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I finished reading Incomplete Nature and really liked it

It took me eight months but I finally finished reading Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter by Terrence Deacon. It’s pretty impressive. The guys starts with some gas in a pressurised chamber and a heat source, and six hundred pages later… consciousness! I got interested in Deacon’s work when I interviewed Eduardo Kohn and realised what an influence Deacon had on him. I regret that I didn’t study science or math more when I was in college, and over the years I’ve shifted from being interested in Big Issues as they are expressed in continental philosophy to being more and more interested in what scientists have to say about them. Partially this is a result of my being in a ‘four field’ department, partially its just the expansion of my interests away from my original speciality. Although I’m not really in a position to be critical of Deacon’s work due to Not Understanding All Of It, I am very impressed. It was particularly useful to connect Peircean semiotics with the natural sciences. If you are interested in giving it a shot, you might want to read Neither Ghost Nor Machine, which is half the size and is, I gather, a much easier secondary source to get through. Frankly if I had known that it existed before I read it, I might have just gone for that one instead. Still, I’m glad I took the time to read Incomplete Nature. I feel my brain is much stronger having been made to do exercises on this one.

Now that that is done, I’m looking for another Big Book to go through slowly. Have recommendations? Reach out on twitter, email, or Facebook. Thanks!

I went to Switzerland and Learned about Transparency

I was very lucky to visit Switzerland last week for the first time. I have a lot of positive things to say about the country (pluses for me: mountains, cheese, beer, and the SBB transit app), but I want to focus here on the intellectual content of my trip, which was to attend a two day conference on the concept of transparency organized by Filipe Calvao at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.

Geneva was lovely. The weather was perfect (too hot for fondue, but perfect for aperol), and the venue was in the middle of a park, so we could sit outside in the sun and read and discuss our papers in a friendly and leisurely manner. At first I felt it might be a bit too leisurely for my taste, but then I realized two things. First, I am just a very intense person and need to calm down so other people around me can feel comfortable. And second, when you don’t live near the equator, there are five extra hours of daytime to get work done in the summer!

I won’t comment too much on the papers we discussed since they are still in process, but I did want to vaguebook a little about the concept of transparency. I don’t actually study transparency, so experts might find these remarks obvious, but writing them will help clarify things for me, and might be interesting to others who are, like myself, non-initiates.

First, I was struck by the way that ‘transparency’ is a coherent cultural syndrome or culture trait — there is clearly out there called ‘transparency ideology’. This term was coined by Andrea Ballestero in her special issue on transparency, and connects well with other similar ideas like language ideology and semiotic ideology. This is ‘transparency’ in a narrow sense: a reflexive project of actors (typically the governing and bureaucratic sort) which aims to gain accurate and complete knowledge of some state of affairs in order to better govern or monitor them. Think sustainability reports in the mining industry or companies hiring consultants to demonstrate to outsiders that they don’t have child slaves making their tennis shoes.

Much of the literature I read in preparation for the conference gave several reasons to be critical of the concept of transparency. First, many authors criticised the coercive nature of transparency claims. Because transparency is supposed to be a good thing, you can’t argue with anyone who claims to be doing it — even if what they are doing is not good. The hegemonic, bludgeoning force of transparency was something that many people complained about.

At the same time (second) there are a lot of people who have been successfully critical of transparency discourse. So if someone argued that you can’t argue with transparency, I’d recommend they look at this work. Rachel Hall’s critique of airport checkpoints convincingly shows us how our democratic rights as citizens are transformed into temporary freedom of movement after we have submitted to transparency. Journalists who protect their sources are both opposed to transparency and in the right. Indigenous people who object to the depiction of private information in ethnographies are opponents of transparency, and rightly so. In fact, any sort of discourse of privacy is an anti-transparency discourse. So I think in the branding war against transparency there are a lot of allies and a lot of good criticisms of bad transparency. Most of us don’t think of doxxing as a brave act of transparency.

