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Common nonsense: a review of certain recent reviews of the ontological turn

Morten Axel Pedersen

If the success of a new theoretical approach can be measured by the intensity of the
passion and the amount of critique it generates, then surely the so-called ontological
turn within anthropology and cognate disciplines qualifies as one. As still more scholars
and perhaps especially students express sympathy with some or all of its analytical
aspirations, the larger and the louder becomes the chorus of anthropological sceptics
expressing reservations about the project and its implications. But what is this turn
really about, and how fair and thus also how damaging are the various critiques raised
against it? With a view to addressing these and related questions, my aim in this essay is
to review certain recent reviews of the ontological turn with special emphasis on whether
or not this theoretical method and some of the most common critiques of it may
themselves be said to rest on implicit meta-ontologies.
Let me begin by describing what I consider the ontological turn to be all about. I shall be
relatively brief, for a lot has already been written about this question, notably by my friend
and sometimes partner in crime Martin Holbraad, partly in relation to critiques of the
book Thinking Through Things, which he co-edited with Amira Henare and Sari Wastell
(and to which I myself contributed) in 2007.
In a recent paper about the oftentimes implicit linguistic conventions underpinning
anthropological descriptions of Amerindian cosmologies, Magnus Course correctly
observes that what people have meant by ontology has been diverse and that the
ontological turn therefore comprises neither a school nor even a movement, but
rather a particular commitment to recalibrate the level at which analysis takes place
(2010: 248). Nevertheless, Course goes on to define it as the dual movement towards, on
the one hand, exploring the basis of the Western social and intellectual project and, on
the other, of exploring and describing the terms in which non-Western understandings of
the world are grounded (ibid). This characterization seems to me basically right, for the
ontological turn has always above all been a theoretically reflexive project, which is
concerned with how anthropologists might get their ethnographic descriptions right. The
ambition is to devise a new analytical method from which classic ethnographic questions
may be posed afresh. For that is what the ontological turn was always meant to be, in my

understanding: a technology of description, which allows anthropologists to make sense

of their ethnographic material in new and experimental ways.

Click to enlarge

So, why all the fuss? Leaving aside the already hotly debated proposition that ontology
is just another word for culture (Venkatesan 2010) and other claims that the ontological
turn is simply an anachronistic icing on the obsolete culturalist cake, one of the most
common objections centres on the very word ontology itself. For just how many
students and scholars ask themselves and others with varying degrees of incredulity and
shock (for a good example, see Keane 2009) can this term, with its heavy load of
philosophical baggage and its metaphysical, essentialist, and absolutist connotations, be
of any use to the anthropological project? One of the best examples of this critique can
be found in a recent essay by Paolo Heywood (2012). Inspired by Quines (mocking)
concept of bloated universes in which existence covers everything both actual and
potential (2012: 148), Heywood argues that the ontological turn has failed to live up to
its own mission of always allowing ethnographic specificity to trump theoretical
generality by operating with a tacit meta-ontology of its own. At some point or another
along the path traced by the ontological turn, Heywood asserts, we will have to start
deciding what is, and what is not. Holbraad and others use the word ontology precisely
because of the connotations of reality and being it brings with it; yet they neglect to
acknowledge that insisting on the reality of multiple worlds commits you to a meta-

ontology in which such worlds exist: what Quine would call a bloated universe (2012:
Of the different critiques of the ontological turn that I have come across over the years,
this is one of the subtlest. For, even if one does not necessarily share Heywoods concern
that there is a difference of usage in the concept [of ontology] as it is employed by
anthropologists and by analytical philosophers (after all, why should this constitute a
problem at all surely this is a sign of growing disciplinary confidence and maturity?),
Heywood is evidently touching upon a rather delicate question, namely whether the
ontological turn amounts to a big theory (or meta-ontology, in Heywoods terms) or
not? To be sure, Holbraad in particular has gone to great lengths to stress that the
ontological turn (or the recursive move, as he calls it in more recent writings) is a
heuristic analytical device as opposed to a fixed theoretical framework. In a
characteristically mind-boggling line of reasoning, he explains:
At issue are not the categories of those we purport to describe, but rather our own when
our attempts to do so fail Rather than containing [contingency] at the level of
ethnographic description, the recursive move allows the contingency of ethnographic
alterity to transmute itself to the level of analysis [R]ecursive anthropology
render[s] all analytical forms contingent upon the vagaries of ethnographically driven
aporia This, then, is also why such a recursive argument could hardly pretend to set
the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, anthropological or otherwise [T]he
recursive move is just that: a move as contingent, time-bound, and subjunctive as any
(Holbraad 2012: 263-264).
It is hard to imagine a more logically compelling response to Heywoods critique. No,
goes Holbraads reply, the ontological turn has no covert meta-ontological ground, for its
only ground is precisely its radically contingent attitude expressed not only in its openended attitude to its object of study, but also in its relative lack of commitment to the
heuristic concepts that it creates and deploys to make sense of ethnographically driven
aporia. To claim, as Heywood and several others have done, that variants of the
ontological turn have moved too far from the call to take seriously other worlds, and
started positing world of their own (2012: 144) is to fail to recognise the limited degree
to which the ontological turn takes itself seriously. Indeed, seen from its own radically
contingent perspective, a future non- or even anti-recursive turn cannot be excluded,

