Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: In and Against the Human

Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Como Era Gostono o Meu Francês (1971)

Now that the world most of us have known is ending, it might be time to pay more attention to the experience of those whose world has already ended — indigenous peoples. Depending on how you count it, there may be three hundred million or more indigenous people still on the planet. Most are survivors of colonialism. Like the rest of us they now have to find forms of life for enduring the Anthropocene.

Creating a relation to indigenous thought and practice is no simple task. The discipline whose job that is — anthropology — is implicated in various colonial projects. There’s are certain self-aware schools of thought within anthropology that know this and have various ways of counter-acting the discipline’s own imperial form. An open question might be how those approaches themselves might adapt, or be adaptable to, life in the Anthropocene.

Which brings us to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s Cannibal Metaphysics (Univocal, 2014). This is an anthropology on a mission to decolonize thought. It is an anthropology of the concept, although not, as we shall see, so much of the practices from which concepts might be substituted. It might also be a kind of experimental metaphysics, or field geo-philosophy, with an ironic distance from the modern world that is its "natural" home.

Narcissus is the old god of anthropology, for his habit of looking at the other as a reflection that lacks being. The other lacks reason, history, writing — something. We Europeans are the supposedly fully realized (or realizable) people. The other reflects us back to ourselves through its lack. Against this, Viveiros proposes a minor anthropology that makes differences proliferate: Not the narcissism of small differences but rather a bigger world in variation.

Cannibal Metaphysics is not a reflection or a double but rather a triangulation, of the classic work of Claude Lévi-Strauss on Amerindian myth, and then the encounter of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari with anthropology. Lévi-Strauss once called the set of Amerindian myths he studied a “metaphysics of predation.” (46) They map the relative status of predator and prey. He does not interpret these myths so much as translate them, or transform them. His savage thought is an image of thought, not of the "savage." It can cast doubt on the categories that organize European mythology, not least the nature-culture distinction that is central to the organization of anthropology itself.

For anthropology, there is one nature, but there can be many cultures, and it sets about documenting and classifying them. Here cultures might be thought, as Marilyn Strathern does, as specific ways of drawing analogies. The Amerindian world operates quite differently. It is structured by a universality of mind and a diversity of bodies. "Culture" is universal and "nature" is particular.

Viveiros: “If Western relativism has multiculturalism as its public politics, Amerindian shamanic perspectivism has multinaturalism as its cosmic politics…. Thus if a subject is an insufficiently analyzed object in the modern naturalist world, the Amerindian epistemological convention follows the inverse principle, which is that an object is an insufficiently interpreted subject.” (60, 62) Viveiros is careful not to make this a simple reversal of terms. “When everything is human, the human becomes a wholly other thing.” (63)

Myth is a time (out of time) before objects and subjects became distinct. Myth is about what Deleuze called the virtual, and its transformation into the actual. “The heterogeneous continuum of the pre-cosmological world thus gives way to a discrete, homogenous space in whose terms each being is only what it is, and is so only because it is not what it is not.” (68) Myth is a passage from some sort of primal nature into culture. But Amerinidian myth reverses a western assumption: it is not that the human is differentiated from the animal in myth, it’s the reverse. The common condition, the virtual, the primordial — is humanity, not animality.

Amerindian myth has another interesting aspect. Here all beings — such as the pig, the jaguar and the human, see the world the same way, but they see different worlds. There is not one nature and a multiculturalism of ways of seeing it. To the contrary, there is one way of seeing a multinaturalism. There is no thing-in-itself. It may be not so much a variety of natures, so much as nature as variation that the different "species" (as science would call them) perceive.

