Arquivo da tag: Teoria antropológica

Decolonizing Anthropology (Savage Minds)

April 19, 2016

Decolonizing Anthropology is a new series on Savage Minds edited by Carole McGranahan and Uzma Z. Rizvi. Welcome.

Just about 25 years ago Faye Harrison poignantly asked if “an authentic anthropology can emerge from the critical intellectual traditions and counter-hegemonic struggles of Third World peoples? Can a genuine study of humankind arise from dialogues, debates, and reconciliation amongst various non-Western and Western intellectuals — both those with formal credentials and those with other socially meaningful and appreciated qualifications?” (1991:1). In launching this series, we acknowledge the key role that Black anthropologists have played in thinking through how and why to decolonize anthropology, from the 1987 Association of Black Anthropologists’ roundtable at the AAAs that preceded the 1991 volume on Decolonizing Anthropology edited by Faye Harrison, to the World Anthropologies Network, to Jafari Sinclaire Allen and Ryan Cecil Jobson’s essay out this very month in Current Anthropology on “The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology since the Eighties.”

Decolonizing Anthropology HarrisonThese questions continue to haunt anthropology and all those striving to bring some resolution to these issues. It has become increasingly important to also recognize the ways in which those questions have changed, and how the separation between Western and NonWestern is less about locality and geography, but rather an epistemic question related to the colonial histories of anthropology. Decolonization then has multiple facets to its approach: it is philosophical, methodological, and praxis-oriented, particularly within the fields of anthropology. Here at Savage Minds, we have decided to take these questions on again in a different public, and work through a series of dialogues, debates and possibly even reconciliation. 

We feel it imperative to decolonize anthropology; not doing so reiterates hierarchies of control and oppressive systems of knowledge production. But what does that really mean and what does it look like? What might it mean to decolonize anthropology? Various subfields of anthropology have been contending with this issue in different ways. For example, within archaeological literature, decolonization emerged as political necessity developed through an engagement with the postcolonial critique. Being inspired by Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s influential work on decolonizing methodologies (among others) resulted in the development of indigenous archaeology. Most archaeologists would argue that anthropological archaeology continues to exist within neocolonial, neoliberal, and late capitalist frameworks, and thus these critiques and methodologies need to be constantly revised utilizing interdisciplinary projects that locate decolonization across academia (including decolonizing epistemologies, aesthetics, pedagogy, etc).

decolonize-stickersCalls for decolonization have now emerged as mainstream politics in the academy: an era when academics across disciplines are calling for historical, financial, and intellectual accountability for not only the work we do, but also for the academic institutions in which we study, teach, and learn. We contend, therefore, that decolonizing anthropology (at a minimum) has now grown to a project beyond its initial impetus in treating non-anthropologist intellectuals as just that: intellectuals rather than local interlocutors. In its development across the discipline, in both archaeology and cultural anthropology, for example, decolonizing anthropology is a project about rethinking epistemology, methodology, community, and political commitments.

Epistemology. Decolonizing anthropology means rethinking epistemology. Anthropologists have long acknowledged the development of our field with a colonial impulse, and how the construction of knowledge reiterate systems of control. It is important to continue working through epistemic concerns to realign how our discipline might undiscipline itself and realign how it evaluates what research is considered important. Decolonizing epistemology destabilizes the canon. It is not enough to only add certain voices into our anthro-core classes; a decolonizing movement focused on epistemology provides rigor to the multiplicity and plurality of voices. Deeply linked to the ways in which knowledge is produced and constructed, is our pedagogy and the methodologies by which we practice.

Pedagogy. If we are to realign our discipline, it becomes imperative for us to reconsider how decolonization might impact our pedagogy. This is not a new concept in the academy: decolonizing pedagogy is a subfield within the field of education. As mediators/translators/facilitators of knowledge, it is our responsibility to consider how anthropological conversations about race and difference might be supported and developed in the classroom through a decolonized pedagogical practices. A decolonized pedagogy should be listed within as best practices in our guides to teaching and learning. Pedagogy also includes what one teaches as well as how. What forms the anthropological “canon” of works that one must know? Part of the decolonizing of the discipline is to reassess whose scholarship we mark as important via inclusion on course syllabi. The rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston’s scholarship by anthropologists is the most obvious example; who else are we–or should we–be learning from and thinking with anew today?

Methodology. Decolonizing anthropology means rethinking methodology, Our history is full of taking information from communities without enough consideration of the impact of this form of anthropological research. This does not only mean filling out our IRB forms, but also thinking carefully about power. Institutionally, our bodies are disciplined to hold and claim certain statuses as anthropologists. How does tending to such manifestations of power redirect our relationships in the field, our research questions, the ways we teach, and the way we work with communities?

Community. Decolonizing anthropology means rethinking community. Rethinking who the communities are within which we do our research. Rethinking the way we stretch and build our community of conversation to open beyond the academy, and learning how to extend our deep anthropological practice of listening with our ears and with our hands, and cultivating a spirit of reciprocity for a new era. And at the heart of today’s decolonial project, rethinking who our community of anthropologists is, and rethinking strategies of recruitment and retention for an anthropology that reflects and includes the communities whose stories, beliefs, and practices have long been those which comprised our discipline.

Political Commitment. Decolonizing anthropology means rethinking our political commitments. It also means to acknowledge that we are not the first to have them. Anthropology has long been a discipline with a political edge to its scholarship for some of its practitioners. However, as decades turn into centuries, what was once politically edgy looks embarrassingly not so, conventional or racist or both. We believe that a decolonized anthropology involves research that advances our understanding of the human world in a way that moves us forward.

All of this involves communication. As editors, our goals for this series are both personal and professional. Our first collaboration was an India Review special issue on Public Anthropology (2006), edited by Carole McGranahan, with Uzma Z. Rizvi as a contributor to the issue. Carole recently revisited her introduction to that volume in a keynote lecture for the annual American University’s Public Anthropology conference in 2014. In a talk on “Tibet, Ferguson, Gaza: On Political Crisis and Anthropological Responsibility,” she reflected on political changes in the discipline over the last decade, including our need to not only address anthropology’s colonial past, but also our imperial present. This is the sort of thinking we began together in 2006. Uzma’s article entitled “Accounting for Multiple Desires: Decolonizing Methodologies, Archaeology and the Public Interest” was based on her PhD research (2000-2003) in Rajasthan, India. The project was designed as a community based-participatory action research project that was explicitly linked to decolonizing archaeology in India. Both of us have had a long standing engagement with this literature and consider this contemporary moment to be significant within the praxis of our discipline, which is why we are thrilled to launch this series!

We have invited anthropologists writing and thinking about decolonizing the discipline to contribute essays to this series. Essays will be posted roughly every two weeks, and if any readers would like to submit an essay for consideration, please send us an email at decolonizinganthropology[at]gmail.com.

Our series schedule of contributors is as follows:

April 25–Faye Harrison, in conversation with Carole McGranahan, Kaifa Roland, and Bianca Williams

May 9–Melissa Rosario

May 23–Zodwa Radebe

June 6–Lisa Uperesa

June 20–Public Anthropology Institute (Gina Athena Ulysse, with Faye Harrison, Carole McGranahan, Melissa Rosario, Paul Stoller, and Maria Vesperi)

July 4–Krysta Ryzewski

August 1–Asmeret Mehari

August 8–Nokuthula Hlabangane

August 15–Zoe Todd

August 29–Didier Sylvain and Les Sabiston

September 12–Claudia Serrato

September 26–Gina Athena Ulysse

October 10–Paige West

November 7–Kristina Lyons

November 14–Marisol de la Cadena

Anúncios

Viveiros, indisciplina-te! (GEAC)

Posted on Fevereiro 12, 2016

viveiros

Por Alex Martins Moraes e Juliana Mesomo

Enquanto agita a bandeira da descolonização do pensamento e nos alimenta com uma fonte inesgotável de alteridade radical, Viveiros de Castro permanece aferrado à disciplina antropológica e ao senso comum policialesco que a sustenta. Fora da academia, contudo, sua obra vem sendo reconectada à ação política transformadora. Resta-nos, então, a esperança de que Viveiros indiscipline-se

* * *

A minha hipótese é que as teorias e disciplinas reagirão de modo não-teórico e não disciplinar quando forem objeto de questões não previstas por elas. 

Boaventura de Sousa Santos

Como eu “vivo a política?” Ora, vtnc.

Viveiros de Castro

Quando fazemos uso de nomes próprios e referências diretas a determinadas declarações públicas não estamos buscando discutir características pessoais, mas sim a relevância e o poder de interpelação de determinadas posturas teórico-políticas.

I.

Faz quarenta anos que a prática antropológica em geral e especificamente as práticas da antropologia disciplinar vêm sendo problematizadas a partir de enfoques variados em diversos países. O triunfo dos movimentos de libertação nacional em África, Ásia e Oceania, associado aos processos de descolonização epistêmica que problematizaram os regimes de representação da alteridade enraizados nas academias metropolitanas, desencadeou um movimento reflexivo que repercutiu com força nas antropologias hegemônicas. O antropólogo haitiano Michel Trouillot caracterizou tal processo como o esvaziamento empírico do “nicho do Selvagem”: enquanto disciplina, a antropologia dependia do Selvagem-objeto, mas este agora enunciava a si mesmo, sua história e seus projetos em primeira pessoa. Para Trouillot, a antropologia surgiu no final do século XIX incumbida de disciplinar o “nicho do Selvagem”, anteriormente objeto de especulações em novelas utópicas, relatos de viagens ao Novo Mundo e informes para-etnográficos. Dentro do esquema discursivo evidenciado pelo autor, o Selvagem é aquele que alimenta diferentes Utopias destinadas a refundar a Ordem, entendida como expressão da universalidade legítima. A tríade Ordem-Utopia-Selvagem que sustentava as metanarrativas ocidentais estava, no entanto, dissolvendo-se e tal processo ameaçava a autossuficiência da disciplina antropológica.

Abalados pelo impacto da crítica pós-colonial, os domínios da disciplina pareciam inférteis aos olhos daqueles que ainda cultuavam a velha e boa Antropologia, outrora presidida sem embaraço pelos mandarins de Cambridge. O setor mais cético e enclassado da disciplina manteve uma desconfiança profunda em relação a qualquer tipo de engajamento intelectual que se deixasse afetar – no tocante às suas preocupações e aos seus objetivos – por vetores políticos extra-acadêmicos. Para referido setor o panorama desolador do período que poderíamos definir como “pós-crítica” exigia Restauração. A avidez por restaurar a Antropologia encontrou eco, num primeiro momento, no cinismo de tipo geertziano. Hermenêutica em punho, Geertz profetizou que o novo destino da Antropologia seria contribuir para a expansão dos horizontes da racionalidade humana através da tradução intercultural. Malgrado seu passado colonial, a disciplina antropológica preservaria uma tendência inata de valor não desprezível: a capacidade de ouvir o outro e decodificar sua cultura. Não era exatamente disso que precisávamos num mundo marcado pela intolerância e pela incompreensão?

As alternativas a la Geertz não bastavam, contudo, para devolver à Antropologia sua antiga auto-suficiência. Passar o resto da vida operando traduções interculturais para mitigar as catástrofes da modernidade tardia não parecia um destino à altura daquela disciplina que havia dispendido boa parte do século XX na ousada tarefa de confrontar o narcisismo moderno com a imagem desafiadora do seu outro selvagem. Entretanto, a “linha forte” do restauracionismo disciplinar teria de esperar até os anos noventa para encontrar no perspectivismo ameríndio um dos seus mais promissores cavalos de batalha. A potência do paradigma esgrimido por Viveiros de Castro residia em sua capacidade de matar dois coelhos numa cajadada só: ao passo que flertava com o espírito do seu tempo, respondendo ao compromisso político com a descolonização da disciplina, também restaurava o “nicho do selvagem”, objeto que, como apontou Trouillot, havia sido herdado e nunca verdadeiramente questionado pelas expressões hegemônicas da antropologia. Na “geografia da imaginação” que engendrou o Ocidente e a antropologia disciplinar, o Selvagem foi frequentemente uma projeção utópica. “Agora, como então – diz Trouillot –, o Selvagem é apenas evidência num debate cuja importância ultrapassa não só seu entendimento, mas também sua existência. Assim como a Utopia pode ser oferecida como uma promessa ou como uma ilusão perigosa, o Selvagem pode ser nobre, sábio, bárbaro, vítima ou agressor, dependendo do debate e dos propósitos dos interlocutores” (p.67 [acessar texto aqui])

Diante do encerro de alguns antropólogos nos corredores da academia e do desinteresse de outros em vincular sua produção a grandes debates estruturais, foi Viveiros quem soube construir uma ponte entre o discurso antropológico e a formulação de enunciados políticos radicais e abrangentes. Por outro lado – e paradoxalmente – Viveiros erigiu seu lugar de fala sobre o velho “nicho do selvagem”, que agora retorna a nós em sua faceta utópica, capaz de iluminar alternativas imediatas e anistóricas às vicissitudes da modernidade ocidental. Reivindicado em entrevistas e ensaios teóricos, o Pensamento Selvagem serve de “controle” para imaginar Utopias – virtualidades que poderiam ser atualizadas em “nossa” própria antropologia, em “nosso” próprio mundo, etc. Aqui cabe recuperar novamente a súplica de Michel Trouillot: os sujeitos históricos com voz própria aos quais se reporta Viveiros merecem muito mais do que um “nicho”; merecem ser muito mais do que a projeção das ânsias de refundar a metafísica. Para o autor, devemos ser capazes de desestabilizar e, eventualmente, destruir o “nicho do Selvagem” para poder relacionar-nos com a alteridade em sua especificidade e legitimidade histórica, que sempre escapam ao universalismo. A dicotomia “nós e o resto”, implícita na ordem simbólica que engendra a ideia de Ocidente, é um construto ideológico, afinal “não há apenas um Outro, mas multidões de outros que são outros por diferentes razões, a pesar das narrativas totalizantes, incluindo a do capital” (p. 75).

Ao lançar mão do recurso ao nicho do Selvagem, Viveiros provoca um efeito de sedução que resulta não tanto das suas manobras conceituais, mas da necessidade que temos de alimentar a fonte inesgotável de exterioridade radical que poderia nos salvar do Ocidente. A outridade termina, assim, subsumida à mesmidade dos projetos de sempre – transformar a Antropologia, por exemplo. Em tal cenário, a disciplina antropológica é chamada a continuar seu trabalho, reassumindo a vocação de perscrutar fielmente o Outro selvagem refratado pela teoria de Viveiros de Castro. Trouillot vaticina: “enquanto o nicho [do Selvagem] existir, no melhor dos casos o Selvagem será uma figura de fala, uma metáfora num argumento sobre a natureza e o universo, sobre o ser e a existência – em suma, um argumento sobre o pensamento fundacional” (p. 68).

II.

Deixemos que Viveiros fale um pouco mais sobre a forma como concebe o promissor entrelaçamento entre a “nossa” Antropologia e o Pensamento Selvagem: “por transformações indígenas da antropologia entendo as transformações da estrutura conceitual do discurso antropológico suscitadas por seu alinhamento em simetria com as pragmáticas reflexivas indígenas, isto é, com aquelas etno-antropologias alheias que descrevem nossa própria (etno-) antropologia precisamente ao e por divergirem dela” (p.163 [acessar texto aqui]). O pensamento ameríndio consistiria, ele próprio, em uma ontologia política do sensível que, ao se alinhar com o discurso antropológico, se tornaria capaz de redefini-lo e de convertê-lo em enunciador de uma antropologia outra. Neste sentido, o conhecimento antropológico não operaria sobre um repertório cultural fechado em si mesmo, mas sim em meio a outro movimento reflexivo – o ameríndio – que é concebido como dinâmica ontológica transformacional capaz de instaurar, pelo menos no plano do conceito, uma mundaneidade completamente nova e potencialmente transgressora dos parâmetros epistemológicos da nossa etno-antropologia.

O problema começa quando dizemos que a dinâmica transformacional inerente à ontologia ameríndia possui um modus operandi determinado que nós, antropólogos, poderíamos abstrair mediante procedimento de “coloração contrastiva” (p.157). Procedendo assim, o antropólogo transforma a transformação outra em algo completamente desencarnado – fruto da construção artificial, laboratorial, em suma, contrastiva da alteridade radical. Na verdade essas dinâmicas transformacionais outras nas quais o discurso antropológico supostamente se imiscui não são outra coisa senão o resultado de um procedimento enunciativo disciplinar e disciplinador que submete a experiência ao conceito (“A revolução, ou a essa altura será melhor dizer, a insurreição e a alteração começam pelo conceito”, Viveiros, p. 155).

O “perspectivismo imanente” depreendido por Viveiros da análise formal dos mitos só pode existir enquanto subproduto da alteridade radical laboratorialmente forjada por uma antropologia que se obstina em negar a experiência e a voz própria dos homens e mulheres que são os verdadeiros sujeitos da história. Mesmo abundantes, os eufemismos de Viveiros são insuficientes para dissimular o recurso ao “nicho do selvagem” que abastece sua máquina textual. No final das contas, Viveiros quer comparar “transformações” – outro nome para cultura – e depois mobilizá-las na construção de enunciados políticos que suspendem a política, que nos conclamam ao estarrecimento resmungão e, no pior dos casos, nos transformam em moralistas que repetem insistentemente que as coisas poderiam – ou deveriam – ser diferentes do que são sem saber como, objetivamente, engajar-se nas dinâmicas transformacionais imanentes à realidade.

A ideia de transformação da antropologia enunciada por Viveiros de Castro é caudatária da ego-política do conhecimento. Nesta perspectiva profundamente desencarnada, a antropologia aparece como uma “estrutura conceitual” – e não como a expressão localizada de certo processo de institucionalização – que pode sofrer alinhamentos com a “pragmática reflexiva” indígena. Quem promove esses alinhamentos? Viveiros não explicita, mas só podemos concluir que são os próprios antropólogos que o fazem. Se now is the turn of the native, quem distribui os “turnos” na fila da legitimidade epistêmica (ou ontológica) é o próprio antropólogo.

