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Anthropological theory is serious play

Back at work after the Christmas break: one student has the flu, another forgot to submit her assessment essay – while anxious partners send reminders about errands to be done and colleagues mingle personal animosities with arguments about ontology. The eternal return of the same in the world of the professional-managerial anthropologist: rather than just ending it all, the default reaction is to ironically distance oneself from this world.

Opinions on this question are divided, however. Some think we have a choice between irony and sincerity (Fernandez and Huber 2001; Steinmüller 2016), while others suggest that this choice is long gone: we are all ironists and cynics now, this is the predicament of our times (Žižek 1989; Belhaj Kacem 2009; Belhaj Kacem 2015:67ff). The philosopher of video games Ian Bogost broadly agrees with the latter, and in his book Play Anything (2016) he even coins a neologism for the problem: ironoia. If paranoia was the fear of people, ironoia is the fear of things, Bogost writes. Ironoia simply means that we can’t take any thing seriously. Yet he suggests there is an alternative: to play, seriously and joyfully.

The first example of serious play in Bogost’s book comes from an experience in a shopping mall in Atlanta: his four-year-old daughter is pulling back and forth at his hand, and when he looks down he sees that she is jumping between the white tiles of the floor, trying to avoid the grout lines. What we can learn from his daughter playing hopscotch, Bogost says, is to simply accept the things of the world as they are, and then play with them. If only we managed to do the same with all the myriad challenges we face in everyday life – Bogost discusses at length the difficulty of maintaining a lawn and the wonders he counters when going to the supermarket – perhaps we would be happier people?

Lest we think Bogost is terribly naïve and politically conservative, let’s have a closer look at his philosophy of play. First of all, we are surrounded by innumerable things, so how do we know where to start? Obviously we can’t play with everything and everyone at the same time. That in fact was the suggestion of David Foster Wallace, who argued in a famous commencement speech[1] that we should try to empathise with everyone around us, including the annoying person in front of us in the queue in the supermarket: surely, their life is even harder than ours. The problem of such generalized empathy, however, is that it is limitless. It is like water for the fish – the title of Wallace’s speech was ‘This is Water’. By trying to empathise with everyone and everything, we will lose ourselves; and when faced with one particular thing, we will deal with it in the same way someone with obsessive compulsive disorder tries to avoid the grout lines on the floor. The sense of play is lost when we obsessively stick to the rules while conscious that a million other playgrounds call for our attention. This is exactly the inverse of the four-year-old who is jumping the grout lines, lost in play. Surely the generalised empathy of Wallace is not what Bogost means: and caring for everything is not playing with everything.

But if we can’t pay attention to everything, how do we know what to play with? Bogost suggests it is actually quite simple to identify the playthings and playgrounds that are relevant to us at particular points in time. He cites an image suggested by the German systems theorist Niklas Luhmann: when you lose your keys, the world transforms into a map of potential key locations.[2] Every place – the pocket of your jacket, the slot behind the sofa, the chest of drawers by the door – is somewhere where the keys could be now, where they have been in the past, or where you might place them in the future. Not only are the spatial coordinates of your world now re-adjusted to the key search, so too are the temporal coordinates: what you did in the moments before you lost your key, and what you will do in the future, only make sense in relation to the lost keys.

Basically, in action, it is not very difficult to recognise the things that are relevant in particular situations and times. Once it is clear which things are relevant, there are fundamentally two choices: distancing oneself through irony or facing the things as they are. When we face the things as they are, there are yet again two choices: either pin things down into inescapable and frustrating structures (this is the cul-de-sac of obsessive-compulsive disorder), or accept them and play with them. Playing with them means adapting to the constraints of things, and fun ‘comes from the attention and care you bring to something, even stupid, seemingly boring activities’ (Bogost 2016:87). To repeat the core tenet of Bogost’s philosophy: when faced with the rules and playgrounds that are obvious to us, we just need to accept them as they are and play with them joyfully.

