Garbage as a Geological Force

Speaking of producing worlds… From massive gyres of plastic in our oceans to a mountain of garbage outside of Los Angeles (the largest man made structure in California), our garbage has become a geological force.  Americans produce more trash per person than any Western country with a similar standard of living – 7lbs/person/day.  In some cases, structures are built on top of these garbage-geological features.  When we throw anything away, we contribute to these structures – producing a world as we consume another.

The Ontological Turn

I situate myself squarely within what has been characterized by some as an ontological turn in anthropology (though, it’s difficult to say if it deserves the moniker “turn” since few have actually taken it up as of yet).  For the past few decades, anthropologists (and philosophers and sociologists, and others) have concerned themselves primarily with the question of how do we know the things around us?  An epistemological question.  Can we truly know these things (objects, animals, other people, ideas, cultures, societies, etc.)?  Can we know them fully?  Is our knowledge about them real or is it an artefact of social processes such as discourse or ideology?  For me, these questions are not that important – we know things by the way they alter and affect us.  Only partially, it’s true, and in relation to our particular situatedness, but our knowledge of them is not reducible to social construction in the sense that many post-modern thinkers would argue.  Rather our knowledge is constructed by a complex interaction between our own (heterogeneous) beings and the (heterogeneous) being of the things (objects, people, plants, animals, ideas, etc.) we encounter (contact).

And here is where we turn.  For knowledge in this sense, is only one case among many of what is constructed.  Knowledge is constructed, but so too are we, and so too are those things we attempt to know.  The ontological turn takes the idea of constructivism not to its logical conclusion, but to its radical extreme.  Beings are constructed just as much as knowledge is constructed (in fact, I think of knowledge as a being itself in many ways).  It’s a radical anti-essentialism that rejects any kind of transcendent cause (though it would recognize the possibility, I think, of an immanent god, or soul).  The problem with positivism is that it rejects God as a transcendent being, but it fails to do away with transcendent essences that underlie all being.  The problem with post-modernism as characterized above (and it’s unfair, because post-modernism is a term that is applied to a lot of different people and ideas) is that it fails to engage any ontological commitments, preferring to remain safe within the epistemological sphere.  Ontological constructivism (as I’ve sometimes called it to differentiate it from social constructivism) rectifies these problems by proposing that all being is constructed – not simply knowledge of being – but constructed heterogeneously by many different kinds of beings (not just humans engaged in social discourse).  Levi Bryant’s onticology is just just the kind of constructivism that I’m talking about.

What does this mean for anthropology?  I’m working on a paper in which I discuss these issues, but I’ll briefly explain some of what I’ve been thinking.  It means that anthropology becomes a practice, not merely of understanding others, but of constructing a world of relations with others.  Understanding – knowledge – is one kind of relation that we may construct, but there are many other kinds  of relations as well – social relations, ecological relations, idea relations, etc.  Explicitly, we cannot help but construct these relationships – knowledge and beyond – so we ought to be thinking about the kinds of relationships we’re constructing and, as a result, the kind of world we are bringing into being.  It forces us to think, then, of what kind of world we can work to construct.

This is the kind of anthropology I wish to bring into existence – one that behaves as if the world is not given, that recognizes the presence and active participation of all kinds of beings, and that is reflexive with respect to the kinds of relations and worlds it brings into existence.  I don’t know if anyone else is with me (though I suspect there are many), but it’s where I come from, and hopefully where we’re headed.

Lewontin’s Anti-Essentialism

The environment of an organism is a juxtaposition of bits and pieces of that physical and external biological world, which juxtapostion is created by the sensuous life activities of the organism.”

Here’s a very interesting video shared with me by Adam Robbert.  Here Lewontin, a renowned evolutionary biologist, describes an anti-essentialist biology.  His argument is basically that the development of an organism is a complex process of which DNA is only one part – a central, but actually fairly minor part.  As I would say, organisms are the product (always in process) of a lot of work done by a lot of different kinds of beings both internally and externally.  In fact, the notion put forward here complicates the internal/external division – especially given the fact that there are a great deal of organisms “inside” of my body that are not me (i.e. viruses – both harmful and non-harmful, bacteria such as those in my gut that help to digest my food, etc.).  What that means is that there is no essence of me – there is no thing that one can grasp that defines who or what I am.  It is only through the work of these entities – both me and not-me – that I can be said to exist, and when they stop working, then I will cease to be.  I would extend this idea to all of existence; to rocks and streams as much as to living organisms, but also to social organizations.  All of these things exist to the extent that some work is done to compose them, and all of these things are capable of doing work to compose both themselves and other things.

Latour: From Critique to Composition

“The more you add things the more you also have a chance to find an interesting compromise – and here compromise means etymologically “promise together” – is there a way to promise together that is there a common world which is composible … which is completely different from having a common world as a background, known by matters of fact, on which you add the politics…”

Found on Knowledge Ecology – reblogged from ANTHEM.  More recent Latour videos available there!


