Archive for August, 2016

Philippe Descola “Biolatry: A Surrender of Understanding”

August 25, 2016 Leave a comment

Descola, Philippe 2016. Biolatry: A Surrender of Understanding (Response to Ingold’s ’A Naturalist Abroad in the Museum of Ontology’). Antrhopological Forum 0(0). DOI: 10.1080/00664677.2016.1212523


I have made absolutely clear in Beyond Nature and Culture that a great part of the skills and knowledge thanks to which humans continuously grow into competent agents in their worlds are acquired through interactions with other agents, be they humans or nonhumans, and for the most part speechlessly. This is far from a‘representationist’ stance. My difference with Ingold is that I surmise, on the one hand, that this process of worlding does not unfold randomly but follows certain bifurcations that can be reconstituted and modelled–more on modelling later–and, on the other hand, that we can gain a partial knowledge of this process via the mediations that humans make use of when they exchange signs between themselves and with nonhumans. (2-3)


Unfortunately, unmediated knowledge of the kind that Ingold sees as the stuff out of which our awareness of the world grows and changes is mostly inaccessible to ethnographic enquiry. So we have to rely upon what people say that they experience rather than upon what they directly experience. (3)


The deductive character of the model accrues from the fact that it provides a structure which is reputedly isomorphic with the process studied, the deductive transformations operated within the model being conceived as homologous to the transformations of the real phenomena. The structural model which results from this operation does not aim at the faithful description of a social reality nor does it constitute, as Ingold writes,‘an a priori mental template awaiting expression in overt social behaviour’; it is a heuristic device which provides the syntax of transformations allowing the analyst to move from one variant to another within a class of phenomena. Structural analysis in anthropology is nothing but that: it reveals and orders contrastive features so as to discover the necessary relations organising certain domains of social life. (5)


InBeyond Nature and Culture, the modes of identification–animism, totemism, naturalism and analogism–are anthropological models in that sense: within the group of transformation that their contrasts constitute, their aim is to illuminate the reasons why certain institutions, modes of relation, theories of the self, forms of collectives or regimes of temporality are compatible or not between themselves. To this purely heuristic dimension of the structural models, I have added a hypothetical proposition: that the modes of identification might also function as triggering devices for schematising experience and integrating practices and statements into coherent patterns among groups of people living together. The tendency to make ontological inferences of a certain kind would then become progressively dominant during the ontogeny in a social milieu. For I have made clear a number of times that any human, according to circumstances, can make inferences along the lines of a naturalist, an animist, an analogist or a totemist regime. What socialisation most likely does is to inhibit the production of non-standard inferences and foster the systematisation by each individual of a personal ontology which willgrosso modo coincide with that of her consociates. (5)


The combinatorial matrix ofBeyond Nature and Cultureis not a sterile intellectual exercise as Ingold seems to think. By adopting this device, I wanted above all to remain faithful to this basic principle of structural analysis which holds that each variant is a variant of the other variants and not of any of them in particular which would be privileged. For if I gave the structural models of the modes of identification a fundamental position, none of them (whether animism, naturalism, totemism or analogism) and none of the variants detectable in other systems which are as many transformations of the matrix–in the sociological, praxeological, epistemic, cosmological, spatiotemporal orfigurative orders–can claim to predominate over any of the other variants. This was a requirement which I had set upon myself from the start so as to produce a model of intelligibility of social and cultural facts that would remain as neutral as possible in relation to our own ontology, naturalism. (6)


Didier Fassin “Ethics of Survival”

August 25, 2016 1 comment

Fassin, Didier 2010. Ethics of Survival: A Democratic Approach to the Politics of Life. Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development 1(1): 81-95.


The distinction between man and animal has thus become a difference between physical or biological life, which man has in common with the rest of the animal kingdom, and social or political, life, which renders him unique. (81)


Derrida: ‘‘Long before the experience of survival that I am presently facing, I wrote that survival is an original concept which constitutes the very structure of what we call existence. We are, structurally speaking, survivors, marked by this structure of the trace, of the testament. That said, I would not endorse the view according to which survival is more on the side of death and the past than of life and the future. No, deconstruction is always on the side of the affirmation of life.’’ (81)


Derrida: ‘‘No, I never learned to live. Definitely not! Learning to live should mean learning to die. I never learned to accept death. I remain impervious to being educated in the wisdom of knowing how to die.’’ (82)


Derrida: ‘‘Everything I say about survival as a complication of the opposition between life and death proceeds from an unconditional affirmation of life. Survival is life beyond life, life more than life, and the discourse I undertake is not about death. On the contrary, it is the affirmation of a living being who prefers life and therefore survival to death, because survival is not simply what remains; it is the most intense life possible.’’ (82)


[…] these two readings present life as what can be put to death (for Agamben), and as what is comprised from birth to death (for Canguilhem). The social sciences have largely drawn from these two repertoires: the former has been used to comprehend the government of populations and human beings; the latter has nourished the sociology and anthropology of sciences and techniques. However different they may be, these two models rest on the same premises. Both treat life as a physical phenomenon, whether it is ‘‘bare life’’ or ‘‘biological life’’ (both philosophers insisting that it is the dimension shared with the entire animal kingdom). And both assume that life can be separated, for scientific or political reasons, from life as an existential phenomenon, whether it is called ‘‘qualified life’’ or ‘‘lived experience’’ […] (82)


