Monday, March 01, 2010

Primate Archeology

Brian Switek reports on recent archeology of a chimpanzee tool assemblage dated between 4300 and 2200 BP. We will definitely have to give up the idea that culture is uniquely human, unless perhaps we accept a contention that culture equates to language. What goes out the door with culture in this case? Historicity?


How natural is nature, I wonder. Has the concept passed its best-by date? And if we have to rework what it means to be a natural phenomenon, what sense do make of culture? Does an inhuman science even make sense, or must it remain fundamentally contradictory? A parahuman science?


In what ways are wild chimpanzees participants in our culture? What claims do they naturally have? Egalitarianism?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 8:46 PM.

11 Comments:

Blogger michael~ said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

April 30, 2010 11:20 PM  
Blogger michael~ said...

FIDO: Does an inhuman science even make sense or must it remain fundamentally contradictory?

MICHAEL: Scientific activity is simply something humans do. And “science” as an ideological cluster is something only logically delineated within our all too human schemas. Therefore “science” is strictly human. Why complicate it will word play and speculative flights of fancy?

FIDO: In what ways are wild chimpanzees participants in our culture?

MICHAEL: Humans don’t possess culture, as culture is not a thing to be possessed. We may engage in what we feel obliged to call 'cultural activities', but ontologically speaking, there is no-thing that a chimpanzee can enter into. Chimps can be engaged through our bodies, or our tools, or our media, or other cultural activities - as they frequently are when we hunt them, or make films about them, or kill them and sell their parts, or eat them. In this sense, chimps, as with many other types of things, are already deeply embedded in the fabric of human experience and life.

Also, we can be engaged by chimp cultural activities as well, such as when they gang up to defend themselves from a human intruder, or raid the tent of a camper, or signal among each other the presence of a hunter. We thus enter into their memories, “narratives” and expressions.

The notion that we are the only species that ‘has culture’ is at this point truly ridiculous, on both ontological grounds (because culture is not a thing of itself at all) and ethological grounds (because we already have so much documentation of non-human ‘cultural’ activity).

We have specifically human expressions, practices and artifacts, and nothing more.

SEE ALSO: http://conflictions5.blogspot.com/2010/04/sapolsky-on-uniqueness-of-human-beings.html

April 30, 2010 11:22 PM  
Blogger michael~ said...

FIDO: How natural is nature, I wonder. Has the concept passed its best-by date? And if we have to rework what it means to be a natural phenomenon, what sense do make of culture?

MICHAEL: Well, there is certainly much to unpack here. Let me first say that terms such as ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ are such broad concepts as to be virtually useless for the purposes of description, much less explanation. When we deploy such terms we automatically gloss over so much relevant and detailed specificity. Such concepts underspecified are thus only ever superficial.

So the proper question then becomes: why play such language games at all?

Pontificating about the limits or operations of ‘nature’ or ‘culture’, or about where one branches off from the other, or how entangled they may be is (in my thinking) to obscure the ontologically real texture of the world (e.g., specific things) in favor of generalized semantical play – which, as far as it goes, is fun I guess, but superfluous to an analysis of actual life.

For instance, here is my contribution to that game: everything that exists is nature, including culture. Cultural activities are natural in that we are natural creatures who do things differently from other creatures, but only then arrogantly take pride in calling them something else – namely, “culture”.

Again, “culture” and “nature” are broad terms that people deploy to generalize, and such generalizations obscure the complexity of the world. These concepts could, alternately, be used in parallel with each other or in relation to each other - depending of what someone arbitrarily chooses to include.

In less words, the nature/culture language game is a poor substitute for more specific and rigorous ontological investigations. And I severely doubt there is much insight to be gained from theoretical work with either concept.

On the other hand, learning about HOW these concepts are used by communities of speakers in public domains (e.g., as folk ontology) could provide some insight into local behavior or decision-making.

FIDO: We will definitely have to give up the idea that culture is uniquely human, unless perhaps we accept a contention that culture equates to language. What goes out the door with culture in this case? Historicity?

