The ontological turn

I. The Story So Far

This is the last installment of a series on “Weird Studies.” Well, it ended up being about “Weird Studies.” It started off somewhere else entirely, on Frank Sinatra’s performance of Harold Arlen’s “One for My Baby” and the Prohibition culture it romanticizes. I then pivoted off that to write a two-parter on the U.S. drug war and how the academic humanities has responded to its bottomless injustice with a shrug. The first part is an allegory, which was the best way I could think of to sidle up to the true vastness of the injustice. The second part ended up suggesting that academic indifference to that injustice is an artifact of a pervasive and unexamined assumption about what constitutes meaningful human difference: “We can value difference when it pertains to the Other-Bodied, but not to the Other-Minded,” I wrote. (This, in turn, relates to an earlier post I wrote on “mad studies” and the ways we think about depression.)

What is at stake in writing about psychedelic drugs, then, is not only freedom of thought — freedom to think what you like — but what is called “cognitive liberty,” which is freedom to think how you like. But then I needed to back up and reflect a little on the difference between what and how, which I did in a post titled “What Face-Punching and the Star Wars Holiday Special Can Teach Us About Consciousness.” After this, I imagined a new scholarly discipline premised on cognitive difference, “Weird Studies,” and then proceeded to consider what it would have to overcome to become a real academic subfield. The next post continued this line of thought, suggesting that the “naive construal” of modernity severely limits what ideas professional academics can entertain, and the post after that discussed how ideas falling outside that construal get Othered or smOthered.

Which brings us to this post, Episode VII. It turns out that what’s at stake in this whole series of posts is the question of what can be thought. If we imagine for a moment that Weird Studies actually existed, it would be a sustained experiment in testing the boundaries of the thinkable. A practice of cognitive liberty, if you like. Magic lies at the heart of any such experiment, because it is the one thing that most resists our naive construal of reality. But in order to take magic seriously, scholars need to find an alternative to their usual historicizing ways. To do that, some scholars have suggested a new approach, which they call “the ontological turn.”

Good lord, that’s some boring exposition.



I like to think that the Death Star stands for modernity.

II. Ontological Commitments

It is often imagined that magic is the absolute Other of modernity, an Coelacanth-like survival from an archaic time. But magical thought shows the influence of modernity too. Think, for instance, of how tarot enthusiasts often justify their chosen practice and defend it from charges of superstition. Of course there are no spirits in the cards that tell you things about your life; the messages you get from the cards are really unconscious parts of your own mind. In this way the tarotist keeps the weirdness of the tarot in check: its power is a function of mind, and that mind is your own. We’re not talking to spirits, really, we’re talking to ourselves. From this point of view, divination works to unbury intuition, the way a coin flip can suddenly show you what you really felt all along.

This is how Jung managed to make the Western esoteric tradition safe for modernity, by suggesting that those things that have always seemed like daimonic intelligences “out there” are, in fact, “in here.” It’s just that we have no idea how big “in here” really is.

Thus we have the essentially modern debate between occultists who believe that daimons are self-existing entities with their own characteristics and preferences and occultists who are more apt to think of them as the projections of psychological archetypes. In the modern West, the latter, Jungian option is by far the more popular. If occultism had had to make do within the framework of daimons as real and existing entities, it would never have survived the metaphysical tsunami we have been calling disenchantment. And as you’ll recall from my last essay, the bedrock assumption of disenchantment is that consciousness is limited to human minds, and that those minds are bounded.

Who am I kidding, of course you don’t remember my last essay. I don’t even remember it. Here’s the key passage from Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age again:

Let me start with the enchanted world, the world of spirits, demons, moral forces which our predecessors acknowledged. The process of disenchantment is the disappearance of this world, and the substitution of what we live today: a world in which the only locus of thoughts, feelings, spiritual élan is what we call minds; the only minds in the cosmos are those of humans (gross modo, with apologies to possible Martians or extra-terrestrials); and minds are bounded, so that these thoughts, feelings etc. are situated “within” them. [Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 29-30.]

