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.

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:


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.

The Externality of Relations

Levi and others in the OOO blog world have been discussing relations again, this time mainly in reference to Karen Barad’s statement that “relata do not precede their relations.”  This is another one of those philosophical discussions that, for me, makes a difference to the work that I do, though not necessarily in the sense that the philosophers take it.

In order for my concept of work and the analyses that follow from it to (for lack of a better word) work, I have to be able to look at the work that is done by every being involved in a given set of relations.  No being can be reduced to or subsumed by any other because they all contribute important differences that make a difference.  For me, this means that I do not recognize a difference between “internal” and “external” relations.  Rather I would say that all relations are external. There are two reasons for this. First, where does one draw the line between internal and external? How does one decide whether a given relation is essential to an entity’s being or when it is not? Most would probably agree that the relationship between myself and the cells that make up my body are essential to my being, but I shed cells all the time without dying. Clearly, if you removed my heart and didn’t replace it with some adequate substitute, then I would cease to exist (or, at least, my existence would be radically changed – I would die). But if you remove my big toe, I would perhaps be in a lot of pain, but I would not die, and my being would not be radically altered. Does that mean that the relation between myself and my heart is internal whereas the relation between myself and my toe is external? Similarly, most people would probably agree that my relationship to my books is external. But if you cut me off from accessing my books or any others, would I continue to be the same Jeremy that I am now? I would venture to say not, and I’m not willing to attempt the experiment. So what constitutes my being, and where is the line between internal and external drawn – it seems to me that such a line would always be arbitrary.

The second reason I claim that all relations are external is that, by suggesting that certain relations are internal, those relations and the beings that compose them ultimately get subsumed by the totality of the being for whom they are internal. For example, if the relationship between myself and the cells that compose my body are internal, then my totality subsumes them such that they become merely functional units with no agency or capacity for difference of their own. If I am to account for all of the work that is done by all of the entities involved in an assemblage, then I have to recognize that those beings have an existence independent of myself as a totality. Instead of seeing myself as encompassing of the other beings that compose me, I view myself as working alongside those beings. I am, thus, only one part of the assemblage that is myself. I certainly play an active role in my own composition (the way I choose to exercise, the foods I choose to eat, the places I choose to live, the media I choose to consume, etc.), but I am by no means the only – or even the most important – active participant in this assemblage. Any being is, therefore, only one part of what composes its own existence, and the being of the others who compose it cannot be reduced to it. Existence is always co-existence. This, as I understand it, is the meaning behind Bryant’s “strange mereology” of which I was originally skeptical, but which I have now fully embraced for this very reason.

Going back to the issue of relata and their relations, it doesn’t make sense to me to say, as Levi suggests (rightly or wrongly) Barad (and Whitehead) does, that everything is related to everything else in the universe. It may be true in the broadest sense – that because we are all part of the same Universe, that we all came from the same Big Bang, then we are always already connected to one another – but I agree with Alex Reid in saying that the vast majority of those relations would be so tenuous as to make little, if any, difference to me. Am I related to a star in a galaxy billions of light years away? If so, then it doesn’t make much of a difference, and, therefore, is not worth considering. What makes a difference are those relations that are relatively more concrete – the relation between myself and the cells in my body, between me and my books, between me and my family, me and my friends, etc. – and the work that is done by all of those involved to compose and recompose those relations over time.

There is, however, another way to take Barad’s statement about relata and their relations, and, though I have only read one short article by her, I suspect that this is closer to her meaning. It’s not that everything is always already connected to everything else as Levi claims. Rather, it’s that the powers (to borrow Levi’s term) of a being are only ever actualized in relation to other beings. The redness of the cup is only actualized in relation to a certain kind of ambient light and the perceptive gaze of a sentient being. The cat is satiated in relation to the presence of food or hungry (and eventually dead) in relation to its absence. These powers are what makes a difference, but do they exist as part of the being of one individual in the relationship, withdrawn, and waiting to be actualized, or do they exist only in the relation between two or more beings? If the latter then relata cannot precede their relations because the relata are what they are in any given moment only by way of some relation. The relata themselves are only potential that is actualized in the process of relating to other relata (and relata, in the end, are only relatively more concrete sets of relations).

