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15 May 2010

Correlationism, Anti-Correlationism, & the Empirical/Epistemological Limits of Knowledge

I said I wasn't going to delve into philosophy and metaphysics, but I just can't get this out of my mind. So I'm going to write out some thoughts so I can get back to writing my paper for class. See here, here and here for the discussions that inspired this rant.

It seems to me that there is a conflation in both the anti-correlationist and the correlationist arguments of, on the one hand, the notion that there are empirical and epistemological limits to our ability to know the world, and, on the other hand, the idea that we can create the world by the simple act of perceiving or thinking it. This is, I think, why I've never been wholly satisfied with constructivism though I'm sympathetic to it, and also why I simply can't wholly accept the emerging ontological arguments as well. Both take the first point, extend it to the second and then make claims based on the second that are distasteful to me. The constructivist will say that because there are limits, we can perceive the world how we want and, as a result, every way of seeing the world is equally valid (extreme relativism). The ontologist says (rightly so) that this is just silly, leaving us in a meaningless stew of equally valid perspectives, and that it also limits us to a purely subjective world. They then go on to completely ignore the very tangible limits proposed by the first point and talk about reality as if their talk isn't just talk.

To me, there is a real world out there (not really "out there" since we are embedded within it) - the claim that there isn't is solipsistic, tautological and ultimately a waste of time. However, there are, as I said, empirical and epsitemological limits to our ability to know that world. Empirical because we can never really see inside of an atom, we can never really see inside of a black hole, we can really only see in a limited spectrum of light waves, etc. In other words, the interface between ourselves and that world is limited. Epistemological because our words influence our way of thinking about the world, and our categories shape the way we define objects around us. A chair is a "chair" and not a "unicorn" because of certain qualities that it possesses that we associate with chairs. That doesn't mean, though, that we can perceive the world however we like. There is a certain recalcitrance to the world around us. I can't simply say that a chair is a "unicorn" and have it be so, because, empirically, a chair is not a unicorn. If I do choose to refer to a chair as a "unicorn," then I have to radically alter my definition of "unicorn" to fit the empirical reality of the chair.*

There is some degree of relativism allowed by these empirical/epistemological limits. Every position is finite, while the world around us is (for all intents and purposes, at least) infinite. As a result, a person's view of the world may change depending on their epmirical/epistemological point of view. I can say that a chair is a "chair" if my experience and my knowledge allow me to fit the object to that category (i.e. I can sit on it). The same object may be viewed as "firewood" by someone with a different perspective, but it will never be a unicorn unless, again, the definition of "unicorn" is radically altered to fit the empirical reality of the object.

Metaphysics is fine, for what it is. I don't have anything against trying to understand the world beyond our ability to know it directly. We've been doing it for tens of thousands of years, and I see no reason to stop now. Indeed, there are very practical reasons for doing so (as Michael has pointed out). But until someone can demonstrate empirically that the world is really made up of objects or process-relations, this metaphysical talk is, empirically speaking, just talk. In other words it is epistemology.

Does this mean that we have to limit ourselves to our empirical/epistemological positions? That we can only ever talk about the world of subjects? I think not. My argument is not too sophisticated on this point, but I think the universe is a vast place - lots of things happen without our knowing about them. In fact, since the universe did not spontaneously emerge when we started perceiving/talking it, a great deal had to happen outside of our knowledge in order to make us able to perceive/talk. We can talk about empirical realities, we can speculate about metaphysics, as long as we don't presume to be proving anything that isn't provable. I also take the subjective positions of animals, plants, even objects to be different from, but equally valid to our own. I doubt I've made my case, and I'm not sure that I've added anything new to the discussion, but I got my thoughts out at least. Now I've really got to get back to writing that paper!

*This is why I think of epistemology and ontology as being entangled, but, again, I'm not prepared to go that far down the metaphysical path at this point.

09 May 2010

Authenticity and the Anthropologist

I haven't been posting a lot lately, primarily because I've been saving my writing energy for putting together my internship proposal. As some of you know, I'll be heading out to Nevada this summer to work for the BLM on evaluating Shoshone traditional cultural properties (TCPs). Before I go, though, I have to write a proposal and defend it in front of my committee. So far I've finished the "conceptual approach" section and have pulled together some information for the background. Since it's basically finished, I thought it might be nice to post my conceptual approach here and get some feedback before I have to submit the proposal. If you have any comments, suggestions, questions, etc. please let me know so I can clarify and make changes as needed. Thanks in advance for your help!

