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31 August 2010

An Empirical Realism

When I was a teenager, I went through a nihilistic solipsist phase (oh, the follies of youth), but worked my way out of it fairly quickly with the help of my father.  I remember going to him one evening and telling him that I had it all figured out - the world is just a projection of my mind, and reality is simply an illusion.  His response ... "So what?"  Since I have a great deal of respect for my dad, and didn't really have a decent response, I went away to think about it for a while.  What I realized is that, for all intents and purposes, it doesn't really matter.  The fact is, the world is unpredictable - I can't guess what anyone else is going to say or do, and I can't be conscious of everything that's going on - which means that either the world is created by my unconscious or there's an independent world out there beyond my self.  Pragmatically speaking, there's no difference between the two, since either way, the world is external to my consciousness - the world is always at least partially unconscious for me.  Thus ended my solipsist phase (thank goodness - I'd hate to be stuck in that kind of existential meaninglessness).

I've been thinking recently about all of the different ontological perspectives, and how they fit with my own work in anthropology.  I tend to be very empirical when it comes to my work (not always when it comes to philosophy, but I tend to try to bring my philosophy into my work, so it ends up running into empiricism anyway), and what I've learned is that a genuine empiricism tends to lead to epistemology.  There are, of course, empiricisms which simply reject epistemology out-of-hand without confronting it at all, and these are what we tend to call naive realisms.  But taken to it's reasonable end, a genuine empiricism would recognize that all experience is situated and must pass through any number of psycho-social filters before we can process and analyze it.  Therefore, it's essential to understand how we know what we know and how our situation affects our experience when making claims about reality.

But epistemology has its limitations.  This focus on our own ability to understand the world around usforces us into a spectrum of choices ranging from perspectivism, where each situated entity has a different view of the world (like the 5 blind men and the elephant), to what is essentially solipsism (and perspectivism is really a weaker solipsism which assumes an independent reality, but claims that reality is molded in a way by our situatedness).  The problem here is that these ways of thinking limit us to talking about how humans relate to the world and not about how the world actually is.  Any claims about reality, then, require a leap of faith - to assume that there is a reality out there and to assume that our claim is not merely an artefact of our situatedness.

This is another way of saying that perspectivism and solipsism deny the agency of the things around us - the plants and animals, the objects, the ideas and thoughts.  These things become a simple substrate for us to project on to or to mold in our image.  Understanding this makes it easy to move forward.  Much like before, when I rejected solipsism with the recognition that the world is unpredictable - that much of the world is unconscious for me - we can move beyond (while not fully rejecting, I think) perspectivism by recognizing that the things around us affect us, and change us (this is, in my opinion, the most important insight from Deleuze, Latour, DeLanda and other recent ontological philosophers).  The world is not simply a material substrate for us to project an image of reality or mold to our conceptions, rather it is active and moving.  But things don't merely affect and change us, they affect and change one another.  Sunflowers move towards the sun, elephants knock down trees creating pasture for smaller animals, rain erodes mountains, and so on. 

What this move does is it eliminates the leap of faith associated with realism and ontology.  We can now speak from experience (empirically) about a real world beyond our selves and our perception of it.  It also empowers the things around us to alter us, and this is why we can't fully reject perspectivism, but perspectivism moves into an ontological realm.  Instead of begining from the privileged position of being the only ones who look out upon, interpret, and shape the world, we now recognize that we are only one among many things in a complex, entangled world, and that the privileged position never existed.

30 August 2010

Say No to Glenn Beck!

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I heard a lot about this rally on the radio as I was driving across the country this past week, and it honestly pisses me off.  It's not that Glenn Beck is white and trying to capitalize on Martin Luther King, Jr. - he's right that MLK belongs to everyone, not just African Americans, but I've never seen or heard of anyone claiming to own MLK exclusively.  It's also not that Beck's rally was a sea of white faces celebrating a day when hundreds of thousands of people - of all races - gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to fight for freedom and the rights of African Americans.  What truly bothers me is that MLK's message was one of unity and inclusion, whereas Beck's message is one of divisiveness and exclusion.

The people gathered around the reflecting pool 47 years ago were struggling to bring more voices into the democratic discourse.  Beck's rhetoric pushes people out of the democratic discourse.  He promotes policies that would bar certain types of people (those with brown skin) from entering our country and becoming citizens despite the hard work they do and the enormous contributions they make to our country.  He claims that Obama is a racist and a socialist.  He compares everyone he disagrees with to Nazis and Hitler. 

