On taking ontological turns

I didn’t make it to the AAA 2013 meetings.  I heard the news though: ontology is the next big thing.  I’m not sure what to make of this.  I am all for getting your theory on, but so far I haven’t heard anything from this latest ontological craze that’s really hit home.  Maybe I’m not paying enough attention.  Maybe I’m not reading the right stuff.  Or, perhaps after several years of being subjected to high doses of academic theory-talk, I have overdosed and now have some sort of weird allergy to anything that remotely resembles jargon.  In that case I just need some Benadryl and everything should be in order shortly.

I did read a post over on Allegra by Isaac Morrison about this whole “ontological turn” thing that makes some good points.  Here’s how it starts:

It’s taken me a while to mentally unpack my experiences from the 2013 AAA conference. The conference itself came at a strange time for me, fresh on the heels of the loss of two close family members and the acquisition of two new jobs.

I bounced from session to session, cursed the Hilton’s Wi-Fi, delivered a workshop, periodically stepped out for work-related phone calls, sat on a panel or two, and indulged in Chicago’s culinary offerings. I collected business cards and passed business cards out. I reconnected with some old acquaintances, made a few new friends, and took copious notes while trying to make sense of a sprawling and diverse agglomeration of oblique specialties and deep knowledge.

Strange oppositions were the order of the day, and the most striking of them was my experience of strolling out of a panel on the importance of public engagement only to overhear a fresh-faced PhD student chirp “Marshal Sahlins is about to beat the crap out of Bruno Latour” while scampering past me on his way to a panel on “the ontological turn

Now, I’ve had a fondness for ontological self-indulgence since the early 1990s, but all I could think about was the room I had just left full of deer-in-headlights PhD students all wondering where and how they were going to find jobs. The older faculty members on the panel had offered little consolation – they made it clear that failure to secure a full-time academic job wasn’t really a failure anymore, since the full-time academic jobs were vanishing anyway from the US job market and worldwide.

Later, Morrison asks this question: “If somebody asked you, ‘what’s the hot topic in the field of anthropology right now?’ would you be eager to tell them about the ben-wa glass bead game that is the ontological turn?'”

The rest is here.  Please feel free to make your case for or against anthropology and its ontological turn in the comments.

UPDATE 1/27/14: In the comments below, responding to a discussion about the current crisis in academic anthropology, and explaining his understanding of that crisis, Rex wrote: “These are the things that created the crisis we find ourselves in. Not ‘Writing Culture’.”  Here is my extended response to Rex:

I’d argue that the larger political economy of higher ed (and academic anthro) is just part of the issue. A big part, but still just a part. I think the current crisis is also about the kind of anthropology that has taken shape in the last few decades. It’s about what anthropologists do with their concepts, ideas, knowledge. I definitely don’t think it makes sense to blame post-modernism, or “critical theory,” or “Writing Culture” for contributing to the current fix we’re in. To me those are just sets of ideas or knowledge–they don’t “do” anything on their own. I do think, however, that it is fair to talk about the ideas and conversations we fixate upon, where those conversations actually go (via publishing, conferences, etc), how we transmit our values and ideas through training students, and, ultimately, the “anthropologists” and “anthropology” we have produced over the last three decades. I think we, as a discipline, have sort of painted ourselves into a corner–effectively removing ourselves from the public sphere. With noted exceptions. We do this–sometimes–by retreating into our own corners and closed, specialized conversations. I think this withdrawal from public engagement has seriously contributed to our current dilemma. There is a reason why so many people in the US have no clue what we do. It’s not just because they “don’t get it.”

