Since there isn’t much available in English about Philippe Descola’s writings on animism, I thought I would share a piece of the cosmopolitics argument I mentioned in my last post. It will appear, in modified form, in the concluding chapter of the SAR Press volume mentioned there. Most of the volume will consist of ethnographic case studies from around the world, but these will be informed by the theoretical conversations of the week we spent at the School of Advanced Research in Santa Fe.

Following this excerpt I have added some comments relating the ideas (discussed here) of Descola, Latour, and Stengers to some of the concepts I’ve been working with from Whitehead, Peirce, and the fields/discourses of biosemiotics and panpsychism. I haven’t seen these connections made (in this way, at least) in any of the literature by or on these authors, and I’m still working out these ideas myself, so that part is work-in-progress.

From animism to cosmopolitics

Animism, like the “primitive,” “pagan,” and “savage,” but also like “religion” itself, is a term has been used to classify cultural difference into a hierarchically valenced series: animists, for Edward Tylor and other evolutionists, were thought to have maintained a “lower” and more “primitive” conception of the universe, one peopled by spirits and with objects being ascribed human characteristics. In Tylor’s view, the animist “stage” of belief was followed by a polytheistic one, and in turn by a monotheistic one. This evolutionism has since been largely rejected, and more recently, a loose coterie of anthropologists and scholars of religion have reappropriated the term “animism” to mean something rather more interesting (Bird-David 1999; Descola 2005, 2006, 2009; Harvey 2006; Ingold 2000; Viveiros de Castro 1992, 2004).

Philippe Descola, whose work on Amazonian indigenous cultures (Descola 1996) presents one of the strongest cases against the notion that “nature” and “culture” constitute universal categories, develops a novel classification system for delineating the different kinds of relations one finds between humans and other entities. Descola’s (2009:150) classification hinges on two sets of variables, namely, whether a cultural group perceives a basic similarity or a fundamental dissimilarity between humans and non-humans in two distinct dimensions, that of interiority (“intentionality, subjectivity, reflexivity, the aptitude to dream,” and so on) and that of physicality (“form, substance, physiological, perceptual, sensory-motor, and proprioceptive processes, or even temperament as an expression of the influence of bodily humours”).

These variables combine to create four options, or what Descola calls four “ontological routes”:

Either most existing entities are supposed to share a similar interiority whilst being different in body, and we have animism, as found among peoples of the Amazonian basin, the Northern reaches of North America and Siberia and some parts of Southern Asia and Melanesia. Or humans alone experience the privilege of interiority whilst being connected to the non-human continuum by their materiality and we have naturalism – Europe from the classical age. Or some humans and non-humans share, within a given framework, the same physical and moral properties generated by a prototype, whilst being wholly distinguishable from other classes of the same type and we have totemism – chiefly to be found among Australia’s Aborigines. Or all the world’s elements are ontologically distinct from one another, thence the necessity to find stable correspondences between them and we have analogism –China, Renaissance Europe, West Africa, the indigenous peoples of the Andes and Central-America [6]. ["Who owns nature," 2008]

These ontological options can be portrayed as follows:

Similar in interiority (monoculturalism) Dissimilar in interiority (multiculturalism)
Similar in physicality (mononaturalism) Totemism Naturalism
Dissimilar in physicality (multinaturalism) Animism Analogism

(Adapted from Descola 2005, 2006, 2009)

Descola and Latour have both drawn on this series of classifications to argue that our modern world view, or the “modern constitution” as Latour calls it, presumes a multiculturalism set against a mononaturalism. In Descola’s (2006:9) four-fold framework, this amounts to an ontology of naturalism: accordingly, a “single unifying nature” coexists with “a multiplicity of cultures,” and what, “for us, distinguishes humans from non-humans is the mind, the soul, subjectivity, a moral conscience, language and so forth, in the same way as human groups are distinguished from one another by a collective internal disposition” now known as “culture.”

