Normativity and Ethnography

I was out of town at a conference this past week, and spent the weekend getting caught up on some grading and helping out at UMD’s outreach day (called Maryland Day), but I saw this post by Levi and thought it might be a good one for me to add/respond to.  So here goes.

In the post, Levi begins to address the question of normativity from his Machine-Oriented perspective.  How do we account for norms?  How do we ground them?  The problem, it seems, is that in spite of thousands of years of philosophical effort, we have not been able to come up with a single, all-encompassing normative principle.  Kant has his categorical imperative, Mill and the Utilitarians have their pleasure principle, Aristotle has his virtue ethics, and so on.  Further complicating the matter is the question of how to treat other cultures that have a completely different basis for normativity (I’m not going to address the neurological issues Levi raises because it’s not my area of expertise, and I haven’t had time to fully think it through).  Do we treat them as somehow less than human?  Simply uneducated or uncivilized?  If we adhere to the principle of cultural relativism, then we can’t do so – we have to treat all ethical systems as fully legitimate ethical systems even if we don’t agree with them.

So where does normativity come from?  On what can it be grounded?  I think Levi is right to look to ethnography for the clues.  In fact, I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately as well.  Over the past semester, I’ve been taking a class – through the entomology department, oddly enough – on animal ethics.  We read most of the chapters from The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics.  It was interesting to me, because the class took a completely different approach to animal ethics than I’m accustomed to.  Most of the animal ethics readings I’ve done have been in the post-structuralist vein (most notably Donna Haraway), and the approach in this book was very traditional philosophy – attempting to reason out the appropriate ethical principles by which we can measure our actions.  The early chapters took a particular approach – Kantian, Utilitarian, or Virtue ethics – and attempted to extend the ethical boundaries to animals.  Later chapters explored more specific issues, and ultimately addressed practical ethics.  There was a great deal of agreement between all of the authors, but also a great deal of disagreement, and some that were way out in left field.  What all of them had in common, though, was the search for this universal (and transcendent) ethical principle – even with the recognition that such a principle can never really be expected to be found.  Interestingly, the professor was a Kantian, so most of our discussions ended back at the Kantian approach, but with some modifications by Christine Korsgaard to extend the ethic beyond the human.

I’ll not spend any more time describing or explaining the animal ethic approaches outlined in the book and discussed in class, because it’s not what this post is about.  Instead, what fascinated me about this class, and what gets to the heart of Levi’s questions, is the process that we underwent in this class.  From one perspective, we were attempting to reason out those fundamental and universal principles.  From another, we were engaged in a performative discourse whereby ethical principles are formulated, contested, modified, rejected, or accepted.  It’s a fundamentally local performance.  And, looking ethnographically, we see that this is how all ethics are composed.  Not through the discovery of some fundamental principle or universal ground, but through the process of discourse between subjects, though many different kinds of grounds are invoked to support or reject a particular ethical principle.  In fact, over at ANTHEM, dmf has posted (I’m sure not coincidentally) a nice video of Daniel Smith arguing something very similar from a Deleuzian perspective.

From an empirical (ethnographic) perspective, ethics emerge out of discourse.  But it’s not just discourse that gives rise to ethics or norms, they emerge from the confluences of biological, ecological, economic, political, spiritual, and practical factors.  Some norms will be easier to accept than others simply because of our biological natures and the ecological contexts in which we find ourselves.  But even those norms that are based in part on biology and the complexities of having to live and work together cannot be said to be universal.  Take the incest taboo, for example.  If any norm could be said to be universal, it is this.  But the application of the incest taboo – most obviously in the definition of kin – varies enormously from culture to culture.  Even this fundamentally biological principle can change depending on social, cultural, and environmental factors.

