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Plural Bodies, Pluriversal Humans: Questioning the Ontology of 'Body' in Design (Submitted for Somatechnics, Forthcoming)

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Plural Bodies, Pluriversal Humans: Questioning the Ontology of
'Body' in Design
Dr. Ahmed Ansari
Industry Assistant Professor
Dept. of Technology, Culture & Society
New York University
August 2020
Abstract
All designing, as well as everything designed, is ontological: things shape and form humans, just as humans shape and
give form to them (Willis, 2006, Fry, 2013). However, there is no ontology of the human in the singular sense, but
plural, multiple ontologies, and therefore, no human, but only humans. This paper proposes the introduction of a
provocation to disturb notions of the ontologically designed body, and in fact, of how we think of what a ‘body’ is, by
turning to the insights offered up by a body of literature hitherto unexamined in design research: the ontological turn
in anthropology. Both turns demonstrate that the Anglo-Eurocentric conception of the ontologically singular body,
signified in terms of the “universality” of human biology, is in fact, only one of many ways of bodily being and relating
to the body; that matters of the body are locally situated and specific to communities and environments; and
therefore, what we mean by ‘the body’ is in fact also plural, multistable, and wrought with incommensurabilities
between human communities and cultures. The essay will end with a re-evaluation of ontological designing and
speculations on what design could do, through an engagement with examples of ‘other’ ontologies and definitions of
body.
***
"In this moment, it is not possible for me to know, dear reader, if the infinite jungle has started on me the process
that has taken many others that have ventured into these lands, to complete and irremediable insanity.
If this is the case, I can only apologize and ask for your understanding, for the display I witnessed in those
enchanted hours was such, that I find it impossible to describe in a language that allows others to understand its
beauty and splendor; all I know is that, like all those who have shed the thick veil that blinded them, when I came
back to my senses, I had become another man.”
Theodor Koch-Grünberg, 1907
One of the most beautifully rendered and searing contemporary critiques of the coloniality of power and Eurocentric
understandings of reality and the body comes from the Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s third film, El Abrazo de la
Serpiente, or Embrace of the Serpent. The premise of the movie lies in tracing two journeys across the Amazonian
rainforests over the life of the last shaman of the fictional Amazonian Cohiuano, as he makes his way with two
European explorers in search of the yakruna, a rare plant carefully cultivated by the tribe, used by its shamans to heal
the sick, and that Karamakate, as the last of his kind, is devoted to preserving. The movie, among other things,
repeatedly highlights the completely different relation to the natural world that the Cohiuano embody, a cosmology
that places themselves not at the heart, but as a part of only one node of a constellation of beings in the world
humans, animals, plants, ancestors, spirits, and gods - that is the Amazonian jungle.
Much of how this cosmology and cosmic society reveals itself is in the ways in which the Cohiuano understanding of
bodies and bodily experiences is articulated. The movie shows us this different relation to the body through the
juxtaposition of the two worlds, European-settler and indigenous-Cohiuano and their incommensurabilities,
expressed through the many conversations and altercations between explorer and guide where the inability of either
to grasp the world of the other is made clear, often resulting in a disbelief, and, at least in Karamakate’s view, in a
clear reversal of the settler-colonial analytic regarding indigenous peoples as ‘uncivilized’, ‘primitive’, and ‘barbaric’,
his dismissal of Europeans as insane’.
A theme that is explored several times is the externalization (or lack of) and augmentation or mediation of the body
through things. Early on in the film, as Karamakate and the other local guide Manduca, a native whom the explorer
Theo has saved from slavery on a rubber plantation, move their canoe over the middle of a fork in the river using logs
from the local terrain, we’re shown the hapless European explorer slowly and painfully carrying an assortment of
cases and racks filled with the accumulation of all the artifacts he has collected over four years of travel through the
Amazonian jungles: “Why do you whites love your things so much?” to which the reply comes “I have to keep them,
otherwise nobody will believe me. Leaving them is leaving everything.” Later on, holding a photograph of himself
that Theo has taken, Karamakate asks him if the photograph is him, or rather, his ‘shadow’ self, his chullachaqui, an
‘empty, hollow’ version of oneself that wanders the world, ‘lost in time without time’. In response to the European’s
inscription of himself and his world into things, Karamakate, refusing the exchange of a Cohiuano necklace that Theo
has been given for being allowed to show the photograph to his students in Europe, shows us how Cohiuano things
‘retreat’ into the body and become a part of it, taking them out of the circuit of giving and taking, of transaction and
exchange.
One could, as Maria D’Argenio argues, dismiss Embrace of the Serpent as merely another text on encounters of
cultural difference subject to the same problematic taking up of familiar Eurocentric colonial tropes around the
Americas, “romantic depictions that associate the tropical jungle with origin, transcendence and immensity.”
(D’Argenio, 2018: 135) However, as D’Argenio argues in her critical analysis of the movie, the movie, in taking
seriously the perspective of the indigenous and in granting them agency and power (the Europeans rely on the
knowledge and familiarity of the locals, after all), acts as a text that aims to disabuse audiences of both native
passivity, as well as the dismissal of Amerindian being-in-the world as irrational or primitive. It extends to its
audience, through its various ‘decolonial encounters’, the provocation that ‘difference’, which we are so often used to
thinking of as shallow - where different cultures, their languages, their worldviews, norms, values, practices etc. are
merely different ways of expressing the same kind of access to reality, including the realities of the body is actually
deep. Cultural or cosmological differences are indicative not of different expressions of the same reality, but of
different realities.
