Arquivo da tag: Antropologia

Interdisciplinary approach yields new insights into human evolution (Vanderbilt University)


Vanderbilt biologist Nicole Creanza Nicole Creanza takes interdisciplinary approach to human evolution as guest editor of Royal Society journal

The evolution of human biology should be considered part and parcel with the evolution of humanity itself, proposes Nicole Creanza, assistant professor of biological sciences. She is the guest editor of a new themed issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, the oldest scientific journal in the world, that focuses on an interdisciplinary approach to human evolution.

Stanford professor Marc Feldman and Stanford postdoc Oren Kolodny collaborated with Creanza on the special issue.

“Within the blink of an eye on a geological timescale, humans advanced from using basic stone tools to examining the rocks on Mars; however, our exact evolutionary path and the relative importance of genetic and cultural evolution remain a mystery,” said Creanza, who specializes in the application of computational and theoretical approaches to human and cultural evolution, particularly language development. “Our cultural capacities-to create new ideas, to communicate and learn from one another, and to form vast social networks-together make us uniquely human, but the origins, the mechanisms, and the evolutionary impact of these capacities remain unknown.”

The special issue brings together researchers in biology, anthropology, archaeology, economics, psychology, computer science and more to explore the cultural forces affecting human evolution from a wider perspective than is usually taken.

“Researchers have begun to recognize that understanding non-genetic inheritance, including culture, ecology, the microbiome, and regulation of gene expression, is fundamental to fully comprehending evolution,” said Creanza. “It is essential to understand the dynamics of cultural inheritance at different temporal and spatial scales, to uncover the underlying mechanisms that drive these dynamics, and to shed light on their implications for our current theory of evolution as well as for our interpretation and predictions regarding human behavior.”

In addition to an essay discussing the need for an interdisciplinary approach to human evolution, Creanza included an interdisciplinary study of her own, examining the origins of English’s contribution to Sranan, a creole that emerged in Suriname following an influx of indentured servants from England in the 17th century.

Creanza, along with linguists Andre Sherriah and Hubert Devonish of the University of the West Indes and psychologist Ewart Thomas from Stanford, sought to determine the geographic origins of the English speakers whose regional dialects formed the backbone of Sranan. Their work combined linguistic, historical and genetic approaches to determine that the English speakers who influenced Sranan the most originated largely from two counties on opposite sides of southern England: Bristol, in the west, and Essex, in the east.

“Thus, analyzing the features of modern-day languages might give us new information about events in human history that left few other traces,” Creanza said.

Anthropology’s Storyteller-Shaman-Sorcerer Strikes Again With ‘The Corn Wolf’ (Pop Matters)


27 January 2016



DEC 2015

“So who is telling stories nowadays? And who is telling the story about stories?”

Michael Taussig was once dubbed “anthropology’s alternative radical” (by the New York Times, no less). It’s tempting to call him iconoclastic, but his latest collection, The Corn Wolf, problematizes the term ‘iconoclasm’ (it even features an ‘Iconoclasm Dictionary’) so thoroughly that a writer would deploy it at his peril.

Nevertheless, the dilemma sets the mood: Taussig’s work remains as genre-bending today as when he published the book that first raised eyebrows—and ire, among many colleagues in the field—back in 1987.

That book, Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man(University of Chicago Press, 1991), launched a multi-pronged attack on some of the discipline’s most sacred conventions, and remains a controversial (and widely used) text in graduate and upper-level undergraduate anthropology courses today. While undergrads found Taussig’s unapologetic accounts of partaking in drug binges with Amazonian shamans titillating, it was the reflexive critique of anthropologists’ obsession with violence and terror, coupled with the experimental and often poetic style of composition, that put other scholars on edge.

Over a quarter century later, his ability to confound cultural critics and confront convention hasn’t waned. His latest collection of essays written over the past decade, The Corn Wolf, squarely tackles many of the key controversies of our time—the academic industrial complex, Occupy Wall Street, the intensification and precarity of neoliberal capitalist culture, the plight of Occupied Palestine, and more—in Taussig’s characteristically poetic, storyteller style.

Finding Magic in the Corporate Academy

Taussig’s work is the sort of bewilderingly beautiful prose (one is often tempted to call it poetry) that’s able to operate on multiple intellectual levels. The first essay in the collection, “The Corn Wolf: Writing Apotropaic Texts”, immerses the reader fully and mercilessly in the style. It opens with a poor graduate student realizing that writing up their fieldwork is the most difficult and important task of graduate school, and also the one thing graduate school teaches you nothing about. Fieldwork and writing; “they are both rich, ripe, secret-society-type shenanigans. Could it be that both are based on impossible-to-define talents, intuitions, tricks, and fears?”

No wonder many careerist academics dislike him.

Of course the essay isn’t so much about graduate writing as about his own writing, and about the act of writing—the magical act of writing—itself.

For example, Taussig considers anthropology’s treatment of magic and shamanic sorcery: “Pulling the wool over one’s eyes is a simpler way of putting it… What we have generally done in anthropology is really pretty amazing in this regard, piggybacking on their magic and on their conjuring—their tricks—so as to come up with explanations that seem nonmagical and free of trickery.”

This seemingly nonmagical academic form of writing—or mode of production, as he calls it—is what he refers to as ‘agribusiness writing’: “Agribusiness writing is what we find throughout the university and everyone knows it when they don’t see it.” Against it he pitches the idea of ‘apotropaic writing’, a magic that connives with the prosaic to produce a counter-magic of its own.

When anthropologists demystify shamanic sorcery, for instance, the ‘wolfing’ moves of apotropaic magic would reveal the sorcery implicit in the act of the ‘scientific’ anthropologist’s recasting of shamanism. Indeed, the fact that the wonder and magic of the everyday world has been demystified by science is a sort of magical transformation itself. Is this how we re-enchant the world? By the use of story-telling and writing to re-position what seems like the boring, unmagical workaday world of everyday capitalist drudgery and expose it as the magical sleight-of-hand and tricksterism that it is? “I have long felt that agribusiness writing is more magical than magic ever could be and that what is required is to counter the purported realism of agribusiness writing with apotropaic writing as countermagic, apotropaic from the ancient Greek meaning the use of magic to protect one from harmful magic.”

The point emerges again, perhaps unintentionally, in Taussig’s essay “The Stories Things Tell and Why They Tell Them”, as he discusses our collective yearning for “the old days”.

“‘The old days’ is actually a talismanic phrase and phase that ushers in prehistory and hence the enchanted world when things spoke to man… it goes along with what is felt to be a certain lack or loss of poetry—of poetry and ritual—in workaday life. But, you ask, has that really disappeared? Does enchantment not resurface under certain conditions, maybe extreme conditions, as in our contemporary world of machines, corporate control, and heady consumerism?”

Our world seems devoid of magic, comprised of boring realities that brook no alternatives: from the academic industrial complex to neoliberal capitalism. The hegemonic mode of thinking which makes us think that way, is perhaps the most magical and insidious form of sorcery there is.

Winnie-the-Pooh, and Wittgenstein, Too

The essays cover a broad range. Taussig discusses the literary work of B. Traven, that enigmatic, socio-political novelist who wrote under a pseudonym in early 20th century Mexico but is believed to have been an exiled German anarchist. Walter Benjamin appears repeatedly; Adorno and Wittgenstein, too. But to follow the startling trajectory of Taussig’s thought requires more than intellectual reference points: he weaves a sort of magic in his storytelling designed to disrupt the reader’s familiar mode of analysis; that agribusiness reading and writing model that underpins not just the academy but so much of our society’s accepted ways of configuring knowledge. A shaman-scholar, indeed. It’s Taussig’s particular talent: not just anyone can develop an essay drawing together bumblebees, the dialectics of humming, Theodor Adorno and Winnie-the-Pooh. Or produce serious, thought-provoking reflections on what a zebra in a zoo must think of a man riding by on a bicycle.

The value of Taussig’s work is that it can often be read on multiple levels; as enriching to return to as when it provokes for the first time, although the experience and what one gains from it is often quite different each time. The essay “Excelente Zona Social”, originally written to commemorate the anniversary of an anthropological classic, meanders through a set of reflections on the nature of ethnographic fieldwork, set against the backdrop of Taussig’s own time spent with peasants battling the Colombian state for control of occupied land. The peasants and their legal advisors compete with the state and the owners of capital (the palmeros, or palm plantation owners) to produce maps of the territory in dispute: on the state’s side, maps demonstrating ownership and property rights; on the peasants’ side, maps demonstrating usage and community history.

What emerges is a struggle over contesting frames of reference, and even over the language used to articulate the politics of presence. The state and palmeros speak in a legal, bureaucratic language; the peasants in a language of anecdotes and shared stories. Their legal advisor puts it bluntly: “’We have to create a new language,’ says Juan Felipe. ‘The palmeros have theirs, and we need to show the world an alternate model.’” The dispute echoes a broader one that is emerging in indigenous studies today, between competing histories of culture and the ways we recognize knowledge. In recent years, this trend has involved challenging the ways in which oral histories are traditionally devalued in western legal and intellectual culture.

Food for thought. But Taussig—like his spirit-guide, Walter Benjamin—takes it a step further and implicates the reader in this process, as well: “the origin of storytelling lies in the encounter between the traveler and those who stay at home,” he reminds us. The reader is not an innocent bystander; a point to which Taussig returns in subsequent essays.

The Politics of Field Notes

Another recurring theme in The Corn Wolf appears in the form of valuable reflections on the nature of the field journal, used by anthropologists to collect notes—sketches, snatches of conversation, reflections, vague impressions—and which is then typically translated into more standard form for reader consumption: books or journal articles. But in this process of translation it loses much of its magic, and that includes the capacity of the field journal to convey actual experience. When an anthropologist ‘writes up’ their fieldnotes, muses Taussig, after-thoughts kick in and infuse and suffuse the process. “By afterthoughts I mean secondary elaborations that arise on top of the original notes, photographs, and drawings. Through stops, starts, sudden swerves, the original is pulled into a wider and wilder landscape. To reread and to rewrite is to tug at the memories buried therein as well as engage with the gaps, questions, connections, conundrums, and big ideas that lie latent and in turn generate more of the same.”

The point of this reflection, Taussig continues, is to challenge the conventional trajectory of field-notes-to-publication. “I feel impelled to ask, therefore, if anthropology has sold itself short in conforming to the idea that its main vehicle of expression is an academic book or journal article? This is not a plea for exact reproduction of the fieldwork notebook but rather a plea for following its furtive forms and mix of private and public…”

There’s a revealing clue here to the circuitous and unorthodox nature of Taussig’s own writing style. It’s a form of “magical anthropology”, for lack of a better term. Critics speak of magical realism in fiction and literature as involving the use of magical elements to achieve a deeper insight into reality (well-known examples include the work of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende).  Adam Hothschild, writing in the New York Review of Books, famously referred to the reportage of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski as comprising a form of “magical journalism”. Such labels describe the use of writing not to convey facts but to communicate experience, by provoking ideas and states of mind that more accurately reflect the perceived reality of a situation, even if the process of doing so requires the storyteller (be they author, journalist or anthropologist) to sometimes run rough-shod over the facts as they might be conventionally presented.

This is also a form of what is referred to as ‘fictocriticism’—the combination of fictive and non-fictive elements in a single text. Its application has particular merit in anthropology. What many of us consider reality—“the facts”, or those details which are intended to convey and communicate reality—can sometimes themselves prove to be a barrier to comprehending reality as it is experienced by another. Facts are consumed and ordered by the reader within their own frame of reference, neatly reinforcing the reader’s pre-existing sense of reality; the experience of the Other those facts are intended to relay remains uncommunicated.

However,  by playing with the presentation of those facts, some storytellers (journalists, social scientists) might manage to more accurately share the insights and experience of the Other, by provoking a deeper, experiential resonance in the reader. Or so a magical anthropology, like magical journalism or magical storytelling of any genre, might suggest.

At any rate, the fact is there’s another thread here worth following: the power of storytelling and the role of the reader, as Taussig explains best in his travelogue-essay,  “My Two Weeks in Palestine”. A recurring theme in Taussig’s work is humanity’s fascination with violence and terror. Anthropologists (and other academics) are often criticized for their fly-in, fly-out method of witnessing violence, and of the careers built on our society’s fascination with violence. Like politicians, diplomats, journalists, humanitarians, and others, they are often criticized for writing about violence and terror without (seemingly) actually being able to do anything to stop it or cause it to abate. The academic, therefore, becomes implicated in the culture of violence, helping to stoke humanity’s fascination with the abominable. Yet the complicity of the academic, the anthropologist, is as nothing compared with the complicity of the reader, suggests Taussig.

This alone makes such storytelling and retelling a treacherous activity. Joseph Conrad called it ‘the fascination of the abomination,’ an accurate if ponderous rendering of the stock in trade of war journalists and war photographers, especially the latter, wild men and wild women to the core, too much in love with their work which soon settles into banality. But that is as nothing compared with the conceit of the reader of their work, secure at one remove from the action, yet no less likely to be buoyed up by the tempestuous currents of attraction and repulsion inflaming it before succumbing to indifference or turning the page or clicking the mouse.

In the face of this, what is to be done? Taussig suggests the act of witnessing is important, but it must lead to something more than mere consumption on the part of the reader. Thus the imperative for the writer, the storyteller, to find a way to write their stories (or articles, or books) in such a way as to provoke a more reactive reading that transcends mere passive consumption. Here the unorthodox anthropologist, open to the creative and experimental potential of the field journal medium or other types of experimental writing, might stumble upon ways of provoking such responses.

(I)t is my hope that the flexibility and “multi-tasking” to be found in the fieldworker’s diary can reconfigure this otherwise paralyzing ‘fascination of the abomination.’ Like the magical shield of Perseus, a diary allows of witness without being turned to stone. Like Walter Benjamin’s Denkbilden or ‘thought-images,’ the diary form facilitates grasping those images that flare up at a moment of danger when the potential for innervating the body is at its highest.

In Palestine he is struck by the way people tell him their stories: horrifying, terrible stories, but told thoughtfully and even with humour. “[T]he point was that people were capable, precisely because of their circumstance, of combining the unthinkable with the sayable—that was the miracle—and hence pass the baton of witnessing along to me, to pass on to you in the hope, vain as it may be, that witnessing becomes something more than consumption. Like travel and anthropology, reading has not only its passions but responsibilities, too.”

Occupying Anthropology

Taussig’s storytelling, in this collection, include an arc of stories on the pace of modern life: the speed-up of global capitalism, the precarious and destroyed lives it leaves in its ever-present wake, and the protest it sparks as workers and intellectuals and all those left in the margins (which is to say, the majority) struggle to pull the emergency brakes on a society speeding out of control. In “I’m So Angry I Made a Sign”, those brakes take the form of the Occupy Wall Street protests, which Taussig witnessed first-hand, and reflects upon in a thoughtful photo-essay.

Even more powerful is the essay that follows: “The Go Slow Party”, a moving cry for resistance against the great speed-up that plagues modern society (including academia). Taussig realizes that “the only time I really go slow is in the shower and having a shit. Both are fine examples of what Hakim Bey called ‘the temporary autonomous zone.’ Both free the mind and stimulate creative thinking…” He proceeds to reflect on the right to be lazy and the need to decolonize play and leisure. His own intervention—fighting for the right to install hammocks in his university department—was denied in favour of his colleagues’ more abstract approaches to the issue, but his reflections on the topic offer a powerful provocation.

In the final essay, “Don Miguel”, he offers some parting advice for anthropologists on the nature of fieldwork.

You learn after a long, long time, that the famous ‘method’ of participant-observation tends to be weighted toward the observation end of things and, what’s more, tends not, according to the profession, to allow much by way of self-observation. What you learn is that because of class and race barriers, what I would call ‘true’ participation is rare and unforgettable, but that the ‘stranger-effect,’ being a foreigner, makes this a lot easier. Some anthropologists, perhaps the great majority, make these barriers into a virtue, claiming that such participation is irrelevant and romantic, that we should study not ourselves, not psychology, not the anthropologist-native interaction, but something as vast and nebulous as ‘culture.’

Not so, asserts Taussig, and he offers a lifetime of examples to the contrary. The particular story he tells in the final essay is an amusing and engaging one: as a student, he made the poor decision to follow the advice of more senior academics and, against his own instincts, reach out to those at the top of the social hierarchy in the region of Colombia in which he was working, instead of simply ignoring them and focusing on the peasants he felt more comfortable with. The result was his being targeted by the local secret police (who had previously ignored him), setting off a frenzied dash around the country to convince the necessary authorities that he and his colleague were, after all, harmless researchers. His point, however, was that his own memory of this incident and the insights it opened up became a unique and different form of participant-observation, because “we had become objects in our own story”.

The Corn Wolf essays are prime Taussig: assuming a form that is both whimsical and yet deadly provocative at the same time. Michael Taussig: anthropology’s trickster magician, poet and storyteller, casts his spell again.

Hans Rollmann is a writer and editor based in Eastern Canada. He’s a columnist, writer and opinions editor with the online news magazine His work has appeared in a range of other publications both print and online, from Briarpatch Magazine to Feral Feminisms. In addition to a background in radio-broadcasting, union organizing and archaeology, he’s currently completing a PhD in Gender, Feminist & Women’s Studies in Toronto. He can be reached by email at or @hansnf on Twitter.

Ethnography as Improv (How to Anthropology)

NOVEMBER 02, 2015

By Cheryl Deutsch

“Anthropology is not a social science tout court, but something else. What that something else is has been notoriously difficult to name, precisely because it involves less a subject matter … than a sensibility.”

— Liisa Malkki, Improvising Theory (2007: 63)


In this post, I take inspiration from the book Improvising Theory to articulate three aspects of ethnographic practice that often go unnamed in anthropology.  I also follow up with the book’s authors, Allaine Cerwoncka and Liisa Malkki, to share their thoughts on doing ethnography today.

Most of the book consists of email exchanges from the year Cerwoncka spent in fieldwork as a graduate student and Malkki was her faculty mentor.  The conceit is that Malkki, an anthropologist, must explain to Cerwoncka, a political scientist, what “goes without saying” in anthropology; the customs and quirks that make up the discipline’s sensibility.  But as Malkki writes, “the ‘common sense’ of anthropology is a complicated matter,” and she struggles to articulate its nuances (2007: 163).

Through this exchange and the authors’ reflections, the book offers an intimate view of what ethnographic fieldwork is, in practice, as well as what it amounts to in theory.  Cerwoncka and Malkki conclude that it is ethnography’s improvisational nature that makes it challenging to teach but also special in its theoretical power.

Here are three insights I drew from the book and my subsequent exchange with them:


1. Ethnography is Improvised

Improv comedy is a form of collaborative story-telling whose humor derives from the uncertainty of its own story line. Improv actors must say yes to whatever comes their way, trusting their training and adrenaline to make a story out of surprise.  The result is comedy.

Improvisational jazz is likewise a form of story-telling whose energy derives from its unrehearsed riffs on popular melodies and classic standards.  Jazz musicians construct improvised melodies out of notes that are spontaneous but not random: they have to make sense with the original song or melody.  Just playing fast, for example, is no guarantee that an improvised solo will succeed: the notes have to make emotional sense.

Both improv comedy and jazz employ skills that can be taught and practiced.  They benefit from excellent technique.  But in all forms of improvisation, training and expertise only go so far.  The rest requires a certain sensibility.

In their book, Improvising Theory: Process and Temporality in Ethnographic Fieldwork, Allaine Cerwoncka and Liisa Malkki make the case for ethnography as a form of improvisation.

As Cerwoncka reflected in an email exchange with me: “choices made about a research project are shaped out of intellectual, practical and professional considerations… [They] are inevitably made without full information and require constant adjustment and courage to follow one’s rational and intuitive best judgment.”

Courage is a key word here.  All forms of improv involve risk.  But it’s the vulnerability of such creative acts that give them heart and soul.

As recounted in the book, Cerwoncka scheduled a formal interview with a sergeant in the police station where she was conducting her fieldwork.  Before the interview, he talked openly about the groups that they, as cops, hated having to deal with.  “I acted casual about all this information,” she wrote to Malkki, “not jotting any of it down in front of him…  When I went back for the ‘real’ interview, he was much more formal and immediately asked if I wanted to tape the conversation” (2007: 85).  The formal interview had a different tone; he talked about “safe” topics like his family background, and then he was called away.

Reflecting on this experience in her email to Malkki, Cerwoncka decided not to tape further conversations with the police officers.  “It strikes me that they are in the position of taping people (in the interrogation room),” she wrote, “and their context for that is to use the information people give them against the people they arrest.  So I think the recorder will color the interviews too much” (2007: 85).

Later in her fieldwork, however, she found that one sergeant was particularly eager to set up taped interviews for her, so she continued with them.  She began to see that they helped those in the station feel more comfortable with her. “They don’t even seem to mind when I drift and ask them questions about their taste in music or whether they garden,” she wrote (2007: 120).  Hers is a lesson in improvised field practice.

Formal recorded interviews are an important tool in the ethnographer’s toolbox.  But in this exchange, we see that the ethnographer often has to make decisions about when and where, as well as how, to employ such tools in the field.  Ethnographers are also engaged in a form of collaborative story-telling with the people they interact with.  It takes attention and care for ethnography – as improvisation – to make sense.



2. Ethnography Takes Time

Improvising Theory’s greatest strength is its portrayal – in real time – of the year-long process of ethnographic fieldwork.  It illustrates not only the tempo of fieldwork but its many temporalities.  As Malkki writes in her concluding chapter to the book, “ethnography as process demands a critical awareness of the invisible social fact that multiple, different temporalities might be at play simultaneously… [There are] quotidian routines, events that become Events (see Malkki 1997), the panic time of deadlines, the elongated time of boredom, the cyclical time of the return of the expected, the spiral time of returns to the recognizable or the remembered, and so on” (2007: 177).

In their email exchange, we read about Cerwoncka’s uncertainties, her successes, as well as her false starts and trails gone cold.  It’s a messy process through which Malkki’s advice offers perspective and rhythm: some situations require action and attention, others call for patience and meditation.

Before she began her interviews at the police station, for example, Cerwoncka was unsure exactly where she would locate her research exploring Australian national identity.  So she made inroads with a gardening club and with officers at the police station, as well as with the pastor of a church.

In an early email to Malkki, Cerwoncka worried that she was contacting people from too many organizations at once and that she’d be overwhelmed with all their necessary follow-up.  Malkki responded: “Anthropological fieldwork is what you are doing, and therefore regular contact with informants should not just be a goal, but should be built into your everyday schedule.  It’s taxing, embarrassing, etc., but you need the material… Strike while the iron is hot” (2007: 54).  She encouraged her to choose the organizations she wanted to work with thoughtfully and then to make a schedule that would allow her to follow up on interactions and opportunities when they arose.

Later, Cerwoncka dropped the church as a site.  Then, when she was deep in fieldwork with the gardening club and the police officers, one of her political science advisers recommended she add a third site.  So she spent time talking to landscape architects.

At this point, Malkki advised her: “It’s important not to let the third site become something that allows you to escape the pressures of the sites in which you have deep investments already… Another related issue (related to the question of what’s the best use of your time): sometimes downtime is best, taking a week away from the fieldwork.  Then you return to things fresh” (2007: 126).

In this case, the right temporal strategy was patience and perserverance.

When I asked Malkki for her thoughts on ethnography today, she reiterated the importance of time: “If I were to add something… One point would be a warning against the overprofessionalization of graduate students in Anthropology.  Easy for me to say since I’ve got a job!  But anthropology does take time, and I think one has to have the time to ‘grow into it’ somehow without having career milestones always hovering at the edges of one’s attention.  One grows into fieldwork according to one’s temperament and in deep relation with people.  That is transformative.  And then, after fieldwork, one grows into writing.  That too is transformative.  It takes time (and simple grit).  This is very much a mind game.  There are many brilliant people – everyone knows they’re brilliant and their work truly original – but they just can’t let it go, or, sometimes, can’t get over writing blocks.  More time.  One should always be humane toward oneself (and everyone, of course).”

It seems that ethnography not only takes time but many different times: striking while the iron is hot, having patience when fieldwork gets tedious, and time for transformation in the writing phase.

3. Improvisation + Time = Theoretical Insight

Cerwoncka started grad school with the goal of becoming a “theorist,” and this book reflects that ambition.  As helpful as it is in illustrating ethnographic practice, it is equally effective in articulating ethnography’s theoretical power.

In our email exchange, Cerwoncka wrote, “Social analysts need more than description of phenomena, and this thing we call theory helps us try to identify patterns and associations.  However, ethnographic fieldwork and life has reinforced for me the conviction that theory serves us intellectually best when it is in dialogue with activity, data, and a variety of possible material.”

The email exchange with Malkki that documents her fieldwork experience bears this out: theoretical concepts help guide her research questions and observations.  It was Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities that inspired her to look for national identity in the ordinary lives of Australian gardeners and police officers.  But these interlocutors – and Cerwoncka’s improvised engagements with them – also gave shape to the project.  Finally, time and distance add their own maturing effects. What results are the project’s theoretical insights.

Cerwoncka writes about this process of conceptual development in Native to the Nation, based on her dissertation research.  Writing about the police sergeant who eagerly arranged her formal interviews, she writes:  “These arrangements developed into a strange kind of ritual where each interview began with the sergeant ‘joking’ that the junior officer about to be interviewed ‘mustn’t give away the shop secrets’ before I was left alone with him or her” (cited in Cerwoncka and Malkki 2007: 90-1).  Such jests caused her quite a bit of anxiety: uncovering police brutality or corruption would put her and her research in a uncomfortable ethical position.  Only much later, in writing, did she conclude that the sergeant’s comments pointed to in-group boundary policing more so than any real “heart of darkness” within the station (2007: 91).  And it was much longer into writing that she came to believe “that there was another story one could write about the police besides a journalistic-type exposé or a romantic narrative about un-sung heroes” (2007: 92).

The theoretical insights of ethnographic fieldwork take time.  Improvisation in the field is what shakes up one’s orientation to theoretical concepts, but it can take time for that orientation to mature into new conceptualizations.

Postscript: Ethnography and Professionalization

In addition to producing theoretical insights, Cerwoncka also stressed to me the ways in which ethnography has served her as a faculty member and university administrator:

Cerwoncka: “Every time I move to a different institution, role and, or discipline, I find myself doing a version of ethnographic fieldwork!  Fieldwork taught me the techniques and instilled confidence in me to map and analyze patterns of community, be it a police station or a School of Social Sciences.  I think the professional skills I learned through ethnographic fieldwork … are as useful to me as a Dean of Social Sciences at University of East London as they were to my dissertation.”

These thoughts neatly illustrate the challenge and promise of ethnography: that one has to let go and accept in order to reap its creative potential.  Much of the advice embodied in the book revolves around the need for both confidence and acceptance.  One can’t seek out theory but can trust that it will result.  One can’t seek out professionalization but can trust that it will happen.  Just as in improv comedy there is no magic formula for making something funny, so the ethnographer that tells a compelling story can let the scene do its magic.

Thank you to Nikhil Anand for first suggesting Improvising Theory to me.  Thank you, as well, to Allaine Cerwoncka and Liisa Malkki for taking the time to share their thoughts.  And a final thanks to Ethan Hein for his explanation of improvisational jazz.

Anthropologies #21: Weather changes people: stretching to encompass material sky dynamics in our ethnography (Savage Minds)

See original text here.

September 24, 2015.

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the Anthropologies #21 series.

Heid Jerstad brings our climate change issue to a close with this thoughtful essay. Jerstad (BA Oxford, MRes SOAS) is writing up her PhD on the effects of weather on peoples lives at the university of Edinburgh. Having done fieldwork in the western Indian Himalayas, she is particularly interested in the range of social and livelihood implications that weather (and thus climate change) has. She is on twitter @entanglednotion –R.A.

For most people, the climate change issue is a bundle of scientific ideas, or maybe a chunk of guilt lurking behind that short haul flight. The words have fused together to form a single stone, immobile and heavy. Change is a bit of a nothing word anyway – anything can change, and who is to say if it is good or bad, drastic or practically unnoticeable?

But what about climate? It is a big science-y word, neither human nor particularly tangible. Climate is about a place – engrained, palimpsested, with time-depth. That big sky, those habits – the Frenchman advising wine and bed on a rainy day, the Croatian judge lenient because there was a hot wind from the Sahara that day. This is weather I am talking about, seasons, years, the heat, damp and sparkling frost.

People care about the weather. We consider ourselves used to this or good at observing that. My home has more weather than other places – it is colder in winter, the air is clearer and brighter – because it is mine. My sunsets – this is eastern Norway – are vibrant and fill the sky, my sky will snow in June with not a cloud, my nose can feel that special tingle when it gets to below -20˚c. The north is not gloomy in winter – the snow is bright white, the hydro-fuelled streetlights illuminate empty streets and windows seal the warmth in.

What is your weather? It would be safe to assume it is part of the climate and I would go out on a limb and say I think you care about it. Am I wrong?

When the weather matters to people, the task becomes one of bridging this caring and the climate change science and projections. Looking at the impact of these weather changes in different areas of life is, then, going to make up a steadily larger part of useful climate change research.

Mead famously convened a conference with Kellogg titled ‘The Atmosphere: Endangered and Endangering’ in 1975, and Douglas published Risk and Blame in 1992. In the new millennium Strauss and Orlove (2003), Crate and Nuttall (2009) and Hastrup and Rubow (2014) brought edited volumes to the debate. It seems to be fairly well established, then, that climate change is a matter for anthropologists, as phrased by the AAA statement on climate change: ‘Climate change is rooted in social institutions and cultural habits. … Climate change is not a natural problem, it is a human problem.’ What then, can anthropologists do, about this problem?

