Arquivo da tag: Teoria social

Bill Cronon: What is environmental history good for? (Anthropoid.scene)

BY JEREMY SCHMIDT, Jan 27, 2015

A panel discussion with Bill Cronon and Francis Ludlow. Bill’s portion starts around 35 minutes in.

Anúncios

What will post-democracy look like? (The Sociological Imagination)

 ON JANUARY 19, 2015

As anyone who reads my blog regularly might have noticed, I’m a fan of Colin Crouch’s notion of post-democracy. I’ve interviewed him about it a couple of times: once in 2010 and again in 2013. Whereas he’d initially offered the notion to illuminate a potential trajectory, in the sense that we risk becoming post-democratic, we more latterly see a social order that might be said to have become post-democratic. He intends the term to function analogously to post-industrial: it is not that democracy is gone but that it has been hollowed out:

The term was indeed a direct analogy with ‘post-industrial’. A post-industrial society is not a non-industrial one. It continues to make and to use the products of industry, but the energy and innovative drive of the system have gone elsewhere. The same applies in a more complex way to post-modern, which is not the same as anti-modern or of course pre-modern. It implies a culture that uses the achievements of modernism but departs from them in its search for new possibilities. A post-democratic society therefore is one that continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell. The energy and innovative drive pass away from the democratic arena and into small circles of a politico-economic elite. I did not say that we were now living in a post-democratic society, but that we were moving towards such a condition.

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/five-minutes-with-colin-crouch/

Crouch is far from the only theorist to have made such a claim. But I think there’s a precision to his argument which distinguishes it from the manner in which someone like, say, Bauman talks about depoliticisation. My current, slightly morbid, interest in representations of civilisational collapsehas left me wondering what entrenched post-democracy would look like. Asking this question does not refer to an absence of democracy, for which endless examples are possible, but rather for a more detailed sketch of what a social order which was once democratic but is now post-democratic would look like. While everyday life might look something like that which can be seen in Singapore, ‘the city of rules’ as this Guardian article puts it, I think there’s more to be said than this. However we can see in Singapore a vivid account of how micro-regulation can be deployed to facilitate a city in which ‘nothing goes wrong, but nothing really happens’ as one ex-pat memorably phrases it in that article. Is it so hard to imagine efficiency and orderliness being used to secure consent, at least amongst some, for a similar level of social control in western Europe or America?

Perhaps we’d also see the exceptional justice that intruded into UK life after the 2011 riots, with courts being kept open 24/7 in order to better facilitate the restoration of social order. There’s something akin to this in mega sporting events: opaque centralised planning overwhelms democratic consultation, ‘world cup courts’ dish out ad hoc justice, the social structure contorts itself for the pleasure of an international oligopoly upon whom proceedings depend, specialised security arrangements are intensively deployed in the interests of the event’s success and we often see a form of social cleansing (destruction of whole neighbourhoods) presented as a technocratic exercise in event management. We also see pre-arrests and predictive policing deployed to these ends and only a fool would not expect to see more of this as the technological apparatus and the political pressures encouraging them grow over time.

These security arrangements point to another aspect of a post-democratic social order: the economic vibrancy of the security sector. There is a technological dimension to this, with a long term growth fuelled by the ‘war on terror’ coupled with an increasing move towards ‘disruptive policing’ that offers technical solutions at a time of fiscal retrenchment, but we shouldn’t forget the more mundane side of the security industry and its interests in privatisation of policing. This is how Securitas, one of the world’s largest security companies, describe the prospects of the security industry. Note the title of the page: taking advantage of changes.

The global security services market employs several million people and is projected to reach USD 110 billion by 2016. Security services are in demand all over the world, in all industries and in both the public and private sectors. Demand for our services is closely linked to global economic development and social and demographic trends. As the global economy grows and develops, so do we.

Historically, the security market has grown 1–2 percent faster than GDP in mature markets. In recent years, due to current market dynamics and the gradual incorporation of technology into security solutions, security markets in Europe and North America have grown at the same pace as GDP. This trend is likely to continue over the next three to five years.

Market growth is crucial to Securitas’ future profitability and growth, but capitalizing on trends and changes in demand is also important. Developing new security solutions with a higher technology content and improved cost efficiency will allow the private security industry to expand the market by assuming responsibility for work presently performed by the police or other authorities. This development will also be a challenge for operations with insourced security services and increase interest in better outsourced solutions.

http://www.securitas.com/en/About-Securitas/Taking-advantage-of-changes/

Consider this against a background of terrorism, as the spectacular narrative of the ‘war on terror’ comes to be replaced by a prospect of state of alert without end. We’ve not seen the end of the ‘war on terror’, we’ve seen a spectacular narrative become a taken for granted part of everyday life. It doesn’t need to be narrativised any more because it’s here to stay. Against this backdrop, we’re likely see an authoritarian slide in political culture, supplementing the institutional arrangements already in place, in which ‘responsibility’ becomes the key virtue in the exercise of freedoms – as I heard someone say on the radio yesterday, “it’s irresponsible to say democracy is the only thing that matters when we face a threat like this” (or words to that effect).

Crucially, I don’t think this process is inexorable and it’s certainly not the unfolding of an historical logic. It’s enacted by people at every level – including those who reinforce the slide at the micro level of everyday social interaction. The intractability of the problem comes because the process itself involves a hollowing out of processes of contestation at the highest level, such that the corporate agents pursuing this changing social order are also benefiting from it by potential sources of resistance being increasingly absent or at least passive on the macro level.  This is how Wolfgang Streeck describes this institutional project, as inflected through management of the financial crisis:

The utopian ideal of present day crisis management is to complete, with political means, the already far-advanced depoliticization of the economy; anchored in recognised nation-stated under the control of internal governmental and financial diplomacy insulated from democratic participation, with a population that would have learned, over years of hegemonic re-education, to regard the distributional outcomes of free markets as fair, or at least as without alternative.

Buying Time, pg 46

Another Weird Story: Intentional, Post-Intentional, and Unintentional Philosophy (The Cracked Egg)

JANUARY 18, 2015
KAT CRAIG

I was a “2e” kid: gifted with ADHD but cursed with the power to ace standardized tests. I did so well on tests they enrolled me in a Hopkins study, but I couldn’t remember to brush my hair. As if that wasn’t enough, there were a lot of other unusual things going on, far too many to get into here. My brain constantly defied people’s expectations. It was never the same brain from day to day. I am, apparently, a real neuropsychiatric mystery, in both good and bad ways. I’m a walking, breathing challenge to people’s assumptions and perceptions. Just a few examples: the assumption that intelligence is a unitary phenomenon, and the perception that people who think like you are smarter than those who think differently. Even my reasons for defying expectations were misinterpreted. I hated the way people idolized individuality, because being different brought me only pain. People mistook me for trying to be different. Being different is a tragedy!

And it got weirder: I inherited the same sociocognitive tools as everyone else, so I made the same assumptions. Consequently, I defied even my own expectations. So I learned to mistrust my own perceptions, always looking over my shoulder, predicting my own behavior as if I were an outside observer. I literally had to re-engineer myself in order to function in society, and that was impossible to do without getting into some major philosophical questions. I freely admit that this process has taken me my entire life and only recently have I had any success. I am just now learning to function in society–I’m a cracked egg. Cracked once from outside, and once from inside. And just now growing up, a decade late.

So it’s no surprise that I’m so stuck on the question of what people’s brains are actually doing when they theorize.

I stumbled onto R. Scott Bakker’s theories after reading his philosophical thriller, Neuropath. Then I found his blog, and I was blown away that someone besides me was obsessed with the role of ingroup/outgroup dynamics in intellectual circles. As someone with no ingroup (at least not yet), it’s very refreshing. But what really blew my mind was that he had a theory of cognitive science that could explain many of my frustrating experiences: the Blind Brain Theory, or BBT.

The purpose of this post is not to explain BBT, so you’ll have to click the link if you want that. I’ll go more into depth on the specifics of BBT later, but for a ridiculously short summary: it’s a form of eliminativism. Eliminativism is the philosophical view that neuroscience reveals our traditional conceptions of the human being, like free will, mind, and meaning, to be radically mistaken. But BBT is unique among eliminativisms in its emphasis of neglect: the way in which blindness, or lack of information, actually *enables* our brains to solve problems, especially the problem of what we are. And from my perspective, that makes perfect sense.

BBT is a profoundly counterintuitive theory that cautions us against intuition itself. And ironically, it substantiates my skeptical intuitions.  In short, it shows I’m not the only one who has no clue what she’s doing. If BBT is correct, non-neurotypical individuals aren’t really “impaired.” They simply fit differently with other people. Fewer intersecting lines, that’s all. Bakker has developed his theory further since he published this paper, building on his notion of post-intentional theory (see here for a more general introduction). BBT has stirred up quite a lot of drama.

While we all argue over BBT, absorbed in defending our positions, I feel like an outsider, even among people who understand ingroups. Why? Because most of the people in the debate seem to be discussing something hypothetical, something academic. For me, as I’ve explained, the question of intentionality is a question of everyday life. So I can’t shirk my habit of wondering about biology: what’s going on in the brains of intentionalists? What’s going on in the brains of post-intentionalists? And what’s going on inside my own brain? Bakker would say this is precisely the sort of question a post-intentionalist would ask.

But what happens if the post-intentionalist has never done intentional philosophy? Allow me to explain, with a fictionalized example from my own experience. I use the term “intentional” in both an everyday and philosophical sense, interchangeably:

Intentional, Post-Intentional, and Unintentional Philosophy

Imagine you’re an ordinary person. You just want to get on with your life, but you have a terminal illness. It’s an extremely rare neuropsychiatric syndrome: in order to recover, you must solve an ancient philosophical question. You can’t just come up with any old answer. You actually have to prove you solved it, and convince everyone alive you at least have to convince yourself that you could convince anyone whose counterargument could possibly sway you. You’re skeptical to the marrow, and very good at Googling.

Remember, this is a terminal illness, so you have limited time to solve the problem.

In college, philosophy professors said you were a brilliant student. Plus, you have a great imagination from always being forced to do bizarre things. So naturally, you think you can solve it.

But it takes more time than you thought it would. Years more time. Enough time that you turn into a mad hermit. Your life collapses around you and you’re left with no friends, family, or work. But your genes are really damn virulent, and they simply don’t contain the stop codons for self-termination, so you persist.

And finally, after many failed attempts, you cough up something that sticks. An intellectual hairball.

But then the unimaginable happens: you come across a horrifying argument. The argument goes that when it comes to philosophy, intention matters. If your “philosophy” is just a means to survive, it is not philosophy at all; only that which is meant as philosophy can be called philosophical. So therefore, your solution is not valid. It is not even wrong.

So, it’s back to the drawing board for you. You have to find a new solution that makes your intention irrelevant. A solution that satisfies both the intentional philosophers, who do philosophy because they want to, and the unintentional philosophers who do it because they are forced to.

And then you run across something called post-intentional philosophy. It seems like a solution, but…

But post-intentional philosophy, as you see, requires a history: namely, a history of pre-post-intentional philosophy. Or, to oversimplify, intentional philosophy! The kind people do on purpose, not with a gun to their head.

You know that problems cannot be solved from the same level of consciousness that created them, so you try to escape what intentional and post-intentional philosophy share: theory. You think you can tackle your problem by finding a way out of theory altogether. A way that allows for the existence of all sorts of brains generating all sorts of things, intentional, post-intentional, and unintentional. A nonphilosophy, not a Laruellian non-philosophy. That way must exist, otherwise your philosophy will leave your very existence a mystery!

What do you do?

Are Theory and Practice Separate? Separable? Or something completely different?

Philosophy is generally a debate, but as an unintentional thinker I can’t help but remain neutral on everything except responsiveness to reality (more on that coming later). In this section I am attempting neither to support nor to attack it, but to explore it.

Bakker’s heuristic brand of eliminativism appears to bank on the ability to distinguish between the general and the specific, the practical and the theoretical. Correct me if I am wrong.

As the case of the “unintentional philosopher” suggests, philosophers themselves are counterexamples to the robustness of this distinction, just like people with impaired intentional cognition offer counterexamples that question folk psychology. If BBT is empirically testable, the practice-vs-theory distinction must remain empirically testable. We should be able to study everyday cognition (“Square One”) independently of theoretical cognition (“Square Two”) and characterize the neurobiological relationship of the two as either completely modular, somewhat modular, or somewhere in between. We should also be able to predict whether someone is an intentionalist or a post-intentionalist by observing their brains.

From a sociobiological perspective, one possibility is that Bakker is literally trying to hack philosophers’ brains: to separate the neural circuitry that connects philosophical cognition with daily functionality.

If that were the case, their disagreement would come as no surprise.

But my real point here, going back to my struggles with my unusual neurobiology, is that I am personally, neurologically, as close to “non-intentional” as people get. And that presents a problem for my ability to understand any of these philosophical distinctions regarding intentionality, post-intentionality, etc. But just as a person with Aspergers syndrome is forced to intellectually explore the social, my relative deficit of intentionality has simultaneously made it unavoidable–necessary for me to explore intentionality.  My point about theory and practice is to ask whether this state of affairs is “just my problem,” or whether it says something about the entire project of theory.

If nothing else, it certainly questions the assumption that the doctor is never the patient, that the post-intentional theorist is always, necessarily some sort of detached intellectual observer with no deviation from the intentional norm in his own neurobiology.

Come back later for a completely different view…

R.I.P. Ulrich Beck (PopAnth)

Sociology loses one of its most important voices

by John McCreery on January 16, 2015


Ulrich Beck. Photo by International Students’ Committee via Wikimedia Commons.
Ulrich Beck. Photo by International Students’ Committee via Wikimedia Commons.

The death of Ulrich Beck on January 1, 2015 stilled one of sociology’s most important voices.

Beck has long been one of my favourite sociologists. That is because the world he describes in his book Risk Society reminds me very much of the world of Chinese popular religion that I studied in Taiwan.

There are two basic similarities. First, in the risk society as Beck describes it, public pomp and ceremony and ostentatious displays of wealth recede. Wealth is increasingly privatized, concealed in gated communities, its excesses hidden from public view. Second, social inequality not only increases but increasingly takes the form of differential exposure to many forms of invisible risks.

In the world that Beck describes, signs of wealth continue to exist. Coronations and royal births, celebrity weddings, CEO yachts, the massive homes of the rich and famous and their McMansion imitators are all visible evidence that wealth still counts.

But, says Beck, inequality’s deeper manifestations are now in differences in institutions that shelter the rich and expose the poor to risks that include not only economic fluctuations but also extreme weather and climate change, chemical and biological pollution, mutating and drug-resistant diseases. The hidden plots of terrorists and of those who combat them might also be added to this list.

 People with problems attribute them to invisible causes. They turn for help to those who claim special powers to diagnose and prescribe. 

When I visualize what Beck is talking about when he says that wealth is becoming invisible, I imagine an airport. In the main concourse there is little visible difference between those checking in at the First or Business Class counters and those checking in for the cattle car seats in Economy. All will pass the same array of Duty Free shops on their way to their planes.

But while the masses wait at the gates, the elite relax in comfortable, concealed spaces, plied with food, drink and WiFi, in lounges whose entrances are deliberately understated. This is not, however, the height of luxury.

Keiko Yamaki, a former airline stewardess turned applied anthropologist, observes in her study of airline service culture that the real elite, the super rich, no longer fly with commercial airlines. They prefer their private jets. Even those in First Class are more likely to be from the merely 1% instead of the 0.01%, who are now never seen checking in or boarding with the rest of us.

What, then, of invisible risks? The transactions that dominate the global economy are rarely, if ever, to be seen, negotiated in private and executed via encrypted digital networks. Financial institutions and the 1% who own them are protected from economic risk. The 99%, and especially those who live in the world’s poorest nations and slums are not.

The invisible threats of nuclear, chemical and biological waste are concentrated where the poor live. Drug-resistant diseases spread like wildfire through modern transportation systems, but the wealthy are protected by advanced technology and excellent health care. The poor are not.

At the end of the day, however, all must face misfortune and death, and here is where the similarity to Chinese popular religion comes in.

My business is failing. My daughter is acting crazy. My son was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident. He’s been married for three years and his wife still hasn’t had a baby. I feel sick all the time. I sometimes feel faint or pass out.

Why? The world of Chinese popular religion has answers. Impersonal factors, the alignment of your birth date with the current configuration of the stars, Yin and Yang and the Five Elements, may mean that this is a bad time for you.

Worse still, you may have offended one of the gods, ghosts or ancestors who inhabit the invisible Yin world that exists alongside the Yang world in which we live. The possibilities are endless. You need to find experts, mediums, magicians or priests, who can identify the source of your problem and prescribe remedies for it. You know that most who claim to be experts are charlatans but hope nonetheless to find the real thing.

Note how similar this is to the world that Beck describes, where the things that we fear most are said to be caused by invisible powers, the market, the virus, pollution or climate change, for example. Most of us don’t understand these things. We turn to experts for advice; but so many claim to be experts and say so many different things.

How do we find those who “really know”? The rich may have access to experts with with bigger reputations in finance, law, medicine, science or personal protection. But what does this really mean?

As I see it, all forms of consulting are magic. People with problems attribute them to invisible causes. They turn for help to those who claim special powers to diagnose and prescribe, and random chance alone will lead to identification of some who claim such powers as having “It,” that special something that produces desired results. Negative evidence will disappear in a context where most who claim special powers are known to be frauds.

The primary question for those looking for “It” is how to find the golden needle in a huge and constantly growing haystack. People turn to to their social networks for recommendations by trusted others, whose trust may, however, be grounded in nothing more than having found someone whose recommendations are, by sheer random chance, located in the tail of the normal curve where “success” is concentrated.

I read Beck’s Risk Society long before I read Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomnessand The Black Swan. Taleb’s accounts of how traders who place lucky bets in the bond market are seen as geniuses with mystical insights into market mechanisms — at least until their funds collapse — seem to me to strongly support my theory of how all consulting works.

I read the words of “experts” who clamour for my attention and think of Taleb’s parable, the one in which a turkey has a perfectly consistent set of longitudinal data, stretching over nearly a year demonstrating the existence of a perfectly predictable world in which the sun will rise every morning and the farmer will feed the turkey. Then comes the day before Thanksgiving, and the farmer turns up with an axe.

Be warned: reading books like those by Beck and Taleb may reinforce skepticism of claims to scientific and other expertise. But think about it. Which world would you rather live in: One where careful scientists slowly develop hypotheses and look systematically for evidence to test them? Or a world in which our natural human tendency to magical thinking has no brake at all?

For his leading me to these thoughts, I do, indeed, mourn the death of Ulrich Beck.

O quente e o fervendo (Folha de S.Paulo)

A Terra na época do Antropoceno

MARCELO LEITE, 7 dez 2014

RESUMO Impacto da atividade humana sobre o planeta gera debate acerca do advento de uma nova época geológica, o Antropoceno. Em livro, a jornalista Naomi Klein prega reviravolta no capitalismo para frear o aquecimento global –tema de conferência em Lima, nesta semana, e de encontro decisivo no ano que vem, em Paris.

Prepare-se para o advento do Antropoceno. Em 2016 ele poderá estar entre nós. “Antropoceno” é o nome proposto no ano 2000 pelo Nobel de Química Paul Crutzen para uma nova época geológica, a “Idade do Homem”. Ela viria suceder o Holoceno, no qual vivemos há quase 12 mil anos, desde o fim da última era glacial.

Nesse intervalo, curto para a o tempo geológico (a Terra tem mais de 4 bilhões de anos), a espécie humana tirou proveito do clima estável e ameno. Desenvolveu a agricultura, multiplicou-se e se espalhou ainda mais pelo globo.

A questão agora é saber se ela modificou o planeta e aqueceu a atmosfera o bastante para deixar uma marca inconfundível no registro estratigráfico. Os geólogos do futuro distante conseguirão distinguir uma camada de terreno que não existiria sem que 7 ou 10 bilhões de pessoas vivessem e produzissem na sua superfície?

A Comissão Internacional de Estratigrafia (ICS, em inglês), a quem compete decidir sobre as divisões oficiais da história da Terra, pode bater o martelo geológico em meados de 2016, quando se realizará o Congresso Internacional de Geologia. Foi esse o prazo que se autoimpôs o Grupo de Trabalho do Antropoceno (GTA) reunido por ela, que tem 37 especialistas e a tarefa de instruir o processo.

Um deles é o próprio Paul Crutzen. Outro, o jornalista norte-americano Andrew Revkin, convidado por ter introduzido, num livro de 1992, “Global Warming” (Aquecimento global), a ideia de um pós-Holoceno produzido pelo homem. Hoje ele lamenta sua “escolha imperfeita de palavra”: “Propus Antroceno’… Idiota”.

Também integra o grupo o climatologista brasileiro Carlos Nobre, secretário de Pesquisa e Desenvolvimento do Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação. “Acho que será aprovado o estabelecimento de uma nova época, em função do peso de evidências”, avalia. “Mas o marco temporal ainda suscita discussões acaloradas.”

Não há muita dúvida de que cidades como São Paulo, Nova York ou Mumbai deixarão abundantes vestígios fósseis e arqueológicos para os milênios que virão. Os puristas, contudo, exigem que um novo período geológico esteja demarcado, literalmente, nas rochas.

Uma proposta é fixar o limiar do Antropoceno em 1945, quando começaram as detonações atômicas. Elas aspergiram por todos os continentes uma camada sutil, mas detectável, de plutônio, césio e estrôncio, subprodutos da explosiva reação nuclear.

Outra possibilidade, defendida por Crutzen, seria o final do século 19, no marco da Revolução Industrial. O argumento privilegia os hidrocarbonetos aromáticos policíclicos (HAPs), poluentes produzidos na queima de combustíveis fósseis (carvão e derivados de petróleo, principalmente) que se depositam em todos os ambientes.

O consumo avantajado de combustíveis fósseis sustenta ainda outra hipótese para a delimitação. Nesse caso, sobressaem os efeitos produzidos com o agravamento do efeito estufa decorrente de bilhões de toneladas de dióxido de carbono (CO2) lançadas no ar.

Assim como a atmosfera, os oceanos também se aquecem no processo. Além disso, tornam-se mais ácidos ao absorver parte do CO2, o que, em algumas profundidades, interrompe o ciclo de deposição de carbonatos que dá origem a rochas claras, como o calcário. O resultado seria uma banda escura no registro estratigráfico.

“O tópico todo é preocupante”, resume Naomi Oreskes, historiadora da ciência da Universidade Harvard que integra o GTA.

Oreskes é autora do livro “Merchants of Doubt” (Mercadores da dúvida, de 2011), que demonstra os propósitos ideológicos dos “céticos” militantes em organizações conservadoras como o American Enterprise Institute e a Heritage Foundation, para os quais é uma farsa a noção de mudança do clima causada pelo homem.

Esse pessoal não quer nem ouvir falar em Antropoceno.

LEGIÃO Em contrapartida, a dupla Antropoceno e aquecimento global faz sucesso com outra turma. Uma legião estimada em 400 mil pessoas tomou as ruas e avenidas de Nova York em 21 de setembro último, na Marcha do Povo pelo Clima. Apesar do nome, lá estavam Ban Ki-Moon, secretário-geral da ONU, que convocara uma Cúpula do Clima para dois dias depois, a ex-presidente da Irlanda Mary Robinson e o ex-vice-presidente dos EUA Al Gore.

Não faltaram, além deles, vegetarianos, ex-hippies sexagenários e indígenas na passeata convocada pela 350.org. A ONG luta pelo retorno à concentração de 350 partes por milhão (ppm) de CO2 na atmosfera terrestre; no fim de novembro, ela estava em 398 ppm, muito acima dos 280 ppm dos tempos pré-industriais.

O CO2 é o principal gás do efeito estufa, por sua capacidade de aprisionar e reter junto à superfície da Terra parte da radiação solar que incide sobre ela, como os vidros de um abrigo para plantas.

Na fracassada Conferência de Copenhague, em 2009, só houve acordo quanto à necessidade de limitar as emissões de CO2 para que o aquecimento global não exceda 2°C. Acima disso, a mudança do clima poderia conduzir a uma série devastadora de eventos extremos como secas, furacões, ondas de calor e enchentes.

