The Death of Electoral Politics

The season has started, and I’m already disgusted by it. The Republican slate of candidates is a circus with Trump as its ringmaster cracking his whip and making all the others dance for our entertainment. Clinton offers four more years of nothing, just the same old mainstream politics that put us in the mess we’re in now. Despite his popularity with white liberals like myself – and I will say that I’m glad he’s in the race if only to shift the discourse moderately to the Left – Bernie Sanders faces his own troubles with the politics of race. O’Malley? Oh yeah, I know him… he’s the guy who was the Mayor of Baltimore at the onset of its “broken windows” policing strategy that put many Black lives (like Freddie Gray) in jeopardy. He’s also the guy who left my state with a massive budget shortfall that caused universities to raise tuition and lower salaries.

The election is a ritualized spectacle wherein all of our hopes and dreams are pitted against all of our worst fears – in the end we are no better off than we were before. Just look at the last 8 years. I’m no Obama hater, but his tenure as President has certainly not lived up to the promise of Hope and Change laid out in his campaign. We still have a divided country, we still have billionaires calling the shots, we still have a broken – if somewhat better – healthcare system, we still have racism running rampant throughout the country, and we are still staring down the specter of climate change and the ongoing destruction of the planet. Paraphrasing Zizek, if we ever get to a point where a genuinely revolutionary President could be elected, then we will have already won.

The totalizing fantasy of electoral politics is itself antithetical to a genuine leftist political agenda. “You wanted a master and you got one” says George Carlin. That doesn’t mean I won’t vote – we have masters whether we want them or not, and voting may be one weak means we have of getting some meager accountability. But voting is a tactic, electoral politics is a tactic, it’s not a totalizing force. It doesn’t change much if it changes anything at all, and it probably does more harm than good by distracting us and sapping our energy for the real work that needs to be done.

I’m actually encouraged by the Black Lives Matter critiques of Bernie Sanders. Not because I don’t like Bernie Sanders, and not because I hope it will change his message or even the tone of the whole campaign. I am encouraged by it and I hope it spreads to the rest of the campaign season because it reveals the poverty of electoral politics in general. None of these people – not Bernie, not Hillary, not Martin, not Trump, Cruz, or Bush – can solve the problems we have in this country. The only ones who can solve these problems – racism, sexism, inequality, climate change, etc. – are us. The only way they will be solved is by a lot of people getting out there and doing whatever they can to solve them – working together to build a new society from the ground up. The Black Lives Matter movement is doing that in a way that we haven’t seen for sixty years. I hope it continues and grows, and I hope this kind of politics – the politics of everyday life – becomes the new game in town. If it does, all of the elections and posturing won’t be worth a damn – at that point it won’t matter who gets elected because we will have already won.

Vision of a Possible Anthropology

I want to see an anthropology that works, not one that merely functions.

Immersed in the world, it rolls up its sleeves, digs into the dirt, laughs, cries, sweats, and bleeds. It lives amongst the people and never above them, is dangerous to those in power, and powerful for those who are not. An anthropology that makes them quiver in their high-rise office buildings, and their gated communities.

This is an anthropology that doesn’t belong only on the manicured lawns of the academy. It’s a wilderness anthropology – at home on the city streets, in the country fields, the forests, deserts, mountains, and rivers, the highways, underpasses, train tracks, and bridges. It can be found in the dark tunnels, the murky swamps, the ghostly ruins of the world – comfortable with monsters and capable of communicating with the creatures who lurk in both the light and the shadow.

I want to see an anthropology that is not only open access, but also open source. A hacker’s anthropology that enables people to crack into the structures that surround them, link up, redirect, disconnect, and shut down. I want ethnographic methods and theories to be unburdened by the strictures of expertise and professionalism. Forged into tools for everyone to use, no matter if they are called “anthropologist” or “ethnographer.” It’s an anthropology that cannot be bought or sold – it is both priceless and free.

