Category Archives: Identity and Subjectivity

Hurston – Mules and Men

Mules and Men

by Zora Neale Hurston

[ Hurston, Zora Neale. 1928. “Intro & Chapter One” Mules and Men, Pg. 1-17]

Points & Quotes: Intro & Chapter 1

  • Includes some folktales
    • John and the Frog
    • John and Noah
  • Also (and maybe more importantly) includes the “toe party” scene of Hurston partying and ending up passed-out drunk and waking up to waffles
  • ALSO ( and also important) written in thick vernacular dialect.

Cool example of fieldwork/ participant observation being a messy mixture of interviews, socializing, and being flexible enough to be dragged into things you did not expect (but fully embrace).

“I was glad when somebody told me, ‘You may go and collect Negro folklore.’
In a way it would not be a new experience for me. When I pitched headforemost into the world I landed in the crib of negroism. From the earliest rocking of my cradle, I had known about the capers Brer Rabbit is apt to cut and what the Squinch Owl says from the house top. But it was fitting me like a tight chemise. I couldn’t see it for wearing it. It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment. Then I had to have the spy-glass of Anthropology to look through at that.” (1)

“Folklore is not as easy to collect as it sounds. The best source is where there are the least outside influences and these people, being usually under-privileged, are the shyest. They are most reluctant at times to reveal that which the soul lives by. And the Negro, in spite of his open-faced laughter, his seeming acquiescence, is particularly evasive. You see we are a polite people and we do not say to our questioner, ‘Get out of here!’ We smile and tell him or her something that satisfies the white person because, knowing so little about us, he doesn’t know what he is missing. The Indian resists curiosity by a stony silence. The Negro offers a feather-bed resistance. That is, we let the probe enter, but it never comes out. It gets smothered under a lot of laughter and pleasantries.
“The theory behind our tactics: ‘The white man is always trying to know into somebody else’s business. All right, I’ll set something outside the door of my mind for him to play with and handle. He can read my writing but he sho’ can’t read my mind. I’ll put this play toy in his hand, and he will seize it and go away. Then I’ll say my say and sing my song.'” (2-3)

Interchange between Hurston and possible interlocutors:

“Ah come to collect some old stories and tales and Ah know y’all know a plenty of ’em and that’s why Ah headed straight for home.”

“What you mean, Zora, them big old lies we tell when we’re jus’ sittin’ around here on the store porch doin’ nothin’?” asked B. Moseley.

“Yeah, those same ones about Ole Massa, and colored folks in heaven, and—oh, y’all know the kind I mean.”

“Aw shucks,” exclaimed George Thomas doubtfully. “Zora, don’t you come here and tell de biggest lie first thing. Who you reckon want to read all them old-time tales about Brer Rabbit and Brer Bear?”

“Plenty of people, George. They are a lot more valuable than you might think. We want to set them down before it’s too late.”

“Too late for what?”

“Before everybody forgets all of ’em.”

“No danger of that. That’s all some people is good for—set ’round and lie and murder groceries.”

Continue reading Hurston – Mules and Men

Miner – Body Ritual Among the Nacirema

Body Ritual Among the Nacirema

by Horace Miner

[ Miner, Horace. 1956. “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” in American Anthropologist, Vol. 58, No. 3. Pg. 503-507]

Points & Quotes:

The point, very simply put:

  • When described using exotic and evocative language, even the most mundane of activities can be made to appear magical or strange
  • Further, the fact that anthropology has described other cultures in this way has very likely caused us to view them as overly exotic and strange, focusing on their Otherness rather than finding similarities (e.g. we all do these kinds of odd things)
  • Because many of the activities we (in the West) find mundane are, indeed, strange to others
  • In Malinowskian terms, we are unable to fully see the “imponderabilia” of our own daily lives

“The anthropologist has become so familiar with the diversity of ways in which different peoples behave in similar situations that he is not apt to be surprised by even the most exotic customs. In fact, if all of the logically possible combinations of behavior have not been found somewhere in the world, he is apt to suspect that they must be present in some yet undescribed tribe.”

“The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of the powerful influences of ritual and ceremony. “

“The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite. De­spite the fact that these people are so punctilious about care of the mouth, this rite involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hoghairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures. “

“In addition to the private mouth-rite, the people seek out a holy-mouth­ man once or twice a year. …
“The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy-mouth-men year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay.”

“Professor Linton referred [to] a distinctive part of the daily body rit­ual which is performed only by men. This part of the rite involves scraping and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument.”

“The medicine men have an imposing temple, or latipso, in every community of any size. …
“Small children whose indoctrination is still incomplete have been known to resist attempts to take them to the temple because “that is where you go to die.” Despite this fact, sick adults are not only willing but eager to undergo the protracted ritual purification, if they can afford to do so. …
“The supplicant entering the temple is first stripped of all his or her clothes. In every-day life the Nacirema avoids exposure of his body and its natural functions. Ba thing and excretory acts are performed only in the secrecy of the household shrine, where they are ritualized as part of the body-rites. Psycho­logical shock results from the fact that body secrecy is suddenly lost upon entry into the latipso. …
“From time to time the medicine men come to their clients and jab magically treated needles into their flesh. The fact that these temple ceremonies may not cure, and may even kill the neophyte. in no way decreases the people’s faith in the medicine men

“There remains one other kind of practitioner, known as a “listener.” This witch-doctor has the power to exorcise the devils that lodge in the heads of people who have been bewitched. The Nacirema believe that parents bewitch their own children. “

“In conclusion, mention must be made of certain practices which have their base in native esthetics but which depend upon the pervasive aversion to the natural body and its functions. There are ritual fasts to make fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to make thin people fat.”