No restante, impera o desacordo entre países mais desenvolvidos e menos desenvolvidos. Pela 20ª vez, duas centenas deles estão reunidos em Lima, até a próxima sexta-feira (12), para tentar traçar as linhas de base de um tratado capaz de reduzir as emissões na proporção e no ritmo necessários. O prazo se extingue dentro de um ano, quando se realizará a Conferência de Paris –a COP 21.

Os pesquisadores do clima estimam que, para não ultrapassar a marca dos 2°C, a humanidade conta com um orçamento total, desde o início da espécie, de 1 trilhão de toneladas de CO2 para gastar. Do século 19 para cá, 600 bilhões já viraram fumaça.

Para sobreviver com a pífia dotação de 400 bilhões, seria desejável que as emissões já estivessem em queda, como pressupunha o malfadado Protocolo de Kyoto (1997). Mas continuam a subir. Só recuam em anos de crise, como 2009. Em 2013, o aumento foi de 2,3%.

Se a tendência presente se mantiver, restam apenas 25 anos de carbono para torrar. Isso exigiria cortar para zero as emissões, de um ano para o outro, em 2040. Como não vai acontecer, as reduções teriam de começar já, na toada de pelo menos 8% ao ano.

Os manifestantes da marcha de Nova York desconfiam de que os governos reunidos em Lima e Paris, sem pressão, não cumprirão a meta de temperatura acordada em Copenhague. Daí a mobilização.

ANTICAPITALISMO Mais radical é a jornalista Naomi Klein, polêmica autora de “Sem Logo”. Em seu mais novo livro, “This Changes Everything “” Capitalism vs. the Climate” [Simon & Schuster, R$ 53,30, 576 págs.; R$ 66,71, e-book] (Isso muda tudo “” capitalismo contra o clima), ela defende que não é possível enfrentar o desafio da mudança do clima sem virar de pernas para o ar o capitalismo contemporâneo, marcado por desregulamentação, cortes de gastos sociais, privatização e liberalização do comércio mundial.

Nas mais de 500 páginas de texto, não faltam dados e exemplos convincentes de que a economia mundial se tornou dependente do carbono, vale dizer, dos combustíveis fósseis. Como um viciado, aceita pagar cada vez mais para explorar reservas não convencionais, como o gás de folhelho (ou xisto) nos EUA, as areias betuminosas no Canadá e o pré-sal no Brasil.

Klein confronta o leitor com uma conta acabrunhante: as reservas já escrituradas de carvão, petróleo e gás natural correspondem ao quíntuplo do orçamento de carbono que resta para gastar. Ou seja, 4/5 delas seriam “inqueimáveis”, do ponto de vista do aquecimento global.

A não ser, é claro, que surjam tecnologias eficientes e baratas para limpar da atmosfera o carbono liberado em décadas após ficar retido nas entranhas da Terra por milhões de anos. O problema é que a indústria fóssil não investe muito nisso, mas sim em aumentar reservas e produção. Para Klein, essa indústria teria de ser obrigada pelos governos a comprometer seus lucros na limpeza do planeta.

Acredite quem quiser. Mas o livro também tem seções para lá de otimistas com os avanços já alcançados em fontes renováveis de energia, como a fotovoltaica (solar) e a eólica (ventos).

Klein se derrama na narrativa sobre comunidades e cidades que retomaram o controle local da geração, contornando a resistência das grandes distribuidoras quanto às fontes alternativas. Ela vê nessa descentralização o germe de um movimento de contestação do capitalismo como o conhecemos e uma oportunidade nunca vista antes pelos movimentos sociais.

Klein não se demora muito na China, cujo capitalismo de Estado produziu a maior máquina poluidora do planeta, tendo já ultrapassado os EUA –embora o país asiático já se torne também o que mais investe em energias alternativas, como solar e eólica.

Uma das passagens mais sublinhadas do livro, como pode constatar quem o lê em versão eletrônica, citada também por Elizabeth Kolbert em resenha na revista “The New York Review of Books”, resume a conversão térmica da autora:

“Comecei a perceber todas as maneiras pelas quais a mudança climática pode se tornar um catalisador para a mudança positiva –como ela pode ser o melhor argumento que os progressistas jamais tiveram para exigir a reconstrução e a revitalização das economias locais; para recuperar nossas democracias da corrosiva influência corporativa; para barrar danosos acordos de livre-comércio e reescrever os anteriores; para investir na depauperada infraestrutura pública de transporte coletivo e habitação social; para retomar a propriedade de serviços essenciais como água e energia; para reconstruir o sistema agrícola doente de modo muito mais saudável; para abrir as fronteiras a migrantes cujo deslocamento está ligado aos impactos do clima; para enfim respeitar os direitos de indígenas à terra –tudo isso ajudaria a acabar com os grotescos níveis de desigualdade em nossas nações e entre elas.”

REFORMA Como assinala a resenhista Kolbert, é um programa ambicioso –se não irreal, caberia acrescentar. Klein não chega a provar que a solução para o clima exija uma reviravolta anticapitalista. Baseia sua fé nos movimentos sociais redentores só em si própria –ou seja, em pensamento positivo.

Com essa viseira, não consegue enxergar que o capitalismo não é um monólito, mas um sistema flexível e cambiante. Entre outras coisas, capaz de criar nichos de mercado para energias limpas (como a eólica, recentemente, no Brasil) mesmo em meio às ideias fixas na hidreletricidade e petróleo.

Até os mais céticos quanto ao processo internacional de negociações sobre clima, como o cientista político Eduardo Viola, da UnB, se distanciam dessa perspectiva: “O capital tende a estar cada vez mais dividido entre forças inerciais, conservadoras, e forças que apontam para a descarbonização”.

“Mesmo dentro de cada empresa há essa divisão”, afirma Viola. “[O impasse] na política internacional é derivado disso.” Como Klein, o professor da UnB vê num imposto sobre o carbono o meio mais eficiente para promover a transformação necessária –mas numa moldura capitalista: “As forças reformistas estão procurando regras para precificar o carbono”.

Naomi Oreskes tampouco acompanha Klein. “Reconhecer a mudança do clima como uma falha de mercado não obriga ninguém a concluir que a falha não possa ser corrigida”, diz a historiadora de Harvard. Na sua avaliação, a xará acaba por confirmar o preconceito dos céticos de que a defesa do clima não passa de ataque sub-reptício contra a liberdade do capital.

“Klein pode estar certa, mas espero que não esteja, porque reformar o capitalismo parece uma tarefa mais difícil que reformar nossos sistemas de energia e infraestrutura. Ambas as coisas parecem quase impossíveis, mas a segunda eu ao menos consigo imaginar.”

Andrew Revkin segue na linha de Viola e Oreskes. “Podemos evitar a perigosa mudança climática de origem humana (e os impactos do clima) sem desfazer o capitalismo”, afirma o jornalista.

“Existem modelos pós-extrativistas para construir negócios bem-sucedidos. No fim das contas, é um misto de pesquisa básica com operação do setor privado (capitalista) que está reduzindo os cursos da energia alternativa e levando a ganhos de eficiência.”

REGENERAÇÃO A receita reformista favorita aposta na combinação de energia fotovoltaica e eólica, talvez algumas usinas térmicas nucleares, para substituir carvão, óleo e gás natural na geração de eletricidade, que seria distribuída por redes inteligentes (“smart grids”) com desperdício reduzido.

Só a radiação solar tem potencial para fornecer pelo menos seis vezes mais energia que os 15 trilhões de watts hoje obtidos de combustíveis fósseis. Boa parte dessa energia poderia ser usada para massificar a dessalinização de água do mar e, quem sabe, para recapturar carbono da atmosfera.

Em vez da sentimental “regeneração” do planeta defendida por Klein no fim do livro, essa perspectiva implicaria redobrar a aposta prometeica no Antropoceno. Se não há volta nos ponteiros do relógio geológico, resta continuar mudando o mundo –para melhor.

Seria a única saída para evitar uma ração impalatável de 2.000 watts por pessoa que a matriz fóssil atual exigiria para baixar as emissões de carbono ao nível necessário. Um americano consome hoje 12.000 watts e jamais se contentaria com menos; o restante do mundo vê como um direito a chance de chegar a esse patamar.

Nem por isso se pode dar Klein por nocauteada. A janela para conter a mudança do clima está se fechando, e a trajetória que governos, ONGs, ONU, empresas verdes e líderes idem –Al Gore à frente como sacerdote-mor do termoevangelismo– até aqui fracassou.

E fracassou, entre outras razões, como aponta “This Changes Everything”, porque a mudança do clima se tornou um meio de vida para muita gente. O livro é impiedoso ao desvendar a teia de relações e doações que une as ONGs ambientais mais famosas a empresas e empresários convertidos à causa ambiental que, no frigir dos ovos da rentabilidade, seguem investindo no bom e velho carbono.

PORVIR Para uns, como Ricardo Abramovay, professor de economia da USP, esse estado de coisas deixa margem para algum otimismo, ainda que tisnado pela dúvida: “Algum dia essa conta terá de ser paga; resta saber se será com catástrofe ou não”.

Para outros, como a professora de filosofia Déborah Danowski (PUC-Rio) e o antropólogo Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (Museu Nacional), autores do livro “Há Mundo Por Vir? Ensaio sobre os Medos e os Fins” [Instituto Socioambiental, R$ 35, 175 págs.], há sérias razões para inquietar-se.

“Nosso presente é o Antropoceno; este é o nosso tempo”, escrevem. “Mas este tempo presente vai se revelando um presente sem porvir, um presente passivo, portador de um carma geofísico que está inteiramente fora de nosso alcance anular –o que torna tanto mais urgente e imperativa a tarefa de sua mitigação.”

Terry Eagleton reviews Trouble in Paradise and Absolute Recoil by Slavoj Žižek (Guardian)

Like Socrates on steroids: Žižek is both breathtakingly perceptive and outrageously irresponsible. Is he just out to scandalise?

zizek

 A curious mixture of illusion and reality … Slavoj Žižek. Photograph: David Levene

It is said that Jean-Paul Sartre turned white-faced with excitement when a colleague arrived hotfoot from Germany with the news that one could make philosophy out of the ashtray. In these two new books, Slavoj Žižek philosophises in much the same spirit about sex, swearing, decaffeinated coffee, vampires, Henry KissingerThe Sound of Music, the Muslim Brotherhood, the South Korean suicide rate and a good deal more. If there seems no end to his intellectual promiscuity, it is because he suffers from a rare affliction known as being interested in everything. In Britain, philosophers tend to divide between academics who write for each other and meaning-of-life merchants who beam their reflections at the general public. Part of Žižek’s secret is that he is both at once: a formidably erudite scholar well-versed in Kant and Heidegger who also has a consuming passion for the everyday. He is equally at home with Hegel and Hitchcock, the Fall from Eden and the fall of Mubarak. If he knows about Wagnerand Schoenberg, he is also an avid consumer of vampire movies and detective fiction. A lot of his readers have learned to understand Freud or Nietzsche by viewing them through the lens of Jaws or Mary Poppins.

Academic philosophers can be obscure, whereas popularisers aim to be clear. With his urge to dismantle oppositions, Žižek has it both ways here. If some of his ideas can be hard to digest, his style is a model of lucidity. Absolute Recoil is full of intractable stuff, but Trouble in Paradise reports on the political situation in Egypt, China, Korea, Ukraine and the world in general in a crisp, well-crafted prose that any newspaper should be proud to publish. Not that, given Žižek’s provocatively political opinions, many of them would. He sees the world as divided between liberal capitalism and fundamentalism – in other words, between those who believe too little and those who believe too much. Instead of taking sides, however, he stresses the secret complicity between the two camps. Fundamentalism is the ugly creed of those who feel washed up and humiliated by a west that has too often ridden roughshod over their interests. One lesson of the Egyptian revolt, Žižek argues in Trouble in Paradise, is that if moderate liberal forces continue to ignore the radical left, “they will generate an unsurmountable fundamentalist wave”. Toppling tyrants, which all good liberals applaud, is simply a prelude to the hard work of radical social transformation, without which fundamentalism will return. In a world everywhere under the heel of capital, only radical politics can retrieve what is worth saving in the liberal legacy. It is no wonder that Žižek is as unpopular with Channel 4 as he is on Wall Street.

In any case, market freedom and religious fundamentalism are far from mutually exclusive. “Spiritual” values have been enlisted by Asian nations for capitalist ends. The easy opposition between liberal permissiveness and fundamentalist repression must be rethought. The rise of Islamo-fascism, Žižek points out, went hand in hand with the disappearance of the secular left in Muslim countries, a disappearance the west itself did much to promote. Who now recalls that, 40 years ago, Afghanistan was a strong secular state with a powerful Communist party which took power there independently of the Soviet Union? Every emergence of fascism, Walter Benjamin wrote, bears witness to a failed revolution. In the Muslim world, the west has played a major role in stamping on such movements, creating a political vacuum into which fundamentalism was then able to move. It cannot now feign innocence of its predatory past in the face of the Islamist backlash it has helped to unleash. Those who are reluctant to criticise liberal democracy, Žižek suggests, should also keep quiet about fundamentalism.

Stentorian, faintly manic and almost impossible to shut up, Žižek is a man who gets out of bed talking about psychoanalysis and steps back into it holding forth on Zionism. As a frenetic intellectual activist, he always seems to be in six places on the planet at once, like Socrates on steroids. His day may begin with a visit to Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy and end with writing supportive letters to one of the imprisoned Pussy Riot performers. In between, he passes his time antagonising a sizeable chunk of the world’s population. If he is a scourge of neo-capitalism, he is also a sworn foe of liberal pluralism and political correctness. He tells the story of how at an impeccably enlightened US seminar he attended, the chairperson began by asking each participant to state their name along with their sexual preference. Žižek throttled back the urge to announce that he enjoyed bedding young boys and drinking their blood. He also points out how much less forthcoming the participants would have been if asked to state their salaries.

All this may be because he comes from Slovenia. Small nations tend to have a perverse relation to more powerful ones, as anyone acquainted with the Irish can attest. There is a dash of the Dubliner Oscar Wilde in Žižek, a man who couldn’t hear a pious English sentiment without feeling an irresistible itch to reverse its terms, rip it inside out or stand it on its head. Žižek, who has the grim appearance of a hired assassin in a Jacobean tragedy, lacks Wilde’s stylishness and elegance. He also lacks his distinctive brand of humour. Žižek is funny but not witty. He tells some excellent jokes and has a well-honed sense of the absurd, but one couldn’t extract a book of epigrams from his writing, as one can from Wilde’s. Both men, however, are natural-born debunkers and deconstructors, allergic to high moral tones and good clean fun. That Žižek should be a skilled exponent of Jewish black humour, the Woody Allen of Ljubljana, comes as no surprise. Even so, his urge to deface and deflate is a long way from cynicism. Remarkably, he combines the tragic vision of Freud with a Marxist faith in the future.

Like the rest of his work, these two latest volumes are postmodern in form but anti-postmodern in content. Žižek has the eclecticism of the postmodern, along with its mixing of high and low genres. His books are broken-backed affairs which leap erratically from topic to topic. Absolute Recoil, which lurches from ideas of hysteria, art and absolute knowledge to God, death and the Fall, is grandly subtitled “Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism”, but this is a barefaced deception. There are only a handful of references to dialectical materialism in its 400 pages. Žižek’s books and chapters are rarely about what they say they are about, since he can’t help saying 50 things at once. He is postmodern, too, in his suspicion of originality. A good deal of what he says has been said before, not by others but by himself. He is one of the great self-plagiarisers of our time, constantly thieving stuff from his own publications. Whole chunks of Absolute Recoil reappear in Trouble in Paradise, and whole chunks of Trouble in Paradise appear twice over. He has now told the same jokes, recycled the same insights and recounted the same anecdotes dozens of times over.

Another postmodern aspect of his work is its merging of illusion and reality. For Žižek’s mentor Jacques Lacan, nobody is more self-deceived than the cynic who claims to have seen through it all, ignorant of the Freudian claim that illusion (or fantasy) is built into reality itself. The same applies to Žižek’s own writing. Are his books genuine arguments or public performances? How sincere is he intending to be? If he can be breathtakingly perceptive, he can also be outrageously irresponsible. Can he really be serious when he claims in Trouble in Paradise that “the worst of Stalinism (is better) than the best of the liberal-capitalist welfare state”, or is he just out to scandalise the suburbs? Does he really think that the sexual misconduct Assange is accused of is “minor”? Or take the fact that he has repeatedly argued for the radical potential of Christianity, and does so again in Absolute Recoil, despite the fact that he is a self-proclaimed atheist. It isn’t quite a question, however, of being a Christian in appearance but an unbeliever in reality. Instead, one might claim that he believes and disbelieves in Christianity at the same time. Or what if he thinks he is an atheist but actually isn’t? What if the God he doesn’t believe in knows he is a believer?

Žižek himself is a curious mixture of illusion and reality. In Trouble in Paradise, he speaks of Hamlet as a clown, and he himself is both intellectual and jester. Shakespeare’s jesters are conscious of their own unreality, and Žižek seems to be, too. As a man for whom the adjective “colourful” could have been specially invented, he is a cult figure who sends up his own cult status, a man in deadly earnest who is also an accomplished self-parodist. There is something fictional, larger-than-life, about his constant globe-trotting and flamboyant antics, as though he has strayed out of a David Lodge novel. His gargantuan appetite for ideas is admirable but also faintly alarming. One would not be altogether surprised to hear that he was put together by a committee and consumer-tested on various student focus groups.

When it comes to content, however, nothing could be further from postmodern pluralism than Žižek’s uncompromising revolutionary politics. It is a strange sign of the times that perhaps the most popular intellectual in the world is a dedicated communist. The lesson of Trouble in Paradise, subtitled From the End of History to the End of Capitalism, is plain: “a new Dark Age is looming, with ethnic and religious passions exploding, and Enlightenment values receding”. Žižek’s style is notable for its hardboiled refusal to be emotionally intense, another postmodern feature; but even he can scarcely contain his disgust at the vision of thieving bankers being subsidised by their ruined victims. As Bertolt Brecht inquired: what’s robbing a bank compared to founding one?

Trouble in Paradise, with its unerring ear for political cant, is a book that everyone, not least the Masters of the Universe, would profit from reading. Absolute Recoil, with its intricate reflections on materialism and dialectics, is likely to have fewer takers. There is less on cant and more on Kant. Even so, it contains some fascinating stuff on Kabbala, slave narratives, espionage, atonal music and God as the supreme criminal. No doubt we shall have a chance to read some of this again in his next few books.

Gregory Bateson: the centennial (Edge)

About Bateson

John Brockman  [11.19.04]

Introduction

November 20, 2004 — In 1974, in honor of my friend Gregory Bateson’s 70th birthday, I asked him if he would give his blessing to a book I was planning about his work. He agreed, and the result was About Bateson, a volume of original essays about his work and ideas by interesting thinkers in various fields bracketed by my Introduction and his Afterword, both of which follow below.

Gregory Bateson was one of the most important and least understood thinkers of the twentieth century. Bateson originated the double bind theory of schizophrenia, was the first to apply cybernetic theory to the social sciences, and made important biological discoveries about such nonhuman species as the dolphin. His book, Steps To An Ecology of Mind, published in 1972, attracted widespread attention. We met in April, 1973 at the AUM Conference (“American University of Masters”) at Esalen in Big Sur,  where we immediately became friends, and where he convinced me to become an agent. Within a month I had founded Brockman, Inc. and sold his book The Evolutionary Idea (ultimately published under the title Mind In Nature).

While Gregory was very much alive, with his blessing and mentoring, I conceived of, and edited, a book entitled About Bateson, a book which featured seven substantial essays by eminent thinkers in their own right-containing their own interpretations of and reactions to Bateson’s work.

In the 250-page volume, Mary Catherine Bateson discussed her father’s treatment of the concept of wisdom and love-the “lucid” computations of the heart”; Ray Birswhistell analyzed Bateson’s unique methodology; David Lipset provided a short biography of the thinker’s wary years; Rollo May discussed Bateson’s humanism; Margaret Mead explored his effect on cross-cultural analysis (Groegory her 2nd husband); Edwin Schlossberg contributed a piece on consciousness, social change, and cybernetics. As editor, I wrote the introductory essay. The book concluded with Gregory Bateson’s own original 12-page Afterword, in which he presented his latest thinking on his life’s work. Also included was a 2-page CV and a Bibliography page of his book.

At that time, Bateson contended that as a result of advances in cybernetics and fundamental mathematics, many other areas of thought have shifted. In The Evolutionary Idea, a proposed new book, he planned to gather together those new advances to present an alternative to then current orthodox theories of evolution. This alternative view was to stress the role of information, that is, of mind, in all levels of biology from genetics to ecology and from human culture to the pathology of schizophrenia. In place of natural selection of organisms, Bateson considered the survival of patterns, ideas, and forms of interaction,

“Any descriptive proposition,” he said, “which remains true longer will out-survive other propositions which do not survive so long. This switch from the survival of the creatures to the survival of ideas which are immanent in the creatures (in their anatomical forms and in their interrelationships) gives a totally new slant to evolutionary ethics and philosophy. Adaptation, purpose, homology, somatic change, and mutation all take on new meaning with this shift in theory.”

Bateson had an endless repertoire of concepts and ideas to talk about. A typical conversation might be about metaphor versus sacrament, schismogenesis, metaphysics, explanatory principles, heuristic versus fundamental ideas, the value of deduction, steady state society, metapropositions, deuterolearning, cybernetic explanation, idea as difference, logical categories of learning, mental determinism, end linkage, and on and on.

While his ideas did take hold in some fields (schizophrenia, family therapy, among others), the natural audience for his work, the evolutionary biologists, had little interest in him. The mainstream thinkers in that field believed his ideas were muddled. This is one of several reasons why he ultimately abandoned the The Evolutionary Idea, which was to have been the first major restatement of evolutionary theory in half a century. Based on his previous experience, he was worried about the difficulty of getting across his ideas. The implications of the theory are based on acceptance of a radical new order of things, a worldview totally alien to our traditional Western way of thinking.

Aspects of this worldview derived from his association in the 1940s with Warren McCulloch, John von Neumann, Claude Shannon, and Norbert Wiener et al, who were all present at the creation of cybernetic theory. It was the radical epistemology behind these ideas seemed to inform a lot of this thinking. “The cybernetic idea is the most important idea since Jesus Christ.,” he once told me.

And this is where we connected, as my book, By The Late John Brockman, which was very much on the radar screen at that time, was nothing if not a radical epistemological statement on language, thought, and reality. I had written the trilogy that ultimately comprised the book with no reference to Bateson as I had not read him and had barely heard of him until I was invited to the AUM conference in 1973 (my late invitation was sent when the organizers, John Lilly and Alan Watts, both strong supporters of my book, found out their keynote speaker, Richard Feynman, was ill, and they needed a replacement. Only when I arrived at the conference did I find out what I was walking into.)

“Evolutionists are an anxious, conservative, and spiteful bunch,” Bateson said. “In fact, they kill each other.” Bateson was referring to the famous affair involving his father, William Bateson, the preeminent British scientist of his day who, picking up on the work of Mendel, coined the word “genetics” and began the field, and William Kammerer, the Austrian biologist. Kammerer, a Lamarckian, committed suicide over research involving the inherited characteristics of the midwife toad. “I don’t think they will like this book very much,” Bateson said, realizing that he will be straying far from the traditional debate of natural selection versus inherited characteristics. “I shall not write the book. I am too old and too sick to fight the fight”.

But he was always willing to travel, to interact with all kinds of people in order to present his ideas. This would lead him into strange surroundings, where the participants had no idea of what to expect and were not prepared for his depth and erudition. “Why do you bother?” I ask in reference to this particularly moribund gathering. It is clear that few here have any inkling of what he is saying. “One simply keeps going,” he says gently, “and leaves the name behind.” It wasn’t easy making a living as an epistemologist, he noted.

Yet, he did receive recognition. Charles Roycroft, British psychoanalyst, was quoted in the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Issue of the Times Literary Supplement as saying that Gregory Bateson was the most underrated writer of the past seventy-five years.

