Anthropology Inc. (The Atlantic)

MARCH 2013 – ATLANTIC MAGAZINE

Forget online surveys and dinnertime robo-calls. A consulting firm called ReD is at the forefront of a new trend in market research, treating the everyday lives of consumers as a subject worthy of social-science scrutiny. On behalf of its corporate clients, ReD will uncover your deepest needs, fears, and desires.

By GRAEME WOOD

Viktor Koen

On a hot Austin night last summer, 60 natives convened for a social rite involving stick-on mustaches, paella, and a healthy flow of spirits. Young lesbians formed the core of the crowd. The two organizers, who had been lovers for a couple months, were celebrating their birthdays with a Spanish-themed party, decorated in bullfighting chic. It was a classic hipster affair, and everyone was loose and at ease, except for one black-haired interloper with a digital camera and a tiny notepad.

This interloper was Min Lieskovsky, a 31-year-old straight New Yorker who mingled freely and occasionally ducked into a bathroom to scribble notes. She’d left a Ph.D. program in sociocultural anthropology at Yale two years earlier, impatient with academia but still eager to use the ethnographic skills she’d mastered. Tonight, that meant she partied gamely and watched her subjects with a practiced eye, noting everything: when the party got started and when it reached its peak, who stuck mustaches on whom—and above all, what, when, and how people drank.

For Lieskovsky, it was all about the booze. The consulting firm she worked for, ReD Associates, is at the forefront of a movement to deploy social scientists on field research for corporate clients. The vodka giant Absolut had contracted with ReD to infiltrate American drinking cultures and report back on the elusive phenomenon known as the “home party.” This corrida de lesbianas was the latest in a series of home parties that Lieskovsky and her colleagues had joined in order to write an extended ethnographic survey of drinking practices, attempting to figure out the rules and rituals—spoken and unspoken—that govern Americans’ drinking lives, and by extension their vodka-buying habits.

“There’s a huge amount of vodka that’s sold for drinking at home,” Lieskovsky says. “But no one knew where it was really goingapart from down someone’s throat eventually, and on a bad night perhaps back up again. Was it treated as a sacred fluid, not to be polluted or adulterated except by an expert mixologist? Some Absolut advertising and iconography suggested exactly this, assuming understandably that buyers of a “premium” vodka would want laboratory precision for their cocktails. Another possibility was that the drinkers might not care much about the purity of the product, and that bringing it to a party merely lubricated social interaction. “We wanted to know what they are seeking,” Lieskovsky says. “Do they want the ‘perfect’ cocktail party? Is it all about how they present themselves to their friends, for status? Is it collaboration, friendship, fun?”

Over the course of the company’s research, the rituals gradually emerged. “One after another, you see the same thing,” Lieskovsky told me. “Someone comes with a bottle. She gives it to the host, then the host puts it in the freezer and listens to the story of where the bottle came from, and why it’s important.” And then, when the bottle is served, it goes right out onto the table with all the other booze, the premium spirits and the bottom-shelf hooch mixed together, in a vision of alcoholic egalitarianism that would make a pro bartender or a cocktail snob cringe.

What mattered most, to the partygoers and their hosts, were the narratives that accompanied the drinks. “We found that there is this general shift away from premium alcohol, at least as it’s defined by price point, toward something that has a story behind it,” Lieskovsky says. “They told anecdotes from their own lives in which a product played a central role—humorous, self-deprecating stories about first encountering a vodka, or discovering a liqueur while traveling in Costa Rica or Mexico.” The stories were a way to let people show humor, or to declare that they’re, for instance, the kind of Austin lesbians who, upon finding exotic elixirs in far-off lands, are brave enough to try them.

ReD consultants fanned out and shadowed drinkers at about 18 different parties, trying to see which drinking practices held constant, whether in Austin, New York, or Columbus. This is one that did. Which meant that if a premium vodka brand tried to market itself solely as a product with chemistry-lab purity, it risked misunderstanding the home-party market and leaving money on the table.

The corporate anthropology that ReD and a few others are pioneering is the most intense form of market research yet devised, a set of techniques that make surveys and dinnertime robo-calls (“This will take only 10 minutes of your time”) seem superficial by comparison. ReD is one of just a handful of consultancies that treat everyday life—and everyday consumerism—as a subject worthy of the scrutiny normally reserved for academic social science. In many cases, the consultants in question have trained at the graduate level in anthropology but have forsaken academia—and some of its ethical strictures—for work that frees them to do field research more or less full-time, with huge budgets and agendas driven by corporate masters.

The world of management consulting consists overwhelmingly of quantitative consultants, a group well known from the successes of McKinsey & Company, the Boston Consulting Group, and Bain & Company. ReD’s entry into consulting represents an attempt to match the results of these titans without relying heavily on math and spreadsheets, and instead focusing on what anthropologists call “participant observation.” This method consists, generally, of living among one’s research subjects, at least briefly. Such immersive experiences lead not only to greater intimacy and trust, but also to a slowly emerging picture of the subjects’ everyday lives and thoughts, complete with truths about them that they themselves might not know.

Absolut, which paid ReD to observe home parties, is using both quantitative analysis and this new form of ethnographic research. “We are intensive consumers of market research,” Maxime Kouchnir, the vice president of vodka marketing for Pernod Ricard USA, which distributes Absolut, told me. “The McKinseys and BCGs of the world will bring you heavy data. And I think those guys sometimes lack the human factor. What ReD brings is a deep understanding of consumers and the dynamics you find in a society.” That means finding out not only what consumers say they want in a liquor, but also what their actions reveal about the social effect they crave from bringing it to a party. “If you observe them, they will be humans, exposed with all their contradictions and complexities,” Kouchnir says. “At the end of the day, we manufacture a spirit, but we have to sell an experience.”

The method dates back nearly a century in academic anthropology, though its pedigree in the business world is somewhat more recent. Xerox PARC, the legendary Palo Alto think tank that birthed many of the ideas that made the personal-computing revolution possible, employed anthropologists as early as 1979. Leslie Perlow, a Harvard Business School professor who has applied participant observation in corporate environments, says, “There is a long history of doing this in the study of organization—taking the ethnographic method from anthropology and, instead of taking it to faraway places, trying to understand the culture of our own work worlds.”

Now a handful of consultancies specialize in ethnographic research, and many companies (including General Motors and Dell) retain their own ethnographers on staff. Microsoft is said to be the second-largest employer of anthropologists in the world, behind only the U.S. government.

Tech firms, certainly, appear to be major consumers of ethnographic research. “Technology companies as a whole are in danger of being more disconnected from their customers than other companies,” says Ken Anderson, an ethnographer at Intel. Tech designers succumb to the illusion that their users are all engineers. “Our mind-set is that people are really just like us, and they’re really not,” Anderson says. Ethnography helps teach the techie types to understand those consumers who “aren’t living and breathing the technology” the way an Intel engineer might. (A curious exception to this cautious embrace of ethnographic methods is Apple, whose late co-founder, Steve Jobs, trusted his designers—and especially himself—more than he trusted consumers or researchers. “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want,” he famously said.)

Min Lieskovsky, the ReD consultant on the Absolut project, has been a friendly acquaintance of mine for nearly a decade. Christian Madsbjerg, a co-founder of ReD, gave me access to ReD consultants on two other projects, one on home appliances and the other on health care, and allowed me to tag along while they did their research. I agreed not to disclose the clients behind these two projects, and to change the names of the two women whose households the company was studying. In each case, ReD paid the households a nominal amount to answer its consultants’ questions.

Microsoft is said to be the second-largest employer of anthropologists in the world.

Both interviews I attended felt unusually intrusive. As a journalist, I’ve interviewed people about sensitive topics, such as their murderous past, or their fondness for sex with children. But a six-hour ethnographic interview felt in many ways even more intimate. After all, the corporate clients who commissioned these studies already knew the type of consumer information they could get through phone or Internet surveys. They knew everything except their customers’ naked, innermost selves, and now they wanted ReD’s ethnographers to get them those, too.

The first ReD anthropologist I went into the field with was Esra Ozkan, an MIT Ph.D. who had joined the company less than a year earlier. She wrote her dissertation on the study of corporate culture in the U.S., but she was a trained ethnographer, and spoke fluently about how Michael Fischer, a cultural anthropologist at MIT, and Joseph Dumit, an anthropologist at the University of California at Davis, had influenced her work. By birth a Muslim from eastern Turkey, Ozkan is married to an American Jew, whose family provided the connection to the woman she’d be interviewing.

The household we were about to visit was in Forest Hills, New York, and Ozkan said it was a home kept so strictly kosher that it had two kitchens, one for daily use and another, ultraclean one for Passover. The plan, she said, was to ask the ranking female, a 50‑something working mother I’ll call Rebecca, how she and her family used their living space—how they negotiated the kitchens, the bedrooms, the living rooms; what rules they followed and, more important, which ones they sometimes broke. “We want to hear them describe their homes, both for functionality, but also to hear what emotion they use to describe places,” Ozkan said.

She said much of her method involves noting which objects are assigned special importance. Interviewees carefully select the parts of their lives they exhibit to an ethnographer, and sometimes they will pause over a certain item—say, a kitchen utensil that cost $5 at Walmart, but that carries with it the memories of 30 Passovers—indicating that the object’s meaning is greater than its utility. “Those moments, when something is more than itself, are the ones I pay attention to,” Ozkan told me.

We drove to the house, a detached two-story Tudor in a quiet wooded neighborhood, and parked on the street. Upon exiting the car, Ozkan immediately whipped out an iPhone and began photographing everything, from the front lawn to the windows to the mezuzah on the doorjamb. Rebecca answered the door before we had a chance to knock, and introduced her poodle—a little yapper named Sir Paul—before introducing herself.

We walked into the house, where the children’s photos and religious decorations—every room in the “public” areas of the house showed signs of Jewish practice—gave a clear sense of self-presentation and values. Upstairs, away from the area most visitors would see, she showed us her room-size shrine to the Beatles, packed floor-to-ceiling with concert posters, guitars, and other memorabilia.

Rebecca sat us down in a slightly messy dining room adjoining a large and well-used kitchen, and Ozkan set up a camera to record everything. Our host dove right in, pointing to various appliances and explaining what each one meant to her, and where it fit in with kosher law. For every note I made, Ozkan made two. Although she knew Jewish practice well through her husband and past research, Ozkan asked Rebecca to explain the holidays and purity laws, just to see how she talked about them.

Rebecca confessed without any prompting that she would occasionally let her kosher vigilance slip slightly when she ate out, and that her husband, also Jewish, would drop the kosher thing entirely without her. “He’d eat a bacon cheeseburger if I weren’t around,” she said, perhaps half-joking. But Rebecca also said that inside the house itself, and especially around the inner-sanctum Passover kitchen, she never considered defying kosher law. “It’s like breathing, for us,” she said.

Over lunch the next day, I asked Ozkan what she had concluded from the visit. She noted all the things that Rebecca had never stated explicitly, but that were clearly what mattered most in her life. “She treats the kitchen as a holy place,” Ozkan said. That made three holy places in the house, if you count the two kitchens separately, and the Beatles shrine upstairs. Her deviance on the outside was, Ozkan said, a point well worth noting. “If you listen really carefully, you’ll find some things that don’t quite match the super-ideal framework of kosher,” she said. “And it’s always great to see that. It’s a way to see how people deal with practicalities and challenges in life, and how they choose to break that ideal image.” Listen to people talk about how they break the rules, in other words, and you’ll figure out what they consider the important rules in the first place.

Ozkan’s questions had hinted at product ideas that ReD’s client, a home-appliance maker, was considering. Would Rebecca contemplate buying an automated fridge that would advise her when she was running short on orange juice? And as Rebecca responded, her implicit consecration of her kitchen became evident. She seemed to care less about whether her kitchen remained well stocked or running smoothly than whether it remained her sacred space, controlled by her for her family, and not by, say, a talking robot. As with the vodka drinkers, the key elements were emotional ownership and connection.

The client’s goals were, in this case, never made fully clear to me. But Rebecca’s was only one of 21 homes the consultants would visit, and the only kosher one on the list. The visit would, however, begin to tell a story about Americans who love and hate their own kitchens, fetishizing some gadgets while simultaneously viewing them as instruments of their own enslavement.

If you’re selling a personal computer in China, the whole concept of “personal” is culturally wrong.

If the lessons were indistinct, they were deliberately so. ReD is gleefully defiant of those who want clear answers to simple questions, and prefers to inhabit a space where answers tend not to come in yes/no formats, or in pie charts and bar graphs. “We know numbers get you only so far,” the company’s Web site announces. “Standard techniques work for standard problems because there’s a clear benefit from being measured and systematic. But when companies are on the verge of something new or uncertain … those existing formulas aren’t easily applied.”

Jun Lee, a ReD partner, says that when clients are confronted with the company’s anthropological research, they often discover fundamental differences between the businesses they thought they were in, and the businesses they actually are in. For example, the Korean electronics giant Samsung had a major conceptual breakthrough when it realized that its televisions are best thought of not as large electronic appliances, measurable by screen size and resolution, but as home furniture. It matters less how thoroughly a speaker system rattles the bones and eardrums of its listeners than how these big screens occupy the physical space alongside one’s tables, chairs, and sofas. The company’s project engineers reframed their products accordingly, paying more attention to how they fit into living spaces, rather than how they perform on their technical spec sheets.

