“BRUMASA controlled the Amazon timber trade from the beginnings of the logging boom in the early 1960s through to the 1980s.  They bought up vast stretches of the estuary and built a state-of-the-art sawmill at Santana.  They processed high-value timber for export, either to the south of Brazil, to the United States, or to Europe, and they sold cheaper lumber for construction in the local market.  They operated largely by contract, buying logs from independent third parties who set up poorly capitalized, inefficient, and mostly short-lived sawmills at the mouths of distant rivers.  BRUMASA’s operations extended from Santana past Manaus, nearly 1000 miles upstream.  They brought wood cut in Igarapé Guariba until there was no more worth buying, and, from his dealing with residents, Octávio, a senior manager in those years of dynamism, felt secure in asserting the place’s typicality and confident about describing its history and future.

Octávio began by explaining that he, too, was índio, an Indian.  His blood was just as contaminated, his spirit just as base, as those who lived in the countryside and whom, he told me, I could find drinking themselves stupid down by the docks or wandering through town looking lost.  In fact, everyone here in the Amazon, he told me, was índio.  The patrões – the landowners – were the same, he said, even if they did not look it.  What I should realize was that he, Octávio, had escaped in a way that these other wealthy men had not: they may be bosses, but they were of the interior, the hinterland, and they had never fully broken away.  He, however, had been moving in a completely different world – working for a major international corporation, running the largest sawmill in the eastern Amazon, transforming his thinking and his character.  He had, as Amazonians say, ‘mudou a cabeça,’ he had ‘changed his head'” (45)

As a genre, natural history kind of seems like The Anti-Theory.  But a close friend gave me a copy of Hugh Raffles’ In Amazonia: A Natural History to check out and that’s what I’m reading at the moment.  I wanted to post on it because I’m really getting a lot out of it.

The central theme of the book is how a place labeled “natural” by an endless parade of outsiders has been constantly reshaped through the interplay of anthropogenic and biophysical processes:  by moving water, the timber industry, small-scale agriculture, etc., all the way back to the prehistoric production of terra preta.  The perspectival character of ‘nature’ and the work required to produce a ‘place’ are crucial but well-worn points in environmental anthropology.  Thankfully, Raffles doesn’t just reiterate them ad nauseum, but builds those theoretical insights into his own ethnographic vision of the place, providing a rich and historically sweeping vision of the Brazilian Amazon.  I’ve been particularly struck by his ability to evoke people in ways that speak volumes about local and regional socio-political-ecological-economic dynamics.  His sketch of Octávio, only a small fragment of which is excerpted above, is a prime example.

Raffles, Hugh (2000) In Amazonia: A Natural History.  Princeton: Princeton UP.


I’m finally trying to get back to posting, and this time with a book by an actual anthropologist, even!  I’ve been dipping into The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy and Carnality, by Elizabeth Povinelli.  She begins with the intuition that love in liberal/modern/Western/Northern societies is a phenomenon that condenses a number of contradictory fantasies, discourses and practices about the subject.  Such contradictions are evidenced by the sense among modern liberal subjects that love is both something radically personal, necessarily freely given, but that it is simultaneously inadvertant, as when one describes oneself as “falling in love”.

For Povinelli this points the ubiquity of the dyad of i) the “autological subject”, the Western subject of the self-fashioned individual and ii) the “genealogical society”, the inherited set of institutions, norms and traditions that are posed as constraints on the freedom of the individual.  A third important term for the author is the “intimate event”, flashpoint in which a subject grapples with the constitution of an intimate relationship.  With this as background, Povinelli’s intention is to avoid a theoretical apparatus that accepts a neat juxtaposition of freedom and constraint, agency and structure, etc.

The meat of the book provides a set of reflections on Povinelli’s own experiences and those of her close friends both in North America and in her ethnographic field site in Australia, closing with a somewhat sweeping essay that attempts to reconsider putatively postcolonial liberalism.  For me, the most valuable component of the book is the careful theorization of the way that the autological subject/genealogical society are intrinsic to liberalism in both of the book’s contexts, and her examination of the implications of peoples’ quotidian grapplings with (and against) this tension in their daily lives.