Anthropologists provide description. The mapping of people’s stories of how the weather is ‘going wrong’, stories of change, and of coping and consequences is underway (Crate 2008 described the effects of unusual winter melt on the Vilui Sakha in Siberia, Cruikshank 2005 explored the tendrils of meaning surrounding glaciers between Alaska, British Colombia and the Yukon territory). Linked to the description, of course, and not really disentanglable from it is the explanation. Explanations and understandings of weather and weather changes in the places where they are happening, whether Chesapeake Bay, the Marshall Islands, or Rajasthan, India, fill in the social significance of what had been an empty sky (Paolisso 2003, Rudiak-Gould 2013, Grodzins-Gold 1998). The weather changes, in fact, constitute one of those satisfying areas of inquiry which concern those asked as much as the anthropologist.

The question of knowledge, however, can still seem a barrier when climate scientists are those with a mandate to understand changing weather. Anna Tsing, in the Firth Lecture at the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth’s (ASA) 2015 conference in Exeter, brought the contextual ecological study of mushrooms and the trees that they are mutual with in the forests of Japan and China to illustrate the gains anthropology can make when we give up scepticism of natural science. Earlier in the year, Moore, at the launch of the Centre of the Anthropology of Sustainability (CAOS) at University College London used microbial research to break down the bounded image of the body, where on the cellular level culture and biology shape each other – for instance when poor black women in the States eat fish which contains mercury and this affects the biological development of their children. Tsing and Moore brought together what might previously have been considered within the remit of ecology or biology to make important points about the capacity of anthropology—and to suggest where we might go next, expanding vision of social science. When mushrooms and microbes are appropriate topics for anthropological research, then looking at the climate and its material as well as social effects (rotting, drying, illness (Jerstad 2014)) starts to look feasible.

The anthropocene is a term which has been shown to have considerable analytical purchase outside of geology, illuminating moral and political debates about blame, the north-south divide and the global movement of materials, people and plants (Chakrabarty 2014, Tsing 2013). These ideas have been applyied in the study of climate scientists themselves (Simonetti 2015) as well as climate policy (Lahsen 2009). The anthropocene, i.e. the world as subject to the effects of human activities such as climate change, may be read as a set of material relationships, where the weather, bodies and landscapes meet, as Ingold showed (2010). This term allows the larger picture, where the world and all the people in it – those people for whom climate change matters – to be considered in a single conceptual space. In this space climate change can be seen as part of the encompassing extra-somatic human activity which defines our world as we are starting to understand it.

The anthropocene and climate change, however, both involve the challenge of how to follow the conceptual and material threads that lead from these global issues and into particular, ethnographically described lives:

 A close examination of scientific practice makes clear that localizing is as much a problem for climate researchers as it is for ethnographers. This holds not only for the     interconnectedness of the global and the local climate, but also for the separation of climate change as a ‘scientific fact’ on the one hand, and a ‘matter of concern’ on the other. Climate research offers an insight into a messy world of ramifications, surprising activities and unexpected “social” context (Krauss 2009:149–50).

Anthropological work has the reflexive capacity to deal with the messy world Krauss refers to here, where these ramifications, surprising activities and unexpected ‘social’ context are part of the particular places where we, as anthropologists, work, taking cues from events and observations around us. In my own fieldwork I found all kinds of unanticipated connections between weathers and other aspects of life. With a research proposal full of religion and ‘belief’ I ended up with far more material interests, guided by the sometimes patient and sometimes exasperated villagers with whom I lived in the western Indian Himalayas.

I was walking with Karishma to get green grass one day during the monsoon. She told me that our village (Gau) is famous for being misty, and therefore that the girls are known, both for working hard and for being beautiful, because even though they are outside the mistiness keeps them pale. So apparently on festival days people say that the girls from this village are gori (white) because there is so much mist here. But Karishma pointed out that this can’t be true because there is mist only in the rainy season. Then she said that the girls here wear sweaters to stay gori. Also, she said girls of this village have a reputation for being hard working so people ask for them in marriage when there is a household where work is to be done. This (I think) might be part of why quite a few of the new brides in Gau are not used to doing as much work as women do here. But then Karishma said fairly that it is not just the girls who work hard, everyone works hard in this village (well, most people). She said that when girls go away to study, like she did, then they come back more beautiful. That is to say pale from not being outside. She was saying how on the other hand I had become more black (kala) since being there in the village (this was true).

People, whether Himalayan villagers or Norwegian PhD students, live with weather on an ongoing basis, and consistently live in the weather, which is not always catastrophic but does always impinge (think food perishability, wardrobe choices, sitting in the shade). The considerations people have with regards to the weather, then, necessarily translate to potential climate change concerns. Climate change is a threat, it has potentially deadly dimensions, but weather is inherent to our world, and I would not want to pathologize it.

Weather relates in fundamental ways to sensation and the body, thermal infrastructure, agriculture and animal husbandry, health and illness, disasters and other areas of anthropology (that is to say life). Weather may be implicated in all kinds of ways with other areas of life – for instance the hot/cold symbolism in India which classifies illness, the body, food and even moods. I think that it can be surprisingly easy to forget or ignore weather precisely because it is so pervasive. And this resistance of the mind against focusing on it is a risk when it comes to climate change. It can be tiring to think about. How, after all, do you write about the wind? And people have (Parkin 1995, James 1972, Hsu and Low 2007), but personally I find it challenging just to make a start – capturing the sky with a few black marks on paper feels so unrealistic. In that sense it is a great stretching area for our minds, about the material and the social, about what we mean with words like ‘impact’ and ‘atmosphere’ and the connections between people and places.

Finally there is the role of anthropology in clarifying the terms of the climate change debate. This is a new kind of challenge, it is a global one (hence the usefulness of Tsing’s work, who demonstrated the crucial part material relationships and meetings play in globalisation (2005)), it is to do with both technologies and nature (we can apply Latour, who shows in ‘we have never been modern’ (1993) how ‘modernity’ has not succeeded in cutting us off from the material and natural world around us), it is political, historical (hence Chakrabarty, whose work pushes us to think in new ways about how we are positioned in history and what place climate change has in this context), and there is something about it which is pushing at the edges in all these areas and others, in which new terms are required to even conceive of some of these problematics. Building on what we understand and moving further, in ways that might tread new neural pathways and enable new realities, simply from the newness of our thinking, feels like a worthwhile undertaking. I suggest that the orientation of research which maps out the weather-weight of social life can help bring the people back into climate change.

So the immovable stone of ‘climate change’ is being loosened up, pulled apart to reassemble in illuminating and constructive ways by people contributing to blow away the fog obstructing understanding, using the culminations of what we know so far and the ways in which we can think new thoughts. This effort rewards.


AAA statement on climate change. 29th January 2015. Accessed 1st July 2015.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh 2014. Climate and Capital: On Conjoined Histories. Critical Inquiry 41(1):1-23.

Crate, Susan. 2008. Gone the Bull of Winter? Grappling with the Cultural Implications of and Anthropology’s Role(s) in Global Climate Change. Current Anthropology 49:569-595.

Crate, Susan and Mark Nuttall, eds. 2009. Anthropology and Climate Change: from Encounters to Actions. California: Left Coast Press.

Cruikshank, Julie. 2005. Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. Toronto: University of British Columbia Press.

Douglas, Mary. 1992. Risk and Blame. London: Routledge

Grodzins-Gold, Ann. 1998. Sin and Rain: Moral Ecology in Rural North India. In Lance Nelson ed. Purifying the Earthly Body of God. New York: State University of New York Press.

Hsu, Elizabeth and Chris Low eds. 2007: Wind, Life, Health: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. Special issue. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13:S1-S181.

Ingold, T. (2010), Footprints through the weather-world: walking, breathing, knowing. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 16: S121–S139.

James, Wendy. 1972. The politics of rain control among the Uduk. In Ian Cunnison and Wendy James eds. Essays on Sudan ethnography presented to Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard. London: C. Hurst.

Jerstad, Heid. 2014. Damp bodies and smoky firewood: material weather and livelihood in rural Himachal Pradesh. Forum for development studies 41(3):399-414.

Krauss, Werner. 2009. Localizing Climate Change: A Multi-sited Approach. In Marc-Anthony Falzon and Clair Hall eds. Multi-Sited. Ethnography. Theory, Praxis and Locality in Contemporary Research 149-165. Ashgate.

Lahsen, Myanna. 2009. A science-policy interface in the Global South: The politics of carbon sinks and science in Brazil. Climatic Change 97:339–372.

Paolisso, Michael. 2003. Chesapeake Bay watermen, weather and blue crabs: cultural models and fishery policies. In Sarah Strauss and Benjamin Orlove eds. Weather, Climate, Culture. Oxford: Berg.

Rudiak-Gould, Peter. 2013. Climate change and tradition in a small island state: the rising tide. Routledge.

Simonetti, Christian. 2015. The stratification of time. Time and Society .

Strauss, Sarah and Orlove, Benjamin eds. 2003. Weather, climate, culture. Oxford: Berg

Tsing, Anna. 2013. Dancing the Mushroom Forest. PAN: Philosophy, Activism, Nature vol 10.

Tsing, Anna. 2005. Friction. Princeton University Press.

Decolonizing Anthropology (Savage Minds)

April 19, 2016

Decolonizing Anthropology is a new series on Savage Minds edited by Carole McGranahan and Uzma Z. Rizvi. Welcome.

Just about 25 years ago Faye Harrison poignantly asked if “an authentic anthropology can emerge from the critical intellectual traditions and counter-hegemonic struggles of Third World peoples? Can a genuine study of humankind arise from dialogues, debates, and reconciliation amongst various non-Western and Western intellectuals — both those with formal credentials and those with other socially meaningful and appreciated qualifications?” (1991:1). In launching this series, we acknowledge the key role that Black anthropologists have played in thinking through how and why to decolonize anthropology, from the 1987 Association of Black Anthropologists’ roundtable at the AAAs that preceded the 1991 volume on Decolonizing Anthropology edited by Faye Harrison, to the World Anthropologies Network, to Jafari Sinclaire Allen and Ryan Cecil Jobson’s essay out this very month in Current Anthropology on “The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology since the Eighties.”

Decolonizing Anthropology HarrisonThese questions continue to haunt anthropology and all those striving to bring some resolution to these issues. It has become increasingly important to also recognize the ways in which those questions have changed, and how the separation between Western and NonWestern is less about locality and geography, but rather an epistemic question related to the colonial histories of anthropology. Decolonization then has multiple facets to its approach: it is philosophical, methodological, and praxis-oriented, particularly within the fields of anthropology. Here at Savage Minds, we have decided to take these questions on again in a different public, and work through a series of dialogues, debates and possibly even reconciliation. 

We feel it imperative to decolonize anthropology; not doing so reiterates hierarchies of control and oppressive systems of knowledge production. But what does that really mean and what does it look like? What might it mean to decolonize anthropology? Various subfields of anthropology have been contending with this issue in different ways. For example, within archaeological literature, decolonization emerged as political necessity developed through an engagement with the postcolonial critique. Being inspired by Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s influential work on decolonizing methodologies (among others) resulted in the development of indigenous archaeology. Most archaeologists would argue that anthropological archaeology continues to exist within neocolonial, neoliberal, and late capitalist frameworks, and thus these critiques and methodologies need to be constantly revised utilizing interdisciplinary projects that locate decolonization across academia (including decolonizing epistemologies, aesthetics, pedagogy, etc).

decolonize-stickersCalls for decolonization have now emerged as mainstream politics in the academy: an era when academics across disciplines are calling for historical, financial, and intellectual accountability for not only the work we do, but also for the academic institutions in which we study, teach, and learn. We contend, therefore, that decolonizing anthropology (at a minimum) has now grown to a project beyond its initial impetus in treating non-anthropologist intellectuals as just that: intellectuals rather than local interlocutors. In its development across the discipline, in both archaeology and cultural anthropology, for example, decolonizing anthropology is a project about rethinking epistemology, methodology, community, and political commitments.

Epistemology. Decolonizing anthropology means rethinking epistemology. Anthropologists have long acknowledged the development of our field with a colonial impulse, and how the construction of knowledge reiterate systems of control. It is important to continue working through epistemic concerns to realign how our discipline might undiscipline itself and realign how it evaluates what research is considered important. Decolonizing epistemology destabilizes the canon. It is not enough to only add certain voices into our anthro-core classes; a decolonizing movement focused on epistemology provides rigor to the multiplicity and plurality of voices. Deeply linked to the ways in which knowledge is produced and constructed, is our pedagogy and the methodologies by which we practice.

Pedagogy. If we are to realign our discipline, it becomes imperative for us to reconsider how decolonization might impact our pedagogy. This is not a new concept in the academy: decolonizing pedagogy is a subfield within the field of education. As mediators/translators/facilitators of knowledge, it is our responsibility to consider how anthropological conversations about race and difference might be supported and developed in the classroom through a decolonized pedagogical practices. A decolonized pedagogy should be listed within as best practices in our guides to teaching and learning. Pedagogy also includes what one teaches as well as how. What forms the anthropological “canon” of works that one must know? Part of the decolonizing of the discipline is to reassess whose scholarship we mark as important via inclusion on course syllabi. The rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston’s scholarship by anthropologists is the most obvious example; who else are we–or should we–be learning from and thinking with anew today?

Methodology. Decolonizing anthropology means rethinking methodology, Our history is full of taking information from communities without enough consideration of the impact of this form of anthropological research. This does not only mean filling out our IRB forms, but also thinking carefully about power. Institutionally, our bodies are disciplined to hold and claim certain statuses as anthropologists. How does tending to such manifestations of power redirect our relationships in the field, our research questions, the ways we teach, and the way we work with communities?

Community. Decolonizing anthropology means rethinking community. Rethinking who the communities are within which we do our research. Rethinking the way we stretch and build our community of conversation to open beyond the academy, and learning how to extend our deep anthropological practice of listening with our ears and with our hands, and cultivating a spirit of reciprocity for a new era. And at the heart of today’s decolonial project, rethinking who our community of anthropologists is, and rethinking strategies of recruitment and retention for an anthropology that reflects and includes the communities whose stories, beliefs, and practices have long been those which comprised our discipline.

Political Commitment. Decolonizing anthropology means rethinking our political commitments. It also means to acknowledge that we are not the first to have them. Anthropology has long been a discipline with a political edge to its scholarship for some of its practitioners. However, as decades turn into centuries, what was once politically edgy looks embarrassingly not so, conventional or racist or both. We believe that a decolonized anthropology involves research that advances our understanding of the human world in a way that moves us forward.

All of this involves communication. As editors, our goals for this series are both personal and professional. Our first collaboration was an India Review special issue on Public Anthropology (2006), edited by Carole McGranahan, with Uzma Z. Rizvi as a contributor to the issue. Carole recently revisited her introduction to that volume in a keynote lecture for the annual American University’s Public Anthropology conference in 2014. In a talk on “Tibet, Ferguson, Gaza: On Political Crisis and Anthropological Responsibility,” she reflected on political changes in the discipline over the last decade, including our need to not only address anthropology’s colonial past, but also our imperial present. This is the sort of thinking we began together in 2006. Uzma’s article entitled “Accounting for Multiple Desires: Decolonizing Methodologies, Archaeology and the Public Interest” was based on her PhD research (2000-2003) in Rajasthan, India. The project was designed as a community based-participatory action research project that was explicitly linked to decolonizing archaeology in India. Both of us have had a long standing engagement with this literature and consider this contemporary moment to be significant within the praxis of our discipline, which is why we are thrilled to launch this series!

We have invited anthropologists writing and thinking about decolonizing the discipline to contribute essays to this series. Essays will be posted roughly every two weeks, and if any readers would like to submit an essay for consideration, please send us an email at decolonizinganthropology[at]

Our series schedule of contributors is as follows:

April 25–Faye Harrison, in conversation with Carole McGranahan, Kaifa Roland, and Bianca Williams

May 9–Melissa Rosario

May 23–Zodwa Radebe

June 6–Lisa Uperesa

June 20–Public Anthropology Institute (Gina Athena Ulysse, with Faye Harrison, Carole McGranahan, Melissa Rosario, Paul Stoller, and Maria Vesperi)

July 4–Krysta Ryzewski

August 1–Asmeret Mehari

August 8–Nokuthula Hlabangane

August 15–Zoe Todd

August 29–Didier Sylvain and Les Sabiston

September 12–Claudia Serrato

September 26–Gina Athena Ulysse

October 10–Paige West

November 7–Kristina Lyons

November 14–Marisol de la Cadena

Debate com Eduardo Viveiros de Castro sobre filme “O Abraço da Serpente” (Almanaque Virtual)

Indicado ao Oscar 2016 e distribuído pela Esfera Filmes, debate sobre o filme O Abraço da Serpente lotou o Cinema Estação Botafogo


28 de fevereiro de 2016

O renomado Antropólogo e profundo conhecedor da Etnologia Ameríndia, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, foi convidado para um debate sobre o novo filme distribuído pela Esfera Filmes, candidato ao Oscar 2016 na categoria de melhor filme em língua não-inglesa, o multipremiado representante da Colômbia “O Abraço da Serpente”, dirigido por Ciro Guerra. O Almanaque Virtual traz por escrito este grandioso debate de Viveiros de Castro com o público que lotou a sala do Cinema Estação Botafogo no Rio de Janeiro na manhã do Sábado do dia 27 de fevereiro.


É importante ressaltar que os personagens cientistas do filme são inspirados em grandes nomes reais para a Antropologia, nos dois tempos em que o filme se passa: o alemão Theodor Koch-Grünberg, que estudou os povos indígenas do Amazonas Colombiano e do Alto Rio Negro entre 1903-1905; e o americano Richard Evans Schultes, renomado etnobotânico que viveu em terras indígenas entre 1941-1952.

Embora bastante alusivo à realidade, há diferenças como as apontadas por Viveiros de Castro: “O personagem de Theodore pode parecer no filme que sumiu ao final de sua jornada exploradora, porém viveu mais 20 anos em Roraima, cujos estudos resultou na obra ‘De Roraima a Orinoco’, coleção em cinco volumes, e apenas faleceu em 1924.”


Já o segundo personagem, no salto de tempo que o filme faz de 1903 para 1941, era o etnobotânico mais famoso da área, que fez grandes estudos sobre o ‘Peiote’, e outras plantas com efeitos alucinógenos. Neste período, quando plantações da Malásia e Ceilão estavam fechadas, explorou-se bastante o Brasil, durante o apogeu do ciclo da borracha em que o alvo eram as seringueiras da América do Sul. Dizimaram muitos índios à conta das guerras da borracha, principalmente na Amazônia Ocidental, entre Brasil, Peru e Colômbia, tanto que nas cenas do filme que aludem a este período, o personagem de um messias falava português.

Na verdade, a representação do personagem que alude a Schultes, o etnobotânico, queria exprimir uma dupla função: procurar a Borracha/seringueira mais fina e melhor (porque a que antes ia pra Europa estava sob poder dos japoneses durante a 2ª Guerra Mundial para a fabricação de armas), e também procurar as plantas referidas no filme como Yakruna, que na realidade possivelmente se refere a plantas como a Chacrona que é uma das substâncias utilizadas para a confecção do Santo Daime (bebida consumida em cultos e experiências transcendentais/religiosas). De igual forma, a representação da fictícia Yakruna (Chacrona) não seria como a bela árvore frondosa mostrada no filme, nem tampouco a linda flor branca que nasce dela. Tratam-se de licenças líricas utilizadas pelo diretor do filme.


Já a língua falada no filme pelos nativos provavelmente era da família Tucano, representada pelo personagem do índio mais velho, Karamakate, que era possivelmente um descendente Huitoto, que representaria um Pagé/Xamã que teria se isolado do grupo que se “rendeu” aos brancos, como é mostrado mais ao final do filme, quando aparece a representação de índios aprisionados ou embriagados em uma espécie de campo de concentração ou acampamento militar/religioso dos exploradores e exportadores das riquezas nativas.

O filme destaca Missões Capuchinhas como a de Santa Maria do Vaupés, que fica a beira de um rio de mesmo nome que nasce na Colômbia e se junta ao Rio Negro no Brasil. Trata-se de Missões criadas pelos padres, ao longo deste rio importantíssimo na formação das tribos originárias desta região, representada de forma bastante fiel às missões educacionais de índios sob tortura nos anos de 1920 a 1960 até o governo tirar o apoio que dava às missões católicas, como ficou marcado na notória visita do Presidente Juscelino Kubitschek que chegou a dizer que a exploração daquelas terras teria a mesma importância que teve a construção de Brasília para o Brasil. Havia ainda internatos separados de meninos e meninas, “Órfãos das guerras da borracha”, que visava transformá-los não apenas em “bons cristãos” como bons “empregados”.


Noutro quesito, como se aprofunda Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, o velho Karamakate vestido com trajes nativos clássicos é mais uma ficção improvável para o período de 1960. Viver completamente sozinho faz parte da ficção, porque a lógica ameríndia é completamente diferente da ocidental e, portanto, e seria muito difícil para alguém isoladamente se manter nos costumes tradicionais, preservando artefatos como a sua Maloca (casa) como originalmente seriam.

O personagem do segundo explorador, na figura de Schultes, foi um dos últimos representantes expedicionários. Já o primeiro, Theodor, foi quem trouxe o mito do Macunaíma, usado depois popularmente na literatura pela obra de Mário de Andrade e depois na adaptação pelo cinema brasileiro (interpretado por Grande Othelo).

Outro ponto importante foi a escolha do narrativa do filme em adaptar a diferença epistemológica entre o Conhecimento pelos fatos e o Conhecimento pelos sonhos, ao abordar as diferenças da cultura dos ‘brancos’ e dos indígenas, respectivamente. A percepção ameríndia não se dá a partir da visão do humano para fora, mas sim de fora para dentro, pelas plantas, árvores e montanhas em total harmonia com a natureza, em oposição ao conhecimento classificatório e taxonômico do Ocidente.

El abrazo de la serpiente wala

Metaforicamente, todos os personagens do filme são bastante isolados, tanto os antropólogos quanto os índios que se isolam do grupo por natureza. E daí advém a bela passagem dos 40 anos que ocorre na dupla representação temporal no filme (1903 em oposição a 1941): o personagem mais velho de Karamakate diz que não sabia mais nada, nem realizar os rituais mais tradicionais para ele, mas ‘ao mesmo tempo sabia’, como um simbolismo de que o conhecimento estava sendo perdido, mas tinha de ser merecido, honrado para se passar adiante. A última Yakruna é uma ficção do filme para demonstrar justamente isso.

Viveiros de Castro atenta para o fato de que Antropólogos geralmente reclamam que filmes sobre o gênero de culturas indígenas “explicam demais o tema”. Raros filmes nesta seara são realmente bons. E tem os mais lúdicos/poéticos/alusivos como “O Abraço da Serpente”, que para o professor não se detém tanto em explicações conceituais, que se apresentam raras em alguns diálogos diretamente pra facilitar um pouco para o público em geral, como na cena que alude ao mapa.


Só ao final da projeção se tem a informação de que os personagens eram inspirados em figuras reais. Schultes, por exemplo, era amigo de Albert Hofmann, o químico que sintetizou o LSD, conhecimento este em parte obtido a partir dos estudos do Schultes sobre a Chacrona, a ‘Yakruna’ do filme. É inegável o resultado destas pesquisas para os avanços farmacológicos da História. Schultes foi quem descobriu o princípio ativo do Peiote/chacrona e etc pra farmacologia moderna. É uma bonita Mensagem sobre precisar do conhecimento dos índios pra evoluir

Vale ressaltar que para Viveiros de Castro foi uma ótima solução a escolha da fotografia P&B pelo diretor Ciro Guerra e só ao final exibir efeitos coloridos como o obtido pelo uso de alucinógenos.

Viveiros de Castro ressalta que há filmagens em regiões bastante diferentes, como mostram as plantas e montanhas de algumas cenas que se pretenderiam passar no mesmo lugar. Apenas um olhar mais atento de quem estudou a geografia da região poderá identificar tais nuances e tal fato não prejudica o resultado final do filme. Faz uma brincadeira ao afirmar que ficou imaginando como na cena da bússola, o personagem do explorador estrangeiro teria explicado sobre o eixo magnético da Terra na língua dos índios, já que este tipo de conhecimento nem mesmo faz parte do universo estrutural daquelas tribos.

Claro que o filme tomou liberdades para contar a história, como a flor de Yakruna, que no máximo talvez venha a desagradar aos botânicos, que podem não gostar da alteração da licença poética relacionada a “verdadeira Yakruna” e o modo como o filme a representa. Porém, há no filme um bom aproveitamento de um contraste real entre os conhecimentos do ‘branco’ e do indígena. Não foi necessariamente o foco dos escritos dos cientistas falar sobre este lado mais místico da apreensão da realidade etnobotânica, mas sim adotado pelo diretor Ciro Guerra para formular uma dramaturgia com uma outra forma de proceder o conhecimento do mundo diferente da nossa. Um bom exemplo cultural neste sentido que Eduardo indica é o livro: “A queda do céu”, livro Yanomani do xamã Davi Kopenawa e Bruce Albert.

El abrazo de la serpiente

Afirma ainda Viveiros de Castro que existem diferenças na abordagem do filme perante os reais estudos. Há de citar o título “O Abraço da Serpente” e a real representação da Anaconda para a cultura indígena, não muito abordada no roteiro. Pra eles o animal é importante porque advém de uma sucuri a gênese da vida, como que deixando de seu ventre as tribos no curso dos rios. Geralmente os pontos onde tem cachoeiras, região muito importante para os povos do Rio Valpés, onde os índios evoluíram após sair da cobra (que também pode ser entendida como uma representação de canoa no Rio). E, similar à onça pra eles, as serpentes também são animais multicoloridos. Teriam uma dupla significação. Primeiro de origem do homem, lembrando que a sucuri é uma cobra aquática. Segundo que é multicolorida e desenhada, um arquétipo da arte e dos desenhos indígenas, também associada ao arco-íris, a cobra como cor, grafismo e cromatismo.

Sobre a imagem do vazio na expressão usada no filme do “Chullachaqui”, uma cópia vazia de nós mesmos, afirma que está também muito bem retratada na fotografia. Sim, este símbolo existe em outras culturas indígenas, mas Eduardo nunca havia visto o uso desta forma, e é interessante como colocaram. Geralmente, a representação do ‘Chullachaqui’ é o aparecimento de uma pessoa após a morte, um outro eu perpétuo na memória de quem fica. Mas no filme Karamakate chama o estrangeiro de duplo/Chullachaqui, porque ele tinha 2 interesses: não só o conhecimento, mas usá-lo para a guerra. O próprio Karamakate se diz ‘Chullachaqui’ porque perdeu a memória. Era um duplo de si mesmo. O que ocorre muito na realidade demonstrada no filme é memória em demasia do passado que traz os mortos de volta. Mas esta forma em vida do Chullachaqui o próprio Eduardo abre a dúvida se existe em um dos povos ou se é mais licença poética.

Num outro momento, o uso da “última planta de Yakruna” é uma visão trágica, como se dissesse que o conhecimento indígena só sobreviveria se passado para o ‘branco’ (por isso ensina o bom uso e não deturpado). Para o professor, leia-se o ‘homem branco’ como o antropólogo. Mas o povo tucano, por exemplo, não se extinguiu. Ainda é numeroso. Esta visão trágica é mais relativa ao personagem do Manduca, do índio tido como “vendido para o branco”. Dependendo da região há índios mais “Manducas” e outros mais “Karamakates” (dependendo do grau de preservação da cultura).

Ironicamente, por se falar em ‘vendido para os brancos’, Viveiros de Castro conta que vários ornamentos indígenas foram roubados pelos missionários por serem por eles consideradas “coisas do demônio”. Os indígenas usavam caixas para guardar o que era sagrado e os missionários lhes tiravam isso e expunham em museus (Mas não diziam q era coisa de demônio? Então por que guardaram pra expor? Os índios querem de volta). Um exemplo deste resgate é “Iauaretê, Cachoeira das Onças” de Vincent Carelli, um filme que aborda este assunto.

Perguntado se hoje com conflitos de terra e um filme de visibilidade como esse, indicado ao Oscar, pode gerar mais debates, Eduardo se mostra positivo, lembrando que já há bons filmes sim neste sentido, que talvez ganhem mais repercussão, como “A bicicleta de Nhanderú” filme Mbyá-guarani de Ariel Ortega e Patrícia Ferreira de 2011.

Voltando ao assunto das simbologias para os indígenas, a onça também tem muita importância, embora apareça apenas rapidamente no filme. Entre as tribos ameríndias da região amazônica existe a figura do pagé-onça, que é quem negocia com os “Guardiões” dos recursos naturais. Há ainda a importante questão sobre as proibições alimentares, com o mundo extra humano, sobre restrição de períodos do ano, e que aparece de forma superficial no filme. A sucuri é muito importante principalmente ao norte da Amazônia. A ‘Boa’ mencionada no roteiro pode ser lida tanto como a jiboia como a sucuri, que são da mesma família de cobras. Ambas não-peçonhentas que matam por estrangulamento. A primeira terrestre e a segunda aquática. E a onça em toda mitologia seria o grande antagonista competidor do humano, modelo de força, agilidade e ao mesmo tempo perigoso, como podendo se apoderar do espírito humano.

Para finalizar, Viveiros de Castro encerra sua fala discorrendo sobre a noção de tempo: o indígena do filme usa palavras como ‘milhares’, ‘milhão’ de anos, mas ‘milhão’ não existe naquela língua. É visão poética do filme. E ele cita ainda várias outras formas poéticas do tempo na percepção das culturas ameríndias, com por exemplo o tempo do amanhecer, da gênese, antes dos diferentes grupos humanos saírem da cobra, antes de se separarem. Humanos eram peixes, alguns viraram humanos, outros não, por isso os povos do Rio Negro eram principalmente pescadores. Este seria um Tempo pré-cosmológico, onde os animais e humanos falavam entre si, todos eram o mesmo ser. Há também o tempo cíclico, onde netos recebem nomes dos avós, pois só existe a concepção de 2 gerações que se reconstituem a cada vez, a 3ª é igual à 1ª e a 4ª à 2ª, bidimensional e assim sucessivamente.

