You will never know the mountain's rage is dangerous (2018)

I was planning on writing a paper about how the authors of various foundational texts on the middle passage and early slave societies in the Americas dealt with the difference in ontologies between those who were taken captive in Africa and the people that exploited and claimed to own them. I suppose I hoped to reveal, or unveil, that these authors—Saidiya Hartman, Katrina Dyonne Thompson, Roger D. Abrahams, Michael A. Gomez—had overlooked ontological difference and that I, the enlightened graduate student (TM), could point this out and avoid making the same mistakes in my own work. This is not that paper.



1. Research paper writing fatigue. This document you are reading now is the 42nd (that is not a typo) and final music term paper that I hope ever to write. I am in a reflective, not a productive, mood as I transition into ABD status. Our course “The ontological stakes of music and sound” has been incredibly stimulating and fulfilling for me, and has raised many questions that I still need time and thought to sit with and work through.

2. Overwhelmed-ness / Textual Intimidation. I have been putting off citing Scenes of Subjection. I know it is important, and I know my way “around” it, in a superficial grad school sense, but I have truly reckoning with it. The challenge that Hartman faces—to write about the entanglements of terror and the possibility of pleasure, to tease out agency in an archive designed to dehumanize—are challenges I also face in my own work. I want to engage Hartman’s work in a mode of reparative reading, not the paranoid reading that last-minute paper writing demands.[1]

3. Uncertainty. I am still not certain that I know what ontology means, or can mean, and how I want to use the material of this course in my own work. How can I model the type of productive communal grappling that we modelled in our class when that class structure is gone?


For these reasons, I share here an alternative, personal document that ties together things I have read in this course and beyond, thought about, experienced, and desire to put into practice. In particular, I want to use this as an opportunity to think through some of the recurring issues of the class, and to move toward a position where I feel more comfortable deploying ontological thinking in my own work and teaching. This document, therefore, unfolds in three interconnected parts. First, I provide my personal intellectual history in ontologies. I then linger on a key question for me; how to differentiate between ontologies and epistemologies, and what happens to difference in both of these models of knowledge. Finally, I narrow down to the question of how useful the ontological turn is, or could be, for those who think about race in their day-to-day lives and work. I include myself in this category, asking the question; is it worthwhile for my work to attend to the ontological turn? This work is not meant to be exhaustive, the scope of the ontological turn and the intellectual traditions that it developed from, and which it in turn influences, is too vast for me to deal with in one short paper. 

My early academic training was untroubled by concepts of “ontology” (at least in name) until well after my undergraduate degree. In 2012 a friend of mine, Alexander Kolassa (the only person in our undergraduate cohort to do work that was remotely philosophical while the rest of us were jollily laboring on editorial projects and positivistic work) was helping organizing a conference called “Challenging Musical Ontologies.” Baffled, I asked Alex for clarification on what ontologies were. His answer: “the thing-iness of things.” I didn’t think much more of it, although “thinginess” remained my working definition for ontologies as I began graduate study, first at King’s College London, and now at the University of Pennsylvania. For me, ontology was always filed away with metaphysics, and therefore with essentialism, logic, and even phenomenology. It was not until my first semester at the University of Pennsylvania that I was pushed to think rigorously in terms of ontology away from essentialist or perception-driven approaches. I bravely (read, naively) signed up for Jairo Moreno’s graduate course “Comparative Ontologies” in Spring 2015. My confidence came from the final course I had taken at King’s; Martin Stokes’ “Ethnomusicology and Social Theory.” Stokes’ course was really my first introduction to capital-t Theory, and was the first time I directly read Foucault, Bourdieu, Gell…. Although I knew myself to be a capital-t theory novice, hovering around the edges of concepts I could dimly make out but not yet grasp in their entirety, I also knew that I just needed to read. It would be another three years before I found an enjoyable and productive way to give myself permission to read and interpret densely theoretical texts, courtesy of colleagues at the Annenberg School of Communication. Until that moment, my reading around ontology would always be limited by fear.

