U Views Multinaturalism: Ecocritical Perspectives from the South
The environmental movement has been around for several decades, but perhaps only since the 1990s have the humanities, specifically literature, come to engage seriously with ecological concerns. The rise of “ecocriticism” as is known in North American circles, and “green studies” as it is known in Britain and Europe, coincides, not randomly, some have noted, with the debacle of communism throughout Europe, which eroded political systems and critical apparatuses narrowly built around historical materialism. The British critic Jonathan Bate, for example, has suggested that, at this point, many Marxist critics made the move “from red to green” (Romantic Ecology 8-9). This “eco-turn” was long overdue. In 1996, the American literary scholar Cheryll Glotfelty remarked on the shocking indifference of literary studies to the “most pressing contemporary issue of all, namely, the global environmental crisis” and called for a new critical practice acknowledging that “literature does not float above the material world in some aesthetic ether, but, rather, plays a part in an immensely complex global system, in which energy, matter, and ideas interact” (xv, xix, emphasis in the original). In the introduction to the Green Studies Reader (2000), the British critic Laurence Coupe went further, decrying the outright denial of nature brought about by literary theory:
In seeking to avoid naïvety, it [theory] has committed what might be called ‘the semiotic fallacy.’ In other words, it has assumed that because mountains and waters are human at the point of delivery, they exist only as signified within human culture. Thus they have no intrinsic merit, no value and no rights. One function of green studies must be to resist this disastrous error: it belongs, whatever the claims of the theorist to reject the legacy of western ‘Man,’ to ‘the arrogance of humanism (21).
That same year, Bate, more promisingly, noted how “works of art can themselves be imaginary states of nature, imaginary ideal ecosystems, and by reading them, by inhabiting them, we can start to imagine what it might be like to live differently upon the earth” (The Song of the Earth 250-51). The enterprise to bring about a new ecological consciousness in the manner Bate, Glotfelty, Coupe and many other ecocritics are calling for is a challenging one, but one that, I would claim, the University, as a community of diverse experts, readers, and thinkers, can and must be engaged in. The humanities overall, and more specifically literary studies and comparative literature, have much to contribute to the task of generating new ways of thinking about the environment and our role within it, ways that can have a deep and lasting impact for the benefit of the planet.
Turning to my own geographic area of expertise, Latin America, and more specifically Brazil, in this short piece I would like to discuss briefly how the work of the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro may be brought into productive dialogue with the work of literary ecocritics, providing a theoretical standpoint from which to rethink the ecological question in terms of our interconnectedness with(in) the environment.
In his essay “Perspectivismo e multinaturalismo na América indígena,” (Perspectivism and Multinaturalism in Indigenous America)1 Viveiros de Castro explores two concepts which he sees as characteristic of Amerindian thought—the first “perspectivism”: “[the] conception shared by many peoples of the continent, according to which the world is inhabited by many different species of subjects or persons, human and non-human, who apprehend it from different points of view” (347). “Multinaturalism,” a term he coined in opposition to the western idea of multiculturalism, is a corollary of “perspectivism,” and it implies that, whereas in the West there is the supposition of a unity of nature and a multiplicity of cultures, multinaturalism assumes instead a unity of spirit and a diversity of bodies. The notion of “perspectivism” came to Viveiros de Castro from the many references in Amazon ethnography to an indigenous concept whereby “the way in which human beings see animals and other subjectivities that populate the universe — gods, spirits, the dead, inhabitants of other cosmic levels, plants, meteorological phenomena, geographic accidents, objects, and artifacts — is profoundly different from the way those beings see humans and how they see themselves” (350). The distinction lies in the fact that, under normal conditions, humans see themselves as human and animals as animals. Seeing spirits is a sign that conditions are not normal. Predatory animals and spirits, in turn, see humans as prey animals, and prey animals see humans as spirits or as predatory animals.
Thus, animals and spirits become anthropomorphic when they are in their own villages, and see their habits as culture—their food is human food: jaguars see blood as fermented cauim, dead people see crickets as fish, vultures see the maggots in rotten meat as grilled fish (350). Likewise, bodily attributes become adornments or cultural instruments, their social systems become organized like human institutions (chiefs, shamans, rites, marriage rules, etc.). Animals, in a way, are people, or see themselves as people. The bodies specific to each species are a kind of covering, packaging or clothing that hides a human form only visible to members of the same species or transspecies beings such as shamans. Such internal form is “the spirit of the animal”: “an intentionality or subjectivity which is identical to a human consciousness” (351). In other words, there is an anthropomorphic spiritual essence and variable bodily appearances, or a fixed spirit and “garments” that can be changed or disposed of. Shamanistic transformation, spirits and dead people assuming animal forms would be examples of these metamorphoses in what Viveiros de Castro calls “a highly transformational world” (351).