Transcrição por Filippo Pitanga

Edição por Samantha Brasil

El abrazo de la serpiente13

50 anos de calamidades na América do Sul (Pesquisa Fapesp)

Terremotos e vulcões matam mais, mas secas e inundações atingem maior número de pessoas 


Um estudo sobre os impactos de 863 desastres naturais registrados nas últimas cinco décadas na América do Sul indica que fenômenos geológicos relativamente raros, como os terremotos e o vulcanismo, produziram quase o dobro de mortes do que eventos climáticos e meteorológicos de ocorrência mais frequente, como inundações, deslizamento de encostas, tempestades e secas. Dos cerca de 180 mil óbitos decorrentes dos desastres, 60% foram em razão de tremores de terra e da atividade de vulcões, um tipo de ocorrência que se concentra nos países andinos, como Peru, Chile, Equador e Colômbia. Os terremotos e o vulcanismo representaram, respectivamente, 11% e 3% dos eventos contabilizados no trabalho.

Aproximadamente 32% das mortes ocorreram em razão de eventos associados a ocorrências meteorológicas ou climáticas, categoria que engloba quatro de cada cinco desastres naturais registrados na região entre 1960 e 2009. Epidemias de doenças – um tipo de desastre biológico com dados escassos sobre a região, segundo o levantamento – levaram 15 mil pessoas a perder a vida, 8% do total. No Brasil, 10.225 pessoas morreram ao longo dessas cinco décadas em razão de desastres naturais, pouco mais de 5% do total, a maioria em inundações e deslizamentos de encostas durante tempestades.

Seca no Nordeste...

O trabalho foi feito pela geógrafa Lucí Hidalgo Nunes, professora do Instituto de Geociências da Universidade Estadual de Campinas (IG-Unicamp) para sua tese de livre-docência e resultou no livro Urbanização e desastres naturais – Abrangência América do Sul (Oficina de Textos), lançado em meados do ano passado. “Desde os anos 1960, a população urbana da América do Sul é maior do que a rural”, diz Lucí. “O palco maior das calamidades naturais tem sido o espaço urbano, que cresce em área ocupada pelas cidades e número de habitantes.”

A situação se inverteu quando o parâmetro analisado foi, em vez da quantidade de mortos, o número de indivíduos afetados em cada tipo de desastre. Dos 138 milhões de vítimas não fatais atingidas por esses eventos, 1% foi alvo de epidemias, 11% de terremotos e vulcanismo, 88% de fenômenos climáticos ou meteorológicos. As secas e as inundações foram as ocorrências que provocaram impactos em mais indivíduos. As grandes estiagens atingiram 57 milhões de pessoas (41% de todos os afetados), e as enchentes, 52,5 milhões de habitantes (38%). O Brasil respondeu por cerca de 85% das vítimas não fatais de secas, essencialmente moradores do Nordeste, e por um terço dos atingidos por inundações, fundamentalmente habitantes das grandes cidades do Sul-Sudeste.

...inundação em Caracas, na Venezuela: esses dois tipos de desastres são os que afetam o maior número de pessoas

Estimados em US$ 44 bilhões ao longo das cinco décadas, os prejuízos materiais associados aos quase 900 desastres contabilizados foram decorrentes, em 80% dos casos, de fenômenos de natureza climática ou meteorológica. “O Brasil tem quase 50% do território e mais da metade da população da América do Sul. Mas foi palco de apenas 20% dos desastres, 5% das mortes e 30% dos prejuízos econômicos associados a esses eventos”, diz Lucí. “O número de pessoas afetadas aqui, no entanto, foi alto, 53% do total de atingidos por desastres na América do Sul. Ainda temos vulnerabilidades, mas não tanto quanto países como Peru, Colômbia e Equador.”

Para escrever o estudo, a geógrafa com-pilou, organizou e analisou os registros de desastres naturais das últimas cinco décadas nos países da América do Sul, além da Guiana Francesa (departamento ultramarino da França), que estão armazenados no Em-Dat – International Disaster Database. Essa base de dados reúne informações sobre mais de 21 mil desastres naturais ocorridos em todo o mundo desde 1900 até hoje. Ela é mantida pelo Centro de Pesquisa em Epidemiologia de Desastres (Cred, na sigla em inglês), que funciona na Escola de Saúde Pública da Universidade Católica de Louvain, em Bruxelas (Bélgica). “Não há base de dados perfeita”, pondera Lucí. “A do Em-Dat é falha, por exemplo, no registro de desastres biológicos.” Sua vantagem é juntar informações oriundas de diferentes fontes – agências não governamentais, órgãos das Nações Unidas, companhias de seguros, institutos de pesquisa e meios de comunicação – e arquivá-las usando sempre a mesma metodologia, abordagem que possibilita a realização de estudos comparativos.

O que caracteriza um desastre
Os eventos registrados no Em-Dat como desastres naturais devem preencher ao menos uma de quatro condições: provocar a morte de no mínimo 10 pessoas; afetar 100 ou mais indivíduos; motivar a declaração de estado de emergência; ou ainda ser a razão para um pedido de ajuda internacional. No trabalho sobre a América do Sul, Lucí organizou os desastres em três grandes categorias, subdivididas em 10 tipos de ocorrências. Os fenômenos de natureza geofísica englobam os terremotos, as erupções vulcânicas e os movimentos de massa seca (como a queda de uma pedra morro abaixo em um dia sem chuva). Os eventos de caráter meteorológico ou climático abarcam as tempestades, as inundações, os deslocamentos de terra em encostas, os extremos de temperatura (calor ou frio fora do normal), as secas e os incêndios. As epidemias representam o único tipo de desastre biológico contabilizado (ver quadro).

062-065_Desastres climáticos_241O climatologista José Marengo, chefe da divisão de pesquisas do Centro Nacional de Monitoramento e Alertas de Desastres Naturais (Cemaden), em Cachoeira Paulista, interior de São Paulo, afirma que, além de eventos naturais, existem desastres considerados tecnológicos e casos híbridos. O rompimento em novembro passado de uma barragem de rejeitos da mineradora Samarco, em Mariana (MG), que provocou a morte de 19 pessoas e liberou toneladas de uma lama tóxica na bacia hidrográfica do rio Doce, não tem relação com eventos naturais. Pode ser qualificado como um desastre tecnológico, em que a ação humana está ligada às causas da ocorrência. Em 2011, o terremoto de 9.0 graus na escala Richter, seguido de tsunamis, foi o maior da história do Japão. Matou quase 16 mil pessoas, feriu 6 mil habitantes e provocou o desaparecimento de 2.500 indivíduos. Destruiu também cerca de 138 mil edificações. Uma das construções afetadas foi a usina nuclear de Fukushima, de cujos reatores vazou radioatividade. “Nesse caso, houve um desastre tecnológico causado por um desastre natural”, afirma Marengo.

Década após década, os registros de desastres naturais têm aumentado no continente, seguindo uma tendência que parece ser global. “A qualidade das informações sobre os desastres naturais melhorou muito nas últimas décadas. Isso ajuda a engrossar as estatísticas”, diz Lucí. “Mas parece haver um aumento real no número de eventos ocorridos.” Segundo o estudo, grande parte da escalada de eventos trágicos se deveu ao número crescente de fenômenos meteorológicos e climáticos de grande intensidade que atingiram a América do Sul. Na década de 1960, houve 51 eventos desse tipo. Nos anos 2000, o número subiu para 257. Ao longo das cinco décadas, a incidência de desastres geofísicos, que provocam muitas mortes, manteve-se mais ou menos estável e os casos de epidemias diminuíram.

Risco urbano 
O número de mortes em razão de eventos extremos parece estar diminuindo depois de ter atingido um pico de 75 mil óbitos nos anos 1970. Na década passada, houve pouco mais de 6 mil mortes na América do Sul causadas por desastres naturais, de acordo com o levantamento de Lucí. Historicamente, as vítimas fatais se concentram em poucas ocorrências de enormes proporções, em especial os terremotos e as erupções vulcânicas. Os 20 eventos com mais fatalidades (oito ocorridos no Peru e cinco na Colômbia) responderam por 83% de todas as mortes ligadas a fenômenos naturais entre 1960 e 2009. O pior desastre foi um terremoto no Peru em maio de 1970, com 66 mil mortes, seguido de uma inundação na Venezuela em dezembro de 1999 (30 mil mortes) e uma erupção vulcânica na Colômbia em novembro de 1985 (20 mil mortes). O Brasil contabiliza o 9º evento com mais fatalidades (a epidemia de meningite em 1974, com 1.500 óbitos) e o 19° (um deslizamento de encostas, em razão de fortes chuvas, que matou 436 pessoas em março de 1967 em Caraguatatuba, litoral de São Paulo).

Também houve declínio na quantidade de pessoas afetadas nos anos mais recentes, mas as cifras continuam elevadas. Nos anos 1980, os desastres produziram cerca de 50 milhões de vítimas não fatais na América do Sul. Na década passada e também na retrasada, o número caiu para cerca de 20 milhões.

062-065_Desastres climáticos_241-02Sete em cada 10 latino-americanos moram atualmente em cidades, onde a ocupação do solo sem critérios e algumas características geoclimáticas específicas tendem a aumentar a vulnerabilidade da população local a desastres naturais. Lucí comparou a situação de 56 aglomerados urbanos com mais de 750 mil habitantes da América do Sul em relação a cinco fatores que aumentam o risco de calamidades: seca, terremoto, inundação, deslizamento de encostas e vulcanismo. Quito, capital do Equador, foi a única metrópole que estava exposta aos cinco fatores. Quatro cidades colombianas (Bogotá, Cáli, Cúcuta e Medellín) e La Paz, na Bolívia, vieram logo atrás, com quatro vulnerabilidades. As capitais brasileiras apresentaram no máximo dois fatores de risco, seca e inundação (ver quadro). “Os desastres resultam da junção de ameaças naturais e das vulnerabilidades das áreas ocupadas”, diz o pesquisador Victor Marchezini, do Cemaden, sociólogo que estuda os impactos de longo prazo desses fenômenos extremos. “São um evento socioambiental.”

É difícil mensurar os custos de um desastre. Mas a partir de dados da edição de 2013 do Atlas brasileiro de desastres naturais, que usa uma metodologia dife-rente da empregada pela geógrafa da Unicamp para contabilizar calamidades na América do Sul, o grupo de Carlos Eduardo Young, do Instituto de Economia da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), fez no final do ano passado um estudo. Baseado em estimativas do Banco Mundial de perdas provocadas por desastres em alguns estados brasileiros, Young calculou que enxurradas, inundações e movimentos de massa ocorridos entre 2002 e 2012 provocaram prejuízos econômicos de ao menos R$ 180 bilhões para o país. Em geral, os estados mais pobres, como os do Nordeste, sofreram as maiores perdas econômicas em relação ao tamanho do seu PIB. “A vulnerabilidade a desastres pode ser inversamente proporcional ao grau de desenvolvimento econômico dos estados”, diz o economista. “As mudanças climáticas podem acirrar a questão da desigualdade regional no Brasil.”

Ministro da Defesa vai a CPI para constranger antropólogos e defensores de indígenas (Outras Palavras)

Blog do Alceu Castilho

Publicado em 3 de abril de 2016

Em ato voluntário, Aldo Rebelo voltou a se aliar com ruralistas para colecionar delírios que seriam inadequados para um deputado; quanto mais à sua função no governo

Por Alceu Luís Castilho (@alceucastilho)

No que se refere à questão agrária, tema que acompanho de perto, nenhuma vez fiquei tão constrangido ao ver a fala de um político quanto agora, ao assistir o vídeo de Aldo Rebelo na CPI da Funai, na quarta-feira. E olhem que ele tem sérios concorrentes. Tivemos o deputado Luís Carlos Heinze (PP-RS) chamando índios, gays, quilombolas de “tudo que não presta”. E falas absurdas da ministra Kátia Abreu, principalmente do tempo em que era senadora; ou do líder da milícia UDR, hoje senador, Ronaldo Caiado (DEM-GO).

E por que a fala de Rebelo é pior?

Porque ele é ministro da Defesa. Suas curiosas concepções sobre “antropologia colonial” já seriam particularmente bizarras por ele se declarar comunista – ele é um dos líderes do PCdoB. Mas este é um assunto menor: que esses comunistas específicos se virem com sua consciência e com suas leituras, diante das diatribes do ex-deputado. Que se olhem no espelho e tentem encarar, depois disso, uma liderança indígena, um antropólogo sério, sem passar profunda vergonha. Agora, repito: Rebelo é ministro da Defesa. 

E, por isso, sua fala é indefensável. Vejamos.

“Dos três troncos, o indígena é o mais sofrido, o mais esquecido pelo Estado brasileiro. Enquanto os outros troncos alcançaram, de certa forma, seu espaço na construção da sociedade nacional, os índios foram ficando à margem desse processo, e carregando maior as penas e o sofrimento da construção da nossa pátria. Cabe, portanto, esse registro pra que essa injustiça possa ser reparada, para que nós possamos, de forma consequente, socorrer, amparar essa parcela da nossa população. Exatamente para que ela não fique à mercê [eleva a voz] da manipulação de demagogos, da manipulação de interesses espúrios internos e externos, como, lamentavelmente, vem acontecendo.

É preciso que o Estado brasileiro ampare a população indígena do Brasil, para que organizações não-governamentais interesseiras, muitas vezes agentes do próprio Estado, agindo contra o Estado, manipulem o sofrimento e o abandono das populações indígenas. Falo, senhoras e senhores, com a experiência de quem palmilhou, nas fronteiras do Brasil mais remotas da Amazônia, as terras indígenas e quem pôde dialogar com suas populações. E de quem pôde testemunhar, exatamente, aquilo que acabo de dizer. (…)

Nossa tradição, naturalmente, não nega as violências, não nega as brutalidades, não nega as injustiças, não nega tudo que de errado nós fizemos contra as populações indígenas. Mas isso também afirma a natureza da nossa civilização de buscar incorporar, não apenas no sangue, mas na cultura, na história, na literatura, na culinária, no imaginário e na psicologia do nosso povo a presença dos nossos queridos e das nossas queridas irmãs e irmãos indígenas.

Por essa razão, senhores, é inaceitável [eleva novamente a voz] a doutrina esposada por certos setores da antropologia, principalmente da antropologia colonial, antropologia criada na França e na Inglaterra exatamente para melhor realizar o trabalho de dominação das chamadas populações aborígenes. Antropologia que depois foi incorporada pelos exércitos coloniais como parte do esquema de dominação. Essa corrente antropológica neocolonial é que procura apartar da sociedade nacional e da integração à sociedade nacional as populações indígenas. E é preciso que se denuncie com vigor e com coragem, para que o Brasil não se ponha no papel de vítima dos crimes que, de fato, ele não cometeu. Basta aqueles que nós já cometemos.

Essa antropologia que influencia estruturas do próprio Estado brasileiro, que incorpora setores importantes da nossa mídia, que incorpora setores importantes de correntes religiosas trata de estabelecer um abismo entre a sociedade nacional, entre o Brasil e as populações indígenas, contrapondo ao esforço de integração a ideia de segregação. Como se na escala evolutiva da humanidade o índio pudesse ser contido e parado nos estágios anteriores à evolução de toda a humanidade.

Tenho amigos europeus que fazem estudos em populações tribais e que descobriram, aqui na região da Amazônia, como é óbvio, uma população indígena que não sabe contar, que não domina a aritmética como qualquer povo ágrafo. Eu dizia para ele: seus antepassados também não sabiam contar. Contam no máximo 1, 2, 3 e muito. (…) O que eu perguntava para esse amigo antropólogo era o seguinte: as crianças dessa tribo devem ter o direito de aprender matemática? Ou elas devem ter negado esse direito, para que a antropologia continue dispondo de estudo de caso para registrar nas suas teses de mestrado ou doutorado? (…)

A manipulação das causas nobres e justas, como é a causa da proteção dos índios, não é a única no mundo. Ela tem paralelo com a manipulação da causa do meio ambiente. É muito parecido. As potências usam o meio ambiente, as causas indígenas, os direitos humanos, a democracia, a liberdade como usaram o anticomunismo no passado. O que era o anticomunismo? Era o pretexto para se fazer golpes de Estado, para defender interesses econômicos em função da defesa da liberdade e da democracia. Depois que o comunismo deixou de ser o pretexto, porque não era de fato ameaça, eles procuraram outros pretextos: a causa indígena é um deles, o ambientalismo é outro”.   

E assim por diante, como se pode ver no vídeo. De forma voluntária, sem que o ministro Aldo Rebelo tivesse sido convidado ou convocado à CPI, instalada pelos ruralistas para combater direitos indígenas e a reforma agrária. Como porta-voz do governo, portanto?


Note-se que ele chega a combater a demarcação contínua da Raposa Serra do Sol, em Roraima. Em determinado momento, pergunta: “Quem é índio e quem não é índio onde tudo já se misturou?” E cita um estudo de pedologia na Universidade Federal de Viçosa que considera não existir mais ali uma civilização indígena, “mas uma civilização miscigenada”.

E tem mais: ele se declarou à favor da Proposta de Emenda Constitucional (PEC 215) que transfere ao Congresso o poder de demarcar terras indígenas e quilombolas: “Aldo diz à CPI que é a favor da PEC que muda regras de demarcação de terras“. Uma bandeira de quem? Dos ruralistas.

É como resume o antropólogo Henyo Barretto Filho, do Instituto Internacional de Educação do Brasil: “Se o governo não desautorizar de modo igualmente público e expresso tal depoimento, fica sendo essa a versão do governo sobre os povos indígenas, a política indigenista e o papel da antropologia no reconhecimento dos direitos territoriais”.

Crow Tribe Elder, Historian Joe Medicine Crow Dead at 102 (New York Times)

Agora a versão portuguesa:

Morreu o último chefe índio dos Estados Unidos (RTP)

[Esse título é uma piada. Não é de estranhar que o jornalista português não saiba o mínimo necessário para falar sobre indígenas sem cometer o erro absurdo de considera-lo o “último” chefe índio, uma vez que os jornalistas brasileiros, que estão tão próximos das populações indígenas, tampouco sejam capazes de evitar tais gafes.-RT]

RTP 04 Abr, 2016, 15:38 / atualizado em 04 Abr, 2016, 15:50 | Cultura

Morreu o último chefe índio dos Estados Unidos

O presidente Obama, ao condecorar Joe Medicine Crow em 2009, debatendo-se com uma pena que lhe entrou pelo nariz. Foto:  Jim Young, Reuters

Joseph Medicine Crow, último chefe da tribo Crow, morreu com 102 anos de idade. Embora tenha nascido em 1913, era considerado uma memória viva do século XIX.

 Joseph Medicine Crow foi educado para ser um guerreiro, absorveu na sua tribo as narrativas de feitos heróicos, em especial a batalha nas margens do rio Little Bighorn, em 1876. Ouviu essas narrativas de guerreiros índios que ainda tinham participado na batalha. Recordavam-na como rara vitória que fora, dos índios sobre as tropas brancas, ocasionada pela aliança entre cheyennes sioux, contra a prática do general George Armstrong Custer, que habitualmente massacrava aldeias índias inteiras.

Custer, retratado sem contemplações no filme Little Big Man, protagonizado por Dustin Hoffman, foi morto na batalha, juntamente com mais de duas centenas de militares norte-americanos.

Na reserva de Lodge Grass, Montana, Joseph Medicine Crow foi treinado desde os seis anos de idade pelo seu avô, Cauda Amarela, para continuar as proezas guerreiras de chefes como Touro Sentado e Cavalo Louco, os dois líderes das tribos coligadas para a vitória de Little Bighorn. O avô fazia-o correr descalço sobre a neve, para criar resistências.

Segundo a nota publicada no New York Times por ocasião da sua morte, Medicine Crow seguiu, contudo, um outro caminho, numa época em que a resistência à ocupação branca já tinha terminado. Foi um dos primeiros índios estudarem e licenciou-se em antropologia em 1939. Mas depois veio a Segunda Guerra Mundial e voltou a emergir Crow, o guerreiro índio.

Entre os seus feitos de guerra conta-se o de roubar cavalos num acampamento inimigo e o de vencer em combate corpo-a-corpo um soldado alemão, a quem finalmente decidiu poupar a vida. Num livro publicado em 2006, Medicine Crow explicava que “fazer a guerra é a nossa arte suprema; mas para os índios da planície fazer a guerra não consiste em matar. É tudo uma questão de inteligência, de liderança e de honra”.

Quando voltou da guerra na frente europeia, Joseph Medicine Crow foi nomeado pelo conselho tribal como historiador da tribo. Diz-se que era dotado de uma memória prodigiosa e que conseguia, muitos anos depois, reproduzir grande parte das conversas que tivera com seis batedores índios que chegara a conhecer e que estiveram ao serviço do general Custer na batalha de Little Bighorn.

O empenhamento de Medicine Crow em cultivar as tradições da sua tribo como parte integrante de uma nação americana resultante do extermínio da população indígena valeu-lhe numerosos louvores e condecorações, mais recentemente por parte do presidente Barack Obama. Entre os elogios fúnebres que lhe fizeram os seus conterrâneos conta-se o do senador Steve Daines, nestas palavras algo ambíguas: “O espírito de Medicine Crow, a sua humildade e as realizações da sua vida, deixam uma marca duradoura na história de Montana”.

Why Some Societies Practiced Ritual Human Sacrifice (New York Times)

Enough about Ethnography: An Interview with Tim Infold (Cultural Anthropology)

April 5, 2016

by Susan MacDougall

The Summer 2014 issue of HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory included the article “That’s Enough about Ethnography!”, by Tim Ingold, who is Chair in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Susan MacDougall conducted with Ingold about the article and reactions to it.

Susan MacDougall: In your HAU article, you identify the need for anthropology to “heal the rupture between imagination and everyday life.” When you talk about this rupture, you link it to a divorce of fact from theory. Can you expand on this notion and why it is important for the future of anthropology? 

Timothy Ingold: The problem here lies in the degree to which anthropology, as an academic discipline, remains compliant with the protocols of normal science. These protocols enforce a division between the real world, from which we are expected to gather “data,” and the world of theory, in which these data are to be interpreted and fashioned into authorized knowledge. This division is only reinforced by continual appeals to the idea of anthropological knowledge production. It is as though we go to the world for our material, but then turn our backs on it in working this material into the finely crafted, peer-reviewed artifacts that we recognize as books and articles. To my mind, this procedure fatally compromises the core mission of anthropology, which is to demonstrate—by precept and example—how to do our thinking in and with the world we inhabit: in response to its summons, rather than after the fact. This means giving due recognition to what we know full well from our inquiries, namely that what is given to us is not just there for the taking as data for collection, but is an offering, the acceptance of which carries a responsibility of care. Anthropology shows that curiosity and care, pried apart in mainstream science policy by a spurious and ethically indefensible division between research and impact, are inseparable aspects of our relations with those to whom we owe our education in the ways of the world.

SM: Timothy Jenkins (1994) referred to fieldwork as a series of apprenticeships, and pointed out that learning how to get along in the field involves quite a bit of un-learning one’s own assumptions. You also mention Kenelm Burridge’s metanoia: an ongoing series of transformations that alter the predicates of being. These are possible results of encounters, ethnographic or otherwise, and if those results lead to fruitful analysis, all the better. If this is such a commonplace thing to do, though, how can the aspiring anthropologist prepare to do it and do it well?

TI: Certainly, there is an element of unlearning in all fieldwork. What would be the point of it otherwise? Such unlearning, moreover, can be unsettling and does involve an element of existential risk. My point, however, is that unlearning is intrinsic to education, understood in its original sense as a leading out into the world that frees us from the limitations of standpoints or perspectives and causes us continually to question what previously we would have taken for granted. This is what we expect from our students in the classroom, as much as what we expect from ourselves in the field.

Two things follow from this. First, although only a tiny proportion of the students we teach—at least at introductory levels—will go on to become practicing anthropologists, our task is nevertheless to foster an anthropological attitude that all of them may take into whatever walks of life they subsequently follow. Preparation for anthropology is preparation for life, and it lies in the cultivation of a readiness to both listen to others and question ourselves. Second, whether this preparation and the results that flow therefrom yield to “fruitful analysis,” as you put it, depends on what we mean by analysis. If we mean the processing and interpretation of empirical data in the normal scientific sense, then the answer is no. But if analysis means a critical interrogation that opens simultaneously to the self and to the world, then the answer is a definite yes!

SM: Conversely, is it possible to do the encounter badly or incorrectly? Or do weaknesses and mistakes emerge later, in the note-taking and what follows? If anthropologists would like to maintain some claim to ethnography or to participant-observation, then is there a need to distinguish between the high- and low-quality conduct of both?

TI: The opposite of opening is, of course, closure. That is when we refuse to attend to the presence of others or to what they have to offer. I suppose a “bad” encounter would be one in which we see but do not observe, hear but do not listen, touch but do not feel. In such an encounter, we would pick up signals as data, but remain impervious to them. Our curiosity would be divorced from care. This, of course, is what is generally recommended by science in the name of objectivity. But as I have stressed, objectivity is one thing, observation quite another. Observers are bound to make mistakes, and our field notes are doubtless full of them. We can misunderstand what people say, jump to the wrong conclusions, or confuse one thing for another. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that: as in any situation of apprenticeship, we learn from our mistakes. But no amount of correction can make up for a failure to attend. Even if, objectively speaking, there were to be not a single error in our data, we could still fail to draw any lessons from them. We learn much from mistakes of observation grounded in attention, and nothing whatsoever from an objectively “correct” record that is nevertheless grounded in inattention.

SM: You point out in the article that anthropologists’ obsession with ethnography has a navel-gazing quality, turning “the project of anthropology into the study of its own ways of working.” Certainly anthropologists can be sentimental about their fieldwork experience and consider it formative for their characters as well as their scholarship. But, as you point out, this willingness to be changed by the fieldwork experience is what makes it an education as opposed to straightforward data collection. Do you see a way for this admission—that is, that participant observation can be personally transformative—to enhance anthropology’s impact in the world, rather than undermining it? 

TI: This is precisely why anthropology can potentially make such a difference in the world. But we should not have grudgingly to “admit” that fieldwork can personally transform the observer, as though we were offering an apology for anthropology’s inability to come up with accounts that more positivist disciplines would regard (in their terms) as suitably robust or evidence-based. Nor should our addiction to fieldwork be used to justify disciplinary introversion, affording an excuse to retreat into our own shells and to talk only to ourselves about the conditions and possibilities of anthropological knowledge production. On the contrary, we should be leading a campaign against the very idea that the world presents itself to human science as a standing reserve of data for collection. And to do this, we must stop pretending to believe in this idea ourselves.

For this reason I insist that participant-observation is not a research method but, more fundamentally, an ontological commitment: an acknowledgement of our debt to the world for what we are and what we know. This is a commitment, I believe, that should underwrite not just anthropology but every branch of scientific inquiry. Whatever our field of specialization, we should have the humility to recognize that understanding can only grow from within the world we seek to know, the world of which we are a part. This recognition, however, strikes at the core of the constitution of the academy. It is why anthropology’s campaign must also be a campaign for the heart and soul of the academy. The stakes could scarcely be higher.

SM: In a related vein, I’d like to bring up Amy Pollard’s (2009) piece “Field of Screams,” which took anthropology to task for sending vulnerable students off into the field to meet with traumatic and isolating experiences. It seems that a direct, convincing definition of ethnography will remain elusive if postfield graduate students are afraid to talk about what they actually did in the field. Do you see a way for anthropology to address the sometimes painful realities of fieldwork, without undue reliance on procedures that look like they were written by university risk management offices and not anthropologists? 

TI: Traumatic and isolating experiences are not exclusive to anthropological fieldwork. They are a part of life. In life in general, as in fieldwork in particular, painful realities are always hard to talk about. The absurdity of bureaucratic risk management, on which so many of our universities nowadays insist, is that they fail to understand this. Were we to follow their logic to the letter, then we would have a society in which no baby could be born without a divinely ordained risk management schedule that would anticipate every contingency of its future life. That institutions should have usurped such godlike powers for themselves—in the interests, it must be said, not of protecting their researchers but of protecting themselves against litigation should things go wrong—is an indication of the corporate dishonesty that now pervades the higher education sector. Anthropology should not participate in this dishonesty. I do not think, however, that this issue of risk management has any immediate bearing on the definition of ethnography, unless of course we were to include within our catalog of risks the isolations and traumas of writing up. As I have endeavored to show, ethnography and participant-observation are not the same, and their common identification has brought nothing but confusion.

SM: One of the reasons I was interested in discussing this article with you is that it clearly sparked a conversation. Rarely do journal articles show up in my Twitter feed or inspire threads on the Open Anthropology Cooperative, and this one certainly did. Have you had any particularly thought-provoking responses to this article? Have any of them prompted you to reevaluate your views?

TI: There is no doubt that my article touched a raw nerve in the discipline. It seems to have brought into the open a number of issues that have long been simmering beneath the surface, and that many would have preferred to have kept there. The responses I have received are roughly of two kinds. The first are supportive. They come principally from younger scholars who thank me for stating explicitly what they have long felt, but have been afraid to express for fear of rocking the boat. The second come from critics who accuse me of tilting against windmills. They complain that, in distinguishing ethnography from anthropology, I have resorted to a narrow, old-fashioned, and overly literal characterization of ethnography that bears little resemblance to what most scholars who would call themselves ethnographers actually do nowadays. Looking at the content of most mainstream anthropological journals, I am a little skeptical of this complaint.

