Ontological ‘turns’ and colonialism

I’ve mentioned previously the ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology and the growing literature around it, like this special issue from HAU. Last week, a PhD student from Aberdeen, Zoe Todd, wrote a post on her take on the ‘ontological turn’ as an indigenous scholar. In it, she considers the ‘ontological turn’ yet another way of applying colonial forms of domination to indigenous thought, practice, and forms of social and legal order. It is an interesting post and worth the read. It was circulated widely on social media over the weekend.

A number of the themes of the post are worth taking up, such as whether the ‘ontological turn’ is intrinsically related to colonialism such that considerations of difference within it displace and dispossess indigenous forms of thought. I think the folks in the UC Davis group working on indigenous cosmopolitics might have something to contribute on this front. We’re going to have a get together this morning to discuss some of these issues here in Halifax so I’ll try to write an update later this week.


  1. are we talking about the intentions of authors (and aren’t there many differing sides to the so called “turn” including many trying to make more of a place at the table for local ways?), unintended effects, or what? seems all too simple a reduction/equation to moi…

    • Sure, there are lots of ways of making this sort of turn. And I think Z. Todd is critiquing one of them.

      • but is she looking at actual effects that are happening or just making them up?

      • I suppose we’d have to ask her to respond to that. My sense is that her argument is more along the lines of: to think in these terms (i.e. Latourian ontological turns) re-inscribes colonial relationships in new language and patterns of thought with the effect that indigenous views are co-opted once more in claims about the production (and policing) of knowledge.

  2. at the core of my thinking, I’m asking: “if we’re so committed to honouring Indigenous thought, where are the Indigenous bodies? “. How many people are citing and acknowledging contemporary Indigenous thinkers, rather than filtering their understanding of Indigenous cosmologies through other anthropologists? How many more panels will I sit through at big conferences where the speakers are mostly men, and mostly non-Indigenous? (How many editors of the flagship journals in our field that have an ‘ontological bent’ are Indigenous?). And if Indigenous people are not at the table, can we really claim that this ‘turn’ is really that different, structurally, than any other anthropological moment that has passed through the halls of our Universities? I think the answer, if you talk to many Indigenous scholars inside and outside the discipline, is pretty clear: we need to tackle the underlying power relations at play within the academy in order to help the ontological turn achieve some of the lofty goals it aspires to. The academy is still hostile to Indigenous bodies–whether it feels it is welcoming to Indigenous thought–and that is a problem.

    • Thanks for commenting on this Zoe!

    • thanks for the response, seems like yer quite reasonable concerns here are about something other than the specifics of the logoi of the various onto-turners, and indeed higher-ed often changes privileged vocabularies and related personnel without really ever making substantial institutional shifts but than those aren’t the kinds of skills and personalities that make up (and make it) in higher-ed so we shouldn’t really expect them to do more/otherwise as that’s the business they are in.
      If one wants to make substantial changes in how populations and resources are assembled (and we could desperately use more help) than please do something other than being an academic.

    • That would make a lot of difference. Because, of course, Indigenous bodies would be many people from many different ethnicities. Nominally, as members of a philosophy conference, they’d be representatives of different world views. But in actuality, they would all be in the same world, including the table they’re sitting at, as well as the very real problems of climate and discrimination.

      This would be a great opportunity for solidarity and worldwide problem-solving. But philosophers would see a different picture, an Enlightenment naivete harkening to the legend of King Arthur’s Round Table.

      And that’s the problem with the entire program of “decolonization”. By focusing on public optics instead of actual progress, it’s become a shadow-play of the colonial trope, in which “white Westerners” are realists and everyone else in the world is an anti-realist.

      This trope has been graywashed into saying that scientific realism is a “white Western” invention that the rest of the world needs to escape from. But even in this mild form, it’s still a lie. Cows from Arabia, banana trees from Africa, maize from Mexico, and probably many other less-known items — are all technological inventions that could not have taken place unless some form of scientific realism was a human universal.

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