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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.]


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.”

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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.”

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