New Zealand Grants River Personhood


Great ANT case for teaching: “New Zealand Grants River Personhood

Want to take it to the next level in the classroom? challenge students to understand how a person-like “state” (in this case, New Zealand) is apparently accorded the ability to do this!

Ask them, which is weirder, a river being a person or a state granting the personhood?


12 thoughts on “New Zealand Grants River Personhood

      • I think if one does the history (of who did what, with what & to whom/what) and avoids the trap of waxing philosophical (about person-hood or such) it would be pretty straightforward, no?


        • … forgive this long response.

          dmf, that is such a good point. No doubt, “can you historicize that?” is a classic move — scholars doing that sort of research seem oddly (sometimes, smugly) certain in their results. And they should. After all, they take these abstract ideas and pin them down to Earth; the philosophical waxings, as you put it, get deflated as we trudge through the vulgar details. While I am super-sympathetic to this escape hatch to certainty and purported “straightforwardess” (as you note), I am also struck by explanations like that because historicizing the minutiae, though so convincing to scholars writing for other scholars who are all so darn clever, is this: … and yet folks everywhere are still happily and uncritically discussing corporate person-hood, state actor-hood, and, now, river person-hood, and in so far as that is true (i.e., that people seem happy to decontextualize that stuff) I wonder what explanation we can develop for that (that goes beyond the standard: “but people are stupid, Nicholas. — with the implied “and scholars are not” … and these are usually scholars telling me this). Historicizing explanations, in my read, down in the weeds, combing through the details, have a hard time explaining why their explanations are so regularly ignored by most people, which, to me, in times of great cynicism, translates to: “if you’re all so damn smart and your method is such a straightforward pathway to truth, then why doesn’t anybody care?” Perhaps this is more about the reception of historicized accounts or people’s general distaste for the details, but there is something there that has always bothered me. I think part of it, to be fair, has to do with how these historicized accounts work during their actual presentation. You see, I often see scholars who demand hard empiricism and to historicize everything, and then they do, well, until they don’t. They historicize one minute, and then raise another concept, let’s say, for sake of comparison that is not historicized in anyway (I’m thinking of many scholars in state theory that historicize the hell out of their work, and then the next minute they start talking about “the surveillance state” or “the technoscientific state”, for example, to describe the circumstances of state formation wherein you would never have possibly heard either of those terms (literally or through implication). Now, that would be forgivable, under most circumstances. After all, I am a flexible guy. However, where things get problematic, in my experience, is when a scholar like that is selective in their historicism (for example, demanding terms be historicized, but then, moments later, fielding questions about the difference between theory, practice, and the written word during 14th century France … as if we can take those categories for granted as existing or whatever relationalities they shared), but then, during the Q&A of another scholar’s work, they demand to have terms and ideas historicized, even though they themselves selectively historicize. This has to do with a divorce, of sorts, between historicism as a method to unlock truth (which is always a bit selective) and historicism used as a critique of others’ work (which appears less selective, and more like a whitewash critique or response to abstract claims commonly made). … okay, enough.


          • lots there but to start I think that people are generally given (cognitive-based) to project misplaced-concreteness (be bewitched by grammar, reify, etc) not a matter of being smart or not (as Wittgenstein noted many clever people go down these rabbit-holes and all too often commit academic philosopy) so that’s the ‘bad’ end of the spectrum in terms of being accurate, and we generally suck at thinking in terms of complexity/causality regardless of how educated (i’ll see physicists/engineers/mathematicians blow these sorts of matters when they talk outside their disciplines say when talking about politics, economics, or such), which is not to be confused with the usefulnesses of technical jargon, short-hand, figures of speech for folks with close enough backgrounds/habits/associations/etc) for example a contract-lawyer would be likely to understand what and how a “corporation” (or perhaps more accurately to be incorporated) is in relation to what the courts granted (certain rather specific) powers/relations/obligations between actors (all human) and likewise with the courts and rivers/chimps/etc, even MittRomney wouldn’t try and talk to a corporation or sleep with ‘one’ etc tho he was dumb enough not to realize how this legal jargon would resonate with much of the lay public.
            ties in some i think with some of our ongoing discussion of arche vs proto-types and how to (if we can) make specialized/technical know-how public.
            also i see and accept the historicism bit but really was thinking more after ANT
            tho in my case that would mean leaving behind the N.
            hope this connects with some of what you were after.


              • Thanks — I was on a soap box, I’m sure you noticed, and have now descended from it! Your points are solid, each of them. The reification bit is really an outstanding concern of mine — that scholars seem to reify the state, in particular, so much so that one gets the feeling that in 1985 you could have snapped a picture of it, always shakes me to my core.

                I do very much enjoy the sorts of post-ANT/after-method discussions that emerge from that way of thinking, especially in instances where we need to model the mess — scholars critical of the state actor hypothesis routinely claim simply that “the state is not an actor!” in their introductory remarks, and claim that the state if it exists at all is a distributed mess of hyper-complexity … but in rejecting the state actor hypothesis, they replace the assumption with another assumption, and they do this rather than offer an after-methods model of the mess they assume (this would become an empirical discussion if this new path were to be followed, and a good path it would be too … I’m thinking of devoting the next half-decade to that issue).


                • take the empirical leap, i know the hype is all about ontology this season but epistemology is where shit gets real as the kids say or they used to.
                  “We have got onto slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!”


                  • Oh, indeed, indeed, the ontology stuff is getting a little out of control — spoke about that recently at Cornell, as it happens. Also, Jan and I have a book chapter coming out soon suggesting something similar about ontology, namely, no matter how hard we try to be ontology buffs in state theory, we never really escape from the problem of epistemology (ontology is not the escape hatch that some are using it as).


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