Posted by: Johan Normark | May 1, 2010

Java and foam of the Maya cappuccino

One of the reasons why I do have problem with, and hence have lost quite a bit of interest in, Mayanist studies is the focus on ideology (or cosmology). This is quite often used as the content of the Maya Culture (yet another term I dislike). Instead of talking about the Maya Culture, we should talk about collectives in Latourian terms (or assemblages in Deleuzean/DeLandean terms). Humans are involved with many different beings and to just focus on human-human interactions is simply wrong. Both Culture (or Society) and Cosmology are arborescent concepts that have master-signifiers determining their content. A cave automatically become an example of Maya cosmology and hence imbued with all sorts of connections the cave itself cannot have apart from being signified by the master-signifiers Culture and Cosmology. Further, artifacts and buildings are seen as “materialized cosmology” to use a term recently used by Lisa Lucero. Now, this clearly reflects a division between objects and ideas that is hard to maintain from my viewpoint. It also seems that cosmology comes first and its materialization comes later on. This is simply wrong.

The royal cosmology/ideology during the Classic period is as I see it a signifying regime, partly created by contemporary Mayanists themselves, but also the actual result of the ajawlel (kingship) assemblage that once existed. This assemblage included the ruler, the royal court, pyramids, paraphernalia, titles, etc., and practices that maintained their connections. The ruler was the basin of attraction. Without him/her the assemblage would ultimately deterritorialize as it also did during the so-called “Maya collapse”. Other hierarchical assemblages did of course emerge during the Postclassic, but they were not exactly the same as before, largely because the Postclassic world was more “international” than before.

Meaning (or ideology in most Mayanist minds), emerges from assemblages, not the other way around as Lucero seem to believe. Levi Bryant at Larval Subjects has this to say about rice production in China between the 14th and 18th centuries:

What difference, we can ask, does the production of rice rather than other grains like wheat, barley, rye, etc., make to a collective involving humans? Quite a bit. The advantage of producing rice compared to these other grains is that you get three or four harvests a year. Consequently, rice buffers a collective against famines that are common with the poor harvests and blights of other grains. The drawback is that rice planting and harvesting is labor intensive, back breaking work. You literally spend hours every day planting the rice and harvesting the rice. This nonhuman object or actant thus organizes humans in particular ways. Labor becomes much more collective and is unable to devote itself to the cultivation of other food sources such as livestock. It’s not by mistake that the highlands went largely uncultivated during this time period. On the one hand, rice was abundant and readily available, diminishing the need to cultivate the highlands for other foods and livestock. On the other hand, people were collectively engaged in the cultivation of rice. Do Chinese ideologies of collective relations precede this sort of production or do they follow from it? It is the latter that is likely.”

The same can be said about the Maya rulers and their ideology. It always emerged from a greater assemblage including maize cultivation, water management, etc. Somehow Mayanists tend to detach cosmology from this assemblage and later impose it back on the parts of this greater assemblage. This is probably because the signifying regime of ajawlel (and of contemporary Mayanist model building) overcodes presignifying or non-signifying regimes. Mayanists have imposed signs emerging from this assemblage on various objects that do not have these “meanings” alone, only as part of a collective. As Bryant says “It’s like limiting one’s discussion of a cappuccino to the foam, entirely ignoring the java. An important point here is that if one wishes to understand cappuccino, we cannot restrict ourselves to the java, but must also understand the foam as well. In other words, we must think the entanglement of these agencies. The problem, however, with so much contemporary social and political analysis is that it focuses on the foam alone.”

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