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28 October 2011

Models of Agency

Levi Bryant recently posted a wonderful explanation of attractors, and, in the comments, a nice explanation of how the idea relates to his "regimes of attraction."  As I think about the example he uses - a marble dropped into a bowl from one edge - I enjoy it more and more as a metaphor for structure and agency.  By modifying the metaphor gradually, we can see a variety of different social theories playing out.

In the most basic example, one positions a marble at the edge of a bowl and allows it to drop.  The marble will fall towards the center of the bowl, bypass it, roll up the other side, and then back down.  This will repeat several times until the marble eventually comes to rest at the bottom of the bowl (referred to as the attractor).  This is a good description of a fully deterministic system - the marble has no choice, no agency, no ability to alter its own course.  It's path is entirely determined by the shape of the bowl and the force of gravity acting upon it.  There is no escaping the attractor.  Now, the shape of the bowl may be different or the force of gravity may be altered by placing it on a different planet, and these will result in different outcomes, but the system is no less deterministic.  This reminds me of Althusser, Adorno and other highly structuralist theorists for whom the system overdetermines our day-to-day lives.

In another example - slightly more complex - the marble is dropped, but this time it has some degree of ability to move about within the bowl.  It will still be drawn towards the attractor, but now it may move on it's own to some extent.  Thus instead of falling straight towards the attractor, it moves around it, passes through it, or dodges it - nevertheless, the attractor is always fixed and always exerts some force upon the marble.  This corresponds to a deterministic system in which some small degree of choice is accepted.  Individuals within a system are thought to move about within it, but are always drawn to a particular outcome determined still by structure of the system.  This brings to mind Foucault, Bourdieu, and de Certeau for whom there is a degree of choice when moving about in the system, but our lives are still partly overdetermined by the system.

In a third example, the marble is dropped, but as it moves through the bowl, it alters the shape of the bowl very slightly.  So, at every move, the attractor is slightly altered causing the marble to move more freely and not to be drawn deterministically to a single point.  This is the beginning of real agency, in my opinion (as opposed to the false agency granted in the previous example) - the ability of an entity to alter and affect the world around it.  This is reminiscent of Giddens' theory of structuration where agents within a system play an active role in its composition.  Imagine many marbles placed within the bowl, all altering it with their own aims and ends, creating a complex movement within the system.

A final approach is even more revolutionary, and, I think, is what Bryant, Latour, Harman, Ivakhiv, Michael, and many others (including myself) are striving for.  In this system, the bowl is not seen as a field upon which the marbles move, and which determines their actions to some degree - whether they are able to shape it or not.  Rather the bowl is simply a part of the assemblage with an ability to act upon the marbles, and the marbles are a part of the system able to act upon one another as well as the bowl.  In this case, the marbles are dropped into the bowl - they alter the bowl, they alter one another, and the bowl alters each of them in different ways.  Thus there is no field, no structure, no single object which all others can be reduced to.  There is only an assemblage - an ecosystem one could say - of different actors (human and non, material and semiotic, etc.) altering and affecting one another, composing a complex system together in every moment.  This, to me, is the most brilliant innovation in social theory in ages!

20 October 2011

Anarchism, The State, and Corporate Power

I am an anarchist.  Meaning "without rulers" (from the Greek, an = Without, archos = ruler, leader), not "without rules" as most people seem to think.  What that means in the most basic sense is that I want power to be as limited and dispersed as possible.  There will never be a society without power; the important thing is the relative equilibrium of power in a society.

Does that mean that I am anti-State?  In the broadest sense, it does.  To the extent that the State is a center of power, I am opposed to the presence of a strong state.  However, there are many other possible centers of power - now, most perniciously, the center of power has shifted to the economic sector and corporations in particular.  The major fallacy of economic libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism, and just the general right-wing philosophy is that it sees the economy as a space of freedom where individuals compete freely.  However, this view is clearly false - the creation of corporations, and the possibility of hoarding wealth means that power can easily be concentrated in a few hands.  Ultimately, these approaches will default to plutocracy, which is merely a dictatorship of the wealthy, and never to true democracy.

The founding fathers saw that the best way to limit power in a complex society is to set different powers competing with one another.  This is why we have the separation of powers in the US, and the separation of Church and State.  That was effective to a point, but with the emergence of massive corporations, massive wealth disparities, and the global economy, economic powers have dominated and subsumed both the State power and the power of the Church (the Christian Right, at least, the Church on the whole has declined in power with the prevalence of secularism).