No sentido oposto ao da ego-política do conhecimento, o Grupo de Estudos em Antropologia Crítica (GEAC) retomou a noção descolonial de corpo-política do conhecimento. Esta noção nos leva a definir a transformação da antropologia como um processo localizado de disputa encarnada – corporalizada – pela construção de outros lugares de enunciação e de novas formas de produzir efeitos de verdade. Pensar com os outros, como propõe Viveiros, significa, para nós algo muito mais radical. Significa pensar na presença concreta do outro, engajados corpo-politicamente com ele. O resultado disso não precisa ser, necessariamente, “antropologia”, “etnografia” ou qualquer outra forma de subsunção da radicalidade da ação histórica e da especificidade dos sujeitos à mesmidade do texto acadêmico. Não vemos necessidade de construir, laboratorialmente e por contraste, o pensamento do outro – ou, sendo fiéis a Viveiros, as formas outras de empreender a transformação – para, só depois, proceder à construção do comum.

III.

Viveiros quer transformar as estruturas conceituais da antropologia e colocá-las a serviço da descolonização do pensamento. Nós perguntamos: é possível fazê-lo sem abrir mão das formas específicas de exercício do poder que a antropologia avaliza enquanto disciplina? Viveiros reforça um senso comum de longa data cujo efeito é a neutralização de quaisquer práticas intelectuais dissidentes. Ele agita a bandeira da descolonização do pensamento sem prestar atenção às bases institucionais conservadoras sobre as quais repousa comodamente. Evidência disso é a facilidade com que o antropólogo descolonizador ironizou a interpelação que lhe fizemos anos atrás (acessar texto aqui) recorrendo àquela pergunta tão frequente nos espaços mais policialescos da disciplina: onde está a etnografia dessa gente?

Quando Viveiros procura deslegitimar nossa interpelação recorrendo à pergunta irônica sobre as “etnografias” que fomos ou não capazes de produzir, ele se inscreve completamente na história da qual pretende emancipar a disciplina. Uma história que erigiu a etnografia (o texto) em única expressão legítima do enunciado antropológico. Isso para não falar da leitura completamente narcísica feita por ele de nossa intervenção. Para Viveiros, tudo o que dissemos era a reprodução do discurso de nossos “orientadores” ou, até mesmo, uma tentativa de atacá-lo para salvar o Partido dos Trabalhadores (!). Enquanto líamos essas assertivas, nos lembrávamos da forma como alguns docentes reagiram à greve dos estudantes de mestrado em antropologia da Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul em 2011. Incrédulos diante das críticas que os estudantes faziam ao produtivismo acadêmico desenfreado, à escassez de bolsas e à nula participação discente na definição das políticas do programa de pós-graduação, determinados professores só puderam explicar o acontecimento recorrendo à lógica da cooptação: era o Partido Comunista (!) que estava por trás daquela imensa insensatez. A voz própria enunciada em primeira pessoa continua a ser desacreditada fortemente nos domínios da disciplina: não há sujeito histórico verdadeiramente autêntico, sempre “há algo” por trás que o explica e conduz. Reações desta ordem, que se recusam a reconhecer a autenticidade da fala do outro, são sintomas de um narcisismo antropológico-disciplinar que priva a si mesmo da possibilidade de mudar a própria perspectiva sobre as coisas: “ao adentrarmos o espaço da exterioridade e da verdade, só conseguimos ver reflexos e simulacros obsedantes de nós mesmos” (p.23 [acessar texto aqui]). Tudo aquilo que o establishment disciplinar contempla não pode ser outra coisa senão o reflexo da sua própria lógica de funcionamento.

Ao mesmo tempo que Viveiros atualiza em sua performance acadêmica as hierarquias silenciadoras e os sistemas de visibilidade que sustentam a disciplina que o legitima, ele também nos entrega, paradoxalmente, uma retórica descolonizadora. Sua crítica aguda e implacável à fé cega nas ideias-força da modernidade capitalocêntrica possui, sem dúvidas, uma potência suscetível de ser atualizada por quem deseja incidir nas relações de força concretas. Não só no Brasil, mas também em outros países da América do Sul, os enunciados produzidos por Viveiros de Castro são constelados em agenciamentos coletivos que ensaiam uma ruptura pragmática com o consenso das commodities e inauguram, assim, renovados espaços de imaginação política. Nestes casos, Viveiros é vivificado pela ação coletiva; sua crítica se associa com os imperativos das lutas atuais e é potencializada por uma poética materialista capaz de desenterrar outro mundo possível das entranhas deste mundo subsumido pelo capital. Peter Perbart tem razão: “ainda os que costumam planejar uma abstração radical (…) podem ser reconectados à terra ao entrar em contato com uma situação real e deixar para trás a imagem da qual muitas vezes são prisioneiros e na qual o poder insiste em enclausurá-los” (acessar texto).

Viveiros é vivificado pela política fora da academia. Dentro dela, no entanto, é disciplinado e sabe disciplinar. Aprisiona entre aspas todas as palavras que correm o risco de serem abastardadas pelo uso canalha (“grupo” de “antropologia” “crítica” – dizia no twitter). Insinua que por detrás da interpelação crítica a ele destinada se oculta o repreensível desejo de “aparecer”. É que ao atrair para si uma atenção da qual a priori não são merecedores, os responsáveis pela mais mínima inversão dos regimes convencionais de visibilidade acadêmica só podem ser encarados como usurpadores.

Nós questionamos estas tendências e procuramos problematizá-las através do espaço autônomo de diálogo e reflexão que é o GEAC. Enquanto a “filosopausa” não chega – e com ela a possibilidade de publicar textos aforísticos em revistas indexadas – decidimos construir, de direito próprio, um lugar amigável para desenvolver engajamentos e debates cuja emergência costuma ser obturada pelos estabelecimentos antropológicos mais conservadores.

Apesar da deriva filosófica, Viveiros de Castro continua aferrado à disciplina antropológica e ao senso comum que a sustenta. Resta-nos a esperança de que as ruas e a história o absolvam.  E de que Viveiros indiscipline-se.

O quente e o fervendo (Folha de S.Paulo)

A Terra na época do Antropoceno

MARCELO LEITE, 7 dez 2014

RESUMO Impacto da atividade humana sobre o planeta gera debate acerca do advento de uma nova época geológica, o Antropoceno. Em livro, a jornalista Naomi Klein prega reviravolta no capitalismo para frear o aquecimento global –tema de conferência em Lima, nesta semana, e de encontro decisivo no ano que vem, em Paris.

Prepare-se para o advento do Antropoceno. Em 2016 ele poderá estar entre nós. “Antropoceno” é o nome proposto no ano 2000 pelo Nobel de Química Paul Crutzen para uma nova época geológica, a “Idade do Homem”. Ela viria suceder o Holoceno, no qual vivemos há quase 12 mil anos, desde o fim da última era glacial.

Nesse intervalo, curto para a o tempo geológico (a Terra tem mais de 4 bilhões de anos), a espécie humana tirou proveito do clima estável e ameno. Desenvolveu a agricultura, multiplicou-se e se espalhou ainda mais pelo globo.

A questão agora é saber se ela modificou o planeta e aqueceu a atmosfera o bastante para deixar uma marca inconfundível no registro estratigráfico. Os geólogos do futuro distante conseguirão distinguir uma camada de terreno que não existiria sem que 7 ou 10 bilhões de pessoas vivessem e produzissem na sua superfície?

A Comissão Internacional de Estratigrafia (ICS, em inglês), a quem compete decidir sobre as divisões oficiais da história da Terra, pode bater o martelo geológico em meados de 2016, quando se realizará o Congresso Internacional de Geologia. Foi esse o prazo que se autoimpôs o Grupo de Trabalho do Antropoceno (GTA) reunido por ela, que tem 37 especialistas e a tarefa de instruir o processo.

Um deles é o próprio Paul Crutzen. Outro, o jornalista norte-americano Andrew Revkin, convidado por ter introduzido, num livro de 1992, “Global Warming” (Aquecimento global), a ideia de um pós-Holoceno produzido pelo homem. Hoje ele lamenta sua “escolha imperfeita de palavra”: “Propus Antroceno’… Idiota”.

Também integra o grupo o climatologista brasileiro Carlos Nobre, secretário de Pesquisa e Desenvolvimento do Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação. “Acho que será aprovado o estabelecimento de uma nova época, em função do peso de evidências”, avalia. “Mas o marco temporal ainda suscita discussões acaloradas.”

Não há muita dúvida de que cidades como São Paulo, Nova York ou Mumbai deixarão abundantes vestígios fósseis e arqueológicos para os milênios que virão. Os puristas, contudo, exigem que um novo período geológico esteja demarcado, literalmente, nas rochas.

Uma proposta é fixar o limiar do Antropoceno em 1945, quando começaram as detonações atômicas. Elas aspergiram por todos os continentes uma camada sutil, mas detectável, de plutônio, césio e estrôncio, subprodutos da explosiva reação nuclear.

Outra possibilidade, defendida por Crutzen, seria o final do século 19, no marco da Revolução Industrial. O argumento privilegia os hidrocarbonetos aromáticos policíclicos (HAPs), poluentes produzidos na queima de combustíveis fósseis (carvão e derivados de petróleo, principalmente) que se depositam em todos os ambientes.

O consumo avantajado de combustíveis fósseis sustenta ainda outra hipótese para a delimitação. Nesse caso, sobressaem os efeitos produzidos com o agravamento do efeito estufa decorrente de bilhões de toneladas de dióxido de carbono (CO2) lançadas no ar.

Assim como a atmosfera, os oceanos também se aquecem no processo. Além disso, tornam-se mais ácidos ao absorver parte do CO2, o que, em algumas profundidades, interrompe o ciclo de deposição de carbonatos que dá origem a rochas claras, como o calcário. O resultado seria uma banda escura no registro estratigráfico.

“O tópico todo é preocupante”, resume Naomi Oreskes, historiadora da ciência da Universidade Harvard que integra o GTA.

Oreskes é autora do livro “Merchants of Doubt” (Mercadores da dúvida, de 2011), que demonstra os propósitos ideológicos dos “céticos” militantes em organizações conservadoras como o American Enterprise Institute e a Heritage Foundation, para os quais é uma farsa a noção de mudança do clima causada pelo homem.

Esse pessoal não quer nem ouvir falar em Antropoceno.

LEGIÃO Em contrapartida, a dupla Antropoceno e aquecimento global faz sucesso com outra turma. Uma legião estimada em 400 mil pessoas tomou as ruas e avenidas de Nova York em 21 de setembro último, na Marcha do Povo pelo Clima. Apesar do nome, lá estavam Ban Ki-Moon, secretário-geral da ONU, que convocara uma Cúpula do Clima para dois dias depois, a ex-presidente da Irlanda Mary Robinson e o ex-vice-presidente dos EUA Al Gore.

Não faltaram, além deles, vegetarianos, ex-hippies sexagenários e indígenas na passeata convocada pela 350.org. A ONG luta pelo retorno à concentração de 350 partes por milhão (ppm) de CO2 na atmosfera terrestre; no fim de novembro, ela estava em 398 ppm, muito acima dos 280 ppm dos tempos pré-industriais.

O CO2 é o principal gás do efeito estufa, por sua capacidade de aprisionar e reter junto à superfície da Terra parte da radiação solar que incide sobre ela, como os vidros de um abrigo para plantas.

Na fracassada Conferência de Copenhague, em 2009, só houve acordo quanto à necessidade de limitar as emissões de CO2 para que o aquecimento global não exceda 2°C. Acima disso, a mudança do clima poderia conduzir a uma série devastadora de eventos extremos como secas, furacões, ondas de calor e enchentes.

No restante, impera o desacordo entre países mais desenvolvidos e menos desenvolvidos. Pela 20ª vez, duas centenas deles estão reunidos em Lima, até a próxima sexta-feira (12), para tentar traçar as linhas de base de um tratado capaz de reduzir as emissões na proporção e no ritmo necessários. O prazo se extingue dentro de um ano, quando se realizará a Conferência de Paris –a COP 21.

Os pesquisadores do clima estimam que, para não ultrapassar a marca dos 2°C, a humanidade conta com um orçamento total, desde o início da espécie, de 1 trilhão de toneladas de CO2 para gastar. Do século 19 para cá, 600 bilhões já viraram fumaça.

Para sobreviver com a pífia dotação de 400 bilhões, seria desejável que as emissões já estivessem em queda, como pressupunha o malfadado Protocolo de Kyoto (1997). Mas continuam a subir. Só recuam em anos de crise, como 2009. Em 2013, o aumento foi de 2,3%.

Se a tendência presente se mantiver, restam apenas 25 anos de carbono para torrar. Isso exigiria cortar para zero as emissões, de um ano para o outro, em 2040. Como não vai acontecer, as reduções teriam de começar já, na toada de pelo menos 8% ao ano.

Os manifestantes da marcha de Nova York desconfiam de que os governos reunidos em Lima e Paris, sem pressão, não cumprirão a meta de temperatura acordada em Copenhague. Daí a mobilização.

ANTICAPITALISMO Mais radical é a jornalista Naomi Klein, polêmica autora de “Sem Logo”. Em seu mais novo livro, “This Changes Everything “” Capitalism vs. the Climate” [Simon & Schuster, R$ 53,30, 576 págs.; R$ 66,71, e-book] (Isso muda tudo “” capitalismo contra o clima), ela defende que não é possível enfrentar o desafio da mudança do clima sem virar de pernas para o ar o capitalismo contemporâneo, marcado por desregulamentação, cortes de gastos sociais, privatização e liberalização do comércio mundial.

Nas mais de 500 páginas de texto, não faltam dados e exemplos convincentes de que a economia mundial se tornou dependente do carbono, vale dizer, dos combustíveis fósseis. Como um viciado, aceita pagar cada vez mais para explorar reservas não convencionais, como o gás de folhelho (ou xisto) nos EUA, as areias betuminosas no Canadá e o pré-sal no Brasil.

Klein confronta o leitor com uma conta acabrunhante: as reservas já escrituradas de carvão, petróleo e gás natural correspondem ao quíntuplo do orçamento de carbono que resta para gastar. Ou seja, 4/5 delas seriam “inqueimáveis”, do ponto de vista do aquecimento global.

A não ser, é claro, que surjam tecnologias eficientes e baratas para limpar da atmosfera o carbono liberado em décadas após ficar retido nas entranhas da Terra por milhões de anos. O problema é que a indústria fóssil não investe muito nisso, mas sim em aumentar reservas e produção. Para Klein, essa indústria teria de ser obrigada pelos governos a comprometer seus lucros na limpeza do planeta.

Acredite quem quiser. Mas o livro também tem seções para lá de otimistas com os avanços já alcançados em fontes renováveis de energia, como a fotovoltaica (solar) e a eólica (ventos).

Klein se derrama na narrativa sobre comunidades e cidades que retomaram o controle local da geração, contornando a resistência das grandes distribuidoras quanto às fontes alternativas. Ela vê nessa descentralização o germe de um movimento de contestação do capitalismo como o conhecemos e uma oportunidade nunca vista antes pelos movimentos sociais.

Klein não se demora muito na China, cujo capitalismo de Estado produziu a maior máquina poluidora do planeta, tendo já ultrapassado os EUA –embora o país asiático já se torne também o que mais investe em energias alternativas, como solar e eólica.

Uma das passagens mais sublinhadas do livro, como pode constatar quem o lê em versão eletrônica, citada também por Elizabeth Kolbert em resenha na revista “The New York Review of Books”, resume a conversão térmica da autora:

“Comecei a perceber todas as maneiras pelas quais a mudança climática pode se tornar um catalisador para a mudança positiva –como ela pode ser o melhor argumento que os progressistas jamais tiveram para exigir a reconstrução e a revitalização das economias locais; para recuperar nossas democracias da corrosiva influência corporativa; para barrar danosos acordos de livre-comércio e reescrever os anteriores; para investir na depauperada infraestrutura pública de transporte coletivo e habitação social; para retomar a propriedade de serviços essenciais como água e energia; para reconstruir o sistema agrícola doente de modo muito mais saudável; para abrir as fronteiras a migrantes cujo deslocamento está ligado aos impactos do clima; para enfim respeitar os direitos de indígenas à terra –tudo isso ajudaria a acabar com os grotescos níveis de desigualdade em nossas nações e entre elas.”

REFORMA Como assinala a resenhista Kolbert, é um programa ambicioso –se não irreal, caberia acrescentar. Klein não chega a provar que a solução para o clima exija uma reviravolta anticapitalista. Baseia sua fé nos movimentos sociais redentores só em si própria –ou seja, em pensamento positivo.

Com essa viseira, não consegue enxergar que o capitalismo não é um monólito, mas um sistema flexível e cambiante. Entre outras coisas, capaz de criar nichos de mercado para energias limpas (como a eólica, recentemente, no Brasil) mesmo em meio às ideias fixas na hidreletricidade e petróleo.

Até os mais céticos quanto ao processo internacional de negociações sobre clima, como o cientista político Eduardo Viola, da UnB, se distanciam dessa perspectiva: “O capital tende a estar cada vez mais dividido entre forças inerciais, conservadoras, e forças que apontam para a descarbonização”.

“Mesmo dentro de cada empresa há essa divisão”, afirma Viola. “[O impasse] na política internacional é derivado disso.” Como Klein, o professor da UnB vê num imposto sobre o carbono o meio mais eficiente para promover a transformação necessária –mas numa moldura capitalista: “As forças reformistas estão procurando regras para precificar o carbono”.

Naomi Oreskes tampouco acompanha Klein. “Reconhecer a mudança do clima como uma falha de mercado não obriga ninguém a concluir que a falha não possa ser corrigida”, diz a historiadora de Harvard. Na sua avaliação, a xará acaba por confirmar o preconceito dos céticos de que a defesa do clima não passa de ataque sub-reptício contra a liberdade do capital.

“Klein pode estar certa, mas espero que não esteja, porque reformar o capitalismo parece uma tarefa mais difícil que reformar nossos sistemas de energia e infraestrutura. Ambas as coisas parecem quase impossíveis, mas a segunda eu ao menos consigo imaginar.”

Andrew Revkin segue na linha de Viola e Oreskes. “Podemos evitar a perigosa mudança climática de origem humana (e os impactos do clima) sem desfazer o capitalismo”, afirma o jornalista.

“Existem modelos pós-extrativistas para construir negócios bem-sucedidos. No fim das contas, é um misto de pesquisa básica com operação do setor privado (capitalista) que está reduzindo os cursos da energia alternativa e levando a ganhos de eficiência.”

REGENERAÇÃO A receita reformista favorita aposta na combinação de energia fotovoltaica e eólica, talvez algumas usinas térmicas nucleares, para substituir carvão, óleo e gás natural na geração de eletricidade, que seria distribuída por redes inteligentes (“smart grids”) com desperdício reduzido.

