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29 April 2010

Henry Giroux on the Political Economy of Schools recently posted this video of Henry Giroux, author of The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, in which he gets very fired up about the political economy of education. He talks about two wars against youth in the US; a "soft war" - driven by media saturation and the consolidation of media ownership - and a "hard war" - a disciplinarian, high-tech surveillance culture in schools which removes "problem children" and hinders the development of an open democratic sphere.
Some of the stories Giroux tells are horrifying and infuriating - stories of 5 year olds being handcuffed and taken to psychiatric ward, of children being tasered, of children being arrested for participating in a food fight. He says at the end that we need to start thinking of schools differently - as places that "create the possibilities for people to be in this world" rather than as testing factories and teachers as "public intellectuals."

28 April 2010

Frames, Movements & the Eco-Egalitarian Resonance Machine

I recently received a copy of Adrian Ivakhiv's article in the recent issue of Environmental Communications in which George Lakoff and Robert Brulle have articles as well discussing ways of reaching out to a broader public to gain support for environmental issues. I just want to summarize the three perspectives here and give some thoughts of my own.

Ivakhiv's and Brulle's articles are both critiques of Lakoff's, so I'll start with his. Lakoff is a cognitive linguist who gained some notoriety in the early 2000s for his book Don't Think of an Elephant. In it he explained his theory of frames, demonstrated how conservatives have been successful at utilizing frames to gain support, and offered advice to liberals on how they could do the same. In a prior book, Moral Politics, Lakoff delved further into the theory of frames and explained how different frames can shape the character of liberal and conservative movements. Frames are cognitive linguistic features, based on metaphorical associations which help us to understand the world around us (in this sense, they're reminiscent of Cultural Models, but I'm not familiar enough with either theory to explain the similarities and differences). Lakoff claims that the liberal frame metaphorically associates the government with a nurturing mother family, while the conservative frame associates the government with a strict father family. These frames express and determine the differing characters and expectations of liberals and conservatives and can be activated through language to convey messages and gain support.

In his article, Lakoff offers his advice on frames to environmentalists. He says that there is a general lack of frames for understanding environmental issues. Often times these frames must be created on the spot and don't connect very well with those held by the general public. As a result we must choose our words properly so that we activate the proper frames, and, over the long run, we need to build new frames within the population for understanding and acting on environmental issues. He offers a number of tips - both short-term and long-term (e.g. talk about values not policies, tell stories don't give laundry lists, contextualize messages) - and gives examples of emerging frames that we might build upon (e.g. the regulated commons). He concludes by saying that effective social movements need frames, and without them "the moral compromise behind the political compromise can be hidden."

Brulle critiques Lakoff from a social movement stand point. He says that, while messaging campaigns of the kind suggested by Lakoff might provide some short-term benefits, in the long run civic engagement is required for successful social change movements. Because it is derived from cognitive science, Lakoff's approach lacks the theoretical context of research on social movements and social change, and because of its professionalization it ends up being elite-led and impedes greater democratic participation.
Social movements expand the potential range of ideas by "advocating alternative worldviews." However, the development of social movements requires an open public sphere where they can "identify problems, develop possible solutions, and create sufficient political pressure to have them addressed by constitutional governments." Existing institutional power structures limit potential actions, and environmental actions that interfere with these institutions will not be accepted within market or state dynamics. According to Brulle, Lakoff's approach limits democratic participation by embedding environmental actions within existing institutions such as the market and government policy, and through an emphasis on the professionalization of messaging, which creates a situation where elites are influencing and potentially manipulating public opinion.
I think the one shortcoming of Brulle's argument is that he downplays the importance within social movements of reaching out to broader constituencies through communicative strategies in order to build a broader support. The conservative revival of the 90s, for example, didn't come from nowhere. It was the result of a concerted effort by conservative leaders to reach out through mailers and church groups to get people to vote for a particular agenda. Some PR is necessary, though we should do our best to avoid having it be driven by professionalized elites.

Ivakhiv provides an alternative critique of Lakoff, focusing on the limitations of his cognitive theory and proposing William Connolly's "resonance machines" as an alternative to "frames." Ivakhiv argues that Lakoff's approach focuses too much on linguistic features and not enough on affective (emotional) forms of cognition. He points out that a major part of the early emergence of the environmental movement was affective communication including concepts of the "whole earth" including the first photo of the earth from space (as described in the recent Earth Days documentary), and landscape paintings which inspired the national parks movement.
Ivakhive also critiques Lakoff for relying too heavily on the family metaphor, and points out a number of other metaphors that may be at work given different circumstances. In place of "frames," Ivakhiv supports the concept of the resonance machine - which utilize affective forms of communication and cognition to build a more plural environmentalism. In his book Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, Connolly describes the conservative revival of the 90s described above as a capitalist-evangelical resonance machine. At that time, and through the concerted effort of the Christian Right, the evangelical movement became closely tied to neoclassical (laissez-faire) economics. He proposes as a remedy using campaigns designed to reach out through churches, and other mediums, using affective strategies to build resonance with a broad constituency in order to develop an eco-egalitarian resonance machine - one that would promote the values of environmentalism as well as a more open democratic system.

