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27 December 2009

Relationships Between

The more I think about it and the more I read philosophy, the more convinced I become that the key element of existence is not objects as such, but the relationships that constitute them, both internally and externally. If you deny the relationships between, then you fall into a trap. Where do you stop? At what point do you know that you've encountered the ding an sich, the thing-in-itself, or just some reified aggregate? You must always be searching for the smallest object, breaking everything down into its component parts. The universe becomes nothing more than an aggregate of particles, unless you posit some external, transcendent essence.

"'I' affirms a separate and abiding me-substance, 'am' denies the fact that all existence is relationship and change. 'I am' two tiny words, but what an enormity of untruth."
- Island, Aldous Huxley

By focusing on the relationships between, however, we can understand existence in all its complexity. The biologist studies relationships between organs and cells in a body, the ecologist studies relationships between species, the sociologist and anthropologist study relationships between people. This framework provides a whole new way of thinking - new epistemology, a new ontology, a new metaphysics and a new ethics.
Do an experiment - for a day, an hour, a minute - look at the things around you and think of them not as objects-in-themselves, but as being constituted by relationships both internally and externally. And don't just think about the parts - i.e. my book is composed of pages with ink bound in cover - think of the history, the social context - i.e. my book is composed also of a writer's thoughts, a genre, a publishing and distribution system, and each of these has its own history and context. Furthermore it has a relationship to me - why do I own it, why am I reading it (or not, as the case may be), why do I like it (or not, as the case may be), what personal history went into those decisions? Try it, and let me know what happens.

19 December 2009

Jaded Colonialism and American Naiveté in Greene's The Quiet American

The book takes place in Vietnam during the war, but prior to the arrival of American forces. In this scene, Fowler (an English journalist) and Pyle (an American economic attaché with some secret dealings going on) are sitting in a guard tower on the road to Tanyin after their car broke down. Across from them sit two very scared Vietnamese guards who are primarily concerned with staying alive through the night and hoping that the Vietminh don't attack their post.
Pyle starts:

"They don't want Communism."
"They want enough rice," I said. "They don't want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don't want our white skins around telling them what they want."
"If Indo-China goes..."
"I know the record. Siam goes. Malaya goes. Indonesia goes. What does 'go' mean? If I believed in your God and another life, I'd bet my future harp against your golden crown that in five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they'll be growing paddy in these fields, they'll be carrying their produce to market on long poles wearing their pointed hats. The small boys will be sitting ton the buffaloes. I like the buffaloes, they don't like our smell, the smell of Europeans. And remember - from a buffalo's point of view you are a European too."
"They'll be forced to believe what they are told, they won't be allowed to think for themselves."
"Thought's a luxury. Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?"
"You talk as if the whole country were peasant. What about the educated? Are they going to be happy?"
"Oh no," I said, "we've brought them up in our ideas. We've taught them dangerous games, and that's why we are waiting here, hoping we don't get our throats cut. We deserve to have them out. I wish your friend York was here too. I wonder how he'd relish it."
"York Harding's a very courageous man. Why, in Korea..."
"He wasn't an enlisted man, was he? He had a return ticket. With a a return ticket courage becomes an intellectual exercise, like a monk's flagellation. How much can I stick? Those poor devils can't catch a plane home. Hi," I called to them, "What are your names?" I thought that knowledge somehow would bring them into the circle of our conversation. They didn't answer: just lowered back at us behind the stumps of their cigarettes. "They think we are French," I said.
"That's just it," Pyle said. "You shouldn't be against York, you should be against the French. Their colonialism."
"Isms and ocracies. Give me facts. A rubber planter beats his labourer - all right, I'm against him. He hasn't been instructed to do it by the Minister of the Colonies. In France I expect he'd beat his wife. I've seen a priest, so poor he hasn't a change of trousers, working fifteen hours a day from hut to hut in a cholera epidemic, eating nothing but rice and salt fish, saying his Mass with an old up - a wooden latter. I don't believe in God and yet I'm for that priest. Why don't you call that colonialism?"
"It is colonialism. York says it's often the good administrators who make it hard to change a bad system."
"Anyway the French are dying every day - That's not a mental concept. They aren't leading these people on with half-lies like your politicians - and ours. I've been in India, Pyle, and I know the harm liberals do. We haven't a liberal party any more - liberalism's infected all the other parties. We are all either liberal conservatives or liberal socialists: we all have a good conscience. I'd rather be an exploiter who fights for what he exploits, and dies with it. Look a the history of Burma. We go and invade the country: the local tribes support us: we are victorious: but like you Americans we weren't colonialists in those days. Oh no, we made our allies to be crucified and sawn in two. They were innocent. They thought we'd stay. But we were liberals and we didn't want a bad conscience."
"That was a long time ago."
"We shall do the same thing here. Encourage them and leave them with a little equipment and a toy industry."
"Toy industry?"
"Your plastic."
"Oh yes, I see."
"I don't know what I'm talking politics for. They don't interest me and I'm a reporter. I'm not engagé."
"Aren't you?" Pyle said.
"For the sake of an argument - to pass this bloody night, that's all. I don't take sides. I'll still be reporting, whoever wins."
"If they win, you'll be reporting lies."
"There's usually a way round, and I haven't noticed much regard for truth in our papers either."


Pyle: "So you think we've lost?"
"That's not the point," I said. "I've no particular desire to see you win. I'd like those two poor buggers there to be happy - that's all. I wish they didn't have to sit in the dark at night scared."
"You have to fight for liberty."
"I haven't seen any Americans fighting around here. And as for liberty, I don't know what it means. Ask them." I called across the floor in French to them - "What is Liberty?" They sucked in the rice and stared back and said nothing.

07 November 2009

Thoughts on Power

1) Power subsumes and consumes; it tries to bring the Other into its Self (though it never fully succeeds). It is an inward pulling force.

2) Systems need inward pulling forces or else they melt into the aether. Systems also need multiplicity and difference or they become like icicles - fragile, cold and dead. (Laura Huxley says, don't try to make ice cubes out of a river)

3) Power must always be kept in check through intense competition or systemic limits. Competition between multiple powers makes it impossible for any one power to grow too large. Another strategy is counter-power, that is, when a particular power grows too large, there is an automatic, culturally embedded mechanism which acts to cut it down to size. If these limitations are not in play, then the system will become too homogeneous and fragile. (Imagine an ecosystem in which a single species consumes every other species - have we seen this before?)

4) Power is not the only inward pulling force; there is also identity, solidarity, cooperation. These inward pulling forces allow the Other to exist in its own right. By focusing on the relationships between within a heterogeneous network of entities, these forces promote justice and resilience.

29 October 2009

Thoughts on an Answer to the Previous Question

The previous question being "How can (Should?) anthropologists help the communities they work with?" More broadly, the question is, should we try to make the world a "better" place and how? The question is difficult to phrase without seeming idealistic, but I hope my meaning comes across.
I really appreciate the answers I received from Stacie and Josh (see comments on the previous post), and I'm still thinking about how to work those into my own conceptions. Here are some of my own thoughts:
1) I reject the premise that we can or should do nothing. Doing nothing is still doing something, that is, it's a political and moral choice that has consequences and repercussions. Even research for research's sake has consequences - we interact with a community, we write up our findings, we build a career based on our research, we talk to people about our research and all of these have not-insignificant consequences.
2) With that in mind, the only options are to a) intentionally reduce your impact as much as you can so as to limit the repercussions or b) attempt to direct your research toward some benefit.
3) If you choose option a), that's fine, but you still have to recognize the possibility that your research may have larger and unintended consequences. In which case, you'll have to take a more active role. If you choose b) then you have to recognize the possibility that your research may be used in ways that you don't approve and actively resist those uses.
4) If you choose option b) then you have to figure out a) What tools do you have? What are their potentials and their limitations? b) What is your ethical stance? and c) How effective is your research?
5) Anthropology has a set of tools including: a holistic perspective, a deep cultural knowledge about our communities, high resolution informations on large scale issues, the ability to compare cross-culturally, and the ability to translate cross-culturally (let me know if you can think of any more).
6) Ethically, you have to consider why you're conducting this research, where does the funding come from, who does it benefit and how. You also have to look at your own personal and professional history to see how it might interact with the community and the issues.
7) Much of the work of anthropologists is fairly ineffective, which, in some cases, may be a good thing. Most of the time research is simply published in an academic journal or book, recommendations are given and information is "disseminated" (a word I'm beginning to loathe). If you want your research to be effective, you're going to have to go beyond these activities - you'll have to advocate, reach out to the public, build networks, critique, etc. Sometimes you'll have to do one of these, sometimes you'll have to do several. I am convinced that any project that goes in with the idea of "doing X for this group" or of "helping this group do X" will fail. It will fail for two reasons, first, because it is always external. Even if X comes from community members it will still be only a partial representation of what the community wants or needs. Second, it is always teleological. Nobody can really predict how their research will turn out or the consequences of that research. Case study books in applied anthropology are full of these kinds of projects, and they tend to read like tragedies where nobody really gets anything from the project (except maybe lessons learned for the researcher).

