OAC Seminar - "How Knowledge Grows: An Anthropological Anamorphosis" by Alberto Corsín Jiménez

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I am pleased to announce that the second OAC seminar will be presented by Alberto Corsín Jiménez. The title of the paper is "How Knowledge Grows: An Anthropological Anamorphosis," which has been published on the OAC Press's website. (Download Here). This forum will remain closed until the 8th June, which will open once I have introduced the paper and have opened up discussion by posing the first question(s). This is a two-week seminar and will last from 8th-22nd June, 2010. During this time, members of the OAC are welcomed to contribute by posing questions and adding to the dynamism of the discussion. The seminar will unfold at a leisurely pace, as and when participants, including the presenter, find the time to post. After two weeks, the chair will thank the presenter and discussants, announce the next session and close the seminar.

This paper offers anthropological insight into a certain fashion of Euro-American intellectual practice, namely, the operations through which knowledge comes-unto-itself as a descriptive register (of other
practices). I am  interested in the cultural epistemology that enables knowledge to become an enabler itself: what the growth of knowledge – or its rise as an expression of enablement – looks like. What does knowledge need to grow ‘out of’ for such an escalation to become meaningful or, simply, visible?


Alberto has read Economics in Madrid and was previously an economic analyst in both Madrid and London, before he turned his interests towards anthropology. In 1996, he completed an MSc in Social Anthopology at the London School of Economics, then moved to Oxford where he completed his D.Phil, which focused on the relationship between the industrial and labour history, and the urban life within Antofagasta, a mining town in the Atacama Desert of Chile. This fieldwork took place from 1997-1999. He completed his D.Phil in 2001.What emerged from this body of work were questions of political economy and urban space, which led to a critique of anthropological analyses of place and landscape.


His career includes a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in 2001 at St Hugh's College, Oxford, a position in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester, where he was also a member of the Executive Committee of the Cultural Theory Institute (September 2003). From 2004-2007  he acted as Media and Public Relations Officer at the
Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and the Commonwealth, during which he was Book Reviews Editor for Critique of Anthropology (2004-2006). In 2009  he became the Dean at Spain's School for Industrial Organisation in Madrid (2009).  As of June 2009 he has been the Senior Scientist at Spain's National Research Council (CSIC).


His books are "Culture and Well-Being: Anthropological Approaches to Freedom and Political Ethics" (2008) and "Anthropology of Organisations" (2007). Other publications include:


2010. 'The political proportions of public knowledge.' Journal of Cultural Economy, Vol. 3: 1, pp. 69-84.

2009. 'Managing the social/knowledge equation.' Cambridge Anthropology. Vol. 28, No. 3, pp. 66-90. Special issue in honour of Marilyn Strathern, eds. Ashley Lebner and Sabine A. Deiringer.


2005. ‘Changing scales and the scales of change: ethnography and political economy in Antofagasta, Chile.’ Critique of Anthropology, vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 155-174


To see a complete list of Alberto's publications, please visit his publications page.




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Just a temporizing note, Stacy. I need not have worried that my attempt to extend the range of the discussion might backfire, since once again Alberto has replied generously and constructively. I am tied up today, but will get back in tomorrow. In the meantime, I am hoping for wider participation in the discussion.
We still tend to talk about Science as if contingency played no part in it; and as if it were one thing; and as if it had nothing to do with everyday life. On that score I very much appreciate Latour's contribution in at least one area - he has helped people to recognise the compromise and negotiation involved in making scientific knowledge; as in other arenas of social life.