The talk of "supporting your troops" which permeated the rally is simply a way of saying "follow your country blindly into wars that do more to grow the pocketbooks of corporate America than they do to protect American Citizens, or bring Freedom and Democracy to the rest of the world."  I support my troops as people, and I want them to come home safe, and be well taken care of when they get back.  I also support the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, who should be left with a safe country where they have the ability to decide for themselves the best way to live.  I know that MLK would have said the same if he were alive today (he was a pacifist and came out opposed to the Vietnam War after his friend Thich Nhat Hanh - a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk - convinced him to go public with his opposition).  
The talk of God and restoring the Constitution is simply code for pushing out those who don't agree with people like Beck - since when do he and his ilk have a monopoly on God?  Since when do they have some authoritative insight into the minds of the Founding Fathers as they wrote the Constitution?  I can only ask, whose God? Whose Constitution? 

The whole "Ground Zero Mosque" crap is just a case in point - how can such intolerance and blind hatred be associated with the man who said these words:
And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
                Free at last! Free at last!
                Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

29 August 2010

Back in College Park

Well, I've made it safe and sound all the way across the country, saw some lovely scenery, and had a great time with my girlfriend, now fiancĂ©e, Megan.  We decided to get married after she gets back from her Peace Corps tour in Tanzania, so we have something to look forward to over the next couple of years that we'll be apart.  I have a lot to write about in the next few days, since my mind was spinning with ideas as I drove those long hours mostly by myself.  But for the moment, I need to rest and get unpacked and settled in.

17 August 2010

Leaving Ely...

I'm getting ready to head back to Maryland for the school year.  I've had a great time out here in Ely working on my project.  It's been a really fun and educational experience for me.  I'll probably post some reflections a little later on, but for the next couple of weeks I'll be on the road, so don't expect too much posting. 

Do You See What I See? A Scientist's Journey Into 3D

I heard this interview with Sue Barry on NPR's Fresh Air yesterday afternoon.  It's a great example of both neuroplasticity and embodied cognition.  She was born cross-eyed, and could only see in two dimensions for most of her life, but eventually learned to see in 3D despite claims that she would never be able to if she didn't learn it as a child.  She was unconvinced of the claim after hearing her husband, a space shuttle astronaut, describe his own experience of have to learn how to orient himself in space (due to the lack of gravity) and then re-learn to orient himself back on Earth.  She has her own book called Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist's Journey Into Seeing in Three Dimensions, and Oliver Sacks has a chapter about her in his forthcoming book The Mind's Eye.

16 August 2010

John Hodgman Gives the Constitution a Hip New Name...

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Apparently Con-stitution is too negative so it will now be called the Pro-stitution.  He also trims some fat and puts it on the internet - the WikiProstitution!

15 August 2010

The Techno-Life

Levi Bryant has a post up in which he candidly discusses his addiction to his iPhone, and Graham Harman has a post on the low-internet lifestyle.  I've resisted the encroachment of technology in my life as much as possible, and only accept a new technology if I can be thoroughly convinced that it will add to my life more than it takes away.  My first cell phone was given to me by my parents in case of emergencies, but it was useless since I never ever plugged the thing in (I still have a habit of leaving my phone unplugged until the battery runs down, which frustrates my girlfriend immensely).  I only got my own cell phone when I moved back to Kansas because it was easier and cheaper than getting a land line.  Early on, I saw the increasing use of blackberries and other smart phones as a medium of control more than of liberation - I don't want people to be able to contact me instantly all of the time - so I've never had one and will resist getting one for as long as I can.  I am not (nor will I ever be) on Facebook - I am on twitter, though it's use value has decayed for me since I first joined.  I can certainly sympathize with someone, like Graham's friend, who completely avoids the internet all together - maybe I'd have more time to play chess and learn piano if I did as well. 

