Arquivo da tag: Antropologia

Do the world’s ‘uncontacted’ tribes deserve to be left alone? (Washington Post)

 July 23, 2015

Members of the Mashco Piro tribe observe a group of travelers from across the Alto Madre de Dios river in the Manu National Park in the Amazon basin of southeastern Peru, as photographed through a bird scope in this file picture from Oct. 21, 2011.  (REUTERS/Jean-Paul Van Belle)

For the first time, anthropologists working for the Peruvian government will attempt to make contact with members of a remote tribe living in the Amazon jungle. The move follows growing concerns about the behavior of the Mascho Piro people, which has included attacks and raids on neighboring communities.

South America, and in particular the vast Amazon region, is home to some of the world’s last remaining “uncontacted” tribes — indigenous communities that, for whatever reason, have managed to exist almost entirely outside the purview of the nation-states in which they technically live. Experts fear a whole slew of risks that may follow should these tribes come into full contact with the outside world, from exploitation by rapacious mining and logging companies to the devastating transfer of pathogens to which they have no immunity.

In recent decades, some governments have taken a protective stance, working to shield these communities from outside contact mostly because of the health risks involved. After all, some estimates suggest contact with outside diseases killed up to 100 million indigenous people following the European arrival in the Americas.

Peru bars contact with about a dozen “uncontacted” Amazonian tribes living within its borders, a positive departure from an earlier time when the government would not even recognize their existence. Brazil has its own federal agency responsible for indigenous peoples. In 2011, it allowed cameras to document unprecedented aerial footage of its observations over the jungle.

Rights groups and activists have long campaigned in the defense and protection of indigenous lands in the Amazon, fighting against the predatory interests of oil companies as well as a tragic history of violence that saw tribal peoples victim to generations of settlers, loggers, and traffickers.

Survival International, which campaigns for the rights of tribal and indigenous communities worldwide, says that Peru and Brazil are not doing enough to safeguard these “uncontacted” tribes. Last year, the organization warned against tourists carrying out “human safaris” near Mascho Piro land.

Jeffrey Kluger, Time magazine’s science editor, recently recounted a study in Science magazine that detailed the challenges and ethics of how to treat “uncontacted” tribes. This included this chilling anecdote of how vulnerable some of these tribes are to outside contact:

Goods that go from body to body should be entirely off-limits. [Journalist Andrew] Lawler spoke to Peruvian villager Marcel Pinedo Cecilio, 69, who was born in the forest but later emerged. Cecilio recalls his first contact with an outsider—thought to have been an ethnographer and photographer—who left the villagers with a gift of a fishbone necklace. Shortly thereafter, much of the tribe came down with a sore throat and fever and 200 of them died. In the 1980s, up to 400 Peruvian villagers died from passing contact with crews of Shell oil company workers.

As a result, the current investigation into the Mashco Piro tribe in Peru has earned its concerned critics.

“Authorities should restrict boat transit and keep people from approaching,” Klaus Quicque, president of FENAMAD, a regional indigenous federation in Peru, told Reuters.

The urgency of the contact was spurred by an incident in May, when some members of the tribe attacked another local community, killing  a young man with an arrow. The officials enlisted to make contact will engage the tribe through interpreters who speak the Yine language, which they believe shares similarities to the tongue spoken by the Mashco Piro people.

In 2013, the Mashco Piro earned global attention when dozens of members of the tribe appeared on the banks of Amazonian tributary near a small Yine town, and demanded rope, machetes and bananas. FENAMAD rangers stationed there dissuaded them from crossing the river, but the standoff was tense, with some of the men from the tribe carrying bows and long wooden lances.

Nearby villagers, Christian missionaries and the occasional tourist have all reported meeting Mashco Piro people.

“We can no longer pretend they aren’t trying to make some sort of contact,” Luis Felipe Torres, a Peruvian official working on state tribal affairs, told Reuters. “They have a right to that, too.”

Experts say the phrase “uncontacted” is something of a misnomer, given that all communities on the planet are aware of their neighbors and have some sense of the wider world outside their homes.

“People have this romanticized view that isolated tribes have chosen to keep away from the modern, evil world,” said Kim Hill, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, in an interview with the BBC last year. But that’s rarely the case.

“There is no such thing as a group that remains in isolation because they think it’s cool to not have contact with anyone else on the planet,” said Hill.

Writing in Science magazine last month, Hill and colleague Robert Walker reiterated this point, suggesting that many of South America’s “uncontacted” communities had “chosen isolation out of fear of being killed or enslaved” and that, like most human beings living in constrained circumstances, “they also wanted outside goods and innovations and positive social interactions with neighbors.”

The academics suggested the best path forward is a policy of “controlled contact” with these communities, carefully managed to avoid the spread of disease, but also enable the building of trust and providing aid and medical help if needed. The current Peruvian mission may serve a test case for this sort of endeavor.

 VIDEO: Peru’s Amazon evacuated due to threat of attack (1:24) – Communities from Peruvian Amazon are evacuated amid fears of attacks from isolated indigenous tribes. (Reuters)

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Damning Revelations Prompt Social Science to Rethink Its Ties to the Military (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

July 15, 2015

By Paul Voosen

Subject. Patron. Source. Siren.

For social scientists, the state can play many roles. As long as researchers have studied humanity and the systems we create, they have struggled to define their relationship with power. And in the United States, since World War II, that tension has centered especially on the military and its spy agencies.

The dangers of that relationship came into high relief late last week, with the release of a report detailing how the American Psychological Association, a century-old scholarly group, had colluded with the U.S. military to shield practitioners of torture a decade ago. The report painted a small group of leaders as beholden to its military patrons, eager to “curry favor,” whatever the long-term cost.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Joy Rohde, a historian at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who studies government and its relations with social science. Yes, personal coordination happens. Yes, orchestrated decisions happen. “What is so shocking in this case,” she said, “is that you’ve got all of these things combined, and they’re so systemic.”

This should put researchers on notice, added David N. Gibbs, a history professor at the University of Arizona who studies the CIA’s influence on academe. The surge of financing that attended, especially, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might be alluring, but it can come with a cost.

“I’d like to hope that this would be a wake-up call about the dangers of collaboration with intelligence services,” he said.

The APA’s misdeeds join a list of controversial interactions between social scientists and the military since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the wars that followed. Most notably, they include: the Pentagon’s Human Terrain System, recently ended, which saw anthropologists deployed in war zones to study the local population; the Minerva Research Initiative, a grant program for university social scientists to study regions of strategic importance to the United States; and the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program, which finances the education of future spies.

But while those programs have provided rallying points for protest, they are only the most visible manifestations of the deep ties between social scientists and the government. It’s a relationship that has been collaborative, confrontational, or often both at the same time. But at its base, it balances on a simple tension: Modern democracy believes that good policy should rest on expert knowledge. But how can that knowledge be conveyed, and employed, without biasing researchers or undermining democracy?

It’s not an easy question, though researchers sometimes attempt easy answers. University professors are a cosmopolitan, polyglot group, often suspicious of the exercise of U.S. military might. Debates turn political and ideological, resorting to metaphors of cancer, rather than remaining on ethics, said Ron Robin, a historian and senior vice provost for global faculty development at New York University.

“I don’t think that ties with government necessarily corrupt,” Mr. Robin said. “They can corrupt.”

Risks attend the fallout from the APA report, added Joseph S. Nye, a former dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

“If you have academics saying, ‘Don’t do anything with the government, keep it at arm’s length,’ you won’t have that kind of scandal,” he said. “You will have something else instead.”

Psychology’s Allure

The Cold War ushered the social sciences into the national-security world. Bolstered by the Popperian view that neither democracy nor science was possible without the other, academics shuttled down from Cambridge or Princeton for two decades, advising the Defense Department or CIA on their operations. In 1956 the U.S. Army opened its Special Operations Research Office on the campus of American University. The patronage helped legitimate social science within the academy, making it less a junior partner to the “hard” sciences: By 1961 a physicist told Robert McNamara, the defense secretary, that World War III, if it came, “might well have to be considered the social scientists’ war.”

Psychology presented a particular allure to the military. Most prominently, given the nature of war, the military has a vast need for the services of the discipline’s practitioners in caring for its troops, a truism that has grown only stronger over time. But beyond that, nearly every aspect of psychologists’ remit could be seen through the lens of war: Motivation. Communication. Belief. By 1964 the Defense Department was investing $31 million in psychological research.

“It’s stunning, the array of research and advice sought from psychologists by the military and intelligence agencies,” said Mark Solovey, an assistant professor of history at the University of Toronto who studies Cold War social science.

This best-and-brightest consensus wouldn’t last. Auguring the conflict was Project Camelot, a military-financed study of why revolutions occur that would have been the most expensive social-science project of its day, including fieldwork from Bolivia to Nigeria. It included more than 30 academic consultants, and its work would not be classified. But in 1965, after American involvement in Vietnam increased, countries began to protest Camelot researchers’ appearing on their shores. The project became a controversial flash point and was ultimately canceled.

“We got a black eye out of that,” said Neil J. Smelser, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley who was one of Camelot’s consultants.

It was the start of academic social scientists’ turn away from the military. In 1969, American University kicked the Army off its campus. By the mid-1970s the Church Committee’s investigation of the intelligence agencies seemed to seal off the idea of collaboration for good.

But as Ms. Rohde’s research has shown, the government was already sold on social science. It hired researchers in droves, and began to rely on a network of independent research centers dependent on their federal patrons. The backlash, in effect, helped push research underground. And those same centers remain primary feeders of social science to this day.

“They’re still there,” Ms. Rohde said. “And with the war on terror, we’ve seen those same group of people orient their research in that direction.”

Hidden Relationships

In many ways the relationship between social scientists and the military and intelligence world remains a hidden affair. An unknown number of academics consult with federal security agencies on the side. Universities and disciplines differ on their policies allowing such classified contract work. Anthropology tends to look askance at such work, while political scientists are more sanguine about it, Ms. Rohde said.

“As far as I can tell, it’s very broad spread,” said Mr. Gibbs, who opposes such work. He knows people on his campus who have done it. “It’s not something that seems to cause significant damage to your career,” he said.

Working with the intelligence services demands that academics hold themselves to strict ethical codes, added Mr. Nye. Under his watch, the Kennedy School saw educating CIA officials as part of its work, but they were treated like any other student, he said. Most important, that meant no classified material could be discussed.

“To keep the ability to speak openly and freely about research or ideas, we can’t deal with classified information,” he said.

There’s no telling if the more visible engagement with the social sciences that the military and intelligence world have pursued will remain. Such efforts tend to wax and wane against the backdrop of the agencies’ own internal needs for expertise. The federal-budget sequester hit defense financing for social science hard, and several champions, including Robert Gates and David Petraeus, are now long out of government.

“More than anything, the Defense Department has moved on,” Ms. Rohde said. “The kind of intellectual systems they were trying to build — let’s say the rhetoric far outstripped the capacity.”

As for the APA? If it continues to exist, it will have a tough road to climb to prove its continued independence from the military, Ms. Rohde added. “This report should lead any expert community with close ties to national-security agencies or powerful state actors to question the extent they can rely on their expert community to make independent decisions.”

Psychology, added Mr. Solovey, has to ask hard questions about its principles, foremost among them: “Have psychologists become hired guns to do whatever agencies want to do for some price?”

There was another way the APA could have gone, perhaps best seen in the American Anthropological Association, whose members, beginning in 2006, spent several years debating military collaboration, with advocates for and against such work included in a commission. It was a grass-roots effort, and while far from perfect, anthropologists found ways to talk, said David H. Price, a professor of anthropology and sociology at Saint Martin’s University who participated in the effort.

The result was guidelines that weren’t about “good agency, bad agency,” Mr. Price said. They were about good practice, bad practice — opposing secrecy, doing no harm. It was that later point that led the association to condemn the Army’s Human Terrain System.

Of course, such a stand carries costs. As last week’s report makes clear, in 2006, the APA was following the anthropology debates while mulling a proposal that it should base its guidelines on international human-rights standards. The head of psychological operations for the U.S. Army Special Operations Command warned against such a move. If they did so, he warned, “we run the risk of becoming as impotent as anthropology.”

Paul Voosen is a senior reporter covering the sciences. Write him at paul.voosen@chronicle.com; follow him on Twitter @voooos; or see past work at voosen.me.

The Seven Deadly Sins of the Human Terrain System: An Insider’s Perspective (Geopoliticus: The FPRI Blog)

JFQ 78 | Turnaround: The Untold Story of the Human Terrain System (National Defense University Press)

By Clifton Green | July 01, 2015

The U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS), a program that embedded social scientists with deployed units, endured a rough start as it began deploying teams to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007.1 These early experiences had a lasting impact on the program. Although critics have written extensively about HTS struggles with internal mismanagement, most accounts simply cataloged problems, yielded little insight into the organization’s progress over time, and ultimately gave the impression that HTS was never able to make needed corrections. Far from being a failure, though, HTS is a remarkable turnaround story and should serve as a case study for how organizations can implement fundamental organizational changes. Even more importantly, the reformed version of HTS provides a template that could significantly improve existing Department of Defense (DOD) support to deployed civilians, thousands of whom have provided critical services to war-fighters around the globe.

Civilian Expeditionary Workforce member engages local business owner in discussion regarding poultry feed production, Kandahar Province (Kentucky National Guard/Dallas Kratzer)

Civilian Expeditionary Workforce member engages local business owner in discussion regarding poultry feed production, Kandahar Province (Kentucky National Guard/Dallas Kratzer)

History

Inception to Government Transition. HTS was developed as a response to concerns about mismanagement of U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular the lack of cultural understanding of these countries demonstrated by the U.S. military. Soldiers, commanded by leaders with limited cross-cultural experience, were being asked to navigate a complex foreign environment with little or no training, and they were failing.

Prior to U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, cultural research and analysis had only a small place in the Army thought process. HTS changed that. Designed to provide a better understanding of indigenous populations in these countries, it was hoped that HTS would help U.S. and allied forces reduce violent misunderstandings and dampen the insurgencies. In 2006, the Army, facing progressively worsening situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, needed new ideas and thus backed a $20 million, five-team HTS proof of concept. Even before all five teams had been deployed, early reactions from theater commanders were favorable. Within a year, the requirement for Human Terrain Teams mushroomed to 26 teams as the price tag surpassed $100 million annually.

In the mad dash to fill positions, HTS hiring standards ranged from minimal to nonexistent. In many cases, new employees were not even interviewed. When combined with high starting salaries, this lack of selectivity caused HTS to attract a peculiar mix of highly qualified personnel, absolutely unqualified personnel, and everyone in between.

As the number of workers swelled at the HTS base of operations in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, two distinct camps emerged. Army Reservists, with varying levels of military experience, formed one group, while contractors formed another. Although it is contractors who typically play a supporting role to government and military personnel, in the early days of HTS it was the military members who lacked a clearly defined role. The vast majority of deployed team members and support staff were contractors, while HTS acquired Reservists with no plan to integrate them. In some cases, military personnel battled the contractors for control, but the HTS support contract required that contractors administer most daily operations. This difficult situation was exacerbated by the fact that HTS’s program manager and its contract oversight were both based a thousand miles away in Virginia.

To deal with these problems and provide better government oversight, a deputy program manager was appointed at Fort Leavenworth in late 2008. His role was to oversee the work of both contractors and military personnel. It was a difficult task. HTS’s highly matrixed organization, internal rivalries, and lack of controls had created a dysfunctional work environment, which operated in an ad hoc manner in almost every way. Policies and procedures were virtually nonexistent, and most work was done by key employees with narrow areas of expertise. Mid- to senior-level managers were, in too many cases, absent or ineffective.

Some HTS managers who did work hard to address the program’s problems were overwhelmed. When decisions were made, they were often inadequate to resolve the problem or simply too late to matter, and the staff required to implement the decisions was insufficient. Such problems were largely due to management officials who had difficulty navigating the unstructured work environment. Instead of establishing systems and frameworks to deal with problems, managers generally approached each problem as a unique circumstance. At the same time, the lack of structure enabled many employees to perform poorly and face few consequences. Without structure to regulate behavior, HTS employees often succumbed to a kind of organizational attention deficit disorder. This combination of factors created serious deficiencies for HTS quality of support.2

In late 2008, these problems were compounded by a new looming crisis. The United States and Iraq had signed a Status of Forces Agreement that put U.S. contractors working in Iraq within the jurisdiction of the Iraqi legal system. Panicked that Iraqi police (or insurgents masquerading as Iraqi police) might arrest employees, HTS initiated a plan to convert all 150 Human Terrain Team (HTT) members from contractors to government employees. To facilitate the process, a government transition assistant was assigned to manage the conversion from Fort Monroe, Virginia, with HTS designating several personnel to assist. All HTS team members had to become government employees by May 31, 2009, or return to the United States.

The conversion, which seemed simple in the abstract, quickly became a nightmare. HTS employees, a notoriously vocal workforce, were bewildered by the turn of events. They deluged the transition assistant with thousands of questions, complaints, and pages of paperwork, and productivity in theater declined while employees wondered about their futures and haggled for better terms. At the same time, numerous other issues, from travel orders to timesheets, required HTS to establish a large number of new internal processes. Like HTS managers, the transition assistant had no system to handle the volume and was quickly overwhelmed. As the situation deteriorated, it was unclear whether the deadline could be met, or if HTS would be forced to embarrassingly remove all personnel from theater.

Fortunately, through furious last-minute efforts by HTS and U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) staff members, the conversion process was completed on time. However, tremendous damage had already been done to HTS credibility, and dozens of employees (over one-third of the HTS deployed workforce) had quit. Bureaucratic infighting caused several staff principles, including the deputy program manager, to depart in mid-2009, and a large portion of the organization was suddenly moved from Fort Leavenworth to Virginia. Although HTS had survived the crisis, many inside and outside of the program began to question HTS’s fundamental level of competence.

Wandering in the Wilderness. After the conversion debacle, HTS drifted. The decision to relocate several sections of the organization caused further division. At the same time, the lack of strong management limited the organization’s ability to make necessary changes. Competing HTS staff elements struggled to fill the vacuum, resulting in a critical lost year.

In the middle of the conversion process, the HTS program manager created a Program Management Office–Forward (PMO-Forward) in both Iraq and Afghanistan in response to real problems, including the lost accountability of employees in a war zone. The role of the PMO-Forwards, however, was never clearly established, and HTS staff members generally viewed the PMO-Forwards as deployed staff elements. The PMO-Forwards, by contrast, considered themselves deputy program managers. Mutual mistrust inhibited collaboration, and a months-long standoff ensued. In spite of the need for internal cooperation, HTS program management never publicized or enforced clear guidelines for how the PMO-Forwards should interact with the staff. Staff meetings between PMO-Forwards and U.S.-based support staff devolved into uncomfortable stalemates. The ensuing discord severely restricted HTS capacity to improve support processes and fed into the HTS culture of dysfunction.

Human Terrain System member speaks with Afghan during Key Leader Engagement in Kandahar Province to discourage locals from hiding contraband for Taliban (DOD/Crystal Davis)

Human Terrain System member speaks with Afghan during Key Leader Engagement in Kandahar Province to discourage locals from hiding contraband for Taliban (DOD/Crystal Davis)

Once teams were staffed with government employees, HTS found itself poorly equipped to meet the needs of its workforce. Contractor-to-government transition planning had been exclusively focused on the conversion process; little preparation had been made for actually supporting government civilians. As contractors, HTS personnel had been supported by corporate human resource (HR) and finance sections, but now those organizations were out of the picture. While regulations and support agencies already existed for government civilian HR and finance issues, those agencies were unequipped to deal with the range and complexity of issues presented by HTS employees.

HTS needed experts to create processes and integrate systems. Lacking both, the newly formed HTS HR Directorate was drowning in problems. For instance, the HTS finance section was staffed by one timekeeper, a Soldier with no background in civilian finance. The lack of support caused the number of pay problems to snowball over time, damaging morale and productivity. Meanwhile, employees in theater had received virtually no training on proper pay practices and would regularly claim to be working in excess of 12 hours per day, 7 days a week. This led to real integrity problems for the organization. While the tempo of operations in theater was certainly high, reports suggested that not everyone was being truthful on their timecards. One team leader did implement significant restrictions on the number of hours employees could claim and was immediately hounded from theater—“fired” by a PMO-Forward who had no legal authority to fire anyone. With no one controlling payroll and a generally lawless atmosphere, team productivity was highly variable. Unfortunately, there is little doubt that some HTS employees took advantage of the situation to pad their timecards while doing little work (a practice that was regrettably common among deployed Federal workers in Iraq and Afghanistan, not just at HTS).3

HTS was simply not operating in accordance with established rules. However, with the government transition complete, it had inherited a rather large rulebook. At the same time, HTS often lacked clear lines of authority within its mix of military, civilian, and contract workers, all of whom were led by a program manager who served on an Intergovernmental Personnel Act agreement, an unusual employment arrangement that further confused matters. The lack of administrative clarity created an overall impression that HTS had no rules, and large numbers of disgruntled HTS employees soon found their way to the inspector general, various elected representatives, and Equal Employment Opportunity offices. Between late 2009 and early 2010, Congress had withheld tens of millions of dollars from the HTS budget and had directed the Center for Naval Analyses to perform an assessment of the program. Other investigations, including an Army Regulation 15-6 inquiry and an internal audit by the TRADOC Internal Review and Audit Compliance office, were bubbling up as well. HTS’s flaws had become impossible to ignore.

Reform. Virtually every HTS employee acknowledged the need for change. The real question was what shape reform would take. Many wanted the program to simply break away from the intrusive rules and regulations, and believed that most problems could be solved if HTS left TRADOC, which they viewed as both unhelpful and adversarial, and moved to U.S. Army Forces Command or U.S. Special Operations Command. Others thought this analysis missed the point. In their view, HTS would have to adapt to the Army and to civilian employment law regardless of which command it fell under. Resistance was not only futile but also destructive and would only cripple the program. HTS would have to learn how to follow the rules.

This conflict had remained unresolved for most of the program’s history. The HTS program manager had often made a point of emphasizing the program’s uniqueness and claimed that this made HTS incompatible with the Army’s existing bureaucracy. TRADOC, which provided oversight of HTS activities, represented that bureaucracy, and as a result was often perceived as an existential threat and met with hostility within HTS. This animosity was at times mutual. Many viewed HTS fiscal wastefulness and poor internal regulation as something of a threat as well, since it would be TRADOC—not the HTS itinerant workforce—that would be left to clean up after HTS failures. TRADOC managers also found HTS’s grandiose plans, such as a training directorate with more staff than students, to be exasperating. These conflicting perspectives caused the relationship between the two organizations to sour over time, and TRADOC found itself confronted daily with the question of how much leeway to give HTS. With the United States engaged in two concurrent wars, there was no easy answer.

Nevertheless, several abortive efforts to clean up aspects of the program from within had taken place. Unfortunately, each had been hindered by a lack of expertise or a failure to follow through. While HTS had a large staff, most staff members were unaware of the mechanics of how the program functioned. The few “old hands” who understood the nuts and bolts of HTS typically tried to fly under the radar amid staff infighting. When ideas did coalesce into concrete proposals, HTS staff principals were generally unable to implement changes due to being overwhelmed by problems and uncertain of the second- and third-order effects of any proposed solution. HTS program management had done little to encourage organizational discipline of any kind. This created an environment largely free of formal consequences, such as reprimands or terminations, even in the face of egregious behavior. To become more legally compliant and effective, HTS would need to irritate many of its longtime employees, who had become accustomed to the consequence-free environment. Taking them on, however, risked pushback from both employees and other managers, so most managers found it safer to do nothing.

Because HTS was overseen by TRADOC G2 and had, over the course of several years, proved unable to effectively self-manage, TRADOC gradually took on a more active role. Unfortunately, the logistics of this relationship were problematic. Most of HTS was physically remote from the TRADOC G2 offices. TRADOC G2 lacked experience overseeing a program such as HTS, and it had both limited access to what was going on within the program and limited manpower. Additionally, HTS sometimes attempted to replicate TRADOC management functions within itself, creating confusion and making cooperation difficult. These factors prevented TRADOC G2 from being able to implement reforms unless HTS was an active and engaged participant. Unfortunately, because HTS leadership generally viewed TRADOC with suspicion, there was little in the way of productive dialogue.

In early 2010, a small group of HTS personnel and TRADOC G2 management officials operating out of Fort Monroe, Virginia, began intensive work on overhauling the program’s administration. The group had detailed insight into the workings of HTS and significant expertise in civilian HR and finance. Over the next few months, a number of policies covering a range of issues were drafted and sent to HTS program management for review. At the same time, the group received additional manpower and was able to improve payroll processing, eliminating a backlog of over 80 pay-related complaints that affected most deployed employees. Unfortunately, implementation of other policy changes was limited. Although the proposals provided a clear and legally compliant model for managing the program, they remained in limbo, neither approved nor rejected. The HTS program manager was simply not enthusiastic about institutionalizing the program.4

By mid-June 2010, the pressure of the investigations and HTS management’s continuing resistance to reform brought the situation to a breaking point. Two key changes, however, appeared to signal a fresh start for the program. First, the position of program manager was eliminated. Second, an Active-duty Army colonel, who had previously served as the TRADOC Deputy G2 and was thus familiar with the HTS program and its difficulties, was named director. The new director had longstanding and positive relationships with TRADOC G2 staff members and thus understood how to balance the considerations of TRADOC with the goals of HTS. Most importantly, she was more pragmatic than her predecessor, who had generally declined to focus on day-to-day management issues.

Anxious to implement change, the HTS director gave the green light to a number of the policies drafted by the Fort Monroe group. The group also gained authority and leadership support in a number of significant areas, including program administration, program development, payroll, travel, hiring, and separations. These changes significantly improved efficiency, transparency, regulatory compliance, and internal controls. New guidance documents eventually covered dozens of topics, and improved internal processes gave managers better insight into how well HTS was running. In addition, new HTS policies established a change management structure that allowed the program to continue to improve. Finally, more discipline was imposed on the hiring process, resulting in more accurate recruitment targets and 61 percent lower attrition in training.5 As positive change continued, many employees expressed relief that HTS was finally turning a corner.

Not everyone agreed, however. For example, although travel privileges had been significantly misused, some supervisors were annoyed about having to ask for permission under the new, more accountable procedures. Timesheet reviews turned up cases of excess that, when addressed, created some hostility. The PMO-Forward positions, which lacked accountability to other staff elements, were abolished and replaced with the position of Theater Support Officer, which reported to the HTS director of operations.

Afghan girl peeks around door as U.S. Special Forces and Cultural Support Team speak with her father, Uruzgan Province (DOD/Kaily Brown)

Afghan girl peeks around door as U.S. Special Forces and Cultural Support Team speak with her father, Uruzgan Province (DOD/Kaily Brown)

While process improvements occurred rapidly, improving the HTS workforce took longer. Because HTS had been willing to hire almost anyone in the early days, it had a large number of unproductive employees. Other employees were competent professionals but had a contentious relationship with the program as a result of the years of mismanagement. By 2012, however, a combination of changes had significantly improved workforce quality. These included better management, the termination of more than a dozen employees, more stringent hiring criteria, and a requirement that most employees separate from HTS at the end of their deployment. Employees wishing to deploy again could reapply just like anyone else. This not only improved workforce quality, but it also enhanced the program’s ability to fine-tune recruiting requirements. By 2013, terminations for cause had declined greatly, reflecting an increasingly stable and professional workforce.

