Once in a great while,  while reading anthropology, I stumble across an idea that seems both fresh and provocative — very likely to shake up my thinking in productive ways. Kristin's Peterson's "phantom epistemologies" is just such an idea. I offer it here in the form of a quote from the book in which I found it, with no further comment, in the hope of seeing what others make of it.

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In James D. Faubion and George E. Marcus (2009) Fieldwork is Not What It Used to Be: Learning Anthropology’s Method in a Time of Transition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. pp. 37-51.

pp. 38-39
I propose the idea of “phantom epistemologies.” Specifically, I refer to empirical elusiveness, unspoken common sense, a politics of (in)commensurability, and how the presence of any “ghost” becomes viewable to those who believe—these are the ethnographic entryways into what is knowable. Yet what is knowable will often lie in the realm of uncertainty; that is, the very thing of empiricism cannot be absolutely defined in the presence of phantoms and unknowable possibility. My thinking is partly informed by “shadows” theorized by Carolyn Nordstrom and James Ferguson. Both refer to “shadow” political economies that are liminal, hidden, or simply unaccounted for. James Ferguson writes:
A shadow is not only a dim or empty likeness. It also implies a bond and a relationship. A shadow, after all, is not a copy by an attached twin—a shadow is what sticks with you. Likeness here implies not only resemblance but also a connection, a proximity, an equivalent, even an identity. A shadow, in this sense, is not simply a negative space, a space of absence; it is a likeness, an inseparable other-who-is-also-oneself to whom one is bound. (2006: 17)
The desire here is directed toward recognition, not one marked by an empiricism that provides a finiteness or certainty of something, but a recognition of some hidden essence, implication connection—one that sits, for a moment, underneath or beside our apprehension. While the shadow waits to become known in some concrete form, a phantom epistemology does not count on revelation. Rather than dismissing our quandaries of “not having all the data” that may not be gotten, a phantom can inhabit the data in ways that do not always desire the fullest of answers—one that allows the unknowable to remain as powerful an analytic figure as the know. That is, the phantom—the stuff of familiarity, yet also the stuff of the unknowable—is the ethnographic object of inquiry, rather than being some shadow whose materializing requires further patience and digging. Finding one’s way through (or even detecting at all) the presence of such ghosts is difficult, as the latter occur at different levels of scale, not only in fieldwork but at the level of interpretive circulation. 
Examples  include assumptions used to interpret statistics whose compilation itself is fraught with uncertainty and the likelihood of political interference, e.g., in relation to capital flight and the AIDS epidemic. 

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After several years of ethnographic research here in Brazil, I have just recently be able to penetrate into the deeper levels of this society's cultural underbelly. It was here that I discovered much of what you are alluding to in “Phantom Epistemologies.” I was particularly impressed with the following passages:

It also implies a bond and a relationship…Likeness here implies not only resemblance but also a connection…

The desire here is directed toward recognition, not one marked by an empiricism that provides a finiteness or certainty of something, but a recognition of some hidden essence, implication connection—one that sits, for a moment, underneath or beside our apprehension. While the shadow waits to become known in some concrete form, a phantom epistemology does not count on revelation.

That is, the phantom—the stuff of familiarity, yet also the stuff of the unknowable—is the ethnographic object of inquiry, rather than being some shadow whose materializing requires further patience and digging.

These have surely defined and redefined human praxis much more than any kind of self-critical attention to efficient, reasonable, "best practice".

Now it occurs to me that assumptions need not be epistemological. They may also be ontological, assumptions about the world as opposed to how we know it. 

How "everyone knows" becomes embedded in institutional practice is a classic problem for the sociology of knowledge.

And especially:

So "phantom epistemologies" can be seen as those assumptions for which we've lost a reason, though they continue to affect our behaviour, inevitably putting us in friction with an innovating world.

And this focus on "unknowableness" could make anthropologists more receptive to the effectivity of alienation in everyday life... While "taking our subjects seriously", we could also be more attentive to moments in which they have trouble taking themselves seriously, and rely on phantom epistemologies to guide them through a disjointed world. 