Authenticity and the Anthropologist: A Conceptual Approach to Evaluating TCPs

The practical and sometimes ethical challenges involved in evaluating traditional cultural properties (TCPs) often come down to fundamental epistemological questions such as “What is Culture?” and “What is authenticity?” These questions require careful consideration and a proper conceptual framework.

If in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhon could find 169 different definitions and a dozen different conceptual approaches for the term “Culture” the diversity of the term has likely only increased in the intervening years (Kroeber, et. al. 1952). In spite of the noble efforts of many anthropologists, there has been little progress in formulating an operational definition of the term, and many have begun to dispense with it all together. However, the concept still plays an important role in public controversies (i.e. “Culture Wars,” “Cultural Rights,” etc.), as well as in defining the field of anthropology and our role as professionals. As a result, I believe it would be unwise to dispense with the term, though we may have to accept some degree of ambiguity in its definition.

With that in mind, there are some general principles that anthropologists have found (often the hard way) for understanding culture. First of all, we can no longer think of cultures as bounded entities with a high degree of historical continuity – cultures constantly interact with one another, change, grow, decay, vanish and occasionally reemerge in a new form. Second, we must avoid the Scylla of reification and essentialism and the Charybdis of reductionism. In other words, we can no longer think of cultures as structures which determine behavior, nor can we think of cultures as simply amalgamations of individual behavior and knowledge.

Past concepts of culture have often been too rigid, too bounded, and too structural. However, it is these concepts which the term calls to mind among many people outside of the field, and it is this kind of culture that we are expected to provide. For example, when we are called upon to evaluate TCPs, there is a bias in the guidelines toward clearly bounded communities with a continuous tradition. When, as often happens, this image of culture confronts the reality of cultures as diffuse and dynamic, questions of authenticity arise. In the case of the Chumash and Point Conception, Wilcoxon et al were asked to evaluate Point Conception and the surrounding area for TCP status. They found that there was little evidence to support the traditional use of the site by Chumash natives, though the site had become significant to the modern Chumash community. Furthermore, they they found discrepancies in the claim to bounded and continuous culture that the modern Chumash were trying to project. Ultimately, they opted to grant TCP status to the Point Conception site itself based on the limited evidence available, but denied the status to the surrounding area since it did not meet the requirements for a TCP. In such cases it becomes our role as “experts” to either re-solidify culture by granting the status of authenticity or to disperse it by denying the claim (though the granting or rejecting of individual claims will not likely be sufficient to accomplish either fully).

The question is, are these sites “authentic?” In some cases, the decision may be plain – the site has cultural significance or it doesn't. In other cases, such as the Point Conception case, the decision is a little more ambiguous. The cultural significance of the site may have emerged or been “rediscovered” recently or the community itself may not be as clearly defined as the guidelines dictate. In these cases, it's necessary to understand what constitutes “authenticity” and how it is defined both in public discourse and among anthropologists.

There are three ways to look at authenticity and the role of the ethnographer in evaluating claims. First, there is the traditional view of authenticity as an objective fact or essential characteristic of an object, which can be evaluated using material clues or based on the testimony of legitimate informants. The role of the ethnographer in this case is to act as a professionalized arbiter of authenticity, who has at his disposal certain methodologies, theoretical frameworks, and skills for determining the legitimacy of claimants and the authenticity of their claims. Evaluation generally starts from the assumption that the claim is false, and it is the job of the ethnographer to collect information to prove the veracity of the claim. If they can't do so, then the object is classified as inauthentic and any rights or benefits associated with authenticity are withdrawn. This is the role that we are generally expected to play by the public, by those who dispute a claim (See note 1 Below), and often by the claimants themselves. All hold a vested interest in determining the objective authenticity of a claim, but this role doesn't fit well with the concept of culture that most anthropologists subscribe to – the dynamic and dispersed concept.

This approach corresponds to a bounded and continuous concept of culture. The suggestion that a culture has changed or that it is not a discrete community would seem to demonstrate a lack of authenticity. Claimants may take this as an attack on their integrity, and the disputants might, unreasonably given the true nature of culture, take it as invalidating the claim. On the other hand, granting authenticity to a certain claim based on this faulty notion of culture, despite evidence to the contrary, is just as problematic. For the claimant, it could reify a notion of culture that is not necessarily valid and potentially privilege certain sub-groups within the culture (i.e. traditionalists) over others (i.e. non-traditionalists)(Haley et. al. 1997). In the minds of the disputant the anthropologist may be viewed as naïvely accepting whatever the claimants say, and unfairly ignoring their dispute. Clearly, this approach is problematic epistemologically, methodologically and ethically, and some other approach is necessary.