As a bonus, here’s Dr. Povinelli shitting on Napoleon Chagnon’s memoir in the NYTimes.*

*The Blog Police threatened to shut me down if I didn’t have at least one reference to Napoleon Chagnon on here.  Also, my friend just pointed out that in the original version of this post I accidentally wrote “Jared Diamond” instead of “Napoleon Chagnon”.  Now I’ve mentioned BOTH of them, so the Blog Police should really give me a gold fucking star.

My interest was piqued in Emmanuel Levinas while reading Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding for my last blog post.  So in preparation for reading his Otherwise Than Being, I sought out some secondary literature and the first thing I came upon was The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, coedited by none other than Critchley.  One of the main reasons I’m interested in Levinas is that (according to Critchley) rather than offering an ethics in the usual sense, his account seems to be framed more in terms of ethical subjectivity.  A central feature of Levinas’ phenomenologically oriented account of ethical subjectivity is that it is not about the comprehension or formation of a conception of the other, but rather about the sensing of the other through embodied co-presence and discourse with them (an embodied co-presence that unfortunately appears to get reduced to dyadic conversation, if Critchley’s sketch is faithful).  Furthermore and concomitantly, the ethical relation isn’t characterized by a reasoned choice, but is more like a coming to awareness of the way the other exceeds my comprehension.  My felt obligation to the other precedes my rational comprehension of them.

I think Levinas (again, on my reading of Critchley) provides an interesting model of ethical motivation, and one that usefully deemphasizes freedom, agency and choice.  In the course of briefly surveying recent work on the anthropology of ethics, I’ve noticed a number of tendencies, including a focus on non-mainstream or subaltern religious practices as techniques of the self.  As the term suggests, anthropological work in this vein seems to be drawing on the later Foucault, especially The History of Sexuality, and the Hermeneutics of the Subject lectures, where said techniques are inwardly directed modes of cognitive, spiritual, bodily or sensual discipline resulting in a virtuous self.  A very brief and useful synopsis of this literature is provided by Joel Robbins’ review of James Faubion’s An Anthropology of Ethics.  Tellingly, Robbins neglects one crucial citation in the recent anthropology of religion: Webb Keane’s Christian Moderns, the point of which was to examine contests over the social understanding of agency and freedom, and the religious practices these understandings called for.  Bizarrely, Robbins asserts that a concern with freedom is “One of the more surprising features of the anthropology of morality”.  Really?  How is this not entirely in keeping with a long tradition of Western ethical thought, traces of which can be found in Foucault, but which also harkens back to more orthodox sources like, I don’t know… Kant?  Isolating this particular aspect of Foucault, especially when giving it a sort of counter-hegemonic or liberatory character as “techniques of the self” sometimes takes on, strikes me as really odd*.  Here’s how Foucault himself situated the project of the Hermeneutics of the Subject in relation to his work on government:

“I think that if one wants to analyze the genealogy of the subject in Western civilization, he has to take into account not only techniques of domination but also techniques of the self.  Let’s say: he has to take into account the interaction between those two types of techniques – techniques of domination and techniques of the self.  He has to take into account the points where the technologies of domination of individuals over one another have recourse to processes by which the individual acts upon himself.  And conversely, he has to take into account the points where the techniques of the self are integrated into structures of coercion or domination.  The contact point, where the individuals are driven by others is tied to the way they conduct themselves, is what we can call, I think, government.  Governing people, in the broad meaning of the word, governing people is not a way to force people to do what the governor wants; it is always a versatile equilibrium, with complementarity and conflicts between techniques which assure coercion and processes through which the self is constructed or modified by himself” (203)

*Although I may be the only one.  Simon Critchley, too, places Foucault in the legacy of the “autonomy orthodoxy”, in which ethical acts must be deliberately chosen by an unconstrained subject.

Critchley, Simon (2004) Introduction.  In A Cambridge Companion to Levinas, Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi, eds.  New York: Cambridge UP.

Foucault, Michel (1998 [1980]) About the beginnings of the Hermeneutics of the Self: Two lectures at Dartmouth. Political Theory 21(2): 198-227.

I’m roughly halfway through Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance.  The book has been on my list a long time, mainly because I’m intrigued by a philosopher who works at The New School, writes columns on philosophy and Philip K. Dick for the NYTimes and also keeps company with the likes of David Graeber.

