Practical Ontologies

This panel urges consideration of what an ethnographic commitment to ontology does, and specifically of the politics of ontology. This seems an important question at a time when the notion appears with increasing frequency in anthropological discussions. To be in a position to address that question, however, first requires some disentanglement as regards the notion itself. Such disentanglement could no doubt be the topic of book-length treatises, but I will limit myself to observing that a preoccupation with ontology has emerged more or less simultaneously within science and technology studies (STS) and anthropology. In the former, ontology has been discussed at least since the mid-1990s in the works of Bruno Latour, Annemarie Mol, Andrew Pickering, and Helen Verran, whereas in the latter, key inspirations include Marilyn Strathern, Roy Wagner, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. I do not think the more or less simultaneous emergence of ontology in these fields is fortuitous, since the figures mentioned share certain genealogies and they are affiliated in various complex ways. I also do not think the views of ontology propagated within each are antithetical or incommensurable; indeed I think they can be mutually enriching. However, they are different and those differences are important to bear in mind in order to consider the implications of an ontological politics.

To draw the most schematic contrast possible, consider the following two claims: Viveiros de Castro (2011, 34) says that anthropological explanation must take place at the level of the “(cultural) structures of ontological presupposition.” Andrew Pickering argues that the very nature of the world is subject to transformation due to ongoing interactions between multiple human and nonhuman agents. What we need is an ontological theory of the visible, dealing with this “dance of agency” (Pickering 1995).

It appears to me these views pull in different directions in terms of ontological politics. If Viveiros de Castro, Holbraad, etc., in spite of their protestations and clarifications, are repeatedly accused of culturalizing ontology and essentialising people, it is probably due to the focus on cultural structures of ontological presuppositions. In contrast, ontology in STS generally leads to an interest in elucidating ways in which new forms of subjects and objects are formed in assemblages, which certainly include people’s “thoughts” but no less the technologies and other materials with which they continuously engage (Jensen 2010; Jensen and Winthereik 2013). Rather than essentialising, such studies are often seen as dangerously relativistic, since culture is here hardly held stable at all and ontology is basically never spoken about in the singular. It is always an issue of ontologies, even within what appears to be limited settings.

Where does that leave us, politically speaking? Since the conveners have encouraged us to speak directly, let me offer a direct view. It seems to me that in some of its anthropological guises, like Martin Holbraad’s (2012) work, we find very interesting ontological experiments, but basically nothing resembling a politics. Viveiros de Castro (2011) is quite different, in that he is explicit about his aim to decolonize Indian thought. Other recent anthropological explorations, like Mario Blaser’s (2009) and Marisol de la Cadena’s (2010) also use ontological argumentation to support particular forms of politics, namely those of specific indigenous people. But from which pre-ontological domain comes the necessity or inclination to support just those people and agendas? After all, we might say, states, colonizers, and mining companies also have ontologies. We just tend not to like them. We might therefore say that in these cases the politics (as contrasted with the choices of ethnographic description) is not ontological, it is a more or less regular politics extended to operate also on the terrain of nonhuman beings.

If, on the other hand, ontologies are manifest in transformations at the level of the visible, so that one can always witness ontological contests or choreographies (Cussins 1998) ethnographically, what then? In that case, rather than using ontology as a leverage point for doing politics on behalf of a group of people, ontological politics is evinced descriptively and conceptually as new sociomaterial constellations that may include forms of science, governance, livelihoods, myths, infrastructures, and so on. Such constellations, we might say, are literal construction sites for divergent, practical ontologies. They have effects that go considerably beyond culturally structured presuppositions. This is already an important reason to give attention to them.

In terms of the anthropological politics of studying ontology, we might say that studying forms of world-making in situations where many people, projects, and technologies clash, tends to make obvious that Westerners and moderns themselves are very different, both from what they think they are (modern and rational, for example) and what anthropologists tend to claim they are (reductive and dualist, for example). Ontologies thus multiply the us’s and them’s of which the world is composed and render all of them more exotic, simultaneously.

Finally, note the recursive implication of this view of ontology for anthropology as discipline or project. If ontology is evinced in front of our noses in the shape of all kinds of world-making projects, then anthropological practice can itself be conceived as an ontological form. The kinds of topics we like to talk about as epistemological thus collapse into ontology, and fieldwork, writing, and argumentation begins to look like small machines for intervening in this or that part of the world, for performing the world in this or that marginally different or novel way (Jensen 2012). In that sense, we are invariably part of ontological politics, but not of any politics given by the ontologies of those we study or work with. Viewed thus, ontological politics relieves from anthropology the burden and, as Deleuze might say, shame of speaking for others. But it creates new obligations in terms of articulating the ways in which anthropologists feel qualified to speak and their reasons for speaking as they do.

References

Blaser, Mario. 2009. “The Threat of the Yrmo: The Political Ontology of a Sustainable Hunting Program.” American Anthropologist 111, no. 1: 10–20.

Cussins, Charis. 1998. “Ontological Choreography: Agency for Women Patients in an Infertility Clinic.” In Differences in Medicine: Unraveling Practices, Techniques, and Bodies, edited by Marc Berg and Annemarie Mol, 166–202. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

de la Cadena, Marisol. 2010. “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections Beyond ‘Politics.’Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 4: 334–70.

Holbraad, Martin. 2012. Truth in Motion: The Recursive Anthropology of Human Divination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jensen, Casper Bruun. 2010. Ontologies for Developing Things: Making Health Care Futures Through Technology. Rotterdam: Sense.

Jensen, Casper Bruun. 2012. “Motion: The Task of Anthropology is to Invent Relations.” Critique of Anthropology 32, no. 1: 47–53.

Jensen, Casper Bruun, and Brit Ross Winthereik. 2013. Monitoring Movements in Development Aid: Recursive Infrastructures and Partnerships. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Pickering, Andrew. 1995. The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2011. The Inconstancy of the Indian Soul: The Encounter of Catholics and Cannibals in 16th Century Brazil. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.