The Americas 60.4 (2004) 658-659
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In this most recent of his several books on Aztec culture and history, Ross Hassig argues that anthropological and other studies of the Aztecs have placed too much emphasis on the role of ideology in determining Aztec behavior. The overemphasis has led, most notably, to a misunderstanding of the Aztec conception of time, and consequently to a misunderstanding of Aztec motivation in the face of historical events. It has long been asserted that the Aztecs had a cyclical conception of time, reflected directly in their calendar, which began anew every 52 years using the same series of year names, apparently without distinguishing among 52-year cycles. Thus, it has been assumed that the Aztec interpretation of an event—for example, the landing of Cortés on the eastern shore of Mexico in 1519—was determined by the historical associations of the event's year in previous 52-year cycles. Hassig argues that, whatever the cyclical characteristics of the Aztec calendar, it also measured linear time, and the Aztec conceptions of time and historical causality were also ultimately linear. If Cortés was first perceived as the returning god Quetzalcoatl, this cyclical view gave way to a more practical view when the Aztecs recognized the threat to their sovereignty.
Hassig's book is not primarily about the Aztec perception of Cortés, but he begins with this example and returns to it several times, and his conclusions about it distill his wider theoretical view: that ideology influences perceptions and therefore behavior, but the degree of its influence is heavily conditioned by practical concerns. He also frames his argument in terms of the recent Sahlins-Obeyesekere debate in anthropology, which centers on a similar problem, the Hawaiian perception of Captain Cook as the god Lono. The conventional perspective of Aztec studies, in Hassig's view, parallels Sahlins's interpretation of Hawaiian history by taking "beliefs themselves as the cause of actions," whereas his own perspective sees actions as "motivated by culturally congruent practical reasons rather than by primarily ideological ones" (p. 156). Hassig tries hard not to align himself with either side of the Hawaiian debate and remains ostensibly open to ideological interpretations of Aztec history, but it is abundantly clear that, much like Obeyesekere, he sees political pragmatism as the bottom line of behavior, especially the behavior of the elite. [End Page 658]
Hassig makes much of the way the Aztec elite manipulated ideology, especially ideology as embodied in the calendar, to pursue political ambitions. The full implication of his argument, as he partly recognizes, is that ideology amounts to things most people are content to believe and a few people are savvy enough to use for their own selfish purposes. I find this a simplistic view of what ideology (or culture, which ideology stands in for here) consists of, not least because it leaves unanswered what the elite class itself believed. Near the end of the book, Hassig wrestles with this difficulty, but the fundamental motivation of elite behavior remains something outside of culture, as though a chosen few are somehow exempt from the mystifying influences that compromise everyone else's thinking. There has always been an admirable thoroughness to Hassig's work that promises an interest in discovering what really moved the Aztecs, but all the attention to detail has unfortunately come with this same, mostly unexamined reliance on the principle of extracultural self-interest.
Apart from its theoretical perspective, the weakest part of the book is its neglect of a range of recent, important work in Aztec studies. Conspicuously absent is any consideration of Gillespie's The Aztec Kings (1989), which Hassig cites only in passing as one example of the view that the Aztecs conceived of time and history as cyclical (p. 170, n. 30-31). Ironically, Hassig notes the recent conclusion of some people that the Aztec...