What Ontology does for my Anthropology

Ontology has been the key buzzword in anthropology since late last year – perhaps earlier – and I’ve, of course, been engaged with the “ontological turn” for a few years now. But ontology in anthropology has taken a turn that I didn’t expect and that doesn’t reflect my own interests in the approach. Ontological anthropology – maybe not the appropriate term – has come to mean an interest in different ontologies around the world, and an ontological politics in the sense of making those subaltern ontologies real and present in the world. But that’s not the way I think of ontology. For me, an ontological anthropology is an anthropology with an ontological sensibility – one that’s informed by and engaged with the recent ontological explorations in philosophy. The question remains, though, what does that mean for anthropology and why is this turn necessary now?

With that in mind, I want to briefly examine what ontology does for me in my own practice as an anthropologist. 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. So here’s what ontology does for me:

1) Ontology shifts my focus from texts to practices.

For decades the study of anthropology has been a study of cultural texts. Even the cultural practices that we study have been reduced to texts that can be examined. Don’t get me wrong, this has been a valuable phase in the field. It made us pay attention to the way that meaning is produced rather than looking for general principles or underlying causes that shape meaning. I would say, though, that the linguistic turn – as it’s sometimes called – didn’t take the issue far enough. With the recognition of global environmental change, the idea that our knowledge of the world is constructed is actually a pretty conservative claim. The newer ontologies, on the other hand, make the radical implication that reality itself might be constructed. And it is through the practices and work of beings – human and non-human alike – that this process occurs.

What this does for me as an anthropologists is that it forces me to pay attention to those practices and the work that is done to produce the beings and relationships that compose our world today. It makes me aware of history, because being is produced over time – things don’t simply emerge spontaneously out of nothing – and it’s the interactions, changes, and repetitions over time that make a difference to the way things develop. So when I’m studying the bloodworm industry, the Chesapeake Bay Model, the Bureau of Land Mangement, I have to study the work that has been done to produce those assemblages, and also the work that is being done now to change or maintain them.

2) Ontology forces me to acknowledge the heterogeneity of existence.

This is not necessarily a feature of all ontological thought, but it seems to be common to most of the new ontologies that have been explored in recent years. That is, that all beings must be taken as beings in their own right and not reduced to anything else. There are a lot of ontological, philosophical implications for this, but what is most important for me is the recognition that all existence is heterogeneous – that all beings are composed of and by other beings, and that any of those beings can (but don’t always) make a significant difference to the situation. It results in a decentering of the human that seems paradoxical for an anthropologist, but humans never exist alone and for themselves – we are always surrounded by other material and living beings.

What this means is that, in my work as an anthropologist, I have to think about all of the beings involved in a particular set of relations because all of them make a difference. It makes for a better approach to the relationship between people and the environment – first, by refusing to reduce those relationships either to material causality or to ideology and meaning, and second, by breaking open that overly encapsulating term “environment” to pay attention to the many different beings that are around us and the many different relationships we have with each of them. Furthermore, I would argue that it makes for a better understanding of our own social worlds. It’s a somewhat bold claim, and I’m not the first to make it, but I agree that human society would not exist without non-human beings (objects, plants, animals, ideas, etc.) and the difference that those beings make for us. Most accounts of human social systems suggest that we absorb those others into our worlds – they become simply a manipulable substrate onto which we can impose our intentions and desires. That does a disservice both to those other beings and to ourselves – the difference that they make to us is part of what enables the structuration of our social worlds. So when I study the bloodworm industry, I have to look at the way that humans interact with the worms, the seaweed packing material, the boxes and containers, the mud, the ocean, the fish, ideas about “invasives”….. All of those things make a difference to the way the assemblage is produced, and without any of them it wouldn’t be what it is.

3) Ontology makes me recognize the social, cooperative aspect of things.

Following from the last, ontology also makes me recognize that, in order for all of these different beings to come into existence in the first place, and to produce anything new there has to be a fundamentally social aspect to existence itself. My existence, for example, is dependent on the work of many others: the cells that compose my body and work to keep it functioning, the plants and animals that I depend upon for food, the other people, friends, family, and strangers who help me, support me, or make the things that I rely on. When taken broadly to incorporate both humans and non-humans, there is no escape from society. The image of rugged individuals able to forge their way, and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is a myth made possible, and even inevitable, by limiting society to human interactions. A person who has accumulated enough material support can seem to be doing it all on his/her own when, in fact, there is a lot of human and non-human work that goes into that material support.

