Issue 1 | Jan 2019

How Many Earths? The Geological Turn in Anthropology.

Patrice Maniglier

Nietzsche claimed that his time was the time of the death of God. Maybe we should characterize our present as the time of the coming of the Earth. More precisely, our time might be that in which the Earth is making its apparition on the stage of history. This, at least, is what a certain number of scholars have recently claimed, including Chakrabarty, in his already classic article on the Anthropocene (Chakrabarty 2009), Stengers and Latour in their respective appeals to Lovelock’s Gaia (Stengers 2009 and Latour 2012), Viveiros de Castro in a recent article with Brazilian philosopher Deborah Danowski (2014), among others. I will support their claim. However, it is also my contention, as I think it is theirs, that we can only get ready to interact with this new actor if we accept that it raises considerable ontological challenges. It is not only a new being; it is also a new kind of being.

Many have already argued that it requires from us that we overcome the distinction between nature and culture, reality and representation, constructivism and realism, being and sign, world and language. I will support this idea too, but from a particular line of argumentation: I will argue that getting ready for the Earth requires from us that we accept a form of radical ontological pluralism, of the kind that what has been called the “ontological turn” in anthropology has introduced. For such a pluralism, to be is ultimately to be an alternative of what could have been instead, or to be situated at the intersection of various lines of virtual becoming-other. I will thus argue that the redefinition of anthropology as comparative ontology defended by a certain number of anthropologists today (Viveiros de Castro, Descola, Latour, Strathern, Ingold, Holbraad, etc.) is exactly the sort of theory we need to approach the Earth that is coming, at the condition that it is slightly redefined in light of the new concept of the Earth.

My point will be that this new actor that we can call the Earth is at the same time unique – there is no planet B, as the activists rightly say – but nonetheless not unified. The oneness of the Earth is not separable from the diverging ways this oneness is made on each locality of the Earth (and a locality will have to be defined as such a diverging construction of the globality itself). This situation, I will claim, is the new situation in which anthropology, understood (following Viveiros de Castro) as the art of controlled equivocation, is yet again needed. And it is from there that we will understand what sort of ontological turn in anthropology is indeed necessary at the age of the coming of the Earth. If you liked the ontological turn in anthropology, you will love the geological turn!


  1. 1. Preliminary clarifications.


I need to make a certain number of prior clarifications so that the statement « the Earth is a new actor in history » be not too misunderstood.

  1. 1. First, I must stress that I understand this statement as a contribution to what Foucault and Deleuze would have called a “diagnosis of the present”. It tries to characterize an event, to exert what is new and challenging in our present situation. And it does so by trying to diagnose what needs to be reshuffled in our critical tools. Indeed, what is 'critique' if not the capacity to push the present to its limits? In consequence, nothing better expresses the novelty of an event than the modifications it imposes on our critical tools.

  2. 2. I also want to emphasize that this statement does not mean that human beings are transforming for the first time in history their environment on a very significant scale. This would be obviously wrong: we know for instance what the Amazonian forest itself owe to human action. Very few parts of the Earth have not been impacted by human presence for a very long time. However, what is happening today is more than that in two ways.

First, it is not only a passive impact on the world; if the Earth can be called an actor it is because it has some initiative. It fights back. What that means can be understood for instance by reference to the theory of dynamic systems: in such systems, a local transformation is not a linear function of some isolated parameter, because the way things hold together explain some of the consequences as attempts to reach a new equilibrium. Such a system is not simply modified by our intervention; it reacts to our action, it has initiative. It is in this sense that the Earth is understood here as an actor. It could be put in Hannah Arendt's terms, if only for the sake of irony. She distinguished in The Human Condition the world, as the playing-field open by and to human actions, and the Earth as that which constraints it from outside, and she was worried that we might one day be able to escape from that planet (see Arendt, 1958, p. 4). But we can now say that the Earth has come into our world: it is a partner in the making of history; it is just another actor in the plurality that makes the world what it is – which is exactly the argument made by Chakrabarty about the Anthropocene (when he remarks that the pace of geological transformations is now faster than the pace of institutional change) or by Stengers (when, in Le Temps des catastrophes, she insists in naming Gaia what we call the Earth, precisely because it intrudes and responds).

