Category Archives: Ontological

Viveiros de Castro—Immanence and Fear

Immanence and Fear: Stranger-events and Subjects in Amazonia

by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, translated by David Rodgers

[Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2012. “Immanence and Fear: Stranger-Events and Subjects in Amazonia.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2 (1): 27–43.]

“As we know, a minimal amount of imagination is needed to be afraid” (28).

“I wish to talk about the forms of fear in the native societies of Amazonia, or more precisely, about another way of relating to fear exemplified by these societies” (29).

Quem tem cu tem meed,””Anyone with an asshole feels fear” (29).

“Here I need to return to a typical motif of indigenous cosmopraxis, one about which I have already written so exhaustively that the reader might be already familiar with it. I refer to Amerindian “cosmological perspectivism,” the idea according to which each species or type of being is endowed with a prosopomorphic or anthropomorphic apperception, seeing itself as a “person,” while it sees the other components of its own eco-system as non-persons or non-humans. Some are seen as prey animals or predatory animals (everything has its own jaguar), or as spirits (invariably cannibal, or sexually voracious). Other components of the eco-system are seen as artefacts of one‘s self-own culture: jaguars see humans as peccaries, and see the blood of the prey that they kill as maize beer; the dead see the crickets as fish, the tapirs see the salt licks where they gather as large ceremonial houses, etc. (Much of what I say here about animals can also be said about the dead since, in various aspects, animals are like the dead and the dead are like animals. That is, the dead are not human.) Thus, each species occupies “in” culture the position that humans (that is, the humans‘ humans) see themselves as occupying in relation to the rest of the cosmos. Hence, it is not just a question of each species identifying itself as a culturally defined humanity: perspectivism also means that each species possesses a particular way of perceiving alterity, a “consensual hallucination” device which makes it see the world in a characteristic way” (33).

“Having different eyes, however, does not mean seeing “the same things” in a different “way”; it means that you don‘t know what the other is seeing when he “says” that he is seeing the same thing as you: we do not understand anacondas. The problem is one of perceptive “homonymy,” not “synonymy.” Perspectivism is not a trans-specific multiculturalism stating that each species possesses a particular subjective “point of view” of a real objective, unique and self-subsistent world. It is not Anthropology 101—”various cultures and one nature.” Perspectivism does not state the existence of a multiplicity of points of view, but the existence of the point of view as a multiplicity. There is just “one” point of view, the one which humans share—like the anus—with every other species of being: the point of view of culture. What varies is the objective correlative of the point of view: what passes through the optic nerve (or digestive tube) of each species, so to speak. In other words, perspectivism does not presume a Thing-in-Itself partially apprehended by the categories of understanding proper to each species. I do not believe that the Indians imagine that there is a thing-in-itself which humans see as blood and jaguars see as beer. There are not differently categorized self-identical substances, but immediately relational multiplicities of the blood-beer, salt lick-ceremonial-house, cricket-fish type. There is no x which is blood for one species and beer for the other: there exists a blood-beer which is one of the singularities characteristic of the human-jaguar multiplicity. [  … paragraph ] What defines these perspectival multiplicities is their incompatibility. A human and a jaguar cannot be people at the same time; it is impossible to experience blood as beer without having-already-become a jaguar. Perspectivism states that each species sees itself as people. However, it also states that two species cannot see each other simultaneously as people. Each species has to be capable of not losing sight, so to speak, of the fact that the others see themselves as people and, simultaneously, capable of forgetting this fact—that is, of “no longer seeing it.” (34).

Supernatural regime—”a situation in which the subject of a perspective, or “self,” is suddenly transformed into an object in the perspective of another being” (36).

Appearances deceive because one can never be sure whose or which is the dominant point of view. One can never be sure, that is, which world is in force when one interacts with the Other.”

“I see these supernatural encounters in the forest, where the self is captured by an other, and defined by it as its ―second person,‖ as a kind of indigenous proto-experience of the State” (37).

