Accepted Paper:

When the non-human speaks back: language in animist ontologies  


Jan David Hauck (London School of Economics)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores language in animist collectives. Different modes of interspecies communication and verbal practices that resist symbolic/representational analyses suggest language has profoundly different ontological properties from those attributed to it in naturalist ontologies.

Paper long abstract:

Language has played a central role in the constitution of the modern, naturalist ontology, not only as what sets humans against non-humans (Deacon 1997), but also facilitating the radical separation of nature and society (Latour 1993) in the first place. Here it is constructed as autonomous medium (Locke's "Third Province") that would guarantee accurate scientific and political representability and provide a model for modern notions of culture (Bauman & Briggs 2003). By contrast, ethnographies of animist collectives—aside from figuring prominently in recent debates about alternative ontologies (Descola 2013; Viveiros de Castro 1998)—have provided rich evidence of verbal practices that resist the privileging of the symbolic, representational, and referential properties of language as well as multiple modes of communication between humans and non-humans (Sherzer & Urban 1986; Townsley 1993; Descola 1996; Kohn 2013). Based on ethnographic material from the indigenous Americas and particularly my own fieldwork with the Aché hunter-gatherers from Paraguay, I will discuss how to understand the status of language in animist ontology. If non-symbolic and non-representational functions of language are emphasized in hunting and ritual practices, what bearing does that have on local understandings of language in general? And how do such understandings tie up with what is known about the distribution of nature/culture, interiority/exteriority in animism? I analyze myths of human-animal encounters, traditional ritual and hunting practices, and interactions between humans and animals that I have recorded on hunting treks and in an Aché community.

Panel P071
Legacies and futures of animism in the anthropocene