How do planetary scientists understand distant places like Mars or planets orbiting another star? A conversation with Lisa Messeri about “resonance” and the anthropology of space.
By Michael P. Oman-Reagan
Yesterday, NASA announced the discovery of seven Earth-sized exoplanets (planets outside of our solar system) orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1. This is the most known rocky planets around a single star and, as planetary scientist Sara Seager noted in yesterday’s press conference, that makes this system an ideal laboratory for understanding if any of these planets host truly Earth-like conditions. Last May, scientists using the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile announced they had found three planets in this system. Yesterday’s letter, published in Nature, confirmed the historic discovery of seven planets in the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system.
In an article out this month in American Ethnologist, “Resonant Worlds: Cultivating Proximal Encounters in Planetary Science,” anthropologist Lisa Messeri draws on her fieldwork with planetary scientists to propose new ways of thinking about how they “recognize the alien in the familiar” as they study planets in our solar system like Mars and as they search for exoplanets. In this post, Messeri and I discuss her findings and insights about human engagements with space, science, and anthropological ways of finding a connection to seemingly distant other worlds. Continue reading →
In the new millennium’s politics, polar bears play the part whales played in the 1980s. From a theatrics-as-protest perspective, their shape lends itself better to impersonation than that of a rainforest or whale. Activists take advantage of this. Dressed as polar bears, they show up in the most unlikely places—the Kremlin, or Ottawa’s Parliament Hill—as nonhuman “climate refugees. In an act billed as “part protest, part performance,” Greenpeace paraded a mechanical polar bear the size of a double-decker bus through central London, as part of its Save the Arctic campaign. Fifteen puppeteers operated Aurora the bear, which had an articulated head and neck, a mouth like an ice cave, and the real bear’s “slightly lazy” ambling gait. Continue reading →
Since 2009, the blog AnthropologyWorks has created an annual list of the “Best Cultural Anthropology Dissertations.” Being included on this list seems as if it might be a grand honor, but is it? Unfortunately, the answer is no, not really.
Here is why: the process for choosing the “best” dissertations is problematic. It consists of one anthropologist reading the abstracts of dissertations published in that year. Just the abstracts; no actual dissertations are read to determine which are “best.”
But it gets worse: only abstracts of dissertations in certain research areas are eligible. In order to be considered, one’s scholarship must overlap with the focus of the AnthropologyWorks blog, as follows: “food, resources, and livelihoods; power and politics; health; conflict and violence; population dynamics; stratification including race, class, gender, and age; activism, programs and policies.” This list is wide, but is not inclusive of all possible anthropology topics. If you don’t do research on any of these topics, you are not even considered for “best” distinction.
For the final blow, only scholarship from the USA is included. Have a PhD from outside the U.S.? Is it fantastic? Too bad. You’re not eligible for consideration. Continue reading →
The day after Trump won the election, I went into my class as usual. I was setting up the smart podium, when a student in the first row turned back to another student to chat. I couldn’t overhear everything that went on between the two of them, but I did hear the student in the first row loudly exclaim “Well if you don’t like it; you can go to Canada.” Even though it was before class time, I gave this student the side-eye, wagged my finger at them and said “we don’t use that kind of language in this classroom. We’re going to practice being polite to each other in here!” The student apologized to me and class began. I don’t know if they apologized to the other student. This was the first day after the election and I wish I could say that this was the last time I heard exclusionary language in my classes. But I wasn’t surprised; throughout that semester I had been teaching to red ‘Make American Great Again’ hats.
I teach at a rural university in Minnesota where I am the only anthropologist on campus. It is not as much cache as it sounds. I teach large service courses where students in my classes are there only for the liberal education credits they receive. Most neither know nor care what anthropology is, and if anything, are prepared for college only as a hostile climate that may challenge their faith, their belief in creationism, their comfort with their ideas and self image. I wish I could say that this is a Trump-era problem, but the fact is that my classes at this university have always been this way. Barring a few welcome exceptions, students are not interested in learning anything that challenges their worldview, and certainly not from a foreign woman with an accent, who isn’t even Christian.
Post-election, when it feels like the entire climate in the country has shifted to resemble one I normally face in my classroom, I’m contemplating how we, as anthropology professors can continue to teach. Whom do we teach now, and to what purpose? Continue reading →
The physicist Wolfgang Pauli famously derided those with whom he disagreed using the insult, “you’re not even wrong.” This stinging reprimand was meant to imply that a proposed idea was so illogical that it didn’t even enter into the spectrum of falsehood. An idea that is “not even wrong” does not qualify as information, simply noise. We live in a very noisy time.