The concept of self-organization has become a buzzword and a driving principle in the social and natural sciences as well as in management and politics.  It’s been put to good use in all of these areas (i.e. look to Levi Bryant’s onticology) – I’ve even waxed romatic about it.  I’m concerned, though, about an uncritical conception of self-organization.  The general problem is that the concept bears very little empirical background (what makes something self-organized, especially in systems that are so heterogeneous, it’s difficult to be sure if they are, if fact, systems), and therefore is used more as a normative assumptions with various (contradictory) meanings.

There are two dangers that I can see.  One is that self-organization in some of its uses sounds very much like the “invisible hand” concept in Capitalist theory.  The risk, then, is that self-organization will translate to many as “free market” and a general antipathy to social programs or any kind of government involvement.  See, for example, the Adam Curtis documentary “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” for a detailed explication of this critique.

The second is that self-organization seems to suggest that things just happen, almost as if by magic.  What makes a video go viral?  It just happens, right?  And in this I worry that people may begin to depend on the idea of self-organization, and not put sufficient work into making something happen.  The problem then is that whatever it is won’t take off in the manner that people expect, and this creates a kind of apathy or resentment – “Why didn’t my project self-organize?  Why didn’t it go viral?”

What I want is a concept of self-organization that reflects the work that goes into the process. Nothing simply self organizes – organization is the result of lots of work done by lots of different kinds of beings – both internally and externally.  Videos go viral because people work to make them viral – even if by simply clicking a “like” button or re-sharing it, these little bits of work, replicated over and over by many different people spread through by electrical impulses across networks add up to a lot (someone needs to to a calorie expenditure assessment of viral videos – how many calories are expended for a video to go global?).  This is true even biologically – my body doesn’t simply exist, it is the result of work done by the cells and organs that compose it as well as work done by outside agents (air, food, water, my surroundings – what we somewhat simplistically refer to as the environment – those others that alter and affect me).  Through this theory of self-organization as work, we can see that, in order to make a difference, we have to do some work.  Furthermore, we see that self-organization is not an end in itself – something with its own implicit normative value – but a process that we can engage in to create many different types of world and organization.  The normative implication, then, is in what kind of world we want to create using the tools and concepts of self-organization.  Then we must work to make that world come into being.

Contacting Delany

This evening I went to the DC Queer Studies Symposium to hear a keynote from Samuel R. Delany. Delany is the author of many science fiction novels including Dhalgren, and Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand. He has also written memoirs, essays, and non-fiction books exploring themes of sexuality, race, and urban landscapes. Tonight he read from his new novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, followed by a Q&A session. I was first made aware of Delany through Adrian Ivakhiv’s writings – I’ve not had a chance to read any of his long works, but I’ve read snippets of Times Square Red, Times Square Blue and Dhalgren. It was interesting to see him in person and hear him talk – he was very different from what I had pictured in my mind. There were a few things he said that I found really interesting; first, he said that his overarching project for the past 40 years has been to craft a concept of Discourse that is sensitive to the complexities of life – building off of Foucault’s notion of Discourse, but seeking something more subtle and nuanced, and second, he said that the most important political project of our time is the mistreatment of women – it’s something we have to fix or we’re not going to survive (he also mentioned that the mistreatment and marginalization of queers is a subset of this mistreatment of women).
Here’s a quote from “… Three, Two, One, Contact: Times Square Red”:

The primary thesis underlying my several arguments here is that, given the mode of capitalism under which we live, life is at its most rewarding, productive, and pleasant when large numbers of people understand, appreciate, and seek out interclass contact and communication conducted in a mode of good will.
My secondary thesis is, however, that the class war raging constantly and often silently in the comparatively stabilized societies of the developed world, though it is at times as hard to detect as Freud’s unconscious or the structure of discourse, perpetually works for the erosion of the social practices through which interclass communication takes place and of the institutions holding those practices stable, so that new institutions must always be conceived and set in place to take over the jobs of those that are battered again and again till they are destroyed.
My tertiary thesis, to which now and again we shall return, is that, while the establishment and utilization of those institutions always involve specific social practices, the effects of my primary and secondary theses are regularly perceived at the level of discourse.
Therefore, it is only by a constant renovation of the concept of discourse that society can maintain the most conscientious and informed field for both the establishment of such institutions and practices and, by extension, the necessary critique of those institutions and practices—a critique necessary if new institutions of any efficacy are to develop. At this level, in its largely stabilizing/destabilizing role, super-structure (and superstructure at its most oppositional) can impinge on infrastructure.

Defining Political Ecology

This is the best definition of political ecology I’ve encountered.  From Isabelle Stengers:

To have made political questions proliferate by tearing them away from the fields of expertise in which they were confined is the major contribution of political ecology.  Endangered species, climate change, pollution, the sharing of water resources, the energy crisis, desertification, all of this is starting to enter into politics.  Whatever the future, the struggle for these themes to remain political, for them not to be confiscated by supra-political agencies that would act in the name of a so-called consensual rationality and would become the true masters of the Earth and its inhabitants, is for us, primordial.


