Thanks to the incredible incredibilicity of our intern Angela, I’m happy to present an interview I recently did with Michael W. Scott. Michael is currently an associate professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and his book, The Severed Snake: Matrilineages, Making Place, and a Melanesian Christianity in Southeast Solomon Islands, appeared in 2007. Michael frequently uses the concept of ‘ontology’ in his work, so I sat down to talk with him today about this and other aspects of his intellectual project. I’ve broken the interview down into sections, so scroll down to read Michael’s thoughts on Marilyn Strathern and Roy Wagner, wonder, whether reality exists, politics, and how to do fieldwork.
Intellectual Influences at Glasgow and Chicago
RG: We’re going to talk a little bit about your work and how it relates to the ongoing interest in ontology. We both know each other from the University of Chicago where we were both graduate students together. Maybe we could get started with you telling us what were your intellectual influences at Chicago?
MS: Marshall Sahlins’s focus on the relationship among cosmology, ontology, and practice was most important for me. But my interest in those themes goes back to when I was a master’s student in Glasgow, in sociology. I was taught there by Harvie Ferguson. He’s a sociologist of modernity and a really wide-ranging, synthetic academic who couldn’t be easily compartmentalized. In his book, The Science of Pleasure, he made connections between theology, philosophy, science, art, literature, psychoanalysis, and traced a complex history of what he called “cosmos and psyche in the bourgeois worldview.” He was trying to understand modernity in terms of its cosmological coordinates and conundrums.
There was also Derek Sayer, a historical sociologist at Glasgow who has been pretty influential in the development of my interest in ontology. He introduced me to the work of Roy Bhaskar, the philosopher of science. In his first book, A Realist Theory of Science, Bhaskar analyzed scientific practice to discern what ontological assumptions underlie experimental method. What kind of a world, or what kind of an ontology, is presupposed by scientific experiments? His answer was: it’s a stratified but a changing world, one with layers of ontological depth that science is trying to mine more and more deeply. So these ideas really informed my doctoral work and then my subsequent book, The Severed Snake.
RG: Right, and I remember in David Graeber’s book on value he has a section on Bhaskar as well, so it sounds like Bhaskar has had influence in a couple different places.
MS: Yes, I took that interest in Bhaskar to Chicago, and I remember sharing it with Terry Turner, who was teaching both David and myself at the same time.
RG: Ah, that’s interesting. And of course Sayer wrote The Great Arch with Philip Corrigan, which is sort of one of the precursors to the contemporary ethnographies of the state.
MS: That’s right. But let me just return to Sahlins for a moment. He looked at cosmogonic myth as that which reveals the ontological assumptions which inform practice. But, I tried to look at everyday practice in my research in the way that Bhaskar looked at experimental method in science, and I was asking: what kind of ontological assumptions are legible in practice?
RG: Right. Yes. And so, who else? Was Valerio Valeri an influence?
MS: Yes. He, like Harvie Ferguson, was a figure that impressed me very much. As you know, he was very wide-ranging in his erudition, his synthetic thinking. He was particularly attentive to diverse models of cosmology and cosmogony and their ontological implications. Chicago is a really vibrant intellectual context, and so I also had many conversations with fellow students such as my now-wife, Krista Ovist, who was a student in history of religions. She introduced me to the work of her supervisor, Bruce Lincoln, and his studies of cosmogony and its social and practical implications, and Krista remains an important partner in dialogue for me.
RS: When I was doing the first chapter of my book, I had to trace out cosmology, what does that term mean? We use it all the time, but where does it really come from? And I found myself having to read a lot of Eliade.
MS: Yes, I really discovered Eliade through Valeri and conversations with Krista, and read a bit of Eliade then. Of course, I think Eliade has been problematized because of, well, his right-wing political commitments.
I should mention that Nancy Munn was also an important formative influence for me at Chicago, particularly her emphasis on place, and that is very apparent in my work: my focus on people’s relationship to land and processes of emplacement.
RG: Can you talk a little bit about her work, because I think it can be difficult because of the language and because of the density. What’s her approach?
MS: I think she’s been fundamentally influenced by phenomenology, and is interested in the ways in which people extend themselves through space and time. Actually, that’s how she says they create space and time – through movement.
RG: When you say people extending themselves through time and space, you don’t mean them getting older and fatter. How would you explain that to people?
