I first became aware of the coming ‘ontological turn’ in relation to the Manchester debate on whether ‘ontology is just another word for culture‘. My objection to ontologies are summed up in that one proposal. Since then we’ve apparently taken an ontological turn following a debate of that name at the 2013 AAA in Chicago.
If the debate is really new to you, in a nut-shell ontology is the philosophy of being and becoming: the existential (but not existentialist) wing of philosophy. As it spreads through anthropology its architects have bilt upon Viveros de Castro’s Amazonian perspectivism which suggests many Amazonians possess such radical alterity, (otherness) through their animistic cosmology (understanding of the universe), as to account for an entirely different ontological reality. For ontologists this is beyond epistemology (the theory of knowledge) as it is about being – not knowing. That Amazonian animists recognise some animals and objects as persons and the ability of these multiple persons to transform across these categories leads to an appreciation of the associated shifts in perception that would accompany such shifts. This is not just a difference in beliefs, knowledge or taxa – this is a difference in their being. Once we recognise the separate way of being in one group the floodgates are open. Multiple ontologies are here.
Recently two blogs – one by the Proctontologist and another an anonymous reader at Savage Minds – dared to be among the first to poke at the ontology bubble. The former has me laughing out loud regularly. I admit to being a fan since an epic rant against ‘the Cambridge clique’ on the Anthropology Matters email list back in 2012 (clearly the same person -surely). Yes – he is mean and rude to friends, colleagues and acquaintances of mine, including at least one who scores a solid 10/10 on any scale by which loveliness can be measured. But I have a juvenile sense of humour (I thought I’d grow out of it upon becoming a dad – turns out 1000+ nappy changes doesn’t stop poo being funny – who knew?) and he has an eye for the ludicrousness that seeps through much of this writing. The second writer (the one on Savage Minds) got me thinking. The two first critiques I’d read sicne the AAA – two anonymous authors. The proctontologist’s anonymity is in a large part troll-armour. The anonymous letter on the other hand seems like something sadder. At post-faculty seminar drinking sessions we are many – it’s time for anti-ontologists to start to share our general sense of ‘meh‘ with the world.
I won’t pretend to have read ‘all the ontology’ – it gives me little pleasure. I know that all of these criticism have counter-punches waiting for them – I’ve heard and read most of them but they’ve not swayed me. So – a very rough outline of my grumblings follows:
- It’s culture. It was there from the beginning for me. I understand that culture is a loaded term – but taking it to be fluid, contested, social constructed – it’s the analytical category that stands for the short hand for the stuff of anthropology. Yes – Amazonian perspectivism is more than belief – there are practices and material things woven into these webs – but ontologists don’t add anything to my understanding. If anything it introduces an intangible black box at the heart of some people and cultures with claims made that these things are unknowable for outsiders. If it’s not culture it’s habitus or doxa or some other synonym we use to avoid the word culture. It’s culture. Meh.
- Social change – yes there is talk of transformation, vectors and becoming – but ontologies are clearly more frequently deployed to illustrate deep-lying differences of the ‘they do X’ variety. Doesn’t sit right for me.
- They are X. There’s an awful lot of ‘they’ in ontological writing. Too much homogenisation for my liking. Hard to talk about the collective being of a group of people without homogenising.
- Cultural relativism redux. It’s just rehashing cultural relativism debates in a new shiny philosophical package. We got past this. There’s a side order of the Sahlins/Obeyesekere debate in there too – with accusations about the unknowability of the mind of ‘the other’. It just seems like trudging back over old ground for the sake of arguments that aren’t actually derived from informants but from our own desire for a bit of a kerfuffle. Which brings me to…
- Puppetry (critique nicked from Andrew Irving). Ontolgists are projecting philosophically nuanced ideas onto other people(s) to make them dance for anthropologists to have a conversation about anthropology. This is not about our informants – it’s about us. Meh.
Having said all this – I am fully prepared to be convinced. I could be wrong. It just seems to me that every time this debate starts up down the pub we get further and further away from anthropology and further into philosophy. Yes it might frame a debate about understanding differences very well – but unless it helps me understand those differences (and similarities) then I’m not going to jump on board.