Third, I was struck by the suppression of ambivalence that accompanies transparency. Transparency projects often spend lots of time and money compiling massive amounts of documents, but the rhetoric of transparency is that it can ‘see through’ obstructions to the unmediated truth. Somehow all those documents, all those mediations, disappear. Much of the literature on mediation has noticed the ironies, silences, and disavowals that these sorts of transparency projects require, the unintended consequences they raise, the harm they do by claiming to do good etc. — call it the Kafka critique of transparency.

Fourth, Transparency thus strikes me as a very ‘sincere’ cultural project, in Seligmann et. al.’s terms: a kinds of cultural system that has trouble admitting that there is always more than one way of doing things. It seems a very Protestant system to me, in the sense that Keane describes Protestantism as a project of sincerity and authenticity that both inevitable requires representation, but also wishes it didn’t. I’m reminded here, for instance, of Fielgelman’s book Declaring Independence which opens with a description of Thomas Jefferson practicing sounding natural when he reads the Declaration of Independence. Practicing sounding natural: that’s the pairing of rhetoric and logic that transparency wants to unburden itself of. It also reminded me of the line from The Importance of Being Earnest to the effect of ‘being spontaneous is so exhausting’ but of course now I can’t find that quote. Ultimately, transparency is a semiotic ideology in Keane’s sense, and as Mazarella’s excellent article on mediation (which I’ve only just now gotten around to reading) demonstrates, this ambivalence about mediation is not just something linked with Protestantism, but a central part of semiosis and something which all cultures have to deal with (in saying this, Mazzarella is making an argument similar to Seligman).

Now, I don’t want to essentialism Protestantism or transparency. These are big labels and there are lots of different versions and variations of these things. In fact, I was struck by how some of the papers at the conference didn’t seem to be about transparency projects and transparency ideology at all.

For instance, first, some criticise transparency projects because they focus on one thing and not something else. Thus they can ignore the things that you wish they would focus on. But this isn’t really a critique of transparency projects in particular, it’s a critique that could be levelled at all cultural projects, since they are all inevitably selective and omitive. This is, to me, a Neokantian or Weberian point.

Second, just because transparency is all about visibility doesn’t mean that all visibility is about transparency. Nor are all concealments and secrecies about transparency. I feel like it is important to distinguish between the particular cultural project of transparency and other things which seem vaguely connected to it because they revolved around secrecy and openness. This doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be considered alongside transparency, but that the true value of a wider or metaphorical use of the concept of transparency is that it should be able to show us connections and the disconnections between these different projects.

Third, (and this was the topic of my own paper) we need to be a little reflexive when it comes to critiquing transparency. Much of the literature I’ve read on transparency seems very sure of its ability to know the truth… about how transparency projects don’t know as much as they think they do. Critiques of transparency should be subtle and reflexive, or else they end up replicating the false omniscience they denounce. Luckily, as anthropologists we’re good at ‘doing reflexivity’ so this shouldn’t be too much of a problem for us.

Fourth, and finally, much of the literature on transparency that I’ve read doesn’t like transparency because it has been used to do evil. This is doubtless true in many cases, but it’s not a criticism of transparency ideology itself. Sadly, there is no concept or idea that has not been used for evil at some point or another in world history. Love, compassion, hope, solidarity, empathy — all have been used to justify the worst excesses of human nature at some point or another. For instance: We love our children, which is why we must eradicate the Jews who seek to prey on them. Ultimately, we need to be clear that when we dislike transparency projects, it is because we dislike the broader political project which has pressed it into service. We should also be clear about why and how much we dislike these projects. I’m very cynical about the success of these projects in the mining industry, for instance. But that doesn’t mean that I’d prefer to have an industry that is completely unregulated and unmonitored. Norms are at the core of many of our concerns about transparency, and we should be honest about that.

