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ate last spring, two hundred students and researchers in Sao Paulo defied the political and economic backslide in Brazil in a particularly audacious way: they let a well-known witch lead them in a spiraling ritual dance and invocatory chant aimed at regenerating the land on which the city was built. Starhawk, the celebrated estadunidense Wiccan ecofeminist and anti-globalization activist, had been invited, alongside the Krenaki indigenous leader Ailton Krenak and some foreign anthropologists, to the Universidade de São Paulo for the sixth biannual “ReACT” conference (Reunião de Antropologia da Ciência e da Tecnologi). Her and their task was to address the gathering’s theme of entrevivir, a neologism indicating the problem, raised by Latin American indigenous groups, of whether and how they, cosmopolitan moderns, and nonhuman beings can successfully co-exist within and across their respective, and often quite divergent, political-ecological milieus. The project of the ReACT meeting’s organizers, a group of brilliant young anthropologists, literary scholars, and political theorists, was to determine what intellectuals like themselves might stand to contribute to that and other such dilemmas of “cosmopolitics,” as Isabelle Stengers has called politics that concern peoples and entities excluded by modernity from the very space of politics and/or that of the world. The ReACT committee’s intention in engaging Starhawk (whose profile Stengers has recently raised with intellectuals in Europe) was to put their money where their mouth is on that issue, by encouraging an academic audience to learn from the very sort of thinker whose position outside the sciences, both natural and human, ordinarily leaves her with little pull in universities… but whom will have to be listened to, they contend, if new relations are to be created not only between various kinds of moderns and the some 70 million indigenous people in the Americas but also with the (dis)continuum of nonhuman beings that we still clumsily call the Earth.
If the ebullient atmosphere among the dancers was any indication, the ReACT organizer’s gamble paid off. There was a strong sense that there should be no shame in joining hand-in-hand with other thinking people to affirm with a greyed San Francisco baby boomer that the spirits of the local land, of the Guarani displaced from it, and of the participants’ own ancestors might be surrounding us; and that, whether as symbolic gesture or “real” and effective address, humbly requesting their assistance in transforming the current political-ecological climate might be more effective than the familiar but outworn kinds of action left to us now. But there was also the strong feeling that chanting one of Starhawk’s favorite incantations in focused unison—a Portuguese translation of “Everything she touches, she changes/Everything she changes, she touches”—really was gathering together forgotten and dispersed forces that might unblock the Brazilian variation of the dire planetary situation. Whether you took that “it” to mean a congeries of pre- and impersonal material forces or a storm of conscious, personated spirits, both physically ensconced and free of the physical—whether you opted to remain within what Philippe Descola calls “naturalism,” the modern assumption that physicality is the large part of what there is, or whether you felt pulled out of it, and into an “animism” in which it is souls and/or spirits that are not only real but more fundamental—you still felt that some integral part of what there is was in the course of changing in the way, in how, it is. That some swathe of being was being remade, and that it can be because being is always and is only in the making.
It is likely not only some of the ReACT’s organizer’s Brazilian colleagues that will be rolling their eyes at the thought of a ring of academics consenting to being led around by a Bay Area Wicca theorist (as well as at the present writer’s conviction that their joint action has a crucial role to play in the unfolding contemporary theatricum philosophicum). Many of their North American counterparts, including their fellow anthropologists, may think that it would be precisely in Brazil, where years of repression prior to the renaissance in research briefly promised by Lula could have left the country’s intellectuals far behind the rest of the world, that such misguided enthusiasm would be likely to hold sway. But such a reaction would say a great deal about the calcified narcissism of so much of American academe (the “if we don’t think it, it doesn’t matter” attitude) and next to nothing about any supposed intellectual backwardness on the part of São Paulo’s intellectuals. Where the United States has viewed as a sort of malicious entity (a malin génie indeed) the very sort of inventive anthropology and philosophy that ReACT was building on and intensifying—not only Stengers’ cosmopolitics but also the so-called “ontological turn” in anthropology and Bruno Latour’s modes of existence project—and has accordingly tried to banish it before it can acquire residency, the Brazilians, particularly at USP, have managed to further develop it in the ways it needs to be if it is to address the very thing (which indeed sometimes seems like a fetish) that the North Americans have said that it cannot but nevertheless must in order to dismiss it: “real” politics, particularly those of indigenous peoples.
