The Political Ontology of Doing Difference... and Sameness

From the Series: The Politics of Ontology

Photo by Ian Lindsay.

In this intervention I would like to contrast different ways in which some versions of science and technology studies (STS) and some versions of anthropology have explored ontological politics. Conversations like the one staged in this panel, composed to some extent by representatives of both, have been going on for sometime now so it is a bit unfair to make a strict distinction of “camps.” However, for the purpose of this discussion let me play with what I perceive as different initial emphases: on the one hand, the emphasis of STS on enactment; on the other hand, the emphasis of anthropology on alterity. The STS’s emphasis on enactments has rendered for us, ontological multiplicity; a call to dwell on becomings rather than being; and a form of politics that is fundamentally concerned with how realities are shaped into a given form or another. The anthropological emphasis on alterity, in turn, has given us multiple ontologies (that is, ethnographic descriptions of the many-fold shapes of the otherwise); an injunction not to explain too much or try to actualize the possibilities immanent to other’s thought but rather to sustain them as possibilities; and, as a corollary, a politics that initially hinges upon the hope of making the otherwise visible so that it becomes viable as a real alternative.

What happens if we cross-check these emphases? From the perspective of an emphasis on alterity, STS-inflected notions of ontological multiplicity and becomings (expressed in terms of emergences, fluidity, material-semiotic assemblages and so on) seem to leave no way out for the people described: those are not necessarily the terms with which they would describe themselves! Conversely, from the perspective of an emphasis on enactments the anthropological penchant for foregrounding difference seems to put the cart in front of the horse: difference comes before an account of how it gets enacted.

In the position paper shared by the organizers I notice an attempt to bring closer these emphases. The authors do pay attention to enactment, but in a recursive fashion and to make the point of why ontologically-oriented anthropological analyses are intrinsically political: basically because they “figurate” the future through their very enactment, they “do” difference as such. This figuration of a future abundant in difference is presented to us as a “good”: this is the political value of doing ontologically-inflected anthropology.

If I am correct in reading the position paper as advocating a certain good, then in spite of the authors argument to the contrary, ontologically-oriented analyses do not offer an alternative to imperatives about what it should be, they are one such imperative. And I am informed here by intellectual traditions often labeled Indigenous, which, in translation of course, will alert us that once you have associated ontology with enactment, it follows that any kind of analysis or account carries in its belly a certain imperative about what it should be. Hence, whether you do difference or sameness, and in more or less explicit ways, you are already enacting a certain imperative.

Now, if we accept that all kinds of accounts are equivalent as enactments we come right back to the fundamental political question of STS inspired analyses: what kinds of worlds are being done through particular accounts and how do we sort out the good from the bad. As you may have noticed, if we accept that all accounts are enactments we also end up in a position that is problematic for the ontologically-inclined anthropologist: in making accounts equivalent as enactments, we are doing sameness and leaving no way out for our interlocutors, partners and circumstantial political foes who would not describe their accounts as enactments. Here is where the injunctions not to describe too much or actualize other possibilities try to make their mark... But then, how do we provide an account that makes a case for the “good” being offered by ontologically-informed anthropology?

It seems to me that the circularity of the problem has to do with an impossible demand: that ontologically-informed anthropology should enact an account devoid of any imperative of what it should be. It seems to me that, no matter how much we may try to elude it, the implicit imperatives that come along with our accounts unavoidably interrupt, redirect, clash and otherwise intermingle with other accounts and their imperatives. Anthropology is ontologically political inasmuch as its operation presupposes this many-fold consequential intermingling. Then, in my view, the challenge lies not so much in devising ways to indefinitely sustain the possible but contributing to actualize some possibilities and not others. One of these possibilities (but not the only one) might precisely be a “worlding” (so to speak) where the possible is indefinitely sustained.

Contributing to actualize some possibilities and not others entails refusing a wholesale embrace of either difference or sameness. Granted, in a context where doing sameness is the dominant modality, doing difference largely becomes an imperative. However I cannot shed from my mind what an Yshiro teacher and mentor once told me: not all stories (or accounts) are to be told or enacted just anywhere; every situation requires its own story. Telling just any story without attending to what the situation requires is sheer recklessness. Thus, figuring out where, when and how to do difference and sameness as the circumstances require is to me the key challenge of doing political ontology.