I have been struggling with how to combine realist ontologies from the continental philosophical tradition with that of the Maya. That is not an easy task as the ontology/ontologies of the Maya (ancient and contemporary) tend to be seen as “social constructions” of some non-specified reality “out there”. However, the problem is even greater than that. The continental philosophical tradition is “Eurocentric” as well and one can easily find problems and issues that these ontologies focuses on that is of little to no relevance outside this “cultural sphere”. What anthropologists often uncover in “non-Western” collectives are different ontologies that of course can be described as various sensual profiles of real objects but I believe the problem is deeper than that.
On occasion I have made use of the anthropologist Göran Aijmer’s “ontology of ontologies” where he outlines at least three different coexisting ontological orders (realist, discursive and iconic). Aijmer created these different orders to describe different modes of existence. For example, someone carves a temple mask (an activity that can be described by metric information if needed). What the carver believe is being carved (the discursive order) is different from the reproduction of non-linguistic “messages” manifested in the mask (the iconic order). However, Aijmer has created this ontology of ontologies from readings of Wittgenstein and his language games. The attempt to describe different modes of existence has also been proposed by Etienne Souriau which is outlined by Latour in The Speculative Turn. I will discuss that alternative approach in another post. In this post I want to emphasize how a “Eurocentric” ontology may be problematic to combine with a Maya ontology, if we want to maintain a flat ontology.
Today I was reading Graham Harman’s summary of Quentin Meillassoux’s English articles in his book about this philosopher. The article Spectral Dilemma is sort of an appetizer for Meillassoux’s unpublished book The Divine Inexistence (which also is summarized in Harman’s book). A specter/phantasm is someone who has died unjustifiably and therefore has not been properly mourned. There are paths of despair for both the theist and the atheist that create these specters. The spectral dilemma is that if there is a God, why did he/she let it happen and if there is no God there is no redemption for the victim of injustice. In order to solve this dilemma, the thesis of the divine inexistence is needed. What Meillassoux shows is that both theism and atheism claims to exhaust the field of possibilities. This is wrong because both believe that their position is true, they also commit themselves to the idea that this truth is a necessity. For an atheist it not only a necessity for God not to exist but also that he cannot exist. To the theist God’s existence is of course a necessity. Instead of this dilemma Meillassoux launches the idea of a virtual God, currently inexistent, contingent and unmasterable. God may exist in the future (this conclusion follows several lines of thought which I do not have time to cover here, but I will). Let’s just hope someone does not believe this God emerges on December 21, 2012 in the form of Bolon Yokte K’uh.
Even though I find Meillassoux’s ideas intriguing I see this spectral dilemma as something of relevance in a “Western” theistic/atheistic tradition. It is completely irrelevant to contemporary Yucatec Maya (and perhaps to other contemporary and ancient Maya as well). Despite centuries of Christian influence, the Maya have “stubbornly” maintained a very different ontology. To use Aijmer’s terms, the iconic order has remained fairly intact as non-human objects are crucial ingredients in this order. The discursive order has changed.
To the Maya a person never dies (and I wonder if they ever are born?). As Astor-Aguilera writes, the body (human body, pot or building) is simply a container for non-corporeal persons that are tethered to this container for as long as the container is usable. It can be discarded through what we call biological death, smashing of pottery or a termination ritual. To the Maya there are no gods, divinities, etc., these are Christian overcodings. Only non-corporeal persons/ancestors exist and they are tethered into various objects and phenomena but these ancestors do not live in a separate realm. They are within earth, on earth and in the sky and the trees link these non-discrete realms. They are still communicating after the “death” of the object. The Maya both undermine and overmine objects, which exactly is what materialism does according to Harman. In any case, the theistic/atheistic spectral dilemma is no dilemma for the Maya. The Maya are simply living with their ancestors.
Astor-Aguilera, Miguel Angel (2010). The Maya World of Communicating Objects: Quadripartite Crosses, Trees, and Stones. University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque
Harman, Graham (2011). Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making. Edinburgh University Press. Edinburgh.