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Peri Physeōs

Elena Stavraki

An Inclusive Perception: Glimpses of Fusion


Either you are living in nature or society you know you couldn't be living in both simultaneously. We are face-to-face with the ultimate paradoxical contrast of choice between inside and outside. Otherwise the third way is borderline. This dichotomy between inside and outside it’s not quite old. Aristotle employed the concept of physis to reveal and ground the essence, abilities and potentials of materials, elements and political collectives. In his work Physics he states that physis “denotes that, whatever it is, which involves a process of change [kinesis] in its essential being.”1 Subsequently, physis is the principle of change and motion. The field that is able to reveal that essence is techne (practical knowledge). Most importantly, however, techne renders necessary for the completion of physis final end in actualizing its ultimate potentialities through production. He notes that “the form is the nature more than the matter is.”

Another type of practical knowledge is phronesis, a most important term of Aristotle that involves the ability to take the right practical decisions even with uncertainty about the outcomes. Phronesis is about acting with collective understanding and affection. The end of this acting is to bring eudaimonia, meaning well-being, to the collective. In doing so, phronesis reaches the actualization of its physis. 

In his definition of the supreme political association, Aristotle, attributed to phronesis the responsibility of taking decisions. He claimed that if techne were to rule the polis, people would become mere tools in the hands of their rulers. This statement concerns the dubious distinction Aristotle made between techne and episteme (science). The latter, in the strict sense, defined the theoretical knowledge that could not bring any change in everyday life. There are, however, inquiries he made in Physics where episteme, in its secondary sense, is being mentioned indifferently from techne. The cases are found in medicine where episteme is dealing with contingent entities and acts in a way that brings changes. The similarity with techne is obvious as the latter designates “those conditions that can be brought into existence by an agent.”3 An infusion of techne with episteme, endowed with phronesis later on, benefits the search of the physis of collective livings. And from now on every reference on techne will include this infusion. 

Aristotle’s thesis on the power of techne to reveal, accomplish and render beneficial the physis of entities in themselves and in collectiveness finds its contemporary all-inclusive equivalent in today’s laboratories. All-inclusive because he had exclude nonhumans. An omission that shouldn’t thwart his readings, taken that the reason was the lack of speech he gave to nonhumans and thus, lack of rationale. However, sciences today have distributed speech to nonhumans through laboratory devices and researchers. Bruno Latour remarks that “the lab coats are the spokespersons of the nonhumans, and, as is the case with all spokespersons, we have to entertain serious but not definitive doubts about their capacity to speak in the name of those they represent.”4 

In accordance with his book Politics of Nature the sciences form the first assembly that can bring us closer in living as a collective among the nonhumans. In communicating these entities’ needs, habits and preferences the sciences disclose a cleared path towards a common living. Except from the abolition of nature-society and object-subject dichotomies, Latour’s work weaves a readily-to-inclusiveness system of political ecology where every single entity is acting, has affects and associates with the rest of the entities and collective livings. His articulation reveals promisingly the all-inclusive essence of techne. 

Continuing with phronesis, I pursued to trace it in common livings that have already been set in practice. As the character of phronesis imposes, I find this path more adequate than to make assumptions about how common understandings would be accomplished in a fictitious world. It’s a practical insight into the livings of peoples of Papua New Guinea that live in the villages around the Sepik River, and who made a thorough contact with the west world in 1884 when they were colonized by Germany. In spite of the imported changes – christianity and imprisonment – we gain a great insight into their living prior and post the west influence primarily thanks to three anthropologists that began research there in the 1930s: Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and Reo Fortune. 

The three of them recorded firsthand the stories, cosmology and rituals. What Mead remarks, and is recognized also by recent researchers, is that while every village has different artifacts, tools, architecture, spirit names and language they also share many similarities. Trading and visiting other villages were a means for the introduction of this fusion. The reason, though, could be found in an ultimate inclusiveness and, subsequently, a tendency to enrich the personality. A rich personality, observed Mead, was of a great principle and was long praised in memoriam of the deceased. Whatever entered their frame of perception was automatically included in their livings. Perception, to get back to Aristotle, is closer to truth than appearance is. A glimpse into Sepik River villages’ values, rituals and cosmology will permit us to gain a stronger hold on the ways phronesis is actualized. 

People in Ambonwari believe that every adult person should have two levels of ordinary knowledge: a practical (kay), that is the way one acts and does things; and a reflective which corresponds to ‘insideness’ (wambung), understanding of everyday life and collective values. The two levels are interrelated, “each being a function of the other.”5 This ordinary knowledge “is grounded in social being, past and present, in the milieu in which the living and ancestors are united as one body.”6 For Avatip to have understanding “is to be aware of one’s obligations and the rights of other.”7 Gapun people use save, a term for knowledge, to “refer to social skills and competence in how they accommodate one another, that is, their solidarity.”8 

