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Ontology: A Useful Category of Analysis

Elizabeth Wingrove

“Portrait of the artist's father,” Bruno Liljefors (1884). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Does the identification of an “ontological turn” in political theory signal compelling new problems in the field, or perhaps for the field? I’d like to suggest three ways in which such an identification might be generative.

First, if, as Stephen White has argued, a “weak ontology” provides ballast to the work of such differently motivated theorists as Judith Butler, William Connolly, George Kateb, and Charles Taylor, this might reveal an interesting feature of the contemporary “discourse community” of political theory. From this perspective, it is striking that theorists who have in very different ways advocated an anti-foundationalist perspective do not sustain that perspective in their explications of “the political.”11xEmily Hauptmann provides an insightful history of “the political” as a signifying term in political theory in “A Local History of ‘The Political,’” Political Theory 32.1 (February 2004): 34–60. Perhaps this inconsistency is a (more or less intended) consequence of conceptualizing the human body as a political site and thus of seriously engaging contemporary scientific investigations into bodily processes, functions, and forms. Perhaps it arises in the effort to articulate a positive affective-aesthetic political position. Or perhaps it is simply an inevitable paradox of political theorizing (some might say a paradox of claims-making of any sort). Whatever the reasons might be, White’s claim that we are witnessing a (re)turn to foundationalism conjures the possibility that the discipline of political theory is absorbing and/or reacting to broader issues, trends, and concerns. Here the question becomes: Why is an “ontological turn” happening now?

To pursue this question in any detail would require an analysis of the discourse community of political theory in the United States, which, among other things, would entail an exploration of its institutional location, internal structure, and its relationship to other domestic, but also interand transnational, academic discourse communities. Such an inquiry might produce interesting insights into how political theory interacts with the economic, social, and (geo)political contexts in which it is practiced. Let me sketch in a general way the nature of these insights by turning to an earlier intervention in feminist theory analogous to White’s in political theory. In Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference, Diana Fuss took aim at a then central point of contestation among feminists located in the academy, between something called “essentialism” and something called “constructivism.”22xDiana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference (New York: Routledge, 1989). Fuss’s analysis revealed the limitations of this binary, as well as the misrepresentations embedded within it: constructivist approaches to sexual identity regularly redeploy essentialist arguments, she argued, while the range of “essences” that crop up in the latter suggest an inescapable variability belied by the term itself. A critical aspect of this ultimately reified distinction between “essentialist” and “constructivist” positions was the alleged difference in ontological commitments that each represented, commitments which were themselves tied to politics. So at the time Fuss’s book was published, the extent to which “essentialist” versus “constructivist” commitments in feminist theory were responsive to the political moment was a crucial dimension of what was at stake. The challenges to North American feminism initiated by Black women and other women of color, the growing presence and power of lesbian activists and writers, the relatively secure status of Roe v. Wade as law: these were the most obvious political features of that moment (late 1970s and early 1980s) that gave worldly force and form to feminist theoretical debates.

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