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As a little bit of fall cleaning, I just posted a talk-length essay on the ontological turn and its critiques over at Academia.edu. This talk was the result of a ‘two birds, one stone’ series of invitations last spring. The first was a request from UCSD’s Center for the Humanities Research Group on Politics, Ethics, Ontology: An Inquiry into the Ontologies of Nature. I was told I could talk on whatever I liked, but there was a request that if possible, it might be nice for me to fold in an explanation of what in hell’s name was all that ontology-racket being made in anthropology. The second was a very kind invitation by the BYU anthropology department to give a talk on ontology and ethics. I was already coming to Provo be a part of 2016 Mormon Transhumanism annual conference (as part of my larger field project on Mormon transhumanism), so it was remarkably good timing (though I would have accepted the invitation more or less anytime, to be honest). Here, they were asking me to talk about ontology and the ethical turn. I had a wonderful time at both places, and the hospitality at each was exquisite. I also had the very head-spinning time (in the positive sense of the word) staying at the “Brigham” room of the BYU guest house, but that’s another story…
A recent article in a small, boutique on-line journal named HAU (which, apparently, will publish just about anybody) has reminded me of a recent debate in anthropology: whether there is an inordinate focus on ‘suffering’ in anthropology, and particularly the sort of suffering that has its roots in neoliberalism. The most trenchant for of this argument is Joel Robbin’s arguing for the ‘anthropology of the good.’ Robbin’s gambit is that after the loss of culture as an organizing motif, suffering now serves as the warrant to validate anthropological projects, and what this forecloses is any investigation into how people make lives that run along the lines of what they think is of value in the world. Rather, we can only discuss what they endure.
Of course, there is another side to this as well: there is the competing idea that there is something Panglossian about focusing on the good in a time when neoliberalism is obviously so regnant, and there is so much abject misery in the world. This opposition is usually put forward as a debate, where we are supposed to pick sides. Debates are fun, of course, but as a substantive position this oppositional framing is a bit pathetic, as if ideas were countries locked in a border skirmish over some piece of a map, and not modes of creation.
Alternately we could meekly chirp that ‘both sides have a point,’ which may be the most levelheaded though lukewarm answer. Of the three options, though, that last is the one that strangely seems the most wanting, even if it is the most ‘catholic-with-a-small-c’ answer to the challenge (as if that’s a virtue). The reason that this ‘third way’ feels particularly unsatisfying is probably not because it is so irenic, though. It is because it is the one answer that doesn’t come to grips with the problem. But notice that there is shift – we have gone from ideas, as statements with determinate and mutually irreconcilable content, to a problem – an event or crisis that demands a response. And once we see this as a problem, and a shared one that can be taken up in different ways, then we can frame the various sides as differential resolutions – and hence can think of it in terms not of a binary, but perhaps in some kind of topological way, as different modes of unfolding the same terrain (as opposed to the topographical military metaphor of countries on a map at war.
For the first time in a while, I’ve begun a new field project: I’ve started studying religious transhumanism, with a particular focus on the Mormon Transhumanist Association (though I’ve also been paying close attention to other much more recent, though just as interesting, attempts to collectively imagine religious transhumanisms). On one hand, this has been a terrible amount of fun; everyone I have spoken to has been generous with their time, and religious transhumanism is a field that is definitely undergoing some intellectual ferment at the moment. It is also a bit contentious, as many secular tranhumanists – and perhaps most, though it is hard to say – tend to be critical of religion in general, and sometimes specifically of religious transhumanism. And finally, there is a tendency for this legitimate interest in the intersection between orthodox religion and new technological to be castigated by the secular media (as one thoughtful Christian Transhumanist has discovered).
On the other hand, it’s the sort of study which has several veils to it, or alternately gates that have to be traversed before one can even truly begin; in talking to colleagues, I’ve found that not only do I have to explain what Mormon Transhumanism is, I also have to explain secular transhumanism and the mainline LDS as well. Similar challenges arrises when I try to convey that this is not a ‘fringe’ phenomenon. For reasons having to do with some specific features of the Mormon Religious imagination, producing a Mormon-compatible articulation of transhumanism is easier than might be imagined, which is to take nothing away from the rigor being shown in that effort. This compatibility, the care with which it is thought through, and finally the steadfast drive to producing a working organizational infrastructure, has given the Mormon Transhumanist Association an influence out of proportion to its demographic size in a much more complicated and varied secular transhumanist community.
All this complexity is a part of the fun, naturally. However, with one very important exception, there are basically no other anthropologists working on transhumanism to be in dialogue with. This, in combination with all the layers/veils/gates just mentioned, has meant that there have been few ‘big picture’ moments with the project so far. But there have been one or two times where I like to think I have somehow managed to see a bit more forest than tree. This is because while working on this project, I’ve also continued to write ethnographic and theoretical material on my previous large-scale project on The Vineyard, a Southern California originated, but now global, Charismatic Evangelical denomination/movement. And this has made me have to pull back a bit, to think of what unlikely elements these two groups may share.
