I’ve been somewhat quiet on here this month because several things, both personal and professional, have occupied a lot of my thought and time. One of those things was writing a proposal for the EPA’s Science To Achieve Results (STAR) fellowship, which I submitted on Tuesday. It was a nerve wracking process, especially trying to get it together on short notice, and full of upsets and re-starts. However, I got it done, got it in, and it’s all up to the judges now. If I get the fellowship, it will cover full funding for 3 years – freeing me up from teaching, and potentially allowing me to move away from the DC area. So say a prayer, meditate, cross your fingers, rub your lucky rabbit’s foot, or whatever it is you want to do to influence the fates in my favor!
Writing these kinds of things is a very rewarding process. It helped me to hone my dissertation project. I proposed a comparative study of two modeling systems – the Chesapeake Bay Model, and the Saint Albans Bay Model on Lake Champlain. The goal is to compare the effects of participatory (St. Albans) versus conventional (Chesapeake) modeling practices – on both the communities and the environments they intend to serve. Also, I hope to introduce some collaborative methods developed by social scientists (see Whatmore’s Competancy Groups methodology, for example), in order to augment the participatory aspects of both modeling systems and see what effects that has. I think it’s a good project, with a lot of potential and very useful outcomes.
In addition to the proposal, I was asked to write a two page personal statement describing my career goals and interests. I haven’t really done this since applying to the PhD program two years ago, and even then, I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it. However, writing these things helps to reflect on why it is I’m doing what I’m doing – why anthropology, why environmental anthropology, etc.? I remembered that I got into anthropology – before becoming aware of “environmental anthropology” – by way of an interest in and concern for environmental issues. I was truly convinced – and continue to be – that anthropology has a unique perspective and set of methods for addressing the environmental issues we face today and will face in the future. It’s the deeply historical, and broadly transcultural perspective that anthropology uses that will help us figure out the best ways to live sustainably. I don’t think that we could face these issues without such a perspective. This helped me to remember – because I think I’ve forgotten recently – that this is what drives my life, what has driven my life for the past seven years. I enjoy and value the work that I do because it’s something that I truly care about. I think that’s important – to have something to care about, something that drives you to keep moving and getting better. It’s important for me, at least, and I’m happy that I’ve found it in anthropology.
Existence requires work – we are all the products and processes of innumerable other beings as well as our selves. And our collective existence is not teleological – it has no ends or aims because time doesn’t stop and we share the world with others so we must always be willing to adapt. Nevertheless, I believe that, as individuals, we require a certain amount of vision. We need something to work towards, even if it can never be achieved in precisely the way we want. Furthermore, in order to pursue that vision, we need a certain amount of faith that it can be done. Sometimes faith involves diving in, taking a risk, and seeing where it ends up rather than working endlessly to make it happen.
Vision and faith – the opposites of existence and work. But all are part of struggle forever!
Ans so the election was over without much surprise. I voted for Jill Stein yesterday. I believe that we need more truly liberal discourse in this country, and I believe that, by giving my vote to the Green Party rather than the Democrats, I can incrementally make that possible. Unfortunately, I don’t think she won enough votes in this election to gain any increased benefits or attention in subsequent elections, but I was continually struck by how she put herself on the line – getting arrested several times on the campaign trail – to make a statement and generate some of that discourse that’s needed. I wish that more candidates were willing to make such sacrifices.
In spite of all of that, though, and in spite of what I’ve said in the past, I am relieved that Obama won another four years as President. I don’t always agree with his policies, but he’s been able to make some headway against the conservative onslaught, and make possible some marginally progressive policies. My hope is that he will continue this trend in the next four years – perhaps re-energized and reinvigorated by his win – and that, ever so slightly, the discourse (and practice) will shift a little back to the left after years of being stuck far to the right. I think that, although Romney himself seems to actually be pretty moderate, electing him would have kept the push going right and we may have ended up going backwards significantly on issues like reproductive rights, gay rights, health care, and economic regulation.
Now that the election is over, my hope is that we all – Presidents, Governors, Congress members, state and local authorities, as well as ordinary citizens – can move ahead and work together to build a better world for everyone.
A friend of mine, Susan Crate (editor of the book Anthropology and Climate Change), is currently working on a new book on the way anthropologists approach the subject of “change” broadly speaking. Yesterday, we had a brief email exchange in which I described some of my thoughts on change as the result of heterogeneity – the encounter between different beings and their attempts to compose relationships with one another. For this I draw on Bateson’s discussion of stochastic systems as well as complexity theory. I also brought up my concept of work and that I feel that work needs to be better theorized in anthropology. In particular, I’m looking for a theory of work that accounts for all of the different kinds of work that is done – intellectual and manual, human and non-human, etc. To me, work is that process of trying to construct relationships with others – a continual process because the others are always changing due to their own internal heterogeneity, and because there are always new beings attempting to enter into the relationship. Finally, I mentioned my interest in paying attention to the different kinds of work that anthropologists (and other social scientists) do. We have paid a great deal of attention to the production of texts in the last 30 or so years, but I’m interested in all of the work that we do – building rapport, conducting interviews, participant-observing, teaching, writing, attending conferences, going to “the field”, etc. I’m interested in the effects of all of these different kinds of work and in thinking about how we might use them to make a better world – to make bad relations good ones to use Ghassan Hage’s phrase.
None of the above would come as any surprise to those who read my blog regularly. The reason I’m posting this is not to rehash all of those concepts once again, but to think about another part of Susan’s book that interested me. In the email she said that she’s particularly interested in how we can use qualitative methods to understand change. Much of the work on change – especially environmental change – has used primarily quantitative data as its measure. However, Susan has had great success using qualitative methods to evaluate the effects of climate change on nomadic populations in Siberia and Central Asia. I was thinking about this and then read this essay by John Protevi on water in Deleuzian thought. I don’t pretend to understand much of Deleuze, but the idea of intensive differences driving change struck me as a possible way of thinking about qualitative change more theoretically. Intensive differences are things like temperature or density that produce flows. My question is, what are those intensive differences for human ecologies? What differences produce flows, and how? Certainly these could be measured quantitatively, but are they not also qualitative differences that can’t quite be grasped by numbers alone – the feel of hot water when I first step into the shower, the sense of heaviness in the air on a humid Summer day?
I’ve said before that I use the terms “work” and “struggle” synonymously. Now I’m thinking that they might be different things. I’m thinking that “work” might be the broader category – any action that produces a difference – and that “struggle” might be one sub-category of work – work that produces a difference that makes a better world. I’m only thinking it through, but in some ways this makes sense to me. It may have implications for the relevance of intentionality since “struggle” might imply at least some degree of intention – a vision of a better world towards which we might struggle. Thoughts?