I think all three approaches have part of the idea. Ivakhiv's argument, being more encompassing than the other two, appeals to me most. But I think that it is important to foster an open democratic system in which social movements can grow as well as to reach out both linguistically and affectively to broader audiences. The key, I think, is Connolly's pluralist approach - one that recognizes different ways of being which may resonate with one another in certain aspects. Too often environmentalists have constructed a battle ground in which certain people are against nature and the environmentalists claim to speak for a nature which can't speak for itself. Instead, I think we need to reach out to all sectors, recognize ways that we are all environmentalists and build on those commonalities to create a more sustainable, livable, and egalitarian world. I'm currently working on a paper, which I'll publish here when I'm done, on Richard White's admonition (in the article "Are you an Environmentalist or do you Work for a Living?" in Cronon's Uncommon Ground) that environmentalists need to come to terms with work. I think that may be part of the answer to building a more plural (cosmopolitical?) environmentalism.

22 April 2010

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the World!

I just learned that the World Bank has made that data for its World Development Indicators open and available to everyone! This is fantastic - apparently you used to have to pay a whole lot of money to access this information, and now it's free! You can even download it as an excel table or in xml format. I've been looking at some of the indicators - they are at the same time, very interesting and very scary. Maybe I'll play around with it and make some graphs of interesting data for you all. Meanwhile, I suggest you visit and see if you find anything interesting!

20 April 2010


For almost 200 years Eyjafjallajokull has been lying dormant in peaceful tranquility. Meanwhile around the world people have bustled and swarmed, buzzing like billions of tiny bees across the surface of the planet. In that time the human population has doubled twice, and is on the verge of doing so again. In that time, we've consumed most of the world's fossil fuels. In that time, the temperature of the Earth has risen a degree. In that time, we've unleashed the power of the atom creating destruction which previously had only been wrought by extraterrestrial sources. Now the mountain has revived and has unleashed a tempest which has both captured and captivated us.

It's not so much that Nature is communicating with us - that would suggest an anthropomorphism that few would accept - but that the volcano is acting, and in its actions it is altering our lives and our realities. It is no longer simply an intermediary, but has become a mediator. If we are to build a sustainable life on this planet, then we have to come to see ourselves as occupying the same world as Eyjafjallajokull, and all of the other non-human agents out there.
Then again - not to downplay the chaos and suffering that has been caused by the eruption - but perhaps the Earth is trying to tell us something...

19 April 2010

Earth Days

I just finished watching an episode of American Experience on PBS titled Earth Days. It was a history of the environmental movement from the 40s on, with particular attention to the first Earth Day (40 years ago, Thursday). Most interesting to me was the assemblage of individuals, events, and ideas that came together to make that first Earth Day happen and the myriad results that followed.
They talked about the iconic images that made people realize how tenuous our existence really is: the nuclear bomb, Silent Spring, the images of Earth from space. They talked about Ehrlich's The Population Bomb and about the Whole Earth Catalog and the back to the land movement. It was interesting to hear about the naivete of those early back to earthers, and how many of them became disillusioned and left their communes after their dreams of a peaceful, egalitarian life on the land dissolved.
One of the most beautiful parts, I thought, was to hear Russell Schweikart, an Apollo astronaut, describe his experience floating in space looking back at the Earth. He realized in that moment that he was there because humans had developed the technology to extend the Earth's life support beyond the planet, and described the sensation of looking back at our Mother - not as Gaia, but as our source and our home. It's fascinating to think about that assemblage of the technological and the human, and that sense of connection despite being so far away. These things were unthinkable just a few decades before; it's a very emotional, and captivating image.
It was also interesting to see that the environmental movement started out as a relatively non-partisan campaign. Republican Representative Pete McCloskey was one of the original supporters of the Earth Day proposal. Richard Nixon initiated the event and, though it may have been more of a political move than because he actually cared about the environment, he signed many of the first environmental regulations into law - including the creation of the EPA. Later, the issue became more partisan as the environmentalists solidified their position, creating a deadlock between the movement and those who saw them as outsiders trying to take away jobs and destroy a way of life. When Reagan became President, he was able to condemn environmentalists for trying to degrade American prosperity. As a result, the movement was set back even further.
The film ended on a somewhat low note, with the recognition that the environmental movement had made little significant progress. But it was interesting to see that it was as much the fault of the environmentalists as it was their opponents that the movement had gotten stalled. The focus on population instead of consumption; the apocalyptic, neo-malthusian predictions; the condemnation of those who are closest to the land, who must be part of any sound environmental policy - these were their downfall. I think a lot of lessons have been learned since then, and I believe that the environmental movement is reviving and environmental consciousness is becoming more common. But we're still struggling and now, partly because of those early missteps, we have far more obstacles to overcome.

