The Purpose of Anthropological Research…

… is not to “understand” others – different cultures, different people, etc.  The goal of anthropological research is to build relationships with others.

Attempting to “understand” suggests an attempt to control – is always an imperialistic move in some sense.  Why understand if not to manipulate…?  At the very least, it appears to place us – the researchers – in an invulnerable position; looking upon others and presuming to know them – from their point of view… from any point of view… emic/etic… As if we’re not actually a part of what it is we’re trying to “understand” …

Building relationships, on the other hand, implies a two-way interaction.  It situates us and makes us as vulnerable as they are – we are altered and affected by these relationships as much as we alter and affect others.  Maybe we don’t understand them, but we work with them… work to build something new…

Accelerating Decline

Today, Levi Bryant has a series of bleak (some more than others) posts (see here, here, here, here, and here) in which he outlines his growing pessimism about what he considers to be the imminent collapse of civilization.  I’ve been there too.  I know the rationale, and I’ve felt the same despair.  But, as much as I agree philosophically with everything Bryant says in these posts, I can’t follow Levi down the path of despair.

In the culmination of his post on Black Ecology (I agree with his characterization of ecology, but not his ultimate conclusion) Bryant suggests the following:

And here’s the horrible thought that occurs to me in dark moments that everyone will slap me for: perhaps the truly ethical and right political response to climate change is not to jump on the green bandwagon and change all our consumption habits, but rather to consume as much as possible, especially with respect to energy. I just don’t see how there’s any feasible way we can get governments and industry to respond to these problems given the current governmental and economic ecologies. This seems to suggest that the only possible solution is to push ourselves over the ledge where fossil fuels are no longer available and where governments and industry are thereby forced to change.

In other words, Bryant wants to accelerate the destruction of the planet in order to force politicians and business leaders to change for the better.  There are many arguments against this, some of which rely on simple platitudes – i.e. “you’ve got to stay positive.”  I don’t want to fall back on those, so the most reasonable argument I can make against this attitude is a simple refrain: you can’t know.

First of all, you can’t know for sure how the leaders will react.  Will they change?  Will it be in time to maintain some basic quality of life for the people who are left (just saying that – “the people who are left” – ought to be enough to counteract this line of thought, but I’ll go on)?  You can’t know.  They may just ride the train off the cliff – continue fiddling as their flesh is burned to a crisp.  Even if they do change, the world my be too far burned for it to matter.  And if that’s the case, then, by accelerating the decline, you’ve contributed to that destruction wholeheartedly, knowing full well what the consequences would be.  You’ve contributed to the demise of innumerable beings on the vain premise that we must choose between ultimate destruction or the hope that something will change.  And who suffers?  Not you, in all likelihood, not the modern day robber barons – those who suffer will be those who did the least to contribute to the mess.  Would you be able to rejoice at the end of civilization with that kind of guilt hanging over your head?*

But that’s assuming that the end of the world is, in fact, imminent.  You can’t know.  Even though all signs may point to the end of the world – the end of oil and the lack of alternatives; the lack of substantive change in minds and institutions; the persistent destruction of the environment; the fact that, as I write these words, I am contributing to this destruction – in spite of all of this, you cannot know for sure that the end of the world is near.  But if you, and enough others, work (I use that word intentionally) to make that world come into being, then it may.  And by bringing that world into being you risk closing off any possibility for alternatives to emerge.

The fact is, you can’t know.  As long as civilization isn’t destroyed, there is always the possibility for some lines of flight, or bifurcations.  Something could happen to create a phase change in the way we live on this planet – to generate a new regime of attraction.  True, it may come about through the acceleration of decline, but it may not, and you would essentially be putting all of your eggs in one basket – hoping that it forces a change or else.  What I’m talking about is not hope as opposed to despair, because hope and despair are both teleological – they imagine some end towards which we are inevitably headed and attempt to bring that end into existence.  What I’m talking about is an attentiveness to the present and what can be done here and now to make a difference.  I’m talking about an openness to possibilities, and a recognition of the work that must be done.

