A World of Many Worlds

A World of Many Worlds

by Marisol de la Cadena, Mario Blaser

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A World of Many Worlds is a search into the possibilities that may emerge from conversations between indigenous collectives and the study of science's philosophical production. The contributors explore how divergent knowledges and practices make worlds. They work with difference and sameness, recursion, divergence, political ontology, cosmopolitics, and relations, using them as concepts, methods, and analytics to open up possibilities for a pluriverse: a cosmos composed through divergent political practices that do not need to become the same.

Contributors. Mario Blaser, Alberto Corsín Jiménez, Déborah Danowski, Marisol de la Cadena, John Law, Marianne Lien, Isabelle Stengers, Marilyn Strathern, Helen Verran, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478004318
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/25/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 232
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Marisol de la Cadena is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis, and the author of Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds, also published by Duke University Press.

Mario Blaser is Associate Professor of Geography and Archaeology at the Memorial University of Newfoundland and the author of Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond, also published by Duke University Press.

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Marilyn Strathern

What might be interesting about the idea that the concept of "knowledge" is itself often a means to knowledge? I refer both to the duplication of terms and to what English speakers might understand when knowledge is evoked like this. For it becomes the kind of concept that can seemingly occupy both an object position and a subject position in relation to itself. Without doing violence to sense or logic, some other concepts appear to do this too, and a term just deployed (relation) provides an example. As far as the marking is concerned, there is nothing unusual about it: to demarcate "knowledge" is to be explicit about or reflective on knowledge making, in the anthropologists' case this no doubt including an awareness of the situatedness of their studies. What is interesting in the apparent equivalence between them is that subject and object may also, to the contrary, differentiate domains or relative positions, taxonomic or otherwise. Thus it is equally usual to differentiate the subject (e.g., a concept of "knowledge" as a means) from the object (e.g., a concept of whatever is under investigation and is being made known). There is an issue here for anthropological description.

The duplication of terms can be interpreted as hyperdefinitive or delimiting. If one imagined its context as a world full of concepts, each occupying its own domain, the several parts of a whole, allowing of course for overlapping in places, then the boundaries of individual concepts might become a focus of attention. It could become crucial to distinguish "knowledge" from "information," thereby emphasizing what is knowledge-like about knowledge. The same is true of distinguishing, say, state from society, collective from individual, which, as Luhmann observed, became prevalent in (nineteenth-century) European social theory. But then the same character of duplication was seemingly present in his reanalysis of Western modernity, an analysis that allowed no whole and no parts. Instead of domains (of a whole), he spoke of environments: functional differentiation creates autopoetic, self-reproducing systems, each distinctively differentiated from an environment that can only be its own (a system in this formula cannot share an environment with another). These are not domains or divisions of the same whole; rather, systems intersect in terms of their functionality, and he talked in an unremarked way of relations between economics and politics or between politics and education. Such systems and subsystems apprehend themselves through self-reference: organizations must show an organized world how organized they are; educational establishments meet educational needs, and so on. And so too an observer might say that self- consciousness about "knowledge" is a tool for knowledge making.

"Supplanting" (Luhmann's notion) the imaginary of parts and wholes was offered at that moment in twentieth-century social science as a redescription, a radical displacement of other theorizings through "a recasting of the general framework within which systems are perceived and analyzed." Insofar as recastings of this kind appear to upturn old worlds in making new worlds visible, and there are of course no end of them in volumes of Euro-American criticism and reflection, there is some interest here for the imagining of cosmopolitics. Luhmann's quite specific focus was how one might describe society, but I do not take that issue any further. Rather, what prompted this recall of his work was the phenomenon of concept duplication that is not quite duplication (a difference is intended), as reflected in the doubling of terms. For such a practice seemingly finds a niche in either descriptive mode, whether in an evocation or a denial of wholes. It snakes between what one might otherwise have regarded as worlds apart.

