Rethinking Conceptual Universes

Rethinking Culture and Metaphysical Schemes, etc.

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in his Cannibal Metaphysics argues the case that Amazonian and other Amerindian groups inhabit a radically different conceptual universe than ours—in which nature and culture, human and nonhuman, subject and object are conceived in terms that reverse our own—he presents the case for anthropology as the study of such “other” metaphysical schemes, and as the corresponding critique of the concepts imposed on them by the human sciences.

For me the writing of dark fantastic fiction is just such an exploration. It allows one to investigate the delusions within one’s own culture, to trace down the deliriums and phobias, the nightmares and aberrations that have guided our collective madness for centuries. The notion of insects seems to be a prime example of a nightmare scenario that one finds hidden in the lair of the monstrous within Western Civilization and Culture. One can harken back to ancient myths, dreams, fears, terrors of rats, insects, serpents, etc.; deep seated worlds of disgust that have shaped our religious and secular views of life, medicine, politics, and moral views.

As Peter Skafish asks: “Can anthropology be philosophy, and if so, how?” For philosophers, the matter has been and often remains quite simple: anthropology’s concern with socio-cultural and historical differences might yield analyses that philosophy can put to use (provided that it condescends to examine them), but only rarely does anthropology conceive its material at a level of generality or in relation to metaphysical issues in their positivity that would allow it to really do philosophy, especially of an ontological kind. Anthropologists, on the other hand, tend not to disagree, whether out of a preference for local problems or from the more canny recognition that even the best philosophers prove quite adept at mistaking modern ideological values for transcendental concepts. Such perspectives, however, are proving outmoded in the face of a now sizable group of thinkers, ranging from Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers to Marilyn Strathern to François Jullien, whose questions, concepts, objects and methods belong in different ways to both anthropology and philosophy, and who moreover propose that certain aspects of anthropology – analyses of scientific practices, knowledge of cultural variation, and an old thing called structuralism – are key to a new metaphysics as empirical, pluralistic and comparative as transcendental, unifying and general.

As Skafish reminds us Castro, a native of Rio (and carioca irony) who did fieldwork with a Northeastern Amazonian Indian group known as the Arawaté, Viveiros de Castro is widely known in social anthropology for showing that what falls under the domain of ‘social’ and ‘human’ relations for such Amazonian peoples is so broad – animals, plants, spirits are all conceived as persons – that modern distinctions between nature and culture, animals and humans, and even descent and marriage ties are effectively inverted. A generalized ‘potential’ or ‘virtual affinity’ obtains (‘affinity’ is the kinship term for relations established through marriage) wherein beings, because they are all initially related and thus ‘social’, must be established as ‘natural’ and substantial in the same way that conventional, cultural ones elsewhere have to be. He’ll add:

The means of doing that, from hunting to ritual to shamanism, involve contending with the additional fact that every relatable entity is conceived as having, whatever its bodily form, a soul – intentionality and apperception – of a ‘human’ character, and that all beings thus perceive themselves as humans, and other beings as either animals or cultural artefacts. Jaguars, for example, are thought to see themselves as humans, to see humans as human prey like peccarys and monkeys, and their own food as that of humans (blood as manioc beer). Successfully negotiating one’s relations with other beings therefore requires adopting their perspectives, as shamans do when they become animals, in order to know what they see things as being, and thereby in turn anticipating and knowing them as definite beings. What emerges from this ‘perspectivist’ universe, Viveiros de Castro continually emphasizes, is an ontology that reverses the terms of one of our most fundamental metaphysical dualisms. Because perspectivism confers on all beings the same ontological status, and distinguishing between them requires knowing the differences between their bodies, ‘culture’ becomes the underlying domain uniting beings in Amazonia and nature the differential, separating one. A ‘multinaturalism’ effectively prevails that is the converse of our naturalist multiculturalism.1

Watching Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel with Andrew Zimmern made me take the above notion up again (along with reading some other posts on Kant, Disgust, etc.).  Realizing that for most of our planet insects are not a delicacy but a staple, an everyday food substance that is part of a daily dietary intake with open stalls of insects found in many markets around the world. Yet, in the West such notions seem at once exotic and disgusting to our sense of aesthetic taste. Why? If Castro is correct then we’ve been culturally encoded within a metaphysical sphere of thought and education that precludes insects as dietary ensembles. Of course one would need a thorough history of this both within dietary, medical, religious, social, and other detailed aspects of Greek and Judeo-Christian thought forward to our time to truly grasp such a notion of this separation of “conceptual universes”. When and where did it happen? Why in the West do we find insects as part of our diet disgusting? Why in other cultures is it a source of protein etc. and seen as “ordinary”? There’s a whole secret history to be unlocked in such notions…

