Year of the Mushroom

In the next week or so, many of us will celebrate the year of the rooster. The year of the monkey, which we are just saying good bye to, had a lot of stuff going on inside of it. But looking back at the anthropology end of things, it’s pretty clear that 2016 was not the year of the monkey, but of the mushroom.

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Population #ReadIn

“Racism” is such an unwieldy concept. Living in a world in which racism is one of the fundamental building blocks that shapes all our relationships, calling someone racist is somewhat akin to a fish accusing another fish of swimming in water. This is how I felt when I saw Democrats claiming that the election was won because of racism. If I were to make a list of racist things in American politics it would be just as likely to include welfare reform as the southern strategy, just as likely to include drones as border walls, and just as likely to include super-predators as a muslim registry.

I don’t want to create a false equivalency. There is a very important difference between a political party which relies on minority votes and one which tries to suppress them. There is an important difference between a party which engages in dog-whistle politics to win over swing voters and a party for which such voters are their electoral base. But that doesn’t get us away from the fact that – in American politics – we are always talking about relative racisms. Many of those supposedly racist voters voted for Obama in the last election, and many minority voters handed the election over to Trump in their state simply by staying home on election day.1 I don’t write this because I want to assign blame, but simply to illustrate how crude a tool “racism” is when trying to make sense of this all. So, if racism can’t help us, how do we talk about this phenomenon which is so central to contemporary politics?

It is not an easy riddle to solve, but one important part of the solution can be found in in the writings of Michel Foucault. Just a part of the solution, mind you, but for my own thinking on the matter it has been key. For that reason I was very happy when a bunch of anthropologists announced that they wanted to read read Michel Foucault’s lecture eleven in Society Must Be Defended as a means to think through “the interplay of sovereign power, discipline, biopolitics, and concepts of security, and race” on inauguration day. This is because the concept of biopolitics is a very useful addition to the analytical toolkit we have for talking about the diverse phenomenon grouped under the term “racism.” As with any such analytical tools, the benefits of highlighting certain features necessarily obscure others, and there are entire books written to try to sort out exactly what is lost and what is gained by using these tools; however, today I would like to simply focus on one aspect of this lecture which has been particularly useful to me: Foucault’s use of the term “population.” Continue reading

Artificially Intelligent, Genuinely a Person

It’s difficult to overstate our society’s fascination with Artificial Intelligence (AI). From the millions of people who tuned in every week for the new HBO show WestWorld to home assistants like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, Americans fully embrace the notion of “smart machines.” As a peculiar apex of our ability to craft tools, smart machines are revolutionizing our lives at home, at work, and nearly every other facet of society.

We often envision true AI to resemble us – both in body and mind. The Turing Test has evolved in the collective imagination from a machine who can fool you over the phone to one who can fool you in front of your eyes. Indeed, modern conceptions of AI bring to mind Ex Machina’s Ava and WestWorld’s “Hosts,” which are so alike humans in both behavior and looks that they are truly indistinguishable from other humans. However, it seems a bit self-centered to me to assume that a being who equals us in intelligence should also look like us. Though, it is perhaps a fitting assessment for a being who gave itself the biological moniker of “wise man.” At any rate, it’s probably clear to computer scientists and exobiologists alike that “life” doesn’t necessarily need to resemble what we know it as. Likewise, “person” need not represent what we know it as.

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Around the Web Digest- January 8

To start this post off, I want to remind readers of our Read-In on January 20, 2017 where we will read Michel Foucault’s lecture eleven of “Society Must Be Defended” from March 17, 1976. The Read-In will be between 10AM and 10PM Eastern Standard Time and after a discussion will be held in person, through #ReadIn, or on the Facebook page found here.

Now for the weekly readings!

If the role of anthropologists and fellow academics are still in question in the coming years, Mark Edelman on a blog post for PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review summarizes what is at stake for our communities if we do not take action against the current wave of authoritarianism.

