The Work of Aristocracy

On Sunday afternoon, I left West Virginia where I was camping and climbing with some friends.  A large winter storm that eventually dropped a foot of snow on the very place we were staying was at my back, and the largest hurricane in the Atlantic in the last quarter of a century was in front of me.  Sandy hit last night without much incident for me and the people I know nearby.  I was fortunate enough to keep power throughout, though a few of my friends lost it.  The storm itself was loud and wet, but it seems we didn’t get the brunt of it.  Hopefully, all of my friends up north are doing okay.

Jen stayed here yesterday and the day before since she didn’t have to work and it would have been unsafe for her to make the two hour trek down to Southern Maryland in the weather.  We spent yesterday and today making delicious meals, doing a little work, and watching TV.  One show we watched several episodes of was Downton Abbey.  I’ve heard a lot about it from friends, and it seems to be very popular.  Period pieces aren’t really my interest, but Jen wanted to watch it and I had no better suggestions.  I can certainly see the appeal.  The show depicts an aristocratic family – the owners of the Downton estate – in the teens as they struggle with the downfall of the traditional class system of England.  What is perhaps most interesting is that it also shows the lives of the servants who work for the family and the complex relationships between them.

That is probably what most interested me – the way the show depicts the work that is required to maintain the estate and the position of the family.  Behind the scenes, the servants prepare food, clean the house, take care of the landscape, keep track of the stocks of food, drink, and furnishings, transport the family from place to place, and even help the family dress.  However, the servants aren’t the only ones responsible for the upkeep of the estate – the family members also do their share, though in a different way.  They are more concerned about maintaining ties to other aristocratic families, finding sources of money to finance the estate, and doing charity work in the village nearby.  It’s not that either kind of work is more or less important for keeping up the estate – without either, the whole thing would fall apart completely.  However, the work of the family appears less as work and more as leisure or whim.

One could accuse Downton Abbey and myself in these last paragraphs of legitimizing the hierarchical and oppressive class structure that produces the estate.  By claiming that the work of the aristocratic family is on the same level as the manual labor of the servants seems pretty counter-productive if the goal is to abolish oppression.  The show is a description or representation of the way life was for aristocrats and their servants at the time (however incomplete).  To me, representations and descriptions are never merely representations or descriptions – they have a power and efficacy of their own.  They can make people think differently about the way things were and are.  They can make people see that things don’t have to be this way – that things can be changed.  And most importantly, they can point to methods and spaces that can make change possible.  This is why I think description in the vein of Latour and others can be just as political and effective, if not more so, than theoretical or causal analysis.

By describing in detail the work that is done to create something – whether it’s a live bait industry, a computer model, or an aristocracy – is an important part of making a difference in the way those things are structured.  I don’t know how well Downton Abby performs at this task (it would have to make us reflect upon our own class structures and the differences that can be made to them), because I’ve only seen a handful of episodes.  However, it is this principle that drives my own work and that forms the basis for all of my theoretical engagements.

Call for Suggestions and Advice Re: Dissertation

I’m getting close to the phase of my PhD career where I need to solidify my dissertation topic so that I can write and defend my proposal and also so that I can begin applying for funding.  I am planning to submit for an NSF dissertation grant this coming January, so this becomes even more urgent.  With that in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to solicit ideas and suggestions from my friends and readers online – all of whom are very knowledgeable and helpful.  Here’s what I’m thinking so far:

  1. My adviser and I have been discussing doing a project on the Chesapeake Bay Model – a computer model used to measure pollution on the Bay, and which has a tremendous impact on the policies and practices enacted on the Bay.  In my language, it creates the Bay it seeks to represent.  I think this is a fascinating topic, but I have to do more than just an ethnography of the model in order to convince my committee and get funded.  There have been so many ethnographies of science by now that I can’t really see how one on the model will contribute to furthering our knowledge.  Also, I want my research to follow the theoretical commitments I’ve made on this blog – to make a difference by building relationships.  A simple ethnography of the model, while interesting, doesn’t necessarily provide me with an opportunity to do those things.
  2. I’m really interested in how the model is used “on the ground” by which I mean in local communities and municipalities to make decisions about nutrient management.
  3. I think I would like to do a comparative study.  This does a couple of things: first, it gives me some basis to claim that I’m furthering our theoretical knowledge, as mentioned above.  by doing a comparative study, I can get a sense for how different modeling practices affect the way models are used.
  4. There is a great deal of literature on participatory modeling, which is fascinating to me.  One of the researchers we have been in touch with, Alexy Voinov, has been working on participatory modeling for years.  However, I haven’t seen any research on the effectiveness (broadly defined) of participatory modeling versus more institutional modeling practices.  I think it might be interesting to do a comparative analysis of these two forms of modeling, and then work with modelers and stakeholders (at the local and municipality level) in the Bay region to incorporate some of those participatory methods (thus the making a difference aspect).