You see, a cohort of Paulistas and their friends and mentors at the Museu Nacional in Rio—at USP, Renato Sztutman, Marina Vanzolini Figueirodo, Pedro de Niemeyer Cesarino, and Stelio Marras and in Rio, Tania Stolze Lima, Marcio Goldman, and, of course, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro—have long been bent on undertaking through anthropological “ontology” a politics with precisely that concern: to take the effective divergence between the ontological distributions of moderns and certain indigenous peoples as a problem not only of an intellectual nature but also with heavy implications for understanding the conditions of global warming and potential ways both parties might survive it. For these anthropologists, the ontological turn in anthropology was initially received (in contrast with how it was taken up in the United Kingdom) as a way of undertaking anthropology not as a largely disciplinary field of investigation but rather as an interdisciplinary line of speculative and critical questioning. That is, the challenge that so much Amerindian thought raises to the foundations of sociocultural anthropology has been significant to these Brazilians less because it reorients their discipline and more for how it disorients the human sciences as a whole from a big part of the metaphysical inheritance of the Enlightenment, from some of its notions of science and politics to the very ideas of nature and the human. In that regard, the connection between anthropology and cosmopolitics was evident to many of the Brazilians from the beginning, and not just as some kind of supplement. The widespread treatment, both conceptual and practical, of living and nonliving nonhumans as human, cultural-technical, and indeed political beings by lowland Indians in the Americas and elsewhere has therefore been recognized in Brazil as exposing a massive problem with the modern idea of politics as well as being a chief condition of the Indians’ colonial subjugation. It was easy for the Europeans to justify conquering and enslaving peoples who appeared to them to be subhuman for not holding themselves above mere beasts, and it is now easy to see that the Europeans’ failure to learn from those peoples to regard nonhumans as persons and effectively sovereign powers indeed helped drive us into our current planetary impasse.
The ReACT committee’s intent was thus to turn this so far largely theoretical discussion about cosmopolitics into the very sort of difficult, practical exchange between those (more) inside and those (more) outside modern politics that Stengers has intended—which required, of course, directly involving and reinforcing the latter kind of voices in the conference. The hope behind inviting Starhawk, for example, was that the account that she gave of the success of her simultaneously animist and naturalist ecological politics, in which she practices magic and permaculture in tandem, would persuade the many in the audience not given to such witchy allies of at least the strategic value of reimagining the nature of acceptable political tactics, if not of the capacity of such marginal techniques as hers to make us engage “Nature” as collectives of persons, and perhaps thereby finally to treat it better. As for the anthropologists given the main stage, several of them provided intellectual support for her message by showing that the exclusion of sorcery from scientific and political legitimacy is immediately tied to the continued domination of many indigenous peoples and “the environment.” Renato Sztutman, an expert on Pierre Clastres and the effectively anarchist political “philosophy” of pre- and early colonial Tupinamba Indians, argued that Stegners’ and Phillipe Pignarre’s claim that capitalism is a kind of sorcery whose initial establishment required the elimination of its only real rival, witchcraft, finds unexpected resonance in Brazil today: the assistance that Evangelical settlers provide to the mining and agricultural companies in the territorial dispossession of indigenous people in the Amazon is justified on the same grounds as it was during high colonialism; that is, Indians are said to be engaged in idolatry with nature spirits and thus in need of being either converted or providentially displaced. In a formula that echoed the work of the Dené political theorist Glen Coulthard, Sztutman suggested that the persistence of that particularly Christian/modern form of primitive accumulation means that we are still in the 18th century, and he added that any effort to stop that process will indeed have to include, per Stengers, a sort of countersorcery—a concerted effort to return the spell of capitalism back to those who keep casting it, until they are the only ones left falling for commodity fetishism. Between Sztutman and Starhawk, it became clear that whether one conceives witchcraft as causally effective (probability-jamming) magic or a counter-description of the fetishistic magic of capitalism, its neglect as a problem might very well be fatal to peoples in the Amazon as well as for those of us who believe ourselves free of the hold of any enchantment.