In closing:

A few more notes about Switzerland. I was also able to get out to Lucerne to visit Bettina Beer’s group there which studies mining in Papua New Guinea — thanks to all of them for their hospitality and especially to Tobias Schwoerer who helped organize my stay. I didn’t get a chance to sight-see much on my trips. However, I did get a chance to see the Musée Barbier-Muller in Geneva and the Ethnographic Museum in Basel (and, as a result, Basel’s lovely historic downtown). The former had a small collection of beautiful pieces displayed in a pretty traditional ‘arts premiers’ way. The latter had a fantastic 3 story high entrance to a Sepik men’s house, along with strong collections from the Sepik and New Ireland (among other places). There were a couple of installations there or in-process when I visited so I couldn’t see all of the museum, but I was intrigued to see how Basel solved the perennial problem of ethnographic museums: How to display a collection gathered under one out-moded premise (natural history of ‘primitive’ people). Their solution was to have each of the floors of the museum dedicated to a different dimension of the human experience: agency, ‘bigness’ (space, extension, and volume), and so forth. Or at least this is what I gathered — one thing I confirmed on this trip was precisely how little German I spoke. I liked the idea of addressing the Human Condition, but of course this also led to very little contextualization of the objects from PNG. And, if I may so, I was a bit shocked at the number of skulls on display. I think in the US displaying human remains is not the done thing anymore.

One final thing: if you’re into iconoclasm, I highly recommend the cathedral in Geneva. It’s remarkable how unadorned a cathedral can be! I guess I shouldn’t have expected anything else from the town John Calvin called home.

Overall, I had a great time in Switzerland and it was well worth the twenty frickin’ hours it took to get there. Thanks to everyone who hosted me and made my trip possible — it is much appreciated!

Some of my new publications are now available on ResearchGate

For some reason I’ve chosen to put my work on ResearchGate rather than Academia.edu… I’m afraid I don’t have the energy to put everything I write on both sites. But to update you on what I’ve been up to, if you head over there you’ll see I’ve recently uploaded (or linked to) full-texts of the following pieces:

Book Reviews

Journal Articles

In particular I want to showcase my article “Welcoming The New Amateurs”, at the new #openaccess journal Commoning Ethnography. It’s a short piece, but it summarises a lot of my thoughts about the history of our discipline, decolonizing anthropology and how we can use the past, which is always messy and multi stranded, to construct new and useful genealogies for ourselves. My argument is that the history of anthropology in the 1930s in both New Zealand and the United States provides a better model for the more inclusive, less tenure-tracked future of our discipline than the Cold War era does. We need to be aware that a lot of the the things we think of a typical of an academic discipline — tenured positions, research funding, exclusion of amateurs, rigid genre standards, etc. etc. — were part of one phase of our discipline’s history, not a necessary and essential part of our discipline. I don’t think the piece is perfect, but I do hope you’ll give it a read since I worked really hard on it.

The second journal article is an introduction to a special issue on politics in Papua New Guinea. I will (hopefully) blog more about this soon. But if you are interested in this topic, I encourage you to read not just my piece, but the work of authors of this special issue. You can read an open access version of the entire issue at Anthropological Forum’s great website. They do a great job making their content available despite (*cough*) who their publisher is….

Thanks for reading this and, who knows, maybe some of my published work as well!

My social media sabbatical is over

I’m excited but also sorta trepidatious to announce that my social media sabbatical is now officially over. I took a break in May of last year to deal with stuff, including wrapping my head around the idea of not blogging regularly for the first time in 12 years. After six months I though “well maybe this will be a one semester sabbatical” but then… yeah it was sorta easier to just keep Not Posting. However, now I am back and my goal is to write weekly about things that interest me. I’ll also be more active in posting my work on researchgate and pushing content from this blog to Twitter, Facebook, etc. I also have some other plans afoot but… more on those soon!

The Easiest Silverstein

Michael Silverstein is an important thinker whose work spans anthropology, psychology, and linguistics. I’m deeply indebted to him intellectually, and benefitted immensely from his service on my dissertation committee. But it is hard explain the appeal to non-Silversteinians. Partially this is because of his difficult writing style (which has improved over time, I should say) and the slightly suspicious over-enthusiasm his devotees have for his work. Also, let’s be honest: Silverstein’s goal is to take things that many people already understand and redescribed them in a technical language that almost no-one understands. This is not an unheard-of approach. It is what linguistics do to grammar, after all. But it’s not to everyone’s fancy.

