Category Archives: metastuff

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.

Jon Udell again

Jon Udell is reliably eloquent on subjects that are betimes tangent to my own thinkings. His Computational Thinking and Life Skills post of today is a lovely example, and includes this wise distillation:

When you’re writing software you use abstractions and also create them. What’s more, many of the abstractions you use are the very ones you created. When you live a world of your own invention you can do amazing and wonderful things. But you can also do ridiculous and stupid things. To see the difference between them you must always be prepared to park your ego and consider the latter possibility.

Won’t take you but a couple of minutes to read the post, but I’ll bet you’ll think about it for a lot longer.

stories

I fear that I might find a Woody Allen biopic a bit tiresome, but that doesn’t lessen my pleasure in Jon Udell’s brief review, especially its Universal Solvent of a summary sentence:

Some ideas are better than others, no doubt. But to grow them into something that matters you have to see the story. And then tell the story.

OMG

RSA animations of verbal presentations seem always to be WONDERFUL. This morning’s example is UBERwonderful, encapsulating a lot of things I’ve thought over the years, but never managed to express coherently. Supremely worth 10 minutes of your time:

…and I’m reminded how valuable it’s been to me to have this medium to lay down markers for my own discoveries and learning. Sometimes it seems that the Audience is my own very, very self… but that’s OK too.

The Parenthesis

Here’s Dave Weinberger liveblogging Jeff Jarvis at the Berkman Center:

We’re going through a huge transition, he says. He refers to the Gutenberg Parenthesis. Before Gutenberg, knowledge was passed around, person to person. It was meant to honor and preserve ancient knowledge. After Gutenberg, knowledge became linear. There are beginnings and ends and boxes around things. It’s about product. There’s a clear sense of ownership. It honors current knowledge and its authors. Then you get to the other side of the parenthesis, and there are similarities. More passing it around, more remixing, less sense of ownership. The knowledge we revere starts to become the network itself. Our cognition of the world changes. The CTO of the Veterans Admin calls the Internet the Eighth Continent. “I used to think of the Internet as a medium,” but now he thinks of it more as a place, although there are problems with the place metaphor. (“All metaphors are wrong,” interjects Doc Searls. “That’s why they work.”) It was a hard transition into the parenthesis, and it’ll be hard coming out of it. It took 50 years after Gutenberg for books to come into their own, and 100 years to recognize the impact of books. We’re still looking at the Net using our the past as our analog.

Sure is a lot to chew on in that paragraph.

Paddy’s Day rumination

My interests, enthusiasms, and areas of expertise are errant: they persist in wandering off, but they eventually seem to come back from their assorted quests and reassert themselves in my consciousness and activities. So it has been with photography, as with music and woodworking and Information and Science Fiction and Literature and and and… When a particular fascination resurfaces, it has a whole new set of previously unrecognized (or imperfectly appreciated) facets that tempt me into a new Odyssey of exploration. This generally means the acquisition of new tools and resources, to carry out whatever new Grand Schemes assert themselves as necessities. Fortunately, the spouse is well acquainted with the pattern, and is skilled at eloquent rolling of the eyes.

Anniversary

Tomorrow is oook blog’s fifth anniversary, and what a long strange trip it’s been. Dunno how to assess the blog’s significance, since I have a constitutional aversion to conventional measures of “success” and I abhor counting hits or whatever. When you come right down to it, I’ve always thought of it primarily as a means to keep track of my changing attention (my magpie habits) for myself, and secondarily as a conduit for keeping informed of my doings the 20 or so people I think might be interested. Beyond that, I’m happy to occasionally discover that somebody has happened upon a posting via a search, or that some friend has pointed somebody to a posting.

I’m thinking about converting over to Word Press, but I don’t have sufficient faith in my own geek skills to start the process. I’ve also thought of making some sort of Fundamental Change in presentation style or content, but I don’t really have any positive reason to do that… so I think it’ll probably just limp along in its increasingly vieux jeu format.