Category Archives: reading

Yesterday’s reading

Yesterday I encountered 4 texts that are still rubbing against one another in my mind (a recurring situation, though not all instances produce pearls), and it seems worthwhile to try to capture the thoughts provoked.

First was a review by Richard Wilk of Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, from American Anthropologist and sent by my friend Ron Nigh. Anthropologists generally grumble and sneer at Diamond’s methods and popularity, but Wilk’s review goes beyond the grumpiness and works over some of the implications of 40-odd years of changes in anthropology’s world view. Worth quoting at length to set the scene:

The World until Yesterday would have made a perfect textbook for the first introductory anthropology class I ever taught at Pima Community College in 1977… My tone in lectures was just like Diamond’s, showing a liberal appreciation for diversity, tinged with nostalgia and a sense of loss. This seemed like a respectful attitude toward people whose singularity was rapidly being gobbled up by a monolithic ” Western culture. ” We were comfortable with treating “traditional” peoples as timeless, immune from current events, so things they did 50 or 100 years ago could be recounted in the present tense…

The success of The World until Yesterday shows us that even though many anthropologists have left it behind, the traditional past continues to have power as a stance for a critique the present. The vast distance between the West and “the rest” allows our audience to accept a gentle moral critique of modernity in an unthreatening way. After all, traditional people are fading away and becoming more like “us” as they adopt cash economies, learn to speak national languages, drink, and perhaps snort coke…
In anthropology, we are now used to seeing culture change as a contingent, political, and negotiable process, in which local people and communities must face and engage with bureaucrats, NGOs, large multinational corporations, distant markets, tourists, and conservationists. Diamond never mentions the mining companies that are ravaging parts of Melanesia, or illegal logging, corrupt politicians, and land theft. Nor does he perceive any conflict between conservationists and local people…

…I am sure Diamond will interpret anthropologists’ complaints about his work as political correctness, antiscience sentiment, or professional jealousy. That is much easier than recognizing that he has based his narrative on an analytical scheme that has been rejected; this work is like using phlogiston to explain what is happening in a particle accelerator.

The culmination of Diamond’ s imaginative generalizations about the traditional world is his lessons learned, a sequence of recommendations for how “we moderns” should treat our elders better, eat a more natural diet, learn more languages, and heal the violence of crime. These mild liberal recommendations are mostly aimed at individuals—there is no plan here for political or collective action, no hint of how we might challenge the power of corporations to determine what we can eat, or address the fundamental inequalities that feed crime and conflict. His plan is not going to change anything; it will only reinforce the fundamental National Geographic worldview of his liberal readers. Diamond’s book should, however, get anthropologists thinking about how we present our work to the world, both as writers and as teachers. I still teach introductory anthropology and find that the vast majority of textbooks are still structured like Diamond’s book, as an evolutionary progression, with “traditional” exotic ethnographic cases used to illustrate types of societies. We do not seem to have any master narrative that can displace the story of modernization, a morality play that has lost its radical potential. Do we pander to the crowd and tell stories that emphasize compassion and empathy while confirming fundamental prejudice in the search for a mass audience in the United States? Or do we have a story that can challenge Diamond’s analytical complacency?

For me the takeaway involves thinking about my own approaches to teaching Intro Anthro back in the days when I used to teach the course, and considering how I’d approach the task now. I abhorred the textbooks that publishers flogged and used my own handout materials instead, and assigned readings that were tangential (hell, orthogonal) to ‘straight’ anthropology –one year I had the students read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar as stimulus material, but in retrospect I wasn’t able to carry that off successfully (good idea, though). I wanted my Intro students to engage with how the world was changing, and how people everywhere were being messed with. I can’t really claim that I offered a consistent radical critique (like, I wasn’t trying to be a Marxist) or even that I had a coherent vision of what I wanted them to emerge from the course thinking –I mostly just wanted them to be more interested in what was going on around them.

