The Ontology of the Political Turn

The position piece by Holbraad, Pedersen, and Viveiros de Castro (2013) offers an engaging account of how politics and the ontological turn might fit together. The Deleuzian (or indeed Tardean) sounding thought that the ontological turn is an immanent politics of permanent differentiation appeals. It certainly captures much of what I for one have found attractive about this emerging bundle of arguments, while eschewing much of what is potentially problematic, such as the notion—clearly rejected here—of ontologies tied to named groups of people, and hence of a new identity politics by ontological means. Similarly, the focus on permanent theoretical revolution wards off—in principle at least—the greatest danger which awaits any theoretical movement entering its second generation, by which I mean the moment when, as is currently beginning to happen, anthropologists are going to the field with a sense of “the ontological turn” as a particular theoretical option. The danger this poses is the classic one of replicating results rather than methodological commitments—crudely put, the danger of going out to the field bent on “discovering” that whoever one happens to be studying actually lives in a world in which there is no single nature, and happens to have a striking penchant for elements of a relational, non-dualist, immanent material vitalism. The ontological turn, defined as a commitment to an immanent politics of permanent conceptual differencing, couldn’t possibly stand for that type of prejudged rediscovery of the same and that is all to the good.

However, I will argue that the acid test of the resolution of the permanent conceptual revolutionary comes when she encounters the term “politics”—an immovable object if ever there was one. Indeed, put “the ontological turn” and “politics” side by side and you will soon find that the terms do not stay put for long. Very quickly, the latter—“politics”—seems to want to pop up to a superordinate level, and we are drawn to talking and thinking about the politics of the ontological turn: what political project is implied by, or explicitly pursued by anthropologists who deploy “ontology” as a designator? The potential answers to this question are multiple, as the position piece makes clear, but its form is broadly stable. In other words, “politics” seems necessarily to be the bigger thing in terms of which the ontological “turn” can (and should) ultimately be called to account. Tellingly, for instance, when the position piece speaks of three different ways in which politics and ontology are correlated, it is in fact describing the politics of three ontological positions (broadly speaking a realist, a deconstructivist, and a performative one).

But what if the scale were reversed? What if instead of asking about the politics of the ontological turn, the ontological turn were the superordinate entity and the political just one of the particular topics falling under its call for permanent revolution? The position piece makes some moves in this direction when it speaks, for instance, of the limitations of one (modern, multicultural, etc.) kind of politics. Here the ontological anthropologist might be able to show, by drawing (through engaged mutual misunderstandings) on the politics of the other, that an other politics is possible. But in that move, politics has again taken the upper hand and become the common denominator that sutures ontological difference. For how does the ontological anthropologist know an “other” politics when she sees it? Presumably, it would have to look like something other than what we currently know as (modern, multicultural, etc.) politics—although in another sense, it would have to look enough like politics in the widest definition given here (“power differences”). The ontological anthropologist would then presumably have to say that this, too, is politics, albeit not “our” version of it. And this, in turn, replicates and extends the classic move of political anthropology from the 1970s onwards, of showing the political to operate in seemingly un-political places (cf. Candea 2011b).

That is why, from the perspective of permanent conceptual revolution, the political is the one ingredient that is hard to keep in the mix: it keeps floating up to the top, as it were. In another sense too: any argument about the political calls up a question about the politics of that argument. Thus politics still trumps ontology, and method, every time. The position piece deftly seeks to square that circle by rendering as political the ontological turn’s own methodological commitment to the constant production of difference. This is an elegant twist, and one that has a venerable line of predecessors from Foucault onwards, but it does seem that once again, the political ends up on top. Indeed, when we take the very fact of differing as political, we really have reached the horizon towards which political anthropology has been tending, in which everything (and therefore, in another sense, nothing) is political. And in that move, we are also getting further from the commitment to generating alternatives to established ways of thinking. After all, political anti-authoritarianism—the end-point of the piece—is itself a fairly well-established way of thinking, amongst Euro-American anthropologists at least. Adherents of the ontological turn have been repeatedly asked a conventional question (“What are your politics?”) and this ultimately requires a relatively conventional answer.

In many respects, the primacy of the political, its ability to return us back to fairly grounded, conventional problems, is to be welcomed. Amongst other things, it forces the would-be permanent revolutionary to ask a question that has not yet, I think, been conclusively addressed in the ontological turn, namely that of interlocution: whom, precisely, is one “taking seriously,”[1] and what might a disagreement or response from them look like?

That being said, consider how different the conversation would sound if, for instance, one asked instead about the religion rather than the politics of the ontological turn (cf. Scott 2013)—that conversation might shake things up rather more and bring its own problems. But it would certainly provide a purview from which the political could emerge as just one topic among others. Perhaps we do sometimes need to suspend (however briefly) the question of the politics of ontological difference to genuinely bring into view the question of the ontological difference of politics. By this I mean both the possibility of an “other” politics and the possibility of there being things other than politics. To ask about this is to ask, in other words, how “other” the otherwise can be.

Notes

[1] I would maintain, pace the position piece’s move away from the term, that the normative injunction to take seriously the worlds of “others,” and thereby to distort “our own,” remains a fairly apt description of the immanent politics of the ontological turn. It is particularly apposite precisely because of the fundamental ambiguity at the heart of the notion of “taking seriously” (cf. Viveiros de Castro 2011; Candea 2011a).

References

Candea, Matei. 2011a. “Endo/Exo.” Common Knowledge 17, no. 1: 146–50.

Candea, Matei. 2011b. “‘Our division of the universe’: A Space for the Non-Political in the Anthropology of Politics.” Current Anthropology 52, no. 3: 309–34.

Holbraad, Martin, Morten Axel Pedersen, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. 2013. “The Politics of Ontology: Anthropological Positions.” Position paper for roundtable discussion. American Anthropological Association annual meeting, Chicago.

Scott, Michael W. 2013. “The Anthropology of Ontology (Religious Science?).” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19, no. 4: 859–72.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2011. “Zeno and the Art of Anthropology: Of Lies, Beliefs, Paradoxes, and Other Truths.” Common Knowledge 17, no. 1: 128–45.