Posted by: Johan Normark | January 23, 2010

Back from matter: ANT vs SPIDER

I have just returned from the ”Back to matter” conference in Copenhagen which was organized by the Nordic Network for Amerindian Studies. It was also an occasion to meet some fellow Mesoamericanists working at the Nordic capital of Mesoamerican studies (Wayeb’s European Maya Conference [EMC] will be held there in 2011). I have mentioned one of these Mesoamericanists before on this blog and this is Jesper Nielsen (who was my opponent during my Licentiate defense six years ago). I also met Christophe Helmke (whom I first met in the BVAR project in Belize in 1997). He is running an interesting project in which Jesper also participates. This project includes studying Teotihuacano writing. Not long ago Mesoamericanists thought Teotihuacan lacked a writing system but what once was considered to be “just” iconography has turned out to be a fully developed writing system. Unfortunately, I was the only Mesoamericanist who presented a paper. Anthropologists working in Amazonas were clearly in majority.

The conference should have been called “Back to material culture” considering the topics of the majority of papers. It was the traditional hylomorphic and anthropocentric view of how people enforce form upon inert matter or give matter symbolic meaning. As I see it, only three papers did the opposite and really went all the way back to matter itself and it was Christian Sorhaug’s paper on canoe making, my paper on water as material and Tim Ingold’s keynote speech. Ingold presented his view of materials and time, largely inspired by Deleuze and Bergson, which you probably know are two of “my” philosophers. The name Christopher Tilley echoed a couple of times in Ingold’s speech. In case you do not know who he is, he is one of the main figures in the Postprocessual school in archaeology and he is famous for his phenomenological studies. Tilley became the representative for the hylomorphic modeling (see also Ingold’s 2007 article in Archaeological Dialogues where he debates with Tilley and Knappett).

I can also recommend a short article by Ingold in Knappett and Malafouris’s anthology Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach (2008). His article is called When ANT meets SPIDER: Social theory for arthropods and deals with an ant and a spider having a philosophical discussion in the undergrowth. ANT of course stands for Actor Network Theory and is the Latourian position which Ingold criticizes. His position is that of SPIDER which stands for Skilled Practice Involves Developmentally Embodied Responsiveness. Ingold debunks networks and introduces meshworks instead (without referring to DeLanda who has used the concept of meshworks before). At the end of the discussion the ANT says:

“Not for nothing am I known as THE TOWER among arthropods. For my philosophy towers over yours.”

“You are indeed a master of lofty thoughts’, admits SPIDER wearily. ‘But I cannot, for the most part, understand a word of what you say.’

I got the same feeling after my presentation of water as multiplicity. No response from the “hylomorphists”.




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