So what’s the alternative, you ask.  The alternative is to work now to create new possibilities, and to work now to actualize those possibilities.  This strategy has a number of effects: 1) it wards off despair – it’s hard to despair if you’re working tirelessly to make a difference, 2) it creates a heterogeneity that could generate “lines of flight” or bifurcations resulting in a new regime of attraction – ideally, a more just and sustainable world – and 3) if the collapse does come, it potentially makes the destruction less devastating, because there will be a number of alternatives for beings to take refuge.

If we choose Bryant’s approach, on the other hand, we remain in despair, we close off possibilities, and we do nothing to protect others from the harm caused by the collapse.  It’s true you could do both – accelerate the decline, and create new possibilities.  But they are, ultimately, incommensurable.  If you accelerate the decline, you deny those possibilities the opportunity to grow, and if you create alternatives and actually give them a chance, then you will inevitably slow the onset of the decline.

Can alternatives exist in our world?  I think they can and do, but I think it takes a great deal of work to bring them into existence and a great deal more work to maintain them against the hegemony of the Capitalist System.  This may mean fighting power structures, it may mean developing alternative energies, it may mean working to change the food system.  It could be any number of things.  The key is to be attentive to the ecology you are enmeshed with, and see what work needs to be done to make a difference.  That is the value of Bryant’s philosophy – even in its darker moments – it helps to foster this attentiveness and helps us realize that there is work to be done.

* I used to be an avid reader of Derrick Jensen – I still find much to praise in his work, but I just don’t share his joy at the end of civilization.  Jensen argues in his books Endgame that accelerating the decline would actually reduce the suffering – it would make it quicker and less destructive  like pulling off a festering band aid.  But I would respond to this too with my refrain You can’t know.  You just can’t know for sure how destructive the end will be if you accelerate it versus if you allow it to drag out.  That is enough to engage my precautionary principle and to say that it’s better to work to create alternatives than to work to bring down civilization.

Experimenting With Refrains

I just read an article by Isabelle Stengers titled “Experimenting with Refrains: Subjectivity and the Challenge of Escaping Modern Dualism” and found it to be the most concise and readable account of her philosophical work that I’ve read. The overall purpose of the article is to slow down the critical move characteristic of (post-)modernity – to encourage readers to think about the ways that “forces” compel us to think. She blends the work of Deleuze and Guattari, Bruno Latour, William James, and the witch Starhawk in order to “betray” the modern territory. By betrayal, she means the D&G sense of “bringing into disclosure an ingredient that both belongs to the territory and connects with an outside which this territory protects itself against.”

She covers a lot of ground in the article, and I will inevitably miss some important points in this summary, but I want to share some key ideas that I’ve taken from it. First of all, she describes the “modern divide” as it is laid out by Latour, which allows for the critical move and the “invincibility of the moderns”: denouncing beliefs with the mobilization of objective “natural” forces, and, at the same time, denouncing “natural forces” by mobilizing objective social facts. Essentially, nothing can stand up against the claim to being fabricated. In other words, moderns “know” others merely “believe.” In response to this, Stengers calls upon William James “jump that demands trust but offers no warrant.” The claim of science that “Nature has Spoken!” is just such a jump – denounced by post-modern critics. However, Stengers wants us to account for the claim, and the way it compels us to think and act:

The notion of “human practice” is able to intervene only in a final disparaging conclusion: “you see, it is only the outcome of human activity.” In contrast, suppressing the adjective “human.” it becomes possible to wonder about the specificity of experimental practices which cannot be characterized as “human
only.

This is not an endorsement for so-called objective Science, but a call to account for the sciences as practices embedded within a “milieu.” This is what she refers to as the ecological question:

Referring to an ecological question means referring to a question of encounters and connections, the connection between what has come into existence and the many differences it can make to the many other existences with which it is connected.

