Do Animists become Naturalists when Converting to Christianity? Discussing an Ontological Turn (CUSAS seminar)

In the first CUSAS seminar this term, on Thursday 23rd January, Dr. Aparecida Vilaça presented her paper titled ‘Do Animists become Naturalists when Converting to Christianity? Discussing an Ontological Turn’.Aparecida Vilaça is currently Associate Professor in the Postgraduate Program in Social Anthropology, Museu Nacional/Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, and a researcher for the National Science Research Council (CNPq). Since 1986 she has worked among the Wari’ Indians of Southwestern Amazonia, Brazil. Fieldwork has been financed by the Ford Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (predoctoral grant and international collaborative grant), and Finep. She was Professor Invité at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris in 1999, Directeur d’Etudes Invité at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in the same city in 2000, Visiting Professor of the Centre of Latin American Studies of the University of Cambridge in 2001, and Visiting Scholar in the Department of Social Anthropology at the same university in 2004. She is a visiting fellow at CRASSH during Lent term this year.

You can listen to the full lecture here.

Read Josef Ellis’ response to Dr. Vilaça’s paper:

Ontological Purification? A Response to (the responses to) Aparecida Vilaça’s CUSAS seminar

Dr. Aparecida Vilaça’s paper ‘Do animists become naturalists when converting to Christianity? Discussing an ontological turn’ sparked considerable ‘debate’ among the audience that witnessed its delivery. Yet the absence of one party in the debate was conspicuous, something I would like to remedy here. I might even suggest that the rhetoric of the arguments mobilised by the audience on Thursday afternoon contain striking resemblances to the very type of ‘purification’ or ‘apartheid building’ they aimed to attack.  In doing so, I will illustrate how Dr. Vilaça’s paper strikes at the heart of contemporary developments in anthropological theory.

While an inferior rehashing of Vilaça’s paper would be a waste (a recording of the talk is available on the CUSAS blog), I will briefly sketch a part of her argument. Vilaça discussed the Wari’, a group of Amazonian Indians in South-western Brazil. The Wari’, prior (and perhaps after) conversion to Christianity are considered by anthropologists to have been ‘perspectivist animists’. In other words, the Wari’ might be said to exist in an ontology in which each subject, both animal and human, is internally intensively differentiated from itself: living entities are therefore particular modulations of this infinite difference, actualised through the dispositions and perspectival positions which can be glossed as the ‘body’ (Viveiros de Castro 1998, 2012 cf. Vilaça 2005, 2009).  The body, nature or exteriority is what varies, with culture or interiority unifying all species (Ibid, Descola 2013). Wari’, and Amazonian ontologies are thus an inversion of Western naturalism, or multiculturalism, being instead a multinatural mode of existence. Vilaça drew out how this multinaturalism has also reared its head in high-theory, discussing various authors associated with the ‘ontological turn’ who, catalysed by the self-refuting universalism of cultural relativism (and also a particular lecture series held in the department (Holbraad in Viveiros de Castro 2012), shift anthropological questions away from representation and epistemology to investigations on a ontological plane, in turn eliciting a probing of the multiple natures of humanity, rather than remaining within the limits of western naturalism (Latour 1993, Viveiros de Castro 1998, 2003, Descola 2013). To return to the Wari’, it would seem that they are an exemplar of one of these divergent natures the ontological turn is concerned with. So what happens when they convert to a Christian (naturalist) religion?

To violently reduce her nuanced and subtle ethnography; Vilaça argued the Wari’ did not simply reject or convert to naturalism. Instead, upon conversion to Christianity, the perspectivist regime seemed to encompass the naturalist. Instead of resulting in a stable background of a biological body, Wari’ bodies were still given by perspectives, only now in relation to God, or in some cases, the devil. Similarly, Vilaça argued that the Christian devil itself was a powerful generator of hybrids in Latour’s sense, entities that violate the modern constitution of the rupture of nature and culture (1993). Vilaça drew out two related implications for the ontological turn from this ethnography. Firstly, given that perspectivist animism and Christian naturalism appeared in some sense to exist at the same time among the Wari’, she aimed to qualify the strength of arguments which posit a radical separation between the two. In a related way, she drew attention to the fact that Christianity is not such a purely naturalist formation, as seen in its hybrid-producing devil (although that would make Christianity ‘modern’ in Latour’s sense).

The audience appeared to take this qualification extremely well, and many comments were made regarding the danger of the ontological turn’s supposed positing of extreme alterity between naturalists (the west) and other ontologies (the rest) (cf. Laidlaw 2012). Similarly, the ontological turn was attacked for being overly concerned with contradiction, and invited to entertain the presence of contradictory ontological potentials within cultures (or natures) rather than between them. Case closed then? Not quite.