This is a possible anthropology. The pieces are available, and there are many willing to work to make it real. It will only take a little assembly… but the instructions have been misplaced…



Imaginary Futures

I’m imagining futures: There’s one in which I have finished my PhD and found a job as a professor at a university, teaching and doing research. That’s the obvious one. In it I’ve become an influential anthropologist and other academics cite my work, and look to me for guidance or support. Then there is another future where I’ve failed to finish the PhD, and am forced to find work in some office doing other people’s research. I don’t get to enjoy intellectual freedom, but am doomed to simply reproduce the same old narratives using the same old methods over and over again. Once in a while, when I’m feeling anxious, I imagine a future in which I am poor and struggling to keep myself and my family fed, clothed, and housed. I live on the streets and am always on the brink of disease, hunger, and death. Sometimes when I’m driving, I imagine my car’s wheel flying off in the middle of the highway causing me to crash and be crushed under the weight of a 23 car pileup.

At times my imagination extends beyond myself. I imagine a world where all the problems have been solved, everyone has everything they need, and the environment is healthy and strong. I distrust this image. Other times, I imagine a future where we all keep on doing exactly what we are now only with different technologies, new clothes, and more people around. This one feels real, but I can see a breaking point. There’s also a future where civilization has collapsed or the world has ended. In that one, I’m dead.


I don’t believe in the future. Capitalist, communist, utopian or apocalyptic – no future is real. Maybe they exist in some kind of virtuality waiting to be “realized.” Or maybe they all exist in layers of multiple universes, and we only have access to one at a time. Maybe they don’t exist at all, and every moment is a singularity, collapsing once its time has passed. In any case, what I believe in are people here and now working to survive, and, at times, struggling to make things a little better in whatever way they imagine that to be. Surviving and struggling, it’s all we ever do.

But, of course, our minds are modeling machines running simulations and scenarios non-stop. Imagining the future is one way we navigate the present, and enact alternatives – it’s part of the work of surviving and struggling. When I imagine my horrifying death on the highway, maybe that prepares me for a time when the wheel actually does fly off. Maybe then I’ll be able to remain calm enough to bring the car to a slow stop and guide it off the road to safety. When I imagine a future of war and catastrophe, maybe that makes me better equipped to survive. When I imagine a world of peace, justice, and ecological prosperity, maybe that makes me better able to bring that future into existence.

They’re only imaginings, though. All futures are possible, there’s no telling which are probable, and not one is proper. Neither optimist nor pessimist, I see my futures as tools – that one turns a screw, this one drives a nail, and the other one… well, I’m not sure what it does yet. Time will tell – or not.

Life Work

This morning I’m at home. My eyes are fixed on Facebook and Twitter, but I know I should be doing several other things at once. Piles of books await my time, my gaze, my thought. Articles, half-finished, whimper from neglect. There are more urgent things to do, but I must also manage my life online – the multiple blogs I write, the myriad social medias I maintain. This is my work, my life, my time. Time spent – every hour one less I can get back.

On other days I go out. There is field work to be done. Interviews. Some of these – the dissertation ones – are easy. I know the questions, and I can improvise like a snake weaving its way through the grass. They are coordinated, arranged ahead of time, made to order. The others are difficult. They are haphazard – no one wants to talk for long when they’re fishing! Acceptance takes me by surprise and I fumble to ensure that I get all the questions asked and answered, taking notes on an oversized clipboard weighed down with forms and maps and papers.

Back home I manage the data. I download the wav files, and the jpegs to my computer, rename, recode, restore, upload, encrypt, inform. Sometimes I put this off…too long, and I forget, so it takes more time to figure out what I’m doing and where the digits need to go. When I do it right, the work pays off and I have a shimmering pool of data from which to drink.

Then comes the writing – field notes, blog posts, sometimes an article fragment that gets filed away and then brought back later only to be disassembled and started from scratch. There is always some task more urgent, or some distraction more demanding. On good days I write. On the best days I write with ease. Most days I pretend to write but the words don’t make their way from thought to paper (or screen, more likely). Once in a while, all of these fragments and isolated thoughts get pushed together, and something valuable emerges – something I can share with the world.