In this sense, it is not an objective capacity in scientific practices that accounts for its force, but a specific set of practices that allow scientists to make meaningful statements within a particular set of relations. She then calls upon the neo-pagan witch Starhawk to question her own academic milieu with the refrain “The smoke of the burned witches still hangs in our nostrils.” How can we, as academics, account for those witches without recourse to political, linguistic or social construction? Would they not be destroyed a second time? With this, Stengers asks us to question our “adult thinking” that claims that “we know, others believe” as well as the patronizing tolerance of “if it works for them…” – this very modern position. How can we account, for example, for the “empowerment rituals” practiced by Starhawk and other neo-pagan witches? Do we discount them as mere “belief”? Do we account for them as a “spiritual revival” or tolerate them as “what works for them”? These options leave us in a milieu that refuses them the power to make us think and feel:

The alternative is not conversion. It might be to accept that they may make us think and feel and wonder about what sustains us, and maybe also about what leads us to think we do not need sustenance.

This leads Stengers to consider the “efficacy” of theories, words and gestures. Efficacy, in this sense, refers to the theological usage in terms of the efficacy of sacraments. That is, words have power – as any witch knows – and academic theories no less than any others. She asks us to consider the power that our theories have in affecting and altering society, and to take care of how we use our theories.

To dare to accept the characterization of our theories in terms of “efficacy” or “magic” and not in terms of (valid) knowledge, would mean refusing any position that implies, one way or another, that the theorist knows better and, more concretely, abstaining from theorizing should an encounter not be produced, which connects the theorist with what empowers those about whom she theorizes; that is, an encounter which puts her in position to learn, and not to recognize.

For example, once Latour began to take seriously the protestations of scientists against their critics who claim that science is a (purely human) practice, it became apparent that we were insulting all practitioners by these claims. From then on, Latour’s theorizing was no longer just diagnosing modernity, but “actively, and more daringly, betraying it.”

In the end, Stengers is calling for a “reclaiming” of what has been destroyed by the modern critique. Not of taking back what has been confiscated, but of learning what it takes to again inhabit those places that have been devastated.

The first step could well be to accept as a (quite non-modern) refrain that we, who trust that ideas and words to matter, do trust in the magic of words and ideas. But then comes the hard technical question of learning how to fabricate and discriminate. We need techniques that do enable us to make the Jamesian jump towards forces we were separated from, and do also foster and sustain discrimination and care, because no such event, no such production of subjectivity is good per se.

So much of what we do as academics is critique and destroy in the name of knowledge and justice. What would it mean if we were instead to trust in the words and ideas of those we critique – to take the Jamesian jump – to nurture and care instead of destroy?

More Work…

I would like to second Levi Bryant’s call for a real theory of work in philosophy (as well as his call for a philosophy of real connection, and of entropy, but I feel that Work can encapsulate both of those).  What I’m looking for is a theory of work that accounts for: 1) material work and mental work, 2) the work of machines and the work of hands, 3) the work of humans and the work of plants, animals, and objects, 4) the way work is an encounter with (both shaping and being shaped by) others, 5) work as immanent and embodied practice, and 6) work as the process of creating (a) world(s).

I think in order to account for all of these things at once, you need a radically different kind of philosophy (and anthropology!) than that traditionally practiced.  But I think Bryant is on to such a philosophy.  With any luck, I’ll soon have more to write on the topic myself, but for now it’s on the back-burner.

Crossing Planetary Boundaries

We watched this video today in a class on the anthropology of climate change.  It’s very interesting in that it defines and explains the transition from the Holocene to what has come to become called the Anthropocene.  According to the speaker (Will Stefan) the most convincing factor for declaring such a transition is the increasing rate of biodiversity loss – much higher than normal “background” levels.