So, overall, my skepticism about the ontology-related excitement isn’t so much about whether or not I find ontology personally useful or relevant. It’s more about whether or not the “ontological turn” fever is just another in a series of inward-looking shifts that further entrenches us in our own little worlds. Sometimes this kind of excitement about a particular body of theory–I think of “theory” as a tool for understanding the world–is akin to photographers who get all worked up about certain camera equipment, and that’s all they talk about. By and large, nobody cares about this but the photographers themselves. Granted, I love a good Leica or 4×5 view camera, but I really don’t want to sit around talking about it all day. It’s the photographs that matter. Sure, the process matters…but it’s important to balance process with practice. I think anthropologists find themselves caught in this trap a little too often. We like to talk shop, a lot.

So if ontology is the next big thing, great. Our challenge is to balance all the excited, insular shop talk with the doing anthropology thing. To me that means taking anthropology out into the world and finding ways to communicate our results, and it also means turning the anthropological eye upon the political and economic systems in which we exist on a day to day basis. Beyond that, I’m pretty sure our wider audiences could care about which tools we’re currently fixated upon. The AAA meetings are a place to have our internal conversations, but they’re also (potentially) a place for initiating deeper public engagement. I, for one, would be excited if our next “big thing” was less about our own conversations and theories, and more about what we’re actually doing with our ideas and methods. At home, and abroad.

Ryan Anderson is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Kentucky. He is currently writing up his dissertation, which is about the politics of development in Baja California Sur, Mexico. You can reach him at ethnografix AT gmail dot com or @publicanthro on twitter.

28 thoughts on “On taking ontological turns

  1. It’s pure jargon. The only theoretical works I’d recommend on the topic are Andersen’s Kejserens nye Klæder and Sokal and Bricmont’s Intellectual Impostures. Procto-ontologist is very much needed to burst the bubble of high-falutin silliness that is ‘ontology’ in anthropology (only possible because no anthropologist seems to know what the word ‘ontology’ really means, taking Latour’s anti-realist definition at face value).

    Sigh.

    You know how a lot of anthropologists and students have a hard time differentiating between ontology and epistemology? That’s because, for the people in charge of the supposed ‘ontological turn’, they’re one and the same: how you perceive the world just is your world. In reality, of course, there’s a single real world outside of our heads, meaning that the way we perceive it can be different from the way that it actually is (duh) – so ontology and epistemology are very different things. The ‘ontological turn’ is built on jargon, mystification, and misconception, and it is an embarrassment to the academic discipline of anthropology to have it foregrounded so prominently.

  2. I have to start my comment by admitting that I am not that familiar with the turn in question, maybe due to the fact that my view on anthropology has only started to build itself during the past year. So what you call here a turn, I would call my point of view.

    It really gets me into questioning the bigger pictures of anthropology or science in general or the epistemology behind it and the relations of different sciences: if what you see is a turn is the point I build my view from, I wonder how different our perspectives of the world might be. As I have previously eagerly studied the basics on philosophy, I also suddenly find myself questioning, how can such a turn occur? The questions of ontology are and, I have understood that they should, be everywhere and present in every subject – maybe in anthropology and the qualitative sciences more than the others.

    Maybe with this naive perspective of mine I am trying to conclude here, that what you call jargon is purely that and what is called an ontological approach has always existed more or less. And this discussion over a turn is just some game of words to have us, in the academic world, to pay more attention to the ontological and philosophical perspectives of our research instead of taking everything we see, feel or observe as the reality – to concentrate also on the falsification and skepticism instead of verification and trusting our own senses.

  3. I do not endorse the following message. I simply pass it on because I find it hysterically funny as well as relevant to discussion of the ontological turn.

    from proctontologist.weebly.com,

    “Ontologicality is a proctology, but only if you allow for the proctological to speak its ontologicality. Ontology is just a set of assumptions postulated by the anthropologist for analytical purposes. Indeed, it is well worth pointing out that such an exercise in conceptual creativity needn’t be territorialized with reference to any geographical coordinates whatsoever; it need not refer to anything… Geographical or, dare I say it, cultural distance is not a necessary condition for alterity. Formally, all you need to set the game of alterity up is a set of initial assumptions and some body of material that appears to contradict it.”

