What Ontology does for my Anthropology

Ontology has been the key buzzword in anthropology since late last year – perhaps earlier – and I’ve, of course, been engaged with the “ontological turn” for a few years now. But ontology in anthropology has taken a turn that I didn’t expect and that doesn’t reflect my own interests in the approach. Ontological anthropology – maybe not the appropriate term – has come to mean an interest in different ontologies around the world, and an ontological politics in the sense of making those subaltern ontologies real and present in the world. But that’s not the way I think of ontology. For me, an ontological anthropology is an anthropology with an ontological sensibility – one that’s informed by and engaged with the recent ontological explorations in philosophy. The question remains, though, what does that mean for anthropology and why is this turn necessary now?

With that in mind, I want to briefly examine what ontology does for me in my own practice as an anthropologist. 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. So here’s what ontology does for me:

1) Ontology shifts my focus from texts to practices.

For decades the study of anthropology has been a study of cultural texts. Even the cultural practices that we study have been reduced to texts that can be examined. Don’t get me wrong, this has been a valuable phase in the field. It made us pay attention to the way that meaning is produced rather than looking for general principles or underlying causes that shape meaning. I would say, though, that the linguistic turn – as it’s sometimes called – didn’t take the issue far enough. With the recognition of global environmental change, the idea that our knowledge of the world is constructed is actually a pretty conservative claim. The newer ontologies, on the other hand, make the radical implication that reality itself might be constructed. And it is through the practices and work of beings – human and non-human alike – that this process occurs.

What this does for me as an anthropologists is that it forces me to pay attention to those practices and the work that is done to produce the beings and relationships that compose our world today. It makes me aware of history, because being is produced over time – things don’t simply emerge spontaneously out of nothing – and it’s the interactions, changes, and repetitions over time that make a difference to the way things develop. So when I’m studying the bloodworm industry, the Chesapeake Bay Model, the Bureau of Land Mangement, I have to study the work that has been done to produce those assemblages, and also the work that is being done now to change or maintain them.

2) Ontology forces me to acknowledge the heterogeneity of existence.

This is not necessarily a feature of all ontological thought, but it seems to be common to most of the new ontologies that have been explored in recent years. That is, that all beings must be taken as beings in their own right and not reduced to anything else. There are a lot of ontological, philosophical implications for this, but what is most important for me is the recognition that all existence is heterogeneous – that all beings are composed of and by other beings, and that any of those beings can (but don’t always) make a significant difference to the situation. It results in a decentering of the human that seems paradoxical for an anthropologist, but humans never exist alone and for themselves – we are always surrounded by other material and living beings.

What this means is that, in my work as an anthropologist, I have to think about all of the beings involved in a particular set of relations because all of them make a difference. It makes for a better approach to the relationship between people and the environment – first, by refusing to reduce those relationships either to material causality or to ideology and meaning, and second, by breaking open that overly encapsulating term “environment” to pay attention to the many different beings that are around us and the many different relationships we have with each of them. Furthermore, I would argue that it makes for a better understanding of our own social worlds. It’s a somewhat bold claim, and I’m not the first to make it, but I agree that human society would not exist without non-human beings (objects, plants, animals, ideas, etc.) and the difference that those beings make for us. Most accounts of human social systems suggest that we absorb those others into our worlds – they become simply a manipulable substrate onto which we can impose our intentions and desires. That does a disservice both to those other beings and to ourselves – the difference that they make to us is part of what enables the structuration of our social worlds. So when I study the bloodworm industry, I have to look at the way that humans interact with the worms, the seaweed packing material, the boxes and containers, the mud, the ocean, the fish, ideas about “invasives”….. All of those things make a difference to the way the assemblage is produced, and without any of them it wouldn’t be what it is.

3) Ontology makes me recognize the social, cooperative aspect of things.

Following from the last, ontology also makes me recognize that, in order for all of these different beings to come into existence in the first place, and to produce anything new there has to be a fundamentally social aspect to existence itself. My existence, for example, is dependent on the work of many others: the cells that compose my body and work to keep it functioning, the plants and animals that I depend upon for food, the other people, friends, family, and strangers who help me, support me, or make the things that I rely on. When taken broadly to incorporate both humans and non-humans, there is no escape from society. The image of rugged individuals able to forge their way, and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is a myth made possible, and even inevitable, by limiting society to human interactions. A person who has accumulated enough material support can seem to be doing it all on his/her own when, in fact, there is a lot of human and non-human work that goes into that material support.

