HORATIO
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

HAMLET
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.


Much ink has been spilt in anthropology recently about 'ontology' and the ontological turn. There is a shift in attention from seemingly 'old' framing concepts like society and culture to issues concerning the language/philosophy of 'being'. A great deal of of this discussion can be traced to three figureheads - Viveiros de Castro, Marilyn Strathern and Bruno Latour. What is the significance of this turn? Since there has always been a comparative cosmology entailed in anthropological debates, is there anything distinctive or surprising in this emphasis? What, if anything, has changed?

It has been suggested that I refer readers of this thread to the GDAT debate 'Ontology is just another word for culture'. This may help make sense of the issues at hand in a number of the discussion points.

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Replies to This Discussion

Huon Wardle said:
I guess the conundrum we are facing as social scientists is how to bridge the parallax between a systemic view (à la Luhmann) and a subjective one.
I think this last point is critical given that the 'death of the individual' is taken as an apriori by the thinkers in question. I couldn't agree more with Kathleen that these topics demand a sense of humour, though, and there seems to be room for thinking more about laughter and its place. Giovanni's speedily written epics indexing everything from bateson to bar fights also made me think about how these debates come to centre on an imagery of relentless metamorphosis. Of course this is one of the 75 metaphysical constructs John mentioned early on - noone can 'step in the same river twice'. The decentring of the individual and the self-assembly of these leviathans and gargantuas are elements of the same liquid picture. No wonder these are our current concerns perhaps; even Latour could not have envisaged Steven Hawking suddenly becoming the personification of a world event concerning the British national health service, the American far right and innumerable other actors simultaneously pulling apart and reassembling a healthcare programme. Latour quite explicitly states that the relevance of the Amazonian ontologies is that they are 'slow' while the phenomena he is probing are fast: the reason that the Western ontological condition is starting to look like Amazonia is because of this unstoppable transformativity. But the West can do slow too (allow me to be deliberately crude). Keith points to Goody's studies of very tortoise-like global economic transformations, for instance.


Thanks Houn. I actually gave recently paper in Cambridge recently called 'Tibetan Gay Sciences and other Technologies of the Sense: Humor and Artful Bullshitting in Yunnan's Shangri-la' following Clastres advice that humor is 'the gay science' of Indians discussing 'truth' vs. indigenous notions of bullshitting (also contra Harry Frankfurt's in his serious essay 'On Bullshit').

I agree: there is a question of metamorphosis and instability but I think that is NOT a problem, or at least one to solve with classification and systemic approaches. The continuous instability may be constitutive of a particular subjectivity which does not want to be 'framed'.
it is precisely the continuous instability should be accepted as constitutive of a particular subjectivity which does not want to be 'framed'.

How true - that should probably be put up in gold letters as the motto of the OAC.
Giovanni da Col said:
Thanks John. I am familiar with Sperber and his relevance theory but not with phase-transition physics. What you say is fascinating, I will definitely look into that.

John and I have exchanged briefly elsewhere on critical phase transitions and the lessons for anthropology of considering what the sciences of complexity are up to. I will get back to the question of society, but an ahistorical approach to 'western science' is just as much at stake. I have sketched out a position in Models of statistical distribution.

For some time now I have tried to relate major innovations in science and mathematics to the movement of society in history. If I have learned anything from these amateur inquiries, it is that the history of ideas and the history of society have at best a very loose chronological relationship. But that hasn’t stopped me from pursuing the connection. I have been sustained in this by a belief that social science (including most of contemporary anthropology) is ideology and therefore in denial as far as social reality is concerned. This explains why the epistemology of economics remains trapped in the seventeenth century world of Galileo and Newton, caught between rationalism (microeconomic theory) and empiricism (econometrics); or why the methodological achievements of quantum mechanics – you can’t measure position and movement at the same time and if you observe something you change it – have had so little impact on the social sciences in the twentieth century. It may also go some way towards explaining why Amazonian perspectivists end up sounding like Jesuits from a previous century.

