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J.M. Augustine, A. Guengerich, A. Kolata, D. Pacifico, T-A.

Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago
1126 E. 59th Street, Chicago, Illinois 60637

The Social Ontology of Cultural Objects: Or, What Things Are and What Things Do
By its nature, ontology posits a totalizing scheme; a conceptual framework upon which
all other possibilities are predicated. When we speak about ontology are we speaking about it as
a broad metaphysical framework that can be universalized? Do our Andean cases undermine
Cartesian ontological categories, thereby forcing us to reevaluate the fabric of being? Or can we
speak of ontologies in the plural and take a comparative approach to ontology? Might ontological
frameworks differ between cultures and produce different sets of relationshipsactive and/or
idealizedbetween various categories of being? The starting point from which we begin to
interrogate these conundrums poses the following question: what are the stakes of investigating
ontological categories of the material? We choose to interrogate the relationship between
ontology and materiality because what things are--in practical and cultural terms--has pragmatic
consequences that affect their ability to do social work.
That is, there are significant social stakes in the way people conceive of objects. As
others have noted (see, for example, Descola 2005; Latour 2006), anthropologists tend to treat
"the social" as if it were an a priori phenomenon. Thus they have analyzed the ways in which
social configurations produce other sets of relationships and cultural logics, including ontologies.
However, this process can be productively turned on its head, and ontological configurations can
be understood as affecting the types of social relations that emerge in various settings. In other
words, we posit that the ontological status of materials is not an epiphenomenal problem, but in
fact it speaks to the foundations of sociality.
We approach the way that the ontological status of material objects can affect sociality
through two heuristic models. The first heuristic addresses the metaphysical "excesses"
embodied in things - that is, the qualities of material objects that exceed their "brute facticity"
and enable them to be active, valuable, beautiful, affecting, and powerful. Within the field of
ontology, there are multiple ways to model these metaphysical excesses. This heuristic presents a
continuum along which most cultural ontologies could be located with supplemental
ontologies at one end and fetishistic ontologies at the other. From the perspective of a
supplemental ontology, the metaphysical excesses of the material world are properties that are

fundamentally projected onto objects by active, sentient subjects. This perspective is perhaps
best characterized by the Cartesian separation of mental and material, which is predicated on a
strict ontological distinction between subject and object. Such an attitude is also manifest in
many strains of 20th century anthropologyincluding Boasian schools (see Linton 1936;
Kroeber 1948) and later structuralist turns (Levi-Strauss 1976)that consider meaning and value
to be fundamentally mental in origin, yet detectable through traces of material phenomena.
From the perspective of a fetishistic ontology, the metaphysical excesses of material
things are immanent within the materiality of objects themselves. Such an attitude partially
characterizes some ethnohistorical cases from West Africa (see Pietz 1987; Graeber 2005) and-as we argue below--certain Andean settings as well. In our first case study pertaining to this
heuristic, we explore the ways in which potentiality--in the form of camay--was understood to be
an intrinsic quality of all material substance in the Late Inca Empire and Early Colonial Period
through a discussion of bodies, interment, and the social space of colonial churches.
Furthermore, with our second case study, we present the possibility that power was conceived in
very material--seemingly fetishistic--terms within the Moche polity
Our second heuristic considers the ways in which non-Western ontologies can
reconfigure the relationships between social subjects and material objects. We identify two such
configurations: objects that are themselves subjects, and objects that materialize social subjects.
This heuristic is deployed in our third and fourth case studies to explore the idea of "the double"
of the Inca king and the ontology of quotidian objects in the Andes. The case of the Inca's double
suggests a configuration in which multiple material objects may participate in a singular subject
in order to perform political work. Looking at quotidian objects in the Andes, we see that the
circulation of subsistence goods can be critical in constituting collective subjects such as the
archetypical ayllu.
The greatest analytical potential lies in the realization that cultural ontologies are unlikely
to fall neatly into one category or perfectly demonstrate a particular ontological configuration.
The heuristic categories we present exist in tension because of the difficulty inherent in parsing
out and locating the exact emergence of the metaphysical excesses that confront us in practice
and in analysis. Clearly cultural objects, things, exist in multiple forms, at multiple scales (from
small-scale, individual cultural objects such as ceramic vessels, or tunics to entire socio-natural
landscapes) and perform multiple functions. But such objects do share some commonalities, or
attributes in terms of what they do, how they function, and the forms of sociality they support.
There are a number of ways cultural objects are efficacious. First, objects are affectladen in that they create and evoke senses of sentiment, desire and emotional investment. As
such they contribute to the creation of individual value, as we will see in the case of quotidian
objects treated below. Objects are normative, that is they help create and transform social norms

(e.g. think of the example of churches, universities, huacas, etc.). As such they contribute to the
construction of collective value. We explore this dimension by examining conflicts over the
bodies of the deceased and also the role of objects in the creation of communities in the Andes.
Cultural objects are also political precisely because they produce, reflect, and embody social
values, individual and collective, and such social values can in turn become integral to the
production of hierarchies--a theme we explore in the context of Moche politics, in which
material substances and objects were deployed in various political performances. In their
representational dimension, cultural objects signify, or point to their own meaning-system,
rarely, if at all, as individual objects, but rather as assemblages or broader relational systems of
objects. As such, cultural objects can often be understood as metonymic forms that reference
themselves as well as the broader class of things to which they belong or to which they relate. In
this sense, cultural objects of the sort we are considering (huacas, mallquis, etc.) gain cultural
efficacy and do social work precisely because they have the power to represent and form social
networks: they become the material focus of collective patterns of sociality, habitual social
practices and collective action.
A Brief Intellectual History of the Social Ontology of Cultural Objects
The ontology of things has long been a concern of analytical philosophy (think here, for
example, of Lucretius long poem, De Rerum atura) and, recently the focus of considerable
new reflection by metaphysicians, aestheticians, sociologists of knowledge and anthropologists,
among others. The braided streams of thought on the subject of cultural objects are intricate,
branching and they flow in different directions. However, in the interest of reducing conceptual
complexity to clarity, we can define a distinct epistemological duality in the approach to the
theoretical puzzle of what things are and what things do.
The "supplemental ontologies" approach, still dominating analytical philosophy and
metaphysics and retaining a deep commitment to the physicalism of the Enlightenment,
compartmentalizes the social world, and the cultural objects in it, into two distinct domains: the
material and the mental. This is the standard subject/object dichotomy articulated by Decartes,
among others. In a thoroughgoing Cartesian analysis, social reality consists of physical things
and the meanings imposed or projected onto them by (willful, originally self-conscious) acts of
reason and the force of the mind. Here the social world is divided into a semantically neutral
substratum of brute facts, or merely physical objects upon which cultural meanings and
functions are bestowed by acts of cognitive imposition (Searle, 1995). As Marcoulatos
(2003:246) notes, from this perspective, physical objects ontologically support the imposed
order of meanings, yet they are not infused by it [T]hey are simply the vessels of social
significance, which is usually construed as the outcome of the self-determining activity of a
consciousness, dispersed from an inalienable center of intellectual awareness towards the
periphery of the world. In this conception, individual physical objects, and materiality writ

