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.
A question from an old friend provoked a morning’s work on Thinking about Writing, and Writing about Thinking about…
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:
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…
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.
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.
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.
“…everything is interesting if observed at the right level of detail…” (in a posting about indexers, itself redolent of the unmissable)
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.
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.