As an anthropologist this makes me attentive to the relationships between all of the different kinds of beings that make up an assemblage. It makes me explore and try to understand how those relationships could have been otherwise or could still be otherwise. Looking at the Chesapeake Bay Model, the way relationships between modelers, policy-makers, and stakeholders have been built over its 30 year life has made it difficult for these groups to get along and communicate. The premise of my research is that different methods – different ways of building those relationships – would result in better interactions and communications and have better outcomes for everyone involved.

4) Ontology makes me attentive to my own practices and the kinds of relationships that they compose.

Prior to the linguistic turn, ethnographers largely removed themselves from their accounts and failed to examine the ways that their interactions with others and their own texts in many ways produced the cultures that they were observing. The epistemological constructivism that brought about an attention to texts forced us to reflect on the effects of writing culture.

This was a very important step for the field – one whose primary occupation is representing Others to a Western audience. However, I think once again it didn’t go far enough. It made us text focused, literary, idealist. Left out of the picture – both of the texts that we studied and of our attention to our own texts – were a host of other practices with other effects and associations aside from the production of meaning or understanding. Ontology pushes us beyond texts and the construction of meaning to practices and the construction of existence itself. It makes us attentive not only to the meanings that we create through writing about Others, but also to the relationships that we build with others through all of our practices: writing, research methods, teaching, activism, etc. In the same way that a lack of attention to texts makes us unconsciously reproduce oppressive and harmful representations of others, a lack of attention to practices can make us unconsciously reproduce oppressive and harmful relationships with others. A concern for ontology makes me think about my engagements and interactions with others and makes me organize my research and other activities in ways that – hopefully – improve those interactions for everyone involved. Instead of simply asking what kind of knowledge am I constructing about the world, it makes me ask what kind of world am I building, what kind of world is it possible to build, and what kind of world do I want to build?

The effect of this ontological sensibility on my own work is that it makes me experimental. I recognize that every interaction I have with others has an effect on them and on myself. As a result, the idea that an ethnographer can go into a community and simply observe is passé – we are already experimenting through these interactions. With that in mind, I can explore other ways of interacting with them, reflect on the effects and then modify my interactions if necessary. In that way, I can work on building better relationships with others, and work on making those relationships beneficial to everyone involved. It also makes me more attentive to my own and others’ vulnerability in those relationships. We are all vulnerable beings, but we are differently vulnerable. There are many ways that we protect ourselves – preventing others from altering and affecting us. When balanced, these protections are beneficial and necessary – they prevent us from simply being subsumed by the other, and allow us to withdraw from others in order to maintain our identity or substance (I’m using this vocabulary loosely). But when vulnerabilities are imbalanced they can be harmful to those who are less vulnerable. As a researcher, I have tools, techniques, and strategies for remaining invulnerable (objective) relative to my “informants”, but if I am attentive to the imbalances, I can open up and allow myself to be vulnerable to them. It’s through this vulenrability – this mutual capacity to act on others and to be acted upon by others – that we build effective relationships over time. It’s a dance, a struggle. But one, I would argue, that is essential to composing a better world.

Pluralism, Ontology, and Composing a Common World

In the last couple of days there have been a flurry of posts referring back to mine on “The Value of a Turn.” The response isn’t so much a response to that post, but a discussion of ontology and pluralism sparked by Levi Bryant’s posing the question here – how do we reconcile pluralism with any kind of realist perspective? It’s an important question for the recent interest in the ontological turn in anthropology, since anthropologists are interested in making space for the ontological claims of others who are generally left out of the ontological discourse (their views are seen as merely cultural representations of a unified Nature while we Westerners have the luxury of unmediated access to that Nature by way of science). However, if we grant that a reality to the ontologies of the Shuar or the Kayapó or other indigenous groups, then it seems we must also grant a reality to the ontologies of Christians, climate deniers, Capitalists, and so on. How can we reconcile these two opposing agendas?