I have become convinced that the physicists and mathematicians, fondly assuming that their objects of study have nothing to do with human experience, are in fact a better guide than the social scientists to how ideas about the world are influenced by society. For this reason, I have avoided biological subjects since these lend themselves so readily to ideology, preferring rather to glean what I can from the study of stars, earthquakes, clouds, metals and elementary particles.

I focus on four phases in modern science: the scientific revolution of the 17th century, the rise of probabilistic reasoning (from individual events to the movement of crowds), scientific modernism (relativity and quantum mechanics) and the sciences of complexity since the 70s. In order to garner even a sketchy idea of all this, I have had to relax intellectual rigour to the point of invisibility. That's one problem. Maybe I end up looking like an encyclopedia, but any expert can punch holes in everything I say. Wikipedia I ain't and that is part of the issue concerning new social methods of gathering knowledge. But the other is that the method ends up looking like at best the lifetime output of an old German 19th century professor of philology. What use is it to students to be told that, if they work on the history of their topic for forty years, they might have something to say? I understand the appeal of intellectual shortcuts that lend themselves more easily to reproduction. But I can't help it. Everything turns up in my mind as a historical question...
Huon Wardle said:
Well let us see; (was it?) the most recent GDAT debate argued that there is no difference between 'ontology' and what used to be called 'culture'. However, taking one side of the debate - a relativist anthropology that explores 'logics of being' from the inside out has a chance to say something challenging to anthropological orthodoxy (if it can be translated into comprehensible language) - but some of the 'downsides' are perhaps more obvious...
... as an aside, has this GDAT debate been transcribed, i.e., is it accessible in any format?
I would much appreciate a pointer.
Giovanni writes,

I guess the conundrum we are facing as social scientists is how to bridge the parallax between a systemic view (à la Luhmann) and a subjective one.

Keith writes,

Everything turns up in my mind as a historical question

Could it be that history (or, to use the more "scientific" term, path-dependent results) are as close as we're going to get to a solution of the problem that Giovanni (along with Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu) poses?

For me this problem has an immediate relevance revealed in the attached PDF of the slides I used for my presentation at the last INSNA Sunbelt Conference in San Diego. On the one hand the mathematics work; the fit with my data is uncannily close. On the other, knowing that networks of a certain scale and density will predictably form hierarchical structures governed by power laws does not explain why particular individuals are the dominant hubs in the network or how they themselves would explain their success as they offer advice to those who might seek to emulate them. The relation between the mental models to be extracted from their publications and, if I am lucky, interviews with them and the mathematical laws of network formation remains an open question. The best answers I can come up with are, as per Keith's conclusion, historical in nature. They involve such factors as starting careers employed at major agencies just as the industry was being restructured by the advent of a new technology, TV. There are clear differences between those who established themselves through clever copywriting when newspapers were still the dominant medium for advertising in Japan and those who seized the opportunities for a new kind of story-telling, incorporating music and moving images, that TV presented. At the end of the day, however, how these particular coincidences of talent, technology and opportunity coincided remains a mystery. Some very talented people happened to be in the right place and the right time, while perhaps equally talented people were not. One of the limitations of this data set is that like Whig history it records only the winners who are a small subset of those, including the far more numerous hacks among whom I number myself, who make up the majority of those who work in advertising...and how did they wind up in advertising....another set of mysteries to plumb.

I will be eternally grateful to anyone who can offer a clearer direction to pursuing this kind of problem.
Attachments:
Without wishing to curb your enthusiasm, John, could you brief us on how this ties into the comparative ontology/cosmology strand? I can see how it fits the system/individual conundrum Bourdieu/Giddens. For example, where/how does the cosmology of your actors fit into your model? and what kinds of ethnographic comparisons do you have in mind in doing this work?

Felix, I cannot offhand see any publication details for the GDAT, but may be you could contact the speakers the link is here.
Huon,

As you can plainly see the response was motivated by the most recent previous comments by Giovanni and Keith. Sorry if we departed from your intentions. But threads to have a way of doing that when a conversation is free-flowing.

