The limits of “ontology” and the unfinished work of “ideology”

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Magnus Fiskesjö. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.025


The limits of “ontology” and the unfinished work of “ideology”

Magnus FISKESJÖ, Cornell University

Comment on Kipnis, Andrew. “Governing the souls of Chinese modernity” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (2): 217–238.

This ethnographically based exploration of Philippe Descola’s framework in the setting of modern China is an interesting and worthwhile contribution to current anthropology, although I have considerable misgivings about Descola’s approach. I sympathize with Descola’s starting point, described by Kipnis as seeing us humans interpreting the world through categories of interiority and physicality that derive, most fundamentally, from the “universal experience of being an intentional subject with a body”—the ultimate fountain of the variety of “souls” and “spirits” that we make up.

Also, as Kipnis proves here, Descola’s (2013) scheme of four basic kinds of interpretive schemes distributed around the world can indeed be interesting, and productive, as a heuristic device. For me, though, if they are suggested as set features of specific human communities, this raises the warning flag for essentialism—the kind of attribution of fixed-essence characteristics that so often seems to return through the back door in many writings of the ontological turn, or of perspectivism. It finds expression in the unspoken assumption that, for example, there is a Western/modern stance that is somehow more closely related to the enduring identity of the Western modern people than to the social conditions and experiences of those people. In this way, essentialism trumps social analysis—a tendency that is probably itself a reflection of current global trends toward identitarianism.[244]

But here Kipnis’ study makes a welcome move in addressing the possibility of a shift from one such ontological scheme to another, and of overlaps between them. This opens the door for the examinations of the schemes as not fixed but part of a social process. As Kipnis notes, even Descola himself has at least mentioned the possibility of such shifts, in addressing reindeer hunters turning from animism to analogism as a consequence of technological change.

Turning to China, Kipnis asks what’s been happening to the analogist ontological scheme apparently associated with “traditional” China, after the Communists took charge and, since 1949, imposed their brand of modernist authoritarianism on Chinese society, albeit today in a modified state-capitalist form. He argues that, contrary to what Descola suggests, we should not expect a wholesale displacement of the preceding premodern scheme by modern naturalism. Kipnis goes on to show that, in present-day China, these schemes seem to coexist and overlap in the funerary rites—the transformations of which he takes as his ethnographic ground.

Kipnis’ description of contemporary funerary practices, including “farewell ceremonies,” is very interesting. It also brings back personal memories of a farewell ceremony I attended in Shanghai in about 1983, as the Maoist era was being wrapped up and overwritten. At the time, I was a young foreign student, invited to join in bidding farewell to the grandmother of a local Chinese student, whom I had befriended. I had met the grandmother while she was still alive, in their apartment downtown. For the ceremony in her honor, I was assigned the role of photographer—but I was unprepared for what turned out to be a needlessly brutal conveyor-belt procedure. We first waited around in a small, naked room, where we put a few paper-flower wreaths on stands. Then after some time, the crematory staff suddenly opened a door, pushed the grandmother’s body into the room on a nondescript cart, and parked it there for us to say farewell to it. Everyone broke down crying even before the sheet covering her remains was removed. Intense, emotional wailing followed. But after only a few minutes, several stone-faced workers returned to seize the cart and drag the corpse off to be burned up. Apparently, there had been no explanation of the procedures or of the time allotted for the farewell, and so the mourners held on to the cart, trying to keep it a bit longer. The staff pushed them aside in a harsh and undignified manner, and took it away. The corpse was gone, and everyone was deeply shaken. I realize that my own memory of the scene only lasts up to this shell-shocked moment. It only picks up again later on, when I saw the urn with the grandmother’s ashes, which the family kept at home for a long time afterward, perhaps as part of an impromptu, self-fashioned form of healing process.

It seems this incident, with the brutal treatment of a grandma as just another corpse on the line, would confirm the picture Kipnis offers of a regime that sought to impose on regular folks a particularly unforgiving and extremist “funerary materialism,” dismissing the emotions of commoners while reserving the spiritual and emotional only for the Party-State, with the Party as the only entity with a “soul” (linghun) (p. 221); as Kipnis points out quite strikingly, it is meant to be the only one worth crying for.

This incomplete materialism can be aligned with what Descola calls naturalism—but the exceptional arrangement for the Party’s soul is striking. The exception [245]also included Party members’ souls, as Kipnis notes. Such an exception for the new elite suggests that the naturalism may have been mostly a theater forced upon the common people as the Party worked to establish its new dynasty. Perhaps it implies that “analogist” Chinese traditions coexisted with the incomplete Communist Modern even at the height of the Maoist experiment, and not just “underground” (Descola 2013: 205).

