CIA Report on Postmodernism

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Do search engines make cultural capital less valuable? 

A student of mine said something last week that gave me déjà vu. We completed our lessons on “social class” and the student was having difficulty with the notion of cultural capital.

In class, waving an iPhone in the air, s/he said:

“Why would anybody need to know this when you have the whole world’s knowledge in your pocket?”

The student was referring to the ability to command cultural knowledge (i.e., cultural capital).

Reminded me of this immediately: And a student said “Ah, so like, people with cultural capital don’t need Google…ohhhh, I get it”

Map of Science

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This is cool. Click here for a map of science as we know it. Reminds me of a number of topics we have discussed here, namely, digital methods, maps of submarine cables, and cartographic narratives from the past.

The above image is just a snippet of the original, which is only one of numerous maps to help make sense of massive amounts of data at Places & Spaces, Curated by the Cyberinfrastructure for Network Science Center.

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Co-opting Participation Infrastructure?

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Kenny Cuppers has a cool set of papers on the rise of shared “cultural centers” in major Postwar European cities. His is the first substantive chapter in a not-yet published book, which seems tailor-made for his research line, and which acts as a kind of companion piece for his published article “The Cultural Center: Architecture as Cultural Policy in Postwar Europe.”

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Race in Material Culture

Some resources I use to teach a lesson about race woven into the lived material world for my STS classes:

Lorna Roth (Communications, Concordia University,  Canada) wrote a read-worthy open-access article for the Canadian Journal of Communication in 2009 “Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies, and Cognitive Equity” wherein she documents how “light-skin bias embedded in colour film stock emulsions and digital camera design” despite attempts at correcting such matters during the 1990s. Continue reading

Infrastructure and Enchantment

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A friend recently turned me onto the idea that somebody, somewhere is embedding USB ports into infrastructure in various places around the world — like a treasure hunt (sometimes called a “USB dead drop“). Turns out that some of these early devices were embedded in 2010 by Berlin artist Aram Bartholl. There is even a manifesto — interesting, in my mind. This is part of, I think, the broader DIY culture, and, though it is dated, it is a bit cool.

The idea of inhabiting infrastructure like this — they claim that it is the data equivalent of geo-caching for P2P file sharing, but the implications are bigger — is not merely as an expression of “un-clouding data” or even DIY freedom (from the Borg); the promise of this sort of intervention into infrastructure is “enchantment.” I do mean this, in the Weberian sense of the word, although Weber mainly referred to rationalization and secularization in reference to their de-mystifying or “disenchanting” quality for our world.

The reason I bring this up is that I recently found a documentary film set in San Francisco called “The Institute.” 

The film, for all its flaws, contains something I found powerful about engaging our infrastructure and intervening in it to produce enchantment out of the ordinary. Granted, it is like an artistic way to play in infrastructure, to transform the ordinary world. There is some promise, as idealistic as it might sound, in the logic of these USB dead drops for producing such an effect in our cityscapes. I get the feeling that university settings in urban areas could really make this work.

3:1 — On “Decoloniality” — 1 of 3

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“Decoloniality” is our topic for the week. It is immediately important to note that decoloniality is not the political process of decolonizing previously colonized nations (i.e., decoloniality cannot be reduced process of decolonization); decoloniality is not the academic study of living, thinking, and acting in a decolonized land or producing theoretical models of it (i.e., decoloniality cannot be reduced to academic research in post-colonial studies); decoloniality is also not the equivalent critique of modernity that post-modernity offers either (i.e., decoloniality cannot be reduced to post-modernism because post-modernism was/is a critique of Western modernity from the inside).*

In contrast, coloniality is what Walter Mignolo refers to as the “darker side of modernity;” the idea that modern science, modern capitalism, belief in progress, gargantuan architectural and infrastructural advancements (the brighter side of modernity, one might say) all brought with them a few genuine liabilities such as major justifications for colonialism largely based on selective understandings of Europe’s “advanced place in history” and the advent of scientifically based racial hierarchies. Obviously, this dates as far back as the Renaissance.

