As a first step in my ‘pocket research program’ “Pre-modern forager societies vs Spinoza’s polis” (read more here), I am reading French anthropologist Philippe Descola’s book Beyond Nature and Culture (published 2013. Original title: Par-delà nature et culture (2005)). This is my selective pocket summary.
I am reading this mammoth work from a very selective viewpoint, in accordance with my pocket research design, namely to “find out more about the cosmologies of the Amerindian peoples, and whether they can be said live according to ‘proto-ecological guidelines’”.
I am publishing this draft while reading and writing. Here are my reading notes. Feel free to pitch in with your ideas, suggestions, comments, etc.
Beyond Nature and Culture
What is this book about? In the foreword to the English edition, American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins’ short summary of the entirety of the work comes in handy:
“The project is a comparative anthropology of ontology. Four basic ontological regimes of wide distribution―animism, totemism, analogism, and naturalism ― are developed from an investigation of the identities and differences between humans and other beings and things in matters of their physical makeup and subjective or mental capacities. Each of these major ontologies is associated with specific ways of forming social collectives and characteristic moralities, as well as distinctive modes of knowing what there is. Further, the major ontological configurations are cross-cut by several types of relationship―exchange, predation, production, and so on―that are variously compatible or incompatible with them.”
He also adds that
“Such is the general architecture. To thus state it, however, only betrays the richness of the text, which is marked by carefully described and analyzed ethnographic demonstrations, including much from the author’s own fieldwork among the Achuar of Amazonia”
This last point is of course relevant to my ‘pocket research question’, which is also why I have selected Descola as my primary reference. However, the overall project of the book is immensely relevant to my question, since it lines out a framework to rethink our current Western model in comparison with other ontologies – in my case notably the Amerindian cosmology, which I guess will be labelled as animism (I haven’t read that far, yet).
A reading pit stop – is the foundation solid?
And while reading: thinking… I am attacking Descola’s mammoth work from various angles at the time. I am reading it as a pdf, in English and French, in paper format, in French, and listening to the text via an app that reads pdfs with an artificial voice. This way, I am immersing myself in the work at different speeds, in different parts, at the same time. I am also reading comments by other scholars about the work, for instance this one: “Descola’s Beyond nature and culture, viewed from Central Brazil” (link).
From a global perspective, I begin to see a fundamental issue around the question of Descola’s Structuralism. Here, I will make a short pit stop, giving this issue a few thoughts before moving on. As you know, what I am doing here, is pocket research, and therefore I must assess the relation between time invested and possible outcome for my research. Descola’s book is immense, and I am having some doubts that my time is well spent, if its foundation is not solid. What I am trying to say is, that there seems to be an incongruity between on the one hand Descola’s ambition about wanting to understand each ethnic group from its own point of view, ie. its cosmology or ontology, while on the other, he wants to install a “structural framework”, that would allow us (… and who are ‘we’?), to “set up a typology of possible relationships to the world and others, be they human or nonhuman, and to examine their compatibilities and incompatibilities.” The problem is – as is always the case with universalisms – the question of centrality. Why would someone want to collect and centralise knowledge about the whereabouts of other people? This is what Descola does with his ambition of a ‘typology’ with its four different “ontological regimes” ― animism, totemism, analogism, and naturalism. This makes me think about Max Weber and his ideal types. The idea is that we can’t access reality without categories. And reality is never really clean cut fitting into whichever category. It will always be a mix. This way, Descola’s argument would be (I am assuming) that real people will always live in some kind of mix, a hybrid between a combination of Descola’s ontological regimes. So for instance a little bit of animism combined with 20% totemism, etc. So why would someone want to centralise information about people(s)? First of all, we have to remind ourselves about the early raison d’être of Anthropology, which was to provide colonizers with information about local indigenous groups, in order to provide the former with tools for controlling and subverting the latter. Of course, Descola is well aware of that (and he mentions it somewhere I think in the beginning of the text). On the other hand, collecting information about our surroundings, processing them, learning from them is part of something essential to life (cf. my thoughts on Spinoza, communication and information in living systems). This is one reason why I have decided to keep on reading: My aim – as stated in my pocket research design 2 – is to find out whether and how we Westerners might learn from “pre-modern forager societies” who adhere to “proto-ecological guidelines” to build a “bio-synergetic civilisation”. Another reason is part of my own personal intellectual history. Before taking my MA in Educational Anthropology, I was working – in a proto-academic fashion – on a model for what makes us a community
By continuing on the path traced out by Descola, I am being true to ‘my former self’, trying to develop these earlier thoughts further, while of course submitting them to a sharp critical scrutiny.
In other words: back to reading!! Keep on pitching in with your ideas, comments and suggestions!