As I said, there have been a few posts on the subject. Here, Phillip outlines Latour and Stengers’s approach to ontological pluralism, and James Stanescu has another detailing William James’s pluralism. I’m still trying to process these, so I can’t go into any kind of huge discussion here, but I do have some thoughts that might put a different spin on things. (See also, Levi’s response to these two posts)

The project, as Latour, Stengers, James, and others have described it, is to compose a common world. What pluralism recognizes is that, in this project, we all start from different places – Latour’s relativity rather than relativism. The goal, then, (and it has to be recognized that this project is always contingent and prone to failure) is to make these different positions converge, but in a way that doesn’t impose one upon the other as the Modern Nature/Culture dichotomy tends to do. Why should we avoid imposing one on the other? In part because it’s the right thing to do – by imposing we remove or reduce the agency of the other. The claim to unmediated access to reality makes us invulnerable – no other claim has that grounding, and therefore we can never be wrong. But we are wrong – the science of the Enlightenment gave us climate change, environmental destruction, imperialism in the name of rationality (indigenous peoples removed from their land and taken to reeducation facilities where they were taught “rational” economic activities such as farming), and so on. It removed us from the world and placed us above it – the God’s eye view.

But it doesn’t work that way, and here is the other reason why we need to engage in this common world-building project: because it’s not just about building a common world with other humans, but of building a common world with other kinds of beings as well. We’re not just trying to come to terms with the ontologies of the Shuar or the Kayapó, we are trying to come to terms with the realities of CO2, ocean acidification, sea level rise, arctic ice sheets, endangered species, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires, deforestation, factory farms, genetic engineering, cars, airplanes, invasive species, computer models, and an almost infinite number of other beings that inhabit our worlds and have effects on us. To position ourselves outside of Nature undermines their agency as well. It posits them as a passive background that we can manipulate and mold to our social wills. But that’s not the case – these beings push back, they resist, they impose themselves on us. Not intentionally, of course, but they do nevertheless.

So we have a project – composing a common world – (which is an unending project, thus the “forever” in the title of this blog), and we all start from different places. And we are not simply composing a common world with other humans, but with other beings as well. That’s where an ontological pluralism positions us. From here we can begin to move forward, not from a common ground, but from a mess of contingent spaces – overlapping, intertwining, etc. We move forward as beings within a world, not viewing from above.

In this effort to build a common world, certain positions will fail. The climate deniers will fail to build a common world with CO2, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and so on. Others will continue to prosper, but it’s not our place, I think, to predefine which will prosper and which will fail – this once again pulls us out of the common world and back into the God’s eye view.

This is my take on ontological pluralism – it’s more about where we start from and where we’re heading than an accurate description of the world. Maybe we don’t need “ontology” to get us here, but the ontological discourse has been effective in some ways at conveying the pluralist mentality. For that reason, I think it’s a good project, a good turn, and I’m interested to see where it will take us.

Redefining Struggle

I’ve said in the past that I distinguish conceptually between “work” and “struggle” – the former being the unintentional process of composing a world by one’s very existence, and the latter being the intentional process of working to make a better world for everyone. But I’m having a new thought. If utopia is not an end towards which we can struggle, and struggle itself is utopia, then struggle can have no end of it’s own. The world cannot be “better” – that sounds dismal, but I only mean that “better” is a relative and subjective term – so the struggle cannot be about a “better world.” If struggle is utopia, then struggle has to be about itself.

So what is struggle? Now I would say that struggle is the intentional act of working together – working with others where “others” is not limited to other humans. There are, of course, unintentional acts of working together. In fact, all work is collaborative in some sense, though it is generally not recognized as such. What distinguishes struggle from other instances of working together is the intentional aspect – purposefully encountering others, altering and affecting them and allowing oneself to be altered and affected by them.

This last part is key, I think. Because, while anytime we work with others we are altered and affected by them, barriers are often put in place that limit the efficacy of one being in relation to another. These barriers could be institutional, affective, physical, conceptual or take any number of other forms. For example, the “objectivity” of scientists often serves as a barrier to becoming entangled with the object of their research as well as the social and political implications of their work. That’s not to say that barriers have to be eliminated – barriers are useful and provide opportunities as much as they are  obstacles – however, in order for struggle to take place, there must be an intentional equalization of barriers such that all beings involved in a relation are equally (but not in the same ways) altered and affected by the process. Without this, the being with the most barriers will always be able to close off the process prematurely with little harm done to himself but potentially severe harm done to the others.

