I’m writing because I’ve just recently read David Graeber’s response to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s incitement “Who’s Afraid of the Ontological Wolf?” My mind’s a mess, I can’t seem to string the fragmented thoughts together today the way I would have maybe a year or so ago (maybe). Instead, I’m compelled to say something – if only because I’ve come out in favor of the “ontological turn” so often in the past – but I know right now that something won’t amount to much beyond a few scattered thoughts. I’m out of practice, but if I’m going to get back into practice, I’m going to have to start somewhere. This seems like as good a place as any.
I’m not going to talk about the debate between Graeber and Viveiros de Castro. I think Graeber is largely right in his critique, though I also think his way of going forward from the critique is not really a moving forward, but a retreat. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. I remember when I was learning to juggle, sometimes I’d get so frustrated constantly dropping and having to bend down to pick up the balls. I’d be tired and want to give up, but then I’d go back to just tossing one ball back and forth, and this apparent regression made it possible for me to jump ahead and finally juggle three with no problem. Maybe the same is true for theory and anthropological practice. We push forward into a new problem, but get stuck and drop the balls, maybe it makes sense then to go back and see if we can look for a new way into the thorny patch (mixed metaphor be damned!).
While I recognize that it might be valuable, and I don’t hold it against Graeber, that’s not going to be my approach here. I’ve advocated for ontological anthropology before, and I still think there’s value in the approach – though my interpretation differs substantively from that of Viveiros de Castro. As a result, I’m going to charge back into the thorns, pick up all three balls and start juggling again.
I don’t talk much about ontology anymore (that’s not true, I have conversations with Trish all the time about it, but mostly just recounting the history that I know). Instead, I talk about performative approaches versus representational approaches – this dichotomy (which I’ve borrowed from Pickering, Callon, and others) matches what I used to refer to as ontological versus epistemological approaches. I’ve changed for a lot of the reasons that Graeber outlines, but mostly because I think the language of ontology versus epistemology is excessively dense, and doesn’t really convey what I’ve wanted to say. Nevertheless, I think that the ontological still holds meaning here that the performative and representational do not fully capture.
Speaking of ontological anthropology more generally, I would argue that any anthropologist who is willing to confront ontological issues is doing ontological anthropology. In its basic sense, that’s all it takes to be an ontological anthropologist. I wouldn’t impose my ontological vision on anyone else – Viveiros de Castro, Graeber, Descola, Kohn, the Azande, or anyone else. But avoiding ontological issues – saying that they are somehow off limits, or just arbitrarily not talking about them – I think, leads to more harm than diving straight into the thorns to confront issues head-on. Ontological anthropology means being reflexive about our ontologies in the same way that the post-structuralist anthropologists called on us to be reflexive about our epistemologies (by reflecting on our knowledge production). In that sense, all of these anthropologists are doing ontological anthropology, whether they identify themselves as “OTers” or not.
These debates between self-identified OTers and OTers who don’t identify with the ontological turn are, therefore, somewhat missing the point. It’s not a matter of accepting or rejecting ontological claims, but of working out what force those claims have (or should have) on our anthropology. With that in mind, my interest in ontological anthropology is oriented around studying “ontologies.” But herein lies the confusion – a confusion that became clear to me in the pluralism wars, and which Graeber outlines pretty well in his essay. The word “ontology” takes on a different meaning here – not the usual meaning of “discourses about reality,” but the structure of reality itself. I try to avoid using this terminology because of the confusion, but I keep coming back to it because I really don’t have a better word for what I’m talking about. An ontology is a set of relationships, and each set of relationships has its own internal structure and logic, though ontologies can intersect and overlap in various ways or combine to form larger ontological structures. If anyone can offer a better word, I would welcome it!
Graeber, I think, is right to argue that Viveiros de Castro is idealist, and this is probably where Viveiros de Castro and I part ways. The difference for me is that our conceptions of reality (our ontologies in the “world view” sense) do not structure our material relations. Rather, our material relations structure our conceptions of reality – or maybe they feed back into one another in various ways. That is, if I believe in spirits, it’s not that my belief in spirits makes them real, but that there is a real set of relations in which the belief in spirits makes sense. In another set of relations, the belief in germs and science make equal sense. I suppose that makes my ontology (world view) materialist or, maybe, material-semiotic (following Donna Haraway and John Law).
I’m also not sure that this makes me an ontological pluralist. Yes, I defended pluralism in the pluralism wars (and I still support a kind of diplomatic pluralism), and I also just made statements about “multiple ontologies.” But, to me, ontologies are multiple because the world (note here, singular) is always incomplete and in a constant process of emergence. In other words, perhaps there is a singular kind of fabric to the world, but the fabric comes together in “threads and patches” to quote Kroeber’s take on historical particularism. I’m not sure how that stands up philosophically, and I don’t have the luxury of being able to delve into it more than just to make the statement (dissertation research, you know…).
The question is how do we study “ontologies” in my sense of the term? The answer is by way of performance and practice – so I’m not sure that my interest is in ontologies per se. I still consider myself an ontological anthropologist, though, and I will continue to defend a kind of ontological anthropology – or one that focuses on performances and the way that those performance structure relationships over an epistemological one – that focuses on what we know and how.