A presentation of Philippe Descola, Par-delà Nature et Culture [Beyond Nature and Culture]






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Publication: Anthropological Quarterly
Author: Berliner, David
Date published: July 1, 2010

Lévi-Strauss and Beyond. A presentation of Philippe Descola, Par-delà Nature et Culture [Beyond Nature and Culture], Paris, Gallimard, 2005.

"Is there a French anthropology today?" The question might seem arrogant to many, but it was addressed to me in 2003 during an AAA (American Anthropological Association) meeting in Washington, DC when an American friend and colleague questioned me about contemporary French anthropology. Although a Francophone Belgian, and not French, I found myself deeply puzzled by this question. Historically, anthropologists in Francophone Belgium have been profoundly influenced by French anthropology and, in particular, by Lévi-Strauss's structuralism, mainly through the work of his disciple based in Brussels, Luc de Heusch, who still defends him "come hell or high water" (de Heusch 2004). As a matter of fact, even though things have changed a lot since these times of hegemonic structuralism, many of us still draw today on French anthropological academic traditions and networks much more than on American and British ones. Whilst I did not manage to provide a satisfactory answer to my American colleague at the time of the conference, I take this short essay as an opportunity to eventually give him a response-a response emerging from a slightly different standpoint located outside of French academia-and to discuss one major text of contemporary French anthropology.

The present landscape of French ethnologie is diverse and fragmented, from Marc Abélès political anthropology (1992, 2001) to Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan's Anthropologie du développement (2005), passing by Jeanne Favret-Saada (2009), Christian Bromberger (1998) and Alban Bensa (2006). There are indeed multiple anthropologies in France today, many of them having ingeniously incorporated influences from British and American traditions. Yet, the impact of Claude Lévi-Strauss is paradigmatically enormous and subsequent generations of anthropologists are still compelled to define themselves in relationship to him-either to strongly oppose his work (as Georges Balandier did), to part ways with it whilst recognizing Lévi-Strauss immense influence on their intellectual effort (such as Pierre Bourdieu and Marc Abélès), or to creatively pursue the structuralist agenda, a perspective held by Philippe Descola at his best. In this review, I would like to take the piece discussed here as a text embodying a legacy of Claude Lévi-Strauss's work, but also as an attempt to move beyond it by entering into discussion with post-structuralist scholars, such as Pierre Bourdieu, Dan Sperber, and Bruno Latour. It constitutes an excellent illustration of a well-represented domain of anthropological inquiry in France, where discussions about cognition, perception, dispositions, praxis, structure, and the search for universals have been for long paradigmatic.

An Anthropology Beyond Nature and Culture

Philippe Descola is a prominent French anthropologist who, for the last 30 years, has conducted extensive ethnographical research in the Amazon among the Achuar people located at the border of Ecuador and belonging to the Jivaro linguistic cluster. He is the Director of the Laboratoire d'Anthropologie Sociale (Laboratory of Social Anthropology) and is a Professor at College de France (where he holds the Chair in the Anthropology of Nature), a very distinguished position in French academy, formerly occupied by Claude Lévi-Strauss and Françoise Héritier. In fact, Par-delà Nature et Culture constitutes an elaboration of Descola's last two pieces, both translated in English, In the Society of Nature (1996 [1986]) and The Spears of Twilight (1998 [1994]). Whilst the first exemplifies a fine-grained ethnography of Achuar material and symbolic relationships with their environment (that we, Westerners, would wrongly term "nature" ), the second belongs to a different genre, a monograph of Achuar society and a personal and philosophical essay all at once, which reminds us of Tristes Tropiques by Lévi-Strauss, Descola's mentor and Ph.D. supervisor. Building on his previous ethnographical research, the book presented here offers us a vast regional comparative work, mostly drawing on examples taken from so-called "non-industrial" societies, and a stimulating piece of anthropological theory. It invites us to penetrate the multilayered complexity of diverse symbolic and ontological universes within which different people tell their own stories about the world in which they live and their complex perception of it. And the apprehension of such ontological universes goes far beyond the categories of nature and culture, seen by Descola as culturally and historically contingent. Accordingly, he demonstrates the false universality of the nature/culture dichotomy. Emphasizing the historical foundation of such " grand partage" (title of chapter 3) in Ancient Greece, European Christianity, and the Classical Age when nature (and culture) progressively became an autonomous ontological domain and an object of scientific investigation, he fires a very loud shot across the bow of the naturalism of Western science, philosophy and aesthetics. An idea he has already developed on the pages of In the Society of Nature, Descola cogently shows that, while for many of us the question of nature (and also landscape) constitutes a " factish"- in the sense of Latour, an unconditional object of belief (Latour 1996-it is not a relevant one in most societies. By doing so, he offers pertinent insights for anthropologists dealing with environmental and ecological issues in diverse cultural settings.

