Ontology as the Major Theme of AAA 2013

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.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

45 thoughts on “Ontology as the Major Theme of AAA 2013

  1. It has become more than a truism to bemoan the sprawl and overwhelm of the AAA meetings, but it felt even more sprawled and overwhelming than usual. There were some afternoons when two very different panels would be overflowing into the hallway, and it was difficult to tell whether that was the typical logistical difficulty or a sign of competing-yet-different interests.

    I sensed a couple loosely-affiliated groups not taking very well to this ontological turn. The first were the people still promoting or re-promoting a political-economy approach, or as Rex put it in his Jared Diamond paper the intellectual-political heirs of the turn to history, interconnection, and power that became important in the late 1960s. I found them in a packed panel on Anthropology’s public engagement with capitalism, and at least a couple speakers saw their efforts as a kind of “battle for the soul of anthropology” (I’m not sure if anyone else knows this battle is going on…).

    Another interesting counter-perspective was from a panel on Storytelling Engagements, at which Paul Stoller called it “the ontological turn-off.” I hope I’m not misrepresenting him, but it seemed to me the people who are interested in a more public engagement don’t see this as a useful tool.

    I’ll be interested in other perspectives, and I’m sure Al West will be here soon enough to castigate us for anything with Latour in it. My tentative take is that we still need an anthropology that brings together the details of the biological and material with a historically-sophisticated political economy attuned to difference and inequality; while sensitive to the complexities of lived experience and life as open-ended process; while reaching out beyond the discipline. There were glimmers of all that in Chicago, but in other ways seemed to be not enough talking across and integration.

  2. Good grief, and I thought it was just me. I’m not as sophisticated as the Big Theorists, of course, but I’ve been using ontology quite a bit to get my students to see how each culture proposes/assumes meaning, structure, a place for everything, an ethos, and a sense of being. Yeah, so ontology is just another word for culture.

  3. Oops, there is one comment on the AAAs I should make, even and especially since I was not there. Thanks to Greg Downey for live tweeting the “Ontological Turn” panel! It kind of felt like what listening to radio felt like once upon a time.

  4. Rex on FBook you said M Fischer picked up on Latour’s ‘Catholicism’ or words to that effect. Could you say a bit more about what Fischer said in this respect? I’m curious. (The question is rooted in my recent re-reading of Christian Moderns with students.)

  5. kagillogly writes “Yeah, so ontology is just another word for culture.”

    Sort of. The work being done at the National Center for Ontological Research is pretty much the opposite of what we normally mean by ‘culture’, however. Check out http://ontology.buffalo.edu/smith/ for a wide range of work. That particular version is also motivated by deeply conservative politics (I’m not sure what the panel on the ‘politics of ontology’ had to say, since I was at another session that morning), and is an effort to strip cultural difference away and reduce all knowledge to some sort of basic, universal level. All phonology and no phonemics, if I can use that analogy, based, of course, on Western assumptions about reality, value, etc.

  6. Jason, your comment is so interesting to me because I’ve found myself using ontology very much as a result of trying to include history and power in my work.

    I’m writing up my dissertation right now, on kinship among the Asante. I find that for me, “ontology” has two main uses.

    The first is a sort of practical use which amounts to dealing with the issues of assuming biology in kinship. Ontology assumes that knowledge and object are co-produced, that the mind is not separate from what it perceives. This is opposed to a more classic approach to knowledge as representational, which assumes that the mind creates a representation of an external and separate object. For me, I don’t really think that we have to say that all knowledge is one way or the other way. I’m perfectly happy to assume that my understanding of “chair” is representational. But I find it useful to assume that my understanding of “mother” is not–suggesting that kinship is ontological allows me to acknowledge the ways in which the Asante use reproduction and the notion of “blood” without assuming that this is because of some intrinsic, presocial, biological meaning or that the connection of these concepts with biology means that they are therefore the same concept as in, say, British kinship. I’ve found this to be important because Fortes work about the Asante was far more accurate than many of his critics realized. Fortes assumed that kinship was representational; by assuming that it is not, it is easier for me to critically engage with his work, and it actually creates questions that bring history and power into play: if the kinship that Fortes described was fairly accurate, and lineage did serve this dual social and political purpose, but not because of any natural relationship between biology/kinship and social complexity, then why? This leads me to both history and power. (I draw on T.C. McCaskie’s arguments to suggest that kinship was intentionally developed by the political elite to legitimate their authority and power, and that the ways in which the political and the personal are divided are historically contingent and can be seen to have changed over time in connection with various other factors.)

