Fotograf Magazine

Epilogue: The Spectrum of Possibilities

Philippe Descola

Despite the alternatives offered, one after another, by a variety of different structural approaches, ever since its inception anthropology has been more or less overtly fascinated by the robust simplicity of etiological explanations. There are many ways of accounting in this way for a particular institution: by means of appealing, in the manner of nineteenth-century evolutionism, to its supposed genesis or to earlier circumstances or external influences, as do contemporary anthropologists discovering the somewhat outworn virtues of a purely descriptive history. Alternatively, one can try to discover the adaptive function that that institution would fulfill in a given environment or to regard it as an expression of archaic influences or presumed archetypes. All such approaches are no doubt reassuring for minds in quest of certainties, but they do not really make it possible to answer the only question that matters: namely why is a particular social fact, belief, or custom present in one place but not in another? A multitude of reasons have been suggested to explain sacrifice, cannibalism, and ancestor worship, including some provided by those who practice such things, but we are no closer to a better understanding of the motives that led some to adopt them but others not to, let alone how it is that in one place cannibalism cohabits with sacrifice or ancestor worship but in another place it excludes them. Why is there no totemic royalty? Why are nonhumans not represented in parliaments on the grounds of their particular qualities? Why does an Inca or a Pharaoh not eat his enemies? Why do Amerindian shamans not make sacrifices? Those are pointless questions, you may say, and do not deserve serious attention. Yet they are the questions that matter when one tries to account for differences in the ways of inhabiting the world and giving it meaning. We should not be striving to reduce the diversity of established practices by assigning to them unverifiable origins, functions of a general nature that is not very illuminating, or hypothetical biological or subconscious bases. Rather, we should ask ourselves what it is that renders these practices compatible or not compatible with one another, for that is the first stage for an inquiry into the rules that govern the syntax of these practices and their organization into systems. The structural typologies sketched in earlier in this book were prompted by precisely that ambition. For one cannot hope to reveal the principles according to which certain elements are combined unless one has first defined the elements that they affect and has defined them sufficiently precisely for the table of those elements to remain accessible to further additions. If anthropology were ever to discover a source of inspiration in a better-established science, it should turn to chemistry rather than to physics or biology, although the latter are often invoked as models for the anthropological discipline even if the relationship to them is never developed beyond a metaphorical level. It is true that humans are capable of producing new combinations and of thereby modifying the properties of whatever is combined, but whatever the apostles of creative action may claim, except in myth or fiction it is not possible for them to create functional hybrids out of components that possess irreconcilable properties.

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#28 cultura / natura