Syria and the Making of a Mess

President Obama just announced that he was prepared to initiate a strike against Syria pending approval from Congress, and made it part of an “infernal alternative” – attack Syria or the world goes to hell and all the evil doers are free to do whatever they want. Think about this – an unstable nation, whose dominant regime is allied to another world power (Russia), an uprising backed in part by radical fundamentalist Muslims, and a potential stock of chemical weapons. It’s a mess, for sure. Add to that another world power (the US) and its cruise missiles – by what logic does this help clean up the mess?

It reminds me of the story of the Gordian Knot. Alexander cut through it leaving nothing but a tattered rope. This has been the logic of Western Warfare ever since – cut the knot, untangling it is too difficult, complicated and uncertain. But what if, for once, we reject Obama’s infernal alternative? What if, for once, we take the real risk and try to find a new way of addressing complex problems? What if, just this once, we have the courage and faith to work on untangling the knot instead of simply cutting through it? Maybe we’d have a decent rope left afterwards, maybe we’d have a better world.

Revolutionary Espionage

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we need to understand power in our society, and the tools and methods for building that understanding. It’s with this in mind that some colleagues and I have proposed the creation of an Up the Anthropologist Research Collective in the DC area. We will be meeting first at the American University Public Anthropology Conference (PAC) to brainstorm and strategize, and then, hopefully, continuing the process over the course of the year with the AnthrPlus Conference and in other venues. The purpose of this group, as I see it (and mine should not be seen as the defining vision for the group), is to understand the “culture” of power in DC. In that sense, I think, we’re not as concerned with the particulars of what people in power are doing – or we are, but only as a means to understand the “culture.”  I think it’s a great project, and I’m looking forward to the strategizing sessions. However, I think it’s also not enough.

The NSA is collecting data on us. Large corporations like Google and Facebook have vast amounts of information which we provide freely in exchange for their services. Corporate espionage is commonplace. But where is the espionage for the people? The balance weighs heavily in the wrong direction. We have wikileaks which focuses largely on state institutions and the military. The hackers of Anonymous and LulzSec sometime liberate corporate documents that cause a stir. We used to have investigative journalists whose job it was to keep an eye on and even at times infiltrate the corporate world to inform the public of problems, but this kind of journalism is increasingly rare. The above project focuses on the “culture” of power rather than its day-to-day operations, which is important, but, if we are to really resist power, then we have to understand those day-to-day operations as well.

What we need, I think (and I’m in no position to make this happen, but maybe somebody reading here is), is a dedicated espionage group that makes it their mission to infiltrate the corporate world, rise up in the ranks, and release information to the public (and, perhaps, sabotage corporate operations) so that the secret manipulations and back room deals are made apparent. In this world, we need more than protest and Occupy, we need a concerted effort to document the operations of power, reveal them to the world, and, hopefully, bring about outrage and change. We need to make a world where we are not the only ones keeping an eye over our shoulder wondering when and how we are being watched, but where those in power must also be forever on guard against such surveillance – unable to trust anyone, and driven towards isolation and paranoia.

It’s a huge challenge, and I’m not sure it could be pulled off. Certainly, the consequences for spying on power are harsher than the consequences they get for spying on us. Nevertheless, I think it is an important mission and essential for really making a different world. I hope this thought reaches someone who is capable of bring it about.

Love like Bread

Feeling inspirational today (after my last post), I opened my Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (a book everyone should have on their shelf or desk, IMO) to a random page and came across this one:

Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new”
– Ursula K. Le Guin The Lathe of Heaven

This should be seen as true of all relations whether romantic or otherwise. From my perspective, there is no other way it could be.  So let’s live as though we’re making bread, and continually remaking it as the old loaves go stale.

50 years later…



The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

– MLK Jr. Strength to Love

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech. President Obama commemorated the occasion with a speech of his own – not as rousing, spiritual, or inspirational as King’s speech, but that’s a big task to live up to so we can’t blame him for that. Obama’s speech was full of emotional, motivational, and proud moments. It was also full of jabs at conservative politicians and hints at possible policy actions (education, health care, job creation, etc.). It was nice, I thought, that he recognized not just King, but also those thousands of people who went out of their way to march and show the rest of the US that the tide of injustice was turning. It’s a very moving thing to think about.