That said, I don't think there's anything wrong with the internet, I think it's just another way of doing things.  Certainly there are people who take it too far - I know far too many people who are addicted to their iPhones, and then there are those whose entire social life is conducted online - but I think that blogs and YouTube and other things like that have greatly added to my life on the whole.  I've been learning to play ukulele the past few months, and have made significant progress, not despite my use of the internet, but largely because of it.  I wouldn't have had a clue of where to begin if it weren't for the many YouTube instructional videos that are up.  It has also added a great deal to my intellectual life.  I love the blog as a medium, and all of the blogs that I read have helped me generate new ideas and better understand other people's ideas.  Just take my recent discussion with Levi and others about Object-Oriented Ontology.  I probably would have never been able to engage with the philosophy if it hadn't been for Levi's persistent and down-to-earth explanations (though there are still many things I don't understand, and will have to turn to books for).  In that sense, Levi's iPhone addiction has benefited me a lot!  And Adrian's blog Immanence has propelled my thought light-years ahead of where I would have been otherwise - I am infinitely grateful for that.  I've met new people, built new ideas, and seen a lot of wonderful (and some awful) things thanks to the internet.

So, here I am on a beautiful Sunday morning (my last here in Ely), typing up a blog post (the second of the day) on the benefits and drawbacks of the Techno-Life.  My only wish is that I'd put as much energy into writing something that would actually get published - bring in some money maybe, and add to my CV - but that will come (maybe soon, I hope - I'll keep you posted). 


I finally watched Avatar last night.  I didn't have time when it first came out, so forgive me for joining all of the blog hubub a bit late.  I thought it was a good movie - entertaining, pretty, and exciting.  I didn't get caught up in the beauty of the world of Pandora like so many others; partially, I suspect, because I was watching it on a 13 inch laptop screen (the only TV/Movie access I have out here) and not in 3D.  But also, I just don't get that excited about CG eye candy.  It's neat, and I'm amazed at how the technology has progressed, but no matter how good the CG gets it still has an overlying fake quality - plastic, or cartoonish (Megan tells me this might have something to do with the Uncanny Valley effect).  As pretty as the CG was, I'd still rather go for a hike in the mountains - it's far more interesting and awe inspiring to me. 

As for the story, I feel that it fit very nicely into our general Modernist or Anti-Modernist mythology.  The only really novel thing about the plot was the scale - an entire planet, covered by a singular organismic entity, with creatures that are larger than life, floating mountains, etc., which is threatened by a powerful corporation, using massive military technologies to destroy the entire planet, in order to gain access to a mineral that's so valuable it's named Unobtainium.  In a sense, this is is the pinnacle of that mythology - a story told many times before, but never in so grand a fashion - and it has a powerful effect and affect on a lot of people, potentially moving them to change. 

I'm not sure that this is the mythology we need to create a more sustainable way of life - the Gaia imagery and the noble savage idealism seem to put real sustainability further out of our reach.  But I can't belittle the effect the movie has had on indigenous and environmental movements around the world.  At the very least it creates the possibility for those movements to generate resonance in the more mainstream population.  Though, after more than half a year, the excitement seems to have died down a lot, and the effect may not have been as powerful as some people once thought.  Maybe it's not quite over yet, though, maybe the real fruits of the film are yet to come.

It also disturbs me in no small way that Cameron is talking about making at least 2 sequels to the film.  That suggests to me that the ecological/spiritual message was little more than a ploy to draw attention to the film and money into the film maker's pockets.  Sequels always seem to diminish the quality of the original, but maybe I'm just too cynical. 

14 August 2010

State of The Re:Union - Milwaukee, WI: City of Vision

Listening to NPR today, I caught bits and pieces of the show State of The Re:Union.  This episode was all about Milwaukee, detailing several different approaches to community building.  I found it very interesting, and full of examples of what I would call effective social change.  The first segment was about a nurse who opened an assisted living center in inner-city Milwaukee.  She takes her own approach to caring for seniors, and even goes so far as to refuse federal funding because the restrictions they would place on her wouldn't benefit the people she cares for.  The second segment is about the urban farming movement in the city.  The third segment has a good example of John Law's methods assemblages - a project called "restorative justice" in which community members, law enforcement agents, and formerly incarcerated people come together to talk and share their stories.  I found this quote particularly interesting:
"The concept of restorative justice takes the view that we do not live in separate spaces from each other that the people committing the crimes, the victims, police officers, and ordinary citizens are all in this together, and the only way to start to solve the collective problems is to talk about the harm that's been done."
It's not a cure all, for sure.  What comes out eventually is that the community really needs jobs, but it provides a beginning for understanding and the possibility for moving forward.  The show ends with a visit to a night-time soccer game with immigrants from all over the world, and this quote:
"Remember, things fall apart.  It's our job to bring them back together."  