The Cohiuano of the movie see the body as protean and fluid, malleable and subject to transformation through the
ingestion of various plants, processes of metamorphosis that are also inextricable for them from the workings of the
jungle and their gods; the transformation of bodily states, like that from illness to health, cannot simply be reduced to
physiological transitions but is a transformation of the very ontology of the body itself. Things and living beings,
including the yakruna flower, help mediate in this cosmic polityof beings (Sahlins, 2017), being the means by which
the body transforms in order to visit the many nonhuman and metahuman realities, the realities of ancestors and
gods. It is also on these bodies that we see colonial violence inflicted and it’s residue and trauma felt: the rage of the
companion Manduca on coming upon the remains of a rubber plantation; fearful indigenous boys, barely teenagers,
lashed and whipped by a zealous Christian missionary who wants to beat their native language and beliefs out of
them; one of the last outcrops of the sacred yakruna planted in violation of tribal law being consumed by drunken
locals who have been ‘civilized’; an elder Karamakate, the last remaining Cohiuano, bemoaning the loss of his
knowledge, his memory, and identity with no one to pass it to, referring to himself as hollow and empty, having
become a chullachaqui, witnessing the extinction of a world.
***
The word ‘ontology’ has become part of the lexicon of design terms, being principally associated with its deployment
in the discourses around ‘ontological designing’. Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores in Understanding Computers
and Cognition (1986) first employed the term in developing the foundations for their argument against popular
assumptions in the ‘sciences of the artificial’ (Simon, 1968) around how computers ‘thought’ and what they could
therefore do (following the work of Hubert Dreyfus, who had fired the opening salvos in a critique of the
computational theory of mind and of traditional programs in artificial intelligence in his 1972 text, What Computers
Can’t Do). Winograd and Flores, like Dreyfus, argued for a ‘phenomenological’ approach to the design of computer
software, drawing primarily from the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Two things are of importance to note here. The
first is that, qua Heidegger, they argue for an approach that re-centers design around the principal idea that it is
bodies, the lived experience of bodies-in-the-world, and bodies immersed in the praxical use of things, that
technologists should pay attention to, rather than relying on Descartian notions of a separation between the minds of
human subjects, their bodies, which are mobilized by minds, and all the objects ‘out there’ in the ‘real’ world:
Practical understanding is more fundamental than detached theoretical understanding…we do not relate to things
primarily through having representations of them.” (Winograd & Flores, 1972: 33-34)
The possibilities for action and for use, in other words, are given to us by what our bodies in relation to our
environments open up to us, even though Winograd and Flores do not really highlight this implication of
Heideggerian thrownness and ready-to-handness as an analytic of the body in their text, preferring to concentrate on
the role that language and interpretation play in mediating reality. The other observation that becomes especially
important to the uptake of the word ‘ontology’ in design later, in the work of Tony Fry, Anne-Marie Willis, Cameron
Tonkinwise, and others who deploy it in the sense of all design as ontological design, is given towards the end of
Understanding Computers and Cognition, in that all designing is ontological design, if we understand the designing
of the material conditions of human existence as also designing the human lifeworld and the capacities for people to
recognize the possibilities for action and acting in the world:
The most important designing is ontological.' It constitutes an intervention in the background of our heritage,
growing out of our already-existent ways of being in the world, and deeply affecting the kinds of beings that we are.
In creating new artifacts, equipment, buildings, and organizational structures, it attempts to specify in advance
how and where breakdowns will show up in our everyday practices and in the tools we use, opening up new spaces
in which we can work and play. Ontologically oriented design is therefore necessarily both reflective and political,
looking backwards to the tradition that has formed us but also forwards to as-yet-uncreated transformations of our
lives together. Through the emergence of new tools, we come to a changing awareness of human nature and human
action, which in turn leads to new technological development. The designing process is part of this `dance' in which
our structure of possibilities is generated. (Winograd & Flores, 1972: 177)
It is this particular sense of ontological design: the hermeneutic that designed things, and therefore designers, design
the ontology of the human“we design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us (Willis, 2006, 2)
- that we then find most explicitly taken up in the work of Fry, Willis, Tonkinwise, and others. Crucial to the project of
sustainment that the latter espouse is that designers and design scholars, theorists and historians recognise that this
hermeneutic implies that the historical constitution of the ontology of design as an area of human activity inextricable
from industrialization, mass production and communication, capitalism, modernization, globalization and
development at all costs’, has resulted in design as a principally ‘defuturing’ domain of world-constitution, designing
and redesigning the world so that other, more sustainable possibilities of living in the world are designed out, as we
grow ever more dependent on technologies that undermine the ecology of the planet.
As Matt Kiem points out in his review of the literature of ontological design, it is the lack of acknowledgement by
design theorists and historians in (historically) situating design and designing as it is today within its (pro-capitalist)
politics and its ontological designing that has led to our present inability to reconceive of design as a ‘redirective
practice oriented towards creating new, alternative futures of sustainment:
In Fry and Willis’ terms, one of the limits of design theory has been a failure to conceptualise design as an agent of
ontological transformation and futural direction. In this sense, the meta-designing of design studies has had the
effect of undermining the ability of practitioners and theorists to conceptualise the significance of design beyond the
terms of a commoditized service within the capitalist mode of production. (Kiem, 2017: 32)
Also missing from present discourse and practice is the tracing of modern capitalism as the historical extension and
development of Anglo-European colonization and colonialism, and therefore, of the ‘defuturing’ that colonial logics,
practices, and designs did and do in erasing the lifeworlds of countless peoples across the world, i.e. “the peoples of
the South continue to dwell in ruins of their oikos” (Fry, 2017: 2). Redirective practices aimed at creating futures,
rather than defuturing, are also proposed as the measure by which Anglo-Eurocentric modernity and the coloniality
of power, named as such by decolonial scholars like Anibal Quijano, Walter Mignolo, and Arturo Escobar, can be
accounted for and challenged.
***
Part of what the ongoing ‘decolonial’ turn in design purports to do is to challenge the Anglo-Eurocentric conceptions
or ontologies that are deployed as a part of binary logics of the body, as well as the very normative use of the ‘human’
and the ‘body’ as singular and universal in design practice. Critiques of this universalization of the body in ‘human’-
centered design in design discourse have largely taken on two forms: critiques of the centering of the ‘male’ body and
of the construction of masculine body-ontologies and identities as the norm, and critiques of the ‘white’ body in
design, privileging Anglo-Eurocentric ways of thinking and experiencing white bodies not subject to the violence of
racialization. These two critiques often intersect and overlap in the discourse.