Animism, in Descola’s scheme, is the reverse of naturalism. For animists, “all the classes of beings endowed with an interiority similar to that of humans reputedly live in collectives that possess the same kind of structure and properties,” but “these collectives, that are all integrally social and cultural, are also distinguished from one another by the fact that their members have different morphologies and behavior.” The “so-called natural and supernatural domains” are “peopled by collectives with which human collectives maintain relations according to norms that are deemed common to all.” Among other things, they all “exchange signs.”

Taking his cue from Amazonianist Viveiros de Castro (2004), Latour (2002, 2004a, 2004b, 2009) makes the case that “mononaturalism” is inadequate for a world of cultural-natural hybrids, which is the world he claims we live in. More appropriate would be something located partway between Descola’s animism — where humans and non-humans are perceived to share subjectivity and semiotic agency, but to differ in their materialities — and an analogism that sees both interiority and materiality as multiple and different, and as therefore bridgeable only through translation. [. . .]

If, as Latour argues, we are no longer to rely on the singular foundation of a nature that speaks to us through the singular voice of science, then we are thrown into a world in which humans are thought to resemble, in some measure, all other entities (think Darwin alongside Amazonian shamanism) and to radically differ, though in ways that are bridgeable through translation. This would be a world that demands an ontological politics, or a cosmopolitics, by which the choices open to us with respect to the different ways we can entangle ourselves with places, non-humans, technologies, and the material world as a whole, become ethically inflected open questions.

In her multivolume work Cosmopolitiques (1996–97) and publications that followed it, Isabelle Stengers (2005) forwards a “cosmopolitical proposal” that, unlike most forms of cosmopolitanism, does not presume the existence or even the possibility of a “good common world,” an ecumenically peaceable cosmopolis. On the contrary, her proposal is intended to “slow down the construction of this common world, to create a space for hesitation regarding what it means to say ‘good’” (2005:994). The “cosmos” of her cosmopolitics “refers to the unknown constituted by [the] multiple, divergent worlds and to the articulations of which they could eventually be capable” (2005:994). Such a cosmopolitics does not pre-assume what will count as “common,” whether it is “human nature,” “cultural differences,” or the laws and discoveries of science; or, on the other hand, gods, souls, spirits, or anything else that anyone might bring to the table.

Stengers’s call is echoed by Latour (2004b), Mol (1999), and Law (2004), who argue on behalf of a politics for building, enacting, or co-producing shared or common worlds — not worlds that posit “nature” as the “unique author of a single account” (Law 2004:123) propping up a “reality that is independent, prior, singular, and definite,” but worlds in which “everything takes effort, continuing effort” (Law 2004:131–132). Such methods and modes of knowledge-making recognize their own complicities in the worlds they enact; and they are political in the sense that they raise questions about how the world of associations — the society of humans and other entities — is to be organized. Seeing ourselves as cosmopolitically entwined with each other and the other others of the world means seeing ourselves as actively practicing ways of “worlding” or “world-making” (Wilson and Connery 2007).

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Further notes on Descola, Latour, Whitehead, and Peirce

Descola’s basic duality of “interiority” and “physicality” can be seen as analogous to the duality I’ve elsewhere articulated as that of subjectivation and objectivation, i.e. the becoming-subject and becoming-object of things (understood as processes). More loosely, these can be taken as “mind” and “body,” but with each considered an active process, and as two poles of a continuum that constitutes every experience, or every “actual occasion,” making up the universe. I take this duality, of course, from Whitehead, for whom there is an interiority to every actual occasion, and there is the exteriority by which a (concresced) actual occasion is perceived as datum by another such occasion. Descola’s four-fold classification scheme is thus an attempt to organize the different ways in which these two poles of experience, the subjective and the objective, can be and are conceived in different cultural contexts.

Descola’s articulation of one of the four options, animism, as an understanding that all classes of beings “exchange signs” sounds not too different, in principle, from the central tenet of the emerging field of biosemiotics, that is, from the Peircian notion that the production and exchange of signs is part of every relation “all the way down.” Everything that occurs in the universe is a semiotic event. (See, e.g., Hoffmeyer 1996; Barbieri 2008; Wheeler 2006.) In a sense one could say that a scientifically sophisticated animism would be a “biosemiotic panpsychism,” which understands all things as related in their nature as prehensive, semiotic experiencing, but as divergent in their different physical morphologies — different, then, in body but similar in mind.

