SENKU seminar with Martin Holbraad

Anti-essence: perspectivism and the ethics of ontological reflexivity


Abstract: Had its proponents had their time again, they may have chosen not to use the word ‘ontology’ to tag the intensified anthropological reflexivity which they have sought to develop. When people hear that word, it seems, they tend to imagine something deep, basic and fixed. So when they then hear it being propounded in anthropology they jump to the conclusion that what is being rendered ‘ontological’ (deep, heavy, immutable) must be the basic concerns of anthropological analysis, such as cultural difference, social groups, or what have you. So we end up with a kind of car crash of anachronism, where all the things anthropologists have long sought to render looser and more mutable (culture, society, difference, etc.) are imagined as somehow being refortified by an ontologising brigade of anthropologists, bent on taking the discipline back 50 years or so. Seen in this light, the ontologisers’ flagship claim to be performing a ‘decolonization of anthropological thought’ (as Viveiros de Castro puts it programmatically) appears quite perverse.

As a corrective to this grim conclusion, and with reference to Viveiros’s famous arguments on Amerindian perspectivism, , this paper makes clear that (and how) the ontology-move in anthropology turns not on ‘ontologizing’ the things that anthropologists already take as basic (culture, society, people, power, etc.), but rather on de-ontologising them, i.e. asking anthropologists not to take them as basic. That is to say, the turn to ontology is simply the move of saying that in anthropological inquiry nothing can be taken for granted, as the obvious starting point (let alone building-block) for inquiry. What things are (or what they might be) is the ontological question that must remain constitutively open in order to render anthropology as a thoroughly decolonizing project. It follows that what ontology, anthropology, colonialism and its anti are, and what they might become, are all questions that must remain constitutively open too, as part of the very act of seeking to answer them.

Martin Holbraad is Professor of Social Anthropology at UCL. At present he conducts ethnographic research on revolutionary politics in Cuba and is author of Truth in Motion: The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination (Chicago, 2012) and co-author of The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition (Cambridge, 2017).


The seminar will take place in the seminar room on the 3rd floor, Frederiks gate 2 (Entrance via back door on Kristian IVs gate - ring the doorbell for the third floor) . After the seminar there will be room for informal conversations and drinks.



SENK, Geoffrey Gowlland and Tone Wang
Published Sep. 13, 2017 12:27 PM - Last modified Jan. 9, 2018 8:53 PM