Author Archive

September 29, 2015

The Lively Science

by johnmccreery

I have just submitted a book review to Popanth, a slightly modified version of the text I wrote to start a forum on the Open Anthropology Cooperative. Some here might be interested.


The preface to Michael Agar’s The Lively Science: Remodeling Human Social Research begins with the following paragraphs.

“What’s a nice reader like you doing in a book like this? I’m hoping that you’re here because you’re curious about a way to do “behavioral science” or “social science” that will help you figure out a problem you’d like to solve, or maybe you just wonder what those words mean because you’re a curious type. Maybe you’re a student, new or returning, embarking on a course with those names attached to it, or maybe a course in one of the many other areas that make use of them. The point is, I’m writing for readers who are fresh to the concepts, not for colleagues.

“This book has a simple premise to get you started. The premise is, research on humans in their social world by other humans is not a traditional science like the one created by Galileo and Newton . It’s not that the creators were wrong. Far from it. The ones who were wrong were the historical figures who tried to imitate the way the creators worked, neglecting the fact that learning how people make it through the day is different from dropping balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa or getting hit on the head by falling apples. Galileo didn’t have to communicate with the balls. Besides, he didn’t have to worry that the balls might look down 185 feet and refuse to jump and throw him over the parapet instead.”

Two points are vital here. One concerns how we read, the other what the book is talking about. When Agar writes, “The point is, I am writing for readers who are fresh to the concepts, not for colleagues,” he is asking those of us who are or hope to be colleagues to turn off what we think we already know and approach those concepts he mentions with a fresh, innocent gaze that makes no assumption that we know what he is talking about. He asks us to be readers who act like ethnographers, putting aside what we think to attend carefully to the people whose lives we share, looking for evidence of ideas that may be radically different from those we bring to the field. This is no small request, since, as indicated in the second paragraph, the topic sounds awfully familiar.

Anthropology, or at least the anthropology called social or cultural anthropology, is split down the middle. On one side are the “scientists” who see their goal as contributing to the kind of science conceived by Galileo and Newton, a science that discovers mathematical laws that work apply everywhere, regardless of what the entities they describe might be thinking or feeling. On the other side are the “humanists,” for whom the essence of humanity lies in what humans think and feel and insist that thoughts and feelings cannot be understood scientifically. They can only be interpreted, thickly described in ways that make human stories plausible. Our usual reaction to this divide is to pick one side or the other and become fierce advocates for our choice. Agar asks us to question the ways in which we conceive of scientific and humanistic understanding, to challenge the divide and consider an alternative view in which science and humanity are combined.

Stated so baldly, the thesis of the book sounds like a familiar sort of Hegelian dialectic: Thesis=science. Antithesis=humanity. Synthesis=A reconciliation that overcomes the initial contradiction. But there is much more to The Lively Science than is captured in this formula. Agar leads us on a picaresque journey through the thickets of modern social theory. He leads us away from the heavyweights usually featured in brief histories of social theory: Mars, Weber, and Durkheim. Instead he directs our attention to German idealists with names like Dilthey, rarely mentioned except in footnotes, and invites us to consider what they were on about when distinguishing naturwissenschaft, literally “natural science,” from geisteswissenschaft, “spiritual sciences,” a.k.a., humanities, but insisting that both are wissenschaft, i.e. science. Via this journey, Agar leads us to consider a broader view of science, in which Galileo and Newton represent only one variety, and the humanities are human sciences, retaining scientific rigor.

As illustrated by the two paragraphs quoted above, however, this is not a pretentious, ponderous book. Agar is a witty and genial writer well-aware that his mission is not to speak to those already his colleagues, already set in our intellectual ways, but to newcomers, still young and open enough in mind and spirit and still rebellious enough to want to challenge their teachers, to consider thoughts not heard, or heard not nearly enough, in classrooms. If you see yourself in this description, Michael Agar’s The Lively Science is a must-read for you.

July 17, 2015

A Thread from Savage Minds

by johnmccreery

This thread began with a post related to the ending of the Human Terrain System (HTS) program, which many anthropologists saw as a violation of anthropological ethnics. The following is only a branch of a larger discussion.

Thoughts, anyone?