MICHAEL: I think it all depends on what you are willing to attach to the concept. There is nothing preventing us from acknowledging just how natural our capacities are, and how we came to reify them as something other than nature (“culture”), AT THE SAME TIME as still valuing our human uniqueness. Why put so much stock in such a blanket notion as “culture”?

The efficacy of our historical narratives are not dependent the significance we give to the concept of culture. There are other more nuanced ways of explaining us to ourselves. If we never again used the term ‘culture’ nothing would be lost or given up in terms of our ability to understand how the world works at the level of details. In fact, the only thing we could ever possibly lose from letting such a concept fade is our arrogant belief that we are something above, or ‘more than’, other natural beings.

April 30, 2010 11:22 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Hi, Michael. Glad you stopped by.

It's well and good to inveigh against the hypostatization of culture by but the same token one should recognize nature as an idea subject to uncritical usages. You appear to say as much, yet the way you've taken sides raises questions. One question is "How radical is your naturalism really?" Can naturalism just function naturally? At this point I strongly urge a consideration of the design features of language, perhaps in particular duality of patterning. (I wonder, is there are a limitation on hermeneutic appropriation such as would explain a persistent duality of thinking?)

Let's take a common definition of culture from the previous century. We may disagree with it for any number of reasons, but it has surely informed a great deal of earnest thinking on the subject of culture and may therefore prove useful. It's Geertz's definition of culture as "a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life." By that definition, mutatis muntandis, what strong evidence is there of Chimps having culture?

Should we speak exclusively of material culture? The material artefacts in immediate environment "speak" to me in a such a way that cannot easily be said of simple stone tool assemblages such as the Oldowan, the Ascheulean or anything I have seen possessed—indeed possessed, however ambivalently we feel about possession—by chimps. Is this just because my artefacts belong to my culture? Foreign material cultures also seem to me to exhibit something akin to symbolic universes or constellations, yet the Ascheulean still seems to me to be somewhat deprived. Yet these truly primitive cultures don't say nothing to me. What do they say?

Is it controversial to think that erectus had a primitive tool kit? Or that there is a demarcation between erectus and sapiens that warrants elaboration on the part of the committed naturalist?

What does it mean to be "deeply embedded in the fabric of human experience and life"? I don't believe chimps are as deeply embedded in your life as ontology is, for one. Forgive me, for it may be a matter of not trusting your thinking. I am skeptical of any thinking that attempts to critique the system that enables it. That is, the system only appears to enable its own critique. My strong feeling is that thinking ought to be emancipatory, even as I am painfully aware of a certain unfreedom of the emancipatory writ large. Perhaps you have surpassed all the old dichotomies, so I do ask that you forgive me.

May 01, 2010 4:26 AM  
Blogger michael~ said...

FIDO: Should we speak exclusively of material culture? The material artefacts in immediate environment "speak" to me in a such a way that cannot easily be said of simple stone tool assemblages such as the Oldowan, the Ascheulean or anything I have seen possessed—indeed possessed, however ambivalently we feel about possession—by chimps. Is this just because my artefacts belong to my culture?

MICHAEL: I believe your artifacts include symbols, language and code which are qualitatively different than anything else we find among animals. Ours “speak” to us through our participation in collective semantic habituations and imaginings. And all such poetics emerge from the intangible communications afforded by productive subsistence activities. Activities - like building a bomb, or going to the circus and a cloudy day – which entail practices, experiences and ways of adapting that shape our narratives and imaginations.

FIDO: Foreign material cultures also seem to me to exhibit something akin to symbolic universes or constellations, yet the Ascheulean still seems to me to be somewhat deprived. Yet these truly primitive cultures don't say nothing to me. What do they say?

MICHAEL: They “speak” of familial relations, social alliances, etc., and tell us a lot about primate forms of interaction. Our deep primate heritage shapes the very limits of “culture” and communication.

