Tag Archives: Foucault

Kohn—How Forests Think

How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human

by Eduardo Kohn

[Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.]

Points

“How other kinds of beings see us matters. Th at other kinds of beings see us changes things. If jaguars also represent us—in ways that can matter vitally to us—then anthropology cannot limit itself just to exploring how people from different societies might happen to represent them as doing so” (1).

“This book is an attempt to ponder the Sphinx’s riddle by attending ethnographically to a series of Amazonian other-than-human encounters. Attending to our relations with those beings that exist in some way beyond the human forces us to question our tidy answers about the human. Th e goal here is neither to do away with the human nor to reinscribe it but to open it. In rethinking the human we must also rethink the kind of anthropology that would be adequate to this task. Sociocultural anthropology in its various forms as it is practiced today takes those attributes that are distinctive to humans—language, culture, society, and history—and uses them to fashion the tools to understand humans. In this process the analytical object becomes isomorphic with the analytics. As a result we are not able to see the myriad ways in which people are connected to a broader world of life, or how this fundamental connection changes what it might mean to be human. And this is why expanding ethnography to reach beyond the human is so important. An ethnographic focus not just on humans or only on animals but also on how humans and animals relate breaks open the circular closure that otherwise confines us when we seek to understand the distinctively human by means of that which is distinctive to humans” (6).

“I seek to contribute to these posthuman critiques of the ways in which we have treated humans as exceptional—and thus as fundamentally separate from the rest of the world—by developing a more robust analytic for understanding human relations to nonhuman beings. I do so by refl ecting on what it might mean to say that forests think. I do so, that is, by working out the connection between representational processes (which form the basis for all thought) and living ones as this is revealed through ethno-graphic attention to that which lies beyond the human. I use the insights thus gained to rethink our assumptions about the nature of representation, and I then explore how this rethinking changes our anthropological concepts. I call this approach an “anthropology beyond the human” (7).

“But symbols, those kinds of signs that are based on convention (like the English word dog), which are distinctively human representational forms, and whose properties make human language possible, actually emerge from and relate to other modalities of representation. In Peirce’s terminology these other modalities (in broad terms) are either “iconic” (involving signs that share likenesses with the things they represent) or “indexical” (involving signs that are in some way affected by or otherwise correlated with those things they represent). In addition to being symbolic creatures we humans share these other semiotic modalities with the rest of nonhuman biological life (Deacon 1997) … though signs may be extralinguistic (with the consequence that language can be treated as something more than symbolic) the contexts that make them meaningful are human sociocultural ones” (8).

“Life is constitutively semiotic” (9).

“This way of understanding semiosis can help us move beyond a dualistic approach to anthropology, in which humans are portrayed as separate from the worlds they represent, toward a monistic one, in which how humans represent jaguars and how jaguars represent humans can be understood as integral, though not interchangeable, parts of a single, open-ended story” (9).

“In sum, an anthropology beyond the human is perforce an ontological one. That is, taking nonhumans seriously makes it impossible to confine our anthropological inquiries to an epistemological concern for how it is that humans, at some particular time or in some particular place, go about making sense of them. As an ontological endeavor this kind of anthropology places us in a special position to rethink the sorts of concepts we use and to develop new ones. In Marilyn Strathern’s words, it aims “to create the conditions for new thoughts” (1988: 20)” (10).

“My argument is that we are colonized by certain ways of thinking about relationality. We can only imagine the ways in which selves and thoughts might form associations through our assumptions about the forms of associations that structure human language. And then, in ways that often go unnoticed, we project these assumptions onto nonhumans. Without realizing it we attribute to nonhumans properties that are our own, and then, to compound this, we narcissistically ask them to provide us with corrective reflections of ourselves … Forests are good to think because they themselves think. Forests think. I want to take this seriously, and I want to ask, What are the implications of this claim for our understandings of what it means to be human in a world that extends beyond us?” (21-22).

“Signs don’t come from the mind. Rather, it is the other way around. What we call mind, or self, is a product of semiosis. Th at “somebody,” human or non-human, who takes the crashing palm to be significant is a “self that is just com-ing into life in the fl ow of time” (CP 5.421) by virtue of the ways in which she comes to be a locus—however ephemeral—for the “interpretance” of this sign and many others like it. In fact, Peirce coined the cumbersome term interpretant to avoid the “homunculus fallacy” (see Deacon 2012: 48) of seeing a self as a sort of black box (a little person inside us, a homunculus) who would be the interpreter of those signs but not herself the product of those signs. Selves, human or nonhuman, simple or complex, are outcomes of semiosis as well as the starting points for new sign interpretation whose outcome will be a future self. They are waypoints in a semiotic process” (34).