Obviously, once you have fully absorbed this way of thinking, it becomes very hard to give much credence to fully autonomous daimons. Or daimons of any kind, really.

I have myself written a fair bit about daimons, and I’ve stayed agnostic on the are-they-real-or-are-they-projections debate. But the closer I get to talking about daimons as if they are real, even as I insist on the as-ifness of the enterprise, the more I sense the Weird looming nearby. The Weird is (among other things) that which lies on the far side of the line between our naïve construal of reality and whatever lies beyond it. To come out and start talking about daimons you have met personally is go waltzing right over that line. One question I have been asking for the last three posts is, what would it take for Weird Studies to become a real academic subfield? It would take a willingness of scholars to place themselves on the other side of that line. And this turns out to be very hard to do.

A while ago, Tommi Uschanov left a comment to a previous installment of this series, recommending Greg Anderson’s essay “Retrieving the Lost Worlds of the Past: The Case for an Ontological Turn.” This is an article on the democratic polis in ancient Athens, which is something a lot of us probably feel we understand pretty well. But Anderson suggests that we don’t understand it at all: historians have smOthered the ancient Athenians, assimilating their worldview into our own and (as I wrote earlier) sanitizing its more magical aspects with ironizing historicism.

And it’s not just the Greeks who get this treatment:

When the Santal, a tribal people of Bengal and Bihar, rebelled against British forces and local landlords in 1855, they were, by their own account, simply acting on the orders of their ‘lord,’ the god Thakur. Yet as soon as one attempts to historicize this event, to tell a story in the ways prescribed by our discipline’s ‘European’ codes and protocols, one loses the ability to express the central role played here by Thakur. The best one can do within the limits of our historicism is to resort to the ways and means of cultural history, to ‘anthropologize’ Thakur’s divine agency, rationalizing it as the ‘religious belief’ of his human devotees, who can be the only ‘real,’ material agents. Thus, even the most sensitive efforts to write a ‘good’ subaltern history of the Santal revolt, one that restores full agency to a historically oppressed people, will end up denying the truth of the event as it was actually experienced by the Santal themselves.

To date, scholarly efforts have focused largely on confronting historicism’s epistemological and methodological limitations, but a consensus alternative has yet to emerge. Our more urgent task should be to confront historicism’s ontological limitations, which seem to be altogether more fundamental. Before we can rethink our conventional ways of knowing and representing non-modern realities, we need to reconsider the very nature of realness itself. To help us retrieve all those pasts that we have lost in translation, we need a historicism that can make sense of each non-modern lifeworld on its own ontological terms, as a distinct real world in its own right.

In order to feel out the limitations that historicism inflicts on our thinking, Anderson finds four “ontological commitments” of “liberal capitalist modernity” — the elements of what I have been calling our naive construal. None of these are new to people who think about this stuff a lot. For instance, subject-object dualism and the “myth of objective consciousness” was a particular target of Theodore Roszak, whom I discussed in my last post. But Anderson’s discussion is particularly cogent and succinct, and it’s an excellent starting-point for those who are unwilling to wade through all 800 pages of A Secular Age, which makes similar arguments in much greater detail.

The first ontological commitment is something that every writer sympathetic to magic complains about: our materialistic and mechanistic understanding of the universe.

First, and perhaps most fundamentally, modernity’s prevailing ontology is uncompromisingly materialist. The states, economies, and other essential structures upon which modern Western social being is staked all presuppose a thoroughly disenchanted real world, a world in which true realness is granted only to those materially self-evident phenomena that comply with our scientifically established “laws” of physics and nature. As such, our real world has no place for what it regards as purely imaginary or ideational objects, relations, and processes. It is thus a world entirely devoid of all the gods and monsters, demons and angels, spirits and ghosts, and the myriad other “supernatural” beings that have variously governed, nurtured, energized, and terrorized all other historical realities for millennia. It is a world where physical death is final extinction, a world emptied of heavens and hells, reincarnations, and all those mortal agencies, from Christian saints to the Igbo egwugwu, whose powers continue to radiate and condition life from beyond the grave. It is a world that has summarily extinguished all those “magical” vital forces that once animated entire ecologies and civilizations, like Polynesian mana, Hindu shakti, and Chinese qi. It is a world without anima or atman, psyche or soul.

