Valueless value: The question of production in Cofán shamanism

Michael CEPEK


In this essay, I analyze the production of value in the shamanic complex of the indigenous Cofán people of eastern Ecuador. While acknowledging the ethical nature of human existence and the generative power of human action, I describe the shaman as a paradoxical figure with regard to the efforts that produce him and the criteria that orient his actions. The shaman occupies a central social position, but he profits from little Cofán labor and receives mixed Cofán praise. Consequently, it is arguable that he represents no value at all. If anything, I suggest, he embodies valueless value, a concept I articulate in relation to Pierre Clastres’s notion of “powerless power.” In dialogue with the anthropology of ethics, morality, and productive action, I use my analysis of Cofán shamanism to demonstrate the utility of a value-based approach in any ethnographic investigation that takes human practice as its primary object.


ethnography, shamanism, Amazonia, value, Ecuador, Clastres

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/705430