Living Water

Without liquid water life could not have emerged on this little rock of a planet. As the skin of the Earth is mostly water, so too are our bodies. We are made of water. More than that – we are living water. Water that built for itself a container, rose up out of the ocean to move around on land, become sentient, and fly out to the stars.

Maybe this is why I find such joy in water – drinking it, letting it wash over me, floating in it. When I’m with it, my mind rests, my body becomes supple, and I can’t help but smile or laugh. Holding my breath I submerge, let the water hold me, support me, flow with me – the only thing separating me from the ocean in this moment is bit of flesh and bone. I float there as long as I can until my lungs are crying out. The water welcomes me home, but then pushes me away – this body of water isn’t meant for the depths.

And when I die, my shell, my container will decay back into the Earth, or maybe it will be turned to ash and put in the ground alongside my brother’s. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But my water will flow on, join other water and make a river. Or maybe it will rise up into the air and float away on a breeze.


If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not doing it right.”

David Colón Cabrera, on doing ethnography


Excessive comfort should be avoided.*

Comfort is fascist – it persists through radical exclusion. Don’t like the heat? Turn on the air conditioner. Don’t like bugs? Get out the DDT. Don’t like foreigners? Build a wall. Don’t like her actions? Put her in prison. Don’t like his beliefs? Pressure him to conform. If you could just exclude all of the things in the world that make you uncomfortable, your life would be so….

Boring… comfort is boring. It prevents contact, destroys the conditions for possibility, and the emergence of anything new and wonderful. Discomfort, on the other hand, comes from radical engagement with Otherness. It is the necessary condition for possibility. It might be hard, and it might not work out in the end. But it is only by engaging with Others, working through the frictions, and accepting some degree of discomfort in the process that we might “crab sideways toward the good.”

So, if your life is too comfortable, if your world is too much like you, then seek out discomfort, get out of yourself, and dance with the world.




*As with any proscription, this must be qualified and contextualized. This piece is intended for those like myself for whom comfort is an easy retreat. There are cases where a person’s existence is so uncomfortable that seeking out some balance of comfort is appropriate. I’m thinking here particularly of the oppressed, the differently abled, the traumatized, and so on. 

The Alien Around Us: A Review of Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

The Southern Reach Series consists of Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance – the last of which will be out in September. This review may contain spoilers, though it’s sometimes difficult to tell with this novel what is a spoiler and what isn’t.

As I sit on the grassy lawn of the University campus, surrounded by well mowed grass, precisely aligned trees, and squirrels digging for scraps from the garbage cans, I am reminded that there is always something about the natural world that exceeds our attempts to control it. Often, this side of nature is seen as majestic, beautiful, or sublime. But when we are confronted by the radical inhumanness of the natural world, it can also seem dark, and unsettling.

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Few books capture both aspects of nature so well as Jeff VanderMeer’s recent novel Annihilation – the first of his Southern Reach Trilogy – recounting an expedition to explore a mysterious region of the Florida coast known as Area X. The story is told from the perspective of the Biologist on the four-person expedition team. None of the characters are named, but are referred to by their occupations: Biologist, Anthropologist, Psychologist, and Surveyor. Their task, as the twelfth expedition, is to explore Area X, and specifically a strange underground “tower” that doesn’t appear on their maps. As the story progresses, the mystery of Area X deepens, and, although we learn more about the Biologist and her strange relationship to the region, we are always left with the feeling that there is something missing.

In fact, that’s the genius of the novel, in my opinion. The writing style is such that the reader feels immersed within Area X, as though Area X is leaking beyond its mysterious border into the world around us. Maybe you see it out of the corner of your eye. For all its supernatural and extraterrestrial spirit, Annihilation is profoundly natural. Area X is decidedly non-human, a space that the natural world has reclaimed for itself, but it is not the nature that we imagine, idealize, and worship. This is a nature that is as horrific as it is majestic. Through her exploration of the region, the Biologist encounters terrifying creatures – a moaning swamp monster, a gelatinous creature writing mysterious text on the tower’s walls. What’s more, she must contend with the Psychologist, the leader of the expedition, who uses hypnotic suggestion to both control and protect the other members of the expedition party. As we follow her intimately through this journey, we learn horrifying truths about Area X and the Southern Reach – the government agency tasked with researching the region – but we are always left short of learning The Truth. We become part of Area X, and as part of it, we can never really pull ourselves out enough to see the whole picture. We must be content with these half and partial truths.