Ideal-Typical Ontologies and Modes of Relation

Whereas denouncing Western naturalism as "a peculiar case within a general grammar of cosmologies" (131), a form of ethnocentrism which forbids us to understand correctly other non-naturalist ontologies, Descola goes on to propose an ambitious typological project and an encompassing anthropological theory. The crux of his argument emerges in chapters four and five, in which he distinguishes between two fundamental and universal modalities of individual and collective experience, the "identification" and the "relation" through which all human beings "bricolent" (a French term Lévi-Strauss cherished) their everyday schematisation of life. Briefly said, the "identification" consists of a "mechanism of mediation between the self and the non-self" (163), deployed by the self who, by inferring about others' and non-humans' appearance, behaviour, and properties, establishes resemblances and contrasts between it and other actants (a Latourian concept to refer to all kinds of autonomous figures which have the ability to act, including people, material objects, entities being studied, organizations, etc...). Drawing on a broad range of recent ethnographical accounts in Latin America, South-East Asia or the Pacific, Descola has discovered four regimes of identification (animist, totemic, naturalist, and analogical). Each conveys specific theories of identity and otherness, regimes of knowledge, as well as local worldviews or cosmologies, within which divergent notions of physicality and interiority are deployed. In these four ontological and structural typologies, the "animist" mode of identification, widespread in the Amazon, presupposes an identity of interiority and intentionality between humans and non-humans who, while differing physically (what Descola terms "the discontinuity of bodies" [399]), are able to communicate and to interact with each other on the base of a "material continuity unifying all organisms" (184). For the "totemic" mode of identification, Descola refers to the experience of Dreams (widely described among Australian Aboriginal people) whose primordial beings engendered classes of things and beings. Here, humans and non-humans belonging to a prototypic class possess the same material and essential features. Sharing similar interiority and physicality, they are hybrids emanating from the same ontological totemic type they belong to. Thirdly, naturalism, the more anthropocentric of the four and the standpoint from which anthropologists observe the world, is the mode of identification we know best in the West (although Descola concedes that Westerners can contextually think through the "animist" mode), postulating a clear-cut dichotomy between humans, who are endowed with reflexivity and subjectivity, and non-humans, who- although they share the same natural physicality-are not equipped with the same mental capacities (here named "the discontinuity of minds" [399]). Eventually, the ninth chapter is devoted to the last mode termed "analogical," found in India, in the Andes, or in Africa, where interiority and physicality of humans and non-humans are fragmented and made of multiple components which circulate in the world producing singular and unstable assemblages connected through "theories of dosage and compatibility of humours" (314) and sacrificial practices which bind such singular entities. Moreover, each of these modes of identification generates its own style of "collective," a notion borrowed from Latour to avoid using the term "social organization" and which designates a network of specific interrelations gathering together humans and non-humans (Latour 2004). The "animist" thinks of a sociocentric world where animals and humans belong to collectives which are isomorphic; however, in the naturalist mode, only humans have proper societies, culture, norms, and conventions. Totemic ontologies produce a collective blending of humans and non-humans engendered from cosmic prototypical attributes, whereas analogism generates hierarchical societies, holistic though made of discrete segments, like the caste system in India.

While identification is a means through which humans specify properties of actants in the world, the second fundamental modality of individual and collective experience is the "relation," a notion that Descola describes as "a means to specify the general form of relationships" (459) between humans and non-humans and "observable in typical behaviours likely to be translated into concrete social norms" (165). For Descola, six structural forms of relation (to be combined with the four modes of identification previously described) can be isolated: exchange, predation, gift, production, protection, and transmission-all notions that are old-like anthropology. Accordingly, certain collectives put a clear emphasis on one (or more) of these relations which, without being hegemonic, somehow contribute to forge their specific ethos, such as societies of hunter-gatherers based on "sharing," headhunting among Jivaros in which predation is a dominant scheme of relation, the "cattle complex" in East Africa (where the protection of cattle is seen as indispensable to the reproduction of humans), capitalist production in the West or ancestors' cults in West Africa (where transmission is thought hierarchically). Last but not least, in the final chapter of the book, Descola attempts to historicize his structural ideal-types, demonstrating how certain identifications and relations can be transformed through time. However, in his conclusion he argues that ontological regimes and modes of relation are stable rather than changing in the history of human societies, a controversial point I will now discuss.

