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25 March 2011

Queering Ecology

In a recent article in Orion Magazine, Alex Johnson offers lessons for overcoming the Nature/Culture dualism - a false dualism which does far more harm than good.  Here's a quick excerpt:
Let’s stop congratulating ourselves. Instead, let’s give a round of applause to the delicious complexity. Let us call this complexity the queer, and let us use it as a verb. Let us queer our ecology. Cranes can be ancient, but they can also be modern. Might their posterity extend past ours? 
We’ve inherited a culture that takes its dualisms seriously. Nature, on the one hand, is the ideal, the pure, the holy. On the other hand, it is evil, dangerous, and dirty. The problem? There’s no reconciliation. We accept both notions as separate but equal truths and then organize our world around them. Status quo hurrah! Irony be damned. 
Take sexuality, for instance: 
We have come to believe, over our Western cultural history, that heterosexual monogamy is the norm, the natural. People who call gays unnatural presume that Nature is pure, perfect, and predictable. Nature intended for a man and a woman to love each other, they say. Gays act against Nature. And yet: we rip open the Earth. We dominate the landscape, compromising the integrity of the living world. We act as though civilization were something better, higher, more valuable than the natural world. 
Our culture sets Nature as the highest bar for decorum, while simultaneously giving Nature our lowest standard of respect. Nature is at our disposal, not only for our physical consumption, but also for our social construction. We call geese beautiful and elegant and faithful until they are shitting all over the lawn and terrorizing young children. Then we poison their eggs. Or shoot them.
What I’m getting at is this: those who traditionally hold more power in society—be they men over women, whites over any other race, wealthy over poor, straight over queer—have made their own qualities standard, “natural,” constructing a vision of the world wherein such qualities are the norm. And in so doing, they’ve made everyone else’s qualities perverse, against Nature, against God. Even Nature—defined impossibly as the nonhuman—becomes unnatural when it does not fit the desired norm: the gay geese must be affected by hormone pollution!
A man who has sex with a man must identify himself by his perversion, by his difference. If straight is the identity of I am, then gay becomes I am not. Women are not men. Native people are not white. Nature is not human. 
Instead of talking about nonconformity, I want to talk about possibility and unnameably complex reality. What queer can offer is the identity of I am also. I am also human. I am also natural. I am also alive and dynamic and full of contradiction, paradox, irony. Queer knocks down the house of cards and throws them into the warm wind.

20 March 2011

Capitalism Summarized in Two Simple Words

From an ad for Free Phones in the window of a Verizon Wireless store

16 March 2011

The Week of Insanity


I just got off a long week writing and giving two presentations and attending a workshop on social science on the Chesapeake Bay.  The presentations went well, except for a difficult experience with a discussant at one, but I've been reassured many times that this person had no idea what they were talking about.  The first was a presentation on my research in Nevada last summer with a few theoretical pieces about seeing ethnographic methods as interventions and tools for building relationships.  The second was titled "Toward A Cosmopolitical Anthropology" in which I critiqued both essentialist and constructivist theoretical approaches and proposed a new way of seeing anthropology as building worlds.  This second will be put online soon, I hope.

What I want to talk about now, though, is the workshop I attended.  It was interesting - a mix of scientists, managers, and social scientists.  We were there to promote the integration of social and natural sciences in studying issues surrounding the Chesapeake Bay.  My advisor is one of the main social scientists working in the area, so he was leading it and me and my fellow students were there to help out.  What was most interesting to me was how the natural scientists and the managers were all talking about "behavior change" - how do we get people and communities to do what we want them to do?  And this led them largely to social marketing strategies.  Essentially, they had the idea that they know what needs to be done, but can't get people to do it.  Social scientists know how to get people to do things, so they need our help.

Every social scientist I talked to was disturbed by this effect, but no-one stood up and said "No, we don't have the answers and we can't make people do what we want them to do."  And at the end, a panel of three management people got up and basically told social scientists what we need to do to make ourselves relevant to them - limiting our role to providing existing data rather than new research, giving them articles that we think are important, etc.  It was really quite problematic all around.