One could, of course, do an ontological analysis of the advertising world. A starter list of entities would include clients, customers, agencies, production companies, and a host of individuals playing particular roles (account executives, marketing researchers, creatives=copywriters, art directors, creative directors, commercial planners, film directors, etc.). All are involved in interactions that involve elements of persuasion like those that Annette Weiner attributes to Trobriand magic, sustained by the belief that the right words and images will penetrate the other's defenses, occupy mind space, and elicit the action that the persuader is hoping for. Overall, the world in question is similar in many respects both to that of Chinese folk religion and to that of Ulrich Beck's Risk Society. Much of the interest in all of these examples derives from the role of the mana called expertise and the fact that every successful act of persuasion comes down to the other's accepting the explicit or implicit assertion "Trust me, we can do this."

I could ramble on, but I'd rather hear now some of the rest of us approach ontological analysis. I would, in particular, like to hear more about that "perspectival" world view ascribed to American Indians that implies multiple natures feeding into one culture. That resonates with my sense that the different types of entities/persons involved in the ad game see each other from different angles, generating different perspectives on who or what the other is. Is this fundamentally different from Amerindian or Melanesian worlds and the ontologies that comprise them? Be interesting to find out.


Huon Wardle said:
Without wishing to curb your enthusiasm, John, could you brief us on how this ties into the comparative ontology/cosmology strand? I can see how it fits the system/individual conundrum Bourdieu/Giddens. For example, where/how does the cosmology of your actors fit into your model? and what kinds of ethnographic comparisons do you have in mind in doing this work?
Felix, I cannot offhand see any publication details for the GDAT, but may be you could contact the speakers the link is here.
Giovanni, I want to thank you for the wonderfully lucid and rich lecture you outlined. It goes far beyond what anyone has a right to expect and I can't reciprocate in this medium. You have demonstrated a set of mutual consistencies and connections that certainly answers any skepticism concerning the intellectual seriousness of the perspective in question.

You are right to invoke the Greeks as not being the Romans or the medieval (and modern) French when it comes to imagining society as a singular object. I want to break down the us/them logic of the discussion by showing that the pre-state Latins who invented the term we use for society envisaged open sociability along lines that would not be out of place on the internet today. Equally, America's great contribution to modern thought -- pragmatic philosophy and its cousin, symbolic interactionism or social psychology -- partake of many of the properties than Strathern finds in Melanesia, Latour in Tarde or Deleuze and Negri in Spinoza.

There are many takes on individual and society. If any of them consistently find adherents, they probably have something interesting to say. The question is what and how interesting (usually less than the protagonists claim). I think that the most serious criticism posed of the ontologies on show here is that they often deploy a penchant for paired contrast and a rhetoric of singularity that is not historically or ethnographically justified either for the 'West' or the peoples being studied, while claiming to do the opposite. As Collingwood says, What question is this the answer to? Or, as Huon would say, get back to my point!

I may not have given any evidence of movement in my own position, but I believe that this conversation has injected some into what passes between my ears and I would thank you all for that.

Giovanni da Col said:

Maybe we should make a discussion group only on comparative cosmologies and social ontologies...
Huon Wardle writes,

the 'death of the individual' is taken as an apriori by the thinkers in question

Doesn't this seem like a very odd thing to take a priori, given that if it were taken seriously it would make absolute nonsense of such concepts as human rights, private property, egalitarianism, the whole "liberty, equality, fraternity" thing? If, for example, a woman is only an appendage of the public self of her father or husband, what is wrong with killing her if she brings dishonor to that self (a view that some in the Middle East still share with ancient Romans)? Or if adjuncts are exploited by tenured faculty, why should that be a problem? No individuals, no fuss; just the way those relationships work.
The answers to that question might best be discussed into the anthropology of subjectivity thread. In brief, none of these figures would deny human rights etc. as representations which have effects, but they would start from a critical position outside that field of representations - somewhere like the Amazon or Melanesia, for instance.

