While reading and summarizing Descola’s giant work Beyond nature and culture, I have been ‘side-reading’ some stuff about autism. Reading the book Women from another planet?: Our Lives in the Universe of Autism has made me think some additional thoughts to my reading of Descola.
Women from another planet? is a book, collectively written by a group of women diagnosed with autism spectrum. The authors are mostly using email as a medium, which is also reflected in the layout of the book, with small paragraphs (in italics), introducing a topic, followed by the women’s statements. I would like to cite a passage from a section headlined ‘Development and maturity’:
MM: I think that some of us [women with autism spectrum/Asperger’s syndrome (AS)] not only have our five senses on high, but also our sixth sense: that we do not draw a line between inanimate and animate beings, that they all have soul to us.
Daina: As a child, everything was somewhat alive to me. Perhaps the face-processing tendency that most NTs [neurotypicals] have, enables them early on to distinguish what is alive and what isn’t, and what is human and what isn’t.
Ava: Or maybe what is and isn’t alive, is just another assumption that NTs make. So for the NT child, either because of the strength of those attachments to faces and the accompanying social world, or through some coincidental development process, the aliveness of the sensory world fades. Whereas we ASs retain more of the direct experience of the world and less of the face-addiction-belief thing.
This passage inspired me to do some thinking, that I would like to invite you to join.
Are we all wired differently? It’s generally admitted that we are all individually unique when it comes to our faces, our voices, our fingerprints. However it seems to be a general assumption that inside our bodies, – a part from what concerns ‘personality’ – we are all the same. We are the same, except from those, of course, who are ill, abnormal, deviant, right? Those who suffer from what we call a ‘mental disability’, those we give a diagnose that we call Asperger’s syndrome, autism, ADHD, etc.? What if we are just as uniquely different on the inside, as well? As one of the authors in Women from another planet? puts it:
“It seems odd that we value so much the beauty of diversity in nature yet seem afraid to share and appreciate the differences among and between ourselves” Susan Golubock
Wirings in the West ….
So let’s imagine that we all enter the world with our own unique ‘mental fingerprint’, and that the ways our perceptions and brains are working differ, just like we have different sizes and shapes of noses. In this sense, I find the claim by the neurodiversity movement (NM) stimulating, that “atypical neurological development [is] a normal human difference” (Jaarsma and Welin 2012). In this sense, any given population contains – by default, and because of the ways genes work – a high degree of neurodiversity. I also find it stimulating to think that each culture has its own preference when it comes to brain wirings. Our modern, urban, Western culture favors what we understand as ‘normal’ wirings – or as the NM would call it ‘neurotypicality‘, whereas we unfavour certain other variations of wiring, such as for example those who lead to ways of interacting with people that we diagnose as autism.
The way we have designed life in our modern Western culture works fine for people (the majority? Or in fact only a small minority?) with a certain wiring. This is the case in our worklife, where the way to success not only goes through being skilled at what’s needed for completing the tasks, but the social aspects play a huge role as well. This counts unproportionally much when it comes to recruitment, as well as coping with the daily worklife. I think it might be related to the fact that in our hamster wheel way of life, the time we have available to spend with family and friends is so reduced, that the workplace has taken over the role of providing for our basic social needs. In this sense, people who are less wired for the ‘face-processing tendency’, as Daina calls it, will have a hard time accessing the labor market and staying in a job – no matter how skilled they are at the tasks demanded. What about other cultures? What kinds of wirings do they favor?
… and the rest
It seems that there is a double movement in our time that is narrowing in the space for what is considered normal and useful for society. This movement has to do, on the one hand, with the way we organise production – IE what parts of human life,we choose to format into paid jobs – vs other activities that are defunct – like shepherding, or industrial jobs for that matter. On the other hand the value we give to social skills, which is now pervading all spheres of society, extending from the private sphere to also include the workplace. In other cultures and times, the way to organise production and social life might follow other logics, that might favor other kinds of wirings, which would suggest a different, and sometimes probably broader (or maybe narrower) definition of which personal traits are considered normal and useful.
