Book of the Day: Self, Power, and Intimacy in Amazonia

What would individualism and collectivity look like outside the logic of equivalence, i.e. comparing individuals based on external criteria, which was introduced in western modernity ? This book looks at the working of individuality and collectivity amongst Amazonian natives.

* Book: Under a Watchful Eye: Self, Power, and Intimacy in Amazonia By Harry Walker. University of California Press, 2012

The publisher summary is followed by a review excerpt:

“What does it mean to be accompanied? How can autonomy and a sense of self emerge through one’s involvement with others? This book examines the formation of self among the Urarina, an Amazonian people of lowland Peru. Based on detailed ethnography, the analysis highlights the role of intimate but asymmetrical attachments and dependencies which begin in the womb, but can extend beyond human society to include a variety of animals, plants, spirits and material objects. It thereby raises fundamental questions about what it means to be alive, to be an experiencing subject, and to be human. From the highly personalized relationships that develop between babies and their hammocks, to the demonstrations of love and respect between spouses and the power asymmetries that structure encounters between shamans and spirits, hunters and game animals, or owners and pets, what emerges is a strong sense that the lived experience of togetherness lies at the heart of the human condition. Recognizing this relational quality of existence enables us to see how acting effectively in the world may be less a matter of individual self-assertion than learning how to elicit empathetic acts of care and attentiveness by endearing oneself to others.”

Excerpted from a review by Elisabeth Ewart:

“What stands out in particular is the Urarina emphasis on mutuality and togetherness. The central value of ‘standing-leaned-together’ presents a striking image of the way in which Urarina conceptualise the nature of being a human person as entailing both autonomy and dependency. As babies are born and then emerge from their birth enclosure into the world, they come to experience their own contingency on others, be these others persons or things. Separated at birth from his or her intra-uterine companion, namely the placenta, the baby, now in a highly vulnerable state, relies on acts of caring and nurture from others. Protective chants from the father, and later a rattle attached to the hammock behind the baby’s head, as well as the hammock itself, envelop the baby in a protective space in which to grow.

However, just as it is among the Urarina, so too amongst ethnographers: productive processes are enmeshed within a matrix of scholarly values that reference not just autonomy but also mutuality. Which is why Walker’s work, whilst not on the whole comparative in approach nor extensively embedded within wider Amazonianist debates, nevertheless explicitly emerges out of – and contributes to – ideas which have been and continue to be mutually enriching to Amazonian anthropology. Specialists will therefore find many of the central themes of Urarina social life, as described by Walker, very familiar: selves and others, autonomy and dependency, equality and hierarchy, bodies and souls, insides and outsides, babies and placentas, predators and prey, subjects and objects, the list could go on… A possible advantage of Walker’s approach, which steps back from a potentially all too inward looking engagement with Amazonianist anthropology, is that he thereby makes Urarina ethnography speak to a wider audience of anthropologists and interested others in the world. In particular, the Prologue and Epilogue are written as rather general but also very lucid syntheses of Walker’s analysis. To my mind, a real strength of the book lies in the author’s ability to convey Urarina ideas about how to live well in an analytically clear and blessedly jargon-free style. In doing so, he provides ample ethnographic evidence for the particular forms that such living takes among the Urarina, amounting to an ethnographic theory of living well. Certainly, this is not the first ethnography to achieve this (e.g see Descola 1996; Gow 1991; Siskind 1973; Lima 2005; Santos Granero 1991 to name just a few), nor likely the last. However, what is striking in Walker’s approach is the extent to which he is able to show how it is not just people who are formative agents in making the Urarina person, but also objects and sounds as well.