So what are your thoughts?  Is this a good project?  How would you tweak it to make it more interesting, engaged, activist, theoretical, practical, or whatever?  Do you have any suggestions for references or sources either theoretical or practical?  Any ideas at all would help immensely.  Thank you all in advance!

Agency and Efficacy

Last night I was doing some reading and watching for the upcoming UMD Anthropology Theory Discussion Group session on materiality, embodiment, and non-human agency.  I was thinking about this concept of agency that’s so important to my work and to the work of others who have inspired me – Latour, Stengers, Bennett, Bryant, etc.  First of all, there is the question of intentionality, a characteristic that is often taken to be synonymous with agency.  Intentionality is the ability to choose one mode of action over another – free will, as it were.  It is this ability, we as inheritors of a Judeo-Christian tradition tend to believe, that makes us unique among other beings.  The ability to choose prevents us from being determined by any other being, whether God, Nature, genes, social structure, etc.  In our modern, scientific mindset (which nonetheless contains elements of Judeo-Christian theology), the boundaries of intentionality have blurred extensively to the point where some animals and even plants or fungi can, depending on the circumstances and who you’re talking to, be considered to have a degree of intentionality.  But is intentionality really what generates agency?  Is it really what prevents determinism?  I and those I mention above would argue that it is not.  Instead of intentionality (or in addition to it, maybe) we consider efficacy to be the more important characteristic that signifies agency.

I like this term efficacy.  As Stengers points out in Capitalist Sorcery, it has this connotation with magical arts – the power of words, rituals, and things to alter and affect the world.  In fact, I like it better than agency itself because it’s a more descriptive term – “agency” itself doesn’t mean much without other words such as “intentionality” or “efficacy” to lend it signification.  Furthermore, it bypasses the structure-agency debate.  While I think it’s important to engage such debates (and, therefore, continue to push the term “agency” to its limits), there are times when bypassing the debate is easier.  Why, then, is efficacy the key rather than intentionality?  Because intentionality is not necessarily required to escape the trap of determination.  In fact, intentionality, I would argue, is really just a form of efficacy.  One can act in a non-deterministic way without intending to do so.  What matters is the way that we adjust and adjust to the other beings around us.  It’s this process of co-construction that exists in every interrelation that produces complexity, unpredictability, and novelty – not necessarily the intentional process of choosing one mode of action over another.

So if efficacy is the condition that we’re interested in, then what we’re confronted with in terms of analysis is a mesh of interconnection, and co-construction by various efficacious beings or agents.  Nothing can be reduced to anything else, but no thing is alone and unaffected by others.  Structure is agency.  It shapes and is shaped by us as we move through its dark and twisted passageways.  And there is no singular power, no encompassing being under which all of it can be totalized.  In each heterogeneous and monstrous interrelation, there is a capacity for difference and unpredictability simply because the interactions are never unilateral, but always co-constructed.  It’s this kind of analysis that these new (ontological constructivist) theories seek to explore, and I believe they are far more efficacious than those that rely on a structure-agency dichotomy.

Gordian Entanglement

We like the legend of Alexander and the Gordian Knot because it’s an example of cutting through the mess to get to the core of a problem.  “Forget these silly entanglements, and move on!”  The problem with Alexander’s solution to the knot, however, is that, when the knot is cut, what’s left are shreds of useless rope.  There is no core, and ultimately we’re left with as much of a mess as when we started – only a different kind of mess.

Really untying the knot requires that we dig in, work with the knot, and risk getting entangled ourselves.

