Meeting Graham

This week I had the good fortune of spending some time with Graham Harman on his visit to Binghamton to talk with the Material and Visual Worlds working group. I’ve met Graham once before at OOOIII in New York City, and we’ve had a couple of brief email exchanges, but on this visit I was lucky enough to have an extended conversation with him. On Thursday, Trish and I picked him up from the airport in Syracuse – an hour drive from Binghamton – and then today he was the guest at an intimate luncheon for the working group members.

Following on my previous post, Graham has been one of the people – along with Levi Bryant, my friends at Synthetic Zero, Adrian Ivakhiv, James Stanescu, Phillip Conway, my friends at UMD, and others – who have contributed to my community of thought, not always by agreeing, but by engaging and challenging in various important and intriguing ways. Before he left, he mentioned a similar feeling that the blogosphere has quieted down significantly since a few years ago. That probably has more to do with the community of bloggers that we are engaged with than philosophy blogging as a whole – perhaps the activity has merely shifted to another area that doesn’t engage us as much. In any case, it’s encouraging to recall that period and to think that maybe something of that time could be reclaimed.

Graham is one of the nicest “rock star” academics I’ve met – though I haven’t met too many. Talking with him, there is a sense that whatever one is doing is valuable and interesting, and he has such an encyclopedic knowledge of not only philosophy but cultural references that there is always something worthwhile to talk about. He came to talk about art primarily, but so many topics were covered that there was easily something relevant to all of the people representing the various disciplines in the working group. I learned a lot, and was interested to hear that a new book of his will be coming out soon in which he applies OOO to social objects – in this case the Dutch East India Company. From our conversation I understand that he is using Lynn Margulis’s theory of endosymbiosis to explore the ways that social objects can change while still, in general, persisting as objects. I’m anxious to see it, because, aside from Levi Bryant’s work in Onto-Cartography and Democracy of Objects, I’ve seen little application of OOO to social issues – which is what I, as an anthropologist, need from a theory. Not having read the book, I’m not sure if it’s something I’ll apply, but the idea of endosymbiosis did make me think about my research topic in a somewhat different light.

All of this has made me think, I’ve taken enough time off from writing here. I thought I’d spend my energy writing articles or dissertation material, but that’s never how it works. The more I write, the more I feel like writing. So I’m committing to posting more frequently, and engaging this community of thought more in the coming year as I finish my research and dissertation. Even if no one is reading anymore, at least I’ll have the chance to think through my research and develop my writing practice.

A Community of Thought

At the beginning of my previous post, I wrote a short disclaimer saying that I feel out of practice, like it’s harder for me to string thoughts together lately. It was a performative act. If I hadn’t written it, I wouldn’t have been able to spew out the post – I would have started and stopped only to give up. I know because it’s happened hundreds of times in the last few months, and it’s why I post only sporadically lately. Yes, I’ve been busy, and preoccupied with doing dissertation research and writing. But that’s not enough of an excuse, because the amount of other work I have has never been a determining factor in the frequency or quality of my blog posts. Or, at least, it’s been a minimal determining factor. The fact is, I don’t write because I have nothing to write about. I feel disconnected.

I think the reason – part of the reason – might be that I am less connected – materially, psychologically, with other thinkers. With the exception of Arran – who, despite our disagreements and his frequent demurring is still one of the best philosophers I’ve had the good fortune to interact with… if you’re not reading what he’s writing over at Synthetic Zero, I suggest you do now – most of my community of thought has been relatively silent lately. I’m not blaming them or complaining really – things come up and there is always other work that needs to be done. And if we’re talking about a community, then I’m just as responsible as anyone else. It’s more just a recognition of what’s missing and what I require to be engaged and productive.

As philosophers and intellectuals, we need such communities of thought – I know I do. We need to be able to communicate and share ideas, to engage in debate and discussion, to feel the conceptual friction that generates new ideas. I was talking recently with Trish – because Graham Harman is giving a talk here in Binghamton in a few days – about what I could call “the good old days” of philosophy blogging. I could, but I won’t because I’m not interested in sentimental revisionism. But it’s true that there was a time starting about five years ago when there was an almost constant movement in the blogging world, and it seems in retrospect that this was an extremely beneficial time for me. In talking with Trish, I realized that the great thing about it was that people like Levi Bryant, Adrian Ivakhiv, Michael Pyska – and even Tim Morton and Graham Harman on occasion – were not only aware of my existence, but showed a genuine interest and willingness to engage in discussion. I owe a lot to those discussions, and I hope I made some little difference to them as well. Others might have ignored me (some did) and still others would have simply chastised me for even presuming that I had something worthwhile to say (some did). This willingness to engage with others of all varieties made for a much more lively and interesting philosophical community than the dry thought produced within academic journals.

