[This post is part of a two-week series featuring interviews with designers reflecting on anthropology and design.]
SILVIA LINDTNER. DIY maker, hacker, and ethnographic design researcher.
ANTHROPOLOGY + DESIGN.
Many disciplines and fields often work with competing notions of what counts as design, claiming authority over the term, practice, and definition. Think for instance about efforts in critical design (e.g., Dunne & Raby 2007) and the strong oppositions its practitioners often make to product design. Critical design is aimed at engaging people in critical ways with commonly used products. As Jeff and Shaowen Bardzell illuminate, critical design is positioned in opposition to affirmative design—the latter considered as “the common practice, and this practice is amoral and ultimately a dupe for capitalist ideology, while critical designers are described as moral agents who seek to change society for the better” (Bardzell & Bardzell 2013).
It is important to not shy away from the politics of design, or to brash aside such heated debates over definitions, terms, and authentic practices–many of which are legitimizing efforts of new approaches in an overly competitive market (both industry and the academy). The question is how to engage the politics of design in a way that remains open to multiple viewpoints and approaches. At numerous times in my research, I have heard people argue that the process of making and designing itself is apolitical. There is much that refutes such statements–think for instance of questions of labor when we turn towards sites of production that manufacture the technological products we use on a daily basis, or listen to debates of hackerspace members over what counts as hacking versus making versus product design. What is important here is to consider the differences that lie in designing as a mode of inquiry, a leisure practice, or central to one’s profession and livelihood.
I thought I would kick off the last morning of the year by chiming in on the comments to Dr.LibertyBell’s very generative second post on empathy here at SM. But I seemed to have found the post and comments so generative, that I now find myself rounding off the last afternoon of the year by posting this companionate redux instead.
On the Particularity of the Empathetic Subject
Anthropologists like to say that we cover the whole world, the entirety of human experience in all places and times. But that doesn’t always translate into global conversations about anthropology and its findings. Questions of access to published research often get in the way, as do language barriers. As we close 2013, we take an inside look at who is reading Savage Minds—this U.S.-based, English-language group anthropology blog.
Our #1 audience is in the U.S.A. While this is no surprise, the global list of readers does include some surprises, and offers a particularly situated view into who is reading anthropology around the world—from Argentina (#35 on our list) to Zambia (#113). Continue reading
I usually try to avoid ranting about my pet-peeves, but I just gotta get this one off my chest: what’s up with leftist academics criticizing a theory for being “disempowering”? I don’t even know where to begin with such criticism. It is as if someone, upon learning of such a theory, would be so overwhelmed by the inevitability of domination that they simply give up trying to make the world a better place. Has this ever happened to someone? Really?!
“The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.”
—Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism
Sarah Kendzior’s interview from the summer over at PolicyMic started making rounds again on my facebook feed recently. If anything, it seems to resonate more now.
I spent this past Thanksgiving with a bunch of orphaned activists and grad students. At some point, I foolishly started asking people for advice on grad school, assuming I’d find similar sympathies with more perspective. But I was shocked: several people told me it wasn’t that bad, that they enjoyed it, that it was better than anything else they could be doing—and even that finding jobs wouldn’t be that much of a problem.
What might an anthropology of the covert look like? I think of the covert as a particular type of secret, one grounded in deception and shadows, and populated by individuals pretending—in part—to be someone other than who they actually are. My current research project is about the CIA as agents of US empire during the Cold War. It is about being invisible, being undercover, and being a legitimate ethnographic subject rather than just a historical or political one. Yet, what sort of ethnography can be written about covert, undercover subjects? How does one humanize the CIA?
I’ve been turning this question over since October 2009 when I found myself at CIA Headquarters. Two weeks before, a mysterious envelope arrived in my on-campus mailbox in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. The return address read “CIA Fine Arts Commission.” I remember looking around the office to see if this was a joke. The CIA Fine Arts Commission? For real? The CIA had an art department? It didn’t help matters that the envelope looked sort of homemade, as if someone had printed the mailing and return addresses on a home laser printer. Perhaps they had. At any rate, I opened the envelope up in the main anthropology office, thinking it was somehow safer to open it there rather than alone back in my own office.
There was no explosion. Phew. Continue reading
It’s been a week now since US representatives Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith published an article on USA Today about “rethinking science funding.” Their main point is supposedly that we need to take a closer, critical look at how we fund science through grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF). On the surface their argument seems reasonable, even “common sense.” Below the surface, it’s little more than a disingenuous, ideologically-based attack on the social sciences. And it’s nothing new from Cantor, Smith, and their cronies. As a graduate student in anthropology–and a recipient of a dissertation grant from the NSF–it’s pretty infuriating to see these two politicians trying to intervene so recklessly into the funding process.*
I understand the need for both accountability and clarity in the whole grant process. Are there things that need to be changed? Problems that need to be addressed? Absolutely. There are always ways to improve how things work. Definitely. But what Cantor and Smith are proposing, despite some of their benign-sounding rhetoric, is not just some altruistic attempt to “help” make things better. In fact, what they are doing is more like a witch hunt than the “we’re doing this for the people” line they’re trying to sell to the US public. Continue reading
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
Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Dana-Ain Davis, Associate Professor of Urban Studies at Queens College. She is author of “Battered Black Women and Welfare Reform” and, most recently, co-editor with Cristina Craven of the volume “Feminist Activist Ethnography.” Davis has served as President of the Association of Black Anthropologists and is currently editor of the ABA journal, Transforming Anthropology.