FIDO: Is it controversial to think that erectus had a primitive tool kit? Or that there is a demarcation between erectus and sapiens that warrants elaboration on the part of the committed naturalist?

MICHAEL: erectus did have a more primal tool kit. Any demarcation of difference warrants elaboration. Unfortunately detailed elaboration remains speculative and limited by current scientific findings. Are we different, more communicative and expressive than Chimps or erectus? Of course. We are very strange creatures.

FIDO: What does it mean to be "deeply embedded in the fabric of human experience and life"? I don't believe chimps are as deeply embedded in your life as ontology is, for one.

MICHAEL: Well I’ll tell you one thing, I would enjoy it if chimps were more a part of my life than they have been in the past. In this context I simply mean that chimps and humans have a long history of contact. We feature them in our dreams and narratives, lock them in cages for our amusement, kill and sell them, create artifacts that look like them, and generally teach our kids about them. If culture was a pool of experience and signification chimpanzees would be swimming in it.

FIDO: Forgive me, for it may be a matter of not trusting your thinking. I am skeptical of any thinking that attempts to critique the system that enables it. That is, the system only appears to enable its own critique. My strong feeling is that thinking ought to be emancipatory, even as I am painfully aware of a certain unfreedom of the emancipatory writ large. Perhaps you have surpassed all the old dichotomies, so I do ask that you forgive me.

MICHAEL: The system that enables my rhetoric is not so uniform as to prevent me from aggressively pursuing and then projecting theoretical autonomy. However entangled humans may be they are still recursive and detached enough creatures to develop alternative vocabularies and narratives - hybrid discourses that animate our behaviors. Binaries can be used creatively and persuasively when assembling a broadly coherent narrative. But that is not the kind of narrative we currently need.

I do agree that “thinking ought to be emancipatory”. This would be ideal. But numerous strains of human thinking are used for navigating more conventional and primal social relations. The task of contemporary sophistry, in my estimation, is to use thought and expression to generate more sustainable activities and affects.

May 04, 2010 10:49 PM  
Blogger michael~ said...

FIDO: One question is "How radical is your naturalism really?" Can naturalism just function naturally?

MICHAEL: It’s radical enough to assert that any praxis engaged must reckon with how all objects and intangible representations are immanent and distributed within matrices of contingent ecological specificity. But so what? Our engagements, entanglements and adaptations can only be justifiable if we increase our capacity learn and promote social stability. What could we say about our sophisticated modes of communication when we are often disabled from acknowledging even our basic kinetic, ecological and material foundations?

FIDO: At this point I strongly urge a consideration of the design features of language, perhaps in particular duality of patterning. (I wonder, is there are a limitation on hermeneutic appropriation such as would explain a persistent duality of thinking?
MICHAEL: Absolutely. Language structures how we express ourselves. Non-linguistic processes - and the objects they generate – continue to shape the very conditions from which all such speculation is possible. Dualities, multiplicities and singularities overflow.

FIDO: Let's take a common definition of culture from the previous century. We may disagree with it for any number of reasons, but it has surely informed a great deal of earnest thinking on the subject of culture and may therefore prove useful. It's Geertz's definition of culture as "a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life." By that definition, mutatis muntandis, what strong evidence is there of Chimps having culture?

MICHAEL: If we narrow our gaze to what Geertz called (following Weber) the web of significance we limit ourselves and exclude relevant discussions on the life conditions from which they develop, and must adapt to. Geetz used ethnography as a tool to collect his thick descriptions and weave fascinating narratives. And I agree with him that semiotic assemblages are central to our understanding and affective relations.

But chimps develop assemblages of communication as well. We witness it in their social relations and gestures. We could use the term proto-culture but what does that add?

Our infamous human acts of expression and symbolic use of codes are no doubt qualitatively different than chimpanzee communication. Who would argue otherwise? Yet being different is does not justify our arrogant belief that we are something qualitatively better than every other living thing on this planet. I think the argument could be made otherwise.