12 August 2010

Do Cultures Evolve?

With all of the time I've been spending recently thinking about Culture and Culture Change, I was intrigued when I came across some research that suggest that cultures evolve (via Neuroanthropology).  I found and read an article (which I've liberated here) so I could see what they're talking about. 

Let me say, first of all, that I dislike the term "evolve" when associated with culture, because most of the time (and, indeed, this is the case here) they're talking about a progressive becoming better and better.  That's too teleological for me.  Cultures accumulate (become more composed?), I think, and in some cases that means they become better (more efficient, more effective) at certain things, but in other cases not.  And in some cases what they accumulate is not functional at all.

Nevertheless, I liked the article, because I think it illustrates something that I've been arguing for recently - the progressive composition of culture.  Basically, this was a lab experiment to demonstrate "Continued Cultural Evolution" (CCE) (I think that part of the reason why these researchers found it so easy to make teleological claims about cultural evolution is that it was a simple, controlled experiment, but I digress).  The researchers had participants take turns performing a task - building paper airplanes or building spaghetti structures - within a given period of time.  As the first participant was performing the task, the next two would be watching.  When the second participant went in to perform the task, another one was allowed to enter and watch.  This was done to simulate generational learning and the movement of people in and out of cultures.  What they found was that the later participants made more effective artifacts (taller spaghetti structures, paper planes that flew farther) than the earlier participants.  They also found that the earlier artifacts were more similar to each other than the later artefacts and vice versa, suggesting that there was a kind of descent with modification. 

What I found really interesting, though, was that the researchers attributed all of this evolution to a progressive transmission of knowledge, but they left each previous artifact in the room as the people were working in order to simulate material culture.  This suggests to me that maybe the artifacts themselves were able to act as agents in the process and influence how the person built his or her own artifact.    In this case, I suspect that the direct transmission of knowledge from one person to the next (through demonstration and observation) may have played a large role simply because of the short time span of the experiment.  I wonder, however, what would happen if you delayed each participant's performance by a day or more so that there was a chance they'd forget some details of how the previous person built their artifact.  What would happen, also, if they removed the artifacts from the room after each performance?  I'd speculate that, without the material component and with greater delays, you'd see less progress, but I'm not 100% sure.  Anyone want to try it out?

11 August 2010

Affective Environments: Thinking Through Flooding

I recently watched this video from the recent SCA conference - you can find the rest of the videos here - and found it very interesting.  She starts with some theoretical discussion of methods and the politics of things, mostly drawing on Isabelle Stengers, but also Latour, Haraway, Callon, and others.  One of the key ideas for me was that researchers are always already engaged in interventions.  We become entangled with the things we are studying, and alter the reality of those things in sometimes dramatic ways.  Another is that, in environmental controversies, those we usually refer to as ordinary citizens often know just as much, if not more, about the issues than the experts who come in to solve a problem.  This knowledge may be different from the expert knowledge, but it's that difference that makes it so valuable and that should prompt experts to seek out the participation of ordinary citizens.  But generally, they don't, despite the increasing discourse of "participatory" research. 

Whatmore gives an example of some work that she's been doing recently with regard to the persistent flooding problems in rural England.  As I understand it, there has been a disconnect between the local people and the experts who were sent by the Environmental agency to address the issue.  Whatmore and her colleagues brought the two groups together and formed a research team that was truly participatory.  They worked together to formulate novel solutions based on the combined knowledge of the experts and the locals.  The solutions that they came up with were subsequently adopted by the Environmental Agency, and have been considered for other parts of the country as well.
She ends with a nice quote from Latour, which I'd really like to know the source for if anyone has it:
"The distance between research is not that between observer and observed (subject and object) but between the context of the world before and after the inquiry.  The question we have to ask ourselves is not whether we have accurately represented some pre-existing phenomenon or entity, but whether there is now a distance between the new repertoire of actions and the repertoire with which we started."

10 August 2010

Are Cultures Objects?