This notion of struggle also broadens it out. Instead of thinking of struggle as simply a social process of activism and engagement with political and social issues, struggle – as I always intended, but was not always very expressive of – can take many forms. It could be the struggle with (working with) the others that constitute oneself – physical, mental, emotional, etc. We are heterogeneous beings cobbled together out of parts, adapted for many, often conflicting purposes, and living in a world that is changing with increasing velocity. As a result, everyone – young, old, healthy, diseased, happy, distressed, rich, or poor – is trying to cope with something. Sometimes we cope in ways that create barriers within us – isolating out parts of ourselves that are troublesome or that create internal friction. In this sense, the struggle can be about lifting those barriers (or, rather, working with them) and encountering the frictions between the different parts that compose us (physically, mentally, emotionally, etc.). This process of working with ourselves – like the process of social struggle – can have no predefined goal aside from itself. The goal is not happiness or some abstract notion of health, but rather the struggle itself is the goal. As soon as the struggle stops, the frictions begin to accumulate and can become overwhelming.

I’m still thinking this through, and I’m wrapping this up after an extended break so I don’t recall exactly what I was going to say. But thinking about it again with a different frame of mind, I think there’s a better way of saying this. Work is the process of composing a world. It is continual and inevitable. All beings work, if only in a passive sense. Work produces frictions because we share our worlds with other beings and these other beings are simultaneously working to composed a world. Struggle is the process of working with other beings to overcome those frictions. Friction can never be completely eliminated, though, because we can never fully address all frictions at once (and sometimes addressing one friction will create or exacerbate another) and because new frictions are coming up all of the time. That’s why the goal is the struggle – there is no world that can be said to be the end – and the struggle is forever.

Hope and Struggle

DMF over at Synthetic_Zero has shared a nice quote from an interview with Brian Massumi:

From my own point of view, the way that a concept like hope can be made useful is when it is not connected to an expected success – when it starts to be something different from optimism – because when you start trying to think ahead into the future from the present point, rationally there really isn’t much room for hope. Globally it’s a very pessimistic affair, with economic inequalities increasing year by year, with health and sanitation levels steadily decreasing in many regions, with the global effects of environmental deterioration already being felt, with conflicts among nations and peoples apparently only getting more intractable, leading to mass displacements of workers and refugees … It seems such a mess that I think it can be paralysing. If hope is the opposite of pessimism, then there’s precious little to be had. On the other hand, if hope is separated from concepts of optimism and pessimism, from a wishful projection of success or even some kind of a rational calculation of outcomes, then I think it starts to be interesting – because it places it in the present.

The basis for my Struggle Forever philosophy is that the idea of Utopia as an end – a goal towards which we struggle – is misguided. When taken as such, utopia becomes fantasy and leads to frustration or, worse, fascism. Decoupled from the the teleological impulse, we can begin to see that the struggle itself is utopia and utopia exists as long as there are people engaged in the struggle (and moreso the more people are engaged). We will never reach a point where the world will be just as it should be for all time (or even for a brief moment), but as long as we continue to struggle we might make things gradually better for more and more people and keep the forces of fascism at bay.

Massumi’s notion of hope separated from optimism and pessimism is very much the point of my earlier post on faith. Removed from the optimistic context, hope or faith is no longer about reaching some desired goal, but rather a hope and faith in the struggle recognizing that the struggle doesn’t end. I believe that moving towards this notion of Utopia, faith and Struggle willallow us to get past many barriers that currently keep us from the possibility of making a better world.

Revolutionary Espionage

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we need to understand power in our society, and the tools and methods for building that understanding. It’s with this in mind that some colleagues and I have proposed the creation of an Up the Anthropologist Research Collective in the DC area. We will be meeting first at the American University Public Anthropology Conference (PAC) to brainstorm and strategize, and then, hopefully, continuing the process over the course of the year with the AnthrPlus Conference and in other venues. The purpose of this group, as I see it (and mine should not be seen as the defining vision for the group), is to understand the “culture” of power in DC. In that sense, I think, we’re not as concerned with the particulars of what people in power are doing – or we are, but only as a means to understand the “culture.”  I think it’s a great project, and I’m looking forward to the strategizing sessions. However, I think it’s also not enough.