“In an earlier work, I argued that the constitutive problem of Western modernity, namely, solipsism—the supposition that the other is merely a body, that it does not harbour a soul like that of the self: the absence of communication as an anxiety-ridden horizon of the self—had as its Amazonian equivalent the (positive or negative) obsession with cannibalism and the affirmation of the latent transformability of bodies. In a cosmos totally impregnated with subjecthood, the dominant supposition-fear is that what we eat are always, in the final analysis, souls: an excess of communication, the dangerous transparency of the world …

“I wish to suggest that the true equivalent of the “indigenous category of the supernatural” are not “our” extraordinary or paranormal experiences (alien abductions, ESP, mediumship, premonition), but the quotidian experience, perfectly terrifying in its very normality, of existing under a State. The famous poster of Uncle Sam with his finger pointing in your face, looking directly at anyone who allowed their gaze to be captured by him, is for me the perfect icon of the State: “I want you.” An Amazonian Indian would immediately know what this evil spirit is talking about, and, pretending not to hear, would look elsewhere” (37).

“the world of immanent humanity is also a world of immanent divinity, a world where divinity is distributed under the form of a potential infinity of non-human subjects. This is a world where hosts of minuscule gods wander the earth; a “myriatheism,” … This is the world that has been called animist, that is, now to use the terms of our inanimist tradition, a world where the object is a particular case of the subject, where every object is a subject in potentia. Instead of the solipsistic formula “I think, therefore I am” the indigenous cogito must be articulated in animistc terms, as in, “It exists, therefore it thinks.” But there, where on top of this the Self is a particular case of the Other, such “animism” must necessarily take the form of—if you excuse the pun—an “enemism”: an animism altered by alterity, an alterity that gets animated insofar as it is thought of as an enemy interiority: a Self that is radically Other. Hence the danger, and the brilliance, of such worlds” (41).

Abstract

This article proposes to explore the political correlates of Amazonian perspectival ontologies. From a Taulipang mythical narrative about the origin of the anus (as transcribed by Koch-Grünberg) to a Nambikwara explanation of Brazilian I.D. cards (as reported by Joana Miller), Amazonian ethnography allows us to perceive how “bodily” affects and “spiritual” encounters conspire to project a particular conception of power, sociality and truth.

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Kohn—How Forests Think

How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human

by Eduardo Kohn

[Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.]

Points

“How other kinds of beings see us matters. Th at other kinds of beings see us changes things. If jaguars also represent us—in ways that can matter vitally to us—then anthropology cannot limit itself just to exploring how people from different societies might happen to represent them as doing so” (1).

“This book is an attempt to ponder the Sphinx’s riddle by attending ethnographically to a series of Amazonian other-than-human encounters. Attending to our relations with those beings that exist in some way beyond the human forces us to question our tidy answers about the human. Th e goal here is neither to do away with the human nor to reinscribe it but to open it. In rethinking the human we must also rethink the kind of anthropology that would be adequate to this task. Sociocultural anthropology in its various forms as it is practiced today takes those attributes that are distinctive to humans—language, culture, society, and history—and uses them to fashion the tools to understand humans. In this process the analytical object becomes isomorphic with the analytics. As a result we are not able to see the myriad ways in which people are connected to a broader world of life, or how this fundamental connection changes what it might mean to be human. And this is why expanding ethnography to reach beyond the human is so important. An ethnographic focus not just on humans or only on animals but also on how humans and animals relate breaks open the circular closure that otherwise confines us when we seek to understand the distinctively human by means of that which is distinctive to humans” (6).

“I seek to contribute to these posthuman critiques of the ways in which we have treated humans as exceptional—and thus as fundamentally separate from the rest of the world—by developing a more robust analytic for understanding human relations to nonhuman beings. I do so by refl ecting on what it might mean to say that forests think. I do so, that is, by working out the connection between representational processes (which form the basis for all thought) and living ones as this is revealed through ethno-graphic attention to that which lies beyond the human. I use the insights thus gained to rethink our assumptions about the nature of representation, and I then explore how this rethinking changes our anthropological concepts. I call this approach an “anthropology beyond the human” (7).

“But symbols, those kinds of signs that are based on convention (like the English word dog), which are distinctively human representational forms, and whose properties make human language possible, actually emerge from and relate to other modalities of representation. In Peirce’s terminology these other modalities (in broad terms) are either “iconic” (involving signs that share likenesses with the things they represent) or “indexical” (involving signs that are in some way affected by or otherwise correlated with those things they represent). In addition to being symbolic creatures we humans share these other semiotic modalities with the rest of nonhuman biological life (Deacon 1997) … though signs may be extralinguistic (with the consequence that language can be treated as something more than symbolic) the contexts that make them meaningful are human sociocultural ones” (8).