Although HTS had made remarkable internal transformations, media coverage of the program was stuck in 2009.6 HTS’s most frequent critic, a blogger named John Stanton, had written numerous articles that reflected extensive employee disgruntlement and captured some of HTS’s chronic mismanagement.7 As things improved, however, critics either minimized or failed to notice the changes made in the program. While this may have been intentional, it seems more likely that they simply were not aware of what was happening. The HTS of 2009 was wide open to the media, a decision that did not serve the program well. To combat this, HTS post-2010 was more closed. Public relations and other outreach efforts continued, but other forms of openness diminished. At the same time, investigations into HTS’s 2009-era failures were being broadly disseminated on the Internet. Even though the program had significantly improved, HTS critics had few ways of discovering this, as they received most of their information from public sources and disgruntled employees. Given the lack of information, they assumed that little had changed.

They were wrong. HTS had, in many ways, become an example of how to do things correctly. A 2013 external review pointed out progress toward institutionalizing the program.8Subsequent internal reviews, audits, and investigations conducted during 2013 and 2014 found an effectively managed organization that complied with regulations. This was verified by a comprehensive audit conducted by the Army Audit Agency in 2014. The HTS experience offers important lessons that can shape the way DOD deploys civilians during the next conflict. It also offers broader lessons about how to improve the government’s employment practices.

Implications

Centralizing Support for Deployed Civilians. While poor management limited HTS during its early years, the program was also hindered by DOD’s ineffective civilian deployment system. The U.S. military is capable when deploying uniformed Servicemembers, but its civilian deployment process is minimal and poorly integrated. For small organizations, or units with only a few civilians, this is a nuisance to be endured. For HTS, which deployed civilians at a larger scale, the system’s weaknesses created massive challenges to mission accomplishment.

The effects were significant. The U.S. Government spent almost $800 million on HTS from its inception through the 2014 Afghanistan drawdown, a period of over 7 years. During much of that time, mismanagement, excess attrition, inflated salaries, and poor support practices wasted hundreds of millions of dollars. Furthermore, assuming HTS provided value to battlefield commanders, the years it took to fix these issues and field more effective teams may well have cost lives and worsened the outcomes in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some might argue that waste was an inevitable byproduct of the program’s rapid creation in the middle of two conflicts. There is truth to that. However, if a civilian deployment infrastructure had existed prior to the creation of HTS, the program could have used it directly. Instead, HTS, like other programs that deploy civilians, had to figure everything out, build its own infrastructure, and endure numerous failures on the road to getting things right. That was a phenomenally inefficient way of doing business. It was also completely unnecessary.

DOD should establish a program to manage the recruitment, training, deployment, and sustainment of government civilian personnel in overseas environments. This centralized program would enable deployed forces to quickly obtain needed civilian skills to augment their capabilities. At the same time, it would allow programs and supported units to focus on core competencies rather than administrative distractions. Finally, such a program, by eliminating inefficiencies, could save the government hundreds of millions of dollars during future conflicts. While that may sound like an overstatement, the HTS experience demonstrates that cost savings of this magnitude are not theoretical.

Soldiers from Charlie Troop, 2-38 Cavalry, and DA civilians, Human Terrain System, with local Afghan villagers during Key Leader Engagement in Kandahar Province (DOD/Crystal Davis)

Soldiers from Charlie Troop, 2-38 Cavalry, and DA civilians, Human Terrain System, with local Afghan villagers during Key Leader Engagement in Kandahar Province (DOD/Crystal Davis)

While HTS provided civilian cultural expertise in Iraq and Afghanistan, future wars may require wholly different and unexpected types of knowledge. In the past, such needs were often filled through the contracting process. However, government civilians may be preferable to contractors for several reasons: they are more cost effective; they fall under the direct control of government authorities; and they can perform inherently governmental functions. In other cases, the use of contractors is unnecessary because the desired expertise already exists within DOD’s permanent civilian workforce. This capability was previously leveraged through the Civilian Expeditionary Workforce (CEW) program, which provided opportunities for existing government civilians to deploy. Regardless of the source, though, experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan prove that such skills will be required.

Unfortunately, civilian personnel are often inadequately prepared to deal with the military deployment bureaucracy, which is focused primarily on military personnel and contractors. As an example, HTS employees who received care at military treatment facilities in theater would often be categorized as “contractors” simply because there was no option for “government civilian,” creating unnecessary challenges to medical support. Civilians drawn from the private sector had even greater difficulty adapting to the military’s way of doing business. These distractions made them and their organizations less productive and increased the amount of turnover. The HTS experience demonstrates that an entire program’s operations can be hobbled by the investigations, negative publicity, and employee issues that accompany deficiencies in administrative support.

A centralized DOD civilian deployment program would provide support throughout the entire tour, from the receipt of notice to deploy through to the end of the deployment. Programs and units sending civilians downrange would use this program’s centralized support capabilities and expertise. It would prepare civilians for deployment, ensure coordination with deployment centers and receiving units, account for them in theater, ensure a smooth redeployment home, and provide accurate administrative, finance, and logistical support throughout the entire process. It would also ensure that deployed civilians received proper assistance and care, while making certain they performed the work they were hired to do.

Such a program would need to accommodate itself to the reality of defense budget cycles, expanding and contracting as required. During peacetime, it could be sustained by a minimal number of employees; during wartime, it would expand by using limited-term government employees and contractor support. The program would serve individual deployers as well as large organizations and would centralize functions currently duplicated across DOD, paying for itself by eliminating waste. As a “one-stop shop,” the program would encourage consistent support of deployed civilians while maintaining administrative best practices, reducing the amount of waste and fraud committed during deployments.

Naturally, there are always concerns about the use of government employees rather than contractors. First, government hiring is an extremely slow process. To circumvent this issue, HTS developed a hybrid contractor/government hiring process that utilized the strengths of the private sector to augment government hiring methods. Contract recruiters were able to find large numbers of potential candidates with needed expertise. The candidates were screened and their names were then submitted for government qualification. If qualified, the candidates attended a training class prior to being sworn in as government civilians. This approach allowed HTS to provide a volume of personnel that would never have been possible using normal government recruiting methods.

The second main issue with government workers is the concern that they become permanent employees who are difficult to remove from service. This is not the case. Term-limited appointments allow management to decline employment extensions as needed. Term employment thus makes adjustments to the size of the workforce relatively easy, avoiding the need for a reduction in force, and provides a mechanism to release underperforming employees while avoiding the difficult and emotionally draining termination process. Employment can end with the expiration of an employee’s term rather than through termination, allowing the employee to save face and ensuring that he or she is able to file for unemployment. Unfortunately, however, termination can be necessary in some cases. At HTS, 18 employees were terminated over a 5-year period, a rate considerably higher than normal for the Federal Government. This was possible because of effective coordination between HR, supervisors, and program leadership. An effective civilian deployment program could provide supervisors with the necessary expertise to separate employees with performance or behavioral issues.

Clearly there is an unmet need to improve support for deployed civilians. While the CEW program performed some of the functions mentioned above, it was limited in scope and served mainly as a matchmaker, posting deployed positions that individuals could apply for. Although it filled a useful role, CEW did not provide the kind of “cradle to grave” support that is necessary for maximum workforce effectiveness.

DOD must act quickly to improve support before more institutional knowledge is lost. A 2012 Government Accountability Office report outlined how DOD neglected to learn from civilian deployment experiences in Bosnia, which led to costly and preventable failures in Iraq and Afghanistan just a few years later.9

Sadly, history seems to be repeating itself. In March 2014, the CEW Web site announced that the program would no longer provide a “sourcing solution for joint civilian requirements,” and that this function would instead be performed by the Army G1.10 (The remnants of the CEW program have since migrated to U.S. Army Central Command.) With drawdowns continuing, cuts to CEW were inevitable. Unfortunately, it appears that this migrated function, now renamed the International/Expeditionary Policy Office, will provide fewer capabilities than CEW did. A less effective organization is not the answer. Senior leaders must understand this challenge and recognize that supporting civilians properly is not just the right thing to do; it also improves effectiveness and makes sound financial sense.

Pay and Performance. Prior to the 2009 HTS conversion from contractor to government workforce, deployed team members typically made between $250,000 and $400,000 per year. While this rate of pay was not unusual for deployed contractors at the time, large salaries alone were not sufficient to recruit top-quality personnel for Human Terrain Teams. In some cases, team members lacked even basic social science and research skills. Despite these shortcomings, individuals were uniformly paid large salaries, with highly inconsistent results.

Over time, the salaries paid to HTS employees gradually diminished. After the government conversion, the salary range for HTS employees dropped to roughly $180,000–$300,000 per year. Not only was this less than they had made as contractors, but as government civilians every dollar of salary was taxable as well. (Contractor salaries enjoy significant tax benefits.) In addition, the team leader and social scientist positions that had been graded as GG-15 were reclassified as GG-14, cutting the top end of the salary range by another 15 percent.

In 2013, sequester restrictions forced Army commands to implement restrictions on overtime work for all employees, including deployed civilians. While these restrictions were not well enforced by many units in theater, TRADOC G2 implemented meaningful restrictions on overtime use. As a result, the average annual salary of a deployed HTS team leader, which had hovered around $400,000 in 2008, dropped to around $200,000 in 2014. Although HTS employees were generally displeased with these changes, support to deployed units remained consistent, and internal assessments showed that commander satisfaction remained high.

Despite this dramatic cost savings, there is no evidence that HTS employees in 2014 were any less capable than employees in 2008. While comparing the two periods is difficult due to the lack of verifiable metrics from 2008, deployed commanders and staff who responded to internal surveys in 2014 almost uniformly agreed that HTS products were relevant, aided decisionmaking, and added to the unit’s sociocultural understanding of the environment. More importantly, HTS, which in the early years suffered a significant number of team implosions, mutinies, and cases of job abandonment, saw a substantial decrease in these types of incidents. Furthermore, while HTT members in 2008 often lacked basic competencies (human terrain analysts were sometimes considered suitable only for vehicle washing duties), by 2014 the average HTT member was significantly more capable.

How was HTS able to cut salaries in half and yet still achieve superior results? First, the exorbitant salaries of 2008 were simply part and parcel of the military’s institutional culture at the time. With Congress appropriating hundreds of billions of dollars as part of the late war surges, budget discipline was significantly relaxed. Unfortunately, while those excessive salaries lured few serious academics, they did attract a wide variety of individuals who were more interested in cashing in than achieving the Army’s goals. At the same time, HTS’s no-rules internal culture imposed significant costs on supervisors who tried to conscientiously enforce restrictions. When HTS team members were contractors, the company lost money if personnel were not deployed and claiming long hours. At the same time, the HTS leadership team believed that it needed to fill teams at all costs. The incentives within HTS were strongly arrayed against any kind of internal restrictions, with all of the attendant disciplinary problems. As a result, HTS quickly earned a reputation as a haven for problematic personalities, which harmed future recruiting efforts and created a negative feedback loop.

Over time, as salaries shrank and regulations governing conduct increased, the greedy gradually departed. While this was a positive step, the large salaries set at the beginning severely limited the ability to hire employees at the proper wage. It also ensured higher program costs throughout the program’s lifespan. While the excessive salaries of 2008 may have enabled HTS to build its workforce more quickly than it could have otherwise, it is unclear that employees obtained this way were worth having at all. The HTS experience demonstrates that high salaries are not necessarily beneficial for hiring and that they can be more destructive than helpful, both financially and operationally.

Process Defeats Politics. During its early years, HTS was an organization driven by personalities, not procedures. When difficult or unusual situations involving HTS employees arose (an almost everyday occurrence), staff members would many times quickly defer the question to the program manager, who was not physically present and likely would not make a decision. This was a symptom of HTS’s broader challenge wherein the organization’s decisionmaking process had failed to evolve in the face of rapid growth. Because the program had few policies or guidelines, even a minor variation to a routine procedure created decisional gridlock. As a result, every decision point became an opportunity for organizational politics or simple inertia to run the program aground.

To meet this challenge, HTS generated internal policies, an employee handbook, a pay and allowances guide, and more than a dozen internal “bulletins” that explained the nuances of complex issues such as workers’ compensation and emergency leave. Because of the continuously changing nature of the HTS program, a fixed catalogue of policies would have been inadequate. Documents were thus revised as necessary to ensure that they remained relevant, sensible, and responsive. In addition, HTS policies were designed in such a way that they were not only enforceable, but would also actually be enforced. This proved crucial to making the changes work. Where possible, consequences were applied automatically rather than at the discretion of a manager. This limited accusations of favoritism and ensured fair treatment across the workforce.

As these reforms were implemented, some within the program argued that a policy-centric and enforcement-based approach was too heavy handed. Unfortunately, HTS’s toxic environment required far greater articulation of the rules and far more comprehensive enforcement strategies than would ordinarily have been required in a program of its size. Employees, supervisors, leadership, and support sections all possessed limited faith in one another’s abilities and motives. Additionally, the “short timer” mentality of many employees, a high turnover rate, and a lack of coordination all enhanced this lack of confidence. When employees asked a question and received an answer they did not like, they had learned to simply ask another decisionmaker until someone provided the desired answer. Leaders often had trouble saying no to reasonable-sounding requests that were, in fact, not reasonable. By establishing clear and enforceable written policies, HTS significantly reduced this deeply ingrained and disruptive pattern of behavior. Given the complexity of government personnel rules and the volume of turnover, merely establishing informal guidelines would not have been effective.

This approach benefited HTS in numerous ways. The amount of attention from management that was required to administer the program declined significantly because routine matters could be handled at a lower level. In addition, rather than having to bargain for everything, employees could review HTS policies and understand what they were and were not entitled to. As a result, when disgruntled employees disagreed with established policies and filed complaints, it was relatively straightforward to have the complaints dismissed. Finally, once the values animating those policies became entrenched, a cultural change took hold and HTS became a radically different place at which to work.

While HTS may be remembered for its chaotic early blunders, the program’s later, quieter years demonstrate the effectiveness of its turnaround. Although the program may not survive in today’s difficult fiscal environment, future sociocultural research efforts will likely be institutionalized in new and different ways. However, there does not appear to be any equivalent effort to improve DOD’s poorly functioning civilian deployment system. It would be a shame to throw away $800 million worth of hard-won experience. After more than a decade of counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare, leaders must recognize the important role civilians will play in winning future conflicts. JFQ

Notes

  1. For a detailed account of Human Terrain System (HTS) history, see Christopher J. Lamb et al., Human Terrain Teams: An Organizational Innovation for Sociocultural Knowledge in Irregular Warfare (Washington, DC: Institute of World Politics Press, 2013), which is detailed, even-handed, and accurate. Unfortunately, it does have some blind spots, but this article fills in some of those.
  2. Ibid., 147. Lamb et al. reference three types of Human Terrain Team (HTT) members: “ne’er-do-wells,” “fantasists,” and “workers.” While these categories are crude, they are also quite accurate. Within the HTS staff, the vast majority of personnel could be categorized as ne’er-do-wells or fantasists. Even if new arrivals did not begin their tenure with HTS in one of those two frames of mind, the environment tended to have a negative effect on those exposed to it. Workers were rare.
  3. It is important to note that timecard exploitation was routine for civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. To HTS’s credit, team members never approached the excesses of deployed Department of Justice employees, who often claimed to continuously work 16 hours per day, 7 days a week. See Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, An Investigation of Overtime Payments to FBI and Other Department of Justice Employees Deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan (Washington, DC: Department of Justice, 2008), available at <www.justice.gov/oig/special/s0812/final.pdf>.
  4. Lamb et al., 73–74.
  5. Based on decline in attrition from HTS training, from 2009 to 2013.
  6. Tom Vanden Brook, “Army Plows Ahead with Troubled War-Zone program,” USA Today, February 28, 2013, available at <www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/02/17/human-terrain-system-iraq-afghanistan/1923789>.
  7. John Stanton’s articles were the product of numerous sources within the program, but were also largely based on second-or third-hand rumors. In many if not most cases, his specific allegations were inaccurate. However, his articles often did accurately reflect the tone of internal dissent within HTS.
  8. Lamb et al., 78–79.
  9. Government Accountability Office (GAO), Afghanistan: Improvements Needed to Strengthen Management of U.S. Civilian Presence, GAO-12-285 (Washington, DC: GAO, 2012), available at <www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-285>.
  10. Department of Defense, “The Civilian Deployment Experience,” available at <cpms.osd.mil/expeditionary/home.html>.

Good bye (and good riddance) to Human Terrain System (Savage Minds)

July 8, 2015 by Rex

Both Counterpunch and Inside Higher Ed ran stories recently on the end of Human Terrain System or HTS. What was HTS? A program run by the army and employing social scientists, including some anthropologists, to help them learn more about the people (i.e. ‘human terrain’) in Afghanistan and Iraq. Booted up in 2005, the controversial program attracted massive criticism from anthropologists, including a report from the AAA and a formal statement arguing that it was fundamentally unethical. Now, a decade after the idea for embedded social scientists in American’s invasions was first floated, the program has officially folded.

There were many problems with HTS. Not only was it unethical, the quality of work it produced was, iirc, pretty lousy. Moreover, it actively supported American military action which was not only morally wrong, but a tremendous strategic error with an enormous price tag in dollars and lives. According to Counterpunch, HTS’s slice of the pie was US$725 million dollars. It’s hard to see HTS as anything except an object lesson in ethical and scientific failure. It didn’t even engage interesting ethical questions about collaboration with the military, applied anthropology, and ethics. It was just fail. Anthropologists everywhere can be glad it has now been relegated to ethics section of anthropology syllabi.

Perhaps one good thing that has come out of HTS is that the AAA managed to show strong ethical leadership throughout this period. This is in stark contrast to the American Psychological Association, which colluded with the CIA to produce ethical standards that made facilitating torture acceptable to its members. To be honest, I’m not really sure this indicates the strong moral fiber of the AAA so much as its lack of relevance to American actions abroad, at least until a network of concerned anthropologists pushed it to act (or, perhaps, to act in and through it).

At the end of the day, anthropology took a stance against HTS, and history has born this stance out. Goodbye and good riddance to HTS.

Watching and wondering: What we can learn from Fredrik Barth (Savage Minds)

May 29, 2015, by Rex

(This invited post comes from Ståle Wig, a Ph.D. fellow at the University of Oslo. In the past Ståle has also run an excellent two part interview with Paul Farmer here on Savage Minds, so check that out as well. When asked about his interests, Ståle writes that he “never became a proper Africanist, and is currently preparing Ph.D. fieldwork in Cuba.” -R)

On an August afternoon in 2008, around 50 first-year students gathered in a dusty old movie-theatre that was turned into a lecture hall, near the University of Oslo. As we came in to find our seats, an elderly man observed us curiously from a wooden chair under the blackboard. I had seen him before, in our assigned textbook, with his engraved features and unmistakable, soft white moustache.

That day I had come to my first lecture in anthropology. Fredrik Barth had come to give his last.

Much like our new subject, there was a mystique to the man by the blackboard. We were told that he was an influential anthropologist. Some of us had heard that in his golden years, his ideas engaged big shots like Giddens and Bourdieu. That he was at times strongly criticized, but also hailed as a reformer of the study of social life. But as we sat there waiting, none of us knew why, and what all that really meant.

Thanks to a new book by Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Fredrik Barth – An Intellectual Biography (Pluto Press), the Norwegian veteran will appear less of a mystery – and yet ever more captivating.

An anthropologists’ anthropologist

In 1951, 22-year-old Fredrik was invited to join an archaeological expedition to present-day Iraq. When his colleagues had finished digging and went back home with hammers and brushes, he stayed behind chatting to the Kurds living in the area. Thus began a 60-year long career as an ethnographer. In his new book Hylland Eriksen follows Barth’s journey, from the deserts of the Swat valley to the plains South Persia, from coastal Norway to south Sudan. After a pit stop among his academic tribes, he’s off again, to secret initiation cults in the misty highlands of New Guinea, and onward, to Bali, Oman, China and Bhutan. Most anthropologists agree that ethnographic research is the core of our discipline. But none have hammered the point home quite like Barth. It is said that there are three types of anthropologists: Those who have done fieldwork in one place, those who have done fieldwork in two places, and Barth.

The 60s A-team

Based on source material from formerly unpublished interviews, as well as some conversations with the main character, Hylland Eriksen paints a sympathetic portrait of Fredrik Barth. The book also gives life to a cast of characters who shaped British social anthropology, and partly also the discipline as it is known today: The arrogant but razor sharp Edmund Leach, who Barth in his own words «fell in love with» at first sight. Evans-Pritchard, who was his antagonist and likely played a part in refuting his doctorate at the University of Oslo. The radical Gluckman of Manchester, the mighty Fortes of Cambridge, and the gang’s diplomatic middleman, Firth, who stayed friends with all without having to take sides.

It was Firth who ensured that Barth gave the first Nuffield lecture at The Royal Society in Britain in 1965, representing social anthropology for the first time among other sciences. In Hylland Eriksen’s words, the Norwegian stepped onto the podium as the «flag bearer» of British social anthropology. Barth has called it the highlight of his career.

«Study process, not form»

Part of what he argued for at the RSA is today taken for granted. He was skeptical of «deep structures», be they social, cultural or mental, as found in Radcliffe-Brown, Geertz or Levi-Strauss. He was one of the most vocal – but not the first – to depart with the notion of culture as a bounded entity. It was, Barth argued, the processes of social life that should be understood, not its hardened form. What meaningful strategies do people follow? What set of concrete opportunities and limitations influence their behavior? And out of this, what aggregate phenomena emerge?

These ideas lay behind his introduction to Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (1968), which was for years on the top 100 on the social science citation index. Here, Barth proposed that there is no one-to-one relationship between cultural differences and ethnic differences. It seems so obvious today: Ethnic identity does not grow naturally out some shared cultural mass. It is rather the result of a social process of inclusion and exclusion.

For better or worse, Barth didn’t have much interest in «cultural stuff», and the interpretation of symbols, which so excited Geertz. When Barth became head of the Ethnographic Museum in Oslo, a rumor has it that he suggested that they sell the whole collection of artifacts and rather spend the money on sending anthropologists to the field.

Strictly business?

For all his inductive reflexes, however, Barth seemed to assume one thing: that most human behavior is based on the same basic logic: we are goal-seeking animals, prone to act as we see best. Hylland Eriksen discusses the critiques that have been leveled at this position. When opponents charge Barth for relying on a formalistic notion of homo economicus, theyare wrong, argues Hylland Eriksen. Barth claims not that humans per definition are egoistic and strategic, but rather that «it is strategic behavior, done by persons in some capacity or another, which generates regularity and social form» (p. 202). People will everywhere try to do the best out of their situation. But what makes up «the best» varies immensely, and is for the anthropologist to figure out.

Hylland Eriksen spends little time on the personal aspects of Barth’s life. The book describes briefly the marriage to anthropologist Unni Wikan, which he claims made Barth «less macho, more ambiguous», and directed his curiosity towards knowledge and rituals rather than economy and politics. It does not offer any wholehearted account of Barth’s inner life. Which is quite all right. What makes the book a good read is not its scant psychologizing, but the way it narrates – with some of the same adventurous spirit as its protagonist – the bewildering breath of an anthropological career.

Lessons to be learnt

The biography argues implicitly that there is something important to learn from Fredrik Barth. I agree. For one, he has a refreshing distaste for academics that align themselves too closely with pre-empirical projects. In a seminar in Lund University in Sweden in the 70s, Barth is said to have exclaimed to a self-proclaimed Marxist student: «You don’t need fieldwork, you have the answers already!»

Barth’s inductive attitude is reflected not only in his texts, but also in his reference lists. In an essay collection that sums up his life’s work, there are only five pages of references, many of which are to his own texts. This of course has to do Barth writing in a different time, with different norms for publishing. Besides, he went to places where few had gone, and there were fewer texts to quote. However, it also serves as a reminder: To be theoretically ambitious is not the same as having an endless reference list. Open a monograph today and one encounters 15 to 30 pages with references to other texts. At times, it seems that empirical patterns are in danger of collapsing under the weight of the quotations of fashionable thinkers. As students we are told to «apply» theory on our materials. Barth would have it another way. He trusted his own observations more than established theory.

His attitude was apparent in more than just writing. In the early 60s Barth turned down a professorate at Columbia University in order to build up a new anthropology department in the peripheral Norwegian town of Bergen. Soon, Bergen was no longer peripheral. Hylland Eriksen observes that a much-used textbook from 1968, written by Marvin Harris, holds the two great power centers in current anthropology to be Paris, under the leadership of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Bergen, under Barth.

Watching and wondering

86-year-old Barth is now retired from academic life. I visited him some months ago to talk about plans for fieldwork in Southern Africa. «Good luck», he replied, and added friendlily: «But don’t become a ‘proper Africanist’. Remember that it is the general questions that push our discipline forward. And those you can find anywhere».

In the end, I think this is what we can learn from an old-timer like Barth: To be more concerned with watching and wondering than with conceptual fashion walking. To rely more on our observations than the concepts of others. And to define the frontier of anthropology not only by reading new books, but by going to new places.

I can still recall how Barth ended that lecture back in 2008. He had spent two hours telling us about the characteristics of anthropological research: The power of understanding people on their own terms; of regarding every new finding as a provocation, and a call to rethink our assumptions and our models. But beyond this it was an open question as to what social anthropology should be in the future. Barth looked at us freshman students and said: «It is for all of you to find out».

Fredrik Barth – An intellectual biography is already available in Norwegian, and will be published in an English translation by Pluto Press in June 2015.

Ask A Mind: Is Studying Witchcraft `Useful’ for Development? (Savage Minds)

June 7, 2015
By Maia

Can anthropologists combine research on witchcraft with research on development? Why are some topics considered more relevant to understanding development issues than others? This post is a response to a question from a reader considering doing a research project in anthropology. It provides an overview of some recent work on witchcraft by anthropologists mostly working in Africa.

This reader’s question raises several issues- about development, about witchcraft and about defining a research problem.   Responding to it provides an opportunity to practice demand driven anthropology- an underutilized potential of the blog format. As an anthropologist who works on development institutions, and on witchcraft in East Africa, this is my take on it.

Ideas about witches and violence directed against those who are thought to practice witchcraft , including women and children, remain socially significant in many countries in the world.  The negative social impacts of witchcraft make it a development issue in relation to human rights violations and its contribution to social exclusion. Moreover, representations of witchcraft in popular culture consistently situate what witches are alleged to do in direct contradiction of aspirations to achieve personal and national development.

Our reader asks whether the study of witchcraft is distinct from the kinds of research which would be relevant to development, and whether witchcraft and development are distinct domains of social practice which demand different sorts of analysis.   Should she aim to study witchcraft in the hope that it may have something to say about development or is there, as one professor working in development told her, `more useful work to be done around behavior change and water, sanitation and health than witchcraft’?

