Skip to main content

Distributed for HAU

Capturing Imagination

A Proposal for an Anthropology of Thought

Translated by Catherine V. Howard, Matthew Carey, Eric Bye, Ramon Fonkoue, and Joyce Suechun Cheng

Distributed for HAU

Capturing Imagination

A Proposal for an Anthropology of Thought

Translated by Catherine V. Howard, Matthew Carey, Eric Bye, Ramon Fonkoue, and Joyce Suechun Cheng
We have all found ourselves involuntarily addressing inanimate objects as though they were human. For a fleeting instant, we act as though our cars and computers can hear us. In situations like ritual or play, objects acquire a range of human characteristics, such as perception, thought, action, or speech. Puppets, dolls, and ritual statuettes cease to be merely addressees and begin to address us—we see life in them.
How might we describe the kind of thought that gives life to the artifact, making it memorable as well as effective, in daily life, play, or ritual action? Following The Chimera Principle, in this collection of essays Carlo Severi explores the kind of shared imagination where inanimate artifacts, from non-Western masks and ritual statuettes to paintings and sculptures in our own tradition, can be perceived as living beings. This nuanced inquiry into the works of memory and shared imagination is a proposal for a new anthropology of thought.

386 pages | 95 color plates | 6 x 9 | © 2018

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

HAU image

View all books from HAU


"[Severi's] book invites us to enter distant cultures not to get lost in them but, rather, to acquire perspectives and tools that will enable us to better understand what is happening at home. . . . As the expert, professional anthropologist that he is, Severi takes us into a multiplicity of contexts to view culturally constructed objects to which—in an equally cultural manner—are attributed a capacity for intentionality and interaction that is particularly efficacious and incisive in social life. . . . The ethnographic information that Severi brings in provides such a wealth of material and so many ramifications of conceptual implications that readers soon realize they are not wandering in marginal zones of culture and human thought. . . . In fact, entire chapters of his book are devoted to Western art, even abstract art, and the pages in which he examines problems of perspective in Renaissance art are masterful."

Francesco Remotti | Il Nuovo Manifesto Società Cooperativa Editrice

"Interwoven in his analysis and discussion of particular cases, Severi makes his most remarkable breakthroughs. . . . The richness of the cases studied, the results presented, and the notions proposed will be useful to any observer who grapples with images."

Nicolas Sarzeaud | Annales: Histoire, Sciences Sociales

"[A] dense work of great scholarly richness. The stated aim of the book is to elaborate an anthropology of art and, more broadly, to contribute to a general anthropology of forms of exercising thought. . . . Whether it is a matter of memorization with images rather than with writing (as in the examples of the khipus in the Andes or the basketry of the Yekwana in the Upper Orinoco) or of authority asserted through images rather than writing, all the chapters explore and underscore the expansive role played by images in thought. . . . The author also invites us to measure the weight of modern primitivism, one of the striking topics of the book. . . . Severi offers beautiful reflections [and] analyses that are especially original."

Françoise Armengaud | L’Homme: Revue française d’anthropologie

"A masterpiece for its rare combination of erudition, attention to ethnographic detail, and its vast conceptual imagination. It is a unique book from a unique author who invites us to join him on a intellectual journey along a path, following the threads that guide us to new discoveries every step of the way. Using data from different parts of the world and different historical periods, Severi keeps the reader so enthralled that the title, Capturing Imagination, ends up sounding like an augur. Let yourself be captured."

Carlos Fausto, author of Warfare and Shamanism in Amazonia

"The relation between person and object is a topic that has been central to theory in anthropology and to the method of ethnography since its inception. With this excellent English translation of L'Objet-personne, Carlo Severi invites us to revisit the legacy of assumptions and resulting models that have influenced how we conduct ourselves around objects, how we approach them in research and analysis, and how we account for the difference they make to culture and society. A tour de force on the topic of person and object and its manifold offshoots, the book is a must-read for anyone acquainted with earlier classics and their unanswered questions, which are exposed and debated here in the most nuanced, sophisticated, and hugely accessible and readable manner. This book indeed is a joy to read and a gift for anyone interested in the fundamental paradox of being human."

Susanne Kuechler, author of Malanggan: Art, Memory and Sacrifice

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: On Living Objects and the Anthropology of Thought
Kūkai’s Vision

Levels of Cognition

Anthropology and Pragmatics

Ethnography and Thought

Chapter 2: Primitivist Empathy: Intensifying the Image and Deciphering Space

The Stakes of Formal Borrowings

Carl Einstein, or Immobile Ecstasy

Primitivism without Borrowing: Imaginary Filiation

Iconography and Gaze-Games

Chapter 3: The Universe of the Arts of Memory

An Exercise in Methodology

Amerindian Arts of Memory: A Case Study

Pictography and Memory: A Model

Eponymous Animals: Northwest Coast Visual Culture

Pictograms and Andean Khipus

Principles of Mnemonic Encoding

Chapter 4: Authorless Authority: Forms of Authority in Oral Traditions

Evidentials, Pragmatics, and Artifacts

The Fang Mvet: Singer, Song, and Harp

Rethinking the West African Nail Figure

The Complex Artifact

Chapter 5: Giving Voice: When Images Speak

Speech and Ritual Images

Here-Now-I: Demonstrative Images and Speech Acts

Kolossoi and Kouroi; or The Pragmatics of Images


Chapter 6: Becoming Patroclus: Funerary Rituals and Games in The Iliad

The Image Through the Text: Identification, Hierarchy, and Prefiguration

Funerary Games as Quasi-Rituals

Reflections on Funeral Rituals among the Wari’

The Universe of Object-Persons

Chapter 7: The Anthropology of Abstract Art

Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Anthropology of Art

Principles of Analysis: An Example from Kandinsky

Visual Strategies in Abstract Art

Chapter 8: Chimeric Space: Perception and Projection

The Visible and Invisible in Works of Art

Perception and Projection in the Gaze

Symbolism and Transitional Space

Chimeras and Ambiguous Images

Wayana and Yekuana Iconography: Chimeras in the Amazon


Chapter 9: The Semblance of Life: The Epistemology of Western Perspective

A Science of Description: Imitare and Ritrarre

Models of Truth

Poetry Without Words or Blind Painting?

The Counterfactual Image

New Meditations on a Hobby Horse

Perspective and the Anthropology of Images

From Presence to the Active Gaze

The Witness-Figure and Capriccio

Chapter 10: On Irrefutable Hypotheses

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press