Stories and Cosmogonies: Imagining Creativity Beyond "Nature" and "Culture": Supplemental Material

This post builds on the research article “Stories and Cosmogonies: Imagining Creativity Beyond "Nature" and "Culture",” which was published in the May 2009 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Editorial Overview

In the May 2009 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Stuart McLean explores a fundamental question shared by anthropology, literature, and science: what does it mean to create? Working outside the Western habit of binarization that locates creativity in a lively “culture” distinct from a dead “nature,” McLean describes an “experimental, multi-agentive and pluralistic” conceptualization of creativity centered on “the bringing forth of new material, linguistic, or conceptual formations” beyond the nature/culture division. Through an analysis of storytelling developed via three scenarios –mythologies detailed by early 20th century anthropologists, materialisms elaborated by the Roman philosopher Lucretius and his contemporary commentators, and literatures devoted to the city of Venice – McLean theorizes “the participation of human acts of imagining and fabulation in the processes shaping and transforming the material universe.”

This essay is part of both the Cultural Anthropology Curated Collection on Literature, Writing & Anthropology and the Cultural Anthropology Virtual Issue on Water.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published essays which re-theorize the nature/culture dynamic. See for example, David Hughes' “Third Nature: Making Space and Time in the Great Limpopo Conservation Area” (2005); Celia Lowe's “Making the Monkey: How the Togean Macaque Went from 'New Form' to 'Endemic Species' in Indonesians' Conservation Biology” (2004); and Hugh Raffles' “'44Local Theory': Nature and the Making of an Amazonian Place” (1999).

Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of other essays on ethnographic practice. These include, Nancy Campbell & Susan Shaw's “Incitements to Discourse: Illicit Drugs, Harm Reduction, and the Production of Ethnographic Subjects” (2008); Brian Axel's “Anthropology and the New Technologies of Communication” (2006); and Haim Hazan's “The Ethnographer's Textual Presence: On Three Forms of Anthropological Authorship” (1995).

Stanford University Press, "The Event and Its Terrors: Ireland, Famine, Modernity." October 2004.

Related Reading by Stuart McLean

"Bodies From the Bog: Metamorphosis, Non-Human Agency and the making of Collective Memory." Trames, 12.62/57(2008): 299-308.

"'To Dream Profoundly': Irish Boglands and the Imagination of Matter." Irish Journal of Anthropology: Special issue, Engaging Imagination: Anthropological Explorations in Creativity. 10.2(2007): 61-68.

"Introduction: Why Imagination?" Irish Journal of Anthropology: Special issue, Engaging Imagination: Anthropological Explorations in Creativity. 10.2(2007): 5-9.

Coedited with Steve Coleman. Engaging Imagination: Anthropological Explorations in Creativity. Anthropological Association of Ireland.

The Event and its Terrors: Ireland, Famine, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Suggested Supplemental Readings

Malinwoski, Bronislaw. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Malenesian New Guinea. London, UK: Routledge, 1922.

Deleuze, Gilles. Expressionsim in Philosophy: Spinoza. Trans, Martin Joughin. New York, NY: Zone, 1990.

Interview with Stuart McLean
Theme: Literature, Writing & Anthropology

Cultural Anthropology: What is the purpose of telling stories? What do stories want?

