I situate myself squarely within what has been characterized by some as an ontological turn in anthropology (though, it’s difficult to say if it deserves the moniker “turn” since few have actually taken it up as of yet). For the past few decades, anthropologists (and philosophers and sociologists, and others) have concerned themselves primarily with the question of how do we know the things around us? An epistemological question. Can we truly know these things (objects, animals, other people, ideas, cultures, societies, etc.)? Can we know them fully? Is our knowledge about them real or is it an artefact of social processes such as discourse or ideology? For me, these questions are not that important – we know things by the way they alter and affect us. Only partially, it’s true, and in relation to our particular situatedness, but our knowledge of them is not reducible to social construction in the sense that many post-modern thinkers would argue. Rather our knowledge is constructed by a complex interaction between our own (heterogeneous) beings and the (heterogeneous) being of the things (objects, people, plants, animals, ideas, etc.) we encounter (contact).
And here is where we turn. For knowledge in this sense, is only one case among many of what is constructed. Knowledge is constructed, but so too are we, and so too are those things we attempt to know. The ontological turn takes the idea of constructivism not to its logical conclusion, but to its radical extreme. Beings are constructed just as much as knowledge is constructed (in fact, I think of knowledge as a being itself in many ways). It’s a radical anti-essentialism that rejects any kind of transcendent cause (though it would recognize the possibility, I think, of an immanent god, or soul). The problem with positivism is that it rejects God as a transcendent being, but it fails to do away with transcendent essences that underlie all being. The problem with post-modernism as characterized above (and it’s unfair, because post-modernism is a term that is applied to a lot of different people and ideas) is that it fails to engage any ontological commitments, preferring to remain safe within the epistemological sphere. Ontological constructivism (as I’ve sometimes called it to differentiate it from social constructivism) rectifies these problems by proposing that all being is constructed – not simply knowledge of being – but constructed heterogeneously by many different kinds of beings (not just humans engaged in social discourse). Levi Bryant’s onticology is just just the kind of constructivism that I’m talking about.
What does this mean for anthropology? I’m working on a paper in which I discuss these issues, but I’ll briefly explain some of what I’ve been thinking. It means that anthropology becomes a practice, not merely of understanding others, but of constructing a world of relations with others. Understanding – knowledge – is one kind of relation that we may construct, but there are many other kinds of relations as well – social relations, ecological relations, idea relations, etc. Explicitly, we cannot help but construct these relationships – knowledge and beyond – so we ought to be thinking about the kinds of relationships we’re constructing and, as a result, the kind of world we are bringing into being. It forces us to think, then, of what kind of world we can work to construct.
This is the kind of anthropology I wish to bring into existence – one that behaves as if the world is not given, that recognizes the presence and active participation of all kinds of beings, and that is reflexive with respect to the kinds of relations and worlds it brings into existence. I don’t know if anyone else is with me (though I suspect there are many), but it’s where I come from, and hopefully where we’re headed.