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Anthropology, art and the mycelial person

Una Meistere

15.07.2020

An interview with Tim Ingold, British anthropologist and Professor Emeritus of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen 

British anthropologist Tim Ingold, founder and former head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, is one of the best-known anthropologists of our day. He is known as an idiosyncratic, unconventional researcher who believes that “anthropology is philosophy with people in”. He calls the field anti-disciplinary (rather than interdisciplinary), and in his work he has focused, among other things, on the connections between anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture – otherwise known as “The Four As” – exploring the relations between human beings and the environments they inhabit. In a radical departure from conventional studies that treat art and architecture as compendia of objects for analysis, Ingold proposes anthropology and archaeology not of but with art and architecture.

Ingold is also a cellist. And there are legends at the University of Aberdeen of his students sitting in class barefoot to ensure closer contact with the ground as well as the professor going kite-flying together with his students.

Ingold earned his PhD in social anthropology in 1979 from the University of Cambridge, and his dissertation was based on ethnographic fieldwork he carried out among Skolt Sámi people in northeastern Finland. “To some extent, I think that was the beginning of my discovery of who I actually am,” he recalls of the time he spent with the Sámi.

Ingold is the author of many books, including The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill; Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description; Anthropology: Why It Matters; Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot and Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture.

Ingold’s father, the legendary mycologist Cecil Terence Ingold (1905–2010), was a long-time president of the British Mycological Society and the organiser of the first International Mycological Congress. In fact, an entire class of aquatic fungi – the Ingoldian fungi – is named after him. Tim Ingold, for his part, believes that anthropology and mycology have much in common. As he writes in Lines: A Brief History: “What if we take the mycelium as our exemplar of the organism? Arguably, the whole of biological science would be different. And so, too, would the science of society be different, were every person to be considered – like the mycelium – as a thing of lines, and the social as the domain of their entanglement.”

In a pleasant departure from recent almost-daily use of Zoom and Skype, our conversation took place over the telephone. On August 6, Ingold will speak as a guest of the RIBOCA2 online series of talks and conversations.

In your more than forty years in the field of anthropology, have you managed to find out who you are? What does it mean to be human and alive?

It’s difficult to think back that far, but these are questions that have grown on me. At the same time, if I think back on why I’m looking at these questions now and why I’m thinking about them in the way I am, then many of the reasons lie in things that I learned a long time ago.

For example, because I’m a social anthropologist, when I finished my degree and had to do research for my doctorate, I chose to do my fieldwork in Lapland. At that time I was only twenty-three or twenty-four years old, and I just did what I had been trained to do – finding out all about kinship, the household, how people managed their reindeer herds and so on. It was all very ethnographic and very detailed. I was just dealing with these very ordinary, everyday questions; I wasn’t thinking about any grand philosophical ideas at all. But just by spending sixteen months with the Sámi people in Lapland in my early twenties, I was still learning about what kind of a person I was and soaking up a lot of ways of being, attitudes towards the environment and so on.

It was only many years later that I really understood what I had learned from that fieldwork. Many of the questions I ended up thinking about later had their source in that earlier field experience. They had their source in other things as well, but that early experience was very, very important.

And then, after I wrote my PhD and got my first proper teaching job in anthropology, at the University of Manchester, and was having to teach courses on environment and economy to anthropology students, I found that I was getting more and more into these sorts of questions. I was growing increasingly philosophical. I have discussed this with my good friend and colleague, Philippe Descola; we talk about how we’ve travelled in completely opposite directions. Because Philippe, as a Frenchman, had to study so much philosophy at school and at university, he got absolutely fed up with it. He told me, “I went into anthropology so I could escape from all this awful philosophy into ethnography, so I could get down to earth and deal with real people.” Whereas I’ve gone in exactly the opposite direction, because in British education you get no philosophy at all; it’s as if the subject didn’t exist. I was taught anthropology, and nobody suggested that philosophy would be of any relevance whatever. But as I proceeded, I found that I wanted to escape from all the rather boring details of ethnography into these bigger philosophical questions. And somewhere along the line I’ve crossed over from one to the other. That’s kind of what happened.

