Who were you reading now?

I wish I were posting more on this blog, and perhaps my cobloggers feel the same—or maybe my silence is cause for the same celebration it often is amongst my students. In any case, apologies if my posts are missed, and Hello, My Name Is Chris, if you are wondering who the hell I am.

I felt sufficiently moved to withdraw from my Fall Death March of Classes, Conferences and Co-Parenting to add something to Rex’s post about influences. As a member of the Marcus/Fischer/Clifford Cabal (Yes, TINC)—Santa Cruz Undergrad, MIT Grad, Rice Ass’t Prof—I am intimately familiar with the so-called impact of the “writing culture” critiques of the 1980s. As a student of Science Studies, I am also aware of its current cache (in at least a tangible self-interested sense, since it is why I was hired, and I would add Latour’s Science in Action and Haraway’s Cyborgs, Simians, and Women, to the good years of 86-88). However, I admit to being nonplussed — or perhaps simply unmoved—by any sense that the disicipline has no center, or that some things are influential for some people and some aren’t. I never intended to be an anthropologist; indeed—and you heard it here first—I have never taken an anthropology course (!) and the fact that I am granted fellow traveller status here, or at least landed immigrant status, is what makes anthropology the magical and methodologically pluralist blob-disicpline that it is. I’m not sure whether Marcus, Fischer and Clifford had anything to do with that, as one can find all manner of interlopers in anthropology across its history– but I sincerely hope it remains so.

Which is to say, I would much rather be at play in the open fields of anthropology, than sucking it up at the fenced-in margins of economics or sociology, both of which have strong core theoretical commitments that determine little things like who gets which plum jobs and book contracts. I love that I can teach, research and talk about everything from potlatch to nanotechnology with my colleagues, and I can’t imagine any other discipline that would yield equally interesting and in-depth thoughts across this spectrum (sometimes even with the same person).

That being said, here are some things I will have been reading in 2005, when I get to it: Collier and Ong’s volume of Global Assemblages, Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel’s mega-exhibit Making Things Public: Atmosphere’s of Democracy (oh, and Rex, if you hated WHNBM, you will truly despise Latour’s new book, Re-Assembling the Social), Jenny Reardon’ Race to the Finish, lots of truly interesting dissertations by Rice graduates, including one on corruption in poland by Michael Powell, and one on the Inter-American Development Bank’s anti-violence programs by Angela Rivas; an undergraduate thesis on a telemedicine initiative in Cambodia (Cynthia Browne); Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (which is one of the only ways I can clarify the meanings of public/private/social to my students); Foucault’s lectures on La Naissance de la Biopolitique (especially for his references to Hayek); Dewey’s The Public and its Problems; Bill Maurer’s Mutual Life Limited on Islamic Banking and Alternative currencies; Grace Young’s Breath of a Wok (Popular Anthropology Meets Cookbook!); Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy? (argh, one of the death march conferences is on D&G); Brian Cantwell Smith’s On the Origin of Objects (a seriously heavy-duty attempt to rethink the practice and metaphysics of computer science); Anna Tsing’s Friction; Stefan Helmreich’s manuscript for a soon-to-be-published book about marine biologists called Alien Ocean; and Clifford Geertz’s “Notes on a Balinese Cockfight” (and yes, it is principally about evocation — but you know what, nothing works magic on naive undergrads like the balinese cockfight… I think maybe it’s principle reason for being is to convert people to anthropology — god knows we could use a few more articles like that one — alleluah).


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

9 thoughts on “Who were you reading now?

  1. hmm, writing cultures… how about de certeau’s earlier works on that topic? he shares many non-references with latour though they end up in very different places. another interesting book is the empire of meaning by dosse, which tries to put much of french social thought of the last 10-15 years in context.

  2. Hi Chris, My Name Is Orange.

    ““Notes on a Balinese Cockfight” (and yes, it is principally about evocation—but you know what, nothing works magic on naive undergrads like the balinese cockfight… “i>

    I ve come along Geertz and the Balinese Cockfight for the first time in my history studies, as Thick Describtion has been transdiciplinarily transfered to the study of the pasts leading to a relatively young new approach called Microhistory.
    Anyway, when I attended my introductory class on ethnology, I remember the students who were to present Geertz. When they arrived issues of identification of Balinese men with their cocks, the girls were, well, not really tasting magic, but gigglingly had a hard time in accessing the phenomen.

    Looking forward to read more, once you drop by again.

  3. sorry, this is a pet peeve, and i am compelled (partially by procrastinatorial urges) to respond:

    “However, I admit to being nonplussed—or perhaps simply unmoved—by any sense that the disicipline has no center”

    nonplussed = surprised and confused. that’s not what you meant, is it?

