Tag Archives: culture

Economy Such Complex, Culture Much Simple

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” — H.L. Mencken

In a recent blog post, Paul Krugman argues that economists and policy makers have deliberately mystified the current economic situation for political reasons and that the solution to our current woes is actually very simple: we need more government spending to boost demand. He plays off the above Mencken epigram, saying “For every simple problem there is an answer that is murky, complex, and wrong.”

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“An anti-nominalist book”: Eduardo Kohn on How Forests Think

Earlier this month I sat down with Eduardo Kohn to talk about his amazing book How Forests Think. We started out discussing his intellectual influences and ended up ranging widely over his book, the status of Peirce as a thinker, what ‘politics’ means, and a variety of other topics. Thanks to the hard work of our intern Angela, I’m proud to post a copy of our interview here. I really enjoyed talking to Eduardo, so I hope you enjoy reading it!

Wisconsin and the Amazon

RG: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk. I really enjoyed How Forests Think. When I started it I was a little on the skeptical side, but I ended up thinking it was a mind-blowing book. I thought we could begin by discussing the background for the book and your training. I see the book as mixing biology, science studies (especially Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour), and then some sort of semiotics. It seems like there are a lot of influences there. You got your PhD at Wisconsin, so how did that work out? Can you tell me a little about your background?

EK: The way I got into anthropology was through research, by which I mean fieldwork.  And I was always trying to find ways to do more fieldwork. I saw Wisconsin as an extension of this. When I was in college I did some field research in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I had a Fulbright to go back and do research after college, and only then did I go to grad school.   Although How Forests Think aims to make a conceptual intervention in anthropology, I think of our field as a special vehicle for engaging intensely with a place in ways that make us over and help us think differently. Continue reading

Real cash feeds Facebook’s monopoly over your private life

Facebook has been on a shopping spree in 2014. It’s looking to buy a drone company so that it can bring the internet and Facebook to the other 6 billion, and its acquisition of Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset firm, is aimed at making your friending, liking, stalking and humble bragging more experiential.

Now it seems the company is in discussions to purchase a London start up which has expertise in online payments. And it is this creeping interest in financial technologies that should worry us more than drones or our friends turning our chats into their virtual reality.

If everything goes to plan, Facebook users will apparently be offered the chance to store and transfer money on the site, rather than having to use a service like PayPal.

Facebook reps are said to have been in talks with several London-based peer-to-peer money services that could make Facebook payments a reality. One of these is Transferwise, a company that recently hit a quintessential target for a scaling tech company when it announced that it had processed £1 billion in user payments. Another possible candidate, Dublin-based CurencyFaire, has also hit the billion mark, albeit in dollars.

The convergence of social media and financial services should be seen as a profound shift in how people view, save, use, and are freed of their capital. And Facebook’s interest could mark a tipping point. Social media is being used as agateway drug to get users hooked onto much more pernicious forms of socio-technical circuitry and economic capture.

Why would Facebook sell vague social analytics about our activity to advertisers when it could go directly to our wallets? This is the ultimate “disintermediation” or cutting out of the middleman.

Capitalism requires fluidity – the transformation of static objects into cashable objects. By making money social and digital it becomes more fluid.

And since social media corporations are already learning how to turn individual users into liquid assets, the mix is all the more potent. Fluid money and personal data pools in centralised servers owned by the millionaires and billionaires of Facebook and Google.

Facebook apps for asset management will not be designed for the financial elites whose wealth is already governed by a well-paid professional managerial class. While the discourse is about empowering the working and immigrant poor to be able to send money home without costly fees, it is really about financialising a new market, the formerly private acts that are being unlocked by social media.

The privatisation of our lives is already booming. Visit AirBnB to rent out your home, Girl meets Dress to rent someone else’s high-end clothes, WhipCar to borrow someone’s car, Rent My Items to get your hands on their power tools, or Microworkers to rent minutes of your day to do small time work for menial pay.

This is financialisation masked as the “sharing economy” but at least we get to rent a nice dress or go on holiday as a result.

Facebook has been successful in inviting us to volunteer our free digital labour in producing one of the world’s most valuable companies. Some lovingly call this “participatory culture” while I and others call it exploitation.

Facebook can capture additional users by raining down wifi from drones and by making a scroll through bachelor party pictures more immersive with 3D goggles, but these markets will be small time in comparison to the financial market of online payment and banking.

This is an explicit attempt to transform the means of our digital sociality, our online public sphere and agora into a mall, a bank, a bazaar. If Facebook is successful, users will rarely leave the site. They will forgo the dangers of the wider internet for the safe comforts of our gated virtual community where we are safe to self-promote and shop till we drop.

Or worse, this is an attempt to “gamify” money management. It will be Farmville for personal finance or 3D Candycrush for cash. This sounds stupid because it is. It represents the transformation of a complex system into a simple one. The more our social life is monitored and then digitised, the easier it is to hoard, gamify, and monetise any profitable crumbs.