    The other thing I find ontolology useful for is talking about patterns of knowledge that make a certain amount of internal cohesive sense; ideas that build on and relate to each other and assume each other. Again, you can see how this relates to kinship. If “mother” is ontological, well, it is also connected in a whole systematic understanding of a bunch of other things about how people are related to each other and what that means. This is the way that it’s usually related to “culture,” but I use it specifically to distinguish what often gets labeled in scholarship on Ghana as “traditional” and “modern.” So, I talk about “Asante ontology” which has a history and a present and a future–and enables power and authority in certain ways. I also talk about “modernist ontology” which also has a history and a present and a future and also enables power and authority in certain ways.

  7. Barbara, That kind of ontology is very different from the ontology that is practiced in the questions generated by the work on Amazonian Indians, and by extension Amerindian societies, more generally. In this latter there is a questioning of the unity of nature and its existence as a ground for reality. Instead it is seen as potentially varied and hence differently constructed and therefore understood in Amazonian societies, as well as other Amerindians. In one sense this is a challenge to the regnant empiricism and positivism of our society. But it is not reducible to simple cultural difference nor to relativism. It is an important and worthy challenge, weather one agrees of not. It will also require of all of us substantial reading of work that builds on theses that challenge our basic understanding of the world and terms that we think reflect it. I doubt this is a conservative turn, given the association between its radicalism and the pluralist constitution established by the Indigenous and post indigenous peoples in Bolivia. Although, it does run counter to the classic sense of political economy. This will be a fun and hopefully informative turn in anthropology.

  8. Kim Fortun’s final retort (discussion) on the Ontological Turn panel on Saturday was brilliant, courageous, stark, and grave. I like reading and experiencing Latour. He always torques my thinking in ways that are surprising. BUT. Latour’s ontology is more and more the Ontology of Bruno. Kim projected screen shots of the Inquiry into Modes of Existence web project http://modesofexistence.org/index.php/site/index which is supposedly about the planet earth’s increasing opposition to modernity, and about constructing a “philosophical anthropology of the moderns.” She showed the results of her search for anything on the site related to disaster, pollution, toxins, chemical industries, plastics, endocrine disruption, oil and gas blowouts, etc. – coming up with a huge ZERO for anything related to the real (ontic?) qualities of the earth in the “anthropocene” (the other big word on everybody’s lips at this AAA). The weird thing is that the sound system in the ballroom for this panel was such that though the audience could hear quite clearly, the panelists could not hear each other. So on this panel of bigwig older male theorists, the younger female Fortun’s words of strong critique were literally inaudible to the rest of the panel. I hope she publishes her remarks. Latour should know what she said.

  9. Fortun was superb. I was blown away by her intervention. In discussing what Latour had to ignore to do his study, what he disavowed, she finished with: “disavowal is a key component of psychosis.” Ouch. After the talk she was chatting with John Kelly and said something like: “the real question is what sort of anthropology do we want? And what do we want it to do?” That hit the nail on the head for me. For Fortun and Fischer, the issue was not whether an ontological turn gets us to where we want to go in anthropology, it forces us to ask what we want the discipline to do in the first place. Because for some, ontology’s goals might not be that thing.

  10. David Knowlton: Thanks for your comment. I am aware of people such as Descola doing work like this, but it appears to be an odd appropriation of the term “ontology” that has little or nothing to do with the concept of ontology as it has been developed over more than a thousand years. I like Decola’s work, and recently picked up his new Beyond Nature and Culture volume, which I look forward to reading. Perhaps — and I say this with amused irony — these ontologists use language in ways that is incompatible with ontology.

    As for the conservative foundations of the ontology being developed by the people I mentioned in my original post, please consult that web site. The conviction that we can develop a fundamental vocabulary, say, for disease, is a Western, empiricist illusion that, at root, is an effort to extinguish cultural difference. Check out the website, please!

