Knowledge as Entanglement

Last week I wrote an exam on the topic of the anthropology of environmental knowledge, broadly defined.  This included sections on both traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and scientific knowledge about  the environment, and it also involved thinking about ways of reconciling them as they often conflict with one another.  I have yet to see my grade for the exam, but I think it was a valuable paper and hopefully I’ll be able to use some of it in my dissertation work later this year.

When dealing with different kinds of knowledge, we often have to start with the question of “what is knowledge?”  This is often taken to be an epistemological question, where knowledge is treated as a reflection of a deeper reality.  From this perspective, the debate is largely about how accurate is the reflection that knowledge provides, to what degree knowledge reflects a true reality or whether it is merely a reflection of itself, or about the different ways we go about developing this reflection.  However, for me, the question “what is knowledge?” is, first and foremost, an ontological question – that is, what is the nature of knowledge, how does it exist, and what effects does it have in the world?  This becomes apparent from the ethnographic study of knowledge systems.  Knowledge cannot be easily separated from that practices that contribute to its production.  We see this in embodied theories of knowledge that have emerged from TEK research, and also from the ethnographies of science that show how scientific knowledge – supposedly objective – is, in fact, the product of situated, embodied, and social practices.  Furthermore, these practices are not only about producing knowledge as a reflection of the world, they are also involved in the production of the world itself – the composition of new entities, and new relationships between existing entities.  In other words, knowledge is entanglement with the world such that the world is co-produced through our own practices and those of other entities with whom we share it.

What does this view of knowledge mean for reconciliation between different kinds of knowledge?  As I discussed somewhat in my previous post, if knowledge is understood to be an ontological entanglement with other beings in a world constituting practice, then the reconciliation of knowledge is not an epistemological process of trying to reconcile two forms of belief, and it is certainly not a process of trying to fit other belief systems to the scientific world view.  Instead, it is an ontological process of composing a new world – a hybrid reality.  The process requires not just a rearrangement of knowledge in order to make the different ways of knowing fit, it requires a rearrangement of the very relations that compose the different realities in which the knowledge is embedded.  It’s not just a learning process, but a process of building associations.  Viewing the process this way places different forms of knowledge – such as scientific and traditional – on equal ontological footing, whereas from a purely epistemological perspective, scientific knowledge tends to have an ontological advantage as a form of knowledge that has unique access to a singular and stable reality (or we deny realism altogether).  From this equal ontological footing, different forms of knowledge and the worlds in which they are embedded are able to negotiate a new relationship that is, hopefully, well composed.

Nature, Culture, and Methods

Life on here has been pretty slow lately. This is because, for the past month or so, I’ve been preparing for my first area exam. Last week, I took it and submitted on Friday. Now I’m just waiting for the grade and prepping for the beginning of the semester, so I have a little space to get caught up on some blog posts that I’ve been meaning to write. As I was writing the exam, I had something of an inspiration. In some ways it’s not much different from what I’ve been saying for a while now, but when I wrote it out it was a bit of a shock – a new set of implications for an old way of thinking.  This post will be an attempt to articulate those implications.

I’ve written a lot about the concept of culture in the past: what is culture, how is it composed, and how do we study it as anthropologists?  What I realized recently is that, if we want to overcome the Nature/Culture dichotomy, then we have to take seriously the idea that there are, in fact, multiple natures. There’s nothing new here – it’s essentially what Latour, Law, Haraway, Stengers, and other post-constructivist have been arguing for a long time. If there is only one nature or reality, then there would be, under a condition where the Nature/Culture dichotomy has dissolved, no way to account for difference except by a reintroduction of the dichotomy. Furthermore, Western Science would have privileged access to such a nature or reality because of its ability to separate itself from “subjective” or “cultural” factors. The only other way out of this is to say that existence is a projection of human social factors, and that there is no “reality” or that, at least, we do not have access to it. Thus, the process of reconciling different “visions” of reality would be a purely epistemological process of reconciling different belief systems – e.g. reconciling a belief in God with a belief in Science. On the other hand, if we want to preserve our realism – a reference to reality outside of the purely human – which is, in my opinion a worthwhile effort for a number of reasons, then we have to accept the possibility that there are multiple natures or realities that overlap and intersect in complex ways. In other words, reality is not singular or stable, and new realities are created all the time through the practices of the beings (human, non-human, living, non-living, material, and semiotic) who compose them. Realities are different ontological articulations of beings – different ways of putting things together – and beings are always putting themselves together in different ways all the time. For example, John Law demonstrates multiple overlapping and intersecting realities for things like cirrhosis of the liver, cattle farming, fish farming, and several other practices.