And so, my reading for Moreno’s “Comparative Ontologies” (that pluralization already challenging my naïve and basic “thinginess” definition) was fretful and relatively superficial. This is not to say that there weren’t astonishing “A-HA” moments. Some of the things I read for the first time in that class—the late Hayden White’s Tropics of Discourse, Elizabeth Povinelli’s Economies of Abandonment, Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto”—still guide my work, and I often return to them. Other things went over my head; I did not yet have the experience or context to comprehend the implications of everything we read together. However, returning to my notes for the class almost three years later, they make more sense to me. Honing in on my notes with multiple exclamation marks revealed that some of my strongest reactions to the readings were at moments where what I or the authors “knew” was not compatible with the ontology that was being presented, even when that ontology was being presented “as fact.” There always seemed to me to be something disingenuousness at best and patronizing at worst when these alternative cosmologies were presented in the cold black-and-white of an academic journal. So when Eduardo Viveiros de Castro writes, “Animals see in the same way as we do different things because their bodies are different from ours,” in my reading I am always reminded that despite the certainty of the statement, de Castro himself, from his own body, doesn’t necessarily know/believe/understand that animals see in this way, but that he made a linguistic choice to legitimize the cosmology of his interlocutors, making them legible to the journal’s readers.[2] It is from this discomfort that I arrived at Marisol de la Cadena’s work, which crystalized for me what was at stake in representing other’s ontologies. [3] Cadena shares a moment where the same motivations and actions can have completely different ontologies, when discussing a demonstration over a proposed new mine at the foot of a mountain in Peru:


Yet the degree to which this demonstration was different was brought home to me by my friend Nazario, whose village, Pacchanta, is at the foot of the Ausangate. He was there to protest the mining project—in fact he had called to let me know about the event. Initially, while we were demonstrating, I thought we shared a single view against the mine; however, once we debriefed about the meeting, and how it could influence future events, I realized that our shared view was also more than one [my emphasis]. My reason for opposing the mine was that it would destroy the pastures that families depend on to earn their living grazing alpacas and sheep, and selling their wool and meat. Nazario agreed with me, but said it would be worse: Ausangate would not allow the mine in Sinakara, a mountain over which it presided. Ausangate would get mad, could even kill people. To prevent that killing, the mine should not happen. I could not agree more, and although I could not bring myself to think that Ausangate would kill, I found it impossible to consider it a metaphor [my emphasis]. Preventing Ausangate’s ire was Nazario’s motivation to participate in the demonstration and therefore it had political import.[4]

In the margin I had scribbled:

  • we cannot translate ontologies!!!! You will never ‘know’ the mountain’s rage is dangerous [5]

My exclamation-marked agreement with Marisol de la Cadena is so emphatic at this moment, because she precisely articulates the huge gap between empathy and representation. Her moment of limitation, “I could not bring myself to think that Ausangate would kill,” is tempered by her empathy to her friend’s ontology, “I found it impossible to consider it a metaphor.” This same limitation and desire is the underlying issue of attempting to represent the ontologies of others while we cannot bring ourselves to think in those ways. Cadena’s moment of agreeing with something while not being able to “think it” also highlighted for me that I was still confused about the differences between what things are to people (ontology) and how they know this (epistemology). Why is ontology not the same as perspective or worldview, and how do we account for the positionality of representation; i.e. that we can only ever describe other ontologies through the representational possibilities of our own ontology? I left Professor Moreno’s class with more questions than answers, but with a little more experience and some skills enabling me to at least conceptualize and ask the questions. 

