Perspectivism meets Mesoamerica

In the past month we had the uncommon and very stimulating EVC by Ana Paula Amorimopportunity to attend a series of lectures (four in all, of which I was able to make two) by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, who expounded on perspectivism, post-Cartesian shamanism, and a panoply of other subjects – including the possible philosophical consequences of the contrast between Anglo-Germanic and Romance lanugages as a function of their capacity, or lack thereof, to provide a clear semantic differentiation between the categories “ser” and “estar” (being and to be).

The notes to which I refer for this post were taken down during his fourth and final presentation, at one of the main INAH conference rooms, in which he offered an extended version of an earlier paper that he originally prepared for the Cambridge University 2007 Seminar Series. The title of the Mexico paper was “El anti-Narciso: Antropología como ciencia menor, o chamanismo transversal).”


EVC's now classic ethnography

In a nuthsell, EVC took as a point of departure the model, offered by Stephen Hugh-Jones, regarding vertical and horizontal shamanism (après Lévi-Strauss’s horizontal and vertical kinship) in Amazonîa, as well as an oft cited article by Morten Pedersen (Mongolianist), which appeared in the JRAI some years ago, in order to expound on the fact that communication between heterogeneous beings within a field of permanently unstable and multiple realities (id est, Amazonian ontologies), was best problematised as a permanent set of disjunctions, rather than conjunctions. In other words, he attempted to break free of what he sees as the implicit Cartesian (SHJ) and “Cantabrican” (M. Strathern) coordinates that, in his view, reproduce inherently structuralist and organicist (subject vs. object/nature vs. culture) types of relations into the socio-ecological world.

By contrast, EVC proposes that we think of (Amazonian) ontologies as representing Baroque and transversal (i.e. non-hierarchical, unstructured) fields of disjunction, which by their very nature escape the “pendulum of Romantic-organicist holism” that constitutes the basis for the above mentioned binaries.

For those readers whom I haven’t completely lost yet, EVC then proceeded to explain that, because his notion of “planar” or “flat” ontology is based on the dissociation between notions of continuity or even homogeneity, it escapes the discourse(s) of anthropology.

Yes, heady stuff indeed, because, in EVC’s view, what is needed is an anthropological concept of “concept” that might allow us to present (but not, for obvious reasons, to re-present) styles of indigenous thought, or, in his words, “the conditions of ontological self-determination of different societies”.

(EDIT: Tip o’ the fedora hat to Adam Mickiewicz for referring to Rane Willerslev’s recent article in the JRAI, which directly emanates from Rane’s conversations with EVC on this subject).

At this point, I began to think that the argument (thus far) brought us back to rather familiar anthropological territory, in terms of the constant struggle to do justice to the thought processes and internal dynamics by which different people understand and define their realities.

But there is much more to it than that, which is why EVC’s input is so stimulating.

Among the key items that he touched upon, it was the themes of creativity and imagination that kept the discussion going for quite some time, and which I found to be most intriguing. Going back to that last paragraph, in EVC’s view what is needed is an anthropological theory of the imagination that is sensitive to the creativity and reflexivity of the peoples whom we study. Such an approach has little in common with relativity, because EVC is working with a notion of of creativity as “the capacity to subvert culture”, which is what he means by the capacity to imagine. This notion of capacity also has little in common with the Anglo-Saxon notion of culture insofar as a thing that is knowable, hence susceptible to definition by reference to a certain perimeter or limits – be they things like language use, ethnically-inspired narratives of self-presentation, prescriptive kinship systems, shared senses of morality or even shared quotidian practices.

What is at issue here is the development of concepts that allow us to conceive not so much forms, so much as the strength of indigenous knowledges in their infinite capacity to extend and redefine their settings.

So where does all this connect with Mesoamerica?

In brief, I found few obvious points of contact. Not, I would hasten to add, because there are none, but rather because few of the Middle American specialists present were, in my view, able to connect their work with EVC’s thinking. (For the record, there was a good showing of Mesoamerican heavies, and not-so-heavy but self-describedly heavies, in the audience, which included Alfredo López Austin, Saul Millán, Johannes Neurath, Federico Navarrete, Carlo Bonfiglioli, et al.)

However, I was very pleased when EVC offered some thoughts as to the way in which his theoretical musings connect with Marilyn Strathern’s work, and with Melanesian themes more generally. In his words, “Marilyn had already employed the term ‘perspectivism’. My use of this term is different, but there are points of contact, since she is referring to the exchange not of things, nor even persons, but of perspectives. Mine is a perversive [purposive sic] reading of Maussian exchange, in that I am attempting to invert the dynamics of exchange by demonstrating how, in Amerindian perspectivism, the end point of an exchange process arrives when one of the two parties incorporates (devours) the other. Here, what we have are perspectives that eat each other.”

And with that note on anthropophagy – another key Viveiran concept – I will put an end to this post.

3 Responses to “Perspectivism meets Mesoamerica”

  1. Yes the conception of amerindian perspectivism (and anthropologic conceptualisations of amazonian Indians at all) is very influential in anthropology today. I highly recomend Viveiros de Castro’s “From enemy’s point of view” as an example that “ethnography” can be highly advanced (becouse in fact this is a real good cultural/social anthropology).

    But more syntetic will be text Viveisros de Castro E. B. (1998), ‘Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism’, in
    Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.), vol. 4, ss. 469-488.

    What about postulate to looking for an ‘anthropological concept of the concept’
    I highly recomend recent article Rene Vilerslev (2007)
    ‘An anthropological concept of the concept. Reversibility among the Siberian Yukaghirs’ in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 13, 527-544

    • Thank you very much for referring to Rane’s piece in the JRAI. This is indeed related to Viveiros, in that Rane has had an ongoing conversation on the subject with EVC.

  2. It isd important to mention that not all indigenous peoples are ‘perspectivists’ – the mode of thought implied by perspectivism simply does not work amongst various peoples of the Lowlands of south America. (e.g., Northwest Amazon). Secondly, ‘predation’ is attributed far greater importance than other relational concepts. The opposed is ‘conviviality’, empathy, protection, stewardship, etc. In fact, the latter string of concepts has been far less explored than the ‘predation’ of warfare, anthropophagy, sorcery, etc.
    EVC also has a fascinating website called “The Jaguar and Difference” for those of you who love perspectivists talking shop. I have great respect for EVC theory but let’s face it, there are limitations, some of them pretty serious. (cf. T.Turner’s recent paper in the latest issue of SALSA’s Tipiti journal.

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