just as they cannot yet, in their constitutive ethnographic contingency, be conceived. What
we have, in effect, is a machine for thinking in perpetual motion an excessive motion,
ever capable of setting the conditions of possibility for its own undoing (Holbraad 2012:
Yet, compelling as Holbraads argument is, I am not entirely sure that it lets him and other
self-proclaimed ontographers (myself included) fully off the hook. For the question is
whether the analytic ideal of a radically heuristic ethnographic theory (Da Col &
Graeber 2011) is actually synthetically possible, to adopt Kants old distinction. A
perfectly recursive anthropology of the sort sketched by Holbraad above may well be
logically conceivable as a pure abstract possibility. But, to my knowledge, all of the
ontographic studies published to date have been wedded to a particular theoretical
ground captured by concepts such as relational (Strathern 1988), fractal (Wagner
1991), and intensive (Deleuze 1994). Certainly, some of my own work is guilty of this
if that is what it is to analyse from a set of theoretical assumptions: a sin for which one
can be charged and found guilty in the Cambridge court. As far as I am concerned, the
meta-ontological critique made by Heywood does not refer to an ethnographic crime but
an anthropological necessity of which one can, as long as one maintains a high level of
theoretical reflexivity, consider oneself proud. Indeed, as I am going to suggest in what
remains of this essay, this is the main weakness of Heywoods and other recent critiques
of the ontological turn: they are curiously blind to their own theoretical ground. For, no
matter whether they want this or not, they too are meta-ontological sinners.
Nowhere is this more clear than in James Laidlaws recent review in this journal of my
book on Mongolian shamanism, Not Quite Shamans, or, put differently in keeping with
Laidlaws own jesting spirit his review of a single footnote in the books Introduction,
where I summarise my take on the term ontology. The problem, Laidlaw argues (closely
echoing Heywoods critique of Holbraad), is that my position involves a tacit
oscillat[ation] between two different uses of ontology, which are mutually
incompatible. On the one hand, Laidlaw asserts, I use this term in the same sense as he
himself appears to subscribe to, namely with reference to the study of, or reflection on,
the question of what there is what are the fundamental entities or kinds of stuff that
exist? And, on the other hand, I also deploy ontology in what Laidlaw considers to be a
more radical and dubious sense of a purported radical alterity of certain societies

[which] consists not in them having different socially constructed viewpoints on the
same (natural) world, but in them living in actually different worlds. The differences
between them and Euro-America are not therefore epistemological (different ways of
knowing the same reality) but ontological (fundamentally different realities). This,
Laidlaw maintains, is a contradiction, for if in the first sense, ontologies refer to
views about what exists rather than a claim about what exists, then, in the second and
what he calls original sense, people in Melanesia, the Amazon, and northern Mongolia
live in different worlds, [and] enjoy ontological auto-determination. Accordingly,
Laidlaw concludes, my concept of ontology and therefore my theoretical position more
generally, delivers not new post-plural multi-naturalism, but merely the familiar old idea
that different peoples have different theories about the world (Laidlaw 2012).
Now, I am happy to admit that my use of the term ontology oscillates between two
different and apparently contradictory meanings, namely ontology in the sense of
essence (what there is) and ontology in the sense of theory or model (of what there
is). But I am less inclined to agree that this poses any real anthropological problem; in
fact, I would like to think of this seeming slippage from essence to theory/model as one
of the greatest methodological advantages of the ontological turn. For Laidlaw, there is a
qualitative difference between refer[ing] to views about what exists as opposed to
putting forward a claim about what exists, and it is precisely because what he refers to
as the original ontological turn is concerned with the latter project (ontology) and not
the former (epistemology) that it disqualifies itself as (good) anthropology and turns
into (bad) philosophy. However, is this a fair depiction of the ontological turn, be that in
its original form or not? And further, does not the distinction between describing
ontologies and making ontologies hinge on a tacit meta-ontology of its own? It seems to
me that Laidlaws critique of the ontological turn contains a boomerang-effect, in that the
more or less implicit premises underwriting his identification of internal contradictions in
my usage of the term ontology may be turned back on Laidlaw himself to the effect of
exposing otherwise hidden theoretical grounds in his own anthropological project.
To flesh out this point, it is instructive to look at a concrete example of what Laidlaw
refers to as my ontological possession or challenge. He sums up my attempt to
describe what a Darhad Mongolian shamanic spirit (and a shaman) is in the following