In addition to being a multinaturalism, Amerindian myth is also a perspectivism. The human sees the jaguar as an animal rather than a person; the jaguar sees the human as an animal — but sees itself as a person.  “In Amerindian cosmologies, the real world of different species depends on their point of view, for the ‘world in general’ consists only of different species, being the abstract space of divergence between them as points of view.” (90)

Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus offered an anthropological post-structuralism of flat multiplicities rather than hierarchical totalities, one which collapsed the strata of language and world into one. This meshed with their refusal of any theory of desire as lack. Desire becomes desiring-production. It’s a monism that refuses any culture-nature divide. It’s a baroque multiplicity rather than romantic organic totality or Enlightenment atomization. Amerindian myth may have a special role to play in such a project. “Perspectivism — duality as multiplicity — is what dialectics — duality as unity — has to negate in order to impose itself as universal law.” (118)

Apart from a brief mention of Amerindian myth as a metaphysics of predation, there’s not much attention to practices that might correspond to them, apart from shamanism. Here, shamanism is a political art (Viveiros resists the categories of western economics, but art, politics and the diplomatic get a pass). Shamanism is a "diplomatic" practice of escaping from the limits of a human perspective, crossing borders into the social worlds of other species, administering relations between natures.

Viveiros draws a contrast between the human sacrifice of vertical shamanism and the cannibalism once practiced as part of a horizontal shamanism in certain parts of the Amazon basin. There, people would hunt and capture individuals from other groups, treat them with care, ritually kill and eat them. What was ingested is the point of view of the other itself. “What was eaten was the enemy’s relation to those who consumed him, in other words, his condition as enemy.” (142) The social body is composed by capturing symbolic resources from without. The material resources of which it might also be composed are not discussed.

There’s a remarkable movie by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Como Era Gostono o Meu Francês (1971), that I can’t help recalling at this juncture. It stages this situation, of the care and preparation of the captured other, with black humor. In this case, the enemy is a white man. It’s not a bad emblem for the alternative relation between Amerindian myth and western anthropology that Viverios is composing here, using the conceptual persona of the enemy.

Anthropology, like so much else in western metaphysics, may depend on the conceptual persona of the friend. We are supposed to treat the other as a friend, because the other is really like us, a mirror for ourselves. The other can be a rival, but is not really different – that is, if they are human. If they are really different, they are not human at all, they are just part of nature and can be treated accordingly. Might it not be better to treat the other as an enemy? To Amerindians, other groups of humans are as different as other species. Each appears as an animal, even though from that animal’s point of view, we are the ones who are animal.

"Cannibal metaphysics" might be a general method. “Against the myth of method, then, the method of myth.” (215) Maybe anthropology could be cannibalistic, ingesting the other point of view in its difference. The world does not become more rational, but the rational becomes more worldly. “Indeed, the Mythologiques, far from describing a clear, unequivocal passage between Nature and Culture, obliges their author to map a labyrinth of twisting, ambiguous pathways, transversal trails, tight alleys, obscure impasses, and even rivers that flow in both directions at once.” (213)

Which is where Deleuze and Guattari can help. The limit to Anti-Oedipus is that the human scale is central. Its sequel, A Thousand Plateaus, starts producing concepts that extend filiation and alliance further into the non-human realm. Instead of desiring production, a concept of becoming. What is produced out of nature is the human, whereas becoming is a counter-production, a participation of the human in nature. “Becoming is the other side of the mirror of production.” (162) Production makes a world that is "like us," as if nature could be remade as a friendly second nature.

Viveiros: “So the question is not to unveil the naked truth about production supposedly concealed under the hypocritical cover of exchange and reciprocity but, rather, to free these concepts from their equivocal functions in the machine of filiative, subjectivating production by presenting them with their (counter-) natural element, which is becoming. Exchange, then, is the infinite circulation of perspectives — exchange of exchange, metamorphosis of metamorphosis, perspective on perspective: again, becoming.” The slippage here is that becoming has only a symbolic dimension. This is a monism achieved by sacrificing any other materiality.

