Strathern: Response

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Marilyn Strathern. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online)


A comment on “the ontological turn” in Japanese anthropology

Marilyn Strathern, University of Cambridge


Reading these three fascinating pieces may have been responsible for a dream I had (reading a thriller before going to sleep was also responsible, so it was all mixed up with pursuing a murderer in a wild place). I looked down to see that what I had assumed was ordinary vegetation was in fact an extensive meadow of pansies, which were aligned in rows and neatly attached (means not clear) to horizontal strips of wood. The wood was just visible. “Aha,” I thought or spoke in the dream, “that is ontology!” (I realized afterwards that I could not have walked on the meadow because of all the wooden supports, so no doubt I was conveniently hovering over it, and beautiful it looked too. The pansies announced themselves as such to me in the dream.)


I am struck by what is told in these pieces about the interdigitation of anthropological traditions. From one side, a huge effort to extract anthropological method from its obsession with epistemology (in Viveiros de Castro’s words, anthropology’s belief that its paramount task is to explain how it comes to know its object), encounters, on another side, well-worked methodological procedures for addressing the materiality of practice (which in themselves appear to render knowledge more effect than cause). It hardly need be said that there are numerous precedents in Euro-American anthropology for considering what people ‘do’ with their worlds that lie outside the intellectual genealogy presented at this point. However, the genealogy in question, which the Introduction sketches with great dexterity, is made interesting by its place in the arguments taken up within Japanese anthropology. Quite simply, it is unexpectedly illuminating to have the field reflected back and thus formed again through the critical attention of the Japanese anthropologists mentioned here. Asymmetrically so, in so far as they take Euro-Americans in their stride—but perhaps this endeavour begins to return the compliment. It is a rare treat the editors have given us; the encounter is humbling.

What emerges for me from this brief encounter with aspects of “Japanese” anthropology is a fresh realization of the extent to which “Euro-American” anthropologists are concerned to take responsibility for the concepts they use.

Taking on such an imagined duty is a moral stance. A salient preoccupation of Euro-American anthropologists is with how their thoughts align with what others think. Consider again Thinking through things: the introduction to that volume is very clear that one way of seizing “on a methodology that allows for concept production that makes worlds” (Henare et al. 2007: 16), would be to abolish the very distinction between concepts and things. One can do this by taking things as concepts, and brilliantly productive it is. So, while the authors state that the conventional problem is that “both [Euro-American] anthropology and its objects are epistemic in character” (2007: 9), the response—with which I have great sympathy—is in fact an intensification of conceptual care. (How can one transform concepts, the book asks, so as to give rise to new ones?) But now comes the encounter. Can one imagine a universe of scholars where this (caring for concepts) is not a primordial duty? Might this be true of some of our Japanese colleagues? I do not mean that there is no attention to the way arguments are made or terms deployed—no one would doubt we are in the presence of complex conceptual work—but that perhaps the locus of truth is found elsewhere than in concepts. That would put moral concern elsewhere too.

Casper Bruun Jensen and Atsuro Morita dwell on continuing the discussion, from both sides, about the relationship between (experimental) ethnographic and analytical forms and the object of study, including the conceptualization of experiment as a part of practice. In this vein, let me record how moved I was by Naoki Kasuga’s words. In particular, he talks about the problems of actualization and, with writing anthropology in mind, what it might mean to bring something into being. I take my cue from this in trying to flesh out the above remarks through considering Miho Ishii’s chapter in more detail.