It seems to me that Derrida’s reflection shatters this distinction: ‘‘survival’’ mixes inextricably physical life, threatened by his cancer, and existential experience, expressed in his work. To survive is to be still fully alive and to live beyond death. It is the ‘‘unconditional affirmation’’ of life and the pleasure of living, and it is the hope of ‘‘surviving’’ through the traces left for the living. (83)


I see it as an ethical gesture through which life is rehabilitated in its most obvious and most ordinary dimension—life which has death for horizon but which is not separated from life as a social form, inscribed in a history, a culture, an experience. (83)


[…] it is not life that interests Michel Foucault when he speaks of biopolitics, but ‘‘populations’’ considered as a modern invention. (88)

Tim Ingold “A Naturalist Abroad in the Museum of Ontology: Philippe Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture”

August 24, 2016 Leave a comment

Ingold, Tim 2016. A Naturalist Abroad in the Museum of Ontology: Philippe Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture. Anthropological Forum 0(0). DOI:10.1080/00664677.2015.1136591


Descola’s‘ontologies’ serve to bridge the otherwise yawning gap between a universally given world and its particular representations, rather than treating both what is given and what is known as the derivative offshoots of the being of a world. For the new ontologists, worlds simplyare, before any possibility of division between the given and the known can arise. But for Descola, this division is an a priori condition that creates the space of possibility for ontologies to mediate between them. (2)


So let me make my position plain. I am not a new ontologist, and I do not share their obsession with the multiplication of worlds. On the contrary, thatwe all inhabit one world is, for me, a core principle of the discipline of anthropology. All too often, it seems to me, this principle has been neglected, along with the challenges and responsibilities it entails, in favour of a facile appeal to plurality. Never one world; always many worlds. Once, these were the many worlds of symbolic culture; now, in the hands of the new ontologists, we have the many worlds of elemental being. (3)


Descola’s error, if we may call it that, is to posit, at the origin of human perception and action, ontological settlements that are never actually reached. […] If we must have a‘turn’, let it not be ontological but ontogenetic! Ontological multiplicity gives us many worlds, all but closed to one another. Ontogenetic multiplicity, by contrast, traces open-ended pathways of becoming within one world of nevertheless continuous variation. (3)


Cuvier had a legendary knack of being able to reconstruct the forms of extinct organisms, in their entirety, from mere fragments of their fossilised remains. This knack rested on his conviction that the organism, as a thing of parts, can be assembled into a functioning whole in only a limited number of ways. From one part, the palaeontologist can therefore hazard a reliable guess as to the others. Cuvier called this the principle of the ‘correlation of parts’. According to this principle, every species represents one of a finite set of possible combinations or permutations of organic components. Forms intermediate between combinations could not exist, for with their component parts out of joint, the wholes composed of them would not be viable. Thus there could be no variability among the individuals of a species, nor could any gradual change lead from one species form to another: there could be no evolution, in this sense. It follows that every species must have arisen abruptly and persisted unchanged until, equally abruptly, it went extinct. For Cuvier, each successive moment of extinction and genesis amounted to a ‘revolution’ that punctuated the long history of life on earth. (4)


And now, yet another century further on, we have Descola, veritably the Cuvier of social and cultural anthropology, arguing – just like Durkheim before him – that human beings can organise their relations with one another and with the world they inhabit, and render this world intelligible, in ways that, while remarkable in their diversity, are nevertheless limited by requirements of logical compatibility and operational consistency. (5)


For Cuvier, all living organisms were of four kinds: radiata, mollusca, articulata and vertebrata. For Descola, all schemes of human thought and practice–all ontologies, as he calls them–are of four kinds: animism, totemism, analogism and naturalism. (5)


Just as Cuvier’s project for a comparative palaeontology rested on a vertebrate paradigm of what it means to be an organism–to be self-supporting and capable of autonomous movement directed from a central nervous system–so Descola’s comparative anthropology is framed by a naturalistic paradigm of what an ontology is. It is, in his account, an implicit cognitive schema that enables an interior consciousness, divided from its exterior conditions of existence, to know and to practise in a world of others. (6)


As Lévi-Strauss famously put it,‘“social structure”has nothing to do with empirical reality but with models that are built up after it’ (1968, 279). The structure is a model, and as such, a summary description or formalisation, in our own minds (or, more likely, in the papers we write), of what we have observed. Yet no sooner does Lévi-Strauss admit to this than he turns the logic around. Observable social relations, he contends,‘render manifest the social structure itself’. The structure, it turns out, stands before empirical reality, not after it; it exists proactively in the minds of the people, not retroactively in ours, and orchestrates their activity from behind the scenes yet without their conscious knowledge. (8)


