I’m really happy with all of the attention my recent post “What Ontology does for my Anthropology” has received. I’m glad so many have found it interesting and helpful in their own examinations of the field and this new “turn.” I want to take this opportunity to respond to some critiques of the post and the ontological turn in general.
The first issue is really general and very simple – does anthropology need ontology? I said in my last post:
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.
That’s not an answer to the question, but just a disclaimer meant to address the potential concern. The answer, I think, is no, anthropology doesn’t NEED ontology. If those concerns that I addressed in the post can be approached from some other direction – and I have seen this done in many ways – then ontology is just one path among many, and I’m okay with that. The reason for my post, and the reason I titled it “What Ontology does for My Anthropology” is that I wanted to explore the effects that thinking ontologically has had for me. I don’t think I would have gotten to those concerns without the influence of ontological thinkers like Harman, DeLanda, Bryant, Latour, and others. In that sense I needed ontology, and I want to share how ontology has shaped my practice, but I’m not convinced that all anthropologists need ontology to get there.
So should I abandon the ontology discourse? I don’t think so. Everyone has their particular approach – their set of concepts and interests that shapes the way they do anthropology (or anything else). And everyone wants to promote their perspective as having something important to contribute. Ontology and ontological philosophy has been influential to me, continues to be so. It is an important, even essential part of my approach, and simply because some people don’t agree that it’s useful doesn’t mean that I should simply back down and give it up.
That’s the first issue. The other issue is a little more complex, and I don’t know if I can address it fully here. The issue is whether or not an ontological approach is political or if it is even apolitical. I don’t think I directly addressed the political dimensions of my approach in the last post, but I thought they would have at least been somewhat apparent. Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that my approach is apolitical – just that I didn’t effectively address it there. I have discussed this elsewhere, but let me try to add to it here.
First of all, let me be clear that I don’t think that ontology or ontological anthropology is necessarily political. It is possible, I think, to have an ontological sensibility that doesn’t make any political demands. I also don’t think that a particular ontology demands a particular politics, but I do think ontologies make political demands that make possible certain kinds of politics while obscuring other kinds. In that sense, ontology can be (but isn’t always) an effective way to pose political problems. Challenging the ontological assumptions that underly forms of domination like racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. can be a way to undermine those influences.
That’s a general claim about ontological discourse – it doesn’t necessarily address the politics that are influenced by my own ontological commitments. So what does my ontology do for my politics?
1) As I said in my previous post, ontology makes me attentive to all of the Others who are part of the composition of a particular system, structure, or assemblage. This includes the marginalized, disenfranchised, and oppressed Others – the people who are ignored or pushed aside. All of these people contribute to the construction of reality, and it is important that we recognize their presence and the difference that they make.
2) Linked to the first, we have to be attentive to the work that is done to produce these systems and structures. That means a historical perspective, and a political perspective. We have to understand the work that is done and has been done to keep these marginalized and oppressed people down, and we have to understand the work that they contribute to the structure. The prosperity of the US was built on the back of slave labor, and continues to be built through the labor of marginalized people – immigrants, women, people of color, etc.
3) My ontological perspective also forces me to be attentive to my own ontology – what goes into making me who and what I am. Vulnerability is a key issue in my ontology – all beings are fragile, and as a result, all beings are vulnerable to one another. But we are differently vulnerable, and this is what, in my mind, creates imbalances of power. This makes me think about the ways that I am able to guard my vulnerability – my privilege, if you will – and the lack of privilege or protection that others have. When I work with others, I have to be careful to balance my vulnerability against theirs so that we can work together in a way that puts me at risk as much as (or more than) those with whom I am working.
4) Finally, thinking ontologically has made me wary of approaches that seek to “know” or “understand” Others. Knowing and understanding are kinds of relationships, and all relationships are political. The idea of “knowing” or “understanding” can easily mask a more domineering sort of relationship than is apparent from those simple words. Therefore, in my own work, I don’t seek to “know” or “understand” others, I seek to work with them. This idea of working with others reflects a commitment to a long-term engagement, and a process of negotiating and establishing a relationship over time. I don’t have “informants” I have collaborators who are working with me (if they want to, and there’s no reason they have to or should necessarily want to) to make things better (hopefully).
There’s a lot more to discuss, but I don’t have time to delve right now. Also, this is all very abstract, and I’m really concerned about grounding my theories and approach. I will try to provide more concrete examples shortly.