As an anthropologist this makes me attentive to the relationships between all of the different kinds of beings that make up an assemblage. It makes me explore and try to understand how those relationships could have been otherwise or could still be otherwise. Looking at the Chesapeake Bay Model, the way relationships between modelers, policy-makers, and stakeholders have been built over its 30 year life has made it difficult for these groups to get along and communicate. The premise of my research is that different methods – different ways of building those relationships – would result in better interactions and communications and have better outcomes for everyone involved.

4) Ontology makes me attentive to my own practices and the kinds of relationships that they compose.

Prior to the linguistic turn, ethnographers largely removed themselves from their accounts and failed to examine the ways that their interactions with others and their own texts in many ways produced the cultures that they were observing. The epistemological constructivism that brought about an attention to texts forced us to reflect on the effects of writing culture.

This was a very important step for the field – one whose primary occupation is representing Others to a Western audience. However, I think once again it didn’t go far enough. It made us text focused, literary, idealist. Left out of the picture – both of the texts that we studied and of our attention to our own texts – were a host of other practices with other effects and associations aside from the production of meaning or understanding. Ontology pushes us beyond texts and the construction of meaning to practices and the construction of existence itself. It makes us attentive not only to the meanings that we create through writing about Others, but also to the relationships that we build with others through all of our practices: writing, research methods, teaching, activism, etc. In the same way that a lack of attention to texts makes us unconsciously reproduce oppressive and harmful representations of others, a lack of attention to practices can make us unconsciously reproduce oppressive and harmful relationships with others. A concern for ontology makes me think about my engagements and interactions with others and makes me organize my research and other activities in ways that – hopefully – improve those interactions for everyone involved. Instead of simply asking what kind of knowledge am I constructing about the world, it makes me ask what kind of world am I building, what kind of world is it possible to build, and what kind of world do I want to build?

The effect of this ontological sensibility on my own work is that it makes me experimental. I recognize that every interaction I have with others has an effect on them and on myself. As a result, the idea that an ethnographer can go into a community and simply observe is passé – we are already experimenting through these interactions. With that in mind, I can explore other ways of interacting with them, reflect on the effects and then modify my interactions if necessary. In that way, I can work on building better relationships with others, and work on making those relationships beneficial to everyone involved. It also makes me more attentive to my own and others’ vulnerability in those relationships. We are all vulnerable beings, but we are differently vulnerable. There are many ways that we protect ourselves – preventing others from altering and affecting us. When balanced, these protections are beneficial and necessary – they prevent us from simply being subsumed by the other, and allow us to withdraw from others in order to maintain our identity or substance (I’m using this vocabulary loosely). But when vulnerabilities are imbalanced they can be harmful to those who are less vulnerable. As a researcher, I have tools, techniques, and strategies for remaining invulnerable (objective) relative to my “informants”, but if I am attentive to the imbalances, I can open up and allow myself to be vulnerable to them. It’s through this vulenrability – this mutual capacity to act on others and to be acted upon by others – that we build effective relationships over time. It’s a dance, a struggle. But one, I would argue, that is essential to composing a better world.

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.

The Social of Nature

I’ve been following an interesting discussion of Facebook where Levi Bryant says that the way to eliminate essentialism is not to erase “nature” and make everything “cultural”, but rather to embrace “nature” and queer it. The discussion is largely conceptual and not worth rehashing here, but it did remind me of an issue I’ve been thinking a lot of lately. As a cultural anthropologist who works extensively with natural scientists, I walk this tight-rope a lot. We are continually trying to insert or tack on what is generally referred to as “the human dimensions” to environmental science projects. This is how it was with the invasive species project that I was working on and this is how it has been with many of the projects on which I and my cohort have been involved. “The human dimension” is secondary and often perfunctory rather than integrated and systematic. Nevertheless, we continue to try, going to great lengths to fully integrate our research with that of natural scientists.