  4. chris — I, for one, did wonder what had become of you. Perhaps you´ll be able to answer a question I´ve had for some time about Latour and WHNBM. It´s written in the format of a self-help manual, or a management training guidebook. Is this an on-purpose joke? Has Latour written anything about the form (rather than the content) of the book?

    I went through a period of feeling the kind of enraged loathing that Rex seems to have for whnbm, the way Latour sort of chummily holds the reader´s hand through a 12-step process designed to sweep aside all previous philosophies, only to replace them with… network theory? Please.

    But that is, I think, too earnest a reading. Latour makes *all* the moves of self-help: “let´s admit we have a problem, I the author have been there too, we can get through it together, step by step” Now, like any work of self-help lit it is therefore open to the charge of shameless charlatanism designed to prey upon the weak-willed and weak-minded. One way or another, all critiques of Latour take that form – the critic who has SEEN THROUGH Latour´s tricks and promises, and can´t believe others still fall for them. Sort of like the vitriol aimed at the Atkins diet, or EST, or whatever.

    But the form of the work seems utterly self-consciously structured as a self-help manual while intervening into a body of literature and offered to an audience that *never* uses or reads that format. So — is it really a trick if he points to what he is doing with such exaggerated pantomime? Read that way, it feels less like he is trying to induce some cathartic experience in the reader and more like he´s setting up the immanent problem of all self-help manuals: they all deal with hard problems that don´t offer easy resolutions. The good bits are in the picking apart of the problem, but of couse the resolution offered (because the formula requires the offering of some kind of resolution) is disappointing. I don´t know. I´ve rather gone round to liking WHNBM very much all over again.

  5. Emily Martin’s Flexible Bodies is fast becoming canonical, if it’s not already. The anthropology of flexibility, or rather, the anthropology of the discourse of flexibility. Mind-expanding shizzle. Oh, and it took me a while, but I finally realized that the amorphous blob on the cover of the book is supposed to be a Gumby-like creature — i.e., an actual flexible body. Clever, that.

    My new favourite weird-ass book is Annelise Riles’ The Network Inside Out, though. Also mind-expanding, it’s about how networks, or rather, the Network, operates, especially its internal logic and how its members relate to each other and the Real (what is outside the Network). Well, it’s about NGO bureaucrats in Fiji, too, but only kind of. I had no idea how bizarre that world is, no wonder government documents are so boring if they’re basically made by cut and paste from previous documents, along with fill in the blanks work from committees.

  6. Did you like the Riles? I personally wouldn’t reccomend it, and was very disappointed by it, frankly, given her reputation in the field that quality of some of her other stuff.

  7. I’m not decided as to whether WHNBM is consciously structured as a self-help manual. One thing to remember about Latour, and about many of us poor souls who do science studies, and therefore end up teaching primarily science and engineering students, is that our students often do need a 12-step, self-help, hold-my-hand and make it crystal clear approach to social science and philosophy. This is certainly the case for Latour in his everyday life at the Ecole des Mines, but probably shouldn’t be for his academic life as a Famous French Philosopher (in France and here). The only other thing I can say is that Latour is a perfect gentleman in person, and likes very much to have everyone understand what he is talking about–and I actually think that ccan translate very badly into written form, which accounts not only for WHNBM, but Science in Action and Re-Assembling the Social as well. Pasteurization of France, Aramis, and Laboratory Life are all monographs, on the other hand, and hence better off as written works…

  8. but I can´t help thinking about the fact that he is often quite funny — ie, it´s not all about courteous hand-holding, there is a sense of humor at work in the format, too. And I don´t think WHNBM is badly written, quite the reverse. it´s a much more compelling read than are the monographs, which are full of details about liver peptins or whatever that … well, pardon me while I pass out drooling. I guess I just feel that a lot of the vitriol directed ad WHNBM is misguided — especially the kind that insists on ¨seeing through¨ a work that bends over backward to be translucent.

  9. Well Rex, I did say the Riles was my new favourite, so yes, I liked it (though favourite seems an overstatement in hindsight). I did just add Anna Tsing’s Friction to my Amazon wishlist, though, so the next time I’m short $17 for free shipping I’ll tack it on and we’ll see where the Riles ends up. Or maybe I should replace A Feast for Crows in the order I’m filling out right now with Tsing’s book instead.

    Oh, and I scanned really quickly through Global Assemblages, it does look interesting but unfortunately not directly relevant to my research at hand, so it goes into the expanding list of books I really should get to sometime.

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