Could it be that what symbolic activity does is impose order on chaotic situations, enabling actors to get on with whatever they need or want to do without being paralyzed by information overload?

 

 

In the introduction to the book that I have been working on, I make the following statement about an “unspoken order.” The following is an excerpt:

This study analyzes Brazilian society with its stark contrasts and paradoxes. It attempts to reveal the fundamental modes of its culture - its forms of perception, its exchanges, techniques and the values established for its inhabitants. Its many different elements and forms are both greatly diversified and at the same time clustered and joined. Many studies have documented the enormous disparity in terms of economics and income but beneath the region of scientific or philosophical interpretations lie a domain more confused, more obscure and less easy to analyze. It is here that the culture of Brazil imperceptibly deviates from transparency and creates for itself forms and processes that belong to a certain unspoken order. This inquiry attempts to analyze that experience and to show its cultural elements and the modalities of this unspoken order, to examine cultural factors, not by arranging abstracted entities into unified patterns but by taking into account the specific cultural forms by means of which Brazilians communicate, perpetuate and develop their attitudes toward life.

I have found that these epistemologies actually do exist and take on a quality of “phantomness” because no one seems to know the origin, nature or method of these cultural assumptions/pratices. They do define and they do redefine and in many instances impose order in situations that exceed an individual’s knowledge, education, or awarness. It should also be noted that this domain comes very dangerously close to the realm of spiritism, at least here in Brazil where Candoblé, Macumba Ritual and Jaré exist and is openly practiced. John alludes to a Chinese ritual of food and money that exemplifies the “no, no, you can’t do that” but no one had an explanation why. And again, in his example of Nigerian oil being stolen and the only reference for that knowledge is that “everyone seems to have heard it from someone else.”

This is, indeed, a very penetrating look into the depths of cultural awareness and practice.

Neil, when does your book come out? I am eager to read it.

Hey guys, good to come back and find a ripe discussion. I'll dive in in response to John's pondering whether what "symbolic activity does is impose order on chaotic situations, enabling actors to get on with whatever they need or want to do without being paralyzed by information overload?" This seems a good question tying together concerns about both the 'truth', and role / function a lack of grounds for sureness plays in people's lives.

There’s an interesting popular tendency to which this responds that would have us view knowledge as something one has more or less of, a discrete quantity like gigabytes - (the popular Homer Simpson line, "every time I learn something new, something old falls out of my head!") It's easy to see these as vast quantities of data, and so sometimes they do feel as if they exert a pressure through sheer mass / momentum. Betwixt and between these we feel the pull of non-formally articulated phantoms as the call to explain ourselves, a feeling I believe Derrida (and Paul!) calls standing before the Law. The idea, expressed so zealously by our contemporary pushers of psychoanalysis ala Lacan, is that doubt, anxiety, a sense of lack is the prime mover of subject formation. The inability to know what you are as an object to others moves you ceaselessly towards this dangling carrot - the bewilderingly named, “petit objet a". No doubt the societal demand to take a name, foster a cohesive identity amidst the flux, and interact as an individual self, can feel an audacious task now and then. Some know better than others the anxious energy manifest when chatting with strangers standing in line to order coffee, or showing who we are on a first date, etc.; some know better than others the self-conscious reflections of how we ought to have acted, aught to have been to be cool, to be ourself. Social anxiety is an infectious and continuous reminder that subjectivation is a creative and ongoing project, not the inertia of some fixed nature. But to imagine this anxiety is the prime mover behind all subjectivity, the dark matter that produces and defines our gravity, is to overextend the analysis of one of many emotional undercurrents pouring us into the real world. It's also to turn from the path of engaged social science to the fatalism of physical science. Social scientists should work hard to make sure the exceptional schizophrenias of Lacan's patients aren't the rule! Human nature is more of an open source discussion than a fixed directive, and removing the doubts people experience in making their own requires good translators. No doubt the will to meditation of this recurring tension between overdetermined, oppositional historical imaginaries is the driving force of human history, and of every "individual's" psychological growth, in whatever momentary direction. But to imagine this will is impassioned, executed, and legislated wholly in reaction to a nervous fear of the nothingness beyond comprehension is to make a universal tendency out of a historical moment (whether we call this the remnants of a hangover upon waking up from a three millennia binge on metaphysics, or the god shaped hole of those still stubbornly fetishizing secularity…)

