Ontological Wrong Turns

Apparently, there was a big hoopla in Chicago at the AAAs (I wasn’t there). “Ontology”, “the ontological turn”, “multiple ontologies” . . . . what’s this all about? A member of Anthony’s lab in France, Gildas Salmon, has written a helpful historical guide to the “ontological movement” (and showed the beginnings of a possible critique). He situates the ontological turn as a reaction to what the French call “postmodernism”—which in anthropology took the preeminent form of the critique of anthropological authority (in terms of writing and textual representation, the (dialogic) relation to the Other, and participation in/collaboration with colonial domination). Salmon argues that the work of the ‘ontological’ school aimed to reformulate the critique of cultural anthropology away from literary experimentation and towards a questioning of Western metaphysics; simultaneously reestablishing anthropological authority and utilizing this authority in an explicitly critical project against the “West” or the “modern” ontology.

As I have written elsewhere of Anne-Marie Mol’s The Body Multiple, the ontological critique of cultural anthropology is one that many of us could agree with (though the critique does not originate only with the current claimants to “ontology” ). Briefly, this critique argues that cultural anthropology, despite its appreciation of the wide variety of cultural differences, bases cultural comparison on the premise of a fundamentally shared nature. Moreover, access to or knowledge of this singular nature is provided only by the viewpoint of modern science, the product of one of these cultures (the modern West). Cultural difference is thereby reduced to an erroneous representation, its content a ratio between the knowledge produced by modern science and the ideas of a particular culture. For example, ethnobotanists attempt to correlate “native” plant classifications with scientific classifications—where there is difference, there is culture; but the denominator is always the truth of modern science. Of course, Rabinow made this point in his essay “Humanism as nihilism” back in 1983—arguing that Boasian cultural relativism is ultimately nihilistic because it can not take any Other’s concepts seriously—that is, as holding potential truth-value. Marilyn Strathern, too, had shown the absurdity and self-contradictions that accrue to anthropological efforts to map other people’s worlds onto the divisions of nature and culture, when many peoples have ‘no nature, no culture.’ Rabinow went on to propose an anthropology of modernity that would turn the anthropological gaze no on the truth apparatuses, the modes of veridiction, that undergirded modern science—including anthropology itself. In doing so, however, anthropology would have to transform its own practice and procedures to accord with the opening of new objects and problems. It is precisely this need to transform anthropology in order to account for the history of modernity and the natural sciences that the ‘ontological’ group avoids.

One of the peculiarities of the works clustering around the ‘ontological movement’ is the way in which they have moved from ethnographies in a relatively classical form toward broad comparative synthesis. What is curious about this is how the explanatory power of the fieldwork documents and observations has changed with the changing scales of the textual claims. In the original classic works from the mid-1980s, Descola’s In the Society of Nature and Edoardo Viveiros do Castro’s From the enemy’s point of view, both set up their Amazonian hosts (the Achuar and the Arawete respectively) in opposition to other “Amerindian” and even other “Amazonian” groups. For example, Descola writes in In the Society of Nature: “Yet the Achuar have not completely subdued nature by the symbolic networks of domesticity. Granted, the cultural sphere is all-encompassing, since in it we find animals, plants and spirits which other Amerindian societies place in the realm of nature. The Achuar do not, therefore, share this antimony between two closed and irredeemably opposed worlds: the cultural world of human society and the natural world of animal society. . . .” In this rendering, the opposition of nature to culture is characteristic of other Amerindian groups, but not the Achuar.

Or take this passage from Edoardo Viveiros de Castro, From the enemy’s point of view:

“If there exists such a thing as dialectical societies, the Ge and Bororo would rank as perfect examples. In them we find the maximal development of complementary oppositions in social categories and cosmological values, oppositions that fold, refold, intersect, and echo each other in a vertigionous baroque progression. . . . . They were the point of departure for the work of Levi-Strauss on native American mythologies, and they appear to be one of the strongest cases supporting structural anthropology. None of the attributes I’ve just described, unfortunately, are applicable to the Tupi-Guarani. . . . . “ (5).

