Past events

States of Alterity Workshop
Monday 23 May 2016, 10:00am - 05:30pm
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States of Alterity


Monday 23 May at 10.00am

10.00–10:30: Welcome and introductions

10.30–11.00: Juan Pablo Sarmiento Barletti: The indigenous cosmopolitics of citizenship in Peru, or becoming Peruvian to keep the state away
11.00–11.30: Liana Chua: Christian cosmopolitics, ontology and the problem of difference: reflections on a legal victory in Malaysian Borneo

11.30–11.45: Break

11:45–12:15: Evan Killick: Perspectives on Climate Change and its Mitigation: Ontological Wars in Amazonia
12:15–12:45: Discussant 1 (James Staples)

12:45–13:45: Lunch

13.45–14:15: Will Rollason: The state against the state: other forms of power amongst Kigali’s motorcycle taxi drivers
14.15–14:45: Veronika Groke: Seeing double: plural(ist) state(s) and ontological border crossings in Bolivia

14:45–15:00: Break

15.00–15.30: Nicolas Argenti: Post-Ottoman topologies: the presence of the past in the era of the nation state
15:30–16:00: Discussant 2 (Maria Kastrinou)

16:00–16:15: Break

16:15–16:45: Open discussion
16:45–17:00: Concluding remarks

This event is free, but tickets must be booked. To book tickets please go to

Workshop description

Inspired by the Ontological Turn and its focus on radical alterity, an influential branch of anthropological theory seems to have retreated from material political engagement in recent years. In this kind of anthropology, ‘politics becomes the non-skeptical elicitation of [the] manifold of potentials for how things could be’ (Holbraad et al 2013) - that is, it consists in establishing and entertaining alterity. While some are embracing this shift as a celebration and deployment of the ‘emic’ against intellectual colonialism (Viveiros de Castro 2014), others have criticised the Ontological Turn for exoticising its subjects and engaging in an internal academic politics that insulates anthropology from any material political engagement by placing the effects of empire, capitalism, and the state off limits (Bessire and Bond 2014).

This workshop proposes to explore this tension by using ‘the state’ as a means of eliciting a direct engagement with such ‘real politics’ within the intellectual space defined by the Ontological Turn. The state can, perhaps heretically, be regarded as a concept/thing in the sense used by authors like Viveiros de Castro and Holbraad: seemingly omnipresent but notoriously difficult to define ‘objectively', it appears to be formally 'avisible' (you can only see it if you already 'know' it is there). States seem to be everywhere (like persons) but may well take very different conceptual forms.

For the purpose of the workshop, we are proposing that the different conceptual forms our informants give to the state might be used as a perspective from which to re-read 'our' state; that is, deployed directly as a critical resource to deform or displace the assumptions that motivate our everyday visions of the state, as if our interlocutors were interested in commenting on the state as we understand it (Strathern 1988). Such an analysis, if it proved possible, would go some way to operationalising the Ontological Turn as ‘real politics’ by mobilising radical others as critical allies. The question we pose is whether such a move is possible or desirable.

Workshop paper abstracts

Panel I

The indigenous cosmopolitics of citizenship in Peru, or becoming Peruvian to keep the state away

Juan Pablo Sarmiento Barletti
Durham University

In this presentation I explore what it means to ‘become Peruvian’ to my indigenous Ashaninka collaborators in the Amazon. My analysis is guided by their negative experience of the impact of extractivism on their people-making socio-natural networks, and the threatening stances by the state that has set them as an internal other against Peruvian interests due to their fierce anti-extraction stance. In considering their propositions of ‘becoming Peruvian’ through the lens of indigenous cosmopolitics, I find an approach that allows them to position themselves as Peruvian, whilst posing the state as a foreigner. This has been done by trapping all the symbols of the nation as Ashaninka. This leads me to two provisional conclusions: that my collaborators (1) do not experience citizenship as a legal status granted by an external entity, but rather a position reached by people who can summon such rights through specific practices; and (2) they treat the state as emerging from their ontological order, rather than placing it at the centre of the world. In doing so, my collaborators present a perspective that inverts the poles of power and knows and experiences the state and citizenry from outside colonised rationalities.