large, have no autonomous powers of agency, no capacity to generate meaning, social impact or
cultural value as things-in-themselves: they are ineluctably dependent on the human mind for
their social reality.
But this reductive bifurcation into the material (brute physicality) and the mental (the
signifying force) presents an ontological conundrum: cultural objects remain stubborn facts,
ordered physical structures of atoms, that humans cannot simply modify at will, even with the
most powerful efforts of the mind. That is, cultural objects are neither merely physical materials
nor solely mental projections: they are entities that depend jointly on both dimensions of social
reality. Roman Ingarden (1989: 260) deploys particularly apposite examples of cultural objects,
specifically churches and flags, to drive home this essential point. A church or a flag: has a real
object as its bearer (its ontic foundation), but goes beyond that real object in the properties
constitutive of, and essential to it. The real thing that serves as the ontic foundation of such an
objectivity is not, however, the sole foundation of its being, for the subjective attitude and the
appropriate acts of consciousness which create something like a church or flag forms its
second and perhaps far more important ontic foundation.
Importantly Ingarden here delimits the dual existence conditions of cultural objects: first,
they have a material basis (an ordered arrangement of atoms, molecules, substances), and second
they have a specific chain of signification generated by social beliefs and practices that
transforms mere material substance into a recognized cultural object. So, in the case of a
[A]s long as it is carried out in the appropriate attitude (by the priest and
believers), the ceremony is performed in acts of consciousness which, to be sure, of themselves
do not and cannot bring about real change in the real world, but which do call into being a certain
object that belongs to the environment surrounding the believers, namely what we call a
church, or a temple, and so forth. A determinately ordered heap of building materials is
precisely what a church is not, although this heap serves as its real basis (its bearer) and forms
the point of departure of the act of consecration (1989: 259).
Places of worship are particularly apt examples of cultural objects that cannot be
conveniently dichotomized in a hierarchical relationship of the material and the mental in which
the latter over determines and furnishes the significance conditions of the former. As
Marcoulatos (2003:254) observes, places of worship (and other symbol and value laden public
and civic architecture) materialize a whole way of relating to the world, not as if it were first
conceived as a world-view (i.e. a system of ideas) and then conveyed in another ontological
medium (i.e. an architectural form), but rather as if both aspects -- roughly speaking, the textual
and the objectified --of the specific sociohistorical manner of relating to the world co-emerged in
a process of reciprocal formation. Here the ontological status, the existence conditions, of these

cultural objects flows dynamically across the subject/object boundary in a relational interplay in
which structured social space (the church, the palace, the university, the museum, etc.) as both
physical and conceptual entities conveys meaning and value in the process of socialization. Such
cultural objects attain a kind of quasi-subjectivity from the reciprocal interplay between
intersubjective acts of attribution of meaning (mental acts) and the historically acquired, semiautonomous sense of meaning derived from the structuring of habitual praxis (the
unselfconscious kinetic acts of everyday life).
In this analysis, the static Cartesian subject/object bifurcation cannot resolve the
ontological status of cultural objects, such as churches, flags, shrines, gardens, irrigated terraces,
cultigens and the endless other instances of things cognized, recognized and produced by
humans. These cultural objects have specific and historically contingent spatio-temporal
coordinates; and the material stuff of which they are made is potentially subject to renovation,
degradation and destruction. They remain stubbornly, objectively real, independent of the
capacity of the human mind to impose conditions of specific cultural significance. Furthermore,
the potential material persistence of cultural objects over long periods of time (think of, for
instance, massive public architecture that endures over centuries) opens the possibility of entirely
different chains of signification from those originally present at the moment of production of
these enduring cultural objects. That is, the specific social reality of a cultural object depends on
its relationship to a distinct perceiving community. When the perceiving community disappears,
loses its faith in present social conditions, or otherwise changes, so too does the reality of
cultural objects: their specific signifying power may be lost or transformed beyond social
recognition, even though their material form remains substantively the same. For instance, the
Great Mosque of Cordoba, in time, becomes a Catholic church, and subsequently becomes a
tourist destination/museum, or simultaneously remains all three from the frame of reference of
distinct perceiving communities. Multiple perceiving communities transform or even cognitively
and socially, if not materially, destroy cultural objects by deploying distinct chains of
In other words, the logic of recognition and signification is constitutive of these cultural
objects, but not exclusively so. Therefore, if cultural objects cannot be reduced to brute facts, and
they are also not merely mental projections exclusively dependent on the mind, human
intentionality and the subjective authorizing force of social consensus, how then should we
conceive of an inclusive theory of cultural objects? This question opens up reflection on the
second approach to the ontology of things.
An alternative to the categorical dichotomization of the material and the mental, of object
and subject, recognizes that this bifurcation is intuitively compelling, but nevertheless
phenomenologically unconvincing. The material and the mental are never mutually exclusive
categories, in which one (the material) is subtended to the other (the mental). This alternative