Either-or, the way I see it, those geniuses who can refine and raise these tense over-determined massive feeling jumbles into simple, elegant wholes will determine history. Generalizing out these wider circles is the role of what Antonio Gramsci called intellectuals. An intellectual's ability to speak to the sensibilities not just of academic peers, but of vast swaths of those for whom these previously disparate materials were haunting, is what separates the 'traditional intellectual' from the 'organic intellectual'. And this latter, engaged, organic intellectual will be what the emergent socialist democratic circle will demand, should our nascent universal democratic society seek to collaboratively refine and raise itself out of this rotten, protective, individualist capitalist kernel.  

This brings the conversation back to a point Jacob chose to sum the conversation with. "The question I am asking is why a pattern of symbolic activity should be so orderly when the underlying causal processes are so complicated?" My thoughts are that making social, political, economic knowledge a complicated, expert domain is often, like the maintenance of any elite dialect of distinction, a protective measure to uphold interest group status quo. Think of the opaque science of financial derivatives - a fancy codification for "we want to keep all of this money moving, and not just most of it!” Hierarchies, when not maintained by brute force, are done so by connecting themselves to an emic logical truth (divine will, mathematical necessity). Nothing upholds complacent confidence in these like keeping things seeming too complicated for the masses (or for most of the elites though they don't admit it: folk tale of the emperor's new clothes). But it is in the dream of a universal democratic society - towards which we've been stumbling for some centuries - that these logical certainties are supposedly collaboratively affirmed. And so the role of an engaged / organic intellectual considering the effectivities and compositions of phantoms assumptions, (whether manufactured to maintain or resist situations), might be to trace their development as part and parcel of wider political projects, be they those of empire builders or of egalitarian integration. In doing so these gut reactions might become more sensibly understood as expressions for and of particular visions of society, and critically interpreted as such. 

Jacob, you ask in conclusion - "Why is it that interpretation in terms of meaning always feels so removed from time?" The potential / power of a mode of signification might be measured by its ability to become, to borrow a phrase from Badiou, the amplitude of the present. Gramsci would say the engaged intellectual's job is to translate meanings into destiny.

Jeremy, your comments are so rich that I wish I could spend at least a whole day on them. Alas, the day has other commitments. So just a couple of quick remarks to see what you think.

Your mention of Lacan and "lack" reminds me of what I see as the most fundamental difference between our era and the ones that preceded it. Information used to be expensive. Huge amounts of labor were invested in conducting experiments, mounting exhibitions, burrowing in archives, and taking censuses to establish "facts" whose significance could then be debated. In some fields that is still true. If you are a particle physicist and want to establish the existence of the Higgs boson, the effort required to build the accelerator at CERN is immense. But for most of us involved in business, policy making, or the social and cultural sciences, information is cheap. Our problem isn't lack. Our problem is how to handle excess.

Consider what goes on in an ad agency creative process. Brainstorming produces a flood of ideas from people whose experience and professional skill sets have accumulated all sorts of diverse knowledge. But deadlines loom. Someone has to say, "Let's go with this one." Only then can the refinement and production that results in a successful presentation and, ultimately, the ad that appears begin.

Why is the pattern of symbolic activity so orderly? It isn't. Only the result makes it look that way.

Why is it that interpretation in terms of meaning always feels so removed from time? Because when action is needed, the creative flow has to stop, with  the meaning on which the action is predicated frozen in time.

How does this sound to you?