Christian Madsbjerg co-founded ReD almost a decade ago, after a brief stint in journalism. He dresses the part of the Nordic intellectual, alternating slick minimalist threads (think Dieter fromSaturday Night Live’s “Sprockets”) with modish Western wear that no American could really pull off. After more than 30 years in London and his native Denmark, he fled for New York, where ReD operates out of a wood-paneled Battery Park office once occupied by John D. Rockefeller.

The founding story of ReD sounds more like the genesis of a doctoral dissertation than of a multimillion-dollar company. Madsbjerg says he became enamored first with post-structural theory, and then with the 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who argued that the distinction between objects and their beholders needed to be effaced. When we consider a hammer, we might naturally think of its objective scientific properties: a certain weight and balance, a hardness, a handle with a rubber grip that has a particular coefficient of friction. What Heidegger posited is that these objective attributes are in fact secondary to the hammer’s subjective relationship with the person wielding it. The hammer has uses (a weapon, a tool), meanings (a symbol on the Soviet flag), and other characteristics that do not exist independently of the meeting of subject and object. A common mistake of philosophers, he claimed, is to think of the object as distinct from the subject. If all of this sounds opaque, I can assure you that in the original German it is much, much worse.


NowThisNews explores how Heidegger’s philosophy helps drive American marketing.


But before long, Madsbjerg had a list of clients desperate for Heideggerian readings of their businesses. The service he provides sounds even more improbable to a scholar who knows his Heidegger than to a layperson who does not. Many philosophers spend their lives trying and failing to understand what Heidegger was talking about. To interest a typical ReD client—usually a corporate vice president who is, Madsbjerg says, “the least laid-back person you can imagine, with every minute of their day divided into 15-minute blocks”—in the philosopher’s turgid, impenetrable post-structural theory is as unlikely a pitch as could be imagined.

But it’s the pitch Madsbjerg has been making. The fundamental blindness in the sorts of consulting that dominate the market, he says, is that they are Cartesian in their outlook: they view objects as the sum of their performance and physical properties. “If you are selling personal computers, you look at the machine and say it’s this many gigahertz, this many pixels,” he says. And you then determine whether a potential new market needs computers that perform faster than the ones currently on offer, and how big that market will be.

These specs, as well as data about how many households in, say, China will reach income levels that will allow a personal-computer purchase, fit nicely into spreadsheets and graphs. But they overlook human elements that exist in plain sight, the things the Anglo-Polish founder of the ethnographic method, Bronisław Malinowski, called “the imponderabilia of actual life.” These are, he wrote, “small incidents, characteristic forms of taking food, of conversing, of doing work, [that] are found occurring over and over again.”

These imponderabilia turn out to have huge consequences if you want to sell a personal computer in China. “We find that these objects have meanings, not just facts,” Madsbjerg says, “and that the meaning is often what matters.” So to sell a personal computer in China, for example, what matters is the whole concept of a “personal” computer, which is culturally wrong from the start. “Household objects don’t have the same personal attachment [in China as they do in America]. It has to be ashared thing.” So if the device isn’t designed and marketed as a shared household object, but instead as one customized for a single user, it probably won’t sell, no matter how many gigahertz it has.

China is a huge potential market, and every corporation with any ambition wants its piece of that pie, on the idea that if you make a dollar off each man, woman, and child in China, you’ve just made $1 billion. A source told me, for instance, that Coca-Cola approached ReD after years of trying and failing to sell bottled tea in China. (ReD would not confirm that the client in question was Coca-Cola.) The beverage company had imagined that this would be a simple variant on the fizzy-sugared-water business that had made it a global icon. Instead, it failed to seize a respectable market share, even though it was competing with lightweight local competitors.

Long-term observation revealed that when it comes to tea in China, what is for sale isn’t merely a tasty beverage. Instead, the consumption of tea takes place in a highly specific web of cultural rules, some of them explicit but many others not. For instance, you might serve strong tea to close friends, or to people you want to draw closer. But you would never serve strong tea to new acquaintances. That meant that no tea, however tasty, would sell if its strength was uniform. Let the consumer choose the strength, however, and you may be able to sell the product within the culture. Coca-Cola’s Chinese tea products are now on course to change accordingly.

To sell the ReD idea—that products and objects are inevitably encrusted with cultural meaning, and that a company that neglects to explore social theory is bound to leave profits on the table—Madsbjerg has evangelized with great success, giving what are surely the only successful corporate sales pitches salted with words like hermeneutics and phenomenology. Most of his consultants don’t have the usual business pedigree; M.B.A.s are very scarce (“tend not to fit in,” he says). Rather, many employees come from academia, and some from another interview- and observation-based realm: journalism. (I came to know the firm first through Lieskovsky—the former anthropology student on the Absolut project—and through another employee, who is a former editor at GQ.)

The second consultant I followed, Rachel Singh, also came from academia. A native of Manitoba, she’d joined ReD a year and a half earlier, after doing ethnographic work for Intel’s Ireland office and attending graduate school in digital anthropology at University College London.

We met a few blocks from the apartment of the day’s interview subject, at a café in the Los Angeles suburb of Tarzana—a concrete jungle named after the principal literary creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs, an early celebrity resident of the area. It occurred to me that in a previous era, before anthropologists discovered that their own societies were as irrationally rule-bound as so-called primitive ones, Singh might have aspired to perform fieldwork in actual jungles, and to study actual Tarzans.

The view of anthropologists as tourists in exotic lands is old and tired, which is not to say dead. Singh surprised me with her candor several times over the course of the day, but the first occasion was when she described her entry into the world of anthropology, which sounded to me like exactly that sort of romantic vision. “I came to university as a premed, and one day I just wandered into a lecture hall and heard a guy giving a lecture about his fieldwork with the Kwakiutl of British Columbia. He went on a ‘vision quest,’ and after falling asleep on a secluded beach, he woke up surrounded by seals. He returned to the village and was told by an elder that he had found his guardian animal.” Then, she said, the lecturer hiked up his sleeve to reveal a seal tattoo. Singh was hooked on the study of culture. She changed her major, and she sees continuity between her academic work and what she does now as an ethnographic hired gun.

In Tarzana, Singh was scheduled to meet, on behalf of a ReD client in the health-care field, a woman I’ll call Elsie. It was 10 a.m. on a beautiful Southern California Sunday—a perfectly awful time to sit inside and discuss the day’s topic, the visible precancerous skin lesions from which Elsie suffers. “It makes me feel like a leper,” Elsie confided after we began, and Singh nodded sympathetically, like an old friend. “It makes me feel like hiding.”

The interview started much the same way the previous one had, with the anthropologist documenting the setting in minute detail. With her iPhone, Singh snapped shots of the street, the parking garage, the squares of grass and the tropical trees in the neighborhood. Once inside, her eyes darted over every surface, and she noted the vacuum track marks on the floor; the drawers full of tubes of prescription creams; the European posters. Singh set up a video camera to record every minute of the six-hour interview—the better to capture the moments when Elsie’s responses revealed traces of unexpected emotion or meaning. Singh asked Elsie, a hefty, sun-spotted redhead of 52, about her medical regimen, then about the basic details of her life—what her childhood had been like, where she had lived, when she woke up every morning, what she ate, and whom she spoke with.

Singh unpacked Elsie’s responses methodically, adding an occasional compassionate or sympathetic word. When Singh asked about Elsie’s lesions, she phrased the questions carefully, suggesting that she could feel Elsie’s pain. “How would get this condition?” she asked. “What would be the symptoms?”

Elsie’s was the first of perhaps two dozen similarly in-depth interviews, Singh told me later. The client had created a product to treat one of Elsie’s conditions. The company knew very well what would happen to a lesion if it were frozen, zapped, or rubbed with cream. But what about the person attached to the lesion? A simplistic model of patient behavior might say that patients want whatever the most effective treatment is. But the conversation with Elsie revealed a much more fraught human experience. She had her taboos, such as being forced to even say the word lesion. She wanted to escape not just her lesions, but the shame they brought on.

Once Singh had completed the interview, before we parted ways, she made clear that there was at least one argument within anthropology that she was tired of hearing about: “Just don’t make this another story about the clash between practicing anthropologists and academics.”

The politics of anthropologists in academia tends to the Marxist left, even more so than the politics of academics in general. And to many of them, the defection of young scholars to the corporate world looks like a betrayal at best, and a devil’s bargain at worst. I told Singh that academic anthropologists had already shared some harsh words for their applied-anthropology brothers and sisters. “Well, they’re endangered,” she said of the academics, a little snootily. “We’re doing work that’s needed. We’re dealing with human issues.”

ReD offers businesses Heideggerian analysis, which sounds even more improbable to a scholar than to a layperson.

The corporate anthropologists I met generally come across as people who acknowledge the limits of what they do. Ken Anderson, the Intel ethnographer, co-founded a conference called EPIC for corporate ethnographers. Over the phone, he was warm and jokey, seemingly without rancor when he told me about his failed quest for an academic job out of graduate school (“At the time, the employment opportunities for white guys in academic anthropology were pretty darn slim”). He found instead a corporate career that has encouraged anthropological work—as long as it could hold relevance to the corporation at some point. He has spent weeks in London hanging out with bike messengers for Intel, and hunkered down in the Azores as digital technology reached remote settlements. Sure enough, his research sounds very blue-sky, and on a recognizable continuum with the anthropological research cultivated in the groves of academe.

A few years ago, he conducted an ethnographic study of “temporality,” about the perception of the passage and scarcity of time—noting how Americans he studied had come to perceive busy-ness and lack of time as a marker of well-being. “We found that in social interaction, virtually everyone would claim to be ‘busy,’ and that everyone close to them would be ‘busy’ too,” he told me. But in fact, coordinated studies of how these people used technology suggested that when they used their computers, they tended to do work only in short bursts of a few minutes at a time, with the rest of the time devoted to something other than what we might identify as work. “We were designing computers, and the spec at the time was to use the computer to the max for two hours,” Anderson says. “We had to make chips that would perform at that level. You don’t want them to overheat. But when we came back, we figured that we needed to rethink this, because people’s time is not quite what we imagine.” For a company that makes microchip processors, this discovery has had important consequences for how to engineer products—not only for users who constantly need high-powered computing for long durations, but for people who just think they do.

Among the luxuries of working for a corporate master is, of course, deliverance from the endless hustle to find funding. My partner is an academic anthropologist, and she goes from year to year having to pull together funding for trips to field sites in the Central African Republic—which, unlike China, is not a hotbed of corporate interest. (By contrast, Madsbjerg told me, “Our resources are not infinite. But almost.”)

But the bigger issue for academics is the fear that corporate anthropology is an ethical free-fire zone. “If there isn’t an IRB [institutional review board], a sort of neutral third party that watches out for the interests of those who are being researched, then obviously there is cause for concern,” says Hugh Gusterson, a George Mason University professor who has led anthropologists in opposing cooperation with certain U.S. military projects. He pointed to fury among his colleagues a few years ago, when it became known that Disney had paid ethnographers to study teenagers’ spending habits, the better to sell them Disney products. “They were learning about people—and not just any people, but minors—so they could exploit them, for profit.”

To get a research project approved at a modern university, a researcher faces a review board of professors commissioned to scrutinize the proposal and check for ethical sticking points—ways the project could hurt the people it studied, disrupt their lives, or take advantage of them. ReD, meanwhile, is bound only by the sense of decency of its senior partners. Luckily, they are Danish. I asked Madsbjerg if he had ever turned away a contract on account of scruples, and he told me the military of a South American country had approached him to discuss an ethnographic project on weapons design. He refused, on the grounds that helping people shoot other people wasn’t what ReD was about. Nor would he do work for a company that wanted to sell junk food to children. On the other hand, even contracts that are less obviously perilous, ethically speaking, could raise the hackles of an academic review board. Helping Coca-Cola feed sweetened beverages to 1.3 billion Chinese, for example, will probably not have a healthy impact on that country’s incidence of diabetes.

Roberto González, a cultural anthropologist who teaches at San Jose State University, goes so far as to argue that those who don’t follow the American Anthropological Association’s code of ethics should no longer be considered anthropologists at all. “Part of being an anthropologist is following a code of ethics, and if you don’t do that, you’re not an anthropologist”—just as you’re no longer fit to call yourself a doctor if you do unauthorized experiments on your patients. “Of course,” Hugh Gusterson adds, “we don’t license anthropologists, so we can’t un-license them either.”

Some anthropologists caution against assuming that the work done by ReD consultants and their corporate brethren is really ethnography at all. During the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army convened a team of purported ethnographers to staff a group called the Human Terrain System, which was tasked with producing militarily significant ethnographic reports and providing cultural advice. Professional anthropologists raised hell, condemning the participants for using their training inappropriately, but in time it became clear that there weren’t many anthropologists on the HTS staff at all. (One team member I knew had a doctorate in Russian literature.) The civilians on the staff were, for the most part, just a bunch of well-educated people reading up on Iraqi and Afghan tribes and writing reports that were quasi-anthropological at best.

That, it seems to me, is probably the best way to view much of what ReD does as well. The value the firm brings to clients comes partly from anthropology, practiced in a way that may or may not please those still in academia. But the value is also just an effect of putting an impressive ethnographic sheen on the work of many smart, right-brained individuals in a sector that overvalues quantitative research. Much of what I encountered while shadowing ReD’s consultants seemed like the type of insight that any observant interviewer might have produced, with or without an anthropology degree or a working knowledge of Heidegger.

Madsbjerg’s admiration for Heidegger does, however, show something of his genius for self-marketing. Many consulting firms plot growth curves and recommend efficiency strategies, but few offer the kind of research ReD does. Still fewer firms immerse themselves so happily in academic language, and only Madsbjerg has the cojones to walk into a corporate boardroom and tell his audience that the impenetrable works of a long-dead German philosopher hold the keys to financial success.

