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

26 February 2012

This Blog is No Longer Updated!

I'm undergoing a transition - embarking on a new beginning - and with that in mind, I've created a new blog/website:

Struggle Forever!

This blog will no longer be updated, but if you were a subscriber there is no need to switch your feed - I've done it for you already.  I hope you all enjoy the new site.
For those who have links to this site on your websites, please update them to:


20 February 2012

The Problem of Teleology...

... is not that life doesn't orient itself towards ends. The problem is that an obsessive fixation on ends, and goals over processes, results in an anxiety over uncertainty and a fear that things will not turn out as we would like.  Also, it ignores the fact that life doesn't stop moving - that the world is engaged in a constant process of becoming.  Even when we reach a goal, there is more work to be done, more life to be lived.  There is no "Happy Ever After" - and thank the gods for that!

Thanks to Mike Wesch for pointing me to this video, and for reminding me of the greatness of Alan Watts!

18 February 2012

Tech in the Classroom and Anthropological Pedagogy

I recently rediscovered one of my favorite anthropologists bringing technology to education.  Mike Wesch at Kansas State University has been showing anthropologists and professors in other disciplines how to inspire and motivate students using tools such as wikis, blogs, twitter, facebook, etc.  He certainly influenced me, as I try to bring as much of his influence to my teaching as possible (given that I've only TA'ed and never led my own class).  This article shows a change in thought - a realization that it's not the technology that makes a good class, but the teacher.  Good teachers may or may not use technology, and the same goes for bad teachers.  In fact, technology-for-technology's sake makes classes fail more often than not.

I'm an advocate for what I would call "appropriate technology" in the classroom.  Use what makes sense, and don't use it if it doesn't make sense.  In other words, if you have to choose between some technological method and a non-technological method that works just as well, use the non-tech method.  Technology often puts an unnecessary burden on teachers and students alike, often just adding to the work without really changing the nature of the class.  If you're going to use technology, make sure it really makes a difference - if it doesn't, it's not worth it.

But more importantly, I think what makes a class and a teacher great is engagement with the students.  In the past, I've referred to an "anthropological pedagogy."  What I mean by that is that we apply the principles of anthropology and anthropological methods to the classroom experience.  According to Tim Ingold, anthropologists, more than any other social scientists, "work with" people.  That's what I think makes for good pedagogy.

It means recognizing the students as subjects - not merely as objects which must be filled with knowledge (this means not demeaning them or belittling them - even behind their backs as some grad students, and I'm sure faculty have a tendency to do).  It means viewing the classroom as a space of mutual co-constitution - people (students and teachers alike) working together to construct a shared understanding.  That doesn't mean that teachers should give up their leading role in the classroom - sometimes that's still the best way.  It also doesn't mean that teachers should acquiesce to student's knowledge claims and accept them as equal to their own.  It means listening and fostering healthy discussion so that knowledge can be shared and developed collaboratively.

There are no strict methods or rules of thumb that can bring this about.  It requires teachers to be attentive, and reflexive - to adapt and continually attempt to improve.  Really that's the key - if every professor did that, then college would be a much better place for everyone involved.

17 February 2012


You may have noticed the recent addition of a Facebook widget to the right side of this site.  For years I refused to sign up for Facebook - actually I did sign up for one back in 2008, but deactivated it after a month.  Recently, however, I've realized that I simply can't escape it

I do not like Facebook - Google+ is better, but only moderately so - but it's where everyone is, and in the last few days I've realized the value of keeping connected to people no matter where or how that connection is maintained. 

I'll be posting very much the same things on Facebook that I do on Google+, so it's up to you if you want to follow both of those accounts (or neither...).  My initial sense is that I like the clean interface of Google+ and the content is more appealing, but the opportunities to connect and communicate are greater on Facebook.  We'll see how it goes...

08 February 2012

Theories of Theories

Yesterday, I had an interesting discussion with a couple of my fellow Environmental Anthropology grad students about different theoretical approaches within the field.  We had read chapter 3 from Arturo Escobar's book Territories of Difference - one which I have found very helpful in sorting out different theories of nature/culture.  In this discussion, the three of us explored the different approaches listed, and tried to make some sense of how they relate to one another.  I'll not go into Escobar's schematic - if you're interested, you can pick up the book or find one of the many articles Escobar has written on the subject.  What I want to talk about instead is the practice of categorizing and arranging different theoretical approaches.