Só a radiação solar tem potencial para fornecer pelo menos seis vezes mais energia que os 15 trilhões de watts hoje obtidos de combustíveis fósseis. Boa parte dessa energia poderia ser usada para massificar a dessalinização de água do mar e, quem sabe, para recapturar carbono da atmosfera.

Em vez da sentimental “regeneração” do planeta defendida por Klein no fim do livro, essa perspectiva implicaria redobrar a aposta prometeica no Antropoceno. Se não há volta nos ponteiros do relógio geológico, resta continuar mudando o mundo –para melhor.

Seria a única saída para evitar uma ração impalatável de 2.000 watts por pessoa que a matriz fóssil atual exigiria para baixar as emissões de carbono ao nível necessário. Um americano consome hoje 12.000 watts e jamais se contentaria com menos; o restante do mundo vê como um direito a chance de chegar a esse patamar.

Nem por isso se pode dar Klein por nocauteada. A janela para conter a mudança do clima está se fechando, e a trajetória que governos, ONGs, ONU, empresas verdes e líderes idem –Al Gore à frente como sacerdote-mor do termoevangelismo– até aqui fracassou.

E fracassou, entre outras razões, como aponta “This Changes Everything”, porque a mudança do clima se tornou um meio de vida para muita gente. O livro é impiedoso ao desvendar a teia de relações e doações que une as ONGs ambientais mais famosas a empresas e empresários convertidos à causa ambiental que, no frigir dos ovos da rentabilidade, seguem investindo no bom e velho carbono.

PORVIR Para uns, como Ricardo Abramovay, professor de economia da USP, esse estado de coisas deixa margem para algum otimismo, ainda que tisnado pela dúvida: “Algum dia essa conta terá de ser paga; resta saber se será com catástrofe ou não”.

Para outros, como a professora de filosofia Déborah Danowski (PUC-Rio) e o antropólogo Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (Museu Nacional), autores do livro “Há Mundo Por Vir? Ensaio sobre os Medos e os Fins” [Instituto Socioambiental, R$ 35, 175 págs.], há sérias razões para inquietar-se.

“Nosso presente é o Antropoceno; este é o nosso tempo”, escrevem. “Mas este tempo presente vai se revelando um presente sem porvir, um presente passivo, portador de um carma geofísico que está inteiramente fora de nosso alcance anular –o que torna tanto mais urgente e imperativa a tarefa de sua mitigação.”

Worlding Anthropologies of Technosciences? (Blog.castac.org)

October 28th, 2014, by

The past 4S meeting in Buenos Aires made visible the expansion of STS to various regions of the globe. Those of us who happened to be at the 4S meeting at University of Tokyo four years ago will remember the excitement of having the opportunity to work side-by-side with STS scholars from East and Southeast Asia. The same opportunity for worlding STS was opened again this past summer in Buenos Aires.

In order to help increase diversity of perspectives, Sharon Traweek and I organized a 4S panel on the relationships between STS and anthropology with a focus on the past, present, and future of the exchange among national traditions. The idea came out of our conversations about the intersections between science studies and the US anthropology of the late 1980’s with the work of CASTAC pioneers such as Diana Forsythe, Gary Downey, Joseph Dumit, David Hakken, David Hess, and Sharon Traweek, among several others who helped to establish the technosciences as legitimate domains of anthropological inquiry. It was not an easy battle, as Chris Furlow’s post on the history of CASTAC reminded us, but the results are undeniably all around us today. Panels on anthropology of science and technology can always be found at professional meetings. Publications on science and technology have space in various journals and the attention of university publishers these days.

For our panel this year we had the opening remarks of Gary Downey who, after reading our proposal aloud, emphasized the importance of advancing a cultural critique of science and technology through a situated, grounded stance. Quoting Marcus and Fischer’s “Anthropology as Cultural Critique” (1986) he emphasized that anthropology of science and technology could not dispense with the reflection upon the place, the situation, and the positioning of the anthropologist. Downey described his own positioning as an anthropologist and critical participant in engineering. Two decades ago Downey challenged the project of “anthropology as cultural critique” to speak widely to audiences outside anthropology and to practice anthropology as cultural critique, as suggested by the title of his early AAA paper, “Outside the Hotel”.

Yet “Anthropology as Cultural Critique” represented, he pointed out, one of the earliest reflexive calls in US anthropology for us to rethink canonical fieldwork orientations and our approach to the craft of ethnography with its representational politics. Downey and many others who invented new spaces to advance critical agendas in the context of science and technology did so by adding to the identity of the anthropologist other identities and responsibilities, such as that of former mechanical engineer, laboratory physicist, theologian, and experimenter of alternative forms of sociality, etc. These overlapping and intersecting identities opened up a whole field of possibilities for renewed modes of inquiry which, after “Anthropology as Cultural Critique”, consisted, as Downey suggested, in the juxtaposition of knowledge, forms of expertise, positionalities, and commitments. This is where we operate as STS scholars: at intersecting research areas, bridging “fault lines” (as Traweek’s felicitous expression puts it), and doing anthropology with and not without anthropologists.

The order of presentations for our panel was defined in a way to elicit contrasts and parallels between different modes of inquiry, grounded in different national anthropological traditions. The first session had Marko Monteiro (UNICAMP), Renzo Taddei (UNIFESP), Luis Felipe R. Murillo (UCLA), and Aalok Khandekar (Maastricht University) as presenters and Michael M. J. Fischer (MIT) as commentator. Marko Monteiro, an anthropologist working for an interdisciplinary program in science and technology policy in Brazil addressed questions of scientific modeling and State policy regarding the issue of deforestation in the Amazon. His paper presented the challenges of conducting multi-sited ethnography alongside multinational science collaborations, and described how scientific modeling for the Amazalert project was designed to accommodate natural and sociocultural differences with the goal of informing public policy. In the context of his ethnographic work, Monteiro soon found himself in a double position as a panelist expert and as an anthropologist interested in how different groups of scientists and policy makers negotiate the incorporation of “social life” through a “politics of associations.”

Similarly to Monteiro’s positioning, Khandekar benefited in his ethnographic work for being an active participant and serving as the organizer of expert panels involving STS scholars and scientists to design nanotechnology-based development programs in India. Drawing from Fischer’s notion of “third space”, Khandekar addressed how India could be framed productively as such for being a fertile ground for conceptual work where cross-disciplinary efforts have articulated humanities and technosciences under the rubric of innovation. Serving as a knowledge broker for an international collaboration involving India, Kenya, South Africa, and the Netherlands on nanotechnology, Khandekar had first-hand experience in promoting “third spaces” as postcolonial places for cross-disciplinary exchange through story telling.

Shifting the conversation to the context of computing and political action, Luis Felipe R. Murillo’s paper described a controversy surrounding the proposal of a “feminist programming language” and discussed the ways in which it provides access to the contemporary technopolitical dynamics of computing. The feminist programming language parody served as an entry point to analyze how language ideologies render symbolic boundaries visible, highlighting fundamental aspects of socialization in the context of computing in order to reproduce concepts and notions of the possible, logical, and desirable technical solutions. In respect to socioeconomic and political divisions, he suggested that feminist approaches in their intersectionality became highly controversial for addressing publicly systemic inequalities that are transversal to the context of computing and characterize a South that is imbricated in the North of “big computing” (an apparatus that encompasses computer science, information technology industries, infrastructures, and cultures with their reinvented peripheries within the global North and South).

Renzo Taddei recasted the debate regarding belief in magic drawing from a long lasting thread of anthropological research on logical reasoning and cultural specificity. Taddei opened up his take on our conversation with the assertion that to conduct ethnography on witchcraft assuming that it does not exist is fundamentally ethnocentric. This observation was meant to take us the core of his concerns regarding climate sciences vis-à-vis traditional Brazilian forms of forecasting from Sertão, a semi-arid and extremely impoverished area of the Northeast of Brazil. He then proceeded to discuss magical manipulation of the atmosphere from native and Afro-Brazilian perspectives in Brazil.

For the second day of our panel, we had papers by Kim Fortun (RPI), Mike Fortun (RPI), Sharon Traweek (UCLA) and the commentary of Claudia Fonseca (UFRGS) whose long-term contributions to study of adoption, popular culture, science and human rights in Brazil has been highly influential. In her paper, Kim Fortun addressed the double bind of expertise, the in-between of competence and hubris, structural risk and unpredictability of the very infrastructures experts are called upon to take responsibility. Fortun’s call was for a mode of interaction and engagement among science and humanities scholars oriented toward friendship and hospitality as well as commitment for our technoscientific futures under the aegis of late industrialism. “Ethnographic insight”, according to Fortun, “can loop back into the world” through the means of creative pedagogies which are attentive to the fact that science practitioners and STS scholars mobilize different analytic lenses while speaking through and negotiating with distinct discursive registers in the context of international collaborations. Our assumptions of what is conceptually shared should not anticipate what is to be seen or forged in the context of our international exchange, since what is foregrounded in discourse always implicates one form or another of erasure. The image Fortun suggested for us to think with is not that of a network, but that of a kaleidoscope in which the complexity of disasters can be seen across multiple dimensions and scales in their imbrication at every turn.

In his presentation, Michael Fortun questioned the so-called “ontological turn” to recast the “hauntological” dimensions of our research practices vis-à-vis those of our colleagues in the biosciences, that is, to account for the imponderables of scientific and anthropological languages and practices through the lens of a poststructural understanding of the historical functioning of language. In his study of asthma, Fortun attends to multiple perspectives and experiences with asthma across national, socioeconomic, scientific and technical scales. In the context of his project “The Asthma Files”, he suggests, alongside Kim Fortun, hospitality and friendship as frames for engaging instead of disciplining the contingency of ethnographic encounters and ethnographic projects. For future collaborations, two directions are suggested: 1) investigating and experimenting with modes of care and 2) designing collaborative digital platforms for experimental ethnography. The former is related to the scientists care for their instruments, methods, theories, intellectual reproduction, infrastructures, and problems in their particular research fields, while the latter poses the question of care among ourselves and the construction of digital platforms to facilitate and foster collaboration in anthropology.

This panel was closed with Sharon Traweek’s paper on multi-scalar complexity of contemporary scientific collaborations, based on her current research on data practices and gender imbalance in astronomy. Drawing from concepts of meshwork and excess proposed by researchers with distinct intellectual projects such as Jennifer McWeeny, Arturo Escobar, Susan Paulson, and Tim Ingold, Traweek discussed billion-dollar science projects which involve multiple research communities clustered around a few recent research devices and facilities, such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France. In the space of ongoing transformations of big science toward partially-global science, women and ethnic minorities are building meshworks as overlapping networks in their attempts to build careers in astronomy. Traweek proposed a revision of the notion of “enrollment” to account for the ways in which mega projects in science are sustained for decades of planning, development, construction, and operation at excessive scales which require more than support and consensus. Mega projects in the technosciences are, in Traweek’s terms, “over-determined collages that get built and used” by international teams with “glocal” structures of governance and funding.

In his concluding remarks Michael M. J. Fischer addressed the relationship between anthropology and STS through three organizing axes: time, topic, and audiences. As a question of time, a quarter century has passed for the shared history of STS and anthropology and probing questions have been asked and explored in the technosciences in respect to its apparatuses, codes, languages, life cycle of machines, educational curricula, personal and technical trajectories, which is well represented in one of the foundational texts of our field, Traweek’s “Beamtimes and Lifetimes” (1988). Traweek has helped establish a distinctive anthropological style “working alongside scientists and engineers through juxtaposition not against them.” In respect to the relationships between anthropology and STS, Fischer raised the question of pedagogies as, at once, a prominent form of engagement in the technosciences as well as an anthropological mode of engagement with the technosciences. The common thread connecting all the panel contributions was the potential for new pedagogies to emerge with the contribution of world anthropologies of sciences and technologies. That is, in the space of socialization of scientists, engineers, and the public, space of the convention, as well as invention, and knowledge-making, all the presenters addressed the question of how to advance an anthropology of science and technology with forms of participation, as Fischer suggests, as productive critique.

Along similar lines, Claudia Fonseca offered closing remarks about her own trajectory and the persistence of national anthropological traditions informing our cross-dialogs and border crossings. Known in Brazil as an “anthropologist with an accent”, an anthropologist born in the US, trained in France, and based in Brazil for the most part of her academic life, she cannot help but emphasize the style and forms of engagement that are specific to Brazilian anthropology which has a tradition of conducting ethnography at home. The panel served, in sum, for the participants to find a common thread connecting a rather disparate set of papers and for advancing a form of dialogue across national traditions and modes of engagement which is attentive to local political histories and (national) anthropological trajectories. As suggested by Michael Fortun, we are just collectively conjuring – with much more empiria than magic – a new beginning in the experimental tradition for world anthropologies of sciences and technologies.

A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn” – Parts 1 to 4 (Somatosphere)

January 15, 2014

A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn” – Part 1

Judith Farquhar

This article is part of the series: A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn”

Editor’s note: In the wake of the discussion about the ‘ontological turn’ at this year’s American Anthropological Association conference, we asked several scholars, “which texts or resources would you recommend to a student or colleague interested in the uses of ‘ontology’ as an analytical category in recent work in anthropology and science and technology studies?”  This was the reading list we received fromJudith Farquhar, Max Palevsky Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago.  Answers from a number of other scholars will appear as separate posts in the series.

In providing a reading list, I had lots of good “ontological” resources at hand, having just taught a seminar called “Ontological Politics.”  This list is pared down from the syllabus; and the syllabus itself was just a subset of the many useful philosophical, historical, and ethnographic readings that I had been devouring during the previous year, when I was on leave.

I really like all these pieces, though I don’t actually “follow” all of them.  This is a good thing, because the field — if it can be called that — tends to go in circles, with all the usual suspects citing all the usual suspects.  In the end, as we worked our way through the course, I found the ethnographic work more exciting than most of the more theoretically inclined writing.  At the other end of the spectrum, I feel quite transformed by having read Heidegger’s “The Thing” — but I’m not sure why!

Philosophical and methodological works in anthropology and beyond:

Philippe Descola, 2013, The Ecology of Others, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

William Connolly, 2005, Pluralism. Durham: Duke University Press. (Ch. 3, “Pluralism and the Universe” [on William James], pp. 68-92.)

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, 2004, “Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation,” Tipiti 2 (1): 3-22.

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, 2012, “Immanence and Fear: Stranger events and subjects in Amazonia,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2 (1): 27-43.

Marisol de la Cadena, 2010, “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual reflections beyond ‘politics’,” Cultural Anthropology 25 (2): 334-370.

Bruno Latour, 2004, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern.Critical Inquiry 30 (2): 225-248.

A dialogue from Common Knowledge 2004 (3): Ulrich Beck: “The Truth of Others: A Cosmopolitan Approach” (pp. 430-449) and Bruno Latour: “Whose Cosmos, Which Cosmopolitics? Comments on the Peace Terms of Ulrich Beck” (pp. 450-462).

Graham Harman, 2009, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics.  Melbourne: Re.Press.  (OA)

Isabelle Stengers, 2005, “The Cosmopolitical Proposal,” in Bruno Latour & Peter Weibel, eds., Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy.  Cambridge MA: MIT Press, pp. 994-1003.

Martin Heidegger, 1971, “The Thing,” in Poetry, Language, Thought (Tr. Albert Hofstadter).  New York: Harper & Row, pp. 163-180

Graham Harman, 2010, “Technology, Objects and Things in Heidegger,”Cambridge Journal of Economics 34: 17-25.

Jane Bennett and William Connolly, 2012, “The Crumpled Handkerchief,” in Bernd Herzogenrath, ed., Time and History in Deleuze and Serres. London & New York: Continuum, pp. 153-171.

Tim Ingold, 2004, “A Circumpolar Night’s Dream,” in John Clammer et al., eds., Figured Worlds: Ontological Obstacles in Intercultural Relations.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 25-57.

Annemarie Mol, 1999, “Ontological Politics: A Word and Some Questions,” in John Law, and J. Hassard, ed., Actor Network Theory and After.  Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 74-89.

Terrific ethnographic studies very concerned with ontologies:

Mario Blaser, 2010, Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond.  Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Eduardo Kohn, 2013, How Forests Think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Helen Verran, 2011, “On Assemblage: Indigenous Knowledge and Digital Media (2003-2006) and HMS Investigator (1800-1805).” In Tony Bennet & Chris Healey, eds.,  Assembling Culture.  London & New York: Routledge, pp. 163-176.

Morten Pedersen, 2011, Not Quite Shamans: Spirit worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

John Law & Marianne Lien, 2013, “Slippery: Field Notes in Empirical Ontology,” Social Studies of Science 43 (3): 363-378.

Stacey A. Langwick, 2011, Bodies, Politics, and African Healing: The Matter of Maladies in Tanzania.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Judith Farquhar is Max Palevsky Professor of Anthropology and Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. Her research concerns traditional medicine, popular culture, and everyday life in contemporary China. She is the author of Knowing Practice: The Clinical Encounter of Chinese Medicine (Westview 1996),Appetites: Food and Sex in Post-Socialist China (Duke 2002), and Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing (Zone 2012) (with Qicheng Zhang), and editor (with Margaret Lock) of Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropology of Material Life (Duke 2007).

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January 17, 2014

A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn” – Part 2

Javier Lezaun

This article is part of the series: A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn”

Editor’s note: In the wake of the discussion about the ‘ontological turn’ at this year’s American Anthropological Association conference, we asked several scholars, “which texts or resources would you recommend to a student or colleague interested in the uses of ‘ontology’ as an analytical category in recent work in anthropology and science and technology studies?”  This was the answer we received from Javier Lezaun, James Martin Lecturer in Science and Technology Governance at the University of Oxford. 

Those of us who have been brought up in the science and technology studies (STS) tradition look at claims of an ‘ontological turn’ with a strange sense of familiarity: it’s déjà vu all over again! For we can read the whole history of STS (cheekily and retroactively, of course) as a ‘turn to ontology’, albeit one that was rarely thematized as such.

A key text in forming STS and giving it a proto-ontological orientation (if such a term can be invented) is Ian Hacking’s Representing and Intervening (1983). On its surface the book is an introduction to central themes and keywords in the philosophy of science. In effect, it launches a programme of research that actively blurs the lines between depictions of the world and interventions into its composition. And it does so by bringing to the fore the constitutive role of experimental practices – a key leitmotiv of what would eventually become STS.