Alberto's point is very helpful - there are proportional-constructional metaphors that can be shifted and adapted from one context to another because they are very convincing. These analogies make certain kinds of knowledge claim quasi-indisputable - or at least very difficult to shift (they 'make sense' of them). The other day a neologism came to my mind: 'Get-Realism'. Get-Realism describes the all-powerful (because tautological) descriptions that people deploy when they believe their model is more powerful than anyone else's. Alberto shows that many claims of this kind turn on quite simple structural analogies derived from the technologies of the day (and yesterday). Linear perspective deployed as a basis for ethical claims is one of the most widely available. It seems very reasonable to go back to the Renaissance/post-renaissance to look for these kinds of devices because we all continue to use them quite unwittingly - 'where id was there ego shall be'. One feature is that grid-like, quasi-logical, engineering type analogies do more work and are more laudable than soft-aesthetic metaphors - not because they are more true, but because building/engineering/exploration/extension are the kind of 'power' we inherited from the Renaissance and the Reformation. But there has been some evidence around for a long time that the grid-like/geometric analogies don't fit with human social life (even if the word 'network' has a nice tough mesh-like sound to it). What worries me perhaps is that social science continues to use 'big' 'structural' analogies when its explanations of very 'simple' phenomena like the endurance of kindness in conditions of extreme scarcity are often patently absurd. And even when we criticise these terms we enjoy the big shower of sparks.
We still tend to talk about Science as if contingency played no part in it; and as if it were one thing; and as if it had nothing to do with everyday life. On that score I very much appreciate Latour's contribution in at least one area - he has helped people to recognise the compromise and negotiation involved in making scientific knowledge; as in other arenas of social life.

Just for the record, Huon, who is this "We" to whom your first sentence applies? I ask because I can think of three possible answers: Academics on the humanities side of Snow's two cultures, the preachers who don't believe in evolution because it is only a theory, and those, they are legion, who are wondering why somebody doesn't fix the BP oil spill NOW! What all three share is a profound ignorance of science that makes Latour's observation that science involves a lot of compromise and negotiation like, well, "No, duh" to people actually involved in science. They have heard something "Shocking, shocking!" and are still staring stunned at their navels trying to figure out what they have been told. What they need to do is to get off their bums, visit a working lab, try doing a little science themselves. Participant observation anyone?
Alberto,

Apologies for coming to the discussion a bit late. Thank you for your paper. Its subject matter reminded me of Marilyn Strathern's After Nature, which explores Euro-American knowledge practices (including proportionality) in relation to English and anthropological kinship. There, Strathern focuses on what she calls “merography,” the Euro-American view

that anything may be a part of something else, minimally part of a description in the act of describing it. In this view, nothing is in fact ever simply part of a whole because another view, another perspective or domain, may redescribe it as ‘part of something else’. When that something else is perceived as a context or underlying assumption, the very grounds on which things appear become another perspective upon them. (Strathern, 1992: 73)

In other words, a part of one thing may also be a part of something else, or that we often think and talk about one thing in terms of another.

It also reminds me of Roy Wagner's depiction of the ethnographic process in The Invention of Culture:

What the fieldworker invents, then, is his own understanding; the analogies he creates are extensions of his own notions and those of his culture, transformed by his experiences of the field situation. He uses the latter as a kind of "lever," the way a pole vaulter uses his pole, to catapult his comprehension beyond the limitations imposed by earlier viewpoints. If he intends his analogies to be no analogies at all, but an objective description of the culture, he will make every every effort to refine them into a close and close approximation of his experience. Where he finds discrepancies between his own invention and th native 'culture' as he comes to know it, he changes and reworks his invention until its analogies seem more appropriate or 'accurate.' If this process is prolonged, as it is in the course of fieldwork, the anthropologist's use of the idea of 'culture' will eventually assume a sophisticated and articulate form. Gradually the subject, the objectified element that serves as a 'control' for his invention, is invented through analogies incorporating progressively more comprehensive articulations, so that a set of impressions is re-created as a set of meanings. (Wagner, 1975: 12)

Herein lies at the heart of the anthropological project the recursive movement between scales or contexts, those of ethnographic experience and description; and also an Archimedean image of the leverage, which makes it all possible. It's also reminiscent of M.C. Escher's “Drawing Hands” (1948), which graces the front cover of Wagner's book (see below). In addition, it also begs the question of whether modern anthropology is possible without some kind of analytical use of 'perspective,' 'proportionality' or 'scale.'


What are some other ways of thinking about knowledge? Does knowledge always have to be an object without size or scale? One example comes from Tony Crook's work in Papua New Guinea on knowledge practices among the Min of the Mountain Ok region.