What did you learn back then from the Sámi people about humans and yourself?

When you go to the field at that age – you know, early, as a young adult – you still don’t really know who you are, you’re still trying to figure out what sort of person you are. And during that fieldwork, in that very remote place with very few people around, I spent a lot of time by myself. I had to find out what sort of person I was, and I was working with people who had a particular attitude to life.

One aspect of this attitude was that you never go around telling other people what to do. There must never be any overt conflict. It was an attitude of quiet acceptance of things, with a stress on the importance of noticing what’s going on around you. These are things that I learned, too, because you learn how to live in the way that other people are living, and how to notice things in the way that other people are noticing them. And I think I came back from the field less shouty, less aggressive, more attentive to things that were going on around me. Especially, I paid more attention to non-human animals, because I was working with people who kept reindeer and fished and hunted.

So I do think that experience, at least to some extent, was the beginning of my discovering who I actually am. And that’s a discovery that has gone on all the way through. I’m still discovering who I am, but that was the beginning of the process. A geographer once said to me, “You know, the older you get, the more like yourself you become.” I thought that was very wise. One of the things that happens as you get older is not that you go further and further away from home, but that you gradually find your way back from somewhere far away. That’s what I think I’ve been doing, and I have this feeling still, that I’m at last finding who I think I am. It affects the way I think about things.

But is it possible for any human to find out exactly who he or she is?

No, no, of course not. Because exactly who you are is a process. You’re not the same person yesterday as you will be the day after. But there is something. I found, for example, in writing – which is most of what I do – that when I started off trying to write, I wasn’t very confident. As a young researcher, you’re reading work by lots of other people and thinking, “Oh, I wish I could write like this person or like that person or the other person.” You’re trying out different styles. It takes a long time. It took me at least twenty years to find my own voice. When I’m writing something now, I finally feel like this is me who’s doing this, not me pretending to write like somebody else.

It actually happened in 2000, when I wrote The Perception of the Environment, a book of essays that I’d been compiling over the previous ten years. When my wife, who’s my fiercest critic in all these things, read the manuscript of this book, she said the nicest thing she’s ever said to me – she said, “For the first time, I can see this is you. I can see you behind the words.” But it took two decades before I felt that I could really write with my own hand and from my own heart. And what I’ve been trying to do since then is just that, to find a way of writing that’s academic and scholarly but in which I can also feel that it’s me writing in the way I want to write and that feels right to me. It’s a struggle. I find writing very, very difficult, but it’s part of this process of self-discovery that’s going on all the time.

When speaking about the Sámi people, or the native peoples of Amazonia, we often use the word “indigenous”. What does this word mean from the anthropological viewpoint? Aren’t we all indigenous to this planet?

Well, exactly. It’s a very contested and very problematic word and one that I wish we didn’t have to use, because, as you say, we’re all indigenous people of the world. Humans have been moving around throughout history and prehistory, for thousands and thousands of years. They’ve not stayed in one place forever, so it’s no good saying the Sámi are the indigenous people because they were around in that part of the north before the Finns or the Norwegians or the Swedes arrived. The Sámi arrived at some point as well. The question is not really about who came first. It’s about how people relate to the land.

If you think about the experience of people growing up in Lapland today, what difference does it make who their ancestors were? For example, take two people who were born in the region and have lived their entire lives there. One of them happens to have only Sámi people amongst their ancestors, and the other person has a few Finns as well as Sámi. Why should we treat them any differently? They’re both people who know the country well; they’ve lived there all their lives.

The problem is that the distinction between indigenous and non-indigenous has its roots in the experience of colonisation. The term “indigenous” is especially problematic when it’s combined with ideas of descent, such that you’re counted as an indigenous person by virtue of ancestry rather than by the fact of your inhabiting a particular place or region. Yet we cannot do without the term, since in the political system we have now, people like the Sámi would otherwise be left with no political voice. For people who’ve been historically disadvantaged, people who’ve been expelled from their lands and exploited in all sorts of ways, to take away the notion of “indigenous” would be to take away their voice. That’s the problem: the term is needed to fight the legacy of colonialism, yet it is itself part of that legacy.

