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Spaces of Refuge

Person and Being

This book is about the shared nature of human existence: how we live our lives in the close company of others, in whose very being we come to participate. We come into the world accompanied, and this remains our defining condition: who we are, how we come to experience ourselves as conscious subjects, with the capacity to act on the world, are fundamentally conditioned by our constitutively accompanied nature. This mutuality does not undermine individuality but precedes it and is its condition of existence. Typically grounded in intimate but often asymmetrical relations of care and protection, mutuality nevertheless also establishes a certain vulnerability. This can manifest as a willingness to be dominated, if our continued sense of identity, our sense of self, can thereby be assured.

The Urarina, a hunting and horticultural people of the Peruvian Amazon with reference to whom these arguments are developed, recognize and elaborate these relational qualities of human experience to a high degree. Yet they never lose sight of the importance of individuality and uniqueness. A range of factors have shaped this dual emphasis on mutuality and autonomy, from low population density and the immediate, largely face-to-face nature of the social environment to limited access to modern technologies and manufactured goods to the exuberant, formidable expanse of the seemingly endless jungle, teeming with diverse forms of life. Then there is the extraordinary, turbulent history of the Amazon basin itself, marked by complex networks of trade and warfare, demographic expansion and contraction, high mobility, and brutal clashes between radically different civilizations. The struggle for survival of the indigenous inhabitants of the region has not diminished over the centuries, and their enemies today remain as powerful as ever. Despite historical trajectories and environmental conditions that are in many ways unique, peoples such as the Urarina also grapple with answers to fundamental existential conundrums that apply equally to us all, concerning what it means to be alive, to be human, and to live with others.

Despite the commonality of our human predicament, the responses that Urarina have developed-not to mention the distinctive cultural forms through which these are expressed-are their own, and must be understood with reference to the social and cultural milieu in which they are embedded. Careful analysis of a diverse range of practices and events together with commentaries and explanations offered by my hosts and interlocutors over the course of fieldwork reveal a set of basic assumptions and presuppositions, often more or less taken for granted, about the nature of the self and its coming into being through relations with others. How well these square with our own theories or intuitions may vary co