Capturing Imagination

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.

Capturing Imagination Cover

“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

Read excerpts from book reviews of Capturing Imagination

Published 2018
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Capturing Imagination


Chapter 1: On Living Objects and the Anthropology of Thought

Kūkai’s Vision

Levels of Cognition

Anthropology and Pragmatics

Ethnography and Thoughtsense

Chapter 2: Primitivist Empathy: Intensifying the Image and Deciphering Space

The Stakes of Formal Borrowings

Carl Einstein, or Immobile Ecstasy

Primitivism without Borrowing: Imaginary Filiation

Iconography and Gaze-Games

Chapter 3: The Universe of the Arts of Memory

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

Chapter 4: Authorless Authority: Forms of Authority in Oral Traditions

Evidentials, Pragmatics, and Artifacts

The Fang Mvet: Singer, Song, and Harp

Rethinking the West African Nail Figure

The Complex Artifact

Chapter 5: Giving Voice: When Images Speak

Speech and Ritual Images

Here-Now-I: Demonstrative Images and Speech Acts

Kolossoi and Kouroi; or The Pragmatics of Images


Chapter 6: Becoming Patroclus: Funerary Rituals and Games in The Iliad

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

Chapter 7: The Anthropology of Abstract Art

Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Anthropology of Art

Principles of Analysis: An Example from Kandinsky

Visual Strategies in Abstract Art

Chapter 8: Chimeric Space: Perception and Projection

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


Chapter 9: The Semblance of Life: The Epistemology of Western Perspective

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

Chapter 10: On Irrefutable Hypotheses


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Françoise Armengaud. Review in L’Homme: Revue française d’anthropologie 227–28 (3) (2018): 279–81.

Carlo Severi highlights the notions of creating a “parallel world” and of “dual ontological belonging” in the conclusion of this dense work of great scholarly richness. The stated aim of the book is to elaborate an anthropology of art and, more broadly, to contribute to a general anthropology of forms of exercising thought. . . . Whether it is a matter of memorization with images rather than with writing (as in the examples of the khipus in the Andes or the basketry of the Yekwana in the Upper Orinoco) or of authority asserted through images rather than writing, all the chapters explore and underscore the expansive role played by images in thought. . . .

Now, what about [his notion of an] “object-person”? “Object” points to any artifact—easy enough. But what meaning is given to the term “person”? A reader may think that “subject” would have worked, but the expression “object-subject” would seem incongruous. It is, in fact, the game—a key concept—that serves to construct the concept of person, that is, an enunciator, the actor of a ritual (or a quasi-ritual), an agent who exercises an action and is endowed with efficacy. . . .

Next question: What is the game that leads to attributing a form of life to an artifact and establishing a bond of belief between the image and its viewer? To answer this, the study of the pragmatic conditions of enunciation, where the identity of a speaker is constituted, is an essential tool of Severi’s analysis. . . . He proposes an interpretation of rites through which, due to a coherent inference of the abduction of subjectivity, an inanimate artifact takes the place of the subject performing the action. . . .

The artifact is itself the bearer of the principle of its own legitimacy; it is associated with an intentionality conceived as independent of any human will and sometimes even uncontrollable. . . . The artifact acquires a presence by taking on several traits of identity derived from the participants in the rite, resulting from the relations thus produced. . . . The aim is to consider art as a place where the agency of artifacts, among other things, is exercised. Western art, or more precisely, the domain of relations created through the gaze that such art entails, appears as a quasi-ritual relation in which a dialogue is conducted between people and artifacts. . . . This hypothesis considers certain Western works of art as object-persons and complex persons, “an enactment of a sequence of relations between images. By bringing together what is held up to view in the work of art with various subjectivities, including the observer, the image thereby acquires a semblance of life.”

Nicolas Sarzeaud. Review in Annales: Histoire, Sciences Sociales 72 (3) (2017): 809–11.

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 more modest images. . . .

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. Among them, Andean knotted strings record calculations, names of people, and places; the Fang harp is considered the author of a song; and ancient Greek funerary statues ask the living to speak for them. He then discusses the games of substitution of persons, images, and actors in games and ritual contexts, based on the episode in The Iliad about funeral games.. . .

Interwoven in his analysis and discussion of particular cases, Severi makes his most remarkable breakthroughs. Many examples he chooses—mnemonic 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. . . .

