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Tools, agency and the category of ‘living things’

Ellen, Roy F. (2015) Tools, agency and the category of ‘living things’. Des êtres vivants et des artefacts: Les actes de colloques en ligne du musée du quai Branly, . pp. 1-21. ISSN 2105-2735. E-ISSN 2105-2735. (The full text of this publication is not currently available from this repository. You may be able to access a copy if URLs are provided) (KAR id:53979)

The full text of this publication is not currently available from this repository. You may be able to access a copy if URLs are provided.


Both humans and other animals attribute the qualities of living matter and agency to what we call tools and other cultural objects. In both cases a paradox may arise when autonomy is attributed to the object at the same time that it is recognized that its life-like characteristics are motivated by human actions. Nuaulu people in eastern Indonesia describe many kinds of objects as having the qualities we might otherwise reserve for biological organisms. They also distinguish entities that have many of the qualities of life but which ordinarily have no corporeal existence (spirits). While all cultural objects are potentially regarded in this way, in practice some objects are more alive and have more agency than others. I argue that part of the problem with existing anthropological treatments of the category “living things” is that they are either logical extrapolations through polythetic extension or based on formal taxonomic deduction/induction (ethnoscience). Using examples of meat-skewers, outboard motors, coconut graters, and sago-processing devices, together with certain forms of biological life such as fungi and algae, I demonstrate how Nuaulu ideas of what is animate and agentive are always fuzzy and contingent, and that by combining data from different kinds of ethnographic context, using different elicitation procedures, a more complex picture emerges.

Item Type: Article
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Anthropology and Conservation
Depositing User: Roy Ellen
Date Deposited: 24 Mar 2016 07:52 UTC
Last Modified: 17 Aug 2022 11:00 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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Ellen, Roy F..

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