perspective rejects the over-determination of mental projection on material objects: cultural

objects are not merely the social product of a specific, imposed or projected mentalit. Cultural
objects are the interpenetrating product of cognitive forces of individual and collective
imagination coupled with deeply physical, embodied processes of production framed in a
collective social consensus of significance. From this perspective, cultural objects, and the force
of their agency, are understood and experienced as physical realizations of a social imaginary. In
other words, the dual constitutive aspect of cultural objects specifically demands that we take
account of the interpenetration of the subject and the object. Here, objects acquire subjective
qualities, but only in reference to a specific perceiving community, and not as universal
That is, cultural objects, say in the Andean cultural context, huacas, mallquis, huauques,
ushnus, and other such physico-conceptual entities, acquire a palpable, quasi-subjective
character. They are loved, loathed, feared, envied, invoked and always propitiated: in short, they
become infused with a human-like character of personhood. They become a particularly
powerful form of kin and kith, while, at the same time, retaining a necessary and socially
acknowledged distance from everyday familial intimacy. These Andean cultural things are
simultaneously subjectified objects and objectified subjects. They are kin to be engaged
materially in expressions of reciprocation, and, at the same time, existentially otiose entities,
acknowledged and responded to by human communities, irrespective of specific lineage
affiliations. These particular Andean cultural objects fluidly move across the boundaries of
specificity and generality, subject and object. They are open-ended, interactive and potentially
transformative at the same time as they are mundane emblems of cultural continuity. Perhaps
paradoxically they are simultaneously the guarantors of the traditional and the potential
wellspring of radical innovation.
Here we can clearly recognize that such (Andean) cultural objects contain and express in
a co-constitutive dynamic discursive and non-discursive, cognitive and non-cognitive forms of
significance. In the latter, non-discursive mode of significance, cultural objects such as huacas,
mallquis and huauques can be conceived as non-reflective social presences. They exist (as things
in themselves) notoriously and tangibly in the social landscape and, as such, possess an
historically constructed signifying autonomy. Why this is so can be explored by considering
what such cultural objects do. That is, what efficacy do cultural objects have, and what influence
do they exert over the human communities that recognize, produce and valorize them?

Cases in Metaphysical Excess

Potentiality as Excess
Our first case study poses a single animating question: why, during the Middle Colonial
Period, were Christian Indians, properly buried on church grounds, clandestinely disinterred by
their kin and moved to indigenous huacas, shrines in the Andean sacred landscape, or to
machayes, native burial grounds? To examine this question, we draw on Aristotle and
Agamben's formulation of "potentiality" to derive an ontology of Andean bodies. We conclude
that the persistence and forms of mortuary idolatries involving Christianized bodies during the
Middle Colonial Period challenges the presumed universality of Western ontologies of the body
that see a radical distinction between living and dead bodies.
A 1656 document produced by the extirpation of idolatries visitador Bernardo de Noboa
in the highland pueblo of Santo Domingo de Pariac charges the residents with the removal of
Christian bodies from the parish church to machayes, or traditional burial grounds. (Duviols
2003). Though ostensibly converted, the Andean cult of ancestors persisted in this community,
and indigenous bodies, considered huacas, continued to be venerated. In the Andean cult,
mummies of ancestors were to be kept in the domestic space, where they could be easily
consulted, or else they were to be transported to machayes, which were often away from Spanish
towns and closer to the rural places where Indians lived and worked. Widespread ransacking of
Indian bodies buried in Christian cemeteries was a problem in the Audiencia of Lima during the
16th and 17th centuries. Polo de Ondegardo notes that Indians commonly disinterred their dead,
taking them from old churches and graveyards to huacas, mountains and plains, old sepulchers
and houses, where their kin and associates gathered to give them food and drink, and to perform
songs and dances for them (Polo de Ondegardo, 194). The church attempted to halt this practice,
which was considered idolatrous, by requiring that the doors of the churches and, more
generally, that church grounds remain closed at night and that burials occur only during the day.
The burial of baptized Christians outside of consecrated ground occurred with enough frequency
that the First Council of Lima addressed this practice by stipulating punishments for offenders.
Those participating in the removal of bodies would be jailed for three days and given fifty public
lashes. When burying Christian Indians, priests were instructed to examine the faces of the
deceased to make sure another body had not been substituted. Offerings were not to be placed in
the burials of Christian Indians (Gose 2003: 157).
Some scholars suggest that the early Colonial church assumed the universality of the
Catholic understanding of conversion and imprecisely interpreted Andean worship of a
Christian god as evidence that older religious beliefs had been renounced (Gose 2003,
MacCormack 1990). The difficulty of conversion was further compounded by Spanish reliance
on Andean ayllus to meet the tasks required of colonization. Andean kin groups often had a great