Severi also gives a cardinal importance to the question of space in the definition of image games. Overcoming the classic typology of the iconography (“realism,” “abstraction,” etc.), he proposes a new one, structured in particular by the treatment of space and by the relations in the image between “projection” and “perception,” the “iconic” and the “indexical.” He then tests this typology, rather difficult to handle, by explaining the specificity of what he calls “chimerical space” in the iconography of the Wayana in South America. . . .

Of course, this book will not help make the theoretical arsenal of visual studies more homogeneous (an idea that is best abandoned), but the richness of the cases studied, the results presented, and the notions proposed will be useful to any observer who grapples with images.

Ivan Bargna. Review in L’Indice dei Libri del Mese 36 (6), (June 2019).

This book by Carlo Severi explores an anthropology of “visual belief” . . . .  through a comparative analysis of highly diverse, far-flung cases, such as chimerical representations of the Upper Orinoco, masks of the Baga in Guinea Bissau, nail figures from the Congo, statues from ancient Greece, Renaissance art, and abstract art of the twentieth century. It is not so much a matter of comparing iconographic repertoires as it is of identifying the “mental operations,” the specific forms of “transitivity” and appeals to the gaze involved in the invention of each form. . . .

Severi’s anthropological approach focuses on specific contexts or systems of interaction among images, speech, artifacts, and persons. . . . It involves identifying the various “games” and spaces within which the images operate, the different forms of transitivity, that is, the various possible ways of organizing the figures that orient the viewer’s gaze, generating specific forms of illusion. . . .

The theme of the “object-person”—the agency of things and the power of images—situates Severi’s book within a debate that has occupied the anthropology of art and material culture studies since the 1990s. . . . Severi takes part in this debate in an authoritative and original manner [by] concentrating on ritual actions that, generating an ontological dimension parallel to that of ordinary social life, allow our anthropomorphic predisposition to give rise to stable, enduring beliefs and to produce “complex or convergent identities.” . . .

Art can be considered as a quasi-ritual production in which certain works, in relation to the viewer, can assume the quality of object-persons, attributed with life. This occurs through the “transitivity of perspective,” which lends continuity between painted and real space and thus “indirectly creates the presence of an observer committed to the image through gazing.” These are among the most intriguing pages of this book, when he offers an anthropological reading of art history . . .

After having read this scholarly, dense, and stimulating book, one inevitably wonders if the perspective it delineates could also be applied in other arenas the author does not touch on, more related to the contemporary world. This could lead . . . in the direction of new forms of human–machine hybridization and the “internet of things” . . . where there appears to be an “intelligence” in things that speak, detect, and anticipate our wishes.

Francesco Remotti. Review in Il Nuovo Manifesto Società Cooperativa Editrice (July 15, 2018).

To attribute traits approaching human nature to a statue or painting, writes Carlo Severi in this book, is something necessary at the root of the aesthetic experience. . . . His book invites us to enter distant cultures not to get lost in them but, rather, to acquire perspectives and tools that will enable us to better understand what is happening at home. . . .

In this new book, Severi returns to the concept of images, taken as constructed objects, artifacts that in themselves are inanimate (such as, for example, a doll) but which, under certain conditions, acquire the ability to act, to manifest thought, emotions, speech—that is, to become a person. . . . As the expert, professional anthropologist that he is, Severi takes us into a multiplicity of contexts to view culturally constructed objects to which—in an equally cultural manner—are attributed a capacity for intentionality and interaction that is particularly efficacious and incisive in social life. . . .

The ethnographic information that Severi brings in provides such a wealth of material and so many ramifications of conceptual implications that readers soon realize they are not wandering in marginal zones of culture and human thought. . . . in  fact, entire chapters of his book are devoted to Western art, even abstract art, and the pages in which he examines problems of perspective in Renaissance art are masterful. . . . This complex, intense, engaging book moves from nkisi figures in Africa and masks in the American Northwest Coast to Kandinsky and Leonardo da Vinci, allowing him to almost redefine the concept of the “‘magic’ of a work of art,” since “whether it is a statue, drawing, or painting, a work of art may thus acquire a personality close to that of a human being.” Hence, one of the most significant conclusions Severi draws on an anthropological level is that “the idea of a life associated with an image is not a simple exotic belief coming from distant or primitive countries. It is, to the contrary, one of the universal roots of the aesthetic experience.” It is always we, as human beings, who, besides constructing an image, figure, or fresco, give it a “life” and do so on the basis of a “fiction,” a “belief,” establishing what Severi calls “a bond of belief” between the “living” image and its user.