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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.]

Points

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. 

Abstract

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.”

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Escobar – Welcome to Cyberia

Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyberculture

by Arturo Escobar

[Escobar, Arturo. 1994. “Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyberculture.” Current Anthropology 35 (3):211–31.]

Points

  • “The point of departure of this inquiry is the belief that any technology represents a cultural invention, in the sense that it brings forth a world; it emerges out of particular cultural conditions and in turn helps to create new ones” (211).
  • “the priority accorded science and theory over technical creativity has led moderns to believe that they can describe nature and society according to laws. Rather than as the effect of practice nature and society appear as objects with mechanisms and are therefore treated instrumentally” (213).
  • cyberculture” refers specifically to new technologies in two areas: artificial intelligence (particularly computer and information technologies) and biotechnology [… to] the realization that we increasingly live and make ourselves in techno-biocultural environments structured by novel forms of science and technology” (214).
  • Anthropological research into cybercultures should be guided by four inquiries:
    1. What are the discourses and practices that are generated around/by computers and biotechnology?
    2. How can these practices and domains be studied ethnographically in various social, regional, and ethnic settings?
    3. What is the background of understanding from which the new technologies emerge?
    4. What is the political economy of cyberculture? (215)
  • “The anthropology of cyberculture holds that we can assume a priori neither the existence of a era nor the need for a new branch of anthropology” (216).
  • “technoscience is motivating a blurring and implosion of categories at various levels, particularly the modern categories that defined the natural, the organic, the technical, and the textual”
    • “Bodies,” “organisms,” and “communities” thus have to be retheorized as composed of elements that originate in three different domains with permeable boundaries” (217).
  • Possible ethnographic domains and research strategies:
    1. The production and use of new technologies
    2. The appearance of Computer-mediated communities
    3. Studies of the popular culture of science and technology, including the effect of science and technology on the popular imaginary
    4. The growth and qualitative development of human computer-mediated communication, particularly from the perspective of the relationship between language communication, social structures, and cultural identity
    5. The political economy of cyberculture (217-219).
  • Then a bunch about complexity, including:
    • “The discovery that “inert” matter has properties that are remarkably close to those of life-forms led to the postulate that life is a property not of organic
      matter per se but of the organization of matter and hence to the concept of nonorganic life (de Landa 1992)” (221).

Terms

  • interface anthropology—put forth by Laurel (1990, 91-93), it is a “focus on user/context intersections, finding “informants” to guide the critical (not merely utilitarian) exploration of diverse users and contexts” (218).
    • appended to that definition is this cool footnote: “Walker (1990) distinguishes five phases in the history of user interfaces (1) knobs and dials, (2) batch (a specialist computer operator running a stack of jobs on punched cards), (3) timesharing (,4) menus, (5) graphics windows. The next phase will take the user directly ‘inside’ the computer, through the screen to cyberspace, so to say. This will be a three-dimensional space such as the one achieved by virtual reality today. The hope of designers is that it will replace more passive viewing with active participation” (218)
  • Poeisis—Heidegger’s term for the essence of Being. It’s present in the arts and certain Eastern philosophies. See The Question Concerning Technology
  • Social constructivism—a methodology and theoretical stance based on the idea “that, contrary to the technological determinism of past times, contingency and flexibility are the essence of technological change; by showing that social processes are inherent to technological innovations, they deal a fatal blow to the alleged separation of technology from society and of both of these from nature” (212).
  • interpretive flexibility—”the fact—long known to anthropologists—that different actors (“relevant social groups,” in the constructivists’ parlance) interpret technological artifacts in different ways” (212).

Abstract

Significant changes in the nature of social life are being brought about by computer information and biological technologies to the extent that—some argue—a new cultural order, “cyberculture,” is coming into being. This paper presents an overview of the types of anthropological analyses that are being conducted in the area of new technologies and suggests additional steps for the articulation of an anthropology of cyberculture. It builds upon science, technology, and society studies in various fields and on critical studies of modernity. The implications of technoscience for both anthropological theory and ethnographic research are explored.

 

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Latour—We Have Never Been Modern

We Have Never Been Modern

by Bruno Latour, (Translated by Catherine Porter)

[Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.]

Points

  • The act of purification is key to being modern, however, we are increasingly creating and coming up against hybrids. For instance, a discussion of the ozone layer combines science, technology, politics, and nature, blurring the modernist distinctions and continuing the proliferation of quasi-objects.
  • Latour is not arguing that we are entering a new era of hybridization, but instead that we have always created these hybrids and their quasi-objects and have never been “modern” to begin with.
  • Latour hopes to replace what he calls the modern “constitution” with a nonmodern version that does not separate nature and society and brings the genesis of quasi-objects to light (see below).

Purification—making a clear distinction between the ideas of nature (science, non-human, objects) and society (culture, human, subjects)

Hybridization—mixing nature and culture (non-human and human, object and subject)

Quasi-object—the products of hybridization; objects that can influence the social action of subjects (soccer balls, tools, diagrams, etc.)

1.1

“The hypothesis of this essay is that the word ‘modern’ designates two sets of entirely different practices which must remain distinct if they are to remain effective, but have recently begun to be confused. The first set of practices, by ‘translation’, creates mixtures between entirely new types of beings, hybrids of nature and culture. The second, by ‘purification’, creates two entirely distinct ontological zones: that of human beings on one hand; that of nonhumans on the other. Without the first set, the practices of purification would be fruitless or pointless. Without thesecond, the work of translation would be slowed down, limited, or evenruled out. The first set corresponds to what I have called networks; the second to what I shall call the modern critical stance” (10-11).

2.1

“We can keep the Enlightenment without modernity, provided that we reintegrate the objects of the sciences and technologies into the Constitution, as quasi-objects among many others – objects whose genesis must no longer be clandestine, but must be followed through and through, from the hot events that spawned the objects to the progressive cool-down that transforms them into essences of Nature or Society” (135).

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