What I’ve noticed recently, though, is that, in this process, there is often the adoption of concepts and methods from the natural sciences by social scientists – perhaps as a way to appease the natural scientists and “speak their language.” For example, we take on concepts like “resilience” and “complex adaptive systems” in order to frame our investigations of socio-cultural phenomena in a way that scientists will appreciate and understand. There’s nothing wrong with that – it facilitates communication and the concepts are not necessarily wrongly applied. And yet, it does lead to a kind of naturalization of social phenomena. We end up looking for the ways that societies function in naturalistic ways – the ways they are “resilient” or “adaptive”. These approaches, while perhaps accurate and valuable in a certain way, also tend to obscure important aspects of social relations such as power and the processes of social construction. In that sense, going too far down this path of appeasing the scientific crowd can severely limit our own approach to understanding and addressing social issues. This is perhaps why so much environmental social science seems so limited or ineffective – because we so dramatically reduce the parameters with which we are dealing that the products of our research become compromised.

That’s not to say that I want to stop incorporating ecological concepts into the social sciences, but what I would like to see more of, I think, is the socialization of the natural sciences. That is, I would like the natural sciences to accept and incorporate concepts from the social sciences and apply them to their ecologies. Ecologies are, at base, societies – collections of different materials and organisms attempting to coexist in a given space. And the ways that they attempt to coexist – the negotiations that occur between populations in a space – often look very much like the attempts of humans to coexist in a given space. Note here that this is not an attempt to say that “nature is culture”  in the sense of subverting the non-human and material world to a world of humans and signs, it’s just to say that the material processes by which ecologies are composed are very social. As a result, it might be worth looking at power dynamics between different populations or even within a population. It might be useful to view ecological processes as practices of social construction (in the material-semiotic sense and not in the exclusively conceptual sense that “social construction” is often taken).

At present, we have a largely ineffectual and poorly integrated “human dimension” tacked on to natural science projects (often as an afterthought), and I would say this is largely because of the unidirectional and uneven flow of concepts from the natural sciences to the social sciences. I think equalizing that conceptual flow is the only way to actually integrate the two approaches to create an effective science of environmental concerns. How to do this without alienating the natural scientists (who already feel themselves under constant threat of attack) is another question, which I’m still working to understand.

Zizek, Chomsky, and Theory

For those of you who haven’t heard, Chomsky and Zizek are engaged in a (maybe not so) heated back and forth about political theory. I don’t think the debate is actually that informative or interesting, since it amounts to this:

Chomsky: Zizek is not empirical.

Zizek: Chomsky isn’t empirical either.

Chomsky: Yes I am, and Zizek still isn’t.

However, I do think there is a key issue at work in the debate that I feel very connected to – that is, the definition of “theory” in the social sciences. On the one hand, you have Chomsky’s definition of theory, which stems from the analytical tradition and holds sway in most of the natural sciences: a theory is an empirically testable relation of cause and effect. On the other hand, you have Zizek’s definition, which stems from the continental tradition and holds sway in some areas of the social sciences: a theory is a disposition or way of thinking about life and the world that helps to uncover or shed light upon aspects or features that might otherwise remain hidden. As John Law puts it:

[Theory] informs how we see whatever it is that we are looking it, and it is something, a set of propensities and sensibilities, that shapes what we look at and poses questions, issues, possibilities of whatever it is that we come into contact with.”

This type of theory is not empirically testable, since one cannot validate a disposition or sensibility – the value of this kind of theory lies not in its validity but in its appropriateness or usefulness.

That both of these things are called theory is problematic and confusing – it means that in any serious discussion of theory, one has to define one’s terms and be explicit about what kind of theory one is talking about or end up going down a road of confusion and ending up in stalemate. Perhaps Zizek’s theory would better be called “philosophy”, but the boat has sailed and the issue remains.