Anti-Oedipus, as is well known, is a text that grows out of the failure of the revolution of 1968. Instead of which we got the “neoliberal plague” (97) and “the mystical nuptials of Capital and Earth.” (97) Here it might be worth revisiting Lévi-Strauss’ distinction between hot and cool societies, which Viveiros mentions in passing. (146) The hot societies of the over-developed world really are a thermodynamics without equilibrium, using the potential energy of class antagonism or colonial exploitation, or what Jason Moore calls cheap land, cheap food, and indeed cheap nature.  

Whether or not Deleuze and Guattari really wanted to accelerate capitalism, Lévi-Strauss had a powerful intuition of its consequences. Viveiros: “For there are moments where a nostalgia for the continuous appears to be for Lévi-Strauss the symptom of a real illness provoked by what could be called the uncontrolled proliferation of the discontinuous in the West, and not just a simple fantasy or imagined freedom. The global warming of history, the end of cold histories, would in that case be the end of Nature.” (215)

This question is taken up in a more recent text, co-authored by Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of the World (Polity, 2017), which takes as its starting point “changes in the planet’s thermodynamic regime.” (1) These might include climate disruption, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, biodiversity loss, nitrogen and phosphorous cycle rifts — in short, the Anthropocene, where we find out that “everything is thermodynamics at bottom.” (14)

How does it feel to be human now? To be a human interpellated by this event of the Anthropocene? With its slow violence (Rob Nixon), it’s weird hyperobjects (Timothy Morton), it’s coming barbarism (Isabelle Stengers), where dystopias become doxa, where there is, as Günther Anders put it when confronting the nuclear age: an absence of the future? It is hard enough to know how to feel when someone dies, let alone when a world dies.

The thing about the Anthropocene is that “although it began with us, it will end without us…” (5) To even think it is to find oneself in a space of myth as well as science. “The semiotic regime of myth, perfectly indifferent to the empirical truth or falsity of its contents, comes into play whenever the relation between humans as such and the most general conditions of existence imposes itself as a problem for reason.” (6)

A cannibal metaphysics might come in handy now. If Amerindian myths are also a philosophy, then occidental philosophy might also have the structures and genesis of myths. Even if those myths are passing: “Intriguingly enough, everything takes place as if, of the three great transcendental ideas identified by Kant — God, Soul and World, respectively the objects of theology, psychology, and cosmology — we are now watching the downfall of the last.” (9)

In the Anthropocene, humans move from a biological to a geological agent. As such, it’s the collapse of a supposedly foundational distinction between the cosmological and the anthropological that might found the myth we call modernity, with its bifurcated and stratified order of the human versus the world. The thought of the end of a world poses a problem of the beginnings of both world and thought. How are world and thought correlated? The terms in play here beg for a semiotic square on which to arrange them.

The myth of Eden is as world before humans that is a world for humans, a world that is providential. Eden persists in the modern idea of wilderness. The word used to mean a barren place, but became sublime. Wilderness became a positive version of the world without humans for an environmentalism that thinks of humans as external to it and denaturing. Interestingly, in the myth of the Garden of Eden it is surrounded by wilderness in the old sense, but for the moderns the two become the same.

If Eden is a world before the human, there’s also a world after it, perhaps best known from the novel The Earth Abides by George Stewart, or the nonfiction book The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. There’s also versions of the human after the world, as having lost its world — the spiritual crisis of the moderns, who lost their God and their dwelling-place. Then there’s the modern who does not lose but abolishes the world by Promethean conquest. The world is made over as human, clear-felled by labor or industry, producing Heidegger’s metaphysical clearing. “For all its openness, the Clearing cannot but project an inverted image of its external double, the vast, ferocious wilderness surrounding the Garden of Eden.” (29)

It is strange how the social construction of reality became in reality the capitalist destruction of the planet. “Especially in its post-Romantic phase, first with the various existentialisms and, later, with post-modern constructionisms, the rift between subject and world becomes… an absolute ontological incommensurability that expresses itself in two complimentary mythical figures: that of the world’s disappearance, absorbed by the Subject and transformed into his Object (a social construction, a projection of language, a phantasm of desire); but also that of the Subject’s disappearance, absorbed by the world and made a thing among things, an organic contraption assembled by a blind watchmaker. The crisis of what would come to be known as correlationism effectively began long before the name was coined.” (29)