I don’t know where all of this places me on the OOO-PRO spectrum. It’s really not that important to me. Being an anthropologist and not a philosopher, I have the luxury of not having to take sides, and instead use what I need for whatever work I’m doing.

William James’s Object-Oriented Ontology?

Excerpts from A Pluralistic Universe:

“Pragmatically interpreted, pluralism or the doctrine that [the universe] is many means only that the sundry parts of reality may be externally related.  Everything you can think of, however vast or inclusive, has on the pluralistic view a genuinely “external” environment of some sort or amount.  Things are “with” one another in many ways, but nothing includes everything, or dominates over everything.  The word “and” trails along after every sentence.  Something always escapes.  “Ever not quite” has to be said of the best attempts made anywhere in the universe at attaining all-inclusiveness.  The pluralistic world is thus more likea fedral repulic than an empire or kingdom.  However much may be collected, however much may report itself as present at any effective centre of consciousness or action, something else is self-governed and absent and unreduced to unity.

“Monism on the other hand, insists that when you come down to reality as such, to the reality of realities, everything is present to everything else in one vast instantaneous co-implicated completeness – nothing can in any sense, functional or substantial, be really absent from anything else, all things interpenetrate and telescope together in the great total conflux.

“The difference I try to describe amounts, you see, to nothing more than the difference between… the each-form and the all-form of reality.  Pluralism lets things really exist in the each-form or distributively.  Monism thinks that the all-form or collective-unit form is the only form that is rational.  The all-form allows no taking up and dropping of connexions, for in the all the parts are essentially and eternally co-implicated by intermediary things, with a thing with which it has no immediate or essential connexion.  It is thus at all times in many possible connexions which are not necessarily actualized at the moment.

“If the each-form be the eternal form of reality no less than it is the form of temporal appearance, we still have a coherent world, and not an incarnate incoherence, as is charged by so many absolutists.  Our “multiverse” still makes a “universe”; for every part, tho it may not be in actual or immediate connexion, is nevertheless in some possible or mediated connexion, with every other part however remote, through the fact that each part hangs together with its very next neighbors in inextricable interfusion.  The type of union, it is true, is different here from the monistic type of alleinheit. It is not a universal co-implication, or integration of all things durcheinander.  It is what I call the strung-along type, the type of continuity, contiguity, or concatenation.  If you prefer Greek words, you may call it the synechistic type.  At all events, you see that it forms a definitely conceivable alternative to the through-and-through unity of all things at once, which is the type opposed by monism. … The recognition of this fact of coalescence of next with next in concrete experience, so that all the insulating cuts we make there are artificial products of the conceptualizing faculty, is what distinguishes the empiricism which I call “radical,” from the bugaboo empiricism of the traditional rationalist critics, which (rightly or wrongly) is accused of chopping up experience into atomistic sensations, incapable of union with one another until a purely intellectual principle has swooped down upon them from on high and folded them in its own conjunctive categories.”

I realize this is not exactly OOO, but upon reading it I heard some familiar tones with the debates of OOO versus Process-Relational Ontologies (PROs) – in particular, regarding overmining and undermining, lava lamp ontologies, and the idea of withdrawal.  Also, understand that I am not advocating OOO in this instance, just pointing to some literature that seems to agree with it.  I’m posting more out of interest and addition to discussion than out of any particular agenda.

Extended Ecologies: An Anthropology of Life Support Systems

The following is the text of the talk I gave today at the Society for Cultural Anthropology biannual meeting.  Together with the AnthroPlus talk I gave back in March titled “The Anthropological Thought” this constitutes the article I’ll be submitting to O-Zone (pending some revision to reconcile the two parts and fill in the gaps).  Please feel free to offer feedback and constructive criticism.  I will do my best to integrate suggestions into the final draft of the article. 

The scene opens upon an intrepid explorer lying dormant inside a capsule.  Her metabolism has slowed, and she is kept alive on the barest minimum of sustenance.  To us, she may as well be dead. 