Crook argues that the assumption that the power of knowledge is a virtue of scarcity is central to Frederick Barth's monograph on the Baktaman ritual and knowledge: "the value of information seemed to be regarded as inversely proportional to how many share it" (Barth 1975: 217). He writes, that

The analytic lends a particular character to knowledge such that bounded units of knowledge are possessed by discrete domains men, and carries a set of corollaries that enabled Barth to read levels of truth into a sociology of hierarchical initiation grades, and to locate power simply by tracking the distribution of secret knowledge revealed solely during infrequent rituals exclusively amongst men. Barth's analysis has grades of initiates in possession of the same level of knowledge -- as if they were a collective-individual and all of one mind. (Crook, 2007: 174)

Instead, Crook argues that for the Min knowledge is conceived as a water-like substance, which circulates between people, plants and the land. Knowledge takes the form of bodily substances and is circulated in exchanges of care, whether between a senior and junior initiate; parents and their children in looking after and playing with them; or gardeners and their taro plants. Knowledge here is an entity that has no singular concrete form. It is constantly changing its shape and state. It is fluid, without size, and seen by its effects on the skin.

Any other examples?
One might, for example, cite the experience of people working in "big science" labs, an advertising agency or film or TV production company or, more directly to the point, the "recursive public" that Chris Kelty discovers in the Free Software movement (see Two Bits).

the rest of us need to scramble if we ever hope to keep up with the likes of Harvard Law School's Yochai Benkler, the author of The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom


I am a fan of Chris' work. But I think if there is a lesson to be drawn from Two bits that is precisely that the free software movement is not inherently emancipatory and creative, or that it is emancipatory in very specific ways. There are hackers whose notion of freedom is heavily shaped by and circumscribed to the material structures of software engineering: they come together as a community insofar as they co-implicate themselves in the process of writing and re-writing code. As a community of free software developers, and only as free software developers, they function as a recursive public. There are other developers, however, whose ideas about freedom (as performed in free software circles) are further inflected by libertarian ethics and politics. These people's notion of creativity and human emancipatory potential are therefore, to say the least, very complex. They have very strong views on liberty and individual freedom which require a lot of tinkering to accommodate with standard 'communitarian' views of the free software movement. So if anything, I think Chris' work reinforces the notion that the equation social : knowledge : creativity is simplistic and, at the very least, requires ethnographic work to be sorted out.

As for Benkler's work, I think he has done a superb job of mapping and fleshing-out the economic sociology of the network economy. But he is not a social theorist and his understanding of how and why social exchanges work the way they do is, in my reading, very shallow. The poverty of much recent network theory is that it has set to theorise anew topics such as exchange, sharing or reciprocity, as if there wasn't already a massive corpus (written amongst others by anthropologists) on the topic.

Stacy, the question on public opinion which you bring up is an important one. The piece on anamorphosis is Chapter 1 of a book about the anthropology of political economy which I have just finished - and which takes as its central object of inquiry the rise of what I call 'the public philosophy of the public'.

You may recall Hannah Arendt's famous argument about the rise of the social in the 18th century: the household (oikonomia) moving into the realm of the polis. Hence the emergence of political economy: the household gone public. My argument in the book, briefly put, is that we may well be witnessing today the rise of a new sociological paradigm: the public philosophy of the public, which I re-describe as an anthropology of political ethics. Following Arendt's sketch, what I suggest is taking place is the 'ethicalisation' of political economy: the move of the political household to the domain of the ethical. This is a very peculiar 'ethics', however. When econometricians speak of global public goods, or management gurus speak of public value in civil service administration, or development economists speak of participatory empowerment, or business designers speak of 'user-led innovation', the notion of public value that is mobilized in each is rather odd. Parlance of the public (and in some contexts, even of the commons) has neutralized old-fashioned political economy analyses.

Justin, I like Tony's work a lot. Along with James Weiner's, I find his ethnographic descriptions of the fluidity and corporeality of knowledge-practices in Melanesian contexts very useful to tense against our own habits of mind.

I should note that I will be online today but will be travelling Thurs-Sun. Will pick up the thread again Sun night, if that's ok.
I am a fan of Chris' work. But I think if there is a lesson to be drawn from Two bits that is precisely that the free software movement is not inherently emancipatory and creative, or that it is emancipatory in very specific ways. There are hackers whose notion of freedom is heavily shaped by and circumscribed to the material structures of software engineering.

On this point, I agree completely. Kelty's recursive public is composed of individuals with the deep and highly specific skills to independently not simply suggest but actually implement changes to the systems that define their existence. Considered as a general political model, the recursive public is even more demanding than the 19th century US Progressive vision that envisions an electorate composed of rational, highly educated citizens devoted to the public welfare.

