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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All,

Louise,

    I think it would be great to have a report from your son on what’s being taught in Anthro 101 these days.  Since he’s on the front lines, in the meat grinder – all those bloodthirsty Twilight metaphors – he’s in the perfect spot to let us know.  Are students still being assured that culture is “shared” and “adaptive”?  Indeed, is the concept of “culture” itself given pride of place?  After all, Keith and Co. have never had much use for the idea, and today any righteous pomo will tell you it’s much too “essentializing” a notion to carry any analytical weight.  In the meantime the media has got hold of the word and used it in countless burlesques.  It would be interesting to find out how things stand. 

 

Mark,

    A couple of questions from one of the walking dead.  These I’ve wanted to pose to you from earlier joustings, but with the OAC’s days numbered, perhaps I should just out with them here. 

    Let me start with what seems to me to be the Biggie:  What (again, please, in some detail, in discourse rather than exclamation) is “digital life”?  When you introduced the term it put me in two minds (I’m sure you’ll recognize the trademark ambivalence).      

    First, “digital life” seems self-contradictory.  What is digital is computable; run Turing’s engine long enough and you’ll get an answer to any appropriately formulated question.  “Life” on the other hand, is not computable.  It consists of a wide and wild assortment of conflicting thoughts, beliefs, actions, and it is anybody’s guess which will prevail in any given situation.  Granted, it is certainly possible to model or approximate outcomes to complex processes, but that’s a second-hand activity that piggybacks on what is actually going on in, as we say, “real life.”  I think that the human mind has installed contradictions (elemental dilemmas) right at the foundation of our being, and these continually push and pull social action in indeterminate directions.  We’re hard-wired to deal with irresolvable conflicts.  But not computers, at least as represented by that iconic computer HAL in 2001 which went psychotic because its programmers had given it contradictory commands. 

    Second, to reverse directions completely, for years I’ve been intrigued by the idea that life, for all its indeterminacy, may be the result of essentially mathematical operations.  I was stunned when I came across Conway’s classic “Game of Life,” Christopher Langton’s cellular automata, and William Poundstone’s theory of the universe as “a recursively defined geometric object,”  Beginning with simple elements and operating rules, the most amazing structures, dynamic and interactive, result.  It’s the basis for the idea that structure is not a rare phenomenon, tiny islands in a sea of chaos, but a pervasive feature of existence.  Central to this view is the idea of “emergence,” which I found and find a fundamental concept.  From your disparaging remarks throughout our Forum, you obviously hold a different opinion of emergence.  Apparently that idea has gone around the fast track of Wall Street so many times that it’s lost its luster.  Still, if ever one to develop a theory of “digital life” it’s hard to see how emergence would not play a major part. 

    My slapped-together idea of “semiospace” certainly has none of the rigor of physicists’ models of the universe, but I am encouraged in that trends in physics embrace the notion that physical existence has deep-seated geometrical properties.  Hence the theory that the universe is a holograph, which has been around a while. 

http://www.nature.com/news/simulations-back-up-theory-that-universe... 

As I suggested in Dreamtime, the human mind/brain may be a holograph.  I like to think there’s a useful connection there. 

    Recent work on the geometry of spacetime has produced a concept even more implausible than semiospace, with a name that tops mine for out-and-out strangeness:   the amplituhedron.  Could happiness be a warm amplituhedron? 

   http://www.simonsfoundation.org/quanta/20130917-a-jewel-at-the-hear...   

----------------------------------

A Jewel at the Heart of Quantum Physics

  

 

 

Artist’s rendering of the amplituhedron, a newly discovered mathematical object resembling a multifaceted jewel in higher dimensions. Encoded in its volume are the most basic features of reality that can be calculated — the probabilities of outcomes of particle interactions.

 ------------------------------------

    Finally, in examining how successive technologies of communication have had fundamental impacts on society / culture, your emphasis is on the “communication” aspect and not “technologies” per se.  While there is no doubt that print, radio, TV, and now the Web have transformed life, possibly in the way you describe, it is important to fold other technologies into the mix.  Here I’m thinking of a couple of unglamorous, non-headline-grabbing technologies:  electricity and the internal combustion engine.  Isn’t the combined effect of these two technologies and their myriad applications in shaping what you describe as the “environment” much greater than that of communications media?  Mapping the enormous effect the former have had on individual humans and societies, we find ourselves in the province of mechanosemiosis – the systems of meaning tied to people’s use of and attitudes toward machines.  “Communication” strictly speaking doesn’t enter the picture here, certainly not as that can be collapsed into the types of media you emphasize. 