  11. I like Decola’s work, and recently picked up his new Beyond Nature and Culture volume, which I look forward to reading. Perhaps — and I say this with amused irony — these ontologists use language in ways that is incompatible with ontology.

    Descola seems to me to be quite aware of the need to provide operational definitions throughout his works. Letting this discussion go down the rabbit hole of arguing semantics (by which I mean ‘rhetorical fencing’) would be a shame.

  12. Well I think that there is an issue here about the word ‘ontology’. Its been around forever, means different things to different people, and thus acts in the same way ‘cybernetics’ did back in the day: it is so polysemous that it can accommodate large networks of people as they discuss it, argue about it, disagree about it, etc.

    There are clear differences between Descola, Latour, and VdC, and between them and the way the term is used (I think?) by people in i-schools worrying about metadata. That’s part of why it makes such a great brand.

  13. Matthew and Rex: let me make it clear that I have no problem with polysemy, and I am looking forward to exploring this body of work. Vive le differance, as Derrida used to say. My original note was an expression of curiosity about the ‘politics of ontology’, which appears to be fairly conservative in philosophy, but seems much more interesting in the anthropological versions, I’m glad to see…

  14. Nancy, I could not agree more. I was present for the entire thing and attended Latour’s earlier talk on Friday too. I’ve always found Latour’s work interesting and useful for examining complex natureculture assemblages, but that’s where it ends for me. I find it unable to render a critique of what Fortun so brilliantly brought to the fore the other day. I too hope that she publishes that response. It’s a necessary critique of his work and I found it refreshing.

    I also agree that “Anthropocene” might be the other dominant concept last week, and perhaps this is where Latour and Fortun can actually inform one another? Latour’s project seems to be describing the complexity of our present global condition via this anthropology of the moderns, while Fortun is focusing on its most recent form in her Late Industrialism. Fortun certainly vests her analysis with a more central concern for politics and power, and this is something that I wish Latour would deal with more forthrightly. And why Fortun’s intervention was so necessary, I think.

    Not to riff too much on ontology/ontologies here, but the *reality* of climate science seems to have shaken Latour back when he wrote “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?” in 2004. I’m not sure ANT gives him the tools to actually deal with it, unfortunately. Hence the reason Fortun “didn’t know what to do with Latour”. Some of us out in the crowd were having a similar conversation prior to the event.

  15. Tim Ingold’s work also belongs in this (overdue) discussion on ontology. I would also not exclude the cognitive folks, who have quite a bit to say on the topic. The relativism of perspectivism, modes of existence, etc. are not mutually exclusive with the more universalist discussion of ontological problems (e.g., categorization; symbolic thought) related to cognitive architecture. Viveiro de Castro cites and praises Pascal Boyer’s work, for example. I would also add Roy Wagner, Maurice Bloch, and Gaston Gordillo. Then there are other interesting people ranked in the post-humanist camp, like Jussi Parika (for new edgy stuff), and Michel Serres for a more classical figure. And now that A.N. Whitehead is fashionable again, we should also rescue Gregory Bateson, who was paying attention to him long before franco-brazilian trends brought back ontology!

  16. Carmen — thanks so much! My work is in human rights issues in West Africa (I’m a lawyer as well as an anthropologist), and I have had little time to keep up with these interesting developments in this new realm of anthropology. The overview is much appreciated, as are the instructive comments from people here, both your own and David’s.

  17. For me “ontology” is often one of those words that seems to complicate rather than clarify arguments. At least, based upon my experiences with folks who are really gung-ho about the term. Often, I think it might make more sense to just try to explain, exactly, what you’re talking about instead of relying on unclear, ambiguous terminology. The word sounds good, complex, and all that–but it is indeed so “polysemous” that it gets incredibly difficult to make sense of what it really means. I also think it over-complicates theoretical discussions when ambiguous words like this end up becoming all the rage. I am all for theoretical discussions…but I get a bit skeptical when I hear about the latest turn in “big theory.” Mostly because the level of clarity seems to rapidly diminish in direct proportion to trendiness. Soon everyone will be doing an ontological ontology of the recent ontologists, and nobody will really know what we’re talking about. That said, I actually find Latour, for one, pretty readable and interesting–it’s many of his devoted followers that I can’t understand (that sort of happened with Foucault as well, IMO). Anyway, some folks are more clear than others. Not trying to curmudgeon-out here, but I have yet to hear someone talk about ontology in a way that I found truly eye-opening or revealing. I usually end up going back to the dictionary, looking up the word, and saying “well, ok, if you say so.”

