Conference Details: Anthropology and Global Counter-Insurgency

I’ve just posted information at Savage Minds about the conference I will be presenting at later this month. Rather than repost the whole post, I’m going to direct you there to have a look.

Update: The website for the Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency conference is now live, with a schedule, attendee listing, and abstracts of both the panels and the papers to be presented.

First Review of “Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War”

The UK-based Socialist Review has just posted their review of Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War: The Influence of Foundations, McCarthyism and the CIA.

Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold WarThe reviewer, Penny Howard, calls it “a useful reminder of the political significance of [anthropological]questions and the extent to which governments have been prepared to go to ensure that they get the “right” answers.” Highlighting essays by David Price, Susan Sperling, Marc Pinkoski, and Eric Ross, Howard discusses the various ways anthropology has been shaped by governmental and corporate influence.

In the end, she says,”For [readers] interested in Marxist theory and history it is a fascinating study in the political nature of ideas, and the terrible consequences of mechanical and deterministic approaches to Marxism.”

That pleases me to no end!

Read the review: Penny Howard, Review of Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War

Educator’s Discount Week at Borders

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The time of year when educators (like me!) get 25% off nearly everything at Borders (some exceptions apply: periodicals and Sony e-Readers excluded). April 2 – 6 this year. The best is to go in on Friday and they treat you like you’re important to society. Remember: nobody else ever will, so enjoy it while it lasts.

More information on the Borders Educator’s Savings page.

The Construction of Anthopological Non-Knowledge

There’s a reason I’m up at 2:30 in the morning. I’m trying to wrap my head around a concept I came across in my research for the paper I’m presenting at the Chicago conference on anthropology and counter-insurgency. Here’s the quote that’s got me all worked up:

One of the most useful contributions of native anthropology could be the “decontamination” of settler youth by building the analysis of the formidable role of non-knowledge in settler culture into their training for the profession [or anthropology]. (Gwaltney, John L. “On Going Home Again — Some Reflections of a Native Anthropologist”. Phylon 37:3. 1976/ Pp. 241-2.)

The “settlers” are the colonial powers of which anthropology has traditionally been a part. What concerns me here, though, is this idea of “non-knowledge”. The definitive take on the concept of non-knowledge is apparently the surrealist George Bataille (whose work on the subject are collected in The Unfinished System Of Nonknowledge. As far as I can tell, the idea is this: all knowing consists of selecting parts of the whole as “things” to know. In constructing knowledge, therefore, we automatically simultaneously construct non-knowledge, things which are not known as knowledge.

To take a basic example, if two dogs are standing before me, in order to know them as “dogs”, I have to ignore all those differences that don’t fit into the category of “dog”. And there is no level of detail at which all the details can be known and still be knowledge — once I descend to the level of individual difference, categorization becomes impossible. (And there goes science! Which is, of course, a fancy way of saying “knowing”.)

What’s important here is that the non-known is purposely non-known. It’s knowledge (or information, or data — language fails us non-surrealists!) we could know, but exclude from being knowledge. For Gwaltney, then, anthropology in the act of constructing knowledge must exclude that-which-becomes-non-knowledge, and those exclusions are necessarily produced by the anthropologist’s status as a member of a settler culture. What becomes non-knowledge, then, is the native’s system of logic (or the natives’ systems of logics).

I think. I’m pretty sure that we’re not really allowed to know what nonknowledge is :-). But to me, this idea of non-knowledge sidles up pretty close alongside Laura Nader’s “Phantom Factor”, the factors imagined as external to anthropology that molded and trimmed anthropological knowledge-making in the Cold War years. And it starts to speak to my concern in the paper I’m preparing for the conference: when anthropology is directed towards counter-insurgency (the ultimat settler orientation) what kinds of non-knowledge are beign automatically simultaneously created?

The Writer’s Technology Companion Is Live!

This morning I launched The Writer’s Technology Companion, a new blog covering the tools of the writer’s trade. This is a project I’ve been working on for several months, now — I wanted to make absolutely sure I could keep it up for the long haul with everything else that’s on my plate. So a lot of planning went into the site, with several dozen posts written and “in the can” so I don’t have to worry about running short on content anytime soon.

From the site:

The Writer’s Technology Companion is a guide through the world of technology as it directly impacts the life of a writer. From backing up your files and using your word processor to putting up a website and publishing electronically, The Writer’s Technology Companion covers it all.

If you’re a writer, I do hope you’ll check it out, subscribe to the feed, tell your friends, link to stories, and name your children “Writer’s Technology Companion”. (Hey, in this day and age, you need all the promotion you can get!)

Here’s that link again, in case you don’t feel like scrolling up: The Writer’s Technology Companion

Caught in the Spam Radar

For some reason there’s been an especially high level of spam lately. A lot of it’s for ForEx (foreign exchange) schemes, which makes sense with the dollar tanking — a small investment in Euros or Pounds a couple years ago would have made a nice return. I’m not sure teaming up with the guy that’s spamming you about it is really the best way to enter the field, though.

But the spam that’s really getting my attention is the stuff with totally made-up words. This morning, I submitted spams with titles like “intercalative parafloccular” and “jager nomistic fipple”. I mean, how gorgeous are those phrases? A science fiction writer could name an entire galaxy of futuristic devices, new worlds, and extraterrestrial characters from what I delete from my spam queue every morning!

“Scotty, is the intercalative prafloccular drive holding up?”

“Aye, cap’n, she’s absolutely fantastic, ‘ummin’ like a wee kitten!”

“Excellent! Sulu, set a nomistic course for Jager. Fipple, bring me my coffee!”

And so on. Someone needs to write a web-based program to capture spam, extract these words, and create a reference for authors with writer’s block.

Upcoming Conference on Anthropology and Counter-Insurgency

I’ve been invited to speak at a conference next month of anthropology and counter-insurgency. Details are still sketchy; all I know so far is that the conference will be held at the University of Chicago on April 25-26.

That means I have just over a month to write something new and meaningful. I’m thinking of surveying the history of anthropological involvement with the military, and closing with a list of fundamental incompatibilities between military practice and anthropological practice.

More info to come…

Test Your Geographic Knowledge and Donate Clean Water

Free Poverty is another click-for-charity site, with a twist: to win fresh water for impoverished nations, you have to identify where places are on a map of the world. There are several rounds, ranging from “Easy” (with places like Seattle, WA and London, UK) to “Medium” (Rabat, Morocco) to “Hard” (Angkor Wat, Cambodia) to “Super-Hard” (Sunshine Coast, Australia). Maybe higher; I only made it to “Super-Hard”, donating 302 cups of water in the process. The closer you get, the more they donate, with 10 cups for each perfect answer.

I consider myself pretty well-informed about geography, and I had very few perfect 10-point answers. If you’re entirely off-base (I thought Sunshine Coast was on the west coast of Australia, which it’s not. At all.) you lose a “life” — lose them all and the game ends.

Given how terrible most Americans are at geography, this seems like a great way to start building some awareness of the world beyond our borders. Give it a try!

“Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War” Now Available in the US

Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold WarAnthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War: The Influence of Foundations, McCarthyism and the CIA went on sale a couple of days ago. As far as I can tell, it’s now available worldwide, wherever fine books are sold.

Order your copy today!

I’ve been anxiously waiting for University of Michigan Press, the American distributor of Pluto Press’ books, to send me my contributor’s copies, and they finally arrived today. The envelope is sitting downstairs; I’ve decided to open it at dinner so I can (finally!) share the acknowledgments page with my family, who I dedicate the book to. I think the kids, especially, will be excited to see their names in an honest-to-goodness published book.

Why Math Matters

Yesterday I had an interesting discussion with a former student about math. That’s right: math.

The Women’s Studies department I teach in has a sort of open adjunct/student lounge with computers and a small library and a table and such — a place to hang out and get a little work done or chat online or whatever. This student was working on some algebra, and was clearly frustrated. She turns to me and says, “Why do we have to learn this stuff?! When am I ever going to need to know about imaginary numbers?”

Two things you should know about me. First, I started my academic career as an engineering major — aerospace, to be precise. While I quickly bailed out of engineering, I have a great respect for the applied sciences, and the sciences in general.

Second, I’m a strong believer in the “Renaissance man” idea (though I’d like to give a hat tip to all the Renaissance women out there, too), and in the principles of the Enlightenment, and in the idea of a well-rounded liberal education. That is, I think that it’s important to know a lot of stuff about a lot of topics, just to get by in the world.

“You need to know it,” I said, “because it’s the core of the physical sciences. Because it’s the closest we are able to come to understanding how the world works.” I spent some time talking about e and natural logs and Golden Rectangles and nautilus shells and such.

I was clearly losing her. Blah blah blah. I re-grouped.

“You need to know this because science education in our society is dismal. Because there are people out there who want to control you, and who will use the fact that Americans know virtually nothing about science to exercise that control. So when you go in to get birth control, someone will deny it because they think it’s the same thing as abortion, which it clearly isn’t.”

The biggest debates in our society right now are science debates: stem-cell research, abortion, cloning, genetically-modified foods, the energy crisis, global warming, the status of gay, lesbian, bi, and trans persons, and more. And most Americans are “funnels” on all these matters — they take in huge amounts of blather from the media and other sources, and uncritically spit it out the other side.

Science isn’t going to resolve all these debates. Science is not and never has been or will be the end-all-be-all of knowledge. As a card-carrying postmodernist, I’m dutifully aware of the cultural-constructedness of scientific knowledge. BUT science is certainly part of the way we as a society have to deal with these issues — not just the facts and figures that science produces, but the mindset that science inculcates, the critical and evidence-based consideration of those facts and figures.

An effort called ScienceDebate2008 has emerged to get this year’s presidential candidates to devote an entire debate to issues of science policy. There really are no excuses for our candidates to decline a science-based debate — but I’m sure that’s what they’ll do. Neither Obama nor McCain (nor Clinton, if she wins the nomination, which I kind of doubt) is going to risk looking absolutely idiotic on national television while the “geeks” and “nerds” grill them. But I still think we have to make them say “No”, to get into the public consciousness just how crucial this stuff is and to force the candidates to acknowledge that — and risk everything by becoming the anti-science candidate. So sign the petition.

More importantly, start talking about science. Start learning about science — I promise, there’s very little that’s painfully dull. Grab a copy of Galileo’s Commandment, which highlights the best science writing in Western history, or Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and go from there. Make an effort, a real, concerted effort, to explain to your kids why math matters, why this goofy crap they have to learn in Algebra or Pre-Calc or Geometry matter, how it relates to the “real” world. And, of course, resist with all your might the wrong-headed, wrongly-implemented, and entirely bad-faith-based No Child Left Behind, especially it’s implicit rejection of science along with the arts, world culture, social science, and indeed, reason itself.