But the logic by which Descola produces the‘tacit’ is no less circular than that adduced by his predecessors. It, too, rests on the trick of inversion, of implanting into the minds of the people models that have, in truth, been built up after the fact through empirical observation and rational analysis. The products of this procedure are the varieties of animism, totemism and analogism. Naturalism, in short, is not so much a variety of tacit knowledge as a machine for producing it, for naturalising the ontological regimes of the Other – regimes that might otherwise challenge the monopoly of its own way of working. That is why, when Descola turns his sights on the regime of naturalism, its underlying principles turn out to bear such an uncanny resemblance to those that underwrite his own comparative inquiry. And it is also why, in a move strikingly at variance with his treatment of animism, totemism and analogism, he goes so far as to appeal to studies in the natural sciences, of biology and psychology, to verify these principles. There need be no shame–Descola seems to be saying–in framing his entire work in terms of naturalism, because at the end of the day, naturalism has got it right! By some miracle, it hasfinally arrived at a mode of apprehending things that corresponds to the way things really and trulyare. And how do we know how things really are? Because we have the sciences of the natural to tell us! (8)


In European languages it is common to use words such as ‘soul’ or‘mind’ (or their non-Anglophone equivalents) for thefirst, and ‘body’ for the second. But far from accusing those who would detect similar dualisms in other regions of the world of the ethnocentric projection of western values, we should realise–according to Descola–that the body/mind dichotomy is no more than a regional variant of a division that is to be found, in one form or another, among all the peoples of the world. What, then, is distinctive about this western variant? The answer we receive from Descola’s text (184) is surprising: it is unique, he avers, in attributing those powers of interiority we call‘mind’ exclusively to humans. Just why this answer is so surprising is a matter to which I shall return; suffice it to note that by this circumlocution, Descola contrives to hide the naturalism that frames his comparative project by narrowing the term to a specific claim to human exceptionality. It no longer appears naturalist to assert a distinction of some sort between physical processes and mental states: everyone does that, Descola assures us, for no other reason than that it is a matter of obvious common sense. Not everyone, however, reserves interiority for individuals of the speciesHomo sapiens, and here, the people whom Descola calls‘Moderns’ are alleged to be the exception (185). This, we are now told, is the defining feature of naturalism, and not the universal theme of interiority/physicality dualism on which it is a particular variation. (10)


However,‘physicality alone’ and‘interiority alone’ are not the only alternatives to dualism. Could we not work our way upstream, to a world in which interiority and physicality have yet to be prised apart? (10)


Selves are not; they become. This project is moreover carried on, not in isolation, but in the company of others and with their material assistance. It is, of course, a process of social life. We might say that in this process, social relations are enfolded in the structures of consciousness, and contrarily, that consciousness unfolds in social relations (Ingold 1986, 248). The boundaries of the self, such as they are, would then be emergentwithinthe process rather than constituted a priori. This‘within’, however, suggests another sense of interiority, and points indeed to a critical ambiguity in the meaning of the term. Interior is on the inside, but inside what? Do we mean inside the process of our social self-fashioning? Or do we mean inside the bounds of the selves so fashioned? (11)


We should not assume, however, that these descriptions are necessarily correct, and I, for one, would dispute them. My understanding is that among people credited by the literature with an ontology of animism, beings of every kind are seen to be ever-forming as concentrations of vital materials and energies that are, and must remain, perpetually in circulation. There is continuity here, in that everything that is–or rather that occurs–is immersed in the flow. There is interiority here as well, but this is the interiority of a consciousness that is immanent in the world itself, that participates directly in its relations and processes, and that knows by way of an enfoldment of these relations and processes into its own constitution. Let us call this the interiority of immanence. Quite contrary to the interiority of containment, which is consistently opposed to the physicality of the exterior world, the interiority or immanence runs seamlessly into physicality, like the singular surface of a Möbius strip, without any breach of continuity. Such interiority, indeed, can no more be distinguished from physicality than can the form of an eddy in the stream be set apart from its substance. It is the logic of naturalism, operating from behind the scenes in the production of anthropological accounts, that has contrived to wrap every being up in itself, thus converting the generative currents of its emergence into a vital agent, or‘soul’, that inhabits an interior divided off from the exterior world of its interactions with others. (11)


Naturalism, it seems, could be defined just as well by the combination of physical discontinuity and interior continuity as by its opposite. For in the same breath that it imagines human cultural diversity to be written on the tablet of universal nature, it also pictures biodiversity as reflected in the mirror of universal humanity. And if that is so for naturalism, then how can it any longer be distinguished from animism? (12)


The differences of animism, we could say, are like the growing shoots of a rhizome; those of naturalism have broken off from the current of life and lie strewn upon that plane of indifference we commonly recognise as‘nature’. The former are emergent and interstitial; the latter resultant and superficial. Whereas animism, then, gives us a world of becoming, naturalism gives a world of being. One is in the making, the other readymade. And what Descola presents to us, under the rubric of animism, is a world in which every becoming is always already being, every making ready-made. (13)

Henrik Hvenegaard Mikkelsen “Chaosmology. Shamanism and Personhood among the Bugkalot”

August 23, 2016 Leave a comment

Mikkelsen, Henrik Hvenegaard 2016. Chaosmology. Shamanism and Personhood among the Bugkalot. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6(1): 189-205.


