Author Topic: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé  (Read 5994 times)

Offline Huon Wardle

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OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« on: March 08, 2017, 09:16:40 AM »
Welcome to the new home for OAC seminars.

From the 15th March Marcio Goldman will be joining us to discuss his paper 'The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé'.

The seminar will initially run for a week from the 15th - 29th of March 2017.

In advance of the seminar we encourage readers to explore the paper:

Click here to READ ONLINE  - Click here to DOWNLOAD


HOW OAC SEMINARS WORK:
OAC Seminars take place online but with the process of question and response spread out over a fortnight. Once you have had time to read the paper you are invited to comment and discuss during the two week time frame. The seminar takes places in the form of an online conversation with replies posted in the thread below. In some cases we will also open a discussion on Academia.edu as well where members can also join the dialogue.
« Last Edit: March 16, 2017, 10:16:57 AM by Avi »

Offline Huon Wardle

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First, Marcio, many thanks for joining us to answer questions and respond to comments on this wonderfully well described and considered ethnography of an event of possession in a Candomblé ceremony. We have our own slightly chaotic and comparably unpredictable situation underway here at the OAC which involves moving operations to a new website which is still partly under construction. I am putting my questions early since I am travelling to a part of rural England tomorrow where there may be no internet available. All of which can perhaps offer a context and mixed metaphor for some of the anthropological ideas I want to put in play here on reading your paper; and I apologise because this summarising comment cannot do justice to the complexity and subtlety of the paper itself:

You begin by narrating a situation that must be familiar to many anthropologists in a field situation — a greater or lesser sense of frustration attending a ritual or ritualised event whose formal sequence could be achieved quickly enough: so why not just get on with it? Why the need for disruptive arguments that only string things out in the boiling heat? I could picture this situation very well; I have ‘been there’ many times both in a quotidian, and in Geertz’s more pompous, sense. As you point out, part of this ennui comes from prior intellectual and perceptual commitments. The dominant approaches in anthropology toward understanding spirit possession have seen it either as a marker or moment of social structural process—the structural functionalism of I.M. Lewis— or in terms of the etiology of mental illness— Bourguignon and others. In the first account possession is simply a signifier in a system that could as well use some other marker; in the latter approach possession is a natural pathology refigured by a particular culture. But, as you say, there is a deeper-rooted epistemological issue involved and it concerns how ‘politics' is defined. You put it down to the Greeks, but it is certainly the liberal Enlightenment view, that politics is a matter for rational decision by individual humans. Gods and other non-humans should have no say; separate the powers or risk a dangerous (irrational) mishmash. Certainly, there can be moments of ceremonial as part of politics, with deities and superhuman beings appearing at the fringes giving politics an artistic quality; just don’t mix things up. Contrarily, there are a variety of challenges to this expectation at present whether these are coming from the claims of Gaia, multinational corporate persons, computer viruses, — a whole range of non-humans messing with human politics. As Latour points out it becomes impossible to hold the line.



However, when we see politics being conducted in the Candomblé temple with humans and non-human deities, mixing what is supposed to be separate according to the post-eniightenment set-up, then our intuitive reaction may be that this is frustrating what ought to be the real politics of everyday life and its true representatives. Now, at this point the reader may cast their mind back to the short comment, — apparently an aside made at the conference but one you chose to leave in the paper here, — where you say that 'we are facing right now a coup d’état in Brazil and that we are trying to resist to it’. This is a statement about contemporary ‘politics’ at the head of a paper whose primary aim is to critique anthropologists' political expectations. So, going back to Geertz should we expect to read the paper itself both as a description and analysis in its own right and also as an allegory about this other object — the Brazilian politics of coup d'etat that appears only briefly and off-stage? What are the wider lessons for the meaning of ‘politics’ which seems, globally, to have acquired qualities of strangeness for people previously associated with the anthropologist who mumbles a ‘we don’t know’ in the face of their ethnographic situation?
« Last Edit: March 14, 2017, 01:27:04 PM by Huon Wardle »

Offline Justin Shaffner

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Hi Marcio,

Thanks for both the provocative paper, and opportunity to engage you with it!

