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As Wide as the World Is WiseReinventing Philosophical Anthropology$

Michael Jackson

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780231178280

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231178280.001.0001

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Ourselves and Others

Ourselves and Others

(p.100) 5. Ourselves and Others
As Wide as the World Is Wise

Michael Jackson

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

My focus in chapter five is on human-animal relationships, specifically the ways in which the life of one passes into the other and the ways in which one makes the other thinkable. After elucidating how this interchange of being is understood in various societies, I propose an existential theory of ritual that explores the proposition that many myths and rites are informed by an urge to redistribute life itself, which always tends to be perceived as unequally distributed. Life forms are, therefore, constantly moving, both physically and imaginatively, from where life is scarce to where it is more bountiful, and these life forms are also in constant competition with one another for the scarcest of all goods, life itself. These actual or virtual redistributions of life are typically justified by moral dogmas that determine which life forms are more deserving of life (including eternal life) and which have less urgent claims on the right to live. For if life is to be taken from one person, creature or place and incorporated into another, then some kind of moral discrimination will be needed to justify why one being’s right to life is greater than another’s.

Keywords:   Philosophy, Anthropology, Philosophical anthropology, subjectivity

Natural species are chosen not because they are “good to eat” but because they are “good to think.”


In The View of Life (1918), Georg Simmel observes that what is so striking about human existence is that in acting to preserve, enhance, and expand our life, we generate “objectified forms” such as languages, religious doctrines, moral codes, political ideologies, and philosophies that constitute “more-than-life.” Though born of the life process, these objectified forms take on a life of their own, coming to have such a hold over us that “life often wounds itself upon the structures it has externalized from itself as strictly objective.”1 There are echoes here of Karl Marx’s thesis that regardless of historical circumstances and independent of its location in the private or public realm, labor power (arbeitskraft) possesses a “productivity” of its own. This productivity, comments Hannah Arendt, “does not lie in any of labor’s products but in the human ‘power,’ whose strength is not exhausted when it has produced the means of its own subsistence and survival but is capable of producing a ‘surplus,’ that is, more than is necessary for its own ‘reproduction.’”2 Psychoanalytically, Simmel’s “objectified forms” and Marx’s “reified products” function as intrapsychic defenses and may be compared with established social norms and discursive conventions that also tend to deaden our awareness and prevent us from “living openly.”3

These observations suggest that reified ideas both determine and are determined by our existential situations and that there is always both continuity and discontinuity in the relationship between life as lived and life as we come to understand it. This is also true of relationships (p.101) between what Ludwig Wittgenstein called different “forms of life,”4 though I gloss this expression to cover both what Simmel calls forms of “more-than-life” and what biologists refer to as life-forms (species, genera, etc.). This is because we are sustained in life not only by the culture we acquire but also by the life-forms, mega and microbial, that coexist with and within us. Moreover, our fulfillment in life depends on so many things—food, drink, work, leisure, sleep, wakefulness, thought, action, speech, silence, love, hate, peace, war—that every person’s life course involves perpetual oscillations from one form of life to another, each move motivated by a search for well-being that a myriad of trivial or imperative things may, at least potentially and momentarily, provide. Even at the end of life, when these existential potentialities become severely diminished, a person may review and evaluate his or her options as if the most imperative issue is, as D. W. Winnicott put it, to be alive when I die.5

At eighty-one and diagnosed with multiple metastases in the liver, Oliver Sacks posted an op-ed in the New York Times in which he wrote:

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight. This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).6

Life Itself

Just as we are continually moving about in our environments, experimenting with different ways of finding fulfillment, we are changing our environments by bringing life from where it abounds to where it is felt to be scarce. Both in thought and in deed, we import, purchase, purloin, borrow, or otherwise acquire from elsewhere or from others the things that sustain us. In this process we ourselves are changed. A book may provide food for thought, just as a meal may nourish our bodies. A companion animal may give us the recognition and love we once found (p.102) in a close friend. It is as if life itself moved through all things, organic and inorganic, human and extrahuman, divine and mundane, effectively blurring the lines we often draw between these realms.

Yet we are haunted by the thought that the life we enjoy comes at the cost of another life destroyed.

One of the tragedies that mercantile capitalism, colonialism, and industrialization brought in their wake was the extinction of entire populations, societies, languages, and craft traditions. Extinction ceased to be an issue for individuals alone, or even for families decimated by disease or warfare; extinction increasingly became a specter for entire species and, imminently, for the very species that had created the conditions under which so many others had perished. As Thom van Dooren observes, the question of extinction is never simply a question of the death of any one life-form, for all life on earth is woven into “relationships of coevolution and ecological dependency.”7 John Donne wrote that no man is an island. Were he writing today, he might well say not only that “I am involved in Mankinde” and that “any man’s death diminishes me” but that our species and our society are involved in life itself and that the death of any species or society diminishes all.

For van Dooren, one response to this sense of being involved in a planetary life crisis is to recount extinction stories that bring home to us the complex entanglements that connect all life-forms. Such narratives are ethically necessary, even though they may not change the way things are or the way things are going.8 Mourning extinction, whether the death of a single person or the last passenger pigeon that passed away in 1914, is a way of choosing life over death since to mourn is to keep alive a sense of what it means to be alive, to be among the living. It is an act of witnessing and of solidarity.