This is just a quick post mentioning that I have a new review article out in the JRAI (which you can reach directly or indirectly) on the newest edition of the Asad, Mahmood, and Butler edited volume Is Critique Secular?. It touches on the obvious issues of secularism, modernity, religion, and the anthropology of both the West and of Islam, but it also touches on issues relating to the anthropology of ethics that I’ve discussed before.
This is just some stray musings, but I have been thinking about this set of exchanges about the ‘Ontological Turn’ in Anthropology of the Century from 2012 and 2013; specifically I’ve been thinking about how it might be relevant to some recent discussions about the relationship between theology and the anthropology of Christianity, a topic which seems to be picking up a lot of steam lately. Or to be more exact, I’ve been thinking about how we can keep those Anthropology of the Century discussions from being relevant, because while I respect the people on both ‘sides’ in the debate regarding the ontological turn (well, with certain exceptions, of course), and I also believe that all involved were making good points in good faith, in the end the debate came off a bit like two different police departments fighting over their jurisdiction; it certainly felt to me at least like I was hearing the shrill sound of the policeman’s whistle near to the close of things.
That is not to say that this kind of debate isn’t productive, or that it isn’t a part of a greater anthropological tradition. I am just wondering whether or not there might be a different way forward, and if so, what it might involve. The exchanges in Anthropology of the Century in the end centred on issues regarding ‘meta-ontology”; that is, whether using ontology as an analytic – or even as a heuristic – necessitates a larger encompassing set of ontological presumptions. I’m not so sure that this is a problem – or at least I think that there are ways that this can be done with a minimal level of intellectual violence. However, there seems to be something about the project of articulating a set of universals that no only limits the utility of the ontological turn, but which also hampers the freedom of those are working in other directions. A meta-ontology may vitiate the ontological turn, but then establishing a meta-ontology also delimits in advance what can be thought by those who have anxieties about the way that other ‘ontologies’ might interact, at the level of the theoretical or the concrete.
My suggestion is that instead of encompassing meta-ontologies, we might want to think in terms of negotiating protocols. This would be about establishing ways that different worlds could speak to one another, rather than about identifying common rules for different worlds. The point is that this leaves each world its own internal specificity and degrees of freedom, rather than making it subservient to some greater horizon of possibilities.
Now, this does not ‘make’ the ontological turn less problematic, and I don’t think that anyone reading this would necessarily have a road-to-Damascus moment if they were already sceptical of the ontological turn. But this suggest could have some value in that it might be a way of handling the tensions and attractions between an anthropology of Christianity and contemporary theology, suggesting some manner in which they might interact. Of course, this doesn’t mean that interactions between ontological frameworks won’t be agonistic; if the relationship between anthropology and theology was originally awkward, finding a way for them to interface won’t make it any less so. But at least this would be a framing that would facilitate the kind of relations that might allow these two forms, like the wasp and the orchid, to engage in some form of a-parallel evolution.
And I offer this suggestion because, to be honest, the third way forward (that is, neither shared rules of a meta-ontology or the negotiated protocols I suggest here) might be a bit too much for all parties involved. That was would be to suggest not only that theology and the anthropology of Christianity are at the same level, but that they also at the same level as what they supposedly reference and comment upon, which is actually–existing–Christianty. These three things could be made adequate to each other – rather than being seeing as being in vying in hierarchical relations – by 1) seeing actually-existing-christianties as responses to the problem of Christianity, or maybe even of religion, and 2) seeing theology and the anthropology of Christianity not as evaluations or representations of actually-existing-christianities, but as actualisations of that problem as well (as I hint at in the last pages of this essay), even if they also have a transversal relationship with specific actually-existing-christianities. Theology and the anthropology of Christianity are ways ‘doing Christianity’ or ‘doing religion’ as well, even if that is not all the are. But this might be a flattening that, even if it doesn’t establish a meta-ontology, goes too far in that it is corrosive of the difference between first and second order operations, between ‘doing’ and ‘reflecting upon.’ And while that may be the ultimate set of relations when all is said and done, I doubt it is much of a conversation starter for the coming attempt at a ‘rapprochement’ between theology and anthropology.
Three things by me have come out recently. The first is my Current Anthropology piece, After the Denominozoic: Evolution, Differentiation, Denominationalism; I’m particularly proud of the argument there. The second is an article in Ethnos called Diagramming the Will: Ethics and Prayer, Text, and Politics, which is about subjectification, ontology (or rather, the effect of ontologies), and how the interaction between those two things can lead to new forms of micro-politics, and perhaps larger shifts in the political imagination. Though material on Ethnos is occasionally open-access, this is not, but then there is always Academcia.edu. Finally, I have an expanded book review where I discuss two monographs that touch on Deleuze and Theology; in the end I take one of the authors, Daniel Colucciello Barber, and use part of his book’s argument to engage with a bit of the ontological turn, but more importantly to my mind Joel Robbin’s concept of an anthropology of the good. I think that I may have found a way to work through some of the objections that are commonly made to this project, though I guess this is for those who hold those objections to decide.