Ontology Politics

Saying that something is real is not the same as saying that something should be real, right?

If the racist ontology were reducible to a “world view” then it would be easy to exterminate – simply do away with the problematic “world view” and you’ve done away with racism. But it isn’t that easy because that “world view” has very real – material and discursive – effects.

“Ontological pluralism” (from my standpoint) recognizes that the racist ontology is more than just a “world view” – it is a very real material-semiotic assemblage that has very serious consequences for a lot of people. There is a “regime of attraction” that keeps the racist ontology from going away simply by telling people that it’s false. The same goes for the homophobic ontology, the sexist ontology, the Capitalist ontology, the environmentally destructive ontology, etc.

However, recognizing that these multiple harmful (and other not-so-harmful) ontologies actually exist is not the same as saying that they should exist. If a reality is constructed (through a combination of discourse and material assemblage) then it can also be deconstructed, disintegrated, or destroyed. Does that sound like “tolerance” or “politeness” to you?

We might never manage to get rid of all of the harmful ontologies that exist in the world, but it’s a struggle I’m ready to take on for as long as it takes. A struggle, I think, we can only take on if we recognize that these ontologies are real – that they are more than just “world views.”

Pluralism, Ontology, and Composing a Common World

In the last couple of days there have been a flurry of posts referring back to mine on “The Value of a Turn.” The response isn’t so much a response to that post, but a discussion of ontology and pluralism sparked by Levi Bryant’s posing the question here – how do we reconcile pluralism with any kind of realist perspective? It’s an important question for the recent interest in the ontological turn in anthropology, since anthropologists are interested in making space for the ontological claims of others who are generally left out of the ontological discourse (their views are seen as merely cultural representations of a unified Nature while we Westerners have the luxury of unmediated access to that Nature by way of science). However, if we grant that a reality to the ontologies of the Shuar or the Kayapó or other indigenous groups, then it seems we must also grant a reality to the ontologies of Christians, climate deniers, Capitalists, and so on. How can we reconcile these two opposing agendas?

As I said, there have been a few posts on the subject. Here, Phillip outlines Latour and Stengers’s approach to ontological pluralism, and James Stanescu has another detailing William James’s pluralism. I’m still trying to process these, so I can’t go into any kind of huge discussion here, but I do have some thoughts that might put a different spin on things. (See also, Levi’s response to these two posts)

The project, as Latour, Stengers, James, and others have described it, is to compose a common world. What pluralism recognizes is that, in this project, we all start from different places – Latour’s relativity rather than relativism. The goal, then, (and it has to be recognized that this project is always contingent and prone to failure) is to make these different positions converge, but in a way that doesn’t impose one upon the other as the Modern Nature/Culture dichotomy tends to do. Why should we avoid imposing one on the other? In part because it’s the right thing to do – by imposing we remove or reduce the agency of the other. The claim to unmediated access to reality makes us invulnerable – no other claim has that grounding, and therefore we can never be wrong. But we are wrong – the science of the Enlightenment gave us climate change, environmental destruction, imperialism in the name of rationality (indigenous peoples removed from their land and taken to reeducation facilities where they were taught “rational” economic activities such as farming), and so on. It removed us from the world and placed us above it – the God’s eye view.

But it doesn’t work that way, and here is the other reason why we need to engage in this common world-building project: because it’s not just about building a common world with other humans, but of building a common world with other kinds of beings as well. We’re not just trying to come to terms with the ontologies of the Shuar or the Kayapó, we are trying to come to terms with the realities of CO2, ocean acidification, sea level rise, arctic ice sheets, endangered species, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires, deforestation, factory farms, genetic engineering, cars, airplanes, invasive species, computer models, and an almost infinite number of other beings that inhabit our worlds and have effects on us. To position ourselves outside of Nature undermines their agency as well. It posits them as a passive background that we can manipulate and mold to our social wills. But that’s not the case – these beings push back, they resist, they impose themselves on us. Not intentionally, of course, but they do nevertheless.

So we have a project – composing a common world – (which is an unending project, thus the “forever” in the title of this blog), and we all start from different places. And we are not simply composing a common world with other humans, but with other beings as well. That’s where an ontological pluralism positions us. From here we can begin to move forward, not from a common ground, but from a mess of contingent spaces – overlapping, intertwining, etc. We move forward as beings within a world, not viewing from above.

In this effort to build a common world, certain positions will fail. The climate deniers will fail to build a common world with CO2, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and so on. Others will continue to prosper, but it’s not our place, I think, to predefine which will prosper and which will fail – this once again pulls us out of the common world and back into the God’s eye view.

This is my take on ontological pluralism – it’s more about where we start from and where we’re heading than an accurate description of the world. Maybe we don’t need “ontology” to get us here, but the ontological discourse has been effective in some ways at conveying the pluralist mentality. For that reason, I think it’s a good project, a good turn, and I’m interested to see where it will take us.

