Zizek, Chomsky, and Theory

For those of you who haven’t heard, Chomsky and Zizek are engaged in a (maybe not so) heated back and forth about political theory. I don’t think the debate is actually that informative or interesting, since it amounts to this:

Chomsky: Zizek is not empirical.

Zizek: Chomsky isn’t empirical either.

Chomsky: Yes I am, and Zizek still isn’t.

However, I do think there is a key issue at work in the debate that I feel very connected to – that is, the definition of “theory” in the social sciences. On the one hand, you have Chomsky’s definition of theory, which stems from the analytical tradition and holds sway in most of the natural sciences: a theory is an empirically testable relation of cause and effect. On the other hand, you have Zizek’s definition, which stems from the continental tradition and holds sway in some areas of the social sciences: a theory is a disposition or way of thinking about life and the world that helps to uncover or shed light upon aspects or features that might otherwise remain hidden. As John Law puts it:

[Theory] informs how we see whatever it is that we are looking it, and it is something, a set of propensities and sensibilities, that shapes what we look at and poses questions, issues, possibilities of whatever it is that we come into contact with.”

This type of theory is not empirically testable, since one cannot validate a disposition or sensibility – the value of this kind of theory lies not in its validity but in its appropriateness or usefulness.

That both of these things are called theory is problematic and confusing – it means that in any serious discussion of theory, one has to define one’s terms and be explicit about what kind of theory one is talking about or end up going down a road of confusion and ending up in stalemate. Perhaps Zizek’s theory would better be called “philosophy”, but the boat has sailed and the issue remains.

The fact is, neither approach to theory is wrong – there is room for both, and, in fact, both are essential to any kind of scientific practice. Empirical examination is how we come to understand and relate to the world around us – it is how science moves forward. However, there is always implicit in empirical examination a disposition or way of thinking that illuminates certain factors and obscures others. If we are not explicit and reflective about this disposition, then our empirical findings seem natural and given when they may not be – a different disposition might provide a different understanding or approach to the same empirically valid facts. Take Marx, for example, someone both Zizek and Chomsky would no doubt take for a great theorist. His empirical analysis of Capital helped to further our understanding of the functioning of an economy. But why did he undertake this empirical analysis? Because he had a disposition towards understanding and rectifying the oppressive conditions he saw in modern industrial societies. Without such a disposition, his analysis of class, labor, and the historical dialectic would not have made sense. It was this disposition that made the empirical analysis possible.

In spite of the fact that this debate between Chomsky and Zizek comes of more like tabloid news for philosophers than an actual philosophical debate, this issue of defining theory and its role in our research and lives is key. I think a lot of ink has been spilled trying to sift through this issue and decide what theory is really, when it would be better to simply recognize the role and value of both and be explicit about what kind of theory we are doing.

Gratuitous Philosophical Thoughts on Time

On the drive home from the gym today, for whatever reason, I started thinking about time. I had some – to me, at least – interesting thoughts, and so I figured I’d share them even though this is not the usual kind of thing I post on this blog. Think of it as a (much needed) diversion. I hope you find it interesting and entertaining, but don’t take it too seriously.

If you were a time traveler – like, say, Dr. Who – how would you view time? You’d be moving around constantly, jumping from one time and place to another without any difficulty. You’d exist, in a sense, outside of time. You’d see it, not so much as a flow of events, but as a field (sorry, a wibbly wobbly, timey wimey field… maybe a ball, but that’s irrelevant). That is, you’d see it laid out before you much the way we can look at the satellite image of the Earth and see everything all at once (not really, since these images are composites of images taken at different times, but you get my meaning). Everything that ever happened or will happen would appear before you simultaneously. In fact, the concepts of “will happen” and “ever happened” would be meaningless since there would be no point of reference – everything would just be happening together (not “all at once” because that phrase would also have no meaning), and you could plunk yourself right down in the midst of any part of it you like. Everything would be connected, of course. Just as ripples move across the surface of water, any movement on the field of time would ripple outward, but it would not take time to ripple (like those on water) because the ripple would happen on the field of time the effects would be instantaneous.


