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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. 
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