My honours thesis is about coffee so I’ve been reading a lot about the anthropology of food, which is a larger subfield than I had realised. As a research area it is interesting because it allows for multidimensional research that links together ecological concerns with economics and symbolic and ritual meaning-making. Food studies also directly connects the body with these wider social-cultural-economic systems. Because of the way that food travels, or not, it also can be at the forefront of multi-sited ethnographic research.
In an overview of the subdiscipline,
Sidney Mintz describes three areas that the anthropology of food focuses on (Mintz and Du Bois, 2002):
Mintz, himself, is the author of Sweetness
and Power (1986)a very influential book that gives
a history of the modern era through the lens of sugar. As one of the most
important global commodities, sugar has always been embedded in colonial
economic relationships. His fieldwork in Puerto Rico with sugar cane
labourers led him to think about the history of the commodity in shaping both
the producing nations and the consuming nations. He ties together the economics
(demand/supply) of sugar with its changing social meaning.
The research field, for Mintz, started in the sugar cane fields
of Puerto Rico, but he believed that in order to understand these economic and
power relationships required a historical and transnational lens, paying
attention to the ways in which meaning is made through use. Mintz sees the
production and consumption influencing each other in complex ways, just like
the intertwined relationships between the economic, geopolitical and cultural
In doing so he uses the ‘follow the thing’ research method,
which traces a single object as it passes through different exchanges and
social spheres (Marcus, 1995). The object in such research is
often seen as being made of up a multitude of social relationships.
Studying food is also about the connection between these larger
social practices and one’s sensory experience. The sensory experience of food
is critical to a fuller understanding of people’s relationships to it. How can
anthropology describe sensory experience? One example of the increasing
attempts to tackle this problem is Sarah Pink’s ethnographic description of a
Slow Food Movement walking tour in Wales (Pink, 2008). Pink takes a cue from the slow
food walking tour to propose a multimodal ‘slow ethnography’ that embeds itself
in the places sensory experience of being there (Sutton, 2010). This then allows Pink to
understand ethnography itself as a “place-making process”, shared between
researcher and participants (Pink, 2008, p. 175).
1995. Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited
Ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology 24, 95–117.
Mintz, S.W., 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of
Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books.
I aim to track 10,000 steps daily on Health. Okay Google, what is the weather like in Ballarat tomorrow? I post my #OOTD at 8:30 am so that I can maximise my exposure to my Instagram followers. iPhone’s geotagging is a breeze, saves me the time to tag places and faces. Hey, you know what we were talking earlier today? Facebook showed me an ad about it, amazing! Spotify’s recommendations are so spot-on! So thankful for cloud storage! The Internet of Things (IoT) enables me to control my smart fridge, smart door and smart toilet from my smartphone.
Do you love the UX/UI features on your digital devices? Hold up. While Wi-Fi enabled keyless doors or the Nest Learning Thermostat amongst many IoTs may give owners the perception and satisfaction that life is functional and integrated, do these products have any serious drawbacks?
The short answer? Yes, it may come at the cost of your privacy. Internet-connected devices or apps could be monitoring you as of this moment. Corporations and other unwelcomed data miners will try to exploit you by placing products or advertisements according to your behavioural data to encourage consumerism.
Welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism.
Surveillance capitalism is the commodification of ‘reality’ and its transformation into behavioural data for analysis and sales. The ‘Big Five’, Apple, Alphabet, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon monopolise the largely uncontested power of data generation. Surveillance technologies allow the formation of Virtual Identity (VI) (Henschke 2017, p.185). VI is an informational representation that is linked and personalised to you. Personalising information is made using Thin Information or metadata. Examples of metadata are but not limited to: logs of your IP address across the Internet, locations of individuals in certain GPS enabled apps or even the average length of your phone calls. Your metadata is aggregated across time to substantiate the probability of prediction of your behaviour (Henschke 2017, p.197). Hence, producing recommendations in Spotify or Youtube are, in fact, made up of your quantified metadata, making it hard for you to disagree with the product placed in front of you. It is only after the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal that Facebook called for more governmental regulation.
Yeah, but isn’t this a governmental regulatory issue? What is anthropology relevance here?
Just as tech companies try to learn more about consumers (us) unobtrusively, haven’t anthropologists been trying to do the same with the ‘other’ for the last century? We are repeating history and relearning the mistakes again. I want to stress the importance of procedural ethics here. In 1964, Napoleon Chagnon arrived in 1964 to conduct fieldwork with the Yanomami (Eakin 2013, p.1). Chagnon sets out to prove natural selection theories on violence, staging fights to show his findings and exchanging steel tools for blood samples. Such unrestrained methods produced no value to the anthropological canon and served to further notions of biological racism.