Christian cosmopolitics, ontology and the problem of difference: reflections on a legal victory in Malaysian Borneo

Liana Chua
Brunel University London

This paper puts the anthropology of Christianity in dialogue with recent writings on ‘indigenous cosmopolitics’ and the politics of the ‘ontological turn’. Drawing on fieldwork among four Bidayuh communities caught up in a state-run dam construction and resettlement scheme, it explores how various aspects of Christianity have been imbricated with one particular group of villagers’ longrunning legal struggle to resist the entire project. I suggest that far from turning away from the politics of a domineering, developmentalist government, their efforts entail an attempt to reframe the terms of their engagement with the state and to forge a new kind of ‘cosmopolitics’: one that has forced the latter to live with rather than subsume or gloss over their difference. Their legal victory, however, needs to be understood a part of these Bidayuhs’ larger project of self-inclusion in the contemporary Malaysian framework; of asserting their sameness and equality with other Malaysian citizens. By thinking through this apparently paradoxical ethnographic outcome, my paper seeks to problematize some of the assumptions and politico-ethical claims made by advocates of ontologically-inflected anthropology.

Perspectives on extraction: ontological war and peace in Amazonia

Evan Killick
University of Sussex

Drawing on research with both indigenous people and academic and policy workers this paper examines understandings of natural resource extraction, forest conservation and climate change mitigation strategies in contemporary Amazonia. It begins by considering both indigenous conceptions of and physical interactions with the environment. Through this focus the paper interrogates local ontologies and what they may or may not suggest about indigenous notions of forest use and conservation. It also considers anthropologists’ own role in emphasising such distinctions, noting how recent emphases on ontological difference have tended to parallel an older exoticisation and reification of indigenous cultures. The paper argues that such approaches can act to obscure and undermine some of the more practical and pragmatic approaches of indigenous groups to their environments as well as their interactions with other groups. In its second half the paper introduces a similar analysis of contemporary, non-indigenous notions of climate change and climate-change mitigation policies, examining both their practical outcomes as well as their ontological underpinnings. Here the focus is specifically on the UN backed REDD+ initiative, noting how within this framework the rainforest and its people are reified as saviours of modernity’s ills but only within a particular economic and legal framework in which carbon can be understood as the region’s latest extractive commodity. Through this analysis of emic and etic approaches to the Amazonian environment the paper seeks to consider the opportunities and limitations of current engagements with the region’s resources and consider possible ways forward.

Panel II

The state against the state: other forms of power amongst Kigali’s motorcycle taxi drivers

Will Rollason
Brunel University London

This paper is about the production of the state by motorcycle taxi drivers, a politically marginalised set of people in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. In it, I show how the regulation of motos, which appears to be an example of the often-noted effectiveness of the Rwandan state, might in fact be understood as a defensive or resistant practice directed against the urban redevelopment policies of the national and city governments – in other words ‘the state’ of conventional usage. In the spirit of ‘ontological’ anthropology, I seek to create a symmetry between these ‘states’: what if motorcyclists’ state was not an imitation or subversion, but a real state constituted on different terms? Such a move might have considerable implications for the ways in which anthropologists conceive the state. We would no longer be able to allow that the state is one kind of institution, social formation or locus of authority. If we allow the state to be produced by forms of life other than the state itself, in other words, we would need to be attentive to the places where other states are made to appear by different means.

Seeing double: plural(ist) state(s) and ontological border crossings in Bolivia

Veronika Groke
Brunel University London

In taking up the question of whether (and how) the notion of an ontologically grounded ‘radical alterity’ as utilised in the Ontological Turn can be engaged to help generate new insights into the (at once familiar and elusive) concept of the state, this paper looks at the Bolivian state from the perspective of Guaraní people living in indigenous communities in the country’s eastern lowlands. I argue that, rather than constituting a straightforward thought experiment, such a view necessarily problematises both the concept of the state and that of radical alterity, in that there is, from the start, not any one Bolivian state that can be made to appear in such a way. Rather, Bolivia’s indigenous communities (and, more recently, indigenous municipalities) are loci in which the state appears in a weakened form due to the principles set out in its own legislation — or, in other words, they constitute a kind of internal frontier in which the state becomes Other to itself. At the same time, the communities’ inhabitants frequently cross these frontiers, altering their position towards the different incarnations of the Bolivian state, thereby further challenging any attempt to explain their view of the state purely in terms of ontology.

Post-Ottoman topologies: the presence of the past in the era of the nation state

Nicolas Argenti
Brunel University London

This paper explores the several manifestations of the transmission of collective memories of post- Ottoman state formation and of the malaise associated with a contemporary epoch that we might term – echoing late modernity – late nationalism, under the rubric of post-Ottoman topologies. I suggest that where history creates a fixed, empiricist record of the past, topologies denote the flux of collective memory in its multiple and mutable incarnations across time.

Location 3