Though the cosmology indeed appears radically fragmented and incoherent, this does not imply that the Bugkalot do not hold any cosmological theories. In fact, they willingly present an abundance of theories; only these theories change over time. I will refer to this as a particular form of shamanic engagement. Rather than stating that the theoretical practice of the Bugkalot is incoherent, I venture to suggest that their theories reflect a world that is itself subjected to perpetual change. In fact, whereas Willerslev argues that shamanism “is not about an abiding question of belief (or non-belief)” and is thereby “not metaphysically significant” (2013: 52), I will advance the argument that the exact opposite is the case for the Bugkalot: Shamanism operates explicitly with a metaphysical template that may be termed chaosmology. (191)


In this article, however, I do not intent to depict the “order of chaos.” Rather, I take my cue from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari who define chaos “by the infinite speed with which every form taking shape in it vanishes” (1994: 118). Thereby, chaos draws out “all possible forms, which spring up only to disappear immediately, without consistency or reference, without consequence” (118). What makes this approach to chaos particularly relevant in relation to Bugkalot cosmology is that it suggests an oppositional pair not between chaos and order but between chaos and stability. (191)


The homology between the person and cosmology at large can thereby be pictured through the image of stability, which is achieved by means of human engagements on various cosmic levels. While this stability stands out most clearly in the relation between the transmutability of the wilderness and the order of the village, chaos and stability are dynamics that operate across a swarm of areas within Bugkalot cosmology. Such chaos is epitomized by the image of the shape-shifting spirit, be’tang. The Bugkalot see spirits as infantile—and similarly the human child is seen as spiritlike. These analogies between spirits and children were made by my informants when referring to the seemingly nonsensical action of spirits and children alike. (192)


While aspects of humans are chaotic and though particular areas of the world are areas of chaos, the term “chaos” in this context does not imply a fundamental lack of order. Rather, certain domains of the cosmos are governed by forces that seem fundamentally unpredictable to humans. Thus, alteration, paradox, and inconsistency take up an important role within the Bugkalot cosmos. (193)


Terms reminiscent of ethereal, intangible states—for instance fog and smoke—permeated the various accounts provided by my informants when they discussed the dispositions of the young men in the village who tended to end up in drunken brawls. And while the hardening of the body is a positively valued process that happens throughout a man’s life (see also R. Rosaldo 1986: 314), the youth were still “soft,” that is, unstable and inconsistent. This softness and elusiveness was in fact also the key property of the spirit, the be’tang. (194)


The chaos in Bugkalot cosmology can thereby be traced beyond the spirit and the wilderness where the spirits are said to dwell. The wilderness, gongot, is also an aspect of the person. It is out of this state of unstable translucence that the adult male evolves. (195)


As transformative beings through and through, the spirits always, ultimately, revealed their nature as shape-shifters. In fact, this was so predictable and anticipated that shape-shifting in relation to spirits assumed a form of disordered order, a bridge between order and chaos. My informants frequently stressed this character of the spirit both to me and when talking among themselves. For instance, during a conversation with my host, Wagsal, about whether I should escort a shaman to look up a particular spirit in the forest, he warned me: “The only thing you can be sure of is that the be’tangis never what it seems to be. You think it will do you good but you do not see its true nature.” Through such statements it was made clear that the shape-shifting unpredictability of spirits made them “others” (Descola 1992: 111), that is, agencies fundamentally different from men. (197)


While the term gongotunder most circumstances refers to a treacherous and unpredictable part of the wilderness, it may also signify, more broadly, a certain chaotic disposition. Though this disposition is epitomized by the be’tangwho live in the forest, gongot is also an aspect of magic, called ayog, which one can access through the help of spirits. The men who make use of ayogand who have a direct shamanic engagement with spirits are known under the title ayog’en. What sets an ayog’en apart from ordinary men is not that the ayog’enhas insights into some corpus of esoteric knowledge; nor does he harness some unique capacity that enables him to maintain a contact to spirits. Since it is believed that many people—men and women—can easily get access to spirits, the ayog’en differentiates himself from such people by admitting that he is in contact with spirits and by openly making use of magic. For this reason, an ayog’enis marked as qualitatively different from other people. In other words, gongot is a perpetual presence in the life of an ayog’en, an “embodied otherness” (Csordas in Elisha 2008), which makes the ayog’en an agent of unknown potentialities. My informants seemed apprehensive around them, and rather than being part of a religious elite with special privileges the ayog’en were largely considered marginal characters in the Bugkalot communities. (198)


Throughout my fieldwork I looked up Tó-paw and the other two ayog’en in the area in order to learn about the “Bugkalot cosmology”: ancient myths, traditional beliefs, et cetera. The conversations often left me dispirited. Assuming that one had provided me with a reliable depiction of how the Bugkalot cosmology was constituted—how the worlds of spirits and human intersected—I was repeatedly presented with radically different and contradicting notions by the others. Furthermore, when returning to one of the men to discuss the views presented to me by other ayog’en, he would be entirely willing to change his initial account: questions such as where the spirits lived, how you communicated with spirits, how you protected yourself from them, how you became an ayog’en, whether a woman could become an ayog’en, et cetera, were answered in a multitude of ways—and each time with an adamant sincerity. This, however, was a part of Bugkalot storytelling that they shared with the rest of my informants. As I will unfold in the second half of this article, talking about spirits—and the cosmos at large—is a way that establishes a momentary stability within a domain of the world that is otherwise marked by flux, by placing chaos within a narrative frame. (199)


