Difference in Conversation
From the Series: Bateson Book Forum: Behold the Black Caiman
Lucas Bessire’s rich and challenging monograph, Behold the Black Caiman, which chronicles the postcontact life of a previously forest-dwelling community in the Gran Chaco, took me many places. It drew me into what Bessire calls the “the delirium of ethnographic experience” and left me—and, I suspect, all who have read it—with far more questions than answers. I mean this in the best way possible. Many of the book’s chapters end with something akin to a mic drop, where Bessire leads the reader in one direction and then offers something slightly different, thus opening up space in which the reader can draw their own (however tenuous, likely half-formed) conclusions. In so doing, the book lends itself to a reading, an existence, that “generates new fields of understanding and possibility” through its opening up toward “an indefinite, neither text/performer nor reader/spectator” (Biehl and Locke 2010, 347). Behold the Black Caiman is a book about life becoming, and the text itself exemplifies that state.
In Bessire’s words, the book is meant to offer “a critical analysis of the preemptive foreclosure of human becoming” and, in successfully doing so, it demands respect for its own self-determination. Charged with the task of writing a response to this book leaves me both speechless and with so much to say; perhaps I am still caught in the delirium that guides the text. In this brief essay, I seek to gesture toward what some of these engagements or resonances might be. In doing this, I will raise a few questions about the potentials and limits of dialogical, conceptual, and/or comparative work in anthropology, particularly when—and it never does—“life [does] not fit within . . . analytic categories.”
* * *
Behold the Black Caiman is, in part, about dispelling myths, so let me start by dispelling a myth that I have heard about the book, clearly by those who have yet to read it: that it is only a reaction to the so-called ontological turn (as if it would be, somehow, not a worthy book if it were only such). This myth, I suspect, is the result of the 2014 article that Bessire coauthored with David Bond (Bessire and Bond 2014), which, according to Alex Golub at Savage Minds, “will probably go down in history as the most forceful statement of why the ontological turn rubs people the wrong way.” I agree with Golub, but think it is important to note that, while Behold the Black Caiman substantiates the arguments made in that article with ethnographic detail, it also opens up space for engagements far beyond the book’s obvious geographical or theoretical scope(s).
Behold the Black Caiman beautifully engages and sharply critiques many anthropologists who treaded the Gran Chaco before him. I’d be eager to see Bessire put his ethnography in conversation with other contemporary work on the themes of indigeneity, becoming, and the politics of life. That’s to say, I’d love to be a fly on a wall for a conversation between Bessire and other scholars who offer new and challenging directions for anthropology and/of life. Let me mention, however briefly, three here: Eduardo Kohn’s (2013) How Forests Think, Lisa Stevenson’s (2014) Life Beside Itself, and Bhrigupati Singh’s (2015) Poverty and the Quest for Life. All of these books, like Behold the Black Caiman, think about the category of life, albeit with different starting and ending points. For this reason, I would like to suggest, they might be very productively read alongside each other.
Kohn (2013, 1) opens How Forests Think, drawing upon a story about jaguars and sleeping and forests, with a bold statement: “Encounters with other kinds of beings force us to recognize the fact that seeing, representing, and perhaps knowing, even thinking, are not exclusively human affairs.” This leads him to a provocative question: “How would coming to terms with this realization change our understandings of society, culture, and indeed the sort of world that we inhabit?” I wonder how Bessire might draw upon his ethnography of Ayoreo to respond to this question. Furthermore, I wonder what a dialogue with the recent work on becoming in multispecies ethnography (e.g., Haraway 2008; Tsing 2015) might do for Bessire’s take on becoming.
In Life Beside Itself, Stevenson (2014, 3–4) writes about the Foucauldian concept of biopolitics as “a logic of care” that “informs not only the way policies concerning the population are enacted, but also how individuals engage with other individuals while adhering to the logic of biopolitics.” Bessire instead turns to biolegitimacy, a particular formation of biopolitics that refers to “the specific kinds of late liberal governance instantiated through policing the constricting limits of who should live and in the name of what.” In line with Bessire’s interest in the politics of knowledge production, I’d be curious to hear more about how and why he was attracted to the concept of biolegitimacy, initially developed by Didier Fassin, and wonder if we might learn more if he was to put it into conversation with other forms of biopower, with Stevenson’s work being just one of the possible occasions for dialogue.
Both Singh and Bessire enter a space, ethnographically, that many others have entered before— for Singh, a rural space of poverty in central India inhabited by low-caste and tribal identities and, for Bessire, an impoverished indigenous community on the boundary of contact. Yet both distinctly reject and write against the representations of life that have previously emerged from these spaces. However, there are some significant differences in their conceptual approaches, or in their relationships to concepts as such. Singh builds up a repertoire of conceptual terms—thresholds of life, intensities, potencies/potentia, waxing and waning, agonistic intimacy—while Bessire seems hesitant to engage in this form of ethnographic knowledge production (see da Col and Graeber 2011; Stoler, forthcoming; Das, Jackson, Kleinman, and Singh 2014). I sense something underlying that hesitancy, and I would be eager to hear Bessire reflect upon on the recent (re)turn to ethnographic theory in anthropology.
Presumptions are made by putting texts and the worlds they write about into conversation, and Bessire seems acutely aware of this. Indeed, in my reading, it is one of the main tensions that he faced in his writing: “Where the ethnographer collects and orders, the Ayoreo healer unravels and ruptures. The tension between them is not merely one of disagreement. This friction also creates new figures and forces and sets them loose on the world where they demand responses from us all.” How, then, does the ethnographer deal with this tension? How do we put difference into conversation? How do we compare difference? How can we put different spaces into productive conversation? Behold the Black Caiman begins to offer us answers, and I hope my comments here might provoke Bessire to guide us further.
Biehl, João, and Peter Locke. 2010. “Deleuze and the Anthropology of Becoming.” Current Anthropology 51, no. 3: 317–51.
Bessire, Lucas. 2014. Behold the Black Caiman: A Chronicle of Ayoreo Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bessire, Lucas, and David Bond. 2014. “Ontological Anthropology and the Deferral of Critique.” American Ethnologist 41, no. 3: 440–56.
da Col, Giovanni, and David Graeber. 2011. “Foreword: The Return of Ethnographic Theory.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1, no. 1: vi–xxxv.
Das, Veena, Michael D. Jackson, Arthur Kleinman, and Bhrigupati Singh, eds. 2014. The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Golub, Alex. 2016. “Teh New Ethnographeez.” Savage Minds, February 15.
Haraway, Donna. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: An Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Singh, Bhrigupati. 2015. Poverty and the Quest for Life: Spiritual and Material Striving in Rural India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Stevenson, Lisa. 2014. Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Stoler, Ann Laura. Forthcoming. Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.