Be that as it may, my response is that even if so-called ethnographers are already doing everything that I am calling for under the banner of anthropology, ethnography is nevertheless a singularly inappropriate term by which to describe it. Maybe among ourselves, with our common experience of having undertaken fieldwork of one kind or another, we can share an in-house understanding of what ethnography means without having to spell it out too precisely. This understanding, however, does not extend to realms beyond the bounds of the discipline, where fundamental misapprehensions remain about what anthropologists do and why it is important. Overuse of the term ethnography, I believe, only feeds these misapprehensions and makes it more difficult, not less, to explain what we do and what its value might be to others: whether they are students, academics in other disciplines, or the public at large. Anthropology is a noble calling and not one to be ashamed of. Why should we hide it under another term, ethnography, as if pretending to do something completely different?


Jenkins, Timothy. 1994. “Fieldwork and the Perception of Everyday Life.” Man 29, no. 2: 433–55.

Pollard, Amy. 2009. “Field of Screams: Difficulty and Ethnographic Fieldwork.” Anthropology Matters 11, no. 2.

On the anthropology of climate change (Eurozine)

Thomas Hylland EriksenDasa Licen

Original in English
First published in Razpotja 22 (2015)

Contributed by Razpotja
© Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Dasa Licen / Razpotja
© Eurozine

A conversation with Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Mainstream literature on globalization tends not to take the uniqueness of each locality seriously enough, says Thomas Hylland Eriksen. He explains how the anthropology of climate change is responding to the need for an analysis of the global situation seen from below.

Dasa Licen: You have a blog, a vlog where you report on your fieldwork, where you look a bit like Indiana Jones. On top of that, you write popular articles and essays. You seem to believe that media are very important for anthropology.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen: I think anthropologists should be more conscious about how they are perceived in the wider public. Unfortunately, for decades now, there has in many places been a certain withdrawal of anthropology from the public sphere. There are many burning issues, from climate change to identity politics to debates on human nature, where anthropologists are not present the way they could be. This was not always the case.

If you go back a few generations, there were many anthropologists who were also engaged public intellectuals. They were visible, well known, they wrote popular books, took part in political debates, and so on. Think of a scholar like Margaret Mead back in the 1960s: her research was controversial, but she succeeded in placing anthropology on the map by being engaged in important debates. Nowadays, there are important discussions where anthropologists would have a lot to offer, yet they are more or less absent.

An obvious example is identity politics, but you can also take the debates on human nature. In many western countries, these have been monopolized by evolutionary biologists or psychologists. The things anthropologists say about human nature are quite different, and while we are rather good at criticizing sociobiology and evolutionary perspectives amongst ourselves, we rarely go out and present our nuanced message to a wider public. It is a striking fact that the most famous anthropologists today is not an anthropologists. He is an ornithologist and physiologist called Jared Diamond who has written bestsellers about where we come from and where we are going. His latest book called The World until Yesterday is a sort of anthropological treatise about other cultures, traditional peoples, and about the kind of wisdom they contribute to the modern world. His book has not been very well received by anthropologists, because he gets a lot of things nearly right. Although he has not been trained as an anthropologist, he uses anthropological sources and asks the kind of questions we do. But he manages to do it in a way that makes people want to read his book. We should learn from these examples.

DL: We all know the case of the doctor who is walking down the street and sees an injured person: he must offer to help. Do you think something similar applies to anthropologists in the face of global crises?

THE: I do think so. In my own work, I try to address two big lumps of questions. One of them is the extent to which we can apply anthropology as a tool to understand the contemporary world. This is what my project “Overheating” is about. The second is a more general question: what is it to be human? There are two groups of answers, one of them says, well a human being is a small twig on a branch on the big tree of life: that’s the story of evolution and while it generates some important some insight, it leaves aside a different set of questions about human subjectivity and emotions. I am talking about the complexities of life, all the existential struggles that human beings are confronted with. This perspective generates an entirely different set or answers, which are at the basis of what we do as anthropologists. By addressing them, we can contribute to a more nuanced view to what it is to be a human.

We are not only homo economics, merely maximizing creatures, and although instincts can be important for understanding our behaviour, we are not driven by them but immersed in a network of additional aspects. We are also not just social animals… Clifford Geertz insisted that human beings are primarily self-defining animals. Such a perspective enables not only a better understanding of the realities of human lives, but it also has its moral implications.

DL: Which ones?

THE: Let me give you an example. One of my PhD students works in rural Sierra Leone. It is an overheated place, in the sense that the Chinese and other foreign investors are coming in, opening up mines, new roads are being built… For many people this means opportunities, for many others it means misery. My student asks a guy, “so how do you explain these changes taking place in your community in the last years?”, and this guy would just shrug and say, “well you know man, it’s the global”. We have to try to find out what exactly he means when he says “it’s the global”.

DL: Is this the aim of the Overheating project which you mentioned?

THE: What we are trying to do with Overheating is to fill a gap in the literature on globalization: we are trying to say something general about what I call the clash of scales, the dichotomy between the large and local. The large scale is the world of global capitalism, of the environment and of nation-states; on the other hand, there are the lives people live in their own communities. We are a group of researchers who’ve done fieldwork in lots of locations around the world and we try to produce ethnographic material that is comparable, so that we can use our material to create, if I can be a bit pretentious, an anthropological history of the early twenty-first century. So we are working very hard to create an analysis of the global situation seen from below.

DL: Your project seems so wide that it almost looks like the anthropology of everything…

THE: Not quite. It is the anthropology of global crisis as perceived locally. Say you live somewhere in Australia and all of a sudden a mining company arrives next door and disrupts the ecosystem, and you ask yourself, “who can I blame and what can I do”? It’s the kind of question that many people ask when confronted with changes on the large scale that affect their local community. Our informants do not distinguish between the environment, the economy, identity as they all interact and effect local life. What we are interested in is the anthropology of local responses to global changes.

DL: So, you are trying to advance an anthropological understanding of globalization?

THE: Yes. I think one of the shortcomings of the mainstream literature on globalization is that the uniqueness of each locality is not taken seriously enough: the local is present mostly in the form of anecdotes from people’s lives. The problem of anthropological studies of globalization has often been the opposite: you go really deeply into one place and you neglect the wider perspective. We are trying to feel the gap in both approaches. The metaphor I often use is that of a social scientist who sits in a helicopter with a pair of binoculars and looks at the world. This would be the case of authors like Anthony Giddens or Manuel Castells. On the other hand, you have the person who works with a magnifying glass. We are trying to bring these two levels closer.

DL: The seriousness of global warming has been neglected by anthropologists, indeed by all social sciences for a long time.

THE: This is changing. The anthropology of climate change has become one of the big growth industries in academia, just as ethnicity and nationalism were big in the 1970s and 1980s. You are from Slovenia, you know the breakup of Yugoslavia, which came as a shock to us and we needed to understand what was happening. The genocide in Rwanda happened around the same time, Hindu nationalists came to power in India, contradicting everything we thought we knew about the country, controversies emerged around migration, multiculturalism, diversity, Islam in western Europe. After the turn of the century, the issue of climate change came to be understood as another layer on top of these issues.

DL: When did you develop your interest in climate change?

THE: It must have been many years ago but it took a while before I got the opportunity to look at these interconnected issues more closely. We are not geophysicists, we do not know much about CO2, we cannot predict the temperature of the world. What we can do is study how people respond, how they react, how they talk about it and what they do.

Summit camp on top of the Austfonna Ice Cap in Svalbard (Norwegian Arctic). Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / Thorben Dunse, University of Oslo. Source: Flickr

The dangerous thing about climate changes is that it has deep consequences, and yet it is hard to find anybody to blame. Think about it: say you are in small town or village in the Andes in Peru and you notice there is something odd with the water. It is not the way it used to be, you notice the glaciers are melting, and then you know that mining company has opened an operation venue nearby. You think the mining company must be to blame, because they probably pumped out all the water and they destabilized the local climate, and so you march up to them telling them “look, you are taking away our water, we need compensation”, and they come out and they say “I’m sorry but it is not us, it is global climate change”. Where do you go to address that question? Do you write to Obama, do you write a letter to the Chinese?

The concern with climate change can be very serious in the sense that it creates a sense of powerlessness. We just have to let things happen. For this reason I have been interested in how environmental engagement begins with things that are within your reach. I probably can’t do anything about world climate, but maybe I can save some trees, or the dolphins in the harbour. That’s how engagement begins.

DL: Do you feel such helplessness when you talk about global warming and they ask you, “so what is your solution”?

THE: Good question. I guess we all have to find the best way of acting where we are. It is not as if you or I have the responsibility to save to planet, or that you will fail if you have not been able to save it. I remember that as a schoolboy I had a devout Christian teacher who was raised by missionaries in Japan. Being a Christian missionary in Japan can be very difficult because the people are generally not very interested in evangelization. She told us about a fellow Christian who had spend his entire life as a missionary in Japan and succeeded in converting one person, which made his life feel worthwhile. He felt saving one soul was well worth 50 years of hard work. We should not be overambitious regarding what we are able to achieve. We can take part in public debates, add one drop of complexity, a drop of doubt. Maybe sometimes it is enough or rather, it is all we can do.

DL: As an anthropologist you are not allowed to pass judgment on people, however sometimes it is extremely hard to avoid judgment, for example when we are confronted with obtuse forms of climate change denial.

THE: Traditionally, anthropologists have not been too good at thinking of themselves as engaged subjects, we have been taught not to pass judgment, to just lay out the facts and say, well this is what the world looks like and this is why this makes sense to those people and not to those people, and I believe that this paradigm, this kind of relative paradigm has collapsed. Such an approach can no longer function precisely for the reasons I was suggesting: we are now all in the same boat. So there is no good reason anymore to make sharp distinctions between scholarship and the wider public, because we are facing the same radical challenges. We are all part of the same moral space and sometimes we have to take an ethical or political stance, anything else would be irresponsible. But we have to strike a balance between that kind of engagement and our credibility as researchers.

Back to your question: when I study people who deny the reality of climate change I have to take their view of world seriously. Many of them really believe in the paradigm or progress, industrialism and so on. This to me is a key double bind in contemporary civilization: there is no easy way out, between economic growth and the ecological sustainability. There is no reason that anybody should have the answer. When people ask me what to do, I have to say: “Sorry, I am trying to work this out together with you. I do not have the answer.”

DL: You probably know Slavoj Zizek, he is more famous than Slovenia. He has had an ongoing dispute with Dipesh Chakrabarty on a related issue: should we first do something about global warming or engage in revolutionary struggle? Zizek believes climate change cannot be addressed outside the struggle for global emancipation, Chakrabarty on the other hand insists on the need to strike a historical compromise on a global level. What is your stance in this polemics?

THE: That is a very interesting question. On the one hand, I see the biggest tension in contemporary civilization is that between economic growth, which for two hundred years has been based on fossil fuels, and sustainability. Fossil fuels have been a blessing for humanity. They have created the foundations for modern life. Yet they are now becoming a damnation, a threat to civilization. This is hard to see from the viewpoint of a classical progressivist perspective.

This is strongly linked to another contradiction, the tension between a class based politics and green politics. What is more important, to do something about inequality or to save the world climate? Sometimes you just cannot pursue both aims. I worked in Australia, in a place where virtually everybody works directly or indirectly in industry. They have a huge power station, a cement factory, it is an industrial hub. Very few people have any environmental engagement to talk of. There is nothing about climate change in the local newspaper. It is all about industrial growth and job security. Being an environment activist in that place is very hard because your neighbours are not going to like it, but they have a very strong union-based socialist movement in that town. Those people see green politics as something that is a kind of a middle class thing. They associate it with cappuccino-sipping do-gooder students in Sydney and Melbourne, whereas us, the hard working industrial employees are the ones actually producing the cappuccino, the tablets, and they are not aware of where their wealth comes from. There is a widespread feeling of the hypocrisy of green politics.

Where do I stand? I think saving the climate is the main issue. But it should be pursued with concern for social justice. The first priority has to be to create sustainable jobs. If you take away a million jobs, you have to reproduce those jobs somewhere else. This leads me to what I think could have been an answer, had Zizek been aware of it, namely the anthropological school called human economy. There is a very creative English anthropologist who works in South Africa called Keith Hart who works from this perspective. David Graeber is sort of within the same world, looking at feasible economic alternatives to global neoliberalism. We are not talking about state socialism here: you are from Slovenia, you are too young to remember it, but state socialism did not make people too happy and it was not good for the environment either.

The point is that we need to talk about the economy in terms of human needs. The goal of economy is to satisfy human needs; not just material needs but also the need to something meaningful, to be useful for others, to see the results of what you are doing. The point of economy is not only to generate profits, but to try to fight alienation.

DL: You wrote somewhere that the Left lacks an understanding of multiculturalism and knowledge of the environment, and it tends to neglect these two fields that are extremely important right now. Isn’t that a surprising statement given that in the West, these issues have become almost synonymous with leftism?

THE: Things are indeed changing. That is probably one of the reasons Slavoj Zizek gets so angry sometimes, because he identifies with the Left, but the Left has abandoned his positions. I think many of us have the same feeling of being ideologically homeless. For 200 hundred years, the Left was quite good at promoting equality and social justice, presuming that economic growth will continue indefinitely. Then, in the 1980s multiculturalism emerged. The Left tried to appropriate it, tried to promote diversity, but it has not succeeded, because leftist movements have been good at promoting equality but not difference. Then environmental issues came as another factor complicating the picture. What do you do when you have to choose between class politics and green politics? You probably stick with class politics, but then you realize it is part of the problem, especially if you live in a rich country, as I do, where the working class flies to southern Europe all the time, going on holiday, driving cars, eating imported meat and so on. There is a big dilemma here. Again I must insist I don’t have the final answer, but at least if we identify the problem we make small steps in the right direction.

By the way, I very strongly disagree with what Zizek says about multiculturalism. Whenever he makes jokes about it, he produces a caricature of multiculturalism, rather than a parody which is arguably his aim. He does not really know what he is talking about. He knows a lot of things, but multiculturalism is not one of his strong points.

DL: Zizek has advanced a positive interpretation of the Judeo-Christian tradition from a leftist perspective. Do you think that this tradition, which sees the Earth as ultimately doomed, poses a problem for environmentalism?

THE: Good question. Probably there is something about the way in which many people talk about climate change that resembles these Judeo-Christian ideas about the end of time. We are approaching the end, we are approaching the final phase. Think about the popularity of post-apocalyptic films in science fiction. It started already in the early 1980s with Mad Max films, and there has been a series of Hollywood and other movies about the world after the apocalypse. There is a real thirst for this sort of narratives. In the text I am writing now I just quoted T. S. Eliot who writes famously that the world ends not with a bomb but with a whimper. There is no before and after. Many of the communist revolutionaries held similar chiliastic ideas: things are going to get worse and worse and worse, and then after the revolution everything is going to be fine. But we have some 200 years of experience with revolutions, and we know they tend to reproduce many of the problems they were meant to solve, and on top of that they create new ones. Take the Arab spring in North Africa and the Middle East. I think it is very dangerous to behave as if the history has a direction.

DL: This is somewhat connected to the wider issue of the role of human civilization in the environmental history of the planet. You use the term Anthropocene, yet some find it inappropriate as it puts humans in the centre, not only as the source of the trouble we are facing but also as more important than anything else on the planet. How do you feel about that?

THE: Some scientists want to have it both ways. Some think in terms of the changes that characterize the Anthropocene and at the same time they emphasize that humans and non-humans are really in a symbiotic relationship. I do not have a lot of patience for that kind of argument, especially if you think of the state of the world in times of climate change, with huge extractive industries, the global mining boom as the result of the growing Chinese and Indian economies, the upsurge of fracking which seems to have provided us with an almost indefinite supply of fossil fuels. I feel it is irresponsible to question the responsibility of humanity. And yet, however much I may love my cat and acknowledge that humans and domestic animals have coevolved, we must realize that human beings are special. There is no chimpanzee or the smartest of dolphins able to say, “well my dad was poor but at least he was honest”. Only human beings can create that sentence: our sense of moral responsibility is unique and we must live up to it.

DL: Speaking of moral responsibility: I understand you had an important role in the coming to terms with the Breivik tragedy…

THE: Yes, I spent about three weeks after the terrorist attack and doing little other than talking to foreign journalist and writing articles for foreign newspapers. They contacted me not only because I have been writing about identity politics and nationalism, but also because Breivik had a sort of soft spot for me. He sees me as a symbol of everything that has gone wrong in Norway, a sort of spineless effeminate cosmopolitan middle class multiculturalist Muslim lover. There has been a hardening; polarization is much more strong now than it was only 20 years.

In the 1990s, people who had said things like I do about cultural diversity would perhaps have been accused of being naive, whereas in the last few years we are increasingly being accused of being traitors – which is different. Breivik quoted me about 15 times in his manifesto and his YouTube film. You might say he had a mild obsession with me. Eventually, I was called in as a witness in the trial by the defence. Originally, the psychiatrists who examined Breivik concluded he was insane. He should have received psychiatric treatment, and thus could not be punished for what he did. Of course, at the certain level one has to be insane to kill so many innocent young people. But his ideas are not the result of mental illness, they are quite widely shared. We have websites in Norway, with 20,000 unique visits every week, that were among his favourite websites. The defence wanted to call me in as a witness to testify that although he may be a murderer, his ideas are very common, they are shared by thousands of others. Which is true, but in the end I did not have to go because they had a long list of witnesses and they only used some of them.

DL: Were you scared by this kind of exposure?

THE: Not really. But in the first few weeks after the terrorist attack when everybody in Norway was in a state of shock, I noticed that some people at the university whom I hardly knew would come over to me and were behaving unusually nicely. I realized they probably thought that was the last time they see of me because I was probably next on the dead list. Then things went back to normal. You can never feel entirely safe. Breivik reminds us that even a handful of people can do immense harm, just like the terrorist attack in United States in 2001. It has probably made society a little bit less trusting, a bit more worried. But I do not think about my own person security. About the security of my family, yes, but not mine. You cannot. That would be allowing the other people to win.

DL: Would you say that Norway has learnt anything from this tragedy?

THE: Unfortunately not. There was a chance that we could have, and many of us were hoping that an attack like that should make us understand that the idea of ethnic purity is absurd, crazy and not feasible in this century. We hoped that we could now get together to sit down and discuss these issues in a more measured, serious, balanced way, but it did not happen. It took only a couple of weeks for the usual political polarization to return. If anything, people who were against immigration became even more aggressive than before. We missed an opportunity there.

DL: You are coming to Ljubljana to a convention with the provocative title, Why the world needs anthropologists. But isn’t it a bit pretentious to suggest that the world needs us at all?

THE: That is an excellent question. I do not know whether the world needs novelists, but it probably does not does need poets. It can easily manage without them. And yet, the human need for meaning is just as powerful as the need for food and shelter. The kind of meaning sensitive and intelligent people can provide is especially important, when we need to reformulate the main questions.

I sometimes think about students of mine who are never going to work as anthropologist, they will find jobs elsewhere, but studying anthropology enables them to lead a better life because they understand more of themselves and of the world. I even think that doing anthropology makes you a better person: just like reading novels, it enables you to identify with others. When you then see the refugees in the Mediterranean, at least you know, it could have been me. You think that because you relate to people in all parts of the world. I think the main sort of moral message of anthropology perhaps is that all human lives have value, no matter how alien no matter how strange it might appear. So yes, I think world needs anthropologists, just as it needs novelists and poets.

Os desastres em uma perspectiva antropológica (ComCiência)

No. 176 – 10/03/2016

Renzo Taddei

Um traço peculiar do imaginário brasileiro, ou pelo menos daquele mais presente nos principais centros de produção midiática (Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo-Brasília), é a ideia de que “no Brasil não tem desastre”. Uma piada muito difundida no passado, e ainda presente na memória das pessoas e na internet, diz que, frente à indagação do anjo Gabriel sobre a razão pela qual Deus teria poupado o Brasil dos desastres naturais, quando da criação do mundo, este teria respondido que desastroso seria o povo que ele colocaria aí. Racismo ou “complexo de vira-latas” (Rodrigues, 1993) à parte, a ideia de um Brasil sem desastres é tomada aí como senso comum, como elemento de obviedade na elaboração da anedota (Taddei, 2014a).

Ocorre, no entanto, que os desastres são parte da relação entre humanos e o meio ambiente no Brasil desde pelo menos os primeiros anos de colonização. De acordo com o historiador Raimundo Girão, Pero Coelho de Souza, o primeiro português a tentar estabelecer-se no Ceará, em 1603, foi obrigado a retirar-se, poucos anos depois, em função da estiagem. Os registros históricos dizem que, na empreitada, perdeu sua fortuna e filhos seus morreram de fome e sede (Girão, 1985, p. 69). Esse não era o primeiro desastre do continente: acredita-se que as secas foram fator fundamental para o colapso do império Maia (Webster, 2002), na região do sul do México, cinco séculos antes de espanhóis e portugueses cruzarem o Atlântico. E também não seria o último em solo brasileiro, como bem sabemos.

Frente a esse panorama, uma contribuição possível das ciências sociais ao estudos dos desastres é a tentativa de responder à pergunta: o que constitui um desastre, e como tal forma de pensamento está embutida na realidade social e política brasileira?

O que é um desastre

Uma definição de desastre bastante utilizada nas ciências sociais é aquela que sugere que o desastre é um acontecimento que desorganiza a ordem social, cultural, econômica e política de uma coletividade, a ponto de que esta não é capaz de reorganizar-se de forma espontânea e autônoma (Blakie et al apud Briones, 2010). Ainda que essa forma de entender o desastre seja instrutiva, não é incomum que ela seja entendida como sugerindo que o desastre sempre vem “de fora”, da natureza, e é exógeno ao meio sociocultural. Essa abordagem reproduz a ideia de que trata-se de uma questão de domínio humano sobre a natureza; quando as coisas saem do controle, evidenciam-se os limites de tal domínio, e a natureza mostra sua força.

Para entendermos por que esta conceituação é limitada (e limitante), tomemos o exemplo das secas, sem dúvida o desastre mais comum e recorrente em território brasileiro: o que exatamente vem de fora para desorganizar as coisas? Vejamos: a caatinga, ecossistema dominante no chamado “polígono das secas” do Nordeste, é formada sobretudo por vegetação xerófila, aquela capaz de sobreviver em situação de escassez extrema de água. Se indagarmos nossos colegas botânicos e biólogos qual o tempo necessário para que os organismos se adaptem a um ecossistema, através dos processos de geração de novas espécies e seleção natural – o mesmo que supostamente gerou a vegetação xerófila da caatinga –, eles nos responderão que trata-se de um processo longo, de milhares de anos. Ou seja, a existência de vegetação xerófila na caatinga evidencia que os períodos longos de estiagem ocorrem aí há milênios. Nessa perspectiva, um período longo sem chuvas não é novidade alguma na região.

E qual a forma mais universalmente disseminada de convivência dos seres vivos com ecossistemas áridos e semiáridos? O nomadismo, a migração sazonal, em todas as suas variações possíveis. Animais e populações indígenas moviam-se no território de modo a tentar adaptar-se à periódica escassez de chuvas. Uma novidade trazida pelos portugueses, no entanto, o conceito de propriedade privada, mostrou-se incompatível com tais práticas adaptativas. O estabelecimento das fazendas e dos núcleos permanentes de povoamento expôs a população a uma rigidez espacial inconciliável com os fluxos e variações climáticas da região. Adicionalmente, a fartura dos anos de chuvas regulares fez com que a densidade demográfica aumentasse para muito além dos níveis pré-coloniais. O resultado disso tudo: quatro séculos de epidemias recorrentes de fome e sofrimento no sertão nordestino (Taddei, 2014b).

No exemplo acima, qual foi, exatamente, o elemento desastroso? A estiagem não é uma anomalia climática na região semiárida; foi a forma de domínio e uso da terra trazida pelos europeus que mostrou-se uma verdadeira anomalia sociopolítica. O caso das secas evidencia que necessitamos de uma outra forma de entender os desastres, que não separe radicalmente os meios social e natural. De maneira geral e simplificada, podemos propor como alternativa a ideia de que quando as coletividades têm conhecimento das variações e calendários dos ecossistemas locais e se organizam tomando-os em consideração, acumulam certa quantidade de recursos como reserva que os proteja de imprevistos, e escolhem práticas produtivas, sociais e políticas comprovadamente compatíveis com o ecossistema local, são capazes de atravessar períodos extremos, ou de sobreviver a eventos críticos, sem que a situação se configure como um desastre. Um desastre é, então, fruto das formas como ecossistema e grupos sociais relacionam-se entre si. Por isso, um desastre jamais está “na” natureza, e sim na relação que se tem com ela (Oliver-Smith, 1999). Um exemplo disso é a constatação, fruto de uma pesquisa por mim coordenada durante o ano de 2005 – ano em que houve secas de grande porte e praticamente ao mesmo tempo no Nordeste, na Amazônia e no Rio Grande do Sul –, de que os efeitos da estiagem motivaram manifestações populares e a invasão de prédios públicos em diversas cidades cearenses, enquanto a falta de chuva em intensidade equivalente sequer foi notada por moradores de cidades das serras gaúchas (ver Taddei e Gamboggi, 2010).

Essa forma de entender desastre tem duas vantagens: a primeira é que o desastre deixa de ser um evento isolado no tempo e no espaço, e passa a ser entendido como um processo que se desdobra ao longo do tempo (Valencio, 2009), e que, em geral, afeta coletividades humanas e animais em uma dimensão espacial muito maior do que o local específico do evento crítico. A segunda é que podemos facilmente retirar a natureza da equação e substituí-la por ambientes e processos técnicos, e temos aí uma forma interessante de pensar os desastres ditos “tecnológicos”. A realidade é que não há desastre que não tenha, concomitantemente, componentes ecossistêmicos e componentes tecnológicos e, em razão disso, a diferenciação entre desastres naturais e tecnológicos é apenas o destaque, para fins operacionais ou jurídicos, do fator preponderante em cada caso.

Voltemos por um minuto à definição proposta acima, de modo a exemplificá-la melhor. Recorrentemente, o que chamamos de seca, no que tange à produção agrícola, ocorre em situações em que a terra é arrendada, de modo que as relações comerciais de curto prazo fazem com que o conhecimento sobre as variações de longo prazo do ecossistema local se percam de vista; a necessidade de se atingir níveis de lucratividade compatíveis com os praticados no mercado financeiro faz com que frequentemente os recursos sejam investidos de forma intensiva, o que aumenta os riscos envolvidos e coloca o produtor em situação de vulnerabilidade a variações climáticas; e a seleção das culturas, quase sempre, está ligada aos preços do mercado, e raramente às condições específicas do ecossistema onde se dará a produção (grande parte da qual é destruída para ceder espaço às áreas agricultáveis). Ou seja, o que estou dizendo aqui é que o modelo de produção agrícola vigente na atualidade está fundado em uma forma de relação entre o ecossistema e a atividade humana altamente vulnerável a variações naturais, o que produz um contexto propício ao desastre. Não é à toa que, em um ano “bom”, cerca de um quarto dos municípios do país declaram situação de emergência. Em um ano ruim, esse número sobe para mais de um terço. O desastre está praticamente embutido nas formas de organização econômica e política brasileiras (Taddei e Gamboggi, 2010).

Nem todas as declarações de situação de emergência se dão em função de secas. No entanto, a coisa não é diferente com as inundações, os deslizamentos de terra, ou as ressacas que destroem infra-estrutura pública e privada nas zonas costeiras. Os fluxos de água têm ciclos que se repetem, muitos dos quais, por razões distintas, desconhecemos. O curso de um rio nunca pode ser determinado com exatidão; um rio “pulsa”, isto é, tem seu ciclo natural de retração e expansão. Esse ciclo é, em geral, anual, mas há outros ciclos na natureza que afetam os cursos de água e que são mais longos. O fenômeno El Niño é um deles: tende a ocorrer duas vezes por década, em geral diminuindo as chuvas na região Nordeste e as aumentando na parte Sudeste e Sul do Brasil. Há ainda ciclos mais longos: existem evidências de que alguns ecossistemas podem alternar séries de duas ou três décadas com menos chuva com outras consideravelmente mais chuvosas (Marengo et al, 1998). Grande parte desses ciclos não são conhecidos. Desta forma, um empreendimento no entorno de um rio pode, sem que as pessoas envolvidas se dêem conta, estar na verdade dentro do curso histórico do rio.

Um rio, por sua vez, não se resume à calha onde a água corre em grande volume. Esta é apenas o resultado da relação entre a água da chuva e determinada configuração topológica e geológica. A água infiltrada no solo, escoando lentamente para baixo e ao longo de uma camada de solo impermeável, até finalmente avolumar-se na região mais baixa (formando o rio propriamente dito), já é o rio em atividade. Em uma cidade, a ideia de que um rio foi “canalizado” envolve um equívoco conceitual diretamente ligado às inundações urbanas. Não se pode canalizar um rio, mas apenas sua calha principal. Quando isso é feito e o solo é impermeabilizado com concreto e asfalto, separa-se duas partes do rio, a que escoa pela topografia do terreno, e que obviamente continuará escoando, e a que escoa na calha do rio. A calha do rio é uma solução geológica para o escoamento de água; a separação entre o escoamento nos terrenos inclinados e a calha – ou a limitação da conexão entre ambas – é a construção das condições para a ocorrência dos desastres. A ideia de que o poder público tem que “resolver a questão das inundações urbanas” é fruto daquela mesma visão de “controle sobre a natureza” que criticamos no início deste texto. Uma solução mais apropriada para essa questão é considerar que o rio tem direito a estar na cidade, de forma íntegra e com toda sua variabilidade espacial, e que a cidade deve ser construída tomando isso em conta. Caso contrário, as cidades serão, como são, aparatos produtores de inundações. Ou seja, a inundação não é resultado da chuva, mas de uma certa relação entre a forma como os humanos transformam o espaço e o ciclo natural das águas.

