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

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

(P15)

Internal others: ethnographies of euroamerican naturalism

Location Arts Hall
Date and Start Time 15 Sep, 2011 at 09:00

Convenors

Matei Candea (University of Cambridge)  email
Lys Alcayna-Stevens (University of Cambridge)  email
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Short Abstract

This panel attempts to 'take seriously' the practices and beliefs which lie at the heart of Euroamerican naturalist approaches to non-humans. It invites papers which consider the new ethical and epistemological possibilities which are opened up by such an approach.

Long Abstract

The 'multispecies turn' in anthropology has been spearheaded by an "exo-anthropology" which has explored non-western ontological engagements with life beyond the human, mapped against the purportedly familiar epistemological concerns of a dualist and detached Euroamerican (mono)naturalism. In the meantime, the "endo-anthropology" of Euroamerican human-animal relations has tended to explore those areas which belie or contest the assumed hegemony of western naturalism: companion species, ecological activism, or the cognitive end of western primatology. While the former studies outline non-Western alternatives to naturalism, the latter suggest "we" were never quite naturalists in the first place. This panel starts from the paradoxical suggestion that Western naturalism itself has consequently become an exotic and unknown anthropological other, at the very heart of our imagined 'self'. We therefore ask contributors to deploy their ethnographic sensitivity in an unexpected and perhaps even uncomfortable direction, and to attempt to 'take seriously' the practices and beliefs which lie at the very heart of western naturalist approaches to non-humans: from self-consciously objectivist biological research, to large-scale farming, from the bastions of Cartesian doubt to the extremes of anthropocentric anthropomorphism. Is western naturalism a mere straw man which collapses under close ethnographic investigation of its purportedly archetypal figures, spaces and practices? Or can the anthropology of human-animal relations take Euroamerican naturalism seriously as an ethnographic object without dissolving either its object or itself? And what new ethical and epistemological possibilities for both collaboration and critique are opened by such an approach?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

'Learning to speak chimpanzee': examining 'doublethink' in a Catalonian chimpanzee sanctuary

Author: Lys Alcayna-Stevens (University of Cambridge) email
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Short Abstract

Based on ethnographic research conducted in a chimpanzee sanctuary, this paper introduces the concept of 'doublethink' in order to ask; if 'western ontology' is not taken as a predefined and static category, what kind of understanding is possible across species boundaries?

Long Abstract

Great Apes inhabit the uncertain borderlands of humanity and animality in many scientific discourses of what it is that 'makes us human'. This paper seeks to move beyond a discussion of comparison, to one of interaction and mutual possession. It focuses on ethnographic research conducted in a chimpanzee sanctuary in Catalonia, in which chimpanzees are all but passive objects in a human society. Through an exploration of how human and nonhuman share each others' affective spaces, exchange objects, communicate and have meaningful relationships, it seeks to take seriously the keepers' and researchers' discourses of 'humanness' and 'chimpanzeeness' and their philosophy of 'dehumanising' and 'resocialising' chimpanzees. The concept of 'doublethink' is introduced to examine the paradoxical ways in which keepers explain the impossibility of knowing what a chimpanzee thinks, while simultaneously forming friendships with them, and teaching them to rediscover their 'natural' selves through a practice of subjectification and techniques of self - of 'learning to speak chimpanzee'. Indeed, much of the primatologists' and keepers' descriptions of becoming have more in common with Amerindian Perspectivism than with Cartesian dualism. If 'western ontology' is not taken as a predefined and static category, what kind of understanding is possible across species boundaries?

Earth and worm - a praxology of organism-environment relations

Author: Filippo Bertoni (Aarhus University) email
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Short Abstract

Following scientific practices mobilizing earthworms, the relationship between earth and worm emerges in multiple versions. At the same time, the category of ‘Euroamerican naturalism’ is complicated and articulated in a number of alternative ways.

Long Abstract

"It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world", wrote Darwin in 1881. Paradoxically, he was not talking of humans, but of earthworms. Their activity was so important to him, that he dedicated his last book to these annelids.