18 April 2010

Future Research Interests

Broadly speaking, I'm interested in what Elinor Ostrom calls polycentric approaches to environmental issues. Actually, "flat ontological" might be a better description, but it doesn't have the same ring. By this I mean that I'm interested in the entanglements of politics, state agencies, economics, local communities, local knowledge, the sciences, social movements, and the non-human world. I'm interested in how heterogeneous actors come together into constellations of enactment.

This broad research interest leads me to several sub-interests:
1) Post-constructivism - theoretically and methodologically, I believe that the approaches fitting into this (very broad) category are the best for studying the topics that interest me. They allow us to understand the relationships between the human and non-human world, and dissolve the boundaries that have traditionally hampered Western science (nature/culture, mind/body, human/animal)
2) Social Movements - Understanding how social movements converge, what drives them, and what potentials and limitations they have in addressing environmental issues. Also, how they interact with one another, with the media, with policy makers and with scientists.
3) Policy networks - Understanding how public policy with regard to the environment is shaped through political processes and bureaucratic networks, and how these processes interact with social movements, communities, the media and sciences.
4) Mediascapes - Looking at the media, how it represents environmental issues, and how those representations shape and are shaped by social movements, policy networks, and the sciences.
5) Science and Technology Studies - Understanding how environmental knowledge is constructed, and how that knowledge and scientists themselves interact with social movements, policy networks, and the media.
6) Environmental controversies - Everything works great until things break down (a tautology if ever I saw one!). I'm interested in situations where the relationships between the non-human world, and all of the above actors fall apart. It's in these moments (ever more abundant) where I see enormous potential. Understanding how these issues can be negotiated in a fair, ethical and sustainable way is key to building a better future.

In terms of specific projects, I have several in mind. First of all, I'd like to investigate ethnographically what people are doing at multiple scales to either mitigate or adapt to climate change. I want to know if people are really so opposed to doing something about it, and what steps they're willing to take. I also want to know if national legislation or international agreement is the only/best way of addressing climate change - I want to see what works and what doesn't at a variety of scales.
I'd love to trace policy networks and bureaucracies with regard to environmental issues. How are environmental regulations initiated? What processes do they go through and how are they altered by those processes? How is environmentalism enacted among policy makers and bureaucrats?
Finally, I would like to work with an environmental social movement or a local community as they negotiate environmental issues. I would like to look at relations between them and scientists, policy makers, and the media to better understand how environmental issues are constructed and what can be done to create a better outcome for everyone involved.

Maybe this is a little much for someone who is only 1 year into a Master's degree, but I've never been one to focus my interests narrowly. I don't expect to utilize or pursue all of them all at once, but I hope I'll be able to explore the majority of my interests in an environment that is supportive and provides a high degree of intellectual stimulation.

17 April 2010

An Ecology of Mind

I just learned that Nora Bateson is working on a documentary about her father Gregory Bateson. More information can be found at the website. There is a short preview posted and a nice homage written by Fritjof Capra. Nora is seeking donations (as little as $10) to complete the film and get it released - if you can, please contribute. It seems like it will be a very nice, though-provoking film, and it's coming at a time when Bateson's ideas are more relevant than ever. I'm making my donation, and I can't wait to see the film when it's complete.

15 April 2010


I wanted to introduce my readers to two very interesting projects (both with somewhat odd acronyms). The first is one I think I've mentioned before (but I'm too lazy to hunt down the reference) called COMPON - Comparing Climate Change Policy Networks. It's headed by a guy named Jeff Broadbent at the University of Minnesota, but it's really an international project. Basically they're using network analysis and media analysis to look at how climate change science is represented to the public and how it shapes climate policy. What's more, it's comparative. They have teams in several nations studying how different mediascapes and political processes affect public opinion and policy outcomes. They're in the beginning stages, but have some preliminary findings which they've posted on their blog. It should be a very interesting study, and I plan on following it to see the results (I'm on their email list, so I'll post updates as I get them). I also hope to participate in the project somehow, but I'm not sure where I can fit quite yet.