What was remarkable about the fact that academics like Sztutman were sharing a stage with unsanctioned outsiders like Starhawk and Ailton Krenak was that, despite their different starting points, both parties were grappling with the same problem, which is that of how to work and communicate across the ontological suppositions of modernity and those peculiar to people(s) not ensconced within it, whether they are “indigenous” or not. The criticisms of the so-called ontological turn made by North Americans thus did not hold up long that week, and may just crumble if the spirit of ReACT is carried on: the notion that the anthropologists engaged with ontological questions are essentializing cultures not their own was put paid when Ailton Krenak declared that while he, too, is constrained to accept to some extent the terms of the modern sciences and nature, the wisdom of the Krenaki (as certain anthropologists have pleaded be understood of other peoples) involves an almost entirely different conception of existence, for which all beings are sentient and almost human. Ailton’s point was not that the Krenaki live enclosed within an unchanging cosmology and have not been forced to recognize and adjust to that of modernity but rather that acknowledging the divergence between the two—a difference brutally exhibited before them during centuries of colonial rule and then lost from view—reveals that a large part of the Krenaki orientation to “reality” is truly not European, and far more sensible for dealing with the ecological/political crisis. And what Ailton had to say, in turn, about whites was also scarcely different from something else that anthropologists in Brazil and elsewhere might be taken as saying: that whites—in his sense, that could mean people who are brown or yellow—will need to become otherwise than modern, to transform themselves into something else. “There has been much talk against the state here,” as Ailton put it, “but I would like to remind you that universities are part of the state, and of our rule by the state, and that universities and their model of knowledge will have to change.” That declaration provoked little surprise and probably seemed to some present to confirm, all too easily, the intellectual ethos of the ReACT committee, but when Ailton followed up by saying that “people in universities are paying a lot to be colonized,” one of the organizers’ most serious points was foregrounded: No matter how much we “whites” might be the beneficiaries of the hegemony of modern ontologies, we too are subject to them and therefore among those who must decolonize themselves.
These efforts of “extra-moderns” to address entrenched moderns from within the latter’s thought-borders vindicated not only anthropology in its ontological mode but also, surprisingly, a specific account of how to undertake cosmopolitics. Stengers’ and Bruno Latour’s joint conception of intellectual work as diplomacy—as the facilitation of negotiations aimed at forging and maintaining peace between people(s) not at all in consensus—has been just as neglected and criticized as the ontological turn, but their work may have seen that week one of its most convincing realizations. Rather than speaking from and for their ultimate positions about the true or actual character of things, both the anthropologists and their guests did their best to make their cases in terms of the position opposite their own. Ailton thus explained that his appeals on behalf of the Earth concerned “nothing mystical, nothing transcendent,” and that the collective insanity with which nearly everyone is afflicted today can simply be characterized as a state of distraction from one’s immediate surroundings in “nature.” Starhawk, too, adopted this strategy of forwarding a countermodern proposal in modern terms, soberly making the case that regeneration might be the concept best suited for approaching the problem of how to reverse the ecological devastation of the Anthropocene/Capitalocene, as that notion can allow one to see that water, atmosphere, soil, and species can all be healed with techniques like permaculture of the violence done to them over the last five centuries. But her deeper point, of course, was that those beings then might decide to cooperate with humans rather than strike back at us.