Ethics is relational. It is difficult to thoroughly plan for contingencies and alternatives because fields, contexts and histories of relations are often emergent through social activities or conversations, with each fieldworker producing different meanings through various mediums and methods (Kohn 2017, p.77). With that said, procedural ethics is still beneficial in providing a framework for considering moral thinking and decision-making. It moves away from reductive binary evolutional thoughts to consider a plurality of ways that meanings can be constructed.
Hence, ethics is an essential reflexive tool to balance the interests of the researcher, institutions and most importantly, our informants. Although procedural ethics is notorious for stifling creativity in the pursuit of endless application forms for the sake of audit compliance, it needs to be considered as to not undermine universal values such as freedom, democracy and privacy.
There are three types of people when it comes to gambling. The first group relies on mathematical statistics to inform their risk appetite, the second relies on superstition or causal reasoning to justify luckiness and last group abstains from gambling entirely. Make a trip to Crown Melbourne and you may be able to differentiate these groups rather easily. Individuals attempting to hedge bets across the roulette board, a collective of tourists “ganging up” on the dealer slapping large bets on the blackjack table and by-standers observing in fascination and disbelief.
While there are no shortages of tips on the internet to “beat the house”, see how “tilt” can derail even the hardy analytical gambler in Molly’s Game (2017).
Tilt is commonly defined as a temporary cognitive impairment that erases a gambler’s risk calculation strategies in favour of aggressive gambling methods. Tilt is resultant from losing a large bet in a public and humiliating fashion.
From an anthropological perspective, I briefly illustrate how we can “rethink” tilt as a combination of superstition and counterfactual thinking.
Superstition is a non-empiricist belief resultant from a supernatural or false conception of causation (Chen & Young 2018, p.1098). Many cultural and situational factors influence the tendency to engage in superstition such as stress, feelings of precarity, peer pressures, or even anthropomorphic beliefs (applying human-like traits to nonhuman objects or concepts). For example, getting pooped by birds is often thought to symbolise good luck in many cultures. Informed by this cultural conception, it increases one’s optimism in future outcomes, especially towards ‘get rich quick’ circumstances.
Counterfactual thinking is the process where an individual imagines an alternate event that seeks to console the experience of losing in reality. The individual manipulates his or her emotions and behaviour in downplaying the effects of losing and up-playing the potential to recoup the gambling deficit (Kim, Kwon & Hyun 2015, p.237). In Molly’s Game, Harlan was already on tilt for two nights, but he insisted to Molly that he needed to borrow $500K to gamble back to even. In this case, Harlan is using counterfactual thinking to justify the false conception of causation as well, asserting that he will stop gambling the moment he gets back to even and expressing a belief that luck is now in his favour and affecting his life outcome. To regain control, Harlan harbours superstition as a coping strategy to garner good luck by specifying his goal of making it back to even. In this way, there is a positive relationship between luck, superstition and counterfactual thinking.
Going tilt is often not only a psychological phenomenon but also influenced through a complex of social and cultural factors. I find Paul Bohannan’s “rethinking of culture” as a symbiosis of biological and socially constructed systems to be helpful in drawing an analogy to think about tilt (1973, p.371). Bohannan suggests viewing culture as double coded information, one coded in the brain and another coded through language (1973, p.374). In the same way, we are simultaneously affected by fear from biological instincts that alerts us from dangers and cultural factors such as shame that can allude us to feel low.
In sum, anthropology can benefit from greater interdisciplinary collaborations involving the body and cultural normativity. This can create a more richly textured ethnography to understand the self. So, the next time you see a friend going tilt in life, use anthropology to “save” him, for better or for worse.
Bohannan, P, Blacking, J, Bock, B, Colby, BN, DeRaedt, J, Epstein, DG, Fischer, JL, Gjessing, G, Hewes, GW, Hay, TH, Markarian, E, Panoff, M, Schneider, DM & Voight, WJ 1973, ‘Rethinking Culture: A Project for Current Anthropologists [and Comments and Reply]’, Current Anthropology, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 357–372.
Chen, N & Young, MJ 2018, ‘The Relationship Between Belief in Stable Luck and a Propensity for Superstition: The Influence of Culturally Conferred Agency Beliefs’, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, vol. 49, no. 7, pp. 1098–1113.
Kim, SR, Kwon, Y-S & Hyun, M-H 2015, ‘The Effects of Belief in Good Luck and Counterfactual Thinking on Gambling Behavior’, Journal of Behavioural Addictions, vol. 4, no. 4, pp. 236–243.
Have you ever
felt so connected to a piece of earth that you can feel the appreciation in
your heart swell? Or perhaps you envision that place in your mind, recollecting
the memories, and become very upset at the idea of it no longer being there? What
if I told you that the connection you feel to this land is just imagined in
your mind, and has no material precedence and should become developed for Western
intellectual pursuits? Would you feel devastated?
