david on radical alterity
when googling whitehead’s process and reality.. (why i was googling it explained on this page) and graeber .. got this from anarchist library – Radical alterity is just another way of saying “reality” – by david (2015) – [https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/david-graeber-radical-alterity-is-just-another-way-of-saying-reality]
As a response to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s critique of my essay “Fetishes are gods in the process of construction,” this paper enters into critical engagement with anthropological proponents of what has been called the “ontological turn.” Among other engagements, I note that my own reflections on Malagasy fanafody, or medicine, are informed by just the sort of self-conscious reflections my informants make on epistemology, something that anthropologists typically ignore. After making note of the arguments of Roy Bhaskar that most post-Cartesian philosophy rests on an “epistemic fallacy,” I further argue that a realist ontology, combined with broad theoretical relativism, is a more compelling political position than the “ontological anarchy” and theoretical intolerance of ontological turn exponents.
This strikes me as important, and we might do well here to pause a moment and consider what’s at stake before proceeding. We appear to be in the presence of two quite different conceptions of what anthropology is ultimately about. Are we unsettling our categories so as (1) to better understand the “radical alterity” of a specific group of people (whoever “we” are here taken to be); or (2) to show that in certain ways, at least, such alterity was not quite as radical as we thought, and we can put those apparently exotic concepts to work to reexamine our own everyday assumptions and to say something new about human beings in general? Obviously I am an exponent of the second position. In fact, it strikes me that the greatest achievements of anthropology have come precisely when we are willing to make that second move: to say, “But are we not all, in a certain sense, totemists?” “Is not war a form of ritual sacrifice?” “Does not knowledge of the logic of Polynesian taboo allow us to look at familiar categories like etiquette, or the sacred, in a different light?”
This passage is crucial because it lays bare the ultimately conservative nature of the ontological project—at least, in this particular iteration. Western science and common sense are “protected” from challenge—which of course, necessarily, also means the protection of those structures of authority that tell us that there is something that can be referred to as “Western science” or “common sense”—and what it consists of—in the first place.
lit & num as colonialism et al
In other words, the diviner cannot tell us anything about human beings in general; neither can the anthropologist. We must all leave the world, as Wittgenstein once said, precisely as we found it.
What’s more, the existence of such arguments was the very starting point of my original analysis. Because this was one of the things that most surprised me when I started doing fieldwork; something I did not anticipate, and that did indeed unsettle my working assumptions. I went to Madagascar expecting to encounter something much like a different ontology, a set of fundamentally different ideas about how the world worked; what I encountered instead were people who admitted they did not really understand what was going on with fanafody, who said wildly different, and often contradictory, things about it, but who were all in agreement that most practitioners were liars, cheats, or frauds. Coming back from the field, I consulted with colleagues who had been in similar situations (in the Andes, Andaman Islands, Papua New Guinea … ) and discovered that such sentiments are actually quite commonplace. They also confessed they never knew quite what to do with them. And in fact, this is precisely the aspect of magical practice that is most often dismissed as unimportant, or simply left out of ethnographic accounts.
I would reply that this all turns on what one actually means by “ontology.” The meaning of the term is in no way self-evident. Many anthropologists have come to use it very loosely, as little more than a synonym for “culture” or “cosmology.” OTers have something much more specific in mind. Before responding, then, it well be necessary to delve a little more deeply into what that actually is.
Anthropology seems to believe that its paramount task is to explain how it comes to know (to represent) its object—an object also defined as knowledge (or representation). Is it possible to know it? Is it decent to know it? Do we really know it, or do we only see ourselves in a mirror? (Viveiros de Castro 1998: 92)
It seems to me that Viveiros de Castro’s assessment here is substantially correct as well. Obviously, the soul/body, mind/matter division was hardly the brainchild of Descartes; it goes back at least to Pythagoras. But Descartes introduced a much more radical version of the dichotomy, largely, I would argue, by eliminating the old Stoic/Neoplatonist category of imagination, which for the Scholastics had served as a quasi-material intermediary between the two. As a result, philosophy did turn away from questions about the nature of the world, which were increasingly relegated to science, and toward questions about the possibility of knowledge. Humean skepticism, and Kant’s apriorist response, were obviously crucial turning points in this respect.