deal of experience with assimilating the religious deities introduced by invading outsiders. As
Gose notes, ayllus tended to resolve the problem of intrusive religions by entering into reciprocal
worship of ancestral deities with outside groups. (Gose 2003: 142). Ayllu leadership that was not
only legitimate in the eyes of the Spanish, but also an instrument of Spanish interests, sometimes
had the unintended consequence of enabling the continuity of Andean religious practice. For
Gose, Andean subjects stubbornly continued to disinter their properly buried Christian ancestors
because it was not inconsistent with Andean modes of religious belief and practice in which
adherence to one tradition did not entirely exclude the other (Gose 2003: 142). Gose builds his
explanation for the persistence of mortuary idolatry around a central structural contradiction in
the Spanish colonial project. In the Andes, religion was not institutionally separate from the state
or the ayllu, and because of its institutional weakness, the colonial state relied on the ayllu and
Andean political authorities to indirectly meet the goals of the colonization. As a result, the state
was dependent on the power of the descent group a corporate body whose membership was
defined through the mutual performance of ritual tasks, and which further did not view
abandonment of Andean religious practice as necessary to Christian conversion -- to realize its
evangelizing goals.
Although Gose succeeds in explaining how, for converted Andeans, Christian worship
could be imbricated with features of Andean religious practice without self-conscious
contradiction, his description fails to account for why interred Andean bodies themselves were
such contested sites in the struggle over conversion. How can we explain the imperative for
native Andeans to move their deceased, baptized ancestors from church burials to traditional
burial sites? What quality of the body buried in a machay allows it to be incommensurate with a
body buried in a church? What is it about the body that its ontological status can change
dramatically through movement from one burial context to another, so much so that it is in a
sense inactivated in one context, and reactivated in the other?
We propose than an Andean ontology of the body begins, crucially, with a notion of the
physical body that itself harbors potentiality. Agamben notes that Aristotle, in De Anima,
distinguishes two types of potentiality (Agamben 1999: 179). Generic potentiality refers to the
capacity to develop something in the future. However, it is the second type of potentiality,
existence as potentiality, which refers not to the potential for bringing into actuality something
for whom one has knowledge or ability, but rather, crucially, to the potential not-to-do or not to
bring into actuality that interests Aristotle (ibid).
Agamben uses the metaphor of sight to elaborate this important clarification of the mode
of existence as potentiality. He clarifies that even when we do not see (that is, when our vision is
potential), we are nonetheless able to distinguish darkness from light. As such, the principle of
sight requires the potential for seeing both darkness and light. Agamben concludes the greatness
and also the abyssof human potentiality is that it is first of all potential not to act, potential

for darkness (ibid 1999: 181). Through this move, he underscores that the potential for acting,
above all, is a moral choice. This choice is made especially meaningful given that the obverse of
the potential to act -- and, indeed, that which within Aristotle's logic is prior to the potential to
act -- is the potential not-to-act.
Among Andean bodies of the Late Inca Empire and Early Colonial Period, the dynamics
of potentiality--for both action and inaction--reveal a set of conditions in which seemingly
inactive bodies (i.e. dead bodies) continued to be reservoirs of potentiality. This phenomenon
relates directly to the Andean concept of camay that diverges significantly from Christian and
Enlightenment models of human interiority and subjectivity. The first Christians missionaries to
arrive in Peru were particularly concerned with identifying an Andean concept analogous to the
immaterial, transcendent soul, and with the production of Quechua catechisms during the early
colonial period, there were debates over whether various Quechua expressions could adequately
substitute for the soul (Durston 2007:213-214). Ultimately, this debate was abandoned and the
term animathe Latin word for soul as opposed to the Spanish alma, which was less adaptable
to Quechua phonology (Durston 2007:214)was deployed in most contexts from the late 16th
century onwards because, as Durston notes, it was probablyconsidered that the concept of
soul was too important to be translated with an adopted term (Durston 2007:345n37). Central
among the terms considered possible Quechua concepts of the soul was camaquen, the
agentivized form of the verb cama-followed by the third-person possessive (Durston
2007:213-214). The verb cama- has been defined/described variouslybut not exclusivelyas
the activity of animating or strengthening living beings (Durston 2007:213), to charge with
being, to infuse with species power (Salomon 1991:16), and the energizing of extant matter
(Salomon 1991:16). The latter of these three is perhaps the most satisfactory definition, because
the verb cama - seems to refer to a potentiality latent in all beings/matternot exclusive to
living thingsthat can be active or dormant, depending on the circumstances. As Taylor notes
in reference to the Huarochir manuscript, nothing that existed was truly inanimate onward from
the moment when it realized the functions that corresponded to its true nature (Taylor 2000:5
[authors translation]). Thus, we propose that camaythe infinitive/substantive form of the verb
cama-is like energy that fluctuates between potential and kinetic forms.
Furthermore, camay does not refer to an immaterially transcendent substance that can
exist outside of or beyond matter. Recalling Pels apt characterization of fetishism, camay is
spirit of matter, not spirit in matter (Pels 1998:91). As such, we concur with Salomons
observation that there does not seem to have been a native Andean ontological distinction
between spirit and matter. Duviols has argued to the contrary and posited that camaquen and
the term upanifrom the root upa, meaning dumb/mutereflect Andean notions analogous to
an immaterial soul (Duviols 1978). However, we disagree with the bases for his conclusion. He
cites three main lines of evidence: 1) definitions of camaquen and upani presented by 16th and
17th century clerics, 2) the survival of the camaquen of idols after their physical destruction

