ASA11: Vital powers and politics: human interactions with living things

University of Wales Trinity Saint David, 13/09/2011 – 16/09/2011

(P02)

Whirls of organisms: forms and movements of life

Location Room 1
Date and Start Time 14 Sep, 2011 at 09:00

Convenor

Hayder Al-Mohammad (University of Wisconsin-Madison)  email
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Short Abstract

This panel is interested in opening the metaphysical and methodological question of what an anthropology which takes movement - understood in the widest sense possible - amongst the whirls and interlacement of organisms as its most basic object of inquiry might look.

Long Abstract

Reconsidering Wittgenstein's 'forms of life', Stanley Cavell arrives at 'whirls of organisms' as a more faithful way of rendering the constitution of beings as grounded in what they do and not what they are. Where philosophers have tended to obsess about the 'forms' in 'forms of life', this panel aims to investigate whether it might be fruitful to think of life as caught up and resident in whirls of organisms and movements. By focusing on the category of life and relating it to movements and whirls has the potential to move anthropology out of taking human-being as the metaphysical and epistemological centre of anthropological inquiry. If what we take as 'the human' are only clusters of corporeal and what we may call 'spiritual' movements which stand-forth against a background of engagements and entwinements with other organisms and entities, then anthropological inquiry might take movements and interlacements amongst the whirls of organisms as the fundamental space of inquiry. This panel is interested in opening the metaphysical and methodological question of what an anthropology which takes movement - understood in the widest sense possible - amongst the whirls of organisms as its most basic object of inquiry might look. This panel, therefore, seeks papers which address the relations between life and movement in a theoretical, methodological or ethnographic context.

Discussant: Michal Murawski

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Whirls of organisms

Author: Hayder Al-Mohammad (University of Wisconsin-Madison) email
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Short Abstract

What might an anthropology which takes movements amidst the whirls of organisms as anthropology's mode and object of inquiry look like?

Long Abstract

Tracing some of the philosophical antecedents for placing movement and the whirls of organisms as possibly a more felicitous mode and object of inquiry for anthropology, I try to develop on some of the metaphysical claims to show their methodological viability and import for a different way of understanding anthropology and what its concerns might be.

Life in flux: temporalizing cosmology in rural China

Author: Charlotte Bruckermann (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology) email
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Short Abstract

Chinese cosmology constitutes life as a movement of efficacious forces within a dynamic environment. The rural Chinese family house brings these processes to life by spatalizing three interwoven temporalities: the human life course, anthropomorphous divinities and cosmic agency.

Long Abstract

Chinese cosmology begins from the assumption that human, spiritual and material forces exist in a continuous state of flux. The salient concern of practices aiming to influence and channel these life forces do not focus on their characteristics as animate or inanimate, material or immaterial, living or non-living. Instead, practices engaging with cosmological forces concentrate on their efficacy as agents within their dynamic environment. Tracing these cosmological life forces provides insight into Ingold's (2000) definition of life as what is going on in a 'generative field'. Ritual and everyday practices within the house emplace efficacious forces through three spatialised temporalities. The most internalized spaces of the home constitute the female realm for heating and cooking. These intimate spaces also house the nurturing and transformative forces of life and death. The female interior of the home exemplifies the mutable qualities of qi as an energetic life force. The main ceremonial room of the house accommodates the spirit altar and ancestral tablets within a formalized male domain. This central room situates anthropomorphic divinities and the eternal patriline. In the courtyard villagers process and store their agricultural harvests and worship the sun, moon, stars and earth. The courtyard positions the nexus of the agricultural and domestic sphere within seasonal circularity and cosmic agency beyond gendered sociality. By emplacing these three temporalities, the rural northern Chinese house reveals how time and space order the fluctuating life forces of local cosmology.

From llama caravans to trucks and jeeps: travelling and knowing with animals in Sud Lipez, Bolivia

Author: Maggie Bolton (University of Aberdeen) email
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Short Abstract

This paper explores movement and entwinement with animals in the ethnographic context of journeys with llama caravans in the Bolivian Andes. Taking a post-exceptionalist perspective (Haraway 2008) it aims to foreground human-animal relations in long-distance journeys of exchange, proposing that humans and pack animals are co-knowers of their environment.

