Life on here has been pretty slow lately. This is because, for the past month or so, I’ve been preparing for my first area exam. Last week, I took it and submitted on Friday. Now I’m just waiting for the grade and prepping for the beginning of the semester, so I have a little space to get caught up on some blog posts that I’ve been meaning to write. As I was writing the exam, I had something of an inspiration. In some ways it’s not much different from what I’ve been saying for a while now, but when I wrote it out it was a bit of a shock – a new set of implications for an old way of thinking. This post will be an attempt to articulate those implications.
I’ve written a lot about the concept of culture in the past: what is culture, how is it composed, and how do we study it as anthropologists? What I realized recently is that, if we want to overcome the Nature/Culture dichotomy, then we have to take seriously the idea that there are, in fact, multiple natures. There’s nothing new here – it’s essentially what Latour, Law, Haraway, Stengers, and other post-constructivist have been arguing for a long time. If there is only one nature or reality, then there would be, under a condition where the Nature/Culture dichotomy has dissolved, no way to account for difference except by a reintroduction of the dichotomy. Furthermore, Western Science would have privileged access to such a nature or reality because of its ability to separate itself from “subjective” or “cultural” factors. The only other way out of this is to say that existence is a projection of human social factors, and that there is no “reality” or that, at least, we do not have access to it. Thus, the process of reconciling different “visions” of reality would be a purely epistemological process of reconciling different belief systems – e.g. reconciling a belief in God with a belief in Science. On the other hand, if we want to preserve our realism – a reference to reality outside of the purely human – which is, in my opinion a worthwhile effort for a number of reasons, then we have to accept the possibility that there are multiple natures or realities that overlap and intersect in complex ways. In other words, reality is not singular or stable, and new realities are created all the time through the practices of the beings (human, non-human, living, non-living, material, and semiotic) who compose them. Realities are different ontological articulations of beings – different ways of putting things together – and beings are always putting themselves together in different ways all the time. For example, John Law demonstrates multiple overlapping and intersecting realities for things like cirrhosis of the liver, cattle farming, fish farming, and several other practices.
What does this mean for culture, then? If we break down the Nature/Culture dichotomy, and recognize that there are many natures rather than just one, then this means that “nature” and “culture” become, in some sense, synonymous. Around the world we see not only many different cultures that interact with a singular, stable Nature, but many different cultures which are also many different natures. The Tsembaga Maring of Papua New Guinea have articulated a relationship with other beings – pigs, ancestor spirits, yams, other peoples, etc. – to create a particular kind of nature, which Rappaport describes in his book Pigs for the Ancestors. Similarly, Western Science has articulated a different kind of relationship with other beings – germs, labs, legal and political institutions, etc. – that creates a different kind of nature from that of the Maring (it’s important to point out, perhaps, that natures can fail – that the particular articulations of a nature or reality can be poorly constructed, to borrow Latour’s phrase, and thus fall apart or transform into a different articulation at any given time). The process of integrating different realities, then, becomes not just an epistemological process of reconciling different belief systems, but an ontological process of rearticulating two or more different realities to create one or more hybrid realities. It’s not just about reconciling a belief in God with a belief in Science, nor is it about accepting Science and “tolerating” others (as Stengers points out), it’s a process of assembling the two realities into a new hybrid reality in which both can coexist. This process, I would argue, is a long and difficult one involving a negotiation between the beings of the old realities to find a place within the associations that compose the new hybrid(s). Unfortunately, this process is too often closed off prematurely by one or the other – in this example it could be either, but in the case of traditional natures versus scientific nature, it’s usually the latter that does the closing off – such that the new articulation doesn’t form a hybrid, and many of the beings are left struggling to find a place in a system that has been closed off.
Where does this put anthropology? Anthropologists have specialized in the study of different cultures – and now we can recognize that they were always also studying different natures. Furthermore, in order to effectively study those other cultures, they had to be able to bring themselves into relation with them on a relatively equal basis. Thus we have the methods of participant observation, cultural relativism, and extreme reflexivity. Anthropologists believed they were developing these methods in order to get a better image of the cultures they were studying – a worthwhile goal in itself, but there was always more to it than that. John Law shows us that methods are not simply tools for understanding reality, rather they are practices that themselves create new realities by articulating beings in new ways. If that’s the case, then it becomes apparent that the methods of anthropology have always been practices of creating hybrid realities between that of the (usually Western) anthropologist and those of the cultures s/he studied. Without realizing it, anthropologists have been developing methods to create hybrid realities all along, and we’ve been practicing this hybrid reality creation for over a century – sometimes with bad results, sometimes with good results. In a world where different realities are increasingly coming into contact with one another and being forced to articulate – often with negotiations being closed down prematurely – the methods could prove very valuable. The trick will be generalizing the methods to work for larger groups – more than just one or a handful of anthropologists interacting with a small tribe or village. I see some possibilities in the work of Whatmore, Callon, and others – people who have been working to create spaces where different realities can negotiate openly and evenly in order to produce a hybrid. However, a great deal of work still needs to be done.