All these transformations that characterize Amerindian thought point to what Lévi-Strauss termed an “original state of indifferentiation” portrayed in myth. As Viveiros de Castro goes on to argue following Strauss, in mythical narratives, human and non-human attributes become mixed and all characters are shamans. This generates what he calls “a state of being where bodies and names and souls and others interpenetrate each other, immersed in the same pre-subjective and pre-objective milieu” (355). This process of exchanging perspectives has implications for the way we view society and, indeed, the cosmos: “If Western ‘multiculturalism’ is relativism as public policy, Amerindian shamanic perspectivism is multinaturalism as cosmic policy” (358).
Although Viveiros de Castro does not specifically link his ideas on perspectivism and multinaturalism to current debates on ecology and literature, the terms some ecocritics employ suggest an interesting connection. Take for instance the views of the Canadian literary critic Jonathan Butler in his “Poetry of the Planet, by the Planet, and for the Planet: A Global Manifesto for Being Here.” Butler argues that poetry can call attention to ecological concerns, but not exactly in the way that other forms of writing and communication such as film, non-fiction writing, and journalism have, which he claims have been somewhat ineffectual. (And this is, perhaps, where the connection with the humanities, and their role in promoting different forms of reading, becomes crucial.)
Following the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s Violence (2008), Butler argues that the problem lies in the way that language has been used. Reliance on the traditional (Cartesian) separation between subject and object has allowed, and more importantly masked, such abuse of nature. In other words, it is this linguistic and epistemological divide which leads humans to see themselves as essentially different and separate from nature. Butler identifies eco-writing that focuses on forms of being that dispense with this separation, emphasizing instead transformation and transmutation. For instance, in Butler’s analysis of the Scottish poet John Burnside, all processes in the world are interconnected, in a constant state of transformation and flux: “The power of Burnside’s poetry at its best is to achieve this twofold aim: to point towards the interconnectedness of matter and thought, while also disavowing any self-arrogating epistemological claim to the world” (53).
All of these notions, I would argue, are compatible with Viveiros de Castro’s perspectivism and multinaturalism, wherein there is not a single nature apprehended by a privileged human perspective, but rather a multiplicity of perspectives and natures. Likewise, the focus on transformation and transmutation is present in both, and although this does not abolish the hierarchies — animals see us as animals and themselves as human — it becomes instead a question of positionality, a permanent flux of outward appearance with the underlying spirit remaining constant. A reading practice based on this perspective would point to the many instances in creative works that emphasize transformation, non-human elements assuming human attitudes, and the primordial state of indifferentiation between human and non-human that this entails. Through this ecocritical practice, texts no longer constitute mere symbols manipulated from an anthropocentric perspective. Read through the lens of a different Amerindian epistemological attitude, they become instead an argument for planetary consciousness. And the University, specifically the humanities, have a major role to play here because, as Bate reminds us, questions such as “what ethical obligations we might have to future generations, to other species, or indeed to the planet itself, are ‘humanities’ questions, only answerable from within the framework of disciplines that are attentive to language, history, and philosophy” (Public Value 3).
Bate, Jonathan. Editor. Introduction. Public Value of the Humanities. Huntingdon, Great Britain: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2011. 1-13. Print.
---. Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition. London: Routledge, 1991. Print.
---. The Song of the Earth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2000. Print.
Butler, Jonathan. "Poetry of the Planet, by the Planet, and for the Planet: A Global Manifesto for Being Here." Tamkang Review 41.2 (2011): 41-61.
Castro, Eduardo Batalha Viveiros de. “Perspectivismo e multinanturalismo.” A inconstância da alma selvagem e outros ensaios. São Paulo: Cosac & Naify, 2002. 347-99. Print.
Coupe, Laurence. General Introduction. The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism. London: Routledge, 2000. 1-8. Print.
Glotfelty, Cheryll. “Introduction: Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis.” The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Ed. by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. London: U of Georgia P, 1996. xv-xxxvii. Print.
Odile Cisneros teaches in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies and the Program in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta.
1. Although there is a piece discussing similar ideas in English, “Exchanging Perspectives: The Transformation of Objects into Subjects in Amerindian Ontologies” published in 2004 as part of the “Symposium: Talking Peace with Gods,” Part 1, Common Knowledge 10:3 (2004), 463-84, I prefer to quote from the Portuguese version published in A inconstância da alma selvagem e outros ensaios (2002). All translations are mine.