One study “Bug Appetite” in which insects were served as food to people who would’ve never participated on their own discovered a few interesting things. People who were low in sensitivity to animal reminder disgust were more willing to attend this program after having been primed to think about cooking. Cooking is a process by which raw ingredients are transformed into finished products, reducing the “animalness” of meat products that renders them disgusting. Sensitivity to core disgust did not interact with cooking to influence willingness to attend the program. While prior research has emphasized that direct education campaigns about the benefits of entomophagy (the consumption of insects) can increase willingness to attend events at which insect-based food is served, this is the first demonstration that indirect priming can have a similar effect among a subset of the population.

Even the UN is urging people to eat insects. A new report from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says Western societies should get over their “disgust” at the idea of eating bugs and join in. Wasps, bees, beetles, ants, grasshoppers, and, yes, crickets are protein-rich, abundant, and have a small environmental footprint compared to other animal food sources, says the report, “Edible Insects: Future Prospects For Food And Feed Security.”

On Good Reads one will find under the Horror Aficionados as section of recommendations for Insect Horror and movies as well.  Of course Entomophobia, sometimes known as insectophobia, is the fear of insects. The fear is relatively common in the US, particularly in urban areas where coming into contact with a bug is fairly unusual because of the lack of interaction with nature. Urban dwellers’ fears of insects often serve as fodder for situation comedies and reality shows that depict their sudden transition to rural or island life.

Many people who have never been exposed to this life can struggle because of the prevalence and pervasiveness of insects in living areas or they become overly aware of them in public spaces. Although they are not technically insects, the fear of spiders is the most prevalent form of entomophobia. Other commonly feared bugs include bees, ants, cockroaches and flies such as butterflies and moths. Many people fear “bugs” in general, reacting in panic to any insect or related creature that crosses their path.

Fear of Contamination

In many cases of entomophobia, the sufferer is afraid of becoming contaminated by insects. Many bugs, such as cockroaches and flies, do carry disease. However, people with contamination phobias take prudent cleanliness to an extreme. In addition, disgust there is a reaction that often causes symptoms of anxiety. A variety of research performed in the 2000s showed that we react more strongly to creatures that we find disgusting than we do to animals that may be more inherently dangerous.

Some people worry that they will be bitten by an insect. Specific worries run the gamut from the fear of pain to the fear of illness. Legitimate allergic reactions, particularly to bee stings and fire ant bites, do exist, as do legitimately venomous insects, but by in large, the fear of common insects such as house flies, cockroaches and the like do not warrant the fear of being bitten.

The fear of triggering a medical condition is never considered a phobia. However, the vast majority of insect bites or stings cause little more than an annoyance, and most fears of being bitten are out of proportion to the risks.

In some cases, Acarophobia (fear of mites) can severely consume a person’s life in that; one is so afraid of insects that s/he refuses to leave the house to avoid encountering bugs. In some patients, the condition results in Delusory Parasitosis, a mental illness where the patient feels constant ‘prickling, tingling, creeping, crawling or burrowing sensations akin to insects present on the skin. In severe cases of Entomophobia, people have been known to self-mutilate or scratch intensely, leading to severe skin infections. Some display obsessive compulsive disorder where they may clean constantly to repel bugs.

Some of the supposed causes of such fears and madness:

Environmental– Static electricity, presence of mold, pollen, household allergens and formaldehyde impregnated products can all manifest as unexplained dermatitis or skin irritations. These lead the sufferer to believe that an insect or bug is crawling on the skin.

Medical conditions and trauma– Mental retardation, hyperthyroidism, thiamine or folate deficiencies, syphilis, meningitis, cirrhosis, fluoride poisoning, anxiety disorders, adrenal insufficiency etc are often linked to the fear of bugs phobia. Psychological Factors- Divorce, loss of a loved one or pet, loss of employment, witnessing a traumatic or tragic incident at a specific time, monetary concerns, multi-tasking in professional and personal lives, etc are stressors that are linked to Entomophobia.