Em resumo, o que quero dizer aqui é que, no mundo contemporâneo, somos frequentemente levados a agir pautados por agendas que não apenas se mostram incompatíveis com ciclos naturais dos ecossistemas, mas também afetam nossa capacidade de perceber detalhes dos mesmos que são importantes para a redução dos riscos de desastres. Desta forma, muitas de nossas formas de organização econômica, social e política têm que encontrar maneiras de lidar com a pouca eficácia, ou mesmo com a inconveniência, de nossas formas estabelecidas de ocupação do mundo. Por isso, desenvolvemos coisas como seguros financeiros, um complexo sistema de defesa civil em todos os níveis políticos, tecnologias de monitoramento e previsão de características importantes do meio ambiente, legislação específica, agências reguladoras, e muito mais. Temos também práticas sociais pautadas em relações de clientelismo, nas quais o detentor de poder político ou recursos econômicos oferece a determinada coletividade proteção contra os efeitos das variações dos ecossistemas (e contra coisas não relacionadas ao meio ambiente) em troca de apoio político; e a chamada “indústria das secas” (Callado, 1960), estratégias econômicas e sociais que geram riqueza para as elites locais a partir dos mecanismos federais de mitigação dos impactos das secas (Albuquerque Jr, 1999).

Particularmente no que diz respeito à nossa incapacidade de perceber as variações e ciclos dos ecossistemas, nossa base científica de monitoramento dos ecossistemas e da atmosfera começou a operar efetivamente apenas na década de 1960, o que fornece uma base bastante limitada de dados históricos. Neste contexto, é digno de nota o fato de que, em geral, são as populações tradicionais – indígenas, caboclos, ribeirinhos, caiçaras – que habitam os ecossistemas por muitas gerações que possuem tais conhecimentos (Taddei, 2015). Ocorre, no entanto, que a forma de codificação e transmissão de conhecimento de tais populações, através de transmissão oral e sobre uma base narrativa que faz amplo uso do que chamamos de folclore e pensamento mítico, é não apenas incompreensível para as populações urbanas, mas ativamente desvalorizada como superstição e atraso, frente aos poderes do conhecimento científico. São muito poucas, ao redor do mundo, as iniciativas de transformação de conhecimento tradicional em material que possa engajar-se de forma significativa com as discussões técnicas e científicas a respeito de como entender o meio ambiente e os desastres a eles relacionados. Um dos exemplos mais interessantes sobre esse respeito são os estudos dos manuscritos pré-hispânicos (os códices) maias e aztecas no que tange à forma como tais populações entendiam e lidavam com terremotos (ver Acosta e Suarez, 1996).

Riscos e desastres tecnológicos

Como mencionei acima, posso trocar “natureza” por “tecnologia” e a frase continua fazendo sentido: no mundo contemporâneo, somos frequentemente levados a agir no mundo pautados por agendas que não apenas se mostram incompatíveis com certas características dos sistemas técnicos em que atuamos, mas igualmente afetam nossa capacidade de perceber detalhes importantes dos mesmos (Taddei, 2014c). Na década de 1980, o sociólogo alemão Ulrich Beck (1992) propôs a teoria da sociedade do risco, na qual argumentou que as sociedades modernas, através da inovação tecnológica, criam riscos inéditos e que não somos capazes de mensurar. O sociólogo americano Charles Perrow, por sua vez, criou o conceito de acidentes normais (1999), nos quais sistemas complexos podem assumir configurações indesejáveis sob o ponto de vista humano, mas que são apenas configurações “normais”, isto é, possíveis, do sistema. Ou seja, quando projetamos sistemas complexos, como computadores, por exemplo, não somos capazes de prever todas as suas configurações possíveis. No caso particular dos computadores, o “travamento” do sistema operacional, em geral, não representa qualquer dano ao aparato, em suas dimensões físicas ou lógicas. Por isso, reinicializamos a máquina e ela volta a funcionar perfeitamente. Uma possibilidade de entender o que houve é justamente a ideia de que a máquina pode ter assumido uma configuração que, apesar de ser uma das muitas possíveis para ela, é inconveniente para o usuário. O caso do computador pessoal pode ser inócuo; ocorre que, segundo Perrow, não há razão para imaginar que o mesmo não possa ocorrer com aviões em pleno vôo, com usinas nucleares, ou com barragens.

Essa constatação evidencia os imensos desafios que as coletividades têm no que diz respeito à governança dos riscos aos quais estão submetidas. O mercado em sociedades liberais mostrou, repetidamente, que não é um bom instrumento de gestão de riscos na perspectiva da coletividade – a crise mundial de 2008 foi apenas a última em uma sequência longa de crises associadas à incapacidade das corporações capitalistas em gerir riscos de modo benéfico, não apenas para seus interesses particulares, mas para a sociedade como um todo. Os governos dos países capitalistas em geral pautam-se por indicadores de mercado (como o PIB) para avaliar o sucesso e a eficácia de seus governantes e, por essa razão, tendem a ser ineficientes no que tange a usar seu poder regulatório coercitivo contra o próprio mercado. Desta forma, com exceção de setores historicamente marcados por desastres em larga escala, como a geração de energia nuclear e a prospecção de petróleo, em geral, o setor corporativo cria novas tecnologias e as coloca no mercado sem que os riscos a elas associados sejam conhecidos. Aliás, no que tange à questão nuclear, o Brasil tem a infelicidade de figurar no seleto grupo de países1 que foram palco de acidentes radioativos, devido ao evento do Césio 137 em Goiânia, no ano de 1987 (Da Silva, 2001; Vieira, 2013).

Os desastres em tempos de mudanças climáticas

Particularmente no Brasil, como demonstram os exemplos das secas no Nordeste, os deslizamentos da serra fluminense de 2011, ou o desastre de Mariana em 2015, o poder público age de forma notoriamente reativa, esperando a catástrofe e apenas posteriormente ajustando sua configuração institucional e suas formas de ação aos riscos envolvidos – e, ainda assim, com variados graus de eficácia. Neste contexto, a perspectiva de futuro trazida pelas mudanças climáticas é duplamente sombria: por um lado, as alterações ecossistêmicas previstas (bem como as não previstas) devem desestabilizar até mesmo os arranjos adaptativos mais efetivos entre ecossistemas e coletividades; por outro, como o exemplo das reuniões do clima da ONU (as chamadas “conferencias das partes” ou COPs) deixa evidente, os estados nacionais e seus aparatos institucionais se mostram ineficazes e despreparados para lidar com o desafio que se aproxima. A crise migratória europeia dos últimos anos é outro exemplo contundente: em quase todos os casos envolvidos (e particularmente nos casos dos conflitos do Sudão e da Síria), o componente climático é uma das variáveis mais importantes; os países europeus e a própria ONU, no entanto, evitam qualquer associação entre tais migrações e as secas dramáticas que assolaram tais países, uma vez que isso desorganizaria o arcabouço jurídico para lidar com questões migratórias desenvolvido pelos países ocidentais. Ou seja, não existe, até o momento, a figura jurídica do refugiado climático. E a principal razão para tanto é o fato evidente, já mencionado anteriormente neste texto, que limites territoriais fixos, como as fronteiras nacionais, são incompatíveis com a estratégia mais óbvia de sobrevivência a variações extremas do ambiente, justamente a migração. Desta forma, a crise migratória atual é apenas uma amostra do que está por vir, e não há razões para acreditar que os estados nacionais, que têm em suas configurações espaciais parte da causa da crise, sejam os atores que irão propor soluções sustentáveis ao problema. É mais provável que as soluções venham de fora do sistema e, desta forma, a pesquisa científica sobre ambiente e desastres deve estar aberta para o diálogo com outras formas de conhecimento e ação no mundo. Novamente, aqui as populações tradicionais talvez tenham um papel fundamental a desempenhar (Danowski e Viveiros de Castro, 2014); e não há campo mais apropriado, dentro do mundo acadêmico, para fazer tal interlocução do que as ciências sociais. Para isso, no entanto, a agenda de pesquisa em sociologia e antropologia dos desastres tem muito que avançar.

Renzo Taddei é professor de antropologia na Universidade Federal de São Paulo.

Referências bibliográficas

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Taddei, R. “Alter geoengenharia”. Trabalho apresentado no colóquio internacional Os Mil Nomes de Gaia. Fundação Casa de Rui Barbosa, 16 de setembro de 2014, Rio de Janeiro. Disponível em; acessado em 8 de março de 2016 2014c.

Taddei, R. “O lugar do saber local (sobre ambiente e desastres)”. In: Siqueira, A.; Valencio, N.; Siena, M.; Malagoli, M. A. (Org.). Riscos de desastres relacionados à água: aplicabilidade de bases conceituais das ciências humanas e sociais para a análise de casos concretos. São Carlos: Rima Editora, 2015.

Taddei, R.; Gamboggi, A. L. (orgs). Depois que a chuva não veio – respostas sociais às secas na Amazônia, no Nordeste e no Sul do Brasil. Fortaleza: Fundação Cearense de Meteorologia e Recursos Hídricos/Instituto Comitas para Estudos Antropológicos, 2010.

Valencio, N. “Da morte da quimera à procura de Pégaso: a importância da interpretação sociológica na análise do fenômeno denominado desastre”. In: Valencio, N.; Siena, M.; Marchezini, V.; Gonçalves, J. C. (orgs), Sociologia dos desastres – construção, interfaces e perspectivas no Brasil. São Carlos: RiMa Editora, 2009.

Vieira, S. de A. “Césio-137, um drama recontado”. Estudos Avançados (USP. Impresso), v. 27, p. 217-236, 2013.

Webster, D. L. The fall of the ancient Maya: solving the mystery of the Maya collapse. London: Thames and Hudson, 2002.

1 Estes países são: Alemanha, Austrália, Brasil, Canadá, Coréia do Sul, Costa Rica, Estados Unidos, França, Grã-Bretanha, Ilhas Marshall, Índia, Japão, Panamá, Paquistão, Suíça, Rússia e Ucrânia.

Viveiros, indisciplina-te! (GEAC)

Posted on Fevereiro 12, 2016


Por Alex Martins Moraes e Juliana Mesomo

Enquanto agita a bandeira da descolonização do pensamento e nos alimenta com uma fonte inesgotável de alteridade radical, Viveiros de Castro permanece aferrado à disciplina antropológica e ao senso comum policialesco que a sustenta. Fora da academia, contudo, sua obra vem sendo reconectada à ação política transformadora. Resta-nos, então, a esperança de que Viveiros indiscipline-se

* * *

A minha hipótese é que as teorias e disciplinas reagirão de modo não-teórico e não disciplinar quando forem objeto de questões não previstas por elas. 

Boaventura de Sousa Santos

Como eu “vivo a política?” Ora, vtnc.

Viveiros de Castro

Quando fazemos uso de nomes próprios e referências diretas a determinadas declarações públicas não estamos buscando discutir características pessoais, mas sim a relevância e o poder de interpelação de determinadas posturas teórico-políticas.


Faz quarenta anos que a prática antropológica em geral e especificamente as práticas da antropologia disciplinar vêm sendo problematizadas a partir de enfoques variados em diversos países. O triunfo dos movimentos de libertação nacional em África, Ásia e Oceania, associado aos processos de descolonização epistêmica que problematizaram os regimes de representação da alteridade enraizados nas academias metropolitanas, desencadeou um movimento reflexivo que repercutiu com força nas antropologias hegemônicas. O antropólogo haitiano Michel Trouillot caracterizou tal processo como o esvaziamento empírico do “nicho do Selvagem”: enquanto disciplina, a antropologia dependia do Selvagem-objeto, mas este agora enunciava a si mesmo, sua história e seus projetos em primeira pessoa. Para Trouillot, a antropologia surgiu no final do século XIX incumbida de disciplinar o “nicho do Selvagem”, anteriormente objeto de especulações em novelas utópicas, relatos de viagens ao Novo Mundo e informes para-etnográficos. Dentro do esquema discursivo evidenciado pelo autor, o Selvagem é aquele que alimenta diferentes Utopias destinadas a refundar a Ordem, entendida como expressão da universalidade legítima. A tríade Ordem-Utopia-Selvagem que sustentava as metanarrativas ocidentais estava, no entanto, dissolvendo-se e tal processo ameaçava a autossuficiência da disciplina antropológica.

Abalados pelo impacto da crítica pós-colonial, os domínios da disciplina pareciam inférteis aos olhos daqueles que ainda cultuavam a velha e boa Antropologia, outrora presidida sem embaraço pelos mandarins de Cambridge. O setor mais cético e enclassado da disciplina manteve uma desconfiança profunda em relação a qualquer tipo de engajamento intelectual que se deixasse afetar – no tocante às suas preocupações e aos seus objetivos – por vetores políticos extra-acadêmicos. Para referido setor o panorama desolador do período que poderíamos definir como “pós-crítica” exigia Restauração. A avidez por restaurar a Antropologia encontrou eco, num primeiro momento, no cinismo de tipo geertziano. Hermenêutica em punho, Geertz profetizou que o novo destino da Antropologia seria contribuir para a expansão dos horizontes da racionalidade humana através da tradução intercultural. Malgrado seu passado colonial, a disciplina antropológica preservaria uma tendência inata de valor não desprezível: a capacidade de ouvir o outro e decodificar sua cultura. Não era exatamente disso que precisávamos num mundo marcado pela intolerância e pela incompreensão?

As alternativas a la Geertz não bastavam, contudo, para devolver à Antropologia sua antiga auto-suficiência. Passar o resto da vida operando traduções interculturais para mitigar as catástrofes da modernidade tardia não parecia um destino à altura daquela disciplina que havia dispendido boa parte do século XX na ousada tarefa de confrontar o narcisismo moderno com a imagem desafiadora do seu outro selvagem. Entretanto, a “linha forte” do restauracionismo disciplinar teria de esperar até os anos noventa para encontrar no perspectivismo ameríndio um dos seus mais promissores cavalos de batalha. A potência do paradigma esgrimido por Viveiros de Castro residia em sua capacidade de matar dois coelhos numa cajadada só: ao passo que flertava com o espírito do seu tempo, respondendo ao compromisso político com a descolonização da disciplina, também restaurava o “nicho do selvagem”, objeto que, como apontou Trouillot, havia sido herdado e nunca verdadeiramente questionado pelas expressões hegemônicas da antropologia. Na “geografia da imaginação” que engendrou o Ocidente e a antropologia disciplinar, o Selvagem foi frequentemente uma projeção utópica. “Agora, como então – diz Trouillot –, o Selvagem é apenas evidência num debate cuja importância ultrapassa não só seu entendimento, mas também sua existência. Assim como a Utopia pode ser oferecida como uma promessa ou como uma ilusão perigosa, o Selvagem pode ser nobre, sábio, bárbaro, vítima ou agressor, dependendo do debate e dos propósitos dos interlocutores” (p.67 [acessar texto aqui])

Diante do encerro de alguns antropólogos nos corredores da academia e do desinteresse de outros em vincular sua produção a grandes debates estruturais, foi Viveiros quem soube construir uma ponte entre o discurso antropológico e a formulação de enunciados políticos radicais e abrangentes. Por outro lado – e paradoxalmente – Viveiros erigiu seu lugar de fala sobre o velho “nicho do selvagem”, que agora retorna a nós em sua faceta utópica, capaz de iluminar alternativas imediatas e anistóricas às vicissitudes da modernidade ocidental. Reivindicado em entrevistas e ensaios teóricos, o Pensamento Selvagem serve de “controle” para imaginar Utopias – virtualidades que poderiam ser atualizadas em “nossa” própria antropologia, em “nosso” próprio mundo, etc. Aqui cabe recuperar novamente a súplica de Michel Trouillot: os sujeitos históricos com voz própria aos quais se reporta Viveiros merecem muito mais do que um “nicho”; merecem ser muito mais do que a projeção das ânsias de refundar a metafísica. Para o autor, devemos ser capazes de desestabilizar e, eventualmente, destruir o “nicho do Selvagem” para poder relacionar-nos com a alteridade em sua especificidade e legitimidade histórica, que sempre escapam ao universalismo. A dicotomia “nós e o resto”, implícita na ordem simbólica que engendra a ideia de Ocidente, é um construto ideológico, afinal “não há apenas um Outro, mas multidões de outros que são outros por diferentes razões, a pesar das narrativas totalizantes, incluindo a do capital” (p. 75).

Ao lançar mão do recurso ao nicho do Selvagem, Viveiros provoca um efeito de sedução que resulta não tanto das suas manobras conceituais, mas da necessidade que temos de alimentar a fonte inesgotável de exterioridade radical que poderia nos salvar do Ocidente. A outridade termina, assim, subsumida à mesmidade dos projetos de sempre – transformar a Antropologia, por exemplo. Em tal cenário, a disciplina antropológica é chamada a continuar seu trabalho, reassumindo a vocação de perscrutar fielmente o Outro selvagem refratado pela teoria de Viveiros de Castro. Trouillot vaticina: “enquanto o nicho [do Selvagem] existir, no melhor dos casos o Selvagem será uma figura de fala, uma metáfora num argumento sobre a natureza e o universo, sobre o ser e a existência – em suma, um argumento sobre o pensamento fundacional” (p. 68).


Deixemos que Viveiros fale um pouco mais sobre a forma como concebe o promissor entrelaçamento entre a “nossa” Antropologia e o Pensamento Selvagem: “por transformações indígenas da antropologia entendo as transformações da estrutura conceitual do discurso antropológico suscitadas por seu alinhamento em simetria com as pragmáticas reflexivas indígenas, isto é, com aquelas etno-antropologias alheias que descrevem nossa própria (etno-) antropologia precisamente ao e por divergirem dela” (p.163 [acessar texto aqui]). O pensamento ameríndio consistiria, ele próprio, em uma ontologia política do sensível que, ao se alinhar com o discurso antropológico, se tornaria capaz de redefini-lo e de convertê-lo em enunciador de uma antropologia outra. Neste sentido, o conhecimento antropológico não operaria sobre um repertório cultural fechado em si mesmo, mas sim em meio a outro movimento reflexivo – o ameríndio – que é concebido como dinâmica ontológica transformacional capaz de instaurar, pelo menos no plano do conceito, uma mundaneidade completamente nova e potencialmente transgressora dos parâmetros epistemológicos da nossa etno-antropologia.

O problema começa quando dizemos que a dinâmica transformacional inerente à ontologia ameríndia possui um modus operandi determinado que nós, antropólogos, poderíamos abstrair mediante procedimento de “coloração contrastiva” (p.157). Procedendo assim, o antropólogo transforma a transformação outra em algo completamente desencarnado – fruto da construção artificial, laboratorial, em suma, contrastiva da alteridade radical. Na verdade essas dinâmicas transformacionais outras nas quais o discurso antropológico supostamente se imiscui não são outra coisa senão o resultado de um procedimento enunciativo disciplinar e disciplinador que submete a experiência ao conceito (“A revolução, ou a essa altura será melhor dizer, a insurreição e a alteração começam pelo conceito”, Viveiros, p. 155).

O “perspectivismo imanente” depreendido por Viveiros da análise formal dos mitos só pode existir enquanto subproduto da alteridade radical laboratorialmente forjada por uma antropologia que se obstina em negar a experiência e a voz própria dos homens e mulheres que são os verdadeiros sujeitos da história. Mesmo abundantes, os eufemismos de Viveiros são insuficientes para dissimular o recurso ao “nicho do selvagem” que abastece sua máquina textual. No final das contas, Viveiros quer comparar “transformações” – outro nome para cultura – e depois mobilizá-las na construção de enunciados políticos que suspendem a política, que nos conclamam ao estarrecimento resmungão e, no pior dos casos, nos transformam em moralistas que repetem insistentemente que as coisas poderiam – ou deveriam – ser diferentes do que são sem saber como, objetivamente, engajar-se nas dinâmicas transformacionais imanentes à realidade.

A ideia de transformação da antropologia enunciada por Viveiros de Castro é caudatária da ego-política do conhecimento. Nesta perspectiva profundamente desencarnada, a antropologia aparece como uma “estrutura conceitual” – e não como a expressão localizada de certo processo de institucionalização – que pode sofrer alinhamentos com a “pragmática reflexiva” indígena. Quem promove esses alinhamentos? Viveiros não explicita, mas só podemos concluir que são os próprios antropólogos que o fazem. Se now is the turn of the native, quem distribui os “turnos” na fila da legitimidade epistêmica (ou ontológica) é o próprio antropólogo.

No sentido oposto ao da ego-política do conhecimento, o Grupo de Estudos em Antropologia Crítica (GEAC) retomou a noção descolonial de corpo-política do conhecimento. Esta noção nos leva a definir a transformação da antropologia como um processo localizado de disputa encarnada – corporalizada – pela construção de outros lugares de enunciação e de novas formas de produzir efeitos de verdade. Pensar com os outros, como propõe Viveiros, significa, para nós algo muito mais radical. Significa pensar na presença concreta do outro, engajados corpo-politicamente com ele. O resultado disso não precisa ser, necessariamente, “antropologia”, “etnografia” ou qualquer outra forma de subsunção da radicalidade da ação histórica e da especificidade dos sujeitos à mesmidade do texto acadêmico. Não vemos necessidade de construir, laboratorialmente e por contraste, o pensamento do outro – ou, sendo fiéis a Viveiros, as formas outras de empreender a transformação – para, só depois, proceder à construção do comum.


Viveiros quer transformar as estruturas conceituais da antropologia e colocá-las a serviço da descolonização do pensamento. Nós perguntamos: é possível fazê-lo sem abrir mão das formas específicas de exercício do poder que a antropologia avaliza enquanto disciplina? Viveiros reforça um senso comum de longa data cujo efeito é a neutralização de quaisquer práticas intelectuais dissidentes. Ele agita a bandeira da descolonização do pensamento sem prestar atenção às bases institucionais conservadoras sobre as quais repousa comodamente. Evidência disso é a facilidade com que o antropólogo descolonizador ironizou a interpelação que lhe fizemos anos atrás (acessar texto aqui) recorrendo àquela pergunta tão frequente nos espaços mais policialescos da disciplina: onde está a etnografia dessa gente?

Quando Viveiros procura deslegitimar nossa interpelação recorrendo à pergunta irônica sobre as “etnografias” que fomos ou não capazes de produzir, ele se inscreve completamente na história da qual pretende emancipar a disciplina. Uma história que erigiu a etnografia (o texto) em única expressão legítima do enunciado antropológico. Isso para não falar da leitura completamente narcísica feita por ele de nossa intervenção. Para Viveiros, tudo o que dissemos era a reprodução do discurso de nossos “orientadores” ou, até mesmo, uma tentativa de atacá-lo para salvar o Partido dos Trabalhadores (!). Enquanto líamos essas assertivas, nos lembrávamos da forma como alguns docentes reagiram à greve dos estudantes de mestrado em antropologia da Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul em 2011. Incrédulos diante das críticas que os estudantes faziam ao produtivismo acadêmico desenfreado, à escassez de bolsas e à nula participação discente na definição das políticas do programa de pós-graduação, determinados professores só puderam explicar o acontecimento recorrendo à lógica da cooptação: era o Partido Comunista (!) que estava por trás daquela imensa insensatez. A voz própria enunciada em primeira pessoa continua a ser desacreditada fortemente nos domínios da disciplina: não há sujeito histórico verdadeiramente autêntico, sempre “há algo” por trás que o explica e conduz. Reações desta ordem, que se recusam a reconhecer a autenticidade da fala do outro, são sintomas de um narcisismo antropológico-disciplinar que priva a si mesmo da possibilidade de mudar a própria perspectiva sobre as coisas: “ao adentrarmos o espaço da exterioridade e da verdade, só conseguimos ver reflexos e simulacros obsedantes de nós mesmos” (p.23 [acessar texto aqui]). Tudo aquilo que o establishment disciplinar contempla não pode ser outra coisa senão o reflexo da sua própria lógica de funcionamento.

Ao mesmo tempo que Viveiros atualiza em sua performance acadêmica as hierarquias silenciadoras e os sistemas de visibilidade que sustentam a disciplina que o legitima, ele também nos entrega, paradoxalmente, uma retórica descolonizadora. Sua crítica aguda e implacável à fé cega nas ideias-força da modernidade capitalocêntrica possui, sem dúvidas, uma potência suscetível de ser atualizada por quem deseja incidir nas relações de força concretas. Não só no Brasil, mas também em outros países da América do Sul, os enunciados produzidos por Viveiros de Castro são constelados em agenciamentos coletivos que ensaiam uma ruptura pragmática com o consenso das commodities e inauguram, assim, renovados espaços de imaginação política. Nestes casos, Viveiros é vivificado pela ação coletiva; sua crítica se associa com os imperativos das lutas atuais e é potencializada por uma poética materialista capaz de desenterrar outro mundo possível das entranhas deste mundo subsumido pelo capital. Peter Perbart tem razão: “ainda os que costumam planejar uma abstração radical (…) podem ser reconectados à terra ao entrar em contato com uma situação real e deixar para trás a imagem da qual muitas vezes são prisioneiros e na qual o poder insiste em enclausurá-los” (acessar texto).

Viveiros é vivificado pela política fora da academia. Dentro dela, no entanto, é disciplinado e sabe disciplinar. Aprisiona entre aspas todas as palavras que correm o risco de serem abastardadas pelo uso canalha (“grupo” de “antropologia” “crítica” – dizia no twitter). Insinua que por detrás da interpelação crítica a ele destinada se oculta o repreensível desejo de “aparecer”. É que ao atrair para si uma atenção da qual a priori não são merecedores, os responsáveis pela mais mínima inversão dos regimes convencionais de visibilidade acadêmica só podem ser encarados como usurpadores.

Nós questionamos estas tendências e procuramos problematizá-las através do espaço autônomo de diálogo e reflexão que é o GEAC. Enquanto a “filosopausa” não chega – e com ela a possibilidade de publicar textos aforísticos em revistas indexadas – decidimos construir, de direito próprio, um lugar amigável para desenvolver engajamentos e debates cuja emergência costuma ser obturada pelos estabelecimentos antropológicos mais conservadores.

Apesar da deriva filosófica, Viveiros de Castro continua aferrado à disciplina antropológica e ao senso comum que a sustenta. Resta-nos a esperança de que as ruas e a história o absolvam.  E de que Viveiros indiscipline-se.

Indígena de 81 anos aprende a usar computador e cria dicionário para salvar seu idioma da extinção (QGA)

Marie Wilcox é a última pessoa no mundo fluente no idioma Wukchumi

Conheça Marie Wilcox, uma bisavó de 81 anos e a última pessoa no mundo fluente no idioma Wukchumi. O povo Wukchumi costumava ter uma população de 50.000 pessoas antes de terem contato com os colonizadores, mas agora são somente 200 pessoas vivendo no Vale de São Joaquim, na Califórnia. Sua linguagem foi morrendo aos poucos a cada nova geração, mas Marie se comprometeu com a tarefa de revivê-la, aprendendo a usar um computador para que conseguisse começar a escrever o primeiro dicionário Wukchumni. O processo levou sete anos, e agora que terminou ela não pretende parar seu trabalho de imortalizar sua língua nativa.

O documentário “Marie’s Dictionary”, disponível no Youtube, nos mostra a motivação de Marie e seu trabalho árduo para trazer de volta e registrar um idioma que foi quase totalmente apagado pela colonização, racismo institucionalizado e opressão.

No vídeo, Marie admite ter dúvidas sobre a gigantesca tarefa que ela se comprometeu: “Eu tenho dúvidas sobre minha língua, e sobre quem quer mantê-la viva. Ninguém parece querer aprender. É estranho que eu seja a última… Tudo vai estar perdido algum dia desses, não sei”.

Mas com sorte, esse dia ainda vai demorar. Marie e sua filha Jennifer agora dão aulas para membros da tribo, e trabalham num dicionário em áudio para acompanhar o dicionário escrito que ela já criou.

Veja o vídeo (em inglês).


Anthropologies #21: Is There Hope for an Anthropocene Anthropology? (Savage Minds)

September 5, 2015, by Ryan.

This entry is part 4 of 10 in the Anthropologies #21 series.

Up next for this issue we have Todd Sanders and Elizabeth F. Hall. Sanders is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. He has written extensively on African and Euro-American knowledge practices, and is currently collaborating with Elizabeth Hall on a project called ‘Knowing Climate Change.’ Hall is a physician-scientist and Research Associate at the Centre for Ethnography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. She trained as a specialist in public health medicine and holds a PhD in epidemiology.  –R.A.

Global climate change is driving anthropologists in opposite directions. Some are enthusiastically adopting “the Anthropocene” – a “gift” from our friends in the natural sciences (Latour 2014) that might enable us to exit, at long last, our Modern world and its Holocene thinking (Hamilton, et al. 2015). The concept potentially dovetails with old and new concerns – networks, rhizomes and relational ontologies; more-than-human socialities; hybrids, nonhumans and the posthuman; multispecies, multinaturalisms and modes of existence – and promises critical purchase over today’s troubled times. For as we enter the Anthropocene, we’ll need new conceptual tools and ways of thinking to understand our new home. The familiar dualisms that have long dogged our discipline and world – Nature and Culture; local and global; Moderns and non-moderns; and so on – are not up to the task. Discard the Modern dualisms. Dwell on the emergent processes of their production. And reimagine worlds as partial and provisional, composed through multiple, heterogeneous entanglements. For many anthropologists, the time is ripe for such an Anthropocene Anthropology.