I think I see what you are getting at. Dirt, as described by Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger, is "matter out of place" which logically implies "a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order." For Douglas these thoughts motivate a theory of magic and ritual, of ideas about cleanliness and purity, and of punishing of transgressions, as "impos[ing] system on an inherently untidy experience." What is not completely clear to me (yet) is whether she means imposing order on the world or imposing order on our experience of the world, or both. It is true, that in imposing order on the world, we impose order on our perceptions, since we are perceiving then a more orderly world. By tidying my desk, I make my desk situation that much less untidy. Of course the tidying up is achieved relative to some sense or model of what is orderly. Some, may consider their desk to be untidy when a few papers are not filed in accordance to some elaborate organizational scheme; for others it is simply a matter of whether their keyboard still fits on the desk without spilling last week's coffee. But, the (external) world needn't be transformed for us to see that world differently. Likewise, the world does not necessarily need to be made any simpler for it to be perceived as simpler; for that we need only to view it through a simpler, lower resolution model; a person with a thermometer may see her environment as being some degree Celsius or another, one of many, but another person may see it as only either 'damned hot' or 'damned cold'. But seeing the world one way or another must factor in to how behavior transforms the world, and getting others to see the world as you do, or at least to believe that others see the world as you do, is one of the things that ritual seems to be capable of effecting, at least some of the time. The imposition of the Nazi salute must have induced the perception of their being more support for the Nazis than was actually the case, which might well have in turns increased their support, given how people tend to adopt behaviors and beliefs that are common among their peers.

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Jeremy Withers said:


(and Paul!) calls standing before the Law. The idea, expressed so zealously by our contemporary pushers of psychoanalysis ala Lacan, is that doubt, anxiety, a sense of lack is the prime mover of subject formation. The inability to know what you are as an object to others moves you ceaselessly towards this dangling carrot - the bewilderingly named, “petit objet a". No doubt the societal demand to take a name, foster a cohesive identity amidst the flux, and interact as an individual self, can feel an audacious task now and then.

It is an interesting idea, none the less. But is it not possible for non-social animals to have a sense of self?

This brings the conversation back to a point Jacob chose to sum the conversation with. "The question I am asking is why a pattern of symbolic activity should be so orderly when the underlying causal processes are so complicated?" My thoughts are that making social, political, economic knowledge a complicated, expert domain is often, like the maintenance of any elite dialect of distinction, a protective measure to uphold interest group status quo....Nothing upholds complacent confidence in these like keeping things seeming too complicated for the masses (or for most of the elites though they don't admit it: folk tale of the emperor's new clothes).

Your response befuddles me. It does not answer my question and in a sort of vague way seems to suggest that my asking it was somehow questionable. I hope I am not being unfair in suggesting that if you think that making social knowledge a complicated expert domain is so problematic (and I concur, with some qualifications), then might you write more plainly? In any case, some things really really are complicated, and require complicated solutions that require domain expertise. Sometimes, because things are so complicated, and the tangle of dependencies so deep, that one is both uncertain why something became the way it is, or what the consequences of changing it would be; in such instances, it is usually much more advantageous to take those things as social facts, taken-for-granteds upon which you can build solutions to solve your problems (who knows why the data is structured that way, but it is, so my scripts are going to assume that they are, because not assuming that they are that way is going to make writing the scripts a lot lot lot harder). That's the basic reality of dealing with big complicated things. Its what I do every day. So even if experience dealing with a big complicated things makes you more valuable (and it does), it needn't be the case that the complicatedness is just some consequence of vested interests.

Jacob, Jeremy,

This debate within the debate to which Jacob has just replied both raises important issues and has me feeling like the proverbial Sufi judge, first turning to one party and saying, "Yes, yes," then turning to the other party and saying, "Yes, yes."

Yes, to Jacob, the world and the problems it poses can be very complicated — too complicated for common sense and conventional wisdom to solve. Yes, to Jeremy, one of those complicated problems is that experts can become blinded by their expertise and too full of themselves with the power and prestige attached to expert status.

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck has a lot to say about this issue in his book The Risk Society. Beck is not only a very fine sociologist; he is also a Green activist. In one of his most telling examples, he mentions scientists engaged by the German government to assess environmental damage, who ignore what local farmers tell them. Why? Because what the farmers have to say does not fit their experimental protocols. The result is "environment-friendly" policies that may do more harm than good. 

