Posted by: Johan Normark | November 17, 2009

Emergent subjectivity and defacement of Maya art

In case you wonder why I am not posting much now, it is because I am trying to come up with an interesting idea for my next project and the workshop next week. I can tell you right now that it will have to do with defacement of portraits in Maya art and architecture. This project will work along these theoretical lines:

Defaced people on a ballcourt panel from Cancuen

The human subject emerges from relations of exteriority and from parts to whole. In the empiricist philosophy of David Hume, Deleuze (1991) finds an alternative to the linguisticality of experience that has been part of the Kantian and Hegelian traditions. Based on Deleuze’s reading of Hume, DeLanda argues that subjective experience is formed from distinct and separable sense impressions. Ideas derived from these impressions are direct replicas of the impressions without any representational link (as a contrast to Kant’s faculties of representation). The ideas only have a lower intensity than the impressions (cf. Bergson 2004). Therefore, each kind of impression (visual, aural, passion) has a singular individuality and existence. They are heterogeneous and cannot be reduced to one another (DeLanda 2006, 48-50). Emotions and senses like sight and hearing are depicted in the expressive record in the Maya area (Houston et al. 2006). This data can be used to understand how these impressions were understood from the ideas formed by the impressions.


The subject pursues a goal through the principle of utility and establishes relations among ideas through the principle of association. The association of ideas gives the singular impressions and ideas a unity, an assemblage. Our habits of grouping ideas and comparing them transform a population of individual ideas into an emergent whole (DeLanda 2006). Habitual repetition creates a stable identity for the assemblage and habits sustain the association of ideas (cf. Turner 1994). The human being is habitual and creative at the same time.

On the personal scale, the main effect of language is to form beliefs. To believe in the ideas brings them closer to the impressions. However, it is often the intensity of a belief that drives social action, rather than its linguistic proposition and semantic content (DeLanda 2006, 48-52). Thus, human agents did not study, analyze and contemplate the monumental iconography into the cosmological and symbolic details described by various Mayanists (cf. Normark 2008a). Monumental iconography rather worked like Gell’s (1998) sense of index that directly affected the viewer. It was the intensity of the beliefs associated with the impressions of viewing the iconography that created an intense ritual arena. The iconography was also a way for a signifying regime to direct the ideas into a homogeneous form, and these ideas would then affect their components (the impressions) as well.  

The subject emerges from subpersonal components and it interacts with other subjects through short-lived assemblages called encounters, which consists of the co-presence of human bodies and materialities (DeLanda 2006, 52-53). Sartre’s (1991) concept of serial action, of how people form temporary series in relation to materialities, is a complementary perspective in the study of social encounters (Fahlander 2003; Normark 2007). Locations where series of people formed and encounters occurred can be found in abundance in the archaeological record: house lots, causeways, plazas, rooms, water reservoirs, sinkholes, caves, quarries, etc. (Normark 2006a). Encounters can also be seen in the iconography (Reents-Budet 2001), detected through the epigraphic record mentioning nobility visiting or interacting with other nobility (Schele and Mathews 1991; Stuart 1999), and the location where this occurred (Stuart and Houston 1994).

An encounter is territorialized by behaviors that define the borders, such as grinding corn in a house lot (Hutson 2004), quarrying stone (Abrams 1994), and the meeting between nobles from different sites (Martin and Grube 2000). Embarrassment and dishonor can be seen as deterritorializing processes in an encounter. We have examples of this in the iconography of defeated captives (Houston 2001; Martin 2001; Schele and Freidel 1990; Schele and Miller 1986). The same event is also a territorializing process for the victorious ruler and the organization of which the ruler was part. Such lethal encounters were eventful and allowed the participants an expressive possibility to display character, such as courage and integrity (DeLanda 2006, 55; Normark 2007). Defacement is an effect of similar encounters.



  1. Johan, my apologies but this amount of dense theoretical language just makes my head hurt. 😉 (Anthropological theory is definitely not my forte nor exactly my cup of tea.) Can you explain to this anthro-theory Luddite what new insights or explanations of the defacement of Maya monuments your analysis of these various theoretical positions has generated?

  2. I should have elaborated a little more. What I basically says is that I first outline a view of how our impressions (through senses, desires, etc.) create ideas (assemblages of sensorial impressions). On another scale our impressions are affected by greater assemblages of heterogenous components (architecture, iconography, landscape, polities, etc.). Basically, what I plan to add to this are two abstract concepts: State Apparatus and War Machine. The royal face in the iconogarphy is part of the “territorializing” State Apparatus. Its defacement is the affect of the deterritorializing War Machine. Deleuze sees “war” as a logic that counteracts the State Apparatus. The State Apparatus attempts to take control of the War Machine but they are seen as two opposite logics existing independently (whereas most other people see the War Machine as deriving from the State Apparatus). In short: the actual defacement of art is an attempt to destroy the State Apparatus/king’s perceptual organs and ichnal (however, whereas it is an act of a foreign polity or the deterritorializing forces within the same community we often cannot tell). I will elaborate more on this in another post.


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