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Ontological politics

Ontological politics

Ryan Schram
ANTH 2700: Key debates in anthropology
Social Sciences Building 410 (A02)
Week of May 16, 2022 (Week 12)

Slides available at http://anthro.rschram.org/2700/2022/12

Main reading: Blaser (2016)

Other reading: Blaser (2013)

Anthropology confidential

A recent encounter with “culture.”

Human ecology and political ecology

An influential definition of political ecology is

“…the constantly shifting dialectic between society and land-based resources, and also within classes and groups within society itself” (Blaikie 1987, 17; see also Watts 1983).

Political ecology derives inspiration from Wolf in multiple ways

“[T]he world of humankind constitutes a manifold, a totality of interconnected processes…” (Wolf 1984, 3).

Revisiting the world-picture

Political ecology has its own “world-picture” in which nature and culture are separate. Imagine a map with many layers

  • National boundaries
  • Human communities
  • Various, culturally specific adaptations and utilizations of material resources
  • Blue lakes and oceans, green and brown landscapes

Wolf calls on us to abandon the assumption of isolate social systems, but political ecology isolates human communities in another sense—on a separate map layer.

Nature and culture are characters in a modernist metanarrative

The central character of any historical narrative of modern progress is a specific version of the rational individual.

The story goes:

  • Before, the individual was trapped in ignorance and accepted it.
  • As time goes on, they increasingly become free of this constraint.
  • As traditional patterns fade away, there is more room for the individual’s conscious, rational mind to influence the world.
  • The individual was once mastered by external forces, but now is its own master.

Similarly, stories of social progress depict a society moving from tradition, stasis, and dependence to mastery of itself

  • Animals depend on nature
  • Humans use nature
  • Modern societies control nature.

“We have never been modern”

  • There is no such thing as modernity.
    • There are no societies in which individuals have absolute freedom to create themselves.
  • “We have never been modern” (Latour 1993)
    • Western societies believe that they have refounded themselves on science, that is, that they exist independently of the natural world and can intervene in it.
    • A society’s scientific knowledge arises from the intervention of the nonhuman in the human, from the material into the symbolic.
    • Yam biology is the same as respect for shy yams: The proof of the yam pudding is in the eating.
  • An essentialist theory of being
    • A yam is a yam.
    • A caribou is a caribou
    • Yam personhood and atiku are ideas about yams and caribou
  • A relationalist theory of being
    • A yam is a person when a gardener is weeding
      • The yam has a biological existence as a species because seed yams are stored, the genome is decoded
      • The yam is nutritious food because it has been domesticated
    • Atiku is present in caribou when Innu are hunting
      • Caribou are a population when they are mapped, tagged, observed, regulated (even when these are done in consultation with and out of respect for the Innu value of caribou and hunting)

Different networks, different worlds

Do we live in a universe of many natures?

Should ethnography describe more than cultural difference?

Should anthropology posit multiple humanities?

References and further reading

Blaikie, Piers M. 1987. Land degradation and society. London ; New York : Methuen. http://archive.org/details/landdegradations0000blai.

Blaser, Mario. 2013. “Ontological Conflicts and the Stories of Peoples in Spite of Europe: Toward a Conversation on Political Ontology.” Current Anthropology 54 (5): 547–68. https://doi.org/10.1086/672270.

———. 2016. “Is Another Cosmopolitics Possible?” Cultural Anthropology 31 (4): 545–70. https://doi.org/10.14506/ca31.4.05.

Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Watts, Michael J. 1983. Silent Violence: Food, Famine, and Peasantry in Northern Nigeria. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wolf, Eric R. 1982. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

2700/2022/12.txt · Last modified: 2022/05/16 18:42 by Ryan Schram (admin)