I think “modernity” is another problematic word, because we often speak about modern Western society and things like that. Is it a fiction?

It’s exactly the same dilemma. In a way, “modernity” is the other side of the coin from “indigenous”. And again, it’s one of those words – like “Western” – I have to use it, but every time I do, I bite my lip in frustration and wish I didn’t have to. The idea that anybody was ever really modern in everyday life is, of course, a myth. I was already arguing that back in the 1980s. But there’s nevertheless a structure of thought which goes back to the Enlightenment and which has been hugely powerful and hugely influential. And it has had its consequences. We have to contend with that structure of thought. It’s not too hard to trace its origins and its development, and it certainly exists because you keep banging your head against it.

So modernity as a structure of thought certainly exists, but modern people don’t really exist at all. Maybe it’s a bit the same as with all those disputes going on at the moment around the concept of race. I mean, for people who’ve encountered racial discrimination, race does exist – you bang your head against it. It can even kill. But, of course, it doesn’t exist, because it’s a fiction. We’ve always run up against this problem that particular structures of thought, particular ideologies, particular prejudices, harden and become real things that people have to contend with in their lives. And that’s certainly the case with modernity.

Modernity as a structure of thought certainly exists, but modern people don’t really exist at all.

What do you think is the main challenge and also the main responsibility of anthropology nowadays?

The one thing that anthropology can do and that no other academic discipline is doing at the moment is to take the experience of other people – wherever they live, whatever their background, whatever language they speak – to take that experience seriously and learn from it. And to learn from it in order to help us all in the collective task of figuring out how we’re going to live in the future, in a way that will create a world fit for coming generations to inhabit. Many of my colleagues would disagree with this, but I make a very clear distinction between anthropology and ethnography.

Ethnography is perfectly respectable. It’s studying the conditions of life for people around the world, describing them, analysing them, trying to understand them as best we can. That’s fine. But anthropology, I think, has a different objective. I define anthropology as a generous, open-ended, comparative and yet critical inquiry into the conditions and possibilities of life in the one world we all inhabit. So the point about anthropology is not to make studies of other people, but to study with them, to learn from them and to use that learning to help us chart a way into the future. And that must be a collective way, a way for all of us to carry on our lives into the future. We need to bring all these people whose voices, knowledge and experience is otherwise marginalised, into a conversation that we all have to have about how to live. And that, I think, is where anthropology comes in.

There are plenty of other disciplines – psychology, history, geography, whatever – that are making studies of people and collecting data on them, analysing what they’re doing, or their beliefs and attitudes, while treating them as objects of investigation. But for me, the thing that makes anthropology different is that this is precisely what we’re not doing. We’re actually going to study with people. Just in the same way as you might go to university to study with certain professors. We’re not making studies of our professors; we’re studying with them and hoping that what we learn from them will help us in the challenges that we have to face up ahead. I’d like to think that when anthropologists go to work with other people, that’s what they’re doing as well.

When I worked with the Sámi, I doubt whether I had that exact thought in my head, but I think I learned a lot from that experience a long time ago. And the things I learned then have helped me in tackling these questions about what it means to be alive in the world and how we should go on living.

The one thing that anthropology can do and that no other academic discipline is doing at the moment is to take the experience of other people – wherever they live, whatever their background, whatever language they speak – to take that experience seriously and learn from it.

Is it possible to integrate – sorry, I will use this word again – an indigenous perspective with current Western thinking? There are people who are convinced that this is the only way for humanity to survive.