    Most of this is a direct quote. But where ontologicality and the proctological meet is not at the sphincter – that would mean depth, darkness, stench – but at the level of buttocks – sameness separated by difference of the line, of the butt-crack. Of course, ontologicality circles around the sphincter but is never able to properly penetrate it.

  4. Oh my god. A posts that consists of quoting two trollish postings, followed by an open call for comments? Ryan, you are not making my job as a comment moderator easy!

    There are two fundamental problems with framing issues of ‘ontology’ in this way. First, Morrison and the proctontologist do not read sympathetically and analyze critically. The proctontologist in particular is just a pure troll. His (I’m assuming ‘him’ here) posts are completely toxic. That would be ok if they were at least funny, but a lot of the time they’re just not that well done. No Jim Goad, he. The ‘ontologists’ simply aren’t getting the enemies they deserve.

    The second issue has to do with oversimplification. When the big ontology panel was held at the AAAs, I thought the branding and hyperbole had reached a fever pitch. It has become clear to me that this is wrong. More and more people are referring to ‘ontology’ without…. well, _reading_ any of it. And as a result positions are getting lumped together that vary widely. Michael Scott doesn’t believe in reality? Nothing could be further from the case. I have been desperately trying to avoid having to spend months blogging on this, but it looks like I might have to.

    In saying this, I don’t mean to take issue with John or A.J.. A.J. in particular I recognize is an intelligent person who has thought a lot about these issues, and disagrees in a fundamental way with Latour, at least. But I think the mission of blogs like Savage Minds and Allegra has got to be to read and explain these authors to people who don’t have the time or inclination to do so — not to write pieces about how terrible they are.

  5. I don’t find the Allegra post “Trollish.” Maybe irreverent, but what’s wrong with that? Sure, the argument might be oversimplified, but I think there’s a point worth talking about (ie our big theory conversations and the relationship to anthro public engagement). The proctontologist [person] may be a troll though. I don’t know. I posted that part for the question, not the link. Anyway, so what? We can handle it.

    The point of the OP was to start up a conversation, see what people have to say. I like to hear what people think about these things. Maybe the “framing” is off, too simple, etc. Ok. We can either talk about it here, or do another post.

    I find a lot of the ontology stuff…tremendously unclear. I don’t see what everyone is all excited about–I just don’t see it! Granted, I haven’t read a ton of it, but a lot of what I have read sounds either convoluted, or it sounds like people are using “ontology” in a way that sounds a lot like either “culture” or “worldview.” And then it just gets confusing. Like this piece on Anthro news:

    http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2013/12/05/what-does-the-fox-say-2/

    I read that, got to the end, and was thinking “What?” What does the fox say? Really?

    As I said in the main post, maybe I’m just reading the wrong stuff. Or maybe Al’s right here. I don’t know.

  6. I’m sure there’s worthwhile stuff published with this whole ontology thing in mind, and it’s definitely not all the same, that’s for sure. But it seems like a classic case of the emperor’s new clothes. I suppose the main difference is that all the courtiers saw the same clothes, and here ‘ontology’ seems to refer to any clothing you’d care to imagine, as it were, and no one seems to mind. It certainly doesn’t seem to help in making sense of anything, and everyone – everyone – seems to admit, either privately or publicly, to finding it mystifying, or having serious misgivings about it.

    I guess that makes Proctontologist Andersen’s little boy, posing the question: what if there’s nothing there?

  7. Rex, I’m not reading sympathetically or analyzing critically because that runs contrary to the central premise of my post over at Allegra. I am taking issue with the prioritization of theory at the cost of public relevance at a time when academia in general (and the social sciences in particular) are in a state of crisis over debt and employment. I am, frankly, accusing the AAA of debating the ontology of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

    If you want to “read and explain these authors to people who don’t have the time or inclination to do so” then go ahead, but the other purpose of these blogs is to reflect the state of dialogue within the anthropological community, and from the response to my post, it seem rather evident that sentiments similar to my own are not uncommon within our field.