John McCreery said:
Huon Wardle writes,

the 'death of the individual' is taken as an apriori by the thinkers in question

Doesn't this seem like a very odd thing to take a priori, given that if it were taken seriously it would make absolute nonsense of such concepts as human rights, private property, egalitarianism, the whole "liberty, equality, fraternity" thing? If, for example, a woman is only an appendage of the public self of her father or husband, what is wrong with killing her if she brings dishonor to that self (a view that some in the Middle East still share with ancient Romans)? Or if adjuncts are exploited by tenured faculty, why should that be a problem? No individuals, no fuss; just the way those relationships work.
Come one, get serious. If you have some specifics about Amazonian or Melanesian ontologies to talk about , why not put some stuff on the table and tell us why you find it particularly interesting? I don't want to talk about this, I don't want to talk about that is a bit feeble, isn't it?

Suppose you take what Keith has said with the seriousness it deserves. He points out that there seem to be substantial overlaps between what is being said by specialists in the Amazon and Melanesia and the conclusions of American pragmatists and social psychologists, e.g., William James or George Herbert Mead. Why not show us how Amazoniain or Melanesian ontologies would inform and enrich our reading of those traditions?

What does this "ontology" thing do for you? Is it substantially different from old Levy-Bruhl and his savages stuck in magical representations? Is it a new kind of butterfly collecting, in which we savor the nuances of differences in local representations? Or is it supposed to speak to issues of universal, or at least regional, interest? What do these cases bring to the table that make them more worth investing time and energy in than, say, comparing the cosmologies invoked by Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine or Hindu and Japanese notions of divinity?

I am NOT saying that there is nothing here of interest. I am saying that I don't know what it is. I will shut up now and wait for enlightenment. Is there any to be found?

Huon Wardle said:
The answers to that question might best be discussed into the anthropology of subjectivity thread. In brief, none of these figures would deny human rights etc. as representations which have effects, but they would start from a critical position outside that field of representations - somewhere like the Amazon or Melanesia, for instance.
John McCreery said:
Huon Wardle writes,

the 'death of the individual' is taken as an apriori by the thinkers in question

Doesn't this seem like a very odd thing to take a priori, given that if it were taken seriously it would make absolute nonsense of such concepts as human rights, private property, egalitarianism, the whole "liberty, equality, fraternity" thing? If, for example, a woman is only an appendage of the public self of her father or husband, what is wrong with killing her if she brings dishonor to that self (a view that some in the Middle East still share with ancient Romans)? Or if adjuncts are exploited by tenured faculty, why should that be a problem? No individuals, no fuss; just the way those relationships work.
Felix Girke said:

Huon Wardle said:

Well let us see; (was it?) the most recent GDAT debate argued that there is no difference between 'ontology' and what used to be called 'culture'. However, taking one side of the debate - a relativist anthropology that explores 'logics of being' from the inside out has a chance to say something challenging to anthropological orthodoxy (if it can be translated into comprehensible language) - but some of the 'downsides' are perhaps more obvious...

... as an aside, has this GDAT debate been transcribed, i.e., is it accessible in any format?
I would much appreciate a pointer.





Apologies my friends but for family reasons I had to go away for two days. I will reply as soon as I have time but in the meantime and especially for Felix, please find the transcription of the whole GDAT debate at the following link.
http://www.socialsciences.manchester.ac.uk/disciplines/socialanthro...
Also, may I begin to address a possible point of departure to reply to the historical conundrum to your question by posting this link to the first chapter of Ian Hacking's book, 'Historical Ontology'? The first paragraph reminds me of Levi-Strauss Tristes Tropiques since it begins with the authors' hate for the word 'ontology'...
http://www.ceao.ufba.br/fabrica/txts/Gilroy/Hacking_Historical_Onto...

Will come back soon...

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