Meanwhile, warships armed with cruise missiles descend upon Syria at Obama’s command. MLK promoted non-violence. He opposed the Vietnam war. And now, as we celebrate this momentous achievement of human beings coming together to resist oppression and injustice, we stand again on the brink of violence and, potentially, war. It is a tragedy that so many have been killed in that civil war, but it would be a greater tragedy if more lives were lost in a fight that we have no legal or moral basis to call our own.

Meanwhile, massive computers at the NSA are monitoring our communications and collecting sensitive information that can be used against us – all under the authorization of a secret court. I don’t fear right-wing fascism – the kind that is born of resentment and tries desperately to cling to a past that can never again exist. I fear the fascism that has no party and no political allegiance. I fear the fascism that hides itself behind an either/or logic – either we let them monitor our communications or we are attacked by terrorists.

Meanwhile, corporations and their minions reap enormous profits while the rest of us continue to suffer under the weight of recession and a lack of employment. King stood for economic justice as well as racial justice. For him, the fight against poverty was a fight that could raise the lives of everyone out of hardship and oppression. But his approach to economic justice was not that of the market, which has been the defining approach for both Democrats and Republicans since the 1970s (in fact, Obama’s call for more jobs and improving the tech sector in yesterday’s speech was very much about market logic). King called for a guaranteed income tied to the median income. Such an approach would be unheard of today!

All of these issues (and more) are ones we face time and again. These are the nuts and bolts of struggle – not visionary speeches. The question is how will we deal with them. Will we face them with the same logic that we’ve used in the past? The same logic that has failed us time and again? Or will we face them with the courage and faith to try something new – to take a risk and make a difference? This is where vision plays an important role. King inspired everyone to look beyond the future that seemed given. He called for us to look to that future that seemed impossible, to have faith in the struggle, and to keep on marching – past the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and into our everyday lives. We honor King and the thousands of people who marched that day by not giving in to the logic that is given to us – by seeking a different vision and struggling to make that vision, however impossible, come to be. Let’s take a look, see what challenges we face, and take the chance to make a difference.

Faith in the Impossible

Curiously, I’ve written about this briefly before. I had forgotten that post – a little nonsensical as it was written very quickly without much care or thought – until I read this article about hope and faith in anarchism. The article resonates with my own experience of struggle. The author draws a distinction between hope and faith – hope being the longing for the possible, whereas faith is the surrender to the impossible. According to the author:

To have faith in revolution is much different than having hope. If one has faith then one is in revolution, but if one has hope, then one is looking forward toward revolution. This is why I have claimed, in previous posts, that anarchists require knights of faith and not stooges of hope.  When you have hope, you by necessity confront an unbearable failure, one that probably brings about deep despair. Many anarchists are unable to recover from despair. But when you have faith, when you abandon the principle of hope (and thus the principle of despair), you allow yourself to realize that failure is always a possibility: we must, therefore, try something new.

He then quotes Zizek:

Hope is only where despair is […] something truly new happens only when you are in such a deep shit that within the existing coordinates you can find no way out. Then in order to survive you have to invent something new. The magic is to turn a desperate situation into a new beginning.

As I described yesterday, my own experience of struggle has been one of moving back and forth between the struggle to go from day to day through anxiety and despair and the struggle to make the world a better place. Neither can exist in my life without the other – this is my phenomenology of struggle. What keeps me going – what gets me out of bed on those days when despair is overwhelming or fear is gripping me – is faith. It is this faith that has always allowed me to emerge from anxiety and despair and chart a new track in my life and in the struggle. But not faith in a higher being or faith in the ultimate goodness of the universe. That kind of faith detracts from struggle because it implies that there is a better reality already there and we only have to uncover it.

No, I believe that the world is what we (all of us, human and non-human alike, collaboratively) make of it. My faith is in the struggle and the recognition that the struggle continues forever. Like the author above, I think that faith is surrender to the impossible, unlike hope, which is always longing for something that never truly comes. Hope brings despair, but also danger. For hope can always be co-opted (as I believe it was, though not maliciously, in the first Obama campaign). When hope seems close, when the end is within reach, we grab for its fruits and relish in it’s sweet flesh, not realizing that meanwhile the snake is still in the tree waiting to bite. Faith, on the other hand, has no end, and is always conscious of the presence of the snake that can never be really removed.