In a world where powerful forces (capitalism, imperialism, ethnocentrism, etc.) are driving unprecedented cultural (and biological) homogenization, it seems to me that one of the most politically positive acts one can do is to propagate and promote Difference. This implies a 2 pronged strategy, advocacy for marginal groups and critique (or resistance to) dominant groups. That's where I stand now, and for this I am inspired by Bateson, Deleuze and Guattari, Escobar, Connolly, and DeLanda among many others I can't think of right now.

25 October 2009

How can (Should?) Anthropologists Try to Help the People We Work With?

This is the question that I struggle with perennially, and I'm confident that I'll never find a satisfactory answer. I think it's important to try, but I'm afraid I'll have to live with some degree of ethical ambiguity.
Here I am hoping to collect some different answers to the question in order to better understand how Anthropologists view themselves and perhaps find some ideas that resonate with my own. Please contribute whatever thoughts you might have - even if you're not an anthropologist (the question actually applies more broadly to all types of activism/advocacy).
Thanks in advance!

19 October 2009

Why I am Opposed to Military Anthropology

I feel I need to make a statement. I realize it won't be read by many people, and that those who do read it will likely agree with me. However, I want to go on record with my very visceral opposition to Military anthropology. That way, should there be a need, I can refer back here and show that there is some basis for my feelings.

In recent years the field of anthropology has been abuzz with discussions and debates about the use of anthropology in the military invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan in the context of the Human Terrain System (HTS) (a good source for critical perspectives on these issues is Max Forte's Zero Anthropology blog, formerly Open Anthropology. Also see the Network of Concerned Anthropologists). The HTS has been active in other fronts as well, but Iraq and Afghanistan are the most obvious applications of the model. The primary argument on the side of the HTS is that they do not carry weapons, they don't kill anyone, they don't assist with operations or intelligence gathering, and that their research actually helps reduce armed engagement and casualties on both sides.
First of all, contrary to those claims, some opponents have argued that the anthropologists (and other social scientists) involved in the HTS do in fact provide key information for targeting operations. Secondly, the claim that the HTS effectively reduces casualties is unfounded and strongly disputed.
However, my opposition to the HTS is even more fundamental than that. The premise of the HTS is that it makes a military invasion and occupation more humane. Let me repeat makes a Military INVASION and OCCUPATION more humane. Are they idiots? Do they not see the basic contradiction contained in that premise? Or do they really just use that argument as a mask for using anthropology as a tool for oppression?
It's the same argument they use to support Doctors and Psychologists assisting with torture - they make the torture more humane. How would you feel about going to a Doctor whose main credential is that s/he worked with the CIA on humane torture methods (as if that isn't a contradiction in itself).
Even if the HTS could prove that they reduce casualties, even if they were clearly not engaged in targeting, the fact that they work for the US military and provide information for military goals (which will always be oppressive) makes the HTS fundamentally unethical.
Why not turn the tables? Should anthropologists work for the insurgents in these countries to oppose the US military? Would the military be open to that if it could be "proven" that those insurgent anthropologists reduced casualties?
Or think of this. How would you feel if some foreigon power, let's say the Taliban just to be provocative, invaded the US and then brought in a team of Taliban Anthropologists to learn about our culture and make the Taliban presence more humane? Would you go up to those Taliban Anthropologists and thank them for reducing casualties? How would you feel about anthropologists after that experience?
Of course, I'm not saying that anthropologists should work for insurgents or the Taliban - but I'd urge anyone who supports the HTS to think about that potential. Military anthropology - in whatever guise - is oppressive, damaging to the field and unethical. That is why I am opposed to Military Anthropology.

16 October 2009

My Philosophy, In Brief

My social and political philosophy teacher back at KU told us that a philosophy proceeds through various levels. Metaphysics is at the top, and it informs Ontology (the nature of being), which informs Epistemology (the nature of knowing), which informs a whole lot of other things (including ethics, but I'll save all that for another post). Since we've been discussing this kind of thing a lot in my classes, and since I've been struggling with the questions on my own recently, I'm going to post a really brief outline of my own philosophical framework using these three levels.

To put it simply I am a Realist. That is, I do believe that there is a world "out there" independent of my consciousness. This is in contrast to solipsism which, as I see it, simply degenerates into nonsense. There's a whole lot more to my Realism than I want to go into here - ask if you want more depth.

I'm interested in a processual ontology. I see the universe as consisting of relationships and processes rather than objects or essences. I need to do more research on this, but right now I'm really interested in Manuel de Landa's assemblage theory.

Here is were it gets tricky. While I believe that the world does exist independent of my mind, I also believe that my knowledge of that world is shaped my my own interactions with it and by my ideas about it. I think it is impossible to separate myself from whatever phenomenon I may be studying. However, I don't think that my act of studying Determines the nature of the phenomena. That puts me somewhere in the middle of the subjective/objective spectrum with a slight leaning toward constructivism.

That's it for now. I might post some more on these issues a little later. Feel free to discuss.

12 September 2009


"Le Petite Chouette" Picasso, 1953

In Art

An assemblage is a piece of work, usually a sculpture, that's put together from random objects to make something new. It's like collage in that sense, but usually three-dimensional, and the objects are things like nails, spoons, and wood rather than pictures, although those may be included as well. A good assemblage pulls all of these different objects together into a coherent whole while allowing each one to maintain its own unique identity.
Take, for example, the nails that were used as the legs for the bird in the above work. They are part of the whole - their current identity is shaped by the fact that they are part of the bird. They cannot be used as nails without removing them from the bird and cleaning them off. On the other hand, they maintain some of their identity as nails (in form and history). Their identity has not been wholly transformed by being used in this assemblage - they have not become bird legs. Rather, some quality of their prior identity (which itself is an assemblage in its own right) allowed them to be incorporated into this new whole without becoming something else (i.e. melted down and made into a new shape).
The whole itself, then, is emergent from the relationships between the individual objects that compose it. It has it's own identity which is not reducible to the sum of the identities of its component parts, but which is no less real.

In Philosophy and Sciences
As usual, the artists got it before the philosophers, who got it before the scientists, who got it before the social scientists, who put it into language that is so complex and unintelligible that the idea becomes all but worthless. So here we go with that.
For us, the idea of an assemblage is a metaphor or a model, which is meant to illuminate some phenomenon. Models never explain the whole phenomenon, and they are always wrong in some respects - the best you can hope for is that it explains some feature well enough that it is useful. The assemblage, I think, does.
The following are the salient features of an assemblage that make the concept useful for analyzing a variety of phenomena (biological, ecological, psychological, sociological, etc.):
1) They are heterogeneous
2) They have emergent properties
As in art, the phenomena we try to describe as assemblages are composed of individual parts, each with their own unique identity. The challenge is to explain the whole without reducing it to the component parts (reductionism) or defining the parts only with regard to the whole (essentialism). Viewing phenomena through the assemblage model allows us to see how these individual components could come together into a new, emergent whole without losing their individual identity (which is grounded in historical, political, environmental, etc. processes).
The flaw with the artistic metaphor (and I'm not certain that the social theory derives from the artistic metaphor, but the two do seem to have a lot in common), however, is that the artistic assemblage is a static thing. It doesn't change, grow, or die. It can be disassembled, added on to, or destroyed, but only through external intervention. In fact, it's only by seeing the artwork in a larger context that it becomes apparent that it is a process - it is embedded in a larger assemblage of cultural, historical and social factors which are in a constant state of becoming. This concept of Becoming is included in the social theory of assemblages, but is not generally part of the artistic assemblage. By including it, we can see how these structures are formed, how they maintain themselves and how they might eventually perish.
I'll not go into the details of assemblage theory here - mainly, I just wanted to illustrate the general principle - but there is a lot more to it than what I've listed here. I will say that it comes from the work of Manuel de Landa, and has several commonalities with Bruno Latour's Actor-Network-Theory and William Connolly's concept of Resonance. These three complimentary lines of thought developed largely out of the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri. If you'd like to learn more, I suggest exploring those works. I may post more on assemblage theory in the future, as I learn more myself, but I'm only in the first stages of learning about it.

