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Perspectivism: A Type or a Bomb?

Bruno Latour, Sciences Po


Column for Anthropology Today
(English uncorrected)
Paris as the Americans dream of it
Who said there was no longer any intellectual life in Paris? Who said
anthropology was no longer lively and attractive? Here we are, this cold
morning of January, in a room packed with people from various disciplines
and several countries eager to hear a debate between two of the best and
brightest anthropologists. The rumor had circulated through chat rooms
and cafs: after years of alluding in private or in print to their
disagreements, they had accepted to air it publically at last. It will be
tough, I had been told, there will be blood. In fact, the tiny room of the
rue Suger, rather than the cock fight some had anticipated, witnessed a
disputatio, much like those that must have been held in this heart of the
Latin Quarter by earnest scholars for more than eight centuries.
Although the two had known each other for twenty-five years, they
had decided to begin their disputatio by reminding the audience of how
much the work of the other had had an impact on their own discoveries.
Philippe Descola acknowledged first how much he had learned from
Eduardo Viveiros de Castro when he was trying to extirpate himself from
the nature versus culture predicament by reinventing the then outdated
notion of animism. Viveiros had proposed to call perspectivism a mode
of relation between human and non-humans that could not possibly hold
inside the narrow strictures of nature versus culture, since for the Indians
he was studying, human culture is the common feature of every being
animals and plants included- whereas they are divided by their different

natures, that is, their body.1


This is why, to use a well known simile, while the theologians in
Valladolid where debating to decide whether or not Indians had a soul, the
same Indians, on the other side of the Atlantic, were experimenting on the
same conquistadores by drowning them in water to see whether they
would rot ! a nice tell tale that they had indeed a body; that they had a
soul was not in question for them. A famous episode in symmetric
anthropology which had made Lvi-Strauss note, somewhat tongue in
cheek, that the Spaniards might have been good in the social sciences but
that the Indians had been carrying out their research according to the
protocol of the natural ones
Descolas fourfold
Descola began to explain how this definition could then be used to
contrast naturalism the view most often taken to be the default
position of Western thought- from animism. While naturalists believe
all entities are similar by their physical traits and different by their mental
or spiritual ones, it is just the opposite with animism since every entity
is similar by its spiritual features and differ radically by the sort of body it
is endowed with. This was for him the breakthrough since now the nature
versus cultures divide was no longer the incontrovertible background used
by the profession at large, but only one of the ways that naturalists had
to establish their relations with other entities. From a resource, nature
had become a topic. A discovery that was not lost, needless to say, on
those of us, in the neighboring field of science studies, who were studying
historically or sociologically how those same so-called naturalists
managed their relations with non humans.
It was then possible for Descola, as he explained, to add to this pair
of contrasting rapports another pair in which the relations between
Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. From the Enemy's Point of View. Humanity
and Divinity in an Amazonian Society. The University of Chicago Press,
Chicago, 1992.
1

humans and non humans was, this time, either similar for both (what he
called totemism) or different for both (and he called it analogism). He
too, like Heidegger, had his fourfold! Instead of covering the globe with
only one mode of relations between human and non-humans which could
then be used as a background to detect the cultural variations among
many people, it is this background itself that had become the object of
careful inquiries. People differ not only in their cultures but in their nature
as well or rather in their relations between humans and non-humans.
What neither modernists nor postmodernists had managed to do, Descola
was able to get: a globe freed from the spurious unification of a naturalist
mode of thought.
Gone was the imperialist universality of the naturalists, but a new
universality was still possible, one that allowed careful structural relations
to be established between the four ways to build collectives. His big
project was then to reinvent for anthropology a new form of universality,
but this time relative or better relativist universality the one that he
had developed in his book Par del nature et culture.2 For him, Viveiros
was more intent in exploring always more deeply only one of the local
contrasts that he, Descola, had tried to contrast with several others in
throwing his net more widely.
Two perspectives on perspectivism
Although they have been friends for a quarter of a century, no two
personalities could be more different. After the velvet undertone of
Descolas presentation, Viveiros spoke in brief aphoristic forays waging a
sort of Blitzkrieg on all fronts in order to demonstrate that he too wanted
to reach for a new form of universality but one even more radical.
Perspectivism in his view, should not remain a type inside Descolas
typology but a bomb to explode the whole implicit philosophy so rampant
in most ethnographers interpretations of their material. If there is one
2