In addition to my blogger friends, I was lucky in Maryland to have several close friends with whom I could have intense philosophical discussions. We’re still friends and still have engaging conversations, but none of us are in the same place anymore – we’ve all spread out, and that makes it difficult to have intense conversations. Of course, I always have Trish – she’s wonderful to talk to, and I’ve gotten a lot out of recent discussions that we’ve been having around her dissertation readings, and we are beginning to form good intellectual friendships here in Binghamton as well. But I think the fragmentation of all of these communities of thought have made it harder for me to think clearly and write cohesively lately. I’m sure this will turn around – hopefully over the next year as I write my dissertation – but sometimes it takes pushing through these dry spells to figure out what’s really important to our sense of value and worth.

All of which is just to say – thank you all (including the many others I haven’t mentioned explicitly) for working with me over the years, and let’s find a way to start thinking together again (whether or not we agree).

Juggling Ontologies

I’m writing because I’ve just recently read David Graeber’s response to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s incitement “Who’s Afraid of the Ontological Wolf?” My mind’s a mess, I can’t seem to string the fragmented thoughts together today the way I would have maybe a year or so ago (maybe). Instead, I’m compelled to say something – if only because I’ve come out in favor of the “ontological turn” so often in the past – but I know right now that something won’t amount to much beyond a few scattered thoughts. I’m out of practice, but if I’m going to get back into practice, I’m going to have to start somewhere. This seems like as good a place as any.

I’m not going to talk about the debate between Graeber and Viveiros de Castro. I think Graeber is largely right in his critique, though I also think his way of going forward from the critique is not really a moving forward, but a retreat. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. I remember when I was learning to juggle, sometimes I’d get so frustrated constantly dropping and having to bend down to pick up the balls. I’d be tired and want to give up, but then I’d go back to just tossing one ball back and forth, and this apparent regression made it possible for me to jump ahead and finally juggle three with no problem. Maybe the same is true for theory and anthropological practice. We push forward into a new problem, but get stuck and drop the balls, maybe it makes sense then to go back and see if we can look for a new way into the thorny patch (mixed metaphor be damned!).

While I recognize that it might be valuable, and I don’t hold it against Graeber, that’s not going to be my approach here. I’ve advocated for ontological anthropology before, and I still think there’s value in the approach – though my interpretation differs substantively from that of Viveiros de Castro. As a result, I’m going to charge back into the thorns, pick up all three balls and start juggling again.

I don’t talk much about ontology anymore (that’s not true, I have conversations with Trish all the time about it, but mostly just recounting the history that I know). Instead, I talk about performative approaches versus representational approaches – this dichotomy (which I’ve borrowed from Pickering, Callon, and others) matches what I used to refer to as ontological versus epistemological approaches. I’ve changed for a lot of the reasons that Graeber outlines, but mostly because I think the language of ontology versus epistemology is excessively dense, and doesn’t really convey what I’ve wanted to say. Nevertheless, I think that the ontological still holds meaning here that the performative and representational do not fully capture.

Speaking of ontological anthropology more generally, I would argue that any anthropologist who is willing to confront ontological issues is doing ontological anthropology. In its basic sense, that’s all it takes to be an ontological anthropologist. I wouldn’t impose my ontological vision on anyone else – Viveiros de Castro, Graeber, Descola, Kohn, the Azande, or anyone else. But avoiding ontological issues – saying that they are somehow off limits, or just arbitrarily not talking about them – I think, leads to more harm than diving straight into the thorns to confront issues head-on. Ontological anthropology means being reflexive about our ontologies in the same way that the post-structuralist anthropologists called on us to be reflexive about our epistemologies (by reflecting on our knowledge production). In that sense, all of these anthropologists are doing ontological anthropology, whether they identify themselves as “OTers” or not.

These debates between self-identified OTers and OTers who don’t identify with the ontological turn are, therefore, somewhat missing the point. It’s not a matter of accepting or rejecting ontological claims, but of working out what force those claims have (or should have) on our anthropology. With that in mind, my interest in ontological anthropology is oriented around studying “ontologies.” But herein lies the confusion – a confusion that became clear to me in the pluralism wars, and which Graeber outlines pretty well in his essay. The word “ontology” takes on a different meaning here – not the usual meaning of “discourses about reality,” but the structure of reality itself. I try to avoid using this terminology because of the confusion, but I keep coming back to it because I really don’t have a better word for what I’m talking about. An ontology is a set of relationships, and each set of relationships has its own internal structure and logic, though ontologies can intersect and overlap in various ways or combine to form larger ontological structures. If anyone can offer a better word, I would welcome it!

