Fernando Santos Granero

The Occult Life of Things

Yahesha panpipes

Yanesha flutes. Photo: Marcos Guerra, 2007

In July 2006, Philippe Erikson (Université de Paris X-Nanterre) and I organized a symposium titled The Occult Life of Things: Native Amazonian Theories of Materiality and Personhood, which was held at the 52nd International Congress of Americanists (Seville, Spain). The aim of the symposium was to gather a number of specialists to explore how native Amazonians conceive of the lives of material objects. In the past decade, there has been much emphasis on the “animic” character of Amerindian cosmologies and the need to expand our notion of Amazonian sociality beyond the sphere of human relations to include plants and animals. Likewise, much has been said about the “perspectivist” quality of relationships between humans and non-humans, a quality by which each party sees its own members as humans while it regards members of the other party as non-human predators. Animic and perspectivist notions also apply to the world of “things” (see, for instance, Viveiros de Castro 2004), a term which we use to encompass not only human-made objects, but also certain natural objects that have come to be possessed by humans or that are believed to be central to human life.

The widespread distribution of the myth of the “revolt of things” in the Americas attests to the pervasiveness of the Amerindian idea that in primordial times things were human (Lévi-Strauss 1969). But even objects that are not believed to have an intrinsic living dimension are thought to be able to become endowed with properties generally attributed to living beings. Some objects, we are told, are imbued with the power to attract those with whom they come in contact; other objects become, through intimate contact, of one essence with their makers/owners, and may be as much the subject of sorcery as the people to whom they belong; still others are believed to have protective powers that increase with the passage of time and their transmission from generation to generation as family heirlooms.

Wauja clay pot

Waujá clay pot. Photo: Aristóteles Barcelos Neto, 2000

Symposium participants discussed three aspects of the occult life of things; occult both because their lives are extra-ordinary, and because their personas are normally not visible to lay people. Firstly, the issue of the subjective life of things. Do all things have a subjective dimension? Is this subjectivity human or animal? How does the subjectivity of things manifest itself? Is the subjectivity of things simply a projection of human or animal subjectivity to the material world? If not, how does the subjectivity of things differ from that of humans? How do things feel, know, think, or perceive the world? Is the subjectivity of things essential or positional, given or processual? How is the subjectivity of things connected to the construction of their self-identity?

Urarina baby hammock rattle

Urarina baby hammock rattle.
Photo: Harry Walker, 2006

Secondly, the issue of the social life of things, by which we meant not the way things move in and out of various “regimes of value” and “spheres of exchange” à la Appadurai (1986), but rather, more literally, the many ways in which humans and things relate qua subjectivities. In what contexts does the relationship between people and things become intersubjective? Do things have social or historical agency? Are ties between people and subjectivized things modeled on the same relational patterns that regulate inter-human sociality? What are the effects of such intersubjectivity on the interacting parties? What are the cognitive aspects of relationships between humans and things?

Lastly, the issue of the historical life of things. Because of their high value as ritual objects, prestige goods, or family heirlooms, some things (e.g. magical stones, masks, flutes, feather headdresses, bodily trophies) have a history. On the one hand, this is a social history; the oral history that recounts who made them, where they were made, which persons possessed them, how or why did they change hands, what modifications they experienced through time, etc. On the other hand, insofar as Amerindians perceive some things as being intrinsically alive, or having become imbued with the properties of living beings, things can also be said to have a biography, that is, an account of how and when they came to life, who brought them to life, what life experiences they had, what relations they entertained with other living beings (things, animals and people), and, sometimes, how their lives came to an end. In some instances the social histories and biographies of things are intertwined, in others they seem to be independent.

Kayapo decorated airplane

Kayapó decorated airplane.
Photo. Barbara Zimmerman, 1990.

Combining linguistic, ethnological, and historical perspectives, participants identified the basic tenets of what can be considered a native Amazonian theory of materiality and personhood. In this indigenous view, artifacts are conceived of as the first creations, the building blocks out of which the bodies of people, animals, plants and even the gods, were first modeled and shaped. In these constructional ontologies, artifacts fall on the side of the ‘natural’ or the given -they were the first divine creations-, whereas humans, animals and plants –with their composite, artifactual anatomies- fall on the side of the ‘cultural’ or the constructed. Culture –as understood in Western thought- preceded Nature, whereas what Westerners understand as Nature appears, for native Amazonians, as a cultural construct.

The papers presented at this symposium will soon be published by the Arizona University Press (see Table of Contents).

Table of Contents

Read book reviewed by Joyce M. Youmans


Back to Index