Common nonsense: a review of certain recent reviews of the “ontological turn”
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 itself seriously. 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.
Course, Magnus. 2010. Of Words and Fog. Linguistic relativity and Amerindian ontology. Anthropological Theory 10(3): 247–263.
Da Col, Giovanni & David Graeber. 2011. Foreword: The return of ethnographic theory. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1 (1): vi–xxxv.
Deleuze, Gilles. 1994. Difference and Repetition. London: Athlone.
Geismar, Haidy. 2011. Material Culture Studies and other Ways to Theorize Objects: A Primer to a Regional Debate. Comparative Studies in Society and History 53(1): 210–218.
Geertz, Clifford. 1975. Common Sense as a Cultural System. The Antioch Review 33 (1), pp. 5-26.
Henare, Amira, Martin Holbraad and Sari Wastell. 2007. Thinking Through Things. Theorizing Artefacts Ethnographically. London: Routledge.
Heywood, Paolo. 2012. Anthropology and What There Is: Reflections on “Ontology”. Cambridge Anthropology 30 (1): 143-151.
Holbraad, Martin. 2012. Truth in Motion. The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Holbraad, Martin and Morten Axel Pedersen. 2009. “Planet M : The intense abstraction of Marilyn Strathern.” Anthropological Theory 9 (4): 371-394.
Keane, Webb. 2009. On Multiple Ontologies and the Temporality of Things. Material World blog, 7 July 2009. URL: http://www.materialworldblog.com/2009/07/on-multiple-ontologies-and-the-temporality-of-things/. Accessed 15 Sept. 2012.
Laidlaw, James. 2012. Ontologically Challenged. Anthropology of This Century, vol. 4, London, May 2012. URL: http://aotcpress.com/articles/ontologically-challenged/.
Pedersen, Morten Axel. 2011. Not Quite Shamans. Spirit Worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia. Cornell University Press.
Pedersen, Morten Axel. 2012. The Task of Anthropology is to Invent Relations: For the Motion. Critique of Anthropology 32 (1): 59-65.
Strathern, Marilyn. 1988. The Gender of the Gift. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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 Anthropology 30 (2) pp 152-200.
Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 1998a. Cosmological deixis and Amerindian perspectivism. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4 (3): 469-88.
Wagner, Roy. 1991. The Fractal Person. In Big Men and Great Men. Personifications of power in Melanisia. M. Godelier & M. Strathern (eds.), pp.159-173. Cambridge University Press.