EASA, 2010: EASA2010: Crisis and imagination
Maynooth, 24/08/2010 – 27/08/2010
Beyond the biological and the social: anthropology as the study of human becomings
Location Arts Theatre 1
Date and Start Time 26 Aug, 2010 at 11:30
Nominally, anthropology is the study of humanity. Yet historically, the very concept of the human has come to epitomise the existential dilemma of a creature that can claim to know itself as a species of nature only by way of its attainment to a condition of being that transcends this very nature. This dilemma has been both the source and the stumbling block for anthropological attempts to differentiate and integrate the 'social' and 'biological' dimensions of human existence. To break the deadlock, this session aims to resituate the human within a philosophy of becoming rather than being. Anthropology, then, is the study not of human beings but of human becomings. We can imagine every becoming as a way of life, a path through the world along which activities are carried on, skills developed, and knowledge and understandings grown. These becomings are biological, in the sense that they involve processes of organic growth, development and decay. And they are social, in the sense that they are entwined and mutually responsive. In the anthropological study of human becomings there is, then, no division between the biological and the social. Both are rather ways of describing the same process, that of life itself.
Discussant: Deborah Heath
This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.
Ensembles of biosocial relations and the study of humans
For decades, the nature-society divide has been subjected to critical discussion in anthropology. Recently, such critique has gained increasing support as a result of growing recognition of the artificiality of nature, represented by human reconfiguring of both life itself and global climate. This paper suggests that much depends on what is meant by the concepts of the "biological" and the "social" and how we see their relationship. In an attempt to move beyond dualism and simple interactive frameworks, in the absence of a better non-dualistic language, it makes sense, paraphrasing early Marx, to speak of human becomings as the configuration of ensembles of biosocial relations. Informed by epigenetics, social theory, and ethnography, such an approach meaningfully challenges current understandings of the division of biological and social anthropology and their takes on key issues, including those of human essences and relatedness and the interdependencies of humans and other organisms.
On human biology, natural detachment and socio-cultural compensation
It has been long since that the 20th century German Philosophical Anthropologist Arnold Gehlen declared that humans do not merely "live a life" but must rather lead a life. Philosophical reflections on the "human structure" going back so far as Gottfried Herder in the late 18th century identified the underdevelopment, under-specialization and distinctive vulnerability of the human neonate as being critical for understanding the nature and basis of the human socio-cultural form of life. Recent developments in genetics, comparative genomics and the neurosciences provide an opportunity to critically revisit, re-evaluate and perhaps renew this tradition that has held that our biology and our socio-cultural forms of life clarify and implicate one another. Following a review of recent developments in the life sciences, including new findings associated with the highly publicized FOXP2 "language" gene, a perspective on human becoming will be sketched out in terms of an anthropology of "detachment and compensation".
Blurring the biological and social in human becomings
Generally, evolutionary approaches to understanding humanity focus on the fossil record, on biological influences on human behavior, or on human biological development. Equally, many social anthropologists focus on stories and experiences of being human and the trajectories and contexts of our lives as social symbolic creatures. Recently, there has been an increasing integration in perspectives that destabilize such boundaries and that focus, emphatically, on the myriad processes of becoming human, rather than on the state of being human. Bypassing the conceptualization of biological and social becomings as distinct and envisioning them as intertwined and integrated actors in processes of becoming human presents a powerful approach for anthropology. Here I will lay out how integrating innovative perspectives in evolutionary theory and biological and social anthropologies provides us with more effective toolkits with which to examine patterns and processes of becoming human.
Culture evolves? Not as you think
In June 2010 a high-profile meeting was held in London, sponsored by the Royal Society and the British Academy, entitled 'Culture Evolves'. The synopsis for the meeting states the following as established truth: 'The capacity for culture is a product of biological evolution - yet culture itself can evolve, generating cultural phylogenies'. This proposition is false on all counts: (1) the 'capacity for culture' is a product of a biopsychological essentialism, exemplifying the Whiteheadian fallacy of misplaced concreteness; (2) the opposition between biological and cultural evolution is incoherent; (3) the notion of cultural phylogenies rests on an obsolete model of transmission. Culture is the name for a question, not the answer. The question is: what accounts for difference, among humans and between humans and non-humans? The answer could be 'an evolutionary process', but only if we understand evolution in a sense entirely contrary to that enshrined in mainstream biology and psychology.
Life in the making: epigenesis, biocultural environments and human becomings
Epigenetics is a developmental regulatory process through which, by means of specific environmental clues and signals at molecular, cellular, tissue, organism and extraorganismical levels of organisation, genes are cronotopically silenced or expressed either before, simultaneously with or after genetic transcription. It is the developmental domain in which the biocultural quality of our lives-in-progress is most evident. Our material/semiotic/symbolic historical practices (actions, experiences, representations, political economies, moral and ethical systems, social organisations and institutions, objects, artefacts and technologies), and the anthropic environments they produce, are part and parcel of how we build ourselves and (be)come into social, historical, and biological existence, in an on-going dynamic autopoietic system of complex interrelations. Empirical evidence shows that epigenetic markers, as the result of our ancestors' lives and experiences, can be passed on transgenerationally. It is not that we inherit environments or acquired characteristics, but that anthropic environments are at the core of how we become humans in particular ways. Special attention will be given to how specific psychobiological sufferings are crossgenerationally perpetuated thanks to socio-political, economic and racial inequalities in the distribution of health and other welfare resources.