Arturo Escobar, in Designs for the Pluriverse, draws on the canons of Latin American decolonial scholarship and
thought to critique and challenge the ‘dualisms’ of Western logics, including the dualisms of mind and body, self and
other, subject and object, nature and culture etc, as well as to point out the patriarchy inhering in design praxis as
part of the Anglo-Eurocentric coloniality of power, for it was, citing Julieta Paredes, “on the bodies of women that
humanity learned how to dominate” (Escobar, 2017: Loc 525). Decolonisation here inherently also necessarily entails
de-patriarchization and the logics it relies on, logics that “value competition, war, hierarchies, power, growth,
procreation, the domination of others, and the appropriation of resources, combined with the rational justification
of it all in the name of truth.” (Escobar, 2017: Loc 554).
Recent feminist critiques of design have revolved, as was evident in the proceedings of the 2018 DRS proceedings of
the ‘Design, Research and Feminism(s)’ track, around traditional questions of how gendered bodies are made so by
and through design(s), to questions of labor, participation and inclusion, and care and connection, as well as an
acknowledgement of the intersections of race, class etc. in (re)producing patriarchal norms (Mazé, Forlano et al,
2018). Decolonial feminist critiques in design, however, have tried to destabilize the reliance on Anglo-European
ontologies of the body, including that of ‘gender’ itself, to try and move towards other languages and conceptions of
physiological difference and social structuration. Luiza Prado and Ece Canli, drawing on the Argentine and Yoruba
feminist philosophers Maria Lugones and Oyèrónk Oyěwùmi, point out that historically, knowledge production in
design has always relegated the culturally and historically-specific embodied experiences and ideas of women of color
to the margins while simultaneously reifying those of white women as the norm, that ‘gender’, both in a descriptive,
ontological sense, and as a performative ontology that creates logics of gendering and social structures based on those
logics, was and is not universal to all human societies and cultures:
European colonizers, presuming the universality of their own mode of social organization, described
Yorùbá society as if gender were, indeed, perceived along patriarchal, dimorphic lines…it is not enough to
shift our focus from a Northern- and Western-centric perspective to one that is Southern-centric. We must also
address the masculinist structures of power that govern knowledge production in design…the gendered and
racialized body is dominated by its Western counterparts (i.e. ‘whitestream’ neoliberal queers, women, feminists
etc.) through altruistic attempts to save the latter from monstrous’ and ‘uncivilized’ non-Western males.” (Schultz et
al, 2017, 96-97: 98)
Central to this critique of the racialized, unproblematized take-up of the concept of the gendered body, and especially
female bodies, in both mainstream feminist and early decolonial texts and discourses, is the move of not
essentializing gender and biology as a cultural or cosmological universal. Maria Lugones, in her critique of Anibal
Quijano’s defining of the coloniality of power, takes issue with the Anglo-Eurocentric framing of gender as necessarily
tied to biology and more specifically, sexual differences and the control of sexually bifurcated labor, between men and
women: Quijano’s framework restricts gender to the organization of sex, its resources and products and he seems
to make a presupposition as to who controls access and who becomes constituted as ‘resources’” (Lugones, 2016,
20), whereas biological sex is really also socially constructed and culturally specific, as she later discusses in her
observation how those who did not fall into neat categories of ‘male’ or ‘female’, ‘man’ or ‘woman’, were relegated to
the ‘dark’ side of the modern\colonial world system.
Lugones herself borrows from the accounts of the Nigerian-Yoruba sociologist Oyèrónk Oyěwùmi, who dissects and
shows us that the category of ‘woman’, and therefore the linked categories of ‘gender’, ‘sex’, ‘man’, and so forth, so
utterly crucial to modern discourses and politics on gender, sex, and sexuality, were categories alien to the Yoruba
before colonialism:
“The fundamental category “woman” which is foundational in Western gender discourses simply did not exist
in Yorùbaland prior to its sustained contact with the West. There was no such preexisting group characterized by
shared interests, desires, or social position. The cultural logic of Western social categories is based on an ideology of
biological determinism: the conception that biology provides the rationale for the organization of the social world.
Thus this cultural logic is actually a “bio-logic.” Social categories like “woman” are based on body-type and are
elaborated in relation to and in opposition to another category: man; the presence or absence of certain organs
determines social position. (Oyěwùmí, 1997: Loc 37)
For Oyěwùmi, gendered bodies as sexually dimorphic biological bodies were a colonial imposition, a form of
epistemic colonization of the Yoruba that resulted in the gradual erosion of how the latter thought of themselves and
were in relation to each other in Yoruba society. Her work, by showing that the modern conception of the gendered
body is the consequence of specific historical events, and that the body is culturally\cosmologically situated, works to
dethrone the deeply problematic assumption that biological difference as well as commonality are the universal
ground for all social reality: we all occupy the same physical world, we are all flesh and blood, we all think, sense, feel
and act on similar, commensurable grounds, and that biological difference is somehow essential, grounding other
forms of difference.
It is in this vein of scholarship focusing on cosmological situatedness and ontological difference, that this paper
orients itself in taking up of the issues of the ontologies of bodies: temporally-historically, spatially-regionally, and
cosmologically-ecologically situated bodies. I intend, however, to take on a different but complementary approach to
the question of ontological difference raised by decolonial feminist scholars above, by bringing a range of perspectives
and insights on cultural and cosmological difference from a domain that has been little mentioned in design
discourse: that of the ontological turn in cultural anthropology.
