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31 July 2010

Red Mars


I've recently been reading Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. After reading several mentions of the book by Levi Bryant at Larval Subjects, I looked it up and decided it could be a good summer read. It is way more than that, though.
I've always liked science fiction, because it explores the boundaries of humanity and turns a mirror on ourselves without being moralistic or preachy. In Red Mars, Robinson provides a well-written, engrossing example of the recent ontological theory that has been emerging. I don't know if Robinson is familiar with Latour, De Landa, Deleuze, Whitehead, Prigogine, Stengers, Law or any of the others, but they couldn't have asked for a better illustration of their theories.
The story follows a group of 100 people - called the first one hundred - who land on Mars and begin to colonize it. In a short time other colonists begin to arrive, bringing with them their own ideas and interests. Corporations begin to gain a stronger presence, Terran governments begin to send up police and security to protect corporate interests. Meanwhile, those in the first one hundred are trying to build a new world, a new society without all of the baggage from Earth, and a resistance emerges among those who want Mars to be left alone.
There's a lot going on here. There's politics and intrigue, but there's also science and philosophy and sociology. It's very anthropological in the sense that we are seeing the emergence of a new culture and society, though it's being composed of many different elements Terran societies. I don't know if I'm getting the same things out of the book as Levi, but I certainly understand why he likes the book so much, and I now share his enthusiasm for it.
Below are a few excerpts that I found particularly interesting. These are just ideas and speculations, though. The real value of the book is in the story as a whole. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in ontological theory, or if you're just looking for a good sci-fi novel.

On Eco-Economics p. 297
Marina and Vlad were particularly interesting on this topic, as they had worked out a system of equations for what they called "eco-economics." [John] liked listening to them explain the equations, and he asked them a lot of questions, learning about conceptslike carrying capacity, coexistence, counteradaptation, legitimacy mechanisms, and ecologic efficiency. "That's the only real measure of our contribution to the system," Vald would say. "If you burn our bodies in a microbomb calorimeter you'll find we contain about six or seven kilocalories per gram of weight, and of course we take in a lot of calories to sustain that through our lives. Our output is harder to measure, because it's not a matter of predators feeding on us, as in classic efficiency equations - it's more a matter of how many calories we create by our efforts, or send on to future generations, something like that. And most of that is very indirect, naturally, and it involves a lot of speculation and subjective judgment. If you don't go ahead and assign values to a number of non-physical things, then electricians and plumbers and reactor builders and other infrastructural workers would always rate as the most productive members of society, while artists and the like would be seen as contributing nothing at all."
"Sounds about right to me," John joked, but Vlad and Marina ignored him.
"Anyway that's a large part of what economics is - people arbitrarily, or as a matter of taste, assigning numerical values to non-numerical things. And then pretending that they haven't just made the numbers up, which they have. Economics is like astrology in that sense, except that economics serves to justify the current power structure, and so it has a lot of fervent believers among the powerful."
"Better just to concentrate on what we're doing here," Marina put in. "The basic equation is simple, efficiency merely equals the calories you put out, divided by the calories you take in, times one hundred to put it in the form of a percentage. In the classic sense of passing along calories to one's predator, ten percent was average, and twenty percent doing really well. Most predators at the tops of food chains did more like five percent."
"This is why tigers have ranges of hundreds of square kilometers," Vlad said. "Robber barons are not really very efficient."
"So tigers don't have predators not because they're so tough, but because it's not worth the effort, " John Said.
"Exactly!"
"The problem is in calculating the values," Marina said. "We have had to simply assign certain calorie-equivalent numerical values to all kinds of activities, and then go on from there."
"But we were talking about economics?" John said.
"But this is economics, don't you see, this is our eco-economics! Everyone should make their living, so to speak, based on a calculation of their real contribution to the human ecology. Everyone can increase their ecological efficiency by efforts to reduce how many kilocalories they use - this is the old Southern argument against the energy consumption of the Northern industrial nations. There was a real ecologic basis to that objection, because no matter how much the industrial nations produced, in the larger equation they could not be as efficient as the South."
"They were predators on the South," John said.
"Yes, and they will become predators on us too, if we let them. And like all predators their efficiency is low. But here, you see - in this theoretical state of independence that you speak of - " she grinned at John's look of consternation - "you do, you have to admit that that is ultimately what you talk about all the time, John - well there it should be the law that people are rewarded in proportion to their contribution to the system."
Dmitri, coming in the lab, said, "From each according to his capacities, to each according to his needs!"
"No, that's not the same," Vlad said. "What it means is, You get what you pay for!"
"But that's already true," John said. "How is this any different from the economics that already exists?"
They all scoffed at once, Marina most persistently: "... There's all kinds of phantom work! Unreal values assigned to most of the jobs on Earth! The entire transnational executive classdoes nothing a computer couldn't do, and there are whole categories of parasitical accounting. Advertising, stock brokerage, the whole apparatus for making money only from the manipulation of money - that is not only wasteful but corrupting, as all meaningful money values get distorted in such manipulation." She waved a hand in disgust.
"Well," Vlad said, "we can say that their efficiency is very low, and that they predate on the system without having any predators, so that they are either the top of the chain or parasitical, depending on how you define it. Advertising, money brokering, some types of manipulation of the law, some politics..."
"But all of these are subjective judgments!" John exclaimed. "How have yo actually assigned caloric values to such a variety of activities?"
"Well, we have done our best to calculate what they contribute back to the system in terms of well-being measured as a physical thing. What does the activity equal in terms of food, or water, or shelter, or clothing, or medical aid, or education or free time? We've talked it over, and usually everyone at Acheron has offered a number, and we have taken the mean. Here, let me show you..."