“Our review of the ritual life of the Nacirema has certainly shown them to be a magic-ridden people. It is hard to understand how they have managed to exist so long under the burdens which they have imposed upon themselves. But even such exotic customs as these take on real meaning when they are viewed with the insight provided by Malinowski when he wrote:

“Looking from far and above, from our high places of safety in the developed civiliza­ tion, it is easy to see all the crudity and irrelevance of magic. But without its power and guidance early man could not have mastered his practical difficulties as he has done, nor could man have advanced to the higher stages of civilization.”

Bronislaw Malinowski. Magic, Science, and Religion. 1948. pg. 70


Nacirema—Strange and exotic tribal group in North America

Notgnihsaw—cultural hero and founder of the Nacirema, known for the “chopping down of a cherry tree in which the Spirit of Truth resided”

latsipo—Main temples of the Nacirema medicine men

Continue reading Miner – Body Ritual Among the Nacirema

Carr – Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Is Google Making Us Stupid?
What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

by Nicholas Carr

[Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in The Atlantic Monthly; Jul/Aug 2008; 302, 1; pg. 56-63]

Points & Quotes:

  • “For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind.” (57)
  • “As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive chan­nels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought . And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.” (57)
  • “The Internet, an immeasurably powerful computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV. (59)
  • “Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that ‘s been written about the Net, there ‘s been little consider­ation of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.” (59)
  • “Google … has declared that its mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It seeks to develop “the perfect search engine,” which it defines as something that “under­ stands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.” In Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency.” (60)
  • “The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their eco­nomic interest to drive us to distraction.” (61)
Continue reading Carr – Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Monaghan & Just – Bee Larvae and Onion Soup: Culture

Bee Larvae and Onion Soup: Culture

by John Monaghan & Peter Just

[Monaghan, John and Just, Peter. 2000. “Bee Larvae and Onion Soup: Culture.” in Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction. Pp. 34-52.]

Points & Quotes:

Universalized “culture”

“one learns a great deal that one is never explicitly taught.” (36)

“Boas described a human a kulturbrille, a set of ‘cultural glasses’ that each of us wears, lenses that provide us with a means of perceiving the world around us, for interpreting the meaning of our social lives, and framing action in them.” (38)

“At least three points of debate have continued to recur in the way anthropologists talk about the concept of culture.

    1. One has to do with the extent to which a ‘culture’ should be regarded as an integrated whole;
    2. the second has to do with the extent to which ‘culture’ can be seen as an autonomous, ‘superorganic’ entity;
    3. and the third has to do with how we can best go about drawing boundaries around ‘cultures’.” (43-44, formatting added)

To Durkheim and Mauss: “Society was not simply a model which classificatory thought followed; it was its own divisions which served as divisions for the system of classification.” (40-41)

“Claude Levi-Strauss, the founder of ‘structuralist’ anthropology, would claim that human classification is indeed universal,but that it is universal because a human predisposition to making distinctions produced classifications that mutatis mutandis were but surface representations of a more fundamental ‘deep structure’ shaped by the binary nature of the human mind.”

  • “[l]f we look at all the intellectual undertakings of mankind … the common denominator is always to introduce some kind of order. If this represents a basic need for order in the human mind and since, after all, the human mind is onlypart of the universe, the need probably exists because there is some order in the universe and the universe is not chaos.” (41)

“French philosopher Michel Foucault has popularized a new direction among some anthropologists, who have come to see the categories of meaning imposed by culture as a basis of inequality and oppression. In other words, they see the ability to control the content of cultural classifications as a primary source of power in society. This in turn makes the contestation of categories of social classification, such as ‘male’ and ‘female’, with all of the social, political, and economic associations that attend them, a primary mode of resistance to authority. ” (42)

“The idea that culture is an integrated and integrating whole is in part based upon the great modernist insight that underlying apparently discrete bits of belief or behaviour rests a more fundamental reality. For Karl Marx that determining reality was the mode of production; for Emile Durkheim it was society; for Sigmund Freud it was the unconscious; and for many in anthropology, following the lead of Boas, it has been culture itself.” (43-44)

“Ruth Benedict, one of Boas’ first students, conceived of a culture as a Gestalt, a total pattern … Although Benedict’s approach is now regarded as too simplistic and reductionist, because of its tendency to view cultures in terms of one or two key themes, it has continued to prove a powerful means for organizing and integrating the minutiae of ethnographic observation.” (44)

