Donna Haraway: Staying with the Trouble. Book Review by Juan Guevara

Donna Haraway. Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin with the Chthulucene London: Duke University Press. 2016.

Staying with the Trouble compiles Donna Haraway’s latest thoughts.  In the book, Haraway calls for the need to reflect and think on the possibilities for facing the era post-Anthropocene, the era of, what she calls, the Chthulucene. The book is divided in eight chapters that can be presented in three parts: the first 4 chapters of the book are mainly ‘theoretical’ and serve to conceptualize String Figures-SF, Tentacular Thinking, Sympoiesis and the Chthulucene; the second part (Chapters 5, 6, and 7) provides practical examples of becoming-with other species and elements to show how the Chthulucene can shape and transform our human ways to relate with other species and the planet (Terrapolis in the Chthulucene); the last part builds on science fiction (Speculative Fabulation-SF) and storytelling as a way to present the forms the Chthulucene may have (Proctor, 2017). Response-abilities is one of the main and most important elements of the book alongside with String Figures-SF, Becoming-with, Tentacular Thinking and Sympoiesis; these concepts are explored in this review.

I am not particularly engaged in Haraway’s work. However, in this book, I observe how the author engages with Northern aboriginal perspectives, Feminist theory, Biology, Ecology, and Postmodern theory. I found intriguing the way the Nomad is presented in the process of becoming, that for Haraway is always becoming with other species. The book has the merit of exercising imagination and for bringing some Northern Aboriginal wisdom to thinking the post-Anthropocene.

For Haraway, the Chthulucene is an era (with no time nor history) in which human race will confront its arrogance and ‘superiority’ and humbly make kin with the biological critters coming from the under-ground. The Chthulucene is the era in which humans will make kin with tentacles, spiders, bacteria, different ways of perceiving, living and dying, and becoming-with in n-dimensional time-spaces.

I observe that some concepts of the Chthulucene, especially its n-dimensional time-spaces and becoming-with, are inspired in Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of becoming. In her conceptualization of the Chthulucene, Haraway forgets Deleuze’s exploration of the Tick in Difference and Repetition to deconstruct and dissolve the static and unity of the self, to open up the possibilities of becoming. The Tick relies on different structures outside of itself, at the organic level, to perceive the world (Posteraro, 2016). The idea of the Tick is explored by Deleuze inspired by the work of von Uexhüll. Von Uexhüll suggests that each living cell perceives and acts but also “has perceptual or receptor signs (Merkzeichen) and impulses or effector signs (Wirkzeicheri) which are specific to it” (von Uexhüll, 1934, pp. 322-323). From this idea, von Uexhüll (1934) argues that “perceptual and effector worlds together form a closed unit, the Umwelt” (p. 320).

What is really important in von Uexhüll’s work for this book review is the acknowledgement of n-dimensional time-spaces of the Umwelt. This category is relevant in Haraway’s book but not well developed. The recognition of n-dimensional perceptual spatio-temporalities in each “soup bubbles (perceptual and effectors living cells) which intersect each other smoothly, because they are built up of subjective perceptual signs” (von Uexhüll, 1934, p. 339), plus the way in which time regards a succession of moments by different subjects are key elements of the Umwelt. This is indeed related to the entanglements of species and the actual existence of n-dimensional time-spaces that Haraway suggests for the futuristic Chthulucene.

Continue reading Donna Haraway: Staying with the Trouble. Book Review by Juan Guevara

Strauss, Rupp and Love: Cultures of Energy. Book Review by Moni Holowach

Strauss, S., Rupp, S., & Love, T. (Eds.). (2013). Culture of Energy: Power, Practices, Technologies. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

You do not even have crack its spine to correctly anticipate its contents. The cover of Cultures of Energy: Power, Practices, Technologies features anthropomorphised electrical transmission towers across lush hills and plains.  They suggest that energy—in the form of fossil fuels and electricity—gives shape to modern human life.

Cultures of Energy: A Conversation Starter

This collection of sixteen theoretical and ethnographic accounts bridges the gap between culture and energy systems. This book’s global but narrow scope will expand your notion of energy and bring visibility to the often invisible energy sources that we rely on daily.