In the first three chapters I’ve worked through: “Demanding approval – a theory of ethical experience”; “Dividualism – how to build an ethical subject”; and “The problem of sublimation”, all of which I’ve found interesting.  He draws primarily on continental philosophy (and theology!), including Badiou, Levinas, Lacan, and the Christian theologian Knud Ejler Løgstrup.  Conveniently for me, he shares with the analytical tradition a willingness to politely summarize his argument periodically.  Here are a couple of quotes that roughly outline his points through the end of Chapter 3:

“…[A]n ethical subject is the name for the way in which a self binds itself to some conception of the good… At the core of ethical subjectivity is a theory of what I call ethical experience, which is based in two concepts: approval and demand. My basic claim is that ethical experience begins with the approval of a demand, a demand that demands approval. Ethical experience is virtuously circular” (39)

“In terms of the overall argument of this book, commitment or fidelity (Badiou) to the unfulfIllable, onesided and radical demand that pledges me to the other (Løgstrup) can now be seen to be the structure of ethical subjectivity itself (Levinas). The ethical subject is defined by the approval of a traumatic heteronomous demand at its heart. But, importantly, the subject is also divided by this demand, it is constitutively split between itself and a demand that it cannot meet, but which is that by virtue of which it becomes a subject. The ethical subject is a split subject” (62-3)

In coming into being, the ethical subject both becomes aware of a demand that specifies an ethical good, and approves of that demand.  The subject is split by the exorbitance of the acknowledged ethical demand, which constitutes a limitation on the subject’s autonomy.  The subject deals with this exorbitant demand through various processes of sublimation.  Among these Critchley, drawing on Freud, cites humor as the most effective and conducive to ethical motivation.

Having finished prescribing a role for humor in ethical life, Critchley moves – apparently without irony – to discuss “Anarchic metapolitics – political subjectivity and political action after Marx“. It’s tempting to snark, but I’ll at least hold off until I’ve read the chapter.  Regardless of what it contains, I’ve gotten a lot out of Critchley’s discussion of the relation between affect and ethics.  It was also interesting to see how he used Badiou and Levinas, two philosophers who have been peripheral in my previous reading.

Critchley, Simon (2007) Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance.  New York: Verso.

As advertised, the titular essay of the Deleuze collection Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953-1974 is a five-page philosophical meditation on desert islands, which seems to have been prompted by the re-publication of the novel Suzanne et le Pacifique by Jean Giraudoux.  Deleuze begins by stating that the scientific distinction between ‘continental’ and ‘oceanic’ islands “is valuable information for the imagination because it confirms what the imagination already knew” (9).  He continues:

“The elan that draws humans toward islands extends the double movement that produces islands in themselves. Dreaming of islands—whether with joy or in fear, it doesn’t matter—is dreaming of pulling away, of being already separate, far from any continent, of being lost and alone—or it is dreaming of starting from scratch, recreating, beginning anew. Some islands drifted away from the continent, but the island is also that toward which one drifts; other islands originated in the ocean, but the island is also the origin, radical and absolute” (10)

The overall essay has a playful feel to it.  A high point for me was when Deleuze, in comparing the narratives of Suzanne and Robinson Crusoe, heaps scorn on Crusoe’s Friday, saying that “Any healthy reader would dream of seeing him eat Robinson” (12).  I’ve been dipping my toes into some literature on Thoreau lately and thought it might be interesting to consider “the island” as Deleuze sketches it in comparison with something like Thoreau’s conception of the Wild.  Or maybe that’s already been done?  Either way, sounds like a lot of work.