Quote
Consequently, our problem is how to include the reality defined by the people with whom we live within the relationships we describe and analyze, without sneakily negating the reality of that reality.

I'm curious as to what exactly you mean by 'reality' here, both in this particular ethnographic case but also for ethnographic description more generally. Are you referring to something along the lines of Roy Wagner's conception of the symbolic 'innate' or 'given' or something else entirely?

I'm also curious about what you mean by 'our'. It seems that the politics here is about more than just overturning the Western conception of the 'innate' or 'given' underlying anthropological description, but also that which constitutes the ground of liberal democracy and the modern state. Is this correct?

Many thanks in advance,
Justin

Offline John McCreery

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Marco,

Following up on what Huon and Justin have said, if the premise of the paper is that conventional Western views of politics as involving only humans is a problem, why not change it? Or, alternatively, look for ways to interpret what you have experienced that bracket that assumption and put it aside? 

The latter is the approach I used in a paper called "Negotiating with Demons: The Uses of Magical Language," published in american ethnologist in 1995. Following Irving Goffman's advice in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, I wrote of the Daoist healer performing an exorcism in Taiwan that I would treat him as neither actor, preacher or charlatan but simply accord him the right to be be seen as someone going seriously about what he seemed to be doing, attempting to solve a problem in the best way he knew how, by magic. That made it possible to analyze his words in terms of several then current theories of magical language, as performative utterance, dramatic performance, and rhetorical use of formality to assert authority, without debating whether or not the reality of the god and ghosts involved in the ritual. In retrospect, I see myself doing what Confucius recommends in the Analects, when he says that a gentleman participates in the rites sincerely, as if the spirits are there, but does not concern himself with whether or not they actually exist.

Offline Avi

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Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Reply #4 on: March 17, 2017, 05:37:11 PM »
Thanks Marcio, I have found this to be a well stated but 'new thinking' piece. A  few things to help me  work out if I  have understood your piece :

(1) A friend who I hope will be joining the discussion noted to me (I hope I summarise him accurately) that anthropologists seem to be obsessed with the reality or realities of peoples lives. He then noted that perhaps 'reality' itself was not, or at least in many contexts, not  of importance or salient. In short was was real and not real seemed to be a dominant filter for anthropologists without them necessarily even recognising it, and thus resulting in the ' two anthropological explanatory models' you mention.  Would this be relevant to your point?

(2) I assume that when you talk of possession and trance that you agree it appears across the world, even amongst 'normal english people'  where I live in Canterbury. Therefore one can say that possession and trance go unrecognised in  familiar  circumstances, whereas in  unfamiliar   circumstances (such as  Bahian Candomblé)  they stand out. Or in some cases they do not go unrecognised but  are dealt with according to the models  one has available to make sense of  it e.g. medicalise it.  And finally just because someone grew up in  Bahian Candomblé does not  necessarily   mean   they all or always  understand  possession.  Would  you  agree?


(3) With this in  mind would I be correct in  understanding you as saying that evidentially we do not understand everything (informant or anthropologist) but  the ways in which we deal with this are of interest, not to be  explained away, but to understand how the inevitable unknowability of totality plays a key role in the knowable or at least observable, and thus is of interest in its unknown form, and not just in making it known through our own way of rationalising?


Then the whole question ties together with 'politics' as the previous comments have noted, but I have yet to fully verbalise but will leave it there for now.


Thanks

Offline marciogoldman

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Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Reply #5 on: March 18, 2017, 08:14:36 PM »
First, I would like to thank Huon and Justin for accepting my paper for discussion in this wonderful space they manage. We really need things like this to help us get rid of academic repression, Fordism and Stakhanovism. And, of course, I also thank them - as well as John McCreery and Abraham Heinemann - for their very interesting comments. I will try to comment the comments but I am not sure my very poor English will allow me to do justice to them.

Second, I apologize for taking so long to answer but we are beginning academic term here and we all get a bit crazy for a while. So here we go.