I like to keep myself up to date with the controversies surrounding natural and sacred spaces, and their ongoing protection and destruction from capitalist developments. Divergent concepts and understandings of culture around the world have laid the groundwork for multiple controversies surrounding environmental protections, the rights of nature and climate change; from the protection of water at Standing Rock, the scheming of the Australian government to bulldoze 800 year-old sacred Djab Wurring trees, to El Salvador becoming the first country to recognise the inherent rights of natural forests. I think it is important for all beginner anthropologists to consider how different understandings of culture play into these debates.
Recently on October 30, 2018, the Supreme Court of
Hawaii approved the building permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope on top of
the sacred Hawai’ian mountain, Mauna a Wākea. This decision came after
years of legal battles between the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawai’ians) and
scientists, as well as multiple country stakeholders (India, China, Japan and
The Kanaka Maoli and environmentalists opposed the development
of the giant telescope because it would be built on one of the most sacred
natural locations in Hawaiian culture. The Mauna a Wākea is a sacred
mountain for the Kanaka Maoli. Wākea, sometimes translated as “Sky
Father”, is considered the father for many of their peoples and in other
respects the “piko, umbilical cord, or centre of existence for Hawaiians”
(Sacred Mauna Kea 2015, p.1). The summit is a sacred place for their spiritual
connectedness, practices and sense of oneness with the earth – all of which are
fundamental elements of their culture (Ibid).
Many of the telescope’s
stakeholders failed to acknowledge the importance Mauna a Wākea had in
Hawaiian culture and instead, focused on the scientific exploration and
commercial production that the telescope would bring. This was evident in the
TMT International Observatory’s commitment to “a new paradigm of development on
Mauna Kea founded on integrating culture, science, sustainability and education”
(TMT 2017, p.1). Their investment in the TMT,
as the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere, was ultimately embedded in
their desire to bolster Western cultural and astronomical contributions.
This opposition between the
worldviews and values of the TMT and the Kanaka Maoli brings into question: What
counts as culture and who determines what cultural perspectives “win” in
The struggle over Mauna a Wākea is a struggle
over the meaning and making of sacred places, nature and Indigenous cultures. Native
Hawai’ian scholar, Marie Alohalani Brown (2016), describes that the kinship
relations between the Kanaka Maoli and the island-world environment are not
validated by the West unless they are materially visible. She states, “The
Hawaiian Islands…[and] culture is something to be enjoyed as long as it is
presented in a form that is palatable, saleable, and consumable” (Brown 2016,
p.166). The traditions and sacred elements of Indigenous cultures are
recognised insofar as they do not limit the economic and cultural projects that
strengthen Western domination.
The western ideologies of scientific exploration and
commercial exploitation are imposed on the Kanaka Maoli by the TMT as being for
‘the better good of humanity and culture’. This prioritisation of western
thinking is clear in the Hawaiian Supreme Court’s decision to approve the
construction of the telescope – it alludes to how scientific discoveries and
explorations have become a fundamental aspect of Western culture that is
treated with the upmost regard. This is completely at odds with the spiritual
relationship to Mauna a Wākea and the island world that is central to
Native Hawaiian culture – the sacredness is not merely a concept or label as
perceived by those holding the western ideologies. The sacredness of the
mountain stems from their understanding of it as a kin relative – “Sky Father” –
which they maintain a sacred and traditional relationship with. The mountain is,
in many respects, a lived experience that is representative of the Kanaka Maoli’s
connection to the natural and spiritual worlds (Brown 2016, p.166).
This is evidently a highly contested space, within and beyond, the anthropology discipline. But these cultural complexities leave us with some key anthropological questions to ponder: what ‘counts as culture’ in our Western society? And who decides whether nature is incorporated into these understandings and protections of ‘culture’?
Brown, Marie Alohalani 2016, ‘Mauna Kea:
Ho’omana Hawai’i and Protecting the Sacred’, Journal for the Study of
Religion, Nature & Culture, vo.10, no. 2,150–69.
In one of our final seminars of undergrad last year, Monica (Minnegal, Associate Professor of Anthropology at UniMelb) turned to the class and asked: so what is the point of anthropology? What is its purpose? The most obvious answers were of course that the discipline allows you to walk in the shoes of others and understand how your world could also be an Other.
But, she said, those answers won’t change the world or put money on the table.
And in amongst all of the jokes along the lines of ‘an Arts degree won’t get you a job’ (untrue), and ’the social sciences are useless’ (who are they to determine the worth of a discipline?), what does anthropology, then, serve to teach you? Imogen has written about where anthropology can take you in a more practical sense, but what is the point of taking it as a major over something more “useful”? It’s an answer you will be constantly searching for throughout your time in the discipline, but to begin to find it, we need to strip anthropology down to its bare bones.
Anthropology and ethnography begin with a concern with sameness and difference; ethnocentrism and relativism; or the Other. This difference becomes the focus of study, yet it is simultaneously also grounded in an awareness of commonality on the basis of a shared humanity (Wardle & y Blasco 2006).
Many argue that anthropology has two main, if not contradictory, aims: to document and valorise the richness and diversity of human ways of life, and to expose, analyse and critique structures of human inequality; they are not always equally balanced (Robbins 2013).
