Recent thinking on the politics of ontology invites commentary on the ontological sensibility of what Elizabeth Povinelli (2011) calls “an anthropology of the otherwise.” In this post, we are concerned to bring the domain of technology into the discussion, foregrounding possible implications of its impact on this new turn in political worldmaking 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, in the words of Martin Holbraad, Morten Axel Pedersen, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, to “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. For Holbraad and colleagues, “domination is a matter of holding the capacity of difference under control.”
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 nonstable design visions (During 2002; Escobar 2012; Corsín Jiménez 2013)? Where do we look to reimagine mutual “welcoming apparatuses” (Derrida 2002, 362) that operate in conditions of technologically asymmetrical power relations? Or else to reimagine modalities of resistance, contaminants to both beautiful and unbeautiful ontologies (cf. de la Cadena 2010; Jensen 2014)? Maurice Leenhardt’s (1979) classic description of the conceptual and material tools deployed by Kanak in their dealings with colonizers exemplifies both. But things get further complicated when discussion turns to interspecies, human–machine relations, or to 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 John Law and Evelyn Ruppert’s (2013) notion of devices that create their own heterogeneous arrangements for relating, with the difference that it engenders sensibilities rather than analysis. 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 (Lepselter 2005; Battaglia 2006; Antunes Almeida 2012), or more prosaically, mining machinery and AI 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—as well as 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 to humans and nonhumans alike. Casper Bruun Jensen alerts us to ethnography that “begins to look like small machines for intervening in this or that part of the world.” But there are small machines that intervene without regard for subject–object distinctions beyond their own interests: Google's 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 (see Candea 2010)?
Not always, but in some cases, yes—as Guilherme Sá (2013) shows of the intersubjective relations between Muriquis and primatologists. Has the ethnographer become primates’ new technologies? Both Google and our E.T. experimenters are taking us as resources, just as other primates do in nonextractive ways, 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 sine 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 (see Battaglia 2013), or in postcyborgian transaffection (see Haraway 2003), are cases in point for worlding in a new key. Here is what such a diplomacy might sound like, courtesy of Stefan Helmreich:
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Escobar, Arturo. 2012. “Notes on the Ontology of Design.” Paper presented at the Sawyer Seminar "Indigenous Cosmopolitics: Dialogues about the Reconstitution of Worlds," Davis, Calif., October 30.
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Sá, Guilherme J. S. 2013. No Mesmo Galho: Antropologia de Coletivos Humanos e Animais. Rio de Janeiro: 7 Letras.