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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Ontological Politics: Realism and Agency in Science, Technology and Art


In a brief and preliminary way, this essay seeks to open up some of the concerns of my current research. I want to continue the shift from an epistemological to an ontological perspective on science, technology and our being in the world. The essay opens with some ground-clearing: a discussion of standard epistemological perspectives on scientific realism. This motivates a shift to questions of agency, material as well as human, and an extension of my earlier analysis of the ‘dance of agency' to include the concepts of ‘freestanding machines,' ‘making the world dual' and ‘islands of stability.' The essay concludes with a discussion of art as ‘ontological theatre' - as staging and helping us to grasp different ontological visions. The connection to the IAS theme of ‘futures' is important but largely implicit here. The process of making dual can be understood as an attempt to fix and freeze the future. I argue that this stance is underpinned by a mistaken ontology and inevitably evokes unintended consequences, which can take the form of disasters and catastrophes. I am therefore interested in exemplifying and exploring an alternative stance that recognises unpredictability and emergence and is open to what the world has to offer us.

Insights Paper