Amidst all this I have to arrange my life. I have to clean, I have to cook (or pay for someone else to cook, but I can’t afford that often). I have to go to the store, and look for jobs, and eat – don’t forget to eat! I have to go to the gym (to work out) because otherwise I would turn into a blob on my bed. I have to see friends and spend time with the people I care about and who care for me or else I’d be a lonely blob wondering where my life is going. Now and then I draw or scribble, I write fragments of poems, I take photos, I read fiction. Otherwise I would be a structured blob with no room to move or escape. I don’t want to be a blob of anything – I want to do my work. This is the work that lets me do my work.

I don’t have a “work ethic.” I’m not obsessed with work, and I don’t hate it either. I have an understanding that everything I do is work – even my play – and so my work is not confined to one part of my life. My work is my life, and my life is my work. It’s a process of assembling, of putting things together, taking things apart, making something new, or reproducing something old. This is how I build myself and my life or how the world builds me. For I know that “my work” is never all my own. I depend on others to work with, for, and even against me. Without them my work would be just movement and frantic gesticulating in the void. It’s our work together that makes it more. After all these years and all this work, what have we produced? I don’t know, it’s never finished.

The War Never Ended

I don’t have much new to say about the shooting at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston. It’s a horrifying act. It’s an act of terror. It’s indicative of the persistence and pervasiveness of racism in our country. However, I think another thing it demonstrates is that the Civil War never ended. Sure, peace was declared, and the seceded states were reintegrated into the Union, but, as often happens, the war didn’t end – it just shifted domains.

This is evident in the history of the post-Civil War south. “Reconstruction” was more about appeasing Southern gentry than it was about liberating former slaves. Furthermore, Jim Crow laws and segregation continued to keep Black people oppressed for a century after the war had ostensibly ended. Finally, the history of violence against Black people and their communities – especially churches – is evidence that the war is still being waged, and that we as a nation have simply tried to ignore it. Add to that the symbolic evidence – the anti-Black rhetoric spouted by conservatives, the fact that the Confederate Flag still flies in many parts of the South as a symbol of pride and not of shame – and you have all of the elements of an underground war.

We live in a war zone! (I’m sure many Native Americans will recognize that as well) If we aren’t actively fighting against White Supremacy, we are, at best, tacitly siding with the enemy. The war isn’t over, so it’s time to take up the fight.

The Molecular and the Molar

red molecules

Last week I finished McKenzie Wark’s latest book Molecular Red: Theory For the Anthropocene. It’s been getting a lot of attention online in the last few weeks, including a review by Zizek, Wark’s response to that review, this review, and Andre’s post at Intra-Being. All of the discussion has been very interesting and illuminating, and the book itself (as well as the free Molecular Red Reader) has given me more encouragement to think than I’ve experienced with most other recent theoretical texts. In these discussions a lot has been made of Wark’s Molecular/Molar distinction, which, I suppose, is one of the (perhaps the) primary points he is attempting to make in the book, though the path he takes to get there is just as interesting and engaging as the end result.

The molecular/molar distinction goes hand-in-hand in Wark’s book with a high/low theory distinction. High theory, he claims, operates on the molar level – the level of masses, “big theory”, etc. Low theory, by contrast, operates on the molecular level – what he describes as “the labor point of view.” High theory works through abstraction, low theory through tektological metaphor and situationist “détournement” – interjecting concepts from one field into another in order to work through the resistances of “nature.” Zizek, in his review, undertakes his own détournement and (to add another to the mix) stands Wark on his head:

“We should thus move beyond the Deleuzian opposition between molecular and molar, which ultimately reduces the molar level to a shadowy theatre of representations, in relation to a molecular level of actual productivity and life-experience. True, the metabolic rift is operative and can only be established at a “lower” molecular level, but this molecular level is so low that it is imperceptible not only to “molar” big politics or social struggles but also to the most elementary forms of experience. It can only be accessed through “high” theory—in a kind of self-inverted twist, it is only through the highest that we get to the lowest.”

He accuses Wark of reductionism wherein the molecular and molar are taken to be primarily associations of scale. The molar becomes simply the emergent manifestation – the shadowy representation – of the “real” molecular processes.

