Field of Difference: Limitations of the Political in Ontological Anthropology

Commentary was a forum for responses, elaborations, and reflections on material published in Cultural Anthropology.

In this Commentary essay, Ender Ricart responds to the Theorizing the Contemporary series, "The Politics of Ontology," edited by Martin Holbraad and Morten Axel Pedersen. This is an abbreviated version of a longer response piece. Please email for the full critical essay.

Ontological anthropologists have moved beyond reflexive anthropology because they are fully aware and intentionally involved in choosing which analytic they use and apply, knowing that the choice is directly related to and critically affects what they will be able to see and explore in the field. An analytic is not unlike a visual illusion or ambiguous image: to borrow from Wittgenstein’s example, both a duck and a rabbit can be seen, but always one or the other, never both at the same time. This is not to say that the ontological anthropologist arbitrarily chooses which analytic to employ. There is a dialogue, a mutual exchange, between the analyzer and the analyzed, which leads some analytics to be more suited than others for particular situations. The ontological anthropologist recognizes that, whichever analytical lens is assumed will, in turn, release certain kinds of shapes and forces in our field of analysis (thinking along lines with Heidegger’s Gestell). This is why politics and ontology should not be conflated into a politics of ontology, because the political is but one ontology among many, and one ontological analytic that may be suited to some situations but not others.

Like Kantian mental precepts, our ontology is the time-space orientation through which we perceive the world. Thus, if we merge politics with the ontological analytic to form a politically inclined ontologist, we deprive ontological anthropology of its full potential. We impose on ontological anthropology a secondary ontology, the ontology of political analysis—its precepts, questions, and understandings of how the world works and moves (for example, power moves over a field of difference). Politics is as a matter of difference and control of difference (see Holbraad, Pedersen, and Viveiros de Castro 2014). This understanding of “difference” and “control” is situated within a larger ontological understanding that there are already established “things” in the world that can differ and be controlled. There are discrete things that come into relation with one another, forming between them or across their borders an exchange or compromise of some sort (see, for example, studies that revolve around the relationship between subject–government, self–society, mind–body, nature–culture, analyzer–analyzed, and colonizer–colonized). The worldview that political analysis assumes, then, is a give-and-take relation: power exchanges between two or more defined spheres, communicated across various bridges of relations (the body, technology, language, even Serres’s “noise”) that, however unfaithfully, transmit a force or a message that either initiates change or elicits a response from the “other.”

Political analysis, and arguably even actor-network theory, engages in analysis at this level of individuation—when differentiation has already firmly established discrete and distinct parts or things with likewise discrete and distinct functions and relationships that exhibit a measurable level of stability over time and space. It is at this level of differentiation that identifiable “things” can be picked out and their relationship with other self-differentiating “things” can likewise be isolated and studied. Thus, the focus of political analysis is on the relationship (network) between different things (actors) and the forces of change that move across these bridges of relation.

I refer to already relatively stable and well-established collectives of discrete and distinct parts that have resolved conflict to a level of functional coherence as a “field of difference.” It might additionally be considered an established ontology, an established ordering of things. Political analysis is suited to the study of already established fields of difference, where identifiable parts have established a relatively stable and sustained series of relationships of exchange. However, when a field of difference is just starting to take form, that is, when its parts are not yet discrete “things” in and of themselves, when it has not yet concretized into a unified meta-stable whole, political analysis may not be the best ontology to apply because it may reify certain parts and relations that are not yet isolatable.

Ontogenesis (see Simondon 1980, 1992; Mackenzie 2002; Combes 2012; Lamarre 2012; and Ricart 2013), however, is another possible analytic. It focuses closely on the processes involved in the becoming of a new and emerging field of difference, that is, the process of differentiation of its parts. If a field of difference is an individuated and concretized ontology—a worldview and understanding of how the world works, its parts, their functions, and the ordering of things—then ontogenesis as an analytic focuses on the structuring of new pathways of action and affect, and the differentiation of a field’s parts. An inchoate field of difference is recognizable by a high degree of background commonality rather than a high degree of relations between differentiated parts. This common background can also be thought of as the “field of sameness.” In an emerging field, a background of sameness is readily observable and intact because the parts have not yet specialized or differentiated to create a field of difference. The field of difference, which has hitherto formed the cornerstone of much critical social scientific research, namely the political, can only exist because there is a simultaneous field of sameness that forms the background on which parts can differentiate and continue to presence themselves as distinct from an “other.” This theorization returns to the primacy of the universal discussed by Hegel, together with Heidegger’s presencing. It follows that in order for there to be differentiation, perception, thesis and antithesis, there must be a simultaneity of space and time that sustains and supports the presencing of difference. The field of sameness never fully disappears but tends to recede into the background, becoming less and less observable as its different parts come to attention, developing distinct and discrete functions and identities.

To conclude, politics should not be conflated with ontology to form the “politics of ontology” because politics and political analysis are ontologies. They have distinct origins, with distinct understandings of how the world works, and distinct orderings of things. Ontological anthropology can exercise political analysis and attend to politics when suitable: but it behooves us as ontological anthropologists to recognize that in choosing a political lens, it biases our field of observation and analytical trajectory, limiting it to sets of terms and problematics laid out by the ontology of the analytic being employed. As a member of what Matei Candea terms the “second generation” of ontological anthropologists, I am in search of an ontology that allows me to study the emergence of a new field of difference where the parts are not fully distinguished or disentangled from the field of sameness. Because of this, a politically inclined ontological analysis would not be suitable, but analytics like ontogenesis might be. With ontological anthropology, we are now aware of our ability to choose and create ontological lens of analysis suitable for our field.


Combes, Muriel. 2012. Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual. Translated by Thomas Lamarre. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Holbraad, Martin, Morten Axel Pedersen, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. 2014. “The Politics of Ontology: Anthropological Positions.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, January 13.

Lamarre, Thomas. 2012. “Afterword. Humans and Machines.” In Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual, 79–108. Translated by Thomas Lamarre. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Mackenzie, Adrian. 2002. Transduction: Bodies and Machines at Speed. New York: Continuum.

Ricart, Ender. 2013. “From Being to Ontogenetic Becoming: Commentary on Analytics of the Aging Body.” Special issue, “The Body,” Anthropology and Aging Quarterly 34, no. 3: 52–60.

Simondon, Gilbert. 1980 (1958). On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects: Part 1. Translated by Ninian Mellamphy. Ontario: University of Ontario.

Simondon, Gilbert.1992 (1964). “The Genesis of the Individual.” Zone 6: Incorporations, edited by Jonathon Crary and Sanford Kwinter, 297–317. Translated by Mark Cohen and Sanford Kwinter. New York: Zone Books.


This post was originally published in the Commentary section of the Cultural Anthropology website, which was retired in June 2016. All Commentary posts were reclassified under the new Dispatches section; their URLs remain unchanged.