On Gift Economics p 315 - John dining with some Sufis...
One of the old women around him picked up the pot and poured John's cup full. SHe put down the pot, gestured: "Now you fill mine," John did so, unsteadily, and then the pot went around the room. Each pourer filled someone else's cup.
"We start every meal this way," the old woman said. "It is a little sign of how we are together. We have studied the old cultures, before your global market netted everything, and in those ages there existed many different forms of exchange. Some of them were based on the giving of gifts. Each of us has a gift, you see, given us freely by the universe. And each of us with every breath gives something back."
"Like the equation for ecological efficiency," John said.
"Maybe so. In any case, whole cultures were built around the idea of the gift, in Malaysia, in the American northwest, in many primitive cultures. In Arabia we gave water, or coffee. Food and shelter. And whatever you were given, you did not expect to keep, but gave it back again in your turn, hopefully with interest. You worked to be able to give more than you received. Now we thing that this can be the basis for a reverent economics."
"It's just what Vlad and Ursula said!"
"Maybe so."

On the Politics of Science p. 340
"You see, John, the economic basis of life on Mars is now changing," Arkady said. "No, don't you dare scoff! So far we have not been living in a money economy, that's they way scientific stations are. It's like winning a prize that frees you from the economic wheel. We won that prize, and so did a lot of others, and we've all been here for years now, living that way. But now more people are flooding onto Mars, thousands of them! And many of them plan to work here, make some money, and return to Earth..."
...
"... When we first arrived and for twenty years after that, Mars was like Antarctica but even purer. We were outside the world, we didn't even own things - some clothes, a lectern, and that was it! Now you know what I think, John. This arrangement resembles the prehistoric way to live, and it therefore feels right to us, because our brains recognize it from three millions of years practicing it. In essence our brains grew to their current configuration in response to the realities of that life. So as a result people grow powerfully attached to that kind of life, when they get the chance to live it. It allows you to concentrate your attention on the real work, which means everything that is done to stay alive, or make things, or satisfy one's curiosity, or play. That is utopia, John, especially for primitives and scientists, which is to say everybody. So a scientific research station is actually a little model of prehistoric utopia, carved out of the transnational money economy by clever primates who want to live well."
"You'd think everyone would join," John said.
"Yes, and they might, but it isn't being offered to them. And that means it wasn't a true utopia. We clever primate scientists were willing to carve out islands for ourselves, rather than work to create such conditions for everyone. And so in reality, the islands are part of the transnational order. They are paid for, they are never truly free, there is never a case of truly pure research. Becaust the people who pay for the scientist islands will eventually want a return on their investment. And now we are entering that time. A return is being demanded for our island. We were not doing pure research, you see, but applied research. And with the discovery of strategic metals the application has become clear. And so it all comes back, and we have a return of ownership, and prices, and wages. The whole profit system. The little scientific station is being turned into a mine, with the usual mining attitude toward the land over the treasure. And the scintists are being asked, What you do, how much is it worth? They are bing asked to do their work for pay, and the profit of their work is to be given over to the owners of the businesses they are suddenly working for."
"I don't work for anyone," John said.
"Well, but you work on the terraforming project, and who pays for that?"
John tried out Sax's answer: "The sun."
Arkady hooted. "Wrong! It's not just the sun and some robots, it's human time, a lot of it. And those humans have to eat and so on. And so someone is providing for them, for us, because we have not bothered to set up a life where we provide for ourselves."
John frowned. "Well, in the beginning we had to have the help. That was billions of dollars of equipment flown up here. Lots of work time, like you say."
"Yes, it's true. But once we arrived we could have focused all our efforts on making ourselves self-sufficient and independent, and then paid them back and been done with them. But we didn't, and now the loan sharks are here..."