Long Abstract

Theorists taking phenomenological and performative perspectives have made strong cases for viewing movement through the environment as key to the production of knowledge (Ingold 2000, Turnbull 2007). While acknowledging the value of this scholarship, in this work humans have almost always been placed squarely in the centre of the frame of enquiry. Nevertheless, throughout history, humans have often moved and journeyed, not alone, but in the company of a variety of animals - riding upon them; walking with them as companions; using them to carry goods; or just taking them along as unintentioned passengers. This paper looks at long distance journeys of exchange made by llama herders in the Bolivian Andes. It takes a post-exceptionalist perspective (Haraway 2008) viewing humans as situated within webs of interspecies dependencies, and takes up the insight from science studies of knowledge being produced across collectivities. The paper foregrounds relations between herders and their llamas on journeys of exchange, taking seriously herders' claims about their llamas' ability to learn, to know places and remember routes travelled, proposing that humans and llamas are co-knowers of their environment. It further suggests that it is the coming together of different ways of knowing, of humans and animals, that is necessary for the successful outcome of a journey. The paper in addition compares and contrasts these traditional journeys with travel in motorised vehicles.

Watercourse: a meditation on the forms and movements of life in an eco-home

Author: Rachel Harkness (University of Edinburgh) email
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Short Abstract

The routes of water through an eco-building, its dwellers and their environment-world are followed in order to show that it can indeed be fruitful to think on life and living in terms of engagements, entwinements, flows and movements of organisms and other entities.

Long Abstract

This paper proposes a consideration - playful at times, serious at others - of the routes of certain elements and materials through a style of eco-building that I had the opportunity to help construct, to live in and to study anthropologically. In particular, the course of water through a building is examined: picked up at raincloud, and followed to cistern to filter to pump to tap to drain to filter to plants to fruit, and on. The way in which its movement here cannot be disentangled from the course of water in the wider environment-world or, in fact, from the course it takes through and the role it plays in the human body, is noted. So too is the way in which the water, in its changing forms and composition, is embroiled in and an important part of the life processes of non-human organisms as well as in elements of the home and home-life that at first-glance may not seem to have much to do with water. I conclude by rounding upon the idea that 'whirls of organisms' provides a particularly fitting prism through which to view this subject of environmental architecture and ecological ways of living, for these are grounds rich in evidence that it can indeed be fruitful to think on life and living in terms of engagements, entwinements, flows and movements of organisms and other entities.

Dance flows of life: entering the Punu water spirit world through movement.

Author: Carine Plancke (Laboratoire d'anthropologie sociale, Paris) email
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Short Abstract

In rural Punu society circular dance performances are held regularly to celebrate the life-bearing water spirit world. In this paper, the Deleuzian philosophy of B. Massumi and the matrixial theory of B. Ettinger will be adopted in order to account for these practices linking life and movement.

Long Abstract

In rural Punu society (Congo-Brazzaville) the relation between life and movement is apparent in the elaboration of the world of water spirits, who manifest in waves, whirlpools or tides, as well as in the vision on circular, intensity rising dancing as the privileged medium to get in contact with this life-bearing universe. Although the spirits are represented as humans and although their water world has a maternal quality, their manifestation in natural phenomena and their association with aquatic, terrestrial and celestial animals present their world as a cosmocentric one that entwines organisms. During celebrations the songs link up sensory images actualizing this interlacing movement and the dancing directly realizes the whirling energy embodied by the spirits.

In order to account for these conceptions and practices, where connecting elements seems to precede over constituting fixed forms, the Deleuzian philosophy of Brian Massumi is very useful. Starting from movement as qualitative transformation, it makes it possible to apprehend the way Punu water spirit dancing, in its very progression, unfolds its potential to link up beings and to become a manifestation of the life flow. A second source of inspiration can be found in the matrixial theory of Bracha Ettinger. Her vision on matrixial borderlinking, based on the intra-uterine experience, as a transformational mutual attuning to distances-in-proximity between co-emerging subjects invites us to consider the connecting water spirit world and the dance process in a way that, while recognizing its anthropocentric, maternal base, illuminates its cosmic life-relating dynamics.

Eating Schrödinger's cat

Author: Gaetano Mangiameli (Alma Mater Studiorum- Università di Bologna) email
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Short Abstract

The basic subject of an anthropology of life is constituted by multiple levels of interaction not necessarily working in harmony, by multifactorial processes whose unpredictable outcomes are the temporary ground upon which we try to grasp meaning.

Long Abstract

Narratives of equilibrium or natural balance fail in understanding life, both at the level of the individual human body and at the level of communities of humans and non-humans. In this paper I will use Schrödinger's cat paradox, which represents, to some extent, what science has become during the Twentieth Century, as a starting point in order to sketch out how the practice of anthropology might look if the focus of inquiry shifts from human beings as such to the emergent systems in which they live. The anthropology of life is an attempt to understand human beings in the context created by their interaction with other entities, and more precisely in terms of what they do rather than what they are, which, in turn, makes the use of the verb "to be" somewhat slippery. Our experience in the world provides several examples of whirls of organisms meant as spirals of life in which humans and non-humans are entwined. In this framework, the basic subject of anthropologists' interpretive efforts is constituted by multiple levels of interaction not necessarily working in harmony, in other words by multifactorial processes whose unpredictable outcomes are the temporary ground upon which we try to grasp meaning.

