Ontologies in the Making
Anthropological & Archaeological Perspectives
Louvain-la-Neuve · 18-19th of May 2022 · Musée L·Auditorium du Monceau
This international workshop brings together anthropologists and archaeologists to present ontology-oriented research and discuss the impact of the ontological turn on both disciplines. Although the broad range of recent approaches with an interest in the material and a focus on solid matters are in no way a homogenous field of research, they still share some common ground. For example, they do not dismiss human agency but call for – more or less radically – a displacement in perspective, allowing a greater importance to the material world. As recently put forward by Olsen and Witmore (2021: 70), to avoid “accepting living and inert as the ontological rift that subsumes all difference in being”.
But, where does that statement leave us exactly as practitioners (ethnographers and archaeologists)? How do we move from investigating people and/or things – with a preferential focus on one or the other depending on the discipline – to approach society or culture to understanding networks of actants or meshworks of beings, now or in the past? What does this theoretical shift in perspective entail in terms of methodology? How do we trace and document relations in a less anthropocentric way?
Could this focus on relationality somehow help to build bridges between archaeology and anthropology? So that ethnographers are better armed to “focus more on what objects do in different contexts rather than what locals think the objects can do or what powers and meanings are ascribed to [them]” whereas archaeologists can illustrate how a focus on materiality can contribute to interpretations without systematically referring to anthropological analogies (Fahlander 2017: 79-81) or do so with an informed eye.
The workshop also aspires at assessing the opportunities that the ontological turn offers us to unveil some of the detrimental dynamics that characterize our world today. Here, we think of the concept of the ‘Anthropocene’. In our globalized and heavily connected world where some sort of dematerialization of relations seem to characterize our daily interactions, it is important to keep highlighting the frantic pace at which we consume resources and keep building ever-expending infrastructures. Human and non-humans are indeed deeply entwined in networks that gain in complexity – and maybe opacity – as they expand. With that in mind, relational approaches and a wealth of case-studies are certainly key to critically unravel these intricate networks of things and people, a necessary step if we want to reconfigure them into more sustainable and equitable collectives and commons.
Fahlander, F. (2017). “Ontology Matters in Archaeology and Anthropology. People, Things, and Posthumanism”, in Englehardt, J. and Rieger, I. (Eds), These ‘Thin Partitions’: Bridging the Growing Divide between Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology. Boulder. University of Colorado Press: 69-86;
Olsen, B. and Witmore, C. (2021). “When Defense Is Not Enough: On Things, Archaeological Theory, and the Politics of Misrepresentation”, in Forum Kritische Archäologie 10: 67-88.