“Life is constitutively semiotic” (9).

“This way of understanding semiosis can help us move beyond a dualistic approach to anthropology, in which humans are portrayed as separate from the worlds they represent, toward a monistic one, in which how humans represent jaguars and how jaguars represent humans can be understood as integral, though not interchangeable, parts of a single, open-ended story” (9).

“In sum, an anthropology beyond the human is perforce an ontological one. That is, taking nonhumans seriously makes it impossible to confine our anthropological inquiries to an epistemological concern for how it is that humans, at some particular time or in some particular place, go about making sense of them. As an ontological endeavor this kind of anthropology places us in a special position to rethink the sorts of concepts we use and to develop new ones. In Marilyn Strathern’s words, it aims “to create the conditions for new thoughts” (1988: 20)” (10).

“My argument is that we are colonized by certain ways of thinking about relationality. We can only imagine the ways in which selves and thoughts might form associations through our assumptions about the forms of associations that structure human language. And then, in ways that often go unnoticed, we project these assumptions onto nonhumans. Without realizing it we attribute to nonhumans properties that are our own, and then, to compound this, we narcissistically ask them to provide us with corrective reflections of ourselves … Forests are good to think because they themselves think. Forests think. I want to take this seriously, and I want to ask, What are the implications of this claim for our understandings of what it means to be human in a world that extends beyond us?” (21-22).

“Signs don’t come from the mind. Rather, it is the other way around. What we call mind, or self, is a product of semiosis. Th at “somebody,” human or non-human, who takes the crashing palm to be significant is a “self that is just com-ing into life in the fl ow of time” (CP 5.421) by virtue of the ways in which she comes to be a locus—however ephemeral—for the “interpretance” of this sign and many others like it. In fact, Peirce coined the cumbersome term interpretant to avoid the “homunculus fallacy” (see Deacon 2012: 48) of seeing a self as a sort of black box (a little person inside us, a homunculus) who would be the interpreter of those signs but not herself the product of those signs. Selves, human or nonhuman, simple or complex, are outcomes of semiosis as well as the starting points for new sign interpretation whose outcome will be a future self. They are waypoints in a semiotic process” (34).

“We need to provincialize language because we conflate representation with language and this conflation finds its way into our theory. We universalize this distinctive human propensity by first assuming that all representation is some-thing human and then by supposing that all representation has language like properties” (39).

“To summarize: signs are not exclusively human affairs. All living beings sign. We humans are therefore at home with the multitude of semiotic life. Our exceptional status is not the walled compound we thought we once inhabited. An anthropology that focuses on the relations we humans have with nonhuman beings forces us to step beyond the human. In the process it makes what we’ve taken to be the human condition—namely, the paradoxical, and “provincialized,” fact that our nature is to live immersed in the “unnatural” worlds we construct—appear a little strange. Learning how to appreciate this is an important goal of an anthropology beyond the human” (42).

“Thinking with images, as I do here with the Sphinx’s riddle, and as I do throughout this book, with all kinds of images—be they oneiric, aural, anecdotal, mythic, or even photographic (there are other stories being “told” here without words)—and learning to attend to the ways in which these images amplify, and thus render apparent, something about the human via that which lies beyond the human, is, as I’ve been arguing, also a way of opening ourselves to the distinctive iconic logics of how the forest’s thoughts might think their ways through us. How Forests Think aims to think like forests: in images” (222).

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Descola—Modes of Being and Forms of Predication

Modes of Being and Forms of Predication

by Phillipe Descola

[Descola, Philippe. “Modes of being and forms of predication.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4, no. 1 (2014): 271-280.]