One plausible example of an anthropologist who seems to do what HTS was intended to do pretty well is someone I have mentioned before, David Kilcullen, the author of Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla, which I consider personally one of the most important books that I have read in recent years. The problem is that Kilcullen is a rare bird indeed, an anthropologist with a Ph.D. from, I recall [I could be mistaken], Australian National University, who is also a professional soldier. He is thus equipped to relate anthropological insight to military operations in a way that few, if any, other anthropologists are. The story he relates at the start of the book is a good example.

He is with a convoy returning from a ceremony to celebrate the opening of a regional slaughterhouse and meat-packing plant at the head of a valley in Afghanistan. The convoy comes under attack, a firefight ensues, but the attackers are quickly beaten off with little actual harm done on either side. There are those who instantly wonder what was going on. Have the Taliban returned to an area from which they were supposed to be driven away? Kilcullen suggests a plausible alternative scenario. The valley at the head of which the new facility was located is, like many parts of Afghanistan, controlled by multiple small warlords. The attack on the convoy was a way of expressing displeasure by the warlord who controlled the part of the valley where the attack took place at not having been consulted about where the new slaughterhouse would be located — in another warlord’s territory. Failure to avenge this insult would have seriously undermined his own authority. Kilcullen is careful to note that this alternative scenario is only hypothetical; but it is one that takes into account local political arrangements of which his on-the-scene colleagues were unaware.


Kilcullin is a military strategist, one of the architects of the surge in Iraq. He’s a poster-boy along with Andrew Exum, “Abu Muqawama”, for the new model of competent [sic] imperial management. Their interest is projecting American power. So if you’re interested in asking why we’re in Iraq, or asking why the US vetoed the return of the popular former king of Afghanistan Zahir Shah, in 2002, supporting Karzai and ceding power to various warlords, these are questions neither Kilcullin nor Exum are interested in answering.


Let us suppose for the sake of argument that Seth’s characterization of David Kilcullen [not Kilcullin] and Andrew Exum [of whom I have never heard] is valid. Does this mean that there is nothing to be learned from them? Suppose, for example, that we are interested in how propaganda works, a topic with clear relevance to anthropological studies of myth, ritual and social movements. We may abhor the politics of Joseph Goebbels and Frank Luntz, but they are masters of their dark arts and should be on every reading list. In Kilcullen’s case, I know of no other anthropologist who has pointed out the importance of coastal cities of which large parts are ungovernable for lack of infrastructure overwhelmed by mass population growth, key nodes in international networks of finance and trade, and increasingly threatened by flooding due to global warming—and are thus attractive targets as well as fertile ground for terrorist organizations. And his Malinowskian moment, noticing his colleagues from Papua New Guinea with whom he is on maneuvers employing the fish traps that become his model for organizations ranging from criminal gangs to nation states is both lucid and brilliant. In all these cases the bait is the promise of security — for a price, submission and payment of protection money, a.k.a. taxes — and armed violence provides the barbs that prevent the fish from escaping the trap. Oh, yes, these are, indeed, ugly instrumental factors in how the world is organized. It would be so much nicer to focus instead on cultural logics and poetics, become a Daoist hermit or Candide cultivating his garden. But while these are nice hobbies — I enjoy them immensely myself — it hardly seems fair to complain if taxpayers or other patrons refuse to foot the bill.


I often disagree with Seth, but I do like his being here. His rants often contain pointers to authors I have never heard of. Andrew Exum is a case in point. A Google search brought me to his book This Man’s Army: A Soldier’s Story from the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism. I spent much of last night reading it, being constantly reminded of how ending the draft (something I was once very much in favor of) has alienated those of us who have chosen civilian and especially academic career tracks from those who volunteer to serve in the military. Thus, we find it easy to stereotype them as anonymous automatons without conscience or moral sensibility, destructive robots lacking in what we see as humanity. I find this deeply ironical, given the effort and often self-righteous rhetoric we devote to denouncing discrimination based on race, gender, culture or religion. This is doubly ironical since the anthropological canon contains numerous examples, from Africa, North America, the Middle East and elsewhere of peoples proud of warrior traditions. We are, for example, eager to proclaim the League of the Iroquois as a model for the U.S. Constitution, while avoiding mention of the torture of captives and stoic bravery in the face of torture that were integral parts of the same culture. We are familiar with the controversy surrounding the labeling of the Yanomami as “The Fierce People,” seeing this label as an insult, despite the wealth of evidence, both ethnographic and historical, that human beings commonly enjoy violent conflict. And, yes, we do, too — albeit vicariously in games or fiction or contact sports played by other people. If our job is to render people uncomfortable with cultural stereotypes, perhaps we should start with our own. This Man’s Army is an excellent place to begin.

