This site is archived. For my brand new live site go to Struggle Forever!

12 December 2011

Making Anthropology Visible

A new project by Jason Antrosio is attempting to make Anthropology more visible - to search engines, at least.  According to the Purpose Statement:
Every month over one million people search for anthropology and consult Google to ask “What is Anthropology?” And every month, anthropologists produce great anthropology blog entries, publish wonderful anthropology journal articles, and write editorials. Anthropologists appear in the news, teach great classes, and make a difference. Anthropology Report connects people searching for anthropology to real anthropology and real anthropologists.
There is currently an unfortunate disconnect between the top 10 search results for anthropology and What is anthropology? and the best material by real anthropologists. Too many of the top results are irrelevant or do not lead directly to the great material.
Anthropology Report aims to make that connection. It highlights the best and most recent updates from anthropology blogs, journals, books, and fresh news from real anthropologists. Google is now prioritizing freshness and frequent updates. Although anthropology bloggers and researchers typically work on a more thoughtful and slower time-cycle, a collective but edited selection can make a difference.
 To learn more click below.

09 December 2011

Another Double Meaning

Here's another word that I've just realized has an interesting double meaning - "compose." So something can be "composed of" something - like my bookshelf is composed of wood. Also, something can be "composed by" something - like the painting on the postcard attached to my bookcase was composed by Cezanne. The first has a passive connotation - the wood doesn't have to do anything to compose the bookcase - whereas the second has an active connotation - Cezanne had to actively compose the painting.

Wouldn't it be interesting if we took the word "compose" to always have the active connotation? In that sense, the wood could be said to actively compose the bookcase - to arrange it moment-by-moment in a particular way simply by being wood and by not giving in to the force of gravity.  Should the wood stop composing the bookcase, my books would fall to the ground in a mess and I'd be very unhappy.

It becomes even more relevant when talking about living organisms.  For example, I am "composed of" cells.  But that's not quite right.  My cells are most certainly active, and they work together to create me.  Thus, I am also "composed by" my cells.  I think this way of talking highlights the active vitality of the world around us.  So from now on, when I say "compose" - even when I say "composed of" - you can assume I mean it in the active sense of "composed by."

07 December 2011

Another Elinor Ostrom Video

This one goes into much greater detail on common pool resources, different regimes of management, and what can be done to address overuse.

23 November 2011

The Concept of Culture ... It Keeps Coming Back...

Culture is not a container. We treat it as such when we speak of the culture(s) in which we live, or of moving about within a culture. We treat it as such when we talk about culture as a holistic system, of which we are all parts.

Culture as container suggests a (more or less) totalizing, (more or less) homogeneous, and (more or less) unchanging system.  This view does disservice to the many subjects who are said to live within them.  In spite of varying levels of independence and agency ascribed to subjects, culture as container ultimately limits their ability to affect and alter the system.  They may be granted the ability to move about freely within the system, but they are not allowed to create something new.

In place of the container model, we can look at culture as a set of relations between many different kinds of entities.  Not something we live within, but many things (material and semiotic, human and non-human) that we live amongst. In this sense, culture can be seen as a heterogeneous assemblage of assemblages - a heterogeneous, and historically contingent set of relations of sets of relations.  Rituals, politics, modes of thought and behavior - these are heterogeneous assemblages which we as subjects (also heterogeneous assemblages) find ourselves amongst.  We live with them, interact with them in complex ways, and they affect and alter us just as we affect and alter them. 

If we are to make a difference with anthropology, then we need a concept of culture that leaves open that possibility: a complex concept of culture that does not reduce our agency to the mere ability to move, and that does not reduce culture to a container.

16 November 2011

Elinor Ostrom on Sustainable Development and the Tragedy of the Commons

Elinor Ostrom is a 2009 Nobel Laureate for Economic Sciences. She has published extensively on common property regimes and the ways people have found to manage common resources without succumbing to the "tragedy of the commons." In this video she provides a broad overview of her work and its relevance to sustainable development.

04 November 2011

Media, Affect, and the Object

Tomorrow is the 5th of November - Guy Fawkes Day in the UK - and some protesters in the Occupy and Anonymous movements are planning to recreate the climax scene of V for Vendetta in which thousands of individuals wearing Guy Fawkes masks show up at Parliament to protest their fascist government.  It's fascinating to me how the Guy Fawkes mask has become a symbol of resistance - the trajectory of events that has lead to its being identified with those movements and anti-fascism in general.

Historically, Guy Fawkes day was not a celebration of anti-fascism or even of Guy Fawkes himself (except, perhaps, among radical Protestant groups).  Indeed, Fawkes was a national enemy as a result of having attempted to kill King James I.  The gunpowder plot was not, however, a political statement against monarchy or the aristocratic society of Briton at the time; it was a religious rebellion against Catholicism.  The call to "remember remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot" was not a call to remember the brave resistance of a lone fighter against a tyrannous regime, but a call to remember the treasonous act of a lone terrorist - much as we in the US remember 9/11 every year, and our sentiments towards Osama Bin Laden.

Effigies of Guy Fawkes were traditionally burned on Guy Fawkes Night in order to celebrate the fact that the King had survived the plot.  These celebrations were, until the late 19th century, often violent affairs with rowdy drunken crowds, bonfires, fireworks, Protestants ranting against the pope, and Catholics celebrating their religion.  The toned down and de-religiousized celebrations of the 20th century were often in danger of being abandoned by an uninterested populace. Certainly the sentiment towards Fawkes was always complex, reflecting the heterogeneity of British national identity, but on the whole he was not seen as a hero, but rather as a traitor.

So why has all of this changed?  Why has Guy Fawkes become a symbol of resistance, and why is Guy Fawkes Night now the night for protest and uprising?  I'm sure you all know the answer - V for Vendetta.  This is a brilliant film (based on a graphic novel by the same name) about a man whose life was shattered by government experiments and a fascist regime.  He has taken it upon himself to upset that regime, and awaken the populace from their complacent tolerance of it - all while protecting his identity behind a Guy Fawkes mask.  That mask used in the film is the one hackers and protesters have latched on to as their symbol of resistance, and as a result it has become a top seller on (and Time Warner, which owns the rights to the mask is paid a fee for every sale). 

So, does the inconsistency between the use of the mask now and the tradition of Guy Fawkes matter?  I don't think so.  The mask and the image has been appropriated.  This object, which had a certain symbolic association attached to it carried one affective resonance prior to the film V for Vendetta, and now that another symbolic association has been attached it carries a completely different affective resonance.  The meaning of the mask has been shaped by tradition, and now by the film, but also by the complex interests of the protesters and hackers who wear it, and, I would argue, it carries its own meaning apart from what anyone would impose upon it (not to mention the material and symbolic flows that go into it's production and distribution).  It's a perfect example of how an object can be transferred from one assemblage to another, thus altering the shape of the assemblage as well as its own shape and meaning.  A thorough study of the Guy Fawkes mask would be a fascinating case for an Object-Oriented Ontology research project.

28 October 2011

Models of Agency

Levi Bryant recently posted a wonderful explanation of attractors, and, in the comments, a nice explanation of how the idea relates to his "regimes of attraction."  As I think about the example he uses - a marble dropped into a bowl from one edge - I enjoy it more and more as a metaphor for structure and agency.  By modifying the metaphor gradually, we can see a variety of different social theories playing out.

In the most basic example, one positions a marble at the edge of a bowl and allows it to drop.  The marble will fall towards the center of the bowl, bypass it, roll up the other side, and then back down.  This will repeat several times until the marble eventually comes to rest at the bottom of the bowl (referred to as the attractor).  This is a good description of a fully deterministic system - the marble has no choice, no agency, no ability to alter its own course.  It's path is entirely determined by the shape of the bowl and the force of gravity acting upon it.  There is no escaping the attractor.  Now, the shape of the bowl may be different or the force of gravity may be altered by placing it on a different planet, and these will result in different outcomes, but the system is no less deterministic.  This reminds me of Althusser, Adorno and other highly structuralist theorists for whom the system overdetermines our day-to-day lives.

In another example - slightly more complex - the marble is dropped, but this time it has some degree of ability to move about within the bowl.  It will still be drawn towards the attractor, but now it may move on it's own to some extent.  Thus instead of falling straight towards the attractor, it moves around it, passes through it, or dodges it - nevertheless, the attractor is always fixed and always exerts some force upon the marble.  This corresponds to a deterministic system in which some small degree of choice is accepted.  Individuals within a system are thought to move about within it, but are always drawn to a particular outcome determined still by structure of the system.  This brings to mind Foucault, Bourdieu, and de Certeau for whom there is a degree of choice when moving about in the system, but our lives are still partly overdetermined by the system.