The fact is, neither approach to theory is wrong – there is room for both, and, in fact, both are essential to any kind of scientific practice. Empirical examination is how we come to understand and relate to the world around us – it is how science moves forward. However, there is always implicit in empirical examination a disposition or way of thinking that illuminates certain factors and obscures others. If we are not explicit and reflective about this disposition, then our empirical findings seem natural and given when they may not be – a different disposition might provide a different understanding or approach to the same empirically valid facts. Take Marx, for example, someone both Zizek and Chomsky would no doubt take for a great theorist. His empirical analysis of Capital helped to further our understanding of the functioning of an economy. But why did he undertake this empirical analysis? Because he had a disposition towards understanding and rectifying the oppressive conditions he saw in modern industrial societies. Without such a disposition, his analysis of class, labor, and the historical dialectic would not have made sense. It was this disposition that made the empirical analysis possible.

In spite of the fact that this debate between Chomsky and Zizek comes of more like tabloid news for philosophers than an actual philosophical debate, this issue of defining theory and its role in our research and lives is key. I think a lot of ink has been spilled trying to sift through this issue and decide what theory is really, when it would be better to simply recognize the role and value of both and be explicit about what kind of theory we are doing.

The Ontology of Knowledge

The following quotes come from John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez (co-written, supposedly, with Ed Ricketts, but he is not credited on my edition):

“… the Mexican sierra has ‘XVII-15-IX’ spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being – an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth ‘D. XVII-15-IX.’ There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed – probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself.

“It is good to know what you are doing. The man with his pickled fish has set down one truth and has recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way.

“Let’s go wide open. Let’s see what we see, record what we find, and not fool ourselves with conventional scientific strictures. We could not observe a completely objective Sea of Cortez anyway, for in that lonely and uninhabited Gulf our boat and our selves would change it the moment we entered. By going there we would bring a new factor to the Gulf. Let us consider that factor and not be betrayed by this myth of permanent objective reality. If it exists at all, it is only available in pickled tatters or in distorted flashes. Let us go into the Sea of Cortez, realizing that we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through a flat of eel-grass, that rocks we turn over in a tide pool, make us truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region. We shall take something away from it, but we shall leave something too.”

This is what I mean when I talk about the ontology (maybe I should say ecology) of knowledge production.  Producing knowledge is about more than the creation of symbolic and conceptual realities that either correspond to a reality “out there” or don’t depending on your epistemological outlook.  Producing knowledge is the production of relationships, connections, entanglements between beings.  The man in the lab with his pickled fish is one kind of relationship, and the fisherman on his boat with the thrashing, spiny, colorful fish is a different one.  Both entail the creation of knowledge – knowledge is one kind of relationship that is built out of the encounter – but also much more than that.  The very act of studying something, holding it in your hand, dissecting it, putting it in a glass jar (or, for those of us who study people, interviewing them, doing participant-observation, excavating a site, and so on) changes the thing and yourself.  A new relationship is made a new thing is made – knowledge, but so much more than that; a new way of being, a new form of entanglement.  Focusing exclusively on the production of knowledge in the form of epistemological symbols and concepts (as was the tendency in anthropology after the “linguistic turn” and Writing Culture) limits our perspective on the effects of our scientific practices and constrains our imagination of the many other possible sorts of relationships that could be composed.

To me, it is not an either-or issue.  Viewing knowledge production as a fundamentally ontological process broadens the scope of possibilities for research.  No longer does research have to be only about composing an image or representation of some thing – this is what got us (anthropologists, at least) into trouble in the first place!  Instead, research can be about building relationships – what kinds of relationships can we build, what kinds of relationships do we (the researcher and the subjects of her research – seen now as the collaborators they always were) want to build?

See the work of John Law on method for more.

Buddhism and the Cultivation of Awareness

Following up on my previous two posts (here and here) on buddhism and the recent visit of the Dalai Lama, I want to elaborate on the position I see for Buddhism in the struggle for a better world.