30 July 2010

After Method


I recently had a little down time at the office, so, rather than being bored trying to appear busy, I decided to do some reading that's at least somewhat relevant to my work out here. I read After Method, by John Law, and was really glad I did. It does seem to be relevant to what I'm doing, but I'll have to explain more about that another time. For now, I'd just like to explain a few of the interesting (though not entirely unique) ideas presented in the book.

1) Methods compose reality – This isn't new – it's basically the same thing that Latour, Callon, and others of their ilk say. But I like the way Law describes it, breaking down the assumptions of (extreme) positivist view of reality and showing, piece-by-piece, how reality might be different. For Law, Methods (whether of the “hard sciences”or of the “soft sciences”) don't merely influence our perspective on reality – an epistemological stance – they actually work to shape reality by creating new associations – an ontological stance. So when researchers “discover” a new chemical, they have, in a sense created the chemical. The epistemological stance would say that the chemical doesn't really exist, except in the minds of the researchers, but, for Law and others with an ontological perspective, the chemical exists precisely because of the work that's been done to “discover” it. The methodology has composed the new chemical, giving it ontological status because of the new associations it carries.
The other point to make here is that Law talks about “methods assemblages” as opposed to just methods. By this he means to suggest that methods don't exist in isolation, they are multiple and interrelated. So, in order to compose a new chemical, there are several different techniques involved including the written text, and the peer-review process. All of these techniques come together to form a methods assemblage.
Law also takes a broad view of methods assemblages. They are not only what is practiced by scientists (social or physical); methods assemblages are used by everyone, all the time. Anytime someone is composing reality, a methods assemblage is being employed. He uses many examples including the lab work studied by Latour and Wolgar, the medical work studied by Mol, his own research on the military, a Quaker prayer meeting. Right now, I'm thinking about the Environmental Impact Statement, Ethnographic Assessment, and other processes involved in the approval of public works as a methods assemblage – but I'll write more on that another time.

2) The Hinterland – maybe this isn't the best term for what Law is describing, but the concept is intriguing. The hinterland, for Law, is a kind of background of already composed reality that we can build from to compose further realities. His example is the mass spectrometer in the discover of the new chemical mentioned above. The spectrometer has been composed previously – both the machine itself and the physics behind the machine. These have been through rigorous evaluation, and few, if any, scientists call them into questions. The hinterland constrains the potential for new compositions, since they must be built from what has already been composed. So, unlike an extreme epistemological position which might suggest that we can choose what reality we want to see (i.e. if we want unicorns to exist then we simply have to think them into existence), the ontological positions limits the possible realities to those which can be composed from what already exists.
For Latour, Law argues, the hinterland simply exists once it's composed. This makes me think of a clutter of old clothes or other stuff in your bedroom closet. You might not use it anymore, but it's always there. For Annamarie Mol, on the other hand, the hinterland must be continually renewed through practice. Law seems to take a middle position, suggesting that sometimes the hinterland simply exists, and other times it must be renewed.
I think Mol's position here makes the most sense to me (I'm not convinced that Latour doesn't also hold this position, but this is how it's presented in the book). In this context, I think of thermodynamics and Prigogine's systems far from equilibrium. The tendency of systems is to decompose, but systems can be made to compose and made to remain composed for periods of time by continual flowing of energy (work) into the system. The hinterland, it seems to me, would work the same way. Once the thing is composed (after an immense amount of work is put into it), it will tend to decompose if left unused (if it is not practiced) – some faster than others. It's only by continually putting work into it (through continual practice) that it will remain composed.