Clifford Geertz “used cockfighting – a popular form of entertainment in Bali – as an image that also serves to characterize beliefs and practices … In this way, Geertz is able to show how disparate elements of Balinese culture create a ‘fabric of meaning and belief’ that is consistent and mutually reinforcing. For Geertz, cultures can be read as texts, much as one might read a novel or a poem. The trick, according to Geertz, is to seek out cultural ‘texts’ that the people of the society themselves find compelling – as the Balinese are fascinated by cockfighting – and to not only understand them as they see them, but to see the ways the themes of these ‘texts’ illuminate other aspects of the society.” (44-45)

Some “refer to cultures as if they were autonomous things with lives of their own. Alfred Kroeber once compared culture to a coral reef, which is built up by the secretions of millions of tiny animals, but which existed before any of its living members, and will outlast them all, providing a structure within which future generations will be constrained.” (46)

“Anthony Wallace argued that the contents of the individual mind are in fact highly divergent, and that what culture does is not so much impose a uniformity, but provide a set of shared communicative symbols that organizes this diversity.” (47)

“The essentialism attributed to culture found itself expressed in ethnographies that routinely assumed ‘one people, one culture, one society’. But, as Arjun Appadurai recently asked, doesn’t this premise fly in the face of ‘unequal knowledge and the differential prestige of lifestyles, and discourage attention to the world views and agency of those who are marginalized or dominated’? ” (47)

Big Point!

“Perhaps it would be best to join with most anthropologists today, who tend to view culture not as a thing in itself, but as a learning device for uncovering meaning in social life.” (47-48)

“the anthropological concept of culture has been our discipline’s most significant contribution to modern thought. In uncovering the fundamentally arbitrary and learned basis for the differences among and between human communities, the culture concept has been a powerful weapon in combating racism, national chauvinism, and the ‘scientific’ racism’ that characterized much of anthropology in the nineteenth century” (48)

Cultural Relativism (really good breakdown)

  • We start from the premise that our beliefs, morals, behaviours – even our very perceptions of the world around us – are the products of culture, learned as members of the communities in which we are reared.
  • If, as we believe, the content of culture is the product of the arbitrary, historical experience of a people, then what we are as social beings is also an arbitrary, historical product.
  • Because culture so deeply and broadly determines our worldview, it stands to reason that we can have no objective basis for asserting that one such worldview is superior to another, or that one worldview can be used as a yardstick to measure another.
  • In this sense, cultures can only be judged relative to one another, and the meaning of a given belief or behaviour must first and foremost be understood relative to its own cultural context.
  • That, in a nutshell, is the basis of what has come to be called cultural relativism. (49, formatting added)

“In addition to these aspects of cultural relativism we must also entertain the moral dimensions of cultural relativism … Behaviour that might be nonsensical, illegal, or immoral in one society might be perfectly rational and socially accepted in another … do we deal with the stranger in our midst when that stranger’s culture is morally different from our own? At what point are segments of a given community entitled to a claim of cultural distinctiveness that demands autonomy and respect? Are soccer hooligans or terrorists entitled to claim the protection of cultural relativism?” (50-51)

“One wonders, ultimately, if it is logically possible to simultaneously subscribe to both the notion of universal human rights and a belief in the relativity of cultures.” (52)

“we note with Clifford Geertz that the crimes committed in the name of cultural relativism pale in comparison to those committed in the name of cultural and national chauvinism or, for that matter, almost any other ‘ism’. His stance is one of ‘anti-anti­ relativism.” (52)

bricolage—kind of collage in which the odds and ends of culture are turned to uses for which they may never have been intended but which fit into an underlying pattern
embodiment—when we act, we act not simply as minds but also as physical bodies
Some anthropologists on “Culture”:
Continue reading Monaghan & Just – Bee Larvae and Onion Soup: Culture

Bohannon – Shakespeare in the Bush

Shakespeare in the Bush
An American anthropologist set out to study the Tiv of West Africa and was taught the true meaning of Hamlet

by Laura Bohannon

[Bohannan, Laura. 1966. “Shakespeare in the Bush.” in Natural History.. August.]

Points & Quotes:

  • Bohannon—an anthjropologist of the West African Tiv people—was chatting with an English friend:
“You Americans, often have difficulty with Shakespeare. He was, after all, a very English poet, and one can easily misinterpret the universal by misunderstanding the particular.”
I protested that human nature is pretty much the same the whole world over; at least the general plot and motivation of the greater tragedies would always be clear—everywhere—although some details of custom might have to be explained and difficulties of translation might produce other slight changes. To end an argument we could not conclude, my friend gave me a copy of Hamlet to study in the African bush: it would, he hoped, lift my mind above its primitive surroundings, and possibly I might, by prolonged meditation, achieve the grace of correct interpretation.”

  • Bohannon, finding that during the rainy season everyone among the Tiv sits around and drinks, decides to tell the elders the story of Hamlet, proving her point that the basics of narrative are rather universal…
  • Highlights of the Retelling:

[Bohannon] “One night three men were keeping watch outside the homestead of the great chief, when suddenly they saw the former chief approach them.”

“Why was he no longer their chief?”

“He was dead,” I explained. “That is why they were troubled and afraid when they saw him.”

