The Politics of Modern Politics Meets Ethnographies of Excess Through Ontological Openings

From the Series: The Politics of Ontology

Photo by Ian Lindsay.

I want to engage the position paper by Holbraad, Pedersen, and Viveiros de Castro (2013) by bringing to the fore an ethnographic moment that proposed itself as obliging analysis at the crossroads of ontology and modern politics. But first a comment on the opening line of the position paper: the bed-fellowship between ontology and modern politics is that of a pair of complementary opposites. Politics engages change, which its ontological makeup limits. To be smoothly efficient, they require a third partner: history, explaining it all—change and limit—and making it “as it should be,” rational and future-oriented. This, which also explains away the politics of modern politics, can be opened to critical view by what I (therefore) prefer to imagine as “ontological opening” rather than “turn.”

Now to the ethnographic moment, briefly, because I have already narrated it elsewhere (de la Cadena 2010.) The setting was Cuzco (Peru), the year 2006, a time when neoliberal principles and the demand for minerals in certain parts of the world exacerbated the translation of nature into resources. The event was that of a mountain (perhaps replete of gold) that was also an earth-being (or an earth-being, also a mountain) participating in a political contest where one reality was more powerful than the other. The human participants in the conflict were environmentalists, Quechua indigenous-mestizos, and engineers working for a mining corporation. An alliance between the first two defeated the golden aspirations of the corporate engineers. The mountain won, the mining company lost: but to earn this victory, the earth-being was made invisible, its political presence recalled by the alliance that also defended it.

In addition to political ecology and political economy, the above contest also transpired in the field of political ontology in two intertwined senses of the concept: (1) as the field where practices-entities-concepts co-constitute each other, make each other be; (2) as the enactment, within this field, of modern politics itself, obliging what is and what is not its matter. Yet, ontology was a subdued partner in the arena of contention: that the mountain was also an earth-being was an issue made irrelevant as the question unfolded politically. Modern politics swallowed it, while saving the mountain from being swallowed by the mining corporation. An ontological opening of modern politics can reveal the inevitability of this “alliance” as resulting from the specificity of modern politics.

Modern politics has a politics that is ontologically specific: what/who it includes or excludes—who can/cannot parley—results from what modern politics allegedly unquestionably is (and that, by becoming visible in events like the above, also becomes subject to interrogation). Modern politics is premised on representation (ideological, scientific, economic, cultural, and perhaps moral), hence it requires reality out there, usually as facts that can then become concerns. This is a requirement of modern politics, a condition of what it is, and how it makes the world one. And while culture can propose matters of concern, those proposals are not about facts and are therefore weaker as matters of concern when in tension with those presented by nature. Modern politics (liberalism and socialism) sustains nature and its facts through confrontations like the above that include the translation of the earth-being (exceeding nature and culture) into belief and hence not a political actor/concern—or a weak one. That in this process the ontological make up of politics—or the politics of politics—occupies a blind spot guarantees its hegemony. Opening that precise spot offers the possibility of eventalizing (cf. Foucault) modern politics, turning its own politics inside out to reveal how its seams, composed of both situated conditions and universal requirements, enable its uniform imposition, rather than its inevitable implementation. In this process, the hegemony of modern politics may be productively disconcerted—to use Helen Verran’s phrase (2013)—as it is exposed to what it cannot deal with, to what may constitute its excess.

An ontologically-inflected ethnography may open partial connections with “excess” if performed at “the limit,” which I conceptualize with R. Guha (2002, 7) as “the first thing outside which there is nothing to be found and the first thing inside which everything is to be found.” A caveat: this nothing is in relation to what sees itself as everything and thus exceeds it—it is something. The limit is ontological; establishing it, a political-epistemic practice; beyond it is excess, a real that is “nothing,” or not-a-thing accessible through culture or knowledge of nature (as usual). At the limit, ways have to be invented, creating ontological openings, ethnographic sites to conceptualize otherwise, in partial connection with difference, which located at this complex site emerges as radical difference, “Western” or “not.” This may be what the position paper calls “difference within,” and which I phrase as the project to “de-otherize” difference, for “other” is how difference emerges and is made understandable within (or before) the limit, and hence within the same, even if a cosmopolitan (and tolerant) same, capable of relating from/at home with “the other.” Invented at the limit, conceived with a deliberately localized and ephemeral toolkit, a difficult partial connection between “everything” and “nothing,” conceptualizing radical difference-within politics (for example) is immanent to ethnographic moments like the above, which travel with difficulty and are hardly cosmopolitan. Instead, they offer the opportunity for cosmopolitical concepts that, rather than tolerance, can provoke an irritatingly localized capacity to provincialize nature and culture, and thus put them into political symmetry with what is neither (culture or nature.) Thus, ethnographically inquiring both within the cosmos and the political as usual, cosmopolitical concepts may propose a radically different (because immanent) notion and practice of politics capable of offering to that which “politics as usual” has evicted from its field, the possibility to engage in relationships of symmetric alliance or symmetric adversarialism and, as important, to emerge as non-political or excessive to politics as well.


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

Guha, Ranajit. 2002. History at the Limits of World History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Holbraad, Martin, Morten Axel Pedersen, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. 2013. “The Politics of Ontology: Anthropological Positions.” Position paper for roundtable discussion. American Anthropological Association annual meeting, Chicago.

Verran, Helen. 2013. “Engagements between Disparate Knowledge Traditions: Toward Doing Difference Generatively and in Good Faith.” In Contested Ecologies: Dialogues in the South on Nature and Knowledge, edited by Lesley Green. Cape Town: HSRC Press.