In a third example, the marble is dropped, but as it moves through the bowl, it alters the shape of the bowl very slightly.  So, at every move, the attractor is slightly altered causing the marble to move more freely and not to be drawn deterministically to a single point.  This is the beginning of real agency, in my opinion (as opposed to the false agency granted in the previous example) - the ability of an entity to alter and affect the world around it.  This is reminiscent of Giddens' theory of structuration where agents within a system play an active role in its composition.  Imagine many marbles placed within the bowl, all altering it with their own aims and ends, creating a complex movement within the system.

A final approach is even more revolutionary, and, I think, is what Bryant, Latour, Harman, Ivakhiv, Michael, and many others (including myself) are striving for.  In this system, the bowl is not seen as a field upon which the marbles move, and which determines their actions to some degree - whether they are able to shape it or not.  Rather the bowl is simply a part of the assemblage with an ability to act upon the marbles, and the marbles are a part of the system able to act upon one another as well as the bowl.  In this case, the marbles are dropped into the bowl - they alter the bowl, they alter one another, and the bowl alters each of them in different ways.  Thus there is no field, no structure, no single object which all others can be reduced to.  There is only an assemblage - an ecosystem one could say - of different actors (human and non, material and semiotic, etc.) altering and affecting one another, composing a complex system together in every moment.  This, to me, is the most brilliant innovation in social theory in ages!

20 October 2011

Anarchism, The State, and Corporate Power

I am an anarchist.  Meaning "without rulers" (from the Greek, an = Without, archos = ruler, leader), not "without rules" as most people seem to think.  What that means in the most basic sense is that I want power to be as limited and dispersed as possible.  There will never be a society without power; the important thing is the relative equilibrium of power in a society.

Does that mean that I am anti-State?  In the broadest sense, it does.  To the extent that the State is a center of power, I am opposed to the presence of a strong state.  However, there are many other possible centers of power - now, most perniciously, the center of power has shifted to the economic sector and corporations in particular.  The major fallacy of economic libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism, and just the general right-wing philosophy is that it sees the economy as a space of freedom where individuals compete freely.  However, this view is clearly false - the creation of corporations, and the possibility of hoarding wealth means that power can easily be concentrated in a few hands.  Ultimately, these approaches will default to plutocracy, which is merely a dictatorship of the wealthy, and never to true democracy.

The founding fathers saw that the best way to limit power in a complex society is to set different powers competing with one another.  This is why we have the separation of powers in the US, and the separation of Church and State.  That was effective to a point, but with the emergence of massive corporations, massive wealth disparities, and the global economy, economic powers have dominated and subsumed both the State power and the power of the Church (the Christian Right, at least, the Church on the whole has declined in power with the prevalence of secularism).

How can this be remedied?  From a truly anarchist perspective, the solution is not to abandon the State, but rather to bolster it and set it in direct opposition to economic power.  That requires us to be constantly on our guard to prevent corporate powers from taking over State power.  This is what Occupy Wall Street is about.

Ultimately and ideally, the State would not be necessary, and economic power would be more difficult to amass.  However, I see no contradiction from an anarchist point of view, between supporting state regulation of business and desiring an ultimate end to the State and the equal distribution of all forms of power.  The latter is an idealistic end towards which we can aim, the former a pragmatic approach to dealing with contemporary reality.

18 October 2011

Aldous Huxley on the Contradiction of Structure and Agency

I recently remembered this quote from Aldous Huxley's Island (specifically, the Old Raja's Notes on What's What), and it seems to speak to some of the issues I've discussed with regard to structure and agency, as well as the concept of freedom.
The dancer's grace and, forty years on, her arthritis---both are functions of the skeleton. It is thanks to an inflexible framework of bones that the girl is able to do her pirouettes, thanks to the same bones, grown a little rusty, that the grandmother is condemned to a wheelchair. Analogously, the firm support of a culture is the prime-condition of all individual originality and creativeness; it is also their principal enemy. The thing in whose absence we cannot possibly grow into a complete human being is, all too often, the thing that prevents us from growing.  

It's further evidence that almost everything I ever needed to know is in this little portion of this short novel.  Actually, with Bateson and Huxley, I think I could be set for life - maybe with a little Latour thrown in. 

17 October 2011

The Site(s) of Production

The traditional Capitalist distinction between the job as the site of production and the home as the site of consumption must be abandoned.  Even some forms of Marxism maintain the distinction, though feminists have fought against it for years.  From the feminist perspective, the distinction marginalizes women whose work is traditionally performed at home.  This work is then not considered "production" even though it is an essential part of our economic system (i.e. child care, food production, cleaning, etc.).

From an ecological perspective, however, the critique goes much further.  The problem is that, under the Capitalist dichotomy, the act of consumption and the role of consumer are naturalized so that everyone expects to be a consumer of products that are produced elsewhere.  In that sense, consumption cannot be avoided.  However, if we were to view all acts as acts of production, then it becomes easier to see how different ways of behaving can be better or worse for the environment.

What we traditionally think of as "consumption" is actually a means of production - we take what was made in one place and transform it into something else (often garbage).  Recycling is an alternative act of production to that of discarding, which extends the life of the materials further.  Composting can be thought of the same way.  Certainly, we always lose something in every act of production (that's thermodynamics for ya), and so, every act of production can also be viewed as an act of consumption.  But if we think of ourselves primarily as producers, we may try harder to make our production as beneficial as possible.  Rather than merely discarding something (and thus producing garbage), we can think about transforming it into something useful or at least less harmful.

13 October 2011

Theory and Meta-Theory

Recently thinking about the role of theory, I realized that, while a great deal of time in anthropology is spent either collecting and analyzing data or discussing theory, there is relatively little time spent thinking about what theory is and how it should be used and applied.  Either that or thinking about theory is lumped in with the theory itself so that the two become confused.  I think we need something like a meta-theory or a theory about theory - one that steps back from the debates about structuralism, post-structuralism, positivism, materialism, etc., and talks more generally about what it means to theorize, the relationship between theory and data, and how theory ought to be applied.  Not that these would be universal rules, independent of

Like I said, I think some people already do this, it's just often confused with the act of theorizing itself.  For example, I think that Bruno Latour's principle of irreduction (that nothing can be reduced to anything else) is meta-theory, because it doesn't necessarily tell us how to interpret data directly, but it tells us what interpretation ought to look like.  Other times, meta-theory is assumed and unquestioned. For example, when we say that theory should have a recursive relationship to data such that theory is amended with new data, and new data is interpreted according to existing theory - this is a meta-theoretical statement that, more or less, goes unquestioned (at least in Modern societies).

I think the purpose of ethics is, in part and partially, to describe a meta-theory.  Ethics has other roles including a kind of meta-methodological role that ensures that data is collected in an appropriate manner.  Also, meta-theory is not only ethical (i.e. the example above of the relationship between theory and data), but ethics, in some sense, tells us how theory should be applied, and how we decide what theories to utilize in a given research project.

I think this area has been relatively underexplored, but is full of potential to generate new insights into the process of research, and the role of theory.

09 October 2011

Latour Reviews Haraway

Just doing some browsing on AnthroSource today, I came across this review written by Bruno Latour for American Anthropologist about Donna Haraway's book Simians, Cyborgs, and Women.  It's interesting - he's mildly critical but sympathetic, saying that she is torn between a modernist tendency to fight power, a post-modernist tendency to prevent any kind of grand unification, and what he calls a nonmodernist desire for an "anthropology of science" or "anthropology of the Western world."  This confusion along with her complex prose and her unfocused "field of study," Latour argues, make the book difficult to decipher. 

Just thought I'd share, since these are two of my favorite theorists, and I love to see how their paths overlap now and then.

07 October 2011

The Concept of Culture Revisited.... Again...

Recently I was thinking about the concept of culture again, and I think I had an insight into why it's been so troubling for anthropologists.  I think there is a confusion between two very different ways of thinking about culture - the holistic and the particular.  We want to be a holistic discipline, and some definitions of culture reinforce that - think of Morgan's definition as "that complex whole which includes...." or Leslie White's definition as "man's extrasomatic means of adaptation."  These are all fine, but then there are other definitons which indicated that culture is just one part of a system among many other parts - politics, economics, society, etc.  This is the case whenever we talk about cultural factors influencing outcomes, as these cultural factors conflict with various policies.  It is also the case with cognitive theories of culture, and many other approaches to measuring culture.

