(University of Edinburgh)
Paper Short Abstract:
This paper explores the peculiar artefactual qualities of a non-referential speech act as the primary constituent of ritual hierarchy among rural Mapuche people of southern Chile. I suggest that we need to come to terms with a semiotic ideology in which certain kinds of speech have an agency above and beyond the persons through whom they are transmitted.
Paper long abstract:
This paper explores the peculiar artefactual qualities of a non-referential speech act as the sole constituent of ritual hierarchy among rural Mapuche people of southern Chile. In an otherwise highly egalitarian society, a hierarchy of 'masters,' 'captains,' and 'sergeants' is established through the circulation of the 'word' during the organization of the ngillatun fertility ritual. This 'word' is conceived as a material artefact handed from one ritual leader to another in the weeks preceding the ritual, and through its passage forming a boundary around the entire ritual congregation. Yet not only is this 'word' immaterial, it bears no referential content, nor does it seem to refer directly to any particular utterance. It is rather, a way of describing a system of circulation in which the question of what is actually circulated remains unclear. Nevertheless, to impede the circulation of the 'word' is to invite death and destruction. I argue that to understand this process we need to address a semiotic ideology in which persons are created by words to a greater extent than persons create words. In this instance, therefore, certain kinds of speech have an agency above and beyond the persons through whom they are transmitted.
Thinking, acting and knowing through religious 'things': artefacts in the making of cosmology