06 September 2009

Why I Left the OAC

Disclaimer (9/7/2009): Just to be clear, my intent in posting this is not to be vindictive or because of some petty disagreement I have with the OAC admins. Rather, I want everyone to know the full reasons for my leaving the OAC - that it wasn't just about the name. I was involved in the OAC from the very first twitter discussion, and had very high hopes for it when it first started. But those hopes have consistently and repeatedly been crushed. It is my opinion that the group, as it now stands, cannot achieve the goals that it originally embodied, and that it has become a meager repetition of many other similar online groups. So I've decided to move on, to invest my time and energy more appropriately and find some other way to work for the ideals that I originally looked for in the OAC.

Recently at the Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC), there has been a great controversy over whether or not the group should change its name. Max Forte, the owner of the Open Anthropology Project (OAP), leveled a valid complaint that the OAC, by using a similar name, had co-opted (no pun intended) the political movement that he has worked for several years to promote (see here, here, here, and here - also see here and here for discussion on the OAC forum).
Although this controversy was part of my decision to leave the OAC, it wasn't the only factor that came into play. I am not a minion of Max, as some of the admins have claimed, but my quarrel with the OAC goes back to the start of the Ning site and my own time as an admin.

I left the admin team (before Max), because of a dispute over the structure of the administration and because a post of mine, which critiqued the admin structure and proposed a new, more diffuse one, was deleted arbitrarily followed by a message from one of the admins, who has repeatedly shown a tendency for abrupt and temperamental action.

Since I left the admin team, I have been doing what I can inside the site, working on my own small projects and advocating for more fundamental changes. Unfortunately, little has changed, and this most recent controversy sent me over the edge. Here are a few of my complaints against the OAC:

1) That the admins continue to discuss OAC policy behind closed doors. I don't buy Keith's rhetoric that it is necessary to keep certain things closed in order to make other things open. There is nothing either in the organization of the group or the structure of the Ning site that requires the admins to hide their discussion. Whether or not those policies are far-reaching or strict is irrelevant; the fact that the discussion is not open to the public or to public debate is unconscionable in a supposedly “open” group.

2) That the structure of the admin team was decided in a closed way, and resulted in a hierarchical, concentrated system of power, rather than the diffuse network that the word "open" implies to me. This power structure is not obligated by Ning either, which allows administration to be tuned so finely that a person could be in charge of a single page in the site.

3) That the OAC implemented a policy of not allowing users to share materials, other than those they have "rights" to, through the site. The policy is not written down anywhere (it's phrased officially as "users agree to follow the terms and conditions of Ning" which include a clause against using the site for file-sharing, but comes with a promise on the part of the admins to self-police rather than leaving it up to Ning), but there was a discussion early on (the reason why Max left originally) in which the policy was decided by only a handful of members. To me this is a group-wide disavowal of the principles of Open Access and Open Anthropology, which, despite claims by the admins to the contrary, was part of the original idea behind the formation of the group.

4) That the Ning site amounts to little more than a discussion area in which few people actually participating (the recent poll had over 200 respondents, but there were perhaps only 30 people participating in the discussion and even fewer initially). In my opinion, Ning is both too vast and too limiting to be genuinely considered "open." There is far too much space inside of Ning to navigate making it a little daunting to potential members who don't know their way around. This automatically reduces the membership to those who 1) have a computer and internet access and 2) those who are comfortable moving around in these types of sites. I have consistently complained about this, but received little response - at the very least, the admins could organize the site better to make it more accessible to outsiders. Ning is too limiting because it doesn't foster genuine collaboration – only discussion. The abrupt and unilateral decision to start the Ning group was, to me, the beginning of its downfall. In my opinion, unless the OAC expands beyond Ning, nothing significant will ever come from it.

5) That “no-one is ever kicked out of the OAC.” In fact, that's true. Instead they are bullied relentlessly until they “leave of their own accord.” This, to me, highlights the childishness that is brought out in any group by “social networking” sites – clearly, anthropologists are not immune.

Despite the fact that I was involved in the OAC from the beginning and that I contributed (I hope meaningfully) to many of the discussions there, I doubt that my presence will be missed. My leaving is not meant to be vindictive, but merely to separate myself from a project that, I believe, has taken a wrong turn, and to give me more time to work on other things. I'll consider returning to the OAC, if and when the problems I mentioned are remedied. Until then, however, there are far better things I could be doing, but I will continue to promote Open Anthropology and Open Access in my own way.

13 August 2009

Bad Ass Climbing!

The Neuroanthropology blog has a post about this guy, Jyoti Raj, or the Monkey King. I've got to say, it's pretty frickin' amazing! Otherwise I wouldn't put it up on my blog. There's also a pretty cool video of a spider-kid.
The Monkey King video is here.

16 July 2009

Toward an Anthropological Pedagogy

This entry is cross-posted on the OAC.

This past year, I graduated with a BA in anthropology, and I'm on my way to graduate school at the University of Maryland, College Park. There, for the first time, I will be engaged in helping to instruct college age students (as a teaching assistant), and, looking forward, I feel strongly that teaching anthropology will be as important to me as conducting research.
In the past I've taught younger children ranging from toddlers to young teens, and, being the reflective person that I am, I've spent a lot of time already thinking about the nature of pedagogy. Lately I've been thinking more specifically about an anthropological pedagogy. In particular, I'm interested in the context of education more than the content. When I taught younger children, I often found that it was more important to create an environment of learning rather than trying to teach the kids specific facts or ideas. This, I believe, is in accord with Bateson's concept of deutero-learning in which learning is differentiated into logical types. On one level, a student may learn a fact, but on another level, the student is also learning about the context of learning that fact. As a result, if the student learns the fact in order to regurgitate it on a test the next day, then what exactly is it that they are learning? There are also contexts of contexts; for example, why is it okay in the US education system that students can simply memorize and regurgitate, but still get a degree? What do they learn from that?
However, this post is not intended to vent my frustrations with the higher education system in the US, but to put forward a question, or rather a series of questions. Given the idea that we learn as much (if not more) about the context of learning as we do the specific incidents of learning, does the traditional lecture hall with discussion classes format actually teach anthropology? Certainly, students need to learn those facts about anthropology (i.e. Who are James Frazer, Edward Tylor, Margarette Meade, Clyde Kluckhohn, etc.? What is cultural relativism? and so on), but I believe we should embed those facts in a context in which students will learn what anthropology is really about. For that we would need a pedagogy based on the theories and methods of anthropology (indeed, each discipline could take this approach as well, so that we'd have sociological, psychological, economic, etc pedagogies; the lecture hall format is too one-size-fits-all). The real question is, what would an anthropological pedagogy look like? What skills would it foster? What experiences would it provide?
I know a lot of people are experimenting with new styles of teaching (most notably, Mike Wesch), and I like Bill Guinee's idea posted in the Teaching Anthropology group forum. I would like to hear about others as well - the primary question to ask about these experiments is, do they create a context for learning that emphasizes the theory and methods of anthropology or is it simply another way for students to collect facts?
On the other hand, I could be all wrong about this. Those of you with more teaching experience might see the value of the lecture hall or problems that would arise from the kind of teaching I've described. Please, share those as well. I'm ready to learn.