Hacking, of course, went on to develop a highly original form of pragmatic realism, particularly in relation to the emergence of psychiatric categories and new forms of personhood. His 2004 book, Historical Ontology, captures well the main thrust of his arguments, and lays out a useful contrast with the ‘meta-epistemology’ of much of the best contemporary writing in the history of science.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves and disrespecting our good old friend Chronology. The truth is that references to ontology are scarce in the foundational texts of STS (the term is not even indexed in Representing and Intervening, for instance). This is hardly surprising: alluding to the ontological implies a neat distinction between being and representing, precisely the dichotomy that STS scholars were trying to overcome – or, more accurately, ignore – at the time. The strategy was to enrich our notion of representation, not to turn away from it in favour of higher plane of being.

It is in the particular subfield of studies of particle physics that the discussion about ontology within STS developed, simply because matters of reality – and the reality of matter – featured much more prominently in the object of study. Andrew Pickering’s Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics (1984) was one of the few texts that tackled ontological matters head on, and it shared with Hacking’s an emphasis on the role of experimental machineries in producing agreed-upon worlds. In his following book, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (1995), Pickering would develop this insight into a full-fledged theory of temporal emergence based on the dialectic of resistance and accommodation.

An interesting continuation and counterpoint in this tradition is Karen Barad’s book, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (2007). Barad’s thesis, particularly her theory of agential realism, is avowedly and explicitly ontological, but this does not imply a return to traditional metaphysical problem-definitions. In fact, Barad speaks of ‘onto-epistemology’, or even of ‘onto-ethico-epistemology’, to describe her approach. The result is an aggregation of planes of analysis, rather than a turn from one to the other.

Arguments about the nature of quarks, bubble chambers and quantum physics might seem very distant from the sort of anthropo-somatic questions that preoccupy readers of this blog, but it is worth noting that this rarefied discussion has been the terrain where key elements of the current STS interest in ontology – the idioms of performativity and materialism in particular – were first tested.

The work that best represents this current interest in matters of ontology within STS is that of Annemarie Mol and John Law. Their papers on topologies (e.g., ‘Regions, Networks and Fluids: Anaemia and Social Topology’ in 1994; ‘Situating technoscience:  an inquiry into spatialities’, 2001) broke new ground in making explicit the argument about the multiplicity of the world(s), and served to develop a first typology of alternative modes of reality. Mol’s ethnography of atherosclerosis, The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice (2003), is of course the (provisional?) culmination of this brand of ‘empirical philosophy’, and a text that offers a template for STS-inflected anthropology (and vice versa).

One distinct contribution of this body of work – and this is a point made by Malcolm Ashmore in his review of The Body Multiple – is to extend STS modes of inquiry beyond the study of new or controversial entities, and draw the same kind of analytical intensity to realities – like that (or those) of atherosclerosis – whose univocal reality we tend to take for granted. For better and worse, STS grew out of an effort to understand how new facts and artifacts enter our world, and the field remains attached to all that is (or appears to be) new – even if the end-result of the analysis is often to challenge those claims to novelty. The current ‘ontological turn’ in STS would then represent an effort to excavate mundane layers of reality, to draw attention to the performed or enacted nature of that that appears old, settled or uncontroversial. I suspect this manoeuvre carries less value in Anthropology, where the everyday and the taken-for-granted is often the very locus of inquiry.

The other value of the ‘ontological turn’ is, in my view, to recast the question of politics – as both an object of study and a mode of engagement with the world. This recasting can take at least two different forms. There are those who argue that attending to the ontological, i.e., to the reality of plural worlds and the unavoidable condition of multinaturalism, intensifies (and clarifies) the normative implications of our analyses (see for instance the genealogical argument put forward very forcefully by Dimitris Papadopoulos in his article ‘Alter-ontologies: towards a constituent politics in technoscience’). A slightly different course of action is to think of ontology as a way of addressing the intertwining of the technological and the political. Excellent recent examples of this approach are Noortje Marres’s Material Participation: Technology, the Environment, and everyday Publics (2012) and Andrew Barry’s Material Politics: Disputes Along the Pipeline (2013).

In sum, and to stake out my own position, I think STS is best seen as a fairly tight bundle of analytical sensibilities – sensibilities that are manifested in an evolving archipelago of case studies. It is not a theory of the world (let alone a theory of being), and it quickly becomes trite and somewhat ritualistic when it is transformed into a laundry list of statements about what the world is or should be like. In this sense, an ‘ontological turn’ would run counter to the STS tradition, as I see it, if it implies asserting a particular ontology of the world, regardless of whether the claim is that that ontology is plural, multiple, fluid, relational, etc. This sort of categorical, pre-empirical position smothers the critical instincts that energize the field and have driven its evolution over the last three decades. Steve Woolgar and I have formulated this view in a recent piece for Social Studies of Science (‘The wrong bin bag:  a turn to ontology in science and technology studies?’), and a similar argument been made often and persuasively by Michael Lynch (e.g., “Ontography: investigating the production of things, deflating ontology”).

Javier Lezaun is James Martin Lecturer in Science and Technology Governance and Deputy Director at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society in the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the politics of scientific research and its governance. He directs the research programme BioProperty, funded by the European Research Council, which investigates the role of property rights and new forms of ownership in biomedical research. Javier is also currently participating in research projects on thegovernance of climate geoengineering, and new forms of consumer mobilization in food markets.

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February 12, 2014

A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn” – Part 3

Morten Axel Pedersen

This article is part of the series: A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn”

Editor’s note: In the wake of all the discussion about the ‘ontological turn’ at this year’s American Anthropological Association conference, we asked four scholars, “which texts or resources would you recommend to a student or colleague interested in the uses of ‘ontology’ as an analytical category in recent work in anthropology and science and technology studies?”  This was the reading list we received fromMorten Axel Pedersen, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen.

As someone who has, for a decade, participated in discussions about ‘ontology’ at various European anthropology venues and departments, I share the sense of déjà-vu noted by Lezaun in Part 2 of this Reader’s Guide. In fact, it is surprising just how much interest and enthusiasm, not to mention critique and aversion, has been generated by the recent introduction of this discussion into mainstream US anthropology. Arguably, the ontological turn now faces the risk of becoming the latest ‘new thing’, so critique is inevitable, necessary and welcome. Indeed, students and scholars from some of the same institutions that spearheaded anthropology’s turn to ontology are now questioning its most deeply held assumptions and cherished arguments. That, of course, is precisely how things should be. And hopefully, the part-repetition in the US of debates that are now losing steam in Latin America, Japan and Europe will provide a new framework for experimentally transforming and productively distorting anthropology’s engagement with ontology, and thus avoid the ever lurking danger of it becoming just another orthodoxy.

What follows here is a list of predominantly anthropological readings, which does not cover the creative interfaces between STS and anthropology explored by scholars in Copenhagen, Manchester, Osaka, and elsewhere. The list is not intended to be exclusive. Indeed, many scholars who figure on it may well not consider themselves part of the ontological turn and may be critical of part or all of it. The reason why they are nevertheless included is that they all have, in my view, played a role in making the ‘turn’ what it is today.

Books

Blaser, Mario. 2010. Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond.  Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Descola, Philippe. 2013. Beyond Nature and Culture. Trans. J. Lloyd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Gell, Alfred. 1998. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Holbraad, Martin. 2012. Truth in Motion: The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Kohn, Eduardo. 2012. How Forests Think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Krøijer, Stine. Forthcoming. Figurations of the Future: Forms and Temporality of Left Radical Politics in Northern Europe. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Maurer, Bill. 2005. Mutual Life, Limited. Islamic Banking, Alternative Currencies, Lateral Reason. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Miyazaki, Hirokazu. 2013. Arbitraging Japan: Dream of Capitalism at the End of Finance. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rio, Knut Mikjel. 2007. The Power of Perspective. Social Ontology and Agency on Ambrym Island, Vanuatu. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Scott, Michael W. 2007. The Severed Snake: Matrilineages, Making Place, and a Melanesian Christianity in Southeast Solomon Islands. Durham NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Stasch, Rupert. 2009. Society of Others. Kinship and Mourning in a West Papuan Place. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Strathern, Marilyn. 2004. Partial Connections (Updated Edition). Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira.

Swancutt, Katrhine, 2012. Fortune and the Cursed: The Sliding Scale of Time in Mongolian Divination. Oxford: Berghahn.

Wagner, Roy. 1975. The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Willerslev, Rane. 2007. Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism and Personhood amomg the Siberian Yukaghirs. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2009. Métaphysiques cannibales. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France

Edited volumes/sections

Jensen, C. B, M. A. Pedersen & B. R. Wintereik, eds. 2011. “Comparative Relativism”, special issue of Common Knowledge 17 (1).

Jensen, C. B. & A. Morita, eds. 2012. “Anthropology as critique of reality: A Japanese turn“. Forum in HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2 (2): 358-405.

Candea, Matei & Lys Alcayna–Stevens, eds. 2012. “Internal Others: Ethnographies of Naturalism“, Special section in Cambridge Anthropology30(2): 36-146

Henare, A., M: Holbraad and S.Wastell, eds. 2007. Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artifacts Ethnographically. London: Routledge. (Here’s a pre-publication version of the Introduction).

Pedersen, M. A., R. Empson and C. Humphrey, eds. 2007. “Inner Asian Perspectivism,” special issue of Inner Asia 9 (2) (especially papers by da Col,Holbraad/Willerslev and Viveiros de Castro)

Articles engaging explicitly with “ontology”, also critically

Alberti, B., S. Fowles, M. Holbraad, Y. Marshall, C. Witmore. 2011. ‘Worlds otherwise’: Archaeology, Anthropology, and Ontological Difference forum.Current Anthropology 52(6): 896-912

Blaser, Mario. 2013. Ontological conflicts and the stories of peoples in spite of Europe: toward a conversation on political ontology. Current Anthropology54(5): 547-568.

Course, Magnus. 2010. Of Words and Fog. Linguistic relativity and Amerindian ontology. Anthropological Theory 10(3): 247–263.

De la Cadena, Marisol. 2010. Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections beyond ‘Politics’. Cultural Anthropology 25 (2): 334-70.

Hage, Ghassan. 2012. Critical anthropological thought and the radical political imaginary today. Critique of Anthropology 32(3): 285–308

Heywood, Paolo. 2012. Anthropology and What There Is: Reflections on “Ontology”. Cambridge Anthropology 30 (1): 143-151.

Holbraad, Martin. 2009. Ontography and Alterity: Defining anthropological truth. Social Analysis 53 (2): 80-93.

Holbraad, Martin. 2011. Can the Thing Speak? OAP Press, Working Paper Series, Article # 7.

Laidlaw, James. 2012. Ontologically Challenged. Anthropology of This Century, vol. 4, London, May 2012.

Laidlaw, James and Paolo Heywood, 2013. One More Turn and You’re There.Anthropology of This Century, vol. 7, London, May 2013.

Nielsen, Morten. 2013. Analogic Asphalt: Suspended value conversions among young road workers in Southern Mozambique. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (2): 79-96.

Pedersen, Morten Axel. 2001. Totemism, animism and North Asian indigenous ontologies. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 7 (3): 411-427.

Pedersen, Morten Axel. 2012. Common nonsense. A review of certain recent reviews of the ‘ontological turn.’ Anthropology of This Century, 5.

Salmon, Amira. 2013. Transforming translations (part I):“The owner of these bones”. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3(3): 1-32.

Scott, Michael W. 2013. The Anthropology of Ontology (Religious Science?).Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19 (4): 859–72.

Venkatesan, Soumhya et al. 2010. Ontology Is Just Another Word for Culture: Motion Tabled at the 2008 Meeting of the Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory, University of Manchester. Critique of Anthropology30 (2):152-200. (The papers can also be downloaded here).

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2002. And. Manchester: Papers in Social Anthropology.

Viveiros de Castro, E. 2013 “The Relative Native” by HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3(3): 473-502.

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Finally, there are some recent and ongoing dialogues in France between anthropologists and philosophers concerning issues of metaphysics and ontology, which may be of interest:

Morten Axel Pedersen is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. His publications include Not Quite Shamans: Spirit Worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia (2011). He is also co-editor, with Martin Holbraad, of Times of Security: Ethnographies of Fear, Protest, and the Future(2013). A new book co-authored with Lars Højer, Urban Hunters: Dealing and Dreaming in Times of Transition is forthcoming.

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March 19, 2014

A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn” – Part 4

Annemarie Mol

This article is part of the series: A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn”

Editor’s note: In the wake of all the discussion about the ‘ontological turn’ at this year’s American Anthropological Association conference, we asked four scholars, “which texts or resources would you recommend to a student or colleague interested in the uses of ‘ontology’ as an analytical category in recent work in anthropology and science and technology studies?”  This was the answer we received fromAnnemarie Mol, professor of Anthropology of the Body at the University of Amsterdam.  Answers from Judith Farquhar, Javier Lezaun, and Morten Axel Pedersen appear as separate posts in the series.

The point of the use of the word ‘ontology’ in STS was that it allowed us not just to talk about the methods that were used in the sciences, but (in relation to these) also address what the sciences made of their object. E.g. rather than asking whether or not some branch of science knows ‘women’ correctly, or instead with some kind of bias, we wanted to shift to the question: what are the topics, the concerns and the questions that knowledge practices insist on; how do they interfere in practices; what do they do to/with women; etc. At first this was cast in constructivist terms as ‘what do various scientific provinces make ofwomen’. But then we began to doubt whether ‘making’ was such a good metaphor, as it gives some ‘maker’ too much credit; as it suggests a time line with a before and an after; and materials out of which x or y might be made. So we shifted terminology and used words like perform, or do, or enact. Here we widened the idea of the staging of social realities (e.g. identities) to that of physical realities.

The idea was that there are not just many ways of knowing ‘an object’, but rather many ways of practising it. Each way of practising stages – performs, does, enacts – a different version of ‘the’ object. Hence, it is not ‘an object’, but more than one. An object multiple. That reality might be multiple goes head on against the Euroamerican tradition in which different people may each have their own perspective on reality, while there is only one reality – singular, coherent, elusive – to have ‘perspectives’ on.  To underline our break with this monorealist heritage of monotheism, we imported the old fashioned philosophical term of ontology and put it in the plural. Ontologies. That was – at the time – an unheard of oxymoron.

Crucial in all this was the work of Donna Haraway (even if she did not particularly use the word ontology). Read it all – or pick out what seems interesting to you. Here, now. But if you don’t quite know where to start, plunge into Primate Visions.

Crucial, too, was earlier STS work on methods that had recast these as techniques of staging a world (not just of objects, but also of tools, money, readers, investors, etc.). Here Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and John Law worked in ways that later fed into the ‘ontology’ stream. See for that particular history: Annemarie Mol, “Actor-Network Theory: Sensitive Terms and Enduring Tensions.”

The branches of STS from which studies into ontology grew, took themselves as shifting the anthropological gaze from ‘the others’ to the sciences, scienced that staged themselves as universal, but weren’t. They were variously situated techno-science practices and making them travel was hard work. “Show me a universal and I will ask how much it costs,” wrote Bruno Latour, (in Irréductions, the second part of The Pasteurisation of France) Hence, going out in the world to study ‘others’ while presuming ‘the West’ (or at least (its) science) was rational, coherent, naturalist, what have you – seemed a bad idea to us. The West could do with some thorough unmasking – and taking this to what many saw as pivotal to its alleged superiority, its truth machines, seemed a good idea (even if a lot later some of the techniques involved were highjacked by climate change deniers… ).

But there were also always specific relevant interventions to be made. For instance, if ontology is not singular and given, the question arises about whichreality to ‘do’. Ontology does not precede or escape politics, but has a politics of its own. Not a politics of who (who gets to speak; act; etc.) but a politics of what(what is the reality that takes shape and that various people come to live with?) See: A. Mol, “Ontological politics. A word and some questions,” (in Law & Hassard, Actor Network Theory and After).

For a longer and more extensive opening up of ontologies / realities (in the plural), well, there is my book The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice(Duke University Press 2003) – that lays it all out step by step… Including the difficult aspect of ontological multiplicity that while there is more reality than one, its different versions are variously entangled with one another, so that there are less than many. (As Donna Haraway put it; and as explored by Marilyn Strathern in Partial Connections)

For an earlier use of the term ontological that makes its relevance clear and lays out how realities being done may change over time: Cussins, Charis.“Ontological choreography: Agency through objectification in infertility clinics.” Social studies of science 26, no. 3 (1996): 575-610. Later reworked in Thompson Charis, Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies.

For an early attempt to differentiate the semiotics involved from the symbolic interactionist tradition and its perspectives see: Mol, Annemarie, and Jessica Mesman. “Neonatal food and the politics of theory: some questions of method.” Social Studies of Science 26, no. 2 (1996): 419-444.

The politics at stake come out very well in Ingunn Moser: “Making Alzheimer’s disease matter. Enacting, interfering and doing politics of nature.” Geoforum39, no. 1 (2008): 98-110.

And for the haunting question as to what/who acts and/or what/who is enacted, see: Mol, Annemarie, and John Law. “Embodied action, enacted bodies: the example of hypoglycaemia.” Body & Society 10, no. 2-3 (2004): 43-62.

If you like realities as they get tied up with techniques, this is an exciting one, as it multiplies what it is to give birth: Akrich, Madeleine, and Bernike Pasveer.“Multiplying obstetrics: techniques of surveillance and forms of coordination.”Theoretical medicine and bioethics 21, no. 1 (2000): 63-83.

Remember, the multiplicity of reality does not imply its plurality. Here is a great example of that, a study that traces the task of coordinating between different versions of reality in the course of an operation: Moreira, Tiago.“Heterogeneity and coordination of blood pressure in neurosurgery.” Social Studies of Science 36, no. 1 (2006): 69-97.

But if different versions of ‘an object’ may be enacted in practice, this is not to say that they are always fused at some point into ‘an object’ – they may never quite get to hang together. For a good case of that, see: Law, John, and Vicky Singleton. “Object lessons.” Organization 12, no. 3 (2005): 331-355.

And here an obligatory one for anthropologists, as the ‘object’ being studied – and multiplied – is a ‘population’ as defined by genetics in practice: M’charek, Amâde. “Technologies of population: Forensic DNA testing practices and the making of differences and similarities.” Configurations 8, no. 1 (2000): 121-158.

Oh, and I should not forget this troubling of ‘perspectives’ that went beyond realities to also include appreciations: Pols, Jeannette. “Enacting appreciations: beyond the patient perspective.” Health Care Analysis 13, no. 3 (2005): 203-221.