The academics, for their part, did not let their guests down—and here, I think, they were extraordinary—and took the risk of advocating and even adopting the animist position. A USP Brazilian Studies professor and ReACT organizer named Stelio Marras stated, at the outset of a declaredly cosmopolitical manifesto, that he might be best understood as a medium (a cavalo) channeling the voices of the authors whose work he was trying to extend. His co-organizer, the anthropologist Renzo Taddei, went even further in a report on his fieldwork with a spiritual organization in Rio de Janeiro that attempts (quite seriously, despite the absurdity) to change weather through joint magical/meteorological means. “If we are serious about cosmopolitics,” he asked, “shouldn’t we try to understand what such groups are really thinking and doing?” The value in asking that question became apparent when Taddei explained his feeling of being implicated in the group’s cosmological vision when one of its meteorologists explained that his own involvement came naturally because he had previously practiced the French-derived Kardecist spiritism widespread in Brazil. “Coming from a family that have been Kardecists for three generations,” Taddei avowed, “I realized that I, too, was a native of the very thing that I had imagined that I was approaching from the outside…”
Such avowals of solidarity and belonging were indeed diplomatic attempts to persuade moderns to let go of their insistence on naturalism (rather than immature surrealist play), if we understand “diplomacy,” as Stengers does, as a way of engaging concepts and practices that are unacceptable to modernity in a way that does not keep them at arm’s length but instead carves out a provisional zone of legitimacy for them within official thought—not, however, for the purpose of including them but to further their ongoing extrusion there. Whether Marras, Taddei, and the rest were invoking the spirits earnestly or ironically or both, the effect of their interventions was to extend that zone out from a largely academic space inhabited by people sharing the same intellectual tendencies and into the broader aesthetic, intellectual, and political milieus that were represented in the audience. Some of those gathered were, of course, skeptical: for example, an anthropologist who had done his doctorate at Berkeley before returning to Brazil remarked to me that the ReACT committee had not yet recognized the ways that certain practices of interest to it, like the submission of Candomblé devotees to their orixás, remain at odds with the liberal political sensibilities long analyzed by the anthropological critique of secularism. Yet stimulating such discussion was the point, as it is one of the only available means for undermining the nearly invisible hegemony that modern thought (its cosmologies, its ontological distributions, and even, yes, its concepts and its metaphysics) exercise over nearly all other thought, potential or actual. And even if few of the other anthropologists present ended up newly persuaded to the intellectual and political worth of “ontology,” the fact that it was shown to be almost indissociable from cosmopolitics made it difficult to walk away from ReACT thinking that Ailton and Starhawk were advocating, or having attributed to them, exotic magical worldviews that are undeserving of parity with the hard truths of the sciences and left politics.
In fact, for all the nervous embarrassment that the spiral dance caused to some of the academics who participated in it, the more dominant feeling as the crowd circled around each other was that Starhawk might have somehow helped realize the group’s collective political desire. Just minutes before we all assembled with her to dance, the plenary session during which she and I spoke came to a sudden halt. The audience questions that should have followed our talks were preempted by an announcement over the P.A. that President Michel Temer, who had long been suspected of corruption dwarfing anything the unseated Dilma Rousseff was ever accused of, had just been implicated by federal police in a bribery scandal (an impeachable offense) aimed at keeping the disgraced former head of Congress, Eduardo da Cunha, quiet in his prison cell. The cheers that erupted were followed by the feeling that something very uncanny had just transpired, and several people shared with me that it was this sense that led them to decide to stay for the ritual dance that was about to take place rather than follow the contingent that rushed to the street to protest.
Just like a certain giant of contemporary thought, who once volunteered to me that he had taken the sudden stroll of a cat into a ritual space Starhawk had created at another time as an indication of her efficacy, a good fraction of the conference was happy to concede her some causal power—and virtually no one wanted to reject whatever moral or “symbolic” help that she might have provided. For the terrible times—when the 1914 imbalance of power, 1930s Weimar paranoia, the 1948 Occupation, the Cold War circa 1962, and a certain 1964 coup d’etat seem to be repeating in a single multiplex event—are right now evoking a contrary response that seems to come from 1968, and even intellectuals are starting to ask if it is not just the rationally acceptable side of the politics associated with that year but the crazy spirit that helped impel it—the era’s spirituality, psychedelia, bodily liberation, hippie-outsider mentality, and tropicalia—that is needed “today.” The prospect of that spirit’s return, however, is greeted with dismissive judgment from most academics, and this reaction was thus one of the main things the Paulistas were seeking to dissolve. Much of that judgment rests on the idea that it is only the too-imaginative whites, of both the North and the South and of many nonwhite hues, that desire that spirit, and that it has nothing to do with the peoples supposed to be benefitting from or instigating it, unless as further reason to exoticize and other them. Yet what ReACT showed is that there indeed are people and parts of “the” “world” not operating according to ostensibly universal critical suppositions, and that it is high time to forge with them a joint and radically plural politics, using all the intellectual ingenuity that can be mustered. As Russell Means said a few decades ago, “the European materialist tradition of despiritualizing the universe is very similar to the mental process which goes into dehumanizing another person… and that mental process works so that it becomes virtuous to destroy the entire planet.”