Bateson is not easy. The only way to “get” Bateson is to read him. To spend time with him, in person or through his essays, was a rigorous intelligent exercise, an immense relief from the trivial forms that command respect in contemporary society

—JB


GREGORY BATESON: THE CENTENNIAL

(JOHN BROCKMAN:) It is March 1973 in Big Sur. California. A diverse group of thinkers are assembled to spend ten days together exploring the work of British mathematician G. Spencer Brown. Alan Watts and John Lilly, the coorganizers, are billing the event as “The AUM Conference.” shorthand for The American University of Masters.

They have gathered together intellectuals, philosophers, psychologists, and scientists. Each has been asked to lecture on his own work in terms of its relationship to Brown’s new ideas in mathematics. C. Spencer Brown lectures for two days on his Laws of Form. Alan Watts talks of Eastern religious thought. John Lilly discusses maps of reality. Karl Pribram explores new possibilities for thinking about neuroscience. Ram Dass presents a spiritual path. Stewart Brand lectures on whole systems. Psychologists Will Schutz, Claudio Naranjo, and Charles Tart are in attendance. Heinz von Foerster holds forth on cybernetic modeling. My own topic is “Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein, and Frankenstein.”

Perhaps, of all the “Masters” present, Gregory Bateson, at sixty-eight, is at once the best known and the least known. Among his assembled peers, his reputation is formidable. At the AUM Conference, stories of his profound effect on postmodern thinking abound. Yet few outside the relatively small circle of avant-garde thinkers know about him or his work.

There is valid reason. Bateson is not very accessible. His major book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, is just being published. It is a collection of essays he has written over a thirty-five-year period.

Bateson begins lecturing in the conference room. Clearly he is held in awe by his colleagues. Nothing in his imposing presence detracts from his reputation. He is a large man with a deep rich voice imbued with an unmistakable English accent. There is an air of authenticity about him.


Nora Bateson, Gregory Bateson, John Brockman at Aum Conference, 1973

His talk is filled with brilliant insights and vast erudition as he takes us on a tour of subjects that include zoology, psychiatry, anthropology, aesthetics, linguistics, evolution, cybernetics, and epistemology’. “The point,” he says, “is that the ways of nineteenth-century thinking are becoming rapidly bankrupt, and new ways are growing out of cybernetics, systems theory, ecology, meditation, psychoanalysis, and psychedelic experience.”

As he talks I look through a paper he has left for us as we entered the room. “Form, Substance, and Difference” is the nineteenth Korzybski Lecture, delivered by Bateson in 1970. In it he points out that he’s touched on numerous fields but is an expert in none. He’s not a philosopher, nor is anthropology exactly his business. This doesn’t help me much. All I know about him is that he has an anthropological background, was once married to Margaret Mead, and was a prime mover behind the important Macy Conferences in Cybernetics in the 1940s.

His theme in the Korzybski Lecture was the same as his theme today: “the area of impact between very abstract and formal philosophic thought on the one hand and the natural history of man and other creatures on the other.” His ideas are clearly of an epistemological nature. He asks us to do away with our Newtonian language, our Cartesian coordinates, to see the world in terms of the mind we all share. Bateson presents a new approach based on a cybernetic epistemology: “The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent also in the pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger mind of which the individual mind is only a subsystem. This larger mind is comparable to God and is perhaps what some people mean by ‘God,’ but it is still immanent in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology.”

~

“Very few people have any idea of what I am talking about,” Bateson says as he picks at a piece of fish in a Malibu restaurant. We are having dinner and discussing his plans for a new book concerning evolutionary theory. It is June 1973. (At the AUM Conference in March, I had been pressed into service as a literary agent.)

Bateson defies simple labeling, easy explanation. People have problems with his work. He talks of being an explorer who cannot know what he is exploring until it has been explored. His introduction to Steps states: “I found that in my work with primitive peoples, schizophrenia, biological symmetry, and in my discontent with the conventional theories of evolution and learning, I had identified a widely scattered set of bench marks as points of reference from which a new scientific territory could be defined. These bench marks I have called ‘Steps’ in the title of the book.”

But this is where Bateson gets difficult. Just what is this new scientific territory’? Most people look for the next place, the next piece of knowledge. Instead, Bateson presents an epistemology so radical that as one climbs from step to step, the ground supporting the ladder abruptly vanishes. Not easy, this cybernetic explanation of Gregory Bateson. Not comfortable. Not supportive. Not loving. The center dissolves, and man is dead; and in his place we have the metaphysical “I”. So dismiss yourself; let go: There’s nothing lost.

~

Bateson’s readers often find it difficult to grasp that his way of thinking is different from theirs. His students believe that he is hiding something from them, that there’s a secret behind his thinking that he won’t share. There’s something to this. Bateson is not clearly understood because his work is not an explanation, but a commission, As Wittgenstein noted, “a commission tells us what we must do.” In Bateson’s case, what we must do is reprogram ourselves, train our intelligence and imagination to work according to radical configurations. Heinz Von Foerster points out that “the blessed curse of a meta-language is that it wears the cloth of a first-order language, an ‘object language.’ Thus, any proposition carries with it the tantalizing ambiguity: Was it made in meta or in object language?” Nobody, knows and you can’t find out. All attempts to speak about a meta-language, that is, to speak in meta-meta-language, are doomed to fail. As Wittgenstein observed: “Remain silent!” But Bateson cannot remain silent. His childlike curiosity, his intellectual vigor and strength compel him to continue exploring new ground.

Yet he is hesitant about writing his new book. The Evolutionary Idea will be the first major restatement of evolutionary theory in half a century. Based on his previous experience, he is worried about the difficulty of getting across his ideas. The implications of the theory are based on acceptance of a radical new order of things, a worldview totally alien to our traditional Western way of thinking.

“Evolutionists are an anxious, conservative, and spiteful bunch,” he says. “In fact, they kill each other.” Bateson is referring to the famous affair involving his father, William Bateson, and William Kammerer, the Austrian biologist. Kammerer, a Lamarckian, committed suicide over research involving the inherited characteristics of the midwife toad. “I don’t think they will like this book very much,” Bateson says, realizing that he will be straying far from the traditional debate of natural selection versus inherited characteristics.

Bateson contends that as a result of advances in cybernetics and fundamental mathematics, many other areas of thought have shifted. In The Evolutionary Idea, he will gather together these new advances to present an alternative to current orthodox theories of evolution. This alternative view will stress the role of information, that is, of mind, in all levels of biology from genetics to ecology and from human culture to the pathology of schizophrenia. In place of natural selection of organisms, Bateson will consider the survival of patterns, ideas, and forms of interaction,

“Any descriptive proposition,” he says, “which remains true longer will out-survive other propositions which do not survive so long. This switch from the survival of the creatures to the survival of ideas which are immanent in the creatures (in their anatomical forms and in their interrelationships) gives a totally new slant to evolutionary ethics and philosophy. Adaptation, purpose, homology, somatic change, and mutation all take on new meaning with this shift in theory.”

~

It is the morning after our dinner discussion about the new book. Bateson, about forty other people, and I are together for a two-day seminar to explore “Ecology of Mind.” Most of the people have paid one hundred dollars to hear Bateson talk. The auspices are an institute for humanistic development. The audience appears to be interested in self-help and personal awareness. This is the first opportunity I have had to hear him speak before a general audience. After the excitement surrounding his performance at the AUM Conference, I am preparing myself for another memorable experience.

Bateson slowly guides us through his endless repertoire of concepts and ideas. He talks about metaphor versus sacrament, schismogenesis, metaphysics, explanatory principles, heuristic versus fundamental ideas, the value of deduction, steady state society, metapropositions, deuterolearning, cybernetic explanation, idea as difference, logical categories of learning, mental determinism, end linkage, and on and on.

After a few hours, the attention of the group begins to wander. Many appear to be bored. By the end of the first day, at least one-third of the people have left. Bateson is unperturbed. Many people seek him out for the wrong reasons: for entertainment; for answers; as a guru. He explains that his receptions vary from the extreme boredom of this day to the excitement of the Macy Conferences of the 1940s. Still, he is always willing to travel, to interact with all kinds of people in order to present his ideas. “Why do you bother?” I ask in reference to this particularly moribund gathering. It is clear that few here have any inkling of what he is saying. “One simply keeps going,” he says gently, “and leaves the name behind.”

~

Christmas time, 1973. I am about to approach a publisher to sell rights to The Evolutionary Idea. I had phoned Bateson requesting a biographical sketch. His letter arrives:

“John Brockman suggests that I write you a personal letter telling you who I am. I enclose an outline curriculum vitae,* to which I will add as follows.

“My father was William Bateson, F.R.S., geneticist, a fellow of St. John’s College, and first director of the John Innes Horticultural Institute, which was and still is a large genetical research institute.

“Boyhood was mainly devoted to natural history: butterflies and moths, beetles, dragonflies, marine invertebrates, flowering plants, etc.

“Cambridge was mainly biology until I got a chance to go to the Galapagos Islands, where I realized that I did not know what to do with field natural history. In those days, biology, both in field and lab, was mainly taxonomy, and I knew that was not what I wanted to do. So, on return to Cambridge, I took anthropology under A. C. Haddon, who sent me out to the Sepik River, New Guinea, to study historical culture contact between the Sepik and the Fly River peoples. This was the equivalent in anthropology of taxonomy in biology. The result was two field expeditions, groping very unhappily for what one could do to establish some theory in anthropology. The final product was Naven, a book which was then very difficult for people to read but is gradually coming into almost orthodoxy. Levi-Strauss has worked on some of the problems of cultural structure which I raised then, and I think he’s done a good deal to make my stuff readable and ‘safe’ for anthropologists.

“After that, field work in the Dutch Indies, in Bali, with my wife Margaret Mead. Then I did an elaborate photographic study of personal relations among the Balinese, especially interchange between parents and children. This was published with about 700 photographs as Balinese Character.

“Not much of my period of fellowship at St. John’s College was spent in Cambridge. I was mostly in New Guinea and Bali. But of course it was an important piece of my life, and there were important people-L. S. B. Leakey, Harold Jeffries, Claude Guillebaud, Reginald Hall, Teulon Porter, Sir Frederick Bartlett, and others.

“In those days I was on the sidelines of the anthropologically famous battles between Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski. I’d taught under Radcliffe-Brown in Sydney and learned a great deal from him, some of which got built into Naven (the hook-up with French anthropology came down to me from Durkheim and Mauss through Radcliffe-Brown, who was a great admirer of them). I enjoyed Malinowski very much, loved him, but thought him a lousy’ anthropological theorist. Most of my colleagues (other than his students) hated his guts but were dreadfully afraid that he was a great theorist.

“In World War II, I came running back to England in September 1939 while Margaret was having a baby* in New York. I was promptly advised to return to America to help America join England. The Japanese finally did that for us. And I went through the war with the American Office of Strategic Services as a psychological planner. I don’t think I helped the war much, but we did run four issues of an underground newspaper behind the Japanese lines in Burma.

(* Mary Catherine Bateson)

‘Oh yes, before I went overseas I had a job analyzing German propaganda films in the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, and just before going overseas, I had met Warren McCulloch and Bigelow, who were all excited about ‘feedback’ in electronic machinery. So while I was overseas, and mostly bored and frustrated, I occasionally comforted myself by thinking about the properties of closed self-corrective circuits. On arrival back in New York I went straight to the Macy Foundation to ask for a conference on these things. Fremont-Smith said, ‘McCulloch was here a week ago with the same request, and he’s going to be the chairman.’ Membership in those conferences, with Norbert Wiener, John Von Neumann, McCulloch, and the rest, was one of the great events in my life. Wiener coined the word ‘cybernetics’ for what it was we were discussing.

“I was gently dropped from Harvard because a rumor got around, ‘Bateson says anthropologists ought to be psychoanalyzed.’ I did not say this, and I don’t think I even believed it, but if they thought this was a good reason for dropping me, then I was probably lucky to be dropped. I was immediately picked up by Jurgen Ruesch for his research project in the Langley Porter Clinic, a psychiatric institution. This was the beginning of fourteen years of association with psychiatry, where I did my best, again, to bring formal theory into a very unformed Augean stable. The result was the so-called double bind hypothesis, which provided a framework for the formal description of schizophrenic symptoms and the experience of the schizophrenic in his family. I think this held up and still holds up pretty well in the face of a lot of misunderstanding and a little criticism. I am still pretty sure that something like the double bind story is an essential part of the phenomenon called ‘schizophrenia.’ In England my chief admirer in this field is Ronnie Laing. (By the way, you will probably run into rumors that Ronnie got too many of his ideas from me. I don’t think this is really true. He certainly got some, and it is after all the purpose of scientific publication to spread ideas around, and I don’t think he could at all be accused of plagiarism. I, too, have benefited by reading his stuff.)

“Enough mental hospitals and schizophrenic families is after a while enough, so I went off in 1963 to study dolphins, first under John Lilly, and then in Hawaii with the Oceanic Institute. A fascinating but terribly difficult animal to study. But they forced me to straighten out my contributions to learning theory and what’s wrong with B. F. Skinner. But alas, the Institute went broke.

“So here I am, corrupting the minds of the youth in the University of California at Santa Cruz. And also the minds of the faculty. I have a class for seventy students called ‘The Ecology of Mind.’ For this I have six section leaders, who are fully grown-up professors, a molecular biologist, an astronomer from Lick Observatory, a tidepool zoologist, a historian, a literary bloke, and a self-unfrocked Jesuit. What I mean is that my stuff is relevant and sometimes difficult for all sorts of people. On the whole, the students get more out of it than the grown-ups.’

~

Fifty-odd pages of The Evolutionary Idea have arrived. It is April 1974. The material is dense and difficult. I have responded with faint praise and well-intentioned criticism, urging Bateson to open it up, be more chatty, try to include the human, the anecdotal, and so forth. I have asked if the format of a metalogue between a father and a young daughter is necessary. Why can’t the ideas be presented in a more traditional form? Bateson’s letter is biting:

“I have now your letter of April 16th, your long-distance telephone call of the day before yesterday, and some pieces of telephone talk in New York. All these tend in the direction of ‘please be more prolix.’ I tossed the first two chapters in the wastepaper basket at four o’clock this morning and shall probably do so again tomorrow. I think the real difficulty is that some readers (et tu, Brute?) just do not believe that I mean what I say. I suspect they think it is all a sort of entertainment and hope to come out at the end feeling refreshed. Believe me, John, that is not at all what it is about. Anybody who really reads and notices what is said and after several readings be gins to understand it, will come out in despair and nearer to tears than laughter.

“In any ease, my colleagues writing in the same field, whether terse or prolix, are incredibly difficult. The ideas which we deal with are difficult, painful, and foreign ideas. If you doubt this, I suggest a dose of Immanuel Kant as an example of the prolix, or a dose of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus as an example of the terse. Honestly, I believe Kant is the more difficult.

“There are good and serious reasons why one party in the metalogues has to be in the period of sexual latency. This is not just in order to be cute; it is in order to be acute.

“For the rest, I will try not to let your remarks disturb me. I am, alas, too liable to let that sort of thing enrage me.

“There is a cute story going around about Picasso. A gent wanted him to paint things in a more representational manner, ‘like this photograph of my wife. It is really like her.’ Picasso looked at it and said, ‘She is small, isn’t she? And fiat.'”

~

New technology equals new perception. The English biologist J. Z, Young points out that man creates tools and then molds himself in their image. Reality is manmade. An invention, a metaphor.

“The heart is a pump” is a statement we all accept as a truism. “The brain is a computer” is a statement that usually brings forth cries of humanistic horror. We seem to forget that the first statement is a creature of Newtonian mathematics. Newton created a mechanistic methodology. We invented ourselves in terms of its descriptive language.

We don’t say the heart is like a pump. The heart is a pump. The metaphor is operational.

Although many of us are not ready for it, within a few years we will all recognize that the brain is a computer. This will be a result of the cybernetic ideas developed by such men as Gregory Bateson, Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, Cordon Pask, Ross Ashby, John Von Neumann, Heinz Von Foerster, and John Lilly, to name a few. New technology equals new perception. The words of the world are the life of the world. Nature is not created. Nature is said.

We are just now beginning to recognize the new order resulting from the development of the science of cybernetics. Bateson believes that the cybernetic explanation is the most important fundamental intellectual advance of the last two thousand years. It tears the fabric of our habitual thinking apart. Subject and object fuse. The individual self decreates. It is a world of pattern, of order, of resonances.

Bateson is special. He is the only living person fully equipped to construct a bridge between the world of nineteenth-century science and the cybernetic world of today. He has lived on both sides of the bridge. On one side, the solid world embodied by his father, William Bateson, on the other side, the undone world of Gregory Bateson, a world of language, communication, and pattern.

~

Bateson is sitting in my living room in May 1974. Today is his seventieth birthday. As we prepare for a big party, I suggest the possibility of organizing a hook in his honor. “I hope that if there were such a book that it focus on the ideas and what they are doing to us,” he says.

We talk and plan. Bateson gives his blessing to the project. Steps to An Ecology of Mind is by no means an easy or popular presentation of the core problems he has addressed himself to. We decide to invite a number of his friends and colleagues to contribute original essays, using Steps as a springboard, something either to disagree with or to take off from. Bateson writes a letter for the invitees. In the letter he suggests:

“Possible angles which the authors might cover include: changed perceptions of the Self; changed concepts of responsibility; changed feelings about time; money; authority; attitudes toward environment; sex; children; family; control and law; city planning; biological bases for human planning and ethics; the seeking of optimal and homeostatic goals rather than maxima; population control; changes in the balance between ‘feelings’ and ‘intellect’; changes in educational methods; new horizons in psychiatry; etc., etc.

“The possible field is very wide, but in sum what I would like to see would be a thoughtful forum on the subject of what you all (and I, too) are doing to the premises of civilization.”

~

Eight people, myself included, will contribute to the book. Mary Catherine Bateson (anthropologist and the daughter of Bateson and Margaret Mead), Ray L. Birdwhistell (expert in kinesics and communication), David Lipset (Bateson’s authorized biographer), Rollo May (humanistic psychologist), Margaret Mead (anthropologist and Bateson’s first wife), Edwin Schlossberg (physicist and environmental designer), and C. H. Waddington (geneticist). Unfortunately, Waddington dies before his piece is completed.

Other invited people are too busy with their own work or have problems with Bateson’s ideas. His insistence on strict, as opposed to loose, thinking is most apparent with regard to his attitude toward his close friends and colleagues. It is December 1974, and I have just received his correspondence with a famous psychologist and author (who is not represented in this book). The psychologist plans to write about energy. “Everybody talks about it and nobody knows what it means,” he says.

Bateson’s response typifies the rigor of his precise thinking.

~

“You say ‘energy’ and qualify the word by saying that neither you nor anybody knows what it is.”But that (the qualifying comment) is not quite true, because, after all, we (scientists) made up the concept and therefore know (or should know) what we put into it.

“What is on the other side of the fence, of course, we do not know. But we made the concept to cover what we thought was ‘out there’ and gave the concept what we thought were appropriate characteristics. These latter we know, because we put them where they are, inside that word ‘energy.’

“I am strongly of the opinion that these well-known characteristics are not appropriate to the sort of explanatory principle which psychologists want to make of the concept.

“1) ‘Energy’ is a quantity. It is indeed rather like ‘mass,’ which is another quantity. Or ‘velocity.’ None of these is a ‘substance’ or a ‘pattern.’ They are quantities, not numbers.

“2) ‘Energy’ is a very tightly defined quantity, having the dimensions ML(2)/T(2) (i.e., (mass X length X length) ÷ (time X time), or, more familiarly, mass X velocity (2)).

“Now the rub is that no quantity can ever generate a pattern, and to assert that this can occur is precisely the entering wedge of the new supernaturalism, for which Freud, Marx, and Jung are much to blame. (They ‘could’ have known better.)

“Quantity, of course, can and often does develop and intensify latent difference but never creates that difference. Tension may find out the weakest link in the chain but it is never the explanation of how that particular link came to be the weakest (Indeed the characteristic called ‘being weakest’ is not inherent in that link but precisely in the relation between that link and the others. ‘It’ could be ‘protected’ by filing one of the others!).

“3) The next step in supernaturalism alter the invocation of ‘energy’ is the belief in Lamarckian inheritance and ESP. After that the next step is the assertion that man contains two real existing principles, viz., a Body and a Soul. After that, any sort of tyranny and oppression can be rationalized as ‘good’ for the victim.”

“So there is a slot in our proposed book for arguments in favor of ‘energy’ as an explanatory principle, but such arguments in that context will necessarily be controversial. I urge you to treat ‘energy’ as a controversial issue, not as a ‘matter-of-course.’

“Personally I have never been able to see or feel why this very ‘mechanical’ metaphor (‘energy’) appeals to especially humanistic psychologists. What are the arguments for this metaphor rather than ‘entropy’ (which is still a sort of quantity)? What characteristics of the original concept (energy or entropy) are to be carried over when the concept is used metaphorically to explain action or (?) anatomy?

“Are you familiar with Larry Kubie’s paper,* long ago, in which he neatly and (I think) completely exploded the whole Freudian ‘economics’ of energy? It was that paper that earned him his place at the Macy Cybernetic conferences. But he never contributed anything there. I guess they slapped his wrist for heresy.

(* “Fallacious Use of Quantitative Concepts in Dynamic Psychology,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 16 (1947): 507-18.)

“Finally, believe me that the intensity of passion and care spent upon this letter is a function of both my esteem for you and my hatred of the principles which hide behind the use of ‘energy’ (and ‘tension,’ ‘power,’ ‘force,’ etc.) to explain behavior.”

~

It is January 1977. The publisher has called. The book is overdue. The pieces have been written, discussed, and edited. They provide an excellent entry into areas of Bateson’s thought. The contributors have measured his work in terms of its effect, in terms of information.

I call Bateson in Santa Cruz to discuss the introduction. Before we get down to business, he tells me that Governor Brown has just named him to the Board of Regents of the University of California. Also, Charles Roycroft, British psychoanalyst, is quoted in the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Issue of the Times Literary Supplement as saying that Gregory Bateson is the most underrated writer of the past seventy-five years.

I would like to interview Bateson for the introduction, but this proves logistically impossible. Thus I must edit my thoughts, notes, and our correspondence to present him to the reader. The present piece, I realize, is hardly a comprehensive introduction to the man and his work. But, as Bateson might say, it is a “step.” It is important that readers realize that although this book is an introduction to Gregory Bateson, the only way to “get” Bateson is to read him. Study him. Editing this book has been, for me, most important. I found it necessary to force myself to sit quite still for many, many hours and study (not read) Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a rich, exhilarating experience. Roycroft is correct. Bateson is the most underrated writer of the century. To spend time with him, in person or through his essays, is rigorous intelligent exercise, an immense relief from the trivial forms that command respect in contemporary society.

~

I ask Bateson to write an afterword to the book. “What do you want me to write about?” he responds. I am most interested in his ideas on cybernetic explanation and epistemology. While pondering his question, I remember a conversation with cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall, who pointed out to me that the most significant, the most critical inventions of man were not those ever considered to be inventions, but those that appeared to be innate and natural. To illustrate the point, he told a story of a group of cavemen living in prehistoric times. One day, while sitting around the fire, one of the men said, “Guess what? We’re talking.” Silence. The others looked at him with suspicion. “What’s talking?” one of them asked. “It’s what we’re all doing. Right now. We’re talking!” “You’re crazy,” another man replied. “Who ever heard of such a thing?” “I’m not crazy,” the first man said, “you’re crazy. We’re talking.” And it became a question of “who’s crazy?” The group could not see or understand because “talking” was invented by the first man. The moment he said “We’re talking” was a moment of great significance in the process of evolution.

~

A modern-day descendant of Hall’s caveman is Gregory Bateson. He is busy inventing something, an invention so profound that once fully propounded, it will seem always to have been “natural.” The full impact of Bateson’s thinking is so radical that, yes, I have doubts that he fully believes in his own ideas. This is the way it has to be. He has entered no man’s land. He is trying something new. “We’re talking.”


AFTERWORD
by Gregory BatesonDear John

When you first suggested this volume and undertook to put it together, I said, “Don’t let it be a Festschrift,” and we agreed that you would ask your authors rather for some work and thinking of theirs that might have developed out of or alongside some part of my work. You would ask not for praise or criticism, but for some original material of theirs. So let me thank them, and then become, myself, one of your authors. Rather than replying to the other authors, let me tell you where I stand today and what, for me, came out of all that work in New Guinea and Bali and, later, with schizophrenics and dolphins.