More recently, there was a special issue of Social Studies of Science to do with ontologies. It has a good introduction: Woolgar, Steve, and Javier Lezaun. “The wrong bin bag: A turn to ontology in science and technology studies?.”Social Studies of Science 43, no. 3 (2013): 321-340. In it, you may want to read: Law, John, and Marianne Elisabeth Lien. “Slippery: Field notes in empirical ontology.” Social Studies of Science 43, no. 3 (2013): 363-378.

And if you are still hungry for ontologies, then there is (with the example of eating and with norms explicitly added to ‘onto’): Mol, Annemarie. “Mind your plate! The ontonorms of Dutch dieting.” Social Studies of Science 43, no. 3 (2013): 379-396.

All of which is not to say that I would want to argue for such a thing as a ‘turn to ontology’ in anthropology or anywhere else. In the branch of the social studies of science, technology and medicine that I come from this term, ontology, has served quite specific purposes. It has helped to put some issues and questions on the agenda. But of course, like all terms, it has its limits. For it evokes ‘reality’ better than other things deserving our attention – norms, processes, spatialities, dangers, pleasures: what have you…

 

Annemarie Mol is professor of Anthropology of the Body at the University of Amsterdam. In her work she combines the ethnographic study of practices with the task of shifting our theoretical repertoires. She is author of  The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice and The Logic of Care: Health and the Problem of Patient Choice.

In Amazon wars, bands of brothers-in-law (University of Utah)

[Chagnon is restless.Gosh]

27-Oct-2014

Contact: Lee J. Siegel

How culture influences violence among the Amazon’s ‘fierce people’

IMAGE: In this mid-1960s photo, men from two Yanomamo villages in the Amazon engage in nonhostile combat to determine the strength and fighting prowess of potential alliance partners. A new study…

Click here for more information.

SALT LAKE CITY, Oct. 27, 2014 – When Yanomamö men in the Amazon raided villages and killed decades ago, they formed alliances with men in other villages rather than just with close kin like chimpanzees do. And the spoils of war came from marrying their allies’ sisters and daughters, rather than taking their victims’ land and women.

Those findings – which suggest how violence and cooperation can go hand-in-hand and how culture may modify any innate tendencies toward violence – come from a new study of the so-called “fierce people” led by provocative anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and written by his protégé, University of Utah anthropologist Shane Macfarlan.

Macfarlan says the researchers had expected to find the Yanomamö fought like “bands of brothers” and other close male kin like fathers, sons and cousins who live in the same community and fight nearby communities. That is how fights are conducted by chimpanzees – the only other apes besides humans that form coalitions to fight and kill.

Instead, “a more apt description might be a ‘band of brothers-in-law,'” in which Yanomamö men ally with similar-age men from nearby villages to attack another village, then marry their allies’ female kin, Macfarlan, Chagnon and colleagues write in the study, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study provides a mechanism to explain why Yanomamö warriors in a 1988 Chagnon study had more wives and children than those who did not kill.

“We are showing these guys individually get benefits from engaging in killing,” Macfarlan says. “They’re getting long-term alliance partners – other guys they can trust to get things done. And they are getting marriage opportunities.”

Since his 1968 book “Yanomamö: The Fierce People,” Chagnon has been harshly criticized by some cultural anthropologists who claim he places undue emphasis on genes and biology as underpinnings of human violence, based on his 1964-1993 visits to the Yanomamö. Defenders such as Macfarlan say Chagnon takes a much more balanced view, and that “it’s never a genes-versus-culture argument. They operate in tandem.”

Chagnon got what was seen as vindication in 2012 when he was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. The new study, with Macfarlan as first author and Chagnon as senior author – is Chagnon’s inaugural PNAS article as a member.

Macfarlan joined the University of Utah faculty this year an assistant professor of anthropology. He worked as Chagnon’s postdoctoral fellow at the University of Missouri from January 2013 to June 2014. Chagnon and Macfarlan conducted the study with two Missouri colleagues: anthropologists Robert S. Walker and Mark V. Flinn.

Models of Warfare

The Yanomamö – hunters and farmers who live in southern Venezuela and northern Brazil – once gained social status as “unokai” for killing.

Up to 20 Yanomamö (pronounced yah-NO-mama, but also spelled Yanomami or Yanomama) would sneak up on another village at dawn, “shoot the first person they saw and then hightail back home,” Macfarlan says. Some Yanomamö men did this once, some up to 11 times and some never killed. (Data for the study, collected in the 1980s, covered somewhat earlier times when spears, bows and arrows were the primary weapons.)

IMAGE: University of Utah anthropologist Shane Macfarlan, shown here, is first author of a new study with provocative anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon about the Yanomamo, or so called ‘fierce people’ of…

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Macfarlan says the classic debate has been, “does warfare in small-scale societies like the Yanomamö resemble chimpanzee warfare?” – a theory known as the “fraternal interest group” model, in which bands of brothers, fathers, sons and paternal uncles all living in the same community fight other similar communities.

The new study asked whether Yanomamö killing follows that model or the “strategic alliance model,” which the researchers dub the “band of brothers-in-law” model. This model – supported by the study’s findings – indicates that Yanomamö men form alliances not with close kin from the same community, but with men from other communities. After killing together, a bond is formed and they often marry each other’s daughters or sisters and move into one or the other’s village or form a new village.

“When we started off this project, we all assumed it would be the chimpanzee-like model. But in human groups we have cultural rules that allow us to communicate with other communities. You certainly don’t see chimpanzees doing this.”

Is the study a retreat from what Chagnon’s critics see as too much focus on genetic and biological underpinnings of violence? Macfarlan says no, that Chagnon “has never been as all-biology as people have painted him. Most of his published research shows how unique cultural rules make the Yanomamö an interesting group of people.”

Earlier research suggested that for chimps, warfare is adaptive in an evolutionary sense, and that it also benefits small-scale human societies. The new study asked, “If warfare is adaptive, in what way do the adaptive benefits flow?” Macfarlan says.

“Some people, myself included, said, to the victor goes the spoils, because if you conquer another territory, you might take their land, food or potentially their females.”

But the new study indicates “the adaptive benefits are the alliances you build by perpetrating acts of warfare,” he adds. “It’s not that you are taking land or females from the vanquished group, but for the Yanomamö, what you acquire is that you can exchange resources with allies, such as labor and, most importantly, female marriage partners.”

The study’s findings that the Yanomamö form strategic alliances to kill suggest that “our ultracoooperative tendencies tend to go hand-in-hand with our ultralethal tendencies,” Macfarlan says. “We show a relationship between cooperation and violence at a level unseen in other organisms.” That may seem obvious for allied nations in modern wars, but “we’re saying that even in small-scale societies this is the case.”

IMAGE: Men from one Yanomamo village in the Amazon ‘dance’ in a neighboring village to show off their military prowess, weaponry and group cohesion after they were invited to a…

Click here for more information.

How the Study was Conducted

The new study analyzed data collected by Chagnon in the 1980s, when about 25,000 Yanomamö lived in about 250 villages ranging from 25 to 400 people.

The study examined 118 Yanomamö warriors or unokai who had killed a total of 47 people by forming raiding parties of two to 15 men. The researchers analyzed the relationships between every possible pair of men in those raiding parties. Among the 118 unokai men, there were 509 possible pairs. Macfarlan says the findings revealed surprises about the relationship between co-unokai – pairs of men who kill together:

  • Only 22 percent of men who kill together were from the same lineage.
  • Only 34 percent of co-unokai pairs were from the same place of birth. “Guys who come from different places of birth are more likely to kill together.”
  • Among co-killers known to be related, a majority were related on their mother’s side rather than their father’s side – more evidence of forming alliances beyond the immediate paternal kinship group. In Yanomamö culture, true kin are viewed as being on the paternal side, while maternal relatives are seen as belonging to another social group.
  • The Yanomamö preferred forming coalitions with men within a median of age difference of 8 years. “The more similar in age, the more likely they will kill multiple times,” Macfarlan says.
  • Of the 118 unokai, 102 got married in a total of 223 marriages to 206 women. Of married killers, 70 percent married at least one woman from the same paternal line as an ally in killing. And “the more times they kill together, the more likely they are going to get marriage partners from each other’s family line,” Macfarlan says.
  • As a result, “The more times the guys kill together, the more likely they are to move into the same village later in life, despite having come from different village.”

The study found allies-in-killing often are somewhere between maternal first and second cousins, Macfarlan says. Under Yanomamö rules, a man’s ideal marriage partner is a maternal first cousin, who would be the offspring of your mother’s brother. He says Yanomamö rules allow marriage to a maternal first cousin, but not a paternal first cousin.

Despite debate over the biological roots of deadly coalitions in chimps and humans, the new study shows how culture can make it “uniquely human” because if Yanomamö men “kill together, they are plugged into this social scene, this marriage market,” Macfarlan says. “They are playing the game of their culture.”

An Indigenous Feminist’s take on the Ontological Turn: ‘ontology’ is just another word for colonialism (Urbane Adventurer: Amiskwacî)

Personal paradigm shifts have a way of sneaking up on you. It started, innocently enough, with a trip to Edinburgh to see the great Latour discuss his latest work in February 2013. I was giddy with excitement: a talk by the Great Latour. Live and in colour! In his talk, on that February night, he discussed the climate as sentient. Funny, I thought, this sounds an awful lot like the little bit of Inuit cosmological thought I have been taught by Inuit friends. I waited, through the whole talk, to hear the Great Latour credit Indigenous thinkers for their millennia of engagement with sentient environments, with cosmologies that enmesh people into complex relationships between themselves and all relations. 

It never came. He did not mention Inuit. Or Anishinaabe. Or Nehiyawak. Or any Indigenous thinkers at all. In fact, he spent a great deal of time interlocuting with a Scottish thinker, long dead. And with Gaia.

I left the hall early, before the questions were finished. I was unimpressed. Again, I thought with a sinking feeling in my chest, it appeared that the so-called Ontological Turn was spinning itself on the backs of non-european thinkers. And, again, the ones we credited for these incredible insights into the ‘more-than-human’, and sentience and agency, were not the people who built and maintain the knowledge systems that european and north american anthropologists and philosophers have been studying for well over a hundred years, and predicating their current ‘aha’ ontological moment upon. No, here we were celebrating and worshipping a european thinker for ‘discovering’ what many an Indigenous thinker around the world could have told you for millennia. The climate is sentient!

So, again, I was just another inconvenient Indigenous body in a room full of people excited to hear a white guy talk around Indigenous thought without giving Indigenous people credit. Doesn’t this feel familiar, I thought.

As an Indigenous woman, I have tried, over the last few years, to find thinkers who engage with Indigenous thought respectfully. Who give full credit to Indigenous laws, stories and epistemologies. Who quote and cite Indigenous people rather than anthropologists who studied them 80 years ago. This is not always easy. I am so grateful to scholars like David Anderson, Julie Cruikshank and Ann Fienup-Riordan, among others, for giving me hope amidst the despair I’ve felt as the ‘Ontological Turn’ gains steam on both sides of the Atlantic. I am so grateful, too, for the Indigenous thinkers who wrestle with the academy, who have positioned themselves to speak back to Empire despite all of the polite/hidden racism, heteropatriarchy, and let’s face it–white supremacy–of the University.

The euro-western academy is colonial. It elevates people who talk about Indigenous people above people who speak with Indigenous people as equals, or who ARE Indigenous. (Just do a body count of the number of Indigenous scholars relative to non-Indigenous scholars in the euro academy, and you’ll see that over here there are far more people talking about Indigenous issues than Indigenous people talking about those issues themselves). As scholars of the euro-western tradition, we have a whole host of non-Indigenous thinkers we turn to, in knee-jerk fashion, when we want to discuss the ‘more-than-human’ or sentient environments, or experiential learning. There are many reasons for this. I think euro scholars would benefit from reading more about Critical Race theory, intersectionality, and studying the mounting number of rebukes against the privilege of european philosophy and thought and how this silences non-white voices within and outside the academy. This philosopher, Eugene Sun Park, wrote a scathing critique of the reticence of philosophy departments in the USA to consider non-european thought as ‘credible’. I would say many of the problems he identifies in euro-western philosophy are the same problems I have experienced in european anthropology, despite efforts to decolonise and re-direct the field during the ‘reflexive turn’ of the 1970s-onwards.

As an Indigenous feminist, I think it’s time we take the Ontological Turn, and the european academy more broadly, head on. To accomplish this, I want to direct you to Indigenous thinkers who have been writing about Indigenous legal theory, human-animal relations and multiple epistemologies/ontologies for decades. Consider the links at the end of this post as a ‘cite this, not that’ cheat-sheet for people who feel dissatisfied with the current euro (and white, and quite often, male) centric discourse taking place in our disciplines, departments, conferences and journals.

My experience, as a Métis woman from the prairies of Canada currently working in the UK, is of course limited to the little bit that I know. I can only direct you to the thinkers that I have met or listened to in person, whose writing and speaking I have fallen in love with, who have shifted paradigms for me as an Indigenous person navigating the hostile halls of the academy. I cannot, nor would I try, to speak for Indigenous thinkers in other parts of the world. But I guarantee that there are myriad voices in every continent being ignored in favour of the ‘GREAT WHITE HOPES’ we currently turn to when we discuss ontological matters (I speak here, of course, of ontology as an anthropologist, so hold your horses, philosophers, if you feel my analysis of ‘the ontological’ is weak. We can discuss THAT whole pickle another day).

So why does this all matter? Why am I so fired up at the realisation that (some) european thinkers are exploiting Indigenous thought, seemingly with no remorse? Well, it’s this little matter of colonialism, see. Whereas the european academy tends to discuss the ‘post-colonial’, in Canada I assure you that we are firmly still experiencing the colonial (see Pinkoski 2008 for a cogent discussion of this issue in Anthropology). In 2009, our Prime-Minister, Stephen Harper, famously claimed that Canada has ‘no history of colonialism’. And yet, we struggle with the fact that Indigenous women experience much higher rates of violence than non-Indigenous women (1200 Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing in the last forty years alone, prompting cries from the UN and other bodies for our government to address this horrific reality). Canada’s first Prime-Minister, proud Scotsman John A. MacDonald (I refuse to apply the ‘Sir’), famously attempted to ‘kill the Indian in the Child’ with his residential schools. Canada is only now coming around to the realisation that through things like residential schools, and the deeply racist—and still legislated!–Indian Act, that it, as a nation, was built on genocide and dispossession. Given our strong British roots in Canada, you can imagine that it’s All Very Uncomfortable and creates a lot of hand-wringing and cognitive dissonance for those who have lived blissfully unaware of these violences. But ask any Indigenous person, and you will hear that nobody from an Indigenous Nation has ever laboured under the fantasy that Canada is post-colonial. Or benevolent. Nor would we pretend that the British Empire saddled us with solely happy, beautiful, loving legacies. For all its excessive politeness, the British colonial moment rent and tore apart sovereign Indigenous nations and peoples in what is now Canada, and though the sun has set on Queen Victoria’s Empire, British institutions (including the academy) still benefit from that colonial moment. We are enmeshed, across the Atlantic, in ongoing colonial legacies. And in order to dismantle those legacies, we must face our complicity head on.

Similarly, with the wave of the post-colonial wand, many european thinkers seem to have absolved themselves of any implication in ongoing colonial realities throughout the globe. And yet, each one of us is embedded in systems that uphold the exploitation and dispossession of Indigenous peoples. The academy plays a role in shaping the narratives that erase ongoing colonial violence. My experience in Britain has been incredibly eye-opening: as far as the majority of Brits are concerned, their responsibility for, and implication in, colonialism in North America ended with the War of Independence (in America) or the repatriation of the Canadian constitution (1982).

Is it so simple, though? To draw such arbitrary lines through intergenerational suffering and colonial trauma, to absolve the european academy and the european mind of any guilt in the genocide of Indigenous people (if and when european and north american actors are willing to admit it’s a genocide)? And then to turn around and use Indigenous cosmologies and knowledge systems in a so-called new intellectual ‘turn’, all the while ignoring the contemporary realities of Indigenous peoples vis-à-vis colonial nation-states, or the many Indigenous thinkers who are themselves writing about these issues? And is it intellectually or ethically responsible or honest to pretend that european bodies do not still oppress Indigenous ones throughout the world?

Zygmunt Bauman (1989) takes sociology to task for its role in narrating the Holocaust, and its role in erasing our collective guilt in the possibility for a future Holocaust to emerge. He argues that by framing the Holocaust as either a a) one-off atrocity never to be repeated (“a failure of modernity”) (5) or b) an inevitable outcome of modernity, sociology enables humanity to ignore its ongoing complicity in the conditions that created the horrors of the Holocaust. The rhetoric of the post-colonial is similarly complacent: it absolves the present generation of thinkers, politicians, lawyers, and policy wonks for their duty to acknowledge what came before, and, in keeping with Bauman’s insights, the possibility it could happen again — that within all societies lurk the ‘two faces’ of humanity that can either facilitate or quash systemic and calculated human suffering and exploitation. But the reality is, as Bauman asserts, that humanity is responsible. For all of these atrocities. And humanity must be willing to face itself, to acknowledge its role in these horrors, in order to ensure we never tread the path of such destruction again. 

I take Bauman’s words to heart, and ask my non-Indigenous peers to consider their roles in the ongoing colonial oppression of Indigenous peoples. The colonial moment has not passed. The conditions that fostered it have not suddenly disappeared. We talk of neo-colonialism, neo-Imperialism, but it is as if these are far away things (these days these accusations are often mounted with terse suspicion against the BRIC countries, as though the members of the G8 have not already colonized the globe through neo-liberal economic and political policies). The reality is that we are just an invasion or economic policy away from re-colonizing at any moment. So it is so important to think, deeply, about how the Ontological Turn–with its breathless ‘realisations’ that animals, the climate, water, ‘atmospheres’ and non-human presences like ancestors and spirits are sentient and possess agency, that ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, ‘human’ and ‘animal’ may not be so separate after all—is itself perpetuating the exploitation of Indigenous peoples. To paraphrase a colleague I deeply admire, Caleb Behn: first they came for the land, the water, the wood, the furs, bodies, the gold. Now, they come armed with consent forms and feeble promises of collaboration and take our laws, our stories, our philosophies. If they bother to pretend to care enough to do even that much—many simply ignore Indigenous people, laws, epistemologies altogether and re-invent the more-than-human without so much as a polite nod towards Indigenous bodies/Nations.

