Irreduction and Dependent Origination

From Nagarjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā:

Neither from itself nor from another,

Nor from both,

Nor without a cause,

Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.”


From Latour’s “Irreductions” (in The Pasteurization of France):

Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else.”


I post this only for the sake of reflection. I don’t have anything more to say about it.

Hitting Home: Anthropology, Academia, Race and Gender

Just when you think you’re working in a progressive discipline – one that is conscious and reflexive with regard to issues of race and gender – you hear a story that makes your heart sink. And it’s never just one story, because once one story has been told others begin to come out. There are stories of people of color and women being consistently overlooked for funding, jobs and promotion. There are stories of women being treated like children, and put in their place. And these stories are all justified by a logic other than race and gender – quality or quantity of work, academic “fit”, lack of funds, abrasiveness or lack of self-control. But it happens so consistently to particular people and not to others that it can’t help but raise questions among those who are paying attention.

Not enough people are paying attention. Our discipline has come a long way. In spite of – and maybe even because of – our history as a colonial science, we have made great strides in terms of being more reflexive and conscious of issues of race and gender in our research. We go to great lengths to ensure that our informants or collaborators feel included – even when they don’t particularly care about our projects. We call out racism and sexism in other disciplines and in society as a whole. But still we have failed miserably in many cases to turn that reflexive gaze upon our day-to-day practices, and in the academic departments we call home.

I’m not the first person to call attention to this, and if this post gains any traction in the discipline it will serve as one more tragic reminder that the voices of women and people of color are not being heard. But I feel the need to do something, and writing this little blog post on this obscure corner of the internet is the one thing – the one minimal thing – I can do.

What we need is a serious discussion of race and gender within our own field. Not race and gender in “the field” – a space comfortably distanced from our everyday lives even when the actual place is just down the street – but race and gender in our departments, in our writing, in our daily habits. Anthropology has a lot to offer the world, and we make a substantive difference out there, but it’s time to hit home a little harder and make a difference in our own worlds.

Complexity, Performativity, Experimentation

“The key idea in grasping many of the examples we have explored is Beer’s notion of an “exceedingly complex system”—meaning a system with its own inner dynamics, with which we can interact, but which we can never exhaustively know, which can always surprise us. A world built from exceedingly complex systems would necessarily be one within which being would always center on performative dances of agency and findings-out, where neither knowledge nor anything else would constitute a still, reliable center. This, I think, is our world.”
– Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain

I don’t think we (meaning scientists, both social and natural) have fully taken in the lessons of complexity and the various cybernetic and systems theories that came before it. What these theories tell us is that the world is incredibly complex; that its complexity is layered, overlapping and interweaving; and that we can never know everything about anything (let alone everything about everything). Our material world is complex. Our social systems are complex. Even our own bodies and minds are supremely complex. Our world is full of otherness which we can never completely grasp. And we are part of the complexity – can never escape it.

And yet we go through our lives and conduct our research as if knowing the world was the ultimate goal – as if, if we only knew a little more, we would be able to manage things. We separate ourselves from the systems we study thinking that we can just collect the data and then leave and everything will be fine. We publish our results expecting that that will be enough to change things. And when it doesn’t we look for quick solutions – social media, behavioral economics, memes, etc. – that will propagate our message and change things. And when it doesn’t we get fed up and say “Fuck humanity!”

Complexity teaches us that existence is unpredictable and ultimately unknowable. Knowledge is not the goal, instead it’s the building of relationships that happens by way of the knowledge we produce. And we are part of those systems that we seek to change. As a result, our only hope for change comes through a continual process of engagement, and experimentation. Failure is inevitable, but not undesirable. It’s part of the dance. Instead of becoming resistant and isolated, the goal is to become increasingly more open to the possibilities the world has to offer. And through this process, we are changed as much, if not more than, the world and the Others who compose it.

These are the lessons that we need to internalize from complexity theory.