Mellon Sawyer Seminar Hosted International Dialogue in 2012-2013

The culminating event in the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar featured Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, who spoke on the subject of “Anthropocenography: On the Coming Cosmopolitical War,” followed by respondents Debbora Battaglia and Marianne E. Lien. As part of the year-long series “Indigenous Cosmopolitics: Dialogues About the Reconstitution of Worlds,” this discussion was the last in a line of thought-provoking seminars and activities hosted at UC Davis in 2012-2013.

An Associate Professor in Social Anthropology at the National Museum of Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Viveiros de Castro is a preeminent voice in South American ethnology and cognitive anthropology. Viveiros de Castro offered a meditation on what he sees as one of the most pressing issues of the day: investigating our ability to imagine the end of the world—or at least, a world without human life.

In view of this subject, Mario Blaser, a co-organizer of the series and a visiting faculty member from Memorial University of Newfoundland, suggested in his opening remarks that the Sawyer Seminar was “going to close with a blast.”

Over the course of his two-hour talk, Viveiros de Castro looked to non-Western and Western myths, texts, and media that have speculated on global cataclysm. In particular, de Castro suggested that our ability to think through this problem of imagining humanity’s place in this end of the world scenario is ever more pressing in an age of accelerating ecological shifts.

“It’s one thing to know that the earth will end in a billion years,” Viveiros de Castro said, but “it’s quite another” to know that the coming generations may “live in an ecological desert.”

In addition to Viveiros de Castro, the final event in the Sawyer Seminar series featured follow-up talks by scholars whose work similarly engages with the concept of non-human cosmology. Respondents Debbora Battaglia, professor of anthropology at Mount Holyoke College, and Marianne E. Lien, professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo and visiting scholar at the University of California Santa Cruz, each furthered the discussion with remarks and responses to the featured speaker.

As the final event demonstrated, the Sawyer Seminar gathered academics from across the globe over the course of its year of activities. The series was designed to provide a setting for comparative inquiry that might otherwise be difficult in traditional academic settings. The Sawyer Seminar provided organizers at UC Davis the opportunity to bring together an international spectrum of scholars to investigate the link between indigenous politics and critical philosophies of science, two outwardly unrelated fields.

Since “Indigenous Cosmopolitics” began last fall, it has successfully gathered speakers from institutions in Spain, Brazil, Bolivia, Australia, Belgium, and the United Kingdom.  In addition to covering these travel expenses, the grant from the Mellon Foundation provided the necessary resources to fund two advanced graduate students as well as a postdoctoral research fellow on campus.

“Indigenous Cosmopolitics” involved the efforts of UC Davis faculty from a wide range of academic disciplines and perspectives. Marisol de la Cadena, professor of anthropology, organized the event along with Blaser, a visiting faculty member. The main faculty participants from UC Davis included Distinguished Professor of Law and Science and Technology Studies Director of the Center for Science and Innovation Studies Mario Biagioli, Associate Professor of English Michael Ziser, Professor of Anthropology Joseph Dumit and Professor of Law Madhavi Sunder.

During a year of fostering critical debates, the 2012-2013 Sawyer Seminar turned UC Davis into a crucial hub for the comparative study of cultures. For more information on the speakers and events featured in the Sawyer Seminar at UC Davis, please visit the official website.