“We need to provincialize language because we conflate representation with language and this conflation finds its way into our theory. We universalize this distinctive human propensity by first assuming that all representation is some-thing human and then by supposing that all representation has language like properties” (39).

“To summarize: signs are not exclusively human affairs. All living beings sign. We humans are therefore at home with the multitude of semiotic life. Our exceptional status is not the walled compound we thought we once inhabited. An anthropology that focuses on the relations we humans have with nonhuman beings forces us to step beyond the human. In the process it makes what we’ve taken to be the human condition—namely, the paradoxical, and “provincialized,” fact that our nature is to live immersed in the “unnatural” worlds we construct—appear a little strange. Learning how to appreciate this is an important goal of an anthropology beyond the human” (42).

“Thinking with images, as I do here with the Sphinx’s riddle, and as I do throughout this book, with all kinds of images—be they oneiric, aural, anecdotal, mythic, or even photographic (there are other stories being “told” here without words)—and learning to attend to the ways in which these images amplify, and thus render apparent, something about the human via that which lies beyond the human, is, as I’ve been arguing, also a way of opening ourselves to the distinctive iconic logics of how the forest’s thoughts might think their ways through us. How Forests Think aims to think like forests: in images” (222).

Continue reading Kohn—How Forests Think

Shapin & Schaffer—Leviathan and the Air-Pump

Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life

by Steven Shapin & Simon Schaffer

[Shapin, Steven, and Simon Schaffer. 1985. Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.]

Points

  • To interrogate questions like “Why is it that we do experiments to determine “matters of fact?” S&S look to the controversy surrounding the first laboratory experiments=Robert Boyle’s air-pump experiment (and Hobbes’s critiques of them)
    • by approaching the topic like a “stranger”—even though we have come to see controlled experiments as creators of scientific fact, S&S ask what someone at the time would think of the controversy, avoiding presentism
  • Very basically:
    • Boyle wants to “see the house of natural philosophy in order by remedying its divisions and by with­drawing it from contentious links with civic philosophy” (21). In other words, our society is jacked-up, but we can make it so that science (natural philosophy) is not so jacked-up. How? Controlled laboratory experiments!
    • Hobbes disagreed, saying that “order was only to be ensured by erecting a demonstrative philosophy that allowed no boundaries between the natural, the human, and the social, and which allowed for no dissent within it” (21). In other words, what is true is true in all aspects and you can’t just carve one facet of that truth out.
    • In other other words: “Robert Boyle maintained that proper natural philosophical knowl­edge should be generated through experiment and that the foun­dations of such knowledge were to be constituted by experimentally produced matters of fact. Thomas Hobbes disagreed. In Hobbes’s view Boyle’s procedures could never yield the degree of certainty requisite in any enterprise worthy of being called philosophical” (22).

Air-Pump

  • Boyle (S&S argue) used three technologies in his experiments
    1. material technology—the air-pump itself and its use in experimentation
    2. literary technology—descriptions of the apparatus, the experiments, and the laboratory space as well as the findings of the experiments published and disseminated to the public at large
    3. social technology—the idea of “witnessing” (see below).

witnessing – three ways to multiply it

  1. make it public—use a laboratory
    • “The space where these machines worked—the nascent laboratory—was to be a public space, but a restricted public space, as critics like Hobbes were soon to point out. The phenomena were not on show anywhere at all. The laboratory was, therefore, a disciplined space, where experimental, discursive, and social practices were collectively controlled by competent members” (39).
  2. make it replicable—so others can witness it by doing the same thing elsewhere
    • This was more of a theoretical aim than a realistic one. The cost pf air-pumps, their rarity, and their different designs made direct replication almost impossible.
    • Not to mention the fact that Boyles’s air-pump leaked—something that Hobbes talked about. A lot.
  3. “virtual witnessing”—write it down in detail, and readers will witness it in their imagination
    • This could possibly reach and infinite number of witnesses, but it depends completely on the reader trusting the account, which feeds back into Hobbes’s critique of the laboratory: the people involved had to be beyond reproach, so only members of exclusive social and professional circles (The Royal Society) could contribute. They got to actually witness, so countless others could virtually witness.
    • “first, the witnessing experience had to be made acces­sible; second, witnesses had to be reliable and their testimony had to be creditable. The first condition worked to open up experi­mental space, while the second acted to restrict entry” (336).