3) Ontological Politics – Law then goes on to talk about the practical and ethical implications of his view of methods assemblages. He says that, if methods compose reality, then we should select our methods based on what kind of reality we would like to see composed. This smacks a little of the extreme epistemological view that we can create whatever reality we want simply by imagining it to be so, but tied to the concept of the hinterland there are two significant differences. First of all, we have to start from where we are – the reality that is already composed – which provides the materials (literally and metaphorically) from which we can compose a new reality. And, second, composing a new reality will take work.
This reminds me of William Connolly's concept of the resonance machine. We can make a better world, but it will take time, work, a willingness to experiment, and an openness to the possibility for failure. Also, it has to be done little-by-little rather than all-at-once. I'm encouraged by the fact that there are a lot of people out there already, working to build new associations, and new ways of living in the world – the activists, community organizers, and, in some ways, ordinary people – but I would like to see a lot more of it (and I'm criticizing myself here as much as anyone else).

Law has a lot of other interesting things to say that I haven't covered here – hybrid realities, fluid reality, etc. I may cover them another time, but I highly recommend reading the book since he says it all much better than I can.

29 July 2010

The Hope for Change

Obama was doomed from the start. He was doomed before he even took the oath of office. He signed his fate during his campaign when he became the candidate of Hope and Change. Shortly after the election, I wrote an essay for a class, which I also published in part here, in which I essentially accused Obama of (perhaps unintentionally) co-opting the spirit of change that was percolating in the American public. I said in that essay that Obama couldn't ever manifest the change that he promised, and predicted that his election would bring about more disappointment than hope. At the time, I didn't really justify or thoroughly explain my position - mostly because the concepts I was working with were only vague impressions in my mind - but now I think I have a more solid idea of why exactly Obama was destined to fail.

The critique of Obama was not the main theme of my essay, and, indeed, it wasn't so much a critique of Obama himself so much as it was a critique of our political system as a whole. In the essay, I was really trying to do an anthropological analysis of the electoral process. I described it as a ritual in which "'...American society is disarticulated metaphorically every four years and then rearticulated through the election/inauguration cycle” (McLeod 1999; 360). The effect is to renew our vision of America, refresh or rearrange our values and ideals, and legitimate the position of our elected leaders as the embodiment of that vision (McLeod 1999)."

I then explained how Obama had followed this familiar path in his own campaign, specifically citing his nomination speech at the Democratic National Convention. Towards the end of the essay, I shifted towards my critique of the political system. "For those of us who view the world with a more cynical eye, the election ritual can present another, somewhat more sinister face. Behind the ritual sociodramas in which values and ideals compete for dominance, lies another motivation: the pacification of the American people, and the redirection of energy for change into a predictable and institutionalized format."

I described the electoral process as a kind of sleight-of-hand, similar to one described by David Graeber in terms of monetary value. For Graeber, value created in the mundane interactions of individuals is abstracted and reified as money and expropriated through ritualized exchanges by the Capitalist class (this is explained more thoroughly in Graeber's books Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, and Possibilities). The same could be said for the ritualized dramas of the election and politics in general, except that the values which are abstracted and reified are different from those in the economic sphere. In his election, Obama came to embody Change, and in so doing, his campaign drew upon energies for change that had been stirring for years in the American Public. These energies were channeled into his election and essentially pacified (though, maybe only temporarily). But, and here is where I failed to explain myself fully, Obama could never be the change that people expected of him - he could never fulfill that promise of Hope that he had come to embody.



Part of the explanation for this lies in that symbolic sleight of hand that I described. Change doesn't take place at a systemic level, but Obama had become, symbolically at least, the manifestation of systemic change. In practice, though, he is only one part of the system, and everything he does radiates outward through the many relations he has with other individuals and offices. Though his actions may change the system in many ways, those changes will not necessarily be widespread, and their effects will almost certainly be uncertain.

