Ontology has been the key buzzword in anthropology since late last year – perhaps earlier – and I’ve, of course, been engaged with the “ontological turn” for a few years now. But ontology in anthropology has taken a turn that I didn’t expect and that doesn’t reflect my own interests in the approach. Ontological anthropology – maybe not the appropriate term – has come to mean an interest in different ontologies around the world, and an ontological politics in the sense of making those subaltern ontologies real and present in the world. But that’s not the way I think of ontology. For me, an ontological anthropology is an anthropology with an ontological sensibility – one that’s informed by and engaged with the recent ontological explorations in philosophy. The question remains, though, what does that mean for anthropology and why is this turn necessary now?
With that in mind, I want to briefly examine what ontology does for me in my own practice as an anthropologist. I obviously can’t claim a monopoly on the ideas, and I can’t say that ontology is necessary to have these effects. These are just the issues that concern me, and the issues that I think are in need of attention in the field. I think ontology helps bring them to the fore, but I’m more concerned about the issues and less with the particular concept or set of concepts that make them visible. So here’s what ontology does for me:
1) Ontology shifts my focus from texts to practices.
For decades the study of anthropology has been a study of cultural texts. Even the cultural practices that we study have been reduced to texts that can be examined. Don’t get me wrong, this has been a valuable phase in the field. It made us pay attention to the way that meaning is produced rather than looking for general principles or underlying causes that shape meaning. I would say, though, that the linguistic turn – as it’s sometimes called – didn’t take the issue far enough. With the recognition of global environmental change, the idea that our knowledge of the world is constructed is actually a pretty conservative claim. The newer ontologies, on the other hand, make the radical implication that reality itself might be constructed. And it is through the practices and work of beings – human and non-human alike – that this process occurs.
What this does for me as an anthropologists is that it forces me to pay attention to those practices and the work that is done to produce the beings and relationships that compose our world today. It makes me aware of history, because being is produced over time – things don’t simply emerge spontaneously out of nothing – and it’s the interactions, changes, and repetitions over time that make a difference to the way things develop. So when I’m studying the bloodworm industry, the Chesapeake Bay Model, the Bureau of Land Mangement, I have to study the work that has been done to produce those assemblages, and also the work that is being done now to change or maintain them.
2) Ontology forces me to acknowledge the heterogeneity of existence.
This is not necessarily a feature of all ontological thought, but it seems to be common to most of the new ontologies that have been explored in recent years. That is, that all beings must be taken as beings in their own right and not reduced to anything else. There are a lot of ontological, philosophical implications for this, but what is most important for me is the recognition that all existence is heterogeneous – that all beings are composed of and by other beings, and that any of those beings can (but don’t always) make a significant difference to the situation. It results in a decentering of the human that seems paradoxical for an anthropologist, but humans never exist alone and for themselves – we are always surrounded by other material and living beings.
What this means is that, in my work as an anthropologist, I have to think about all of the beings involved in a particular set of relations because all of them make a difference. It makes for a better approach to the relationship between people and the environment – first, by refusing to reduce those relationships either to material causality or to ideology and meaning, and second, by breaking open that overly encapsulating term “environment” to pay attention to the many different beings that are around us and the many different relationships we have with each of them. Furthermore, I would argue that it makes for a better understanding of our own social worlds. It’s a somewhat bold claim, and I’m not the first to make it, but I agree that human society would not exist without non-human beings (objects, plants, animals, ideas, etc.) and the difference that those beings make for us. Most accounts of human social systems suggest that we absorb those others into our worlds – they become simply a manipulable substrate onto which we can impose our intentions and desires. That does a disservice both to those other beings and to ourselves – the difference that they make to us is part of what enables the structuration of our social worlds. So when I study the bloodworm industry, I have to look at the way that humans interact with the worms, the seaweed packing material, the boxes and containers, the mud, the ocean, the fish, ideas about “invasives”….. All of those things make a difference to the way the assemblage is produced, and without any of them it wouldn’t be what it is.