Graeber, I think, is right to argue that Viveiros de Castro is idealist, and this is probably where Viveiros de Castro and I part ways. The difference for me is that our conceptions of reality (our ontologies in the “world view” sense) do not structure our material relations. Rather, our material relations structure our conceptions of reality – or maybe they feed back into one another in various ways. That is, if I believe in spirits, it’s not that my belief in spirits makes them real, but that there is a real set of relations in which the belief in spirits makes sense. In another set of relations, the belief in germs and science make equal sense. I suppose that makes my ontology (world view) materialist or, maybe, material-semiotic (following Donna Haraway and John Law).

I’m also not sure that this makes me an ontological pluralist. Yes, I defended pluralism in the pluralism wars (and I still support a kind of diplomatic pluralism), and I also just made statements about “multiple ontologies.” But, to me, ontologies are multiple because the world (note here, singular) is always incomplete and in a constant process of emergence. In other words, perhaps there is a singular kind of fabric to the world, but the fabric comes together in “threads and patches” to quote Kroeber’s take on historical particularism. I’m not sure how that stands up philosophically, and I don’t have the luxury of being able to delve into it more than just to make the statement (dissertation research, you know…).

The question is how do we study “ontologies” in my sense of the term? The answer is by way of performance and practice – so I’m not sure that my interest is in ontologies per se. I still consider myself an ontological anthropologist, though, and I will continue to defend a kind of ontological anthropology – or one that focuses on performances and the way that those performance structure relationships over an epistemological one – that focuses on what we know and how.

Waiting for the Revolution…

Change is always incremental, partial, unpredictable. When it seems otherwise – when it seems we are undergoing a revolution, whether violent or not – it is only because incremental, partial, and unpredictable changes have been accruing for some time that make a seemingly sudden transformation possible. And after the transformation has taken place, a new set of incremental, partial, and unpredictable changes begins, at times undoing the change that has already taken place.

Those who wait for a revolution will only have their hopes dashed time and again like waves on a rocky shore. They will be dismayed, disheartened, and depressed. A revolution is not coming, and if it is, it will not be what anyone expects.

It’s a pessimistic thought. There really is no hope. But it’s in the loss of hope that possibility can emerge, and possibility emerges from work. Not work towards some global, total, imaginary end goal, but work here and now to make incremental, partial, and unpredictable changes. Not driven by hope, but by care, sympathy, and compassion.

The work is hard, and it is hard to keep going. It never seems to get anywhere – ten steps forward, a hundred steps back. Meanwhile, there are bigots, narcissists, and consciously destructive people screaming in our faces trying to undo everything we’ve worked on. It is surprising – even encouraging – that anyone works at all.

Sometimes it’s not hard. It’s easy, but ineffective. We sit down at our computer to read our social media feeds only to be confronted with the latest victim of police violence, another refugee child washed up on shore, a new environmental disaster destroying the lives of people around the world. We click “share” and move on – maybe donate a few dollars to charity. What’s lacking is not our sentiment or sympathy for these problems or the people affected by them – if that were true, the stories wouldn’t scroll across our screens at all. What’s lacking is our capacity to do anything substantive. But even little actions can have an effect – especially when replicated exponentially, and maybe that’s enough.

What’s needed is not a global, revolutionary movement. Not an acceleration or deceleration, no unifying vision, nor charismatic leader. What’s needed is not a totalitarian drive for justice. What’s needed is a lot of work. And I am encouraged, on the whole, by the work that I see. I see Black activists fighting to end violence and discrimination. I see a feminist resurgence in the face of misogyny and hate. I see LGBTQ people staring homophobia in the eye and not backing down. I see indigenous people fighting back against centuries of colonization. I see a growing interest in science and a concern for climate and environment. I see a world “crabbing sideways towards the good.”

I am, of course, looking through colored lenses. I also see backlashes, violence, fear, hatred, despair, and destruction. I know that change is always incremental, partial, and unpredictable. Who knows what will come of all this sound and fury? Perhaps nothing… I don’t know and I don’t care, but I keep on working.

Economic Games, Infrastructure, and Commodity Fetishism

This week I payed a game with my students. I wanted to simulate a gift economy – something like the kula of the Trobriand Islands. It didn’t work out that way in the end, but what emerged from their interactions was no less intriguing – to me at least.