What they don't see is that all of this is about values - what do we (collectively) want from the bay and why?  The answer to that will be different for watermen, for farmers, for scientists, for urban people, etc.  So, instead of trying to tell people what they should want - which will always fail - we need to start negotiating to get what we all want, or at least some reasonable compromise.  I'm not sure if it's possible, but it certainly isn't with the mentality that those folks brought to the table.

09 March 2011

Why Althusser Was Wrong


 In my Theories of the Past course, we just read Althusser's Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.  This was my first reading of Althusser (hopefully my Social Theory professor doesn't find out - I was supposed to have read it in that class last semester!), and in our discussion I was struck by how wrong he was.  Not that there aren't gems of insight embedded in the essay, but the overall argument simply doesn't hold up empirically.  As I understand it, and as it came out in our class discussion and in the explanation provided by our professor, Althusser's claim is a) essentialist, because he claims that there is one dominant ideology and that this ideology is eternal, and b) functionalist, because all thought and behavior within an ideological system - even those that appear to contradict it - inevitably reinforce the dominant ideology.  The two are mutually reinforcing.  The dominant ideology is eternal because there is no difference within it - it is internally homogeneous - and all actions reinforce the dominant ideology because there can be no other ideology than the dominant one.

As I said, this doesn't bear out empirically.  If these two premises were true, then there would be no change, and ideology would have no history.  But Althusser himself claims that ideologies have histories - that they come from somewhere - but this cannot be if ideology is internally homogeneous, for where would they come from?  If ideology is internally homogenous, then it is also ahistorical, and if it is ahistorical then it is essentialist.  If, on the other hand, ideology is not internally homogeneous, then it is not the totalizing force that Althusser claims - all action and thought within a system doesn't inevitably turn toward the dominant ideology.  This leaves room for agency and change - thus hope. 

I realize that Althusser has been heavily critiqued by post-structuralists like de Certeau, and by feminists, post-colonialists, etc.  I'm not saying anything new here, but it's interesting to finally have read some of his work myself and to have been able to see through it the way they have.

02 March 2011

Why Non-Human Agency?

We've been reading Shanks' and Tilley's Re-Constructing Archaeology for my Theories of the Past course, so I've been thinking a lot about constructivism.  What I've realized is that, in order to truly move beyond Modernity, we have to have non-human agency - without it we will always fail.  I've come up with three reasons for this - maybe there are more, so feel free to share if I've missed something, but here they are:

1) It's a matter of respect for the other entities that occupy our world - it's unfair to simply impose our interpretations upon those other entities.  We can't do it to other people, so why should we do it to non-humans?  This is actually fundamental, in a way, because Modern resource exploitation is predicated on the notion that non-humans do not have agency - that they are simply resources for us to manipulate to our will.  To acknowledge non-human agency gets us away from this Modernist fallacy.

2) It gives us a solid ground to stand upon when making political or ethical claims.  This is not the pre-existing, essentialist ground that positivists claim, but a (literally) constructed ground which we have to build by composing relations between various human and non-human agencies.  Without non-human agency, we have no way of comparing different interpretations or constructions - all are equally false/true.  Thus the interpretation of global warming skeptics is equal to the interpretations of climate scientists - there is no basis for distinction, and the only significant measure is how many people one can win over to their interpretation.  With non-human agency, we can see how different interpretations or realities are constructed from relationships between human and non-human agencies, and make comparisons.  These comparisons are based not on how "true" or "false" the interpretations/realities are, but, as Latour mentions, upon how well or poorly constructed they are.

3) It gives us a better idea of what needs to be done to effect change.  What's needed is not simply to interpret a given pattern in a politically or ethically appropriate way, but to develop a context of relations which makes change possible.  In other words, it's not enough simply to imagine the world the way we want it; we have to build the world we want to live in by constructing relationships between various agencies.  This is likely going to take some time and effort, and we have to start from the materials we have on hand and deal with their idiosyncrasies. 
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