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28 February 2011

Mumblings About Structure and Agency

Structure is the proliferation of agency.  This is what Latour is saying, I think; maybe he even said it that directly - I can't remember.  In other words, we create structures by coming into relation with others around us - human and non - and in doing so we create new agencies (saying agents sounds wrong here...too discrete, encapsulated, or isolated).  It's these agencies that we refer to as structure - they constrain and enable our ability to act in the world. 

It only makes sense... the more other agencies there are - the more entities we must interact with - the more we'll feel moved in certain directions.  It helps also when these agencies tend to line up in certain directions, but that's not always the case - is, in fact, unlikely, I suspect.  Why didn't we see it sooner?  We already talk about structures as if they have agency - constraining and enabling are both active engagements.  The problem is that we abstracted Structure and failed to see the others agencies around us.  We wanted to see Structure as one big thing, and not a proliferation of myriad little things (agencies). 

Ooo... here's a thought... agents of structure... like agents of the CIA, the Kremlin or the Gestapo.  They're undercover - we don't know they're there!  Best not to think about it too much... that way lies paranoia!

24 February 2011

The Goal of the Political

"... the goal of the political activist should be to be like a knot of wood. The goal should be to occupy the position of a singularity that must be navigated. This would be the case regardless of whether or not one is sympathetic to the politician or shares her ideology. It is only in this way that the political subject can play a role in forming the social space."   -Levi Bryant, Larval Subjects
Levi Bryant has an excellent post on the meaning of politics and the goals of the political activist.  I would argue, though that being a knot is not the only goal of the political activist - this sounds too static and passive to me.  Rather, the goal should be to build relations to create the world that we envision.  The more relations we build - in Levi's terms, perhaps, the more objects we construct - the more others will have to navigate our system.  Hopefully, one that is more just and sustainable than what we have now.  That may ultimately require compromise, but we should hold our to our vision as an ideal - we're all entitled to that ideal even if we can never really make it actual. 
In other words, we must all be teleological - strive for ends - but recognize that the world is not teleological.

21 February 2011

How to Fix the Deficit

 Adrian Ivakhiv has a nice post up about building a progressive Tea Party.  The key would be highlighting corporate tax evasion, and building a movement around making them pay their share based on the notion of fiscal responsibility that the Tea Party has been promoting.  After reading it, Megan pointed out - a US version of the UK Uncut movement that protested Vodafone for tax evasion. 

The only flaw here that I can see is that Americans have been indoctrinated to believe that taxes are bad, and that corporations do their share through a kind of trickle-down effect - providing jobs, funding innovation, etc.  I'm not sure that British people or Europeans in general have bought this same ideology.  Adrian points out that 61% of Americans support taxing the wealthy to reduce the deficit, but does that really translate into a movement to stop corporate tax evasion?  I don't know, but I'm going to support them anyway, and you should too!  Let's hope it catches on.

PS - They're planning a nation-wide event this coming Saturday.  See the website for details.

14 February 2011

What Next?

(This post is cross-posted at The Prism)

The dictator has been handed his pink slip, and not so quietly, been shown to the door.  What then?  A few days of revelry, yes, then the protesters get kicked out of the square - the time has come to get back to business.  But will it be business as usual, or will there be real change?  Now is the time when that question will truly be answered.

Of course it won't be business as usual in the strict sense - Mubarak is gone, and nothing's going to bring him back.  But how deep will the changes go?  Will the Egyptian military still control the country?  Will the emergency rules be released?  Will there be a crack-down on the protesters?  Will the next elections be truly free and fair?  Who will lead?  What other social and political changes will occur as a result?  These questions remain unanswered as of yet.

You see, it's one thing to take down a dictator - to deconstruct a regime.  It's a marvelous thing, to be sure: a moment of beautiful chaos where the passions of the populace are ignited and the affective resonance carries the movement forward.  Wave upon wave crashing upon the rigid cliffs - no rock can withstand the power of the water!

But once the deconstruction has been done, the real work is only just beginning.  The aftermath is not so momentous, not so beautiful or romantic, but it is, by far, more important (and, in my opinion, far more interesting anthropologically) than the revolution.  Now is the time when a new world can be built out of the rubble.  Now is the time when the questions posed above will be answered.  What will that new world look like?  I don't know.

Kim Stanley Robinson defines Utopia as "Struggle Forever" but too often we stop fighting when the battle is only half won.  My hope is that the Egyptian people don't stop now; that they continue the fight, and build a better society for themselves and for the world.

08 February 2011

Another Phrase I've Been Misinterpreting!