David Graeber (2007), in the conclusion of his ethnography Lost People, analyses the purpose of the anthropology and what he thinks it should achieve. He states that in his writing he tries to emphasise that we do inhabit the same world and sees no issue in subjectivity. To him the “desire to seem objective… has largely been responsible for creating the impression that the people we study are some exotic, alien, and ultimately unknowable Other” (Graeber 2007, p. 381). As an anthropologist and ethnographer, Graeber sees it as his duty to represent the people he studies in such a way that a reader “can recognise them as a human being who they might not know, but they could know” (Graeber 2007, p. 387). Anthropology to Graeber is ultimately a medium (however incomplete), that if utilised well is the best basis on which to build a broader sense of human commonality (Graeber 2007).
Part of determining the discipline’s worth then is on you, as intelligent adults who have come from and participate in a particular experience of this world and are more-likely-than-not just beginning to figure out who you want to be in it. How can anthropology and the skills it teaches you serve you for what you want to achieve in this life?
Anthropology is undeniably entangled with an unethical and dehumanising past that we as a discipline are still trying to navigate and work past. Nevertheless, the skills of anthropology are first and foremost best for working with people from all sorts of cultural backgrounds, and for negotiating and engaging with change and diversity.
How do you use those skills for good?
Well, that’s up to you to figure out.
Graeber, D 2007, Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
Robbins, J 2013, ‘Beyond the suffering subject: toward an anthropology of the good’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological institute, vol. 19, pp. 447-462.
Wardle, H. and y Blasco P.G. 2006, How to Read Ethnography, Routledge, London.
Tio gong tao – A Hokkien term to describe someone who may be a victim of black magic or witchcraft (Mohsen 2016).
Tio gong tao is a narrative used to justify male victimhood when men spend excessive amounts of money on a foreign stage performer.It is a growing phenomenon that involves men developing an “unexplainable” infatuation with female stage performers, dancers and models when patronising Siam Dius (or Thai Discos). Siam Dius are drinking joints spaced around a stage that holds live band performances, all-female choreographed dancers of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai nationalities and relatively cheap alcohol. Patrons are encouraged to tiau huey (gift a garland) to a stage performer he fancies on stage. In return, the performer is obliged to reciprocate by interacting and sharing drinks with the patron for 20-30 minutes during the song and dance breaks. These garlands range from S$50-S$20,000.
Note: Only the person who has bought the most expensive garland will have the accompaniment of the performer. Performers commonly face unsolicited sexual advancements and reciprocation is on the discretion of performer and patron, as it is with any other sexual relationship. I do not condone any vitriol against these stage performers, while my post is to better highlight the relationalities between witchcraft and male victimhood better.
The video below is an emic view of the venue and the lives of the performers.
While the conduct of siam dius appear to be derogatory and disadvantageous to women on many levels, why do men still rely on tio gong tao narratives to justify male victimhood?
Tio gong tao, like witchcraft, is a spatial imaginary. Like an anthropological field, one can visualise the consistent reproduction of imaginative nuances and material practices through various political, economic and cultural channels. Over time, the imaginary is identifiable as either an accepted or deviant practice, which is integral to how people construct meaning (Comaroff & Comaroff 1999, p.285). The tiogong tao field extends or shrinks according to how relationships between men and their companion performer develop. For example, should the companionship transit into a long-term relationship, the man is typically identified as someone under very strong gong tao and is at risk of getting his freedom, wealth and material belongings manipulated.
“I don’t think it’s a bad idea to date these girls. I give them money and they can send the money home to their families. I help them and they are grateful to me and show their gratitude.” – Jonah.
According to Jonah, the nature and terms of exchange between performer and patron are distinctively different as compared to sexual transactions. For men who repetitively gift garlands to performers for companionship, observers often see such behaviour to be incredibly artificial and driven by the need for sex. However, observers do not perceive the underlying relations as what O’Connell Davidson suggests: “an affirmation of a particular racialised and sexualised masculine identity” (1995, p.44). An affirmation is how men view themselves as “white knights” (Garrick 2005, p.502). White knights perceive the on-stage performers as helpless victims of circumstance and the knights are ready to “liberate” these women through material means.
I find many parallels between tio gong tao and the anthropological study of witchcraft. Edward Evans-Pritchard argues that “primitive” belief systems are just as logical as “modern” secular versions but shaped through different cultural and social conditions (1937, p.37). Gong tao or witchcraft are systems of values which regulate human conduct and contain rich complexities and nuances.
With these in mind, the discipline of anthropology may benefit from examining the link between tio gong tao and Evans-Pritchard’s ideas of witchcraft to better understand contemporary phenomena on masculine identity in Singapore.
Comaroff, J & Comaroff, JL 1999, ‘Occult Economies and the Violence of Abstraction: Notes from the South African Postcolony’, American Ethnologist, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 279–303.
