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24 December 2010

Questioning Realism

Recently, I've been discussing a realist approach in anthropology with one of my professors.  This is in response to a paper I wrote about methods, and how they alter reality - drawing largely from John Law's book After Methods.  It's a topic I've posted on before.  The professor has been challenging me to explain my realist approach further and sent me an email with the following questions (in bold).  The questions are, I imagine, fairly typical of what we should expect from a constructivist practitioner, and I did my best to answer them (the non-bolded sections).  I would be interested to hear what other people think - do you agree with my answers? How would you answer these questions? How could I have answered them better? 
(I may refer to previous discussions in my answers - if anything is left unclear, please ask and I will clarify)
Can you explain, with clarity, what you mean by reality, by answering the following questions?

1. To what does the word "reality" refer?
Reality refers to an existing set of entities and relations that make up the world around us.

2. Is "reality" fixed?  Stable?
Reality is not fixed nor stable - it is continually being produced by our actions and the actions of other (non-human) entities.  For example, when I cut down a tree, this creates a certain reality in which this tree is cut down - is now firewood, or a house, or whatever I end up doing with it.  The existing set of relations have been altered and a new reality has, to a very minor degree, been created. 
Also, there is always a degree of uncertainty about what kind of reality our actions will create.  We cannot account for all of the feedbacks and complexities of reality, so we will never be able to know for sure what reality will emerge from our actions.  Thus reality is ontologically flat - all entities have the same level of ontological existence - and it is not teleological.

3. Is it something that must be shared? 
It would be shared to a degree - I don't know that it must, though.  That's a tough question.  Law talks about reality being heterogeneous, meaning that there are many realities rather than a single reality.  These different realities are simply different sets of associations or relations which exist simultaneously, and may even overlap or merge together to form a single reality at times. 
I would say that in some sense reality would always be shared, because reality is not something that can be created by ourselves.  But the question is, with whom is it shared?  I would argue that, even if an individual lived completely separate from society with absolutely no input from any other human being, s/he would still share her reality with those non-human entities around her.  I imagine a wild person living in the woods - this person would still share reality with the trees, plants, animals, air, sun, etc.  To deny these other entities a place in reality would be to deny their agency - would be anthropocentric in a way.  I think this is a key element of this view of reality, which I didn't discuss too much in my paper since it wasn't completely relevant and is a little difficult for many to accept.

4. Must it be sensed, or perceived?
I think not.  Though sensation and perception certainly alter the conditions of reality - reality exists beyond our (or other) sensations of it.

5. Can it be sensed or perceived?
It can. 

6. Where is reality?  Is it external or internal to the perceiver?
Reality is both internal and external to the perceiver.  We are all inextricably entangled within reality, but the perceiver is not the only or even the most important position.  In fact, no position is privileged within reality - at least not a priori - we can talk about power, influence, etc. as long as we operationalize those terms and describe them in terms of relations and associations.

7. Is it subject to change?
It is subject to change, as I mentioned before.  It is continually changing as we act within it.  This is why we must take account of how our methods affect reality.

8. Must you believe in it for it to exist?
No. It exists whether you believe in it or not, but your belief in it is a part of reality that may alter it as well.

9. What happens when you don't believe in it?
It goes on anyway and will likely carry you along with it.  To believe that reality doesn't exist is to deny other entities the ability to alter and affect you - you can deny it all you like, but that won't make it so.  Whether it's all in your mind or somewhere very far away, there will always be uncertainties that you have to face, things that you can't predict or know for certain.  It's in these spaces where reality makes itself apparent.

10. Can we "know" reality?  If so, how can we know reality?
We can know reality to a degree.  Reality affects and alters us so we can know it through those encounters.  However, we are all situated within it, so we cannot know it fully.  We also cannot know the effects of our actions before hand, as I mentioned above, so there is always a degree of uncertainty about what kind of reality will emerge.

11. Can we know another's reality?
To the degree that we share it, yes, I believe so.  But there may be some aspects that we can never share, and thus never know.

12. Does the act of "knowing" or perceiving reality change it?
It does, but knowing and perceiving are not privileged.  There are other ways of changing reality, and reality changes on its own without the benefit of knowing or perceiving. 

Why is Husserl not relevant here?
Husserl is relevant, but Law and Latour don't draw from the phenomenologist tradition.  The problem, as I understand it, with Husserl and phenomenology is that it's too focused on the creation of reality through perception whereas Law, Latour, et al. are concerned with the creation of reality through action.  Perception is a form of action, and in that sense it does alter reality, but reality can't be reduced to our perception of it (Latour's principle of irreduction: "Nothing can be reduced to anything else.").  Also, Husserl and phenomenologists focus on human perception to the exclusion of other entities - this is anthropocentric according to Latour, Law, et al.

Is Law responding to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (which some take to mean that the act of observing a phenomena changes it)?
I don't think he is.  Heisenberg may be a part of it - certainly complexity theory and aspects of physics come into play (in my view the second law of thermodynamics place a big role, but Law and Latour doesn't mention this).  Now that I think about it, the Uncertainty Principle may be exactly what it's about - methods altering reality - but even Heisenberg wasn't saying that we cannon know reality, he was just saying that we cannot know all of reality simultaneously.  Also, the knowing of reality isn't the point for Law, the point is that we do alter reality, that we have to acknowledge it, that we have to think about how we do and what kind of reality we are creating - also that we can think about using methods strategically to (hopefully, given the inherent uncertainty) create a better reality than that which existed before.

08 December 2010

Thoughts on Agency and Consumer Capitalism

Agency is not something we possess within ourselves; it is constructed by the sets of relations which we enter into. See Latour, Whatmore, De Landa, Bennett, etc. for a fuller development of this argument.

The idea of individuation and individual liberty keeps us separated, keeps us from building relations that might be too demanding or constraining. It has, as a result, been a powerful weapon in the hands of consumer capitalism for the last century or more. It has allowed them (I don't know who exactly I'm talking about, but bare with me) to reduce our agency to our market choices - we are Consumers because that is the only kind of agency our current set of social relations will allow for. Consumer choices are easy. They don't require much from us, and they allow us to exercise a kind of freedom - the freedom to choose one product over another.

One can critique the capitalist system from within this framework, but (and they know this all too well) critique is nothing unless it's joined by efforts to construct a new world with a different set of relations. But when you're focused on liberating yourself from social norms and beliefs, you're not thinking about building relations that will enable a fuller agency. This is why the self-liberation movements of the 60s never amounted to much and was so easily co-opted by consumer capitalism - they didn't build a different world because they were too concerned about freeing themselves from the world they were in.

Instead of thinking about freedom, and how we as individuals can liberate ourselves, we need to start thinking about constructing a set of relations that will free us all from capitalist oppression. We need to build relations that will extend our agency (again, conceived not as an individual's capacity to act, but as a distributed set of relations that enable action) beyond simple consumerism.

Is it possible that the good society is one which maximizes agency?

PS (for clarification) -
I wrote this post with a specific person in mind. Someone who is very critically oriented, but who complains again and again that "society" is too constricting and oppressive. This is a person who longs for the 60s ideal of a world of pure freedom of expression and individuality. What I realized is that this desire that is so prevalent in our culture, aside from being ultimately narcissistic and self-indulgent, may actually be counter productive. Yes, society is restrictive in certain ways - you cannot run naked down Mass. Street in downtown Lawrence or you will be charged with indecent exposure or something like that - but society is also enabling in many ways. Ultimately, though, without society (broadly conceived including humans and non-humans), agency - "freedom" if you will - does not and cannot exist.  There will always be rules to abide by, but it is our social relationships - our communities - that enable us to be who we are.  To seek liberation from society is to reduce your agency to almost nothing. 