But animism is not the only option here, and Descola’s four “ontological routes,” as he calls them, have in any case been critiqued as oversimplified and overgeneralized ideal types. The point is — and this becomes clear in Latour’s argument that (as I’ve paraphrased it above) we both resemble all other things and radically differ from all other things — that there is a task of translation that is required of any effort to build a world across boundaries between classes of entities. This is a translation without guarantees, because we can never be sure how deep the resemblance is or how deep and incommensurable the divergence may be. Anthropologists are the specialists in translating across boundaries separating human cultural collectives, so what Latour is arguing for is an anthropology beyond the human — beyond even the posthuman since that is always defined in relation to the human.

So animism would be the ontological preference that sees more commonality across ontological boundaries or classes in mind than in body; naturalism would be the opposite (more commonality in body than in mind); totemism would be the option that looks for commonalities all around; and analogism would be the preference for noticing differences all around, yet still connecting them together. (In fact, totemism and analogism share a lot more than this four-fold diagram suggests.) Conceived this way, however, all four options are available to us, and it may make sense in some circumstances to focus on commonalities than on difference, or vice versa.

More importantly, if world-building is something that all entities are involved in, then all are carving up, in their own way, what will qualify as subject and what will qualify as object. The general tendency of all things is to mark the subjective as self, because it is what I experience from the inside, and the objective as other, because it is what I experience from the outside, and what I make use of (as “datum”) for my own subjectivation. Descola’s animism, totemism, naturalism, and analogism are thus four strategies by which we can get beyond the “default setting” of egocentrism (as it were) so as to live in, and build, a multiplicitous, pluralistic world.

Of these strategies, Western science has privileged naturalism, which sees the universe as unified in its objectivity (i.e., in matter), but as pluralized in its subjectivity (i.e., in mind, which is then ascribed only to humans and, furthermore, demoted to secondary status in relation to the “primary nature” studied by the “hard sciences”). Animism, in Descola’s sense of the word, is the bold countervailing move that acknowledges that all things are similarly subjective, sharing mind, but different in their objective expression (matter).

A balanced processual perspective, however, would be one that argues that all things participate in subjectivity — all things subjectivate — in their own different ways, which may be more or less like ours depending on the specificity of those things; and that all things participate in objectivity — all things objectivate, becoming objective, material, bodily data for other things — also in their own different ways, which are also more or less like ours depending on the specificity of the things. The trick is to be able to keep in mind both the subjectivation and the objectivation, as well as the possible similarities and differences (which are always a matter of speculation since we cannot literally step inside the experience of another), at one and the same time as we make our way through the world, and thereby make the world.

Descola and Latour both argue that naturalism (Descola’s term), or “mononaturalism” (or “particular universalism”), is not a particularly friendly basis for constructing worlds across boundaries of radical difference. So instead they argue for a “multinaturalism,” or a “relative” or “relational universalism,” by which any common ethos must be built “stone after stone, indeed connection after connection” (Descola 2008). What this means, in practice, is uncertain. For Descola, it presupposes “a grand stock taking of inter-human connections and of those between humans and non-humans and an agreement to banish those which give rise to general opprobrium.” Under the latter category he mentions “the most extreme forms of inequality” such as “the gratuitous taking of life, the objectification of beings endowed with sensible faculties or the standardization of lifestyles and behaviours.”

How we would agree that these are to be banished is beyond me, when the players involved range from humans to bacterial viruses to supernovae. But we can only start where we find ourselves, and we find ourselves (as Latour has argued) always in the midst of “matters of concern.” And there we can always seek out partners for potential agreements about what is okay and what isn’t in our relations.

Cosmopolitics starts there, in the generation of immediate relations, and broadens its scope outward to generate worlds that are both more encompassing, more felicitous, and more challenging (since it is challenge that gives rise to possibilities for subjectivation and thus for greater satisfaction). We take up the lures offered us by the universe and make of them the best relations we can. Those lures are made up of the material data provided by the things around us (firstness), our possible interactions with those things (secondness), and the worlds that emerge out of those interactions (thirdness).

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