Faith is surrender to the impossible. Utopia is the impossible – it is, literally, “no place.” Faith is endless, and the struggle is forever. To paraphrase Huxley, “Give us this day our daily faith, but deliver us, dear God, from Hope.”

Happiness and Struggle pt II

In a previous post, I briefly explored the relationship between happiness and the struggle to make a better world – looking specifically at the nature of “hedonic” happiness, which comes from intense experiences and immediate gratification, versus “eudaimonic” happiness, which comes from building positive social relations over time (or struggle). Arran James has posted a nice expansion of that piece with his usual insight, eloquent prose, and direct connection to real, concrete struggle. His conclusion is that happiness is not as common as we tend to think, nor is it necessary to live a good, positive life. We all experience distress, whether external or internal or some combination of the two (another not-so-clear dichotomy), and much of our distress stems from the awful socio-economic conditions in which we find ourselves in this time. Nevertheless, many are able to struggle despite their experience of distress, and the struggle itself can be a source of relief. He concludes,

I don’t think that this means that human beings require “revolt, not therapy” but that we go some way to produce a politics that is also therapeutic and a therapy that is openly political. Such “political therapeutics”, meant in a similar way perhaps to Foucault’s “political spirituality”, must be involved in critiquing psychiatric and psychotherapeutic power but must not lapse into uncritical rejection of the potency of medications and forms of therapy to help people get themselves to the position of being capable to continue struggling.

I suspect that there may be a particular kind of person that is likely to engage in struggle – a great many people simply don’t, and choose instead to go on with life as prescribed to them by the social system. I suspect that these people are particularly sensitive to the hardships they see around themselves. They are empathetic, concerned, open, aware, vulnerable (in the positive sense of the term), and engaged. People like this are canaries in the coal mine – they experience the anxieties and hardships of the world on a visceral level, often not recognizing it as part of the larger world but experiencing it directly and internally (this bias is exacerbated by the psychological tendency to internalize distress, as discussed by Arran). These people are, therefore, the most likely to engage in struggle, but also the most likely to struggle with the distress that has become an essential part of human life.

I’ve experienced this back-and-forth between the struggle to keep going and the struggle to make a difference for years. I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression of and on since I was 16. After the first incident, I recovered quickly and thought I had freed myself largely through hedonistic experiences rather than struggle.  I was concerned, but I became more concerned about my internal pleasure rather than the quality of the world as a whole. I quickly found that I was not free, and that the internal pleasures and peak experiences that I relied upon could be just as damaging and distressing as the ordinary stresses of life.

My next experience of anxiety came when I was 20 – in 2001, just a few months before the 9/11 attacks. I was unsure about my future – working in childcare, but not confident that this was the right career for me – and seeking out experiences that would take me away from the scary, sad, and lonely world of normalcy. I had my first panic attack on the way to Colorado for a series of concerts. I spent two days there going to shows and trying to free myself again, but ultimately locked inside a panicked shell. I couldn’t sleep, barely ate, and felt as though I was weighing down my friends around me. I had to go home – I left early and went back to Lawrence.  I spent the next month going through at least one panic attack per day. I lost 20 pounds that month and could only bring myself to eat candy. The only thing that stopped it was a prescription for valium. The valium killed the panic, but I continued in a state of heightened anxiety for months afterwards.  I went to therapy and learned cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helped tremendously. The ability to recognize the distressing thoughts allowed me to reach a level of stability. And it was from there that my life changed dramatically. I became more socially and environmentally conscious – no longer focused on my own internal freedom, my focus shifted to the world around me. I began to engage in struggle rather than trying to find myself, and, on the whole, that has been my life ever since.

I have not had a panic attack since I was 20, but I have experienced a lot of anxiety and depression since that time. When I was in my early 20’s, I became depressed about the direction my life was taking. I took a huge risk and left my job to go back to school – this was when I started the path to anthropology. However, taking that risk and experiencing the sudden precarity of student life stimulated my anxiety again. I had to go back on klonopin to make it through.

