The term ontology is sexy. These days, in parts of anthropology, it seems able to promise the possibility of escape, of running ahead, of allowing academic work to take a rolling avant-garde run. Ontology becomes a term by which to relate the beauties and pains of differing to that other magic word, politics. By all means, if it inspires you, run with it. But allow me to tell you some stories.
Story Number One
For a long time, while anthropologists went out (from Cambridge or Rio de Janeiro) into the rest of the world to study “other cultures,” Nature stayed behind in the laboratory (in San Diego, Geneva, London) where it was studied by natural scientists. However, at the very moment that anthropologists who had gone “elsewhere” were finding that the Others did not necessarily have “cultures” (or “natures”), natural science laboratories got invaded by their own brand of ethnographers. And by the time we learned that some Others live with/in many natures rather than the singular Nature of the natural sciences, the lab-ethnographers emerged from the lab to say that what went on there had little to do with finding facts about Nature after all. Instead, it was about such specificities as purifying ferric chloride, measuring blood levels of thyrotrophin-releasing hormone, or hunting quarks. Hence, a variety of great divides (between scientists and primitives; the West and the Rest; culture and nature; facts and fiction) got more or less simultaneously messed with in various ways. The overall picture of how ethnographic studies of Others and ethnographic studies of laboratories relate was never quite drawn. Their various plots do not fit within a single scheme. There is no overall.
Story Number Two
After the lab studies had opened up facts, the clinic, too, looked different. Not that clinics were into fact-finding: their aim was to improve the health of patients, but this includes knowledge practices of varied kinds. I have done hospital fieldwork in the Netherlands since 1979. Here is an example of what came out of this work in the 1990s. What is anaemia? The textbook says it is a deviant bodily condition and that there are various methods for knowing it: listening to a patient’s complaints; observing her body; and measuring the levels of hemoglobin in her blood. All these methods approach anaemia in their own way. But do they? My fieldwork suggested otherwise. Rather than approaching a single object in different ways, each of these methods enacts an object of its own. In daily clinical practice, a patient’s complaints, the color of her eyelids, and her hemoglobin level are all real enough, but they do not neatly map onto each other. The different methods, rather than allowing for different perspectives on a single (forever elusive) object, follow from, and feed into, different (more or less painful) events. Other hospital ethnographers found similar things. We mobilized the term ontology to bring out what was going on here. In nineteenth-century Western philosophy, ontology was coined as a powerful word for the given and fixed collection of what there is. For reality, in the singular. But if each method enacts its own reality, it becomes possible to put realities, and indeed ontologies, in the plural. It was a delightful, frightful provocation.
What did it provoke? Putting ontologies in the plural is not relativism. The point is not that “it all depends from which side you look at it.” Instead, there is no longer a singular “it” to look at from different sides. And while putting ontologies in the plural indicates that reality is more than one, it may still be less than many. For while the theoretical term, ontologies, is put in the plural, the medical term, anaemia, is still singular. Our fieldwork showed that in medical practices a lot of work is done to coordinate between versions of reality. The politics, here, is not one of otherness. In a first instance, it is about fights; not between people (a politics of who) but between versions of reality (a politics of what). However, in a second instance, versions of reality that clash at one point turn out to be interdependent a little further along. Ontologies are not exclusive. They allow for interferences, partial connections. Sharing practices.
Story Number Three
Time goes on. In the twenty-first century, it appears (in my corner of academia) that there are many theoretical things that the term ontology cannot do. As originally this term got coined to designate what is, it was carefully emptied of what Western philosophy calls normativity. This means that the value of “what is” does not form part of its essences, but relates to them as a secondary quality, an afterthought. And the ideals that take distance from “what is,” the counterfactuals suggesting “what could be,” do not form a part of ontologies at all. Thus, while ontology—put in the plural ontologies—helps to shake up mono-realist singularities, it is ill-suited for talking about many other things. Such as the ways in which goods and bads are performed in practices, in conjunction with pleasures, pains, ecstasies, fears, ideals, dreams, passions. Or the various shapes that processes may take: causal chains; back-and-forth conversations; tinkering and caring; and so on. And what about theorizing how fingers taste when allowed to; what drugs afford to bodies and bodies do with drugs; migrant ambitions and guarded borders in the Mediterranean; garment factories on fire in Bangladesh; or soy for Dutch pigs being grown in the Amazon? To name just a few examples. In some cases, it might be wiser (more enlightening, more generative, more generous, and yes, even more provocative) to play with other words.
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