These are thoughts that my reading of the accounts from women diagnosed with autism spectrum has inspired me to think. A third thought, that the quote above makes me think, has to do with, not only the way a culture structures its production, but also its whole basic relationship with the world, how its people perceive their surrounds. In other words, their ontology, their cosmology. As the quote suggests, people diagnosed with autism, see the world as animated. This inspires me to ask the question, if there is a certain relationship between on the one hand what we in the West consider as a defect – IE the way a person diagnosed with autism sees the world – and on the other hand the way animist cultures experience their surroundings? According to the women writing about their experiences as ASs, their faculty to perceive the liveliness of objects and textures in their surroundings is not related to a defect in their brains. They argue that all people, as children, perceive the world as animated. The difference is, that most people stop thinking that way because of the expectations from society, whereas people with autism manage to keep, what we would traditionally call a ‘naive’ relationship with the world. Does it make sense to think about animism as something which is latent in all cultures – since it is a way children spontaneously think – but that in some places, this aspect is suppressed whereas others maintain it, in adult life too? This is a quite traditional point of view, which I think you could find in early 20th century art movements, and also in evolutionist theories in social sciences. Descola argues vividly against this stance. The idea that people in animist cultures are somewhat more ‘natural’, because they are more ‘child-like’, uncorrupted, and that all cultures have – at some point in history been through an animistic phase, is rather problematic. Descola argues that toady’s animist cultures have tens of thousands of years of history behind their current state. They, too, have a history. And social life in cultures that do not have written language is not more simple, or naive than in those who have. On the contrary, as Descola argues (somewhere), it requires much more complex cultural practices, in the form of rites, myths etc., in these cultures, in order to maintain the social fabric, without the written word as a medium.
Autism is an environmentalism
If there is a parallel in the way of seeing and interacting with the world between certain cultures – the ones that Descola calls animist, (read my ‘selective pocket summary’ here) and people with non-neurotypical wirings in our culture, I think it makes sense to add a third question to the two core questions in my ‘pocket research design’ no. 2 (read about it here). Here are the two questions…..
- In what way can pre-modern forager societies be said to adhere to proto-ecological guidelines?
- How can these societies serve as a model for a bio-synergistic civilization…. and now, I’m adding this question:
- What role does a culture’s favored brain wirings play when it comes to a sustainable relationship with the environment?
Indeed, the authors in Women from another planet? talk about how they have a close relationship with green movements, and how they relate to all living and inanimate beings in a respectful and connected way.
As Ava writes:
Many of us here clearly feel a connection with rocks, plants and animals. For me, this is not just an intellectual thing, it is something passionate and living, that I experience deeply in mind, emotions and body all at once (e.g. my response to a familiar tree). Bound with that is a sense of love, respect & responsibility for life, that is most simply and purely experienced in the world of nature, but which also extends to the complexities of human life and the wonders of the wider universe
Maybe the preeminence of ‘the face-processing tendency’ in our Western culture, or in other words, the fact that interactions are expected to favor what is genuinely human, ie the exchange of emotional states and thoughts primarily via facial gestures and spoken languge, sets the standard for what we expect from our surroundings. Maybe this is why we tend to expect animals to act in human-like ways (with intentionality, plots, etc.). Maybe this is why we tend towards optimizing the use-value of non-humans to serve human needs, while forgetting the value that other organisms have to themselves and other parts of their surroundings.
My point is, that the place to look for other non-Western ways of conceiving of the relationship between human beings and their surroundings might not only be in non-Western cultures, but also in parts of our own culture that are suppressed, forgotten or considered useless, weird, deviant. Animists and autists have another way to reason with nature, it seems….
Or, to finish of in the words of Diane:
“Maybe AS isn’t really a defect. We have traits that may be actually needed in society, and if only society would start listening to us instead of marginalizing us, maybe solutions could be found for the worlds’s serious problems that currently seem to be unsolvable” Diane, in Women from another planet?
Descola, P. & Lloyd, J. (2013). Beyond nature and culture. Chicago London: University of Chicago Press.
Pier Jaarsma and Stellan Welin, Autism as a Natural Human Variation: Reflections on the Claims of the Neurodiversity Movement, 2012, Health Care Analysis, (20), 1, 20-30. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10728-011-0169-9 Postprint available here
Miller, J. (2003). Women from another planet? : our lives in the universe of autism. Bloomington, IN: 1stBooks.
Inspired by a comment by Sergio Valdez, I would like to share some thoughts about being an independent researcher.
It’s a huge challenge to be an independent researcher. One thing is the obvious lack of time (a problem, I deal with here), since we need to work in something else to earn a living. Another thing is the lack of access – to networks, to libraries, to journals, to recognition. However, being an independent researcher also means independence from a highly politicized, competitive environment.
In mainstream higher education institutions you have to deal with all sorts of more or less bizarre things, that are putting restrictions to your possibilities to do what you’re supposed to. What I hear from my ‘dependent’ conspecifics is that they are subject to managerial pressure towards a more commercial bottom line kind of approach. At the same time, they are experiencing financial cuts, which puts pressure on their work environment, having to spend more and more time with administrative tasks, and dealing with an increasing number of students.
