Marett Memorial Lecture 2018: Individualism in the Wild: Oneness in Jivaroan Culture

Amazonian ethnology has long recognized that individual sovereignty is a central value among indigenous lowland groups whose cosmopolitics are premised on the production of persons rather than material property. Jivaroan peoples exemplify this peculiar form of Amazonian ‘Individualism’ to an extreme degree. They were and remain deeply committed to the quest for uniqueness of being and destiny, unconstrained by the claims of any institutionalized form of supra-individual authority. Presumed to be shared by all persons claiming Jivaroan identity – indeed the defining feature of such an identity – the striving of each to become ‘the best of Jivaroans’ through the dedicated cultivation of agonistic stances is paradoxically constitutive of a distinctive social formation remarkable for its resilience and stability over time. My goal in this conference is first to describe the principal manifestations of Jivaroan individualism, then to analyze how it is produced, what kinds of relationality and temporality it implies and how these lead to the making of a society of ‘unequal equals’, before examining some implications of this study for a better understanding of the varieties of individualism and of the polities they are linked to. I thereby hope to bring some fresh insights to the classic problem of Amazonian ‘anti-politics’.