The problem, I think, is that these two approaches to culture get used interchangeably and are often confused with one another.  When you say that something is cultural, to I take you to mean that it is reflective of a whole system or do I take you to mean that it is one factor among many in a larger complex system?  There's often no way to tell unless you spell it out explicitly.  But it cannot be both.  If culture is a complex whole, then it subsumes economics and politics.  If it's a part, then politics and economics are external to it.  (I suppose Levi Bryant's strange mereology could explain this, but I'm not sure I buy into that yet).

I suspect that these two concepts may map onto colonial discourse.  When we talk about culture as a whole, what comes to mind are "primitive" groups whose lives are depicted as being subsumed by traditional (and irrational) beliefs and values.  When we talk about ourselves, on the other hand, we tend to think of our political and economic institutions as having risen out of the culturl mire to a more rational form.  Thus, culture in Western societies is one part among many.

Basically, I think we have to pick one or the other, stick with it no matter what group we're talking about, and be explicit about which definition we're using.  I'm starting to think that the particular approach is the way to go.  It's more practical, since it's very difficult, if not impossible, to know a whole system, and, as I've argued recently, there's not much you can do with a whole system even if you do know it.  Instead, I'm thinking of culture as that which politics, society, and economics leaves out: a kind of foundational set of influences which interact with economics, politics, and society in complex ways - the reason none of them or even all of them taken together can ever be compete.  Culture is why things don't go as expected when people enact legislation or change the economy - it is the confounding remainder.

04 October 2011

Apropos of my last post....

... a friend of mine just sent me this link with the following video.

Nobody Can Predict The Moment Of Revolution from ivarad on Vimeo.

On Making a Difference

As I've mentioned before, I recently wrote a post for Ryan Anderson's blog Anthropologies. In it I argued that the purpose of anthropology is to "make a difference," and that the idea of "engaging wider audiences" ought to be secondary - a means to make a difference rather than an end in itself. This idea of "making a difference" has been with me for a while, but I've written little about it so far. So here I'd like to give some thoughts on what it means to make a difference and how I think it can be done.

First of all, there are some underlying assumptions that need to be cleared up.  One of these is that there is a world apart from our perception and/or representation of it (rejecting solipsism and extreme constructivism), and that, while we may never be able to completely know that world (because we are situated within it) we can contact it - we can alter and affect it, just as it can alter and affect us.

Another assumption is that the world is perpetually becoming.  This is what the second law of thermodynamics teaches us.  Time has an arrow, and entropy cannot be reversed, therefore, every moment is new.  As a result, we can only make a difference.  The question is, is it a difference which is the same or is it a difference that is different.  That is, is the difference we make one which recreates in the new moment the relations which persisted before, or is it one which creates new relations?  Every system will succumb to entropy, but a system can be reinforced or maintained by continually adding energy to it - in other words, by working to keep it around.  Think of a house or a car; if you repair it often, it will last longer.  As soon as you stop repairing it, it starts to decay.  It will likely decay either way, but faster if you don't do anything to fix it (that is, if you don't put energy into the system).  The same is true for any system - social, organic, mechanical, etc. 

Recently, I sat in a class and listened to a woman from USAID talk about some biodiversity conservation projects she had been involved in.  One involved growing chili peppers around farms to keep elephants out of farms (thus, hopefully, enlisting the farmers' help in preventing elephant poaching), and another involved helping people in Africa start farms so that they would stop some destructive fishing practices.  As I listened to her, I felt torn.  I'm generally skeptical of USAID anyway, thanks to an old professor who had worked with them in the past, but now I felt torn between wanting to be optimistic about these projects and this underlying cynicism I have towards the agency.  But what bothered me was that every story she told somehow involved bringing these people into the market system - creating a market for chili peppers, teaching people to farm so that they can sell their goods on the market and earn money to live.  What I realized is that, while USAID may be helping these people survive within the market a bit better, they do nothing to address the fact that it is the market system, which dominates the world today, that is causing a good deal of their problems in the first place. 

In essence, by using market forces to solve these peoples' problems, USAID is reinforcing and maintaining (fighting entropy) the very system that is causing a great deal of those problems.  For people who recognize this problem, the typical response is a reification of the system.  In other words, it is the system that is the problem and any small-scale changes are simply band-aids. Ultimately the solution that presents itself logically is revolutionary action to overthrow the system.  But this path is so fraught with problems that it's opponents have little trouble in branding revolutionaries as naive, idealistic, young folks who don't know how the "real world" works.  This is the classic conflict between making small changes that help a few people at a time versus changing the system - a prospect that is difficult to imagine, let alone implement.

What the revolutionaries don't see (they may, but it's often discounted) is that the system is composed of small relations, and that the system as a whole - where such a thing exists - is not something we can manipulate.  You have your revolution, you and your vanguard take control, you seize the means of production, the means of ideological production, and the political structure, you make your changes, but still you get feedback - still there are people who don't agree with the changes you're making, still there are people who resist, or people who simply don't fit into your nice neat system.  What do you do with them?  Past revolutions have treated them as "counter-revolutionary" and thrown them in prison or worse.  Is that what a just world looks like?

But there is hope.  Small changes to the small relations that compose a system can and do make a difference to the system.  The problem with band-aid solutions such as those that USAID supports is not that they are small in scale, but that they replicate the existing set of relations.  A successful solution will create not only new relations, but new kinds of relations - new possible ways of interacting.  These new kinds of relations may or may not directly undermine the existing set of relations, or the system as it is, but their very existence undermines the system by taking away some of the energy that goes into replicating it (thus causing it to succumb to entropy).  The more different kinds of relations exist, the more likely the system will transform or collapse, but also, the more opportunities people have for surviving or coping with such a collapse.

An example of this is the work of J.K. Gibson-Graham.  Rather than inciting revolution or giving in to market forces, they've chosen to solve small-scale, real world problems in ways that ultimately undermine the capitalist system.  By deconstructing representations of capitalism, and encouraging people to find non-capitalist resources within their communities, they have created new kinds of relations both within these communities and between communities.  In other words, they have helped to foster a "globalization otherwise" (in the words of the World Social Forum "Another World is Possible"). 

Now there's a values judgment that needs to be considered.  We can create new kinds of relations, but novelty is not the value that ought to reign.  New forms of oppression are still novel.  The goal, in my opinion, is to create new kinds of relations that are also more just and more sustainable than those that exist.  At the same time, there are just and sustainable relations that already exist, and where those cannot be improved upon, they ought to be maintained - why fix it if it's not broken? 

The key ideas to take away from this are: 1) Making a difference takes work (energy), but if you're working you can't help but make a difference, 2) the question, then, is what kind of difference are you making? 3) the difference you ought to make is one which creates new relations or maintains existing relations that are just and sustainable rather than creating or maintaining relations that are oppressive and destructive.  So ask yourself whenever you undertake any project - no matter how big or small - what kinds of relations am I creating or maintaining through this practice, and are those the kinds of relations I want?  We* create the world anew in every moment - what kind of world are you creating, and what kind of world do you want to create?

*By "we" I don't mean just humans - I mean all living entities, and, to some extent, non-living entities as well.

PS - Another critique of small changes is that they often tend to be "personal choice" changes, and often "consumer choice" changes.  This critique holds here too.  Personal choice changes - changing a light bulb, buying food at a farmer's market, etc. - do not create new kinds of relations.  In fact, to the extent that they are consumer choice changes, they will replicate the existing consumer capitalist system.  That's not to say that changing light bulbs and buying from farmer's markets is bad, but it's important to realize that these are differences which don't necessarily make a difference.

03 October 2011

Anthropologies Issue 7: Anthropology with Purpose

The new issue of Ryan Anderson's excellent blog Anthropologies is now available with a post written by yours truly. But there are many other (and better) posts, so browse around and enjoy!

20 September 2011

Viva Self-Organization!

Here's an amazing video the instructor of the Biological Anthropology course I'm TAing for showed the class a couple weeks back.  It's an animation showing how a white blood cell can sense its environment, and respond to external stimuli.  It's a beautiful, and compelling demonstration of self organization - just blew my mind when I saw it! Enjoy!