Stuart McLean: I think the answer to these questions depends largely on your understanding of what a story is. I’m not sure that stories in the sense I’ve used the term could be said to “want” anything. Obviously it’s possible to think of a story as a piece of consciously shaped narrative art, following a definite trajectory (with a beginning, middle and end etc.). In my own work, I’ve tried to deploy the notion of story more expansively – to refer, for example, to a variety of material and ecological processes that might once have been conventionally identified with the realm of “nature” rather than that of “culture.” In fact one of the ways in which I’ve attempted to engage with storytelling is as a way of undermining precisely that distinction. In one sense I’m following the lead of Walter Benjamin, a thinker who was one of my earliest inspirations and who, in his celebrated essay on the work of Nikolai Leskov, invoked “nature” as “the anonymous storyteller, who was prior to all literature.” It could be objected, I suppose, that such a claim is necessarily an anthropomorphizing one, although I don’t see it in such terms. To speak of other than human storytellers is to speak of processes of unfolding that may or may not be meaningful or beneficial to humans – indeed, they might prove incomprehensible or destructive. It could be said then that stories “happen” – that storytelling refers to a movement of temporal self-differentiation that need not be thought of as linear (although, as Tim Ingold has recently reminded us, not all lines are straight lines) or as proceeding toward any pre-assigned telos (Benjamin, for example, notes that there is no genuine story for which the question of how it continued would not be legitimate). I see human acts of storytelling as participating and intervening in the storied unfolding of the world understood in these terms – as attempts, if you will, quite literally to make a difference.

CA: Is ethnography an art? How does taking a writerly approach to ethnography shape knowledge?

SM: I’m tempted to answer the first question with a simple “yes.” In fact, I don’t see how it could possibly be anything else. As to the question of writerly approaches to ethnography, I see anthropology – all anthropology, even its most hard-headedly positivist variants - as always inextricably engaged with the practice of writing. The difference between “writerly” and “non-writerly” approaches to me consists in the degree to which they take explicit cognizance of this and thus the degree to which they are willing to assume responsibility for their own knowledge making-practices. I’d also want extend consideration of anthropology’s relationship to writing beyond ethnography as a method and genre to include the discipline’s latterly much neglected comparative heritage. In fact, one of my current projects is an attempt to re-invent the genre of the comparative anthropological essay – a form that, for me, offers a rather different set of challenges from those posed by ethnography. One answer to these questions then would be to point out that ethnographies are not the only kind of writing that anthropologists have produced – or could produce.

CA: How has writing ethnography changed over the past 25 years?

SM: Obviously it would be difficult to deny that the range of possibilities for ethnographic writing has expanded in the wake of the publication of Writing Culture (which, I take it, is the tacit reference point of the question). I would suggest though that the past 25 years have witnessed far more experimentation and innovation with regard to method and subject matter than writing per se. In fact it strikes me that there is still a profound resistance on the part of most anthropologists to taking writing seriously – a tendency, that is, to treat writing as an extraneous aesthetic adornment of decidedly secondary importance compared to the ‘serious’ business of describing and documenting contemporary actualities. I remember as a newly minted Ph.D in search of employment that whenever someone would compliment me on my writing in a job interview it was invariably an indication that I wasn’t going to be hired! For me, in contrast, writing is an integral and constitutive part of what anthropologists do. Writing is inseparable from our engagement with the world. When I describe myself as an anthropologist I’m describing myself as a writer – they’re the same thing (although, obviously, there are many ways of being a writer). Having said that, I do see signs of an increasing attentiveness to writing on the part of anthropologists in recent years. Next Spring (2013) Anand Pandian (Johns Hopkins) and I are co-chairing a School of Advanced Research seminar on the subject of “Literary Anthropology,” which we conceived quite explicitly as an experimental writing workshop rather than a series of meta-reflections on the status of writing in anthropology. The range of participants – from established senior figures to people of my own generation and younger (including a poet and a novelist) – and the fact that the proposal was accepted in the first place gives some indication, I think, that anthropological writing (which, as I’ve pointed out, doesn’t only mean ethnography) might be beginning to receive the sustained and serious consideration that it demands.

CA: If you were to teach a course on literature and anthropology, what would your students read?

SM: A very interesting question, although not an easy one to answer! I’ve never attempted to teach a course on that specific topic, although I would say that all my course are in some sense ‘about’ literature and anthropology. “Literary” texts (always a somewhat slippery label) that have featured on my reading lists in the past have included The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Derek Walcott’s Omeros, John Berger’s Pig Earth, Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus and Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh. A writer whose work I’d love to teach is James Joyce – I studied English literature for my primary degree and wrote my undergraduate thesis on Joyce, so he’s been something of a long-standing obsession (one to which I returned, in fact, in a piece I recently finished that deals, amongst other things, with his wonderful short story “The Dead”). In fact I’d love to teach an anthropology course based entirely around his work and have students read everything he published, including Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Perhaps I will one day!