Now, for the last year or so, I’ve been suffering from depression again. Much of it has to do with the life of a graduate student – always financially unstable, always living at the whim of the University or the department, and the strain that it puts on personal relationships. It has sapped my strength, and kept me from engaging in struggle as much as I would like. There are times when I’ve been stable and capable of being engaged, but it is a struggle to maintain that and finish projects that I think of as valuable. I am working on it, and hopefully this year will be less of a burden (I have a better GA assignment, will be starting my dissertation research, and have several very good projects in the works), but it’s never easy to tell.

The thing is, some part of me values these experiences. Every one of them has changed my life. They have been hard to slog through, but they have pressed me to become more than I was before. I value my anxiety because, when it doesn’t overwhelm me and drive me away from life, it is this same way of thinking and acting that stimulates me and allows me to come up with new ideas, to get excited about a project. It gives me an energy and a mental edge that many people don’t have. I don’t wish it on anyone, but I would say that, if you do have it, you should try and recognize the value that it brings to your life as well as the harm. Don’t romanticize it, but don’t think of it as a flaw either. It’s what makes it possible for me to struggle!

With all this in mind, my sense is that happiness is not the goal. Perpetual happiness, like utopia, is a state that lacks difference. At the same time, we should not passively accept distress. Distress is a symptom, and a symptom is a sign – a sign that something needs to change, that we need a difference in our lives and our world. For some, this is the beginning of struggle – the struggle to find some stable place from which they can live and act, because getting out of bed in the morning is a struggle itself. But that isn’t the end of the struggle – from that stable place, the struggle becomes the one for the “political therapeutics” that Arran mentions. For those who are sensitive to hardship and distress, we will always move back and forth, from the struggle for life and self to the struggle for a better world. It is this movement that makes us who we are, and, though it is not fun, pleasurable or happy, it is what makes a better world possible. That’s something more valuable than all the hedonic experiences the world could offer.

UP the Anthropologist Research Collective – DC Metro Area

At this year’s American University Public Anthropology Conference, some colleagues and I are planning to have a panel and discussion session on the idea of using anthropology to “study up” (borrowing the phrase from Laura Nader) in the DC area. Here is the abstract:

UP the Anthropologist Research Collective

Panelists: Jeremy Trombley, Justin Uehlein, David Colon-Cabrera, Kerry Hawk-Lessard, Michael Roller

We are anthropologists living in one of the most concentrated center of power in the US, and perhaps the world, and as such we have an obligation to concentrate research on the manner in which this power manifests. Decisions made in DC radiate outwards through networks of power affecting the lives of people around the world. Our proximity to these sites of power provide us with the perfect opportunity to engage in what Laura Nader referred to as “studying up”, yet many of us focus our attention on the problems faced by marginal groups in extant communities far from, but still affected by, these sites of power. Such research is important and necessary, but there are also numerous challenges to “studying up”. Gaining access to sites and people of power can prove difficult, and in a world in which those in power are relentlessly vigilant in sealing up leaks, “studying up” can involve great risk to career, family, and even life. Nevertheless, there is no better time to undertake such a project. This panel will explore the possibilities and challenges for creating a research collective oriented towards the practice of “studying up” in the DC Metro area (and beyond). Panelists will share experiences and thoughts regarding “studying up”, after which everyone in attendance will be invited to discuss the creation of the research collective, share their own experiences, and contribute ideas, methods, skills, and tools to advancing the “study up” agenda.

What Makes a Difference?

I’ve made the distinction in my philosophy between work and struggle before. It’s been on my mind lately, though, and so I want to reiterate and explore it some more.  The question above, “What makes a difference?” is the key. I follow Levi Bryant (and Latour and a few others) in subscribing to what he calls the “Ontic Principle” – that is, existence is defined by difference. In other words, whatever exists makes a difference, and, complementarily, whatever makes a difference exists. Therefore, everything, by definition, makes a difference. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t exist. This is a fundamental ontological principle.