The trend is towards a more top down approach, where research institutions have to live up to more and more detailed policy demands in order to get the financial support from policy makers. As an example, within the field of Pedagogy, there is the so-called ‘early childhood preventive intervention’ (in Danish: tidlig indsats). This kind of policy induced trend in research has a double edge. On the one hand there is no doubt, that a lot of children need the kind of help, the program is aiming at. On the other, it’s evident that the State has an interest in reducing welfare costs. However, it is crucial to ask what basic understanding of people and their possibilities to be agents in their own lives lies behind this trend. In other words: how can we avoid a patronizing bureaucratization of people’s lives?
Being an independent researcher is an opportunity to realize projects that are disruptive to mainstream research policy agendas. It means an opportunity to be truly critical towards mainstream trends.
What kind of thinking is possible in mainstream higher educational institutions? For one, as I have argued above, policy demands are putting rather clear limits to the content of research. Another thing is what kind of people are included. The environment of Higher Education is excluding a great number of people. For some, the demands to reading-writing skills is an obstacle, whether this is based on social or cognitive reasons. For others, the high level of stress and competition is an obstacle. And there are also those, who have a hard time coping with the intellectual/social/gendered environment of HE, for the reasons I have mentioned above. And then there are those who do not have the economical means to embark on a (precarious) academic career. In short, independent research is a place where we ‘misfits’ are thriving. In this sense, I am beginning to think of this environment as a place for empowerment and resistance, and I suggest we start talking about it in terms of ‘folk research’, ‘deviant research’, and why not give it a nickname: indiesearch?
As a part of my ‘pocket research design 2‘, I am reading Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture (see my selective pocket summary in progress here). While reading, ideas for my coming synthesis/pocket essay are beginning to condensate in my brain. Descola is a structuralist, (see my discussion here) and in order to take advantage of his work, it makes sense to go directly to the structural core of his thinking: the 4 ontological regimes, and the 2×3 modes of relationality.
In this memo, I would like to briefly reflect a little on how I imagine a path forward, in an effort to link Descola’s ‘system’ to my pocket research design 2: “Pre-modern forager societies vs Spinoza’s polis. A model for a more sustainable way of life in our time?”.
In a broad perspective these are the overall questions at play here: How does Descola’s system relate to Spinoza’s thinking? In which kind of ontology/cosmology according to Descola’s typology should we place Spinoza’s thinking? And what about relationality? How do the 2×3 forms of relationality come into play in Spinoza’s visions for a society?
In order to process these questions, we need to complete the following tasks:
- a short paragraph synthesizing Descola’s system, thus preparing the tools for
- an analysis of Spinoza’s thinking in relation to the four types of ontology, and
- an analysis of Spinoza’s ideas about society through the lense of Descola’s 2×3 forms of relationality.
This requires a rather comprehensive text reading / hermeneutical effort, but for now, please allow me to do a risky improvisation using the debris of insight I have so far….
Let’s jump right into the core question, ie. where to place Spinoza in Descola’s typology. To do so, it’s relevant to take note on two aspects of Descola’s discussion on naturalism and analogism. He places the birth of the naturalist ontology in the renaissance, where the early stages of modern science took form. In his analysis of analogism, he points to commonalities between the ontologies of medieval Europe, (premodern) China and the Aztecs.
Since Spinoza lived in the transition between the medieval and (proto-)modern period, it seems to make sense to place him historically, in a transition period between Descola’s analogism and naturalism. Another preliminary perspective has to do with Descola’s description of analogism, where he compares medieval Europe with (premodern?) China. Spinoza’s thinking has been linked by many scholars with taoism and similar Eastern ontologies. A third perspective is Spinoza’s method, which Spinoza himself describes in terms of natural science – in latin: more geometrico – the geometrical method . These two perspectives combined place him, again, somewhere between the two types of ontology, naturalism and analogism. This way, there seems to be reason to look for Spinoza’s thinking at an interstice between analogism and naturalism, from a historical as well as an epistemological perspective.