The Externality of Relations

Levi and others in the OOO blog world have been discussing relations again, this time mainly in reference to Karen Barad’s statement that “relata do not precede their relations.”  This is another one of those philosophical discussions that, for me, makes a difference to the work that I do, though not necessarily in the sense that the philosophers take it.

In order for my concept of work and the analyses that follow from it to (for lack of a better word) work, I have to be able to look at the work that is done by every being involved in a given set of relations.  No being can be reduced to or subsumed by any other because they all contribute important differences that make a difference.  For me, this means that I do not recognize a difference between “internal” and “external” relations.  Rather I would say that all relations are external. There are two reasons for this. First, where does one draw the line between internal and external? How does one decide whether a given relation is essential to an entity’s being or when it is not? Most would probably agree that the relationship between myself and the cells that make up my body are essential to my being, but I shed cells all the time without dying. Clearly, if you removed my heart and didn’t replace it with some adequate substitute, then I would cease to exist (or, at least, my existence would be radically changed – I would die). But if you remove my big toe, I would perhaps be in a lot of pain, but I would not die, and my being would not be radically altered. Does that mean that the relation between myself and my heart is internal whereas the relation between myself and my toe is external? Similarly, most people would probably agree that my relationship to my books is external. But if you cut me off from accessing my books or any others, would I continue to be the same Jeremy that I am now? I would venture to say not, and I’m not willing to attempt the experiment. So what constitutes my being, and where is the line between internal and external drawn – it seems to me that such a line would always be arbitrary.

The second reason I claim that all relations are external is that, by suggesting that certain relations are internal, those relations and the beings that compose them ultimately get subsumed by the totality of the being for whom they are internal. For example, if the relationship between myself and the cells that compose my body are internal, then my totality subsumes them such that they become merely functional units with no agency or capacity for difference of their own. If I am to account for all of the work that is done by all of the entities involved in an assemblage, then I have to recognize that those beings have an existence independent of myself as a totality. Instead of seeing myself as encompassing of the other beings that compose me, I view myself as working alongside those beings. I am, thus, only one part of the assemblage that is myself. I certainly play an active role in my own composition (the way I choose to exercise, the foods I choose to eat, the places I choose to live, the media I choose to consume, etc.), but I am by no means the only – or even the most important – active participant in this assemblage. Any being is, therefore, only one part of what composes its own existence, and the being of the others who compose it cannot be reduced to it. Existence is always co-existence. This, as I understand it, is the meaning behind Bryant’s “strange mereology” of which I was originally skeptical, but which I have now fully embraced for this very reason.

Going back to the issue of relata and their relations, it doesn’t make sense to me to say, as Levi suggests (rightly or wrongly) Barad (and Whitehead) does, that everything is related to everything else in the universe. It may be true in the broadest sense – that because we are all part of the same Universe, that we all came from the same Big Bang, then we are always already connected to one another – but I agree with Alex Reid in saying that the vast majority of those relations would be so tenuous as to make little, if any, difference to me. Am I related to a star in a galaxy billions of light years away? If so, then it doesn’t make much of a difference, and, therefore, is not worth considering. What makes a difference are those relations that are relatively more concrete – the relation between myself and the cells in my body, between me and my books, between me and my family, me and my friends, etc. – and the work that is done by all of those involved to compose and recompose those relations over time.

There is, however, another way to take Barad’s statement about relata and their relations, and, though I have only read one short article by her, I suspect that this is closer to her meaning. It’s not that everything is always already connected to everything else as Levi claims. Rather, it’s that the powers (to borrow Levi’s term) of a being are only ever actualized in relation to other beings. The redness of the cup is only actualized in relation to a certain kind of ambient light and the perceptive gaze of a sentient being. The cat is satiated in relation to the presence of food or hungry (and eventually dead) in relation to its absence. These powers are what makes a difference, but do they exist as part of the being of one individual in the relationship, withdrawn, and waiting to be actualized, or do they exist only in the relation between two or more beings? If the latter then relata cannot precede their relations because the relata are what they are in any given moment only by way of some relation. The relata themselves are only potential that is actualized in the process of relating to other relata (and relata, in the end, are only relatively more concrete sets of relations).

I don’t know where all of this places me on the OOO-PRO spectrum. It’s really not that important to me. Being an anthropologist and not a philosopher, I have the luxury of not having to take sides, and instead use what I need for whatever work I’m doing.