Descola, Philippe. Par Del Nature Et Culture. Gallimard, Paris, 2005.

thing totally anti-perpectivist, it is the very notion of a type in a category,


an idea that can only come to those he calls, with some perfidy,
Republican anthropologists.
As he explained, perspectivism has become somewhat of a fashion in
Amazonian circles but this fashion is hiding a much more troublesome
concept, that of multinaturalism. Whereas hard and soft scientists alike
agree in the idea that there is only one nature but many cultures, Viveiros
wants to push Amazonian thought (and it is not as he insists a pense
sauvage as Lvi-Strauss implied but a fully domesticated and highly
elaborated philosophy) to try to see how the whole word would look like if
all its inhabitants had the same culture but many different natures. The
last thing he wants is to have the Amerindian war machine against
Western philosophy becoming one more curio inside the vast cabinet of
curiosities that he accuses Descola of wanting to build. Descola who is,
after all, Viveiros said, an analogist, that is, someone who is obsessed
by the careful and almost maniac accumulation and classification of small
differences to retain a sense of cosmic order against the constant invasion
of threatening differences.
Note the irony here and the tension and attention increased at this
point in the room: Viveiros was not accusing Descola to be a structuralist
(a critique his marvelous book has often met) since structuralism in LviStrauss version is to be taken, on the contrary, as an Amerindian
existentialism or rather the structural transformation of Amerindian
thought !as if Lvi-Strauss had been the dragoman or better the
shaman that had allowed Indian perspectivism to be transported into
Western thought to destroy it, so to speak, from the inside through a sort
of reverse cannibalism. Lvi-Strauss, far from being the cold rationalist
file-maker of discrete contrasted myths, has learned to dream and drift
like the Indians, except that he dreams and drifts through the medium of
card files and well written paragraphs. No! What Viveiros criticizes is that
Descola runs the risk to render the passage from one type of thought to

another too easy as if the bomb he, Viveiros, had wanted to place under
Western philosophy had been defused. If we allow to hook up our thought
on Amerindian alternative logic, it is the whole idea of Kantian ideals, so
pervasive in social science, that has to go.
To which Descola replied that he was not particularly interested in
Western thought but in others thought to which Viveiros replied that it
was his way of being interested that was the problem
Decolonizing thought
What is clear is that nothing is left of the notion of nature as the
overall umbrella that would cover the globe and to which anthropologists
would have the rather sad and limited duty to add whatever is left of
differences under the tired old notion of culture. Imagine what the
debates would look like between physical and cultural anthropologists
once the notion of multinaturalism is taken into account. Descola, after all,
holds the first chair of anthropology of nature at the prestigious Collge
de France, and I have always wondered how his colleagues in the natural
sciences accept to teach their own course near what for them should be a
potent source of radio-active material. Viveiross worry that his bomb has
been defused may be off the mark: a new bright period of prosperity
opens for (ex-physical and ex-cultural) anthropology now that nature has
shifted from a resource to a highly contested topic. Just at the time, by
chance, when ecological crisis, reopen the debate that naturalism had
tried to prematurely close !a topic of great political concern for Viveiros
in Brazil.
But what is even more rewarding to see in such a disputatio, is how
much we have moved from the modernist and then postmodernist
predicament. Of course, the search for a common world is immensely
more complex now that so many radically different modes of inhabiting
the Earth have been freed to deploy themselves. But, on the other hand,
the task of composing a world that is not yet common, is clearly opened

to anthropologists, a task that is as big, as earnest, and as rewarding as


anything they had to tackle in the past. As Viveiros answered to a
question from the audience in a somewhat Trotskist idiom: Anthropology
is the theory and practice of permanent decolonization. When he added
that Anthropology today is largely decolonized, but its theory is not yet
decolonizing enough, some of us in the room had the feeling that, if this
debate on January the 30th in Paris is any indication, we might finally be
getting there.