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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[Reply #1069]

Social science (as we knew it) is DEAD -- long live the KING . . . !! <g>

Anthropology -- dead (as reflected in the Bruno Latour AAA apparition and the death of OAC).  Economics -- dead (as reflected in the actual death of Ronald Coase before he could implement his "Saving Economics from the Economists" manifesto.)  Sociology -- dead.  (Cognitive) Psychology -- dead.  Political Science -- dead.

Why?

These were activities that were initially formulated under RADIO conditions (i.e. Freud, Boas, Parsons, Keynes etc), which were then re-formulated under TELEVISION conditions (i.e. Spock, Geertz, Bateson, Freedman etc) and are now experiencing the DEATH of *television* as an environment.  Dead -- so now the topic of cliches.

The ENVIRONMENT *caused* by digital technologies has KILLED the "television stars" (just as "Video killed the radio stars" before it -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_Killed_the_Radio_Star)

Keith is, as best I can tell, a *radio* era sorta guy.  Lots of CLR James (1901-1989) and Karl Polanyi (1886-1964). All versions of radio-thinking.  Perhaps Africa (or at least the ANC's version of it) is also a *radio* sorta place?

All this recent discussion about FANTASY is "television-talk."  John is a Japanese ad-man (i.e. a television sorta guy.)  Lee obsesses over what happened to Lance Armstrong on the Oprah Show (i.e. like much of his work, it is commentary about what appears on television.)  Louise likes to talk about people who "become" the television characters she finds so fascinating.

But TELEVISION is also now dead . . . !!

Whatever happens to Social Science (and the OAC etc) has to take this into account.  The fact that no one wants to maintain a DIGITAL website that has "devolved" into a discussion about *television* is understandable.

How about Danny Miller's DIGITAL ANTHROPOLOGY?  As best I can tell, it is largely an attempt to transfer his earlier work on *shopping* (i.e. a reflexive behavior generated by television) into the *new* situation.  Like Facebook et al pretending that what they are delivering to their advertisers is just a digital version of "eyeballs."  But that won't work either (for Facebook or Danny Miller.)

The *environment* has moved on.  So now we *all* have to do the same (whether we want to or not, since that's how environments operate on us, through *formal* causality) . . . 

Mark Stahlman
Jersey City Heights

Keith,

I’m also shocked and saddened by the news of OAC’s winding down, and I thank you for your dedication to this wonderful project. As I said in the survey sent around a couple months ago, I appreciate, in particular, the balance you found between keeping the discussions open, while maintaining civility and focus. Having just read your report, I now understand how much other, behind-the-scenes work you’ve put in over many years to launching and maintaining this site. It’s impressive and inspirational, and points the way forward for anthropology. I’d like to think of this project as one of those “dream economies” that Graeber talks about in Toward an Anthro Theory of Value, the periods of intense creativity that quietly precede and lay the groundwork for the big revolutions and cultural revitalization movements to follow.

Your report is honest and sobering, filled with hard-won insights into anthro, academics, and online discourse. I’ll just copy in below a couple of the sections, for any who want a taste of what’s in this report.

Thanks again,

Peter

 

Reasons for anthro reluctance to participate in OAC (from report):

Regular contributors make up a tiny fraction of our membership. Some still hesitate to participate openly in our forums since the OAC bans the use of pseudonyms and everything is indexed by Google forever. This reflects a general reluctance to relinquish control over representations of oneself online, especially in a semi-academic milieu like the OAC. Anthropologists do not easily let their guards down. Perhaps it has to do with the  conditions of our formation as apprentice fieldworkers. Our learned protective behaviors are at odds with opening anthropology to the public if we only want to cherry-pick the best parts. The online seminar series most closely recreates an acceptable academic mode of production and its value system.  This is also the site’s most popular feature…

 

But our inescapable conclusion is that anthropologists are conservative. After all, we spent the last century – a century of urbanization, war and the break-up of empires – seeking out isolated places that we could study as if they were outside modern history.

 

 

And yet…the OAC contribution is great, if hard to quantify:

We have personally received thanks for creating the OAC, for keeping it alive and for giving anthropologists on the Internet a place to come together in a more relaxed atmosphere.The social aspects of the site – personal user profiles, chat, blogging and forming “weak ties”(Granovetter 1983) – should not be underestimated or denigrated just because they are not easy to track or quantify.

 

 

Reply by Keith Hart yesterday

Unfortunately, Peter, it may well be the OAC's tombstone. Participants in this thread may or may not have noticed, but while it has broken all records, the OAC died. We have delayed making an announcement until we know what will happen next. But renewal of our Ning subscription is in August and the admin team has decided that we have had enough. This has indeed been a remarkable conversation, animated above all by Lee's fertility. Think of the next few weeks as the last days of Pompeii. In this case, you know that it will be curtains soon.