As for Benkler's work, I think he has done a superb job of mapping and fleshing-out the economic sociology of the network economy. But he is not a social theorist and his understanding of how and why social exchanges work the way they do is, in my reading, very shallow.

Could you say a bit more about the specific directions in which you could see Benkler's work being deepened? Without a few more details, "very shallow" may be accurate but is not, on the face of it, terribly persuasive to anyone not a member of the church of anthropology. If we want to get beyond preaching to the choir, we need to be able to articulate what anthropological ideas add to Benkler's analysis.
Alberto Corsin Jimenez said:
You may recall Hannah Arendt's famous argument about the rise of the social in the 18th century: the household (oikonomia) moving into the realm of the polis. Hence the emergence of political economy: the household gone public. My argument in the book, briefly put, is that we may well be witnessing today the rise of a new sociological paradigm: the public philosophy of the public, which I re-describe as an anthropology of political ethics. Following Arendt's sketch, what I suggest is taking place is the 'ethicalisation' of political economy: the move of the political household to the domain of the ethical. This is a very peculiar 'ethics', however. When econometricians speak of global public goods, or management gurus speak of public value in civil service administration, or development economists speak of participatory empowerment, or business designers speak of 'user-led innovation', the notion of public value that is mobilized in each is rather odd. Parlance of the public (and in some contexts, even of the commons) has neutralized old-fashioned political economy analyses.

This is a pity. Our travel plans dovetail in exactly the wrong way. I am braindead now after knocking myself out finishing two books this last couple of days. I will be leaving for South Africa and FUN over the weekend. The last day of this session is also my birthday when I get to see Nigeria v South Korea with my girls. So I don't expect to be online much.

I already figured out that what we read was a chapter of a larger argument which explains both why I felt obliged to expand its range and why Alberto was able to reply so effectively. I have gained a lot from both your last replies, Alberto. I think you have a tendency to set up the opposition as simple-minded boosters of an unreflective idea of internet freedom and to identify problems (like local libraries) that larger claims don't address. But all that is worth the wait for the BIG IDEA, described above.

This is not the main subject of the paper being discussed and, as I said, my brain is revolting right now. But this brief statement of general purpose is highly resonant to me. I may post something over the next three days when I have worked out how the chapter we were given might relate to this theme.But in any case, I am sure the conversation will continue long after this one is formally closed.

In the meantime, there seems to be something rhetorically dodgy about linking global public goods to econometricians. The idea goes back at least to Smith and concerns the public authorities' triple task and duty to insure the defence of society, administer justice and provide for “works and institutions… facilitating the commerce of the society… and the instruction of the people”. Put otherwise, contrary to what one observes for private goods of all kinds, the consumption of a public good by an economic agent, such as public lighting or a high-quality environment, does not reduce the available quantity of that same good for other economic agents. What have the number-crunchers got to do with GPG, unless they are there to diminish the idea by association? I know the oddness lies in their use of the idea, but a lot of such ideas have found their way into your arguments here in a similar way.
Keith Hart said:
Just a temporizing note, Stacy. I need not have worried that my attempt to extend the range of the discussion might backfire, since once again Alberto has replied generously and constructively. I am tied up today, but will get back in tomorrow. In the meantime, I am hoping for wider participation in the discussion.

Keith, I was far from worried about your attempt to extend the range of discussion. Rather, I was quite pleased. However, I did want to make a comment on something you said, but now that Alberto has commented, it seems a bit superfluous.

Alberto, I am glad that the polis is a major part of your work in its entirety. The notion of "the public philosophy of the public" is an interesting concept and would be interesting to read into more once your book is published.
A great discussion. Sorry I won't be able to participate much. Alberto wrote:

I am also a bit concerned about the extravagant optimism and utopianism that characterises much of what passes for new media theory, especially in the hands of policy-makers and digital marketeers. I think a critical take on the digital economy is fundamental. There is a naïve tendency in some quarters to equate the digital with the social, the participatory, collaboration, social fluidity, creativity, etc.

