, rather than as a highly heterogeneous group of people that challenges simplistic notions of indigeneity (Hornberger and Coronel-Molina, 2004). This essentialisation of the origins of Sumak Kawsay and indigenous Ecuadorians has disdainfully been labelled ‘pachamamismo’ by some local academics, as it serves as a warning of the dangers of prioritising indigenous knowledge and an over-zealous search for origins in Sumak Kawsay (Recasens, 2014). More recently, the seminal criticism levelled by Cuestas-Caza (2018) against the political and academic appropriation of Sumak Kawsay challenges the legitimacy of much of this scholarship on the grounds that the authors’ linguistic background and conceptual interpretations contradict the ethos of SK.

The contribution of Cuestas-Caza

While the critiques are numerous, Cuestas-Caza’s important 2018 article on the semantics and epistemology of Sumak Kawsay constitutes the intellectual springboard of this essay, informing the angle of my theoretical approach in three ways. First, the case made that scholarship under the banner of ‘Buen Vivir’ is more compliant in ‘epistemic neo-colonialism’ (Gudynas, 2011) or in the ‘intellectual liquidity’ of a worldview borne in the Quechua language led to me employing Sumak Kawsay to refer to Ecuadorian ‘living well’. Cuestas-Caza develops a rigorous epistemic categorisation of actants or positions on the issue, specifically suggesting that socialist-statist and post-developmentalist epistemic communities dilute the meaning of SK according to their dominant desires and narratives. But Cuesta-Caza’s approach was also heavy-handed in criticism, be it through reducing the multiplicity of academic scholarship into Sumak Kawsay into two largely pejorative epistemes, or through undermining scholarship using the term ‘Buen Vivir’. This latter point ignores the fact that most literature on the Andean philosophy has preferred to use the Spanish translation, and that the diversity of motives under which it was employed and varying conclusions drawn defy totalising simplification. Thus, the second way in which Cuestas-Caza’s article has affected my own work is that it has alerted me to the dangers of broad-brush moralistic judgement of scholarship on Buen Vivir. Adopting his vocable ‘episteme’, I believe that an ‘academic episteme’ composed of Western and Andean academia can be a fertile ground of debate and knowledge production about Sumak Kawsay and wield significant political significance (Haas, 2015). However, rather than focusing on the epistemological and semantic aspects most fiercely debated, I follow Alonso González and Macías Vázquez (2015) in looking for different theoretical angles to challenge the current epistemological impasse. This is because, for all their merits, such studies looking into Sumak Kawsay invariably draw upon previous scholarship, but – reflecting the authors’ own transcendental moral codes – re-organise the meanings and relations between the components of Sumak Kawsay and claim a new totality of ‘truth’, or the closest approximate to adequate and correct meaning. Such a stalemate in value terms is recognised by Jean-Paul Sartre as the barrier to all constructive debate, as actants’ conflicting value systems foreclose cooperative decision (Sartre, 1946).

Ontology and post-structuralism

In the face of this theoretical cul-de-sac, joining Alonso González, Macías Vázquez (2015) and Gerlach (2017), I advocate for a move to ontology or ‘from words to things’ (Husserl, 2012). The turn in philosophy from epistemology to ontology (that is, to the fundamental substances or aspects of being) has been made by many ‘post-structuralist’ thinkers in the face of the inadequacy of the dominant structures of thought historically shaped by Rene Descartes and Saussurian structuralism (Garber, 1992). Structuralist thought is underpinned by ‘Western metaphysics’, which entrenches differences between human essence and non-human essence and between the agential subject and the static object, therefore rendering humans as the all-knowing observers of reality from a neutral pedestal provided by their transcendental capacity for ‘reason’. Although alternative non-transcendental ontologies have been explored since Descartes (Spinoza, 1992), it was not until Martin Heidegger that Western thought committed to the study of being and ontology (Heidegger, 2014). For Heidegger, things are not defined by their essence, but by their intrinsic absence and thereby the irreducible relational formation with all other ‘beings’ over space and time (Berciano, 1992). This simple premise undermines metaphysical assumptions that things are stable and codable. Various post-structuralist thinkers deepened Heidegger’s work, and although they build upon the core principle of structuralism that ‘signs are defined by their relationship with other signs in a system’ (Saussure, 2011: 67), they emphasise the interminable play of signs by which meaning and being are forever suspended and unstable (Wiley, 2006).