This book, edited by three American anthropologists, “explores cultural conceptions  of energy as it is imagined, developed, utilized, and contested in everyday contexts around the globe” (p. 10). From pointing out the many interpretations of the notion of energy in New York, to observing how communities in rural Peru finally feel connected to the world through electrification, to viewing coal mining as a culture and a livelihood in Wyoming, and to revealing conflict in the Gulf of Mexico over deepsea oil drilling, this book delves into the myriad ways that ‘energy’ interacts with cultural, economic, and political systems.

The book is well-structured with an easy-to-read tone. It is divided into five thematic sections, which offers a cohesive structure and flow to the compilation. A casual “conversation” between the authors concludes each section to highlight key points. Together, these features would make for an excellent undergraduate or graduate level resource, as the book can be read out of order, used for selected chapters or topics, or could be quickly grasped using the conversation pieces. Courses in anthropology, sociology, or science technology studies could draw from many implicit themes within the book, such as the (im)materiality and (in)visibility of energy.

The other benefits (and weaknesses) of this book involve its scope. First, this book’s use of ethnographic accounts creates a contemporary focus. In regard to the interplay of energy and culture, the authors do not focus on how we got here, where we are going, or what we should do. Instead, its  stories are largely about right now. This allows the readers to gain an in-depth snapshot of the multiplicities of energy and their affects today, but while sacrificing historical context to get in all that detail.

Similarly, the book aims for a global scope but falls short. First, out of sixteen chapters, six focus exclusively on topics within American borders, and four more largely involve American relations o=r western perspectives. Thus, the authors’ global focus takes a western turn. Unfortunately, they skip out on Asian countries entirely. Finally, the ‘conception of energy’ used in this book stems largely from fossil fuels and renewable energy technologies. Although they address a diverse range of sources—wind, biomass, oil and gas, and coal—this scope is narrowed again by the contemporary focus. In comparison, Ian Morris’ How Human Values Evolve: Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels (2015) offers a historical look at how energy has shaped human values. Unlike, Cultures of Energy, Morris applies a more general conception of energy, where energy comes from foraging,agriculture, and fuels. Although Morris’ macro-theorizing is quite grandiose compared to the well-focused insights from Cultures of Energy, these two books are not in contest. Rather, they would pair nicely for a more well rounded understanding of energy and culture. Overall, Cultures of Energy’s narrow focus best allows readers and students to expandt heir understandings of energy as it plays out today from a western perspective. It will be sure to spur conversations by making visible one’s own daily interactions with energy systems.

Moni Holowach, University of Alberta, Canada.

References

Morris, I., Richard, S., Spence, J. D., Korsgaard, C, M., & Atwood, M. (2015). How Human
Values Evolve: Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels
. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press.

Manuel DeLanda: Assemblage Theory. Book Review by Kalan Kucera

Manuel DeLandaEdinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2016, ISBN: 978-1-4744-1363-3

When describing the genesis of the 1971 animated film The Point, Harry Nilsson said the idea came to him when he was “on acid and I looked at the trees and I realized that they all came to points, and the little branches came to points, and the houses came to points. I thought, ‘Oh! Everything has a point, and if it doesn’t, then there’s a point to it’” (Jacobson, 2004). While Nilsson may not have actually inspired anything about Manuel DeLanda’s Assemblage Theory–a refinement and expansion of ideas from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari–this quote could serve as a tongue-in-cheek thesis statement for the work. Manuel DeLanda is a philosopher and filmmaker who lives in the U.S. and, in recent decades, has cultivated an interest and expertise in the philosophical works of both Deleuze and Jean Baudrillard (Cvjeticanin, n.d.).

The idea of assemblages explored here originates from Deleuze & Guattari’s book, A Thousand Plateaus, where assemblage is defined as “a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns – different natures” (DeLanda, 2016, p. 1). For the most part, DeLanda hews fairly closely to the theory of assemblages presented therein, framing this work as an “attempt to bring these different definitions together, introducing and illustrating the terms required to make sense in them” (p. 1). In the endeavor to define and explore assemblages across a variety of disciplines he mostly succeeds, with the exception of a discussion of topics related to the virtual that obfuscates and nearly sinks the whole construction that is presented.

