The Value of Critique

I recently read this fantastic piece about the recent critiques of Lorde and the racial implications of her song Royals. I don’t really want to hash out the arguments for and against the song. I’m not really a fan of Lorde – I’ve heard the song a lot and find it catchy, but not necessarily great music. I think the overt class critique in the song is interesting in the context of increasing cultural critique coming through music. At the same time, I agree that the racial coding of the song is problematic at best. However, the specific critiques of this song and the responses to those critiques are not what concerns me here. What really interested me about the post was the discussion of cultural critique and its uses and purposes in our world. The author begins:

It begins with a question, one rarely asked and so rarely responded to. Neither articulated nor answered, the question persists as an inchoate feeling for and vague orientation toward another. If we were to give voice to this question, to make it explicit, we would thematize the mystery of this orientation, this feeling-for-another that puts us in hesitant proximity with one another. The question might be phrased as “Going my way?”

In other words, we’re concerned with an orientation. Which way are you going, and can we walk together on this path? The author is taking an anarchist perspective, but it nevertheless applies to all social circumstances. There is no ground. There is no fundamental orienting principle along which we all can align, no common goal towards which we are all struggling. Instead, there are only the fragile and unstable associations of people groping their way through a twisted, dark, and dangerous world. So what we have is each other, working together to orient one another and ourselves. So the question is whether we are walking together or against one another.

This is where critique comes in. Critique is a tool, like a compass – a way of orienting. The difference is, of course, that there is no magnetic north that attracts the compass needle. Instead, there is only the collective negotiations and navigations where critique is laid down, considered, responded to, and negotiated – and then the process is repeated perpetually as we make our way together through the world. Critique is engagement – it is a way of asking the question “Going my way?” A tool for assessing our inclinations and working together to navigate our path. But critique too easily slides into simple criticism. The author explains:

My worry is that we’re increasingly conflating the necessity of critique with the production of allergies, that critique has given way to simple criticism, that our critical performances are ultimately functional for liberalism’s pulverization of the political.

Criticism is not about building collectives capable of resisting the dominance of patriarchy, racism, classism, and all of the other oppressive forces with which we are face. Criticism is about pushing away, isolating, marking, and rejecting. It defines an individual by his/her actions – “you’re racist”, “you’re homophobic”, “you’re sexist” – rather than marking the actions as a way of orienting the individual – “that’s racist”, “that’s homophobic”, “that’s sexist”. Of course, there are those who are not inclined with us, those who are not “going our way.” And these are almost easier to dismiss. For them, critique is not the right tool, because their orientation is so far from ours – they’re using a different compass, different map entirely. But for those of us who are engaged in the work of building counter-dominance collectives, criticism can become caustic – eroding the already fragile connections of which these collectives are composed.

This is, of course, not to say that people like Lorde or Lily Allen should get a free pass. There is certainly something “fucked up” about the objectification and exploitation of people of color, women, and especially women of color in the culture industry. And to say “it’s not about race” is, obviously, completely to miss the point. But to emphasize the critique without also acknowledging the common inclination serves only to fragment and not to compose. That these kinds of critiques (of class and gender, at least) are finding their way through the culture industry’s maze is a miracle in itself:

We feel that we’re inclined toward one another, that we’re going the same way, and this basic affect/orientation makes non-allergic critique both possible and necessary. We imagine we’re going the same way even if we sometimes decline from one another or swerve away into terrible things.

We all do and say terrible things – nobody is immune. Those who imagine they are are likely to be the least inclined with us. So what do we do when somebody with whom we are inclined does or says something terrible? More importantly, what do we do when they do it while, at the same time, critiquing something with which we are equally repulsed? We critique, of course. However, we do so without dismissing or pushing away, and recognizing that there are far worse things in the world more deserving of our criticism . Through our critique we seek an engagement – in some cases, directly with the individual and in some cases with others who might also be engaged with the content. But engagement is not unidirectional – in our critique, we have to put ourselves on the line as well. In fact, in many cases, it is through our critique that we become vulnerable to critique ourselves. If not, then we’re not doing it right. In the author’s words:

Critique can only be the antonym of collective corrosion when we recall that we’re going to get in one another’s way as we go on our way, together, maybe. Indeed, critique is a mode of collective augmentation when its animated by a commitment, however vague, to maintaining the world that we co-produce, that we’re on the way toward. So, let’s rewrite the dictum of Kant, the one he put in the emperor’s mouth, the one that serves as a mantra for liberals and Leninists alike, the one that goes, “Argue as much as you like about whatever you like, but obey!” Let’s rewrite it as, “Argue as much as you like about whatever you like, but incline!” Critique and critique hard. But never suppress the felt possibility that we, whoever we are, are going one another’s way.

Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet


This looks like an excellent event – Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, James Clifford, Ursula K. LeGuin, and others. Unfortunately, it’s all the way across the country from me and is also taking place on the same weekend as the Society for Cultural Anthropology conference, so I will probably pass. I hope there will be videos of the sessions though!

Big Data and the “Intangible” of Culture

Yesterday I went to a talk here at UMD given by the statistical whiz-kid Nate Silver. His book The Signal and the Noise is this year’s First Year Book, so many students at the university are reading it for classes and there are many events planned around it. This talk was one such event. The talk was good – entertaining and informative – and despite a philosophical disagreement about the nature of “truth” I felt that his philosophy of data was practically very good. I won’t go into all of the details of the talk, which was essentially a condensed version of his book, but I wanted to mention something that I found interesting. After the talk, an audience member asked about the inclusion of “intangibles” in sports statistics – are there “intangibles” that the statistics cannot or do not capture? The questioner was talking about “intangibles” that individuals possess – some quality that makes a particular player stand out in excess or in spite of his/her statistics. Silver essentially bypassed the issue of individual “intangibles” and cut straight to something that was more interesting to me – the importance of collective “intangibles.”

What Silver said was that there was something about the “culture” of a team and the way they play together that could be important, whether it’s in sports or in an office environment. The way different collectives organize themselves shapes the way that collective works and how effective it will be in accomplishing a task or achieving a goal. The implication was that statistics cannot account for this kind of “intangible.” I’m not a statistician and I’ve only messed with quantitative data a little so I can’t say to what extent this is actually true. It is, perhaps, possible that various forms of social network analysis and relational statistics could capture something of “culture”, but it has always seemed to me that a genuine understanding of the inter-relatedness of people (and animals and things as well) would require a way of understanding culture qualitatively. That, of course, is the value of anthropology. We have, over the past century or more, developed a robust approach to understanding the “intangibles” that quantitative analyses cannot capture in the form of ethnographic research. By working closely with people, immersing ourselves in their daily lives, and meticulously observing and documenting the way they relate to one other we develop a detailed image of their cultural lives.

Big data, it seems, is very good at capturing the quantitative aggregations of individuals, where it falls short is in understanding the workings of collectives and the relationships between individuals. As institutions – governments, corporations, sports teams, non-profits, etc. – become increasingly dependent upon big data, I would speculate that there will also be a recognition that big data isn’t capturing everything. Once this happens, there will be a turn towards methods that capture “intangibles” like culture to fill in the gaps or provide an explanatory frame in which to fit the big data results. When that happens, anthropologists will be in a prime position to insert themselves into that position. My only concern is that we don’t lose track of the real purpose of anthropology, which is not to understand, but to work with others and build relationships that make a better world.

The Social of Nature

I’ve been following an interesting discussion of Facebook where Levi Bryant says that the way to eliminate essentialism is not to erase “nature” and make everything “cultural”, but rather to embrace “nature” and queer it. The discussion is largely conceptual and not worth rehashing here, but it did remind me of an issue I’ve been thinking a lot of lately. As a cultural anthropologist who works extensively with natural scientists, I walk this tight-rope a lot. We are continually trying to insert or tack on what is generally referred to as “the human dimensions” to environmental science projects. This is how it was with the invasive species project that I was working on and this is how it has been with many of the projects on which I and my cohort have been involved. “The human dimension” is secondary and often perfunctory rather than integrated and systematic. Nevertheless, we continue to try, going to great lengths to fully integrate our research with that of natural scientists.

What I’ve noticed recently, though, is that, in this process, there is often the adoption of concepts and methods from the natural sciences by social scientists – perhaps as a way to appease the natural scientists and “speak their language.” For example, we take on concepts like “resilience” and “complex adaptive systems” in order to frame our investigations of socio-cultural phenomena in a way that scientists will appreciate and understand. There’s nothing wrong with that – it facilitates communication and the concepts are not necessarily wrongly applied. And yet, it does lead to a kind of naturalization of social phenomena. We end up looking for the ways that societies function in naturalistic ways – the ways they are “resilient” or “adaptive”. These approaches, while perhaps accurate and valuable in a certain way, also tend to obscure important aspects of social relations such as power and the processes of social construction. In that sense, going too far down this path of appeasing the scientific crowd can severely limit our own approach to understanding and addressing social issues. This is perhaps why so much environmental social science seems so limited or ineffective – because we so dramatically reduce the parameters with which we are dealing that the products of our research become compromised.