***
It is curious as to why, despite the decades long integration of ethnography as a principal research practice and the
gradual emergence of ‘design anthropology’ as a discipline (Wasson, 2000, 2016, Tunstall, 2013, Gunn et al, 2013),
that deeper engagements with questions of alterity and cultural or cosmological difference, so fundamental to the
field of cultural anthropology, have not yet transpired, let alone taking alterity in this sense as ‘deep’ and not ‘shallow’,
in the sense that cultural differences, among others, point to deeper, more fundamental ontological differences
differences in how humans make sense of themselves and their realities, with the implications that these lead to
different ways of acting and being - between different persons and communities. The ‘ontological turn’ in
anthropology, while the site of much debate in that community, has gotten surprisingly short shrift in design
discourse, even when designers talk about the politics of design in terms of alterity and difference. Escobar, for
instance, engages with the history of design anthropology, ethnography, and the anthropology of design (where
anthropologists study designers and designing), arguing for an attention to changing paradigms within the social
sciences like the ontological turn, along with political ecology, feminist perspectives, and political ontology, as one of
many ‘postdualist, neomaterialist’ moves aimed at overturning conventional Eurocentric epistemological binaries by
showing how ‘other’ cultures ‘world’ differently (Escobar, 2016). He does not, however, choose to engage more fully
with the literature around the ontological turn.
A more sustained engagement with the intention of bringing some of the insights of the turn to design practice can be
found in the work of Tau Ulv Lenskjold and Sissel Olander, who engage with using ontological difference in a more
productive manner to open up questions thought closed, such as what the ‘human’ is, and seek to bring the insights
that being open to other ontologies could be together with to reconceive and materialize design speculations and
experiments that highlight inter-species relations and entanglements (Lenskjold & Olander, 2016). They conceive of
design anthropology “as a practice that encompasses ontological engagements and material speculations in an
exploration of relations that hold the potential to reach beyond the human.” (Smith et al, 2016: Loc 5965). They very
usefully bring attention to some very important insights that the anthropologists working from within this turn -
Eduardo Vivieros de Castros, Thomas Kohn, Martin Holbraad, Philippe Descola and Morten Axel Pedersen -have
yielded: notably, that alterity or difference between cultures is the product of different realities, different ontologies
and different epistemologies and that ethnographic research can become a practice of uncovering and producing new
concepts and understandings of the world that are not foregrounded in discourse today, with the implication of
materializing these concepts in designing things that cause us to reflexively rethink our relation to our reality.
However, their concern is primarily with regards to figuring out how these insights could feed into applications in
design praxis, and they do not delve into much depth with regards to what the work done in the ontological turn has
to say about different kinds of humans. My own contribution in bringing the ontological turn from anthropology to
design in this piece will herefore focus on something that only gets cursory service in design scholarship: that of the
relation between the ontology of ‘human’, and that of ‘body’.
The ontological turn, as Holbraad and Pedersen claim in their overview of its contributions to anthropology
(Holbraad & Pedersen, 2017), revolves around a rather simple premise that nevertheless gives us a completely new
way to do anthropology and treat ethnographic data. What if, when the ethnographer finds, as in say, the fieldwork of
E.E Evans-Pritchard, that the nomadic Nuer of Sudan believe that the world houses both ancestral (human) and
natural (nonhuman) spirits that can enter into relations with humans and, in fact, hold sovereignty and agency of
their own (Evans-Pritchard, 1940), that instead of falling back on a theory of cultural relativism, and trying to explain
away this belief in spirits as merely another ascription of natural phenomenon to cultural beliefs in ‘magic’, or
showing how these seemingly ‘irrational’ beliefs are really veneers on things we all partake in, like Marcell Maus’
descriptions of how Maori thinking that gifts have hau (the spirit of the giver) is really just a way of thinking, in a
different way, the idea of indebtedness and reciprocity in circular exchanges in non-transactional economies; what if
we take the Nuer and the Maori at their word and ascribe, with all seriousness, that they mean what they say? In other
words,
How do I enable my ethnographic material to reveal itself to me by allowing it to dictate its own terms of
engagement, so to speak, guiding or compelling me to see things that I had not expected, or imagined, to be there?
Through what analytical techniques might such an ethnographic sensibility be cultivated? (Holbraad & Pedersen,
2017: 3)
The answer to this crucial methodological question in ethnographic research, perhaps doubly so if one aims, as in
decolonial knowledge production, to give voice and authority to the claims of others without speaking for them (and
the subsequent act of translation and appropriation into ones own vocabulary and conceptual world), lies in a simple
reversal of what the aim of ethnographic research is: instead of trying to accurately apprehend and communicate the
point of view of the cultural-cosmological other, one takes the other’s account seriously precisely to be able to see how
one is apprehended by it. Or, as the Australian anthropologist argues in his account of how Bolivian miners regard
money or capital as a fetish unique to the cosmology of modern capitalism and think of earned salaries as tainted and
corrupt, the purpose of ethnography should be less to understand the other than to see how that other exposes for us
the things that we take as foundational truths of our reality as really contingent and non-universal. (Taussig, 2010)
Therefore, what the ontological turn really argues for, against cultural relativism, is that we consider that differences
in the concepts that people use to make sense of themselves, the world, and the relation between the two, are not
merely linguistic, or even culturally specific variations on things all human beings hold in common. Rather,
cosmological differences, or differences in worldviews, are also ontological differences (and these in turn lead to
different epistemologies and different ways of constituting and making ‘knowledge’): when the cultural others of
anthropological accounts speak, they speak of entirely different worlds and realities other than our own. In other
words, the Nuer, Maori, Azande etc. the subjects of anthropological accounts, speak from within distinct and
complete systems of knowing and being that make complete and total sense to them, structure their being\becoming-
with and being\becoming-together (what we call community, society, culture, social relations etc.), but are simply
not, and not reducible to, say, scientific understandings of reality, or Anglo-Eurocentric conceptions of society,
culture, economy etc., even ‘logic’ or ‘rationality’ (see Winch, 1964, for an introduction to the anthropological debates
sparked by Evans-Pritchard’s studies of Azande witchcraft around other forms of rationality).
