Late to the Party of Things

I’m coming late to the party. Sorry everyone–I brought more beer.

The Ontological Tern, quoting AN Whitehead

I was in the audience for Bruno Latour’s talk on ontological pluralism at the AAA meetings in Chicago last year. I overheard several people talking about how sparks were going to fly, or how this was nothing new, or how this was an important moment in Anthropology. I’ve been slow to respond, and I want to throw out just a few thoughts.

Jeremy Trombley over at Struggle Forever wrote a short post on The Value of a Turn that, in turn, kickstarted a snowball of posts on various sites about pluralism, realism, and the ontological turn in Anthropology.

He ends with the thought:

The question it poses for us is “What kind of realities are we enacting through our practices?” Regardless of what or who we study, I think this is an important question for anthropology at this time.

This gets right to the heart of the anthronaut idea–that we enact the world, and have choices about what kind of world we enact. Anthropologists have worried about epistemology: how we know, what we know, how we know what we know, etc. Of course what is has been important, in the sense that we need to know about what exists in order to write about it. The idea that we are actively engaged in building the world (even when we don’t realize it) has escaped us.

I was recently reading a 2012 post on Carpentry by Shannon Christine Mattern. She builds on Harman, Lingis, and Bogost in talking about the “Carpentry of things” or how objects and the world co-produce one another. She writes about this in terms of “craft” with an emphasis on doing. There is so much good meat there that you should read the whole thing if you are interested, but:

Carpentry provides another set of “terms” for doing philosophy (or, I would add, scholarship in general). Doing is key: philosophy (or theory, or any form of intellectual work) could be reconceived as something practiced in a variety of forms rather than necessarily written.

I come back again to tools: the tools of science, of anthropology, of furniture making, or of farming. When I make a set of bookshelves, the shelves and the making  are not separable from my choice of tools. I can use sawhorses or a workbench, hand tools or a skill saw, I can measure precisely with a whole set of instruments or I can just wing it. The process/shelves are also integral in both my identity as a woodworker (what kind of woodworker am I?) and in my cognition. If I want the whole thing to be square, or to follow the golden ratio, my brain alone is not up to the task; my actual cognitive process needs to include tools.

What kind of realities are we enacting through our practices? I’d argue that our practices (what we do) are just one element in a Carpentry of Things. The idea that we enact realities through our practices is important but insufficient, since it doesn’t address the objects with which we are embedded. If we are serious about enacting different realities then we need to seriously consider both our choice of tools and the objects we seek to create. As long as our primary strategy is the creation of written artifacts using the tools of ethnography, how can we expect to craft anything new?



Free-range environmental scientist, educator, writer, farmer, Aikido student.

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1 Comment

  1. Somehow I missed this one when it came out – I’ll have to pay closer attention. Great post, and thanks for the link back. I think this hits it on the head:

    “As long as our primary strategy is the creation of written artifacts using the tools of ethnography, how can we expect to craft anything new?”

    For me the ontological turn pushes anthropology beyond texts as the primary subject and the primary products. It forces us to consider our practices (I.e. methods) and the effects of those practices broadly. Only then can we answer that question: what world are we building and what world could we build?

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