The NSA is collecting data on us. Large corporations like Google and Facebook have vast amounts of information which we provide freely in exchange for their services. Corporate espionage is commonplace. But where is the espionage for the people? The balance weighs heavily in the wrong direction. We have wikileaks which focuses largely on state institutions and the military. The hackers of Anonymous and LulzSec sometime liberate corporate documents that cause a stir. We used to have investigative journalists whose job it was to keep an eye on and even at times infiltrate the corporate world to inform the public of problems, but this kind of journalism is increasingly rare. The above project focuses on the “culture” of power rather than its day-to-day operations, which is important, but, if we are to really resist power, then we have to understand those day-to-day operations as well.

What we need, I think (and I’m in no position to make this happen, but maybe somebody reading here is), is a dedicated espionage group that makes it their mission to infiltrate the corporate world, rise up in the ranks, and release information to the public (and, perhaps, sabotage corporate operations) so that the secret manipulations and back room deals are made apparent. In this world, we need more than protest and Occupy, we need a concerted effort to document the operations of power, reveal them to the world, and, hopefully, bring about outrage and change. We need to make a world where we are not the only ones keeping an eye over our shoulder wondering when and how we are being watched, but where those in power must also be forever on guard against such surveillance – unable to trust anyone, and driven towards isolation and paranoia.

It’s a huge challenge, and I’m not sure it could be pulled off. Certainly, the consequences for spying on power are harsher than the consequences they get for spying on us. Nevertheless, I think it is an important mission and essential for really making a different world. I hope this thought reaches someone who is capable of bring it about.

Faith in the Impossible

Curiously, I’ve written about this briefly before. I had forgotten that post – a little nonsensical as it was written very quickly without much care or thought – until I read this article about hope and faith in anarchism. The article resonates with my own experience of struggle. The author draws a distinction between hope and faith – hope being the longing for the possible, whereas faith is the surrender to the impossible. According to the author:

To have faith in revolution is much different than having hope. If one has faith then one is in revolution, but if one has hope, then one is looking forward toward revolution. This is why I have claimed, in previous posts, that anarchists require knights of faith and not stooges of hope.  When you have hope, you by necessity confront an unbearable failure, one that probably brings about deep despair. Many anarchists are unable to recover from despair. But when you have faith, when you abandon the principle of hope (and thus the principle of despair), you allow yourself to realize that failure is always a possibility: we must, therefore, try something new.

He then quotes Zizek:

Hope is only where despair is […] something truly new happens only when you are in such a deep shit that within the existing coordinates you can find no way out. Then in order to survive you have to invent something new. The magic is to turn a desperate situation into a new beginning.

As I described yesterday, my own experience of struggle has been one of moving back and forth between the struggle to go from day to day through anxiety and despair and the struggle to make the world a better place. Neither can exist in my life without the other – this is my phenomenology of struggle. What keeps me going – what gets me out of bed on those days when despair is overwhelming or fear is gripping me – is faith. It is this faith that has always allowed me to emerge from anxiety and despair and chart a new track in my life and in the struggle. But not faith in a higher being or faith in the ultimate goodness of the universe. That kind of faith detracts from struggle because it implies that there is a better reality already there and we only have to uncover it.

No, I believe that the world is what we (all of us, human and non-human alike, collaboratively) make of it. My faith is in the struggle and the recognition that the struggle continues forever. Like the author above, I think that faith is surrender to the impossible, unlike hope, which is always longing for something that never truly comes. Hope brings despair, but also danger. For hope can always be co-opted (as I believe it was, though not maliciously, in the first Obama campaign). When hope seems close, when the end is within reach, we grab for its fruits and relish in it’s sweet flesh, not realizing that meanwhile the snake is still in the tree waiting to bite. Faith, on the other hand, has no end, and is always conscious of the presence of the snake that can never be really removed.

Faith is surrender to the impossible. Utopia is the impossible – it is, literally, “no place.” Faith is endless, and the struggle is forever. To paraphrase Huxley, “Give us this day our daily faith, but deliver us, dear God, from Hope.”