In other words, norms are generally agreed upon practices that allow us to live together in a heterogeneous world.  There is no ground, only a tangled knot of co-existence, and the continual process of performing ethical discourse.  In this way, norms are composed and recomposed over time and space.  Obviously, this doesn’t tell us what norms we should follow, and, in fact, it can’t tell us that.  Does that mean that anything goes? No, because norms are – must be – composed collaboratively and in relation to our biological and ecological contexts – in this sense, the discourse (taken broadly, and including non-human factors) is the ground, and it is this process and performance of discourse that bounds normativity within a particular social group. Does it mean that we can’t or shouldn’t intervene in the normative practices of others if we find them to be abhorrent?  I would argue not, but it does mean that we can’t or shouldn’t expect others to simply and unproblematically accept our own normative principles.  Changing others minds takes time and work, and in the process, our own normative claims are made vulnerable.  The universal does not exist, it must be made, and it is always prone to failure.


The Earth is not your mother – is not even feminine.  The Earth is multi- and transgendered.  The Earth is queer.  S/h/it is a monstrous assemblage… no, a teeming mass of myriad different kinds of flesh intertwining in a terrifying and beatiful orgy – a consummation that is also mutual consumption.  We emerge within this teeming mass more than we exist upon it.  But we are not born out of it like a mother gives birth to a child – separating into a new being and undertaking a process of individuation – rather we are made from it, and continually remade within it such that we can never truly exist apart.  Our bodies are as much the flesh of the Earth as are the rocks, the trees, the water, and the animals.  Just as our cells compose us – an active process of continual (re)production – we continually (re)compose the Earth.


Earth Day is a dark holiday.  It is a reminder, not of the beauty of nature or the miracle of life, but of the horrors that we have wrought upon the rocky surface of this planet: decimation of forests, toxification of water, nuclear explosions, transformation of the atmosphere, mass genocides, and so on. Earth Day emerged from the recognition of these horrors just as the pilgrimages to war sites – the Nazi concentration camps, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, the Twin Towers, etc. – emerge from the recognition of horrifying events that took place in those places.  It is a day, not for remembering a utopic vision of a harmonious world that once (but never) was, but one for recollecting (a more appropriate term than remembering), for contemplating, for praying, for making right, and for imagining a world that could be.  It is only by recognizing our proper place amongst the Earth – as composers and co-creators – and looking with horror and sadness upon the devastation that has marked our progress to date that we will be able to understand and continue the work of rebuilding and reconstruction – the work of transforming our relationship with the others who share this flesh.

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

Beyond Tragedy

What do we make of two of the major tragedies that occurred in the US this past week?  One in which two men violently ripped into the vulnerable flesh of people who wanted nothing more than to enjoy a day of peace and joy (as well as the rush to judgement based on superficial factors and no evidence that followed).  The other, in which 46 mostly men refused to pass legislations supported by a vast majority of the US public, that would go a long way towards helping to address the threat of violence in our nation, all to appease the vocal (and well financed) few who think that owning a gun equals freedom.  How do we make sense of these events?

The answer is that we can’t.  There is no analysis that can encompass these tragedies, or any of the other tragedies that occurred in the world over the last several days.  There is no theoretical outlook that will wrap them up in a nice package and tell us what to do or how to move forward.  The world is messy, and every attempt to explain the mess only adds to it (pdf).

Nevertheless, do something and move forward we must.  Time doesn’t stop for us, and everything we do – even if it’s nothing – makes a difference.  So what do we do?  How do we move forward?  The answer is we work – or better yet, we struggle.  Always in collaboration with others, always trying to make a better world for everyone.  We may never put a stop to these kinds of senseless events, but, the more we struggle, and the more we accept that the struggle is the end and that there is no end to the struggle – the more we renew these moments of collaboration, peace, and caring – the more likely we will be to one day find ourselves, all of a sudden, living in a peaceful and just world.  “We cannot reason ourselves out of our basic irrationality.  All we can do is learn the art of being irrational in a reasonable way” (Huxley).