The children are considered nonbeings because they lack understanding (wambung) and the ways to act and do things (kay). They are considered extensions of their parents. When this extension is cut off they become beings who have selfhood, practical knowledge and collective understanding. This transition starts during the initiation rituals. Every boy in Ambonwari’s initiation rituals is guided and protected by his father’s father, ‘dancing partner’, and namesake (mother’s brother). These men ‘are’, in fact, the boy himself.9 The initiators concentrate on the boys kay and they bully them when they show softness and ignorance in their wambung. When a  boy gets overwhelmed, he gets protection from those who ‘are’ who he is (father’s father, dancing partner, namesake). In this way he is not an extension of his parents anymore. The initiation transformed him; from the moment he entered the men’s house for the ritual ‘a change in being’ took place.10 By taking the name of his paternal grandfather the boy takes also his identity, thus he becomes a ‘father’ of his own father and is able “to secure the continuation of the lineage, clan and Ambonwari life-world.11 In this way “the generation of father is followed by the generation of sons and then, again by the generation of fathers.”12 

This temporal fusion retains the ancestral knowledge, habits and traditions within the present. Extendedly, Chambri and Ambonwari tradition can exist in mutual interaction with modernity. For example, christianity was accepted when it was brought but it was also infused with the Chambri and Ambonwari tradition. The ‘insideness’ of young and old people “is able to change the ways of doing things as well as follow the ways of the ancestors; it is able to change the present as well as the past.”13 When changes are made in understanding they also affect changes in the ways of doing things. Changes create and are created by knowledge and social life. 

According to their cosmology the first ancestor is the crocodile. The peoples living around the Sepik River refer to the crocodiles as their great-grandfather and are not afraid of them. They are induced into a common living impregnated with stories about their filiation and artefacts that represent the crocodile spirits. They mark this descending during the initiation rituals through the scarification of their skin in order to resemble crocodile scales. 

We are able to detect the contemporary equivalent of Aristotle’s definition of phronesis within the livings of the Sepik River entities. Not only we encounter the practical actualization and collective understanding in social life, but also the constant searching for the physis of things, beings, filiations and livings through fusions. 

This moral model, in close partnership with techne, enriched with Latour’s imperatives, can be sighted in Natalia Manta’s KROK – Vitruvius singing in the rain. Depending on the perspective standpoint of view, one could extract nothing intrinsic to the understanding of the work or, one could superimpose on it the long evolutionary line of the Vitruvian Man, ‘the perfect being’, made implicit under the auspices of sciences. While keeping the uncertainty that rests only with the help of perspective, Manta is concerned with the relativity of the human figure’s evolution. In her implication that appearances are not close to truth, she delves into the invisible and the outcome is an illusory perception, although true. We know that our origin is vastly different in appearance from our current form. Could we render visible these transitions? Is this what used to hold us back, until recently I hope, from understanding and acting with respect to the rest of entities, from which in the end of the argument we originate? As Latour, strongly holds, with sciences we have finally the means to endow speech to nonhumans – a former lack that redeemed them to inferiority – and along with techne and phronesis we are ready to work upon forming collective livings. Vitruvius could had been singing in the rain when he conceptualized and completed the being with the perfect analogies but, gladly for this part, he would have been shouting with tears in view of Manta’s reference and its adaptation to contemporary needs. 

1 Ivor Leclerc, The Nature of Physical, (New York: Routledge, 1972), 107. 

2 Aristotle, Physics, Introductory Readings, Translated by Terence Irwin and Gail Fine (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett, 1996), 193b7. 

3 Parry, Richard, "Episteme and Techne", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), 

4 Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, Translated by Catherine Porter, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), 64-5. 

5 Borut Telban, “Mutual Understanding,” Canberra Anthropology 20 (1997), 31. 

6 Michael Jackson, At home in the world, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1995), 169. 

7 Simon Harrison, Stealing people's names: history and politics in a Sepik River cosmology, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 90. 

8 Don Kulick, Language shift and cultural reproduction: socialization, self, and syncretism in a Papua New Guinean village, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 144-5. 

9 Borut Telban, Dancing through time: temporality and identity in a Sepik cosmology, PhD thesis, (Canberra: The Australian National University, 1994), 107. 

10 Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967), 102. 

11 Borut Telban, Dancing through time: temporality and identity in a Sepik cosmology, 318. 

12 Ibid. 

13 Borut Telban, “Mutual Understanding,” 32. 

Peri Physeōs

Natalia Manta

KROR - Vitruvius Singing in the rain. 2017

Elena Stavraki is a Researcher, Production Manager and Scholar focused in Art Theory, Interdisciplinary Philosophy, Film Studies, Contemporary & Modern Art. Skilled in Interdisciplinary Research, Foreign Languages, Art Writing, Curation. Strong production and communication professional with a demonstrated history of working in the fine art industry and with a BA in Theory and History of Art from Athens School of Fine Arts.  

Natalia Manta was born in 1994. She was admitted under the special provisions in the Athens School of Fine Arts for extraordinary talents at the early age of 16, before completing high school. In her second years of studies she received the prestigious sculpture award in Italy. She studied under the world renowned sculptor Giorgos Lappas and also with Afroditi Liti, Giorgo Kazazi and Gianni Psihopaidi. Immediately after receiving her degree in Fine Arts with honors she proceeded to have her first personal exhibition in the prestigious Kappatos Gallery in Athens. She also recently exhibited her new works at the ‘ART ATHINA 2018’ exhibition. Since February 2018 she has been working as an assistant professor in the School of Fine Arts in Athens. She has also taken part in numerous group exhibition and several performance project doing improvisational visual arts. 

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