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The fifth of five worlds

If one had to choose a term which polarizes opinion more than any other in contemporary anthropology, surely ‘ontology’ would be a likely candidate. People have been variously inspired, bored, annoyed, motivated and, on these pages, confused by a term whose increasing ubiquity belies the indeterminacy of meaning with which its many users endow it. Without wishing to further bore, annoy, or confuse readers by rehearsing the arguments for and against anthropology’s apparent ‘ontological turn,’ I wish to simply highlight one of the more controversial claims that some of its proponents make: that taking certain native claims about the nature of things seriously has the effect of disrupting a very particular implicit, default ontology which has underpinned all but the most recent anthropological theorizing. According to these critiques, the standard anthropological configuration posits distinct cultures as simply a multiplicity of beliefs, ideas, and representations of and about a taken for granted unitary, natural world. Yet for these new ontologists, to entertain the beliefs, ideas, and representations of others simply as beliefs and ideas is not enough; the possibility of the truth of the worlds to which they refer must be allowed. Or to phrase the matter another way, cultures are not simply composed of ‘symbols’ referring to an objective reality.  Of course, many would respond that taking native ideas seriously is precisely what anthropologists, or at least good anthropologists, have always done. Without wishing to delve any further into these debates, I wish simply to highlight the fact that in these debates ‘representations’ come to be cast in a rather negative light. To take something as ‘just’ a representation is to belittle it, to fail to take it seriously, to negate its disruptive potential.

In this review, I argue neither for nor against an ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology. Instead I take a step back and turn to a book which many years ago approached similar issues and took them in a bold new direction, one in which this hierarchy of representation and reality is dramatically reversed.  Gary Witherspoon’s Language and Art in the Navajo Universe, despite having the status of a minor classic in North America, remains relatively unknown and unread this side of the Atlantic. Why this should be the case, I’m not sure. Perhaps a partial answer lies in the author’s proclaimed allegiance to ‘interpretive anthropology,’ a claim supported by a glowing and characteristically eloquent preface by Clifford Geertz. Yet, at least as I understand it, Witherspoon’s book does not really correspond to what we would now recognize as ‘interpretive anthropology,’ the idea that the proper objects of anthropological study are a multiplicity of symbolic webs of meaning constructed around a shared natural world. And the reason for this is simply that the ethnographic material contained within does not allow it; to continue Latour’s metaphor of the ‘bomb,’ the ethnographic exposition of Navajo thought ‘explodes’ the theoretical framework in which it is contained. The Navajo elders who provided the basis for Witherspoon’s analysis invert the conventional relationship of signifier and signified. Thus according to Navajo thought, ‘The symbol was not created as a means of representing reality, on the contrary, reality was created or transformed as a manifestation of symbolic form. In the Navajo view of the world, language is not a mirror of reality; reality is a mirror of language’ (1977: 34). The incongruence between this formulation and the fundamental premises of interpretive anthropology is not hard to spot. Yet it also raises certain problems with the opposition of representation and reality, and of epistemology and ontology, which much newer writing on the topic appears to take for granted.

The complexity of both the ethnographic data presented as well as the complexity of the analysis offered by the author were only possible through a depth of engagement which few anthropologists have been fortunate enough to replicate. Witherspoon first arrived on the Navajo reservation as a nineteen year old Mormon missionary from the Midwest. Unlike most such missionaries, he ended up staying, marrying a Navajo woman, and working for the Navajo Board of Education. After ten years of living on the reservation he found his way to the University of Chicago and the teaching of David Schneider and Clifford Geertz. The depth of Witherspoon’s knowledge and engagement with both Navajo people and the Navajo language is evident on every page.