This mindset manifests itself in our culture in many, often less extreme ways.  It's at the heart of the consumer green movement - where all we need to do is buy efficient light bulbs and hybrid cars to solve the world's problems.  It's true that those activities will have a beneficial effect (possibly other harmful effects, but let's put those aside for the moment) but it's not enough.  Watching the documentary, No Impact Man, I realized that it's not enough for him and his family to live this way unless they give something back to help others live this way too.  It's not enough to ride your bike to work, because what's really needed is a transit system that is organized around bikes and mass transportation.  You riding your bike isn't going to do that - we all have to work together to transform our current transit system to the one that we want. 

Unless we focus on building a different set of relations, any movement - however well intentioned - will be reduced to individualized agency, and easily co-opted by the capitalist system which thrives on that kind of individuation.  Capitalism has always done best when it has a large population of highly individuated people - those with few familial and friendship ties.  Those people are easy to exploit because they have no security net to fall back on - those relations create an agency which allows an individual to say "no, I'm not going to work in a factory" or "no, I'm not going to buy that car." So we should focus on (re)building those kinds of relations that enable people rather than trying to liberate ourselves, each on our own terms.

I also don't mean to belittle the 60s and reduce it to narcissistic self-indulgence.  I realize that there was a lot going on, and that a lot of people were working on just the kinds of things I'm talking about.  But for my generation and others that came after that era, the 60s largely represents this kind of individual liberation ideal.

For John

Today marks the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's assassination.  It's a sad day for me - John was the initial impetus behind my critical thought, but also a source of hope and inspiration.  He wasn't the best of people, for sure, but he was a guiding spirit, and the fact that he was killed just when he was starting to settle down and get his life together is a real tragedy in my opinion.  So in memory of John, here's my favorite of his songs - play it loud so everyone knows that that spirit - the spirit of resistance - is still alive and well!

07 December 2010

Ethnographic Methods and the Transformation of Reality

This is something I've been thinking a lot about recently - as a result of my field work in Nevada and reading John Law's After Method.  I've mentioned it here and elsewhere before, but only in passing and I'd like to think it through a bit more and hopefully engage some discussion.  The question is: what would happen if we reconceptualized methods not simply as techniques for collecting data, but as tools for constructing realities? 

If we take reality as being heterogeneous and in a continual process of becoming within which we are all situated (a set of claims which requires further justification, perhaps, but bare with me for the time being), it's clear that every action alters reality in some way - by creating new sets of relations, or by dismantling  or reaffirming old relations.  Methods, then, could be seen as ways of altering reality. 

What does this view do for us?  I think it widens our view to look beyond the collection of data to the broader effects of our research.  No longer is the question how do our methods influence the information we collect?  Instead we have to ask how do our methods alter the existing set of relations? 

Yes, critical and postmodern anthropology has offered us a plethora of participatory and collaborative methodologies, but my sense is that most of them are still focused primarily on the production of knowledge and the creation of a text.  I would like us to think beyond the text to understand how we might create new sets of relations that will constitute a new reality.  

That's not to say that data collection is secondary or unimportant - the data is a new relation, the analysis of the data another, and the written report, film, or other "text" is another.  And sometimes the information will be the most significant of sets of relations that we create or alter in the research process.  What it means is that we have to look also at our activities within and beyond the community during and after our interactions with them.  All research has to be seen as an intervention - the question is what kinds of realities do we want to foster and what realities do we want to avoid? 

This has all kinds of ethical and practical implications.  We can think about how the methods that we normally use - participant observation, interviews, surveys, etc. - alter the conditions of reality when we use them, and we can also think of possible new methods that we might want to adopt - I'm thinking in particular of conflict resolution methods and mediation, but there are a lot of possibilities. 

As I said, this is going to require a lot more consideration, but I feel that this is a potentially important line of thought. 

04 December 2010

Immanence 2.0

Yesterday, Adrian Ivakhiv moved his blog, Immanence, to a new site with a new theme, and a new RSS feed.  I'm taking the time to mention it because Adrian's blogging has been a major influence on my intellectual development over the last two years.  Every post is rich with beautiful imagery, novel philosophical thought, and suggestions for further reading and exploration.  In fact, many of the books on my reading list in the last two years have been pulled directly from his posts, and I would argue that his influence more than anyone other's has helped me find my place on the theoretical landscape (though I also owe a great debt to Levi Bryant, Graham Harman, Michael at Archive Fire, and a handful of really excellent professors that I've had the good fortune to work with). 
Those of you who read and enjoy this blog, who are somehow not familiar with Immanence (in spite of the fact that I mention it all the time) should go to the new site now and subscribe to the feed.  I guarantee that your life will be enriched because of it.

01 December 2010

The Social Dimension of Stress

Another quick emergence from the morass of school and other work I'm currently mired in...
When I was back home for Thanksgiving, I watched this National Geographic documentary about Stress with OnDemand.  I expected it to be the usual thing - talking about the way stress comes about, the evolutionary background of stress, the health effects, and all of the standard suggestions for how you too can reduce stress in your everyday life.  There was some of that, but mostly I was surprised to see that it actually focused more on the social causes and effects of stress than on the individual aspects.  Apparently several research projects have shown similar results - that in strict, hierarchical organizations, those on the lower rungs tend to show more stress (and thus more stress related disease) than those on the higher rungs.

One of the most interesting parts was when Robert Sapolsky told about a troop of baboons he worked with early on in his research.  Apparently, this troop was initially just like any other - very hierarchical, very patriarchal, the dominant males beat on the lower males and all of the males beat on the females.  But one year they took up eating meat from a dump site, and many of them contracted TB and died.  The ones that died were predominantly the alphas, and so this left a gaping hole in the troop's social structure, leaving a lot of females, and a handful of the nicer males to perpetuate the troop.  The result was that the troop developed a relatively egalitarian and matriarchal structure unlike most other troops.  Most interesting was that the reduction in violence within the troop resulted in reduced stress as well (not surprisingly, I suppose).

What does that tell us?  Well, the conclusion of the researchers is essentially another individualized prescription - that we need to each find a place where we can be the alpha-dog and make that place the primary focus of our life.  I think the lesson is far more obvious and profound - that, if we want to reduce the overall stress in society, we ought to strive for more egalitarian social systems.

26 November 2010

Still Alive!

I am, in fact, still alive believe it or not. I've been depressingly absent from my blog lately thanks to an overwhelming and persistent sickness and busy-ness. I have a lot of work yet to do before the semester is out, so I'm afraid that this site will be pretty dead for another month or so.
In spite of all that, though, there are some pretty exciting things going on. My girlfriend, Megan, has finished her Peace Corps training in Tanzania, and is now at her official site where she'll be teaching math and science for the next two years. I'm working on a paper for possible publication on my work this Summer out in Nevada, and some of the lessons learned from that experience. And my professor/boss is looking into joining an NSF project that should be very interesting - a study of the Chesapeake Bay model using a kind of STS approach.
I'll post more on all of this later on. Right now I should work on PhD school applications, and papers, etc. Wish me luck!

10 November 2010

Rally to Restore Sanity

Hey everyone, sorry I've been a bit absent from here of late - I've been very busy with school work, and other work, then I was sick for about two weeks... it's been a very hectic time in general. I've had a lot of fun amongst all of the craziness, though. One thing I got to do - one of the benefits of living close to DC - was go to the Rally to Restore Sanity on Oct. 30. It was just amazing. I've never seen that many people in my life let alone been in amongst them. The trains were full, and the crowd was packed shoulder to shoulder filling up the National Mall. It was a great experience even if I couldn't really see what was going on. I was lucky to have my friends Josh and Meg come in from Kansas to go along with me, and we met up with my other friend Brendan afterward so it was a great time all together. I took a few videos - mostly I got the crowds, since we couldn't see the stage from where we were at. It'll give you an idea of what it was like, though, I hope. Please forgive the crappy cinematography - I don't have much practice with the camera yet. I'll post some thoughts on it all later, maybe, but right now I've got to get back to work. :)

Crowded Metro Station

Crowd on the Mall

Interesting Sign...