January 16, 2015

Philosophy of social science, help or hindrance?

by johnmccreery

It may depend on when you took the course, says Daniel Little at Understanding Society.

What think you, Voles?

January 7, 2015

R.I.P. Ulrich Beck [cross-posted from SocNet]

by johnmccreery

Beck has long been one of my favorite sociologists. His description of the Risk Society as one in which invisible risks replace visible wealth as the dominant form of social inequality and only experts can claim to identify and know how to address those risks resonates strongly with the world of Chinese popular religion that was the focus of my Ph.D. dissertation.

One interesting possible application rests on the observation that all forms of consulting are magic. People with problems attribute them to invisible causes. They turn for help to those who claim special powers to diagnose and prescribe, and random chance alone will lead to identification of some who claim such powers as having “It,” that special something that produces desired results. Negative evidence will disappear in a context where most who claim special powers are known to be frauds. The primary question for those looking for “It” to solve their problems is how to find the golden needle in a huge and constantly growing haystack. They turn to to their social networks for recommendations by trusted others, whose trust may, however, be grounded in nothing more than having found someone whose recommendations lie in the apparent success tail of a normal curve. . . .

P.S. I would be delighted if some computational sociologist with greater math skills than my own could build a model around these assumptions.

But, yes. I mourn the death of Ulrich Beck.

May 26, 2014

Here’s a course I wish I’d taken

by johnmccreery

I am not going to run on about it, just provide the link to one of the most thought-provoking articles on education that I have read in a long time. Looking forward to hearing what the Dykes, both junior and elder have to say about it.

August 9, 2013

Bad Things Happen to Good People

by johnmccreery

Last Wednesday, Ruth, my wife, business partner, and best friend for  forty-five years, were walking to our office. As we started up the same set of stairs we climb every day, Ruth suddenly felt weak and short of breath.  She was smart enough to instantly take herself to the doctor who has been treating her for high blood pressure. The doctor was smart enough to instantly arrange an emergency check-in at Keiyu Hospital in Minato-Mirai 21, the Yokohama harbor project district only minutes by cab from both our home and the doctor’s office. She was met at the door by a wheelchair, run through a  battery of tests, diagnosed with pulmonary embolism, and popped into a bed with supplementary oxygen and a heparin drip in her arm. The good news is that when I left her last night, she had had her first not-me visitors. She had a twinkle in her eyes and a smile on her face. She appears to be out of danger and recovering rapidly.  So now I find myself reflecting once again on the privileged lives that Ruth and I lead and the difference it can make when bad stuff happens.

What if we hadn’t been living in an affluent neighborhood close to the center of one of the world’s great cities?

What if Ruth hadn’t been the patient of a cardiovascular specialist connected with one of the city’s best hospitals?

What if we weren’t living in a country where public health insurance will cover most of the medical expenses?

What if we didn’t have the Internet and Facebook, where a host of friends from all over the world have rallied round, including my best friend from high school, an M.D. with the Public Health Service, who has provided reassuring advice — the treatment Ruth is receiving is exactly the one she should be receiving.

What if we hadn’t been able to afford the mobile WiFi router that lets her FB message and Skype with the daughter and grandkids in the USA via her iPad Mini? What if those gadgets didn’t even exist?

I can’t help thinking, Yes, bad things can happen to good people, but privilege can certainly ease the pain.

June 13, 2013

Real Life, Real Research

by johnmccreery

The war stories series on the Portigal consulting company’s website is a treasure chest of anecdotes for anyone who wonders what life is like on the front lines of qualitative consumer research, a.k.a. design ethnography or business anthropology.

June 7, 2013

Four Essential Learning Skills for a World Inundated with Misinformation

by johnmccreery

Continuing a discussion on Systems Thinking World, responding to a question from Chad Green.
“If we wish to avoid overwhelming students with information, why not help them to synthesize the processes that generate content in the first place?”