MS: I think it develops a general model that’s been influential in Melanesianist anthropology whereby people are conceptualized as what Marilyn Strathern calls “partible.” They aren’t just exchanging or giving away things that they own as alienable objects. Those objects are fundamentally part of themselves, and so when they give them away, it’s almost as if they’re extending part of themselves existentially, beyond the bounds of their own bodies. And those objects are vehicles of themselves, and can travel quite widely. And of course Nancy Munn’s key study is of the Kula exchange ring in the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea. She focuses on the ways in which the objects which are exchanged around the islands are extensions of the island in which she did fieldwork, Gawa.
RG: Yes, that’s a great explanation.
MS: If we’re still on my influences, here’s another: I’d have to say that, during our time at Chicago, the anthropology department was an important center for the development of historical anthropology. And historical research has always been a very important part of my own work, trying to situate my interlocutors in Solomon Islands within the longest historical context that archival documents might allow.
Studying Poly-ontology in Solomon Islands
RG: So you had a lot of ideas to work with, a really rich intellectual context both at Glasgow and Chicago. What did you find when you hit the Solomon Islands?
MS: I work on the ethnography of Arosi speakers on the island of Makira in the southeast Solomons. And when I was a doctoral student in the early 90s, I was working predominantly with Anglican Christians. I was puzzling over the pervasiveness of latent land disputes between matrilineally-defined claimants – the Arosi are matrilineal. I was trying to understand why land disputes were simmering beneath the surface of everyday life, but were unmentionable and didn’t develop into overt conflict. My hosts seemed to feel a certain anxiety or insecurity about their disposition on the land. They had a sense that their communities, and the principles on which their communities were based, were in a state of confusion.
Many people wanted to set things straight by asserting that theirs was the rightful land-holding matrilineage, but they couldn’t voice their claims because that would be too divisive. But at the same time they were afraid that someone else might make a claim that would be recognized instead of their own. I thought the Arosi were dealing with a kind of classic paradoxical situation. On the one hand, their ideal notion of what constitutes customary village life required that there be a recognized land-holding matrilineage at a given place, serving as a kind of focal point of authority, with the chief that would defend the interests of the land holders and bring people together to construct a multilineal polity. And that idea needed to be clear and transparent.
Yet, on the other hand, people from different matrilineages seemed to be locked in a sort of quiet competition over that position, but they couldn’t voice their competing claims openly, not without alienating others and placing the synthetic nature of the polity in jeopardy. To do that is to be regarded as extremely anti-social, as sort of proof that you aren’t actually the legitimate landholders after all. What landholder, they would say, would be so ungenerous and overbearing?
RG: Just to clarify, when you say “the synthetic nature of the polity,” you mean that in these areas there are people from many matrilineages living in the same place, and so the residential group has got to be kept together even though one part of it may claim to have a greater right to the land?
MS: That’s precisely right.
RG: How did ontology come into that?
MS: The analysis of this problem led me to scrutinize a whole range of topics that are familiar to Melanesianists: origins, idioms of descent and relatedness, relations with ancestral beings, naming practices and so forth. This led me, in turn, to theorize that the ontological principles informing the land dispute situation constitute what I call a “poly-ontology,” which is a way of describing a pluralism.
In other words, it’s an atomistic cosmos in which matrilineages are conceptualized as the bearers of independently arising and isolated ontological categories that need to be brought into productive and reproductive relations. Also, I analyzed how this poly-ontology has come into dialogue with Christianity, and specifically with the Anglican Christian cosmology that I found there, in mutually transforming ways.
I was also trying to make a contribution to the anthropology of Christianity by highlighting the importance of interrogating Christian ontology in a field context. In my view, the anthropology of Christianity really hasn’t done enough to explore Christian ontologies or to recognize more than one possible Christian configuration of ontology. So, I’d say that ontology is a new way of approaching traditional topics such as kinship and myth, and it’s revealing new things about them. It’s a new way of talking about what’s interesting about these topics.
RG: And when you say ontology, you’re talking about people’s theories of the world, right? And in particular, you said something earlier, I just wanted to clarify. You talked about how there’s this atomistic poly-ontology. There’s a sort of a sense that each individual lineage group is ontologically distinct from each other one?
MS: That’s correct. Each matrilineage has its own essential being that is fundamentally distinct from each of the other matrilineages. But I just wanted to make a note here. You said ‘ontology’ was different theories of being, but in my understanding of ontology, it’s not simply a theory, it’s the assumptions that underlie both discursive practice and non-discursive practice. So, it might be implicit assumptions rather than an explicitly articulated theory.