These questions are partly influenced by our reader’s current situation within development practice (she works in an NGO), hence the professor’s concern for prioritizing the understanding of behavior change that could prove useful for designing more effective interventions. But they are also informed by the ways that witchcraft has been addressed within contemporary anthropology as a field of symbolic practice.   The well known work of Jean and John Comaroff, for example, interprets witchcraft beliefs at least partially as a vehicle through which experiences of peripheralization, including global social relations, can be symbolically articulated (1999).

If witchcraft enables the articulation of an `occult economy’   it is at the same time materially grounded with effects in the real world (Moore & Sanders 2001). Witchcraft as a social institution frequently operates as a means through which human relations are restructured sustained by expanding economies of the occult comprising healers, unwitchers and diviners. It is often accompanied by violence.

The social inseparability of these two dimensions of witchcraft is the focus of ongoing ethnographic work by Isak Niehaus and Adam Ashforth. Both Niehaus and Ashforth have spent many years researching the everyday politics of witchcraft in South Africa. In the years immediately after the   ANC victory, witchcraft accusations, murder and expulsions were widespread in rural areas and townships as deadly weapons in local conflicts centered on political allegiance and access to resources.

Violent practices justified by witchcraft were an important part of the local political system, supported by vested interests. Accusations of witchcraft were invoked to escalate disputes with serious social consequences (Niehaus 1993Ashforth 2005). Those affected by witchcraft include those who believe they are bewitched and those who find themselves accused of witchcraft . The personal experiences of the affected in South Africa are sensitively examined by both authors (Niehaus 2012Ashforth 2000). A new book by James Howard Smith  and Ngeti Mwadime explores related issues in Kenya (2014).

Certain social categories can find themselves liable to accusation and the violence or expulsion which follow.   Attacks on older women accused of witchcraft in Western Tanzania have attracted international media attention since the 1990s (Mesaki 2009). More recently in Tanzania people with albinism, particularly children, have been at risk of murder by practitioners of witchcraft who seek to use their body parts to make powerful medicines (Bryceson et al 2010).

It is evident from these examples that practices related to witchcraft are strongly rooted in the ideas that people hold about witches and their powers. The tenacity of these ideas is not simply explained by what ideas about witches mean. It is equally a product of what Mary Douglas called `entrenchment’ (1991: 726) ; that is the actions people take which sustain ideas about witchcraft and the practices through which it is realized institutionally. In Western Tanzania, as in South Africa (Ashforth 2005 ), diviners play a crucial role in diagnosing witchcraft as the cause of personal misfortune and in identifying alleged witches, responding to demand to resolve personal and political differences through severing relations (e.g. Green 2009).

While what is categorized as the `traditional’ healing sector promoted through the political valorization of African medicine provides support for the institutional foundation for the sustained presence of witchcraft across the continent (Langwick 2011Ashforth 2005) , sub disciplinary boundaries within anthropology have generally worked against the problematization of the institution of witchcraft , both within medical anthropology and in relation to the wider political economy. Consideration of witchcraft primarily in terms of the ontological deflects from the interrogation of   the economics which sustains it and creates lucrative small business opportunities for the countless individuals who set themselves up as herbalists, diviners and healers.

Anthropological uncertainty about the situation of witchcraft feeds into ways in which various state authorities, colonial and post colonial, have approached it and inadvertently promoted it. If witchcraft is understood as essentially a matter of culture and belief it can potentially be attacked through education and political campaigns, while legal sanctions are directed against those who practice witchcraft and against those seeking to make them knowable.

It is clear from recent media reports in a number of countries that neither approach is working. Evangelical Christian churches proliferating on the continent readily assume responsibility for addressing perceived witchcraft threats within and beyond their congregations (Meyer 2004Hasu 2012). Social media fuels the extension of transnational economies founded on the occult, dispersing witchcraft through the diaspora while offering a means for those afflicted to address it.

If the transnational appeal of healers and preachers such as the hugely popular TB Joshua in Nigeria are testament to the enduring salience of notions about witchcraft, they are also indicators of the consistent imbrication of witchcraft with innovation and social transformation. Witchcraft is not , despite systematic condemnation by the governments seeking to prohibit it, a traditional and static social institution. It is a continually evolving assemblage.

The institution of witchcraft, wherever it occurs, is not only wholly implicated in modernity (Geschiere 1997). Those engaged with witchcraft either as purchasers of its powers, such as the miners of Western Tanzania, or the diviners offering protection from it consistently seek to adapt the ways in which they do so; through new forms of protective practice, changes in how clients seeking protection are dealt with or the contexts in which certain medicines come to be viewed as efficacious (e.g Green & Mesaki 2005Englund 2007). It is not witchcraft in the abstract but the practice of it which in many settings is perceived to be antithetical to modernization and moving forwards. Personal ambition may be thwarted by witches whose jealousy prevents a person from getting ahead. Witchcraft as is therefore consistently viewed by those affected by it as getting in the way of development (Smith 2008).

Governments tend to claim that witchcraft related practices and ideas are backward and anti- development, a political position certainly, but one which borrows its legitimation from certain kinds of anthropology. In constituting witchcraft as a matter of culture anthropologists and African states fail to acknowledge the ways in which it comes to be institutionally entrenched in various settings.   The study of witchcraft is inherently entangled with development as ideology and in terms of the interventions at social reform undertaken by successive African governments.

The study of witchcraft , in Africa and elsewhere, demands some kind of engagement with the politics of development in various institutional forms. It is also important. However much we contribute to understanding witchcraft, however meaningful it may be, witchcraft as an institution amounts to symbolic, structural and actual violence. It causes significant social harm. If anthropologists can help unpick its institutional tenacity we will have made a useful contribution.

References Cited

Ashforth, Adam. Madumo, a man bewitched. University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Ashforth, Adam. Witchcraft, violence, and democracy in South Africa. University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Bryceson, Deborah Fahy, Jesper Bosse Jønsson, and Richard Sherrington. “Miners’ magic: artisanal mining, the albino fetish and murder in Tanzania.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 48, no. 03, (2010): 353-382.

Comaroff, Jean, and John L. Comaroff. “Occult economies and the violence of abstraction: notes from the South African postcolony.” American ethnologist 26, no. 2 (1999): 279-303.

Douglas, Mary. “Witchcraft and leprosy: two strategies of exclusion.” Man (1991): 723-736.

Englund, Harri. “Witchcraft and the limits of mass mediation in Malawi.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13, no. 2 (2007): 295-311.

Geschiere, Peter The Modernity of Witchcraft: politics and the occult in postcolonial Africa. University of Virginia Press, 1997.

Green, Maia, and Simeon Mesaki. “The birth of the “salon”: Poverty,“modernization,” and dealing with witchcraft in southern Tanzania.” American Ethnologist 32, no. 3 (2005): 371-388.

Green, Maia. “The social distribution of sanctioned harm.” Addison et al, Poverty Dynamics (2009): 309-327.

Hasu, Päivi. “Prosperity gospels and enchanted world views: Two responses to socio-economic transformation in Tanzanian Pentecostal Christianity.” Pentecostalism and Development: Churches, NGOs and Social Change in Africa 1 (2012): 67.

Langwick, Stacey Ann. Bodies, politics, and African healing: The matter of maladies in Tanzania. Indiana University Press, 2011.

Mesaki, Simeon. “The tragedy of ageing: Witch killings and poor governance among the Sukuma.” Dealing with Uncertainty in Contemporary African Lives. Stockholm: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet (2009): 72-90.

Meyer, Birgit. “Christianity in Africa: From African independent to Pentecostal-charismatic churches.” Annual Review of Anthropology (2004): 447-474.

Moore, Henrietta L., and Todd Sanders. “Magical interpretations and material realities.” Magical interpretations, material realities: modernity, witchcraft and the occult in postcolonial Africa (2001): 552-566.

Niehaus, Isak A. “Witch-hunting and political legitimacy: continuity and change in Green Valley, Lebowa, 1930–91.” Africa 63, no. 04 (1993): 498-530.

Niehaus, Isak. Witchcraft and a life in the new South Africa. Vol. 43. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Smith, James H., and Ngeti Mwadime. Email from Ngeti: An Ethnography of Sorcery, Redemption, and Friendship in Global Africa. Univ of California Press, 2014.

Smith, James Howard. Bewitching development: witchcraft and the reinvention of development in neoliberal Kenya. University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Ethnography: A Scientist Discovers the Value of the Social Sciences (The Scholarly Kitchen)

 

Picture from an early ethnographic study

I have always liked to think of myself as a good listener. Whether you are in therapy (or should be), conversing with colleagues, working with customers, embarking on strategic planning, or collaborating on a task, a dose of emotional intelligence – that is, embracing patience and the willingness to listen — is essential.

At the American Mathematical Society, we recently embarked on ambitious strategic planning effort across the organization. On the publishing side we have a number of electronic products, pushing us to consider how we position these products for the next generation of mathematician. We quickly realized that it is easy to be complacent. In our case we have a rich history online, and yet – have we really moved with the times? Does a young mathematician need our products?

We came to a sobering and rather exciting realization: In fact, we do not have a clear idea how mathematicians use online resources to do their research, teaching, hiring, and job hunting. We of course have opinions, but these are not informed by anything other than anecdotal evidence from conversations here and there.

To gain a sense of how mathematicians are using online resources, we embarked on an effort to gather more systematic intelligence embracing a qualitative approach to the research – ethhnography. The concept of ethnographic qualitative research was a new one to me – and it felt right. I quickly felt like I was back in school and a graduate student in ethnography, reading the literature, and thinking through with colleagues how we might apply qualitative research methods to understanding mathematicians’ behavior. It is worth taking a look at two excellent books: Just Enough Research by Erika Hall, and Practical Ethnography: A Guide to Doing Ethnography in the Private Sector by Sam Ladner.

What do we mean by ethnographic research? In essence we are talking about a rich, multi-factorial descriptive approach. While quantitative research uses pre-existing categories in its analysis, qualitative research is open to new ways of categorizing data – in this case, mathematicians’ behavior in using information. The idea is that one observes the subject (“key informant” in technical jargon) in their natural habitat. Imagine you are David Attenborough, exploring an “absolutely marvelous” new species – the mathematician – as they operate in the field. The concept is really quite simple. You just want to understand what your key informants are doing, and preferably why they are doing it. One has to do it in a setting that allows for them to behave naturally – this really requires an interview with one person not a group (because group members may influence each other’s actions).

Perhaps the hardest part is the interview itself. If you are anything like me, you will go charging in saying something along the lines of “look at these great things we are doing. What do you think? Great right?” Well, of course this is plain wrong. While you have a goal going in, perhaps to see how an individual is behaving with respect to a specific product, your questions need to be agnostic in flavor. The idea is to have the key informant do what they normally do, not just say what they think they do – the two things may be quite different. The questions need to be carefully crafted so as not to lead, but to enable gentle probing and discussion as the interview progresses. It is a good idea to record the interview – both in audio form, and ideally with screen capture technology such as Camtasia. When I was involved with this I went out and bought a good, but inexpensive audio recorder.

We decided that rather than approach mathematicians directly, we should work with the library at an academic institution. Libraries are our customers. The remarkable thing about academic libraries is that ethnography is becoming part of the service they provide to their stakeholders at many institutions. We actually began with a remarkable librarian, based at Rice University – Debra Kolah. She is the head of the user experience office at the Fondren Library of Rice University in Texas. She also happens to be the physics, math and statistics librarian at Rice. Debra is remarkable, and has become an expert in ethnographic study of academic user experience. She has multiple projects underway at Rice, working with a range of stakeholders, aiming to foster the activity of the library in the academic community she directly serves. She is a picture of enthusiasm when it comes to serving her community and to gaining insights into the cultural patterns of academic user behavior. Debra was our key to understanding how important it is to work with the library to reach the mathematical community at an institution. The relationship is trusted and symbiotic. This triangle of an institution’s library, academic, and outside entity, such as a society, or publisher, may represent the future of the library.

So the interviews are done – then what? Analysis. You have to try to make sense of all of this material you’ve gathered. First, transcribing audio interviews is no easy task. You have a range of voices and much technical jargon. The best bet is to get one of the many services out there to take the files and do a first pass transcription. They will get most of it right. Perhaps they will write “archive instead of arXiv, but that can be dealt with later. Once you have all this interview text, you need to group it into meaningful categories – what’s called “coding”. The idea is that you try to look at the material with a fresh, unbiased eye, to see what themes emerge from the data. Once these themes are coded, you can then start to think about patterns in the data. Interestingly, qualitative researchers have developed a host of software programs to aid the researcher in doing this. We settled for a relatively simple, web based solution – Dedoose.

With some 62 interviews under our belt, we are beginning to see patterns emerge in the ways that mathematicians behave online. I am not going to reveal our preliminary findings here – I must save that up for when the full results are in – but I am confident that the results will show a number of consistent threads that will help us think through how to better serve our community.

In summary, this experience has been a fascinating one – a new world for me. I have been trained as a scientist. As a scientist, I have ideas about what scientific method is, and what evidence is. I now understand the value of the qualitative approach – hard for a scientist to say. Qualitative research opens a window to descriptive data and analysis. As our markets change, understanding who constitutes our market, and how users behave is more important than ever.

Carry on listening!

Schizoanalysis as Anthro-Ecology (Synthetic Zero)

May 31, 2015

WILD ECOLOGIES - Featured Post #3: Edmund Berger with an in-depth 
analysis of Guattari's 'ecosophy' and possible points of connection, 
overlap and divergence from anarchist thought.  

BillStereoLoop

How does one begin to broach the question of linkage, passage, and reflexivity to be found in the theories and practices of anarchism, the radical post-psychoanalysis of Felix Guattari, and the ontological framework that has been ushered in the necessity of acknowledging the forces that we label “the Anthropocene”? The overlaps between each are undeniable: in was ecological concerns that late in his life Guattari turned his mind to; the field that his work is commonly situated – the school of post-structuralism – is often affiliated with anarchism of the so-called “post-left” variety. That Guattari was closely aligned with the Italian Autonomia, which the post-left anarchists owe much of their discourse to, is no passing coincidence. We can also note the presence of “green anarchism” under the post-left label, alongside the controversial, anti-civilizational stance espoused by anarcho-primitivism. Yet we can see clearly that this triad of eco-ontology, Guattari, and anarchism have yet to really have the dialogue that they deserve.

On even a surface level reading the commonalities between each point is immediately clear: none points to a resolving synthesis in thought or being. The Anthropocene has brought us full circle and pried open what was also present but shunted aside by the progress of the West – that civilization and nature are not separate, and that civilization and culture exist entangled in the complex web of the ecology itself, defined as it is by various states of emergence. Anarchism, regardless of which of the many monikers it adapts, is at its core a program that is constantly evading and contesting the centralizing and homogenizing forms of the state itself. Guattari, meanwhile, shifts these focuses to the levels of individuals and group’s subjecthood, looking to move from fixed and stable states to ones far from equilibrium. Keeping in tune with the manner in which each point in this triad presents itself as an ongoing unfolding, this essay will attempt no resolute synthesis. I am more concerned in this moment with simply tracing out a constellation of convergences and patterns, looking for possibilities of a minor politics for the Anthropocene.

Schizo-Ecology 

From beginning to end, Guattari’s work centered on the problems of psychology, even if his approach appeared – and continues to appear – utterly alien to the orthodox scriptures put forth by the orthodoxy of psychoanalysis. He can best be understood as playing the role not of a psychoanalytic atheist (denouncing the whole paradigm, as those of anti-psychiatry are oft to appear), or the agnostic, undecided and wavering back and forth, but the heretic, positioning himself within the discourse but enacting a virulent rebellion against the limitations and interpretations of the primary institutions. While psychoanalysis enacts a practice of steering, moving the divergent subjectivity back into the confines deemed acceptable by civilization (that is, the body as laboring force for productivity), Guattari offers instead a schizoanalysis that renounces steering and searches for ways to unleash the subjectivity in a way that moves against civilization and its regime of production. Each step in his work covers a different region in which outside forces are capable of opening up subjectivity. In Anti-Oedipus (co-authored with Gilles Deleuze in 1972) this took the form of a revolt against Freud psychoanalysis and capitalism, curtesy of Marx, Nietzsche, and a radicalized anthropology. In A Thousand Plateaus (co-authored again with Deleuze, in 1980) a schizoanalytic framework is shown that denies the difference between scales, disciplines, arts and sciences. After his encounter with the Autonomia and their pirate radio programs, media became situated front and center. In 1989 he published the Three Ecologies, turning to the complexity of nature and the cosmos to illustrate the full scope of his project. Much of this work is a natural progression from his work on media technologies, as clear in the book’s opening line: “The Earth is undergoing a period of intense techno-scientific transformations. If no remedy is found, the ecological disequilibrium this has generated will ultimately threaten the continuation of life on the planet’s surface.”[1]

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For Guattari the remedy to this state of affairs is not to be found in the technocratic solutions offered by the state and the monoliths of capitalism. It will be found instead in what he calls a practice of ecosophy, that is, a shifting mediation between three intertwining registers: “the environment, social relations and human subjectivity.”[2] This affair, however, is not as simple as it initially appears. Each of these ecological registers, in turn, is largely contingent upon relations with the others. We can read of this entanglement right at the outset of his earliest work with Deleuze, Anti-Oedipus:

…we make no distinction between man and nature: the human essence of nature and the natural essence of man become one within nature in the form of production or industry, just as they do within the life of man as a species. Industry is then no longer considered from the extrinsic point of view of utility, but rather from the point of view of its fundamental identity with nature as production of man and by man… man and nature are not like two opposite terms confronting one another… rather, they are one and the same essential reality producer-product.[3]

Human subjectivity and the social too work in the manner of relationity and encounter. In what he would later call his schizoanalytic cartographies, Guattari maps out the way that subjectivity comes into being, through a series of becomings that emerge from assemblages and states of flows: the territories in which the bodies exist and their own relations to nature, the codification of these territories by state form and cultural constructs, the intimate interactions between bodies, media and technology, architecture and aesthetics, the flows of capital, so on and so forth. As Foucault would so eloquently illustrate, the state of the subject itself is a composition that is molded and enforced by the apparatuses of state and industry; the subject itself can operate as confinement, reproducing through the activities of daily life the demands of regimented production itself. The schizoanalytic cartographies themselves are designed to model (or better, meta-model), these assemblages and apparatuses that work upon the subject in order to find a point of exit, towards other ways of articulating life and existence.  In other words, this particular heresy becomes one of mutation, in which subjectivity transforms into something revolutionary and imperceptible.

cartographies-schizoanalytiques (1)

In his last work, Chaosmosis (1992), Guattari alludes to the schizoanalytic cartographies as an “ecosophic object”, illustrating that the two approaches (the three ecologies and the cartographies) are inseparable entities. This is further compounded by the fact that The Three Ecologies was originally slated to be a chapter in the book titled Schizoanalytic Cartographies, and was published separately at the urging of Paul Virilio.[4] While the prudent thing to do here might be to stop and look at the cartographies themselves,[5] and look at their alignment with the processes laid out within The Three Cartographies, I would like to stop and examine the way in which the schizoanalytic program itself developed at different stages in Guattari’s oeuvre, looking at the way in which it unfolded in different historic moments and terrains of leftist struggle.

Revolutionary Science

Schizoanalytic Cartographies, The Three Ecologies debuted against the escalation of what Guattari described as “integrated world capitalism”, a total planetary marketization that “tends increasingly to decentre its sites of power, moving away from structures producing goods and services towards structures producing signs, syntax and – in particular, through the control which it exercises over the media, advertising, opinion polls, etc. – subjectivity.”[6]  Integrated world capitalism goes by many different names to be applied in different contexts: for the spread of markets, it is “globalization,” to describe the particularities of its govermentality the term “neoliberalism” is preferred. For the transnationalization of production itself, it is “post-Fordism”, for the role of signs, it is “semiocapitalism”. For the ascendancy of intellectual labor through the growth of the so-called ‘white collar’ jobs (primarily finance and I.T. work), it is “cognitive capitalism”. From the perspective of civil societies made global through information technologies, it is the rather ambiguous “network society”.

It is Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus that is the great text of the network society, written right at the point in which this particular mode of production was first coming into existence. The schema of the network itself is found in the figure of the rhizome, which anticipates not only the eventual structuring of the internet but the way the social itself operates on a globalized level: “any point of the rhizome can be connected to any other, and must be… a rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.”[7] While this is the most commonly remember aspect of the book, it is, all in all, one of the lesser moments; the real purpose of A Thousand Plateaus is to show the central role of new technologies and cutting-edge sciences in bringing this science into fruition, and the ways in which these sciences and technologies can be repurposed towards revolutionary ends.

Looking backwards, we can find this same effort at work in Anti-Oedipus as well. As the title of the work implies, the target of attack here is Oedipus, understood as what Lacan would call the “symbolic order” – the rule of language and law, the ‘orderly conduct’ of civilizational affairs that becomes internalized within the subject and conflated with the state of nature. Elsewhere they remark that Oedipus is the operation of the double-bind, a theory of schizophrenia first identified by Gregory Bateson. As Deleuze and Guattari summarize:

Double bind is the term used by Gregory Bateson to describe the simultaneous transmission of two kinds of messages, one of which contradicts the other, for example the father who says to his son: go ahead, criticize me, but strongly hints that all effective criticism – at least a certain type of criticism – will be very unwelcome. Bateson sees in this phenomena a particularly schizophrenizing situation…[8]

what-are-double-binds

Deleuze and Guattari hold Bateson up as an example of deterritorialization, a flight of becoming from the enforced territories of being and thought. Indeed, Bateson not only finds a theory of schizophrenia in the double-bind, but also a remarkable congruence with the Zen koans given to the pupil by the master. If the double-bind in Western civilization leads to psychosis, in the East it leads to Enlightenment: “We feel that the schizophrenic finds himself continually in the same situation as the pupil but he achieves something like disorientation rather than enlightenment.”[9] Bateson would go to find a variety of overlaps between experiences of madness and schizophrenia with initiation rites in other societies; following in these footsteps, R.D. Laing would build a differing school of psychoanalysis that points away the confines of civilization, indicating the direction that schizoanalysis would eventually take.

Through Deleuze and Guattari’s usage of Bateson we can discern in their text a reaction to a specific mode of machinic configuration or arrangement. The machine in question here is less a literal machine and more of a metaphor for systems: that of cybernetics, a sciences of feedback loops, first identified by Norbert Wiener but quickly applied throughout the military, industry, and governance. For Bateson, however, the realization that action derives from interacting agents in a system opened an ontological horizon that could only be described in cosmological terms: systems now could be understood as self-regulating, utilizing the dynamics of positive and negative feedback to reach homeostatic states, as well self-organizing, capable of shifting homeostatic states towards “new patterns” and complexity. An ecology, he reasons, acts as an aggregate of many subsystems bound up in interaction operating across a variety of scales. We shouldn’t think of this ecology strictly in terms of the environment, for the environment itself is one of these parts; it also includes culture, social bodies, and importantly for Bateson, the mind itself. The Cartesian foundation of Western thought, which posits the separation of the physical body from its essence – the mind or soul – becomes unglued in these systems. While the state sought to deploy systems thinking to reinforce its governmental apparatuses and capital looked to streamline its profit producing capabilities, Bateson was charting far-out territories where the boundaries between the human and the non-human dissolve, right down to the molecular level.

Bateson’s so-called “second-order cybernetics” foreshadowed a whole realm of scientific theorizing that would emerge across the 1970s and 80s, going by names such as chaos theory, complexity theory, and emergence. Returning to Deleuze and Guattari, we can draw a resemblance between his ecology of aggregates and the machinic ecologies of flows discussed in Anti-Oedipus: Oedipus, the symbolic order, is a force that blocks the flows, framing them in a way to produce the subject. As a double bind, it assumes the function of the homeostat and prevents or wards off attempts to organize to patterns different from this equilibrium. The openings towards complexity and emergence, however, provided schizoanalytic praxis will a new scientific vocabulary to draw upon, expressed most clearly in A Thousand Plateaus.

SWARM_138-139_low

This influence is found primarily in the chapters of the book focusing on the war machine, that is, minotorian or nomadic bands that can be defined by their degrees of separation from the state. This, incidentally, is also the point in which Deleuze and Guattari appear at their most anarchist. These two points convergence on the acknowledgement that absolute control is an impossibility; as long as there are states, there will be war machines that flee from it. The state here, that Oedipal function, seeks homeostasis but the war machine can disrupt equilibria, triggering processes of self-organization towards new states. “From turba to turbo: in other words, from bands or packs of atoms to the great vortical organizations. The model is a vortical one; it operates in an open space throughout which things-flows are distributed, rather than plotting out a closed space for linear and solid things.”[10]

To further draw out their point, Deleuze and Guattari plot out a dialectic of royal sciences and nomad sciences. We can see how the developments from cybernetics onward can easily reflect both paradigms: for the military looking to maximize its command and control over an environment, managing feedback between movements on the territory and weaponry became paramount. For the government, cybernetics allowed new means to articulate the organizations of power and the constituency, while in the market, feedback systems allowed rapid developments in everything from pricing stock market options and derivatives to the management of logistics for global production chains. These royal applications find their nomadic compliment in cybernetic’s application in all sorts of far-off territories: Stafford Beer’s holism and the Chilean CyberSyn experiment, “cybernetic guerrilla warfare”, R.D. Laing and Gregory Bateson… “What we have… are two formally different conceptions of science, and, ontologically, a single field of interaction in which royal science continually appropriates the contents of vague or nomad science while nomad science continually cuts the contents of royal science loose. At the limit, all that counts is the constantly shifting borderlands.”[11]

Cosmos against Civilization

I must confess a strong suspicion for political discourse that relies heavily on a rhetoric of self-organization. It appears, particularly in the wake of the developments in the economy from the 1990s onward,that such discourse closely to the spectacular logic of neoliberal capitalism itself, which in the technological evolution of integrated world capitalism strives to be an ontological horizon in its own right – a self-organizing system of human interaction that corresponds to the activities of nature. This trajectory can trace its origins back to the economic theories of F.A. Hayek (if not earlier) and his extensive borrowings from early systems thinking. In his methodological individualism, Hayek conflates the self-organizing principles with an atomist understanding of the individual, where agency emerges from not only as a radical force from within (as opposed agency emerging from relations within assemblages and aggregates), but from a Cartesian split between the human and non-human, civilization and nature.

Another problem from a differing perspective is that Guattari seems to take the possibilities inherent in information technology a little too strongly at their face value, seeing the inevitably of critical mutations of subjectivity riding the wave of their development. He guiding points in this techno-optimism were the experiences of Radio Alice in Italy, the usage of the French Minitel system by activist networks, and the growth of online community message boards spring up around groups and interests that appeared marginal against the greater cultural backdrop. Such things were evident, he argued, that minotorian groups could shape the future deployment of media technologies in a way free from statecraft, unleashing a thousand subaltern subjectivities.