Crowd Moving Away from the Mall.

28 October 2010

Premier Wen Jiabao on the Future of China and The USA

I recently read this interview with Wen Jiabao conducted by Fareed Zakaria.  I think it's really interesting they way he conceptualizes China's future - even if it's not the orthodox opinion in China, I hope it at least has some influence.  Certianly, there are problems with how China is developing - issues of justice, freedom, and human rights - but Jiabao seems to suggest that it's not all bad, and they're making some progress while we in the US are busy fighting ideological battles that get us nowhere.  Here's a nice quote:
I have summed up my political ideals in the following four sentences: To let everyone lead a happy life with dignity. To let everyone feel safe and secure. To let the society be one with equality and justice. And to let everyone have confidence in the future. In spite of the various discussions and views in the society, and in spite of some resistance, I will act in accordance with these ideals unswervingly and advance, within the realm of my capabilities, political restructuring.

18 October 2010

Joel Burns to LGBT Teens: It Gets Better...

This is a very moving video, and Burns is a very brave person for sharing his experiences so publicly.  This is not the forum for it - the people who read this blog are probably not the people who need to hear this message - but I post it in the hope that it will go out into the world just that little bit more and reach someone who does need it. 

15 October 2010

Blog Action Day 2010: The Las Vegas Water Grab

I decided to join in on Blog Action Day 2010 after seeing Michael's mention of it a few days ago.  The theme this year is WATER.  You can view Michael's contribution - a collection of photos depicting the urgency of our water problems - here.

Water is clearly a very important issue, and an increasingly urgent concern.  I thought the best way I might be able to contribute is to talk a bit about an issue I came to be very familiar with over the summer - the Las Vegas Water Grab.  Essentially, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), which mainly serves Clark County, has been trying for the past 20 years or so to build a pipeline that would draw water from northeastern Nevada down to Vegas.  In other words, they're trying to suck water out of a desert in order to irrigate a desert and turn it into golf courses and casinos.

If the pipeline were to be built, it would have numerous implications for the people living in northeastern Nevada.  The ranchers would have less water to supply their herds, the towns would have less water to provide their citizens, etc.  But most important to me is that a number of springs will likely dry up.  These springs are sacred to the area Shoshone tribes - they are places of rebirth and renewal as well as sources of innumerable traditional-use plants and animals.

This action is unjustifiable - especially considering the economic state of Las Vegas.  It needs to be stopped.  Fortunately few people - even in Vegas - support it.  For more information on the water grab, and for ways you can help, visit The Great Basin Water Network.

11 October 2010

What's Your Share of the Bush Tax Cuts?

This is an infographic from the NY Times that shows how extending the Bush tax cuts will affect people from different income brackets. It's astonishing that the cuts increase exponentially in proportion to the amount of money you make. These cuts really need to expire, and new, fairer tax cuts put in their place.

09 October 2010

HTS and Military Anthropology, Again

The other day in my anthropology theory class we had a discussion about the HTS and the ethics of military anthropology.  One student brought an article about Montgomery McFate published earlier this year.  It was a critical article, but my fellow students were not convinced.  There was a great deal of ambivalence, and the general feeling was that the invasion was going to happen anyway and so we might as well try to make it as culturally sensitive as possible.  One guy gave an example where a military representative refused a meal, and if only he had been told how important hospitality is to them ...

This kind of argument has always annoyed me, and I should have spoken up at the time, but when I get passionate about something (and I was seething inside) I find it difficult to articulate myself.  The whole argument misses the point completely.  The point is that the war is unjust, and fundamentally wrong.  Helping to make it more culturally sensitive can do little more than make a bad situation just a little better.  Like those doctors who try to make torture more humane.  Or like a rapist who uses a condom.  Sure, a rapist who uses a condom is better than a rapist who doesn't, but would we simply throw up our hands and say "Well, rape is going to happen anyway, we might as well do our best to get them to wear condoms"?  Of course not!  We would and should try to stop rape because it is fundamentally wrong!

It's the same with the war.  I don't give a damn if the military knows how important hospitality is to Iraqis - to me, the military shouldn't be there in the first place.  And if we oppose the war, then we should be trying to end it, not make it kinder, gentler, or more culturally sensitive.

06 October 2010

Methods, Material Semiotics, and the Text

I'm currently taking a class in Anthropological Theory, for which I'm supposed to write a paper with a theoretical focus, but applicable to my research.  I talked today with my professor to explain what I want to write about and elicit some suggestions and comments.  I realized in meeting with her that I have a very hard time describing my theoretical framework.  I don't know if it's a problem with the way I describe things, a flaw in my language, or just that where I'm coming from is so different from the way most of my professors think and how they were taught.  Whatever the issue is, whenever I try to explain it all I get is blank stares and attempts to steer me in other directions.

So today I met with the professor and explained that I'm interested in theorizing methods as techniques for creating realities - like what John Law argues for in After Method.  I mentioned material semiotics (since Law uses that terminology in his book) and a bit about Latour, since he is probably my strongest theoretical influence right now.  She questioned me about how Latour's materialism differs from other materialisms - I explained that for Latour material plays a significant role in societies but that Latour doesn't reduce societies to material processes.  Somehow we got into talking about texts, and I said that texts are material...
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, texts exist as physical things."
"What if you send it through email?"
"It's still electrical signals sent over wires."
"Does the materiality of the text matter?"
Here I fumbled and gave in saying that in my case (writing a text for the BLM) it probably doesn't.  But I should have given an emphatic "Yes!"  It's one thing to write something by hand on the back of a bar napkin (which I'm sure the BLM wouldn't appreciate if I did with their report) and another to type up a nice paper, putting it in a clear plastic cover (thank you Calvin & Hobbes) and turn it in.  It's also one thing to present the text as a physical document and another to send it as an electronic document.  The whole set of material-semiotic associations that went into creating personal computers comes into play, the relationships that are fostered by those associations, the ecological impact of paper versus electronics - these are all parts of this picture which may be emphasized or ignored given the circumstances, but they never disappear.  All of this has implications for how my text will be received by others (i.e. the BLM and the Shoshone tribes), how it will propagate, and how it will last.  The bar napkins might get discarded after last call.  The typed text may get filed in a draw and never seen again - or discovered 50 years from now and treated as the great masterpiece that it is!  The electronic text may become completely irrelevant if the code is not available in the future to access it, if the thumb drive it's on gets put through the wash, or if the oil economy collapses making computers useless pieces of plastic.  All of that matters on some level, and to varying degrees depending on the conditions.  And none of that can be reduced to the semiotic nature of the text (nor, I would argue, could the semiotic nature of the text be reduced to these material qualities).

Anyway, the gist of this is that I'm supposed to read more Derrida.  If anyone can suggest a cgood introduction or summary of Derrida's work - whether by Derrida himself or otherwise - please let me know.

PS - I should say, I don't have anything against Derrida, and I didn't follow the recent Derrida debates on the blogosphere.  It's just that dealing with Derrida in the context of what I want to write about seems like an unnecessary aside.

05 October 2010

A Relational Ethics for People and the Environment?

I'm taking a class in environmental ethics at the moment, and so have been thinking a lot about the implications of our ethical systems on our interaction with the environment.  So far the debate has largely revolved around whether Nature has intrinsic value or if its value should be calculated in terms of utility - however broadly that concept may be interpreted.  We're moving into a section on virtue ethics, but I see little hope of resolving the issue there.

