A Proposal for an Anthropology of Thought
By Carlo Severi
Translated by Catherine V. Howard, Matthew Carey, Eric Bye, Ramon Fonkoue, and Joyce Suechun Cheng
We have all found ourselves involuntarily addressing inanimate objects as though they were human. For a fleeting instant, we act as though our cars and computers can hear us. In situations like ritual or play, objects acquire a range of human characteristics, such as perception, thought, action, or speech. Puppets, dolls, and ritual statuettes cease to be merely addressees and begin to address us—we see life in them.
How might we describe the kind of thought that gives life to the artifact, making it memorable as well as effective, in daily life, play, or ritual action? Following The Chimera Principle, in this collection of essays Carlo Severi explores the kind of shared imagination where inanimate artifacts, from non-Western masks and ritual statuettes to paintings and sculptures in our own tradition, can be perceived as living beings. This nuanced inquiry into the works of memory and shared imagination is a proposal for a new anthropology of thought.
Carlo Severi’s new book is a masterpiece for its rare combination of erudition, attention to ethnographic detail, and its vast conceptual imagination. It is a unique book from a unique author who invites us to join him on a intellectual journey along a path, following the threads that guide us to new discoveries every step of the way. Using data from different parts of the world and different historical periods, Severi keeps the reader so enthralled that the title, Capturing Imagination, ends up sounding like an augur. Let yourself be captured.
—Carlos Fausto, author of Warfare and Shamanism in Amazonia
The relation between person and object is a topic that has been central to theory in anthropology and to the method of ethnography since its inception. With this excellent English translation of L’Objet-personne, Carlo Severi invites us to revisit the legacy of assumptions and resulting models that have influenced how we conduct ourselves around objects, how we approach them in research and analysis, and how we account for the difference they make to culture and society. A tour de force on the topic of person and object and its manifold offshoots, the book is a must-read for anyone acquainted with earlier classics and their unanswered questions, which are exposed and debated here in the most nuanced, sophisticated, and hugely accessible and readable manner. This book indeed is a joy to read and a gift for anyone interested in the fundamental paradox of being human.
—Susanne Kuechler, author of Malanggan: Art, Memory and Sacrifice
Table of Contents
Levels of Cognition
Anthropology and Pragmatics
Ethnography and Thoughtsense
and Deciphering Space
The Stakes of Formal Borrowings
Carl Einstein, or Immobile Ecstasy
Primitivism without Borrowing: Imaginary Filiation
Iconography and Gaze-Games
An Exercise in Methodology
Amerindian Arts of Memory: A Case Study
Pictography and Memory: A Model
Eponymous Animals: Northwest Coast Visual Culture
Pictograms and Andean Khipus
Principles of Mnemonic Encoding
Evidentials, Pragmatics, and Artifacts
The Fang Mvet: Singer, Song, and Harp
Rethinking the West African Nail Figure
The Complex Artifact
Speech and Ritual Images
Here-Now-I: Demonstrative Images and Speech Acts
Kolossoi and Kouroi; or The Pragmatics of Images
The Image Through the Text: Identification, Hierarchy, and Prefiguration
Funerary Games as Quasi-Rituals
Reflections on Funeral Rituals among the Wari’
The Universe of Object-Persons
Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Anthropology of Art
Principles of Analysis: An Example from Kandinsky
Visual Strategies in Abstract Art
The Visible and Invisible in Works of Art
Perception and Projection in the Gaze
Symbolism and Transitional Space
Chimeras and Ambiguous Images
Wayana and Yekuana Iconography: Chimeras in the Amazon
A Science of Description: Imitare and Ritrarre
Models of Truth
Poetry Without Words or Blind Painting?
The Counterfactual Image
New Meditations on a Hobby Horse
Perspective and the Anthropology of Images
From Presence to the Active Gaze
The Witness-Figure and Capriccio
Sarzeaud, Nicolas. “Carlo Severi L’objet-personne. Une anthropologie de la croyance visuelle.” Annales: Histoire, Sciences Sociales 723 (2018): 809–11.
Severi delves into African, Amerindian, and European societies, moving from ancient Greece to the Renaissance to twentieth-century art. . . . In the cases he chooses, he questions the boundaries created by the notion of agency and the traps it hides as he seeks to explain the complexity of object-persons. . . . Postulating that images and objects have life means, in the social sciences, considering them as social agents. This paradigm of the object-person opens up new vistas: it requires going beyond the form and iconography of objects and situating them in their social space; it makes it possible to use the same analytical framework for objects originating from different cultures as well as those within the same culture but having different prestige, whether “fine art” or humbler images . . .
Interwoven in his analysis and discussion of particular cases, Severi makes his most remarkable breakthroughs. Many examples he chooses—mnemonique images, representations of relations, complex games of substitutions—demonstrate that what he calls the “visual salience” of an object is only one of the ways in which it is engaged in social life. . . . In the same spirit, the author demonstrates that the object never has a monolithic identity but instead crystallizes chains of actors and actions. . . .
The richness of the cases studied, the results presented, and the notions proposed will be useful to any observer who grapples with the images.