From the Center for Peripheral Studies (OAC Branch). After Lance, the sky's the limit!

The papers discussed in our online seminars are often excellent, but this one is apocalyptic, as well as being an exercise in fine writing. Lee Drummond was once a Chicago anthropology PhD specialising in the Caribbean and later in San Diego's tourist attractions. He taught at McGill University for over a decade before retiring to the wilderness (Palm Springs!). July and August there are his winter when he withdraws into his airconditioned study to avoid the heat. The OAC is a principal beneficiary of this aestivation, as witnessed by the paper attached here. All I can say is you gotta read it, whether or not you participate in the seminar.

Lee's point of departure is Lance Armstrong's confession on the Oprah Winfrey show. The man who perhaps deserves to be known as the greatest American athlete ever admitted taking performance enhancing drugs, thereby triggering an intense public outcry. Lee deconstructs what he takes to be a key feature of the American ideology, the opposition of nature to culture, showing that biology and technology have been inextricably woven together throughout human evolution and even before. If it is impossible to identify the unequal influence of technology in sporting performance, what about other areas of cultural achievement, like literature for example? Should Hemingway's Nobel prize be taken away or Coleridge's poetry eliminated from the canon because they wrote under the influence of mind-altering substances?

Not content with this reductio ad absurdum, Lee then launches into a savage critique of American civilization and of the cultural anthropology it has spawned. Drawing on Marx's happy phrasing in the 18th Brumaire, he argues that the American tragedy (New World genocide) now reappears as farce (reality TV shows), one of which actually replayed the former in a grotesque reenactment of the competitive ideal. Anthropology tends to celebrate cultural achievement around the world, whereas in Lee's view, the current state of American society suggests that culture may be a disease killing off its carriers just as their ancestors once killed off the original inhabitants of what passes for the land of the American dream.

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    It’s intriguing how the “turtles” joke has circulated in global intellectual culture; it seems to be a sort of urban myth for eggheads, like the “Doberman and the Finger” and other classics.  I first heard it from Geertz, who was fond of telling it; I think it’s also in one of his essays, but I forget which. 

    With Mark questioning my “questions” take on the turtle story, I should clarify that the questions to which I refer are those that issue from what I described in my Comment to Jessie as “irresolvable conflicts within the human psyche.”  I know that sounds rather overblown – but that’s never stopped me!  Those conflicts and their attendant questions are irresolvable because they issue from competing identities thrown up by a proto-human sapience on its way to our present version of humanity.  Are we animal or machine?  How is it that the original primal family of consanguines – the only existing humans – finds itself in the presence of non-kin, who become affines and perpetuate the consanguineal group?  That is, how do “we” become “them”?  Once sapience or semiosis has appeared on Earth (like Nietzsche’s – and Poe’s? – raven), these unanswerable questions emerge.  As I’ve suggested, they are the stuff of myth, our first articulation of those questions and our first doomed attempt to resolve them.  Origin myths around the world are replete with those attempts: themes of incest, bestiality, and spontaneous creation appear in an assortment of combinations.  An interesting aside here: When Christian missionaries among the savages recounted the story of Genesis, it fell on, not deaf, but knowing ears: these strange white people obviously had an origin myth of (double) primordial incest, first Adam and Eve, then Cain and his mysterious wife. 

    The crucial point is that myth and its modern manifestations (science, perhaps?) are neither dogmatic assertions of truth nor a cynical throwing-up-of-hands: Who knows, so who cares?  They are (unless, as all too often happens, individuals and nations insist that they have the answers) not a means to close off questioning.  The irresolvable questions of myth and their attendant conflicts within the human psyche are responsible for the phenomenon of cultural generativity.  They are a cerebral itch that always wants scratching.  And it is that process of scratching (not the most elegant metaphor, I’ll agree) that drives our (d?)evolving species along.  Where?  Who knows?  As I’ve suggested, determining that would be like predicting the path of a Brownian particle.  The best I’ve been able to do in characterizing that movement is to liken the proto-, present-, post-human condition to a bubble of sapience suspended in a manifold of semiosis, or a semiospace.  Maybe another word for “semiospace” is “Universe.”  Or maybe not, after all, it’s questions and turtles all the way down.      

