Category Archives: metastuff

co incidence

I really admire Andy Ilachinski’s photography, and often enjoy the enlightenments of quotations he pairs with images in his Tao of Digital Photography blog. This morning’s Schopenhauer passage projected me into a 3-way conjunction with a deceased wombat and a decaying stump:

…All the events in a man’s life accordingly stand in two fundamentally different kinds of connection: firstly, in the objective, causal connection of the natural process; secondly, in a subjective connection which exists only in relation to the individual who experiences it, and which is thus as subjective as his own dreams, whose unfolding content is necessarily determined, but in the manner in which the scenes in a play are determined by the poet’s plot….

This morning I happened to learn that Patrick the Wombat had expired in Ballarat, probably around the time I discovered Patrick’s visage at the dead center of a tessellation of an elm stump at Horton Landing, Nova Scotia:

elm stump5x2

(zoom in to inspect the visage more closely here)

Just sayin’

Not My Circus; Not My Monkeys [but surely some nearby somebody’s]

I’m forever finding things that seem to apply to people and situations that aren’t precisely my own but do need rediffusing in some medium. Here’s one that just snuck up on me:

Imagine a world where speaking or writing words can literally and directly make things happen, where getting one of those words wrong can wreak unbelievable havoc, but where with the right spell you can summon immensely powerful agencies to work your will. Imagine further that this world is administered: there is an extensive division of labour, among the magicians themselves and between the magicians and those who coordinate their activity. It’s bureaucratic, and also (therefore) chaotic, and it’s full of people at desks muttering curses and writing invocations, all beavering away at a small part of the big picture. The coordinators, because they don’t understand what’s going on, are easy prey for smooth-talking preachers of bizarre cults that demand arbitrary sacrifices and vanish with large amounts of money…

The analyst or programmer has to examine documents with an eye at once skeptical and alert, snatching and collating tiny fragments of truth along the way. His or her sources of information all have their own agendas, overtly or covertly pursued. He or she has handlers and superiors, many of whom don’t know what really goes on at the sharp end…

(from Ken MacLeod’s preface to Charles Stross’ The Atrocity Archives)

balm in Gilead?

Trump connected to the segment of the population that was prepared to believe that racism was realism, misogyny was locker-room talk, inconvenient facts were media myths, and viciousness was the new normal. Just as surely as he has redrawn the electoral map, he has radically altered the Overton window. No Presidential candidate before him had ever mocked a disabled reporter, or bragged about his penis size during a debate. What kept every other candidate before him from stooping to these tactics, presumably, was deference to social norms. But norms can be swept aside.

(Andrew Marantz, in New Yorker news blog)

I wrestle with the personal means to come to terms with the new sociocultural reality, and consider employing tools like Colin Woodard’s recent books (which deserve a careful rereading: American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America and American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good), and the prescient writings of Thomas Frank in The Baffler and in his Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, and George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. As so often before, Christopher Lydon’s Radio Open Source is helpful in reminding me to think more broadly about what’s in front of my nose.

I’m not sure that gnawing old bones of socio-political argybargy is good for the blood pressure, let alone the soul, though I can’t entirely ignore what comes at me via New Yorker and NYRB and various lefty blogs I follow. As an antidote, I’ve found it soothing to read Ursula Le Guin’s novellas and short stories (The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin and The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin), and I’ve just picked up the beloved Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter Miller Jr. –can you believe it first appeared in 1958???) for the fourth or fifth time.

I’ve also been deeply into Thomas Rid’s Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History, and via that engagement I’ve dipped into Gregory Bateson again, via Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology, a book I tried to read maybe 20 years ago but bounced off of, feeling discomfort with Bateson’s concept of epistemology (I basically didn’t grasp what he was talking about). This morning I ventured to the Auxiliary Library in the barn and quarried my copy of Bateson’s Naven and what did I find but

What has happened has been the growth of a new way of thinking about organization and disorganization. Today, data from a New Guinea tribe and the superficially very different data of psychiatry can be approached in terms of a single epistemology—a single body of questions.

We now have the beginnings of a general theory of process and change, adaptation and pathology; and, in terms of the general theory, we have to reexamine all that we thought we knew about organisms, societies, families, personal relationships, ecological systems, servo-mechanisms, and the like.