In the second half of this essay, I will mine the re-thinking of ontology developed by post-structuralists Deleuze and Derrida, with specific focus on how their conceptualisation of ‘difference’ can inform the Sumak Kawsay debate. The concept of difference is chosen as the focus here because it is inextricably linked with how we interpret change and repetition and because its re-formulation by Deleuze and Derrida offers powerful new conceptual tools through which to reappraise the potential and future of Sumak Kawsay (Cisney, 2018). This approach will constitute a primary effort to parse Sumak Kawsay through the explicit introduction of post-structural difference, while also being the first ontological venture in the debate to wed the aporic finality of Derrida’s deconstruction of language with Deleuze’s materialist project of immanent becoming.

Derrida’s negative difference

Following Heidegger, Derrida understands all being as defined and composed by absence – that is, the essence or meaning of any thing is always deferred through differentiation over time and space (Derrida, 1982: 13). Derrida’s negative difference is perhaps best understood in the context of his deconstruction of transcendental philosophy and specifically through the conferring of primacy and vibrancy to speech over writing in Western thought (Garrison, 1999). In the asymmetric binary between the written and spoken word, writing has been framed as the cause of distance and miscommunication due to the way in which it fixes language, thus constituting an obstacle to clarity of thought and transmission of ideas (Derrida, 2003). This view chimes with the modernist view that meaning obtains its authority from its originary [past] being, and consequently differentiation from the essentialised form is seen as an undesirable loss of the identity of the thing or concept in question (Grillo, 2003).

This negative view of change and difference characterises the view of many academics on the origins and evolution of concepts because the debate is in large part informed by notions of binary between indigenous lived orality and Western written codification (Kamuf, 1991). Derrida counters such a binary, however, by attacking the insipient ‘logocentrism’ that defines it (Lamont, 1987), with logocentrism referring to the idea that concepts possess an essence independent of the semantic context of their relationship with other words and things (Wortham, 2010). Yet rather than absolute truth being locatable in language, Derrida emphasises that signs are constructed in dynamic relation, and are thus defined by novelty – not by their substance or stability – and by their ever-changing positioning in language (Moati, 2014). A word or concept always retains a ‘trace’ of the semantic meaning it has possessed in the ‘passed’ (passé), but this trace is itself always foregrounded by the absence of essence, rather than by the presence of any concrete, irreducible form (Derrida, 1994; xviii). Indeed, for Derrida, the systematic tracing of differences between signs in time and space is never-ending, and even if thorough study can allow one to better comprehend a concept’s conditions of existence, any resultant privileging of certain meanings never attains absolute truth, as any transcendental judgement is the fruit of an ultimately arbitrary conferral of a fictitious ‘absolute’ presence over time or space (Derrida, 2003: 367). This ‘moment of madness’ (Derrida, 1990: 968) where one traces a totalising line of representative difference is both disastrous and crucial. It can never be avoided, only delayed.

Derridean deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence is a powerful critique of the mystical authoritarian foundations conferred to essential origins of things and ideas (Herzfield, 2001: 70). One great virtue of Derrida’s appraisal of negative difference is that it does not culminate in a transcendental judgement, rather its finality is characterised by aporia – Derrida’s term for logical paradox (Derrida, 1993: 1). This aporia must be overcome through making an informed decision, but the focus on aporia in this approach can act as a catalyst for more stayed critical thinking which delays judgement, as well as kindling an ethos of theory premised by the impossibility of ever attaining absolute truths – thereby rendering the theorist more cautious with their conclusions. Nevertheless, and without forgetting the import of Derrida’s negative difference in the quest for amore stayed critique of ontology, I believe that the linguistic critique of difference can, and perhaps must, also be informed by a more positive project of immanent difference which may foster an unstable, speculative ontological foundation through which to re-think issues of representation. This will be provided by Gilles Deleuze’s materialist ontology of becoming.