CA: Your 2009 article blurs the line between geological creation stories, mythical creation stories, and academic or anthropological stories, arguing that all derive from the same creative, relational process. Your talk at the 2011 AAA meetings approached the same topic in a more literary fashion, poetically blending these acts of creation into the same narrative. Can you tell us about some of the material processes that intertwine with your own writing and creative process?

SM: First of all, I would insist that my engagements with texts – anthropological, literary and other – are material processes – that is, affect-laden, potentially transformative encounters that need not be distinguished in that sense from my engagements with audio-visual works, landscapes, animals, plants, meteorological phenomena or other humans. It’s unfortunate that the protocols of academic writing and publication encourage – or force - us to place these things in distinct categories. (I remember Tim Ingold saying once in a talk that it would be nice to be able to cite a passing cloud in a bibliography). I would certainly say that the inspiration for my work comes from all of them. I would want to call attention too to the physio-chemical dimensions of the writing process itself – the cup(s) of coffee in the morning, the food one eats (or forgets to eat!), maybe a beer or a glass of wine to unwind at the end of the day etc. There are also certain activities that, for me, are indissociably linked to thinking and writing – particularly swimming (preferably in the sea when there’s one available although my midwestern institutional location often obliges me to make do with a lake or a pool). For me one reason – perhaps the most important reason – why anthropologists should study literature is to remind themselves continuously of the materiality of their own writing and knowledge-making practices and of the embeddedness of those practices within material processes that simultaneously constitute and forever exceed them. In the end I would see all of my work as an attempt to manifest and think through precisely that embeddedness, a task that I regard as being at once empirical, conceptual and writerly.

Interview with Stuart McLean
Theme: Water

Stuart McLean discussed "Stories and Cosmogonies" with Ashley Carse, Ph.D. Candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill, as part of a larger conversation about the anthropology of water published in the September 2010 Water Virtual Issue. In the interview below, McLean discusses his interest in in-between environments (wetlands, bogs, islands), moving beyond received vocabularies for socio-historical analysis by drawing upon literature and the visual arts, and the role of water in a posthumanist anthropology.

"Venice, Italy." May 2009 via Jonah S. Rubin.

Ashley Carse: Water can facilitate motion. Rivers, lakes, and oceans have historically enabled – even shaped – the movement of humans and non-humans through space. But water also constrains. It marks boundaries and edges. Anthropology, meanwhile, has traditionally demanded motion by the researcher across boundaries as we travel to and across “the field.” Using the research conducted for your CA article as a point of departure, help us reflect on the relationship between water and fieldwork. First: How has water materially shaped your fieldwork? Anthropological fieldwork generally? Second: What does (or might) an anthropology of water call for in terms of ethnographic method?

