• Stephen Muecke

The passage of Cyclone Bingiza through the Indian Ocean is a pretext for reflection on practices of judgment, including creative judgment. Judgment is a way of ‘getting a perspective’ and yet it also may come as a flash in creative work. The sudden irruption of strangeness happens as one register of the real is illuminated by a sudden visitation. If one abandons ‘perspectivism’ in a world seen as swirling with multiple realities, then one comes a step closer to being able to write with those realities on their terms, as opposed to about them across a culture/nature divide.

Keywords: perspectivism—Latour—cyclones—judgment—creativity

 

Perspectivism

There is a debate among anthropologists concerning perspectivism, which is in a way an old theme: anthropologists help ‘us’ to get a new ‘perspective’ on the world by ‘showing’ how others see and think (Descola & de Castro).1 The most fundamental categories can be reversed with this method; in some other culture, someone might find that ‘up’ is not the positive alternative to ‘down’. Such reversals and distinctions are crucial to one’s capacity to understand, let alone judge, the dispositions of different cultures. But even as one seems to gain valuable insights, one finds the very language of ‘perspectivism’ to be fraught with traps. To begin with, it is associated with vision and the renaissance invention of the point of convergence. In that geometry, ‘up’ is of course heavenward, the landscape is rectilinear, and the observer of the painting is in an opposed position, face to face with an enlightening scenario.

But not every culture positions its subjects thus. As Ghassan Hage says:

before seeking, as a clichéd anthropological formula would have it, to understand reality ‘from the natives’ point of view’, we need to work out first what the natives think a ‘point of view’ is: their point of view on the point of view, as it were. The alternative is to uncritically allow a Western conception of what a ‘point of view’ is to prevail. (Hage 2011: 9)

Australian Aborigines, for example, have a complex kinship system that ties humans’ family relations not only to each other and across generations, but also to the non-human world, to plants, animals and features of the landscape. Such a ‘perspective’ can give rise to statements that one is related to a particular animal, that one shares its life force in an inalienable fashion. In such a conceptual architecture, vision—the perspectival medium—may not be terribly significant.

This may provoke thought for the non-Indigenous person, musing, ‘Well, I thought that kangaroos were, you know, just a part of nature.’ Without realising, perhaps, how much hard work had to be done in the course of the romantic tradition precisely to make animals ‘a part of nature’, to forge and re-forge that now dominant nature/culture bifurcation so that we humans would be the exceptional species and separated off from nature. In our lordly observer position, we are able to look at it fondly or with wonder, rather than always having specific life-sharing relationships to maintain with it. Thus, the labour that constructs possibilities for judging the world already depends on the creation of concepts in the European tradition: ‘perspective’ from the exceptional position of the ‘human’ looking across towards ‘nature’.

But what do we remarkable humans notice as we gaze across this illusory gap? Only the strange, the out of the ordinary, attracts attention and hence the impulse to judge. Transgression, for instance of the law, brings condemnation and then a process of reintegration to the normal and invisible. Yet artists, striving for visibility, are adept at processes of defamiliarisation, and have techniques for taking material—concepts, technologies, feelings—from one domain and placing it in another, so that it looks strange in this new context. It encounters different protocols: the Warholian transfer of banal commodity (Campbell’s soup) to canvas; the macro detail of hyperrealism; every metaphor that is fresh; they are all transfers of techniques that are designed to play havoc with the familiar, the product of embedding strange things, over time, into forms of culture.

Judgment is usually is a practice of distancing and generalisation. You can step back, get a ‘perspective’ on the alternatives and judge among them. It is a privileged practice and powerful position, to which those too close to the events, too enmeshed in them, seem to be blind. And when you present something in the perspectivist mode (‘they do it that way, but we do it this way’), you seem to flatter your interlocutor or reader. You share that power with them. Education, at least of one sort, involves offering ways of acquiring the ability to rise a step above particularities, to compare, and then to make such generalisations.

But there is a paradox in judgment, for when you seem to settle on your choice, and let go of the alternatives, these latter never quite disappear. They are still there ghosting the One. Those whose judgment cannot hold the alternatives in abeyance would be mere dogmatists, people whose perspectives never have any expansion. This is why a judge, in coming down with a judgment, has to expand it into a written argument where those alternatives are weighed and interpreted with rhetorical and narrative fluency. The textual supplement to the judgment is the art that protects the movement of the law against tyrannical dogmatism.

Judgment, like perspectivism, has to be learned in the heart of a culture and its institutions, and one earns the right to participate, to ‘stand in judgment’ at a ‘critical distance’ from the event. Yet this would seem to contradict the experience of creative judgment, the experience of artists and intellectuals, where a new perspective seems to come in a flash. Does it really come in a flash, like Walter Benjamin’s image of how we apprehend historical memories, ‘flashing up in a moment of danger’? (1968: 255) Perhaps, as Michel Foucault once wrote, a criticism without judgment (Muecke 2012) would ‘bear the lightning of possible storms’:

I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgements but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes—all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms. (Foucault 1980: 323)

 