This is not to say that it was somehow wrong to elect Obama. What's wrong is that all of that energy for change got sucked into his election - as if his election was exactly the change that we had been seeking. And for a while, it pacified the American Left. They waited patiently for the change to take place. They tolerated his missteps and failures. They accepted or ignored his shortcomings. They gave him a free pass. Meanwhile, the Right was working to build a movement from the ground up. Had the energy that was channeled into Obama's election been allowed to radiate - to work toward transforming our day-to-day interactions, toward creating new ideas and new associations, toward building a better future - I think we might be in a better position than we are today.

People want change to be fast and easy. They want to change an entire system in the blink of an eye simply by electing the right person to office, getting the right peice of legislation passed, or even overthrowing the whole political system. But change takes time. It takes work. It takes billions of little changes - not a single massive change. What's more, change is unpredictable - it takes experimentation, an openness to new ideas, and a willingness to do some work. I'm not saying that we should eschew politics or elections, but that we should see them as only one tactic among many (and, perhaps, not a very powerful one) for creating effective change.

26 July 2010

More Helpful Advice from Graham Harman and a Slight Rant

I just wanted to share some more advice from Graham Harman on depression and graduate students, though, again I think the advice can be easily generalized to most people's lives. I've posted Harman's advice pieces here before, because I have rarely come across someone who offer such practical and helpful suggestions. I don't suffer from depression (not for a long time anyway), but his suggestion of building connections resonates with me. In fact, my experience this summer of coming out to NV, seeing a whole new landscape, and meeting a lot of wonderful people has basically confirmed it in my own life. I was getting fairly stagnant back in MD, and needed the fresh scene. Now I'm committed to going back to MD and doing as much as I can to build the same kind of relationships there.
As a side note, Harman mentions Alva Noë and the two things that seeing depression as a brain disease has done:

"What Noë was saying is that the current fashion to consider depression a brain disease accomplishes two things, only one of them bad: 1. It de-stigmatizes the depressed by no longer treating them as moral failures, which is obviously good. 2. It serves the interests of the pharmaceutical industry, which is dubious."

I want to add another one, based on my own experience with depression and anxiety viewing these issues primarily as brain disease also makes one feel powerless, helpless, and fated. I've heard it from other people too, "It's just part of my brain chemistry - I have to live with it." Then the only solution is to take drugs for the rest of your life - at least during those times you're having problems, but who knows when that could be.
I think it's maybe partially true that brain chemistry plays a role in depression and anxiety, but I don't think that this in any way fates one to a lifetime of neurosis or drug dependence. There are many ways to alter brain chemistry, long-term, without pharmaceuticals. That's not to say that pharmaceuticals can't play a role, but only as part of a long-term strategy to learn how to manage stress and overcome negative thought patterns.

21 July 2010

Calling out Conservatives

This story has been all over the news the last few days - I've heard something about it every time I turn on NPR. Basically Shirley Sherrod at the USDA allegedly claimed to refuse help to white farmers. The video of the talk where she mentioned this was posted on some conservative blogs and Fox News (Specifically Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity) grabbed the story up. Sherrod was forced to resign from her position on the grounds that her actions were racist. Then the full, unedited video was posted, and it turned out that she was just providing an example of learning from past mistakes. The Obama administration apologized and offered her another job.

Here's the problem... the media has made this into another criticism of the Obama administration. I agree, they should not have trusted these blogs and should have looked into it further before taking such harsh action. But the Obama administration is not to blame here! It's the conservative bloggers who are to blame! More and more, they're making shit up just to get people upset - this is just one case out of many - and in this case, they've won despite being exposed. Conservative bloggers and talking heads need to be called out for spreading this kind of misinformation, and not allowed to scurry away under the criticism of Obama. Why are we not hearing profuse apologies coming from O'Reilly and Hannity?

Culture is Like...