Instead of being unchanging entities of which peoples diverse fleeting impressions are
imperfect representations, the unseen entities of shamanism are labile, as it were, all the
way up The confusing, fragmentary manifestations people encounter in a shamanic
sance just is what there is. On this account, genuine shamans, those who are able to
some degree to pin their spirits down and control them are, Pedersen argues, less
shamanic than the not-quite shamans whose unpredictable behaviour more fully manifests
the fluid ontology of spirits: ontology here meaning merely composition (Laidlaw
This is a stellar gloss of one of the central arguments of my book, with which I have no
difficulty. Indeed, note that Laidlaw and I here seem to agree about how ontology might
be used in an anthropologically meaningful sense, namely as composition. But what
interests me for our present purposes is the seemingly insignificant merely in Laidlaws
formulation. For what he presents us with here, I think, is the tip of a conceptual iceberg
that extends right down to the edifice of his own meta-ontology. After all, what invisible
referent could this merely have other than the essentialist notion of the really real
with which Laidlaw (unjustifiably, in my view) accuses the ontological turn of operating?
It would appear that, in his eagerness to expose the contradictions of my argument,
Laidlaw inadvertently brings to the fore some pretty serious ontological challenges of his
But of course, this does not let me off the hook, either. The fact that Laidlaw performs
the same meta-ontological sleight of hand that he associates with me does not make his
critique of the ontological turn less pertinent. But then again, perhaps it does in one way.
For what happens, we may ask, the moment we omit the word merely from Laidlaws
depiction of the Northern Mongolian shamanic cosmos ? We are left with an
anthropological concept of ontology that does not confuse essence and model, or
reality and its representations, but that denotes a single yet infinitely differentiated
object of ethnographic study, which spans everything both actual and potential
(Heywood in op cit). This anthropological ontology contains everything one encounters
during fieldwork spirit beliefs and doubts about these, propositions about the nature of
reality, and descriptions of such propositions, and then some for the whole point is to
never start deciding what is, and what is not (ibid). This is what the talk about multiple
worlds is all about: not the (epistemologically and politically) dubious reduction of each

culture or people to a encapsulated reality, but, on the contrary, the explosion of

potential concepts and worlds in a given ethnographic material, or combination
(comparison) of such materials. There are still too many things that do not yet exist, to
paraphrase a memorable expression by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (1998).
Still and here my position may be seen to differ somewhat from Holbraads although
the ontological turn offers an unusually open-ended and creative technology of
ethnographic description, it does, nevertheless, rest on a certain set of theoretical
premises, which may or may not (depending on how strictly one defines this term) be
deemed meta-ontological. Methodological monism, we might call this heuristic
anthropological ontology: the strategic bracketing of any assumption on behalf of the
ethnographer and the people studied that the object of anthropological analysis is
comprised by separate, bounded and extensive units. The ontological turn amounts to a
sustained theoretical experiment, which involves a strategic decision to treat all
ethnographic realities as if they were relationally composed, and, in keeping with its
recursive ambitions, seeks to conduct this experiment in a manner that is equally
intensive itself. This is why the ontological turn contains within its conceptual makeup the means for its own undoing: it is nothing more, and nothing less, than a particular
mode of anthropological play designed with the all too serious aim of posing ethnographic
questions anew, which already appear to have been answered by existing approaches. To
claim, as Laidlaw for instance does in his review of my book (Pedersen 2012), that I
overlook what appears to be the most obvious interpretation in my analysis of a
Mongolian hunters uncertainty about the spirits not as doubt about their existence but as
doubt about their whereabouts at a particular time and place is therefore not entirely off
the mark. But the point is that this least obvious interpretation (see Holbraad &
Pedersen 2009) is done entirely deliberately and with a very particular purpose, namely,
in the case at hand, to account for peoples apparently irrational beliefs and their
distancing towards such beliefs in a new and ethnographically more satisfactory way.
For the same reason, the ontological turn does not, as I would like to see it, automatically
mean taking people, animals, artefacts, or whatever more seriously than other
anthropologists do, as if there were a vantage-point imbued with the authority to pass
such normative judgements. But it does involve adopting a certain, and theoretically
highly self-reflexive, stance towards what ethnographic data might be, what concepts they