 

 

Peter,

Writers, teachers, parents and, I guess, the organizers of online discussion forums have to make do with very little positive feedback. But when it comes, it is precious and makes up for the void that precedes it. It only takes one message like yours to make the project seem worthwhile. I especially like your use of David Graeber. The OAC was borne on the wings of a dream. Its demise comes from the difficulty of starting over again with the knowledge of adulthood to assist us. One of my favourite books is the Frankfurt School's Ernst Bloch The Principle of Hope (3 vols). He argues that we share a mental infrastructure of myths, fairy stories, dreams, proverbs, utopian movements which all point to hope for a better world. This is the ideological material from which mass revolutions are made.

I have been in this game for the best part of a quarter century. Of one thing I am certain: the movement is from technological mastery of the internet to its social use by people who don't necessarily understand the technology. We are living through the first years of a revolution as profound in human history as the invention of agriculture. The first digging stick operators scratching the ground in Anatolia had no idea that domestication of plants and animals would end up as Chinese civilization. We are primitives like them. But humanity learns by doing. That is our contribution.



Peter Wogan said:

Keith,

I’m also shocked and saddened by the news of OAC’s winding down, and I thank you for your dedication to this wonderful project. As I said in the survey sent around a couple months ago, I appreciate, in particular, the balance you found between keeping the discussions open, while maintaining civility and focus. Having just read your report, I now understand how much other, behind-the-scenes work you’ve put in over many years to launching and maintaining this site. It’s impressive and inspirational, and points the way forward for anthropology. I’d like to think of this project as one of those “dream economies” that Graeber talks about in Toward an Anthro Theory of Value, the periods of intense creativity that quietly precede and lay the groundwork for the big revolutions and cultural revitalization movements to follow.

Your report is honest and sobering, filled with hard-won insights into anthro, academics, and online discourse. I’ll just copy in below a couple of the sections, for any who want a taste of what’s in this report.

Thanks again,

Peter

Keith, Peter,

Could one of you please provide a link to the report? I know that there is one somewhere on this site; but having to search for it is a serious disincentive to reading it.

I remember well, when teaching undergraduates many decades ago, telling students to go to the library and find what they were looking for; it then seemed an important part of their education. But now that hyperlinks make it possible to instantly reveal a reference, those who do not provide them instantly lose readers. 

Could be one of those things that us pre-Net academic hunters and gatherers need to learn now that we are scratching away inventing agriculture.

Also, since I know that both of you are seriously interested in how the new technology is affecting the world around us, I do seriously recommend this talk by Perl programmer and science fiction writer Charlie Stross. It's nearly an hour long but explores in detail an interesting thesis about how the world will look in 2034 based on extrapolations from the world in 1914, when it still looked like railroads would be the hot new world-transforming technology. In fact, the S-curve of railroad development was already beginning to plateau; autos and airplanes still looked like primitive mammals in the age of the dinosaurs. . . . and then . . . .

I agree with the conservative part, at least in the sense that they/we are not always rethinking what we can contribute to the world of ideas. And I agree with one of Lee's earlier comments that "advocacy anthropology" was not one of our best moments (even though my own politics are far from conservative). But I would not connect this so directly to our form of fieldwork. I still see the fieldwork we did in remote places as a very radical act. Instead, for me, the conservative element comes from failing to notice the world right around you, the one in which the things we learned about people in other places can also be seen here at home. I think our failure was to foreground that and not fall into the trap set by Sociology: quantifying all of it. 

Peter Wogan said:

But our inescapable conclusion is that anthropologists are conservative. After all, we spent the last century – a century of urbanization, war and the break-up of empires – seeking out isolated places that we could study as if they were outside modern history.

Why is it I always have to pick my jaw up off the desk before I reply to one of your entries. You could be a case study of how someone categorizes the world in unusual and , frankly, unproductive ways.

If all this categorizing baed on media technologies is supposed to be a McLuhan homage, may I remind you that he is DEAD (to use your style of emphasis). But more then that, his ideas were silly and there is not a particular mode of thinking associated with a particular technology, Never has been, never will be.

Mark Stahlman said:

[Reply #1069]

Social science (as we knew it) is DEAD -- long live the KING . . . !! <g>

Anthropology -- dead (as reflected in the Bruno Latour AAA apparition and the death of OAC).  Economics -- dead (as reflected in the actual death of Ronald Coase before he could implement his "Saving Economics from the Economists" manifesto.)  Sociology -- dead.  (Cognitive) Psychology -- dead.  Political Science -- dead.

Why?

These were activities that were initially formulated under RADIO conditions (i.e. Freud, Boas, Parsons, Keynes etc), which were then re-formulated under TELEVISION conditions (i.e. Spock, Geertz, Bateson, Freedman etc) and are now experiencing the DEATH of *television* as an environment.  Dead -- so now the topic of cliches.