This post is related to Levi's post Relations All the Way Down, and the very interesting comment discussions that have ensued.  I'm not actually going to try to answer the above question, since I don't know nearly enough about Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) to make a claim either way.  I will say that Levi's "strange mereology" confuses me, and I'm not sure I have the synaptic connections yet to fully grasp it.  It's that, I think - the independence of objects from the objects and relations that compose them - that keeps me from understanding/accepting OOO (at least part of the reason).  I'm hoping that Levi or Graham will offer some insights into an OOO theory of Culture, and how it responds to critiques of the concept. 

What I want to do, though, is offer a conception of culture that I'm trying to work out now as a basis for comparison and conversation.  It's not fully thought out yet, as will be obvious, but one of the best ways to think something out is to write it and discuss it.  I've already posted on the topic here and here, but only peripherally.  I'm drawing here from Latour, Law and De Landa, among others in trying to put together a concept of Culture that avoids the pitfalls of past conceptions, but maintains the useful components of the concept.  Maybe the concept I present here will correspond to an OOO conception, I'm not really sure, but I suspect not.
First of all, after reading Max's post and thinking it through for a while, I think the term Culture may be too weighed down by multiple connotations.  It may be impossible to extricate it from these, so it may have lost its value as a term for explaining how every encounter is overflowing.  Maybe Latour's associations would suffice.  In any case, I'm going to use the term Culture for now, just for the sake of simplicity. 

So what is a culture?  Cultures are heterogeneous associations, composed over time, formed and maintained by continual enactment and reenactment, which exert a causal effect on the behavior of individuals within the culture.  Let me take each of these aspects in their turn.

Heterogeneous Associations - Cultures are not made up only of humans, as has been traditionally thought.  They are composed of plants, animals, objects, and ideas as well.  These are not merely material substrates upon which we can act, but have agencies of their own and can dictate, in certain ways, the way we associate with them.  We can't treat a cow the same way that we treat an elk, and vice versa, because these animals cause us to interact in different ways.  So, when looking at a culture, we have to look at all of the different components that compose them.  We also have to look at how the components are associated.  Cows in India are very different from cows in the U.S. because the association between humans and cows are different (were composed differently) in these two places. 

Composed Over Time - Cultures don't simply emerge when things come into contact with one another, they must be composed over time through the creation of new associations - i.e. new tools, systems of organization, buildings, city plans, etc.  These associations kind of pile up over time so that a sort of structure emerges.

Formed and Maintained by Continual Enactment and Reenactment - The associations that compose culture come into being because they are enacted by the people and other things in the culture.  Once they are enacted, they must be reenacted continually or else they will decay.  If one person makes a certain kind of tool - an obsidian blade, for example - then never makes it again, it would be hard to call that cultural.  But if the person makes it again and again, and other people start making the same or similar tools, then it starts to get some cultural qualities.  If the group then makes it again and again over several years, then it is surely cultural.  If the group stops making the obsidian blades for some reason - run out of obsidian, find a better material, find better tools, etc. - then that association will decay over time, not immediately, and this depends on how well composed the associations are. 
This is linked to thermodynamics for me.  The tendency of systems is to move toward equilibrium.  It takes a flow of energy to create and maintain organization.  This enactment and reenactment can be thought of as the continual flow of energy that creates and maintains cultural organization.  If the energy stops, then the system moves back to equilibrium.

Exert a Causal Effect On those Within the Culture - If cultures didn't affect the way people behave, then it would be pointless to talk about them - it would simply be an amalgamation of individual behaviors.  I think that, because cultures are heterogeneous and because they are composed over time, they do have causal effects on their constituent parts.  The associations that make up culture create new agencies, and these agencies are what overflows in every encounter.  So when I talk to my dog (yes, I do talk to my dog, though he doesn't often talk back and when he does it's usually nonsense), there are various agencies involved in that interaction besides just the two of us.  It could be the structure of the room, the clothes I'm wearing, the food I have in my hand, the tone of my voice, and so on - all of these have been composed already, and push and pull the two of us in different directions (not as a holistic entity, but as a multiplicity of entities). 

That's it.  If I've left anything out, please let me know.  Again, I'm still working this through, but I'd appreciate any advice or opinions, and I'd love to hear Levi or Graham's thoughts on Culture.