might evince, as well as what such data and their conceptual yield might do to common
senses of what reality is. It is, above all, this theoretical reflexivity which Holbraad and I
try to take seriously, and for which we may justly be criticized, albeit not, I think,
necessarily for the reasons laid out by Heywood, Laidlaw, and others.
The ontological turn, then, does indeed involve a concept of a bloated universe, but this
does not mean that it celebrates itself as the holy grail of anthropological theory. Rather,
it represents a certain (and thus unavoidably fading) moment in the recent history of the
discipline, where a vaguely defined cohort of mostly Cambridge-associated scholars
found it exciting to experiment with the nature of ethnographic description and
anthropological theorizing in a certain way. Certainly, no one is pretending that the
ontological turn is particularly new anymore, let alone that it will last forever. Indeed, the
time may well have come to put the ontological turn to rest, or at least to transform it
beyond recognition by distorting its core assumptions from within. So, by all means, let
us all look for ways to puncture the inflated ontological balloon, insofar as it is fair to say
that such a thing ever existed beyond the artificial confines of the monster created by its
critics to shoot it down.
Still, there are different ways of deflating the ontological bubble. Some of these critiques
may be deemed more productive than others in that they seek to push forward the limits
of anthropological theory and the riddles that good ethnography poses, as opposed to
trying to defend an imagined status quo or, even, reverting to ossified positions. As I have
suggested elsewhere (2012), such a productive unsettling of the ontological turn (and of
relational anthropology more generally) would seem necessarily to entail a further
radicalization or distortion of its intensive ground to the point where it ceases being
relational anymore. Possibly, this differs from Holbraads attempt to construct a
machine for thinking in perpetual motion (cf. op. cit), for whereas he takes alterity to
constitute an ethnographic fact that only a recursive anthropology can take fully seriously,
I wonder whether the notion of ethnographic alterity itself might not be inseparable from
the very relational anthropology that we might now imagine leaving behind. Be that as
it may, whether a creative destruction or distortion of the ontological turn can occur from
within its own recursive logic (as Holbraad seems to suggest) or as I rather tend to think
not, is, in the larger scheme of things, beside the point. What matters is the commitment
to an anthropological vision, which insists that a viable answer can only be found through

still more ethnographic explorations and experimentations. To be sure, it is hard to

imagine Laidlaw or any other critic of the ontological turn disagreeing with this (again:
show me an anthropologist who does not aspire to take his ethnography seriously!) But I
do think that he and other default sceptics may be criticized for a certain lack of
reflexivity about their own theoretical grounds. After all, scepticism along with its
favourite rhetorical trope, sarcasm rests on a certain ontology, too.
In his classic essay, Common sense as a cultural system (1975), Clifford Geertz writes:
There are a number of reasons why treating common sense as a relatively organized body
of considered thought, rather than just what anyone clothed and in his right mind knows,
should lead on to some useful conclusions; but perhaps the most important is that it is an
inherent characteristic of common sense thought precisely to deny this and to affirm that
its tenets are immediate deliverances of experience not deliberated reflections upon it
Common sense is not what the mind spontaneously apprehends; it is what the mind
filled with presuppositions concludes [N]o religion is more dogmatic, no science
more ambitious, no philosophy more general. Its tonalities are different, and so are the
arguments to which it appeals, but it pretends to reach past illusion to truth, to, as we
say, things as they are (1975: 7, 16-17)
This, it seems to me, is a rather precise depiction of the more or less conscious metaontological ground inhabited by Laidlaw, Heywood, and, coming to think of it, what
seems to be most other recent critiques of the ontological turn (see e.g. Geismar 2011):
common sense, in its various guises. Or, could we say, provocatively, common nonsense,
as a way of conveying what in my own (and it would appear also Geertzs) opinion
represents the basic flaw of this approach, namely its striking unwillingness to reflect on
its own theoretical presuppositions. Common nonsense, that is to say, as a term for
denoting the all too common anthropological problem of not recognising the intrinsic and
inescapable theoretical ground of all ethnographic description and anthropological
analysis, including and perhaps especially so those descriptions and analyses that
claim to not be overly theoretical or, worse, to not be theoretical at all, as if theory
was the name of a spirit that could be exorcized by denying its presence and not talking
about it. And, not for the first time, we can thank an old anthropological master like Geertz
for reminding us that common (non)sense, along with other meta-ontologies in our
discipline, is associated with certain particular stylistic features, the marks of attitude

that give it its peculiar stamp (1975: 17). For is that not how the otherwise tacit ontology
of anthropological skepticism shows its face: through a telling air of of-courseness, a
sense of it figures [that] is cast over some selected, underscored things (1975: 18)?
It should be amply clear by now that, from the perspective of the critiques of the
ontological turn, the question (indeed, the mere mention) of the word ontology is better
left to the philosophers to deal with (as if philosophers were especially well equipped to
address big questions about the reality of things, leaving the smaller question of how
different people see and know these things to anthropologists and other mortals). But, as
I have tried to show, this is, for a number of reasons, an untenable position. The time has
come to challenge the commonsensical sceptics to stand up and make explicit their own
theoretical ground.
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