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Monday, October 25, 2010

Descola on Nature and culture

When Nicolas Coeffeteau, in the Tableau of the Human Passions (1631), wants to demonstrate that all creatures are endowed naturally with what we would call the fight or flight response, he uses an example that sets him immediately outside of our modernity:

“For we see, with other corruptible creatures, that they have not only an inclination and a power to search out things that are agreeable to them, and to flee those which can do them harm; but in addition to this they have another for resisting and combating that which gets in the way of their actions, or destroys their being. As, for example, first is not only endowed with lightness for lifting itself higher, but it has similarly received from the nature heat, by means of which it resists and combats all that is contrary to its action.”

This comparison seems to violate a deep categorical borderline between the living and the non-living – as well as other borderlines that divide the living according to properties that we ascribe to humans and refuse to ascribe to non-humans.

In Beyond Nature and Culture (2005), Philippe Descola shows how the divide between nature and culture – the indispensable categories of modernity – does not, in fact, universally govern all cultures. In a rather beautiful passage, he contrasts the monistic, or animistic, view of the world and the modern occidental view, which he calls naturalism:

“In characterizing naturalism in previous work as the simple belief in the evidence of nature, I only followed a positive definition that goes back to the Greeks, according to which certain things owe their existence and development to a principle that is foreign to chance as much as it is to the will of human beings, a principle that our philosophical tradition has successively qualified by the terms phusis and natura, then by their different derivations in the European languages. This concept reduced to the attestation of a fact remained thus prisoner of a conceptual geneology internal to the occidental cosmology, losing by this fact the benefit of the usage of contrastive traits less fixed to the historical situation that a comparison with animism can furnish. Thus, in commenting on my up to that point incomplete comparison of naturalism and animism, Viveiros de Castro was right to underline that the fundamental opposition between these two modes of identification reposed essentially on a symmetric inversion: animism is multinaturalist, according to him, since it is founded on the corporal heterogeneity of classes of existents that are nevertheless endowed with a identical spirit and culture, while naturalism is multi-cultural in that it backs up the postulate of the unicity of nature with the recognition of the diversity of manifestations of individual and collective subjectivity. One might discuss the term multinaturalism in such a context, the multiple natures of animism not possessing the same attributes as the unified nature of naturalism: the former evokes, rather, the ancient Aristotelian sense of a principle of individualization of beings, while the second, in its singular aspect, makes direct reference to the mute and impersonal ontological domain of which the contours were traced definitively with the mechanistic revolution. …”

To put Descola’s point simply: the naturalist ontology can admit a diversity of subjective types, on the human side, which coexists with a physical continuum of forms of life. Since Darwin, biology has even postulated that we humans are fully part of this physical continuum, and the smallest molecular actions can, in a sense, ‘move’ us. Still, scientists are reluctant to make the leap to saying that science consists of molecules talking and writing about molecules – they tend to get realistic about math, for instance. They retain subjectivity even when reducing it. What naturalism doesn’t admit is a subjective continuum that would treat fire as having an interiority that is different in degree, but not kind, from the human. On the other hand, for the animist ontology, the discontinuity of physical forms – the fire, rock, plant, animal, human – is inhabited by a continuum of interiorities – ‘souls.’ It might even be inhabited by a soul that moves out of one physical form into another – shapeshifters.

This story is, of course, as Descola acknowledges, a little too neat. The material in Descola’s book itself points to the neatness. On the one side, animism is represented by entire cultures – what, for instance, the Achubar, the Amazonian tribe with whom he did his fieldwork, believes – and on the Occidental side, we run into names – Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Darwin, etc. It is as if intellectual history has predetermined the names it will run through, the rosary, in spite of the massive evidence presented not only by the numerous books left to us by lesser figures, but by things like the historical work using such things as the archives of the Inquisition, or of the Paris police, etc., which often give us glimpses of folk beliefs that are systematized and very different from what we would expect from the history of the talking heads. We speak of Montaigne or Spinoza – and we don’t speak of, for instance, Menocchio, the Italian miller whose trial for heresy was dug up by Carlo Ginzburg in The Cheese and the Worms. Or of the peasant healer Gasparutto in Friuli, who testified, in 1575, that there existed a group, the benandanti, who,during the night, use fennel stalks to battle evil doers, who use sorghum stalks, and that the benandanti got together by, for instance, traveling in spirit astride hares, cats, and so on – a group Ginzburg studied in The Night Battles. Menocchio and Gasparutto left only testimonies, transcribed by inquisitors – but they both were of the type that Gramsci called the organic intellectual. That is, they had a bent towards understanding the world in terms of some system or another. And we must constantly remember that ‘high culture’ is entirely permeable, as a practice, to ‘low culture’ – its assumptions and images are often imported into from low culture. The equilibrium of which the economists are so proud is one of these imports – it governs as a myth, but a modern myth – one that emits an array of models.