The problems of anthropology are in fact not so very different: there are a million ways of avoiding the things as they really are, and if we do face them, to pin them down in the manner of obsessive compulsives.[3] The challenge, however, is to play with things. In fact, what I want to suggest here is that serious play is the definition of real anthropology.

Anthropologists often confront things that are unusual, original, even radically different, things that are embodied in expressions such as ‘the spirit of the gift’ (Mauss 2016) or ‘twins are birds’ (Evans-Pritchard 1956:129). Generations of anthropologists have struggled with such non-intuitive statements, trying to explain their workings as part of a system or interpret their meaning within their context.

The essential anthropological move is to explore the rules and the playgrounds that open up once we take these statements seriously, that is, once we face things as they are. Of course ‘facing the things as they are’ is not so simple: how to deal with the innumerable things of reality is actually the core challenge of ‘theory’, as the reflection on observation, or ‘thinking about thinking’: and the primary theoretical choice is what is figure and what is ground among the countless objects that constitute reality.[4]

Typically, the anthropologist encounters a problem that constitutes a challenge in its alterity (e.g. ‘the spirit of the gift’). If ideally the next step would be to compare how the problem fits within alternative theoretical frameworks, in reality often the structures of theory suggest themselves in the manner of Luhmann’s lost key: based on the learning, experience, and thought of the anthropologist, only certain thought-places appear as possible locations of the problem. Certain thought-figures suggest themselves against the back-ground of what ‘goes without saying’.

Yet at every such suggestion of a possible key to the problem, i.e. of a possible figure against ground, the anthropologist has to make a choice: discard it or work with it. The keys might be simply forgotten, or rejected on particular grounds, but more commonly, anthropologists actively neutralise them by irony, by describing them as theoretical platitudes. Wrapping those keys in the hollowing plastic of irony makes it impossible to play with them, and helps us in distancing ourselves from them.

Once the figure and ground of social reality are chosen (and other possibilities excluded, by oblivion or irony), the anthropologist faces the second choice, which is what to do with them: either pin them down into a straightjacket, or play with them – that is, joyfully engage with the constraints imposed by one particular constellation of figure and ground.

If this sounds overly abstract, it might become clearer with some negative examples of how anthropologists do not face the world as it is. Both pitfalls (ironoia and obsessive compulsion, or the drive to question every framework, minus those that are freeze-framed) are particularly obvious in the writings of those anthropologists who have made the question of being the centre of anthropological thought, that is, ontology not just as an object of enquiry, but as a full-scale revolution of the discipline: ‘The anthropology of ontology is anthropology as ontology; not the comparison of ontologies, but comparison as ontology’ (Holbraad, Pedersen, and Viveiros de Castro 2014).[5]

Anthropology as ontology, or for simplicity henceforth, ontological anthropology, constantly questions the fundamental structure of being behind all appearances. Hence, a limitless ‘movement to the meta’ has become the essential characteristic of ontological anthropology: any figure that appears is immediately undermined by reference to its most essential and fundamental elements – what otherwise could it mean to ask the question of what being itself is? Roy Wagner, Marilyn Strathern, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro – the holy trinity of ontological anthropology[6] – suggested characteristic ‘moves to the meta’ and ‘reverse anthropologies’, such as transforming the Daribi notion of invention as culture into an anthropological concept (Wagner 1981), or suggesting that anthropology should adopt the relational perspective of Amerindian multinaturalism (Viveiros De Castro 2013). But in the new ontological anthropology, the movement to the meta itself is institutionalised; fundamentally anti-ethnographic and anti-representational, ontological anthropology replies “I can do this meta” to any truth statement. Unhindered by references to ‘realia’ (such as empirical facts or ethnographic data), ‘ontological reflexivity’ can enter infinite loops of jumping to the meta. If conventional ideas of objectivity and truth would imply a mooring in the stability of objects, ‘recursive anthropology’ is eternally spinning ‘motile truths’ (Holbraad 2012). The programme of asking ontological questions without accepting ontology as an answer (Holbraad and Pedersen 2017, introduction) allows for an unlimited spiral of thought that never collides with the world: in a manner quite similar to the ironoia Bogost describes, recursive ontological reflexivity covers everything with a protective film that elevates the observer onto meta-levels and keeps the world at a safe distance.