We want you to all check out the blog Academography: Critical Ethnography & Higher EducationSimilar to this blog’s vein, Academography is a collaborative blog that brings together work from interdisciplinary scholars under the umbrella term “Critical University Studies”.

The documentary What Was Ours was recently shown through PBS’s Independent Lens and currently available online to view. The film follows two Arapaho youth and a Shoshone elder as they travel to the Field Museum in Chicago to find objects that detail the history and future of indigenous life in the Americas.

Jason Hickel from the London School of Economics illustrates the huge clandestine profits made by rich countries that are obscured under the veil of “aid” to poorer countries. The article would work in classes and conversations that deal with globalization and its repercussions.

Zhou Youguang, the inventor of Pinyin, or the most commonly accepted method to Romanize Chinese has died at the age of 111.

In Switzerland, naturalization into citizenship is dealt with at the canton and municipal level, not the federal. In short, you can be denied citizenship for annoying your neighbors.

The American Anthropological Association is hosting a webinar titled “Social Science Advocacy in 2017 and Beyond” on Wednesday, January 25, 2017 between 2PM and 3PM to discuss social and behavioral science research in a turbulent political climate. RSVP at this link.

That is all for now, please read and discuss for our Read-In this week!

Teaching Martin Luther King in Hawai‘i

Every Spring I teach “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in the class immediately following MLK day. Typically I focus on first and second year college students. I do it for several reasons: For many of my students, “I have a dream” is the only text of MLK’s that they know; because it helps explain the reason for the season; and, most of all, because the letter is incredibly teachable.

I originally got the idea from Gerald Graff, who remarked that King was such a clear writer you could almost reconstruct the letter he was responding to just by turning his sentences around. So I said, alright, let’s do it. I’ve done the assignment is several different ways, but basically it goes like this: Students come to class, and we read the letter out loud, each student reading one paragraph at a time. We then begin with the logice of his argument: What are his claims, his reasons, and his examples (this goes pretty quickly in a college setting).

We then move on to rhetoric, asking: How does MLK creates roles for readers and audience in the text? Who does he compare himself to? Who is Paul, what is Tarsus? Many students don’t know this, while others are proud to be able to share their knowledge in an institution which is sometimes not totally welcome to practicing Christians. Some who think they are Christians realize they don’t actually know anything about key texts from their tradition. It’s interesting. But anyway the questions are: Who does he think his audience is? What does he assume that they know?

I then introduce the concept of heteroglossia and ask my student what other voices they can find in the text. How is this single-authored piece shot through with other opinions. Who is King agreeing with or disagreeing with? At the end of class I give students an assignment to write the letter than King was responding to, using only text-internal clues regarding what that letter said. I ask them to reconstruct the argument, as well as to sign it — that is, imagine what kind of people wrote it, even if they don’t know their names.

This process is not too hard on students — you could do it in middle school or high school, in addition to college. You can tweak it, asking them to read MLK’s letter outside of class and then come to class having written the letter to which he’s responding. You can assign some chapters on the book on the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, to provide context, or read other texts by King (I’ve used “Conforming Non-Conformist” in the past).

But really, it’s the ease of analyzing King’s text that makes the exercise so useful. Students feel like they can do it. And you can basically teach ALL intro level college analytic skills just out of this one piece of writing. Once they have that under their belt, you can tell them: “Great. Now on Thursday we’ll be doing this with Foucault. Good luck!”

King’s text is not just easy to analyze, it’s also a model of clarity and persuasive speech. King writes clearly and concisely, but does not write sparely or sparsely. When he needs to let the clauses roll out, they roll out. It’s a valuable corrective to the indigestible academic prose that fills the academy, and which our students unfortunately learn to imitate.

King is exemplary for more than just his prose of course. Undergraduates today — especially those in Hawai‘i — don’t live in King’s world. This is the first experience with Jim Crow that many of my students have had. It’s powerful. And King does more than remind readers of a past that they may not have had access to before. His approach to dialogue is important to. In academy which is used to critique, King tries to convince. In an academy which too often stigmatizes enemy subject positions, King offers readers a chance to be good people — if they get on board his plan. King doesn’t just know what’s wrong. He knows what’s right.