In the wake of the 2016 election and subsequent moment of ‘reflection’, there has been much scrambling to parse information from noise. Twenty-first century information circulation has manifested a porous Rorschach reality (Adam Curtis’ latest BBC documentary presciently spells this out in conspiratorial grandeur). Rather than another attempt to tourniquet the hemorrhaging of reality, perhaps the fluidity of this moment affords an opportunity to reassess prevailing narratives about rationality, reason, and logic. Rather than paragons of knowledge, perhaps these traditions of thought have merely served to suture over the enduring ignorance of patriarchy.
As a volunteer legal advocate working with refugees who were seeking resettlement, I learned to ask detailed questions about persecution. These were the kind of questions you would never ask in polite conversation: Who kidnapped your best friend? Were they wearing uniforms? What did those uniforms look like? Where did they hit you? Did you pay a ransom for her release? How did you identify her body? Questions like these, which refugees are asked over and over as part of the already extreme vetting that they undergo to be granted asylum and resettlement, are personal, intimate, painful. They demand a precise and consistent command of autobiographical detail and the strength to revisit events that one might otherwise want to forget. They try to get to the heart of what happened to a person, what forced them to leave everything behind.
On a more cynical level, these questions try to catch a person in a lie, to identify those who are not “deserving” of refuge. The answers are checked and cross-checked, asked again and again across multiple agencies and organizations. In separate interviews, family members are asked the same questions. Do the answers match up? Do the dates and places make sense? Were you a victim of persecution? Are you who you say you are? While these questions and their answers shape the narrative of an individual resettlement case, there is a way in which they don’t get to the heart of what happened to a person, why someone was forced to flee, cross at least one border to enter another state, and is now seeking resettlement in a third country.
Vetting, extreme or otherwise, is about inclusion and exclusion. But before someone even gets to the arduous, opaque process of being considered for resettlement in the United States, decisions are made at the executive level about who to include in a broader sense. While the Refugee Convention provides protection for any person with a “well-founded fear of persecution” on specific grounds, this has never been the full story of the US refugee program, where a presidential determination each year decides how many refugees will be resettled, and from where. Some die-hard advocates and detractors aside, refugee resettlement has historically had bipartisan support and mostly stays under the radar of public attention, except, it seems, in moments where it becomes a reflection of broader anxieties and struggles over belonging and exclusion. Continue reading →
As I continue dealing with the crushing weight of anxiety on my journey to graduate school and the fetid assault on human dignity we call contemporary U.S. politics, I return with readings for the week.
Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) is difficult to summarize. A patriotic citizen of his native Hungary, he spoke German at home and identified with German intellectual culture. He was a Jew who converted to Christianity, as well as an Anglophile who was deeply impressed by the spiritual intensity of Russian culture. He witnessed Europe’s fin-de-siecle nervousness and survived two world wars, living in Hungary, Vienna, England, before finally taking a position at Columbia University just in time to witness the birth of the Cold War.
Disciplinarily, Polanyi was equally hard to pigeonhole. A socialist, he insisted that markets were created by and embedded in society, not naturally existing creations that could or ought to be ‘free’. Economists thought him a sociologist, sociologists thought him an economist. Much of his work was historical, but he greatly influenced the field of anthropology.
In fall 2016 British academic Gareth Dale published the first ever biography of Karl Polanyi, presenting for us at last a major account of Polanyi’s complex and fascinating life. I interviewed him recently over email about his book, Polanyi’s life, and his relevance for today. Continue reading →
Judith Butler has written that “resistance is the mobilization of vulnerability,” arguing that precariousness animates action. This suggests that rather than a state of docile subjugation, vulnerability is a source of empowerment. A particularly revealing example of this relationship between power and vulnerability is evidenced in the current status of federal climate science data. This data is increasingly vulnerable, as it is now maintained by an administration that has openly disavowed its credibility. At the same time, its vulnerability is directly tied to the potential power it wields in upsetting the authority and legitimacy of this administration. The power and vulnerability of climate data are positively correlated.
On its first day in office, the incoming administration ordered all mention of climate change removed from the official White House website. This, and the new president’s vow to eliminate Obama-era environmental policies, suggest a broad mistrust of science (climate science particularly) among the executive branch and its supporters. Suspecting that this could endanger decades of accumulated scientific data and research, UPenn’s Environmental Humanities program and Penn Libraries have initiated the DataRefuge project (#DataRefuge, @DataRefuge), facilitating a series of DataRescue events around the country designed to ensure that federal climate and environmental data remain publicly available under the current administration – a clear illustration of resistance stemming from the mobilization of vulnerability.
I agree with Michael about the potential of this repository. And if your work is currently uploaded on a site like Academia.edu, now may be the time to migrate. If you haven’t heard about it, SocArXiv is a green open access digital repository that runs on the Open Science Framework. I wrote about this project back in September here on Savage Minds. Matt Thompson wrote about the wider arXiv framework in May 2016. When I first wrote about this at the end of last year, the temporary version was online. The full beta version went online in December, and it looks great. Here’s part of the launch announcement:
SocArXiv, the open access, open source archive of social science, is officially launching in beta version today. Created in partnership with the Center for Open Science, SocArXiv provides a free, noncommercial service for rapid sharing of academic papers; it is built on the Open Science Framework, a platform for researchers to upload data and code as well as research results.