The sociality of death: movements and transformations in contemporary Viet Nam

Author: Marina Marouda (University of Sussex) email
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Short Abstract

The paper explores human-animal relations in the context of Buddhist Viet Nam and foregrounds death rituals as providing the required tropes and movements for transformations to be effected.

Long Abstract

In clear differentiation from both western ontology that sees humans as ex-animals and Amerindian cosmologies that construe animals as ex-humans, Vietnamese death rituals as forward looking techniques of intervention, unambiguously anticipate humans as future animals. Taking inspiration from de Castro's analysis of Amazonian notions of humanity as distributed across 'species' the paper explores human-animal relations in the context of Buddhist Viet Nam and foregrounds death rituals as providing the required tropes and movements for mediations and transformations (humans becoming animals, and vice versa) to take place. The paper therefore deals explicitly with Buddhist practices and ideas and an ethnographic case in which death is conceived not as the end of life but rather as opening life up to numerous, uncertain metamorphic possibilities. Some of these possibilities rituals seek to foreclose while others rituals seek to bring about. The uncertainties involved are intrinsically related to the posthumous 'fate' of the deceased's soul which is held as capable of becoming substantiated as ancestral spirit, restless ghost, and/or re-incarnated as human or animal. These metamorphic possibilities are clearly hierarchized according to the Buddhist cannon and are directly affected by the relations the dead enjoy with the living. It is precisely these relations which ritual processes of commemoration (and forgetting) manufacture and activate. Such relations are made manifest and embodied in the very form the soul eventually assumes which in turn serves as the index of cross-boundary sociality and affect.

The holographic world: movement, logics, and patterns for an anthropology beyond humans

Authors: Vito Laterza (University of Oslo) email
Bob Forrester (Swaziland National Trust Commission) email
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Short Abstract

This paper explores the intertwining of two foundational logics at work in human and non-human life processes. In order to bring back movement in the craft of anthropology, a shift from a "straightlinear" emphasis towards an integrated "holographic" approach is called for.

Long Abstract

To focus on movement as such, one needs to abandon the search for essences, categories and fixed or fixable boundaries and identities. This shift calls for a qualitative change in the very logics to be employed for the task at hand. We will explore the intertwining of two foundational logics at work in human and non-human life processes, including what are traditionally defined as "observation" and "theory". One is what Tim Ingold calls "straight-linear" thinking and its basic operations are well exemplified by formal logic in the analytical tradition. Its main purpose is to identify and separate entities and domains. These can then be connected through straight lines to constitute formal models with explanatory and predictive value. Inspired by David Bohm, we call the other logic "holographic". In a hologram, each section of the photographic plate contains the whole three-dimensional image, viewable through various angles and perspectives. Similarly, holographic logic works on the assumption that any part of a system contains the whole it belongs to, in some form or another. It privileges interconnectedness, holism, and immanence and employs metaphors and metonymies as basic logical operations. Its main purpose is to dissolve domain-specific boundaries and to reveal part-whole connections and relations of contiguity.

We will draw on fieldwork-based examples from Swaziland, to show that anthropological knowledge is at the same time local, non-local, relational and distributed. Logics, as a kind of movement, belong to life-in-the-make, flowing alongside human and non-human entities, and contributing to patterning-in-the-world.

Winding rope, harmony and memory, in the dynamics of the North Sea

Author: César Enrique Giraldo Herrera (University of Oxford) email
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Short Abstract

This paper explores the notion of harmony and the conformation of animated bodies through ropemaking and its articulation with seafaring in the North Sea.

Long Abstract

Rope at sea was and is still the line to lives and livelihoods, many practices and superstitions act under the presumption of its capacity to retain a sort of physical memory and intentionality. Ropemaking, in the Nordic context, has been traditionally associated with magic, with the ability to bind wills: conjure winds, summon fish, call fishermen or merchants back home. The language of seafaring and its understanding of the sea are tightly spun with words which share roots with ropemaking. These powerful connotations can be unravelled examining the craft of ropemaking, from the fermentation of bast fibres to the spinning and laying of rope. This process entails an insight into harmony, in the Heraclitean rather than the Platonic sense, the way in which homology can be achieved through divergence, and an organism (physical or political) united through the intertwining confrontation of intentions.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.