Social Isolation– Often, individuals diagnosed with fear of insects phobia are known to live alone. As a result, their health becomes a fixation: it allows them to interact with doctors. Due to this, they start obsessing over dermatitis or other skin irritations. This leads to constantly think about bugs or insects. These thoughts become habitual and turn into a phobia.

Depression– This is a major factor that may trigger Acarophobia. Depressed individuals often tend to have lack of interest in life; they also suffer from a low self esteem, have feelings of guilt or worthlessness. Schizophrenia is another proven cause of Entomophobia.

Age– Sufferers of Acarophobia can belong to any age group though it is more common in females in the older age groups. Conversely, more men suffer from it in younger age groups than women.

Some people worry about their homes or bodies becoming infested with bugs. According to an article in the Cultural Entomology Digest, people with this fear often bring items that they believe to be bugs to pest control officials. These specimens, gathered around the house, turn out to be bits of lint, scabs or dust, rather than the feared bugs. In the article, researcher Phillip Weinstein points out that infestation fears may be indicative of delusional thoughts rather than a simple phobia. It is up to the treatment provider to carefully analyze the client’s thoughts and behaviors in order to accurately diagnose and treat the issue.

Perhaps this is an evolutionary response to our ancestors’ misunderstandings of disease prevention. Or, maybe, a part of the Judeo-Christian guilt culture that has a contempt for the natural and the body, for life and the erotic?

In SIN AND FEAR: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th-18th Centuries by Jean Delumeau tells us “This book has attempted to answer this enormous question,” he writes, “by considering sin as a ‘historical object.’ It was, I believe, a new enterprise to undertake a cultural history of sin in the West.” In his horror show of Western culture Delumeau describes a cruel torture chamber of strangeness.

In the first hall of the ground floor, one sees various manifestations of “contemptus mundi,” a once-useful ascetical concept of amazing plasticity; in a thousand forms it relentlessly urged the denial of all earthly enterprise.

In the next hall is “Danse Macabre,” the image of death that was rendered so imaginatively, if grotesquely, adding a little Fred and Ginger to the otherwise dull sermon, the otherwise static painting.

On the second floor in an exhibit entitled “A Failure of Redemption?” Delumeau presents the examination of conscience, the practice if not the sacrament of penance, the concept if not the doctrine of original sin, the relative paucity of the saved; under “Religious Uneasiness,” he dazzlingly displays the doctrine of pain, the disease of scruple, the difficulty of death.

On the third floor, where the placard reads “An Evangelism of Fear,” he details sermons and hymns, the tortures of the afterlife, the judgment or vengeance of a “lynx-eyed” God, the classifications of sins as mortal and venial, and the ascetic model, the svelte ideal.

For Delumeau “A pessimistic brand of preaching” and “a series of vast collective disasters that besieged Europeans” seemed to have fueled the imaginations of princes and priests.

Can such notions as normal, aberrant, etc. be used in such an investigation? What we deem disgusting and abhorrent is both “ordinary” and “normal” for other cultures with other conceptual universes… why is this so? In some ways this leads us back to the old parable of the Tower of Babel. Thinking how each culture is circumscribed and cut off in their own conceptual universe and unable to pierce the veil of their delusionary perspective. Instead they make war on the other’s perspective as “wrong” or part of some moralistic scheme of “evil” and revulsion, etc. If we’re to overcome our biases we must understand how this comes about, culture or nurture, or a combination? Otherwise we’re truly doomed to repeat our delusions forever…

In fact, I’d say this comes to the core of our current world-wide issue of refugees, racism, gender, class and every other issue we’re living through in our time. One could take up other concepts to trace as well, I just saw this notion of Insect Philosophy as one avenue to trace the patterns of war, aggression, disgust, morality… all connected to our delusionary conceptual universe. Lacan’s notions of the Symbolic Order (conceptual universe) deal in this pattern… so do we trace it in dialectical or non-dialectical ways, or both for a more inclusive history?

The whole tradition of poststructuralist deconstruction didn’t successfully answer any of this, with its eternal black holes in rhetoric and the undecidability of meaning etc. it left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. A passé and failed enterprise… so is Castro onto somethin, or is this just one more battle of the coded/decoded binary escapades driven into the world of closure: this time everyone locked away within their own conceptual universe of collective narcissism and delirious madness?


1. Skafish, Peter. Cannibal metaphysics: Amerindian perspectivism RP 182 (Nov/Dec 2013) / Article: here.

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