Comment: This entry is prompted by Luigi Pellizzoni’s provocative book – Ontological Politics in a Disposable World: The New Mastery of Nature (Surrey, Ashgate, 2015; available as a free download online) – and by my own deployment of the term “ontological politics” (see “Strategic interventions and ontological politics: Research as political practice”. In A. Bletsas and C. Beasley (Eds.) 2012, Engaging with Carol Bacchi: Strategic Interventions and Exchanges. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press, pp. 141-56; https://www.adelaide.edu.au/press/).
My use of the term relies on my reading of Annemarie Mol’s work on the topic (see in particular Mol, A. 1999. Ontological politics: A word and some questions, in Actor Network Theory and After, edited by J. Law and J. Hassard. Oxford: Blackwell, 74-89.) Mol points out that “ontological politics” is a compound term, relying on meanings of “ontology” – what is posited as “real” – and “politics”. At a basic level the term “ontological politics” signals a close connection, of some form, between ontology and politics, with “the ‘real’ and the ‘political’ being deemed to be directly implicated in one another” (Pellizzoni, 2015, p. 7). A broad definition of politics as the heterogeneous strategic relations that shape lives leads to the contention that the “real” is a political creation, doubtless a confronting proposition! How is this view supported?
“Ontological politics” can be considered part of the new wave in social theory referred to as “the turn to ontology”. The use of “turn” in relation to theoretical developments signals a particular new focus of some kind. The “turn to ontology” is associated with an expressed dissatisfaction with the preceding “linguistic turn”, based on claims about excessive reliance on language to understand social relations. Susan Hekman, for example, says that the error of the “linguistic turn” was the assumption that discourse alone is constitutive of reality (see Hekman, S. 2010. The Material of Knowledge: Feminist Disclosures. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, p. 24). In her view the “new ontology” (sometimes described as “the new materialisms”) resurrects “reality” to its rightful place, without lapsing into modernist conceptions of “the real”.
However, the “ontological turn” in social theory is a “variegated phenomenon” (Pellizzoni, 2015, p. 72) and some perspectives – consider for example “feminist new materialisms” and “speculative realism” – may not sit happily together. There are nuances among the numerous contributions to “the ontological turn” that ought to be considered should one decide to engage with these debates.
Annemarie Mol (1999, p.74), in association with John Law and Actor-Network Theory, takes as a starting point that the reality we live is “one performed in a variety of [socio-material] practices” – an illustration of another contemporary theoretical direction, referred to as “the turn to practice”. Because practices are plural, it is argued, so too are the realities they enact. “Reality” is, in effect, multiple (see Mol’s book, The Body Multiple: Ontology in medical practice, Duke University Press, 2002). However, we do not experience the world as multiple, raising the question – how do plural realities become produced as a singular “real”? The answer to that question directs attention to the play of politics in coordinating aspects of reality as the “real”, making “the real” an accomplishment – or in my terms a political creation. It follows that what is deemed to be “real” and fixed, can be challenged. WPR initiates this kind of questioning of presumed fixed problems.
Some difficult theoretical issues invite further analysis. Pellizzoni (2015) identifies a shared problematization between neoliberalism and some versions of the “new ontology” or “new materialisms” that requires attention. He (p. 77) also stresses the need for conceptual development of practices, which, at times, tend to be treated as “self-evident givens rather than perspectival “cuts” in the spatio-temporal flux of events”. If practices are treated as unmediated in this way, a kind of materiality is reinstated, undermining attempts to establish a “non-dualist, ‘post-constructionist’ understanding of material reality and human intermingling with it” (Pellizzoni, 2015, p 7). This conclusion reinforces the call by Woolgar and Neyland (2013) in the earlier entry on “Mundane Governance” for constitutive interpretations to be further developed. In recent work I have emphasized the place of problematizations in the constitution of “objects” and “subjects” (https://ndri.curtin.edu.au/events/cdp2017/].