Such stories are based on the form of knowledge called peneewa, which is knowledge unambiguously anchored in personal experience. Under normal circumstances this is regarded as the most reliable forms of knowledge (cf. Wagner 2012: 57). That is, a story achieved a higher degree of truthfulness over time if a person had “seen it with his own eyes” (R. Rosaldo 1980: 38). Yet, when this form of knowledge was obtained in relation to gongot—that is, if it involved certain areas of the wilderness or included encounters with spirits—the truthfulness assumed a paradoxical temporary character. (201)


The stories, when listened to successively, conjured up images of a forest inhabited by potentially harmful spirit-creatures that constantly change their outward form. And rather than respecting the confinements of the person, the spirits trespass all boundaries by penetrating into the very minds of people, for instance in dreams. This radical unpredictability and enigmatic behavior is what, ultimately, sets the be’tangapart from humans. For instance, the men often indicated during the stories that they could not see what took place in the spirit’s mind (nem-nem). Never revealing their true motives, the spirits are seen as creatures of “false behavior” (nagiat non be-tág). (201)


Through storytelling, Bugkalot men seek to momentarily establish an order of their own within chaos. The association between stabilizing—or “fixing” (in the sense of holding something steady)—and the “cut” appears in the writings of Marilyn Strathern (1996: 522) as she proposes that fixing could be imagined as “stopping a flow” by “cutting into an expanse.” In the Bugkalot context this “expanse” is the cosmos itself. The cut is thereby a “totalizing act” (Rio 2005: 411), that is, an instance whereby form is applied to chaos. (201)


[…] while cosmological order is eternal (and thereby atemporal), cosmogonies are contingent and processual. In the Bugkalot case, we find a conflation of the two, that is, a “chaosmology.” In order to understand how, for instance, children and spirits are cosmologically classified we must imagine a contingent form that is closely tied to the topographic landscape and, temporally, to the maturation of the person. (202)

Byron Ellsworth Hamann “How to Chronologize with a Hammer”

August 19, 2016 Leave a comment

Hamann, Byron Ellsworth 2016. How to Chronologize with a Hammer, Or, The Myth of Homogeneous, Empty Time. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6(1): 261-292.


Trouillot argues that “modernity implies first and foremost a fundamental shift in regimes of historicity, most notably the perception of a past radically different from the present and the perception of a future that becomes both attainable (because secular) and yet indefinitely postponed (because removed from eschatology)” (2003: 38). (264)


However, as Sanjay Subrahmanyam points out more recently, early modern millennial expectations were not unique to the West. They were shared across Eurasia, and can be used as a framework to write “connected histories” of the world from Iberia to India (Subrahmanyam 1997). And beyond. Apocalyptic models of time were also present in the indigenous Americas, where pre-Hispanic ideas about cataclysmic transformation were used to understand the arrival of the Europeans. (265)


Throughout pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, indigenous people conceived of universal history as a series of creations. Each creation was illuminated by its own distinctive sun (Hamann 2002). However, these previous ages of creation were imperfect, and so were destroyed by the gods in world-cleansing cataclysms. Over and over again, on the ruins of old orders, the gods attempted to build a perfect cosmos, finally arriving at the world of the “present.” By depicting a gilded sun rising into the sky in this particular scene, Tlaxcalan artists were suggesting that the promise of Cortés, and the coming of the Europeans, represented the dawning of a new age of creation, one that destroyed imperfect pre-Hispanic social orders and replaced them with a better world (Hamann 2013). In sum, the cultural construction of chronology as eschatology was a global phenomenon in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, not simply a Western one. (265)


Human history since the expulsion from Paradise was therefore a history of degeneration and corruption. As a result, early modern Catholic theories of social transformation were typically premised noton imaginative, progressive schemes for undreamed-of future orders, but on a retrogressive desire to restoresocial models that had (supposedly) once existed in the past, at Creation. (267)


Reduction was an all-encompassing model for early modern change, and reductive strategies were applied to a wide variety of practices in the Old World and the New. Alchemical and metallurgical treatises described the reduction of minerals: methods for restoring them to elemental purity (Biringuccio [1540] 1943: 135; Newman 2006: xiii). Mid-sixteenth-century letters from Spanish spies in England dreamed of the “reduction of England”—that is, the return of Protestant England to the Catholic fold (Froude 1870: 225). Grammars of languages (both European and Native American) “reduced” those languages “to order”—that is, purified them of the corruptions and irregularities that had crept in over the centuries, supposedly restoring them to the relative perfection they possessed when first created after the fall of the tower of Babel. (268)


Perhaps the most famous application of reductive theory in the sixteenth century was the resettlement of indigenous communities in the Americas (Mumford 2012). These resettlements were called reducciones(‘reductions’ in Spanish) because the city, as an ideal type of spatial order, was thought to have been established by God at Creation. Reducing the spaces in which Native Americans lived was a manner of restoring to them an ancient and ideal form intrinsic to human nature. (268)