Conclusion—scientific “matters of fact” are actually political creations

  • “There are three senses in which we want to say that the history of science occupies the same terrain as the history of politics. First, scientific practitioners have created, selected, and maintained a polity within which they operate and make their intellectual prod­uct; second, the intellectual product made within that polity has become an element in political activity in the state; third, there is a conditional relationship between the nature of the polity occupied by scientific intellectuals and the nature of the wider polity” (332).
  • By the end S&S have shown “(1) that the solution to the problem of knowledge is political; it is predicated upon laying down rules and conventions of relations between men in the intellectual polity; (2) that the knowledge thus produced and authenticated becomes an element in political action in the wider polity; it is impossible that we should come to under­ stand the nature of political action in the state without referring to the products of the intellectual polity; (3) that the contest among alternative forms of life and their characteristic forms of intellectual product depends upon the political success of the various candi­dates in insinuating themselves into the activities of other institu­tions and other interest groups. He who has the most, and the most powerful, allies wins” (342).

Or more briefly said:

  • “As we come to recognize the conventional and artifactual status of our forms of knowing, we put ourselves in a position to realize that it is ourselves and not reality that is responsible for what we know. Knowledge, as much as the state, is the product of human actions” (344).
    • Even Boyle—who championed scientific experimentation and the ideals of natural fact divorced from all societal influence—could only prove his point through the use of social structures and media dissemination, erasing any pretense of nature’s ability to stand alone.
    • “Hobbes was right” (344).

Abstract

Leviathan and the Air-Pump examines the conflicts over the value and propriety of experimental methods between two major seventeenth-century thinkers: Thomas Hobbes, author of the political treatise Leviathan and vehement critic of systematic experimentation in natural philosophy, and Robert Boyle, mechanical philosopher and owner of the newly invented air-pump. The issues at stake in their disputes ranged from the physical integrity of the air-pump to the intellectual integrity of the knowledge it might yield. Both Boyle and Hobbes were looking for ways of establishing knowledge that did not decay into ad hominem attacks and political division. Boyle proposed the experiment as cure. He argued that facts should be manufactured by machines like the air-pump so that gentlemen could witness the experiments and produce knowledge that everyone agreed on. Hobbes, by contrast, looked for natural law and viewed experiments as the artificial, unreliable products of an exclusive guild. The new approaches taken in Leviathan and the Air-Pump have been enormously influential on historical studies of science. Shapin and Schaffer found a moment of scientific revolution and showed how key scientific givens—facts, interpretations, experiment, truth—were fundamental to a new political order. Shapin and Schaffer were also innovative in their ethnographic approach. Attempting to understand the work habits, rituals, and social structures of a remote, unfamiliar group, they argued that politics were tied up in what scientists did, rather than what they said. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer use the confrontation between Hobbes and Boyle as a way of understanding what was at stake in the early history of scientific experimentation. They describe the protagonists’ divergent views of natural knowledge, and situate the Hobbes-Boyle disputes within contemporary debates over the role of intellectuals in public life and the problems of social order and assent in Restoration England. In a new introduction, the authors describe how science and its social context were understood when this book was first published, and how the study of the history of science has changed since then.

Continue reading Shapin & Schaffer—Leviathan and the Air-Pump

Altman—Posthum/an/ous

Posthum/an/ous: Identity, Imagination, and the Internet 

graduate thesis by Eric Stephen Altman

[Altman, Eric Stephen. 2010. “Posthum/an/ous: Identity, Imagination, and the Internet.” Thesis, Appalachian State University.]