There is an argument, to be made, therefore, for both engendering an epistemic humility, as well as a critical
reflexivity, in design ethnography and for more nuanced anthropological understandings of ‘stakeholders’ in general,
particularly cultural (and I would propose, racial, gendered, and abled) others, based on the concept of what I term
ontological insufficiency, i.e., that the ontological foundations on which we rely on to interpret reality might be
contingent, specific, and situated, to the particular world to which we belong, and so therefore, are insufficient as
explanatory or descriptive tools for describing other worlds. This entails a number of things: that designers must
engender approaches to research that are humble, acknowledging the limits to their own ability to make sense of, and
therefore sufficiently intervene in, social phenomenon; that designers need to consider seriously the provocation that
the aim and intent of research is less to explain or even understand social phenomenon than to use the ethnographic
encounter as the basis for exposing and articulating the contours of one’s own explanatory concepts and tools, and
more generally, the systems within which one is designing (and recreating); and lastly, that taking ontological
difference as structural, foundational, i.e., as ‘deep’, rather than as merely different languages or views on the same
reality, opens up new horizons for design practice, fundamentally re-orienting it towards the constitution of new ways
of being in the world.
We will return to these three insights towards the end of this essay. What I would like to emphasize, however, is that
the ontological turn is fundamentally a school of thought that creates a paradigmatic shift in the way that it forces us
to rethink questions of what being human, personhood, and bodies, mean. To understand this, I mean to turn to two
principal scholars of the turn, the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Vivieros de Castro, and the French anthropologist
Phillipe Descola, both of whom problematize the cartesian binaries of nature and culture, and of mind and body.
Vivieros de Castro, in his various writings throughout his career, has dwelled on the subject of indigenous Amerindian
cosmologies and the particular kind of ‘perspectivism’ that pervades them according to which the world is inhabited
by different sorts of subjects or persons, human and non-human, which apprehend reality from distinct points of
view.” (Vivieros de Castro, 1998, 1) Of note for us is his observation around the particular way in which modern
Anglo-European thought thinks, creates, and then thinks through, the distinction between natural reality and cultural
reality. Western thought recognizes a unity in the category of ‘nature’, what he calls a pervasive ‘mononaturalism’
that natural reality is physical, unitarian, and continuous, made up of the same ‘stuff’, so to speak, and can therefore
be spoken of objectively, measured, and understood as such. This is opposed to the category of ‘culture’, given by
Anglo-European ‘multiculturalism’, or the idea that different people, and nonhuman beings more generally (of which,
at least in modernity, there are no ‘nonphysical, non-natural’ beings no demons or gods or spirits in the Western
secular worldview and science), have different inner worlds, or a panoply of subjectivities, meanings, desires, beliefs,
values etc. Extending this, we can say that Western mononaturalism and multiculturalism then build into a belief in
bodies as being reducible to the same substrates and understandable within the same ontologies or categories, and
moreso, bodily experiences as being reducible to physical, corporeal phenomenon, i.e. emotions and thoughts being
reducible to neural activity, hormonal fluctuations, or other physiological phenomenon.
In contrast to Anglo-European thought, Amazonian Amerindian perspectivism proposes the inverse: that the reality
that is shared between beings, whether human or nonhuman, is a shared and universal inner world, where all beings
see themselves as commonly ‘persons’:
“animals and spirits see themselves as humans: they perceive themselves as (or become) anthropomorphic beings
when they are in their own houses or villages and they experience their own habits and characteristics in the form
of culturethey see their food as human food (jaguars see blood as manioc beer, vultures see the maggots in
rotting meat as grilled fish, they see their bodily attributes (fur, feathers, claws, beaks) as body decorations or
cultural instruments, they see their social system as organised in the same way as human institutions are (with
chiefs, shamans, ceremonies, exogamous moieties etc.).” (ibid: 47-48)
Thus, while what is common to all living beings is the same social and cultural ontologies, i.e. a ‘monoculturalism’,
Vivieros de Castro notes that what beings do not hold in common is their physical, corporeal bodies, which are as
protean and malleable as minds and subjectivities are in Western cosmology. Hence the possibility of a belief in a
world that is populated by all kinds of bodies tangible and intangible in a cosmic plurality, qua Sahlins, of gods,
demons, spirits, humans, animals, plants, and even, in some cosmologies, inanimate nature and artificial objects and
things, that are nonetheless all alive and sentient since subjectivity and spirit or soul, not physical bodies, are
precisely what is common to all things.
To reframe this in a manner that reflexively then turns back on the Anglo-European conception of body, Amerindian
perspectivism forces us to ask the question: what then is a body? Within a multinaturalist perspective, the body is a
shell: it can change, take on new forms, oscillate between states, ingest or subsume other bodies, or couple with them,
to become hybrid or synthesize into something new, all while maintaining a subjective continuity with other bodies.
However, what also changes as beings with different bodies interact, or change bodies or bodily states, is perspective,
and it is worth paying attention to how Vivieros de Castro brings attention to the emphasis on bodily perspectivism,
as opposed to subjective interpretation, as the basis for how Amerindian cultures create and utilize ontological
categories:
A perspective is not a representation because representations are properties of mind, whereas a point of view is in
the body…what we are calling “body,” then, is not the specific physiology or characteristic anatomy of something
but an ensemble of ways or modes of being that constitutes a habitus, ethos, or ethogram. Lying between the formal
subjectivity of souls and the substantial materiality of organisms is a middle, axial plane that is the body qua
bundle of affects and capacities, and that is at the origin of perspectivism. Far from being the spiritual essentialism
of relativism, perspectivism is a corporeal mannerism.” (Vivieros de Castro, 2015: 71-72)
It is precisely in the soma, therefore, but a very fluid soma, that perspectives are housed, and so therefore, at least in
Amerindian multinaturalism, that perspectives can fundamentally changewhile interpretations are unreliable and
contingent, relying on an intersubjective grasping of the culturally different other, perspectives emerge from the
inhabitation of physically different bodies that nevertheless acknowledge other beings as equally persons. Moreover,
within these cosmologies, human bodies can turn and change into other kinds of bodies, undergo transformations, as
the ancestors of both humans and animals did in the accounts of the Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa: “When the
yarori animal ancestors were metamorphosed in the beginning of time, their skins became game and their images
became xapiri spirits. This is why the xapiri always consider animals to be ancestors, like them, and this is how they
refer to them! But though we eat animals, we also know they are ancestors turned game! They are inhabitants of
the forest as much as we are! They took the appearance of game and live in the forest simply because this is where
they became other. Yet in the beginning of time they were as human as we are. They are not different. Today we
give ourselves the name of “humans,” but we are the same as they are. This is why in their eyes we still belong to
their kind.” (Kopenawa, 2013: 61-62)
Phillipe Descola, in Beyond Nature and Culture, further develops these distinctions between different cosmologies
and their different conceptualizing of bodies and minds in a fourfold schema, one that operates between the axes of,
on the one hand, physical and subjective reality, and on the other, whether these are seen as similar and continuous
across a range of beings, or dissimilar and distinct. One can question whether the framework he employs and its
binaries, particularly the physical-subjective, body-mind one, is and should be treated as a universal - Descola argues
that this binary is not a Eurocentric one, but rather, the Eurocentric perspective on mind and body is but one
variation out of a possible four (Descola, 2013, 120). However, for our purposes, the point is not to use his schema as
prescriptive or descriptive truth, but rather, for its possibility, and so I will here treat it more as a range of possibilities
through which to (re)think body and mind rather than for its descriptive or analytic power.