Lovecraftian Landscapes

Graham Harman has a post up on the over-crowding of Paris in the Summer.  The only time I went to Paris was in August - maybe early September.  I had a rough time with it in general, but the Louvre was nice, and I'm glad I can say that I went.  That was about 14 years ago, though.
In any case, that's not what I want to talk about.  In his post he says that he'll spend next summer visiting Providence, RI, since he's never been there before and because he's working on a book about H.P. Lovecraft.
I can’t write a book on Lovecraft as an American who has never set foot in Providence, Rhode Island.
When I was a teenager - actually about the same time I would have gone to Paris, maybe a little earlier.  Lovecraft was one of my favorite authors.  He's since fallen out of that place simply because I spend more time reading anthropology, philosophy and Sci-Fi novels.  But I think Graham is onto something here.  I can honestly say that I didn't truly get a feel for the eeriness of Lovecraft's landscape until I spent a winter in Connecticut.  Maybe it's just because I spent most of my life in Kansas, but the sheer density of trees, bare-branched, ever-present and looming, coupled with the sights of abandoned buildings, and old, broken down stone walls made me feel very uneasy when I first moved there (in December of 2001).

That said, I think the landscape has changed a lot since Lovecraft's time.  The farms that the stone walls fenced in and the barns occupied would have only been broken up and turned into semi-rural real estate in the last 50 or 60 years.  Before then, the trees would have been cleared for pasture and cropland, and there might even have been chestnut trees instead of maples - though it would have been in his lifetime that they were wiped out by the blight (perhaps the encroaching fungus provided inspiration for one or more of his other-worldly tales). 

Anyway, Providence is a nice city, and I'm sure Graham will love it.  But, Graham, if you really want to experience a Lovecraftian landscape, can I suggest visiting rural Connecticut in winter?  While you're there you can check out Willimantic and the Frog Bridge - some very creepy statues that could easily be out of Lovecraft (in fact, the story behind the bridge - of a mysterious frog battle that took place during the colonial period - could be out of Lovecraft as well.  Who's to say those frogs weren't beings from beyond the veil of time and space?)

09 August 2010

Megan's Excellent Adventure

Good news, everyone!  After over a year of navigating a rat maze of bureaucratic nonsense, my girlfriend, Megan, has finally received her invitation to a Peace Corps program.  It's been a harrowing experience for her already, but the most exciting part is yet to come.  She'll be leaving in September, and is slotted to go to Africa (still not sure what country, but she's speculating that it's Tanzania) to teach math & science.

I'm very excited for her - I think this will be a great experience.  I will miss her a great deal, but we've got a strong relationship, so I have no doubt that we'll still be together when she returns.  In fact, I hope I can go visit her sometime while she's there.  I've always wanted to go to Africa - this will be the perfect excuse!

08 August 2010

NatureCulture: Entangled Relations of Multiplicity

I just found out via Somatosphere that some videos from the recent Society for Cultural Anthropology conference have been posted here.  I really wanted to go to this conference, but a lack of funds and overabundance of work kept me from attending.  It's great to see the videos up, including talks by Donna Haraway (embedded below), Sarah Whatmore, and Stefan Helmreich.  I'll be watching these over the next few days, and may have more comments then - for now, I just wanted to share.  Enjoy!
SCA MEETING 2010 - Donna Haraway from Cultural Anthropology on Vimeo.


I met an actual scammer yesterday!  I was on a field visit with some co-workers, including one Native American man.  This guy came up to our party and introduced himself to the Native guy, and said that if his tribe has problems with diabetes he could help them.  He said he was setting up some "health resorts" to help Native Americans return to a traditional diet - cause it's the "White Man's Diet" that causes diabetes.  I know that there's plenty of evidence that Western diets are linked to diabetes, particularly among indigenous populations (see here for example), but I think it's terribly unethical of him to try and profit from the issue. 
He seemed very genuine, and convinced that he would only be helping the Native Americans, so maybe he's not a scammer in the normal sense.  But he's promoting medical advice - that the link between tanning and Melanoma is fabricated (and, by the way, he happens to own a spa), and his "health resorts" for Native Americans - without any medical training, while using the title Doctor to give himself credibility.  He's not an MD, though, he's an Ed.D.  That alone is disingenuous.
Fortunately my Native friend didn't take him seriously.  I just hope nobody else does either.

07 August 2010


These RSA Animate videos are really making the rounds.  I've seen some good some not-so-good, but I really like this one that I pulled from Sociological Images (thanks to Megan for pointing it out to me) in which Dan Pink talks about what motivates us. 