The eternal return of the move to the meta does sometimes stop, but it is never entirely clear when and why this happens. In his book on Cuban divination, Holbraad, for instance, calls his ‘moves to meta’ appropriately the ‘infinitions’ of ‘motile truth’. Those infinitions perpetuate themselves, and diviners, just like anthropologists, transform themselves ontologically by making such infinitions … until they stop, according to Holbraad, when confronted with the nature of the gods and of the ethnographic other. In the exchange of diviners and their clients everything is transformed but the gods, and the anthropologist becomes another by doing recursive anthropology but not the native; in brief: gods and natives never change. The justifications of those moments of closure betray the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the book – so-called motile truth cannot replace representational truth, otherwise it would itself become representational truth.[7] Hence, if not by argument, those closures are justified by exhaustion and fatigue: to spin motile truth further would end in ‘cosmological non sequitur’ (2012:257) or ‘conceptual colonialism’ (p. 259). It is this crucial moment, when the ironist (who constantly jumps to the next available meta-level) is brought down to the floor and becomes obsessive-compulsive, sticking to the constraints imposed by reality, that can’t be further ironised and now hits back relentlessly.

This is not just a problem with Holbraad’s analysis of Cuban divination, but a general feature that has its roots in the programme of ontological anthropology. Even though the programme constantly and explicitly rejects the substantialisation of ontology, its proponents end up doing exactly that whenever they try to propose specific arguments. Viveiros de Castro, for instance, says that the opposition between multiculturalism and multinaturalism is ‘deliberately provocative and therefore outrageously simplistic’ (Glass Bead 2016), but it is difficult to deny that the same opposition is both the precondition and the conclusion of at least one influential paper about ‘equivocation’.[8]

So, what does it mean to put adjectives before ‘ontology’ (‘our modern ontology’, ‘Amerindian ontology’), and thus to fix ontologies to people, places and times? Speaking of someone else’s ontology is not just saying that he or she has different thoughts about the world, but that their world IS another world. All of this the proponents of ontological anthropology deny, yet keep doing – against their will? In this sense, repeating the substantialisation of ontology is fundamentally doing the same as the obsessive-compulsive person whose feet mustn’t touch the grout lines of the tiles: rather than joyfully playing with reality, reality is pinned down in an ontology – possibly the most stable frozen frame possible.

Click to enlarge

Figure 1: The conditions of possibility of play, chart by Hans Steinmüller

The problem is ultimately due to the fundamental philosophical fallacy of linking ontology with alterity (Heywood 2012; Graeber 2015). By refusing to accept any ontological common ground, these anthropologists have manoeuvred themselves into a double bind-situation: they are caught in the spiralling meta-levels of ironoia, or they are locked up in the frozen frames of obsessive compulsive disorder, and there is no exit that would allow the serious play that is anthropological theory.

Figure 1 illustrates the conditions of possibility of play, including two dead-end streets. The first dead end is to distance yourself from things. This leads to the maddening spiral of ironoia, in which everything is undermined by another meta-level, ad infinitum. This occurs when we take the premises of ‘motile truth’ seriously, and when we  ‘run’ with the ‘discipline’s relativizing a-ha!-moments’, so as to unsettle ‘what we think we know in favour of what we may not even have imagined’ (Holbraad and Pedersen 2017:2). Running, in this way, means to run over the grout lines that reality imposes, and thus has become the spoilsport of serious anthropological play. The second dead end is to pin things down, to fix the ontological parameters of the world into Procrustean beds; this occurs when we speak of ‘Amerindian ontology’, or otherwise substantialise ontology. Compared to serious anthropological play, the latter position is similar to a person with obsessive compulsive disorder, who anxiously avoids the grout lines of the white tiles, rather than playing hopscotch with them. Probably trying to convince them that their game is over is the best we can do.



