Turn, Turn, Turn

You have to feel a certain degree of pity for revolutionaries. Perhaps there is even something tragic about them. There is glamour in throwing off the old order, yes, and there is the thrill of both ...
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You have to feel a certain degree of pity for revolutionaries. Perhaps there is even something tragic about them. There is glamour in throwing off the old order, yes, and there is the thrill of both critique and invention; this is why revolutionaries are romantic figures. But there are also tests for the revolutionary, starting, of course, with resistance from the old guard; without such resistance, there would be no insurrection, merely accommodation. More taxing, though, is the challenge to be found in crafting revolutionary rhetoric. You must posit something new, arguing for an order than has not existed before; and yet the wholly novel would be unrecognizable, so at the same time you must present what’s new in familiar terms. Think of the way that both the American and the French Revolutions sought to present themselves as returns to Roman republican values, with George Washington as the American Cincinnatus, and the French embrace of neoclassicism. But perhaps most painful of all is any revolution’s inevitable risk: revolutions always promise the new, and yet they are also always threatened by the danger of slumping into the old.

All this is brought to mind by a recent boom in what is called in anthropology the “ontological turn.” Heady stuff, since ontology addresses nothing less than the fundamental nature of being.

Now, anthropology is a field that is subject to turns; anthropologists have had linguistic turns, reflexive turns, temporal turns, affective turns, post-human turns, even spatial turns, and right now are smack in the middle of an ethical turn (as in, the study of other people’s ethics, rather than a reflection on anthropological ethics itself, although there have been regular periods of disciplinary teeth-gnashing over that, too). Turns aside, anthropology is subject to bouts of oedipal violence, where some set of the younger generation turns on the old. But most of these turns and generational assaults are portrayed as course corrections, rather than the inauguration of a new “year zero.”

But the “ontological turn” is different. It came on strong in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. It presents the cosmologies of Cuban sorcerers, Mongolian shamans, Siberian hunters, and the like not as sets of other cultural beliefs—different interpretations of some shared natural reality that we are a part of as well—but as alternate realities, other ways of being, abutting our own.1 The ethnographic subjects of the ontological turn are not depicted as “believing” in supernatural actors or magical processes; rather, these actors and processes are described as if they are both factual and present for the anthropologist’s informants. Exotic as the conjoining of this subject matter and this approach seems, this is not intoxicated writing; there is a marked tendency for these “ontologists” to favor dry intellectual description over the sort of storytelling that many other anthropologists rely on.

What has set this movement apart is not just these particular representational choices; it’s the way that these choices have at times been described by the ontologists as world-historical events. They have often presented themselves as the first anthropologists to take their informants “seriously,” and they have claimed that this is a political project aimed at the “decolonization of thought” and the “ontological self-determination of the world’s people.”2

Anthropologists skeptical of the ontological turn have complained that this sense of presenting others as having not different cultures, but different realities, is just a new form of essentialism; other anthropologists argued that positing all these clashing ontologies implies some overarching “metaontology” to police traffic between these various worlds.3 Others lamented that accepting this understanding of ontology would result in a “bloated universe.”4 More cutting, perhaps, has been the claim that this break was not all that original—that previous anthropologists had taken this turn before, but without seeing it as an utter transformation of the field.5 For their part, the ontologists complained right back that many of these critiques were merely attempts “to defend an imagined status quo.”6

The critiques haven’t stopped the turn. Initially associated with goings-on at the University of Cambridge, it quickly metastasized through the larger anthropological system, first with British anthropology, but then in short order with American as well. A review in the prestigious Annual Review of Anthropology series on ontology quickly sprung up, and Savage Minds, one of the oldest and more highly regarded anthropological community blogs, declared “ontology” to be the major theme of the 2013 American Anthropological Association general conference—by far the largest and most consequent annual convention in the discipline.7

Increasing numbers of anthropologists started using the term “ontology” in ways that took off from how the term was being used by the vanguard, publishing articles with titles like “Potato Ontology” (which in this case was a study of postsocialist Russia).8 Predictably, there was a political-economic critique of ontology, which worried that these cosmological marvels were papering over real-world forces that worked to the detriment of the sort of indigenous societies and cultures that the ontological turn seemed drawn to engaging with. Finally, all this ontology business triggered parody: for a period of time, an online figure called the “procto-ontologist” poured forth a scatological mockery of the world-breaking pretensions of the ontologists on both twitter and a blog—until the entire digital record was scrubbed (according to rumor, this scrubbing coincided with the procto-ontologist landing a tenure-track position).

This watercooler account of anthropology’s family feuds is ugly but necessary to understand the stakes for the discipline (even though this rehearsal of the affair doesn’t quite capture the way that for most anthropologists, on both sides of the debate, this whole thing has been a great deal of fun). Still, I offer it not to disturb, or titillate, but rather to set the background against which Martin Holbraad and Morten Axel Pedersen’s new book, The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition, will be read by members of the discipline. This is a book by insurgents who have found themselves (perhaps to their own surprise) governing—not the whole field, to be sure, but a choice tract.