(Duviols 1978:134), and 3) 20th century ethnographic work conducted in the Cuzco region
(Duviols 1978:136). Regarding the first line of evidence, as has been noted above in relation to
Durstons analysis of Quechua catechisms, early colonial clerics actively sought indigenous
Andean notions of the immortal soul. In such a context, their identification of camaquen as being
an immaterial substance reflected this desire above all. The story of the burnt idolin this case a
mallqui or Andean mummyfurthermore does not negate the possibility that camaquen was
inherently material. There are multiple ethnohistorical accounts that record how after Spanish
extirpators had incinerated or demolished a mallqui or huaca, individuals often attempted to
recover and preserve its ashes or rubble (see de Arriaga 1968:83-89), which were recognized as
possessing the same material power of the destroyed body/stone. Finally, Allen has argued
convincingly thatcontrary to the ethnographic case cited by Duviols (1978:136)
contemporary Quechua concepts of death [reveal] a conceptual system in which body and soul
are essentially interdependent and unanalyzable (Allen 1982:182).
Chroniclers' accounts abound with descriptions of the cult of the veneration of the kings
and the bodies of the dead. For the Spanish, this practice was especially vexing because they
understood that the corporeal body was no longer whole without a soul, while in indigenous
Andean practice, as Cobo noted, the dead body would be embalmed with great care and
worshipped as soon as the soul had left the body (Cobo 1990 [16xx]: pp 38). Cobo was
particularly appalled that native Andeans worshipped the bodies of the dead in spite of
believing that these bodies would not live again nor serve any useful purpose (Cobo 1990
[16xx]: pp 38).
What is going on here? We posit that the imperative to return interred, revered ancestors
to native machayes was underlain with an understanding of a soulless, deceased body that
nonetheless continued to harbor potentiality in the form of camay. Still, while it remains buried
in the church, it remains inert and, crucially, outside of the social. We can understand the
ancestors body in the church is a body that is kept in privation; it is missing a quality, that of
potency, which is normally there. The moral stakes for the living descendant not to actualize this
potentiality are not-for-nothing: the body buried in the church represents the potential or,
damningly, the preference of living descendants not-to-act. The revered ancestor's body that does
not become a mallqui thus remains outside the realm of sociality. Taken outside of the social, it
ceases to exist.
Aristotle posited that what is sometimes darkness and sometimes light is one in nature
(Aristotle 1986: 94) Critical to Agambens formulation of potentiality, however, is the necessary
binary of its actuality. Human potentiality to act, for example, requires a prior the potentiality
not-to-act: it is both the existence of one and the other, and the tension between the opposing
forces from which meaning is formed. Agamben writes, the greatness and also the abyss of
human potentiality is that it is first of all potential not-to-act, potential for darknessradical evil

is not this or that bad deed but the potentiality for darkness (Agamben 1999:180-181.) Radical
(versus banal) evil is thus the annihilating, opposing will that chooses the potential not to act,
despite the possibility of acting. For Andeans, the deceased body continues to exist in
potentiality. Choosing not to realize the social potentiality of the deceased body is in effect
choosing darkness (ibid 1999: pp 181-182). Thus presented, the stakes for the descendants of the
deceased were not entirely abstract: by framing the activation of camay latent in the physical
body of a deceased ancestor as either choosing to act and more crucially to not-to-act better
foregrounds the imperative that underlay Andean mortuary idolatry.
The Excess of Radical Objects
In attempting to situate various categories of being within a cultural ontology, we must
contemplate the hierarchies embedded in such schemas. Within naturalistic ontologies (cf.
Descola 2005) derived from the Enlightenment, a fundamental hierarchy was established
between persons and things, predicated on the perceived activity and passivity that characterized
each of the two respectively. From this same intellectual milieu discourses engaging the fetish
emerged, as 16th and 17th century encounters between Dutch merchants and West Africans gave
rise to tales of religions wherein the ontological and hierarchical separation of persons and
things was not recognized (Pietz 1987). Fundamentally, the fetish presented an object in which
the dichotomous elements of spirit and matter, mental and material, or interiority and physicality
(cf. Descola 2005) were collapsed inward on each other.
To clarify this point further, Pels characterized fetishism as animism with a vengeance,
contrasting animisms spirit in matter with fetishisms spirit of matter (Pels 1998:91). From
the perspective of Enlightenment intelligentsia, fetishism reflected mental aberration and naivety
among primitive peoples, and as such, it was often cited as the earliest form of religious
thought within evolutionary models (Pietz 1993:131-132; Comte 1875; Spencer 1875; Tylor
1866). However, beyond these initial encounters, it became increasingly apparent that the
metaphysical excesses of objects qua fetishes were not irrelevant or indeed alien to Western
sensibilities and practices1.
Of the many revelations to be gleaned from the fetish, the twin themes most relevant to
the current discussion are the power of materiality and the materiality of power. Again, this
speaks to the seemingly stable ontological hierarchy that exists between the world of persons and
the world of inanimate objects. Due to their liminal ontological status in relation to such a
hierarchy, fetishes are able to become powerful objectsin some instances effectively

Marxs commodity fetishism is perhaps the strongest example of how fetishism is not alien to
capitalist modernity, but in fact endemic in the social relations that characterize it.

embodying power itselfand to imbed themselves within social hierarchies. Perhaps the best
illustration of this phenomenon comes from the West African cases that initially sparked the
debates surrounding the fetish. As Graeber (2005: 420) notes, within these contexts power was
seen to take on material substance or tangible form. For example, the Tiv considered social
powerthat is the ability to impose ones will on othersto be a fatty yellow substance,
referred to as tsav, that grows on human hearts (Graeber 2005:416). Similarly, the BaKongo
recognized a bodily substance called kindoki, which was the basis for the power of chiefs and
witches (Graeber 2005:418). In these contexts in which power was understood to be
fundamentally a material quality of the human body, material objects could also embody power
and become threatening or menacing things under the proper circumstances. This is best evident
among the so-called market fetisheswhich often incorporated human blood and/or some part of
the human body in their matricesthat acted to bind individuals to agreements; it was
understood that someone who violated an accord protected by such a fetishakombowould be
struck down by that object (Graeber 2005:416-417).
This point draws our discussion back to Andean cases that may provide further insights
into the power of materials and the materiality of power. In particular, the Tiv akomboan
object that can strike down a personevokes a scenario not unlike the Revolt of the Objects,
as depicted in Moche iconography and the 17th century Huarochir manuscript. We focus here
on the Moche example, but both are relevant. In the Moche case, the Revolt of the Objects
may be seen as reflecting a mythical time of chaos or reversal during which order was restored
by the personage of the Rayed Deityor Warrior Priest (Quilter 1990). Beyond the evident
interplay of chaos and order, it is interesting that the revolt at issue is enacted by objects and not
by persons. When considered against the broader realms of Moche material culture, iconography,
and political practice, the theme of revolting objects relates to: (1) the radical presence of certain
classes of Moche materials, and (2) the possibility that within the Moche polity, power was
understood in deeply material terms, perhaps analogous to the African examples.
Regarding the radical presence of Moche materials, we are referring here to those
objectsparticularly portrait vessels, ceramic effigies, and the so-called sex potsthat both
aesthetically and practically encroach on the ontological territory of persons. In aesthetic terms,
these ceramic forms are rather unique within the Andes.2 The detailedeven graphic
depictions of human faces and sex acts that are embodied in these vessels have an affective
quality that is unlike anything else from the Moche corpus as the distance between representation
and that which is represented is seemingly collapsed. The problem of distinguishing between the
body represented and the body of the ceramic vessel resonates in practical terms. Ceramic

