Sunday 25 October 2015

David Graeber against Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and the 'ontological turn'

Further to my last post, the new issue of Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory has an article by David Graeber, Radical alterity is just another way of saying "reality": A reply to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. As the title might suggest, it is a reply to de Castro's Who is afraid of the ontological wolf?, which, in turn, criticises another of Graeber's essays.

It is a long, often interesting but also often rather pedantic defence of Graeber's philosophical position against what he sees as the idealism of de Castro et al.

A fairly large portion of the piece involves 'unpacking' what I thought to be really rather stark, staring obvious: that when advocates of the so-called 'ontological turn' in anthropology use the word 'ontology' they do not mean it in the traditional philosophical sense of a formal, structured, philosophical account of being but rather use it to refer to the tacit, informal lived understandings and presuppositions that have ontological or cosmological consequences. I really don't know why it needed so much explication as, from what I've read, this is not in any way a controversial interpretation.

The reason for the longwinded explication is presumably that Graeber sincerely dislikes this redefinition (although he is relatively courteous, for the most part, with how he goes about stating this). Particularly at issue is the relativism that refuses the right of an anthropologist to posit a singular reality 'behind' the multiplicity of understandings of the world (the famous multiculturalism/mononaturalism).

For Graeber, the self-declared ontological pluralists are just radical idealists. He prefers the 'depth ontology' of critical realism that posits a singular reality that is unknowable. This unknowability is thought to leave enough room for cultural multiplicity and all the ontology talk is, at best, unnecessary.

As I see it, the accusation of idealism is the product of Graeber's own dualism. For the ontological turners, Graeber claims:
"[authoritative] statements must be treated as a window onto “concepts,” and concepts treated—through a form of “radical constructivism”—as if they were themselves realities of the same ontological standing as “things,” or indeed, constitutive of the world itself." (20)
For concepts to be of the same ontological standing as things simply means that one is not bifurcating reality – i.e. one is refusing dualism. To slip from that to "or indeed, constitutive of the world itself" is a conflation. He continues:
"The “ontological turn,” then, involves not only abandoning the project of ontology1 [i.e. traditional, philosophical ontology], but adopting a tacit ontology which seems indistinguishable from classical philosophical Idealism. Ideas generate realities. One could go even further. What they seem to be proposing is abandoning the entire project of philosophy (or at least, philosophy in anything like the forms it has historically taken in Europe, India, China, or the Islamic World.) Science, in contrast, would be preserved, but as the special property of “Westerners” or “Euro-Americans”—which if taken seriously, would amount to one of the greatest acts of intellectual theft in human history, since after all, much of what underlies what we now call “Western science” was actually developed in places like Persia, Bengal, and China, and in (dare I say?) the real world. Most scientific research is no longer being conducted by Euro-Americans at all." (21)
There are various claims here. The claim to be able to state what the entirety of the philosophical traditions of not only Europe but also India, China and the Islamic world have been all about is presumptuous bordering on pompous, to say the least. Even Western philosophy has been about rather more than magisterially postulating the furniture of the universe, although that has certainly been a part of it. The bit about science is a cheap shot that relates to nothing I can imagine de Castro et al. accepting for a moment.

The main claim, however, is that all the ontological turners are really doing is reproducing a tired, old and quite extreme form of idealism where concepts produce and/or exhaust reality. Now, I've by no means read the entirety of the relevant literature but this strikes me as a knee jerk reaction based on a misunderstanding that ultimately says more about Graeber's presuppositions than it does about anyone else's.

I do not understand the position of ontological pluralism to be claiming that concepts constitute reality without remainder. I understand the claim to be that concepts, ideas, whatever you want to call them, are on the same level of reality as everything else. That is, that it is illegitimate to say that one has concepts on one hand and things on another (bifurcation). Furthermore, that it is impossible to refer to a thing except in liaison with particular concepts. That doesn't mean that concepts are all that there is, only that to speak is to conceptualise. You cannot think without abstractions, as Whitehead put it.

So, yes, Amerindians and Europeans have different perspectives, different cosmologies, etc. But the trees and ants and spiders and so on presumably have their perspectives, too. Of course, the anthropologist qua anthropologist is not so interested in the perspectives of those things in themselves but in what their informants say about those things (although this is far from straightforward, admittedly). Hence why it might look a bit like idealism. But it simply does not follow that these things are equivalent. Methods and philosophies overlap and might confuse each other a little bit but a sympathetic reading can, I think, tell them apart.

The question hanging around the entire article is 'okay, but you don't really believe it when they say that, do you?' The implication is that it may be good manners (or even, depending on the circumstances, good politics) to rhetorically accept the beliefs of others that strike the observer as being wholly untrue but that there is a deeper and more fundamental sense in which one can, and should, declare them obviously unbelievable. Belief is absolutised, underlying all other modes of action. The epistemic underlies and underpins the moral, the political and so on. Belief is sacred. To fail to give belief its sovereignty is simply incomprehensible.