  18. Descola is the greater part of what I know of this anthropological ontology literature and I am still working my way through him. But what motivates me to do that isn’t an interest in ungrounded big deal theory. His stuff makes sense to me in light of facts on the ground (and in archives and museums) and helps me make sense of that stuff. American Indian ethnography is at the foundation of French Structuralism, so perhaps that should come as no surprise. I wonder if there are regional/topical trends in who takes an interest in the different flavors of ontology?

  19. MTB:

    “His stuff makes sense to me in light of facts on the ground (and in archives and museums) and helps me make sense of that stuff.”

    Now that sounds like a good reason to chase down a concept.

  20. It is worth considering that as we try and apply ontological understandings to a study of ‘others’, we continue to neglect redressing the core ontological postulates which guide our exploration of ‘Western’ equivalencies, preferring to see difference only elsewhere whilst ignoring (or reframing as religio-spiritual) very similar practices at home.

    Personally, I think Holbraad’s ethnography Truth in Motion goes further than Descola, VDC, and Latour – Descola and VDC have successfully set up an interesting discussion but it gets too complex and ‘academic’ I think – and Latour, whilst readable, appears to be plagued by the need to create elaborate work-arounds which effectively de-soul and individualise everything in the world, whilst failing to extend personhood to anything. Though his work might seem to fit in with the other two, what is built into and generated from his system of thinking yields a result which is in direct opposition to what emerges from theirs. At core, I think his ontology is very consistent with modern disenchantment and the rise of machine thinking – it is not what it appears.

  21. Thanks, Matt, for the comments on the Tweeting. I was surprised to learn that you could max out your Twitter account — fortunately, I did so right as Descola and Latour were (not) responding to the other three presenters, so I don’t think anyone missed anything.

    I find myself deeply ambivalent about the ontology literature — the orienting figures, BL, PD, and EVdC are all people whose work I really admire. But so often the discussion does not seem designed to make the arguments clearer. At times, some of the literature appears to verge on the mystical, and I’m left with the suspicion that some writers appear to resort to ‘ontology’ to appear to be doing something other than just cultural relativism or symbolic analysis while still not grappling with biology, psychology or other sciences (not that these other fields have unassailable truth claims either).

    For example, some of the ontology discussion seems to be a very subtle account of consciousness and phenomenology of living beings, but conducted in a language that is almost guaranteed to make it a) impenetrable to a non-anthropologist, and b) virtually untranslateable into more established, widespread vocabularies for taking about consciousness. While the desire for a more profound critique of common sense Western assumptions about consciousness is great, what’s the point if we carry it on in a language that assures no one from outside our own field will read it? (Or realise what is really at stake?) It just seems terribly self-defeating to me.

    That said, I came away from the panel really wanting to read Descola and more of Kim Fortun!

  22. For example, some of the ontology discussion seems to be a very subtle account of consciousness and phenomenology of living beings, but conducted in a language that is almost guaranteed to make it a) impenetrable to a non-anthropologist, and b) virtually untranslateable into more established, widespread vocabularies for talking about consciousness.

    Again with the caveat that I only know Descola’s work and that less than thoroughly: a) he seems to me to be taking quite a lot from his background in analytical philosophy, so his work actually opens a door to that admittedly limited audience b) it might be like statistical or linguistic analysis—both require some unsubstitutable additions to one’s toolkit.

  23. Ontology is a word originally used in ancient Greece – perhaps originally by Aristotle (it might be an Aristotelian neologism, but I’m not sure) – and in analytic philosophy it has retained its original meaning, which is, ‘an account/the study of things that have being/that are’. The idea of ontology is quite simple. It is an attempt to understand a) what things exist and b) how they exist.