Deleuze’s immanent difference

Drawing upon Spinoza, Deleuze emphasised the monism and relational becoming of all things on earth. This immanent ontology is often contrasted with transcendentalism, as it collapses the subject-object divide and posits that all beings are situated on a plane of entities which cannot be fundamentally separated, with all possessing the ability to affect and be afforded the role of ‘subject’ (Bryant, 2008). Like Derrida, Deleuze focuses on the fundamentals of reality prior to representation, but the foundation for Deleuze is multiplicity. Through this lens, true difference is foundational to all being and thus always existent prior to essence. Although Deleuze concurs with Derrida in judging difference as ontological, the concept of difference-in-itself contrasts with Derrida’s difference-as-deferral and negative-differentiation because it constitutes a core concept on which Deleuze forms an affirmative ontology focused on the relational becoming of being rather than the impossibility of knowing the world, which is the theoretical conclusion held by Derrida (Sokoloff, 2005).

Deleuze’s immanent ‘difference-in-itself’ has revolutionary potential for thought (Cockayne, 2017). Firstly, rather than differentiating between process and product, a Deleuzian approach foregrounded by immanent difference posits that process is product (Deleuze and Guattari, 1977; 6). As such, the prevailing view in traditional Western metaphysics of reality as ontologically ‘static’ is replaced by the affirmation that being is constantly ‘becoming’ and would be better defined in terms of movement (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988: 385). Following this logic, the change of a concept could be considered as inevitable and potentially positive. Second, and in conjunction with the first consequence, immanent difference means that concepts are understood in terms of an irreducible multiplicity as opposed to any single transcendent sovereign form, with Deleuze claiming that the constant repetition of things entails the re-assembling of the assemblage of related things and meanings which compose them (Deleuze, 1994: 11). Therefore, this differential repetition brings the negation of the previous version and of its copy, ensuing the endless creation of novelty (Deleuze, 1994: 55). This diverges from critiques that judge the adequacy of a representation according to criteria of faithfulness to an ‘original’ version. As a result, the wriggly maxim proposed by Deleuze in his political project of immanent difference is to ‘maximise the force of bodies’, where a body is not defined by its form or essence, but by its relationship with other bodies and its capacity to create more forceful, vibrant confluences of energy (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988: 125).  

Post-structural difference in Sumak Kawsay scholarship

The exposition of difference in the work of Derrida and Deleuze provides analytical tools that can reinvigorate the debate round Sumak Kawsay, and Derrida’s immanent difference has the added advantage of presenting an alternative ontology which could further novel understanding and critical scholarship, imagining alternative meanings and criteria for success (Smith, 2007). It is a philosophy based primarily not on opposition, but on mapping new worlds (Boundas, 2006). Thus, in addition to exercising paradox in the Derridean line, post-structuralist appraisals can also be mobilised to map more powerful relationships that can maximise the affective capacity of politicised semantic-material assemblages like Sumak Kawsay. It is thus not a question of working for the reactionist protection of concepts or of installing sovereignty around language. Rather, the kind of power or affect advocated by Deleuze can be broadly represented by the distinction in French between ‘pouvoir’ and ‘puissance’, which both translate as ‘power’ (Pelbart, 2002). ‘Pouvoir’ is understood as force over human or non-human subjects and is broadly understood as finite. In contrast, ‘puissance’ is theoretically infinite as it is the process-product of relations between bodies (Phillipe, 2006). Therefore, whereas for ‘pouvoir’ to be claimed it must be subtracted by other actants, the force of ‘puissance’ is sourced from the coming-together and intensification of assemblages of bodies of all kinds.

