David Graeber on Ethnography

Taken from the Preface to his 2009 book ‘Direct Action, An Ethnography’ all about the 2000/2001 protests and riots against the WTO, etc., pages vii-viii:

Call this book, then, a tribute to the continued relevance of ethnographic writing. By “ethnographic writing,” I mean the kind that aims to describe the contours of a social and conceptual universe in a way that is at once theoretically informed, but not, in itself, simply designed to advocate a single argument or theory. There was a time when the detailed description of a political or ceremonial or exchange system in Africa or Amazonia was considered a valuable contribution to human knowledge in itself. This is no longer really the case. An anthropologist actually from Africa or Amazonia, or even some parts of Europe, might still be able to get away with writing such a book. Presently, the academic convention in America (which a young scholar would be unwise to ignore) is that one must pretend one’s description is really meant to make some larger point. This seems unfortunate to me. For one thing, I think it limits a book’s potential to endure over time. Classic ethnographies, after all, can be reinterpreted. New ones-however fascinating-rarely present enough material to allow this; and what there is tends to be strictly organized around a specific argument or related series of them.

 …

Anarchists and direct action campaigns do not exist to allow some academic to make a theoretical point or prove some rival’s theory wrong (any more than do Balinese trance rituals or Andean irrigation technologies), and it strikes me as obnoxious . to suggest otherwise.

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Is this review of David Graeber’s new book a performative demonstration of his correctness?

Well, I wish it were, but there’s one good reason why I don’t think it is. But let me back up: I read this extract from Graeber’s new book (I’m guessing it’s probably from the introduction?) which is just fantastic. There’s something about Graeber’s perspective that just evinces the totally real reasons for having a hope for the future, today. It’s not a deferred or speculative hope-for-hope (aka “hoping for hope”), but one grounded in a particular perspective the presente (heavily informed by the past, naturally). The key part relevant to the Guardian review is this:

Normally, when you challenge the conventional wisdom—that the current economic and political system is the only possible one—the first reaction you are likely to get is a demand for a detailed architectural blueprint of how an alternative system would work, down to the nature of its financial instruments, energy supplies, and policies of sewer maintenance. Next, you are likely to be asked for a detailed program of how this system will be brought into existence. Historically, this is ridiculous. When has social change ever happened according to someone’s blueprint? It’s not as if a small circle of visionaries in Renaissance Florence conceived of something they called “capitalism,” figured out the details of how the stock exchange and factories would someday work, and then put in place a program to bring their visions into reality. In fact, the idea is so absurd we might well ask ourselves how it ever occurred to us to imagine this is how change happens to begin.

Now, cut to this silly review of the book it is extracted from:

…the weakness at the heart of The Democracy Project, both the book and the movement it reflects, is that while it may know what’s wrong with the world, it seems to have little concrete grasp of how to put it right. The author discusses the disappointments that have accompanied President Obama’s terms in office. The relationship between power, money and influence in Washington DC is as before. Obama’s record on domestic civil liberties is no better than Bush’s. Yet it is too easy to cavil. A glass a third or a fifth full is better than no glass at all, particularly when the alternative was Mitt Romney.

Graeber’s unwillingness to set out credible economic and political alternatives is curious.

Graeberfacepalm.gif

I wish it were a case of trying to perform Graeber’s point for him, except that there is no shortage of examples of this tendency. Why add to it? It doesn’t make sense to do so, so sadly The Guardian’s reviewer has just missed the point. Oh well. At least the extract in The Baffler is fantastic.

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The differential gear, explained

Watch the following video, there’s a lot to unpack beyond the sheer impressiveness of explaining complex engineering:

The most amazing thing to me is its tacit expectation about the audience’s ability to comprehend. This is seriously complicated engineering and it shows. Particularly worth noting, as Michael pointed out on the Facebook post about it I made, is the moment when the narrator speaks the name of the gear at 1:18 – you can hear the pride in his voice, and it is appropriate pride. This is an incredible achievement and to the uninitiated feels something like breaking the fundamental rules of space and geometry once comprehension sets in. Completely understandable, yet also inspiring of awe and wonder… is this video an act of carpentry? (The fact that this is an edit of a longer video that cuts out some irrelevant introductory material suggests that it might be.)

In spite of its obvious complexity the producers have enough faith in the ability of their audience to comprehend it, so long as it is explained sufficiently well. This is truly mind blowing to the modern viewer, and I couldn’t help seeing it as something of an indictment of the contemporary lack of faith in audiences that many (even most?) producers have (with the HBO-types the exception). Granted, the 1950s had their own share of stultifuyingly cut-rate explanations, but even these completely boneheaded simplifications had their own child-like naiveté or innocence about them. See the bewilderingly horrible/laughable 1950s “educational” video on homosexuality for an example which, while remaining utterly, contemptibly wrong in its understanding and explanation of the causes of paedophilia (wrongly attributing it to homosexual deviance), still comes at it from a place of unacknowledged ignorance instead of from a position of condescension and low-regard for its audience.