(Gregory Bateson, Preface to the second edition [1958] Of Naven)

“And the like” indeed. So: back once again to General Systems Theory, which beguiled me 45 or so years ago, abstractions high-flown enough to calm the yammer of daily helpings of News of Fresh Disasters.

As Adam Fish just put it:

What is needed are new modes of counter-hegemonic governance. Towards that goal I am going to do nothing. Social evolution is slow and silent not obvious and obnoxious. It is time for a break into scholarship and away from reactionary tabbing back and forth from The New York Times and Breitbart, The Guardian and Drudge.


Years ago Allen Smith observed to me that the great thing about being a reference librarian was that “It All Counts!

I’ve been doing a lot of organizing out in the barn (“winnowing” is another candidate descriptor for the activity), discarding lots of paper that’s been tucked away in file drawers for years. Along the way I’ve found all sorts of stuff that’s really worth saving, and reconnected with avenues and back alleys that have absorbed my energies at various times. I’ve been reminded how much energy went into exploring topics for students and colleagues and preparing classes, and I’m pleased to see how good I was at those things. But I’m also discovering that the net effects of my efforts were very limited –indeed, were principally and primarily good for my own learning. And I’ve convinced myself that there’s nothing wrong with that, that no grander legacy is necessary or maybe even desirable.

I still harbor inclinations to build something with my musical and photographic and textual archives, but I can’t imagine where to set the foundations or how to erect the skeleton or design the floorplan… I suppose this blog could serve as the accumulator and distributor for such a construction project, if I was a tad more systematic and less irregular in posting. Maybe I’ll try that.

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.


All sorts of people will tell you that mathematics and music have profoundly overlapping domains, and the most tiresome of those folks may say that music is entirely subsumed within mathematics. I’ve had (not to say enjoyed…) a lifelong struggle with mathematics, ‘getting it’ up to a point but then losing the ‘it’ and not being able to go further for a while. How many times have I tried to “teach myself calculus” only to founder on one rock or another… Just this morning I ran across a resource that would have made all sorts of things possible, if only I’d had it years ago:

Numberphile on YouTube

I happened upon it via a marvelous video in which Edward Frenkel takes on the question How did the NSA hack our emails?

If I had nothing else to do (i.e., if I didn’t have about 50 other interests I’m happily pursuing) I’d get out my Hofstadter books and dive in again. xkcd warns me what a silly thing that would be…

definitely October

Recovering from a solid month of travels (Turkey, Nova Scotia, California) and visitors, all of it glorious. Fall is definitely upon us, leaves falling and climatic realities setting in (winter wood mostly stacked; we’ve already had a couple of fires in the stoves, mostly to warm visitors from less intemperate climates). Being past the 70 milestone gives pause for reflection on this and that, and opportunity for Resolutions for the onward path: more reading, more music, more photography, more [mindful] eating, more exercise. Not much less of anything, though, unless it be investment in political hoohah and righteous indignation.


Start anywhere. It all connects.

I find myself projected backwards to the mind of an earlier self by two obits for Ward Hunt Goodenough, whom I met once at his father’s house in Cambridge in 1963, and whose Cooperation in Change: an anthropological approach to community development was influential for the mid-late 1960s me (the period when Development was the central concept I wrestled with)… and I (re)discover that he was also central to the realms of ethnoscience and componential analysis with which I flirted as an undergraduate (a course with BN Colby) and then again with Chuck Frake at Stanford. A bit more investigation ties WHG to my long-running fascination with the ethnonym Yankee, which I often claim as my own Identity and Tribe. His 1965 article “Yankee Kinship Terminology: a problem in componential analysis” (American Anthropologist vol 67) I’ve just retrieved from JSTOR and put onto the read-on-a-rainy-day pile.

I confess that I was never a very clueful student of anthropology –I gravitated to stuff that interested me and pretty much ignored the rest, and looking back what I mostly see is a succession of boats missed and gratuitous oversimplifications of subtle complexities and, well, intellectual laziness. Of course nobody manages to grok everything, and some things (ethnoscience/cognitive anthropology being a case in point) turned out to be disciplinary dead ends, but I regret the arrogance of my inattention to the things and people from which/whom I might have learned.