This will not result in more agency but less. Banking is based on hard-to-understand calculations but it is regulated. Add complex filtering algorithms and financial technological derivatives to the picture and no sane person will understand what is happening to their money.

Online payment isn’t the problem. Facebook, Google, and others who monopolise and monetise our digital lives on closed centralised systems are. The financialisation of our private lives as well as unwarranted, indiscriminate, illegal, bulk surveillance flourish in these spaces where corporations and governments gain direct access to our private lives.

What we need is a social movement to demand an information commons, decentralised servers, and digital literacy along with so-called financial literacy. We don’t need to hand Facebook yet another key to our private spaces.

Footprints, Families, and Fallacies

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger, Jane Eva Baxter]

Yesterday, the media widely reported the discovery of 850,000 (or so) year old footprints at the British seaside village of Happisburgh. This media coverage coincided with the publication of an article in the open access, peer reviewed journal PLoS ONE, and the announcement that the footprints will be featured as part of an upcoming exhibition called, “Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story” at the Natural History Museum in London.  While the AP story can be found through your media outlet of choice, you also can read a bit about the find through the British Museum blog by curator Nicholas Ashton, who was involved with the project.

The Allure of Footprints

This discovery has generated a good deal of enthusiasm among the general public.  As some small measure of this excitement, I can report six students in my World Prehistory course (of 40 students) emailed me with links to news coverage about the find in a single day. This is not typical, and such news sharing is not required or even necessarily encouraged as part of the course. Archaeologist Clive Gamble, quoted in the AP article, explains why this discovery has such a popular appeal. “This is the closest we’ve got to seeing the people,” he told the AP. “When I heard about it, it was like hearing the first line of [William Blake's hymn] ‘Jerusalem’ — ‘And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green?’ Well, they walked upon its muddy estuary.” Continue reading

Empathy: A Short Conceptual History and An Anthropological Question

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger LINDSAY A BELL

In my first post, I proposed that anthropology might be particularly well suited to thinking through the concept of empathy. In North America, “empathy” has come to be a prominent term across the caring arts. In areas ranging from self-help to health care, empathy seems to be something that can and should be cultivated. In 2006, President Obama declared that an “empathy deficit” was more pressing than a federal budgetary deficit. The scale of this claim reflects an increasingly popular view of empathy as producer of solutions to large, complex issues. In his 2010 bestseller Empathic Civilization, American social theorist Jeremy Rifkin argued that “global empathic consciousness” could restore a global economy and solve climate change.

Last weeks’ commentators aptly pointed out that “empathy” has become a gloss for broader concerns. Its implementation from the perspective of those of you working with social workers, health care professionals and so on made it clear that institutionalized empathy is a downloading of problems onto already thinly stretched personnel. As a former pubic schoolteacher, I can agree that it is tempting to dismiss empathy as a smoke screen for troubles of our times. Yet, I keep coming back to anthropology’s shared principles with empathy—specifically perspective taking, withholding judgment, and dwelling with the people we work with. I am not arguing ‘for’ or ‘against’ empathy. Frankly, I am curious. What meanings has this term come to hold in the context of North America, and what very real kinds of ways of relating to Others has empathy been trying to capture but somehow can’t?  Puzzled by the empathy boom, I went to a good friend for insights. As an analytic philosopher specializing in emotions and emotion history, she had a lot to teach me about the crooked conceptual path of the term. She was so generous in sharing what she knows, I thought I’d share what I’d learned here. Continue reading

Conference Chic, or, How to Dress Like an Anthropologist

By Carole McGranahan with Kate Fischer, Rachel Fleming, Willi Lempert, and Marnie Thomson

Wondering what to wear to the AAAs? We’ve got you covered. For women: throw a few scarves in your suitcase, a suitable range of black clothes, a kick-ass pair of shoes or boots, and some anthropological “flair,” and you should be good to go. Men need to pack their nice jeans, a good buttoned shirt, and the pièce de résistance: a stylish jacket. Unless you’re an archaeologist. Then all you need are jeans.

Anthropologists around the world are packing for the annual American Anthropological Association meetings (“the AAAs”) being held this year in balmy Chicago from November 20-24. What, you might wonder, are they packing? What look do anthropologists go for at the AAAs where thousands of anthropologists gather each year? We’ve turned to our social media networks to find out, posting this question on Twitter and on multiple Facebook accounts to learn just what fashion choices anthropologists are making this week. Continue reading

Trouillot on rethinking "culture" (via Living Anthropologically)

Jason Antrosio has a great new post about Michel Rolf Trouillot’s chapter on culture in the excellent book Global Transformations.  It’s easy to misread Trouillot’s argument–so I think it’s important to really look closely at what he’s saying and why.