By uploading working papers and preprints of their articles to SocArXiv, social scientists can now make their work immediately and permanently available to other researchers and the public, and discoverable via search engines. This alleviates the frustration of slow times to publication and sidesteps paywalls that limit the audience for academic research. Since SocArXiv is a not-for-profit alternative to existing commercial platforms, researchers can also be assured that they are sharing their research in an environment where access, not profit, will remain at the heart of the mission.
Since development was first announced in July, researchers have deposited more than 600 papers, downloaded over 10,000 times, in anticipation of SocArXiv’s launch. SocArXiv anticipates rapid growth in that number in the coming year as it establishes a reputation as the fully open repository for sociology and social science research.
Read the full announcement here. So, anthropologists and readers of Savage Minds, what do you think? Are you on board? Skeptical? Well, check it out and get back to me. Post your comments below!
In December we published our first installment of our new Reader Letters series. This time around, we’d like to hear what you, our readers, have to say about the new US President, Donald J. Trump. What will Trump’s America mean for the country, and for US anthropology? As anthropologists, how can we approach the social, cultural, political, economic, and environmental implications of the Trump era? What does his election, inauguration, and rise to power portend for the coming years? What do you think? Let us know!
Please keep the following guidelines: letters should be no longer than 250 words and should address issues covered in Savage Minds and relevant to anthropology, broadly construed. As with traditional letters to the editor, all letters must include the writer’s full name; anonymous letters will not be considered. For general guidelines refer to our comments policy. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified before publication. Letters may be subject to minor editing for clarity.
Send your letter in the body of an email (not an attachment) to email@example.com. You can also send me a DM via twitter: @anthropologia. Deadline for submission is February 20 and we plan to publish by March 1, 2017.
The City University of New York (CUNY) is the largest urban university system in the country and ranks alongside the California and New York State systems for total enrollment. Until 1976, CUNY was entirely tuition-free. While remaining significantly cheaper than other private universities in New York, CUNY has increasingly pursued a neoliberal business model reflective of for-profit institutions. This is hardly surprising. The financialization of CUNY has occurred in tandem with the financialization of New York City itself, and indeed much of the nation and world economy. Today’s confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the new Secretary of Education promises to continue and exacerbate this trend.
By: Catherine Besteman, Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, Tricia Redeker Hepner, Carole McGranahan, Nomi Stone, and Marnie Thomson
The Racist Gift of Immigration and Citizenship Bans, Again
How can we understand Donald Trump’s executive order banning the entry of immigrants from Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Iran and Iraq, as well as all refugees? As an act of national security, the ban makes no sense. Rather, I read them as a racist gift to the white Christian alt-right that formed President Trump’s initial core base. The United States has a history of bans and color bars to entry and citizenship, about which we are rightfully embarrassed in hindsight. The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted citizenship to only white immigrants, a law that remained on the books until 1952. Entry to the US remained open to anyone, however, until the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and then the Johnson Reed Act of 1924, which imposed the first comprehensive control over immigration. The Act placed a cap on the number of people to be admitted, set national origins quotas based on the 1890 census for entry, and barred anyone ineligible for citizenship from entry. By using the 1890 census, the national origins quotas intentionally favored immigrants from northern Europe and restricted Jewish immigrants because of anti-Semitism and fears of Communist influence.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court declared ineligible for citizenship everyone from Japan to Afghanistan, with the exception of the Philippines, then a US territory, thus creating a new racial category of “Asian” to be universally banned. When comprehensive immigration reform in 1965 removed national origins quotas and bans, it was heralded as a rejection of racist barriers to entry and a victory for American values of justice, human rights, and fairness. A dog whistle to those lusting for white Christian hegemony, the bans are an initial step to return America to a time when Muslims were barred from entry and immigration to the US was controlled by and for whites only. Continue reading →
In the summer of 2015, in collaboration with a diverse collective of artists and ecologists known as Chance Ecologies, I was invited to help perform an excavation of a street in Hunters Point, Queens. The peculiar aspect of this excavation was not that its existence was dubious, plenty of archaeological excavations fail to uncover the artifacts they pursue. Rather, the uniqueness of this project was that we knew the artifact we sought did not exist, and this is precisely why it was chosen as the subject of our investigation. The intention was explicitly to destabilize the notion of ‘existence’ – is it bound to material realization, or does simply conceptualizing something activate its existence? (See Nick Land’s portmanteau, hyperstition, at your own risk.)