I asked Madsbjerg how he would sell his firm to a potential employee currently teaching at a university, and he leaned toward me with a smile, slipping comfortably into the Marxist lingo of academia. “Do you want to sit and write about the world,” he asked, “or do you want to do something in it?”

I couldn’t help but think of Steve Jobs’s famous entreaty to John Sculley, then the president of PepsiCo, asking him to join Apple in 1983 as CEO. “Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life?,” Jobs asked. “Or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

The irony, of course, is that ReD is changing the world in part by helping a global beverage company sell more sugared water.

Graeme Wood is an Atlantic contributing editor.

Nobel de Química fala sobre a ‘magia da ciência’ em São Carlos (Fapesp)

Na palestra de abertura do simpósio em homenagem ao professor do MIT Daniel Kleppner, Dudley Herschbach, ganhador do prêmio de Química em 1986, apresentou parábolas para ilustrar o que a química é capaz de fazer (foto:Silvio Pires/FAPESP)

28/02/2013

Por Karina Toledo

Agência FAPESP – Com uma palestra intitulada “Glimpses of Chemical Wizardry” (Vislumbres da Magia da Química), o norte-americano Dudley Herschbach – ganhador do prêmio Nobel de Química de 1986 – deu início às atividades de um simpósioque reúne esta semana grandes nomes da ciência mundial em São Carlos, no interior de São Paulo.

A um auditório repleto de estudantes, principalmente dos cursos de Física, Química e Ciências Biológicas da Universidade Federal de São Carlos (UFSCar), Herschbach apresentou três “parábolas moleculares” com o intuito de mostrar algumas das coisas espetaculares que a ciência é capaz de fazer.

Em uma das histórias, intitulada “A vida em turnê no interior das células”, Herschbach falou sobre técnicas avançadas de microscopia com super-resolução desenvolvidas por Xiaowei Zhuang, pesquisadora da Universidade Harvard, que permitem, por exemplo, estudar a interação entre células e a expressão de genes em tempo real.

“A ciência faz coisas que realmente pareciam impossíveis antes de acontecerem. De vez em quando, alguém, em alguma parte do mundo, faz algo mágico e muda as coisas. É maravilhoso saber que você faz parte disso. É parte da recompensa da ciência que você não tem na maioria das profissões”, disse Herschbach à Agência FAPESP.

Graduado em Matemática pela Universidade Stanford, Herschbach fez mestrado em Física e em Química, além de doutorado em Físico-Química pela Universidade Harvard, onde hoje é professor.

“Fui o primeiro da minha família a ir para a universidade. Ofereceram-me uma bolsa para jogar futebol [norte-americano], mas acabei trocando por uma bolsa acadêmica, pois o técnico havia me proibido de frequentar as aulas de laboratório para não me atrasar para os treinos. A verdade é que eu achava a ciência muito mais fascinante”, contou.

Nos anos 1960, o cientista conduziu experimentos pioneiros com a técnica de feixes moleculares cruzados para estudar reações químicas e a dinâmica dos átomos das moléculas em tempo real. Por suas pesquisas nesse campo, recebeu em 1986 – junto com o taiwanês Yuan Lee e o canadense John Polanyi – o Nobel de Química.

Os resultados foram de grande importância para o desenvolvimento de um novo campo de pesquisa — o da dinâmica de reação — e proporcionaram um entendimento detalhado de como as reações químicas acontecem.

“Quando olho no espelho, ao me barbear, percebo que ganhar o Nobel não mudou nada em mim. A única diferença é que as pessoas ficaram mais interessadas no que tenho a dizer. Convidam-me para palestras e entrevistas. E isso acabou me transformando numa espécie de embaixador da ciência”, disse Herschbach.

Poesia em sala de aula

Durante toda a apresentação, Herschbach combateu o mito de que ciência é algo muito difícil, reservado para os muito inteligentes. “Costumo ouvir pessoas dizendo que é preciso ser muito bom em matemática para ser um bom pesquisador, mas a maioria dos cientistas usa a mesma matemática que um caixa de supermercado. Você não precisa ser bom em tudo, apenas em uma coisa, achar um nicho”, afirmou.

Ao comparar a ciência com outras atividades humanas, Herschbach disse que, em nenhuma outra profissão, você pode falhar inúmeras vezes e ainda ser aplaudido quando consegue fazer alguma coisa certa. “Um músico pode tocar quase todas as notas certas em um concerto e ser criticado por ter errado apenas algumas”, comparou.

Herschbach contou que costumava pedir a seus alunos que escrevessem poemas para lhes mostrar que é mais importante se preocupar em fazer as perguntas certas do que encontrar a resposta certa.

“Isso, mais do que resolver equações, é como fazer ciência de verdade. Ninguém diz se um poema está certo ou errado e sim o quanto ele é capaz de abrir seus olhos para algo que parecia ordinário, fazer você enxergar aquilo de outra forma. É assim com a ciência. Se você faz pesquisa de fronteira, coisas novas, é muito artístico. Quero que os estudantes percebam que eles também podem ser feiticeiros”, concluiu.

O Simpósio em Homenagem ao Prof. Daniel Kleppner “Física atômica e áreas correlatas”, que termina no dia 1º de março, é promovido pelo Centro de Pesquisa em Óptica e Fotônica (Cepof) de São Carlos, um dos Centros de Pesquisa, Inovação e Difusão (CEPID) financiados pela FAPESP.

O objetivo do encontro é prestar uma homenagem ao físico norte-americano Daniel Kleppner, do Instituto de Tecnologia de Massachusetts (MIT), que receberá o título de professor honorário do Instituto de Física de São Carlos, da Universidade de São Paulo (IFSC-USP).

Além de Herschbach, amigo de Kleppner desde os tempos da graduação, outros quatro ganhadores do Nobel também participam do evento: Serge Haroche (Nobel de Física 2012), David Wineland (Nobel de Física 2012), Eric Cornell (Nobel de Física 2001) e William Phillips (Nobel de Física 1997).

Indígenas ameaçam guerra para barrar hidrelétricas no rio Tapajós (Valor Econômico)

JC e-mail 4671, de 25 de Fevereiro de 2013.

Um grupo de líderes de aldeias localizadas no Pará e no norte do Mato Grosso esteve em Brasília para protestar contra ações de empresas na região

Não houve acordo. O governo teve uma pequena amostra, na semana passada, da resistência que enfrentará para levar adiante seu projeto de construção de hidrelétricas ao longo do rio Tapajós, uma região isolada da Amazônia onde vivem hoje cerca de 8 mil índios da etnia munduruku. Um grupo de líderes de aldeias localizadas no Pará e no norte do Mato Grosso, Estados que são cortados pelo rio, esteve em Brasília para protestar contra ações de empresas na região, que realizam levantamento de informações para preparar o licenciamento ambiental das usinas.

Os índios tiveram uma reunião com o ministro de Minas e Energia (MME), Edison Lobão. Na mesa, os projetos da hidrelétricas de São Luiz do Tapajós e de Jatobá, dois dos maiores projetos de geração previstos pelo governo. Lobão foi firme. Disse aos índios que o governo não vai abrir mãos das duas usinas e que eles precisam entender isso. Valter Cardeal, diretor da Eletrobras que também participou da discussão, tentou convencer os índios de que o negócio é viável e de que eles serão devidamente compensados pelos impactos. Os índios deixaram a sala.

Para o cacique Arnaldo Koba Munduruku, que lidera todos os povos indígenas da região do Tapajós, o resultado do encontro foi negativo. “Nosso povo não quer indenização, nem quer o dinheiro de usina. Nosso povo quer o rio como ele é”, disse Koba ao Valor. “Não vamos permitir que usinas ou até mesmo que estudos sejam feitos. Vamos unir nossa gente e vamos para o enfrentamento. O Tapajós não vai sofrer como sofre hoje o rio Xingu”, afirmou o líder indígena, referindo-se às complicações indígenas que envolvem o licenciamento e a construção da hidrelétrica de Belo Monte, em Altamira (PA).

Numa carta que foi entregue nas mãos do secretário-geral da Presidência, ministro Gilberto Carvalho, os índios pediram “que o governo brasileiro respeite a decisão do povo munduruku e desista de construir essas hidrelétricas”. No mesmo documento, os índios cobram agilidade na investigação da morte de Adenilson Kirixi Munduruku, que foi assassinado com três tiros em novembro do ano passado, na região do Teles Pires, rio localizado no norte do Mato Grosso e que forma o Tapajós, em sua confluência com o rio Juruena.

Os índios se negaram a assinar um documento apresentado pela Presidência, que previa compromissos a serem assumidos pelo governo, por entenderem que se tratava de uma consulta prévia já atrelada ao licenciamento das usinas do Tapajós. “Viemos até aqui para cobrar a punição pelo assassinato de nosso irmão, mas vimos que a intenção do governo era outra. Ele queria mesmo era tratar das usinas, mas não permitimos isso”, disse o líder indígena Waldelirio Manhuary Munduruku. “Não vamos nos ajoelhar. Não haverá usinas, nem estudos de usinas. Iremos até o fim nessa guerra.”

No balanço do Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento (PAC) divulgado na semana passada, o cronograma de São Luiz do Tapajós e de Jatobá estabelece o mês de setembro para conclusão dos estudos ambientais das usinas. O levantamento de informações na região começou a ser feito pela Eletrobras há pelo menos um ano e meio. Analistas ambientais e técnicos da estatal têm enfrentado resistências na região para colher informações dos moradores.

O grupo de empresas que o governo reuniu em agosto do ano passado para participar da elaboração dos estudos dá uma ideia do interesse energético que a União tem no Tapajós. Com a Eletrobras estão Cemig Geração e Transmissão, Copel Geração e Transmissão, GDF Suez Energy Latin America Participações, Endesa do Brasil e Neoenergia Investimentos.

Com as usinas de São Luiz e Jatobá, o governo quer adicionar 8.471 megawatts de potência à sua matriz energética. O custo ambiental disso seria a inundação de 1.368 quilômetros quadrados de floresta virgem, duas vezes e meia a inundação que será causada pela hidrelétrica de Belo Monte. O governo diz que é pouco e que, se forem implementadas todas as usinas previstas para a Amazônia, menos de 1% da floresta ficaria embaixo d”água.

(André Borges – Valor Econômico)

The Politics of Disimagination and the Pathologies of Power (Truth Out)

Wednesday, 27 February 2013 00:00

By Henry A GirouxTruthout | News Analysis

Eye reflecitng TV(Photo: tryingmyhardest). You write in order to change the world knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that [writing] is indispensable to the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter even by a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.” – James Baldwin

The Violence of Neoliberalism

We live in a time of deep foreboding, one that haunts any discourse about justice, democracy and the future. Not only have the points of reference that provided a sense of certainty and collective hope in the past largely evaporated, but the only referents available are increasingly supplied by a hyper-market-driven society, megacorporations and a corrupt financial service industry. The commanding economic and cultural institutions of American society have taken on what David Theo Goldberg calls a “militarizing social logic.”[1] Market discipline now regulates all aspects of social life, and the regressive economic rationality that drives it sacrifices the public good, public values and social responsibility to a tawdry consumerist dream while simultaneously creating a throwaway society of goods, resources and individuals now considered disposable.[2] This militarizing logic is also creeping into public schools and colleges with the former increasingly resembling the culture of prison and the latter opening their classrooms to the national intelligence agencies.[3] In one glaring instance of universities endorsing the basic institutions of the punishing state, Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, concluded a deal to rename its football stadium after the GEO Group, a private prison corporation “whose record is marred by human rights abuses, by lawsuits, by unnecessary deaths of people in their custody and a whole series of incidents.” [3A] Armed guards are now joined by armed knowledge.  Corruption, commodification and repressive state apparatuses have become the central features of a predatory society in which it is presumed irrationally “that market should dominate and determine all choices and outcomes to the occlusion of any other considerations.”[4]

The political, economic, and social consequences have done more than destroy any viable vision of a good society. They undermine the modern public’s capacity to think critically, celebrate a narcissistic hyperindividualism that borders on the pathological, destroy social protections and promote a massive shift towards a punitive state that criminalizes the behavior of those bearing the hardships imposed by a survival-of-the-fittest society that takes delight in the suffering of others. How else to account for a criminal justice stacked overwhelmingly against poor minorities, a prison system in which “prisoners can be held in solitary confinement for years in small, windowless cells in which they are kept for twenty-three hours of every day,”[5] or a police state that puts handcuffs on a 5-year old and puts him in jail because he violated a dress code by wearing sneakers that were the wrong color.[6] Why does the American public put up with a society in which “the top 1 percent of households owned 35.6 percent of net wealth (net worth) and a whopping 42.4 percent of net financial assets” in 2009, while many young people today represent the “new face of a national homeless population?”[7] American society is awash in a culture of civic illiteracy, cruelty and corruption. For example, major banks such as Barclays and HSBC swindle billions from clients and increase their profit margins by laundering money for terrorist organizations, and no one goes to jail. At the same time, we have the return of debtor prisons for the poor who cannot pay something as trivial as a parking fine. President Obama arbitrarily decides that he can ignore due process and kill American citizens through drone strikes and the American public barely blinks. Civic life collapses into a war zone and yet the dominant media is upset only because it was not invited to witness the golf match between Obama and Tiger Woods.

