Tag Archives: Locke


Identity — Special Section: Keywords

by Lauren Leve

[Leve, Lauren. 2011. “Identity.” Current Anthropology 52 (4): 513–35.]


“Identity” is a key term for anthropological analysis today. This paper explores the challenge posed by modernist Buddhists in Nepal who participated in identity politics while grounding their claims to identity-based rights in belonging to a religious community defined by the doctrine that there is no such thing as a “self” in the conventional sense. Examining the sharp proliferation of identity- based discourses and claims in post-1990 Nepal in light of broader structural transformations associated with the globalization of neoliberal governance strategies and against the rise of a popular vipassana meditation movement, I suggest that the rise of ethnoreligious politics in Nepal at that time reflects the presence of a global “identity machine”—an apparatus that establishes not only the categories of identity recognized and claimed in democratic states but also, indeed, their very ontological foundations in liberal conceptions of self, citizenship, and social relations. Nepali Buddhists who claim religious rights while also engaging in practices that challenge the very idea of identity are at once participating in the ideological and institutional conditions of neoliberal modernity and also reworking these in unexpected ways. This paradox calls on anthropologists to study the processes that produce and extend particular ways of seeing and organizing the world rather than inadvertently naturalizing them.


“as the space between culture (as a taken-for-granted order of symbols, institutions, structures, values, and/or beliefs) and identity (as a reflexive construct or experiential modality through which one knows oneself and claims recognition) has seemed to shrink, identity has become, in effect, a kind of metaculture: culture—to use the old Hegelian terminology—not just in itself but for itself” (513-14).

“This paper addresses these concerns by asking not about the history or meaning of any particular collective identity but about the epistemological status of identity as an object in the world and of scholarly analysis. I argue that the proliferation of identity-based claims and politics that is so visible around the world today cannot be understood apart from a powerful sociopolitical formation that I refer to as an“identity machine”—a transnational assemblage that is rapidly reorganizing ways of being and knowing oneself and others in liberal and neoliberal democracies” (514).

“My concern here, however, is not the well-known fact that governance may take place through identity but what is specifically neoliberal about the ways this is occurring today. Materialized in the heavily promoted values, discourses, and institutions associated with neoliberal democracy and development, the identity machine produces not only the classes and categories of social personhood that structure public recognition of social collectivities but, indeed, the very ontology of “identity” itself” (514).

“My proposal is that these events reflect the power of a particular global sociopolitical imaginary, concretized in a constellation of institutions, ideologies, frameworks, structures, technologies, forms of knowledge, ethics, and norms that act as a kind of “identity machine,” producing not only the categories of ethnological identity (“ethnicities,” “tribes,”“nations,” “cultures”) but also the very ontology of identity that underlies liberal and neoliberal democracy.”

“we live in a time in which “culture” has become a powerful form of political currency, a morally and legally compelling aspect of personal and collective being that can be deployed as the basis of political claims. Arjun Appadurai (1996) has even given this a name, “culturalism”: “the conscious mobilization of cultural differences in the service of a larger national or transnational politics” (15)” (517).

“I propose that the current profusion of identity talk and also the political compulsion for states to recognize citizens’ sub- and supernational identities are at once parts and products of this global assemblage,which works by extending a particular style of thought and social organization in which identity proliferates and identities proliferate and in order to do certain kinds of politics, you have to represent yourself in certain terms and make your claims in certain ways” (518).

Doing is inherently plural, collective, choral, communal. This does not mean that all doing is (or indeed should be) undertaken collectively. It means rather that it is difficult to conceive of a doing that does not have the doing of others as a precondition. I sit at the computer and write this, apparently a lonely and individual act, but my writing is part of a social process, a plaiting of my writing with the writing of others (those mentioned in footnotes and a million others), and also with the doing of those who designed the computer, assembled it, packed it, transported it, and those who installed the electricity in the house, and those who generated the electricity, those who produced the food that gives me the energy to write, and so on. … Our doings are so intertwined that it is impossible to say where one ends and another begins. (Holloway 2002:26)” (523).

Identity machine

  • “Social groups are assumed to be constituted not primarily by their relations with one another but first and foremost by their relation with their own history. This history—“culture” in its material form—is assumed to make them what they are in the same way that an individual is assumed to be constituted, as an individual, by his or her own memory. This history/culture/identity is conceptualizedas something that these groups can—indeed, should—own and control. To destroy that property is murder; to appropriate it is theft. These are the assumptions that structured the Theravada Buddhist demand for secularism “as a human right” and for official constitutional recognition as Buddhist—not Hindu—citizens (see Leve 2007b)” (525).
  • the “vision of subjective personhood that I have been discussing in this paper—an ontology that has been globalized as part of political and economic liberalization in the shape of democratic policies, institutions, and norms. When people represent them selves as identity groups, they cast themselves as the owners of their identities and histories. The process is mediated through what can only be called an emerging global, neoliberal bureaucracy, which has now come to include national bureaucracies (along with NGOs, transnational corporations, and bodies such as the UN, IMF, and WTO) as different levels within its own administrative structure” (525).

Continue reading Leve—Identity

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).


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.

Continue reading Viveiros de Castro—Immanence and Fear