The Winchester Mystery House

... a house, constructed (forgive the potential violence of this metaphor) of people, animals, plants, and other materials. It has been built, it's there, and, as long as it's maintained, you can live in it. The problem is, you might not be able to arrange the furniture however you like - the way the house was built affects the way you might arrange it. Sometimes, you might neglect certain portions of the house, and those parts might fall apart gradually. You might also build new parts to the house, re-decorate, or reshape the house in other ways, but even those changes will in part be dictated by the current structure of the house. You might, if you so desired, completely demolish the house (I'm not sure how you'd do this with culture, but I'm willing to play with the metaphor). If you did, though, you'd have to sleep outside, which may not be terribly comfortable. Then later, if you wanted to get a new house, you'd have to build it up bit-by-bit over time. Houses don't simply appear out of nowhere. And there are always flaws with houses - you might have the best architect, the best models, and the best set of plans, but you'll never know what those flaws are until the house is built and you're living in it.



One flaw with this metaphor is the intentionality that seems to be implied in it. Houses are built intentionally with specific plans in mind. Not so much with culture. Culture is composed haphazardly with little forethought. Maybe a better metaphor would be a shanty town - a bunch of structures slapped together out of whatever materials were on hand each used for multiple purposes.



Another problem is that it doesn't say much about how cultures are composed. The metaphor of putting together wood, metal, fabric, and other materials doesn't really equate to humans composing associations. It doesn't explain why some associations hold together better than others or why individuals would prefer existing associations over new ones. I think, in some sense, this latter is an issues of thermodynamics. It takes less energy to simply follow established pathways than it does to blaze new trails. If a trail is left unused for a period of time it may become overgrown, but the more used a trail is, the less overgrown it is and the easier it is to travel. Hey, there's another metaphor! I like it, too, because trails are usually blazed in relation to the landscape. They wind through trees, cross over rivers, go up slopes, and interact with the landscape in a lot of complex ways. But they're not determined by the landscape. If someone wants to go straight up a cliff - the trail can go that way. If they want to avoid the cliff - then they'll find another way around (or, in some cases, blow the cliff away). This metaphor doesn't convey the heterogeneity of the composition of culture like the house/shanty town metaphor does. That's okay, though.

So Culture is like a house - or maybe a shanty town - but it's also like a trail, or a network of trails. What other metaphors for Culture are there?

10 July 2010

Marxist Critique and the Economic Crisis

Here are a few videos that have been showing up on blogs recently (Ethnografix, Savage Minds, and Archive Fire - maybe others, I'm not sure). The first is an animated explanation by David Harvey of the current economic crisis using Marxist analysis.





The second is a performance (lecture isn't the right term) by Slavoj Zizek in which he also discusses the economic crisis as well as the environmental crisis and the war in Afghanistan using Marxist analysis.





Now, as I recently admitted on a post at Archive Fire, I have not engaged Marx as much as I probably should. I have read the Communist Manifesto, and I am familiar with Marxist critique, but do not consider myself a Marxist any more than I consider myself anything else. In any case, I have to say that I don't see a lot that's new in these two analyses - I agree with them completely and find the critique valuable, but I don't find them significantly different from any number of analyses that I have seen before. Also, neither one provides any suggestion of possible solutions or avenues for change (how does one fight a "system"?). This, I think, is because, while Marxist critique is still powerful and valuable, the Marxist solution (i.e. the telos of Communism) is not viable (and these two thinkers, at least, recognize that).

The reason is that (and please correct me if I'm wrong), in Marxist analysis, meaningful change cannot come from within the Capitalist "system" (Zizek states this explicitly, and I doubt the empirical validity of the claim). Change, therefore, requires the overthrow of the system. The problem is that massive change imposed from above never works - there are always feedbacks and complexities, which will interfere (more on this in an upcoming post). In most cases (looking historically), it ends up doing more harm than good.

So, to sum up, Marxism provides a valuable critique of capitalism, but fails when it comes to viable solutions. And just so I don't fall into the same pattern of offering critique without solution, I will just say that I think J.K. Gibson-Graham and others of their ilk offer a much more powerful analysis (built on Marxist critique, but not reducible to it) and more viable options for transforming the system.