This techno-optimism was, however, a cautious one, as he expressed only several times over the course of his later books: “The post-mediatic revolution to come will have to be guided to an unprecedented degree by those minority groups which are still the only ones to have realized the mortal risk for humanity of questions such as: the nuclear arms race; world famine; irreversible ecological degradation; mass-mediatic pollution of collective subjectivities.”[12] Part of this minotorian becoming, he insisted, could come from within movements of capitalism across the globe. In this regard Japan’s unique culture, a collision of the archaic and the hypermodern, was held up as an exemplar of mutant subjectivity that contrasted sharply the capitalist vision of the west. “Might Japanese capitalism,” he posed, “be a mutation resulting from the monstrous crossing of animist powers inherited from feudalism during the ‘Baku-han’ and the machinic powers of modernity to which it appears everything here must revert?”[13]

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While there much to say on this idiosyncratic fascination with Japan, it is on this broader point of animism that I now wish to focus. Guattari’s late writings are peppered with references to the possibility of machinic subjectivities that have more in common with those of archaic societies than the contemporary postmodern malaise. He maintained a strong interest in the cosmological belief systems of the Australian Aborigines, which had developed at the time he was preparing the materials for Schizoanalytic Cartographies. To quote anthropologist Barbara Glowczewski at length,

The message that I brought back from Australia after my first field trips in 1979 and 1980 related to the ancestral connections with the land, which Aboriginal people experienced as a moving network: a real ontology in which humans, animals, plants, water and the whole of social life are thought of as the actualization of virtualities that are constantly in feedback with the space-time of Jukurrpa, the itineraries of ancestral travelers called Kangaroo, Plum or Digging-Stick Dreaming. These beings and the tracks of their voyages are effectively defined as being in becoming: sleeping in hundreds of places, springs, rocks, and interacting with humans in their own dreams and rituals, which aim to reinforce the links between all living things. Dreaming was practised as a means of regenerating life. My 1981 thesis Le rapport au temps et à l’espace des Aborigènes d’Australie (The Relation of Australian Aborigines to Time and Space) aimed to demonstrate that this dynamic process – mistakenly described by most anthropologists as ‘out of time’ – was intrinsic to the traditional vision of the world. I also demonstrated the active role of women – whose power had been denied (and continues to be denied) – in these societies. I utilized Guattari’s conception of the flux of desires to account for the mythic networks and to analyse numerous rituals: including the circulation among allies of hair strings as women’s non-alienable possessions, or a secret cult which, dreamed following the wrecking of a ship (Koombanah) deporting Aboriginal people in 1912, had journeyed among different languages groups as a symbolic form of economic transformation producing a double law, including that of the White men. Two years after I defended my thesis, I received a surprise phone call from Guattari, whom I hadn’t yet met. He invited me to his seminar to discuss my thesis, a copy of which he had received from his friend the video-maker François Pain and which he had just read in one sitting.[14]

Shortly thereafter Glowczewski arrived at the La Borde clinic to present her thesis before the patients, who, she recounted, had “a surprisingly intuitive understanding of the Aboriginal aims and workings of these social games and rituals.”[15] For the Aboriginals, all things radiate from the Dreamtime; all social structure, by extension, becomes articulated in terms of a singular family – extremely different from the nuclear family so savagely critiqued all the way back in Anti-Oedipus. This unique form of animism indicates as well that the binary division between the human and the nonhuman elements that compose the territory are largely inseparable, since they come from and will return to the same place.

SYDNEY OLYMPICS -- Sept. 15, 2000 -- Performers during the

Glowczewski not only mentions that Guattari’s interest in the” Aborigines would foreshadow the politics of intertwining described in The Three Ecologies, but that his enthusiasm for the totemic paths and the use of dreams by the Warlpiri was stimulated, by, among other things, the fact that the kinship system – which extends to all the totems (Dreamings) and their associated places – seems to favour social strategies that prevent centralized structures of domination”[16] What Glowczewski is describing here is the influence of anthropologist Pierre Clastres, whose work on ‘primitive’ societies had greatly influenced Deleuze and Guattari. Focusing primarily on Amerindians and particularly those of Amazonia, Clastres illustrates that through kinship structures, the subpolitics of chieftanship, and war as social force the formal organization of the state is prevented at every point in which it could emerge. In his words these societies are, in fact, societies without states.

Using anthropological study to elucidate several key aspects in anarchist theory, Clastres argues that the state-form itself is indistinguishable, particularly where the Western state is involved, from ethnocidal practices of colonization: ethnocide, which is the elimination of the Other or difference to protection the interest of the same, “is clearly a part of the essence of the State…”[17] The state for Clastres is an extension of ethnocentric culture, formed with this culture becomes a property unto itself. It intrinsically forms itself against the Other, assembling itself higher on a hierarchical ladder and grants itself the enlightened goal of managing and correcting the Other’s perceived primitivism. In the case of Western civilization, the rapid expansion and deployment of both ethnocide and genocide under the colonialist banner is directly tied to the growth necessary for the reproduction of capitalist production, as so many Marxist theories of imperialism have waged. Clastres: “What differentiates the West is capitalism, as the impossibility of remaining within a frontier, as the passing beyond of all frontiers… Industrial society, the most formidable machines of production, is for that very reason the most terrifying machine of destruction. Races, societies, individuals; space, nature, forests, subsoils: everything is useful, everything must be used, everything must be productive, with productivity pushed to its maximum rate of intentsity.”[18]

In Anti-Oedipus (a book praised by Clastres), Deleuze and Guattari link this colonialist mentality to the relationship between capitalist production, the state, and Oedipus:

The colonizer… abolishes the chieftainship, or uses it to further his own ends (and he uses many other things besides: the chieftainship is only the beginning). The colonizer says: your father is your father and nothing else, or your maternal grandfather – don’t mistake them for chiefs; you can go have yourself triangulated in your corner, and place your house between those of your paternal and maternal kin; your family is your family and nothing else; sexual reproduction no longer passes through those points, although we rightly need your family to furnish a material that will be subjected to a new order of reproduction. Yes, then, an Oedipal framework is outlined for the dispossessed primitives: a shantytown Oedipus.[19]

Furthermore, they assert, the colonized continually resist Oedipus, fighting back at each turn, either in large, collective movements such as the anti-colonialist revolts of the 1960s, or the private moments of rebellion, as analyzed by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. Just as the schizo can retreat from the civilizing double-bind while the psychoanalyst attempts to ‘(re)colonize his or her mind, the resistance to the state on the part of the Others is “schizoanalysis in action.”[20]

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In A Thousand Plateaus, the two take up again the question of Clastres’ anthropology in their discussion of the war machine. This time, archaic societies ability to evade the state composes the actions of the war machines themselves, nomad movements that constantly overflow the limits but are also sought to be captured by the state. “War machines take shape against the apparatuses that appropriate the war machine and make war their affair and their object: the bring connections to bear against the great conjunction of the apparatuses of capture and domination.”[21] We can now grasp the unification of the archaic and the (post)modern machinic in Guattari’s later work – in A Thousand Plateaus we see two functions of the war machine. On one hand, it is their relationship to these anarchic functions of the anti-state social formations, constantly deterritorializing away from centralization. On the other hand, it is the relationship (which we must acknowledge is only partly a metaphor) between the war machine and nomad science – the sciences of self-organization and emergence, particularly in the contexts in which they break through the boundaries that the apparatuses of Western civilization seek to impose on them. In the era of media-information technologies, intricately bound to these sciences as they are, it is the minor groups that act of the war machine, becoming visible and communicable through the powers of the network. All too unfortunately, the apparatus of capture has appeared to be wildly successful.

The reader might ask, what then of animism? What is the relationship between animist subjectivity and the societies that reject the state, the war machine? Here the writings of Guattari, with or without Deleue, cease to be as instructive as they have to do this point. This is by no means the end of our constellation – the way forward is by looking now to the thinkers who probe these similar areas, pushing thought into new divergent directions by drawing in equal measures the ontological ecologies generated by the nomad sciences and the perspectives articulated by non-Western societies, who to this day exist in extreme danger of disappearance from both capitalism’s insatiable thirst for resources for growth and the ecological reactions to this megamachine.

It is Eduardo Vivieros de Castro, an expert on Amerindians, who insists that “animism is the ontology of societies without a state.”[22] does he mean by this? The state, he holds, can be defined by interiority. For capitalism, all things can be made to be interior to its complex assemblages, while the modern liberal stateform, which seeks to pluralistically manage differences, seeks to act as the universal mediator of social relations within its territories, while seeking to make its outside assimilate to its scripture – in other words, following the spatial expansion of capital, the state too wants to bring the outside into its interior. On the molecular, the self too is defined as interiority, interior to the body in accordance with the Cartesian rationalization that separates body and mind. This molecular rendering, in turn, is plugged into the state-capitalist machine: it is the source of the atomist thought, retained by Hayek, that transformed the subjectivity into a rational actor, primed for the permanent utopia of the market.

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In animism, however, this interior exists nowhere – all things are outside, or more properly, in the relationship between things in the outside. In Amerindian belief bodies “are not thought as given but rather as made.”[23] The primordial stuff in which the body and its soul – of which there is zero division – is the stuff of the world itself, limited not only to the physicality of matter but also to the substance of the spiritual. Here too we find zero lines demarcating the division of matter from spirit, as all things are forever being made – the body, culture, nature, all are perfomative and unfolding in a process of worlding. Neither subject nor object, but entanglement and unfolding.

Phillipe Descola argues that this worldview emerges precisely because of these cultures emergence from spaces of complex ecosystems – “Might the apparent inability to objectivize nature of many Amazonian peoples be a consequence of the properties of their environment?”[24] What’s at stake in this observation is representationalism, which aims to separate all things, make them objects, quantifiable, and subject to control via discursive practices. The linguistic turn in critical theory, which took aim at the power of discursivity, managed only to muddy these waters by trapping discourse at the level of the signifier. This turn, however, connects the discursive to matter, making matter matter. Maurizio Lazzarrato: “we must move beyond both language and semiotics.”[25]

de Castro insists that “Not only would Amerindians put a wide birth between themselves and the Great Cartesian Divide which seperates humanity from animality, but their views anticipate the fundamental lessons of ecology which we are now only in a position to assimilate.”[26] Furthermore, their eco-cosmological perspective “reveals itself as the universal admixture of subject and objects, humans and non-humans against modern hubris, the primitive and postmodern ‘hybrids’, to borrow a term from Latour. Next to Latour we could make a list of thinkers that either anticipated or are fully engaged with this posthuman, perfomative turn: Deleuze and Guattari, Donna Haraway, Andrew Pickering, Karen Barad, Timothy Morton, so on and so forth – in short, a roster of the new ontologies that have informed and shaped much critical contemporary critical debate. The key becomes, however, not isolating this debate away into the halls of the academy, which will simply serve to ‘Oedipalize’ and regulate their function at the level of circulating signs. Instead, it becomes imperative not to simply think of these texts, and debate it. The purpose is think alongside action, to see where they meet the infrastructural systems forming in the era of late neoliberalism.

For de Castro, the translation of performativity into anthropology goes by the label “perspectivism”, which he describes as a “cosmology against the state”.[27] While perspectivism is a practice of knowing the subaltern or those operating on what appears to us to be an outside, it also performs a dual political role by bringing to us realizations of being and becoming utterly foreign to our perception. It provides, in its own way, a blueprint for living in a way that differs from capitalist realism. For this reason perspectivist anthropology, in de Castro’s own words, is a nomad science, as described in A Thousand Plateaus. And like schizoanalysis, the purpose is one of decolonization, of restarting the flows that have been blocked in the name of civilized progress.

For me, anthropology is in fact the theory—to sound a bit like Trotsky—the theory of a permanent decolonization. A permanent decolonization of thought. That is anthropology for me. It is not a question of decolonizing society, but of decolonizing thought. How to decolonize thought? And how to do it permanently? Because thinking is constantly recolonized and reterritorialized… What does it mean to live in a society without a state, against the state? We don’t have any idea. You have to live there to see how things happen in a world without a state. In a society that is not only lacking the state but, as Clastres thought, is against the state because it is constituted precisely on the absence of the state. Not because of the lack of a state, but upon the absence of the state, so that the state cannot come into existence. And animism has to do with that.[28]

[1] Felix Guattari The Three Ecologies Athlone Press, 2000, pg. 27

[2] Ibid

[3] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia Penguin Classics, 2009, pgs. 4-5

[4] Francois Dosse Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: Intersecting Lives Columbia University Press, 2010, pg. 391

[5] See Brian Holmes “Guattari’s Schizoanalytic Cartographies (or, the Pathic Core at the Heart of Cybernetics)” Three Crises http://threecrises.org/guattaris-schizoanalytic-cartographies/; as well as my own “How Does Schizoanalysis Work? (or, “how do you make a class function like a work of art?”) Deterritorial Investigations Unit, https://deterritorialinvestigations.wordpress.com/2013/05/15/how-does-schizoanalysis-work-or-how-do-you-make-a-class-operate-like-a-work-of-art/

[6] Guattari The Three Ecologies pg. 47

[7] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia University of Minnesota Press, 1989, pg. 6-7

[8] Deleuze and Guattari Anti-Oedipus pg. 76

[9] Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia” Behavioral Science, 1956, pg. 5 http://solutions-centre.org/pdf/TOWARD-A-THEORY-OF-SCHIZOPHRENIA-2.pdf

[10] A Thousand Plateaus pg. 361

[11] Ibid, pg. 367

[12] quoted in Gary Genosko “The Promise of Post-Media” in Clemens Apprich, Josephine Berry Slater, Anthony Iles and Oliver Lerone Schultz (eds.) Provocative Alloys: A Post-Media Anthology Mute, 2013, pg. 20

[13] quoted in “Japanese Singularity”, in Gary Genosko Felix Guattari: An Aberrant Introduction Continuum, 2002, pg. 142

[14] Barbara Glowczewski “Guattari and Anthropology: Existential Territories among Indigenous Australians” in Eric Alliez and Andrew Goffey (eds.) The Guattari Effect Bloomsbury, 2011, pg. 102

[15] Ibid, pg. 103

[16] Ibid, pg. 102

[17] Pierre Clastres “On Ethnocide” in Archeology of Violence Semiotext(e), 2010, pg. 111

[18] Ibid, pg. 112

[19] Deleuze and Guattari Anti-Oedipus pg. 169

[20] Ibid, pg. 167

[21] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

[22] Angela Melitopoulos and Maurizio Lazzarato “Assemblages: Felix Guattari and Machinic Animism” e-Flux July, 2012 http://www.e-flux.com/journal/assemblages-felix-guattari-and-machinic-animism/

[23] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro Cosmological Perspectivism in Amazonia and Elsewhere: Four lectures given in the Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University, February-March 1998 Hau-Net, 2012, pg. 123

[24] Phillipe Descola Beyond Nature and Culture University of Chicago Press, 2013, pg. 11

[25] Maurizio Lazzarato Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of SubjectivitySemiotext(e), 2014, pg. 17

[26] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro “Cosmological Deixis and the Amerindian Perspectivism” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Sep., 1998), pg. 475

[27] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro “The Untimely, Again” introduction to Clastres Archeology of Violencepg. 48

[28] Melitopouos and Lazzarato “Assemblages”

Os saberes indígenas, muito além do romantismo (Outras Palavras)

POR  RICARDO CAVALCANTI-SCHIEL

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Não se trata de opor um fantasioso “espiritualismo” a um materialismo ocidental. Mas de desafiar nosso regime de sociabilidade com outras ideias, disposições e possibilidades

Por Ricardo Cavalcanti-Schiel

Houve um tempo em que falar de índios no Brasil era um exercício romântico. Tão romântico quanto fantasioso.

No começo do século XX, alguns doutos paulistas saíram pelo seu estado batizando os lugares com nomes tupi, do Anhangabaú a Araçatuba, movidos por ímpetos eruditos, não necessariamente por remissões mais escrupulosas à realidade. Quando a região de Guaianases, na cidade de São Paulo, foi batizada com esse nome, havia centenas de anos que os Guainá, que ali teriam sido aldeados à força no século XVI, já não mais existiam para contar qualquer coisa a respeito da sua história. Os índios daqueles eruditos paulistas, cultores do “tupi antigo”, eram algo bastante postiço. Realizando com perversa ironia os ideais antropofágicos dos mesmos tupi, que séculos antes iam à guerra, entre outras coisas, para caçar, para seus futuros filhos, os nomes daqueles que comeriam, acabaram eles agora transformados em não mais que nomes, desta feita como que nomes em conserva, para serem usados nessa curiosa salada toponímica.

Enquanto isso, no oeste paulista, a partir de Bauru, travava-se uma guerra pela expansão da fronteira agrária, empurrada pela ferrovia. Era um legítimo cenário de bang-bang, e as principais vítimas do extermínio, operado por “bugreiros” e outros agentes, eram os Kaingang e os Xavante, genericamente chamados de Coroados, gente da família linguística jê (muito diferente da família tupi, portanto); extermínio que a história oficial paulista fez questão de sepultar sob a tampa de concreto do silêncio, escrevendo, em seu lugar, o relato fantasioso de uma simples saga de imigrantes. Assim, Araçatuba, por exemplo, terra kaingang, hoje capital do boi gordo, no extremo-oeste paulista, pôde, também ela, ganhar seu bucólico nome tupi: bosque de araçás.

Note-se: não estamos nos confins selváticos e geograficamente obscuros de uma imensa Amazônia; uma Amazônia quase que alheia e que nem parece ter fim (e que daí, pela “lei” da oferta e da procura, se presuma como tão… barata). Estamos no hoje pujante e urbanizado oeste paulista, há não mais que cem anos atrás, apenas vinte anos antes de São Paulo embarcar em uma aventura militar contra um incipiente governo nacional antioligárquico.

De romantismo em romantismo, chegamos aos anos 80, em que os índios, eternos candidatos a nobres selvagens, passam a ser agora heróis ecológicos. Esses, pelo menos, ainda estavam vivos. É bem verdade que a relação dos índios com aquilo que chamamos “natureza” é muito diferente da que a nossa sociedade tem, a começar pelo fato de que, como nos ensina a antropologia amazonista hoje, eles não a reconhecem como “natureza” ― como objeto exterior e à parte, feito para ser usado, apropriado e apenas eventualmente “preservado” como coisa patrimonializada ―, mas como “gente”, como uma multiplicidade de sujeitos imprescindíveis de uma relação sem a qual o mundo habitado não é compreensível nem poderia existir. No entanto, transformar os índios em heróis da “nossa” natureza, incorporados como parte daquele objeto à parte, e igualmente alheio a nós, pode não ser mais que uma dessas nossas projeções, tão românticas quanto utilitárias, de ver Peri beijar Ceci… e morrer em seguida. Parará tim bum bum bum.

Se o novo romantismo ecológico ao menos chamou os índios para a agenda enquanto eles ainda estão vivos, sua tônica acanhadamente preservacionista os fez equivaler, mais uma vez, ao passado; a um passado de aparente pureza florística e faunística que precisaria ser sempre revivido ― ou “resgatado”, como gosta de usar a terminologia patrimonializadora em voga ― de forma idealmente imutável. Mais uma vez, os índios parecem entrar na (nossa) dança sob a clave do embalsamamento, mesmo que, agora, sob a agenda de uma patrimonialização talvez tão fetichista quanto a toponímia mítica dos velhos eruditos paulistas.

No entanto, nos últimos tempos, os últimos lastros românticos que ainda pareciam nos avalizar a existência dos índios parecem estar ruindo, o que não nos augura necessariamente algo virtuoso, porque ficamos mal-acostumados a depender dos romantismos para assegurar uma (traiçoeira e manhosa) legitimidade simbólica desses Outros Nacionais (como os chamou a antropóloga Alcida Ramos) e, por consequência, garantir as bases institucionais da sua existência enquanto povos acolhidos e protegidos ― não falemos sequer ainda de “respeitados”, porque o respeito à diferença não é algo que se aprenda por meio de projeções românticas.

Não é preciso lembrar, para as pessoas razoavelmente informadas, o estado de coisas em que andam as políticas de governo… e os horizontes obscuros das políticas de Estado… com relação aos povos indígenas. Também já é quase ocioso lembrar o quanto um e outro (políticas de governo e projetos de política de Estado) têm se estimulado mutuamente, para promover o etnocídio indígena por meio do solapamento dos direitos. Seja para quem for, qualquer solapamento de direitos é sempre um sequestro da cidadania. Daria até para lembrar, parafrasticamente, aquele poema de Brecht: “primeiro levaram os índios…”.

O que alenta e justifica essa marcha implacável nós também já sabemos o que é: a velha ideologia desenvolvimentista repaginada pelo avatar inquestionável do consumo como critério, seja de teórica “inclusão” seja de teórico “bem-estar”. Assim, no coração dessa nova ideologia desenvolvimentista encontra-se uma operação utilitarista singela: trocar a cidadania pelo consumo. E, nela, o único lugar para os índios ― uma vez corroídas, por esse realismo neoclássico rasteiro, as amarras românticas que os sustentavam ― é o de se tornarem, eles também, modestíssimos consumidores, apoiados por programas assistenciais do governo, depois de entregarem seus “meios de produção” a quem realmente interessa, como aqueles que, vencidos, entregaram outrora o que são hoje terras de boi gordo.

Claro que os que já se renderam inteiramente à coisificação utilitarista do consumo (e provavelmente se esqueceram até de ser gente) vão dizer: melhor boi gordo do que índio ― e no estado em que chegamos, isso é exatamente o que muitos pensam, sem que tenham a necessidade de pronunciá-lo. No entanto, a troca utilitarista, na sua racionalidade de meios e no seu afã predatório, quer apenas ganhar hoje, para a aventura de uns quantos, o que o bem comum poderia, de outra forma, ganhar multiplicado amanhã, se sobreviver até lá. E é aí que a equação que move as curvas de utilidade se alarga para variáveis e horizontes impensados pelos mecano-economistas.

No atual estado de coisas, entretanto, parece haver apenas duas alternativas para salvar a (potencialmente subversiva) diversidade existencial dos Outros Nacionais da sanha desenvolvimentista de moê-la e transformá-la em salsicha: ou reciclamos as projeções românticas em algum novo (e duvidoso) feitiço encantatório das nossas narrativas nacionais, ou tiramos os índios do alheamento passadista a que sempre foram condenados e os reconhecemos como uma aposta sincera no futuro; num futuro não apenas deles, como também não apenas nosso, mas num futuro de diálogo, para além do alheamento, no qual eles também são, necessariamente, sujeitos de fala ― não “eles” a pessoa x ou y, ou a “representação” w ou z, mas, ainda mais radicalmente, as suas visões de mundo. A primeira alternativa, a da reciclagem das projeções românticas, sempre foi aquela imediatamente sedutora, e, com ela, chega-se até mesmo a lançar mão de alegados exotéricos. A segunda, por sua vez, é a que reclama uma reflexão antiutilitária, mas estratégica, que talvez seja exatamente aquilo pelo qual muitos de nós, antropólogos, trabalhamos.

Em 1952, num texto escrito para a Unesco, Lévi-Strauss defendia que as sociedades só sobrevivem porque aprendem umas com as outras. Uma sociedade que se isola na certeza das suas verdades fenece diante dos problemas para os quais sua visão de mundo não alcança soluções. As “soluções” de grande alcance, portanto, não são meramente tecnológicas, mas conceituais. São as ideias que dimensionam a técnica e que dão uso às ferramentas, ou, segundo a fórmula famosa do epistemólogo Georges Canguilhem: o microscópio não é a extensão da vista, mas a extensão da inteligência. Sem o conceito de micro-organismo, o que se veria pelas lentes de um microscópio seria apenas um conto de fadas.

Evidentemente que as tecnologias ajudam, mas o que está sempre por detrás delas são as ideias. De pouco adiantaria, para a expansão europeia dos séculos XV e XVI, o astrolábio que os europeus aprenderam dos árabes, se alguns deles não dispusessem do novo e herético conceito de uma Terra redonda. Descobrir a América, nesse sentido, foi a consagração de uma grande heresia, frente a uma doxa tão potente à sua época quanto os mitos econômicos atuais e suas leis inquestionáveis. E as coisas não pararam por aí, evidentemente, porque, como também nos lembrava Lévi-Strauss, isso é a história, e os europeus, casualmente, não se encontravam na situação dos Mayas em torno do ano 1.000, quando, orgulhosos e isolados, viram suas opulentas cidades colapsarem por conta de uma crise ecológica, por eles mesmo provocada, e para a qual nem o refinamento do conhecimento dos seus astrônomos e sacerdotes tinha uma solução a dar.
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Ainda assim, um milênio após o fim do período Maya Clássico, o muralista Diego Rivera pintaria em uma das paredes do Palácio Nacional do México a lista do que a tradição ameríndia mexicana havia legado ao mundo: uma lista de cultivos alimentares que, além de cacau, tomate e feijão, é encabeçada, evidentemente, pelo milho, cuja notável diversidade genética dos cultivares meso-americanos a Monsanto está tratando hoje de eliminar, por meio de seu milho transgênico com patente “made in USA”. Não apenas o milho, mas sobretudo a batata, levada dos Andes pelos europeus, produzem muito mais calorias por hectare plantado que o trigo, nascido na Mesopotâmia e levado para a Europa. O cultivo desse tubérculo, rapidamente estimulado e expandido no Velho Continente, foi responsável por eliminar a fome endêmica e medieval da Europa, e constituir a base demográfica sem a qual a Revolução Industrial não teria sido possível e, com ela, a nossa arrogante modernidade.Por trás da domesticação dos tubérculos nos Andes há um enorme conjunto de ideias sobre como a mãe-terra gera seus frutos, como o trabalho comum os recolhe, como eles podem ser acumulados e conservados, e como devem ser distribuídos. À época da Conquista, os indígenas dos Andes eram muitíssimo mais bem nutridos e saudáveis que os europeus. Diante dessa diferença evidente, estes últimos aproveitaram apenas um produto específico, o que, para eles, já foi muito. Há quem acredite que o socialismo e o Estado do bem-estar social teriam sido inventados alguns séculos antes se os europeus, além das batatas, tivessem levado as ideias.

Apostar nos índios, e portanto na diversidade cultural, como nosso futuro comum de não-alheamento, não significa meramente apostar que a erva de algum pajé possa trazer a cura para o câncer. Expor nossas ideias ao contato com outras visões de mundo pode nos curar de coisas muito piores: nossos próprios e mesquinhos limites.