  8. Well I should say that it was wrong of me to conflate Ixak with the proctontologist, who is definitely pure troll. That said, Ixak’s admission that he is not interested in reading other people generously pretty much means he agrees with me in my assessment of his post’s emotional tone. So we agree on something! That’s good.

    So since Ryan asked, I think there are several things about Ixak’s post that could be stronger. For instance, the piece is entitled “public engagement vs. the ontological turn” as if these two things were separate. But the piece focuses on the session with Sahlins, Latour, and Descola (among others). These people are actually some of the greatest communicators working in (or through, in Latour’s case) our discipline today. Sahlins has a long history of writing for a popular audience on issues of pressing importance, ranging from his reportage of the Viet Nam war to his reporting on the politics of the PRC’s Confucius Institutes. Latour is a best-seller in France whose books are widely read. Descola’s “Spears of Twilight” is a beautiful literary memoir and it reached a very wide audience. It was the critical voices on the panel — Kim Fortun and especially Mike Fischer — who have trouble speaking to the general reader. And that’s a pity because their comments on the panel, especially Kim’s, were the best part about it.

    Second, anthropology, like all academic disciplines in the US (and elsewhere) is contracting. This contraction began in the mid-1970s and is the result of a political economy that has nothing to do with contemporary trends in anthropological theory. The megahit of AAA 2013 could have been queering black studies and there still wouldn’t have been any more jobs for people. If the point if Ixak’s article was “I think we should be shuffling _other_ deck chairs on the titanic” then that’s fine. But let’s face it — ontology and the contraction of high have no necessary connection.

    I think Ixak’s piece might have been stronger if his targets were the Holdbraad and Peterson panel, since I for one struggle to understand what they are talking about, and if it made the argument that their approach lacked the concrete political engagement that ought be central to our discipline. But… yeah. That’s not what we got.

  9. Rex, a few points:

    My blog was not focused on the Sahlins/Latour session (go back and reread the blog, it’s barely even touched on), but rather the persistence of conversation around the ontological turn. As I said in the original post, “…Not the debate itself, but that the debate was the big rockstar event of the conference.”

    In terms of anthropology’s contraction (despite the fact that there are new anthropology PhD programs opening almost every year), the political economy has EVERYTHING to do with contemporary trends in anthropological theory. Post-modernism and critical theory walked anthropology away from the political economy decades ago, and the ontological debate is just continuing that walk.

    Now, you can take issue with my “emotional tone” all you want, but my point stands – I’m not talking about “shuffling_other_deck chairs”, I’m talking about getting the lifeboats ready.

    There ARE jobs for newly graduated anthropologists – but they are outside of academia, and the PhD programs* are not equipping their anthropologists with the skills to find and obtain those jobs.

    *I’m talking about Cultural Anthropology here. From what I’ve see, Bioanth and Archeology do a far better job of preparing their graduates for something other than professorships.

  10. Personally, I wouldn’t call their proctontologiet a troll. He’s a much rarer beast, a satirist. Vulgar? Sure. But have you ever read Jonathan Swift? Or seen any number of currently popular standup comics who appear to draw inspiration from Lenny Bruce?

    The imagery is inspired in its precision. The contrast between the deep dark stench of the sphincter, the orifice through which knowledge of what is going on beneath the surface is found (Freud), and the pale buttocks separated by a line (Deleuze), with the ontologists rimming the surface (arguing in circles) is, while nasty, filled with contrasts ripe for Lévi-Straussian analysis. Nothing could be further from the trolls’ dull repetition of angry claims without the least shred of wit.

    That said, allow me to surprise you. I find this whole ontology business fascinating. A chance encounter on OAC brought me to Graham Harman’s Prince of Networks, which is a clear and readable explication of Latour’s work up to 1999. Then someone pointed me to the book I am reading now, Isabelle Stenger’s Thinking with Whitehead. When you realize that where all this is coming from is a search for alternatives to scientific materialism and the bifurcation of the world into physical Reality and mental Other Epiphenomenal Stuff and create a worldview that sees both photons and the beauty of the sunset, both demography and mythology, as equally real, with neither reducible to the other, it all gets very interesting, indeed.