Happiness and Struggle pt II

In a previous post, I briefly explored the relationship between happiness and the struggle to make a better world – looking specifically at the nature of “hedonic” happiness, which comes from intense experiences and immediate gratification, versus “eudaimonic” happiness, which comes from building positive social relations over time (or struggle). Arran James has posted a nice expansion of that piece with his usual insight, eloquent prose, and direct connection to real, concrete struggle. His conclusion is that happiness is not as common as we tend to think, nor is it necessary to live a good, positive life. We all experience distress, whether external or internal or some combination of the two (another not-so-clear dichotomy), and much of our distress stems from the awful socio-economic conditions in which we find ourselves in this time. Nevertheless, many are able to struggle despite their experience of distress, and the struggle itself can be a source of relief. He concludes,

I don’t think that this means that human beings require “revolt, not therapy” but that we go some way to produce a politics that is also therapeutic and a therapy that is openly political. Such “political therapeutics”, meant in a similar way perhaps to Foucault’s “political spirituality”, must be involved in critiquing psychiatric and psychotherapeutic power but must not lapse into uncritical rejection of the potency of medications and forms of therapy to help people get themselves to the position of being capable to continue struggling.

I suspect that there may be a particular kind of person that is likely to engage in struggle – a great many people simply don’t, and choose instead to go on with life as prescribed to them by the social system. I suspect that these people are particularly sensitive to the hardships they see around themselves. They are empathetic, concerned, open, aware, vulnerable (in the positive sense of the term), and engaged. People like this are canaries in the coal mine – they experience the anxieties and hardships of the world on a visceral level, often not recognizing it as part of the larger world but experiencing it directly and internally (this bias is exacerbated by the psychological tendency to internalize distress, as discussed by Arran). These people are, therefore, the most likely to engage in struggle, but also the most likely to struggle with the distress that has become an essential part of human life.

I’ve experienced this back-and-forth between the struggle to keep going and the struggle to make a difference for years. I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression of and on since I was 16. After the first incident, I recovered quickly and thought I had freed myself largely through hedonistic experiences rather than struggle.  I was concerned, but I became more concerned about my internal pleasure rather than the quality of the world as a whole. I quickly found that I was not free, and that the internal pleasures and peak experiences that I relied upon could be just as damaging and distressing as the ordinary stresses of life.

My next experience of anxiety came when I was 20 – in 2001, just a few months before the 9/11 attacks. I was unsure about my future – working in childcare, but not confident that this was the right career for me – and seeking out experiences that would take me away from the scary, sad, and lonely world of normalcy. I had my first panic attack on the way to Colorado for a series of concerts. I spent two days there going to shows and trying to free myself again, but ultimately locked inside a panicked shell. I couldn’t sleep, barely ate, and felt as though I was weighing down my friends around me. I had to go home – I left early and went back to Lawrence.  I spent the next month going through at least one panic attack per day. I lost 20 pounds that month and could only bring myself to eat candy. The only thing that stopped it was a prescription for valium. The valium killed the panic, but I continued in a state of heightened anxiety for months afterwards.  I went to therapy and learned cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helped tremendously. The ability to recognize the distressing thoughts allowed me to reach a level of stability. And it was from there that my life changed dramatically. I became more socially and environmentally conscious – no longer focused on my own internal freedom, my focus shifted to the world around me. I began to engage in struggle rather than trying to find myself, and, on the whole, that has been my life ever since.

I have not had a panic attack since I was 20, but I have experienced a lot of anxiety and depression since that time. When I was in my early 20’s, I became depressed about the direction my life was taking. I took a huge risk and left my job to go back to school – this was when I started the path to anthropology. However, taking that risk and experiencing the sudden precarity of student life stimulated my anxiety again. I had to go back on klonopin to make it through.

Now, for the last year or so, I’ve been suffering from depression again. Much of it has to do with the life of a graduate student – always financially unstable, always living at the whim of the University or the department, and the strain that it puts on personal relationships. It has sapped my strength, and kept me from engaging in struggle as much as I would like. There are times when I’ve been stable and capable of being engaged, but it is a struggle to maintain that and finish projects that I think of as valuable. I am working on it, and hopefully this year will be less of a burden (I have a better GA assignment, will be starting my dissertation research, and have several very good projects in the works), but it’s never easy to tell.

The thing is, some part of me values these experiences. Every one of them has changed my life. They have been hard to slog through, but they have pressed me to become more than I was before. I value my anxiety because, when it doesn’t overwhelm me and drive me away from life, it is this same way of thinking and acting that stimulates me and allows me to come up with new ideas, to get excited about a project. It gives me an energy and a mental edge that many people don’t have. I don’t wish it on anyone, but I would say that, if you do have it, you should try and recognize the value that it brings to your life as well as the harm. Don’t romanticize it, but don’t think of it as a flaw either. It’s what makes it possible for me to struggle!

