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.

Modeling Discipline

Another aspect of modeling that I’ve come across in my reading lately is the extent to which the practice disciplines model users in particular ways.  Modeling is not simply something that modelers do while sitting in front of the computer terminal, it is a practice that shapes the way modelers think and behave.  This is demonstrated effectively in three of the articles I’ve read: one by Anders Kristian Munk titled “Emancipating Nature: What the Flood Apprentice Learned froma Modelling Tutorial”, the second by Myanna Lahsen titled “Seductive Simulations? Uncertainty Distribution Around Climate Models”, and the third by Chunglin Kwa titled “Modelling Technologies of Control.”

In the first article, by Munk, the author describes his experience undergoing a tutorial course on flood modeling, and the various stages that one must go through in order to build even a simple flood model.  The course begins with the development of a “perceptual model” of flooding. Not a computer model, but a conceptual model sketched out with pen and paper, this practice allows the modeler to think through all of the different factors that might come into play in a flood scenario: evapotranspiration, rainfall, soil, vegetation, human settlement, etc.  The effect of this practice is to isolate out those factors that can be accounted for in the model and those that can’t.  It separates out nature as a distinct domain which the model speaks for, but separated from the politics that are ever-present in the causes, consequences, and management of flooding:

The model, which claims to speak on behalf of nature, can be asked its opinion on different possible outcomes of a political process, which claims to speak on behalf of society.  The answers can of course be fed back across the divide, but it seems important to the professional ethos of the modeller that a divide is maintained in spite of the tendency of successive flood events to transgress any such partition.  If our role vis-á-vis nature will be to anticipate, then our role vis-á-vis society will be to notify.  Anticipating nature; notifying society.”

Once the perceptual model has been produced, the process of computer modeling can begin.  This process involves a number of translations and reductions – making the perceptual model fit to the computer’s interface.  This is another disciplining process, through repeated interactions with the computer and software, the modeler comes to understand and react to what the simulation needs.  The modeler is being shaped by the model just as the model is shaped by the modeler (the two are mangled, to use Pickering’s term):

What feels like a real achievement is that the model is actually running after an unending stream of bugs and error messages.  Finally, we seem to be doing something right; we have learned how to feed it the correct stuff; it is complying.  Or rather, we are complying: at this point in the training exercise the happy amateurs are tuning in to the demands of the software and for the first time we get a sense of what it means to become a modeller.”

In the end, the author reflects on how the process of flood modeling – of separating out nature from society – depends on the production of “thoroughly post-natural hybrid.”  Through this process the modeler is transformed and remade, acquiring new habits, dispositions and affects that no doubt carry over into other aspects of her life.


The second article, by Lahsen, is meant as a critique of Mackenzie’s certainty trough.  The certainty trough is a model for how different groups (generally within the sciences) view a particular scientific process.  As the author describes, it uses a “distance trope” to differentiate the different groups.  Those who are closest to the production of the process are typically somewhat aware of the uncertainties embodied in the process; those who are not involved in the production but use the methods and results tend to be less conscious of the uncertainties and thus less skeptical about the process; finally, those who are outside of the process entirely – because they are committed, presumably, to an entirely different methodology – tend to have the highest skepticism of the process.  Lahsen identifies, using modeling as her example, several points that complicate the certainty trough: first, that there are generally many sites of production involved, so distance is not an effective metaphor; second, that the distinction between producers and users is not very clear; third, that “outsiders” are often called upon to help validate models; and finally, that there may be psychological and social reasons why modelers would not have an overabundance of confidence in their models.

It’s this last feature that I want to discuss in terms of discipline.  That there are social reasons why modelers would appear over-confident in their models seems straight-forward.  Modelers compete for funding and access to resources, so they are invested in making their models appear as accurate and valuable as possible.  However, the psychological effects that Lahsen describes are not so evident.  From her research, she shows that, as a result of continual contact with the model, come to see the simulation as a reality itself.  Instead of talking about the simulated ocean in the model, the modelers will talk about simply “the ocean.”  In effect, the modelers are “seduced” by the models into believing that they are the reality that they attempt to simulate.  This leads to an attachment to the model, and, again, an overconfidence in the model’s depiction of reality.

