Communicating through difference

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Aparecida Vilaça. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.1.011

Book Symposium

Communicating through difference

Comment on LLOYD, G. E. R. 2012. Being, humanity, and understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Aparecida VILAÇA, PPGAS—Museu Nacional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro


Being, humanity, and understanding is first and foremost a beautiful book. A specialist in Ancient Greece and classical China and a studious reader of ethnographic works on native peoples from numerous parts of the world, including Amazonia, Lloyd presents in clear and precise language a wide array of different expressions of human creativity in configuring worlds or, in other words, of elaborating ontologies. His primary aim is comparative in kind, providing detailed analyses of native conceptual and semantic systems in order to explore the possible points of communication between worlds. Ontological pluralism and commen-surability form the book’s primary axis.

Given the important place Lloyd confers to the perspectivist ontologies of Amazonian peoples, I have opted to render my comments in the form of a foot-note to the book, discussing the question of the possibilities for communication between distinct ontologies through a specific ethnographic case. I justify this choice not only by the fact that the Wari’, with whom I have lived and worked for many years, supplied one of the examples of a perspectivist ontology analyzed by Lloyd, but also because the central problem of his text, that of transontological translation, is, I think, equally central for them.

To quickly summarize what is already clearly expounded in the book, the Wari’ imagine and inhabit a world where many animals are also human, or rather, perceive themselves as human, just like the Wari’. Hence they live in houses with their families, hunt, and hold festivals awash in beer. The difference between the distinct types of animals, and between these and the Wari’, is not determined by distinct cultures but by their possession of specific bodies, which impels them to inhabit disparate worlds, or natures. This is why they do not see each other as human—an important difference between perspectivism and animism. While all live in houses, drink beer and eat certain foods, what appear for the jaguar (for the species as a whole) as a house, beer, and, for example, the papaya appear to the Wari’ as caverns, blood, and paca respectively. The jaguar sees itself as human and the Wari’ as prey. The inverse occurs with the Wari’: they are the humans and the jaguars the animals. Finally I would note that this is not a dogmatic worldview imposed by a class of founding ancestors, but a worldview constituted by everyday experiences, both those of shamans, the official translators, and those of normal people, who can themselves attest to the humanity of the animals and the disparity of the worlds that they inhabit whenever they are abducted or preyed upon by these other beings. Within a relational context, humanity is a position assumed, always provisionally, by the subject that succeeds in imposing its point of view on the other.

As Viveiros de Castro observed in his inaugural analysis of perspectivism in 1996, what Amazonian peoples propose is the idea of a multinaturalism, some-thing diametrically opposed to the multiculturalism of our modern Euro-American world (Lloyd 2012: 21, n. 25). This, I surmise, was a key reason for the author’s decision to move away from any use of the term culture to describe the worldview of these peoples, since it is impregnated with a universalist conception of nature characteristic of what Descola refers to as a naturalist ontology. The term ontology, by implying “accounts of what there is” (59), calls attention to the instability of what we know as nature, and offers a way of dispensing with the representation vs. reality paradigm that for so many years contaminated anthropological descriptions.

Having explained this ethnographic background, we can turn to the question of the communication between inhabitants of distinct worlds, associated here with different types of humans rather than social classes or intellectual currents created and propagated by prototypical humans—as happened in Ancient Greece, or found in the contemporary debates between evolutionists and creationists, for instance. The fact that difference is located in bodies, which far from being genetically determined are constituted by quotidian acts of kinship and commensality, implies notions of communication or translation very distinct from our own.

Communication here involves two levels, both founded on the possibility of bodily transformation, which enables the passage from one world to another. The first level involves the personal experience of transformation, which for the Wari’ occurs through illness and abductions, acts of implicit or explicit predation, which from the animal predator’s viewpoint ultimately aim to absorb the victim as a member of its kingroup. Living with the animal, especially sharing its food, permits an assimilation of bodies and thus of perspectives. Should the victim be able to return, having been cured by a shaman or rescued by their kin in the case of ab-ductions, he or she can pass information on these alternate worlds onto other people. Shamans are paradigmatic examples of this capacity to come and go between distinct universes, living sometimes with the Wari’, sometimes with the animals of a certain species. Consequently they are the primary contributors to the interspecific dictionaries used by the Wari’ at another level of communication with the animals, which I describe here based on my experience of an experience relatively widespread among this people: abduction by a jaguar.

One day, listening to the narrative of a woman captured by a jaguar as a child after she had mistaken it for her mother, I was witness to an interesting exercise in ontological translation conducted by the other listeners. The narrator recounted that whenever they were walking in the forest, her jaguar mother would collect fruits called nao’, much appreciated by the Wari’, and offer them to her. “What was it? A fruit?” one of the listeners asked. To'o Xak Wa, whose mother had been abducted by a jaguar when she was a child, suggested: “nine-banded armadillo.” Paletó, her husband, retorted: “six-banded armadillo tail.” To'o Xak Wa wonder-ed: “perhaps it was paca.” “I don't know,” said the narrator. To'o Xak Wa immediately corrected herself: “That’s it! Papaya is paca (for the jaguar).”