Deleuze, Gilles (2002) Desert islands.  In Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953-1974, David Lapoujade, ed.  Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

It’s been about two years since I delved into the social scientific literature on neoliberalism and I think I can finally hear the word again without taking my shoe off and vomiting into it.  The topic resurged into my consciousness when I came across a piece by Timothy Mitchell on Hernando de Soto (author of the Mystery of Capital and innovator of the concept of “dead capital“) and his attempt at formalizing informal land claims in urban Peru, which was framed at the time as a natural economic experiment*:

“A natural experiment in economics is not an experiment carried out in nature. It is an establishing of facts carried out in a world that has been organized to make it possible for economic knowledge to be made. Latour refers to this organizing work as ‘metrology’, meaning ‘the gigantic enterprise to make of the outside a world inside which facts . . . can survive’… Experiments to establish the facts of economics depend on projects carried out in the wider world to create sites where economic knowledge can gain a purchase. These sites, though larger than an ordinary laboratory, are nevertheless quite closely defined spaces – specific neighborhoods in particular cities of Peru, the local offices of a development organization and a neoliberal think tank, the text of a survey questionnaire and its administrators, the offices of a parent organization in Washington that provides the funds…” (395)

I thought the essay was a good example of the kind of micro-history of 20th century economic development/economics that seems to be his forte.  For Mitchell, this work has been both a contribution to understanding the performativity of economics and to showing the genesis of “the economy” in the previous century.  Borrowing from the STS literature, Mitchell’s method is to examine the ways in which the conditions of possibility for certain economic facts to emerge were staged.  I can’t personally vouch for the whole book, although the introduction has what I thought was an interesting history and social network analysis of major and marginal figures in early and mid-20th century neoliberalism by Dieter Plehwe.

Mitchell, Timothy (2009) How neoliberalism makes its world: The Urban Property Rights Project in Peru. In The Road From Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective, Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, eds.  Cambridge: Harvard UP.

*Cognizant that I’m presenting actual social scientific research here, I’ve made an effort to choose the least concrete and most theoretical, navel-gazing portion of it for you.

Here’s a single sentence from “The Intertwining – The Chiasm”, the final chapter of Merleau-Ponty’s posthumously published The Visible and the Invisible:

“If there is an animation of the body; if the vision and the body are tangled up in one another; if, correlatively, the thin pellicle of the quale, the surface of the visible, is doubled up over its whole extension with an invisible reserve; and if finally, in our flesh as in the flesh of things, the actual, empirical, ontic visible, by a sort of folding back, invagination, or padding, exhibits a visibility, a possibility that is not the shadow of the actual but is its principle, that is not the proper contribution of a ‘thought’ but is its condition, a style, allusive and elliptical like every style, but like every style inimitable, inalienable, an interior horizon and an exterior horizon between which the actual visible is a provisional partitioning and which, nonetheless, open indefinitely only upon other visibles—then (the immediate and dualist distinction between the visible and the invisible, between extension and thought, being impugned, not that extension be thought or thought extension, but because they are the obverse and the reverse of one another, and the one forever behind the other) there is to be sure a question as to how the ‘ideas of the intelligence’ are initiated over and beyond, how from the ideality of the horizon one passes to the ‘pure’ ideality, and in particular by what miracle a created generality, a culture, a knowledge come to add to and recapture and rectify the natural generality of my body and of the world” (152)

Um, okay.  While this example is a little extreme the whole piece is generally as dense and inscrutable as it suggests, although he’s often quite poetic, as well.  The problem M-P sets himself is to understand perception in terms of the dual aspect of the body as sensing and sensible (though never at the same time – hence The Chiasm).  I won’t get into the nitty gritty, although Judith Butler’s piece cited in my last post provides a summary of “the flesh”, a key term that M-P introduces in the chapter.  If I’m following along adequately, the sentence above signals a remaining problem:  understanding the germination of ideality or knowledge through the animation of the body in the dynamic of the flesh.  M-P identifies this as rooted in “the invisible”, the potential inherent in a specific instance of a phenomenal form to gather together and mobilize an entire family or class of instances.  M-P gives the example of the way a certain shade of red can call to mind a host of objects and circumstances (131-32).

I have to admit to having skipped through portions of the book.  But when you’re faced with chapter titles like “Reflection and Interrogation”, “Interrogation and Dialectic”, “Interrogation and Intuition” and “The Intertwining – The Chiasm”, obviously you cut out the yawn-inducing reflections on Sartre and skip to the last option, which sounds more like a horror film double header (but which turns out to be really beautiful).  The chapter is incomplete, abstract, speculative and deliberately difficult as M-P attempts to innovate new philosophical terms for barely conceivable concepts, but I love the headspinning sense of openness and possibility that it consequently has.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1968) The Visible and the Invisible.  Evanston: Northwestern UP.