May 04, 2010 10:49 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

I've appreciated your comments, Michael, but have been slow to respond partly because I don't wholeheartedly disagree with the greater part of your argument. I merely have questions. For instance I wonder whether a commitment to an inhuman ontology necessarily requires a kind of naturalism, perhaps, to be specific, a monistic naturalism. But I hardly know this to be the case.

I hope I'm not putting words in your mouth, but a claim about people's detachment from the systems that enable their rhetorical projects (orthodox or heterodox, they are still defined by a relation to doxa, no?) raises a question in my mind: must freedom be empirically verified or must it be assumed? Is there a measure to freedom? (Anthropos?) Sometimes it seems like we have an experience of freedom, and we might conclude that therefore we know what freedom means. We have something, an experience, we can measure any new encounter with freedom against. But in recalling this experience might we suffer from a profound misrecognition, or a certain kind of genesis amnesia that enables us to feel as if our freedom were completely spontaneous when in fact it may be both spontaneous and highly structured, both in its origin, and in its effects?

"Habitus are spontaneously inclined to recognize all the expressions in which they recognize themselves, because they are spontaneously inclined to produce them—in particular all the exemplary products of the most conforming habitus which have been selected and preserved by the habitus of successive generations and which are invested with the intrinsic force of objectification and with the authority attached to every publicly authorized realization of the habitus" (Logic of Practice, p. 108). (I don't seem to have Outline handy, but I'm sure your familiar with the argument.)

Another word on objectification: "The habitus is a metaphor of the world of objects, which is itself an endless circle of metaphors that mirror each other ad infinitum" (p.77).

Something to kick around.

May 09, 2010 4:44 PM  
Blogger michael~ said...

FIDO: Sometimes it seems like we have an experience of freedom, and we might conclude that therefore we know what freedom means. We have something, an experience, we can measure any new encounter with freedom against. But in recalling this experience might we suffer from a profound misrecognition, or a certain kind of genesis amnesia that enables us to feel as if our freedom were completely spontaneous when in fact it may be both spontaneous and highly structured, both in its origin, and in its effects?

MICHAEL: I can agree to that. The only problem is that there is simply no rubric from which to evaluate “true freedom” with reference to cognitive acts or thinking as such. We either consciously reflect on the conditions of our own speech acts, and thereby react against them by projecting alternatives and seeking to actualize them, or take up the linguistic, conceptual, material and/or political resources at hand and creatively and idiosyncratically elaborate ourselves and our thinking into something we could call art – and for its/our own sake.

And, again, this creative (reflexive) self-thinking as reactive projection (adaptation), or as “art” must never be considered in isolation – that is to say, without consideration of the context in which it operates and effects. In this sense, for me, a more or less developed sensitivity to one’s own life conditions and structural constraints must be both political and adaptive (deeply practical and socially embedded).

FIDO: "Habitus are spontaneously inclined to recognize all the expressions in which they recognize themselves, because they are spontaneously inclined to produce them—in particular all the exemplary products of the most conforming habitus which have been selected and preserved by the habitus of successive generations and which are invested with the intrinsic force of objectification and with the authority attached to every publicly authorized realization of the habitus" (Logic of Practice, p. 108). (I don't seem to have Outline handy, but I'm sure your familiar with the argument.)

MICHAEL: I am familiar with Bourdieu. His notion of habitus (taken from Mauss if I recall) is instructive and it generally resonates with how I understand certain aspects of human agency, but I think he over emphasizes reproduction in the structural constitution of habitus – at least in the passages you quote. I agree that humans are deeply habituating creatures – often relying on convention and normative affects in order to navigate their social worlds – but I also think that with enough experience and opportunity we can learn to reach beyond our habitual thoughts and project or invent modes of being with (more rather than less) increased capacity for creativity, adaptation and generative difference.

After all, wasn’t that the point of Bourdieu’s “reflexive sociology”?

May 10, 2010 11:17 PM  
Blogger michael~ said...

