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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John,  Thanks for that link.   I had looked for just such a PDF, both on web and scholar searches for a few variations on "Tim Ingold Making" already, without luck. 

From a quick look it seems to me that he is actually talking about "craft" and the paths and potentials along which the forms of crafts develop and change.  I think any real craftsperson from architect to weaver to film maker to web builder, might generally understand what Ingold is talking about from their own craft's view, but wonder why Ingold uses such abstract academic terms for it....  ;-)   I would differ with Paul Klee's idea, though, that "the processes of genesis and growth that give rise to forms in the world we inhabit are more important than the forms themselves".  From a physical science view, they are one and the same thing.

Did you know that "science" as a discipline and culture began with the same thing "the processes of genesis and growth that give rise to forms in the world".  The early success with it originated in a community of craftsmen/philosophers in the Greek Ionian vitalist community.   Some in the Ionian community appear to have believed that the observed vitality and productivity of nature, and "intervening force-fields and lines of flow", were caused by spiritual forces, and others that they were caused by natural processes.

The first recorded "scientist" was Thales, who seems to me to have held the latter belief.  His "breakthrough" came from traveling the Mediterranean as a seaman and trader, collecting mathematical techniques in the course of his travels, from the Babylonians, Egyptians and Phoenicians and others.  What first brought fame to him, and to science too it seems, was his use of math to apparently invent a futures market for olives, letting him make a financial killing, tapping into the "force-fields and lines of flow" of his business craft, that the math helped him perceive.   

Both the Ionian views of natural systems seem to have soon been discredited as "vitalism", in the accumulation of "revisionist histories" that followed, as science came to focus more and more on causation as attributable to idealized rules and reasoning.

Jessie and others,

Ingold's project generally - in Making as in his other works - is to situate the practice of craft in an anthropological context as well as in an ecological context. This arises from two different issues. The first is that he is attempting to overcome the split between the person and the environment, and instead to reframe human activity as part of embeddedness and interaction with the environment. In Perception of the Environment, he offers a really good series of essays that draws on Heidegger's notion of dwelling to demonstrate that making does not occur in isolation, but is instead a state of constant interaction with the world and a form of dwelling within the world. This is important because it addresses the second issue, which is that ethnographies have often skated over or completely ignored the problem of what people actually do in the physical world, instead focusing on a sort of social meta-world. Ingold is really good at reframing people not as atomic actors in an isolated social world that treats the physical world as a sort of stage set, but instead as part of the environment. So yes, his observations are at one level banal, especially to people actually engaged in the activities he describes. That's often the case, with anthropology, isn't it? At another level, I think they're quite important.

(As for why he uses such abstract academic terms... why do we all? I quote you back to you: "Both the Ionian views of natural systems seem to have soon been discredited as "vitalism", in the accumulation of "revisionist histories" that followed, as science came to focus more and more on causation as attributable to idealized rules and reasoning." This statement would make my mother go "wut?", and that was just a throwaway comment on the intertubes, not a book. We're academics, Ingold included, and we've got our own tribal language and customs.)

Kate

Kate:

From what I can tell, Ingold "equates" our environment with something he calls "nature," which he then seems to refer to broadly in terms of trees and buildings etc, which he is at great pains to describe as "things" and not "objects."  

He clearly likes to use words in his own way.  Does he ever try to be even somewhat precise about what he means by "nature" or "environment"?

Considering that he seems to spend his life communicating (when he's not "walking around" dealing with things <g>), I'm also wondering what he has to say about the "environment" that is made up of our communications technologies?  Does he ever discuss *things* like the Internet or television and their effects on us?

Also, given his attention to "form" and his interest in "causality," I was curious about whether he ever deals with "formal causality"?

Sorry if these are impertinent questions but you seem to be familiar with his work and I thought you might like the opportunity to expand on some of these topics.

Mark,

These are all indeed very valid questions, and are actually pretty common critiques. I am not as familiar as I would like, but I've been reading an awful lot of it recently so I'll attempt to answer them as best I can! Ingold's work can be quite frustrating because he explains things beautifully, you think as you are reading it, and yet you sometimes walk away unenlightened as to the specifics of what he was talking about. He is, however, clear that the environment is not nature as a Cartesian nature/culture divide or merely the landscape, but is instead more of an ecological system in which people have a place and continually interact. In that respect, he somewhat hearkens back to the sociobiologists of the 1960s/70s. In Descola's terms, he's definitely got an animist view, suggesting an equivalence or even one-ness between human and environment. I'll dig up my copy of The Perception of the Environment and see if he formally defines what he's talking about.

He's also highly resistant to studying "modern" technologies (perhaps because he often writes in spoken or unspoken opposition to Bruno Latour, who is all about the modern technology). I don't think he ever has, actually, although of course I haven't read his entire oeuvre. He's also not overly interested in causality, seeing actions as to some extent a natural outcome of position within the environment. This is surprising, given that his work on lines would seem a natural fit for understanding communications and networks as well as causal relationships, though as someone who studies techniques it is a useful alternative view.

For those that are interested, there's a PDF of his work "Lines: A Brief History" right here - http://manoftheword.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/ingold-tim-lines-br... . It's short and pretty interesting.

Kate

Kate:

Thanks very much!  For some reason, I often tend to read people's work (and, I suppose, look at situations) with a "what's missing?" attitude. Some of this is a hunt for the unstated premises.  Some of it is probably just a search for context.  Some of it is likely an attempt at unraveling "word games."

