A call for a bridge between ‘ontography’ and material culture studies

Diana Espirito Santo, Institute of Social Sciences, Univ. of Lisbon
On responding to a review of his edited book, written by Danny Miller on this Material Culture blog site a few months subsequent to the publication of Thinking Through Things (2007), Martin Holbraad glosses what he perceives to be the crucial difference between his ‘ontographic’ camp and material culture studies, one, as he argues, curiously motivated by ‘decency’ on both sides. “Crudely put”, he says to Miller, “I think your decency leads you to
’embrace’ your informants, and that puts you on the spot when it comes to
articulating the assumptions that might allow you to do so.
my concern for decency leads me to remain silent about my informants, because,
as with God, I feel I cannot presume to say anything ‘about’ them.” While Holbraad argues that we should return to ‘analytical innocence’, where distinctions between materiality and culture, ideas and things, artefacts and imaginings, obscure more than elucidate, Miller accuses Holbraad of skirting the importance of a prior materiality upon which all anthropology should ultimately base itself. As he says, “material culture is not a subset of social anthropology but more the other way around. Material culture is a condition for anthropology itself”; we should by now be past these divisions. More importantly, he also says of Holbraad’s chapter on powder and power, the author’s emphasis on dissolving the concept/thing divide has the paradoxical result of ignoring what seems to be most important to the ethnography – the ‘being’ of the diviner. Thus, for Miller ‘silence’ here seems counter-productive to the task of anthropology.
In my view we need to be prepared to accept the premises of both approaches – an ontographic one, where we allow persons, objects, and things to be fully ‘subjects’ of their relations, and a more material culture oriented one, where we try to understand how this ‘work’ of culture, that is, the achievement of such relations through the physical and material world, creates a particular kind of thinking and feeling person. In a recent panel that Nico Tassi and myself convened at this year’s ASA conference in Bristol, we aimed to provoke and expand on some of these debates. Our contention is that in an analysis of religious objects and artefacts, we must be both radically relativist and grounded in our common understanding of humanity, allowing for a plurality of ‘worlds’, but also attempting to unwind how these ‘worlds’ can come about and be experienced through ‘things’, experiences which far from merely conceptual, have an undeniably phenomenological referent. In particular, we want to stress the importance of movement and transformation, as a means of grasping how such worlds ‘become’ and are continuously ‘reborn’ (Ingold, 2006).
In an article that re-examines the notion of ‘animism’, so typically problematic in anthropological history, Tim Ingold sets out to “recover that original openness to the world in which the people whom we (that is, western-trained ethnologists) call animist find the meaning of life” (2006:11). In such ontologies, he tells us, life is not an emanation but a generation of being, “a world that is not pre-ordained but incipient, forever on the verge of the actual” (ibid: 11-12). Things, such as art forms, or indeed ritual or religious objects, do not represent the world, they make it visible. But in order to understand this we must also reconceive of the person, and especially, give primacy to his or her movement in the world.
We agree with Ingold that the person is not a self-contained entity that interacts with a pre-made world, but a being that actively brings this world forth via their movement in it: in short, the world becomes known to the knower through their ‘entanglement’, social and material, where being is knowing, and vice-versa. And thus, in this sense persons and things simply are their movement, their paths, their becoming. When we speak of notions of ‘agency’ and ‘materiality’, we must acknowledge that very different ontologies have the capacity not to attribute agency to inanimate matter, but to recognize that human beings are as material as they are spiritual, social and biological. As Toren has argued: “Our ideas are constituted in material relations with one another and we communicate with one another in and through the materiality of the world, its manifold objects, and awareness of our common humanity” (1999: 5). Thus, she continues, “our understanding of what is material is always mediated by our relations to others and likewise, the material stuff of the peopled world confirms our ideas of what those relations are or should be” (ibid). Our subjective and objective perspectives always guarantee eachother, she says. Mind, body, and the world of ‘things’ are not in dialectical relation to eachother. Rather, by tracing out our paths in the world, they come into being as aspects of one process.
In a project that Nico Tassi and I are currently developing together, we wish to emphasize the processual character of human religious experience, one which cannot do without materiality. Objects are not imbued with meanings or intentions as much as they enable these meanings and intentions, which, latent or emergent, are fundamental to a human relationship with the ‘divine’ or the ‘transcendent’. We thus propose a thoroughly relational approach to religious materiality which gives primacy to the achievement of these human-spirit/god/divine relations and the ‘work’ that this achivement implies. Movement, we contend, is key, indissociable to communication; not communication as a manifestation of intent predicated on reference, but as a process of creating selves, deities and things. “The problem with objectivism”, argues Alf Hornborg (2006:27), “is the notion of a ‘knowledge’ that is not situated as part of a relation”. The problem with constructivism is that in recognizing the ‘constructing subject’ (ibid: 28), it fails to acknowledge the subject’s embeddedness and relationality, assuming instead a real world ‘out there’ which the subject re-orders according to their schema.
We thus aim to merge the concerns of the ‘quiet revolution’ put in motion by anthropologists such as Viveiros de Castro and Martin Holbraad, with a focus on being-in-the-world, which enables us to understand the importance of movement and ‘becoming’ to the relationship between materiality and the divine.
Hornborg, A., 2006, ‘Animism, fetichism and objectivism as strategies for knowing (or not knowing)’, Ethnos, 71:1, 21-32.
Ingold, T., 2006, ‘Rethinking the animate, re-animating thought’, Ethnos, 71:1, 9-20.
Miller, D. ‘Thinking Through Things’, materialworldblog.com, posted 14 December 2006, and comments by Martin Holbraad, posted 3 March, 2007
Toren, C., 1999, Mind, Materiality and History: Explorations in Fijian Ethnography. London: Routledge.
Editor’s note: this topic was also recently discussed on the blog Savage Minds, by guest blogger Olumide Abimbola (savageminds.org/2009/05/08/towards-an-ontological-anthropology/ )

