Exchanging Perspectives: The Transformation of Objects into Subjects in Amerindian Ontologies
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Exchanging Perspectives
The Transformation of Objects into Subjects in Amerindian Ontologies

At the outset of his reply to Ulrich Beck in this symposium, Bruno Latour cites a case study of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and repeats an anecdote he tells about Amerindians and conquistadors talking at cross-purposes. Latour deploys the story to illustrate his claim that even the most well-intentioned and sophisticated peacemakers can get us into worse trouble than we were in when negotiations began. The problem, he says, is that the likelihood is low that either side in a communication, let alone a formal negotiation, knows what the other side thinks is under discussion. Negotiating contradictory opinions may seem difficult enough, but in cases of deep enmity, opinions are not what is at stake. The disagreements are ontological: enemies disagree, as Latour cites Viveiros de Castro saying, about what world we inhabit. And when peace is achieved, it does not consist in agreement to a set of opinions or principles; the parties begin, rather, to live in a different world. The article that follows is not the one to which Latour refers but a later and related paper, appearing here in English for the first time. It has already been published, in a somewhat different version, in Italian and for an anthropological audience. It was not written for this symposium, in other words, and does not directly respond to either Latour or Beck; but Viveiros de Castro has revised the article for inclusion here, and its relevance should be immediately apparent.

—Editor [End Page 463]

My subject is the cosmological setting of an indigenous Amazonian model of the self.1 I will examine two major contexts, shamanism and warfare, in which "self" and "other" develop especially complex relations. Shamanism deals with the relation between humans and nonhumans; and in warfare, a human other, an "enemy," is used to bring a "self" into existence. I will deliberately use a set of traditional dichotomies (I mean, in the tradition of modernity) as both heuristic instruments and foils: nature/culture, subject/object, production/exchange, and so forth. This very crude technique for setting off the distinctive features of Amazonian cosmologies carries the obvious risk of distortion, since it is unlikely that any nonmodern cosmology can be adequately described either by means of such conceptual polarities or as a simple negation of them (as if the only point of a nonmodern cosmology were to stand in opposition to our oppositions). But the technique does have the advantage of showing how unstable and problematic those polarities can be made to appear, once they have been forced to bear "unnatural" interpretations and unexpected rearrangements.

Perspectival Multinaturalism

If there is one virtually universal Amerindian notion, it is that of an original state of nondifferentiation between humans and animals, as described in mythology. Myths are filled with beings whose form, name, and behavior inextricably mix human and animal attributes in a common context of intercommunicability, identical to that which defines the present-day intrahuman world. Amerindian myths speak of a state of being where self and other interpenetrate, submerged in the same immanent, presubjective and preobjective milieu, the end of which is precisely what the mythology sets out to tell. This end is, of course, the well-known separation of "culture" and "nature"—of human and nonhuman—that Claude Lévi-Strauss has shown to be the central theme of Amerindian mythology and which he deems to be a cultural universal.2

In some respects, the Amerindian separation between humans and animals may be seen as an analogue of our "nature/culture" distinction; there is, however, at least one crucial difference between the Amerindian and modern, popular Western versions. In the former case, the separation was not brought about by [End Page 464] a process of differentiating the human from the animal, as in our own evolutionist "scientific" mythology. For Amazonian peoples, the original common condition of both humans and animals is not animality but, rather, humanity. The great separation reveals not so much culture distinguishing itself from nature as nature distancing itself from culture: the myths tell how animals lost the qualities inherited or retained by humans. Humans...