OOOIII, Freedom, and Potential

I've been meaning to write up some thoughts on the events in NYC last week, but it's been such a hectic few days that I haven't gotten around to it.  But I'm determined to do it now, even if there are other things that I probably ought to be doing.

The events I attended were the OOOIII symposium with Levi Bryant, Graham Harman, Tim Morton and others (you can see videos of the day's panels here), and the panel discussion with Levi Bryant, Jane Bennett, and Graham Harman.  I have to say that, although the OOOIII symposium was the "main event," the panel with Jane Bennett actually turned out to be the most interesting session for me.  I think this is because the discussion was more political and practical on Thursday night, whereas the OOOIII symposium was more outright philosophical, and somewhat abstract.  Jane, Levi, and Graham clearly disagree on many aspects of their realism, and I found myself disagreeing and agreeing with each of them at different points in the discussion.  However, there is certainly a great deal of political potential in the OOO position.

Two issues came up during various talks that I'd like to address briefly.  The first is the issue of freedom. During the Q&A session on Wednesday night, Levi said that we desire freedom.  Graham disagreed, and cited his experience with writing as an example: he can't begin writing just from a blank slate - he needs certain constraints in place first.  In other words, in his writing he desires constraints and not freedom.  Ultimately the two agreed that we desire both freedom and constraint.  This brought to mind a distinction I've been wrestling with for a while now between two different kinds of freedom - "Freedom from" and "Freedom to."  "Freedom from" means to be without constraint - to be unimpeded - whereas "Freedom to" means an ability to achieve something.  To be completely "Free from" means to have no constraints or limitations imposed from outside.  I would argue that such a pure state never truly exists, but even if it did, I don't think it would be desirable at all.  It would require being so isolated from the social world that you would be unable to do anything productive.  It's questionable in my mind if someone with pure "Freedom from" would be able to survive.

"Freedom to" requires a degree of "Freedom from," but is more like the concept of agency suggested by Latour.  For Latour, a being has agency only in relation to other beings.  Various beings (actants in his parlance) must form an association or alliance for agency to be possible.  "Freedom to" means that a person has the ability to do something - to educate themselves, to choose the life they want, and so on.  But "Freedom to" requires us to enter into relationships with others, and these relationships imply constraints, but it's through these constraints and "Freedom to" that we are able to fully express our agency.  For example, a person who has spent their life in poverty lacks a certain "Freedom to" because she cannot afford the means to be able to do those things.  She cannot send her children to the best schools, she cannot buy healthy food, she cannot choose where she wants to live, and so on.  This is where social welfare programs come in - they provide people with a certain degree of "Freedom to."  Many conservatives are obsessed with the idea of "Freedom from,"  and see social welfare as a problem - as an unreasonable constraint or impediment.  Liberals, on the other hand, believe more in "Freedom to,"  and therefore encourage social welfare programs.

Going back to the discussion with Levi and Graham, I believe what we desire is "Freedom to," and that's what Graham gets from the constraints he seeks when writing.  It's only through "Freedom to" that we are able to fully express our agency, but it's a delicate balance.  However, I believe that this is an important distinction, and if we were to make it more often it may help to clear up some of the political confusion in which we find ourselves.

The second issue I wanted to bring up was that of potential.  During the first day, Harman was asked to explain his position on the idea of potential.  Following Latour, he dismissed the idea saying that we should pay attention to things as they are and not things as they could be.  An acorn is not a tree, and we should not try to reduce the existence of an acorn to the potential to become a tree.  I agree that we should not reduce one thing to another, but I think there is an important dimension of the idea of potential that is lost if we discard it completely.  That is, the potential of an object indicates the difficulty involved in transforming one thing into another.  An acorn is not a tree, but it can, with only a little intervention, become an oak tree.  It cannot, without a great deal of intervention, become a unicorn.  What's more, it cannot, without intervention, become a maple tree.  An acorn can easily become only a very specific oak tree, within a very specific variety of oaks (white, pin, etc.).  This is the acorn's potential.

In other words, it indicates a starting point, and the materials we have to work with.  An acorn contains the materials to become an oak - it does not contain the materials to become a unicorn.  In social terms, while we may not be able to say that Capitalism is potential Socialism, we can say that it contains a certain potential to become Socialism.  That is, there is a certain distance between Capitalism and Socialism, and that distance may be greater or lesser than other social forms.  Feudal Japanese society also contained a certain potential to become Socialism, but I suspect that the distance and the amount of work that would need to be done to cross that distance is greater.  This concept of the distance between two forms, and the work that needs to be done is what I think is lost when we abandon the idea of potential.

15 September 2011


As the title suggests, I'm currently in NYC.  Yesterday I attended OOOIII, and today I'm going to a panel discussion between Levi Bryant, Graham Harman, and Jane Bennett at the CUNY Grad Center.  So far it's been a really interesting time, and I've met a lot of good people - including Levi and Tim Morton.  I'll talk more about that later, but for now I want to say something about this city.

What astonishes me about NYC is how different it is from DC.  It's so much more chaotic, dirty, unique and crazy compared to DC.  DC gives the feeling of being planned from above like De Certeau's city.  This city has more of a felling of being built from below - as if the subway rats emerge every night and put it all together when we're asleep.  There's a lot more mixing going on here - different lifestyles, different classes, different types of businesses and buildings.  It's truly a heterogeneous landscape, whereas DC feels much less so.  What that means is that for visitors, DC is accessible, and easy to digest.  Whereas NYC seems confusing and scary.  But I think it also means that there's a kind of vibrant and creative quality to NYC, where DC is much more conservative, and, frankly, dull.  None of this is to say that I would ever live in NYC - I still prefer the countryside or a small town, but as cities go, NYC is probably the coolest I've ever been to.

07 September 2011

Some Definitions

Agency is the capacity of an entity to produce uncertainty and to make a difference.

Structuration occurs when that difference is a replication.  For even replication is difference since every replication reproduces something anew.  Thus structure is produced and reproduced anew through the practice of agents.

There is nothing inherently wrong with structure or structuration in general, there can only be something wrong with a structure or an act of structuration.  Many theorists seem to be opposed to structure in principle, but to the extent that we live in a world in which heterogeneous entities form associations some form of structure (as described above) cannot be avoided.  Problems arise when particular structures that are continually being reproduced are unjust, or unsustainable.

31 August 2011

God Wants You to Cut Social Security and Medicare!

A few days ago, Michelle Bachman said this:
"I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians, but we had an earthquake, we had a hurricane... he said "Are you going to start listening to me here?" ... Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now ... because they know what needs to be done, they know that government is on a morbid obesity diet. .. it's got to reign in the spending... this is not a difficult problem to solve.. so many of these programs will actually help the American people if we just get rid of them..."
Seriously?  The only thing the all-powerful creator has to say to us after a two-thousand year absence is that our government needs to reign in it's spending by cutting entitlement programs?  I would hope that if God did have a message to send to us, it would be something far more profound than that.

27 August 2011

Back From Maine and Into the Hurricane

On Thursday, I returned from my work in Maine to find my home under threat from Hurricane Irene.  It doesn't look like we'll get hit hard (it's a category one now, and we're only going to see the outskirts of it), but we'll probably lose power and if power outages are wide spread it may be a few days before we see light again.  We're hunkering down, and all we can do is wait and see how it goes.  I'll know more tomorrow morning, I guess. 

As for Maine, it was a great time.  Relaxing, but also productive.  My goal up there was to get some information on the bloodworm industry for a project I'm working on about invasive species and the packing material they use to ship the worms in.  The packing material is actually a weed, similar to the seaweed you see on all of the rocky beaches of Maine (the only difference is that worm weed is not attached, whereas rockweed is).  This stuff is great for shipping bloodworms because it's very effective at keeping them alive.  Unfortunately, it's also very effective at keeping other critters alive as well - critters that could potentially become invasive in the mid-Atlantic region.  So what we're trying to do is figure out ways to prevent the introduction of these critters by changing the packing material, by informing bait dealers and anglers of proper disposal methods (in the garbage, not in the water), and anything else we can come up with.  We want these to be effective methods, but also to avoid doing significant damage to the industry, since it's a cottage industry that keeps a lot of otherwise unemployed people working and earning a little cash to keep them going.  So we're enlisting their help and input as much as possible to figure out what we can do.  It's been interesting and I've learned a lot more about bloodworms than I ever thought I would know!