What is Buddhism?  It’s not a religion like any other.  In those sects where deities are acknowledged, they are recognized as immanent beings rather than transcendent, and subject to the same limitations as other worldly beings.  In most sects, deities play little or no role at all.  At the core of Buddhist philosophy is the impermanence of the world.  The world is suffering, the Buddha tells us, but “suffering” is not necessarily the appropriate term. The world is dynamic – always changing.  Beings come in and out of existence, and the nature of our relationships with other beings is constantly in flux. Attempting to hold fast to one form of existence – to a particular kind of being or a particular kind of relationship – is, in the nature of things, to experience dissatisfaction. Huxley says it well:

Because his aspiration to perpetuate only the “yes” in every pair of opposites can never, in the nature of things, be realized, the insulated Manichee I think I am condemns himself to endlessly repeated frustration, endlessly repeated conflicts with other aspiring and frustrated Manichees.

So Buddhism is, at its core, a philosophy of coexistence. This world is changing because it is heterogeneous, because there is no ground. So what do we do about it? How does one live in a world coinhabited – co-constructed – with myriad other beings? Buddhism provides an answer in the eightfold path – right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.  Notice, though, that these are not commandments – “Thou shalt”.  They are open-ended, defined not by some divine creator or an essential nature of being (the search for which is still reflected in the search for scientific truth), but rather by the circumstances.  So how do we know what “right” means in any given context?  Again, Buddhism has an answer for us – through the practice of meditation.

Meditation is a diverse practice.  There are many different kinds of meditation, and each does something different.  However, broadly speaking, they are all practices (in the sense of “practice makes perfect”) of cultivating a particular kind of affect or cognitive-emotional state.  At the least, meditation cultivates an affect of tranquility and peace of mind, at it’s best, it cultivates an affect of awareness.  Huxley, again:

Concentration, abstract thinking, spiritual exercises—systematic exclusions in the realm of thought. Asceticism and hedonism—systematic exclusions in the realms of sensation, feeling and action. But Good Being is in the knowledge of who in fact one is in relation to all experiences. So be aware—aware in every context, at all times and whatever, creditable or discreditable, pleasant or unpleasant, you may be doing or suffering. This is the only genuine yoga, the only spiritual exercise worth practicing.

Does Buddhism offer us a way of retreating inwards (and thus competing with critical theories that would have us turn outwards in our struggle for a better world)?  The answer is, in some sense, yes.  Buddhism – especially as it has been transformed by its encounter with Western, Capitalist modes of thought – offers us the possibility of a happiness that does not demand social change.  But it doesn’t have to be that way, and the practice of cultivating affect can be (I might go so far as to say is an essential) part of struggle.

Our affects – the way we feel and experience the world around us – are also part of the world we live in.  Our affects can be as inscrutable and unknowable as the lives as other beings.  In that sense, the usual division between inside and outside becomes irrelevant, and instead we can look at any given situation as a complex assemblage of factors and features, one of which is our affect.  What is it that compels an individual to struggle?  What is it that keeps that same individual, at a different time, from participating?  Affect is not the answer, but it is part of the answer.  A person who is simply depressed and unable to leave her room is not capable of struggle – for her own benefit let alone that of others.  It may be that her depression is tied to many factors that are beyond her immediate control (a lifeless job, or an oppressive marriage), and these factors will not go away magically through the practice of meditation.  Nor should meditation be seen as a way to achieve peace and happiness within those circumstances – she could be happy, perhaps, but happiness is not an end itself.  Instead, the cultivation of an affect of awareness might allow this woman to recognize how her depression is limiting her and shift her affect towards one that would allow her to struggle for the change that she wants – whether that new affect is happiness or something else.

Capitalism and other oppressive systems depend on our internalizing, to some degree, the logic of the system.  They depend on us becoming our own minions, to use Stengers’s phrase.  Much ink has been spilled in articulating how this is achieved: through schooling, media, etc. – the ideological state apparatus, however you conceive of that.  In that sense, taking time to cut out those voices all around us, and being attentive to the ways in which our own internal voice mimics them, might be a powerful form of resistance – one of the cracks that must be grasped and ripped open in order for struggle to continue. This is the cultivation of an affect of awareness that meditation (and sorcery, perhaps) offer.

But, you might say, what about enlightenment? Isn’t the goal of Buddhism to achieve enlightenment and escape from the world of illusion?  If so, how does that not compete with a desire/need to change the world itself?  It’s true, perhaps, for some forms of Buddhism.  However, what becomes very clear when exploring the philosophy of Buddhism and the concept of enlightenment as retreat from the world, is that it’s impossible.  Impossible because, even as enlightened beings, we cannot escape this world – the only out is death.  Our experience of enlightenment is subject to the same transitory existence as all of the rest of being, so achieving enlightenment becomes a project and practice of cultivation, and one which involves coexistence and co-construction with other beings as well.