This is not to reduce their book to a mere intervention in a running battle. It is a self-sufficient theoretical statement, and is probably what later generations will attend to when this moment in anthropology is remembered. It certainly is a mature document. It is mature in that its authors obviously wish to present a single unified concept of ontology, but it is also mature in how it evinces a desire on their part to walk back some of the more heated rhetoric of their youth. As they put it, “The hope is that such a discussion of the ontological turn’s place in the broader intellectual landscape might help to move the debate about it away from the divisive and earth-scorching manner so characteristic of ‘first generation’ discussions about ontology within anthropology, including some of our own writings.”

Anthropology, for the ontologists, is the creation of new concepts through mental encounters with worlds for which our extant concepts are inadequate.

Despite Holbraad and Pederson’s presentation of themselves as part of the “first generation” of ontologists, there is a great deal of harking back to even earlier figures. Such giants of the field as Marcel Mauss, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and David Schneider are depicted as presaging the ontological turn—or to put it more exactly, the ontological turn is depicted as finally fulfilling these foundational thinkers’ “analytic potential.” From a rhetoric of revolution the authors have shifted to a rhetoric of full realization.

Indeed, a significant section of the book consists of close readings of what we might call (for lack of a better word) “ancestors” of the ontological turn, where they string together accomplished anthropologists such as Roy Wagner, Marilyn Strathern, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro to form a virtual genealogy leading to the ontological turn itself; this is the moment where they present their Cincinnatus in the form of Viveiros de Castro, and where they drape themselves in the Roman Republic stylings of Wagner and Strathern. These readings are both whip-smart and attentive; the depiction of the thought of Roy Wagner, a very influential anthropologist of Melanesia, will alone be worth the price of the book to some anthropologists because of how clearly Holbraad and Pederson present the ideas of this notoriously difficult thinker. Wagner, who views the anthropological world as fractal, as always caught up in endless nested operations and project-erasing ironies, has purposefully embraced the trickster image of the coyote in his writings, so any discussion that brings clarity to his thoughts without engaging in too much violence must be respected.

This work is not done not merely to establish a pedigree, or to suggest that their anthropological vision is closer to the thought of this line of founding figures than are the critiques of their opponents. Rather, Holbraad and Pedersen invoke these figures as part of their argument that, when it is at its best, anthropological thought does not gain its vitality and power from Western theories. Leaning heavily (and not a little ironically) on Deleuze and Guattari’s What Is Philosophy, they posit instead that the true purpose of anthropology is the invention of concepts, and that in the anthropological case this is done through abstracting concepts from the ethnographic scene. The task of the anthropologist is not to read other places through a Western lens, but to ask what new ontological concepts anthropologists would have to invent to read the world in the same way that their ethnographic subjects read it.

Put this way, Holbraad and Pedersen’s concern with ontology is a methodological one. Attempting to forge ontological concepts that resemble those implicit in their informants’ view of the world, rather than making substantive claims themselves, is how they differentiate themselves from all the other contemporary rabble-rousers for whom the word “ontology” has also become central. These include proponents of speculative realism and of its close cousin, object-oriented ontology, along with key figures in science and technology studies and actor-network theory. As presented by Holbraad and Pedersen, these other projects of scientific and philosophical critique all share with the ontological turn the aim of challenging what is called (after Bruno Latour) the “modern constitution,” in which we find a picture of reality where there are many cultures, but only one, unchanging nature.9

This modern naturalism is undone in many of these movements, either by removing the human-nature distinction, or by multiplying natures through changing their relation with culture. For Holbraad and Pedersen, however, the alternatives offered in these other approaches and paradigms are, for the most part, ultimately flawed. This is because, rather than draw their inspiration from other cultures, these movements turn their attention to philosophers and critical theorists close to home, who are trained in the same Western philosophical traditions that they are rebelling against. While these other ontologists are presenting new visions, their wild reinterpretations or purposeful misreadings are still based on a Western metaphysics, and don’t seriously ask what the world might look like when viewed with the implicit ontological assumptions of, say, shamans in Siberia, or sorcerers in Brazil. These other movements therefore provide nothing more than old wine in new wineskins. They don’t really attempt to do what a (proper) ontological turn demands: suspend Western metaphysics in order to capture concepts adequate to the metaphysics of others.