Viveiros de Castro goes on to argue that as a result, social sciences have tended to focus on questions of mind over body, intellect over lived reality. This is a somewhat tougher case to make (there’s an awful lot of resolutely materialist social science) but surely there are strong currents pulling in this direction. What I want to emphasize here though is that as he makes the argument, one can already observe the term “epistemology” shifting from its classic philosophical meaning (“questions about the nature or possibility of knowledge”) to “questions of knowledge,” and then to simply “knowledge.” Structuralism itself, to take one fairly random example, is hardly a form of “epistemology.” It might have involved an epistemology, a theory of the nature of knowledge, but when Claude Lévi-Strauss (1958) proposed a structural analysis of the Oedipus myth as a story about eyes and feet, he was in no sense elaborating on that theory. He was simply applying it, engaging in that sort of social science one would engage in if one assumed that theory was true.
aka: whalespeak ness
Instead, the authors conclude that what’s needed is not to examine how human projects of action, or for that matter, non-human projects, problematize these divisions (body/mind, nature/culture, material/ideal, etc.) but rather, to rethink the very idea that one can speak of a single, undifferentiated, natural world at all. Our insistence on the unity of nature (and therefore, as a corollary, our assumption that all difference can only be cultural) is, they say, a product of our own Western, dualist ontology. We should not impose it on others. In fact we should not even impose it on ourselves—at least, when we are thinking about others. In the presence of genuine alterity, we must speak not of people who have radically different beliefs about, or perceptions of, a single shared world, but of people who literally inhabit different worlds. We must accept the existence of “multiple ontologies.”
Note here how in the course of this argument, the meaning of “ontology” has also undergone profound changes. After all, if “ontology” simply means a discourse about “the nature of being in itself,” one could hardly assert that Western philosophy is particularly monolithic: most philosophers considered “great” are considered great largely because they came up with a different ontology, and even OTers draw much of their conception of what a non-dualist ontology might be like from the work of Gilles Deleuze, who never claimed to be doing anything more than writing his own creative synthesis of ideas derived from such post-Cartesian philosophers as Leibniz, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bergson, and Whitehead. So “ontology” drifts from being an explicit form of philosophical discourse to referring to the—largely tacit— set of assumptions underlying the practice of natural and social science (which do tend to remain stubbornly fixed, whatever philosophers say about them), and from there, to being the tacit assumptions underlying any set of practices or modes of being of any kind at all.
Let’s unpack this. So: ontology begins as a mode of academic theory-making, a form of discourse, but its object is not discourse (since that, presumably would be Epistemology2) but “experiences and understandings of the nature of being itself.” “Understanding” sounds a lot like knowledge, but let’s say for the sake of argument that we are speaking of the tacit understandings underlying certain forms of “experience.” Arguably this might escape the charge of Epistemology2. But that leads to the question: How exactly is it possible to have an experience of “the nature of being itself ”? One can certainly have experience of specific manifestations of being (toothpicks, oceans, bad music coming from a party upstairs … ). But normally that’s just called “experience.” Perhaps a mystical experience, such as might have been had by Jalal al-din al-Rumi or Meister Eckhart, might qualify as an experience of “the nature of being itself ”? But presumably, this is not the sort of thing the author is talking about either. It only really makes sense if “being itself ” is simply whatever “understandings” people might be said to have of it. In which case all “itself ” is really doing here is pointing to that familiar anthropological object, the tacit assumptions about the nature of time, space, action, personhood, and so on, that underlie what used to be called a particular cultural universe—just, now constructed as an “as if,” the sort of Ontology1 one imagines the people one is studying would construct, were they the sort of people who spent their time engaging in speculative philosophy.
What OTers are arguing, unless I very much misunderstand them, is that when in the presence of assumptions, or as they put it, “conceptions” that are sufficiently foreign to the ethnographer’s own (e.g., that stones are persons, or powder is power), the ethnographer must act as if those conceptions are—for the speakers, and anyone presumed to share their Ontology2—constitutive of reality, and therefore of nature, itself.