However, I’m not sure that the distinction Wark is trying to make is primarily about scale. None of the theorists he draws upon in Molecular Red could be argued to be theorists of the “small scale” and, if it were simply about scale, then the molecular/molar distinction would be just one more way of defining a polemic that has been going on for ages. In that case, Zizek would, of course, be right to accuse Wark of reductionism, and this reviewer would be (and is) right to suggest that we need both the “high” and the “low” – a molecular tektological (post-nihilist) praxis takes what it can get and assembles what it can out of the scraps.

But I think something is lost in the metaphor when it’s reduced to the issue of scale. In order to understand what Wark is attempting, I think we need to delve more into the chemistry of the metaphor – literally. My experience with chemistry is limited – I took one class back in high school, and worked for a year as an assistant in a geochemistry laboratory processing samples and trying to keep the machines running – but my notion of the molecular and molar in chemistry is that, yes, it is about scale, but it is also about processes. In other words, molecular chemistry deals with the processes of molecular interaction – the enzymatic, energetic dynamics of molecules combining, breaking apart, recombining, and transforming from one to another. Molar chemistry assumes these processes, and instead deals with the interactions between masses of molecules – the way that different chemicals combine or don’t when interacting as masses. For example, it doesn’t make sense to talk about the dissolution of salt (NaCl) in water if you have one salt and one water molecule. It’s only by combining them in mass that a solution can be created. Talking about mass versus molecule, then, would seem to suggest that it is about scale, but it could also be argued (and I think Wark’s take on Barad and Bohr should suggest) that the scale is the product of the kinds of interaction we use to engage with these materials:

“If you want to measure the position of a particle, you need a fixed point of reference. If you want to measure the momentum of a particle, you need something movable, which can absorb that momentum and measure its force. These are different kinds of apparatus, one producing position-sensation, the other momentum-sensation. They are determined by mutually exclusive apparatuses. We can’t subtract the practice of measuring from the phenomenon measured. But the larger consequence is that there is no good way of discriminating between the apparatus and its object. No inherent subject/object distinction exists. There is an object-apparatus-phenomena-observer situation.”

By interacting with various chemicals in different ways, the molecular and molar produce the scales in which they operate. In a similar way, the distinction between molecular (low) and molar (high) theory could be said to be more about the process of theorizing than it is about the object of theorization. What kinds of engagements and processes are undertaken. Here I think Wark’s notion of the “secondary idea” – which he draws from Platonov – is helpful.

“In order to protect and not to exhaust his communism, Dvanov cultivates the secondary idea: ‘Now he feared the expansion of his calm spiritual sufficiency and wished to find another, secondary idea by which he might live and which he might spend and use, rarely for his happiness.’ So he works on irrigation, on food security. No matter how spiritual the communist leap of faith, it only lives on in people’s bodies, and bodies have wants. The secondary idea preserves against the melancholy that attends the first, whether it be the impossibility then of achieving communism – or the impossibility now of confronting the Carbon Liberation Front. The secondary idea does not dream backwards from the absolute time of a future horizon. It works outward, from a particular present situation, looking for lines out of cramped spaces.”

This could lead us down the path of an academic/applied distinction, but I don’t think that’s what Wark is trying to go after either. Rather, I think he is making a point about the process of philosophy and the kinds of philosophical processes that are necessary to confront the “Carbon Liberation Front” and the problem of the anthropocene. Here I would argue that molecular theory is theory that works – not in the sense that it is “functional” but in the sense that it is a theory that labors through and with various engagements with other fields of knowledge and practice. It is the “labor point of view” that Wark emphasizes – theory that is conscious of itself as the product of a kind of labor. By contrast, “high” theory – what he eventually refers to as “hypo-critical” theory – is theory that forgets or obscures its own labor through its abstractions. Either kind of theory could produce large-scale abstractions or small-scale pragmatics, but molecular theory is unique in that it is theory that works through engagements with other fields of knowledge and practice in a process of assemblage rather than attempting to legislate them from afar.