The problem, I think, is that there's too much focus on qualities of discrete entities.  Does x have intrinsic value?  Does x suffer?  Is x useful to us - aesthetically, functionally, or otherwise?  I would like to know if anyone has tried composing something like a relational ethic.  That is, instead of focusing on the intrinsic or extrinsic properties of an entity, we focus on the qualities of our relationship to that entity and to other entities that take part in the relationship.  So instead of arguing that x has some quality that grants it moral considerability, we could argue that our relationship to x ought to be such that we both benefit from it.

I'm not sure if that makes sense - it's only a very vague impression in my mind.  If someone is aware of where these kinds of ideas might be more developed, please let me know.  I'm wondering in particular, what would a Deleuzian environmental ethic look like?  What would a Whiteheadian environmental ethic look like?

03 October 2010

Ikebana Practice

Tim Morton has been sharing his hard-won wisdom for getting that elusive academic job (here, here and here).  He says that the process of presenting yourself, whether in a proposal, interview, elevator, or othewise, should be thought of as a work of art - like Ikebana flower arranging, specifically, the three principles of which he outlines as:
1) Heaven.
2) Earth.
3) Child. (What happens when heaven and earth have sex)
In other words:
As members of the hiring committee we need to know:
1) what the big picture is in your work
2) how you did it (ethnography, close reading, exploring ideas x, y, z, history...)
3) ONE discovery/original conclusion 
I suspect this applies just as well to getting accepted into graduate school, though, lacking a substantial body of work, it might come out sounding a bit more nebulous.  Anyway, since I'm working on writing applications for my Doctorate, I thought I might give Ikebana a try.

1) I'm interested in bridging gaps between different groups, and increasing democratic participation in decision making processes.
2) I've done ethnographic research on environmental controversies including coal power plant construction, and the Las Vegas water grab.
3) I've found that the ethnographer is often in a unique position to bring different and divergent groups together, to facilitate communication, and help construct viable and sustainable solutions.

Is that too much?  Should I be more specific?  Less specific?  I definitely need to think more about how I would explain it further once I've said it - something I need to focus on now, since I'm writing proposals for all of these applications.  Any suggestions for how to refine this would be appreciated - particularly from those who are familiar with the grad student review process.

One Nation...

Yesterday, I went to the One Nation Working Together rally on the National Mall, and just wanted to post some of my impressions.  First of all, the rally seemed dominated by union groups.  The crowd was literally awash with union t-shirts, signs, buttons, and other paraphernalia.  There were other interests there too - peace activists, environmental activists, even a Socialist contingent (second video) who were by far the loudest group in the crowd.  But the unions were definitely the primary movers there, and most of the other messages were either lost to or subsumed under the issue of jobs (i.e. green jobs, bring war money home to create jobs, etc.).  Thus the double meaning of the rally title "Working Together" - I took it more literally thinking it meant actually "working together" rather than "working together."
In any case, it was definitely worthwhile.  There were some good speakers, and people there seemed to be truly engaged, and I in no way want to belittle the value of such a rally, though I think that the idea of working together ought to be emphasized now more than anything.  The true value of rallies like this, and other activist events is not to demonstrate the number of people who support a certain cause or to get people to go out and vote, but, rather, to get people together, to get them thinking and talking, to get them to work out new ideas and new solutions.  In other words, to build new associations.  I've often come away from rallies feeling disenchanted, but if I look at it this way, then I feel a little more hope.

The last thing I want to point out, and Rev. Sharpton made the observation as well, is that this rally seemed more representative of the American people than Beck's rally.  I can't make a comparison based on number of people (and in a sense it would be moot since that's really only a matter of who can bus the most in), but it seems clear that there was more ethnic diversity, religious diversity, ideological diversity, and economic diversity at this rally than at Beck's.  That's important, I think. 

29 September 2010

Don't You Be So Mean...

Such a beautiful song. Love that it's a sing-along.  The world needs more sing-alongs.

27 September 2010

Brewing Chicha, Again

So, I've decided to brew another batch of chicha - the South American corn beer.  For those of you who weren't reading my blog at the time, I brewed a batch back in 2008.  It came out okay, but I think I've learned a few things from that try and from more research, so hopefully this batch will come out a little better.  Here are links to my posts from that first brewing attempt:
El Día Primero
El Día Tercero
El Día Quarto
El Día Quinto
El Día Sexto
El Día Octavo
El Día Noveno
El Día Decimo
El Ultimo Día

Here's the plan of attack for this batch:
1) I'm ordering some Maiz de Jora from La Bodega Peruana.  I think this should already have been germinated and dried (thus the Jora) - possibly even ground.  I'll have to see when I get it.  If that's the case, though, it'll take out at least 2 steps and about 5 days worth of waiting/work.
2) I'm making my own yeast culture.  I started it today - basically just a wild yeast culture using a modified version of this recipe.  Instead of using some kind of acidic juice, I'm using a live culture yogurt and adding a little bit of vitamin C.  This should give me the acidic quality I'm looking for, and I'll get some nice Lactobacillus bugs in there too!  This will give the resulting culture a nice tangy flavor which should be passed on to the chicha, I hope.  Plus it'll be good for the stomach!  :)
3) Once I have the corn, I'll grind it up using my trusty hand-crank mill (assuming it's not already ground, of course).  I had to borrow one last time I made it, but this time I have my own to work with!  It's not too hard - just takes a few grinds to get it down to the right texture.
4) Next I'll mix the ground corn with warm (~160 degrees F) water (about 1qt per pound) and let it sit for a couple of hours.  Then I'll drain it and repeat, and finally let the water (upi or wort) sit overnight after discarding the ground corn.
5) The next day, I'll boil the upi/wort for about 3 hours after which I'll add some spices (cloves and cinnamon - maybe some cardamom?) and some sugar (piloncillo, which is basically a cone of dense brown sugar - it can be found in most grocery stores in the Latin American Cuisine section).  Then I let it sit overnight again - to be sure it's fully cool and to let it break down the starches a little more.
6) Finally I'll pour the mixture into a container for fermenting (I'll probably use a glass jug this time instead of the jar I used before), pour in some of my yeast culture, and wait.

The last time I made it, the fermentation kicked in very rapidly and was basically done after only a day.  I'm hoping it lasts a little longer this time, but I'm not too confident.  I may not post semi-daily updates like I did last time, but I'll certainly keep you all posted on how it goes!

By the way, there are a few different kinds of chicha: chicha morada is a non-alcoholic soft drink type thing, chicha de jora (what I'll be making) is made from germinated corn (jora), and regular chicha is made from corn that has been mixed with human saliva (the word chicha means spit).  I'm not making regular chicha because 1) I can order jora 2) it would take me days to produce enough spit to fully soak the corn and 3) I couldn't in good conscience share the final product with anyone if it has my spit in it.

24 September 2010

What Does Academic Anthropology Do?

The other night, I was at a bar in Philadelphia and I received two somewhat disparaging remarks about my plans to go on to get my Doctorate in anthropology.  The first person said (commenting on my choice to get a doctorate) that he had come to a point where he had to make the choice between staying in academia and doing non-academic work (not in anthropology) and had chosen to do non-academic work, because he "wanted to do work that other people write about instead of writing about other people's work."  In the second instance, I mentioned that I was going to get my doctorate, and two ladies booed me.  Then one of them asked what one does with a doctorate in anthropology besides making more anthropologists.  It being a bar, I said something simplistic about changing the world, and she asked how my research would do so - I explained about my professor's research helping local communities communicate with scientists and policy makers.  She seemed okay with that explanation, but I just want to post a few more thoughts. 

Let me just say that I took these comments for what they were - random bar talk and casual jibing - so I'm not offended by them, but I do think they speak to a deeper misunderstanding of academia and how it relates to the "real world."  Now I'm as critical of academia as anyone (maybe not as critical as Max Forte, but certainly more critical than many of the other students in my program), but I don't think it deserves the kind of dismissal that these two comments offer.  They suggest, essentially, that academic anthropologists don't actually do anything meaningful in the world.  That they are isolated and self-indulgent - writing about what other people do or doing research that merely interests themselves. 