This almost caricatural example of an exercise in perspectivist translation offers a clear illustration of just how this type of translation contrasts with the kind realized by ourselves when we search for an equivalent term in another language, founded on the idea that we all share the same objective world. It also reveals the central place occupied by controversy in these systems, since the fact that the Wari’-jaguar dictionary used by my friends is compiled from the experience of different people makes each of its entries necessarily multiple. Note that the problem of translation is not located in the words, since the jaguar and captured girl speak the same language—otherwise the latter would not have been mistaking it for her mother. The problem resides in the different worlds to which the same word refers. Hence we arrive at the two levels of translation that I mentioned: one involving the passage to the other side, and another allowing the comprehension of this other side, which, although grounded in passages of this kind, occurs at an intellectual level.

Based on this experience of the Wari’ world, I think that the notion of semantic stretch used by Lloyd (72–92) to conceptualize the communication between distinct ontologies does not apply particularly well here. His starting point is the recognition of the polysemic quality of any word in the world’s different languages, and thus the possibility of a partial overlapping of meanings that makes translation or communication possible. This, for example, enables the overlap between the terms for water (87–88) in English, Greek, and Chinese, although among the English and Greeks the central meaning refers to the substance per se, while for the Chinese the focus is on the processes, or states of a material in constant transformation. The fact that water refers to both a substance and a state is taken by Lloyd as evidence of the multidimensionality of reality (90).

The notion of semantic stretch has the advantage, as Lloyd argues, of allowing us to bypass the metaphor vs. truth dichotomy—analogous to that of representation vs. reality, which in my view the notion of ontology as a substitution for culture also looks to circumvent. However, its application to perspectivist translation (though the author recognizes that this would require an “exceptional stretch” [107, n. 11]) ends up eclipsing one of the latter’s most important aspects: rather than seeking to achieve consensus or dialogue, whether harmonious or acrimonious, perspectivist translation works to maintain difference. What people want is for jaguars and humans to continue to inhabit distinct worlds. Indeed this is a question of life or death. Nobody wishes to be capable of talking with a jaguar, except for shamans, whose capacity to reverse transformation, thereby controlling it, is central to maintaining the separation for the other Wari’. Communication therefore takes place through what Viveiros de Castro (2004) dubs “controlled equivocation,” precisely the procedure my Wari’ interlocutors adopted when listening to the narrative of the jaguar abduction. The search is not for a common word or an overlap in the meanings of different words, but for another world to which the same word refers.

Given the radical difference between Amazonian worlds and our(s), one of the questions posed by Lloyd comes to the fore here, namely the conditions of possibility for anthropological research. Since pacification in the 1960s, the Wari’ have had the unusual experience of living peacefully with a group of former enemies who used to be killed and eaten as part of warfare. Hence they have encountered problems of ontological (and not just linguistic) translation very different to those experienced in the contact between them and the human animals who, despite inhabiting distinct worlds, all shared perspectivist multinaturalism and the same notions of communication. We, the new pacified enemies, inhabit another ontology and wish to communicate with them, participate in their system of exchanges, share their world. This is another dimension of the specter of ontological incommensurability.

One solution to the problem of anthropological commensurability that I find particularly gratifying is that proposed by Roy Wagner almost forty years ago, which has inspired generations of Melanesianists and more recently Amazonists. In Wagner’s words, we need to be aware that “their misunderstanding of me was not the same as my misunderstanding of them” (Wagner 1975: 20), which places the comparative enterprise inherent to anthropological work on another level, insofar as the search for consensus gives way to the explicitation of difference. No longer the hierarchical and immobilizing difference that typified the anthropology of the past and against which Lloyd positions himself so clearly, but difference as controlled equivocation, as practiced by the Wari’. So while we inevitably under-stand our anthropological study as a cultural inventory—since, as Wagner shows, culture is the name we give to human work or invention—we have to keep in mind that what our natives conceive as work, the result of human action and creativity, may be something quite different, like kinship for example. Thus it is by making us kin through commensality and conviviality that the Wari’ can comprehend what we say, and vice-versa. They would often tell me, just as the Daribi told Wagner, that to learn their language, it was essential for me to eat their food. The Wari’ con-tinue to act on the basis of their perspectivist ontology, and I, inevitably, on the basis of multicultural naturalism. But this does not imply that we are doomed to never understand each other. On the contrary, taking this difference as a starting point is what enables our mutual comprehension, so that the equivocations are no longer recognized as errors but as tools for translation.


Lloyd, G. E. R. 2012. Being, humanity, and understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2004 “Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation.” Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America 2 (1): 3–22.

Wagner, Roy. 1975. The invention of culture. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.



Aparecida Vilaça
Programa de Pós-Graduação em Antropologia Social
Museu Nacional
Quinta da Boa Vista s/nº - São Cristóvão
Rio de Janeiro -RJ
CEP 20940-040