On the other hand – isn’t there a good deal of animism to Spinoza’s thinking? Isn’t this evident from his blurring of the boundary between what’s me and what’s in my environment? IE the thought, that I, as an individual, am composed of a myriad of beings, all individuals, and that I take part in a larger organism, composed of me plus other beings that I interact with, a process of composition which, at the end, makes Nature as a whole, one being. And isn’t it also evident from the way Spinoza thinks of ideas? That my body exists for my as a physical extension as well as the idea of that physical extension, and that all that exists in Nature, a stone, a plant, a horse, a human being exist as a combination of idea plus physical extension? So in fact, a stone has an idea about itself, just as much as I have – but to a different degree. This is a very central trait to animism, – actually the name derives from it – in the sense that everything is animated. A third point is Spinoza’s poignant anti-hierarchism. This is at least what a deleuzian reading would argue. According to Descola animist cultures – as opposed to what seems to be the case for those with a totemist ontology – are characterized by a very low to non-existent degree of hierarchy.
To finish off my improvisation. What I am – sofar – thinking on this issue is, that it seems to make sens to place Spinoza – historically and epistemologically – somewhere between analogism and naturalism. However, there seems to be some kind of leap going on, that takes him out of his expected ‘thought habitat’, and – as opposed to his contemporaries – links his thinking with animism. The only one of Descola’s 4 ontological regimes that Spinoza’s thinking seems to leave untouched is totemism. I guess that this might have to do with the question of hierarchy, as I have hinted at above. It also might be related to the fact that Spinoza doesn’t see the world in terms of categories. The world and its beings are, to Spinoza, a myriad of individuals, relating to each other not so much according to their ‘species’ or some other possible categorization based on physical og mental characteristics, as seems to be the case for totemism. Individuals are relating and making connections according to local, context based features. In this sense, what we understand as ‘a human being’ might build a stronger relation to ‘a mouse’ than to another human being. This is similar to totemism, with the important difference that the spinozist man-mouse relation is not based on an idea of a societal relationship – connecting a certain society of people to a (generalized) species of mice. The relationship is ad hoc.
In order to go further, it seems to make sense to do three comparative (pocket) studies, linking Spinoza’s thinking with respectively analogism, naturalism and animism…
Anyone out there who can help would be appreciated:-)
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!
As a part of my ‘pocket research program’, titled “Can we reason with nature?”, this is my second pocket research design. Here, I would like to follow up on a point, that Australian professor in environmental philosophy Freya Mathews raises in her article “Towards a Deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry” (read my pocket summary here):
“The outlines of a bio-synergistic civilization are still far from being worked out. Evidently such a civilization was – very faintly – fore-shadowed by pre-modern forager societies, or those of them at any rate that adhered to proto-ecological guidelines.”
I read two implicit questions in this paragraph that invite to a (pocket) research program:
- In what way can pre-modern forager societies be said to adhere to proto-ecological guidelines?
- How can these societies serve as a model for a bio-synergistic civilization?
I would like to address these questions, adding a spinozean conceptual framework to a pocket research design with the (working) title:
“Pre-modern forager societies vs Spinoza’s polis. A model for a more sustainable way of life in our time?”
Here is my plan: I want to
- find out more about the cosmologies of the Amerindian peoples, and whether they can be said to live according to ‘proto-ecological guidelines’. For this, I will read Philippe Descola’s book “Par-delà nature et culture”, and make a pocket summary, here.
- on this background I will write an essay about the extent to which these cosmologies might provide some kind of guidelines for a more sustainable way of interacting with our environment, in our current modern Western mass communities
- On the other hand, there is Spinoza’s pantheism, which is conceived in the run-up to modernity, and which explicitly refers to urbanity, the polis. Here I expect to read some Arne Næss and deep ecology. Probably also Matheron. We’ll see, when I get there.
An initial thought: I have often wondered why there are no more research done about a possible connection, between Spinoza’s thinking and pre-modern pagan traditions, including those whom the West must have had knowledge of from the colonies, at Spinoza’s time.
How can we create better connections amongst ourselves, and with our environment? Would we become better at connecting with each other if we were good at connecting with our environment? And vice versa?
This is my first ‘pocket research design‘, (read about my pocket method here), sketching the following ‘pocket research program’:
- First, I read Australian professor of environmental philosophy Freya Mathews’ article Towards a Deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry. See my summary here.
- Next, I discuss the question of a possible relationship between hierarchical societies and the way they treat their surroundings. Read my essay here.
- Finally, I discuss what role communication and cognition play in living systems and their interactions. (Coming up)
My third bullet is a really important project, however, I have understood the necessity of digging more into some aspects of human-environment interaction, which is why I by May 3rd 2018 launched my ‘Pocket research design 2’: Pre-modern forager societies vs Spinoza’s polis. A model for a more sustainable way of life in our time?
Feel free to read, comment, share, etc.!