The second reason why our present situation is new is that we are not talking anymore about the reaction of a local environment to human action. Human beings have been confronted in the past by significant unforeseen reactions of their ecosystems, which is, incidentally, the exact reason that motivated the introduction of the concept of ecosystem itself. They have realized for quite some time already that their ‘environments’ are not passive outer frames for their actions, but something that responds to them in unexpected ways. Biologist Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, is emblematic of such a realization. In this bestselling book, she showed that, because of the characteristics proper to ‘ecosystems’, our actions have unforeseen and undesired consequences. We develop pesticides to kill insects at a particular location; but those pesticides have consequences on the biology of the birds, for instance they hinder the development of their eggs, which generates large infertility, and this is why, the more we spread pesticides in the fields, the more likely we are to end up with silent springs, springs deprived of birds’ songs, among other unfortunate consequences. This kind of observation has been repeated over and over again and has encouraged a new sensibility to human action in the Modern ages in general.

However, with Climate Warming we are not talking anymore of unforeseen consequences of an alteration of a local region of the Earth, which would reveal the reality of ecosystems. We are speaking of chains of reactions that operate at a global level. The difference between local and global is not quantitative; it is qualitative. The Earth indeed is not an ecosystem, not even an ecosystem of ecosystems. An ecosystem is that which makes of selected beings the very conditions of existence of one another, and it requires time, evolution, discrimination. In contradistinction, it would be wrong to say that we live with all the beings of the Earth (or there would be no sense of speaking of ecosystems anymore, since ecosystems are selective, by definition). The global regulations that constitute the Earth (the carbon cycle, the phosphorus cycle, etc.) enable ecosystems to get at least partially locked into themselves, but don’t constitute in themselves any particular ecosystem. We don't dwell on the Earth itself; the Earth is that which makes it possible to transform parts of it into habitats.

The Earth qua Earth manifests itself each time, because of an internal or an external event, all the beings are at least virtually put in relation to one another in ways that completely cut across the logic of ecosystems, that is even though they have not selected one another as mutual conditions of life. This is the case for instance when our carbon emissions indirectly affect the Venezuelian tepuis, since we are not part of their ecosystem in any sense, those impressive geological formations being isolated from their surrounding environment at the ground by steep cliffs, and some of them have never been visited by any human being (see Lynas 2007). This sort of events are rather rare in the history of the planet, but it is only through such events that something like the Earth manifests itself. It has required in the past either the eruption of a supervolcano, or the impact of an asteroid. Today the Earth is awakened by the carbon civilization. Each time an event elicits not only a modification of a state of affairs, but a supplementary chain of reactions that potentially affects all the beings of the planet, then the Earth itself is manifested as an actor.

If Global Warming deserves to be called a new philosophical issue, it is precisely because it is global. Indeed, we are not well equipped to understand what globality is. The Earth is not the soil, it is not the ground, it is not the landscape, it is not this or that environment, it is not an ecosystem, it is not even the planet as it might be defined from an astronomic point of view (say, like Newton’s). It is a global actor that has never been relevant for human decisions in the past as it has become.


  1. 2. First ontological challenge of the Earth: the concept of hybridity and why it does not suffice to characterize this new actor.


Now the question is: why does this challenge so defined, i.e. the apparition of the Earth as a new actor in the world, seem to have attracted precisely the interest of some of the most significant tenants of what is known as the “ontological turn”? Typical of this encounter is the way Bruno Latour introduces his Inquiry into Modes of existence: “The diplomatic scene that I seek to set forth through this inquiry is one that would reunite the aforementioned Moderns with the aforementioned “others” as Gaia approaches.” (2012, p. 13)[1] What is ontologically so challenging is this new actor? And what has the confrontation with Global Warming has to gain from anthropology?