    Also, I’m still hoping for your account of  the operation of formal causality in a Whac-a-Mole world. 

 

Lee, while we wait for a reasonable answer to your questions — on past performance it will take a long time — I offer as entertainment a bit of intellectual history that tickled my and Ruth's senses of humor this morning.

"When such debates proved too divisive for the court, the throne would summon scholars to resolve inconsistencies and contradictions within the Five Classics. Indeed, successive courts under successive dynasties convened multiple court conferences whose sole aim was to resolve problems in textual interpre- tation. Sadly, such court conferences seldom functioned as cooperative exercises by literati well schooled in patterns of deference. One Eastern Han history, for example, shows a classical master, Dai Feng, engaging in the very sort of aggres- sive competition that violated Confucius’s dictum “Gentlemen never compete.” At a court audience, Dai Feng refused to take his assigned place. When the emperor asked him why, Dai replied, “None of the Academicians is my equal in explicating the Classics, yet they are ranked above me.” The emperor responded by testing those present on problematic passages in the Classics. Finding that Dai did, in fact, know more than the official Academicians, the emperor raised him to a higher office. As it was the custom in court academic conferences that those who could not offer a satisfactory explanation of problematic passages had to cede the mats they sat upon to those with plausible answers, one court conference ended with Dai Feng sitting atop a pile of more than fifty mats taken from eminent scholars whom he had bested."

Why did we laugh? The competitive game described here continues to this day, in a form of Japanese comedy called manzai. A panel of comedians kneel on stacks of thin cushions. The moderator proposes a topic for which each comedian must improvise a humorous response. Audience applause determines whose response is best. The winner receives an additional mat. The losers lose mats from their stacks. At the end of the program, the comedian kneeling on the tallest set if cushions is judged the winner for the night. Imagining imperial orthodoxy determined through a process now regarded as comedy.. . .

Lee: His first response to what I sent him was, "This stuff is incoherent." Which of course was fair because he was trying to jump into the middle of a conversation. So I sent him your questions below and we will see what he says.

PS I would love to live in that pretty picture of a amplituhedron but I fear Mark would smash my fantasy with the hard hammer of logic and reality.

Lee Drummond said:

Louise,

    I think it would be great to have a report from your son on what’s being taught in Anthro 101 these days.  Since he’s on the front lines, in the meat grinder – all those bloodthirsty Twilight metaphors – he’s in the perfect spot to let us know.  Are students still being assured that culture is “shared” and “adaptive”?  Indeed, is the concept of “culture” itself given pride of place?  After all, Keith and Co. have never had much use for the idea, and today any righteous pomo will tell you it’s much too “essentializing” a notion to carry any analytical weight.  In the meantime the media has got hold of the word and used it in countless burlesques.  It would be interesting to find out how things stand. 

[Reply #1085]

Lee:

Perhaps, instead of my failing, one more time, to help you understand what was taken-for-granted for roughly 2000 years (i.e. the multiple aspects of causality that were generally the basis of thinking from 400BC to 1600AD), it might be useful for you to consider why you (and many others) insist on remaining in a different "mode of thinking" from those others who lived in a different environment?  It's time for you to HELP yourself (by trying to understand other people) . . . !!

Try stepping out of your own skin and ask where do your "behaviors and attitudes" come from? Why does Louise so aggressively insist that McLuhan was "silly"?  Start from the Culkin quote and ponder what you and John and Louise *share* that makes it so difficult to understand how environments shape humans -- starting with yourself.

Indeed, what *is* your environment?  And, what can you do to render it "visible" so that you can try to understand how it has shaped you?  (Plus, what does your inability to grasp the notion of an *environment* mean for your ability to do anthropology?)

"We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us" -- John Culkin, SJ (1967)

It might be helpful for you to make a list of the "consequences" of television-as-environment (using your own work as a rich source of examples.)  Then, you might make a list of the "consequences" of digital technologies (as an environment.)  You could then go back and think about radio and so forth.  If that exercise makes no sense to you, then you might ponder why you resist such an effort.  What's the basic hangup?

