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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.
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