Heavy Hearted and Sick
by Dana Davis
It has been six days since the verdict. Nothing has changed; I was heavy hearted and sick then, and I continue to be. I was not surprised at the verdict, but I was glad I did not have a son. I was sad that I even had the thought. I wrote my friends with boy children and reminded them that they should ask their friends to make a protective circle around their sons to shield them from the atrocities of racism.
It has also been six days since Marissa Alexander of Jacksonville, Florida received a sentence of 20 years because she defended herself against her abusive husband by firing warning shots inside her home at the ceiling to stop him from attacking her. As a result I must equally remind my friends that they should rely on their friends to make a protective circle around their daughters from the atrocities of racism and sexism.
In the moments just after the verdict of Not Guilty was announced in the case of the State vs. Zimmerman, on Saturday July 13th, and the State vs. Marissa Alexander, I was unable to fall asleep, unable to quell the rage. My mind in a state of excess activity, thinking about what this verdict meant, and what I might do. Because I stayed up most of the night mourning, I quickly found out that there were protests planned across the country one of which would be in Union Square in New York City.
In the days after Trayvon Martin was killed, I attended the vigil in Union Square, brushing lightly against his mother as she was ushered from the podium to the front of a line forming to lead the march. So it seemed fitting to go there again; it seemed like a good place to be in the company of others who also felt the same rage. No explanation for tears, or silence, hugs and handholding would be necessary. I went. I marched some, but the flame of rage would not die out. Continue reading
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this guest column from Kevin Karpiak. Kevin is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology at Eastern Michigan University. His work focuses on policing as a useful nexus for exploring questions in both political anthropology and the anthropology of morality. He is currently completing a manuscript based on his dissertation research (UC Berkeley 2009), entitled The Police Against Itself: refiguring French liberalism after the social, which provides an ethnographic account of the ethical work undertaken by police officers, administrators, educators and citizens as they experiment with new forms of sociality “after the social moment” in France. He also maintains both apersonal blog and a group blog on the Anthropology of Policing. -R)
Over the past year and a half, I’ve been exploring the tragedy involving George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin in a course I teach entitled “Policing in Society.” My goal is to use the event as a concrete opportunity that can give students practical experience in using the tools we learn in class for conceptualizing “police,” “society,” and their relationship. An added benefit is that it allows students to form and articulate their own positions in regards to such issues.
[The following is an invited post by Megan Tracy.]
About two weeks ago, I received an email from one of the editors of the Science Insider blog. He began: “You’ve probably heard that your NSF grant to study the [Chinese] melamine poisoning scandal was targeted at two House science committee hearings yesterday.” I hadn’t heard and this is the first time my research has become the target of what feels like the never-ending rounds of partisan politics. The original critique of my project and the others being targeted is that they fail to directly benefit the American people. I was, quite frankly, rather surprised to be included as my project examines China’s evolving food regulatory system and has direct relevance for America’s food safety and security. The targeting of particular awards are not (and never are) about their specific content or quality but rather involve broader issues including the allocation of funding, peer review and congressional oversight. (It can, however, certainly feel direct especially when the intellectual merit of your specific grant is questioned and copies of the peer reviews and the program officer’s evaluations are requested in a letter written by the committee’s chairman. As a recent Slate article notes, these attacks appear to be winning. this year, for example, the Coburn amendment successfully limits NSF funding in political science to those that promote national security or the economic interests of the US. The same article argues that with a few exceptions, the social sciences have not been pushing back and are failing to present arguments with much traction in today’s economic and political climate.
[Savage Minds welcomes guest bloggers Leif Jonsson, Masao Imamura, and Jacob Hickman, who offer individual takes on some issues raised by James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale U P, 2009). Kerim’s previous post on the book is here. This post is by Leif.]
James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia is an interesting read. If anthropology-readers are used to embarrassment regarding the gaze on tribal peoples, then here is a license to guilt-free gawking: These weren’t tribals but rather freedom-seeking secessionists from the lowlands. There were no real ethnic others, the book suggests. Instead, linguistic and cultural diversity and the profusion of ethnic labels are just markers of state-evading strategies. In my view this is all rather problematic, in that clueless western readers (people ignorant of, say, particular histories, cultures, societies, languages, peoples, or politics in Southeast Asia) are invited to feast on the identities and politics of the Southeast Asian hinterlands without any involvement.