This eco-philosophical way of appreciating the felt interconnectedness of all life-forms bears a family resemblance to the existential model of reality as consisting of eigenwelt (one’s own world), mitwelt (the world of other people), and umwelt (the surrounding or wider world, which includes the natural environment as well as entities we call things, animals, and aliens—sometimes speaking of them in derogatory ways, sometimes reverently and with awe, as such beings include both demons and divinities). Although these spheres are often thought of as separate domains, they are just as often considered to be interconnected. Thus (p.103) we liken the wider world to our own world, imagining that divinities share certain attributes with us, assuming that certain animals experience us as we experience them, and acting as if certain material objects possessed consciousness and will—were, indeed, subjects. Though most human beings conventionally distinguish between “persons” and “things”—subjects and objects—or humans and animals, these category boundaries are notoriously unstable.

In a remarkable ethnography entitled How Forests Think, based on fieldwork in Ecuador’s Upper Amazonia, Eduardo Kohn takes us into a world where certain animals are thought to see us in the same way that we in our society see them. Kohn begins his book with an anecdote.

Settling down to sleep under our hunting camp’s thatch lean-to in the foothills of Sumaco Volcano, Juanicu warned me, “Sleep faceup! If a jaguar comes he’ll see you can look back at him and he won’t bother you. If you sleep facedown he’ll think you’re aicha (prey; lit., ‘meat’ in Quichua) and he’ll attack.” … If, Juanicu was saying, a jaguar sees you as a being capable of looking back—a self like himself, a you—he’ll leave you alone. But if he should come to see you as prey—an it—you may well become dead meat.

Such ethnographic aperçus force us to consider that our notion of the human is by no means universal and that “seeing, representing, and perhaps knowing, even thinking, are not exclusively human affairs.”9

Ratherthan make a case for multiple ontologies in which no single human society is permitted to have the last word on the nature of reality or the definition of the human, I want to explore the conditions under which people in any society might imagine that properties conventionally associated with being human—particularly conceptual thought and speech—might be assumed to be properties of other life-forms as well, and even of material objects.

My focus is on human-animal relationships—the ways the loss of one implicates the loss of another, the ways that the life of one passes into another, and the ways each makes the other thinkable. After showing how this interchange of being is understood in various societies, I propose an existential theory of ritual that explores the proposition that many myths and rites are informed by an urge to redistribute life itself, which always tends to be perceived as scarce and unequally distributed. (p.104) Life-forms are, therefore, constantly moving, both physically and imaginatively, from where life is scarce to where it is abundant, and these lifeforms are also in constant competition with one another for the scarcest of all goods, life itself. These actual or virtual redistributions of life are typically justified by moral dogmas that determine which life-forms are more deserving of life (including eternal life) and which have less urgent claims on the right to exist. For if life is to be taken from one person, creature, or place and incorporated into another, then some kind of moral discrimination will be needed to justify why one being’s right to life is greater than another’s.

Living with Otherness

In the process of their interaction, the essence of any one form of life—be it a book, a person, a plant, an animal, an image—will tend to bleed into and transform the essence of others.10 An industrial laborer may feel that his work is soul-destroying, as if the inertia of the things on which he toils degrades his own being. A scholar may feel that his favorite authors are alive and speak to him. A hunter may imagine that his prey participates in his own will and consciousness. And a prized possession may be thought to embody the spirit of the person who made it or gave it to another person as a gift. Though Marx and Marcel Mauss pioneered our understanding of such phenomena, they have recently been subject to new interpretations under such rubrics as the “social life of things,” “cosmological perspectivism,” “actor-network theory,” and “the new materialism.”11 All these intellectual projects begin with a fascination with the emotional and conceptual effects of coexisting with divinities, significant others, material things, animals, forests, urban spaces, prosthetic devices, and implanted organs. But rather than invoke the phenomenological epoche to bracket out conventional distinctions between appearance and reality (or subject and object) in order to engage the lived experience of individuals in real life situations, selected aspects (often shamanic or fantastic) of these experiences are sometimes made the basis for epistemological generalizations that effectively conflate being with thought. Anthropologists are, of course, not alone in confusing ontology with epistemology. This is what all human beings often do. But this interpretive move can make it difficult to see whether, and in (p.105) what ways and on what occasions, the informants in question vary or change their points of view, bringing some ideas to the fore and pushing others into the background as they judge how best to negotiate a given situation. To put it succinctly, a focus on worldviews can easily obscure what Simmel calls “the life process”—the constant changes that occur in human consciousness as a person steers a course between different forms of life, including extant beliefs, critical events, social roles, and personal interests.

For this reason, I consider it imperative that we assume that experience and episteme are seldom congruent or completely overlapping. Given this assumption, our analytical task becomes one of exploring the conditions under which animals are interacted with as though they were or were not human or objects are handled as if they did or did not possess agency.

Of Dogs and Men

In Train Dreams, the fiction writer Denis Johnson recounts stories from the Idaho panhandle in which dogs behave like people. One goes for help and saves the life of a lone prospector who has injured himself badly trying to thaw out frozen dynamite on a stove. Another dog shoots his master after getting wind that the man was going to shoot it. “Much that was astonishing was told of dogs in the Panhandle,” Johnson writes, “and along the Kootenai Rover, tales, rescues, tricks, feats of super-canine intelligence and humanlike understanding.”12

In such stories, a relationship of reciprocity is assumed to exist between animal and human such that each is felt to owe its life to the other. Since each is morally constrained to sustain the life of the other through a relationship of exchange, it is logically possible that one may actually change into the other or take the place of the other. Thus, a Kuranko man whose clan totem was the elephant ontologized this relationship and became convinced that he could actually change into an elephant at will.13 Lucien Lévy-Bruhl refers to such shape-shifting as “participation mystique,” and Rane Willerslev speaks of the phenomenon as “mimetic empathy.”14 Consider these examples:

