Critical Anthropology as a Permanent State of First Contact

From the Series: The Politics of Ontology

Photo by Ian Lindsay.

There is enough of the Marxist that remains in me to make me unable to think of politics without thinking about capitalism. So I want to use this intervention to reflect on the relation between the so-called “ontological turn” and capitalism.

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s reflections on the way Amazonian perspectivism (multi-naturalism) differs from the dominant Western perspectivism (multi-epistemological perspectivism, mono-naturalism) spurred me to think about the history of the western notion of perspective. Going back to the rise of perspective painting in renaissance Italy with Alberti and Bernuschelli, and looking at the circulation of notions of perspective from this architectural/artistic/religious milieu and into philosophy and the social sciences, one finds diverging conceptions of perspective that continue to mark the present-day debates associated with the ontological turn:

* Mono-perspectivism and multi-perspectivism: many histories of perspective in art show how renaissance paintings’ mono-perspectival gaze was not the only form that perspectivism takes. The latter rose at the expense of a pre-existing multi-perspectivism that continued to exist as a minor form that took an artistically radical shape with the emergence of cubism.

* Ontological and epistemological perspectivism: there has been an ongoing tension between a conception of perspective as a “subjective take” on a reality that is presumed to be always already "there," and an ontological perspectivism, which highlights the view that reality is the very relation to/perspective on otherwise undifferentiated surroundings. While in everyday life epistemological perspectivism has been dominant, in philosophy a long tradition has espoused various forms of ontological perspectivism. Key figures in this tradition run from Leibniz and Spinoza, to von Uexküll’s influence on the phenomenological tradition, to Whitehead and Deleuze.

* Visual perspectivism and experiential perspectivism: this denotes the difference in the popular imagination between perspective as a “point of view” or as a “way of seeing,” which highlights a visual imaginary, and perspective as “walking in someone else’s shoes,” which emphasizes an experiential imaginary. The tension between the two is stressed in Jose Ortega y Gasset’s argument that “while it is impossible to see an orange fully and simultaneously from all sides, it is not impossible to touch it or hold it three-dimensionally” (Elkins 1994, 339). It can be argued that visual perspectivism is more aligned with epistemological perspectivism, while experiential perspectivism, denoting perspective as a mode of being enmeshed and existing in the world, has more affinity with ontological perspectivism. If that is the case, one has to ask if anthropology, particularly when it is phenomenologically-oriented, has not always favored, at least implicitly, an ontological conception of culture.

* Finally, one has to point to an interesting, though minor, debate that emerged out of the well-known renaissance belief that optics, seen as the condition of possibility and the raw material with which perspective painting was executed, was one of the ultimate manifestations of God’s creation on earth. The interesting divergence here is that while some saw perspective, in its relation to optics, as a way of capturing “the perfection” of God, others saw perspective as a mode of touching “the mystery” of God.

It is here, in the context of these debates and divergences, that one has to remember that the dominance of mono-naturalism and epistemological perspectivism was part of the dominance of the monotheistic, democratic, scientific and mercantilist assemblage that defined the rise of merchant capitalism. This assemblage brought together the intimately connected beliefs in monotheism and the one-ness of nature with the rising mercantilist desire of a unified mode of measurement of value and “reality” which was also at the core of the mono-naturalism of perspective painting. The “abacus schools” (scuola d’abbaco), or schools of “commercial arithmetic,” which emerged in Florence shaped the mono-naturalist habitus of both merchants and artists. This mono-naturalism was complemented with a multi-epistemological perspectivism in politics (democracy as the co-existence of many “points of view”). All this, in a sense, defined the essence of democratic capitalist politics: talk and have as many “points of view” as you like, as long as capitalism and nature—as the fundamental realities on which everything stands—are left one and unchallenged.

In light of the above, it is clear that the multi-naturalism and the ontological perspectivism that mark the ontological turn stand in opposition to the long tradition of mono-naturalism and epistemological perspectivism on which capitalism has rested. There is a clear radical political potential in an anthropology that is always in pursuit of ontological multiplicity and the highlighting of existing dominated and overshadowed modes of existence. But it would be a mistake to see in the highlighting of such minor realities an intrinsically anti-capitalist act. Minor realities offer new spaces of possibility but, nonetheless, such realities are merely arenas of political struggle rather than counter-hegemonic modes of existence in themselves.

Likewise, one cannot forget that today, because of the threat of global warming, capitalism is decoupling itself from scientific mono-naturalism, and as such even multiple ontologies can end up being harnessed in the service of capitalism. But multi-naturalist anthropology is not only defined by ontological multiplicity. It has also situated itself in the tradition of the renaissance perspectivists we have noted earlier, who in opposition to those who saw in perspective a capturing of the perfection of God, saw themselves as always aiming to be in touch with the mystery of God. It is particularly here that the ontological turn is at its most radical, reinvigorating a long tradition of an anthropology defined by a continual encounter with radical alterity: anthropology as a permanent state of first contact.


Elkins, James. 1994. The Poetics of Perspective. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.