Well, I think that’s slightly the wrong way to put it. We do have to get over this dichotomy between indigenous and Western, or indigenous and scientific, however you phrase it. We have to realise that nobody right now has the answers to how we should or could live into the future. The answers are not there. Science doesn’t have the answers, philosophy doesn’t have the answers, nor do indigenous people have the answers. It would be absurd to go to some indigenous people, such as Aboriginal Australian people or First Nations people in Canada, or the Sámi, or whoever, and pretend that somehow, they’ve got all the answers. Of course, they don’t have the answers any more than anybody else does. We’re all working on it.

But they might still have important things to teach us, simply on the grounds of all the experience they have. And they can contribute that experience to the collective endeavour of trying to figure things out. On the side of science, again, we should recognise that scientists are also inhabitants of this earth, who are trying to figure things out as well. Once you stop polarising people in this way – like scientists versus indigenous people – then we can have a sensible conversation and try to see if we can find a better way forward. I truly believe that anthropology, in this sense, can play a mediating role. It can show us that something like this is possible – that it is possible to get beyond these divisions between Western and indigenous, or scientific and indigenous.

Your father, Cecil Terence Ingold, was a renowned mycologist, and there’s a group of fungi named after him – the Ingoldian fungi. There are many theories regarding the role of fungi in the development of humanity as well. What role have fungi played in the life of humans, if any?

Oh yes. My dad, who was a mycologist, could never really figure out what anthropology was about. I made many attempts to explain to him what it was and why I thought that in taking up anthropology I wasn’t really doing anything so very different from what he was doing. For me, mycology is to the biological sciences as anthropology is to the social sciences.

In biology, fungi just don’t behave as organisms are supposed to behave. I mean, in mainstream biological theory an organism is a bounded, closed-up object. It’s an identifiable object, a thing, and it interacts with an environment that’s outside it or all around it. But fungi are not like that. They’re not bounded. They extend in a fibrous mesh, all over the place. They leak. Stuff keeps moving backwards and forwards across their boundaries. In short, fungi just don’t behave in the way that mainstream biologists think that organisms ought to behave. Mycologists have traditionally always been the awkward squad, the awkward people within the biological sciences. So I tried to explain to my dad that that’s the reason why I’m doing anthropology, because it’s just the same with anthropologists and the social sciences. Most social scientists like to think of people as units that you can count, and each person is like a bounded entity. You can say “here’s one person, and there’s another person”, and you can draw them like little circles or dots and count them up. But anthropologists say no, people are not like that. Every person is a mesh of relations, made up of lines that are going all over the place.

For me, mycology is to the biological sciences as anthropology is to the social sciences.

Sometime in the early 1990s I coined the idea of the “mycelial person”. I meant that we should think of a person, too, as a mesh of lines in just the same way as my dad drew the fungal mycelium. I was thinking of anthropology as a very mycelial, a very fungal approach to understanding the world of people, to understanding a social world. I think I got a lot of inspiration from having grown up surrounded by fungi. There’s a definite convergence.

Interestingly, according to the current theory of evolution, mushrooms represent a higher form of life than the animal kingdom, to which we belong. And above the fungi are the plants. So in a way, mushrooms are smarter than us, although that’s not easy for us to accept.

I remember a colleague of my dad’s, Alan Rayner, once said that if biology had taken the fungus as a prototype of what a biological organism could be, the whole of biology would be fundamentally different. It would be a completely different discipline from what it is today. Mainstream evolutionary theory, for example, is based on a certain presumption about what an organism is. It’s a bounded unit, a single entity, which just doesn’t fit to fungi. So if you start thinking of life as consisting not of lots of self-contained organisms with genetic instructions inside, but instead as this ever flowing, ever emerging mesh of relations, then you get a completely different theory of evolution. If we started thinking about evolution from fungi, we wouldn’t have evolutionary theory as we have it now.

If we started thinking about evolution from fungi, we wouldn’t have evolutionary theory as we have it now.

The fungus that carries your surname, is it edible?