The celebration of violence in both virtual culture and real life now feed each other. The spectacle of carnage celebrated in movies such as A Good Day to Die Hard is now matched by the deadly violence now playing out in cities such as Chicago and New Orleans. Young people are particularly vulnerable to such violence, with 561 children age 12 and under killed by firearms between 2006 and 2010.[8] Corporate power, along with its shameless lobbyists and intellectual pundits, unabashedly argue for more guns in order to feed the bottom line, even as the senseless carnage continues tragically in places like Newtown, Connecticut, Tustin, California, and other American cities. In the meantime, the mainstream media treats the insane rambling of National Rifle Association’s (NRA) Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre as a legitimate point of view among many voices. This is the same guy who, after the killing of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, claimed the only way to stop more tragedies was to flood the market with more guns and provide schools with more armed guards. The American public was largely silent on the issue in spite of the fact that an increase of police in schools does nothing to prevent such massacres but does increase the number of children, particularly poor black youth, who are pulled out of class, booked and arrested for trivial behavioral infractions.

At the same time, America’s obsession with violence is reinforced by a market society that is Darwinian in its pursuit of profit and personal gain at almost any cost. Within this scenario, a social and economic order has emerged that combines the attributes and values of films such as the classics Mad Max and American Psycho. Material deprivation, galloping inequality, the weakening of public supports, the elimination of viable jobs, the mindless embrace of rabid competition and consumption, and the willful destruction of the environment speak to a society in which militarized violence finds its counterpart, if not legitimating credo, in a set of atomizing and selfish values that disdain shared social bonds and any notion of the public good. In this case, American society now mimics a market-driven culture that celebrates a narcissistic hyperindividualism that radiates with a new sociopathic lack of interest in others and a strong tendency towards violence and criminal behavior. As John le Carré once stated, “America has entered into one of its periods of historical madness.”[9] While le Carré wrote this acerbic attack on American politics in 2003, I think it is fair to say that things have gotten worse, and that the United States is further plunging into madness because of a deadening form of historical and social amnesia that has taken over the country, further reproducing a mass flight from memory and social responsibility. The politics of disimagination includes, in this instance, what Mumia Abu-Jamal labeled “mentacide,” a form of historical amnesia “inflicted on Black youth by the system’s systematic campaign to eradicate and deny them their people’s revolutionary history.”[10]

America’s Plunge Into Militarized Madness

How does one account for the lack of public outcry over millions of Americans losing their homes because of corrupt banking practices and millions more becoming unemployed because of the lack of an adequate jobs program in the United States, while at the same time stories abound of colossal greed and corruption on Wall Street? [11] For example, in 2009 alone, hedge fund manager David Tepper made approximately 4 billion dollars.[12] As Michael Yates points out: “This income, spent at a rate of $10,000 a day and exclusive of any interest, would last him and his heirs 1,096 years! If we were to suppose that Mr. Tepper worked 2,000 hours in 2009 (fifty weeks at forty hours per week), he took in $2,000,000 per hour and $30,000 a minute.”[13] This juxtaposition of robber-baron power and greed is rarely mentioned in the mainstream media in conjunction with the deep suffering and misery now experienced by millions of families, workers, children, jobless public servants and young people. This is especially true of a generation of youth who have become the new precariat[14] – a zero generation relegated to zones of social and economic abandonment and marked by zero jobs, zero future, zero hope and what Zygmunt Bauman has defined as a societal condition which is more “liquid,”less defined, punitive, and, in the end, more death dealing.[15]

Narcissism and unchecked greed have morphed into more than a psychological category that points to a character flaw among a marginal few. Such registers are now symptomatic of a market-driven society in which extremes of violence, militarization, cruelty and inequality are hardly noticed and have become normalized. Avarice and narcissism are not new. What is new is the unprecedented social sanction of the ethos of greed that has emerged since the 1980s.[16] What is also new is that military force and values have become a source of pride rather than alarm in American society. Not only has the war on terror violated a host of civil liberties, it has further sanctioned a military that has assumed a central role in American society, influencing everything from markets and education to popular culture and fashion. President Dwight D. Eisenhower left office warning about the rise of the military-industrial complex, with its pernicious alignment of the defense industry, the military and political power.[17] What he underestimated was the transition from a militarized economy to a militarized society in which the culture itself was shaped by military power, values and interests. What has become clear in contemporary America is that the organization of civil society for the production of violence is about more than producing militarized technologies and weapons; it is also about producing militarized subjects and a permanent war economy. As Aaron B. O’Connell points outs:

Our culture has militarized considerably since Eisenhower’s era, and civilians, not the armed services, have been the principal cause. From lawmakers’ constant use of “support our troops” to justify defense spending, to TV programs and video games like “NCIS,” “Homeland”and “Call of Duty,” to NBC’s shameful and unreal reality show “Stars Earn Stripes,” Americans are subjected to a daily diet of stories that valorize the military while the storytellers pursue their own opportunistic political and commercial agendas.[18]

The imaginary of war and violence informs every aspect of American society and extends from the celebration of a warrior culture in mainstream media to the use of universities to educate students in the logic of the national security state. Military deployments now protect “free trade” arrangements, provide job programs and drain revenue from public coffers. For instance, Lockheed Martin stands to gain billions of dollars in profits as Washington prepares to buy 2,443 F-35 fighter planes at a cost of $90 million each from the company. The overall cost of the project for a plane that has been called a “one trillion dollar boondoggle” is expected to cost more “than Australia’s entire GDP ($924 billion).”[19] Yet, the American government has no qualms about cutting food programs for the poor, early childhood programs for low-income students and food stamps for those who exist below the poverty line. Such misplaced priorities represent more than a military-industrial complex that is out of control. They also suggest the plunge of American society into the dark abyss of a state that is increasingly punitive, organized around the production of violence and unethical in its policies, priorities and values.

John Hinkson argues that such institutionalized violence is far from a short-lived and aberrant historical moment. In fact, he rightfully asserts that: “we have a new world economy, one crucially that lacks all substantial points of reference and is by implication nihilistic. The point is that this is not a temporary situation because of the imperatives, say, of war: it is a structural break with the past.”[20] Evidence of such a shift is obvious in the massive transfer upward in wealth and income that have not only resulted in the concentration of power in relatively few hands, but have promoted both unprecedented degrees of human suffering and hardship along with what can be called a politics of disimagination.

The Rise of the “Disimagination Machine”

Borrowing from Georges Didi-Huberman’s use of the term, “disimagination machine,” I argue that the politics of disimagination refers to images, and I would argue institutions, discourses, and other modes of representation, that undermine the capacity of individuals to bear witness to a different and critical sense of remembering, agency, ethics and collective resistance.[21] The “disimagination machine” is both a set of cultural apparatuses extending from schools and mainstream media to the new sites of screen culture, and a public pedagogy that functions primarily to undermine the ability of individuals to think critically, imagine the unimaginable, and engage in thoughtful and critical dialogue: put simply, to become critically informed citizens of the world.

Examples of the “disimagination machine” abound. A few will suffice. For instance, the Texas State Board of Education and other conservative boards of education throughout the United States are rewriting American textbooks to promote and impose on America’s public school students what Katherine Stewart calls “a Christian nationalist version of US history” in which Jesus is implored to “invade” public schools.[22] In this version of history, the term “slavery” is removed from textbooks and replaced with “Atlantic triangular trade,” the earth is 6,000 years old, and the Enlightenment is the enemy of education. Historical figures such as Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, considered to have suspect religious views, “are ruthlessly demoted or purged altogether from the study program.”[23] Currently, 46 percent of the American population believes in the creationist view of evolution and increasingly rejects scientific evidence, research and rationality as either ‘academic’ or irreligious.[24]

The rise of the Tea Party and the renewal of the culture wars have resulted in a Republican Party which is now considered the party of anti-science. Similarly, right-wing politicians, media, talk show hosts and other conservative pundits loudly and widely spread the message that a culture of questioning is antithetical to the American way of life. Moreover, this message is also promoted by conservative groups such as The American Legislative Exchange Council, (ALEC) which has “hit the ground running in 2013, pushing ‘model bills’ mandating the teaching of climate change denial in public school systems.”[25] The climate-change-denial machine is also promoted by powerful conservative groups such as the Heartland Institute. Ignorance is never too far from repression, as was recently demonstrated in Arizona, where State Rep. Bob Thorpe, a Republican freshman Tea Party member, introduced a new bill requiring students to take a loyalty oath in order to receive a graduation diploma.[26]

The “disimagination machine” is more powerful than ever as conservative think tanks provide ample funds for training and promoting anti-public pseudo-intellectuals and religious fundamentalists while simultaneously offering policy statements and talking points to conservative media such as FOX News, Christian news networks, right-wing talk radio, and partisan social media and blogs. This ever growing information/illiteracy bubble has become a powerful force of public pedagogy in the larger culture and is responsible for not only the war on science, reason and critical thought, but also the war on women’s reproductive rights, poor minority youth, immigrants, public schooling, and any other marginalized group or institution that challenges the anti-intellectual, anti-democratic worldviews of the new extremists and the narrative supporting Christian nationalism. Liberal Democrats, of course, contribute to this “disimagination machine” through educational policies that substitute critical thinking and critical pedagogy for paralyzing pedagogies of memorization and rote learning tied to high-stakes testing in the service of creating a neoliberal, dumbed-down workforce.

As John Atcheson has pointed out, we are “witnessing an epochal shift in our socio-political world. We are de-evolving, hurtling headlong into a past that was defined by serfs and lords; by necromancy and superstition; by policies based on fiat, not facts.”[27] We are also plunging into a dark world of anti-intellectualism, civic illiteracy and a formative culture supportive of an authoritarian state. The embrace of ignorance is at the center of political life today, and a reactionary form of public pedagogy has become the most powerful element of the politics of authoritarianism. Civic illiteracy is the modus operandi for creating depoliticized subjects who believe that consumerism is the only obligation of citizenship, who privilege opinions over reasoned arguments, and who are led to believe that ignorance is a virtue rather than a political and civic liability. In any educated democracy, much of the debate that occupies political life today, extending from creationism and climate change denial to “birther” arguments, would be speedily dismissed as magical thinking, superstition and an obvious form of ignorance. Mark Slouka is right in arguing that, “Ignorance gives us a sense of community; it confers citizenship; our representatives either share it or bow down to it or risk our wrath…. Communicate intelligently in America and you’re immediately suspect.”[28] The politics and machinery of disimagination and its production of ever-deepening ignorance dominates American society because it produces, to a large degree, uninformed customers, hapless clients, depoliticized subjects and illiterate citizens incapable of holding corporate and political power accountable. At stake here is more than the dangerous concentration of economic, political and cultural power in the hands of the ultrarich, megacorporations and elite financial services industries. Also at issue is the widespread perversion of the social, critical education, the public good, and democracy itself.

Toward a Radical Imagination

Against the politics of disimagination, progressives, workers, educators, young people and others need to develop a a new language of radical reform and create new public spheres that provide the pedagogical conditions for critical thought, dialogue and thoughtful deliberation. At stake here is a notion of pedagogy that both informs the mind and creates the conditions for modes of agency that are critical, informed, engaged and socially responsible. The radical imagination can be nurtured around the merging of critique and hope, the capacity to connect private troubles with broader social considerations, and the production of alternative formative cultures that provide the precondition for political engagement and for energizing democratic movements for social change – movements willing to think beyond isolated struggles and the limits of a savage global capitalism. Stanley Aronowitz and Peter Bratsis point to such a project in their manifesto on the radical imagination. They write:

This Manifesto looks forward to the creation of a new political Left formation that can overcome fragmentation, and provide a solid basis for many-side interventions in the current economic, political and social crises that afflict people in all walks of life. The Left must once again offer to young people, people of color, women, workers, activists, intellectuals and newly-arrived immigrants places to learn how the capitalist system works in all of its forms of exploitation whether personal, political, or economic. We need to reconstruct a platform to oppose Capital. It must ask in this moment of US global hegemony what are the alternatives to its cruel power over our lives, and those of large portions of the world’s peoples. And the Left formation is needed to offer proposals on how to rebuild a militant, democratic labor movement, strengthen and transform the social movements; and, more generally, provide the opportunity to obtain a broad education that is denied to them by official institutions. We need a political formation dedicated to the proposition that radical theory and practice are inextricably linked, that knowledge without action is impotent, but action without knowledge is blind.[29]

Matters of justice, equality, and political participation are foundational to any functioning democracy, but it is important to recognize that they have to be rooted in a vibrant formative culture in which democracy is understood not just as a political and economic structure but also as a civic force enabling justice, equality and freedom to flourish. While the institutions and practices of a civil society and an aspiring democracy are essential in this project, what must also be present are the principles and modes of civic education and critical engagement that support the very foundations of democratic culture. Central to such a project is the development of a new radical imagination both through the pedagogies and projects of public intellectuals in the academy and through work that can be done in other educational sites, such as the new media. Utilizing the Internet, social media, and other elements of the digital and screen culture, public intellectuals, cultural workers, young people and others can address larger audiences and present the task of challenging diverse forms of oppression, exploitation and exclusion as part of a broader effort to create a radical democracy.

