Emeritus Professor of Anthropology
Collège de France, Paris

Cosmopolities: Before, Behind and Beyond the State

Cosmopolities 1 – A Political Anthropology Beyond the Human
Wednesday, April 19, 2023
4:10 p.m. – 6:15 p.m., Toll Room, Alumni House
with commentary by Adom Getachew

Cosmopolities 2 – Forms of Assemblage
Thursday, April 20, 2023
4:10 p.m. – 6:15 p.m., Toll Room, Alumni House
with commentary by David Wengrow and Timothy LeCain

Seminar and Discussion with the Commentators
Friday, April 21, 2023
4:10 p.m. – 6:15 p.m., Toll Room, Alumni House
with commentary by Adom Getachew, Timothy LeCain, and David Wengrow

About Philippe Descola

Philippe Descola is emeritus professor of anthropology at the Collège de France and Director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris. He initially specialized in the ethnology of Amazonia, focussing on the relations of native societies with nonhumans. Besides his field research with the Achuar of Ecuador, he has published extensively on the comparative approach of the relations between humans and non-humans. He has written or edited over twenty books translated in a dozen languages and has been a visiting professor in a number of prestigious institutions worldwide. Recipient of the CNRS Gold Medal in 2012, Philippe Descola is a foreign member of the British Academy and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

About the Lectures

Cosmopolities 1 – A Political Anthropology Beyond the Human

The rooting of the descriptive tools of the social sciences in Enlightenment philosophy has blinded us to the fact that what are loosely called ‘societies’ are in fact, for extra-moderns, assemblages that, unlike ours, contain and associate much more than just humans, either because their institutions are able to integrate other-than-humans into collectives, or because other-than-humans are seen as political subjects acting within their own collectives. In other words, the kinds of beings that result from these assemblages are not those to which philosophy or the social sciences usually pay attention: they are associations of humans and other-than-humans that take very diverse forms and, in this sense, can also offer food for thought about the much-needed transformation of the political and social institutions proper to the Moderns. We could call these assemblages cosmopolities in that they bring under the same regime of cosmic sociability a vast set of components that the ontology of the Moderns has tended to dissociate.

Cosmopolities 2 – Forms of Assemblage

Drawing comparatively on ethnographic and historical materials, this lecture will seek to define certain characteristics of the assemblages that extra-modern cosmopolities produce. On the whole these cosmopolities have been misportrayed because they were described with the template of the Westphalian nation-state in mind: i.e. as deriving their specificity from lacking a state, or from striving to prevent its emergence or, more simply, because they were seen as being organized according to institutions more clearly identifiable in state societies or, finally, because they were conceived as nascent, proto- or would-be states. Looking at the kinds of elements composing these cosmopolities – and how they are related – according to the ontological regime they express offers an alternative to the current, Eurocentric and anthropocentric, typology of social forms, whether evolutionist or functionalist. Conversely, the intrinsic features of these extra-modern cosmopolities may offer us a stimulation for thinking entirely different forms of collectives, a necessary endeavour in the age of the Anthropocene where humans and other-than-humans cannot be distributed any more into separate ontological and political domains of norms and actions.

About the Commentators

Adom Getachew

Assistant Professor of Race, Diaspora and Indigeneity, Political Science and the College
University of Chicago

Adom Getachew is Assistant Professor of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity, Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago. She is a political theorist with research interests in the history of political thought, theories of race and empire, and postcolonial political theory. Her work focuses on the intellectual and political histories of Africa and the Caribbean. She is the author of Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (2019) and co-editor with Jennifer Pitts of W. E. B. Du Bois: International Thought (2022). She is currently working on a second book on the intellectual origins and political practices of Garveyism—the black nationalist/pan-African movement, which had its height in the 1920s. Her public writing has appeared in Dissent, Foreign Affairs, London Review of Books, The Nation, and The New York Times.

Timothy LeCain

Professor of History and Philosophy
Montana State University

Timothy James LeCain is the author of The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past (Cambridge University Press, 2017), which develops a new historical theory and method emphasizing the central role of non-human things in shaping history. His first book, Mass Destruction, an environmental history of large-scale open pit mining, won the 2010 George Perkins Marsh best book award from the American Society for Environmental History. He has been the recipient of several other prominent awards, grants, and fellowships, including a three-year National Science Foundation collaborative grant to conduct a comparative study of copper mining pollution problems in Japan and the United States. He has published numerous articles, op-eds, and reviews, and presented many invited lectures around the world. In 2017, he was a senior visiting fellow at the Oslo Center for Advanced Study, the preeminent Norwegian institution for interdisciplinary academic research, where he collaborated with the Norwegian archaeologist and theorist Björnar Olsen on the project “After Discourse”, investigating ways of moving beyond the post-modern cultural turn. He has also twice been appointed as senior research fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Münich, Germany. LeCain is currently Professor of History at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana.

David Wengrow

Professor of Comparative Archaeology
Institute of Archaeology, University College, London

David Wengrow is Professor of Comparative Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London (UCL) and has been a visiting professor at New York University (Institute of Fine Arts), the University of Auckland, and the University of Freiburg. His books include What Makes Civilization? The Ancient Near East and the Future of the West (Oxford University Press, 2010), The Origins of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Princeton University Press, 2013), and The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (Penguin, 2021, co-authored with David Graeber). More recently, he has edited a series of essays entitled Image, Thought, and the Making of Social Worlds (Heidelberg: Propylaeum, 2022), and embarked on a new collaboration with Forensic Architecture, called Cities against the State.


Photocredit – Copyright Le Seuil – photographer B. Roscot-Pleutin