Why Food Matters


After listening to my good friend Brendan and his family and friends put on an all-day, food-themed radio show last Saturday, I felt inspired to write a little piece about why food is so important. As many of you know, food has become a topic of great interest in recent years, both in popular culture and in academia. I've had the great benefit of studying under a few anthropologists who are very engaged in the study of food and food related issues - Dr. Jane Gibson at KU, Dr. Donald Stull at KU, and Dr. Michael Paolisso at UMD. All three study different issues and take different approaches to the study of food - Dr. Gibson focuses on local, small-scale food production, Dr. Stull on the meat packing industry and labor conditions in food production, Dr. Paolisso on the watermen of the Chesapeake Bay and their role in the Bay environment. They've all had a significant influence on my own development as an anthropologist and on my understanding of food, but here is why food is important to me...

Food is an entanglement - a knot of threads linking many different things together. In the most fundamental sense, food is one of the most direct points of contact between ourselves as individuals and the world outside of our skin. When we consume, we literally take the world into our selves, and in the process it is transformed and we are transformed by it. This is the power of the Eucharist - when we eat the host and drink the wine we take Christ into our bodies (literally or metaphorically, depending on your point of view) and, by so doing, we Christ becomes a part of us and we become Christ. But even devoid of the religious connotations, the transformation is powerful and meaningful. You are what you eat.

There is a magic, too, in the act of cooking and preparing food. An alchemical process which turns seemingly mundane objects into a work of art. The inedible becomes edible, the bland becomes flavorful.

Eating is a very social act. When we eat with others, our inhibitions are reduced and barriers are broken down. Relationships are built or strengthened when we share a meal. In some cultures, it is a sin to eat alone.

The way we produce our food is also very important. Whether we hunt and gather it, raise it, or cultivate it, our food has a tremendous influence on our collective way of life and our relationship to the environment. Rarely is food production an individual activity, societies are built upon the necessities of working together to produce and exchange food. Changes in the way we use food have brought about dramatic changes in our societies - the shift to agriculture gave rise to civilizations, the introduction of new crops and new growing techniques laid the groundwork for the European Renaissance, the use of fossil fuels and machinery in agriculture has driven the massive population growth of the last century.

Food production is also one of the most direct connection between our cultures and the environment. Throughout the history of human existence, we have altered our landscapes to promote the growth of edible plants and animals and to inhibit the development of less desirable species. Most recently, we've introduced all kinds of new organisms, which we've created by mixing and matching genes, into the environment - and the results of this experiment are still emerging.

Food is entanglement - it ties people together and it ties our selves and our cultures to the world around us. This is why we need, now more than ever, to understand our food and where it comes from.

06 July 2010

A Christian Environmentalism? Pt. 2

This weekend, I listened to Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett. Her guest was Shane Claiborne who writes about and practices "new monasticism." He lives with a group of other Christians, and together they try to live simply and responsibly. This move is not directly related to a desire to be more sustainable, though that motive does come through in the interview. Rather they are motivated by the words of the Bible to care for one another and life as Jesus did. What's especially interesting to me is that Shane was heavily involved in the politicized evangelical movement of the 90s, but turned his back on it when he realized that they weren't actually doing anything to make the world a better place. He didn't directly express his views on abortion or gay marriage, but he did say that the idea that global warming is a hoax meant to distract us from the real issues - abortion and gay marriage - is ridiculous. I thought it was a very nice, thoughtful interview, and one more example of a potential Christian environmentalism.

Here's a link to the show's website with lots of additional information.

02 July 2010

The Sounds of Food

Hey Everyone, my good friend Brendan and his family and friends are going to be putting on an all day food-themed radio show and pot luck tomorrow. You can tune in at the station website. I contributed a couple of items including a gumshoe detective story (The Case of the Red Herring) which Megan and I co-wrote. Below is the full schedule - hope you'll all join in!


BIG POTLUCK MARATHON FOOD RADIO DAY!

THIS IS HAPPENING TOMORROW! Here is what, where, and why is happening.
At an independent radio station in Washington Heights, New York, NY known as Washington Heights Free Radio.
On Saturday, the 3rd of July, 2010, in the year of the Tiger, from 9am to 6pm, Eastern Standard Time.
You will hear people just like you, hard working people, smart people, performing:
Radio Plays
Live Eating
Music
Live Cooking
Poetry
Live Eating
Competitive Cooking
Singing
Live Foraging
More Eating

And believe it or not, you're all invited.


