Anthropocene Research Collective for Human, Animal and Interspecies Collaborations

Reflections on Symposium Indigenous Knowledge in Europe

We are very happy to share the reflections on the first ARCHAIC sympsium from last 25th of May written by Maaike Rijntjes, researchmaster student Political Philsophy at FTR, Radboud. For those who couldn’t join, Maaike provides a quick but in depth recap of the different talks given that day as well as a nice description of the whole event and, of course, a thoughtful last note. 

In the afternoon of 25th of May, while Radboud Rocks is in full swing, The ARCHAIC organised a symposium on Indigenous Knowledge in Europe. Emma Hissink-Muller, member of the ARCHAIC and one of the organisers of the Symposium, welcomes around 30 guests who have gathered this day, offline and online. Topics off today will be: olive trees in Apulia, paganism in Germany and conspiracy theories.

This report summarises the highlights of each three lectures. However, I will begin with the thoughts Emma shared herself before passing on the mic to the speakers of today, which form a good introduction to the overarching theme of the symposium: Indigenous knowledge in Europe. I will return to these thoughts and the theme in the last part of this report, sharing some of my own reflections.

Emma starts off with the question if there even is such a thing as Indigenous knowledge in Europe. The term indigeneity is mostly used to refer to native people, living on colonised land – thus it is often understood in opposition to European settlers. Some of the only people who would neatly fit this category in Europe are the Sami people in the North of Scandinavia.

There are some common aspects in indigenous knowledge however, which can still apply in a European context. Firstly, Indigenous knowledge often stresses strong ties to land and emphasises the interdependence between humans and nature. Aspects that were also present in the knowledge of European peasants and farmers, as we will see in the lecture by Fabio Gatti, and that pop up in paganism as discussed by Yentl Schattevoet. This focus on land and the interdependence between humans and nature can be very relevant in the current ongoing ecological crisis that has so many people taking an interest in alternative ways to configure relationships between animals, humans and nature.

Emma warns however we should be careful to engage with indigenous knowledge as European scholars. We should not appropriate forms of knowledge and spirituality already pushed to the margins of society, often actively oppressed through colonisation. It is too easy to only refer to indigenous knowledge as long as it can be made to ‘fit’ Western scientific standards, without recognising the ways in which it actually challenges these standards.

On the other hand, indigenous knowledge has often been framed as stemming from a static, archaic culture – something opposed to modernity and ‘our’ modern ways of governance, technology, capitalism. But indigenous knowledge is not just about looking back. Indigenous cultures are dynamic and their knowledge is active in their reclaiming of land and traditions. Looking back is often only a method of finding ways to imagine a brighter future. Indigenous perspectives go back only to move forward.

During this symposium there are no indigenous scholars present, but there are three great speakers who do all give their own view on indigenous and alternative forms of knowledge in Europe.

Olive trees in the more than human Anthropocene – Fabio Gatti

The first of those scholars is Fabio Gatti, PhD at WUR in the GEOS project, part of KTI department at WUR, with a background in exact science and engineering According to Gatti, the European peasants who worked the land, were the indigenous people of Europe. These were also the people who cared for the beautiful olive trees in Apulia, which have recently been infected by a harmful bacteria. Gatti argues that we can only accurately map the situation in Apulia well, if it is not only studied through the lens of ecology, but also through that of economy, political epistemology, emotion and affect and ontology – dimensions which cannot be pulled apart.

He dims the lights to show some beautiful pictures of Apulia. The lecture hall stares in awe at the sea of old, knotted olive trees on the screen. As they have stood there for centuries watching over generations of people, they have become an important part of both culture and the landscape. Fabio himself grew up around the trees, making olive oil with and for family members. He shares a picture of himself as a kid next to the tree planted when he was born, growing alongside him.

But the next picture shocks. The sea of trees has become a cemetery. In 2013, the xylefa bacteria began to spread around with help of a small insect living in the grass around the trees. Normally, a government will choose to eradicate crops in order to stop plant pandemics, but this is not an easy decision when it comes to century old trees. Resistance against these measures sparked Gatti’s interest. He began to research what Apulia can tell us about different relationships between humans and nature.

Monocultures of crops, which – as plantations – were a catalyst in The Great Acceleration, are great breeding grounds for plant pathogens. However, Gatti points out that even monocultures can be resilient if they are well cared for. The people of Apulia did this for centuries, creating a balance between humans and nature. But when the price of olive oil dropped, the country side was abandoned. As one of the farmers explained: “a business cannot be run with your heart.”