Suddenly, with a hiss, the capsule opens and our explorer reawakens.  Her body writhes in pain as she revives abruptly form her long slumber.  A shadow reaches down from above.  Unable to see clearly, but sensitive to the change in light, she extends her mouth and four sharp fangs grasp at the hand reaching towards her injecting neurotoxins into the intruding flesh.  A drop of blood drips down into the capsule from our explorer’s mouth, and the hand withdraws in shock.  End scene. 

Perhaps it is clear now, our explorer is not human – in fact, she is blood worm a creature more alien than many we see in film!  She has traveled to this distant world from far far away, encased in a life support system that keeps her alive – just barely – until she reaches her final destination.  Little does she know – or maybe she is fully aware – she is not alone in her capsule.  Creatures almost as strange as her have come along for the ride.  Luckily, to her they are no threat, but to the inhabitants of this new world, they may not be so friendly.  This is the story of an ongoing struggle to maintain diplomatic relations between two worlds – worlds brought together by a life support system created by humans to extend the lives of one species – blood worms – but with the unintended effect of extending the lives of others as well.  Can these worlds coexist? Can they live harmoniously with one another?  Or will one be consumed the other?  These are the questions we hope to address in an ongoing research project.

First, Why am I talking about blood worms as space travelers encountering different worlds and establishing relationships?  Is it just a literary device meant to capture your attention?  Am I being merely metaphorical, or is there some substance to this way of talking?  I suggest that, although I am being literary in some sense, there is also a sense in which this story is literal – that these organisms are in fact travelers from different worlds. 

What is a world?  According to Levi Bryant, a world is a set of relations, an assemblage, or an ecology.  These worlds are not bounded, but are limited by the qualities of the beings that compose them.  A being may be excluded from certain worlds because they cannot, for various reasons, enter into relationship with the others who compose it.  Furthermore, these worlds may overlap and intersect, as John Law and Annamarrie Mol have shown.

These worlds are composed by the beings of whom they are composed.  In other words, by building relationships with one another, beings (human and non) contribute to the construction of the worlds they occupy.  Thus being part of a world requires some kind of active participation with the others within it.  A world cannot therefore be reduced to the activities of any one being – human or non – but must be recognized as the complex production or performance of a number of different kinds of beings resulting from the relationships they craft with one another.

In this sense, the world of a being extends as far as the web of relations it and its kind have entered into.  The world of the blood worms, for example,  extends along the Eastern coast of North America.  Our intrepid explorer, then, is on little more than a diplomatic mission when she travels from Maine to the Mid-Atlantic coast.  She and her kind have already colonized and, indeed, vermiformed this area – the relationships have been established and she is simply visiting her distant kin.  As a matter of fact, she is on a sacrificial mission – she will be gouged on a hook and cast to sea in order to lure flounder, spot, perch, and other fish for the hungry humans.  However, in order for her and her comapnions to make the arduous journey, they must be kept alive artificially by means of a life support system.

Humans are adept at creating such life support systems.  They are not meant to be comfortable, but only to maintain the minimal needs of life.  Indeed, some imagined life support systems would bring us close to death.  In his novel Blindsight, for example, Peter Watt’s characters are implanted with vampire DNA so that they will be able to be revived after decades in the life support capsules in which they travel.  But not all life support systems are so high-tech, and hyperreal – most consist simply of food and water storage, means of transportation, and clothing and portable shelters to protect from the elements.

These life support systems have allowed us to cross otherwise inhospitable or downright uninhabitable spaces – deserts, oceans, mountainous terrain, frigid landscapes, and even the vacuum of space.  By means of these systems, we have extended our world to encompass the entire planet, and beyond. 
What’s more, we have also created life support systems for other organisms – such as the one I’ve just described for blood worms – so that we can transport them over inhospitable distances for our own purposes.    In this way, we have also extended the worlds of these organisms – though not always intentionally or as extensively as we have extended our own. 

