Poly-ontological thinking in the Anthropocene

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In the modern Western cosmology, the legacy of philosophers like Descartes and Kant has led to an understanding of what is as inextricably linked to how human beings understands, categorize, and conceptualizes reality.[1] We placed ourselves on top of the existential hierarchy and nonhumans existed only as a part of human consciousness. Briefly put, the most essential philosophical matters of concern became questions regarding epistemology: how could we, the human being, know what existed. Subsequently, the human reasoning became the ultimate guarantee of reality. Cogito ergo sum—I think therefore I am.[2] We polluted the world with ourselves. However, in recent developments in humanities some scholars have objected to the Cartesian dualism, notably in the discipline of anthropology. In his series of published lectures from University of Cambridge (2012) the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro proclaims that anthropologists needs to move away from the thinking that is dominant in the scholastic disciplines, that is, the belief that the modern Western cosmology is the obvious and undisputable correct way of understanding how the world works. In his research on Amerindian cosmologies Viveiros de Castro finds that the world is very different from what Western cosmology seems to believe. Viveiros de Castro points out that the modern Western way of beholding reality has led to a, rather ignorant, belief within anthropology that other ways of beholding reality is an alternative worldview. The world is then considered to be constant: “our” way is the correct one and ontologies that differs from the Western one is merely a different view upon the same reality.[3] The Western dualistic ontology is then inflicted, through anthropological methodologies, onto different ontologies, who do not behold reality in the same way. Viveiros de Castro argues that we need to start take other ontologies seriously.
         Anthropologist Jon Henrik Ziegler Remme has labelled this movement in anthropology as the radical ontological turn, in which we must implement this “poly-ontological” thinking into scholarly methodology.[4] The radical aspect is a scholarly acknowledgment that no ontology should be favoured over others. As a result, the Western metaphysics is not treated as the “correct” ontology (and indigenous ontology is not just an “indigenous perspective” on the “correct” ontology), but it is as real as any other ontology. In research within radical ontology there is an acknowledgement manifested in the methodological approach that the human reasoning is not the one and only guarantee of the real.[5] Viveiros de Castro’s own research shows how indigenous cosmologies operates with several realities, in which the human being only have access to one—the human reality. Viveiros de Castro writes: “the way humans perceive animals and other subjectivities that inhabit the world—gods, spirits, the dead, inhabitants of other cosmic levels, metrological phenomena, plants, and occasionally even objects and artefacts—differs profoundly from the way which these beings see humans and themselves.”[6] All entities are subjects, human and nonhuman, and all entities have the same soul—thus they obtain the same ontological status—but their bodies are different thus behold different worlds.

Viveiros de Castro’s research on perspectivism belongs to the growing body of research that makes up the ontological turn in anthropology. In short, this is research that dissolve the notion of an objective, universal nature, and that distribute agency to both human and nonhuman actants. One of the most influential books on nonhuman agency is anthropologist Alfred Gell’s Art and Agency from 1998. Gell rejected that art had symbolic meaning whatsoever and stated:

“We [tend to] talk about object, using signs, but art objects are not, except in special cases, signs themselves, with ‘meanings’; and if they do have meanings, then they are part of language (i.e. graphic signs), not a separate ‘visual’ language. […] In place of symbolic communication, I place all emphasis on agency, intention, causation, result, and transformation.” (italics in original).[7]

To Gell, the agency of art rests in the object itself. Gell investigates how art objects effects human behaviour; what they do. A clear parallel can be drawn to W.J.T. Mitchell who through the question “What do pictures want?” has given emphasis to art itself, not as conveying meaning, but as beings with desires, needs, and drives of their own.[8] In short, objects (more specifically artworks) have the potential to operate outside human intentionality.