Coloniality is a logic. We think and act through it; the logic is undergird. It lasts longer than the colonized peoples of a colonized nation are no longer colonized. It is a logic of many things, many things good and bad, for example, a logic of selective intervention, selective classification, de-personalized knowledge, and so on (this is quite complex, so, to those interested, this list will expand as you read more). The impact is long lasting, as well. When a panel of men determine women’s access to reproductive rights, we can see the logic — not in the outcome, but in the very existence of of such a panel being legitimate in the first place; we might say this is the colonization of reproduction (which is not to say that discussing women’s access to reproductive rights is wrongheaded, it is only to say that the idea of intervening into such matters for women or on behalf of women is perhaps not so legitimate as it may at first glance appear). Likewise, when poor individuals living in cramped urban environs, and the “right answer” is to start a war on poverty and intervene into the lives of people, build a massive public housing infrastructure and then step away from such matters, we might say that this is the colonization of poverty. This sort of coloniality is perhaps the most obvious when indigenous knowledge about the environment and nonhuman inhabitants comes into contact with outside forces like the state, for example, in this herring fishery controversy featuring fish, bears, aboriginal peoples, police at fishing docks, and more (one of the more difficult parts of this case is that the fishing industry is not pressing for fishing rights in these waters off of British Columbia and scientists seem to have heard and support local indigenous knowledge on the need to leave herring alone in these fragile waters). So, this is something of the lasting logic of coloniality as might be apparent even now in our postmodern times, and the pillars of science, the state, modern medicine, and the like help to produce the long-lived “colonial matrix of power” (along with all the distinctions Latour is happy to point out regarding the split between human and nonhuman, man and beast, culture and nature, and so on).

The goal of the decoloniality project (writ large) is to “de-link” from the colonial matrix of power by as many means as are possible, and so far, this has mainly implied decolonial thinking and doing (i.e., epistemology and political praxis, respectively). The goal is to identify “options confronting and delinking from […] the colonial matrix of power” (Mignolo 2011: xxvii).

This week, I (Nicholas Rowland), Stef Fishel, and Mary Mitchell, contributed to a panel session about decoloniality at the Eastern Sociological Society’s annual meeting (in good old New Amsterdam … er. New York). This week, we will be talking about the cases we shared at the conference to give readers a sense of what STS might be able to offer this line of research and research activism which largely comes from the non-Westernized world, the Global South, and academically speaking from the humanities. Also, we are deeply indebted to those who presented in the panel and specifically to Sabrina Weiss and Alexander Stingl for overseeing and organizing the panels!

*As you might note the wikipedia page for decoloniality is marked at the top by a message claiming that it is not balanced and fair by wikipedia’s standards. Given what has been discussed about the colonial matrix of power, this is both a cautionary thought and possibly evidence for the difficulties of de-linking from the colonial matrix of power (especially the critique that the piece is not neutral, with the implied message “it should be neutral,” given that neutral can be used precisely to neutralize political or radical ideas).

Ship Breaking in Bangladesh

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Worth seeing: The Ship Breakers. Ships, at the ends of their lives, are rammed into the beach, thusly beaching these “end of life” ships onto the shores of ship-breaking yards of Bangladesh, India, and a few other states. The work is dangerous and the environmental consequences are visually obvious. There are other examples here, here, and especially this piece in the Atlantic here.

3:1 — Post-Method — 2 of 3

Jan has given an excellent start to think about STS and methods. According to Jan, we are in a world of “messiness” “If we look at the conceptual apparatus”, but not so much “if we look at the standard set of methods (especially of qualitative research) still in use.” I wholeheartedly agree with this analysis, and I think it points to what is wrong with the idea of mess, and how mess relates to the world and methods in the first place.

