Mac Users…

… I realized yesterday that you might not have been seeing my new blog layout properly.  Hopefully I’ve fixed it now.  It should be three columns: title, logo, quote, and menu to the left; posts in the middle; and widgets to the right.  Let me know what you think, and definitely let me know if that’s not what you see!  Thanks!

Power and Revolution

As the KSR quote to the left suggests, and as I’ve argued here, the concept of Struggle Forever! is that the fight to create a just and sustainable world (whatever that means) is never ending.  The world is continually and constantly changing, and so too will the meaning of justice and sustainability.  Furthermore, there will always be people trying to amass as much control as they can – trying desperately to make the world fit into their own myopic vision – and in the process causing great suffering and injustice to others.  The goal of Struggle Forever! is to recognize these challenges, and to continue struggling to make the world better for everyone no matter what victories or defeats we may suffer.  Past revolutions failed not because they didn’t create a perfect society in the moment of victory, but because they stopped and the world didn’t stop with them.  This opens the question, what does continual and constant revolution look like?  I would argue that it looks very different from revolutions of the past (and present), but that’s an argument for a different post – for now I merely suggest the possibility and let you muse on it for a while.

This brings me to the question of power.  For those of you who know me, and those who have followed this blog for a long time, I’ve been obsessed with finding a working definition of power.  One of my major concerns about critical literature is that it fails to define what power is, and how it’s produced and maintained, and therefore it makes it into a nebulous concept that we can do little to actually mobilize against.  I understand there are reasons for this – defining power may constitute an act of power itself, and in so doing marginalize certain groups and individuals for whom power is constituted differently.  However, without some kind of definition of power, we become helpless to identify it and act against.  It becomes a way of explaining without itself being explained – a mode of critique with no possible solution.  For this reason, I’ve often been critical of critical literature that simply reduces any activity or injustice to a vague issue of power.

This is why I’ve striven to talk about power in other ways, for example, as the differential distribution of vulnerability (a similarly vague notion, but easier to grasp, I think – see my Imponderabilia essay).  Thinking about the concept of Struggle Forever!, I can see another way to reconceptualize power in a way that allows us to start thinking about ways to address it.  If the struggle must continue, then power, at least in some sense, is the ability of an individual or group (due to their position in a particular material-semiotic assemblage) to close off the struggle before it has ended (which is never).  In other words, it is the ability to make sure that people can’t or won’t continue to fight despite injustice, suffering, or harm.  It could be done by exertion of force, or by affective manipulation, but however it’s accomplished, it closes the door to resistance (and thus makes those in power less vulnerable – less open to being altered and affected by others).  Of course, the door is never fully closed – there are always cracks through which resistance may seep, and people never truly stop resisting even when faced with an iron cage – this is why no power is ever truly totalizing.

So what can be done?  There will always be positions of power in this sense – positions in which a few people are given the ability to shut down struggle before it ends.  For those who occupy these positions (who would hopefully have an interest in being just and not causing harm), the ethical approach would be to avoid arbitrarily closing down the struggle before it’s ended – before everyone has had a say and an agreement has been forged.  I don’t think this means that those in power need to avoid arguing their own case – they are “stakeholders” in many of these struggles, after all, and deserve some say.  It simply means that one’s own opinion shouldn’t be held to any greater value than that of anyone else’s – that all opinions are open to being altered and affected equally (that they are equally vulnerable).  For those who are not in positions of power, it means throwing yourself against the door to prevent it from being closed, and, if it is closed prematurely, battering at it until the door is either opened again or knocked down.  Finally, and in the long run, it means creating systemic mechanisms that prevent these doors from being closed prematurely – a door stop that holds the door open even though the person who holds it may try.

For an excellent and timely example of (the abuse of) power, see this article on the recent Supreme Court decision on whether or not unions can charge non-union employees fees for certain activities.  Whether or not you agree with the union position, it seems like the supreme court overstepped its limits by ruling on an aspect of the case that was not argued in the hearing.  Thus, the supreme court has closed this door, making a number of state laws unconstitutional, without hearing the relative merits of the issue at hand.

New Site Design

After reading Jason Antrosio’s post on Pinterest, I was struck by his comment that few anthropology blogs have a consistent image that can be associated with them (i.e. a brand), so I decided to go ahead and create a logo for my site.  For EI, I used to use the image of the world at night – with all of the city lights, but I want this blog to be a bit of a break from that (plus I stole that image from somewhere several years ago, and I have no idea who to credit to, or if it’s unlicensed).  I’ve had the idea for the recycling fist logo in mind since I first started Struggle Forever! – it’s meant to convey, of course, the continual and continuous struggle that is Utopia as KSR points out in the quote on the sidebar.  However, my artistic and computer graphics skills leave much to be desired, so I put off actually making it.  It turned out to be a lot easier than I had thought, and I think it turned out relatively well even if it’s not quite what I had in my imagination.

