Envy and Pottery Making in Aguabuena, Colombia

A review of Locations of Envy: An Ethnography of Aguabuena Potters, by Daniella Castellanos Montes.

Locations of Envy is based upon long-term ethnographic fieldwork with peasant artisans in Aguabuena, a hillside area in Colombia’s Boyacá region that has become known for the production of rustic handmade ceramics. Aguabuena’s potters work in both cooperation and competition with one another in a market in which they are economically marginal and highly dependent on middlemen and state representatives, a situation similar to that in which many artisans throughout the world find themselves today. However, where most anthropological research with artisans is directed towards the political-economic, material, or processual aspects of craft production and marketing, Castellanos Montes begins by drawing the reader into her own puzzlement about a matter-of-fact statement made by her research participants: When pots break during production, they do so because of envy and not technical or material faults (p. 23).

Envy is well known to play a significant role in peasant societies throughout Latin America. In contrast to the widespread understanding in the English speaking world that envy is an individual emotional state, in Latin America la envidia is often understood simultaneously as something that happens to the envier, something that the envied themselves provoke, a characteristic of places and objects as well as people, and an agent in its own right. As Castellanos Montes notes, in Colombian Spanish envy is recurrently expressed as an adjective, verb, and noun—both in the singular and the plural form (“envy” and “the envies”)—and the enviers and the envied are not clearly distinguished from one another in everyday speech (p. 60). As such, envy is an intersubjective, but potentially divisive, social experience. Envy appears to work almost as a “total social fact” in Aguabuena: It is both a cause and consequence of everyday social events, producing divisions among neighbors while entangling them materially and socially with one another. As is shown in fine ethnographic detail throughout the dissertation, envy “constrains social life, but also activates and reinforces social bonds, and by this token… joins individuals, causing them to simultaneously be a part of and apart from the world” (p. 10).

Because of its seemingly pervasive nature, envy has historically been a prominent leitmotif in research about Latin American rural communities, especially by twentieth-century anthropologists working in the Marxist tradition. Along with mal ojo (evil eye), it was central to analyses of folk beliefs of magic and healing (e.g. Michael Kearney, The Winds of Ixtepeji: World View and Society in a Zapotec Town, 1985), and it also functioned as a diagnostic to identify particular types of peasant social organization, i.e., a “closed corporate community” (Eric Wolf, “Types of Latin American Peasantry,” American Anthropologist, 1955). However, despite this earlier preoccupation with envy, very little attention has been paid to the subject in recent years (although Krista Van Vleet’s work on Andean kinship is a notable exception). Castellanos Montes’s dissertation redresses this by bringing current anthropological treatments to her close analysis of Aguabuena’s potters’ everyday experiences, and in so doing argues for a repositioning of anthropological understandings of envy more generally.

Castellanos Montes firstly reads her data against the functionalist analyses from the 1960s and 1970s that saw it as a regulatory mechanism within peasant ideologies of “limited good” (e.g., George Foster, “The Anatomy of Envy: A Study in Symbolic Behavior,” Current Anthropology, 1972). Secondly, she addresses more recent approaches that view envy as a potentially deleterious product of communal life that is materialized through performance, discourse, and physical illness (e.g., Michael Taussig Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man, 1987; Joanna Overing and Alan Passes, The Anthropology of Love and Anger: The Aesthetics of Conviviality in Native Amazonia, 2000). While showing how these perspectives afford certain insights with regards to her research, Castellanos Montes argues that envy plays a more active role in constituting social life than previously allowed for. Drawing in particular on works concerning embodiment and intersubjectivity by Thomas Csordas and Michael Jackson, the author connects her analysis to current debates about personhood and agency, affect and emotions, materiality and the body, and experiences of the sacred and preternatural. She argues that Aguabuena’s inhabitants’ envy should be simultaneously understood as an intersubjective practice (pp. 68–71, 140–76), a narrative form (pp. 117–35), a physical and social condition that makes social life possible (pp. 76–94), and even a desired end in itself (pp. 72, 173–76).

Drawing metaphorically on her informants’ practices of pottery making, Castellanos Montes crafts her analysis through her own non-linear narrative of ethnographic discovery. In the introductory section, the potters’ envy is situated within the intellectual, historical, social, topographic, and corporal trajectories that will be discussed in more detail in the chapters that follow. The introduction also provides the historical and sociological background of Aguabuena and the nearby Catholic Monastery of the Virgin of Candelaria, and it offers an account of the history and practice of pottery production.

This section also describes the potters’ concept of puntos (locations), which refers to the particular spatial, physical, and temporal conditions under which skills, tools, and materials can be successfully used to make pots. For example, the kilns in which the pots are fired have spatial puntos, specific locations from which a potter can monitor the firing of her work, and a temporal punto, the moment when pots are transformed from raw clay to cooked pottery (p. 28). Hence, puntos refer to “a spatio-temporal existence, intentionally created by artisans, [which determines] the way an individual relates to others, materials or objects” (p. 28). Castellanos Montes suggests that the concept of puntos in fact also helps to explain the ways in which social life unfolds in Aguabuena, and in particular how envy is understood and experienced. Thus, a punto is also “a perspective, angle, viewpoint on the world, or an interstitial location of transformative power” that may also be “holes, fractures, gaps in the walls… corners, bushes or high places that create spatial discontinuities (cracks) or allow panoramic viewpoints whence to observe and envy people” (p. 28). Finally, the author also explains how she deploys puntos as a textual device throughout the dissertation, so that each chapter produces a different perspective on the issue of envy, refracting earlier discussions without attempting to produce a linear and totalizing explanation.

