Violence from beyond

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Michael L. Cepek. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.010


Violence from beyond

Michael L. CEPEK, University of Texas at San Antonio

Comment on Turner, Terence. 2017. “Beauty and the beast: The fearful symmetry of the jaguar and other natural beings in Kayapo ritual and myth.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (2): 51–70.

In “Beauty and the beast,” Terry Turner reveals much of what made him one of the great anthropologists of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The reader recognizes many familiar aspects of his work, especially his grounding in a theoretical apparatus based on concepts of value and production and his readiness to outline the dynamics of inequality and exploitation that structure ostensibly classless societies. The one thing that stands out most about “Beauty and the beast,” though, is Turner’s description of aybanh, the Kayapo experience of becoming uncontrollably violent after being penetrated by the hair or blood of a jaguar.

The aybanh complex reminds me of my own conclusions regarding the creation of violent capacities among the Cofán people of eastern Ecuador. For the Cofán, violence is the result of unwilled capture by enemy others, and it results in a decidedly jaguar-esque and sometimes aybanh-like disposition. The logic of capture is found not only in mythological warfare accounts but in the structure of shamanic apprenticeship and twentieth-century experiences with missionization and military conscription. All of these practices evidence a defining Cofán assumption: as a people, they are incapable of intentionally transforming themselves into aggressive and fearless actors. Instead, they believe they must rely on the interventions of human and nonhuman others, who initiate and manage a process that produces predatory powers. From the perspective of the Cofán who undergo the transformation, the process is unwilled, unwanted, and characterized by pain, subjugation, and terror (Cepek 2015).

In the works of such Amazonianists as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Carlos Fausto, and Fernando Santos-Granero, the logic and practice of capture play a [76]central role (see, for example, Viveiros de Castro 2014; Fausto 1999; Santos-Granero 2009). These anthropologists suggest that native Amazonians occupy a cosmos in which individuals intentionally augment their predatory capacities by capturing the powers of others, whose fertile difference is essential to social reproduction. Recently, Marshall Sahlins has built on this finding of Amazonian ethnology to argue against central assumptions of the production paradigm, to which Turner adheres. Recognizing the ultimate finitude and uncontrollability of the human condition, Sahlins (2013) asserts, all peoples recognize the creative necessity of a social and cosmological exterior. They do not control or produce this realm, but they view it as essential to their sustenance. Even more, they understand it as the ultimate source of value. Ethno-theories of value, in short, depart radically from labor theories of value, even in their most unorthodox forms. Sahlin’s central assertion—in effect, that society is never a totality and that people do not produce themselves—seems to be a direct attack on Turner’s theoretical framework.

Despite their common understanding of the production of violent powers, the Cofán are not the Kayapo. They have no circular villages and few collective institutions. Elders do not parade in public plazas to perform their social position—and society itself—as a valued form of beauty or power. In general, Cofán social structure is loose and open. People orient their everyday choices and overarching projects around ideals of satiation, generalized reciprocity, and freedom from sickness, conflict, and anxiety. As they pursue this valued state, they produce a set of material, social, and psychological conditions that do not provide the framework for the playing of an antagonistic, zero-sum game. Hence, exploitation, in addition to totality, is difficult to discern in contemporary Cofán lives.

Although this valued socioexistential state, which Cofán describe with the term opatssi, seems so different from Kayapó assertive expressiveness, it also gives us reason to question the model constructed by Sahlins and the Amazonianists he follows. In their pursuit of an opatssi life, Cofán people hope to stay far away from enemy otherness. Their stance, as well as the conditions that enable it, appear to be almost anticosmological in nature. The greater cosmos, as well as the realms beyond Cofán interactional fields, are associated with death, enemies, and such powerful nonhumans as jaguars. In everyday community life, absolutely none of these figures or forces are needed to produce a valued existence. Despite Sahlins’ universalizing claims, the Cofán recognize alterity as neither a value itself nor the source of all value. In this sense, the basic Cofán position appears quite similar to the Kayapo perspective, which is directed to the interior, rather than to the exterior, of their social world.

Ultimately, then, how can we characterize the capacity for violence from the Cofán perspective? It is a quality of which they do not approve. Inside their communities, it is destructive and unwanted—like an aybanh berserker. Outside of them, however, it is essential to fend off the enemies who periodically trouble their lives. Hence, is it a part of their society, construed as a total interactional field? Not quite. Although sometimes necessary for Cofán survival, violence remains on the outside. Even more importantly, its necessity depends on the balance of forces between Cofán people and the enemies that threaten them. At many historical moments, symmetrical and relatively egalitarian relations have provided Cofán people all they have needed to live desirable lives. Recognizing the political and historical [77]situations in which they find themselves, the Cofán, like the Kayapo, prefer to be a social rather than a sociocosmological people.

Different from both Turner’s Kayapo and other peoples of lowland South America, the Cofán have their own ideas about what it means to live a good life. In “Beauty and the beast” and other recent writings, Turner has criticized the homogenizing impulses of Amazonian ethnology. His intervention creates an intellectual space that acknowledges the particularities of our subjects. Although famous for the force with which he advocates his positions, Turner offers a perspective that is much more open than the paradigms of his rivals. His analysis of the aybanh experience and the production of violence is a perfect example of his ethnographic flexibility. It also demonstrates his willingness to stand against dominant anthropological trends, whether regionalist ideas like “perspectivism” or broader concepts concerning the meaning of value and the structure of society.

References Cited

Cepek, Michael L. 2015. “Ungrateful predators: Capture and the creation of Cofán violence.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21(3): 542–560. doi:10.1111/1467-9655.12245

Fausto, Carlos. 1999. “Of enemies and pets: warfare and shamanism in Amazonia.” American Ethnologist 26 (4): 933–56. doi:10.1525/ae.1999.26.4.933

Sahlins, Marshall. 2013. “On the culture of material value and the cosmography of riches.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (2): 161–95. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.2.010

Santos-Granero, Fernando. 2009. Vital enemies: Slavery, predation, and the Amerindian political economy of life. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2014. Cannibal metaphysics. Translated by Peter Skafish. Minneapolis: Univocal Publishing.


Michael CEPEK is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His research with the Cofán people of eastern Ecuador explores the relationship between socioecological crisis, cultural difference, and directed change at the margins of global orders.


Michael L. Cepek
Department of Anthropology
University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas, U.S.A.