  11. It’s disappointing to me when reasonable people dismiss something simply because they themselves don’t find it useful or relevant – as if all of the rest of us ought to feel the same way. If you don’t think ontology is good for you, then that’s great – don’t use it. But if I do, what difference does it make to you? Do you have to then launch into a critique of my work just because I’m doing this thing and you’re doing that? It doesn’t make sense – it’s not a reasonable critique, it’s just dumping on others for no reason, or worse, for the sake of raising yourself up.

    I personally have learned a lot from reading Latour, Law, Stengers, Mol, and others who do ontology. I don’t “get” Descola, Viveiros de Castro, Holdbraad, etc. sometimes, but that’s not enough reason for me to tell other people that they shouldn’t use them. Just because I don’t get it, doesn’t mean that there’s nothing there.

    If, on the other hand, you could show me that it was actually harmful to the discipline or to those with whom we work, then I’d stop and listen and try to work out the problems. That’s not what’s going on here for the most part – it’s mere criticism and not critique.

  12. @Ixak:

    Are you now claiming that your blog post was about giving students job skills to do applied research, and that ontological approaches do not do that? It’s an interesting point, but not the one you were making in your post. The language about deck chairs was yours, btw.

    You write that “In terms of anthropology’s contraction… the political economy has EVERYTHING to do with contemporary trends in anthropological theory. Post-modernism and critical theory walked anthropology away from the political economy decades ago, and the ontological debate is just continuing that walk.”

    I think you’re confusing the political economy of higher education that I was speaking about (how governments fund public education, for instance) with anthropologists such as William Roseberry who argue that anthropology should study political economy. Anthropology did not contract because ‘post-modernism and critical theory’ (whatever that is) stopped studying political economic processes.

    Anthropology in the United States contracted because during the post-war period cold war funding, a growing economy, and the baby boom caused an unprecedented and unsustainable growth in the educational system. Between 1965 and 1972 one community college was being built _a week_. In 1958 about 50 anthropology Ph.D.s were awarded. By 1975 it was 450. The 1976 recession marked the end of this expansion, and it was about this time that we reached the tipping point of more than 50% of college classes being taught by casual hires than full professors. This large system has slowly been retracting as senior professors retire and economic downturns give administrators the courage to do the wrong thing in the name of austerity.

    These are the things that created the crisis we find ourselves in. Not “Writing Culture”.

    @John

    I appreciate satire but comparing the proctontologist to Swift? You must have a low opinion of Swift :!) As for Lenny Bruce, I think the difference between him and the proctontologist is that the latter just can’t wallow in scatology sufficiently. I’m guessing, for this reason, than he must British. Like John Sessions’s impression of Joe Pesci, the soul is willing but the flesh is weak.

  13. @John that was pretty funny.

    Jeremy and Rex bring up good points about the need to separate some of the various folks who attach themselves to the “ontology” stuff. I’ll admit, when I think about the whole ontological turn I am thinking mostly in terms of the Holbraad et al crowd. I started reading Holbraad with “Thinking through things” early in grad school, and have read some of the recent ontology stuff. It’s dense, and I find it pretty difficult to digest. I’m also not sure if I even think the basic ideas make sense, or are even feasible in an actual practical context.

    That said, I do like some of Latour’s work. I know I will lose points with Al for this, but it’s true. I really enjoyed “Reassembling the social.” Latour is definitely a good writer and communicator IMO. I don’t know Descola. But Matthew Bradley has convinced me I should at least check him out a bit.