The thing that Graeber really can't get away from, I think, is the idea that either you accept that there is a real world (I won't add 'out there' because I think he is sophisticated enough to avoid that artefact of common sense stupidity) or you deny the existence of a world apart from concepts altogether. In other words, he seems to presume that to say that there are 'many worlds' rather than just a singular world is to reduce reality to concepts. This just doesn't follow and doesn't grasp what I think ontological pluralists are claiming.

It's a tough thing to explain so I'll approach it from a bit of an oblique angle (I'm thinking this through more for myself than for anyone else, to be honest!).

When I used to live in London, I realised quite quickly that nobody actually lives 'in London' – it's an abstraction. London is just far, far too big to live 'in' it in any meaningful sense as a totality. You live in this or that street, that area. Perhaps you have friends here and there. You take this tube line, etc. It is quite obvious that you live inside quite a narrow and confined network and that the vast, overwhelming majority of the city falls between the lines that you travel. Most of it you will never see nor even think about.

The fact that the epistemic techniques of geography allow us to place these networks within a larger container that can be defined as the totality 'London' (and the fact that this may be a very useful and sensible thing to do navigationally, administratively and so on) should not determine the social ontology by which one understands this city as it is being lived in. In other words, the common sense fact that all these streets, offices, bars, pipes, drains and so on that make up an individual's city-as-lived reside within a definable, connected region does not mean that London is one, cohesive, singular entity – like a body of which one was a cell.

The claim I would make is that there is no one way of joining these various things up that can be said to be the 'reality' that would have parts from which particular perspectives could be assembled (not the planner's bird's eye view, nor the individual's lived experience, etc.). That singularity or totality is a superfluous hypothesis. The crucial thing to emphasise is that the bollards, the rails, the bins, the foxes, the concepts and so on – all of these things are part of this not-one, part of this multiplicity that cannot be assembled in any one way that can be declared the most real. Because they are not bifurcated into different realms, it is perfectly sensible and consistent to hold that there is no one way of joining them up, just connected and overlapping ways that never add up to a whole. Or, rather, when a particular manner of joining things up forms a totality, this is also just one kind of entangled complex among others. It may be more or less important, more or less useful relative to a particular task or problem but it can be given no transcendent, automatic priority.

What is true of London is also true of the world, indeed the planet. Yes, in a certain sense we all live on 'one' planet. It would be silly do deny this but in either affirming or denying it we have tacitly accepted certain premises with regard to the form of connection that matters most. Nothing obvious about how things are proves that we should think about this planet as a singular entity rather than as an intensively connected but nevertheless fragmented and discrete bundle of bundles – that is if we think about anything beyond our immediate locale at all (that might also be okay).

The banal fact that everything is connected to everything else in some fashion does not mean that there is one world rather than many. It is in no way obscure or contradictory to claim that there are many worlds, all of which overlap and are related in some way but some of which are quite distinct and should be understood and dealt with as such. Nothing obvious about the way things are licenses a 'real world' which would reside behind all merely cultural understandings of said world. It's a dogmatic presumption, which doesn't make it wrong but doesn't make it right either.

At several points, Graeber pulls out the old incommensurability argument, which suggests that the de Castro et al. think that the collectives for which they are describing ontologies exist as some kind of definite, bounded, billiard ball-type entity. That, again, is a cheap shot against a position that I doubt anyone involved in this debate is really claiming to adhere to. No collective, certainly not one that has had a Western anthropologist living in it for years, is absolutely pure and separated from the rest of the world. Of course these things overlap, of course they are complicated. The limitations of language sometimes brings us to suggest that such things are definite entities in the manner of classical physics (or ball-based sports) but that does not make it necessarily so. Every attempt to name a collective is in a sense an attempt to verbally lasso a loose and self-assembling bundle of bundles that may well shrug off that signification, that may even violently reject it. The degree to which one is successful in articulating a bounding that is acceptable to the larger proportion of those persons is the basic barometer by which the naming can be judged a success. Of course, this is complicated by all sorts of power dynamics – who gets to object? whose objections are heard?, etc. – but such is life. These are the problems that are to be negotiated by the trials of experience.

I add by way of conclusion shutting up and going to sleep that I'm not unquestioningly or naively on board with the ontological pluralist agenda as it's being articulated in anthropology (for a start, the things I'm describing above may well not be fair representations of or addenda to their arguments). First, I'm not an anthropologist, just someone with an interest in, for want of a better term, the comparative sociology of knowledge. Graeber's argument that it should be wholly legitimate for anthropologists to adopt the role of an instigator of dialogue between collectives rather than just someone who continually emphasises and safeguards radical alterity seems perfectly acceptable to me. However, it really depends on the collective in question. Making general ethical rules with regard to this seems not only impossible but also deeply unwise.

The really important question would be which ethical and political roles are appropriate depending on what circumstances. That isn't the conversation that is happening at the moment but there does seem to be room for it. I'm sure that this conversation will roll on, in any case.