Legacies of Lévi-Strauss

In Par-delà Nature et Culture, Philippe Descola is presenting an important and daring contribution to anthropological and philosophical thought-and one can only be sympathetic with Latour's dissatisfaction vis-à-vis the absence of English translation "to the great shame of British and American anthropology and their academic publishing industries" (Latour 2009:8). Whilst certain trends of American anthropology do converge in a sloppy relativism today, Descola proposes a universalistic program of research, deeply rooted in his conviction that anthropology is a comparative discipline geared toward fighting ethnocentrism. Contrary to the image of French anthropology as "nontheoretical, even antitheoretical" (Parkin 2005:217)-but without falling for the postmodernist sirens of "French theory" (Cusset 2008) that most French anthropologists see as complete non-sens-his text constitutes a helpful plea for comparative erudition, empiricist rigor, as well as an ambitious structuralist project which very much resonates with Lévi-Strauss's program, although with some differences. Clearly, Descola, who was his Ph.D. student, has similarly conducted fieldwork in the Amazon and now occupies his former chair, embodying Lévi-Strauss's legacy in France. Suffice to look at the theoretical premises of his structural approach aimed at "gathering together some elementary structures constitutive of the variability of the ways in which one intervenes in the world" (457), elementary structures from which one can deduce "principles of combination" (534) between identification and relation. In this regard, cultural diversity is nothing more than "ornementation" (531), "the proliferation of usages" (162) emerging out of a limited number of structures and the role of anthropologist, like a chemist (not a linguist), is to uncover new combinations and their principles.

Indeed, reading the book presented here, one can only be struck by the air de famille with the author of Les Mythologiques, a brilliant writer coupled with a genius to organize miscellaneous data and to produce what Paul Ricoeur called a "depth interpretation" (Ricoeur 1991). But, what is obtained from such a typological approach faces the same range of critiques advanced against structuralism in the 1970s and the 1980s? First, an almost exclusive focus on what Descola calls "non-industrial societies" (sociology supposedly dealing with "post-industrial societies" ) seen as laboratories, smaller demographically, and with less contacts with the "outside world" (154), where the schemes of identification and relation are more visible. Although Descola rejects nostalgia for authenticity, such preference for so-called "non-industrial societies" cages his work into an exploration of the exotic. Treating these societies as discrete entities somehow preserved from global changes (urbanization, colonialism, creolization, and so forth), one is left wondering how such typologies do work for Achuar youngsters educated in large cities, Westerners schooled in India or Aborigenes living in shantytowns. Such lack of ethnographical plasticity, an inherent obstacle to all ideal-types, does rely on a very structuralist conception of change seen as secondary to permanence ("Plus ca change, plus c'est la même chose" ). Indeed, what matters for Descola is the permanence of cultures and civilization which, when one looks at their "worldviews," are rather stable, as "grand frames of schematization of experience change very little" (528). Whilst, as I show elsewhere (Berliner 2010), anthropology, and not only structuralism, has always been concerned with permanence and persistence, reading Descola's piece left me pensive about historical traumas, ruptures, and contingencies, as well as the global dissemination of people, ideas, and forms of life, and how these could challenge such beautifully crafted typology.