Debt and the Academy

There have been a few recent posts on the topic of academic debt and the inadequacy of graduate assistance and funding. The Professor is In has some initial results from a survey about student debt in the humanities and social sciences. And Ryan Anderson at Savage Minds has a survey about debt in anthropology specifically.

For a PhD student with a fair (and, unfortunately, increasing) amount of student debt, the results are disheartening, and it’s not comforting to know that I’m not alone. My debt currently runs in the five figures and I’m trying very hard to keep it from moving into six. My parents can’t help me, and I have no disposable income. I know the job prospects are dim. I know that I will likely be trying to pay it off for a very long time, but I also don’t feel as though I have many options at this point. I have funding for one more academic year after this one. My stipend is roughly $16k per year – not nearly enough to live on in the DC area, so I supplement it with extra work on the side for a total of a little over $20k per year. Every summer I struggle to find employment because my stipend only covers the school year – so far I’ve managed, but it’s always precarious.

Do I think I made the wrong choice? Often, yes. Maybe I should have stopped at the Master’s degree, gotten a job outside of academia with a reasonable salary, paid off some of my debt, and then come back for the PhD when I was in a more stable position. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible I would never be in a more stable position. Academia isn’t the only place that’s plagued by economic precarity – in fact, it’s become the defining feature of 21st century global Capitalism. And why should I be kept from pursuing my desired career simply because I’m not from a wealthy family? I made my choice, and I have no regrets, but I live with and fear the consequences every day of my life.

Out of all of this talk, I hope those who have some say in how things work in academia take the opportunity to reflect on the ways that their policies affect students and possible alternatives. I don’t think the outcome of this should be fewer people going to grad school as some have suggested, I think what we need is a better system for making graduate school available and accessible for those who lack the personal or familial resources to pay for it.

 

Frankly, I’m terrified, and I’m not sure what to do about it. My hope is that I’ll come out of the PhD with enough research skills that I can apply for a variety of jobs both inside and outside of academia. With any luck, I’ll make enough to start paying that debt and eventually find my way into the kind of job I want – teaching and doing research. In the meantime, I struggle.

The Value of a Turn

I was going to write another post about the “ontological turn” in anthropology as there has been a whole lot of chatter before and since my last couple of posts (here and here). For example, I just found (I’m not sure when it was posted, but I only stumbled on it today) this set of posts on Cultural Anthropology’s Fieldsites about the The Politics of Ontology. After reading the opening post by Holbraad, Pedersen, and Viveiros de Castro, and the response by Mario Blaser, I think the post I had intended to write – on the distinction between two trends in the ontological turn – has been adequately covered (and thanks to Mario Blaser for pointing out that this appears to be an STS/Anthropology distinction – I hadn’t caught on to that). Nevertheless, I have something to add, which is a more general thought about the value of disciplinary “turns” and what the ontologcial turn could mean for anthropology.

So what is a turn? Why do we keep making them and what value do they provide? Surely we’ve given up the notion that a new theoretical development will finally, once-and-for-all make sense of the things we study. Turns are not about achieving a better understanding of the world – not about knowing the world better or moving progressively to a final and complete understanding. Okay, then why turn? What is it that the new concepts offer us?

A concept is not a frame for understanding – something that brings a picture into (or out of focus). Concepts are tools and pieces of an assemblage of knowledge. They don’t help us see better, but they attach to things and reassemble them in novel ways – like legos where attaching one piece to another suddenly makes possible a whole new arrangement of attachments. In that sense, a concept or conceptual assemblage – ontology, feminism, queer theory, post-colonial theory, etc. – enables us to understand differently, and in understanding differently, it enables us to also be differently.

So we turn, in part because it allows us to assemble a new kind of knowledge. After the literary turn in the 1980s, anthropologists began looking at culture and cultural phenomena as texts – this assemblage of concepts enabled a new kind of knowledge to be produced. But, perhaps more importantly, a turn makes possible a new kind of relationship – a new way of engaging with the the people and things with whom we work. The literary turn, again, made it possible to reflect on the ways that we represent Others and the political and ethical dimensions inherent in those representation practices. What the ontological turn does is take that same spirit of reflexivity and pushes it further. It allows us to reflect not only on the way we represent, but on the way that we exist and the kinds of relations we compose through our practices.

In that sense, the ontological turn – like the literary turn before it – is not so much about the way we know Others, but about the way we know ourselves – a turn inside-out. The question it poses for us is “What kind of realities are we enacting through our practices?” Regardless of what or who we study, I think this is an important question for anthropology at this time.

