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Under a Watchful Eye: self, power, and intimacy in Amazonia

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Harry Walker
University of California Press (November 2012)

What does it mean to be accompanied? How can autonomy and a sense of self emerge through one’s involvement with others?

This book examines the formation of self among the Urarina, an Amazonian people of lowland Peru. Based on detailed ethnography, the analysis highlights the role of intimate but asymmetrical attachments and dependencies which begin in the womb, but can extend beyond human society to include a variety of animals, plants, spirits and material objects. It thereby raises fundamental questions about what it means to be alive, to be an experiencing subject, and to be human.

From the highly personalized relationships that develop between babies and their hammocks, to the demonstrations of love and respect between spouses and the power asymmetries that structure encounters between shamans and spirits, hunters and game animals, or owners and pets, what emerges is a strong sense that the lived experience of togetherness lies at the heart of the human condition.

Recognizing this relational quality of existence enables us to see how acting effectively in the world may be less a matter of individual self-assertion than learning how to elicit empathetic acts of care and attentiveness by endearing oneself to others.

  • Dr Harry Walker is a lecturer in anthropology at LSE.

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'In this beautifully written study of Urarina mastery of life, Walker demonstrates the continued importance of careful ethnographic attention to historically emergent forms of subjectivity. Walker's perceptive attention to social values and organising principles helps us understand how the Urarina transcend predation, identity and difference. We are transported to the heart of a society both more individualising and more communalist than the ones we have grown up in.'
Laura Rival, author of Trekking Through History: the Huaorani of Amazonian Ecuador

'A celebration of Urarina understandings of the individual and the social world, Under a Watchful Eye unveils the many paradoxes of native Amazonian sociality. Well-written and finely crafted, the book critically engages with issues raised by perspectivism, incorporation theory, and constructional approaches, proposing novel and stimulating insights on indigenous notions of living well.'
Fernando Santos-Granero, author of Vital Enemies: slavery, predation, and the Amerindian political economy of life

'This book is based on the sensitive and multi-layered ethnography which only real, long-term participant observation can produce. We are convinced by detailed supporting evidence and never lost, as is the case for some Amazonian ethnography, in formulations, which having acquired an academic life of their own, seem impossibly remote from the experience of shared human practice.'
Maurice Bloch, author of How We Think They Think: anthropological studies in cognition, memory and literacy


Under a Watchful Eye