Belhaj Kacem, Mehdi
2009 Ironie Et Vérité. Caen: Nous.

2015 Transgression and the Inexistent. A Philosophical Vocabulary. P. Burcu Yalim, tran. Suspensions: Contemporary Middle Eastern and Islamicate Thought. London: Bloomsbury.

Bogost, Ian
2016 Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games. New York: Basic Books.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E.
1956 Nuer Religion. Oxford: Clarendon.

Fernandez, J.W., and M.T. Huber
2001 Introduction. The Anthropology of Irony. In Irony in Action: Anthropology, Practice, and the Moral Imagination Pp. 1–40. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Glass Bead
2016 Ideas of Savage Reason: Glass Bead in Conversation with Martin Holbraad and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. Site 0: Castalia, the Game of Ends and Means.

Graeber, David
2015 Radical Alterity Is Just Another Way of Saying “Reality”: A Reply to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5(2): 1–41.

Heywood, Paolo
2012 Anthropology and What There Is: Reflections on “Ontology.” The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 30(1). JSTOR: 143–151.

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

2013 Turning a Corner. Preamble for “The Relative Native” by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3(3): 469–71.

Holbraad, Martin, and Morten Axel Pedersen
2017 The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holbraad, Martin, Morten Axel Pedersen, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
2014 The Politics of Ontology: Anthropological Positions. Cultural Anthropology., accessed January 6, 2019.

Luhmann, Niklas
2000 Art as a Social System. Eva M. Knodt, tran. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Mauss, Marcel
2016 The Gift. Chicago: Hau Books, distributed by the University of Chicago Press.

Scott, Michael
2013 Book Review: Truth in Motion: The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination. Religion and Society: Advances in Research 4(1): 217–221.

Steinmüller, Hans
2016 Introduction. In Irony, Cynicism, and the Chinese State. Hans Steinmüller and Susanne Brandtstädter, eds. Pp. 1–13. London: Routledge.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo
2004 Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation. Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America 2(1): 3–22.

Viveiros De Castro, Eduardo
2013 The Relative Native. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3(3): 473–502.

Wagner, Roy
1981 The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wallace, David Foster
2009 This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion about Living a Compassionate Life. New York: Little, Brown.

Žižek, Slavoj
1989 The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso.

  1. [1]Delivered on 21 May 2005 at Kenyon college, see Wallace (2009).
  2. [2]Luhmann (2000:73) cited in Bogost (2016:27).
  3. [3]I understand that persons suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder do not choose their illness: instead of a million choices, they are obsessed with one inescapable option, which they compulsively repeat. Hence, what I describe as a choice here, appears as inevitable to them.
  4. [4]‘Figure’ and ‘ground’ could be, for instance, text and context, agency and structure, part and whole.
  5. [5]The sentence before this one betrays the Deleuzian roots of the project, and neatly embodies the impossibility of an ethnographic investigation of ontology, so conceived: ‘Ontology, as far as anthropology in our understanding is concerned, is the comparative, ethnographically-grounded transcendental deduction of Being (the oxymoron is deliberate) as that which differs from itself (ditto)—being-as-other as immanent to being-as-such’ (Holbraad, Pedersen, and Viveiros de Castro 2014).
  6. [6]Or the “Wagner-Strathern-Viveiros metatheoretical triptych” (Holbraad 2013:469).
  7. [7]The criticism of the arbitrary blockage of motile truth in front of the gods and ethnographic others is from Michael Scott’s review (2013) of the book.
  8. [8]This paper begins with ‘a hybrid formation (‘perspectival anthropology’) that combines Western anthropological discourses … rooted in our modern multiculturalist and uninaturalist ontology, and … Amerindian cosmopraxis … which is by contrast unicultural and multinatural’ (Viveiros de Castro 2004:1). The same paper concludes suggesting a new model for anthropological translation, that is based on the difference of relations instead of the similarity of a shared nature, and which ‘converges with [the model of translation] present in Amerindian perspectivism’ (p. 20).

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