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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.
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