It’s also quite shocking to some students to see that King was in fact a political agitator. We have a vision of him as a great conciliator, someone who found common ground, increased shared understanding, etc. But the King of the Letter actively advocates disruptive, illegal protests. He urges us to heighten tensions, not resolve them. He encourages violation of unjust laws. King was an activist who did the right thing, not the legal thing. I sometimes feel that this is something that people would like us to forget about him.

Finally, reading the Letter makes students ask new questions: What happened after the letter was written? How did we get from there to here. If I fill in some of the context, they start asking: Who was Malcolm X? Martin Buber? If I am teaching a more advanced class, we begin asking “how are we interpellated as a subject? What are the rights and wrongs of such interpellation”?

Your mileage may vary, and it may be too late for you to incorporate some of this material into your own classes later on this week. I’m sure that I’m hardly the only person who finds time in class to teach MLK around MLK day. But if you haven’t yet, why not give this exercise a shot, or adapt it for your own use? Or why not share your own in-class exercises below? Thanks. And happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Society Must Be Defended: Join us for a Read-In on 20 January 2017

By: Paige West and JC Salyer

 

In the wake of the 2016 US presidential election scholars across the country and internationally have worked to understand the drivers for the election outcomes. We have tried to foresee the potential consequences of a Republican party domination of the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government for vulnerable populations, for the environment, and for the economy. And, we continue to grapple with the serious threats the president elect and his cabinet nominees pose to the freedom of the press, to citizen’s rights to free speech, and to the various protections that scholars receive through university systems of academic freedom and tenure. At most universities there have been teach-ins, learn-ins, and panels, as well as emergency meetings of departments, faculty action groups, student groups, and other concerned parties. What more can scholars do?

Since the election, one statement we have heard repeatedly from some academics, pundits, journalists, and bloggers who write about academic life, is that scholars need to somehow change what they are doing, and how they are doing it, in order to face this seemingly new political reality in the Unites States. While the latter part of this argument has been addressed by numerous scholars and activists who write and think about race, class, sexuality, and inequality more generally – with clear and compelling arguments about how this is not a “new” political reality for many but rather a kind of contemporary culmination and re-entrenchment of the structures of power and oppression that underpin the entirety of the national political project – the former part of the argument has been allowed to stand with little critique. Do we need to change what we do and not just how we do it? Not necessarily. Continue reading

Medicine, Technology, and the Ever-Changing Human Person

Though we often take for granted that humans are persons, they are not exempt from questions surrounding personhood. Indeed, what it means to be a person is largely an unsettled argument, even though we often speak of “people” and “persons.” Just as it’s important to ask if other beings might ever be persons, it is also important to ask if humans are ever not persons. In this pursuit, it’s crucial to separate the concept of personhood from notions of respect, love, and importance. That is to say, while a person may necessitate respect, love, and importance, something need not be a person to also demand respect, love, or importance.

When the concept of personhood in humans comes into discussion, it inevitably is punted to the medical community, often in the context of abortion and end of life. When does the heart first beat? When can a fetus feel pain? When does the brain begin/stop producing electrical activity? There is no doubt that advancements in our understanding of human physiology have enlightened discourse on what it means to be both a human and a person. However, the question of personhood is all too often debated solely in light of Western medical contexts. This conflation of physiology and personhood is the same issue that was discussed in my previous post on primate personhood and will be revisited in my next post on artificial intelligence. To escape this quandary we need to consider factors outside of physiology that are important to the concept of personhood, such as the social.

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Why Anthropologists Failed to Boycott Israeli Academic Institutions

By: Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar

In 2016 the movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions for their involvement in the illegal occupation of Palestine both gathered significant steam and faced a huge roadblock. In the United States, the country that largely underwrites and funds the Israeli occupation, the call to boycott initiated in 2004 by Palestinian civil rights organizations movement has had some impressive successes, with eight associations endorsing it thus far, notably in academic fields that challenge Eurocentrism.[1] The movement continued to grow last year as scholars across disciplines learned more about the Israeli occupation and its consequences. Several larger academic organizations discussed or voted on the boycott call, including the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Modern Language Association (MLA). As criticisms of the Israeli state and Zionist ideology spread, backlash intensified.