Do Anthropologists merely replicate anthropologists?
Yes, that is part of what they do.  Except I would say that they replicate anthropological thinking, which, in my opinion is very valuable.  Nobody complains about academic economists replicating economic thinking or academic engineers replicating engineering thinking.  That's because these two modes of thought are generally accepted to be valuable - they have "real world" applications.  Whereas anthropology is seen as merely academic.  But anthropology does have real world applications, and it does interact with and move within the "real world." Anthropological thought is valuable because it forces us to see beyond our limited cultural and historical frame, it forces us to consider the possibility that the world could be other than what it is (to borrow from Ghassan Hage).  Economics, engineering, political science, even sociology in some cases - these tend to replicate the world as it is, while anthropology offers a look into a world that is possible.  I think more anthropological thinking is a good thing, and we need to replicate it now more than ever. 

Does academic anthropological research actually do anything? 
Yes, it does.  Even aside from all of the "applied" work that's done.  Anthropologists - whether academic or otherwise - live in the world and act in the world.  Their actions cannot help but have an effect.  The question is how much of an effect and what kind of effect.  Certainly, a great many dissertations are shelved after they've been defended and never see the light of day again.  Also, many articles published in journals are never read beyond a handful of other academics.  But that's not to say that these things don't have an effect, it's just that the effect is small.  And we have to look not only at the effects of the text that is produced, but also at the effects of the actual research process itself, for the researcher for the consultants and for the community as a whole.  How did the research change the situation - even if very slightly?
It's like throwing a stone into a pond - you can't help but make some ripples.  Sometimes the effects will be counter to the researcher's original intent, and this is why I argue for a politically conscious, and deeply reflexive anthropological practice rather than trying to construct a space of objectivity.  But looking around, I see a lot of anthropologists, particularly those in the academy, working on social issues, and trying to make the world just a little bit better.  Some clearly don't, and some actually try to make the world worse (though, I suspect they think they're making the world better in some deluded, sado-masochistic way).  So I don't think academic anthropology can simply be written off as a waste of time.

Sun Is On My Side

I'm not sure how I missed it, but I just found out that Gogol Bordello released a new album back in May!  I've been a fan of theirs since I first heard them on WHUS (one of the best college radio stations I've ever heard!) in 2005.  Since that time I've seen them live 4 times - including a Halloween concert at Liberty Hall in Lawrence.

Their music is to varying degrees inspirational, political, energizing, beautiful and just fun.  If you've never heard them go check out their website now, and maybe buy a few albums.  This new one (Trans-Continental Hustle) may turn out to be my favorite yet, but I have a deep fondness in my heart for Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike as well.

23 September 2010

DRG: Mechanisms of the Social

I've been criticized recently (here and here, though Alex doesn't identify me as the source of the criticism) for asking, in my DRG posts, by what mechanism a social assemblage could affect its constituent parts.  I don't think this criticism is quite fair.  DeLanda himself is concerned with causal relationships, though he occasionally refers to what he calls quasi-causal topologies.  I'm not asking for a deterministic mechanism, in fact, quite the contrary - I'm looking for an explanation that avoids the determinism of the Social, which DeLanda seems to lapse into every now and then.  For example, when he discusses topology, he claims that:
"... [W]e may be justified in explaining the emerging coalition as the result of the interaction between entire communities if an explanation of the micro-details is unnecessary because several such micro-causes would have led to a similar outcome.  In the same way, a large organization may be said to be the relevant actor in the explanation of an interorganizational process if a substitution of the people occupying the specific roles in its authority structure leaves the organizational policies and its daily routines intact." (37)
Isn't this the kind of reduction of agency that we've been trying to avoid - treating people and things as if they merely replicate the input without translation (that is, treating them as intermediaries rather than mediators)?  Maybe my earlier claim that we could never test this was unjustified, but it's still an unfair reduction of agency - unless I'm completely misreading the paragraph. 

I'm quite willing to accept non-mechanistic or even acausal explanations when the causes aren't clearly known and when those explanations add to our understanding of the world - sometimes magic is the only or best explanation we have.  In this case, though, I feel that explanations that lack a mechanism do not add to our understanding, and actually subtract from the world by removing various types of agency that end up getting subsumed by the Social cause. 

The mechanism I'm looking for is essentially Latour's associations.  In fact, Alex's explanation for why students focus on proofreading in their peer comments despite having been instructed not to is exactly what I'm talking about.  I don't see what benefit we get ascribing this to topology, redundant causation, or downward causation.  Not that it's wrong to use those terms, but, please, explain what you mean rather than simply assuming that something is going on.

20 September 2010

More Assemblages and Strange Mereology

There are two very good responses to my last DRG post about essentialism and strange mereology posted.  Levi's response can be found here, and Circling Squares has one as well.  Both are very good posts, and I find little to dispute in either, and am very satisfied with their explanations.  I reserve the right to think of something later, though, since I just woke up.  :)

I think that as long as the "downward causation" or the "redundant causation" are explained or described rather than merely assumed, then I don't have a problem.  It's only when people start talking about cultures, organizations, social assemblages, etc. causing people to behave in certain ways without showing how they do so that I start to squirm (De Landa does seem to do this sometimes, but maybe that's just my misreading or maybe he's just lapsing and being a bit lazy - I don't know).  Then it starts to get very fuzzy and we start to run into the old pitfalls of structuralism and reducing agency.  As Levi says, we have to:
"... [examine] the actual nuts and bolts of real relations among objects rather than speaking in terms of abstractions that give the impression of resemblance when the two things couldn’t be further apart."
 That's a project I can get behind.

18 September 2010

No Impact Man

I just finished watching this on OnDemand, and had some thoughts I'd like to share.  Despite it's limitations (some of which you can read about here), I thought the film was very good, and very educational.  The question that comes up again and again is, is individual change enough?  That is, if we are going to build a sustainable society, is it enough for each of us to do our own thing without fundamentally changing the system in which we live?  Environmentalism kind of bounces back and forth between advocating individual change on a massive scale and struggling for structural change.  But the dichotomy isn't so clear, it seems.

For one, the two are not mutually exclusive; it is possible to change the way you live as an individual and still work toward structural change.  It would only be a problem if most people thought that all it took was changing a few light bulbs, and I think a lot of people do believe that, but most people only start there.  Those who keep moving soon realize that structural change is necessary - that there are limits to the effectiveness of individual change. 

Also, it seems to me that individual change is always structural change in a way.  No, it's not enough for everyone to just change a few light bulbs.  It's not even enough for all of us to live just like the family in the film.  Those things will help, certainly, but they will not result in a sustainable society (or a permaculture, as KSR is so fond of saying).  One wants, then, to wholly revamp the system: to bring down capitalism with one deft blow, to revamp the cities, to ban cars, to blow up all of the dams, and so on.  That's not how it works.  Even those actions that seem undeniably massive and systemic wouldn't bring about structural change.  Structural change takes time and work.  It takes building new ways of living and being in the world.  It's not enough for each of us to simply change a light bulb or reduce our impact, because those are things we do alone. 

What's needed, instead, is for all of us to work together to create the world we want to live in.  That may mean bringing down capitalism, blowing up a few dams, banning cars, etc.  It may not.  And certainly politics is an essential part of this - electing the right people, protesting, calling your legislators, etc.  But that's not enough either - we have to look beyond ourselves, beyond the realm of politics, and beyond the world as we know it to imagine a different world and then work hard to bring it into existence.

16 September 2010

Some Links

I don't usually do links posts, but I really found these great and wanted to share.  I hope some of you like them and will share them as well.