RG: That’s an important thing to note. It means that you have to engage in a sort of a depth analysis. It’s hard to say, I can see these ontological assumptions, but it’s tacit. It’s always a little bit of a trick to get other people to see it.
MS: That’s right. The job of the anthropologist is to try to perform the analysis. We begin to explicate some of those assumptions that underlie what people say, but also really looking at what they do, quite closely.
RG: So your work sounds like it’s not really a call to totally redo anthropology. It sounds like it’s very traditionally anthropological in its focus on kinship, myth. Is that right?
MS: It’s trying to rethink, to reconstrue, to reconceptualize, what anthropology has always been interested in. So in a sense it’s dealing with traditional issues, but in a new way.
RG: Your book also has a critique of the work of Roy Wagner and Marilyn Strathern and their theories of kinship. It might be interesting to go over that critique because I think when people hear the word “ontology”, they think of that term as associated with people who have been educated by Wagner and Strathern, not necessarily people who take issue with them.
MS: Well, I should clarify that I see my work as in dialogue with, rather than opposed to, the ideas of Wagner and Strathern. If I’m opposed to anything it’s to the ways in which their models of Melanesian sociality are sometimes presupposed as a kind of orthodoxy about a monolithic Melanesia. Here’s how I would put it. It seems to me that my engagement with Wagner and Strathern, and where I may differ from them, as it were, is shaping up into something analogous to the debates that have been going on in philosophy between proponents of what is usually called relationism, on the one hand, and those who have been developing so-called object-oriented ontology, on the other.
When I make this comparison I don’t mean to imply that I’m in a debate with Wagner and Strathern about a personal existential commitment to one or the other of these ontologies. Rather, I’m simply trying to suggest that, whereas there may be some Melanesians whose ontological assumptions are comparable in many ways to what philosophers call relational ontology, there may also be Melanesians whose assumptions are, at least in some ways, more like those of object-oriented ontology.
Briefly put, relationists argue that there are no autonomous essences, only relations. Things are nothing but the relations that constitute them and in which they participate. Object-oriented ontologists do not deny that all things are made up of relations and inhere in relations, but they argue that things nevertheless entail autonomous – though not eternal – essences. Objects cannot be exhausted by their relations; they entail a core proper being. In their own ways, in other words, Melanesians may be debating the same kinds of questions that European philosophers are still splitting hairs about.
RG: When we say “a relational ontology,” what does that mean? I want to keep it nice and concrete—you’re making a claim that their claims about kinship and social structure don’t apply to the Makiran case, is that right?
MS: That’s right. Their basic argument, as I read them, is that Melanesian sociality presupposes relational continuity. It’s a cosmos in which everything is fundamentally related, and the major problem for social agents within that cosmos is to create distinctions, to create or to cut relational continuity, continuity of being.
And I find in the Solomon Islands case where I did my fieldwork, it seemed precisely the inverse of that. People needed fundamentally to create relations, to bring the elements of the cosmos, which were originally unrelated, into relation, into productive and reproductive relations. So that’s a broad contrast that I draw in the introduction to the book.
RG: So in the case of Makira, the question is, how are these matrilineages going to be able to relate to one another? We want them to relate to one another so we can build harmonious communities. How can they relate to each other when they’re just fundamentally, ontologically distinct? Something like that?
MS: That’s correct.
RG: And then, in the case of Strathern and Wagner, the argument is that people already think they’re related, so then they try to make themselves different — what would be a good example of that, Michael? In terms of a concrete kinship practice?
MS: Well, the ways in which Wager and Strathern and those most strongly influenced by them depict Melanesian sociality is, I think, probably nicely captured in the work of Jadran Mimica among the Iqwaye in the New Guinea highlands. Mimica presents a striking model of cosmic origins from a primordial figure, a figure who is sort of self-contained, and is the source of all things in their universe.
RG: That’s like a mythological person, you mean.
MS: That’s right, yes. Everything in the universe is conceptualized as coming from that one figure. And everything needs to be differentiated out of that figure. So this process of differentiation and bifurcation is kind of the fundamental cosmogonic or cosmological process that informs all of being there.
RG: So it’s a different kind of cosmology or worldview. It’s a different kind of ontological assumption than what you discovered in Makira.
