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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Divination & Decision-Making: Ritual Techniques of Distributed Cognition in the Guatemalan Highlands

  • Author(s): McGraw, John Joseph
  • Advisor(s): Parish, Steven
  • et al.

In a highland Maya divination ritual called pajooneem (Tz’utujil, “weighing” or “balancing”), the bright red seeds of the tz’ite’ tree (Erythrina corallodendron) are utilized in conjunction with the 260-day calendar known as the Cholq’iij in order to involve revered “other-than-human persons” (Hallowell 2002) in a decision-making activity. The tz’ite’ seeds serve as “mediating artifacts” (Hutchins 1995:292) that help to coordinate various elements in an “ecology of mind” (Bateson 2000). In particular, the tz’ite’ seeds serve as “material anchors” (Hutchins 2005) when, during the divination, they are grouped into clusters to stand-in for the days of the Cholq’iij calendar. In this “conceptual blend” (Fauconnier and Turner 2002) the clusters of seeds come to embody the days of the Cholq’iij. Since there are twenty distinct days in this calendar, each of which pairs with the numbers one through thirteen in the course of the 260-day cycle, the combinatorial possibilities present a clear challenge to working memory. The use of material anchors facilitates the manipulation of representations in a complex “traffic of signs” (Peirce, et al. 1982) or “semiotic ecology” (Lang 1993).

The use of objects in this ritual also helps to make the decision-making activity public and visible; this public status, coupled with a “suppression of intention” typical of the divination process itself (Du Bois 1993), further distributes the agency of the decision among the interacting elements coordinated by the ritual. This distribution of agency lessens the “normative load” on the individuals involved and invests the decision with institutional authority.

Using interview transcripts, photos, and video analysis, I consider the ways that tz’ite’ seeds mediate cognition with a spotlight on their role in decision-making practices. Ultimately, this represents a cultural practice that is far more typical than commonly appreciated: People involve themselves in each other’s decision-making and judgment via an assemblage of intersubjective and interobjective structuration processes fostered by material objects. This investigation has relevance for discussions of materiality in anthropology, distributed cognition in cognitive science, active externalism in philosophy, and emphasizes the importance of studying ritual as a dynamical system; that is, identifying the reciprocally causal relationships among the people, places, objects, and signs, an approach I have entitled “ritual ecology.”

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