Davidson, O 1995, ‘British Sex Tourist in Thailand’, in M Maynard & J Purvis (eds), (Hetero)sexual Politics, Taylor & Francis, London, UK, pp. 42–64.
Evans-Pritchard, E 1937, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande, Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK.
Garrick, D 2005, ‘Excuses, Excuses: Rationalisations of Western Sex Tourists in Thailand’, Current Issues in Tourism, vol. 8, no. 6, pp. 497–509.
At the intersection of political, economic, and power-focused anthropology there is an emerging concern for the current state, and more importantly future state, of job security in the face of the widespread automation of production and services. In the technological age change is rapid, and the consequences of this are especially significant for the working class. Granted, there are multiple perspectives on this debate, with some arguing that jobs will simply need to be redesigned to accommodate changes and that this will be an opportunity to re-engineer businesses. I think this might be easier said than done (how’s our re-adjustment to renewable energies from fossil fuels going?).
I don’t present the total automation of working class jobs as a given, but it’s worth thinking about. When talking about this issue recently, I remembered an episode of the Simpsons that dealt with this: ‘Maximum Homerdrive’. In this episode, Homer ends up taking over the last job of a truck driver after beating him in an eating contest (the trucker died from over-consumption). After driving the truck for some time, he realises that with the push of a button the truck went into autopilot. Of course, he soon takes advantage of this and blatantly stops driving on the highway, to the dismay of other truckers who then band together to protect their secret and keep themselves in work. The Simpsons quite often tackles social issues, but I was surprised to find out when I looked it up that this episode actually aired in 1999. To me this is testament that anxieties around job automation have been around for some time, though in this case it was in jest and might soon be added to the Simpsons surprising track record of predicting the future.
The trucking community is huge in America, at 3.5 million drivers. A quick look at some of their online forums, shows a concerted effort to track the possible timeline and consequences of autonomous vehicles hitting the roads. Truckers only represent one coherent block of employment that we risk to lose; what about the slowly cumulative changes in factories and offices? What about mining? My own thesis topic concerns a town currently suffering under a indefinite mine closure by the town’s main employer, and should the mine re-open at all they will have to expect changes that will likely mean fewer jobs. And this predicament of underemployment and uncertainty ripples through the other interlinked local concerns of community, identity, art and regeneration, just like it would in any part of the world.
In recent years, anthropology has adopted the notion of ‘precarity’ to describe the current instability of work and incomes in the neo-liberal age (though now its use has stretched beyond political economy to describe a more general contemporary vulnerability). The emergence of precarity is a good example of how changing global dynamics challenge anthropology to attend to the culture of work and push further the scope of anthropology. If we are indeed headed for an employment crisis, could it be anthropology’s attention to job automation that could offer insight on solutions? LSE anthropologist David Graeber thinks we should have a 15 hour work week by now with the level of technology available, while others who delve into post-work theory tout the idea of a universal income.
So what will the future hold? A post-work socialist future where robots do the work and we… pursue our passions? Sounds wonderful, but not like something the corporate stakeholders of capitalism, our true overlords, would go for. While we wait to find out, it might comfort you to know that the job of anthropologist is not yet remotely threatened by the lighting fast growth of AI.
Graeber, D. (2018) Bullshit jobs : a theory. Allen Lane.
You’ve been very solemn there in the corner, Squid, and I’d like to hear your thoughts on the term “Capitalocene” and what it means for the people who write about humans and non humans?
First allow me to introduce myself. I am the envoy of Donna Haraway, who is a dear friend of my squid squad. Haraway also agrees with you, Spider, that the term Anthropocene avoids calling out capitalism and also puts too much emphasis on humans (2015, 159). Donna always says that language how we build our world, and unfortunately the name of the Anthropocene puts humans in the middle of it (Haraway et al 2016, 538).
Donna Haraway uses a multitude of terms, including the “Capitalocene”, the “Plantationcene” and the “Chthulucene” (Haraway et al 2016). The Plantationcene is an effort to acknowledge that the destructive habits of humans do not only date back to the onset of industrial capitalism. They actually began with the earlier colonialist history that fed into capitalism, where slave labour was used to exploit land for agricultural and mineral purposes. Yet Donna is often criticised for being too political for using the term “Capitalocene” and “Plantationcene”. Humans are strange creatures like this, they try to evade any kind of responsibility, but Haraway actually says that the responsibility of humans is also a “response- ability” (2015, 164).
Humans need to work out how to live with their non-human kin. In fact, in Donna Haraway’s recent book the “Chthulucene manifesto” she has even said that we could even call this present era the “Chthulucene” rather than the “Anthropocene”. This is not actually to honour our leader Cthulhu, but it is to show that humans actually have tentacles (and webs and roots) in the non-human world. When humans study and write about the world, they should make an effort to include the narratives of all entities like us, mushrooms, spiders and squid. I don’t just want to hear the old trees and polar bear narrative. Just look at what is happening with the sixth Great Extinction of plants and animals, maybe a better name for this period is just ‘the trouble’ (Haraway et al 2016, 537).
