Posted by: Johan Normark | June 2, 2010

Materialized cosmology vs cosmologized materials

The Mayanist Lisa Lucero has in a recent paper argued that “the Maya have been materializing their cosmology and place in society for millennia” (p. 145). What she means is that the “commoners” at Saturday Creek in Belize in their houses represented their cosmology, such as a quincunx pattern with four corners and a center associated with various colors, a multilayered cosmos (underworld, world and heaven), etc. Various ceramic vessels and sherds of vessels of certain colors are found in areas fitting this cosmogram, etc.

Now, it is indeed interesting that we do find consistency over centuries and even millennia between cardinal directions, vertical levels, colors and materials. But is it the materialization of cosmology we really see? More importantly: is it cosmology we talk about? My answers are no. First, the very idea of materialized cosmology relies on a Cartesian separation between mind and matter. Cosmology is already material from the onset, it is nothing free floating that waits to become materialized. This idea ultimately relies on an arborescent (“hierarchical” or “tree-like”) and hylomorphic view where humans impose a form and meaning on inert matter. Lucero shows this even better in this quote: “I focus on what artifacts’ color, arrangement, and association with other artifacts signify” (p. 158). The signifier is part of the signifying regime that works from an arborescent perspective. Everything at Saturday Creek (houses, people, artifacts, colors, etc.) is traced back to the master-signifier of Maya Culture or Maya Cosmology. This regime of sign is strongly connected to the State and its molarizing processes of its molecular components. Hence, what may once have been a presignifying regime of signs transformed into a signifying regime of signs. This means that the “commoner cosmology” actually just is a small scale version of “elite cosmology.” It would have been interesting to see the presignifying or perhaps counter-signifying tendencies in the materials at Saturday Creek (thus, the differences that break the “norm”.

As I see it Lucero’s study is actually showing a cosmologization of materials. With the use of the arborescent structure formed by Prehispanic State assemblages and contemporary Mayanists, she imposes a transcendent cosmological schema on materials (it for sure does not emerge from the immanent properties). This partly works because Mayanists have been good at mapping the State assemblage and its signifying regime. They have put less effort into the presignifying regimes that the hierarchical assemblages of the area overcoded during millennia.

To me, it is not even cosmology we talk about since cosmology tends to be likened to a discourse, hence to patterns of what people discursively can explain. However, as mentioned in several posts before, the Swedish anthropologist Göran Aijmer shows that materials reflect iconic codes that cannot be explained in words (but it is still a more or less intuitive knowledge). People do repeat patterns without being able to give it the answer an anthropologist desire. People may have an opinion of what they are doing but it may differ from others’ opinions. What is important is the iconic codes they reproduce and these coincide with materials and are less differentiated than people’s opinions because they are not linguistically derived. However, it does not mean that it was hierarchical, it was just not signified. Hence Aijmer’s iconic codes are similar to presignifying regimes of signs in certain respects. The persistence of these iconic codes may at one point have been overcoded by the State assemblage who turned the iconic codes into an arborescent structure (“cosmology”). What we should not do in studying plural “meaning” in materials, then, is to follow this later overcoding, but this is easier to say than to do.

This is probably my last longer blog post for a few weeks. Only sporadic posts and comments will appear during my busy summer. Have a nice summer.

Lucero, Lisa J. 2010. Materialized cosmology among ancient Maya commoners. Journal of Social Archaeology 10: 138-167.

Overcoded image

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