So, to summarize, big rewards don't necessarily motivate us to perform better.  Instead we should be given autonomy and  room to pursue mastery while being paid just enough to make money a non-issue.  This all reminds me once again of the Gift Economics described in Red Mars.  I'll quote again, since it's short and a really nice part of the book:
One of the old women around him picked up the pot and poured John's cup full. SHe put down the pot, gestured: "Now you fill mine," John did so, unsteadily, and then the pot went around the room. Each pourer filled someone else's cup.
"We start every meal this way," the old woman said. "It is a little sign of how we are together. We have studied the old cultures, before your global market netted everything, and in those ages there existed many different forms of exchange. Some of them were based on the giving of gifts. Each of us has a gift, you see, given us freely by the universe. And each of us with every breath gives something back."
"Like the equation for ecological efficiency," John said.
"Maybe so. In any case, whole cultures were built around the idea of the gift, in Malaysia, in the American northwest, in many primitive cultures. In Arabia we gave water, or coffee. Food and shelter. And whatever you were given, you did not expect to keep, but gave it back again in your turn, hopefully with interest. You worked to be able to give more than you received. Now we thing that this can be the basis for a reverent economics."
"It's just what Vlad and Ursula said!"
"Maybe so."
From the video I draw the conclusion that money is a poor incentive in many cases.  The idea of paying just enough to take money out of the picture appeals to me.  Instead of the old paradigm of "working to earn a living" which was always suspect to me, we work to create the reality that we want to live in - to make life better in some little way for ourselves and those around us.  It's idealistic and Utopian, I know.  I told you I was prone to it!

05 August 2010

When I hear the Word "Culture" ...

... I ask "What do you mean?"  Because everyone seems to mean something different when they use the term (as can be seen here). 

And yet, I'm not quite ready to give up on the concept of culture.  I think it's still a valuable idea because it conveys the sense that, in every interaction, there is something more than just the people interacting.  That there are many other agencies involved. 
Culture, to me, is the composition of reality - the progressive piling up or entangling of different agencies.  When I interact with another individual, there is always something more going on than just the interaction between two people.  There are always multiple different agencies at work in those interactions - the color of our skin, our sex, the structure of the room or building, the clothes we wear, the objects we carry with us, and so on - goading the two of us into particular behaviors (either by constraining or enabling certain pathways).  Of course, we always have a choice to ignore those other agencies and act in a different way all together, but it's often easier to simply follow the path offered by them - the path of least resistance as it were.
These agencies don't merely exist, they are composed over time.  So, for example, the fact that I am white, the fact that white is a category at all, and what that means for how I interact with the world around me has been composed over the years by hundreds, thousands, or millions of interactions that came before.  And they always could have been composed differently.
Cultures change, too, of course.  Everything changes, all of the time - nothing is ever truly static.  Cultures change when associations are no longer practiced, when they fall out of use and begin to decay.  Cultures also change when new associations are composed - when new agencies arise.  But when you want to change culture, you can't simply do so out of thin air.  You have to use the agencies and associations that already exist. 
I think culture may remain a useful kind of short-hand, perhaps, for that weight of external factors (much like the Social for Latour).  But, in practical terms, it may often be best to describe the various agencies involved rather than to simply talk about "cultural factors."  So, when I hear the word "culture," I don't quite reach for my gun (assuming I had one to reach for), but I do try to figure out what exactly is meant in the particular context.

04 August 2010

Resonance and Utopianism

I've been thinking a lot in the last few days about Levi Bryant's and Tim Morton's concept of resonance  - particularly in terms of the pragmatics of social change.  The problem is that, while I was considering it, I found myself very quickly falling into a utopian mindset.  This is something I'm prone to anyway, but I think there was also something in the idea of resonance - at least as I was thinking it - that lends itself to an almost idealistic utopianism.  I think part of the problem was that I extended the metaphor beyond what Levi and Tim are trying to convey.  For Levi, resonance is "the ability of one object to perturb, irritate, or stimulate another object and therefore refers to the sort of openness an object has to its world or environment."  He says later:
"The first question the orator should ask herself is whether she or what she says and how she says it exists in the environment of her audience. Lacanian analysts are very sensitive to this. The entire theory of Lacanian interpretation is premised on the idea of resonance or the opportune moment (kairos) where a speech act can finally resonate in the unconscious of an analysand. The analyst doesn’t have this power at the beginning of the analysis, but only acquires it gradually over the course of analysis."
For whatever reason, I started thinking about how individuals and ideas might be able to resonate with a wider population and generate widespread social change very rapidly.  Not that a certain object or idea was resonating with a certain other object or idea (which is what Levi and Tim mean by the term), but that the population as a whole was resonating - this is where I think I extended the metaphor beyond what Levi and Tim intend.  I think this is a potentially distracting element of the metaphor, since this kind of thinking borders on teleology and ignores the work that must be done to implement social change.  But I think that the metaphor is still good, and the idea of "existing in the environment of another" is very profound.