What I find odd about the talk is the final part discussing the concept of “planetary boundaries.”  According to the Stefan, we have crossed into the Anthropocene, the question now is whether we want to stay there or to go back to a “safe” Holocene environment.  What I think this conception doesn’t account for is the fact that, humans are already a geological force; that the choice presented – between staying in the Anthropocene and going back to the Holocene is a choice that we make with repercussions throughout the planetary system.  In that sense, we cannot escape the Anthropocene – we can live in such a way that is more conscious of our effect upon the environment and respect the “boundaries” that the Earth seems to place upon us, but ultimately any choice we make will have massive effects.  As a result, I don’t really like the idea of “going back to the holocene” because it suggests a previous natural time when Nature ruled – a golden age (that never existed) when humans simply lived in harmony with the Earth.  I would prefer to recognize that we are in the Anthropocene (perhaps that we have been all along), and consider the ethical, and political implications for that.  We can’t go back – we must make some serious choices that will ineveitably shape the world we live in.  What kind of world do you want to live in?

Other Worlds Are Already Here!

I just read this article – recommended by dmf on my recent post about Latour’s new project.  It’s by John Law and Vicky Singleton, and describes the various practices of identity creation and reality construction on a farm.  It contrasts the British Cattle Tracking System (CTS) with the practices of care enacted by the farmers – showing that the CTS practices in many ways ignore or exclude the care practices.  Law and Singleton suggest that the CTS practice is an “intolerant” one, that it is intolerant of other realities because it is universalizing, whereas the care practices are tolerant because they do not seek to be universal.  The argument is summarized in this excellent paragraph:

At the same time we depart from Stengers’ vision in one specific way. So yes, it is clear enough that the CTS – if we wanted to tell a large story then we might say modernity – is practised at many sites and structures many cattle farming realities. The ethnographic moments that we have described above reveal this to be an intolerant and colonising device that seeks to capture other practices by insisting that its own version of reality is general. At the same time and whatever its imperialising ambitions, one of the reasons we have juxtaposed accounts of the CTS with stories about farming care is that this allows us to say that the former co-exists with other quite different practices on the farm. Our argument, then, is that despite the presence of the CTS on every cattle farm in the UK there are also many alternative breathing spaces on those farms.

Interestingly, this reminded me of Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ).  Bey was writing at the very end of the cold war, arguing that there are two systems competing for totalization – the global capitalist system epitomized by the US and the Soviet communist system.  Bey recognized that both of these totalizing systems (indeed any totalizing system) were undesirable, and that a third alternative was needed.  For Bey, this was the Temporary Autonomous Zone.  Bey realized that, in spite of their desire to be totalizing, these systems never quite reach into every aspect of life – there are always openings, breathing spaces, aporias, where people can act without the omnipresence and omniscience of the State breathing down their backs.  Bey’s prime example was the quilting bee, where people gather together, bring their scraps of clothe and their needles and thread, and collectively sew a quilt (it’s fun to imagine revolutionaries sitting on a white porch with a group of old ladies sewing patches of cloth together).  In this space, the state is not present (necessarily), the state is kept at bay, temporarily.  And if you think about your day to day lives, I think you can find a number of small moments where the state is similarly kept at bay.  For Bey, these are temporary autonomous zones.  Fleeting moments of freedom just out of reach of the State.

It’s true these moments do not in themselves constitute the downfall of the State (either capitalist or communist), but it is from these moments that the source of the State’s downfall can emerge.  By consciously replicating these moments, little by little, we make ourselves free.  Law talks about repetition as well.  It’s the repetition of “rituals” and “refrains” that creates space for a world to exist – and both intolerant and tolerant practices depend upon repetition.  By nurturing tolerant practices through repetition, we can gradually push back the intolerant practices and create space for the emergence of (a) new world(s).

PS – Two things: 1) this notion of repetition is relevant to my own conception of work, and 2) I just noticed that one of the subtitled for TAZ is “ontological anarchy” which fits very will with Law’s and my own ontological approach.

Latour’s New Project

Continuing his anthropology of modernity, but now looking at different modes of existence instead of (but also in addition to) investigating heterogeneous networks (as in ANT).  The excerpt below is from his Summary of the AiME (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence) Project:

It seems that those who define themselves as possessed by rationality have defined reason by the worst possible shibboleth: a transport without transformation, a direct access to truth without any mediation. As a consequence, every practice, by comparison with this ill adjusted standard, becomes a lie: religion, law, fiction, but also, strangely enough, science and technology as well. The paradox is that by considering knowledge as the supreme value, the Moderns have rendered unfathomable the production, maintenance and extension of every one of their most cherished values —including knowledge!— hence the deep obscurity that the Moderns have generated about themselves. Those who constantly speak of enlightenment have obscured the many sources of reason.