There is a need to invent modes of pedagogy that release the imagination, connect learning to social change and create social relations in which people assume responsibility for each other. Such a pedagogy is not about methods or prepping students to learn how to take tests. Nor is such an education about imposing harsh disciplinary behaviors in the service of a pedagogy of oppression. On the contrary, it is about a moral and political practice capable of enabling students and others to become more knowledgeable while creating the conditions for generating a new vision of the future in which people can recognize themselves, a vision that connects with and speaks to the desires, dreams and hopes of those who are willing to fight for a radical democracy. Americans need to develop a new understanding of civic literacy, education and engagement, one capable of developing a new conversation and a new political project about democracy, inequality, and the redistribution of wealth and power, and how such a discourse can offer the conditions for democratically inspired visions, modes of governance and policymaking. Americans need to embrace and develop modes of civic literacy, critical education and democratic social movements that view the public good as a utopian imaginary, one that harbors a trace and vision of what it means to defend old and new public spheres that offer spaces where dissent can be produced, public values asserted, dialogue made meaningful and critical thought embraced as a noble ideal.

Elements of such a utopian imaginary can be found in James Baldwin’s “Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Davis,” in which he points out that “we live in an age in which silence is not only criminal but suicidal.”[30] The utopian imaginary is also on full display in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” where King states under the weight and harshness of incarceration that an “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere … [and asks whether we will] be extremists for the preservation of injustice – or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”[31] According to King, “we must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.”[32] We hear it in the words of former Harvard University President James B. Conant, who makes an impassioned call for “the need for the American radical – the missing political link between the past and future of this great democratic land.” [33] We hear it in the voices of young people all across the United States – the new American radicals – who are fighting for a society in which justice matters, social protections are guaranteed, equality is insured, and education becomes a right and not an entitlement. The radical imagination waits to be unleashed through social movements in which injustice is put on the run and civic literacy, economic justice, and collective struggle once again become the precondition for agency, hope and the struggle over democracy.

Endnotes

1.
David Theo Goldberg, “Mission Accomplished: Militarizing Social Logic,”in Enrique Jezik: Obstruct, destroy, conceal, ed. Cuauhtémoc Medina (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2011), 183-198.

2.
See, for example, Colin Leys, Market Driven Politics (London: Verso, 2001); Randy Martin, Financialization of Daily Life (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002); Pierre Bourdieu, Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market 2. Trans. Loic Wacquant (New York: The New Press, 2003); Alfredo Saad-Filho and Deborah Johnston, Neoliberalism: A Critical Reader (London: Pluto Press, 2005); Henry A. Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism (Boulder: Paradigm, 2008); David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Manfred B. Steger and Ravi K. Roy, Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Gerad Dumenil and Dominique Levy, The Crisis of Neoliberalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011). Henry A. Giroux, Twilight of the Social (Boulder: Paradigm, 2013); Stuart Hall, “The March of the Neoliberals,” The Guardian, (September 12, 2011). online at:http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/sep/12/march-of-the-neoliberals

3.
See most recently  Kelly V. Vlahos, “Boots on Campus,” Anti War.com (February 26, 2013). On line: http://original.antiwar.com/vlahos/2013/02/25/boots-on-campus/ and David H. Price, Weaponizing Anthropology (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2011).

3A. Greg Bishop, “A Company that Runs Prisons Will Have its Name on a Stadium,”New York Times (February 19, 2013). Online:http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/20/sports/ncaafootball/a-company-that-runs-prisons-will-have-its-name-on-a-stadium.html?_r=0

4.
Ibid. Goldberg, pp. 197-198.

5.
Jonathan Schell, “Cruel America”, The Nation, (September 28, 2011) online:http://www.thenation.com/article/163690/cruel-america

6.
Suzi Parker, “Cops Nab 5-Year-Old for Wearing Wrong Color Shoes to School,” Take Part, (January 18, 2013). Online:http://www.takepart.com/article/2013/01/18/cops-nab-five-year-old-wearing-wrong-color-shoes-school

7.
Susan Saulny, “After Recession, More Young Adults Are Living on Street,” The New York Times, (December 18, 2012). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/19/us/since-recession-more-young-americans-are-homeless.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

8.
Suzanne Gamboa and Monika Mathur, “Guns Kill Young Children Daily In The U.S.,” Huffington Post (December 24, 2012). Online:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/24/guns-children_n_2359661.html

9.
John le Carre, “The United States of America Has Gone Mad,” CommonDreams (January 15, 2003). Online: http://www.commondreams.org/views03/0115-01.htm

10.
Eric Mann Interviews Mumbia Abu Jamal, “Mumia Abu Jamal: On his biggest political influences and the political ‘mentacide’ of today’s youth.” Voices from the Frontlines Radio (April 9, 2012).

11.
See, for example, Charles Ferguson, Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America (New York: Random House, 2012).

12.
Michael Yates, “The Great Inequality,” Monthly Review, (March 1, 2012).

13.
Ibid.

14.
Guy Standing, The New Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011).

15.
Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007).

16.
This issue is taken up brilliantly in Irving Howe, “Reaganism: The Spirit of the Times,” Selected Writings 1950-1990 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990), pp. 410-423.

17.
I take up this issue in detail in Henry A. Giroux, The University in Chains: Challenging the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex (Boulder: Paradigm, 2007).

18.
Aaron B. O’Connell, “The Permanent Militarization of America,” The New York Times, (November 4, 2012). Online:http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/05/opinion/the-permanent-militarization-of-america.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

19.
Dominic Tierney, “The F-35: A Weapon that Costs More Than Australia,” The Atlantic (February 13, 2013). Online:http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/03/the-f-35-a-weapon-that-costs-more-than-australia/72454/

20.
John Hinkson, “The GFC Has Just Begun,”Arena Magazine 122 (March 2013), p. 51.

21.
Georges Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz, trans. Shane B. Lillis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), pp. 1-2.

22.
Katherine Stewart, “Is Texas Waging War on History?”AlterNet (May 21, 2012). Online: http://www.alternet.org/story/155515/is_texas_waging_war_on_history

23.
Ibid.

24.
See, for instance, Chris Mooney, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality (New York: Wiley, 2012).

25.
Steve Horn, “Three States Pushing ALEC Bill to Require Teachng Climate Change Denial in Schools,”Desmogblog.com (January 31, 2013). Online:www.desmogblog.com/2013/01/31/three-states-pushing-alec-bill-climate-change-denial-schools

26.
Igor Volsky, “Arizona Bill to Force Students to Take a Loyalty Oath,” AlterNet (January 26, 2013).

27.
John Atcheson, “Dark ages Redux: American Politics and the End of the Enlightenment,” CommonDreams (June 18, 2012). Online:https://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/06/18-2

28.
Mark Slouka, “A Quibble,” Harper’s Magazine (February 2009).

29.
Manifesto, Left Turn: An Open Letter to U.S. Radicals, (N.Y.: The Fifteenth Street Manifesto Group, March 2008), pp. 4-5.

30.
James Baldwin, “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis,” The New York Review of Books, (January 7, 1971). Online: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1971/jan/07/an-open-letter-to-my-sister-miss-angela-davis/?pagination=false

31.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (1963), in James M. Washington, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), pp.290, 298.

32.
Ibid, 296.

33.
James B. Conant, “Wanted: American Radicals”, The Atlantic, May 1943.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission of the author.

A tinta vermelha: discurso de Slavoj Žižek aos manifestantes do movimento Occupy Wall Street (Boitempo)

http://www.comunistas.spruz.com/pt/A-tinta-vermelha-discurso-de-Slavoj-Zizek-aos-manifestantes-do-Occupy-Wall-Street/blog.htm

Oct 9, 2011

Não se apaixonem por si mesmos, nem pelo momento agradável que estamos tendo aqui. Carnavais custam muito pouco – o verdadeiro teste de seu valor é o que permanece no dia seguinte, ou a maneira como nossa vida normal e cotidiana será modificada. Apaixone-se pelo trabalho duro e paciente – somos o início, não o fim. Nossa mensagem básica é: o tabu já foi rompido, não vivemos no melhor mundo possível, temos a permissão e a obrigação de pensar em alternativas. Há um longo caminho pela frente, e em pouco tempo teremos de enfrentar questões realmente difíceis – questões não sobre aquilo que não queremos, mas sobre aquilo que QUEREMOS. Qual organização social pode substituir o capitalismo vigente? De quais tipos de líderes nós precisamos? As alternativas do século XX obviamente não servem.

Então não culpe o povo e suas atitudes: o problema não é a corrupção ou a ganância, mas o sistema que nos incita a sermos corruptos. A solução não é o lema “Main Street, not Wall Street”, mas sim mudar o sistema em que a Main Street não funciona sem o Wall Street. Tenham cuidado não só com os inimigos, mas também com falsos amigos que fingem nos apoiar e já fazem de tudo para diluir nosso protesto. Da mesma maneira que compramos café sem cafeína, cerveja sem álcool e sorvete sem gordura, eles tentarão transformar isto aqui em um protesto moral inofensivo. Mas a razão de estarmos reunidos é o fato de já termos tido o bastante de um mundo onde reciclar latas de Coca-Cola, dar alguns dólares para a caridade ou comprar um cappuccino da Starbucks que tem 1% da renda revertida para problemas do Terceiro Mundo é o suficiente para nos fazer sentir bem. Depois de terceirizar o trabalho, depois de terceirizar a tortura, depois que as agências matrimoniais começaram a terceirizar até nossos encontros, é que percebemos que, há muito tempo, também permitimos que nossos engajamentos políticos sejam terceirizados – mas agora nós os queremos de volta.

Dirão que somos “não americanos”. Mas quando fundamentalistas conservadores nos disserem que os Estados Unidos são uma nação cristã, lembrem-se do que é o Cristianismo: o Espírito Santo, a comunidade livre e igualitária de fiéis unidos pelo amor. Nós, aqui, somos o Espírito Santo, enquanto em Wall Street eles são pagãos que adoram falsos ídolos.

Dirão que somos violentos, que nossa linguagem é violenta, referindo-se à ocupação e assim por diante. Sim, somos violentos, mas somente no mesmo sentido em que Mahatma Gandhi foi violento. Somos violentos porque queremos dar um basta no modo como as coisas andam – mas o que significa essa violência puramente simbólica quando comparada à violência necessária para sustentar o funcionamento constante do sistema capitalista global?

Seremos chamados de perdedores – mas os verdadeiros perdedores não estariam lá em Wall Street, os que se safaram com a ajuda de centenas de bilhões do nosso dinheiro? Vocês são chamados de socialistas, mas nos Estados Unidos já existe o socialismo para os ricos. Eles dirão que vocês não respeitam a propriedade privada, mas as especulações de Wall Street que levaram à queda de 2008 foram mais responsáveis pela extinção de propriedades privadas obtidas a duras penas do que se estivéssemos destruindo-as agora, dia e noite – pense nas centenas de casas hipotecadas…

Nós não somos comunistas, se o comunismo significa o sistema que merecidamente entrou em colapso em 1990 – e lembrem-se de que os comunistas que ainda detêm o poder atualmente governam o mais implacável dos capitalismos (na China). O sucesso do capitalismo chinês liderado pelo comunismo é um sinal abominável de que o casamento entre o capitalismo e a democracia está próximo do divórcio. Nós somos comunistas em um sentido apenas: nós nos importamos com os bens comuns – os da natureza, do conhecimento – que estão ameaçados pelo sistema.

Eles dirão que vocês estão sonhando, mas os verdadeiros sonhadores são os que pensam que as coisas podem continuar sendo o que são por um tempo indefinido, assim como ocorre com as mudanças cosméticas. Nós não estamos sonhando; nós acordamos de um sonho que está se transformando em pesadelo. Não estamos destruindo nada; somos apenas testemunhas de como o sistema está gradualmente destruindo a si próprio. Todos nós conhecemos a cena clássica dos desenhos animados: o gato chega à beira do precipício e continua caminhando, ignorando o fato de que não há chão sob suas patas; ele só começa a cair quando olha para baixo e vê o abismo. O que estamos fazendo é simplesmente levar os que estão no poder a olhar para baixo…

Então, a mudança é realmente possível? Hoje, o possível e o impossível são dispostos de maneira estranha. Nos domínios da liberdade pessoal e da tecnologia científica, o impossível está se tornando cada vez mais possível (ou pelo menos é o que nos dizem): “nada é impossível”, podemos ter sexo em suas mais perversas variações; arquivos inteiros de músicas, filmes e seriados de TV estão disponíveis para download; a viagem espacial está à venda para quem tiver dinheiro; podemos melhorar nossas habilidades físicas e psíquicas por meio de intervenções no genoma, e até mesmo realizar o sonho tecnognóstico de atingir a imortalidade transformando nossa identidade em um programa de computador. Por outro lado, no domínio das relações econômicas e sociais, somos bombardeados o tempo todo por um discurso do “você não pode” se envolver em atos políticos coletivos (que necessariamente terminam no terror totalitário), ou aderir ao antigo Estado de bem-estar social (ele nos transforma em não competitivos e leva à crise econômica), ou se isolar do mercado global etc. Quando medidas de austeridade são impostas, dizem-nos repetidas vezes que se trata apenas do que tem de ser feito. Quem sabe não chegou a hora de inverter as coordenadas do que é possível e impossível? Quem sabe não podemos ter mais solidariedade e assistência médica, já que não somos imortais?

Em meados de abril de 2011, a mídia revelou que o governo chinês havia proibido a exibição, em cinemas e na TV, de filmes que falassem de viagens no tempo e histórias paralelas, argumentando que elas trazem frivolidade para questões históricas sérias – até mesmo a fuga fictícia para uma realidade alternativa é considerada perigosa demais. Nós, do mundo Ocidental liberal, não precisamos de uma proibição tão explícita: a ideologia exerce poder material suficiente para evitar que narrativas históricas alternativas sejam interpretadas com o mínimo de seriedade. Para nós é fácil imaginar o fim do mundo – vide os inúmeros filmes apocalípticos –, mas não o fim do capitalismo.