First is an open letter from Michael Moore to Rahm Emanuel called "Happy Fuckin' Labor Day!"  I ran into this through the Savage Minds weekly round up, and really enjoyed it, though I'm not a huge Michael Moore fan.

Next up are two interviews (here and here) with Kim Stanley Robinson - the author of the fantastic Red Mars, which I read this past summer and absolutely loved (much thanks to Levi Bryant for the initial impetus).  Reading these interviews just makes me want to go read all of his stuff even more.  Damn school reading!  I find it particularly interesting that he cites people like Latour and Haraway - I don't typically think of my sci-fi writers reading things like social theory, but it explains why I like his books so much.

The last thing is a lecture by Kim Stanley Robinson.  I haven't watched it yet, but I will this weekend.  If it's anything like those interviews, I'm sure I'll really enjoy it.  The first video is below, but you can find the rest here.

On another note, I just found out that my proposal has been accepted for a presentation at the American University Public Anthropology Conference.  I'll be talking about my work this past summer and how I came to think of my role as a mediator in Latour's sense of the term - altering the conditions and possibilities for creating a new world (however minimally...).  If you'll be there, let me know!

Oh, and hey, look at the bottom of each post - there's a new blog feature with links to similar posts!  I stole that from Michael at Archive Fire.  If you, for whatever inexcusable reason, are not familiar with his blog, then you should go over there first thing and read it cover-to-cover.  :)

14 September 2010

The Edge of Dreaming

Thanks to Adrian Ivakhiv for pointing out this fantastic film.  The filmmaker describes living with very convincing dreams which seem to predict that she will die by the end the year.  She talks with several prominent neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers about her dream and dreaming in general, reflecting on the nature of dreams and how they relate to our daily lives. The video is streaming here until November 24.  I highly recommend watching it!

De Landa Reading Group: Essentialism and a Very Strange Mereology Indeed!

Alex Reid has his post up on Chapter 2 of ANPoS: Assemblages Against Essences, Johan at Archaeological Haecceities has a post up about Harman's take on De Landa and Chris Vitale has a post up discussing De Landa in relation to fuzzy set theory.  Rather than comment on their comments, I'm going to again stray off into my own thoughts in the hope of once again clarifying things that I don't quite comprehend.  Please don't take this as first-and-foremost a critique of De Landa - it is, as I've so often claimed before, my attempt to work out some of my own confusions through consideration, and discussion.

I had a really tough time with this chapter.  Whenever we get into discussing mereology - the relation of parts to wholes - I get confounded.  I've mentioned this in the past, but let me explain.  Whenever we start talking about how wholes affect their parts I start to feel as if the explanations become magical in a way, as opposed to causal.  For example, when De Landa says that social assemblages constrain and enable their components or that they can be thought of as creating a "space of possibilities" I ask, how do they do it?  By what mechanism?  De Landa himself says that he's interested in causal explanations, but I can't seem to find the causal mechanism for the kind of relationship between part and whole that he's discussing.

In the end it starts sounding structuralist to me, though an historical structuralism.  When he says that it wouldn't matter which individuals occupied an office in an organization or that, when talking about interactions between organizations, it wouldn't matter which components of the organization were doing the interacting, I ask, when is this ever the case? And, what's more, how could we ever test this?  We can't test it because there's no way to redo a particular interaction between two organizations using different individual components.  But how many people would argue that the government is exactly the same now that Obama is President as it was when Bush was President?  Sure many things are the same, because many agencies have persisted through the transition, and so in some sense the difference is minimal, but the difference does exist and can easily be demonstrated.  And when the US interacts with Israel and Palestine, is there really not difference if the Secretary of State is Hillary Clinton versus Condoleezza Rice? 

Here's an example of the kind of magical thinking that I'm talking about from Levi's blog a while back (not Levi's thinking, just an example he was using).  When Muslims engage in terrorism, a common explanation is that there is a culture of terror inherent in Islam itself.  This is to say that an entity "Islamic Culture" causes Muslims to behave in a certain way.  Now the claim is, of course, ridiculous in itself since that would mean that all Muslims are terrorists which is clearly not the case, and as the author points out, since the same claim is not made of white terrorists like Tim McVeigh - instead these acts are generally blamed on the instability of the individual or something of that nature.  But that's not exactly true either.  Rather it could be said that there are cultural effects which interact with the individual's personality to cause him or her to act as a terrorist.  But even to say that there are "cultural effects" is not to explain the cause - it's just to say that at least part of the cause is external to his or her individuality.  In order to explain the cause we have to describe the proliferation of agencies - both internal and external to the individual - which interacted to produce the terrorist act or any other phenomenon (a la Latour).  To simply say an effect is "cultural" or "social" might be okay shorthand in some circumstances, but it's overly simplistic and magical as I mentioned before.  And if we have to do this anyway to have a meaningful causal explanation, then what's the point of talking about "culture" or "the social" in the first place?

That's not to say that there's no system or that the system is simply an amalgamation of different agencies.  A system is the result of a particular set of relations between many agencies, working to produce an emergent whole.  It's not enough to simply throw a bunch of materials into a jar in the proper proportions and shake them up to create a person or an animal.  It's from the relations and the work (the work being key because all organization takes work or energy to create and maintain) that the agencies do that the whole emerges.  Adrian describes something akin to this (in much better language than mine) here.  But I'm not convinced that the whole that emerges has any kind of causal ability on its component parts except when it creates other agencies which interact with the parts, such as laws, rules, rituals, etc., but this is not the system affecting the parts, but the system creating new agencies that affect the parts in various complex ways.

Another thing I want to talk about is the conflation of categories and real ontological entities that I mentioned in my previous post.  De Landa talks about biological species as assemblages, and Alex, Levi, and Adrian each discussed genres as assemblages.  I'm not convinced that either of these are assemblages.  For the case of biological species, it seems to me that the only objective existence they have is as populations of interbreeding organisms, but when we talk about species, we talk about them as something more than individual populations.  For genres we can't really talk about an entity composed of books, films, comics, etc. plus some other things, which has a causal affect on the world around it.   For example, we can't talk about a thing made up of all of the action&adventure novels and films affecting us and other entities.  We can talk about a concept "action&adventure genre" which has ontological status, I believe - which interacts with all of the books and films that are labeled as such (as well as others, I suspect) and which affects us (by altering our expectations or suggesting a particular marketing strategy, for example).  Both of these, to me, confuse the mass of entities that belong to a category for the category itself, which is a different ontological entity altogether.

I'm sorry for the rambling nature of this post; I hope it's at least somewhat clear.  And I hope readers won't take me as trying to tear down De Landa - as I said above, I'm really just trying to understand.  If you have a way to explain or clarify these issues to me - particularly the strange mereology - please do!  I will be wholeheartedly grateful!

13 September 2010

Get Out There and Spend!

Do you remember when Bush called on all of us to go shopping after 9/11?  Do you hear the incessant complaint from economists that we aren't spending enough to keep the economy moving?  Well, I realized this weekend that they're kind of right - the problem is that the focus is wrong.

This is in part related to my Economic Principle No. 1.  Basically, economies do well when wealth keeps moving.  I argued before that every economic system except lassaiz-faire capitalism has a mechanism for keeping wealth flowing despite its tendency to pool.  That's why I think the economists, and even Bush, were right in calling for more spending, but where I think they went wrong was in who they asked to do the spending.  They want ordinary people - middle class and lower - to get out there and do some shopping.  We are the consumers, in their minds, and the richer folks are the investors (the job creators or whatever they choose to call it).  But the lines between consumer and investor (if such categories even exist) aren't that distinct.  The focus should really be on where wealth is pooling and ways to liberate that wealth.

