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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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