On Kabak Koyu beach in southwestern Turkey, a woman is throwing a ball for her cocker spaniel. She is so focused on the dog that she does (p.106) not realize that her small child is crawling toward the ocean. But the spaniel sees the danger and races to the edge of the sea, where it blocks the child’s path to the water. “Let’s face it,” one commenter wrote after watching a video of this event on YouTube, “Dogs are better than humans.”15

In the death camps of the Third Reich, humanity is in the hands of those who have no humanity while those who suffer, and are all too human, are stripped of everything that would suggest to their tormentors any kinship, any common ground. Though the prisoners are compared to animals, it is not ordinary animals that the SS have in mind—for these are useful and even loveable—but a degraded and useless species or collection of things—figuren or stücke, dolls, woods, merchandise, rags. “Move faster, you filthy dogs,” the SS bellow. People are herded into cattle trucks. Police dogs tear a man apart. Those who survive become like animals, scavenging for a crust of bread, a scrap of cloth, a pair of shoes. Sometimes it is only an animal that is capable of recognizing the humanity of these degraded beings, as Emmanuel Levinas recalls, describing how, for a few short weeks during his long captivity, a stray dog entered the lives of the Jewish prisoners of war among whom he numbered. On their way to work in the forest each morning, the prisoners would be observed by German civilians, in whose eyes, writes Levinas, “we were subhuman, a gang of apes … no longer part of the world.” And then, one day, this cur that lived in some wild patch near the camp came to meet the pitiable rabble as it returned under guard from the forest. This happened many times, the dog greeting the prisoners at their dawn assembly and on their return from work, jumping up and down and barking with delight. “For him, there was no doubt that we were men.”16

The Kuranko Yaran and Kamara clans recount a legend that explains how they became close, “like brothers and sisters,” and do not intermarry. The wives of the first Yaran and Kamara gave birth to their children in the same house on the same day. While the mothers were away from the house, a fire broke out. The family dog picked up the infants, took them from the burning house, and placed them under a banana tree. When the mothers came home they began to cry, thinking their babies were dead. They did not notice the dog, running hither and thither between them and the banana tree. When someone alerted them to what the dog was trying to tell them, the mothers found their babies but could (p.107) not tell them apart. Because neither mother would ever know which baby was hers, the two clans became effectively one.17

Stories in which animals and human beings give life to each another, either by providing help or succor in a time of peril or by sacrificing their own lives so that the other may live, are legion. All these tales are predicated on a distributive theory of being. For example, among the Kuranko it is axiomatic that will and consciousness are not limited to human beings but distributed beyond the world of persons and potentially found in totemic animals, fetishes, and even plants. The attributes of moral personhood (morgoye) may become manifest in the behavior of totemic animals and divinities while antisocial people may lose their personhood entirely, becoming like broken vessels or ruined houses. In other words, being is not necessarily limited to human being. Indeed, in Kuranko totemic myths, an animal saves the life of the clan ancestor who then decrees that his descendants must respect the animal as if it were a kinsman for it exemplified the magnanimous qualities of morgoye.

The source of the life of any species, whether animal, plant, or human, is understood to be life itself, which is distributed unequally and unevenly throughout the world. It may, however, be ritually, imaginatively, and magically redistributed, increased, subtracted, or exchanged. Thus, among the Kuranko, bush animals are “fair game” and hunted for meat while every effort is made to respect and preserve the life of a totemic animal and the lives of “village” animals (goats, sheep, cows) are only taken when offering a sacrifice to one’s ancestors. Even hunting is highly regulated, however, for a life can only be taken on condition that something equivalent is given in return, which is why hunters offer blood sacrifices to the first hunter, Mande FaBori, just as villagers offer sacrifices to their forebears. The same logic obtains among the Warlpiri of central Australia, for the life of the plants and animals on which human life depends requires periodic rituals of increase.

Typically, these ritualized transfers of life across species boundaries imply a reciprocity of perspectives in which one is thought of in terms of the other or seen as itself in other circumstances. This was vividly brought home to me when observing mimetic performances of mythological events by older Warlpiri men who had grown up in the desert as hunters and gatherers and knew the habits of their totemic animals by heart.

(p.108) A Slice of Life

In the course of our fieldwork, my wife and I visited a Warlpiri Dreaming site associated with the travels of two mythical kangaroos. We were accompanied by Paddy Nelson Jupurrurla, his brother-in-law Japanangka, and an elderly Jakamarra whose hand signals guided us across spinifex and saplings, around ant hills, ghost gums, and mulga brakes, to a wide floodout and sandy creek bed where we left our vehicle and walked the remaining half mile to a broad expanse of red rock and a large pool of still water. There, Paddy showed me the kidney-shaped depressions in the rock where the kangaroos had camped in the Dreaming. The two kangaroos rested at Yirntardamururu for two or three weeks, Paddy said, before traveling south. But he revealed no further details, and I did not press him to do so. All he would say was that this was an important initiation site and that many people used to camp here when he was a boy. My imagination was stretched as much as by the lack of detail in Paddy’s remarks as by my difficulty in picturing the two kangaroos who seemed to be simultaneously animals and human beings.

“Were they like kangaroos to look at?” I asked Paddy.

Yuwayi [yes].”

“Were they half men, half kangaroos?”


“But they acted like yapa [Aboriginal people]?”

Yuwayi. They were very powerful.”

Later I would learn more about the travels of the two kangaroos, but it was only when Zack Jakamarra actually performed an episode from the myth that I was able to fully appreciate it. As Zack had told me many times, abstract knowledge meant nothing; you had to see things with your own eyes, experiencing them bodily, sensibly, and directly.

