I thought I would share this on Usain Bolt written by a friend:
in light of Lee Drummond article on the OAC here:
Thinking through these both, the concept of a less wealthy nation 'hacking the system' sprung to mind?
I have long been fond myself of Berger and Luckmann's account in The Social Construction of Reality. Ideas emerge from individuals. They are then adopted by other individuals and achieve an existence independent of their creator. In some cases, they are fully naturalized and become the common sense shared by members of some group.
Yes, I think that could be a good focus. Because what we seem to be talking about with regard to Bolt and Armstrong, Trump and Clinton is that, in some ill-defined way, they are cultural exemplars and, somehow morally, at some ill-defined level, we see them being 'hacked', adulterated morally, but in what sense? Put another way, people learn from human examples and what the hacking, cheating issue truly involves is a disturbing puzzle 'what are we learning morally from these powerful people?' Certainly, what I am learning about the U.S. election, and in a slightly different key in the U.K. Brexit politics, is a new sort of notion of political theatre - politics as a mix of circus and farce, perhaps of a new post-facebook blend. The Trumps the Boris Johnson figures, the darkly comic stone-faced eye-glinting Vladimir Putin pulling the puppet strings (where, we may ask, has Behemoth gone, the Master's enormously over-sized cat?).
Is this ideology? Some of the grotesque disruption is motivated and ideological for sure. Certainly it has little to do with ordinary everyday common sense, and it seems to be churning the waters for most people when it comes to understanding the world at large. We know from the rise in racially-motivated violence in Britain that one effect can be disinhibition -- whatever personal violence and angst the individual feels about their situation plays out in the signalling and victimisation of people they can now openly label as 'outsiders'.
One issue that seems central here is the imaginative play on the continuum human-animal/neither human nor animal. Transformations along the human-animal continuum seem to have been part of human mytho-poesis forever -- the capacity to transform into an animal - Cuchulain transforming into a salmon - the capacity of animals to turn into human beings, the witch's human-animal familiar etc. Now we can add the capacity of the robot to take on fully human capacities, cryogenesis, hacking the human genome, prenatal testing to produce an 'improved' foetus, epigenetics -- the ability to change one kind of human potential into another. Perhaps we are kidding ourselves thinking that the basic ideas involved at this particular juncture are fundamentally new -- comedy has always worked with human as a fragile superfice built on a flawed ultimately untamable animal structure. The most primitive form of ridicule involves showing someone as less than human, more animalian. The language of genetics just gives more opportunities for playing with that idea.
One thing this anthropologist can add is a pointer to Asian and especially Chinese martial arts traditions, in which we find the antithesis of the ancient Greek naked competition that provides the prototype for Olympic and other forms of modern athleticism.
In Chinese kung-fu movies, every character has their own unique weapon or style. Combat pits these weapons or styles (some with potent magical properties) against each other, and the character with the strongest weapon or style wins. These movies draw on long-standing traditions compiled in such classic novels as Monkey (or The Journey to the West), Water Margin, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and, most especially, Fengshen yang (The Investiture of the Gods), which is, in essence, a series of combats between characters supporting the decadent Shang dynasty and those supporting the emerging Zhou, who will win the mandate of Heaven and succeed the Shang. Deity or demon-to-be, every character has unique physical features, wears a unique costume, and wields a unique weapon. As the story unfolds new characters with stronger powers and weapons appear on both sides. No character appears naked, and while some have animal characteristics, there is no sense in which a universal humanity is pitted against animality per se.
Similar features can now be found in manga, anime, and video games from Japan, e.g. Dragon Ball Z or Pokemon Go.
In the worldview embodied in these cultural phenomena, performance-enhancing potions and special equipment are not violations of the rules. They are what the games are about.
What is true of video games has also become true of the political news cycle in which politicians are transformed second by second in their sexual, military, intuitive and other powers -- not simply from hero to zero, but from zero to monkey king, maverick to plutocrat, to god, demon, saviour, telling truth to power, telling lies to the people and so on in an ever more rapid flurry of imagery and sound. One of the newer features when it comes to 'ideology' concerns questions about who is managing the flow of information. If there is ideology in the older sense now it looks as if it is the active disruption and outright distortion of democratic political life that is most actively being aimed at rather than instilling a particular message.
Our fictional ideologist may well be rubbing his hands in glee, saying 'If people are so busy gawping at one absurd sequence after another, how long before they forget about how political institutions are supposed to work altogether?' Distortion of the institutional process has become far easier to achieve in tune with contemporary cultural messaging than ever before since everybody has a stake in sending messages about how they think things (should) work. Meanwhile, for most people, the experience of passing through the looking glass into the morphologically unstable world of the celebrity, the olympic sportsman, the politician or the video game character remains limited (perhaps to some comic-con event where they dress up as a Marvel character for the day).