Cyclone Bingiza

In some texts I am writing ‘about’ the Indian Ocean—I use the scare quotes because the Ocean is a pretext for a kind of experimentation with writing techniques—I will have a character that is a storm. There is a literary history of storms, but they are not always characters. Shakespeare’s Tempest is a play that is ‘about’ a storm, and the storm is certainly a player, right from Act 1, Scene 1: ‘A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard’; but it is not named. My storm is a named storm, Tropical Cyclone Bingiza, because after a storm reaches a certain intensity, the authorities will attribute it a name; thus it enters history. Having a name adds to its character, it is an acknowledgment of its agency and an anticipation of its career, for it will travel in time from when it first arises in the ocean and eventually makes landfall, then causes a trail of destruction among villages of the north-west of Madagascar.2 The villagers flee to find shelter as trees crash to the ground around them, and loose sheets of iron scream through the air at over 100 kms a hour, the sharp claws of this deathly monster made of nothing but puncturing rain and high winds and lightning. No wonder such a complex ‘natural phenomenon’ is difficult to describe without anthropomorphism or demonisation, without the attribution of intention, as well as its own proper name. No wonder it was Zeus at work with his bolts of lightning in the Mediterranean, no wonder then, and perhaps now among the Malagasy, the attribution of supernatural agency added yet another dimension to fierce, pitiless Bingiza. Rakotondra stands in his field, mud up to his calves, shaking his fist at the clouds rolling off to the west: You shit, you makota [motherfucker]; you have taken my whole vanilla crop!

 

Multirealism

My writing attempts a swirl of points of view, of agencies, that all contribute to the reality that is Bingiza, a reality that is not unified into the one ‘being’ of the storm, the eye of the storm: the storm is necessarily multiple. It is all of these things: the chemical composition of the atmosphere; the product of differential temperatures near the surface of the ocean and the higher atmosphere; the gaining of thermal energy as moisture condenses and the translation of this energy into kinetic energy; the human mythologising of ‘forces of nature’. This is why it is important to abandon perspectivism in favour of multirealism. We have seen that not everyone ‘has a perspective’, that it is a peculiar European invention that gives some real insight into multiple views, while holding on to the power of ‘perspective’ as pivotal concept. Multirealism, however, seeks through immersion to give voice to things other than human, things like storms and bees that trace unique signatures as they pass through their worlds and enter into multiple relationships with other things and beings. This is because there is no singular Nature, the landscape that is the setting for the human variation that we are quite happy to call multiculturalism. Perspectivism allows that we all have our quite varied ‘views’ on the one reality that is ‘out there’. This is an innocent relativism, where your culture is as good as mine: making them both equally arbitrary, and dispensable. What makes them arbitrary is the belief in the solidity of the one thing that is not given up in this architecture of modern thought, as described by Bruno Latour across many books: the Real. Those in charge of the dominant view of the world reinforce it by telling the rest of us (dreamers, artists, intellectuals) that we have lost our grasp on reality. This one Reality is the same as the one Nature (of the guy, above, who thought that ‘kangaroos were, you know, just a part of nature’); it is a material, inert and exploitable world. Those who really have a purchase on this really real version of things are, of course, philosophically unreconstructed scientists, the type who take a ‘hard’ view on things.

Meanwhile, those who evoke a ‘hard’ dominant reality actually continue to reinvent that very reality, as illustrated by Ron Suskind in his report of an astounding conversation with a senior advisor to George W Bush:

The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community’, which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality’. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’. (cited Latour 2005: 4)

Giving power to creative judgment will not involve the weak version of letting everyone have their own perspective on the one reality. If one abandons ‘perspectivism’ in a world seen as swirling with multiple realities, then one comes a step closer to being able to write with those realities on their terms, as opposed to about them across a culture/nature divide. It will involve pluralising the real by seeing each negotiation about what is to count as real taking place among humans, animals, storms, concepts, feelings and Presidential Advisors. It will mean revising a view of modernity that reduces the real simply to the monorealism of the material and the instrumental. Those of us who choose to forego this monorealism might embrace, like those amodern peoples who used to be called primitives, the capacity to respect different modes of existence in their multiple, sudden and sometimes unexpected engagements with each other.

End notes

  • 1. From ‘Perspectivism and animism’, a debate between Philippe Descola (Collège de France) and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (National Museum of Rio de Janeiro) at the Maison Suger, Institute of Advanced Studies, Paris, 30 January 2009; cited in Latour 2009.
  • 2. Cyclone Bingiza hit the shore of northeastern Madagascar on 14 February 2011.
Works cited: 

Benjamin, Walter 1968 Illuminations, H Arendt (ed), Harcourt, Brace: New York

Foucault, Michel 1980 ‘The masked philosopher’ in J Faubion (ed) 1997 Ethics: subjectivity and truth. The essential works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. Volume One, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 321-28

Hage, Ghassan 2011 ‘The reality of utopian thought’, Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 23.1: 7-13

Muecke, Stephen 2012 ‘Motorcycles, snails, Latour: criticism without judgement,’ Cultural Studies Review 18.1 (March):  39-57 http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/csrj/index

Latour, Bruno 2005 ‘From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik – or how to make things public’ in Latour and Weibel (eds) Making things public, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press

Latour, Bruno 2009 ‘Perspectivism: “type” or “bomb”?’ Anthropology Today 25.2: 1-2