There are two ways those questions can be addressed. One might be to claim that the need to face the Earth gives a good reason for operating the sort of intellectual moves that the tenants of the ontological turn have argued for. In other words, facing the Earth would require that we redefine anthropology as ontology (in a sense soon to be clarified).

But it can go the other way round: it might be that thinking through what is at stake in the ontological turn, we have to realize that anthropology, in the end, is not only about Being qua Being, it is also about the Earth. “Ontologies” would then be regions of the Earth. The object of anthropology would neither be cultural variation nor ontological variation but, to borrow the word from Elizabeth Povinelli (2016), geontological variations, variations of the Earth itself within itself. This means that there would be here a turn within a turn. It is in that sense that I warned the reader: you liked the ontological turn? You will love the geological turn!


But before examining those two strategies, I need first to explain if only very quickly what version of the “ontological turn” I have in mind, I will make clearly disputable claims that I can’t justify here simply because I do not wish to discuss the contentious notion of an “ontological turn” per se, but rather to explore some of its consequences – in other words I would like to move forward. I have argued elsewhere more in detail in favour of this interpretation of the ‘ontological turn’ (Maniglier 2016b), so I hope I will be allowed to proceed here in a dogmatic style, through propositions.

Proposition 1. Anthropology is a form of knowledge that makes of the virtual variation of the subject of that knowledge the only source of knowledge. As an anthropologist, I must not hold true anything other than whatever emerges from the particular experiences I make of how I might have been another one.

Proposition 2. The ontological turn is a consequence of that epistemology: construing those becoming-others as cultural differences simply does not do justice to the fact that many of those becomings precisely exclude relating to themselves and to us as cultural differences. As a consequence, the true comparative ground cannot be Culture: Being will be a more effective comparative field, because it enlarges the scope of the differences. Anthropology then gets redefined as comparative ontology. Conversely the ontological turn commits itself to a very radical form of ontological pluralism: to be is to be taken in a series of virtual becomings or alternatives of oneself, which might have the form, say, of groups of transformation à la Lévi-Strauss. To be is to be a variant.

Proposition 3. The notion of variant should not mislead us into thinking that there is a vantage point external to the virtual variation itself and from which the variety could be objectively considered; the variant is always at the same time a relativization of the type, for instance culture only makes sense in a particular “ontology”. Such “ontologies” are not representations of the way things are, but different ways of existing or variants of Being.

This characterization thus implies that, embedded in the ontological turn, is a sort of radicalization of pluralism.


This definition of the ontological turn helps us understand at least why we cannot content ourselves with the explanation of the relation between the Earth Challenge and the pluralist version of the ontological turn that Bruno Latour puts forward in his introduction of his Inquiry into Modes of existence. He argues that the apparition of the Earth (which he calls Gaia – a term that has many merits, including being more precise as a concept than ‘the Earth’, but which triggers so many misunderstandings that I prefer to stick to ‘the Earth’ for my purposes) requires that we overcome the distinction between culture and nature. Indeed, if the new age of the Earth is so marked by human activity that it should be named the Anthropocene, how can anyone still stick to that distinction (see Latour 2012, 9)? This situation would be the most eminent illustration of what Latour had already identified in We have never been moderns as the characteristic trick of the Moderns: the more the Moderns swear that nature and culture are two distinct things, the more they multiply the hybrids. The Earth would be the maximal, the apocalyptic hybrid, the one that makes the modern trick simply unsustainable: le Roi est nu, Modernity would have reached with Global Warming the point where it has to confess that there were hybrids all the way through.

I certainly agree that, in order to understand the new situation we are entering into, we must not anymore distribute natural entities (like carbon, rivers, clouds, etc.) on the one hand, and cultural or representational actions (like social relationships, philosophical categories, etc.) on the other. We must have a flat approach to all this (in the sense of flat ontologies), which means articulate on the same plane, as Bonneuil et Fressoz write in their book L’Evénement Anthropocène (2013, p. 54), European consumers habits and Indonesian apes, markets and humid zones, social inequalities and endocrine disruptors[2].