No, no, it’s microscopic (laughs)... You would have to eat millions of them to notice any nutritious effect. My dad was interested in what are called aquatic fungi, or the aquatic hyphomycetes, which are tiny fungi that inhabit the scum that collects along the edges of slow-moving streams. He found that this foam is actually full of fungi, so he collected the foam in a glass bottle, brought it home and then started looking at it under the microscope. He was always finding new species, and one class of hyphomycetes was named Ingoldia in his honour. They’re very beautiful, and he used to draw them with Indian ink and a mapping pen. Those drawings are real works of art.

The drawing of conidia of the fungus Ingoldiella fibulata

Could we as humans have the capacity to understand what it means to be a fungus, a plant or another animal?

Well, up to a point, yes. This is the approach advocated back in the 18th century by Goethe. He said that if you really want to study a plant, then you need to go and spend time with it. You have to sit or lie next to this plant for days on end. And you need to watch it closely for a long, long period; so closely that you’re not just observing the plant, but after a while your own faculties of observation become trained by the plant. This is to see the plant in the way the plant wants you to see it. So the thing you’re observing begins to tell you how to observe.

Goethe proposed that this is exactly how we should do science. He thought scientific knowledge should grow out of a developing relationship between the scientist and the plant or whatever it is that the scientist is studying. Nowadays that’s known as Goethean science, and a few scholars are advocating it. But it’s regarded by mainstream science with complete contempt, because the mainstream has gone in completely the opposite direction. If you’re going to do proper science, it says, then you should have no personal involvement whatsoever in your object of study. The idea that what you’re studying should in any way determine how you study it is absolute anathema to mainstream science. And most of what’s called methodology is part of an elaborate protocol of immunisation to make sure that there’s no possibility of the investigator, the scientist, personally infecting the things they study.

But this goes completely against the grain of what we do in anthropology, because in anthropology we do participant observation. And the principle of participant observation is that the people you’re observing actually do instruct you in how to observe, in the course of your participation in the same activities with them. We anthropologists would argue that, by using such an approach, we can gain much richer knowledge as a result.

I don’t want to argue against science, but I do want to argue that we would do much better science if we recognised that in reality, scientific knowledge also grows out of a close affective and perceptual engagement between the scientist and whatever the scientist is studying.

I’m thinking about why it’s always so difficult for us humans to just let things be – be it plants, animals or other humans. We’re always trying to control.

Well, you have to be careful about asking why it’s so difficult “for us humans”. I don’t really think we can generalise about us humans. This happens all the time. We keep being told about all the terrible things the human species does, like dominating or destroying nature. But not all humans are guilty of that. This is something anthropological research has shown – that human ways of dealing with non-human things around them vary so enormously from person to person, and from society to society. If you find people doing things one way, you’ll always find other people doing them differently. So it’s not really true that humans refuse to let other beings be, or that they are universally interfering and controlling. But clearly, there are plenty of humans who do precisely that, and there are economic and political reasons that drive them to do so.

I think we should campaign in the opposite direction, and say that if we’re going to have a world that’s in any sense sustainable, then we do have to learn how to let other beings be, whether they’re human beings or any other kinds of beings. We have to establish a mode of conviviality, of being able to get along together. We can learn some pretty important lessons about how that can be done from many peoples around the world, not least those peoples whom we’ve been calling indigenous, although we don’t like the word.

I’m sure I learned quite a lot from Sámi people about how to let other beings be, and how to treat them with a measure of respect and consideration. It’s not one of those things you learn self-consciously; it’s just a way of being in which you don’t impose yourself on other people or anything else. People who throw their weight around were not liked by the Sámi, and nobody likes not being liked. So it’s as simple as that. But it was an important lesson for me to learn. It’s a kind of humility, I suppose.

At the start of the current Covid-19 pandemic, the internet was saturated with images that had not been seen for ages: clear skies above Delhi, views of the Himalayas from Kathmandu, clean air in central Moscow and so on. But now, when things are seemingly getting back to normal in Latvia and elsewhere, there’s a feeling that people are ready to adapt to worse conditions just to get back to how things were, and they’re forgetting about things like the appearance of clear water in the canals of Venice and so on. In other words, no lessons have been learned. Apparently, Covid-19 is too mild to have brought about real change.