This would have enormous implications for how you viewed the ethics of time travel and interference, because no particular time would be privileged as the point that shouldn’t move. The Back to the Future mode of time travel was, from this perspective, fairly primitive since it still relied on time as a linear flow. That’s why it made sense to Doc and Marty not to mess with the past because it might affect their present (a privileged point for them), but they didn’t seem to have any problem messing with the future as long as the change was ultimately beneficial to them. For the Doctor, on the other hand, all points on the field of time would be equally valuable (and temporal paradoxes would not be a concern, since a loop in time is perfectly reasonable if it’s viewed as a field rather than a linear flow). The purpose of any intervention, then, would be to improve the entire field of time, and not just one place or another.  So, if you could kill Hitler and stop the Holocaust, do it, but with a view to how that rearranges the entire field and not for the sole purpose of stopping the Holocaust and preventing the deaths of millions. I’m not sure how this fits with the Doctor’s concept of singularities – seems a contradiction, but he knows more than I do about these sorts of things, right?

Of course, this is all just speculative since, as far as we know, time travel of this sort doesn’t exist. The time travel that we can conceivably achieve (if it weren’t materially impossible) exists on a linear, unidirectional flow of time – where a person could travel so fast that time slows for them and they experience themselves jumping ahead (but never backwards). In fact, it’s possible that, even if time did exist in this way, it wouldn’t be possible for us to achieve time travel since it would require a fifth dimension from which to experience time as a field. In any case, speculative or not, it’s an interesting thought experiment, and I hope you enjoyed taking this detour with me.

The Struggle for Funding

My friend dmf has suggested several times that I write about my experiences with seeking funding for my dissertation research, and, since I’m currently in the throes of that exact struggle, it seems like an appropriate time to write about it.

A little background. I came into the University of Maryland (UMD) Department of Anthropology as a master’s student with one year of a graduate assistantship (GAship) provided. At the end of that year, I began panicking and trying desperately to find some kind of funding source for the following year. I kicked myself then for not having accepted an offer at the University of Arizona (UA) for two years of GAship.  It would have made life that summer a lot less anxious – a summer already filled with financial anxiety as the BLM office that I was working with was having a hard time figuring out how to pay me (and didn’t until my last day there). Fortunately, I was absolved as the grant that my advisor had applied for came through and I was put on as a research assistant (RA) on that project.

Then, that Spring, I applied to PhD programs – three in all: UA, UMD, and the University of Vermont (UVM). UA rejected me outright, and I later was grateful because I realized that I would not be a good fit for the professor I had applied to work with. UMD accepted me, but did not offer funding at first (I was placed on a wait list). UVM was a different story. I had been in communication with a professor there and was hoping to find some source of funding, but things quickly fell through, and at about the same time, I was told by UMD that I would be able to receive funding (one of the other incoming students opted to go elsewhere). So here I have been at UMD for 4 years.  I have another 2 years of GA funding – enough potentially to do my research and write my dissertation if my GA assignment is flexible enough and I’m persistent enough with my time.  Nevertheless, I have been searching for funding for several reasons: 1) to defray the costs of research which will tax my already taxed GA salary, 2) in case my GA position runs out before the research and writing can be completed, and 3) because one of the things departments look for in hiring new professors is their ability to bring money to the department, so having been awarded a grant or fellowship is a good thing to have on my CV.

Last November, in the midst of a host of personal struggles, I decided rather quickly to apply for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Science to Achieve Results (STAR) fellowship, which would provide me with 3 years of full funding (stipend, tuition, and travel/research expenses).  The application was due within a matter of weeks, and there were several scares that set me back – one was having to route the proposal through the University which would have consumed a week of writing but turned out not to be an issue in this case, and the other was the seemingly hard line the request for proposals (RFP) took towards human subjects research.  This latter was a major scare and nearly set me off of the proposal entirely. For whatever reason, the EPA decided that year to get rid of the social science subprogram and placed at the top of the RFP a line that essentially said that any research involving interaction with human subjects would not be funded. Needless to say, I panicked and was distraught because there was no conceivable way I could – as an anthropologist – do research without interacting with humans subjects. On the heels of a rumor, I sent some emails and made some phone calls to see if this was the case, and was assured that, as long as my research would be approved by an internal review board (IRB) for human subjects research, my proposal would not be rejected on those grounds. So I went ahead with the proposal. I wrote frantically for the next two weeks, and struggled to assemble all of the extra materials that would be necessary (including a complete record – though not transcripts – of my university course work with semesters, course numbers, final grades, credit hours, etc. going back through undergrad). After submitting, I felt good about my project, and confident in my proposal, though still doubtful about the human subjects issues and skeptical of my chances of actually being approved. And it wasn’t. In early May this year, I received a packet from the EPA saying that my proposal had not received sufficient scores from the reviewers to be recommended for funding. Included were the reviewers comments and scores – I got one “Very Good”, one “Good”, and one “Fair.”  The reviewer who marked the proposal as “Very Good” was glowing – s/he was excited about my research and thought it would add significantly to the field. Her only doubts stemmed from my lack of prior publications (a concern mentioned by all three reviewers) and my lack of indicated experience, but s/he took the letters of recommendation as evidence that I could work well with people and would be successful in my project. The reviewer who marked the proposal as “Fair” on the other hand, was much more critical. The proposal and research was not well organized, and there was no indication that I could carry out such a project.  The third reviewer who marked the proposal as “Good” was, of course, somewhere between the other two but still confident and interested in the possibilities for the research.  In any case, it was back to the drawing board – next step, apply for a National Science Foundation (NSF) dissertation improvement grant!

