ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Perspectivism from anthropological perspective

Contact Convenor: Heonik Kwon

Department of Social Anthropology, Adam Ferguson Building
University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh EH8 9LL

Tel: 0131 650 3943 ; 

Panel abstract

Relativity of scientific thought was put forward in the beginning of the 20th Century most forcefully by what was subsequently labeled as perspectivism in philosophy and aesthetics. Ideas developed in this school of thought are being increasingly revived today across disciplines including science studies and international relations. A Nietzschean idea that interpretations and points of view are constitutive of objective facts is worth reconsidering for any negotiations between culture and science. Anthropology, having made valuable contribution to this trend in the past, can contribute more now through a more focused, ethnographically informed reworking of theories of objectivity. This panel invites papers that can discuss objectivity as a battle of objective views, economy as exchange of perspectives, politics as grafting of ideologies, and empirical reality as sites of parallax visions. Particularly encouraged are contributions that can discuss one or more of these themes both within and between particular sites of observation.

Perspectivism in the analysis of Swazi kingship and Swazi law

Dr Sari Wastell, Goldsmith College

African systems of law and governance are often described as dual, referring to the two extant systems (conventionally characterised as ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’) resulting from the legacy of colonial rule. Such descriptions would seem to offer a rich terrain for perspectival analysis, promising as they do the possiblity of parallax conceptualisations of justice, legality and the legitimate bases for authority and/or domination. However, recourse to Swazi ethnography reveals a very different form of perspectivism, one in which the dual characterisation of these institutions and their conceptual underpinnings itself emanates from a single perspective—that of modernist knowledge practices. Put another way, the Swazi data suggest that the alleged duality of law and governance in the kingdom is itself challenged by another, apposite perspective fostered by the tacit knowledge of a society organised around divine kingship. Equally, however, the perspective of Swazi kingship does not occlude the modernist perspective, but rather affords the monarchy a space for the exercise of absolute power within the context of so-called ‘modernity’ and political liberalism. The possibility is both counter-intuitive and perhaps unsettling. The present paper investigates such propositions with reference to the models and analytical strategies of Niklas Luhmann (which I argue are intrinsically perspectival in nature), but also incorporating the work of Louis Dumont, Martin Heidegger and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. In particular, the kingship’s mobilisation of legal fora and legal discourses is highlighted in order to make an argument for the law as the pre-eminent site for the grafting, commensuration and/or contestation of disparate political/cosmological perspectives. Such a hypothesis, I suggest, presents an intriguing and perhaps unexpected re-appraisal of both the rule of law in relation to autocratic regimes and of ‘the certainties’ of political liberalism more generally.

The anthropology of anthropology and vice-versa

Professor Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, National Museum, Rio de Janeiro

Amerindian perspectival ontologies are inherently comparative: they presuppose a comparison between the ways different bodily forms 'naturally' experience the world as an affectual multiplicity. They are, thus, a kind of inverted anthropology, for the latter proceeds by way of an explicit comparison between the ways different mental contents 'culturally' represent the world, seen as the common origin or virtual focus of its different conceptual versions . Therefore, an anthropology of perspectivism is necessarily based on the negation of its object, its 'retroprojection' as a kind of fetishized, primitive sort of anthropological reasoning. The experiment proposed here inverts this inversion, and attempts to formulate an anthropology consistent with a perspectival ontology.

Perspectivism divided in half

Dr Tony Crook, University of St Andrews

Einstein's general theory of relativity replaced Newton's cosmological landscape by turning it inside out: rather than the assurance of instantaneous and even delivery of light which allowed place and time to be fixed relative to one another, the revolution held that only the speed of light was fixed - and place and time are relative to that. Where made a new difference to what became perceptible and when. The same thing - light - would look different from other perspectives.

Ortega y Gasset was an early advocate of thinking with the new relativity - suggesting that reality had as many versions as there were perspectives. The point here is that one perspective on a landscape is as good as another - and one is bound to see a different view - perhaps unremarkable and old hat for many anthropologists.

But what happens when, as Viveiros de Castro suggests, we turn this inside out? In the Amerindian examples, what remains constant (like Einstein's light) is a relation: so 'thirst' makes beer for a human look like blood for a jaguar. The same thing would look different from the perspective of other beings: and one of the dangers here is to determine what kind of being you are taken for.

And yet, Melanesian examples suggest another view: beings become part of each other - resolving and disolving their different perspectives into a new one. So a Hagen pig donator brings out the recipient in a partner to complete an exchange. In Bolivip, only 'half' of important knowledge is ever revealed, and listeners have to add their own 'half' in completion: it is as if only half-a-perspective ever
circulates, and elicits a completing half from others.

By using each of these three examples of perspectivism divided in half - the relativity that divides object and subject, the Amerindian cases that divide beings through relations, the Melanesian cases that compose a being from 'halves' - this paper will consider what, if anything, is being held fixed in these examples. Putting the three together in another way suggests a composite being: what might anthropology begin to see from such a perspective?

Objectivity and the novel: exploring notions of truth in literary culture

Dr Adam Reed, University of Surrey

This paper is about the claims readers make for literature, in particular the claims made by the members of a UK literary society. In his later novels, the author [Henry Williamson] they loved asserted that he had switched from writing subjectively to writing objectively. This paper explores the claims for objectivity and truth in literature made by author and readers alike. It examines the consequences of these claims for their particular literary culture; in particular, the habit these readers have of treating his novels as crossword puzzles and the act of reading as a form of detection.

Reductivism and holism as issues for the practitioner and for the system: meaning and action in Scottish healthcare

Dr Desmond Ryan, University of Edinburgh

The goods appropriate to modernist organizations derive from the design of the organization, not from the qualities of its component individuals. How has this perspective fared when confronting the subjectivist turn associated with 'post- modernism'? Based on research on student nurses and on policy making in the Scottish NHS, this presentation will argue that 'spirituality' is emerging as a meaning-system with the function of integrating the hitherto conflicting perspectives of individual and organization into a more complex social system: patient-focused healthcare.

Discussant: Professor Tim Ingold, Aberdeen University