The semester will be starting soon, and it's looking to be a busy one between the worms project, teaching (biological anthropology this semester with three 2 hour labs per week), and just general school work.  I'm going to try to be more productive this year - meaning more writing on here and more articles - but it's going to be tough.  This is it, though, I feel like I'm getting real practical experience for a change, and from all of that I should have plenty to say.

14 August 2011


I realized yesterday while reading J.K. Gibson-Graham's End of Capitalism that at least one characteristic of (the abuse of?) power is the degree to which one is (or allows oneself to be made) vulnerable in any given circumstance.  In the intro to the book, she explains her view of the power dynamic between academics and non-academics.  For her this inequality could be productive by engaging non-academics in the project through a kind of seduction.  I found this a little problematic - why should we assume that non-academics ought to be a part of our projects a priori?  Why should they care? 

Then I remembered Sarah Whatmore's description of her Knowledge Controversies project in which she explains that all knowledge in her competency groups is made contestable - including lay knowledge, expert knowledge, and the knowledge of the social scientists organizing the groups.  Thus, everyone in the group is made vulnerable to everyone else, and an agreement must be constructed collaboratively through the process of negotiation. 

Vulnerability allows for the potential for change, and for negotiation.  It creates fruitful discourse rather than hegemonic discourse.  It's possible, then, that a necessary precondition for effective democracy is an equality of vulnerability.  The question is how to make all parties equally vulnerable?  Also, is vulnerability necessarily opposed to standing up for yourself and your beliefs?  When do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and when is it best to armor ourselves against injustice? 

Any thoughts?

04 August 2011

Peirce on Structure and Agency

I'm reading Menand's Pragmantism: A Reader.  The following is an excerpt from C.S. Peirce's "The Fixation of Belief" that fits well with my own sense of structure and agency, though he doesn't use those terms.  Prior to this part, he argues that the object of inquiry is "the settlement of opinion."  This section is meant to answer the question, if that is the object of inquiry, then what's to keep people from forming whatever opinions they like and holding onto them while ignoring or degrading those they don't like.  First he argues that an individual cannot do so because individuals live in societies, and the individual will quickly discover that others hold different opinions - this alone is sufficient to raise doubt in his mind of the validity of his own opinions.  The problem, then, "becomes how to fix belief, not in the individual merely, but in the community." This leads to the following:
"Let the will of the state act, then, instead of that of the individual.  Let an institution be created which shall have for its object to keep correct doctrines before the attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually, and to teach them to the young; having at the same time power to prevent contrary doctrines from being taught, advocated, or expressed.  Let all possible causes of change of mind be removed from men's apprehensions.  Let them be kept ignorant, lest they should learn of some reason to think otherwise than they do.  Let their passions be enlisted, so that they may regard private and unusual opinions with hatred and horror.  Then, let all men who reject the established belief be terrified into silence.  Let the people who turn out and tar-and-feather such men, or let inquisitions be made in the manner of thinking of suspected persons, and, when they are found guilty of forbidden beliefs, let them be subjected to some signal punishment.  When complete agreement could not otherwise be reached, a general massacre of all who have not thought in a certain way has proved a very effective means of settling opinion in a country.  If the power to do this be wanting, let a list of opinions be drawn up, to which no man of the least independence of thought can assent, and let the faithful be required to accept all these propositions, in order to segregate them as radically as possible from the influence of the rest of the world.
"This method has, from the earliest times, been one of the chief means of upholding correct theological and political doctrines, and of preserving their universal or catholic character.  In Rome, especially, it has been practiced from the days of Numa Pompilius to those of Pius Nonus.  This is the most perfect example in history; but wherever there is a priesthood - and no religion has been without one - this method has been more or less made use of.  Wherever there is an aristocracy, or a guild, or any association of a class of men whose interests depend or are supposed to depend on certain propositions, there will be inevitably found some traces of this natural product of social feeling.  Cruelties always accompany this system; and when it is consistently carried out, they become atrocities of the most horrible kind in the eyes of any rational man.  Nor should this occasion surprise, for the officer of a society does not feel justified in surrendering the interests of that society for the sake of mercy, as he might his own private interests.  It is natural, therefore, that sympathy and fellowship should thus produce a most ruthless power.
"In judging this method of fixing belief, which may be called the method of authority, we must, in the first place, allow its immeasurable mental and moral superiority to the method of tenacity.  Its success is proportionately greater; and, in fact, it has over and over again worked the most majestic results.  The mere structures of stone which it has caused to be put together - in Siam, for example, in Egypt, and in Europe - have many of them a sublimity hardly more than rivaled by the greatest works of Nature.  And, except the geological epochs, there are no periods of time so fast as those which are measured by some of these organized faiths.  If we scrutinize the matter closely, we shall find that there has not been one of their creeds which has remained always the same; yet the change is so slow as to be imperceptible during one person's life, so that individual belief remains sensibly fixed.  For the mass of mankind, then, there is perhaps no better method than this.  If it is their highest impulse to be intellectual slaves, then slaves they ought to remain.
"But no institution can undertake to regulate opinions upon every subject.  Only the most important ones can be attended to, and on the rest men's minds must be left to the action of natural causes.  This imperfection will be no source of weakness so long as men are in such a state of culture that one opinion does not influence another - that is, so long as they cannot put two and two together.  But in the most priestridden states some individuals will be found who are raised above that condition.  These men possess a wider sort of social feeling; the see that men in other countries and in other ages have held to very different doctrines from those which they themselves have been brought up to believe; and they cannot help seeing that it is the mere accident of their having been taught as they have, and of their having been surrounded with the manners and associations they have, that has caused them to believe as they do and not far differently.  Ant their candor cannot resist the reflection that there is no reason to rate their own views at a higher value than those of other nations and other centuries; and this gives rise to doubts in their minds."

02 August 2011

On The Settling of Science

Today on the Environmental Anthropology listserv, the continuing drama of climate change deniers vs. climate science rages on.  I won't go into the details - you can read the emails yourself in the listserv archives if you really want to - but the most recent argument for the representative climate denier on the list (Roz Anderson) is something to the effect that "the science is not settled, because science is never settled."  Ahh, but this is a flawed argument.  If in fact science is never settled - and I agree that this is the case - then the argument that the science of climate change is not settled is meaningless.  We do not question the heliocentric theory of the solar system or the roundness of the earth simply because "the science is not settled."  Those are easy - let me use a better example - we do not question the existence of neutrinos simply because "the science is not settled." 

It's true that science is not settled, but some science is more settled than others.  In Latour's words, some science is well constructed other science is poorly constructed.  The "science" of climate deniers is decidedly poorly constructed - it fails to hold up, doesn't speak for the facts, but only speaks for the interests of the climate deniers themselves.  Climate change may not be as solidly constructed as the heliocentric model of the solar system or the round earth, but it seems to be fairly well constructed - at least it is far better constructed than the claims of climate deniers.

When it gets down to it, climate deniers question the science of climate change, not because the "science is not settled," but because it is politically and economically harmful for them to not question it.  This should not be mistaken for the usual given and take within the science community, but rather a concerted effort on the part of certain special interests to undermine the science in order to avoid regulation or change.  This is pathology.

01 August 2011

This Historic Occasion

I keep hearing on the news about how "historic" this vote to raise the debt ceiling is.  The only thing I can see that's historic about it is how absolutely stupid the whole thing is.  There is nothing historic about raising the debt ceiling - it's been done many many times before.  The only thing that makes this time any different is that there are so many idiots in Congress who were willing to hold the debt ceiling ransom in order to get the cuts they wanted, and keep the President from raising taxes.  This is stupid politics at its worst - a waste of the nation's time and energy.  The only good thing about this bill is that it keeps this stupid debate from happening again until after the election - maybe by then people will realize how stupid the Tea Party Republicans are and kick their asses out on the street.

Anthropologists as Mediators

This post consists of some cursory thoughts resulting from Rex's Savage Minds post titled "Anthropology as Stand In and Interpreter."  I agree with a lot of what Rex is saying, but the role for anthropologists he is suggesting sounds too passive to me.  The "stand in," if I understand correctly, helps others see their work differently.  The "interpreter" translates information from one (specialist) language to another.  Certainly, we can serve both functions, and I don't take issue with the importance of either of them, but I am concerned that the terminology implies a certain passivity - as if anthropologists work best when their work isn't apparent, when it makes no difference.

