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.

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.

The Miracle of Existence

bigbang

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!

The Ontology of Knowledge

The following quotes come from John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez (co-written, supposedly, with Ed Ricketts, but he is not credited on my edition):

“… the Mexican sierra has ‘XVII-15-IX’ spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being – an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth ‘D. XVII-15-IX.’ There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed – probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself.

“It is good to know what you are doing. The man with his pickled fish has set down one truth and has recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way.

“Let’s go wide open. Let’s see what we see, record what we find, and not fool ourselves with conventional scientific strictures. We could not observe a completely objective Sea of Cortez anyway, for in that lonely and uninhabited Gulf our boat and our selves would change it the moment we entered. By going there we would bring a new factor to the Gulf. Let us consider that factor and not be betrayed by this myth of permanent objective reality. If it exists at all, it is only available in pickled tatters or in distorted flashes. Let us go into the Sea of Cortez, realizing that we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through a flat of eel-grass, that rocks we turn over in a tide pool, make us truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region. We shall take something away from it, but we shall leave something too.”

This is what I mean when I talk about the ontology (maybe I should say ecology) of knowledge production.  Producing knowledge is about more than the creation of symbolic and conceptual realities that either correspond to a reality “out there” or don’t depending on your epistemological outlook.  Producing knowledge is the production of relationships, connections, entanglements between beings.  The man in the lab with his pickled fish is one kind of relationship, and the fisherman on his boat with the thrashing, spiny, colorful fish is a different one.  Both entail the creation of knowledge – knowledge is one kind of relationship that is built out of the encounter – but also much more than that.  The very act of studying something, holding it in your hand, dissecting it, putting it in a glass jar (or, for those of us who study people, interviewing them, doing participant-observation, excavating a site, and so on) changes the thing and yourself.  A new relationship is made a new thing is made – knowledge, but so much more than that; a new way of being, a new form of entanglement.  Focusing exclusively on the production of knowledge in the form of epistemological symbols and concepts (as was the tendency in anthropology after the “linguistic turn” and Writing Culture) limits our perspective on the effects of our scientific practices and constrains our imagination of the many other possible sorts of relationships that could be composed.

To me, it is not an either-or issue.  Viewing knowledge production as a fundamentally ontological process broadens the scope of possibilities for research.  No longer does research have to be only about composing an image or representation of some thing – this is what got us (anthropologists, at least) into trouble in the first place!  Instead, research can be about building relationships – what kinds of relationships can we build, what kinds of relationships do we (the researcher and the subjects of her research – seen now as the collaborators they always were) want to build?

See the work of John Law on method for more.

Beyond Tragedy

What do we make of two of the major tragedies that occurred in the US this past week?  One in which two men violently ripped into the vulnerable flesh of people who wanted nothing more than to enjoy a day of peace and joy (as well as the rush to judgement based on superficial factors and no evidence that followed).  The other, in which 46 mostly men refused to pass legislations supported by a vast majority of the US public, that would go a long way towards helping to address the threat of violence in our nation, all to appease the vocal (and well financed) few who think that owning a gun equals freedom.  How do we make sense of these events?

The answer is that we can’t.  There is no analysis that can encompass these tragedies, or any of the other tragedies that occurred in the world over the last several days.  There is no theoretical outlook that will wrap them up in a nice package and tell us what to do or how to move forward.  The world is messy, and every attempt to explain the mess only adds to it (pdf).

Nevertheless, do something and move forward we must.  Time doesn’t stop for us, and everything we do – even if it’s nothing – makes a difference.  So what do we do?  How do we move forward?  The answer is we work – or better yet, we struggle.  Always in collaboration with others, always trying to make a better world for everyone.  We may never put a stop to these kinds of senseless events, but, the more we struggle, and the more we accept that the struggle is the end and that there is no end to the struggle – the more we renew these moments of collaboration, peace, and caring – the more likely we will be to one day find ourselves, all of a sudden, living in a peaceful and just world.  “We cannot reason ourselves out of our basic irrationality.  All we can do is learn the art of being irrational in a reasonable way” (Huxley).

Precarity and Vulnerability

In the recent discussions on vulnerability (also, see here for Andre’s excellent contribution), the terms “vulnerability” and “precarity” (the latter coming primarily through Judith Butler) have been used more or less interchangeably.  However, I want to throw a bit of a wrench in that.

Precarity – when I think of precarity or the state of being precarious, I think of standing on the edge of a building or some other very high up structure – teetering on the edge, and liable to fall at any moment.  Precarity for a being means that, at any moment, its existence could disintegrate.  In other words, existence is not a given and can be lost at any time – this is why existence takes work, and continual (possibly continuous) work.  Teetering on an edge requires a constant adjustment and readjustment to not simply fall off.

This is related to vulnerability, of course.  Our precarity makes us vulnerable in some cases, but vulnerability is something else.

As a side note, I just did a search on etymonline for “precarity” and this is what came up:

1640s, a legal word, “held through the favor of another,” from Latin precarius “obtained by asking or praying,” from prex (genitiveprecis) “entreaty, prayer” (see pray). Notion of “dependent on the will of another” led to extended sense “risky, dangerous, uncertain” (1680s).

This adds an interesting new dimension to the issue, which I’ll not delve into here.

Vulnerability – (Possible trigger warning) When I think of vulnerability, I think of a person curled up in the fetal position under threat of attack from another.  I apologize for the gruesomeness of that image, but it highlights the idea of a threat to existence.  Here it’s not just that existence can be lost, but that our beings can be accessed or invaded.

In spite of my example above, vulnerability is not necessarily bad.  Making oneself vulnerable to others can be very beneficial and transformative when that vulnerability is not exploited (this is what I refer to as intercourse – and I will develop the idea further someday).  However, vulnerability does open one up to the potential for assault or violence – the exploitation of a relative invulnerability to alter and affect another against their will.

