The political economy of technofetishism: Agency, Amazonian ontologies, and global magic

Alf Hornborg


The ethnography of human-object relations in native Amazonia can help to illuminate the role of technological artifacts in modern society. Rather than abandon the categories of "subject" and "object" and of "Society" and "Nature," as suggested by proponents of the "ontological turn," anthropologists can compare subject-object transformations and the naturalization of social power relations in the two contexts. In native Amazonian animism the attribution of subjectivity and agency to artifacts often includes personhood and intentionality, while in modernity technological objects tend to be perceived merely as autonomous agents, but both these kinds of perceptions can be understood as statements about fetishized social relations. In the former case an external observer can conclude that the delegation of agency to artefacts is dependent on human consciousness, while it is generally believed that technology operates independently of human perceptions. However, in acknowledging the ultimate dependence of modern technology on exchange rates and financial strategies in a globalized economy, we realize that the agency of modern artifacts is also dependent on human subjectivity. In shifting the focus of comparative anthropology from ontology to political economy, we can detect that modern technology is a globalized form of magic.


Amazonia, human-object relations, fetishism, ontological turn, technology, political economy, global magic

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.1.003