Posted by: Johan Normark | March 29, 2009

Ideology and Mayanists

The last entry made me recall one of my earlier studies on the concept of ideology in Maya research. The aim of Mayanists seems to be to find the ideal ideology that remains fairly unaffected by most inter-societal encounters. This is generally found as a shared external macro-level structure. However, if there is something the Mayanist models on ideology share, it is a lack of a deeper notion of ideology itself. In the Mayanist models, there are no explanations of how this “shared” ideology is reproduced, transmitted, and internalized at the most basic level, that of the human agent. One reason for this may be the general confusion of what ideology is.

The concept of ideology was invented by Antoine Destutt de Tracy during the Enlightenment. Then it stood for the science of ideas. Ideology defined in his way was the right way of thinking that acted as a guide to thinking. It had the form of a tacit object to which one believed or not. Marx later argued that society is shaped by production. Relationships of production were believed to be masked and ideology came to stand for the rationalizations of why such differences in power come about. Ideology was likened to religion in that it was believed to mystify the real capacity of human beings that arose as a contradiction within a class society. This is also similar to the way Mayanists tend to use the term ideology: as something generated by the elite from their religion/cosmology, and then given to the masses in order to maintain economical, political, and social power. Ideology tends to be seen as such a unified scheme or configuration to manifest power. It has also been seen as both a necessary and a positive force as well as a legitimating repression. The former creates subjects, the latter subjugates them. The central point here is that ideology is supposed to be shared, as something external to the past agents, then internalized through socialization or other transmitting processes. Finally it affects people’s behaviour or practices.

Most people, from archaeological researchers to laymen, believe there is such a shared thing that possibly exist, or is being formed, in a third space. This form of ideology is a set of representations that deals with the real social relations people live in. It is assumed to be real because it is the way people live out their subjectivity. Ideology is argued to be imaginary because it prevents self reflection of the subjects’ own existence. However, I believe that an understanding of human behaviour should emphasize the lack of shareness of ideology as an external structure, a thing-like phenomena, as a set of representations. It is only by force and habits that people appear to configure to the same “thing.”

The Mayanist focus on ideology tend to take the form of more or less complete and shared cosmological symbolic orders, as seen in texts by Demarest, Freidel, Rice, Ringle, Schele and Miller. These approaches to ideology in Mayanist studies do not explain how ideology was created, maintained, or transmitted in the encounters and situations of either day-to-day interaction or in extraordinary encounters, such as warfare between people with different actual ideologies (habits). Ideology seems to be a prerequisite for warfare, maintained by it, a self-generating and growing system in the same Mayanist works. This ideology is therefore approached from the outside, as an external thing that encompass people, a static model in which duration has been erased. There is also a predominant macro-perspective inherent in these studies.

For example, in reaction to earlier ideological models based on “foreign” analogies, Prudence Rice has revived and expanded ideas of Edmonson and Puleston. Her model is based on direct historical analogy and by this she obviously assume that the “Maya culture” in the Southern Maya Lowlands was a difference of degree to the one in the north. She argues that the Classic period people in the Southern Maya Lowlands had the same calendar-based political organization that existed in the north during the Postclassic. This is the 13 k’atun cycle, also known as the may-cycle. The cycle was seated in a city that became the cycle seat (may k’u) for 256 years with an additional 128 years as the guest of another centre. Other towns in the city’s realm fought to seat one of the 13 k’atuns in the cycle, something that gave political powers for almost 20 years. What has earlier been seen as “status-rivalry”, factional competition, or centralization of political power is, according to Rice, the effect of either ritual competition or warfare between sites in order to seat a k’atun. These k’atun seats held secular powers and was in control of tribute rights, land titles, and public office. Since these changed every 20 years, warfare would have been fairly continuous, at least in archaeological time.


Do people share anything, and particularly a united ideology, culture or practice like the one explained above? How is such an ideology internalized in some individuals, but not in other individuals? These questions are not answered when one fall back upon an externally oriented culture-history and a generalized view of social formations. What is being neglected is that ideology needs to be both within and between people, otherwise it is not shared. The problem is that these quasi-objects are all believed to be collectively shared, that everyone possess the same thing. There must in such cases be a transmitting process where these collective quasi-objects become internalized into mind and body. This process is never explained properly.



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