Building on that, though, we have to think about the process of making a difference. How do things make a difference? This is the process I refer to as Work (and is synonymous, to me, with “practice” and, in some sense, “performance”). Work is what things do to make a difference. Things work upon other things. They (we, since we are things as well) alter and affect them (us). Remake them. Transform them. Compose them. But “work” suggests an active process, doesn’t it? What about a rock sitting on a lump of grass? Surely the rock exists, right? It makes a difference to the plants, bugs, animals, water, and other things around it. It cannot simply be ignored or passed through. But does it work? I think here the active/passive dichotomy has to be abandoned. We are moving beings, and so we are biased towards moving beings. But any activist will tell you that there is a power, an effort even, in not moving, being firm, passively resisting. Perhaps the rock is further along the spectrum than that, but passivity still works upon other beings.

Work is the efficacy aspect of agency. Does it make a difference? If it exists, it does, and therefore it has some kind of efficacy and some degree of agency (and we can begin differentiating beings based on the kinds of efficacy they have – a rock’s efficacy is different from a bug’s, which is different from a human’s). But there is another aspect to agency – the ability to consciously determine what kind of difference one makes.  That is intentionality. Intentionality without efficacy is merely navigation – going with the flow, and the flow in our society is very harmful and destructive (one can talk about going with the flow of nature, but I would argue that there is no predefined flow of nature – nature is continually changing and being composed and recomposed. Nature is what we do, and what we do is natural. To say otherwise is a value judgement and not part of nature at all). Intentionality without efficacy is navigation. But efficacy without intentionality is random chance. A lot can be done with random chance – a whole world was built from it – but for our social lives, random chance is not sufficient. Therefore, we need a combination of efficacy and intentionality – the two components of agency. Without both, we sell ourselves short, and cannot work towards a better world. We cannot help but be efficacious, but without intentionality we end up merely replicating the status quo. The process of adding intentionality to efficacy in order to make the world differently or better than it was (to “crab sideways towards the good” – however you might define that) is what I refer to as Struggle.

Struggle is work. It is the intentional work of making the world a better place. The work of striving towards utopia. But utopia is (literally) “no place.” We share the world with other beings. Every being has a different image of utopia. Furthermore, the world is always changing and moving. We cannot hope to find a time or place where everything is just as it should be for everyone and for eternity (such a state would lack difference, and therefore cannot exist by the above principle). As a result, utopia becomes the process of trying to bring about its existence – a process that, in the nature of things, can never be completed. The struggle is – must be – forever.

I always come back to this, of course – Struggle Forever! It is the name of the blog, after all. But it doesn’t mean that I think everyone has to literally struggle forever. I certainly don’t. The meaning behind “Struggle Forever” is just that the struggle doesn’t stop. We may achieve a goal or two. We may make progress. But we will never achieve utopia. That sounds bleak, but I think just the opposite. It’s when we believe that we can reach – or have reached – some height of utopia where the danger lies. It’s in those times that we step back and stop struggling. And it’s when we stop struggling that oppression creeps back in. Instead, if we recognize that we will never get there – never reach the height of utopia – and we recognize that the struggle must keep going, then oppression can be held back.

The key is to think about the difference that you make. To try and make a difference that brings about a better world. You can’t help but work, but you can work for the world as it is or you can struggle for a new one.

Anthropology and Ontological Politics


Speaking of Anthropology and Diplomacy, thanks to my friend dmf for sharing this video lecture of Arturo Escobar discussing anthropology, territory, modernity, and ontological politics. Escobar is a professor at UNC, Chapel Hill and author of the excellent book Territories of Difference (and many other books and articles). He provides numerous concrete examples and a thorough explanation of the future potential for anthropology in terms of composing a “pluriverse.”

Anthropology and Diplomacy

Latour’s latest book An Inquiry into Modes of Existence has just been released. I got my copy in the mail a couple weeks ago, but have only waded into it because I had other responsibilities (I just finished an exam!). My friend Adam Robbert has been working on setting up a reading group for this coming Fall, which I will be taking part in (along with several really smart people), but I wanted to write a brief thought about one of the key themes I’m picking up on in the first couple of chapters: anthropology and diplomacy.

The book is subtitled “An Anthropology of the Moderns”, a project that Latour has been undertaking for the past 40 or more years in different forms. What does this mean, though? What is an anthropology of the moderns? The answer to this question, I believe, has enormous implications for the future of anthropology (assuming Latour’s call is taken up, but I think I should be). I’ve talked a bit about this before, but based on my very preliminary readings from this book, I think there are two key effects that an “anthropology of the moderns” will have on anthropology in general.