The wealthiest 1% of Americans control about 40% of the financial wealth of the nation (source).  The wealthiest 20% control about 93% of the nations wealth.  That leaves about 7% for the rest of us - the bottom 80%.  Let's make it a bit more concrete - if there were $100 million dollars worth of wealth in the US, then the top 1% (or roughly 3 million Americans) would get to split about $40 million - that averages to about $13 per person.  The next 19% (or about 57 million Americans) would get to split about $50 million - that's an average of about $0.87 per person.  The rest of us (or about 240 million Americans) have to split about $7 million - that's an average of about $0.03 per person.

Let's continue this simplified analysis further.  Let's say that each group saves about 10% of its wealth (a ridiculous amount considering that most people on the bottom bracket don't have much in savings at all, and those at the top probably have significantly more than 10%, but we're simplifying here so we'll go with it).  That means that the wealthiest 1% would have roughly $4,000,000 in savings.  The next 19% would have roughly $5,000,000 in savings between them.  And the bottom 80% - the rest of us - would have about $700,000 in savings.  If each group were to liberate - i.e. spend, invest, give away, tax, etc. - 1% of their savings the amounts would be $40,000; $50,000, and $7,000 respectively. 

So who should be spending?  First of all, most people in that lower 80% bracket  do spend their money.  They spend it because they have to.  In most cases, they do not have any more money to spend.  But it seems clear to me, even though this is a very simplified explanation, that if the wealthiest 20% of Americans were to open their pocketbooks and put just a very small percentage of their pool back into the economic flow, it would have significantly greater effect than the rest of us struggling to put a few dollars here and there into the economy.  However, those folks can afford to sit on their pools of wealth and wait out the economic storm, while the rest of us flounder and struggle from one day to the next.  This is why tax-and-spend liberalism makes some sense - it's the only way to liberate those pools of wealth and get them flowing once again (assuming it's spent on the right kinds of things, and not just given back to the wealthy).

12 September 2010

"Restoring Honor" to America

It's interesting to hear them use Beck's language word-for-word in some cases, abstractly, and without thinking about the details, but then to hear them say that they never heard Glenn Beck say that Obama is racist.

10 September 2010

Red Alert!

On my trip back to Connecticut to visit my parents, my dad gave me a copy of a book by his friend (and mine) Dan Wildcat.  The title of the book is Red Alert!: Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge.  I read half of it on our way up to New Hampshire, and then the other half on my way back to Maryland.  The book was not a list of "indigenous knowledge" that might help to save the planet, nor was it a New Agey appeal to spiritualism, but rather a theoretical argument for, and call to action to incorporate practical indigenous knowledge into our notions of sustainability.

There were several things about the book that rung true with me - having just come off a research project involving indigenous peoples, and thinking deeply about realist understandings of our world.  First of all, Wildcat refers continuously to what he calls Indigenous Realism - that is, fully embodied, empirical, practical knowledge of a real world, and the recognition that the world acts of it's own accord rather than being simply fodder for human actions, perception, and signification:
" know 'it' - reality - requires respect for the relationships and relatives that constitute the complex web of life"

"...the Menominee understand that, like humans, the nonhuman or other-than-human features or persons, as many indigenous langagues signify them, possess an active spirit that possesses power that must be respected.  In this sense, successful living in a community constituted of other-than-human relatives requires their active cooperation and participation in order for human-kind to live well."
He refers, in addition, to the concept of the seven generations, which I've heard many times before, but have never really seen explained.  For Wildcat, we must think of ourselves as part of the seventh generation which is set in the middle of six other generations - three before and three after.  We draw on the lessons of those who came before, and consider the effect of our actions on the three that come after.  To me this reflects an intuitive notion of the composition (in the Latourian sense) of culture and knowledge, but also reflects an intrinsic respect for the future and the possibilities that emerge from our actions. 

Another important concept is what Wildcat refers to as Indigenuity or Indigenous Ingenuity.  That is, the ability of indigenous peoples (those who are attentive to their relationships with the land) to experiment, improvise and find ways to adapt to situations.  Climate change, Wildcat suggests, pushes the boundaries of Indigenuity, but by incorporating it into our notions of sustainability we might collectively be able to find novel solutions.  This is maybe analogous to cultural resilience.

Overall, the book makes a strong argument and is an effective call to action.  My only complaint with the book is the pervasive use of "Mother Earth" and Gaia langauge, which, despite the fact that it has been widely incorporated into many indigenous discourses, seems to me to be a relic of Western Romantic ideology rather than a component of truly indigenous knowledge (Wildcat refers to Deloria's The World We Used to Live In, and I've been reading portions of that book recently and haven't come across a concept that's analogous to Gaia.  In fact, Wildcat acknowledges the Western origin of Gaiaism early in the book, but continues to use it nonetheless - maybe just for the sake of simplicity or because this wasn't the place to question it).  I'm working on an article at the moment in which I argue that we need to move away from these concepts in order to develop a more practical environmentalism.  But, in any case, the book is good, and I highly recommend picking it up if you're interested in indigenous issues or even realist theory.

08 September 2010

Environmental Ethics: The Land Ethic

This is my first real analysis paper for my Environmental Ethics course. Our reading for this week was Aldo Leopold's The Land Ethic, and Richard Sylvan's Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental, Ethic?. It's short because the professor wants us to keep them under a page, so I hope this exercise of posting them on my blog won't simply be annoying for anyone reading. I'll try to elaborate when necessary.

I'm going to start with Sylvan, because it seems to be a kind of response to Leopold. Basically, Sylvan seems to be arguing that we need a new kind of ethic for dealing with environmental issues rather than simply extending an old ethic to a new domain (as he claims Leopold is suggesting). I'm not entirely clear that he recommends an alternative or even that his argument really matters, since, practically, he's not really suggesting anything different from Leopold, just arguing that Leopold's Land Ethic doesn't fit with the dominant Western Ethic. Instead he simply runs through a number of options for creating an environmental ethic, including a rights-based framework, a responsibility-based framework, and a few others.

Reading his description of the three main Western Ethics – domination, stewardship, and cooperation – I recognized quickly that all three are anthropocentric. But not in the sense that he describes. He claims that they're anthropocentric because none of them allows for land untouched by human hands – I suggest that they're anthropocentric because they imagine land or Nature to be a domain which is there for humans to shape, which has no agency of its own. In fact, I think that all of the options proposed by Sylvan have a similar anthropocentrism, which will never really result in an effective “land ethic” or “environmental ethic. He roundly discards what he calls pantheism because “artefacts are not alive.” But this isn't an argument – he doesn't really engage the issue or explain why artefacts are not alive, simply accepts it as given. Much recent work in many fields (Science and Technology Studies, Post-Humanism, Animal Studies, etc.) would suggest otherwise (not pantheism per se, but a system which recognizes the agency, spirit, or force of otherwise inanimate objects).

Leopold's argument is that we ought to extend our ethics to the land and the creatures that inhabit our world because we are all part of a community, and ethics is essentially rules for living in a community. I think Leopold goes far towards recognizing the complexity and the agency of the world around us. His discussion of the role of Government was particularly interesting, given that he was a Government employee – many anti-environmentalists, and some environmentalists too, see the purpose of the movement to simply erect regulatory structures that would disincentivize pollution and other problematic behaviors. But Leopold argues that Government regulation can only do so much. My question is, is an environmental ethic, whether it's an extension of an old ethic or a new ethic entirely as Slyvan suggests, enough? Ethics have been unsuccessful at preventing murder, war, theft, rape, and a whole host of other behaviors that are considered morally wrong – how would a land ethic be more effective than those? Also, how does one go about generating a new ethic and establishing it in the population? Leopold suggests education, but education requires that the ethic already be somewhat established before it will be effective.