Points

  • based mostly on online written materials, as well as 10 interviews
  • an English department MA thesis
  • looks at Furry, Otherkin, and Otakukin as three fandoms with three similar aspects
    1. emphasize an online avatar that represents identity to members
    2. engages in fan fiction
    3. has a sexual, fetishistic component as a prominent feature
      • “The object of this thesis is to engage in and describe three different communities that engage in community behavior that deviates from and challenges mainstream culture. Each of these communities is primarily based on the Internet and their members consistently identify with an identity that is not human. These communities often express discontentment with their human body or existence and instead idealize the conception of another state of existence. Interestingly enough, many members justify their beliefs by stating that they must have once been the creature that they identity with so, believing their past lives to be the one where they were once happy and accepted, as opposed to the sham of their human existence” (7).

By describing Otherkin as a fandom, Altman misses the boat completely

  • the piece references the furry subculture along with Otherkin & Otakukin as if they were comparable levels of identity
    • the problem= Furries identify with a non-human entity; Otherkin/Otakukin identify as a non-human entity
    • this leads the author to treat Otherkin identity as a fundamentally fictional construct, which is not the case to Otherkin
    • “Through the implementation of fiction and narrative, the fandoms are able to create and sustain complex fictional personas in complex fictional worlds, and thereby create a “real” subculture in physical reality, based entirely off of fiction” (33).

Altman gets close to describing Otherkin belief as a valid religion-like system by linking fandoms to mythology and religious structure:

  • “The devotion of fandoms to media is a new kind of mythology. Fans have the opportunity to adhere themselves to a system of fundamental guidelines that appeal to them, and these moral and societal edicts are transmitted through the narratives that are crafted by media and literature. The heroes and saints of religion are transmitted within the narrative of popular culture, and archetypes of mythology continue to define the way in which the viewer experiencing the media understands characters … A key difference between fandoms and religions is that fandoms are inherently outside of cultural hegemony” (41).

But then falls prey to the fandom construct by viewing Otherkin personal histories and narratives of awakening as genres of fan fiction—governed by rules, but completely fictional:

  • “if I were to endeavor to make a persona in the Otherkin community, I would have the nearly limitless horizons of fantasy literature and media from which to draw inspiration. I could easily craft a creature that defies all logical sense, but under the loose framework of fantasy, could indeed be completely plausible; if I establish enough background and history then my idea could be “believable” within the context of the fan community” (63).

Since the Otherkin belief system is based around the cultural productions of a fandom, it is an alternative ontological choice the members have made rather than a true belief system

  • “trappings of humanity isn’t so much an indication of the fandom’s sanity so much as a critique of a world that discarded them; humanity hasn’t worked, and so therefore the alternatives are explored” (89).
  • This is not necessarily true or false, but the fact that Altman starts from the position of a fandom precludes any exploration of ontological possibilities and does not take the participants of his research seriously.

Abstract

The Furry, Otherkin, and Otakukin are Internet fan subcultures whose members personally identify with non-human beings, such as animals, creatures of fantasy, or cartoon characters. I analyze several different forms of expression that the fandoms utilize to define themselves against the human world. These are generally narrative in execution, and the conglomeration of these texts provides the communities with a concrete ontology. Through the implementation of fiction and narrative, the fandoms are able to create and sustain complex fictional personas in complex fictional worlds, and thereby create a “real” subculture in physical reality, based entirely off of fiction. Through the use of the mutability of Internet performance and presentation of self-hood, the groups are able to present themselves as possessing the traits of previous, non-human lives; on the Internet, the members are post-human. The members no longer need to suffer through the society of humans around them: they can reclaim their past lives and live out a posthum/an/ous existence

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Mosco—The Digital Sublime

The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace

by Vincent Mosco

[Mosco, Vincent. 2005. The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace. MIT Press.]

Points

  • “computers and the world of what came to be called cyberspace embody and drive important myths about our time. Powered by computer communication, we would,according to the myths, experience an epochal transformation in human experience that would transcend time (the end of history), space (the end of geography), and power (the end of politics)” (2-3).
  • “it is when technologies such as the telephone and the computer cease to be sublime icons of mythology and enter the prosaic world of banality—when they lose their role as sources of utopian visions—that they become important forces for social and economic change” (6).
  • “cyberspace is a mythic space, one that transcends the banal, day-to-day worlds of time, space, and politics to match the “naked truth” of reason with the “dancing truth” of ritual, song, and storytelling (Lozano 1992: 213). Indeed,cyberspace is a central force in the growth of three of the central myths of our time, each linked in the vision of an end point: the end of history, the end of geography, and the end of politics” (13).
  • “the real power of new technologies does not appear during their mythic period, when they are hailed for their ability to bring world peace, renew communities, or end scarcity, history, geography, or politics; rather, their social impact is greatest when technologies become banal—when they literally (as in the case of electricity) or figuratively withdraw into the woodwork” (19).

