On Viveiros de Castro’s Amerindian Perspectivism

Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism” by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro is one of the most exciting things I’ve read in a while.

It analyzes how Amerindian ontologies unsettle Western Nature/Culture dichotomies. (I’ll pay a beer to anyone who knows of sustained dialogues anywhere between ontological turn anthropology and Pittsburgh-style analytic German Idealism!) The result here is more of a Latourian/Deleuzian picture — it would be interesting, especially with Latour, to see which way the influence runs —, and one which seems to lend itself to raising the concept of translation to the rank of an ontological centerpiece.

Here’s a series of choice quotes from Viveiros de Castro’s article with some attempts at summarizing commentary.


“Two antinomies then, which are, in fact, only one: either Amerindians are ethnocentrically ‘stingy’ in the extension of their concept of humanity and they ‘totemically’ oppose nature and culture; or they are cosmocentric and ‘animic’ and do not profess to such a distinction, being models of relativist tolerance, postulating a multiplicity of points of view on the world.

I believe that the solution to these antinomies lies not in favouring one branch over the other. … Rather, the point is to show that the ‘thesis’, as well as the ‘antithesis’, are true (both correspond to solid ethnographic intuitions), but that they apprehend the same phenomena from different angles; and also it is to show that both are false in that they refer to a substantivist conceptualization of the categories of Nature and Culture.”

The key to that end, for EVC, is to understand that “Amerindian souls, be they human or animal, are thus indexical categories, cosmological deictics;” pronouns rather than nouns, and thus the same concepts are flexibly usable from a variety of vantage points, resulting in the following picture:

“all beings see (‘represent’) the world in the same way – what changes is the world that they see. Animals impose the same categories and values on reality as humans do: their worlds, like ours, revolve around hunting and fishing, cooking and fermented drinks, cross-cousins and war, initiation rituals, shamans, chiefs, spirit … But the things that they see are different: what to us is blood, is maize beer to the jaguar; what to the souls of the dead is a rotting corpse, to us is soaking manioc; what we see as a muddy waterhole, the tapirs see as a great ceremonial house. …”

In summary,

“(Multi)cultural relativism supposes a diversity of subjective and partial representations, each striving to grasp an external and unified nature, which remains perfectly indifferent to those representations. Amerindian thought proposes the opposite: a representational or phenomenological unity which is purely pronominal or deictic, indifferently applied to a radically objective diversity.”

This sounds anthropocentric-anthropomorphic but it is not because “human”, as a category, is emptied to become, in effect, the very minimal concept of agency (think Latour). Differentiation between various species with agency gains content again through bodily difference. Here it gets Deleuzian:

“a perspective is not a representation because representations are a property of the mind or spirit, whereas the point of view is located in the body” and “what I call a ‘body’ … is an assemblage of affects.”

Such ontologies allow for “interspecific metamorphosis,” which is generally conceived of as a lethal threat. What looks like prey might turn out to be a predator.

“The canonical form of these supernatural encounters then consists in suddenly finding out that the other is ‘human’, that is, that *it* is the human, which automatically dehumanizes and alienates the interlocutor and transforms him into a prey-object, that is, an animal.

Only shamans, multinatural beings by definition and office, are always capable of transiting the various perspectives, calling and being called ‘you’ by the animal subjectivities and spirits without losing their condition as human subjects.”

The charts for their interspecies travels are myths. Now to find some good ethnographies of shamanistic world translation!


Addendum: William F. Hanks & Carlo Severi have a special issue in HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory which moves in that direction. Anne-Christine Taylor’s work there on Jivaroean and Runa identities in the Peruvian-Ecuadorian borderlands were especially useful to me. Carlos Fausto and Emmanuel de Vienne’s paper on millenarian prophetism was helpful, too, for differentiating poets and translators.

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