Jon Bialecki

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Ontology without grounds: ontology, ethics, and the anthropology of religion

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…

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Theology, Meta-Ontology, and Protocols … and their alternatives.

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 actuallyexistingChristianty. 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.