The Occult Life of Things: Native Amazonian Theories of Materiality and Personhood

The Occult Life of Things: Native Amazonian Theories of Materiality and Personhood

by Fernando Santos-Granero (Editor)


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Native peoples of the Amazon view objects, especially human artifacts, as the first cosmic creations and the building blocks from which the natural world has been shaped. In these constructional cosmologies, spears became the stings of wasps, hammocks became spiderwebs, stools became the buttocks of human beings.

A view so antithetical to Western thought offers a refreshing perspective on the place and role of objects in human social life—one that has remained under-studied in Amazonian anthropology. In this book, ten scholars re-introduce objects to contemporary studies of animism in order to explore how various peoples envision the lives of material objects: the occult, or extraordinary, lives of “things,” whose personas are normally not visible to lay people.

Combining linguistic, ethnological, and historical perspectives, the contributors draw on a wealth of information gathered from ten Amerindian peoples belonging to seven different linguistic families to identify the basic tenets of what might be called a native Amazonian theory of materiality and personhood. They consider which objects have subjective dimensions and how they are manifested, focusing on three domains regarding Amazonian conceptions of things: the subjective life of objects, considering which things have a subjective dimension; the social life of things, seeing the diverse ways in which human beings and things relate as subjectivities; and the historical life of things, recognizing the fact that some things have value as ritual objects or heirlooms.

These chapters demonstrate how native Amazonian peoples view animals, plants, and things as “subjectivities” possessing agency, intentionality, and consciousness, as well as a composite anatomy. They also show how materiality is intimately linked to notions of personhood, with artifacts classified as natural or divine creations and living beings viewed as cultural or constructed. The Occult Life of Things offers original insights into these elaborate native ontologies as it breaks new ground in Amazonian studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780816528745
Publisher: University of Arizona Press
Publication date: 10/15/2009
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Fernando Santos-Granero is a staff scientist for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and author of Vital Enemies: Slavery, Predation, and the Amerindian Political Economy of Life and The Power of Love: The Moral Use of Knowledge amongst the Amuesha of Central Peru.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Amerindian Constructional Views of the World
Fernando Santos-Granero

Part I Artifactual Anatomies
1 The Fabricated Body: Objects and Ancestors in Northwest Amazonia
Stephen Hugh-Jones
2 Things as Persons: Body Ornaments and Alterity among the Mamaindê (Nambikwara)
Joana Miller
3 Baby Hammocks and Stone Bowls: Urarina Technologies of Companionship and Subjection
Harry Walker

Part II Subjectivized Materialities
4 From Baby Slings to Feather Bibles and from Star Utensils to Jaguar Stones: The Multiple Ways of Being a Thing in the Yanesha Lived World
Fernando Santos-Granero
5 The (De)animalization of Objects: Food Offerings and Subjectivization of Masks and Flutes among the Wauja of Southern Amazonia
Aristóteles Barcelos Neto
6 Valuables, Value, and Commodities among the Kayapo of Central Brazil
Terence Turner

Part III Materialized Subjectivities
7 Obedient Things: Reflections on the Matis Theory of Materiality
Philippe Erikson
8 The Crystallized Memory of Artifacts: A Reflection on Agency and Alterity in Cashinahua Image-Making
Els Lagrou
9 Identity Cards, Abducted Footprints, and the Book of San Gonzalo: The Power of Textual Objects in Runa Worldview
María A. Guzmán-Gallegos
10 Materializing the Occult: An Approach to Understanding the Nature of Materiality in Wakuénai Ontology
Jonathan D. Hill

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