The incident took place before the two kangaroos reached Yirntardamururu. Following a cloudburst, the country was flooded, and as the kangaroos searched for higher ground, one became bogged down in the mud and drowned before his companion could rescue him. Though grieving his loss, the surviving kangaroo journeyed on alone, and at a place called Wulyuwulyu (Western chestnut mouse) he discovered a marsupial mouse cowering in the spinifex. He decided to transform the mouse into a kangaroo, “a new mate.”

(p.109) “He bin grab ’im now,” said Zack, already animated by the story. “He bin carry ’im along Mulyu [nose/snout], teach ’im there like in school. Big camp there. He make that little one really kangaroo now …”

Zack placed his forefingers alongside his ears to show me how the ears got bigger. He pulled at his nose, drawing it out into an imaginary snout. He stretched his legs … the long, sinewy hind legs of a kangaroo. He tapped its genitals and tail, giving the kangaroo the features of an initiated male.

I laughed.

Zack narrowed his eyes and cocked his head. He looked paternally on his protégé as it hopped around, getting accustomed to its new body.

Zack said, “That kangaroo bin ask ’im: ‘Can you eat grass?’ Go around now, look for tucker, good tucker there. That little rat bin look around. Come back. ‘How are you? You all right?’ He bin ask ’im, ‘Can you scratch?’ Teach ’im, you see. Teach ’im about those things … lie down, get up, look around country. Learn ’im all that. Really make a kangaroo out of ’im now.”

Zack repeated his antics, mimicking the little kangaroo as it took its first tentative steps, nibbling at the grass, venturing out on its own. “Growing ’im up, you know?”

Of course, Zack was in a sense “growing me up” too, as well as revealing to me, albeit obliquely, that the two kangaroo Dreaming was intimately connected with initiation and that ritual acts of subincision and increase occurred at almost every place the kangaroos camped in the Dreaming. Zack was also making it clear to me that knowledge was both mimetic and eidetic.18 He could not have embodied his Dreaming without possessing a keen firsthand knowledge of the behavior of these desert marsupials, and this knowledge had been acquired mimetically in his youth, hunting with older men.

Such deep familiarity with the habits of desert fauna gave Warlpiri a practical edge over the animals they hunted. But there is a subtle and important distinction between mimicking an animal and identifying with it. The hunter may be skilled in reading the spoor of an animal and divining how best to track and hunt it, and this skill may suggest that he knows the animal as well as he knows himself, but at no moment is the line between self and animal so completely erased that the hunter no longer knows himself and no longer acts as a separate being.

(p.110) Consider the following commentaries on this phenomenon by a philosopher and by an ethnographer.

When I find again the actual world such as it is, under my hands, under my eyes, up against my body, I find much more than an object: a being of which my vision is a part, a visibility older than my operations or my acts. But this does not mean that there was a fusion or coinciding of me with it: on the contrary, this occurs because a sort of dehiscence opens my body in two, and because between my body looked at and my body looking, my body touched and my body touching, there is overlapping or encroachment, so that we must say that things pass into us as well as we into things. Our intuition, said Bergson, is a reflection, and he was right, though “the truth of the matter is that the experience of a coincidence can be, as Bergson often says, only a ‘partial coincidence.’”19

Rane Willerslev sums up his understanding of Yukaghir hunters in similar terms.

It is this borderland where self and other are both identical and different, alike yet not the same, that I have tried to capture using phrases such as “analogous identification,” “the double perspective,” and “not animal, not not animal.” What I mean to suggest by this is that if we are to take animism seriously, we must abandon the idea of total coincidence (the Heideggerian tradition) or total separation (the Cartesian tradition) and account for the mode of being that puts us into contact with the world and yet separates us from it. And there is, of course, such a mode of being, a mode that is grounded in mimesis.20

That we may imitate life, theatrically and sympathetically, and draw analogies between different life-forms does not mean that we completely lose ourselves in the other or assume a single invariant mode of selfhood. Moreover, a distinction must be made between “strong” and “weak” versions of the human-animal, human-object, or humanity-divinity interfaces since, in “traditional” societies and “modern” Euro-American societies alike, folktales are performed and art created in which animal characters act as if they were human and human beings behave like animals without, however, an absolute fusion of categories. Indeed, the (p.111) copresence of two forms of life may sharpen our awareness of their difference rather than result in our seeing them as one.

In illustrating this “law of dissociation by varying concomitants,” William James takes a concrete example from the work of Harriet Martineau. A red ball is removed from a billiard table and replaced by a white ball. This makes us notice the color contrast between the balls. If the white billiard ball is now replaced by a white egg, we will become aware of the form of the object.21 Victor Turner invoked this law in explaining how the “grotesque” combinations of normally separated objects and images in Ndembu masks (animal-human, male-female, bush-town) inspire neophytes to bring into focus the key elements of their culture. “The monstrosity of the configuration throws its elements into relief. Put a man’s head on a lion’s body and you think about the human head in the abstract.”22

It may be true that dissociation fosters mutual recognition, yet this should not be romanticized, as mutual recognition may find expression in actions that appear to be altruistic yet involve an implicit ethical demand that something be given in return. In Kuranko hunting stories, a recurring theme concerns an animal that changes itself into a seductive female in order to take revenge on a hunter who has killed many of “her” own family, thus redressing a moral balance between the human and animal worlds.23 In a similar vein, Willerslev quotes a story told to him by an elderly Yukaghir woman whose husband enjoyed extraordinary good luck in hunting. But the hunter failed to notice that his son’s health declined as his success in hunting increased. It is not that the taking of life requires the giving of a life in return; rather, there is a constant ambivalence between hunters and animals, for while the animal master-spirits are seen as “generous parents who are obliged to feed their hungry children” (i.e., the Yukaghir), the spirits may at any time be preparing to switch roles and force the “children” to feed them, in which event the hunter becomes the prey.24