Quando comentávamos antes que o militantismo ecologista, ao trazer intuitivamente os índios à baila, acabou descuidando do que eles poderiam pensar a respeito da “nossa” natureza ― apenas para servirem ao que nós continuamos a pensar dela e da sua “preservação” enquanto objeto ―, sugeríamos também que a recusa, por parte dos índios, à sumária objetificação dessa “natureza” corresponde ao reconhecimento dela, por eles, como sujeito de uma relação. Conceitos como animismo, perspectivismo e multinaturalismo (por oposição a multiculturalismo) vêm sendo testados pelos antropólogos para descrever o sentido da socialidade indígena na Amazônia e a sua maneira de reconhecer os agentes das relações. Esse fenômeno, no entanto ― como tentamos demonstrar em nossas pesquisas nos Andes ―, pode, na realidade, se constituir como um traço ameríndio generalizado, continental. E o que ele desafia não é apenas a nossa forma de relação com uma “natureza” dada, mas sim a forma como nós a conceituamos, para, em seguida, nos sentirmos à vontade para subjugá-la, a partir de uma relação sujeito-objeto em que a extensão do uso e da posse (a simples destruição incluída) se define pelos casuísmos de uma racionalidade instrumental.

Se aquele tipo de perspectiva sobre a socialidade tem uma incidência efetivamente ameríndia, continental, e se a dimensão do seu desafio pode e deve ser posta em larga escala, então quem nos manda o recado político é o movimento indígena equatoriano, que inspirou em boa medida a elaboração da última Constituição do país, referendada em 2008. Nela, pela primeira vez no mundo, a Natureza foi reconhecida como sujeito jurídico de direito, para que em seu nome e da sua integridade, seja defendida como parte interessada em qualquer ação judicial visando garantir sua “existência, manutenção e regeneração de seus ciclos vitais, estrutura, funções e processos evolutivos” (Art. 71). Talvez seja ocioso se prender a emblemas ou ressentimentos étnicos: se essa Natureza corresponde tão somente, ou não, à Pachamama, a mãe-terra dos andinos, tal como explicitamente a nomeia o mesmo artigo 71… Estamos, antes, em um terreno de fecundas heterogeneidades discursivas, no terreno do desafio das ideias. E é aí que se fazem as grandes apostas no futuro, porque é isso que, para o bem ou para o mal, com a lista de Diego Rivera e muitas outras, e também com toda a precariedade das experiências, constituiu o Novo Mundo.

O desafio posto pelo pensamento ameríndio de reconhecer a socialidade como espaço de interação necessária de muitos sujeitos, que faz o mundo girar não por conta de alguma hierarquia natural ou do imperativo de marcas de origem que definem privilégios, mas por conta das diferentes maneiras de vê-lo e de tecer acordos, nos sugere que viver em não-alheamento significa reconhecer que o Outro é, inescapavelmente, parte de qualquer consideração que se faça sobre si mesmo. Como já o enunciava, bela e sinteticamente, o professor Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “para os ameríndios, o Outro não é apenas pensável, ele é indispensável”. Talvez não tenhamos lição melhor, para começarmos a repensar seriamente o que possamos entender por cidadania, em um contexto flagrado por iniquidades; um contexto que não será reformado se se insistir apenas no polo da objetificação alheadora, no fetiche da mercadoria e, em último termo, na dispensabilidade dos outros.

Não se trata de opor um fantasioso “espiritualismo” indígena a um materialismo ocidental “realista”. Trata-se de desafiar um certo regime de socialidade (o nosso, ocidental e moderno) com outras ideias, disposições e possibilidades. Algumas delas é bem provável que até já tenhamos aprendido inconscientemente, ao longo de nossa história cultural, afinal o território mais largo da cultura, a parte submersa desse iceberg, é, como também dizia Lévi-Strauss, esse inconsciente. Os índios que os portugueses aqui encontraram, com quem conviveram e que permanecem no (apenas aparente) subterrâneo das nossas mestiçagens, não legaram aos brasileiros de hoje simplesmente tapioca, rede de dormir e outras coisas. Legaram-nos também um modo de nos relacionarmos quotidianamente, que, muito diferente dos europeus, não parte do princípio do reconhecimento do lugar social e pertencimento de alguém sempre e necessariamente pelas suas marcas de origem ― algo que tanto prezam nossas elites senhoriais, que se querem mais “europeias”. Se os brasileiros aprenderam a se abrir cordialmente aos outros, digeri-los e abrasileirá-los como parte de um nós possível (ainda que muitas vezes perverso e hierárquico ― mas a hierarquia não é, com certeza, um legado indígena), isso seguramente não foi aprendido dos europeus.

E se se trata ainda de desafiar um certo regime de socialidade com outras ideias, disposições e possibilidades, então, levar a sério o não-alheamento diante da diversidade significa garantir aos muitos da cidadania um lugar ativo, ouvi-los mais detidamente e deixar-se desafiar pela possibilidade da invenção, pela potencial complicação do que parece já estar dado pelas nossas formas institucionais, recusando a simples tentação de domesticá-los às formas prévias, a uns quantos programas assistenciais, quotas e representações de fachada. Afinal de contas, o que é, por exemplo, o ideal político do “Buen Vivir” (ou, em quéchua, “Sumaq Kausay”), alentado pelas novas disposições constitucionais do Equador e da Bolívia, senão uma enorme complicação para a planura desenvolvimentista; uma complicação ainda a reclamar um ou vários Amartya Sen para lhe inventar indicadores por agora imponderáveis? Mas, e o que é também o ideal político do “Buen Vivir” senão um desafio em nome da “imanência da suficiência”, dos índios, contra a voraz e predatória “transcendência da necessidade”, do Ocidente capitalista, de que nos falava Eduardo Viveiros de Castro [1]?

Talvez seja também preciso dizer que encarar seriamente a opção do não-alheamento significa, com bastante probabilidade, molestar alguns lugares comuns tidos hoje como “politicamente corretos”, e que são aqueles tributários do multiculturalismo neoliberal, quais sejam, suas obsessões com fronteiras bem acabadas, identidades amuralhadas e os contratos de patrimonialização. Os verdadeiros diálogos não se realizam sobre a prévia domesticação dos seus termos por gramáticas unilaterais ― ou uma pretensa universalidade habermasiana. Eles não são uma mera exibição de emblemas, para marcar posição dentro de um mercado contratualista ― ou uma economia contratualista da alteridade. Os verdadeiros diálogos são aqueles em que nos “contaminamos” e nos arriscamos com as razões de ser dos outros. Os pós-estruturalistas talvez tenham nisso razão ao usarem o termo “devir”.

A Constituição brasileira de 88 consagrou os direitos coletivos indígenas como base positiva do direito à reprodução cultural. Sequestrar os primeiros é também sequestrar este último. O que perdemos todos com isso é mais do que uma diversidade meramente nominal, a diversidade passiva do multiculturalismo objetificador. Estaremos perdendo possibilidades de cidadania. E estaremos perdendo possibilidades de futuro. Pois é aí, e não num passado romântico ou instrumentalmente ecológico, que os índios deveriam sobretudo ser vistos.

[1] http://www.socioambiental.org/pt-br/blog/blog-do-isa/o-brasil-e-grande-mas-o-mundo-e-pequeno

Puppy-Dog Eyes of Science (Savage Minds)

April 24, 2015 – John Hartigan

“Scientists say…” It’s interesting what natural science research starts making the rounds on social media. Mostly on diet or health broadly, and increasingly concerning climate change. On rare occasion—as over the past few days—some reports surface that offer insight into the circulating clutter itself, as in “cute dog” photos. In this instance, they’re opportunities to glimpse changing understandings of big topics, like domestication and evolution.

Links for two articles recently popped up in my Twitter feed: “The Science of Puppy-Dog Eyes” (NYTimes, 4/21/14) and “The Guilty Looking Companion,” Scientific American(4/20/15), both treating the gazing behavior of dogs and its various effects on humans. The first, by Jan Hoffman, reported on a study published in Science (in a themed-column on evolution), titled, “Dogs hijack the human bonding pathway.” The second, by Julie Hecht, “The Guilty Looking Companion,” builds off an article in Behavioral Processes, on a tangled question: “Are owners’ reports of their dogs’ ‘guilty look’ influenced by the dogs’ action and evidence of the misdeed?” Both suggest a far more agential companion species than many people might’ve suspected, but more importantly they each complicate stock domestication narratives suggesting it was something we simply did to them. They also suggest opportunities for extending social analysis beyond the human.

As the title of the Science article suggests, dogs were possibly canny drivers of domestication: “dogs became domesticated in part by adapting to human means of communication: eye contact.” In particular, the speculation is that dogs cleverly “utilized a natural system meant for bonding a parent with his or her child.” Evolutionarily, “the challenge for dogs may simply have been to express a behavioral (and morphological) repertoire that mimicked the cues that elicit caregiving toward our own young. Indeed, these juvenile characteristics of dogs are known to carry a selective advantage with respect to human preferences.” So dogs wile their way into our good graces by coopting the cuteness channel we have for children. To complicate agency a bit further, this seems to all hinge on a bidirectional hormonal mechanism: people and dogs both develop heightened, pleasurable levels of oxytocin from protracted gazing into each other’s eyes. “These findings suggest not only an interspecific effect of oxytocin, but also the exciting possibility of a feedback loop,” since “shifts in oxytocin concentration in a dog might elicit similar changes in a human and vice-versa—just as when a mother bonds with her infant.” Domestication just got a good deal more interesting.

“The guilty looking companion” takes up the theme of sociality and how social bonds are respectively maintained in various species, but also how humans might be duped by our tendency to anthropomorphize dogs as possessing a subjective state approximating shame. The reparative behaviors of appeasement and reconciliation that maintain relationships, practiced by many species, when manifested by dogs, reads easily, to us, as “guilt.” But through a fascinating series of experiments, researchers countered that these canine gestures are just “cohesive displays,” which operate “to reduce conflict, diffuse tension, and reinforce social bonds.” Dogs are not responding to ameliorating a subjective sense of shame at transgressing rules; they are instead “incredibly sensitive to environmental and social cues.” If there’s furniture torn or overturned, the owner is looking for someone to chastise—better grovel or cringe. These behavior are very effective, according to surveys of dog owners, who withhold punishments in the wake of such displays. But Hecht concludes with a caution: “It might just be that we’re anthropomorphizing,” in reference to the viral spew of “dog shamming” photos. “Which, in this case, might not be good for us or our dogs.” Indeed, but what is even more valuable here is the perspective opened up onto thinking about parallel and converging forms of species sociality, beyond the question of who is domesticating who.

On that topic, another recently published science article pursues just these openings, though unfortunately it does not seem to be circulating widely at all. “Testing the myth: Tolerant dogs and aggressive wolves,” in Proceedings B (Royal Society Publishing) reports on findings that indicate “a steeper dominance hierarchy in dogs than in wolves.” While “tolerance” is supposed to be the character trait “selected for,” dogs appear far more aggressive and uncooperative with conspecifics than wolves. The problem with “all domestication theories” to date is that they’ve ignored “apparently contradictory behaviours…observed in dogs and wolf packs.” There’s an enormous amount to this piece, but it may come down to “face,” as Erving Goffman developed the concept. “Visual communication in dogs is somewhat impaired due to their reduced visual (facial as well as bodily) expressions,” which “might lead to an inability to control conflicts in close quarters.” Wolves are far more articulate in reading both gaze and facial features in conspecific communications. Range et al write, “Although dogs and wolves seem to use the same signals overall, it is possible that dogs do not use them as appropriately as wolves”—i.e., they haven’t refined the etiquette of conspecific communications quite as well, though they’re very good at circumventing our conspecific gaze signaling tendencies.

But that “wolves appear tolerant, attentive, and at the same time cooperative towards pack members” is in stark “contrast to the starting point of several recent domestication hypotheses.” Free-ranging dogs—constituting about 76-83% of the global dog population!!—not so much. So the questions swirl as to dogs’ cognitive and emotional processes underlying their intraspecific sociality and how that variously aligns with ours, in the deep past and today.

Fast Writing: Ethnography in the Digital Age (Savage Minds)

March 30, 2015 Carole McGranahan

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Yarimar Bonilla as part of our Writer’s Workshop SeriesYarimar is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming Fall 2015) and has written broadly about social movements, historical imaginaries, and questions of sovereignty in the Caribbean. She is currently a fellow in the History Design Studio at Harvard University where she is working on a digital project entitled “Visualizing Sovereignty.”]

In a recent contribution to this writers’ series, Michael Lambek offered some reflections on the virtues of “slow reading.” In an era of rapid-fire online communication, when images increasingly substitute for text, Lambek argues we would be well served to revel in the quiet interiority and reflective subjectivity made possible by long-form reading.

In this post I would like to think more carefully about this claim and to consider whether we might want to make a similar argument regarding the shifting pace of academic writing. If, as Lambek and others suggest, the temporality of reading has been altered by the digital age, can the same be said for research and writing? How have new digital tools, platforms, and shifts in technological access transformed the temporality of ethnographic writing, and is this something we necessarily wish to slow down?

I recently had occasion to experiment with sped-up academic pacing when offered the opportunity to contribute a piece to American Ethnologist about the protests surrounding the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In brainstorming our article, my co-author Jonathan Rosa and I asked ourselves hard questions about what we could contribute to the unfolding discussion about Ferguson. Both of us had produced academic “slow writing”— the product of years of careful research, analysis, drafting and editing. We had also engaged in some forms of “fast writing.” For example, I had published journalistic pieces on social movements in Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe. But these pieces focused on events not being covered in the mainstream media and for which informed journalism was necessary. The same could not be said of Ferguson. Despite an initial lag in journalistic coverage, by the time we were drafting our article, Ferguson had reached a point of media saturation, indeed it had become a challenge to keep apace with the numerous thought pieces and editorial columns emerging at a feverish pace during this time.

hands upImage from the Ferguson newsletter

In plotting our article we thus asked ourselves: how can we contribute to this fast moving conversation while still producing a piece that might hold up over time? That is, how could we produce something fast but not ephemeral?

The result was an exercise in mid-tempo research and writing. It was not the product of long-sustained fieldwork, and was very much written “in the heat of the moment,” but it nonetheless tried to anticipate how anthropologists might look back on Ferguson over time—how they might use this event to teach and write about broader issues of racialization, longer histories of race-based violence, the racial politics of social media, and the shifting terrain of contemporary activism.

This process forced us to think about the challenges of being not just fast writers but fastethnographers. How can we speak to fast moving stories while still retaining the contextualization, historical perspective, and attention to individual experiences characteristic of a fieldworker? Also, how can we engage with emerging digital platforms like Twitter with the comparative and ethnographic perspective characteristic of our discipline?

The latter requires us to take seriously the narrative genres and political possibilities afforded by new forms of digital communication without assuming that their speed robs them of their social complexity. For example, while some might see the prevalence of “memes” and the seeming dominance of image over text on the internet as an inherently negative development, as anthropologists we are well poised to recognize that shifts in communicative practices are neither inherently virtuous nor corrosive. Rather, they speak to, and are themselves generative of, a new set of social and political possibilities.

can't breathePhotograph from the Ferguson newsletter

In the case of Ferguson, the fast-moving pace and ease-of-access afforded by Twitter helped activists and supporters bring heightened awareness to what would have otherwise been an under-reported story. Moreover, it allowed many individual users for whom slow writing is not a possibility or a desired practice, to engage in forms of creative expression and reflective activity that could challenge, contest, and contextualize mainstream print narratives in which they rarely see themselves adequately represented. The tweets, images, memes, and hashtags that circulated during this time (and which continue to circulate) should thus not be seen as cheap and fast substitutes for artisanally crafted modes of personal reflection. Instead, they need to be understood as complex texts, worthy of the same kind of close-reading and critical analysis scholars usually devote to long-form prose.

Ethnography in the digital age requires us to avoid conflating the fast with the ephemeral or the vacuous. The aggregative and cumulative dimensions of social media, as well as their far-reaching scope, force us to re-think what constitutes an enduring or transformative social action. Moreover, attention to these practices also requires us to think more carefully about how we, as academic writers, can contribute to fast moving conversations without giving short shrift to the historical and analytical contextualization that is often absent in quick moving public debate. These challenges require us to move quickly when we feel something is worth attending to while still rallying in those quick moments the kind of critical perspectives that can only be honed slowly, accumulatively, over time.

Sociology & Its Discontents (Synthetic Zero)

 

“Does the discipline of Sociology still have a role to play in the 21st century?To examine where we are at with Sociology in 2015, Philip Dodd is joined by three leading practitioners, the LSE’s Richard Sennett, Frank Furedi from the University of Kent, and Monika Krause at Goldsmiths, as well as the journalist and author, Peter Oborne”

AUDIO

I think we can safely leave sociology to the last century without any meaningful loss to our abilities to understand and reform as needed, anyone disagree?

synthetic zerø


“Does the discipline of Sociology still have a role to play in the 21st century?To examine where we are at with Sociology in 2015, Philip Dodd is joined by three leading practitioners, the LSE’s Richard Sennett, Frank Furedi from the University of Kent, and Monika Krause at Goldsmiths, as well as the journalist and author, Peter Oborne”

I think we can safely leave sociology to the last century without any meaningful loss to our abilities to understand and reform as needed, anyone disagree?

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Study underscores complexity of geopolitics in the age of the Aztec empire (North Carolina State Univ.)

25-MAR-2015

IMAGE

IMAGE: HERE IS A VIEW TO THE WEST FROM THE HEIGHTS OF TLAXCALLAN. THE ACTIVE VOLCANO, POPOCATEPETL, IS VISIBLE IN THE BACKGROUND. CREDIT: LANE FARGHER

New findings from an international team of archaeological researchers highlight the complexity of geopolitics in Aztec era Mesoamerica and illustrate how the relationships among ancient states extended beyond warfare and diplomacy to issues concerning trade and the flow of goods.

The work was done by researchers from North Carolina State University, the Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico Nacional-Unidad Mérida, El Colegio de Michoacán and Purdue University.

The researchers focused on an independent republic called Tlaxcallan in what is now central Mexico, about 75 miles east of modern Mexico City. Tlaxcallan was founded in the mid-13th century and, by 1500, was effectively surrounded by the Aztec Empire – but never lost its independence. In fact, Tlaxcallan supported Cortés and played a critical role in the Spanish Conquest of Mexico in the 16th century.

The new research focuses on where the people of Tlaxcallan obtained their obsidian in the century before the arrival of Cortés. Obsidian is a volcanic glass that was widely used in everything from household tools and weapons to jewelry and religious objects. But Tlaxcallan did not have a source of obsidian within its territory – so where did it come from?

“It turns out that Tlaxcallan relied on a source we hadn’t expected, called El Paredón,” says Dr. John Millhauser, an assistant professor of anthropology at NC State and lead author of a paper on the work. “Almost no one else was using El Paredón at the time, and it fell just outside the boundaries of the Aztec Empire. So, one question it raises is why the Aztecs – who were openly hostile to Tlaxcallan – didn’t intervene.”

One possible explanation is that the Aztecs didn’t intervene because it would have been too much effort. “Obsidian was widely available and was an everyday good. It probably wasn’t worth the time and expense to try to cut off Tlaxcallan’s supply of obsidian from El Paredón because other sources were available,” Millhauser says.

The finding drives home how complex international relations were during the Aztec Empire’s reign.

“The fact that they got so much obsidian so close to the Aztec Empire makes me question the scope of conflict at the time,” Millhauser says. “Tlaxcallan was able to access a source of household and military goods from a source that required it to go right up to the border of enemy territory.”

At the same time, the research makes clear that there was an economic rift between Tlaxcallan and the Aztecs. Previous research shows that more than 90 percent of Aztec obsidian came from a source called Pachuca, further to the north. But the new research finds that only 14 percent of the obsidian at Tlaxcallan was from Pachuca – most of the rest came from El Paredón.

For this study, the researchers systematically collected artifacts from the surfaces of stone-walled terraces at the site of the pre-Columbian city of Tlaxcallan. A representative number of the artifacts were then analyzed using x-ray fluorescence. This information was compared with samples from known sources of obsidian in the region to determine where the obsidian artifacts came from.

“All of this drives home the fact that geopolitics mattered for the economies of ancient states,” Millhauser says. “Political stances and political boundaries influenced everyday behavior, down to the flow of basic commodities like obsidian. The popular conception of the Aztec Empire as all powerful before the arrival of Cortés is exaggerated. The region was a politically and culturally complicated place.”

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The paper, “The Geopolitics of Obsidian Supply in Postclassic Tlaxcallan: A Portable X-Ray Fluorescence Study,” was published online March 25 in the Journal of Archaeological Science. The paper was co-authored by Dr. Lane Fargher of the Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico Nacional-Unidad Mérida; Dr. Verenice Heredia Espinoza, of El Colegio de Michoacán; and Dr. Richard Blanton, of Purdue University.

The research was done with support from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, the Elemental Analysis Facility of the Field Museum of Natural History, The Grainger Foundation, Purdue University, the Colegio de Michoacán, FAMSI, the National Geographical Society (under grant number 8008-06), and the National Science Foundation (under grant number BCS-0809643).

On Reverse Engineering (Anthropology and Algorithms)

Nick Seaver

Looking for the cultural work of engineers

The Atlantic welcomed 2014 with a major feature on web behemoth Netflix. If you didn’t know, Netflix has developed a system for tagging movies and for assembling those tags into phrases that look like hyper-specific genre names: Visually-striking Foreign Nostalgic Dramas, Critically-acclaimed Emotional Underdog Movies, Romantic Chinese Crime Movies, and so on. The sometimes absurd specificity of these names (or “altgenres,” as Netflix calls them) is one of the peculiar pleasures of the contemporary web, recalling the early days of website directories and Usenet newsgroups, when it seemed like the internet would be a grand hotel, providing a room for any conceivable niche.

Netflix’s weird genres piqued the interest of Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal, who set about scraping the whole list. Working from the US in late 2013, his scraper bot turned up a startling 76,897 genre names — clearly the emanations of some unseen algorithmic force. How were they produced? What was their generative logic? What made them so good—plausible, specific, with some inexpressible touch of the human? Pursuing these mysteries brought Madrigal to the world of corpus analysis software and eventually to Netflix’s Silicon Valley offices.

The resulting article is an exemplary piece of contemporary web journalism — a collaboratively produced, tech-savvy 5,000-word “long read” that is both an exposé of one of the largest internet companies (by volume) and a reflection on what it is like to be human with machines. It is supported by a very entertaining altgenre-generating widget, built by professor and software carpenter Ian Bogost and illustrated by Twitter mystery darth. Madrigal pieces the story together with his signature curiosity and enthusiasm, and the result feels so now that future corpus analysts will be able to use it as a model to identify texts written in the United States from 2013–14. You really should read it.

A Māori eel trap. The design and construction of traps (or filters) like this are classic topics of interest for anthropologists of technology. cc-by-sa-3.0

As a cultural anthropologist in the middle of a long-term research project on algorithmic filtering systems, I am very interested in how people think about companies like Netflix, which take engineering practices and apply them to cultural materials. In the popular imagination, these do not go well together: engineering is about universalizable things like effectiveness, rationality, and algorithms, while culture is about subjective and particular things, like taste, creativity, and artistic expression. Technology and culture, we suppose, make an uneasy mix. When Felix Salmon, in his response to Madrigal’s feature, complains about “the systematization of the ineffable,” he is drawing on this common sense: engineers who try to wrangle with culture inevitably botch it up.

Yet, in spite of their reputations, we always seem to find technology and culture intertwined. The culturally-oriented engineering of companies like Netflix is a quite explicit case, but there are many others. Movies, for example, are a cultural form dependent on a complicated system of technical devices — cameras, editing equipment, distribution systems, and so on. Technologies that seem strictly practical — like the Māori eel trap pictured above—are influenced by ideas about effectiveness, desired outcomes, and interpretations of the natural world, all of which vary cross-culturally. We may talk about technology and culture as though they were independent domains, but in practice, they never stay where they belong. Technology’s straightforwardness and culture’s contingency bleed into each other.

This can make it hard to talk about what happens when engineers take on cultural objects. We might suppose that it is a kind of invasion: The rationalizers and quantifiers are over the ridge! They’re coming for our sensitive expressions of the human condition! But if technology and culture are already mixed up with each other, then this doesn’t make much sense. Aren’t the rationalizers expressing their own cultural ideas? Aren’t our sensitive expressions dependent on our tools? In the present moment, as companies like Netflix proliferate, stories trying to make sense of the relationship between culture and technology also proliferate. In my own research, I examine these stories, as told by people from a variety of positions relative to the technology in question. There are many such stories, and they can have far-reaching consequences for how technical systems are designed, built, evaluated, and understood.


The story Madrigal tells in The Atlantic is framed in terms of “reverse engineering.” The engineers of Netflix have not invaded cultural turf — they’ve reverse engineered it and figured out how it works. To report on this reverse engineering, Madrigal has done some of his own, trying to figure out the organizing principles behind the altgenre system. So, we have two uses of reverse engineering here: first, it is a way to describe what engineers do to cultural stuff; second, it is a way to figure out what engineers do.

So what does “reverse engineering” mean? What kind of things can be reverse engineered? What assumptions does reverse engineering make about its objects? Like any frame, reverse engineering constrains as well as enables the presentation of certain stories. I want to suggest here that, while reverse engineering might be a useful strategy for figuring out how an existing technology works, it is less useful for telling us how it came to work that way. Because reverse engineering starts from a finished technical object, it misses the accidents that happened along the way — the abandoned paths, the unusual stories behind features that made it to release, moments of interpretation, arbitrary choice, and failure. Decisions that seemed rather uncertain and subjective as they were being made come to appear necessary in retrospect. Engineering looks a lot different in reverse.

This is especially evident in the case of explicitly cultural technologies. Where “technology” brings to mind optimization, functionality, and necessity, “culture” seems to represent the opposite: variety, interpretation, and arbitrariness. Because it works from a narrowly technical view of what engineering entails, reverse engineering has a hard time telling us about the cultural work of engineers. It is telling that the word “culture” never appears in this piece about the contemporary state of the culture industry.

Inspired by Madrigal’s article, here are some notes on the consequences of reverse engineering for how we think about the cultural lives of engineers. As culture and technology continue to escape their designated places and intertwine, we need ways to talk about them that don’t assume they can be cleanly separated.


Ben Affleck, fact extractor.

There is a terrible movie about reverse engineering, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick. It is called Paycheck, stars Ben Affleck, and is not currently available for streaming on Netflix. In it, Affleck plays a professional reverse engineer (the “best in the business”), who is hired by companies to figure out the secrets of their competitors. After doing this, his memory of the experience is wiped and in return, he is compensated very well. Affleck is a sort of intellectual property conduit: he extracts secrets from devices, and having moved those secrets from one company to another, they are then extracted from him. As you might expect, things go wrong: Affleck wakes up one day to find that he has forfeited his payment in exchange for an envelope of apparently worthless trinkets and, even worse, his erstwhile employer now wants to kill him. The trinkets turn out to be important in unexpected ways as Affleck tries to recover the facts that have been stricken from his memory. The movie’s tagline is “Remember the Future”—you get the idea.

Paycheck illustrates a very popular way of thinking about engineering knowledge. To know about something is to know the facts about how it works. These facts are like physical objects — they can be hidden (inside of technologies, corporations, envelopes, or brains), and they can be retrieved and moved around. In this way of thinking about knowledge, facts that we don’t yet know are typically hidden on the other side of some barrier. To know through reverse engineering is to know by trying to pull those pre-existing facts out.

