Beyond the Living and the Dead



























Gabriel Embeha 2015


(Notes on the Lived Mountains of Experience, Memory and Forgetting)
Gabriel Embeha


Maurice Leenhardt and Causality
In Maurice Leenhardt’s early twentieth century anthropological work on New Caledonia called Do Kamo we find the striking and estranging notion that there was no opposition, no contradiction between the dead and the living, nor any notion of the animate or the inanimate. Furthermore, says Leenhardt, since there was no notion of animate or inanimate in New Caledonia “there cannot be a causal schema in the inanimate world.” To illustrate this non-existence of both animate and inanimate causality Leenhardt writes that in New Caledonia: “A rock is thrown, but it is not the inanimate object which produces the bruise.”
In addition to this fact that when a rock is thrown it was not the inanimate object which caused the bruise, it is equally true that the cause may not have been the person who threw it (i.e. his or her intentions), or his or her throw (measured in terms of force and so on.) In the case of injury or death in war, for example, the enemy was not the cause nor was the stone the cause but very often something much greater. This “something much greater” was neither expressed in terms of inanimate things nor in terms of living persons and their intentions. Rather, it was expressed in terms of logic, physics and ethics all running together as one to seek out and deal with the cause of the bruise as neither animate nor inanimate.
What was being expressed in New Caledonia was the move from one state to another through one kind of body causing change in another. What we see when a rock is thrown and strikes a person is a physical tension of material contrasts changing, one affecting the other “in kind,” the result being an imitation of one thing caused by another.
When Leenhardt says that in New Caledonia there was no opposition between the living and the dead, or the animate and the inanimate, he means that when those whom Europeans call “the living” caused other people or things to mime them they were identical with the dead, or when what Europeans called “the dead” caused other people or things to mime them they were identical with the living. Equally, when what Europeans called an “inanimate” rock struck what they called an “animate” arm and that arm ceased to function as a healthy moving part, that arm would to a greater degree imitate the rock and the rock to a greater degree imitate the arm. We could say, if you will and not so tongue in cheek, that the arm of the victim had become “stoned” and the rock had become “armed.”
Most important in determining of cause and effect in New Caledonia, however, was to understand that there were no absolute opposites between things but only matters of degree or ratio of contrast. Very seldom was such imitation total and permanent. Life in New Caledonia was a constantly shifting change in ratio and degree of imitation, between degrees of continuity and discontinuity, animate and inanimate, and these changes were wholly material and physical.
Above all else, the changes brought about when a rock was thrown and struck an arm were material and physical changes and not “phenomena” thereof. The bruise was not primarily a sign, symbol, or phenomena but rather an imitative cause in itself leading to other instances of imitation, to other forms of physical change, which Europeans may (and often do) describe and place in some order which is referred to as social, mental, linguistic, symbolic or semiotic.
In New Caledonian cosmology the physical and material were essentially imitative, standing as an imitative realm of things in themselves from which even language, symbolism, signification or thinking could not escape. The magical and the mythological, like the linguistic, were both second order. They were phenomena. All three were neither living individual nor living social causes in themselves but rather descriptions/determinations relations thereof.
Phenomenology and Causality
In contemporary social theory it is phenomenology that most appreciates and works with this insight into these objects of Leenhardt’s research. As anthropologist Thomas Csordas tells us in his contrast between phenomenological and semiotic thinking: “One need conclude neither that language is ‘about’ nothing other than itself, nor that language wholly constitutes experience, nor that language refers to experience that can be known in no other way.” Language, writes Csordas, is itself a modality of “being-in-the-world.” In phenomenological thought, as in Leenhardt’s ethnographic description, this modality of being-in-the-world that is language is neither the source of human experience nor does it represent human experience in total. In phenomenology, however, while language is animate, causality is assigned to the realm of the inanimate and non-living. In Leenhardt’s ethnography language is neither animate nor inanimate and causality could never be inanimate as there is no notion of inanimate causality.
It is in fact precisely on the issue of causality and the subordinate position it has been given in modern social thought by the followers of Edmund Husserl including phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty and Alfred Schutz, that one sees a stark contrast between the New Caledonian world, as Leenhardt describes it, and much contemporary social theory concerning the body. The material, physical body among the New Caledonians was not the material, physical body as it is variously understood in studies of magic and science. Magic and science are depicted and understood as symbolic or semiotic enterprises in which the actual causes of physical and material changes are less important than their meaning, their intention and the control thereof. Rather, in New Caledonia the material, physical body was regarded philosophically in a materialist fashion and scientifically through a science of physics, that is, regarded through New Caledonian materialist philosophy and physics. This materialist philosophy and physics, as Leenhardt depicts it, stands in particular contrast to phenomenology. In his book Do Kamo Leenhardt makes it quite clear that phenomenology is very helpful in moving towards, but essentially unable to grasp, this New Caledonian way of thought.
Considering both systems in terms of practice and “how they work,” a contrast between New Caledonian and European materialist philosophy and physics is today quite premature. The relatively new area of science and technology studies has only in relatively recent years begun to explore the dominant European and sub-altern sides of this question in detail, and it has scarcely considered the Melanesian or other sides which continue to lie beyond the subaltern. In terms of phenomenology and “being-in-the-world,” however, one can at least make the simple contrast between New Caledonian and European materialist philosophies that I am making here. While phenomenology has an inanimate notion of causality and denies causality to animate things, New Caledonian philosophy has neither an inanimate nor animate notion of causality.
Phenomenological Analysis and “Extra-Sub-Altern” Science