How can this be remedied?  From a truly anarchist perspective, the solution is not to abandon the State, but rather to bolster it and set it in direct opposition to economic power.  That requires us to be constantly on our guard to prevent corporate powers from taking over State power.  This is what Occupy Wall Street is about.

Ultimately and ideally, the State would not be necessary, and economic power would be more difficult to amass.  However, I see no contradiction from an anarchist point of view, between supporting state regulation of business and desiring an ultimate end to the State and the equal distribution of all forms of power.  The latter is an idealistic end towards which we can aim, the former a pragmatic approach to dealing with contemporary reality.

18 October 2011

Aldous Huxley on the Contradiction of Structure and Agency


I recently remembered this quote from Aldous Huxley's Island (specifically, the Old Raja's Notes on What's What), and it seems to speak to some of the issues I've discussed with regard to structure and agency, as well as the concept of freedom.
The dancer's grace and, forty years on, her arthritis---both are functions of the skeleton. It is thanks to an inflexible framework of bones that the girl is able to do her pirouettes, thanks to the same bones, grown a little rusty, that the grandmother is condemned to a wheelchair. Analogously, the firm support of a culture is the prime-condition of all individual originality and creativeness; it is also their principal enemy. The thing in whose absence we cannot possibly grow into a complete human being is, all too often, the thing that prevents us from growing.  

It's further evidence that almost everything I ever needed to know is in this little portion of this short novel.  Actually, with Bateson and Huxley, I think I could be set for life - maybe with a little Latour thrown in. 

17 October 2011

The Site(s) of Production

The traditional Capitalist distinction between the job as the site of production and the home as the site of consumption must be abandoned.  Even some forms of Marxism maintain the distinction, though feminists have fought against it for years.  From the feminist perspective, the distinction marginalizes women whose work is traditionally performed at home.  This work is then not considered "production" even though it is an essential part of our economic system (i.e. child care, food production, cleaning, etc.).
 

From an ecological perspective, however, the critique goes much further.  The problem is that, under the Capitalist dichotomy, the act of consumption and the role of consumer are naturalized so that everyone expects to be a consumer of products that are produced elsewhere.  In that sense, consumption cannot be avoided.  However, if we were to view all acts as acts of production, then it becomes easier to see how different ways of behaving can be better or worse for the environment.

What we traditionally think of as "consumption" is actually a means of production - we take what was made in one place and transform it into something else (often garbage).  Recycling is an alternative act of production to that of discarding, which extends the life of the materials further.  Composting can be thought of the same way.  Certainly, we always lose something in every act of production (that's thermodynamics for ya), and so, every act of production can also be viewed as an act of consumption.  But if we think of ourselves primarily as producers, we may try harder to make our production as beneficial as possible.  Rather than merely discarding something (and thus producing garbage), we can think about transforming it into something useful or at least less harmful.

13 October 2011

Theory and Meta-Theory

Recently thinking about the role of theory, I realized that, while a great deal of time in anthropology is spent either collecting and analyzing data or discussing theory, there is relatively little time spent thinking about what theory is and how it should be used and applied.  Either that or thinking about theory is lumped in with the theory itself so that the two become confused.  I think we need something like a meta-theory or a theory about theory - one that steps back from the debates about structuralism, post-structuralism, positivism, materialism, etc., and talks more generally about what it means to theorize, the relationship between theory and data, and how theory ought to be applied.  Not that these would be universal rules, independent of

Like I said, I think some people already do this, it's just often confused with the act of theorizing itself.  For example, I think that Bruno Latour's principle of irreduction (that nothing can be reduced to anything else) is meta-theory, because it doesn't necessarily tell us how to interpret data directly, but it tells us what interpretation ought to look like.  Other times, meta-theory is assumed and unquestioned. For example, when we say that theory should have a recursive relationship to data such that theory is amended with new data, and new data is interpreted according to existing theory - this is a meta-theoretical statement that, more or less, goes unquestioned (at least in Modern societies).

I think the purpose of ethics is, in part and partially, to describe a meta-theory.  Ethics has other roles including a kind of meta-methodological role that ensures that data is collected in an appropriate manner.  Also, meta-theory is not only ethical (i.e. the example above of the relationship between theory and data), but ethics, in some sense, tells us how theory should be applied, and how we decide what theories to utilize in a given research project.

I think this area has been relatively underexplored, but is full of potential to generate new insights into the process of research, and the role of theory.

