material alienation


In the indigenous language of the Suyá (Brazil), the word kande (owner-controller)

‘not only refers to the possession of tangible and intangible wealth (such as ritual knowledge) but also to the potential ability to produce these goods. It also forms expressions designating social functions endowed with prestige and political power: thus war leaders were called
weropakande, ‘owners of our village,’ while the ritual specialist is known as mërokïnkande.’ (Fausto 2008)

This concept, which has its roots in the egalitarian view that humans are not seen distinct from animals and other beings on earth, has been fascinating me for a while now and dominated my academic research throughout my MA in anthropological linguistics. Being the kande of an entity involves not only power and control but also maintenance, protection and care. Therefore, the act of owning-controlling stops being a monodirectional exertion of power and becomes a reciprocal exchange. What is also crucial is the incorporation of knowledge, the knowledge of how something works and how to reproduce it.

One of my professors told me a great story about an exchange with a local after he had seen her flying into their Amazonian village in a small airplane. ‘Can you show me how to do it’? he asked – ‘show you what?’ – ‘how to build such a thing; you arrived in it, surely you must know how it works and can be rebuilt.’

First, naturally, this story made me chuckle, but at second thought I realised that what is actually ridiculous is not that this man thought that every Western person possesses the knowledge and skill to build an airplane, but the fact that we don’t. Okay, we don’t all need to be airplane-builders, but seriously, most of us have no idea how this metal buckets make us travel from one end of the world to another. And it does certainly not end there, just consider things such as: the internet, computers, cd’s, smartphones, radios, TVs (just to name a few).

Unless a person possesses special knowledge of these things because they are involved in their production process or specific application, we have NO idea how things which we use on a daily basis and which constitute integral parts of our lives work. Through decades and centuries of industrialisation, division of production processess and outsourcing we have arrived at a point where all most of us know is that ‘stuff’ is ‘somehow’ produced ‘somewhere’ by ‘someone’, as if these things just magically appeared in our stores.

One effect of this is the rapid alienation of relationships between human possessors and possessed material objects. We ‘own’ and ‘possess’ everything, but most items means very little or nothing to us. In many Amerindian societies it is believed that every manufactured object carries a part of the identity of its maker in it and the knowledge to produce goods is in turn considered as an essential part of people’s identities.

As far as I remember, the last thing I produced might have actually been a clay picture frame I made for my mum in kindergarten. Since then I have been either involved in schooling or worked in service jobs of some sort, where I pressed buttons, input data, filled in forms but never actually played a part in the creation of anything. Only during my time as bartender I felt much more satisfied and useful than in office jobs, simply because I could directly see the influence of my presence and actions on actual, present people.

This has made me realise that I no longer want to work in impersonal jobs, producing immaterial products to satisfy imaginary needs. I want to be curious about the world that surrounds me, do things, acquire new skills. I want to learn how things work, how they are produced and share this knowledge with the people around me.

I don’t care for being an owner – I want to become a kande.


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