Looks interesting – apparently this project has been hiding in the background of ANT for the past two-and-a-half decades.  No publications to date have addressed it, but Latour is working on a book for it which will hopefully be published in French later in 2012 and in English early in 2013.  I look forward to seeing this book in print – it will be fascinating to know where Latour is going from here!

The Anthropological Thought

The following is the text of a talk I will be giving at the Anthro(+) conference this coming Friday.  It’s a rough draft, and will be edited and improved over the next few days, but I wanted to share it here now and see if anyone has feedback that might help me make it better.  I combine a number of ideas under “the ecological thought” – most explicitly, Tim Morton’s work, but also Latour, Haraway, Stengers, and Bryant – so the ecological thought here is not exactly reflective of Morton’s ecological thought.  I appreciate any comments or questions.

The Anthropological Thought

The title for this talk – The Anthropological Thought – is a mutation (a replication with difference) of the title of Timothy Morton’s book The Ecological Thought. In the next few minutes, I will explore the significance of the ecological approach, as described by Morton, for anthropology – how it is similar to and different from current anthropological practice. Ultimately, I call for a reclamation of the concept of an ecological anthropology – one that would run through, like a thread, all of anthropological thought and practice.

For Morton, the ecological thought is “the thinking of interconnectedness.” It is a “thought about ecology, but it’s also thinking that is ecological.” It “doesn’t just occur ‘in the mind.’ It’s a practice and a process of becoming fully aware of how human beings are connected with other beings – animal, vegetable, and mineral.”

The ecological thought is made possible by the environmental crises we have created – global warming, deforestation, water, air and soil pollution, etc. But it is not exclusively about these crises. It’s about all relationships and interconnections that contribute to the composition of the world.

The image associated with the ecological thought is not the organized hierarchies of traditional science and social theory, nor a phallocentric network (with lines and nodes) associated with theories of complexity. No, the image Morton calls to mind is of a “vast sprawling mesh of interconnection…” – like a textile of threads interwoven together. A flat-ontological web of associations “without a definite center or edge. It is radical intimacy, coexistence with other beings, sentient and otherwise…”

But intimacy, coesixtence, and interconnectedness – these are not unilateral relationships. Like Deleuze’s wasp and orchid, the ecological thought recognizes that all beings – strange strangers as Morton calls them – are engaged in a perpetual process of “becoming with” one another. In that sense, the ecological thought finds a kindred spirit with what Levi Bryant refers to as a wilderness ontology. That is, an ontology that rejects the sovereignty of humans – indeed the sovereignty of any being – in favor of a sense of “amongstness.” Wilderness, for Bryant is not opposed to civilization – “is not somewhere one can go, nor can one ever be outside the wilderness … Wilderness signifies not the absence of humans or civilization, but rather the entanglement and separation of beings without any entity, God or human, occupying the place of sovereign. In this regard, a city, a computer, a blog, and an institution are no less of the wilderness than wild wolves, blue whales, ant eaters, red cedars, or electric eels.”

The ecological thought calls for an acute awareness of this amongstness of beings; a continual, intentional recognition that we share this world with others, and that we are engaged with them in its co-creation. Not paralysis, but humility in the face of the vast complexity of the universe.

It’s with this sense in mind that I would like to call for a reclamation of the term “ecological” as a descriptor for anthropology.  This would not be the old ecological anthropology that treats humans as functional populations within ecosystems, nor would it be the new environmental anthropology that focuses primarily on addressing environmental issues.  Rather it is an anthropology that is attentive to interconnectionwith the thread of the ecological thought running through it.