3) Ontology makes me recognize the social, cooperative aspect of things.
Following from the last, ontology also makes me recognize that, in order for all of these different beings to come into existence in the first place, and to produce anything new there has to be a fundamentally social aspect to existence itself. My existence, for example, is dependent on the work of many others: the cells that compose my body and work to keep it functioning, the plants and animals that I depend upon for food, the other people, friends, family, and strangers who help me, support me, or make the things that I rely on. When taken broadly to incorporate both humans and non-humans, there is no escape from society. The image of rugged individuals able to forge their way, and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is a myth made possible, and even inevitable, by limiting society to human interactions. A person who has accumulated enough material support can seem to be doing it all on his/her own when, in fact, there is a lot of human and non-human work that goes into that material support.
As an anthropologist this makes me attentive to the relationships between all of the different kinds of beings that make up an assemblage. It makes me explore and try to understand how those relationships could have been otherwise or could still be otherwise. Looking at the Chesapeake Bay Model, the way relationships between modelers, policy-makers, and stakeholders have been built over its 30 year life has made it difficult for these groups to get along and communicate. The premise of my research is that different methods – different ways of building those relationships – would result in better interactions and communications and have better outcomes for everyone involved.
4) Ontology makes me attentive to my own practices and the kinds of relationships that they compose.
Prior to the linguistic turn, ethnographers largely removed themselves from their accounts and failed to examine the ways that their interactions with others and their own texts in many ways produced the cultures that they were observing. The epistemological constructivism that brought about an attention to texts forced us to reflect on the effects of writing culture.
This was a very important step for the field – one whose primary occupation is representing Others to a Western audience. However, I think once again it didn’t go far enough. It made us text focused, literary, idealist. Left out of the picture – both of the texts that we studied and of our attention to our own texts – were a host of other practices with other effects and associations aside from the production of meaning or understanding. Ontology pushes us beyond texts and the construction of meaning to practices and the construction of existence itself. It makes us attentive not only to the meanings that we create through writing about Others, but also to the relationships that we build with others through all of our practices: writing, research methods, teaching, activism, etc. In the same way that a lack of attention to texts makes us unconsciously reproduce oppressive and harmful representations of others, a lack of attention to practices can make us unconsciously reproduce oppressive and harmful relationships with others. A concern for ontology makes me think about my engagements and interactions with others and makes me organize my research and other activities in ways that – hopefully – improve those interactions for everyone involved. Instead of simply asking what kind of knowledge am I constructing about the world, it makes me ask what kind of world am I building, what kind of world is it possible to build, and what kind of world do I want to build?
The effect of this ontological sensibility on my own work is that it makes me experimental. I recognize that every interaction I have with others has an effect on them and on myself. As a result, the idea that an ethnographer can go into a community and simply observe is passé – we are already experimenting through these interactions. With that in mind, I can explore other ways of interacting with them, reflect on the effects and then modify my interactions if necessary. In that way, I can work on building better relationships with others, and work on making those relationships beneficial to everyone involved. It also makes me more attentive to my own and others’ vulnerability in those relationships. We are all vulnerable beings, but we are differently vulnerable. There are many ways that we protect ourselves – preventing others from altering and affecting us. When balanced, these protections are beneficial and necessary – they prevent us from simply being subsumed by the other, and allow us to withdraw from others in order to maintain our identity or substance (I’m using this vocabulary loosely). But when vulnerabilities are imbalanced they can be harmful to those who are less vulnerable. As a researcher, I have tools, techniques, and strategies for remaining invulnerable (objective) relative to my “informants”, but if I am attentive to the imbalances, I can open up and allow myself to be vulnerable to them. It’s through this vulenrability – this mutual capacity to act on others and to be acted upon by others – that we build effective relationships over time. It’s a dance, a struggle. But one, I would argue, that is essential to composing a better world.