Haraway says that people are hesitant to act because they haven’t read the newest critique of the system (Terranova 2016). This is one of the problems with academia, it is easy from those academics to say that you don’t know how the world works, because you haven’t read a particular theory and you are just a student, or a taxi driver, or a mushroom, or a spider. The most important thing is that people are recognising that the current system is destructive, even if they don’t have the most fully developed critique of it. What we need to focus on is less on having a perfect vision of what is going on right now and turn towards where we could be going, looking at the possibilities of life on Earth. Science fiction and speculative anthropology are ways of accomplishing this vision, which is why Haraway often works with science fiction writers and anthropologists to create stories for Earthly survival (Terranova 2016).
What I am proposing is a call-to-action for our human kin to respond to this climate emergency and resist individualist or human-centred ways of depicting the world. Otherwise there will be grave and perhaps even chthonic consequences for all of us, a true Cthulu eruption of doomsday proportions! Beware!
What you are saying seems very morbid, Squid, but I agree with you. Imagining a shared future can be a useful way of acting in the present to avoid the worst of this oncoming storm. My mycelium networks have been retelling a lecture by Bruno Latour, who says that even though the apocalypse is a bit of a literary trope, the only way to move humans to respond to this storm is by telling stories. By the way, where is our friend the ant, who always brings messages of hope from Bruno Latour?
An ANT scurries in, late to the gathering, but carrying a message of hope from Bruno Latour:
So sorry I’m late. It’s so hard to get anywhere on time on the antway, it’s only one lane. I do come bearing a gift for the anthropologists in the room, that is, from my colleague Bruno Latour, who sends his regards.I know you may have your criticisms of the Anthropocene, but really it is an amazing gift. In the age of the Anthropocene, we are acknowledging that humans are quite literally re-shaping the earth (Latour 2014). The links between humans and non-humans are no longer merely the objects of symbolism and myth (Latour 2014). Many hard scientists are realising they too need to ponder the relationship between physical and cultural anthropology, and the blurring of nature and culture (Latour 2014). The Anthropocene has destabilised the hierarchy between hard sciences and social sciences, relieved anthropologists somewhat of having to question: ‘Are we an art or a science?’ and brought a greater appreciation for the multispecies anthropological work anthropologists like Anna Tsing are doing. Isn’t this exciting?!
Yes it most certainly is. More enthusiasm for interdisciplinary collaboration is a gift of the Anthropocene. If we compare disciplines to genres, it seems even more obvious (Haraway D et al. 2016, p. 553)! Imagine one discipline is a science fiction novel and the other a mystery novel (Haraway D et al. 2016, p. 553). There’d be no reason to doubt we could have a science fiction mystery novel, would there be (Haraway D et al. 2016, p. 553)?
That’s very true, Mushroom. And this sort of collaboration is already happening at AURA (Aarhus University Research on the Anthropo-cene) (Latour et al. 2018, p. 598), which is a hopeful outcome, one that shows us that there isn’t even ‘interdisciplinarity’ in the same sense any more, because there are no longer two sides. In the Anthropocene there is no longer a physical and a cultural side–and humans are the center for everyone and for no one. (Latour 2014). And Bruno is very excited about the opportunity for collaborative work with geo-scientists because their science ‘is not a science of the globe, it is a highly local, pluralised, multiple kind of science (Latour2014b)’ (Latour et al. 2018, p. 597). The epistemology of the globe is what got us in the mess we are in. This epistemology is why perhaps Platationocene is a more productive term to describe this era (Latour et al. 2018, p. 591). Bruno would agree with Donna that the Plantationocene is both useful for the reasons you have stated, Squid, but also because, and I think Anna would agree, ‘it refers to a certain, historically specific, way of appropriating the land, namely an appropriation of land as if land was not there. Plantationocene is a historical ‘de-soilization’ of the Earth’ (Latour et al. 2018, pp. 591-592). The modernist and capitalist project is literally founded on the mass extraction of minerals and plants from the Earth and the removal of people from their lands. Metaphorically humans have also been separated from the Earth with the ideology that humans are outside of nature.
Mushroom: By labeling this new age the Platationocene it shifts our awareness to the need for more analytical work in the field that is ‘soil-rich’, and grounded in the arts of noticing (Latour et al. 2018, pp. 598-599)(Tsing 2015, p. 37). This is what anthropologists do best!