Em uma velha piada da antiga República Democrática Alemã, um trabalhador alemão consegue um emprego na Sibéria; sabendo que todas as suas correspondências serão lidas pelos censores, ele diz para os amigos: “Vamos combinar um código: se vocês receberem uma carta minha escrita com tinta azul, ela é verdadeira; se a tinta for vermelha, é falsa”. Depois de um mês, os amigos receberam a primeira carta, escrita em azul: “Tudo é uma maravilha por aqui: os estoques estão cheios, a comida é abundante, os apartamentos são amplos e aquecidos, os cinemas exibem filmes ocidentais, há mulheres lindas prontas para um romance – a única coisa que não temos é tinta vermelha.” E essa situação, não é a mesma que vivemos até hoje? Temos toda a liberdade que desejamos – a única coisa que falta é a “tinta vermelha”: nós nos “sentimos livres” porque somos desprovidos da linguagem para articular nossa falta de liberdade. O que a falta de tinta vermelha significa é que, hoje, todos os principais termos que usamos para designar o conflito atual – “guerra ao terror”, “democracia e liberdade”, “direitos humanos” etc. etc. – são termos FALSOS que mistificam nossa percepção da situação em vez de permitir que pensemos nela. Você, que está aqui presente, está dando a todos nós tinta vermelha.

*   *   *

Slavoj Žižek speaks at Occupy Wall Street: Transcript (Impose)

BY SARAHANA » Don’t fall in love with yourselves

Posted on October 10, 2011

slavoj zizek speaking at occupy wall street

Yesterday at noon, this blog’s trusty mentor, the Slovenian philosopher-scholar Slavoj Žižek, spoke at Zuccotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street protests are being held. Here is a full transcript of his speech. Update: Transcript of the Q&A portion of the talk has been posted as well.

Made some corrections, Oct 25, 6:30PM EST

— TRANSCRIPT —

They are saying we are all losers, but the true losers are down there on Wall Street. They were bailed out by billions of our money. We are called socialists, but here there is always socialism for the rich. They say we don’t respect private property, but in the 2008 financial crash-down more hard-earned private property was destroyed than if all of us here were to be destroying it night and day for weeks. They tell you we are dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are the awakening from a dream that is turning into a nightmare.

We are not destroying anything. We are only witnessing how the system is destroying itself. We all know the classic scene from cartoons. The cat reaches a precipice but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is nothing beneath this ground. Only when it looks down and notices it, it falls down. This is what we are doing here. We are telling the guys there on Wall Street, “Hey, look down!”

In mid-April 2011, the Chinese government prohibited on TV, films, and novels all stories that contain alternate reality or time travel. This is a good sign for China. These people still dream about alternatives, so you have to prohibit this dreaming. Here, we don’t need a prohibition because the ruling system has even oppressed our capacity to dream. Look at the movies that we see all the time. It’s easy to imagine the end of the world. An asteroid destroying all life and so on. But you cannot imagine the end of capitalism.

So what are we doing here? Let me tell you a wonderful, old joke from Communist times. A guy was sent from East Germany to work in Siberia. He knew his mail would be read by censors, so he told his friends: “Let’s establish a code. If a letter you get from me is written in blue ink, it is true what I say. If it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter. Everything is in blue. It says, this letter: “Everything is wonderful here. Stores are full of good food. Movie theatres show good films from the west. Apartments are large and luxurious. The only thing you cannot buy is red ink.” This is how we live. We have all the freedoms we want. But what we are missing is red ink: the language to articulate our non-freedom. The way we are taught to speak about freedom— war on terror and so on—falsifies freedom. And this is what you are doing here. You are giving all of us red ink.

There is a danger. Don’t fall in love with yourselves. We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then? I don’t want you to remember these days, you know, like “Oh. we were young and it was beautiful.” Remember that our basic message is “We are allowed to think about alternatives.” If the taboo is broken, we do not live in the best possible world. But there is a long road ahead. There are truly difficult questions that confront us. We know what we do not want. But what do we want? What social organization can replace capitalism? What type of new leaders do we want?

Remember. The problem is not corruption or greed. The problem is the system. It forces you to be corrupt. Beware not only of the enemies, but also of false friends who are already working to dilute this process. In the same way you get coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, ice cream without fat, they will try to make this into a harmless, moral protest. A decaffienated protest. But the reason we are here is that we have had enough of a world where, to recycle Coke cans, to give a couple of dollars for charity, or to buy a Starbucks cappuccino where 1% goes to third world starving children is enough to make us feel good. After outsourcing work and torture, after marriage agencies are now outsourcing our love life, we can see that for a long time, we allow our political engagement also to be outsourced. We want it back.

We are not Communists if Communism means a system which collapsed in 1990. Remember that today those Communists are the most efficient, ruthless Capitalists. In China today, we have Capitalism which is even more dynamic than your American Capitalism, but doesn’t need democracy. Which means when you criticize Capitalism, don’t allow yourself to be blackmailed that you are against democracy. The marriage between democracy and Capitalism is over. The change is possible.

What do we perceive today as possible? Just follow the media. On the one hand, in technology and sexuality, everything seems to be possible. You can travel to the moon, you can become immortal by biogenetics, you can have sex with animals or whatever, but look at the field of society and economy. There, almost everything is considered impossible. You want to raise taxes by little bit for the rich. They tell you it’s impossible. We lose competitivity. You want more money for health care, they tell you, “Impossible, this means totalitarian state.” There’s something wrong in the world, where you are promised to be immortal but cannot spend a little bit more for healthcare. Maybe we need to set our priorities straight here. We don’t want higher standard of living. We want a better standard of living. The only sense in which we are Communists is that we care for the commons. The commons of nature. The commons of privatized by intellectual property. The commons of biogenetics. For this, and only for this, we should fight.

Communism failed absolutely, but the problems of the commons are here. They are telling you we are not American here. But the conservatives fundamentalists who claim they really are American have to be reminded of something: What is Christianity? It’s the holy spirit. What is the holy spirit? It’s an egalitarian community of believers who are linked by love for each other, and who only have their own freedom and responsibility to do it. In this sense, the holy spirit is here now. And down there on Wall Street, there are pagans who are worshipping blasphemous idols. So all we need is patience. The only thing I’m afraid of is that we will someday just go home and then we will meet once a year, drinking beer, and nostaligically remembering “What a nice time we had here.” Promise yourselves that this will not be the case. We know that people often desire something but do not really want it. Don’t be afraid to really want what you desire. Thank you very much.

— END OF TRANSCRIPT —

Here’s Astra Taylor, who made the documentaries Zizek! and An Examined Life. (She also happens to be married to Jeff Mangum, who performed earlier in the week for the protestors.)

Free training included how to undo a handcuff:

- See more at: http://www.imposemagazine.com/bytes/slavoj-zizek-at-occupy-wall-street-transcript#sthash.XOa1Suzj.dpuf

Edward O. Wilson: The Riddle of the Human Species (N.Y.Times)

THE STONEFebruary 24, 2013, 7:30 pm

By EDWARD O. WILSON

The task of understanding humanity is too important and too daunting to leave to the humanities. Their many branches, from philosophy to law to history and the creative arts, have described the particularities of human nature with genius and exquisite detail, back and forth in endless permutations. But they have not explained why we possess our special nature and not some other out of a vast number of conceivable possibilities. In that sense, the humanities have not accounted for a full understanding of our species’ existence.

So, just what are we? The key to the great riddle lies in the circumstance and process that created our species. The human condition is a product of history, not just the six millenniums of civilization but very much further back, across hundreds of millenniums. The whole of it, biological and cultural evolution, in seamless unity, must be explored for an answer to the mystery. When thus viewed across its entire traverse, the history of humanity also becomes the key to learning how and why our species survived.

A majority of people prefer to interpret history as the unfolding of a supernatural design, to whose author we owe obedience. But that comforting interpretation has grown less supportable as knowledge of the real world has expanded. Scientific knowledge (measured by numbers of scientists and scientific journals) in particular has been doubling every 10 to 20 years for over a century. In traditional explanations of the past, religious creation stories have been blended with the humanities to attribute meaning to our species’s existence. It is time to consider what science might give to the humanities and the humanities to science in a common search for a more solidly grounded answer to the great riddle.

To begin, biologists have found that the biological origin of advanced social behavior in humans was similar to that occurring elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Using comparative studies of thousands of animal species, from insects to mammals, they have concluded that the most complex societies have arisen through eusociality — roughly, “true” social condition. The members of a eusocial group cooperatively rear the young across multiple generations. They also divide labor through the surrender by some members of at least some of their personal reproduction in a way that increases the “reproductive success” (lifetime reproduction) of other members.

Leif Parsons

Eusociality stands out as an oddity in a couple of ways. One is its extreme rarity. Out of hundreds of thousands of evolving lines of animals on the land during the past 400 million years, the condition, so far as we can determine, has arisen only about two dozen times. This is likely to be an underestimate, due to sampling error. Nevertheless, we can be certain that the number of originations was very small.

Furthermore, the known eusocial species arose very late in the history of life. It appears to have occurred not at all during the great Paleozoic diversification of insects, 350 to 250 million years before the present, during which the variety of insects approached that of today. Nor is there as yet any evidence of eusocial species during the Mesozoic Era until the appearance of the earliest termites and ants between 200 and 150 million years ago. Humans at the Homo level appeared only very recently, following tens of millions of years of evolution among the primates.

Once attained, advanced social behavior at the eusocial grade has proved a major ecological success. Of the two dozen independent lines, just two within the insects — ants and termites — globally dominate invertebrates on the land. Although they are represented by fewer than 20 thousand of the million known living insect species, ants and termites compose more than half of the world’s insect body weight.

The history of eusociality raises a question: given the enormous advantage it confers, why was this advanced form of social behavior so rare and long delayed? The answer appears to be the special sequence of preliminary evolutionary changes that must occur before the final step to eusociality can be taken. In all of the eusocial species analyzed to date, the final step before eusociality is the construction of a protected nest, from which foraging trips begin and within which the young are raised to maturity. The original nest builders can be a lone female, a mated pair, or a small and weakly organized group. When this final preliminary step is attained, all that is needed to create a eusocial colony is for the parents and offspring to stay at the nest and cooperate in raising additional generations of young. Such primitive assemblages then divide easily into risk-prone foragers and risk-averse parents and nurses.

Leif Parsons

What brought one primate line to the rare level of eusociality? Paleontologists have found that the circumstances were humble. In Africa about two million years ago, one species of the primarily vegetarian australopithecine evidently shifted its diet to include a much higher reliance on meat. For a group to harvest such a high-energy, widely dispersed source of food, it did not pay to roam about as a loosely organized pack of adults and young like present-day chimpanzees and bonobos. It was more efficient to occupy a campsite (thus, the nest) and send out hunters who could bring home meat, either killed or scavenged, to share with others. In exchange, the hunters received protection of the campsite and their own young offspring kept there.

From studies of modern humans, including hunter-gatherers, whose lives tell us so much about human origins, social psychologists have deduced the mental growth that began with hunting and campsites. A premium was placed on personal relationships geared to both competition and cooperation among the members. The process was ceaselessly dynamic and demanding. It far exceeded in intensity anything similar experienced by the roaming, loosely organized bands of most animal societies. It required a memory good enough to assess the intentions of fellow members, to predict their responses, from one moment to the next; and it resulted in the ability to invent and inwardly rehearse competing scenarios of future interactions.

The social intelligence of the campsite-anchored prehumans evolved as a kind of non-stop game of chess. Today, at the terminus of this evolutionary process, our immense memory banks are smoothly activated across the past, present, and future. They allow us to evaluate the prospects and consequences variously of alliances, bonding, sexual contact, rivalries, domination, deception, loyalty and betrayal. We instinctively delight in the telling of countless stories about others as players upon the inner stage. The best of it is expressed in the creative arts, political theory, and other higher-level activities we have come to call the humanities.

The definitive part of the long creation story evidently began with the primitive Homo habilis (or a species closely related to it) two million years ago. Prior to the habilines the prehumans had been animals. Largely vegetarians, they had human-like bodies, but their cranial capacity remained chimpanzee-size, at or below 500 cubic centimeters. Starting with the habiline period the capacity grew precipitously: to 680 cubic centimeters in Homo habilis, 900 in Homo erectus, and about 1,400 in Homo sapiens. The expansion of the human brain was one of the most rapid episodes of evolution of complex organs in the history of life.


Still, to recognize the rare coming together of cooperating primates is not enough to account for the full potential of modern humans that brain capacity provides. Evolutionary biologists have searched for the grandmaster of advanced social evolution, the combination of forces and environmental circumstances that bestowed greater longevity and more successful reproduction on the possession of high social intelligence. At present there are two competing theories of the principal force. The first is kin selection: individuals favor collateral kin (relatives other than offspring) making it easier for altruism to evolve among members of the same group. Altruism in turn engenders complex social organization, and, in the one case that involves big mammals, human-level intelligence.

The second, more recently argued theory (full disclosure: I am one of the modern version’s authors), the grandmaster is multilevel selection. This formulation recognizes two levels at which natural selection operates: individual selection based on competition and cooperation among members of the same group, and group selection, which arises from competition and cooperation between groups. Multilevel selection is gaining in favor among evolutionary biologists because of a recent mathematical proof that kin selection can arise only under special conditions that demonstrably do not exist, and the better fit of multilevel selection to all of the two dozen known animal cases of eusocial evolution.

