Carlos Iván Degregori and Peru’s enigmatic interior forces

This past week I had the opportunity to attend a remarkable event at the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos: a roundtable devoted to the impact of the polymathic anthropologist Carlos Iván Degregori. Degrori passed away just over two years ago, and his extensive personal library and archives – from newspaper columns, to taped interviews with a wide variety of key political figures, to a remarkable collection of political pamphlets – is being opened to the public. This is a big deal: while waiting for the event to start, I browsed some samples from the holdings, and the collection of Leftist party literature alone offers many hours’ worth of rich investigation (for those residing in or passing through Lima, that is; copyright restrictions will prevent the digitization of the collection).

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Degregori was a scholar of multiple vocations. His most lasting legacy will likely be his status as a leading “Senderologist,” an interpreter of the phenomenon of Sendero Luminoso. These works range from his enduring characterization (in NACLA Report on the Americas) of Sendero as a “dwarf star,” its small core containing massive gravitation; to book-length treatments of Sendero’s early growth (Degregori was the son of Ayachuchanos, and taught at Huamanga University during the decade when Sendero was forming there);  to a book of essays (newly-translated to English and the best available in that language) explicating Sendero’s ideology and politics. I first read his work in college, where his treatment of the thesis and antithesis of Sendero’s revolutionary repression, which led to counter-revolutionary violence by the highland peasants who supposedly represented Sendero’s constituency, made a considerable impact on me.

Nonetheless, his interests were immensely broad (as the partial bibliography on this page shows): from loving studies of popular music, to reflections on the discipline(s) of the social sciences, to a key publication on the authoritarian regime of Alberto Fujimori. His impact was not confined to the strictly scholarly realm; he wrote poetry, and many, many newspaper columns, and was a committed man of the Left beginning in the 1970s. In short, he was one of Peru’s foremost public intellectuals, and it is small wonder that throughout the evening, Degregori’s colleagues and friends delivered heartfelt tributes to the “multiple Carlos Iván.”

Some contributions were particularly moving, of course. Old friends of Degregori, including some from the audience, told stories of their adventures in political activism and journalism in their shared youth. The sociologist and politician Marisa Glave gave a short and emotional talk, effectively on behalf of the Peruvian community of social scientists, but surely on behalf of a generation of younger Left activists as well. Defining her generation of scholars as one that would live and work in a space defined by Degregori’s mentorship, she explained his impact upon those he mentored: an absolute rejection of revolutionary violence, and a devotion to deepening interculturality in the diverse nation that is Peru. In a country whose brush with revolutionary violence and the legacies of cultural and racial exclusion has been as searing as any in recent memory, this is no small lesson to learn from a public scholar.

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I have been reading Tulio Halperin Donghi’s magisterial Contemporary History of Latin America. The English version – beautifully transformed by John Charles Chasteen – closes with this sentence: “…the line of advance cannot be less enigmatic than the vast interior forces that create it.” Coming from the pen of a historian who focused often on the late and imperfect national consolidation of the fragmented Andean countries, where creole and creolized and indigenous communities uneasily shared space for centuries without necessarily coming to a shared understanding of nationhood, this suggests an ongoing struggle in the region to comprehend itself, and particularly for national elites to comprehend their internal others. This impression is helped along, of course, by the suggestive use of “interior” in a part of the world where (classically) liberal, outward-facing coastal regions have often dominated (and “orientalized”) the disadvantaged Andean and Amazonian, llanero and gaucho and sertanejo and highland heart(s) of the continent.

This effort to come to grips with supposed enigmatic others is by no means finished in Peru, where deep regional and ethnic divisions persist, and where recent violence suggests the danger of ignoring, marginalizing, or (consciously or not) exploiting “enigmatic… vast interior forces.” As is the case in many Latin American countries, Peruvian society is multicultural and fragmented, unevenly integrated into the nation, and this multiplicity can be overwhelming for scholars and policymakers alike. The model of eclectic inquiry provided by Degregori, a scholar who in the words of one panelist “did not have, and did not seek, a [single or particular] method,” may well provide the best model available for the study of  Peruvian social problems. This way of knowing is deeply humane, committed to nonviolent politics and to intercultural inquiry, and all-embracing in its desire to draw near to the many facets  of a deeply diverse and profoundly multiple country.

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