Ocean, travel, and equivocation

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Atsuro Morita. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.3.018


Ocean, travel, and equivocation

A response to Anne Salmond’s “Tears of Rangi”

Atsuro MORITA, Osaka University

Salmond’s paper speaks to two significant but rather underexplored aspects of the turn to ontology: travel and equivocation. In current debates, the ontological turn is often taken as a (re)turn to the radical alterity of non-Western modes of conceptualizing and composing worlds. The radical alterity of non-Western ontologies can be fruitfully understood in light of histories of travel that have brought about the encounter between Western and non-Western ontologies. Focusing on travel obliges our arguments to begin from the middle-ground where different parties encounter, exchange, and diverge. In these encounters equivocation plays a significant role.

Keywords: ocean, travel, equivocation, ontology, middle-ground

Salmond’s beautifully written paper speaks to two significant but rather underexplored aspects of the turn to ontology: travel and equivocation.

Salmond’s account begins with an evocative image of men and women sailing across the Pacific Ocean almost a thousand years ago. This historical image contextualizes her analysis of contemporary debate over Whanganui river management and the conversation between Maori and European ontologies, which they have set in motion. To my mind, contextualizing this debate with reference to the history of island voyages carries important implications for the ontological turn. For one thing, it directs readers’ attention to the intersection of Maori and European modes of travel. For another, they formed the basis for the emergence of Western capacity to perceive the alterity of Maori ontology.

In current debates, the ontological turn is often taken as a (re)turn to the radical alterity of non-Western modes of conceptualizing and composing worlds. Thus, advocates argue that native ontologies must be taken seriously in order to enable anthropology to question basic Western dichotomies such as nature and culture or concept and thing (Henare, Holbraad, and Wastell 2007). Obviously, they are right to insist that most (non-Western) ways of seeing the world do not rest on these organizing dichotomies, so that translating non-Western notions into Western terms (again, like nature and culture) is very tricky and often problematic (Strathern 1980; Jensen and Morita forthcoming).

However, on the other hand, this emphasis on radical alterity often overshadows the historical context of encounter between Western and non-Western ontologies. These contexts of encounter are important not simply because they provide additional information about the macro structure or political economy that defines these relationships, but because they shape the conditions out of which the radical alterity of non-Western ontologies,1 and the material-semiotic relations between the two worlds (or world-making projects), emerged simultaneously.

For Europeans, Maori, and Chinese, travel has constituted an important part of such world-making projects. Portuguese, Dutch, and British voyages to other parts of the world can be seen as cosmological voyages across the planet (Tresch 2012). By the same token, non-Western travels such as the Maori voyage to Aotearoa or Zhen He’s voyage to the “Western Ocean” were world-making projects not only because they uncovered unknown lands but also because they created technologies—such as canoes and vessels (Law 1987), which augmented cosmological knowledge (such as astrology and navigation) and generated new relations with hitherto unknown forms of vegetation and animals. These travels were part of material-semiotic endeavors to create inhabitable worlds.

Inevitably such travels brought about encounters with other people engaged in their own world-making projects. The juxtaposition of the Maori and the English versions of the Treaty of Waitangi offers a clear example of such an encounter; one, which created a shared ground, though obviously not an unproblematic or level one, while also preserving the distinctiveness of the respective worlds. In my view, the radical alterity of non-Western ontologies can be fruitfully understood in light of such histories of travel.

Although often overshadowed by the exemplary image of Amerindian perspectivism, (post-) actor network theorists, STS-inspired anthropologists, and others have emphasized how the travels of ideas, technologies, and people tends to create hardly commensurable ontologies. For example, Mei Zhan (2009) illuminates how the incommensurability between traditional Chinese and Western medicines emerged out of encounters between the two. Zhan focuses not only on conceptual or cosmological incommensurability but also on incommensurability at the level of material practices. She shows, for example, how new modern technological arrangements adopted by contemporary Chinese medicine are generative of novel forms of incommensurability. Similarly, I have shown how the travel of engineers and multinational corporations and of secondhand machines and machine parts between Japan and Thailand gave rise to incommensurable forms of mechanical engineering in Japanese development aid and Thai small-scale industry (Morita 2013). My research—for example— emphasized that long-term intra-Asian trade history has structured contemporary relations between Japanese technology transfer and the local machine industry.