In her “Notes on the Deer Dance,” Leslie Marmon Silko describes how, in the fall of each year, Laguna Pueblo hunters go into the hills and mountains to find deer. “The people think of the deer as coming to give themselves to the hunters,” she writes, “so that the people will have meat through the winter. Late in the winter the deer dance is performed to honor and pay thanks to the deer spirits who’ve come home with the (p.112) hunters that year. Only when this has been properly done will the spirits be able to return to the mountain and be reborn into more deer who will, remembering the reverence and appreciation of the people, once more come home with the hunters.”25

This theme is echoed in Patricia Vinnecombe’s compelling analysis of San art in southern Africa. In People of the Eland, Vinnecombe argues that the naturalistic polychrome representations left by San hunters on rock shelters in the Drakensberg Range may be symbolic compensations for the killing of animals essential to San life—animals with whom people felt a close kinship, particularly the eland (in the south) and gemsbok (in the north). According to myths among Khoisan-speaking peoples, the ancestral shape-shifter Kaggen created and reared the first eland. When younger members of Kaggen’s family killed his “child,” Kaggen felt deep sorrow and bade the killer ritually atone for what he had done. This atonement involved “a ceremony which brought the eland back to life” so that now, whenever eland are killed it is vital that the blood and heart fat from the eland are mixed with the pulverized ochers used to paint the eland’s image on a rock face. “It … seems to be not improbable,” Vinnecombe continues, “that many of the eland paintings, particularly those associated with over-painting and re-painting, are connected with an act of reconciliation and of reparation to atone for killing. By this means, dead eland would have been symbolically re-created in order to replace the life which had been taken, and thus to ensure their continued existence.”26

These examples invite us to reconsider Kant’s categorical imperative: that we should never act in such a way that we treat humanity (or nonhuman species that we regard as sharing “human” features) as a means only but always as an end in itself. Yet it is difficult to imagine (or find) a society in which such a view is completely realized, though lip service may be paid to the idea. Lambs are sometimes loved, sometimes eaten; dogs are man’s best friend yet often cruelly treated; we campaign for the human rights of some but not others. Among the Runa of Ecuador’s Upper Amazonia, hunters and their dogs “partake in a shared constellation of attributes and dispositions” that Eduardo Kohn calls a “transspecies ecology of selves.”27 Yet, though dogs and humans possess souls and share the same subjectivity, dogs and people live in independent worlds. “Dogs are often ignored and are not even always fed, and dogs seem to (p.113) largely ignore people.” This is reminiscent of the way that Warlpiri (and other Aboriginal people) give skin names to their dogs, thereby assimilating the dogs into their social world, yet treat dogs with an indifference and harshness that stands in complete contrast with how they treat their kinsmen. Among the Yarralin, a distinction is made between camp dogs, which are dependent, like children, and dingoes, which are independent of humans and wild. To be fully human “is to be neither totally dependent nor totally wild,” which is why socialization involves learning how to live and forage as an autonomous person in the bush.28

What is true of human relations with animals is equally true of human relations with other people and with objects. Though sameness and difference are potentialities of all these relationships, we must be careful to describe the contexts and interests that determine which one of these potentialities is realized.

The Ritualized Redistribution of Life

I suggested earlier that whenever exchange takes place, whether between people or between humans and animals, the logic of reciprocity is engaged, for if the gift of life in any of its forms—respect, care, shelter, security, food—is taken from one being and bestowed on another, the question invariably arises whether the gift has been deserved or, in the case of a life being taken from one being to improve the life chances of another, whether the death can be justified. In other words, a rationale must always be found, either in the conventional wisdom of the community or in individual fantasies that offer moral legitimacy for the giving and taking of life.

In her memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter, A. M. Homes captures the moral anguish of the adopted child who, having been “given up for adoption,” asks herself endlessly what compensation is now due to her and what form it could possibly take. “Every year I cannot help but think of the woman who gave me away. I find myself missing someone I never knew, wondering, Does she miss me? Does she shop for the things I buy myself? Does my father know I exist? Do I have siblings? Does anybody know who I am? I spend weeks grieving.”29

This single paragraph touches on the existential interplay between being and having. Not knowing your parentage implies not knowing (p.114) who you really are, while not being given the things parents normally give their children implies that you lack true love. Not knowing one’s origins implies that your life story can never really be told.

This metaphorical bond between who we are and what we have is consummated in the act of giving, which, as Mauss pointed out, always combines material and spiritual values.30 This is not the logic of logicians, although it involves a similar process of inference and, like mathematics, involves addition, subtraction, and division. It is, however, an existential logic—the logic of the gift—-based on the exchange of life itself and formalized in the threefold obligations to give, to receive, and to return what has been given. In the following pages I explore this existential logic in the contexts of Kuranko sacrifices to the ancestors, witchcraft confessions, and migration.

Sacrifice (saraké, from the Arabic sadaqa) denotes any form of life or any life-affirming object—cows, goats, sheep, or chicken; cloth or clothing; rice flour or kola—that is ritually given to the ancestors, to God, or to the spirits of the wild (djinn). As a general principle, there is a direct correlation between the value of what is given and the gravity of the situation that occasions the sacrifice. While cows are the most materially valuable possessions (one cow is equivalent to fifty pans of rice or two hundred spans of cloth), rice flour and kola nuts have great symbolic value; rice is the “staff of life” and kola the “first food in the world.” Thus, when a chief dies and an entire chiefdom is momentarily without leadership or protection, or when a man from a ruling house passes away, many cows will be offered in sacrifice to the ancestors. But when only the well-being of a single household is at stake, rice flour and kola will be offered, for though these things have great spiritual value they cost little. When the well-being of an individual is at stake, cloth (usually white) is often all that is given.