The effect bears some resemblance to the fickle fascination with Indians of the Brazilian Amazon as natural allies of the rainforest, that evaporated once the noble Other was seen as somehow too modern. Scott draws explicitly on the work of Pierre Clastres regarding the Guayaki and other Indians of Latin America, that the Indians had run away from the state and hierarchy and all that. Clastres had been a student of Levi-Strauss, and his early tribalist work was deeply fatalistic regarding the looming disappearance of all indigenous peoples. Clastres’ shift in focus, from pre-contact- to ex-contact peoples does not remove the assumed purity of the tribal slot but instead relocates its source. The tribals aren’t pure because of their cultural- or other essence, but because they ran away from the source of all pollution (the state, with its inequality, taxation, sedentary lifestyles, and other contaminants).
The Nacirema, till now most famous for their unusual body rituals, are also quite well known for their political rituals; especially the unusual way they choose their headman.* Whereas many traditional societies choose their headman based on his demonstrated ability at skills related to the survival of the community, the Nacirema have chosen instead to hold a public contest, called an etabed.
In order to understand the etabed, it is first necessary to understand the patron-client relations underlying Nacirema power relations. Patrons, all of whom live in a specially designated neighborhood outside the current headman’s domicile, form a special council which then meets in advance of the etabed to select both the contestants and the rules of the contest. These rules are specially designed, like Trobriand Cricket matches (in which the home team is always the winner), to give the appearance of a contest despite the ritual nature of the spectacle.
Which is not to say that the winners and losers are pre-determined. Quite the contrary. Despite the scripted nature of the contest, the two contestants must maintain a demeanor which projects their virility without seeming too aggressive. Any failure to achieve this delicate balance will result in a loss of face for the contestant. Too aggressive and they will be considered incapable of remaining calm under pressure. Even worse, they may also be considered “rude.” On the other hand, being too passive or polite will make them seem lacking in passion as well as displaying insufficient concern for the wellbeing of their patrons.
One of the strangest aspects of the whole contest is that the winner or loser is not determined simply by the performance of the two men, but by a special class of purohits who are beholden to the same patrons as the two contestants. Even though many watch the etabed itself, popular sentiment is still largely determined by these purohits, who compete amongst themselves to weave the most convincing narrative as to why the contestant supported by their patron was the true victor.
* Till now, no woman has risen to this position. Although the rules don’t specifically prohibit participation by women, the nature of the contest makes it difficult for women to compete.
In Freedom in Entangled Worlds, the first book by anthropologist Eben Kirksey, Mellon Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, the reader is presented with a history of the merdeka movement in West Papua. This tale of magic, nationalism, and human rights in an “out of the way place” unfolds on a global stage as the author treks from the secret hideouts of guerilla fighters in the highland bush country to the seat of corporate power at BP headquarters in London. Along the way we get a master class in how an academic activist might balance post-structural theory with the kinds of strong knowledge claims that may influence political decision makers.
Indonesia formally incorporated West Papua into its nation in 1969 with the fraudulent Act of Free Choice. Since that time West Papuan leaders have pursued independence, or at least increased autonomy, for their region through many, often contradictory, means. From political engagement with the Indonesian state to pleas made before the international community tribal leaders and educated city dwellers have risked their lives through armed resistance, peaceful protest, and magic pursuing their dreams of freedom. The odds seem insurmountable and the movement itself endures near constant crisis, thus the theme of crisis as a sign of hope runs throughout this short, adventurous ethnography.
In a revealing scene towards the end of the book, Kirksey, finding himself in the halls of Washington power (and the crosshairs of an FBI investigation), forms alliances with other activist organizations such as the East Timor Action Network. Frustrated that his investigation into the murders of some American school teachers outside a Freeport MacMoRan mine is largely being ignored by those in positions of power he learns an important lesson every anthropologist who wishes to speak truth to power must learn.
“Politics isn’t about facts but about stories,” the director of ETAN tells him. “Your story is too complicated.” Continue reading
For some reason, I am feeling decidedly anti-bureaucracy today. Does this ever happen to you? What is it about bureaucracy that it is so difficult, that drives us mad? Let me give an obvious answer that you would expect from some cultural anthropology type like myself: it’s because of the inhumanity of it all. The inhumanity of some bureaucracies can become so thick that they turn us all into blithering fools.
We get backed into a corner, with no place to turn. Our choices are cut off–we are stuck with the hassles of lines, rules, and forms. We wait on phones, we try to find official offices with no address. You know what I’m talking about. We become not just fools in this process, but blithering fools. But there is power in the inefficiency of bureaucracies–Weber knew that, as did many others. You know that too, don’t you? If you want to know more about this, please click here for more options.
Apologies for that…there must be some sort of glitch in the system. I will send out a request for someone to post a note about composing an email to resolve this issue at a later date. Please wait. In the mean time, if you haven’t read David Graeber’s “Beyond power/knowledge: an exploration of the relation of power, ignorance and stupidity,” well, you should. Here is your chance.
Let me give you a short example of the hilarity of bureaucracy from some of my recent travel experiences: Continue reading