    What stance should the inquiring mind adopt to all this, assuming for the moment that minds – seminar participants in this case – are prepared to entertain it?  The only feasible, intellectually honest perspective I’ve found is to embrace irony, or, specifically, Nietzsche’s world historical irony.  Now, the last thing I want to do here is get down in the trenches with flesh-eating lit crits over the nature or definition of “irony.”  As I employ the term, it is first of all an attitude of surprise:  The world turns out not to be what one expected, and that is the occasion for simultaneous laughter and tears.  Others have endorsed that attitude throughout Western history, Nietzsche of course, but long before him a writer Nietzsche respected (there weren’t many), Petronius.  For the present-day, let me simply endorse Paul Fussell’s position that there “seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding; that it is essentially ironic. . .”

    “World historical irony,” as the term implies, is irony on a grand scale.  An example, the motif of my Lance essay, is the attitude one adopts, especially as an American, towards America, land of freedom and equality – and prisons and capitalist exploitation.  Newer, and perhaps dripping with even more irony, is China – discussed here of late.  In that glorious world dawn of the late 1960s, Mao launched his Cultural Revolution and dispatched brigades of youthful Red Guards to root out insidious vestiges of bourgeois and capitalist sentiment at all levels of society.  Millions suffered at their hands; many were tortured or killed.  Now? Voila! (what’s the Mandarin translation?) a few decades later China is the world’s pre-eminent capitalist state, mortgagor of a bankrupt America.  Who coulda guessed?  Rather ironic, isn’t it?     


Ironic, it is.

But, I can't help thinking,

once you've noticed the irony,

what comes next?

Candide's garden?

A Daoist hermitage?

A Zen monastery?

Nietzsche's straitjacket?

Is there nothing more to learn?

Nothing more to do?

Given the depth and quality of discussion it’s terrible to not have half enough time to really understanding what is being said. The conversation also branches in such complicated ways, too.  

I keep trying to stick to important cultural processes, that all would recognize and see different sides of.  I get a little confused by discussion of the various schools of thought, seeming to address the talk of their time. That leaves out what has no spokesperson, being blind to what is going on in other cultures, the market forces at play, not noticing that growth for their own culture is invasive for others, and naturally leads to conflict.   

Our minds have other important blind spots, like how language is arranged using the very same word, like “book”, for both the general idea and for the individual objects, used simply as two different “senses” of the very same word, that in discussion people get mixed up all the time, and are constantly speaking in “mixed ontologies” all the time.   You hear of decisions made due to an attitude all the time, when the range of options noticed are likely more important.    

We also fall prey to the perpetual illusion that the world we construct for ourselves in our minds is the one other people live in too!    If you check, you find each person constructs quite a different one.     So, I don’t think it’s quite right to call it “lying”, that we’re so confused.   It seems much more a matter of struggling to make sense, but being quite unable to!

So I generally agree with John and Lee that "In short, our deepest beliefs are a pack of lies…”.   When “lies” are as self-defeating as our usual misunderstandings, they’re not really lies, especially when held tenaciously by a whole society, for example.   So I think calling them “lies” is more of a “characterization” than an “explanation”.   

I think there’s something simple that could drive our whole society toward linear thinking.   It’s living in societies in which improving performance determines your success.   Authoritarian leaders and businessmen for centuries have been giving their workers a regular “pass/fail” test, to maximize competitiveness in gaining control over the (holistically organized) world around them. 

As a general test for “survival of the fittest” that could really turn a whole society to that way of thinking, and become unaware it is an invasive behavior sure to lead to conflicts.   It’s not the only thing happening in our culture, just a dominant one.