As you know, the difficulty was always to get people to approach the formal analysis of mind with a similar or even an open epistemology. Many people claim to have no epistemology and must just overcome this optimism. Only then can they approach the particular epistemology here proposed. In other words, two jumps are required of the reader, and of these the first is the more difficult. We all cling fast to the illusion that we are capable of direct perception, uncoded and not mediated by epistemology. The double hind hypothesis, i.e., the mental description of schizophrenia—was itself a contribution to epistemology, and to evaluate it was an exercise, if you please, in a sort of metaepistemology. Epistemology itself is becoming a recursive subject, a recursive study of recursiveness. So that anybody encountering the double bind hypothesis has the problem that epistemology was already changed by the double bind hypothesis, and the hypothesis itself therefore has to be approached with the modified way of thinking which the hypothesis had proposed.

I am sure that none of us in the 1950s realized how difficult this was. Indeed, we still did not realize that, if our hypothesis was even partly correct, it must also be important as a contribution to what I have sometimes called the “fundamentals” our stock of “necessary” truths.

So what I have to do now is to tell you how, for me, an epistemology grew out of ethnographic observation and cybernetic theory, and how this epistemology determines not only double bind theory and all the thinking that has followed in the field of psychiatry but also affects evolutionary thinking and the whole body-mind problem.

I have to present here a description of an epistemology, and then I have to fit the double bind hypothesis and thoughts about evolution into that epistemology. In a word, I have to invite the reader to come in backward upon the whole business.

From time to time I get complaints that my writing is dense and hard to understand. It may comfort those who find the matter hard to understand if I tell them that I have driven myself, over the years, into a “place” where conventional dualistic statements of mind-body relations—the conventional dualisms of Darwinism, psychoanalysis, and theology—are absolutely unintelligible to me. It is becoming as difficult for me to understand dualists as it is for them to understand me. And I fear that it’s not going to become easier, except by those others being slowly exercised in the art of thinking along those pathways that seem to me to be “straight.” My friends in New Guinea, the Iatmul, whose language and culture I studied, used to say, “But our language is so easy. We just talk.”

So in writing about evolution—in trying to write about it—a second book has started to appear. It became necessary to tell the reader a number of very elementary (as it seemed to me) things which he certainly ought to have learned in high school but which Anglo-Saxons certainly do not learn in high school. This book, budded from the first, larger book, I called, tentatively, What Every Schoolboy Knows, an ironic quote from Lord Macaulay. what the good gentleman really said was, “Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma and who strangled Atahualpa.”

Let me start by trying to characterize my epistemology as it has grown under my hands, with some notable influence from other people.

First, it is a branch of natural history. It was McCulloch who, for me, pulled epistemology down out of the realms of abstract philosophy into the much more simple realm of natural history. This was dramatically done in the paper by McCulloch and his friends entitled “What the Frog’s Eye Told the Frog’s Brain.” In that paper he showed that any answer to the question “How can a frog know anything?” would be delimited by the sensory machinery of the frog; and that the sensory machinery of the frog could, indeed, be investigated by experimental and other means. It turned out that the frog could only receive news of such moving objects as subtended less than ten degrees at the eye. All else was invisible and produced no impulses on the optic nerve. From this paper it followed that, to understand human beings, even at a very elementary level, you had to know the limitations of their sensory input.

And that matter became part of my experience when I went through the experiments of Adelbert Ames, Jr. I discovered that when I see something, or hear a sound, or taste, it is my brain, or perhaps I should better say “mind”—it is I who create an image in the modality of the appropriate sense organ. My image is my aggregation and organization of information about the perceived object, aggregated and integrated by me according to rules of which I am totally unconscious. I can, thanks to Ames, know about these rules; but I cannot be conscious of the process of their working.

Ames showed me that I (and you), looking through our eyes, create, out of showers of impulses on the optic nerve, images of the perceived that appear to be three-dimensional images. I “see” an image in depth. But the way in which that image is given depth depends upon essentially Euclidian arguments within the brain and of which the perceiver is unconscious. It is as if the perceiver knew the premises of parallax and created his image in accordance with those rules, never letting himself know at any conscious level that he has applied the rules of parallax to the shower of impulses. Indeed, the whole process, including the shower of impulses itself, is a totally unconscious business.

It seems to be a universal feature of human perception, a feature of the underpinning of human epistemology, that the perceiver shall perceive only the product of his perceiving act, He shall not perceive the means by which that product was created. The product itself is a sort of work of art.

But along with this detached natural history, in which 1, as an epistemology, describe the frog or myself—along with that natural history goes a curious and unexpected addition. Now that we have pulled epistemology down from philosophy and made it a branch of natural history, it becomes necessarily a normative branch of natural history. This study is normative in the sense that it will chide us when we ignore its strictures and regularities. One had not expected that natural history could be normative, but indeed, the epistemology which I am building for you is normative in two almost synonymous ways. It can be wrong, or I can be wrong about it. And either of those two sorts of error becomes itself part of any epistemology in which it occurs. Any error will propose pathology. (But I am the epistemology.)

Take the statement in a previous paragraph, The organism builds images in depth out of the shower of impulses brought to the brain by the optic nerve. It is possible that this statement is incorrect, that future scientific study of the act of perception may show that this is not so, or that its syntax is inappropriate. That is what I mean by being in error in the first way. And the second way of possible error would be to believe that the images that I see are in fact that which I am looking at, that my mental map is the external territory. (But we wander off into philosophy if we ask, “Is there really a territory?”)

And then there is the fact that the epistemology I am building is monistic. Applying Occam’s Razor, I decline to pay attention to notions—which others assert to be subjectively supported—that mind or soul is somehow separable from body and from matter. On the other hand, it is absolutely necessary, of course, that my epistemology shall allow for the natural history fact that, indeed, many human beings of many different cultures have the belief that the mind is indeed separable from the body. Their epistemology is either dualistic or pluralistic. In other words, in this normative natural history called epistemology there must be a study of errors, and evidently certain sorts of error are predictably common. If you look over the whole span of my work, starting with the notion of schismogenesis, or starting even with the patterns in partridge feathers and going from that to schismogenesis in New Guinea to end linkage in national character, to the double bind and to the material we got from the porpoises, you will see that up to a certain date my language of report is dualistic.

The double bind work was for me a documentation of the idea that mind is a necessary explanatory principle. Simple nineteenth-century materialism will not accept any hierarchy of ideas or differences. The world of mindlessness, the Pleroma, contains no names, no classes.

It is here that I have always in my thinking followed Samuel Butler in his criticisms of Darwinian evolution. It always seems to me that the Darwinian phrasings were an effort to exclude mind. And indeed that materialism in general was an effort to exclude mind. And therefore, since materialism is rather barren, it was hardly surprising to me as an epistemological naturalist to note that physicists, from William Crookes onward, have been prone to go to mediums and other tricksters. They needed solace in their materialism.

But the matter was always difficult. I could not tolerate the dualism seriously, and yet I knew that the narrow materialistic statement was a gross oversimplification of the biological world. The solution came when I was preparing the Korzybski Lecture, when I suddenly realized that of course the bridge between map and territory is difference. It is only news of difference that can get from the territory to the map, and this fact is the basic epistemological statement about the relationship between all reality out there and all perception in here: that the bridge must always be in the form of difference. Difference, out there, precipitates coded or corresponding difference in the aggregate of differentiation which we call the organism’s mind. And that mind is immanent in matter, which is partly inside the body—but also partly “outside,” e.g., in the form of records, traces, and perceptibles.

Difference, you see, is just sufficiently away from the grossly materialistic and quantitative world so that mind, dealing in difference, will always be intangible, will always deal in intangibles, and will always have certain limitations because it can never encounter with Immanuel Kant called the Ding an Sich, the thing in itself. It can only encounter news of boundaries—news of the contexts of difference.

It is worthwhile to list several points about “difference” here,

1. A difference is not material and cannot be localized. If this apple is different from that egg, the difference does not lie in the apple or in the egg, or in the space between them. To locate difference, i.e., to delimit the context or interface, would be to posit a world incapable of change. Zeno’s famous arrow could never move from a position “here” in this context to a position “there” in the next context,

2. Difference cannot be placed in time. The egg can be sent to Alaska or can be destroyed, and still the difference remains. Or is it only the news of the difference that remains? Or is the difference ever anything but news? With a million differences between the egg and the apple, only those become information that make a difference.

3. Difference is not a quantity. It is dimensionless and, for sense organs, digital. It is delimited by threshold.

4. Those differences, or news of differences, which are information, must not be confused with “energy.” The latter is a quantity with physical dimensions (Mass X the square of a Velocity). It is perfectly clear that information does not have dimensions of this kind*; and that information travels, usually, where energy already is. That is, the recipient, the organism receiving information—or the end organ or the neuron—is already energized from its metabolism, so that, for example, the impulse can travel along the nerve, not driven by the energy, but finding energy ready to undergo degradation at every point of the travel. The energy is there in advance of the information or the response. This distinction between information and energy becomes conspicuous whenever that which does not happen triggers response in an organism. I commonly tell my classes that if they don’t flu] in their income tax forms the Internal Revenue people will respond to the difference between the forms which they don’t fill in and the forms which they might have filled in. Or your aunt, if you don’t write her a letter, will respond to the difference between the letter you do not write and the letter you might have written. A tick on the twig of a tree waits for the smell of butyric acid that would mean “mammal in the neighborhood.” When he smells the butyric acid, he will fall from the tree. But if he stays long enough on the tree and there is no butyric acid, he will fall from the tree anyway and go to climb up another one. He can respond to the “fact” that something does not happen.

(* But, of course, a difference in energy (not itself of the dimensions of energy) can generate news of difference.)

5. Last in regard to information, and the identity between information and news of difference, I want to give a sort of special honor to Gustav Fechner, who in the 1840s got a whiff of this enormously powerful idea. It drove him almost mad, but he is still remembered and his name is still carried in the Weber-Fechner Law. He must have been an extraordinarily gifted man, and a very strange one.

To continue my sketch of the epistemology that grew out of my work, the next point is recursiveness. Here there seem to be two species of recursiveness, of somewhat different nature, of which the first goes back to Norbert Wiener and is well known, the “feedback” that is perhaps the best-known feature of the whole cybernetic syndrome. The point is that self-corrective and quasi purposive systems necessarily and always have the characteristic that causal trains within the system are themselves circular. Such causal trains, when independently energized, are either self-corrective or runaway systems. In the wider epistemology, it seems that, necessarily, a causal train either in some sense dies out as it spreads through the universe, or returns to the point from which it started. In the first case there is no question of its survival. In the second case, by returning to the place from which it started, a subsystem is established which, for greater or less length of time, will necessarily survive.

The second type of recursiveness has been proposed by Varela and Maturana. These mathematicians discuss the case in which some property of a whole is fed back into the system, producing a somewhat different type of recursiveness, for which Varela has worked out the formalisms. We live in a universe in which causal trains endure, survive through time, only if they are recursive. They “survive”—i.e., literally live upon themselves—and some survive longer than others.

If our explanations or our understanding of the universe is in some sense to match that universe, or model it, and if the universe is recursive, then our explanations and our logics must also be fundamentally recursive.

And finally there is the somewhat disputed area of “levels.” For me the double bind, among other things, as a phenomenon of natural history, is strong evidence that, at least in the natural history aspects of epistemology, we encounter phenomena that are generated by organisms whose epistemology is, for better or for worse, structured in hierarchic form. It seems to me very clear and even expectable that end organs can receive only news of difference. Each receives difference and creates news of difference; and, of course, this proposes the possibility of differences between differences, and differences that are differently effective or differently meaningful according to the network within which they exist. This is the path toward an epistemology of gestalt psychology, and this clumping of news of difference becomes especially true of the mind when it, in its characteristic natural history, evolves language and faces the circumstance that the name is not the thing named, and the name of the name is not the name. This is the area in which I’ve worked very considerably in constructing a hypothetical hierarchy of species of learning.

These four components, then, give you the beginnings of a sketch of an epistemology:

1. That message events are activated by difference.

2. That information travels in pathways and systems that are collaterally energized (with a few exceptions where the energy itself in some form, perhaps a light, a temperature, or a motion, is the traveling information). The separation of energy is made clear in a very large number of eases in which the difference is fundamentally a difference between zero and one. In such eases, “zero-not-one” can be the message, which differs from “one-not-zero.”

3. A special soft of holism is generated by feedback and recursiveness.

4. That mind operates with hierarchies and networks of
difference to create gestalten.

I want to make clear that there are a number of very important statements that are not made in this sketch of an epistemology and whose absence is an important characteristic. I said above that, as I see it and believe it, the universe and any description of it is monistic; and this would imply a certain continuity of the entire world of information. But there is a very strong tendency in Western thinking (perhaps in all human thinking) to think and talk as if the world were made up of separable parts.

All peoples of the world, I believe, certainly all existing peoples, have something like language and, so far as I can understand the talk of linguists, it seems that all languages depend upon a particulate representation of the universe. All languages have something like nouns and verbs, isolating objects, entities, events, and abstractions. In whatever way you phrase it, “difference” will always propose delimitations and boundaries. If our means of describing the world arises out of notions of difference (or what G. Spencer Brown’s Laws of Form calls “distinction” and “indication”), then our picture of the universe will necessarily be particulate. It becomes an act of faith to distrust language and to believe in monism. Of necessity we shall still split our descriptions when we talk about the universe. But there may be better and worse ways of doing this splitting of the universe into nameable parts.

Finally, let me try to give you an idea of what it felt like, or what sort of difference it made, for me to view the world in terms of the epistemology that I have described to you, instead of viewing it as I used to and as I believe most people always do.

First of all, let me stress what happens when one becomes aware that there is much that is our own contribution to our own perception. Of course I am no more aware of the processes of my own perception than anybody else is. But I am aware that there are such processes, and this awareness means that when I look out through my eyes and see the redwoods or the yellow flowering acacia of California roadsides, I know that I am doing all sorts of things to my percept in order to make sense of that percept. Of course I always did this, and everybody does it. We work hard to make sense, according to our epistemology, of the world which we think we see.

Whoever creates an image of an object does so in depth, using various cues for that creation, as I have already said in discussing the Ames experiments. But most people are not aware that they do this, and as you become aware that you are doing it, you become in a curious way much closer to the world around you. The word “objective” becomes, of course, quite quietly obsolete; and at the same time the word “subjective,” which normally confines “you” within your skin, disappears as well. It is, I think, the debunking of the objective that is the important change. The world is no longer “out there” in quite the same way that it used to seem to be.

Without being fully conscious or thinking about it all the time, I still know all the time that my images—especially the visual, but also auditory, gustatory, pain, and fatigue—1 know the images are “mine” and that I am responsible for these images in a quite peculiar way. It is as if they are all in some degree hallucinated, as indeed they partly are. The shower of impulses coming in over the optic nerve surely contains no picture. The picture is to be developed, to be created, by the intertwining of all these neural messages. And the brain that can do this must be pretty smart. It’s my brain. But everybody’s brain-any mammalian brain—can do it, I guess.

I have the use of the information that that which I see, the images, or that which I feel as pain, the prick of a pin, or the ache of a tired muscle—for these, too, are images created in their respective modes—that all this is neither objective truth nor is it all hallucination. There is a combining or marriage between an objectivity that is passive to the outside world and a creative subjectivity, neither pure solipsism nor its opposite.

Consider for a moment the phrase, the opposite of solipsism. In solipsism, you are ultimately isolated and alone, isolated by the premise “I make it all up.” But at the other extreme, the opposite of solipsism, you would cease to exist, becoming nothing but a metaphoric feather blown by the winds of external “reality.” (But in that region there are no metaphors!) Somewhere between these two is a region where you are partly blown by the winds of reality and partly an artist creating a composite out of the inner and outer events.

A smoke ring is, literally and etymologically, introverted. It is endlessly turning upon itself, a torus, a doughnut, spinning on the axis of the circular cylinder that is the doughnut. And this turning upon its own in-turned axis is what gives separable existence to the smoke ring. It is, after all, made of nothing but air marked with a little smoke. It is of the same substance as its “environment.” But it has duration and location and a certain degree of separation by virtue of its in-turned motion. In a sense, the smoke ring stands as a very primitive, oversimplified paradigm for all recursive systems that contain the beginnings of self-reference, or, shall we say, selfhood.

But if you ask me, “Do you feel like a smoke ring all the time?” of course my answer is no. Only at very brief moments, in flashes of awareness, am I that realistic. Most of the time I still see the world, feel it, the way I always did. Only at certain moments am I aware of my own introversion. But these are enlightening moments that demonstrate the irrelevance of intervening states.

And as I try to tell you about this, lines from Robert Browning’s “Grammarian’s Funeral” keep coming to mind.

Yea, this in him was the peculiar grace . . .
That before living he learned how to live.

Or again,

He settled Hoti’s business—let it be! —
Properly based Oun—
Gave us the doctrine of the enclitic De,
Dead from the waist down.

And again, there is the misquotation that is going the rounds today,

A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a meta for?

I’m afraid this American generation has mostly forgotten “The Grammarian’s Funeral” with its strange combination of awe and contempt.

Imagine, for a moment, that the grammarian was neither an adventurous explorer, breaking through into realms previously unexplored, nor an intellectual, withdrawn from warm humanity into a cold but safe realm. Imagine that he was neither of these, but merely a human being rediscovering what every other human being and perhaps every dog—always instinctively and unconsciously —knew: that the dualisms of mind and body, of mind and matter, and of God and world are all somehow faked up. He would be terribly alone. He might invent something like the epistemology I have been trying to describe, emerging from the repressed state, which Freud called “latency,” into a more-or-less distorted rediscovery of that which had been hidden. Perhaps all exploration of the world of ideas is only a searching for a rediscovery, and perhaps it is such rediscovery of the latent that defines us as “human,” “conscious,” and “twice born.” But if this be so, then we all must sometimes hear St. Paul’s “voice” echoing down the ages: “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”

I am suggesting to you that all the multiple insults, the double binds and invasions that we all experience in life, the impact (to use an inappropriate physical word) whereby experience corrupts our epistemology, challenging the core of our existence, and thereby seducing us into a false cult of the ego—what I am suggesting is that the process whereby double binds and other traumas teach us a false epistemology is already well advanced in most occidentals and perhaps most orientals, and that those whom we call “schizophrenics” are those in whom the endless kicking against the pricks has become intolerable.

GREGORY

CURRICULUM VITAE
Gregory Bateson

Born May 9, 1904, Grantchester, England, son of William Bateson, F.R.S. Naturalized U.S. citizen February 7, 1956.

1917-21
Student, Charterhouse, England.

1922-26
Cambridge University. Entrance Scholar St. John’s College, 1922, Foundation Scholar, 1924; Natural Science Tripos, first class honors, 1924. Anthropologist Tripos, first class honors, 1926.
B.A., 1925, Natural Science.
MA., 1930 Anthropology.

1927-29
Anthony Wilkin Student of Cambridge University. The period of this studentship was spent in anthropological fieldwork in New Britain and New Guinea.

1931-37
Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge.
1931-33, Anthropological fieldwork, New Guinea, financed jointly by Fellowship and by the Royal Society.
1934, Visit to the United States. Lectured at Columbia and Chicago.
1936, Married Margaret Mead (divorced, 1950). One daughter.
1936-38, Anthropological fieldwork, Bali.

1938-39
Anthropological fieldwork, New Guinea.

1939
Brief fieldwork, Bali.

1940 Entered the United States as a resident.

1941
Film analysis with the Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

1942-45
Office of Strategic Services of the U.S. Government. Overseas in Ceylon, India, Burma, and China.

1946-47
Visiting Professor, New School for Social Research, New York.

1947-48
Visiting Professor, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

1947
Guggenheim Fellow.

1948-49
University of California Medical School. Research Associate with Dr. Jurgen Ruesch.

1949-to date
Ethnologist at Veteran’s Administration Hospital, Palo Alto, California. Engaged in teaching and research on the borderline fields of anthropology, psychiatry, and cybernetics.

1951-to date
Part-time Visiting Professor, Stanford University, in the Department of Anthropology.

1952-54
Director, Research Project on the Role of the Paradoxes of Abstraction in Communication, under a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

1954-59
Director, Research Project on Schizophrenic Communication, under a grant from the Josiah Macy, Jr., Foundation.

1959-62
Principal Investigator, Research in Family Psychotherapy, under a grant from the Foundation’s Fund for Research in Psychiatry.
Part-time Professor, California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco, California.

1961
Frieda Fromm-Reichmann Award for research in schizophrenia.

1963-64
Associate Director, Communication Research Institute, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.

1964
Career Development Award, National Institute of Mental Health.

1965
Associate Director for Research, Oceanic Institute, Waimanalo, Hawaii.

1972
Visiting Professor, University of California at Santa Crux, Santa Cruz, California.

1976 Member, Board of Regents, University of California.


BIBLIOGRAPHY
of the Works of Gregory BatesonAngels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. Gregory Bateson & Mary Catherine Bateson. New York: Bantam, 1988.

Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis. Special Publications of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 2. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1942. With Margaret Mead.

Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. New York: W. W. Norton, 1951. With Jurgen Ruesch.

Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: Bantam Books, 1980; Hampton Press, 2002.

Naven: A Survey of the Problems Suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe Drawn from Three Points of View. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1936. 2d ed., with “Epilogue 1958.” Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1965.

Perceval’s Narrative: A Patient’s Account of His Psychosis, 1830-1832, by John Perceval. Edited with an Introduction by Gregory Bateson. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1961.

A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.

Steps to An Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972; University of Chicago Press, 2000.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
of Selected Works about Gregory Bateson

About Bateson. Edited by John Brockman with an Afterword by Gregory Bateson. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977.

Our Own Metaphor: A Personal Account of a Conference on the Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation. By Mary Catherine Bateson. New York: Harper Collins, 1972; Hampton Press, 2004.

Gregory Bateson: The Legacy of a Scientist. By David Lipset, Boston: Beacon Press, 1982.

With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, by Mary Catherine Bateson. New York: Harper Collins, 1984/2001.


Beyond Edge

Gregory Bateson: The Institute for Intercultural Studies

Greogory Bateson@100: Mutiple Views of the World

Crash and burn: debating accelerationism (3:AM Magazine)

Alexander Galloway in conversation with Benjamin Noys.

Cover image of Malign Velocities, courtesy of Dean Kenning

Accelerationism emerged as the latest theoretical trend with the publication of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ #Accelerate Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics in 2013. The book was quickly translated into at least seventeen languages, including German, French, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish and Korean. In 2014 came the publication of #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, edited by Robin Mackay and Arman Avanessian, and during this period a series of public events, seminars and discussions on accelerationism took place, including in Paris, New York, Berlin and London. This appropriately accelerated discussion has often taken place in relation to the art world, including a special issue of the journal e-flux, and has been characterized by heated polemic.

This interview brings together one of the leading critics of accelerationism, Benjamin Noys, who coined the concept as an object of criticism and has just published his critique Malign Velocities (Zero, 2014), with Alexander R. Galloway, an author and programmer working on media theory and contemporary French philosophy. In the discussion they explore the battles over the definition of accelerationism, the role of the negative, questions of abstraction, and the appeal and perils of fantasies of acceleration. The interview was conducted by email and in person between 23 October 2014 and 3 November 2014.

AG: You have a new book titled Malign Velocities: Accelerationism & Capitalism. This is an occasion to celebrate, in any event. And I wonder, even in the spirit of recapitulation, if you might simply define “accelerationism” for us and explain why you decided to return to this concept from your previous book, only now as an “enemy”?

BN: One of the difficult issues in discussing “accelerationism” is that so much of the debate has turned on what exactly that term means. I would say in light of the most recent articulations a simple one-line definition might be: “Accelerationism is the engagement and reworking of forces of abstraction and reason to punch through the limits of an inertial and stagnant capitalism.” Whereas previously much of what I called “accelerationism”, especially in the early 1970s work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard, involved a qualified playing with the “accelerated” forces of capitalist production, the current forms stress the need to find new forces that can act against a capitalism that no longer seems to deliver on the “promise” of acceleration. The key figure here is Nick Land, once an academic at the University of Warwick and now a journalist in China. Land’s work in the 1990s provided the most extreme statement of an endorsement of capitalism, or tendencies in capitalism, as mechanisms of acceleration and disintegration. In many ways contemporary accelerationism defines itself against Land, although he still exerts a certain fascination. His recent interest in neo-reactionary thoughtmakes this fascination problematic, to put it mildly.