What does this mean for culture, then? If we break down the Nature/Culture dichotomy, and recognize that there are many natures rather than just one, then this means that “nature” and “culture” become, in some sense, synonymous. Around the world we see not only many different cultures that interact with a singular, stable Nature, but many different cultures which are also many different natures. The Tsembaga Maring of Papua New Guinea have articulated a relationship with other beings – pigs, ancestor spirits, yams, other peoples, etc. – to create a particular kind of nature, which Rappaport describes in his book Pigs for the Ancestors. Similarly, Western Science has articulated a different kind of relationship with other beings – germs, labs, legal and political institutions, etc. – that creates a different kind of nature from that of the Maring (it’s important to point out, perhaps, that natures can fail – that the particular articulations of a nature or reality can be poorly constructed, to borrow Latour’s phrase, and thus fall apart or transform into a different articulation at any given time). The process of integrating different realities, then, becomes not just an epistemological process of reconciling different belief systems, but an ontological process of rearticulating two or more different realities to create one or more hybrid realities. It’s not just about reconciling a belief in God with a belief in Science, nor is it about accepting Science and “tolerating” others (as Stengers points out), it’s a process of assembling the two realities into a new hybrid reality in which both can coexist. This process, I would argue, is a long and difficult one involving a negotiation between the beings of the old realities to find a place within the associations that compose the new hybrid(s). Unfortunately, this process is too often closed off prematurely by one or the other – in this example it could be either, but in the case of traditional natures versus scientific nature, it’s usually the latter that does the closing off – such that the new articulation doesn’t form a hybrid, and many of the beings are left struggling to find a place in a system that has been closed off.

Where does this put anthropology? Anthropologists have specialized in the study of different cultures – and now we can recognize that they were always also studying different natures. Furthermore, in order to effectively study those other cultures, they had to be able to bring themselves into relation with them on a relatively equal basis. Thus we have the methods of participant observation, cultural relativism, and extreme reflexivity. Anthropologists believed they were developing these methods in order to get a better image of the cultures they were studying – a worthwhile goal in itself, but there was always more to it than that. John Law shows us that methods are not simply tools for understanding reality, rather they are practices that themselves create new realities by articulating beings in new ways. If that’s the case, then it becomes apparent that the methods of anthropology have always been practices of creating hybrid realities between that of the (usually Western) anthropologist and those of the cultures s/he studied. Without realizing it, anthropologists have been developing methods to create hybrid realities all along, and we’ve been practicing this hybrid reality creation for over a century – sometimes with bad results, sometimes with good results. In a world where different realities are increasingly coming into contact with one another and being forced to articulate – often with negotiations being closed down prematurely – the methods could prove very valuable. The trick will be generalizing the methods to work for larger groups – more than just one or a handful of anthropologists interacting with a small tribe or village. I see some possibilities in the work of Whatmore, Callon, and others – people who have been working to create spaces where different realities can negotiate openly and evenly in order to produce a hybrid. However, a great deal of work still needs to be done.

Suffering (Dukkha)

I am continually finding new elements to the philosophy of “struggle forever!” that I’m developing here.  For example, my friend Mark recently pointed out to me that “life is struggle” is roughly equivalent to “life is suffering” or dukkha in Buddhist tradition.  Dukkha is the basis of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism: 1) Life is suffereing (Dukkha), 2) there is an origin (Samudaya) for suffering, which is craving or desire, 3) there is an end (Nirodha) to suffering, and 4) there is a path (Gamini Patipada) to the end of suffering, which is the Noble Eightfold Path.  In the words of Aldous Huxley:

Because his aspiration to perpetuate only the “yes” in every pair of opposites can never, in the nature of things, be realized, the insulated Manichee I think I am condemns himself to endlessly repeated frustration, endlessly repeated conflicts with other aspiring and frustrated Manichees.