In short, Descola lists four possible ways in which cultures can think of corporeality and subjectivity, each of which
then gives rise to distinct ways of being, relating to, understanding, and acting in the world: animism, which
corresponds to Vivieros de Castros descriptions of Amerindian cosmologies where beings share similar interiorities
but different physicalities; naturalism, its inverse, the Eurocentric cosmology whereby beings interpret and
understand themselves and the world differently but share and are reducible to a common physical nature; totemism,
where humans and nonhumans share both interiorities and exteriorities (Descola’s chief example of this is in
indigenous Australian cosmologies where communities of both human and nonhuman persons trace common descent
to an ancestral totem); and analogism, where both are dissimilar, leading to a universe of beings that do not make
sense of their worlds in any similar manner and do not share the same kinds of bodies but nevertheless learn to co-
exist:
“By taking multiple precautions, humans manage to cohabit with plants, deities, houses, grottoes, lakes, and a
whole mass of multifaceted neighbors within a closed universe in which each entity, anchored at a particular spot,
pursues the ends that destiny has fixed for it in accordance with the dispositions that it has been allotted. Each
entity is, willy-nilly, connected to every other entity by a tangle of correspondences over which it has no control.”
(ibid, 212) (here, the cited case is that of the pre-colonial Nahua of Mexico, but other examples include traditional
Confucian philosophy in China, and interestingly enough, Catholic Europe before the Enlightenment).
To give an example of the implications of these cosmological orientations and their respective ontologies of the body
and to show how Descola believes these different kinds of configurations make it possible for different kinds of beliefs
and acts to function, he notes in the chapter on analogism that societies like the Nahua, in believing that the body is
constituted precisely as a ‘multiplicity of components in unstable equilibrium’ (ibid, 212), also open the porous body
up to the possibilities of invasion by other entities in phenomenon like possession, and conceptualize cognitive and
affective changes in bodily states brought about by say, the consumption of local alcohol (pulque), by attributing them
to the invasion of the body by entities resident within the drink. In contrast, conceptions of bodily invasion or
possession by other bodies is incomprehensible to animist societies, where drinking and drunkenness are seen
instead to ‘free’ the subjective mind to roam unchained from its physical body and interact with other, like free-
floating subjectivities. While the animist universe is one of necessary interconnectedness and respectful
interdependency, the analogist universe is one of necessary contingency and cautious cohabitation, a world where the
destinies of radically different and incommensurable beings intersect by chance to yield infinite futural possibilities.
And so, with the insight that there could be different kinds of (cultural) bodies: porous bodies, hybrid bodies, divisible
bodies, and so on, Descola opens up for discussion the crucial question: what is a body?
***
So where does the ontological turn leave us with regards to design research and praxis? The first thing, as I had
mentioned before, is that it forces designers to account for the possibility of radical alterity, of encounters with
difference, in a far more conscious and explicit manner. This necessarily engenders a position whereby designers
learn to deal with research more generally from a position of epistemic humility, with the understanding that they are
speaking from a specific set of concepts that may not be up to the task of explaining why cultural and social others
believe, think, and act in the ways they do. Instead of ‘explaining away’ what we perceive to be inconsistencies in
ethnographic accounts, we should seek to understand, instead, what it is in our own logos that prevents us from
‘seeing’ things the way others do, including how we make sense of ourselves and our bodies.
But I would also argue that the reflexivity that such a stance entails created the encounter with difference precisely as
the site where one can use the latter to reframe and think anew ontologies, and therefore open up new ways to
materialize ontologies via designing. Both anthropology and design share a common concern with regards to objects
of difference, precisely because both disciplines are content not only with descriptions of the everyday, but with an
attention to the potential and the possible latent in the present, i.e. both are future-oriented: anthropology, because it
defines itself as a discipline that reinforces or challenges conceptions of the present by locating and naming things in
it; design, because it actively strives to speculate and imagine new, alternative futures and materialize them into
being. This is the basis for Lucy Suchman’s arguments that it becomes vital that both anthropologists and designers
therefore reflect deeply on the sites from where they articulate and name presents, and in doing so, bring forth
futures. In a paper arguing for a turn in anthropology away from being a discipline that is used primarily ‘for’
designing, i.e. in service to design, and for a new anthropology that situates itself in a critical concern with regards to
the ontologies that are important to designers , Suchman brings attention to the importance of the local situatedness
of both the anthropologist and designers in relation to their objects of study:
“Postcolonial scholarship has taught us that centers and margins are multiple and relative ,and futures can be
enacted only in what Tsing (2005) names ‘the sticky materiality of practical encounters...the makeshift links across
distance and difference that shape global futuresand ensure their uncertain status’…One contribution to the
project of relocating future-making, then, is an anthropology of those places presently enacted as centers of
innovation that illuminate the provincial contingencies and uncertainties of their own futures, as well as the
situated practices required to sustain their reproduction as central.” (Suchman, 2011: 2)
This ‘naming of the world’ that Suchman refers to, and its vital importance as a practice of naming to the imagining
and bringing forth of collective futures, is also vital to my articulation of the turn that design should go through. I
would supplement Suchman’s proposition that reflecting on our own situatedness and how that situatedness informs
our practices and recreates itself by pushing it even further with Holbraad’s observation that we treat difference not
merely as an emergent product of situatedness to come up with, as he points out, an approach that develops into
cultural relativism, but as something that should become the basis for a rethinking of the very ways in which we come
to constitute how we know something at all.