The grass, in which the small insect spreading xylefa lived, grew tall, which lead to even more insects, which lead to the pandemic. A seemingly simple ecological problem turns out to be entwined with sociology, microbiology, and even world views.

For, although farmers and scientists are often understood as opposites, Gatti highlights neither group is homogenous. He describes an old-fashioned farmer still out on the field all days, who is known by locals as “the crazy man who talks to trees.” If you are around trees so often, Gatti says, you become attuned to their well-being, and care for them on another level than someone running a business from a distance. This creates a different relation between humans and nature, as well as a different type of knowledge. A form of knowledge that might not even be that crazy in the first place: there are now many scientists who speak of trees ‘communicating’ with each other through their root systems.

Paganism, life forms, and Germanic volksgeist – Yentl Schattevoet

The second speaker of the afternoon, Yentl Schattevoet,  is a PhD researcher on the topic of the German Romantic conception of paganism. She won a price with her master thesis on a similar topic. Today she gives a lecture on the counter-cultural search for the spell-binding and mysterious indigenous knowledge of Germany.

Through modernisation, a firm belief in science, rationality and progress replaced Europe’s belief in magic. The modern, urban Europeans, began to see those living in rural eras as primitivist and unsophisticated. Now that it was clear there were no dragons living in the forest, it was easy to question whether those believing in magic even had knowledge in the first place.

During the German Romantic era, however, a well-read Roman book on Germanic rebellion sparked an interest in precisely these old beliefs. If a small German culture could stand up against mighty Rome, there must be something to say for the Germanic Volksgeist of old! So the city people went into the country side to collect folk poetry, attempting to reconstruct this authentic German identity.

By the 19th century, these Romantic ideals morphed into the Lebensreform movement. The goal of the movement was to transform modern society through self-reformation: change the world, start with yourself. Schattevoet jokes this movement will probably appeal to those of us secretly dreaming of leaving our 9-5 jobs to grow our own food in the woods.

According to the Lebensreform movement, civilisation was the downfall of humanity. Urbanisation only led to illness, opposed as it was to everything natural. Thus the people in the movement wanted to return to the healthy, natural, ‘noble’ state of the primitive people in rural eras. They followed a variety of diets, including raw food, and turned their backs on medical science, instead searching for cures in nature or in themselves. Some people even returned to the country-side to start their own communities. They held a holistic view of the world, believing ‘everything is connected’.

The movement consisted of many different loosely organised groups with a wide arrange of counter-cultural practices. Thus they did not share one political ideology or religion: some groups were left-wing hippies and others were more right-wing. Some also had an undeniable racist streak tied to this idea of the German Volksgeist.

The heritage of the movement is nowadays still visible in the Fundhorn Foundation of new age spiritualism, which supports the same holistic paradigm and similar values as the Lebensreform movement. Another group honouring this heritage is the folk band Terra Omnia. They even built their own utopian home in the country-side, growing their own food and practising nudism. On their blog they write about the horrors of modernisation. They have radicalised over time, now supporting many anti-scientific beliefs, but in earlier days they had a large following of people personifying their own ideas of paganism.

After Gatti’s talk, Fabio replies that he is sceptical of calling contemporary paganism a form of indigenous knowledge, as there actually appears to be something colonial in privileged, rich white people moving to the country side to buy land and practice their beliefs. Yentl answers this is not the perspective through which she chose to look as a historian, repeating the groups were diverse and not all right-wing in their ideology.

Conspiracies and hinge beliefs – Chris Ranalli

At times of social crises, such as during the war on terror, the great recession, or, now, during the worldwide covid pandemic, conspiracy theories flourish. With that fact, Chris Ranalli opens the last lecture of the day, which focuses on a different type of alternative knowledge: conspiracy thinking. Ranalli is an associate professor at the VU, and an established researcher in the field of epistemology. He argues that no matter how ignorant, irrational or intellectually vicious we think conspiracy theorists are, they do pose important epistemological challenges. They might even be ignorant knowers. Assuming this position towards conspiracy theorists is a definite provocation of the mainstream portrayal of conspiracy theorists as simply ‘crazy’. 

Ranalli divides conspiracy theorists into roughly three types: the entrepreneur of conspiracy thinking champions conspiracy theories to secure a social following or political gain, not necessarily believing in the theories. The conspiracy based sceptic is also not necessarily a believer, but they do want to challenge the status quo through conspiracy thinking. The Conspiracy Theorist with capital letters, is the classic believer of conspiracy theories and often also endorses a conspirational world view.