8 comments:

michael- said...

Great post Roger.

I think the first step beyond the impoverished modernist and post-modernist views is to let the distinction between Culture and Nature die out. What is not within “nature”? “Culture” (whatever that is) is simply something human animals do, and not something transcendent.

If we take McLuhan seriously we could also say that just as pheromones are the media in which complex wolf communications take place, symbolic excretion - as physical and mental gestural resonance – is the media in which human communications take place. Our “culture” is merely an extension of our bodily-subjective capacities to use ‘media’ and artifacts (objects) for communication and expression in my opinion.

As an aside: do you think Descola avoids the traps of relativism? And/or is cultural relativism something you support?

roger said...

Michael, thanks!

I wonder about the place of this 'step' - does it happen in the domain of theory or are we seeing this step in the beliefs and practices of the people?

I guess I'm asking a question that has to do with what James Scott has named the Great and Small traditions - the Great tradition being urban, policy-driven, intentional, the small being rural, tradition-driven, and habitual.

I think Descola would not describe what he is doing as relativism - but the term is loaded with different definitions. Myself, I find relativism to be, practically, the way almost all the people I know think - their moralities are composed of a vast number of precepts and exceptions, the latter ruled by the idea that what is good for me may not be for thee. My own theoretical view is that relativism does describe, as well, the way in which cultural systems struggle against each other - or, in other words, I suppose that there are certain universal strategies to advance relative points of view. There is an image of relativism that I think is a straw man - the idea that all belief systems should be governed by a general rule of respect. That is, we should respect x's belief that y, though we don't share it. That form of relativism, which discards struggle as the motor of belief systems, is a mark, I think, of the triumph of a liberal belief system - and itself a power play.

michael- said...

MICHAEL: I think the first step beyond the impoverished modernist and post-modernist views is to let the distinction between Culture and Nature die out. What is not within “nature”? “Culture” (whatever that is) is simply something human animals do, and not something transcendent.

If we take McLuhan seriously we could also say that just as pheromones are the medium in which complex wolf communications take place, symbolic excretion (as physical and mental gestural expressivity) is one of the mediums in which human communications take place. Our “culture” is an extension of our bodily-subjective capacities to use ‘media’ and artifacts (objects) for expression, communication and social adaptation, in my opinion.

ROGER: I wonder about the place of this 'step' - does it happen in the domain of theory or are we seeing this step in the beliefs and practices of the people?

I guess I'm asking a question that has to do with what James Scott has named the Great and Small traditions - the Great tradition being urban, policy-driven, intentional, the small being rural, tradition-driven, and habitual.

MICHAEL: That is a great question Roger. I was primarily referring to what I think should take place within theory. If I were to take a wider view I would have to be a bit more modest and say that what I would like to see (as opposed to what I think ought to happen) is the boundaries between theory and public discourse, whether ‘great’ or ‘small’, become even more dynamic and hybrid. I believe that current life-conditions require our species to become more intelligent about how we live - and any ‘step’ towards gaining awareness and acknowledging our deep embeddedness in the world is a good (pragmatic) one. The Culture/Nature binary is one of those broad schemas that has a) no ontological basis and b) actually retards our understanding of human life and conduct.

Yet I would never want to impose a discourse on people. I think there are some strong ethical issues to be sensitive of (which you seem to suggest). And I’m a bit Habermasian in this regard, in the sense that I advocate bringing all positions to the table in an effort to get at some mutual understanding. The efficacy of a particular view or discourse is in its effects and affects.