Last chance!  Sudden death!  Let's hope you make it into the Round of 16 . . . !! <g>

Mark Stahlman
Jersey City Heights

P.S. I have no problem with the notion of "emergence" at all.  It is a modern expression of MATERIAL causality, which is why it is typically thought of as a "loophole" in the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.  It *cannot* be formulated in terms of EFFICIENT causality, which is why it has no simple/operational "definition" and cannot be "measured" -- so it fails to meet most people's criteria as "science." It is also something that operates "outside" of time, just like FORMAL and FINAL cause.  All *four* aspects of causality operate together -- all at once, if you like -- so they all need to be understood when considering how the world is "caused" and, in particular, how that world "causes" us to be who we are.

"rakugo" not "manzai"; my bust, writing to quickly after getting out of bed in the morning.



John McCreery said:

Lee, while we wait for a reasonable answer to your questions — on past performance it will take a long time — I offer as entertainment a bit of intellectual history that tickled my and Ruth's senses of humor this morning.

"When such debates proved too divisive for the court, the throne would summon scholars to resolve inconsistencies and contradictions within the Five Classics. Indeed, successive courts under successive dynasties convened multiple court conferences whose sole aim was to resolve problems in textual interpre- tation. Sadly, such court conferences seldom functioned as cooperative exercises by literati well schooled in patterns of deference. One Eastern Han history, for example, shows a classical master, Dai Feng, engaging in the very sort of aggres- sive competition that violated Confucius’s dictum “Gentlemen never compete.” At a court audience, Dai Feng refused to take his assigned place. When the emperor asked him why, Dai replied, “None of the Academicians is my equal in explicating the Classics, yet they are ranked above me.” The emperor responded by testing those present on problematic passages in the Classics. Finding that Dai did, in fact, know more than the official Academicians, the emperor raised him to a higher office. As it was the custom in court academic conferences that those who could not offer a satisfactory explanation of problematic passages had to cede the mats they sat upon to those with plausible answers, one court conference ended with Dai Feng sitting atop a pile of more than fifty mats taken from eminent scholars whom he had bested."

Why did we laugh? The competitive game described here continues to this day, in a form of Japanese comedy called manzai. A panel of comedians kneel on stacks of thin cushions. The moderator proposes a topic for which each comedian must improvise a humorous response. Audience applause determines whose response is best. The winner receives an additional mat. The losers lose mats from their stacks. At the end of the program, the comedian kneeling on the tallest set if cushions is judged the winner for the night. Imagining imperial orthodoxy determined through a process now regarded as comedy.. . .

[Reply #1087]

"Of course, the cultural industry and mass media are not the only places where the manipulation of the unconscious may actively be contemplated.  The formidable challenge that confronts the cultural critic is the scenario where the battlefront of ideology has shifted predominantly from the control of political consciousness to the technological manipulation of the ineffable unconscious, the latter by no means being limited to the use and abuse of mind-altering drugs manufactured by big biochemical companies, which critics have amply documented and analyzed.  In this regard, the insights of the Frankfurt School critics prove instructive in helping us rethink the conditions of critical imperative, and they are instructive precisely by virtue of their rigorous critique of technocracy and instrumental reason and their failure to engage with information theory and cybernetics in their time.  This failure can be crippling because, if the unconscious rather than the consciousness has turned into the primary field of ideological manipulation by the dominant class, what is the future of reason and reasoned critiques?"  [Lydia H. Liu, "The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious," Univ. of Chicago Press, 2010, p.35]

Mark Stahlman
Jersey City Heights

TITLE: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum: Don't let the bastards grind you down (yes I know it is pig-Latin, but that is not the point so don't correct me with your perfect world translations) OR "Are there any questions?"

I always thought of an open forum as a way to share ideas, exchange viewpoints, and marvel at new thought. I have never, Mark, seen it as a place to belittle fellow participants and bludgeon them with your viewpoint. Am I missing something, like the Rapture will only come to those who believe?

That idea, actually, is being explored in a new television series that starts tonight called "The Leftovers." I love the title implications, of half eaten, moldy stuff left from previously satisfying lives. In The Leftovers (yes, a television series, how sacrilegious) 2% of the world's population suddenly disappears. A few years later, communities are still trying to "make sense" in the Lee Drummond implications of that phrase. Well worth exploring and sharing with others in the inevitable online conversations that will ensue. But not if your only interface with the world is through theories that tell that world, "You know nothing, Jon Snow."