Yes, exactly, this highly local and pluralised sort of work (Latour et al. 2018, p. 597)! Except now, the field has also changed. We know that any field study (be that anthropological) will be ‘studying devastated sites in crisis’ (Latour 2014). But don’t be confused, this is still a message of hope. Latour believes that it is best to think we are in the apocalypse now (Latour et al. 2018, p. 601). And yes the apocalypse may be a bit of a literary trope, but rather than being catastrophising, apocalyptic thinking spurs us into action (Latour et al. 2018, pp. 603-604). We are not living in the indifferent time ‘after’ an apocalyptic time, nor are we ignorantly waiting for the apocalypse to happen in the future, but we are in it now (Latour et al. 2018, p. 601). The arrival of the Anthropocene as the apocalypse destroys modernization’s ideas about linear progress that fuel capitalism. It also reveals the entanglements, as you might say Mushroom, across space and time of different species to each other as they face extinction (Latour et al. 2018, pp. 604-605). And these entanglements include humans, and as Squid says, the Anthropocene raises the question of human moral and political responsibility (Latour 2014). I think the key question here for scientists (anthropologists included!) is ‘how do we redistribute human agency without being humanist, or post-humanist, or anti-humanist’ while simultaneously humans have become the center of all of our research and the question of what it means to be human has become blurry, as it is now recognised that we are morally tied to what used to be called ‘beyond the human’ (Latour 2014). The gift of the Anthropocene (and perhaps it is a difficult pill to swallow), in short, is that how we define: time, space, and otherness (Latour 2014)–all very important concepts to anthropologists–and consequently how we define anthropology as a discipline needs to change and be reworked!
Terranova, F. (Dir.). 2016. Donna Haraway: Storytelling for Earthly Survival. Icarus Films.
The late Ursula Le Guin could be called an interplanetary anthropologist, since her stories are the twilight zone between ethnography and science fiction. They include anthropologist characters, descriptions, and most importantly, glimpses of possibilities for our planet through the exploration of what appear to be faraway futuristic worlds.
There already are many similarities between works of fiction and ethnographic texts in general. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz even said that ethnographic texts are more-or-less fiction (1973), since they are inevitably shaped by the ethnographer. How about exploring the other side of the coin, that science fiction books could be anticipatory anthropology?
Le Guin’s worlds are
so believable because her way of writing about culture is informed by
ethnographic writing. Many of her stories include thick description and detailed
accounts of cultural practices, so that they may be are accessible to readers who
are outsiders to these ways of life.
Her utopias are also never depicted as perfect places, spaces, or social systems. Every society is challenged in different ways, but “the real utopia in Le Guin’s work is […]the act of self transcendence and cross cultural understanding” (Baker-Cristales 2012, 25). As anthropologists know, the endeavour to transcend bias is like the vision of a “utopia”, it is not a place that can ever be reached. But above all, it a task that is worth pursuing.
Le Guin’s writing goes beyond imagining exotic or magical worlds through rich language or fictional tropes, the stories experiment with social structures and human possibilities. Her books also appear realistic because they abandon the gender and race stereotypes that were standard in the fantastical novels in her era. They often portray people of colour and people who are gender fluid, which was fairly radical for the 1980s science fiction scene. The plots also stray from the fantasy and sci-fi tropes that revolve around great conquests and adventures and instead meander through the hum drum lives of inhabitants of other planes.
Latour made a grand claim that the “task of anthropology is to account for how worlds are composed” (2013, 274). Le Guin’s book The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia accounts the social structures of whole planets, it traces a scientist who leaves his anarchist home planet to visit an Earth-like planet. The Dispossessed is similar to a good ethnography in that it makes current social systems appear unusual, throwing our own world into question and experimentation. Viveiros de Castro says in Cannibal Metaphysics that fictions are alternate realities which should be taken seriously. He makes a departure from Latour’s claim, to say that task of anthropology “is not the task of explaining the world of the other, but that of multiplying our world” (2014, 196). Le Guin shows how nothing is permanent or universal, and that people have the power to shape the world.
It is this reason that Le Guin often worked with anthropologists such as Anna Tsing to create works such as Arts of Living On A Damaged Planet. This anthology weaves fictional texts with anthropological texts and works from other disciplines to confront the oncoming storm of our entangled world.
Anthropology is moving further away from trying to represent “realities”, and towards representing what exists in imagined worlds. What is the future of ethnography? Le Guin’s work can raise a lamp to the murky vision of anthropology, which will involve discipline and genre-blurring work in anticipation of the future. For an example of imagining how anthropologists might imagine future worlds, see Dyan’s post PLANTS IN SPACE! On Botanical Colonialism and Selecting “Acceptable” Plants for Space Habitation.
What the literature of Le Guin and the discipline of anthropology both share is a they practice empathy and try overcome the barriers towards mutual understanding. Her work fulfils a vision of cultural anthropology, to make the strange seem familiar and the familiar seem strange. How distant are Ursula Le Guin’s imagined worlds? They may be as distant as we want them to be.
Baker-Cristales, B. 2012, “Poiesis of Possibility: The Ethnographic Sensibilities of Ursula K. Le Guin”. Anthropology and Humanism. Vol. 37, Issue 1, pp 15–26.
Geertz, Clifford. 1973, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 3–30. New York: Basic Books.