As Mark pointed out literacy originating in Minoan alphabets helped develop human consciousness (as we know it), and become the linear thinkers we became too, I think he suggested also.    I brought up Minoan culture also as an exemplar of a holistic thinking high tech. culture, the world’s most advanced civilization with the barest of military defenses.  It abruptly vanished around 1600 BC, along with its knowledge and culture, also leaving a huge hole in the trade networks of the region too.   

That cultural vacuum, and the struggle to survive in that decapitated trade network, might also be where our trade and growth obsessed linear thinking culture, blind to how its own organizing principle, might have come from.   It’s a theory no stronger than the evidence, of course, but it’s very plausible to me that those market forces took on a life of their own, … and as markets have no reporters nor soap boxes, it simple avoided everyone’s attention as it took over the world…

So I differ with Huon regarding who runs the economies. I think it’s the markets.   But certainly agree decision making is still in the hands of nation states.  If the internet spreads useful knowledge of these things, as we all hope, it may bring great change.   We might also fear it too, for the demonstrated capacity of busy social networks to “make up horrid stuff” and cling to it for centuries it seems.    I’d love to come back in a few thousand years and see, of course … !  ;-)

I keep trying to stick to important cultural processes, that all would recognize and see different sides of.

Remember the blind men and the elephant. They all think they know what the elephant is, but none has touched more than a part of the whole. When the parts seem totally different, how could they agree on what they are talking about?

One way to start would be to walk around the elephant until all had touched all of the reachable parts. Even then, however, there would be room for disagreement if two or more imagine different wholes into which the parts fit.

Do they have to give up? No. But to get any further they have to be able to realize that what others imagine may not be what any one of them is thinking. 

Active listening skills, like those used in non-directive therapies or telephone counseling could help. Not least perhaps by ruling out from the start those "Let me tell you how it really is" statements in which all of us who revel in intellectual combat are likely to indulge. 

FYI: The front page story in the 4 October 2013 issue of Science is titled "Communication in Science: Pressures and Predators." The editorial is devoted to "Improving Science Communication," and the introduction to the special section is titled "Scientific Discourse: Buckling at the Seams. The lead article is "Who's Afraid of Peer Review" with a subtitle that reads, "A spoof paper conceited by Science reveals little or no scrutiny at many open-access journals." Lots of fascinating material here and not just for participants in this thread.

John,   Don’t you recall the intended meaning of the "six blind men" parable, that they didn't discover that their views were connected.   Once they do there different views would be mutually supporting rather than contradictory.    So the missing knack would seem to be a way to distinguish natural wholes from conceptual one, no?   

For that there are very often practical methods.    How can you tell your body is a whole, for example, and not just a collection of parts.   One good way is to trace its history of development, and see firsthand that all its parts developed together.    

Of course, one would need a practical way to do that.   You'd need something to serve as primary physical evidence systems that are developing as a whole units of organized parts.   You'd need that to provide evidence for sorting out what things are organically connected to the same whole as others, right.   Do you think there is such a type of available evidence for determining whether the six blind men are looking at different aspects of the same whole, perhaps???   



    Regarding my endorsement of irony as a useful perspective on human affairs, you ask,


But,  I can't help thinking, once you've noticed the irony, what comes next?

Candide's garden?  A Daoist hermitage?  A Zen monastery?  Nietzsche's straitjacket? 

Is there nothing more to learn?  Nothing more to do?

    Actually, nothing precludes one taking an ironic view of things in any of those situations (although a straightjacket would not be preferred).  And the world / domain of humanity is always changing – that train keeps on moving – so there’s always new stuff to think about.  That’s the great thing about science – instead of stirring the same old pot of humanist angst, scientists construct new toys (which they like to call “instruments”), which give them new ideas (which they like to call “theories”), which lead them to construct new toys, until after a while they come up with the Hubble Telescope, deep space supernovae, and dark energy.  Wondrous achievements, a cause to celebrate the pure, creative energy of the human mind.  Yes, and also the creative energy that gave us poison gas, nuclear bombs, super-max prisons, and, the latest jewel in our crown, NSA global surveillance.  Ironical? 




