For the past six or seven years I have followed the “material agency” trail in archaeology, and I once coined my own approach polyagentive archaeology. The main sources of inspiration came from Bruno Latour, Alfred Gell and later it was (and to some extent still is) Gilles Deleuze and Manuel DeLanda. But all things must come to an end and my interest in these ideas is running out, and this is at a time when they are becoming mainstream. It is not that I will abandon these ideas but I will focus more on the “human” again in the future. So, maybe it is time to return to what originally drew my attention to these material agency ideas. It was Alfred Gell’s last book.
Objects, buildings, and natural phenomena in the Maya area are often attributed with animistic forces and anthropomorphism, both by researchers and by contemporary and past Maya groups. Anthropomorphism is when we impute human attributes to “inanimate” entities (Guthrie 1993). Animacy is not the same as biological life since Boyer (1996: 92) notes that an entity can possess “intentional psychology” without being alive. Social agency is therefore not defined from biological attributes, it is relational, and depended on a network of social relations (Gell 1998:122). For Gell, animacy is not a spiritual or religious concept, since “rational scientists” also attribute material objects with agency, such as when we beg our computer not to dysfunction.
But how do buildings become attributed with human characteristics and/or spiritual essence? Gell argues that there are two aspects of our attribution of “intentional psychology” to material objects. One is an “external or practical aspect”. Gell argues that we attribute a mind to others as we believe their behaviour to follow rules. If a human agent practically gets along with an object, like our computer, then it produces a meaningful behavior and can therefore be attributed with a mind and intention. Mind is therefore not only an inner experience; it is part of the public domain. This is an “externalist” agency attribution in which social individuals are the result of their temporally and spatially distributed relations with others. Our inner personhood is a replication of our external relations and vice versa (ibid:222). However, humans usually attribute the agency of others to a mental representation they have in their mind. This is the “internalist” agency attribution (ibid:126-127).
There are two ways in which material objects can become quasipersons. One is to stipulate the object as a social Other. The other way is to provide it with a homunculus or make it a homunculus of a larger entity. This relativises the contrast between external and internal attributes of agency. The “inner-person” attribution of agency reduplicates internally the relations that exist externally (ibid:133-136).
I will give an example of how I reasoned back in 2004, based on my reading of Gell. Structure 23 at Yaxchilán was called y-ool-tan-il tan ha’ Siyaj Chan which translates as “in the centre of the water Yaxchilán”. This structure was located in the architectural centre of Yaxchilán. The word ool has the meanings centre, heart, and soul and it is not necessarily only the physical centrality of the structure that was intended (Plank 2003:563). The structure’s name includes the moon glyph, and the owner was probably an impersonator of the Moon Goddess (ibid:121). This building was the otoot (“dwelling” or a building that belongs to one specific person) and burial place of Lady Ixk’abal Xook. It was one of at least three female associated structures at Yaxchilán which were labeled u-kab-ch’een (“his earth, his cave”), a metaphorical expression referring to an earthy or earthly realm. The buildings may be related to locations for death rituals and underworld entrances (McAnany and Plank 2001:106-119; Plank 2003:114-117). Since Ixk’abal Xook both lived and was buried in the building, it can be argued that it contained her agency even when she was not there or after her death (in the eyes of other human agents). Below an otoot can be seen (but this is Structure 33 since I could not find Structure 23 on the web).
A person standing outside Ixk’abal Xook’s otoot may have imagined her (without exactly seeing her) in the building, to be not only as the mind of her own body, but also as the mind of the building itself. Mind is thus seen as the interior person within the body, just as Ixk’abal Xook was the homunculi within the building. Ritually fed and ensouled buildings, such as Ixk’abal Xook’s otoot, did also possess iknal, a proximal area around an entity who possesses this iknal. Today, these corporeal fields are defined by generation and gender, encoding spatial and temporal constraints (Plank 2003:98).
Thus, Gell argues that the agent’s consciousness is not only found in an object or building, it has assumed the object’s or building’s form. The agent has been transformed into the materiality he or she has manufactured (or used). The agent’s consciousness exist outside of the human subject’s physical form, in a multitude of forms (Gell 1998:250). Whereas a human agent’s distributed production of materiality throughout his or her life is found in many forms, the single object or building itself is not only the location of one human agent’s agency. The single object/building contains the distributed agency of several agents, in a biography of materiality’s agencies.
I will expand on my old ideas in the future, and bring in more updated information from neurosciences. I am just getting tired of palaeoclimatic studies.