Good question. Walter’s system could help here — though, I must admit, I still find it a bit overelaborate. Off the top of my head, for what it is worth, I envision a three-stage curriculum: (1) Rapid learning —how to scan and extract what you need quickly; (2) Digging deep — exploring impressions from rapid learning in greater depth; and (3) Quality control — critically examining new information for relevance, accuracy, and validity. Students with these skill sets could then be encouraged to move on to (4) Getting creative — breaking established frames and rules to see what happens and returning recursively to (1),(2), and (3) to extract innovation from the crap in which it is always buried. (4) is the step at which you recognize that what you need is a better hole instead of a better bit.
The last “bit” alludes to a parable that pops up now and again in marketing literature:

There once was a company that made the world’s finest drill bits. It worked hard to improve its bits and make sure that its offerings were, indeed, the best drill bits in the world.

It was put out of business by a laser company. What the customers wanted wasn’t drill bits. What the customers wanted was holes.

June 5, 2013

Educational Ecology

by johnmccreery

On LinkedIn I have gotten myself involved in a conversation that began with the question, “What if the educational system isn’t broken — just irrelevant?” Recently the phrase “educational ecology” appeared in the thread. I was moved to respond as follows. Thought some Voles might be interested.


Chad, Duane, when you mentioned an “education ecosystem,” I recalled two books that we translated several years ago:

Natsuno Takeshi (2003) i-mode Strategy, and
Natsuno Takeshi (2003) i-mode Ecology

Natsuno Takeshi was one of the key figures in the launch of the NTT i-mode smartphone service in Japan and what he has to say about ecology-building may be very relevant here.

First, why an “ecology”? Ecology was proposed as an alternative to the top-down model characteristic of public telephone monopolies, in which everything from the services to be offered to the equipment on which the services would be delivered was designed, provided and controlled by the telephone company. The purpose was to create a space in which lots of other players, from established equipment manufacturers to entrepreneurial startups would find opportunities for growth, triggering a wave of innovation. NTT, itself like AT&T a privatized version of a former public utility, would retain control of only backbone and banking (transaction management) services and profit from what would become a major increase in traffic on its lines. In the buzz words of the day, everyone involved would find themselves in a win-win situation.

But it wasn’t just the concept that made the launch of i-mode a huge success. It was a series of key decisions made while implementing the concept. The following are a few of the big ones.

1. What shall we call this thing, a smart phone or a wallet computer? Smart phone. Why? Engineers are going to be much more excited about creating a smarter phone than a dumbed-down pocket PC.

2. Should we go with the latest, state-of-the art telecommunications technology that the Europeans were promoting or with a stripped down version of HTML (and later Java) for the software? HTML and Java. Why? Because there were thousands of programmers in the PC world who already knew and used them. That would lower the threshold for new service startups.

3. Should we launch with the ultimate smart phone, with every feature we could think of, at the start? No. Why? Consumers would be overwhelmed and handset manufacturers would loose the opportunity to sell new generations of phones as new features were added one-by-one. The first new feature added was SMS, in a market already primed by pagers.

4. Should NTT ask manufacturers to take a big risk whenever a new feature was added? No. NTT would guarantee any manufacturer who wanted to develop a new phone a minimum first order to cover the costs of development. The market would sort out the winners and losers.

Now, of course, a decade-plus after the original launch, others have adopted the same model, and everyone is wondering what the next big thing will be. In the meantime, however, a huge new market was created, and the number of smartphones in Japan is larger than the human population.

It would be interesting to see those promoting an “education ecology” thinking in the same way, asking themselves how to create an appealing path forward (the smart phone, not the wallet PC) in a new space that offers win-win opportunities for everyone concerned (students, teachers, parents, taxpayers), uses familiar tools (like the choice of HTML and Java), and protects innovators from downside risk (like the minimum order to cover the cost of developing a new phone).

April 10, 2013

You’ve heard about modeling, sounds interesting, but you are not a programming Ninja

by johnmccreery

Help is at hand. Check out Gene Bellinger’s Insight Maker. It’s Web-based, it’s free, you can play with it by yourself or with friends or colleagues.Think of it as a mind map where the pieces interact.If you are a programming Ninja, you may find the models too simple. But it’s plenty sophisticated enough to provide instructive entertainment for the rest of us.

March 29, 2013

Post-Paper Blues

by johnmccreery

What happens to you when you work hard on a project, and then the work is done? Do you feel like celebrating? My response is to become mildly depressed and slip into a funk. The thrashing around will continue until the next project begins to take shape. In the meantime, I am glad to have business-related stuff to work on in the inbox. Short-term focus is a lot better than no focus at all. Is this normal? Or pathological? Thoughts, anyone?