The rules were simple – I didn’t want to confuse the students with too many rules, and I also wanted to see the emergent results rather than try and force an outcome. First, I split them into groups of about six students – there were seven groups in the end. Each group was given a set of five numbered cards, a blank card, and a colored marker. They were instructed to 1) come up with a name for the group, 2) write the group name and the names of its members on the blank card, and 3) write the name of their group on each of the numbered cards which I referred to as “shells.” The rules:

  1. Shells can be traded or gifted to other groups however you want.
  2. When your group receives a shell, write your group’s name on the new shell in your group’s color marker. Your group’s name may appear more than once on a shell, but not consecutively – you have to give it away in order to get it back again.
  3. You receive points two ways
    1. By trading a shell – i.e. every time your group’s name appears on a shell unless it’s the last name, meaning that you didn’t get a chance to trade it.
    2. By trading the “Legendary Shell” – the shell that has been traded the most (i.e. has the most names on it) becomes the legendary shell. For every time your group’s name appears on the legendary shell, you get an extra point.

To encourage the students to participate, I sweetened the pot by offering 5 extra credit points to the group with the most points at the end. The idea was that the incentive would be to trade the shells, rather than accumulate them. Students would want others to sign their shells, and so they would move freely around the classroom – especially the “legendary” shell. Obviously, that’s not what happened.

The first class was confused and didn’t know exactly what to do. I had run out of time to explain the rules fully, so had to rush the game. The students didn’t realize that they had to get the group name written in their marker color – a rule I had intended to prevent one group from writing other group names on the cards and inflating their own results. The second group had more time, and were able to (almost) fully comprehend the rules before setting out to trade. The difference was striking, and I’ve been thinking about the outcome for the last few days. Here are some thoughts:

  1. Although it wasn’t intentional, and I didn’t anticipate ahead of time, the game highlighted the importance of infrastructure in shaping behavior and social dynamics. The markers were the key. An element added only to prevent cheating, the rule that they must have the group name written in their own marker color became a defining characteristic of the game. The person with the marker had enormous power within the group. In the second class, when the students had time to figure out the rules, the students who had the marker were the most active – they eventually conglomerated together and were exchanging cards in a closed system, each trying to get the others to sign their cards. The rest of the students were useless – they simply sat in their groups waiting for the marker holder to conduct their business. In the first class, since they were all using whatever writing utensil they had to write the group name, everyone was up and about, clusters would form and then dissolve only to reform elsewhere. The feeling was more chaotic and distributed. The distribution of markers, as a result, has a dramatic effect on who can act and how action gets organized. I wondered what would happen if I forced the marker holders to remain separated, but allowed the other students to wander freely.
  2. I didn’t create a gift economy, and I think creating such an economy is actually very difficult. I thought that by encouraging the students to trade the cards, they would get the sense that the cards would be more valuable the more they shared them. But the cards were not the holders of value in this economy. Instead, the group name written on the card was. As a result, the groups wanted to accumulate their group signatures as much as possible, and the signatures became a commodity to be traded and maximized. In the second class, the conglomerations of students with markers trading and signing cards was essentially a commodities market – I created a commodity market!

Reflecting on the game, I’m interested in the emergent results – the mix of students, markers, cards, and rules the produced unexpected actions and responses. It wasn’t the lesson I was trying to teach, but it was an interesting lesson nonetheless. I’ve tried to think of ways to avoid reproducing commodity exchange, and I think it is actually very difficult not to and keep the rules minimal. Moral economies and gift economies are embedded in complex rule systems with a variety of values constantly being weighed against one another. Here the value was in the signatures, the cards were worthless media for those signatures, and the markers provided the production value. This is exactly what a commodity-based market does to us – it reduces the complexity of relationships and the variation in values to a straight-forward exchange of uniform value. Once that happens, the market is no longer about the flow of materials and use value, but the accumulation of abstract commodified value. The game highlights the importance not only of changing the rules to recapture the flow of value, but of changing the infrastructure – the very form and substance of exchange. It doesn’t, however, suggest how that might be done.

I like playing games with my classes – or really, forcing them to play games together. I always learn something new, and I love to see the emergent results. I would recommend this game to other classes as a way to explore different economic structures and styles, but not as an illustration of a particular economy per se. Rather I would suggest playing through different scenarios, modifying the elements and the rules each time in order to see what kinds of economic and social dynamics emerge each time. If you try it, let me know how it turns out for you!