We are part of the diverse group of anthropologists of different backgrounds, including Israelis and Palestinians, who have organized a movement to convince the AAA membership to adopt the boycott. For several years, we have worked to educate our colleagues about both Israeli violations of Palestinian rights and the boycott as an effective tactic by which to support those rights. We’ve done this through panels, roundtables, dozens of op-eds, videos, webinars, teach-ins, email outreach, and canvassing on the floors of various anthropology conferences. As the MLA begins its discussions of the boycott, we offer this retrospective on the AAA vote last spring. Continue reading

On writing from elsewhere

My childhood imagination enhanced stories told to me by my elders of where we were from, and my history embraced the possibility of exciting seafarers, noble learned men and women, poor housekeepers, exiled princesses, wandering mystics, Marxists fighting the good fight, and revolutionaries standing up against the British. While some of this might very well be true, at age five or six, sitting in New Jersey, truth was a far fetched notion and irrelevant. As we do, I have carried these stories with me through my life and into my practice, and I revisit them now as I consider the topography of text. I am curious about what it means to write about others from a position of otherness as the cartography of elsewhere informs my writing from within, while positioned somewhere else.

Where are you from?
But, where are you really from?

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Of Primates and Persons

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Coltan Scrivner for the month of January. Coltan will be writing a series of posts on personhood from different disciplinary perspectives.

When I moved to Chicago for graduate school, one of the first things I did was go to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Just like with other zoos I’ve been to, I was most eager to visit the Great Ape exhibit. As always, after sitting and watching the chimpanzees for some time, I inevitably start to feel a bit guilty. There’s something about the chimps, with their eerily human-like behavior, that makes it feel wrong to be watching them in an enclosure.

You can get at the familiarity from a biological perspective by rattling off scientific facts like “they share 99% of our protein-coding genes,” or “our lineages split just 5-7 million years ago.” As a biological anthropologist, I am prone to do so. These things are often invoked to shed light on similarities between Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes. Between species. Yet, even to someone who knows nothing of biology, there is still something about chimpanzees that rings familiar. Something about the way they behave, about the way they interact with other chimpanzees and their environment. You don’t need the biology or the genetics to begin to wonder if perhaps they should be considered as something more than animal. It’s clear they aren’t humans, but could they be individuals? Can a chimpanzee possess an understanding of a self, be a someone as opposed to a something; can they be “persons?” Continue reading

Around the Web Digest: 2016 in Review

  1. I cannot say I will be nostalgic this Sunday morning, but Savage Minds and our incredible contributors never stopped writing and confronted every step with a critical eye. In order to mark the coming year,  Savage Minds compiled a list of our favorite pieces written in 2016.

The ongoing “Decolonizing Anthropology” series by Carole and Uzma continues to push anthropology to confront the historical trauma of our disciplines and how we can address this in the present. Movements like #NODAPL only highlight the importance of facing our colonial past. Decolonization as Care  was one of our favorites of the series.

Beyond the Decolonize series, Uzma and Carole were writing nonstop on their own pieces. Uzma’s favorites include The day after Leonard Cohen Died (as if 2016 was not hard enough) and “Situational Awareness” about the increasing militarization of daily life.

Among Rex’s favorites, his writing knows no genre with his work ranging from the timeline of anthropological theory, critiques of University of Chicago’s trigger warning letter, and a written memorial for Bernard Bate.

Earlier in the year, the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions by the American Anthropological Association was rejected. A three-part series by Kerim illustrates why he voted for the boycott.

Part 1: David vs. Goliath

Part 2: SQUIRREL! 

Part 3: It’s in the Resolution 

Rex reflects on the AAA vote in What we learned from #anthroboycott in a poetic turn.