Against the world of worldless people, Quentin Meillassoux proposes the (conceptual) erasure of the human from the world. Meillassoux’s world is without a subject, dead, "glacial." It is like Kant in reverse, in that with Kant, losing the dogmatic world of metaphysical philosophy meant turning inwards, to a marking-out of the limits of the subject. After Kant, there would be no world other than via the internality of the subject, leading to the loss of the great outdoors. But the detour through the subject gives license to theological temptations. For Meillassoux, the erasure of subject is an erasure of the temptation of the divine.

If for Meillassoux the world without a subject is without order, a hyper-chaos, for Ray Brassier (following Nick Land) it is fundamentally dead, always and already dead. His is a radical disenchantment of the world, thought from the perspective of extinction. The death drive becomes a cosmological principle. The way to affirm being is to deny life and sentience.

Here D+V would rather follow Steven Shaviro, whose solution is quite the reverse: the world is not only alive but sentient. For Shaviro, Meillassoux and Brassier’s assumption that matter is passive, inert, dead, insentient, indifferent, chaotic only re-introduces human exceptionalism in negative, resulting in “a curious negative idealism, a weird cadaverous subjectalism.” (35) It’s donut anthropocentrism, empty at the core.

D+V question the timing of this. Why this quandrant of the mythic universe of western thought, now that the Anthropocene cannot be denied? “The anti-correlationism of Meillassoux and other materialist metaphysicians of his generation therefore sounds, probably against their explicit intentions, as a pathetic cry of protest, if not a magical formula of exorcism or disavowal, against the forebodingly realizing power of thought, at least in our humble terrestrial abode.” (36)

If there is a world without us, then there is also an us without a world. It is perhaps what movies like Mad Max: Fury Road are about, or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which elsewhere I have described as a negative passion play. A more Promethean version (found much earlier in JD Bernal) is now called the singularity, in which worldless humans, overcome species-being and worldly limits: “We will no longer be accountable to the world.” (47) Everything will be human, or at least Californian.

A variant of this is ecomodernism, with its promise of a good Anthropocene. (Good for who?) It is basically business as usual, and nature once again as providence. Curiously, we are to have no more resentments, but to feel instead a gratitude to the world. It is, as D+V wryly note, a “marriage of Nietzsche and Pollyanna.” (48) If there is not world enough for the commodity, then the production of commodities must continue beyond the world. Capital is to be re-enchanted as a magical agent.The left wing variant is accelerationism. “The accelerationists basic intuition is that a certain world, which has already ended, must finish ending, that is, fully actualize its inexistence.” (51) It looks forward to the full subsumption of nature into second nature, and then “the only way to conjure an Outside is to produce it from inside by driving the capitalist machine into overdrive…” (51) If the right wing version wants to re-enchant capital; the left wing version wants to believe again in the state.

“Accelerationists believe that ‘we’ must choose between the animal that we were and the machine that we shall be. In their materialist angelology, what they propose is, in short, a world without us, but made by us. Reciprocally, they imagine a post-human species re-created by a hyper-capitalist ‘material platform’ — but without capitalists. A nature denatured by un-man. A materialism, at long last (!), spiritualized.” (57) Its Hegel for cyborgs. Labor spiritualizes the world. The becoming human of the world is the becoming worldly of the human.

Thus we have so far three quadrants of a semiotic square. The first is the world before humans: Eden (a world for humans); Meillassoux world that is indifferent to us. The second is the world after humans: Brassier’s extinction, The World Without Us, environmentalists who want to restore some wilderness-Eden somewhere. The third is humans after the world: as excluded from it, in existentialism, or living on badly after it (Mad Max, The Road), or living well after it: the ecomodernism (right version), accelerationism (left version). Here too is the Hegelian dream of a future overcoming of the difference.