A point I am making in my dissertation, informed by the work of Indigenous legal theorists like John Borrows, Kahente Horn-Miller, Tracey Lindberg, and Val Napoleon, is that Indigenous thought is not just about social relations and philosophical anecdotes, as many an ethnography would suggest. These scholars have already shown that Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies represents legal orders, legal orders through which Indigenous peoples throughout the world are fighting for self-determination, sovereignty. The dispossession wrought by centuries of stop-start chaotic colonial invasion and imposition of european laws and languages is ongoing. It did not end with repatriation of constitutions or independence from colonial rule. Europe is still implicated in what it wrought through centuries of colonial exploitation. Whether it likes it or not.

My point here is that Indigenous peoples, throughout the world, are fighting for recognition. Fighting to assert their laws, philosophies and stories on their own terms. And when anthropologists and other assembled social scientists sashay in and start cherry-picking parts of Indigenous thought that appeal to them without engaging directly in (or unambiguously acknowledging) the political situation, agency and relationality of both Indigenous people and scholars, we immediately become complicit in colonial violence. When we cite european thinkers who discuss the ‘more-than-human’ but do not discuss their Indigenous contemporaries who are writing on the exact same topics, we perpetuate the white supremacy of the academy.

So, for every time you want to cite a Great Thinker who is on the public speaking circuit these days, consider digging around for others who are discussing the same topics in other ways. Decolonising the academy, both in europe and north america, means that we must consider our own prejudices, our own biases. Systems like peer-review and the subtle violence of european academies tend to privilege certain voices and silence others. Consider why, as of 2011, there were no black philosophy profs in all of the UK. Consider why it’s okay to discuss sentient climates in an Edinburgh lecture hall without a nod to Indigenous epistemologies and not have a single person openly question that. And then, familiarise yourself with the Indigenous thinkers (and more!) I am linking below and broaden the spectrum of who you cite, who you reaffirm as ‘knowledgeable’.

hiy-hiy.

Zoe Todd (Métis) is a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She researches human-fish relations in the community of Paulatuuq in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Northwest Territories, Canada. She is a 2011 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar.

Critical Theory After the Anthropocene (Public Seminar)

McKenzie Wark

August 9th, 2014

1. One does not have to look far to find intellectuals trained in the humanities, even the social sciences, who feel the need to ‘critique’ the concept of the Anthropocene. Clearly, since we did not invent this concept, it must somehow be lacking! And yet rarely does one find them trying the inverse procedure: what if we took the Anthropocene as that which critiques the state of critical thought? Maybe it is our concepts that are to be found lacking…

2. Even to understand the Anthropocene in its own terms calls for a certain ‘vulgarity’ of thought. The Anthropocene is about the consequences of the production and reproduction of the means of existence of social life on a planetary scale. The Anthropocene calls for the definitive abandonment of the privileging of the superstructures, as the sole object of critique. The primary object of thought is something very basic now: the means of production of social life as a whole.

3. It seems likely that the Anthropocene as a kind of periodization more or less corresponds to the rise of capitalism. But it is no longer helpful, even if that is the case, to tarry among critical theories that only address capitalism and have nothing to say about other periods, other modes of production. The Anthropocene may be brief, but the Holocene is long. A much long temporality is called for. It is ironic that critical theory, so immune in other ways to ‘anthropocentrism’, nevertheless insists on thinking in merely human time scales.

4. To even know the Anthropocene calls on the expertise of many kinds of scientific knowledge and an elaborate technical apparatus. Those who have led the charge in raising alarm about the Anthropocene have been scientific workers. Those who attempt to deny its significance do so through mystifications which, it must be acknowledge, nevertheless draw on critiques of science. Critical theory need not submit itself to scientific knowledge, but it needs to accept its existence and the validity of its methods. One has to know when one’s tactics, even if correct in themselves, put you on the wrong side of history.

5. Means for enduring the Anthropocene are not going to be exclusively cultural or political, let alone theological. They will also have to be scientific and technical. A united front of many kinds of knowledge and labor is absolutely necessary. To imagine that the ‘political’ or ‘revolution’ or ‘communism’ will now work the miracles they so failed to work in the last two centuries is a charming habit of thought, but not a useful one. In the domain of praxis everything is yet to be invented.

6. And so it is not enough to just critique the Anthropocene with the tired old theory toolbox handed down now for more than one generation through the graduate schools. The Anthropocene is a standing rebuke to the exhaustion of those hallowed texts. Let’s have done with answering all contingencies with the old quotations from Freud and Heidegger, Lukacs and Benjamin, Althusser and Foucault. It is time for critical theory to acknowledge its conservative habits – and to break with them.

7. At a minimum, the Anthropocene calls on critical theory to entirely rethink its received ideas, its habituated traditions, its claims to authority. It needs to look back in its own archive for more useful critical tools. Ones that link up with, rather than dismiss or vainly attempt to control, forms of technical and scientific knowledge. The selective tradition needs to be selected again. The judgments of certain unquestioned authorities need for once to be questioned.

8. And in the present, it is time to work transversally, in mixed teams, with the objective of producing forms of knowledge and action that are problem-centered rather than tradition and discipline centered. Critical though avoids the inevitable fate of becoming hypocritical theory when it takes its problems from without, from the world of praxis, rather than from within its own discursive games. The Anthropocene is the call from without to pay attention to just such problems.

9. It is time, in short, for critical theory to be as ‘radical’ in its own actual practice of thought as it advertises. Let’s have done with the old masters and their now rather old-timey concerns. Let’s start with the problem before us, whose name is the Anthropocene.

Um surto etnológico (OESP)

30 de abril de 2014 | 2h 07

Roberto Damatta – O Estado de S.Paulo

Um escritor advertia que o personagem central de um texto é o leitor. Sigo o conselho e explico o meu título: surto significa arrebatamento, transporte, rapto. Etnológico diz respeito ao estudo de sociedades tidas como “selvagens” ou “primitivas” porque não tinham escrita, desconheciam uma tecnologia onipotentemente destrutiva, sua sabedoria estava na cabeça de um punhado de idosos e, eis um escândalo: não cobriam seus corpos.

Discutiu-se se tinham alma e imaginou-se que habitavam uma variante do Éden, mas a convivência – essa rotina que transforma presidentes em donos de quitanda e deputados em canalhas logo mostrou que os “primitivos” eram humanos como nós e, como dizia Mark Twain, não pode haver nada pior do que ser um homem.

Surtado, perambulei pelas minhas notas de campo, escritas entre 1961 e a primeira quadra de 1970, quando vivi intermitentemente nas aldeias dos povos gaviões e apinaiés, falantes da língua jê. Na estação atual da minha vida, senti saudade de mim mesmo e fui em busca dos meus 20 e poucos anos, quando tinha uma letra bonita; e não havia experimentado sofrimento, morte e perigo. Sabia de sua existência, mas essas coisas não tocavam meu coração (que era maior do que o mundo) nem os planos de marcar a profissão que abracei com entusiasmo inocente e alucinado.

Queria descobrir se eu havia deixado passar em branco aquilo que meus colegas mais jovens haviam elaborado debaixo da liderança intelectual de Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, a quem eu dedico essa pequena memória.

Viveiros de Castro é um raro mestre pensador. Num ensaio de grande alcance intelectual, ele formulou uma relação que havia passado despercebida, a saber: no universo dos indígenas americanos, o denominador comum entre os seres vivos não era a natureza, mas a cultura.

Para nós, a humanidade é o centro definitivo e absoluto de consciência e vontade, mas não é assim entre os índios. Para eles, ser humano é um modo de ser entre outros. Talvez seja o mais visível, mas não é o mais central ou definitivo como dizem as cosmologias mais conhecidas e mais influentes, as quais asseveram que o ato final da criação são os humanos. Entre os ameríndios não há sete dias que culminam no Homem. Há uma multidão de narrativas reveladoras que as diferenças entre homens, bichos e plantas não é de substância.

Vejam o contraste. Do nosso ponto de vista, a sociedade humana é a herdeira de toda a criação. Homens, animais e plantas se unem pela sua “natureza” física. No mais, são radicalmente diferenciados, pois foi apenas a humanidade que recebeu o sopro divino.

Entre os “índios”, porém, a humanidade é um modo de ser, estar e perceber, entre outros. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro cunhou o conceito de “perspectivismo” para designar esses outros modos de enxergar a vida. Os mortos, os animais, as plantas e os fenômenos naturais seriam outras formas ou possibilidades de vivenciar a subjetividade que não seria algo exclusivo do humano.

Neste sentido, os mitos não são criações destinadas a explicar o inexplicável. São testemunhos de que somos parte de um imenso todo capaz de se comunicar o qual, em momentos memoráveis, se dividiu em entidades com uma aparência diferenciada, mas todas dotadas da capacidade de comunicação. Como pode adivinhar o leitor, tal reencontro se faz por meio de rituais ou em situações especiais – acima de tudo quando o ser (seja humano ou bicho) passa por um estado de extremada individualidade e solidão.

Consultando e lendo minhas notas de décadas passadas, colhidas na obstinação dos meus verdes anos, encontro muitas informações sobre animais. Esses atores fundamentais dos mitos que logram ou são logrados por algum humano e que, os meus professores nativos, repetiam para ouvidos moucos que eles eram iguais a nós e nos doaram o que sabemos.

Hoje, graças ao trabalho de Tania S. Lima, Aparecida Vilaça e Carlos Fausto – revejo meus dados e descubro como sol e lua, as estrelas, o sapo, os morcegos, o beija-flor e outros bichos são como nós e nós como eles. Eis um universo absolutamente relacional. Nele, ninguém tem o direito de ultrapassar um certo limite porque não há limites, mas modos de ser. Quanto a nós, que inventamos e legitimamos a “civilização” através da tecnologia (do uso dos talheres à bomba atômica), há muito vazamos todas as fronteiras.

Afinal, somos inventores e compradores de automóveis e, pior que isso, de refinarias.

(Se o surto continuar, eu continuo na próxima semana.)

The Ontological Spin (culanth.org)

by Lucas Bessire and David Bond

In the second Commentary essay, Lucas Bessire and David Bond respond to the Theorizing the Contemporary series, “The Politics of Ontology,” edited by Martin Holbraad and Morten Axel Pedersen.

February 28, 2014

Bessire, Lucas and Bond, David . “The Ontological Spin.” Fieldsights – Commentary, Cultural Anthropology Online, February 28, 2014, http://www.culanth.org/fieldsights/494-the-ontological-spin

The latest salvation of anthropology, we are told, lies in the so-called ontological turn. By all accounts, it is a powerful vision (Sahlins 2013). The ontological turn is exciting in two ways: First, it offers a way to synthesize and valorize the discipline’s fractured post-humanist avant-garde (Descola 2013; Kohn 2013). Second, it shifts the progressive orientation in anthropology from the critique of present problems to the building of better futures (Latour 2013; Holbraad, Pederson, and Viveiros de Castro 2014; cf. White 2013). In both, the turn to ontology suggests that the work of anthropology has really just begun.

At the risk of oversimplifying a diverse body of research, here we ask how the ontological turn works as a problematic form of speculative futurism. While the symmetrical future it conjures up is smart, the turbulent present it holds at bay is something we would still like to know more about. Our skepticism derives from our respective fieldwork on the co-creation of indigenous alterity and on how the lively materiality of hydrocarbons is recognized. In both of these sites, we have documented dynamics that elude and unsettle the ontological script. Much, we would argue, is missed. We are troubled at how ontological anthropology defers thorny questions of historical specificity, the social afterlives of anthropological knowledge, and the kinds of difference that are allowed to matter. We are also concerned by the ultimate habitability of the worlds it conjures. Or consider nature and culture. In many places today, nature and culture matter not as the crumbling bastions of a modern cosmology (e.g., Latour 2002; Blaser 2009) but as hardening matrices for sorting out what forms of life must be defended from present contingencies and what must be set adrift. That is, nature and culture matter not as flawed epistemologies but as dispersed political technologies.

Ontological anthropology is fundamentally a story about the Amazonian primitive. It rests on the recent discovery of a non-modern “multinaturalist” ontology within indigenous myths (Viveiros de Castro 1998). Yet, as Terry Turner (2009) shows, the figure of this “Amerindian cosmology” is based on ethnographic misrepresentation. Kayapó myths, for instance, do not collapse nature/culture divides. Rather, the “whole point” is to describe how animals and humans became fully differentiated from one another, with one key twist: humanity is defined not as a collection of traits but as the capacity to objectify the process of objectification itself. In such ways, the attribution of this hyper-real cosmology paradoxically reifies the very terms of the nature/culture binary it is invoked to disprove.

At the very least, this means that ontological anthropology cannot account for those actually existing forms of indigenous worlding that mimetically engage modern binaries as meaningful coordinates for self-fashioning (Taussig 1987; Abercrombie 1998). This is certainly true in the case of recently-contacted Ayoreo-speaking peoples in the Gran Chaco. Ayoreo projects of becoming are not a cosmology against the state, but a set of moral responses to the nonsensical contexts of colonial violence, soul-collecting missionaries, radio sound, humanitarian NGOs, neoliberal economic policies, and rampant ecological devastation (Bessire 2014). Only by erasing these conditions could a “non-interiorizable” multinaturalist exteriority be identified. Doesn’t this suggest that ontological anthropology is predicated on homogenizing and standardizing the very multiplicity it claims to decolonize? What does it mean if ontological anthropology, in its eagerness to avoid the overdetermined dualism of nature/culture, reifies the most modern binary of all: the radical incommensurability of modern and non-modern worlds?

Charged with getting nature wrong, modernity is rejected out of hand in the ontological turn. While the West mistook Nature for an underlying architecture, indigenous people have long realized a more fundamental truth: the natural world is legion and lively. Yet this supposed distinction between modernity (mononaturalism) and the rest (multinaturalism) seems strangely illiterate of more nuanced accounts of the natural world within capitalist modernity (Williams 1980; Mintz 1986; Mitchell 2002). Attributing the pacification of nature’s vitality to the modern episteme neglects how colonial plantations, industrial farms and factories, national environmental policies, biotechnology companies, and disaster response teams have attempted, in creative and coercive ways, to manage the dispersed agencies of the natural world. The easy dismissal of modernity as mononaturalism disregards the long list of ways that particular format never really mattered in the more consequential makings of our present.

It is all the more ironic, then, that ontological anthropology uses climate change to spur a conversion away from the epistemic cage of modernity. We would do well to remember that, in the most concrete sense, modernity did not disrupt our planet’s climate, hydrocarbons did. Such fixation on modernity misses the far more complicated and consequential materiality of fossil fuels (Bond 2013). In the momentum they enable and in the toxicity they enact, hydrocarbons naturalize differences in new ways. Such petro-effects amplify existing fault lines not only in industrial cities but also in the premier fieldsites of ontological anthropology: the supposedly pristine hinterlands. In the boreal forests of the northern Alberta or in the upper reaches of the Amazon Basin or in the snowy expanses of the arctic or in the dusty forests of the Gran Chaco, the many afterlives of hydrocarbons are giving rise to contorted landscapes, cancerous bodies, and mutated ecologies. Such problems form a “slow violence” (Nixon 2011) that the spirited naturalism of ontological anthropology cannot register let alone resist.

These observations lead us to formulate the following three theses:

  1. First, the ontological turn replaces an ethnography of the actual with a sociology of the possible.
  2. Second, the ontological turn reifies the wreckage of various histories as the forms of the philosophic present, insofar as it imagines colonial and ethnological legacies as the perfect kind of village for forward thinking philosophy.
  3. Finally, the ontological turn formats life for new kinds of rule premised on a narrowing of legitimate concern and a widening of acceptable disregard, wherein the alter-modern worlds discovered by elite scholars provides redemptive inhabitation for the privileged few, while the global masses confront increasingly sharp forms and active processes of inequality and marginalization (Beck 1992; Harvey 2005; Appadurai 2006; Wacquant 2009; Stoler 2010; Agier 2011; Fassin 2012).

In conclusion, we argue that it is misleading to suggest anthropology must choose between the oppressive dreariness of monolithic modernity or the fanciful elisions of the civilization to come. Both options leave us flat-footed and ill-equipped to deal with the conditions of actuality in our troubled present (Fischer 2013; Fortun 2013). Instead, we insist on a shared world of unevenly distributed problems. This is a world of unstable and rotational temporalities, of semiotic and material ruptures, of unruly things falling apart and being reassembled. It is a world composed of potentialities but also contingencies, of becoming but also violence, wherein immanence is never innocent of itself (Biehl 2005; Martin 2009). In this world, we ask how the wholesale retreat to the ideal future may discard the most potent mode of anthropological critique; one resolutely in our present but not necessarily confined to it.

[This is a distilled version of a longer critical essay.]

References

Abercrombie, Tom. 1998. Pathways of Memory and Power: Ethnography and History among an Andean People. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Appadurai, Arjun. 2006. Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Agier, Michel. 2011. Managing the Undesirables: Refugee Camps and Humanitarian Government. Cambridge: Polity.

Beck, Ulrich. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, translated by Mark Ritter. London: Sage.

Bessire, Lucas. 2014. Behold the Black Caiman: A Chronicle of Ayoreo Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Biehl, João. 2005. Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Blaser, Mario. 2009. “Political Ontology: Cultural Studies without Culture?” Cultural Studies 23, nos. 5–6: 873–96.

Bond, David. 2013. “Governing Disaster: The Political Life of the Environment During the BP Oil Spill.” Cultural Anthropology 28, no. 4: 694–715.

Descola, Philippe. 2013. Beyond Nature and Culture, translated by Janet Lloyd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fassin, Didier. 2012. Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fischer, Michael M. J. 2013. “Double-Click: the Fables and Language Games of Latour and Descola; Or, From Humanity as Technological Detour to the Peopling of Technologies.” Paper presented at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting, Chicago, November 22.

Fortun, Kim. 2013. “From Latour to Late Industrialism.” Paper presented at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting, Chicago, November 22.

Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Holbraad, Martin, Morten Axel Pedersen, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro.2014. “The Politics of Ontology: Anthropological Positions,” Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, January 13.

Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2002. War of the Worlds: What About Peace? Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2013. An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns, translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Martin, Emily. 2009. Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Mintz, Sidney. 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin.

Mitchell, Timothy. 2002. “Can the Mosquito Speak?” In Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity, 19–53. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Sahlins, Marshall. 2013. Foreword to Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, xi–xiv. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2010. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Taussig, Michael. 1987. Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Turner, Terence. 2009. “The Crisis of Late Structuralism, Perspectivism and Animism: Rethinking Culture, Nature, Spirit and Bodiliness.” Tipití 7, no 1: 3–42.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 1998. “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivalism.”Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4, no. 3: 469–88.