And so, I came to your class, Dr. Sykes, with some thoughts, but more questions. At the very beginning of this semester (Spring 2018), in our first class we went around the room giving our current understandings of ontology. I cannot remember my exact answer (it was probably somewhat rambling and probably involved me claiming that ontology is not synonymous with worldview…) but I do remember your answer: the ontological turn is about methodology. Despite everything I had read previously, I had never thought of ontology in that way before. Perhaps I couldn’t let go of my original “thingyness” definition, perhaps my training as a historical musicologist had made me separate philosophy from methodology; knowing from doing; theorizing from observing. Regardless, being introduced to the idea of the ontological turn as a primarily methodological movement helped frame the course. Perhaps naturally, your course, unlike Dr. Moreno’s, was very much from an anthropological perspective, especially as several of my colleagues also aligned their work with anthropology. Once I began to think of the ontological turn as a proposed practical solution for a long-established disciplinary problem I was able to look at how ontologies are used to do things by scholars. This was clearly articulated to me in one of our earliest readings in the course:


So, this is the central concern of the ontological turn: It is about creating the conditions under which one can “see” things in one’s ethnographic material that one would not otherwise have been able to see. And that, we should emphasize from the start, is at its core a methodological intervention, as opposed to a metaphysical or indeed philosophical one. In spite of its name, the ontological turn in anthropology is therefore decidedly not concerned with what the ‘really real’ nature of the world is or any similar metaphysical quest. Rather, it is a methodological project that poses ontological questions to solve epistemological problems.[6]


Although I was initially pleased to be relieved of the metaphysical aspects of ontology, Martin Holbraad and Morten Axel Pederson’s summation of the ontological turn is not without its own inherent tensions. For, at least in this description, the anthropologist remains the arbiter; it is her project and she “creates the conditions” under which her ethnographic material can be seen anew. What will these conditions be that allows one to see otherwise? And can one replace ethnographic material with archival material? Could there be an ontological turn in history, for example? And what is the relationship of ontological questions compared to epistemological questions, if only the former can illuminate the latter? Although our early conversations and Holbraad and Pederson helped me with the historiography of the ontological turn, I was still left unsure of how to understand the difference between ontology and epistemology. The days of “thinginess” had long passed.

The reason I want to be able to articulate (at least to myself) how I understand the difference between an approach attuned to epistemology as opposed to an ontological approach is because each represents and operates power in different ways. I acknowledge that both ontology and epistemology have complex histories of use and entangled relations; this is no time for a simple OED definition. At the same time, what is it about these two terms that allow them to absorb so many meanings and remain so contested? The answer lies in the graduate student’s 101 of Foucault; the quest for knowledge and the quest for power cannot be separated. Levi Bryant, who admittedly would uneasily fit into Holbraad and Pederson’s anthropological methodological understanding of ontology, summarizes this relationship neatly:


As always, the battles that swirl around epistemology are ultimately questions of ethics and politics. As Bacon noted, knowledge is power. And knowledge is not simply power in the sense that it allows us to control or master the world around us, but rather knowledge is also power in the sense that it determines who is authorized to speak, who is authorized to govern, and is the power to determine what place persons and other entities should, by right, occupy within the social order. No, questions of knowledge are not innocent questions. Rather, they are questions intimately related to life, governance, and freedom. A person’s epistemology very much reflects their idea of what the social order ought to be, even if this is not immediately apparent in the arid speculations of epistemology.[7]

It would be difficult to disagree with Bryant’s statement that questions of knowledge are rarely innocent. I suspect that almost all of Bryant’s readers have some sort of relationship with institutions of higher learning, and many of these readers’ livelihoods are contingent on the knowledge economy. Universities are designed to create experts, thus hierarchizing access to knowledge, and the idea of knowledge itself. But, Bryant turns to ontology as a solution to this epistemological problem:


However, I hope to show in what follows that questions of ontology are both irreducible to questions of epistemology and that questions of ontology must precede questions of epistemology or questions of our access to objects. What an object is cannot be reduced to our access to objects.[8]


If ontology is irreducible to epistemology, that suggests that there is some kind of ontological “reality” that precedes any epistemological questions. For Bryant, objects are the way into this pre-epistemological world. These are not simple graspable distinctions; thinking ontologically is difficult thinking. Thinking ontologically is marsh-like, with me constantly getting stuck. These differences between ontology and epistemology seem at their stickiest when dealing with two “things” that are always both ontologically and epistemologically specific: race and sound.