So I wrote back to my friend Ron thusly:

Perhaps it’s just because it’s early Monday and I have the Diamond review rattling around in my mind, but I just encountered a video that seems at the moment to speak to the Problem of how to communicate anthropology to current audiences. A few hours from now it’ll seem silly to make such a suggestion, but for the moment…

Forget for a moment that you don’t (probably) know the backstory, like who Janelle Monae is, or other versions of the song (you can see the lyrics via ). Listen to it, note that the black lady in the sequin dress is Janelle herself, and note that this is taking place at an Industry event (Billboard Women in Music 2013), and read a bunch of the comments. Here you have it in microcosm: the t-t-t-tightrope is the path each person has to tread and negotiate,

Like the Dow Jones and Nasdaq
Sorta like a thong in an ass crack

aw hell, now watch

Compare and contrast. It’s All There. The Postmodern Condition: I gotta keep my balance.

Probably just as well that I’m retired.

Anyway, a bit later in the day I started reading Ted Nelson’s autobiography Possiplex, as wild and wooly a carnival ride as one can find these days, and ran across this snippet:

Profuse connection is the whole problem of abstraction, perception and thought. Profuse connection is the whole problem of expression, of saying anything. It is the problem of writing. It is the problem of seeing– we see and imagine so much more than we can express. Trying to communicate ideas requires selection from this vast, ever-expanding net. Writing on paper is a hopeless reduction, as it means throwing out most of the connections, telling the reader only the smallest part in one particular sequence. (pg 36)

I don’t really agree with Nelson’s ‘hopeless reduction’ take on writing, though I surely feel the tug of all the unsaid might-have-been links. Writing can invite readers to consider what they might not have thought of themselves, and provide launchpads to their own essays in ‘profuse connection’. Sometimes what you can offer to readers is a more expansive view of familiar territory, just by exploring and enlarging a word or phrase.

So I started thinking about candidates for words that might serve as centerpieces for an Intro Anthro course in 2014, terms to encourage ‘profuse connection’ applicable to multiple situations, and help to build a “story that can challenge Diamond’s analytical complacency”. Many words from Raymond Williams’ Keywords would make good candidates: Alienation, Civilization, Class, Community, Modern… the idea is not to define the terms, but to explicate their multiple meanings and senses and history of use, to see how they might broaden the questions we ask of the world around us. But we really want something that speaks to Wilk’s imperative for “seeing culture change as a contingent, political, and negotiable process” in which people everywhere are enmeshed. The example that came to me is Co-op[ta]tion, one important sense of which is “the process by which a group subsumes or assimilates a smaller or weaker group with related interests.” This fate happens to individuals and to groups, and is arguably the most potent instigator of ‘culture change’. Everybody is more or less on the t-t-tightrope at some point in their life; some make a successful passage, and some fall…

That could be an exciting class to teach.

Simultaneously I was finishing John Williams’ Stoner, which is more or less about teaching and academic life. It turns out that the book (originally published in 1965) was named Waterstones Book of the Year in 2013 (“The New Yorker called it “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of” earlier this year…”). Here are a few of the bits I was moved to copy out:

He planned the course during the week before the opening of the autumn semester, and saw the kinds of possibility that one sees as one struggles with the materials and subjects of an endeavor; he felt the logic of grammar, and he thought he perceived how it spread out from itself, permeating the language and supporting human thought. In the simple compositional exercises he made for his students he saw the potentialities of prose and its beauties, and he looked forward to animating his students with the sense of what he perceived… (pg 27)

…for many years, unknown to himself, he had had an image locked somewhere within him like a shamed secret, an image that was ostensibly of a place but which was actually of himself. So it was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked in his study. (pg 100)

…in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter. (pg 179)

It hardly mattered to him that [his] book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial. He did not have the illusion that he would find himself there, in that fading print; and yet, he knew, a small part of his that he could not deny was there, and would be there. (pg 277)

Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers. (pg 3)

The fourth text in yesterday’s interconnected reading binge is Evgeny Morozov’s Making It, from last week’s New Yorker, which deals with hackers and makers, both terms that deserve the sort of historically-informed explication alluded to above.