Conflicts and frustrations—the theme of all history and almost all biography. “I show you sorrow,” said the Buddha realistically. But he also showed the ending of sorrow—self-knowledge, total acceptance, the blessed experience of Not-Two.” – Aldous Huxley

In other words, existence is always changing, always in flux, and always, in some sense, beyond our control because there are others (humans an non-humans) with whom we must share the world.  This means that to hold on to (to desire) a particular kind of existence – a way of life, a moment, a being. – is, as Huxley said, like trying to make ice cubes out of a flowing river.  In some sense, then, “life is struggle” or “struggle forever” is a better interpretation of Dukkha than “life is suffering.”  Because existence is always moving and changing, and because there are others with whom we share it, a being must always be actively trying to compose their existence by maneuvering with the changes and negotiating a place with those others.  The end of suffering (utopia) is not a state towards which we can aspire (even Buddhahood or Nirvana in some traditions is a transitory phenomenon – Huxley, on one of his last psychedelic journeys referred to Nirvana or the white light of the void as the ultimate ice cube) but a path that we must continually work to follow.  In other words, the end of suffering (utopia) is struggle forever!

Struggle forever is not an end to be achieved, but a process of working with others (human and non-human) to create utopia, liberation (Moksha), Nirvana, the end of suffering, and the recognition that, since existence is always changing, the conditions and criteria for liberation are always changing as well.  Thus the process never ends, and liberation itself is a continuous struggle.  In other words, the recognition that life is struggle is itself the end of suffering, but, paradoxically, the struggle never ends.

I am no Buddhist scholar, so I don’t hold this up as doctrine – as a generally accepted interpretation of Buddhist thought.  I bring it up merely to point out some possibilities and lines of flight that emerge from my own interaction with Buddhism – mostly by way of Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts.  I find this particular association compelling, though I think I will have to work through some of the implications and meanings it generates.

Latour on Anthropology

The following is part of this talk from Latour on his Modes of Existence project. I thought this was a very goo analysis of what anthropology has been, with Latour imagining what anthropology could be.

Anthropology … is the way the modernising see the “other.” That’s a very strange anthropology, a very assymetric anthropology because it supposes that we have been modern and that the “we” study the “other” who are non-modern or in the process of modernizing.  And that has paralyzed anthropology from the start because then the we here see the other as having a culture or a civilization, and we strangely enough had a culture, a civiliztion plus a nature which was very odd.  We had the privilige of having a culture plus Nature – not “a nature” Nature with a capital N – and I’m sorry to say that you guys [he is speaking to an audience in India] had only a culture.  Which is great, we learn to be very polite with you, and we respect cultures, there are many cultures and they must be respected … but they are respected as representations of something which Nature is.


So it’s a strange respect, Anthropology in the traditional mode is a sort of strange entity.  It’s very respectful – it’s learned to be very respectful of cultures except cultures were a multiplicity, which was only based on representation not on ontology, not on what entities are really.  Whereas, those who were doing the anthropology had the advantage of having sumultaneously a culture, everyone knows that – the Brits are very bizarre, and everyone can do anthropology of the Brits and the French and so on and so forth – but they had nature in addition. And what, anthropologically, is Nature is a great mystery.  What is this strange way of organizing Nature.  So Nature is not the hidden uncoded point of view out of which we see the culture – multiple cultures – but an anthropological mystery.  Anthropologically how do these people have multiple cultures and one nature?


It’s a difficult position to be in this anthropological tradition.  Because you see everywhere cultures which are just representation.  They don’t have ontological weight, they don’t carry what the world is like, they carry only a representation of one world of which we the anthropologist have the double advantage of seeing simultaneously cultures as a multiple, and Nature as a unity.  The problem with this view is that it attributes a definition of Nature which is not carried out in practice, and it obliges those who criticize to be limited to a culture.  This is a quandry of lots of post-colonial studies. It’s difficult to fight back without taking up a large part of the Western definition of the divide.”