Performing Reality, Making a Difference

This past weekend, we had our annual Anthroplus conference here at the University of Maryland.  Anthroplus is organized by students for students.  Traditionally, it has been a space where students can explore different topics, issues, and methods of presentation than they would in more formal academic conference settings (e.g. the SfAA or AAA conferences).  Some of these alternative formats have become standard for the conference, such as the 3 minute material culture presentations.  This year some of my fellow students and I started a new tradition – a session titled “Reality Workshop: An Experiment in Working Relationships”.  Here is the abstract for the panel we put together:

Existence is enacted.  This is the basic assumption of this workshop, which is intended to provide a space for exploring the enactment of different realities through performance.  The workshop will consist of several experiments and performances that are designed to challenge our established understandings and experiences of reality and reshape our collective reality in new and interesting ways.  Taking as a premise the idea that the boundary between spectator and spectacle is artificial, attendees will play a key role in each of the performances.  In particular, we are interested in the performance and practice of academic knowledge production as it takes place within a conference setting, and the ways those can be re-formed through experimentation and exploration.

The session opened with Kristin Sullivan discussing and demonstrating the importance of performance, and the ways in which conference presentations are performances – changing clothes mid-way through her presentation to show how performances can become different by way of a simple change.  David Colon-Cabrera then gave a presentation on fanfic and the feedback that occurs between fans or an audience and the performers and writers.  He then setup an activity where the audience of the panel would collaboratively write a fanfic love story taking place in the conference itself.  Patricia Markert demonstrated the performance of oral history interviews with the help of a volunteer (Justin Uehlein) – showing how the performance of interviewing is an active and situated reconstruction of the past within the present.  Megan Bailey then discussed the performance of teaching and the reciprocal relationships between teachers and students as a form of knowledge production.  Finally, I presented on the role of non-humans – as actors rather than merely props or stage – in any performance, and, at the end, invited the audience members to change one object in the room.  At the end, we summarized and answered questions from the audience.  The audience was extremely engaged and many came up to us afterwards to talk about the implications of the panel.

I think that the key point to be made is not that the traditional way of performing academic conferences – or anything else, for that matter – is necessarily wrong, but to be attentive to the kinds of performances we are engaging in, and the kinds of realities those performances enact and create.  Are these the kinds of realities we want to produce?  If not, how can we change our performances to enact a different kind of reality?

In addition, it’s important to realize that these individual alternative performances do make a difference.  Does that difference carry out into the wider world beyond the panel or even the conference?  They do, but perhaps with diminishing returns as they run up against established structures and norms.  A single difference does not make a difference – the difference must be reenacted and reproduced continually (but not necessarily continuously) in order to make a difference.  This is the point of my emphasis of work and struggle, and the “forever” component of this blog’s title.  Every action makes a difference – whether that difference is the production of something new or the reproduction of something that already existed.  The question is, what kind of difference are we making and what kinds of differences would we rather make instead.  To paraphrase Aldous Huxley, if we renew, until they become a continuity, these moments of difference, we may find ourselves, all of a sudden, living in a different world.

Edited Volume on Vulnerability, Anyone?

With the flurry of interest and excitement about theorizing vulnerability lately (also here, and here), I was wondering if it might be worthwhile to think about assembling an edited volume on the subject.  I have no idea how to go about doing this, who to ask to contribute, who to recruit as editors, who to talk to about publishing (maybe Punctum books?), etc.  I’d be willing to take a stab at it though (once my work load lets up after the semester is over) with a little help and guidance.

Needless to say, I think it’s a valuable topic with potentially very important effects on our theories and practices.  Maybe I’m jumping the gun, though, maybe there’s more that needs to be done before a book can be made.  Any thoughts?

Precarity and Vulnerability

In the recent discussions on vulnerability (also, see here for Andre’s excellent contribution), the terms “vulnerability” and “precarity” (the latter coming primarily through Judith Butler) have been used more or less interchangeably.  However, I want to throw a bit of a wrench in that.