With all this in mind, my sense is that happiness is not the goal. Perpetual happiness, like utopia, is a state that lacks difference. At the same time, we should not passively accept distress. Distress is a symptom, and a symptom is a sign – a sign that something needs to change, that we need a difference in our lives and our world. For some, this is the beginning of struggle – the struggle to find some stable place from which they can live and act, because getting out of bed in the morning is a struggle itself. But that isn’t the end of the struggle – from that stable place, the struggle becomes the one for the “political therapeutics” that Arran mentions. For those who are sensitive to hardship and distress, we will always move back and forth, from the struggle for life and self to the struggle for a better world. It is this movement that makes us who we are, and, though it is not fun, pleasurable or happy, it is what makes a better world possible. That’s something more valuable than all the hedonic experiences the world could offer.

What Makes a Difference?

I’ve made the distinction in my philosophy between work and struggle before. It’s been on my mind lately, though, and so I want to reiterate and explore it some more.  The question above, “What makes a difference?” is the key. I follow Levi Bryant (and Latour and a few others) in subscribing to what he calls the “Ontic Principle” – that is, existence is defined by difference. In other words, whatever exists makes a difference, and, complementarily, whatever makes a difference exists. Therefore, everything, by definition, makes a difference. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t exist. This is a fundamental ontological principle.

Building on that, though, we have to think about the process of making a difference. How do things make a difference? This is the process I refer to as Work (and is synonymous, to me, with “practice” and, in some sense, “performance”). Work is what things do to make a difference. Things work upon other things. They (we, since we are things as well) alter and affect them (us). Remake them. Transform them. Compose them. But “work” suggests an active process, doesn’t it? What about a rock sitting on a lump of grass? Surely the rock exists, right? It makes a difference to the plants, bugs, animals, water, and other things around it. It cannot simply be ignored or passed through. But does it work? I think here the active/passive dichotomy has to be abandoned. We are moving beings, and so we are biased towards moving beings. But any activist will tell you that there is a power, an effort even, in not moving, being firm, passively resisting. Perhaps the rock is further along the spectrum than that, but passivity still works upon other beings.

Work is the efficacy aspect of agency. Does it make a difference? If it exists, it does, and therefore it has some kind of efficacy and some degree of agency (and we can begin differentiating beings based on the kinds of efficacy they have – a rock’s efficacy is different from a bug’s, which is different from a human’s). But there is another aspect to agency – the ability to consciously determine what kind of difference one makes.  That is intentionality. Intentionality without efficacy is merely navigation – going with the flow, and the flow in our society is very harmful and destructive (one can talk about going with the flow of nature, but I would argue that there is no predefined flow of nature – nature is continually changing and being composed and recomposed. Nature is what we do, and what we do is natural. To say otherwise is a value judgement and not part of nature at all). Intentionality without efficacy is navigation. But efficacy without intentionality is random chance. A lot can be done with random chance – a whole world was built from it – but for our social lives, random chance is not sufficient. Therefore, we need a combination of efficacy and intentionality – the two components of agency. Without both, we sell ourselves short, and cannot work towards a better world. We cannot help but be efficacious, but without intentionality we end up merely replicating the status quo. The process of adding intentionality to efficacy in order to make the world differently or better than it was (to “crab sideways towards the good” – however you might define that) is what I refer to as Struggle.

Struggle is work. It is the intentional work of making the world a better place. The work of striving towards utopia. But utopia is (literally) “no place.” We share the world with other beings. Every being has a different image of utopia. Furthermore, the world is always changing and moving. We cannot hope to find a time or place where everything is just as it should be for everyone and for eternity (such a state would lack difference, and therefore cannot exist by the above principle). As a result, utopia becomes the process of trying to bring about its existence – a process that, in the nature of things, can never be completed. The struggle is – must be – forever.

I always come back to this, of course – Struggle Forever! It is the name of the blog, after all. But it doesn’t mean that I think everyone has to literally struggle forever. I certainly don’t. The meaning behind “Struggle Forever” is just that the struggle doesn’t stop. We may achieve a goal or two. We may make progress. But we will never achieve utopia. That sounds bleak, but I think just the opposite. It’s when we believe that we can reach – or have reached – some height of utopia where the danger lies. It’s in those times that we step back and stop struggling. And it’s when we stop struggling that oppression creeps back in. Instead, if we recognize that we will never get there – never reach the height of utopia – and we recognize that the struggle must keep going, then oppression can be held back.