That’s where I’m at now. The proposal is due August 15, but I have to get it done sooner because 1) this proposal does have to go through the university and most of the staff in our research administration department will be away the first two weeks of August, and 2) the chair of our department has to sign the form and he will be gone starting today until the end of July. This means that I should have at least the budget prepared today so that he can sign off on it, and that the proposal itself will have to be ready by the end of July. But I’ve gotten derailed. Working on the budget, and trying to figure out what to include given all of the restrictions (computers only count if they are used primarily or exclusively for research, lodging and travel are only included if the research is away from the student’s University, etc.), I quickly began to realize that this grant was not made for my kind of research. NSF grants are designed for doctoral students who are doing either a) laboratory research, or b) research abroad or at least far from the university. My research is with the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis – a short drive from College Park – and doesn’t require a lot of equipment. I was trying to figure out what to include on the budget so as not to underfund myself, but also didn’t want to stretch the budget unreasonably. I came up with about $3000 worth of budget, much of which was a stretch.  Thinking about this and all of the work that I would have to do to prepare the proposal in the next couple of weeks made it seem less and less worthwhile. Assuming I got the grant – which is doubtful since most first time NSF applications are rejected – I would only get a few thousand dollars to cover some minor expenses with fieldwork. That’s good, for sure, but not worth the effort and chance of rejection, and it would keep me from applying for other federal funding like the EPA STAR.

Here’s what I’ve decided to do. First, I’m abandoning the NSF for now. Second, I’m going to revise and resubmit the EPA STAR proposal in November. I think I have a better chance at getting it this time around since I have the comments from the reviewers and can tailor the proposal to their concerns. Third, I will consider applying for NSF in January so that, if I don’t get the EPA STAR fellowship, I will have something to fall back on. And fourth, I’m going to spend my time now getting through the hoops of the PhD program to advance to candidacy, and then begin right away working on my dissertation research with only my GA funding. That way, even without funding, I can get it done as quickly as possible and hopefully within the two remaining years of my GA funding.

That’s the plan, so now to stop blogging and get back to work!

The Renewal of Government

In his testimony before the State Senate of Hawaii in favor of creating an Office of Environmental Quality Control (see Steps to an Ecology of Mind, “The Roots of Ecological Crisis”), Gregory Bateson proposes a radical role for the proposed government agency.

It is hoped that the proposed Office of Environmental Quality Control and the Environmental Center at the University of Hawaii will go beyond this ad hoc approach and will study the more basic causes of the current rash of environmental troubles


Key among the causes Bateson identified were “certain errors in the thinking and attitudes of Occidental culture. Our ‘values’ are wrong.”  Bateson suggests that the government agency serve not as a regulatory body addressing environmental problems on an as-needed basis, but rather as a cultural influence exploring the roots of environmental crisis and the potential alternatives. He ends with this:

We conclude that the next five to ten years will be a period comparable to the Federalist period in United States history. New philosophies of government, education,and technology must be debated both inside the government and in the public press, and especially among leading citizens. The University of Hawaii and the State Government could take a lead in these debates.

Federal and State environmental agencies continue to operate as ad hoc regulators of environmental problems rather than as the cultural influences that they actually are. This and other factors suggest that the debate Bateson predicted has not yet taken place, but it may not be entirely too late. Maybe it’s time to renew the question of the role of government and other powerful institutions in our lives and explore alternative possibilities.

Why Non-Humans?