MS: That’s correct. James Weiner has written about the Foi, also in the New Guinea highlands. He talks about a world of immanent continuity; that the world for the Foi, in his understanding, is one is which there’s a fundamental relation of resemblance and that resemblance needs to be denied. The given connections between things need to be cut for the social world to be developed. The moral foundation of human action is really to draw contrasts.
RG: I see that in the area of Papua New Guinea where I worked. You can be a member of more than one cognatic stock there, so a lot of times at weddings by giving food to one side of the wedding you’re showing that you’re a member of the other side, since you could theoretically be both.
MS: Yes, precisely, those kinds of processes.
RG: When people hear the word “ontology,” they assume that people who advocate an ontology-oriented approach in anthropology have a radical program to destroy the idea that there is one reality out there and that we just have different cultural ways of understanding a single shared universe. Ontologists seem to claim that there are multiple universes out there, and that’s a claim a lot of people just don’t understand or think couldn’t possibly be true. Is that a kind of claim that you’re interested in making in your work?
MS: Well, this may seem like a fudge, but I don’t think that one is best placed to be the judge of one’s own ontological presuppositions if, as I tend to think, people’s discursive and non-discursive practices index and then transform their ontological assumptions. It seems to me that what one does, especially in one’s anthropological practice, is likely to belie one’s carefully crafted philosophy.
That said, were I to carefully craft my philosophy of being, I’d suggest a kind of realism that says there are things that actually exist – a reality – is not incompatible with the possibility that everyone is in their own world. It seems to be me that it may be the case that there are noumena in the Kantian sense of “things in themselves,” – the really real – but that these are never experienced or known directly in themselves by anything human or otherwise. This would mean that everything is, in a sense, creating its own world based on its own capacities to translate information from other beings and other entities into a world that it inhabits.
But in my work, by ontology, I generally mean the assumptions about the nature of reality that shape people’s ways of doing things. Basically, I’ve been interested in trying to discern the way ontological assumptions inform the lives of my interlocutors in Solomon Islands.
RG: Could we turn to some of your more recent writing about wonder, this discussion about wonder is about people being exposed to new ontological assumptions.
MS: I first started wondering about wonder after a stint of fieldwork in the Solomons in 2006. During this period I encountered what I call “wonder discourses,” which is to say, stories, speculations, rumors and claims about things people described as amazing, baffling, miraculous, and wonderful. The biggest of these is the idea that there’s a hidden underground realm inside the island of Makira. This is envisioned as a kind of high-tech army base-cum-metropolis that’s run by white people, chiefly Americans, in league with beings known as kakamora – these are thought of as small super-powerful autochthonous beings. It seemed to me that these wonder discourses had to do with what I would call an ontological crisis – or, the undermining of older ontological assumptions and the emergence of new possibilities for becoming. But they were also possibly techniques or methods for precipitating ontological transformation, for participating in it. The particular transformation in question seemed to involve a rupturing of the plurality of poly-ontological matrilineal categories within a new underlying insular category of Makiran being that seemed previously to been denied.
This got me thinking about wonder discourses in anthropology and academic writing more generally. And I’ve noticed and written about two things. Firstly, I’ve analyzed how many contributors to the anthropology of ontology have not only theorized indigenous ontologies as relational, but have presented them as morally preferable to the Euro-American ontology they call Cartesian dualism or Kantian dualism or representationism. And they’ve suggested that one of the key indicators of the moral advantages of relationism is its capacity for wonder, its open orientation to the unpredictable, the astonishing flow of becoming. And here I am thinking of authors such as Tim Ingold or Deborah Bird Rose or Terence Evens.
And secondly, I’ve suggested that this apparent enthusiasm for relational ontology and its orientation to wonder could be described as religious, as an expression of post-biblical religion and an appetite for re-enchantment in the so-called secular world. So in short, as on Makira, it seems to me that, within anthropology, the pursuit and production of wonder accompanies a bid for ontological transformation. In this case, from the supposed dualism of modernity toward the uptake of relationism.
RG: So the goal of anthropology is to recreate a sense of wonder and to change our worldview, not necessarily to explain what causes human behavior or to decipher or interpret cultural texts?
MS: For some people that’s correct. I detect in some of the anthropology of ontology a particular agenda that’s engaged with the problems of the world today. It’s about re-thinking anthropology as a form of ethics, or de-colonization of thought, or a morally responsible form of being in the world. It’s responding to things like environmental crisis, so it’s not simply sitting back and trying to analyze or interpret, no.