    An observation in your latest Comment:


We also fall prey to the perpetual illusion that the world we construct for ourselves in our minds is the one other people live in too!    If you check, you find each person constructs quite a different one.     So, I don’t think it’s quite right to call it “lying”, that we’re so confused.   It seems much more a matter of struggling to make sense, but being quite unable to!

brought to mind a passage making exactly the contrary point.  It is from Erving Goffman’s “The Insanity of Place,” in Relations in Public.  The final sentence of the paragraph (I quote the entire paragraph for necessary context) has long seemed to me perhaps the starkest in modern social thought:



 The maintenance of the internal and external functioning of the family is so central that when family members think of the essen­tial character, the perduring personality of any one of their num­bers, it is usually his habitual pattern of support for family-orga­nized activity and family relationships, his style of acceptance of his place in the family, that they have in mind. Any marked change in his pattern of support will tend to be perceived as a marked change in his character. The deepest nature of an individ­ual is only skin-deep, the deepness of his others' skin.


Goffman’s prose is like a surgeon’s scalpel: razor-sharp, precise, antiseptic.  It cuts to the marrow of the individual’s social being and, by extension of society.  It is particularly chilling when one reflects that Goffman is famous for pursuing an analysis of mental institutions to the point at which his reader comes to realize, with a shudder, that his account has escaped the asylum and applies directly to modern society, to our own lives of “normal appearances” (the title of another of his classic works).  Throughout the seminar I’ve suggested that cultural anthropologists need to conduct a pathological examination of culture.  Erving Goffman is perhaps our greatest modern cultural pathologist. 



Don’t you recall the intended meaning of the "six blind men" parable, that they didn't discover that their views were connected.

I do, indeed remember the intended meaning of the parable. That is why I set out to question it. The intended meaning is clear, given that we, the readers of the tale, know at the start that what the blind men are touching is an elephant. But that we already know that means that we are not, in fact, putting ourselves in the blind men's shoes. And our knowing that makes the relationship between the parts that they touch and the whole that we know in advance is an elephant seem as simple as assembling a jigsaw puzzle for two-year olds. So I'm trying a thought experiment. What if all we assume, for example, a wooly mammoth? Or a fictional rhinoceros with very large ears? Or what if the elephant, which the tale encourages us to assume is a living whole, is dead and butchered, so that the spatial relationship of the trunk to the tail or the legs is no longer a given? 

Not saying that the blind men couldn't work things out. But what they would have to do would be a whole lot more like the palaeontologist's science than the two-year old's recognition of how the pieces fit into a picture known in advance. They'd have to work out measurements and procedures, develop theoretical models, agree on what counts as evidence, and debate how their evidence supports one theory more strongly than the others...and still they might get it wrong unless they had evidence from multiple elephants and from other similar creatures with whom to compare it. They'd have a lot of work to do that the story skips straight over.


Ironical? Sure. But "ironical" doesn't describe the world. "Ironical" describes an attitude toward it, a retreat from the pain and confusion instead of embracing the wonder, the sublime, even the sheer terror that Rudolph Otto associates with "The Holy" in a way that produces fresh understanding, new science and sometimes great art. 

That is why to me, American Dream Time is ever so much better than the Lance Armstrong piece. In American Dream Time, you are pushing the limits of what we know, framing an original interpretation. That's exciting. Lance and Oprah, nothing there at the end but "Nya,nya,nya, nya....gotcha!" critique. The world sucks and that's the end of the story. Who needs it?

Lee, While I do accept that people are marvelously perceptive about being double crossed, sometimes, aren't they also sometimes not too?   So I don't know why you call Goffman's prose "razor sharp" when he his certainty is then clearly misplaced, and he uses so many quite vague terms.   I'd be hard pressed to find any way to check what the perception of a family member's "style of acceptance of his place in the family is, that they have in mind."    