At the same time, climate change is leading other anthropologists right back to the Holocene. For them, this is not the time to abandon dualisms nor to theorise partial, emergent, hybrid worlds. Instead, we must entrench and purify the well-known anthropological categories of nature and culture, tradition and the local, and insist on the merits of holism. These anthropologists share theoretical affinities more with Julian Steward and Robert Netting than with, say, Latour or Tsing. Their scholarship is large and growing, and asks how climate change will impact local, traditional cultures. The story ordinarily goes like this: local, traditional cultures crucially depend on nature for their cultural, material and spiritual needs. They will therefore suffer first, worst and most directly from rapid climate change. These place-based peoples are somewhat resilient and adaptive, due to their local, indigenous or traditional ecological knowledge. Yet cultural adaptation has limits. Urgent anthropological interventions are thus required to mediate and translate between local and global worlds to help these cultures adapt. The Anthropocene figures here too: not as an opportunity to reconfigure and overcome Modern dualisms but as a way to underscore and holistically integrate them. Welcome to the Holocene!

While this approach is strongly endorsed by the AAA’s Global Climate Change Task Force (Fiske, et al. 2014), other anthropologists will insist that in today’s world, old ideas about local, traditional cultures are “obsolete from the outset” (Hastrup 2009: 23). For them, entrenching ourselves in the Holocene is not the obvious way to enter the Anthropocene. Still, it’s worth noting that obsolescence is a matter of perspective and is context-dependent. This pedestrian point is crucial because, when it comes to climate change, anthropology is not the only discipline in town. And because it isn’t, anthropologists may not get the last word on which of our knowledges and knowledge practices are useful, or useless, in the wider climate change arena.

In this vast, bustling arena, considerable efforts are being devoted to putting a human face on climate change. For many in the human sciences, this means supplementing and nuancing abstract, paternalistic, quantitative climate sciences with humanistic, qualitative data and values from real people (Hulme 2011; Jasanoff 2010). As we discuss elsewhere, this is one reason growing numbers of social and natural scientists are doing ethnographic research on “the human dimensions of climate change” (Hall and Sanders 2015). From geographers to geophysicists, ecologists to ethnobotanists, scholars from every alcove of the academy are joining the human dimensions enterprise. They travel to remote places on the planet to understand how local, traditional cultures will – or will not – adapt to climate change. And they tell familiar tales: the same tales, in fact, that some anthropologists tell about local, traditional, place-based cultures being done in by a changing climate. In this broader academic arena, such local, traditional peoples are fast becoming the human face of climate change. Figure 1, reproduced from a leading interdisciplinary climate change journal, is emblematic.



Figure 1. “Theo Ikummaq in the middle of Fury and Hecla Strait, between Igloolik and Baffin Island, explaining the challenges with spring ice conditions, while waiting at a seal hole (June 22, 2005).” (With kind permission from Springer Science+Business Media: Climatic Change, Travelling and hunting in a changing Arctic: assessing Inuit vulnerability to a sea ice change in Igloolik, Nunavut, 94, 2009, p. 375, Laidler GJ, Ford JD, Gough WA, Ikummaq T, Gagnon AS, Kowal S, Qrunnut K, Irngaut C, figure 2).

This scholarship shares affinities with salvage anthropology and cultural ecology, and while not unaware of the many critiques of such projects, remains mostly unfazed by them. These are urgent, real-world problems, after all, that require serious ethnographic attention. There’s no time for wiffle-waffle. But whatever one’s views on the matter, the point is that this multi- and interdisciplinary scholarship is large, and working hard to complement and complete the climate change puzzle: to serve up culture to nature, local to the global, traditional to the modern, values to facts, indigenous knowledge to Western Science. This is Holocene thinking replayed with a vengeance.

After decades of imploring social scientists to step up to the plate, to leave our ivory towers, to add the missing human piece to the climate change puzzle, “harder” natural scientists are welcoming such “soft” climate change scholars and scholarship. Of course economists got there first. But this new wave of human dimensions scholarship provides hope that, after decades of delay, important aspects of “the human” might finally be fleshed out and “integrated” into our understandings of climate change. These hopes are understandable, given the Modern metaphysics many in this arena share.

It all began with capital-n Nature, which natural and computational scientists reanimated decades ago. Today, this Nature takes the form of coupled Ocean-Atmosphere General Circulation Models (OAGCMs) and Earth System Models (ESMs), which rely on formally-specified (i.e., mathematical) equations to model the Earth System’s natural components and the complex links among them. “The human” came later. Social scientists from many disciplines are now adding in the human, or trying to, and the calls for more such efforts continue.

One perpetual challenge in this arena has been how to combine the two, Nature and Culture, the Ecological and the Sociological. Thus funding streams like the NSF’s long-running Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program have been established for precisely this purpose. The research projects they support are often large, always interdisciplinary and “must include analyses of four different components: (1) the dynamics of a natural system; (2) the dynamics of a human system; (3) the processes through which the natural system affects the human system; and (4) the processes through which the human system affects the natural system.”

But however funded, efforts to “integrate” human and natural components of the system in the name of climate change are legion. Consider the tightly-coupled Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs), which aim quantitatively to bring diverse natural “scientific, economics and social science expertise together to provide analysis and advice that comprehensively addresses all or at least many aspects of the climate change issue” (Sarofim and Reilly 2011: 27). There are also many looser modelling efforts with telling titles – coupled human and natural systems (CHANS), human-environment systems (HES), social-ecological systems (SES) – that aim to couple human and natural components of the Earth System. Such holistic, Modern integrationist efforts stabilise “components” through the act of “coupling” them, and sometimes mistake models for the world. They are also widespread and flourishing.

The Stockholm Resilience Centre, for instance, funded by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (MISTRA) to the tune of 30 million US dollars, is well-known for developing complex social-ecological systems to aid decision-making around climate change. The Centre’s Science Director, Carl Folke, notes:

We want to build a unique transdisciplinary research environment where innovative ideas can flourish. By combining new forms of cooperation with a holistic perspective, we hope to generate the insights that are needed to strengthen societies’ and the ecosystems’ capacities to meet a world which spins faster and faster.

Folke is one of the Centre’s founders, and has devoted much of his distinguished career to theorising “resilience” and “social-ecological systems.” While Figure 2 is illustrative of some of his influential work on coupled systems, similar diagrams could be reproduced from countless other scholars.


Figure 2. A conceptual framework developed in relation to the resilience approach. (Republished with permission of Global Environmental Change, from “Resilience: the emergence of a perspective for social-ecological systems analysis,” Folke, C., vol. 16, 2006; permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc.).

Note how the all-embracing social-ecological system is composed of Latour’s modern constitution: a Great Divide between Nature (left) and Culture/Society (right), with feedback loops between the system’s component parts. Note, too, how scale works, also in a Modern register: each side is composed of “nested hierarchies,” the “larger” levels encompassing the “smaller.” (There’s obvious scope here to fill local slots with local knowledges and peoples). While Folke acknowledges that these are conceptual models, many others do not, leading to statements like “[c]oupled human and natural systems (CHANS) are systems in which humans and natural components interact” (Liu, et al. 2007: 639). Coupled systems scholarship may enable us to sort messy empirical worlds into tidy, Modern boxes, and to pretend we haven’t done so. But such purifying practices are of little interest to Anthropocene Anthropology, and do not create an environment in which Anthropocene thinking might flourish. Where to find such a place?

Last year, we attended Carbon 14: Climate is Culture, an innovative ArtScience collaboration at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The event was produced by a London-based charitable organisation whose mission is to bring together artists, scientists, journalists, media specialists and other publics “to stimulate a cultural narrative that will engage and inspire a sustainable and vibrant future society” in the face of global climate change.

The four-month-long exhibition and festival was big, Canadian-flavoured, and guided by a single question, and answer, prominently printed on the catalogue cover: “What does Culture have to do with Climate Change? Everything.” The “culture” had two senses: as in the cultural arts (music, theatre, photography, etc.), which play a crucial role innovating and communicating to the public; and in the anthropological sense (more or less). The event featured a performance by Inuit musician Tanya Tagaq and a mock trial of Canadian broadcaster, environmentalist and scientist, David Suzuki, for his Carbon Manifesto; poetry slams and a performance art piece by Dene-Inuvialuit artist, Reneltta Arluk, that examined “the impacts of climate change on Northern peoples and explore[d] the artist’s personal cultural identity;” talks by journalists, artists and others on fossil fuel dependence and the health of the oceans, biodiversity, sustainability and extinction; workshops on provocative, environmental activist arts; public discussions, including one with University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver and Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the well-known Canadian Inuit cultural and human rights activist and author (Watt-Cloutier 2015). The event also featured visual arts and artists: videos produced with Inuit filmmakers on climate change and Inuit traditional knowledge, on everyday life in the far North, and others; photographs of majestic Nature; and awe-inspiring photos that the Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, took from outer space.

Climate is Culture was spectacular. Yet the event left us haunted by the thought that the sustainable, vibrant, dare we say “Anthropocene” future we had hoped to find looked strikingly like the present – or even the past. Nature had thoroughly bifurcated from Culture, while Culture had simultaneously split in two: planet destroyers (the global, modern, fossil-fuel-burning West) versus innocent victims (the local, traditional Rest). Modern dualisms ran amok, creating Nature and Culture, local and global, Moderns and non-moderns everywhere we turned. One prominently-displayed photo captured the mood most eloquently: a lone, Inuk elder standing on an ice flow, poised to harpoon an unsuspecting walrus poking its head out from beneath the sea (similar to Figure 1 above, add walrus). “Lukie, 70, prepares to harpoon a walrus while standing on moving ice in Foxe Basin,” read the caption. It continued: “This scene could have been from a thousand years ago, but it is today.” The photographer, a visual artist and Associate Professor of Geography at a major Canadian university, provided the perfect title: “1000 Years Ago Today.” Though the photo, caption and title said it all, a further plaque was provided, just in case:

The Arctic: A Place of Global Warming and Wisdom

Arctic climate change is a hot topic with surface air temperatures in the region warming at double the global average, and corresponding loss of sea ice, glaciers, and permafrost being observed by both scientists and local people. In Canada’s North, Inuit are on the front lines, and traditional knowledge and experience indicate that climate change already affects travel routes and safety; wildlife, vegetation and habitat; human food security and health; and communities and coastal infrastructure. These cumulative impacts challenge cultural and social identity. However, with an ancient culture, persisting over millennia, Inuit show that human ingenuity, connectedness with the land, and respect for future generations are all-important teachings for the modern world as we collectively face climate change, the paramount issue of our time.

*   *   *

So, what should we think when so many cutting-edge scientists including anthropologists, avant-garde artists, activists, journalists, charitable foundations, non-profit and government funders from across the planet are living happily in the Holocene – as if our theoretical lexicons and social imagination were firmly fixed, if not 1000 years ago today, perhaps 100? Who in this world is ready for an Anthropocene Anthropology? Are there grounds for hope? Enthusiasm? We think so, but only with certain shifts in anthropological practice.

First of all, more critical reflections, debates and theorising of anthropological knowledge practices around climate change are required. Many anthropological writings on climate change imply that holistically integrating our discipline’s disparate questions and theoretical concerns, knowledges and knowledge practices is possible and desirable – a win-win scenario, as it were. This approach is seductive: it suggests that every anthropologist can contribute her or his crucial piece of the climate change puzzle. But it is also seriously undertheorised, and does not accord with current thinking in the social sciences – including in anthropology – about what knowledge is and how it works. Partial connections and incommensurabilities render puzzle metaphors suspect. Knowledges are not puzzle pieces, nor can they simply “add up” to create “the whole.” Focus is required. Choices are always made. Power is never absent. Such commonplaces hold within as well as beyond anthropology. For these reasons, sustained engagements with social theory and the anthropology of knowledge would prove productive. How should we understand climate change anthropologically? Which of our many competing analytics provide the most theoretical purchase over the problem at hand? What are their real-world consequences? Should we dwell on culture or “culture”? Local or “local”? Or something altogether different, of which many promising candidates exist? Forging a meaningful Anthropocene Anthropology will mean prioritising certain anthropological knowledges, analytics and concerns over others. We can’t have it all ways.

Second, whatever our disciplinary response, we must recognise that anthropologists may not be the final arbiters on which of our knowledges and knowledge practices find favour in the wider world. Anthropology, after all, exists in a broader context. And as every anthropologist knows, context matters. The way forward is thus not to repeat, at higher volume, the truism that anthropology has lots to offer. It is to anthropologise the myriad Euro-American contexts in which climate change knowledge is produced and put to work. This means critically interrogating natural and social science knowledge practices surrounding climate change (e.g., interdisciplinarity, collaboration, producing “useful knowledge,” etc.), as well as the disparate policy and science policy realms through which scientific knowledges of climate change are institutionalised. Venerable traditions in political and legal anthropology, and in the anthropology of science and of policy, point the way. But whatever context we choose to study – there are many – Anthropocene Anthropology has its work cut out for it. For in today’s world, as Geertz might have said, it’s Holocene turtles all the way down.


Fiske, Shirley, J., Crate, Susan A., Crumley, Carole L., Galvin, Kathleen A., Lazrus, Heather, Luber, George, Lucero, Lisa, Oliver-Smith, Anthony, Orlove, Ben, Strauss, Sarah and Wilk, Richard R. 2014. Changing the atmosphere: anthropology and climate change. Final Report of the AAA Global Climate Change Task Force. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association.

Hall, Elizabeth F. and Sanders, Todd. 2015. Accountability and the academy: producing knowledge about the human dimensions of climate change. [link:] Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21(2): 438-461.

Hamilton, Clive, Bonneuil, Christophe and Gemenne, François, eds. 2015. The Anthropocene and the global environmental crisis: rethinking modernity in a new epoch. London: Routledge.

Hastrup, Kirsten. 2009. Waterworlds: framing the question of social resilience. Pp. 11-30 in The question of resilience: social responses to climate change, ed. K. Hastrup. Copenhagen: Special-Trykkeriet Viborg a-s.

Hulme, Mike. 2011. Meet the humanities. Nature Climate Change 1: 177-79.

Jasanoff, Sheila. 2010. A new climate for society. Theory, Culture & Society 27(2-3): 233-53.

Latour, Bruno. 2014. Anthropology at the time of the Anthropocene: a personal view of what is to be studied. 113th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting. Washington DC.

Liu, Jianguo, Dietz, Thomas, Carpenter, Stephen R., Folke, Carl, Alberti, Marina, Redman, Charles L., Schneider, Stephen H., Ostrom, Elinor, Pell, Alice N., Lubchenco, Jane, Taylor, William W., Ouyang, Zhiyun, Deadman, Peter, Kratz, Timothy and Provencher, William. 2007. Coupled human and natural systems. Ambio 36(8): 639-49.

Sarofim, Marcus C. and Reilly, John M. 2011. Applications of integrated assessment modeling to climate change. WIREs Climate Change 2: 27-44.

Watt-Cloutier, Sheila. 2015. The right to be cold: one woman’s story of protecting her culture, and the Arctic and the whole planet. Toronto: Allen Lane.

Climate Debate Needs More Social Science, New Book Argues (Inside Science)

Image credit: Matt Jiggins via Flickr |

Physical scientists aren’t trained for all the political and moral issues.
Oct 2 2015 – 10:00am

By: Joel N. Shurkin, Contributor

(Inside Science) — The notion that Earth’s climate is changing—and that the threat to the world is serious—goes back to the 1980s, when a consensus began to form among climate scientists as temperatures began to rise noticeably. Thirty years later, that consensus is solid, yet climate change and the disruption it may cause remain divisive political issues, and millions of people remain unconvinced.

A new book argues that social scientists should play a greater role in helping natural scientists convince people of the reality of climate change and drive policy.

Climate Change and Society consists of 13 essays on why the debate needs the voices of social scientists, including political scientists, psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists. It is edited by Riley E. Dunlap, professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, and Robert J. Brulle, of Drexel University, professor of sociology and environmental science in Philadelphia.

Brulle said the physical scientists tend to frame climate change “as a technocratic and managerial problem.”

“Contrast that to the Pope,” he said.

Pope Francis sees it as a “political, moral issue that won’t be settled by a group of experts sitting in a room,” said Brulle, who emphasized that it will be settled by political process. Sociologists agree.

Sheila Jasanoff also agrees. She is the Pforzheimer professor of science and technology studies at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and did not participate in the book.

She said that understanding how people behave differently depending on their belief system is important.

“Denial is a somewhat mystical thing in people’s heads,” Jasanoff said. “One can bring tools of sociology of knowledge and belief—or social studies—to understand how commitments to particular statements of nature are linked with understanding how you would feel compelled to behave if nature were that way.”

Parts of the world where climate change is considered a result of the colonial past may resist taking drastic action at the behest of the former colonial rulers. Jasanoff said that governments will have to convince these groups that climate change is a present danger and attention must be paid.

Some who agree there is a threat are reluctant to advocate for drastic economic changes because they believe the world will be rescued by innovation and technology, Jasanoff said. Even among industrialized countries, views about the potential of technology differ.

Understanding these attitudes is what social scientists do, the book’s authors maintain.

“One of the most pressing contributions our field can make is to legitimate big questions, especially the ability of the current global economic system to take the steps needed to avoid catastrophic climate change,” editors of the book wrote.

The issue also is deeply embedded in the social science of economics and in the problem of “have” and “have-not” societies in consumerism and the economy.

For example, Bangladesh sits at sea level, and if the seas rise enough, nearly the entire country could disappear in the waters. Hurricane Katrina brought hints of the consequences of that reality to New Orleans, a city that now sits below sea level. The heaviest burden of the storm’s effects fell on the poor neighborhoods, Brulle said.

“The people of Bangladesh will suffer more than the people on the Upper East Side of Manhattan,” Brulle said. He said they have to be treated differently, which is not something many physical scientists studying the processes behind sea level rise have to factor into their research.

“Those of us engaged in the climate fight need valuable insight from political scientists and sociologists and psychologists and economists just as surely as from physicists,” agreed Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and author who is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. “It’s very clear carbon is warming the planet; it’s very unclear what mix of prods and preferences might nudge us to use much less.”

Joel Shurkin is a freelance writer in Baltimore. He was former science writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer and was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for covering Three Mile Island. He has nine published books and is working on a tenth. He has taught journalism at Stanford University, the University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He tweets at @shurkin.

An Astrobiologist Asks a Sci-fi Novelist How to Survive the Anthropocene (Nautilus)


Humans will have a chance to prove their adaptability as the Earth undergoes unprecedented challenges in the Anthropocene, an era named after our impact on the biosphere. To learn what it takes to survive far into the future, astrobiologist David Grinspoon interviewed Kim Stanley Robinson, a writer regarded as one of the most important science fiction and political novelists alive today. Robinson’s recent book, 2312, permits humans to survive near-extinction and populate the solar system over the course of 300 years.

We decided to kick off the conversation with a 2312 excerpt from the chapter, “Earth, The Planet of Sadness:”

“Clean tech came too late to save Earth from the catastrophes of the early Anthropocene. It was one of the ironies of their time that they could radically change the surfaces of the other planets, but not Earth. The methods they employed in space were almost all too crude and violent. Only with the utmost caution could they tinker with anything on Earth, because everything there was so tightly balanced and interwoven.”


David Grinspoon: Humans in 2312 can transverse the universe, but they could not save the Earth from environmental devastation. Do you think our intelligence just isn’t adaptive enough to learn how to live sustainably?

Kim Stanley Robinson: Human intelligence is adaptive. It’s given us enormous powers in the physical world thus far. With it, we’ve augmented our senses by way of technologies like microscopes, telescopes, and sensors, such that we have seen things many magnitudes smaller and larger than we could see with unaided senses, as well as things outside of our natural sensory ranges.

But our intelligence has also led to unprecedented problems as our planet reaches its carrying capacity. Is intelligence adaptive enough to adjust to the calamities of its own success? This situation is a completely new thing in history—which means that no one can answer the question now.

DG: What do you think it would take for us to persist?

KSR: I think we can make it through this current, calamitous time period. I envision a two-part process. First, we need to learn what to do in ecological terms. That sounds tricky, but the biosphere is robust and we know a lot about it, so really it’s a matter of refining our parameters; i.e. deciding how many of us constitutes a carrying capacity given our consumption, and then figuring out the technologies and lifestyles that would allow for that carrying capacity while also allowing ecosystems to thrive. We have a rough sense of these parameters now.

The second step is the political question: It’s a matter of self-governance. We’d need to act globally, and that’s obviously problematic. But the challenge is not really one of intellect. It’s the ability to enforce a set of laws that the majority would have to agree on and live by, and those who don’t agree would have to follow.

So this isn’t a question of reconciling gravity with quantum mechanics, or perceiving the strings of string theory. Instead it involves other aspects of intelligence, like sociability, long-range planning, law, and politics. Maybe these kinds of intelligence are even more difficult to develop, but in any case, they are well within our adaptive powers.

DG: Do you think the spread of Internet access can help us forge a multi-generational global identity that might drive change? It wouldn’t be the first time that technological advancements massively transformed humankind’s history.

KSR: The Internet may be helpful but we’ll need more than global awareness. We need a global economic system that is designed specifically for sustainability. We already have a global economic system in the form of institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Together, their agreements make up a comprehensive system. But right now, this system cheats future generations by systematically underpricing the true costs of our exploitation of the biosphere. It sets the prices of the Earth’s natural resources by establishing what is basically the aggregation of supplies and demands. But this process is biased toward pricing things lower and lower, because of pressure from buyers and the need for sellers to stay in business. As a result, sellers sell their products for less than they cost to make, which should lead to bankruptcy for the seller, but it doesn’t because parts of the costs have been shifted onto future generations to pay. When practiced systematically it becomes a kind of multi-generational Ponzi scheme, and leads to the mass extinction event of the early Anthropocene, which we have already started.

What we want is to remember that our system is constructed for a purpose, and so in need of constant fixing and new tries.

Measurements used by the Global Footprint Network and a famous study led by Robert Costanza have shown that the “natural services” we use can be assigned a dollar amount that is much greater than the entire human economy, and that we overdraw these resources and destroy their function. So in effect, we are eating our future.

And I think it’s going to be hard to change the global economic system quickly. There’s a term for that among economists called path dependence. For example, we have a path dependency on carbon that we could shift over to a cleaner and cheaper—cheaper, if you take into account the true costs to the planet—power and transport system. But the pace of technological change for something that big might be up to a century because we’re constrained by path dependence. And I don’t think we have that much time.

DG: So, are we talking evolution or revolution? Do we need to escape from path dependence and start anew? 

KSR: No, we have to alter the system we already have, because like an animal with evolutionary constraints, we can’t change everything and start from scratch. But what we could do is reconstruct regulations on the existing global economic system. For this, we would need to wrench capitalism so that the global rules of the World Bank, etc., required ecological sustainability as their main criterion. That way, prices would shift to match their true costs. Burning carbon would cost more than it does now, and clean energy would become cheaper than burning carbon. This would address the most pressing part of our crisis, but finding a replacement for the market to allocate goods and price them is not easy.

As we enter this new mass extinction event, at some point there is going to be a global civilization response that will try to deal with it: try to cope, survive, and repair landscapes and ecosystems. The scientific method and democratic politics are going to be the crucial tools, I’d say. For them to work, we need universal justice and education because we need active and well-educated citizens who are empowered and live at adequacy.

From where we are now, this looks pretty hard, but I think that’s because capitalism as we know it is represented as natural, entrenched, and immutable. None of that is true. It’s a political order and political orders change. What we want is to remember that our system is constructed for a purpose, and so in need of constant fixing and new tries.

DG: I often wonder if civilizations elsewhere in the universe have made it through times like the ones we’re facing now. Astrobiologists think the likelihood of there being extraterrestrial intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is high. Our next question is if they’re out there, why haven’t they made themselves obvious to us? One recently suggested answer to this puzzle, known as the Fermi Paradox, is that unsustainable growth is an unavoidable property of civilizations, so they self-destruct. 

KSR: The Fermi Paradox poses a really interesting question, but I think it’s unanswerable. My feeling is, the universe is too big, and life too planet-specific for intelligent life forms to communicate with each other, except for by accident and very rarely. So perhaps they’re out there, and perhaps they’ve made it through something like our current era, but we wouldn’t know. I am just making assumptions based on the data, and telling a science fiction story. But so is everyone else talking about this issue.

DG: If you don’t want to speculate on outer space, do you think civilizations in science fiction offer any examples of long-lived societies?

KSR: I like to think so. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, a planetary society runs as a kind of giant anarchist collective. Decisions are made in long, consensus-building sessions, and the economy appears to be a matter of voluntary contributions of work. It’s a culture of minimal need and use, such that everyone lives at adequacy and no one consumes very much, as this is regarded as gross behavior.

Iain Banks’s Culture series describes a far-future, post-scarcity society in which the technological power available to civilization is such that basic needs are always more than satisfied. However, they have other sorts of problems that have to do with the interactions between different societies.

In my novel, 2312, the economy is in some ways a funhouse mirror portrayal of our world. One of the civilizations—called the Mondragon after the Basque city in Spain that runs its economy as a set of nested co-ops—provides for everyone’s basic needs as a kind of public utility district service. Then there is a more free-market capitalist world of exchange of luxuries; these arrangements are loosely grouped as “above and beyonds.” That’s one image of a possible future, sustainable economy. However, if you include all the civilizations on Earth and in space in 2312, there remains a steep inequality gradient with most of the poor on Earth.

DG: So you’re saying that even if we learn to live sustainably, we may still have serious poverty?

KSR: Actually, 2312 is not so much a prediction of a future but rather a symbolic portrait of now. Poverty is mostly political in nature because the technological ability to create adequacy for all living humans exists in 2312 (as it does now) but it has never been made the “civilizational project.” In the symbolic sense, people have already begun a process of speciation, in that the most prosperous on Earth live on average decades longer than the poorest people, and can change gender to an extent. Instead, the main division between people is height. By dividing people into the “shorts” and the “talls,” I was alluding to the idea that we are becoming separate sub-species based on class. And by describing how the “shorts” have many advantages, I was trying to point out that the assumption that bigger is better is false in many situations.


DG: Another interesting detail in 2312 is that biomes can be made from scratch on asteroids, according to a set of directions that reads like a recipe. But you warn of a potential danger at an early stage in the process: “Once you get your marsh going, you may fall in love with it.” Why is that a risk?

KSR: It’s a bit of a joke. Some of the ecologists I spoke to when I was writing the book told me that marshes were their favorite biomes because of their fecundity. As someone who likes the high Sierra I was surprised by this, and learned to look at the landscape differently. It also made me consider how all biomes are beautiful, depending on how you look at them. So being urged to move on to drier biomes is then part of that idea, but it’s not a very serious one. I have to admit that a lot of what is in 2312 is me fooling around. I think this is one thing that has made the book attractive to people, the sense of play, and that our landscapes and cities as artworks with aesthetic pleasures.

DG: Even though the Earth is a mess in 2312, the heroine of the book falls in love with the sky as seen on Earth, and the wolves that have been re-introduced. Do you think that people will always retain a connection to this planet despite its flaws? 

KSR: Yes, this was a point I was trying to make. I have this intuition that because we evolved on Earth, and are, as individuals, part of a complex network of living and natural forces, that we are biomes in effect. The result is that we will never be able to stay healthy if away from Earth for long. We carry the Earth within us, and by the same measure, I think we’ll always need the Earth around us to replenish ourselves.

David Grinspoon is an astrobiologist working with several interplanetary spacecrafts. In 2013, he was named the inaugural Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress. He tweets at @DrFunkySpoon.

This article was originally published in our “Turbulence” issue in July, 2014.

The Widening World of Hand-Picked Truths (New York Times)

Nearly half a century ago, in what passed as outrage in pre-Internet times, people across the country became incensed by the latest edition of Time magazine. In place of the familiar portrait of a world leader — Indira Gandhi, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ho Chi Minh — the cover of the April 8, 1966, issue was emblazoned with three red words against a stark black background: “Is God Dead?”

Thousands of people sent letters of protest to Time and to their local newspapers. Ministers denounced the magazine in their sermons.

The subject of the fury — a sprawling, 6,000-word essay of the kind Time was known for — was not, as many assumed, a denunciation of religion. Drawing on a panoply of philosophers and theologians, Time’s religion editor calmly considered how society was adapting to the diminishing role of religion in an age of secularization, urbanism and, especially, stunning advances in science.

With astronauts walking in space, and polio and other infectious diseasesseemingly on the way to oblivion, it was natural to assume that people would increasingly stop believing things just because they had always believed them. Faith would steadily give way to the scientific method as humanity converged on an ever better understanding of what was real.

Almost 50 years later, that dream seems to be coming apart. Some of the opposition is on familiar grounds: The creationist battle against evolution remains fierce, and more sophisticated than ever. But it’s not just organized religions that are insisting on their own alternate truths. On one front after another, the hard-won consensus of science is also expected to accommodate personal beliefs, religious or otherwise, about the safety of vaccines, G.M.O. crops, fluoridation or cellphone radio waves, along with the validity of global climate change.

Like creationists with their “intelligent design,” the followers of these causes come armed with their own personal science, assembled through Internet searches that inevitably turn up the contortions of special interest groups. In an attempt to dilute the wisdom of the crowd, Google recently tweaked its algorithm so that searching for “vaccination” or “fluoridation,” for example, brings vetted medical information to the top of the results.

But presenting people with the best available science doesn’t seem to change many minds. In a kind of psychological immune response, they reject ideas they consider harmful. A study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that it is more effective to appeal to anti-vaxxers through their emotions, with stories and pictures of children sick with measles, the mumps or rubella — a reminder that subjective feelings are still trusted over scientific expertise.