The second is called Mapping Controversies in Science and Techonology for Politics (MACOSPOL). It's lead by my theorist du jour Bruno Latour. The purpose is to make scientific inquiry more democratic, more open, and more participatory by developing a platform that will help depict and analyze science controversies. Visit the website, watch the video of Latour (below), look at some of the projects, follow some links - this too should be very interesting.

MACOSPOL Teaser -English Version from medialab Sciences Po on Vimeo.

I put these two projects together because I think there is some overlap (in fact, COMPON recently had a meeting in Paris at the Science Po, where Latour is a Research Director, but they did not get in touch). MACOSPOL is more wide reaching than just climate change, but the two share some methodological similarities and a general interest in integrating science and Democracy. Dr. Broadbent informed me that he has reached out to connect with the MACOSPOL project, and I hope good things will come of that relationship.

13 April 2010

Tunes or Pebbles

"Tunes or pebbles, processes or substantial things? 'Tunes,' answer Buddhism and modern science. 'Pebbles,' say the classical philosophersof the West. Buddhism and modern science think of the world in terms of music. The image that comes to mind when one reads the philosophers of the West is a figure in a Byzantine mosaic, rigid, symmetrical, made up of millions of little squares of some stony material and firmly cemented to the walls of a windowless basilica."
- Aldous Huxley, Island (from "The Old Raja's Notes on What's What")
Throw a pebble into a pond - you'll see waves emanating outward from the point where it struck the surface. Now throw a handful of pebbles into the pond - each pebble will generate its own wave emanating outward, and when these waves meet they'll form a pattern of peaks and troughs as a result of enhancing or canceling out one another.

Waves are interesting - more process than substantial entities. They are patterns in the water, and rather than being discrete bodies carrying a mass of water molecules as they go, they move through the water affecting new molecules and leaving behind the old. When two waves meet, as described above, they interact to create new patterns.

It's always seemed to me that this is a good metaphor for life and the world around us. Not the pebbles, or even the points where the pebbles meet the water, but the waves emanating outward. Imagine how different the world would be if we saw it this way instead of as discrete objects bouncing off of one another like billiard balls. People would interact with one another and see their interaction as a process capable of generating new ideas, new forms, new patterns in the pond. We'd learn to accept the uncertainties of life, and ourselves as participants in the world rather than as alien to it. This is not to say that it'd be a Utopia. But that we'd be better equipped to deal with the many problems we face. I think it's time we start paying attention to the water and learning what it has to teach us.

This post is partially inspired by the (friendly) debate between process-relational ontology (Adrian Ivakhiv here, here, here and here) and object-oriented ontology (Levi Bryant here and here and Graham Harman here, here and here). I'm in no position philosophically to contribute to that debate - I just want to show my solidarity with process-relational ontology.

08 April 2010

Advice for Writing from Graham Harman

I just wanted to share with my readers some really insightful and invigorating advice for writing that Graham Harman shared on his blog (here and here). I was directed to these posts by Adrian Ivakhiv at Immanence, who shares a few of his own tips for writing.
I feel very lucky to have a lot of friends, many of whom read this blog, who stimulate my thought and encourage me to put my ideas on paper. I really appreciate that, and I look forward to expanding that network in the future.

The Hard Problems of Anthropology

In 1900, the renowned mathematician David Hilbert laid down a challenge to future generations: 23 hand-picked mathematical problems, all difficult, all important, and all unsolved. Since then, countless mathematicians around the world have struggled to solve the 23 ‘Hilbert Problems’ (ten have been resolved; eleven are partly solved or simply cannot be solved; and two remain at large). Most important, the pursuit of the solutions had a profound and fundamental influence on the roadmap for 20th century mathematics, testament to Hilbert’s foresight.
Kerim over at Savage Minds recently posed the question (following a Harvard symposium which posed the question for the social sciences as a whole):
Does it make sense to compile such a list [for anthropology]? What would you put on the list?
I'm going to answer "No" to the first question (which I'll explain further in a moment), thus exonerating me from the difficult (impossible?) challenge of answering the second. Before I get into explaining my answer, though, I want to point out that there are a lot of good comments on the Savage Minds post with some interesting ideas and I in no way mean to detract from that discussion.

Anthropologist are a silly group of people. We spend our time (many of us anyway) working away in our departments, following research that either interests us or pays the bills. We discover intriguing insights and write them up in often elaborate (sometimes beautiful) prose. Then we sit around wringing our hands wondering why the rest of the world doesn't take us seriously, and worrying that the discipline is going the way of the thylacine.