January 23, 2013

Kerim Friedman on Gramsci

by johnmccreery

Carl, this should be right up your alley. Kerim Freidman has written an interesting piece on misreadings of Gramsci on Savage Minds. Since you are our resident Gramsci expert, I would like to hear what you have to say about it.

January 6, 2013

A Question Haunts America

by johnmccreery

Us folks on the left are not the only ones who see the U.S.A. as going to hell in a hand basket. My title is taken from the first line of an article in The National Interest by conservative pundit Robert W. Merry titled Spengler’s Ominous Prophecy. Oswald Spengler that is, the author of Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), now as rarely mentioned on the left as Gramsci is on the right, a mention-and-skip author in liberal higher education with its focus on the Enlightenment and progress toward the great kumbaya of universal rationality. Perhaps he deserves a second look.

He did, after all, anticipate the world wars and the “surge of imperial fervor and a flight toward Caesarism” that seems to afflict all civilizations when their roots in naive but authentic culture give way to “the domain of a few rich and powerful “world-cities,” which twist and distort the concepts of old and replace them with cynicism, cosmopolitanism, irony and a money culture” (the quotes are from Merry, not Spengler himself).

The idea that civilizations are organic wholes and develop through cycles from birth and flourishing to maturity, decay and death is no longer fashionable. But the notion that there is no universal humanity, only human beings, born incomplete animals, who become what their cultures/civilizations encourage and demand that they do is, albeit debatable, Anthropology 101.

Perhaps it is my years, rushing all too soon toward three score and ten (now just a year and a bit away) that turn my thoughts in this direction. But could it be that left and right, we all need both Marx and Spengler to see the world whole through disillusioned eyes?

December 7, 2012


by johnmccreery

The following remarks were addressed to anthropologists on the Open Anthropology Cooperative. They may be of some value to students in other fields.

Erin asks, “What if there were something like life-long learning in anthropology?”

Sitting on top of our kitchen counter is a book, Haruo Shirane (1998) Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashô. Shirane was a friend of my wife in graduate school at Yale. I pick the book up, start browsing through the introduction and come across the following passage,

The seventeenth century witnessed not only a dramatic rise in the standard of living for almost all levels of society but a striking change in the nature of cultural production and consumption. In the medieval period, provincial military lords (daimyô) were able to learn about the Heian classics from traveling renga (classical linked verse) masters such as Sôgi (1421-1502), but the acquisition of classical texts was limited to a relatively small circle of poet-priests, powerful warriors, and aristocrats, who were deeply rooted in the traditional culture of Kyoto. A monopoly—epitomized by the Kokin denju, the secret teachings of the Kokinshû—had been established over the study of classical texts, the study of which was often passed on through carefully controlled lineages, in one-to-one transmissions to the elected few. In the seventeenth century, by contrast, anyone who could afford to pay for lessons could receive instructions from “town teachers” (machi shisô) in any one of many arts or fields of learning. The transmission of learning was not dependent, as it had been in the medieval period, on the authority of poetry families or the patronage of large institutions such as Buddhist temples or powerful military lords.

I am reminded that, in Japan today, there exists alongside the universities a system of “culture centers.” Operated mostly by newspapers and department stores, they play a role analogous to that of the “town teachers” mentioned by Shirane, offering lifelong learning classes to housewives and retirees on a vast range of subjects from homely cooking skills to classical Japanese literature and urban planning.

This reflection reminds me of other worlds of private education in the West, piano and other music teachers and operators of craft shops who offer classes in knitting, crocheting or macrame, operating in effect as one-teacher culture centers with a limited range of offerings. My mind spins on, where was it that I saw a reference to philosophy cafes? A Google search turns up 5,700,000 hits. The first, from Wikipedia, says,

Café philosophique (“cafe-philo”) is a grassroots forum for philosophical discussion, founded by philosopher Marc Sautet (1947–1998) in Paris, France, on December 13, 1992.[1]
There were about 100 “cafés-philos” operating throughout France and some 150 cafés-philos internationally at the time of Sautet’s death in 1998.[2][3]

The subjects discussed at the cafes had a range that varied from the Santa Claus myth to truth to beauty to sex to death. They posed such questions as What is a fact? and Is hope a violent thing? Sautet made the discussions seem fun and exciting. The concept was to bring people together in a public friendly forum where they could discuss ideas. A cafe tended to have this type of atmosphere where people were relaxed drinking coffee and carrying on conversations. This concept ultimately developed into Café Philosophique that he founded.[4]