Your comments and battering make me cringe, Mark. And quoting one academic after another does not advance the conversation as if the weight of academic publications, like the piled cushions in John's Chinese tale, dictates the winner or the correct answer, or makes an ideology real and immutable.

Having just re-read  Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" (and watched the terrible movie version of it), I am saturated with this story of people battering others with their ideologies. Atwood says, in a 2012 interview about why the book has resonated for so many years (it was published in 1985 and has been in print ever since, a miracle of old media right there):

It has become a sort of tag for those writing about shifts towards policies aimed at controlling women, and especially women's bodies and reproductive functions: "Like something out of The Handmaid's Tale" and "Here comes The Handmaid's Tale" have become familiar phrases. It has been expelled from high schools, and has inspired odd website blogs discussing its descriptions of the repression of women as if they were recipes. People – not only women – have sent me photographs of their bodies with phrases from The Handmaid's Tale tattooed on them, "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum" and "Are there any questions?" being the most frequent.

The Leftover and The Handmaid's tale have something in common: they consider what would happen if we shifted our way of doing things just a bit so that ideologues get to control everything. Atwood says, 

Stories about the future always have a "what-if" premise, and The Handmaid's Tale has several. For instance: if you wanted to seize power in the US, abolish liberal democracy and set up a dictatorship, how would you go about it? What would be your cover story? It would not resemble any form of communism or socialism: those would be too unpopular. It might use the name of democracy as an excuse for abolishing liberal democracy: that's not out of the question, though I didn't consider it possible in 1985.

Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren't there already. Thus China replaced a state bureaucracy with a similar state bureaucracy under a different name, the USSR replaced the dreaded imperial secret police with an even more dreaded secret police, and so forth. The deep foundation of the US – so went my thinking – was not the comparatively recent 18th-century Enlightenment structures of the republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of church and state, but the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-century Puritan New England, with its marked bias against women, which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself.

Like any theocracy, this one would select a few passages from the Bible to justify its actions, and it would lean heavily towards the Old Testament, not towards the New. Since ruling classes always make sure they get the best and rarest of desirable goods and services, and as it is one of the axioms of the novel that fertility in the industrialised west has come under threat, the rare and desirable would include fertile women – always on the human wish list, one way or another – and reproductive control. Who shall have babies, who shall claim and raise those babies, who shall be blamed if anything goes wrong with those babies? These are questions with which human beings have busied themselves for a long time.

All that from a book but not determined by books as a medium. All that from readers taking that book and absorbing it into their bodies, not simply facing the book as if it were a given, an environment that determines what they will do with it. The Handmaid's Tale is a book, written as a diary that is written after the facts of the events, that was originally recorded on an obsolete medium (cassette tapes), eventually found, transcribed, discussed at academic conferences, and questioned for its truthfulness because it is so hard to believe (all this is revealed in the Epilogue). There is no one medium here; there is Atwood's knowing tale of what ideologues do with the means they obsessively control and that they deny to others. Bludgeon people with your ideas and conversations will end and The Commanders (the men in charge of Gilead, the dystopian world Atwood describes) will silence all.

Oh yeah, and John Boehner has a version of "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum" on a plaque in his office: just saying...

"Are there any questions?"

Quotes from an interview with Atwood in The Guardian, 2012:http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jan/20/handmaids-tale-margare...

Or, in the words of Carl (not Marx):

This is a reply from my son, a first year anthropology student. He had trouble addressing our conversation directly because it was hard to follow without the background of hundreds of messages but he tried to address Lee's question about what "baby anthropologists" are taught. I would guess his class is not typical because it is a small liberal arts school but it is one testimony:

The way I was taught Anthropology in my first year course was kind of a mesh of two different ways of thinking. First we started by reading Malinowski, Fernea, and Geertz, and we talked about Boas as well, nominally to give us a background as to the history of Anthropology, which was stressed as a crucial element of the field of study. What people have said in the past in Anthropology and how that changes over time, how views change, how the field changes, taking all of that into account in current research is one of the things that distinguishes Anthropology from every other field of study, it also makes it one of the hardest fields to enter and understand, which led to a lot of apathy in my class from kids who lost interest in getting it. This look at history, which occurred about halfway through the class, served as a transition to the next part of the class, which was focused on Activist Anthropology, using Anthropology to fix problems in cultures and in society. This may be the “Adaptive” part that was brought up, how people have adapted, I would say diluted, Anthropology to serve as a lens (I hate that term and I use it with great intention) to view the problem with society they are focused on. Paul Farmer is a prime example of this from our class. Something that I continuously stressed in the class to my professor (who I love dearly as she will be my major advisor) was that what this half of the class amounted to was addressing the incredibly fuzzy line between activist anthropology and sociology. As someone who shifts away from these “problem solving” fields, I found this second half of the course to be rather like slamming my head against the desk for an hour and a half twice a week. I don’t really think that directly addresses the questions.