Precarity – when I think of precarity or the state of being precarious, I think of standing on the edge of a building or some other very high up structure – teetering on the edge, and liable to fall at any moment.  Precarity for a being means that, at any moment, its existence could disintegrate.  In other words, existence is not a given and can be lost at any time – this is why existence takes work, and continual (possibly continuous) work.  Teetering on an edge requires a constant adjustment and readjustment to not simply fall off.

This is related to vulnerability, of course.  Our precarity makes us vulnerable in some cases, but vulnerability is something else.

As a side note, I just did a search on etymonline for “precarity” and this is what came up:

1640s, a legal word, “held through the favor of another,” from Latin precarius “obtained by asking or praying,” from prex (genitiveprecis) “entreaty, prayer” (see pray). Notion of “dependent on the will of another” led to extended sense “risky, dangerous, uncertain” (1680s).

This adds an interesting new dimension to the issue, which I’ll not delve into here.

Vulnerability – (Possible trigger warning) When I think of vulnerability, I think of a person curled up in the fetal position under threat of attack from another.  I apologize for the gruesomeness of that image, but it highlights the idea of a threat to existence.  Here it’s not just that existence can be lost, but that our beings can be accessed or invaded.

In spite of my example above, vulnerability is not necessarily bad.  Making oneself vulnerable to others can be very beneficial and transformative when that vulnerability is not exploited (this is what I refer to as intercourse – and I will develop the idea further someday).  However, vulnerability does open one up to the potential for assault or violence – the exploitation of a relative invulnerability to alter and affect another against their will.

In order to deal with our vulnerabilities, we shore up armor to protect us.  This could be personal/psychological traits, muscular/biological barriers (as in Reich), physical objects, institutions, norms, and so on.  In fact, any particular armoring is likely to be a combination of structures.  We do this individually and collectively, and some are better able to (because of greater ability or greater resources) shore up their armor than others.  Violence, then, can take two general forms: 1) a direct assault on another being – utilizing one’s position of relative invulnerability to penetrate their defenses, or 2) the progressive removal or wearing away of another’s armor such that they become vulnerable to relatively small assaults.

Whether or not these differences make a difference is not clear to me yet.  It is possible that precarity is simply an aspect of our vulnerability – that we are vulnerable, ultimately, because our existence is precarious.  Nevertheless, I wanted to introduce the difference and see what effects it has on our thinking as this area of theorizing develops further.

Letting Go of Vision

Making the world better for everyone (struggle) requires us to recognize that our own visions for a better world are 1) incomplete and 2) only one way of making the world better. 

Our visions are incomplete because they are models – simulations without real world correlates, and different ontologically from their actual enactment.  Because enacting them will have unknown and unpredictable consequences that may be catastrophic.  And, finally, because visions are ends and there can be no end to the struggle. 

Recognizing that they are only one among many ways of making the world better  means letting go of our monopoly on vision.   Everyone has a vision, and it’s not the enactment of any particular one that makes the world better.  Rather, it is the encounter between different visions and the process of negotiating them that does so.  The process is the struggle and the struggle itself – not any one end form – is utopia.

Graeber on Revolution, Work, and Utopia

I just came across this article by David Graeber titled “A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse.”  Since the ideas expressed in the article have much in common with the project of Struggle Forever, I thought I would share some key excerpts and add a few thoughts of my own.

First of all, Graeber talks about the idea of revolution:

What is a revolution? We used to think we knew. Revolutions were seizures of power by popular forces aiming to transform the very nature of the political, social, and economic system in the country in which the revolution took place, usually according to some visionary dream of a just society. Nowadays, we live in an age when, if rebel armies do come sweeping into a city, or mass uprisings overthrow a dictator, it’s unlikely to have any such implications; when profound social transformation does occur—as with, say, the rise of feminism—it’s likely to take an entirely different form. It’s not that revolutionary dreams aren’t out there. But contemporary revolutionaries rarely think they can bring them into being by some modern-day equivalent of storming the Bastille.