09 October 2011

Latour Reviews Haraway


Just doing some browsing on AnthroSource today, I came across this review written by Bruno Latour for American Anthropologist about Donna Haraway's book Simians, Cyborgs, and Women.  It's interesting - he's mildly critical but sympathetic, saying that she is torn between a modernist tendency to fight power, a post-modernist tendency to prevent any kind of grand unification, and what he calls a nonmodernist desire for an "anthropology of science" or "anthropology of the Western world."  This confusion along with her complex prose and her unfocused "field of study," Latour argues, make the book difficult to decipher. 

Just thought I'd share, since these are two of my favorite theorists, and I love to see how their paths overlap now and then.

07 October 2011

The Concept of Culture Revisited.... Again...

Recently I was thinking about the concept of culture again, and I think I had an insight into why it's been so troubling for anthropologists.  I think there is a confusion between two very different ways of thinking about culture - the holistic and the particular.  We want to be a holistic discipline, and some definitions of culture reinforce that - think of Morgan's definition as "that complex whole which includes...." or Leslie White's definition as "man's extrasomatic means of adaptation."  These are all fine, but then there are other definitons which indicated that culture is just one part of a system among many other parts - politics, economics, society, etc.  This is the case whenever we talk about cultural factors influencing outcomes, as these cultural factors conflict with various policies.  It is also the case with cognitive theories of culture, and many other approaches to measuring culture.

The problem, I think, is that these two approaches to culture get used interchangeably and are often confused with one another.  When you say that something is cultural, to I take you to mean that it is reflective of a whole system or do I take you to mean that it is one factor among many in a larger complex system?  There's often no way to tell unless you spell it out explicitly.  But it cannot be both.  If culture is a complex whole, then it subsumes economics and politics.  If it's a part, then politics and economics are external to it.  (I suppose Levi Bryant's strange mereology could explain this, but I'm not sure I buy into that yet).

I suspect that these two concepts may map onto colonial discourse.  When we talk about culture as a whole, what comes to mind are "primitive" groups whose lives are depicted as being subsumed by traditional (and irrational) beliefs and values.  When we talk about ourselves, on the other hand, we tend to think of our political and economic institutions as having risen out of the culturl mire to a more rational form.  Thus, culture in Western societies is one part among many.

Basically, I think we have to pick one or the other, stick with it no matter what group we're talking about, and be explicit about which definition we're using.  I'm starting to think that the particular approach is the way to go.  It's more practical, since it's very difficult, if not impossible, to know a whole system, and, as I've argued recently, there's not much you can do with a whole system even if you do know it.  Instead, I'm thinking of culture as that which politics, society, and economics leaves out: a kind of foundational set of influences which interact with economics, politics, and society in complex ways - the reason none of them or even all of them taken together can ever be compete.  Culture is why things don't go as expected when people enact legislation or change the economy - it is the confounding remainder.

04 October 2011

Apropos of my last post....

... a friend of mine just sent me this link with the following video.


Nobody Can Predict The Moment Of Revolution from ivarad on Vimeo.

On Making a Difference

As I've mentioned before, I recently wrote a post for Ryan Anderson's blog Anthropologies. In it I argued that the purpose of anthropology is to "make a difference," and that the idea of "engaging wider audiences" ought to be secondary - a means to make a difference rather than an end in itself. This idea of "making a difference" has been with me for a while, but I've written little about it so far. So here I'd like to give some thoughts on what it means to make a difference and how I think it can be done.

First of all, there are some underlying assumptions that need to be cleared up.  One of these is that there is a world apart from our perception and/or representation of it (rejecting solipsism and extreme constructivism), and that, while we may never be able to completely know that world (because we are situated within it) we can contact it - we can alter and affect it, just as it can alter and affect us.


Another assumption is that the world is perpetually becoming.  This is what the second law of thermodynamics teaches us.  Time has an arrow, and entropy cannot be reversed, therefore, every moment is new.  As a result, we can only make a difference.  The question is, is it a difference which is the same or is it a difference that is different.  That is, is the difference we make one which recreates in the new moment the relations which persisted before, or is it one which creates new relations?  Every system will succumb to entropy, but a system can be reinforced or maintained by continually adding energy to it - in other words, by working to keep it around.  Think of a house or a car; if you repair it often, it will last longer.  As soon as you stop repairing it, it starts to decay.  It will likely decay either way, but faster if you don't do anything to fix it (that is, if you don't put energy into the system).  The same is true for any system - social, organic, mechanical, etc. 

