[Re]Build: A Call for Contributors and Participants

As usual, I am late on the uptake, and far behind in my blog reading/writing. But this seems like a very interesting endeavor spearheaded by two very smart and very committed individuals (DMF and Edmund Berger):

Shock and austerity. Stock market instability. Stagnant wages and the decline of purchasing power. War. Climate change. Despite these multiplying crises, capitalism retains an essential tool that allows itself to perpetuate itself on a global level despite its internal contradictions: the ability to leverage technological developments to liquidate the political power of those who would oppose it. At such a crossroads, when labor as an organized force is being dissolved into flexible precarity, how does one attempt to tip the scales and reverse our accelerating fragility? The answer lies in a shift of focus, from a politics of power to a politics that looks critically at infrastructure, a politics of re-purpose, (re-)design, appropriation and the reclamation of space, and of new forms of economic expression.

What the future will be, or whatever name we want to label the path to it, there is one realization that is facing us: it must be post-capitalist. We firmly believe that another world is possible, but it must be built, and the rules for this construction are still largely unwritten.

We propose the creation of a zone of experimentation with the intent of bringing together dissenting agencies with critical practices in hopes of finding prototypes and models for a post-capitalist society. Such a platform calls for a cross-pollination of ideas, a shared and in-depth dialogue, and easily accessible means for hands-on experimentation. This new space will be open to all wanting to participate.

The topics we hope to cover include – but are not limited to:

  • The politics of infrastructure
  • The remaking of space by neoliberal capitalism
  • The relationships between big data, media, and infrastructure
  • Tactics and strategies for re-purposing technologies, complex systems, infrastructure and the politicization of spatial practices
  • D.I.Y. techniques and how-to guides
  • Alternative economies
  • Sustainable living, agriculture, energy, and architecture
  • The possibilities and pitfalls of automation
  • Eco-activism and infra-activism
  • Intervention design
  • Tactical media
  • New and experimental cartographies
  • Peer-to-peer approaches to production and distribution

Contributions can take a variety of forms:

  • Articles and essays
  • Fragments and speculations
  • Videos, links, and commentaries
  • How-to guides, plans, and prototypes
  • Reports, stories, and interviews

Anyone who is interested need only drop us a line here, over at the Deterritorial Investigations Unit blog here, or you can email me at Edmund.b.berger@gmail.com.

Hacking Modeling

I am cross-posting this at my research blog (The Model and The Territory) because it relates to some issues that are of interest to me beyond this project, but the ideas grow out of the work I’m doing for my dissertation research.

It is interesting to me that models can be seen as both a cognition – simulation and representation – and as infrastructure – a system of computational structures embedded within institutional organizations. In other words, the model is not the territory, but becomes part of the territory it seeks to represent, and increasingly so the more influential and widely distributed it becomes. Over at Synthetic_Zero, Edmund Berger describes modeling for environmental management as a form of repurposing of systems designed within and for military-industrial structures for uses that undermine those very structures. In other words, environmental modeling is a kind of “hacking.” It’s an idea I’m interested in and hope to explore to some extent in my research, though there are a number of other angles I’m exploring as well.

Interestingly, Berger suggests that environmental models always, to some extent, represent this kind of hacking, since environmental values are generally opposed to the neoliberal values of the systems they were designed for. Perhaps I’m still skeptical, but I’m finding that models are powerful tools, and that, regardless of the scale and type of environmental model, they have important performative effects that can be considered reformative if not revolutionary. The underlying question of my research – which I’ve already stated, but will restate again and again in many different ways – is under what conditions can we best foster these performative effects in order to promote their revolutionary potential?

I’m not completely convinced yet that all environmental modeling is equal. Some projects seem to reinforce state hierarchies, though it is these hierarchies that are often able to confront neoliberal institutions head-on. Models – especially big, complex ones – make that possible. On the other hand, there are other projects that have the potential to undermine state hierarchies and the division between expert and layperson that underlie them. However, these projects tend to be smaller scale, and rely on smaller, simpler, and potentially less accurate modeling systems. This combination makes these projects potentially less capable of confronting large scale neoliberal interests, at least on the short term. On the long-term, as more of these kinds of projects accumulate and as people come to expect this kind of collaboration in scientific practice, it seems to me that it might be possible to generate a different subjectivity that sees collective action and mutual aid as an effective means of resistance against social neoliberalization.

This is all speculation at the moment, and I’m not able to back it up with any evidence – particularly the long-term speculations. I’m also not opposed to any approach to modeling per se. At this stage, I think it is important to develop a kind of situational awareness of what the obstacles are to environmental protection and restoration in a given case, and what kind of modeling methods might be best suited to addressing those obstacles. I’ve seen little of that situational awareness being fostered – instead the focus is on improving the accuracy and validity of models. I hope my research will shed some light on the relationship between modeling methods and practices and the social relationships in which they take place so that researchers can make more informed decisions about what approach to modeling best suits the conditions of each particular situation.