In both cases, the ontological other is located in other Amerindian groups, and the distinction is basically motivated by a desire to critique Levi-Strauss’ analysis of the Amerindian mythological systems.
In the later works of EVC, the Arawete, once an exception to the Amazonian rule, are replaced by the “Amerindian” in opposition to the West. Or in Descola, the blurring of nature-culture stands as one part of the quartet in which the West takes up the mantle of dividing nature and culture, or nature and society (he retains totemism as a "metaphoric" opposition of nature and culture distinction from our "naturalism). As Gildas Salmon has pointed out, Levi-Strauss had accomplished an important “delegation” of the power of comparison to the Amerindians themselves, who were depicted as able translators and transformers of mythological forms. But in the so-called ‘ontological’ works, and in particular the more recent pseudo-encyclopedic studies, the comparative authority is seized back into the hands of the anthropologist. The Amerindians have simply come to stand for the Others to Ourselves.
Latour finally takes this even further. Not only does the blurring and perpetual mediation of “natures-cultures” come to stand for all of the Others, in contrast to the modern (Pyrrhic) effort to separate Nature and Society (or Culture, or Subject). For Latour, since “we have never (truly) been modern” in fact everyone is mixing and mediating natures and cultures. What Latour calls the “ancient anthropological matrix” characterizes everyone. The Ontologists, having started with exceptional case studies that showed the limits of Levi-Strauss’s America, and moving to producing a radical comparative distinction among “multiple ontologies”, finally leaves us with simply an ontology that we all share—one with small but never radical variations. The only thing Latour offers to explain differences in social and cultural form characteristic of “modernity” is a quantitative, rather than qualitative one: the greater “length” of the moderns’ networks.
What we have here is basically a refusal to change the procedures of anthropological inquiry to account for changes in its object. Salmon’s historical account leaves out an important other critique of cultural anthropology, besides (and beside) those focused on colonial power and literary representation—the effort to construct an “anthropology of modernity” or an “anthropology of the contemporary.” It is not surprising, perhaps, that Latour frequently repeats that an anthropology of modernity is “impossible.” Thus, in the reformulated anthropology that he proposes everyone and everything must be treated “as if” they were “nonmoderns.” Salmon shows that Descola and Viveiros do Castro returned to the “classical” form of the ethnographic monograph, and more recently Descola appears to be returning to the broad comparative sweeps of 19th century “armchair” anthropologists (but, pivotally, without history and evolution as resources for connecting them). Yet a diverse range of other anthropological works ignored by the Ontologists, rather than focusing on literary experimentation or political critiques of colonialism and anthropological authority, have begun to craft a different mode of anthropological inquiry adequate to modern and contemporary objects and problems. To repeat: not necessarily experiments in writing or representation, but experiments in the form of inquiry. Taking seriously the history of modernity—but not confining themselves to restating or confirming the modern problem—these works are not modern, post-modern, or “nonmodern,” but contemporary. In what follows, I will speak of two anthropological schools that I will call the Ontologists and the Anthropologists of the Contemporary.
Both the Ontologists and the Anthropologists of the Contemporary take on the modernist division of Nature and Culture (or nature and society). Both criticize cultural anthropology (from Boas to Geertz and beyond) for grounding their knowledge in a variation of cultures that presumes a stable underlying Nature (one knowable only through techniques of modern science). But subsequently these two schools of thought move in quite distinct directions. The Ontologists suggest—based on focused ethnographic research of “relatively pure or untouched” Others—that there are Other ways of ontologically ordering the universe. For example, rather than a common nature upon which multiple cultures can frolic (“multiculturalism”), you might have a common Culture upon which multiple kinds of nature associate. Gods, animals and humans can be connected by social relations of affinity, while humans resist thinking of themselves as linked to each other through affinity (EVC, Enemy’s point of view).
The Anthropologist of the Contemporary, by contrast, focuses on contemporary reconfigurations of natural and cultural, or natural and social elements. To adopt the language of ontology, the question is not about categorizing and typologizing multiple ontologies but rather of charting the historical emergence of new ontologies. How does the creation of new scientific or epistemic things change the beings of the world we live in? In “Artificiality and enlightenment: from sociobiology to biosociality” Rabinow shows that genetic technology and other developments in the life sciences are not only creating new things, but also providing new settings for reorganizing groups: for example, “it is not hard to imagine groups formed around the chromosome 17, locus 16,256, site 654,376 allele variant with a guanine substitution. Such groups will have medical specialists, laboratories, narratives, traditions, and a heavy panoply of pastoral keepers to help them experience, share, intervene, and “understand” their fate” (102). 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.

Works referenced

Descola, Phillipe. 1994[1986] In the society of nature: a native ecology in Amazonia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

_________. 2013[2005] Beyond nature and culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Latour, Bruno. 1993[1991] We have never been modern (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Rabinow, Paul. 2011[1983] “Humanism as nihilism: The bracketing of truth and seriousness in American cultural anthropology.” The accompaniment: assembling the contemporary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

__________. 1996[1992] “Artificiality and enlightenment: from sociobiology to biosociality.” Essays on the anthropology of reason (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Salmon, Gildas. 2013. “De la délégation ontologique : naissance de l’anthropologie néo-classique » Métaphysiques comparées Cerisy.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1980. “No nature, no culture: the Hagen case.”

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 1992[1986] From the enemy’s point of view: Humanity and divinity in an Amazonian society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

________. 1998. "Cosmological deixis and Amerindian perspectivism." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.