Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 25, 2015
Stephen Houston The Life Within: Classic Maya and the Matter of Permanence New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. 208 pp.; 43 color ills.; 72 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780300196023)

In this absorbing yet brief book, Stephen Houston, a noted Maya epigrapher and archaeologist, seeks to map out one of the core issues of the anthropology of art—materiality—within the ancient Maya context. The volume highlights in particular native attitudes toward the spirits or energies that reside within certain materials with which the Maya fashioned their visual culture. Over three main chapters, The Life Within: Classic Maya and the Matter of Permanence outlines varied dimensions of ancient Maya materiality, employing close visual analysis of artworks, interpretations of hieroglyphic texts, and ethnographic comparisons. The scope of visual culture addressed largely pertains to the central Maya lowlands during the Classic period (250–850 CE).

The first chapter discusses the hieroglyphic and iconographic background on Maya materials, highlighting wood and other plants (“matter that grows”), stone (“dug out” matter), and human bodily material. Throughout this chapter, Houston underscores the relationship of materials to each other (often in dyads), to the cosmos, and especially to the deities that were believed to be present in materials. He points to the importance of mythic models in shaping Maya attitudes toward wood or plant substances as matter. Certain plants, such as maize, ceiba trees, and cacao, were emphasized by personification, but numerous other species are attested in texts and images. Houston briefly mentions certain materials that grow, such as animal pelts, bone, shell, and feathers, but these are not discussed at length. In the section on stone, he highlights the role of jade, obsidian, and flint, which were also personified. At the end of the chapter, Houston gives some examples of how these special materials were incorporated into ritual titles such as baah took’ “head flint,” a title for a sacrificer.

The second chapter treats the difficult issue of skeuomorphy in Maya visual culture: the rendering of perishable materials like cloth or forms like baskets in more permanent materials. The goal of this discussion is to discover ancient Maya attitudes toward permanence, resulting in a polyvalent reading. Citing a wide range of examples, Houston notes that in many cases the motivation for these material transfers might have been to signal value. He then undertakes a fairly detailed survey of theories of skeuomorphy. This field saw considerable investigation during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but has largely been ignored by mainstream art history. Among these theories, Houston seems to find the most merit in the notion that skeuomorphy was partly undertaken in part to make things last in a tropical environment. But how sure can one be that “a pot that endures is better than a basket that rots” (68–69)? Partly due to their almost complete lack of preservation, it is nearly impossible to know the relative value of baskets or other perishable objects compared to pottery, as well as the degree to which relatively durable objects might have been materially transformed into perishable artifacts. More compelling is Houston’s assertion that the process involves a strong element of play or “material wit” (70). This is supported by a number of lines of evidence, including the patronage of ancient Maya craft by trickster monkeys. A more complex argument is that skeuomorphy was also a strategic act in which one object did not replace another, but existed in an asymmetrical symbolic relationship to the source. The skeuomorph is a process of marking specialness. In this regard, Houston identifies increased skeuomorphy with times of social change. While the outlines of this argument seem reasonable, its direct application to the Maya case requires more information about exactly who was involved in the crafting and circulation of these objects (both originals and skeuomorphs), especially in terms of gender, age, and social status. Houston further asserts that the ancient Maya believed material “things” to be animate in certain contexts. This concept manifests in the proposed equation of material transference with transubstantiation. The idea builds upon an earlier interpretation by Houston and colleagues of royal portraiture as extensions of the king’s body or “self” (Stephen Houston and David Stuart, “Of Gods, Glyphs and Kings: Divinity and Rulership among the Classic Maya,” Antiquity 70 (1996): 289–312; Stephen Houston, David Stuart, and Karl Taube, The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006). The third chapter also addresses the notion of the animacy of materials by focusing on divine essences and gods associated with various materials, particularly wood and stone. Houston makes a number of interesting observations here. One is that some animate forms may reference mythic origins. In addition, he notes that the materials depicted as animate (with deity features or imagery) are subtractive media. That is, the spirit within these materials is revealed through human manipulation. The chapter concludes with a discussion of full-figure signs in the Maya script, noting their likely ties to notions of the powers of speech in addition to their foundation in iconographic elaboration and artistic virtuosity. Although Houston points out that animate objects need not resemble humans (77), the evidence for animacy in this chapter is largely based on personification. One wonders if the Maya had other ways of representing or referencing animacy other than personification or attached scrolls, as discussed at the beginning of chapter 3.

In general, The Life Within is an original work that will be of interest to a wide audience in art history and visual anthropology. The writing is accessible, free of jargon, and filled with subtle evocations of texture, color, weight, and form, along with temperature, smell, and sound. On occasion, the style verges on the poetic, particularly in the very brief concluding chapter, a meditation on Maya elites’ appreciation for jade. The text is greatly enhanced by well-chosen, high-quality images, many in color. The chapters are brief, sometimes merely suggesting connections and leaving the reader to infer arguments. For example, the discussion of the materiality of the body occupies only about a page and a half (27–28). While this may make the text difficult for some nonspecialist readers, the brevity also suggests numerous avenues for further investigation. An example is the hypothesis that material transference was sometimes undertaken for purposes of signaling group identity (38–39). Another point, raised by the analysis in chapter 3, is the association of animate forces with subtractive media. Although only briefly mentioned in the chapter, shell would seem to be significant in this regard and seems to warrant further study. As such, the book is particularly relevant to those seeking new avenues of investigation within Maya visual culture, especially from an anthropological perspective.

Matthew Looper
Professor of Art History, California State University, Chico