There are, however, analogous forms elsewhere, such as the wakos retratos known from
Tiwanaku (Janusek 2003)

effigies were smashed alongside sacrificed humans at the Huaca de la Luna (Bourget 2001:4145). It remains unclear whether these destroyed vessels were representations of victims or
perhaps considered victims themselves; however, in practical terms, the destruction of human
bodies and ceramic bodies were parallel and possibly analogous activities. This practical
ambiguity in the distinction between persons and things is furthermore evident in certain classes
of Moche sex pots. Among these potsthat typically depict sex acts between personsthere
exist examples in which the spout, or even the entire vessel itself, takes the form of an erect penis
(Bourget 2001). Hypothetically if one were to drink from such a vessel, it might be construed as
engaging in sexual relations with an object (depending on ones definition of sexual relations).
Building on the insights gained from the West African contexts outlined above, we can
also explore the possibility that power was considered a material substance within the Moche
polity. Much of the literature on Moche politics has emphasized the role of Moche rulers as
mediators between worlds, who established their legitimacy through relationships with a
supernatural/mythical realm that was inhabited by deities and radically distanced from the
earthly realm of humans (see Bawden 1995, 1996; Swenson 2003:268). However, there is
emerging space for critiques of this model of Moche power. Burials have been excavated in
which the interred individuals wore costumes that corresponded to supernatural personages
known from Moche fineline drawings on ceramics (Alva and Donnan 1993; Quilter 2002:162),
suggesting that many of the deities depicted in Moche iconography were, in fact, persons in
the world. When considering the performative aspects of Moche elite culture, there is a
consistent emphasis on the release, marshalling, and mobilization of bodily fluids. The sex
pots are one such example in which the cycling of bodily fluidssemen and breast milk
played a central role in elite material culture (Weismantel 2004).
In a more overtly political context, the spectacles involving human sacrifice were a key
domain wherein power was performed and rule enacted. Swenson (2003) has analyzed Moche
sacrifice by drawing on Blochs theoretical conceptualization of rebounding violence. From
this perspective, rebounding violence manifests the aggressive and rebounding consumption
of vitality typically situated at the ritual point of return from a state of liminality (Swenson
2003:273). The vitality that was consumed in Moche human sacrifice, however, was not an
abstract quality but a fundamentally material substancehuman blood. The archaeological data
on Moche sacrifice reveal that victims were dismembered after their death and their body parts
rearranged and manipulated (Quilter 2002:168). As such, these sacrifices involved the release
and mobilization of copious amounts of blood. Additionally, chemical analysis of ceramic
goblets used in the ceremony known as the "Presentation Theme" confirmed that participants
actually ingested human blood in these events (Bourget 2001). Based on these cases, Moche
power was evidently intimately related to bodies, and particularly bodily fluids, setting up the
possibility that power itself was understood to have been a fluid substance.

Cases in Reconfiguring Subject and Object

Objects, Bodies, Extended Subjects
In addressing the way in which the ontological configuration of objects conditions their
capacity to perform certain actions, we must explore the implicit pairing of the ontological
category of object and subject. The Enlightenment dichotomy between objects and subjects has
received well-deserved critique in the literature on materiality. Here we seek to enrich this
critique from a different angle. We suggest that a particular ontological understanding shared by
a number of Andean groups such as the Inka, Lambayeque, and Checa characterizes subjects as
transcending material bodies, both human ones and those which would normally be considered
nonhuman "things: objects. The Cartesian model posits the "body" as a material form in which a
subject, the ego, is contained. However, in these Andean models, multiple physical forms that a
Western ontology would consider to be merely material "objects" constituted bodies as well in
that they were characterized by subjectivity equivalent to human bodies. In fact, both human and
nonhuman bodies were, at times, able to participate in a single subjectivity, an ontological
premise that allowed for culturally specific forms of socio-political action. This premise is
illustrated strikingly in the example of Pariacaca and Chaupiamca in the Huarochir Manuscript,
deities who exist at times in the form of five material bodies. (The Western influence on the
colonial Checa authors of the document, baffled by an increasingly obsolescent indigenous
ontology, may be observed in the note prefacing one of the chapters: We already speculated on
such matters as whether Paria Caca, when he was born from five eggs, was made up of brothers,
or whether the others were Paria Cacas sons [Salomon and Urioste 1991:92].)
Here we explore the role of the Inka's "double" known from Spanish chronicles (van de
Guchte 1996, Gose 1996). The form of the double perhaps most familiar to Western ontology
was the inkap rantin, the Inka's substitute: humans (in particular, brothers and half-brothers of
the king) who fulfilled roles structurally prescribed as the duty of the king himself, such as
leading military forays and religious ceremonies, or serving as sub-rulers of the four quarters of
Tawantinsuyu (Gose 1996). However, rather than serving as mere delegates representing the
person of the Inka, these human bodies, as recipients of the same treatment as the Sapa Inka
himself, comprised distinct material bodies subsumed in the same ontological subject.
The best known form of the double is the huauque, nonhuman objects that were
considered brothers of the king and, like the inkap rantin, were treated as the king himself.
These were most commonly described by chroniclers as statues made of gold, stone, or bundled
cloths. These figures occasionally contained bodily fragments of the king, such as his hair and
nails, allowing human and "thingly" bodies to actually interpenetrate (Cobo 1999). Although
primarily anthropomorphic, they occurred in a number of diverse forms, such as fish or birds, or,
in one instance, the huauque of the ruler Manco Capac was said to be the mountain Huanacauri.

