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 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.

The description of human knowledge in terms of its 'limits' is a longstanding one (dare I mention that it goes back to Kant and the Critiques?). The quote below from Feyerabend's critique of positivism in Against Method puts it very well. I have used this to explore the idea that we should think of 'an ethnography' as an experiment where we bring new articulations of concepts to bear on stale conceptions of social reality:

"how can we possibly examine something we are using all the time? How can we analyse the terms in which we habitually express our most simple and straight- forward observations, and reveal their presuppositions?... The first step in our criticism of familiar concepts and procedures ... must ... be an attempt to break the circle. We must invent a new conceptual system that ... confounds the most plausible theoretical principles and introduces perceptions that cannot form part of the existing perceptual world." [ Feyerabend 1975:32] 

The answer is that the best ethnographic work does this and there is a lot of it. Ethnography exists as a valuable critique of preconceived social formulae, but it is only productive if it engages in actually trying to tackle difficult generic human problems; for example the generic problems of social inequality described here. Latour has an amusing description of the critical social scientist who is merely engaged in showing the 'skull beneath the skin':

"To insist that behind all the various issues there exists the overarching presence of the same system, the same empire, the same totality, has always struck me as an extreme case of masochism, a perverted way to look for a sure defeat while enjoying the bittersweet feeling of superior political correctness. Nietzsche traced the immortal portrait of the ‘man of resentment’, by which he meant a Christian, but a critical sociologist would fit just as well" (Latour 2005:252).

Human beings work with symbols, metaphors and analogies; as Kuhn shows these are complexly inter-articulated - scientists did not simply discard 'phlogiston' and discover 'oxygen'; there was a gradual and then sudden collapse of inter-articulation in the paradigm that supported 'phlogiston'. The first people to 'discover' oxygen were themselves labelled as such retrospectively by the scientific community once the new ideas were in place. Oxygen is 'real' but its reality is supported by a new symbolic game or encompassing fiction - and so on. What then can we hope to achieve as anthropologists; certainly not see through to the really real like Ray Milland in the man with X ray eyes. but there does exist, through the experience of coming to recognise alternative communities of people and ideas, the option of directing ethnographic knowledge toward entrenched understandings of how society works, thereby shifting the view.

All:  There simply is no *dialectical* (aka reason/logical) answer to these conundrums and never has been.  This is why the Trivium puts GRAMMAR (i.e. "principles") in charge and RHETORIC (e.g. public "persuasion") as the testing grounds.

These issues were the life's work of Marshall McLuhan, as first reflected in his 1943 PhD thesis from Cambridge, "The Classical Trivium," and why he generally annoyed so many academics.

He adopted the phrase "The artists are the antenna of the race" because trying to work from the standpoint of the "scientists" (who are really just doing research for the engineers -- including anthropologists working for the "social engineers" at Rockfeller/Ford) are NOT being paid to figure anything out that is fundamental.

If you leave the PRINCIPLES out, which is what Weber meant by the "disenchantment of the world," then you are lost before you begin.  Western "secular" society has *principles* (as all functioning societies must) but these principles are "hidden" and need to be uncovered before you can start, since they underlie the way our society works and, unless they are addressed, nothing else matters.

The context for these principles is our *technological* environment and it is the "job" of the artist to expose this environment and the changes that it is *formally* causing.  Look elsewhere and you will, like Ouroboros, endlessly be eating your own tail.

"how can we possibly examine something we are using all the time? How can we analyse the terms in which we habitually express our most simple and straight- forward observations, and reveal their presuppositions?... The first step in our criticism of familiar concepts and procedures ... must ... be an attempt to break the circle. We must invent a new conceptual system that ... confounds the most plausible theoretical principles and introduces perceptions that cannot form part of the existing perceptual world." [ Feyerabend 1975:32] 

How do we break the circle? Advertising creatives are asked to do it all the time: Find a solution to the client's problem. If it seems good enough, then put it aside and find another....repeat as often as necessary for fresh insight (or at least some clever new angle) to appear. At the Japanese agency where I worked for thirteen years, a regular exercise for the freshmen (fresh hires just out of college) was 一晩百案(hitoban hyakuan, one night a hundred proposals). It embedded the habit I've illustrated by my treatment of the six blind men and the elephant story. When you think you've understood, it is time to start over again.

Mark, an artist you might like —Tokujin Yoshioka.

John, Oh, certainly, I quite agree that the usefulness of the tale depends of seeing how it fits a real life circumstance and problem.   The evidence, though, is that's quite hard to see for people.  Even if all that would seem needed is "curiosity" the professionally curious people are repeatedly confused by the life circumstances that bring it up.    

