The following is an excerpt from Fictionalizing Anthropology: Encounters and Fabulations at the Edges of of the Human by Stuart McLean (University of Minnesota Press, 2017). Copyright 2017 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. Used by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.
Once Upon a Time . . .
Not in the time of calendars, chronicles, or clocks, not in the time of history . . .
No land, or sea, or sky. Darkness. Fire and ice, condensing into a giant body. His name is Ymir. Or is he a he? The name means something like “two-fold being.”1 One leg copulates with the other, and a boy-child is the result. A giant and giantess spring from his armpits. Then it’s over. A new race of beings emerges from the ice — the race of humanly proportioned, bilaterally sexed, and gendered gods led by Odin. The fecund, hermaphroditic giant is cut down to size. Odin and his brothers, Vili and Vé, kill Ymir and partition his body to fashion the earth, sea, and sky:
From Ymir’s flesh the earth was made,
And from his blood, the sea,
Mountains from his bones, trees from his hair,
And from his skull, the sky.
And from his eyelashes the cheerful gods
Made earth in the middle for men;
And from his brain were the hard-tempered clouds
Although the verses comprising the surviving corpus of Eddic poetry, along with the prose summary composed by historian Snorri Sturluson, were first written down in Iceland sometime in the thirteenth century, more than two centuries after the settlement’s official adoption of Christianity, they have often been cited as evidence of an older, pre-Christian vision of the cosmos that the earliest Norse settlers brought with them from pagan Scandinavia.3 The world these stanzas invoke, however, is older still—older than humans and the gods they worship. Indeed, the familiar deities of the Norse pantheon appear here as latecomers, usurpers of another, earlier dispensation. And what about the giants? One the one hand, their overthrow and displacement is the precondition for the establishment of a new order of gods and humans, the polymorphous bisexuality of Ymir’s originary body being subdued and partitioned to provide the foundation for the more fixed and clearly delineated forms of the presently existing world. On the other hand, the giants are acknowledged to be older than the gods who vanquish and replace them, and as such they retain powerful associations with magic, poetry, and wisdom. It is to them that even Odin is obliged to turn to acquire knowledge of past and future events.4 In the Eddic poems, for example, the description of the chaos and darkness that precede creation is uttered by the Voluspa, a seeress, herself the descendant of giants, who can remember before recorded time and who is able also to see far ahead, beyond Ragnarok, the doom of the gods, when “the sun turns black, earth sinks into the sea/The bright stars vanish from the sky,” only for a new earth to rise up from the ocean, home (eventually) to a new generation of gods and humans.5
What is one to make of these verses and their protagonists, who variously inhabit and remember a world prior to both gods and humans — a world fashioned, moreover, from the bodily substance of a being who was himself solidified out of the contending elements of a primordial chaos? Such origin stories, in Northern Europe and perhaps everywhere, are among the earliest subject matters of poetry. But who—or what—is speaking here? Should we trust the words of the seeress, or is she herself just another latecomer?
What If . . . ?
Fire and ice? How about melting icecaps, rising temperatures, seas, and CO2 levels, nuclear accidents, oil spills, e-waste, floating plastic garbage patches, along with climate change deniers vociferously ensconced at the highest levels of politics? Add to that burgeoning economic inequality, ethnic, religious, and free-market fundamentalisms, wars, genocides, more than 65 million refugees, the prospect of border walls, immigration bans and mass deportations, and the world of the early twenty-first century starts to look no less precarious (or potentially transitory) than that of the Eddic creation narrative. As the latter reminds us, myths tell not only of origins but also of endings. Recent proclamations of the advent of the Anthropocene as a distinct geological epoch call attention both to the ever-increasing impact of human populations (some conspicuously more than others) on planetary ecosystems and to the now all too thinkable possibility of a world that is no longer habitable by humans. Journalist Alan Weisman has written of “the world without us” in a work of speculative nonfiction that imagines the future of the earth in the aftermath of the sudden disappearance of the human species. Weisman pictures, among other things, the flooding of cities like New York, the gradual reoccupation of onetime human dwellings by plants and animals, and the combustion of abandoned petrochemical refineries, expelling quantities of hydrogen cyanide and other toxins into the atmosphere, creating a chemical nuclear winter and potentially causing surviving species to mutate in ways that might decisively alter the course of evolution.6 Yet he suggests too that such thought experiments, disconcerting as they are, may be a necessary part of crafting livable human futures.7
Could the capacity to imagine not only our connectedness to other kinds of beings but also the possibility of our radical absence from the scene be a prerequisite of thought and creativity, not least in our present and much discussed state of ecological emergency? As the biological and physical sciences continue to remind us, humans, like the seeress, and like Odin and his followers, are late arrivals, recently emerged into a universe that existed long before them and that will continue to exist long after their disappearance.8 At the same time, science studies and the various “new materialisms” current across humanities disciplines alert us to the fact that even the social and cultural worlds that humans often pride themselves on creating have never been exclusively human. Rather, they are dependent on and inflected by a multitude of other than human presences, including animals, plants, geological formations, weather systems, and a range of humanly manufactured artifacts fashioned from a variety of materials — materials possessed of their own density and dynamism, and as such irreducible to the uses to which humans attempt to put them.9
What becomes of the human in a universe that is always more than human? What becomes of anthropology? For one thing, the encounters across difference that anthropology deals with can no longer be understood only as encounters between differently constituted human worlds. Also implicated in such encounters are the other than human materialities out of which human worlds are constructed and by which they are inevitably carried beyond themselves. No longer confined to the registers of the social, cultural, or linguistic, difference inheres in the very fabric of reality. How, then, might anthropology engage the immanence of human imagining, thought, and practice to a world that preexists and surpasses them? Might this involve suspending anthropology’s sometime claims to be a social science, whether of a geisteswissenschaftlich or a positivist variety, and instead turning to the exploration of its affinities with art and literature as a mode of engaged creative practice carried forward in a world heterogeneously composed of humans and other than humans? Perhaps anthropology stands to learn from art and literature not as evidence to support explanations based on an appeal to social context or history but rather as distinct modes of engagement with the materiality of expressive media — including language — that always retain the capacity to exceed and destabilize human intentions. Taking its cue from art and literature as much as from the sciences, anthropology might understand itself less as the study of an objectified humanity than as the open-ended, performative exploration of alternative possibilities of collective existence — of new ways of being human and other than human.