Wacquant, Loïc. 2009. Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

White, Hylton. 2013. “Materiality, Form, and Context: Marx contra Latour,” Victorian Studies 55, no. 4: 667–82.

Williams, Raymond. 1980. “Ideas of Nature.” In Culture and Materialism: Selected Essays, 67–85. London: Verso.

Image credit: “Stars in Motion,” by Miguel Claro.

On the ontological turn in anthropology

Ontology as the Major Theme of AAA 2013 (Savage Minds)

by  on November 27, 2013

Most attendees of the annual meetings in Chicago are, as one wag put it, exhAAAusted from all our conference going, and the dust is only now settling. As we look back on the conference, however, it is worth asking what actually happened there. Different people will have different answers to this question, but for me and the people in my scholarly network, the big answer is: ontology.

The term was not everywhere at the AAAs, but it was used consistently, ambitiously, audaciously, and almost totally unironically to offer anthropology something that it (supposedly) hasn’t had in a long time: A massive infusion of theory that will alter our paradigm, create a shift in the field that everyone will feel and which will orient future work, and that will allow us, once again, to ask big questions. To be honest, as someone who had been following ‘ontological anthropology’ for the past couple of years, I was sort of expecting it to not get much traction in the US. But the successful branding of the term and the cultural capital attached to it may prove me wrong yet.

In fact, there were just two major events with the world ontology in the title: the “Politics of Ontology” roundtable and the blowout “The Ontological Turn in French Philosophical Anthropology”. But these events were full of ‘stars’ and attracted plenty of attention.

Will this amount to anything? What is ontology anyway? Were there other themes that were more dominant in the conference? I don’t have any answers to these questions yet, but I hope to soon and will let you figure it out when I do. If you get there before me, then fire away in the comments section and we’ll see what people think.

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A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn” – Part 1 (Somatosphere)

By 

January 15, 2014

This article is part of the series: 

Editor’s note: In the wake of the discussion about the ‘ontological turn’ at this year’s American Anthropological Association conference, we asked several scholars, “which texts or resources would you recommend to a student or colleague interested in the uses of ‘ontology’ as an analytical category in recent work in anthropology and science and technology studies?”  This was the reading list we received from Judith FarquharMax Palevsky Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago.  Answers from a number of other scholars will appear as separate posts in the series.

In providing a reading list, I had lots of good “ontological” resources at hand, having just taught a seminar called “Ontological Politics.”  This list is pared down from the syllabus; and the syllabus itself was just a subset of the many useful philosophical, historical, and ethnographic readings that I had been devouring during the previous year, when I was on leave.

I really like all these pieces, though I don’t actually “follow” all of them.  This is a good thing, because the field — if it can be called that — tends to go in circles, with all the usual suspects citing all the usual suspects.  In the end, as we worked our way through the course, I found the ethnographic work more exciting than most of the more theoretically inclined writing.  At the other end of the spectrum, I feel quite transformed by having read Heidegger’s “The Thing” — but I’m not sure why!

Philosophical and methodological works in anthropology and beyond:

Philippe Descola, 2013, The Ecology of Others, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

William Connolly, 2005, Pluralism. Durham: Duke University Press. (Ch. 3, “Pluralism and the Universe” [on William James], pp. 68-92.)

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, 2004, “Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation,” Tipiti 2 (1): 3-22.

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, 2012, “Immanence and Fear: Stranger events and subjects in Amazonia,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2 (1): 27-43.

Marisol de la Cadena, 2010, “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual reflections beyond ‘politics’,” Cultural Anthropology 25 (2): 334-370.

Bruno Latour, 2004, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern.” Critical Inquiry 30 (2): 225-248.

A dialogue from Common Knowledge 2004 (3): Ulrich Beck: “The Truth of Others: A Cosmopolitan Approach” (pp. 430-449) and Bruno Latour: “Whose Cosmos, Which Cosmopolitics? Comments on the Peace Terms of Ulrich Beck” (pp. 450-462).

Graham Harman, 2009, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics.  Melbourne: Re.Press.  (OA)

Isabelle Stengers, 2005, “The Cosmopolitical Proposal,” in Bruno Latour & Peter Weibel, eds., Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy.  Cambridge MA: MIT Press, pp. 994-1003.

Martin Heidegger, 1971, “The Thing,” in Poetry, Language, Thought (Tr. Albert Hofstadter).  New York: Harper & Row, pp. 163-180

Graham Harman, 2010, “Technology, Objects and Things in Heidegger,”Cambridge Journal of Economics 34: 17-25.

Jane Bennett and William Connolly, 2012, “The Crumpled Handkerchief,” in Bernd Herzogenrath, ed., Time and History in Deleuze and Serres. London & New York: Continuum, pp. 153-171.

Tim Ingold, 2004, “A Circumpolar Night’s Dream,” in John Clammer et al., eds., Figured Worlds: Ontological Obstacles in Intercultural Relations.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 25-57.

Annemarie Mol, 1999, “Ontological Politics: A Word and Some Questions,” in John Law, and J. Hassard, ed., Actor Network Theory and After.  Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 74-89.

Terrific ethnographic studies very concerned with ontologies:

Mario Blaser, 2010, Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond.  Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Eduardo Kohn, 2013, How Forests Think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Helen Verran, 2011, “On Assemblage: Indigenous Knowledge and Digital Media (2003-2006) and HMS Investigator (1800-1805).” In Tony Bennet & Chris Healey, eds.,  Assembling Culture.  London & New York: Routledge, pp. 163-176.

Morten Pedersen, 2011, Not Quite Shamans: Spirit worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

John Law & Marianne Lien, 2013, “Slippery: Field Notes in Empirical Ontology,” Social Studies of Science 43 (3): 363-378.

Stacey A. Langwick, 2011, Bodies, Politics, and African Healing: The Matter of Maladies in Tanzania.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Judith Farquhar is Max Palevsky Professor of Anthropology and Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. Her research concerns traditional medicine, popular culture, and everyday life in contemporary China. She is the author of Knowing Practice: The Clinical Encounter of Chinese Medicine (Westview 1996),Appetites: Food and Sex in Post-Socialist China (Duke 2002), and Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing (Zone 2012) (with Qicheng Zhang), and editor (with Margaret Lock) of Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropology of Material Life (Duke 2007).

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A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn” – Part 2 (Somatosphere)

By 

January 17, 2014

This article is part of the series: 

Editor’s note: In the wake of the discussion about the ‘ontological turn’ at this year’s American Anthropological Association conference, we asked several scholars, “which texts or resources would you recommend to a student or colleague interested in the uses of ‘ontology’ as an analytical category in recent work in anthropology and science and technology studies?”  This was the answer we received from Javier Lezaun, James Martin Lecturer in Science and Technology Governance at the University of Oxford. 

Those of us who have been brought up in the science and technology studies (STS) tradition look at claims of an ‘ontological turn’ with a strange sense of familiarity: it’s déjà vu all over again! For we can read the whole history of STS (cheekily and retroactively, of course) as a ‘turn to ontology’, albeit one that was rarely thematized as such.

A key text in forming STS and giving it a proto-ontological orientation (if such a term can be invented) is Ian Hacking’s Representing and Intervening (1983). On its surface the book is an introduction to central themes and keywords in the philosophy of science. In effect, it launches a programme of research that actively blurs the lines between depictions of the world and interventions into its composition. And it does so by bringing to the fore the constitutive role of experimental practices – a key leitmotiv of what would eventually become STS.

Hacking, of course, went on to develop a highly original form of pragmatic realism, particularly in relation to the emergence of psychiatric categories and new forms of personhood. His 2004 book, Historical Ontology, captures well the main thrust of his arguments, and lays out a useful contrast with the ‘meta-epistemology’ of much of the best contemporary writing in the history of science.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves and disrespecting our good old friend Chronology. The truth is that references to ontology are scarce in the foundational texts of STS (the term is not even indexed in Representing and Intervening, for instance). This is hardly surprising: alluding to the ontological implies a neat distinction between being and representing, precisely the dichotomy that STS scholars were trying to overcome – or, more accurately, ignore – at the time. The strategy was to enrich our notion of representation, not to turn away from it in favour of higher plane of being.

It is in the particular subfield of studies of particle physics that the discussion about ontology within STS developed, simply because matters of reality – and the reality of matter – featured much more prominently in the object of study. Andrew Pickering’s Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics (1984) was one of the few texts that tackled ontological matters head on, and it shared with Hacking’s an emphasis on the role of experimental machineries in producing agreed-upon worlds. In his following book, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (1995), Pickering would develop this insight into a full-fledged theory of temporal emergence based on the dialectic of resistance and accommodation.

An interesting continuation and counterpoint in this tradition is Karen Barad’s book, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (2007). Barad’s thesis, particularly her theory of agential realism, is avowedly and explicitly ontological, but this does not imply a return to traditional metaphysical problem-definitions. In fact, Barad speaks of ‘onto-epistemology’, or even of ‘onto-ethico-epistemology’, to describe her approach. The result is an aggregation of planes of analysis, rather than a turn from one to the other.

Arguments about the nature of quarks, bubble chambers and quantum physics might seem very distant from the sort of anthropo-somatic questions that preoccupy readers of this blog, but it is worth noting that this rarefied discussion has been the terrain where key elements of the current STS interest in ontology – the idioms of performativity and materialism in particular – were first tested.

The work that best represents this current interest in matters of ontology within STS is that of Annemarie Mol and John Law. Their papers on topologies (e.g., ‘Regions, Networks and Fluids: Anaemia and Social Topology’ in 1994; ‘Situating technoscience:  an inquiry into spatialities’, 2001) broke new ground in making explicit the argument about the multiplicity of the world(s), and served to develop a first typology of alternative modes of reality. Mol’s ethnography of atherosclerosis, The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice (2003), is of course the (provisional?) culmination of this brand of ‘empirical philosophy’, and a text that offers a template for STS-inflected anthropology (and vice versa).

One distinct contribution of this body of work – and this is a point made by Malcolm Ashmore in his review of The Body Multiple – is to extend STS modes of inquiry beyond the study of new or controversial entities, and draw the same kind of analytical intensity to realities – like that (or those) of atherosclerosis – whose univocal reality we tend to take for granted. For better and worse, STS grew out of an effort to understand how new facts and artifacts enter our world, and the field remains attached to all that is (or appears to be) new – even if the end-result of the analysis is often to challenge those claims to novelty. The current ‘ontological turn’ in STS would then represent an effort to excavate mundane layers of reality, to draw attention to the performed or enacted nature of that that appears old, settled or uncontroversial. I suspect this manoeuvre carries less value in Anthropology, where the everyday and the taken-for-granted is often the very locus of inquiry.

The other value of the ‘ontological turn’ is, in my view, to recast the question of politics – as both an object of study and a mode of engagement with the world. This recasting can take at least two different forms. There are those who argue that attending to the ontological, i.e., to the reality of plural worlds and the unavoidable condition of multinaturalism, intensifies (and clarifies) the normative implications of our analyses (see for instance the genealogical argument put forward very forcefully by Dimitris Papadopoulos in his article ‘Alter-ontologies: towards a constituent politics in technoscience’). A slightly different course of action is to think of ontology as a way of addressing the intertwining of the technological and the political. Excellent recent examples of this approach are Noortje Marres’s Material Participation: Technology, the Environment, and everyday Publics (2012) and Andrew Barry’s Material Politics: Disputes Along the Pipeline (2013).

In sum, and to stake out my own position, I think STS is best seen as a fairly tight bundle of analytical sensibilities – sensibilities that are manifested in an evolving archipelago of case studies. It is not a theory of the world (let alone a theory of being), and it quickly becomes trite and somewhat ritualistic when it is transformed into a laundry list of statements about what the world is or should be like. In this sense, an ‘ontological turn’ would run counter to the STS tradition, as I see it, if it implies asserting a particular ontology of the world, regardless of whether the claim is that that ontology is plural, multiple, fluid, relational, etc. This sort of categorical, pre-empirical position smothers the critical instincts that energize the field and have driven its evolution over the last three decades. Steve Woolgar and I have formulated this view in a recent piece for Social Studies of Science (‘The wrong bin bag:  a turn to ontology in science and technology studies?’), and a similar argument been made often and persuasively by Michael Lynch (e.g., “Ontography: investigating the production of things, deflating ontology”).

Javier Lezaun is James Martin Lecturer in Science and Technology Governance and Deputy Director at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society in the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the politics of scientific research and its governance. He directs the research programme BioProperty, funded by the European Research Council, which investigates the role of property rights and new forms of ownership in biomedical research. Javier is also currently participating in research projects on the governance of climate geoengineering, and new forms of consumer mobilization in food markets.

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Ontological Turns Inside-Out (Struggle Forever)

By Jeremy Trombley. Posted on Thursday, January 16, 2014, at 4:35 pm.

It seems Ontology has finally gone mainstream in anthropology. Only a few years ago, it was something heard on the edges of the disciplinary discourse. Now you can’t throw a stick without running into a blog post, article, conference paper, or what-have-you that uses ontology as a central theme. Over at Somatosphere, Judith Farquhar has assembled a nice reading list for an introductory understanding of the “ontological turn” in anthropology. Then, over at Anthropological Research on the Contemporary (ARC), Lyle has a solid critiqueof this turn in anthropology – suggesting that it fails to change the form of inquiry to match its subject. It’s a running joke that anthropology has taken so many turns in the last  few decades that we’ve often ended up right where we started. I think there’s a truth to that, and I appreciate Lyle for calling out the underlying conservativism that can be found in this (or any) turn.

As a frequent (though not influential) supporter of the ontological turn in anthropology, I feel as though I should put in my thoughts on all of this. I can’t speak to the events at the AAA – I wasn’t there and I haven’t followed up on any of it as I’ve been obsessively working on an NSF proposal for the last two months (which I just submitted yesterday!!) – so I’m going to talk about some impressions that I get from this turn and then some of my thoughts on where things ought to go from my perspective. My first impression is much like Lyle’s. In the name of ontology, there seems to be a retreat to classical ethnography and broad, sweeping comparative analysis. The terms have changed – reflecting on “ontologies” rather than “cultures” – but the means, methods, and results are much the same. In this sense, it’s not really overcoming the Nature/Culture dualism so much as bringing everything into the cultural domain. I agree with Lyle when he says:

…the question is not about categorizing and typologizing multiple ontologies but rather of charting the historical emergence of new ontologies.”

He continues:

The stakes are not only ontological, but also ethical: how to live in this changed world? How to live together amidst these changed beings and groupings? How to make anthropological knowledge about these changed beings and lives? The point is not that ontology is not a useful question for anthropologists, and indeed forms a productive critique of the comparative form of cultural anthropology. Rather, the point is that an ontological critique must be coupled with a transformation of the procedures and form of anthropological inquiry. The question is where one goes after making this ontological “turn”: towards the contemporary, or towards the 19th century.”

I think that there is an element of this in the “ontological turn” most notably with John Law‘s and Annamarie Mol’s work – attempting to understand how the creation of new beings or systems of relation affect those beings and relations that already exist. This is expressed by the two (though Mol deserves credit for coming up with the term) in their conception of “ontological politics” (a concept that, to me, mirrors Latour and Stengers’s “cosmopolitics”). The way I see it, there can be no concrete ontology, not because we cannot know (this is the difference between this and earlier critiques) or access ontological reality, but because ontological reality is itself fundamentally weird and always in the process of being produced. Ontology is never settled, and that’s why we have to be cognizant of other ontologies, and attentive to the relationships between them. Furthermore, we have to be attentive to our own ontological commitments and effects. It’s not merely a question of understanding others’ ontologies, but of understanding our own as anthropologists. This is why I would ask that we take the “ontological turn” not left, right, or wrong, butinside-out. Turn it back on ourselves and our own practices rather than focusing once again on others. What kind of world are we creating through our practices as anthropologists? What kind of world do we want to create? And how can our methods and practices make that world come into being? These are the important questions an ontological perspective begins to address.

I still support an ontological anthropology, but one that is strange, weird, magical, and inside-out.

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A Reader’s Guide to the Ontological Turn – Addendum (Struggle Forever)

By Jeremy Trombley. Posted on Friday, January 17, 2014, at 11:57 am.

Somatosphere’s recently shared two posts (part 1 and part  2) of reader’s guides to the ontological turn, which are extremely useful and full of interesting books/articles/etc. that I hadn’t encountered before. However, there are some noteworthy exceptions, and so I feel compelled to add my own list of influential works in my ontological education. I don’t have tons of time at the moment, so I’ll just write it up as a list and hopefully you can click through and decide which are important to you. Here goes:

Blogs

Academic blogging has been a central feature of the ontological turn over the last several years, so I think it’s unfortunate that these have been left out of the recent reading lists. Much of my own education has taken place through reading and engaging with these blogs – I owe the greatest debt to all of these writers. Here are some of my favorites:

Larval Subjects by Levi Bryant

Synthetic_Zero by Michael, Arran, and DMF

Archive Fire by Michael

Attempts at Living by Arran James

Knowledge Ecology by Adam Robbert

Immanence by Adrian Ivakhiv

Circling Squares by Phillip

Formal Publications (books/articles/etc.)

These could also be considered author recommendations since I won’t list all books and articles by each individual.

Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity by Gregory Bateson

The Cybernetic Brain by Andrew Pickering

After Method by John Law (also check out his website for tons of great essays and articles!)

The Democracy of Objects by Levi Bryant

A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History by Manuel De Landa

Ecologies of the Moving Image by Adrian Ivakhiv

Territories of Difference by Arturo Escobar

Reassembling the Social by Bruno Latour

Cosmopolitics by Isabelle Stengers

When Species Meet by Donna Haraway

Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett

Capitalism and Christianity, American Style by William Connolly

The Ecological Thought by Tim Morton

O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies

That’s it for now. If I’ve forgotten anyone/anything please fill in by commenting! I will add to the comments too if anything else comes to mind.

Common nonsense: a review of certain recent reviews of the “ontological turn” (Anthropology of this Century)

By Morten Axel Pedersen

http://aotcpress.com/articles/common_nonsense/

If the success of a new theoretical approach can be measured by the intensity of the passion and the amount of critique it generates, then surely the so-called “ontological turn” within anthropology and cognate disciplines qualifies as one. As still more scholars and perhaps especially students express sympathy with some or all of its analytical aspirations, the larger and the louder becomes the chorus of anthropological sceptics expressing reservations about the project and its implications. But what is this “turn” really about, and how fair – and thus also how damaging – are the various critiques raised against it? With a view to addressing these and related questions, my aim in this essay is to review certain recent reviews of the ontological turn with special emphasis on whether or not this theoretical method and some of the most common critiques of it may themselves be said to rest on implicit meta-ontologies.