Then I put the image on my blog, and I realized that my blog layout was very cluttered.  I tend to prefer minimalist designs, so I wanted to get rid of the clutter and make the site easy to navigate and attractive to the eye.  This ultimately meant changing the blog theme – a dangerous prospect since it always entails hours of arranging and rearranging, sometimes coding, etc. to make it look the way I want it to.  This turned out to be relatively easy as well, though.  When I initially created Struggle Forever!, I spent several days working on it until my eyes were sore and I had a constant headache.  This change took all morning and a little in the afternoon, but it came out nice, I think.

I’m looking for feedback, of course.  What do you think of the logo?  Is there anything I can do to improve it?  What do you think of the site design?  Does everything work as it should?  Does it look better than the previous design?  Do you have any suggestions for making it better?  I’ll do what I can – I am limited by my graphic design and coding skills.  Worst case scenario is that I go back to the old site design until I can work out any issues.


Recently there has has been a lot of talk about non-anthropocentrism, and what that would mean for ethics, politics, and philosophy in general.  I think some of the difficulty in agreement comes from the fact that different people have different conceptions of anthropocentrism and therefore different thresholds for what constitutes non-anthropocentrism.  I remember thinking a lot about this during a course I took in the Fall of 2010.  It was a class in environmental ethics, so we discussed anthropocentrism a lot.  What became clear to me through our readings and in our discussions was that my definition of anthropocentrism was markedly different from the conceptions put forward by the authors and my classmates.  The difference made my threshold for accepting a given approach or philosophy as non-anthropocentric somewhat higher than others.  Let me break down a couple of the different approaches to anthropocentrism that I’ve noticed and explain how they affect our reactions to different philosophies.

1) Boundary anthropocentrism – This is, as far as I can tell, the most common approach to anthropocentrism.  It argues that anthropocentric philosophies arbitrarily circumscribe ethical consideration to humans.  Thus an arbitrary boundary is created which limits the ethical consideration that can be given to non-humans.  The solution to this – the way to create a non-anthropocentric approach – is to extend the boundary to encompass non-humans, or at least certain classes of non-humans (i.e. animals).  To take a simple example we can look at the discourse on animal rights.  Early rights theorists limited the ascription of rights to humans – animals simply were not considered to possess inalienable rights, but were treated as utilitarian objects for human consumption.  Animal rights discourse takes the same ethical basis – rights – but extends the boundary of consideration beyond the human such that animals would be thought to have intrinsic value and inalienable rights just as humans do.  The same approach has been used to extend certain rights to ecosystems and other non-human organisms and assemblages.  But it doesn’t have to be rights specifically – it could be any form of ethical argument that’s used for humans (utilitarian, deontological, etc.) that is then extended to non-humans.  Thus, for this type of non-anthropocentric philosopher, the extension of human values to non-human beings is sufficient to create a non-anthropocentric ethics.

2) Agential anthropocentrism – This approach to anthropocentrism is somewhat more stringent than boundary anthropocentrism.  In this approach anthropocentrism is the failure to recognize the active participation of non-humans in the co-construction of relationships.  It’s possible for a philosophy to be non-anthropocentric from a boundary perspective, but still be anthropocentric from an agential perspective.  For example, in a rights based framework, it’s possible to extend rights to animals, but to see them as essentially unable to speak, act, or participate in a relationship themselves.  Thus the extension of rights to animals is a fundamentally human act – that we humans value them, and therefore we ought to give them some ethical consideration.  Instead agential anthropocentrism would recognize that animals, plants, even rocks in some sense contribute to the relationships that we compose with them.  These relationships are often unbalanced simply because we fail to recognize them as active participants and instead treat them as mere matter to be manipulated to our will.  However, it argues that simply extending human values to non-humans is insufficient to overcome that imbalance.  We must instead understand how humans and non-humans relate to one another, how they alter and affect one another, and how they both actively compose those relationships.  Only then can we hope to overcome our anthropocentrism.  This also corresponds to some forms of anti-correlationism, I think, and is the approach I tend to take towards anthropocentrism.