The roles of both individual and group selection are indelibly stamped (to borrow a phrase from Charles Darwin) upon our social behavior. As expected, we are intensely interested in the minutiae of behavior of those around us. Gossip is a prevailing subject of conversation, everywhere from hunter-gatherer campsites to royal courts. The mind is a kaleidoscopically shifting map of others, each of whom is drawn emotionally in shades of trust, love, hatred, suspicion, admiration, envy and sociability. We are compulsively driven to create and belong to groups, variously nested, overlapping or separate, and large or small. Almost all groups compete with those of similar kind in some manner or other. We tend to think of our own as superior, and we find our identity within them.

The existence of competition and conflict, the latter often violent, has been a hallmark of societies as far back as archaeological evidence is able to offer. These and other traits we call human nature are so deeply resident in our emotions and habits of thought as to seem just part of some greater nature, like the air we all breathe, and the molecular machinery that drives all of life. But they are not. Instead, they are among the idiosyncratic hereditary traits that define our species.

The major features of the biological origins of our species are coming into focus, and with this clarification the potential of a more fruitful contact between science and the humanities. The convergence between these two great branches of learning will matter hugely when enough people have thought it through. On the science side, genetics, the brain sciences, evolutionary biology, and paleontology will be seen in a different light. Students will be taught prehistory as well as conventional history, the whole presented as the living world’s greatest epic.

We will also, I believe, take a more serious look at our place in nature. Exalted we are indeed, risen to be the mind of the biosphere without a doubt, our spirits capable of awe and ever more breathtaking leaps of imagination. But we are still part of earth’s fauna and flora. We are bound to it by emotion, physiology, and not least, deep history. It is dangerous to think of this planet as a way station to a better world, or continue to convert it into a literal, human-engineered spaceship. Contrary to general opinion, demons and gods do not vie for our allegiance. We are self-made, independent, alone and fragile. Self-understanding is what counts for long-term survival, both for individuals and for the species.

Edward O. Wilson is Honorary Curator in Entomology and University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University. He has received more than 100 awards for his research and writing, including the U. S. National Medal of Science, the Crafoord Prize and two Pulitzer Prizes in non-fiction. His most recent book is “The Social Conquest of Earth.”

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Interview with Edward O. Wilson: The Origin of Morals (Spiegel)

February 26, 2013 – 01:23 PM

By Philip Bethge and Johann Grolle

American sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson is championing a controversial new approach for explaining the origins of virtue and sin. In an interview, the world-famous ant reseacher explains why he believes the inner struggle is the characteristic trait of human nature.

Edward O. Wilson doesn’t come across as the kind of man who’s looking to pick a fight. With his shoulders upright and his head tilting slightly to the side, he shuffles through the halls of Harvard University. His right eye, which has given him trouble since his childhood, is halfway closed. The other is fixed on the ground. As an ant researcher, Wilson has made a career out of things that live on the earth’s surface.

There’s also much more to Wilson. Some consider him to be the world’s most important living biologist, with some placing him on a level with Charles Darwin.

In addition to discovering and describing hundreds of species of ants, Wilson’s book on this incomparably successful group of insects is the only non-fiction biology tome ever to win a Pulitzer Prize. Another achievement was decoding the chemical communication of ants, whose vocabulary is composed of pheromones. His study of the ant colonization of islands helped to establish one of the most fruitful branches of ecology. And when it comes to the battle against the loss of biodiversity, Wilson is one of the movement’s most eloquent voices.

‘Blessed with Brilliant Enemies’

But Wilson’s fame isn’t solely the product of his scientific achievements. His enemies have also helped him to establish a name. “I have been blessed with brilliant enemies,” he says. In fact, the multitude of scholars with whom Wilson has skirmished academically is illustrious. James Watson, one of the discoverers of the double helix in DNA is among them, as is essayist Stephen Jay Gould.

At 83 years of age, Wilson is still at work making a few new enemies. The latest source of uproar is a book, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” published last April in the United States and this month in a German-language edition. In the tome, Wilson attempts to describe the triumphal advance of humans in evolutionary terms.

It is not uncommon for Wilson to look to ants for inspiration in his writings — and that proves true here, as well. When, for example, he recalls beholding two 90-million-year-old worker ants that were trapped in a piece of fossil metasequoia amber as being “among the most exciting moments in my life,” a discovery that “ranked in scientific importance withArchaeopteryx, the first fossil intermediary between birds and dinosaurs, and Australopithecus, the first ‘missing link’ discovered between modern humans and the ancestral apes.”

But that’s all just foreplay to the real controversy at the book’s core. Ultimately, Wilson uses ants to explain humans’ social behavior and, by doing so, breaks with current convention. The key question is the level at which Darwinian selection of human characteristics takes place. Did individuals enter into a fight for survival against each other, or did groups battle it out against competing groups?

Prior to this book, Wilson had been an influential champion of the theory of kin selection. He has now rejected his previous teachings, literally demolishing them. “The beautiful theory never worked well anyway, and now it has collapsed,” he writes. Today, he argues that human nature can only be understood if it is perceived as being the product of “group selection” — a view that Wilson’s fellow academics equate with sacrilege. They literally lined up to express their scientific dissent in a joint letter.

Some of the most vociferous criticism has come from Richard Dawkins, whose bestselling 1976 book “The Selfish Gene” first introduced the theory of kin selection to a mass audience. In a withering review of Wilson’s book in Britain’s Prospect magazine, Dawkins accuses a man he describes as his “lifelong hero” of “wanton arrogance” and “perverse misunderstandings”. “To borrow from Dorothy Parker,” he writes, “this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force.”

SPIEGEL recently sat down with sociobiologist Wilson to discuss his book and the controversy surrounding it.

SPIEGEL: Professor Wilson, lets assume that 10 million years ago some alien spacecraft had landed on this planet. Which organisms would they find particularly intriguing?

Wilson: Their interest, I believe, would not have been our ancestors. Primarily, they would have focused on ants, bees, wasps, and termites. Their discovery is what the aliens would report back to headquarters.

SPIEGEL: And you think those insects would be more interesting to them than, for example, elephants, flocks of birds or intelligent primates?

Wilson: They would be, because, at that time, ants and termites would be the most abundant creatures on the land and the most highly social creatures with very advanced division of labor and caste. We call them “eusocial,” and this phenomenon seems to be extremely rare.

SPIEGEL: What else might the aliens consider particularly interesting about ants?

Wilson: Ants engage in farming and animal husbandry. For example, some of them cultivate fungi. Others herd aphids and literally milk them by stroking them with their antennae. And the other thing the aliens would find extremely interesting would be the degree to which these insects organize their societies by pheromones, by chemical communication. Ants and termites have taken this form of communication to extremes.

SPIEGEL: So the aliens would cable back home: “We have found ants. They are the most promising candidates for a future evolution towards intelligent beings on earth?”

Wilson: No, they wouldn’t. They would see that these creatures were encased in exoskeletons and therefore had to remain very small. They would conclude that there was little chance for individual ants or termites to develop much reasoning power, nor, as a result, the capacity for culture. But at least on this planet, you have to be big in order to have sufficient cerebral cortex. And you probably have to be bipedal and develop hands with pulpy fingers, because those give you the capacity to start creating objects and to manipulate the environment.

SPIEGEL: Would our ancestors not have caught their eye?

Wilson: Ten million years ago, our ancestors indeed had developed a somewhat larger brain and versatile hands already. But the crucial step had yet to come.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean?

Wilson: Let me go back to the social insects for a moment. Why did social insects start to form colonies? Across hundreds of millions of years, insects had been proliferating as solitary forms. Some of them stayed with their young for a while, guided them and protected them. You find that widespread but far from universal in the animal kingdom. However, out of those species came a much smaller number of species who didn’t just protect their young, but started building nests that they defended …

SPIEGEL: … similar to birds.

Wilson: Yes. And I think that birds are right at the threshold of eusocial behaviour. But looking at the evolution of ants and termites again, there is another crucial step. In an even smaller group, the young don’t only grow up in their nest, but they also stay and care for the next generation. Now you have a group staying together with a division of labor. That is evidently the narrow channel of evolution that you have to pass through in order to become eusocial.

SPIEGEL: And our ancestors followed the same path?

Wilson: Yes. I argue that Homo habilis, the first humans, also went through these stages. In particular, Homo habilis was unique in that they already had shifted to eating meat.

SPIEGEL: What difference would that make?

Wilson: When animals start eating meat, they tend to form packs and to divide labor. We know that the immediate descendants of Homo habilis, Homo erectus, gathered around camp sites and that they actually had begun to use fire. These camp sites are equivalent to nests. That’s where they gathered in a tightly knit group, and then individuals went out searching for food.

SPIEGEL: And this development of groups drives evolution even further?

Wilson: Exactly. And, for example, if it now comes to staking out the hunting grounds, then group stands against group.

SPIEGEL: Meaning that this is the origin of warfare?

Wilson: Yes. But it doesn’t take necessarily the forming of an army or a battalion and meeting on the field and fighting. It was mostly what you call “vengeance raids”. One group attacks another, maybe captures a female or kills one or two males. The other group then counterraids, and this will go back and forth, group against group.

SPIEGEL: You say that this so called group selection is vital for the evolution of humans. Yet traditionally, scientists explain the emergence of social behavior in humans by kin selection.

Wilson: That, for a number of reasons, isn’t much good as an explanation.

SPIEGEL: But you yourself have long been a proponent of this theory. Why did you change your mind?

Wilson: You are right. During the 1970s, I was one of the main proponents of kin selection theory. And at first the idea sounds very reasonable. So for example, if I favored you because you were my brother and therefore we share one half of our genes, then I could sacrifice a lot for you. I could give up my chance to have children in order to get you through college and have a big family. The problem is: If you think it through, kin selection doesn’t explain anything. Instead, I came to the conclusion that selection operates on multiple levels. On one hand, you have normal Darwinian selection going on all the time, where individuals compete with each other. In addition, however, these individuals now form groups. They are staying together, and consequently it is group versus group.

SPIEGEL: Turning away from kin selection provoked a rather fierce reaction from many of your colleagues.

Wilson: No, it didn’t. The reaction was strong, but it came from a relatively small group of people whose careers are based upon studies of kin selection.

SPIEGEL: Isn’t that too easy? After all, 137 scientists signed a response to your claims. They accuse you of a “misunderstanding of evolutionary theory”.

Wilson: You know, most scientists are tribalists. Their lives are so tied up in certain theories that they can’t let go.

SPIEGEL: Does it even make a substantial difference if humans evolved through kin selection or group selection?

Wilson: Oh, it changes everything. Only the understanding of evolution offers a chance to get a real understanding of the human species. We are determined by the interplay between individual and group selection where individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. We’re all in constant conflict between self-sacrifice for the group on the one hand and egoism and selfishness on the other. I go so far as to say that all the subjects of humanities, from law to the creative arts are based upon this play of individual versus group selection.

SPIEGEL: Is this Janus-faced nature of humans our greatest strength at the end of the day?

Wilson: Exactly. This inner conflict between altruism and selfishness is the human condition. And it is very creative and probably the source of our striving, our inventiveness and imagination. It’s that eternal conflict that makes us unique.

SPIEGEL: So how do we negotiate this conflict?

Wilson: We don’t. We have to live with it.

SPIEGEL: Which element of this human condition is stronger?

Wilson: Let’s put it this way: If we would be mainly influenced by group selection, we would be living in kind of an ant society.

SPIEGEL: … the ultimate form of communism?

Wilson: Yes. Once in a while, humans form societies that emphasize the group, for example societies with Marxist ideology. But the opposite is also true. In other societies the individual is everything. Politically, that would be the Republican far right.

SPIEGEL: What determines which ideology is predominant in a society?

Wilson: If your territory is invaded, then cooperation within the group will be extreme. That’s a human instinct. If you are in a frontier area, however, then we tend to move towards the extreme individual level. That seems to be a good part of the problem still with America. We still think we’re on the frontier, so we constantly try to put forward individual initiative and individual rights and rewards based upon individual achievement.

SPIEGEL: Earlier, you differentiated between the “virtue” of altruism and the “sin” of individualism. In your book you talk about the “poorer and the better angels” of human nature. Is it helpful to use this kind of terminology?

Wilson: I will admit that using the terminology of “virtue” and “sin” is what poets call a “trope”. That is to say, I wanted the idea in crude form to take hold. Still, a lot of what we call “virtue” has to do with propensities to behave well toward others. What we call “sin” are things that people do mainly out of self-interest.

SPIEGEL: However, our virtues towards others go only so far. Outside groups are mainly greeted with hostility.

Wilson: You are right. People have to belong to a group. That’s one of the strongest propensities in the human psyche and you won’t be able to change that. However, I think we are evolving, so as to avoid war — but without giving up the joy of competition between groups. Take soccer …

SPIEGEL: … or American football.

Wilson: Oh, yes, American football, it’s a blood sport. And people live by team sports and national or regional pride connected with team sports. And that’s what we should be aiming for, because, again, that spirit is one of the most creative. It landed us on the moon, and people get so much pleasure from it. I don’t want to see any of that disturbed. That is a part of being human. We need our big games, our team sports, our competition, our Olympics.

SPIEGEL: “Humans,” the saying goes, “have Paleolithic emotions” …

Wilson: … “Medieval institutions and god-like technology”. That’s our situation, yeah. And we really have to handle that.

SPIEGEL: How?