    For example, we could make an ontological argument about the table I’m writing at and say that it doesn’t exist because it wholly reduces in all of its properties to the particles that compose it. You might contend that it has some additional properties that are not accounted for by the atoms that compose it (you’d have to say what those were, of course).

    That’s what ontology is. It applies to anthropology in a direct way – all of the arguments about society as an organism, the nature of rule-following, ‘how societies remember’, etc, are fundamentally ontological in nature. The nature of knowledge is also ontological, although that seems to be more or less resolved: brains are capable of containing representations of reality and they don’t create it.

    Ontology assumes that knowledge and object are co-produced, that the mind is not separate from what it perceives.

    This is just a redefinition of a normal word, redefined so as to mean something not just wrong but absurd. First, that isn’t what ontology is, at all. That’s a belief predicated on a certain ontological position, but it isn’t ontology.

    And the idea that knowledge creates or is co-produced with the object is tantamount to the view that there isn’t a single real world outside of your head. It’s anti-realism. And of course the discussion is obscure and difficult to follow, and of course lots of jargon is used. You can’t just come out and say that you don’t believe in a single real world that doesn’t depend on the mind, because that’s stupid. No one will take you seriously, as indeed, outside of anthropology and new age circles, they don’t. I don’t see a fundamental difference here between Latour and Deepak Chopra.

    I haven’t read much of Descola, but it seems that, unlike Latour, he is interested in local ontologies – that is to say, the accounts that different people have regarding the nature of existence and part/whole relationships. He certainly seems to know the ethnographies well. Perhaps we have a case where everybody is using the same piece of jargon in the expectation that everyone else is using it in the same way, when in fact they aren’t. Perhaps they each hold different representations in their minds of what the word means…

  24. Hey A.J. In my comment I mentioned that I’m working on this stuff as a student. Thanks so much for quoting it and calling it stupid! That feels awesome!

    Also, you misrepresented what I said. I do not contend that there is no single real world outside of my head. But I’m not really looking at human-nature or even primarily human-material systems. I’m looking a human-human/human-social systems. I’m looking at the intersection of kinship, law, and inheritance, and at the way in which knowledge about how people are related to one another and what their obligations to one another are structure actions that produce “kinship” as well as the knowledge that people carry with them into future kin relationships.

    To say that our concept and our reality are co-produced in this context is not to say that our brains “create” reality, but to say that without human knowledge, there is no human kinship; our shared knowledge of what a “mother” is creates mothers. In North America, these are women who give birth or adopt children; among the Asante, these are women who give birth and care for children, women who share a mother with women who give birth and care for children, women who, by mutual agreement, say they are your mother, and women who adopt and care for children. In North America a “mother” is a singular and permanent relationship. In Ghana, one can have multiple mothers; some mothers are permanent and some are contextual. What people think that a “mother” is conditions the legal and social recognition of “mother,” the obligations and expectations associated with “mothering,” and who can and cannot be a “mother.” To say that this is *not* representational is not the same as saying that some individual person can say “I think a mother is XYZ and presto chango there she is, XYZ.” It is to say that my mental construction of mother is based on socially produced knowledge, and that this socially produced knowledge does not represent something that can be identified separately from and independently of the society in which that knowledge was produced. It also suggests that the ontological meaning of “mother” can change over time, as people enact and recognize mothers and mothering in differing ways.

    Structuralist kinship research was bogged down by representationalist views that attempt to relate people’s choices to fundamental (biological) relationships. Representationalism in kinship leads to things like the idea that certain types of Asante mothers are “real” and others are “fictive.” However, that is not an adequate accounting of how Asante people experience, understand, and enact the various different kinds of permanent and impermanent, given and contextual mothers. Thus, I find the notion that the knowledge and the object are co-produced a useful way to approach the issue of kinship, inheritance, and law, particularly given the plurality of Ghana’s legal system.

    So, what I end up saying is more along the lines of that things like inheritance, property, and kinship relations have no independent existence from the human mind, which is not to say that you can’t look up a piece of paper (or website) with an account of Ghanaian property or inheritance law on it, but to say that a) the law is an invention of human society that emerges from pre-existing ontological knowledge about what property, family, and inheritance “are,” that b) this law is not “representational” of independently existing forms of property, family, and inheritance, but helps to create particular types of property, families, and inheritance, by making certain types of property, families, and inheritance more legible and easier to enact than others and that c) the law itself is employed in partial and selective ways to argue for particular meanings of property, family, and inheritance.