As an anthropologist, my only critique of the novel is that I would have liked a more substantial role for the Anthropologist character. I say this not merely out of pride in my discipline, but because I know that anthropologists confront this kind of otherworldliness all the time, and the story resonates with many of the post-human and multi-species ethnographies that anthropologists have been producing recently. Aside from that, I think Annihilation is an excellent read, and a substantial contribution to both the literature of nature and weird fiction. Books like this can push us to reflect upon our own strange relationships with the natural world, and remind us that we are always already embedded within it. That’s why nature will always exceed our attempts at control.


Miéville and Utopia

Video courtesy of Synthetic Zero

“The radical critique of the everyday is undermined not one iota if we choose not to append an alternative… And we can go further. If we take utopia seriously in the sheer scale of that fundamental reshaping, definitionally we cannot think it from this side. It is the process of making it that will allow us to do so, and it is therefore fidelity to utopia that might underpin our refusal to try to turn it into a road map or to expound it thus.”

We should utopia as hard as we can… because we will never mistake those dreams for blueprints nor for mere fanciful absurdities. Utopias are Rorschachs. We pour our concerns and ideas out, and then in dreaming we fold the paper and open it again and reveal startling patterns. And we may pour with a degree of intent, but what we make is beyond any such planning.”

And a quote from one of my favorite utopian novels:

“There has never been a society in which most good doing was the product of Good Being and therefore constantly appropriate. This does not mean that there will never be such a society or that we in Pala are fools for trying to call it into existence.”

-Aldous Huxley, Island – The Old Raja’s Notes on What’s What


Laura Nader on “Studying Up”

Reblogged from the Upward Anthropology Research Community.

See the full text of Laura Nader’s article “Up the Anthropologist: Perspective Gained from Studying Up”

“The study of man is confronted with an unprecedented situation: never before have so few, by their actions and inactions, had the power of life and death over so many members of the species.”

“Maybe these are attempts to get behind the facelessness of a bureaucratic society, to get at the mechanisms whereby faraway corporations and large-scale industries are directing the everyday aspects of our lives. Whatever the motivation, the studies raise important questions as to responsibility, accountability, self-regulation, or on another level, questions relating to social structure, network analysis, library research, and participant observation.”

“Studying ‘up’ as well as ‘down’ would lead us to ask many ‘common sense’ questions in reverse. Instead of asking why some people are poor, we would ask why other people are so affluent? How on earth would a social scientist explain the hoarding patterns of the American rich and middle class? How can we explain the fantastic resistance to change among those whose options ‘appear to be many’? How has it come to be, we might ask, that anthropologists are more interested in why peasants don’t change than why the auto industry doesn’t innovate, or why the Pentagon or universities cannot be more organizationally creative? The conservatism of such major institutions and bureaucratic organizations probably has wider implications for the species and for theories of change than does the conservatism of peasantry.”

“If anthropology were reinvented to study up, we would sooner or later need to study down as well. We are not dealing with an either/or proposition; we need simply to realize when it is useful or crucial in terms of the problem to extend the domain of study up, down, or sideways.”

“A democratic framework implies that citizens should have access to decision-makers, institutions of government, and so on. This implies that citizens need to know something about the major institutions, government or otherwise, that affect their lives. Most members of complex societies and certainly most Americans do not know enough about, nor do they know how to cope with, the people, institutions, and organizations that most affect their lives. I believe that anthropologists would be surprisingly good at applying their descriptive and analytical tools to a major problem: How can a citizenry function in a democracy when that citizenry is woefully ignorant of how the society works and doesn’t work, of how a citizen can ‘plug in’ as a citizen, of what would happen should citizens begin to exercise rights other than voting as a way to make the ‘system’ work for them?”

Introducing: The Upward Anthropology Research Community

Reblogged from Upward Anthropology Research Community.

In 1972, Laura Nader called for anthropologists to “study up” – to turn the ethnographic gaze on the people, sites, and practices of power. With the creation of this community, we hope to provide resources, advice, information, and other forms of support to anthropologists who are currently or are interested in beginning this practice.