An extended quote from Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ) by Hakim Bey that reminds me very much of Isabelle Stengers:

The universe wants to play.  Those who refuse out of dry spiritual greed & choose pure contemplation forfeit their humanity – those who refuse out of dull anguish, those who hesitate, lose their chance at divinity – those who mold themselves blind masks of Ideas & thrash around seeking some proof of their own solidity end by seeing out of dead men’s eyes.

Sorcery: the systematic cultivation of enhanced consciousness or non-ordinary awareness & its deployment in the world of deeds & objects to bring about desired results.

The incremental openings of perception gradually banish the false selves, our cacophonous ghosts – the “black magic” of envy & vendetta backfires because Desire cannot be forced.  Where our knowledge of beauty harmonizes with the ludus naturae, sorcery begins.

No, not spoon-bending or horoscopy, not the Golden Dawn or make-believe shamanism, astral projection or the Satanic Mass – if it’s mumbo jumbo you want go for the real stuff, banking, politics, social science – not that weak blavatskian crap.

Sorcery works at creating around itself a psychic/physical space or openings into a space of untrammeled expression – The metamorphosis of quotidian place into angelic sphere.  This involves the manipulation of symbols (which are also things) & of people (who are also symbolic) – the archetypes supply a vocabulary for this process & therefore are treated as if they were both real & unreal, like words.  Imaginal Yoga.

The Sorcerer is a Simple Realist: the world is real – but then so must consciousness be real since its effects are so tangible.  The dullard finds even wine tasteless but the sorcerer can be intoxicated by the mere sight of water.  Quality of perception defines the world of intoxication – but to sustain it & expand it to include others demands activity of a certain kind – sorcery.

Sorcery breaks no law of nature because there is no Natural Law, only the spontaneity of natura naturans, the tao.  Sorcery violates laws which seek to chain this flow – priests, kings, hierophants, mystics, scientists & shopkeepers all brand the sorcerer enemy for threatening the power of their charade, the tensile strength of their illusory web.

A poem can act as a spell & vice versa – but sorcery refuses to be a metaphor for mere literature – it insists that symbols must cause events as well as private epiphanies.  It is not a critique but a re-making.  It rejects all eschatology & metaphysics of removal, all bleary nostalgia & strident futurismo, in favor of paroxysm or seizure of presence.

Incense & crystal, dagger & sword, wand, robes, rum, cigars, candles, herbs like dried dreams – the virgin boy staring into a bowl of ink – wine & ganja, meat, yantras & gestures – rituals of pleasure, the garden of houris & sakis – the sorcerer climbs these snakes & ladders to a moment which is fully saturated with its own color, where mountains are mountains & trees are trees, where the body becomes all time, the beloved all space.

The tactics of ontological anarchism are rooted in this secret Art – the goals of ontological anarchism appear in its flowering.  Chaos hexes its enemies & rewards its devotees … this strange yellowing pamphlet, pseudonymous & dust-stained, reveals all…. send away for one split second of eternity.

“Working for a Living”

In the context of a capitalist mode of life – equating earning a wage in order to consume with “living” – the phrase has always pissed me off.  But when existence is understood to be, of necessity, a productive process (as I’ve suggested in my last two posts), it takes on quite a different meaning.  “Working” is what beings do in order to create and maintain themselves and their surroundings.  In that sense, we never stop working, cannot help but work, and all work is in some sense a productive process.  “Living” is the practice of crafting a world that enables my and (one would hope, at least) others’ continued existence.  But it’s no mere tautology – “working for a living” entails a conscious engagement with other entities in order to create world that is livable.  When we recognize that all entities work for a living, the process becomes a co-construction, a “becoming with” that’s never reducible to the will or intentions of a single entity.

What I Want to Convey…

… through my research, my writing, my presentations, and my other practices – not as a message, but as an experience, a lived reality – is that those things we think of as natural, and those we think of as cultural are the products of a process of production by both human and non-human forces.  A bridge and a mountain – neither of these are simple objects that exist unto themselves, they are both the result of a complex combination of human and non-human practices.  The iron for the bridge and the rocks on the mountain were forged by the intense pressure and heat of the earth.  The wood on the bridge was produced by the trees that populate the mountain.  And both have been molded and shaped by human hands to varying degrees.  This is the meaning – to my mind – of the Deleuze quote I posted yesterday.  When we experience the world in this way, we can begin to understand – not that everything is part of Nature (this reified container, this objective force that dictates how we ought to live), but that we are engaged in this process of world building, a process of co-construction, of building with all of these other entities.  Then the question is not how an a priori Nature tells us we should act, but how we can work together with these other entities to build a world that is habitable by all.