So what is the easiest thing of Silverstein’s that you can give to people to help them understand what is going on with him? I think the answer is his 1977 article “Language as a Part of Culture” in the edited volume Horizons of Anthropology. I think because it is old and not often taught it may have slipped out of people’s view. Which is a shame.

Of course it’s been a long time since I was at Chicago so I may be out of touch with the Latest Phase but I think this article covers most of the themes of Silverstein, and it does it in 12 pages in relatively straightforward prose. Relatively being the key word here.

Silverstein has written a lot and his thought is complex and has evolved over time. So this is hardly the last or best summary of it. But I think it might be a good place for a lot of people trying to find a way in it… or convincing/explaining to their own students what their former teacher is going on about. If you have thoughts or refutations let me know on twitter. I’m @r3x0r .

If anthropology is a humanity, which humanity is it?

Anthropologists are notoriously unwilling to commit to being either a science or a humanity. Sometimes there are pragmatic reasons for this — even my most humanistic of colleagues would like the option to apply for NSF funding, even if their heart isn’t really in their bigger project. But this reticence also genuinely cuts right through the middle of our discipline, since anthropology came of age when the distinction between ‘science’ and ‘the humanities’ didn’t exist in its current hard-and-fast form. But there’s a related question we worry less which I think is more interesting: if we are a humanity, which humanity are we?

I believe there’s been a shift in anthropology away from seeing ourselves as students of things made by humans (the origins of the term ‘humanities’ — it’s the study of things not made by God) to being the creators ourselves.

For instance, back in the 1970s, anthropologists thought of themselves as literary critics. Doing anthropology, as Clifford Geertz famously said in (iirc) his essay on thick description, that anthropologists read texts over the shoulders of the ‘natives’. This ended up being a fruitful idea, because at the time literary criticism was developing a lot of very useful models of how meaning was made. Of course, as the decades when on it also became clear that models developed to understand text artifacts — books — didn’t get us as far as we thought when we started to study interaction. But that’s another story.

Equally, anthropologists have frequently wanted to be historians. Sometimes this was because we wanted historical answers to important questions: In the US ethnohistory got started partly out of attempts to document land claims of Native Americans. But there were also theoretical appeals to history as well. For Evans-Pritchard, for instance, history seemed to offer a model of rigor and particularism that was more interesting to imitate than physics or chemistry. Sahlins and other history of anthropology types in the 1980s saw that the Annales school offered concepts which could help anthropology develop answers to its questions about structure, agency, and social change. In the 1970s it became clear to us that the places we studied had a history, usually a pretty grim colonial history in which anthropologists were involved. Anthropology as history gave us a way to research that question, etc. etc.

Literature and history were the bigs ones, but there were others: Classics has always hanged heavily over our discipline. Often because many of the founders of our discipline studied the subject back in the day when most of what was taught at the University just was classics. Folklore has long been an allied discipline to anthropology — when it hasn’t just been anthropology. Eliade and Dumézil produced a humanistic study of religion that anthropologists have affiliated with at different times, and Mauss’s original job was in a ‘religious science’ centre which, by the standards of the contemporary US (where I teach), would be considered a humanistic. At some level, I think it just seemed natural for some of us to hang out with the epigraphers, even if we weren’t archaeologists.

Today, on the other hand, it is increasingly mainstream for anthropologists to see themselves as creative artists, not the people who study them. This is the anthropologist as novelist, not literary critic. I think here of Stuart McLean’s Fictionalizing Anthropology or his collection (edited with Anand Pandian) Crumpled Paper Boat, or Beth Povinelli’s work as part of the Karrabing film collective. Examples could be multiplied. My entry in Anthropocene Unseen: A Lexicon is sort of in this vein, although I’m not as good at it as Anand and others. Examples could be multiplied, but hopefully this gives you a sense of what I’m talking about.Now, a few caveats: of course, anthropologists — or at least some of them.. maybe not enough! — have always cared about writing clearly, elegantly, and beautifully. And anthropological fiction also has a genealogy in our discipline (see the 1922 volume American Indian Life). But often this impulse has been repressed. We now write Zora Neale Hurston back into anthropology’s genealogy, but she ultimately drifted away from the discipline because it didn’t give her the room to move that she wanted. Margaret Mead was widely viewed as a squish for writing Coming of Age in Samoa, at least by older Boasians like Kroeber and Lowie. Sapir and Benedict wrote poetry, but they didn’t think of it as anthropology, they though of it as poetry. One of anthropology’s great strength is its willingness to tolerate experimentation. But let’s not kid ourselves: often times that willingness has had limits.

