Between the Anthropocene and Neostructuralism

Over the weekend I read the book symposium in Hau on Philippe Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture; then I perused the Open Anthropology current issue on the Anthropocene, recently highlighted by Rex. The experience was somewhat jarring—Descola’s ontological perspective renders up an almost placid view of humanity via fairly timeless schemas such as totemism and naturalism; while Jason Antrosio and Sallie Han’s curation of anthropological writings depict humans (finally?) confronting the precarity of our species-being in the face of climate change. Strikingly, though, they both share a confidence in the relevance and purchase of “classic” concerns of anthropology—conceptually, methodologically, and theoretically. And it’s this shared confidence I want to tap in thinking about how multispecies analytics are percolating up in anthropology.

As Rex noted, I think the Anthropocene, as a concept, militates against multispecies perspectives, since it so keenly reinscribes an anthropocentric view—at a time when “posthumanists” accounts are revealing the Anthropos to be shot through with other forms of life that quite trouble our dreams of a freestanding human. But I do share the cheering reassurance in this issue that “the importance and relevance of anthropology rests on its traditional strengths”—empirical and analytic approaches that redeploy quite well in ethnographically accounting for nonhumans, as I’ve suggested in several of my posts this month. Just as importantly, the depiction of anthropology as “a discipline continually grappling with how to understanding the interactions of global, regional, and local variables” linked to climate change does little to preclude a principle attention to nonhumans. Perhaps the “thrown” quality of encountering anthropogenic landscapes will eventually achieve a shift in perspective similar to the interior recognition of manifold companion species in the form of the microfauna lining our guts.

Beyond Nature and Culture is an entirely different matter, and I’m drawn to it because Descola provides a useful template for the panoply of possible relations humans can have with nonhumans. Even though, it also shows how far beyond anthropology ethnographic accounts will have to extend in order to incorporate life forms broadly in our renderings of everyday life. At least you can see it from his pages, in the goal “to gain a better understanding of collective behavior” (113); with the addendum I’ll affix, that such collectives should include nonhuman forms of culture, along with copious squads of companions species.

Descola renders humanity in terms of four schemas: naturalism, totemism, analogism, and animism. Succinctly, “totemic and analogical collectives…contain a constitutive hybrid element” conflating the human and nonhuman—totemic groups “include men and women, parents and children, plants and animals, material entities and immaterial ones, all squeezed together in a complex and contradictory tissue of affects, interests, and obligations” (399). Contrastingly, analogical collectives, which can feature “a cascade of dependencies reaching all the way from plants and animals up to the summit of the pantheons,” “is a way of moderating the original disparity between the terms that it brings together through an illusion of equivalence in the obligations that fall to them when they engage in exchange” (401).

Offset against these are another set of paired terms. Animism: “unrestricted sociality that encompasses both humans and nonhumans in universal networks” (393); in contrast, naturalism, which though it “lays emphasis on the physical continuity between the world’s elements (all subjected to the laws of nature),” insists upon a “singularity ascribed to humans on account of their distinctive interiority,” sharply curtailing relations across this line. Such that, “some relations are deemed suitable for connections between humans, others for connections with nonhumans, but none has the power to schematize the principal interactions between all the world’s elements” (393, 395). Multispecies work, interestingly, vies against this ontology but arguably does so most powerfully by mobilizing the techniques and analytics of natural science.

Here Descola is highly useful for considering whether multispecies work can break through naturalism or “modern ontology,” in that he catalogues its resistance (in the guise of evolutionary psychologists and cognitive ethologists) to all arguments and indications of nonhuman cultures or language, simply by denying to animals the interiority of identity (178-185). His account of the “eruption of animal species into the domain of culture” (180) is rousing, though the scientific case (and cases) are advanced far beyond the few he samples. Still, he chides ethologists, who “do not, as yet seem to have taken full measure of this revolution,” yet laments that evidence of nonhuman cultures to date will not break “the defensive locks of naturalism” nor will they “cut naturalism down to size” (182).

This said, his tally offers an incisive view of where the breach opens for multispecies work: in eschewing that upon which naturalists double down—the “interior resources” of human subjectivity, the core of “anthropocentric prejudice” (184). As cultural analysis both extends to and draws from accounts of nonhumans, we have to leave behind an obsessive fixation on the subjective as the sole fulcrum for our analytical work.

2 thoughts on “Between the Anthropocene and Neostructuralism

  1. As cultural analysis both extends to and draws from accounts of nonhumans, we have to leave behind an obsessive fixation on the subjective as the sole fulcrum for our analytical work.

    To this anthropologist who lives and works in East Asia, this point becomes even more salient when we realize that most English-language “ethnography” is produced by individuals with at best a modest command of their collaborators’ native language. To our colleagues in history and literature, who invest far more time in the languages in question, our claims to correctly interpret what we are told seem more than a little suspect. The ethnographer’s “I was there” claim is better supported by careful and replicable observation than notes on what we thought we were told.

  2. Thank you for the thoughtful post. Your comment that multispecies scholarship arguably vies most powerfully against naturalism “by mobilizing the techniques and analytics of natural science,” made me recall a great special issue – “ethnographies of naturalism” – that Matei Candea and Lys Alcayna-Stevens edited a few years back in Cambridge Anthropology. As a disclosure, Annemarie Mol and I have an article in it that engages with Descola. But so many of the articles rework the topic of naturalism in powerful ways — and using anthropological techniques and analytics — that if you hadn’t yet seen it, I thought you (and other readers following these themes) might find it interesting:

Comments are closed.