    Since all this ontology stuff has come up lately I’ve poked around a bit but it’s just not striking a chord with me. But that’s ok. It happens. Some folks might love it and find in incredibly useful and relevant–more power to them. Maybe my moment of inspiration will come later down the road, or maybe I’ll end up trying to revitalize William D. Strong’s direct historical method. You never know.

    After several years of grad school I’ll admit I have become a bit jaded about trends in big theory. It’s funny. The new thing comes along, people trash everything else, and then move on to the next big thing. That’s the pattern of “intellectual deforestation” that Wolf talked about years ago. I am actually very interested theoretical debates and all that, but I do get skeptical when I hear about the next “big thing.” But I tend to view theory as something you just use and think about if it helps explain things, whether new or old. It’s not a popularity contest.

    [Note: The second part of this comment, which was an extended reply to Rex, has been added as an "update" in the main post--RA]

  14. Rex every time I read your responses I get the feeling that we’re talking past each other. Of course the language on deck chairs was mine, but you accused me of wanting to rearrange other deck chairs and I wanted to clarify that my objective is to do something other than mucking about with deck chairs.

    In terms of premise that my wasn’t about the nonacademic anthropological job market, I thought that was pretty well spelled out in the final paragraph:

    “The more the public hears from anthropologists and the more insightful and pertinent the knowledge supplied by anthropologists, the better situated the discipline will be in the public eye. Without a clear public understanding of anthropology’s utility, there will be no change in the nonacademic job possibilities for the hundreds of newly-graduated anthropologists who have already been failed by the academic job market”

  15. Ryan, when you write,

    It’s more about whether or not the “ontological turn” fever is just another in a series of inward-looking shifts that further entrenches us in our own little worlds ,

    that really works for me.

    For me, oddly enough, ontology is fascinating in the same way as social network analysis. Both get me excited because they represent thinking that is radically different from what I was taught doing philosophy at Michigan State, then anthropology at Cornell. Scientific materialism was the taken-for-granted worldview of everything I was taught, and (here is where SNA comes in) the working assumption was that to be scientific you had to be contributing to the creation of what Andrew Abbott calls standard causal models, hypotheses abstracted from previous research and ultimately tested using statistical methods. Ethnography was exploratory research that would, in a properly scientific world, lead to testable hypotheses. Now I’m reading serious people who are challenging scientific materialism (the ontologists) and developing mathematical tools that do not rely on the random sampling essential for statistical tests of significance (the network analysts). The old boundaries between science and humanity, studying nature objectively and studying art subjectively are breaking down. That, for me at least, makes it a very exciting time to be intellectually alive.

    That is why when I read the stuff produced by the folks promoting “the ontological turn” in anthropology, I, too, get worried about those inward-turning tendencies you mention. All around us the life of the mind appears to be undergoing what could be major tectonic shifts, and the people on our team who take any interest at all in what is going on seem more preoccupied with buzzwords and parochial issues than where our research might fit into the bigger picture.

  16. @Jeremy

    Let me take a stab I why the ontological turn could be harmful to the discipline. If this were still the sixties, baby boomers were flooding into universities old and new, there were plenty of jobs to go around, and, for better or worse, anthropology was seen as useful as well as interesting, at least to military intelligence, we would all be happy to say, “Cool, man. Do your own thing.” Unfortunately, those halcyon days are history. At least in the USA, support for education is way down at every level, and the knives are out for fields that fail to demonstrate practical value, or at least attract a large audience. If you think anthropologists have problems, consider the plight of, for example, medieval historians or English majors. In this context, the kind of show put on at the AAA this year may have been intellectually interesting to some of us. It was certainly ripe for ridicule by those who will use “Call this science?” as a reason to divert a shrinking stream of research funds in other directions.

    I recall a conversation with Andeanist John Murra. Still pretty clueless, I asked him what he thought of a heated exchange at a recent symposium. He remarked that the conflict wouldn’t get serious until it touched what people really cared about — office space and whose graduate students got grants. Unfortunately, we now live in an historical moment where those nasty transactional issues trump what claims to be transformational thinking.