1. I really enjoyed Huon’s summary of the paper. And also the remembrance that besides the “Greek miracle” (when, in fact, I believe, one began to try to separate politics and cosmos), we have other crucial moments, like the Enlightenment, as he mentions. Perhaps the Renaissance and contemporary neoliberalism are other important points of hardening of this brutal cut;

2.  In fact, I begin the paper with the coup d’état that is still going on in Brazil. But, as Huon recalls, I did so because I was presenting the text at a LASA session in New York in May last year when the coup was just beginning. Maybe I should have suppressed this beginning but I imagine something more or less unconscious made me leave it there. After all, I wrote an entire book about what politics is from the point of view of the same people who were at the meeting. But I wrote it before learning from Stengers a new sense for cosmopolitics, and the book I’m trying to write now intends to explore this point. I fear, however, that I have not yet figured out how to make this connection between the politics of a candomblé terreiro, the local mesopolitics in which the people of the terreiro participate more or less directly, and Brazilian macropolitics. The difficulty derives, I think, from the fact that in the text I seek to recover what seems to me to be the original and most powerful sense of Stengers’ concept. Namely, that by cosmopolitics we should not simply understand the addition of cosmology to politics — as many anthropologists are doing with good or bad results, it does not matter — but, as she more or less wrote, “the insistence of the cosmos on politics,” the reminder that not everything is political as we understand it.

3. Which brings me to Abraham Heinemann’s excellent commentary on anthropological obsession with the reality of others — or perhaps with the non-reality of others… Roughly, my question is: can continue to make a worthy anthropology without the need to suppose this “unreality?” Can we draw a line of flight from what we might call the “Evans-Pritchard principle” which I quote in the text: "Witches, as the Azande conceive them, can not exist." It is not exactly understanding or not understanding, or understanding partially or totally what is at stake. Although I do not like the terms, the question is actually more ontological than epistemological. In any case, it’s very likely more difficult to practice this fundamental ‘we do not know’ in politics than in ‘religion.’

4. In that sense, I really liked John McCreery’s quotation of Confucius. It corresponds exactly to my experience (of 40 years now!!) with African-American religions. The point is: are we ready to proceed like them? Being part of the knowledge process without the need to worry about the existence “out there” of what we speak and through which we speak. Actually we know that the anthropology of science has demonstrated that this is exactly what the “hardest” scientific practices do — only that, in the end, they always reterritorialize into the most rigid reification.

5. Justin's comments touch upon two or three of these “issues”, which, as Bob Scholte noted long ago, seem “fundamental and perennial in cultural anthropology.” Following Nietzsche, therefore, one must speak of them as one enters a cold bath, very quickly. “What exactly do you mean by ‘reality’” and “what you mean by ‘our’”. God! Of course I don’t know how to answer, but I do not think I’m referring to Wagner’s "made/given" pair because, in fact, I apologize, it never seemed very satisfactory at least to candomblé, where everything already exists but everything has to be done. Perhaps something simpler, this thing some Amazonianist have learned from the people they study: nor that things exist only from our point of view, nor that they exist in themselves, but that something exists only insofar as it affects, enters into relations. The Amerindian perspecitivism, after all, is neither an epistemology nor an ontology. And for “us”, I might have been wanting (I am not sure!) to designate, not so much a “group” (I have learned from Wagner the limitations of this concept), but the moment when we are captured by a certain perspective that leads us into the false alternative epistemology or ontology.
« Last Edit: March 19, 2017, 11:11:52 AM by marciogoldman »

Offline John McCreery

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Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Reply #6 on: March 20, 2017, 04:13:14 AM »
Marco, I am glad that you like the citation from Confucius.  You write,

"are we ready to proceed like them? Being part of the knowledge process without the need to worry about the existence “out there” of what we speak and through which we speak."

Whose knowledge process are we talking about? To me respect for those involved in the events in which we participate does not imply that we confine ourselves to the process employed by other participants. To be openly skeptical, cynical or condescending is not our role, but given our professional training and role as anthropologists, our process cannot be the same as theirs. We should certainly not assume that the experiences we share with them are only illusions, masks for power, or symptoms of mental illness. But we have plenty of other questions to deal with as we try to account in detail for the language, gesture, setting, costuming, and casting in the social dramas we examine.