Stuart McLean: Given that a lot of the discussion of Venice, for example, in my CA article was based on literary sources, this question is perhaps easier to answer with reference either to my earlier work on Irish peat bogs or to a recently begun project based in the Orkney Islands that looks, amongst other things, at the relationship between the living and the dead considered in conjunction with the relationship between land and sea. In the case of Irish bogs, my longstanding fascination stems not only from the fact that they seem to traverse and confound some of our habituated distinctions between “nature” and “culture” (e.g. as sources of fuel, habitats for a variety of other than-human species, archaeological sites, objects of conservationist concern etc.) but also from their distinctive materiality, part liquid and part solid. To my mind one of the limitations of a lot of recent anthropological work on the topic of material culture is that it tends to engage the material world exclusively in solid form, usually in the guise of humanly manufactured objects in fact. Tim Ingold has recently argued (and I would agree) that materiality can be more suggestively and less anthropocentrically engaged by focusing not on objects, which are always in some sense already culturally specified, but on substances and their transformations. In this regard, it strikes me that other than solid modalities of matter offer perhaps the greatest challenge and provocation, both conceptually and methodologically. In the case of bogs and other so-called “wetlands” (a problematic term in my view as it seems always to imply a certain predilection for terra firma and a concomitant desire to reduce liquidity to a mere predicate) one of the challenges is that of giving expression to their amorphous, in-between character and the way in which this has shaped their entanglements with a variety of human and non-human actors. For example, does a gelid environment like a peat bog call for different strategies of engagement and writing than a rocky one? Does anthropology have something to learn here from, say, the visual arts and literature? Seamus Heaney’s bog poems have provided a repeated reference point in my own work. I’m particularly intrigued by the possibility that the language of poetry might be able to capture something that our more familiar analytic vocabularies can’t. In the case of my new project in Orkney, one of the questions that interest me is what happens when things move between the elements of land and water. The folklore of the Scottish islands abounds in stories of amphibious beings like “selkies” or seal-people, who usually live in the sea in the form of seals but occasionally coma ashore, casting off their skins to assume human form. Then you have the large number of sunken wrecks surrounding Orkney’s shores, onetime terrestrial artefacts that can be seen to have followed a reverse trajectory. One component of my “fieldwork” (a landlubberly term if ever there was one!) over the past year has involved learning to scuba dive, partly in order to examine at first hand the remains of some of these submerged vessels and partly to experience and (I hope) write about the transition between the terrestrial and the sub-aquatic, a transition accentuated by the bulk of the rather cumbersome neoprene dry suit that one is obliged to wear for insulation when diving in Orkney’s chilly waters – a prosthetic body of sorts that enables and constrains in equal measure!

AC: Stefan Helmreich recently argued that water has sometimes served in cultural anthropology as a “theory machine” (the term is historian of science Peter Galison's): an object in the world that stimulates a theoretical formulation. In recent years, “watery metaphors” – flows, fluidity, circulation, etc. – have been mobilized by anthropologists and others with increasing frequency to theorize the era of globalization. Has water prompted or formatted your own thinking about social dynamics? If so, how? What do you see as the advantages – or risks – of using watery metaphors in theorizing society, culture, and political economy?

SM: I think the idea of water as a “theory machine” is a highly suggestive one, although it seems to me that it could be expanded upon. Could one speak of water as, for example, a “literary/mythological machine” or an “artistic machine” or, in more general terms, an “imagination machine”? It strikes me that water has played no less significant a role in stimulating literary and artistic imaginings and that it has, arguably, done so over a much longer period of time – think, for example, of flood myths from the ancient Near East. Having said that, it should be acknowledged too that water-inspired theory has a long history – I suppose that an early example would be the Greek pre-Socratic thinker Thales (who posited water as the primordial element and was credited by Nietzsche with the originary philosophical insight, namely ‘that all things are one”). As to the ways in which water has influenced my own thinking, I would be inclined to say that this has taken the form less of the borrowing of aquatic metaphors to understand and describe contemporary social processes than of trying to find ways to jump outside received vocabularies of social-historical description and analysis, perhaps by trying to allow my own writing to take on a certain ‘watery’ inflection. One work that I’ve found particularly inspiring in this regard is Luce Irigaray’s wonderful book Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche – a poetic reflection on/dialogue with Nietzsche’s texts that invokes water as the element from which his philosophy pointedly shies away, preferring instead imagery of mountain tops, aerial flight etc. Rather than a straightforward critique of Nietzsche’s philosophy and its preferred metaphors, Irigaray’s book elaborates its own discourse between and around them, engaging Nietzsche both as an imaginative interlocutor and, at times, as a lover. Water is appealed to not only as a source of imagery and tropes but also as the basis for a distinctive way of thinking and writing, one that I, at least, have always found extraordinary compelling. Irigaray doesn’t seem to be much read in contemporary anthropology, I suppose because her writing is often deemed to be “ahistorical” and “essentialist”, in other words that it seems to flout the protocols of contextual and historical analysis to which all of us in the discipline (protestations to the contrary notwithstanding) are to some degree habituated – which is a very good reason for reading her, as far as I’m concerned! As I think the above suggests, in the end I’m interested in water not so much as a potential source of new social explanations but as one possible means of calling into question what an explanation is and does and also as an impetus to thinking about new ways of writing and the fashioning of new kinds of scholarly artifacts.

