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For a Beyond Perspective

By Ricardo P Nunes


  The old anecdotes that delighted readers the world over as curious eccentricities of the exotic anthropological world, such as that members of a certain tribe held by the edge of the blade the dagger that in their first contact a certain explorer had offered them as a gift, would not make much sense now, and even less in the field of interpretation of relationships between people and things that Catherine V. Howard arrived at after two years among the Waiwai Indians in the mid-1980s.

   According to what we can deduce from one of the articles in which the anthropologist from the University of Chicago best synthesized her perception [1] , objects are only apprehended within a cultural complex that appropriates them and gives them meaning within the relations of performance and considerations embedded in material and symbolic exchanges between the Waiwai themselves, between them and other tribes, or even between them and national society. In other words, although the Waiwai were widely seen using artifacts brought by contact with the white man, they did so with a specific semantic interpretation and a distinct notion of values [2] .








Howard concludes that this form of assimilation would entail a model of unnoticed indigenous “cultural resistance”, a form of “interethnic appropriation”. We can go a little further here than the author's proposal. From the analysis of previous data with which it postulates an already remote contact of the so-called peoples of Guyana with such exogenous tools ─ prior to the continuous and systematic relationship with the missionaries established since the late 1940s ─, although often only an indirect or even fortuitous contact , human culture, above all, or at least material culture, could be conceived as contained in a totality, as an intertwined network of physical phenomena. If not as an integrated whole, at least as something diffuse, a continuous complex in which, metaphorically speaking, the gaps existing between different societies, however deep they may seem, are just shades of a spectrum whose tones are reinforced or faded in different ways. according to the intensity and quality of the exchanges established between them.

  This could take us back to three old and outdated debates: monogenism, the doctrine of psychic unity and diffusionism. On the other hand, however, it takes us away from a naive analytical vision of the world, or the concept of culture, which sees it through a kind of myopic stratigraphic lens; and presupposes the need to abandon the theories and concepts of culture accommodated in a form, as something whose content would be watertight, pure and that crystallized within a given social framework, archetypal models without equivalents in the dynamic reality of the vast web of inter-ethnic relations .

  The post-war decolonization process [3] , the “rediscovery” of Max Weber's comprehensive sociology, Parsonian social-action theory, as well as hermeneutics [4] , phenomenology and activist environmentalism were some of the circumstantial elements. who had been collaborating more fruitfully with a paradigm shift in the anthropological field since the late 1960s. This perhaps to some extent was reflected in a certain disuse, a certain infeasibility in the application of the established research methods of tribal peoples from other regions. from the globe to the Amazonian ethnological studies that began to develop in a more systematic way at that time. The end of the lost Ariadne thread that once needed to be found to compose a canvas superimposed on comparative Indo-European models, such as kinship arrangements, hierarchies, property or political organization, and later to try to stitch together a super-organic structural network where institutionalized functions would be articulated, had now been transmuted into a complex and loose filigree of self-referenced symbols and meanings, that is, that could only be untied ─ to be understood rather than pretentiously explained ─, in terms of that very culture [5] .

  So it is that the diffuse cultural continuum that serves as the background underlying Catherine V. Howard's “domestication of commodities” - although it is not (if it was even noted) the inspiration for a wider application of its principle ─, is to some extent presupposed also under the central ideas of the more speculative works coming from the pen of anthropologists such as Philippe Descola, Eduardo Viveiro de Castro and Marilyn Strathern. The notion of soul, body and their fluids as something physically immanent in the surrounding Amerindian universe and time; that of a version of animism desecrated in native Amazonian cosmology; the concept of perspectivism in the world view of these ethnic groups as an opposite of relativism; etc., in these cultural thinkers, they are constituted from an apprehension of those societies as something intrinsically constituted of an amalgam of ontogenetic identity between the self and the other, whether this other is physical or abstract, be it natural, spatial or temporal.

  For the consolidation of this ethnology, a founding epistemological factor was also necessary: the idea that Northwestern, or scientific, thought developed since humanism from the separation between entity and object, or between being and world [6] . In addition, the Amerindian mentality was postulated as governed by a ternary complexion, that is, it had neither eluded nor transcendentalized its divine or “magical” vector, which substantially differed from the Indo-European scientific epistemology, which was obliged to objectively think the world under only two main foundations: nature and culture.