SNWA out of Snake Valley!

Two years ago, as some of you know, I did a summer internship with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Ely, Nevada.  The project I was working on was to collect data on traditional cultural properties (TCPs) in the area.  These TCPs were proposed by the area Shoshone Tribes in response to a groundwater development project initiated by the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA).

The SNWA project is a bad idea, flat out.  It would pump millions of gallons of water from the desert in Northern Nevada in order to feed the almost unquenchable thirst of Las Vegas, and in so doing it would dry up an already fragile, but very beautiful landscape.  In addition to that, this project would adversely affect hundreds of sites and landscapes that are important to the area’s Native Tribes – some of these are the sites that I helped to research.  What’s worse, the BLM staff is powerless to prevent it, because Harry Reid passed federal legislation that requires the BLM to approve some version of the pipeline project.  In other words, they can move the pipeline and redirect it, but they can’t reject it outright.

I learned today of a minor win for the opponents of the SNWA project – the BLM has kept the pipeline out of Snake Valley.  It’s not the best solution, which would be to dispose of the project altogether, but it’s a step forward.  The article emphasizes the benefits to local ranchers, but this will also go a long way towards preventing damage to several cultural sites as well as the cultural landscape of the valley – one closely tied to the cultural beliefs and practices of the area Shoshone people.  Unfortunately, this does nothing for the many other cultural and natural resources in the adjacent valleys.  Hopefully, activists, lawyers, Tribes, and communities can find a way to stop the project entirely before these sites and these beautiful landscape are lost.  If you want to help, visit the Great Basin Water Network website.

Eugene Debs and a Vision for the Future

Yesterday I posted the following links to Facebook – I thought today I’d share them with the rest of you.  First up, we have a video of Mark Ruffalo reading a speech that Debs gave in 1918 in Canton, OH in opposition to World War I.

It was this speech that landed Eugene Debs in court and ultimately prison under the Espionage Act’s provisions for sedition.  At his trial, Debs read this statement to the court.  The statement contains one of my all time favorite quotes, which I’ve had on the sidebar of my blogs since I began blogging:

“… years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Here are a few other good quotes:

“Let me call your attention to the fact this morning that in this system five per cent of our people own and control two-thirds of our wealth; sixty-five per cent of the people, embracing the working class who produce all wealth, have but five per cent to show for it.”

“I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and factories; I am thinking of the men in the mines and on the railroads; I am thinking of the women who, for a paltry wage, are compelled to work out their lives; of the little children, who in this system, are robbed of their childhood, and in their early, tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon, and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the machines while they themselves are being starved body and soul. I see them dwarfed, diseased, stunted, their little lives broken, and their hopes blasted, because in this high noon of our twentieth century civilization money is still so much more important than human life. Gold is god and rules in the affairs of men.”

“The five per cent of our people who own and control all of the sources of wealth, all of the nation’s industries, all of the means of our common life, it is they who declare war. It is they who make peace. It is they who control our destiny. And so long as this is true, we can make no just claim to being a democratic government, a self-governing people.”

Replace 5% with 1% and you’ll have the situation we are in today – little has changed in 100 years except the scale.  Debs was a socialist when that meant more than just the creation of social welfare programs.  For Debs, socialism meant the collective ownership of the means of production by the workers rather than by Capitalists who put up the money but do none of the work.  But now, even the suggestion of taxing people to pay for roads, bridges, and other infrastructure is labeled “socialist” and the term is used as an epithet – demeaning the vision of cooperation for the greater good that true Socialism represents.  We need that vision again in the US.  We need a vision that seeks to enrich the lives of all people without regard for race, class, gender, age, sexual orientation, or any other factor instead of the vision now which enriches the bank accounts (something that has too long been conflated with “life”) of a few while leaving the rest to eke out a meager living.  I think it’s time to reconsider what Debs was offering us – not to mimic the Socialism of the past, but to create a new vision for the future based on the same moral principles of cooperation, sharing, democracy, and freedom.