That the value of what is given is a function of the significance of the relationship between the giver and the receiver is well nigh universal. So too is the assumption that all sacrifice is essentially self-sacrifice. Something of oneself must be given up if something of the other is to be given in return. Moreover, not only do all gifts incorporate something of the giver; giving something one has symbolizes vita pro vita, the gift of one’s own being. Accordingly, the value of any gift is measured both by what it costs the giver and what it offers the receiver. And the more imperiled a (p.115) polity (or person), the greater the sacrifice needed to protect it. Human sacrifices at Aztec temple complexes increased significantly when the empire was under threat.31 As food resources dwindled on Easter Island, the scale of human sacrifice increased, as did the expenditure of human labor on making and erecting the great volcanic stone moai. Sacrifice is thus a strategy for countering entropy in the human world by channeling energy into the world of the gods who, it is hoped, will reciprocate by reinvigorating the waning world of mortal men. The greater the threat to the human order, the higher the value of what will be given to the powers-that-be, which may explain why virgin girls are often chosen to be sacrificed since their life-giving potential has not yet been diminished by the bearing of children. Thus, in the past, Kuranko chiefs leaving their country to attend festivals or funerals in other chiefdoms might order the sacrifice of a pale-complexioned virgin girl for the safety of the country, burying her alive in a pit at the chiefdom boundary, her mouth filled with gold and her head covered by a copper container.32 The logic of this practice is reminiscent of the large-scale sacrifices of young men in Western wars for the defense of an imperiled state, or Aztec sacrifice where the lives of women, captives, and children were ritually fed to the sun, their “vital energy transferred” to the cosmos as a kind of “debt payment to the hungry gods” for the expected regeneration of life on earth.33

But whether we are speaking of life-giving resources freely given, gratefully received, or vengefully reclaimed, what is at stake is life itself. Not the life of any particular person but the life of a lineage, a community, a people, a global ecosystem. What augments life in the broad sense of the word is right, what diminishes it is wrong—sentiments, if not principles, we too espouse when in the face of personal loss we declare, “Life must go on,” or speak of “life everlasting.”

The opposite of sacrifice is witchcraft. The logic of sacrifice is that the more one gives of oneself or the more one is prepared to give up or give to the ancestors or the gods, the more one stands to gain, if only because one’s self-sacrifice places an obligation on the ancestors or the gods to provide something in return. According to the logic of witchcraft, however, one is not obliged to give anything up; on the contrary, one has the right to take life from others without offering them anything in return.

(p.116) The Kuranko word suwage (witch, lit. “night owner”) suggests someone who acts surreptitiously, under cover of darkness, using powers that are invisible to ordinary eyes—witch weapons, witch medicines, witch gowns, witch animals, and even witch airplanes. A witch’s “life” (nie) supposedly leaves her sleeping body at night and moves abroad, often in the form of an animal familiar. As her “life goes out” (a nie ara ta), her body may be shaken by convulsions and her breathing cease. In this state of suspended animation, the body is vulnerable; if it is turned around, then the witch’s spirit will not be able to reenter it and she will die. A witch will also perish if the dawn finds out of her own body. Witches are predatory and cannibalistic, but they do not attack a victim’s nie directly; they consume some vital organ (usually the liver, heart, or intestines) or drain away the victim’s blood or break his backbone by tapping him on the nape of the neck.34

It is said that witches work in covens and that the greatest threat of witchcraft attack lies within the extended family. Witchcraft works through blackmail. A witch will somehow open the door of her own house by nullifying the protective medicines that the household head has placed over the lintel. Then another witch from her coven steals into the house and “eats” one of the occupants, usually a child because children are less likely to be protected by personal medicines. The aggressor is obliged to discharge her debt at some later time by making it possible for her co-witch to claim a victim from her house.

Witchcraft is the inverse of sacrifice. While both involve a ritualized or fantasized movement of life itself from one person or place to another, sacrifice is a matter of giving up something of value in order to increase the well-being of one’s social group whereas witchcraft is a matter of taking something of value from one’s social group for personal gain. If sacrifice is based on the logic of generalized reciprocity (giving without demanding that something will be given in return), witchcraft is based on negative reciprocity (taking without giving anything in return).

In the course of fieldwork, I collected some fifteen hearsay accounts by self-confessed witches in which they named their victims and explained why they had killed them. In every case, the fantasized attack on the life of the victim was in retaliation for a slight, a withholding of favors, or a failure to fulfill an obligation (e.g., a brother’s failure to assist a sister in need, a husband’s refusal to provide his wife with the wherewithal to (p.117) live, a co-wife’s bullying). In other words, witchcraft was motivated by a sense of grievance. One had the right to take back something that had been wrongly taken from one.

Consider, for example, an anecdote shared with me by Kaimah Marah in 2008. As a child, Kaimah had traveled with his parents to his mother’s natal village in Temneland. On their first night in the village, Kaimah fell ill. He was so weak he could not even get out of bed. After much discussion, it was decided that Kaimah was bewitched. A local woman with shape-shifting powers had transformed herself into a night owl. She had perched on the roof of the house where Kaimah was sleeping and consumed his blood. But on the second night, the villagers caught the owl and beat it to death. The witch, now weakened and seriously ill, confessed to her crime and explained how she had assumed the form of an owl in order to attack Kaimah. Perhaps she bore some grudge toward Kaimah’s mother, Yebu. Her exact motive was never known, for she died soon after confessing.