In terms of my new book I should say I have always been highly skeptical about “accelerationist” strategies, of whatever variety. It was the fact that what I had coined as a term of criticism – although I later found the word occurs in Roger Zelazny’s 1967 novelLord of Light, which I had read – was now being celebrated that was one of the drivers for the new book. The return of interest in strategies of acceleration at a time of capitalist crisis is not surprising, especially when that crisis is taking a long-drawn out and often highly uneven form. In the face of calls for austerity, which almost always fall on the victims of the crisis, signaled in the popularity of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” meme in the UK, a counter-reaction is obvious. While I share the hostility to demands for sacrifice and austerity I think that accelerationist strategies too often feedback into a desire for a return to a, supposedly, productive capitalism. This is what I have called “capitalist Ostalgie.” If “Ostalgie” was nostalgia for the lived experience of “actually-existing socialism”, capitalist Ostalgie is a nostalgia for the images of capitalist dynamism, especially that of the new technologies during the 1990s.

AG: Today’s intellectual current seems to be forking in two distinct directions. The dominant fork is, as you suggest, a kind of technophilic, network affirmationism. But there is an alternative path evident in some of your writings, a path that leads through the negative. Curiously, that erstwhile paragon of progressive theory, Gilles Deleuze, appears now as something of a villain. I recall you use the term “Deleuzian Thatcherism” at a certain point. Can you describe your interest in the negative? Why are you calling for a return to the negative? And what might it offer for the future?

BN: I used “Deleuzian Thatcherism” in the ’90s to describe Nick Land’s work and what I saw as the convergence between his work and certain hyper-Thatcherite currents, which someone referred to at the time as “Thatcherism in its Maoist Phase”. I think, now, a more accurate but inelegant characterization would have been “Lyotardian Thatcherism”, as Land seems to take a lot more from Lyotard’s 1974 book Libidinal Economy, with its argument that there is only one libidinal economy and that this is capitalist. While it’s true that the work of Deleuze, and especially that of Deleuze and Guattari, has never been to my taste, when I wrote on him for my book The Persistence of the Negative I found more appreciation for his work. There is, if we like, a “negative Deleuze”. Also, I think the debate about accelerationism has sharpened positions and I’ve had interesting and supportive responses to my critique from those who are sympathetic both to Deleuze and to Guattari.

In terms of the negative my interest really emerged out of noticing how easily it was being dismissed and how much of contemporary thought defined itself as affirmative or positive, which is what I called, borrowing from Badiou, “Affirmationism”. Obviously we could include accelerationism, with its positive attitude to technology, reason and abstraction, within this broad category. At the same time, despite misunderstandings, this turn to the negative was not simply a matter of miserabilism or “negativity”, in the common use of the word, on my part. I’m not sure whether I qualify as a “happy person”, but my aim wasn’t to celebrate the virtues of depression. Instead, negativity interests me as a way to define a practice of contestation and rupture, and not least to disrupt all the calls to embrace the positive, to embrace “things as they are”, as William Godwin put it. So, a return to the negative is a return to rethinking the negative, not as a “pure” state, but as intertwined with affirmative moments and as a means of thinking change. It is actually the case that “affirmative” thinking is often accompanied by a celebration of hyperbolic and extreme negativity, by a stress on suffering and misery, but only as moment subordinate to a sudden transformation.

Accelerationism stakes a lot on its ability to imagine the future, especially with the acid test of accepting the future need for space travel (with moon gulags, in the joke, for dissidents). Within the provocation and technological utopianism I think there is something to the accelerationists’ stress on not imagining a future communist society as merely ameliorating capitalist barbarism with what Marx called a “barracks communism”. What concerns me, which is another reason I turn to negativity, is not the difficulty in imagining the future, but the difficulty imagining how we might get there. For this reason I have stressed negativity as a form of struggle that operates within a horizon of past struggles, which must be affirmed, in the attempt to decommodify the world, as well as to break with other forms of state power and other forms of oppression and violence.

AG: Along those lines, what is the connection, if any, between negation and nihilism, a philosophical tendency that has rebounded in recent years? I’m thinking of the “wider field” of speculative realism stretching from Ray Brassier to Eugene Thacker. We seem to be in the middle of a kind of Existentialist Revival.

BN: What’s interesting in the recent articulations of nihilism is that they tend to evacuate or even annihilate the subject, unlike classical existentialism. While I have some interest in nihilist thinking, dating back to readings of Re/Search as a teenager and then through my work on Bataille, I think this hyperbolic nihilism often ends up circling back to affirmation – in this case the affirmation of a universe which has no need of subjects. In my terms, thinking of negation, I would like to distinguish negativity from any hyperbolic negativity or nihilism, by stressing that negativity is a practice that engages with points of contradiction and violence. My view of negation is a deflationary one, trying to shift out of the desire to contemplate or even wallow in some collapse of all values, to consider the tensions of negation.

In terms of accelerationism nihilism carries different values. It was obviously crucial to Nick Land, who deployed a nihilism developed from Bataille and Schopenhauer to annihilate the ego. In this vision, we embrace what Nietzsche called “European nihilism”, embodied in the nihilist drive of capital to reduce everything to value, as the means to overcome humanism and to become fully disenchanted. Contemporary accelerationism sometimes tries to weaponize nihilism as almost a therapeutic device, while other currents stress the need to reinvent norms out of an “inhumanism” that can recreate and take the human beyond itself. I’m skeptical of the invocation of a “hard-edged” nihilism, which seems to me to abandon a lot of crucial questions by invoking a “levelling” of values that is, at best, highly uneven. It may even be, ironically, that a radical nihilism is consolatory – giving us a weird sense of security by reaffirming our pointlessness. In this there is a risk of the return of the subject as the one who is able to proclaim the nihilist “bad news” and so remain somehow superior or immune – a kind of cult of non-personality.

AG: One of the classic debates in leftist theory is that of orthodoxy. Lukács famously asked: What is orthodox Marxism? And his unorthodox answer ironically helped solidify a new kind of cultural Marxist orthodoxy in the decades since. Reza Negarestani has labeled this a form of “kitsch” Marxism, suggesting the need for a renewed critique of orthodoxy. How best can we square the necessarily dialectical movement of history with certain foundational categories like justice, democracy, or the people?

BN: I would almost certainly fail any test of Marxist orthodoxy, or even unorthodoxy. This is not because I regard myself as original or dissident, but due to my lack of thorough knowledge of Marx and Marxism and my own formation, which owes something to anarchism, a lot to the Situationists, and more than a little to my maternal grandfather’s straightforward socialism and his stories of his life as a union representative while working on the railways in London (I perhaps also owe something to my paternal grandfather’s ad hoc practice of the “refusal of work”). The result is that my “Marxism” is probably more suspicious of a belief in the productive forces than some of the classical forms and more geared to a suspicion of the category of labor.

In terms of Reza’s characterization there is a truth to the claim that certain forms of postwar Marxism tended to an extreme pessimism, as every undergraduate who does cultural studies usually learns. I have more sympathy for this trend – I think Adorno’s Minima Moralia is a brilliant book. But, of course, a characterization of capitalism as completely dominant, a characterization of all life and culture as completely determined by capital, leaves little to do (and I think very few actually said this). On the other hand, the accelerationists’ critique seems to me to bend the stick too far in the other direction, implying too much acceptance of contemporary technological and cultural forms that does not really consider how they are shaped by capitalism. Presenting capitalism as a parasite (I always think of Futurama’s brain slugs) implies that we simply shrug off the parasite to get back to a neutral technological or cultural possibility. I think capitalism shapes our context and existence in subtler ways than that, although it is always a contradictory social formation. While I would say there is no simple “outside” to capitalism, I don’t think this is a counsel of despair because I’d attend to the contradictions and struggle that always and everywhere exist within this social relation.

AG: Let’s talk in particular about abstraction. Abstraction has always presented something of a problem within critical theory. Yet today many on the left are taking up the question of abstraction again with renewed energy. How do you understand the role of abstraction today? Do you think of abstraction in philosophical terms or in, shall we say, strictly material terms?

BN: I think the crucial category here is Marx’s “real abstraction”, or more precisely Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s formalization of Marx’s comments to define this concept. The paradox of “Real Abstraction” is crucial, in that abstractions, notably “abstract labor”, are very real and very abstract at the same time. In this way abstraction is brutally material in the way, for example, it violently homogenizes all forms of labor into the category of abstract labor, which is geared to value production. Keston Sutherland (pdf here) has written very nicely on how Marx’s German word “Gallerte”, usually translated as “congealed”, refers to boiled down animal products (blood, bone, connective tissue, etc.). When our labor is congealed into abstract labor we become mere “ingredients” and, as Sutherland says, we are processed into abstract “stuff”. I think this usefully expresses how the usual oppositions of abstract and concrete or abstract and material don’t quite capture this process. The abstract is concrete or pseudo-concrete.

This is why, in what’s becoming a theme of this conversation, I think accelerationists are right, but for the wrong reasons. They are right to draw attention to abstraction as a crucial process, but they disengage it too rapidly from this horizon. This is why I think there is a tendency in their work to fetishize abstraction by choosing its most extreme forms to focus on, such as High-Frequency Trading. While this form of algorithmic trading expresses, almost too perfectly, a kind of terminal point of commodity fetishism, in which all we have are ghostly circulations of value, it too requires a brutal series of interventions into “material” forms (as Alberto Toscano has explained). I’d add that this attention to the extreme forms of abstraction also risks missing the more prevalent global forms of real abstraction that, as with abstract labor, dominate and pervade our experience.

It’s for this reason that I also suggest we need to traverse abstraction and can’t simply leap out of abstraction into some “good” alternative. The very search for such alternatives, such as the valorization of the concept of “life” as an excessive force, seems to me to create another abstraction. My problem with accelerationism is that it embraces and then abandons this ground of abstraction. Certainly it does not seek an outside point, a cozy “warm abstraction”, but in its embrace of “cold abstraction” as a global force it neglects these effects of “processing” and the material becomes disembodied in the fantasy of full integration with the abstract.

AG: From abstraction to culture: you also have a keen interest in art and culture. But culture is so unfashionable today! The Linguistic Turn, with its focus on culture and ideology, has been targeted by a number of new schools of thought, including speculative realism and new materialism. Hermeneutics and other interpretive methods, once so dominant, are suffering in the academy at the hands of “distant reading” and other positivistic approaches. What is your relationship to those once stalwart critical methods? I’m thinking of allegory in particular, which you also deploy.

BN: I think this is also a question about the abstract and the material. It seems to me that the general “turn” in the humanities to the material – and my day job is teaching literature – is part of a longer historicist turn that goes back to the 1980s. While everyone tends to think of the humanities as dominated by a “linguistic” post-structuralism (a false image, in fact), the reality I find is a common historicism that constantly invokes the density of “materiality”. This I call a “pop Burkeanism”, as it repeats Edmund Burke’s counter-revolutionary stress on the social as a “dense medium”, but now translated into the form of material artefacts – everything from book covers to letters, from publisher’s offices to architecture, to “material culture”.

This drift is not only politically problematic, but also the general invocation of the “material” often seems fatally abstract. It seems to me that the new materialisms and the various forms of “distant reading” share a paradoxical structure in which the attention to material specificity is coupled with the capacity to skim over or pick and choose between “objects” treated as equal. In what is perhaps a crass allegory I see this as symptomatic of the omission of the commodity-form, which is a form that at once equalizes all commodities as measurable by value and insists on their specific value within this frame. That’s why I have generally tried to explore the continuing possibilities of critique and question this turn to a “post-critical” way of thinking. Critique, I hope, can attend better to the constant processes of transformation of the material to the abstract and vice versa.

In terms of accelerationism I think culture is a central element, which can’t simply be wished away. I often say I think we should have all debates about accelerationism in terms of dance music, and this isn’t a (probably bad) joke. The role of dance music and electronic music in shaping accelerationism goes back to the work of Nick Land and the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) at Warwick, which drew heavily on jungle and drum and bass. These forms of post-rave dance music, which deployed sped-up breakbeats, were taken as aesthetic examples of the power of accelerationism. I was also an avid follower of this music, combined with my ongoing interest in Techno. I belong to the same generation as many of the original accelerationists and so we share, to some degree, a common cultural formation. The crucial role of music in the formation of accelerationism, along with a related visual culture, means that the “aesthetic” reception of accelerationism isn’t simply a category error. In my work, while I don’t deny the energy and acceleration of these forms I’m also interested in how they reflect on elements of friction, both to generate this sense of acceleration and in the way this friction incarnates attempts to transcend or leave behind the body and its labors. The body on the dance floor is both detached from labor, but also experiences a new form of labor, or the repetitions that at once mimic and take to an extreme the repetitions of work.

The logo of the “Metalheads” music label

To treat accelerationism aesthetically is often seen as dismissive, but I think it has to be placed in the context of various avant-garde attempts to instantiate what Badiou calls “the passion for the real”: this is the attempt to not only represent social forms, but to intervene or create something by cutting into those forms. The modernist impulses of accelerationism make it heir to this task. The problem I find, again!, is this misplacing of this problem and a collapsing of the difficulty of representation. This is why I also think the psychoanalytic category of fantasy is crucial, as a social or ideological fantasy, to grasping the accelerationist desire. In terms of accelerationism this is a fantasy we could have done with fantasy, which I think is the final fantasy.

Accelerationism turns on fantasies of integration and immersion, with capitalism, with the machinic, and with the abstract. While these fantasies register our experience of the pains of labor and the threats of unemployment, they also transform them into the dream of ecstatic enjoyment – jouissance. I think the task today is to resist this sort of pleasure, which also involves pain, in a kind of masochism, but not through the dismissal of enjoyment. Instead of a new asceticism I think the task is to articulate and politicize pleasures that resist and interrupt our immersion in contemporary capitalism. This requires neither the appeal to a “pure” outside nor the demand for complete immersion, but a practice that engages with the contradictions and violence we confront.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Benjamin Noys teaches at the University of Chichester and his recent publications includeThe Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Theory (Edinburgh, 2010) and Malign Velocities: Accelerationism & Capitalism (Zero Books, 2014). He is currently writing a critique of vitalism in contemporary theory.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Alexander R. Galloway teaches at New York University. His latest book is Laruelle: Against the Digital (Minnesota, 2014).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 4th, 2014.

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JC 5060, 6 de novembro de 2014

Acelerar inovação é urgente, afirma CNI (Valor Econômico)

Fórum sobre o tema reuniu 250 empresários, representantes do setor público e pesquisadores ontem em Porto Alegre

Acelerar o passo da inovação é uma necessidade urgente, caso contrário o Brasil ficará para trás no contexto internacional. O alerta é da diretora de Inovação da Confederação Nacional da Indústria (CNI), Gianna Sagazio, uma das palestrantes do Fórum Inovação Social, Eficiência e Produtividade Empresarial, realizado ontem pelo Valor na capital gaúcha.

Leia a matéria na íntegra em: http://www.valor.com.br/empresas/3768914/acelerar-inovacao-e-urgente-afirma-cni

(Dauro Veras / Valor Econômico)

A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn” – Parts 1 to 4 (Somatosphere)

January 15, 2014

A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn” – Part 1

Judith Farquhar

This article is part of the series: A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn”

Editor’s note: In the wake of the discussion about the ‘ontological turn’ at this year’s American Anthropological Association conference, we asked several scholars, “which texts or resources would you recommend to a student or colleague interested in the uses of ‘ontology’ as an analytical category in recent work in anthropology and science and technology studies?”  This was the reading list we received fromJudith Farquhar, Max Palevsky Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago.  Answers from a number of other scholars will appear as separate posts in the series.

In providing a reading list, I had lots of good “ontological” resources at hand, having just taught a seminar called “Ontological Politics.”  This list is pared down from the syllabus; and the syllabus itself was just a subset of the many useful philosophical, historical, and ethnographic readings that I had been devouring during the previous year, when I was on leave.

I really like all these pieces, though I don’t actually “follow” all of them.  This is a good thing, because the field — if it can be called that — tends to go in circles, with all the usual suspects citing all the usual suspects.  In the end, as we worked our way through the course, I found the ethnographic work more exciting than most of the more theoretically inclined writing.  At the other end of the spectrum, I feel quite transformed by having read Heidegger’s “The Thing” — but I’m not sure why!

Philosophical and methodological works in anthropology and beyond:

Philippe Descola, 2013, The Ecology of Others, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

William Connolly, 2005, Pluralism. Durham: Duke University Press. (Ch. 3, “Pluralism and the Universe” [on William James], pp. 68-92.)

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, 2004, “Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation,” Tipiti 2 (1): 3-22.

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, 2012, “Immanence and Fear: Stranger events and subjects in Amazonia,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2 (1): 27-43.

Marisol de la Cadena, 2010, “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual reflections beyond ‘politics’,” Cultural Anthropology 25 (2): 334-370.

Bruno Latour, 2004, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern.Critical Inquiry 30 (2): 225-248.

A dialogue from Common Knowledge 2004 (3): Ulrich Beck: “The Truth of Others: A Cosmopolitan Approach” (pp. 430-449) and Bruno Latour: “Whose Cosmos, Which Cosmopolitics? Comments on the Peace Terms of Ulrich Beck” (pp. 450-462).

Graham Harman, 2009, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics.  Melbourne: Re.Press.  (OA)

Isabelle Stengers, 2005, “The Cosmopolitical Proposal,” in Bruno Latour & Peter Weibel, eds., Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy.  Cambridge MA: MIT Press, pp. 994-1003.

Martin Heidegger, 1971, “The Thing,” in Poetry, Language, Thought (Tr. Albert Hofstadter).  New York: Harper & Row, pp. 163-180

Graham Harman, 2010, “Technology, Objects and Things in Heidegger,”Cambridge Journal of Economics 34: 17-25.

Jane Bennett and William Connolly, 2012, “The Crumpled Handkerchief,” in Bernd Herzogenrath, ed., Time and History in Deleuze and Serres. London & New York: Continuum, pp. 153-171.

Tim Ingold, 2004, “A Circumpolar Night’s Dream,” in John Clammer et al., eds., Figured Worlds: Ontological Obstacles in Intercultural Relations.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 25-57.

Annemarie Mol, 1999, “Ontological Politics: A Word and Some Questions,” in John Law, and J. Hassard, ed., Actor Network Theory and After.  Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 74-89.

Terrific ethnographic studies very concerned with ontologies:

Mario Blaser, 2010, Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond.  Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Eduardo Kohn, 2013, How Forests Think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Helen Verran, 2011, “On Assemblage: Indigenous Knowledge and Digital Media (2003-2006) and HMS Investigator (1800-1805).” In Tony Bennet & Chris Healey, eds.,  Assembling Culture.  London & New York: Routledge, pp. 163-176.

Morten Pedersen, 2011, Not Quite Shamans: Spirit worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

John Law & Marianne Lien, 2013, “Slippery: Field Notes in Empirical Ontology,” Social Studies of Science 43 (3): 363-378.

Stacey A. Langwick, 2011, Bodies, Politics, and African Healing: The Matter of Maladies in Tanzania.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Judith Farquhar is Max Palevsky Professor of Anthropology and Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. Her research concerns traditional medicine, popular culture, and everyday life in contemporary China. She is the author of Knowing Practice: The Clinical Encounter of Chinese Medicine (Westview 1996),Appetites: Food and Sex in Post-Socialist China (Duke 2002), and Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing (Zone 2012) (with Qicheng Zhang), and editor (with Margaret Lock) of Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropology of Material Life (Duke 2007).

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January 17, 2014

A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn” – Part 2

Javier Lezaun

This article is part of the series: A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn”

Editor’s note: In the wake of the discussion about the ‘ontological turn’ at this year’s American Anthropological Association conference, we asked several scholars, “which texts or resources would you recommend to a student or colleague interested in the uses of ‘ontology’ as an analytical category in recent work in anthropology and science and technology studies?”  This was the answer we received from Javier Lezaun, James Martin Lecturer in Science and Technology Governance at the University of Oxford. 

Those of us who have been brought up in the science and technology studies (STS) tradition look at claims of an ‘ontological turn’ with a strange sense of familiarity: it’s déjà vu all over again! For we can read the whole history of STS (cheekily and retroactively, of course) as a ‘turn to ontology’, albeit one that was rarely thematized as such.

A key text in forming STS and giving it a proto-ontological orientation (if such a term can be invented) is Ian Hacking’s Representing and Intervening (1983). On its surface the book is an introduction to central themes and keywords in the philosophy of science. In effect, it launches a programme of research that actively blurs the lines between depictions of the world and interventions into its composition. And it does so by bringing to the fore the constitutive role of experimental practices – a key leitmotiv of what would eventually become STS.

Hacking, of course, went on to develop a highly original form of pragmatic realism, particularly in relation to the emergence of psychiatric categories and new forms of personhood. His 2004 book, Historical Ontology, captures well the main thrust of his arguments, and lays out a useful contrast with the ‘meta-epistemology’ of much of the best contemporary writing in the history of science.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves and disrespecting our good old friend Chronology. The truth is that references to ontology are scarce in the foundational texts of STS (the term is not even indexed in Representing and Intervening, for instance). This is hardly surprising: alluding to the ontological implies a neat distinction between being and representing, precisely the dichotomy that STS scholars were trying to overcome – or, more accurately, ignore – at the time. The strategy was to enrich our notion of representation, not to turn away from it in favour of higher plane of being.

It is in the particular subfield of studies of particle physics that the discussion about ontology within STS developed, simply because matters of reality – and the reality of matter – featured much more prominently in the object of study. Andrew Pickering’s Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics (1984) was one of the few texts that tackled ontological matters head on, and it shared with Hacking’s an emphasis on the role of experimental machineries in producing agreed-upon worlds. In his following book, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (1995), Pickering would develop this insight into a full-fledged theory of temporal emergence based on the dialectic of resistance and accommodation.

An interesting continuation and counterpoint in this tradition is Karen Barad’s book, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (2007). Barad’s thesis, particularly her theory of agential realism, is avowedly and explicitly ontological, but this does not imply a return to traditional metaphysical problem-definitions. In fact, Barad speaks of ‘onto-epistemology’, or even of ‘onto-ethico-epistemology’, to describe her approach. The result is an aggregation of planes of analysis, rather than a turn from one to the other.

Arguments about the nature of quarks, bubble chambers and quantum physics might seem very distant from the sort of anthropo-somatic questions that preoccupy readers of this blog, but it is worth noting that this rarefied discussion has been the terrain where key elements of the current STS interest in ontology – the idioms of performativity and materialism in particular – were first tested.

The work that best represents this current interest in matters of ontology within STS is that of Annemarie Mol and John Law. Their papers on topologies (e.g., ‘Regions, Networks and Fluids: Anaemia and Social Topology’ in 1994; ‘Situating technoscience:  an inquiry into spatialities’, 2001) broke new ground in making explicit the argument about the multiplicity of the world(s), and served to develop a first typology of alternative modes of reality. Mol’s ethnography of atherosclerosis, The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice (2003), is of course the (provisional?) culmination of this brand of ‘empirical philosophy’, and a text that offers a template for STS-inflected anthropology (and vice versa).

One distinct contribution of this body of work – and this is a point made by Malcolm Ashmore in his review of The Body Multiple – is to extend STS modes of inquiry beyond the study of new or controversial entities, and draw the same kind of analytical intensity to realities – like that (or those) of atherosclerosis – whose univocal reality we tend to take for granted. For better and worse, STS grew out of an effort to understand how new facts and artifacts enter our world, and the field remains attached to all that is (or appears to be) new – even if the end-result of the analysis is often to challenge those claims to novelty. The current ‘ontological turn’ in STS would then represent an effort to excavate mundane layers of reality, to draw attention to the performed or enacted nature of that that appears old, settled or uncontroversial. I suspect this manoeuvre carries less value in Anthropology, where the everyday and the taken-for-granted is often the very locus of inquiry.