Bloodworms – in order to make the journey from the coast of Maine to the Mid-Atlantic – are packaged in boxes with a special type of seaweed – known as worm weed to the people in Maine and Ascophyllum nodosum to the scientists.  This seaweed is a variety of rockweed which is found in abundance on all of the rock beaches in the Northeasten United States.  In this case, it has been separated from the rocks and floats freely in tidal tributaries – eventually to be deposited in the saltwater marshes upstream.  Here, the worm weed is collected, washed, and taken to the worm dealers where it is used as packing material for the live worms.  Wormweed provides a life support system for the worms – it keeps them moist, separates them just enough to keep them from attacking one another, is porous to allow the worms to burrow around and move freely without being damaged.  The boxes are then cooled in order to slow down the worms’ metabolism for the long voyage ahead. 

These boxes of worms – typically about 250 per box – are shipped to the Mid-Atlantic, to California, and to Europe where they are then repackaged into bags of 10 or a dozen – usually using the same worm weed.  The life support system created by the worm weed keeps the worms barely alive for the time it takes them to be shipped, repackaged, bought, and used as bait.  This is ideal for the anglers who want live worms to lure fish, but it comes with serious consequences, because worm weed is also home to other creatures – snails, insects, and crustaceans – with no established relationship to the distant worlds they are traveling to.

Importantly, it is the work of both humans and non-humans that has constructed these worlds, and that now offers the possibility for new relationships between them.  For this reason, we have worked collaboratively with biologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center also known as SERC.  Together we have worked to better understand the world of the worm weed life support system – the species that occupy it in Maine, and those that hitch rides as the worms are shipped to the Mid-Atlantic and other regions.  The live bait trade has long been recognized as a vector for invasive species.  Although not as abundant as other vectors such as ship ballast water, live bait life support systems are thought to be an extremely efficient vector – precisely because they are purposefully designed to keep organisms alive during transport.  Already, this vector has been shown to have introduced snails such as Littorinis saxatalis and even the worm weed itself to the Western coast of the United States.  No such proven introductions have been identified for the Mid-Atlantic region, and it’s not clear whether the species that are carried in these life support systems would pose any substantial threat to the new world they encounter there.  However, this is the first attempt at a kind of preemptive diplomacy – establishing an agreement between worlds that would prevent hostile relations before they begin.

Working with the researchers at SERC we have begun to understand the relationships that constitute the world of the wormweed and how that might affect the world of the Mid-Atlantic Coast.  At the same time, we have been working to understand the overlapping and intersecting world of the live bait industry which is responsible for extending the world of the worm weed – enabling new relationships to develop between these organisms and those of the other worlds to which they are introduced.  The industry generates in excess of five million dollars in the state of Maine, but it’s an industry dominated by small-scale businesses.  The harvesters are individuals who might otherwise be unemployed – those with little education, construction workers put out of the job by the housing crisis, and so on.  The dealers are often family owned businesses with close connections to the harvesters they employ.  Worm harvesting is hard work – subject to both natural conditions (weather, tides, etc.) and the whims of bait retailers and anglers.  Our goal, then, has been to work with the SERC biologists and the people in Maine to craft a diplomatic solution that would allow these worlds to step out ahead of any potential hostilities (including the threat of regulation from above) in order to diplomatically preserve the relationship between worlds.

Our research is ongoing.  So far we have created a detailed picture of the world of the live bait trade including both the humans and the non-humans involved in its composition.  While there are still holes in our understanding, we have developed several ideas for how we might craft a diplomatic relationship between these distant worlds.  By building relationships and working with the human and non-human beings involved in these worlds we hope to alter the practices that compose it.  For example, we are studying various methods for washing the worm weed that would kill or remove any hitchhikers while keeping it safe for the worms themselves.  It is hoped that, by introducing these alternatives, and facilitating their use, the contact events between these worlds will be significantly reduced, if not eliminated altogether, and with reduced contact events, it would be easier to maintain a diplomatic relationship – smaller, short-lived, and accidental colonies, perhaps, versus a full scale invasion. 

Through this process of building relationships and “working with” – as Tim Ingold emphasizes – all of the different beings involved, we hope to craft a different world – one in which the relationships between the established worlds of organisms in Maine, and those in the Mid-Atlantic can coexist peacefully.  Where our intrepid explorer can continue to make her scrificial voyage, whithout threating other worlds to which she travels.

