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.
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"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads