Thursday, May 31, 2007

Talking About Race

Nicolette Bethel has an interesting recent blog post: “On Why Race Matters” (Nicolette Bethel’s Blog, May 24). I’d like to quote one passage in particular:

“It’s time, I believe, for us to open our mouths and start talking to one another. Until we examine the things that shape our race relations — like slavery, emancipation, labour’s struggle, the fight for equality, and the massive influx of Haitian immigrants — we can never hope to build a united society. Although it’s no longer a matter of law or custom, there are still churches and clubs and parks and professions and schools that are avoided by whites or blacks. There is still very little opportunity for mingling, for getting to know the people beneath the skin. And we have to say so.”

Bethel’s words refer specifically to the Bahamas, but with one minor tweak, they speak to the contemporary U.S. context as well. Except for South Florida, Haitian immigration is not a hot button issue in the U.S., though immigration in general clearly is.

I do think that the U.S. (and most every other nation-state in the Americas) needs more dialogue on race and more interaction across racial and ethnic lines. However, for those interested in a society based on equality and where race doesn’t matter, we also need to talk differently about race.

In his History of Sexuality series, one of Michel Foucault’s important arguments was against what he called the “repressive hypothesis,” proponents of which argue that to be sexually liberated, we need to talk more about sexuality in order to eliminate sexual repression. Foucault pointed out that in western culture people talk endlessly about sexuality, but in ways that pretend to not talk about it, or which express distaste (a good example would be the countless news editorials from about ten years ago which professed to be tired of speaking of the Monica Lewinsky – Bill Clinton scandal and then proceeded to discuss it at length), and ultimately in ways that subject some, such as women (though Foucault doesn’t acknowledge that so much) and homosexuals.

Foucault’s point was that there’s little reason to hope that simply talking more about sex and sexuality would liberate anyone – at least not unless the content of the discourse also changed. In the U.S. and elsewhere, we face an analogous situation with regard to race. In the U.S., we talk quite a bit about race, but mainly in ways that don’t transform the basic premises of people’s discourse.

Recently, there’s been endless high profile discussion in the U.S. about immigration, especially undocumented/illegal immigration, and about Don Imus’ racist comments about the Rutgers’ women’s college basketball team. Most of the conversation consists of continuous (and usually simplistic) rehashing of a few basic themes, though. Immigrants are a threat to the American way of life vs. immigrants make the American way of life possible. Don Imus’ comments were racist vs. Don Imus has an inalienable right to free speech.

More of the same sort of discourse won’t change much. How to talk about race differently, though? I don’t have a blueprint, but I do know that we need to discourse differently on race if we’re to move toward a society where race actually matters less. I do have a couple suggestions:

1. More of the mingling that Bethel seems to be looking for would help – so long as it’s done with an open mind, lest it actually be counter-productive.

2. We can each individually try to talk about race differently. Counter arguments to racist propositions are important and necessary, but so are arguments that change the shape of the debate altogether.

To take again the immigration and Imus examples, discourse which simply presents the goals, motivations, aspirations, and experiences of immigrants could help make the discussion less about “aliens,” and perhaps at least ratchet down support for the most hate filled anti-immigrant screeds.

As for the Imus affair, most debate has seemed to miss the point to me. I’d suggest instead an argument that takes something like the following form: Obviously Imus has an inalienable right to free speech, including to say stupid, offensive things. Just as obviously, the corporation he worked for, as a private entity, has the same right, including to not be associated any longer with his speech, and other citizens have the same right to express disgust and anger at him. Now, why would he want to say what he did? What does the whole affair say about him or anyone else?

Again, I don’t claim to have a blueprint for how to go about engaging in a different sort of discourse on race, one that works more to open up dialogue and understanding and less to subject people (in Foucault's sense of discourse and subjection). I do know that when our public debate takes the form of people yelling the same things back and forth, more of the same isn’t going to change anything.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Troy and the Purposes of Art

The blog post I mentioned in my previous entry (by Morrigan on Anthropology Net) on the purposes of art had been part of a thread of discussion on the movie 300. I agree with Morrigan’s point that 300 is not just art and not just entertainment. All movies are both art and entertainment (and often other things besides), though they might be good or bad art, good or bad at being entertaining.

Since I haven’t seen 300, at least not yet, I can’t say much about it. I’d like to shift to another epic movie set in the ancient Mediterranean, Troy. Troy was widely panned (a bit unfairly, I think) when released a few years ago and considered a commercial failure (despite making over $140 million at the U.S. box office, and about half a billion dollars worldwide – I’d like to be a commercial failure, too). Like most art, Troy does several things at once, having several distinct purposes simultaneously.

Art as Entertainment

Art in all forms can provide amusement, diversion, and entertainment. For big budget Hollywood movies, entertainment is the primary function of art. Troy is no exception, all of which is fairly obvious. The main reason to even discuss this is to emphasize that while entertainment may be the primary function of a movie like Troy, it is not the only thing happening.

Art as Aesthetic Object

Troy presents a set of aesthetic ideals – of masculinity, violence, and war especially. In his introduction to his modern adaptation, An Iliad (which faithfully preserves the content, but eliminates much of the repetition in Homer’s text), Alessandro Baricco speaks of the beauty of war in the Iliad. It’s one thing to state that The Iliad or Troy glorify war. They do, but more they present ideals of masculinity, violence, and war as objects of beauty. Baricco’s point is that any discourse on war, including opposition to it, needs to involve not just intellectualization but take into account also the appeal because of the beauty of (representations of) war.

In Troy, this aestheticization of masculinity, violence, and war takes several forms. Brad Pitt’s body, as Achilles, is an aesthetic object – at least since the movie Fight Club, Brad Pitt’s body has been an embodiment of a particular masculine body-aesthetic. In Troy, Orlando Bloom, as Paris, provides an embodiment of an alternate masculine body beauty. But it’s not just about men’s bodies, even if Troy and many other recent movies are very much about men’s bodies. The lines of the Greeks’ ships, the soldiers’ armor, the unity of movement of the Myrmidons, the arc and sweep of swords and spears, and the pacing of the action – imagery slowing and speeding up in an increasingly common Hollywood trick – all contribute to the aestheticization, the creation of a representation of violence and war as beautiful, something which I must admit works to an alarming extent.

Art as Intellectual Object

Art can provide grist for more intellectual contemplation as well (such as this blog post, and the blog post which prompted me to write it). Most of us don’t expect to encounter much food for thought when we go see a big budget action movie like Troy, but occasionally they surprise us. I’ll simply point out two ways in which Troy left me thinking as I left the theater.

Achilles’ Dilemma

Achilles has a dilemma as he goes off to war. He’s been told by his mother, Thetis, a minor goddess no less, that he has a choice. If he stays at home, he’ll live a long, comfortable life, be well-loved, but also be forgotten. If he goes to war, he’ll die at war but achieve a glory that will be remembered for generations. We all know what he chose, but he had to think about it (In The Iliad, he goes on thinking about it right up until Patroclus’ death and his own return to battle). Granted, the filmmakers didn’t come up with this – that would be Homer and whatever earlier oral traditions he was drawing upon – but they present it well, and I was certainly touched by it, left thinking, “What would I choose?” Not being a warrior, I’ve a pretty good idea what I would have chosen, but the equivalent dilemma for any scholar might be: “What would you do and what would you sacrifice in order that your work and ideas continue to be read and discussed not just during your lifetime, but 100 or 500 or 1000 years after your death?”

Patroclus’ Death

Troy is not a movie of The Iliad in the sense that it starts before the start of The Iliad (perhaps defying contemporary expectations – about either Troy or The IliadTroy is actually a much more straightforwardly linear text) and ends after the end of The Iliad, addressing material (such as the death of Achilles, the Trojan Horse, and the Fall of Troy) covered in The Odyssey. Still, it draws primarily on the material in The Iliad. It’s interesting then to compare some ways in which the two presentations of events significantly differ. One of these concerns the death of Patroclus, Achilles’ companion.

Through most of The Iliad and much of Troy, Achilles sulks in his tent over an act of Agamemnon, specifically Agamemnon taking away from Achilles a woman that he had claimed as a war prize. In The Iliad, this breach between the two heroes opens the narrative, ten years after the start of the war itself. Without Achilles and his men fighting on their side, the Trojans gain the upper hand. At a critical moment, in The Iliad, Patroclus beseeches Achilles to allow him to put on the armor of Achilles, both to rally the Greeks and to strike fear into the Trojans. By this point, Achilles clearly realizes he’s been petty, but he refuses to break his vow to not enter the battle, and so allows Patroclus to don his armor. Patroclus’ arrival on the scene of battle does rally the Greeks and strike fear into the Trojans, at least for a while, but after a few moments, everyone realizes it’s not actually Achilles. The more critical factor in turning the tide of battle a bit is as much the arrival of Achilles’ men as Achilles’ suit of armor. When Hector rallies some of his own Trojan troops and ends up killing Patroclus (with more than a little help from Apollo, not to mention another Trojan who spears Patroclus before Hector finishes him), he’s well aware of whom he has killed.

The story of Troy regarding this incident is different in important respects. Patroclus doesn’t ask Achilles’ permission to don the armor – he takes it on the sly, so Achilles has no idea that Patroclus has gone to battle, wearing his own armor no less. The appearance of “Achilles” on the battlefield has its intended effect, and no one else is in on the deception. When Hector kills Patroclus (this time without any god’s help), he thinks he has killed Achilles (a fact that Achilles later taunts him about), until the helmet is removed. For Achilles, the shock of Patroclus’ death is heightened, as he didn’t even know Patroclus was in the battle.

On this incident, I find myself far preferring the version of the story told in Troy. The intervention of Apollo to wallop Patroclus in the head in The Iliad hardly seems fitting, and I find Hector’s fate more poignant if he thinks he’s already defeated Achilles in battle before finding out that he’s not even come close to fighting someone of Achilles’ skill in battle. I wondered at the time, though, and still wonder now, whether my preference stems from a modern mindset, or whether, in fact the makers of Troy have one-upped Homer in telling a better story on this point.

Art as a Reflection of its Society

In a number of ways both Troy and The Iliad reflect the societies in which they were produced. Here, I’ll discuss two – one a way in which the two works have much in common, the other one of the main differences between the two works.

War as a way of life

As I said above, both works glorify war and violence. They don’t do this by making an argument that war is good (if they did, they could be more easily countered with opposing arguments) – they take that largely for granted, though both texts also occasionally interject awareness of the sadness and tragedy of war also. Instead, they successfully aestheticize violence and war and make of it an object of beauty.

In doing so, they reflect societies for which making war is a part of the way of life of the culture as a whole. In the case of the United States, the U.S. military has been nearly continuously involved in the application of force around the world for the past several decades, e.g. the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the first Persian Gulf War, enforcement of the no-fly zone between the two Iraq wars, Haiti, Kosovo, peace-keeping in Bosnia, Somalia, military advisors and trainers in Colombia and other spots associated with the “War on Drugs,” Panama, cruise missile strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan after the Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombings, etc. Note that the motivations and details of these different missions vary considerably, and also that I’m not making an argument that lumps them all together as good or bad. Rather, I’m simply stating a fact – that the U.S. military has been nearly continuously engaged for decades, albeit at different levels of intensity, and that making war is a regular part of a way of life for the culture as a whole.

A key difference between the United States today and Ancient Greece is that in the U.S. today, the military and war are quite distant from the lived day to day experience of many, if not most, Americans. I live and work in a region of the country, the Southeast, which is the source of a high proportion of military personnel. I also live and work in a community, the Pensacola area, which is dominated by the military. Most businesses in town offer discounts for active duty military personnel; people routinely give thanks and prayer for members of the armed services, especially those actively engaged in combat; I routinely have active duty and military reserve personnel enrolled in my classes. I also realize that this is not typical of most places in the U.S. For many middle-class Americans, the military, military personnel, and war seem like very distant phenomena, while at the same time war is encountered very regularly in its aestheticized form in movies, television, and to a large extent mainstream news.

The Gods

The largest difference between Troy and The Iliad has to do with the role of the gods. In The Iliad, the gods are omnipresent – barely a page goes by (except in sections cataloguing the men present in battle, how many ships and men they brought, their genealogies, etc.) without the gods intervening in some way. In Troy, the gods exist, but they aren’t directly involved in the story. The only one we see is Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a minor goddess, and she interacts by giving him advice – that is, she acts as his mother and not as a goddess. This reflects a basic difference in the cultures. Contemporary American society is not so secular as some (especially religious fundamentalists) think, but it is one profoundly affected by the humanism of the Enlightenment. Which is to say, most Americans don’t expect God to directly intervene in mundane affairs and they find the actions of people more interesting and compelling than the interventions of Greek gods.

Many of the parts of The Iliad I find most unsatisfying involve such interventions, and here my dissatisfaction is very much a result of the ways in which my thinking and preferences reflect modern culture. I’m dissatisfied with the role of Apollo in Patroclus’ death and the role of Athena in Hector’s death – I find the versions of the narrative in Troy more compelling. More importantly, two incidents, which open and close The Iliad, demonstrate key differences in Ancient Greek and modern American worldviews.

At the opening of The Iliad, Achilles isn’t just bitter at Agamemnon. He doesn’t just go to sulk in his tent. He also beseeches his mother to beseech Zeus to turn the tide (at least for a while) of battle against the Greeks. Much of the misfortune of the Greeks through much of the narrative is partly the result of Achilles’ request against his own side. The main closing event of The Iliad is Priam’s visit to Achilles’ tent to recover his son Hector’s body, which Achilles had been abusing for many days. Many of the gods had favored Achilles but had since been angered by his treatment of Hector’s body. Achilles’ mother has warned him to allow Priam to take the body or incur the wrath of the gods. When Priam visits, Achilles is genuinely moved by him, but it’s also clear (through the explicit statements of Achilles) that the only reason Achilles gives up the body is because of the threat of the gods’ wrath.

Troy plays these incidents quite differently. Achilles is angry at Agamemnon, but doesn’t try to bring down intervention of the gods against his own side. Priam visits Achilles, genuinely touches him, and convinces him to give up the body of Hector out of respect and pity for Priam.

I don’t think I’m alone in finding Troy’s versions of these two key events more compelling, even finding The Iliad’s versions a bit strange. In the case of Patroclus’ death, Troy might even simply tell a better story, but in these two instances, the sense of satisfaction or strangeness is shaped by the social context which the work also reflects.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Purposes of Art

A post by Morrigan on the group blog Anthropology Net has an interesting recent post on the purpose of art in cross-cultural and anthropological perspective, “‘300’ and the Purpose of Art” (the post addresses in part the movie “300” and the issue of contemporary mainstream movies as “art” or “entertainment.”) ( I’d like to call attention to one passage from the blog post which I partly agree with and partly take issue with:

“The notion that "art" exists for "aesthetic" reasons came into existence during the European enlightment, and the notion that "art" exists to challenge the status quo is part of the 19th century European Romantic movement. Prior to that, European art was understood to have an archival and educational purpose. Biblical stories and the lives of the saints were communicated to a mostly illiterate population through sculpture and stained glass, and the historic deeds and images of the nobility were recorded in painting.”

Certainly much European art had an archival and educational purpose before the Enlightenment, though much also continued to do so during the Enlightenment and later. Biblical stories, lives of the Saints, and the Stations of the Cross are still communicated through sculpture and stained glass everywhere in the Christian World, albeit generally to a more literature population. And in the U.S., we have paintings of Washington crossing the Delaware, Longfellow’s poetic account of Paul Revere’s Ride, and the multitude of monuments to important persons and deeds in almost every community around the country.

The idea that art exists primarily for aesthetic reasons dates not just to the Enlightenment, I think, but at least back to the Renaissance. Michelangelo might have produced most of his work for the Church, but works like David are designed to be objects of contemplation on their own terms. Still, the idea that art exists primarily for aesthetic reasons is probably a recent western tradition. Certainly the idea the art should exist for art’s sake alone is a very recent idea, Post-Enlightenment even. Likewise the notion that art exists to challenge or be transgressive is also recent. (At the same time, I’d emphasize the potential for art to be transgressive or challenging has been present in a variety of settings, including pre-19th century Western contexts. I don’t know that I’d call Donatello’s David subversive or transgressive, but it’s certainly provocative in the context of comparison with Michelangelo’s [and it’s hard for me to imagine many people, in the Renaissance or now, not thinking about Michelangelo’s sculpture when viewing Donatello’s], raising questions about the nature of masculinity and heroism, etc.)

I would argue that art can have multiple purposes, including the production of beauty or other aesthetic ideals, intellectual stimulation, maintenance of cultural tradition as ritual object, entertainment, etc., and this is true across historical and cultural contexts. Not every work shares all these purposes, some are engaged in multiple functions simultaneously, and some functions may be more or less emphasized in a particular context than others.

If something is different about recent Western art (and more and more, art in all other parts of the world influenced by it) it is the greater emphasis on art as aesthetic object (though I’d also say there are longstanding similar traditions in other world areas, e.g. Japan and China, and other times, e.g. Ancient Greece).

At the same time, aesthetic considerations have been part of the functioning of art in every historical and cultural context.

It’s not completely clear what ritual or other social purposes the cave paintings at Chauvet or Lascaux might have served, but there is manifested in the qualities of the paintings themselves evidence of an aesthetic concern on the part of the original painters, whatever else they might have been also doing. While much art of the ancient Mediterranean served ritual or political functions, much sculpture also was attempting to present aesthetic ideals – and certainly Plato thought of art largely in aesthetic terms (and to some extent in revolutionary terms – in The Republic, music and other art are largely judged not for their culturally conservative effects but for their potential for transforming and bringing about an ideal republic). Much contemporary art is concerned with presenting identity, a sort of secular version of what Morrigan’s blog post talks about as the conservative function of much art - though I think of it more as the continued production of culture. Among other things, contemporary Haitian artist Tiga is concerned to produce art that embodies a Haitian identity, drawing on the western traditions that are one integral part of Haitian culture, but also the ritual imagery of Haitian voodoo and Taino symbolism, but in the process producing an art which is both clearly an expression of Haitian identity and an aesthetic object. (The following links to a tribute to Tiga, who recently passed away: The following provides an overview sketch of Tiga and a link to a documentary about the artist:

I take Morrigan’s main point to be that the overwhelming emphasis on art objects as solely aesthetic objects is a recent Western phenomenon. The blog entry doesn’t – quite – say that an aesthetic concern at all is a quality of recent Western art while non-western and earlier western art is mainly concerned with cultural maintenance and conservation, but it does come close to saying that. Such a view would be dangerous, I think, another way of locking Non-Western culture in a prison house of tradition while reinforcing the sense of Western culture as the culture of innovation.

Monday, May 28, 2007

For The Union Dead

Today is Memorial Day in the United States. The Holiday was originally an annual event to commemorate soldiers who died during the American Civil War, before being expanded in the early 20th Century to an event memorializing service members killed during all American wars.

I find it relevant to read and contemplate Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead” on this day, given both the original context of the Holiday, and the power of the poem. In terms of content, it’s a complex poem that among others things deals with memory in modern society and pays tribute to the Union dead of the Civil War, in particular Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first black military unit to fight for the U.S. military.

This is a link to Lowell’s poem:

Reginald Shepherd’s Blog has an insightful discussion of Lowell’s poem:

The following link connects to a recording of Lowell reading “For the Union Dead,” the poem, and a short essay on Lowell:

The following is a short history of Memorial Day:

This page is a short biography of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw:

This link contains a short history of the Massachusetts 54th:

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Value of Basic Rearch

There's an interesting article posted on Medical News Today, "Is Basic Research Really Worth It?" (

I see the expansion of knowledge and understanding for its own sake as a worthy goal needing no justification, but this article makes a convincing case for the worth of basic research on economic and utilitarian grounds as well.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Voice and Musical Tone

There's an intriguing report on Science Daily about a recent study finding interesting correlations between musical tone intervals and common intervals of sound frequency in language use, "Essential Tones Of Music Rooted In Human Speech."

It can be found at this link:

Friday, May 25, 2007

On Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia

I’d like to call attention to a recent book worth contemplating, Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. My own attention was drawn to the book by two well-written reviews of it, one by Tara Gallagher in The Nation (May 14, 2007, pp. 46 – 52, very positive), the other by Richard Locke in Bookforum (April / May, 2007, pp. 26 – 27, 53, decidedly mixed).

The book is largely James’ discussion of several decades of reading, with the book taking the form of a series of essays about 107 cultural figures over a span of 876 pages. Given the title, the book clearly is attempting to remedy amnesia with regard to great literary and artistic production. The book could also be taken to task for focusing almost exclusively on white, mostly European, mostly 20th century males, as Locke does to a certain extent in Bookforum. In this context, I’m mainly interested in addressing a few of James’ general arguments.

I’d first like to point out James’ interesting comments on humanism, culture, and 20th century totalitarianism, comments that both book reviewers also noted prominently. Here I quote from Gallagher’s review in The Nation, as her discussion provided a useful frame for the quotations of James:

“But James’s vision of the life of the mind only begins with the individual. His introduction explains how he used to struggle with the seeming paradox that culture doesn’t necessarily lead to humanism – witness Leni Riefenstahl or Louis-Ferdinand CĂ©line, both of whom made common cause with totalitarian regimes. Then it dawned on him: ‘Humanism wasn’t in the separate activities’ that comprise culture, ‘humanism was the connection between them,’ ‘all the aspects of life illuminating one another, in a honeycomb of understanding.’ Humanism is the embrace of human creativity in all its variety. From this principle follows a complete aesthetics, politics and sociology of humanistic endeavor, though James would reject such lifeless and systematizing terms for the philosophy he elaborates, unsystematically and in full-blooded contact with the particulars of dozens of actual lives, across the length of the book.”

He rejects totalizing ideologies as premature synthesizing (a point emphasized by Locke’s review). Insofar as totalizing theory and totalitarianism take a basic idea or principle and use it to explain everything, any synthesis they embody is premature, but I’d even question whether this is synthesis. (As I discussed in my earlier post, “Synthesis and Eclecticism in Theory,” there is good reason to be wary of grand theorizing which claims to have the key to explaining everything.)

James seems in practice to reject synthesis altogether. Despite his key and interesting argument that humanism lies in the connection between all aspects of human life and creativity, in the bulk of the book discussing his readings of particular figures, there’s little of this, at least from one to another. There’s also no clear reason for the selection of the particular 107 individuals to be discussed, except that he gleaned something insightful from having read them. That’s actually not a bad selection criterion, and there’s something highly laudable in any sort of criticism (whether of literature, visual art, theater, or even culture in the anthropological sense) that emphasizes the qualities and features observable in the phenomenon and that attempts to contemplate and explore it on its own terms rather than through an imposed explanatory framework. (I have in mind there the usual suspects – psychoanalysis, Marxism, structuralism and post-structuralism, etc. I actually have no problem with the critical and flexible use of such theoretical frameworks when the phenomenon being discussed is amenable to such theorizing on its own terms. I’m highly suspicious, though, of attempts to use such theories as skeleton keys to explain everything, e.g. explaining all or most literature as symptoms of psychoanalytic functions, explaining everything about human society in terms of class struggle, etc.) My main caveat about James’ book, then, is not his skepticism of theory, much less of totalization, but that in making scant few connections at all, he falls short of his own humanism. (But anyone should feel happy to fall short on such a grand scale as James does here.)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Energy, Development, and Independence

Energy has been an important topic of anthropological discussion and debate at least since the publication of Leslie White’s The Science of Culture (1949). I don’t want (at least in this specific context) to re-open old debates about teleology, cultural evolution, or White’s pseudo-algebraic formulation of the relationship between cultural development, energy and technology (C = E x T).

I do think, though, that White pointed out something essential about energy and culture. Obviously the meeting of basic needs is directly related to harnessing energy. Eating is the most fundamental way in which we harness energy that can then be used for other purposes. Individuals and societies that can’t harness the energy they need to provision all their essential needs must perish. What White was pointing out was that economic and other cultural development (that is, beyond provisioning basic needs) is an outcome of successfully harnessing larger amounts of energy. The more energy you can harness, the higher the level of technological and economic development possible, and the greater the range of possible action available to you. That is, sustained economic development, development of other areas of culture, and greater individual and collective free action are mutually related and dependent on harnessing larger amounts of energy.

The converse of this is that threats or barriers to the collection of energy resources are also direct threats to livelihood, development, and/or freedom of action. For many poor families in much of the developing world, a key energy resource is firewood, and lack of access to it for any number of reasons can be a distinct threat to the economic viability of a household. Within the current global economy, there is much concern over “energy independence.” This is especially the case in the U.S., with energy independence looking to be a major campaign issue for the 2008 presidential election.

Doug Wilson has written an interesting column on the issue recently in The Wall Street Journal, one of the few times, in my opinion, that something insightful and reasonable has appeared in the opinion section of that newspaper. (The column can be found at this link:
Unfortunately, the full text is only available to subscribers to WSJ. A hard copy summary of the column can be found in the May 11, 2007 issue of The Week [p. 42]. Wilson also addresses the issue briefly in his account of his recent meeting with Rudy Guiliani at

Wilson writes that while energy independence might sound good, it is an illusion. In a context of global economic interdependency, no one and no nation-state can be energy independent. He argues that instead, we should focus on energy diversity. Greater diversity of energy resources and supply would enhance energy security, minimizing the risk of economic crisis as the result of a serious threat to oil (and with the current situations in Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Nigeria, even Venezuela, oil as an energy resource is threatened – reflected in the high price for gasoline paid by consumers in the U.S. and most other countries of the world).

I agree with Wilson that a focus on energy diversity makes more sense as a primary goal than a focus on energy independence. At the same time, I think he has a too absolutist notion of “independence.” If by “independence” or “freedom” is meant total freedom of action, then energy independence is not possible. Independence and freedom are always relative – all of us have some ability to shape and determine our own actions, but always within limits (See my earlier posts Freedom and Restraint, Parts I, II, and III). Wilson’s right, though, that a focus on energy independence is distracting. I’d add that energy diversity would bring about relative energy independence.

The language of “Energy Diversity” also has the advantage of creating an expectation of many sources of energy, some of which are environmentally destructive (alternative sources of oil, coal, maize-based ethanol), and some of which are environmentally friendly or at least less destructive (efforts to increase fuel economy of vehicles, sugar-based ethanol if it were allowed to compete head to head with the maize-based stuff, solar and wind power, hydro-power [with fish gates], nuclear, tidal, and geothermal power). Of course, environmentalists and others have been fighting this battle for over thirty years (originally over pollution concerns, now more and more over global warming concerns), but it’s encouraging that even opinion columns in The Wall Street Journal and Republican presidential candidates are showing interest in the issue. Their concern may be mainly about energy as a political and economic security issue (which is not inaccurate so much as it is limited), but so be it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Maps as Political Representations

Nicolette Bethel's Blog has a fascinating entry about maps as political representations of reality:

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Mary Douglas, 1921 - 2007

Mary Douglas has passed away. She was tremendously influential to many anthropologists and other scholars, including myself, through books like Purity and Danger and Natural Symbols.

The following link is to an obituary in the New York Times:

Global Trade and Free Action

In an earlier post, “Maintaining and Enhancing Free Action,” I argued that increasing individual freedom in general in any significant way required production of greater wealth. I further argued that this was a necessary but not sufficient condition for enhanced quality of life and real freedom for any significant number of people in global terms.

Much of Sub-Saharan Africa provides a case in point. Most of the African continent has been quite marginal to global trade, and its population, cut off from trade and much economic development, has suffered for it. (I’d argue that most of Africa has been thoroughly enough incorporated into global trade to be dependent on it, while simultaneously not integrated enough or in a way to benefit much from it.) One of the lead articles in the April 28 issue of The Economist, “Will Africa ever get it right?” (pp. 14 – 15), puts it bluntly:

“The post-colonial continent has hitherto been a colossal flop. The killer comparison is with Asia, where many countries suffered from the same colonial humiliations and rapacity that independent Africa customarily blamed for its early failings. According to the World Bank, real income per head in the 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa between 1960 and 2005 rose on average by 25%, while it leapt 34 times faster in East Asia; countries like South Korea and Malaysia were once as poor as Ghana and Kenya.”

I’d question whether many places in Asia suffered the same degree of “colonial humiliations and rapacity” as much of Sub-Saharan Africa, and I’d point out that trade and production of wealth in Africa was seriously set back by the continent’s role as major site for numerous Cold War proxy wars. (Parts of Asia experienced that, too, most obviously Korea and Vietnam – though in both of those cases, armed struggle ended long ago, whereas much of Africa has been beset by lingering, continuous, low-intensity armed conflict.) Still, this is to debate the cause of Africa’s economic marginality, and not its effect, which is clear: endemic grinding poverty.

Still, recently things are looking up for much of the continent. The same Economist article points out that the economies of many Sub-Saharan nations (and not just oil-exporting nations) are growing at annual rates of 6 – 7 % for the past several years. This has been accomplished via changes that have been conducive to trade and investment, such as more openness to private enterprise, moves toward democratization, freer markets, etc. There are many obstacles in the way of sustained development (continued political tension and violence in some countries, the recent election scandal in Nigeria, malaria and AIDS, recent indications that Global Warming may affect Africa especially severely, etc.), and I’m under no illusion that the wealth produced through increased trade will be distributed in equitable ways, but even small increases in the wealth of average persons could significantly alleviate the worst miseries of poverty in the continent.

In a recent article in The Washington Post, “Free Trade’s Great, But Offshoring Rattles Me,” economist Alan S. Blinder makes the case for how globalization, free trade, et al., will improve conditions for people around the world, but with the big caveat that it will not make things better for everyone. Blinder argues that two things are driving globalization, and associated phenomena such as offshoring or outsourcing. The first is technological innovation, especially in information and communication technology, the second being the more systematic entry of huge numbers of workers into the world economy in countries such as China, India, and Eastern Europe, workers willing and able to perform information based or manufacturing jobs more cheaply that workers in more developed nations.

Blinder writes:

“Looking at these two historic forces from the perspective of the world as a whole, one can only get a warm feeling. Improvements in technology will raise living standards, just as they have since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. And the availability of millions of new electronically deliverable service jobs in, say, India and China will help alleviate poverty on a mass scale. Offshoring will also reduce costs and boost productivity in the United States. So repeat after me: Globalization is good for the world. Which is where economists usually stop.”

Blinder doesn’t stop there. He also points out that globalization will have ill effects on some. Globalization and freer trade may be related to greater total production of wealth, but it also changes the distribution of wealth. In some ways this is good, as with the degree of poverty alleviation that increased numbers of jobs brings to places like India or China. For workers in the U.S. or Western Europe whose jobs are offshored, their share of wealth clearly drops, and as Blinder writes, this will potentially affect large numbers of people. “In some recent research, I estimated that 30 million to 40 million U.S. jobs are potentially offshorable. These include scientists, mathematicians, and editors on the high end and telephone operators, clerks and typists on the low end.”

Blinder argues that some reforms could be implemented to ease the transition, such as better economic safety nets for displaced workers, and changes to education to emphasize training for flexibility and for the sorts of jobs least likely to be offshored, but he is ultimately gloomy about the prospects of such reforms being implemented and warns of a rough transition for many Americans.

Globalization is not a panacea for people in China or India or Sub-Saharan Africa either. The jobs being offshored to such countries are generally low-wage (or else they wouldn’t be offshored there), and sometimes associated with dangerous working conditions. In an earlier post, “A Different Globalization for Labor,” I wrote:

“Another common assumption is that such globalization processes are also bad for labor in the developing nation contexts that manufacturing and service jobs are being outsourced to, e.g. promoting sweat shop labor conditions. Robert J. Flanagan has recently published an important book on this topic, Globalization and Labor Conditions (Oxford University Press, 2006). Flanagan closely examines the available data on labor conditions around the world. He is clearly sympathetic to critiques of globalization, but comes to the conclusion that overall, globalization has led to improved conditions for labor in much of the world. He in no way implies that globalization processes make things wonderful for workers in developing countries. As he documents, there are things like sweatshop labor associated with globalization, but there are more overall jobs and fewer jobs with the worst labor conditions in more open developing economies – hardly what I’d consider a ringing endorsement, but still having more crappy jobs available might be better than having fewer or no crappy jobs available, even while still not good.”

What do I conclude from all this? Globalization and more trade (and the greater production of wealth associated with it) has its problems – and major problems at that for workers in all countries. At the same time, globalization is here to stay, and to the extent that production of greater wealth is a precondition for increasing individual human freedom in general, there are positive developments associated with globalization as well. As Blinder points out, economists and other free trade apostles often emphasize what is positive or what they see as positive about globalization and ignore the rest. Leftists of a variety of stripes just as often emphasize what is negative or what they see as negative and ignore the rest. The goal, as I see it, should be an emphasis on more equitable distribution of wealth (which would entail things like better social safety networks, better job training and re-training programs, better regulation of work conditions globally, emphasis on freedom of speech and assembly so that workers could better organize and act collectively, emphasis on often neglected aspects of “free” trade – freer movement of labor and reduced agricultural subsidization in rich countries, etc.) within a system of global trade and development which is sustainable (which would require positive work on global warming and major diseases, such as malaria and AIDS).

Monday, May 21, 2007

An Evolutionary Argument for Barbecue

In my post, “Technology and Freedom,” while discussing the relationship between technology and environment in shaping human action, I wrote:

“Human and hominid relations to the environment have always been mediated by technology, i.e. we use tools to provide for our basic needs from the physical environment, whether in the form of using a digging stick to uproot a wild tuber or plowing fields with massive tractors. Innovations in technology have also always had a transformative effect on what it is possible to do within a particular environment. The use of fire by Homo erectus was one of several technologies allowing that hominid species to expand into cooler areas previously unoccupied by hominids. Presuming Homo erectus groups used fire to cook plant and animal foods, this same technology would have made for a safer food supply (especially for groups that might have subsisted partly by scavenging carcasses) and enabled their bodies to extract more nutritional value from some plant foods.”

This was meant simply as an example of how technology can shape the range of possible uses of an environment, and hence the range of possible action within it for humans, or in this case hominids. After writing that paragraph, I began thinking more about the use of fire for cooking, and in particular about barbecue (the fact that it was approaching lunch time as I wrote that passage probably influenced my own train of thought). To my mind, there are few things more delicious than good barbecue. I don’t have in mind so much barbecue sauce, though a good sauce is nice, but well cooked smoky meat cooked over a fire with a thorough char around the edges (by charred I don’t mean burnt).

Barbecue seems to have near universal appeal. Nearly every culture I’m familiar with, whether directly or through reading ethnographies, seems to have a tradition of grilled, smoky meat, and of other grilled foods. (There are exceptions – so far as I’m aware, the Inuit don’t barbecue, probably related to simple lack of firewood – but the exceptions are few in number.) The details of grilling or barbecuing vary, of course, and there are wonderful arguments to be had about the relative merits of different styles of barbecue, but the basic appeal is there in each case.

Part of the basic appeal of barbecue is no doubt related to its simplicity – light a fire and cook meat in or over it. But beyond this I’d like to argue here that there’s good evolutionary reason to find barbecue appealing.

There are a number of basic tastes and/or food textures that have near universal appeal for humans, and probably other mammals as well, such as salty, fatty, or sweet tastes. This makes sense. Sugars and fats have high concentrations of calories. In a world of often scarce resources, natural selection would favor creatures who find these tastes appealing and even crave them. Fats are also essential to the body, as is salt, and so natural selection would again favor animals preferring these tastes. It’s only in the modern, developed world, where food is hyperabundant, that this is at all a problem for human health. For most of human history, a desire for salty, sweet, and fatty tastes would have helped drive humans to seek out sufficient quantities of these foods and to favor them whenever they were present.

What about the delectable smoky taste of good grilled meat and other food though? Depending on whether a sauce is used, and what kind, barbecue can be appealing in part because of the combination of fatty, salty, and sweet flavors involved, but there’s also a tremendous appeal to the smokiness of it, to the taste of having been cooked over fire. I argue that this appeal is also the result of natural selection. Here I’m engaging in speculation, but it’s reasoned speculation. Among the distinct advantages of using fire would have been to expand the range of foods that could be eaten and the nutritional value that could be gained from them, but also a general increase in the safety of food. Given this suite of advantages, individuals preferring the taste of fire-cooked food would have been favored by natural selection and would have left behind more of their barbecue-loving descendants.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Maintaining and Enhancing Free Action

Over the past several posts, I have been exploring the factors that shape human freedom. Of all of these, the factors that have the most important effect on human action are those that pertain to meeting basic essential needs. Without meeting basic needs, individual die, and so factors which shape or constrain the possible ways of meeting these needs are going to have tremendous influence patterning human action. For small societies (e.g. foraging bands or horticultural villages) with a direct relation to nature in providing for their basic needs, the physical qualities of their environment are going to be an important influence shaping and constraining possible strategies for living. For larger societies, where most have a more indirect relation to nature and make a living through their place in complex networks of economic exchange, the social possibilities within those economic networks will profoundly influence individuals’ range of possible free action.

For individuals living in small scale societies, being incorporated into larger societies and economies – which almost all small scale societies are – tends to entail a massive increase of social restraint on freedom, especially economic restraint (See also here my earlier post, “Freedom and Restraint: Part III”). The result is the social and economic malaise so common among Native American communities throughout the Western Hemisphere after being partially assimilated into Euro-American societies, as well as similar experiences among members of small scale societies in Eurasia, Africa, and Oceania over the past couple centuries. As these smaller societies continue to be further incorporated into the world economic system (frankly, to me that seems inevitable), a concern for these societies, but also anthropologists and any progressive thinking people is and should be to manage such transitions so that they have the least negative economic and political effect possible, the least negative effect on autonomy and freedom possible.

For the 6 billion or so people thoroughly incorporated into state structures and the global economy, greater autonomy in action can only come through greater wealth. Simply put, in the global economy as formulated, greater wealth equals greater ability to act freely. (Money, perhaps, can’t buy happiness, and greater wealth doesn’t free one completely from restraint, but it does free one from the unhappiness that derives simply from deprivation, allows one to go most anywhere one wants [including outer space nowadays if you’ve got enough], gets one a better shake before the law, buys a better education, etc.) Greater autonomy and freedom in general depends on continued expansion of economic production globally, though this is only a necessary but not sufficient condition, for it’s not just a question of per capita income or total income but the actual distribution of wealth.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Technology and Freedom

A tool is anything (external to the body) used by a human being (or other animal) as an aid in performing some task or action. Intuitively, then, technology is related to freedom as something that extends the possibilities of free action, and so it does, though not equally for all.

Technology and Biology

In “Freedom and Restraint: Part II,” I wrote of human biological constants as one constraining factor on human free action. In some ways, technology has acted to extend what it is physically possible for humans to do. This has been true throughout the course of human and hominid evolution, e.g. the advent of stone tools allowed for things liked skinning and butchering meat and an expansion of one particular food resource. More importantly, in more recent human history tools have enabled us to do things we could never perform with our bodies (e.g. lifting tremendous weight, rerouting rivers, etc.) by using tools instead to perform the tasks.

Technology has even affected our biology in some ways. Over the course of hominid evolution, there was a diminution in tooth and jaw size correlated with more extensive use of stone tools, that is, as more food processing was done outside the mouth. In the near future, biotechnology might radically reshape what it is possible to do with our bodies and the very nature of our bodies, though we are not there yet.

Technology and our relation to the Environment

Human and hominid relations to the environment have always been mediated by technology, i.e. we use tools to provide for our basic needs from the physical environment, whether in the form of using a digging stick to uproot a wild tuber or plowing fields with massive tractors. Innovations in technology have also always had a transformative effect on what it is possible to do within a particular environment. The use of fire by Homo erectus was one of several technologies allowing that hominid species to expand into cooler areas previously unoccupied by hominids. Presuming Homo erectus groups used fire to cook plant and animal foods, this same technology would have made for a safer food supply (especially for groups that might have subsisted partly by scavenging carcasses) and enabled their bodies to extract more nutritional value from some plant foods.

The physical conditions of the environment have always shaped and constrained patterns of behavior among human groups adapting to a particular context. Likewise, though, the level of technology readily available has always shaped what is possible within a given environment as well. As I wrote earlier (again in “Freedom and Restraint: Part II”), the North American Great Plains are a great place to farm – if you have steel plow technology capable of sod-busting. Native Americans were only able to farm to any extent right along the major river valleys that cut across the plains where conditions were a bit different. They didn’t have the technology that would have made farming possible out on the plains, and living in that context, they had no means for developing such technology.

Modern technologies have created a context where humans can manipulate nature to an unprecedented degree. As such, technology has greatly expanded the range of actions possible while still meeting basic essential needs. At the same time, this can create an illusion of omnipotence over nature, though recent events, e.g. Hurricane Katrina and concerns about Global Warming, have made somewhat clearer that even with current technology, there is still a relation to nature and environmental constraint on action.

Technology and Social Relations

Technology expands the possible range of actions within social contexts as well. The net result for human freedom in general is ambiguous, though, as the enhanced ability to act includes the enhanced ability to act on the actions of others. Technology heightens the importance of power relations and as often as not enhances the possibilities for some at a cost to others.

It’s probably no coincidence that the historical development of permanent social inequality was correlated not just with the development of craft or job specialization but with armed military specialists, using military technologies to reinforce social power. Widely distributed contemporary media technologies do offer greater ability (unprecedented ability even) for individuals to spread ideas, communicate, and influence others. (Such democratizing effect is not always good [I’d argue that democratization is good, the effects of it not always straightforwardly good] – think for example of webcasts of beheadings by Al Qaedi in Iraq, the inspiration this has apparently given to terrorist cells in other parts of North Africa and the Middle East, even the inspiration this may have given to drug gangs in Mexico and El Salvador, with a recent spate of beheadings in those places as a new form of gang execution and terror message.) At the same time, the same and similar technologies give states new power to survey and control populations, with the potential result of greater restriction on human free action in aggregate.

Especially with regard to social relations, the relationship between technology and freedom is ambiguous. Technology itself, though, is neutral. In itself it is not good or bad. Whether technology enhances or diminishes human freedom depends on who uses it and how.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Freedom and Restraint: Part III

Social Restraints

One of the key restraints on totally free action in any human society is that which derives from social relationships, with a number of types of restraint being important, including the restraining influence of direct face to face interaction; economic restraint; and cultural custom and law.

Foucault’s conceptualization of power is important here. (The clearest statement of Foucault’s view of power, to my mind, is “The Subject and Power,” published as an afterward to Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics by Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow.) For Foucault, power is not an entity that some have and others do not but is rather a quality of all social relationships. Power is action and influence on the actions of others. Everyone has some degree of freedom to act, including to act to influence the actions of others, and at the same time, everyone’s actions are acted upon and influenced by those they are in interaction with. Everyone has some freedom (what differs is the degree); no one has complete freedom (and likewise no one is completely dominant or subordinate).

Power and Restraint in Interpersonal Relationships

In face to face interactions, Foucault’s notion of power applies straightforwardly (it applies in the other types of restraints I’ll discuss, too, just not so straightforwardly). In direct face to face interaction our actions have an influence on the actions of others present, and vice versa.

There may be formal restraint involved, such as with overt coercion, threats or acts of violence, but these are not typical. More typically, the ongoing sequence of actions shapes the degrees of freedom for any remotely normal subsequent action. If in a conversation, I ask, “What would you like to have for dinner?,” you could reply, “Screwdrivers.” There’s no formal restraint keeping you from doing so, but unless you’re a serious nutcase or a serious alcoholic, you wouldn’t response so. There’s a wide range of possible replies, but a wider range of impossible replies – if you care at all about seeming sane and reasonable (which some might not – and their actions are perhaps freer than the rest of us in many situations).

Bambi Schieffelin’s ethnography The Give and Take of Everyday Life beautifully describes the Kaluli society of the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. It’s a small culture that gets by through gardening and hunting and gathering in the surrounding tropical forest. One of the interesting facets of Kaluli culture is the near absence of formal restraint on actions. There are occasional incidents of violence in the community (and Edward Schieffelin’s also beautiful and quite different ethnography of the same culture, The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers, makes clear that there are more regular instances of violence targeting members of other communities), but the general Kaluli view is that no one has the legitimate right to coerce or force anyone to do anything. This includes the parent – child relationship. (Most people in western culture or most other cultures take for granted that it’s perfectly natural for parents to command the actions of their children, but really why should we take that for granted?) But this isn’t to say that there aren’t power relations at play in Kaluli society. People shape and influence one another’s actions constantly, through attempts at persuasion, through cajoling, through shaming and ostracization. In a small society with a high degree of mutual economic dependency, cajoling, shaming, and ostracizing are in fact highly effective tools to shape and restrain the actions of others.

Knowledge and memory of typical patterns of behavior or of a specific history of interactions with an individual are important in shaping individual free action as well, via anticipation of others’ actions. Foucault’s notion of power applies straightforwardly to direct face to face interactions, but because of the role of knowledge, memory, and anticipation, actions in one context can have a carry-over effect on the actions of others in further instances over time.

Economic Restraint

This discussion of economic restraint is related to my discussion of environmental restraint, the need to meet basic needs, and Julian Steward’s “culture core” concept in my previous blog post, “Freedom and Restraint: Part II.”

Meeting basic needs is done in relationship to nature. This might be highly direct, as with Kaluli hunting and gathering activities, or even their gardening practices. Or it might be highly indirect, such as in the modern world system, where we routinely buy packaged food products which have dozens of ingredients, all produced in different places, utilizing tools and resources produced or gleaned somewhere else, but which still have, however distant, a relationship to nature. But meeting basic needs is also done in relationship to economic exchange with others.

One’s place within a web of economic exchanges (which might take the form of direct face to face reciprocity or highly complex market systems) shapes one’s possible actions. This is true for the Kaluli, but it really has minimal effect on individual free action. In larger complex societies, this is a crucial consideration. One’s place within the overall political economy profoundly shapes one’s possibilities for action. Money is a sign of this place and shapes interactions. To a significant extent, money as a sign of accrued wealth is also a sign of one’s degree of freedom in action. More wealth equals more freedom. One consequence of this is that any significant increase in individual freedoms within the modern world system is dependent on corresponding significant increases in overall wealth, though the distribution of wealth is another critical consideration, i.e. expansion of wealth is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for any significant expansion of freedom in the modern world system.

Consideration of economic restraints also brings to mind ways in which different sorts of restraints might butt up against one another. In “Freedom and Restraint: Part I,” I discussed different concepts of freedom. With the classical conception of freedom as the lack of formal restraint, wage laborers are free in the sense that they’re not obligated to work or to take a specific job. As Marx made clear, though, if freedom is thought of as the positive capacity to largely shape one’s own actions and destiny, wage laborers are hardly free to not work – they must work unless they’re independently wealthy. Most wage laborers have quite constrained possibilities for shaping their actions and lives – they’re hardly free at all in any realistic sense.

Many states in the United States have “right to work” laws, which prohibit closed union shops. Closed union shops do in fact represent a formal restraint on workers. They prevent workers from laboring there without joining the union. “Right to Work” laws prohibit this sort of formal restraint, and thus add to the freedom of workers in one way (mainly in a way that corresponds to classical notions of freedom and which not coincidently strengthens the bargaining position of capital). At the same time, closed union shops strengthen the position of unions’ collective bargaining activities, which can enhance workers’ economic position and thus, reduce economic restraints, thus increasing their freedom in another sense, i.e. increasing their ability to shape their own actions in general.

Custom and Law

Custom and law are not the same things, but they work similarly in providing explicit expectations for behavior, either through proscription or prescription. No one always meets the expectations of custom or law in all of their behavior, but most everyone is strongly influenced by them, either through proscriptive inhibition or the production of patterns of behavior under the influence of prescriptive law or custom. Further, their presence can serve to legitimate others’ actions constraining the actions of an individual.

Custom and law are not directly social relationships, and so act differently than other social restrictions and influences on action. However, they are the direct products of social relationships, i.e. produced by individuals in interaction. Further, they comprise a sort of abstract entity which acts as a crystallization of power relations. They constitute indirect social relations over time, as they are in effect one set of persons’ actions having continuous effect on others’ actions into the future.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Freedom and Restraint: Part II

I have written before about the importance of individual autonomy and the priority I place on it for ethical decision making. (See the post, "Tradition and Individual Autonomy.") In a post from a few days ago, “A Different Globalization for Labor,” I discussed Robert J. Flanagan’s book Globalization and Labor Conditions. In that post, I quoted and agreed with his argument that good policy decisions are those that enhance the opportunities of target populations. Likewise, in another post, “Are Some Cultures Better Than Others?,” I argued that any culture could be improved, by changes that enhance individuals’ autonomy and freedom. I very much agree with the words of the recently departed Mstislav Rostropovich (whose words I am quoting from a quotation in an editorial in the newsmagazine The Week from May 11, 2007), “Every man must have the right fearlessly to think independently and not merely to express with slightly different variation the opinions which have been inculcated in him.”

There are a number of restraints on freedom of individual human action, and that is the main topic of this post. In general, restraints on individual human autonomy can be divided into two types: natural restraints and social restraints, with social restraints to be discussed in my next blog entry. (I don’t mean to imply that these are clearly and absolutely distinct categories. Given the nature of human culture, various natural restraints are themselves shaped in part by human cultural practices, and social restraints are themselves shaped in part by environmental conditions and human biology. Still, the distinction is a useful one in making matters conceptually manageable.) Both natural and social restraints on freedom are present in all cultural contexts, but in very general terms, as social scale increases, natural restraints proportionally decrease in significance and social restraint generally increases in significance, though beginning in the modern era, various technologies became widely distributed with the effect of the possibility (but no guarantee) of increasing social scale and productivity alongside greater individual autonomy.

Natural Restraints

By natural restraints, I mean factors shaping and constraining free action that are not themselves social relations involving in some way the individuals whose autonomous action is being restrained. I have in mind here two sorts of restraints: human biological constants, and conditions of the physical environment which shape human action.

Human Biological Constants

Simply put, our biological composition and bodies shape the range of possibilities for human action. Biology in no way determines human action. Nor does it alone even determine the range of what is physically possible, for available technology shapes that as well, but the nature of our bodies clearly plays an important role in influencing what is possible (and what is not).

Most of what we do and experience is overwhelmingly shaped (alongside the variety of other factors I’ll address) by how our minds work, the nature of our sensory apparatus, the capabilities and limitations of physical ability, our libido and emotions (not biologically determined to be sure, but having biological components).

At the same time, once acknowledged, I’m less concerned here with such biological constants. While the role of biological constants cannot be ignored, as constants such factors are not instrumental in shaping any understanding of degrees of individual autonomy or differences in degrees of freedom across multiple contexts.

To refer to biological “constants” is not to imply that all humans are biologically identical. That would just be silly. Nor do I mean to imply that human biology is not shaped by a variety of other factors. It is, for example by long-term environmental conditions to which human populations biologically adapt (yielding patterns such as those described by Allen’s Rule, Bergmann’s Rule, or Thomsen’s Nose Rule), or by patterns of social behavior (e.g. the physical effects of exercise or different work patterns).

To speak of biological constants is intended instead to indicate that humans are relatively constant biologically, the physical variation existing within a narrow range for most traits. More importantly here, when it comes to human biology acting as a constraint on human free action, the effect is relatively constant. Arnold Swarzenneger can lift heavier objects than I can, and I can probably comfortably drive a smaller car than he, but while the details of our possible physical actions vary, there’s nothing about the types of activities either of us can engage in that’s different in any significant way. There are types of activities he can engage in that I can’t (because of the fact that he’s wealthy, a movie star, or the governor of California), but not on the basis of biological difference. There are biological differences that are significant for specific purposes (e.g. skin color in relation to a society’s long term history of exposure to ultraviolet radiation), but not generally for purposes of considering human autonomy (e.g. to the extent that skin color might be related to restraint on free action, it is for distinctly non-biological reasons).

Finally, technology might change all of this. Already, biotechnology has in some ways extended normal bodily capacity beyond what would have been the case before (e.g. the role of pacemakers in counteracting heart murmurs so that the heart functions normally). There’s no theoretical reason why biotechnology couldn’t more and more extend what is normal, and if we do enter into a thorough-going cyborg future, the idea of biological constants constraining possible action might be what seems fanciful, but we’re not there yet.

Environmental Conditions and Julian Steward’s Culture Core Argument

Environmental conditions do not determine human action in any culture, but they shape, influence, and restrain human action in all cultures.

When examining ways in which physical conditions of the environment shape and constrain human action, I find it useful to revisit Julian Steward’s “culture core” idea. It’s now an “old” idea (first fully laid out in his Theory of Culture Change from 1955), but hardly “out of date.” It has the advantage of being elegant and straightforward. It’s compatible with (in fact was a starting point for) cultural ecological and cultural materialist perspectives on relations between human practice and culture and the environment, but doesn’t require hardcore commitment to such perspectives in order to see its basic merits.

Steward’s reasoning starts with the straightforward fact that human beings have to meet certain basic needs in order to simply continue to exist, such as the need for adequate food, in some contexts the need for adequate shelter and clothing, etc. How humans go about meeting these needs is not straightforward at all, but that they must meet them - or die - is. Steward further argues that there is always a “culture core” that must maintain a certain degree of functionality. The culture core consists of those elements of culture directly related to meeting basic human needs.

The culture core is where the physical environment influences and possibly constrains cultural patterns most strongly. The culture core consists of patterns of behavior that must be performed using available resources. The nature and distribution of available resources shapes the possibilities for how people can go about making a living. In areas where resources are both plentiful and widely and evenly distributed, there may be many ways to go about meeting basic needs, and so the environment has a lesser constraining influence. In places where resources are scarce and widely scattered in distribution, there may be a much tighter range of possible ways to meet basic needs, and human action is more constrained as a result.

Technology plays a crucial role here. As societies develop technology that enable them to manipulate the physical environment to a greater degree, the environment is less of a constraining influence, or it at least constrains to a lesser degree, and the range of resources that can be utilized and the extent to which land itself might be used as a resource expands. The North American Great Plains are a great place to farm – if you have domesticated animals and steel plows (or tractors) that you’ve developed somewhere else.

In general then, environmental restraints are proportionally more important for smaller societies with lower levels of technology (though the exact nature and distribution of resources and the exact level of available technology shapes the specific degree and type of restraint that the environment plays), while larger societies are less constrained by the environment.

Even for the contemporary world with its global economy, though, the culture core concept and environmental constraint still apply. Basic needs still have to be met. There’s a quite large, but finite, range of ways in which that can currently be done, and crucially it’s not at all clear that current methods of producing basic needs are sustainable at the global level, which is a good reason for anthropologists and others who think mainly about human social relations to be cognizant of issues such as global warming, as well as human-environmental relations in general.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Freedom and Restraint: Part I

What does it mean to have freedom and autonomy?

Classical economic and political definitions of freedom (and neoliberal definitions as well) tend to work negatively, defining freedom as absence of formal restraint. Formal restraint would consist of deliberate actions intended to constrain the actions of others. Such freedom from formal restraint is important, e.g. freedom from restriction of speech or assembly.

As Peter Singer argues in Marx: A Very Short Introduction, one of Karl Marx’s most important contributions to thought was a new way of thinking about freedom, with freedom defined in positive terms. Marx recognized that the liberal conception of freedom as the absence of formal restraint was insufficient. Free wage labor means the laborer is freed from a formal obligation to work or to work a specific job. That’s not insignificant – it beats the alternatives of serfdom, slavery, debt peonage, or being sent to the labor house as a vagabond, but in no realistic sense does a worker have freedom to not work.

My conception of freedom and individual autonomy would similarly be framed positively as the ability to determine one’s own actions and personal destiny. I’m reminded of a statement by Peter Fonda’s character, leader of a motorcycle gang in the movie Wild Angels. The motorcycle gang have just ridden their bikes through a rural church and are generally tearing the place up when the preacher asks the Peter Fonda character what it is that they want. He responds, “We want to be free!” To which the preacher asks, “But what is it that you want to be free to do?” (A reasonable enough question.) “We want to be free to do what it is that we want to do.” There’s something absurd about the scene, especially with the over the top delivery of the lines, but completely free action and individual autonomy would entail being free to do what one wants to do, including being free to not know what one wants to do. The scene also indicates, what with the freedom-loving motorcycle riders ripping apart the church for no apparent reason, that there may be desirable limits to individual free action as well.

As I’ve argued elsewhere (see my earlier posts “Tradition and Individual Autonomy,” and “Are Some Cultures Better Than Others?”), I place tremendous importance on freedom and autonomy, though within the limits of one’s actions not seriously threatening or constraining those of others.

Also, in practice, though I prefer not to define freedom in the negative terms of restraint on action (those would be inhibitions to freedom, but not freedom – and the lack of such inhibitions is simply the lack of such inhibitions, rather than freedom itself, which again, I would conceptualize in the positive terms of ability to determine one’s own actions and personal destiny), all of us have our actions shaped and restrained by a variety of factors.

Among the factors that routinely restrain human action are human biology, physical conditions of the environment, power relations in interpersonal relations, economic relations, cultural custom and law. These will be the topics of my following two blog posts.

I should note at the onset of that short project, though, that while I generally feel that free action and autonomy are positive qualities, and that changes or policies that enhance individual autonomy are generally good, that doesn’t mean that I feel that all the restraints on free action that I’ll discuss are uniformly or straightforwardly bad. Some I would consider neutral – the nature of the human body places limits on what we’re physically capable of doing, but I find it hard to consider that either good or bad. Other restraints on free action are clearly not bad. Legal restraints prohibiting ripping apart someone’s church with motorcycles for no good reason other than one felt like it are a good thing. As I write this, I just got home from my parents’ house where I celebrated Mother’s Day. There was no formal restraint forcing me to celebrate Mother’s Day. Like any reasonably good son, I didn’t mind and quite enjoyed honoring my mother on this day. At the same time, I couldn’t not celebrate Mother’s Day. This was a different type of restraint from legal restraint or economic restraint, but my free action, technically speaking, was constrained, albeit in a way I didn’t mind at all and am quite fond of. In other words, over my next few posts, what I’ll be interested in is simply discussing the various factors which shape and constrain individual free action, without assuming that all such factors are undesirable or socially negative.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

An interesting perspective on free trade

Alan S. Blinder has an interesting essay on global free trade in this past Sunday's Washington Post. It's worth taking a look at.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Is Alexander Cockburn Serious About Global Warming?

Alexander Cockburn, a regular columnist for The Nation, begins his essay, “Is Global Warming a Sin?,” in the May 14, 2007 issue with an interesting analogy, likening the current developing (and mostly online) market in “carbon offsets” (where people assuage their guilt over their own contributions to global warming by paying others to do things that will offset the effects of their own CO2 emissions) to the medieval church’s sales of indulgences to offset sins. (I’ve encountered this basic analogy with other recent writers as well, and here, Cockburn gets the details of the analogy a bit off – he likens the current situation to the supposed role of indulgences alongside 10th century millennial fears, whereas indulgences had little or nothing to do with such 10th century fears, being mainly a much later phenomenon – though I also see the point of the [faulty] analogy – we live in a millenarian society that seems to thrive on fearing the end of the world [Y2K, terror, anthrax, dirty bombs, smallpox, avian flu, global warming], though that’s not to say that some of the feared threats, like global warming, aren’t real.)

I expected from his first paragraph that Cockburn was going to talk about problems with carbon offset schemes (there’s absolutely no accountability, there’s no clear indication that the “offset” activities actually offset buyer’s own emissions, they assuage people’s guilt without really addressing the larger problems) or perhaps the ways in which hype, fantasy, and millennial fears do play a role, alongside strong, empirically grounded science, in shaping public discourse about global warming.

Instead he proceeded to challenge the notion that there is any anthropogenic role in global warming. Certainly there is valid scientific debate about the extent of the role that human action (vs. natural causes that might be operating simultaneously) plays in overall global warming, and about the exact contribution of specific human actions compared to others. At this point, though, claiming, as Cockburn does, that “there is still zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of carbon dioxide is making any measurable contribution to the world’s present warming trend,” makes him decidedly the odd man out. Even George W. Bush has by now (in his last state of the union address) acknowledged the human role in global warming and the need to do something about it, though I’m not holding my breath to wait for him or his administration to take positive action on the issue.

What I was most taken aback by, though, was not his overall claim. Instead, it was the simplistic nature of his “proof.” For his proof that there is no human caused role in atmospheric CO2 accumulation and global warming, he draws solely on two graphs drawn by former meteorologist Martin Hertzberg. One graph shows global CO2 emissions beginning in 1928, with a general upward trend but some large dips (corresponding to things like major drops in economic production at the start of the Great Depression). The other shows concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere with a steadily upward trajectory. Cockburn concludes from this, “The two lines on that graph proclaim that a whopping 30 percent cut in man-made CO2 emissions didn’t even cause a 1 ppm drop in the atmosphere’s CO2. It is thus impossible to assert that the increase in atmospheric CO2 stems from people burning fossil fuels.”

There are at least two important problems with such thinking. First, for the comparison to make any sense, Cockburn and Hertzberg must be assuming that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are from that year’s emissions alone, which they are not. A dip in emissions for a few years, thus, would not be paired with a directly corresponding dip in CO2 concentrations. At most, you’d see a slowing in the increase of such atmospheric concentrations, which frankly is what the few numbers included in Cockburn’s column seem to indicate. Second, this simple comparison of two variables, while perhaps intuitively elegant, is an incredibly simplistic model on which to base any conclusions about global climate in general. It doesn’t even provide a sufficient basis for understanding the two variables and their relationships (to each other or to other variables), e.g. are atmospheric concentrations of CO2 simply related to total quantities emitted, or does the context of emission matter; is total warming related simply to total concentration of CO2 or more to concentrations in specific regions of the globe; are emissions concentrated in the atmosphere in their region of emission or not, and what’s the effect on climate, etc. It also doesn’t take into account any other factors that might affect global warming. In short, there’s no way you can logically and empirically conclude from Cockburn and Hertzberg’s simplistic comparison that it’s “impossible to assert that the increase in atmospheric CO2 stems from people burning fossil fuels,” much less that you’ve proved there’s no anthropogenic role in global warming.

Monday, May 7, 2007

A Different Globalization for Labor

It is commonly acknowledged among scholars and activists who identify as “progressive,” “liberal,” or otherwise left-leaning that globalization is bad in many ways for workers in developed countries such as the United States. While there is always tension between the interests of capital and labor, there have been moments when the economic interests of the two somewhat converged in specific contexts. In the case of “globalization” as currently practiced, with its “just in time” production, the outsourcing of manufacturing, and increasingly service, jobs, and free trade agreements conceptualized primarily in terms of free movement of goods and services (but not of workers), this is very much not the case. Rather, the interests of labor and capital (or corporations or “the economy”) are in some ways becoming highly divergent in developed nation contexts. (See also my recent posts on these topics: How Unique or Radically New is Our Current Situation Today?; Three Things Karl Marx Didn't See Coming; The "Sameness" of Republicans and Democrats)

Another common assumption is that such globalization processes are also bad for labor in the developing nation contexts that manufacturing and service jobs are being outsourced to, e.g. promoting sweat shop labor conditions. Robert J. Flanagan has recently published an important book on this topic, Globalization and Labor Conditions (Oxford University Press, 2006). Flanagan closely examines the available data on labor conditions around the world. He is clearly sympathetic to critiques of globalization, but comes to the conclusion that overall, globalization has led to improved conditions for labor in much of the world. He in no way implies that globalization processes make things wonderful for workers in developing countries. As he documents, there are things like sweatshop labor associated with globalization, but there are more overall jobs and fewer jobs with the worst labor conditions in more open developing economies – hardly what I’d consider a ringing endorsement, but still having more lousy jobs available might be better than having fewer or no lousy jobs available, even while still not good.

The argument Flanagan makes that I find most interesting is that workers in poorer countries would be well served by an even more open trade regime, one more open to the movement of labor. He writes (p. 181):

“Few people actively support poor labor conditions; many advance proposals for improving them. How should one sort through the flow of proposals to decide which ideas deserve serious attention? A very useful first principle of policy choice is to favor policies that expand, rather than contract, opportunities for target groups. The mechanisms of globalization fare very well by this criterion. The evidence developed and presented in this book and reviewed in the early part of this chapter shows how international trade, international migration, and multinational companies contribute to improved working conditions and labor rights. Contrary to the indictment of globalization outlined in the first chapter, the world’s workers would gain from fewer restrictions on these mechanisms of globalization. This conclusion applies most strongly to the world’s poorest workers. Relaxing barriers to international migration offers the most promising opportunity for expanding the positive impact of globalization on labor conditions, but prospects for international action to promote the international movement of labor seem dim at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”

Freer movement of labor (which wouldn’t have to mean unregulated or unmonitored) would benefit labor by allowing tools such as modern transportation technology to benefit labor as well as capital. As Flanagan suggests, this would most benefit the poorest workers, but by helping the cheapest labor not be stuck in place, easier movement would indirectly aid other workers as well by making the strategy of chasing the cheapest labor via outsourcing a little less effective.

As Flanagan also points out, international action to promote freer (and regulated) movement of labor is unlikely soon. For starters, it’s not in the interests of capital (though having some available undocumented immigrant labor to mercilessly exploit in developed nation contexts is in capital’s interests). Second, freer movement of labor is understandably resisted by labor in developed countries – more immigrants are more competition for jobs that are already being reduced through outsourcing.

A recent commentary in The Nation (May 7, 2007, p. 8) by Deepak Bhargava and Angelica Salas makes a case for immigration reform, including regulated but freer movement, being in the interests of all labor and a worthy progressive cause. Freer, but documented and regulated immigration could contribute to eliminating the abuses of undocumented laborers and the problems for resident laborers in terms of wage competition. Also, as argued above, a move towards a free trade regime that emphasizes not just free movement of goods and services but of labor as well would most benefit the poorest, but would indirectly benefit labor in general by reducing capital’s ability to locate and fix in place the cheapest labor (because those laborers could simply move elsewhere for higher wages, contributing to upward pressure on wages in general).

Like it or not, we’re stuck with capitalism and globalization. That’s simply not going to change anytime soon. We’re not so clearly stuck with the precise details of capitalist globalization as it now functions. For those of us seeing ourselves as progressives, it makes sense to contribute to efforts at modifying globalization so that it serves the interests of labor as much as capital.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Big Men, Chiefs, and Cultural and Historical Comparison

In two posts over the past week (“Not the War of 1812” and “2006 and 1930”) I addressed two recent examples from news and commentary magazines (Time and The Nation) of comparisons between the present moment and events and earlier historical contexts.

Both articles I commented on share a common flaw, a sort of two-step error in identification. First, both authors do identify interesting parallels between certain aspects of the present and particular historical moments, but go beyond this to imply an identity between the contexts, at least in all essential or important regards. Second, they assume that what happened then will happen now and in the near future, or at the least that what happened then is a reliable guide to what’s likely to happen now.

This is an understandable approach. It would perhaps be useful and satisfying to be able to identify historical or cross-cultural situations which highly parallel our current context sufficiently to offer a sort of skeleton key to discern the short term course of events beforehand.

The problem with this is actually fairly simple. Social and historical contexts are unique (i.e. involving a specific set of individuals doing a specific set of things in specific spaces) and simply too complex to discern the sorts of total parallels necessary to accurately prognosticate the future through historical analysis or ethnological comparison.

This doesn’t mean that historical or cross-cultural comparison is not useful or insightful. At best, though, such comparison yields insights into general tendencies and associations – it may yield a useful awareness of likely possibilities if comparison is carefully defined and delimited. Where the comparative approach works best is in lining up commonalities and differences across two or more contexts in an attempt to discern recurring associations between similar aspects of phenomena. In pursuit of this, comparison works best not through any attempt to identify contexts which parallel one another in a total sense, but actually through comparing situations that are both similar and different in important regards (where difference allows for more clear discernment of enduring associations, even in contexts which otherwise differ).

As a side note, useful historical or sociocultural comparison pursues nomothetic generalizations, the identification of associated patterns which tend to co-occur across a variety of settings. As such, it is not opposed to idiographic scholarly approaches which focus on careful description and analysis of particular settings. Instead, careful comparison depends on thorough-going idiographic work having been done on the contexts under comparison. Further, neither idiographic nor comparative nomothetic scholarship are exclusive to any style of scholarly work – either can be conducted using any number of data collection and analysis techniques.

An example of a useful ethnological comparison can start to be discerned in Marshall Sahlins’ classic essay “Poor Man, Rich Man, Big Man, Chief.” In this article, Sahlins presents an important distinction in political organization between the island cultures of Melanesia and of Polynesia (with regard to Melanesia, it seems apparent to me that he’s mainly talking about island Melanesia and coastal New Guinea, but not particularly the interior areas of New Guinea – at least when it comes to identifying key cultural features). While also laying out important social parallels between the two cultural areas, he notes the predominance of “Big Man” political organization (characterized by small polities, and personal influence but not authority of political leaders – the “Big Men”) in Melanesia and of chiefdoms in Polynesia (characterized by larger polities, with chiefs coming into political offices with both power and authority). He doesn’t really make an argument about causation in the article, but he does also note one other suggestive distinction between the two areas, specifically that Melanesian culture tends to be associated with smaller resource bases (smaller islands or interior valleys largely isolated from others by the rugged terrain in the interior of New Guinea). This in turn would mean smaller surpluses that could be extracted and concentrated to form a permanent political elite that can effectively maintain its power and authority through things like full time armed cadres of supporters.

The sort of comparison started by Sahlins in that article can, I think, be usefully extended to make the association between size of resource base and scale of political development clearer if the comparison is fleshed out via more recognition between important cultural differences within Melanesia that still remain associated with the factors identified by Sahlins. In many ways, coastal and island Melanesia is more like Polynesia than like the interior of New Guinea. Linguistically, Austronesian languages are prevalent throughout the coastal and island areas of both Melanesia and Polynesia, in contrast to the prevalence of non-Austronesian languages in interior Melanesia. In terms of subsistence patterns, coastal and island Melanesia and Polynesia emphasize marine resources to provide plentiful protein, alongside cultivation of a variety of tuber and orchard crops and domesticated pigs. Interior Melanesia emphasizes much the same crops and the pigs, but instead of heavy utilization of marine resources, farming is supplemented with gathering and the hunting of terrestrial game animals – arguably providing a somewhat more meager protein base. Interior Melanesian societies are often much more male dominated, with a fratriarchal form of male domination, than is the case with either coastal / island Melanesia or Polynesia. (Whether fratriarchal male domination is related to lower protein resources in tropical forest zones in New Guinea or the Amazon basin was part of what the “Protein Debates” in anthropological scholarship of the 1970s was all about.) Despite major cultural differences between interior and coastal Melanesia, the association between size of resource base and “Big Man” or similar forms of political organizations holds in both portions of Melanesia, and is in fact strengthened by awareness of the important differences.

Cross-cultural or historical comparison is a useful tool in discerning patterns that endure across multiple settings. What we should not realistically expect to encounter are contexts that parallel one another in all essential respects (and even if we did, it would say little or nothing of use about general patterns that operate beyond those two specific settings).