Same here. One rare example of an influential critic of this optimism is Evgeny Morozov, see for instance his debates with the new media optimist Clay Shirky, and most recently his review of Shirky's latest book in the Boston Review, http://bostonreview.net/BR35.4/morozov.php (erm, this page seems to be down at the moment!)
what I suggest is taking place is the 'ethicalisation' of political economy: the move of the political household to the domain of the ethical. This is a very peculiar 'ethics', however. When econometricians speak of global public goods, or management gurus speak of public value in civil service administration, or development economists speak of participatory empowerment, or business designers speak of 'user-led innovation', the notion of public value that is mobilized in each is rather odd. Parlance of the public (and in some contexts, even of the commons) has neutralized old-fashioned political economy analyses.

I suppose a version of Keith's point is that if some relatively loud voices are saying those things that does not mean that that is the only vista on the same issues. There are, after all, plenty of people who intersect with the same processes who (from the technocrat's point of view) form a recalcitrant mass doing their own thing. Put another way, the fact that we can notice gurus neutralizing various possibilities for thought means that they haven't done it yet. Some people might say, 'if only it were that easy to change social processes...'
Alberto, I am afraid that I have been very bad in terms of making statements rather than asking questions in this seminar. Also, there is a problem that Keith alluded to right at the beginning which is that this format is more taxing than a 2 hour deparment Q&A because to do the presenter justice you have to keep rereading the paper.

Here is an actual question, Why do you title your paper 'how knowledge grows'?

When I read the title I immediately thought of Strathern's many deployments of 'growth' and Justin pointed to Tony Crook who uses similar metaphors and ideas coming out of the New Melanesian ethnography with very interesting results. Then it occurred to me that, in the cases you describe, the growth is either quite explicitly an illusion as when Hobbes took delight in the optical trick of the sultans turning into King Louis, or it is a technique as with the architects; which is certainly about scaling but not about growth in a biological sense. Now, we could be talking about Craig Venter here growing things in a lab, but we are talking about what Hobbes knew to be (in his view a necessary) illusion - the Leviathan (though the evidence for what Hobbes believed is moot). In this case, there is a front stage and a back stage and econometricians and management gurus hold the front stage knowing what is backstage. But there is no actual life or growth as such. So, we can talk of analogies etc. in these cases, whereas when we discuss Craig Venter's lab cells we are talking about entities - things that grow and are alive. I am sure you don't agree with this reduction, but it would help if you could clarify what you mean by growth.
There is a naïve tendency in some quarters to equate the digital with the social, the participatory, collaboration, social fluidity, creativity, etc.

This is true, and the need for critical perspective is undeniable.

My own perspective is informed by having spent considerable effort in the mid-'80s and early '90s writing advertising promoting what might now be called the kumbaya scenario for the digital future. The client was NEC, the theme was computers and communications, still at that point largely separate domains, and the proposition was the notion that the merger of computers and communications would create a networked world in which everyone would have access both to the sum of human knowledge and to tools that would make our labor more creative, more enjoyable, more productive.

What we have seen, instead, is the emergence of an Internet that mirrors the GINI coefficient in descriptions of national economies. In this respect the mathematics of the new social network physics are remarkably accurate. The net as a whole conforms to power laws which ensure the emergence of a few giant hubs and long tails of less well-connected nodes. Geeks dream of futures in which every notebook, tablet and phone is a wireless router, and the net is freed from dependence on communication monopolies. The fact remains that every additional petabyte of data requires expansion of already massive server farms, investments in routers with the capacity to power what Cisco calls "the human network." These, in turn, require growing amounts of electrical power, still largely generated by fossil fuel or nuclear powered generators. The need for industrial-scale capital investment has not gone away.

Meanwhile, on the content front, the Walt Disney Corporation and Australian and other aborigines become unlikely allies in efforts to replace old-fashioned time-limited copyrights and patents with eternal, immutable rights, the assumption being that these are essential sources of more-than-lifetime value that have to be captured and hoarded to ensure the future of the corporate groups (corporations or tribes) in question. Arrayed against them are fluid bands of immigrants, mongrels, artists and entrepreneurs for whom infinite freedom to remix is the very essence of the lives they prefer.

That this account begins to sound a lot like the fall of the Roman Empire or the Chinese dynastic cycle, where the basic story is also barbarians breaching the empire-builders' walls, setting in motion the chaos in which new empire-builders emerge reflects, I freely acknowledge, the limits of my own imagination. Can we find a critical theory that improves on these archetypes?

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