‘How to unlearn what we know and unthink the system: Contextualised Communitarian Economies, Feminine Solidarity, Body-land and Territorial Agonism’. Review of Laura Rodriguez Castro, Decolonial Feminisms, Power and Place: Sentipensando with Rural Women in Colombia (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2021)
Reading the Room: the radical act of experiential Reading <preamble>
I once recall roaming though the towers of the library selecting things to read. Often it would start with riffing off a reading from a footnote. From this process of rummaging I’d select a cornucopia of books. Balancing this tall pile I’d find a desk to explore my chance findings, reading, taking notes, until closing time. This form of attention and aimless wandering seems indulgent in retrospect. A radical dance with books. A somatic experience, reading the space around me anew, as one might do when in new place. The vividness of smell, the horizon, the building, the book spines, all speak of their provenance. My roaming efforts was not a strategic exercise in ‘rewilding’ or gleaned from any ‘how to’. It emerged out of trust, respect and curiosity. The reason I am writing this is that very recently I was designing a syllabus outline for my ‘computational poetics and choreography’ studio. I found myself with the conundrum of having to put as a prerequisite: “the ability and desire to read”. Many would assume that this would be a given, but this is not necessarily the case. The act of reading has diminished. Often when working and/or studying in academic contexts reading is an act of extraction rather than soaking up knowledge. For many reading has become an act of harvesting or merely a matter of strategic citation.
With this in mind when invited to contribute to the project ‘Reading with Reciprocity: A Feminist Move Towards Reviewing with Generosity’ by The Ediths I was thrilled. Mindy Blaise, Jane Merewether, and Jo Pollitt (co-founders of The Ediths) were inspired by CLEAR’s #Collabrary: a methodological experiment for reading with reciprocity working with these practices as a way towards becoming more generous and accountable scholars. Fourteen members took part in this small project that involved reading and reviewing one of six books with generosity which can be found on the website here: https://theediths.org/projects/’
Laura Rodríguez Castro’s debut 2021 book Decolonial Feminisms, Power and Place: Sentipensando with Rural Women in Colombia is a prolific contribution to the ontologies of the Global South stemming from her collective engagement with diverse rural community groups in Colombia, detailing her experience amongst living with the Campesina women in her homeland. In the wake of Colombian governmental post-peace accord period with the Revolutionary Armed Forces People’s Army (FARC-EP) the extractive legacies and violent acts that endure now-a-days are typically driven by rogue actors motivated by greed or utter poverty. Perpetuated by activities such as illegal tree felling of the Putumayo Southern Colombian Amazon, or tactical murders of local community leaders acting to protect sacred realms financed by a various array of obfuscated hosts, all of which, conferring to Castro, are a result of the Colonial Matrix of Power (CMP).
As a consequence, her fieldwork details how the persistent body-land, social and ecological violence preserves ‘the marginalisation of the majority of women’s voices and experiences’. To alleviate this Castro articulates the knowledges and practices of the Campesina women describing their emancipatory potentials. By concentrating on the bodies and materials she encounters, as visceral sites where the ethical, political and intersectional agonism manifests, the reader is brought closer to deep-seated political endeavors that strive to combat the inferences of the CMP which relentlessly presume that regulated frameworks can be marshaled to account for all the others.
By placing her body on the line Castro’s situated ethnography consciously makes her presence perceptible, questioning her ‘positionality with a focus on race, ethnicity and class, which are often ignored in colonial feminist work’ by drawing upon ‘participatory feeling-thinking’ case studies through: in-depth interviews; groups interviews during rituals of eating; photographic documentation including walking in distinctive periods to discover light intimately known as ‘veredear’. The bold, structurally transformative, insurgent accounts of Campesina women, their ‘resistance and re-existence’, these communities recognise dominant and inherited strategies and support each other to shed them. Castro bears testimony to the sway that grassroots progressive feminism has in transfiguring and creating alternative foundations for those most marginalised in the absence of deep structural change. Thorough reflections on the necessity for more situated feminist futures, to contend how and why not become ensnared in the undercurrents of CMP terrains. Castro interrogates the contradictions of the plural worlds within which she dwells, now as a privileged Latino researcher based in Australia, attending to these practices have importance for reflexive feminist solidarity, it allows us as a community of feminist researchers, to appreciate what languages are expended, acquiring how decisions are made by whom, and what outcomes they enable, that constitute agonistic ‘Sentipensando and Unlearning’.
The salience of Castro’s case studies that recount her experiences in rural communities of women who are reconnecting with home brewed knowledge. As they strive to untangle from essentialist divisions and gain autonomy from the undeniable sources of income provided by the stream of spiritual tourists whose cultural misappropriations persists and endures. Think: hip ‘gringos’ who parachute in to live with the Sharman’s of the Colombian Andes for a divine cleanse, probably after stint of super yacht labour for the 1%ers. Or other throngs of cashed up youth who are commonly witnessed to be traveling through South America after completion of extreme military service (conceivably enacting massacres of their own civilian neighbors) need of an extended backpacking trip. Many come seeking redemption through Ayahuasca purification ceremonies, but in reality are maintaining CMP and the south as a site of gross economic disparity in relation to the prosperity of the Global North.
Articulating the contemporary global challenge of inequity for Colombia and beyond, this book proves just how powerful candid feminist scholarship can be. Castro’s commitment to nurturing an ethics of care rooted in social justice dismantles received ‘ideas of liberation …forged in the process of identifying’ exchanging these traditional customs to instead foster a more situated awareness. It requires generosity and a profound compulsion for feminist scholars to equivocally think ‘beyond gender, to a world of possibility’ (Nicholas 2021). Navigating over (and across) notional feminist waves and ‘e-bile’ (Jane 2016) audaciously Castro advances beyond these obstacles, addressing decolonial feminism ‘not as a concrete theory, but as a process that is alive, emphasising the openness of identities and the entanglement of ways of thinking’. It is rare to read a scholar who embodies such a strong combination of theoretical depth, methodological rigor, and promise to radical transformative women led socio-cultural practice. The work is a momentous contribution anchored in epistemic analysis that questions self-proclaimed radical feminist NGOs guided by the creed of colonial virtue signalling.
Addressing all the nuances yielded by the book – exceed the bounds of this review– however, the prospect I am left with is the capacity for grassroots women’s movements and other peripheral agents to contribute to compelling innovations and nuanced understandings, through mediating, interpreting through ‘Sentipensando and Unlearning’, a place where transdisciplinary knowledges may flourish. Most importantly, it is Castro’s courage and integrity that offers nascent pathways for what it means to be a feminist in the 21st Century, is to be dedicated to a situated process of improvisation in order to constantly be in a weave of infinite configurations with cosmographic relations that requires constant underscoring and alteration. Readers will discover how the self-determined practices of Campesina women in Colombia are central to expanding global anti-capitalist struggles around care, nourishing and inspiring hope in what is seeded, so these polyphonic existences can continue to take root and thrive.
Jane, E. A. 2016. ‘Online misogyny and feminist digilantism,’ Continuum 30 (3): 284–297. doi: 10.1080/10304312.2016.1166560.
Nicholas, L. 2021. ‘Remembering Simone de Beauvoir’s “Ethics of Ambiguity” to Challenge Contemporary Divides: Feminism beyond Both Sex and Gender.’ Feminist Theory 22 (2): 226–47. doi: 10.1177/1464700120988641.