Symmetry is a rare type of asymmetry

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Christopher G. Ball. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.3.007


Symmetry is a rare type of asymmetry

Response to Philippe Descola’s “Transformation transformed”

Christopher G. BALL, University of Notre Dame


Philippe Descola argues in his essay for the symmetrization of anthropology. I’d like to open the question of symmetry as an ethical imperative and as a component of Descola’s structuralist analysis of ontologies by considering a quote from Gabriel Tarde:

To exist is to differ; difference, in one sense, is the substantial side of things, what they have most in common and what makes them most different. One has to start from this difference and to abstain from trying to explain it, especially by starting with identity, as so many persons wrongly do. Because identity is a minimum and, hence, a type of difference, and a very rare type at that, in the same way as rest is a type of movement and the circle a type of ellipse. (Tarde [1893] 1999, cited in Latour 2001: 129)

Tarde’s lesson is that alterity is unmarked, and that identity is a marked form of difference. As an Amazonianist, following Amazonian anthropologists like Philippe Descola, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, and others, I find that the encompassment of identity by alterity makes perfect sense. What intrigues me here is the emerging program of these anthropologists, articulated by Descola in his essay, which moves from this insight to the symmetrization of anthropology. I pose the possibility that symmetry is a rare type of asymmetry, that symmetry is to asymmetry as a circle is to an ellipse, as rest is to movement. I do so in the spirit of recapturing the role of asymmetry in structuralism, and with the notion that, like difference, asymmetry is [54]the substantial side of things, the field of reality in which symmetry is a marked achievement.

Descola claims that he shares with Lévi-Strauss a rejection of the “Cartesian type of cognitive realism” in favor of the “assumption that there exists a physical continuity between, as he says, ‘the states of subjectivity and the properties of the cosmos’” (p. 37). This dictum, as a structuralist principle, can be traced back to Saussure. It, or something like it, can also be traced back to Peirce, and Peirce’s interest in scholastic philosophy, where he sided with the realist position of Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas versus the nominalist position of Occam on the question asked during the Middle Ages: “Is there anything in the external world that corresponds to our conceptions of it?” (Moore 1952). Peirce’s defense of realism is not a defense of what Descola calls Cartesian cognitive realism—Peirce was rabidly anti-Cartesian—but an endorsement of precisely the proposition that representation and reality are continuous. This position inspires in linguistic anthropology a semiotic realism. This latter realism offers a complementary path, if not a path itself the product of structural transformations, toward the ethical imperative of anthropology that Descola identifies as symmetrization.

First, Saussure and the problem of symbolic language. Saussure, contrary to many popular interpretations, held the idea that worlds of thought mediated by language are not separate from the world. There is no doubt Saussure viewed language as a social fact, but it has been harder for many critics to see his view of its historical grounding in reality, the dependence of synchronic structure on diachronic process. Saussure is famously affiliated with dualism, between langue as a structure and the practice of parole for example. With the emergence of new scholarship on Saussure’s life work by Joseph (2012) and Fehr (2014), we now have a clearer picture of his total vision than that provided by the lecture notes his students published as the Course in general linguistics in 1916. Saussure, without having developed an account of indexicality, and despite the criticisms of Benveniste that he brackets the referent (cited by Hanks 2014: 19 n. 1), can be read as himself working against Cartesian dualism. Not only does it hold that Saussure’s structuralism is committed to representational nonduality, but this position is intimately related to his privileging of the collective over the individual, another tenet of Pierce’s support for realism over nominalism. For example, noting his new historicism, editors Meisel and Saussy in their introduction to the 2011 reissue of Baskin’s English translation of the Course in general linguistics state:

In their reciprocity, signifier and signified produce a world that is both wholly concrete and wholly conceptual at one and the same time. Indeed the world itself—the real, external world—is a matrix of signification, real because it is symbolic and symbolic because it is real. Language and the world are continuous. The object-world, including nature and our own bodies, is a web of signs continuous with the languages and the images with which we describe them. Saussure’s belief that the object of linguistic study is the structure of language does not mean that language is placed outside of history. Far from it. (Meisel and Saussy 2011: xvii–xviii)

One problem in this passage, which I otherwise find insightful, is the slippery use of the term “symbolic.” As Descola points out, Lévi-Strauss models cultural structure [55]and social life on linguistic structure from a Saussurean base, with an emphasis on the symbolic function as a language-like ability of humans. But how might we get out of the symbolic, to open up analysis beyond the human? Descola invokes Eduardo Kohn on this point, and his bold attempt to get at how forests think in other than symbolic ways. I appreciate this approach, in part because Kohn states in a 2014 interview on the blog “Savage Minds” that How forests think is an anti-nominalist, thus a (Peircean) realist book.