This may be an area in which younger anthropologists, who grow up with science fiction and fantasy in TV, movies and interactive games, are better equipped than those in our generation. I think of young colleagues who avidly discuss details of the latest Iron Man or Batman movie and have no interest at all in whether these characters actually exist.

Offline Huon Wardle

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Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Reply #7 on: March 20, 2017, 09:56:09 AM »
It is quite a push under current university regimes to find time to participate in any intellectual activity not coded by the university and its wider bureaucracy as useful, so thanks, Marcio, for making the time to respond.


I think John has a good point when he says that the Sci-Fi or Marvel fan etc. may have an equal capacity to bracket the reality of the beings they are dealing with as the anthropologist sometimes has -- the question then becomes why or 'to what end?'. In truth the internet makes these kinds of bracketings much more visible by juxtaposition. Sometimes this causes friction or even rage -- Kellyane Conway's 'alternative facts' for instance, sometimes it passes without comment or with some kind of ambiguation or rhetorical smoothing over. Your reference to Stengers and the idea that the cosmos insists on politics seems ever more relevant in this kind of context of communication.


I wanted to go in two directions. In the 60s Donald Hogg wrote a very intriguing ethnography of a possession cult called Convince in Jamaica. Possession was part of religious ceremonies that were local to Windward Maroons in the Blue Mountains. However, these Maroon ceremonies were also attended by visitors from the capital, Kingston. The visitors talked about their activities as an outing and a 'jollification', i.e. as something ludic or humorous. The same people would attend their own pentecostal churches in town where they themselves might become 'caught' by the holy spirit. Under other circumstances they might perhaps say that Convince was just 'obeah' (witchcraft). Some of the differences were played out linguistically in the different kinds of creole language spoken by the Maroons and the townspeople. So there may be a spectrum of kinds of reality for different people at an event like this and even for the same people at different moments-- e.g. people can complain that a certain person is 'faking it' or disagree about music or ritual procedures and so on.


Going back to politics, we might think of how in ancient Italy, a main aim of warfare was to capture the lares or protective gods of the community under attack, or of how Socrates was accused of failing to acknowledge the gods that Athens acknowledged and instead introducing new deities into the polis.


Both of these cases make me wonder about the connection between the mesopolitics of Candomble and the wider or macropolitics of the Brazilian state. Candomble officiants are also members of a Brazilian public so how do they act in this wider sphere, do they leave their gods at the temple when they go to vote or to the rally? On the other side, I know respected Brazilian logicians who enjoy going to Candomble at the weekend but return to the reality of their job during the week. Sidney Greenfield's book about the mixing of biomedical and spiritist approaches to healing in Brazil springs to mind as another example of the spectrum on which these realities play out. So, going back to Stengers' point that the cosmos insists on politics -- is that not a call to look at how the politics of the cosmos works beyond the temple as much as within it?
« Last Edit: March 20, 2017, 10:05:17 AM by Huon Wardle »

Offline John McCreery

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Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Reply #8 on: March 20, 2017, 11:46:43 AM »
Huon, thanks for the compliment. I can see, however, that I wasn't clear. I wasn't asserting that Marvel movie fans, etc., have "an equal capacity" for bracketing. What I have in mind is a cinematic literacy that involves close analysis of visual and other detail treated, as a topic in its own right while the ontological status of superheroes, villains, and fools goes undiscussed. This type of analysis seems to come natural to my daughter (now forty) and younger people, for whom digital technologies have made issues like scripting, scene composition and lighting, once only of concern to specialists, topics for casual conversation.

Offline marciogoldman

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Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Reply #9 on: March 21, 2017, 11:20:10 AM »
Dear John and Huon

Once again many thanks for your comments.

I was thinking about our own processes of knowledge. My point is not to “bracket the reality of the beings they are dealing with” but to practice anthropology with a “we don’t know” background instead of the usual “we know they don’t exist” or even “we know they do exist”. I do not think Iron Man or Batman “exist” in this sense because they are made to not exist. Of course, they exist in a sense, or they exist to people interested on them but I believe the divinities and other spirits my friends in Candomble live with are a totally different issue. The usual relativistic position (bracketing truth) does not work here.