But isn’t that exactly the kind of theoretical situation for which the ontological concept of network (and the whole Actor Network Theory) was invented and developed? But that would mean that such an interpretation does not commit us to any particular form of pluralism. Quite the opposite: it rather points toward a form of ontological monism, in which everything is network. To put it in the terms that Latour used in his book on the modes of existence: if we only need to understand that there are hybrids everywhere, then we don’t need to pluralize the modes of existence as he tries to do in his Inquiry. To make a ‘flat’ ethnography of carbon worlds, we would not need what he calls prepositions (PRE), which multiply the understanding of the way things are, we would only need one mode of existence, NET, networks. The Earth would be a NET-being. But that means it is not a plural one, henceforth not one for which the version of the ontological turn I have argued for can be of any use. Let’s remind ourselves that Latour introduced the model of the modes of existence precisely because he thought that the hegemony of the notion of network was problematic (see Latour 2012, ch.1).

So we are left with the question: why would facing the Earth require that we develop a pluralist approach such as the ones developed in what is called the ‘ontological turn’ (and such as the one developed by Latour himself in his Inquiry)?


  1. 3. Globality or the new foundations of ontological pluralism.


The answer to this question lies again in the realization of what « global » means. It is the global and not the flat character of the Earth that explains why it requires a pluralist approach. That Global Warming is global means that what happens in New Orleans and in Alaska, in Southern France or in Venezuelian tepuis, is not necessarily exactly « the same thing », but it is nonetheless part of something that must be construed as one in some sense, although its manifestations and mechanisms are very diverse. The Earth exists as long as we can use the universal quantifier: one action (say, carbon emissions) puts in motion one complex course of reactions that impacts all the beings. How are we to understand this oneness?

There is a widespread resistance amongst well-educated people to represent this oneness as that of an organism, as Lovelock is supposed to have suggested in his infamous Gaia Hypothesis. Latour (2015) and Stengers (2009) argued in a rather convincing way that this is a misreading of Lovelock. I will not discuss this point here. Let it suffice to accept that the Earth is not an organism.

More tempting is what seems to me to be the most accepted answer of the “Earth sciences”: the Earth would not be a system integrating all the beings in a general homeostasis, but rather an interlocking series of dynamic systems, like the carbon cycle, the phosphorus cycle, etc. In other words, the Earth would be exactly that object constituted by all the global correlations that climate sciences make apparent in their models. If the models show that this or that variation in this or that parameter entails this or that alteration of some of the regulatory mechanisms, that is what the Earth is made of.

But this answer raises an issue: it implies that the oneness of the Earth is defined as transcendent to the variation of its expressions. There would be a vantage point from which the oneness of the Earth would be objectively accessed: it is the vantage point of the Earth sciences. The Earth, in other words, is that which unfolds itself in the reports of the IPCC; it is first and foremost a scientific object.[3]

The problem with this interpretation is that it risks reiterating in fact what might be called quite bluntly a colonial structure. The ultimate form of dispossession consists in taking away from those we force to encounter us the capacity to define and negotiate the very ground of our encounter. To claim that there is one vantage point from which the Earth as such is identifiable as one thing is imposing a particular definition of that which we share or have in common.

An example will make clearer what I have in mind. French anthropologist Nastassja Martin recounts an anecdote about her stay with the Gwinch’ins in Alasaka. A Gwinch’in hunter has killed a caribou. But the bowels of the caribou are rotten. The man comments: “You see, the Chinese pollute and our caribous die.” Indeed, he has been told that the bowels are rotten because the caribous eat the lichens that are contaminated by the acid rains (Martin, 2016). My contention is that the Earth only exists because of and in such connections. It is not anything above those connections, like some unified totality only the satellites could grasp. The Earth is not only in the computers of the IPPC; it is also in the modification of the behaviour of the Gwinch’in hunter as well as in the bowels of the caribous.