That’s not to say that I want to stop incorporating ecological concepts into the social sciences, but what I would like to see more of, I think, is the socialization of the natural sciences. That is, I would like the natural sciences to accept and incorporate concepts from the social sciences and apply them to their ecologies. Ecologies are, at base, societies – collections of different materials and organisms attempting to coexist in a given space. And the ways that they attempt to coexist – the negotiations that occur between populations in a space – often look very much like the attempts of humans to coexist in a given space. Note here that this is not an attempt to say that “nature is culture”  in the sense of subverting the non-human and material world to a world of humans and signs, it’s just to say that the material processes by which ecologies are composed are very social. As a result, it might be worth looking at power dynamics between different populations or even within a population. It might be useful to view ecological processes as practices of social construction (in the material-semiotic sense and not in the exclusively conceptual sense that “social construction” is often taken).

At present, we have a largely ineffectual and poorly integrated “human dimension” tacked on to natural science projects (often as an afterthought), and I would say this is largely because of the unidirectional and uneven flow of concepts from the natural sciences to the social sciences. I think equalizing that conceptual flow is the only way to actually integrate the two approaches to create an effective science of environmental concerns. How to do this without alienating the natural scientists (who already feel themselves under constant threat of attack) is another question, which I’m still working to understand.

On the Logic of Anthropological Inquiry: A Conversation with Paul Rabinow

Reblogged from Somatosphere, the original article can be found here.

Some key excerpts:

I was drawn to anthropology as a discipline in which it might be possible to practice “fieldwork in philosophy,” that is to say to pose questions and address problems traditionally situated in philosophic venues but to explore them out of the academy through sustained inquiry in the world. With the prodigious exception of Michel Foucault, 20th-century philosophers have not conducted this form of empirically based, slow, and time-consuming inquiry. Even John Dewey, one of my guiding lights in providing a conceptualization of inquiry, basically did not carry out any such project. Thus, the challenge has been to be conceptually innovative, experimental in the dual sense of an appropriately rigorous approach to problems and in the work on the self and others that makes one capable of ethically undertaking such work.

The series of books are themselves experiments in form. How to write in a timely fashion about fast-moving events and organizations? One had to sacrifice certain things in order to do so. I basically withdrew from academic politics local and international. There is a price to be paid for that disappearance in terms of building networks, accumulating debts, gaining discretionary familiarity, and conforming to the current fashions.

…if anything like this rhythm of inquiry, writing, and reflection were ever to become the norm in the university instead of constant conference travel, never-ending committee meetings, iPhone addiction, scheming and plotting, obsession with being in the know and doing the trendy thing, the academy would either disappear or look very different.

What has drawn me to genomic and post-genome-sequencing molecular biology as well as Richter’s work is the objects they are bringing into the world, the collaborative manner in which they are being produced, and the way they are being made to ramify. I think of this as historical ontology of an anthropological sort, but if the term has been polluted by other disciplines we can find a different one. We can learn from these modes of production of objects with a warrant of truth about who we are as living beings and those objects which have attained authority as to making things visible, but we cannot directly imitate them. That challenge of science, art, and logic or multiple other triads have been taken up perennially in various modes. How they assemble and disassemble, and how to think about and give form to our understandings of these defining works in progress, works that contribute to defining the logos of anthropos as well as experiments in form, would seem to be one eminently plausible, if all too rare, way of doing anthropology.

China Miéville: Marxism and Halloween

Reblogged from synthetic_zero

China Miéville discusses how to do Halloween right from a revolutionary socialist perspective. He explains why Halloween is defensible from a Marxist perspective – as solidarity with those who are made monsters by Global Capitalism, as a reclaiming of an alternate rationality, and as a celebration of fear and dread, which are constitutive of our ability to see and conceptualize alternative futures. As part of his argument for the latter, he recalls some fascinating findings in octopus cognition where some octopi were found to carry coconuts as a form of protection (video below), suggesting that octopi and humans are the only organisms to deploy tools in the hope of not making use of them. This underscores his perspective on dread as a unique capacity for imagining alternatives.

I would add only one thing to his argument, which is that Halloween and other forms of play involving the supernatural and monstrous are also ways of encountering the otherness that exists actually within our world – pushing the boundaries of understanding and acceptance in certain ways – and also a way of encountering the imaginary otherness that exists within ourselves. Rational though we might be, we are also profoundly irrational – it’s this internal otherness that provides a resource for imagining alternative futures and for exploring the effectivity of conceptual realities. Certainly, Halloween can be performed in many ways, but here Miéville explains how Halloween can be performed right.