FIDO: I hope I'm not putting words in your mouth, but a claim about people's detachment from the systems that enable their rhetorical projects (orthodox or heterodox, they are still defined by a relation to doxa, no?) raises a question in my mind: must freedom be empirically verified or must it be assumed? Is there a measure to freedom? (Anthropos?)

MICHAEL: Again, you may find my answers unsatisfactory here. It’s hard for me to leave concepts such as “freedom” to work their rhetorical magic without first subverting their claims of reference by getting into the details. For me, ‘freedom’ is an attitude people take towards their own variously constrained life-conditions - and therefore not a question of fact or measurement at all. What can be measured, however, are material constraints, intensities of force, or the availability of affordances (tangible or intangibles resources) in any particular but nebulous context. We can also talk about more or less linguistic flexibility - i.e., what a particular linguistic community allows – or an interlocutors potential for semantic combinatorial performance, but then ‘freedom’ so defined would be evaluated in reference to degrees, capacities and potentials, and, for me, only then in terms of very specific practico-strategic activities or projects. For me freedom is a political, rather than metaphysical, issue.

In less words, I don’t think we can ever become (nor would ever want to be) “detached” from the systems that enable us, but we can be more or less creative, more or less flexible, and more or less engaged with the various systems, processes, artifacts, relations, objects, projects and rhetorics (discourses) we find ourselves existing among. What is important, for me, is the way in which we take up our own contingency as a project and the effects these projects have on human health and dignity.

The question then becomes: what practical and combinatorial effects will our particular becomings have on our own subjective experience and on the lives of others?

May 10, 2010 11:17 PM  
Blogger michael~ said...

FIDO: I've appreciated your comments, Michael, but have been slow to respond partly because I don't wholeheartedly disagree with the greater part of your argument. I merely have questions. For instance I wonder whether a commitment to an inhuman ontology necessarily requires a kind of naturalism, perhaps, to be specific, a monistic naturalism. But I hardly know this to be the case.

MICHAEL: It is a good question. Unfortunately I’m probably ill-equipped to give you a satisfactory answer. I’m not an academically trained philosopher so the finer nuances of the arguments for or against any particular variant of naturalism elude me. I will say, however, that I’m not a big fan of discourse that relies on “isms” of any kind to differentiate perspectives.

For instance, the term ‘naturalism’ is meaningless to me (perhaps in the same sense that nature and culture are). Any ontology that is asserted can be said to be a kind of naturalism to its creator. If someone believes the world is of certain character or operates in a certain way, this is what is ‘natural’ to that thinker. I, rather, argue for an immanent and ‘radically intimate’ (emphasizing specificity) theory of reality that engages the world through a pluralistic, almost anarchic methodological praxis. Any abstractions elaborated therein are either synthetic or wholly descriptive – and always open to revision or diacritical repair. Any strictly positive assertions I make about reality would be anti-metaphysical and based on reflections of my own embeddedness in the ‘flesh’ and activity of the world.

Is such a position monistic? Perhaps - but not in any strait-forward manner. I would be more inclined to say that my thinking is in many ways evolving out of a perspective that begins in a deep acceptance of immanence and contingency. I would hesitate to use the term ‘monistic’ only because I think that oneness and difference – as they have been traditionally understood - are primordial properties of some source that goes even deeper, and is ineffable for creatures such as us. So beyond this I cannot say.

May 10, 2010 11:17 PM  
Blogger michael~ said...

The following was gleeped from Scu at Critical Animal:

"Although I cannot demonstrate this here, I believe– and the stakes are becoming more and more urgent– that none of the conventionally accepted limits between the so-called human living being and the so-called animal one, none of the oppositions, none of the supposedly linear and indivisible boundaries, resist a rational deconstruction– whether we are talking about language, culture, social symbolic networks, technicity or work, even the relationship to death and to mourning, and even the prohibition against or avoidance of incest– so many ‘capacities’ of which the ‘animal’ (a general singular noun!) is said so dogmatically to be bereft, impoverished (Derrida, 'Rogues', p. 151)."

cheers~

May 12, 2010 8:45 PM  

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