Thousands of participants in philosophy cafes worldwide have adopted Sautet’s idea as a way to enhance their thinking. Ideas are thrown out with concern for accuracy and philosophical rigor. The concepts discussed were in the spirit of tolerance and openness. The idea of Sautet’s philosophy cafes have spread around the world. The concept that started in France and subsequently entered England, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, and eventually throughout Europe is now in the United States, Canada, South America, Greece, Australia and even Japan.[2] Due to this success, the French president Jacques Chirac sent a founding member on a good will mission to Latin America to introduce the concept there.[3]
A common element in these, I will call them “para-academic,” institutions is their social dimension. On any given subject, those who come to learn could find more brilliant lectures and better illustrated demonstrations on-line via Coursera, iTunes U, etc. What they still can’t find is social opportunities, real-world places to meet people who share similar interests, in settings where a shared hobby can lead to drinks, dinner, or (we gracefully draw the curtain) other forms of social activity.

Is it possible to imagine at least a few entrepreneurial anthropologists living comfortably, even prospering, by pursuing this line? Just had dinner last night with an American friend living in Japan who has spun teaching English to dentists into organizing tours to international medical conferences and has just founded a company to take advantage of what she has learned and the contacts she has made to organize other, now I will call them “learning-socializing” events, related to politics and spirituality, topics in which she has strong personal interests. Not an anthropologist (originally and still, in another of her many roles, a professional jazz pianist), but perhaps a model that anthropologists stuck with no jobs or crap jobs in today’s academic world might want to consider.

November 30, 2012

Academics and Small-Government Conservatives: Two Arguments Cut from the Same Cloth

by johnmccreery

On the anthropology lists where I hang out there has been a lot of complaining about universities run along corporate lines by overweening and growing administrative bureaucracies. We have just endured a campaign season in which small-government conservatives, a.k.a., Tea Party folk, have been raging about big government and overweening and growing government bureaucracy. When I step back and due the ethnographer’s trick of looking for shared assumptions, I note that both academics and Tea Party folk feel oppressed by bureaucracy. Then, I find myself wondering, if the ground for both sets of arguments doesn’t lie on the fault line that divides measurement and judgment.

Measurement, as a tool of science, has as one of its functions the elimination of arbitrary judgments. Extended to the moral and political realm, arguments for measurement usually turn on fairness and the need to avert the injustice of arbitrary judgments based on prejudice of one kind or another. But isn’t there a point at which trying to measure everything becomes an intolerable burden? In a complex and muddled world, is denigrating judgment by assuming that judgment implies prejudice the way we want to go? Where is the proper balance here?

What say, ye, Voles?

October 25, 2012

Election Fever

by johnmccreery

As time races toward the second Tuesday in November, yours truly is feeling a bit twitchy. How about the other Voles?

August 3, 2012

Alien Phenomenology

by johnmccreery

Cross-posted from the Open Anthropology Cooperative.
Those of us who enjoyed the OAC seminar on Martin Holbraad’s “Can the Thing Speak?” or have been intrigued by recent discussions of ontology or Latour will also be interested in this Design Observer interview with Ian Bogost, the author of Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to be a Thing. This interview will also be of interest to those concerned about how to popularize anthropological ideas — both for what it has to say about the art of writing about complex and esoteric ideas for a popular audience and as a poignant warning that what we may take to be “anthropological” ideas to which our discipline can claim some sort of ownership are already out there, being written about by people who have no stake in self-identifying as anthropologists. Lots of stuff worth thinking and talking about here.

