The Department of Anthropology’s Annual Symposium Examines the Anthropos of Anthropology
Ryan Schram, Lecturer in Anthropology, “Post-Human World” Symposium Co-organizer
all photos: Ms Aila Naderbagi
July 4, 2013
On June 13 and 14, anthropologists and other scholars came together to debate the concept of the human in the social sciences at a symposium hosted by the Department of Anthropology. The title and theme of the conference was “A Post-Human World?: Rethinking Anthropology and the Human Condition.” Posthumanism and related concepts have been percolating in the social sciences in humanities for some time. Although they seem to promise a radical new foundation for humanistic inquiry, they have mainly been used in the fields of science and technology studies, environmental studies and communication studies.
The discipline of anthropology, as the study of humanity, has a special interest in debates about the anthropos. Thus the conference invited people from all fields within anthropology to reconsider their own work in light of arguments around posthumanism, deep ecology, and animality. The conference consisted of 30 presentations from scholars from across the country and New Zealand, each taking a different view on what defines the human and what alternative definitions there could be.
The conference also featured two distinguished lectures by Marianne Lien, professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo, and Nikolas Kompridis, professor of philosophy and political theory at the University of Western Sydney. On the first day, Lien argued that anthropological analysis of food, subsistence and ecology is often framed implicitly by a narrative of domestication as a singular event.
She introduced a new conception of domestication as an ongoing process of co-evolution between humans and plants. She also emphasized that such processes are open-ended and nonlinear, which led to a more general conclusion that anthropology’s ontological category of the human itself should be more open. The next day, Kompridis presented overview of his own philosophical anthropology. Revisiting debates over essentialism and antiessentialism, he made the case for a concept of the human defined the capacity for receptivity, being both a unique attribute of the human mind, yet also inherently social and relational. In these presentations, in plenary presentations by David Trigger (University of Queensland), John Morton (La Trobe University) and Lorraine Mortimer (La Trobe University), in the breakout sessions and in the informal breaks, people framed the issue in terms of a contrast between theory and ethnography. While many theoretical conceptions of the human in anthropology could be critiqued, ethnographic knowledge, based on both participation and observation, has always been open to alternative modes of being because it leads ultimately to verstehen (understanding) through interpretation. Thus anthropology itself, or perhaps simply qualitative social science, is the best tool for discovering new ontologies.
Some of the other topics discussed in the conference sessions were: human-animal relationships, the production of scientific knowledge, environmental politics, and the different ways that cultures represent and relate to the natural environment, place and landscape.
The conference was generously supported with funds from the Department of Anthropology, the School of Social and Political Sciences, and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.