Derrida and Deleuze’s rejection of structural sedimentation of thought based on form, essence and sovereignty of meaning undermines the most frequent debates about the successes and perils of the precarious socio-political project of Sumak Kawsay. In addition, both philosophers stress the intrinsic multiplicity of existence, be it through the essence defined by absence of being according to Derrida or through the irreducible multiplicity of intensities of Deleuze’s difference as immanent to being. I argue that Derrida’s oeuvre can challenge the modus operandi of the morally premised academic work that contributes to the semantic and epistemological impasse in scholarship about Sumak Kawsay. Derrida’s work is highly divisive in the social sciences and humanities and has often been discounted and rejected as nihilistic (Powell, 2006: 136) or applied in a ‘light’ model of deconstruction. This ‘light model’ approach has been adopted already by Hildago-Capitan and Cubillo-Guevara (2017) in the Sumak Kawsay debate, but arguably misinterprets the praxis of Derrida’s project, as it misconstrues the term Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ as mere synonym of ‘critique’. While such scholarship contributes to the debate, it is problematic in that by creating new transcendental typologies through which to understand Sumak Kawsay and then enacting moral judgement regarding them the authors make precisely the move that a more Derridean analysis would bemoan, by divorcing the sign from its semantic context and ‘floating’ it in a different analytical context underpinned by a specific approach of epistemological critique. In contrast, I believe that a productive post-structural critique of semantics and epistemological debates around Sumak Kawsay as outlined in this essay could benefit from pursuit of the uneasy aporia at the heart of a debate defined by incommensurability.

Conclusion – an ontological turn towards more synergetic scholarship

In conclusion, although issues of epistemology and semantics as described by Cuestas-Caza (2018) dominate discussions of Sumak Kawsay in academia, I have suggested that a re-appraisal of the ontological foundations of the debate through post-structuralist critique could engender more constructive and rigorous approaches to debate. The turn towards ontology through Deleuzian and Derridean notions of difference is advocated in the knowledge that the intricate socio-political context surrounding Sumak Kawsay perpetuates the need for debates on the semantic contours of Sumak Kawsay and the legitimacy of its employment in policy and public discourse (Quijano, 2010). The issue of legitimacy is at the core of the debate. Drawing from the corpus of two white, Western, bourgeois philosophers to further theoretical commentary on the nature of Sumak Kawsay may elicit critique, as Deleuze and Derrida’s projects emerged in the same lands and intellectual traditions that justified the attempted genocide of non-Western peoples and which inform the current manifestations of unsustainable consumerism and individualism that are accelerating degradation of the natural conditions of life. Nevertheless, greater focus on ontology implies more rigorous, affirmative notions of difference and may promote the much-needed suspension of implicit or explicit transcendental judgement based on a semi-arbitrary moral code. Therefore, Deleuze and Derrida’s post-structuralist thought beckons a potential alternative way of approaching the sensitive and saturated debate around Sumak Kawsay.

Debates around what constitutes the ‘true’ meaning of an indigenous concept in the academic and political arena can also be a highly complicated venture, as preservation of indigenous difference has been accused of being based on essentialism. An ontological turn in academic focus on the issue augers productive theoretical work, although in practice it will complement semantic and epistemological research undertaken in a contemporary context that is tensioned with conflicting interests and propelled by an underlying institutional push for concrete, measurable work. A post-structural focus on ontology reserves judgement on issues of legitimacy of definitions and applications of Sumak Kawsay or its relationship with indigenous people. Thus, rather than being premised on the protection of an imperilled concept, a turn to Deleuze and Derrida foregrounds the affirmative role of the theorist to map out new affective potentialities in the debate. Although the emphasis on generative force or ‘puissance’ as the monist material at the centre of such a project may appear overly abstract, it has the potential to direct scholarship to a more adventurous, innovative avenue of study by enabling the concept to gain traction through emphasising the primacy of difference. This approach is based on a staunch resolve to resist the moralistic circumpossession of theoretical exploration of the issue in scholarship that is based on preconceived moral codes and designed to transcend previous scholarship in rigour and pertinence. Rather, a post-structural approach will, in theory, delay the ‘moment of madness’ in positing one’s opinion about the ‘legitimate’ semantic and epistemology topography of Sumak Kawsay, and has the potential to re-map the entangled web of beings and meanings as possessing an inherent dynamism that is indicative not of despair, but of hope.


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