The world we currently live in is understood by Navajo to be the fifth of five worlds. This world and the previous four were all created through the speech of the ‘Holy People’ who remain present as the ‘inner forms’ of a variety of natural phenomena, from animals to mountains to meteorological phenomena, which thus constitute the ‘outer forms’ of the Holy People. Just as it was through speech that each of the five worlds was created, so it is through speech that the fifth world which contemporary Navajo inhabit is controlled. Such a proposition is premised upon the assumption ‘that mental and physical phenomena are inseparable and that thought and speech can have a powerful impact on the world of matter and energy’ (1977: 9). Navajo healing ritual is thus comprised of seeking to both control the world, and to create it afresh through thought, and thought’s outer form, speech.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of Witherspoon’s book is that it locates this radical ontological configuration, not solely in the esoteric discourse of healing rituals (although such accounts are indeed central to the book), but also in detailed accounts of the very fabric of Navajo everyday life and language. The core of the book is devoted to a lengthy and erudite analysis of the Navajo classification of the world, and reveals a fundamental opposition between things classified as ‘static’ and those classified as ‘active.’ Navajo is a famously difficult language to learn; the fact that there are over 300,000 conjugations of the verb ‘to go’ is perhaps some indication of this. Like most other American languages, Navajo has to be approached as composed primarily of verbs rather than nouns. As Witherspoon demonstrates, even those nouns which do exist are actually best understood as derived from verbal forms or as passive forms of verbs. The language, then, is one of processes rather than of objects. The linguistic analysis proffered by Witherspoon is intended to demonstrate how approaching the Navajo language as a way of classifying the world through static and active categories leads to the disappearance of certain long-standing conundrums in Navajo linguistics. Although he doesn’t go as far as to posit a direct link between the structures of language and cultural forms, Witherspoon does demonstrate that a similar opposition of static and active categories crosses both. All things are understood to be in a state of motion unless that motion has been withdrawn. The careful control of motion across all forms of activity is thus the primary ethical goal of Navajo life.

This careful regulation of stasis and motion pervades not only myth and healing ritual, but also kinship and art. Thus, for example, kinship is founded upon both ‘static’ fixed forms of clan belonging, and ‘active’ fluid forms of affective sustenance. Witherspoon notes, ‘The Navajo have taken the dualistic dimensions of the k’e [kinship] bond, giving birth and giving sustenance, and organized them according to the basic metaphysical propositions of static and active. From these they have developed, respectively, a descent system which orders and arranges the social universe into static categories, and a social system which organizes social life into flowing and active patterns’ (1977: 119).

The continuing salience of the two fundamental assumptions of Navajo thought – the interconnection of mind and matter, and the division of the world into static and active categories – are not surprisingly also the fundamental tenets of Navajo art. Thus, for example, the designs of rugs are understood to be the materialization of the weaver’s thought, and are composed of alternating static and active patterns, and alternating static and active colours. Men’s sandpaintings, however, are understood to be entirely static, rooted in the mythological events which they ‘represent.’ Simply by undressing and sitting in the middle of a sandpainting, an afflicted patient enjoins the mythological event and is healed. Thus Navajo artistic expression, and indeed Navajo life in general, are about the controlling of motion into static and active patterns, a process famously acknowledged by Jackson Pollock as the inspiration for many of his paintings. By carefully tracing these two interlinked metaphysical assumptions – the interdependence of mind and matter, or representation and reality, and the opposition of stasis and motion – across a huge swathe of Navajo life, Witherspoon achieves his stated goal of making Navajo thought accessible, of reducing our estrangement from them.

Yet when all is said and done, is Witherspoon’s book about the world or is it simply about what Navajo people happen to believe and say about the world, their ‘representations’ of the world? The reason I think the book is relevant to contemporary debates is that it reveals why, from a Navajo perspective, we cannot ask, much less answer, such a question. For the Navajo thought described therein, rejects such an opposition between representation and reality. For a people for whom ‘the form of the world was first conceived in thought, and then this form was projected onto primordial unordered substance through the compulsive power of speech and song,’ the much vaunted clash of epistemology and ontology, of knowing and being, disappears for they amount to the same thing. Reality is the product of knowledge made manifest through representation.

The field of Navajo studies is crowded with giants. Linguists of the calibre of Hoijer, Hale, and Sapir, all wrote brilliant essays on the complexities of Navajo grammar, while ethnographers such as Kluckhohn, Lamphere, and perhaps the greatest of all American ethnographers, Gladys Reichard, were each in awe of the depth, complexity, and beauty of Navajo thought. Witherspoon refers to Geertz’s famous statement that, ‘The essential vocation of interpretive anthropology is not to answer our deepest questions, but to make available to us answers that others, guarding sheep in other valleys, have given’ (1973: 30). In addition to his academic activities, Witherspoon later became a cattle rancher, not a shepherd. But his lifelong engagement with Navajo people reveals a new set of questions to ask of our questions, ones in which ‘representations’ cannot so easily be dismissed.

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