Chapter One serves as an anchor for the various puntos on envy that are taken up in the subsequent chapters, and it documents local narratives that illustrate the depth and diversity of envy in Aguabuena. These narratives include: the mytho-historical establishment of Aguabuena as an envious place through monks’ stories about the deeds and misdeeds of the Devil, the Virgin of Candelaria, and Saint Monica; the envious behavior of community members surrounding the establishment of an irrigation aqueduct; the envious nature of clay and pots as material objects; and the possibility that the anthropologist herself could become more envious as a consequence of the time spent in the area.

Chapter Two interrogates more fully established theoretical accounts of envy from the perspectives of anthropology, Western philosophy, and psychology. This is done in reference to a series of “oscillations,” or pendular contrasts, by which these theoretical approaches are contrasted to one another and to the potters’ own understandings of envy. Rather than a resolute literature review, these oscillations are intended to produce a productive tension in the text and a ground against which the local puntos of envy can be brought forward. These oscillations are: (1) envy as a destructive or creative force; (2) etymological and descriptive definitions of envy; (3) envy as norm or exception, and how this relates to surveillance and observation; (4) the incompleteness or plasticity of envy as a contradictory set of experiences; (5) passion, or the affective experience of envy; (6) envy as emotion, sin, or intersubjective experience; and (7) envy as a corporeal and teleological practice from a phenomenological perspective.

In Chapter Three, Castellanos Montes takes up the final “oscillation” by exploring ethnographically the visceral, physical, and emotional experience of envying and being envied in Aguabuena. In contrast with previous approaches that have privileged symbol and metaphor, the author focuses on the intersubjective and embodied aspects of envy. A particularly interesting aspect of this chapter is how potters’ bodily conditions and the physical traces they leave upon their pots are seen to instigate envious experiences. The divisive image of social life in Aguabuena is then folded back upon itself as Chapter Four explores the ways in which envy is also central to the production of mutual relations that are constituted through the material and economic practices of pottery making and marketing. Thus, potters are “entangled” with one another, their materials, and their finished pots, as they work within the material and economic constraints of their craft.

Continuing with the theme of entanglement, Chapters Five and Six closely examine the narratives and actions through which potters’ envy becomes palpable in Aguabuena. Through practices of kinship, gossip/storytelling, legal disputes, and watching (even “spying” on) one another, Castellanos Montes argues that potters co-produce “distorted and partial selves, in turn collectively composing a distorted image of Aguabuena” and therefore also becoming authors in the lives of each other (p. 139). From this perspective, it also becomes possible to see that envy is a much more ambiguous, yet socially productive feature of social life than presented earlier accounts, as it actively produces intimacy: “On the one hand, the potters’ closeness made them existentially smothered, and on the other, it prevented them from moving away from each other… envy became simultaneously a forma de cuidar, way of caring, nurturing the exacerbated sense of being and reciprocity amongst others and the inter-subjective qualities of life” (p. 176).

Chapter Seven returns to one of the narratives offered in the first chapter by addressing the role that envy plays in local experiences of the religious and sacred, especially with regards to the historical and contemporary relationships between the people of Aguabuena and the Augustinian monks of the nearby monastery. Finally, in the Conclusion, Castellanos Montes draws the reader back out from her detailed ethnography and ethnohistory of envy, to resituate the potters’ envious narratives and practices within their experiences and practices of craft. She argues that, in fact, what her research shows is that envy itself is as much a craft as is pottery making, as both are simultaneously performance and production; individual and intersubjective; bodily practices and forms of knowledge; material and social; and, perhaps most importantly, divisive and unifying.

When published, Castellanos Montes’s work will make an important contribution to the anthropological study of envy and of personhood and emotions more generally, as her analysis pushes well beyond standard functional, performative, and psychological explanations. It will also pose a thought-provoking challenge to those currently working on material practices, including, but certainly not limited to, those working on craft. Her analysis shows that by paying attention to the correspondences between material practices and seemingly unrelated social forms, we can gain insight into both fields. Finally, her creative use of the potters’ own terminologies as devices for both analysis and writing offers a new methodological and communicative approach that avoids linear and “procedural” explanations of social and material production, which is what the most productive and exciting research on craft strives to do.

Alanna Cant
Postdoctoral Researcher
Department of Anthropology, University of Oslo

Primary Sources
12 months of fieldwork (2009-2010):
– Participant observation, artisanal apprenticeship, life history and narrative interviews with potters in Aguabuena, Ráquira, Colombia
– Formal interviews with municipal authorities and craft dealers, Ráquira, Colombia
– Institutional and historical documents relating to the La Candelaria Monastery, Ráquira, Colombia

Dissertation Information
University of St. Andrews, United Kingdom. 2013. 222 pp. Primary Advisors: Paloma Gay y Blasco and Stephanie Bunn.

Image: “Ráquira is known for its pottery,” 2009, by momentcaptured1 via Flickr.

Leave a Reply