Anthropology was always meant to be ecological. Indeed, in practice, it always was. Anthropologists, more than any other discipline, have brought together complex assemblages of different kinds of beings in the name of ethnography. They have combined mollusk shells with social and economic value, pigs with ancestor spirits and warfare, cows with Eastern religious beliefs, household architecture with concepts of gender and nature. Your typical ethnography reads like a litany of heterogeneous entities in an unimaginable array of combinations.

This is the ecological thought in its finest – attentive to the diverse interconnections between different kinds of entities. However, what hampered anthropology in the past – what continues to do so today – is an obsessive desire to place these assemblages into containers: Nature, Culture, landscapes, institutions, social structures, or systems. This has generally lead anthropologists to identify one agent in the mix of assemblages that seems to consume all of the others in order to fit the whole assemblage into one box. Thus the value system of the Kula consumes mollusk shells; the rumbim ritual consumes pigs and ancestor spirits; the Hindu belief system and ultimately economic decision-making consumes cattle.

The underlying realization of the ecological thought, and the ecological anthropology that I would like to propose is not that these “containers” do not exist – to the extent that they are constructed, they do – but that they are ultimately incapable of capturing the monstrous assemblages described above. No single agent in the assemblage consumes the others – rather they all consume one another in veritable orgy of mutual consummation that breaks apart any container – even socio-ecological or coupled human and natural systems.

The new ecological anthropology treats all entities as actors in their own right – as beings capable of altering and affecting us just as we alter and affect them. Not inert matter which we fill with meaning and value, but active agents in a process of “becoming with” one another.

The new ecological anthropology does not have to do only with human relations to the natural world – it has to do with the intertwining of beings in all areas of existence. It has to do with human bodies and political institutions; with food and health; with museums and communities; with race, class and gender; with warfare and diplomacy. What I call for is an ecological anthropology that runs through all of these issues, topics and ideas – seeking interconnection and avoiding reductionism, transforming and being transformed by others.

Currently, I am working on research involving live bait and aquatic invasive species. The bait – bloodworms in this case – are collected in Maine, and packed in life-support systems: kept cool to reduce their activity, kept moist to prevent drying out, and packed in seaweed – called worm weed by those in the industry and Ascophyllum nodosum by the scientists – to keep them from devouring one another. They are then sent off to distant worlds – the Mediterranean, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Southern Pacific coast of the United States. Within these life-support systems in which the worms are packaged, there are often stowaways. While the worms themselves may be familiar to the areas to which they are sent (the Mid-Atlantic at least), these stowaways are often not, and soon they begin to colonize the new worlds that they encounter – sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile to the natives who already inhabit these worlds. As a result, we have effectively extended the ecology of these organisms – creating new possibilities for interconnection that could fundamentally alter existing sets of relations.

The purpose of the study, then, is to find a “diplomatic” solution to the potential threat of invasion. This has involved developing a better understanding of live bait industry – that is, how the people in Maine – the harvesters, and the dealers, connect with the people in the Mid-Atlantic – the retailers and anglers. But it’s more than that. It’s also about understanding how the scientists, policy makers, and regulators relate to those in the industry. It’s about understanding how we ourselves – the anthropologists – related to all of them. But even more, it’s about how all of these people relate to, and interact with all of the various non-humans – the worms, the seaweed, the snails, the fish. All of these beings – human and non – are intertwined in a mesh of relations – active participants in the co-creation of a world.

In order to find a diplomatic solution, as I’ve said, we must act as mediators in Latour’s sense of the term – translating and transforming relationships. As a result, we have begun to imagine interventions – the creation of new relationships, or the introduction of new actors to alter the existing set of relations. In order to make an effective difference, we have to view ourselves as being intertwined with this system as well – working with the other entities to create a new ecology. In this approach, all entities are seen to be equally vulnerable – that is, capable of being altered and affected – the humans no less than the worms, the scientists no less than the harvesters, and the anthropologists no less than any of them. As a result, the interventions we propose – anything from washing the seaweed to informational and social marketing campaigns – must ultimately be negotiated with the others involved – both human and non. This is not, then, a matter of imposing “behavior change” upon a population – in this case the anglers and worm dealers – but of entering into relationships with those groups and working with them to create a novel solution.