When, in November, [Stewart] Brand was asked who carries the flag of counterculture today, he pointed to the maker movement. The makers, Brand said, “take whatever we’re not supposed to take the back off, rip the back off and get our fingers in there and mess around. That’s the old impulse of basically defying authority and of doing it your own way.” Makers, in other words, are the new hackers. (pg 71)

Morozov covers a lot of territory in a few pages and knits in a broad range of thinkers and doers, including Mary Dennett, Buckminster Fuller, Kevin Kelly, Murray Bookchin, Lee Felsenstein, Steve Jobs.

Then there are the temptations facing the movement. Two years ago, DARPA –the research arm of the Department of Defense– announced a ten million dollar grant to promote the maker movement among high-school students. DARPA also gave three and a half million dollars to TechShop to establish new makerspaces that could help the agency with its “innovation agenda.” As a senior DARPA official told Bloomberg BusinessWeek, “We are pretty in tune with the maker movement. We want to reach out to a much broader section of society, a much broader collection of brains.” (pg 73)

(Can you say ‘co-opt[at]ion’?)

Seeking salvation through tools alone is no more viable as a political strategy than addressing the ills of capitalism by cultivating a public appreciation of arts and crafts. Society is always in flux, and the designer can’t predict how various political, social, and economic systems will come to blunt, augment, or redirect the power of the tool that is being designed. (pg 74)

It was quite a day.

and now some on Reading

Sometimes what I write in the basically 1:1 medium of email needs to be saved where I can find it more easily, and/or seems like it might want to be shared more widely, so I contrive some way to nudge the text into the semi-public medium of the blog. A continuing series of exchanges loosely centered on writing is a current example, and so I’m following up my post on Writing with yesterday’s thoughts tending toward Reading. Don’t know that I’ll ever refine these thoughts, but if I ever want to, I’ll be able to find where I started.

Dos Passos on Veblen

I’ve been re-reading John Dos Passos’ U.S.A., last read in about 1966 when I found it in the Peace Corps book box. Its portrayal of the early decades of the 20th century seems curiously relevant to the horrors unfolding in the early decades of the 21st, and I’ve been tempted to transcribe various passages in the blog but heretofore haven’t felt the absolute necessity that struck when I read this paragraph in the third volume, describing Thorstein Veblen:

At Carleton College young Veblen was considered a brilliant unsound eccentric; nobody could understand why a boy of such attainments wouldn’t settle down to the business of the day, which was to buttress property and profits with anything usable in the débris of Christian ethics and eighteenthcentury economics that cluttered the minds of collegeprofessors, and to reinforce the sacred, already shaky edifice with the new strong girderwork of science Herbert Spencer was throwing up for the benefit of the bosses.

People complained they never knew whether Veblen was joking or serious.

Only its mother could love it

Still chewing at the bones of this Poststructuralist carcass, and this morning I’m trying to puzzle through just why the stuff is so hard to read. It’s passages like this that stick in the craw:

Foucault sought to understand the discontinuities within Western European history by highlighting the differences between distinct contingently constituted epistemological situations. In studies influenced by Foucault, history is mapped in order to trace the borders of discursive formations for discontinuities of meaning… Foucault imagined differences in terms of discontinuities internal to a given culture’s history and as marking the interior structure of the subjectivities formed within that culture. (Peter Jackson “Mapping Poststructuralism’s Borders: The Case for Poststructural Area Studies” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 18:1 2003:49)

The bolded fragments must be meant to mean something, but I have to read them about six times before what that something might be starts to percolate through to my thinking brain, and even then I’m awash in alternate readings. How does anybody ever learn to read this stuff?

It is deconstruction’s positing of a single field of meaning upon which opposed dominant and marginalized binary categories are mutually defined that permits this approach to become linked with universalisms despite a professed interest in particularity. (Jackson 2003:54)

The mind quails, rebels, withers, and declares itself too goddam old and inflexible to get it.

Linking four texts

Cory Doctorow is one of those who gets (and puts) it so clearly:

The last 20 years of Internet policy have been dominated by the copyright war, but the war turns out only to have been a skirmish. The coming century will be dominated by war against the general purpose computer, and the stakes are the freedom, fortune and privacy of the entire human race.

