Reading Descola – a doubtful pitstop…. (memo)

As I have promised (myself) in my second pocket research design, I am reading French Anthropologist Philippe Descola’s book “Beyond Nature and Culture”, while writing a ‘selective pocket summary’ here. 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). I am also listening to Descola’s current lectures at Collège de France titled “La composition des collectifs: Formes d’hybridation“.

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. According to Descola he himself is a naturalist, as we are all, in the West. It would  be interesting to ask the question (as I believe Descola does somewhere in the book), how someone from one of the other ontological regimes would have conceived of a typology for the peoples of the world.

In any case, Descola’s endeavour 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: I am going back to reading!! As to you, dear reader: Keep on pitching in with your ideas, comments and suggestions!

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