I'm sure this isn't what Rex is saying, but it's a possibility suggested by his chosen terms ("stand in" and "interpreter") and I think it needs clarification.  Later in the post, Rex uses the term "mediation," which I think gets at the role he's suggesting more accurately.  Mediation is not passive - it is the active engagement with two beings in order to create a different kind of relationship.  This, to me, is what anthropology - indeed, all science - ought to be about.  It is the creation of difference, the building or relationships, the creation of new realities.  But the mediator doesn't impose her vision upon anyone - she is a "third party" who helps to negotiate between the others in order to create something new and unexpected. 

John Law's book After Method and Anna Marie Mol's essay "Ontological Politics" provide an excellent way of understanding the social sciences in this respect.  But it's also implicit in the way Latour uses the terms "translation," and "mediation," and in his understanding of the practice of science.  Science does not discover knowledge of a pre-existing world, rather it composes new relations which are new realities in themselves.  That anthropologists do this with societies is the only difference, and what makes anthropology so relevant.  We are in a prime position to compose new social forms - new relationships between people, places, and things.  Thus, the role of the anthropologist is not merely to communicate between disparate groups or even to help groups be who they want to be (as if they need us anyway), but to make a difference - to change the way people think of themselves and their world  - and create something new.

29 July 2011

Toward A Cosmopolitical Anthropology

The following is the text of a paper I read at the Anthro(+) conference at UMD this past spring.  I've been meaning to post it up here for a while, but am only just getting around to it.  Hope you enjoy - feel free to comment.  

Toward a Cosmopolitical Anthropology
by Jeremy Trombley

Anthropology has been going through something of an identity crisis in recent decades. The move away from the positivism of the past threw the field wholly into the arms of the social constructionists. The move was liberating in many ways; finally we could free ourselves from all forms of determinism by showing that everything, even science itself, is socially constructed, contingent and ideological. But what we gained in liberation we made up for in terms of relevance – in our enthusiasm for deconstruction, the public lost interest in what we had to say, and we lost the ability to build anything new. Now, as the novelty begins to wear off and so many things have been shown to be socially constructed, we search for something that will give us back our relevance to the wider world and allow us to make a real difference. But we cannot return to the positivism of the past – that road is blocked. Instead we need something new. In this paper I propose an anti-essentialist but realist approach to anthropology drawing on the philosophies of Bruno Latour, Manuel de Landa, Isabelle Stengers, and others. This approach – which I'm referring to as a cosmopolitical anthropology – will, I hope, bring us back to the world while allowing us to avoid the pitfalls of the past.
In Territories of Difference, Arturo Escobar (2009) describes a spectrum of scientific theory. On one side are essentialist theories such as Positivism and Systems theories. On the other are anti-essentialist or constructivist theories, with several gradations or mixtures of the two along the middle. Until recently, this spectrum has defined scientific inquiry, and provided much of the basis for the division between the natural and social sciences.
According to the essentialist approaches, meaning is found within the object which possesses and essential core of being independent of human conceptions. This core is transcendental and ahistorical. It can be progressively known through observation and measurement, and knowledge is the ultimate goal of inquiry. We cannot alter the nature of reality, but knowledge of that nature can allow us to live more reasonably within it. This perspective closes down deliberation, and places science as the ultimate arbiter of truth – we may argue about values, but facts are immutable.
As a result, our lives appear in many ways to be shaped by forces beyond our control. We are stuck within a system of natural determinism, and our only hope is to learn and develop the means – usually technological – to overcome those natural limitations. In order to know, however, we must overcome the distance between the subject and the object. Positivism attempts to accomplish this through a kind of sleight of hand by abstracting the subject into the realm of objectivity – the panoptical view from nowhere. But in order to remain in this realm, one must be purified and keep one's self free from such vices as politics, and values, which are seen to be subjective.
For social constructivists, on the other hand, meaning is found primarily in the subject, and the world is not made of predefined essences independent of human thought. Indeed, all knowledge is contextual, ideological and historical including what we previously took to be scientific facts. Thus we were freed from the domination of the natural, and the sciences could no longer be said to hold a monopoly on truth.
But the freedom proved to be limited. For social constructivism failed to put to rest the cartesian dualisms that define Modernity. Instead of rejecting positivism on it's ontological grounds, constructivists choose to object on epistemological grounds. For when we talk of the “social construction of X” (i.e. gender, quarks, capitalism, etc.), we are talking not about the construction of the actual entity, but the construction of the category X. The world is thus a field of representations which must compete for dominance.
Rather than blurring the lines between facts and values, subject and object, nature and culture, and so on, constructivists merely shifted the balance in the opposite direction - facts become values, the object becomes subjective, nature becomes cultural. The result was a more empirical epistemology – one which recognized the reality of the subject embedded within the world – unable to abstract itself into an objective realm – but which failed to extend that empiricism to its ontology. Indeed, constructivists often avoid making ontological claims about the nature of reality, which inevitably causes them to default to the dominant ontology of Modernism.
Furthermore, there is no basis for differentiation between social constructs. One is as constructed and, therefore, as valid as the other. The only difference lies in their relative dominance in the field of discourse. Is it any wonder, then, that the public has lost interest? If we cannot distinguish between the claims of climate scientists and climate deniers aside from our personal or political preference, then what's the point of social constructivism other than to deconstruct our social lives? What can be built using such tools? As Latour points out, we cannot make a house with a sledge hammer.
So we are left searching for something different, something new. The obvious place to look is in the realm of ontology. What's needed, then, is an anti-essentialist ontology – one that takes the empiricism of social constructivism and extends it beyond epistemology. For this we can look to the emerging work of philosophers such as Bruno Latour, Isabelle Stengers, Manueal de Landa, and others. These philosophers outline a novel approach to the world, which I will call – borrowing from Stengers – cosmopolitical. Thus, an anthropology based in this ontological commitment is what I would refer to as a cosmopolitical anthropology.
In the cosmopolitical approach, reality – the cosmos – is not predefined. Rather, it can be thought of as a heterogeneous, material-semiotic assemblage which is in a perpetual process of becoming. In such a formulation, nothing can be reduced to anything else, so the barriers between facts and values, subject and object, nature and culture become blurred or are erased altogether. We escape, once and for all, the cartesian dualisms of Modernity. What's more, there are no essences, since any entity must be composed relationally. So we preserve our liberation from naturalism, while restoring our ability to differentiate between constructions – no longer on the basis of true or false, as Positivism would have it, but on the basis of whether they are well or poorly constructed.
Realities are composed through practice. Science, then, is not primarily a matter of knowledge about reality, but is a practice which contributes to the composition of reality. So the question is no longer an epistemological one – how do we know reality, and how do our methods and theories affect that knowledge – but an ontological one – what kind of reality are we creating through our methodological and theoretical practice, and is that reality well or poorly constructed?
In anthropology, for example, we can start thinking about the kinds of relationships we form in the course of our work, and how we alter existing sets of relationships through our practice. We can also begin to think of ways we might intervene to create a more just and sustainable world.
I have identified several characteristics of a cosmopolitical approach, though, the list is not exhaustive, and will surely expand. They include: 1) Strategic interventions during periods of bifurcation. Bifurcations are periods when existing realities converge and new potentialities are generated. Sometimes this results in great upheaval, as in the case of the current uprisings in the Middle East, but usually they are at least marked by controversy. It is during these periods where the greatest possibilities for change arise, and our interventions have a greater chance of giving rise to the desired changes. 2) A willingness to experiment. Since reality is complex, we cannot know what activities will contribute to change. We must, therefore, try many different approaches in the hope that one or more will take hold. 3) A commitment to broad strategies and tactics. Because reality is heterogeneous, we cannot limit ourselves to a single form of intervention or communication. Instead, we must be open to utilizing diverse media including: online media, mainstream media, non-traditional media, political activism, economic intervention, and so on. This broad approach will help us build the relationships that will foster the new reality and make it strong enough to resist appropriation or dismantling. 4) Humility in the face of a complex world. We cannot hope to simply impose our vision upon the world around us – this would be imperialistic, teleological, and ineffective. This should not, however, keep us from proposing a vision and arguing for its implementation. If approached with a degree of humility, and the recognition that others may reject our vision or alter it to suit their needs and desires, we can avoid the paternalism that characterized previous approaches to development and aid.
With these characteristics in mind, I would like to offer a few examples of a cosmopolitical approach. To begin with, I turn to geography and the work of Julie Gibson and Katherine Graham who, up until Julie Gibson's death last year, published together under the pen name J.K. Gibson-Graham. Together they founded the Community Economies Project, which seeks to bring together researchers and communities who are concerned with creating alternatives to the Capitalist economic system.
In their books, The End of Capitalism as we Knew It and Towards a Post-Capitalist Politics, Gibson and Graham describe their attempts to retheorize capitalism from a non-essentialist, ontological perspective. Starting out as Marxist geographers, they began to see how academic theories which critiqued Global Capitalism as a totalizing system tend to reinforce that system by obscuring potential alternatives. Instead of seeing Capitalism as a totalizing system which determines every aspect of our lives, they began to see it as a heterogeneous assemblage of different economic practices many – in some cases the majority of which are not capitalist at all. This allowed them to find pockets of difference where potential alternatives could be explored.
Research in the Community Economies project is characterized by intervention in communities to reshape their relationship to Capitalism. It begins with a thorough reconceptualization of the global Capitalist system, and a reevaluation of the assets and resources available to the community. They identify other modes that exist alongside the typical class and consumer modes, and look for resources for building potential alternatives including skills, materials, equipment, and so on. The result of this interaction in many of the communities they study has been the generation of new ways of living in places that were once dependent upon Global Capital for their livelihoods. The communities become empowered, and relatively self-sufficient while at the same time undermining the structure of domination.
From the cynical perspective that has come to dominate our field, Gibson and Graham's approach may seem too optimistic. Such small scale projects will likely be enveloped into the Capitalist system and have little actual effect in changing it or creating alternatives. But Gibson and Graham argue that we cannot judge these attempts as failures before they're given a chance. Just as no one could have predicted that one man's solitary act of frustration and protest could have ignited the conflagration that has consumed the Middle East and other parts of the world, there is no way to tell ahead of time if one or more of these small scale projects might provide the impetus for reforming Capitalism. At the very least, it offers a community the chance to live out an alternative, even if only for a time. As these kinds of projects proliferate, the likelihood that Capitalism will be replaced increases.
Another project that could be described as cosmopolitical is Sarah Whatmore's project titled Understanding Environmental Knowledge Controversies. In her research, Whatmore developed a methodology which she refers to as Competency Groups. These groups are composed of scientists, policy makers, and members of stakeholder communities, and work together to generate novel solutions to previously intractable problems. Her primary example is with flooding in rural England. Scientists and policy makers had come up with a solution based on their data, but the solution ignored the needs and concerns of the local communities. As a result, they were not supportive and even opposed the proposed solution. Whatmore convened a competency group with members of the communities affected by flooding and the scientists and policy makers responsible for decision making. Researchers provided interactive models that allowed the participants to suggest and experiment with different approaches to addressing the flooding, and as a result of this, they came up with a novel solution to the problem – strategically placing a few small dams upstream to store water.
By bringing together scientists and community members in an attempt to co-produce knowledge rather than merely consulting, the competency group methodology is able to generate novel solutions which may be more effective than those proposed by scientists alone and which are more likely to be accepted by the communities themselves. This practice does away with the gap between subject and object, facts and values. Solutions to environmental problems are never simply scientific – they involve a variety of other values as well, and, by bringing the communities on as equal partners in the research we can compose more robust solutions than if they were to be ignored or marginalized.
The question remains as to what a cosmopolitical anthropology would look like – what would it mean to incorporate these ideas into the practice of anthropology? I don't have a full answer, but I have some thoughts based on my limited experience researching traditional cultural properties for the Bureau of Land Management. During the course of my research, I began to think about the meaning of cultural protection and the role of the anthropologist in the process. What I realized is that cultural protection is about values – what is it that we want to protect and why? And values are relational, so cultural protection, ultimately, is about building relationships – between communities, between agencies, between individuals, and so on. As anthropologists, we often find ourselves working between communities, and ethnographic methods can be seen as more than just techniques for generating knowledge or translating knowledge from one group to another – they can also be seen as tools for building relationships. In my case, I began to see the possibility of using ethnographic methods to build relationships between federal agencies and tribes and communities – constructing a reality which is better able to protect the cultural and natural resources that people value.
By conceiving ethnographic methods this way, we can start to think more broadly about our role as researchers. We can think about ways we might use our methods to compose new realities by building relationships, and altering those that already exist.
What is the ultimate goal of the cosmopolitical project? The goal is to build a more just and sustainable world – it is nothing short of utopia. But utopia can no longer be thought as static or homogeneous. Rather, utopia must be conceived as an unending process of experimentation, and negotiation – constantly trying to improve – constantly fighting back the powers of oppression. To quote science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, utopia can be defined with two simple words “Struggle Forever.”