The other value of the ‘ontological turn’ is, in my view, to recast the question of politics – as both an object of study and a mode of engagement with the world. This recasting can take at least two different forms. There are those who argue that attending to the ontological, i.e., to the reality of plural worlds and the unavoidable condition of multinaturalism, intensifies (and clarifies) the normative implications of our analyses (see for instance the genealogical argument put forward very forcefully by Dimitris Papadopoulos in his article ‘Alter-ontologies: towards a constituent politics in technoscience’). A slightly different course of action is to think of ontology as a way of addressing the intertwining of the technological and the political. Excellent recent examples of this approach are Noortje Marres’s Material Participation: Technology, the Environment, and everyday Publics (2012) and Andrew Barry’s Material Politics: Disputes Along the Pipeline (2013).

In sum, and to stake out my own position, I think STS is best seen as a fairly tight bundle of analytical sensibilities – sensibilities that are manifested in an evolving archipelago of case studies. It is not a theory of the world (let alone a theory of being), and it quickly becomes trite and somewhat ritualistic when it is transformed into a laundry list of statements about what the world is or should be like. In this sense, an ‘ontological turn’ would run counter to the STS tradition, as I see it, if it implies asserting a particular ontology of the world, regardless of whether the claim is that that ontology is plural, multiple, fluid, relational, etc. This sort of categorical, pre-empirical position smothers the critical instincts that energize the field and have driven its evolution over the last three decades. Steve Woolgar and I have formulated this view in a recent piece for Social Studies of Science (‘The wrong bin bag:  a turn to ontology in science and technology studies?’), and a similar argument been made often and persuasively by Michael Lynch (e.g., “Ontography: investigating the production of things, deflating ontology”).

Javier Lezaun is James Martin Lecturer in Science and Technology Governance and Deputy Director at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society in the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the politics of scientific research and its governance. He directs the research programme BioProperty, funded by the European Research Council, which investigates the role of property rights and new forms of ownership in biomedical research. Javier is also currently participating in research projects on thegovernance of climate geoengineering, and new forms of consumer mobilization in food markets.

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February 12, 2014

A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn” – Part 3

Morten Axel Pedersen

This article is part of the series: A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn”

Editor’s note: In the wake of all the discussion about the ‘ontological turn’ at this year’s American Anthropological Association conference, we asked four scholars, “which texts or resources would you recommend to a student or colleague interested in the uses of ‘ontology’ as an analytical category in recent work in anthropology and science and technology studies?”  This was the reading list we received fromMorten Axel Pedersen, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen.

As someone who has, for a decade, participated in discussions about ‘ontology’ at various European anthropology venues and departments, I share the sense of déjà-vu noted by Lezaun in Part 2 of this Reader’s Guide. In fact, it is surprising just how much interest and enthusiasm, not to mention critique and aversion, has been generated by the recent introduction of this discussion into mainstream US anthropology. Arguably, the ontological turn now faces the risk of becoming the latest ‘new thing’, so critique is inevitable, necessary and welcome. Indeed, students and scholars from some of the same institutions that spearheaded anthropology’s turn to ontology are now questioning its most deeply held assumptions and cherished arguments. That, of course, is precisely how things should be. And hopefully, the part-repetition in the US of debates that are now losing steam in Latin America, Japan and Europe will provide a new framework for experimentally transforming and productively distorting anthropology’s engagement with ontology, and thus avoid the ever lurking danger of it becoming just another orthodoxy.

What follows here is a list of predominantly anthropological readings, which does not cover the creative interfaces between STS and anthropology explored by scholars in Copenhagen, Manchester, Osaka, and elsewhere. The list is not intended to be exclusive. Indeed, many scholars who figure on it may well not consider themselves part of the ontological turn and may be critical of part or all of it. The reason why they are nevertheless included is that they all have, in my view, played a role in making the ‘turn’ what it is today.

Books

Blaser, Mario. 2010. Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond.  Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Descola, Philippe. 2013. Beyond Nature and Culture. Trans. J. Lloyd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Gell, Alfred. 1998. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Holbraad, Martin. 2012. Truth in Motion: The Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Kohn, Eduardo. 2012. How Forests Think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Krøijer, Stine. Forthcoming. Figurations of the Future: Forms and Temporality of Left Radical Politics in Northern Europe. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Maurer, Bill. 2005. Mutual Life, Limited. Islamic Banking, Alternative Currencies, Lateral Reason. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Miyazaki, Hirokazu. 2013. Arbitraging Japan: Dream of Capitalism at the End of Finance. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rio, Knut Mikjel. 2007. The Power of Perspective. Social Ontology and Agency on Ambrym Island, Vanuatu. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Scott, Michael W. 2007. The Severed Snake: Matrilineages, Making Place, and a Melanesian Christianity in Southeast Solomon Islands. Durham NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Stasch, Rupert. 2009. Society of Others. Kinship and Mourning in a West Papuan Place. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Strathern, Marilyn. 2004. Partial Connections (Updated Edition). Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira.

Swancutt, Katrhine, 2012. Fortune and the Cursed: The Sliding Scale of Time in Mongolian Divination. Oxford: Berghahn.

Wagner, Roy. 1975. The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Willerslev, Rane. 2007. Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism and Personhood amomg the Siberian Yukaghirs. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2009. Métaphysiques cannibales. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France

Edited volumes/sections

Jensen, C. B, M. A. Pedersen & B. R. Wintereik, eds. 2011. “Comparative Relativism”, special issue of Common Knowledge 17 (1).

Jensen, C. B. & A. Morita, eds. 2012. “Anthropology as critique of reality: A Japanese turn“. Forum in HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2 (2): 358-405.

Candea, Matei & Lys Alcayna–Stevens, eds. 2012. “Internal Others: Ethnographies of Naturalism“, Special section in Cambridge Anthropology30(2): 36-146

Henare, A., M: Holbraad and S.Wastell, eds. 2007. Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artifacts Ethnographically. London: Routledge. (Here’s a pre-publication version of the Introduction).

Pedersen, M. A., R. Empson and C. Humphrey, eds. 2007. “Inner Asian Perspectivism,” special issue of Inner Asia 9 (2) (especially papers by da Col,Holbraad/Willerslev and Viveiros de Castro)

Articles engaging explicitly with “ontology”, also critically

Alberti, B., S. Fowles, M. Holbraad, Y. Marshall, C. Witmore. 2011. ‘Worlds otherwise’: Archaeology, Anthropology, and Ontological Difference forum.Current Anthropology 52(6): 896-912

Blaser, Mario. 2013. Ontological conflicts and the stories of peoples in spite of Europe: toward a conversation on political ontology. Current Anthropology54(5): 547-568.

Course, Magnus. 2010. Of Words and Fog. Linguistic relativity and Amerindian ontology. Anthropological Theory 10(3): 247–263.

De la Cadena, Marisol. 2010. Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections beyond ‘Politics’. Cultural Anthropology 25 (2): 334-70.

Hage, Ghassan. 2012. Critical anthropological thought and the radical political imaginary today. Critique of Anthropology 32(3): 285–308

Heywood, Paolo. 2012. Anthropology and What There Is: Reflections on “Ontology”. Cambridge Anthropology 30 (1): 143-151.

Holbraad, Martin. 2009. Ontography and Alterity: Defining anthropological truth. Social Analysis 53 (2): 80-93.

Holbraad, Martin. 2011. Can the Thing Speak? OAP Press, Working Paper Series, Article # 7.

Laidlaw, James. 2012. Ontologically Challenged. Anthropology of This Century, vol. 4, London, May 2012.

Laidlaw, James and Paolo Heywood, 2013. One More Turn and You’re There.Anthropology of This Century, vol. 7, London, May 2013.

Nielsen, Morten. 2013. Analogic Asphalt: Suspended value conversions among young road workers in Southern Mozambique. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (2): 79-96.

Pedersen, Morten Axel. 2001. Totemism, animism and North Asian indigenous ontologies. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 7 (3): 411-427.

Pedersen, Morten Axel. 2012. Common nonsense. A review of certain recent reviews of the ‘ontological turn.’ Anthropology of This Century, 5.

Salmon, Amira. 2013. Transforming translations (part I):“The owner of these bones”. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3(3): 1-32.

Scott, Michael W. 2013. The Anthropology of Ontology (Religious Science?).Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19 (4): 859–72.

Venkatesan, Soumhya et al. 2010. Ontology Is Just Another Word for Culture: Motion Tabled at the 2008 Meeting of the Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory, University of Manchester. Critique of Anthropology30 (2):152-200. (The papers can also be downloaded here).

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2002. And. Manchester: Papers in Social Anthropology.

Viveiros de Castro, E. 2013 “The Relative Native” by HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3(3): 473-502.

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Finally, there are some recent and ongoing dialogues in France between anthropologists and philosophers concerning issues of metaphysics and ontology, which may be of interest:

Morten Axel Pedersen is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. His publications include Not Quite Shamans: Spirit Worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia (2011). He is also co-editor, with Martin Holbraad, of Times of Security: Ethnographies of Fear, Protest, and the Future(2013). A new book co-authored with Lars Højer, Urban Hunters: Dealing and Dreaming in Times of Transition is forthcoming.

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March 19, 2014

A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn” – Part 4

Annemarie Mol

This article is part of the series: A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn”

Editor’s note: In the wake of all the discussion about the ‘ontological turn’ at this year’s American Anthropological Association conference, we asked four scholars, “which texts or resources would you recommend to a student or colleague interested in the uses of ‘ontology’ as an analytical category in recent work in anthropology and science and technology studies?”  This was the answer we received fromAnnemarie Mol, professor of Anthropology of the Body at the University of Amsterdam.  Answers from Judith Farquhar, Javier Lezaun, and Morten Axel Pedersen appear as separate posts in the series.

The point of the use of the word ‘ontology’ in STS was that it allowed us not just to talk about the methods that were used in the sciences, but (in relation to these) also address what the sciences made of their object. E.g. rather than asking whether or not some branch of science knows ‘women’ correctly, or instead with some kind of bias, we wanted to shift to the question: what are the topics, the concerns and the questions that knowledge practices insist on; how do they interfere in practices; what do they do to/with women; etc. At first this was cast in constructivist terms as ‘what do various scientific provinces make ofwomen’. But then we began to doubt whether ‘making’ was such a good metaphor, as it gives some ‘maker’ too much credit; as it suggests a time line with a before and an after; and materials out of which x or y might be made. So we shifted terminology and used words like perform, or do, or enact. Here we widened the idea of the staging of social realities (e.g. identities) to that of physical realities.

The idea was that there are not just many ways of knowing ‘an object’, but rather many ways of practising it. Each way of practising stages – performs, does, enacts – a different version of ‘the’ object. Hence, it is not ‘an object’, but more than one. An object multiple. That reality might be multiple goes head on against the Euroamerican tradition in which different people may each have their own perspective on reality, while there is only one reality – singular, coherent, elusive – to have ‘perspectives’ on.  To underline our break with this monorealist heritage of monotheism, we imported the old fashioned philosophical term of ontology and put it in the plural. Ontologies. That was – at the time – an unheard of oxymoron.

Crucial in all this was the work of Donna Haraway (even if she did not particularly use the word ontology). Read it all – or pick out what seems interesting to you. Here, now. But if you don’t quite know where to start, plunge into Primate Visions.

Crucial, too, was earlier STS work on methods that had recast these as techniques of staging a world (not just of objects, but also of tools, money, readers, investors, etc.). Here Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and John Law worked in ways that later fed into the ‘ontology’ stream. See for that particular history: Annemarie Mol, “Actor-Network Theory: Sensitive Terms and Enduring Tensions.”

The branches of STS from which studies into ontology grew, took themselves as shifting the anthropological gaze from ‘the others’ to the sciences, scienced that staged themselves as universal, but weren’t. They were variously situated techno-science practices and making them travel was hard work. “Show me a universal and I will ask how much it costs,” wrote Bruno Latour, (in Irréductions, the second part of The Pasteurisation of France) Hence, going out in the world to study ‘others’ while presuming ‘the West’ (or at least (its) science) was rational, coherent, naturalist, what have you – seemed a bad idea to us. The West could do with some thorough unmasking – and taking this to what many saw as pivotal to its alleged superiority, its truth machines, seemed a good idea (even if a lot later some of the techniques involved were highjacked by climate change deniers… ).

But there were also always specific relevant interventions to be made. For instance, if ontology is not singular and given, the question arises about whichreality to ‘do’. Ontology does not precede or escape politics, but has a politics of its own. Not a politics of who (who gets to speak; act; etc.) but a politics of what(what is the reality that takes shape and that various people come to live with?) See: A. Mol, “Ontological politics. A word and some questions,” (in Law & Hassard, Actor Network Theory and After).

For a longer and more extensive opening up of ontologies / realities (in the plural), well, there is my book The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice(Duke University Press 2003) – that lays it all out step by step… Including the difficult aspect of ontological multiplicity that while there is more reality than one, its different versions are variously entangled with one another, so that there are less than many. (As Donna Haraway put it; and as explored by Marilyn Strathern in Partial Connections)

For an earlier use of the term ontological that makes its relevance clear and lays out how realities being done may change over time: Cussins, Charis.“Ontological choreography: Agency through objectification in infertility clinics.” Social studies of science 26, no. 3 (1996): 575-610. Later reworked in Thompson Charis, Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies.

For an early attempt to differentiate the semiotics involved from the symbolic interactionist tradition and its perspectives see: Mol, Annemarie, and Jessica Mesman. “Neonatal food and the politics of theory: some questions of method.” Social Studies of Science 26, no. 2 (1996): 419-444.

The politics at stake come out very well in Ingunn Moser: “Making Alzheimer’s disease matter. Enacting, interfering and doing politics of nature.” Geoforum39, no. 1 (2008): 98-110.

And for the haunting question as to what/who acts and/or what/who is enacted, see: Mol, Annemarie, and John Law. “Embodied action, enacted bodies: the example of hypoglycaemia.” Body & Society 10, no. 2-3 (2004): 43-62.

If you like realities as they get tied up with techniques, this is an exciting one, as it multiplies what it is to give birth: Akrich, Madeleine, and Bernike Pasveer.“Multiplying obstetrics: techniques of surveillance and forms of coordination.”Theoretical medicine and bioethics 21, no. 1 (2000): 63-83.

Remember, the multiplicity of reality does not imply its plurality. Here is a great example of that, a study that traces the task of coordinating between different versions of reality in the course of an operation: Moreira, Tiago.“Heterogeneity and coordination of blood pressure in neurosurgery.” Social Studies of Science 36, no. 1 (2006): 69-97.

But if different versions of ‘an object’ may be enacted in practice, this is not to say that they are always fused at some point into ‘an object’ – they may never quite get to hang together. For a good case of that, see: Law, John, and Vicky Singleton. “Object lessons.” Organization 12, no. 3 (2005): 331-355.

And here an obligatory one for anthropologists, as the ‘object’ being studied – and multiplied – is a ‘population’ as defined by genetics in practice: M’charek, Amâde. “Technologies of population: Forensic DNA testing practices and the making of differences and similarities.” Configurations 8, no. 1 (2000): 121-158.

Oh, and I should not forget this troubling of ‘perspectives’ that went beyond realities to also include appreciations: Pols, Jeannette. “Enacting appreciations: beyond the patient perspective.” Health Care Analysis 13, no. 3 (2005): 203-221.

More recently, there was a special issue of Social Studies of Science to do with ontologies. It has a good introduction: Woolgar, Steve, and Javier Lezaun. “The wrong bin bag: A turn to ontology in science and technology studies?.”Social Studies of Science 43, no. 3 (2013): 321-340. In it, you may want to read: Law, John, and Marianne Elisabeth Lien. “Slippery: Field notes in empirical ontology.” Social Studies of Science 43, no. 3 (2013): 363-378.

And if you are still hungry for ontologies, then there is (with the example of eating and with norms explicitly added to ‘onto’): Mol, Annemarie. “Mind your plate! The ontonorms of Dutch dieting.” Social Studies of Science 43, no. 3 (2013): 379-396.

All of which is not to say that I would want to argue for such a thing as a ‘turn to ontology’ in anthropology or anywhere else. In the branch of the social studies of science, technology and medicine that I come from this term, ontology, has served quite specific purposes. It has helped to put some issues and questions on the agenda. But of course, like all terms, it has its limits. For it evokes ‘reality’ better than other things deserving our attention – norms, processes, spatialities, dangers, pleasures: what have you…

 

Annemarie Mol is professor of Anthropology of the Body at the University of Amsterdam. In her work she combines the ethnographic study of practices with the task of shifting our theoretical repertoires. She is author of  The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice and The Logic of Care: Health and the Problem of Patient Choice.

An Indigenous Feminist’s take on the Ontological Turn: ‘ontology’ is just another word for colonialism (Urbane Adventurer: Amiskwacî)

Personal paradigm shifts have a way of sneaking up on you. It started, innocently enough, with a trip to Edinburgh to see the great Latour discuss his latest work in February 2013. I was giddy with excitement: a talk by the Great Latour. Live and in colour! In his talk, on that February night, he discussed the climate as sentient. Funny, I thought, this sounds an awful lot like the little bit of Inuit cosmological thought I have been taught by Inuit friends. I waited, through the whole talk, to hear the Great Latour credit Indigenous thinkers for their millennia of engagement with sentient environments, with cosmologies that enmesh people into complex relationships between themselves and all relations. 

It never came. He did not mention Inuit. Or Anishinaabe. Or Nehiyawak. Or any Indigenous thinkers at all. In fact, he spent a great deal of time interlocuting with a Scottish thinker, long dead. And with Gaia.

I left the hall early, before the questions were finished. I was unimpressed. Again, I thought with a sinking feeling in my chest, it appeared that the so-called Ontological Turn was spinning itself on the backs of non-european thinkers. And, again, the ones we credited for these incredible insights into the ‘more-than-human’, and sentience and agency, were not the people who built and maintain the knowledge systems that european and north american anthropologists and philosophers have been studying for well over a hundred years, and predicating their current ‘aha’ ontological moment upon. No, here we were celebrating and worshipping a european thinker for ‘discovering’ what many an Indigenous thinker around the world could have told you for millennia. The climate is sentient!

So, again, I was just another inconvenient Indigenous body in a room full of people excited to hear a white guy talk around Indigenous thought without giving Indigenous people credit. Doesn’t this feel familiar, I thought.

As an Indigenous woman, I have tried, over the last few years, to find thinkers who engage with Indigenous thought respectfully. Who give full credit to Indigenous laws, stories and epistemologies. Who quote and cite Indigenous people rather than anthropologists who studied them 80 years ago. This is not always easy. I am so grateful to scholars like David Anderson, Julie Cruikshank and Ann Fienup-Riordan, among others, for giving me hope amidst the despair I’ve felt as the ‘Ontological Turn’ gains steam on both sides of the Atlantic. I am so grateful, too, for the Indigenous thinkers who wrestle with the academy, who have positioned themselves to speak back to Empire despite all of the polite/hidden racism, heteropatriarchy, and let’s face it–white supremacy–of the University.

The euro-western academy is colonial. It elevates people who talk about Indigenous people above people who speak with Indigenous people as equals, or who ARE Indigenous. (Just do a body count of the number of Indigenous scholars relative to non-Indigenous scholars in the euro academy, and you’ll see that over here there are far more people talking about Indigenous issues than Indigenous people talking about those issues themselves). As scholars of the euro-western tradition, we have a whole host of non-Indigenous thinkers we turn to, in knee-jerk fashion, when we want to discuss the ‘more-than-human’ or sentient environments, or experiential learning. There are many reasons for this. I think euro scholars would benefit from reading more about Critical Race theory, intersectionality, and studying the mounting number of rebukes against the privilege of european philosophy and thought and how this silences non-white voices within and outside the academy. This philosopher, Eugene Sun Park, wrote a scathing critique of the reticence of philosophy departments in the USA to consider non-european thought as ‘credible’. I would say many of the problems he identifies in euro-western philosophy are the same problems I have experienced in european anthropology, despite efforts to decolonise and re-direct the field during the ‘reflexive turn’ of the 1970s-onwards.

As an Indigenous feminist, I think it’s time we take the Ontological Turn, and the european academy more broadly, head on. To accomplish this, I want to direct you to Indigenous thinkers who have been writing about Indigenous legal theory, human-animal relations and multiple epistemologies/ontologies for decades. Consider the links at the end of this post as a ‘cite this, not that’ cheat-sheet for people who feel dissatisfied with the current euro (and white, and quite often, male) centric discourse taking place in our disciplines, departments, conferences and journals.

My experience, as a Métis woman from the prairies of Canada currently working in the UK, is of course limited to the little bit that I know. I can only direct you to the thinkers that I have met or listened to in person, whose writing and speaking I have fallen in love with, who have shifted paradigms for me as an Indigenous person navigating the hostile halls of the academy. I cannot, nor would I try, to speak for Indigenous thinkers in other parts of the world. But I guarantee that there are myriad voices in every continent being ignored in favour of the ‘GREAT WHITE HOPES’ we currently turn to when we discuss ontological matters (I speak here, of course, of ontology as an anthropologist, so hold your horses, philosophers, if you feel my analysis of ‘the ontological’ is weak. We can discuss THAT whole pickle another day).

So why does this all matter? Why am I so fired up at the realisation that (some) european thinkers are exploiting Indigenous thought, seemingly with no remorse? Well, it’s this little matter of colonialism, see. Whereas the european academy tends to discuss the ‘post-colonial’, in Canada I assure you that we are firmly still experiencing the colonial (see Pinkoski 2008 for a cogent discussion of this issue in Anthropology). In 2009, our Prime-Minister, Stephen Harper, famously claimed that Canada has ‘no history of colonialism’. And yet, we struggle with the fact that Indigenous women experience much higher rates of violence than non-Indigenous women (1200 Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing in the last forty years alone, prompting cries from the UN and other bodies for our government to address this horrific reality). Canada’s first Prime-Minister, proud Scotsman John A. MacDonald (I refuse to apply the ‘Sir’), famously attempted to ‘kill the Indian in the Child’ with his residential schools. Canada is only now coming around to the realisation that through things like residential schools, and the deeply racist—and still legislated!–Indian Act, that it, as a nation, was built on genocide and dispossession. Given our strong British roots in Canada, you can imagine that it’s All Very Uncomfortable and creates a lot of hand-wringing and cognitive dissonance for those who have lived blissfully unaware of these violences. But ask any Indigenous person, and you will hear that nobody from an Indigenous Nation has ever laboured under the fantasy that Canada is post-colonial. Or benevolent. Nor would we pretend that the British Empire saddled us with solely happy, beautiful, loving legacies. For all its excessive politeness, the British colonial moment rent and tore apart sovereign Indigenous nations and peoples in what is now Canada, and though the sun has set on Queen Victoria’s Empire, British institutions (including the academy) still benefit from that colonial moment. We are enmeshed, across the Atlantic, in ongoing colonial legacies. And in order to dismantle those legacies, we must face our complicity head on.

Similarly, with the wave of the post-colonial wand, many european thinkers seem to have absolved themselves of any implication in ongoing colonial realities throughout the globe. And yet, each one of us is embedded in systems that uphold the exploitation and dispossession of Indigenous peoples. The academy plays a role in shaping the narratives that erase ongoing colonial violence. My experience in Britain has been incredibly eye-opening: as far as the majority of Brits are concerned, their responsibility for, and implication in, colonialism in North America ended with the War of Independence (in America) or the repatriation of the Canadian constitution (1982).

Is it so simple, though? To draw such arbitrary lines through intergenerational suffering and colonial trauma, to absolve the european academy and the european mind of any guilt in the genocide of Indigenous people (if and when european and north american actors are willing to admit it’s a genocide)? And then to turn around and use Indigenous cosmologies and knowledge systems in a so-called new intellectual ‘turn’, all the while ignoring the contemporary realities of Indigenous peoples vis-à-vis colonial nation-states, or the many Indigenous thinkers who are themselves writing about these issues? And is it intellectually or ethically responsible or honest to pretend that european bodies do not still oppress Indigenous ones throughout the world?

Zygmunt Bauman (1989) takes sociology to task for its role in narrating the Holocaust, and its role in erasing our collective guilt in the possibility for a future Holocaust to emerge. He argues that by framing the Holocaust as either a a) one-off atrocity never to be repeated (“a failure of modernity”) (5) or b) an inevitable outcome of modernity, sociology enables humanity to ignore its ongoing complicity in the conditions that created the horrors of the Holocaust. The rhetoric of the post-colonial is similarly complacent: it absolves the present generation of thinkers, politicians, lawyers, and policy wonks for their duty to acknowledge what came before, and, in keeping with Bauman’s insights, the possibility it could happen again — that within all societies lurk the ‘two faces’ of humanity that can either facilitate or quash systemic and calculated human suffering and exploitation. But the reality is, as Bauman asserts, that humanity is responsible. For all of these atrocities. And humanity must be willing to face itself, to acknowledge its role in these horrors, in order to ensure we never tread the path of such destruction again. 