So... that raises my curiosity... as to what could be the problem, thus all my lists of congenital gaps in the information our minds have access to, and our very frequent mistake of considering the world around us as our information about it.  Consciousness seems to keep presenting our images to us as if they were the world we were looking at.  That keeps our curiosity from being triggered and blocks our ability to overcome many kinds of gaps in our information.

So you are hitting on my true focus in noting that I'm hoping that probing the thinking of scientists, who are not very creative in imagining alternatives like designers are.    It's partly to find out why not!!  Scientists and other abstract thinkers seem not at all as creative in recognizing the environmental relationships between things in nature, it seems because of coming to rely on conceptual thinking, and representing their environment only as what their minds have "made sense of".  We see that clearly in our culture's professional class widely accepting representations of living systems as having fixed organization when any observer can see that they are continually reorganizing.  

You and others seem a bit more receptive to the subject than elsewhere, but even in this discussion I don't get at all the response I expect.   The evidence seems to be that scientists as a group are not "better at" but indeed much "worse at" being able to tell the difference between what they "picture in their minds" and what they are "looking at in the world". Most scientists I raise that question with tell me that there is no way to define such a subject, and that I'm just fantasizing that such a difference exists.   The fact that our language uses the same worlds for conceptual and physical things, and there's no discussion of how to tell the difference, tells me directly that culturally we have not evolve to a point of being able to tell the difference.

Isn't that quite significant, that at our present stage of evolution mankind is generally still unable to mentally distinguish between what they see in their minds and what they are looking at in the world?   

P.S.  Mark, I think both you and John, and Huon too from another angle, hit the nail on the head.  If I may paraphrase, to turn the dilemma you present a bit “inside out”,…it’s that science is in the business of representing nature in the form of rigid and unnatural mental constructs, making it unaware of change and haplessly reliant on "artists” and “poets” to pay attention to the real world for them, and the ever changing organization of living systems science says it’s abstractions represent.

To me the “race” of the “human race” then seems one to condense all of nature into a theory, and that is why the theory is such a bad fit.    It’s like hoping once we have replaced the confusion of life with a  complete theory we won’t be surprised any more… and so by denying that the two need to co-exist, assuring we will be ever more badly surprised.  

So, that great image of “the Man with X-Ray eyes” exemplifies the problem presented, of the false quest of trapping all of nature in mental rules in our heads, as if having X-Ray eyes would let us solve the shallowness of our mental models with more data to base them on.   That’s the theme of modern science, to keep getting more data so we ever increases our control of nature as a limitlessly invasive species.   Even X-Ray eyes, won’t let you “see” how another person feels, or that a growth plan for your own culture should include plans for responding to limitless invasion of all others.  

It’s not having a theory for them that lets you “see” those sorts of things.    I think the only way is to become an objective observer, and learn to acknowledge other living cultures as being alive, yes, like an artist or poet, or a mom, is apt to.   Once you see them as individually organized and behaviorally independent, as living things, and NOT as half-baked subjective theories, you begin to listen to what THEY have to say.   

No, it doesn't fit the model of thought expected either in science or in business, for defining the world as rules for a task of profit-taking, for being efficient in conquest, reducing life to an exploit.   That’s not going to be successful in making the earth a good home, is the problem, as something to take care of not as an exploit, and for recognizing your partners as living things not concepts.    Right?


I have some reservations about thinking of cultures as "living things." To see human beings as equivalent to cells in social organisms, constrained by the system to play particular roles, living and dying for the sake of the larger whole, is, to me, unacceptable. Is that due to the strong streak of individualism in the culture in which I grew up? Absolutely. 

But let's put that aside. I agree that "defining the world as rules for a task of profit-taking, for being efficient in conquest, reducing life to an exploit" seems incompatible with "making the earth a good home." I agree that it is a very good idea, indeed, to make a habit of looking outside the conventional frames that inhibit our thinking and behaviour. 

But one thing I have learned working in advertising is that even good ideas have no effect unless they are communicated to people willing and able to act on them. Thus, the standard form for a creative brief is the following.

  1. Target — Who are we trying to communicate with?
  2. Objective—What response are we looking for?
  3. Proposition—What is the takeaway? If our target forgets everything else, this is what we want them to remember.
  4. Rationale—A simple explanation for why communicating this Proposition to that Target is likely to achieve our Objective.
  5. Imperatives—Miscellaneous information about client tastes, desires, demands that affect how the proposition is presented.

These may look like simple questions. They aren't.