After introducing important structural and definitional concepts, DeLanda uses the first few chapters of the book to refine these ideas and uses them to contextualize different historical assemblages. Concepts important to defining the construction of assemblages–exteriority vs. interiority, coding, emergence, singularities, historical entities, and territorialization–are all defined and set in several historical contexts including Human History (Ch. 1), the Evolution of Languages (Ch. 2), the Weapons of War (Ch. 3), and Scientific Practice (Ch. 4). Myriad examples in these chapters help show how assemblages form from heterogeneous components which ebb and flow as they are encoded / decoded and territorialized / deterritorialized. Assemblages themselves form larger assemblages, painting a complex systems theory that DeLanda uses to great effect with the assistance of these examples. In later chapters, the topic turns to the virtual and to a concept that DeLanda calls the “diagram” of an assemblage, a sort of “potential space” describing possible attributes of an assemblage that aren’t currently displayed.

In these latter chapters, the coherent tapestry of assemblage theory begins slowly to unravel. Discussion of assemblages and components thereof is tacitly abandoned for an exploration of their virtual counterparts, or diagrams. A description of something akin to a potential space, or representation, is described and explored, only to be seemingly tossed aside as a step towards “reified generality” (p. 138). Another section leads to conceptions of topological time and counter-actualization, concepts that DeLanda concedes are so abstract that special tools are needed: “Tools to manipulate these intensities… in the form of a growing variety of psychoactive chemicals that can be deployed to go beyond the actual world, and produce at least a descriptive phenomenology of the virtual” (ibid., p. 133). Until some rogue libertarians rescue the world from the tyranny of psychoactive sobriety, though, I fear these concepts shall remain shrouded in an impenetrable haze of conjecture.

Fortunately, the rest of the book is more accessible and, as an attempt to define and explain a theory of assemblages, this work is largely successful. DeLanda’s description of the components of assemblages and the ways in which they emerge based upon the coding and territorialization of their components is lucid and the historical examples help define a clear image of the concepts. As a materialist philosophy, the idea of assemblages is an attractive way to construct the dynamic interrelationships between history, components, and the whole that emerges from them. Several fascinating ideas are presented in an effective manner, including that the properties of an assemblage (or system) are emergent and not simply the summation of the properties of components, and that the history and ‘individuality’ of the assemblage is key to its properties, something DeLanda calls the “processes of individuation” (p. 140). These ideas are important to the theory and provide useful and welcome scaffolding for other conclusions.

Assemblage Theory works to refine and clarify some of Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas. There are interesting views worth considering for sociologists and those who wish to explore ideas of complex systems and their components. If, perhaps, someday another author attempts to summarize and expand upon a vision of assemblage theory, this edition will be undoubtedly prove an invaluable reference. Unfortunately, an opaque treatment of the virtual and the complete lack of a unifying conclusion–or concluding statement of any kind–prevent this work from effectively making its Point.

Kalan Kucera, University of Alberta, Canada

References

Cvjeticanin, S. (n.d.). Manuel DeLanda – Biography. Retrieved from http://egs.edu/faculty/manuel-de-landa/

DeLanda, M. (2016). Assemblage Theory (First). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Jacobson, A. (2004). What’s The Point? The Legendary 1971 Animated Feature on DVD. Bright Lights Film Journal. Retrieved from http://brightlightsfilm.com/whats-the-point-the-legendary-1971-animated-feature-on-dvd/

Eduardo Kohn: How Forests Think. Book Review by Anthony Fisher

Kohn, E. (2013). How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

When people think of trees they most certainly would not associate them with having the ability to create thought processes. This is, of course, because trees have no brains. However, in his book How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (2013) Kohn indicates that trees (and other beings) have the ability to think and discusses how they accomplish this. He pushes the reader to step out of an anthropocentric view and re-evaluate how humans can interpret the world. Indeed, the author stresses that the field of anthropology has been too short sighted and has not yet fully explored how other beings constitute what it is to be human. Therefore, by studying the world outside of the human this gives insight towards what it truly means to be human. Kohn explores this idea by conducting an ethnographic study of the Runa people in Avila, Ecuador.