He goes on to pose the question “were revolutions ever what we thought them to be?”  Indeed, he argues, the truly revolutionary effects of the violent uprisings we usually associate with revolution tend to be more about the peripheral effects of those uprisings than about the direct seizure of political and economic control.  He offers examples from the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution.  In some sense these were both failed revolutions, but the peripheral effects (free education, and the welfare state) were nevertheless transformative.

I have always been skeptical of the notion of violent revolution (at times more so than others).  It’s really been in the last few years – through my encounters with ontological constructivist theory – that I’ve really understood why.  Revolution in the traditional sense mistakes (or reifies) control of political and economic institutions for control of a society.  But society is heterogeneous and complex – there is no point from which to grasp it in its entirety (thus also my skepticism about holistic social theory).  This is why, after a successful revolution, there is always a purging that needs to be done – to eliminate those elements that are seen as “counter-revolutionary.”

Change – especially revolutionary change – takes work.  Whether that work includes the violent overthrow of an oppressive regime, or the slow and deliberate work of changing the way people understand and engage with the world around them, or some combination, there are no short cuts.  The struggle is – must be – a struggle.  And, of course, the struggle doesn’t end once power has been seized or minds have been changed.  It continues as conditions change – as new technologies develop, as new ideas are created, as environmental conditions change, and so on.  Graeber hints at this when he reminds us that no true revolution – successful or otherwise – has ever followed a blueprint.  Adam Smith did not sit down and map out the structures of Capitalism, the stock exchange, and the global monetary exchange.  Instead, he provided an idea, which was not transformative in itself – it took a whole host of other historical, technological, and ideological developments to create Capitalism as we now know it – but it had a tremendous impact.

In addition, Graeber discusses labor or work:

To which the answer is obvious. Labor is virtuous if it helps others. A renegotiated definition of productivity should make it easier to reimagine the very nature of what work is, since, among other things, it will mean that technological development will be redirected less toward creating ever more consumer products and ever more disciplined labor, and more toward eliminating those forms of labor entirely.

What would remain is the kind of work only human beings will ever be able to do: those forms of caring and helping labor that are at the very center of the crisis that brought about Occupy Wall Street to begin with. What would happen if we stopped acting as if the primordial form of work is laboring at a production line, or wheat field, or iron foundry, or even in an office cubicle, and instead started from a mother, a teacher, or a caregiver? We might be forced to conclude that the real business of human life is not contributing toward something called “the economy” (a concept that didn’t even exist three hundred years ago), but the fact that we are all, and have always been, projects of mutual creation.

That last line is key – we are projects of mutual creation.  Work inevitably involves interaction with others, in a process that changes ourselves as much as (and in some cases more than) we change others.  When that work is directed towards the mutual enhancement of life (collaborative, but not always cooperative), that is what I call “Struggle.”  The process of struggle is what’s important, not necessarily the end result (because there is no end!).  What we have lost, what holds us back from making a truly better world is that we have largely given up this process of struggle and instead we work – for ourselves or for the “economy”, but not together and not towards the enhancement of our lives together.  This is what needs to be recovered in any revolution to come.  The perfect world is not out there, but the process of building it continues forever.

The Ongoing Labor of Existence

I’m sitting outside now.  It’s a beautiful spring day.  The air is slightly chilled, but it’s warm enough to not have a jacket.  The sun, when it shines through the scattered clouds, warms my back and neck.  I’m sitting here watching the world go on around me.  Birds fly from tree to tree to fence and back to tree.  They’re building nests and collecting food.  The squirrels do much the same only wingless.  They run along the top of my fence, jump up to the trees.  Sometimes they get a little too close to where a bird is making its nest, and the bird flies out to assert its territory.  Grass is growing, flowers are blooming, and, although I can’t see it, I know that the trees are slowly building up energy so that they can let their leaves and flowers burst forth.

What makes me smile is that all of this labor goes on without the need for humans.  It goes on largely in spite of us.  It reminds me that the environment is not simply a background upon which we impose our will, but an active, vibrant existence full of beings with whom we connect and build relationships.

Spring is a wonderful time of year!  Now back to my own labor.