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One Response to A call for a bridge between ‘ontography’ and material culture studies

  1. Danny Miller UCL July 7, 2009 at 3:14 am #

    I must admit I have never been terribly sympathetic to radical relativism. In theory it seems right, even essential, for a discipline such as anthropology, but in practice there is a paradox. People who claim such positions ought to follow up this claim by effective conveying this radically different perception of the world. Instead of which they more often substitute this task with an appeal to some rather esoteric conventional philosophy, as though phenomenology was somehow less `Western’ than some other version of academic philosophy, which frankly it isn’t.
    I would make a similar argument with regard to these comments on fluidity. A sense of movement and imminent becoming is present in any of the modern works on what I would call material culture, not just Ingold, but equally my dialectical approach to objectification or that of Strathern or Latour’s anti-dualism. None of us take subjects as given, they are all equally relationsal at core. All involve some artificial freezing at the moment of discussion and description, but all recognise that this is artificial, and movement and transformation are intrinsic. What I find difficult about the more Ingold inflected version, or Thinking Through Things or indeed your own comment here is what for me is an implied primitivism. That there exists animists for whom this is somehow more true or more evident. I just don’t believe that. I think every word of what you say here would be as true for my London informants, or those I work with in Trinidad and the Philippines, certainly when we are thinking of spiritual and religious issues, but just as much really when we are thinking of marital or parenting relationships, or our relationship to blue jeans, the two topics I am working on at present. Of course it is possible and likely that different communities have different ideas about issues such as imminence and movement, but why should this correlate particularly with animism? For all I know, particular Amazonian communities might have a greater sense of fluidity while Australian Aboriginal groups have a more fixed idea of law than most Londoners (I suspect they probably do). Perhaps we need to appreciate that we cannot determine such things on the basis of which version of the many Western philosophies we decide to employ when we discuss them. The relativism of philosophy too easily becomes a substitute for the relativism of ethnography which is where any convincing evidence for multiple ontology needs to derive from. And if that’s the aim please check out North Londoners rather than presume they are merely the representatives of whatever philosophy we don’t happen to like. (I admit this is not your core point, but comments are good places for ranting off the point)

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