Looking for something else, I came across Sol Worth's 1971 essay 'Toward an anthropological politics of symbolic forms'. It makes startling reading because Worth predicts the pluralisation effects of what we now call the internet decades before its invention. Noticing how the principle of the cable TV channel could mean the invention of the multi-directional media flows, with local people more and more controlling their own images and narrative structures, he goes on to argue that anthropology will have to keep catching up on the changing politics involved and grow a politics of its own:
"If we are to study power we are inevitably involved in the study of power mechanisms, messages, message-makers, and message-receivers. But such a dialectic requires an understanding of the politicization of symbolic forms. It requires an ethnography of communication that has developed theories about the politics of the cultural changes that will be brought about by the ability of people to show themselves in their own way...
If I were reinventing anthropology... I would have to invent an anthropology that could deal with culture on a wired planet. "
Huon, could you provide a citation for that quote from Sol Worth? I can see myself wanting to cite it myself sometime.
But responding to your thought: Could it be time for another look at pre-functionalist versions of anthropological theory? Dan Sperber has suggested an epidemiological approach to the study of culture. What I have in mind are those studies, still popular in archeology, that map and attempt to account for trait distributions and diffusion of innovations. Contemporary notions like thick description, webs of meaning, ontologies, structural transformations, boundary formation, liminality, models-of and models-for could all be incorporated in this project, as different perspectives from which to explain distributions in space and time.
It comes at the end of Worth's essay in Reinventing Anthropology (Dell Hymes ed.).
But responding to your thought: Could it be time for another look at pre-functionalist versions of anthropological theory? Dan Sperber has suggested an epidemiological approach to the study of culture. What I have in mind are those studies, still popular in archeology, that map and attempt to account for trait distributions and diffusion of innovations.
What do you have in mind -- you mean these theories as applied to the 'hacking' of contemporary public culture?
I must confess a visceral distaste for the phrase "these theories as applied." There is altogether too much applying of theory as if applying a cookie cutter to poorly kneaded dough going around these days. I think again of something Victor Turner wrote,
"In moving from experience of social life to conceptualization and intellectual history, I follow the path of anthropologists almost everywhere. Although we take theories into the field with us, these become relevant only if and when they illuminate social reality. Moreover, we tend to find very frequently that it is not a theorist's whole system which so illuminates, but his scattered ideas, his flashes of insight taken out of systemic context and applied to scattered data. Such ideas have a virtue of their own and may generate new hypotmheses. They even show how scattered facts may be systematically connected! Randomly distributed through some monstrous logical system, they resemble nourishing raisins in a cellular mass of inedible dough. The intuitions, not the tissue of logic connecting them, are what tend to survive in the field experience."
"Social Dramas and Ritual Metaphors." In Victor Turner, ed., Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society, Cornell University Press, 1974, p. 23.
What I am suggesting — and at this point it is only brainstorming — is that the history of anthropology contains many potentially useful ideas that freed from conventional assumptions about cultures as bounded systems could lead to fresh insights. I think of the "American Indian Perspectivism" that our ontologists have embraced. I think of Vivio, the Kichiwa guide for the jungle segment of our trip to Ecuador last year. He makes his living demonstrating native jungle survival skills to tourists but lives in the outskirts of Quito. He was pleased when I recognized a pattern from a native tattoo drawn on a tourist woman's arm in henna as a representation of a traditional Amazonian cosmology. Unlike the other lodge staff who use traditional single-blade paddles that look like wooden spades, Vivio uses a double-bladed kayak paddle. When I ask him about it, he tells me that he is an avid kayaker and prefers the two-bladed paddle.
I think, too, of the young woman, let's call her Maria, who may have been Vivio's daughter, who helped serve our meals and baited our hooks when we went fishing. If I hadn't asked I might never have known that she is a beneficiary of a program put together by her tribe under which promising young people are provided with scholarships to prestigious universities in North America and Europe, the idea being that when they return to Ecuador they will become the tribe's interface with the Ecuadorian government and international corporations. Maria studied at a University in Spain, where she currently lives and works as a curator at a paleontological museum. During her long, European-style vacations, she returns home and helps out at the lodge owned and operated by her tribe, where we spent our four days in the jungle.
Both Vivid and Maria are natives, members of a tribe that, under Ecuadorian law, has exclusive rights to live in and exploit the territory recognized as belonging to it. For both the jungle is "home," but that home is not their permanent residence. Both are at home in the jungle, equipped with traditional survival skills, but their lives are a lot more than "at home in the tribal territory" suggests.
Or another case. At the East Asian Anthropological Association in Sapporo that I attended last weekend, my old friend Shu-min Huang talked about what has happened to the village on the outskirts of Amoy where he did his fieldwork in the 1970s. Then, the villagers were barefoot farmers, scraping by growing rice and sweet potatoes in poor soil. But the city has grown out around them. Their real estate has become incredibly valuable. More than one family now have assets in excess of US$15 million. The photographs that Shu-min shot during his fieldwork are the last tangible memories of their former life. They talk about establishing a museum, but all of the tools and other material culture visible in his photographs have completely disappeared.