But I do believe there is a qualitative difference between non-scientific and post-scientific discourses and this should be explored.

michael- said...

MICHAEL: As an aside: do you think Descola avoids the traps of relativism? And/or is cultural relativism something you support?

ROGER: I think Descola would not describe what he is doing as relativism - but the term is loaded with different definitions. Myself, I find relativism to be, practically, the way almost all the people I know think - their moralities are composed of a vast number of precepts and exceptions, the latter ruled by the idea that what is good for me may not be for thee.

MICHAEL: I can’t help but be reminded of the critiques of relativism that suggest a link between advanced capitalism and moral eclectivism. In the shopping mall of values and positions many educated Westerners like to pick and choose their moral accessories while remaining behaviorally supportive of material conditions which perpetuate massive atrocities on marginal peoples and non-Western groups. And when called on the discrepancies between their plastic belief systems and their actual behaviors they call foul and ask ‘who are you to judge?’

I’m not saying this is you and your friends, but I think this kind of situation does actually exist and is not just a strawman argument – and needs to be added to our considerations of moral relativism.

I think there are very ‘real’ consequences that flow from any discourse and set of practices, and as such there are instances where what is good for ‘us’, or what is more appropriate for the situation trumps what a person or people believe are good for them. There is, in this sense, real criteria for judgments of which discourse, action or worldview is better (more pragmatic).

Thus in particular circumstances it may well be that what is good for me may not be for thee, but under different conditions what is good for me may very well be what is good for thee, whether thee agree with it or not. It is a slippery slope, I know, but there are immanent criteria.

ROGER: My own theoretical view is that relativism does describe, as well, the way in which cultural systems struggle against each other - or, in other words, I suppose that there are certain universal strategies to advance relative points of view. There is an image of relativism that I think is a straw man - the idea that all belief systems should be governed by a general rule of respect. That is, we should respect x's belief that y, though we don't share it. That form of relativism, which discards struggle as the motor of belief systems, is a mark, I think, of the triumph of a liberal belief system - and itself a power play.

MICHAEL: I completely agree. And, as I suggest above, I think we need to be sensitive to the wider contexts in which those struggles take place if we are going to be able to make tough choices. Only in the (evolutionary?) struggle are we going to be able to take on the challenges and responsibilities we are confronted with.

How would you define “struggle” in its most complex sense then?

roger said...

Michael, thanks for your thoughtful responses!
I take your example of shopping in the mall in a different way then you do - it seems to be a negative image culled from of our current neo-liberal capitalism for you. For me, it is, indeed, an image of neo-liberal capitalism, but I simply take that to be a sign of the practical triumph of relativism. It is not that the imperialist impulse of universal-making is exhausted - after all, globalism is, in one sense, the triumph of the commidification on a world wide scale - but rather that the triumph has to pay tribute to what it generates - an insatiable appetite for variety - which in turn is antithetical to the universal. The universal is, so to speak, a disguised brand - much like Miller beer producing a faux micro-brewery beer.

Interestingly - exploring these metaphors further - the age of the enclosed shopping mall seems to be passing. At least, they are doing pretty badly in the U.S. I have a friend who wrote an essay on these malls, and, from what I remember, the first ones were designed by an architect who was heavily influenced by a sort of William Morris-y socialist ideal. I should look this up!

I'm working on writing a proposal for a small book - Homo Oeconomicus: the biography of a myth - in which I intend to deal with the fact that, in spite of the ideology of the economists, we live in a world in which there are very mixed exchange matrixes - that is, one in which the gift and barter economies are by no means subservient to money economies. My theory is that the closer the money economy - the cash nexus -comes to penetrating all the pores of the social body, the closer it comes to crashing - it is necessarily supported by the exchanges that constitute families, friendships, and almost all human relationships. Unlimited commodification would spell the end of capitalism. Yet, the standard model used in mainstream economics is of a world in which unlimited commodification is the case.

I mention this because here, again, we encounter a material relativism - perhaps in fact the most important source of relativism.

michael- said...

