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23 November 2011

The Concept of Culture ... It Keeps Coming Back...

Culture is not a container. We treat it as such when we speak of the culture(s) in which we live, or of moving about within a culture. We treat it as such when we talk about culture as a holistic system, of which we are all parts.

Culture as container suggests a (more or less) totalizing, (more or less) homogeneous, and (more or less) unchanging system.  This view does disservice to the many subjects who are said to live within them.  In spite of varying levels of independence and agency ascribed to subjects, culture as container ultimately limits their ability to affect and alter the system.  They may be granted the ability to move about freely within the system, but they are not allowed to create something new.

In place of the container model, we can look at culture as a set of relations between many different kinds of entities.  Not something we live within, but many things (material and semiotic, human and non-human) that we live amongst. In this sense, culture can be seen as a heterogeneous assemblage of assemblages - a heterogeneous, and historically contingent set of relations of sets of relations.  Rituals, politics, modes of thought and behavior - these are heterogeneous assemblages which we as subjects (also heterogeneous assemblages) find ourselves amongst.  We live with them, interact with them in complex ways, and they affect and alter us just as we affect and alter them. 

If we are to make a difference with anthropology, then we need a concept of culture that leaves open that possibility: a complex concept of culture that does not reduce our agency to the mere ability to move, and that does not reduce culture to a container.

16 November 2011

Elinor Ostrom on Sustainable Development and the Tragedy of the Commons

Elinor Ostrom is a 2009 Nobel Laureate for Economic Sciences. She has published extensively on common property regimes and the ways people have found to manage common resources without succumbing to the "tragedy of the commons." In this video she provides a broad overview of her work and its relevance to sustainable development.

04 November 2011

Media, Affect, and the Object

Tomorrow is the 5th of November - Guy Fawkes Day in the UK - and some protesters in the Occupy and Anonymous movements are planning to recreate the climax scene of V for Vendetta in which thousands of individuals wearing Guy Fawkes masks show up at Parliament to protest their fascist government.  It's fascinating to me how the Guy Fawkes mask has become a symbol of resistance - the trajectory of events that has lead to its being identified with those movements and anti-fascism in general.

Historically, Guy Fawkes day was not a celebration of anti-fascism or even of Guy Fawkes himself (except, perhaps, among radical Protestant groups).  Indeed, Fawkes was a national enemy as a result of having attempted to kill King James I.  The gunpowder plot was not, however, a political statement against monarchy or the aristocratic society of Briton at the time; it was a religious rebellion against Catholicism.  The call to "remember remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot" was not a call to remember the brave resistance of a lone fighter against a tyrannous regime, but a call to remember the treasonous act of a lone terrorist - much as we in the US remember 9/11 every year, and our sentiments towards Osama Bin Laden.

Effigies of Guy Fawkes were traditionally burned on Guy Fawkes Night in order to celebrate the fact that the King had survived the plot.  These celebrations were, until the late 19th century, often violent affairs with rowdy drunken crowds, bonfires, fireworks, Protestants ranting against the pope, and Catholics celebrating their religion.  The toned down and de-religiousized celebrations of the 20th century were often in danger of being abandoned by an uninterested populace. Certainly the sentiment towards Fawkes was always complex, reflecting the heterogeneity of British national identity, but on the whole he was not seen as a hero, but rather as a traitor.

So why has all of this changed?  Why has Guy Fawkes become a symbol of resistance, and why is Guy Fawkes Night now the night for protest and uprising?  I'm sure you all know the answer - V for Vendetta.  This is a brilliant film (based on a graphic novel by the same name) about a man whose life was shattered by government experiments and a fascist regime.  He has taken it upon himself to upset that regime, and awaken the populace from their complacent tolerance of it - all while protecting his identity behind a Guy Fawkes mask.  That mask used in the film is the one hackers and protesters have latched on to as their symbol of resistance, and as a result it has become a top seller on (and Time Warner, which owns the rights to the mask is paid a fee for every sale). 

So, does the inconsistency between the use of the mask now and the tradition of Guy Fawkes matter?  I don't think so.  The mask and the image has been appropriated.  This object, which had a certain symbolic association attached to it carried one affective resonance prior to the film V for Vendetta, and now that another symbolic association has been attached it carries a completely different affective resonance.  The meaning of the mask has been shaped by tradition, and now by the film, but also by the complex interests of the protesters and hackers who wear it, and, I would argue, it carries its own meaning apart from what anyone would impose upon it (not to mention the material and symbolic flows that go into it's production and distribution).  It's a perfect example of how an object can be transferred from one assemblage to another, thus altering the shape of the assemblage as well as its own shape and meaning.  A thorough study of the Guy Fawkes mask would be a fascinating case for an Object-Oriented Ontology research project.
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