"Irish Peat Bog." August 2009 via Stuart McLean.

AC: At the conclusion of a water panel at the 2009 AAA meetings, discussant Kim Fortun provoked panelists with the following questions: What would it look like if anthropologists took water seriously as a topic of research and action…as seriously as, for example, capitalism? What theoretical, political, and/or personal reasons attracted you to study water? What do you see as the political stakes and potentials – if any – in how anthropologists engage water?

SM: What would it mean to take water as seriously as, say, capitalism? I think the question is a very timely and provocative one and therefore deserving of a rather lengthier and more detailed answer than I can give here. The following then are just a few fragmentary suggestions. First, if we were indeed to take water as seriously as capitalism, then it seems to me that we would be obliged to question, in a quite fundamental way, our habitual prioritization of certain kinds of social and historical explanations. Obviously, a great deal can be said about water in a socialhistorical register – about, for example, its uses, meanings, symbolic valences, the various bodies of scientific knowledge that have developed in relation to it etc. Taking water seriously, however, would surely involve taking seriously the possibility that water might also afford an explanatory and descriptive register capable of encompassing ‘society” and “history” (rather than vice versa). It might, for example, require a sustained engagement with temporalities very different from those customarily invoked in the writing of history (including the longue durée environmental history practiced by Braudel and others). Water, in other words, might afford a provocation to think beyond or outside the human-centered time-frame that continues to be the default setting for much anthropological and historical scholarship and in doing so it might prompt us to more sustained consideration of explanatory logics other than those underpinning contemporary variants of historicism. Second, what might be the implications for taking water seriously of the fact that water can be encountered not only in liquid but also in solid and vapor form. If our analytic vocabularies tend to imply a world composed largely of more or less clearly bounded solids, might a more sustained engagement with water be one way of coming to terms with these other modalities of matter (and the phase transitions between them) as well as with the fact that much of the matter that surrounds and constitutes us does in fact exist in other then solid form. Third, it has often been pointed out that the human body is itself composed largely of water. What would it mean to take this claim seriously? What would it mean to acknowledge that human beings, as anthropology’s foundational object of inquiry, are, to a large extent, “made of” water? How might recognition of this inflect discussions of, for example, embodiment, which have often tended hitherto to presuppose a certain corporeal solidity. How might it prompt us to rethink not only bodies and subjectivities but also their relationships to and consubstantiality with the various material environments they inhabit? In short, I would see a more sustained engagement with water and offering far-reaching possibilities for transforming both the terms in which we describe reality and our sense of what counts as reality. Perhaps an aquatic voyage should be required of all of us interested in pursuing the possibility of a ‘post-humanist’ anthropology?

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1.What is the vision of creativity that McLean seems to be reacting against in this piece? And what is his alternative view of the term? Can we give other examples using his definition of creativity?

2. What is the vision of anthropology that McLean provides us? What are the purposes/ends of such an anthropology? What methods are adequate to it?

3. What role does storytelling play within this essay? How does storytelling construct the real in different ways? According to McLean, can there be incompatible or incommensurate storytelling? Or are these just so many ways to construct the real?

4. With relation to Rutherford 2009: How would/can Rutherford’s view of sympathy be reconciled with McLean’s discussion of creativity and ontology? Does Humean sympathy facilitate a view of multiple modes of storytelling, and therefore multiple ways of contructing the real? Or are these always hierarchically ranked?