Unexplored Agencies - On the ritual life of objects
Carlo Severi (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris)
Paper short abstract:
I shall raise two questions about the use that Gell makes of the concept of agency. The first concerns the network of social relationships in which an agency may be attributed to an object. The second concerns the morphology of the relationship between the object and the being it represents.
Paper long abstract:
Thanks to Alfred Gell's work on the "agency" attributed to artifacts, we can now study « primitive artworks » not only as expressions of an aesthetic thought, but also as ways to establish specific social relations among human and non-human beings. In my paper, I shall raise two questions about the use that Gell makes of the concept of agency. The first concerns the context, and the network of social relationships in which agency may be attributed to an object. Gell often places this attribution against the background of a spontaneous and unstable "anthropomorphism" that we constantly experience in every day life. How can we conceive of the functioning of "agencies" in more structured contexts, for instance in ritual action? My second question concerns the morphology of the relationship between the object and the being it represents. Gell constantly refers to it as an unproblematic, mirror-like relationship. Is this relationship always as simple as that ? Using ethnographic material, I will try to answer these two questions, arguing that, in ritual situations, the abduction of agency is doubly transformed. On the one hand, the "living artifact" generates, in these contexts, a stable, strongly structured belief. On the other hand, the artifact ceases to function as a mirror. It functions more like a crystal, which, by refraction, organizes in a single being different aspects of a plural identity.
Art and Personhood in the Historical Moment: Rethinking Gell and Strathern.