Suppose, for example, you are trying to sell a multi-million dollar IT system to a corporation. The CEO wants the big picture and promise of business benefit, but will leave the technical details to the engineers. So your campaign has at least two targets, with very different needs. For the CEO the objective is "This sounds like a great idea." For the engineers, the objective is "This is state-of-the-art AND we can work with this." So we need at least two propositions, each of which must be carefully vetted to see if the rationale is plausible—and the two propositions have to be complementary.  What you say to the CEO has to be consistent with what you say to the engineers.

Then come the imperatives. Let's assume a CEO in her fifties, a graduate of a top-line business school, power suit, pearls, goes to the opera. Let's assume engineers in their twenties or thirties, geeks who graduated from engineering schools, into Heavy Metal music and World of Warcraft or Cosplay in their spare time. We need to plan our communication to speak effectively to them both. Is there a language in which we can speak to them both? Or do we have to plan a campaign using targeted media with styles appropriate to their audiences.

So here we are, trying to communicate to scientists, politicians, business leaders and other powers that be the message that what they have devoted their lives to, becoming fierce and successful competitors, taking charge and conquering new territory within their chosen domain is wrong, wrong, wrong. No, that's not going to work.

What about, "There is more to life than winning the game"? There is actually a lot of that going around these days, lots of talk about work-life balance, doing good while doing well, making work meaningful. Perhaps we can work with that. 

And that is just the beginning!! Digging deeper into what the target thinks and feels. Sharpening the proposition for maximum impact when speaking to that target. Finding the right tone and manner, the right characters, the right music, the right style. That's what keeps us up at night.

Anyway, given this type of background, I can't say that I am surprised that your message has fallen on deaf ears. Were they the right ears—the right target? Was the proposition not just valid but compelling? Why do we think it will achieve our objective? And, by the way, what is that objective? Not Kumbaya and all's well with Mother Gaia sometime in the bye and bye, but the next step we need to take.

Mark is right. Our logic may be sound. But the job ahead is to get the grammar and rhetoric right.

John,   Ah yes, it would be inappropriate to consider human cultures the same way as biological organisms, particularly for applying social judgments that might be inappropriate to biology too.   It's clear that cultures really are composed of collective behaviors, though, displaying histories of development and designs that people taking part in them are barely aware of, with quite complex animated collective behaviors and interconnected roles.  Human individualism is itself a cultural expression, isn't it.   Without relating to our cultures do we have anything at all to say even to ourselves, let alone to others?

I think more likely you are being caught off guard by my scientist's habit of expanding the meanings of words to fit more general categories than usual.  In this case I'm lumping in "cultures" with "ecologies" as forms of life.  I study them from an organizational development viewpoint the same way I would study individual biological organisms, as developing by successions of innovation, growth and then its maturation, forming the natural capital of the living organization, and as an expression of individuality too.  That sequence of individual developments is what I developed my natural systems research method around.

Your 5 points for communicating a new idea are good.  When in conversation I'm mostly in "research mode", as if running around with a bundle of keys trying one after another to see what they'll open up, as I explore how to connect my ideas with other's.  If pitching a product design it is indeed important that it speak to each of the roles on the product development team, visually, financially, technically, as a single idea the anyone can "get" right off.  

Much of my interests and efforts have to do with introducing my, it seems, decidedly counter-intuitive approach to science, so "effective presentation" is very often totally ineffective, as people appear to confront unexpected ways of using the words and not know what to do.  I think my real problem has always been that I'm talking scientifically about observations of how natural systems are individually organized to behave, and that is inconsistent with our culture !   

Did you look at my "3Step process for working with nature"?  That's one where I consciously hide the theory and just present a method that can work mysteriously well to get non-scientists to explore how the natural systems of their environment work.  I also have an important conference this weekend on what the world's leading sustainability organizations are planning for the earth... (not all good for sure) and put together a little pitch on my approach.   I'd love your opinion about.    It doesn't say "bad bad bad" it says "It’s a major rethinking, but the idea and economics of making earth...".   

If you leave the PRINCIPLES out, which is what Weber meant by the "disenchantment of the world," then you are lost before you begin.  Western "secular" society has *principles* (as all functioning societies must) but these principles are "hidden" and need to be uncovered before you can start, since they underlie the way our society works and, unless they are addressed, nothing else matters.

A response to this might include reference to Durkheim's argument that society itself provides the great principles which are most accessible during phases of ecstatic ritual, including perhaps use of ayahuasca, marijuana or Qhat (or ergot?). Alternatively these principles are talked about as a transcendental aspect of subjectivity that can be reached deductively by exploring the limits of human reason as Kant does. Arguably, Kant was influenced in this by the spiritist speculations of Swedenborg, to such an extent that he had to write his sarcastic 'visions of a spirit seer' to cover his own tracks. These formal accounts are also epistemological accounts - is an account of formal cause the same as an epistemological account?