If things really are different, as we argue, then why do they seem the same? If “different worlds” reside in things, so to speak, then how could we have missed them for so long? Why, when we look at Cuban diviners’ powders, do we see just that—powder? [Because] the very notion of perception simply reiterates the distinction that “different worlds” collapses. The point about different worlds is that they cannot be “seen” in a visualist sense. They are, as it were, a-visible. In other words, collapsing the distinction between concepts and things (appearance and reality) forces us to conceive of a different mode of disclosure altogether.
At first glance, this seems to make no kind of sense. If one dissolves away the distinction between appearance and reality as so much false Cartesian dualism, shouldn’t that mean that things are what they appear to be, and therefore, that things that look the same are the same and that’s pretty much that? But what the authors are really saying is very different: that we shouldn’t pay too much attention to what things look like, but should instead listen to what people say. Moreover, [authoritative] statements must be treated as a window onto “concepts,” and concepts treated—through a form of “radical constructivism”—as if they were themselves realities of the same ontological standing as “things,” or indeed, constitutive of the world itself
I know this is a bit unfair. Such proposals are not really meant to be taken in this kind of programmatic way. More than anything else, OT is a theoretical framework designed to open space in order to engage in a particular form of ethnographic practice. And this form of practice is not without its merits. Having said much that is critical, let me end, then, on a positive note. I think the real strength of OT lies in the fact that it encourages what might be called a stance of creative respect towards the object of ethnographic inquiry. By this I mean first of all that it starts from the assumption that since the worlds we are studying cannot be entirely known, what we are really in the presence of is—as Viveiros de Castro (2015: 13) puts it, borrowing language from Deleuze, “the possibility, the threat or promise of another world contained in the ‘face/gaze of the other,’” a possibility that can only be realized through the ethnographer, even as the ethnographer, in trying to describe—let alone explain—this other world, inevitably betrays that promise, or, as he puts it, “dissipates its structure,” at least to a certain extent. Yet despite the inevitability of betrayal, the task of the ethnographer is nonetheless to try to keep that possibility alive. Radical alterity can never be contained by our descriptions, the argument goes, and we cannot understand it through deductive reasoning; rather, the ethnographer’s task is a creative, experimental, even poetic project—an attempt to give life to an alien reality that unsettles our basic assumptions about what could exist. Insofar as there is a war going on here, it is a war the ethnographer should never win.
What if the world did exist but we just couldn’t prove it?
If the greatest strength of OT is its willingness to embrace the limits of human knowledge (that is, as a form of Epistemology1); its greatest flaw, to my mind at least, is that it doesn’t take this principle nearly far enough. Radical alterity applies only to relations between cultural worlds. There is never any sense that people existing inside other Ontologies2 have any trouble understanding each other, let alone the world around them; rather, out of respect for their otherness, we are obliged to act as if their command of their environment were so absolute that there were no difference whatever between their ideas about, say, trees, and trees themselves.
It strikes me that by doing so, and especially, by framing this attitude as an ethical imperative, OT makes it effectively impossible for us to recognize one of the most important things all humans really do have in common: the fact that we all have to come to grips, to one degree or another, with what we cannot know.. t
In philosophical terms, what OT is proposing is simply an anthropological variation of the transcendental method, an exercise that sets out to deduce the “conditions of possibility” for human experience: essentially, to ask, *what would have to be true in order for experience to be possible? Immanuel Kant most famously used the transcendental method to produce his list of a priori conceptual categories of thought (the opposition of unity and plurality; the notion of cause and effect, etc.), along with such basic frameworks as the notion of time as a relation of past, present, and future. All these, he argued, could not be derived from experience, since they already had to be present, in the mind, for us to experience anything the way we do at all. For Kant, these were not ontological categories. Kant rejected the very possibility of Ontology1, as he did not believe we could say anything about the nature of things in themselves.
