Ontologies – meh

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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…
  5. 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.


2 thoughts on “Ontologies – meh

  1. I think the point is that what they are not doing is philosophy. It’s quite clearly a citing machine this ontological turn. If you look at the recent postings on the cultural anthropology web debate, for instance, they can’t go three or four words without citing each other, putting up a picture of their favorite ontologist and his meerkat, and so on.

    It is unfair to the ontologists to see them as partaking in an academic movement with intellectual stakes on the line. One has to see them as they seem to see the Amerindians and PNG-ians, as a tiny isolated and incestuous village located among other such villages, and with their own unique forms of social (read ‘ontological’) organization – in truth, it’s ‘anti-social’, but that is what makes them uniquely English.

    As the procto-ontologist has repeated on many occasions, and I am agreement with her/him, there is a very important point to be made about just how bad and under-educated those in the social sciences and humanities are that this nonsense can be seen as anything other than some desperate oedipal drama being played out in JRAI, Common Knowledge and a few other journals.

    Let us just take a random quote from Deborah Battaglia’s recent word salad, i.e. her contribution to the ‘ontological spin’ taking place on the culanth website:

    “…we are positioned to invoke the idea of the onto-dispositif. The concept allies with Law and Evelyn’s (2013) notion of devices that create their own heterogeneous arrangements for relating, with the difference that it is a sensibility-engendering rather than an analytic device. Further, the onto-dispositif creates its own heterogeneous exchange protensions—prospecting for its own possible worlds and opening to things like Mars rovers and growing bioart sculptures alongside experiments on earthlings as understood by E.T./UFO believers (Antunes Almeida 2012; Battaglia 2006; Lepselter 2005), or more prosaically, mining machinery and A.I. “robots” studying our commercial preferences.”

    No philosopher speaks in this way, not even those who are taken as philosophers in anthropology (e.g. Zizek, Badiou, Laclau, Agamben, etc) write and think in this way.

    What, then, is going on? I’m afraid it’s a simple case of the kids are seeking to play adult and it all looks rather ghastly and pathetic. And yes, anonymity is the key because we know one thing about the de Castrated and his particular species, they are vicious and nasty – again, the proctontologist showed in part the hysterical response of him and his specices to just the initial salvos against ontologese.

    Oh, and one last thing, you also get ontologese when you have almost exclusively middle class, and upper middle class europeans and americans in a discipline. There can surely be no more ‘anti-political’ machine than these jumped up middle class twerps claiming they have a politics too – a politics of citing, and trying to engender ‘difference’. I wonder how Camridge or UCL would react to an insistence on having a black face in the department, and as a faculty member? No, that would be tooooooooo much (ontological) difference.

  2. I like this comment more than I like what I wrote. It creates a wonderful sense of the ouroborous-like-ness of ontologese/ontologists. As a movement it is eating itself. It also led me to think that I might be able to get on board with robots/AI possibly displaying such radical alterity that they might have a properly separate ontology.

    Thanks for the comment(ary) Steve.

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