The new ecological anthropology offers not only a better understanding of environmental and social conditions, but also a better position from which to act. By being attentive to the interconnections between different entities, we can begin to craft ecologies in a variety of ways while understanding that these attempts are uncertain and contingent upon the participation of other beings within the system. As a result, anthropological research becomes a practice of relating to and working with others – human and non-human – to co-create a better world.

Everything I Needed to Know…

… I learned from The Old Raja’s Notes on What’s What (and what it might be reasonable to do about what’s what).

Some favorites:

Because his aspiration to perpetuate only the “yes” in every pair of opposites can never, in the nature of things, be realized, the insulated Manichee I think I am condemns himself to endlessly repeated frustration, endlessly repeated conflicts with other aspiring and frustrated Manichees.

Conflicts and frustrations—the theme of all history and almost all biography. “I show you sorrow,” said the Buddha realistically. But he also showed the ending of sorrow—self-knowledge, total acceptance, the blessed experience of Not-Two.

And Another:

Concentration, abstract thinking, spiritual exercises—systematic exclusions in the realm of thought. Asceticism and hedonism—systematic exclusions in the realms of sensation, feeling and action. But Good Being is in the knowledge of who in fact is in relation to all experiences. So be aware—aware in every context, at all times and whatever, creditable or discreditable, pleasant or unpleasant, you may be doing or suffering. This is the only genuine yoga, the only spiritual exercise worth practicing.

And another:

Me as I think I am and me as I am in fact—sorrow, in other words, and the ending of sorrow. One third, more or less, of all the sorrow that the person I think I am must endure is unavoidable. it is the sorrow inherent in the human condition, the price we pay for being sentient and self-conscious organisms, aspirants to liberation, but subject to the laws of nature and under orders to keep on marching, through irreversible time, through a world entirely indifferent to our well-being, toward decrepitude and the certainty of death. The remaining two-thirds of sorrow is homemade and, so far as the universe is concerned, unnecessary.

And another:

We cannot reason ourselves out of our basic irrationality. All we can do is learn the art of being irrational in a reasonable way.

And another:

The dancer’s grace and, forty years on, her arthritis—both are functions of the skeleton. It is thanks to an inflexible framework of bones that the girl is able to do her pirouettes, thanks to the same bones, grown a little rusty, that the grandmother is condemned to a wheelchair. Analogously, the firm support of a culture is the prime-condition of all individual originality and creativeness; it is also their principal enemy. The thing in whose absence we cannot possibly grow into a complete human being is, all too often, the thing that prevents us from growing.

And another:

Faith is something very different from belief. Belief is the systematic taking of unanalyzed words much too seriously. Paul’s words, Mohammed’s words, Marx’s words, Hitler’s words—people take them too seriously, and what happens? What happens is the senseless ambivalence of history—sadism versus duty, or (incomparably worse) sadism as duty; devotion counterbalanced by organized paranoia; sisters of charity selflessly tending the victims of their own church’s inquisitors and crusaders. Faith, on the contrary, can never be taken too seriously. For Faith is the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know who in fact we are, to forget the belief-intoxicated Manichee in Good Being. Give us this day our daily Faith, but deliver us, dear God, from Belief.

And finally:

Dualism. . . Without it there can hardly be good literature. With it, there most certainly can be no good life.

“I” affirms a separate and abiding me-substance; “am” denies the fact that all existence is relationship and change. “I am.” Two tiny words, but what an enormity of untruth! The religiously-minded dualist calls homemade spirits from the vasty deep; the nondualist calls the vasty deep into his spirit or, to be more accurate, he finds that the vasty deep is already there.