Perhaps one of the most important questions which Leenhardt’s ethnography brings up is how the scientist and materialist philosopher subjectively engages in the world. Another prominent Melanesianist, Roger Keesing, strongly insists that the Kwaio he knew were forever practical to the point of almost never appearing to have a philosophy or interest in cosmological description. In his description of this aspect of Kwaio life Keesing suggests, as Leenhardt seems to as well in the case of the New Caledonians, that in contrast to how science and materialist cosmology are most often viewed from a European perspective, in Melanesia a certain philosophy and physics are practiced in a subjective or personal fashion within the context of a human destiny and self-knowledge.
But again, there is a difference between how something is viewed, talked-about, and how it is. If one is going to describe European physics or materialist philosophy as substantially different from that of Melanesia, one should have certain ethnographically empirical grounds upon which to base such claim. In putting causality in the realm of the inanimate, phenomenology has unfortunately and most often relied upon unfounded assumptions regarding European scientific practice.
The result of the phenomenological view of causality and its positioning in regards to the animate and inanimate within humanity is that its brings us very close to a point from which we can much better understand such extra-sub-altern sciences and philosophies but then, at this very point, fails to allow or in any way encourage European understanding to follow through with an immanent critique of its own assumptions regarding the concepts and practices of life, death, the inanimate, animate, causality. What prevents phenomenological thought from following through with this extra-sub-altern critique is the very thing that gives it strength in its analyses of sub-altern and greater or lesser recognized European sciences and materialist philosophies. The problem here is not by any means the framework of, or the valuable critical enterprises working through the phenomenological view. Rather, the problem is a concept and practice at the heart of this view that can be solved toward the betterment of phenomenological theory. This problematic concept or practical way of regard is, ironically, best referred to as “the phenomenon.”
Phenomenology Without the Phenomenon
Addressing this problem brought to us by extra-sub-altern sciences and materialist philosophies, I propose that the notion of “the phenomenon” be replaced with the concept and practice of “the ancestral” viewed from the perspective of imitation. This is a shift from the specific ways the dead, living, animate and inanimate have been regarded in European thought to a more general form of regard. The basic reason for this move came from my earlier work on traditional healing and masquerade in West Africa, later work on causality in the context of Alzheimer’s disease, my interest in Melanesian ethnography, and my work with natural scientists in Europe.
Through the notion of the ancestral imitatively construed the great strengths of phenomenological theory in addressing the concepts and practices of sciences in dominant European and sub-altern contexts can be preserved while at the same time allowing ethnographies about and actions of extra-sub-alterns to aid in better understanding the differences and similarities between dominant and sub-altern science and philosophies.
The phenomenological approach prides itself, and rightly so, in its fundamentally human, sympathetic nature in approaching the world and its problems, including those brought by the misuse of materialist philosophy and the sciences. In phenomenology “the subject” is forever bound with his or her conceptualization of and practice within life. Meaning, in this regard, becomes the way in which the subject relates to cultural and the social powers. Through this study of meaning combined with a consciousness of his or her own engagement with it, the social researcher can better sympathize with the intricacies of envious or erotic magic and myth within the subject and the social at the same time.
By excluding causality, though, this sympathetic approach often loses sight of its own place within the world it describes. Put most basically, the questions “why me?” “why then and not another time?” “why this place and not that?” or “what am I to you?” and the wonder of a whole universe of possible causal combinations are answered in terms of experience, memory, and forgetting. Such questions, calling for a cause to be named, remain un-wondered, unexplained and excessively mourned.
It is here that the social scientist and materialist philosopher begins to bury life experiences under a lived mountain of experience, memory and forgetting. In pointing to the inadequacy of language to capture and convey this mountain of experience, memory and forgetting, he or she often denies the personal nature of his or her practice of science, materialism and writing. In stressing the act and the will and in denying the cause and causality; in ultra-humanizing the human in the name of life, phenomena and their inevitable processing through abstract social and cultural categories, phenomenology denies the wonders of destiny and its transcendence of life and death. It also denies the ability of the individual as scientist or materialist philosopher to somehow divine and extract a nugget of gold from the mountain of life which it believes to be too immense or buried in eons of natural history.
Perhaps the greatest problem in denying causality is the weight it puts on the everyday. In phenomenology most all of life is the everyday, consisting of phenomena worked through categories that create experiences that grow with the mountain experience, memory and forgetting. But when phenomena are replaced with the ancestral imitatively construed, the everyday disappears and the mountains of experience, memory and forgetting appear to possibly be clouds on some unknown horizon.
Without categories and their use in processing phenomena to form experiences each experience is first a new experience that through the ancestral becomes recognized as old. Moving through the world we move through the ancestral all continually anew with much becoming recognized as old, i.e. experienced as the ancestral, as we go along. As we go along we imitate them and they us. Most of them we do not know and our recognition of them may only be a small bodily movement in this direction or that, like a step, a grasp, or making certain sound. Sometimes they manifest more strongly, causing us to imitate them in more powerful and enduring ways and, in turn, causing others to imitate us in more powerful and enduring ways, helping to heal us if ill, or to praise us or seek our help if ill or in need of knowledge. They are alive and dead as we all are alive and dead, they are animate and inanimate as we are, yet when they or we cause something we do so as both alive and dead, animate and inanimate and never simply as one or the other.
Non-Phenomenal Phenomenology and the Study of Science
Science and materialist philosophies are best viewed as studies of, descriptions of, or manipulations of the ancestral mimetically construed. We humans are best viewed as scientists and materialist philosophers of the ancestral, researching and experimenting with our destinies, miming the ancestral with a greater or lesser knowledge of our own will to power and the roles we play in various causes.