Huon raises again difficult questions. I know a lot of people, generally white, that connect to Candomble as my 12-year nephew connect to Iron Man or Batman. I am not very interested on them but on the people to whom orishas and other entities are part of their lives. Now, the second question is, are they part of their lives all the time and everywhere? They do not seem to think so. Someone told me spirits are too busy to worry about everything we do, as politics for example. Of course some people connect politics and Candomble, especially politicians looking for supernatural help to be elected or to eliminate a rival, or an ambitious practician needing some money. I am not saying experience in Candomble does not affect the way people think and sometimes live politics. But most people most of time think politics must be kept apart and I am trying not to go to fast to make politics the base of Candomble. After all we cannot forget that historically it is or became a religion “against the State”.

Offline John McCreery

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Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Reply #10 on: March 22, 2017, 01:37:24 AM »
Marco,

I like your "we don't know" instead of "we know they don't exist." My next question would be a pragmatic one. How will "we don't know" change our research?

Turning, then, to  the relationship between traditional and cinematic cosmologies, I offer the following, hoping that I have typed the URL correctly:






Here we see a production video for an HBO movie in which the actress playing a spirit medium is coached for the part by an actual medium, who also serves as her spiritual body guard. I wonder if others are seeing similar confluences of tradition and cinematic fiction in other parts of the world.

Offline John McCreery

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Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Reply #11 on: March 22, 2017, 01:40:15 AM »
I will try to type the URL again. Does our site lack a facility for adding links to text?


Offline Huon Wardle

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Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Reply #12 on: March 22, 2017, 09:25:02 AM »



Yes, again I am thinking along John's line when he asks what kind of methodological or pragmatic difference this 'I don't know' will make to fieldwork experience and analysis. Similarly where will this particular kind of 'I don't know' sit in the organisation of a description and analysis.


My field has been the anglophone Caribbean so I tend to see the issue of 'reality' in creolised terms -- creole language and symbol takes in a complexly contoured continuum. There may be a spectrum of 'I don't knows' that come into play situationally rather as there can be many kinds of green-blue. I mentioned the urban visitors to Maroon territory talking about possession rites there as a 'jollification'. To me this is itself one kind of 'I don't know' couched in a respectable term which nonetheless indexes fundamental ambiguity. I often hear Jamaican friends say 'I don't believe in Obeah(witchcraft)' but they don't mean that they discredit the 'reality' of Obeah tout court they mean that in their current subjective situation  Obeah cannot harm them, though it can still harm.

Recently in Jamaica, cheap DVDs of Nigerian soap operas became popular, these often involve sorcerers, love magic and so on, all of which are easily incorporated into the creole complex as dramatisations of 'obeah'.

Which makes me think of Tom Stoppard's play Hapgood;

"There is a straight ladder from the atom to the grain of sand, and the only real mystery is the missing rung. Below it, particle physics. Above it, classical physics. But in between, metaphysics."

John, the tab with a globe does links.
« Last Edit: March 22, 2017, 09:37:58 AM by Huon Wardle »

Offline John McCreery

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Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Reply #13 on: March 22, 2017, 09:36:23 AM »
Thanks, Huon.  Note to Avi: This is one of those things that seems obvious once you know about it but isn't at first glance. I've been suffering a similar tic when logging on and seeing "join seminar," when I have already joined it. In both cases, I mention again the title of a great book on Web design: Don't Make Me Think.

Returning to the topic at hand. I see in the video I shared a complexity similar to that embodied in Huon's urban visitors to Maroon territory. In complex societies, we are likely to discover a full range of religious attitudes, from unshakeable faith to cynical rejection. As anthropologists, or so it seems to me, we need to acknowledge and explain the full range of possibilities active in the situations we describe.

Offline Avi

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Re: OAC seminar: The Ontology of Possession in Bahian Candomblé
« Reply #14 on: March 23, 2017, 01:58:00 PM »

Couple people noted:
Quote
"what kind of methodological or pragmatic difference this 'I don't know' will make to fieldwork experience and analysis."?