Turns out (via Hortense Powdermaker’s Stranger and Friend: the way of an anthropologist) that BN Colby worked with the General Inquirer project, in the basement of Emerson Hall at Harvard (where both Betsy and I spent many hours), and co-wrote articles with George Collier (with whom I studied at Stanford, not gloriously) and Mark Menchik, whom I knew as an undergraduate. Colby went on to work in cognitive science, and a Google search for him led me to Margaret Bowden’s Mind As Machine: A History of Cognitive Science, Volume 1, which offers a whole section on “Anthropology and Cognitive Science” (pp 516-589, via Google Books). And that juicy chunk of text turns up another significant-to-me name: Roy D’Andrade. He was a professor at Stanford just at the point when I wanted to leap from International Development Education to Anthropology, and said “well of course you can” when I asked him about the possibility of the transition. His Sad Story of Anthropology 1950-1999 (download the RTF file) looks like another rainy-day read. From the abstract:

Within the social sciences, anthropology appears to have been more strongly affected by external political trends than its sister disciplines. The trends affecting anthropology appear to reflect primarily ideas and attitudes of the intellectual left in American universities and colleges. As the intellectual left moved from the anti-government activism of the early sixties to Marxism and expectations the death of capitalism in the seventies, through the disenchantment with socialist communism and alienation from Western culture expressed by post-modernism in the eighties and nineties, the centrality of these attitudes in the anthropology professorate of the elite universities resulted in profound changes in the research organization of anthropology and its choice of methods…

Somewhere in these materials I expect to find answers to the questions I’ve barely formulated, bearing upon my own alienation from the discipline of anthropology. It seems to me that the bottom fell out in the 1980s, and D’Andrade seems to nail it:

Within anthropology, while little explicit theoretical discussion took place in the journals, a great shift in agenda took place. The new goal of ethnography and research was no longer theoretically relevant description, but moral critique. The critique was directed against power, domination, and oppression. However, the classical Marxist emphasis on material factors was greatly attenuated. Capitalism was still an enemy, but primarily because it, like the State, Science, the Media, and Western bourgeois culture, was powerful.

The major critique in anthropology was directed against pernicious ideas. The Marxist notions of ideology and false consciousness were reworked into a critique of culture itself, now seen as the most powerful source of oppression…

By the mid eighties critical anthropology had become mainstream. The goal of mainline cultural anthropology was to critique both hidden and open oppressions of Western bourgeois culture; its racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia, and scientism. The Enlightenment – the historical center of liberal ideas – came to be seen as a well of poison. According to this agenda, the task of the ethnographer is to examine the resistance of non-western and peripherialized peoples to the Western modernizing forces that oppress them. The World Bank and the IMF are enemies, science is an enemy, and rationality is a destructive force. Bureaucratic planning is one of the major generators of oppression. Conformity on the part of ordinary people is treated as evidence of their complicity in their own oppression…

If one looks at the current field of cultural anthropology, it is not just statistics and quantitative methods which have been forced out. Linguistic anthropology is almost gone. Folklore is gone. Psychological anthropology is holding on but with a dwindling base. Economic anthropology is almost gone. Medical anthropology has shifted primarily to cultural critique. The study of kinship is in eclipse. Cross-cultural studies by anthropologists are in decline. The scholarly study of religion in anthropology has decreased almost to the vanishing point…

…try to elicit from your favorite anthropology informant the important findings of mainline cultural anthropology over the past twenty years. You will probably be told that now we know that culture is discourse, that power is omnipresent, that knowledge is central to power, that Western culture is hegemonic, that oppression is diffuse and general, and that we are now in a post-modern world of late capitalism and a global diaspora without fixed communities or cultures.

So as usual I begin with something and follow the webwork to serendipitous discoveries. The blog seems the ideal place to cache such ramblings, to which I may return eventually. Or not.

a Doc Searls fragment

The whole thing is worth reading, especially if your vision is headed for the suboptimal, but this passage has particular clarity:

All vision is in the brain, of course, and the world we see is largely a set of descriptions we project from the portfolio of things we already know. We can see how this works when we disconnect raw sensory perception from our descriptive engines. This is what happens with LSD. As I understand it (through study and not experience, alas), LSD disconnects the world we perceive from the nouns and verbs we use to describe it. So do other hallucinogens.