But is the ontological turn equipped to deal with race, either in a contemporary or historic sense? In particular, how are ontologies operating in scholarship that deals with racialized listening? What are the stakes of a nuanced methodological intervention when the ontological stakes (in their metaphysical sense) are still so contested? There is still no public consensus on what race is; some believe that there is a biological basis to race, whereas others believe the division of humans into races is a purely social construction.[9] In my understanding, these are ontological differences of the enlightenment kind; i.e. what actually exists. With some major exceptions, scholars of race do not usually frame their work in terms of ontology. These exceptions can be found in the murky realm of philosophy and race, as well as more recent work in which scholars who have turned to thinking in term of ontology to explain the pandemic levels of violence against black people in the U.S. and contemporary conceptions of blackness throughout the African diaspora.[10] But in these cases, although there is a turn to ontology, I do not think it cannot be considered in the same way as the methodological ontological turn of anthropology. Just as questions of epistemology are always about power, so too does exploring ontologies have political and ethical implications. The inclusion of Pachamama in the Bolivian and Ecuadorian constitutions has a different ontological ethics of inclusion than the recognition of those who believe, ontologically speaking, that African people are biologically and morally inferior to white Europeans. And so, the sometimes-flattening writing of the ontological turn and assemblage and network theories are not necessarily satisfactory methodologies for those scholars who see racial ontologies as constructions that can and should change.

My dissertation is about how African and African-descended people in the British colonial Caribbean (1807-1856) listened to, performed, and understood music that had its origins in Europe. There are several terms worth unpacking in this short summary. First “African and African-descended people” is an umbrella term that I use to cover a heterogeneous group of people, from enslaved Africans and their descendants to free people of color, some of whom may have had just one African or African-descended grandparent or great-grandparent. Although “African” seems on the surface like a logical category, fixed to geography, it would not necessarily hold that same logic in the historical period I am researching. Yes, planters and colonial officials categorized some people as “African,” but did those captives from that continent understand themselves as “African”? Probably not, at least, not immediately. Historian Alexander Byrd masterfully debunks the idea that there was ever a self-identified group of people who understood themselves as Igbo, instead arguing that in the eighteenth century Africans only came to become Igbo during and after the Middle Passage.[11] In the colonial Americas, unlike in West Africa, phenotype, not language or culture, was everything. An extract from Zora Neale Hurston’s book-based on interviews with Kossula, or Cudjo Lewis, who arrived on one of the final slavers to dock in the U.S.[12] Kossula speaks of the violence of separation from the people he had got to know before and during the transatlantic voyage, and the isolation of being forced to work on a plantation with others who did not know his language:


We doan know why we be bring ’way from our country to work lak dis. Everybody lookee at us strange. We want to talk wid de udder colored folkses but dey doan know whut we say. Some makee de fun at us.[13]


Kossula’s recollection suggests the issue of being phenotypically categorized (as African) without sharing a common culture or language. Being in solidarity with “de udder colored folkses” is by no means given; a unified blackness has to be learned. The ontology of blackness (if I can call it that, and I’m not sure I can) is even more complicated in places such as the British colonial Caribbean, who did not have a “one-drop rule” concept of blackness.

But if these ideas of blackness are so recently constructed, can we consider them epistemologies or ontologies? For some scholars of slavery such as Michelle Wright ontology is embodied knowledge, whereas epistemology is a form of structured knowledge that does not come from direct experience.[14] For this reason, I suspect ontologies—defined by Wright as embodied knowledge—appear so rarely in name in her book because she conceptualizes an ontology of blackness through slavery as the opposite of an epistemological knowledge of blackness. For how can one really represent an embodied ontology when one is insisting it is a type of knowledge that cannot be learned epistemologically? I have a similar dilemma in my project, where there is also the difficulty of archival lack, making it even harder to “get at” non-European ontologies.