From there it could be argued whether Zizek and Badiou are deserving of Wark’s criticism. It could also still be argued that both molecular theory – theory that works – and molar theory – theory that obscures its work – are still necessary to the struggle against the Carbon Liberation Front. But I think this distinction has to be about more than just the scale of operations – it also has to include the labor processes by which the theories are produced. As an anthropologist, and one who deals directly with scientific practices, this kind of theory that works is much more useful, engaging, and interesting to me than a theory that operates only through abstraction and legislation. I’ve found much more to work with in Wark’s book and in the people he references (Haraway, Barad, Edwards, Robinson, etc.) than I have in other recent philosophical texts. I look forward to working through these concepts as I engage with modelers and write my dissertation.

Culture Revisited

There seems to be a kind of convergence in my online life around the concept of culture: a FaceBook conversation with Levi Bryant, a post and discussion on Neuroanthropology, which was reposted to Synthetic_Zero and has generated some discussion there as well. All this makes me think it’s time I revisit the concept. Long followers will know that I’ve posted about “culture” before as I’ve played with the idea and tried to explore its various limits and liminalities. I can’t say that I’ve solved any of the long standing problems that have plagued anthropologists for decades, if not the entirety of the field, but I have my thoughts, and thoughts are worth sharing.

First, a little background. What’s wrong with the concept of culture? Lots of things. Since the founding of the discipline, anthropologists have debated the definition of “culture.” In 1871, Edward Tylor gave us his famous “everything and the kitchen sink” definition: “Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” From there the concept proliferated, and, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckholn published a “critical review” of different conceptions of culture in which they listed 164 unique definitions of the term. This predates many of the more recent significant definitions – Marvin Harris’s cultural materialism, Levi-Strauss’s structural anthropology, Geertz’s webs of signification, Rappaport’s culture as ecology, and so on – so the field has only become more cluttered in the intervening years. This has led to empirical issues since the methodology and analytic methods one uses to examine culture depend largely on how it is defined. As a result, a lot of anthropology is incommensurable simply because different anthropologists have studied different things under the name of culture.

It’s possible to say that all of these different concepts of culture are right in some way and that culture is simply impossible to define. As a result, like so many visually impaired people inspecting an elephant, we can only grasp it impressionistically based on the particular definition we use at any given time. That might be okay for managing the methodological concerns, however, there’s an additional problem. The issue with “culture” is not just that it’s hard to define, it’s that those definitions have serious implications for the people we study. Culture, as it has been defined in the past, has made it possible to exoticize others, and has been used as a tool in the colonial expansion of the West to justify our occupation of their lands (see Lila Abu-Lughod’s “Writing Against Culture” and “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” – the latter demonstrates that these ways of thinking about culture are still in use today). Add to that the recent criticism of “black culture” (or “Islamic culture”) – which , admittedly, are not used by any anthropologists that I am aware of – and you can begin to see how problematic concepts of culture can be if not thought out.

With all of that in mind, what are my thoughts on culture? First, I’m not sure it’s necessary to define it entirely. That we have different conceptions of culture is not necessarily detrimental to anthropological practice – we’ve gone this long without having a universally accepted definition, so I’m sure we’ll be able to continue for a while. That’s a bit of a cop-out, though, even if it is what I really think. As I’ve shown above, definitions do matter – they have methodological and analytical implications, as well as political ones – so agnosticism isn’t really a viable solution.


I would argue that we get away from a lot of the problems mentioned above by avoiding concepts of culture as a thing – either form or content. Lende’s definition of culture as warped spaces gets dangerously close to this. I would also say that it’s better on the whole to avoid complex metaphors and analogies. Again, Lende’s analogy of culture with Einstein’s relativity offers a good example. The problem is that analogies and metaphors only go so far – our lives are not literally warped by culture – and so, for analytical purposes they can become troublesome (I can imagine some anthropologist of the future trying to measure the warping of life around culture). It’s possible that metaphors are good for trying to communicate the idea to a broader audience that doesn’t have a knowledge of the century-long debate around the concept. However, even in those cases, I think simple and direct definitions are better whenever possible so as to avoid further confusion as much as possible.*