I want to make it clear that some of the stronger anti-ontological worries and arguments emerged from the discussion of the paper, rather than being argued in the paper itself. Nevertheless, I offer a few small rebuttals for reasons of provocation rather than desiring to become a representative of a particular ‘side’. Firstly, the argument that the ontological turn consists of constructing an image of the world involving geographically bound ontological ‘zones’ should be questioned. This argument reacts more to the rhetoric and political pragmatism of the ontological turn than its analytical content (cf. Candea in Venkatesan et al. 2010). When Viveiros de Castro spoke of ‘the Amazonian ontology’ he did so out of an allegiance to a political project of ‘conceptual emancipation’ or perhaps the radicalisation of an ‘Amerindian war machine’ (sensu Deleuze & Guattari 1988) against Western philosophy (Latour 2009). Put simply, in the genesis of such a political project, initially clearly delineated lines might have to be drawn. This has lead to some confusion when other in members of the ontological term used the slogan of conceptual self-determination, giving the sense of bounded, or essentialized ontologies to be intellectually liberated wholesale (Henare et al 2007, Alberti et al 2011).

Yet as was made extremely clear in a recent positional paper at the AAA in Chicago this year, ontological self-determination is not concerned with the positing of the rest against the West, but rather about the recognition of the capacity to differ, which operate within a particular social milieu as much as between them (Holbraad, Pedersen & Viveiros de Castro 2014) This allows the ‘non-sceptical elicitation of this manifold of potentials for how things could be’ an understanding of the ‘otherwise’’ (ibid, cf. Povinelli 2012). Ontologies that appear to ‘contradict’ one another are not bulldozed by this project, they are expected by it. This leads me onto a second point about contradiction. As was perceptively put by an extremely esteemed member of the audience (as well as someone who has used ontology extensively recently cf. Lloyd 2013), the Western philosophical concern with the law of non-contradiction has been rather overstated, particularly in anthropology, and perhaps our writing should shift away from ‘purifying’ social contexts into embracing their ambiguities. While I would agree wholeheartedly with this statement (indeed I believe the particular faction of the ontological turn I am discussing would similarly give ascent), I want to make a small point in rebuttal. Even when we acknowledge, as Latour famously did, that western purification is accompanied by the production of hybrids it denies are possible, this does not remove the fact that the discourses of the most powerful in our societies are very much within the terms of the impossibility of contradiction. If the ontological turn is ultimately a ‘technology of description’ (Pedersen 2012) that aims to recognise the otherwise as ‘viable as a real alternative’ (Holbraad, Pedersen & Viveiros de Castro 2014) then this must necessarily need to reflect something of our political grammar to have any effect. While contradiction may always be present, the impulse to make sense out of the contradictory is a necessary side-effect of taking something seriously, and should not be dismissed easily. The ontological turn is a movement that is rapidly maturing, and I might suggest that some of the criticisms that were mobilised on Thursday were rather purificatory in their reduction of a theoretical turn that is shifting under our feet.

It is precisely for this reason that one might consider Vilaça’s paper an example of the productiveness that the turn to ontology has lent to our discipline. This is a productivity that does not reduce in any direction, but gives us the sensitivity to fathom complexity, both here and elsewhere.


Alberti, B., Fowles, S., Holbraad, M., Marshall, Y. & Witmore, C. (2011). “Worlds Otherwis” Archaeology, Anthropology and Ontological Difference. Current Anthropology. 52 (6). 896-912

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1988). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Massumi, B. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Descola, P. (2013). Beyond Nature and Culture. Trans. Lloyd, J. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Holbraad, M., Pedersen, M. & Viveiros de Castro, E. (2014). The Politics of Ontology: Anthropological Posistions. Fieldsights – Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology Online. January 13, 2014,

Laidlaw, J. (2012). Ontologically Challenged. Anthropology of this Century. 4.

Latour, B. (1993). We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Porter, C. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Latour, B. (2009). Perspectivism: ‘Type’ or ‘Bomb’. Anthropology Today. 25 (2) 1-2

Lloyd, G. E. R. (2013). Being, Humanity and Understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pedersen, M. A. (2012). Common Nonsense: A Review of Certain Recent Reviews of the Ontological Turn. Anthropology of This Century. 5.

Povinelli, E. A. (2012). The Will to be Otherwise/The Effort of Endurance. South Atlantic Quaterly. 111 (3). 453-457

Venkatesan, S. (2010). Ontology is Just Another Word for Culture: Motion Tabled at the 2008 Meeting of the Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory, University of Manchester. Critique of Anthropology. 30 (2) 152-200

Vilaça, A. (2005). Chronically Unstable Bodies: Reflections on Amazonian
Corporalities. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 11 (3). 445-464

Vilaça, A. (2009). Bodies in Perspective: A Critique of the Embodiment Paradigm from the Point of View of Amazonian Ethnography. Social Bodies. Eds Lambert, H. & McDonald, M. Oxford: Berghahn Books. 129-147

Viveiros de Castro, E. (1998a). Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 4. 469-488

Viveiros de Castro, E. (2003). ‘AND’. Manchester Papers in Social Anthropology 7.

Viveiros de Castro, E. (2012). Cosmological Perspectivism in Amazonia and Elsewhere. Hau Masterclass Series. 1.

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