Also for this reason earthworms had a central role in the history of biology in the unfolding of organism-environment relationships. From this vantage point I contrast this history with the practices of different scientists. From ecotoxicologists studying - through earthworms - the effect of toxic compounds on the soil, to curators taking care of earthworm specimens in museum collections, to ecologists teaching amateurs how to recognize earthworm species, a number of scientists are everyday working with worms. In these scientific contexts, in which Euroamerican naturalism should be found, the relation between worm and soil comes into being in many com-plicated ways; tinkering with the practices of scientists and their multispecies collectives, the object of 'Euroamerican naturalism' comes to be made multiple and, often, incoherent. In this sense, taking the practices of science seriously does not mean accepting the narrative of sciences uncritically, but attending to their always different situatedness. The multispecies collectives in which science is made unfold naturalism in different ways, enacting the earthworm and its environment in a variety of relations. By attending to these collectives, not only the relationships between organism and environment emerge as complex, but also the object of 'Euroamerican naturalism' ends up being more articulated.

The science-fable of primatology: ontological negotiations between scientists and primates

Author: Guilherme José da Silva e Sá (Universidade de Brasília (UnB)) email
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Short Abstract

This paper - based on ethnographic fieldwork with a team of primatologists in Brazillian Atlantic Forest - focuses on the construction of primatological knowledge besides looks at the building of its primate subjects (humans and non-humans).

Long Abstract

Primatology has been figured among other modern sciences as a profitable domain for the social studies of science. It occurs partially because its historical connections with naturalistic explanations on primate's behavior that, further, are usually projected over human´s own condition. Meantime, primatology also constitutes an ambiguous field if we consider the agent´s performances involved on it. This variant dimension is present in the relations - that in this paper I will call "intersubjective" - placed during primatological fieldwork. Attesting the prominence of being human / non-human face-to-face, it displays a proper type of literature plenty of narratives relating interespecific encounters. Without forming generalizations, it doesn't mean that naturalistic approaches can explain entirely what primatologists do. Not even affirm that building animistic scenery we can better follow the actants here. Both possibilities are insufficient to explain such inconstant conditions during the encounters between primatologists and their primates, and vice versa. In that sense, it doesn´t help simply set systems of objectivation of nature as apparatus of exclusion, but, otherwise, it sounds better thinking on articulations among natures-cultures that can fulfill "trans-specific" anthropologies and intersubjective primatologies.

The nature of data, the danger of foreigners: making knowledge in Amazonian climate science

Author: Antonia Walford (University College London) email
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Short Abstract

Drawing on ethnography completed with climate scientists in Brazil, this paper explores the ramifications for “endo” anthropology of taking Western naturalism seriously in ethnographic situations where it is exactly the nature of the non-humans and the otherness of the humans that is in question.

Long Abstract

This paper aims to extend discussions concerning the ramifications of taking Western naturalism (in this case, climate science) seriously, drawing on ethnographic research conducted with the Large Scale Biosphere Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia (LBA), Brazil, an international scientific project to ascertain the role of the Amazon forest in the global carbon cycle. This paper suggests that a crucial aspect of taking one's informants seriously is what Eduardo Viveiros de Castro has called "controlled equivocation"; that is, not only allowing one's informants "ontological self-determination", but also subversively permitting them alien agency to pervert home-grown ontological commitments. Focussing this discussion on its relation to "endo-anthropology", this paper maintains that the internal differentiation within anthropology lies in the different ways that such equivocations are wrought. Describing this briefly using ethnography completed with LBA climate modelers demonstrates the ramifications of "taking them seriously", which brings about an unexpected re-appraisal of the representationalist/non-representationalist dichotomy in which studies of science - and indeed, the human/non-human distinction - are often parsed. This in turn brings issues of analytical stabilization into relief. However, this paper aims to extend this by ethnographically complicating the question of internal differentiation "at home": what happens simultaneously to the position of the ("endo") anthropologist and to her attempts to take Western naturalism seriously when the situations - drawn in this case from ethnography completed with the researchers of the LBA and "foreign" collaborators - are themselves explicitly riddled with doubts as to the nature and positions of the humans and non-humans in question?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.