“Impossible,” began one of the elders, handing his pipe on to his neighbor, who interrupted, “Of course it wasn’t the dead chief. It was an omen sent by a witch. Go on.”…[Bohannon] “The dead chief’s younger brother had become the great chief. He had also married his elder brother’s widow only about a month after the funeral.”“He did well,” the old man beamed and announced to the others, “I told you that if we knew more about Europeans, we would find they really were very like us. In our country also,” he added to me, “the younger brother marries the elder brother’s widow and becomes the father of his children.”…[Young Tiv Man] “For a man to raise his hand against his father’s brother and the one who has become his father— that is a terrible thing. The elders ought to let such a man be bewitched.”“No,” pronounced the old man, speaking less to me than to the young men sitting behind the elders. “If your father’s brother has killed your father, you must appeal to your father’s age mates: they may avenge him. No man may use violence against his senior relatives.” Another thought struck him.“But if his father’s brother had indeed been wicked enough to bewitch Hamlet and make him mad that would be a good story indeed, for it would be his fault that Hamlet, being mad, no longer had any sense and thus was ready to kill his father’s brother.”There was a murmur of applause. Hamlet was again a good story to them, but it no longer seemed quite the same story to me….

The old man made soothing noises and himself poured me some more beer. “You tell the story well, and we are listening. But it is clear that the elders of your country have never told you what the story really means. No, don’t interrupt! We believe you when you say your marriage customs are different, or your clothes and weapons. But people are the same everywhere; therefore, there are always witches and it is we, the elders, who know how witches work. We told you it was the great chief who wished to kill Hamlet, and now your own words have proved us right.”…“Listen,” said the elder, “and I will tell you how it was and how your story will go, then you may tell me if I am right. Polonius knew his son would get into trouble, and so he did. He had many fines to pay for fighting, and debts from gambling. But he had only two ways of getting money quickly. One was to marry off his sister at once, but it is difficult to find a man who will marry a woman desired by the son of a chief. For if the chief’s heir commits adultery with your wife, what can you do? Only a fool calls a case against a man who will someday be his judge. Therefore Laertes had to take the second way: he killed his sister by witchcraft, drowning her so he could secretly sell her body to the witches.”

I raised an objection, “They found her body and buried it. Indeed Laertes jumped into the grave to see his sister once more—so, you see, the body was truly there. Hamlet, who had just come back, jumped in after him.”

“What did I tell you?” The elder appealed to the others. “Laertes was up to no good with his sister’s body. Hamlet prevented him, because the chief’s heir, like a chief, does not wish any other man to grow rich and powerful.”…

“That was a very good story,” added the old man, “and you told it with very few mistakes. There was just one more error, at the very end. The poison Hamlet’s mother drank was obviously meant for the survivor of the fight, whichever it was. If Laertes had won, the great chief would have poisoned him, for no one would know that he arranged Hamlet’s death. Then, too, he need not fear Laertes’ witchcraft; it takes a strong heart to kill one’s only sister by witchcraft.”

“Sometime,” concluded the old man, gathering his ragged toga about him, “you must tell us some more stories of your country. We, who are elders, will instruct you in their true meaning, so that when you return to your own land your elders will see that you have not been sitting in the bush, but among those who know things and who have taught you wisdom.”

Continue reading Bohannon – Shakespeare in the Bush

Horst & Miller – The Digital and the Human

The Digital and the Human: A Prospectus for Digital Anthropology

by Heather Horst & Daniel Miller

[Horst, Heather A., and Daniel Miller. 2012. “The Digital and the Human: A Prospectus for Digital Anthropology.” In Digital Anthropology, 3–35. London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic.]


Six main principles

  1. The first principle is that the digital itself intensifies the dialectical nature of culture
  2. Our second principle suggests that humanity is not one iota more mediated by the rise of the digital
  3. The commitment to holism, the foundation of anthropological perspectives on humanity, represents a third principle
  4. The fourth principle reasserts the importance of cultural relativism and the global nature of our encounter with the digital
  5. The fifth principle is concerned with the essential ambiguity of digital culture with regard to its increasing openness and closure
  6. Our final principle acknowledges the materiality of digital worlds, which are neither more nor less material than the worlds that preceded them

“The primary point of this introduction, and the emergence of digital anthropology as a subfield more generally, is in resolute opposition to all approaches that imply that becoming digital has either rendered us less human, less authentic or more mediated. Not only are we just as human within the digital world, the digital also provides many new opportunities for anthropology to help us understand what it means to be human” (13).

“In effect, the digital is producing too much culture, which, because we cannot manage and engage with it, renders us thereby superficial or shallow or alienated” (15).

“At the level of abstraction, there are grounds for thinking we have reached rock bottom; there can be nothing more basic and abstract than binary bits, the difference between 0 and 1. At the other end of the scale, it is already clear that the digital far outstrips mere commoditization in its ability to proliferate difference” (16).

“Digital anthropology fails to the degree it makes the nondigital world appear in retrospect as unmediated and unframed. One of the reasons digital studies have often taken quite the opposite course has been the continued use of the term virtual, with its implied contrast with the real” (22).

“Rather than seeing predigital worlds as less mediated, we need to study how the rise of digital technologies has created the illusion that they were” (23).