Right now I see a lot of small scale experiments with new ways of living, new ways of building associations.  The problem is that they all seem to remain small scale (that is, few people engaging in them) while large scale consumer capitalism goes on unabated.  It seems to me that, in order for any of these experiments to effect the widespread social change that's needed they will have to be able to resonate with a lot more people - in the sense of becoming part of their world.  As in Lacanian analysis (and I haven't read any of Lacan's work yet, but clearly ought to read more) this is something that must be acquired over time.  But there's no way of knowing beforehand what sets of associations will resonate with the larger population.  There's no way of saying what or how our actions will exist in their worlds.  So it seems to me our best strategy remains to generate as many new sets of associations as possible and hope that one finds its way into the worlds of a larger population.  And maybe it's not a single resonating set of associations that we want, but rather a multiplicity of different associations, which taken together undermine the singular Capitalism.  I'll have to think about it some more

03 August 2010

Bill & Ted's Excellent Inception

When was the last time I posted something fun on here?  I don't even remember.  Anyway, this cracked me up!  My favorite part:
Ted: What if we were lying?
Bill: Why would we lie to ourselves? 
It sounds so deep! :)

01 August 2010

Objects, Agents, and The Pragmatic Side of Object-Oriented Ontology

I just read an interesting post by Levi Bryant at Larval Subjects on An Ontology of Agents. What I found most interesting was this section:
"This leads to the second question every rhetorical theorist and orator should be asking. If one does not exist in the environment of the system they are addressing or if the content of what they say does not exist in that environment,how can it come to exist? In other words, how is it possible to create resonance? This is not simply a question of rhetorical theory, but a political question as well. We saw this in graphic and despair filled detail during the WTO protests in 1999, as well as the various protests against the Iraq war. As passionate as these protests were, they failed to create resonance with either the media system or the government they sought to persuade.
Indeed, the protests largely worked against the aims of the protesters. The media system, for example, seldom reported why people were protesting the WTO, but rather instead just showed the spectacle of a chaotic mass of colorfully dressed people screaming that they were against the WTO . For the television audience witnessing these protests, the overwhelming reaction was identification with the WTO rather than the protesters& Despite the fact that the grievances of the protesters were to the benefit of most people making up the television audience. In short, this spectacle further entrenched the power of capitalism rather than diminishing it. It does no good to complain that the media is biased or owned by corporations. Such a complaint might be satisfying, providing one with the pleasures of the beautiful soul, but such complaints do not solve the problem of resonance.
This complaint gets us no closer to creating resonance with a public whose collective action is needed to produce these changes. In this regard, the key question of politics is not so much that of how it is possible to commit an act or how a truth-procedure is possible. No, if one is really serious about producing change, the key question of politics is the question of how to produce resonance among the various systems and social systems that populate the social world."
I like to think of myself as a pragmatic person, in the sense that I try to understand how a new philosophy will affect what it is I do and how I do it. This is the first time I've read Levi or any of the other Object-Orient Ontologists or Speculative Realists explain the pragmatic consequences of their philosophy. But maybe I just haven't read enough of it yet. What I read here reminds me a great deal of Latour, Connolly, Law, and others that I've read recently, and I have to say I agree.  The idea seems to me that we have to start from where we are, we have to be willing to work and open to the possibility of failure, and we have to think about how our actions will resonate in the world around us. Levi and the others don't offer solutions or techniques for how to accomplish change, but they provide, in my opinion, a solid theoretical position from which to start thinking about pragmatic applications.

Note: I've mentioned this before, but I think that the work of J.K. Gibson-Graham is a great place to start looking for the pragmatic applications that follow from this perspective.
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