The seed for the community was planted about a year ago when a group of us were discussing the potential for anthropological methods (including all four fields) to document structures of power, identify weak points, and inform those who are engaged in resistance or simply trying to navigate those structures. Historically anthropological methods have been used to document and make visible the lives of marginalized or oppressed peoples. We don’t want to diminish the value of that work – it is important and necessary. However, in a world of increasing inequality, of power structures that encompass the globe, of unmitigated racial, gender, and other forms of discrimination, and of environmental crisis, we believe that making the invisible visible is not enough. By turning ethnography on those in power, we also make the visible more visible, and – hopefully – make it possible to “hack” the structures of power in order to undermine their inherent inequalities and create a more just and sustainable world.

Following these conversations, my friends and I organized a panel at the Fall 2013 Public Anthropology Conference at American University. We had a fair turnout – particularly thanks to that conference’s commitment to inviting members of the public, NGOs, activist groups, and practicing anthropologists. Many important issues were discussed in that first meeting, and we committed to holding regular meetings at conferences in the DC Metro area. A second panel was organized for the University of Maryland’s AnthroPlus conference this past Spring, and we are planning an event to coincide with the American Anthropological Association meeting in DC later this year (details to come).

In light of this upcoming event, we have decided to go public and broaden our community. This group started modestly as a DC Area research group, but power operates and proliferates all over the world. We hope that this community and the resources we are in the process of assembling will provide a useful base of support to those who are engaged in this type of research anywhere in the world. With that in mind, we hope you will help us in any way you can – by providing advice, suggestions, or material support, by contributing data, publications, and essays. We claim no privilege or monopoly on this community, and we hope to make it as open and accessible as possible, so if you’re interested, please feel free to contact me at jmtumd (a) gmail or through our twitter and facebook accounts.

Practical Advice for Struggle

I came across this talk N.K. Jemison gave at Wiscon about the growth in outright sexism and racism in Sci-Fi/Fantasy fandom. It’s a major concern for me as a fan, but also, I think, beyond the SFF world. Her talk begins with a condemnation of these practices and a detailed and gut wrenching description of her own experiences. It ends with this fantastic prescription for how to move forward and fight against all kinds of oppression – I think the advice she gives is very practical, and is a start towards bridging the gap between theory and practice. Here’s the final portion of her talk.

So. If they think we are a threat? Let’s give them a threat. They want to call us savages? Let’s show them exactly what that means.

Arm yourselves. Go to panels at Wiscon and claim the knowledge and language that will be your weapons. Go to sources of additional knowledge for fresh ammunition — histories and analyses of the genre by people who see beyond the status quo, our genre elders, new sources of knowledge like “revisionist” scholarship instead of the bullshit we all learned in school. Find support groups of like-minded souls; these are your comrades-in-arms, and you will need their strength. Don’t try to do this alone. When you’re injured, seek help; I’ve got a great list of CBT therapists, for any of you in the New York area. Exercise to stay strong, if you can; defend what health you have, if you can’t. And from here on, wherever you see bigotry in the genre? Attack it. Don’t wait for it to come directly at you; attack it even if it’s hitting another group. If you won’t ride or die for anyone else, how can you expect them to ride or die for you? Understand that there are people in this genre who hate you, and who do not want you here, and who will hurt you if they can. Do not tolerate their intolerance. Don’t be “fair and balanced.” Tell them they’re unwelcome. Make them uncomfortable. Shout them down. Kick them out. Fucking fight.

And maybe one day, when the fighting’s done, then we can heal. On that day, all of us will dream freely, at last.

What Ontology does for my Politics

I’m really happy with all of the attention my recent post “What Ontology does for my Anthropology” has received. I’m glad so many have found it interesting and helpful in their own examinations of the field and this new “turn.” I want to take this opportunity to respond to some critiques of the post and the ontological turn in general.

The first issue is really general and very simple – does anthropology need ontology? I said in my last post:

I obviously can’t claim a monopoly on the ideas, and I can’t say that ontology is necessary to have these effects. These are just the issues that concern me, and the issues that I think are in need of attention in the field. I think ontology helps bring them to the fore, but I’m more concerned about the issues and less with the particular concept or set of concepts that make them visible.