However, that there is a connection does not tell us much about how it is made and how it unfolds. That the Gwinch’ins acknowledge the new relation they are having with the Chinese does not mean that they make this relation (both in the sense of construing it “in their mind” and of negotiating it “in reality”) in the terms of the climate sciences. Each relation is to be made by the relata and might not be made in the same way. The relation might be precisely about the incompatible ways in which the relation is made by the relata.

A good example of such a diverging perception of what is at stake with Climate Warming is Amazonian shaman Davi Kopenawa’s prophecy. In his book with Bruce Albert, The Falling Sky, he clearly refers to the same thing as the IPCC does. However he explains it as continuous with the "xawara epidemic smoke" that decimated his people (which we identify as epidemics of smallpox) and whose etiology he finds in the metal and more generally in the mining obsession of ‘the White’. Can we make something out of such claims or are we condemned to treat this at best as a metaphor of the scientific truth? Can we make room for both the IPCC and Kopenawa?

It is very tempting to claim that those who are able to see the truth of the relation between the acid rains and the Chinese pollution are also those who know what the Earth is. As a consequence, it is also very tempting to claim that the Gwinch’ins hunters should relate now to their caribous in a way that can only be rational if it is mediated by the standpoint of those connections they don’t see but can be informed of. To be part of the Earth would become the new way by which the good old colonial predicament would endure. And the growing tensions between indigenous communities and conservationists, adorers of Nature and short-sighted ecologists show that this is not only a vue de l'esprit. If the truth of the Earth is only given from the standpoints of the satellites and the computer-run models, then only the Earth sciences can tell us what we are dealing with and what we should do. But then it is very tempting to argue that only geoengineering can solve the problem (cutting our carbon emissions itself would be a sort of geoengineering), international bodies of decisions informed by experts would be alone qualified to determine what is right or wrong for the Earth, etc. In sum, a global reality would imply a global power, and here global means far away and above the diversity of the actors.

The transcendence of the Earth as a scientific object that lies beyond the actual encounters between the agents that make the Earth would then infuse all the aspects of our mutual relations. This is how I understand Povinelli’s introduction of the notion of geoontopolitics. The politics of the Earth is, indeed, the politics of our time. If biopolitics was defined by the fact that the power of the State over its targets both grounded itself and redefined its techniques using the concept of population, it is today on the grounds of our belonging to the Earth that new and frightening powers will not only justify but also conduct and operationalize their agendas. We are entering in the time of geopower. We will have to comply with many things just because we occupy a part of this intricate and sensitive being, the Earth.

I must add that what I have just argued here from anecdotes implying human beings can also involve non-human beings. The question is not only how the Gwinch’in hunter represents the situation, but how he relates to the caribous, to the Chinese, to the scientist, what relations he actually draws and how he becomes other than himself in the course of the encounter.


In this situation, it seems to me that anthropology is needed – or, rather, a particular kind of anthropology, the one that conceives itself as a counter-poison to colonialism.

Indeed, if anthropology is, as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro argued, the art of controlled equivocation (Viveiros de Castro, 2009: 54), nowhere is it more useful than when it comes to understand what this something that we now have to face together, viz. the Earth, is. Viveiros de Castro might be understood as arguing that anthropology uses the failures to extend a category (be it the category of religion, body, humanity or the Earth), i.e. the failure of the ‘ethnocentric’ projections, in order to redefine each term by the very way this category is altered in the course of its own translations – the function of those translations not being to establish any equivalence but rather to let the immanent differences emerge.

While, in the past, the question of what we had in “common” focused on the problem of the anthropos, anthropology being the art of complicating the relation between the universal and the differences, it seems that nowadays it is not anymore the question of the anthropos that condenses the suspicion that the identification of what we have in common is just the hegemonic subsumption of all the parts under the law of just one of them, it is rather the Earth, the geos, that is the contested element. Our question is not anymore: “What does it mean that we are all human?” It is rather: “What does it mean that we all have the same problem, the Earth?” Our problem is not anymore a problem of universality but a problem of globality. It is not the question of an identity (for instance the identity of a human essence), but the question of a totality (how to share one planet). The most critical philosophical issue today is not how to make claims that are universally valid, but how to put together forms of togetherness that are incompatible.