    Latour is reputed to be a canny academic bureaucrat. The other folks who were running on about the “politics” of ontology? It is hard to imagine that any of them could organize a campaign or assemble support for a piece of legislation. Gandhi, King or Mao? Sorry, not even John Boehner or Ed Milleband.

  17. Ryan, those are all great points, and I agree. Particularly with this:
    “I, for one, would be excited if our next “big thing” was less about our own conversations and theories, and more about what we’re actually doing with our ideas and methods. At home, and abroad.”

    Frankly, that’s what the ontology turn has done for me – made me reconceptualize the way I (and anthropologist in general) engage with the people with whom we work. To me, the writing culture and post-modern turns in anthropology in the 80s forced us to reflect on the ways that we produce representations of Others. The feminist and post-colonial critiques, in particular, politicized this issue. That was great insofar as it went, but then we got so caught up (I think) in our representations that we failed to think about the kinds of relationships we were building with the Others we were representing. So the ontology turn takes it a step further by asking (though my understanding of ontology is different from what’s mostly being talked about in anthropology, so I make no generalizations here): what is it that we actually do? What effects do our practices (methods, activities, presentations, etc.) have on the world? What kind of relationships do they build? What kinds of worlds, realities, beings, organizations, relations, systems, structures or what-have-you do we construct through them?

    Maybe ontology isn’t necessary for posing and addressing those kinds of questions, but it was only as a result of reading Latour and then Law (After Method, which I recommend above all other books I’ve come across) that I began to think this way. It was the conceptual assemblage that I needed to sort those questions out as I underwent my first major fieldwork project – not so that I could understand the Shoshone better, but so that I could make sense of what I was doing and what that meant for both the Shoshone and the Bureau of Land Management.

    Hope that’s helpful.

  18. Ixak, thanks for clarifying your position. I’m going to get out of the way on this one and let the people who want to talk about ontology focus on it.

  19. That said, I do like some of Latour’s work. I know I will lose points with Al for this, but it’s true. I really enjoyed “Reassembling the social.” Latour is definitely a good writer and communicator IMO.

    It’s not that I have a personal problem with Latour, and in a certain sense, he’s good at communicating his ideas (his writing doesn’t appear as dense as Lacan’s, for instance, but it’s much, much wilier). It’s just that what he’s saying is either banal or absurd.

    Either the universe outside of our heads isn’t real and all human beliefs are true (absurd), as he more or less explicitly states in Reassembling the Social, or he’s just using this crazy idea as a way of talking about why people do things (banal; also misleading). The absurd interpretation makes much more sense of what he’s trying to say, especially given his history of anti-realism and absurdity (like the claim that Ramesses II couldn’t have died of tuberculosis because the bacillus hadn’t been identified until 1882). What you’ve got in Latour is an imaginary tailor who has long been known for making cloth that anyone can tell isn’t there.

    And if you want to talk about the latter – if what you want to talk about is human motivation and notional objects, i.e., things people take to be real – then Dan Dennett and Dan Sperber have much better, much more sensible, much more naturalistic ways. And don’t forget all the genuine philosophers of action out there, like Davidson. If you want to make sense of humans, and that is after all what anthropologists are supposed to be doing, then you need to make sense of why they do the things that they do. Not why you apparently believe a forest to have feelings or why shellfish are agents in a network with fishermen, instead of merely the fishermen’s quarry (to take a Latourian example).

    When people say that they find Latour ‘useful’, I can only imagine that they mean that he helps them acquire teaching or tenure track positions at good universities due to the courtier effect, because when it comes to actually solving or getting to grips with real social scientific problems, his stuff is a load of bollocks.

    I don’t have a serious problem with social anthropology ‘turning inward’ or some such thing. But I do have a problem with bad ideas and misleading jargon, and I have a real problem with anthropology departments becoming useless in every way – not only failing to provide a useful background to help students find jobs (anthropology graduates are, after all, the least employable of all), but also failing to do the basic thing of helping students and scholars understand some aspect of the world, relevant to political issues or otherwise.