This is an anti-nominalist book. Humans are not the only producers of generals in the world. It doesn’t mean that culture isn’t a unique phenomenon that creates unique realities and unique kinds of structures and categories. But I don’t think that, for example, these spirits of the forest who I discuss in chapter six are necessarily only cultural phenomena. In some ways they’re a product of culture, but they’re an emergent product of other things, including the semiosis of the forest, which is not fully subsumed by a cultural or symbolic framework.1

In rejecting the human centricity of symbolism, Kohn suggests “provincializing language,” in line with his desire to foreground indexical iconicity, sign process of formal correspondence and contiguous connection, rather than the symbolic, signification by social convention associated with language and human uniqueness. As a linguistic anthropologist, I want to push back on the move to provincialize or bracket language, and I think it is not so hard to bring language back in on Kohn’s principles, and in line with Descola’s concerns about the side-effects of the fetishization of the symbol. We simply need to recognize that the association of language with the symbolic, while not incorrect, is only partial. My point in raising this through Kohn is to remind us that linguistic anthropology blends elements of the Saussurean notion of structure—so the symbolic order of langue—with the Peircean notion of the structuredness of semiosis more broadly, and to remind us that linguistic anthropology has come to see the total fact of language as primarily indexical and iconic. As sociolinguist Deborah Tannen (1981: 136) put it decades ago, the prevailing view has been that reference and predication, along with semantic meaning encoded in the symbolic order—langue—were the cake, while style, poetics, social indexicality, and pragmatic meaning—parole—were the frosting, mere decoration on top of the cake. No, she says, pragmatics is the cake. This metaphor nicely captures the program that Michael Silverstein (1976) has laid out describing the regularity in structure of language in form and practice not as symbolic order per se, but appealing to another of Peirce’s trichotomies, as the properly legisign-level regimentation of indexical iconicity, what we call metapragmatics. The point, again, is to remind us of the analytic flexibility afforded by a marriage of Saussure’s and Peirce’s notions of structure and structuration, and to recover what perhaps Kohn brackets from his own purview, so that we may see his intervention as valuable to structuralist anthropology, as Descola points out, and also to linguistic anthropology. In turn we may see the utility of dialogue between structuralist and linguistic anthropology as living programs with shared roots. Metapragmatics [56]may offer a way to push semiotic analysis beyond the anthropocentric pitfalls of the symbolic and to understand how humans and nonhumans develop models of relating to one another because it precisely sidelines “capacities for symbolism” and human communicative distinctiveness.

Let’s turn to the theme of transformation, and Descola’s fascinating recuperation of Lévi-Strauss’ inspiration from Goethe. Mikhail Bakhtin’s analysis of Goethe’s approach to space-time is a potentially fruitful way of thinking about the role of teleology in structure and temporal continuity. Bakhtin (1986: 33) relates how Goethe, upon visiting Sicily, surprised his tour guide by his rejection of the guide’s recounting of the feats of Hannibal in the same place. “I strictly forbade him,” says Goethe, “this fatal summoning of ghosts that had disappeared.” Bakhtin says that Goethe “hated the stories that guides tell about historical events . . . ghosts that lacked any necessary and visible connection with the surrounding reality.” He further surprised the guide on this occasion by taking leave to go down to the river and collect stones, but Goethe “could not explain to him that the quickest way to get an idea of any mountainous region is to examine the types of rock fragments washed down by its streams.” I suggest a connection between Descola’s claims that Lévi-Strauss draws on Goethe to model the transformation of Urformen of reciprocity in marriage exchange by appeal to Bakhtin’s analysis of Goethe’s view of history, which I think is fundamentally indexical as it involves what I have written about as dicent interpretants, or seeing “indexes of the course of time” (Ball 2014). The possibility of recovering the Urpflanz (“original plant”) is predicated on the embeddedness of its traces of biological evolution qua transformation through time, what Bakhtin calls “visible vestiges” serving Goethe’s query into “necessary ties between the past and the present” and rejection of isolated history. As Bakhtin (1986: 42) summarizes: “In Goethe’s world there are no events, plots, or temporal motifs that are not related in an essential way to the particular spatial place of their occurrence, that could occur anywhere or nowhere (‘eternal’ plots and motifs). Everything in this world is a time-space, a true chronotope.” This vision dialogues with Saussure’s dialectic between synchrony and diachrony, and it certainly prefigures the way that exchange theory through Mauss and Lévi-Strauss comes to see the embeddedness of relations within relations in exchange objects such as Melanesian pigs. For example, in Gell’s (1999) reanalysis of Marilyn Strathern, he shows the difference between a superficial conceptualization of pig exchange between individuals and a historically embedded one, as the actors or dividuals are comprised by traces or vestiges of the exchange processes that produce the nonhuman in concert with the fabrication of gendered humans.