It is likely that a related practice based on the same ontological construction was the green stone
statue that purportedly accompanied aymlap, the legendary founder of the Lambayeque
dynasty, and may also have been a form of royal huauque (van de Guchte 1996). While the
material forms of the huauque differed, each played a similar role as an object of worship that
structurally stood in for the king himself; like the king, the huauque owned land, possessed a
retinue of servants, and led battles (van de Guchte 1996; MacCormack 1991).
Other, even less humanlike objects, also participated in the subjectivity of the Inka, such
as the ushnu, the stone structure located in the center of plazas throughout Inka planned
settlements. Recognized archaeologically as involving some sort of large natural stone, a
platform, and/or a drain complex, the ushnu is described in the ethnohistoric record as the seat of
the Inka when conducting an audience. The ushnu continued to be reverenced and receive
offerings of animals and chicha in the king's absence (MacCormack 1991, Hyslop 1990,
Zuidema 1979). As such, the ushnu may be understood as also comprising part of the king's
subjectivity a component whose clearly non-human "thingly form, we might note, challenges
the Western ontological distinction between material forms as "bodies" versus "things"
depending on their association with an acting subject. Occurring within provincial centers, but
limited to Cuzco itself within the imperial heartland, the ushnu appears to have fulfilled distinct
political roles that varied according to a settlement's relationship within the Inka political
hierarchy. As a last example of the concept of extended subjectivity, we note the royal mallqui,
which allowed the king to continue to exist even after the corporeal death of his primary human
body. In this capacity, this material form extended royal subjectivity and personhood across time
as well as space.
At this point, we can observe how the particular work that "objects" do is an outgrowth of
their ontological configuration. Apropos of this issue, Peter Gose's discussion of the political role
of Inka oracles concludes that the extensive network of substitutes for the Inka helped to
maintain control of a state in which political legitimacy relied on cultivating personal
relationships with each individual in Tawantinsuyu. As Gose (1996: 21) writes: [B]y working
through the multiple embodiments of 'substitutes,' statues, and mediums, a ruler extended his
influence in space and time and delegated enough power to govern effectively. The Inka
ontological configuration of material objects vis--vis their associated subjects made it possible
for the king to maintain effective control over a heterogeneous empire. Additionally, the unique
characteristics of each of these material forms allowed him to act in contextually-appropriate
ways; as ushnu in the provincial capital of Cajamarca, the actions required of him would differ
from those he ought to perform as mallqui in the company of other mallquis advising or
affirming the role of the living Sapa Inka.


Quotidian Objects, Extended Subjects

Our investigation into the social ontology of objects is not limited to cases that strike the
21st-century, Western eye with an aura of the exotic, such as huauques and mallquis. Indeed,
these objects provide rich opportunity to discover differing ontologies of materiality because
they are already at the borders of our ontological domains. The liminal quality of Andean
mummies draws attention to the categorical borders they threaten. At the same time, we assert
that those objects frequently identified as utilitarian, quotidian, or prosaic have too often been
overlooked as unsophisticated, "brute facts," even though they may reveal the unexpected about
ontological categories. Here we look at the role objects play in the construction of community in
the Andes.
One promising heuristic is that of the "biographical object" (Hoskins 1998). Articulating
the biographical object approach with Nancy Munns (1986) intersubjective spacetime leads
us to conclude that objects are a critical element in the creation of collective subjectivity, as
exemplified by the ayllu. The role of objects in creating Andean communities is an ontological
puzzle because the objects involved are in part subjects (possessing camay) and constituents of
subjects (communities) at the same time. In Biographical Objects, Janet Hoskins investigates
"ordinary household possessions that might be given an extraordinary significance by becoming
entangled in the events of a person's life and used as a vehicle for a sense of selfhood" (Hoskins
1998:2). Drawing on the work of Violette Morin, she argues things can be divided into two
categories: biographical objects and public commodities. Biographical objects are formed when
the person/object interaction results in a personalization, localization, and individualization of an
object (Hoskins 1998: 8). Unlike a public commodity, the biographical object shows time. It
grows old and tattered and anchors the owner to a specific time, place, or event. In the aging of
the object, Hoskins explains, the possessor sees her own age (Hoskins 1998:8). Significantly, the
form of production mechanical, mass, domestic does not determine the class of an object.
Rather, ones disposition toward and interaction with the object that determines its status. The
construction of selfhood is facilitated by curation of these objects.
The Andean case material may present a critique of the Morin-Hoskins conceptualization.
Biographical objects, as described by Hoskins, compose the biographies of individualized
subjects. This is the very form of subjectivity that Gose (1984) specifically argues is
inappropriately applied to Andean culture. For instance, he proposes that standard interpretations
of Andean sacrifice use a gift-oriented model, one that neutralizes the violence of sacrifice and
also implies individual personhood (Gose 1986:298). Instead, Gose privileges a collective
selfhood created by the sacrifice of children. Gose (1986:10) concludes that sacrifice in the
Andes is a distinct negation of the object fetish that effectively rejects the framework of
individuality implied by commodity exchanges. No one doubts that objects were exchanged in