Moreover, as Ramia Maze observes, noting that the intersection between design and anthropology necessitates a
concern whereby the design researcher is not simply aiming to provide a descriptive account, but to actively envision
how the future might look differently through their understanding of the present,
“The future is by no means empty it will be occupied by built environments, infrastructures and things that we
have designed. It will bear the consequences of our histories, structures, policies and lifestyles, which we daily
(re)produce by habit or with intent in design. The future is already loaded with our fantasies, aspirations and fears,
persuasively designed visions and cultural imaginaries.” (Maze, 2016: 37)
To study the present is to also ask questions of the future: what is possible? And, what can change? In this sense of the
future as alternative and potential possibilities, she poses that the challenge for design anthropology, which has long
been dominated by the narrow perspectivism of Anglo-Eurocentrism, lies in resisting “the entanglement of design
and design anthropology in predictive-empirical and techno-deterministic perspectives on futurity”, to embrace,
instead philosophical and political questions”, arguing for a further turn “to post-structuralist, participatory and
critical futures studies, feminist and post-colonial discussions of temporal politics.” (ibid: 51) I would ratify this
assessment and make the argument for an approach to design anthropology that takes cultural and cosmological
difference, and the possibility of plural, radically different, ontologies of the body, as a starting point from which to
think of plural and pluriversal body-technicities. What new futures for bodies could we design if we could rethink,
reflect on, speculate on, bodies, bodily being in the world, and bodies co-existing, anew?
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Book
Full-text available
A major contribution to the field, this ground-breaking book explores design anthropology's focus on futures and future-making. Examining what design anthropology is and what it is becoming, the authors push the frontiers of the discipline and reveal both the challenges for and the potential of this rapidly growing transdisciplinary field. Divided into four sections – Ethnographies of the Possible, Interventionist Speculation, Collaborative Formation of Issues, and Engaging Things – the book develops readers' understanding of the central theoretical and methodological aspects of future knowledge production in design anthropology. Bringing together renowned scholars such as George Marcus and Alison Clarke with young experimental design anthropologists from countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Brazil, the UK, and the United States, the sixteen chapters offer an unparalleled breadth of theoretical reflections and rich empirical case studies. About Design Anthropological Futures Written by those at the forefront of the field, Design Anthropological Futures is destined to become a defining text for this growing discipline. A unique resource for students, scholars, and practitioners in design anthropology, design, architecture, material culture studies, and related fields. Table of Contents 1. Introduction: Design Anthropological Futures Mette Gislev Kjaersgaard (University of Southern Denmark, Denmark), Joachim Halse (Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Denmark), Rachel Charlotte Smith (Aarhus University, Denmark), Kasper Tang Vangkilde (Aarhus University, Denmark), Thomas Binder (Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Denmark), and Ton Otto (Aarhus University, Denmark) Section I: Ethnographies of the Possible 2. Cultures of the Future: Emergence and Intervention in Design Anthropology Rachel Charlotte Smith (Aarhus University, Denmark) and Ton Otto (Aarhus University, Denmark) 3. Design and the Future: Temporal Politics of 'Making a Difference' Ramia Mazé (Konstfak University College of Arts, Crafts and Design, Sweden and KTH Royal Institute of Technology Stockholm, Sweden) 4. Different Presents in the Making Mike Anusas (University of Strathclyde, UK) and Rachel Harkness (University of Aberdeen, UK) 5. The New Design Ethnographers 1968-1974: Towards a Critical Historiography of Design Anthropology Alison J. Clarke, University of Applied Arts, Vienna, Austria Section II: Interventionist Speculations 6. Design Interventions as a Form of Inquiry Joachim Halse (Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Denmark) and Laura Boffi (Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, Denmark) 7. Jostling Ethnography Between Design and Participatory Art Practices and the Collaborative Relations it Engenders George E. Marcus (University of California, Irvine, USA) 8. Conversation Dispositifs: Towards a Transdisciplinary Design Anthropological Approach Zoy Anastassakis (University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) and Barbara Szaniecki (State University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) 9. The Irony of Drones for Foraging: Exploring the Work of Speculative Interventions Carl DiSalvo (Georgia Institute of Technology, USA) Section III: Collaborative Formations of Issues 10. Para-Ethnography 2.0: An Experiment in Design Anthropological Collaboration Kasper Tang Vangkilde (Aarhus University, Denmark) and Morten Hulvej Rod (University of Southern Denmark, Denmark) 11. Design Anthropology On the Fly: Performative Spontaneity in Commercial Ethnographic Research Brendon Clark (Interactive Institute Stockholm, Sweden) and Melissa L. Caldwell (University of California, Santa Cruz, USA) 12. Politics of Inviting: Co-Articulations of Issues in Designerly Public Engagement Kristina Lindström (Umeå University, Sweden) and Åsa Ståhl (Umeå University, Sweden) 13. Collaboratively Cleaning, Archiving and Curating the Heritage of the Future Adam Drazin, Robert Knowles, Isabel Bredenbroeker, Anais Bloch, (University College London, UK) Section IV: Engaging Things 14. Design Anthropological Frictions – Mundane Practices meet Speculative Critique Mette Kjærsgaard (University of Southern Denmark, Denmark) and Laurens Boer (University of Southern Denmark, Denmark) 15. Things as Co-ethnographers: Implications of a Thing Perspective for Design and Anthropology Elisa Giaccardi (Delft University of Technology, Netherlands), Chris Speed (University of Edinburgh, UK), Nazli Cila (Applied University of Amsterdam, Netherlands) and Melissa L. Caldwell (University of California, Santa Cruz, USA) 16. Design Anthropology as Ontological Exploration and Inter-Species Engagement Tau Ulv Lenskjold (Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Denmark) and Sissel Olander (Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Denmark) 17. The Things We Do: Encountering the Possible Thomas Binder (Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Denmark)
Book
A new and often controversial theoretical orientation that resonates strongly with wider developments in contemporary philosophy and social theory, the so-called 'ontological turn' is receiving a great deal of attention in anthropology and cognate disciplines at present. This book provides the first anthropological exposition of this recent intellectual development. It traces the roots of the ontological turn in the history of anthropology and elucidates its emergence as a distinct theoretical orientation over the past few decades, showing how it has emerged in the work of Roy Wagner, Marilyn Strathern and Viveiros de Castro, as well a number of younger scholars. Distinguishing this trajectory of thinking from related attempts to put questions of ontology at the heart of anthropological research, the book articulates critically the key methodological and theoretical tenets of the ontological turn, its prime epistemological and political implications, and locates it in the broader intellectual landscape of contemporary social theory. Offers the first overview of the ontological turn in anthropology. Provides an intellectual genealogy of the traffic in ideas between the three main national anthropological traditions over the last 3-4 decades. Engages with most important critiques made of the ontological turn, and how one might respond to them. Sketches the framework for future theoretical and methodological developments.