The third article by Kwa explores models as tools of control.  He delves into the history of modeling, including environmental/climate modeling, economic modeling, and modeling for military purposes, in order to show a relationship between modeling and different modes of control.  His primary example comes from John Von Neumann’s work with weather modeling.  Von Neumann, among others, envisaged a computer model of weather on a global scale, which could be used to control weather and transform the climate to better suit human needs.  Examples include the use of “cloud seeding” to promote rain in drought-ridden areas, or to hinder enemy troops and obscure aircraft during military operations.  Another, more extreme example, is the use of nuclear explosions to redirect monsoons to cool hotter climates and improve conditions for agriculture.  This period from about WWII to 1973 (Kwa is specific in this regard), is one where technologists imagined that models and other technologies could bring about total, centralized control on a global scale.  In some ways, it is the structure of models themselves which give the illusion of total control – the way they are laid out offering a gods-eye view of the world, and one that can be easily manipulated and observed.

According to Kwa, around 1973, there was a shift from this kind of large-scale modeling towards more localized modeling efforts with specific problems in mind.  He says that this was the result of the emergence of the counter-culture movements in the 1960s rather than any kind of specific failures of the models themselves.  The advent of the personal computer further promoted localization and specificity in modeling approaches.  Kwa suggests that this does not mean that the goal of control was abandoned with the earlier modeling methods, but that it shifted into this localized register.

In my mind, the question is what kinds of body-minds are produced out of these modeling practices? How do the habits, dispositions, and affects developed in front of a computer screen carry over into other aspects of life?  None of the authors address this specifically, but it’s an important question that I might try to investigate in my own research.  Furthermore, I would hope to answer the question what happens when modeling methods are changed?  What kinds of new subjectivities might be produced?  It’s a lot to think about.

Friction – Work – Mangle

I’ve been preparing lately for a conference on Monday about the use of multiple models in evaluating water quality on the Chesapeake.  I’m part of a panel that will be discussing the social and cultural implications of multiple modeling, and the gist of what I want to present is that models don’t simply represent or help us understand the complexity of the Bay (or whatever they happen to be modeling), they also add to that complexity (the subtitle of my talk is “Making a Mess with Models” paraphrasing the title of a paper by John Law on methods – pdf).  In order to make this case, I introduce three concepts that I’ve come to see as tied together – Friction, Work, and the Mangle.

Friction – I borrow this concept from two sources: Anna Tsing’s Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, and Paul Edward’s A Vast Machine.  Edwards discusses the concept of computational friction and data friction where the problem is integrating different data sets with one another in order to create a more comprehensive data set (e.g. global climate data).  Tsing describes friction as “the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” and uses this concept to explore the phenomenon of globalization – specifically, the global lumber trade that has shaped the Indonesian landscape.  So, very simply, friction for me is a metaphor for the resistance to interconnection across some difference.  This difference keeps two or more things from connecting, but also offers an almost infinite possibility if the two things are made to connect.

Work – This is a concept I’ve talked a lot about already, but in this context, it’s the process of overcoming the resistance produced by friction.  It’s through work that the possibilities contained within the space of difference are actualized.  In the process of bringing things into relation with one another, a new world is created, and different ways of working to build relationships produce different kinds of worlds.

Mangle – Another borrowed concept – this time from Andrew Pickering.  This is merely to remind us that everything is mangled in the encounter between work and friction.  People are mangled (altered and affected) as much by the technologies, knowledges, organisms and other beings they work with as those beings are mangled by us (the result of the efficacy of beings).  In other words, humans are not engineers of reality – safely reshaping the world from a distance – we are active parts of the world and are continually reshaped by it.

It is my hope that these three concepts, in the context of my presentation at least, will be able to get the modelers, policy makers, and others at the workshop to think differently about their practices.  My goal is to think about the ways that different modeling practices (e.g. participatory modeling, open access models, etc.) can remake the reality of the Chesapeake – not just for the people, but for all of the beings involved.

Work and Friction

In addition to The Mangle of Practice, I’ve also begun reading Anna Tsing’s Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection.  I’ve only made it through the introduction and part of the first chapter, but so far it is an engaging and thought-provoking work.  Tsing’s main concept that drives the ethnographic study (of Indonesian forestry) is the idea of “friction.”  For Tsing, friction is defined as “the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference.”  The idea derives from the idea – popular in economics and political thought – that we can and should create a world “without friction” – one that allows for the unimpeded flow of goods, money, ideas, and people around the world.  But, Tsing argues, this is not how movement works.  Friction is an essential part of movement.  Think of a tire on the road – without friction, the tire would be unable to grip the road’s surface and would not move.  However, for Tsing, friction is about much more than simple mechanics. 

