This special issue of NatureCulture on ‘Life under Influence’ has its origin in a multidisciplinary workshop that was organized by Dominique Lestel at the Maison Franco-Japonaise in Tokyo. Its starting point was to grasp the challenge of the question of the ‘living’ and of ‘life’ in contemporary culture. This challenge has two main components, which are intertwined but never exactly merge with the other. The first one deals in a privileged fashion with explanatory principles that cultures, both Western and non-Western ones, elaborate in order to make sense of such a complex phenomenon as life. The second component is the one that is linked to contemporary technological and scientific innovations, which markedly reshape what one thinks it means to be ‘alive’ and offers the opportunity to consider particular phenomena and practices in non-Western cultures.
“What happens if we start to think ethnographically through the technosocial hybrids that have become the almost unquestioned terrain of science studies since the 1990s? Contrary to recent critiques of the human-centred social sciences, nonhuman worlds have long been a concern within anthropology. Kula armbands, ghosts, manioc or cattle, to mention just a few, have significantly shaped the science of humanity. That being said, the origin of this special issue is in more mundane things, physical objects such as medical instruments and agricultural machines. Our common editorial ground is a shared interest in entities of kinds that generate few words.”
From berdache to kinship, from gift to mana, native and anthropological concepts travel between multiple realities, the field and the desk being only two of many possibilities. This, of course, should come as no surprise since anthropology was built on the back of indigenous concepts. Our ideas are used for different ends, just like we have been using others’ ideas for decades. In short, translations are on the move.
Human and larger social entities, the two protagonists of this discipline, are no longer what they used to be. Observers are reluctant to consider them as undeniable objects, given realities susceptible to simple observation, description, and analysis. These days we start by reconsidering what these things might be. Could they be merely a bundle of effects caused by some combination of or linkages between various other things, living or non-living, tangible or intangible? The question of the human and the social is now a central concern in anthropology, a question to be elaborated by tracing how the human and the social are enacted by other things. Anthropologists seek to characterize actors, agency, networks, assemblages, and other nodes and forces in open-ended generative matrices.