The depth of this difference is, I think, exaggerated. Because of the genealogy that they create for themselves, Holbraad and Pedersen’s methodological approach comes with some heavy intellectual baggage. As the book acknowledges, the ontological turn has been accused of leaning toward what is called “nondualism”—a term for visions of the world that are not based on transcendence and hierarchy, but rather presume a flat universe where everything and everyone is potentially working or in conflict with everyone and everything else.10

The chief way that the “nondual” is thought in this book is through relations. Relation in anthropology is a word that comes laden with some extra theoretical significance, thanks to a genealogy of the term that goes as far back as Claude Lévi-Strauss. The easiest way to understand how relations are used in this book is to see them as the opposite of essentialism. Individual objects, concepts, and people do not have significance all on their own; rather, they only get their meaning and their value from the network of associations, similarities, and differences that they have with the other objects, concepts, and people in the world. Because of the particular anthropologists that they draw on, the writers in the ontological turn tend to lean heavily on the concept of relations when sketching the ontologies of the people they work with. But not every culture or society relies heavily on relations when thinking through their worlds. Thus the double nature of relations in this book. On one hand, Holbraad and Pedersen bring attention to how they use relations, defending the idea as an important anthropological tool. On the other hand, they close the book by speculating what non-relational ontologically inclined anthropology would look like. To this end they take up as a case study converts to Christianity, primarily in Mongolia, but also elsewhere in the world, to ask what it might look like ontologically if what is prized is not relations, but transcendence. These are some of the most interesting, but also most technically challenging, moments in the book, where they speculate that conversion to some kinds of protestant Christianity may metaphorically turn people inside out, taking all their relations with a broader world and making them instead internal aspects of their own subjectivity.


Soft Atheism

By Matthew Engelke

The authors’ push to expand the scope of their vision to include both Western societies and Western-influenced religions in their “ontologizing”—to have “the turn turn on itself,” as they put it—may smack of the anthropological equivalent of a continually purifying “permanent revolution.” But it can also be read as an olive branch, reaching out to those who may be studying groups whose cosmological sense of things perhaps is not characterized by the alterity that ontologists obviously prize. If anthropology is the creation of new concepts through mental encounters with worlds for which our extant concepts are inadequate, then some finely grained and intellectually important worlds might not be given deserved attention if they are too close to the Euro-American West, on the assumption that they are not alien enough. This is the sort of prejudice that this last curve in the “ontological turn” is trying to prevent; through a new ontological interest in worlds not characterized by nondualism, Holbraad and Pedersen attempt to avoid a blind spot with regard to ways of life that might be much closer to our anthropological intellectual “home,” but which still might have different presumptions about reality to offer us.11

In offering this expansion of what it is the ontological turn can attend to, the authors of the book under review acknowledge how vast anthropology’s task is. The question is whether, even with this acknowledgment, the turn is up to fully engaging with that task. If anthropology is the exploration of all the ways that humans have actually and can potentially differ—the full range of variation that is potential within our species—then the multiplication of concepts is surely a part of that. But then so is the charting of economic and political forms, of cognitive habits and biological development, and of all the other elements that are commonly taken up in anthropology and the other human sciences. This does not foreclose the purposeful crafting of the ontological ethnographic imagination, however. Anthropology can never be just one thing; by the same token, approaches directed at ensuring that the human is not just one thing should always have a home in the discipline. And the ontological turn is just such approach.

The revolutionary nature of the ontological turn, in terms of both its novelty and its importance, is definitely overblown; instead of being the full realization of the anthropological promise, it is just another instantiation of that promise—but it is still part of it. And even if the ontologists began by sounding as if they wanted to burn the anthropological establishment down, they still should be allowed into the fold as legitimate colleagues and peers who have something constructive to contribute. icon

  1. See, e.g. Martin Holbraad, Truth in Motion: The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination (University of Chicago Press, 2012); Morten Axel Pedersen, Not Quite Shamans: Spirit Worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia (Cornell University Press, 2011); Rane Willerslev, Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs (University of California Press, 2007).
  2. See Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Zeno and the Art of Anthropology,” Common Knowledge, vol. 17, no. 1 (2011), pp. 128–145; Martin Holbraad, Morten Axel Pedersen, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “The Politics of Ontology: Anthropological Positions,” Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, January 13, 2014.
  3. Webb Keane, “On Multiple Ontologies and the Temporality of Things,” Material World (blog), July 7, 2009; James Laidlaw and Paolo Heywood, “One More Turn and You’re There,” Anthropology of This Century, issue 7 (May 2013).
  4. Paolo Heywood, “Anthropology and What There Is: Reflections on ‘Ontology,’” Cambridge Anthropology, vol. 30 (2012), pp. 143–151.
  5. Magnus Course, “The Fifth of Five Worlds,” Anthropology of This Century, issue 6 (January 2013).
  6. Morten Axel Pedersen, “Common Nonsense: A Review of Certain Recent Reviews of the ‘Ontological Turn,’” Anthropology of This Century, issue 5 (October 2012).
  7. Eduardo Kohn, “Anthropology of Ontologies,” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 44 (2015), pp. 311–327.
  8. Nancy Ries, “Potato Ontology: Surviving Postsocialism in Russia,” Cultural Anthropology, vol. 24, no. 2 (2009), pp. 181–212.
  9. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, translated from the French by Catherine Porter (Harvard University Press, 1993).
  10. Michael W. Scott, “The Anthropology of Ontology (Religious Science?),” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 19, no. 4 (2013), pp. 859–872.
  11. See also Matei Candea, “Endo/exo,” Common Knowledge, vol. 17, no. 1 (2011), pp. 146–150.
Featured image: Detail of a Maya ceramic drinking cup with mythological scene (7th–8th century). Metropolitan Museum of Art