Mind, Matter and the Real

Levi Bryant’s latest post argues for a materialist-oriented ontology (the cow says… MOO!) alongside Jane Bennett, Michael, and Ian Bogost.  However, in spite of the fact that I agree with much of what Levi is arguing for (that all beings are material in some sense, and that there is no action at a distance), I’m not sure I can get on the materialist train.  I prefer the general term “realist” and in this I am actually closer to Graham Harman and Adam Robbert, I think, than any of these others whom I respect a great deal.  I remember this debate at the OOOIII event last September, though I wasn’t privy to all of the discussion since much of it took place outside of the lecture halls.  I remember agreeing with Graham then that “materialism” tends to be more about people’s ideas about matter than about actual matter itself, and so “materialism” tends to actually be a form of idealism.  That’s not what I want to suggest for Levi’s materialism – I suspect he’s worked out some of those issues, but, in any case, it’s for much more sophisticated philosophers than I am to figure that one out.  I also don’t mean to accuse Levi of a reductionism in the sense that his materialism is about “mere matter” – as if to say that matter itself isn’t lively and active.  I think he’s definitely made the case for the latter, and I support his efforts and the efforts of the new materialists to transform the concept of matter into one that is fully vital and affective.  As a Deleuzian concept, “matter” could use such a makeover.  My argument against Levi’s materialism, then, isn’t so much a philosophical difference as much as a practical difference.

For me, an entity (object if you prefer) is real to the extent that it makes a difference (I don’t know if any of the above philosophers would agree with me in this claim – Latour might – but I don’t know that it matters exactly why they claim something is real as long as their conception of “real” includes more than just materiality).  Therefore, an idea can be real just as much as a piece of clay, a chair, a lamp, a book.  I agree with Levi that all of these entities have a material quality – for example (to borrow one of Levi’s favorite) Popeye is real even though he is an imaginary character, and we as a culture tend not to ascribe reality to imaginary beings.  Popeye does have a material component, though not in the embodied form we usually think of when we think of personalities (in spite of the picture above).  His embodied form is more disbursed – reflected in film reels of Popeye cartoons, in Popeye collectibles, and even in patterns of electrons and photons traveling through space.  However, if I were to say that Popeye is real because he has a material existence – or even that he is real and therefore he has a material existence – I think the general response would be to focus on this material aspect to the expense of all of the other aspects that Popeye manifests.  It’s true, we could do a cartography of Popeye in which we trace the patterns of electrons and photons, the movement of objects, the firing of neurons in my brain when I see his image, etc., and that might be interesting to some, but it’s not the whole story of Popeye.  What most people will find important about Popeye is the difference he makes as an idea, and the effect that this idea has on both material relations and on other ideas.  Whereas, if I were to say that Popeye is real, then I could go on to describe all of the ways that he is real – material and ideal – without having to ground my argument in either aspect.  In other words, I would prefer the freedom of “realism” to the restriction of “materialism” even though I wholly embrace Levi’s materialist project.

A note about cartography.  Levi suggests that materialism is the only way we can accomplish the kind of cartography that is necessary.  I would say that a full cartography needs to be attentive to both the material and the ideal or it would fail.  All maps are full of ideas – from the borders and boundaries that mark nations, states, and territories to the flags arrayed at the bottom, and the sea serpents and monsters in old maps that mark the unknown.  In fact, I would argue that the world map hanging on my wall as I write this is more about ideas than about material things – though I agree that all of those ideas have a material component.

Finally, just to round out this post in relation to Levi’s, I want to say that I agree with his stance on holism.  I think holism is an overused, and potentially very dangerous concept.  Anthropology, we’re always told, is a holistic field.  Practically, what does that even mean?  I think it’s intended to say that we pay attention to things in their full complexity – which I agree with – but I think that tends to suggest the idea of bringing everything together under one whole (usually culture).  That’s where I think the danger comes in.  By doing so, we inevitably end up reducing the complexity of things by subsuming everything under a single framework – this is what Harman refers to as “overmining.”  And when we do this, we inevitably end up denying agency to certain components of what we’re studying and imposing various forms of determination upon them.  I would prefer a complex, heterogeneous view that looks at the way different entities relate to one another to actively compose new things – cultures, societies, governments, ecologies, species, populations, etc, – rather than a holistic account that reduces those entities to those large things that they compose.