Here is the menu*
9am is Breakfast
-- "Conquering French Omelletes" cooked by Explorers of the Culinary Unknown
-- "Des-AH-U-Knoooooooow" a poem written by Blanka Amezkua, performed by The Food Radio Society
-- "Meat" a poem by Jeremy Trombley, performed by Jeremy Trombley
-- "Caroline on the Forage" Live call in from Caroline Woolard at the Public School forage in Prospect Park, led by Ava Chin
- Additional entertainment undecided
-- "Wild Game" by Richard Newman, found by Kate McMullan, read by Emmett McMullan?
10am is 2nd Breakfast
-- "Conquering Apple Fritters, Mystery Fritters and Donuts" cooked by Explorers of the Culinary Unknown
-- "The 50lb. Cereal Box" written and performed by The Athena Theatre Company
-- "Caroline on the Forage" Live call in from Caroline Woolard at the Public School forage in Prospect Park, led by Ava Chin
-- "Bronze Chef" Starring Bronze Chef Challengers Andrew McMullan and Aimee Lutkin
-- Additional entertainment undecided
11am is Elevensies
-- "Conquering Melon Sorbet, served in Fresh Cut Melon Bowls," prepared by Explorers of the Culinary Unknown
-- "Cooking in the Mountains" With Sherry Mandin.
-- "Caroline on the Forage" Live call in from Caroline Woolard at the Public School forage in Prospect Park, led by Ava Chin
-- "Bronze Chef" Starring Bronze Chef Challengers Andrew McMullan and Aimee Lutkin
-- Additional entertainment undecided
12pm is Brunch
-- "Conquering Fresh Ceviche Tacos" cooked by Explorers of the Culinary Unknown
-- "On Bread Alone" a story written and performed by Kevin Carter
-- "Alien Food" produced by Katie and Jesse Herzog
-- Additional entertainment undecided
1pm is Lunch
-- "Okroshka," a light, cold, summer soup. Cooked by Colin McMullan and The Food Radio Society
-- "My Nachos" Written and performed by Andrew McMullan with Jason McMullan as Daniel Booth as Clarance
-- "Pressure Cooker Love" Written by Brendan McMullan and performed by Aimee Lutkin and Emmett McMullan and The Food Radio Society
-- Additional entertainment undecided
2pm is Snack Time
-- Bruschetta with homemade Mozzarella prepared by The Food Radio Society
-- Too Big To Fail will perform live during snack time
-- Additional entertainment undecided
3pm is Dinner
-- Chicken and Sausage Gumbo cooked by Christine Wang and The Food Radio Society
-- "My Life is Like a Salad" by Sharon Mashihi
-- "The Case of The Red Herring," written by Jeremy Trombley and Megan "to the" MAKSimowicz, Performed by Dan Field, Christine Wang, and The Food Radio Society
-- "Feeding" written by Dan Field with excerpts by Antonin Artaud. Performed by Dan Field and a Mystery Performer
-- Additional entertainment undecided
4pm is Tea Time
-- "Tea, Crumpets, Scones, Jam, Clotted Cream" prepared by The Food Radio Society
-- "Julia Rich Sings" performed by Julia Rich
-- "Kyle Guarco Shows Us How To Eat" A body builder's diet and sundry other things performed by Kyle Guarco
-- Additional entertainment undecided
5pm is Supper
-- "Southern Style BBQ Ribs with Homemade BBQ Sauce" prepared by The Food Radio Society
-- "Seamus Plays Banjo" performed by Seamus McMullan
-- “Ode to an Orange” written and performed by Emmett McMullan
-- Additional entertainment undecided
5:30pm is Dessert
-- "Peach and Sorrel Pie" prepared by The Food Radio Society
-- "Iles Flotantes" or "Floating Islands" a fabulous french peasant dish fit for a king prepared by The Food Radio Society
-- Additional entertainment undecided

By 6pm we will be thoroughly tired of food. and unless you've been eating with us, you'll be very hungry.
Anyone is welcome to come and help us cook and eat and perform throughout the day.
Anyone can listen at whfr.org, just click the ON AIR sign sometime between,
9am and 6pm Eastern Standard Time.
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