All of this is not to say that Buddhism is a philosophy and practice of struggle.  It’s just to say that Buddhism and struggle are not, in my opinion, fundamentally incompatible, and that Buddhist practices can be important aspects of struggle.  There may be aspects of particular Buddhist philosophies that don’t fit well with struggle, and there are certainly aspects of the way Buddhism is practiced in both the East and the West that seem opposed to struggle.  However, the core philosophy of Buddhism (The Four Noble Truths) and the practices that it encourages (The Eightfold Path, and meditation) are compatible and possibly even valuable for struggle.

Work and Practice

This post is, in part, a request for help.  I’m trying to understand the relationship between Isabelle Stengers’s concept of “practice” and an “ecology of practice” and the practice theories of Bourdieu, Ortner, et. al.  Does anyone have any leads on this?  I see many similarities and many differences, but I’m trying to understand the lineage.  Is Stengers drawing on practice theory as such or is she developing an alternative practice theory?  My sense is the latter, but I don’t have evidence for this.  If anyone can suggest some readings to help me figure it out, I would greatly appreciate it.

Now on to the more substantive issue, which is my own concepts of practice and work.  I’ve tended to treat these two as synonymous, and will continue to do so.  Practice and work, for me, are the ways that we (beings, broadly speaking) constitute our worlds.  It is action that makes a difference – that alters and affects others.  It is also, in a sense, synonymous with “behavior” if for the simple reason that all activities make a difference and, thus, constitute a world.  However, I think the term “behavior” fails to make us think about the world constituting effects of our actions and those of others.  Behavior is just what we do, it doesn’t convey the sense of altering and affecting that I want to convey.  However, thinking about this today, I began to wonder if “practice” does this, and I’m increasingly convinced that it does not except in some very specific senses.  For example, to practice medicine is just to do something – the idea of shaping the world is left out.  However, to practice violin is a different matter.  Here an individual is building a skill in relation to another object – the violin.  But it just doesn’t seem strong enough.

In light of this, and also in light of my confusion with the origins of Stengers’s concept of practice and its relationship with Bourdieu’s (I say this because my use of the term practice in anthropology has caused me in some minds to be associated with Bourdieu, when, in fact, I don’t see myself aligned with his thought at all), I have thought about simply replacing the word “practice” with “work.”  As frequent readers will know, I like the concept of work – I think it is essential to my understanding of our social lives and our relationships with others (human and non-human) with whom we share a world.  Work, to me, conveys the sense of embodiment, but also the idea of constituting or composing that I want to convey.  We work, and this work builds relationships with and between other beings.  The world is shaped by our work and we are shaped by the work of others around us.  The one failure of the term is that it calls to mind manual labor, and, although I think that’s an important aspect, I don’t want to limit my conception of work to that kind of labor.  Instead, I want to think about the ways that all action, all behavior is work – the ways that all work makes a difference, and constitutes a world.  Still, I think it is a more powerful concept than either behavior or practice, though I still hold those two to me synonymous.

Race and the Social Construction of Reality

The fundamental idea behind ontological constructivism is – as the name suggests – that reality itself is constructed. That is, reality itself is historical and contingent – could always have been and could always be otherwise. This is a key lesson, I think, of emerging evolutionary theory and post-quantum physics, but also of contemporary social theory with an ontological focus. In the social sciences, this marks a transition, I believe, from the ontological theories of the past which took reality to be given and concrete, and the epistemologically focused theories that treated reality as fundamentally off-limits.

Take the issue race, for example. For many in the social sciences today, race is a (powerful) illusion or (merely) a social construct. This suggests that there is a more real existence behind our conceptions of race that simply needs to be articulated in order to do away with the problems our racial categories have created. This is an epistemological constructivism that extends only to our conceptions about reality and not to reality itself. I would argue, instead, that race is a reality that has been created over hundreds of years through a process of material-semiotic assemblage – pulling together both material and symbolic factors to create a force that has very real social, physical, and emotional consequences for all humans.