08 July 2009

To 'Be the Change' or 'Fight the System'

This post is a response to Derrick Jensen's latest article on the Orion website "Forget Shorter Showers." Those of you who have read my blog for a while know that I like Derrick Jensen's writing, and have, at times, shared his point of view. My views now are perhaps slightly milder, but I'm glad to see his new column in the Orion, and all of the attention it has been garnering. His writing is provocative, and, though we may not always agree with him, those of us in the environmental movement need to engage his (and similar) ideas in order to continually renew our own vision and action.

That said, I realized while reading this new article that Jensen's "Industrial Civilization" (a term I've used many times myself) is a reification. He presents it as a thing, which can be opposed, attacked and eradicated like the kudzu vines that he sanctimoniously chops down in his back yard. What this view fails to recognize is that "Industrial Civilization" is really a complex set of relationships which we are all implicated within. This has been made apparent by some of the commenters who referred to the fact that, for example, golf courses wouldn't exist if individuals didn't play golf.
On the other hand, the 'be the change you wish to see' camp relies equally on the reification of Industry and Culture which can be affected by the pokes and prods of our wallets and personal examples. The resulting changes may or may not comply with the end vision sought by the individuals trying to enact the change (see green-washing and biofeuls). Indeed, in any complex system (such as industrial civilization), the actions of one part of the system (i.e. individuals engaging in personal change) can resonate through the system to bring about a system-wide change. But that change will be unpredictable and limited at best.
An example of the complexity with which we are faced can be expressed in the concept of power. Jensen decries the power structures which we must oppose, but ignores the fact that those power structures are composed of people. Without the person, the position doesn't exist. On the other hand, those positions of power often serve as nodes in the web of relationships where many different factors converge. As a result, those positions may provide focal points where various forms of action can be more effectively directed (this may have implications for his concept of leverage which is discussed in Endgame), and the particular individual in the position can have a great effect on the character of the office.
The take home message of the article and this response, I think, is that personal change is not enough. In saying this, Jensen confronts the dominant ideology of the environmental movement, and challenges us to renew our vision. We need to 'live simply,' but we also need to do more than that. We need to confront the system that is destroying the planet while recognizing that we are part of that system. Only then can we bring about a more holistic change. I leave you with a quote that sums up my position well (Thank you, again, Aldous Huxley!):

"Patriotism is not enough" But neither is anything else. Science is not enough, religion is not enough, art is not enough, politics and economics are not enough, nor is love, nor is duty, nor is action however disinterested, nor, however sublime, is contemplation. Nothing short of everything will really do.
-Aldous Huxley, Island

24 June 2009

Complexity Theory

After a little research, I feel confident that I can make a stab at some kind of basic explanation of Complexity Theory, and how it is relevant to our understanding of the world. However, my knowledge is still extremely limited, and I don't presume to know all of the...complexities...of the theory. So, take this for what it is, just a brief, limited overview of the subject.

The first thing to say about Complexity Theory is that there isn't one - a theory, that is. There is no unifying, underlying concept of complexity, what makes something complex, how one thing is more or less complex than another, how complexity emerges, etc. Furthermore, there is no such thing as a "complexity science" since it incorporates a whole array of very different lines of thought and covers a broad spectrum of disciplines. Complexity studies might be a better term, but I'm not sure even that quite fits. (See the following website for an idea of the various threads of Complexity)

I'm not sure it matters that there is no "Complexity Theory" or that there is no working definition of "complexity," though. I'm beginning to see, as Bateson did with cybernetics and General Systems Theory, that Complexity is not so much a "theory" as an epistemology - a way of understanding. It doesn't seek to describe any particular phenomena, but provides a framework for looking at a variety of phenomena.
Prior to the 20th century, the dominant epistemology was the clockwork universe which functioned in terms of serial causation. Complexity and its relatives look at the universe as being organismic rather than mechanistic, functioning by means of reciprocal causation, or recursivity. Complexity understands that systems are not reducible - that they are more than the sum of their parts. For example, culture cannot be explained as an amalgamation of individual behaviors, but must be understood as emerging from the relationship between those individuals and, perhaps, other environmental factors as well. The same is true for ecosystems, the body/mind, and other examples of non-linear, recursive systems.
This new epistemology draws together several different lines of thought including Chaos theory (which similarly doesn't exist), cybernetics, systems theory, artificial intelligence, computer modeling, etc. It has given rise to even more lines of thought such as network theory, cellular automata (such as the game of life), genetic algorithms, the new ecology, etc. However, what is most interesting to me is its application in the social sciences and attempts to integrate social theory and environmental studies such as Environmental Anthropology.
Environmental Anthropology and its progenitors (cultural evolution, cultural ecology, ecological anthropology, etc.) have faced numerous critiques over the years. They are said to be deterministic, reductionist, ahistorical, apolitical and any number of other sins. What complexity adds to this is an understanding of the relationships between the members of a society as well as the environmental factors. It rejects the old idea of a "climax ecosystem" and "equilibrium" and views systems dynamically, as constantly changing and emerging. It recognizes the role of accidents of history and differentials of power in the development of the system. It also recognizes that systems that appear stable can collapse at any time - all stability is temporary and elusive. Another benefit of Complexity is the attention to scale and levels of systems. This may make it possible to integrate an understanding of individual actions with institutional behavior - more work needs to be done in this regard. There is a lot of potential here that has yet to be explored, since anthropology hasn't really made any attempt to incorporate Complexity.

That's the best I can do for an explanation right now. I hope it's at least somewhat satisfying, but if you have any questions, feel free to ask. I also recommend reading the above website, and the following books/articles if you're interested in learning more:
Complexity: A Guided Tour
Complexity and Industrial Ecology
A New Ecosystem Ecology for Anthropology
Complex Adaptive Systems, Evolutionism, and Ecology within

Also, as always, anything by Gregory Bateson.
Finally, this blog: Immanence
I may post more later.

05 June 2009

Gorrilas Gone Wild!

Okay, as promised here is a photo from the Wichita Zoo. It's two gorilla who escaped while we were there - they had to track them down and shoot them with tranquilizers before stuffing back in their "habitat." It was quite the adventure.
I was going to have one of the time the lion escaped and tried to eat Megan, but the camera didn't get the picture. Oh well, maybe next time...

Well, I'm off to dinner at the Mad Greek. Happy Friday!!!

03 June 2009

What're You Up To? Wednesday #8

Hey everyone, this will be a quick (and late) WYUT?W.
This last weekend I went with Megan and Puck to Wichita for Megan's graduation party. We left on Saturday and came back on Monday. Before we left Monday, we went to the Wichita Zoo, which was fun - I'll post a couple of pictures later on.
Mostly, I've been working on the OAC stuff which has moved to a Ning network (here), and has grown to over 500 members. It's been hectic at times, and I've opted for a low key role at the moment. However, a lot of cool projects are already starting to come out of it, like an Environmental Anthropology Resources Wiki, and a map of anthropological theory. I'll post more about them another time.
Now, I'm going to watch Red with Megan. Have a nice week, and let me know what yer up to!

28 May 2009

Behavioral Economics, Again

I'm sorry to bring this topic up again, but I feel as if I didn't do a very good job of explaning my position in my previous post. I got too caught up in the political philosophy of positive and negative freedom when I could have been more direct and concise in my critique.
I just watched this interesting video with Dan Ariely, the author of Predictably Irrational, and the issue came back into my mind. Watch the video, and then I'll share my thoughts. (If the embedded video doesn't work for you, as it isn't for me, then you can view it here).