 

Louise,

Your son is an insightful young man. What is he taking besides anthropology? I am curious as to how whatever else he is taking affects his perception of what he is being taught in his anthropology class.

Re the Mark problem. I have tried repeatedly to offer openings for serious discussion to Mark. The latest was a few messages back, when I mentioned Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi's The System View of Life, which attempts to address some of the issues Mark raises.   Did Mark note how Capra and Luisi address what Whitehead called the bifurcation of the world with the rise of modern, mechanical science, providing the background required for an intelligent appraisal of Mark's own claims? No. He poured withering contempt on the book's "materialism" and repeated his usual theological formulas and appeals to return our thinking to a pre-16th century world. Does he really understand that world? I see no evidence of it, and that is not unusual. Except for rare moments, whenever he ventures to say something on a topic where I myself possess some rudimentary knowledge, what he parades as the truth of a matter turns out to be a caricature.

Consider China, for example, where someone who knows no Chinese and has been to parties with Chinese diplomats trained to stroke the egos of useful idiots parades what they told him as the reality of a society that account for a quarter of humanity.  Consider advertising, for that matter, where what he says is once again a cartoon less lucid that those found in Vance Packard or, yes, the Frankfort School, whose members never imagined a world where the media are not controlled by state censors or their corporate equivalents and filled with a cacophony of competing messages. His notions about "media" are taken from McCluhan, a very smart man whose insights were revolutionary half a century ago; but, so far as they remain useful have to be adapted to a multimedia world where radio, TV, print, film, and digital media coexist and compete for our attention, which renders pronouncements about "Radio" people and "TV" people dubious at best.

We do not, as far as I can make out, have to worry about Mark overwhelming us with facts or logic or original thinking.He has none to offer. He is a worshipper, a not very clever lad brought up in the company of very smart people who became star-struck and wished that he could be like them. He has seized on certain formulas, Artistotle's four causes, McCluhan's "the medium is the message," yes, that's about it, and repeats them endlessly in a high, hysteric, pompous tone designed to put down those whose conversations he can't seem to follow very well.

The result is the conversational equivalent of rancid farts. We had best politely ignore them.

 

Louise,

    Introductory anthro courses certainly have changed over the ages, as evidenced by your son’s description of his first-year class.  Clearly, he has the advantage of a high-octane curriculum, considering that his introduction to the field involved bouncing Malinowski off Geertz and interrogating anthropology’s research aims and history.  Wow.  Is the old Anthro 101 intro text with its four fields approach as extinct as I now feel?  Aren’t some of your colleagues still churning out those glossy textbooks for big intro lecture courses across the land?  Maybe not.

    Your son’s account also stopped me in my tracks when he described the second half of his intro course: “activist anthropology.”  Since you, he, and I seem to agree that what also goes by the handle of “advocacy anthropology” is a wrong-headed pursuit (“diluted” as he says), it is more than curious that beginning students should get such a dose of it.  “Using anthropology to fix problems in cultures and in society” sounds like a fine idea on the face of it, but evidently he smelled a rat.  I think you and I do, too.  Whether “activist anthropology” is glorified social work or something vastly different, vastly more radical, depends on which “problems” are identified to be “fixed.”  It would be interesting to hear from him what those might be – and how anthropology is marshaled to “fix” them.  In a previous Comment I think Keith lamented that the methods of social revolution are not taught in class; I doubt that your son’s course syllabus addresses that problem.  Unless, that is, one problem to be fixed is identified as, say, the collusion of the U. S. government, military, and multinational corporations in a program of global oppression, and the “fix” the overthrow of the State in the U. S.  That would make for a meaty class project.  For a long time now I’ve thought that an excellent text for an “activist” syllabus would be Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution.  Talk about fine-grained ethnography in the service of understanding how social revolutions happen.  But baby anthros and social workers probably don’t get to cut their teeth on that brand of activism. 

    Anyway, your son’s report is an intriguing document.  Thanks to you and him for going to the effort.     

 

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