The Earth is our real equivocation, it is this “common” ground that only exists through the diverging ways by which the very unification is made. The Earth is not a transcendent identity; it is the dynamic of the diverging versions of itself. The Earth therefore only exists because it makes sense to say that the entity uncovered by the IPCC reports and the “great earth-forest” presented by Amazonian shaman Davi Kopenawa are indeed continuous with one another, which means that we have to understand how one becomes the other, without anyone being a metaphor or just a representation of the other one. It is not therefore in the truly marvellous achievements of the IPCC only that we should find the Earth; it is in all the "contested ecologies" (in the sense of Green, 2013), that is, in all the controversies about that which precisely we are forced to accept that we have in common, in sum in the equivocations by which the Earth, the true Earth, the Earth itself, transits.

The Earth calls for an anthropological approach, entirely continuous with and integrated in the earth sciences - although, perhaps, a slightly modified anthropology. Indeed, what the apparition of the Earth means is that we are now part of one (although maybe not the same) something. Not of the same species, not of the same genus (le genre humain). The question is not anymore whether we acknowledge or refuse to acknowledge a common essence, destiny or potentiality. It is of what we do of the all-encompassing sway of a power that takes us all over into one process and puts us all in relation as never before. As Spivak (2003) and Povinelli remarked, differences are not anymore at the other end of the transformational process, as that which we might ultimately become (like in Heart of Darkness, alteration is at the end of the journey), but rather within the same totalizing operator, as another way of being integrated. This is what I understand by Povinelli’s concept of “the otherwise” or Spivak’s notion of planetary subjectivity: differences as different ways of being in. The Earth is that which we now share, in the sense of that it affects us all, of course differently and unequally, but us all nonetheless. The whole question is then what is this “us all”: this is why all the rejoinders to Chabrabarty’s argument about the “human species” that refer us back to the true fact that it is not the human species in general that is responsible, but a very specific alliance of human and non-human actors in perfectly identifiable companies and even individuals, still miss the point. The point is not “Who is the actor that caused this situation?” It is: “Who is capable of facing a common problem?” The problem is not of explanation of the past but of responsibility for the future. The Earth is the forced terrain of the encounter. The question: what is the “we” that is addressed by the Earth? Who is the “subject” of the Earth? Who is capable of facing the Earth? What are the alliances that can be built? That this “we” has no reason to be defined as human exclusively seems to me obvious. Still, it requires anthropology as the art of making room for a non-hegemonic We. This is how I understand the need for an “anthropology beyond the human” (to recuperate a word used by Eduardo Kohn).


  1. 4. The ontological challenge: the Earth is structured as a language.


But all this implies one very radical philosophical consequence: equivocation is not anymore on the side of language only; it is also on the side of “realities”. If the Earth itself only exists as equivocal, i.e. only in the encounter between different variants of itself, it means that equivocation is not simply something that happens in representations, because there would exist one sign that has more than one meaning; equivocation is a kind of reality, it is the mode of existence of a particular sort of beings, of those beings that can be called global. This is, according to me, the deepest and utterly unrecognized reason why we must overcome the distinction between language and reality, sign and being – in short the most interesting account of the ontological turn.

My point is that the Earth is as much a matter of translation as our languages are, as much as capital also is (as Chakrabarty showed in Provincializing Europe). It is not correct to think that there are on the one hand univocal things, like the Earth, the planets, the climate, etc., and on the other equivocal things, like languages, kinship systems, philosophical ideas. It is not correct to put the equivocation only on the side of representation, while reality would always (at least in principle) be deemed univocal. The Earth only exists in translation, that is, because it is being translated, as a multiplicity; it only exists at the very moment the IPCC Earth-system becomes Davi Kopenawa great Earth-forest and conversely – thus enabling both of them to redefine themselves as tendencies in this mutually diverging dynamic.