I like Dan, and I enjoyed his talk - it's interesting and entertaining. I would also like to read his cookbook - let's hope he still plans on writing it. I am also interested in behavioral economics. It is a necessary antidote to the abstract hyper-rationality of Neoliberal economics, which would rather trust in the "invisible hand" of the market than allow regulation. It's about time economists looked at how people actually are rather than positing a model and developing theory based on that. However, I have three major problems with the theory, which I will describe below.
First of all, it is just as fallacious to assume that humans are wholly irrational as it is to assume that we are wholly rational. Humans are complex creatures with many different, and at times competing faculties. Our actions are determined by an intricate mix of reason, emotions, spontaneous thought and default reaction. As the research suggests, it's true that we make some bad choices from time to time. With regard to the organ donor example in the video, though, I would ask why it is that the countries on the left don't have 0% participation, and why some of the countries on the right don't have 100% participation. What factors made it possible for some people to go against the predictions of behavioral economics? More fundamentally, however, I feel that the assumption that we are wholly irrational opens up the possibility for someone to say that our decisions must be guided or dictated, which brings me to my second point.
In the talk, Ariely says "We feel as if we make decisions...but in fact, the decisions reside in the person who designed the form." The question is, who gets to design the form? Who gets to make those decisions for us? Some would suggest a kind of enlightened bureaucracy, but the fact is that bureaucracies are not composed of the best and the brightest, and they certainly don't know what's best for us all of the time. It doesn't seem like a big deal when it's something like hip replacement surgery or organ donors (though those have their complexities as well), but what happens when it's something a little more ambiguous? Where we invest our retirement, for example. Who makes that decision? How do we know that they will make the best decision?
My final problem with the theory is that it is essentially ahistorical and apolitical. Our current economic problems, it suggests, are the result of bad economic decisions made by irrational individuals on a massive scale. It takes no account of the political economic (not to mention the political ecological) situation that lead to this crisis - the fact that millions of people were being exploited by large corporations, that the government was essentially (and continues to) back those corporations up, and that our redistributive mechanism had been retooled to fuel the wealthy in the (mistaken) hope that the wealth would "trickle down" to the rest of us.
We need an economics that is grounded in real world experience, one that recognizes human limitations as well as human abilities. We also need an economics that is situated in the social and cultural context of modern life - including the political and the ecological. Behavioral economics is a good start toward ending the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism, but it is far from being the ideal basis for economic theory.

26 May 2009


I just came back from a talk by Daniel Pinchbeck here in downtown Lawrence. I actually left early because I was on my bike and neglected to bring my headlamp. In any case, I learned about Pinchbeck (and I've mentioned him before in this context) from the Shamanism class I took this past semester with Prof. Hoopes. He is an icon of the Neo-shamanism movement and the 2012 mythology that has become so popular in hippie/new age culture. Needless to say, I went into the talk with a fair bit of skepticism. Coming out of it, I feel relieved to know that he is actually a well read and knowledgeable about a lot of things besides the mythos that he is trying to promote.

He integrates some surprising figures and ideas into that mythos that could at least spark some genuinely useful activity, rather than simply reinforcing the hedonic love cult to which most of his followers subscribe. Furthermore, I saw indications in his talk that he is willing to take on new ideas, and reevaluate his old ones rather than immersing himself in a rigid dogma.

That said, there were many ideas in his talk that were simply too far out for me to accept (ten years ago, I may have, but I have a more cynical and critical eye now). For example, his belief in the extraterrestrial origins of crop circles and other similar phenomena - I can tolerate this to a degree, since I don't really care one way or the other, but I get bored of hearing about it again and again. Another is the fact that he talked about 3 spheres where change is taking place (driving us toward the 2012 transformation). These are the biosphere, the technosphere and the noosphere. What bothers me here is that he talks about them as separate entities without recognizing that they are integrated and systemic. I'm not so concerned with the noosphere, because I feel that the concept homogenizes humanity and implies a single track of culture evolution. However, the biosphere and the technosphere are somewhat more legitimate. The problem is that they are not separate entities moving to unite, as Pinchbeck suggests, rather they are already integrated and systemic phenomena. His vision is that the technosphere will continue to move forward toward a more ecologically friendly or (to use his word) thriveable state. This fails to take into account the fact that every increase in technological capability has a concomitant increase in environmental exploitation. Beyond a certain point, an increase in the one system will collapse due to the decay of the other.

My final qualm is that he talks like an anarcho-primitivist, but he couches it in terms of his neoshamanic spiritual synchretism and an underlying faith in technology. Right before I left, he even suggested that, in order to solve the global climate change issue, we might have to tap into our latent psychic abilities to control the weather and climate (as evidenced by the ability of some indigenous groups to "create" rain by dancing). He does recognized that the transformation will likely result in some extremely difficult times, however, he fails to account for the massive amounts of suffering that will be experienced - in particular, by those very indigenous peoples from whom he claims to have gained his insights. There is no sense of responsibility toward those people, or toward the billions of people living in extreme poverty.

My hope is that, by listening to him and being opened to the peppering of actually valuable ideas he incorporates, his followers, at some point, will be able to take some kind of effective action. Hopefully, they won't just wait until 2012 to see what happens.

22 May 2009

Open Anthropology Cooperative

Hey everyone, I want to invite you all to be a part of something with enormous potential. No, I'm not trying to get you into a pyramid scheme or anything. I'm talking about the Open Anthropology Cooperative. Now, before you say "But I'm not an anthropologist!" (unless you just said it, in which case it will be after you say "But I'm not an anthropologist!"), this group is open to everyone whether they are an anthropology student, professor, practitioner, or just interested in anthropology or humanity in general. The whole point is to be Open in every sense of the term "open access, open membership, open to new ideas, open to whatever the organization might do or become." For now we're just discussing the basic structure of the group and recruiting new members. If you're interested (and even if you're not) then let other people who might be interested know and come join the discussion here. We already have a good member base, but we're always looking for more, and we want your insights.
Hope to see you there!

10 May 2009

Creative States of Consciousness

This past Friday, I sent my Shamanism professor a paper. It was 2 pages under the lower limit, full of grand claims lacking citations, and about half an hour late. To be fair, I was rushing at the end to get my bibliography together and my citations in order, and so I didn't do as thorough a job as I should have. It was a great idea for a paper, but I didn't give myself enough time to flesh it out, and I didn't anticipate getting really bad allergies this past week. The end result was a crappy paper, which probably deserves a 'C', but will probably get a 'B' or an 'A' because the professor is really nice. I am not going to post the paper here, as I had promised earlier, because of its poor quality. However, I will give a synopsis of what I found, because it's still really interesting.

Stochastic Creativity
As some of you know, I've been thinking for a long time about change, cultural, personal and otherwise. When anthropologists typically talk about change they'll mostly be talking about diffusion, fusion and acculturation - in other words, they're focused on contact between cultures. This makes sense, since most cultural anthropological research has been conducted under conditions of contact (i.e. colonialism). But cultures and people must change independently of external pressures, so what mechanisms are there for intrinsic change? The answer is creativity (to be fair, anthropologists do recognize creativity as a factor, but culture contact is part of the inherent bias of anthropology).
What I've realized recently is that creativity in both culture and individuals can be understood as a stochastic system. A stochastic system is on which has a foundation in randomness, diversity, or variability with an overarching selective structure. The prototypical stochastic system is evolution, where there is variable traits within individuals of a species which is molded by natural selection to adapt the species to its environmental conditions. The result is a highly stable structure which can easily adapt to changing conditions.
There are a lot of structures that follow this pattern, such as crystal formation, ecosystems, and cultures. What's more, a lot of issues can be predicted by looking at structures using a stochastic model. Jeremy Trombley's Economic Principle No. 1, for example. Capitalism, as articulated by neoliberals, SHOULD work if it were based in a diversity of businesses and financial institutions. It DOES NOT work because it fails to conserve underlying diversity (through redistribution and decentralization) and allows a handful of large financial structures (corporations) to dominate. This makes it too rigid and maladaptive should large changes occur (i.e. a housing bubble). On the opposite end of the spectrum, structures that are too random will simply dissipate. Both the randomness and the selective mechanism are required to make a stable system.