Well, like many people, I’ve been thinking the same thing – that this bug has perhaps given us all an opportunity. We were all caught up in a self-destructive system that none of us had the power to change or alter, but the virus did. It forced the world to suddenly stop and take stock of itself. We could wonder whether we were going in the wrong direction and whether we could change course. There was a lot of very hopeful talk about how we couldn’t go back to what was normal, because what was normal before the virus was actually not normal at all, but very destructive and had already reached a critical point. It’s not surprising that we’ve gradually eased into a slightly more relaxed situation. But I suppose there are voices, on the one hand, that are saying we just want to get back to how it was before, and on the other hand, voices saying, no, we need to move in a completely different direction.

We were all caught up in a self-destructive system that none of us had the power to change or alter, but the virus did. It forced the world to suddenly stop and take stock of itself.

But the politics are so complicated; you can’t hope that one set of voices will simply take over from all the others. It’s like turning an oil tanker. The worst of it is that whatever changes are made, they’re so very slow. Still, I’m hopeful. Although it’s likely that the cars will return to the roads and the skies won’t be so clear anymore, nevertheless things will have changed. There’s been a shift in attitudes. For example, it’s very unlikely that air traffic will return to the same volume as before the pandemic. Projections of its exponential growth have gone out of the window. People won’t be able to afford it. I think the chances of a green new deal coming in, or at least a substantial movement towards a proper green energy solution, have very much increased. So these are positive signs.

I think people are beginning to return to questioning the ideology of unlimited growth. That was already clear back in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the Limits to Growth report commissioned by the Club of Rome. But then everybody forgot about it, as we all got caught up in the neoliberal juggernaut. Long before the pandemic struck, it was obvious to many people that most of the crises in the world were symptoms of the collapse of neoliberalism. The neoliberal project, which got underway in the 1970s and 80s, was manifestly unsustainable. And I think the rise of populism and neofascism – and all these other nasty things, including the financial crisis of 2008 – were signs of the impending collapse of the neoliberal order. But the problem was that nobody really had anything else to replace it with. And that was all before Covid-19.

I think people are beginning to return to questioning the ideology of unlimited growth.

So, in a way, what the pandemic has brought home to people is that indeed we can’t go back to the way things were. In the meantime, we don’t have very clear alternative solutions about how to move on. Some have drawn analogies to what happened at the end of the Second World War, which at least in this country was a miserable time in many ways. But it was also incredible in terms of what that period eventually brought about: national healthcare, the welfare state, social housing. An extraordinary amount of really good things came about when people said, “We’re not in a good position now, not in a good place, and we’ve got to rebuild from scratch.” So if we end up in that same situation post-Covid, there’s hope that we could rebuild a different kind of order.

People have always liked to tell stories. Over the past years we’ve had all kinds of speculation about the apocalypse. Do you think there’s a possibility that humans as a species could have a beginning and an end? Or will there always just be some kind of middle?

I don’t know, except to say that apocalyptic thinking isn’t very helpful. Many people have said the same thing, that we find ourselves living on this planet at this particular time and we have to make the best of it. Moaning on about how we’re all going to become extinct and everything’s going to be terrible doesn’t help in the slightest. To a large extent, things are completely out of our hands anyway. The world might be hit by an asteroid, or there might be a volcanic eruption that will put us all in darkness. Anything could happen. We’re living on the very thin outer crust of a geologically highly unstable planet. What I think this Covid thing has really brought home to many people – and it’s making them very anxious – is the sheer fragility of existence.

That fragility is obvious to anybody who thinks about it in any depth. It’s obvious, when you think about it, that life hangs by a thread. But we’ve all been brought up to believe that the ground underneath our feet is absolutely secure and stable – that whatever happens, one way or another, things will be alright. There’s a sense of security and certainty nowadays that’s very understandable and reasonable, but I don’t think, for example, that it would have been shared by our ancestors. If we go back, say, to medieval times, I doubt that people thought like that; they were probably much more fatalistic than we are now. They certainly didn’t have this confident idea of progress, that we could just build and build, and that every generation would be better off than the one before it.