ROGER: I take your example of shopping in the mall in a different way then you do - it seems to be a negative image culled from of our current neo-liberal capitalism for you. For me, it is, indeed, an image of neo-liberal capitalism, but I simply take that to be a sign of the practical triumph of relativism. It is not that the imperialist impulse of universal-making is exhausted - after all, globalism is, in one sense, the triumph of the commidification on a world wide scale - but rather that the triumph has to pay tribute to what it generates - an insatiable appetite for variety - which in turn is antithetical to the universal. The universal is, so to speak, a disguised brand - much like Miller beer producing a faux micro-brewery beer.

MICHAEL: Interesting. I don’t share your opinion that the ‘universal’ is identical to “the imperialist impulse of universal-making” (if this is in fact what you are implying?). I am a realist (and quasi-materialist) in the sense that I believe there are REAL limits to human-being. Put another way, I think that Imperialism’s claims to universal principles are not the same as the actual finitudes of the ‘universal’ substratum of the Real. Although industrial technology has made skillful (and often unethical) use of its limited knowledge of the Real – through so-called instrumental reason. But the Real has its own cosmic efficacy, or material-structural and energetic potency, beyond whatever we want to say about it.

Advanced Capitalism is precisely the dominance of certain strains of relativism in the sense that the Real (actual ecosystems, climate systems, genuine subsistence, human psychology) is forcefully undermined in the service of the free-wheeling logic of commoditization, variety and consumer desire. I think strong relativism is advanced (post-industrial) capitalism par excellence – where “freedom” becomes the pinnacle of the ego-centric consumption.

ROGER: Interestingly - exploring these metaphors further - the age of the enclosed shopping mall seems to be passing. At least, they are doing pretty badly in the U.S. I have a friend who wrote an essay on these malls, and, from what I remember, the first ones were designed by an architect who was heavily influenced by a sort of William Morris-y socialist ideal. I should look this up!

MICHAEL: That makes sense. I think the old socialist ideologies (including Marx) were mystified by industrial technology and mythologized factories and standardization as a way through misappropriationist economics on the way to a supposed utopian social context of abundance and post-scarcity. The great techno-hope! And obviously the factory/worker matrix was central in their thoughts as it was the place of their actual struggles.

But those pre-ecologic socialisms are no longer viable. Again this brings us to my thoughts on finitude (above) and “limits to growth” discussions.

michael- said...

ROGER: I'm working on writing a proposal for a small book - Homo Oeconomicus: the biography of a myth - in which I intend to deal with the fact that, in spite of the ideology of the economists, we live in a world in which there are very mixed exchange matrixes - that is, one in which the gift and barter economies are by no means subservient to money economies. My theory is that the closer the money economy - the cash nexus -comes to penetrating all the pores of the social body, the closer it comes to crashing - it is necessarily supported by the exchanges that constitute families, friendships, and almost all human relationships.

MICHAEL: That sounds like a fantastic project! And I love that term “exchange matrices”. Is this your term? In fact, I have been thinking about very similar issues for quite some time. As you say, I think there are several kinds of “matrices” that are operating (organically and otherwise), interfacing, mingling, forming alliances and interacting within social niches. To tease them apart conceptually (doing ontography) is to learn more about how such complexities interact and support each other creating dizzying arrays, formations and forms of life – that sometimes conflict or coexist.

In fact my ‘day job’ is working within public health systems to facilitate innovation and positive outcomes within very specific (local) social matrices – by aligning policy, research and practice within sometimes volatile cultural and political dynamical contexts. I will be interested to see how you work these issues out, because your project would be something I could use in just such applied settings.

ROGER: Unlimited commodification would spell the end of capitalism. Yet, the standard model used in mainstream economics is of a world in which unlimited commodification is the case. I mention this because here, again, we encounter a material relativism - perhaps in fact the most important source of relativism.

MICHAEL: I’m not sure I follow this last point. And I am quite sure I have no idea what material relativism is. Please elaborate.

michael- said...

You wrote: "I take the term 'exchange matrix' from Robert Cowen..."

My question answered. thx.