“Social science had demonstrated how the real world was virtual long before we came to realize how the virtual world is real” (24).

“the term real must be regarded as colloquial and not epistemological. it should be clear that we are not more mediated. We are equally human in each of the different and diverse arenas of framed behaviour within which we live” (24).

“Materiality is thus bedrock for digital anthropology, and this is true in several distinct ways, of which three are of prime importance. First, there is the materiality of digital infrastructure and technology. Second, there is the materiality of digital content, and, third, there is the materiality of digital context” (34).

“We would therefore suggest that the key to digital anthropology, and perhaps to the future of anthropology itself, is, in part, the study of how things become rapidly mundane. What we experience is not a technology per se but an immediately cultural inflected genre of usage” (38).

Being human is a cultural and normative concept. As our second principle showed, it is our definition of being human that mediates what the technology is, not the other way around” (38).

“The faster the trajectory of cultural change, the more relevant the anthropologist, because there is absolutely no sign that the changes in technology are outstripping the human capacity to regard things as normative” (39).

Continue reading Horst & Miller – The Digital and the Human

Fischer – Emergent Forms of Life

Emergent Forms of Life: Anthropologies of Late or Postmodernities

by Michael M.J. Fischer

[Fischer, Michael M. J. 1999. “Emergent Forms of Life: Anthropologies of Late or Postmodernities.” Annual Review of Anthropology 28 (1):455–78.]


Really good overview of social theory and anthropology of the po-mo 1990s, and brief encapsulation of general social theory in the twentieth century

  • “Emergent forms of life’ acknowledges an ethnographic datum, a social theoretic heuristic, and a philosophical stance regarding ethics.
    • The ethnographic datum is the pervasive claim …  that traditional concepts and ways of doing things no longer work …
    • The social theoretic heuristic is that complex societies …  are always compromise formations among … emergent, dominant, and fading historical horizons.
    • The philosophical stance toward ethics is that “giving grounds” for belief comes to an end somewhere and that “the end is … a sociality of action, that always contains within it ethical dilemmas or … the face of the other.” (456)
  • Anthropologies of late modernity … provide challenges for all levels of social, cultural, and psychological theory, as well as for ethnographic field methods and genres of writing. There are three key overlapping arenas of attention.

    1. The continuing transformation of modernities by science and technology, 
    2. The reconfiguration of perception and understanding, of the human and social sensorium, by computer-mediated and visual technologies and prostheses. 
    3. The reconstruction of society in the wake of social trauma caused by world war and civil and ethnic wars; collapse of command economies; massive demographic migrations and diasporas; and postcolonial and globalizing restructurings of the world economy, including the production of toxics and new modalities of long-term risk.” (457-458)


  • “The general social theories of modernity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have to do with the dynamics of class society and industrial processes (Karl Marx); with bureaucratic, psychological, and cultural rationalization (Max Weber); with repression and redirection of psychic energy from gendered and familial conflicts (Sigmund Freud, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno); with abstraction of signs and tokens of exchange (CS Pierce, F Saussure, Georg Simmel, Thorstein Veblen); and with the complexification of the conscience collective with the division of labor (Emile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss).
  • In contrast, general theories of the postmodern or late modern era stress the processes and effects of the “third industrial revolution” (electronic media, silicon chip, molecular biology), as well as of decolonization, massive demographic shifts, and the cross-temporal and cross-cultural referentiality of cultural forms.” (458)
  • “computer-mediated communication provides also a design studio for social theory. It provides materials for thinking about a conjuncture of two kinds of science that can no longer do without one another: (a) explanatory structures that are breaks with normal experience, that can only be arrived at through the prostheses of instruments, experiments, models, and simulations, and (b) experiential, embodied, sensorial knowledge that acts as situated feedback.” (469)
  • “No longer is it possible to speak of modernity in the singular. … 
    • “The rubric “alternative modernities” acknowledges the multiple different configurations that modernities have taken and the recognition that modernization and globalization are not homogenizing processes.” (470)
    • “Among the important makers of these alternative modernities are the tremendous disruptions of the second half of the twentieth century: World War II, the struggles for decolonization, the collapse of the Soviet empire and its command economies, civil wars in Africa and Cambodia, and the “disappeared” in Argentina.” (471)
  • Composing ethnographically rich texts on emergent forms of life generated under late- and postmodernities that can explore connections between changing subjectivities, social organization, modes of production, and symbolic or cultural forms, is a challenge that the anthropological archive is increasingly addressing. … The new is never without historical genealogies, but these often require reassessment and excavation of their multiplicity. 


Anthropologies of late modernity (also called postmodernity, postindustrial society, knowledge society, or information society) provide a number of stimulating challenges for all levels of social, cultural, and psycho- logical theory, as well as for ethnographic and other genres of anthropological writing. Three key overlapping arenas of attention are the centrality of science and technology; decolonization, postcolonialism, and the reconstruction of societies after social trauma; and the role of the new electronic and visual media. The most important challenges of contemporary ethnographic practice include more than merely (a) the techniques of multilocale or multisited ethnography for strategically accessing different points in broadly spread processes, (b) the techniques of multivocal or multiaudience-addressed texts for mapping and acknowledging with greater precision the situatedness of knowledge, (c) the re- working of traditional notions of comparative work for a world that is increasingly aware of difference, and (d) acknowledging that anthropological representations are interventions within a stream of representations, mediations, and unequally inflected discourses competing for hegemonic control. Of equal importance are the challenges of juxtaposing, complementing, or supplementing other genres of writing, working with historians, literary theorists, media critics, novelists, investigative or in-depth journalists, writers of insider accounts (e.g. autobiographers, scientists writing for the public), photographers and filmmakers, and others.”