Going back to what Jacob says about Mary Douglas. I do wish everyone who reads Purity and Danger would also read Natural Symbols. In the first book Douglas observes that taboos point to things out of place.  Not fitting into ordinary categories, they come to be treated as either too dirty or too sacred for everyday consumption or use. In the second, she has realized that how strongly people feel about the boundaries that divide categories is a variable.

Thus, to use a classic example, menstrual blood, treated as a monstrous threat in one society, may be simply a nuisance in another. Or, when considering current common sense, creators of advertising and other examples of pop culture know that violating boundaries can produce a range of responses: a silly joke to one audience may be a thrilling horror to another or absolutely unacceptable to a third. Some may be so enraged that they will kill to preserve the boundary in question.

To borrow an expression from  the test pilots turned astronauts in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, "pushing the envelope" too far can result in crash and burn. Returning to the issue at hand, determining how far is too far can be a complicated question that only expertise and carefully honed skill can answer—and, even then, not always correctly.

The village idiot may be a sage. He may also be simply an idiot. His possession or lack of power makes him neither one nor the other.

I’ve been up in Northern British Columbia planting trees (where wifi is scarce) for a while so my responses are not so timely, excuse me. No doubt you’re right, and I guess my response swept over that to make a more general point: often that complicatedness is manufactured (whether consciously or not) into aloof insular rhetoric of traditional intellectuals distant from the agents of social patterns on which they’re commenting. I’m sorry to have floated off from the context of your point, which was to point out that a lot of stuff sounds complicated because it’s actually really complicated! Computer code is a good example, a dialect that can change weekly. But we often find as we look back through the history of social theory (or any science) that what’s being discussed now is far more complicate sand hard to explain than half a century ago. The dynamic and at times visceral debates over what a particular grand theory “means” become, with time, compacted into cleaner, simpler, undergrad friendly, debates; a book chapter, a lens - not a seething new universe of inquiry. I’m not suggesting that all expert domains are indulgent elitists playing holier than thou rhetorical games. I am suggesting that those intellectuals at the forefront of their field will be the ones who can articulate these complex debates into succinct, simple meanings, translating opposition into equivalence. (Not unlike John’s maieutic approach, “yes yes”, you’re both right and here’s how!) You’re right to remind that “it needn't be the case that the complicatedness is just some consequence of vested interests.” But I’ll add to this that attention to how things are made to be simple (or maintained as complex) can be a useful insight into how knowledge progresses; whether open source geeks win the day for coding or not! 

What might make this (by now) truism more useful to us, is to think about the ways knowledge production is organized, tracing how this effects the accessibility or ‘plainness’ of its rhetoric.Online forums, seminars, boardroom presentations, Q + A’s with a visiting rockstar intellectual. My masters thesis considered how Occupy’s consensus decision making work groups and general assemblies converted the scattered rhetorics of resistance of so many leftists, anarchists, angry joes, libertarians, into an accessible (perhaps at times overly accessible) language of resistance that seldom relied on vocabulary associated with Marxism or sounded particularly “ideological” to much of the public. This was surely a huge part of its momentary spectacular success. Consensus decision making as to the self-representation of the group (facilitated by a volunteer mediator (a facilitator)) led to many grievances between traditionally at odds leftists being aired out and equivalences identified and underlined. It’s interesting to think that the IETF (task force for facilitating the cohesive development of the internet) organizes themselves with a very similar model and principles. I wish I had more time to go into all this but I’ve got to run. Hopefully this bridges our streams of thought a bit.

 Hopefully this bridges our streams of thought a bit.

It does, indeed. What you have discovered is something that I have noticed in other political and business situations. The art of the political lies in finding common ground, which frequently requires overlooking, deliberately or otherwise, possible conflicts. In her American Scholar article (now a book) "On Bourgoise Virture," economist Deirdre McCloskey observes that academics tend to behave like peasants, whose passion is protecting their fields, or aristocrats, who have an exaggerated sense of personal honor that must be defended to the death. For both compromise, the key bourgeoise virtue, is anathema. I often return to this thought as debates in forums like OAC bog down in Punch-and-Judy posturing. I am also reminded of what Freud called "the narcissism of small differences."

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