Wilson: So often it happens that we don’t know how, also in situations of public policy and governance, because we don’t have enough understanding of human nature. We simply haven’t looked at human nature in the best way that science might provide. I think what we need is a new Enlightenment. During the 18th century, when the original Enlightenment took place, science wasn’t up to the job. But I think science is now up to the job. We need to be harnessing our scientific knowledge now to get a better, science-based self-understanding.

SPIEGEL: It seems that, in this process, you would like to throw religions overboard altogether?

Wilson: No. That’s a misunderstanding. I don’t want to see the Catholic Church with all of its magnificent art and rituals and music disappear. I just want to have them give up their creation stories, including especially the resurrection of Christ.

SPIEGEL: That might well be a futile endeavour …

Wilson: There was this American physiologist who was asked if Mary’s bodily ascent from Earth to Heaven was possible. He said, “I wasn’t there; therefore, I’m not positive that it happened or didn’t happen; but of one thing I’m certain: She passed out at 10,000 meters.” That’s where science comes in. Seriously, I think we’re better off with no creation stories.

SPIEGEL: With this new Enlightenment, will we reach a higher state of humanity?

Wilson: Do we really want to improve ourselves? Humans are a very young species, in geologic terms, and that’s probably why we’re such a mess. We’re still living with all this aggression and ability to go to war. But do we really want to change ourselves? We’re right on the edge of an era of being able to actually alter the human genome. But do we want that? Do we want to create a race that’s more rational and free of many of these emotions? My response is no, because the only thing that distinguishes us from super-intelligent robots are our imperfect, sloppy, maybe even dangerous emotions. They are what makes us human.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Wilson, we thank you for this conversation.

Interview conducted by Philip Bethge and Johann Grolle

The Destruction of Conscience in the National Academy of Sciences (Counter Punch)

FEBRUARY 26, 2013

An Interview With Marshall Sahlins

by DAVID H. PRICE

Last Friday, esteemed University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins formally resigned from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the United States’ most prestigious scientific society.

Sahlins states that he resigned because of his “objections to the election of [Napoleon] Chagnon, and to the military research projects of the Academy.” Sahlins was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1991.  He issued the below statement explaining his resignation:

“By the evidence of his own writings as well as the testimony of others, including Amazonian peoples and professional scholars of the region, Chagnon has done serious harm to the indigenous communities among whom he did research.  At the same time, his “scientific” claims about human evolution and the genetic selection for male violence–as in the notorious study he published in 1988 in Science–have proven to be shallow and baseless, much to the discredit of the anthropological discipline. At best, his election to the NAS was a large moral and intellectual blunder on the part of members of the Academy. So much so that my own participation in the Academy has become an embarrassment.

Nor do I wish to be a party to the aid, comfort, and support the NAS is giving to social science research on improving the combat performance of the US military, given the toll that military has taken on the blood, treasure, and happiness of American people, and the suffering it has imposed on other peoples in the unnecessary wars of this century.  I believe that the NAS, if it involves itself at all in related research, should be studying how to promote peace, not how to make war.”

Napoleon Chagnon rose to fame after his fieldwork among the Yanomami (also known as Yanomamo) in the rainforests of northeastern South America’s Orinoco Basin in the 1960s and 70s.  He wrote a bestselling ethnography used in introductory anthropology classes around the world, describing the Yanomami as “the fierce people” because of the high levels of intra- and inter-group warfare observed during his fieldwork, warfare that he would describe as innate and as representing humankind in some sort of imagined natural state.

Chagnon, is currently basking in the limelight of a national book tour, pitching a memoir (Nobel Savages) in which he castes the bulk of American anthropologists as soft-skulled anti-science postmodern cretins embroiled in a war against science.

The truth is that outside of the distortion field of the New York Times and a few other media vortexesthere is no “science war” raging in anthropology.  Instead the widespread rejection of Chagnon’s work among many anthropologists has everything to do with the low quality of his research.  On his blog, Anthropomics, anthropologist Jon Marks recently described Chagnon as an “incompetent anthropologist,” adding:

“Let me be clear about my use of the word “incompetent”.  His methods for collecting, analyzing and interpreting his data are outside the range of acceptable anthropological practices.  Yes, he saw the Yanomamo doing nasty things.  But when he concluded from his observations that the Yanomamo are innately and primordially “fierce”  he lost his anthropological credibility, because he had not demonstrated any such thing.   He has a right to his views, as creationists and racists have a right to theirs, but the evidence does not support the conclusion, which makes it scientifically incompetent.”

The widely shared rejection of Chagnon’s interpretations among anthropologists comes from the shoddy quality of his work and the sociobiological nature of his analysis, not with an opposition to science.

Among Chagnon’s most dogged critics was my dissertation chair, anthropologist Marvin Harris, himself an arch positivist and a staunch advocate of the scientific method, yet Harris rejected Chagnon and his sociobiological findings in fierce academic debates that lasted for decades, not because Harris was anti-science, but because Chagnon was a bad scientist (I should note that Harris and Sahlins also famously feuded over fundamental theoretical differences; yet both shared common ground objecting to the militarization of the discipline, and rejecting Chagnon’s sociobiological work).

I suppose if there really were battles within anthropology between imagined camps embracing and rejecting science, I would be about as firmly in the camp of science as anyone; but if such divisions actually existed, I would be no closer to accepting the validity and reliability (the hallmarks of good science) of Chagnon’s findings than those imagined to reject the foundations of science.

In 2000, there was of course a huge painful crisis within the American Anthropological Association following the publication of Patrick Tierney’s book Darkness in El Dorado, in which numerous accusations of exploitation (and worse) were leveled against Chagnon and other anthropologists working with the Yanomami (see Barbara Rose Johnston’s essay on the José Padilha’s film, Secrets of the Tribe). Without detailing all the twists and turns involved in establishing  the wreckage of Chagnon and the paucity of his claims, suffice it to say that the choice of offering one of the select seats in the National Academy of Sciences’ Section 51 to Dr. Chagnon is an affront to a broad range of anthropologists, be they self-identified as scientists or not.

Marshall Sahlins’ resignation is an heroic stand against the subversion of science to those claiming an innate nature of human violence, and a stand opposing the increasing militarization of science.  While Sahlins’ credentials as an activist opposing the militarization of knowledge are well established—he is widely recognized as the creator of the “teach-in,” organizing the February 1965 University of Michigan teach-in—it still must have been difficult for him to resign this prestigious position.

In late 1965 Sahlins traveled to Vietnam to learn firsthand about the war and the Americans fighting it, work that resulted in his seminal essay “The Destruction of Conscience in Vietnam.”   He became one of the clearest and most forceful anthropological voices speaking out against efforts (in the 1960s and 70s, and in again in post-9/11 America) to militarize anthropology.

In 2009 I was part of a conference at the University of Chicago critically examining renewed efforts by U.S. military and intelligence agencies to use anthropological data for counterinsurgency projects.  Sahlins’ paper at the conference argued that, “in Vietnam, the famous anti-insurgency strategy was search and destroy; here it is research and destroy.  One might think it good news that the military’s appropriation of anthropological theory is incoherent, simplistic and outmoded – not to mention tedious – even as its ethnographic protocols for learning the local society and culture amount to unworkable fantasies. ”

Yesterday, Sahlins sent me an email that had been circulated to NAS Section 51 (Anthropology) members, announcing two new “consensus projects” under sponsorship of the Army Research Institute.  The first project examined “The Context of Military Environments: Social and Organizational Factors,”  the second, “Measuring Human Capabilities: Performance Potential of Individuals and Collectives.”   Reading the announcement of these projects forwarded by Sahlins, it is apparent that the military wants the help of social scientists who can streamline military operations, using social science and social engineering to enable interchangeable units of people working on military projects to smoothly interface.  This seems to be increasingly becoming the role Americans see for anthropologists and other social scientists: that of military facilitator.

Below is the exchange, I had with Sahlins yesterday discussing his resignation, Chagnon’s election to the National Academy of Sciences, and the Academy’s links to military projects.

Price:  How has Chagnon so successfully turned numerous attacks on his ethically troubling research and scientifically questionable methods and findings into what is widely seen as an attack on science itself?

Sahlins: There has been no address of the issues on Chagnon’s part, notably of the criticism of his supposed empirical results, as in the 1988 Science article, and the numerous criticisms from Amazonian anthropologists of his shallow ethnography and villainously distorted portrayal of Yanomami.  These Cro-Chagnon scientists simply refuse to discuss the facts of the ethnographic case.  Instead they issue ad hominem attacks–before it was against the Marxists, now it is the ‘fuzzy-headed humanists.’ Meanwhile they try to make it an ideological anti-science persecution–again ironically as a diversion from discussing the empirical findings.  Meanwhile the serious harm, bodily and emotionally, inflicted on the Yanomami, plus the reckless instigation of war by his field methods, are completely ignored in the name of science. Research and destroy, as I called the method. A total moral copout.

Price: Most of the publicity surrounding your resignation from the National Academy of Sciences focuses either exclusively on Napoleon Chagnon’s election to the Association, or on the supposed “science wars” in anthropology, while little media attention has focused on your statements opposing the NAS’s increasing links to military projects.   What were the reactions within NAS Section 51 to the October 2012 call to members of the Academy to conduct research aimed at improving the military’s mission effectiveness?

Sahlins: The National Association of Science would not itself do the war research. It would rather enlist recruits from its sections–as in the section 51 memos–and probably thus participate in the vetting of reports before publication.  The National Research Council organizes the actual research, obviously in collaboration with the NAS. Here is another tentacle of the militarization of anthropology and other social sciences, of which the Human Terrain Systems is a familiar example. This one as insidious as it is perfidious.

Price: Was there any internal dialogue between members of NAS Section 51 when these calls for these new Army Research Institute funded projects were issued?

Sahlins: I was not privy to any correspondence, whether to the Section officers or between the fellows, if there was any–which I don’t know.

Price: What, if any reaction have you had from other NAS members?

Sahlins: Virtually none. One said I was always opposed to sociobiology

Price: To combine themes embedded in Chagnon’s claims of human nature, and the National Academy of Sciences supporting to social science for American military projects; can you comment on the role of science and scientific societies in a culture as centrally dominated by military culture as ours?

Sahlins: There is a paragraph or two in my pamphlet on The Western Illusion of Human Nature, of which I have no copy on hand, which cites Rumsfeld to the effect (paraphrasing Full Metal Jacket) that inside every Middle eastern Muslim there’s an American ready to come out, a self-interested freedom loving American, and we just have to force it out or force out the demons who are perpetrating other ideas [see page 42 of Sahlins; The Western Illusions of Human Nature].  Isn’t American global policy, especially neo-con policy, based on the confusion of capitalist greed and human nature? Just got to liberate them from their mistaken, externally imposed ideologies. For the alternative see the above mentioned pamphlet on the one true universal, kinship, and the little book I published last month: What Kinship Is–And Is Not.

Price: You mention a desire to shift funding streams from those offering military support, to those supporting peace.  Do you have any insight on how we can work to achieve this shift?

Sahlins:  I have not thought about it, probably because the idea that the National Academy of Sciences would so such a thing is essentially unthinkable today.

There is a rising international response supporting Sahlins’ stance.  Marshall shared with me a message he received form Professor, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, of the National Museum, Rio de Janeiro, in which de Castro wrote,

“Chagnon’s writings on the Yanomami of Amazonia have contributed powerfully to reinforce the worst prejudices against this indigenous people, who certainly do not need the kind of stereotyping pseudo-scientific anthropology Chagnon has chosen to pursue at their cost. The Yanomami are anything but the nasty, callous sociobiological robots Chagnon makes them look – projecting, in all likelihood, his perception of his own society (or personality) onto the Yanomami. They are an indigenous people who have managed, against all odds, to survive in their traditional ways in an Amazonia increasingly threatened by social and environmental destruction. Their culture is original, robust and inventive; their society is infinitely less “violent” than Brazilian or American societies.

Virtually all anthropologists who have worked with the Yanomami, many of them with far larger field experience with this people than Chagnon, find his research methods objectionable (to put it mildly) and his ethnographic characterizations fantastic. Chagnon’s election to the NAS does not do honor to American science nor to anthropology as a discipline, and it also bodes ill to the Yanomami. As far as I am concerned, I deem Chagnon an enemy of Amazonian Indians. I can only thank Prof. Sahlins for his courageous and firm position in support of the Yanomami and of anthropological science.”

We are left to wonder what is to become of science, whether practiced with a capital (at times blind) “S” or a lower case inquisitive variety, when those questioning some its practices, misapplications and outcomes are increasingly marginalized, while those whose findings align with our broader cultural values of warfare are embraced.  The NAS’s rallying around such a divisive figure as Chagnon, demonizing his critics, claiming they are attacking not his practices and theories, but science itself damages the credibility of these scientists.  It is unfortunate that the National Academy of Sciences has backed itself into this corner.

The dynamics of such divisiveness are not unique to this small segment of the scientific community. In his 1966 essay on, “The Destruction of Conscience in Vietnam,” Sahlins argued that to continue wage the war, America had to destroy its own conscience—that facing those destroyed by our actions was too much for the nation to otherwise bare, writing: “Conscience must be destroyed: it has to end at the barrel of a gun, it cannot extend to the bullet.  So all peripheral rationales fade into the background.  It becomes a war of transcendent purpose, and in such a war all efforts on the side of Good are virtuous, and all deaths unfortunate necessary.  The end justifies the means.”

It is a tragic state of affairs when good people of conscience see the only acceptable act before them to be that of resignation; but sometimes the choice of disassociation is the strongest statement one can courageously make.

David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.