I take Bauman’s words to heart, and ask my non-Indigenous peers to consider their roles in the ongoing colonial oppression of Indigenous peoples. The colonial moment has not passed. The conditions that fostered it have not suddenly disappeared. We talk of neo-colonialism, neo-Imperialism, but it is as if these are far away things (these days these accusations are often mounted with terse suspicion against the BRIC countries, as though the members of the G8 have not already colonized the globe through neo-liberal economic and political policies). The reality is that we are just an invasion or economic policy away from re-colonizing at any moment. So it is so important to think, deeply, about how the Ontological Turn–with its breathless ‘realisations’ that animals, the climate, water, ‘atmospheres’ and non-human presences like ancestors and spirits are sentient and possess agency, that ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, ‘human’ and ‘animal’ may not be so separate after all—is itself perpetuating the exploitation of Indigenous peoples. To paraphrase a colleague I deeply admire, Caleb Behn: first they came for the land, the water, the wood, the furs, bodies, the gold. Now, they come armed with consent forms and feeble promises of collaboration and take our laws, our stories, our philosophies. If they bother to pretend to care enough to do even that much—many simply ignore Indigenous people, laws, epistemologies altogether and re-invent the more-than-human without so much as a polite nod towards Indigenous bodies/Nations.

A point I am making in my dissertation, informed by the work of Indigenous legal theorists like John Borrows, Kahente Horn-Miller, Tracey Lindberg, and Val Napoleon, is that Indigenous thought is not just about social relations and philosophical anecdotes, as many an ethnography would suggest. These scholars have already shown that Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies represents legal orders, legal orders through which Indigenous peoples throughout the world are fighting for self-determination, sovereignty. The dispossession wrought by centuries of stop-start chaotic colonial invasion and imposition of european laws and languages is ongoing. It did not end with repatriation of constitutions or independence from colonial rule. Europe is still implicated in what it wrought through centuries of colonial exploitation. Whether it likes it or not.

My point here is that Indigenous peoples, throughout the world, are fighting for recognition. Fighting to assert their laws, philosophies and stories on their own terms. And when anthropologists and other assembled social scientists sashay in and start cherry-picking parts of Indigenous thought that appeal to them without engaging directly in (or unambiguously acknowledging) the political situation, agency and relationality of both Indigenous people and scholars, we immediately become complicit in colonial violence. When we cite european thinkers who discuss the ‘more-than-human’ but do not discuss their Indigenous contemporaries who are writing on the exact same topics, we perpetuate the white supremacy of the academy.

So, for every time you want to cite a Great Thinker who is on the public speaking circuit these days, consider digging around for others who are discussing the same topics in other ways. Decolonising the academy, both in europe and north america, means that we must consider our own prejudices, our own biases. Systems like peer-review and the subtle violence of european academies tend to privilege certain voices and silence others. Consider why, as of 2011, there were no black philosophy profs in all of the UK. Consider why it’s okay to discuss sentient climates in an Edinburgh lecture hall without a nod to Indigenous epistemologies and not have a single person openly question that. And then, familiarise yourself with the Indigenous thinkers (and more!) I am linking below and broaden the spectrum of who you cite, who you reaffirm as ‘knowledgeable’.

hiy-hiy.

Zoe Todd (Métis) is a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She researches human-fish relations in the community of Paulatuuq in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Northwest Territories, Canada. She is a 2011 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar.

Forming consensus in social networks (Science Daily)

Date: September 3, 2014

Source: University of Miami

Summary: To understand the process through which we operate as a group, and to explain why we do what we do, researchers have developed a novel computational model and the corresponding conditions for reaching consensus in a wide range of situations.


Social networks have become a dominant force in society. Family, friends, peers, community leaders and media communicators are all part of people’s social networks. Individuals within a network may have different opinions on important issues, but it’s their collective actions that determine the path society takes.

To understand the process through which we operate as a group, and to explain why we do what we do, researchers have developed a novel computational model and the corresponding conditions for reaching consensus in a wide range of situations. The findings are published in the August 2014 issue on Signal Processing for Social Networks of the IEEE Journal of Selected Topics in Signal Processing.

“We wanted to provide a new method for studying the exchange of opinions and evidence in networks,” said Kamal Premaratne, professor of electrical and computer engineering, at the University of Miami (UM) and principal investigator of the study. “The new model helps us understand the collective behavior of adaptive agents–people, sensors, data bases or abstract entities–by analyzing communication patterns that are characteristic of social networks.”

The model addresses some fundamental questions: what is a good way to model opinions and how these opinions are updated, and when is consensus reached.

One key feature of the new model is its capacity to handle the uncertainties associated with soft data (such as opinions of people) in combination with hard data (facts and numbers).

“Human-generated opinions are more nuanced than physical data and require rich models to capture them,” said Manohar N. Murthi, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UM and co-author of the study. “Our study takes into account the difficulties associated with the unstructured nature of the network,” he adds. “By using a new ‘belief updating mechanism,’ our work establishes the conditions under which agents can reach a consensus, even in the presence of these difficulties.”

The agents exchange and revise their beliefs through their interaction with other agents. The interaction is usually local, in the sense that only neighboring agents in the network exchange information, for the purpose of updating one’s belief or opinion. The goal is for the group of agents in a network to arrive at a consensus that is somehow ‘similar’ to the ground truth — what has been confirmed by the gathering of objective data.

In previous works, consensus achieved by the agents was completely dependent on how agents update their beliefs. In other words, depending on the updating scheme being utilized, one can get different consensus states. The consensus in the current model is more rational or meaningful.

“In our work, the consensus is consistent with a reliable estimate of the ground truth, if it is available,” Premaratne said. “This consistency is very important, because it allows us to estimate how credible each agent is.”

According to the model, if the consensus opinion is closer to an agent’s opinion, then one can say that this agent is more credible. On the other hand, if the consensus opinion is very different from an agent’s opinion, then it can be inferred that this agent is less credible.

“The fact that the same strategy can be used even in the absence of a ground truth is of immense importance because, in practice, we often have to determine if an agent is credible or not when we don’t have knowledge of the ground truth,” Murthi said.

In the future, the researchers would like to expand their model to include the formation of opinion clusters, where each cluster of agents share similar opinions. Clustering can be seen in the emergence of extremism, minority opinion spreading, the appearance of political affiliations, or affinity for a particular product, for example.

 

Journal Reference:

  1. Thanuka L. Wickramarathne, Kamal Premaratne, Manohar N. Murthi, Nitesh V. Chawla. Convergence Analysis of Iterated Belief Revision in Complex Fusion Environments. IEEE Journal of Selected Topics in Signal Processing, 2014; 8 (4): 598 DOI: 10.1109/JSTSP.2014.2314854

The Anthropocene: Too Serious for Post-Modern Games (Immanence Blog)

August 18, 2014 by Adrian J Ivakhiv

The following is a guest post by Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia. It continues the Immanence series “Debating the Anthropocene.” See herehere, and here for previous articles in the series. (And note that some lengthy comments have been added to the previous post by Jan Zalasiewicz, Kieran Suckling, and others.)

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 The Anthropocene: Too Serious for Post-Modern Games

by Clive Hamilton

In his post “Against the Anthropocene”, Kieran Suckling makes two main arguments. The first is that the choice of “Anthropocene” as the name for the new epoch breaks with stratigraphic tradition; he feels uncomfortable with a change in tradition, not least because he suspects the break reflects a hidden political objective. The second is that similar names have been invented for the era of industrialism in the past, names that have gone out of fashion, and the Anthropocene will go the same way.

Many scientists and social scientists have entered the debate over the Anthropocene. Each of them seems to want to impose their own disciplinary framework on it. Thus one respondent to Kieran’s post wrote that it is “difficult to get a handle on the term ‘Anthropocene’ because it means very different things to different people”. This is true, but it is true because most people have not bothered to read the half dozen basic papers on the Anthropocene by those who have defined it, and therefore do not know what they are talking about.

The problem is that those who want to colonise and redefine the Anthropocene completely miss the central point being made by Earth system scientists like Paul Crutzen, Will Steffen and Jan Zalasiewicz. I have elsewhere explained why those who have not made the gestalt shift to Earth system thinking cannot help but get the Anthropocene wrong. The Earth system scientists are saying that something radically new has occurred on planet Earth, something that can be detected from the late 18th-century and which is due predominantly to a serious disruption to the global carbon cycle. This disruption has set the Earth system on a new, unpredictable and dangerous trajectory.

Ecologists who have not made the leap to Earth system thinking have been the worst offenders. But a few social scientists and humanities people have been joining the fray, bringing their constructivist baggage. Kieran, I fear, is one of them.

In response to Jan Zalasiewicz’s comment that Paul Crutzen came up with the term at the right time, Kieran misunderstands him, asking: “Why was the time right? Is there something about western psychology and history that made this time right?” So he treats the development of a body of scientific evidence as if it were merely an emanation of social and psychological conditions. It’s a reading that has all of the epistemological and political faults of the “social construction of science”, an approach that today is deployed most effectively by climate science deniers.

Kieran’s disquisition on the historical use of terms like “the age of man” compounds this mistake. It suggests that he has missed the fundamental point – thefundamental point – about the new epoch: that the functioning of the Earth systemhas changed, and that it changed at the end of the 18th century; or, if we want to be absolutely certain, in the decades after the Second World War. I sense that Jan Z’s gentle reminder was lost, so let me stress it. He wrote: “The Anthropocene is not about being able to detect human influence in stratigraphy, but reflects a change in the Earth system” (my emphasis). The core of the problem, I think, is that most participants in the debate do not actually understand what is meant by “the Earth system”.

So whatever historical interest it may have (and personally I find it fascinating), the fact that Cuvier, Buffon, de Chardin and several others have deployed terms like “the age of man” has no bearing whatsoever on the current debate, which is about a physical transformation, a rupture, that has actually occurred. Arguing that it’s all been said before – “I can show that your claim to have come up with something decisively new is historically inaccurate” – is a standard rhetorical strategy known as deflation. But it carries the same danger we were warned of as children when our parents read us the story of the boy who cried wolf. Whatever historical precedent, and whatever environmental alarm bell may have been rung in the past, the wolf has arrived.

Deflationary moves that characterise the Anthropocene as merely the latest attempt by anthropocentric westerners to impose an “age of man” frame on the world – that it is a fad that will wane as all the others have – betray an essential failure to grasp what the Earth scientists are telling us is now happening in the Earth system. When the IPCC tells us we are heading for a doubling or, more likely, a trebling of CO2concentrations it is not a fad. When the world’s scientific academies warn we are heading into a world of 4°C warming, changing the conditions of life on the planet, they are not saying it because it’s fashionable. And if the Anthropocene is another example of western linguistic imperialism, changing the name will not exempt the poor and vulnerable of the South from its devastating effects.

No, I’m sorry, this is serious now. After all the attacks on climate science and the well-funded, systematic campaign to discredit climate scientists, people of good will have an absolute obligation not to play around with the science. The constructivist games of the 80s and 90s are an intellectual luxury we can no longer afford.

 

Let me now comment on Kieran’s argument that the Anthropocene is wrongly named because it deviates from naming tradition. He writes that epochs are never named for the causes of change but for the changed composition of the species present in each epoch, era or period. When we examine the helpful lists he provides linking eras, periods and epochs to their characteristic biota, the word that appears uniformly is “appear”. Eukaryotes appear, reptiles appear, fish appear, mammals appear, and so on.

When he calls for consistency in naming, then, we should name the Anthropocene not after the cause of the new epoch (techno-industrial anthropos) but after the new forms of life that have appeared. The problem is that no new forms of life have yet appeared. It seems very likely they will, but it would be impractical to wait 100,000 years before we knew what to name the latest epoch. By then all of the members of the International Commission on Stratigraphy will be dead (they who already in my imagination are like the wizened judges of the Court of Chancery hearing Jarndyce v Jarndyce in Bleak House).

So we are stuck with an anomaly; why this should cause anxiety, except to those wedded to tradition, I do not know. We are practical people; if we cannot apply the old principle to naming a manifestly new and important geological epoch then we must choose a new principle.

Kieran’s solution to the problem is to name the epoch after the radical homogenization of the planet’s species (along with the extinction of many). He suggests the “Homogenocene”. But here he only smuggles in a new criterion, replacing the appearance of new species with a change in the distribution of existing ones. If we were to accept Kieran’s argument then, as Jan points out, why not name the epoch after the overwhelmingly dominant feature of homogenisation, the spread of humans across the globe. According to Vaclav Smil, humans and their domestic animals now account for a breath-taking 97 per cent of the biomass of all terrestrial vertebrates. On Kieran’s own criterion, we would name the new epoch … the Anthropocene.

Finally, it will help if I tell the story of the naming of the Anthropocene, for an innocent reader of Kieran’s piece may draw the conclusion that there was some kind of secret meeting at which a group of western scientists committed to an anthropocentric worldview conspired to promote their ideology by choosing a name that embodies it. Kieran asks: “What belief system(s) drive the shift … to a name based on the power of one species, a species that happens to be us?”

The answer is more prosaic and goes like this. In 2000 Paul Crutzen was at a scientific meeting in Mexico. As the discussion progressed he became increasingly frustrated at the use of the term “Holocene” which he felt no longer described the state of the Earth system, which he knew had been irreversibly disrupted and damaged by human activity. Unable to contain his irritation he intervened, declaring to the meeting: “It’s not the Holocene, it’s … it’s … it’s … the Anthropocene.”

That was it. He just blurted it out; and it stuck. Paul Crutzen is an atmospheric chemist. Given his training it is no surprise that as his brain struggled for the right word it would come with one that linked the state of the Earth to the activities of humans, anthropos. If there had been a savvy sociologist sitting at the table, she might have said: “Wait a minute Paul. It’s not humans in general who got us into this mess, but western industrial ones. So let’s call it the Capitalocene or the Technocene.”

Who knows, perhaps that intervention would have changed the course of history right then. But it didn’t happen, and we have the term we are now debating. Crutzen and his various co-authors would agree with the savvy sociologist that it has been techno-industrialism with its origins in Europe that brought on the new epoch. They have argued persistently that the Anthropocene began with the growth of industries powered by fossil energy towards the end of the 18th-century and accelerated with the hyper-consumerism of the post-war decades.

The real adversaries here are not Crutzen et al. but those scientists, mostly ecologists who do not ‘get’ Earth system science, who are making all sorts of erroneous and confusing claims about the Anthropocene’s origins lying in the distant past, thousands of years before European industrialisation. If anyone is trying to displace responsibility for the mess we are in then they are the culprits. It is they who want to blend the Anthropocene into the Holocene and thereby make theanthropos of the Anthropocene a neutral, blameless, meaningless cause, so that the radical transformation that we now see is the result merely of humans doing what humans do, which nothing can change. No wonder political conservatives are drawn to the early Anthropocene hypothesis.

Critical Theory After the Anthropocene (Public Seminar)

McKenzie Wark

August 9th, 2014

1. One does not have to look far to find intellectuals trained in the humanities, even the social sciences, who feel the need to ‘critique’ the concept of the Anthropocene. Clearly, since we did not invent this concept, it must somehow be lacking! And yet rarely does one find them trying the inverse procedure: what if we took the Anthropocene as that which critiques the state of critical thought? Maybe it is our concepts that are to be found lacking…

2. Even to understand the Anthropocene in its own terms calls for a certain ‘vulgarity’ of thought. The Anthropocene is about the consequences of the production and reproduction of the means of existence of social life on a planetary scale. The Anthropocene calls for the definitive abandonment of the privileging of the superstructures, as the sole object of critique. The primary object of thought is something very basic now: the means of production of social life as a whole.

3. It seems likely that the Anthropocene as a kind of periodization more or less corresponds to the rise of capitalism. But it is no longer helpful, even if that is the case, to tarry among critical theories that only address capitalism and have nothing to say about other periods, other modes of production. The Anthropocene may be brief, but the Holocene is long. A much long temporality is called for. It is ironic that critical theory, so immune in other ways to ‘anthropocentrism’, nevertheless insists on thinking in merely human time scales.

4. To even know the Anthropocene calls on the expertise of many kinds of scientific knowledge and an elaborate technical apparatus. Those who have led the charge in raising alarm about the Anthropocene have been scientific workers. Those who attempt to deny its significance do so through mystifications which, it must be acknowledge, nevertheless draw on critiques of science. Critical theory need not submit itself to scientific knowledge, but it needs to accept its existence and the validity of its methods. One has to know when one’s tactics, even if correct in themselves, put you on the wrong side of history.

5. Means for enduring the Anthropocene are not going to be exclusively cultural or political, let alone theological. They will also have to be scientific and technical. A united front of many kinds of knowledge and labor is absolutely necessary. To imagine that the ‘political’ or ‘revolution’ or ‘communism’ will now work the miracles they so failed to work in the last two centuries is a charming habit of thought, but not a useful one. In the domain of praxis everything is yet to be invented.

6. And so it is not enough to just critique the Anthropocene with the tired old theory toolbox handed down now for more than one generation through the graduate schools. The Anthropocene is a standing rebuke to the exhaustion of those hallowed texts. Let’s have done with answering all contingencies with the old quotations from Freud and Heidegger, Lukacs and Benjamin, Althusser and Foucault. It is time for critical theory to acknowledge its conservative habits – and to break with them.

7. At a minimum, the Anthropocene calls on critical theory to entirely rethink its received ideas, its habituated traditions, its claims to authority. It needs to look back in its own archive for more useful critical tools. Ones that link up with, rather than dismiss or vainly attempt to control, forms of technical and scientific knowledge. The selective tradition needs to be selected again. The judgments of certain unquestioned authorities need for once to be questioned.

8. And in the present, it is time to work transversally, in mixed teams, with the objective of producing forms of knowledge and action that are problem-centered rather than tradition and discipline centered. Critical though avoids the inevitable fate of becoming hypocritical theory when it takes its problems from without, from the world of praxis, rather than from within its own discursive games. The Anthropocene is the call from without to pay attention to just such problems.

9. It is time, in short, for critical theory to be as ‘radical’ in its own actual practice of thought as it advertises. Let’s have done with the old masters and their now rather old-timey concerns. Let’s start with the problem before us, whose name is the Anthropocene.

The Ontological Spin (culanth.org)

by Lucas Bessire and David Bond

In the second Commentary essay, Lucas Bessire and David Bond respond to the Theorizing the Contemporary series, “The Politics of Ontology,” edited by Martin Holbraad and Morten Axel Pedersen.

February 28, 2014

Bessire, Lucas and Bond, David . “The Ontological Spin.” Fieldsights – Commentary, Cultural Anthropology Online, February 28, 2014, http://www.culanth.org/fieldsights/494-the-ontological-spin

The latest salvation of anthropology, we are told, lies in the so-called ontological turn. By all accounts, it is a powerful vision (Sahlins 2013). The ontological turn is exciting in two ways: First, it offers a way to synthesize and valorize the discipline’s fractured post-humanist avant-garde (Descola 2013; Kohn 2013). Second, it shifts the progressive orientation in anthropology from the critique of present problems to the building of better futures (Latour 2013; Holbraad, Pederson, and Viveiros de Castro 2014; cf. White 2013). In both, the turn to ontology suggests that the work of anthropology has really just begun.

At the risk of oversimplifying a diverse body of research, here we ask how the ontological turn works as a problematic form of speculative futurism. While the symmetrical future it conjures up is smart, the turbulent present it holds at bay is something we would still like to know more about. Our skepticism derives from our respective fieldwork on the co-creation of indigenous alterity and on how the lively materiality of hydrocarbons is recognized. In both of these sites, we have documented dynamics that elude and unsettle the ontological script. Much, we would argue, is missed. We are troubled at how ontological anthropology defers thorny questions of historical specificity, the social afterlives of anthropological knowledge, and the kinds of difference that are allowed to matter. We are also concerned by the ultimate habitability of the worlds it conjures. Or consider nature and culture. In many places today, nature and culture matter not as the crumbling bastions of a modern cosmology (e.g., Latour 2002; Blaser 2009) but as hardening matrices for sorting out what forms of life must be defended from present contingencies and what must be set adrift. That is, nature and culture matter not as flawed epistemologies but as dispersed political technologies.

Ontological anthropology is fundamentally a story about the Amazonian primitive. It rests on the recent discovery of a non-modern “multinaturalist” ontology within indigenous myths (Viveiros de Castro 1998). Yet, as Terry Turner (2009) shows, the figure of this “Amerindian cosmology” is based on ethnographic misrepresentation. Kayapó myths, for instance, do not collapse nature/culture divides. Rather, the “whole point” is to describe how animals and humans became fully differentiated from one another, with one key twist: humanity is defined not as a collection of traits but as the capacity to objectify the process of objectification itself. In such ways, the attribution of this hyper-real cosmology paradoxically reifies the very terms of the nature/culture binary it is invoked to disprove.

At the very least, this means that ontological anthropology cannot account for those actually existing forms of indigenous worlding that mimetically engage modern binaries as meaningful coordinates for self-fashioning (Taussig 1987; Abercrombie 1998). This is certainly true in the case of recently-contacted Ayoreo-speaking peoples in the Gran Chaco. Ayoreo projects of becoming are not a cosmology against the state, but a set of moral responses to the nonsensical contexts of colonial violence, soul-collecting missionaries, radio sound, humanitarian NGOs, neoliberal economic policies, and rampant ecological devastation (Bessire 2014). Only by erasing these conditions could a “non-interiorizable” multinaturalist exteriority be identified. Doesn’t this suggest that ontological anthropology is predicated on homogenizing and standardizing the very multiplicity it claims to decolonize? What does it mean if ontological anthropology, in its eagerness to avoid the overdetermined dualism of nature/culture, reifies the most modern binary of all: the radical incommensurability of modern and non-modern worlds?

Charged with getting nature wrong, modernity is rejected out of hand in the ontological turn. While the West mistook Nature for an underlying architecture, indigenous people have long realized a more fundamental truth: the natural world is legion and lively. Yet this supposed distinction between modernity (mononaturalism) and the rest (multinaturalism) seems strangely illiterate of more nuanced accounts of the natural world within capitalist modernity (Williams 1980; Mintz 1986; Mitchell 2002). Attributing the pacification of nature’s vitality to the modern episteme neglects how colonial plantations, industrial farms and factories, national environmental policies, biotechnology companies, and disaster response teams have attempted, in creative and coercive ways, to manage the dispersed agencies of the natural world. The easy dismissal of modernity as mononaturalism disregards the long list of ways that particular format never really mattered in the more consequential makings of our present.

It is all the more ironic, then, that ontological anthropology uses climate change to spur a conversion away from the epistemic cage of modernity. We would do well to remember that, in the most concrete sense, modernity did not disrupt our planet’s climate, hydrocarbons did. Such fixation on modernity misses the far more complicated and consequential materiality of fossil fuels (Bond 2013). In the momentum they enable and in the toxicity they enact, hydrocarbons naturalize differences in new ways. Such petro-effects amplify existing fault lines not only in industrial cities but also in the premier fieldsites of ontological anthropology: the supposedly pristine hinterlands. In the boreal forests of the northern Alberta or in the upper reaches of the Amazon Basin or in the snowy expanses of the arctic or in the dusty forests of the Gran Chaco, the many afterlives of hydrocarbons are giving rise to contorted landscapes, cancerous bodies, and mutated ecologies. Such problems form a “slow violence” (Nixon 2011) that the spirited naturalism of ontological anthropology cannot register let alone resist.

These observations lead us to formulate the following three theses:

  1. First, the ontological turn replaces an ethnography of the actual with a sociology of the possible.
  2. Second, the ontological turn reifies the wreckage of various histories as the forms of the philosophic present, insofar as it imagines colonial and ethnological legacies as the perfect kind of village for forward thinking philosophy.
  3. Finally, the ontological turn formats life for new kinds of rule premised on a narrowing of legitimate concern and a widening of acceptable disregard, wherein the alter-modern worlds discovered by elite scholars provides redemptive inhabitation for the privileged few, while the global masses confront increasingly sharp forms and active processes of inequality and marginalization (Beck 1992; Harvey 2005; Appadurai 2006; Wacquant 2009; Stoler 2010; Agier 2011; Fassin 2012).