3) Perspectival anthropocentrism – This, I think, is the approach Levi Bryant is advocating, and is even more stringent from what I can tell.  For this approach, anthropocentrism is defined as the inability to see and understand from a non-human perspective how the world is shaped and how they relate to one another.  To use the example Levi was toying with a few weeks back, it’s not enough to extend ethical consideration to a shark, nor is it enough to recognize the shark as an active participant in the co-construction of relationships.  Instead, we must understand the shark’s ethics in order to be non-anthropocentric.  A truly non-anthropocentric ethics would be able to describe the ways in which sharks, worms, jellyfish, bats, iguanas, plants, and maybe even computers, rocks, books, and houses see the world and interact with it ethically.  Such a task is likely to be impossible, and Levi recognizes this, so we content our selves with boundary or agential non-anthropocentrisms, but these will always fall short of the true non-anthropocentric ethics that we need.

I think the differences between these approaches to anthropocentrism make communication between philosophers who follow them difficult to manage.  Often the definition of anthropocentrism, and thus the threshold for non-anthropocentrism, is taken for granted in these debates.  What ends up happening is an argument over how to achieve non-anthropocentrism, when what really needs to take place is a discussion about what exactly we mean when we talk about anthropocentrism and non-anthropocentrism.  I’m not in a position to advocate any of these (though I tend towards the agential approach in practice), but only wanted to point out a discrepancy I’ve seen in these discussions.  Hopefully it makes for better discussion in the long run.

Note: All of this also applies to the concept of ethnocentrism as well, which I take to be a subtype of the broader category of anthropocentrism.  Also, these names (boundary, agential, and perspectival) are not ideal – they’re the best I could come up with in my morning haze.  If anyone wants to suggest better terms, I would wholeheartedly approve. 🙂

Kim Stanley Robinson, Science, and Politics

The following is an extended quote (I apologize for the length, but I couldn’t see cutting it down any further) from Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson.  It’s probably unfair to characterize this as Robinson’s vision of politics as it is actually the vision of one of the characters in the book – Sax Russel.  One of the things I like most about Robinson’s writing is that each character has a very developed personality and approach to the world; Michel’s alchemy, Maya’s anger, Frank’s subtle manipulation, and Boone’s cosmopolitanism.  These are all depicted equally and rational in their own peculiar ways.  Sax is probably one of the most interesting characters.  A rigid scientist who is nonetheless very pragmatic in his understanding of social organization and politics.  He approaches these issues the same way he would approach a scientific or technical challenge – by thinking it through carefully, deliberately, and in an experimental fashion.  He recognizes that he cannot control everything, but offers hints, suggestions, and nudges here and there to move things, ever so slightly, in a desired direction.  Below are his musings on the political organization worked out in Da Vinci – a cooperative of scientists working on terraforming Mars.  I thought it was interesting, and I hope you will too.

As Sax wandered on, half listening to the conversations he passed, he was struck again by the apolitical nature of most scientists and technicians.  There was something about politics they were allergic to, and he felt it as well, he had to admit.  Politics was irreducibly subjective and compromised, a process that went entirely against the grain of the scientific method.  Was that true? These feelings and prejudices were subjective themselves.  One could try to regard politics as a kind of science – a long series of experiments in communal living, say, with all the data consistently contaminated.  Thus people hypothesized a system of governance, lived under it, examined how they felt about it, then changed the system and tried again.  Certain constants or principles seemed to have emerged over the centuries, as they ran through their experiments and paradigms, trying successively closer approximations of systems that promoted qualities like physical welfare, individual freedom, equality, stewardship of the land, guided markets, rule of law, compassion to all.  After repeated experiments it had become clear – on Mars at least – that all these sometimes contradictory goals could be best achieved in polyarchy, a complex system in which power was distrubuted out to a great humber of institutions.  In theory this network of distributed power, partly centralized and partly decentralized, created the greatest amount of individual freedom and collective good, by maximizing the amount of control that an individual had over his or her life.

Thus political science.  And fine, in theory.  But it followed that if they believed in the theory, people then had to devote a fair amount of time to the exercise of their power.  That was self-government, by tautology; the self governed.  And that took time.  “Those who value freedom must make the effort necessary to defend it,” as Tom Paine had said, a fact which Sax knew because Bela had gotten into the bad habit of putting up signs in the halls with such inspirational sentiments printed on them.  “Science is Politics by other means,” another of his signs had anounced, rather cryptically.