Yesterday, I mentioned that I had been misinterpreting Korzybsky's famous catch-phrase "The map is not the territory" all along.  Well, maybe not misinterpreting, but not interpreting to its fullest extent.  I realized that part of what it means is that the abstraction and the thing it represents are ontologically distinct - a map of DC is not just a representation of DC but also a completely different entity with a life and trajectory all its own. 

Today, I realized that there is another phrase that I've been only partially understanding for a long time now: McLuhan's catch-phrase "the medium is the message."  The point that I've missed is that there is no such thing as a tabula rasa - a blank slate.  Even a blank slate is a slate, and a message inscribed on a slate will carry a different meaning from the same message, the same words, inscribed here on my blog.  I think this relates somehow to the map-territory relationship and Hacking's interactive kinds, but I'm not quite sure how yet. 

With regard to Chichén Itzá, the site we've been discussing in my Theories of the Past course (as a result of reading Casteñeda's In the Museum of Maya Culture), it means that anthropologists aren't inscribing Mayan Civilization on a blank slate (or mystical wax tablet, to use Casteñeda's metaphor).  Instead, the ruins themselves are a medium, and therefore also part of the message... This gets us back to the agency of the thing being represented, and the relationship between the abstraction and the thing itself.

07 February 2011

Inventing Culture(s)

Levi Bryant has an excellent post up about Ian Hacking's concept of Interactive Kinds: entities that are affected and altered by - and at the same time affect and alter - the categories in which they are placed.  I felt while reading it that this is an important point for contemporary anthropology in moving beyond constructivism.  It allows us to understand the complex relationship between social constructions (abstractions, representations) and the entities they represent. 

At the moment, I'm reading a book called In the Museum of Mayan Culture by Quetzil Casteñeda for my Theories of the Past course.  It's a good book - a constructivist reading of Mayan culture and archaeology - and I think it poses a valuable critique, but there are a few points that leave me questioning. One of the main points of the book is to show the role of anthropologists in inventing Culture and cultures.  He claims that anthropologists, by writing about different cultures (including the Maya), have largely created those culture.  This sparked in me an idea - similar to Hacking's Interactive Kinds - that the construct that results from ethnographic research is an abstraction.

What do we create when we do ethnographic research?   Primarily we generate ethnographies - at least this is the typical product that anthropology generated in the past.  These ethnographies are like pictures of a culture - snapshots in time and space.  They only capture a portion of the thing itself, and they don't change to reflect the thing as it is now but can only represent the thing as it was when the image was taken.  Thus all of the critiques of ethnographies.

But it's important, I think, to recognize that the image is not the thing, and the map is not the territory.  This is the real lesson of Korzybsky's famous phrase (I've been misinterpreting it this whole time!): the abstraction is separate ontologically from the thing it represents.  It is never the same as the "real thing" but it is no less real, and it has a life and existence all its own.  In anthropology this means that the ethnography is not the culture, and we ought not mistake the construction of an ethnography for the construction of a culture.

Then it gets complicated with Hacking's interactive kinds.  The "real thing" - the culture in our case - might take the abstraction - the ethnography - and incorporate it into itself.  The abstraction then becomes partially constitutive of the "real thing."  But does this justify the claim to "inventing culture"?  I think not.  The ethnography would only be partially constitutive of the culture - it wouldn't come to define it, except maybe in extreme cases.  It simply doesn't have the power to totalize, and its relationship to the actual culture would be complex so that the result would be unpredictable.

There's a lot to think about here, and I apologize that this post isn't more coherent (I'm a little out of practice).  But this is all entangled with issues of the agency of the people and societies that we study and also with the agency of non-humans.  The constructivist approach got a lot right, but I think there's a lot of work that needs to be done to better understand the relationship between the construction and reality.  This also makes me wonder what Gregory Bateson would have thought of the constructivist turn in anthropology... ?

04 February 2011


I probably haven't been following the events in Egypt as much as most of you, and probably not as much as I ought to be, but it seems impossible not to hear about it and everyone seems to have their opinions.  I have to say I have mixed feelings about it all, mostly because I'm not completely sure what's going on.  I suppose no-one really knows what's going on or what's going to come of all of this.  Adrian describes the situation well:
"all that there are (essentially) are moments — relational alignments opening up onto particular sets of possibilities, of which some become actualized and others do not, through the activity of the singular points of agency woven into each of them. But revolutionary moments are big moments, those in which many highly dynamic processes converge to create possibilities for radical change spanning layers and levels of activity that rarely get aligned all together in one fell swoop."
I read Graham's posts as he evacuated with a sense of horror.  I'm not sure who's responsible for these seemingly senseless acts of violence, but it's quite disturbing.  But I've also seen some bits of inspiration coming out of the chaos.  I'm not sure what to think or how this will all turn out, but all we can do is let the Egyptian people decide their own fate and hope for the best. 
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