The only things about which we can have absolute and comprehensive knowledge are things we have made up... t
ie: sea world
Critical Realists argue—compellingly, in my view—that most contemporary philosophical positions are simply variations on the epistemic fallacy. To take one particularly salient example: both Positivists and Poststructuralists tend to agree that if there were a real world independent of the subject, it should be possible (at least in principle) for the subject to have absolute and comprehensive knowledge of it. Positivists argue that such knowledge is possible; Poststructuralists, in most cases at least, argue that since such knowledge is impossible, one must conclude there is no independent reality at all.
Accepting this makes it possible to say that scientists can say things that are true, and by the same token, they can say things that are false. (It’s quite possible—indeed, I would say, likely—that a significant percentage of what currently passes for scientific knowledge is, in fact, incorrect..t) It also makes it possible to say that other, incommensurable perspectives on reality, whether common sense, technical expertise, Maori cosmogonic myth, Vedanta, or stand-up comedy, can be able to say other things that are equally true that science cannot say—or indeed, would never think to. All these perspectives are to a certain degree incommensurable. Nonetheless, without a realist ontology1, and without some way to anchor values in it, one would have no solid basis on which to argue either that all contain truth, or that a diversity of incommensurable perspectives is in any way desirable.
After all, the mere assertion of a value means nothing in itself: that is, unless, as some of my Malagasy friends would no doubt hasten to point out, you manage to convince others that the value is based on something other than its mere assertion. It seems to me that taking one’s interlocutors seriously means, not just agreeing with everything they say (or even, picking out their most apparently strange or contradictory statements and trying to imagine a world in which those statements would be literally true) but starting from the recognition that neither party to the conversation will ever completely understand the world around them, or for that matter, each other. That’s simply part of what it means to be human..t Most of what obviously and immediately unites us across borders of every sort, conceptual included, is the recognition of our common limitations: whether that be the fact that all of us are mortal, or that none of us can never know with certainty how our projects will pan out.
What’s more, if one goes slightly further and argues not just that reality can never be fully encompassed in our imaginative constructs, but that reality is that which can never be fully encompassed in our imaginative constructs, then surely “radical alterity” is just another way of saying “reality.”..t But “real” is not a synonym for “nature.” We can never completely understand cultural difference because cultural difference is real. But by the same token, no one Iatmul, Nambikwara, or Irish-American will ever be able to completely understand any other because individual difference is real too. The reality of other people is the degree to which you can never be quite sure what they’re going to do. But finally, all of us are indeed faced with the stubborn reality—that is, immediate unpredictability, ultimate unknowability—of the physical environment that surrounds us...t
Perhaps the one expression I heard the most, when people talked about spirits, was simply “I don’t know.” Spirits were inherently unknowable. (The spirits that possessed mediums were ultimately unknowable as well.) I ended up concluding this lack of knowledge was not incidental; it was foundational. To put it bluntly, while OT would encourage me to privilege the fact that I will never fully understand Malagasy conceptions as to act as if those conceptions were simply determinant of reality, I decided to privilege the fact that my Malagasy interlocutors insisted they did not understand reality either; that nobody ever will be able to understand the world completely, and that this gives us something to talk about. It also gives us the opportunity to unsettle one another’s ideas in a way that might prove genuinely dialogic..t
paul know\love law et al
What I’d really draw attention to is that what Malagasy people seem to be doing in many of these cases is strikingly analogous to what OTers suggest for the practice of the anthropologist: they are engaging in an imaginative, poetic process to come to terms with a reality that they know they can never entirely understand. One of the qualities of this imaginative process is that it always tends to linger on the border between artistry and simple fraud. Recall the Malagasy cosmogonic myths mentioned earlier. They grapple with the most fundamental questions of life, love, death—the deepest mysteries of human existence. They are also obviously jokes; people laugh at them, call them “the lies of our ancestors”—though most also feel, on some level, they are also true. Just not true in any literal sense. In fact, for every great existential question there are usually half a dozen mythic answers that plainly contradict. One could, certainly, ask “what would these people have to believe?” or “what would reality have to be like for them?” in order for all these different stories not to contradict, then treat the resulting “concepts” as determinate of a reality we will never fully understand. But doing so would not be a matter of “taking our interlocutors seriously.” As pretty much any one of those interlocutors would be happy to point out, the real point is the tellers don’t really understand such matters either, nobody does, the ethnographer doesn’t either, and that means ultimately, we’re all in the same boat..t
Ultimately, human beings are all in the same existential dilemma. We can almost never predict future events with any accuracy; but at the same time, the more time passes since something does happen, the less sense it makes to speak as if anything else “could” have happened instead..t This is equally true of social scientists, who make a specialty of writing about past events as if they could have been predicted, even though when they actually do turn their hands to predicting the future, they almost invariably get it wrong. Whenever we encounter an “apparently irrational” belief, we are likely to be in the presence of an existential quandary, a puzzle which no one, really, will ever be able to completely figure out.