To say that race is a reality is not a judgement. It is not to say that our racial categories are good or bad (or inevitable). It is only to indicate a starting point from which we can begin to think about ways of changing reality. In this case, transforming the reality of race will take a combination of conceptual work (i.e. education, marketing, institutional changes, etc.) and material work (i.e. dismantling the material constraints imposed on people based on physical racial indicators). Whether or not some concept of race will continue to be part of the new reality is not clear.

Struggle forever! is a social theory and socio-political agenda based on the premise of ontological constructivism. It does not indicate a particular form of reality that ought to be brought into existence. By definition, the struggle continues no matter what form reality takes because reality will always change and new issues will always emerge. Instead, it provides a way of thinking about struggle in a world where nothing is given, and there is no center or hierarchy of being. In such a world, struggle must always be collaborative and collective because the creation of reality is a negotiation betwen all of the different beings who must share it. Struggle forever! is about process rather than product – not utopia as a place (utopia is literally “no place”) but utopia as a method for making the world better for everyone.

Gordian Entanglement

We like the legend of Alexander and the Gordian Knot because it’s an example of cutting through the mess to get to the core of a problem.  “Forget these silly entanglements, and move on!”  The problem with Alexander’s solution to the knot, however, is that, when the knot is cut, what’s left are shreds of useless rope.  There is no core, and ultimately we’re left with as much of a mess as when we started – only a different kind of mess.

Really untying the knot requires that we dig in, work with the knot, and risk getting entangled ourselves.

Knowledge as Entanglement

Last week I wrote an exam on the topic of the anthropology of environmental knowledge, broadly defined.  This included sections on both traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and scientific knowledge about  the environment, and it also involved thinking about ways of reconciling them as they often conflict with one another.  I have yet to see my grade for the exam, but I think it was a valuable paper and hopefully I’ll be able to use some of it in my dissertation work later this year.

When dealing with different kinds of knowledge, we often have to start with the question of “what is knowledge?”  This is often taken to be an epistemological question, where knowledge is treated as a reflection of a deeper reality.  From this perspective, the debate is largely about how accurate is the reflection that knowledge provides, to what degree knowledge reflects a true reality or whether it is merely a reflection of itself, or about the different ways we go about developing this reflection.  However, for me, the question “what is knowledge?” is, first and foremost, an ontological question – that is, what is the nature of knowledge, how does it exist, and what effects does it have in the world?  This becomes apparent from the ethnographic study of knowledge systems.  Knowledge cannot be easily separated from that practices that contribute to its production.  We see this in embodied theories of knowledge that have emerged from TEK research, and also from the ethnographies of science that show how scientific knowledge – supposedly objective – is, in fact, the product of situated, embodied, and social practices.  Furthermore, these practices are not only about producing knowledge as a reflection of the world, they are also involved in the production of the world itself – the composition of new entities, and new relationships between existing entities.  In other words, knowledge is entanglement with the world such that the world is co-produced through our own practices and those of other entities with whom we share it.

What does this view of knowledge mean for reconciliation between different kinds of knowledge?  As I discussed somewhat in my previous post, if knowledge is understood to be an ontological entanglement with other beings in a world constituting practice, then the reconciliation of knowledge is not an epistemological process of trying to reconcile two forms of belief, and it is certainly not a process of trying to fit other belief systems to the scientific world view.  Instead, it is an ontological process of composing a new world – a hybrid reality.  The process requires not just a rearrangement of knowledge in order to make the different ways of knowing fit, it requires a rearrangement of the very relations that compose the different realities in which the knowledge is embedded.  It’s not just a learning process, but a process of building associations.  Viewing the process this way places different forms of knowledge – such as scientific and traditional – on equal ontological footing, whereas from a purely epistemological perspective, scientific knowledge tends to have an ontological advantage as a form of knowledge that has unique access to a singular and stable reality (or we deny realism altogether).  From this equal ontological footing, different forms of knowledge and the worlds in which they are embedded are able to negotiate a new relationship that is, hopefully, well composed.