Over at Struggles Forever, Jeremy Trombley has an interesting post up on “the ontological turn” in anthropology or ethnography. I’ve been meaning to have a discussion with him about this as I think it’s an issue many of us are struggling with. For example, the core project of The Democracy of Objects— a project which I think many have missed –is to somehow reconcile some version of social constructivism with a realist ontology capable of making room for ecology (which requires realist and materialist positions as there’s a fact of the matter where global warming is concerned) as well as the role played by objective agencies in social assemblages such as technologies, infrastructure, features of geography, local climates, the growth cycles of plants and animals, waste, etc. Maybe we can try to organize some cross-blog event to discuss these issues. I certainly think they’re close to the heart of Jeremy, Michael of Archive Fire, Arran James, and a host of others.
As an aside, I’m beginning to realize how the different sites of the political I’ve been outlining— semiopolitics, thermopolitics, oikopolitics (political economy), geopolitics, eropolitics (the politics of sex and desire), biopolitics, and chronopolitics (and I’m sure there are other political sites!) –are drawing me away from traditional Marxism. Assuming that classical Marxism holds that economics or the conditions and relations of production are determinative of all other sites of the political, the various sites of the political that I’ve been outlining would lead to the conclusion that there is not one determinative base of the political. This would not require committing Marx to flames, but rather of recognizing the phenomenon of overdetermination, or of a variety of different entangled sites of the political.
But I digress. First, I find myself wondering what the ontological turn means in ethnography. Is it 1) the investigation of the different ontologies held/proposed by different cultures? E.g., the Aztecs believed that reality was structured in this way, while the Greeks in that way, and the ancient Chinese this way, etc? Or 2) Is it an investigation of how real entities– independent of cultural beliefs –influence cultural formations? Or is it a combination of both? A position that I would favor.
I raise the question because it’s a huge conundrum for me in my own work. I want to be pluralist and recognize that different groups of people have/propose different ontologies or different “theories of the world”. I think it’s deeply important to recognize this for a variety of reasons. However, as a realist and advocate of some version of the Enlightenment, I can’t, of course, believe that all of these ontologies are true depictions of being. I can appreciate the ethical and political commitments of my good friend, a liberal catholic Bishop (unaffiliated with Rome); however, I can’t share his views that God exists, that we have souls (or are anything more than some form of embodiment), that there’s an efficacy to pray beyond psychological benefits it might have, etc. The universe that I think is real and that can be argued for is just not a universe that contains these things. Then again, I’m not sure how important it is that we agree on these things. For example, I can share his admiration for the figure of Christ and see him as an important ethical and political model, while not sharing his belief that he is God incarnate or that he rose from the dead in anything other than a metaphorical sense (“his teachings will live on in the community of activists attending to others; and therefore he ‘rose’ from the dead”). In many instances, I’m not sure it matters much that people arrive at similar ethical and political commitments from different ontological presuppositions. So how do we simultaneously put together some form of pluralism with a realism?
We need a pluralistic– a pluralism that also recognizes different animal worlds as phenomenologically described by Uexkull –to cultivate compassion and proper ethical regard for others; a big part of which involves recognizing the limitations of ones own conceptual schemes, attempting to understand others, or at least recognize that they might inhabit worlds of meaning (in Heidegger’s sense) that differ substantially from our own. However, we need a realism because there are facts of the matter pertaining to what causes psychic maladies, climate change, how economy functions, etc., and when we get these things wrong we generate horrific practices. How, then, can these things be thought together? I don’t know. It seems I’m continuously trying to square circles.