Article
This article analyses the politics and aesthetics of the depiction of the encounter between the West and the non-West in Ciro Guerra’s film El abrazo de la serpiente, examining how the film deconstructs colonialist imagery and discourses, and engages with the notion and cinematic representation of indigeneity. Through an interdisciplinary approach, the article identifies and discusses the strategies employed in the film to decolonise the category of the ‘Indian’: challenging the colonial linguistic of domination and undermining the tropes of imperialist representations; staging and re-enacting colonial encounters; and subverting the power relations embedded in colonialist ethnography. The article argues that El abrazo de la serpiente acts as an instrument of political and cultural inquiry into the past and the present, and that it both proposes and enacts interculturalidad and intercultural dialogue as a cinematic approach to native culture. While the notion of indigeneity at play is not unproblematic, the film succeeds in foregrounding Indigenous points of view and ‘points of hearing’, challenging a Eurocentric politics of recognition and evolutionary epistemology in favour of a ‘coevalness’ of the native.
Book
The iconoclastic Brazilian anthropologist and theoretician Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, well known in his discipline for helping initiate its "ontological turn," offers a vision of anthropology as "the practice of the permanent decolonization of thought." After showing that Amazonian and other Amerindian groups inhabit a radically different conceptual universe than ours-in which nature and culture, human and nonhuman, subject and object are conceived in terms that reverse our own-he presents the case for anthropology as the study of such "other" metaphysical schemes, and as the corresponding critique of the concepts imposed on them by the human sciences. Along the way, he spells out the consequences of this anthropology for thinking in general via a major reassessment of the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, arguments for the continued relevance of Deleuze and Guattari, dialogues with the work of Philippe Descola, Bruno Latour, and Marilyn Strathern, and inventive treatments of problems of ontology, translation, and transformation. Bold, unexpected, and profound, Cannibal Metaphysics is one of the chief works marking anthropology's current return to the theoretical center stage.
Chapter
It’s difficult to know what the future holds. The future is by no means empty – it will be occupied by built environments, infrastructures and things that we have designed. It will bear the consequences of our histories, structures, policies and lifestyles, which we daily (re)produce by habit or with intent in design. The future is already loaded with our fantasies, aspirations and fears, by persuasively designed visions and cultural imaginaries. Designed things, lifestyles and imaginaries, or ‘stuff-image-skill’, endure, proliferate and occupy the future. By (re)producing things, lifestyles and imaginaries, design takes part in giving form to what will be in the future. Discussions of the future may raise questions such as what can be known about the future and how. In design research, such epistemological questioning can become preoccupied with the nature and scope of knowledge and recourse to more established ways of relating to such questions from the natural and social sciences. However, futurity is more than an epistemological question. Contemporary philosopher Elizabeth Grosz, for example, poses a potential of futurity that is given precisely by the ontological assumption that the future is different. It is, categorically, not the past nor the present. From this perspective, futurity can be a conceptual modality through which it is possible to ask: How can things be different? The future as different is a political as well as a philosophical question. That things can be different also raises political questions about what can, or should, change and what difference that makes. As design takes part in giving form to the future, to possible or preferred futures, we need more and critical ways of relating to issues of futurity. In this chapter, I reflect upon issues of futurity for design. I briefly characterize ‘concept’, ‘critical’ and ‘persuasive’ design practices, because they explicitly take on the future by formulating visions, speculating on alternatives and steering toward particular ideals. While important in my own work as a practice-based design researcher, these practices expose issues that I problematize here in terms of futurity. I have (re)positioned my own work over the years, and, increasingly, in relation to futures studies and philosophies of time as illustrated here through a description of the project ‘Switch! Energy Futures’. Suggesting that futurity can be a philosophical and political modality for ‘seeing and acting’ differently in and through design, I frame two proposals to invite further work in design research and design anthropology.
Chapter
I am interested in the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality in a way that enables me to understand the indifference that men, but, more importantly to our struggles, men who have been racialized as inferior, exhibit to the systematic violences inflicted upon women of color. I want to understand the construction of this indifference so as to make it unavoidably recognizable by those claiming to be involved in liberatory struggles. This indifference is insidious since it places tremendous barriers in the path of the struggles of women of color for our own freedom, integrity, and wellbeing and in the path of the correlative struggles towards communal integrity. The latter is crucial for communal struggles towards liberation, since it is their backbone. The indifference is found both at the level of everyday living and at the level of theorizing of both oppression and liberation. The indifference seems to me not just one of not seeing the violence because of the categorial separation of race, gender, class, and sexuality. That is, it does not seem to be only a question of epistemological blinding through categorial separation.