(Para)Academic Bastardizations: Toward a Rowdy Anthropology

This post is intended to be a somewhat late reply to Ryan Anderson’s post on the Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC). In the post, Ryan asks “What are we going to do with the OAC now? What can we do with it that contributes to building and supporting the biodiversity of anthropological media and ideas?  How can we connect it with other projects, efforts, platforms, organizations, and institutions?  More than anything, what does it meant to keep pushing for a more open, democratic anthropology?”

I don’t really want to talk about the OAC. I’ve said enough about it in the past, and I haven’t been involved with it for a few years, so I really can’t speak for or about anything that’s going on over there. Whatever future we imagine for the discipline, the OAC will be a tool – one that we can potentially use to leverage certain possibilities, but I don’t think that it itself will ever be the future of anthropology. Since I’ve distanced myself from it over the last few years, I don’t feel comfortable talking about what it is or should be – I’ll leave that to those who are and have been involved in it and hope that our paths align to some extent.

Instead, I want to talk more generally about the state and future of the discipline, and what I think we can do to make it a better field for everyone involved and promote the kind of “biodiversity” of modes of thought that Eileen Joy has called for. My suggestion boils down to one thing – one easy thing with many challenging manifestations. That one thing is this: to support one another however we can.

Anthropologists are out there all over the world doing some really amazing work. They are helping people to solve everyday problems, bringing attention to issues that most people are unaware of, and generally trying to make the world a better place. That’s not to say that all anthropologists are doing great things – let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that anthropology is some kind of academic utopia. It’s just to say that there is good work being done, and that we generally continue to strive to do better.

However, as everyone in the discipline knows, there are a lot of anthropologists who are struggling these days. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean that anthropologists are like the poor children you see on those commercials who need to be “saved” for just pennies a day. No, I just mean that many anthropologists are burdened by debt, struggling to find reasonable employment, and laboring under the weight of gender, racial, and ethnic discrimination.

I say “these days” and maybe what I really mean is that it has always been this way with some small differences. In the past, the only people who could get degrees in anthropology were those who could afford to attend college. Now, more people are able to get those degrees, but there is still a privileged minority who have access to the best schools, the most resources, and the best jobs. This is made painfully clear by the recent finding that most tenured positions are held by graduates of a handful of elite universities. There are, of course, other elements involved, but this fact exemplifies the hierarchical structure of the discipline. Where there is hierarchy there is homogeneity, and where there is homogeneity, change is slow or even non-existent. The pot needs to be stirred.

Back to my simple suggestion, that we support one another however we can. We live in a world in which everything is a game, and everyone is striving to win by out-doing all the others. It’s a competitive world out there, and, seemingly, the only way to get ahead is to get an early start. The problem isn’t that it’s a game – everything is a game, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But what if, instead of seeing it as a game of trying to get ahead, we think of it as a game where the objective is to work together to make the field as good for everyone as it could be? In that sense, no one can win unless everyone does, and the people who are trying to push their way ahead – or who are already way ahead and unwilling to slow down to lend a hand – are only making it so that nobody – not even themselves – can win.

If we started supporting each other, what would that mean? What would it look like? I can think of a number of acts both small and large: faculty can help ensure that their students are able to make a decent living without having to take on large amounts of debt; senior faculty can pay closer attention to their hiring biases and give greater consideration to candidates from underrepresented groups and to those who are not necessarily from elite universities; those with experience writing successful grants can offer advice and guidance to those who are new to the grant writing process; we can all give financial support to projects that aren’t able to get funding in traditional ways; we can donate to open access publications; we can even retweet, like, or share articles or blog posts that highlight work that might otherwise go unnoticed. The point here isn’t to dictate what people should do, but to offer a way of thinking that suggests things that people could do if they are really committed to making the best discipline for everyone. Anything you can do to give a little push up to someone who otherwise might be kept down – that’s how we need to be thinking about making the future of anthropology. If enough of us do this often enough, the pot might just start bubbling as people who weren’t getting noticed before start to take on more influential positions within the discipline, and that’s when change will start to take place.

But maybe I’m getting too light-hearted and utopian for some people. Of course there are a lot of people who do win without helping others – at least on the short-term, and often for most of their lives so that the long-term seems irrelevant. They get their cozy tenure positions and then spend the rest of their careers building a name for themselves off of the labor of graduate students and adjuncts, all the while churning out more and more graduates who won’t be able to find cozy jobs as easily and espousing “radical” ideas without really doing anything to make life easier for the people they work with. I say fuck them. We don’t need them. Let’s work together to build a new, better discipline, and leave them behind to wallow in the old, dying structures of academia. But maybe I’m just being bitter. In any case, I think we can build a more interesting – rowdy – discipline, but it will take work, time, and a lot of mutual support.