I would like to prompt some debate with a few questions that seems relevant to contemporary Anthropology, particularly for those of us interested in science and technology studies, human and non-human relations, material culture, semiotics and so forth.
Anthropology would seem to be an avowedly humanist discipline. Is there a view of "human nature" or "human being" that we could agree on, or that we implicitly employ without realizing it? Should there be? If not, why not.
I fear that we have lost the ability even to see the threat.
Who is the "we" in this assertion?
I am aware that the issue is much more general than the particular case I have settled on as my bugbear. In order to make society on a larger scale, we have to create abstract entities like nation-states, churches, business corporations etc. In my first major post here I wrote of the need to extend intelligence to the species level. This might lead to our individuality being swallowed up in collective identities of a huge and abstract kind. But I don't think it has to mean that. If we keep our focus on live human beings, we will always have to grant that level significance in any discourse or action involving larger persons or indeed planetary coordination.
My point is that collapsing the difference between individual human beings and the collective entities they join is as harmful as insisting on a radical separation of the two or repression of one pole, as in market and totalitarian ideologies. Language itself has the property of generating inclusive categories in which each of us can so easily lose ourselves. So it takes a particular intellectual effort to keep the poles of our social experience in controlled relations of identification, separation and dialectical interaction. It doesn't help that our education militates against such thought habits. Anthropologists have colluded in making it difficult to think about individuals and collectives separately and at once by preferring to generalise about the latter. There are exceptions and I celebrate those. My question is, What is the place for human personality in a world driven by huge impersonal social forces? In the end, whatever the scale of our collaborations, it pays to remember that they only hand out brains one at a time.
John McCreery said:
General Motors is not a human being.
An excellent point, and one, don't be surprised, Keith, with which I totally agree. Would you extend its logic to, for example,
China is not a human being or
Kurds (considered as a collectivity) are not a human being?
In other words, would you extend its implications to other artificial, a.k.a., socially constructed "persons," including nation states and "nations" that aspire to become nation states?
If we keep our focus on live human beings, we will always have to grant that level significance in any discourse or action involving larger persons or indeed planetary coordination.
Keith, I agree, absolutely. Here we stand on common ground. Given that my own tradition is that of a Lutheran boy raised in the same county as the Yorktown battlefield where the last battle of the American Revolution was fought -- with Luther's "Here I stand, I can do no other" and Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" words I was taught to venerate, I could never disagree with what you say here. I join with Jefferson and the other signers of the Declaration of Independence in affirming that,
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
I see no human group, be it nation, corporation or tribe as immune from what Jefferson writes about governments. All are instrumentalities to be judged by their contribution to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by their members—and, I would add, the rest of humanity. All this is bedrock as far as I am concerned.
Oh, and I've forgot to say this: Happy New Year! (Apologies for triple postings.)
Happy new year, Heesun and don't apologize for triple posting. Your account of Latour's position is pretty accurate and useful to this discussion. There is a trade-off between a post's length and the questions it leaves begging. Obvious my rhetorical allusion to democracy needed refinement if it was to be taken up in this discussion. I felt I had to explain where I was coming from, but I was reluctant to hijack the thread, even if our topic is so vague as to need some specification.
I would still hold that talk of human and non-human usually is politics carried on as ideology. I want the politics to be spelled out, since I don't think we can choose between ideologies on metaphysical grounds alone. Although I can discern some political attitudes from what you write, you have not made these explicit. Of course you are not obliged to do so. What I wrote just now provoked John to stand squarely behind Jefferson's words in the American Declaration of Independence. I am well aware that many people in our world would feel that endorsing these words is tantamount to signing up for US imperialism. He was right in identifying my own roots in Protestantism and 18th century liberal democracy. And I think I understand why many see the history of the last two centuries as proof of their inadequacy. But I still beleive that we could gain a lot from refurbishing that tradition for contemporary use by a much wider global public. At least that is where I put my own efforts and I hope to learn from those who think otherwise, but it is often hard to do so since they don't make their motives explicit and are often confusing or confused.
I was once asked to propose a motion, "Anthropology is a generalizing science or it is nothing". I could just as easily have opposed it, indeed more easily. But I set out to find the best case I could. I said that science was at first opposed to religion, myth and superstition as systematic knowledge of the world. Now it is more often opposed to the arts and humanities and aligned in the popular imagination with the forces of darkness. It is a means to an end and that end is democracy, rule by the people for the people. There are different ways of achieving democracy of which representative and direct types are two obvious contenders. But whatever way we want to achieve freedom and equality for the many, it requires knowledge of what works and that takes scientific effort.
Now Latour's line on mononaturalism and multiculturalism is superficially attractive. It says western imperialism was based on controlling nature conceived of as in physics. The natives could be allowed their little cultures as long as we were in charge. It is easy to see how resentment of western domination would lead to rejection of this premise. Latour borrowed from the anthropologists of Amazonia, Descola and Viveiros de Castro, to argue that some people have one culture and many natures. He likes this in part because he is a sociologist of science who doesn't actually understand the science. In order to downgrade the Newtons, Darwins and Einsteins who contributed so much to scientifc development, he has to privilege things he knows better than the scientists. Perspectivism suits his purpose perfectly. But think about it. Is there any nation in the world that dispenses with accumulated scientific knowledge (no longer exclusively western, if it ever was) in building dams or refineries? Would they be likely to call in an Amazonian shaman for the job? Latour's position is just a thought experiment with no possible application in the real world; and it serves his politics of self-aggrandizement. This is why I insist that people should be explicit about what they wish to achieve when embracing a theory.
There are many things we might hope to achieve, but how we approach them theoretically is relative to the tasks we have identified as worthwhile. I apologize if I have helped to push this thread in a less than useful direction. But I repeat that placing a boundary around the human is a political act, not just something for detached speculation.
But I still beleive that we could gain a lot from refurbishing that tradition for contemporary use by a much wider global public.
So do I. But how can anthropology be relevant to this effort? A clue can be found in Alexander Hamilton's brutally realistic assessment of the debate that surrounded the writing of the U.S. Constitution. From Federalist 1,
Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected. The plan offered to our deliberations affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion of a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.
Anthropology can, I believe, contribute a great deal to the ongoing debate about what would constitute a more just and sustainable global order, in two ways. First, as ethnographers, we bring to the table ground-level awareness and (sometimes even) understanding of the particular interests and local institutions that stand in the way of a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. Second, we should, as anthropologists, be able to bring to the table a richer understanding of human nature in which to seek common ground, a goal which I take to be the heart of Keith's project.
To contribute in these ways, however, we will need to reflect on our own views, and be wary of falling into the trap that Hamilton describes so well: discussion of a variety of objects foreign to [our project's] merits, and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth [noting that "truth" is spelled here with a lower-case "t"]. This is truth in a modest, pragmatic, scholarly and sometimes scientific sense. It is not the omniscient God's-eye Truth with a capital "T," whose assertion or denial plagues what are too often dogmatic and purely metaphysical quarrels.
We can easily trace the origins of these ideas and attitudes to particular times and places and acknowledge their first appearance as elements in particular local traditions. As Bourdieu notes, however, that does not make them less valuable or less worth fighting for.