Kerim teaching at National Dong Hwa University means he also writes about updates on cultural politics of Taiwan including his talk at Taiwan’s annual anthropology conference in Seeing Culture Like a State and the relation of gender and hair in youth culture in Freddy’s Hair. (My favorite part of living in time zones 14 hours apart is my insomnia making me very responsive to direct e-mails)

Matthew, our resident museum cataloger raves over arXiv and its potential to expand collaboration between anthropologists. Matt also pulls out Max Weber again in Infrastructure as Iron Cage in order to explain the constraints of capitalism in our daily lives.

Cthulhu, graces us with their presence in 2016 by reviewing Donna Haraways’s Making Kin in the Cthulhucene.

The guest contributors this year wrote some the most provocative, brave, and thought provoking work to match the turbulence of 2016. Some standouts among Savage Minds contributors include:

As 2017 comes around the corner and the consequences of the previous year come into fruition, be sure that Savage Minds and our contributors will be there to reflect, debate, and critique with an anthropological twist.

Have a Happy New Year everyone!

Pokemon GO comes home: Manners pedagogy in the Japanese linguistic landscape

[This is an invited post by Debra J Occhi, Miyazaki International College (aka Hyuga Natsuko1, yellow team). Debra is a linguistic anthropologist employed at Miyazaki International College. Her current research interests include leisure, gender, cuteness, characters, and regionality.]

Pokemon GO, one of the big waves in summer 2016 media-mix pop culture, was released July 20, 2016 in Japan, immediately triggering warnings about personal safety and public manners. I downloaded it and embarked on participant observation ethnography for the next three weeks in Tokyo, and have played it in various parts of Kyushu since then. From the start, news from various countries of the changes wrought by Pokemon GO framed it as both a new source of social mayhem and conversely, a boon to the sedentary, depressed gamer. Yet here in its birthplace, Pokemon GO is just one of the summer events centered around this franchise. In the late 1990s Pokemon had entertained my kids while we were living in Sendai during my dissertation fieldwork. Back then the original media consisted of the card-based game, Game Boy games, and the summer’s movie, all based on the anime. I was downtown teaching English conversation when that notorious episode triggered epilepsy in some viewers; fortunately my kids were safe at the neighbor’s. From then on, all anime contain warnings at the start of each show to viewers to maintain distance from the screen and watch with lights on. While Pokemon has been misinterpreted as the devil’s temptation by some in the USA, it seems to me that in its home country Pokemon has continued to inspire personal safety instructions, and public manners training as well.

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Faculty work, librarian work, and life balance

Tis the season. As my professor friends hustle to write final exams and grade them, only to press through to letter grade submission and finally revel in winter break I am reflecting on my absence from teaching. Now three semesters out of the classroom (I cashed my last paycheck as an adjunct in May 2015) I feel more certain than ever that I made the right career choice moving into museums and libraries. In this post I would like to share some observations, incomplete as they are, on my professional life outside the academy.

First, a little professional biography. Prior to moving out of teaching I racked up a lot of hours in the classroom — in addition to being instructor of record at my alma mater I’ve been behind the lectern at a community college, small liberal arts college, and large urban university. I’ve tutored, taught high school, and led service learning. But to be honest my list of courses taught is pretty basic: gen anth, cultural, evolution, food, and gender studies. I never had much of a say in which classes I would teach, such is the lot of a hired gun.

There’s a lot to love about teaching and those thrills, I miss them. I love teaching as performance, standing up in front of a crowd and telling stories, leading discussions. You know, doing my thing. But most of all is the experience of playing a part, however large or small, in opening up a young person’s mind to exciting new ways of seeing the world. Anthropology has a lot to offer! And to be there when a talented student makes that discovery, that’s really special. I even have a small handful of former students I count as true friends.