This chapter's contribution to the present volume lies in its address to what de la Cadena calls the subject-object mode of relationality that flows from thinking in terms of domains, above all from those flowing from the nature-culture divide. I apply it to how we make things known. For when it comes to knowledge making knowledge, it is as though subject and object cocreate one another. The question is whether we can sneak on the back of this into other kinds of world making altogether. The starting point is a salient anthropological assumption that the descriptive task includes making relations known, so that relations appear as an object of knowledge.

Opening Up

Paradoxically, perhaps, duplication often opens things up a bit. I have mentioned the common habit of expressing the location of the observer (pointing self- consciously to a subject position) through doubling the terms of analysis, dividing a semantic domain into two, as when a writer uses terms with and without emphasis. If this resolves the apparent tautology of "knowledge" as a means to knowledge, through separating the knowing subject from the objects of knowing, it is interesting how equivocal anthropologists often are. There is no end to the number of epistemic objects that they produce, while at the moment of production becoming at the same time wary of or apologetic for the terms in their hands. The awareness they have of how concepts have come into being in effect, and sometimes literally, puts quotation marks around the terms themselves — "group," "ethnicity," "economics," "Melanesian," whatever. However, this rather mundane practice can open up as well as close off problems implied by thinking in terms of domains.

De la Cadena shows this in the concept of culture as an anthropological object. Even if in dialogue a term is apparently shared, anthropologists know that objects of knowledge for the ethnographer may have little correspondence in the vernacular under study. She pushes us to consider the truism cosmologically. It is not that in deploying the concept of culture the ethnographer and her interlocutors evoke different semantic domains; there are no domains. That is, and I am translating the point de la Cadena expounds, what look like semantic domains are not divisions of the same whole. Rather, what intersect at unpredictable junctures are worlds, each of which (an observer might say) recognizes its own environment. One way of thinking about numerous efforts at description in relation to those with whom anthropologists work is to appreciate that the resultant pluriverse cannot in any simple manner occupy an object position in their work (any more than they can occupy a simple subject position). It is as though anthropologists could imagine engaging in knowledge practices that would make something other than "[more] knowledge."

As a critique in the old-fashioned sense, this chapter indicates certain creative moments, as well as impasses, into which Euro-American anthropological discourse can lead. Maybe in these lies the promise of intersections, contributions to the constitution of a pluriverse of which such a discourse is only partly part. My cue comes from another Melanesianist. Crook refers to the Euro-American habit "of eliding the solidity of a social relationship with the solidity of knowledge — and then taking one as a measure of the other. ... In making an equivalence between the qualities of knowledge and the relational conduit, Anthropology reveals its own crucial metaphor [namely, 'relations'] of knowledge." In this view, relations and knowledge double each other: an apparent epistemic object (relations) appears inseparable from processes of knowledge making. We have been here before. In lieu of the impossibility of taking their separation seriously, it may indeed be helpful to open up this double. Knowledge relations emerge as the subject-object of my narrative.


Demands from the South Pacific

Activating relations of sharing or exchange between holders of knowledge is often proposed as a toning down of subject-object relations between persons. Thus knowledge exchange was an idiom through which Pacific Islanders — in an academic setting — voiced their claims on research workers. The way they did it has been creative, not least for its illumination of what could have been a moment of impasse.

The European Consortium for Pacific Studies (ECOPAS) is a network of university and research institutions in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and the UK, under the aegis of the European Commission. With a focus on climate change, the hope is for scholarly collaboration in developing long-term strategies for social science and humanities research on the Pacific. Its origins lay in a previous moment, when a round table of Pacific Island academics had urged their colleagues "to recognize the responsibilities to Oceanic peoples, to the Academy and to Civil Society that come with the exchange of expert knowledge." Their listeners were researchers who had carried out fieldwork in or otherwise knew the region, the predominant discipline being (sociocultural) anthropology. Pacific Island scholars were expressing frustration that, for all the apparent exchanges there had been, there were still unmet obligations on the researchers' side. Quite simply, it was said, they wanted academics to act. The formation of ECOPAS was a direct political response. In international bureaucratese, "knowledge exchange" has routinely replaced the old phrase "knowledge transfer"; it was not a Pacific Island neologism, although these Pacific Islanders seem to have given it a special emphasis. They drew attention to the need to remedy what so often seemed a one-way flow of information. Not voiced at that moment but in the background on both sides lay a question that has been asked many times before: What was to count as knowledge?