the ancient Andes. If these exchanges did not imply or create individuation, what did they
create? The Andean subject, according to Gose, is the collectivity.
Generalizing from Goses research, we can conclude that various forms of social
interactions involving objects limit individuation and create solidarity. Significantly, each
instance of interaction requires objects to be the medium of social production, to effect and to
mark the subjects and their relations. Nancy Munn's theory of "intersubjective space-time" helps
explain how objects can be constituent elements of subjects rather than property thereof. Munn
(1986: 11) proposed that in Gawa value is created by trading objects, and that the creation of
value through social interaction also creates the spacetime in which these actions take place and
the subjects who enact them. Rather than yoking the recipient with debt and servitude, exchange
instead extends actors across space and time, bringing them closer through the objects they trade.
In contrast to Goses assertion that exchange carves society into individuals, Munn suggests that
through exchange subjectivity is extended beyond the individual body. If subjectivity is
extendable in this way, however, the objects are much more than media, but in fact constituent
parts of amoeba-like subjects extending across time and space.
This concept of extended spatio-temporal subject is well established in literature from
Murra's (1980) writings on the Inkas to Goldstein's (2000) study of diasporic Tiwanaku
communities. Ethnographic research supports this conclusion as well. Enrique Mayer, for
example, describes how several modes of exchange solidify social relationships through the
interchanging of food, labor, and goods (Mayer 2002: 109-111, 144). For Munn, the subject is
the individual. However in the Andes we see evidence for collective social subjects extending
across space with their subunits united by recurring interactions. What we suggest here is that
through the exchange (and subsequent possession) of even quotidian items, collective
subjectivities in the Andes were forged and maintained across time and space. These objects are
biographical because they are the material embodiment of the group's collective life. In their
indexical capacity, these objects come to express an ideology - in its broadest sense, as a system
of ideas - in which interrelationships between people and groups are themselves an end to be
pursued. The exchanges in which they acquire objects are a means towards that end (among
various ends tied up in the action of exchange) and objects are first the medium, then the
enduring reminder, and finally party to those relationships and their initiation.
Archeologically this perspective has import in our interpretation of material culture.
Hayden and Cannon (1983) suggested that one aspect affecting discard patterns of household
items in the Maya Highlands is their potential value. Furthermore, they conclude that most
objects archaeologists encounter are in a state of provisional discard; broken, but kept near at
hand (yet out of the way) because of their value even in a broken state (Hayden and Cannon
1983:166). Considering the biographical potential of objects, we might focus less on the
exchange value and more on the affective value embodied in our archaeological assemblages.

Following Allen (1998:23) we might consider the way that utilitarian artifacts indicate the
former owners' being (qasqa), defined as a position in an actively balanced web of socio-ritual
entanglements involving things ranging from quotidian objects to people to mountains.
We can consider these quotidian items - as biographical objects in terms of the
framework suggested above. Objects tied up in creating collective subjectivity are, in our
terminology, affect-laden. They have a value that is defined not only by their exchange value, but
also by their critical role in establishing social relationships. They are also representational of
social relationships, in commemorating the social encounters in which they were acquired,
embodying that relationship by marking future obligations, and in their weathering indicating the
temporality of these bonds. In their representational capacity they also become normative.
Society coheres by virtue of the medium of these otherwise unexceptional objects. In this sense,
the pursuit and maintenance of social relationships, facilitated by cultural objects, becomes a
collective value generated and sustained by a multitude of subjects in the matrix of a particular
social environment. Yet they are much more than media: they become part of the very society
they create.
From a Western normative perspective, objects imbued with "sentimental" value are
archetypical of the supplemental ontologies' defined above: their value is a projection of the
human mind. This familiar ontology is challenged by the role objects have in creating Andean
forms of sociality and collective subjectivity. As Allen (1998) notes, seemingly inanimate
objects possess camay and so demand a host of distinct practices and dispositions towards
otherwise mundane things. We cannot assert with any certainty that quotidian objects became
subjects themselves, as we suggest of Moche effigies and sex pots. However, tied up in the
extension of intersubjective space-time and possessing camay, quotidian objects blur the
boundaries between supplemental ontologies and fetishistic ontologies and highlight the
difficulty in distinguishing objects-as-subjects from objects-creating-subjects.
From the initial premise that what things are affect what they do, we have presented two
heuristics that explore the pragmatic stakes of cultural ontologies. The first addresses the ways
that the "metaphysical excesses" of materials are reconciled in practical ontologies by contrasting
"supplemental" and "fetishistic" ontologies. We presented two Andean cases that tend toward the
fetishistic pole--that is an ontology in which metaphysical excesses are understood to be
immanent within materiality itself. In the example of Early Colonial Period, metaphysical excess
qua potentiality--or potential for (in)action--was considered an inherent characteristic of
materials generally and the body in particular, which affected the relationships between living
and dead, and the stakes of interment. Within the Moche polity, we propose that metaphysical
excess in the form of power was understood to have been a property of certain material

substances, particularly bodily fluids, which affected the ways that politics were performed and
power relations were established.
In our second heuristic, we explored how alternative ontologies may reconfigure the
prevailing Western analytical divide between subject and object. We claim that the ontological
status of material objects not only may allow them to create distinctive forms of subjectivity, but
on occasion they may also combine to create compound subjects. In the example of the Inka's
double, we point out how a number of material forms, both human and nonhuman, participated
in a collective subjectivity. Our study of quotidian objects, on the other hand, demonstrates how
the exchange of nonhuman material artifacts, as congealed into social biographies, creates a
collective form of subjectivity in the ayllu while those very objects share in the subjectivity they
Our two heuristics not only speak to the same overriding premise regarding the practical
implications of ontologies, but they also overlap and converge. The supplemental ontology that
is predicated on a strict division of mental and material in turn produces the conditions whereby
subject and object can be radically opposed. Under conditions that tend toward a fetishistic
ontology, objects can become subjects and act within the social world along with human beings.
In this sense, subjectivity itself may be considered a form of metaphysical excess.
The examples that we discuss likely reflect a number of ontologies that existed in preColumbian and Colonial societies, rather than a monolithic "Andean ontology." Because of the
ways in which these diverse cases speak to each other and illuminate a theoretical understanding
of how the ontological status of material things affects the social work they perform, the
heuristics we propose possess a rich potential for application in a variety of other ethnographic
contexts and intellectual conversations. We designed our analytic to be flexible with the hope
that this flexibility will make possible its portability beyond the Andes. The analytical
paradigms, key interpretive categories and analogical tools we suggest can perhaps play a role in
examining cultural ontologies within, and beyond, the disciplinary confines of anthropology.
Ultimately, we believe that the development of an Andean theory of things, embedded in a
general theory of materiality, can serve as a means to develop a more robust ontology of the


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