Debate Magazine

Animist Hunters & Soul Eating

By Cris

When musings on animist ontology appear in Berfrois, the stars are surely aligned — though not for the Mayan Apocalypse. This ontology has been much on my mind over the past few months, as these posts indicate: Rhizomatic Animism, Kinetic Animism, Alienation and Animism, Comanche Animism, Animist Theory of Mind, and Animism as Weltanschauung.

So it was with great pleasure that I read Justin E.H. Smith’s piece about peccaries. He deploys animist ontologies to make (or provoke) an argument about animal rights and moral community. In doing so, Smith superbly summarizes animist reasoning and rationality:

It is, principally, the work of anthropologists that enables us to think our way into the world of people who inhabited a socio-natural community with non-human beings, and to do this without simply projecting onto these people our own ontology. Philippe Descola, in his monumental Par-delà nature et culture, has done much to reconstruct the non-anthropocentrist ontologies of societies outside the modern West:

The Makuna, for example, say that tapirs groom themselves with roucou before dancing, and that peccaries play the horn during their rituals, while the Wari’ suppose that peccaries make maize beer and that the jaguar takes its prey back home for his wife to cook. For a long time, this sort of belief was taken as testimony of a sort of thought that is resistant to logic, incapable of distinguish the real from dreams and myths, or as simple figures of speech, metaphors, or word play. But the Makuna, the Wari’, and many other Amerindian peoples  who believe this sort of thing are not more myopic or credulous than we are. They know very well that the jaguar devours its prey raw, and that the peccary ruins maize crops rather than cultivating them. It is the jaguar and the peccary themselves, they say, that see themselves as carrying out acts that are identical to those of humans, who imagine themselves in good faith to be sharing with humans the same technologies, the same social existence, the same beliefs and aspirations. In short, Amerindians do not see what we call ‘culture’ as an appurtenance of human beings, since there are many animals and plants that are held to believe themselves to be in possession of it, and to live according to its norms (187-88).

Similarly, when a hunter sings a song to his prey in order to woo it into ‘giving’ itself, it is not that he has been unable to make the empirical observation that animals do not ordinarily respond to human natural language in the same way human speakers of that natural language do. Rather, every stage of the hunt, including the tracking and the slinging of darts, and other acts that can be recognized by an outside observer as expressions of practical reason, is embedded within a cosmology of perpetual exchange between all domains of the natural world. Descola asks rhetorically:

When an Achuar hunter finds himself within shooting reach, and he sings an anent to the game, a supplication intended to seduce the animal and to assuage his mistrust with captious promises, does he suddenly lurch from the rational to the irrational, from instrumentalized knowledge to chimera? Does he completely change his register following the long period of approach in which he knew full well how to mobilize his ethological expertise, his deep knowledge of the environment, his experience as a tracker, all those qualities that enabled him to bring together almost by instinct a multitude of indices into a single thread that led him to his prey?

It is not that the hunter suddenly shifts from practical-rational action to the merely ‘ceremonial’ at the moment he begins singing, but rather the singing flows seamlessly from the same rationality that gives rise to the practices, and that is based on a belief in the constant cycling of immaterial life principles between the human and non-human domains. We can recognize and measure this cycling from the outside within the very limited terms of calories, but from within the cosmology that supposes that this exchange is itself constitutive of both individual human beings as well as of humanity itself, there is no reason why it should not also be manifested in verbal exchange, or communication in the usual sense, across domains.

The constant cyclical exchange rests, generally, on a metaphysics of the individual according to which every natural being, including every human being, is constituted out of the life principles of other natural beings. The predicament of the eater, and also what puts him most in danger of deep transgression through cannibalism, stems, as an Inuit informant put it to Knud Rasmussen, “from the fact that the nourishment of men consists entirely in souls.” If this suggests to the student of Western philosophy a metaphysics of nested corporeal substances, she or he may not be entirely off track. Interestingly, Descola, following the precedent of Viveiros de Castro and, before him, Durkheim, sees Leibniz’s metaphysics as providing a point of access to this sort of animist ontology.

While I was familiar with Descola’s animism and de Castro’s perspectivism, I had no idea they were rooted in Emile Durkheim and Gottfried Leibniz. Looks like I’ll have to spend some time perusing Smith’s smart looking blog for additional detail.

As for point he wishes to provoke, it may be relevant that regardless of how hunters conceived animals, this didn’t stop the killing (which sometimes occurred on impressive scales). The distinction he apparently wishes to make is that killing domesticated animals (on industrial scales) is different from killing non-domesticated animals. This could be a dicey distinction. I’m guessing that someone like Temple Grandin would probably have something interesting to say about it.


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By Latrice Simmons
posted on 08 January at 03:46
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