In following Kimura and Kawamoto, Ishii makes a compelling argument for the self-creation of states of being in terms of being able to do rather than to know, and through actualization (of the virtual) as distinctively prior to any realization (of the possible). That the material comes from ritual performance is interesting, since this has been one of the areas in Euro-American anthropology over which battles have long been fought in terms of cognitive or belief-based interpretations and practice or action-based ones. An example that she might find interesting is Humphrey and Laidlaw (1994), not least for the authors’ attempt to get away from the idea that in some essential sense rituals are systems of meaning. Rather, they describe rituals as ontologically prior to the actors’ performance and intentions; in ritual you both are and are not the author of your acts. Given Ishii’s splendid analysis, one would be curious to know how they in turn might have refined Gell’s model. For example, where Ishii argues that the participants in the South Indian rite she describes experience the physical alteration of the girl/goddess as an event, Humphrey and Laidlaw propose that performing “ritualized acts impels people to perceive themselves as doing something” (1994: 258). And Ishii’s conclusion about ritual as disrupting ordinary relations with things can be put alongside their observation that a ritual act is a modification of what is ordinarily part of an act, that is, of its intentionality. There are of course divergences as well as echoes here.

Ishii takes us further. Humphrey and Laidlaw’s account is addressed specifically to what we might know ritual action to be, although they say that any action can be “ritualized” (through the modification of the ordinary intentionality of human acts). However, I do not see anything in Ishii’s chapter that requires us to restrict the application of her analysis to ritual or idolatry. Although she talks of divine worlds as alienating the everyday sense of reality, everyday life is constantly encountering little alienations from it, not least when it itself becomes the subject of representation, analysis, or simply description. (I am thinking of contemporary media saturation, as well as scholarly efforts to do just this.) But could we go on to argue, as she does, that the actuality of people’s/things’ vital relations are thereby evoked? Can that happen, say, in anthropological practices of description? An example possibly comes at the end of a book by one of the contributors to Thinking through things, Moutu (in press); in this consistently relational analysis, Moutu relativizes anthropological concerns over the epistemology of “relations” by evoking the ontology of “relationships” as axiomatic to social life.

Can we in fact glimpse in Ishii’s account something of an alternative care or concern to the (Euro-American anthropologist’s) concern with concepts? Surely scholarly production—not to privilege either ethnography or theoretical anthropology—always produces knowledge. And what is knowledge if it does not attend to specific concepts? Surely, moreover, it is the case that concepts are a grounding necessity for putting forward propositions, the very condition for knowledge-making, so that new concepts are brought into being in order to be pressed into further service. Yet the question here is whether such scholarly production might be grasped in another mode altogether.

What about actualizing the virtual? Perhaps it is not too trivial to imagine the virtual in terms of an analysis or description that has not yet appeared. For isn’t the body—or the part we call mind—always on the edge of description? (Cognition becomes part of it, but by description I mean precisely the kind of relating-to-the-self found in story-telling, scholarly or otherwise, vital relations indeed.) Whether a description can be actualized will depend on all kinds of contingencies, including who wants to hear it and what it is called for, but some kind of actualization would have to precede its comprehension as really about this or that state of affairs. The care would be in discerning its effects, as in witnessing the reddening of the goddess Taleju. A morality of appropriate or critical discernment, then, would render knowledge after the event, not prior in the way that concepts brought to knowledge-making are considered prior. Truth would already have happened.


I cannot articulate this very well. (Wagner’s Coyote anthropology [2010] might be more of an aid.) And I am not sure the dream helps: concepts as thoughts, after-thoughts perhaps, attachments to a world and thus to things already apprehended, so the hovering figure’s eyes could only look down. But the dream came before I had done this piece, and stops at a rather primitive realization of things already in place. Actualization, by contrast we are told, only comes with doing things.


Henare, Amiria, Martin Holbraad, and Sari Wastell. 2007. Thinking through things: Theorising artefacts ethnographically. London: Routledge.

Humphrey, Caroline, and James Laidlaw. 1994. The archetypal actions of ritual: A theory of ritual illustrated by the Jain rite of worship. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Moutu, Andrew. In press. Names are thicker than blood: Kinship and ownership amongst the Iatmul. Oxford: Oxford University Press for The British Academy.

Wagner, Roy. 2010. Coyote anthropology. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.


Marilyn Strathern is Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology at University of Cambridge. Her ethnographic forays are divided between Papua New Guinea and Great Britain. Over the last twenty years she has written on reproductive technologies, gender and kinship, intellectual and cultural property, and “critique of good practice,” an umbrella rubric for reflections on audit and accountability.