One of the many problems faced by historians researching enslaved, subjugated, and indigenous people living under colonization in the nineteenth century is that colonial documents are often the most plentiful and easily accessible source, making it easier to (re)construct racist ideologies about colonialized people than to focus on how those same people understood themselves and their colonizers. The apparent absence of black voices in the archives of colonized spaces is a deliberate strategy of colonial logic (I would argue that there is never a colonial ontology, only a colonial strategy disguised as ontology); part of slavery’s dehumanizing practice included denial of access to writing. Colonial powers controlled the archive and this same power created silences that reinforced the colonial mode of control. These silences, though frustrating, must be interrogated by historians writing about black people in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British Empire in order to resist recirculating colonial logics, instead, attempting to posit a history that takes into account and centers African experience. But, if Cadena could not “think” the same as her living friend, who was explaining his thinking to her, what hope do I have in even approaching recovering the thinking (dare I say, ontologies) of African and African-descended subjects under British colonial rule?

At this moment, it is worth interrogating my motivations in my own work. Why do I want to “recover” ways of experiencing colonialism and slavery that have not been attended to in traditional histories of colonialism? Who does this recovery serve, and is it even possible? Historians’ motives of recovery have been critiqued in recent years by historians of slavery. As a desire for decoloniality has become more prevalent in the Euro-American academy, combined with the “archival turn”—a focus on foregrounding the archive and historical methodologies and practices that has influenced every branch of the humanities— “recovery” as goal has been questioned by some. A jointly authored Social Texts special colloquy on this issue clearly states this critique: “Recovery must have a political purpose beyond documenting black presence, or it is merely a plea for inclusion within the foundational promises of liberal modernity—a critique of its boundaries but not of its essence.”[15] One could replace recovery with “ontologies” here and the problem would remain the same. Does attending to the ontologies of others (who become capital-o Others in their presentation in traditional single-authored academic work) risk simply re-inscribing the dominance of the ontology of “liberal modernity”? Can ontological work inspire ontological change?

One work that perhaps seeks to account for and trace how ontologies can change is Ana María Ochoa’s 2014 monograph Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia. Aurality is the exemplar of scholarship that explores how colonial powers structure the way that people and musics are heard and understood in colonial spaces, and that this structuring is itself a deliberate process of the state.[16] Ochoa is claiming nothing less than a new ontology of the oral/aural for the American continent. However, once again, this conflict between indigenous ways of knowing and colonial ways of knowing occurs between ontology and epistemology:


The differentiation and grounds of relation between nature and culture or, to name it differently, the relation between ontology and epistemology, between the ground of being and the figuration of knowing, was ultimately what was at stake in the disciplining of music and language.[17]


This difference, “between the ground of being and the figuration of knowledge” is the most clear and elegant explanation of the difference between ontology and epistemology that I have read so far. Just as our course dealt with the ontological stakes of music and sound, so too does Ochoa attend to the political stakes of ontological structuring. Perhaps the ultimate potential of the ontological turn is that it troubles the nature/culture divide in modernity. When we write about and attend to ontology, we are always dealing with ontologies because we begin with our own representational system of knowledge that grew from colonial ways of knowing that insisted on a divide between nature and culture, between and the creation of “man” as separate from the human.[18] Particularly when dealing with indigenous or pre-colonial ontologies we must face our own entrainment in how we came to create divisions  between culture and nature, between music and sound. Even my ability to conceptualize a difference between indigenous or pre-colonial ontologies reveals my inability to imagine a methodology separate from colonial systems of temporality and taxonomies of man. Is there something particular about our ontology, devised from colonial ways of knowing, that positions it as particularly able to “see” (to return to Holbraad and Pederson’s definition) and represent multiple ontologies? Is it possible to critique this from within the ontological turn, or does the ontological turn merely repeat the positioning of Western systems of knowledge as “true” systems of knowledge that can represent all other forms of knowledge? Can we attend to ontologies of others if we are not first interrogating the epistemologies that structure our work?