The quadrant unexplored in this taxonomy might be that of the human as preceding the world. Rather than subtract the human from correlation with the world, subtract the world — but at the beginning. The Amerindian myths Viveiros anatomized in Cannibal Metaphysics can now take its place in a larger schema. As we saw, various subsets of the human changed into other species, or into things. The part that did not change remained human. If in the west one is inclined to think of humans as the future and animals as the past, here is the reverse: A structure for thought that rather does away with attempts to find what is special in a human development out of the animal, but it language, labor, law, desire, culture, history, or a future.

There might be a corresponding Amerindian concept of time, a non-modern one lacking modernity’s distinctive, non-transitive quality, opening on to an ethnographic present rather than an historical present. This present epoch began when humans ceased becoming-other, ending a mythic, virtual time of transformations. A worldless humanity gives way to a world peopled by multiple peoples. The human is the active principle at the origin of a diverse world. It is a sort of inverse Garden of Eden. Humans came first. Nature separates itself from culture. Amerindian myth is not one with an "environment" that is external to the social. Rather, there are multiple forms of the social, populated by different species, each of which appears to its own kind as human. Every encounter with another species is war and diplomacy, embedded in a cosmopolitics.

Perhaps there’s something to be said for such an anthropomorphism over an anthropocentrism, even a negative one like speculative realism where the very subtraction of the human becomes a relentless absent presence. D+V: “… we are of the opinion that that anthropomorphism should be granted full philosophical citizenship owing to the as yet unexplored conceptual possibilities it opens.” (71) To say all the others are human is paradoxically a way to remove the specialness of the human.

D+V press the point against speculative realism even further: “Each object or aspect of the universe is a hybrid entity, at once human-for-itself and non-human-for-an-other, or rather, by-another. In this sense, every existing being, and the world as open aggregate of existing beings, is a being-outside-of-itself, being-qua-being, that does not depend on its being-as-other… Exteriority is everywhere. The Great Outdoors, like charity, starts at home.” (72)

The world does not appear as a thing, but as other people. One place it appears vividly is in dreams, in which the reciprocal and exclusive perspectives of different social-animal worlds are permeable. Amerindian dreams are a world of cosmic war and diplomacy, whereas when white people dream they are dreams of commodities. We dream of property. The Amerindian “… present us with the politics of dream against the state: not our ‘dream’ of a society against the state, but dreams as a society against the state dreams them.” (74)

D+V want to confront Eurocentric discourse on the Anthropocene with a structure of myth alien to it, which might reveal its own mythic form. They agree with Dipesh Chakrabarty that it is not enough to redact the Anthropocene into a concept of the Capitalocene, as this leaves out much of what is really challenging about thinking the Anthropocene. And, I might add: even were capitalism to end tomorrow, the problems of the Anthropocene are not then magically solved. I think the Anthropocene returns us to thinking what Marx, after Feuerbach, called species-being.

Here I agree with Chakrabarty about the need to conceive of a geologically framed world history of species-being. But for him, this cannot rise to the level of a conscious agent of its own making. It is a universality that cannot subsume the particulars. As Viveiros says in Cannibal Metaphysics, “… one of the typical manifestations of human nature is the negation of its own generality. A kind of congenital avarice preventing the extension of the predicates of humanity to the species as a whole appears to be one of its predicates.” (51) But for D+V, so long as universal history is qualified as human it can’t really grasp the Anthropocene or understand what, after Stengers, they call the intrusions of Gaia. While I would side with Chakrabarty in retaining a distinctive role for science, particularly earth science, as a knowledge of the totality, this for D+V as for Stengers is part of the problem.