Beyond Lévi-Strauss

While a true heir of Lévi-Strauss, Descola is, however, trying to come to terms with certain weaknesses of structuralism and to reinvent it creatively. Importantly, he does not fall for Lévi-Strauss "mentalism" epitomized in Les Mythologiques (Désveaux 2008). A heritage of Durkheim, such mentalism is still an attractive option for some French anthropologists who, in recent years, have paid interest to cognitive and evolutionary psychologies. Dan Sperber, albeit an early anti-structuralist (Sperber 1996), and Pascal Boyer (Boyer 1994, 2001) have brought to anthropologists the study of human cognitive architecture as a possible alternative to postmodernist relativism and a continuation of scientific universalism that many French anthropologists cherish. Although these psychologically inspired models can be refreshing for anthropology, many in France and elsewhere are also distancing themselves from such mentalist perspectives (Berliner 2005, Bonhomme 2009, Ingold 2001). In the same vein, Descola does not inscribe the schemes of identification and relation in the architecture of the Human Mind, but rather as "objectified properties of all collective life, embodied in mental, affective and sensori-motor dispositions" (457), a jargon much more indebted to Bourdieu which puts emphasis on praxis, embodied dispositions, affects, and forms of interaction. Indeed, what interests Descola directly are not cold-blooded "out of culture" mental processes, but rather a possibility to explain the regularity and the permanence of cognitive automatisms and practical habits actualized in culture which would lead to a definition of "a sort of original matrix engendering all habitus" (139). As much as he wants to surmount the shortcomings of structuralist explanations in terms of innate unconscious properties, Descola intends to expand Bourdieusian habitus (138-139) to what he calls "practical schemes" (in French, "les schèmes de la pratique"). These collective schemes, whether they are reflexive or not, are "psychological, emotional and sensori-motor dispositions, embodied through experience acquired in a given social milieu" (151), practical and particular mediations, rooted into innate predispositions and the properties of social life, that give us "the feeling to share a same culture and cosmology with other individuals" (153). Whilst attempting to bridge the gap between cognitive and culturalist explanations to describe such ontological "intimacies" (to use Herzfeld's notion, 2005), Descola's program is yet silent about the modalities of learning implied in the different modes of identification and relation. Reading his text, I was asking myself questions such as: How do people learn under animist, totemic, naturalist, or analogical modes? Do these ideal-types imply similar or divergent learning and transmission processes (such as Whitehouse's typology between "doctrinal" and "imagistic" modes of religiosity [2004])? And what can such situated processes tell us about the permanence of cognitive automatisms and practical habits in culture (Berliner and Sarro 2007)?

To enrich his structuralist project, Descola has also found a very strong ally in the name of Bruno Latour and his pragmatic sociology. I do not have the time here to develop Latour (2005) in depth and his followers' perspective (Hennion 1993, Gomart & Hennion 1998), a very fertile one for anthropologists. Producing a path-breaking reflection on the constitution of modernity, Latour has considerably expanded the field of social theory and research. In particular, he has de-centered social analysis from the thinking subject (the social actor) and incorporated in it many non-humans to think through their agency on humans-for instance material objects' or scientific concepts' presence and effects in social interactions. Such an epistemic move is very helpful for anthropologists who explore modes of thought involving different types of non-humans which do possess agency and interact with humans on the same ontological register (such as invisible entities or objects endowed with agency). From the idea of "Great Divide" (to designate the constitution of nature and culture as two distinct ontological domains) to notions of "nonhumans," " collectives," "mediations" (a crucial concept developed by Actor-Network theorists to refer to the omnipresence of mediators, for instance objects, in the co-production of reality), and "attachment" (another term denoting the complex state of interactions between humans and non-humans), Descola's text is full of references to Latourian sociology. He, however, rethinks Latour's concepts in an innovative way such as, for instance, the idea of " collective" which he sees as "an ensemble where entities of all sort combine themselves" (496) whose limits are defined by humans' experiences; thus distancing himself from the idea of a network defined by the sociologist.

Universalité/Universalism

Descola and Latour share a common wish for rethinking the question of universalité. In recent years, a bunch of French anthropologists, sociologists, and philosophers have discussed universality and universalism, either to nostalgically lament their disappearance in the face of relativist and multicultural postmodernism (Amselle 2007) or, more interestingly, to expand them to include diverse actants. While these questions have been debated for a while in the United States, such epistemological moves toward "competing universalities" (Butler 2000) and "tactical humanism" (Abu-Lughod 1991) has been rather slow in France, although things are rapidly changing with the development of a politics of diversity (Renaut 2009). In Par-delà Nature et Culture, following Latour, Descola invites us to build "a new universality" (552). His argumentation manages to provincialize Western naturalist cosmology and denounces "the impossibility for the Moderns to schematize their relationships with the diversity of existants through an encompassing relation" (542). By describing other collectives around the globe in which humans and non-humans are not ontologically segregated, he is promoting the development of a new form of naturalist universality incorporating more non-humans. As much as this posture sounds relativistic, Descola nonetheless subsumes it to a clearly defined universalistic, structuralist agenda. Discussing Bourdieu, Sperber, and Latour, he reinvents the ambitious Lévi-Straussian universalism and, as it were, embodies one French tradition of doing anthropology.

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Author affiliation:

David Berliner

Université Libre de Bruxelles

Laboratoire d'Anthropologie des Mondes Contemporains

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