The materiality of life: revisiting the anthropology of nature in Amazonia

Authored by: Laura Rival

The Handbook of Contemporary Animism

Print publication date:  October  2013
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9781844657117
eBook ISBN: 9781315728964
Adobe ISBN: 9781317544500


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Animism, whatever this term means after almost twenty years of renewed debate, 1 offers an excellent standpoint from which to measure or evaluate how far we have moved towards theorizing nature as locally produced in Amazonian settings. With the benefit of temporal depth, we are now in a better position to appreciate how the academic understanding of animism has evolved over time, and, with it, the use of a number of other key concepts, such as agency, humanity and intentionality (Rival 2012). 2 I am struck by the extent to which analyses of ethnographic materials have, in less than one generation, converged towards a peculiar form of theoretical consensus regarding the discursive production of nature as “after nature”. Thinking in terms of “after nature” or “post-humanism” has often led to a more or less happy marriage between the metaphysics of being and the primacy of direct experience, as well as to the avoidance of scientific and objective attempts to understand the world on the ground that such “naturalist” analyses necessarily distort or subvert indigenous ways of knowing (Bird-David 1999; Descola 2005). Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2004: 468) puts it bluntly: whereas for Amerindian shamans to know is to personify, moderns need to objectify – or de-subjectify – in order to know. Animist worlds, where there are no “things”, for “something” is always also “someone”, cannot be understood with analytical tools designed to differentiate “knowledge” from “belief”. 3 Viveiros de Castro goes further: “A thing or a state of affairs that is not amenable to subjectification … is shamanistically uninteresting” (Viveiros de Castro 2004: 469–70). Would it be that apart from their metaphysics, and the potential virtualities with which they enrich our repertoire of non-representational ontologies, Amerindian socio-cultural systems have nothing to contribute to anthropological knowledge? What has happened to the Buberian contrast between I–Thou and I–It that initially informed perspectivism? Has it led to a new form of dualism that radically differentiates the ontology of the jaguar-shaman-warrior-hunter from all other ways of knowing and being? To what extent do we need to territorialize modes of knowing? On what basis should we define the incommensurability of worldviews?

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