I’m not super into the ‘literature’ turn in anthropology. I’ve always been more interested in the lively arts (and video games) than literature. Even today, most of what I read is nonfiction. But I think it’s an interesting development. A few years ago I was talking with a sociologist who had just read Behold The Black Caiman and asked me, in essence, “dude, what was that even about.” and I was like: “anthropological ethnography: /me inserts thumbs up emoji here”. I admire — and am envious of — the sociologists’ ability to produce accessible works like Evicted or Gang Leader for a Day. But I’m also very proud to be part of a discipline that never stops pushing boundaries. At the same time, I think there’s something very valuable about an anthropology that sees itself as adjacent to history or classics or history of religions, and I wouldn’t want to give that up either. In the end, I think the important thing is to keep an open mind — a move that requires us to remember less-used options as much as it means embracing our current trends.

Now I am 17

I started this blog seventeen years about today, and according to my usual habit I’m writing an annual blog post about its past, present, and future.

In May of this year (I think?) I took a social media sabbatical to focus on other things. There are complex reasons for this… mostly having to do with the fact that I had a a lot of other things to focus on. It has been a fantastic experience, and I recommend that everyone do it. It is amazing how much of social media doesn’t matter when you are committed to it not mattering, and how much deeper your knowledge of current events can be when you spend your time diving deeper.

In 2018 I left Anthrodendum, the reincarnation of Savage Minds, a blog I’d been working on for over a decade. This has also been fantastic. Instead of producing a thousand words a week for the blog I’ve produced thousands of words of articles, book manuscript, book review, and journal special issues. I’ve spent more time with my family. And I’ve had a chance to experiment with new forms like my history of anthropology timeline and my Tumblr, Highly Accurate Pictures of Anthropologists. I’ve also spent a lot of time on service, which has not been that much fun. But it has been a learning experience. And even if only a handful of people read the 10K+ words of peer review I’ve written in 2018, I am still a stronger writer and thinker for writing them. At least… I hope so!

My goal at this point is to use my personal blog as a personal blog, for whatever thoughts I may have. But I’d like them to be less important to people than SM or Anthrodendum, which some people take very seriously. I’d also like to shift from writing general interest pieces to pieces more focused on what I now describe as my interests: political anthropology, anthropology of the Pacific, history of anthropology, and Porgera. I’d like to have the freedom to write for more than one forum, instead of feeling that I constantly need to keep SM/anthrodendum updated. In general, I just want some room to manoeuvre, instead of being locked into a single configuration.

I’m also going to start following Twitter again, but I’d like to keep a lower profile there. I think Twitter is great for discovery, amplifying a message, and surfacing expertise. But I don’t think it’s a great platform for engagement, and while I enjoy the economy of cramming your thoughts into a byte (or two bytes) of text, it’s not really my speed. I also think a lot of people now feel that there are downsides with the speed of social media, and now after some years people are interested in longer, slower, engagements. It may be that the tempo of blogging is coming into fashion again. At this rate the blog will be out of fashion in 2025, and back in in 2032. At that point I will have been — god willing! — blogging for thirty one years!

I think a lot about Fernand Braudel’s image of history as an ocean: Braudel was not interested in the froth and turbulence on the surface, which he associated with great man, palace intrigue, military campaign history. He was interested in the deeper movements of the ocean, which in this analogy were the ‘structures of the long durée’: the geography and enduring cultural themes which were the base on top of which the historical wave was built.