July 16, 2012

Chaotically Speaking

by johnmccreery

Over on OAC, a new seminar is underway. The topic is Joanna Overing’s paper, An Amazonian Question of Ironies and the Grotesque. During an exchange with Joanna, I write,

When you write that, “Piaora laughter seems to me very close to Daoism,” you are, I suspect, alluding to what Chinese call Daojia, usually described as “Daoist philosophy” and associated with classic texts like the Dao De Jing attributed to Lao Zi or the Zhuangzi,attributed to Zhuang Zi. What I studied in Taiwan was Daojiao, usually described as Daoist religion, whose relationship to Daojia is complex and often contrary. But let’s put that aside.  What you write reminded me of a book by N. J. Girardot titled Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism (University of California Press, 1983, a volume in the series “HERMENEUTICS: Studies in the History of Religion”). In the preface to the paperback edition Girardot writes,

Chaos is an oddly fashionable topic these days. This is not the usual state of affairs, since chaos has typically been imagined as the fearful antagonist of God, of the cosmic order, and of all that is normal. The dark Otherness of chaos has, therefore, most commonly lurked within the locked closets of civilized discourse and sanctioned revelation—only showing its monstrous and misshapen face, still half-concealed by a primordial hockey mask, at times of dreadful confusion, insane retribution, and irrevocable change. However, at other times and sporadically within some traditions—especially as seen in the early Taoist texts examined in this work—chaos has been upheld as the creative source, hidden order, and ongoing power of cosmic life.

Girardot then moves on to chaos as conceived by modern science, mathematics and economics.

As pointed out in best-selling works like James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Viking, 1987), “chaos theory”—and its attendant exotica of Mandelbrot sets, Koch curves, Menger sponges, fractal clusters, smooth noodle maps, and other beautiful “monstrosities”—has opened horizons of understanding in fields concerned with the strange science of process and becoming.

While I wish to suggest no more than a very simple rhetorical symmetry between chaos theory in contemporary science and the hun-tun theme of a blessed “chaos-order” in the ancient Taoist texts, beneath the surface, and somewhat chaotically, both emphasize understanding reality in its authentic “wildness”—as a dynamic system in which constant change and erratic complexity harbor an enigmatic principle of patterned regularity and regeneration….For both, it has to do with the interrelated flowing of heaven and earth—the way clouds form, smoke rises, and water eddies, as well as the way human health depends on the inner rhythms of the body.

What I wish to point out here is that the “monstrous and misshapen” are described here as the evil other of the Southwest Asian monotheist’s Almighty God, the patriarchal principle of order in all things.  The “monstrosities” mentioned in connection with scientific chaos theory are, in fact, patterns of exquisite beauty, examples of dynamic order that emerge from chaotic processes, becomings rather than beings. To me they seem as alien to

The story of creation time [as] one of poisoned intentionalities, of cosmic follies: … a story of greed, hubris and mental derangement

as they are to the timeless order envisioned by Greek philosophers or Christian theologians or the Genesis story in which God speaks and the world Is, and death and evil slip in through the actions of Adam and Eve, who are ancestors but in no sense divine. Taking your premise,

that the humanities must be privileged to understand the polities/ societies of others of different time or spaces

as given, how should we account for these differences?

Let me rephrase the final question. How would you account for these differences?

July 15, 2012

Book Recommendation

by johnmccreery

Kirin Narayan’s Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov is not a book likely to make it onto bestseller lists. The audience, people with an interest in the art of writing ethnography, is too small. It is, however, a marvelous book about writing non-fiction prose, taking as its primary example Anton Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island, and examining how the great Russian storyteller and dramatist, who was also a medical doctor, produced a work in which,

By closely attending to the people who lived under the appalling conditions of the Russian penal colony on Sakhalin, Chekhov showed how empirical details combined with a literary flair can bring readers face to face with distant, different lives, enlarging a sense of human responsibility.

Narayan is herself a superb writer. I remember reading with pleasure her Storytellers, Saints and Scoundrels and who could not love an autobiographical ethnography titled My Family and Other Saints. Of particular interest to the teachers among us is the way in which she uses examples from Chekhov and other accomplished writers to motivate the writing exercises with which Alive in the Writing is liberally sprinkled. Were I in a position to teach non-fiction writing, I would instantly choose this book as the textbook for the class and recommend it along with other classics like William Zinsser’s Writing to Learn and Writing Well and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down to the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. 

February 24, 2012

My new friend, Chris

by johnmccreery

Italian-American, male, age 53, married, five children. Lives in northern Virginia, USA, a few blocks from where he was born and grew up. Raised Catholic. Independent who leans Republican.

Stop for moment. Ask yourself what you think you know about my new friend Chris. Did you imagine that his parents are both Ph.D.s? That having turned down and appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy, he spent two years at Georgia Tech, decided he didn’t like it and came home to start his own business?

