Earlier this month I sat down with Eduardo Kohn to talk about his amazing book How Forests Think. We started out discussing his intellectual influences and ended up ranging widely over his book, the status of Peirce as a thinker, what ‘politics’ means, and a variety of other topics. Thanks to the hard work of our intern Angela, I’m proud to post a copy of our interview here. I really enjoyed talking to Eduardo, so I hope you enjoy reading it!
Wisconsin and the Amazon
RG: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk. I really enjoyed How Forests Think. When I started it I was a little on the skeptical side, but I ended up thinking it was a mind-blowing book. I thought we could begin by discussing the background for the book and your training. I see the book as mixing biology, science studies (especially Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour), and then some sort of semiotics. It seems like there are a lot of influences there. You got your PhD at Wisconsin, so how did that work out? Can you tell me a little about your background?
EK: The way I got into anthropology was through research, by which I mean fieldwork. And I was always trying to find ways to do more fieldwork. I saw Wisconsin as an extension of this. When I was in college I did some field research in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I had a Fulbright to go back and do research after college, and only then did I go to grad school. Although How Forests Think aims to make a conceptual intervention in anthropology, I think of our field as a special vehicle for engaging intensely with a place in ways that make us over and help us think differently. Continue reading
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.
[The following is an anonymous reader letter I received in response to some of the recent discussions about anthropology & the ontological turn.]
I don’t get the ontological turn, to be honest. Oh, I get it intellectually, this struggle to understand how we can understand the other yet also incorporate that into our philosophy, and to open up our thinking beyond just a mentalese version of culture (rules, symbols, etc.). We’re material beings, we’re agents, the world is a material place, other people think differently than we do… You think that would all be common sense at this point for anthropologists, rather than a big existential crisis all over again.
Oh, I do think the ontological turn is doing interesting intellectual work; I like theory after all, and this is a struggle on the sociocultural side, a bit of an identity crisis about the loss of culture and the expansion of ethnography to just about everywhere. But I also see it as doing a fair amount of disciplining work, of promoting a high-intellectual agenda, of saying there’s serious stuff going on, and that’s what really matters.
It would be simpler to say, philosophers, we love you, you’re really smart, well trained, good at debate. But you’re also royally screwed, and experimental philosophy, that won’t really save you. And then just to claim philosophy as our own. I’ve often thought that, that anthropology is really an empirical, grounded philosophy, an investigation of how people think and act based on what they actually do and say. It’s like going back to the Greek philosophers. But we’re not doing that. Rather, the new ontologists are trying to act daring enough to claim that ground, but really don’t seem well-versed enough to get into that fight. Continue reading
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: Continue reading
When it rains it pours. In the past two days it seems like I’ve been deluged with quality open access anthropology. Perhaps open access is not the right word, since some of them have pretty traditional copyright on them, but the important thing is that they are all free to read, and all deserve to be read. Where to begin?
I mentioned earlier that for many people ontology was a major theme at AAAs. Well now the good folks at Cultural Anthropology have published the papers from the Politics of Ontology Session. Short. Sweet. Ontologytastic. Most of what happens at the AAAs doesn’t live on in any meaningful way, or else is published years afterwards. It’s amazing, frankly, to see such relevant stuff from such high-calibre people get thrown up on the Intarweb.
Speaking of high-calibre, Museum Anthropology Review has published a ginormous double issue on digital repatriation and the circulation of indigenous knowledge. Its an amazing collection of papers that help get the word out about the cutting edge of digital repatriation projects which are out there. Hats off to the organizers.
There are also many new less scholarly, more general-interest pieces out now. Limn, an art magazine/scholarly journal hybrid founded by our own Chris Kelty, published its fourth issue on Food Infrastructures. Yum. There is also a new issue of Anthropology of This Century out as well as a new number of Popular Anthropology.
I wish I could recommend specific articles out of all these journals, but frankly I’m swamped — and eager to hear what you all have to say. Anything in here you’re particularly keen to read? Or what would you recommend, having read some of this stuff? The Internetz wants to know.
Most attendees of the annual meetings in Chicago are, as one wag put it, exhAAAusted from all our conference going, and the dust is only now settling. As we look back on the conference, however, it is worth asking what actually happened there. Different people will have different answers to this question, but for me and the people in my scholarly network, the big answer is: ontology.
The term was not everywhere at the AAAs, but it was used consistently, ambitiously, audaciously, and almost totally unironically to offer anthropology something that it (supposedly) hasn’t had in a long time: A massive infusion of theory that will alter our paradigm, create a shift in the field that everyone will feel and which will orient future work, and that will allow us, once again, to ask big questions. To be honest, as someone who had been following ‘ontological anthropology’ for the past couple of years, I was sort of expecting it to not get much traction in the US. But the successful branding of the term and the cultural capital attached to it may prove me wrong yet.
In fact, there were just two major events with the world ontology in the title: the “Politics of Ontology” roundtable and the blowout “The Ontological Turn in French Philosophical Anthropology”. But these events were full of ‘stars’ and attracted plenty of attention.
Will this amount to anything? What is ontology anyway? Were there other themes that were more dominant in the conference? I don’t have any answers to these questions yet, but I hope to soon and will let you figure it out when I do. If you get there before me, then fire away in the comments section and we’ll see what people think.