This is why reverse engineering is sometimes used as a metaphor in the sciences to talk about revealing the secrets of Nature. When biologists “reverse engineer” a cell, for example, they are trying to uncover its hidden functional principles. This kind of work is often described as “pulling back the curtain” on nature (or, in older times, as undressing a sexualized, female Nature — the kind of thing we in academia like to call “problematic”). Nature, if she were a person, holds the secrets her reverse engineers want.

In the more conventional sense of the term, reverse engineering is concerned with uncovering secrets held by engineers. Unlike its use in the natural sciences, here reverse engineering presupposes that someone already knows what we want to find out. Accessing this kind of information is often described as “pulling back the curtain” on a company. (This is likely the unfortunate naming logic behind Kimono, a new service for scraping websites and automatically generating APIs to access the scraped data.) Reverse engineering is not concerned with producing “new” knowledge, but with extracting facts from one place and relocating them to another.

Reverse engineering (and I guess this is obvious) is concerned with finished technologies, so it presumes that there is a straightforward fact of the matter to be worked out. Something happened to Ben Affleck before his memory was wiped, and eventually he will figure it out. This is not Rashomonwhich suggests there might be multiple interpretations of the same event (although that isn’t available for streaming either)The problem is that this narrow scope doesn’t capture everything we might care about: why this technology and not another one? If a technology is constantly changing, like the algorithms and data structures under the hood at Netflix, then why is it changing as it does? Reverse engineering, at best, can only tell you the what, not the why or the how. But it even has some trouble with the what.


“Fantastic powers at his command / And I’m sure that he will understand / He’s the Wiz and he lives in Oz”

Netflix, like most companies today, is surrounded by a curtain of non-disclosure agreements and intellectual property protections. This curtain animates Madrigal’s piece, hiding the secrets that his reverse engineering is aimed at. For people inside the curtain, nothing in his article is news. What is newsworthy, Madrigal writes, is that “no one outside the company has ever assembled this data before.” The existence of the curtain shapes what we imagine knowledge about Netflix to be: something possessed by people on the inside and lacked by people on the outside.

So, when Madrigal’s reverse engineering runs out of steam, the climax of the story comes and the curtain is pulled back to reveal the “Wizard of Oz, the man who made the machine”: Netflix’s VP of Product Innovation Todd Yellin. Here is the guy who holds the secrets behind the altgenres, the guy with the knowledge about how Netflix has tried to bridge the world of engineering and the world of cultural production. According to the logic of reverse engineering, Yellin should be able to tell us everything we want to know.

From Yellin, Madrigal learns about the extensiveness of the tagging that happens behind the curtain. He learns some things that he can’t share publicly, and he learns of the existence of even more secrets — the contents of the training manual which dictate how movies are to be entered into the system. But when it comes to how that massive data and intelligence infrastructure was put together, he learns this:

“It’s a real combination: machine-learned, algorithms, algorithmic syntax,” Yellin said, “and also a bunch of geeks who love this stuff going deep.”

This sentence says little more than “we did it with computers,” and it illustrates a problem for the reverse engineer: there is always another curtain to get behind. Scraping altgenres will only get you so far, and even when you get “behind the curtain,” companies like Netflix are only willing to sketch out their technical infrastructure in broad strokes. In more technically oriented venues or the academic research community, you may learn more, but you will never get all the way to the bottom of things. The Wizard of Oz always holds on to his best secrets.

But not everything we want to know is a trade secret. While reverse engineers may be frustrated by the first part of Yellin’s sentence — the vagueness of “algorithms, algorithmic syntax” — it’s the second part that hides the encounter between culture and technology: What does it look like when “geeks who love this stuff go deep”? How do the people who make the algorithms understand the “deepness” of cultural stuff? How do the loves of geeks inform the work of geeks? The answers to these questions are not hidden away as proprietary technical information; they’re often evident in the ways engineers talk about and work with their objects. But because reverse engineering focuses narrowly on revealing technical secrets, it fails to piece together how engineers imagine and engage with culture. For those of us interested in the cultural ramifications of algorithmic filtering, these imaginings and engagements—not usually secret, but often hard to access — are more consequential than the specifics of implementation, which are kept secret and frequently change.


“My first goal was: tear apart content!”


While Yellin may not have told us enough about the technical secrets of Netflix to create a competitor, he has given us some interesting insights into the way he thinks about movies and how to understand them. If you’re familiar with research on algorithmic recommenders, you’ll recognize the system he describes as an example of content-based recommendation. Where “classic” recommender systems rely on patterns in ratings data and have little need for other information, content-based systems try to understand the material they recommend, through various forms of human or algorithmic analysis. These analyses are a lot of work, but over the past decade, with the increasing availability of data and analytical tools, content-based recommendation has become more popular. Most big recommender systems today (including Netflix’s) are hybrids, drawing on both user ratings and data about the content of recommended items.

The “reverse engineering of Hollywood” is the content side of things: Netflix’s effort to parse movies into its database so that they can be recommended based on their content. By calling this parsing “reverse engineering,” Madrigal implies that there is a singular fact of the matter to be retrieved from these movies, and as a result, he focuses his description on Netflix’s thoroughness. What is tagged? “Everything. Everyone.” But the kind of parsing Yellin describes is not the only way to understand cultural objects; rather, it is a specific and recognizable mode of interpretation. It bears a strong resemblance to structuralism — a style of cultural analysis that had its heyday in the humanities and social sciences during the mid-20th century.


Structuralism, according to Roland Barthes, is a way of interpreting objects by decomposing them into parts and then recomposing those parts into new wholes. By breaking a text apart and putting it back together, the structuralist aims to understand its underlying structure: what order lurks under the surface of apparently idiosyncratic objects?

For example, the arch-structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss took such an approach in his study of myth. Take the Oedipus myth: there are many different ways to tell the same basic story, in which a baby is abandoned in the wilderness and then grows up to unknowingly kill his father, marry his mother, and blind himself when he finds out (among other things). But, across different tellings of the myth, there is a fairly persistent set of elements that make up the story. Lévi-Strauss called these elements “mythemes” (after linguistic “phonemes”). By breaking myths down into their constituent parts, you could see patterns that linked them together, not only across different tellings of the “same” myth, but even across apparently disparate myths from other cultures. Through decomposition and recomposition, structuralists sought what Barthes called the object’s “rules of functioning.” These rules, governing the combination of mythemes, were the object of Lévi-Strauss’s cultural analysis.

Todd Yellin is, by all appearances, a structuralist. He tells Madrigal that his goal was to “tear apart content” and create a “Netflix Quantum Theory,” under which movies could be broken down into their constituent parts — into “quanta” or the “little ‘packets of energy’ that compose each movie.” Those quanta eventually became “microtags,” which Madrigal tells us are used to describe everything in the movie. Large teams of human taggers are trained, using a 36-page secret manual, and they go to town, decomposing movies into microtags. Take those tags, recompose them, and you get the altgenres, a weird sort of structuralist production intended to help you find things in Netflix’s pool of movies. If Lévi-Strauss had lived to be 104 instead of just 100, he might have had some thoughts about this computerized structuralism: in his 1955 article on the structural study of myth, he suggested that further advances would require mathematicians and “I.B.M. equipment” to handle the complicated analysis. Structuralism and computers go way back.


Although structuralism sounds like a fairly technical way to analyze cultural material, it is not, strictly speaking, objective. When you break an object down into its parts and put it back together again, you have not simply copied it — you’ve made something new. A movie’s set of microtags, no matter how fine-grained, is not the same thing as the movie. It is, as Barthes writes, a “directed, interested simulacrum” of the movie, a re-creation made with particular goals in mind. If you had different goals — different ideas about what the significant parts of movies were, different imagined use-cases — you might decompose differently. There is more than one way to tear apart content.

This does not jive well with common sense ideas about what engineering is like. Instead of the cold, rational pursuit of optimal solutions, we have something a little more creative. We have options, a variety of choices which are all potentially valid, depending on a range of contextual factors not exhausted by obviously “technical” concerns. Barthes suggested that composing a structuralist analysis was like composing a poem, and engineering is likewise expressive. Netflix’s altgenres are in no way the final statement on the movies. They are, rather, one statement among many — a cultural production in their own right, influenced by local assumptions about meaning, relevance, and taste. “Reverse engineering” seems a poor name for this creative practice, because it implies a singular right answer — a fact of the matter that merely needs to be retrieved from the insides of the movies. We might instead, more accurately, call this work “interpretation.”


So, where does this leave us with reverse engineering? There are two questions at issue here:

  1. Does “reverse engineering” as a term adequately describe the work that engineers like those employed at Netflix do when they interact with cultural objects?
  2. Is reverse engineering a useful strategy for figuring out what engineers do?

The answer to both of these questions, I think, is a measured “no,” and for the same reason: reverse engineering, as both a descriptor and a research strategy, misses the things engineers do that do not fit into conventional ideas about engineering. In the ongoing mixture of culture and technology, reverse engineering sticks too closely to the idealized vision of technical work. Because it assumes engineers care strictly about functionality and efficiency, it is not very good at telling stories about accidents, interpretations, and arbitrary choices. It assumes that cultural objects or practices (like movies or engineering) can be reduced to singular, universally-intelligible logics. It takes corporate spokespeople at their word when they claim that there was a straight line from conception to execution.

As Nicholas Diakopoulos has written, reverse engineering can be a useful way to figure out what obscured technologies do, but it cannot get us answers to “the question of why.” As these obscured technologies — search engines, recommender systems, and other algorithmic filters — are constantly refined, we need better ways to talk about the whys and hows of engineering as a practice, not only the what of engineered objects that immediately change.

The risk of reverse engineering is that we come to imagine that the only things worth knowing about companies like Netflix are the technical details hidden behind the curtain. In my own research, I argue that the cultural lives and imaginations of the people behind the curtain are as important, if not more, for understanding how these systems come to exist and function as they do. Moreover, these details are not generally considered corporate secrets, so they are accessible if we look for them. Not everything worth knowing has been actively hidden, and transparency can conceal as much as it reveals.

All engineering mixes culture and technology. Even Madrigal’s “reverse engineering” does not stay put in technical bounds: he supplements the work of his bot by talking with people, drawing on their interpretations and offering his own, reading the altgenres, populated with serendipitous algorithmic accidents, as “a window unto the American soul.” Engineers, reverse and otherwise, have cultural lives, and these lives inform their technical work. To see these effects, we need to get beyond the idea that the technical and the cultural are necessarily distinct. But if we want to understand the work of companies like Netflix, it is not enough to simply conclude that culture and technology — humans and computers — are mixed. The question we need to answer is how.

Here’s Why Companies Are Desperate To Hire Anthropologists (Business Insider)

MAR. 27, 2014, 4:22 PM

red associates talking

ReD Associates. A Red Associates staffer consults with a client

At a time when we’re debating the value of majoring in the humanities, major companies are increasingly hiring anthropologists.

Google, for example, hired an ethnographer to ferret out the meaning of mobile. Intel has an in-house cultural anthropologist, and Microsoft is reportedly the second-largest employer of anthropologists in the world.

So the question becomes: Why are giant corporations now seeking cultural expertise?

While most execs are masters of analyzing spreadsheets, creating processes, and pitching products, anthropologists — and other practitioners of applied social science — can arrive at customer insights that big data tends to gloss over, especially around the role that products play in people’s lives.

That information is more valuable than you might think. What customers want from a product and what companies think they want can be totally different, but it can take an anthropological lens to learn why.

Take Adidas, for example. The brand has always been associated with elite performance: Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, and Zinedine Zidane all wore the brand. Founded by cobbler and athlete Adi Dassler in 1948, the assumption within the company had been that people bought athletic gear to gain a competitive edge. But in the early 2000s VP James Carnes noticed something strange: He kept running into people who were jogging around the city, headed to the gym, or on their way to yoga.

While they led the active lives of potential customers, these people weren’t training for a competition. “Is yoga a sport?” Carnes asked in an offsite meeting in 2003.

Trying to figure out the disconnect, he brought in a consultancy called Red Associates, which has a client list that includes Intel, Samsung, and Carlsberg, the European beer giant. Unlike elite consulting firms such as McKinsey, Red isn’t in the business of big data and management science. Instead, it focuses on arriving at insights that can only be found through the applied liberal arts, or what it calls “the human sciences,” a strategy that is detailed in its new book “Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences To Solve Your Toughest Business Problems.” That’s why most of the Red’s 70-some employees aren’t MBAs; they come from disciplines like philosophy, sociology, and anthropology.

When Red collaborated with Adidas, it trained members of Adidas’s design team in conducting anthropological research. Design staffers spent 24 hours straight with customers, eating breakfast with them, joining them on runs, and asking them why they worked out. As detailed in the Economist, a Red staffer sent disposable cameras to customers, asking them to take a picture of the reason they exercised. Thirty women responded, and 25 of them sent a picture of a little black dress.

A little black dress is quite different than a marathon finish line or gold trophy.

To use a favorite word of Red partner Christian Madsbjerg, the little black dress shows an “asymmetry.” The traditional thinking at Adidas was that people bought their gear to help them win. But after observing their behavior through the lens of anthropology, it became clear that customers wanted products to help them lead healthy lifestyles, not win competitions.

Christian Madsbjerg red associates

Christian Madsbjerg, a Red Associates partner 

How had Adidas misunderstood its customers for so long? Because Adidas executives thought they understood their customers’ motivations and lives, but they had never observed them closely enough.

Running, mountain biking, hitting the gym, going to yoga — people did these things to live healthier lives. But these “urban sports” weren’t like the traditional competitions that the company was originally organized around.

That was Carnes’s realization: His consumer’s definition of “sport” had changed, and his company had to change along with it. As described in “Moment of Clarity”:

If urban sports are on par with basketball or soccer, Adidas must then deliver on products with functionality, aesthetics, and quality. Adidas must lead, not copy in this whole new category of lifestyle sport …

The company went from being a sports brand exclusively for athletes … to becoming an inclusive brand inviting all of us to join a movement of living a healthier and better life. It went from creating corporate credos aimed at high-performance sports aficionados, such as “Impossible is nothing,” to sending democratic, yet aspirational message like “All In.”

With the help of Red, Adidas was able to understand the world of its customers. Interestingly, it’s the human sciences — literature, arts, anthropology — that allow for understanding the unique worlds that people live in. By observing people’s daily lives and the ways in which they interact with products, consultancies like Red are able to discern what products mean to customers in a way that big data can’t determine.

Why literature helps you understand customers

“If you look at launches of a new product, most of them fail,” Madsbjerg says. “That’s because people don’t understand the worlds in which we operate.”

The problem with standard corporate research, Madsbjerg says, is that it’s incredibly difficult to get around your own preconceptions. Even if your analytics are fresh, you’ll read old assumptions into them. By applying the humanities, however, you can get around them.

Say, for instance, you read an epic novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In doing so, you’re not just processing words on a page, you’re beginning to understand a character’s world in Russia in a specific place, specific time, and from a specific perspective. To hear Red tell it, making an empathetic understanding of a character in a novel is very much like trying to understand a customer — Ford, after all, would be immensely interested in the world of someone buying a car.

It’s anthropological research, like Red helped the Adidas design team with, that allows for understanding the customer’s world.

This is different from the approach of most corporations, which rely on measures like surveys and focus groups. The problem with those is that people have a terrible time reporting their own preferences, Madsbjerg says. In one Swedish study, for instance, everyone reported that they were an exceptional driver, which is obviously impossible. By the same token, asking customers to tell you why they like a particular vodka doesn’t necessarily reveal their motivations.

That’s why Red emphasizes ethnographic interviewing, where you interview a subject again and again and observe them in a range of environments, looking for patterns of behavior. The long-form, in-depth research helps to reveal the worlds that people live in and their real motivations. Major insights follow — that little black dress told Adidas way more about their customers’ world than a survey ever could.

Finding an industry’s need

In another case, Red consulted for a leading pharmaceutical company specializing in diabetes. Back in the day, it was common practice for sales reps to use a “frequency and reach” strategy, talking to as many doctors as possible and pushing a brand message. The sales reps would get the time with doctors by giving them free flights and concert tickets. But then the law changed, and giving swag to doctors was made illegal. All of a sudden what was once a long courtship turned into a 90-second phone call.

In order to sell drugs in this new situation, they needed to recalibrate the conversation.

During the course of interviewing physicians, Red discovered a major concern that most doctors shared: “How do I get my patients to understand their conditions? How do I change their lifestyles?” Medication, it turned out, was the third most important aspect of treating diabetes — diet and exercise were much more vital.

As a result, Red’s associates worked with doctors to find different ways to help people change their diets, and they worked with sales reps to present that info to doctors. Since so many of the diabetes patients didn’t know how to cook, basic meal preparation became part of the sales material. Correspondingly, the pharmaceutical company became way more resonant: By understanding the world of the doctor, the brand saw a 15% increase in key indicators, like doctors’ trust.

The secret was to understand the world of the physicians and to give them what they needed, even if they didn’t consciously realize it yet.

Read more:  http://www.businessinsider.com/heres-why-companies-aredesperateto-hireanthropologists-2014-3#ixzz3Ux42Y7ks

Did a Volcanic Cataclysm 40,000 Years Ago Trigger the Final Demise of the Neanderthals? (Geological Society of America)

19 March 2015

Boulder, Colo., USA – The Campanian Ignimbrite (CI) eruption in Italy 40,000 years ago was one of the largest volcanic cataclysms in Europe and injected a significant amount of sulfur-dioxide (SO2) into the stratosphere. Scientists have long debated whether this eruption contributed to the final extinction of the Neanderthals. This new study by Benjamin A. Black and colleagues tests this hypothesis with a sophisticated climate model.

Black and colleagues write that the CI eruption approximately coincided with the final decline of Neanderthals as well as with dramatic territorial and cultural advances among anatomically modern humans. Because of this, the roles of climate, hominin competition, and volcanic sulfur cooling and acid deposition have been vigorously debated as causes of Neanderthal extinction.

They point out, however, that the decline of Neanderthals in Europe began well before the CI eruption: “Radiocarbon dating has shown that at the time of the CI eruption, anatomically modern humans had already arrived in Europe, and the range of Neanderthals had steadily diminished. Work at five sites in the Mediterranean indicates that anatomically modern humans were established in these locations by then as well.”

“While the precise implications of the CI eruption for cultures and livelihoods are best understood in the context of archaeological data sets,” write Black and colleagues, the results of their study quantitatively describe the magnitude and distribution of the volcanic cooling and acid deposition that ancient hominin communities experienced coincident with the final decline of the Neanderthals.

In their climate simulations, Black and colleagues found that the largest temperature decreases after the eruption occurred in Eastern Europe and Asia and sidestepped the areas where the final Neanderthal populations were living (Western Europe). Therefore, the authors conclude that the eruption was probably insufficient to trigger Neanderthal extinction.

However, the abrupt cold spell that followed the eruption would still have significantly impacted day-to-day life for Neanderthals and early humans in Europe. Black and colleagues point out that temperatures in Western Europe would have decreased by an average of 2 to 4 degrees Celsius during the year following the eruption. These unusual conditions, they write, may have directly influenced survival and day-to-day life for Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans alike, and emphasize the resilience of anatomically modern humans in the face of abrupt and adverse changes in the environment.

FEATURED ARTICLE
Campanian Ignimbrite volcanism, climate, and the final decline of the Neanderthals
Benjamin A. Black et al., University of California, Berkeley, California, USA. Published online ahead of print on 19 March 2015; http://dx.doi.org/10.1130/G36514.1.

Inuits do Canadá: uma longa jornada de volta (Estadão)

The Economist

04 Março 2015 | 03h 00

Esqueletos foram descobertos há pouco tempo em um museu francês, mas caminho para repatriá-los não é fácil

Em agosto de 1880, oito Inuits da costa nordeste do Canadá aceitaram viajar para a Europa a fim de serem exibidos em um zoológico humano. Pouco depois, morriam de varíola, antes de retornar ao seu lar. Os esqueletos de Abraham Ulrikab e da maior parte dos seus companheiros foram descobertos há pouco tempo, montados completamente nos depósitos de um museu francês para serem exibidos. Os anciãos Inuits querem que os restos mortais de seu povo, até mesmo dos que morreram longe dos territórios de caça do Norte, nos séculos 19 e 20, voltem para o seu país. Mas isso levará muito tempo.

O governo de Nunatsiavut, uma região Inuit do norte do Labrador criada em 2005, já recuperou restos humanos de museus de Chicago e da Terranova. David Lough, vice-ministro da Cultura de Nunatsiavut, não sabe ao certo quantos outros há para serem reclamados. Mas ele acredita que, em 500 anos de contato entre o Labrador e o mundo exterior, muitas pessoas e artefatos foram parar do outro lado do oceano. Nancy Columbia fez parte de um grupo encarregado de apresentar a cultura Inuit na Feira Mundial de Chicago, e chegou a Hollywood, onde estrelou filmes western como princesa americana nativa.

The New York Times

Governo procura descendentes para definir o que será feito

Até pouco tempo atrás, os museus resistiam a devolver restos humanos, em nome da ciência e da preservação da cultura. As múmias egípcias do Museu Britânico e as tsantsas (cabeças encolhidas) do Amazonas, do Museu Pitt Rivers de Oxford, são as peças mais importantes de suas coleções. Mas, pressionados por grupos indígenas, começaram a ceder. A Declaração sobre os Direitos das Nações Indígenas da ONU, adotada em 2007, consagra o direito de reclamar restos humanos, assim como a legislação em Grã-Bretanha, Austrália e Estados Unidos (mas não a do Canadá). Dezenas de museus (incluindo o Museu Britânico e o Pitt Rivers) elaboraram políticas de repatriação e códigos éticos sobre o tratamento a ser dado a restos mortais. O Museu do Homem da França, onde os esqueletos de Abraham Ulrikab e seus companheiros estão guardados, pretende devolvê-los, afirma France Rivet, autora de um novo livro sobre a saga do grupo. “Eles aguardam apenas uma solicitação do Canadá”, afirma.

A solicitação não chegou, diz Lough, em parte porque “os Inuits querem que todos sejam consultados”. A frágil situação das comunidades Inuit torna isso difícil. Hebron, terra natal da família Ulrikab, foi fundada por missionários da Morávia. Mas o assentamento foi abandonado em 1959, quando a missão fechou; os descendentes da família se dispersaram. Eles deverão ser encontrados para ajudar a decidir onde os restos deverão ser sepultados e o tipo de cerimônia que será realizado. Nakvak, local de origem de outros integrantes do grupo original, agora fica no Parque Nacional das Montanhas Torngat, e existem obstáculos burocráticos para utilizá-lo como local de sepultamento.

Somente depois que os Inuits decidirem o que fazer com os restos mortais as negociações poderão começar entre os governos do Canadá e da França a respeito de sua devolução e do pagamento dos custos da repatriação. Em 2013, Stephen Harper, primeiro-ministro do Canadá, e o presidente da França, François Hollande, concordaram em colaborar para a repatriação. Mas a África do Sul esperou oito anos por Saartjie Baartman, a “Vênus hotentote”, depois que Nelson Mandela solicitou seu regresso, em 1994. Para Abraham Ulrikab e seus amigos, pelo menos, a jornada de volta começou.

© 2015 THE ECONOMIST NEWSPAPER LIMITED. DIREITOS RESERVADOS. TRADUZIDO POR ANNA CAPOVILLA, PUBLICADO SOB LICENÇA. O TEXTO ORIGINAL EM INGLÊS ESTÁ EM WWW.ECONOMIST.COM

Physics’s pangolin (AEON)

Trying to resolve the stubborn paradoxes of their field, physicists craft ever more mind-boggling visions of reality

by 

Illustration by Claire ScullyIllustration by Claire Scully

Margaret Wertheim is an Australian-born science writer and director of the Institute For Figuring in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Physics on the Fringe (2011).

Theoretical physics is beset by a paradox that remains as mysterious today as it was a century ago: at the subatomic level things are simultaneously particles and waves. Like the duck-rabbit illusion first described in 1899 by the Polish-born American psychologist Joseph Jastrow, subatomic reality appears to us as two different categories of being.

But there is another paradox in play. Physics itself is riven by the competing frameworks of quantum theory and general relativity, whose differing descriptions of our world eerily mirror the wave-particle tension. When it comes to the very big and the extremely small, physical reality appears to be not one thing, but two. Where quantum theory describes the subatomic realm as a domain of individual quanta, all jitterbug and jumps, general relativity depicts happenings on the cosmological scale as a stately waltz of smooth flowing space-time. General relativity is like Strauss — deep, dignified and graceful. Quantum theory, like jazz, is disconnected, syncopated, and dazzlingly modern.

Physicists are deeply aware of the schizophrenic nature of their science and long to find a synthesis, or unification. Such is the goal of a so-called ‘theory of everything’. However, to non-physicists, these competing lines of thought, and the paradoxes they entrain, can seem not just bewildering but absurd. In my experience as a science writer, no other scientific discipline elicits such contradictory responses.

In string cosmology, the totality of existing universes exceeds the number of particles in our universe by more than 400 orders of magnitude

This schism was brought home to me starkly some months ago when, in the course of a fortnight, I happened to participate in two public discussion panels, one with a cosmologist at Caltech, Pasadena, the other with a leading literary studies scholar from the University of Southern Carolina. On the panel with the cosmologist, a researcher whose work I admire, the discussion turned to time, about which he had written a recent, and splendid, book. Like philosophers, physicists have struggled with the concept of time for centuries, but now, he told us, they had locked it down mathematically and were on the verge of a final state of understanding. In my Caltech friend’s view, physics is a progression towards an ever more accurate and encompassing Truth. My literary theory panellist was having none of this. A Lewis Carroll scholar, he had joined me for a discussion about mathematics in relation to literature, art and science. For him, maths was a delightful form of play, a ludic formalism to be admired and enjoyed; but any claims physicists might make about truth in their work were, in his view, ‘nonsense’. This mathematically based science, he said, was just ‘another kind of storytelling’.

On the one hand, then, physics is taken to be a march toward an ultimate understanding of reality; on the other, it is seen as no different in status to the understandings handed down to us by myth, religion and, no less, literary studies. Because I spend my time about equally in the realms of the sciences and arts, I encounter a lot of this dualism. Depending on whom I am with, I find myself engaging in two entirely different kinds of conversation. Can we all be talking about the same subject?

Many physicists are Platonists, at least when they talk to outsiders about their field. They believe that the mathematical relationships they discover in the world about us represent some kind of transcendent truth existing independently from, and perhaps a priori to, the physical world. In this way of seeing, the universe came into being according to a mathematical plan, what the British physicist Paul Davies has called ‘a cosmic blueprint’. Discovering this ‘plan’ is a goal for many theoretical physicists and the schism in the foundation of their framework is thus intensely frustrating. It’s as if the cosmic architect has designed a fiendish puzzle in which two apparently incompatible parts must be fitted together. Both are necessary, for both theories make predictions that have been verified to a dozen or so decimal places, and it is on the basis of these theories that we have built such marvels as microchips, lasers, and GPS satellites.