Listening to Chris describe his businesses is to hear a picaresque tale. Having learned car repair from a German neighbor, he started with a small gas station that barely paid its way. His next idea was to buy, repair and rent out used cars. That, too, didn’t get very far. Then he noticed that people who stopped by the gas station to ask directions were frequently looking for a place to fill up propane tanks for their outdoor grills. He got into the propane business, and there he prospered. The business was going so well, he was looking to expand. He found a parcel of land in an area zoned in a way that, it appeared, would allow him to operate a petroleum distribution business on it. Then, however, he ran into problems with the county government and zoning board, which denied him the right to park his propane tankers on the lot. That got him into politics. Over the past several years, he has run unsuccessfully for several different offices, from school board to county executive, and is thinking of taking a shot at Congress. Meanwhile, he had this land and the buildings on it, in to which he had sunk a lot of his capital. He was also concerned that the propane business is seasonal. The strongest demand is in the winter, for home and construction site heating. That meant having trucks and employees underutilized during the slower rest of the year. He noticed that the building boom in the Washington, D.C. suburbs in norther Virginia had created demand for stone, for fireplaces, facings, walls, and other applications. So he bought some big stone slicing and milling machines, installed them in the buildings on the property he had purchased and went into the stone business. Now, however, the economic downturn of the last few years has crushed demand for decorative stone. That business is now running at a loss. The propane business is also weak. This year’s warm winter has reduced demand in that market, too. So, what is Chris doing? He is looking for other opportunities. In the stone business, a long-time friend and best employee has self-taught himself robotics. Chris has acquired a used FANUC industrial robot that used to work on an auto assembly line. Mike, the employee, has adapted and reprogrammed it to cut stone into complex three-dimensional shapes. The company is now working on some test pieces as it goes after a contract to supply replacement stonework for the National Cathedral in Washington, which was damaged in last year’s earthquake. That will, if it comes through, put the business back in the black. Meanwhile, Chris is still constantly looking for new ways to use his equipment (trucks, forklifts, storage facilities) and employees. He is currently excited about the scrap recycling industry, envisioning use of his once-upon-a-time gas station as a deposit point and unused space at the stoneworks for storage and bailing. Why was he showing me around his businesses? He had learned from my daughter that I live in Japan and know some Chinese, and he’s heard that there is a big market for scrap in China. Who knows? I might be useful.

Today, Chris drove his biggest propane tanker to a propane terminal located about two hours from the neighborhood where he lives and I am spending a couple of months helping out with our grandchildren. He asked me if I’d like to come along. The ethnographer in me couldn’t resist. If the heart of cultural anthropology is learning how others see the world when they have very different assumptions about it, this was a great opportunity. First, there was the experience of riding in a big, cabover truck with a big propane tank on the trailer it was pulling. I was seeing Virginia highways from a perspective that years of driving on them in a car had never provided. It was, however, riding with Chris that provided the real revelation. To me, driving the same highways, trucks were just part of the traffic, an obstacle to getting where I wanted to go. To Chris, trucks are commerce. He is constantly noting where trucks are based, checking their license plates, noting the direction in which they are moving and — wherever possible — noting what they were carrying. When we stopped for diesel fuel and then at the terminal, Chris immediately started chatting with other truck drivers, asking in a friendly way where they were from, where they were going, what they were hauling, how was business these days. Back in the cab of his own truck, he explained that truck drivers are an incredible source of intelligence, valuable information for his business. He gets ideas, hears how other businesses are doing. This is one of the reasons that he likes driving his big truck himself. The other is that, while he drives, he has a space in which he think about what he is seeing and develop new plans. That is why he doesn’t usually listen to the radio and hasn’t installed CB radio with which he could chat with other truck drivers while driving. He likes being able to see and think without interruption.

To me, Chris is fascinating. Our life stories run in diametrically opposite directions. His parents had Ph.D.s and expected him to go on to higher education. He dropped out and did what he has done, instead. My parents had associate degrees from junior colleges and credentials from nursing school (my mother) and a shipyard apprentice school (my father). They expected me to go to school, study engineering (my father’s dream) and settle close to home. Philosophy, anthropology, living more than half my life in Asia—that was never their dream. Good thing, though, I had that time working in the Japanese ad agency, so I’m comfortable talking about his business with Chris. He has spent most of his life within a hundred-mile radius of where he was born. I live half a world away. But we can talk to each other. I can even imagine that I understand what he’s talking about.

What were you thinking as you read the opening of this message? What are you thinking now?