This is more specifically with regard to Jessie's interesting process approach to getting people to orient themselves to environmental questions. Other ways of accessing basic principles include looking at what the philosophers wrote at certain times. We could no doubt spend all day debating this section of Locke's Second Treatise (1690) where he puts forward the rights connected to investing labour in and drawing rewards from nature (certainly one aspect is the kind of 'invasive growth plan' that Jessie describes):

"This is certain, that in the beginning, before the desire of having more than man needed had altered the intrinsic value of things, which depends only on their usefulness to the life of man; or had agreed, that a little piece of yellow metal, which would keep without wasting or decay, should be worth a great piece of flesh, or a whole heap of corn; though men had a right to appropriate, by their labour, each one of himself, as much of the things of nature, as he could use: yet this could not be much, nor to the prejudice of others, where the same plenty was still left to those who would use the same industry. To which let me add, that he who appropriates land to himself by his labour, does not lessen, but increase the common stock of mankind: for the provisions serving to the support of human life, produced by one acre of inclosed and cultivated land, are (to speak much within compass) ten times more than those which are yielded by an acre of land of an equal richness lying waste in common. And therefore he that incloses land, and has a greater plenty of the conveniencies of life from ten acres, than he could have from an hundred left to nature, may truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind: for his labour now supplies him with provisions out of ten acres, which were but the product of an hundred lying in common. I have here rated the improved land very low, in making its product but as ten to one, when it is much nearer an hundred to one: for I ask, whether in the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America, left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniencies of life, as ten acres of equally fertile land do in Devonshire, where they are well cultivated?

Before the appropriation of land, he who gathered as much of the wild fruit, killed, caught, or tamed, as many of the beasts, as he could; he that so imployed his pains about any of the spontaneous products of nature, as any way to alter them from the state which nature put them in, by placing any of his labour on them, did thereby acquire a propriety in them: but if they perished, in his possession, without their due use; if the fruits rotted, or the venison putrified, before he could spend it, he offended against the common law of nature, and was liable to be punished; he invaded his neighbour's share, for he had no right, farther than his use called for any of them, and they might serve to afford him conveniencies of life.

Sect. 38. The same measures governed the possession of land too: whatsoever he tilled and reaped, laid up and made use of, before it spoiled, that was his peculiar right; whatsoever he enclosed, and could feed, and make use of, the cattle and product was also his. But if either the grass of his enclosure rotted on the ground, or the fruit of his planting perished without gathering, and laying up, this part of the earth, notwithstanding his enclosure, was still to be looked on as waste, and might be the possession of any other. Thus, at the beginning, Cain might take as much ground as he could till, and make it his own land, and yet leave enough to Abel's sheep to feed on; a few acres would serve for both their possessions. But as families increased, and industry inlarged their stocks, their possessions inlarged with the need of them; but yet it was commonly without any fixed property in the ground they made use of, till they incorporated, settled themselves together, and built cities; and then, by consent, they came in time, to set out the bounds of their distinct territories, and agree on limits between them and their neighbours..."

Huon, What I see as the central error flashing by in that long self-justification of a social viewpoint is the following:

To which let me add, that he who appropriates land to himself by his labour, does not lessen, but increase the common stock of mankind: for the provisions serving to the support of human life, produced by one acre of inclosed and cultivated land, are (to speak much within compass) ten times more than those which are yielded by an acre of land of an equal richness lying waste in common. 

That's the "simple rule of productivity" that becomes so remarkably self-defeating if taken as a rule, isn't it?   If followed as a rule for multiplying productivity, it would result in upsetting more and more other relationships as it is expanded on, as our society takes as the rule.  

To make the "simple rule" true it would need to "be responsive to the productivity of the whole" and also refer to reserving sufficient returns from the effort to care for the environment enabling the local concentration of wealth.   It would also need a way to watch for the natural limit of the productivity, the "point of diminishing returns", both for the environment and for the enterprise of doing it.  Using productivity for growth is a compound invasive process, requiring the management of more and more complex and conflicting changes.  

So, why doesn't that get noticed by the economists, politicians, even the ecologists and anthropologists it seems?   I've been suggesting it must have to do with some deep level of subjectivity in the scientific viewpoint, things like assuming the relationships we act on are as we define them abstractly, and also don't change.   That growth is inherently invasive could be the most obvious feature of the phenomenology of enclosing "free resources" to multiply your ability to then "free up" more resources to enclose.  