Ingold's contra-Latour stance (and, I guess, more broadly STS in general) does jump out from the little I've read, so I'm not surprised that he avoids discussing topics where he might be unfavorably compared.  However, if you don't discuss today's technologies, then you clearly open yourself up to a pretty obvious "what's missing?" criticism.

I've wondered the same about Bateson.  For a cyberneticist, he seemed to have very little to say about computers and, in particular, the impact of these technologies on society.  He must have been aware of the controversies of his day (and, particular, the of the work by Norbert Wiener) but, as far as I can tell, he doesn't discuss them.  Why not?

Often people don't talk about things in public because they are afraid of what might happen if they did.  According to the comments by one of Bateson's proteges, he said he never wrote about "religion" or "aesthetics" because he didn't feel he had gotten to the right level of "precision" to deal with these topics.  That's a *huge* "what's missing?" and it seems to me to reflect back on what he did actually discuss.

Mark,

I agree that neither Ingold nor Bateson engage with modern technology particularly well, though I'd suggest that criticism could be levelled at more anthropologists than not. Our lifeworld-models barely account for mediated communication at all, and those that do give a nod (Appadurai, for example) mostly look at mass media. I mean, even here we are discussing (or at least discussing around) communication carried largely on a technology of the last century. This is a problem so entrenched we've got entire subspecialties devoted to doing the heavy lifting of thinking about current technologies for us.

Kate

Kate:

Here we are right back at the "exogenous" factors problem that haunts economics!  I looked very hard but have not yet found any economic "models" that treat technology as a primary factor -- at the same time that everyone seems to agree (while "waving their hands") that technological development *drives* economic change.  What the F*CK??

Even the "heterodox" economists seem to do no better.  When I contacted Edward Fullbrook, the maven of "real-world economics" (and where I first saw a post by Jessie) and asked him for some pointers to essays on the impact of technology on the economy, he simply said, "There aren't any -- why don't you write one?"

Hal Varian, now chief economist at Google (and once a NYTimes columnist and Berkeley econ prof), published a book called "Information Rules" in 1999, where he begins by declaring that technology actually makes no difference to economics!  When I tried to engage him in a conversation about how technology impacts economics cycles, he told me, "those are settled issues, so I tell all my graduate students to avoid them."  

Paul Romer, now at NYU (in Shanghai at the moment), was once a Stanford econ prof who began to write about technology but when I contacted him last year he said that he had "moved on" and no longer had any interest in the subject!

If by "subspecialty" you mean STS -- whether of the Sorbonne or Harvard or MIT variety -- from what I can tell, that work isn't very useful either.  Can you suggest anyone who seems to have a grip on the *social* implications of technology from the "academic" social sciences?

If I had a *real* budget to spend, where would I find the talent . . . ??

Mark,

I was actually referring to digital anthropology, which is a terribly new and IMO under-developed baby field. STS is indeed more use understanding the physical processes of science of the last century than the communicative dilemmas of this one. For some light reading that begins to approach the impact of communications networks on our lifeworlds, I'd suggest Tom Boellersdorf's 'Coming of age in Second Life' or Bonnie Nardi's 'My life as a night elf priestess'. As for economists, I have no answer for this, but thank you for giving me a better reason for not doing my graduate work in economics than being terrible at math!

Kate

Mark,

As a follow-up, because I'm a big fan of free reading material, here's Nardi's work (and it's 'night elf priest', which is what I get for being too lazy to walk to the bookshelf).

 My life as a night elf priest

Kate

Kate:

I've been reading Danny Miller for years -- mostly because he deals with consumption, changes in which is another matter that is *totally* ignored by every economist and "model" I can find -- and eagerly awaited a copy of "Digital Anthropology" (which starts with an acknowledgement of the help of our "host" hereabouts, Keith Hart).

Alas, nothing about how *digital* technology is radically different from "mass-media" or, perhaps even more importantly, no apparent effort to even survey any literature that might help figure any of this out -- a search that it seems obvious, to me at least, needs to start with the work of Marshall McLuhan.  Zilch.

Where once there was Ellul and Mumford and Postman and McLuhan and Carpenter and Ong etc, now all there seems to be is Sherry Turkle and Jaron Lanier (both of whom I know pretty well).  There is a "subspecialty" called "Media Ecology," which I also know well, but no one thereabouts seems to have the "chops" to tackle the mega-issues we are now confronting.

Maybe it's just me, but I find it amazing that there aren't some *really* thoughtful people working on understanding what many agree "totally changes everything," however, maybe that's *exactly* why . . . !! <g>

Mark,

I'd recommend others, like Stefana Broadbent, rather than Danny Miller, on this particular topic. Broadbent's work is all about how digital is different from mass media - particularly interesting is her work in its enabling role in intimacy. (There's a TED talk on that here Broadbent on intimacy .)  I'm not a digital anthropology specialist, but I do feel it's a bit like visual anthropology in that it addresses a little bit of the problem but not the big picture. Of course, there's also a subset of media theorization that suggests that networked communications do not totally change everything, but that position is, to me, less and less defensible. What may be happening, of course, is that we missed the balance point between where network communications were big, exciting and too strange to contemplate and the point where they have become so naturalized they are difficult to see.

Kate

Kate:

Thanks for all this!  I'll look more closely at the work of Broadbent and just read the last chapter of Nardi's book (since it deals with China, where I do some of my own work).  It's not free, but if you like such things, Neal Stephenson's "Read Me" revolves (in part) around Chinese "virtual gold-miners" and is a great fictional read . . . 

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