Recently, I sat in a class and listened to a woman from USAID talk about some biodiversity conservation projects she had been involved in.  One involved growing chili peppers around farms to keep elephants out of farms (thus, hopefully, enlisting the farmers' help in preventing elephant poaching), and another involved helping people in Africa start farms so that they would stop some destructive fishing practices.  As I listened to her, I felt torn.  I'm generally skeptical of USAID anyway, thanks to an old professor who had worked with them in the past, but now I felt torn between wanting to be optimistic about these projects and this underlying cynicism I have towards the agency.  But what bothered me was that every story she told somehow involved bringing these people into the market system - creating a market for chili peppers, teaching people to farm so that they can sell their goods on the market and earn money to live.  What I realized is that, while USAID may be helping these people survive within the market a bit better, they do nothing to address the fact that it is the market system, which dominates the world today, that is causing a good deal of their problems in the first place. 

In essence, by using market forces to solve these peoples' problems, USAID is reinforcing and maintaining (fighting entropy) the very system that is causing a great deal of those problems.  For people who recognize this problem, the typical response is a reification of the system.  In other words, it is the system that is the problem and any small-scale changes are simply band-aids. Ultimately the solution that presents itself logically is revolutionary action to overthrow the system.  But this path is so fraught with problems that it's opponents have little trouble in branding revolutionaries as naive, idealistic, young folks who don't know how the "real world" works.  This is the classic conflict between making small changes that help a few people at a time versus changing the system - a prospect that is difficult to imagine, let alone implement.

What the revolutionaries don't see (they may, but it's often discounted) is that the system is composed of small relations, and that the system as a whole - where such a thing exists - is not something we can manipulate.  You have your revolution, you and your vanguard take control, you seize the means of production, the means of ideological production, and the political structure, you make your changes, but still you get feedback - still there are people who don't agree with the changes you're making, still there are people who resist, or people who simply don't fit into your nice neat system.  What do you do with them?  Past revolutions have treated them as "counter-revolutionary" and thrown them in prison or worse.  Is that what a just world looks like?

But there is hope.  Small changes to the small relations that compose a system can and do make a difference to the system.  The problem with band-aid solutions such as those that USAID supports is not that they are small in scale, but that they replicate the existing set of relations.  A successful solution will create not only new relations, but new kinds of relations - new possible ways of interacting.  These new kinds of relations may or may not directly undermine the existing set of relations, or the system as it is, but their very existence undermines the system by taking away some of the energy that goes into replicating it (thus causing it to succumb to entropy).  The more different kinds of relations exist, the more likely the system will transform or collapse, but also, the more opportunities people have for surviving or coping with such a collapse.

An example of this is the work of J.K. Gibson-Graham.  Rather than inciting revolution or giving in to market forces, they've chosen to solve small-scale, real world problems in ways that ultimately undermine the capitalist system.  By deconstructing representations of capitalism, and encouraging people to find non-capitalist resources within their communities, they have created new kinds of relations both within these communities and between communities.  In other words, they have helped to foster a "globalization otherwise" (in the words of the World Social Forum "Another World is Possible"). 

Now there's a values judgment that needs to be considered.  We can create new kinds of relations, but novelty is not the value that ought to reign.  New forms of oppression are still novel.  The goal, in my opinion, is to create new kinds of relations that are also more just and more sustainable than those that exist.  At the same time, there are just and sustainable relations that already exist, and where those cannot be improved upon, they ought to be maintained - why fix it if it's not broken? 

The key ideas to take away from this are: 1) Making a difference takes work (energy), but if you're working you can't help but make a difference, 2) the question, then, is what kind of difference are you making? 3) the difference you ought to make is one which creates new relations or maintains existing relations that are just and sustainable rather than creating or maintaining relations that are oppressive and destructive.  So ask yourself whenever you undertake any project - no matter how big or small - what kinds of relations am I creating or maintaining through this practice, and are those the kinds of relations I want?  We* create the world anew in every moment - what kind of world are you creating, and what kind of world do you want to create?


*By "we" I don't mean just humans - I mean all living entities, and, to some extent, non-living entities as well.

PS - Another critique of small changes is that they often tend to be "personal choice" changes, and often "consumer choice" changes.  This critique holds here too.  Personal choice changes - changing a light bulb, buying food at a farmer's market, etc. - do not create new kinds of relations.  In fact, to the extent that they are consumer choice changes, they will replicate the existing consumer capitalist system.  That's not to say that changing light bulbs and buying from farmer's markets is bad, but it's important to realize that these are differences which don't necessarily make a difference.

03 October 2011

Anthropologies Issue 7: Anthropology with Purpose

The new issue of Ryan Anderson's excellent blog Anthropologies is now available with a post written by yours truly. But there are many other (and better) posts, so browse around and enjoy!
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