Continue reading Fischer – Emergent Forms of Life

Dumit – Is It Me or My Brain?

Is It Me or My Brain? Depression and Neuroscientific Facts

by Joseph Dumit

[Dumit, Joseph. 2003. “Is It Me or My Brain? Depression and Neuroscientific Facts.” Journal of Medical Humanities 24 (1–2): 35–47.]


  • Wittgenstein says that there are certain points about which we no longer ask for an explanation or a test of its truth, and explanations come to an end:
    • “Giving grounds, however justifying the evidence, comes to an end; —but the end is not certain propositions’ striking us immediately as true, i.e. it is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting” (On Certainty, p. 204) (39).
  • We might call the set of acts that concerns our brains and our bodies deriving from received-facts of science and medicine the objective-self”
    •  The objective- self consists of our taken-for-granted notions, theories, and tendencies regarding human bodies, brains, and kinds considered as objective, referential, extrinsic, and objects of science and medicine. That we “know”we have a brain and that the brain is necessary for our self is one aspect of our objective-self” (39).
  • “Furthermore, objective-selves are not finished but incomplete and in process. With received-facts we fashion and refashion our objective-selves.
    • Thus it is we come to know our bodies as endangered by poisons like saccharine, our brains as having a “reading circuit,” and humans as being either mentally ill or sane or borderline.
    • I call this “objective-self fashioning” to highlight our own activity in encountering “received-facts.”
    • I emphasize “received-facts” rather than just “facts”to highlight the activity of translation that has taken place in order for the results of a scientific or medical project to reach us.
      • Each of these movements of facts from one media to another is also necessarily a transformation of the fact. Science studies scholars Bruno Latour and Michel Callon call this process “translation,” a term connoting both movement and change in meaning. We all know that a fact established in a lab is not known immediately by everyone, everywhere. It must travel through specific channels” (39).
  • “Each of the aspects of our objective-selves has this personal history (of coming-to-know via received-facts) and also a social history. (39-40)
    • “Some human kinds that we are starting to take for granted, e.g., depressives, require attending to broader social and institutional forces in order to understand how it is that we look to the brain for an answer” (40).
    • “These social histories enable and constrain science at every level of fact conception, experimentation, publication, and dissemination and reception, but this does not imply that science is culture. Science produces facts in spite of and because of these constraints—laboriously, continuously, and creatively” (40).
    • “And we fashion our objective-selves with the fruit of this labor in the form of received-facts in our own continuous and often creative manner, no matter how skeptical we are. This way of living with and through scientific facts is our form of life” (40).


  • Examining sufferers of mental illness pints Dumit to a type of selfhood he wants to “a pharmaceutical self whose scale is one of days and weeks.
    • Contrary to a Heideggerian phenomenology in which one is passively thrown into moods, here one’s abnormal neurochemistry actively throws one into depression or mania. Sometimes one can respond to this by taking drugs that, days or weeks later, throw you into yet a third state—not normal, but better.”
  • This pharmaceutical Self brings forth “three critical aspects of objective-self fashioning for our purposes.”
    • First, there is a tremendous flexibility and openness of explanation of the objective-self”
      • Even in the face of specific received-facts about ourselves such as brain images, there is room for negotiation and redefinition. Sociologists and anthropologists of psychology have called this the “pandemonium” of folk psychology. But they also note that even as we can play with mind and brain, motivation and behavior, we also ultimately must satisfy local common sense” (44).
    • “The second aspect … is the need for a nuanced, complex cultural, historical and institutional as well as scientific or biomedical understanding of context.
      • Objective-self fashioning is an ongoing process of social accounting to oneself and others in particular situations in which received-facts function as particularly powerful resources because they bear the objective authority of science” (44).
    • “The third critical aspect of objective-self fashioning is the fundamental connection between the brain as objective-self and one’s own personal identity.
      • When genes are invoked as the cause of one’s objective-self and aspects of one’s personality they can become synecdoche for one’s identity. If one has a gene for depression, one can fear becoming depressed.”
      •  “We can note here that brain images further confuse the part with the whole—even though brain images only show a slice of the brain, they show the slice as representing the whole brain, which in turn is the person” (44).
  • “Individual sufferers are trying to both understand their illness and live with it. These are activities that are not necessarily compatible. Using the notion of the pharmaceutical self, I would suggest that they have entered into a relationship with their brain that is negotiated and social” (46).