In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with trying to categorize theories.  We do it all the time, and it is a helpful practice for those who are just learning or for those who are only trying to get a general sense of the field.  Once we begin to delve deeper, and really try to understand the different theoretical approaches, however, the categories tend to get in the way.  The reason, I think, is that categorization is the wrong method for trying to truly understand theory.  Aside from a few iconic individuals and/or papers (i.e. Levi Strauss and structuralism, Steward and cultural ecology, etc.), the categories simply don't fit nicely.  People borrow from a number of different theoretical frameworks, theories are misused or misunderstood, different people have different names for the same theory or the same name for different theories, and so on.  It becomes just a jumbled mess of confusion.  That's fine in practice - it seems to work much of the time - but for trying to make sense, it becomes very difficult. 

The way I want to approach it - instead of viewing theories as categories into which we fit people and projects, we can understand theories as assemblages of practices that people can borrow from and utilize in different projects.  A person will borrow certain ideas from Foucault, or Bourdieu in a project - these will not embody the whole of those theorists' thought, but only fragments which she then hangs together to form her overall practice (at least in this project).  Even those theorists who are said to embody a particular theory will be doing the same.  In this sense, a theoretical framework (structuralism, phenomenology, constructivism, actor-network theory, etc.) is really a heterogeneous mix of ideas and ways of thinking - not bounded and homogeneous as the categorization method assumes or suggests.  Of course certain ideas fit well with one another, while others do not, so there is some sense of structure in that, but not in the sense of over-arching categories.

This is not to say that the categories don't matter.  The categories are very real, and have a great effect.  When you look up phenomenology in an encyclopedia or online, you'll no doubt see Hussrl and Heidegger listed as primary philosophers.  You may see others listed as well.  As a result, these categorizations tend to assemble certain people and ideas in a particular way.  Without these categorizations, there may not be a "phenomenology" to speak of.  So the categories themselves play a role in the assemblage of ideas.

I think this is a far more useful way of conceptualizing theory, though I know it is by no means the only way.  Does anyone want to try to fit this theory of theory into a nice category of meta-theories?  It's theories all the way down!

01 February 2012

Open Access Anthropology

 There's been a lot of discussion lately about open access in academic anthropology publishing.  See Savage Minds (here, here, and here), Neuroanthropology and Ethnografix for more details (sorry if I've missed any - feel free to leave links in the comments section).  I wholeheartedly advocate for open access publishing - especially for anthropology.  We are the one discipline that truly works with people (borrowing from Ingold).  How can we honestly continue that tradition if our publications are hidden from view and locked behind university library system?  I see no reason why open access journals can't be as high quality as their for-profit counterparts - in fact, it's certainly possible for them to be even higher quality if people are willing to put in the time and effort to make them so.  I know that's the trouble, but it is possible, and if we value it, then we ought to do it. 

As an up and coming academic, I'm willing to put my career on the line and promise to only publish in open access journals.  Putting my career on the line is a very real threat, since many departments look for publications in key (generally not open access) journals such as American Anthropologist when hiring.  However, I'm confident that the people who will be evaluating me will overlook those issues if they understand why I made this choice, and will evaluate my work on its own merits and not on the journal that publishes it.  That said, I don't really know much about the OA landscape in anthropology journals.  Right now, I have one article pending publication in Imponderabilia (which is OA), one in the works for O-Zone (which will be OA, but is not anthropology focused), and one on cultural resource management that I was considering submitting to Human Organization or Heritage and Society (neither of which are really open access), but if anyone knows of an OA journal I could submit to I'd be happy to reconsider.

21 January 2012

Multiple Realisms

I've just finished up my preliminary exam and have reemerged to the light.  I've spent a little time getting up to date with my blogs, and in particular the discussion between Michael (here, here, and here) and Adam Robbert (here, here, and here).  I've found it very intriguing as it's brought up a number of nuances between different realist theories that I had not been aware of before.  Not being one to plunge headlong into a debate, here I would just like to offer some thoughts - posed more as a question for further attention than as an argument for one side or the other. 

Adam has drawn two distinctions - the first between absolute and contingent withdrawal and the second between realism and materialism.  Materialism, he argues, doesn't go far enough to account for the relationships between different entities (objects in the OOO language, but I prefer this term).  He does this by arguing on the basis of epistemology - how one object can or cannot know another.  I posed the question on one of Michael's posts if the problem of the gap between the object and knowledge of the object is not due to the fact that the object and the knowledge are ontologically distinct entities.  This would mean that the two can never truly coincide with one another except, perhaps, by some process of intimacy.  Adam calls this position materialism.  He offers a different way of looking at it, which I had not thought of and which I now find myself grappling with.  That is, that knowledge is not an entity unto itself, but rather a quality of objects attempting to relate to one another. 
If the ontological character of relations is fundamentally about prehension — each entity’s unique enactment of an onto-specific world — then we do not have a split between “cognitive powers” and “powers of the flesh.” Rather we (humans) have something like enfleshed cognitive powers; a result of our embodied particularity’s engagement with the cosmos. In a sense then, epistemology is the onto-specific mode of translation each entity engages to enact its universe. Snails and bonobos have fleshy epistemologies just likes humans. Even stars might have some kind of episteme in this sense.
At first I was tempted to turn the table on Adam and suggest that his is actually the materialist perspective and that Michael and I are the realists.  For Michael and I, material objects and semiotic objects are equally real.  They both have an ontological status of their own, and that the world is in fact heterogeneously composed of both material and semiotic entities. 