On a deeper level, characteristics that once seemed biologically determined are increasingly challenged as malleable social constructs. As she resigned from her post this summer, an N.A.A.C.P. local leader continued to insistshe was black although she was born white. Facebook now offers users a list of 56 genders to choose from. Transgender sits on the list, along with its opposite, cisgender — meaning that, like most people, you identify yourself as male or female according to the way the cells of your embryo unfolded in the womb.

Even conditions once certified as pathologies are redefined. While some parents cling to discredited research blaming vaccines for giving children autism, others embrace the condition as one more way of being and speak of a new civil rights movement promoting “neurodiversity,” the subject of a book by Steve Silberman, published this month.

While this has been a welcome and humane development for those diagnosed as “higher functioning” on the autism scale, parents of severely impaired children have expressed dismay.

Viewed from afar, the world seems almost on the brink of conceding that there are no truths, only competing ideologies — narratives fighting narratives. In this epistemological warfare, those with the most power are accused of imposing their version of reality — the “dominant paradigm” — on the rest, leaving the weaker to fight back with formulations of their own. Everything becomes a version.

Ideas like these have been playing out in the background as native Hawaiian protesters continue to delay the construction of a new telescope on Mauna Kea that they say would desecrate a mountaintop where the Sky Father and Earth Mother gave birth to humankind. Last month, they staged a demonstration at the annual meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Honolulu.

There are already 13 telescopes on the mountain, all part of the Mauna Kea Science Reserve, which was established by the state in 1968 on what is widely considered the premier astronomical vantage point in the Northern Hemisphere. After I wrote about the controversy last fall, I heard from young anthropologists, speaking the language of postmodernism, who consider science to be just another tool with which Western colonialism further extends its “cultural hegemony” by marginalizing the dispossessed and privileging its own worldview.

Science, through this lens, doesn’t discover knowledge, it “manufactures” it, along with other marketable goods.

Altruism and compassion toward the feelings of others represent the best of human impulses. And it is good to continually challenge rigid categories and entrenched beliefs. But that comes at a sacrifice when the subjective is elevated over the assumption that lurking out there is some kind of real world.

The widening gyre of beliefs is accelerated by the otherwise liberating Internet. At the same time it expands the reach of every mind, it channels debate into clashing memes, often no longer than 140 characters, that force people to extremes and trap them in self-reinforcing bubbles of thought.

In the end, you’re left to wonder whether you are trapped in a bubble, too, a pawn and a promoter of a “hegemonic paradigm” called science, seduced by your own delusions.

Anthropologies #21: Annual Review of Anthropology, Climate Change, Anthropocene (Savage Minds)

August 31, 2015 / 

To kick off this issue, we begin with Sean Seary’s excellent overview of recent literature about anthropology’s engagement with climate. This review originally appeared on Anthropology Report, has been reproduced here to give us a solid foundation for moving forward. Seary, a recent graduate from Hartwick College, currently lives in Brunswick, Maine. His research interests focus on the convergence of anthropology and climate change. Seary’s work has also been featured on PopAnth. –R.A.

Introduction: Anthropological Interventions

Since the 1960s, global climate and environmental change have been important topics of contemporary scientific research. Growing concerns about climate change have introduced a (relatively) new variable in climate change research: the anthropogenic causes of local-global climate and environmental change. Despite archaeologists providing some of the first research and commentary on climate change–a point that is explored in Daniel Sandweiss and Alice Kelley’s Archaeological Contributions to Climate Change Research: The Archaeological Record as a Paleoclimatic and Paleoenvironmental Archive–the field of climate and environmental change research has been predominantly studied by “natural scientists.” This is where Susan Crate’s Climate and Culture: Anthropology in the Era of Contemporary Climate Change in the 2011 Annual Review of Anthropology intervenes. Crate calls for anthropological engagement with the natural sciences (and vice versa) on global climate change discourse, with the intention of creating new multidisciplinary ethnographies that reflect all the contributors to global environmental change.

Crate’s review begins by stating that the earliest anthropological research on climate change was associated with archaeologists: most of whom studied how climate change had an impact on cultural dynamics, societal resilience and decline, and social structure. Anthropological and archaeological engagement with climate change revolved around how cultures attributed meaning and value to their interpretations of weather and climate. Archaeology has long been working on understanding the relationship between climate, environment, and culture. Historically, archaeologists have worked with “natural” scientists in the recovery of climate and environmental data pulled from archaeological strata (Sandweiss and Kelley 2012:372). Such works include Environment and Archaeology: An Introduction to Pleistocene Geography (Butzer 1964), Principles of Geoarchaeology: A North American Perspective (Waters 1992) and Environmental Archaeology: Principles and Practice(Dincauze 2000). The archaeological record incorporates not only stratigraphic data, but also proxy records. These records contributed to much larger paleoclimate and paleoenvironmental studies, including publications in general science literature like ScienceNature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Sandweiss and Kelley 2012:372; see also the 2013 article in NatureContribution of anthropology to the study of climate change). Conversely, the work of “natural” scientists has also appeared in archaeological literature. Contemporarily, archaeologists have studied the impacts that water (or lack thereof) can have on human-environment interactions, through the study of soil and settlements drawing from case studies in Coastal Peru, Northern Mesopotamia, the Penobscot Valley in Maine, or Shetland Island.

Contemporary anthropological analysis of climate change usually focuses on adaptations towards local climate, temperature, flooding, rainfall, and drought (Crate 2011:178). Climate change impacts the cultural framework in which people perceive, understand, experience, and respond to the world in which they live. Crate believes that because of anthropologists’ ability to “be there,” anthropologists are well-suited to interpret, facilitate, translate, communicate, advocate, and act in response to the cultural implications of global (and local) climate change. Understanding the role that people and culture play in understanding land use changes is crucial to defining anthropology’s engagement with climate change. Anthropologists, as well as scientists from allied disciplines must engage in vigorous cross-scale, local-global approaches in order to understand the implications of climate change (Crate 2011:176).

Crate urges that anthropology use its experience in place-based community research and apply it to a global scale, while focusing on ethnoclimatology, resilience, disasters, displacement, and resource management. By studying people living in “climate-sensitive” areas, anthropologists can document how people observe, perceive, and respond to the local effects of global climate change, which at times can compromise not only their physical livelihood, but also undermine their cultural orientations and frameworks (Crate 2011:179). Anthropology is well positioned to understand the “second disaster,” or sociocultural displacement which follows the first disaster (physical displacement), as a result local environmental and climate change. Some of these “second disasters” include shifts in local governance, resource rights, and domestic and international politics (Crate 2011:180). These “second disasters” present yet another challenge to anthropology’s involvement with global climate change: that global climate change is a human rights issue. Therefore, anthropologists should take the initiative in being active and empowering local populations, regions, and even nation-states to seek redress for the damage done by climate change (Crate 2011:182) It is the responsibility of anthropologists working in the field of climate change to link the local and lived realities of environmental change with national and international policies.

In order to accommodate to the rapidly changing (human) ecology, anthropology is in need of new ethnographies that show how the “global” envelops the local, and the subsequent imbalance (environmental injustice/racism) that it creates during this process. Crate urgently calls for anthropologists to become actors in the policy process, utilizing a multidisciplinary, multi-sited collaboration between organizations, foundations, associations, as well as political think tanks and other scientific disciplines. Anthropology’s task at hand is to bridge what is known about climate change to those who are not aware of its impacts, in order to facilitate a global understanding of climate change and its reach (Crate 2011:184).

Crate’s “Climate and Culture” may not have been the first Annual Review article regarding climate change and anthropology, but it is certainly one of the most urgent and pressing. Crate became a member of the American Anthropological Association’s Global Climate Change Task Force. Their report released in January 2015 sets an ambitious agenda for anthropology and climate change. Crate’s article also became foundational for a thematic emphasis of the 2012 Annual Review of Anthropology, which featured seven additional articles on anthropology and climate change.

Politics of the Anthropogenic

Nathan Sayre’s Politics of the Anthropogenic continues where Crate’s Climate and Culture left off: at the advent of a new form of anthropology, one that utilizes an interdisciplinary approach towards understanding the human ecology in relation to global climate change. Sayre invokes a term which Crate did not use in her review article, but that seems to have increasing salience to anthropology: The Anthropocene. Notably, the idea of the Anthropocene and its relationship to anthropology was also the subject of Bruno Latour’s keynote lecture to the American Anthropological Association in 2014: Anthropology at the Time of the Anthropocene.

Sayre describes the Anthropocene as the moment in history when humanity began to dominate, rather than coexist with the “natural” world (Sayre 2012:58). What defines the Anthropocene as a distinct epoch or era is when human activities rapidly shifted (most often considered the Industrial Revolution) from merely influencing the environment in some ways to dominating it in many ways. This is evident in population growth, urbanization, dams, transportation, greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and the overexploitation of natural resources. The adverse effects of anthropogenic climate change can be measured on nearly every corner of the earth. As a result of local environmental change and global climate change, humans, climate, soil, and nonhuman biota have begun to collapse into one another; in this scenario, it is impossible to disentangle the “social” from the “natural” (Sayre 2012:62). Sayre states that anthropology’s role, together with other sciences, in analyzing climate change in the Anthropocene is to understand that there is no dichotomy between what is considered natural and cultural. Understanding the fluctuations in the earth’s ecosystems cannot be accounted for without dispelling the ideological separation between the natural and the cultural. By adopting conceptual models of “climate justice” and earth system science, anthropologists and biophysical scientists can further dispel the archaic dichotomy of humanity and nature.

The atmosphere, the earth, the oceans, are genuinely global commons. However, environmental climate change and the subsequent effects are profoundly and unevenly distributed throughout space and time (Sayre 2012:65). Biophysically and socioeconomically, the areas that have contributed most to global climate change are the least likely to suffer from its consequences. Those who have contributed the least suffer the most. Anthropologists can play an important role in utilizing climate-based ethnography to help explain and understand the institutions that are most responsible for anthropogenic global warming–oil, coal, electricity, automobiles–and the misinformation, lobbying, and public relations behind “climate denialism” in the Anthropocene. This is the first step in seeking redress for the atrocities of environmental injustice.

Evolution and Environmental Change in Early Human Prehistory

Understanding climate change in the Anthropocene is no easy task, but as Richard Potts argues in Evolution and Environmental Change in Early Human Prehistory, humans have been influencing their environments and their environments have been influencing them well before the era that is considered the “Anthropocene.” Throughout the last several million years the earth has experienced one of its most dramatic eras of climate change, which consequently coincided with the origin of hominins. Homo sapiens represent a turning point in the history of protohuman and human life, because of their capacity to modify habitats and transform ecosystems. Now, approximately 50% of today’s land surface is reserved for human energy flow, and a further 83% of all the viable land on the planet has either been occupied or altered to some extent (Potts 2012:152).

Vrba’s turnover-pulse hypothesis (TPH) and Potts’s variability selection hypothesis (VSH) both serve as explanations for the correlation between environmental and evolutionary change. Vrba’s TPH focused on the origination and extinction of lineages coinciding with environmental change, particularly the rate of species turnovers following major dry periods across equatorial Africa. Potts’s VSH focused on the inherited traits that arose in times of habitat variability, and the selection/favoring of traits that were more adaptively versatile to unstable environments (Potts 2012:154-5). There are three ways in which environmental change and human evolution can potentially be linked. First, evolutionary events may be concentrated in periods of directional environmental change. Second, evolution may be elicited during times of rising environmental variability and resource uncertainty. Finally, evolution may be independent of environmental trend or variability (Potts 2012:155). The aforementioned hypotheses and subsequent links between evolution and environmental change help shed light on the origins and adaptations of Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthals. The anatomical, behavioral, and environmental differences between neanderthals and modern humans suggests that their distinct fates reflect their differing abilities to adjusting to diverse and fluctuating habitats (Potts 2012:160). Potts does an excellent job of stating that before the Anthropocene, early Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthals not only impacted and manipulate their surrounding environments, but were (genetically) impacted by their environments.

Sea Change: Island Communities and Climate Change

Heather Lazrus’s Annual Review article Sea Change: Island Communities and Climate Change returns to climate change in the more recent Anthropocene. For island communities, climate change is an immediate and lived reality in already environmentally fragile areas. These island communities, despite their seeming isolation and impoverishment, are often deeply globally connected in ways that go beyond simplistic descriptions of “poverty” and “isolated” (Lazrus 2012:286). Globally, islands are home to one-tenth of the world’s population, and much of the world’s population tends to be concentrated along coasts. Therefore both are subject to very similar changes in climate and extreme weather events. Islands tend to be regarded as the planet’s “barometers of change” because of their sensitivity to climate change (Lazrus 2012:287). Not only are islands environmentally dynamic areas, consisting of a variety of plants and animal species, but they also have the potential to be areas of significant social, economic, and political interest.

Madagascar: A History of Arrivals, What Happened, and Will Happen Next

Madagascar is a fascinating example of sociopolitical and ecological convergence, and is explored by Robert Dewar and Alison Richard in their Madagascar: A History of Arrivals, What Happened, and Will Happen Next. Madagascar has an extremely diverse system of human ecology that is nearly as diverse the island’s topography, environments, and climate. As a product of its physical diversity, the human ecology of Madagascar has a dynamic social and cultural history. In the Southwest, the Mikea derive significant portions of their food from foraging in the dry forest. Outside of most urban areas, hunting and collecting wild plants is common. Along the west coast, fishing is crucial as a central focus of the economy, but also as a supplement to farming. Farmers in Madagascar have a wide range of varieties and species to choose from including maize, sweet potatoes, coffee, cacao, pepper, cloves, cattle, chickens, sheep, goats, pigs, and turkeys (Dewar and Richard 2012:505). Throughout the island, rice and cattle are the two most culturally and economically important domesticates, and are subsequently adapted to growing under the local conditions of the microclimates of Madagascar. Semi-nomadic cattle pastoralism takes place in the drier regions of Madagascar. Whatever the environmental, climatic, social, or economic surroundings may be, Madagascar (as well as other islands) serve as local microcosms for climate change on the global scale. This relates to Crate’s call for an anthropology that brings forth the global array of connections (“natural”/ sociocultural) portraying local issues of climate change to the global sphere.

Ethnoprimatology and the Anthropology of the Human-Primate Interface

Agustin Fuentes’s main arguments in Ethnoprimatology and the Anthropology of the Human-Primate Interface focus on human-induced climate change and how it affects a vast amount of species, including the other primates (Fuentes 2012:110). By getting rid of the ideology that humans are separate from natural ecosystems and the animals within them, then anthropology can better grasp inquiries relating to global climate change within the Anthropocene. Fuentes then goes on to say (similarly to Crate and Sayre) that by freeing anthropological (and other scientific discourse) from the dichotomy of nature and culture, people will fully understand their relationship in the order of primates, but also their place within the environment. Our human capacity to build vast urban areas, transportation systems, and the deforestation of woodland all impact the local environments in which we live, and consequently gives humans an aura of dominance over nature. As Fuentes states, “at the global level, humans are ecosystem engineers on the largest of scales, and these altered ecologies are inherited not only by subsequent generations of humans but by all the sympatric species residing within them. The ways in which humans and other organisms coexist (and/or conflict) within these anthropogenic ecologies shape the perceptions, interactions, histories, and futures of the inhabitants” (Fuentes 2012:110). Essentially, Fuentes points out that humans have dominated ecosystems on a global scale; however, this has impacted not only human populations but also various plant and animals species, as well as entire ecosystems. It is only within the understanding of the symbiotic relationship between human/plants/animals/ecosystems that people will realize their impact on the environment on a global scale.

Lives With Others: Climate Change and Human-Animal Relations

In Lives With Others: Climate Change and Human-Animal Relations, Rebecca Cassidy ties together Fuentes’s arguments with Crate’s by demonstrating how climate change not only impacts people’s physical livelihood, but also their sociocultural lives. Cassidy states that people with animal-centered livelihoods experience climate change on many different levels, and subsequently, climate change may see those animals (or plants) become incapable of fulfilling their existing functions. Societies that are most frequently geopolitically marginalized often are left reeling from the impacts that climate change has on their social, political, economic, and environmental lives (Cassidy 2012:24). The impacts that climate change has on marginalized societies often affects their ability to live symbiotically and sustainably with other species. Human/animal “persons” are conceived to be reciprocal and equal, living in a symbiotic world system, in which their sustenance, reproduction, life, and death are all equally important. The extinction of particular species of animals and plants can cause cosmological crises, as well as disrupt the potential for future adaptability.

Cassidy’s claim that humans, animals, plants, and their environments are reciprocal and symbiotic ties in with Crate’s plea for an anthropology that rids itself of the old dichotomy of the natural and cultural. Crate’s idea for new ethnographies that consider the human ecology of climate change begin by utilizing what Lazrus calls Traditional Environmental Knowledge, or TEK. TEK is “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive process and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment” (Lazrus 2012:290). TEK utilizes the spiritual, cosmological, and moral practices that condition human relationships with their surrounding physical environments. Such ethnographies should reflect all of the potential contributors to climate change in the Anthropocene, but they should also infuse new urgency to anthropological approaches. As Crate states “anthropologists need to become more globalized agents for change by being more active as public servants and engaging more with nonanthropological approaches regarding climate change” (Crate 2011: 183).

As made evident by the work of Sandweiss and Kelley, anthropology has early roots in climate change research dating back to the 1960s. Since then, anthropology’s contribution to climate change research has been significant, and is now sparking a new generation of engaged anthropology in the Anthropocene.

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: ‘O que se vê no Brasil hoje é uma ofensiva feroz contra os índios’ (O Globo)

Antropólogo lança livro ‘Metafísicas canibais’ e expõe fotografias na mostra ‘Variações do corpo selvagem’


Índio com filmadora de Viveiros de Castro no Alto Xingu, em 1976. – Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

RIO – Certa vez, ao dar uma palestra em Manaus, o antropólogo Eduardo Viveiros de Castro deparou-se com uma plateia dividida entre cientistas e índios. Enquanto apresentava suas teses sobre o perspectivismo ameríndio, conceito desenvolvido a partir da cosmologia dos povos com que estudou na Amazônia, notou que a metade branca da plateia ia perdendo o interesse. No fim da palestra, diante do silêncio dos cientistas, uma índia pediu a palavra para alertá-los: “Vocês precisam prestar atenção ao que o professor aí está dizendo. Ele está dizendo o que a gente sempre disse”.

A cena, relembrada por Viveiros de Castro em entrevista ao GLOBO, remete a uma das teses centrais de seu novo livro, “Metafísicas canibais” (Cosac Naify e n-1 Edições). O autor descreve-o como a “resenha” ou “sinopse” de uma obra que nunca conseguirá concluir e que se chamaria “O Anti-Narciso”. Nela, aproximaria filosofia e antropologia, Deleuze e Lévi-Strauss, para investigar a pergunta: “o que deve conceitualmente a antropologia aos povos que estuda?”. As culturas e sociedades pesquisadas pelos antropólogos, escreve, “influenciam, ou, para dizer de modo mais claro, coproduzem” as teses formuladas a partir dessas pesquisas.

Um dos mais influentes antropólogos hoje, autor de “A inconstância da alma selvagem” (Cosac Naify, 2002) e professor do Museu Nacional da UFRJ, Viveiros de Castro desenvolve em “Metafísicas canibais” suas ideias sobre o perspectivismo, formadas a partir de ideias presentes em sociedades amazônicas sobre como humanos, animais e espíritos veem-se a si mesmos e aos outros. Ele descreve a antropologia como uma forma de “tradução cultural” e pleiteia que seu ideal é ser “a teoria-prática da descolonização permanente do pensamento”. O que implica reconhecer a diferença e a autonomia do pensamento indígena: “não podemos pensar como os índios; podemos, no máximo, pensar com eles”.Os primeiros contatos de Viveiros de Castro com esse universo estão registrados nas fotografias que fez durante o trabalho de campo com os índios Araweté, Yanomami, Yawalapiti e Kulina, entre meados dos anos 1970 e início dos 1990. Parte dessas fotos será exibida pela primeira vez na exposição “Variações do corpo selvagem”, no Sesc Ipiranga, em São Paulo, a partir do dia 29 de agosto. Com curadoria da escritora e crítica de arte Veronica Stigger e do poeta e crítico literário Eduardo Sterzi, a mostra reúne ainda fotos feitas pelo antropólogo nos anos 1970, quando trabalhava com o cineasta Ivan Cardoso, mestre do gênero “terrir” e diretor de filmes como “O segredo da múmia” (1982) e “As sete vampiras” (1986).

Em entrevista por e-mail, Viveiros de Castro, de 64 anos, fala sobre o livro e a exposição e discute outros temas de sua obra e sua atuação pública, como a crise climática, abordada em “Há mundo por vir?” (Cultura e Barbárie, 2014), que escreveu com a filósofa Déborah Danowski, com quem é casado. Fala também sobre a resistência dos índios contra o “dispositivo etnocida” armado contra eles no Brasil, que mira “suas terras, seu modo de vida, os fundamentos ecológicos e morais de sua economia e sua autonomia política interna”.

Numa nota em “Metafísicas canibais”, você comenta que, sempre que expôs a ouvintes ameríndios suas teses sobre o perspectivismo, eles perceberam as implicações que elas poderiam ter para “as relações de força em vigor entre as ‘culturas’ indígenas e as ‘ciências’ ocidentais que as circunscrevem e administram”. Quais seriam essas implicações? O que interlocutores ameríndios costumam lhe dizer sobre o perspectivismo?

“Sempre que” é um pouco exagerado; dá impressão que eu faço tours de seminários sobre o pensamento indígena para ouvintes indígenas… Eu tinha em mente, naquela nota, uma ocasião em particular. Em 2006, a convite do Instituto Socioambiental, fiz uma palestra para uma plateia de cientistas do INPA, em Manaus, sobre as cosmologias amazônicas e as concepções indígenas da natureza da natureza, por assim dizer. Ao entrar na sala, descobri, com não pouca ansiedade, que apenas metade da plateia era composta de cientistas (biólogos, botânicos, pedólogos etc.) — e que a outra metade da sala estava cheia de índios do Rio Negro. Falar do que pensam os índios diante de uma plateia de índios não é exatamente uma situação confortável. Decidi então apresentar uma versão esquemática do que eu sabia a respeito do modo como o que chamei de “perspectivismo ameríndio” se manifestava nas culturas rionegrinas (povos Tukano e Aruaque, principalmente). No meio da palestra fui percebendo os cientistas cada vez menos interessados naquilo, e os índios cada vez mais agitados. Na hora das perguntas, nenhum cientista falou nada. Os índios, com sua cortesia habitual, esperaram os brancos presentes pararem de não dizer nada até que eles começassem a falar. Uma senhora então se levantou e, dirigindo-se à metade branca e científica da plateia, disse: “vocês precisam prestar atenção ao que o professor aí está dizendo. Ele está dizendo o que a gente sempre disse: que vocês não veem as coisas direito; que, por exemplo, os peixes, quando fazem a piracema (a desova) estão na verdade, lá no fundo do rio, transformados em gente como nós, fazendo um grande dabucuri (cerimônia indígena típica da região)”. E outro índio perguntou: “aquilo que o professor disse, sobre os morros da região serem habitados por espíritos protetores da caça, é verdade. Mas isso quer dizer então que destruir esses morros com garimpo e mineração é perigoso, não é mesmo? E não quereria dizer também que índio não pode ser capitalista?” Percebi, naquele confronto entre cientistas que estudam a Amazônia e os índios que vivem lá, que os primeiros estão interessados apenas no saber indígena que interessa ao que eles, cientistas, já sabem, isto é, àquilo que se encaixa na moldura do conhecimento científico normalizado. Os índios são “úteis” aos cientistas na medida em que podem servir de informantes sobre novas espécies, novas associações ecológicas etc. Mas a estrutura metafísica que sustenta esse conhecimento indígena não lhes dizia absolutamente nada, ou era apenas um ornamento pitoresco para os fenômenos reais. E os índios, ao contrário, se interessaram precisamente pelo interesse de um branco (eu) sobre isso. O que me deu muita coisa a pensar.

Mais geralmente, porém, tenho tido notícia da difusão lenta e episódica, mas real, de meus escritos (e os de meus colegas) sobre isso que chamei de “perspectivismo” junto a pensadores indígenas, ou muito próximos politicamente a eles, em outros países da América Latina (o livro foi traduzido para o espanhol, assim como diversos artigos de mesmo teor). Isso me alegra e, por que não dizer, envaidece muito. Mil vezes poder servir, com esses meus escritos aparentemente tão abstratos, à luta indígena pela autonomia política e filosófica que ser lido e comentado nos círculos acadêmicos — o que também não faz mal nenhum, bem entendido.

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro na Flip 2014 – Arquivo/André Teixeira/2-8-2014

No livro, você pergunta: “O que acontece quando se leva o pensamento nativo a sério?”. E continua: “Levar a sério é, para começar, não neutralizar”. Partindo destes termos, quais são as maiores ameaças de “neutralização” do pensamento indígena no Brasil hoje?

‘O que se pretende é transformar o índio em pobre, tirando dele o que tem — suas terras, seu modo de vida, os fundamentos ecológicos e morais de sua economia, sua autonomia política interna — para obrigá-lo a desejar consumir o que não tem.’


Neutralizar este pensamento significa reduzi-lo ao efeito de um complexo de causas ou condições cuja posse conceitual não lhes pertence. Significa, como escrevi no livro, pôr entre parênteses a questão de saber se e como tal pensamento ilustra universais cognitivos da espécie humana, explica-se por certos modos de transmissão socialmente determinada do conhecimento, exprime uma visão de mundo culturalmente particular, valida funcionalmente a distribuição do poder político, e outras tantas formas de neutralização do pensamento alheio. Trata-se de suspender tais explicações-padrão, típicas das ciências humanas, ou, pelo menos, evitar encerrar a antropologia nela. Trata-se de decidir, em suma, pensar o outro pensamento como uma atualização de virtualidades insuspeitas do pensamento em geral, o “nosso” inclusive. Tratá-lo como tratamos qualquer sistema intelectual ocidental: como algo que diz algo que deve ser tratado em seus próprios termos, se quisermos respeitá-lo e incorporá-lo como uma contribuição singular e valiosa à nossa própria e orgulhosa tradição intelectual. Só depois disso poderemos, se tal for nossa veleidade, anatomizá-lo e dissecá-lo segundo os instrumentos usuais da redução científica das práticas de sentido humano.

Mas sua pergunta acrescentava “no Brasil hoje”. No Brasil hoje o que se vê é muito mais que uma “neutralização do pensamento nativo”. O que se vê é uma ofensiva feroz para acabar com os nativos, para varrer suas formas de vida (e portanto de pensamento) da face do território nacional. O que se pretende hoje — o que sempre se pretendeu, mas hoje os métodos são ao mesmo tempo cada vez mais sutis e eficazes sem deixarem de ser brutais como sempre foram — é silenciar os índios, desindianizar todo pensamento nativo, de modo a transformar aquela caboclada atrasada toda que continua a “rexistir” (este é o modo de existência dos índios no Brasil hoje: a “rexistência”) em pobre, isto é, em “bom brasileiro”, mal assistencializado, mal alfabetizado, convertido ao cristianismo evangélico por um exército de missionários fanáticos, transformado em consumidor dócil do estoque infinito de porcarias produzidas pela economia mundial. Em suma: fazer do índio (os que não tiverem sido exterminados antes) um “cidadão”. Cidadão pobre, é claro. Índio rico seria uma ofensa praticamente teológica, uma heresia, à ideologia nacional. Para fazê-lo passar de índio a pobre, é preciso primeiro tirar dele o que ele tem — suas terras, seu modo de vida, os fundamentos ecológicos e morais de sua economia, sua autonomia política interna —‚ para obrigá-lo a desejar consumir o que ele não tem — o que é produzido na terra dos outros (no país do agronegócio, por exemplo, ou nas fábricas chinesas).

Como avalia o estado atual das mobilizações indígenas contra intervenções do Estado em seus modos de vida, como na região do Xingu, com a construção da usina de Belo Monte?

Os índios fazem o que podem. Estão lutando contra uma máquina tecnológica, econômica, politica e militar infinitamente mais poderosa do que eles. No caso de Belo Monte, já perderam. Mas não sem dar um bocado de trabalho ao “programa” que esse governo, cujo ódio estúpido aos índios só é comparável ao que se via nos sombrios tempos da ditadura, vai implantando a ferro e a fogo na Amazônia inteira, inclusive fora do Brasil. Mas a luta continua, e ainda tem muito índio disposto a resistir (a “rexistir”) ao dispositivo etnocida armado contra eles, no Mato Grosso do Sul, no Tapajós, no Xingu, no Rio Negro e por aí afora.

Você tem trabalhado com o conceito de Antropoceno (que já definiu como o momento em que “o capitalismo passa a ser um episódio da paleontologia”) para alertar sobre os efeitos destrutivos da ação humana sobre o planeta. O que precisa mudar no debate público sobre a crise climática?