The ENVIRONMENT *caused* by digital technologies has KILLED the "television stars" (just as "Video killed the radio stars" before it -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_Killed_the_Radio_Star)

Keith is, as best I can tell, a *radio* era sorta guy.  Lots of CLR James (1901-1989) and Karl Polanyi (1886-1964). All versions of radio-thinking.  Perhaps Africa (or at least the ANC's version of it) is also a *radio* sorta place?

All this recent discussion about FANTASY is "television-talk."  John is a Japanese ad-man (i.e. a television sorta guy.)  Lee obsesses over what happened to Lance Armstrong on the Oprah Show (i.e. like much of his work, it is commentary about what appears on television.)  Louise likes to talk about people who "become" the television characters she finds so fascinating.

But TELEVISION is also now dead . . . !!

Whatever happens to Social Science (and the OAC etc) has to take this into account.  The fact that no one wants to maintain a DIGITAL website that has "devolved" into a discussion about *television* is understandable.

How about Danny Miller's DIGITAL ANTHROPOLOGY?  As best I can tell, it is largely an attempt to transfer his earlier work on *shopping* (i.e. a reflexive behavior generated by television) into the *new* situation.  Like Facebook et al pretending that what they are delivering to their advertisers is just a digital version of "eyeballs."  But that won't work either (for Facebook or Danny Miller.)

The *environment* has moved on.  So now we *all* have to do the same (whether we want to or not, since that's how environments operate on us, through *formal* causality) . . . 

Mark Stahlman
Jersey City Heights



John McCreery said:

Keith, Peter,

Could one of you please provide a link to the report? I know that there is one somewhere on this site; but having to search for it is a serious disincentive to reading it.


It is attached to my last but one reply near the end of 89. This chapter is in press and I hope you will treat it as a matter for internal discussion. One more challenge to opennness.

[Reply #1076]

Louise:

HA!!  As we used to say when I was a kid, "Hey, close your mouth -- you'll catch flies . . . !!" <g>

Let me remind *you* that McLuhan is still very much ALIVE -- specifically, Eric McLuhan, co-author of the most important work in the McLuhan corpus, the 1988 "Laws of Media: The New Science," is very much alive-and-well and living in Canada.  Indeed, he's a friend and advisor to my Center, as well as a lively author/speaker who recently presented his "On Renaissances" at a "Dialogue of Civilizations" conference that I helped to organize at the UN in 2012.

Furthermore, in late 2011, 500+ people gathered in Toronto to participate in the MM100 conference, culminating in the expansion of a Master's Program at UofT's iSchool and other efforts in many other corners of the world.  And, last week, 400+ people gathered at the Media Ecology Association's annual meeting (including Eric McLuhan) -- a group based on the term McLuhan gave to Neil Postman.  Oh yeah, then there's the little thing of WIRED declaring him their "patron saint" and the explosion of publications in the ensuing McLuhan Revival.  You can even read his PhD thesis, if you'd like!

You see, when people go through a "phase change" like the shift from television to digital networking, they have a tendency to want to better understand what has just happened to them.  McLuhan worked closely with anthropologists to help understand the transition from the radio to the television environments.  Now we are living through another.  What fun?

It is a hallmark of the degradation of that discipline that there has NOT been a corresponding contribution from anthropologists as we transition away from television and its promotion of FANTASY.  Like I said, *anthropology* is dead -- not McLuhan.

Environments are, to use McLuhan's term, "invisible."  A discipline that avoids examining its own environment and scatters to the ends of the earth to study other ones would NOT seem to me to be "radical" at all.  That is a collective act of avoidance.  That is a pattern of ignoring the *roots* of one's own experience, while treating others as specimens -- an attitude that is only made more questionable by trying to "go native."

From what I can tell, today's "kids" aren't likely to make that mistake.  What is happening in New Guinea is *much* less interesting to them than what is happening in New York -- home to SILICON ALLEY (a term that I coined) and all of its manifold day-to-day consequences.

If not technological environments, then where do you think "modes of thinking" come from?  (Indeed, do you believe that they even exist?)

Humans are biologically "fixed" but psychologically/socially "adaptive."  The first is the result of *evolution* (in the Darwinian sense) and second has been something people have been endlessly trying to "control" (often by misappropriating the term "evolution.")  We CONFORM to the world around us and that world is -- even for those living on the banks of the Amazon -- largely man-made.

"We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us." -- John Culkin, SJ (often incorrectly attributed to Marshall McLuhan but actually from Culkin, who invited McLuhan to Fordham in 1967.)  I've just come back from a conference dedicated to studying "circular causality."  As it turns out, this is a notion that is very much alive-and-well.  As Heisenberg informed us, the observer is an integral part of the "system."