  25. To be perfectly clear, I didn’t call you stupid. I called the idea of anti-realism stupid, which it is. That’s a very different thing. And let’s be even clearer: the truth is more important than politeness, and while how you feel is important, it’s more important to be straight with one another. Oh, and I’m not in a superior position – I’m not a university-affiliated academic, so feel free to completely disregard my opinion if you wish.

    To say that our concept and our reality are co-produced in this context is not to say that our brains “create” reality, but to say that without human knowledge, there is no human kinship; our shared knowledge of what a “mother” is creates mothers.

    Yes, indeed – but why we need the Latourish ideas instead of representationalist ones isn’t at all clear. Plenty of analytic philosophers and cognitive scientists have answered the same questions, and they do so in a naturalistic, sensible way that doesn’t even give a hint of denying the existence of an external reality. See John Searle’s causal self-representation, for instance. Representationalism in kinship does not necessarily lead to the idea of ‘real’ and ‘fictive’ kin.

    Oh, and Latour and his cohort do apply their ideas to non-human phenomena – microscopic organisms, shellfish, etc. He is denying the external world.

  26. Folks, I’m happy that this thread has run so long and been so productive without starting to go down the path of negativity that our comment threads so often do. Let’s keep it that way and try to keep things civil. And that includes not producing, long angry posts immediately after this one explaining why your previous input here was civil. Just a nice reminder to be productive 😀

  27. That should be ‘causal self-reference’, not representation. The point is, everyone can agree that human social institutions are created by humans in some way, but there’s no reason to believe that this undermines the idea that knowledge consists of representations in the mind in some way. Certainly no one would say that humans created tuberculosis by developing knowledge of it. Or would they?

  28. If you are reading my comments and think that I am supporting an interpretation that human knowledge created tuberculosis then I think we have nothing further to say to one another.

  29. I’m not saying that at all, and in fact I wasn’t addressing you when I quoted your comment – I was discussing the viewpoint, which you succinctly summarised. My beef is with Latour, and I have no problem with much that you have said, in any case. I didn’t mean anything as a personal sleight, and you are not the only one to whom my comments are addressed.

    I realise that you don’t mean that natural phenomena besides social facts are created by human knowledge. You were quite specific about it, because obviously human awareness of something doesn’t cause that thing to actually come into existence. I do find it peculiar, though, that you think it is necessary to do away with a representational view of human knowledge in order to make sense of social facts, but that’s a separate issue.

    I wasn’t going after you with my comment: I was going after Latour. Latour has suggested that tuberculosis was created by human knowledge of it, and that is the only interpretation of his work that a) makes sense and b) is non-trivial. I’m interested in discussing Latour; I’m especially interested given the attention bestowed upon him by the AAA. You summarised his position nicely and without ambiguity, which is rare. That is why I quoted your comment. It wasn’t meant to be interpreted as throwing down a gauntlet.

  30. With a tip of the hat to Matthew Timothy Bradley, who kindly provided the following references in response to an exchange on Google+:


    Just finished reading the first one. It is amazing how much more interesting people’s ideas can be that the caricatures in terms of which we discuss them at second or third hand.

  31. Thanks for the tip of the hat, John! And for your contributions to the exhange, as well.

    Delving into Descola’s work over the past several days I’ve come to realize that his terminology owes a lot to analytic philosophy. He also engages with British social anthropology. And he has a background as an Americanist. His is music for which one must be present.