I just got myself an invite to Google+, so here's my profile page:  If you want an invite, let me know, and I'll send one along.  So far it looks okay.

22 July 2011

Interviewed by Baltimore Sun

Yesterday, after posting to twitter that I got a ticket to Obama's town hall, I got a message in response from John Fritze (@jfritze), a writer for the Baltimore Sun.  He wanted to interview people going to the meeting for a preliminary article on the town hall and the debt crisis.  I talked to him for about 10 minutes by phone.  You can read the article here.

21 July 2011

Questioning Obama

This morning I arrived at campus early, and stood in line for about 3 hours to get a ticket to Obama's town hall meeting at UMD tomorrow.  Should be an interesting experience, and I'd like to try and get in to ask a question.  Do any of you have suggestions for questions I could ask?  I'm thinking something anthropology related since his mother was an anthropologist, but also relevant - maybe something about the HTS and military anthropology in Iraq and Afghanistan?  I don't know... I'll take any suggestions - anthropological or not - as long as they're relevant.  The meeting is at 11am tomorrow, so if you have suggestions submit early enough that I can use them (by about 9:30 or 10am tomorrow).

13 July 2011


There are several posts up this morning on nihilism in object-oriented ontology (OOO) - see herehere, and here.  The point seems to be that, because OOO claims that humans are merely one being among many it degrades values and meaning in the world.  I don't find that to be the case at all, and I agree with all three of the above posts that correlationism offers far more nihilistic potential than OOO or speculative realism in general.  If all values are human constructs and humans are the only beings involved in the creation of meaning, then there can be no basis for comparing values and all meaning is ultimately meaningless.  The only remedy available to such a world-view is to posit a transcendental being (i.e. God) which imbues the world with meaning apart from that which humans create.

For OOO on the other hand, meaning is created by and for all of the different entities that exist in the universe producing a tangled web of meaning and values which we contribute to, but which is not wholly dependent upon us.

It's impossible to be nihilist when you're not alone in the world.

10 July 2011

Social Construction and Reality

We have to get past the idea that things that are socially constructed are somehow not real.  I encountered it again today in something I was reading.  "X is socially constructed"  or "X are social constructs" as if to say they are only or just social constructs - as if to say X is not real.  But social constructs are real - that's what makes them so powerful.  Race, Class, Gender - these are all social constructs, but it is because they are socially constructed that they have tremendous effects on the lives of people who live in a particular society.

In fact, the only thing that saying something is socially constructed does is to indicate that it could have been (or could be) constructed differently - that it is historically and politically contingent.  This is a first step (though maybe not a necessary step) towards creating the possibility for change, but it is not the change itself.  Social constructions are powerful, deeply embedded structures, and change takes time and work.  We've spent the last 30 years showing how socially constructed everything is - that was the easy part - now it's time to get to work on making change.

01 July 2011

Making Science Social

I've had my head down the last few weeks working on a proposal for the NSF Science and Technology Studies grant.  We're planning to do an ethnography and other work on the Chesapeake Bay Model.  It's an interesting topic, and very relevant right now.  The model has been around for about 30 years now - continually being tweaked and refined.  However, it has become a large, unwieldy construct that requires a supercomputer to run, and it's not clear that it provides an accurate representation of the Chesapeake Bay.  Recently the EPA and the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP) proposed total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) for the Bay based on the model.  These TMDLs restrict the amount of pollution - mostly nutrient runoff - which is allowed in each state in the Bay's watershed.  The states are then required to implement policies which would reduce their loads below the limit, and many of these policies revolve around best management practices (BMPs) which have been shown - in the model - to reduce nutrient loads.  This has caused an uproar in the scientific community, and among farmers and others who live and work on the Bay or in the Bay watershed. 

To make matters worse, the company LimnoTech was recently hired to conduct a review of the Bay model in response to criticisms that it doesn't match up with other models or with the actual data coming from the Bay.  The study found that this was indeed the case, and, as a result, the EPA requested a review by the CBP's Science and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC).  This review is currently in progress, and has apparently been very heated.