Speaking of friction is a reminder of the importance of interaction in defining movement, cultural form, and agency.  Friction is not just about slowing things down.  Friction is required to keep global power in motion.  It shows us (as one advertising jingle puts it) where the rubber meets the road.  Roads are a good image for conceptualizing how friction works: Roads create pathways for making motion easier and more efficient, but in doing so they limit where we go.  The ease of travel they facilitate is also a structure of confinement.  Friction inflects historical trajectories, enabling, excluding, and particularizing.”

I find friction has much in common with a Latourian approach to science and technology studies.  It’s not by reference to a universal “Nature” that we can understand how scientific knowledge moves – it can only be done by tracing the pathways of those movements as they cross from the lab to law to bureaucracies to the public.  And in these movements, knowledges, practices, and beings are mangled by the frictions they encounter. 

I think what’s missing from this idea of friction is an active principle.  Friction seems passive to me – it happens to things in those encounters rather than being something that beings do.  I like “mangle” because it can be both passive and active.  A person can be mangled, and a person can mangle others.  The problem I have with “mangle” is that it has a negative connotation.  Being mangled and mangling others are generally not good things.  It brings to my mind visions of bodies beaten and torn, or of a man at a workbench attempting to fix a toaster or other machine and progressively making the problem worse until the toaster lies in pieces on the table.  In both cases, the objects are not simply different from what they were before, but actually destroyed.

I think what is needed is a complementary concept that actively pushes forward in spite of friction.  Think of the wheel example.  It certainly would not be possible for a wheel to move without the friction between it and the surface, but friction is not enough – it needs an engine, some kind of force applied in order to use that friction, push through it, and get going.  In physics, and in my own approach, this is called “work.” 

Friction – the presence of difference – makes work necessary.  But without work, there would be no movement across difference.  The two concepts complement one another. Work is what makes encounters possible. It’s the force that utilizes, pushes through, or avoids friction in order to generate change. Without work, friction doesn’t exist. Things would merely collide randomly and settle into equilibrium and homogeneity. On the other hand, without friction, there would be no need for work. Work pushes things together, makes friction matter, and in the process creates new things. It couldn’t happen without friction, as Tsing points out, but friction is not enough to make it happen.

Tsing uses the example of rubber to describe friction:

Coerced out of indigenous Americans, rubber was stolen and planted around the world by peasants and plantations, mimicked and displaced by chemists, and fashioned with or without unions into tires and, eventually, marketed for the latest craze in sports utility vehicles. Industrial rubber is made possible by the savagery of European conquest, the competitive passions of colonial botany, the resistance strategies of peasants, the confusion of war and technoscience, the struggle over industrial goals and hierarchies, and much more that would not be evident from a teleology of industrial progress.”

For me, friction was apparent in these differences – between indigenous Americans and Southeast Asian peasant farmers, between plant-based rubbers and synthetic rubber, between Europe and its colonies, between raw rubber and tires. Movement across these differences would always involve translation and transformation through interaction, but these interactions are not themselves inevitable. But it takes work to make those interactions happen, to push through the difference, in order to make the world of cars, rubber tires, roads, colonialism, exploitation, and negotiation in which we live today. It could always have been done differently, and, with work, it can be remade into something new.

I think work is a central concept for me and my ethnographic practice. I’m glad to now have friction as a complement to it – I think the two combined provide a substantial theoretical and methodological approach to understanding the world we live in and how to make it better.

The Mangle of Work

Today it seems appropriate to write about work, and, on the advice of my friend and frequent commentor, dmf, I’ve been reading The Mangle of Practice by Andrew Pickering. I find in his theory of “the mangle” a lot of resemblance to my own theory of work.  I’ll write more detail on it later, but suffice to say that it is the theory of how people and things are altered and affected by one another in a continuous and collaborative process of world building.  Here I just want to talk about my own practice, and how I see it through this lens of work and the mangle.

As an academic and a student, a lot of my work is writing – papers, blog posts, articles, exams, etc.  Generally, the first phase of writing involves coming up with a topic, a possible title, and a few key points that I want to make.  I sit down at my desk, and open the word processing software on my computer.  Already I am engaged with other beings – the chair, the desk, the computer – as they work upon me. Right now I sit with my legs crossed and my knee resting on the edge of the desk.  The desk is small and there are a lot of cords under it, so it’s not always comfortable to keep my feet there – and now my dog is also there trying to hide from some commotion in the living room.  I lean back in my solid wood chair, my butt is slightly sore and my arms have to extend fully to reach the keyboard.  I’m not uncomfortable, but right on the edge of comfort – this helps me think.  The computer strains my eyes.  I can see and read fine, and have never needed glasses, but the light background overwhelms them, and spending too much time looking at it becomes painful. My fingers jump across the keyboard in bursts as new ideas come or old ideas are discarded.