In a world full of injustice, oppression, and exploitation – a world where governments spy on their citizens, where civilians are routinely killed by drones without remorse, where certain people are not allowed to marry because their marriage might offend traditional values, where people of color are still marginalized, where indigenous peoples continue to be ignored, and where the very idea of some kind of social justice is demonized – why do I work on environmental issues? Why do I care so much about the lives of non-humans? Wouldn’t my energy be better spent making the world a better place for all humans rather than worrying about all beings? The reason is that, for me, the fundamental challenge – the issue that underlies all of the problems we face within our societies and as a species upon this planet – is our relationship to otherness.

We live in a world full of otherness, a world populated by many different and singular kinds of beings: living rocks, symbiotic bacteria, worms that can regrow their memories after having their heads severed, and many many other strange things. The same is true in our social worlds populated as they are with people of all colors, sizes, shapes, abilities, interests, desires, preferences, and behaviors. I would not go so far as to say that we can’t address our relation to human otherness without first addressing our relation to non-human otherness (nor would I say the opposite), but I would say that our ability to relate to human others and our ability to relate to non-human others are deeply connected. Exploring our relation to otherness, no matter what its form (human or non-human), helps us to understand and improve our relation to otherness in general, whereas focusing exclusively on human otherness (at the expense of natural otherness) narrows our field of potentiality and prevents us from appreciating the full spectrum of possible relations.

This is why I like science fiction – to me it is the only genre that allows us to fully speculate about our possible interconnections with radical otherness. True, these are fictitious others and not beings we might actually encounter, but these explorations, I believe, make us better able to relate to otherness in our daily lives much like a child’s play helps them to understand and adapt to real-life conditions. As far as I’m concerned, by confronting the most outlandish and unnatural forms of otherness – whether those are found in the natural world, in the human world, or in our imaginations – we make it easier to address the more mundane forms of otherness with which we are confronted on a daily basis.

The Seduction of the Field

This past week, I’ve been up in Maine working on the bait worm project again. We’re trying to finish up by talking with worm dealers about different methods for reducing or eliminating the spread of invasive species through the bait trade. It has been a fast-paced, and very full trip with lots of new information and unexpected twists and turns. All this time, we have been trying to think of ways to treat the seaweed packing material (known as wormweed) because it was our understanding that they would not want to use anything else. We came up with some washing methods that effectively remove the invasive species without harming the worms or the wormweed, and our plan was to try and convince the dealers to implement these washing methods.  But then we come up here and start talking to them, and it turns out they’re already using another packing material: vermiculite!  Granted, this is only being used to ship to Europe at present, but the lowered costs of the material and shipping (because it’s lighter) make it appealing for domestic markets as well.  All of this shows that they’re not as tied to the wormweed as we had thought!  It also shows us that they’re not as central to the process as we had thought, since this change and a lot of the packing decisions are driven by regional distributors rather than the dealers themselves. It’s changed everything we thought about this industry!

The research has been amazing, energizing, and very very exciting, but it has lead me to think about the seduction of fieldwork. Being in the field, talking to people, learning new things, seeing the landscapes, and thinking about the possibilities makes everything seem so important. There have been several times during this trip that I’ve envisioned applying for further funding to explore more aspects of this issue. However, when I step back and think about the big picture, I am reminded of how I feel when I’m back in Maryland just doing the day-to-day work on this project: writing up, doing surveys, participating in meetings and conference calls, and so on. The project, from this perspective, doesn’t seem all that meaningful, and I often just want it to be done and off my plate. The risk that these species pose to other ecosystems is not clear to me, to the dealers we talk to, or even to the biologists on the project, so I’m not convinced that we are making much of a difference in terms of actually preventing the spread of invasive species. The hope was that this could be used as a model for addressing other vectors of invasive species, but there are so many nuances and contingencies involved that it seems of little use for that.  There is no political impact to this research, and no truly transformative value. Really, the only effect our work could have is to demonstrate the need for more inclusive science, and a more active role for social scientists in what are ostensibly natural science projects.

I’m interested in how other anthropologists or researchers in general feel about this seduction of the field. I wonder if others get caught up in the details, which are fascinating and seem to be full of meaning and import, to the point where they can get swept up in a project that actually has little or no larger value. Or maybe it’s my fault for not having the vision to see the transformative potential of this project – I’ve been trying, but it just feels so trivial. Nevertheless, it has done a lot to influence my understanding of research – both social and natural – and has given me the chance to travel to Maine periodically and write about strange sea creatures and alien invaders. I can’t complain, but I would like to move on to projects with more transformative potential.