But in Da Vinci most people did not want to spend their time that way.  “Socialism will never succeed,” Oscar Wilde had remarked (in handwriting on yet another sign), “it takes up too many evenings.”  So it did; and the solution was to make your friends take up their evenings for you.  Thus the lottery method of election, a calculated risk, for one might get stuck with the job oneself someday.  But usually the risk paid off.  Which accounted for the gaiety of this annual party; people were pouring in and out of the French doors of the commons, onto the open terraces overlooking the crater lake, talking with great animation.  Even the drafted ones were beginning to cheerup again, after the solace of kavajava and alcohol, and perhaps the thought that power after all was power; it was an imposition, but the draftees could do some little things that no doubt were occuring to them even now – make trouble for rivals, do favors for people they wanted to impress, etc.  So once again the system had worked; they had warm bodies filling the whole polyarchic array, the neighborhood boards, the water board, the architectural review board, the project review council, the economic coordination group, the crater council to coordinate all these smaller bodies, the global delegates’ advisory board – all that network of small management bodies that progressive political theorists had been suggesting in one variation or another for centures, incorporating aspects of the almost-forgotten guild socialism of Great Britain, Yugoslavian worker management, Mondragon owndershp, Kerala land tenure, and so on.  An experiment in synthesis.  And so far it seemed to be working, in the sense that the Da Vinci techs seemed about as self-determined and happy as they had been during the ad hoc underground years, when everything had been done (appartently) by instict, or, to be more precise, by general consensus of the (much smaller) population in Da Vinci at the time

So running Da Vinci was a successful experiment, despite the fact that the citizens showed no interest in it.  If they had they might have been less happy.  Maybe ignoring government was a good strategy.  Maybe the definition of good government was the government you could safely ignore, “to finally get back to my own work!” as one happily buzzed ex-water-board chief was just now saying.  Self-government not being considered part of one’s own work!” (p. 433-535)

The Work of Ethnography

In the recent edition of Imponderabilia (in which I have an article, but that’s not what we’re talking about here), Alisa Maximova from the National State University in Russia has a nice little piece about “Understanding Ethnographic Work: Through Fieldnotes and Diaries.”  In it she draws upon the sociology of science – specifically Kerin Knorr-Cetina, who I’m not familiar with – to better understand the practices of ethnographers and the role of fieldnotes and diaries in the construction of ethnographic knowledge.  It’s a really interesting essay – something I’ve contemplated myself in recent years.  I have no critiques of it, but only a few things to add that make the full breadth of the work of ethnographers more apparent.

Knorr-Cetina’s research seems to focus on the (human) practice of writing and composing a text – in this case a scientific paper.  If we are to use science and technology studies as a means of understanding anthropological practice, I would advocate looking to the work of other STS researchers like Latour, Callon, Haraway, Stengers, and Law (who has done a great deal himself on the work of social science research) in addition to Knorr-Cetina and others who focus on the production of texts.  While the production of texts is an important and essential part of the practice of science, it is not all that scientists do, and these other researchers attend to the full breadth of scientific practice.  What this means is that they attend to the ways that scientists compose not just texts, but also relations with others – including non-humans.  Thus it is the practices of humans and non-humans that composes the knowledge of science and not simply the rhetorical practices of humans composing texts.  This is an important insight because it allows us to judge the differences between knowledge claims.  Instead of asking whether the knowledge claim was well or poorly argued (by means of textual composition) we can ask whether the knowledge was well or poorly composed (by means of the relationships composed by the practices of the scientists).  What’s more, we recognize the agency of those beings studied by scientists, whereas a focus exclusively on textual (re)production acknowledges only the agency of the humans composing the texts.

I would extend this to the work (practice) of ethnography itself.  It’s true that ethnographers spend a great deal of time producing texts – diaries, fieldnotes, jottings, research papers, correspondences, etc. – but that’s not all we do when we are in the field.  Indeed, the term “fieldwork” encompasses a broad range of activities that could be characterized as relationship building.  We spend time with the people we study, we build rapport, we participant-observe, we offer advice, goods, and services, and in many cases these days we actually work with these people to compose knowledge in the form of texts.  Only by looking at the full range of work that constitutes fieldwork can we understand the practice of anthropology.  For one, we must recognize the participation of these other human beings in the production of ethnographic knowledge – it is not merely the rhetorical production of texts, but an engagement with others that alters and affects us in a variety of ways.  To claim otherwise is to deny their agency.  Furthermore, we must be attentive to the role of non-humans in the production of ethnographic knowledge.  Certainly, they tend not to be the focus of our texts, but they often play an important role and carry an agency of their own which we deny by a focus only on the rhetorical strategies of ethnographers.  Finally, it becomes possible to see that ethnographers are not simply constructing knowledge about a pre-existing world.  Rather, through our work we construct the world itself.  A focus on knowledge production alone allows us to ignore other aspects of ethnographic work that are often more profoundly world changing than the production of texts.  The question then becomes, what kind of world do we create through the practice of ethnography – through our interviews, our participant-observation, our rapport building, our gifting, etc.?  How do we alter and affect that which we study, and how can we be more attentive to the realities that we construct?