The reduction of the calendar is a perfect illustration of reductive temporality: the claim that innovation was restoration. At the time of its first creation, the Julian calendar was synchronized with the movements of the sun and moon. Over the centuries, however, this human creation had become corrupted, disjointed from the cycles of natural world. The remedy was a reduction of the calendar—which of course was not really a restorationof the Julian calendar, but rather the promulgation of a new calendar, the Gregorian. (270)


The Catholic reduction of the Julian calendar was, in many places, rejected. As a result, for almost two hundred years the calendrical history of Europe—and its overseas possessions—was fundamentally asynchronous. It was neither homogeneous, nor empty. But this violent European history is, oddly, not really addressed by either Fabian or Trouillot. Fabian, as we saw above, suggests that “universal Time was probably established concretely and politically in the Renaissance.” In contrast, I would say that it was established concretely, in the Gregorian reform project, but hardly politically—indeed, the politics of religion preventeduniversal time from being implemented throughout the balkanized West. (271)


The same Act also (finally) implemented the reduced Gregorian calendar throughout the British Empire, so that the day following September 2, 1752 would not be September 3, but September 14: „The natural day next immediately following the said second day of September shall be called, reckoned, and accounted to be the fourteenth day of September, omitting for that time only the eleven intermediate nominal days of the common calendar; and that the several natural days which shall follow and succeed next after the said fourteenth day of September shall be respectively called, reckoned, and numbered forwards in numerical order from the said fourteenth day of September, according to the order and succession of days now used in the present calendar.“ (273)


Although the working-class “Calendar Riots” of 1752 are a myth invented in the nineteenth century (Poole 1995), this calendric reform was used in Oxfordshire  as political ammunition against its supporters. Propagandistic songs joined antiCatholicism to anti-Semitism in their attacks: clearly, the papal origins of the reformed calendar had not been forgotten. (273)


In other words, it took nearly two hundred years for a Protestant-majority England—and its dominions throughout the world—to accept a papally approved reduction of the calendar. Returning to Fabian and Trouillot, this means that (in European intellectual history) the desacralization of an eschatological model of sacred time from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries took place in paradoxical tandemwith passionate debates over the religious implications of an astronomically correct, yet papally approved, project of calendrical correction. And even in its “Enlightened” Protestant-English-eighteenth-century manifestation, a central concern of calendar reform was timing the feast of Christ’s Resurrection. To speak of this as temporal desacralization seems incorrect. It was instead another conjugation of the sacred. (275)


It was not until Encyclopaedia Britannica’s 1964 printing that the Christian identity of the Gregorian calendar was finally ignored, replaced by a global vision. The entry for Calendarbegins: “a word derived from the Latin kalendae (calends), literally, the day on which the accounts are due. It now refers to an accounting, usually for civil purposes, of days and other divisions of time. The calendar now used for civil purposes throughout the world is called the Gregorian calendar, after Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it in the 16th century” (Encyclopaedia Britannica1964: 4: 611). Thus the Christianis replaced by the civil, throughout the world—and, suggestively, the 1964 printing is also the first to report the myth of Britain’s Calendar Riots as fact […] (276)


In other words, it was not until the final third of the twentieth century that the Gregorian calendar was secularized, and made global, in the pages of Encylopaedia Britannica. It is perhaps no accident that this coincided with a moment of world decolonization—or that Britannica’s initial 1842 claims about the Gregorian calendar’s ecumenical “Christian” identity appeared near the start of the second age of European imperialism, in which Christian missionizations of all kinds were often handmaidens to colonization (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991; Stocking 1991). None of which means that relations between sacred and temporal imaginations did not change across the centuries from 1500 to 1900: clearly they did (Burke 1966: 77–104; Fasolt 2004; Nagel and Wood 2010). Rather, my point is that temporal secularization, like the concept of the secular itself, is much stranger and less linear in its genealogies than Occidentalist common sense would assume (Asad 2003; Casanova 2006, 2011). (276)


Four decades after England and its overseas possessions finally synchronized their calendars with the rest of Euroamerica—but not before that synchronization was imagined as free from religious connotations—the French Revolution attempted to establish a new system of timekeeping entirely stripped of Christian influence: twelve months of three ten-day weeks, each day decimally divided into smaller and smaller units of time; an extra five-day period at the end of the year; Day 1 beginning on the fall equinox (Andrews 1931; Zerubavel 1977). This calendar barely survived a decade (1793–1805), with a brief revival by the Paris Commune in 1871. (277)


Awareness that the Western Christian calendar is only one of many coexisting chronological systems is hardly limited to the connected histories of early modernity. It is manifested in many parts of our world today. On the front pages of newspapers, for example. I’m writing this on the fall equinox: the Gregorian date of Wednesday, September 23, 2015. But if we look at today’s issue of Iran’s Kayhan(Figure 6), we see that it offers readers three different dating systems, printed one after the other at the right-hand side of the blue band running across the upper page. First is Cahâršanbe 1 Mehr 1394, a date in the Solar Hijrī calendar used in Iran and Afghanistan. Then is 9 Dhu al-Hijjah 1436, a date in the Islamic Hijrī calendar used throughout the Muslim world. Finally, as a third option, is the Gregorian September 23, 2015—written in Farsi. (280)