The second ontological commitment follows from this first. Modernity is fundamentally secular: as I have already explained, we imagine incorporeal beings — gods and daimons — to be the projections of human minds rather than as self-existing entities. To think otherwise is to engage in something called “faith,” which is the special province of something called “religion,” “a category that makes sense only in our modern Western world, a world that is already secular, a world where gods have been turned from subjects into objects, because humans already presume that they have the know-how and the wherewithal to take charge of life itself.”

Anderson’s third “ontological commitment” is a radical anthropocentrism that pictures human beings standing outside of nature. Human beings are subjects; all other entities are objects. Once God is safely shut up in a human-made (i.e., subjective) domain, so is everything else: “The tangled mess of experience is thus categorically sundered into two mutually exclusive objects, whereby an intrinsically human order of knowledge and reason, agency and subjectivity, appears to be self-evidently distinct from a non-human order of ‘nature,’ from a mere ‘environment’ of inert ‘resources,’ subject-less ‘processes,’ and enclosable ‘property.'”

Subject-object dualism is the philosophical razor that makes the cut between everything “in here,” in human subjectivity, and everything “out there,” in an objective realm of nature. And this cleavage, this separation, extends also to our understanding of relationships between human beings. I am a subject; you are an object of my subjective understanding. I likewise understand that from your point of view I am the object. We are all smooth, polished, clean-edged monads bouncing off one another and rattling around the cosmos like so many billiard balls. We are in the cosmos, not of it: the universe comes to seem like a giant container. Such a picture of ourselves cut loose from the cosmos, or indifferently contained within it, becomes the foundation for “our commonsense assumption that all human beings are naturally autonomous, self-interested, pre-social subjects.” This idea of the human being and human relationships is the fourth ontological commitment of modernity.

And Anderson is arguing that on every point the Greeks had a radically different set of ontological commitments. First, the gods were real and were involved in every aspect of the polis: as Anderson writes, “There were two populations in the land of Attica, not just one.” Second, the land of Attica “was not some generic territorial tract or abstract reserve of enclosable property” but something like an living thing with which and in which Athenians lived interdependently. Third, the people of Attica themselves constituted “a kind of ageless, primordial superorganism that had been continually present in Attica since the time of those first earth-born kings.” All meaningful relationships are those of participation: the Athenian polis was formed from citizens who were consubstantial with the gods, the land, and one another.

III. Neither-Neither

With some difficulty, we can understand the difference between our ontological commitments and theirs; it is another matter to make something of that difference. To do that, Anderson calls for “reconsidering the very nature of realness itself.” This is a very Weird project, though, because we are used to thinking that reality just is what it is, and that we moderns know more or less what it is. So if we look at alien historical entities like the ancient Athenians and realize that their most decisive actions were motivated by things completely outside our own construal of reality, we have limited interpretive options. Four, in fact:

  1. We’re right and they’re wrong
  2. They’re right and we’re wrong
  3. We’re both right
  4. We’re both wrong

Option no. 1 is the historicist response. This one has several sub-options. We can bluntly say that historical Others were merely superstitious, which was James Frazier’s explanation of ancient magical cultures in The Golden Bough. Or, if we don’t want to be jerks about it, we can make the offending differences disappear by shoving them into the black box marked “religion” and start gassing on about “an age of faith.” Or we can explain their thoughts and actions as symptoms of something deeper and unknown to them. Thus magic can be explained away by (for example) “social and psychological strains to which the postulation of witchcraft is a social response.” Finally, we could say something that sounds a lot like Option no. 3 (“we’re both right”) but isn’t: “we rationally inhabit the same reality, but we just need to understand that when they talk about daimons, they are speaking metaphorically.” But this is a false consensus — smOthering — and like all the other historicist sub-options it leaves us discounting the meanings that people had for their own actions.