If witchcraft and sacrifice exemplify two opposing forms of reciprocity—the first vengeful and self-serving, the second affirming the mutual interdependence of everyone occupying the same lifeworld—it is not surprising to find that animals figure symbolically in both cases.

The animals most closely associated with witches sum up the traits of witchcraft: predatory (leopard), scavenging (hyena, vulture), underground (snake), or nocturnal (bat, owl). Moreover, these are all wild animals. By contrast, the animals associated with sacrifice are domestic animals, and the body of the animal symbolizes the social body in whose name the offering is made to the ancestors and, through them, to God. Following the consecration and killing of the animal, portions of the butchered meat are carefully laid out on banana leaves before being distributed according to custom among the different groups present at the sacrifice—the upper foreleg to the town chief, the lower foreleg to the household head, the rump to the lineage sisters, the neck to the sisters’ sons, the heart and liver to a respected person (on several occasions I was the honored recipient), the hide to the leather workers, the hooves to the genealogists and xylophonists, the stomach (in days gone by) to the slaves, and the remaining meat to the household and lineage.

What Godfrey Lienhardt observes for the Dinka holds true for the Kuranko. “Sacrifice includes a re-creation of the basis of local corporate (p.118) life, in the full sense of those words … the whole victim corresponds to the unitary solidarity of human beings in their common relationship to the divine, while the division of the flesh corresponds to the social differentiation of the persons and groups taking part.” In the words of one Dinka informant, “The people are put together, as a bull is put together.”35 In exactly the same way, Kuranko make the body of the consecrated animal a surrogate for the social body. Partaking of its flesh is an expression of social solidarity. By contrast, to quote a Kuranko informant, “Witchcraft is eating alone.”

Being a Part of and Being Apart from the World

If sacrifice and witchcraft signify the polar opposites of participating in the world or setting oneself outside it—between sociality and selfishness—then these terms might also be read in the light of philosophical anthropology’s perennial dilemma of trying to strike a balance between deep immersion in the life of the world and disciplined withdrawal into the life of one’s own mind. While worldly engagement provides us with a wealth of experience, detachment is also necessary if we are to process those experiences.

A comparison may be drawn, therefore, between a Kuranko migrant’s struggle to sustain links with his family and homeland while breaking free of traditional constraints in seeking a better life for himself and the intellectual’s struggle to describe life as lived even as he or she works to produce some coherent narrative or explanatory model that answers his or her need to feel that life can be translated into words. Wilhelm Dilthey argues against the view that the laws of thought can mirror the laws of life and that it is possible to “subordinate the whole of reality to a metaphysical system.” Hence his emphasis on inner experience and his caustic comment that “no real blood flows in the veins of the knowing subject constructed by Locke, Hume and Kant, but rather the diluted extract of reason as a mere activity of thought.”36 But if one cannot reify thought, then one cannot reify lived experience either, if only because thoughts are integral facts of our experience and as forms of “more-than-life” are as vital to our well-being as “life itself.”

One cannot fault philosophers and anthropologists for attempting to render existence comprehensible. Their only errors are in mistaking (p.119) what Simmel called forms of “more-than-life” for life itself, using them as magical means for escaping the complexities of life-as-lived, and refusing to see that their thoughts are neither better nor worse, epistemologically or practically, than the ways that so-called tribal peoples make their own local moral worlds coherent and viable.


(1.) Georg Simmel, The View of Life: Four Metaphysical Essays with Journal Aphorisms (1918), trans. John A. Y. Andrews and Donald N. Levine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 13, 61.

(2.) Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 88.

(3.) Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006), 4–5.

(p.232) (4.) I follow J. F. M. Hunter’s interpretation of what Wittgenstein actually meant by the phrase “form of life.” Form of life implies “something typical of a human being,” “one of life’s forms,” in which case concepts, language games, everyday experiences, and behaviors are all forms of life, to be placed on a par as variant ways of being (J. F. M. Hunter, “‘Forms of Life’ in Wittgenstein’s ‘Philosophical Investigations,’” American Philosophical Quarterly 5, no. 4 (1968): 235.

(5.) Clare Winnicott, “D. W. W.: A Reflection,” in Between Reality and Fantasy: Transitional Objects and Phenomena, ed. Simon A. Grolnick and Leonard Barkin (Northvale, N.J.: J. Aronson, 1978), 15–33.

(6.) Oliver Sacks, “My Own Life,” New York Times, 19 February 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/opinion/oliver-sacks-on-learning-he-has-terminal-cancer.html.

(7.) Thom van Dooren, Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 4.

(9.) Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley: University of California Press, 20), 1.

(10.) Karl Marx, Pre-capitalist Economic Formations (1859), trans. Jack Cohen (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1964), 81.

(11.) Arjun Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, From the Enemy’s Point of View: Humanity and Divinity in an Amazonian Society, trans. Catherine V. Howard (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992); Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (1991), trans. Catherine Porter (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993); Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Economy of Things (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010).

(12.) Denis Johnson, Train Dreams (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 63–64.

(13.) Michael Jackson, Paths Toward a Clearing: Radical Empiricism and Anthropological Inquiry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 102–118.

(14.) Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Les fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures (1910), trans. Lilian A. Clare as How Natives Think (1926; Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985). Rane Willerslev, Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood Among the Siberian Yukaghirs (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 106.

(15.) “Cocker Spaniel Saves Baby from Crawling into the Sea in Turkey,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r8riGW3KMc.

(16.) Emmanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans. Seán Hand (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 153.