The key is to think about the difference that you make. To try and make a difference that brings about a better world. You can’t help but work, but you can work for the world as it is or you can struggle for a new one.

Happiness and Struggle

I read this article posted on the Neuroanthropology Facebook page, and it started me thinking again about the relationship between happiness and struggle. Now, the truth is that happiness and distress are complex things with lots of contributing factors, so there is no easy prescription for avoiding distress and achieving happiness. However, I think that the above article points towards some important insights into what matters for long-term happiness.

What caught my attention – and I’m surprised because I “knew” this before, but hadn’t really confronted the implications in my own life and though – is that the authors distinguish between two types of happiness rather than conflating all happiness under a single, monolithic form. There is hedonic happiness that comes from instant gratification, consumption, etc. and there is eudaimonic happiness that comes from working on something greater than yourself (i.e. struggle … and I think there are probably many more “types” of happiness that could be parsed out, but these two are sufficient for the current discussion).  Now the article points specifically to the cellular effects of both of these types of happiness, demonstrating that hedonic happiness appears very similar to distress at a cellular level, whereas eudaimonic happiness has generally positive long-term effects. That’s a compelling finding – struggle might actually be healthy long-term – and I look forward to seeing more research on the topic. But I think the real value of parsing out the different kinds of happiness is in thinking of the relationships between happiness and struggle more effectively. If we lump hedonism in with eudaimonia, then we risk oversimplifying and dismissing genuinely valuable ideas based on a faulty association (I think this is a shortcoming of both those who support happiness studies as well as those who critique them).

I think that struggle and happiness are mutually reinforcing. That is, I think we struggle better when we are happy, and we are happier when we are working to make the world a better place. Of course, there are often other motivating factors for struggle – anger, despair, frustration, etc. – but if we are bogged down by negative emotion and unable to do more than lay in bed all day then, obviously, struggle becomes impossible. At the same time, when we are angry, desperate, or frustrated, working to make the world a better place takes us out of our insulated sensations and makes us better able to cope with those “negative” emotions as we build connections and support structures.

Nevertheless, it makes sense to me that certain kinds of happiness and struggle are not mutually reinforcing. What these researchers describe as hedonic happiness relies on consumption within a world that’s generally designed to make us feel pleasure. This is the world that Capitalism has crafted over the last century or so, one geared towards instant, individualistic gratification. No new world is constructed by these actions (and, in fact, the existing world is continually reinforced). This world is not oriented towards lasting satisfaction or well being (eudaimonia) because satisfied people don’t consume and consumption is the driver of the Capitalist engine. This is also the short-coming of environmental and social justice campaigns that are largely oriented around consumerism – they don’t make a difference to the basic logic of Capitalism, they simply shift the same logic into feel-good kinds of consumption.

Struggle, on the other hand, attempts to make a new, better world – continually “crabbing sideways towards the good.” Struggle is not simply repeating the logic of a world that feeds off of our discontent, but building a world that supports our long-term mutual well-being. That’s not to say that you or I personally will be always happy when we are struggling, but that, in the long we will all be better off, and that struggle might be the truest path to happiness and healthiness there is.

The Miracle of Existence


In the beginning, there was nothing. No ground. And then things began to come together – literally come together.  Through the forging of relationships, beings began to compose themselves and one another.  Began, as well, to join together in new and ingenious ways to compose beings more complex and more diverse than before.  If there is a miracle in the universe, it is the miracle of cooperation and collaboration – the miracle of working together.  Nothing had to exist.  And yet, here we are in a universe populated by stars, planets, nebulae, black holes, neutrinos, oceans, whales, cats, dogs, fish, flowers, trees, clouds, air, rivers, fossils, statues, buildings, books, mountains, asteroids, computers, bagels, people, paintings, oil tankers, birds, octopuses, bears, turtles, boats, telephone poles, houses, gardens, laser light shows, music, ice cream, microbes, insects, and much much more!  That any of these things exist is a miracle because they are all the product of many different beings working together to create new things and new ways of being.  This is the hope in post-nihilism: the universe may be without meaning, but we can create our own meaning with those around us!  The world is what we (all of us – whether human or not – together) make of it!