In the multiple layerings of such an occasion, each party was also aware of the background of the other. Pacific Island scholars spoke of responsibilities to the academy as much as European scholars acknowledged those persons who had been party to their research in the field. Everyone was acting in a particular register. But was there also a "divergence" of registers, to use Stengers's term? If so, perhaps it was hidden in the very appeal from the Pacific Islanders to which the European scholars responded. Researchers had to acknowledge the obligations activated by their (social) relations with people in the Pacific. This was the common language. Admittedly (in this representation of Islanders' demands) Europeans needed to be told what Islanders took for granted, but the former were open to their relational obligations and glad no doubt that interpersonal relationships with the Island scholars and academics they knew could be a sign of relations with many others. A successful exchange would be the beginning, not the end, of future interchange. There was almost a cosmological force to this: world restitution — recognizing a world where one has to act on one's debts — was a step toward world reconstitution.

Now Haraway made it clear a long time ago that issues do not have to attach to whole persons — that is not the relevant mathematic (me plus my culture); to the contrary, issues divide people in different ways. When in the 1980s she famously argued for "politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition for being heard," the answer she gave to what can count as knowledge turned crucially on recognizing the agency of the world and objects of knowledge as actors. "Situated knowledges require that the object of knowledge be pictured as an actor and agent, not a screen or a ground or a resource." Let me give a half- turn to this phrasing, from the "objects" Haraway had in mind practices and procedures as objects of knowledge too. For we might use her phrase of the means of knowledge, insofar as practices of knowledge making also have effects. Situatedness was never simply an issue of identifying preexisting interests but of appreciating the coconstitution of interests as they emerge in interchanges of all kinds. In these, the form or technique of knowing, the means to knowledge, is surely an actor as well. For example, the way in which knowledge is regarded as available to acquisition or conservation is among the effects that the "knowledge" has, giving it a particular purchase on people's deliberations. This kind of actor is there in the very idea that knowledge might be exchanged.

There was, I think, a divergence of registers, although it was not between Pacific Islanders and Europeans, many as might have been the differences through which each could describe the other. In fact, the Pacific Islanders' reproach at once brought to light and resolved a potential impasse. This was the divergence instantiated, and concealed, at the moment of agreement between them. The agreement was over a means to knowledge: acknowledging relations. Yet what Pacific Islanders might take as prior to and underlying any exchange or interchange (what they took for granted), their European counterparts might well imagine as having to be put creatively in place (in their needing to be told). That difference is cosmological, a divergence in what people take relations to be. So what counts as relations? That's the question that makes relations something of an unknown actor. It is an interesting question, I think, for cosmo- or pluriversal politics. For in Euro-American thought, relations are what keeps the world and all our worlds comprehensible.