My own preference, then, is to think of culture as a process – the process of interacting and engaging with others including non-humans, the process of building relationships. And for this, I think Anna Tsing’s definition of “friction” is a good starting point (and here I think it was unfair of Lende to relegate Tsing to the “Newtonian” camp simply because she uses a concept from Newtonian physics to name her approach): “…the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference.” It is through this process of interacting across difference that many of the things we define as “cultural” (art, artifacts, rituals, styles, values, norms, beliefs, etc.) are produced. Culture is therefore an act of production. As a result, we can’t talk about “a culture”, we can only talk about the processes of interaction and the kinds of things and relationships that the process produces.

I think this avoids many of the political problems associated with the concept because by definition, anyone who is commenting on a culture is part of the cultural process, and they too are implicated in any critique. When Bill O’Reilly decries “black culture” or the “culture of poverty” his actions can (must) be seen as part of the process the produces those effects, and, therefore, partially responsible for their persistence over time. Methodologically and analytically, it means we must focus on the interactive processes and their products. What exactly is produced through the process of modeling environmental systems? What kinds of artifacts, what kinds of relationships, what kinds of knowledge or values, etc.? I’m not sure this idea is any easier to convey to the broader public, but it isn’t so complex that most people couldn’t understand it with some assistance.

That’s my current take on the topic. I can’t say that I won’t change my mind in the future, and I’m not suggesting that all anthropologists should use this definition exclusively. I’m only suggesting that this is a useful way to think about culture for me in my practice. There’s a lot of room for other possible conceptions, and I think the most important thing is that we continually pay attention and continually work on building a better understanding of culture and the way social processes work.




*I think there is one way in which the relativity metaphor might be useful, but Lende doesn’t explore it much. That is the idea of relativity versus relativism, which Bruno Latour hints at in Reassembling the Social. Relativism says that we all exist in different, incommensurable worlds, and that, as a result, we cannot judge others based on our own standards. That’s the extreme form, at least, but all of the lesser forms depend on this assumption for their basis. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, on the other hand, suggests that we all come from different starting points, different points of observation. In order to converge, we have to understand those different starting points, and work out how bring our different observations together. I think something like this, rather than relativism, would be a useful framework for anthropology.

Communist Cybernetics


I’ve been getting a lot out reading Molecular Red by Mckenzie Wark – I think it’s one of the most useful books I’ve read for my dissertation research (alongside Friction, and A Vast Machine). It’s a good read, but because I’m in the midst of research, teaching, and other work, I’m only plugging away at it slowly. If you’re interested or curious about the book, you can download the “Molecular Red Reader” for free. It has several newly translated essays by Bogdanov and Platonov as well as a few essays by Wark himself and an interview with Kim Stanley Robinson the author of the Mars Trilogy. I’m not far enough along, and I don’t have time right now to post a full review or summary of the book. Instead I’ll just offer a quote that, to me, captures some of the value of the book.

“Tektology as organized labor experiments with the poetic substitution of universal ingression, to propose social and technical forms, from among which history will select. This was the program intended for the Proletkult labs, and it might not be a bad one for twenty-first-century design practice either. It begins with a kind of détournement of existing forms, then experiments with their application in other domains, before testing out prototypes in situations where users select the most useful and discard the least useful

The main question for Bogdanov is: how to build a program of knowledge oriented not only to survival but to growth in organizational capacities in relation to an environment. Particularly problematic here is that one can’t always know in advance where the environment is going to make itself felt. ‘The total stability of a system in relation to its environment is evidently a complex result of the partial stabilities of its various parts in relation to those influences which are directed against them'” (p. 51)

What Wark is describing for Bogdanov is a kind of communist cybernetics. This question of organization is what I’m trying to explore in my research on modeling. I am interested in the ways that constructing models is not simply a way of understanding environmental or other complex systems, but also a way of organizing relationships among people, and also between human and non-human systems. My hope is that my research will encourage modelers and other natural scientists to experiment with different ways of conducting research to not only improve the way we understand the world, but also to change the way we relate to it.