Lee has come up with his own idiosyncratic formulation of all this which he terms "semiospace."  Instead of ENVIRONMENT, he calls it a "space."  Instead of MEDIA (i.e. the technologies we immerse ourselves in so that we can communicate), he prefixes "semio."  Lee yearns for some *biological* evolution and obsesses over paleogenetics, while bemoaning what the "species" seems to be doing (as he sees it from his television set.)  Yes, this is McLuhan-lite.

Reinventing the wheel?  This seminar was initially based on the *avoidance* of McLuhan (and his anthropologist collaborators like Edmund "Ted" Carpenter) in favor of "semiospace."  Then McLuhan parachuted in (i.e. I arrived, with Keith's blessings, based on my seeking him out on-a-counta his promotion of the notion of a "human economy") and some "jaw-dropping" ensued.  What fun!

McLuhan is dead?  Don't think so.  McLuhan lives on and what is DEAD is this website -- no doubt to "re-surrect" elsewhere.  But will "McLuhan" be lurking there as well . . . ??

Mark Stahlman
Jersey City Heights

[Reply #1077]

"Our premise is that the world is going through a major transformation that is social, technological and cultural in scope. It has fundamental consequences for the human condition and hence for anthropology. The best way to learn about these developments is to take an active part in them. There are analogies between the print revolution and today. For most of human history information was hard to come by and had to be sought out. With printing, information became omnipresent and refusal to receive a message had to be made acceptable and eventually routine. The way was then open for the mass media. But the relationship between sender and receiver was asymmetrical. The internet and especially the social media, commonly referred to as Web 2.0, have made available easy-to-use tools that provide a plethora of options for everyone to become engaged with the medium as a communicator in their own right. New social forms adequate to handling this unprecedented freedom of self-expression are at best incipient. They are, moreover, compromised by Web 2.0 being dominated by an outmoded bureaucratic capitalism whose command-and-control system and intellectual property regime continually provoke vigorous demands for more open access to information and for the democratization of its production, distribution and consumption.

"Even activists, however, often envisage change through models that are shaped by what has been rather than what could be. This is true also of contemporary anthropology which originated in the democratic revolutions envisaged by the eighteenth century Enlightenment, but has since been reduced to compiling passive descriptions of exotic phenomena or implementing bureaucratic imperatives rather than engaging with revolution. Few of us have received an education in revolutionary practice. Moreover, the universities are going through a terminal crisis which places many young would-be anthropologists in the position of being either medieval apprentices, precarious piece-rate workers or plain unemployed. This is the overwhelming constituency for something like the OAC and their social predicament is often at odds with the liberation they aspire to. The new social forms we try to create are often hamstrung by the old intellectual equipment we bring to the task. We unknowingly reproduce the dominant social forms in striving to resist them."

If I didn't *know* better, I'd say that "The Medium is the Message" -- starting with the "medium" (e.g. communications environment) inside which ALL of the participants in this discussion grew up (i.e. television) and continuing with the DIGITAL *medium* that these people have been struggling to use to help generate "new social forms."  

Welcome to the REVOLUTION . . . !! <g>

Mark Stahlman
Jersey City Heights 

Keith,

 See, this is what I’m talking about—more great images and connections like this, from Graeber to Bloch on hope, and the invention of agriculture. “Scratching the ground in Anatolia”—such a perfect image to embrace, one befitting our learn-by-doing dream economy! I especially appreciate the way you’ve taken this internet technology and infused it with the humanistic, egalitarian vision that animates your writings on “the human economy.” I believe it has made a difference already, creating a counter-vision at a time when some of the snarkiest, most mean-spirited parts of humanity seem to have been the first to seize control of the internet. Yes, there’s hope for a better world...

 

Thanks again,

Peter

 

Peter,

Writers, teachers, parents and, I guess, the organizers of online discussion forums have to make do with very little positive feedback. But when it comes, it is precious and makes up for the void that precedes it. It only takes one message like yours to make the project seem worthwhile. I especially like your use of David Graeber. The OAC was borne on the wings of a dream. Its demise comes from the difficulty of starting over again with the knowledge of adulthood to assist us. One of my favourite books is the Frankfurt School's Ernst Bloch The Principle of Hope (3 vols). He argues that we share a mental infrastructure of myths, fairy stories, dreams, proverbs, utopian movements which all point to hope for a better world. This is the ideological material from which mass revolutions are made.

I have been in this game for the best part of a quarter century. Of one thing I am certain: the movement is from technological mastery of the internet to its social use by people who don't necessarily understand the technology. We are living through the first years of a revolution as profound in human history as the invention of agriculture. The first digging stick operators scratching the ground in Anatolia had no idea that domestication of plants and animals would end up as Chinese civilization. We are primitives like them. But humanity learns by doing. That is our contribution.

 

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