In conclusion, we argue that it is misleading to suggest anthropology must choose between the oppressive dreariness of monolithic modernity or the fanciful elisions of the civilization to come. Both options leave us flat-footed and ill-equipped to deal with the conditions of actuality in our troubled present (Fischer 2013; Fortun 2013). Instead, we insist on a shared world of unevenly distributed problems. This is a world of unstable and rotational temporalities, of semiotic and material ruptures, of unruly things falling apart and being reassembled. It is a world composed of potentialities but also contingencies, of becoming but also violence, wherein immanence is never innocent of itself (Biehl 2005; Martin 2009). In this world, we ask how the wholesale retreat to the ideal future may discard the most potent mode of anthropological critique; one resolutely in our present but not necessarily confined to it.

[This is a distilled version of a longer critical essay.]

References

Abercrombie, Tom. 1998. Pathways of Memory and Power: Ethnography and History among an Andean People. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Appadurai, Arjun. 2006. Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Agier, Michel. 2011. Managing the Undesirables: Refugee Camps and Humanitarian Government. Cambridge: Polity.

Beck, Ulrich. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, translated by Mark Ritter. London: Sage.

Bessire, Lucas. 2014. Behold the Black Caiman: A Chronicle of Ayoreo Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Biehl, João. 2005. Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Blaser, Mario. 2009. “Political Ontology: Cultural Studies without Culture?” Cultural Studies 23, nos. 5–6: 873–96.

Bond, David. 2013. “Governing Disaster: The Political Life of the Environment During the BP Oil Spill.” Cultural Anthropology 28, no. 4: 694–715.

Descola, Philippe. 2013. Beyond Nature and Culture, translated by Janet Lloyd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fassin, Didier. 2012. Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fischer, Michael M. J. 2013. “Double-Click: the Fables and Language Games of Latour and Descola; Or, From Humanity as Technological Detour to the Peopling of Technologies.” Paper presented at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting, Chicago, November 22.

Fortun, Kim. 2013. “From Latour to Late Industrialism.” Paper presented at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting, Chicago, November 22.

Harvey, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Holbraad, Martin, Morten Axel Pedersen, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro.2014. “The Politics of Ontology: Anthropological Positions,” Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, January 13.

Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2002. War of the Worlds: What About Peace? Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2013. An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns, translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Martin, Emily. 2009. Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Mintz, Sidney. 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin.

Mitchell, Timothy. 2002. “Can the Mosquito Speak?” In Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity, 19–53. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Sahlins, Marshall. 2013. Foreword to Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, xi–xiv. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2010. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Taussig, Michael. 1987. Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Turner, Terence. 2009. “The Crisis of Late Structuralism, Perspectivism and Animism: Rethinking Culture, Nature, Spirit and Bodiliness.” Tipití 7, no 1: 3–42.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 1998. “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivalism.”Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4, no. 3: 469–88.

Wacquant, Loïc. 2009. Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

White, Hylton. 2013. “Materiality, Form, and Context: Marx contra Latour,” Victorian Studies 55, no. 4: 667–82.

Williams, Raymond. 1980. “Ideas of Nature.” In Culture and Materialism: Selected Essays, 67–85. London: Verso.

Image credit: “Stars in Motion,” by Miguel Claro.

On the ontological turn in anthropology

Ontology as the Major Theme of AAA 2013 (Savage Minds)

by  on November 27, 2013

Most attendees of the annual meetings in Chicago are, as one wag put it, exhAAAusted from all our conference going, and the dust is only now settling. As we look back on the conference, however, it is worth asking what actually happened there. Different people will have different answers to this question, but for me and the people in my scholarly network, the big answer is: ontology.

The term was not everywhere at the AAAs, but it was used consistently, ambitiously, audaciously, and almost totally unironically to offer anthropology something that it (supposedly) hasn’t had in a long time: A massive infusion of theory that will alter our paradigm, create a shift in the field that everyone will feel and which will orient future work, and that will allow us, once again, to ask big questions. To be honest, as someone who had been following ‘ontological anthropology’ for the past couple of years, I was sort of expecting it to not get much traction in the US. But the successful branding of the term and the cultural capital attached to it may prove me wrong yet.

In fact, there were just two major events with the world ontology in the title: the “Politics of Ontology” roundtable and the blowout “The Ontological Turn in French Philosophical Anthropology”. But these events were full of ‘stars’ and attracted plenty of attention.

Will this amount to anything? What is ontology anyway? Were there other themes that were more dominant in the conference? I don’t have any answers to these questions yet, but I hope to soon and will let you figure it out when I do. If you get there before me, then fire away in the comments section and we’ll see what people think.

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A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn” – Part 1 (Somatosphere)

By 

January 15, 2014

This article is part of the series: 

Editor’s note: In the wake of the discussion about the ‘ontological turn’ at this year’s American Anthropological Association conference, we asked several scholars, “which texts or resources would you recommend to a student or colleague interested in the uses of ‘ontology’ as an analytical category in recent work in anthropology and science and technology studies?”  This was the reading list we received from Judith FarquharMax Palevsky Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago.  Answers from a number of other scholars will appear as separate posts in the series.

In providing a reading list, I had lots of good “ontological” resources at hand, having just taught a seminar called “Ontological Politics.”  This list is pared down from the syllabus; and the syllabus itself was just a subset of the many useful philosophical, historical, and ethnographic readings that I had been devouring during the previous year, when I was on leave.

I really like all these pieces, though I don’t actually “follow” all of them.  This is a good thing, because the field — if it can be called that — tends to go in circles, with all the usual suspects citing all the usual suspects.  In the end, as we worked our way through the course, I found the ethnographic work more exciting than most of the more theoretically inclined writing.  At the other end of the spectrum, I feel quite transformed by having read Heidegger’s “The Thing” — but I’m not sure why!

Philosophical and methodological works in anthropology and beyond:

Philippe Descola, 2013, The Ecology of Others, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

William Connolly, 2005, Pluralism. Durham: Duke University Press. (Ch. 3, “Pluralism and the Universe” [on William James], pp. 68-92.)

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, 2004, “Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation,” Tipiti 2 (1): 3-22.

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, 2012, “Immanence and Fear: Stranger events and subjects in Amazonia,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2 (1): 27-43.

Marisol de la Cadena, 2010, “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual reflections beyond ‘politics’,” Cultural Anthropology 25 (2): 334-370.

Bruno Latour, 2004, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern.” Critical Inquiry 30 (2): 225-248.

A dialogue from Common Knowledge 2004 (3): Ulrich Beck: “The Truth of Others: A Cosmopolitan Approach” (pp. 430-449) and Bruno Latour: “Whose Cosmos, Which Cosmopolitics? Comments on the Peace Terms of Ulrich Beck” (pp. 450-462).

Graham Harman, 2009, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics.  Melbourne: Re.Press.  (OA)

Isabelle Stengers, 2005, “The Cosmopolitical Proposal,” in Bruno Latour & Peter Weibel, eds., Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy.  Cambridge MA: MIT Press, pp. 994-1003.

Martin Heidegger, 1971, “The Thing,” in Poetry, Language, Thought (Tr. Albert Hofstadter).  New York: Harper & Row, pp. 163-180

Graham Harman, 2010, “Technology, Objects and Things in Heidegger,”Cambridge Journal of Economics 34: 17-25.

Jane Bennett and William Connolly, 2012, “The Crumpled Handkerchief,” in Bernd Herzogenrath, ed., Time and History in Deleuze and Serres. London & New York: Continuum, pp. 153-171.

Tim Ingold, 2004, “A Circumpolar Night’s Dream,” in John Clammer et al., eds., Figured Worlds: Ontological Obstacles in Intercultural Relations.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 25-57.

Annemarie Mol, 1999, “Ontological Politics: A Word and Some Questions,” in John Law, and J. Hassard, ed., Actor Network Theory and After.  Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 74-89.

Terrific ethnographic studies very concerned with ontologies:

Mario Blaser, 2010, Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond.  Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Eduardo Kohn, 2013, How Forests Think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Helen Verran, 2011, “On Assemblage: Indigenous Knowledge and Digital Media (2003-2006) and HMS Investigator (1800-1805).” In Tony Bennet & Chris Healey, eds.,  Assembling Culture.  London & New York: Routledge, pp. 163-176.

Morten Pedersen, 2011, Not Quite Shamans: Spirit worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

John Law & Marianne Lien, 2013, “Slippery: Field Notes in Empirical Ontology,” Social Studies of Science 43 (3): 363-378.

Stacey A. Langwick, 2011, Bodies, Politics, and African Healing: The Matter of Maladies in Tanzania.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Judith Farquhar is Max Palevsky Professor of Anthropology and Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. Her research concerns traditional medicine, popular culture, and everyday life in contemporary China. She is the author of Knowing Practice: The Clinical Encounter of Chinese Medicine (Westview 1996),Appetites: Food and Sex in Post-Socialist China (Duke 2002), and Ten Thousand Things: Nurturing Life in Contemporary Beijing (Zone 2012) (with Qicheng Zhang), and editor (with Margaret Lock) of Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropology of Material Life (Duke 2007).

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A reader’s guide to the “ontological turn” – Part 2 (Somatosphere)

By 

January 17, 2014

This article is part of the series: 

Editor’s note: In the wake of the discussion about the ‘ontological turn’ at this year’s American Anthropological Association conference, we asked several scholars, “which texts or resources would you recommend to a student or colleague interested in the uses of ‘ontology’ as an analytical category in recent work in anthropology and science and technology studies?”  This was the answer we received from Javier Lezaun, James Martin Lecturer in Science and Technology Governance at the University of Oxford. 

Those of us who have been brought up in the science and technology studies (STS) tradition look at claims of an ‘ontological turn’ with a strange sense of familiarity: it’s déjà vu all over again! For we can read the whole history of STS (cheekily and retroactively, of course) as a ‘turn to ontology’, albeit one that was rarely thematized as such.

A key text in forming STS and giving it a proto-ontological orientation (if such a term can be invented) is Ian Hacking’s Representing and Intervening (1983). On its surface the book is an introduction to central themes and keywords in the philosophy of science. In effect, it launches a programme of research that actively blurs the lines between depictions of the world and interventions into its composition. And it does so by bringing to the fore the constitutive role of experimental practices – a key leitmotiv of what would eventually become STS.

Hacking, of course, went on to develop a highly original form of pragmatic realism, particularly in relation to the emergence of psychiatric categories and new forms of personhood. His 2004 book, Historical Ontology, captures well the main thrust of his arguments, and lays out a useful contrast with the ‘meta-epistemology’ of much of the best contemporary writing in the history of science.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves and disrespecting our good old friend Chronology. The truth is that references to ontology are scarce in the foundational texts of STS (the term is not even indexed in Representing and Intervening, for instance). This is hardly surprising: alluding to the ontological implies a neat distinction between being and representing, precisely the dichotomy that STS scholars were trying to overcome – or, more accurately, ignore – at the time. The strategy was to enrich our notion of representation, not to turn away from it in favour of higher plane of being.

It is in the particular subfield of studies of particle physics that the discussion about ontology within STS developed, simply because matters of reality – and the reality of matter – featured much more prominently in the object of study. Andrew Pickering’s Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics (1984) was one of the few texts that tackled ontological matters head on, and it shared with Hacking’s an emphasis on the role of experimental machineries in producing agreed-upon worlds. In his following book, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (1995), Pickering would develop this insight into a full-fledged theory of temporal emergence based on the dialectic of resistance and accommodation.

An interesting continuation and counterpoint in this tradition is Karen Barad’s book, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (2007). Barad’s thesis, particularly her theory of agential realism, is avowedly and explicitly ontological, but this does not imply a return to traditional metaphysical problem-definitions. In fact, Barad speaks of ‘onto-epistemology’, or even of ‘onto-ethico-epistemology’, to describe her approach. The result is an aggregation of planes of analysis, rather than a turn from one to the other.

Arguments about the nature of quarks, bubble chambers and quantum physics might seem very distant from the sort of anthropo-somatic questions that preoccupy readers of this blog, but it is worth noting that this rarefied discussion has been the terrain where key elements of the current STS interest in ontology – the idioms of performativity and materialism in particular – were first tested.

The work that best represents this current interest in matters of ontology within STS is that of Annemarie Mol and John Law. Their papers on topologies (e.g., ‘Regions, Networks and Fluids: Anaemia and Social Topology’ in 1994; ‘Situating technoscience:  an inquiry into spatialities’, 2001) broke new ground in making explicit the argument about the multiplicity of the world(s), and served to develop a first typology of alternative modes of reality. Mol’s ethnography of atherosclerosis, The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice (2003), is of course the (provisional?) culmination of this brand of ‘empirical philosophy’, and a text that offers a template for STS-inflected anthropology (and vice versa).

One distinct contribution of this body of work – and this is a point made by Malcolm Ashmore in his review of The Body Multiple – is to extend STS modes of inquiry beyond the study of new or controversial entities, and draw the same kind of analytical intensity to realities – like that (or those) of atherosclerosis – whose univocal reality we tend to take for granted. For better and worse, STS grew out of an effort to understand how new facts and artifacts enter our world, and the field remains attached to all that is (or appears to be) new – even if the end-result of the analysis is often to challenge those claims to novelty. The current ‘ontological turn’ in STS would then represent an effort to excavate mundane layers of reality, to draw attention to the performed or enacted nature of that that appears old, settled or uncontroversial. I suspect this manoeuvre carries less value in Anthropology, where the everyday and the taken-for-granted is often the very locus of inquiry.

The other value of the ‘ontological turn’ is, in my view, to recast the question of politics – as both an object of study and a mode of engagement with the world. This recasting can take at least two different forms. There are those who argue that attending to the ontological, i.e., to the reality of plural worlds and the unavoidable condition of multinaturalism, intensifies (and clarifies) the normative implications of our analyses (see for instance the genealogical argument put forward very forcefully by Dimitris Papadopoulos in his article ‘Alter-ontologies: towards a constituent politics in technoscience’). A slightly different course of action is to think of ontology as a way of addressing the intertwining of the technological and the political. Excellent recent examples of this approach are Noortje Marres’s Material Participation: Technology, the Environment, and everyday Publics (2012) and Andrew Barry’s Material Politics: Disputes Along the Pipeline (2013).

In sum, and to stake out my own position, I think STS is best seen as a fairly tight bundle of analytical sensibilities – sensibilities that are manifested in an evolving archipelago of case studies. It is not a theory of the world (let alone a theory of being), and it quickly becomes trite and somewhat ritualistic when it is transformed into a laundry list of statements about what the world is or should be like. In this sense, an ‘ontological turn’ would run counter to the STS tradition, as I see it, if it implies asserting a particular ontology of the world, regardless of whether the claim is that that ontology is plural, multiple, fluid, relational, etc. This sort of categorical, pre-empirical position smothers the critical instincts that energize the field and have driven its evolution over the last three decades. Steve Woolgar and I have formulated this view in a recent piece for Social Studies of Science (‘The wrong bin bag:  a turn to ontology in science and technology studies?’), and a similar argument been made often and persuasively by Michael Lynch (e.g., “Ontography: investigating the production of things, deflating ontology”).

Javier Lezaun is James Martin Lecturer in Science and Technology Governance and Deputy Director at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society in the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the politics of scientific research and its governance. He directs the research programme BioProperty, funded by the European Research Council, which investigates the role of property rights and new forms of ownership in biomedical research. Javier is also currently participating in research projects on the governance of climate geoengineering, and new forms of consumer mobilization in food markets.

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Ontological Turns Inside-Out (Struggle Forever)

By Jeremy Trombley. Posted on Thursday, January 16, 2014, at 4:35 pm.

It seems Ontology has finally gone mainstream in anthropology. Only a few years ago, it was something heard on the edges of the disciplinary discourse. Now you can’t throw a stick without running into a blog post, article, conference paper, or what-have-you that uses ontology as a central theme. Over at Somatosphere, Judith Farquhar has assembled a nice reading list for an introductory understanding of the “ontological turn” in anthropology. Then, over at Anthropological Research on the Contemporary (ARC), Lyle has a solid critiqueof this turn in anthropology – suggesting that it fails to change the form of inquiry to match its subject. It’s a running joke that anthropology has taken so many turns in the last  few decades that we’ve often ended up right where we started. I think there’s a truth to that, and I appreciate Lyle for calling out the underlying conservativism that can be found in this (or any) turn.

As a frequent (though not influential) supporter of the ontological turn in anthropology, I feel as though I should put in my thoughts on all of this. I can’t speak to the events at the AAA – I wasn’t there and I haven’t followed up on any of it as I’ve been obsessively working on an NSF proposal for the last two months (which I just submitted yesterday!!) – so I’m going to talk about some impressions that I get from this turn and then some of my thoughts on where things ought to go from my perspective. My first impression is much like Lyle’s. In the name of ontology, there seems to be a retreat to classical ethnography and broad, sweeping comparative analysis. The terms have changed – reflecting on “ontologies” rather than “cultures” – but the means, methods, and results are much the same. In this sense, it’s not really overcoming the Nature/Culture dualism so much as bringing everything into the cultural domain. I agree with Lyle when he says:

…the question is not about categorizing and typologizing multiple ontologies but rather of charting the historical emergence of new ontologies.”

He continues:

The stakes are not only ontological, but also ethical: how to live in this changed world? How to live together amidst these changed beings and groupings? How to make anthropological knowledge about these changed beings and lives? The point is not that ontology is not a useful question for anthropologists, and indeed forms a productive critique of the comparative form of cultural anthropology. Rather, the point is that an ontological critique must be coupled with a transformation of the procedures and form of anthropological inquiry. The question is where one goes after making this ontological “turn”: towards the contemporary, or towards the 19th century.”

I think that there is an element of this in the “ontological turn” most notably with John Law‘s and Annamarie Mol’s work – attempting to understand how the creation of new beings or systems of relation affect those beings and relations that already exist. This is expressed by the two (though Mol deserves credit for coming up with the term) in their conception of “ontological politics” (a concept that, to me, mirrors Latour and Stengers’s “cosmopolitics”). The way I see it, there can be no concrete ontology, not because we cannot know (this is the difference between this and earlier critiques) or access ontological reality, but because ontological reality is itself fundamentally weird and always in the process of being produced. Ontology is never settled, and that’s why we have to be cognizant of other ontologies, and attentive to the relationships between them. Furthermore, we have to be attentive to our own ontological commitments and effects. It’s not merely a question of understanding others’ ontologies, but of understanding our own as anthropologists. This is why I would ask that we take the “ontological turn” not left, right, or wrong, butinside-out. Turn it back on ourselves and our own practices rather than focusing once again on others. What kind of world are we creating through our practices as anthropologists? What kind of world do we want to create? And how can our methods and practices make that world come into being? These are the important questions an ontological perspective begins to address.

I still support an ontological anthropology, but one that is strange, weird, magical, and inside-out.

*   *   *

A Reader’s Guide to the Ontological Turn – Addendum (Struggle Forever)

By Jeremy Trombley. Posted on Friday, January 17, 2014, at 11:57 am.

Somatosphere’s recently shared two posts (part 1 and part  2) of reader’s guides to the ontological turn, which are extremely useful and full of interesting books/articles/etc. that I hadn’t encountered before. However, there are some noteworthy exceptions, and so I feel compelled to add my own list of influential works in my ontological education. I don’t have tons of time at the moment, so I’ll just write it up as a list and hopefully you can click through and decide which are important to you. Here goes:

Blogs

Academic blogging has been a central feature of the ontological turn over the last several years, so I think it’s unfortunate that these have been left out of the recent reading lists. Much of my own education has taken place through reading and engaging with these blogs – I owe the greatest debt to all of these writers. Here are some of my favorites:

Larval Subjects by Levi Bryant

Synthetic_Zero by Michael, Arran, and DMF

Archive Fire by Michael

Attempts at Living by Arran James

Knowledge Ecology by Adam Robbert

Immanence by Adrian Ivakhiv

Circling Squares by Phillip

Formal Publications (books/articles/etc.)

These could also be considered author recommendations since I won’t list all books and articles by each individual.

Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity by Gregory Bateson

The Cybernetic Brain by Andrew Pickering

After Method by John Law (also check out his website for tons of great essays and articles!)

The Democracy of Objects by Levi Bryant

A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History by Manuel De Landa

Ecologies of the Moving Image by Adrian Ivakhiv

Territories of Difference by Arturo Escobar

Reassembling the Social by Bruno Latour

Cosmopolitics by Isabelle Stengers

When Species Meet by Donna Haraway

Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett

Capitalism and Christianity, American Style by William Connolly

The Ecological Thought by Tim Morton

O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies

That’s it for now. If I’ve forgotten anyone/anything please fill in by commenting! I will add to the comments too if anything else comes to mind.

Sociologists Find Similarities in Meanings Behind Protestant Work Ethic, Religious Tattoos (Science Daily)

Jan. 23, 2013 — When it comes to religious tattoos, two Texas Tech University sociologists say the reasoning and spirit behind them is strikingly similar to a 100-year-old theory about how the Protestant work ethic powered the Industrial Revolution.

Professors Jerry Koch and Alden Roberts recently published their findings in the peer-reviewed The Social Science Journal.

Both sociologists said the sentiment behind the tattoos is reminiscent of Max Weber’s famous 1905 sociological work “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” Koch and Roberts’ research is part of a larger study called Religion and Deviance at Four American Universities, which expands their research from the previous five years to give more national context.

“This particular article came out of some data we gathered and started as an afterthought to a pilot study,” Koch said. “At the end of the questionnaire, we appended an essay question and gave respondents a chance to tell us, if they had one, the story of their religious tattoo. As we started reading through the essays they wrote for us, we started to hear what we knew Max Weber would have appreciated. That, in a sense, these respondents were telling us ‘I want everyone to know that I believe I’m one of God’s people; and here is the evidence of that.'”

Go back nearly 100 years ago, and Weber described in this founding text of economic sociology how Calvinist views on their purpose on the planet helped to drive the Industrial Revolution, Koch said. A person’s profession, no matter how grand or lowly, was seen as an addition to the greater common good, and thereby blessed by God as a sacred calling. Work, for these Protestants, became a visible expression of their faith, and consequently helped to drive the machinery of the unplanned Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.

“Weber argued that the diligence and integrity that we often associate with Protestant work ethic was in one sense a way for individuals to demonstrate to themselves and others that they must be one of God’s elect, otherwise why would they be doing so well,” Koch said. “We are making the parallel saying that the rationale behind and the energy it takes to get a religious tattoo is perhaps to show the same thing.”

In Koch and Roberts’ study, the two gathered tattoo survey data from about 70 undergraduates at four American universities. Two were large, state-supported public institutions, and the other two were highly selective, private religious universities.

Koch and Roberts both noted this same Weberian spirit of public expression as respondents to their last-minute questions repeatedly indicated that their religious tattoos were, for them, evidence of the permanence of their faith, outward signs of religious commitment, or memorials to those they’ve loved and lost and presumably who they hoped went to heaven when they died.

About 65 percent of the respondents with religious tattoos came from secular state schools, the two found. However, 44 percent of the Southern Baptist students that reported having tattoos indicated that at least one was religious.

“The reasons for the religious tattoos were some people wanted a permanent reminder, or permanent advertisement to others,” Roberts said. “There were some that were troubled by the idea the body being a temple, others were not as troubled by that. Those who got religious tattoos were more likely to overtly express religiosity.”

The permanence of a tattoo drew many to get one as a permanent insignia of their faith. Several indicated they got it in memory of someone that they loved, Koch said, while others got it as a way of telling themselves and others that their life had changed.

“One respondent explicitly said ‘I got this tattoo after I lost my virginity as a recommitment to purity,'” Koch said. “It was surprising and a happy accident that the information mirrored where Weber was coming from. I hadn’t anticipated that at the end of the day we would have what I think is a useful teaching tool for showing students what Weber was about using this new imagery.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Jerome R. Koch, Alden E. Roberts. The protestant ethic and the religious tattooThe Social Science Journal, 2012; 49 (2): 210 DOI: 10.1016/j.soscij.2011.10.001