I guess I am going to stick to my epistemological guns here, despite Marcio's noting it being an ontological question at hand:


When considering this question myself in light of Marcio's paper I think of a context more familiar to myself, that of 'science'. To me science (at least physics, chemistry and to more often than not biology) has always been a process of developing models of how something 'is working or makes sense. The efficacy of those models is in their ability to enable the user to actually leverage or harness that 'something' toward some aim. Hence the classic example being the Newtonian model of gravity versus Einsteins relative theory of gravity, and then the development of the 'graviton' model. None of these models are wrong, they just enable different scales and depths of leverage.


My point in outlining this simple story which I am sure everyone here knows, is that it is when one claims certain models of evolutionary theory, or theories of gravity are reality, as many people do today, that is when we come up against the archivist's progressive and totalising approach to knowledge. Rather than what I loved originally in the idea of science, which is that you are never right, that it is not about recording reality in such an archive, as permanent knowledge is not the goal. The actual goal being whether or not your model or 'cosmology' actually had some leverage on the world.


Therefore it is not a question of whether Azande witchcraft (or Bahian Candomble possession, though I do not mean to suggest they belong in the same category as one is about living people and the other it seems dead people which suggest something very different) is real, but whether and how the study, practice, testing etc of it actually allows one leverage in the world. BUT ALSO on the condition that we also deny any reality to something called an atom in the ontological sense. Simply because an atom is a model for leveraging either (a) unknown ontological reality or (b) and epistomological way to know something about the ontology of matter or (c) there is no ontology.


Which brings me to one of my favourite conversations on this topic, that being the one arising out of Graeber's and De Castro in HAU:


Quote
"Perhaps the one expression I heard the most, when people talked about spirits, was simply “I don’t know.” Spirits were inherently unknowable. (The spirits that possessed mediums were ultimately unknowable as well.) I ended up concluding this lack of knowledge was not incidental; it was foundational. To put it bluntly, while Ontological Turn would encourage me to privilege the fact that I will never fully understand Malagasy conceptions as to act as if those conceptions were simply determinant of reality, I decided to privilege the fact that my Malagasy interlocutors insisted they did not understand reality either; that nobody ever will be able to understand the world completely, and that this gives us something to talk about. It also gives us the opportunity to unsettle one another’s ideas in a way that might prove genuinely dialogic"
https://www.haujournal.org/index.php/hau/article/view/hau5.2.003/1978


Hence what is of interest is not coherently describing 'a culture', nor attributing special others with radical alterity per se, but looking at the incoherency between people, their ideas, and between anthropologist and people, as from that one can start to recognise how 'unknowns' manifest themselves in people's cosmologies. And do so as part of negotiating, dominating, possessing, serving for/with the interests of living humans i.e. cosmopolitics.


Just as STS demonstrates how science is full of cosmopolitics that let certain unknown's manifest themselves, where some people believe them to be real in a fixed and factual sense, and where some like myself do not inhabit such a world of fixed understanding. But perhaps most interesting at a macro-political scale, is how the dynamics encapsulated by such ideas as the anthropocene, transhumanism etc. point to a situation in which matter itself (I would argue always has been but anyway) is not a fixed reality but wrapped up in cosmopolitics. Just presently this is arguably a cosmopolitics of domination (hence Anthropocene) rather than negotiation, and thus perhaps we might learn something from the negotiatory politics of Bahian Candomble.


Excuse the somewhat rambly style of the thoughts this conversation has provoked, but as a last somewhat metaphorical note, perhaps something can be learned from how Heisenberg's uncertainty principle has been methodologically incorporated in our world and in Physics. Where the proposition is that 'reality' is 'uncertain', but can be partially knowable in the moment of testing/leveraging it. I am not sure whether I agree there is even a spooky quantum ontology that we can only partially epistemologically know, or whether the very cosmopolitics of epistemologies in itself generates new epistemologies that we mistake for ontologies. I use epistemology in a very broad sense, e.g. a rock can have some epistemological relationship to another rock absent of humans. But now I truly am rambling.


In short I look forward to what is meant by Stenger's Cosmopolitics as perhaps I misuse it too generally above and have missed some nuance.