A second approach to authenticity is to view it as a social construct – an epistemological category that is actively created by human beings rather than being merely given or taken for granted. In this view, authenticity is no longer an objective fact or an essential quality of the object, but an ascribed category which is historically and socially contingent with certain social and political ramifications. “Traditions … are invariably defined in the present and reinterpreted to meet the ideological needs of the living” (Chambers). For the ethnographer, then, it is these ramifications that are of primary concern. Both the claim and the dispute are seen as being equally constructed, and it is the job of the ethnographer to evaluate the political and ethical consequences of each, and, from a critical perspective, uphold the constructs of the marginalized communities. In ascribing authenticity, then, the anthropologist makes a political statement in favor of one side or the other. S/he may choose to ascribe authenticity to the object in order to assist a marginalized population or to counter hegemonic forces. S/he may also choose not to deem the object authentic for the same reasons. This role, as with the previous one, puts a great deal of power in the hands of the ethnographer.

The question is no longer “Is this object authentic?” it is now “Who benefits from the ascription of authenticity upon this object and what are the political ramifications of that status?” The anthropologist may use ethnographic data to back his/her decision, and surely it will not be accepted by the stakeholders if some evidence is not provided, but the ultimate decision is a political one rather than an objective one. If the evidence is ambiguous, as is often the case, then the anthropologist has some degree of leeway in deciding whether or not to ascribe the status of authenticity.

Culture in the social constructivist view is always being invented, making it extremely dynamic and dispersed to the point of being non-existent (indeed, it is partially the result of the constructivist influence in anthropology that many have begun to dispense with the term Culture all together). The problem with this approach is that there can be no solid criteria for evaluating authenticity and the final decision may appear to many as the arbitrary decision of the ethnographer based on his or her own political agenda. There are those who attempt to find a middle ground between the first approach and the second, accepting some degree of objectivity to the claim of authenticity while maintaining a fundamentally constructivist position. But, in the end, there is no way to reconcile the two and a third approach is needed to move forward.

A third way of understanding authenticity is as a negotiated reality. That is, authenticity becomes an ontological reality through the process of evaluation/negotiation. The category is still viewed as historical and socially contingent, but it is no longer simply an arbitrary classification that the ethnographer ascribes based on political considerations. Instead, both the claim and the dispute are taken as being equally valid, and the ontological qualities of the object are negotiated among a heterogeneous set of mediators including ethnographic texts, members of the culture, government employees, stakeholder communities, legal documents, guidelines for evaluation, the characteristics of the object itself, cultural knowledge that may be embedded in the object, political and ethical considerations, and the anthropologist herself.

It is the far more humble role of the ethnographer to assemble as many mediators as possible, and it's in this process of assembling mediators that the status of the object (as either authentic or inauthentic) is constructed (in the sense of being built). In the end, whatever status the object achieves (since authenticity is no longer an a priori quality of the object or an arbitrarily ascribed status, but a status that must be worked toward), it must be well constructed(Latour 2007). Its status may change in the future as pieces of the assemblage are removed and new ones added (new information comes to light, regulations change, previous information is proven false, etc.) but if the status is well constructed, then it should be able to hold out in spite of these changes.

This approach to authenticity corresponds to a dynamic and dispersed view of culture. One in which culture is an ontological entity, but is not essentialized, or reified, which accounts for both structure and agency. Culture can be thought of as a complex, dynamic entanglement of a heterogeneous set of actors; not a discrete, static entity but a dynamic process of relations. This concept of culture accounts for both structure and agency and offers a better understanding of the ways different cultural groups interact and affect one another.

It is this last approach to authenticity that I will be using in evaluating the Shoshone TCPs. I don't anticipate as many complications as that of the Point Conception area with the Chumash natives, but it is important nevertheless to articulate the theoretical framework for my research. Understanding what constitutes authenticity and how it relates to different conceptions of culture will help to shape the methodology used to evaluate the sites, and will provide an ethical background should controversy arise.

(1) In the case of TCPs and other National Register sites there isn't necessarily a disputant to the claim of authenticity. Rather, there is an inherent skepticism built into the evaluation process, and the government represents the general public by anticipating potential conflicts of interest.
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