(p.233) (17.) Michael Jackson, “Meaning and Moral Imagery in Kuranko Myth,” Research in African Literatures 13, no. 1 (1982): 168.

(18.) Curiously enough, a Warlpiri informant called Minjina recounted the same story to A. Capell in 1952, and with the same mimetic mastery that Zack possessed. Capell speaks of Minjina’s “wealth of eloquence that only a recording machine could have preserved, and of action which would have demanded a ciné camera” (“The Wailbri Through Their Own Eyes,” Oceania 23, no. 2 [1952]: 130). Minjina was the paternal grandfather of the Aboriginal painter Michael Jagamara Nelson (Vivien Johnson, The Art of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri [East Roseville, NSW: Gordon & Breach Arts International, 1997], 12).

(19.) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible (1964), trans. Alfonso Lingis (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 123, 122.

(21.) William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York: Dover, 1950), 1:506–507; Harriet Martineau, Miscellanies (Boston: Hillard, Gray, 1836).

(22.) Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967), 106.

(23.) Michael Jackson, Life Within Limits: Well-being in a World of Want (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011), 38–45.

(25.) Leslie Marmon Silko, “Notes on the Deer Dance,” in The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters Between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright, ed. Anne Wright (Saint-Paul, Minn.: Greywolf Press, 1986), 9–10.

(26.) Patricia Vinnecombe, People of the Eland: Rock Paintings of the Drakensberg Bushmen as a Reflection of Their Life and Thought (Pietermaritz-burg, SA: University of Natal Press, 1976), 180. Vinnecombe’s insights are reminiscent of Walter Buckert’s argument that hunting rituals involve expiation for the guilt of killing of an animal. A classical example is the annual Athenian slaying of the ox (Bouphonia) followed by a trial for the murder of the animal, with the axe and knife found guilty and cast into the sea (Buckert, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, trans. Peter Bing [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983], 20).

(27.) Eduardo Kohn, “How Dogs Dream: Amazonian Natures and the Politics of Transspecies Engagement,” American Ethnologist 34, no. 1 (2007): 7.

(28.) Deborah Bird Rose, Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Aboriginal Australian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 176–177. A similar attitude prevails among the Evenki of Siberia. “Evenki dogs are not respected [often neglected and never fed enough], but people cannot imagine life without them” (Tatiana Safonova, and István Sántha, “Stories About Evenki People and Their Dogs: Communication Through Sharing Contexts,” in Animism in Rainforest and Tundra: Personhood, Animals, Plants, (p.234) and Things in Contemporary Amazonia and Siberia, ed. Marc Brightman, Vanessa Elisa Grotti, and Olga Ulturgasheva [New York: Berghahn, 2012], 92).

(29.) A. M. Homes, The Mistress’s Daughter (New York: Viking, 2007), 69–70.

(30.) Marcel Mauss, The Gift (1950), trans. Ian Cunnison (London: Cohen & West, 1954), 10–12.

(31.) David Carrasco, City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization (Boston: Beacon, 1999), 73–74.

(32.) I know of only one instance of this sacrifice, known as baramawulan saraké. In 1979, chief Kulio of Sambaia told me that his ancestor, Mali Yan (tall) Jallo—a Fula—had migrated to present-day Sierra Leone some eleven generations ago. Mali Yan’s three sons, Samba, Bubu, and Kalo settled in different areas (Sambaia, Buiyan, and Kalian). The country that Fula Manse (Fula chief) Bubu entered was already inhabited by the Kargbo. But the Kargbo were living in caves to escape the depredations of Tegere (Temne) warriors. The Kargbo asked Fula Manse Bubu to help them drive the Temne away. With the help of his younger brother, Kalo, and a renowned warrior, Morogbe Kundu Togele, Bubu succeeded in repulsing the Temne. As a reward, the Kargbos offered Bubu land to settle, though they would first have to consult with their allies and “brothers,” the Sisé of Sambadugu. After much deliberation, the Kargbo and Sisé decided to make Fula Manse Bubu protector and lord of the land but only on condition that he make a sacrifice to the land. Fula Manse Bubu asked his wife, Ma Hawa, to give their daughter as a human sacrifice. The girl stood in a pit (baramawulan), her head inside a copper receptacle, gold in her mouth, and was buried alive. In addition, “one hundred of everything” had to be distributed among the populace. The Kargbo now declared, m’bol fa ma kin fa, meaning “my hands and my feet are yours.” Fula Manse Bubu released an arrow into the air that fell to earth in a straight line, signifying that the sacrifice had been accepted by the ancestors and a covenant made. Bubu then built his courthouse on the spot where the arrow landed and gave part of his chiefdom to Morogbe Kundu.

(33.) Carrasco, City of Sacrifice, 179, 148. In “The Other Mexico,” Octavio Paz writes that the real rivals of the Aztecs are not to be found in the East (he first suggests the Assyrians) but in the West, “for only among ourselves has the alliance between politics and metaphysics been so intimate, so exacerbated, and so deadly: the inquisitions, the religious wars, and above all, the totalitarian societies of the twentieth century” (The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings, trans. Lysander Kemp [New York: Grove Press, 1985], 307–308).

(34.) This notion of sapping the energy, draining the blood, or consuming the vital organs of a healthy and potent person in order to augment one’s own flagging powers finds expression in the widespread fantasies of human sacrifice.

(p.235) (35.) Godfrey Lienhardt, Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), 234, 23.

(36.) Wilhelm Dilthey, Selected Works, vol. 1, Introduction to the Human Sciences, trans. Rudolf Makreel and Frithjof Rodi (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989), 227, 50.