Today, in state-capitalist free-market China, where the Party has allowed the return of superstition and religion across the board, at least throughout the lower ranks of society, analogism is further resurrected when Party hacks and other moneyed people stage expensive farewell ceremonies for their own families’ dead. And poorer commoners may at least be allowed to cry their heart out—as long as their tears don’t have any political potential (another important distinction noted by Kipnis).

As for expensive funerals, it should be noted that they have been bemoaned and debated at least since Xunzi, the Warring States–era philosopher. This very old debate could probably be productively related to recurrent-cyclical features of its social context. As for today, I wonder if eco-burials are really mostly for the rich, as Kipnis suggests. I have seen the eco label used on new rural commoner’s cemeteries that, on government orders, simply gathered up and concentrated graves formerly scattered across the landscape in the traditional manner, so as to free up land for economic exploitation. This was all that was eco about them.

As for “modernity,” it is described by Kipnis at one point as if it mostly has to do with industrialization and urbanization. But it also involves, as he affirms toward the end of the essay, the “atomization” of society: its members are reconceptualized as no longer primarily members of patriclans or imperial subjects or the like but as autonomous individuals (and consumers). This means new identity narratives and practices, which are equally consequential for this discussion—if not more. In one of my own articles on China (Fiskesjö 2011), I argued that in China, self-appointed bureaucratic elites repeatedly blocked these features of modernization, because they did not want to not to cede their privileged role as the purportedly indispensible guarantor of imperial cosmology. Historically, this found concrete expression in, for example, state suppression of merchants, traders, and explorer-entrepreneurs who had gained too much of an independent standing (as has happened repeatedly in Chinese history; just as it has elsewhere, such as in the example of the European settler-colonies of the Americas “liberating” themselves). The persistent work to preserve the figure of the barbarian, requisite in imperial Chinese cosmology as the foil of Chinese civilization, is another clue.

One could perhaps describe this as the protracted survival of Chinese analogism, which according to Descola is when the world is “parceled into complementary domains, each subsuming a multitude of entities, qualities, and processes, including different varieties of humans” (Descola 2014: 298; see also 2013). Yet it seems to me that in deploying analogism to describe the Chinese empires, some of the limits of these schemes are also exposed. It seems deficient in attention to social and historical context, as regards power, ideology, hierarchy, and expansion, all hugely important in the Chinese context—as they are in that other “analogist” example mentioned, the hierarchically stratified Hawaiian kingdoms. There’s no [246]time for social change—a baby that seems to have been thrown out with the bathwater of evolutionism.

The Chinese empires of the past may seem analogist, in a certain sense: Their cosmological “order” was idealized complete with two-legged forest ape-men figuring in between more humanlike barbarians, and four-legged wild beasts farther out from the core homeland of the Civilized—much like in the pre-Renaissance European hierarchies of being, also compared by Descola (2013). But this did not remain everlastingly static (or “Asiatic”), or socially neutral. It was mobilized by the emperors, reformulated to sustain their conquests, so that the imperial ideology involved not just a cosmological ideal but also its own idea of progress through time: A species of exploitative developmentalism couched in a vocabulary of transformative civilization. In this project, which two centuries ago achieved perhaps the largest land empire in history (and thereby drew the map assumed by the modern nation-state China), local-level patriarchs tending their ancestor temples were assigned duties as foot-soldier lookouts.

If the focus on ontologies as conceptual schemes means setting aside the (unfinished) social analysis of ideology, then we lose something very important indeed. (In this connection, see Kapferer 2014, for a spirited discussion of the oft-confused uses of the terms ontology and ideology, which sometimes even are made to do each other’s work).

The continuity of imperial Chinese ideology can be sensed today, in the perverse arrogance one so often encounters in Chinese officialdom at every level—with self-appointed officials presuming to naturally know what is best for the project of the state, which naturally means that ordinary mortals cannot question them. China is not unique in this (Russia’s autocratic statism comes to mind), but it sure stands out. It is hard to say why it should be China’s fate to remain in the grip of such a suffocating species of ideology. I suggested in my article (2011, see also Fiskesjö 2017) that the staying power of the imperial legacy, whose canons are constantly reiterated as the undying truth, have made it very difficult to “leave behind” imperial cosmology even when “modern” tendencies become very strong, such as, for example, in the Song era, or today.


Descola, Philippe. 2013. Beyond nature and culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 2014. “The grid and the tree: Reply to Marshall Sahlins’ comment.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (1): 295–300.

Fiskesjö, Magnus. 2011. “The animal other: Re-naming the barbarians in 20th-century China.” Social Text 29 (4): 57–79.

———. 2017. “The legacy of the Chinese empires: Beyond ‘the West and the rest.’” Education About Asia 22 (1): 6–10.[247]

Kapferer, Bruce. 2014. “Back to the future: Descola’s neostructuralism.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 389–400.


Magnus Fiskesjö
Department of Anthropology
Cornell University
204 McGraw Hall
Ithaca, New York 14853