This is all very interesting and should make for an excellent STS case study.  What's happening, I think, is that the science - the Bay model in this case - is becoming public, and entering into controversy.  This is exactly the kind of thing I've been reading a lot about lately, and I've only been reading more since I've been writing this proposal. 

One very interesting book I've been looking at is Michel Callon's Acting in an Uncertain World.  In it he describes several controversies, but mainly focuses on the issue of how to dispose of nuclear waste in France.  He puts forward an idea he calls hybrid forums - open discussions composed of scientists, politicians, regulators, and members of the lay public designed to make science and decision making more democratic.  There are a lot of good points in the book, which I'll try to cover at a later time, but this idea of the hybrid forum strikes me as important right now.  The problem, according to Callon, is that, historically, there have been these bifurcations - the creations of new publics.  The first was brought about when specialists (scientists and technicians) were put in charge of coming up with scientific solutions to problems.  The second was when political representation was professionalized.  As a result, there are now three different publics - the specialists, the politicians, and the lay public (there are, of course, many more publics, and, as Sarah Whatmore points out, new publics come to be defined through the very controversies that Callon and others are studying).  Granting the benefit of the doubt, Callon argues that, most of the time, the specialists and politicians don't leave the lay public out of the discussion in order to further their own personal financial or political ends.  Rather, he believes that the majority of them do so "for the public good" simply because the public doesn't know what it wants. 

These bifurcations are intended to reduce uncertainty - the uncertainty of the natural world through the knowledge production of science and the uncertainty of the social world through the professionalization of representation - but it becomes clear when scientific knowledge goes public, as in the case of the Bay model, that they do not reduce uncertainty.  In fact, the desire to reduce uncertainty is misplaced, because it is uncertainty which is constitutive of new social forms which will, hopefully, effectively address the problems.  The hybrid forums are meant to mend the bifurcations in order to open the field to these new social forms.

It seems to me that STS has taken a U-turn in some ways.  The early ethnographies of science were effective at demonstrating the social construction of knowledge, but the scientists got upset at this and objected (thus the Science Wars).  Furthermore, the ethnographies did little to change the actual practice of science, and have been unable to predict or address the controversies raised when science goes public - as it so often has in recent years.  Now, STS folks are starting to realize this and are shifting their approach.  Callon says that the social sciences have been called upon in these controversies to make the public voice more clear and concise - using surveys, statistics, etc.  But, he argues, this is only another way to silence the public while "giving it a voice."  Instead, Callon suggest that social scientists ought to use their knowledge to create the kinds of discussions that need to take place if science is going to be made public effectively.  That is, not trying to reduce uncertainty or silence the public, but creating spaces where the public can speak for itself freely, and where scientist and politicians can listen and gain an affective understanding of what the public wants and needs. 

Callon is not the only one doing this, of course.  Latour has MACOSPOL, and Whatmore has her Knowledge Controversies project - I'm sure there are many others out there.  I like this line of work, and I think this project should be really interesting.  Hopefully we get funded.  If so, this will probably be my dissertation.  I'll have more to say on it all later.

19 June 2011

Social Objects and the Building of the Social

Levi has a post up about Latour's We Have Never Been Modern in which he summarizes nicely Latour's main thesis of the social sciences: 
This, I believe, is Latour’s core thesis: society must be built. Society does not explain, but is precisely that which must be explained. And wherever we refer to social forces and the like to explain such and such a phenomenon, we’ve skipped this step. Under the most charitable interpretation, Latour’s point is not that there aren’t projections or that there aren’t objective forces, but that 1) the form social relations take cannot be completely explained through projections or naturalizations, and 2) that humans cannot be entirely reduced to marionettes of so-called objective forces. In other words, Latour sides with both the humanist and the antihumanist, while nonetheless arguing that there’s an additional missing term, a missing mass, in their social explanations: nonhuman entities.
In other words, the social sciences have traditionally been caught between two paradoxical positions.  On the one hand, rejecting objective forces as mere social constructions, and on the other positing objective forces (i.e social structures) to explain human behavior.  Many of the recent advances in social theory - Latour being, in my opinion, at the forefront - have been attempts to move beyond this contradiction.

 I want to point out, too - since I'm currently reading Green Mars, the second of Kim Stanley Robinson's (KSR) Mars Trilogy - that this is one of the things I like so much about this book.  It's as much about the construction of a new society as it is a construction of a new ecology - indeed, the two can never be wholly removed from one another.  Thus, the process of areoformation (as KSR's characters call it, in contrast to terraformation) is a social and an ecological practice - and the two processes are intertwined so that changes to the planet - both intentional and unintentional - affect social processes, and vice versa. This is also what was depicted in The Organic Machine by Richard White, which I recently read, except that White's book was more concrete and down-to-earth, in a literal sense.  So, where White presented a wilderness history, KSR has created a wilderness future.

I also like in the book that the process of areoformation is not deterministic - there is no totalizing plan which the process follows.  Rather, there are many different plans being implemented in many different ways on many different scales, and they conflict with one another, reinforce one another, or are simply neutral towards one another in varying complex ways.  Furthermore, there are processes at work outside of the plans, or which cannot be wholly controlled - such as the creation of a Martian atmosphere.  Thus the outcome is never what's planned, but always unexpected and unpredictable. 

Of course, KSR has a plan in mind, and, as the author of the book, is able to implement it however he likes - in that sense only is it deterministic, but that's the nature of writing fiction.  On another level, though, the books become part of a social collective which is just as nondeterministic as that depicted within the books.  There's no way KSR could have known that his book would come to influence Levi - one of the prime movers in object-oriented ontology - and potentially have a profound effect on philosophy and the future of social theory.  And it all gets amazingly complex very quickly!

12 June 2011

Columbian Wilderness

In The Organic Machine, Richard White provides an excellent "wilderness" history (my phrase, not his) of the Columbia River.  His account flows through linearly through time, but also follows themes as if linear time must occasionally pause and stew in a reservoir before plunging through the spillway.  The result is a magnificent story of the forces - both human and non-human - at play on the river. 

White starts with a description of the natural processes which carved the river we know today, and the early human interactions with it.  He details the ways in which the Indians along the river worked it and allowed it to work for them by bringing them abundant food in the form of Salmon.  In fact, the story of the Columbia presented by White is the story of work, but not the work for knowledge of which some social scientists and environmentalists are so enamored.  Instead, this work creates the river.  It is the work of the river and the work of the animals and people on the river, and all are mutually constituting.

White argues that, in the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Columbia became an "organic machine" - the realization of the Emersonian dream of wedding the natural to the human.  But, he argues, the marriage was ultimately a failed one, for the ideals that were sought for both nature and society were never realized.  Lewis Mumford envisioned a world powered by electricity from natural resources.  This "neotechnic" would transform society, creating a more equitable and democratic world.  However, the politics and economics at play on the river failed to bring this vision about.  Furthermore, the many dams placed along the river transformed the river's ecosystem:
"The architects of the new river have been nearly constant in their protestations of concern for the salmon, but they have quite consciously made a choice against the conditions that produce the salmon.  They have wanted the river and its watershed to say electricity, lumber, cattle, and fruit and together these have translated into carp, shad and squawfish instead of slamon." (90)
What was truly unique about this book, for me, was the way it depicted the creation of a world on the Columbia.  There was no master overseer determining all, there were simply many different interests (both human and non-human) trying to make their way and to carve out a little space for life on the river.  Some of these interests, such as the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), were more powerful and, thus, more capable of implementing their vision than others, but none was ever fully determining.  Rather the river we see today was carved by myriad agencies acting upon the river for many different purposes.  All of this work has created a new river:
"... [T]o simply renounce development on the Columbia is equally to miss the point. We can't treat the river as if it is simply nature and all dams hatcheries, channels, pumps, cities, ranches, and pulp mills are ugly and unnecessary blotches on a still coherent natural system. These things are now part of the river itself. There are reasons they are there. They are not going to vanish, and they cannot simply be erased. Some would reduce the consequences to a cautionary tale of the need to leave nature alone. But to do so is to lose the central insight of the Columbia: there is no line between us and nature. The Columbia, an organic machine, a virtual river, is at once our creation and retains a life of its own beyond our control."
There are many more quotes I would like to reproduce from this book.  It is well written and full of insight, but I'll let you read it for yourself!
Related Posts with Thumbnails