We all have the personal experience to the opposite too.  Every person in any normal family will frequently, almost by definition, have naturally different interpretations based on having different information for determining it.   One also can't really interpret a quite unintentional lack of information as as "perduring" oneself, in any case.   That's just not what puduring means.    The normal case is that for persons A and B in a family, person A will start from thinking of B as living in a family working by person A's information, and that will always be wrong.  

I listed a few other such natural defects in the relation between our minds and the world around us too.  My point in mentioning them is that this and the others seem more often to have close to nothing to do with malintent.   I don't deny they could be used to hide malintent perhaps, like by misrepresenting information a person knows the other person can't know... etc.   The greater hazard seems to be the natural assumption consciousness conveys to us, that our information is complete because the picture our minds construct for us seems complete.  

It's one more example of how our minds regularly fail to consider the systemic nature of the environment we are part of.  That's that Bateson was talking about in that 1968 article, that he considered a pervasive defect in our reasoning, and a deep flaw in our "purposive thinking" for making decisions about how to change the world.   Some could be willful, but lacking information for natural systemic reasons is a natural problem, not a choice.

I've been very much involved with the UN's Post 2015 planning for Sustainable Development Goals for the past year, and have been regularly documenting the numerous "failures to recognize the systemic nature of our world" those discussions display.   Discussions of the systemic nature of the problems faced is largely just "absent", replaced with wonderfully passionate and sincere discussions of social ideals.   The extreme way it changes the dialog is evident in how efforts to idea that to work with nature it would be important to study how nature works.   As they came to understand what it meant it was rejected as a deep insult to their social values, really!  

The honest reaction of some was that I was intentionally trying to insult them, and all the purposes they were involved in. They were so unable to articulate how or why it was insulting, though, suggests it was really the whole idea of learning from nature being just too baffling to them to even discuss....  really!    They also couldn't suggest any reason why I might want to insult their idealism as some insisted, as of course, I wasn't.    

It's a dazzlingly clear example of what it means to be "unaware of the systemic nature of our world".   I find it seemingly pervasive in decision making social and political organizations.   My solution for it was the "3Step process of learning to work with nature", that worked great as a process, except for unpredictable disruptions by people who saw the intent to be essentially subversive...


Regarding the 6 blind men fable, we seem to be demonstrating the problem by favoring different sides of the available meanings of the tale, seen from different sides.   I take it to be about normal life, and how easy it is for experienced people to see the parts of things as the whole, i.e. to equate their partial information with the whole of some reality.  The blind men were asked to describe a whole, but instead argued with each other.   That's the crux of the tale to me.  They chose not to be curious about where the boundaries of the part they grabbed might lead...

So, I'm thinking of it as an exemplar of how people normally take a piece of the truth and build it (without its natural connections) into their elaborate substitute reality, as their set of socially constructed beliefs.   I recall having a very prosaic one once, a complete certainty that reusable coffee filters would make a mess in the sink when rinsed out, such that I thought people using them had to be very mixed up.   Of course, it was I who totally misunderstood how they are used.    

To me the issue isn't whether you follow the boundaries to find the whole all the time, but having the habit of imagining what the vibrations one feels in your part might signal, and whether to inquire further...  The 6 blind men clearly didn't need to see or have any special information to tell that their parts were connected, just to be curious, but they were the opposite.


I don't disagree with your "normal life" reading of the tale. What I am saying is that, if we step away from the conventional reading and explore other possibilities, the tale may not be a very good guide to how science could or should actually work. Let's say you're right and

The 6 blind men clearly didn't need to see or have any special information to tell that their parts were connected, just to be curious.

Why should we expect a similar logic to apply to people trained and habituated to the idea that getting beyond the obvious takes more than curiosity? Especially people with a strong vested interest in doing the things that they have been trained to do?

You have probably already thought of this, too, but perhaps you have been attacking the wrong target by preaching to other scientists. Creative people in the art, design and business worlds are constantly looking for new angles. They might be a softer target....and if business people with money to spend got excited about what you are saying....I'd bet a lot of grant-hungry scientists would take notice...

Just brainstorming.



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