Trouillot’s chapter on culture is incredibly relevant these days.  Especially considering the fact that the concept has taken on endless new uses and meanings.  These varied uses often rankle anthropologists, who feel that the concept is somehow theirs and that there must be some way to right the wrongs that have been done to their blessed theoretical child.  Trouillot basically smashes this sort of thinking.

I read through this chapter the other day and it also reminded me of some of the issues that came up in Jason’s recent post about gang culture and court room anthropology.  What happens when people start using the idea of culture to make warped arguments about human behavior?  How can anthropology be used to counter these kinds of arguments?  Trouillot gets right into these issues and arguments in his chapter.  But I think people can easily misread Trouillot’s argument as some sort of dismissal of the culture concept.  However, that’s not what he’s doing–he makes a crucial argument about getting back to the “conceptual kernel” of the culture, basically what those early 20th century anthropologists were  trying to do with it in the first place.  In essence, get back to the point.  Get back to what they were trying to address with that concept.   This is fundamental. Continue reading

Breastfeeding in public: what is and what is not "appropriate"

I just read about a discrimination case in the San Diego area in which author/educator Rachel Rainbolt was told by her child’s homeschool teacher that breastfeeding was “inappropriate” behavior during weekly meetings.  Read more about this case on her site.

First of all, this sort of reaction to breastfeeding is not uncommon.  It reminds me of this cartoon, which points out some of the deep hypocrisy that pervades this whole issue, especially here in the US.

Second, this is obviously about cultural norms–and this includes ideas about what is and what is not considered “indecent” in public settings.  Part of the issue is who defines norms, and how certain activities (or parts of bodies) are deemed either acceptable or not.  The whole conversation about breastfeeding is entangled in all kinds of social and cultural ideas about human nature, sexuality, and how we think about individual human bodies in relation to the larger social body.  When a lot of people think about breasts (this includes men and women), they automatically think SEX.  As if that’s their primary reason for existence. Continue reading

OAC Online Seminar: A cultural analysis of the Lance Armstrong "reality show"

The Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC) is continuing its online seminar series with its latest installment (#17), a paper by Lee Drummond that takes on the Lance Armstrong phenomena (or debacle), using it as a lens for understanding American society.   The seminar is well underway, and will be open for comments and questions until September 21.  Here’s a bit from Drummond’s abstract: Continue reading

Star Trek and the Unfinished Project

I recently watched a “fan episode” of Star Trek which felt so much like the original series that you could easily believe it was directed produced by Gene Roddenberry. This devotional attention to detail got me thinking about the continued appeal of Star Trek. Habermas’ phrase “the unfinished project of modernity” immediately sprung to mind. Whereas in Star Wars modernity is represented by the dreaded Empire, Star Trek’s Federation is a benign force that carefully oversees the social development of lesser species. If the Enterprise encountered Jedi knights they would probably see them as a vestigial form of feudalism oppressing peasant society with their special powers.*

Here’s a confession. I not only grew up watching Star Trek, but I also grew up being spoon-fed that same version of modernity at school. I went to the United Nations International School for both middle school and high school, and I helped organize a series of student-run conferences on development related issues at the UN. But then I became an anthropologist. As an anthropologist, reading the likes of James Ferguson, James Scott and Arturo Escobar, one becomes a little skeptical about modernity’s “unfinished project.” It was for this reason that I found myself watching this nearly flawless recreation of the original Star Trek series and wondering: what’s the point? I loved it and will continue to watch any new episodes, but I also found it disturbing to have this outmoded vision of modernity preserved so uncritically.

It is like someone designing, in 2013, a building in the style of brutalist architecture from the sixties. I can admire some of these buildings and can even see the argument for preserving the greatest examples of brutalism, but would you really want to make a new building in this style? Perhaps the problem is that we still don’t really have a good alternative? It seems that a lot of science fiction these days is dystopian, zombie movies abound, but there there are very few movies or TV shows that see modernity as something positive. I understand the appeal of the enchanted vision of modernity that Star Trek gave us, but rather than forever try to recapture our lost-innocence, to finish a project which can never be finished, maybe it is time to tell a new story about modernity?

* Star Wars, of course, is set in the past.

When "culture" erases history

Sure, sometimes “culture” can tell us a lot about human behavior and differences.  But there are also times when arguments based upon the concept of culture can obscure just as much as they reveal.

Right now I am in the middle of going through all of my interviews, making notes, and looking for themes I can draw from for my dissertation.  Things are coming along.  I figured I’d share some of what I am doing…sort of let you in on the process as I work through it.  If you don’t already know, my research is about the conflicts over tourism development on the East Cape region of Baja California Sur.  These conflicts are, in part, about development.  Or, more specifically, about what type of development people want to see happen in the region.  Some of the area’s residents are in favor of large scale development, some root for something along the lines of “sustainable development,” and still others basically don’t want to see *anything* change at all.  I worked in a small coastal community in the heart of the East Cape, a place where land ownership is one of the most critical issues. Continue reading