“Otherwise Anthropology” Otherwise: The View From Technology

Commentary was a forum for responses, elaborations, and reflections on material published in Cultural Anthropology.

In the first Commentary essay, Debbora Battaglia and Rafael Antunes Almeida respond to Martin Holbraad, Morten Axel Pedersen, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro's “The Politics of Ontology: Anthropological Positions," from the Theorizing the Contemporary series, "The Politics of Ontology" published in January 2014.

"Otherwise Anthropology" Otherwise

Recent thinking on the politics of ontology (Holbraad, et. al. 2013) invites commentary on the ontological sensibility of what Povinelli calls “an anthropology of the otherwise” (Povinelli 2011). In this paper, we are concerned to bring the domain of technology into the discussion, foregrounding possible implications of its impact on the “new turn” in political world-making discourse.

Overall, a politics of ontology recognizes the multiplicity of modes of existence and concretely enacted relations. This approach carries with it a commitment to a transfigurative ethnographic practice and “experimenting with the conceptual affordances present in a given body of materials.” In other words, the idea is to take native claims and experiment with them. The political axis here is about enabling difference to flourish against the coercive powers of sameness. In the authors’ words, “Domination is a matter of holding the capacity of difference under control” (Holbraad, et. al. 2013).

So where do we look for models that can appreciate that dimension of the project amenable to techniques of diplomacy—an artisanal zone of exchange that creates a value for non-stable design visions (Corsín Jiménez 2013; During 2002; Escobar 2012)? Where do we look to re-imagine mutual “apparatuses of welcoming” (Derrida 2002) that operate in conditions of technologically asymmetrical power relations? Or else to re-imagine modalities of resistance: contaminants to both beautiful and unbeautiful ontologies (cf. Jensen 2014; de la Cadena 2010)? Leenhardt’s (1979) classic description of conceptual and material tools deployed by Kanak in their dealings with colonizers exemplifies both. But things get further complicated when discussion turns to inter-species, human–machine relations, and alien otherwises and lifeworlds as we don’t yet know them.

By this route, we are positioned to invoke the idea of the onto-dispositif. The concept allies with Law and Evelyn’s (2013) notion of devices that create their own heterogeneous arrangements for relating, with the difference that it is a sensibility-engendering rather than an analytic device. Further, the onto-dispositif creates its own heterogeneous exchange protensions—prospecting for its own possible worlds and opening to things like Mars rovers and growing bioart sculptures alongside experiments on earthlings as understood by E.T./UFO believers (Antunes Almeida 2012; Battaglia 2006; Lepselter 2005), or more prosaically, mining machinery and A.I. “robots” studying our commercial preferences.

All these operations create space for intercession in recombinant worlding, whereby different onto-dispositifs can have different ways of relating—and different onto-politics. The issue is not other peoples’ anthropologies, but the possibilities for an anthropology of appreciating actions like hacking as a mode of relating for humans or nonhumans alike. Jensen (2014) alerts us to ethnography that “begins to look like small machines for intervening in this or that part of the world.” But “small machines” exist that intervene without regard for subject–object distinctions beyond their own interests: Google sampling “robots” only care about subjectivity in algorithmic terms. Cross-species anthropology gets into the same subject–object issues differently: Should a mammal who climbs a human to better scan a far horizon be conscripted into a project that turns on the value of “affection” (Candea 2010)?

Not always, but in some cases, yes—as Sá (2013) describes for the intersubjective relations between Muriquis and primatologists. Or has the ethnographer become primates’ “new technologies”? Google or our E.T. experimenters are taking us as resources, as in nonextractive ways mammals do (the meerkat in the image below), repurposing us to their goals—exposing our hackability.


That sites and operations of dominance are invariably of human design is no longer a given. Our appellations must be parsed more finely, our ears attuned to who or what is engendering value hierarchies, the sina qua non for any dominance to be understood as such—that is, as an undervaluation of something else within its particular ontological sensibility, or beyond it.

Our work, then, is to ask which devices and strategies are useful for crafting a diplomacy adequate to engage “the powers that be.” Onto-dispositifs that can create an interest in slowing down (Battaglia 2013), or in post-cyborgian “transaffection” (Haraway 2003), are cases in point for worlding in a new key. And here is what such a diplomacy might sound like, courtesy of Stefan Helmreich (see video below).

Reference List

Antunes Almeida, Rafael. 2012. “Do Conhecimento Tácito à Noção de Skill, ou Como Saber o Que é um Disco Voador.” Paper Presented at IX Jornadas Latinoamericanas de Estudios Sociales de La Ciencia y de la tecnología, México, Esocite.

Battaglia, Debbora, ed. 2006. E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Battaglia, Debbora. 2013. “Cosmic Exo-Surprise, or When the Sky is (Really) Falling, What’s the Media to Do?e-flux 46.

Candea, Matei. 2010. “I Fell in Love With Carlos the Meerkat: Engagement and Detachment in Human-Animal Relations.” American Ethnologist 37, no. 2: 241–58.

Corsín Jiménez, Alberto. 2013. “Introduction: The Prototype: More Than Many and Less Than One.” In “Prototyping Cultures: Art, Science and Politics in Beta,” ed. Alberto Corsín Jiménez. Special issue, Journal of Cultural Economy. Published electronically December 3.

de la Cadena, Marisol. 2010. “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections Beyond Politics.” Cultural Anthropology, 25, no 2: 334–70.

Derrida, Jacques. 2002. “Hospitality.” In Acts of Religion, edited by Gil Anidjar, 358–420. New York: Routledge.

During, Élie. 2002. “From Project to Prototype (Or How to Avoid Making a Work).” In Panorama 3: Living Prototypes, 17–29. Le Fresnoy, Studio National des Arts Contemporains.

Escobar, Arturo. 2012. “Notes on the Ontology of Design.” Paper presented at the Sawyer Seminar, Indigenous Cosmopolitics: Dialogues about the Reconstitution of Worlds, organized by Marisol de La Cadena and Mario Blaser, October 30. University of California, Davis.

Haraway, Donna. 2003. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Holbraad, Martin, Morten Axel Pedersen, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. 2013. “The Politics of Ontology: Anthropological Positions.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, January 13. 

Jensen, Casper Brunn. 2014. “Practical Ontologies.” Theorizing the contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, January 13.

Law, John, and Evelyn Ruppert. 2013. “The Social Life of Methods: Devices.” Journal of Cultural Economy 6, no. 3: 229–40.

Leenhardt, Maurice. 1979. Do Kamo: Person and Myth in the Melanesian World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lepselter, Susan. 2005. “The Flight of the Ordinary: Narratives, Poetics, Power and UFOs in the American Uncanny.” PhD dissertation. University of Texas, Austin.

Pedersen, Axel Morten. 2012. “Common Nonsense: A Review of Certain Reviews of the Ontological Turn.” Anthropology of This Century, no. 5.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2011.“Routes/Worlds.” e-flux, September 27. 

Sá, Guilherme J. S. 2013. No Mesmo Galho: Antropologia de Coletivos Humanos e Animais. Rio de Janeiro: 7 Letras. 


This post was originally published in the Commentary section of the Cultural Anthropology website, which was retired in June 2016. All Commentary posts were reclassified under the new Dispatches section; their URLs remain unchanged.