Option no. 2 is the traditionalist or perennialist response, which rejects the assumptions of modernity and insists on the eternal validity of premodern schools of thought — Orthodox Christianity, neo-Platonism, Hermetic prisca theologica, etc. This option is pretty rare in present-day academia, though not unknown. The work of Joscelyn Godwin offers a particularly distinguished example from musicology. This option is a bit Weird, according to the taste of mainstream academia.

Option no. 3 is what Anderson seems to have in mind when he calls for a method that would “make sense of each non-modern lifeworld on its own ontological terms, as a distinct real world in its own right.” This should not be understood as the banal claim that we all have different ways of seeing the world, each with its own relative validity; it is a more robust claim about what exists, not merely what is thought or perceived. But as one early critic of the ontological turn has pointed out, that suggests something really Weird: that reality was one way then, but it is another way now.* The rules of their world differed from ours and have no bearing on it. The Athenians were right to think that gods and daimons governed their polis, and we are right to think that gods and daimons have no place in ours. And to posit this is to suppose what Quine called a “bloated universe.”**

Morten Axel Pederson, author of the ontologically-turned anthropological monograph Not Quite Shamans, cites this as a particularly potent critique. He quotes his colleague Martin Holbraad responding to it thusly:

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.

Pederson writes that it is “hard to imagine a more logically compelling response to Heywood’s critique,” but I don’t know about that. It seems to me that at this critical point in the argument Holbraad jets out inky obscurities like a frightened cuttlefish, and it is at this point also that I find Anderson’s argument least compelling.

The problem, as I see it, is that the ontological turners are having to answer a question that is already formulated in their opponents’ terms, which is to say, in terms that load the dice for the ontological presuppositions of modernity. The skeptic asks, Do you think that realities different from our own really existed? But to ask if something “really exists” is already to assume the very ontological givens that Anderson and others are questioning. This is one reason why crossing that line into the Weird is so hard for academics.

So what’s the alternative? I would suggest that the “ontological turn” writers are working their way towards what I have been writing about all along: magical thinking, in the sense that Ramsey Dukes has given this much-abused term. And as I have explained at length in my series of essays on magic, it is experience, not explanation, that is the coin of this particular realm.

If you want an explanation of how it might be possible that separate realities can exist at different times on the same planet, Rupert Sheldrake’s idea of “morphic resonance” isn’t a bad one. From this point of view, “laws of nature” are more like habits, and habits can change. An interesting thought.

But do you really need an explanation? Well, if it makes you feel better, by all means avail yourself of one. If you don’t like Sheldrake’s explanation, perhaps you would prefer quantum mechanics, as Anderson does. In magical thinking, an explanation is valuable by virtue of its ability to establish a framework within which an experience can take root. (As Dukes writes, Ramsey Dukes notes this in SSOTBME when he writes that a scientific habit of mind “values truth as highly as the finest wine — to be sipped not gulped,” and contrasts this to magic, which is “more inclined to knock truth back with gusto and then concentrate on sipping at whatever experience then results.” [Dukes, SSOTBME, 17.]) Our experience, here, is the full imagination of the ancient Athenian world with its gods and daimons and living earth, unconstrained by the scare quotes ever so lightly etched into place by our irritable insistence on what really exists.

Our modern minds keep returning to the question we have not yet learned to forget: Can we really believe that the laws of the universe were different then than they are now? A year ago I suggested that “weird thinking” might be marked by a willingness to “play with notions of incommensurate and unspeakable realms, their daimonic inhabitants, and our elusive commerce with them” — but to hold those ideas lightly, in suspension, so as to allow the dissonance between these different realms (or, if you like, different ontologies) to remain unresolved. Historical thought, on this account, becomes a practice, and a magical one at that: a practice aiming at historical gnosis in which subject-object boundaries, the boundaries between the “really existing” and the indeterminately real, are suspended. What is left, in the moment of historical gnosis, can never quite be described. Sorry. Once again I pull aside the curtain to reveal … another curtain. Or, to use the metaphor I used in my post on gnosis, one lockbox opens to reveal another, and then another, then another …

recursive boxes

What all this leads to, I think, is Option no. 4. It is perhaps the Weirdest option by virtue of its thoroughgoing negation, which is reminiscent of Austin Osman Spare’s “neither-neither” dialectics. Saying “we’re both wrong” doesn’t quite do justice to the neither-neither. Perhaps we can put it better in more abstract terms:

  1. A, not B
  2. B, not A
  3. Both A and B
  4. Neither A nor B

Each step through this tetralemma (as it is known in classical Indian dialectics) negates the previous and moves towards a condition in which what is known — whatever mental baggage we came in with, whatever is restraining the freedom of our thinking — is cleared away to make a space for thought.