Points

  1. argument against social construction–the world is not a self-contained collection of things that are seen differently by different cultures, but rather “a vast amount of qualities and relations that can be actualized or not by humans according to how ontological filters discriminate between environmental affordances” (273).
  2. When we piece together these affordances in the process of worlding, we create framing devices–“cognitive schemata that regulate habitus, guide inferences, filter perceptions” (274).
  3. Fundamental to these framing devices is the process of lumping together elements with similar qualities and dissociating those with dissimilar qualities.
  4. One of the universal features of this process is an awareness of a duality of planes:
    1. material process; physicality
    2. mental states; interiority
  5. This type of worlding results in a schema of four ontologies:
    1. Animism
      1. similar interiority; dissimilar physicality
      2. both humans and non-humans understand themselves as human – external differences are like clothing that can be worn or discarded
      3. seen in indigenous North and South America, Siberia, parts of Southeast Asia
    2. Totemism
      1. similar interiority and physicality
      2. groups of humans and animals share ganaral attributes of physical conformation, temperament, substance and behavior due to a common spatial origin
      3. Best seen in Australia, but also in some North American moities
    3. Analogism
      1. dissimilar interiority and physicality
      2. everything is separated by minute intervals, like the Great Chain of Being during the Middle Ages and Renaissance–it represents an attempt to create continuity out of vast objects that are all separate, “a multiplicity of reverberating differences” (276).
      3. common in Asia, West Africa, Mesoamerica, and the Andes
    4. Naturalism
      1.  similar physicality; dissimilar interiority
      2. There is a single unifying nature to the world, but cultures view it differently–(opposite of Animism) our physical properties are the same, but our souls/viewpoints are different–Darwinian evolution strengthens this, as we are (physically) part of an observable continuity
      3. contemporary Western ontology
  6. Most societies are a hybrid of more than one of the four typologies, while privileging one–this should be used as a way to think about ontology rather than a way to classify groups
  7. “we should regard what we usually call societies and cosmologies as a matter of distributing existents into different collectives: what or who associates with what or whom, and in what way, and for what purpose?” (278).
  8. “It is time, then, that we take stock of the fact that worlds are differently composed; it is time that we endeavour to understand how they are composed without automatic recourse to our own mode of composition” (279).

ontological filters–the way understandings of our own existence (being-in-the-world) makes certain environmental qualities or affordances available to us and certain qualities elide perception

worlding–the process of piecing together what is in our environment from these available affordances

Abstract

Notions like “nature” or “culture” do not denote a universal reality but a particular way,devised by the Moderns, of carving ontological domains in the texture of things. Othercivilizations have devised different ways of detecting qualities among existents, resulting inother forms of organizing continuity and discontinuity between humans and nonhumans,of aggregating beings in collectives,  of defining  who or what is capable of agency andknowledge. The paper emphasizes that these processes of ontological predication arenot “worldviews”  but, properly speaking, styles of worlding. Ontology is taken here as designating a more elementary analytical level to study worlding than the one anthropology usually calls for. It is at this level, where basic inferences are made about the kinds of beings that exist and how they relate to each other, that anthropology can best fulfill its mission to account for how worlds are composed. Continue reading Descola—Modes of Being and Forms of Predication

Nagel—What Is It Like to Be a Bat?

What Is It Like to Be a Bat?

by Thomas Nagel

[Nagel, Thomas. 1974. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review 83 (4): 435–50.]

Points

philosophical argument against reductionism. particularly as employed by physicalist materialism.

  1. consciousness is an experience, so it cannot be explained through the body—this is the problem with reductionist explanations of the “mind-body problem”
  2. because consciousness is an experience, it feels like something to the experiencer: “no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism” (426).
  3. What it feels like (is like) is unique to that organism, so consciousness is purely subjective
  4. In order to explain an experience to someone who has not experienced it, one would have to use objective description, which simply cannot encapsulate subjective issues
    1. Nagel uses bats as an example—how do we begin to understand what it is like to see with sonar and echolocation? We have no subjective background for this.
  5. So, the only thing we know (can ever really know) is what it is like to be ourselves (subjectivism)
  6. But wait! This does not mean that physicalism is necessarily false. This just means that we have no way of knowing or proving whether or not it is true.
    1. we don’t even know what “is” means: “For example, people are now told at an early age that all matter is really energy. But despite the fact that they know what “is” means, most of them never form a conception of what makes this claim true, because they lack the theoretical background” (447).
    2. which is why we don’t know what it is to be a bat
    3. which is why no one can know what it is to be something (someone) else
    4. which is why the mind-body issue will never be solved until we discover a way of objectively and inclusively relating experiential consciousness

reductionism—things are not that complicated; they are merely the sums of their parts, which are also not complicated

materialism—(in philosophy) matter is the only real thing; mental, spiritual, emotional, etc are all manifestations of matter doing stuff

physicalism—like materialism, but specifically arguing that all mental phenomena can be explained by physical bodily processes

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