06 September 2010

De Landa Reading Group: Internal/External Relations

Alex at Digital Digs has recently commented on the De Landa Reading Group discussing genres as assemblages, and Levi has a response at Larval Subjects.  I read through the introduction and the first chapter on the train Friday (spent most of the trip trying to sleep), and I have a few thoughts of my own.  I've read through these chapters a few times before (never made it through the whole book before, though) and have never really questioned De Landa's ideas.  Now I'm seeing things with a somewhat more critical eye, not because I want to tear De Landa down, but because I'm struggling to understand my own position in this new realism that is emerging.  It's by working through what exactly is meant in all of the terminology, and trying to translate it into my own conceptual framework that I begin to understand.  But sometimes this process involves a degree of deconstruction and criticism. 

The thing I want to think about is the idea of external vs. internal relations.  It occurred to me, while reading chapter one, that there can be no hard line between the two, and that, therefore, they do not constitute discrete categories.  De Landa accomplishes a degree of nuance to these categories by postulating his three axes (territorialization - deterritorialization, material - expressive, and coding - decoding).  But he goes on to talk about all sorts of objects (organisms, social groups, things, etc.) as assemblages, of which one of the defining characteristics is that they are constituted by external relations.  Okay, I can accept that and accept the three axes as ways of differentiating, but, then, why talk about internal relations at all?  Is there a thing out there composed of internal relations?  Is there anything that is not an assemblage? 

Relations must be thought of on a continuum with varying degrees of interdependence (heterogeneity is the term De Landa uses, and perhaps the three axes are the qualifying characteristics of interdependence/heterogeneity).  An assemblage, object, or whatever you want to call it may be constituted by many different kinds of relationships.  For example, if you take out my heart with out replacing it with something that is at least heart-like, I will probably cease to exist.  There is a high degree of interdependence between my heart and the rest of my body.  The same is true of my brain, my lungs, my kidneys, my liver, and several other organs.  If, on the other hand, you cut off my big toe, I'd be in a great deal of pain, and probably very pissed off, but I'd probably survive and go on to live a normal, healthy life.  My big toe cannot be said to have a high degree of interdependence with the rest of my body or myself as a whole.  So my body is composed of relations with varying degrees of interdependence, and this is true of all assemblages, and some assemblages, like societies and ecosystems, are composed almost entirely of relationships with very low degrees of interdependence.  At what point can we say that it's not meaningful or valuable to talk of these as assemblages? 

I think one of the challenges the new realism faces, and one of the dangers of postulating discrete entities is that we run the risk of mistaking our own categories for ontological entities.  Is a culture a real entity or is it simply a category we have used for so long that it's difficult for us to realize that it's not?  What criteria do we have for saying that something is not real?  Or are all of our categories really ontological entities?  I agree with Levi's statement:
The key point is that we would seek, as much as possible, the real
connections that were forged and the trace of these encounters.
If we follow this suggestion and think primarily about how entities have been composed, then I think we can establish the criteria we need.  I also think that agency is a key factor here, perhaps a defining characteristic of ontological entities.  If we can talk about how an entity affects the world around it, then I think we are talking about it as an ontological entity.  This is part of the reason that I'm not convinced yet that social groups are entities (some more or less than others).  But more on that later, perhaps, when I get to that section in the book.

I want to mention, finally, that I may not read ANPoS for a few days - I've just got a book by an old friend Dan Wildcat from Haskell Indian Nations University called Red Alert, and have been focusing on reading that.  I want to post some comments on it when I finish it because I think it has a lot to contribute to this new realist approach.  Anyway, it's a short book, and I'm going to finish it before I go back to ANPoS.

UPDATE Sept. 8, 2010:  Levi explains that for De Landa there are no relations except external relations.  From my reading, this isn't implicit in his explanation, since he does make external relations one of the defining characteristics of assemblages.  Why do that unless there is some kind of relation other than external to which you are contrasting them too, and some other kind of object besides assemblages which are composed of those other relations?  Anyway, I'm just nitpicking there, because it's really only a matter of language, but I think it confuses things.
So there are only external relations, and the three axes or continua are ways of differentiating between them - their heterogeneity or degree of interdependence as well as their role in the system.  That makes sense to me, but I think it should also be emphasized that assemblages are composed of a variety of different kinds of relations with varying degrees of heterogeneity/interdependence as I described above.  The other thing that I realized in relation to this is that a single relation can be more or less interdependent for each component.  For example, when you remove my big toe and I'm in pain and pissed off but still me, the big toe can no longer be said to be a big toe.  Or, at least, maybe it's capacities are no longer actualized.   

02 September 2010

De Landa Reading Group

Levi Bryant kicked off the reading group for De Landa's A New Philosophy of Society yesterday. I plan to follow along and post some comments as well, but I'm certainly no match philosophically for the folks involved in the group, so I highly recommend following along with them as much as possible. I'll post regular updates including links to all of the contributing blogs (as many as I run across, at least).  I'll probably start reading
tomorrow on the train (a five hour ride from DC to New London to visit the folks - hopefully Hurrican Earl chooses to stay out at sea), and will comment either late Friday or Sunday (I'm going to New Hampshire on

01 September 2010

Environmental Ethics: Prelude

Today I had my first class of the semester - Environmental Ethics with Thomas Hilde.  Wasn't much to it, of course, just syllabus stuff and introductions, but as part of the class we are to write one page analyses/questions for the readings each week.  This is just to ensure that we do the readings and that we are thinking about the readings and prepared for discussion - I think it's a good exercise, not simple busy work, but not overly taxing.  In any case, I thought what I'd do is to write up my short analysis and post them here each week, then just copy and paste them to a document and bring them to class.  This will do a few things.  First, it will ensure that I do the work.  Second, it will ensure that the work is at least somewhat thoughtful.  And third, it will hopefully draw responses from my many many (sarcasm) readers, which will provide me with more to think about and more to bring to the class.  Anyway, we'll see how it goes.

So to begin with - and this isn't really part of the assignment, since we haven't done any reading yet - I just want to post some thoughts on ethics in general.  Levi has a nice post up about ethics, and his Introductory Ethics class, in which he discusses the argument that ethics are simply a tool for those in power to control the rest of us (this is not his view, but just a thought experiment he underwent with his class thanks to Peter Singer's book Ethics).  It's an interesting argument, and makes sense on a certain level - David Graeber argues something similar (for etiquette, not ethics, though) in a few of the sections of his book Possibilities - but obviously it's not true.  The fact is, a lot of people engage in thinking about ethics, not just those in power.  It is quite possibly the most common form of philosophical thought, which means that, while the powerful may use ethics to their benefit in some ways, ethics cannot be reduced to a form of domination. 

So what is ethics?  Obviously the straight forward answer is that it's people trying to figure out what's right and wrong, and the best way to live.  Professor Hilde suggested further, that it is the attempt to find some universal understanding of right and wrong.  I'm thinking of it empirically and pragmatically.  That is, what is it that we do when we engage in ethical thought?  And Professor Hilde touched on this as well - we make assertions about what is right/wrong or the ethical nature of the world and our lives, but we also make arguments to support those assertions.  If we don't make an argument to support them - even if the argument is simply that God said so - our assertions would simply be rejected.  That means that ethics must be composed - assembled from prior knowledge and past assertions (drawing on Latour and others here, of course).  If our assertions and the arguments supporting them fit the current state of the world - they are well composed- then they have a chance of being accepted (though, I suppose this is no guarantee that they will be).  If they don't fit our world, then they will likely be rejected.

It occurs to me, also, that different groups would have different prior knowledge and assertions (different worlds) - whether it's academics, lay people, or a different social group.  Does this mean that all ethics are relative, and that there is no ground for a universal ethics?  No, it just means, as Latour says about so many other things, that a universal ethics does not exist a priori.  It's unlikely, I suppose, that a universal ethics would ever be fully composed, but there's no reason why it couldn't be in theory (assuming that this is a desirable end).

That's it for now.  Stay tuned for more posts on this topic in the coming months. 
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