I think the situation with Covid-19 has reminded everybody that life is a rather fragile thing, that we’re rather vulnerable, that we can’t simply take for granted the structures of support we’re accustomed to. And if we can’t take them for granted, then we have to invest a bit of extra effort into looking after our relations with others and with the world. It actually comes back to this thing about humility. And in some ways, that’s a good lesson to learn. It’s a lesson that says that humans, or creatures of any other species for that matter, have no preordained right to exist. There’s nobody saying, “Well, whatever happens to everybody else, you are special, and you’ll be here forever.” We realise that life is contingent. Given, however, that we’re here and need to make the best of it, then it’s probably a good thing to do what we can to help others and to be considerate.

What I think this Covid thing has really brought home to many people – and it’s making them very anxious – is the sheer fragility of existence.

You wrote a beautiful book titled Making: Anthropology, Archaeology Art and Architecture. It’s about how making creates knowledge, builds environments and transforms lives. Writing is a mysterious process; making art is as well. Did you find an answer to how it happens? What is an act of creation? Of making? What is happening at that moment? What is happening when you write?

Yes, it is very mysterious. When I’m writing and struggling over something, I feel completely incompetent to take it on. I think, “Why am I trying to write this? I just don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m just not qualified for this task.” But I persevere and eventually manage to write something. Later on, I look back at it and think, “How on earth did I manage to write that?” There does come a point when writing a book or even a long article or something like that – it’s usually about two thirds of the way through – when the thing itself starts telling you what to write and you’re simply holding the pen.

It’s a wonderful feeling when that happens, because up to that point it’s been a complete nightmare. The words just don’t want to come, the ideas don’t fit, nothing works. It’s like climbing a great mountain, when you surmount the top and see over to the other side. You know, there’s something up there...you’re just holding the pen and the words just come. It’s the most magical thing, one that I’ve never been able to comprehend. But it’s completely misunderstood by cognitive science, the cognitive psychology of creativity.

I wrote an essay – it’s not published yet, I wrote it over Christmas, when I was ill...almost certainly with this bug, with Covid. I had exactly the same symptoms, but before it was officially supposed to exist in the UK. I picked it up from a colleague. He had had lunch with a university administrator in London who had just flown in from Wuhan, and he was coughing and had a fever.  Anyway, whilst I was ill with this virus – not very seriously – I wrote an article about creativity. The whole point of it was to show that in the movement from talking about creation to talking about creativity, what it means to create is transformed and reduced. It’s a bit like what happened with the idea of production. It’s fine to talk about producing things, but when production becomes productivity, something’s gone wrong. It’s to do with the introduction of capitalist commodity logic. It’s just the same with creativity.

I really object to the idea that when an artist makes a work or when a writer writes a work or a composer composes a work, there’s something, some X factor, inside their head – some sort of genius that we can call creativity – and that what they produce is an output of this factor. It’s not like that. For me, when I’m writing (or when I play my cello), it works when you somehow get yourself in tune with the creative processes of the world, of which you’re a part. At that point your own mind is stirring along with the stirrings of things that are going on around you. And you start stirring together. Out of that stirring together, which I’ve been calling “correspondence”, comes a work. And the thing about that work is that it always exceeds, or goes beyond, the conditions of its production. It’s not simply a recombination or reconfiguration of existing bits and pieces; it’s actually something that overflows where you were before and takes you to a new, a different place. And for me, that’s what creation is about. It’s not something you can analyse or reduce to some capacity. It’s a recognition of your own becoming, because the work you’re involved with is part and parcel of the becoming of the world, of which you’re also a part. It’s a kind of sinking into the processes of the becoming of the world, and you then become just a register of that. But it’s a very, very mysterious process.