And lest these examples make it seem like only in “non-Western” nation-states is the supremacy of Gregorian hegemony challenged, consider the World Journal, a Chinese-language newspaper printed in a number of cities in Canada and the United States, including Chicago (Figure 8). A red box near the top of the page juxtaposes no less than four calendrical systems. The list begins, in the first line of text, with the 104th year of the Mínguó or Chinese Republican Calendar, counted from 1912 (the year the Chinese Republic was founded, a system still used in Taiwan—mainland China stopped using this calendar in 1949). This date is followed, as we also saw on the Liberty Times, with a mixed Chinese script and Arabic numerals presentation of the Gregorian year, month, day, and day of the week: 2015 年9月23日 星期三. The same reckoning is repeated in English in the second line (using the Latin alphabet and Arabic numerals): WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 2015. Finally, again like the Liberty Times, the third line presents time according to the Chinese lunisolar calendar (農曆): the Year of the Sheep (乙未年), the eighth month (八月), the eleventh day (十一日). (283)

Nikolas Rose “Reading the Human Brain”

August 2, 2016 Leave a comment

Rose, Nikolas 2016. Reading the Human Brain: How the Mind Became Legible. Body & Society 22(2): 140-177. DOI: 10.1177/1357034X15623363


[…] despite the many unresolved quandaries that haunt those debates, and the many criticisms that can be, and have been, levelled against them, this new ‘materialist’ ontology of thought is taking shape, not through a philosophical resolution of the age-old dilemmas, but through developments in technology. Notwithstanding the explanatory gap – the daunting gulf that exists between a knowledge of molecular events in the neurons of the brain and an explanation of how the mental events that are ‘subserved’ arise – and despite all the critiques – these technologies embody and enact the premise that the brain is the place where mental events are located and that there must, therefore, be material traces of such mental events in the brain itself. And if those traces exist, it must be possible – both in principle and now it seems in practice – to make them legible. (144)


[…] as proposed by Franz Joseph Gall, it [phrenology] entailed two theses with lasting impact on the sciences of mind and brain (Gall, 1810). First, that the brain was the seat of the mind. Second, that the brain was organized in such a way that different mental functions were located in specific areas. (144)


It appears that this is how the infamous Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature (BEOS) test is being used in India. There was much publicity when the BEOS test – a ‘guilty knowledge’ test developed by an Indian neuroscientist Champadi Raman Mukundan, which operates on the same principle as Farwell’s P300 method – was used in 2008 to convict Aditi Sharma for murder – giving her husband sweets laced with poison–on the basis of her ‘neuro-experiential knowledge’: it was claimed that characteristic brain patterns showing such knowledge were elicited during an

EEG examination when she heard statements concerning the act of poisoning. It was not her words that were used to convict her – she remained silent – but the evidence of the brain itself. (150)


There was rather less publicity when she was released on bail pending appeal, after the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) declared that brain scan evidence did not meet appropriate criteria of scientificity and could not be used in court. In 2010, in a ruling also considering the admissibility of evidence from the polygraph and from narcolepsy, the Indian Supreme Court ruled – largely on the grounds of the rights not to selfincriminate – that no individual can be forcibly compelled to take a lie detector test, whether a traditional polygraph or a neural lie detector – and that evidence from such tests was inadmissible in Indian courts. But according to Angela Saini, the BEOS test is still widely used in India, not in the courtroom but in the investigative process, where it has apparently induced numerous suspects to make confessions. (150)


The thesis that is beginning to acquire plausibility is that while deceitful words are cheap and easy, and bodies can be trained to deceive, the brain cannot lie. But from the lab to the real world is a rather longer and more difficult journey than the inventors suggest – for in the real world, innocent individuals being tested are awash with confusing and competing affects, the potentially guilty are alert to the need for countermeasures, and, at least as far as the law is concerned, each defendant must be judged as an individual rather than on the basis of probabilities (although this last proviso does not apply to those detained at borders on the basis of algorithms of riskiness). And what is a lie? For if a mistaken belief, genuinely held, is a lie, who among us is not a liar? We should not be surprised to find an emergent neuroethical discourse on the nature and limits of neural privacy (Farah et al., 2014; Langleben and Moriarty, 2013; Wolpe et al., 2005). (151)


For while both body and brain may rendered ‘readable’, in the materialist ontology of the person that is taking shape, the brain has the advantage over the body in being both a potentially legible surface of thoughts and intentions, and the potentially modulatable locus of those thoughts and intentions. In that respect, at least for those whose objective is control – whether that be for  security or therapy – legibility in itself is only a first step: reading out the messages from the brain leads to the hope that one might read back messages into the brain to modulate those thoughts and intentions themselves. (157)

Muhammad Ali Nasir “Biopolitics, Thanatopolitics and the Right to Life”

August 1, 2016 Leave a comment

Nasir, Muhammad Ali 2016. Biopolitics, Thanatopolitics and the Right to Life. Theory, Culture & Society 0(0): 1-21. DOI: 10.1177/0263276416657881