Consider: what contemporary producer would dare to show minutes at a stretch of nothing but moving mechanical parts, along with the clear, methodical narrated precision of an engineering textbook? No one would take the risk, perpetually terrified as they are that their audience would switch over to MTV or something with more flashing lights, more naked flesh – less challenging fare. Almost no one has the same faith in their material, either.

And why should they? The technical feats most richly rewarded in the 21st century are not those that overcome tricky engineering problems in ingenious ways, but instead those that overcome tricky economic problems. The kind (and amount) of mental work that goes into being able to imagine the solution to the problem presented by car wheels moving at different rates is certainly more impressive than the work involved with structuring debts and investments; the kind of actuarial acumen involved with making stacks of cash. And the trouble is, outside of the small class of economically literate people, no one even cares that you made a hundred million dollars in collateralized debt obligations last month. No one cares in the slightest, because it’s just not that impressive. There’s no pride in being a part of the grifter class (as Matt Taibbi has labelled it) that hoovers up cash like it’s going out of fashion.

So it is a complicated kind of takeaway – the way impressive mental feats of creativity involved in science and engineering (after all, what is engineering but imagining-into-being something never before envisaged) have few contemporary friends. Along with the desuetude from taking pride in suitable feats (like the differential gear) a kind of ‘boosterism’ has arisen to take its place. Think of the obsessive elevation of science and engineering (the raising of the LHC to the status of icon or idol is typical) as an attempt to recapture some of this lost pride, but instead it falls completely flat by virtue of overreaching. Carl Sagan’s studious and sober appraisals are far more compelling than the obsessive hype of contemporary emulators like Brian Cox.

Jacques Ellul has a thesis that whatever force destroys the power of the sacred takes on that mantle of being sacred itself, for obviously this foce of desecration is more powerful. Ellul argued that technology took the place of religion, which it demystified and deserated, but perhaps that image is incomplete. Perhaps it was engineering technology that did so. Presently, it seems that financial technology (‘financial instruments‘) might be following the same dynamic.

Sorry clever engineering, you’re just not making enough cash to be impressive…

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Go play ‘The River’ a game by Courtney Stanton

here.

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Mandy Patinkin: “I’m going to right this wrong.”

“And in my mind, I feel that… when I killed the six fingered man, I killed the cancer that killed my father. And for a moment he was alive… and my fairytale came true.

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busy

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Garden as Subtweet

In this episode of Monty Don’s BBC series on Italian Gardens he travels around looking at grand, opulent gardens built by wealthy, powerful cardinals to impress (naturally) the other wealthy cardinals vying for the papacy around the turn of the 16th Century. But the garden at the Villa d’Este, says Monty, gained a number of additions each time it’s owner Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, failed to ascend to the papacy. From about 4minutes 40seconds and onwards, Monty talks about the meaning, which would have been quite plain, though still in a coded kind of way, to his contemporaries:

“Behind this beauty is a nagging pain for him because the three layers of water represent the three rivers leading to Rome, and that’s of course where d’Este most of all wanted to be. In the two decades it took to construct his garden, Cardinal d’Este made five failed bids for the papal throne. And every setback, his garden got grander and grander, and the coded messages it sent out became ever more pointed.”

The picture Monty Don paints is of a member of the wealthy aristocratic class sending messages to a member of the same class through the medium of garden. I say that it’s kind of coded (even though it’s in plain sight) because his contemporaries and rivals would only ever have been able to receive the message if they ever attending, or heard about it’s construction through rumour (or boasting). Much like a subtweet, one would have to actually go to d’Este’s actual garden to receive the full message. There are obviously important differences – a garden can’t be re-tweeted, for instance – but the similarity in terms of the dynamic of communication between sender and receiver is similar, and that’s probably important.

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Does God Always Get What He Wants?

A question someone posed on Facebook today that has kind of stuck with me. The way they posed it, however, was as though it were some sort of irresolvable cosmic paradox, or perhaps a christian version of Zen philosophy’s Koan – but it seemed to me there were a couple of problems with asking such a question.

It seems intractable, because from inside contemporary Christian theology both answers are obviously wrong: if “yes” God always gets what he wants, then since we also know God loves and wants the best for his children including salvation, and yet his children do not always find salvation. This is only the most obvious contradiction within the “yes” position.

Taking the “no” position poses a near identical problem, but here we encounter problems around the structure of the “want” or the desire (and this, I think, is my point). For a truly omnipotent entity by definition obtaining anything is facile  Anything ‘wanted’ could be obtained trivially easy, with the proviso that belief in human free will complicates this picture. Most modern Christian theologians (barring calvinists, I think?), however, believe in some degree of human free will, as it is crucially essential at least in the whole effort of salvation (i.e. one must “choose” to be saved, etc – the notion of “the elect” being pre-chosen, secret knowledge known only by god is a weird complicating factor, but we’ll forget about that).