The world that the politics of research addresses is made demonstrable through epistemic relations: cause and effect, covariation, taxonomic hierarchies, evaluation, comparison. Relations are also a means for comprehending a world thought of as connections between persons, however fractious, and however we describe values, collectivities, institutions, alliances, intimacies, and so on. Pushed to it, an observer might observe, most scholars would take the ontological position that relational descriptions of the world are made possible by its inherently relational properties. Denial therefore becomes arresting. Thus when Stengers admonishes that divergence "is not relational[,] it is constitutive," "relational" here refers to domains of knowledge imagined as connected through exchanges or interchanges between practices or across boundaries. This is the world as it appears much of the time, so that, in bureaucratese, boundaries delimit different kinds of expert knowledge, and the need to create or produce those kinds of relations is constantly stressed. By contrast, divergence (Stengers says) is not "between" practices — a practice does not define itself in terms of its divergence from others, for each "produces itself." Insofar as divergence is constitutive, then, it allows no domaining; practices appearing juxtaposed to one another are not divisions of the same world, do not occupy the same environment. Her "ecology of practices" introduces a different kind of relation: "I use ecology, as a transversal category, to help define relational heterogeneity ... situations that relate heterogeneous protagonists." The supposition at which we have arrived, that the question as to what counts as knowledge is going to be intimately bound up with the question as to what counts as relations, becomes descriptively challenging.

A Debate about Knowledge

How might differences that are not divisions of the same social world appear? There are many examples in the anthropological corpus, and I take one from more than a decade ago, an ostensible debate about knowledge that afforded a context where restitution was literally taken as a (partial) reconstitution of social life.

When the UK Working Group on Human Remains in Museum Collections was preparing its report, it heard representations from both scientific experts and indigenous peoples, particular interest being generated by Australian Aboriginal activists. Its remit was to draw up guidelines to assist UK legislation for the tenure and repatriation of human remains — from skeletons to samples of tissue and hair — held in museums. Scientific or research interest in such materials was justified by the medical and evolutionary information the remains were capable of yielding, including their relationship to other collections. It was feared that knowledge would be lost with repatriation, knowledge that only experts could extract and relate to other sources of information. Statements from interested people in Australia, as well as in New Zealand and North America, were put side by side the research view. The Australian Aboriginal depositions talked about something quite different: kinship. This was fairly easy for an anthropologist to understand in relational terms. Whether it was a matter of Aborigines being related to their ancestors while the scientists were not, or of the relations being different, either way their relationships rendered the Aborigines (kinsfolk) different kinds of people from those with research interests (strangers). We may add that, to the Aborigines, there was nothing more they needed by way of information about themselves in order to press their claims; entitlement was proved through narrative, dance, and song. That kind of knowledge could only be effective when deployed by those with the right to use it: such effectiveness could not be transferred or enhanced through acquiring someone else's "knowledge." (You are not a descendant of someone else's ancestor.) Enhanced knowledge was of course the only card that the researchers held.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction. Pluriverse: Proposals for a World of Many Worlds / Mario Blaser and Marisol de la Cadena  1
1. Opening Up Relations / Marilyn Strathern  23
2. Spiderweb Anthropologies: Ecologies, Infrastructures, Entanglements / Alberto Corsín Jiménez  53
3. The Challenge of Ontological Politics / Isabelle Stengers  83
4. The Politics of Working Cosmologies Together While Keeping Them Separate / Helen Verran  112
5. Denaturalizing Nature / John Law and Marianne Lien  131
6. Humans and Terrans in the Gaia War / Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Deborah Danowski  172
Contributors  205
Index  209

What People are Saying About This

Arturo Escobar

A World of Many Worlds is one of the most original, forceful, and intellectually exciting statements by critical social theorists in a long time. Readers will be left with the distinct feeling that the epistemic earth has shaken under their feet. Not only that, they will feel better equipped to live in and contribute to building worlds otherwise.”

Donna J. Haraway

“It is not easy not to know in advance, not to make objects from one's knowledge as subjects. But a genuine heterogeneous pluriverse—i.e., reconstituted worlds from the ruins of extractive, extinctionist, anthropocenic, one-world modernity—requires opening to caring and knowing differently. This book teaches how not to propose one's own common sense, in order to effect uncommoning and so to be part of reconstituting worlds in which encounters can, in the words of the introduction, become 'the opportunity for the creation of concepts different from those every participating knower brought with them.’ No one becomes ‘the other,’ but also no one remains only who they were before engaging the difficult, urgent political ecology of practices to craft worlds powerful enough to defeat the Anthropocene.”

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