This is also the argument when ethnographer Annemarie Mol is studying the disease atherosclerosis in a European hospital.[9] Mol shows how different practices create different realities, which again is not necessarily embedded in the human conceptualization of what constitutes reality. Reality multiplies through performativity. Mol argues that the things we take as settled, for instance scientifically quantifiable phenomena are not only a part of a one-layer world, rather, objects are always multiple. Furthermore, reality itself multiplies when we focus on artefacts or practices. Within this theoretical perspective Mol has developed the notion of ontological politics. She includes the notion of ‘politics’ to underline that the realities can actively be shaped by both human and nonhuman actors. Some realities may be strengthened while others are weakened (and/or disappear). It is a type of politics performed by subjects in direct material engagement with things, but without clear political intent. Mol shows how the real is made through different ontological practices. In fact, Mol describes how objects are both “more than one—but less than many.”[10] Objects are complex and multiple, but not fragmented. And even though they are multiple they also hang together. John Law points out that such multiplicity does not suggest that we live in a relativistic world: “It does not imply that reality is fragmented. Instead it implies something much more complex. It implies that the different realities overlap and interfere with one another. Their relations, partially coordinated, are complex and messy.”[11] As such, Mol and Law’s approaches overlaps with the notion of multiple realities found in different indigenous cosmologies.

Both an important prerequisite and inspiration for the ontological turn in anthropology is the development of actor-network theory (ANT), and the writings of one of its founders Bruno Latour.[12] In ANT, the social world exists of both humans and nonhumans (where the nonhumans are objects, animals, and plants) which in turn, are connected. These relations thus form a network, or a rhizome[13]: a dynamic immaterial structure where nothing starts and nothing ends: only connections and relations, in motion. The actors in ANT can be compared to knots in this complex rhizome and can be either human or nonhuman. Consequently, nonhumans are seen as active contributors that possess agency to act. Action is thus an effect of the relations in the network and all action must be considered relational. Under the headline “There are no cultures” Latour calls for a symmetrical anthropology which he defines as follows:

It uses the same terms to explain truths and errors (this is the first principle of symmetry); it studies the production of humans and nonhumans simultaneously (this is the principle of generalized symmetry); finally, it refrains from making any a priori declarations as to what might distinguish Westerners from Others.[14]

The scholarly contribution to the ontological turn in anthropology has participated to challenge the Western notion of a stable and universal conception of reality. Furthermore, there can be several realities. Humans are not the ultimate power in the world: nonhumans are entities capable to act, and we need to take this seriously through our academic approaches.

  1. This argument is famously elaborated by Bruno Latour in We Have Never Been Modern (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993)
  2. For a rigorous inquiry of the relationship between the modern Western cosmology and Amerindian cosmologies see Edurado Viveiros de Castro, “Cosmological Perspectivism in Amazonia and Elsewhere,” HAU: Masterclass Series 1 (2012)
  3. Ibid., 152
  4. Remme Jon Henrik Ziegler, “Den ontologiske vendingen i antropologien,” Norsk antropologisk tidsskrift 24, no. 01 (2013)
  5. See e.g. Rane Willerslev, Soul Hunters : Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 2007); “Frazer Strikes Back from the Armchair: A New Search for the Animist Soul*,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17, no. 3 (2011)
  6. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism,” ibid.4 (1998): 470
  7. Alfred Gell, Art and Agency : An Anthropological Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 6
  8. W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images (University of Chicago Press, 2005). Although not having a direct parallel, agency could also be said is to be a concept in presence theory articulated in particular by literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. See Production of Presence : What Meaning Cannot Convey (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2004)
  9. Annemarie Mol, The Body Multiple : Ontology in Medical Practice, Science and Cultural Theory (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002)
  10. Ibid., 55
  11. John Law, After Method : Mess in Social Science Research, International Library of Sociology (London: Routledge, 2004), 61
  12. Although ANT might have started out as a methodological tool, metaphysical positions might be said to have been hidden in the language of methodology. Over the years, ANT has developed into an ontology. Graham Harman claims in his book Prince of Networks that Latour is one of the most important contemporary philosophers. Graham Harman, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, Anamnesis (Melbourne: re.press, 2009)
  13. Concept developed by Deleuze and Guattari in Gilles Deleuze and Guattari Félix, Anti-Oedipus : Capitalism and Schizophrenia, L’anti-Oedipe (Minneapolis, Minn: University of Minnesota Press, 1983)
  14. Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 103
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