The Form of the Otherwise

A quiet question was raised at the end of the “The Politics of Ontology” roundtable about where writing fit in the discussion. The absence of the topic was noticeable given that much thinking on ontologies has grappled with how this shared practice of ours, the graphy of ethnos, transforms realities. After the turn past representation, past translation, past alterity dependent on binary logic and analysis that treats differences as equivalents; after we have shown ontology to be multiple, there are still stories to be told. I wonder if others following the conversation as it has developed share my concern that for all the productive turns (yours, theirs, the ones we take together), so many of the stories we write are still used for waging wars.

I wanted to jump in, angrily, and ask of the recent discussion, What about our ancestors, the feminists, barely acknowledged, who have been writing about this for decades? Javier Lezaun has an excellent piece on Somatosphere in which he makes the case that the history of science and technology studies can be read as a turn to ontologies—even if few have adopted the word. I would add that many anthropologists have also grappled with the multiplicity of nature and the failures of holism for quite some time. In this brilliant, difficult scholarship, ontologies are not a recent discovery but a matter intensely reworked, with sundry conclusions, for decades. In contrast to previous posts, my version of what we might call ontological anthropology does not fundamentally pertain to the Amazonian primitive (see, in addition to Helen VerranAnnemarie MolElizabeth PovenelliMarisol de la Cadena, and Matei Candea—who each have essays in “The Politics of Ontology” series—Marilyn Strathern, Tom Abercrombie, Lys Alcayna-Stevens, Andrea Ballestero, Filippo Bertoni, Tim Choy, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Kim Fortun, Cori Hayden, Ann Kelly, Marianne Lien, Emily Martin, Atsuro Morita, Michelle Murphy, Fred Myers, Natasha Myers, Stacy Pigg, Rayna Rapp, Annelise Riles, Kim TallBear, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Anna Tsing, Charis Thompson, Emilia Sanabria, Karen Skyes, Paige West, and many many more). This ontological anthropology does not fundamentally pertain to any one region in the world out there. It does not fundamentally pertain to a singular thing; as with the world, it is neither singular nor shared. But it does engage with the question of how to disagree.

So instead of staying angry, I went to these ancestors, to their stories. Ursula Le Guin tells a beautiful one of the seed container, and how, for all the tales of violence—kicking, bashing, thrusting, killing, “blood spouted everywhere in crimson torrents”—this container has been busy changing worlds. It is variously formed (bottles, baskets, woven nets, wombs, books, the list goes on). The materials used must be attended to, since these influence what it can hold and the possibilities, the worlds, it can bring about. This is not incidental to writing. She warns us that it is difficult to write in a gripping way about seed containers. It is not impossible—she is clear on this—but it might mean being slow with our stories, giving them room for people and objects instead of battles and heroes.

Le Guin wrote this before the time of blogs, before the visible shares and likes of social media, but I hear in her words a warning that telling gripping stories of seed containers might not be possible in the length offered here: one-thousand words—a bit more if you push it—and then the short attention span of the comment. So next to the question already asked about how to write ontologies, I’ll add one more about reading: What happens when we spend our attention and our anger among quick bloodshed and bold heroes? Much may be gained from this way of ordering reality: from audience to passion. Anger can be a generative thing. (There is also no way to ask this question without hypocrisy; yes, I have been reading and following this discussion). But I worry that we miss out on the gripping but less obviously heroic stories—and the pasts and futures they carry with them. This is a disciplinary question and an ontological question: what kind of otherwise are we forming here?


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.