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Herzfeld—Cultural Intimacy

Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State

by Michael Herzfeld

[Herzfeld, Michael. 2005. Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State. 2 edition. New York: Routledge.]

Points

  • big question = “what advantages [do] social actors find in using, reformulating, and recasting official idioms in the pursuit of often highly unofficial personal goals, and how [do] these actions—so often in direct contra­vention of state authority—actually constitute the state as well as a huge range of national and other identities” (2).
  • “the nation-state’s claims to affixed, eternal identity grounded in universal truth are themselves, like the moves of all social actors, strategic adjustments to the demands of the historical moment” (5).
  • KEY POINT (acc. to Herzfeld) = the idea of the polity­—nation-state, local community, or international body—succeeds to the extent that its formal ideology encapsulates (or incorpo­rates) all the inward flaws and imperfections to which it is offi­cially and ostensibly opposed” (220).

Also:

  • Anthropologists should adopt the combination of a “top down” and “bottom up” approach, located at what Herzfeld calls a “militant middle ground.” This ground is not only a space where cultural intimacy and its use/characteristics are taken into consideration as coming equally from the state and the individuals, but also a space wherein the anthropologists takes a stance of cultural relativism, while maintaining their own personal ethical and moral beliefs (taking action if deemed necessary).
  • To shrug off binarism as a structuralist conceit is a mistake. Binarism and other essentialism play important parts of social life, and thus should be embraced by ethnography. It is important to note, however, that these binarisms act as convenient ways of describing the world, and should not be used as or confused with an abstract theoretical position.

cultural intimacy—”the recog­nition of those aspects of a cultural identity that are considered a source of external embarrassment but that nevertheless provide insiders with their assurance of common sociality, the familiarity with the bases of power that may at one moment assure the disenfranchised a degree of creative irreverence and at the next moment reinforce the effectiveness of intimidation” (3)

disemia—”the formal or coded tension between official self-presentation and what goes on in the privacy of collective introspection” (14).

structural nostalgia—”the longing for an age before the state, for the primordial and self­ regulating birthright that the state continually invoke” (22). Continue reading Herzfeld—Cultural Intimacy

Shane—Some People Aren’t People on the Inside

Some People Aren’t People on the Inside: Online Connectivity and Otherkin Subjectivities

by Margaret Shane

[Shane, Margaret. 2014. “Some People Aren’t People on the Inside.” In Educational, Psychological, and Behavioral Considerations in Niche Online Communities, edited by Vivek Venkatesh, 260–71. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.]

  • Otherkin identity queers ontology
  • Otherkin as a “flow of desire” rather than marginal subculture
  • Onto-Normativity—A compound term of art comprised of the prefix “onto” derived from “on­tology” referring to philosophical considerations of reality and being; and “normativity” referring to predominant norms. In this context, the term points to habits of thought governing reality prevalent in contemporary Western society.”

ABSTRACT

So-called alternative on line niche communities are prone to ridicule, derision, and dismissal owing to the challenges they pose to prevailing onto-normativities, those ingrained modes of thought that dictate how we describe reality. Relying on the divergent approaches of classic SWOT analysis and post-structuralist philosophy and queer theory, this chapter explores how online connectivity shapes expressions of one niche community, the Otherkin. Otherkin are conceived as flows of desire, difference, and becoming rather than as a marginalized sub-culture occupying virtual space. As such, Otherkin are queering and destabilizing established norms in ways that call forth radically new ethics, aesthetics, ontologies, epis­temologies, and social connections. This chapter relies upon Otherkin online texts and expressions to make the case that such destabilizations are essentially creative acts and that on line connectivity affords Otherkin strengths and opportunities as well as revealing weaknesses and representing threats to their niche community Continue reading Shane—Some People Aren’t People on the Inside

Gehl—Reverse Engineering Social Media

Reverse Engineering Social Media: Software, Culture, and Political Economy in New Media Capitalism

by Robert Gehl

[Gehl, Robert. 2014. Reverse Engineering Social Media: Software, Culture, and Political Economy in New Media Capitalism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.]

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