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Annemarie Mol “Ontological Politics”

Mol, Annemarie 1999. Ontological Politics. A Word and Some Questions. The Sociological Review 47(1): 74–89.

Ontological politics is a composite term. It talks of ontology – which in standard philosophical parlance defines what belongs to the real, the conditions of possibility we live with. If the term ‘ontology’ is combined with that of ‘politics’ then this suggests that the conditions of possibility are not given. That reality does not precede the mundane practices in which we interact with it, but is rather shaped within these practices. So the term politics works to underline this active mode, this process of shaping, and the fact that its character is both open and contested. (74-75)

Ontologies: note that. Now the word needs to go in the plural. For, and this is a crucial move, if reality is done, if it is historically, culturally and materially located, then it is also multiple. Realities have become multiple. (75)

Talking about reality as multiple depends on another set of metaphors. Not those of perspective and construction, but rather those of intervention and performance. These suggest a reality that is done and enacted rather than observed. Rather than being seen by a diversity of watching eyes while itself remaining untouched in the centre, reality is manipulated by means of various tools in the course of a diversity of practices. Here it is being cut into with a scalpel; there it is being bombarded with ultrasound; and somewhere else, a little further along the way it is being put on a scale in order to be weighed. But as a part of such different activities, the object in question varies from one stage to the next. Here it is a fleshy object, there one that is thick and opaque and in the next place it is heavy. In performance stories fleshiness, opacity and weight are not attributes of a single object with an essence which hides. Nor is it the role of tools to lay them bare as if they were so many aspects of a single reality. Instead of attributes or aspects, they are different versions of the object, versions that the tools help to enact. They are different and yet related objects. They are multiple forms of reality. Itself. (77)

[…] what is ‘other’ is also within. Alternative realities don’t simply co-exist side by side, but are also found inside one another. But this is a situation that does not easily fit our traditional notion of politics. (85)

The word ‘ontological politics’ suggests a link between the real, the conditions of possibility we live with, and the political. But how to conceive of this? In this text I’ve not laid out a response to this question, but rather articulated some of the problems that come with a specific interpretation of politics, one that is posed in terms of deliberation or choice. We may list these. One: if we think in such terms then we risk the ramification of options everywhere – with the consequence that they end up always  seeming to be elsewhere. Two: the interference between various political tensions is such that each time one thing seems to be at stake (say: anaemia) an unquantifiable number of other issues and realities are involve as well (say: sex difference). And three: the various performances of reality in medicine have all kinds of tensions between them, but to separate them out as if they were a plurality of options is to skip over the complex interconnections between them. And then there is a fourth problem. Who is the actor who might decide between the options? Might, or should, this be a patient-customer making choices between discrete goods available on a market; or should it be a patient-citizen trying to organize the health care system for the benefit of all? Or, again, are the crucial moments not those where ‘patients’ act as an agent, but rather those where they (we) are define, measured, observed, listened to, or otherwise enacted? (86-87)

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