A final note on the political ramifications of theoretical ideas
Does OT, or introducing the Deleuzian notion of radical alterity as a political principle, actually improve this situation? It seems to me it makes it even worse. The only major difference I can myself make out with the relativist position, in regard to these specific problems, is that some advocates (e.g., Holbraad 2011) take the conservative implications of classical relativism even further, and propose that OT protects even authoritative views within “the West.” What’s more, not only does it appear to continue to require universal standards for recognizing legitimate authority (even across “worlds”), it proposes that those authorities be granted authority over determining the nature of reality itself, within their designated territory, whether or not the individuals in question actually wish to be granted such authority! This, to my mind, is the ultimate irony. Having been accused of introducing Marxist theories “behind the natives’ back” I cannot help but turn the question back again: do OTers really think that most of the people who anthropologists study would actually agree with the proposition that they live in a fundamentally different “nature” or “ontology” than other humans—let alone that words determine thing
The problem with cultural relativism is that it places people in boxes not of their own devising..t As a mere intellectual problem, it’s not a big one. The moment relativism becomes a moral or political position, however, it becomes very big indeed. Ontology2 just substitutes a deeper box.
Some people like deep boxes. There seems every reason to believe that those Viveiros de Castro works with, those with whom he struggles for rights to “ontological self-determination,” count among their number. But by that same token, one must respect the desires of those who wish for their boxes to be shallower, or do not wish to be placed in any sort of box at all.
An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all. – oscar wilde
In my more cynical moments, I sometimes think of social theory as a kind of game, where one of the prizes is to see who can come up with the wildest, most shocking, most dangerous-sounding idea, that still does not offer any meaningful challenge to existing structures of authority. And that we have become so used to playing this game that we no longer recognize what a genuinely dangerous idea would even look like.
What I am saying is perhaps there are at least some cases where the practice of fanafody, or other forms of what anthropologists are used to calling “magic,” involve causative mechanisms we simply don’t yet understand. There are, after all, plenty of alternative traditions in science, uniformly treated with violent hostility by the intellectual mainstream, that speculate about such possibilities. (Some involve investigating ideas originally proposed by philosophers like Peirce, Whitehead, or Bergson, but the moment one makes such ideas out of the lecture-halls and uses them as the basis for scientific experiments, one is cast amongst the flakes.) No doubt many of their exponents are every bit the cranks and lunatics they’re regularly made out to be. But what if some of them were right?
What I’m effectively asking, then, is “what if Ravololona really could prevent the hail from falling on people’s crops?” I must confess it still strikes me as unlikely. When I had to call it, I definitely came down on the side of the skeptics on this one. But maybe, just possibly, I was wrong. Still, of one thing I am certain: we’ll never have any chance of finding out if we commit ourselves to treating every statement our informants make that seems to fly in the face of accepted ideas of physical possibility as if it were the gate to some alternative reality we will never comprehend..t Engaging in such thought experiments does not really open us to unsettling possibilities. Or, anyway, not the kind of unsettling possibilities that are likely to get anyone fired from their jobs. To the contrary, it ultimately protects us from those possibilities, in just the way Holbraad suggested OT protects Western science and common sense
..who knows, maybe there actually is something going on here that we just don’t know about? Since after all, if someone that no-nonsense tells you there might be something happening that science can’t account for, one has to confront the possibility that he might actually be right..t
ie: there’s a nother way
m of care – apr 21 is on whitehead as influencer of david