objective-self—our taken-for-granted notions, theories, and tendencies regarding human bodies, brains, and kinds considered as objective, referential, extrinsic, and objects of science and medicine (39)

objective-self fashioning—”an ongoing process of social accounting to oneself and others in particular situations in which received-facts function as particularly powerful resources because they bear the objective authority of science” (44)

identification— borrowed from psychology and semiotics, “we can characterize our relationship to culture as identification.In Kenneth Burke’s definition, identification includes the “ways in which we spontaneously, intuitively, even unconsciously persuade ourselves” (Burke, 1966, p. 301)” (36)



This article considers the roles played by brain images (e.g., from PET scans) in mass media as experienced by people suffering from mental illness, and as used by scientists and activist groups in demonstrating a biological basis for mental illness. Examining the rhetorical presentation of images in magazines and books, the article describes the persuasive power that brain images have in altering the understanding people have of their own body—their “objective self.” Analyzing first-person accounts of encounters with brain images, it argues that people come to understand themselves as having neurotransmitter imbalances that are the cause of their illnesses via received facts and images of the brain, but that this understand- ing is incomplete and in tension with the sense that they are their brain. The article concludes by querying the emergence of a “pharmaceutical self,” in which one experiences one’s brain as if on drugs, as a new form of objective self-fashioning.”

Continue reading Dumit – Is It Me or My Brain?

Coco & Woodward – Discourses of Authenticity in a Pagan Community

Discourses of Authenticity Within a Pagan Community: The Emergence of the “Fluffy Bunny” Sanction

by Angela Coco & Ian Woodward

[Coco, Angela, and Ian Woodward. 2007. “Discourses of Authenticity Within a Pagan Community: The Emergence of the ‘Fluffy Bunny’ Sanction.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 36 (5): 479–504.]


  • Discussing “fluffy bunnies” is “a group boundary defining exercise based on moral judgments.”
    • It explores pagan ethics associated with the deployment of pagan artifacts and spiritual understandings.
    • Implicit in the discussion is a sense of a “them” who are seduced by media images and popular practices, or implicated in producing them, and a (serious, authentic) “us” who presumably distance ourselves from such things (480).
  • “In a consumer society one purchases objects—commodities such as Tarot cards, ritual tools, medieval dress—that enhance, edify, improve, and sustain self.
    • These objects then act as material boundary markers that suggest things people wish to cultivate about themselves and exclude polluting aesthetics/others” (482).


  • pagans are conscious of and practically engage in discussions about constructions of pagan identity and commodification of the craft which is exemplified in the notion of the “fluffy bunny” (499).
  • “A range of tensions emerges which we argue indicates the ways pagans in late-capitalist (or postmodern) society reflexively create meaning-structures around the production and consumption of goods and services that have become popularized as “pagan.” The nuanced features of these tensions reveal the conceptual distinctions and symbolic boundaries pagans create in establishing an “authentic” pagan identity” (483).
  • “The establishment of an “authentic” pagan identity is formed partly by one’s ability to discern the proper limits of commodification and consumerism in the pursuit of religious practice” (499).


  • Fluffy Bunnies defined:
    • “those people who gain a surface grasp of pagan practices but fail to incorporate pagan beliefs into their day-to-day life practices” (500).
    • “uninformed, immature, and lacking in their understanding of the forces of nature and consequently dangerous because they may misuse magic”—informant (500).
    • “a person who doesn’t know what they are talking about, or as was said not steadfast in there (sic) beliefs. I am sure that we have all met the 12 year old who is a high priestess and the leader of huge demonic armies and has alliances with the elves!!!!”—informant (500).
    •  “perhaps what bugs me most about these type (sic) is not so much the superficiality (which the ‘fashion-witch’ has in spades) but the hyposcrisy (sic) which often enables them todo harm whilst preaching love and light, and never once recognizing the results of their own actions”—informant (501).
    • “They refer to the superficial practitioner’s tendency to focus only on the light, happy side of life without balancing it with the dark and difficult aspects of experience” (501).



The commodification of the religious impulse finds its most overt expression in the New Age movement and its subculture neopaganism. This article examines discourses in the pagan community in an Australian state. Pagans, who have been characterized as individualist, eclectic, and diverse in their beliefs and practices, network through electronic mail discussion lists and chat forums as well as through local and national offline gatherings. We explore community building and boundary defining communications in these discourses. In particular, we examine interactions that reveal the mobilization of pagans’ concern with authenticity in the context of late-capitalism, consumer lifestyles, and media representations of the “craft.” Our analysis highlights a series of tensions in pagans’ representations of and engagement with consumer culture which are evident in everyday pagan discourse. These notions of in/authenticity are captured by invoking the “fluffy bunny” sanction.

Continue reading Coco & Woodward – Discourses of Authenticity in a Pagan Community

Heidegger – The Question Concerning Technology

The Question Concerning Technology

by Martin Heidegger

[Heidegger, Martin. 1977. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays, 3–35. Harper & Row.]


Technology, to begin with, is not a thing, but rather a way of revealing truths.