On the other hand, Adam's position seems at first glance to reduce epistemology to a quality of objects - what then is left for the object to be?  In a crude leap of logic what would be left is material, and so this would be a fundamentally materialist philosophy.  But that's not what Adam is suggesting.  Instead, the material and semiotic are both qualities of real objects, neither of which is foundational. 

I'm inclined to suggest that both positions are realist and not materialist since neither posits matter as the ultimate ground of being even in the sense, as Levi Bryant has recently suggested, that "... all entities are materially embodied..."

I still prefer the approach that Michael outlines, and I look forward to reading his response to Adam's most recent posts as well as this one.  However, I'm interested in what Adam is suggesting as it offers an alternative view that I hadn't considered - what would it mean for me?  I'm not entirely sure yet, but I'm thinking about it.

17 January 2012

Going Dark

Today I start my preliminary exam.  Three questions, ten pages each, five days to write them in.  It's certainly doable, but more than a little nerve wracking.  In any case, I'm going dark as soon as I get the questions - no blogging, no emails (except emergencies), no blog reading, no twitter, no Google+, etc.  So if you're wondering where I am or why I haven't responded to you, that's why.  Saturday I'll be free, and I'll reemerge into the daylight then. 

13 January 2012


Yesterday, I came back from a short trip to Vermont.  It was an opportunity to get away from the hubbub of College Park/DC, experience some peace and quiet before my preliminary exams next week, and see the beautiful Northeast.  All in all it was a very restful few days, with some very beautiful snowy mountain scenery.  My goal this year is to take more time like that to just relax and enjoy the view while also pushing to get a few things done (papers, and such).  As Rex recently pointed out on Savage Minds, it's important to take time to think, and I've been guilty recently of allowing myself to be distracted. 

While I was up there, though, I got to meet and talk to Adrian Ivakhiv.  We met at a pub in downtown Burlington and had a nice chat about life, philosophy, film, and work.  He's been very busy this past semester, and I've missed reading his always enlightening posts - I look forward to seeing more this coming semester.  He was very nice, and it was great to talk with someone who I can simply take for granted that they know who/what I'm talking about.  I don't mean that in an elitist way - it's just that he and I share some fairly obscure theoretical interests, which are, fortunately for both of us, becoming less and less obscure. 

So, expect to see a bit more of me on here over the next semester (I'm TAing for a theory class, too, so that will give me an excuse to be engaged!).

07 January 2012

The Purpose of Anthropology

"The purpose of anthropology is to understand...."

The second those words leave your lips or your pen, you have misspoken.  It doesn't matter what comes after, you are wrong.  Because "understanding" is always a means and never a goal.  Only the most naive of positivists would suggest that we seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge.  And so only they would not append a "so that" onto the end of the statement: "The purpose of anthropology is to understand X so that Y."  It doesn't matter what X and Y are, the real purpose is always Y and X - "understanding" - is merely a means.  But if the purpose is Y, why limit your repertoire of means to X?  Why not say "the purpose of anthropology is Y, by whatever means available"?  But let's step back from that and think about what the purpose of anthropology actually is, and how we can define ourselves.

The purpose of anthropology is to create a better world.  I say that completely without irony or sarcasm, and it is only apparently normative.  I am not saying "the purpose of anthropology should be to create a better world."  I am saying that it is to create a better world.  How can I say that?  How can I impose my purpose upon the vast field of anthropology with all of its different practitioners, each with their own vision of a "better" world and each with a different set of values and goals?

First of all,the world does not simply exist as it is - there are no givens, and nothing just is the way it is.  Rather the world is created anew in every moment by the many different entities that compose (in both senses of the term) it.  Through our practices - no matter what they are - we compose the world as a massive, collaborative, and temporally and spatially continuous artscape.  Even our representations of the world - paintings, photos, writings, etc. - in a very fundamental sense are the world.  It's time we pay attention to that.