Common to Salmond’s Oceanic paper and other studies from Asia is a certain view of history that emphasizes exchange and mixture. Indeed, maritime Asia has been described as an Ocean world. What the historian O. W. Wolters calls “the single ocean” mediated seaborne trade between North, Southeast, and South Asian countries long before the arrival of Europeans (Wolters 1999, see also Hamashita 2008). Images comparable to that of the Pacific Ocean discussed by Salmond played an important role in the formation of this historical imagination. Similar to Wolters, the Japanese historian Amino Yoshihiko has shown that the Japanese islands have been connected to vast regions from ancient times via seafaring routed along a “chain of islands” stretching from Papua New Guinea to Japan. Along with other historians of the region, Amino suggests that travel and exchange have been so crucial to the history of seafaring countries that seemingly national cultures, identities, and institutions are actually complete mixtures all the way down (Amino 2012).

The Oceanic image immediately locates us in the in-between space of the waterway rather than the fixed position of thing or person. Thus, also, it obliges our arguments to begin from the “middle ground” (Salmond, this issue) where different parties encounter, exchange, and diverge. Further, while the thing-centered imagination mainly talks to the tradition of Western thought, the Oceanic imagination encourages negotiation with both sides from the middle position. Salmond’s paper elucidates the implications of such a middle position. It centers on a long history of clashes, alliances, and “exchanges across the middle ground” that made the ontological experiment on the Whanganui River possible. In addition, rather than drawing lessons for the Western way of composing the world, she leaves the ontological consequences of this experiment open. At the end, we do not know what it might mean, or should mean, for Western ideas of nature and culture, that the Whanganui River is now officially recognized as a person. This vague openness is not a blemish on an otherwise good analysis, but apt to the situation. For one thing, the ontological consequences are likely to go on varying between the Maori and European sides. For another, what is most important is that these consequences are allowed to continue to create the condition for further experiments across the middle ground.

For this reason, I very much appreciate the strategy of the middle-ground, and in particular the symmetrical effort to stay open to both, or all, sides of the experiment. Salmond’s position is ambiguous in a very productive way due to that openness. Rather than taking a strong position, thus identifying herself either with the modern West or with the nonmodern Maori, she remains betwixt and between. And it is noteworthy that a similarly ambiguous position also seems shared by the Maori negotiating the status of the river. During the hearings, Maori participants interwove Maori and Western propositions. More generally, many Maori hold views of the river that differ but little from those of European descendants—particularly outside the court. In one place, Salmond characterizes these mixed views as “strategic.” In the context of the debate this characterization is probably correct but I wonder if this mixture might not also be the product of equivocation.

It seems to me that what Eduardo Viveiros de Castro calls “equivocation” is at the heart of the joint experiment and the historical exchanges surrounding the Treaty of Waitangi. Equivocation describes a situation in which two parties use a single word to denote two (radically) different things:

The problem for indigenous perspectivism is not therefore one of discovering the common referent (say, the planet Venus) to two different representations (say, “Morning Star” and “Evening Star”). On the contrary … perspectivism supposes a constant epistemology and variable ontologies, the same representations and other objects, a single meaning and multiple referents (Viveiros de Castro 2004: 4).

The debate over the Whanganui River seems to me an arch-example of equivocation. To Maori and Europeans, “the river” refers to two different objects: a modern and “natural” watercourse and the ancestral body. From the varied ways in which many Maori see the river outside the confines of the debate, and from the frustrations experienced by Maori when forced to talk about the river in ownership terms, it seems that the river is even equivocal to the Maori themselves.