  I don't know if anyone has ever ventured to criticize the epistemic foundations of Western thought. One could, for example, make the valid argument that, were it not for these means, it would not even be possible to advance to Viveiros de Castro's theory of perspectivism, much less Descola's neo-animism, or that the separation between res cogitans and res extensa as proposed by Descarte, as well as the Kantian categories of thought, are only didactic or heuristic methods for organizing thought and clearly defining the object of human understanding without which we would still be skating in the tripartite imbroglios of medieval metaphysics. As contemporality may be, or should be, one of the main attributes of the anthropologist, we must, therefore, counter-argue that it is not an axiology of epistemological gifts, but simply to identify how Amerindian thought takes place in practice and how it is can come to understand it.

  Now, the world, which is equivalent to saying here: the Amerindian culture (including the individuals themselves, with their bodies and their minds) as a manifestation of this continuum where the different ways of living occur, and which reproduces them in the becoming of interrelationships of the beings that inhabit it, human or non-human, could not fail to imply, even on its margins, that observer who scrutinizes it believing that it transcends it, that is, the anthropologist and his culture. In postulating perspectivism, to quote one of the famous originalities in Amazonian ethnology, in order to make it intelligible, a minimum degree of wild Levi-Straussian thinking is required, or at least an atavistic memory of how things happen through such a prism. This suggests that the boundaries between that supposed scientific epistemological limitation and the ternary constitution of the Amerindian cosmological mentality can dissolve or become translucent according to the dose of intuition of its theoretical proponent, without which, for him, Viveiros de Castro, it would be unfeasible. their apprehension, and therefore even less for us others.

  Being true, or at least plausible, plus this premise, we are again faced with the hypothetical, but essential, background that supports the thesis of the “domestication of commodities”. But now added and reaffirmed by the inclusion of herself, Catherine V. Howard and her orb, for whom and according to their own theory, in a specular way, the “cultural resistance” of the Waiwai would not fail to point out precisely a sociocultural complex that also encompasses the itself, and where its contact defines one of its countless deformations or nuances within a fully diversified but unique cultural spectrum of human nature.

  On page twenty-three of his laid-back Myth and Meaning, Lévi-Strauss stated that “one cannot conceive meaning without something that commands it”; a little further on, he corroborated: “without the vision of the whole, nothing can be explained” (1978, p. 29). What Amazonian ethnology gave opportunity to a generation of anthropologists was perhaps far more valuable than the pretentious logical-deductive ordering schemes that Lévi-Strauss himself and the anthropological discipline itself perhaps vainly sought to overcome. Because, if at least in the Lévi-Strauss theory he is right, even the inductive ethnographic method, when applied to the disparate Amazon region, having to give up the classificatory presuppositions of its already outdated preliminary additions, would finally recognize that it would dispense with a broader and at the same time more specific vision of a generality in which it could anchor the first bases for more substantial descriptions. This is what the self-sacrificing works of anthropologists, among others, such as Peter Rivièri, Stephen and Christine Hugh-Jones, Joanna Overing and Catherine V. Howard, offered. Its point of convergence would gradually coalesce around something as primordial as the supposedly innate religious bent: cosmology. But this cosmology, multiple and dispersed, was also profoundly marked by a degree of immanence that bordered on Tylorian animism. An epistemological alternative remained. And it would not be until then that the path to be taken by anthropology applied to Amazonian tribes would have the chance to get rid of the mere and even simplistic justifications of cultural relativism.



[1] HOWARD, Catherine. The domestication of commodities: Waiwai strategies. In: Pacifying the White: contact cosmologies in the North Amazon. Bruce Albert and Alcida Ramos (Eds.). São Paulo: UNESP, 2000, pp. 25-60.

[2] It is worth calling attention to an extension of the purpose of the expeditions of Johann Spix and Carl von Martius in the first half of the 19th century. XIX: although essentially dedicated to gathering historiographical facts and museological artifacts, these objects perhaps had no other more striking attraction than the emanation they could still retain in themselves from the culture that had manufactured them.  

[3] Many critics still propose the term “neo-colonialism”.

[4] Clifford Geertz, enthusiast of interpretivism, was a world-renowned anthropologist, although very few have realized that he was more successful for his journalistic-literary talent.

[5] Cf. the ethnographies of Peter Rivièri, Joanna Overing and the Hugh-Jones couple, precursors of this new approach.

[6] In the field of philosophy, Heidegger and Marleau-Ponty had already pointed out this dichotomy, attributing it to René Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” and as having been reinforced (perhaps unintentionally) in Immanuel Kant’s Critique and his concept of the noumenon.

Bibliographic references

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Ask for Waiwai at the Britsh Museum

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