So, once again, my attempt to attend to ontology has concluded with yet more questions. I have not abandoned using ontological frames or methodologies in my own work, and the materials I have read in our class have pushed me to think hard about the benefits of ontology as methodology, as well attuning me to see where metaphysical ontologies are being critiqued or re-inscribed. However, although my critique may seem strong, I fundamentally agree with the impulse behind the ontological turn; that one must acknowledge that there are other ways of being in the world. I am still thinking of what methodology will work for me to name these different ways of being in my work, and I will begin by not taking for granted that my historical subjects had the same understanding of “music” or “dance” or “race” or “performance” as I bring to the archive. I will not be able to recover the ontologies of the African and African-descended people I seek in the archive, but by acknowledging ontological difference, and most importantly, by naming my own frames and motivations, I hope to at least prevent too dangerously repeating colonial modes of representing. 



[1] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2003).

[2] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism,” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4, no. 3 (1998): 478,

[3] Of course, I am by no means the first person to feel unease while reading de Castro’s perspectives writing. For a nuanced critique on the politics of De Castro’s representation of indigenous cosmologies see Alcida Rita Ramos, “The Politics of Perspectivism,” Review of Anthropology 41, no. 1 (2012): 481–94.

[4] Marisol de la Cadena, “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections beyond ‘Politics,’” Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 2 (2010): 338–39.

[5] Maria Ryan, reading notes (November 2015) to p.339 of de la Cadena, “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes.”

[6] Martin Holbraad and Morten Axel Pedersen, The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 4–5.

[7] Levi R Bryant, The Democracy of Objects (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2011), 17–18.

[8] Bryant, 18.

[9] We can see this division here at the University of Pennsylvania, with philosopher professor Quayshawn Spencer arguing for the biological reality or race, while sociologist and legal scholar Dorothy Roberts strongly argues against the creeping biological arguments for race. For a general critique of social construction being understood as meaning “not real” see Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What? (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999); Quayshawn Spencer, “A Radical Solution to the Race Problem,” Philosophy of Science 81, no. 5 (December 1, 2014): 1025–38,; Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century (New York: The New Press, 2011).

[10] See, for example, Naomi Zack, The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); Ron Scrapp, “Being in One’s Place: Race, Ontology and the Killing of Trayvon Martin,” Ethnic Studies Review 37–38, no. 1 (2017): 151; Wayne Modest and Rivke Jaffe, “New Roots: Jamaican Ontologies of Blackness from Africa to the Ghetto,” African Diaspora 7, no. 2 (January 1, 2014): 234–59,

[11] Alexander X. Byrd, Captives and Voyagers: Black Migrants across the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2010), chap. 2,

[12] This book, based on Hurston’s anthropological fieldwork was not published in her lifetime, partly because of her insistence on keeping Cudjo’s dialect. It is to be published later in 2018, Zora Neale Hurston and Deborah G. Plant, Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo (New York: Amistad, 2018).

[13] “Zora Neale Hurston’s Lost Interview With One of America’s Last Living Slaves,” Vulture, April 29, 2018,

[14] Michelle M. Wright, Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

[15] Laura Helton et al., “The Question of Recovery: An Introduction,” Social Text 33, no. 4 (125) (December 1, 2015): 11,

[16] Ana María Ochoa Gautier, Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

[17] Ochoa Gautier, 212.

[18] For this latter point see Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation--An Argument,” The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (2003): 257–337.

© 2020 by Maria Ryan. All photos by Maria Ryan unless otherwise noted.