Henri Bergson and later Gilles Deleuze called it “fabulation”: the making of fictions sufficiently vivid and intense to be capable of intervening in and reshaping reality.10 This involves not the representation of a world assumed to be already given, independent of its figuration through texts, images, or other media but rather the participatory carrying forward of material world-forming processes in which human acts of creativity are always already implicated. Think again of the dismembered body of the giant Ymir, which furnishes the material substance of the universe fashioned by his successors — a universe that presumably includes not only the poet of the Eddic verses but also the verses themselves. Presumably too, both poet and verses will share the fate of the Eddic universe (or at least of its current iteration), as sun, moon, and stars vanish and the earth sinks beneath the sea. Today the world or worlds that anthropology evokes seem no less poised on the brink of catastrophe. Yet this book insists that faced with the encroachment of these seeming finalities, anthropology’s most radical potential consists — and has always consisted — of its capacity to undermine conventional distinctions between documentary and fiction. By collapsing the representational distance on which such distinctions depend, reality — and not just human beings’ culturally circumscribed representations of it—is rendered open to questioning and, potentially, refashioning. Anthropology, in other words, is a fabulatory art that plays not only at the interstices between human worlds (the more familiar spaces of ethnographic encounter or intercultural comparison) but also at the thresholds of emergence or dissolution of the human, where the travails of human world making unravel into the becoming of a universe that has, finally, no need of humans to observe, interpret, or affirm it.
Does such a claim signal a turning away from a reality that has become intolerable and a concomitant withdrawal into writerly self-absorption? Or might it point us in the opposite direction, plunging us back into the viscosity, mess, and proliferation of what is? Readers will have to decide for themselves, but there can be no doubt that the stakes of posing the question “what if?” have never been higher. What if the material universe’s very indifference to our inextricable involvement in it were a potential source of hope — a hope that things might turn out differently and perhaps better? What if the “real” world routinely invoked by our politicians and media as the limit of human possibility were but one possible world among many? What if this multiplicity of worlds were also the same world—a world of difference? What if making manifest this unity in multiplicity and multiplicity in unity were precisely the difference in the world that anthropology makes? What if invention, undertaken as a collective project, were the most powerful rejoinder both to the constraining pretend-pragmatism of much mainstream politics and to the dogmatically asserted “alternative facts” of populist, right-wing demagoguery?11 What if giants, shape-shifters, and the hosts of the dead as well as biopower, neoliberal governance, and technoscientific assemblages? What if poetry? What if . . . ?
- Davidson, Myths and Symbols, 173.
- Larrington, Poetic Edda, 57.
- O’Donoghue, From Asgard to Valhalla, 11–22; Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion, 1–34.
- Näsström notes also the association of the Norse giants with “wild nature” in its most untamed and threatening manifestations, especially winter and cold. Näsström, Freyja, 186–87. See also Davidson, Myths and Symbols, 173–74; Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion, 275–78; and Orchard, Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend, 55.
- Larrington, Poetic Edda, 11.
- Weisman, World Without Us, 21–38, 129–44.
- Ibid., 5.
- On this point, see Meillasoux, After Finitude, 11–27.
- See, e.g., Bennett, Vibrant Matter; Coole and Frost, New Materialisms; Dolphijn and van der Tuin, New Materialism.
- See Bogue, Deleuzian Fabulation, and chapter 3 below.
- The phrase “alternative facts” was used, famously and controversially, by Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, in a Meet the Press interview with Chuck Todd on January 22, 2017. Conway used the phrase in response to Todd’s observation that White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s claim that President Donald’s Trump’s inaugural ceremony had drawn the largest crowds ever to attend a presidential inauguration was disproved by available data and photographic evidence.