So if our actions compose the world (but, and this is key, not our actions alone - this is a collaborative effort), then anthropologists already are creating a world.  It simply can't be helped.  Thus the statement "the purpose of anthropology is to create a world" is simply obvious.  But where does the "better" come in?  Isn't that a normative claim?  I would argue that it isn't, but I would say it's based on an assumption which I suspect is valid but can't be certain of.  The assumption is that everyone is trying to make the world better by whatever vision they are guided.  Of course, we all don't agree on that vision, and so what one person sees as making the world better may look like making the world worse to another.  The statement only becomes normative if I define for you what "better" means.  Of course I have a vision of what a better world would look like, but I can no more impose that vision on you than you would impose it on me because, as I said before, this is a collaborative effort.  However, I can work with you to create a world that fits both our needs and visions as much as possible.   That means that we both allow ourselves to be altered by one another equally - giving where the other gives, and pushing back where the other pushes back.

But speaking of the purpose of anthropology as creating a world is too vague to be useful.  It's important to bear in mind, but not enough for us to identify with.  So what can we do?  I think we identify by our means - our method if you will.  But the means I'm talking about is not "understanding."  Certainly a lot of what we do is create knowledge, and that's important, but that's not all we do and not all we can do.  Instead, I think "working with" is what defines anthropology.  As Tim Ingold so eloquently explains in the epilogue of his book Being Alive, "working with" is what has defined anthropology from the very beginning (although that chapter begins with the phrase "The purpose of anthropology is to understand..." and is what sparked this post...).  We work with people rather than study them or understand them.  And it's this "working with" that creating a better world is all about.  It's when we stop "working with" that we end up degenerating and making the world worse than it ever was before.  The world needs more working with from anthropologists and everyone.

02 January 2012

A New Methodology

What are methods?  What is it that they do?  What is the relationship between theory and method?  These are all concerns of mine in my anthropological practice.

As anthropologists, we pride ourselves on having a unique set of methods - participant observation and ethnography.  We cross the boundary between quantitative and qualitative.  We place ourselves in the subject position while at the same time attempting to remain objective.  We get into the dirty details of an issue, but also try to extrapolate the generalities.  Most recently we have even lead the way in opening our methods up to those we study - using participatory and collaborative methods to allow them to represent themselves.  We think about our methods perhaps more than any other discipline in order to make sure that we act ethically, and effectively with regard to the people we study.

But I believe we are caught in a trap with methodology.  We have constrained ourselves so that even our best methods when best applied have little effect on the world.  I'm being overly harsh - many people do wonderful work, but I'm emphasizing the limitations we have placed upon ourselves and calling for a rethinking of methods, a new methodology for a changing and unpredictable world.

The thing we have to confront is the fact that we have constrained ourselves to the realm of representation.  Methods, for most, are techniques for generating knowledge however you imagine that to occur.  For a positivist, methods soak up knowledge like a sponge from the world around us.  Quantity is quality, since the more we know the better we know.  For constructivists, methods are the tools of the author to compose a representation.  Knowledge is contingent, quantity is irrelevant and quality depends on the context.  There are many positions in between and many positions which mix the two, but on this spectrum the possibility of methods lie only in the range of representation whether it's representation of reality or representation of an authorial perspective.  Thus there is a separation of method and theory - theory is what tells us what methods to use, what methods ought to do, and what kinds of representations our methods can make.  But methods are merely a means to an end - that being a representation.

I want to shift the focus back to methods, to see them not as a mere means, but as a thing unto themselves.  So what are methods?  First and foremost, they are ways of acting in the world, and every action is an act of creation.  Methods create.  They create representations, for sure, and we must not forget that!  But they also create other things, and they can be used to create much more than representations.  Focusing only on the representation has kept us from seeing the full potential of methods to create change in themselves.  As a result, we have constrained our view of what methods are available to us.

Methods make a difference - they cannot help but do so.  The question is what kind of difference.  It's not how we represent the world that matters, but how we create it.  Thus theory is method, for theory is acting in the world as well.  And when methods become about creation, then a world of new methods open up to us.  There is the method of art, the method of science, the method of work.  There are methods of mediation and building relationships, and there are methods of tearing down. 

I call for this change in methodology.  To look at the effects of our methods on the world, to think of methods as creative, and constructive.  What kind of world do you want to create?  What methods can you use to create it?  It is a call to consciousness - to be aware of what we're doing in the world, what kind of world we are creating, and what kind of world we could be creating.  It's not enough to wonder if we're representing properly, we have to wonder if we're making the world more just, more sustainable, more loving, kind, happy.  We can do these things - bit by bit, method by method - we can build a better world!
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