The problem is twofold: first, there is no known general-purpose computer that can execute all the programs we can think of except the naughty ones; second, general-purpose computers have replaced every other device in our world. There are no airplanes, only computers that fly. There are no cars, only computers we sit in. There are no hearing aids, only computers we put in our ears. There are no 3D printers, only computers that drive peripherals. There are no radios, only computers with fast ADCs and DACs and phased-array antennas. Consequently anything you do to “secure” anything with a computer in it ends up undermining the capabilities and security of every other corner of modern human society.

And general purpose computers can cause harm — whether it’s printing out AR15 components, causing mid-air collisions, or snarling traffic. So the number of parties with legitimate grievances against computers are going to continue to multiply, as will the cries to regulate PCs.

The primary regulatory impulse is to use combinations of code-signing and other “trust” mechanisms to create computers that run programs that users can’t inspect or terminate, that run without users’ consent or knowledge, and that run even when users don’t want them to.

The upshot: a world of ubiquitous malware, where everything we do to make things better only makes it worse, where the tools of liberation become tools of oppression.

Our duty and challenge is to devise systems for mitigating the harm of general purpose computing without recourse to spyware, first to keep ourselves safe, and second to keep computers safe from the regulatory impulse.

(summary of his keynote at 28th Chaos Communication Congress)

The comments open various other cans, and are interesting to scan through to appreciate the great variety of geek perspectives.

Cory’s presentation shares time’n’space with some other recent reading, and it’s occurring to me that there are some potent interrelations, though they’re a bit on the latent side, and not immediately obvious.

I had occasion to try to read an article on GIS and postmodernism (Agnieszka Leszczynski’s “Poststructuralism and GIS: is there a ‘disconnect'”, in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 21:581-602 [2009]), which I found as impenetrable as most writing that references (privileges?) the Poststructural. As a part of my attempt to wrestle with its vocabulary, I converted the pdf to text, did some word counts, and produced a word cloud which does at least exemplify the problematic: words like ontic, epistemology and ontological make me squirm. Thus,

…theorists problematize the disembodiment of the conventional deployment of GIS… opposition to (empirical) ontological commitments is raised on the basis that the effects and objects of mapping and encoding practices ensconced within the technology are enabled by a contemptible epistemology systematically implicated in the networks of control that rationalize daily life…

gives me the jimjams. So I tried a Google Ngram for some of the most vexatious terms, and another for problematiz/se. These probably demonstrate little more than my age and remoteness from the academic fray.

A few days ago I was reconnected with a friend of 50+ years ago via a pointer to Matt Cartmill’s 1991 review of a book by Donna Haraway (see Miguel Centellas’ posting and Maggie Koerth-Baker’s too –Matt was a year ahead of me in high school, and one of those ‘smartest-person-I-ever-met’ people). I retrieved the whole review and read it gleefully, then sent it to a friend who read it not-gleefully, and so it goes…

So here I am, wondering if ‘ontic’ really ought to mean something to me, wondering if it’s even possible for me to grasp what the problem is that Leszczynski is writing about. So I somewhat idly try Google for ‘ontic’ and it’s bloody Wikipedia that gives me a way in:

“Ontic” describes what is there, as opposed to the nature or properties of that being.

…that is, as opposed to the linguistic acts that produce interpretations, readings, characterizations of “what is there”. OK, a good start.

Co-incidentally, I’ve been reading Adam Gopnik’s Winter: Five windows on the season, with on-and-off pleasure and this morning was brought up short by this passage, which seemed directly apposite to my wrangling with ‘ontic’:

I sometimes stop and wonder at the reality of the geological and biological world, that the things we see, though certainly existing, have none of the intense sequence, the personifications, the character we give them; without us they would just fall back into the world of nothing. I have a hard time expressing this, though it is one of the strongest emotions I know: this sense that somehow the entirety of the universe could have been made –was made– without purpose, that it is cold, spinning, unconscious, neither kind nor cruel, just following laws that are in the end not even laws, just regularities produced by the cycling of chances. A vast, empty room, with no one home…

