Assumed Ontologies

“Almost everyone accepts a distinction between living forms and inert objects and most accept a distinction between human beings and other animals.”

                                                            (della Porta & Keating, 2008: 22)

Donatella della Porta and Michael Keating capture the reason that drawing anthropology into a conversation about ontology is worthwhile. Why should there be a distinction between “living forms and inert objects” or “human beings and other animals”? What would change about our anthropological work if we didn’t blindly accept these distinctions?

Similar to della Porta and Keating, Heidegger distinguishes people, animals, and stones by saying that humans are world-forming (weltbildend), whereas animals are world-poor (weltarm) and rocks are worldless (weltlos). However, he fails to ever explain what the differences between the three really are.

Discussing ontology also does not necessarily lead us down the road of the ontological turn (although Wagner, Strathern, and Viveiros de Castro are all interesting points of reference). We could instead take the Latourian path and choose to inhabit a world of networks of actors and actants.

It seems to me that we run into problems in both of these areas, chief among them being the inability to account for change.

Sure, anthropologists are great at describing change – but not so hot on explaining it. It seems that we haven’t yet overcome the functionalist curse in the discipline.

Rowan Jaines brilliantly explains how the crisis of representation, ANT, and the ontological turn all fail to account for change through what Graham Harman calls overmining:

“This notion roots many post-modern theories that have been popular especially within anthropology since the ‘Writing Cultures’ movement of the 1980’s. These theories attempt to explain objects through linguistic theories and networks of signification and actors. Latour’s ‘Actor Network Theory,’ for example, offers a radical move away from ‘undermining’ theories by (on a very basic level) stating that a thing is its actions. The problem with this understanding of reality is that it cannot explain change. Harman reminds us that Aristotle famously stated, if something is only what it’s doing now it can never become something else. For example if one says, that you are not a writer unless you are writing, how can you explain a writer who is ill or is working a different job to support their writing career?”

“The ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology (which acts as an extended cultural relativism stating that understanding of the world creates different realities) does this in reverse. It starts off by ‘overmining,’ stating that there are discrete worlds that we can only know by observing actions. However, this analysis relies on the reader buying into a meta-ontology in which multiple worlds exist within a kind of ‘bloated universe’—a modern-day Apeiron if you will, which contains more reality than a human mind can ever conceptualise. In this way one loses what Harman refers to as the mezzanine level of the world. This is where much of the flow of everyday life is held and where the entanglements and connections between all things play out in ways that quite literally matter. If anthropology can reconceptualise its practice and methods based on a mezzanine level understanding of our place in the world, we have an opportunity to develop new methodologies with which to more accurately and truthfully represent the reality of people’s lives.”

I’m not entirely sure how this gives us the “opportunity to develop new methodologies with which to more accurately and truthfully represent the reality of people’s lives” nor am I entirely sure that such a methodology is the goal of OOO. However, it seems to me that OOO does give us the opportunity to take what people say a bit more seriously.

Jaines argues in that same piece that “metaphor, representation and poetry emerge as necessary tools for exploring ideas about the world”. It seems that OOO inevitably leads to some sort of poetic ethnography. What implications does this have for how we ought to write?

Again, at this point, I’m not sure.

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