Quite apart from the physical tensions that exist between them, relativity and quantum theory each pose philosophical problems. Are space and time fundamental qualities of the universe, as general relativity suggests, or are they byproducts of something even more basic, something that might arise from a quantum process? Looking at quantum mechanics, huge debates swirl around the simplest situations. Does the universe split into multiple copies of itself every time an electron changes orbit in an atom, or every time a photon of light passes through a slit? Some say yes, others say absolutely not.

Theoretical physicists can’t even agree on what the celebrated waves of quantum theory mean. What is doing the ‘waving’? Are the waves physically real, or are they just mathematical representations of probability distributions? Are the ‘particles’ guided by the ‘waves’? And, if so, how? The dilemma posed by wave-particle duality is the tip of an epistemological iceberg on which many ships have been broken and wrecked.

Undeterred, some theoretical physicists are resorting to increasingly bold measures in their attempts to resolve these dilemmas. Take the ‘many-worlds’ interpretation of quantum theory, which proposes that every time a subatomic action takes place the universe splits into multiple, slightly different, copies of itself, with each new ‘world’ representing one of the possible outcomes.

When this idea was first proposed in 1957 by the American physicist Hugh Everett, it was considered an almost lunatic-fringe position. Even 20 years later, when I was a physics student, many of my professors thought it was a kind of madness to go down this path. Yet in recent years the many-worlds position has become mainstream. The idea of a quasi-infinite, ever-proliferating array of universes has been given further credence as a result of being taken up by string theorists, who argue that every mathematically possible version of the string theory equations corresponds to an actually existing universe, and estimate that there are 10 to the power of 500 different possibilities. To put this in perspective: physicists believe that in our universe there are approximately 10 to the power of 80 subatomic particles. In string cosmology, the totality of existing universes exceeds the number of particles in our universe by more than 400 orders of magnitude.

Nothing in our experience compares to this unimaginably vast number. Every universe that can be mathematically imagined within the string parameters — including ones in which you exist with a prehensile tail, to use an example given by the American string theorist Brian Greene — is said to be manifest somewhere in a vast supra-spatial array ‘beyond’ the space-time bubble of our own universe.

What is so epistemologically daring here is that the equations are taken to be the fundamental reality. The fact that the mathematics allows for gazillions of variations is seen to be evidence for gazillions of actual worlds.

Perhaps what we are encountering here is not so much the edge of reality, but the limits of the physicists’ category system

This kind of reification of equations is precisely what strikes some humanities scholars as childishly naive. At the very least, it raises serious questions about the relationship between our mathematical models of reality, and reality itself. While it is true that in the history of physics many important discoveries have emerged from revelations within equations — Paul Dirac’s formulation for antimatter being perhaps the most famous example — one does not need to be a cultural relativist to feel sceptical about the idea that the only way forward now is to accept an infinite cosmic ‘landscape’ of universes that embrace every conceivable version of world history, including those in which the Middle Ages never ended or Hitler won.

In the 30 years since I was a student, physicists’ interpretations of their field have increasingly tended toward literalism, while the humanities have tilted towards postmodernism. Thus a kind of stalemate has ensued. Neither side seems inclined to contemplate more nuanced views. It is hard to see ways out of this tunnel, but in the work of the late British anthropologist Mary Douglas I believe we can find a tool for thinking about some of these questions.

On the surface, Douglas’s great book Purity and Danger (1966) would seem to have nothing do with physics; it is an inquiry into the nature of dirt and cleanliness in cultures across the globe. Douglas studied taboo rituals that deal with the unclean, but her book ends with a far-reaching thesis about human language and the limits of all language systems. Given that physics is couched in the language-system of mathematics, her argument is worth considering here.

In a nutshell, Douglas notes that all languages parse the world into categories; in English, for instance, we call some things ‘mammals’ and other things ‘lizards’ and have no trouble recognising the two separate groups. Yet there are some things that do not fit neatly into either category: the pangolin, or scaly anteater, for example. Though pangolins are warm-blooded like mammals and birth their young, they have armoured bodies like some kind of bizarre lizard. Such definitional monstrosities are not just a feature of English. Douglas notes that all category systems contain liminal confusions, and she proposes that such ambiguity is the essence of what is seen to be impure or unclean.

Whatever doesn’t parse neatly in a given linguistic system can become a source of anxiety to the culture that speaks this language, calling forth special ritual acts whose function, Douglas argues, is actually to acknowledge the limits of language itself. In the Lele culture of the Congo, for example, this epistemological confrontation takes place around a special cult of the pangolin, whose initiates ritualistically eat the abominable animal, thereby sacralising it and processing its ‘dirt’ for the entire society.

‘Powers are attributed to any structure of ideas,’ Douglas writes. We all tend to think that our categories of understanding are necessarily real. ‘The yearning for rigidity is in us all,’ she continues. ‘It is part of our human condition to long for hard lines and clear concepts’. Yet when we have them, she says, ‘we have to either face the fact that some realities elude them, or else blind ourselves to the inadequacy of the concepts’. It is not just the Lele who cannot parse the pangolin: biologists are still arguing about where it belongs on the genetic tree of life.

As Douglas sees it, cultures themselves can be categorised in terms of how well they deal with linguistic ambiguity. Some cultures accept the limits of their own language, and of language itself, by understanding that there will always be things that cannot be cleanly parsed. Others become obsessed with ever-finer levels of categorisation as they try to rid their system of every pangolin-like ‘duck-rabbit’ anomaly. For such societies, Douglas argues, a kind of neurosis ensues, as the project of categorisation takes ever more energy and mental effort. If we take this analysis seriously, then, in Douglas’ terms, might it be that particle-waves are our pangolins? Perhaps what we are encountering here is not so much the edge of reality, but the limits of the physicists’ category system.

In its modern incarnation, physics is grounded in the language of mathematics. It is a so-called ‘hard’ science, a term meant to imply that physics is unfuzzy — unlike, say, biology whose classification systems have always been disputed. Based in mathematics, the classifications of physicists are supposed to have a rigour that other sciences lack, and a good deal of the near-mystical discourse that surrounds the subject hinges on ideas about where the mathematics ‘comes from’.

According to Galileo Galilei and other instigators of what came to be known as the Scientific Revolution, nature was ‘a book’ that had been written by God, who had used the language of mathematics because it was seen to be Platonically transcendent and timeless. While modern physics is no longer formally tied to Christian faith, its long association with religion lingers in the many references that physicists continue to make about ‘the mind of God’, and many contemporary proponents of a ‘theory of everything’ remain Platonists at heart.

It’s a startling thought, in an age when we can read the speed of our cars from our digitised dashboards, that somebody had to discover ‘velocity’

In order to articulate a more nuanced conception of what physics is, we need to offer an alternative to Platonism. We need to explain how the mathematics ‘arises’ in the world, in ways other than assuming that it was put there there by some kind of transcendent being or process. To approach this question dispassionately, it is necessary to abandon the beautiful but loaded metaphor of the cosmic book — and all its authorial resonances — and focus, not the creation of the world, but on the creation of physics as a science.

When we say that ‘mathematics is the language of physics’, we mean that physicists consciously comb the world for patterns that are mathematically describable; these patterns are our ‘laws of nature’. Since mathematical patterns proceed from numbers, much of the physicist’s task involves finding ways to extract numbers from physical phenomena. In the 16th and 17th centuries, philosophical discussion referred to this as the process of ‘quantification’; today we call it measurement. One way of thinking about modern physics is as an ever more sophisticated process of quantification that multiplies and diversifies the ways we extract numbers from the world, thus giving us the raw material for our quest for patterns or ‘laws’. This is no trivial task. Indeed, the history of physics has turned on the question of whatcan be measured and how.

Stop for a moment and take a look around you. What do you think can be quantified? What colours and forms present themselves to your eye? Is the room bright or dark? Does the air feel hot or cold? Are birds singing? What other sounds do you hear? What textures do you feel? What odours do you smell? Which, if any, of these qualities of experience might be measured?

In the early 14th century, a group of scholarly monks known as the calculatores at the University of Oxford began to think about this problem. One of their interests was motion, and they were the first to recognise the qualities we now refer to as ‘velocity’ and ‘acceleration’ — the former being the rate at which a body changes position, the latter, the rate at which the velocity itself changes. It’s a startling thought, in an age when we can read the speed of our cars from our digitised dashboards, that somebody had to discover ‘velocity’.

Yet despite the calculatores’ advances, the science of kinematics made barely any progress until Galileo and his contemporaries took up the baton in the late-16th century. In the intervening time, the process of quantification had to be extracted from a burden of dreams in which it became, frankly, bogged down. For along with motion, the calculatoreswere also interested in qualities such as sin and grace and they tried to find ways to quantify these as well. Between the calculatores and Galileo, students of quantification had to work out what they were going to exclude from the project. To put it bluntly, in order for the science of physics to get underway, the vision had to be narrowed.

How, exactly, this narrowing was to be achieved was articulated by the 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes. What could a mathematically based science describe? Descartes’s answer was that the new natural philosophers must restrict themselves to studying matter in motion through space and time. Maths, he said, could describe the extended realm — or res extensa.Thoughts, feelings, emotions and moral consequences, he located in the ‘realm of thought’, or res cogitans, declaring them inaccessible to quantification, and thus beyond the purview of science. In making this distinction, Descartes did not divide mind from body (that had been done by the Greeks), he merely clarified the subject matter for a new physical science.

So what else apart from motion could be quantified? To a large degree, progress in physics has been made by slowly extending the range of answers. Take colour. At first blush, redness would seem to be an ineffable and irreducible quale. In the late 19th century, however, physicists discovered that each colour in the rainbow, when diffracted through a prism, corresponds to a different wavelength of light. Red light has a wavelength of around 700 nanometres, violet light around 400 nanometres. Colour can be correlated with numbers — both the wavelength and frequency of an electromagnetic wave. Here we have one half of our duality: the wave.

The discovery of electromagnetic waves was in fact one of the great triumphs of the quantification project. In the 1820s, Michael Faraday noticed that, if he sprinkled iron filings around a magnet, the fragments would spontaneously assemble into a pattern of lines that, he conjectured, were caused by a ‘magnetic field’. Physicists today accept fields as a primary aspect of nature but at the start of the Industrial Revolution, when philosophical mechanism was at its peak, Faraday’s peers scoffed. Invisible fields smacked of magic. Yet, later in the 19th century, James Clerk Maxwell showed that magnetic and electric fields were linked by a precise set of equations — today known as Maxwell’s Laws — that enabled him to predict the existence of radio waves. The quantification of these hitherto unsuspected aspects of our world — these hidden invisible ‘fields’ — has led to the whole gamut of modern telecommunications on which so much of modern life is now staged.

Turning to the other side of our duality – the particle – with a burgeoning array of electrical and magnetic equipment, physicists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries began to probe matter. They discovered that atoms were composed from parts holding positive and negative charge. The negative electrons, were found to revolve around a positive nucleus in pairs, with each member of the pair in a slightly different state, or ‘spin’. Spin turns out to be a fundamental quality of the subatomic realm. Matter particles, such as electrons, have a spin value of one half. Particles of light, or photons, have a spin value of one. In short, one of the qualities that distinguishes ‘matter’ from ‘energy’ is the spin value of its particles.

We have seen how light acts like a wave, yet experiments over the past century have shown that under many conditions it behaves instead like a stream of particles. In the photoelectric effect (the explanation of which won Albert Einstein his Nobel Prize in 1921), individual photons knock electrons out of their atomic orbits. In Thomas Young’s infamous double-slit experiment of 1805, light behaves simultaneously like waves and particles. Here, a stream of detectably separate photons are mysteriously guided by a wave whose effect becomes manifest over a long period of time. What is the source of this wave and how does it influence billions of isolated photons separated by great stretches of time and space? The late Nobel laureate Richard Feynman — a pioneer of quantum field theory — stated in 1965 that the double-slit experiment lay at ‘the heart of quantum mechanics’. Indeed, physicists have been debating how to interpret its proof of light’s duality for the past 200 years.

Just as waves of light sometimes behave like particles of matter, particles of matter can sometimes behave like waves. In many situations, electrons are clearly particles: we fire them from electron guns inside the cathode-ray tubes of old-fashioned TV sets and each electron that hits the screen causes a tiny phosphor to glow. Yet, in orbiting around atoms, electrons behave like three-dimensional waves. Electron microscopes put the wave-quality of these particles to work; here, in effect, they act like short-wavelengths of light.

Physics is not just another story about the world: it is a qualitatively different kind of story to those told in the humanities, in myths and religions

Wave-particle duality is a core feature of our world. Or rather, we should say, it is a core feature of our mathematical descriptions of our world. The duck-rabbits are everywhere, colonising the imagery of physicists like, well, rabbits. But what is critical to note here is that however ambiguous our images, the universe itself remains whole and is manifestly not fracturing into schizophrenic shards. It is this tantalising wholeness in the thing itself that drives physicists onward, like an eternally beckoning light that seems so teasingly near yet is always out of reach.

Instrumentally speaking, the project of quantification has led physicists to powerful insights and practical gain: the computer on which you are reading this article would not exist if physicists hadn’t discovered the equations that describe the band-gaps in semiconducting materials. Microchips, plasma screens and cellphones are all byproducts of quantification and, every decade, physicists identify new qualities of our world that are amendable to measurement, leading to new technological possibilities. In this sense, physics is not just another story about the world: it is a qualitatively different kind of story to those told in the humanities, in myths and religions. No language other than maths is capable of expressing interactions between particle spin and electromagnetic field strength. The physicists, with their equations, have shown us new dimensions of our world.

That said, we should be wary of claims about ultimate truth. While quantification, as a project, is far from complete, it is an open question as to what it might ultimately embrace. Let us look again at the colour red. Red is not just an electromagnetic phenomenon, it is also a perceptual and contextual phenomenon. Stare for a minute at a green square then look away: you will see an afterimage of a red square. No red light has been presented to your eyes, yet your brain will perceive a vivid red shape. As Goethe argued in the late-18th century, and Edwin Land (who invented Polaroid film in 1932) echoed, colour cannot be reduced to purely prismatic effects. It exists as much in our minds as in the external world. To put this into a personal context, no understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum will help me to understand why certain shades of yellow make me nauseous, while electric orange fills me with joy.

Descartes was no fool; by parsing reality into the res extensa and res cogitans he captured something critical about human experience. You do not need to be a hard-core dualist to imagine that subjective experience might not be amenable to mathematical law. For Douglas, ‘the attempt to force experience into logical categories of non-contradiction’ is the ‘final paradox’ of an obsessive search for purity. ‘But experience is not amenable [to this narrowing],’ she insists, and ‘those who make the attempt find themselves led into contradictions.’

Quintessentially, the qualities that are amenable to quantification are those that are shared. All electrons are essentially the same: given a set of physical circumstances, every electron will behave like any other. But humans are not like this. It is our individuality that makes us so infuriatingly human, and when science attempts to reduce us to the status of electrons it is no wonder that professors of literature scoff.

Douglas’s point about attempting to corral experience into logical categories of non-contradiction has obvious application to physics, particularly to recent work on the interface between quantum theory and relativity. One of the most mysterious findings of quantum science is that two or more subatomic particles can be ‘entangled’. Once particles are entangled, what we do to one immediately affects the other, even if the particles are hundreds of kilometres apart. Yet this contradicts a basic premise of special relativity, which states that no signal can travel faster than the speed of light. Entanglement suggests that either quantum theory or special relativity, or both, will have to be rethought.

More challenging still, consider what might happen if we tried to send two entangled photons to two separate satellites orbiting in space, as a team of Chinese physicists, working with the entanglement theorist Anton Zeilinger, is currently hoping to do. Here the situation is compounded by the fact that what happens in near-Earth orbit is affected by both special and general relativity. The details are complex, but suffice it to say that special relativity suggests that the motion of the satellites will cause time to appear to slow down, while the effect of the weaker gravitational field in space should cause time to speed up. Given this, it is impossible to say which of the photons would be received first at which satellite. To an observer on the ground, both photons should appear to arrive at the same time. Yet to an observer on satellite one, the photon at satellite two should appear to arrive first, while to an observer on satellite two the photon at satellite one should appear to arrive first. We are in a mire of contradiction and no one knows what would in fact happen here. If the Chinese experiment goes ahead, we might find that some radical new physics is required.

To say that every possible version of their equations must be materially manifest strikes me as a kind of berserk literalism

You will notice that the ambiguity in these examples focuses on the issue of time — as do many paradoxes relating to relativity and quantum theory. Time indeed is a huge conundrum throughout physics, and paradoxes surround it at many levels of being. In Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe (2013) the American physicist Lee Smolin argues that for 400 years physicists have been thinking about time in ways that are fundamentally at odds with human experience and therefore wrong. In order to extricate ourselves from some of the deepest paradoxes in physics, he says, its very foundations must be reconceived. In an op-ed in New Scientist in April this year, Smolin wrote:
The idea that nature consists fundamentally of atoms with immutable properties moving through unchanging space, guided by timeless laws, underlies a metaphysical view in which time is absent or diminished. This view has been the basis for centuries of progress in science, but its usefulness for fundamental physics and cosmology has come to an end.

In order to resolve contradictions between how physicists describetime and how we experience time, Smolin says physicists must abandon the notion of time as an unchanging ideal and embrace an evolutionary concept of natural laws.

This is radical stuff, and Smolin is well-known for his contrarian views — he has been an outspoken critic of string theory, for example. But at the heart of his book is a worthy idea: Smolin is against the reflexive reification of equations. As our mathematical descriptions of time are so starkly in conflict with our lived experience of time, it is our descriptions that will have to change, he says.

To put this into Douglas’s terms, the powers that have been attributed to physicists’ structure of ideas have been overreaching. ‘Attempts to force experience into logical categories of non-contradiction’ have, she would say, inevitablyfailed. From the contemplation of wave-particle pangolins we have been led to the limits of the linguistic system of physicists. Like Smolin, I have long believed that the ‘block’ conception of time that physics proposes is inadequate, and I applaud this thrilling, if also at times highly speculative, book. Yet, if we can fix the current system by reinventing its axioms, then (assuming that Douglas is correct) even the new system will contain its own pangolins.

In the early days of quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr liked to say that we might never know what ‘reality’ is. Bohr used John Wheeler’s coinage, calling the universe ‘a great smoky dragon’, and claiming that all we could do with our science was to create ever more predictive models. Bohr’s positivism has gone out of fashion among theoretical physicists, replaced by an increasingly hard-core Platonism. To say, as some string theorists do, that every possible version of their equations must be materially manifest strikes me as a kind of berserk literalism, reminiscent of the old Ptolemaics who used to think that every mathematical epicycle in their descriptive apparatus must represent a physically manifest cosmic gear.

We are veering here towards Douglas’s view of neurosis. Will we accept, at some point, that there are limits to the quantification project, just as there are to all taxonomic schemes? Or will we be drawn into ever more complex and expensive quests — CERN mark two, Hubble, the sequel — as we try to root out every lingering paradox? In Douglas’s view, ambiguity is an inherent feature of language that we must face up to, at some point, or drive ourselves into distraction.

3 June 2013

Kurt Vonnegut graphed the world’s most popular stories (The Washington Post)

 February 9

This post comes via Know More, Wonkblog’s social media site.

Kurt Vonnegut claimed that his prettiest contribution to culture wasn’t a popular novel like “Cat’s Cradle” or “Slaughterhouse-Five,” but a largely forgotten master’s thesis he wrote while studying anthropology at the University of Chicago. The thesis argued that a main character has ups and downs that can be graphed to reveal the taxonomy of a story, as well as something about the culture it comes from. “The fundamental idea is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads,” Vonnegut said.

In addition to churning out novels, Vonnegut was deeply interested in the practice of writing. The tips he wrote for other writers – including “How to write with style” and “Eight rules for writing fiction” — are concise, funny, and still very useful. The thesis shows that Vonnegut’s preoccupation with the nuts and bolts of writing started early in his career.

Vonnegut spelled out the main argument of his thesis in a hilarious lecture, where he also graphed some of the more common story types. (Vonnegut was famously funny and irreverent, and you can hear the audience losing it throughout.) He published the transcript of this talk in his memoir, “A Man Without a Country,” which includes his own drawings of the graphs.

Vonnegut plotted stories on a vertical “G-I axis,” representing the good or ill fortunes of the main character, and a horizontal “B-E” axis that represented the course of the story from beginning to end.

One of the most popular story types is what Vonnegut called “Man in Hole,” graphed here by designer Maya Eilam. Somebody gets in trouble, gets out of it again, and ends up better off than where they started. “You see this story again and again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted,” Vonnegut says in his lecture. A close variant is “Boy Loses Girl,” in which a person gets something amazing, loses it, and then gets it back again.

Creation and religious stories follow a different arc, one that feels unfamiliar to modern readers. In most creation stories, a deity delivers incremental gifts that build to form the world. The Old Testament features the same pattern, except it ends with humans getting the rug pulled out from under them.

The New Testament follows a more modern story path, according to Vonnegut. He was delighted by the similarity of that story arc with Cinderella, which he called, “The most popular story in our civilization. Every time it’s retold, someone makes a million dollars.”

Some of the most notable works of literature are more ambiguous – like Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” which starts off bad and gets infinitely worse, and “Hamlet,” in which story developments are deeply ambiguous.

In his lecture, Vonnegut explains why we consider Hamlet, with this ambiguous and uncomfortable story type, to be a masterpiece:

“Cinderella or Kafka’s cockroach? I don’t think Shakespeare believed in a heaven or hell any more than I do. And so we don’t know whether it’s good news or bad news.

“I have just demonstrated to you that Shakespeare was as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho.

“But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.

“And if I die — God forbid — I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, ‘Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?’”

Anthropologists Release Statement on Humanity and Climate Change (AAA)

February 9, 2015

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) adopted a strong and clear statement on Humanity and Climate Change on January 29, 2015. The statement, based on the final report of the Association’s Global Climate Change Task Force, reveals eight ways anthropologists attack the problems of climate change from an anthropological perspective. The document recognizes climate change as a present reality and an intensifier of current underlying global problems; the markedly uneven distribution of impacts across and within societies; and the fact that humanity’s decisions, actions and cultural behaviors are now the most important causes of the dramatic environmental changes seen in the last century.

“Anthropologists focus on several aspects of climate change research that other scientists do not fully address, specifically the disproportionately adverse impacts on vulnerable populations, the extent to which our current challenges stem from culture and cultural choices on a societal level; and the value of the long record of human development and civilization that can inform our choices for the future,” said Shirley J. Fiske, Ph.D., Chair of the American Anthropological Association Global Climate Change Task Force.

The statement affirms that the global problem of climate change is rooted in social institutions and cultural habits. Solutions and social adaptations therefore require knowledge and insight from the social sciences and humanities. “Resilience and adaptation can be best addressed locally and regionally, by enabling communities to provide knowledge and social capital to construct viable solutions,” said task force member Ben Orlove, Ph.D. While climate change will have a global impact, the impact will fall unevenly; and as climate impacts intensify, public expenditures needed for emergency aid and restoration will escalate.

“It is crucial that we attend to the statement’s message that climate change is not a natural problem, it is a human problem,” said AAA President Monica Heller, Ph.D. in a recent statement. “Anthropologists play a vital role solving this human problem and the AAA is eager to continue to support the work of our members in this area.”

Task force members are Drs. Susan Crate, Carole Crumley, Shirley Fiske, Kathleen Galvin, Heather Lazrus, George Luber, Lisa Lucero, Anthony Oliver-Smith, Ben Orlove, Sarah Strauss and Richard Wilk. Read the entire statement and learn more about the AAA Global Climate Change Task Force at http://bit.ly/1At4qnn.

Clive Hamilton: Climate change signals the end of the social sciences (The Conversation)

January 24 2013, 7.24pm
Clive Hamilton

Our impact on the earth has brought on a new geographical epoch – The Age of Humans.AAP/Damien Shaw

In response to the heatwave that set a new Australia-wide record on 7 January, when the national average maximum reached 40.33°C, the Bureau of Meteorology issued a statement that, on reflection, sounds the death knell for all of the social sciences taught in our universities.

“Everything that happens in the climate system now”, the manager of climate monitoring at the Bureau said, “is taking place on a planet which is a degree hotter than it used to be.”

Eminent US climate scientist, Kevin Trenberth, made the same point more fully last year:

The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.

Trenberth’s commentary calls on us to reframe how we think about human-induced climate change. We can no longer place some events into the box marked “Nature” and some into the box marked “Human”.

The invention of these two boxes was the defining feature of modernity, an idea founded on Cartesian and Kantianphilosophies of the subject. Its emergence has also been tracked by science studies in the contradiction between purified science and the messy process of knowledge creation, leading to Bruno Latour’s troubling claim that the separation of Human and Nature was an illusion, and that “we have never been modern”.

Climate science is now telling us that such a separation can no longer be sustained, that the natural and the human are mixed up, and their influences cannot be neatly distinguished.

This human-nature hybrid is true not just of the climate system, but of the planet as a whole, although it would be enough for it to be true of the climate system. We know from the new discipline of Earth system science that changes in the atmosphere affect not just the weather but the Earth’s hydrosphere (the watery parts), the biosphere (living creatures) and even the lithosphere (the Earth’s crust). They are all linked by the great natural cycles and processes that make the planet so dynamic. In short, everything is in play.

Apart from climatic change, it is apparent that human activity has transformed the Earth in profound ways. Every cubic metre of air and water, every hectare of land now has a human imprint, from hormones in the seas, to fluorocarbons in the atmosphere and radioactivity from nuclear weapons tests in the soil.

Each year humans shift ten times more rock and soil around the Earth than the great natural processes of erosion and weathering. Half of the land surface has been modified by humans. Dam-building since the 1930s has held back enough water to keep the oceans three centimetres lower than otherwise. Extinctions are now occurring at a rate 100 times faster than the natural one.

So profound has been the influence of humans that Earth scientists such as Will Steffen have recently declared that the Earth has entered a new geological epoch, an epoch defined by the fact that the “human imprint on the global environment has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system”. Known as the Anthropocene, the Age of Humans, it marks the end of the Holocene, the 10,000-year period of remarkable climatic stability and clemency that allowed civilisation to flourish.

The modern social sciences — sociology, psychology, political science, economics, history and, we may add, philosophy — rest on the assumption that the grand and the humdrum events of human life take place against a backdrop of an inert nature. Only humans have agency. Everything worthy of analysis occurs in the sealed world of “the social”, and where nature does make itself felt – in environmental history, sociology or politics – “the environment” is the Umwelt, the natural world “over there” that surrounds us and sometimes intrudes on our plans, but always remains separate.

What was distinctive of the “social sciences” that emerged in 18th-century Europe was not so much their aspiration to science but their “social-only” domain of concern.

So the advent of the Anthropocene shatters the self-contained world of social analysis that is the terrain of modern social science, and explains why those intellectuals who remain within it find it impossible to “analyze” the politics, sociology or philosophy of climate change in a way that is true to the science. They end up floundering in the old categories, unable to see that something epochal has occurred, a rupture on the scale of the Industrial Revolution or the emergence of civilization itself.