Obviously there’s a lot I don’t miss about teaching too. Our pet peeves are almost universal, are they not? Grading mountains of papers. Looming deadlines. Answering clueless emails. The dreadful sense that you’re supposed to be doing something productive right this instance. “My printer ran out of ink” and other lame excuses. Of course we teachers can commiserate over all of that together and there’s a certain solidarity that comes with the shared burden. Its always a hoot to pop the cork on a bottle of wine or toss back a couple of beers at the pub and swap horror stories. (My personal best-worst excuse: “I can’t tell you why I missed class because my sorority has sworn me to secrecy.”) In addition to all the intellectual labor there is a huge toll of emotional labor and to me that was the worst part of the job.

Museum and library work offers an interesting foil to academics.
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Amazon Go and the Erosion of Supermarket Sociability

Invited post by: Sally A. Applin (@AnthroPunk on Twitter)[1]

I recently finished my Ph.D. As a present, a friend of mine gave me a hand. Not help, which he had done during the process, but rather a battery-powered automated hand, cut off at the wrist, similar to that of Thing, the Addams Family’s servant from TV and film. In part of my thesis, and my research on automation, I’ve looked to Thing as a metaphor for IoT software automation. Thing, on TV, is a trusted friend who builds relationships with family members and can negotiate with others on their behalf. In fiction, and the representation of fiction, Thing works beautifully and embodies what a smart agent could be. It is aware of its surroundings, it builds trust. It connects people. Thing is a keeper of local knowledge. The Applin and Fischer (2013) Thing agent, is a software construct using deontic logic to encourage and support human agency, building trust in a relationship based context.  The hand my friend gave me moved on a fixed path for several seconds, and then stopped until its button was pushed again. It looked like Thing, but it was only a physical representation, a simulation of physical form. In automation, data collection is not the same as building relationships, and community knowledge cannot easily be derived from quantitative Big Data. This is one of the more serious problem with Amazon Go.

Amazon Go is a grocery store concept that allows people who have activated the Amazon Go app on their mobile phone, to walk through an “authentication” turnstile into an Amazon Go supermarket. Once inside, people can “grab” what groceries they want or need, and walk out the door, without needing to check out, because Amazon’s “computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning” will calculate what people take, and charge them accordingly via the app. Amazon Go has a video on their website that explains all of this, and shows people “grabbing and going” with their groceries, stuffing them into bags or just holding onto them, and walking out. In the Amazon Go video, no one is shown talking to each other. Continue reading

Decentering “the human” at the interfaces of anthropology and science studies?

By: Kristina Lyons

In what ways do seeds, soils, bees, microbes, and rivers matter when Native, Black, brown, queer, and trans human bodies are systematically under assault? Can a decolonizing approach successfully decenter “the human” in this political moment? For whom, when, and how is human exceptionalism a problem that needs to be overcome in the first place?

In my first year teaching feminist science studies courses at UC Santa Cruz, certain literature at the interfaces between anthropology and science studies that might be said to deal with “naturescultures” and “human-nonhuman” relations was received with discomfort by a number of the undergraduate students I encountered in my classes. Some of these students were in tension with being asked to care about what they perceived as beings or things outside their political identities and collectives in a commitment to foreground the violence(s) experienced by Native, Black, brown, queer, and trans human bodies. Others were predisposed against the masculine whiteness and Euro-Atlantic based analytical focus of much science studies, which has been a recurrent critique of dominant science and technology studies (STS) genealogies and scholarship. Still others were suspicious of anything that smelt of the Anthropocene, and its current framings that often uncritically assume a blanket concept of humanity, history, and geologic record. Despite their roles in shaping and being shaped by racist legacies and ongoing coloniality, I found myself at times in the extremely uncomfortable and impossible position of defending the disciplines of anthropology and science studies. One Native American student wrote me to share that her father had taught her never to trust an anthropologist. What if anything had “environmental” anthropology learned from the critical contributions of Indigenous, queer, feminist, and critical race and ethnic studies? Why does much STS continue to be focused on such a limited portion of the world narrated by white voices and perspectives? How might we go about “decolonizing” science studies and its interfaces? Where, when, how, by, and for whom is this a possibility or even desired? Continue reading