It reminds me a bit about what Brazilian Indians tell about their plant medicines. For them, these medicines are also the way they connect and how they create...

Absolutely. It is like that, except that I’m not having to take any hallucinogenic substances for this. I never dared to try, and I don’t think I would. But I’m guessing that it’s the same and that it’s something we can learn from them. Anyway, one of the things I was trying to argue in this essay was just how misunderstood the concept of creation has become since it was subsumed under the idea of creativity. For example, when today’s scientists, such as evolutionary biologists, rail against creationism – which I agree is just awful – they’re actually using creativity, or an idea of creation, in a sense that medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas already showed was ridiculous. The idea of creativity has been so assimilated to a particular kind of modernist logic; it has been devalued, really. I think now that I’m content with the idea of creation, but I’m not happy with the idea of creativity, or the modern version of creationism that’s based on it.

You love art, and you often quote artists in your work. What do you find interesting in art? What are you searching for, and why is it important to you?

It’s a great surprise to me, because I started off in science. I was doing ecological anthropology, which came straight out of the science of ecology, population dynamics, things like that. So I was very much on the science side. But now I’ve found myself moving much closer to art. But actually, I don’t think I have moved; I think what’s happened is that over the past forty years science itself has moved. It has become much more reductionistic, much more divorced from the things it studies than it was forty years ago. And that’s because of the way science has been co-opted by the whole corporate neoliberal machine.

But I’m not drawn to all of art. Art is such an enormously diverse range of things. It’s pointless to try to define what art is. That’s a waste of time. There are just lots of things that people who might, for whatever reason, call themselves artists are doing. I’m interested not so much in the art itself, but in what artists – at least the artists I’m interested in – are doing or trying to do. What they’re trying to do, I think, is very similar to what I think anthropologists ought to be doing. They, too, are trying to listen and learn, and from that listening and learning they’re trying to figure out a way to live into the future. I believe art that matters is learning to perceive the world differently and to suggest different possible ways of being.

Not all art does that. A lot of art I really don’t like at all. There’s art that’s designed to shock, and so on. I often find that the art I’m drawn to is on the craft end of the continuum. It’s about people working with stuff, making dance, making music, finding ways of working with materials in order not to impose, but to suggest alternative ways of being and perceiving in the world. In that sense, I think art and anthropology are doing very similar things, and that’s why I find I’m attracted to a lot of what’s going on in art.

In terms of the relationship between anthropology and art, the one thing I’ve been trying to argue for is anthropology with art, rather than anthropology of art. There’s a long tradition in the anthropological study of art, and it’s really, really boring. It’s like anthropologists pretending to be art historians by treating the art as objects they’re going to analyse. That’s not at all what I want.

I think art and anthropology are doing very similar things, and that’s why I find I’m attracted to a lot of what’s going on in art.

What I want to say is that artists are trying to figure out some of the same things that anthropologists are trying to figure out. And that’s where I see the connection. We do not need to make studies of art; we can study with artists. I didn’t plan to, but I found myself talking with artists. And very often I hear them saying, “Oh, the things you’re trying to do, the questions you’re trying to ask, the practices you’re trying to suggest – they’re what we do, actually.” So then you start having a conversation, and that’s when things get interesting.

As we bring this conversation to a close, can you mention one or two works of art that have served as turning points for you? Artwork that has shocked you, or really changed your perspective, or otherwise left a mark on you as a person?

My artistic heroes are Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. And although it was a long time ago now, I suppose what they were doing – and more generally, what the Bauhaus was doing – was very much what I think anthropology ought to be doing now. I found Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook and his diaries, and also the quite extensive writings by Kandinsky, to be great sources of inspiration. I love the way Klee would talk about lines and about what it means to create a work of art, about colour. And Kandinsky’s essay “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” is just terrific. Also his book Point and Line to Plane was a kind of turning point for me. I’ve been engaging with lots of artists now – contemporary artists who are still around and who have been inspiring in all kinds of ways – but those two were always turning points for me.

Thank you!