Bruno Latour has suggested that since humans are at war with the planet, it might be better if that war was officially declared, so that negotiations for peace could begin. For Latour, Gaia is a common world, one that is perhaps divine but is not a God. More like a hyperobject. It is not transcendent and is not an arbiter. There is no God-proposition that can steady the partition between nature and the human. These are further consequences, one might suggest, of Nietzsche’s observation that God is dead. So then is the distinctiveness of the human, that liminal category between animal and angel, as Giorgio Agamben notes. But so too also is the whole separation of human from world. This, for Latour, points to the end of the modern conceit of an exteriority of the human to nature, and the dual constitution that separated the politics of the former from the science of the latter. It is “the multiple organ failure of the cosmopolitical government (nomos) of the Moderns.” (86)

Here D+V are closer to Stengers, for whom Gaia is not earthy and divine but is fundamentally unknowable, that which intrudes. Stengers is closer to those who for Alex Galloway point a way forward by refusing metaphysical exchange. Gaia is discordant, contingent, mutable. It dissolves opposition between an inside and an outside; between an organism and an environment. Gaia is a living and plural world. It’s the wilderness in the Eden myth, but not balanced or stable or "ecological," and certainly not Providential.

Where Latour, Stengers, and D+V are close is in wanting to flatten out a hierarchy of forms of knowing and acting in the world. (Or perhaps inverting it). They are for little science against big science. A secular, local, and slow science. They take their distance from both Marxists and post-Marxists who still depend on intensified modernity, the cult of nature and reason. For them the Anthropocene pre-empts any Anthropos, be it class (Andreas Malm), the multitude (Paolo Virno), or the popular (Chantal Mouffe). A multiplicity of peoples must be acknowledged, not all of them human.

If there is a cleavage to think politically, for D+V it is between humans and terrans. Humans are still trying to live in the Holocene. Terrans might be a as network of Latourian small science people, but they are not a majority, and never can be. The indigenous population of South America was larger than Europe at the time of conquest, which eliminated more than ninety percent through war and disease. It was a vast act of extinction. But many survived, and went on in a different world. The genocide of the Amerindians was the beginning of the modern world for Europeans, but the former remain as “veritable end-of-the-world experts” (108)

Since they have already survived endings of worlds, they may be better equipped for the Anthropocene. Their project might be a non-material intensification of life, towards a molecular un-civilization, developing "technologies" that may have nothing to do with labor or production. Hacks and exploits are inherent in all forms of life. “The ethnographic present of slow societies contains an image of their future.” (104)

Perhaps here we could apply the same four-fold scheme to praxis that D+V develop for myth. What if we abandoned the narrow Carl Schmitt model of politics as friend versus enemy, and thought as well about what I call the non-friend and the non-enemy, a (mythic) structure of the in-and-against. Amerindian myth may even have a lot to tell us about this. Even if its core conceptual persona is the enemy rather than the friend, the diplomatic negotiations of its cosmopolitics may have all of these kinds of actor.

D+V: “… the relation between humanity and world can begin to be thought as the relation connecting the one side of a Möbius strip to another…” (113) This might require a quite different concept and a myth, adequate to the times. “There are many worlds in the World.” (120)  That plurality might include ways of thinking and acting on a “political ecology of deceleration.” (114)

“Thinking the world as transcendentally heterogeneous to Man, Moderns thought it as empirically ‘gratis’, inexhaustible and infinitely available for appropriation.” (117) Paradoxically, thinking the world anthropocentrically, as made of us, might be one of the few ways to get humans to think like terrans by raising the world’s value. In the language of the moderns, I have followed Bogdanov in conceiving of labor as in-and-against nature. But one might also, in the language of the non-moderns, conceive of the hunter as against-and-in the human. Maybe there are ways, across the full four quadrants of possible mythic encounters, to be productively non-friends or diplomatically non-enemies.

That would at least get the humans and terrans talking. Even if it does not quite get to what I have called the Carbon Liberation Front, or what in Elizabeth Povinelli’s terms is the geontology of powers that structure the relation between life and non-life. There may be ways of thinking the mediating role of non-human technics — a topic quite absent here — in constructing actual relations between life and non-life besides mythic and symbolic ones, but without excluding them. There are further steps yet to be taken in the collaborative production of knowledge, in and for the Anthropocene.