Creativity in Individuals
I read through a whole bunch of neurological and cognitive sciences research into creativity. It was fascinating - I'm actually getting really interested in cognitive science stuff. What I learned from all of it is that creativity relies upon what we would call "altered states of consciousness."
Really the term "altered states of consciousness" is very misleading. We go through our lives moving from one state of consciousness to another, and it's virtually impossible to isolate a "normal" state of consciousness to contrast with "altered states." It's better to look at states of consciousness on a continuum, rather than to try and categorize them into two discrete groups. There are several axes along which consciousness could could be mapped, but I'm only going to look at one - controlled states and relaxed states. Controlled states of consciousness are characterized by focused attention, and purposiveness. This is when your mind is set on a goal or a task and nothing can distract you from it. Relaxed states, on the other hand are characterized by a wandering, free floating state of mind. This is when you allow yourself to let go and daydream or just think about whatever comes into your head. The most extreme relaxed state is, of course, dreaming, where there is absolutely no control over the content of consciousness and things just seem to come up out of nowhere. This continuum was referred to by Freud in terms of the primary process (unconscious) and secondary process (conscious) functions.
It is apparent that primary processes or relaxed states of consciousness are an essential part of creativity. The reason is that relaxed states allow us to think outside of habitual modes, and hold multiple ideas in mind at once. This makes it possible to think of new ideas, and to create new associations between existing ideas. Neurological studies back this up. When we enter relaxed states, the brain goes into what is referred to as "default mode." Instead of an inactive state, this is a highly active state over a broad range of brain structures. It may be that this default mode allows connections to be made between many different parts of the brain which allows us to make these novel connections in consciousness.
However, creativity isn't only the ability to come up with novel ideas. If asked to solve a problem that has never been encountered, the solution must be innovative, but it must also be appropriate. This is where the selective mechanism of the stochastic system comes into play. From all of these new ideas being generated, we must be able to select the ones that are actually useful. Cognitively, this manifests as an ability to modulate between relaxed states and focused states of consciousness. Indeed, people who were better at modulating between these two extremes performed better on creativity tests. Neurologically, this appears as a modulation between temporal lobe dominance (which is associated with relaxed, unconscious thought) and Prefrontal Cortex dominance (which is associated with focused thought).
What about the more extreme relaxed states of consciousness, such as dreams or psychedelic states? These are much more difficult to study, for obvious reasons. However, preliminary evidence shows that there is an increase in novel ideas from these states, but that those ideas are less likely to be appropriate. In fact, those ideas may be completely indecipherable at times. These states lack any kind of selective structure. It is next to impossible to modulate between extreme relaxed states and focused states of consciousness. Instead, those ideas found in these states have to be interpreted and evaluated after the fact, from a sober point of view.

Creativity and Culture
Looking at creativity in a larger scale, the same pattern can be seen. Individuals are the source of creativity in cultures (since cultures are, at base, associations of individuals), and, as a result, similar rules apply to cultures as those described above. The question is, what would a cultural structure for creativity look like? Based on the idea of creativity as a stochastic system, there are two basic criteria - one, culturally sanctioned access to relaxed states of consciousness (particularly extreme relaxed states, which are less common and more threatening) and, two, a culturally circumscribed context for evaluating and interpreting those states.
Shamanism and other similar practices fit these criteria nicely. Shamanism is defined by most researchers as a practice which uses altered (relaxed) states of consciousness to access other worlds. From these other worlds, the practitioners (shamans) gain insight and the ability to cure disease and solve problems. (Avoiding a precise definition of "shaman" and "shamanism," I will simply use those terms to refer to traditions which utilize altered states of consciousness for various purposes).
However, in most cultures, shamans don't merely use relaxed states, they are highly trained individuals with a great deal of background knowledge in medicinal plants, human illness, and a host of other phenomena. Furthermore, they are extremely experienced in inducing relaxed states in others and interpreting their imagery from a culturally specific prespective. As a result, the experiences are not just random, but capable of generating culturally useful information and novel ideas. The result is the ideal stochastic structure for cultural creativity.
These ideas haven't been thoroughly evaluated yet, but it's an avenue for further study (as so many of my ideas end up being). In terms of our own society, this model suggests a lack of cultural context for the many people experimenting with mind altering substances. That's not to say that no creative ideas come out of those experiences, but that an awful lot of nonsense comes out of them as well, since there is no selective mechanism to weed out that nonsense. I'm not sure what to do about it, and I'm too burned out to think about it now.
If anyone wants some background information, let me know, I'll be glad to email some of my sources.

29 April 2009

Renewing Faith in Human Decency

I just came across this site while reading my anthropology blogs, and thought it would be nice to share. I suggest watching the video - it's really heart-warming. The little lost robot is trying to make his way from one corner of the park to the other with the help of passers-by. Surprisingly, he succeeds, and this goes a long way to renewing my faith in human decency.
Then, in comes the cynic. I wonder if the people who helped this robot would be as kind to a robot that was ugly or horrifying, or how they would treat a simple mechanical object with the same kind of instructions. Does the fact that this robot is small, pudgy and child-like affect the way people respond to it? It would be an interesting project. What do you think?

21 April 2009

Children and their Drugs

The Supreme Court is currently hearing a case on whether or not school officials should be allowed to strip search students if they are suspected of carrying drugs. An article can be found here.
This really pisses me off. I heard the story on NPR this morning. A 13 year old girl (and honor student) was brought to the principle's office and questioned about drug possession. Another girl had been caught with a 400mg ibuprofen tablet (equivalent to 2 Advil), and had claimed (falsely) that the first girl had given it to her. When the 13 year old didn't admit and turn over the drugs (which she didn't have), the official searched her locker and her backpack (an act which was made legal by a previous Supreme Court decision). When they didn't find anything there they took her into a separate office and had her remove her clothes, leaving her standing in her underwear in front of the school officials. They searched every seam of her clothing and still didn't find anything, so they made her remove her bra and shake it out and shake out the crotch of her underwear.
In my opinion this is a severe breach of her rights, and tantamount to molestation. She was humiliated, and distressed. After the incident, the girl developed ulcers and was unable to return to school for several months. Ultimately, she was forced to transfer to another school.
The perverse fear of (some) drugs that exists in this country is truly disturbing. Sure, some children get sick or die as a result of consuming drugs, but is that any reason to subject (innocent, at least in this case) children to the humiliation of a strip search based solely on a vague suspicion that they are carrying an innocuous drug? I don't think so.
So far, the Supreme Court seems to be on the side of the school officials. If they overturn this decision and allow schools to conduct strip searches based on such flimsy evidence, they will be denying these kids rights granted to them by the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and reinforcing an already authoritarian school system.
I think students should protest, if and when this decision is made; hordes of young teenagers with their pants stuffed full of Advil. They can't strip search you all!

15 April 2009

Evolutionary Economics

I just wanted to point you all to an article in the NY Times that explains the evolutionary background for Jeremy Trombley's Economic Principle #1.
Taxing, A Ritual to Save the Species

06 April 2009

Liberty vs. Liberty - The Final Showdown!

For the past 400 years we have been trapped between two competing concepts of freedom, which have had serious effects on the history of national and international policy. These were identified by Isaiah Berlin in his 1958 essay titled "Two Concepts of Liberty."
On the one hand is "negative liberty," which is idealized as a space free from external influence where any individual can do what they like as long as it doesn't interfere with another person's freedom. This concept of liberty was founded on the philosophies of John Locke and John Stuart Mill. It is the ultimate basis for the Neoliberal economics that has dominated the World for the past 30 years, and brought us the current economic crisis.
On the other hand we have "positive liberty," which seeks to make every person their own master. This concept, according to Berlin, grew out of the philosophies of Rousseau, Kant and ultimately Marx, and, through a metaphorical turn, became the basis for totalitarian ideologies. This was made possible by the recognition that, while a person should be master of him or herself, individuals could be "subject" to their passions. There is, therefore, a "higher self" which knows what is best, which most people do not have access too. This "higher self" is, ideally, embodied in the state, and the state is allowed to make the rational decisions of which we are incapable. In the words of Berlin,

"...[W]hat gives such plausibility as it has to this kind of language is that we recognize that it is possible, and at times justifiable, to coerce men in the name of some goal ... which they would, if they were more enlightened, themselves pursue, but do not, because they are blind or ignorant or corrupt" (Berlin, 204, Italics mine).

"The reason within me, if it is to triumph, must eliminate and suppress my 'lower' instincts, my passions and desires, which render me a slave; similarly (the fatal transition from individutal to social concepts is almost imperceptible) the higher elements in society - the better educated, the more rational, those who 'possess the highest insight of their time and people' - may exercise compulsion to rationalise the irrational section of society" (221).

We have been living under a regime of negative liberty for the last 30 years, and are now feeling the worst of its harmful effects. Now, the Obama administration is reviving positive liberty in the form of "Behavioral Economics."

Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those people who believe that Obama is trying to impose socialism on the U.S. I don't believe that that is his agenda, and, if it were, I wouldn't necessarily object. Rather, my uneasiness is based on the underlying assumptions about humans that are being made by the Behavioral Economists - that people are, for various reasons, incapable of making sound decisions on their own, and must be manipulated into the making the "right" choices. It removes the current crisis from its historical and political economic roots, as well as making broad claims about human nature that are not justified by cross-cultural analyses.

Ultimately either of these ideologies, taken to its extreme, can lead to qualtitatively different forms of totalitarianism. Berlin recognized this, but preferred the negative form as manifested in the ideology of 'pluralism,' "because it does, at least, recognise the fact that human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another" (241). The way I see it, as long as the competition between these two concepts of liberty persists, the best we can hope for is some kind of balance between the two, with neither one ever being allowed to dominate fully.
Instead of accepting this false dichotomy between positive and negative liberty, and striving for some kind of middle ground, I think it's time we tried something different. If Obama had consulted Anthropologists instead of economists, he might have received a different answer. One that doesn't make any assumptions or generalizations about human nature and one that is based on historical and cross-cultural analysis rather than Western ideology.
I think the answer lies in alternatives based on the concepts of Counter-Power and Reciprocity, both of which are ignored by modern Political and Economic theories, but which, nevertheless, persist even in modern societies. By applying these ideas to the more abstract sectors of our society, I believe we can finally free ourselves from the trap of Positive and Negative Liberty.

Berlin, Isaiah. "Two Concepts of Liberty." Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. 191-242.

05 April 2009

PowerPoint and Linear Discourse

This is a short paper I wrote for my Linguistic Anthropology class. I think it's pretty interesting - I hope you enjoy it too.

Powerpoint and Linear Discourse
An article published in The New Yorker magazine in 2001 claims that over 30 million PowerPoint presentations are given every day (Parker, 2001). That number has almost certainly grown in the last eight years, but so have criticisms of the popular software. Edward Tufte, the most vocal of PowerPoint's critics, says that the software has an intrinsic “cognitive style” which forces itself upon presenters and audience members alike (Tufte, 160). Among the qualities of PowerPoint's cognitive style are the sequentiality of presentation, hierarchical organization of information, impoverished articulation of information and emphasis on gimmicky graphics and slide transitions. These qualities, he says, determine the style of the presentation, and diminish the presenters' abilities to transmit information effectively to the audience. However, my own experience in giving and receiving PowerPoint presentations is that their style and their effectiveness is determined more by the personality and ability of the presenter than by the software.
I chose to focus on one of Tufte's qualities in order to find out to what degree the cognitive style of PowerPoint affects the presentation of information. The quality I chose was the sequentiality of slide format. According to Tufte, “Slides serve up small chunks of promptly vanishing information in a restless one-way sequence” (Tufte, 160). This makes the presentation more like a movie or television than a “contemplative analytical method.” In some cases, this presentation method is useful, other times not. The sequence, he argues, should be determined by the character of the content, not by the software. In particular, he complains about what he refers to as “the dreaded slow reveal,” in which the presenter gradually unveils, line-by-line, a series of bullet points, often with obnoxious transitions that don't add anything to the content of the presentation. Instead, Tufte argues, presenters should offer paper handouts that allow the audience to control the sequence and pace of learning as well as providing spatial parallelism which “takes advantage of our notable capacity to reason about multiple images that appear simultaneously within our eyespans” (Tufte, 160).
I decided to evaluate empirically Tufte's claims for the sequentiality of PowerPoint presentations by observing my teachers who use the software and qualitatively evaluating the linearity of their presentations. I have four classes this semester, and all of them utilize PowerPoint to varying degrees. While the PowerPoint slides do proceed in a one-way sequential order, each professor found ways of working both inside and outside of the context of their slides to alter the flow of information.
For ease of explanation and anonymity, I will refer to Professors A, B, C, and D to describe the different styles of my professors. Professor A uses moderately elaborate PowerPoint slides with many charts, diagrams, pictures, and some slow reveal text. She moves through the slides in a very linear fashion with few, if any, tangents. For the most part, she simply reads from the slides or explains the diagrams and pictures. She doesn't cycle back, unless explicitly asked to by a student. However, some cycling back is built in to her PowerPoint presentation in the form of repeated slides. Professor B also uses moderately elaborate PowerPoint slides with some charts, diagrams and pictures and a lot of slow reveal text. She follows her slides faithfully as well, but has some tangents built in to them. For example, she will insert a picture on a slide which cues a related, but slightly off-topic story. Professor C uses generally basic PowerPoints with few pictures, no animation and no slow reveal text. She follows her slides intermittently, and inserts stories or tangents as the need or desire arises – some of which are relevant, others of which are not. Professor D rarely uses PowerPoint, and generally waits until the end of class to begin the slides. The beginning of class generally involves a question and answer session followed by several tangents including narratives, explanations, and discussions of particular themes. By the time he gets to his PowerPoint slides, there are only a few minutes left in class and he has to cycle through them very quickly. He touches on only the most important points, and cycles back and forth several times in the process. Figure 1 is a graphical depiction of my impression of these four presentation styles.

Fig. 1

It would be difficult for me to assess the effectiveness of these various styles and of PowerPoint in general. Some studies show that students prefer lectures with PowerPoint slides and feel that they learn more, but that there is no significant difference in learning between lectures with PowerPoint and those with overhead projectors (Bartsch). There does, however, seem to be a negative effect on student learning in PowerPoint lectures that use a lot of sound and graphics that are unrelated to the text (Bartsch). In terms of teaching, the results are mixed as well. I talked to One professor who rarely uses PowerPoint, but opted to use it this semester. She said that it has helped her to focus her presentation on the salient points, and stay within the time constrictions of the class (Gibson). In this sense, the sequential structure of PowerPoint may, in fact, be useful. On the other hand, she complains that she is often forced to compete with her slides for the attention of her students. In those cases, she is forced to impose herself physically between the students and the projection (Gibson).
PowerPoint, as with any software, has its benefits and its drawbacks, and its effectiveness as a pedagogical tool remains uncertain. However, it is important to note that PowerPoint doesn't determine the style of the presentation, at least with regard to sequentiality. I suspect that this is also true of the other qualities of PowerPoint's “cognitive style” that Tufte lists. As a result, the effectiveness of the software probably has more to do with the style of the presenter and the expectations of the students than it does with PowerPoint itself.

Works Cited
Bartsch, Robert A., and Kristi M. Cobern. “Effectiveness of PowerPoint presentations in lectures..” Computers & Education 41.1 (2003): 77.

Gibson, Jane. "Re: Powerpoint." E-mail to the author. 1 Apr. 2009.

Parker, Ian. “ABSOLUTE POWERPOINT..” New Yorker 77.13 (2001): 76.

Tufte, Edward R. Beautiful Evidence. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 2006.

03 April 2009

Thoughts on Ephemeral Communities

Ephemeral communities are ones which are either temporary or in a constant state of flux. Good examples are tourists, Burning Man and other "Festivals," and, of course, the internet. I think they would make a fascinating research topic for some nascent anthropologist. Unfortunately, it's not the area I want to go into, so I won't be doing that research. However, I do have some thoughts on the topic.
What interests me is how peoples' identity and behavior changes when they become part of an ephemeral community and leave their usual community behind. I don't have empirical evidence to back this up, but these are the ideas that I would hope to see some research address. First of all, it seems that identity becomes more fluid in ephemeral communities, and is, in some cases, completely dissociated from one's "normal" identity and even from one's physical self (especially in the case of the internet). As a result, a person can be anyone they want to be, can even change identities midstream if they so desire. A corollary to this is that identity becomes more superficial - it's less about one's underlying personality, and more about how one projects themselves using symbolic representation (i.e. clothing, costumes, avatars, etc.). A lack of identity markers might even make those around you uneasy, since they wouldn't know how to approach you or what norms to follow.
Anther effect appears to be that peoples' sense of risk is diminished, and they are more willing to engage in potentially dangerous activities that they wouldn't normally engage in within their "normal" communities. For example, in many cases, tourists will engage in drug use and become more sexually promiscuous when abroad when they wouldn't normally do those things back home. People on the internet will speak more freely, be more bold and express stronger opinions than they do in everyday life. This is related to the fluidity of identity and the anonymity that is inevitable in ephemeral communities.
I'm curious what makes people do these things? What functions do they serve? Is it a universal phenomenon, or is it mainly a feature of Western Industrial society?
I'd love to hear other thoughts on the subject, or relevant anecdotes. This blog itself is ephemeral, so don't be afraid of persecution! :)

04 March 2009

¡Buenas Noticias!