But it must also be noted that translation does not consist in analysing how two representational systems relate to one referential ground (or, say, divide its semantic space); it consists in redefining each of them by the very transformations they operate, without the mediation of a third term, in exactly the same way as Lévi-Strauss's myths translate one another without the mediation of a third compass. The difficult point here is that an identity, for instance the identity of a linguistic term, that we can represent à la Saussure as being defined by its differential relations to other terms, is equated to another identity that by definition it is not. Indeed, in this view of translation we don't say that mouton can translate mutton because they can be both referred to a third term, their meaning, i.e. the eatable flesh of the animal that enters into culinary habits. We say that “mouton is mutton” and we have to negotiate the translation without the mediation of a third term that would mitigate the identity[4]. This can only be made sense of if we start with equivocation. Equivocation is the ontological feature of what we might call the split identities, identities that only exist in their diverging realizations.

We tend to think of equivocation within language as the supposed fact that there are many signifieds for just one signifier. This is not, I contend, a correct view. Equivocation is the expression on the plane of the signified of the intrinsic variability of linguistic signs in general. Just as a sign can be pronounced in many different ways, in the same way it can mean different things. Furthermore, equivocation is a direct consequence of a strange and fascinating property of language, a property that drew the attention of no less a figure than Saussure. This property is that of intrinsic variability. Maybe the most important sentence of Saussure entire corpus is the following one: “French does not come from Latin, French is Latin.” I have shown elsewhere (Maniglier 2006) that it is in order to understand that strange fact that Saussure introduced the wonderful paraphernalia of structuralist ontology (entities only made of differences, dual, purely positional, etc.). If linguistic variation is possible, it is precisely because no language is identical to itself. It does not have to become another one because it was never the same from the start. Each language is intrinsically variable in the sense sociolinguistics at the time of Weinreich and Labov used to describe it. When Labov (1968) showed that a young African-American man could switch seventeen times from one code, say Black Vernacular English, to another, say Standard English, he showed that it does not make sense in such conditions to constitute dialects into languages and then try to explain how we navigate from one to the other. We should rather try to understand that any language truly spoken is intrinsically multiple, not in the sense that it is composed of many languages, but in the sense that it is itself in variation and also in perpetual transformation. To make sense of this claim, simply think that a language is not a unified homogenous entity that defines a community by the identity of what they share (the infamous trésor that Saussure said la langue was), but rather that which enables a speaker to translate into one another two speakers who don’t understand one another. Indeed language is not transitive: from the fact that A and B understand each other in language L, and that B and C understand each other in language L too, you cannot infer that A and C understand each other as speaking the same language L. For instance, a University professor might be able read Rabelais and speak to some of her Canadian students who can't read it, but who understand easily current argotic québécois which needs to be subtitled for her. I suggest we say that (her) French is that which makes the translation between Rabelais French and some contemporary argotic French understandable.

This long detour had one purpose: to argue that equivocation has nothing to do with meaning, it has to do with a particular kind of identity, a particular kind of mode of existence, the mode of existence of what Deleuze called multiplicities, which the conception of language I have just sketched perfectly illustrates. It is enough for one thing to share the ontological features of “split identities” to be called equivocal. It is my contention that the Earth is equivocal in precisely this sense. The Earth is our real, unavoidable and massive equivocation. And this is why the Earth calls for a revewed anthropological attitude.