I am not — and never really was — that interested in the froth on the top of the wave which is social media and twitter. I find it exhausting to keep up with. I recognise it’s important, and a lot of people with excellent taste love it, and I appreciate and respect their position. If y’all want to do that, go for it! But I’d like to run at a slower, more Braudellian tempo. Maybe no tthe longue durée, but more of a focus on the middle of the conversation. At least, that’s the plan.

Anyway, I have more to say, but maybe it is time to call it for this evening and move on to some of my other projects. Hopefully I will be writing more here in the future. And if anyone enjoys or benefits from reading it then maybe my eighteenth year of blogging will benefit more than just me.

Happy 2019!

My new encyclopedia article about Marshall Sahlins is now available… for very wealthy libraries

It took a while, but I have a short encyclopedia entry about Marshall Sahlins in Wiley’s International Encyclopedia of Anthropology. After a long period of being hostile to secondary sources in my youth, I now appreciate high-quality well-curated content (in my youth, there was no Internet, and being deluged in low-quality, random-ass information was not an option). That said, in general I am not a big fan of huge reference projects by for-profit publishers. The put content behind a huuuuge paywall, and the content is of uneven quality by people who are not always the top experts in their area. The days when Malinowski’s encyclopedia entry on culture was THE statement on culture are now long gone. Frankly, I wouldn’t have written for Wiley if it wasn’t for the fact that they asked me to write a piece on my dissertation supervisor. I wanted to make sure Marshall got a good write-up and I felt (perhaps over-optimistically) that I was a better option than others. So I did it. I hope it will be useful to someone someday. Hopefully I’ll get around soon to proving an open access equivalent.

This is part of a continuing series of publications about Marshall I’ve done, which include another encyclopedia article, a festschrift, and a bibliography.

My review of Brown’s new history of SOAS is up

My review of Ian Brown’s “The School of Oriental and Asian Studies” is now open access and available to read at the History of Anthropology Newsletter website. It is a good book, but I didn’t find it very useful for understanding the role that SOAS’s department has played in the history of anthropology… probably because the author did not write the book just for me. So no surprise there. That’s fair. At any rate, I think it is probably the most deeply researched and longest book on the SOAS written to date, or at least that I am aware of, so Brown should be congratulated on this book. If you are interested in a closely written and research administrative history of SOAS this is the book for you.

A Good Question Is More Important Than The Right Answer

I write answers on Quora, so I get emails from the site asking me to answer specific questions. At lot of the questions are valuable, but the way they are asked leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, its been a clinic for me in how not to write questions, and in realizing what an important skill asking good questions is, and understanding just how few people have had a chance to develop that skill.

A lot of times poor questions are good questions which have been poorly written. It takes a lot of skill as a writer to write a clear question so that someone can answer it! One big issue is assuming that people share your premises about a question. Probably my least favorite kind of question to answer is “Why didn’t X happen?” or “Why isn’t X a Y?”. Since I answer questions about Papua New Guinea I’ve gotten a few “Why doesn’t PNG become part of Indonesia?” or “Why don’t hunter gatherers settle down?” These are hard questions to answer because the asker has a whole theory in their head about how the world works, a theory which is challenged by what actually occurs in the world. Their question arises when the world and their theory of it is out of step.

Questions like these are hard to answer because you don’t know what the asker’s premise is, so you can’t explain to them where the fault in their logic lies. The shortest answer is really just “why would X?” Which is a way of saying: Why do you believe your presumption holds true, given the existence of disconfirming evidence? A better way to ask the question is “Given the many political and economic benefits of being part of Indonesia, why hasn’t PNG joined Indonesia instead of remaining its own country.” At least that way you can tell what presumptions are at work in the asker’s question.

I — and I think most teachers — are fond of saying that a good question is better than a correct answer. Being able to ask good questions enables growth, imagination, and learning. It builds community by creating dialogue. It also helps me answer your question on Quora! So my advice, if anyone should care to take it, is that you educate yourself about the world, don’t forget to educate your capacity to learn. Asking clear questions with explicit premises, hopefully in a positive (“why”) rather than a negative (“why not”) form is, to me at least, a very important skill.