But that also leads to another incompatibility between the notion of omnipotence and unlimited availability of acquisition or the realisation of everything, all potential, and the idea of not getting what one wants. For any omnipotence, not getting what one wants must be an act of choice. And why choose not to get what one wants, particularly if this same omnipotence is the source and originator of all virtue? A “no” answer poses a problem for omnipotence itself.

But I actually think there’s a flaw in this whole train of thinking – applying the structure of “want” to an omnipotence is already an idiotic anthropomorphism. How could an omnipotence even possibly be in want? It’s a linguistic (or categorial?) mistake, more than any actual revealed insight into the nature of divinity. Likewise, our idea of omnipotence is culturally and historically informed, bearing litte-to-no meaningful relationship with anything like a divinity. One of the most intriguing and surprising parts of Meillassoux’s interview with Graham Harman was when he talked about the work of his partner, Gwenaëlle Aubry, who “[wrote] a thesis on the notion of potency in Aristotle and its transformation into omnipotence in medieval Christian theology.” (Harman, Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making, p.161). Such a pity that it doesn’t seem to have been translated, I would love to read that thesis. Anyway, Meillassoux continues:

Gwenaëlle has unearthed a historical process that I already suspected in very imprecise fashion in L’Inexistence divine, but which in her work appears in all its force: Christian theology, or at least an essential portion of it, is based on the idea that it is blasphemous to say that God is good. For to say this would amount to saying that God is subordinated to an order of value that he is powerless to overturn (and above all unjustified in overturning). The essence of the Christian God, which makes him the opposite of Aristotle’s God, is the power freely to create or de-create the standards of good or evil, not being devoted to some eternal good independent of his own power. This thesis, which I am reformulating here with a brutality for which I alone am responsible, is an essential element of my own reflections on the divine. (p.161-2)

The stakes involved in this claim “God is good” for Christian theology reminds me of the intense theological battles that Reza Aslan describes taking place between the rationalists and the traditionalists in early Islam, centering on whether or not the Qur’an was “created” or “uncreated”. Since the Qu’ran is held literally to be the word of god by the traditionalists, and by implication just as coexistent, divine, unchanging as Allah, on these grounds the traditionalists instigated a fierce inquisition which persecuted the rationalists who were more open to the idea of interpretation, context and the historicity of the book. Theological questions tending to proceed (knowingly or otherwise) in reverse in an attempt to justify certain ends is something of a clear pattern, perhaps even codified in the practise of apologetics (though more understandable for it’s transparency than more covert efforts). Needless to say, I think that Meillassoux’s proposal is much more bold, and ‘The Divine Inexistence’ is also a great answer to the apparent difficulty of the “does god get what he wants” problem, since a god who does not exist (yet) clearly cannot want anything (yet).

Here’s a quick overview of that idea which Meillassoux himself gives to Harman in the same interview:

Here’s how I look at it. If I take supercontingency seriously (or super-chaos, an expression that I now prefer to hyper-chaos), then I ought to divide the possible into potentialities (which are submitted to the natural laws of our universe) and virtualities (which are not submitted to those laws). If potentialities can be probabilized, in my view virtualities cannot, by reason of the transfinite character of the number of possibles. Thus it is pointless to ask what the chances are of one virtuality arising rather than another, or to think that a par- ticular virtuality has an infinitely small chance of arising in view of the immense number of other possibilities. On the other hand, I can do two things with respect to the virtual that are able to transform my subjective relationship with the experience of this world. First of all, I can grant prominence to the most radical novelties of the past: the emergence of life understood as a set of qualitative contents by contrast with an inorganic matter that feels neither sensation nor perception; then the emergence of rational thought by contrast with a life that cannot attain the concept of the infinite or eternal truth (of the mathematical or speculative type). This having been done, I can ask what the next advent would be that is capable of just as much novelty in comparison with thought as thought compared with life, or life with matter. For if we grant that thought can attain the absolute (that is to say, contingency considered as necessary), if time is still capable of a novelty just as radical in comparison with thought as thought with life, or life with matter, this novelty can only be the emergence of egalitarian Justice for the living and the dead. (p.162-163)

As an aside: this final point is perhaps where I find a use for Meillassoux’s contingency in my own work. I’m currently thinking about what it means to think of god as a non-human with a particular agency. Of course, in realist terms I’d say I don’t believe in god (I wonder if I believe the virtual, inexistent god? Maybe I can hope at least for it, since believing in a non-existence doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, lol) but the role played by god’s supposed omnipotence (or just potency, even) in people’s lives could be an anchor or a latch for people to begin to understand and rethink the problem of non-humans. Although I guess non-human agency is more like a kind of paganism, really, in that everything gets a slice of the agency potential. The attitudes that people have, and can assume towards agency are interesting and often defined by religious beliefs and different theologies.

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“i’M GOD” – Quentin Meillassoux

Just doin some nonphilosophy.

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Verbal Shaq Attack

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