There may be no logical limit to that cycle, given how it's defined abstractly.   It still defines its own physical end whether there are any external constraints or not, is the sign of deeper problems.   By multiplying one's tasks the process of applying the rule will still become unmanageable due to internal constraints arising instead...  So following the abstract rule in one's head not only causes you to miss "the limit" of the rule.   It also results in missing how the meaning of rule and the meaning of everything around it are also changing too, more and more rapidly.

It's hard to get to that issue, the one beyond how following abstract rules results in not seeing their limits, it's also a form of withdrawal, like living life without looking up from your gamepad, and missing the whole experience. 

Huon and Jessie,

I spend a lot of my time berating the anthropologists for their shortsightedness and proneness to error, but we have at least demonstrated in the twentieth century that Locke's argument is based on a fatal confusion of the productivity of land with that of labour. Generally speaking, the productivity of labour is highest when the available land is abundant. As soon as production is permanently concentrated in a limited area, more labour is required to achieve a comparable result (pest scaring, weeding, irrigation, feeding animals). This intensification of labour inputs invariably involves reductions to the rewards of labour units. So the question arises, who benefits from enclosure and intensification of production? For domestication involves greater control over people as well as over production.

This is why Rousseau identified the development of private property in land as a decisive moment in the history of ineqaulity. Various 19th century Germans saw it as "the world historic defeat of the female sex", since gender and generational inequality were both increased with the invention of agriculture. Marx liked Locke's labour theory of value, but he made much of his elision of inequality between owners and workers in enterprises.

African economic history is replete with the error of imagining that paddy fields and neat hedgerows mean higher productivity of labour. Independent peasantries, operating with free access to much larger territory, have consistently outperformed plantation agriculture. The World Bank insists on converting areas of dry upland rice cultivation into irrigated valley systems that invariably fail.

The rule is that, when human labour is combined with natural production, the returns are highest when nature does most of the work in its own way (the recipe for hunters and gatherers). Africa started the twentieth century with 14% of the world's land area and 7% of its people. The societies supported by abundant land were easily picked off by European invaders with advanced machinery at their disposal. Africans are still struggling for emancipation from foreign domination, despite political independence. In the meantime, they now have a share of the world's population a bit more than their share of the land mass. The population explosion has been accompanied by intensification of production, rising land values and greater class inequality.

Is this a good or bad thing? It depends on your perspective. But Locke set the trend to view the performance of human labour on nature as an essentially apolitical process. He was more concerned with the accumulation of property by big landowners who could use money to store their wealth in durable forms convertible into class political power. He wanted a revolution alright, but this was to be based on the commerical and professional classes being able to keep their earnings safe from the predations of a landowning plutocracy.

Don't forget the politics. Locke didn't.

All: John Locke (1632-1704) lived in an environment -- what was it?

Agricultural.  Landowner dominated.  Manuscript in transition to book-based.  English Protestant.

Did his thinking -- on a whole range of topics -- "correspond" to this environment?  Of course it did.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) lived in an environment -- what was it?

Agricultural beginning to set-up for transition to industrial.  Landowner beginning to set-up for transition to capitalist dominated.  Book-based.  Swiss Protestant (with significant "anti-clerical" sentiments).

Did his thinking -- on a whole range of topics -- "correspond" to this environment?  Of course it did.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) lived in an environment -- what was it?

Agricultural in transition to industrial.  Landowner in transition to capitalist dominated.  Book-based.  German Protestant (with significant elements of "secret" knowledge).

Did his thinking -- on a whole range of topics -- "correspond" to this environment?  Of course it did.

How did these environments compare to Plato's or Cicero's or Aquinas's (or Marx's or Bateson's or Boulding's)?  They were all substantially (if not radically) different.  

Did they share anything in common?  Yes, they were *all* Protestant.-- which means that they were all "opposed" to *classical* Western culture and, in particular, its expression in the Catholic Church.

How many who have read these thinkers (or of those who have studied and written about them) have taken the *principles* involved into account?  How about the different "environments"?  Most?  Some?  Few?

Should we try to compare the ideas expressed by any of these thinkers as if their environments didn't matter?  Of course not.

How about our environment?  Post-industrial.  Globalist dominated.  Electric in transition to *digital* media.  New Age (with a significant dose of "mind-altering" drugs).

How does this compare to all the earlier environments?  RADICALLY different!

Find someone who understands those differences and the way they substantially shape what most people think and you will find someone who understands FORMAL causality and, therefore, the "structure of society" and the "life of humanity."



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