I believe this is very fertile ground for consideration.  It’s not a theory to be validated – a “theory of” – but one which, hopefully, informs our work and leads us to better practices – a “theory for.”  The researchers mentioned above are at the forefront of this approach, and there are many more out there who have been thinking in much the same way.  It is one of my central concerns as an anthropologist – a better way of think about the work of anthropology.

Constructing Ethics

First of all, let me say that I apologize for the relative inactivity of this blog over the past month.  I’ve been bouncing from place to place a lot, and it’s difficult for me to keep up with blogging when I’m traveling.  Just as a recap of what I’ve been up to – in mid-May, I traveled to Rhode Island for the Society for Cultural Anthropology conference.  There I presented a talk on the worms work I’ve been doing, which I’ve posted here.  After I got back, it was the last week of the semester and everyone – including my girlfriend, Jen – was preparing for graduation.  That was a busy week spending time with Jen’s family and then doing graduation.  The day after graduation, I traveled up to Maine to do more worms research.  This was mostly helping the SERC group sort through worm weed for little critters  – very tedious and mind-numbing labor, but worth it in the end, we hope.  Then I had a few days back which were mostly filled with getting caught up on things here and meeting with people before I headed out again.  This time I went on essentially a vacation with Jen.  We went up to her home state of Michigan and spent the week traveling around, seeing the beautiful state.  It was really amazing – the view of lake Michigan, the sunsets, the sand dunes.  It was beautiful, and it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that relaxed.  Now I can come back, refreshed and ready for a summer of work and play.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to, but now I’m getting back into a more regular schedule and this means I’ll have more time for blogging.  While I was away, there was a lot of talk about ethics – see Levi Bryant’s posts (here, and here) and Scu’s post at Critical Animal.  I don’t have a ton to add to this discussion because I’m not up on my philosophical ethics, but I have a few thoughts that might add to the conversation a bit.

To begin with, I don’t think ethics reside in the ontological status of beings.  That is, beings don’t contain ethics simply because they exist.  Instead, ethics reside in the relationships between beings.  The question is not, then, “what intrinsic qualities does this being possess that I must consider in order to respond to it in an ethical way” but rather “what is my present relationship to this being and the other beings that it and I are relating to, what do those relationships require, and what kind of relationship would be best to cultivate in this particular circumstance?”

As a result, I’m wary of the idea of intrinsic rights, however, I recognize the value of a rights-based discourse for constructing better relationships between beings and collectives of beings.  In that, I have a kind of pragmatic view of the idea of rights – to the extent that the discourse promotes better relationships it’s worth pursuing even if the concept itself is inaccurate or misleading.  I think it is possible, however, for a rights-based discourse to muddle things rather than make things better.  In these cases, we ought to look for a different approach based more on the construction of relationships rather than the intrinsic qualities of beings.

None of this, I think, gets us much closer to an answer to the challenge posed to Levi: why shouldn’t we allow a shark to eat a human if it’s a matter of life or death for the shark?  I imagine the scene this way: the shark is absolutely starving and on the brink of death.  It sees a small child swimming in the water nearby – no other food is available, and the shark will die promptly if it doesn’t eat this child.  I’m standing nearby and see the shark heading for the child.  I can make it to the child quickly enough to snatch it from the shark’s jaws, without harming the child or myself.  However, the shark will die as mentioned above.  Let’s even assume that the child is a complete stranger to me and not related in any meaningful way.  Why, then, should I snatch the child from the shark’s jaws?  Doesn’t the shark deserve to live as much as the child?  Or am I more ethically inclined towards the child because s/he – as a fellow human – is “kin” to me?

I don’t have a clear answer to this dilemma except that I would consider the ecology of relationships that are involved – the relationships between myself, the child, and the shark, as well as those that extend beyond this specific spacio-temporal interaction.  What would the child’s parent’s think if they knew I could have saved it, but chose not to?  What would the court system think?  Is the shark an endangered species?  And so on.  Certainly this isn’t easy to do, and, as Scu mentions (following Haraway) there is no innocent position here.  Any choice we make will be fraught with ethical problems.  The only thing we can do is to cultivate an ethical awareness towards all beings, which doesn’t guarantee a wholly ethical (read innocent) action in any given situation.

I realize that isn’t much of a position – no definitive answers, only the cultivation of awareness – but the emphasis on relationships between shifts the discourse slightly and hopefully in a positive direction.  Again, not being a philosopher, I can’t delve into the complexity of philosophical ethics… so don’t be too harsh on me 🙂