I start working by putting a little text on the page.  I write whatever comes to mind, just trying to get the thoughts recorded before they slip from my short memory.  The keyboard frustrates me – sometimes the “Backspace” button doesn’t work, so I have to use the “Delete” button instead, and this makes fixing errors a slightly more laborious process.  The ideas pour onto the page.  Often two or more ideas collide, and I have to think through the implications.  How do they fit together?  Maybe they can be reconciled, but in a modified form.  Maybe one cannot survive – maybe neither can.  I usually sit back, and slump down in the chair when this happens.  I’m thinking.  My mind works to fit the ideas together.  Sometimes the result is revolutionary and my whole concept of self and purpose is changed as when I encountered “Struggle Forever!”  Most times it’s mundane, and only a small change takes place. In this first phase, I don’t worry so much about the cohesiveness of the ideas unless something important strikes me.

The next phase usually involves leaving the computer.  I have worked to record my thoughts, and now I can work to assemble them in a reasonable order and think about how I want to phrase them.  For this I move to the couch – sometimes I shower and let my mind go over the thoughts as the water washes over my body.  Through this process I am working with the words that express my thoughts, testing out different patterns, and seeing how they feel.  Sometimes it helps to read an article or book on the topic to come up with new ideas or different phrasings or to find a quote that highlights something I want to say.  Often new ideas will come and I will have to figure out how they fit with the existing ideas, or set them aside for a later piece. Gradually, the essay begins to take shape, and I can get back to the actual work of writing.

I sit back at the desk, and work once again to record my thoughts on the page.  This time I pay more attention to the order the thoughts are taking and the way the thoughts are phrased.  These are influenced by the earlier process of assembling phrases and order, but often times when I see the words on the page it becomes apparent that a certain phrasing or order doesn’t work or a new possibility emerges.  The words, the ideas, the computer screen, the process of typing things out – all of these things work upon one another and also upon me.  A lot of times, the particular phrasing that I had come up with falls from my memory and I have to come up with another – usually I get the sense that it’s never quite as good as the original.  Oh well, maybe it will come back to me eventually… It never does.

My work alternates between phases of writing and phases of stepping away from the computer to think things through (not to mention taking breaks from the work altogether to watch TV, read, do other work, or go somewhere).  It’s somewhat haphazard – I don’t have a set plan for writing – but it does follow this general pattern.  If a particular piece is really challenging, I sometimes take out a notebook and paper and write by hand instead of on the computer.  There is a substantial difference working with a pen versus a computer, and I feel that my thoughts are able to come together better as I work with the pen rather than the computer.  Also, sometimes the limits of the computer screen don’t allow me to see the whole work – this is especially true of longer pieces. I find this very frustrating, and I often have to print a copy out so I can read it and mark it up by hand.

Through this process, all of the different beings I’ve mentioned – computers, ideas, couch, shower, pen, paper, desk, chair, dog, body/mind – play a substantive role.  They work upon others and allow themselves to be worked upon.  Some play larger roles, some smaller, but from this work something new emerges – a material-semiotic being: the text.  I could continue to work on it indefinitely, but at some point I decide to stop.  Sometimes this has to do with a deadline, other times it’s simply an arbitrary choice that no more work will add anything to it.  Now the text ventures out into the world, furthered by the work I do to share or promote it.  Depending on who reads it, how it is presented, the context of the reading, and a variety of other factors, it will have different – generally unpredictable – effects upon others.  I certainly have hopes for those effects, but recognize that it is largely beyond my control.  Later, if need be, I can work further to explain, rephrase, or alter some ideas if the effect of the text is radically different from what I intend.  Most of the time, I allow the text to stand on its own and I work through other texts to shape ideas further.

There is a lot of other work that I do – teaching, field work, networking, etc. – but those will have to wait for another day to explore.  However, in every case, and in the work I see being done by other beings around me, the importance of recognizing the collaborative nature of work comes to the fore.  Never am I alone in my work.  Never do I construct something completely on my own.  The process is always interactive, and I am always transformed by it as much as the other beings involved.