Thalassaemic lives as stories of becoming
Biological difference is a hard fact with which thalassaemic individuals have to come to terms. They are forced to understand life through the distinction between the 'biological' and the 'social' and ultimately through the acknowledgement of its limitations. Their life stories of becoming human revolve around the distancing and resignifying of the 'biological'. Even more, their humanness is rediscovered on the lived interconnectedness between the 'social' and the 'biological'. Their biological natures, categorised via genetic knowledge, are sites for constant biomedical treatment and experimentation. As recipients of the hypes, trends and shifts of biological knowledge, they experience the immutability and the plasticity of the 'biological' as well as the constructed natures of 'biological truths'. At the same time, due to grounded bio-deterministic imaginings of normalcy, their social natures are reduced. I present here a 'bottom-up' philosophy of becoming which highlights the inadequacy of the bio-social distinction by way of an existential problematising of the 'human'.
Shedding our selves: ontologies, DNA and becoming a subject
In August 2009 the Supreme Court of Argentina ruled that DNA identity tests can be carried out on biological material left on personal objects (shed-DNA). This decision was given in the case of Guillermo Prieto, a young adult who refused to undergo a blood test that would help verify his genetic identity. The young man is thought to be one of the 500 individuals who, as infants, were disappeared during the last military regime (1976-1983) in Argentina. Raised in many cases by the perpetrators of the crime, these individuals were assigned new identities and new kinship ties and were kept unaware of their convoluted histories. In this paper I focus on two sets of questions: what kind of subject and what kinds of ontologies does this ruling produce? And, how are new technologies calling into question Western concepts of the physically bounded self-possessing individual and suggesting new ways of becoming?
Reflections on a "collective brain" at work
This paper attempts to integrate theoretical reflections on the interconnectedness of the biological and the social with the empirical example of a group of co-workers in a small team. I will look at how the team-members acquired the skills necessary, and how they communicated and co-operated on tasks, so that, as one co-worker liked to say, they developed a "collective brain". Thus, growth, or otherwise, in mutual understanding will be at issue, as well as the "becoming" of knowledge and skills related to work and of the internal workings of the group. The material is taken from dissertation fieldwork in an NGO in Morocco. It will be reflected most notably in the light of recent work on "communities of practice", "theory of mind" as well as on the "roots of human sociality".
The habits of water: how trees became natural and crocodiles became harmless
An understanding of human becomings calls for an ethnography of non-human becomings, as humans and non humans are both involved in the ecological mind's activity through which skills and knowledge are developed. In order to bypass some contradictions stemming from an essentialist interpretation of sacred groves among the Kasena people of northern Ghana, this paper will address how something is selected as sacred and then protected. Assuming Bruno Latour's critique of political ecology and Philippe Descola's notion of analogism, I will show how the selection of pertinent units results from social and organic processes characterized by different temporal scales. What emerges is a single spiral of life where humans and non-humans co-evolve and use their points of view to read and mould together the environment they constitute. This spiral can explain how the ongoing process through which "natural" sacred ponds take shape is related to human becomings.
'Bringing wood to life': lines, flows and materials in Swazi timber production and the environment as unbounded epistemic space
Ingold's recent work on lines, properties of materials and flows of life has the potential to radically reconfigure social scientific understandings of the interactions among humans, other living forms and the environment as a whole. Inspired by Ingold and Oyama's critiques of the nature-culture dichotomy, this paper aims to apply Ingold's phenomenology of lines and flows to make sense of the multi-dimensional systemic interactions of wood in all its organic life-forms in Bulembu, Swaziland. This is an ex-mining town currently being redeveloped as a Pentecostal Christian sustainable business project with the primary mission of providing care for orphans while producing economic wealth from activities such as timber logging and plank production. Agency as a 'magical' power to be found within subjects and objects is here discarded in favour of a systemic view that locates Swazi workers, business missionaries, social developers, knowledge producers, local forests, industrial machinery, spirit entities and physical landscapes within the same environment.
'Humanity' among the Chachi and other so-called indigenous people: reviewing core concepts of anthropology and biology
Amazonia specialists have often been intrigued by the fact that Amerindian people refer to themselves as 'the people', 'real people' or 'we, humans'. Such notions of humanity are always premised on the perpetuation of a particular effort. To take an example from my own fieldwork in Ecuador, eating cherished food such as plantains and peccaries is or, at least, used to be critical to count as Chachi, 'real human beings'. Those who fail to nourish themselves in that particular way and, more generally, those who fail to 'live well' are not considered human. This notion of a humanity requiring continuous 'fabrication' has been documented not only in the Americas but also among so-called indigenous peoples elsewhere. Grasping it may cast a different light on the concept of 'humanity' which developed under the auspices of anthropology as well as on the idea of 'life' as it has emerged within biology.
Ravelling/unravelling: being-in-the-world and falling-out-of-the-world
In this paper I aim to rethink how anthropologists understand Heidegger's claim that human's are 'being-in-the-world' with reference to Tim Ingold's description of lives as lines entangled and enmeshed in the lines of other lives. I turn to ethnographic accounts from the city of Basra in Iraq to supplement the theoretical picture and to show its limitations. Following the ethnographic accounts I move to introduce a greater sense of dynamism within the 'meshwork' by drawing attention to how lives are able to fall-out and become disembedded from their entanglements. Thus, by highlighting the contingent nature of our social 'enmeshment' I suggest that entangling and disentangling should be thought of as intimately tied to one another or even as part of the same life-movements.
This workshop is closed to new paper proposals.