That’s not an answer to the question, but just a disclaimer meant to address the potential concern. The answer, I think, is no, anthropology doesn’t NEED ontology. If those concerns that I addressed in the post can be approached from some other direction – and I have seen this done in many ways – then ontology is just one path among many, and I’m okay with that. The reason for my post, and the reason I titled it “What Ontology does for My Anthropology” is that I wanted to explore the effects that thinking ontologically has had for me. I don’t think I would have gotten to those concerns without the influence of ontological thinkers like Harman, DeLanda, Bryant, Latour, and others. In that sense I needed ontology, and I want to share how ontology has shaped my practice, but I’m not convinced that all anthropologists need ontology to get there.

So should I abandon the ontology discourse? I don’t think so. Everyone has their particular approach – their set of concepts and interests that shapes the way they do anthropology (or anything else). And everyone wants to promote their perspective as having something important to contribute. Ontology and ontological philosophy has been influential to me, continues to be so. It is an important, even essential part of my approach, and simply because some people don’t agree that it’s useful doesn’t mean that I should simply back down and give it up.

That’s the first issue. The other issue is a little more complex, and I don’t know if I can address it fully here. The issue is whether or not an ontological approach is political or if it is even apolitical. I don’t think I directly addressed the political dimensions of my approach in the last post, but I thought they would have at least been somewhat apparent. Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that my approach is apolitical – just that I didn’t effectively address it there. I have discussed this elsewhere, but let me try to add to it here.

First of all, let me be clear that I don’t think that ontology or ontological anthropology is necessarily political. It is possible, I think, to have an ontological sensibility that doesn’t make any political demands. I also don’t think that a particular ontology demands a particular politics, but I do think ontologies make political demands that make possible certain kinds of politics while obscuring other kinds. In that sense, ontology can be (but isn’t always) an effective way to pose political problems. Challenging the ontological assumptions that underly forms of domination like racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. can be a way to undermine those influences.

That’s a general claim about ontological discourse – it doesn’t necessarily address the politics that are influenced by my own ontological commitments. So what does my ontology do for my politics?

1) As I said in my previous post, ontology makes me attentive to all of the Others who are part of the composition of a particular system, structure, or assemblage. This includes the marginalized, disenfranchised, and oppressed Others – the people who are ignored or pushed aside. All of these people contribute to the construction of reality, and it is important that we recognize their presence and the difference that they make.

2) Linked to the first, we have to be attentive to the work that is done to produce these systems and structures. That means a historical perspective, and a political perspective. We have to understand the work that is done and has been done to keep these marginalized and oppressed people down, and we have to understand the work that they contribute to the structure. The prosperity of the US was built on the back of slave labor, and continues to be built through the labor of marginalized people – immigrants, women, people of color, etc.

3) My ontological perspective also forces me to be attentive to my own ontology – what goes into making me who and what I am. Vulnerability is a key issue in my ontology – all beings are fragile, and as a result, all beings are vulnerable to one another. But we are differently vulnerable, and this is what, in my mind, creates imbalances of power. This makes me think about the ways that I am able to guard my vulnerability – my privilege, if you will – and the lack of privilege or protection that others have. When I work with others, I have to be careful to balance my vulnerability against theirs so that we can work together in a way that puts me at risk as much as (or more than) those with whom I am working.

4) Finally, thinking ontologically has made me wary of approaches that seek to “know” or “understand” Others. Knowing and understanding are kinds of relationships, and all relationships are political. The idea of “knowing” or “understanding” can easily mask a more domineering sort of relationship than is apparent from those simple words. Therefore, in my own work, I don’t seek to “know” or “understand” others, I seek to work with them. This idea of working with others reflects a commitment to a long-term engagement, and a process of negotiating and establishing a relationship over time. I don’t have “informants” I have collaborators who are working with me (if they want to, and there’s no reason they have to or should necessarily want to) to make things better (hopefully).

There’s a lot more to discuss, but I don’t have time to delve right now. Also, this is all very abstract, and I’m really concerned about grounding my theories and approach. I will try to provide more concrete examples shortly.