Muito. Isso tudo vai descrito no livro que coautorei com a filósofa Déborah Danowski, “Há mundo por vir? Ensaio sobre os medos e os fins”, onde comparamos, de um lado, os efeitos já instalados e aqueles por vir da catástrofe ecológica desencadeada pela economia movida a combustíveis fósseis, e tudo o que vem com ela (inclusive o capitalismo financeiro e cognitivo), com os modos com que esse tema arquimilenar, o “fim do mundo”, vem sendo tematizado pela imaginação estética, política e mitológica de nossa própria civilização moderna, de outro lado. E por fim, tecemos considerações sobre como a “mudança de Era” (como dizem os camponeses nordestinos para se referir aos efeitos já palpáveis das mudanças climáticas) por que passamos hoje é pensada pelos índios, em suas mitologias e em sua prática ecopolítica concreta. Penso que as ciências humanas têm sido lentas em assumir que esta questão, que a palavra “Antropoceno” resume, é a questão mais grave e urgente da história humana desde o começo da era Neolítica, e que estamos entrando em uma situação inédita para a espécie como um todo. O debate na esfera pública tem sido laboriosamente mitigado, quando não silenciado, por uma poderosíssima máquina de propaganda financiada pelos principais interessados no status quo, a saber, as grandes corporações petroleiras e outras, como a Monsanto, a Nestlé, a Bunge, a Dow, a Vale, a Rio Tinto etc. Sem falarmos nos governos nacionais, meros instrumentos de polícia desses atores econômicos. Mas as coisas começam a mudar, devagar, mas mudando. Infelizmente, “devagar” é péssimo. Porque a aceleração dos processos de desequilíbrio termodinâmico do planeta marcha em ritmo crescente. O tempo e o espaço entraram em crise, escapam-nos por todos os lados. Hoje a luta política fundamental, a ser levada a nível mundial, é a luta pela liberação do espaço e do tempo.

Você afirma que o perspectivismo não é uma forma de relativismo cultural e, ao conceito corrente de “multiculturalismo”, contrapõe a noção de “multinaturalismo”. Quais são os problemas do relativismo cultural e como o multinaturalismo os evita?

‘O problema que se coloca não é o da “tolerância” (só os donos do poder são “tolerantes”), mas o da diplomacia’


O relativismo cultural é, ao menos como costumeiramente divulgado pela vulgata ideológica dominante, meramente a ideia de que existem várias opiniões sobre o mundo, o universo ou a “realidade”, mas que esta “coisa lá fora” (o mundo etc.) é uma só. Entre essas várias opiniões, há uma certa — a nossa, ou melhor, aquela que acreditamos ser a verdade cientifica (e 99,99% dos que acreditam nela não sabem em que estão acreditando). O resto é “cultura”, superstição, visões exóticas de gente que vive “fora da realidade”. Em relação a essa gente, podemos e até devemos mostrar um pouco de tolerância (afinal, são apenas opiniões, “visões de mundo”), devemos ser “multiculturalistas”. Mas a Natureza, com N maiúsculo, é uma só, e independe de nossas opiniões (exceto da minha, isto é, a da “Ciência” que nos serve de religião laica). O que chamei de “multinaturalismo” ou de “perspectivismo multinaturalista”, para caracterizar as metafísicas indígenas, supõe a indissociabilidade radical, ou pressuposição recíproca, entre “mundo” e “visão”. Não existem “visões de mundo” (muitas visões de um só mundo), mas mundos de visão, mundos compostos de uma multiplicidade de visões eles próprios, onde cada ser, cada elemento do mundo é uma visão no mundo, do mundo — é mundo. Para este tipo de ontologia, o problema que se coloca não é o da “tolerância” (só os donos do poder são “tolerantes”), mas o da diplomacia ou negociação intermundos.

Você defende uma concepção de antropologia como “descolonização permanente do pensamento”. Como ela pode fazer isso? Quais são os maiores impasses da disciplina hoje?

Vou responder rapidamente, ou os leitores não precisarão ler o livro… Trata-se de tomar o discurso dos povos que estudamos (os “nativos”, sejam quem forem) como interlocutores horizontalmente situados em relação ao discurso dos “observadores” (os “antropólogos”). O que a antropologia estuda são sempre outras antropologias, as antropologias dos outros, que articulam conceitos radicalmente diversos dos nossos sobre o que é o anthropos, o “humano”, e sobre o que é o logos (o conhecimento). Descolonizar o pensamento é explodir a distinção entre sujeito e objeto de conhecimento, e aceitar que só existe entreconhecimento, conhecimento comparativo, e que a antropologia como “estudo do outro” é sempre uma tradução (e uma tradução sempre equívoca) para nosso vocabulário conceitual do estudo do outro. O maior desafio vivido hoje pela antropologia é o de aceitar isso e tirar daí todas as consequências, inclusive as consequências políticas.

As fotografias reunidas em “Variações do corpo selvagem” remetem ao seu trabalho de campo com os Araweté, Yanomami, Yawalapiti e Kulina. Quais foram suas maiores descobertas nos encontros com esses povos?

Tudo o que eu escrevi sobre eles.

Kuyawmá se pintando com tabatinga para o javari. Aldeia Wauja, Alto Xingu, 1977.Foto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

Mapukayaka pinta Sapaim que pinta Ayupu. Aldeia Yawalapíti, Alto Xingu, 1977.Foto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

Combatente yawalapíti pinta-se para ritual do Javari, Alto Xingu, 1977.Foto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

Os Araweté assistindo a fime sobre eles, no Xingu, em 1992Foto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

Índio com filmadora do antropólogo em aldeia yawalapíti no Alto Xingu, em 1976.Foto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

Yuruawï-do no jirau da casa de farinha. Aldeia do médio Ipixuna, 1982.Foto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

Foto inédita do filme O Segredo da Múmia, de Ivan Cardoso. Floresta da Tijuca, 1981.Foto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

Anselmo Vasconcelos, Ivan Cardoso, Oscar Ramos e a múmia, em O Segredo da Múmia, de Ivan Cardoso,…Foto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

Hélio Oiticica como adepto de Dionísio. Filmagem de O Segredo da MúmiaFoto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

Wilson Grey e Felipe Falcão em O Segredo da Múmia, de Ivan Cardoso, 1981.Foto: Divulgação/Eduardo Viveiros de Castro


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Do the Amazon’s Last Isolated Tribes Have a Future? (New York Times)

Shuri, known as Epa, goes back and forth between his tribe and rural communities on the Curanja River in Peru’s Amazon region. CreditJason Houston 

HIS name is Shuri, but everyone calls him Epa, which means father in the indigenous Pano language family. His wizened face and bare, gnomish feet are familiar to the villagers who live along the Curanja River, which flows through some of the densest rain forest of Peru’s vast Amazon region.

Most of Epa’s tribe remains deep in the jungle, unclothed, hunting with bows and arrows, picking medicinal plants to ward off illness, and avoiding outsiders. But such isolated peoples can no longer depend on the forest as a refuge. In the past year, throughout the Amazon, they have begun to emerge in settled areas in unpredictable, disturbing and occasionally violent ways, often because of hunger or desperation.

I met Epa at his camp just upstream from the last village, where the unbroken jungle begins. He boasts of his hunting prowess. But he also wears a soccer shirt and nylon shorts and spends time among and near the settled people on the river — indigenous people, only a generation or two removed from forest life, who have welcomed him into their villages.

Last October, the villagers traveled in wooden canoes to vote in local elections. When they returned, one hut had burned to the ground and many of the machetes, clothes, pots and pans, mosquito nets, hammocks and drying fruits and nuts in villages along the river were gone. Epa, who had stayed behind, admitted that he had set fire to the hut, saying it was an accident, but denied any other involvement. Villagers blame his tribe for the raid.

Villagers have spotted the people they call “the nakeds” stealing fruit from orchards. Even the clothes on scarecrows go missing. Some villagers suspect that the mild-mannered Epa is a spy, feeding intelligence to his tribe.

In other parts of the rain forest, violence by and against once-isolated people is suddenly on the rise. In May, just outside the Manú National Park south of the Curanja, a man from the isolated Mashco Piro tribe shot an arrow that killed a 20-year-old indigenous villager. Last year, several members of Peru’s isolated Xinane group waded across a river to seek help at a Brazilian settlement. A few of their relatives, they said, had died when they were attacked, possibly by drug traffickers.

There are other groups living beyond the reach of the global economy, in places like the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean and the mountains of New Guinea. But the planet’s largest and most diverse isolated cultures are centered in the Amazon, primarily in western Brazil and eastern Peru. They lack immunity from many Western diseases, modern weapons to defend themselves from armed intruders like drug smugglers and illegal loggers, and a voice in national politics.

They have good reason to stay hidden. European and African diseases killed tens of millions of Native Americans after Columbus landed. A century ago, thousands were coerced into working for the rubber barons. Even seemingly benevolent outsiders proved angels of death. In the 1950s, a visiting German ethnographer left behind a pathogen that killed some 200 people.

Anthropologists and nongovernmental organizations warn that drug trafficking, logging, mining and petroleum extraction, along with a changing climate, vanishing species and a shrinking forest, put these tribes at risk. Even TV crews searching for “uncontacted” natives pose a threat; according to a 2008 report by a Peruvian anthropologist, one crew that strayed beyond its permitted area has been implicated in the deaths of some 20 native people from flu.

The indigenous people who remain appear to be fighting among themselves for dwindling resources, like turtle eggs and piglike peccaries. Lifting his shirt, Epa showed me a scar on his torso — inflicted during an attack by tribal enemies, he said. He and his two wives and a mother-in-law live part time in their camp, close to a guard post staffed by indigenous people. He said he had avoided having children because he was always on the run.

Brazil and Peru have taken radically different approaches toward isolated peoples. For Brazil, which has pursued the sort of engagement pioneered by late 19th-century missionaries, the Amazon has long been a frontier to be tamed. Officials built small frontier posts in the jungle, planted gardens and let tribes gather the harvest. Enticed into contact, the isolated people would trade ornaments and forest products for metal tools and objects, and be drawn gradually into the labor force.

But abrupt contact with outsiders spread devastating disease and created debilitating dependence. The Nambikwara, for example, were about 5,000 strong around 1900. By the late 1960s, only 550 remained. Anthropologists and Brazilian frontiersmen called sertanistas likened the policy to genocide. One of them, Sydney Possuelo, who went on to head the isolated tribes unit of Funai, the Brazilian agency on indigenous affairs, persuaded the government in the late 1980s to impose a policy of no contact to protect the isolated peoples.

Recently, however, Brazil has slashed funding for Funai. Angry Brazilian anthropologists, indigenous groups and sertanistas cite the Amazonian land rush as the reason. Once land is protected, it cannot be sold to private or public developers. Under President Dilma Rousseff’s leadership, approval of applications to set aside land for indigenous peoples — both isolated and not — has virtually ceased.

Peru, by contrast, has only recently admitted that its isolated peoples even exist. It traditionally looks to the Pacific rather than its rain forest hinterland. Nine out of 10 Peruvians live in the Andes or along the coastal plain, but most of the country’s land is within the Amazon basin. As recently as 2007, Alan García, then the president, dismissed “the figure of the uncontacted native jungle dweller” as a fiction created by zealous environmentalists.

Since then, as evidence of their existence has become impossible to dispute, the government has moved to set up five reserves, covering an area larger than Massachusetts, as safety zones for the tribes, with more planned. But even if a reserve is created and adequately policed, petroleum companies can explore for and extract oil if it is considered in the national interest. “The region has seen massive death of isolated peoples due to contact with oil prospectors,” said the Peruvian anthropologist Beatriz Huertas.

Both nations see the Amazon as a treasure house of oil, timber and gold. Two continentwide projects crossing Brazil and Peru — the $2.8 billion, 1,600-mile Interoceanic Highway and the Chinese-sponsored $10 billion, 3,300-mile Twin Ocean Railroad — will no doubt stimulate both economies, but at a steep cost. The railroad, which China’s premier, Li Keqiang, lobbied for during a May visit to South America, would plow through tropical savanna and thick forest, cutting across Peru’s remote Madre de Dios region, home to hundreds of indigenous communities.

Development can’t be halted, but it can be carried out more intelligently and humanely than what happened in the 19th century in the United States. We know what works. Small frontier posts on rivers can protect reserves from intruders. Immunized health care workers can provide emergency care and snuff out potential epidemics among isolated peoples who emerge for help. Illegal loggers and miners can be prosecuted. Road and railroad construction and oil prospecting can respect the borders of reserves and parks. None require a huge financial investment. They do require an inclusive political approach and an awareness of history.

Last month the Peruvian government announced that it would help a small group of Mashco Piro that has appeared more than 100 times in the past year on the banks of the Madre de Dios River, the same group responsible for the May death of a villager. Tribe members accepting food and clothing from tourists and missionaries are at serious risk of disease and death, and villagers fear more violence. Advocates of isolated peoples are watching closely to see if Peru can ensure the long-term health of the Mashco Piro while protecting their land from outsiders.

Half a millennium after Columbus arrived, we have an opportunity — really one last chance — to avoid repeating the catastrophes endured by so many native peoples in the Americas. This is no longer the 19th century: We have more than enough information. We understand pathogens and can immunize those who might contact isolated peoples. We can acknowledge that some people don’t want to join the global economy. And we can protect them until they are ready to enter the modern mainstream, while extracting the resources that we need. We don’t have to commit another genocide.

Playing Along: Fieldwork, Emotional Labor and Self-Care (The Geek Anthropologist)

July 24, 2015

By Emma Louise Backe

For any practicing or aspiring anthropologist, fieldwork is the defining, almost qualifying practice of the discipline. As an undergraduate studying sociocultural anthropology, we read the seminal journals of Bronislaw Malinowski, followed by foundational ethnographic research from around the world. Even though the field has ostensibly moved beyond the “exotic”—no longer wholly consumed with discovering new indigenous communities or uncovering a culture untouched by capitalism and globalization—students are still encouraged to conduct their fieldwork in remote, isolated, and, yes, tacitly exotic locations. As my professor lectured during my Anthropology Senior Seminar at Vassar College, you have to conduct your first fieldwork abroad if you want to be taken seriously as an anthropologist. The implication was that if you don’t go somewhere distant and strange, you won’t experience the same level of cultural difference, linguistic estrangement, physical hardship, and existential negotiation that molds the student into a consummate ethnographer. Fieldwork, rather than being a praxis for cultural research, has rather become the test for one’s anthropological training and credentials. Yet, throughout my undergraduate degree, we never discussed the emotional or physical challenges of fieldwork—it was always framed as this transformative, clarifying experience during which the theory we worked so assiduously to grasp could finally be applied. It was understood that everyanthropologist inherently falls in love with their site, integrates into their chosen community, and concludes their fieldwork with a sense of kinship and satisfaction at the rich ethnographic data and knowledge they have been able to accumulate. This silence surrounding the very real personal challenges of fieldwork can, however, be detrimental to a student’s first foray into fieldwork.

After graduating from college, I almost immediately joined the Peace Corps as a community health volunteer in Fiji. I felt certain that my anthropological training had adequately prepared me for my service in the South Pacific, where I was expected to learn the language, integrate into the community, and develop programs based off of local needs-assessments and desire. After spending my Pre-Service Training at a home stay in a remote, mountainous fishing village, I moved to my site in an equally remote town on the Eastern Coast of Viti Levu, one of the bigger islands the country consists of. Throughout my service, in an attempt to adapt to the culture and be accepted into my community, I found myself emptying out my identity to make space for a new “Fijian” version of myself. I struggled with how to translate my personality into my adopted social space, while simultaneously struggling with health issues from the moment of my arrival. Because of my anthropological training, and the ideologies that undergird Peace Corps, I took responsibility for any programmatic failures or difficulties I had connecting with my local partners. If I wasn’t able to befriend a neighbor, I felt that it was my fault—I wasn’t being sensitive or reflexive or open enough, there must be a flaw in my personality. I didn’t feel comfortable reaching out to members of the Peace Corps staff, for fear that my struggles would reflect poorly on me as a volunteer. Similarly, I was anxious to contact my anthropological mentors, afraid that my seeming challenges to connect with my Fijian counterparts meant that despite all my education and devotion to the discipline, I was not personally adept at cultural integration. This concern was perhaps the most devastating and depressing aspect of my service.

Conducting a health screening at a local secondary school

These anxieties, frustrations and feelings of guilt are ones that anthropologists share. As Amy Pollard has written for Anthropology Matters, many of the anthropology students she interviewed about field work experienced feelings of loneliness and isolation, stress, stress, regret, feelings of powerlessness or captivity to your site, disappointment, fear, frustration, guilt, depression coupled with self-hate for feeling depressed during fieldwork, and embarrassment at perceptions of poor success or lack of productivity. Despite these struggles, “Some students reported feeling they should not talk about how difficult they had found fieldwork because other people would perceive them as weak” (Pollard 2009). This feeling of weakness stems from the misapprehension that anthropological training inures you to feelings of culture shock or the other mental health crises others might experience during prolonged periods of time in new cultural habitats. Indeed, as Rachel Irwin writes,

For multiple reasons, researchers admitting to fear or depression during fieldwork may be ridiculed or dismissed as ‘cowardly anthropologists’. I was once strongly encouraged to conduct fieldwork in a remote village rather than a larger town, so that I could be a ‘courageous anthropologist’. Chiefly, I would argue that this is closely linked to a sense of academic bravado and competitive virility. I was given the idea that there is something inherent about studying anthropology that protects one against ‘culture shock,’ and that anthropologists are naturally better at negotiating unfamiliar situations than other sojourners. As such, anthropologists can feel a certain ‘culture shock’ within their own academic community, because their experiences of culture shock ‘in the field remain unacknowledged, and they are feeling something that they believe they ought not feel. (2007)

When anthropologists actively avoid discussing the feelings of anxiety, depression and desperation associated with their fieldwork, they do a disservice to the next generation of aspiring anthropologists. Even though ethnography relies upon qualitative research methods, anthropologists inevitably enter their field site with certain expectations about the questions they want answered, the traditions they intend to explore, the in-depth interviews they hope to conduct. If, for any number of mitigating and complicating reasons and factors, you aren’t able to accomplish these goals, it precipitates yet another watershed of shame and regret that you simply weren’t good enough. Because anthropologists are participant observers, their bodies and identities are essentially the very tools of their practice. Therefore, personality clashes or the development of stress or fear under certain situations place the onus of culpability on the researcher. As an anthropologist, a “failure of fieldwork” is essentially conflated with a failure of yourself. In so doing, “A large number of students felt profound shame over their sense of failure in the field […] For some, going home early was a source of great shame” (Pollard 2009). When I left my Peace Corps service early, after months of illness and the impending signs of depression, it felt like I was abandoning the aspirations I had to become an anthropologist, despite the fact that the majority of my fellow volunteers were struggling with similar programmatic and personal issues. After spending so many years planning my trajectory toward becoming an anthropologist, this belief that my emotional struggles somehow disqualified me as an anthropologist only further tangled the crisis of identity I had undergone during my service. And I didn’t know how to talk about it because I felt completely alone.

Upon returning to the United States, I was covered in scars from persistent skin infections and stress hives, my hair had fallen out, and my mood was ragged. I experienced many of the symptoms of depression, including sleeplessness and moodiness; sometimes interactions or objects would trigger uncontrollable feelings of sadness or anger. I had difficulty being around people and I walked everywhere draped in a cloak of self-loathing. For my friends and family members who haven’t traveled widely or spent long periods abroad, they couldn’t understand why I believed that my difficulties in Fiji were solely my fault. When I sought out therapists to talk through my lingering misgivings, they praised me for my strength and courage, when what I wanted was not to be coddled, but to understand why I hadn’t “worked” in my community, when it felt like I had spent all my energy trying to integrate. Many friends and acquaintances also did not want to hear that I hadn’t had a positive experience—in their minds, Fiji was nothing more than a tropical paradise and it seemed feckless to explain my humanitarian, existential misgivings about it. This was not reverse culture shock per se, yet I was at a loss about how to recuperate and heal, mentally as well as physically, let alone negotiate my anthropological path moving forward. I was simply afraid that I wasn’t cut out to do fieldwork.

During this period of uncertainty, I turned to video games. In the past, I’ve also used video games as a coping mechanism. After suffering from a traumatic brain injury my freshman year, I suffered from sometimes crippling dissociation and self-doubt about my cognitive abilities. My neurologist was unhelpful, and the only option I was offered to heal was to sit and wait for my brain to stop bleeding. Brain injuries are unique in that they often invoke crises of identity. With so much forthcoming research on the connection between the frontal lobe and personality, I experienced an acute crisis of self after my brain contusion. Offered with no other recourse or resilience methods, video games helped coax me back to a space of equilibrium. In both cases, playing video games provided a viable alternative to being social. If I felt disconnected from the world around me, or anxious about having to explain why I had come home early, I could retreat to RPG’s. Video games can put you in touch with a wide online community, thereby facilitating social contact for those who might otherwise feel stress or anxiety at the prospect of socializing with strangers. For me, I felt powerless to help myself—video games were an active way to use my time and process my emotions. Rather than passively consuming other forms of media, such as movies or television shows, video games provide you with tangible goals, objectives that, when achieved, provide players with a sense of success and achievement. As Romeo Vitelli wrote for Psychology Today, “By setting specific tasks and allowing young people to work through obstacles to achieve those tasks, video games can help boost self-esteem and help children learn the value of persistence. By providing immediate feedback as video game players solve problems and achieve greater expertise, players can learn to see themselves as having skills and intelligence they might not otherwise realize they possess” (2014). During a period of such acute self-doubt, it was extremely satisfying to be posed with challenges and obstacles that at first seemed insurmountable, but that could be accomplished through patience, creativity and skill-building.

Video games became a refuge for my cultural concerns as well. Games like BioShock: Infinite (2013) and Dishonored (2012) were dystopian alternatives to human history, new life worlds I could explore and inhabit through a sense of play and constant discovery. I was particularly drawn to games with robust storytelling mechanics, where the developers and programmers had clearly invested a lot of time and attention to the minutia of the world, encouraging players to interact with minor characters, read books and notes scattered around the stages, and learn about the internal mythologies, politics and social dynamics that informed the action of the game. I no longer felt powerless, but had a degree of agency to determine the kind of player I wanted to be. In Dishonored, like other games such as Infamous (2009), your actions as a player determine the internal stability of the virtual play space. Even though I had spent months working on community health empowerment, with few visible signs that my efforts were making any difference, I could immediately see how acts of benevolence positively impacted the city of Dunwall. In recent games, many of the avatars that players inhabit are also saddled with their own traumatic experiences which are explored throughout the game. Booker DeWitt of Bioshock: Infinite has a dark past, and other characters, like Bruce Wayne’s Batman throughout Arkham Asylum, City and Origins, are constantly battling their own demons, whether invented or embodied as supervillains. To a certain extent, I was able to project my internal monsters onto the villains in the games, channeling my anger and frustration in a way that felt both productive and cathartic. I could go to bed at night feeling as though I had accomplished something, and had something in the morning I could look forward to. In the absence of other motivations, and paralyzed by fear about the future, this sense of purpose saved me.

There's always a lighthouse, BioShock: Infinite,

New literature has begun to indicate the salutary psychological effects of video games. Studiessuggest that video games may have beneficial effects on cognition, motivation, emotion and sociality; some psychologists have even begun to recommend video games as a form of therapyfor patients with mental health issues, including depression. Contemporaneously, programmers and developers are working on video games as tools to cope with mental health issues. Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest (made famous due to its involvement in the #Gamergate controversy) was created to explore what life was like living with depression; other forms of e-literature build interactive stories around the expression of grief and mourning. Whereas several years ago, critics and concerned parents worried that video games like Grand Theft Auto were producing violent, unempathetic adolescents, practitioners are beginning to understand that the process of play may actually serve a positive psychological function. On a related note, The Mary Sue recently published “Coping With Anxiety and Depression Through Fiction” (2015), a poignant piece outlining the ways in which Guardians of the Galaxy’s character development and musical composition helped the writer overcome anxiety attacks and obtain a sense of emotional stability. Marie-Pierre wrote about rewatching episodes of Star Trek to maintain her equilibrium during fieldwork and Peter Olthoff remarked on the therapeutic efficacy of geek culture. Whether it’s a space opera, a society ravaged by an infection of zombies, or a fantastical universe populated by dragons, elves and other mythological beings, video games help transport you to another world, not necessarily as a form of escapism, but rather as a creative space to process your own lived reality.

As it turned out, the rediscovery of video games upon my return led me back to anthropology. I read about ground-breaking games like The Last of Us (2013) and its place within the larger resurgence in zombie-lore. Through my research, I discovered the work of Louise Krasniewicz, a UPenn Anthropology professor who built a class around The Walking Dead. I was lucky enough to sit down for coffee with Dr. Krasniewicz to discuss her approach to geek anthropology, but after running through our recent favorite shows and theories about monstrosity, we inevitably turned to the topic of fieldwork. Emboldened by our conversation, I opened up to her about my experience in Fiji, my doubts as an anthropologist, and my misgivings about the negative consequences of prolonged sojourns in new cultural territory. Expecting reproach or judgement, my story was instead met by a laugh from her. “Welcome to your first time doing fieldwork! It’s horrible for everyone!” she replied. She then went on to recount her own experience conducting fieldwork in upstate New York—hardly the “exotic” destination one would expect for an Ivy League professor—and how difficult the process was emotionally. Even within her native country, where she spoke the language and shared similar cultural assumptions, she struggled to find a community and sense of connection with her interlocutors. Yet, despite her ethnographic challenges, she went on to become a successful anthropology professor. She did not interpret the issues with immersion as her failure as a practitioner, as I had during my experience in Fiji. While many anthropologists have written about the role of emotion during ethnography, such as James Davies and Dimitrina Spencer’s book Emotions in the Field: The Psychology and Anthropology of Fieldwork Experience (2010), and phenomenological anthropologists encourage attention to the ways we physically and emotionally react to our surroundings, I don’t believe that there has been enough discussion about the emotional labor of fieldwork, both to prepare students and acknowledge that the anthropologist is not wholly culpable for “failure” in the field.

In professional fields that deal with emotionally draining issues, such as gender-based violence, there is a heavy emphasis on self-care for activists. An advocate may experience vicarious trauma if they work with survivors of sexual violence day after day, sometimes leading to emotional fatigue and burn-out. For humanitarian researchers conducting interviews with refugees, internally displaced populations, or war-torn communities still reeling from horrific acts of violence, program managers ensure that the interviewers have sufficient support and counselling mechanisms to decompress and work through the emotional labor of their work. The same practices can and should be applied to anthropology. Indeed, as Amy Pollard points out, “Students reported finding it difficult to let go of the traumas of fieldwork, because the writing-up process meant they were continually having to relive them” (2009); their recuperation process may be only further stymied by the culture of silence that pervades discussions about what occurs in the field. Students of anthropology recognize and perhaps relish in the hardships they will encounter during ethnographic research, but if they are given no inkling of the possibility that they won’t always jive with their chosen community or culture, they will have no coping mechanisms or strategies for resilience. Larissa Begley writes of her experience in Rwanda, “As anthropologists, we are part of the narrative we create. Our fieldwork does not exist detached from our own emotions and our lives. We impact on those we study and they impact on us. It is because of this dialectical relationship we have with the ‘field’ that we must recognize the impact that fieldwork can have emotionally, psychologically and physically on us” (2009). Just because we are academically prepared to live in a different culture, doesn’t mean we have the emotional methodologies to succeed.

How do you translate your personality into a new cultural space while also being sensitive and flexible? Rachel Irwin writes that, “Depression, in the form of culture shock, occurs when the firm grounding in one’s own symbolic world is lost” (2007)—this symbolic world and one’s own identity is thrown into flux when you enter and attempt to become a part of a new cultural space. There are bound to be growing pains and types of people you don’t always get along with. I realize now that I didn’t have to suppress my identity in the process of incorporating into Fijian culture. I wish I had read Jessika Tremblay’s post on “10 Tips For Surviving Anthropological Fieldwork” before my service, especially her recommendations on not taking things so personally and “harnessing the power of your introversion” (2014). I know that there were nights in Fiji I retreated to my house to decompress and write, but felt guilty if I was skipping one of the nightly kava sessions held on my compound. If anthropology is to continue to grow as a discipline, we need to ensure that students are prepared for fieldwork, equipped to be both emotionally vulnerable while mentally sustainable. A vital part of self-care is an institutional support system, one that the anthropological community can strive to cultivate. If we are concerned with cross-cultural psychiatry, we should be equally in tune with the mental health of our comrades. You can never predict how fieldwork will change you, and it’s important to maintain a disposition of self-reflexivity, yet the process of discovery should not necessarily come at the cost of self. We need to turn, yet again, within our own community to analyze our professional and personal predispositions, and clarify how we can support one another through the process.

Audre Lorde,

Works Cited

Backe, Emma Louise (2014). “Geeking Out With Louise Krasniewicz.” The Geek Anthropologist.

Begley, Larissa R. (2009). “The other side of fieldwork: experiences and challenges of conducting research in the border area of Rwanda/eastern Congo.” Anthropology Matters, Vol. 11, No. 2.

BioShock Infinite (2013). Irrational Games.

“Coping with Anxiety and Depression Through Fiction” (2015). The Mary Sue.

Davies, James & Dimitrina Spencer (2010). Emotions in the Field: The Psychology and Anthropology of Fieldwork Experience . Stanford University Press.

Dishonored (2012). Arkane Studios.

Granic, Isabela et al. (2014). “The Benefits of Playing Video Games.’ American Psychologist, Vo. 69, No. 1, pp. 66-78.

Infamous (2009). Sucker Punch Productions.

Irwin, Rachel (2007). “Culture Shock: Negotiating Feelings in the Field.” Anthropology Matters, Vol. 9, No. 1.

Olthoff, Peter (2015). “The Many Roles of Popular Culture in Therapy.” The Geek Anthropologist.

Petronzio, Matt (2014). “Your Next Psychologist May Prescribe ‘Legend of Zelda’.” Mashable.

Pollard, Amy (2009). “Field of Screams: Difficulty and Ethnographic Fieldwork.” Anthropology Matters, Vol. 11, No. 2.

Renaud, Marie-Pierre (2015). “Note From the Field: Go Home To A Starship.” The Geek Anthropologist.

The Last of Us (2013). Naughty Dog.

Tremblay, Jessika (2014). “10 Tips For Surviving Anthropological Fieldwork.” Netnographic Encounters.

Quinn, Zoe (2014). Depression Quest.

Vitelli, Romeo (2014). “Are There Benefits to Playing Video Games?” Psychology Today