A few are trying to peer through the fog of modernism. In an epoch-marking intervention, Chicago historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued that the distinction we have drawn between natural history and human history has now collapsed. With the arrival of the Anthropocene, humans have become a geological force so that the two kinds of history have converged and it is no longer true that “all history properly so called is the history of human affairs”.

E.H. Carr’s famous definition of history must now be discarded:

History begins when men begin to think of the passage of time in terms not of natural processes — the cycle of the seasons, the human life-span — but of a series of specific events in which men are consciously involved and which they can consciously influence.

From hereon our history will increasingly be dominated by “natural processes”, influenced by us but largely beyond our control. Our future has become entangled with that of the Earth’s geological evolution. As I argue in a forthcoming book, contrary to the modernist faith, it can no longer be maintained that humans make their own history, for the stage on which we make it has now entered into the play as a dynamic and capricious force.

And the actors too must be scrutinised afresh. If on the Anthropocene’s hybrid Earth it is no longer tenable to characterise humans as the rational animal, God’s chosen creatures or just another species, what kind of being are we?

The social sciences taught in our universities must now be classed as “pre-Anthropocene”. The process of reinventing them — so that what is taught in our arts faculties is true to what has emerged in our science faculties — will be a sustained and arduous intellectual enterprise. After all, it was not just the landscape that was scorched by 40.33°C, but modernism itself.

Antropologia renovada (Cult)

Jan. 2015

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro é reconhecido por ter renovado o pensamento antropológico


Juvenal Savian Filho e Wilker Sousa
Fotos: Lucas Zappa

“Viveiros de Castro é o fundador de uma nova escola na antropologia. Com ele me sinto em completa harmonia intelectual.” Essas palavras são do antropólogo e pensador francês Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) a respeito da obra do brasileiro Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. Professor de antropologia do Museu Nacional da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, ele é reconhecido nacional e internacionalmente por seus estudos em etnologia indígena – o ensaio “Os Pronomes Cosmológicos e o Perspectivismo Ameríndio”, publicado em 1996, recebeu traduções para diversas línguas e foi incluído em duas antologias britânicas de textos-chave da disciplina, a primeira centrada na antropologia da religião, a outra dedicada à teoria antropológica geral. Em 2009, publicou na França o livro Métaphysiques Cannibales, no qual resume as implicações filosóficas e políticas de suas pesquisas entre os povos indígenas brasileiros. No Brasil, seu livro mais conhecido é A Inconstância da Alma Selvagem, publicado em 2002, que reúne estudos escritos ao longo de sua carreira até então. Uma segunda coleção, trazendo seus ensaios mais recentes, está em preparação, devendo ser publicada pela editora CosacNaify em 2012, sob o título A Onça e a Diferença.

Seu currículo inclui atividades intelectuais em âmbito mundial. Foi professor-associado nas universidades de Manchester e Chicago e ocupou a cátedra Simón Bolívar de Estudos Latino-americanos da Universidade de Cambridge. Foi diretor de pesquisas no Centro Nacional de Pesquisa Científica, em Paris, tornando-se membro permanente da Equipe de Pesquisa em Etnologia Ameríndia. Ainda na França, foi agraciado em 1998 com o Prix da La Francophonie, concedido pela Academia Francesa.

Aos 59 anos de idade, construiu uma obra potente e irretocável. Viveiros de Castro recebeu a reportagem da CULT em sua sala no Museu Nacional, no Rio de Janeiro, e falou sobre seu trabalho, a atual política indigenista, a crise ambiental e a inserção do Brasil na economia mundial.

CULT – Como se dá seu trabalho de campo e com que regularidade o senhor visita as comunidades indígenas?
Eduardo Viveiros de Castro –
 O principal de minhas pesquisas de campo com os povos indígenas da Amazônia fez-se entre os anos 1975 e 1988. Estive por breves períodos entre os Yawalapiti do Parque do Xingu, em Mato Grosso (hoje o estado deveria ser chamado de Mato Ralo), os Kulina do Rio Purus, no Acre, os ianomâmis da Serra de Surucucus, em Roraima, e finalmente entre os Araweté do Igarapé Ipixuna, no Médio Xingu, Pará. Apenas entre os Araweté realizei o que se pode chamar de uma pesquisa etnográfica, que requer uma convivência demorada com o povo estudado, o aprendizado da língua nativa (no meu caso, bem incipiente) e o envolvimento emocional e cognitivo – o compromisso existencial – com as questões e preocupações da vida da comunidade que generosamente aceitou receber o antropólogo. Minha estada com os Araweté não foi tão longa quanto deveria: morei no Ipixuna por cerca de dez meses, entre 1981 e 1983, quando precisei deixar a área por motivos de saúde (malárias repetidas). Depois voltei algumas vezes, em visitas curtas, perfazendo 14 meses até 1995. Isto é, na melhor das hipóteses, a metade do que se precisa para fazer um bom trabalho de campo. Mas cada um faz o que pode. Há quem aprenda mais depressa, outros precisam de mais tempo. Além disso, há povos que demandam muitos anos de convivência até que as coisas comecem a fazer sentido para o pesquisador, e outros que são mais abertos e mais diretos. Por fim, tudo depende daquilo que se quer estudar. De qualquer maneira, não me vejo como um grande pesquisador de campo. Sou um etnógrafo apenas razoável.

Há cerca de um mês, após 15 anos de ausência, voltei ao Ipixuna para uma rápida visita. A desculpa para uma ausência tão demorada, a rigor indesculpável, foi que a vida me levou para longe da Amazônia: ensino, família, períodos de residência no exterior, o lento trabalho da escrita, o peso da idade… Isso para não mencionar algumas dificuldades que acabei tendo com a autoridade indigenista local, em Altamira (PA), por causa das empresas evangélicas que queriam se instalar entre os Araweté. Aos olhos desses missionários, eu era uma espécie de Satã que estava ali entravando a almejada conquista espiritual dos índios. Assim que parei de ir com mais frequência ao Ipixuna, esses missionários conseguiram se insinuar nas aldeias, com a complacência da administração indigenista. O estrago que causaram, até agora, ainda não parece ter sido grande demais. O mérito, naturalmente, é dos próprios Araweté.

Retornei a convite dos Araweté – não foi o primeiro que me fizeram, nesses 15 anos – e da nova administração da Funai em Altamira, com quem tenho a firme intenção de colaborar, nessa fase histórica tão difícil que se abre agora para os povos indígenas do Médio Xingu, com a construção do Complexo Hidrelétrico de Belo Monte. Está na hora também de passar o bastão e apresentar alguns de meus estudantes do Museu Nacional aos Araweté, para que possam continuar o trabalho.

O senhor concorda que, nas últimas duas ou três décadas, os “índios” têm aparecido mais no debate político e nos veículos de comunicação? Por que isso demorou tanto tempo?
Em seu livro Tristes Trópicos, Lévi-Strauss conta uma anedota reveladora. Era o começo dos anos 1930, ele estava de partida para o Brasil, onde ia ensinar sociologia na USP. Lévi-Strauss encontra o embaixador brasileiro na França, Luiz de Souza Dantas, em um jantar de cerimônia, e lhe pergunta sobre os índios brasileiros, que já então muito lhe interessavam. Ao perguntar ao embaixador como deveria proceder para visitar alguma comunidade indígena, este lhe respondeu: “Ah, meu senhor, no Brasil há muito tempo não há mais índios. Essa é uma história muito triste, mas o fato é que os índios foram exterminados pelos portugueses, pelos colonizadores, e hoje não há mais índios no Brasil. É um capítulo muito triste da história brasileira. Há muitas coisas apaixonantes a serem vistas no Brasil, mas índios, não há mais um só…” Lévi-
-Strauss conta que, naturalmente, quando chegou ao Brasil, descobriu que não era bem assim.

Isso não quer dizer que o embaixador (cuja aparência física, diz maliciosamente Lévi-Strauss, indicava uma óbvia contribuição indígena) estivesse mentindo deliberadamente, procurando negar uma realidade vergonhosa mas sabida. De fato, o embaixador não sabia que havia índios no Brasil; o Brasil que ele representava diplomaticamente não continha índios. O Brasil era um país desesperado para ser moderno, então não havia, porque não podia haver, mais selvagens aqui. Outro fato curioso: em 1970 (portanto, 40 anos depois do diálogo de Lévi-Strauss com o embaixador), o censo indígena da Funai indicava, para o estado do Acre, a notável população de “zero indivíduo”. Oficialmente, não havia mais índios no Acre. Aí começam a abrir as estradas por lá, a derrubar a mata, a botar boi, e eis que começam a aparecer índios a atravancar a expansão dos pastos e a destruição da floresta. (Junto com índios, como se sabe, começaram também a aparecer os seringueiros, que se imaginava como mais outra “raça” em extinção. E bem que se tentou extingui-los naquela época – lembrem-se de Chico Mendes.) Ora, índios sempre houve lá no Acre, todo mundo no Acre sabia que eles estavam lá, mas eles não existiam em Brasília, ou melhor, para Brasília. Agora sabe-se e aceita-se que o estado do Acre abriga, atualmente, 14 povos indígenas, alguns de significativa expressão demográfica, como os Kaxinauá e os Kulina. O Acre é um estado profundamente indígena, dos pontos de vista cultural, histórico e demográfico. Na verdade, ele é hoje o principal exportador de práticas e símbolos indígenas (mais ou menos transformados) para o Brasil urbano atual.

A que mais se deve essa redescoberta dos índios nas últimas décadas?
Tudo começou com uma iniciativa fracassada do governo militar, em 1978, que visava extinguir os índios, entenda-se, acelerar o processo de desconhecimento da população indígena, consagrar seu não reconhecimento como um componente diferenciado dentro da chamada “comunhão nacional”. Completar o processo de “assimilação”, isto é, de desindianização, que se entendia como inexorável e desejável ao mesmo tempo. O governo propôs um projeto de lei para “emancipar” os índios, isto é, extinguir a tutela oficial do Estado que os protegia. O verdadeiro objetivo da medida era liberar as terras indígenas, terras públicas, de domínio da União, inalienáveis, para que entrassem no mercado fundiário capitalista. Ao declarar que esta ou aquela população indígena não “era mais” índia, porque seus membros falavam português, ou usavam roupa etc., o que o projeto de lei pretendia era entregar as terras públicas de posse dos índios nas mãos dos interesses proprietariais particulares. Simplesmente se queria tirar os índios da frente do trator do capital: em vez de índio, que venham o gado, a soja, os madeireiros, o latifúndio, o mercado de terras, a mineração, a estrada, a poluição e tudo que vem junto. E que muitos chamam de “desenvolvimento”.

Mas, naquele momento, os idos de 1978, quando estava se consolidando a resistência organizada à ditadura, muito da insatisfação política da classe média, dos intelectuais principalmente, se cristalizou em torno da questão indígena, como se ela fosse uma espécie de emblema do destino de todos os brasileiros. É também nesse momento que tomam ímpeto o movimento negro, o movimento feminista, a politização ativa da orientação sexual, a emergência de diversas minorias, diversas diversidades por assim dizer: étnicas, locais, sexuais, ocupacionais, culturais etc. A luta de classes assumia cada vez mais o caráter de uma integração parcial de uma série de diferenciais traçados sobre outros eixos que a economia pura e simples (as relações de produção). Começam a surgir outros atores políticos. É o momento da especulação e da experimentação generalizadas: outras práticas do laço social, outras imagens da sociedade, que não se reduzem ao par Estado-classes sociais, mas que envolvem outras formas de vida, outros territórios existenciais. Os índios foram importantes por sua força exemplar, seu poder de condensação simbólica. Eles apareceram como portadores de outro projeto de sociedade, de outra solução de vida que contraprojetava uma imagem crítica da nossa.

Mas, desde o século 16, a vida indígena aparece como uma imagem crítica da vida “ocidental”.
Sim, sem dúvida. Há uma frase de um jovem filósofo que eu admiro muito, Patrice Maniglier, um grande especialista em Lévi-Strauss, aliás: “A antropologia nos devolve uma imagem de nós mesmos na qual nós não nos reconhecemos”. É por isso que ela é importante, porque nos devolve algo, ela nos “reflete”. Mas a gente vê essa imagem e não se reconhece nela. “Então nós, humanos, somos assim também? Podemos ser isso? Somos isso, em potência? Temos em nós a capacidade de viver assim? Essa é uma solução de vida ao nosso alcance, como espécie?” Em suma: “É possível ser feliz sem carro, geladeira e televisão?”. Isso nos dá um susto, um susto com valor de conhecimento. Os índios, desde o século 16, desempenharam essa função para a reflexão político-filosófica ocidental (para uma muito pequena parte dela, na verdade). E essa mesma função, mas modernizada, especificada e tornada mais evidente pelo fato de que os índios brasileiros da década 1970 – a década que inicia a ocupação destrutiva em larga escala da Amazônia – eram nossos conterrâneos e nossos contemporâneos, eles nos ensinavam algo não só sobre nós mesmos como sobre nosso projeto de país, o Brasil que queríamos, e que não era certamente o Brasil que tínhamos. Então, foi em torno das sociedades indígenas como diferença emergente que se constituiu a resistência contra o projeto de emancipação: uma resistência contra o projeto de privatização econômica, o branqueamento político e a estupidificação cultural do Brasil.

Os antropólogos, nesse contexto, começam a se organizar como categoria, aliando-se aos índios como atores políticos. Houve, é claro, antropólogos que tiveram um papel importantíssimo na história não só da causa indígena, mas da própria República, como Roquette Pinto ou Darcy Ribeiro, antes de (e durante) essa época. Mas naquele momento, no fim da década de 1970, os antropólogos se constituem como corporação para interpelar o governo e se opor ao projeto de emancipação. Essa mobilização sensibilizou a sociedade, entenda-se, outros intelectuais, militantes políticos de outras causas, advogados, juristas, artistas, e também as camadas médias urbanas, os estudantes… Ao mesmo tempo, e muito mais importante, os índios como que “acordaram” para seu poder de intervenção nos circuitos nacionais e internacionais de comunicação. Eles deixavam ali de ser um elemento do folclore nacional, de um passado vago e distante, e passavam a atores políticos do presente, signos críticos e urgentes de uma ultracontemporaneidade: signos do futuro, na verdade.

Enfim, é nesse momento, fim dos anos 1970, que ganha vulto todo o movimento de auto-organização de coletivos que não são mais redutíveis nem aos partidos nem aos sindicatos: a célebre “sociedade civil organizada”. É então também que começam a aparecer figuras indígenas individuais com destaque político. A primeira delas foi Mário Juruna, um deputado que foi tratado folcloricamente pela imprensa, mas que teve um papel estratégico para a emergência dos índios no cenário político-ideológico nacional e internacional (lembremos do Tribunal Russell). Juruna, que marcou presença por alguns gestos muitos simples, de grande “pega” midiática, ficou famoso com seu gravador – um edificante signo do poder da “tecnologia” nas mãos de um “selvagem”; melhor ainda, e agora de verdade, um dispositivo que preservava a potência e a imediatez da oralidade, o registro semiótico em que os indígenas se sentem completamente em casa – que armazenava as promessas e declarações de autoridades e políticos. Depois, promessa quebrada, declaração falseada pelos fatos, Juruna tocava seu gravador na frente da “otoridade” e dizia: “Mas não foi o contrário que o senhor falou?” “O senhor não havia prometido isso?” Depois de Mário Juruna, o protagonismo indígena, coletivo e individual, proliferou: associações, federações, líderes de grande expressão como Ailton Krenak e David Kopenawa.

Qual o papel da Constituinte de 1988 nesse processo?
Esse processo do fim da década de 1970 culminou em 1988, com a Constituinte e a Constituição, que tiveram um papel fundamental para formalizar a presença dos índios dentro da comunhão nacional. É aqui que se começa a reconhecer direitos coletivos, coisa que, salvo engano, mal existia no Brasil: direitos difusos, direitos coletivos, comunidades sujeitos de direito, índios, quilombolas. Uma vitória imensa, atestável no ódio que a Constituição de 1988 desperta na direita, sempre à espreita de uma oportunidade para “reformar” a Constituição, isto é, para desfigurá-la, e sempre eficaz na protelação da indispensável regulamentação de diversos artigos constitucionais.

O senhor vê com bons olhos as políticas de proteção dos direitos indígenas na era Lula?
Houve grandes conquistas, a mais importante, sem dúvida, o reconhecimento da terra indígena Raposa Serra do Sol. Mas manteve-se, ou mais, acentuou-se o projeto de governo baseado na equação falaciosa entre desenvolvimento e crescimento, em uma ideia de crescimento a qualquer preço e, nesse sentido (eu sublinho: apenas nesse sentido), o governo Lula manteve sua continuidade com todos os governos anteriores, pelo menos até Vargas e incluindo os governos da ditadura. Uma ideia de que é preciso conquistar o Brasil, ocupá-lo, civilizá-lo, modernizá-lo, desenvolvê-lo, implicando com isso a ideia de que os índios não são brasileiros, não estão lá, não vivem em suas terras segundo seus próprios esquemas civilizacionais, não possuem uma cultura viva e eficaz. Tudo isso se baseia em um modelo cultural falido, a ideia de modernidade.

E qual é esse modelo?
É o modelo de industrialização intensiva, poluente, de exportação maciça de matéria-prima, monocultura, agronegócio, transgênicos, agrotóxicos, petróleo… Ele bate de frente com os interesses das populações indígenas e, arrisco-me a dizer, com as perspectivas de toda a população do país e do planeta. O que precisamos é imaginar uma forma econômica com algum futuro, capaz de assegurar o suficiente para todos, uma vida que seja boa o bastante para as gerações vindouras. Então, eu tenho sérias restrições não à política indigenista do governo Lula – aliás, o atual presidente da Funai [Márcio Augusto Freitas de Meira] é um colega que admiro e respeito –, mas o problema é que essa política indigenista sempre teve de se dobrar aos imperativos de uma geopolítica nacional e internacional ambientalmente desastrosa. Toda vez que algum setor do governo ameaçou criar dificuldades para essa geopolitica desenvolvimentista, foi obrigado a entrar na linha, ou sair de cena. Veja Marina Silva. No caso da Funai, a tendência foi seguir os limites estreitos de manobra deixados pela Casa Civil e seu implacável desenvolvimentismo.

Qual seria, então, a alternativa a esse modelo?
O Brasil tem a oportunidade única de ser um dos poucos lugares da Terra onde um novo modelo de sociedade e de civilização poderia se constituir. Somos um dos poucos países do mundo que tem recursos suficientes para inventar outra ideia e outra prática de desenvolvimento. Parece que aprendeu muito pouco com a história recente do mundo. Quando se exporta soja e gado, está se exportando o quê? O solo, a água do país. Para fazer 1 quilo de carne, são necessários 15 mil litros de água; para 1 quilo de soja, são necessários 1.800 litros. O Brasil é o maior exportador de “água virtual” do mundo. Isso para não falarmos nos insumos venenosos: hormônios para o gado, fertilizantes, agrotóxicos… O Brasil é o maior consumidor de defensivos agrícolas do planeta. Imagine o risco sanitário a que estamos expostos. Todas essas maravilhas que tanto aumentam a produtividade agrícola (e ao mesmo tempo baixam a qualidade e a segurança dos alimentos) são-nos enfiadas garganta abaixo por grandes companhias transnacionais como a Monsanto, cuja ficha ambiental e política é mais que suja, é imunda.

E está em curso a polêmica sobre a construção da hidrelétrica de Belo Monte. Quando se fala em hidrelétricas, bem, de fato talvez seja melhor do que a energia nuclear – em princípio, uma vez que a questão do lixo nuclear está bem longe de ser resolvida, além dos problemas de segurança –, mas quais são as implicações do ponto de vista, por exemplo, do abastecimento de água? E, aliás, para quem vai o principal da energia elétrica que é produzida por uma grande hidrelétrica como Tucuruí, ou Belo Monte? Vai para a população ou para as fábricas de alumínio, os projetos de extração e processamento de cobre e níquel da Amazônia? O que fazem essas fábricas de alumínio? Latas de saquê e cerveja, principalmente. Por que as fábricas de alumínio estão aqui? Por que países como o Japão não querem gastar uma imensa quantidade de energia para mover as cubas eletrolíticas onde se funde o alumínio? É melhor que um país grande, periférico e perdulário detone seus rios. A usina de Tucuruí, concebida durante o regime militar, significou 2 bilhões de reais de subsídio para as indústrias de alumínio, como constatou um especialista recentemente. O destino real da energia produzida pelo Complexo Hidrelétrico de Belo Monte ainda é uma espécie de segredo de Estado. Mas parece que essa energia virá principalmente para o Sul e o Sudeste, ou servirá para alimentar novas indústrias eletrointensivas – cobre, bauxita, níquel – no Norte, algumas aliás
não nacionais (a direita vive falando no perigo de uma invasão estrangeira da Amazônia; ela já aconteceu, mas como é uma invasão do capital, parece que pode…). Os benefícios para a população, e especialmente para a população local, são muito duvidosos.

Como se deu seu contato com o pensamento de Lévi-Strauss?
Meu contato com Lévi-Strauss antecede meu contato com a antropologia. Foi enquanto eu fazia ciências sociais, em um curso de teoria literária dado por Luiz Costa Lima. Foi ele quem me aconselhou a fazer antropologia. Isso foi nos idos de 1969, 1970. Naquele momento, o estruturalismo antropológico estava penetrando em diversas áreas das ciências humanas, como a psicanálise e a crítica literária, então o Costa Lima, professor de literatura e grande teórico da área, resolveu dar um curso sobre As Mitológicas na sociologia da PUC-Rio, onde eu estudava.

O senhor poderia apresentar-nos o conceito do perspectivismo indígena?
Esse é um assunto sobre o qual hesito um pouco em falar, porque o termo “perspectivismo indígena” se tornou excessivamente popular no meio antropológico, e a ideia que ele designa começa a sofrer o que sofre toda ideia que se difunde muito e rapidamente: banalização, de um lado, despeito, de outro. Passa a servir para tudo, ou a não servir para nada. De qualquer forma, não fui eu quem inventou sozinho a teoria do perspectivismo indígena; foi um trabalho de grupo, em que se destaca a colaboração formativa que mantive com minha colega Tânia Stolze Lima. Tomamos emprestado do vocabulário filosófico esse termo de perspectivismo para qualificar um aspecto marcante de várias, senão de todas, as culturas nativas do Novo Mundo. Trata–se da noção de que o mundo é povoado por um número indefinidamente indeterminado de espécies de seres dotadas de consciência e cultura. Isso está associado à ideia de que a forma manifesta de cada espécie é uma “roupa” que oculta uma forma interna humanoide, normalmente visível apenas aos olhos da própria espécie ou de certos seres transespecíficos, como os xamãs. Até aqui, nada de muito característico: a ideia de que a espécie humana não é um caso à parte dentro da criação, e de que há mais gente, mais pessoas no céu e na terra do que sonham nossas antropologias, é muito difundida entre as culturas tradicionais de todo o planeta.

O que distingue as cosmologias ameríndias é um desenvolvimento sui generis dessa ideia, a saber, a afirmação de que cada uma dessas espécies é dotada de um ponto de vista singular, ou melhor, é constituída como um ponto de vista singular. Assim, o modo como os seres humanos veem os animais e outras gentes do universo – deuses, espíritos, mortos, plantas, objetos e artefatos – é diferente do modo como esses seres veem os humanos e veem a si mesmos. Cada espécie de ser, a começar pela nossa própria espécie, vê-se a si mesma como humana. Assim, as onças, por exemplo, se veem como gente: cada onça individual vê a si mesma e a seus semelhantes como seres humanos, organismos anatômica e funcionalmente idênticos aos nossos. Além disso, cada tipo de ser vê certos elementos-chave de seu ambiente como se fossem objetos culturalmente elaborados: o sangue dos animais que matam é visto pelas onças como cerveja de mandioca, o barreiro em que se espojam as antas é visto como uma grande casa cerimonial, os grilos que os espectros dos mortos comem são vistos por estes como peixes assados etc. Em contrapartida, os animais não veem os humanos como humanos. As onças, assim, nos veem como animais de caça: porcos selvagens, por exemplo. É por isso que as onças nos atacam e devoram, pois todo ser humano que se preza aprecia a carne de porco selvagem. Quanto aos porcos selvagens (isto é, aqueles seres que vemos como porcos selvagens), estes também se veem como humanos, vendo, por exemplo, as frutas silvestres que comem como se fossem plantas cultivadas, enquanto veem a nós humanos como se fôssemos espíritos canibais – pois os matamos e comemos.

E o que é o humano?
É essa capacidade de socialidade. Antes, tudo era transparente a tudo, os futuros animais e os futuros humanos, vamos chamar assim, se entendiam, todos se banhavam num mesmo universo de comunicabilidade recíproca. Lévi-Strauss tem uma definição muito boa, dada numa entrevista. O entrevistador pergunta: “O que é um mito?”. Lévi-Strauss responde: “Bom, se você perguntasse a um índio das Américas, é provável que ele respondesse: ‘Um mito é uma história do tempo em que os animais falavam’”. Essa definição, que parece banal, na verdade é muito profunda. O que ele está querendo dizer é que o mito é uma história do tempo em que os homens e os animais estavam em continuidade, se comunicavam entre si. Na verdade a humanidade nunca se conformou por ter perdido essa transparência com as demais formas de vida, e os mitos são uma espécie de nostalgia da comunicação perdida.

Essa é de fato uma noção universal no pensamento ameríndio, a de um estado originário de coacessibilidade entre os humanos e os animais. As narrativas míticas são povoadas de seres cuja forma, nome e comportamento misturam atributos humanos e não humanos, em um contexto de intercomunicabilidade idêntico ao que define o mundo intra-humano atual. O propósito da mitologia, com efeito, é narrar o fim desse estado: trata-se da célebre separação entre “cultura” e “natureza” analisada nas Mitológicas de Lévi-Strauss. Mas não se trata aqui de uma diferenciação do humano com base no animal, como é o caso em nossa mitologia evolucionista moderna. A condição original comum aos humanos e animais não é a animalidade, mas a humanidade. Os mitos contam como os animais perderam os atributos herdados ou mantidos pelos humanos; os animais são ex-humanos, e não os humanos ex-animais. Se nossa antropologia popular vê a humanidade como erguida sobre alicerces animais, normalmente ocultos pela cultura – tendo outrora sido “completamente” animais, permanecemos, “no fundo”, animais –, o pensamento indígena conclui ao contrário que, tendo outrora sido humanos, os animais e outros seres do cosmo continuam a ser humanos, mesmo que de modo não evidente.

Se tudo está impregnado de humanidade, quais são as consequências disso para o modo de vida indígena?
Se tudo é humano, nós não somos especiais; esse é o ponto. E, ao mesmo tempo, se tudo é humano, cuidado com o que você faz, porque, quando corta uma árvore ou mata um bicho, você não está simplesmente movendo partículas de matéria de um lado para o outro, você está tratando com gente que tem memória, se vinga, contra-ataca, e assim por diante. Como tudo é humano, tudo tem ouvidos, todas as suas ações têm consequências.