RG: I’m just trying to imagine sort of an old-school Marxist looking at a book like Holbraad’s Truth in Motion, which can be very difficult to read, saying, “that’s an ethical response to climate change and political crisis?” Shouldn’t we instead be trying to affect the world by understanding how it works and then trying to change it? For a lot of American anthropology you have to be discussing politics, you have to be taking a concrete stand on particular issues. But this doesn’t seem to be doing that, so many people would be surprised that it would be called a political form of anthropology.
MS: I think that perhaps people are operating with a very narrow definition of the political. And some anthropologists who are interested in questions of being are not prejudging what politics might be. Surely there could be nothing more political than trying to think in new ways about the nature of being, and expanding the possibilities for thinking about being. That would seem to me to be a fundamentally political project.
RG: I guess maybe it would be sort of like a kind of consciousness-raising in the way that people might have talked about consciousness-raising in the 60s and 70s: widening your horizon, questioning expectations that you’ve taken for granted, maybe something like that?
MS: Yes, fundamentally questioning your assumptions about the nature of things. And also recognizing that in any attempt to change the world for the better there may be an unexamined problem of whose ontological assumptions are going to inform policy.
RG: Where do you think this literature is going, can I ask you? Where do you see this going in the future, including your work or the work you see? You’re in London, you must get a sense of what people are thinking about currently that maybe hasn’t seen print yet.
MS: It’s pretty hard for me to say in what directions some of my colleagues interested in ontology may be going at the moment. I think that the interest in ontology in this country is maturing.
Ontology really sort of began to come into its own in the United Kingdom in about 2006, 2007. And so now there’s this well-known stream of thought in this country, so it was surprising to go to the American Anthropological Association in November last year and find that so many people there were unaware of it. From the perspective of the UK, this is a debate or set of debates that have been ongoing for quite some time now. I know that some figures were sort of moving away from these kinds of issues and looking in different directions.
RG: Ah, yes, we’re behind the times.
MS: I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s just different intellectual interests, different disciplinary foci. The kinds of debates that drive anthropology in the UK are slightly different from those in the US.
RG: What are some good rules for practice that you see really emerging from your approach? What do you think is valuable for people to do in the field and when they are writing up?
MS: I’ve tried to model an approach that asks questions about the ontological assumptions that are implicit in what we encounter in the field. I’d emphasize the importance of not assuming that we already know what the prevailing configuration of ontology is, especially in regions where certain theoretical models have become, well, synonymous with those areas. The idea that we have relational Melanesians or perspectival Amerindians always needs to be tested and not presumed.
One of the main questions that the anthropology of ontology has raised is the role of philosophy in anthropology. Philosophy can be hugely stimulating, but it’s also easy to get carried away and simply read your ethnographic material in terms of the principles of a particular philosopher. And, well, frankly, the wonder we experience when it seems that the ontological assumptions legible in some myth or indigenous practice correlate almost precisely with the ideas of a particular philosopher can be, well, too compelling. So it’s always good to remind ourselves that we are discovering a relationship of affinity, not identity.
I think we should always aspire to a kind of ethnographic particularism – this is something I took from Sahlins and Munn. Labels that we develop to describe particular configurations of ontology – like dualism, animism, relationism or even poly-ontology – can become as banal and blunt as the old chestnuts of solidarity, resistance, and power, and they don’t necessarily shed light on anything unless you can locate them in the details, unless you can show that a particular ontological configuration motivates the logic of a particular magical technique, for example, or why someone did X rather than Y in a particular situation. If there’s really one thing that I would highlight, what I tell my own students, is that it’s always a good idea to attend to what your consultants in the field find puzzling and problematic. What are they preoccupied with or struggling to understand or trying to cope with? What do they wonder about?
Recently, some anthropologists interested in ontology have been advocating that we should focus our work on what they call alterity. By this they mean that we should concentrate on what doesn’t make sense to us, which usually means other people’s “apparently irrational beliefs” – things like how can they be fundamentalist Christians or how can they say that they are red parrots? But I think we are bound to be puzzled by what puzzles the people we meet in the field, so why pre-empt their puzzlement with our own?
RG: I think that that’s good advice. I agree with that. You and I must have both gone to the same graduate school!