In a recent article, Casper Bruun Jensen and I discuss the internal equivocations that arose as the Western notion of nature was translated into Japanese. Japanese scholars translated this term by creating an equivalent with the existing notion of shizen (Chinese: ziran). Shizen roughly means the state of spontaneity; the state of lacking conscious human intervention. Thus it contrasts the givenness of nature with the sense of human creative endeavor often captured with the term culture. Yet, the original sense of shizen did not encompass the idea of “things in the universe” so central to Western nature. Crucially, this original meaning has not vanished even after shizen was recognized as the proper translation of “nature.” For example, the Japanese still use the traditional sense of shizen in phrases like shizentai, which means a relaxed mind or body (Jensen and Morita forthcoming), and the duality between nature and culture so apparent to the Western mind, is deeply unobvious even in contemporary Japanese usage.

The internal equivocation of shizen and other translated words have repeatedly been viewed by scholars as a problem or obstacle to the full attainment of modernity (Yanabu 1977). But as we show, these equivocations have also been highly productive, since they have unwittingly helped Japanese anthropology create its own styles, even as it became evermore tightly connected to mainstream Euro-American anthropology.

When the Maori advocate their rights in Western terms while also claiming a distinct cosmology, I certainly feel familiarity with their in-between situation, even as I have no direct experience with the Maori. It is nevertheless possible that the Japanese case of shizen is even more extreme, since even the original, indigenous term was of Chinese origin and thus a product of the traditional intra-Asian travel. Indeed, complete mixture all the way down!

The Oceanic image of mixture and mobility ought to divert, or dilute, the usually misplaced accusation of essentialism. Even more importantly, it opens the possibility to see how things could be otherwise from a location in and of the in-between. In this sense, Salmond’s brilliant analysis of world-crossing experiments demonstrate the possibility of taking histories of mobility and mixture seriously while keeping a firm focus on ontologies rather than epistemologies. As I see it, internal equivocations, such as those of the Maori or the Japanese are particularly interesting for this kind of exploration. At the same time, Salmond’s paper forcefully demonstrates that one can begin ontological exploration from the middle ground, where people with their own world making projects travel and encounter one another.

Ultimately, Salmond advocates cosmo-diversity as a source of experimentation for planetary survival. Of course, the planet itself is a subject of equivocation, as we do not yet know what it is, or how many. But if the examples I have offered are anything to go by, it might be possible to explore how different parties—scientists, indigenous social movements, Europeans, Maori, Asians, and so on—try to compose shared but partially diverging cosmoses in their interwoven world making endeavors. This would be an interesting and, perhaps, important, attempt in the present moment.


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Océan, voyage et équivoque: Une réponse à “Les larmes de Rangi” par Anne Salmond

L'article de Salmond traite de deux aspects significatifs mais non-explorés du tournant ontologique: le voyage et l’équivoque. Dans les débats récents, le tournant ontologique est souvent interprété comme une ouverture (ou un retour) aux modes de conceptualisation et de composition des mondes mis en œuvre en dehors de l'occident. Il est possible d'interpréter l'altérité radicale des ontologies non-occidentales a la lumière des récits de voyage qui menèrent aux premières rencontres entre ontologies occidentales et non-occidentales. S'intéresser au voyage conduit nos arguments à prendre en compte le terrain d'entente où les différents partis se rencontrent, échangent et se séparent. Lors de ces rencontres, l’équivoque joue un rôle important.

Atsuro MORITA teaches anthropology at Osaka University. He has done ethnographic research on technology development in Thailand focusing on how ideas, artifacts and people travel in and out Thailand. In his recent research on Environmental Infrastructures (funded by the Japan Society for Promotion of Science), he studies the co-existence of heterogeneous components—including cosmological, scientific, and multispecies ones—of water management infrastructures in the Chao Phraya Delta.

Atsuro Morita
School of Human Sciences
Osaka University
1-2, Yamada-oka, Suita
Osaka, 565-0781


1. The point is obviously not that “they” did not have history or ontology before “we” came, but that their histories and ontologies did not have a radical alterity to themselves.