I recall once when I got word that my best friend was dying and I happened to pass a paint store where all the shades of yellow were laid out and named, quite cleverly and precisely –lemon zest and buttercup and canary, each shade given a personality– and I thought, This is all a lie. The spectrum of light is as indifferent as the rest of the universe. “Buttercup” and “lemon zest” were not labels but just lies, hopeful names given to arbitrary swatches in a physical phenomenon of light, which is not only indifferent to our existence but without any kind of neat internal structure at all, with no more charm or colour than the indifferent hum of a radio on the wrong station. (pp.209-210)

And what is it that ties these disparate bits of text into a bouquet? I’m thinking that all of them operate in the realm of onomastics: they’re about the utterly (entirely, exclusively) human exercise of naming what surrounds us, so that the various things can be woven into the stories we tell. Good old Homo narrans, at it incessantly.

Doc’s at it again

Thanks to Doc Searls’ Weblog posting, I read How Luther Went Viral in The Economist, and then Doc’s very provocative Comment on the article. The triplet of writings casts more generally useful light upon the grand Events of 2011 (Arab Spring, Occupy this’n’that) than anything else I’ve encountered. It won’t take you 15 minutes to read those things, but I predict you’ll be thinking about their implications for the next few days… and perhaps bending the ears of others. And maybe you’ll be provoked to take a[nother] look at The Cluetrain Manifesto too. Thanks for all the fish, Doc!


John Lanchester’s review of Michael Lewis’s Boomerang in NYRB is worth a read today, as markets head south. A few trenchant quotes:

A writer making society-wide generalizations is picking up a big and very full bag by a single handle; in that position, it’s easy to end up writing about the handle, because it’s the thing on which you have a secure grip…

…“There was no credit boom in Germany,” an official told Lewis. “Real estate prices were completely flat. There was no borrowing for consumption. Because this behavior is totally unacceptable in Germany.”…

This one is ostensibly about Greece and Greek monetary delusions, but is uncomfortably relevant to contemporary American civic culture:

But the place does not behave as a collective…. It behaves as a collection of atomized particles, each of which has grown accustomed to pursuing its own interest at the expense of the common good. There’s no question that the government is resolved to at least try to re-create Greek civic life. The only question is: Can such a thing, once lost, ever be re-created?

And here’s another passage (the Envoi) with Goose over Grave frisson, in which one just might try substituting ‘politics’ for ‘economics’ and perhaps ‘truth’ for ‘money’:

The collective momentum of a culture is, for more or less everybody more or less all of the time, overwhelming. This is especially true for anything to do with economics. The evidence is clear: it is easy to mislead people about money, and easy to lead members of the public astray both individually and en masse, because when it comes to money, most of us, most of the time, don’t know what we’re doing. The corollary is also clear: the whole Western world misled itself over debt, and the road back from where we are goes only uphill.


An excellent book: Digital Rubbish: A natural history of electronics
Jennifer Gabrys
U. Michigan Press, 2011
publisher’s website
full text
A few bits to whet appetites for more:

Electronic waste, chemical contamination, failure, breakdown, obsolescence, and information overload are conditions that emerge as wayward effects of electronic materiality…
…The natural history method allows for an inquiry into electronics that does not focus on either technological progression or great inventors but, rather, considers the ways in which electronic technologies fail and decay… By focusing on the outmoded, it is further possible to resuscitate the political and imaginary registers that are so often forgotten in histories that rely on the persistent theme of progress….
…Superfund sites and museums of the electronics industry, shipping yards and electronics recycling facilities, computing archives, and electronics superstores and repair shops inform the content, texture, and structure of this study, which takes up natural history as much as a method as a theoretical point of inquiry…
…The chip, as unearthed from manufacturing residues and dredged up in discarded devices, is embedded in complex material and cultural arrangements. By untangling this fossil, I do not arrive at a more discrete description of this technology but, rather, scratch the surface of a device that—despite its apparent simplicity and ubiquity—is exceptionally dense and entangled…