The thinking assumes that in “classical social science” sociologists believed that it is the role of the social researcher to create methods and theories that show the hidden order of the world. First of all, I think that a lot of social science never believed in this logic (most vehemently, Harold Garfinkel, but also Georges Devereux), a long time before ANT and STS came along. Second, – here is my reflexivity boomerang – even a paper like John Law’s cleans up the mess, by following precisely the logic of ordered articles: introduction, thesis, discussion, conclusion. The “need” for order, is not only one of theories of order.  It comes from how writing as practice unfolds (one word after another, quite unlike the world) and how scientific writing is standardized. This at least in part has good reasons, as John Law’s lucid article shows. But even if the diagnosis were right, and we disregard the reflexivity boomerang, the treatment is too timid.

From “the world is a mess” does not follow that our methods and descriptions should be a mess. This would simply leave us with a descriptivist duplication of the world, akin to Borges’ famous map that is a copy of the territory. The underlying problem here is that the treatment is a post-structuralist reconceptualization of methods. This is fine with me, as far as this implies to stop using methods as hammers in search of nails, or as identity (as in: I am an ethnographer, I do biographical interviews etc.). But the treatment stops with theoretical thinking about methods, leaving the practice of methods intact. John Law, in sync with most of STS, still does some form of ethnography. Post methods then, is before methods. Or, as I put it in a forthcoming article: Post-method is still based on a very particular kind of doing methods, namely textual loose translations. These are methods, such as ethnography that do one large jump from the world to a text. I prefer widening our set of methods with more and other methods instead: non-textual tight and loose translations.

I would like to suggest to explore such new methods that re-order and probe and challenge the mess. These are methods that do not translate the world into a text, but rather create new worlds. It is very much like what natural scientists do: to translate the world into something different, which then becomes an actant in itself with unforeseen repercussions for the world and the social researcher themselves. This is something very different from both (post-methods and post-structural) descriptivism and doing critical research. It is different from descriptivism because it accepts that social science needs a strong take on methods. It needs to create methods, as forms of intervention and analysis that slice the world in ways that the scientists, and not the world, decide on. It accepts all the things that ethnographers and large parts of STS abhor: creating actual laboratories, doing experiments, tinker with machines, using automated recording procedures, standardizing protocols, using and even designing all kinds of media and materials and even using force to make research participants do things they would otherwise not do, make subjects object to these procedures.

But it is also different from “critical research” in the sense that such methods do not aim towards an outcome that the researchers pre-determine. Such a world is neither a world of mess, nor a world of “post-method”. Together with my colleagues of shared inc., we call it incubations. You can call it what you like, but I suggest that you at least try it.

20 Ethnographic Films to Teach With

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Worth checking-out: visual psychological anthropology films that can be used for teaching from our friends over at Psychocultural Cinema:

Despite the rich history of innovative methods and techniques employed by documentary filmmakers across a range of genres, there seems to be little awareness or integration of the findings and approaches of psychological anthropology in ethnographic film

Disaster art?

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I was in Anapolis, MD, last weekend and saw something that I thought was a bit odd (above): disaster art. At first, I was stunned; how could a place celebrate (but potentially profit) from local disasters? How would that appeal to tourists? In this case, of course, its an image of flooding after a hurricane where the infrastructure of the harbor is damaged and, in may cases, submerged.

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“Why would folks want pictures of broken infrastructure?” I thought. And that’s when my art history training came in and I had a “duh” moment. Disaster art — fictional and non-fictional — has been common for centuries. See, for example, this blog post about sunken ships or this one featuring a number of examples of fictional disaster art.This pintrest board sums it up nicely, saying disaster begets creativity, and includes a number of other obvious pieces of this puzzle like disaster memorials and post-disaster reassembly work like art from tsunami rubble in Japan. I’d also be remiss not to include the massive amount of disaster art in video games, for example, post-apocalyptic games like the Fallout (below), Gears of War, or Halo series.

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Still, people’s love for depicting ruins is far older than all that. I’m thinking, in particular, of the many depictions — often with a romantic feel — of derelict Greek temples or statues like this image (contemporary, lame, background wallpaper) or this painting of the Colosseum (from the second half of 17th century).

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Seems we love our ruins, after all.