Last semester I put a great deal of time and sweat into applying fro graduate school. I took the GRE, I contacted schools, wrote statements of intent, gathered transcripts, hounded professors to write letters of recommendation, and eventually had to find someone else to write one since one of my professors failed to follow through. But that's all over, and now is the season when all of that work pays off.
Two weeks ago, I got an email from the Anthropology Department at the University of Georgia saying that they accepted me, but they couldn't offer me any financial assistance (they put me on a waiting list).
Last weekend, I got a phone call from Marcela Vasquez-León at the University of Arizona. She said that they were accepting me, that I was their top pick, and that they were going to offer me a research assistantship at with BARA. The next day, I got a call from Diane Austin, the director of BARA, to explain a little more about the RAship.
Tuesday, I went up to the Anthropology Department here to talk with a professor about a paper I have to write. I ran into Dr. Stull in the hallway. He is good friends with the Graduate coordinator at the University of Maryland, Dr. Paolisso. He told me that I had been accepted to UMD, that I was their top pick, and that they were going to offer me a teaching assistantship.
Those are all of the schools that I applied to.
Needless to say, I'm very excited. I can't wait to find out more about the offers, make a decision, and get myself off to grad school.

26 February 2009

Shamans Dancing on the Head of a Pin

This semester, I've been taking a class called Shamanism Past and Present with professor John Hoopes. It's been interesting, and has raised a number of questions and concerns in myself and among my fellow classmates.
As it turns out, shamanism is a very sticky subject, with a lot of uncertainty and controversy. Here I'd like to list a few issues that have come up, and I hope that some of you will throw in your two cents (cause I could really use the $).
Shamans and Shamanism
First of all, there are the terms "shaman" and "shamanism" themselves. The issue here is whether or not they are too broad. The word "shaman" comes originally from the Turkic groups of Central Asia and Siberia, and is used to describe their spiritual practitioners. Shamans in this culture are healers, guides, and mediums who use various methods, including drumming, dancing, sensory deprivation, body mutilation, and other techniques to induce trances which take them into the spirit world where they can effect a cure or solve a problem. There is no word in the Turkic language system to denote "Shamanism," but the overall pattern has been referred to this way by researchers.
The problem is that these words have been used to describe a variety of different traditions in a variety of cultures around the world. In fact, in an all but tautological move, many researchers go so far as to claim that shamanism is the universal religious practice for all primitive cultures - that it is, essentially, the original religion. Thus, the traditions of many Native American groups, Australian Aborigines, and African tribes are all lumped together under this Central Asian terminology.
Those who advocate the broad application of the terms Shaman and Shamanism say that it represents a universal aspect of human societies, and that recognizing this universal in all of its different forms helps us to understand a lot of different traditions. Opponents say that, by using this single term, we are obscuring the variety of traditions that are out there, denying individual cultures their uniqueness.
Rock Art
Another issue that has come up is the interpretation of paleolithic rock art. This has been an issue for a long time, and, in my opinion there's no way to solve it resolutely. However, one of the dominant interpretations for rock art these days comes from a guy named David Lewis-Williams, who wrote the book The Mind in the Cave, which we are reading for class.
Basically, Williams argues that rock art emerges out of a common human experience, and that this experience is grounded in our biology, and, more specifically, our neurology. It's essentially a Richard Dawkins explanation of rock art. The experience that Williams argues gives rise to the art is the trance state that is common to shamanic practices. In these states, whether they are induced by chemicals or other means, the participant goes through a series of transformations toward more and more dissociated (psychedelic) states of consciousness. Each of these transformations is associated with a particular kind of imagery, which can be seen in rock art. The first of these is entoptic phenomena, that is visual images created within the eye itself. You can get a basic idea of these by clsing your eyes and rubbing them gently or by closing your eyes and allowing a strobe light to flicker on them. They tend to be geometrical in form and become more intense with deeper trance states. These eventually change into basic iconic imagery, and ultimately into full blow hallucinations.
I wouldn't argue with the premise that these visions exist, but I might argue with his repeated insistence that they are created by the brain. However, in either case, he suggests that all rock art is the result of these trance states and the associated imagery. I don't think the evidence is as clear as he thinks it is, and I have my doubts. It's an interesting idea, though. Here is another interpretation I ran across recently.
Shamanic Healing
The final issue I want to mention here is one we've been reading about in the book Wonderous Healing by James McClenon. In it he argues that Shamanism actually helped shape our evolution. This is by far the most interesting topic we've discussed as far as I'm concerned, but still very controversial. Indeed, there's really no concrete evidence to support his view at all - just circumstantial associations of different ideas.
Here's the argument: humans that are able to enter trance states or be cured by ritual healings (i.e. psychosomatic healing) are better able to deal with the rigors and stresses of the environment and daily life. They are, therefore, better adapted to their environments, and so they will pass on their genes more readily than will other people who are less responsive to psychosomatic healing.
I'm always interested in ways that cultural phenomena might have affected our evolution. However, there are three issues I have with this theory - not that I disapprove altogether, but that there are things that need to be worked out before it can be workable. First is a complaint that my professor brought up, which is really more of a philosophical issue than a problem with the theory. That is, it implies that it is in our evolutionary benefit to be irrational. The belief that a cure will work when there is no material mechanism is fundamentally irrational, but those cures do work sometimes (due to placebo effect, I suppose). It's kind of a double-bind.
The second issue that I have is that if we try to explain how these things work - the material mechanism behind it (placebo effect again) - then those functions lose their power. Maybe it would be better if we just left it alone and didn't try to understand too much. But then I'd be out of the job, so to hell with that.
Lastly, it seems to me that those people who are more suceptible to psychosomatic healing would also be more suceptible to psychosomatic harm. There are many cases of dark shamans, witches, etc. causing ill health, mental problems or even death through the same methods they would use to heal. And anyone who knows a hypochondriac, is aware that they are anything but well adapted to their environment. It seems to me that these oposing actions would cancel eachother out, and make the overall effect on evolution negligable or non-existent. I think more research needs to be done on both sides.

The class, in general, has been fascinating, and has raised a lot of interesting and important questions. I hope some of you will chime in with your thoughts on any or all of these issues. I'll probably post more later on as we get into the topic of "Modern Shamanism," but I'll leave that one for another time.
One last thing I'd like to mention is that all of these books that we've read so far have taken an operational and positivist approach to the explanation of shamanism and related phenomena. No matter how hard they try to be open minded and relativistic, they all try to find some explanation for how things work that doesn't include spirits or gods or any of the explanations that the practitioners themselves would use to explain it (Lewis-Williams, in particular, repeatedly criticizes other theorists for using a characteristically Western perspective to explain things, while he goes on to explain all rock art in terms of neurology). Only one of our books avoids this trap - The World We Used to Live in by Vine Deloria Jr. This was Deloria's last book, and is a collection of accounts of the feats of Native American medicine men. Deloria was always critical of Western science, and in this book he uses only the explanations provided by the practioners themselves, as ridiculous as they may sound to our Western ears. But who's to say that they don't have it right? Who's to say that our explanations are any better? Maybe we could learn a thing or two from them, instead of trying to show them the "real truth."

This is a list of all of the books that we're reading for this class. I thought some of you might be interested in looking at them, and reading them for yourselves.
Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade
Black Elk Speaks by Black Elk and John Neihardt
The World We Used to Live In by Vine Deloria Jr.
Dark Shamans by Neil L. Whitehead
The Mind in the Cave by David Lewis-Williams
Wondrous Healing by James McClenon
Shamans and Religion by Alice Beck Kehoe
The Archaeology of Shamanism by Neil Price
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