In order to deal with our vulnerabilities, we shore up armor to protect us.  This could be personal/psychological traits, muscular/biological barriers (as in Reich), physical objects, institutions, norms, and so on.  In fact, any particular armoring is likely to be a combination of structures.  We do this individually and collectively, and some are better able to (because of greater ability or greater resources) shore up their armor than others.  Violence, then, can take two general forms: 1) a direct assault on another being – utilizing one’s position of relative invulnerability to penetrate their defenses, or 2) the progressive removal or wearing away of another’s armor such that they become vulnerable to relatively small assaults.

Whether or not these differences make a difference is not clear to me yet.  It is possible that precarity is simply an aspect of our vulnerability – that we are vulnerable, ultimately, because our existence is precarious.  Nevertheless, I wanted to introduce the difference and see what effects it has on our thinking as this area of theorizing develops further.

Letting Go of Vision

Making the world better for everyone (struggle) requires us to recognize that our own visions for a better world are 1) incomplete and 2) only one way of making the world better. 

Our visions are incomplete because they are models – simulations without real world correlates, and different ontologically from their actual enactment.  Because enacting them will have unknown and unpredictable consequences that may be catastrophic.  And, finally, because visions are ends and there can be no end to the struggle. 

Recognizing that they are only one among many ways of making the world better  means letting go of our monopoly on vision.   Everyone has a vision, and it’s not the enactment of any particular one that makes the world better.  Rather, it is the encounter between different visions and the process of negotiating them that does so.  The process is the struggle and the struggle itself – not any one end form – is utopia.

Graeber on Revolution, Work, and Utopia

I just came across this article by David Graeber titled “A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse.”  Since the ideas expressed in the article have much in common with the project of Struggle Forever, I thought I would share some key excerpts and add a few thoughts of my own.

First of all, Graeber talks about the idea of revolution:

What is a revolution? We used to think we knew. Revolutions were seizures of power by popular forces aiming to transform the very nature of the political, social, and economic system in the country in which the revolution took place, usually according to some visionary dream of a just society. Nowadays, we live in an age when, if rebel armies do come sweeping into a city, or mass uprisings overthrow a dictator, it’s unlikely to have any such implications; when profound social transformation does occur—as with, say, the rise of feminism—it’s likely to take an entirely different form. It’s not that revolutionary dreams aren’t out there. But contemporary revolutionaries rarely think they can bring them into being by some modern-day equivalent of storming the Bastille.

He goes on to pose the question “were revolutions ever what we thought them to be?”  Indeed, he argues, the truly revolutionary effects of the violent uprisings we usually associate with revolution tend to be more about the peripheral effects of those uprisings than about the direct seizure of political and economic control.  He offers examples from the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution.  In some sense these were both failed revolutions, but the peripheral effects (free education, and the welfare state) were nevertheless transformative.

I have always been skeptical of the notion of violent revolution (at times more so than others).  It’s really been in the last few years – through my encounters with ontological constructivist theory – that I’ve really understood why.  Revolution in the traditional sense mistakes (or reifies) control of political and economic institutions for control of a society.  But society is heterogeneous and complex – there is no point from which to grasp it in its entirety (thus also my skepticism about holistic social theory).  This is why, after a successful revolution, there is always a purging that needs to be done – to eliminate those elements that are seen as “counter-revolutionary.”

Change – especially revolutionary change – takes work.  Whether that work includes the violent overthrow of an oppressive regime, or the slow and deliberate work of changing the way people understand and engage with the world around them, or some combination, there are no short cuts.  The struggle is – must be – a struggle.  And, of course, the struggle doesn’t end once power has been seized or minds have been changed.  It continues as conditions change – as new technologies develop, as new ideas are created, as environmental conditions change, and so on.  Graeber hints at this when he reminds us that no true revolution – successful or otherwise – has ever followed a blueprint.  Adam Smith did not sit down and map out the structures of Capitalism, the stock exchange, and the global monetary exchange.  Instead, he provided an idea, which was not transformative in itself – it took a whole host of other historical, technological, and ideological developments to create Capitalism as we now know it – but it had a tremendous impact.

In addition, Graeber discusses labor or work:

To which the answer is obvious. Labor is virtuous if it helps others. A renegotiated definition of productivity should make it easier to reimagine the very nature of what work is, since, among other things, it will mean that technological development will be redirected less toward creating ever more consumer products and ever more disciplined labor, and more toward eliminating those forms of labor entirely.

What would remain is the kind of work only human beings will ever be able to do: those forms of caring and helping labor that are at the very center of the crisis that brought about Occupy Wall Street to begin with. What would happen if we stopped acting as if the primordial form of work is laboring at a production line, or wheat field, or iron foundry, or even in an office cubicle, and instead started from a mother, a teacher, or a caregiver? We might be forced to conclude that the real business of human life is not contributing toward something called “the economy” (a concept that didn’t even exist three hundred years ago), but the fact that we are all, and have always been, projects of mutual creation.

That last line is key – we are projects of mutual creation.  Work inevitably involves interaction with others, in a process that changes ourselves as much as (and in some cases more than) we change others.  When that work is directed towards the mutual enhancement of life (collaborative, but not always cooperative), that is what I call “Struggle.”  The process of struggle is what’s important, not necessarily the end result (because there is no end!).  What we have lost, what holds us back from making a truly better world is that we have largely given up this process of struggle and instead we work – for ourselves or for the “economy”, but not together and not towards the enhancement of our lives together.  This is what needs to be recovered in any revolution to come.  The perfect world is not out there, but the process of building it continues forever.