First, an anthropology of the moderns means that anthropology will have to become symmetrical. What does that mean? It’s been a key theme of Latour’s work since the early days.  Drawing on the initial work of the sociology of science (Bloor, Barnes, etc.), there was a first assymmetry that had to be overcome – that between “good” and “bad” science. Prior to this approach, “good” science was treated as something special and above the influence of politics and other social forces.  It was only “bad” science that was social – in fact, this was almost treated as the definition of “bad” science.  As soon as a scientist took on political or economic motives for her research, that research could be defined as “bad.” Only by staying above the fray could scientists do “good” science. What Bloor et. al. recognized was that all science was social – “good” just as much as “bad.”  From there, it became possible to explore the practices of scientists and the processes by which knowledge is made.

The identification of and movement beyond this first assymmetry led to the identification of a second assymmetry. If all science is social, then we no longer have any criteria for judging “good” and “bad” science – all scientific knowledge could be reduced to discursive processes rather than objective knowledge (an often repeated, derogatory example is the question of whether an airplane would fall out of the sky if we were to stop believing in Boyle’s Law). Yet, scientific practices have been our most effective tool for composing knowledge about the world and universe around us. How do we account for this? Latour, in order to rectify this, suggested a second form of symmetry which he called “generalized symmetry.”  In this practice he argued we must treat both human and non-human actors in any assemblage equally (not as the same thing, but in the same way). In other words, associations are not merely built between humans, but also between humans and non-humans, and the non-humans have (more or less, depending on the circumstances) as much influence (or agency) on the form that those associations take as the humans.  Put even more simply, this form of symmetry breaks down the distinction between Nature and Culture.

Generalized symmetry, according to Latour, has enormous implications for all practices. In fact, the Nature/Culture distinction that the concept is meant to overcome becomes a kind of identifying feature of “the Moderns” in his book We Have Never Been Modern.  What it means for anthropology in particular is a symmetry in the way we investigate “moderns” and “non-moderns.”  One of the key features of modernity, Latour argues, is the arrow of time – moving rapidly into the future in order to leave behind a dark past.  Part of that past are the many other cultures that cohabit the earth – these are seen to be primitive, steeped in superstition (belief rather than knowledge), and in need of “development.”  Things have gotten better, of course.  We no longer use the word “primitive”, we have begun documenting and seeking to utilize “traditional knowledge”, and we recognize the complexities involved in “development.” What’s more, we (anthropologists) have begun researching “modern” populations in addition to studying those other cultures. However, Latour argues that not enough has been done. We still, in practice, reinforce the separation of Moderns and Others.  When we study Moderns, we tend to focus on marginal groups or exotic practices. We treat these as vestiges of a past from which we are still fleeing rather than looking at the core features of modernity in the way that we do with other cultures. This, he suggests, is what we need to do to really work out the contradictions of modernity.

Second, and closely related, anthropology must become a diplomatic practice.  First, we understand the Moderns (and this book is a continuation and beginning of this project), next we begin working on building a common world with the others who share this planet. If we plunge into this project without working through the first (at least partially), then we risk continuing to treat the Others as many different perspectives (beliefs about) a reality that we know. In other words, if the Nature/Culture dichotomy breaks down, then different cultures cannot be conceived simply as different ways of knowing a uniform reality. Instead, they must be understood to be different realities that have been created through different practices over time. Failing to do so ultimately treats Moderns as the sole possessors of a reality (by way of Science) that the Others can only access by way of belief. Treating them symmetrically allows us to begin crafting a common world – an always difficult incomplete, and tenuous process, but essential in a world of global interconnection.

These two transformations have been hinted at in other forms – post-colonial theory, culture studies, environmental critique, etc. So Latour is not wholly original here. However, he does offer a novel logic for these ideas, and a new way of thinking about and acting upon the problems we face. The diplomatic approach – building relationships between different groups – is a key role that I believe (and Latour seems to support) anthropologists are uniquely equipped to play. I hope the discipline will take on the challenge and begin to craft a more effective practice.