Austin Spare wrote, “Thought is the negation of knowledge. Be thy business with action only. Purge thyself of belief: live like a tree walking!”

There is much more to be said on this topic — my treatment of the neither-neither is rushed and constrained by my awareness that this post is closing in on 4000 words — surely an abuse of your patience. (I’m assuming there is still a “you” to address here: if you have made it this far, thanks, and congratulations!) So I will wait to write about the neither-neither another day. But for now this series of posts is over, thank god — I can write about something else for a while.

* John Crowley expresses this notion poetically throughout the four books of his Aegypt tetralogy:

Once, the world was not as it has since become.

Once it worked in a way different from the way it works now; its very flesh and bones, the physical laws that governed it, were ever so slightly different from the ones we know. It has a different history, too, from the history we know the world to have had, a history that implied a different future from the one that has actually come to be, our present.

In that age (not really long ago in time, but long ago in other bridges crossed, which we shall not return by again) certain things were possible that are not now; and contrariwise, things we know not to have happened indubitably had then; and there were other differences large and small, none able now to be studied, because this is now, and that was then. [John Crowley, Love and Sleep.]

** “At some point or another along the path traced by the ‘ontological turn,’ we will have to start deciding what is, and what is not. [Martin] 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.'” Paolo Heywood, “Anthropology and What There Is: Reflections on ‘Ontology,” Cambridge Anthropology 3, no. 1 (2012): 146.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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6 Responses to The ontological turn

  1. Tommi Uschanov says:

    That was nice, thanks. It corresponds quite closely to my own views about the “ontological turners” (wonderful term).

    And there’s no need to apologize. I think you underestimate both the inclination and probably also the ability of your audience to follow along. You’re more unforgettable than you think!

  2. cyborgk2016 says:

    The naive realists ask us to believe that a map of the moon is identical with the moon. They mistake subjectively constructed cognitive models of reality for reality itself. The map is not the territory; in fact, the map is nothing but hearsay. The primal encounter with Reality resists all attempts to understand, categorize, and analyze it, and cognition is always at least one step removed from experience itself.

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Tommi — Aw, thanks! I’m glad you liked it.

    Cybordk2016: “The primal encounter with Reality resists all attempts to understand, categorize, and analyze it” — very much agree. You would get along with my friend JF Martel, who wrote a whole book (Reclaiming Art) about the primal encounter with Reality — or, as he calls it, the Real.

  4. cyborgk2016 says:

    Phil: Thanks for the recommendation, that book looks like it would be right up my alley.
    One thing that struck me when contemplating naive realism: there definitely seems to be an element of ideology about that position, if we define ideology in the quasi-Marxist sense of false but necessary beliefs that individuals must hold in order to function within a given social structure. After all, since Kant there have been no shortages of sophisticated philosophical critiques of naive realism, and it’s actually almost impossible to defend explicitly. Despite the appeal to common sense, in my experience arguments for naive realism tend to be based almost exclusively on logical fallacies and rhetoric.
    In other words, naive realism remains a privileged point of view long after its expiration date has passed. Thus I hypothesize that the belief in naive reality in an academic context fulfills some type of important systemic function. I would love to hear any further thoughts you might have on this line of thinking..

    • Tommi Uschanov says:

      Maybe naive realism survives because, like other epistemological stances, it is considered to be the business of philosophy, and it doesn’t survive in philosophy. When I studied philosophy in the 1990s, some of us remarked on the oddness of being taught in some detail about the standard refutations of naive realism – and at introductory level at that – although no actual philosophers were ever named as ever having defended it. (The same went for solipsism.)

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