Playing Games with Anthropology


For the past week in the Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course that I’m teaching, I had my students play a game that I designed in order to explore some of the implications of global decision-making processes and the relations between different groups with different resource and values (you can download the rules for my game here). I think simulation games of this kind are good ways to examine complex issues in an experiential way. Rather than simply talking about colonization, militarization, environmental problems, health problems and so on, students can grapple with the limitations and implications of these issues directly in a simulated, safe environment.

My game is not perfect even though I spend a lot of time thinking through the various scenarios and the relationships between different variables. There are things that I simply could not represent very well like the internal dynamics of a particular nation. Sometimes the game was too complex for students to grasp in a handful of sessions – I had to explain rules repeatedly, and I think the reasoning behind some of the rules and limitations might have gotten lost on the students. Regardless, there were some interesting results, and the students had interesting comments in our discussion at the end. I asked them to write a one-page reflection on the game as well, because I think it’s important not only to play the game but to reflect on the experience and its limitations. I’ll report what they say when the reflections are handed in.

There is nothing new about the idea of using simulation games to teach about complex issues. Other examples include Michael Wesch’s World Simulation, Buckminster Fuller’s World Game, and the University of Virginia’s Bay Game. And there’s nothing specifically innovative about my game or the way I implemented it in this class. But I am interested in other approaches to gaming in the class room. Does anyone else have their students play simulation games? Do you use existing games or do you create your own? What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of simulation games from a pedagogical standpoint? What have your experiences with simulation games been? What lessons have you learned from the experience?

The Honest Delusional


I think the worst kind of person – that is, the most rigid, unchanging, and unwilling to actually engage with otherness in any meaningful way – is the person who says “we are all delusional, but at least I am honest about my delusion.” This is the person who goes around “calling out” others on their delusion simply for the sake of doing so, and then sits back confident in their “honesty” that they have made a meaningful difference. But all of that difference is externalized – their own delusion of delusion remains intact because it’s protected by the deluded guise of “honest” delusion.

The fact is, nothing will get you or anyone else out of their delusion. Nothing. There is no way to finally, once and for all, escape from your biases, your blinders, your limitations. If you think you’ve escaped from your delusions, then you are deluded. If you think being “honest” about your delusions gives you any authority or reason to “call out” others on their delusions, then you’re still deluded.

So what are all of us deluded people supposed to do? Understand that we’re deluded – that’s a start. But that’s not enough, stopping there is just a recipe for becoming an “honest” delusional who’s delusions are never put at risk. So then we have to meaningfully engage with others – those who share our delusions and those who do not. When I say meaningfully, I mean in a way that our delusions are put at risk, where they could change. Real engagement can never be safe.

The purpose of these engagements is not to “call out” others on their delusions, but to work with one another to figure out how to live together in spite of those delusions, or, in some cases, because of them. Merely pointing out that someone else is deluded – even if you recognize your own delusion – doesn’t put your own delusion at risk, and, as a result, it doesn’t do anything to help figure out a way to live together.

The thing is, sometimes “working with” doesn’t look like “working with.” Sometimes it looks like antagonism, or defending delusions. And this is especially true when one or more of the delusions involved is/are not being put at risk. Protected by discursive and in some cases physical barriers, these delusions are safe – the only way to break through the barriers is to assault delusion with delusion. Simply saying “we’re all deluded” doesn’t put any particular delusion at risk it simply puts them all equally at risk without addressing the discursive and physical barriers that protect one from the other. In other words, it puts us back where we started, while also seeming to place the “honest” delusional above the fray and therefore not at risk.

It’s not the fact that we are deluded that is the problem – that’s simply our inevitable lot. The problem is that some delusions are less at risk than others. The solution, then, is not to be “honest” and above the fray – that’s simply another way for the delusional to find solace in his delusion – but to be attentive to these inequalities and find ways to deconstruct the discursive and physical barriers that inhibit our ability to work with one another despite our delusions. It’s not an easy task, and is also vulnerable to delusion, but maybe, little-by-little, we will find ways to live together. If not, at least it’s an interesting ride.

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