Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Not Animal, Not Not-Animal: Hunting, Imitation and Empathetic Knowledge among the Siberian Yukaghirs

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Not Animal, Not Not-Animal: Hunting, Imitation and Empathetic Knowledge among the Siberian Yukaghirs

Article excerpt

It is a commonly held assumption in the West that attributes of personhood, with all that this entails in terms of language, intentionality, reasoning, and moral awareness, belong exclusively to human beings. Animals are understood to be wholly natural kinds of being, and their behaviour is usually explained as automatic and instinctual. However, among the Yukaghirs a different assumption prevails. In their world, persons can take on a variety of forms, of which human beings are only one. They can appear in the shape of rivers, trees, and spirits, but it is, above all, mammals that Yukaghirs commonly see as 'other-than-human persons' (Hallowell 1960: 36). Moreover, humans and animals can move in and out of different species' perspectives by temporarily taking on alien kinds of bodies. Indeed, among the Yukaghirs, as I show below, this capacity to take on the appearance and viewpoint of another species is one of the key aspects of being a person.

In this article, I examine Yukaghir conceptions of animals as persons. My approach consists of a merging of two kinds of theories: the proposition of 'Amerindian perspectivism' (Viveiros de Castro 1998) and notions of 'mimesis' (Taussig 1993). The first theory provides a framework for understanding the ontological principles on which Yukaghir ideas about non-human personhood are based. Viveiros de Castro (1998) proposes that, for cultures which subscribe to what he calls 'perspectivist notions', different subjects or persons, humans and non-humans, inhabit the world. Each of these has a point of view or perspective which provides it with a 'humanness', such that it sees itself as humans see themselves; animals and spirits thus live in households and kin groups similar to those of humans. However, an evil spirit or a predatory animal will see a human as prey, to the same extent that prey animals will see humans as evil spirits or predators. The point is that different species see things in similar or identical ways to humans, but what they see is different and depends on the body they have. However, bodies and the particular perspectives which they facilitate are exchangeable, because behind them lie subjectivities in the form of souls, which are formally identical in human and non-human persons. Thus, Viveiros de Castro argues, humans and animals can traverse the ordinary Self/Other divide but remain essentially the same.

I argue that, although Viveiros de Castro's outline of perspectivism explains the conception of the body and its relation to the dynamics of identity and alterity among the Yukaghirs, it remains an abstract model, detached from the real experiences of people in a life-world. While Yukaghirs do take on the bodies of animals when they go hunting, it is not something that can be done easily, because it involves the risk of losing one's original species adherence and undergoing an irreversible metamorphosis. Therefore, what Yukaghirs strive for when transforming their bodies into the image of prey is not to take on its perspective in any absolute sense, which would mean literally becoming the animal. Rather, they attempt to assume the point of view of the animal, while in some profound sense remaining the same. Mimetic practice, I argue, provides this ability to be like, yet also different from, the animal impersonated; it grants the hunter a 'double perspective' whereby he can assume the animal's point of view but still remain a human hunter who chases and kills the prey. In fact, I will go so far as to argue that it is through mimetic practice that the symbolic world of perspectivism is made possible. Without mimesis, perspectivism as represented in myths and other types of narratives would bear no resemblance to the world of lived experience--indeed, it would be nothing but a cosmological abstraction. Thus, my point is not to challenge perspectivism as outlined by Viveiros de Castro. Rather, my argument is against undue abstraction in ethnographical analysis and I see perspectivism, as it stands, as too abstract for ethnographic application. …

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