What makes conspiracy theories so challenging to epistemology is the problem of disappearing knowledge. Knowledge entails belief. This means when you start to doubt P, you already prevent yourself from knowing P, no matter the evidence for P: for doubt means an absence of belief. Thus when a conspiracy based sceptic causes doubt about an official theory, they impede the knowledge position of the person believing the official theory – especially when this person is open-minded and will easily go-along with these doubts. The sceptic basically asks: if you do not know the conspiracy theory is false, how do you know the original theory is true?

How does this make knowledge disappear? Because of the closure principle of knowledge. If you know P (the original theory is true) entails Q (the conspiracy theory is false), then you can know Q. But you can then just as easily not know it  – because when you do not know Q (if the conspiracy theory is false), can you then still know P (is the original theory true)? When the conspiracy based sceptic thus turns the question around, they make the knowledge of P ‘disappear’.

Conspiracy theories then can activate self-doubt and weaponize the open-mindedness of people, which will problematise their knowledge positions. 

Ranalli proposes a new strategy to think of conspiracy theories, to step around the above mentioned issue, which he has based on Wittgenstein’s On Certainty. On Certainty engages with G.E. Moore’s (in)famous argument from common sense, to prove the existence of an external world by holding up his hands Certainly knowing that I have these hands already involves certain knowledge about the external world. Wittgenstein argues Moore did not really know he has hands: his knowledge of the existence of his hands, is instead a conviction that goes beyond doubt or belief. It is a “hinge commitment” in the sense that his belief hinges on this commitment.

Hinge commitments bring into focus the reasons people have for doubt or belief. These are the fundamental commitments which change the empirical conviction of the conspiracy theorist and they often resist justification. It can be the commitment “the government is untrustworthy” for example. Finding the hinge commitment in a conspiracy theory, helps interrogating the theory from the inside instead of externally criticising it. Importantly: hinge commitments can be but are definitely not always vicious.

Ranalli ends his lecture returning to the concept of ignorant knowers. As conspiracy theorists are often excluded from institutes of education and come from relatively powerless groups in society, they may actually possess some ‘situated knowledge’ people in more privileged groups do not have. Conspiracy Theorists might have a clear sense there is something wrong in society, while lacking the resources to properly express what this is and why.

Although many examples of conspiracy theories are American, during the question round Ranalli does mention one of the most famous conspiracy theories – that of the illuminati –, stems from the freemasons in Europe and has a specific flavour of European antisemitism to it. In America, many conspiracy theories are linked to alt-right beliefs, something Ranalli thinks might stem from a long history of government scepticism. Looking into this, one might perhaps find some differences in hinge commitments of American and European cultures.

Last reflections
At first glance, the three discussed topics might appear wildly different, but all three lectures presented a challenging perspective on knowledge and alternative knowledge in Europe.

In Schattevoet’s discussion of Terra Omnia, we saw a slide from a certain modern conception of ‘mysterious’ paganism into more anti-scientific, conspiracy leaning beliefs. Ranalli’s lecture then highlights why it is important to not simply disregard these views, as conspiracy theorists might have some type of situated knowledge. He also presented a way to study these theories and criticise them from the inside. The quest for hinge commitments however can also be broadened when looking into other epistemological differences, as for example between the farmers, the scientists or the activists in Gatti’s lecture on olive trees.

Gatti’s lectures also highlighted how Western science can be seriously challenged through ‘indigenous’ or peasant knowledge or creativity, stemming from the different relationships farmers in rural eras have with the land in which they live. Their views can challenge our unquestioned and widely held ideas of human-nature relations and perhaps, as Emma proposed in the beginning, illuminate ways to reconfigure these relationships in ways that might help us deal with or learn to live during the ecological crises marking the Anthropocene.

Diving into this, we should not forget Emma’s warning and be careful of not presenting indigenous knowledge as something from an old, static, pre-modern and lost culture. Something magical, mysterious or ‘spell-binding’ and primitive, actually close to how the city-dwelling intellectuals from the German Romantic era perceived this folk knowledge. Indigenous knowledge is instead a still present and active knowledge, and indigenous cultures are dynamic.

This afternoon then was also an invitation to wonder where and from whom certain beliefs or forms of knowledge stem, and who has stakes in oppressing or marginalising them. But mostly, it was an invitation to think seriously about different types and forms of knowledge as still present in Europe, and through these also challenge perhaps otherwise unquestioned assumptions about what is real knowledge.

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