Frankly, I'm tired of this nostalgic, narcissistic attitude. I'm pretty sure that the discipline isn't going anywhere - as if the whole thing could disappear overnight without a trace! I'm also confident that 1) we do make substantial contributions outside of academia. Those contributions may be indirect (through theory or method or with academic research that finds its way into the public consciousness) or direct (applied anthropology), but they are tangible and not insignificant. I can't imagine a world without anthropology. 2) We are on the verge of becoming even more relevant. I think that the myriad challenges facing modern civilization coupled with the turn in anthropology toward concrete results and the awareness of our place in the social/natural milieu (our ontological-political position to borrow from Annemarie Mol) will allow us to take part in the world more fully and intentionally than ever before. We won't solve all the world's problems - I'm not naive - but we have a role to play in coming up with equitable, just and workable solutions.

My question is, what would a list of had problems add to the discipline? A sense of direction? A sense of purpose? We study people - in all of their wonder and complexity. What more of an object do we need? Anthropology stands out because it covers the broadest range of human experience both historically and cross-culturally. No other discipline can make that claim, and there will always be a demand - either explicit or implicit - for what we do.

For a field whose object is so divergent and complex, a unifying principle, a set of problems or a final goal would only bring on claustrophobia. Instead we should go on investigating the things that interest us and helping to find solutions to the problems that plague our world. That will require the freedom to take flight and follow a path when it presents itself or even to venture off the path if need be, a freedom which a set of hard problems (assuming we could agree on what those problems are in the first place) will only hinder.

07 April 2010

Is the iPad green?

The recent release of Apple's iPad has been the major buzz around the internet lately. Up until yesterday all of the top science and technology articles on my Google news widget were about the iPad - how great it is or isn't and what it means for the future of the internet. Wonderful.

So forgive me for a moment while I add to the cacophony.

On the day of it's release, Green Peace put out a statement claiming that the iPad, and more specifically the cloud computing that it depends upon, is not green. In short, they claim that cloud computing requires huge servers which consume massive amounts of energy usually generated from coal, and if everyone starts using these devices we'll only exacerbate global warming. This resulted in several responses ranging from the "I don't care, I want my iPad anyway." to the more reasonable argument that computing in general only amounts to a very small percentage of our energy consumption.

Indeed, computers are very efficient at sending data over long distances. But that doesn't mean that the iPad is green. Think of all of the toxic substances that went into it's production, all of the toxic chemicals that will result from its eventual disposal, the mountains of e-waste (most of which ends up in China) that will be generated when people who bought one throw out their now obsolete (read unstylish) gadgets. When you take those factors into account - plus the DRM issues and the social and spiritual void that the iPad can never fill - you have a product which is unsustainable, unjust, and absolutely unnecessary.

Needless to say, I will not be buying an iPad anytime soon.

03 April 2010

The Singularity

The singularity.* The mysterious center of the black hole, whose atomic bonds have broken under the massive force of gravity to create a point of infinite density, from which nothing can go fast enough to escape - not even light. Yet, they are the only objects in the universe that are powerful enough to spawn galaxies.

For Deleuze the singularity is a metaphor. It represents those (singular) objects, people, events - small fragments of space/time - where multiple threads converge, and from which many new threads may arise.

The singularity itself is an assemblage, but an assemblage so densely packed that it is easily mistaken for a unity. Think of the film Avatar. Hundreds, maybe thousands of different ideas, technologies, emotions, and histories came together into a single object/moment: Western noble savage romanticism and nature worship; special effects technologies; the Military-Industrial complex and the Peace movement; indigenous movements; Capitalism and the petroleum fueled industrial economy; the Hollywood movie mega-machine; ecology, Gaiaism, and environmentalism; James Cameron; white messianism; hyper-reality; Liberal/Conservative politics; the mining industry; Anthropology and many others.

But the singularity is also a point where innovation and uncertainty enter the Universe - in the words of Complexity and Chaos, a bifurcation. Avatar again - it spawned myriad new threads: academic/philosophical discussions; publicity and a potential communicative link for indigenous movements; novel special effects technologies; debates about environmentalism; discussions of colonialism; new psychological disorders; marketing tie ins; etc. The film is not any one of these things, but a multiplicity converging and diverging upon a single point - the singularity.

The value of the singularity is that it can be a point of intervention. Change happens so rapidly, so intensely like the explosion of a supernova fusing atoms into heavier elements and raining them down upon the surrounding universe. Recognizing a singularity, one could catch hold of a thread and try to maneuver it towards some goal. It's not a guarantee of success - there will always be others pulling in different directions and there's always an element of uncertainty - but the singularity is ripe with potential.

*not to be mistaken with Ray Kurzweil's Singularity
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