Senior, W. 1996, Cultural Anthropology and Rituals of Exchange in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Earthsea”. Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal,29(4), 101-113.
Viveiros de Castro, E B. 2014, Cannibal metaphysics : for a post-structural anthropology. Minneapolis, MN :Univocal, pp 196.
Elderly couples sat in the rows behind me, all dispersed throughout the back rows. A few elderly gentlemen were scattered in between. I, sitting eagerly in the front row, was accompanied by an elderly woman – who I later discovered had been attending the church for close to fifty years. The whispers and chatter of others in the audience slowly began to fade away as my mum stood forth for platform and began to connect with spirit. Directing her attention to an elderly gentleman in the crowd, she began to bring evidence through and asked for confirmation of a little boy in the spirit world, with long white socks and sandy hair, that she could see running excitedly around her in circles. She continued on to describe and confirm his cause of death to the gentleman and brought through the little boy’s message…
What I have described above is a common ritual practice amongst spiritualist communities both in Australia and around the world. Often on a Sunday afternoon or evening, the community gathers for a ‘church’ service that often includes a philosophical talk on spiritualism, a meditation, singing and a demonstration of mediumship (‘platform’). During the demonstration of mediumship, the medium is connecting to the spirit world and may either bring through evidence of deceased loved ones – now ‘spirits’ in the ‘spirit world’ – or channel a philosophical message from a spirit, entity or other consciousness.
For the members of this community (including myself), our loved ones and the spirit world are always accessible to us and always present in our day-to-day lives. This world, in many respects, forms part of what Deborah Dixon (2007) termed ‘extra-geographies’ – spaces of experience that we do not necessarily see with our physical eyes or truly understand, yet have a significant influence on the ways we experience the world. Many individuals attending the services will come to hear from their loved ones in the spirit world; many may speak of their ‘spirit guides’ who in meditation provide them with wisdom for their problems. Some may even ask their angels to reserve a parking spot for them in an otherwise packed carpark. For me and many others in this community, these are the ‘normal’ day-to-day practices of our lives. However, I imagine that the multiple aspects of this ‘spirit world’ may prompt many ‘outsiders’ to wonder where on earth it is and how do you access it?
a spiritual medium (my mum) to locate the spirit world, she described:
“This spirit world is all around us. Most people can’t
see it and generally we can’t see it with our real eyes. To me, it’s like
walking through an invisible door and there’s the spirit world (some people
call it heaven). It’s a different dimension, if you like. It’s all around
us…the spirit world is a form of energy, so it’s everywhere. It’s not like
heaven is up in the sky like Catholics are taught – it can be in your heart, it
can be in your aura, it can be anywhere and everywhere.”
The spirit world is, therefore, part of our modern social landscape. It is a world, a space and a ‘cultural site’ existing in the everyday lives of many individuals. If this world is so real for so many people, in all its physical, spiritual and mental domains, why does it remain such as under-investigated ‘field’ in anthropology? Why aren’t ethnographers venturing into this space? From an anthropological perspective, should exploring the cultural and symbolic complexities within these unearthly worlds be “off limits”?
If you were engaging with more traditional ethnographers, perhaps the answer would be ‘yes’. From a historical perspective, the ‘field’ in anthropology has been described as a physical location that includes a specific group of people, language and culture that are bounded to one area (e.g. think Margaret Mead’s research in Samoa). As a result, ethnographic material has often been retrieved from participant observation that relies heavily on information from the ethnographer’s five senses: taste, touch, sight, sound, smell. This grounded evidence is what has often made anthropology unique from other disciplines, enabling many anthropologists to claim ‘authority’ from their personal experiences within a cultural field.
This old-hat way of approaching ethnographic research restrains our ability to explore ideological (e.g. ideas of spirituality) and phenomenological (e.g. experiences of a subject/object) fields, which consequently limits the “philosophical scope of anthropology”. Zygmunt Bauman (2000) briefly touches on this in his conceptualisation of ‘fluid modernity’, whereby individuals around the world now engage in constantly changing locations, relationships, identities and cultures. As Bauman (2000) describes, our understandings and sensations of space are now rapidly changing and becoming irrelevant in a world where our socio-cultural relations are being experienced in virtual realities, online interactive spaces and multi-located cultures. In many ways, we have already moved beyond material places and into a domain where the ‘field’ is defined by communities of shared interests and ‘virtual’ or ‘imagined’ worlds (e.g. World of Warcraft or the Spiritual World).
Maybe it’s time now for us, as young anthropologists, to start dipping our toes in these unfamiliar worlds that transcend the earthy realms we have become so comfortable within!
Baumann, Z 2007, Liquid times: Living in an age of uncertainty, Polity, Cambridge, Cambridge: Polity.
Dixon, D 2007, ‘A benevolent and sceptical inquiry: exploring Fortean Geographies’ with the Mothman, Cultural geographies, vol. 4, no., pp.189-210.