Let me begin by describing what I consider the ontological turn to be all about. I shall be relatively brief, for a lot has already been written about this question, notably by my friend and sometimes partner in crime Martin Holbraad, partly in relation to critiques of the book Thinking Through Things, which he co-edited with Amira Henare and Sari Wastell (and to which I myself contributed) in 2007.

In a recent paper about the oftentimes implicit linguistic conventions underpinning anthropological descriptions of Amerindian cosmologies, Magnus Course correctly observes ‘that what people have meant by ontology has been diverse’ and that the ontological turn therefore comprises ‘neither a “school” nor even a “movement”, but rather a particular commitment to recalibrate the level at which analysis takes place’ (2010: 248). Nevertheless, Course goes on to define it as the ‘dual movement towards, on the one hand, exploring the basis of the Western social and intellectual project and, on the other, of exploring and describing the terms in which non-Western understandings of the world are grounded’ (ibid). This characterization seems to me basically right, for the ontological turn has always above all been a theoretically reflexive project, which is concerned with how anthropologists might get their ethnographic descriptions right. The ambition is to devise a new analytical method from which classic ethnographic questions may be posed afresh. For that is what the ontological turn was always meant to be, in my understanding: a technology of description, which allows anthropologists to make sense of their ethnographic material in new and experimental ways.

So, why all the fuss? Leaving aside the already hotly debated proposition that ‘ontology is just another word for culture’ (Venkatesan 2010) and other claims that the ontological turn is simply an anachronistic icing on the obsolete culturalist cake, one of the most common objections centres on the very word ontology itself. For just how – many students and scholars ask themselves and others with varying degrees of incredulity and shock (for a good example, see Keane 2009) – can this term, with its heavy load of philosophical baggage and its metaphysical, essentialist, and absolutist connotations, be of any use to the anthropological project? One of the best examples of this critique can be found in a recent essay by Paolo Heywood (2012). Inspired by Quine’s (mocking) concept of “bloated universes” in which ‘”existence” covers everything both actual and potential’ (2012: 148), Heywood argues that the ontological turn has failed to live up to its own mission of always allowing ethnographic specificity to trump theoretical generality by operating with a tacit meta-ontology of its own. ‘At some point or another along the path traced by the “ontological turn”‘, Heywood asserts, ‘we will have to start deciding what is, and what is not. Holbraad and others use the word “ontology” precisely because of the connotations of “reality” and “being” it brings with it; yet they neglect to acknowledge that insisting on the “reality” of multiple worlds commits you to a meta-ontology in which such worlds exist: what Quine would call “a bloated universe”‘ (2012: 146).

Of the different critiques of the ontological turn that I have come across over the years, this is one of the subtlest. For, even if one does not necessarily share Heywood’s concern that ‘there is a difference of usage in the concept [of ontology] as it is employed by anthropologists and by analytical philosophers’ (after all, why should this constitute a problem at all – surely this is a sign of growing disciplinary confidence and maturity?), Heywood is evidently touching upon a rather delicate question, namely whether the ontological turn amounts to a big theory (or “meta-ontology”, in Heywood’s terms) or not? To be sure, Holbraad in particular has gone to great lengths to stress that the ontological turn (or the “recursive move”, as he calls it in more recent writings) is a heuristic analytical device as opposed to a fixed theoretical framework. In a characteristically mind-boggling line of reasoning, he explains:

At issue … are not the categories of those we purport to describe, but rather our own when our attempts to do so fail … Rather than containing [contingency] at the level of ethnographic description, the recursive move allows the contingency of ethnographic alterity to transmute itself to the level of analysis … [R]ecursive anthropology … render[s] all analytical forms contingent upon the vagaries of ethnographically driven aporia … This, then, is also why such a recursive argument could hardly pretend to set the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, anthropological or otherwise … [T]he recursive move is just that: a move – as contingent, time-bound, and subjunctive as any (Holbraad 2012: 263-264).

It is hard to imagine a more logically compelling response to Heywood’s critique. No, goes Holbraad’s reply, the ontological turn has no covert meta-ontological ground, for its only “ground” is precisely its radically contingent attitude expressed not only in its open-ended attitude to its object of study, but also in its relative lack of commitment to the heuristic concepts that it creates and deploys to make sense of “ethnographically driven aporia”. To claim, as Heywood and several others have done, that variants of the ontological turn have ‘moved too far from the call to “take seriously” other worlds, and started positing world of their own’ (2012: 144) is to fail to recognise the limited degree to which the ontological turn takes itselfseriously. Indeed, seen from its own radically contingent perspective, ‘…a future non- or even anti-recursive turn cannot be excluded, just as they cannot yet, in their constitutive ethnographic contingency, be conceived. What we have, in effect, is a machine for thinking in perpetual motion – an excessive motion, ever capable of setting the conditions of possibility for its own undoing’ (Holbraad 2012: 264-65).

Yet, compelling as Holbraad’s argument is, I am not entirely sure that it lets him and other self-proclaimed “ontographers” (myself included) fully off the hook. For the question is whether the analytic ideal of a radically heuristic “ethnographic theory” (Da Col & Graeber 2011) is actually synthetically possible, to adopt Kant’s old distinction. A perfectly recursive anthropology of the sort sketched by Holbraad above may well be logically conceivable as a pure abstract possibility. But, to my knowledge, all of the “ontographic” studies published to date have been wedded to a particular theoretical ground captured by concepts such as “relational” (Strathern 1988), “fractal” (Wagner 1991), and “intensive” (Deleuze 1994). Certainly, some of my own work is guilty of this – if that is what it is to analyse from a set of theoretical assumptions: a sin for which one can be charged and found guilty in the Cambridge court. As far as I am concerned, the meta-ontological critique made by Heywood does not refer to an ethnographic crime but an anthropological necessity of which one can, as long as one maintains a high level of theoretical reflexivity, consider oneself proud. Indeed, as I am going to suggest in what remains of this essay, this is the main weakness of Heywood’s and other recent critiques of the ontological turn: they are curiously blind to their own theoretical ground. For, no matter whether they want this or not, they too are meta-ontological sinners.

Nowhere is this more clear than in James Laidlaw’s recent review in this journal of my book on Mongolian shamanism, Not Quite Shamans, or, put differently – in keeping with Laidlaw’s own jesting spirit – his review of a single footnote in the book’s Introduction, where I summarise my take on the term “ontology”. The problem, Laidlaw argues (closely echoing Heywood’s critique of Holbraad), is that my position involves a tacit ‘oscillat[ation] between two different uses of “ontology”‘, which are mutually incompatible. On the one hand, Laidlaw asserts, I use this term in the same sense as he himself appears to subscribe to, namely with reference to ‘the study of, or reflection on, the question of what there is – what are the fundamental entities or kinds of stuff that exist?’ And, on the other hand, I also deploy ontology in what Laidlaw considers to be a more radical and dubious sense of a purported ‘”radical alterity” of certain societies … [which] consists not in them having different “socially constructed” viewpoints on the same (natural) world, but in them living in actually different worlds. The differences between them and Euro-America are not therefore epistemological (different ways of knowing the same reality) but ontological (fundamentally different realities)’. This, Laidlaw maintains, is a contradiction, for if in the first sense, ‘”ontologies” … refer to views about what exists rather than … a claim about what exists’, then, in the second and what he calls “original” sense, people in ‘Melanesia, the Amazon, and northern Mongolia live in different worlds, [and] enjoy ontological auto-determination’. Accordingly, Laidlaw concludes, my concept of ontology and therefore my theoretical position more generally, ‘delivers not new post-plural multi-naturalism, but merely the familiar old idea that different peoples have different theories about the world’ (Laidlaw 2012).

Now, I am happy to admit that my use of the term ontology “oscillates” between two different and apparently contradictory meanings, namely ontology in the sense of “essence” (what there is) and ontology in the sense of “theory” or “model” (of what there is). But I am less inclined to agree that this poses any real anthropological problem; in fact, I would like to think of this seeming slippage from essence to theory/model as one of the greatest methodological advantages of the ontological turn. For Laidlaw, there is a qualitative difference between ‘refer[ing] to views about what exists’ as opposed to ‘putting forward a claim about what exists’, and it is precisely because what he refers to as the “original” ontological turn is concerned with the latter project (“ontology”) and not the former (“epistemology”) that it disqualifies itself as (good) anthropology and turns into (bad) philosophy. However, is this a fair depiction of the ontological turn, be that in its “original” form or not? And further, does not the distinction between describing ontologies and making ontologies hinge on a tacit meta-ontology of its own? It seems to me that Laidlaw’s critique of the ontological turn contains a boomerang-effect, in that the more or less implicit premises underwriting his identification of internal contradictions in my usage of the term “ontology” may be turned back on Laidlaw himself to the effect of exposing otherwise hidden theoretical grounds in his own anthropological project.

To flesh out this point, it is instructive to look at a concrete example of what Laidlaw refers to as my ontological “possession” or “challenge”. He sums up my attempt to describe what a Darhad Mongolian shamanic spirit (and a shaman) is in the following way:

Instead of being unchanging entities of which people’s diverse fleeting impressions are imperfect representations, the unseen entities of shamanism are labile, as it were, “all the way up” … The confusing, fragmentary manifestations people encounter in a shamanic séance just is what there is. On this account, “genuine shamans”, those who are able to some degree to pin their spirits down and control them are, Pedersen argues, less shamanic than the not-quite shamans whose unpredictable behaviour more fully manifests the “fluid ontology of spirits”: “ontology” here meaning merely “composition” (Laidlaw 2012).

This is a stellar gloss of one of the central arguments of my book, with which I have no difficulty. Indeed, note that Laidlaw and I here seem to agree about how “ontology” might be used in an anthropologically meaningful sense, namely as “composition”. But what interests me for our present purposes is the seemingly insignificant “merely” in Laidlaw’s formulation. For what he presents us with here, I think, is the tip of a conceptual iceberg that extends right down to the edifice of his own meta-ontology. After all, what invisible referent could this “merely” have other than the essentialist notion of “the really real” with which Laidlaw (unjustifiably, in my view) accuses the ontological turn of operating? It would appear that, in his eagerness to expose the contradictions of my argument, Laidlaw inadvertently brings to the fore some pretty serious ontological challenges of his own.

But of course, this does not let me off the hook, either. The fact that Laidlaw performs the same meta-ontological sleight of hand that he associates with me does not make his critique of the ontological turn less pertinent. But then again, perhaps it does in one way. For what happens, we may ask, the moment we omit the word “merely” from Laidlaw’s depiction of the Northern Mongolian shamanic cosmos ? We are left with an anthropological concept of ontology that does not confuse “essence” and “model”, or “reality” and its “representations”, but that denotes a single yet infinitely differentiated object of ethnographic study, which spans ‘everything both actual and potential’ (Heywood in op cit). This anthropological ontology contains everything one encounters during fieldwork – spirit beliefs and doubts about these, propositions about the nature of reality, and descriptions of such propositions, and then some – for the whole point is to never ‘start deciding what is, and what is not’ (ibid). This is what the talk about “multiple worlds” is all about: not the (epistemologically and politically) dubious reduction of each “culture” or “people” to a encapsulated reality, but, on the contrary, the explosion of potential concepts and “worlds” in a given ethnographic material, or combination (comparison) of such materials. There are still too many things that do not yet exist, to paraphrase a memorable expression by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (1998).

Still – and here my position may be seen to differ somewhat from Holbraad’s – although the ontological turn offers an unusually open-ended and creative technology of ethnographic description, it does, nevertheless, rest on a certain set of theoretical premises, which may or may not (depending on how strictly one defines this term) be deemed meta-ontological. Methodological monism, we might call this heuristic anthropological ontology: the strategic bracketing of any assumption – on behalf of the ethnographer and the people studied – that the object of anthropological analysis is comprised by separate, bounded and extensive units. The ontological turn amounts to a sustained theoretical experiment, which involves a strategic decision to treat all ethnographic realities as if they were “relationally” composed, and, in keeping with its “recursive” ambitions, seeks to conduct this experiment in a manner that is equally “intensive” itself. This is why the ontological turn contains within its conceptual make-up the means for its own undoing: it is nothing more, and nothing less, than a particular mode of anthropological play designed with the all too serious aim of posing ethnographic questions anew, which already appear to have been answered by existing approaches. To claim, as Laidlaw for instance does in his review of my book (Pedersen 2012), that I overlook what appears to be the most obvious interpretation in my analysis of a Mongolian hunter’s uncertainty about the spirits not as doubt about their existence but as doubt about their whereabouts at a particular time and place is therefore not entirely off the mark. But the point is that this “least obvious” interpretation (see Holbraad & Pedersen 2009) is done entirely deliberately and with a very particular purpose, namely, in the case at hand, to account for peoples’ “apparently irrational beliefs” and their distancing towards such beliefs in a new and ethnographically more satisfactory way.

For the same reason, the ontological turn does not, as I would like to see it, automatically mean taking people, animals, artefacts, or whatever “more seriously” than other anthropologists do, as if there were a vantage-point imbued with the authority to pass such normative judgements. But it does involve adopting a certain, and theoretically highly self-reflexive, stance towards what ethnographic data might be, what concepts they might evince, as well as what such data and their conceptual yield might do to common senses of what reality is. It is, above all, this theoretical reflexivity which Holbraad and I try to “take seriously”, and for which we may justly be criticized, albeit not, I think, necessarily for the reasons laid out by Heywood, Laidlaw, and others.

The ontological turn, then, does indeed involve a concept of a “bloated universe”, but this does not mean that it celebrates itself as the holy grail of anthropological theory. Rather, it represents a certain (and thus unavoidably fading) moment in the recent history of the discipline, where a vaguely defined cohort of mostly Cambridge-associated scholars found it exciting to experiment with the nature of ethnographic description and anthropological theorizing in a certain way. Certainly, no one is pretending that the ontological turn is particularly new anymore, let alone that it will last forever. Indeed, the time may well have come to put the ontological turn to rest, or at least to transform it beyond recognition by distorting its core assumptions from within. So, by all means, let us all look for ways to puncture the inflated ontological balloon, insofar as it is fair to say that such a thing ever existed beyond the artificial confines of the monster created by its critics to shoot it down.

Still, there are different ways of deflating the ontological bubble. Some of these critiques may be deemed more productive than others in that they seek to push forward the limits of anthropological theory and the riddles that good ethnography poses, as opposed to trying to defend an imagined status quo or, even, reverting to ossified positions. As I have suggested elsewhere (2012), such a productive unsettling of the ontological turn (and of “relational anthropology” more generally) would seem necessarily to entail a further radicalization or distortion of its “intensive” ground to the point where it ceases being “relational” anymore. Possibly, this differs from Holbraad’s attempt to construct a ‘machine for thinking in perpetual motion’ (cf. op. cit), for whereas he takes “alterity” to constitute an ethnographic fact that only a recursive anthropology can take fully seriously, I wonder whether the notion of ‘ethnographic alterity’ itself might not be inseparable from the very ‘relational anthropology’ that we might now imagine leaving behind. Be that as it may, whether a creative destruction or distortion of the ontological turn can occur from within its own recursive logic (as Holbraad seems to suggest) or – as I rather tend to think – not, is, in the larger scheme of things, beside the point. What matters is the commitment to an anthropological vision, which insists that a viable answer can only be found through still more ethnographic explorations and experimentations. To be sure, it is hard to imagine Laidlaw or any other critic of the ontological turn disagreeing with this (again: show me an anthropologist who does not aspire to take his ethnography seriously!) But I do think that he and other “default sceptics” may be criticized for a certain lack of reflexivity about their own theoretical grounds. After all, scepticism – along with its favourite rhetorical trope, sarcasm – rests on a certain ontology, too.

In his classic essay, “Common sense as a cultural system” (1975), Clifford Geertz writes:

There are a number of reasons why treating common sense as a relatively organized body of considered thought, rather than just what anyone clothed and in his right mind knows, should lead on to some useful conclusions; but perhaps the most important is that it is an inherent characteristic of common sense thought precisely to deny this and to affirm that its tenets are immediate deliverances of experience not deliberated reflections upon it … Common sense is not what the mind … spontaneously apprehends; it is what the mind filled with presuppositions … concludes … [N]o religion is more dogmatic, no science more ambitious, no philosophy more general. Its tonalities are different, and so are the arguments to which it appeals, but … it pretends to reach past illusion to truth, to, as we say, things as they are (1975: 7, 16-17)

This, it seems to me, is a rather precise depiction of the more or less conscious meta-ontological ground inhabited by Laidlaw, Heywood, and, coming to think of it, what seems to be most other recent critiques of the ontological turn (see e.g. Geismar 2011): common sense, in its various guises. Or, could we say, provocatively, common nonsense, as a way of conveying what in my own (and it would appear also Geertz’s) opinion represents the basic flaw of this approach, namely its striking unwillingness to reflect on its own theoretical presuppositions. Common nonsense, that is to say, as a term for denoting the all too common anthropological problem of not recognising the intrinsic and inescapable theoretical ground of all ethnographic description and anthropological analysis, including – and perhaps especially so – those descriptions and analyses that claim “to not be overly theoretical” or, worse, to “not be theoretical” at all, as if “theory” was the name of a spirit that could be exorcized by denying its presence and not talking about it. And, not for the first time, we can thank an old anthropological master like Geertz for reminding us that common (non)sense, along with other meta-ontologies in our discipline, is associated with certain particular ‘stylistic features, the marks of attitude that give it its peculiar stamp’ (1975: 17). For is that not how the otherwise tacit ontology of anthropological skepticism shows its face: through a telling ‘air of “of-courseness,” a sense of “it figures” [that] is cast over … some selected, underscored things’ (1975: 18)?

It should be amply clear by now that, from the perspective of the critiques of the ontological turn, the question (indeed, the mere mention) of the word “ontology” is better left to the philosophers to deal with (as if philosophers were especially well equipped to address “big” questions about the reality of things, leaving the “smaller” question of how different people see and know these things to anthropologists and other mortals). But, as I have tried to show, this is, for a number of reasons, an untenable position. The time has come to challenge the commonsensical sceptics to stand up and make explicit their own theoretical ground.

REFERENCES

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