  32. Matt, my pleasure.

    Could you be a bit more specific about what you mean when you say that Descola’s terminology owes a lot to analytic philosophy? My own take is that, like Lévi-Strauss (and a whole lot of linguists), he owes a lot to Roman Jakobson’s phonology and the notion that a space of meaningful distinctions can be defined in terms of minimal binary contrasts: p [+bilabial,+exploded, -voiced]/b [+bilabial, -exploded, + voiced] (the example is textbook standard English, and since I am working from memory, some of the technical jargon may not be quite right). His is the most basic usage, two contrasts that define a space of four possibilities. Formally speaking, it resembles Mary Douglas’ group vs grid, with four quadrants defined as high-group, high-grid/high-group, low-grid/low-group, high grid/low-group, low-grid, and the four-cell tables beloved of market researchers. As a place to start a modelling exercise, four-cell tables are fine. Questions start to arise when you add dimensions. Thus, for example, Lee Drummond’s analysis of American blockbuster movies employs a three-dimensional space: Animal v Machine/Life Force v Death Force/Us v Them, which results in 2^3=8 cells. The number of cells increases exponentially with the number of dimensions employed. For anthropological theory, James Fernandez’s conception of culture as a n-dimensional space in which metaphors move pronouns around (see_Persuasions and Performances_) is the most sophisticated form of this type of extension that I know of.

    A different sort of complication arises if the space in question is conceived as a metric space, in which the contrasts define axes along which variation is possible instead of discrete categories. Here we might note the role of Pierre Bourdieu in advancing the use of correspondence analysis, which employs weighted measures to position observations in a way that makes the distance between them meaningful. In this case, however, ontology, whose fundamental premise is that the world can be organised into discrete entities, breaks down.

  33. P.S. I should have said “classical ontology.” There are, of course, ways of conceiving the world as made of things that flow into each other, traditional Chinese cosmology, for example.

  34. Could you be a bit more specific about what you mean when you say that Descola’s terminology owes a lot to analytic philosophy?

    From doing enough reading on my own to be able to ask a semi-informed question of a philosopher, ‘modes of identification’ are associated with the work of Gareth Evans. I am not sure whether or not Evans coined the term.

    His is the most basic usage, two contrasts that define a space of four possibilities. Formally speaking, it resembles Mary Douglas’ group vs grid, […]

    I was thinking body and soul.

    As a place to start a modelling exercise, four-cell tables are fine. Questions start to arise when you add dimensions.

    Like this, for example?

  35. Ooh, lotta great comments to read! Which I haven’t done yet, but since Kate mentions ontology as another word for culture I felt I had to share this debate from 2008: Ontology Is Just Another Word for Culture — Motion Tabled at the 2008 Meeting of the Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory, University of Manchester. Critique of Anthropology vol 30, #2.

  36. D’oh, I read the comments and Piers totally beat me to that one. Doesn’t look like anyone mentioned this other anthropological precedent, though, from the 2010 SCA Spring Meeting in Santa Fe. This panel in particular:

    When Worlds Meet: Nature/Culture and Indigeneity
    Sylvie Poirier (Laval U) Encountering Indigenous Ontologies. Towards an Anthropology of Difference and Co-existence
    Harvey Feit (McMaster U) Indissolvable Relations, Ontological Worlds, and the Varied Engagements of James Bay Crees with States
    Brian Noble (Dalhousie Uy) Living With, Living Together: Treaty Ontology and the Undoing of Biopolitics
    Florence Brunois (CNRS Paris) When Modern Artefacts Enter the World of the Kasua
    Colin Scott (McGill U) Relational Ontology in the Crucible of Modernity: Environmental Protection and Economic Development in a James Bay Cree Community
    Mario Blaser (Memorial University of Newfoundland) Between Reciprocity and Representation: Leadership in the Hinge

    really worked through the concept of ontology and nature across cultural difference etc. Like fiercely, for over an hour after the session, with Marisol de la Cadena and Donna Haraway throwing in from the sidelines. That was kind of awesome.

  37. For someone who has been in and out of internet access (and behind the Great Wall Firewall to boot) for about five months, its been interesting to pour over this flood of blogs, Twitters, Google+, E-Anth Listserve discussions and what have you. I’ve had this comment thread open for about four days now, refreshing every now and then, waiting. I’m surprised that no one has brought up the work of G.E.R. Lloyd in all this discussion. Does anyone at the conference know if the panel participants, or perhaps Kim Fortun, mentioned his work? I’ve finished three of his books while in the field and all I can say is….Hallelujah! The Clarity! Why can’t all of these guys write like that.

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