This provides an unforeseen ground for claiming that there is something indeed ontologically common between Earth and language (in other words to argue, with Eduardo Kohn, that we have to understand that signs are not human inventions but that start before the human[5]). I am tempted to say: the Earth is structured like a language, in the sense Lacan said the unconscious is structured like a language. Not, because it conveys meaning, but because it varies as languages do. The unity of the Earth should be compared to the unity of a language, say, Latin, in the sense that Latin not only is identical to French but at the same time makes of French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian etc. "one" language. The existence of a language, as I have just argued, is exactly coextensive to the varieties of the diverging expressions of itself. It is nothing beyond. Similarly the Earth is that which enables us to say that the Earth-system of the IPCC is the same as the Forest that Kopenawa argues is a better way to capture what he says we call “the entire world”. Similarly how the Gwinch’ins integrate the Chinese is neither identical nor symmetrical to the way the Chinese workers integrate the Gwinch’ins. This is characteristic of global realities: they are made of diverging incompatibles versions of themselves (this is a point global history made clear). By versions I don't mean “representations of”, of course, but very real ways of drawing the lines between things, or making them one. This opens to a large array of empirical works to describe the Earth in all the ways it has of distributing itself in diverging variants of itself.




Anthropology has always been at its best when it thinks of itself as an attempt at defining a non-hegemonic “We”. Today, the ‘We’ question is bound by the apparition of the Earth on the stage of history, as that which addresses and challenges “us all”. This provides anthropology with a new ground, as long as it is ready not to let itself be trapped in distinctions that used to be operational but are not anymore, like nature and culture, language and reality, human and non-human, etc. In consequence, I would argue that the ontological turn must become a geological turn: what the Earth is is really what anthropology is about. Anthropology does not only speak of ‘the human’; it is also best positioned to speak of ‘the Earth’, because it can do justice to the globality of this new actor without projecting it into any transcendent realm where it would exist over and beyond the variety of its own diverging versions. In other words, the activists who remind us that there is no planet B are right; but we must remember that this does not make of the oneness of the Earth something univocal. The Earth is one - but not the same[6].

[1] Many tenants of what is known as the “ontological turn” (like Latour, Viveiros de Castro, Descola, Ingold, etc.) have emphasized the relevance of their work in the context of Global Warming. A version of this paper had actually been presented at a conference in Rio de Janeiro held in September 2014 and entitled “The Thousand Names of Gaia: from the Anthropocene to the Age of the Earth”, gathering Viveiros de Castro, Latour, Harraway, Stengers, Povinelli, Chakrabarty, etc.

[2] At the age of the Anthropocene the Earth, they argue, is not an encompassing circle in which one could find other circles (environments, cultures, etc.), but rather “an intricate network where get mutually reproduced through thousands of channels ‘social’ and “natural’ arrangements, European consumption attitudes and Indonesian apes, markets and humid zones, social inequalities and endocrine disruptors”, powers and the chemical composition of the atmosphere, representations of the world and energetic fluxes” (my translation).

[3] A very subtle version of this idea has been defended by Isabelle Stengers: “It is the name of what a new scientific field addresses, a being the past of which is reconstructed in order to learn about its present and future behaviour. What threatens us has no face but a complex interrelated set of models and data.” (Stengers, 2014) 

[4] The reference to Saussure here should not mislead the reader. I have shown elsewhere that, contrarily to the received view, Saussure’s work is entirely aimed at understanding the necessity of historical and dialectal change (see Maniglier 2006). I have also showed that this was also why Lévi-Strauss drew from Saussure (Maniglier 2016). The reader must then suspend all Pavlovian temptation to declare ‘structuralism’ dead, buried and necessarily irrelevant to any contemporary purpose.

[5] Kohn argued that one needed Peircian semiotics against Saussurian semiology to build an ‘anthropology beyond the human’, since the latter relied on the distinction of convention and nature. Not only do I think this last reading is inaccurate but I also think Saussurian semiology offers another way into the equation of Being and sign, a way grounded on the notions of equivocation, multiplicity, variant, etc., which must not be neglected. Indeed it has the advantage of avoiding the very naturalist undertones of Kohn’s semiotics beyond the human.

[6] This is a version of a paper presented at the panel “Geontology, planetarity and altermetaphysics” at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, in Washington D.C. (U.S.A.), on Saturday December 6th 2014. I want to thank Peter Skafish for his invitation and support, as well as Suzanne Guerlac for her comments.



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Patrice Maniglier