  1. Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law.
  2. Deprivation of life shall not be regarded as inflicted in contravention of this Article when it results from the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary:
  3. in defense of any person from unlawful violence;
  4. in order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained;
  5. in action lawfully taken for the purpose of quelling a riot or insurrection. (Article 2: Right to Life) (3)


[…] 1) Article 2 orients governmental techniques to lives in order to ensure that both deprivation and protection of lives is lawful; 2) A proper application of Article 2 grounds itself on a proper discrimination of lives. This causes Article 2 to be applied universally but not uniformly to all juridical subjects. (3)


In order to impose positive and negative obligations on the state authorities, Article 2 cannot be but governmental. It is by drawing on a diversity of strategies (arms and aims, rescue operations, planning and control), personnel (soldiers, special squads, doctors) and institutions (crisis cells, health committees, hospitals) that the right to life shapes the way they have to operate. Thus, legal rules have to insert themselves into these governmental practices, even if they maintain a certain distinctiveness. It is because of this functionality that the right to life both requires such investments of power to become concrete and goes on to constrict their operation as they come under its purview. It is on the basis of this twofold force that it can be legally determined whether Article 2 has been complied with or not. It also means that the legal decision bases itself on certain truth mechanisms involving knowledge (medical discourse, statistics, psychology), techniques (autopsy, cross-examinations, documentations, photos and videos, testimonies), and expertise (expert reports, fact finding missions, investigations bodies). These are then measured in view of the objectives (minimum human loss, effective action, upholding law and territorial integrity). It is correct to say that the right to life connects life to law both for its protection and exceptions. It would nevertheless be hasty to say that the deprivation, or even protection, of a life is solely a legal question. This is because legal regulation of lives remains connected with specific processes of knowledge and governmental techniques, and the role of legal rules is to ensure a proper management of lives through its force of legitimate violence. (7)


This section argues that: 1) The jurisprudence of Article 2 is theoretically appreciable only in a ‘politics of life’, as this legal right orients governmental techniques to lives. 2) The focus of such a politics is not simply protection and deprivation but more importantly optimization. (10)


The applicant argued that her circumstances and the possible difficulties she would have to face in future necessitated that she approach the question of her life autonomously (Pretty, para. 8). Further, in the calculus of pain where her ‘life expectancy was poor’ vis-a`-vis the ‘undignified’ final stages of disease, a question of Article 3 prohibiting inhuman and degrading suffering also arose (Pretty, para. 8, para. 44–46). Reading the text of Article 2, she also argued that it protects the right to life and not ‘life’ per se, which meant that Article 2 did not protect a life from the threats that may come from that life itself (Pretty, para. 35). (11)


In those countries where euthanasia is permitted, the governmental problematic is to supervise closely the medical and hospital practices, determine the form of legally acceptable consents to terminate lives, identify the possible stakeholders that are to be engaged with in the end-of-life decisions, redraw criminal codes, preempt and account for potential negligence and malpractice, identify in what manner clinicians are to give larger doses to the patients, ensuring slower and painless transition towards death, and draw out the list of diseases where euthanasia is  permissible, among others. In those countries where euthanasia is not permitted, the governmental problematic is to provide psychological care and therapy to incurable patients, determine the way their expenses are to be allotted to hospitals, prevent criminal ‘private’ practices to the contrary, arrange for the methods falling in line with honourable deaths, and insert the prolonged sustenance of lives and their traumatic ends as categories into the health insurance framework, among others. In both cases, Article 2 regulates the situations in such a way that its legal dictates are not violated. (12)


Then, the room to wage lawful violence is not only reserved for specific historically established nation-states that are politically recognized, but for those political bodies that bear certain administrative structures, the focus of which is on both protection and optimization of life. And it is only because of this capacity in which those states can be held accountable both for inaction (positive obligations) and action (negative obligations) that they are given a margin of discretion in the implementation of human rights, and may be offered a margin of error in certain cases where they legitimately lag lest they be overburdened (Osman, para. 116). (13)


Logically, it is not the meaning of lives that is legal per se (Esposito, 2008: 28); it is their regulation, tied as it is to legal concepts and rules. It means that the governmental practices surrounding different lives operate differently depending on their specific subject positions, such as, for example, incarcerated convict or soldier, war prisoner or on-the-ground combatant, the mentally unstable or terminally ill. Similarly, once legal rules constrain regulatory frameworks in line with their standards, those regulatory frameworks are backed with a threat of legitimate violence. (14)


Importantly, it entails that subjects are neither simply constituted by law (since power is not simply localized as law) nor solely governed by it (since power is diffused). This fact – that law is connected with differential governmental practices which articulate it – makes any ontological interpretation as to the nature of law untenable. (15)


[…] human rights function by requiring from a politico-legal guarantor that it protect humans by putting in place appropriate regulatory frameworks. The concept of biopolitical governmentality thus focuses on the way normative claims of rights function, that is, the way they remain sensitive to the differential meanings accorded to lives and the construction of practices around those lives that consequently makes rights effective. (17)