The Construction of Truth

Levi Bryant has a great post up today riffing off of an forthcoming book by Adam Miller called Speculative Grace.  In particular, Bryant is interested in the conception of truth put forward by Miller drawing upon Latour.  The first part of the post is an explanation of Plato’s conception of truth – that truth is a property of things rather than of propositions.  That is, it’s not that propositions are true relative to things, but that things are true relative to their ideal forms.  This is a bit of a tangent, but relevant in that, for Latour and Miller, truth is a property of things as well.  Where Latour and Miller differ from Plato is that, rather than being a relation between a thing and its ideal form, truth is a construction – an assemblage of entities that stands.  This means that all of the entities – human and non – must be engaged in the construction (Bryant says that they must be “persuaded”), and it is only through this engagement (through their collective work, I would say) that they are able to stand (i.e. resist entropy).  The post is excellent, and this is just a schematic description, so go read it for yourselves.  The real reason I’m writing this is to lend an example from some of my own work.

Cave Lake State Park, Ely, NevadaI’m currently in the process of finalizing a paper on the work I did in Ely, Nevada two summers ago.  For this work, I studied traditional cultural properties (TCPs) for the bureau of land management (BLM) and area Shoshone tribes.  Through this research I became acquainted with the many issues and debates in the field of cultural resource management (CRM – I know, so many acronyms… it’s what I get for living in DC…).  What I realized (partially as a result of having read Latour) is that the typical approach to cultural resources is that they are objective facts (though they may have been constructed in the past, they now simply exist) that we as anthropologists attempt to “validate” – that is, assess their truth.  Generally, this involves doing ethnographic research and/or archaeological research on the sites to find out if the propositions said about them are “true” or if the people are just making it up to get in the way of development (in this case a water pipeline to pump water from the desert to Las Vegas).  So for the general practice of CRM research, we are trying to assess the “truth” of propositions about the site.  I think this is problematic for all sorts of reasons: 1) it assumes that sites are “not true” until proven otherwise, 2) it assumes that sites are homogeneous and that their protection is a uniform practice, 3) it recognizes no voice to the communities (tribes, etc.) except to tell stories which may or may not be “true”, 4) it grants no role to anthropologists except communicating (translating) information about the sites from one group (tribes) to another (BLM staff), 5) it doesn’t account for the process of CRM itself as a process of construction, 6) it suggests that the only thing that needs to be done to fix the problems with CRM is to change laws … and so on – for more see my forthcoming paper.

What I’m arguing in my paper – what I’ve argued elsewhere – is that cultural resources do not simply exist; that they must be constructed, and that it is through CRM that this is done.  This is, furthermore, a heterogeneous process of assembling heterogeneous entities (laws, artefacts, stories, regulations, individuals, communities, landscapes, plants, animals, ethnographic reports, historical accounts, …) into an assemblage that can “stand.”  In this case, to “stand” means to resist the onslaught of development.

By changing our conception of cultural resources, we can begin to see different roles for communities – they actually practice CRM themselves, not just by trying to get sites on the National Register, but by engaging in lawsuits, by protesting, through direct action, through alliance building, etc.  We also see, for the Federal Agency staff, that CRM is not simply a matter of putting things on the National Register – that these sites must be composed, and recomposed continually.  Furthermore, it’s not sufficient to simply change the laws and be done with it – because the laws are only one part of the process and product of the assemblage and not always determining factors.  For anthropologists, we see a role beyond translation: the construction of relationships between different entities.  This may be between the sites and the National Register, or between agency staff and ethnographic research, but it may also involve building relationships between agency staff and the communities, or between two disparate communities, or between developers and communities.  This brings in my conception (drawing upon John Law) of methods as interventions, but I’ll not go into that here.  Suffice it to say that Latour and Miller’s conception of truth applies here, because the truth of a resource is its ability to stand up to development through a heterogeneous assemblage – not in the ability of propositions about the site to match up with the data about the site (though that may be part of the assemblage…).

Note: The conception of truth outlined by Bryant, Miller, and Latour is similar to pragmatist notions of truth – i.e. William James‘.  I believe Latour draws on James – at least in his later work – but it would be interesting to explore this relationship more.