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.