  20. So the ontology turn takes it a step further by asking (though my understanding of ontology is different from what’s mostly being talked about in anthropology, so I make no generalizations here): what is it that we actually do? What effects do our practices (methods, activities, presentations, etc.) have on the world? What kind of relationships do they build? What kinds of worlds, realities, beings, organizations, relations, systems, structures or what-have-you do we construct through them?

    Jeremy, I like this statement very much. It captures the practice as well as the spirit that led to Science and Technology Studies: moving beyond who thought what to how was this actually done. Who and what were involved? How did they affect each other? A lot of the problem with this debate is, it seems to me, that people on both sides so rarely get beyond the abstractions and the terminology in which they are expressed.

  21. John,
    I take those economic issues to be not entirely relevant to the discussion as Rex has already pointed out. The AAA has been a mess for along time – it’s not ontology that’s responsible for that. If it wasn’t ontology it would be some other buzzword or catch phrase. Just because it’s the word of the day doesn’t make it the root of our problems – those problems go far deeper than ontology. So what you’re saying isn’t so much a case against ontology as such but the long-standing and ongoing issues of the overuse of jargon and buzzwords at the AAA.

    But does anyone take the AAAs seriously anymore? I’ve never been myself, and the only reason I will probably go this year is because they are in DC where I live. I much prefer the SfAA, which is full of very practical and very interesting anthropology – and also talk about ontology.

    So I say let’s do good work regardless of the theoretical commitments we espouse, and stop fighting over whether or not we should be talking about ontology.

  22. Evan, your review is very interesting, indeed. It is particularly striking to me that, on your account, Holbraad has nothing to say about native skeptics. I think of Stevan Harrell, who studying Chinese popular religion in northeast Taiwan, conducted a small survey of fourteen individuals. Three were native philosophers who had each constructed his own version of traditional Chinese cosmology. One, an old woman, was the village atheist. She said it was all nonsense. The remaining ten said only, “It’s customary.” I think of David Jordan’s description of rural villagers in southern Taiwan debating the significance of a young man appearing to fall into trance. Was he possessed by a god? Possessed by a ghost? Faking? Or insane? All were possibilities to the villagers themselves. And, finally, I recall Larry Crissman’s attempts to get to the bottom of a curious custom discovered in Changhua, in central Taiwan. Dead cats were hung in trees, dead dogs thrown in rivers, but no one could say why. Then, one day, he found an old farmer who thought about the question as he chewed on his beetlenut, then spat, and said, “If you hung dead dogs in trees, they would stink.”

  23. “A lot of the problem with this debate is, it seems to me, that people on both sides so rarely get beyond the abstractions and the terminology in which they are expressed.”

    Agreed, John – been dealing with a lot of abstractions on my blog this past week and what really matters to me is the practical issues of working with others and building a better world (whatever that might mean). Conceptual work is fine and necessary at times, but only when it makes a difference to the way we actually practice what we preach.

  24. John, Thanks for the ethnography. It illustrates very well a key criticism of many of the ontologists that they seem to overly reify and purify particular ideas therefore obscuring more complex realities for the sake of their own search for philosophical logic. There is also a whiff of the continued search for the exotic explanation, when a simpler one may also be in evidence: it may just be that things stink, although I fear that that returns us to proctontologist territory…

  25. I wonder what you chaps think about my own venture into this territory, from the perspective of brain scientist? The paper is “The need for systematic ethnopsychology: The ontological status of mentalistic terminology” published in Anthropological Theory, March 2012 vol. 12, no. 1, pp 29-42. Not just ontological, orthogonal as well, perhaps.

    Robert Turner

  26. Robert, a link please. Not all of us have access to academic libraries, and even those who do may not be inclined to go out of their way to chase down and read an academic article without knowing a bit more about it.

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