How does the question of symmetrization that Descola raises here intersect with asymmetry in exchange theory à la Strathern, and also the principle of hierarchical encompassment he attributes to Dumont? Consider Sahlins’ (2014) reconfiguration of Descola’s four ontologies based on the landmark American Anthropological Association panel on the ontological turn convened in Chicago in 2013 (fig. 1). Sahlins takes Descola’s equipollent four-way contrast and reconfigures or transforms it by redrawing the relations as nested in a structure of privative (Dumontian) encompassment. Whatever else it may mean, it is possible to see structuralism as alive in just such transformations.[57]

Figure 1
Figure 1: Ontological relationships (Sahlins 2014: 283)

In “The grid and the tree” (2014), Descola replies to Sahlins’ refiguration of the model laid out in Beyond nature and culture (2013). In his “last word on Marshall’s figure” (fig. 1), Descola says,

It struck me that while I organized my ontological grid as a structural group of transformation of the Goethean type (a development of a set of binary contrasts which contains initially all the potentialities that the morphogenetic process unfolds), he resorted to a tree-like diagram where ontological options are the product of a series of bifurcations following a logical, if not historical, evolutionary line of descent. It is probably an indication of our respective positions somewhere in-between the two poles of pure structuralism (nothing but contrasts) and pure historicism (nothing but events). (2014: 299)

Yet, recall that the history of structuralism, in its Praguean and Americanist veins, does not stop at nothing but contrasts. And while the tree diagram developed in these decidedly linguistic structuralist traditions has been used to represent an arboreal vision of diachrony (as in historical linguistics), it also is a means to represent synchronic asymmetry (as in syntactic structures). Sahlins’ use of a tree-like diagram recapitulates the historical passing of structuralism’s principle of opposition and its transformation from Saussure to Lévi-Strauss via Roman Jakobson. Where Jakobson developed along with Nikolai Trubetzkoy the notion of privative phonological opposition, Lévi-Strauss inherited an equipollent model of opposition. The [58]difference is between mutually exclusive oppositions or at least oppositions that are on equal footing—the equipollent kind—and ones that are not mutually exclusive and necessarily hierarchical and encompassing—the privative kind.

Perhaps Descola’s paper here also responds to Sahlins’ reordering. For Descola’s casting of the four ontologies as equipollent is revealed to be admittedly purposeful. It is done in the service of symmetrization, so that no one ontology is privileged and all are possible sources, not just objects, of things such as anthropological theory. I’ll end by attempting to add to the structuralist (Lévi-Strauss), exchange theoretical (Strathern), and hierarchical encompassment (Dumont) symmetrizations that Descola discusses with another: Peircean semiotic realism as it is mobilized in contemporary linguistic anthropology. I simply want to suggest that here too is a way for thinking symmetrically about sources of knowledge in anthropology, one that derives from a certain obsessive preoccupation with the mediating role of sign structures. Here, Peirce, again, against Cartesian reductionism, proposes in his essay “Some consequences of four incapacities” that

the real, then, is that which, sooner or later, information and reasoning would finally result in, and which is therefore independent of the vagaries of me and you. The very origin of the conception of reality shows that this conception essentially involves the notion of a community, without definite limits, and capable of a definite increase in knowledge.

This first part of the quote gets at Peirce’s commitment to the scientific community, and we might think of it as a possible description of a teleology of structuralism and allied collective modes of inquiry. The second part of the same passage, I think, is where we get into a symmetrical understanding of the analyst vis-à-vis the “native” that we adopt in linguistic anthropology as a fact of semiotic mediation: “There is nothing . . . to prevent our knowing outward things as they really are, and it is most likely that we do thus know them in numberless cases, although we can never be absolutely certain of doing so in any special case. But it follows that since no cognition of ours is absolutely determinate, generals must have a real existence” (ibid.). I suggest that semiotic realism presents a dual commitment to “structure(s)” as real generals (at the legisign level), at the same time that we recognize that structures as mediating elements or processes necessitate indeterminacy such that we cannot assume an objective presemiotic view of linguistic, cultural, or ontological worlds from the outside. The symmetrical character of this approach lies in the dictum that linguistic anthropology has followed for so long, that we are analytically in the same boat as the native subject, and we cannot privilege reductive scientistic objectivism, Cartesian inductive bedrock, or reductive phenomenological immediacy. We must and can only know structure from within.


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Christopher BALL is an anthropologist with interests in language, semiotics, and visual culture. He has worked with Wauja people in Brazil’s Upper Xingu region since 2005. His research in Amazonia has focused on ritual, exchange, and development. Recently he has investigated tropes of primitivism in the representation of indigenous people in global mass media.

Christopher Ball
Department of Anthropology
University of Notre Dame
611 Flanner Hall
Notre Dame, IN 46556


1. http://savageminds.org/2014/06/02/an-anti-nominalist-book-eduardo-kohn-on-how-forests-think/ (accessed November 26, 2016).