  • “Modern technology too is a means to an end.” “We will master it. The will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control.” (pg 5)
  • There are four causes (ways of being responsible for something else) involved in tech’s means
    • causa materialis—the material, the stuff a thing is made from
    • causa formalis—the form, the material takes, the template
    • causa finalis—the intended end use, ritual, application, etc.
    • causa efficiens—who (or what) actual forms the material, the craftworker, miner, technician, etc.
      • All four causes work together to facilitate the technology’s occasioning (it’s coming onto being in its specific context)
      • Plato says: “every occasion for whatever passes over and goes forward into presencing from that which is not presencing is poiesis, is bringing-forth” (pg 10)
  • “Technology  is  a  mode  of  revealing.  Technology  comes  to presence  [West]  in the realm where revealing and unconcealment take place, where aletheia, truth, happens.” (pg 13)

So what’s the problem?

  • Modern technology is different because the type if revealing is different.
    • “What is modern technology? It too is a revealing. Only when we allow our attention to rest on this fundamental characteristic does that which is new in modern technology show itself to us.  [paragraph break ]  And yet the revealing that holds sway throughout modern technology does not unfold into a bringing-forth in the sense of poiesis. The  revealing that rules  in modern  technology  is a  chal­lenging  [Herausfordern], which puts to nature the unreasonable demand  that  it  supply  energy  that  can  be  extracted  and  stored as such.  [ … ]  The earth now reveals itself as a coal mining dis­trict, the soil as a mineral deposit.” (14)
  • This type of revealing is based on challenging. Whereas the old-school peasant “challenge the soil of the field” (15), new technologies demand that the materials in the earth (like coal) are always ready for use as “it is stockpiled; that is, it is on call, ready to deliver the sun’s warmth that is stored in it” (15)
    • H calls this standing-reserve
  • Since we do this, we tend to see the objects as only the resources contained in them, as an ordering revealing
    • in other words: “The unconcealment of the unconcealed has already come to pass whenever it calls man forth into the modes of revealing allotted to him. When man, in his way, from within unconcealment reveals that which  presences, he merely responds to the call of unconcealment even when he  contradicts it. Thus when man, investigating, observing, ensnares nature as an area of his own conceiving, he has already been claimed by a way of  revealing that challenges him to approach nature as  an  object  of research, until  even  the object disappears into the objectlessness  of standing-reserve” (19).
  • H calls this propensity in humans enframing.
    • “Enframing  means  the  gathering  together  of that  setting-upon which  sets  upon  man,  i.e.,  challenges  him  forth,  to  reveal  the real,  in  the  mode  of  ordering,  as  standing-reserve.  Enframing means  that way  of revealing  which  holds  sway  in  the  essence  of modern  technology  and  which  is  itself  nothing  technological” (20).
    • OR “the way in which the real reveals itself as standing-reserve” (23)
    • OR “Enframing  is  the  gathering  together  that  belongs  to  that setting-upon  which  sets  upon  man  and  puts  him  in  position  to reveal the real, in the  mode  of ordering,  as  standing-reserve” (24)
  • And Enframing is the essence of modern technology


  • Enframing creates a situation wherein humans see the world around around them as a “calculable complex of the effects of forces” (26). We see only resources standing-reserve but no objects in and of themselves.
  •  When we don;t see the objects as they are (in their truth), we fall for the illusion that humans are the only things around worth noting…
    • “as soon as what is unconcealed no longer concerns man even as object, but does so, rather, exclusively as standing-reserve [ … ] he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve. Meanwhile man …  exalts himself to the posture of lord of the earth. [ … ] This illusion gives rise in turn to one final delusion: It seems as though man everywhere and always encounters only himself” (26-27).
  • AND “the challenging Enframing not only conceals a former way of revealing, bringing-forth, but it conceals revealing itself and with it That wherein concealment, i.e., truth, comes to pass” (27)
  • “The rule of Enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could de denied him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth” (28).
    • (yeah, but wtf is ‘truth,’ H?)
  • And FINALLY— “The coming to presence of technology threatens revealing, threatens it with the possibility that all revealing will be con­sumed in ordering and that everything will present itself only in the unconcealedness of standing-reserve” (33).

All is not lost

  • “So long as we represent technology as an instrument we remain held fast in the will to master it. We press on past the essence of technology.  [ paragraph break ]  When, however, we ask how the instrumental comes to presence as a kind of causality, then we experience the coming to presence as the destining of a revealing” (32).
  • Techne also used to mean “art,” so maybe art will be the ultimate savior?
  • And who knows, maybe “the frenziedness of technology may entrench itself every­ where to such an extent that someday, throughout everything technological, the essence of technology may come to presence in the coming-to-pass of truth” (35).

Techne—”techne  is  the  name  not  only  for  the  activities  and  skills  of  the craftsman,  but  also  for  the  arts  of  the  mind  and  the  fine  arts. Techne  belongs  to  bringing-forth,  to  poiesis;  it  is  something poietic.    [paragraph break ] The other point that we should observe with  regard  to  techne is even more important.  From earliest times  until  Plato the word techne is linked with the word  episteme.  Both  words  are names for  knowing  in  the  widest  sense.  They  mean  to  be  entirely  at home  in  something,  to  understand  and  be  expert  in  it.”  [ … ]   “It is as revealing, and not as manufactur­ing, that techne is a bringing-forth.” (pg 13)

Continue reading Heidegger – The Question Concerning Technology