Emerging Ontologies

Debates over the nature of ‘place’ have long preoccupied scholars in the social sciences. Here I would like to draw on the work of Latour (1993), and focus attention on the ‘modern constitution’ and the role it plays in framing western conceptualisations of place, and human involvement with it. This constitution is significant as it ontologically separates humans from place, disables the agency of geography, and ignores the importance of embodied practices in the composition of place. However, scholars such as Latour and Whatmore assert that the modern constitution has got it wrong from the outset; its ontological separations of humans from place, as well as mind from body (intellect from emotion), are increasingly questioned. In the seminal words of Latour, the constitution of the world ‘has never been modern’ (1993).

In light of this critique many scholars have sought to adopt more appropriate approaches to the nature of a non-modern world. As a consequence, theories have been built on an alternative ‘amodern’ constitution. In general terms this constitution does not sever humans from place, rather it emphasises the importance of both relational connections and relational agency for all actors within a network, including the non-human. Although different in their detail, theories built on this premise can be seen to include Actor Network Theory (see Callon, 1986, Latour, 1999; Law & Hassard, 1999), concepts of socionature (see Swyngedouw, 1999), the Cyborg Manifesto (see Haraway, 1991), and notions of hybrids (see Latour, 1993).

Theories such as ANT mark a shift away from the independent conceptual categories of the modern constitution – the ‘noun chunks’ of  ‘place’, ‘humans’, ‘culture’, ‘nature’, ‘economy’ for example, and towards an interdependent reality where things are always acting and being acted on by everything else. To use the words of Lewis, “in the real world everything is continuously ‘interfered with’ by everything else” (1969:45).

When taken together, these amodern ideas constitute an important shift in the constitution of the world. This shift is from a world of ontological stability (however manufactured and imposed by the modern constitution), to a world of ontological instability. Instead of inhabiting a world where clear ontological entities act on other clearly categorised entities, the world is now composed of flows and connections – of ‘beings’ that are also ‘becomings’ (to use the words of Whatmore, 2002), of ‘entities’ that are also ‘entities/processes (to use the words of Harvey, 1996), or of ‘noun chunks’ that are really ‘verbs’ (to use the words of Laurier & Philo, 1999). This world, and the modern categories that we have used to understand it e.g. ‘culture’, ‘place’, and ‘nature’, are no longer as isolated, durable, or static as previously accepted. This paper builds on this amodern constitution by suggesting that we as ‘humans’, or ‘culture’, ‘nature’ or ‘place’, or indeed any of the noun chunks used to discipline and order reality through the modernist constitution, are coincidences merging and emerging.

Emerging Ontologies paper. Presented at ESRC Walking Workshop, Cardiff, 2009.

Anderson, J. 2009. Transient convergence and relational sensibility: beyond the modern constitution of nature. Emotion, Space, and Society.

Anderson, J. 2012. Relational places: the surfed wave as assemblage and convergence. Environment & Planning D: Society & Space. 30 4 570-587

Anderson, J. 2014 Merging with the Medium? Knowing the Place of the Surfed Wave. In Anderson, J. Peters, K. eds. Water Worlds: Human Geographies of the Ocean. Ashgate: Farnham. 73-87.

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