A Reader’s Guide to the Ontological Turn – Addendum

Somatosphere’s recently shared two posts (part 1 and part  2) of reader’s guides to the ontological turn, which are extremely useful and full of interesting books/articles/etc. that I hadn’t encountered before. However, there are some noteworthy exceptions, and so I feel compelled to add my own list of influential works in my ontological education. I don’t have tons of time at the moment, so I’ll just write it up as a list and hopefully you can click through and decide which are important to you. Here goes:

Blogs

Academic blogging has been a central feature of the ontological turn over the last several years, so I think it’s unfortunate that these have been left out of the recent reading lists. Much of my own education has taken place through reading and engaging with these blogs – I owe the greatest debt to all of these writers. Here are some of my favorites:

Larval Subjects by Levi Bryant

Synthetic_Zero by Michael, Arran, and DMF

Archive Fire by Michael

Attempts at Living by Arran James

Knowledge Ecology by Adam Robbert

Immanence by Adrian Ivakhiv

Circling Squares by Phillip

 

Formal Publications (books/articles/etc.)

These could also be considered author recommendations since I won’t list all books and articles by each individual.

Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity by Gregory Bateson

The Cybernetic Brain by Andrew Pickering

After Method by John Law (also check out his website for tons of great essays and articles!)

The Democracy of Objects by Levi Bryant

A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History by Manuel De Landa

Ecologies of the Moving Image by Adrian Ivakhiv

Territories of Difference by Arturo Escobar

Reassembling the Social by Bruno Latour

Cosmopolitics by Isabelle Stengers

When Species Meet by Donna Haraway

Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett

Capitalism and Christianity, American Style by William Connolly

The Ecological Thought by Tim Morton

O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies

 

That’s it for now. If I’ve forgotten anyone/anything please fill in by commenting! I will add to the comments too if anything else comes to mind.

Ontological Turns Inside-Out

It seems Ontology has finally gone mainstream in anthropology. Only a few years ago, it was something heard on the edges of the disciplinary discourse. Now you can’t throw a stick without running into a blog post, article, conference paper, or what-have-you that uses ontology as a central theme. Over at Somatosphere, Judith Farquhar has assembled a nice reading list for an introductory understanding of the “ontological turn” in anthropology. Then, over at Anthropological Research on the Contemporary (ARC), Lyle has a solid critique of this turn in anthropology – suggesting that it fails to change the form of inquiry to match its subject. It’s a running joke that anthropology has taken so many turns in the last  few decades that we’ve often ended up right where we started. I think there’s a truth to that, and I appreciate Lyle for calling out the underlying conservativism that can be found in this (or any) turn.

As a frequent (though not influential) supporter of the ontological turn in anthropology, I feel as though I should put in my thoughts on all of this. I can’t speak to the events at the AAA – I wasn’t there and I haven’t followed up on any of it as I’ve been obsessively working on an NSF proposal for the last two months (which I just submitted yesterday!!) – so I’m going to talk about some impressions that I get from this turn and then some of my thoughts on where things ought to go from my perspective. My first impression is much like Lyle’s. In the name of ontology, there seems to be a retreat to classical ethnography and broad, sweeping comparative analysis. The terms have changed – reflecting on “ontologies” rather than “cultures” – but the means, methods, and results are much the same. In this sense, it’s not really overcoming the Nature/Culture dualism so much as bringing everything into the cultural domain. I agree with Lyle when he says:

…the question is not about categorizing and typologizing multiple ontologies but rather of charting the historical emergence of new ontologies.”

He continues:

The stakes are not only ontological, but also ethical: how to live in this changed world? How to live together amidst these changed beings and groupings? How to make anthropological knowledge about these changed beings and lives? The point is not that ontology is not a useful question for anthropologists, and indeed forms a productive critique of the comparative form of cultural anthropology. Rather, the point is that an ontological critique must be coupled with a transformation of the procedures and form of anthropological inquiry. The question is where one goes after making this ontological “turn”: towards the contemporary, or towards the 19th century.”

I think that there is an element of this in the “ontological turn” most notably with John Law‘s and Annamarie Mol’s work – attempting to understand how the creation of new beings or systems of relation affect those beings and relations that already exist. This is expressed by the two (though Mol deserves credit for coming up with the term) in their conception of “ontological politics” (a concept that, to me, mirrors Latour and Stengers’s “cosmopolitics”). The way I see it, there can be no concrete ontology, not because we cannot know (this is the difference between this and earlier critiques) or access ontological reality, but because ontological reality is itself fundamentally weird and always in the process of being produced. Ontology is never settled, and that’s why we have to be cognizant of other ontologies, and attentive to the relationships between them. Furthermore, we have to be attentive to our own ontological commitments and effects. It’s not merely a question of understanding others’ ontologies, but of understanding our own as anthropologists. This is why I would ask that we take the “ontological turn” not left, right, or wrong, but inside-out. Turn it back on ourselves and our own practices rather than focusing once again on others. What kind of world are we creating through our practices as anthropologists? What kind of world do we want to create? And how can our methods and practices make that world come into being? These are the important questions an ontological perspective begins to address.

I still support an ontological anthropology, but one that is strange, weird, magical, and inside-out.