Kohn builds his case that trees and other nonhuman entities think by delving deep into semiotics. He explains that all beings can represent, produce, and interpret signs. Thus, the entire world is made up of semiotics. All beings, in their own way, respond to these signs and subsequently grow and adapt to these sensory inputs. Kohn repeatedly emphasizes that signs go further than just simply the realms of human symbolic interpretation. The author recognizes that even evolutionary success is dependent on responding or not responding to particular environmental signs. An “ecology of selves” is then used to explain how relationships between individuals, through the process of sign interpretation, is how individuals are defined. Individuals then can be said to “represent and are represented by other beings” (p.78). Therefore, “if selves are thoughts and the logic through which they interact is semiotic, then relation is representation” (p. 83). This is made clear by examining tree characteristics and spatial orientation. Trees that have specialized characteristics “form relatively more nuanced and exhaustive overall representation[s] of the surrounding environment” (p.81). Pest resistance is an example of these specialized characteristics and this shapes where a tree species can be naturally found. This is how trees think. Relationships amongst trees (and other beings) form repeated arrangements that can be predictably exploited. Modern and historical forestry markets are one example of humans’ understanding environmental relationships or misunderstanding in the case of over-logging. These misinterpretations or simply ignoring environmental associations is called soul blindness where “treat[ing] other selves as objects” (p. 119) and being “[unable] to see beyond oneself or one’s kind” (p.117) is the cause of not understanding the interconnectedness of nature.

The author explores complicated topics, such as the ecology of selves, by using examples in everyday Runa life. Metaphors as well as pictures are used to emphasize key points. Consistently referencing and referring back to environmental examples firmly grounds this theoretical work. Kohn does a fantastic job in explaining how understanding relationships amongst various beings can sometimes be quite complex and that the virtual can be sometimes used to understand the perspective of other beings. The Runa often use dreams or the hallucinogenic properties of substances to make sense of the living, material world. Continue reading Eduardo Kohn: How Forests Think. Book Review by Anthony Fisher

What is Strategy? The Topological Exercise of Power

Topology of Power

What does it mean to say that power operates ‘topologically’ in politics, economics and everyday life?  Topology concerns non-Euclidean geometries – the kinds one might observe if one stretched a drawing of a triangle. Another example of a topological transformation is if one added dimensions to the drawing, extending the triangle into a 3 dimensional pyramid or developing and imagining it even further in more dimensions.

The topological character of power is that it exceeds ‘action on bodies’ or ‘action on others’ actions’ (cf. Foucault). Using techniques and administrative apparatuses, power can be projected as ‘action at a distance’. ‘Reach’ is a keyword that describes this extension of power to actualize it and put it into action despite intervening distances and mediations . For example, we talk of ‘the long arm of the law’.

The powers of a topological sensibility

Powers are multiple, subtle and include influence. ‘Reach’ describes the influence an actor may have on other actors.

Powers exists in and as ‘power relations’, whether the parties are aware that power is a factor. That is, power doesn’t have to be exercised as much as it simply has to have an effect. As such it is not a concrete thing but a virtual or intangible thing. It is real but not actual, ideal but not abstract. It has a multiple quality. There is no single ‘power.’

Sovereignty’ designates the aggregate powers exercised by the state. History is the time of this power-exercise. Territory is the space of the exercise of sovereignty.

However, States can no longer pretend to guarantee their citizens’ safety from other threats that are themselves powerful. These might include the threats of drone strikes and collateral damage and death (Pakistan, Somalia), of chemical poisoning by nerve agents (UK Skripal nerve agent poisoning), from drifting radiation particles (Scandinavia after the Chernobyl disaster), or from pandemics (SARS in Toronto Canada).

The polis, now often associated with cities, is the space of the demos, the people and democratic opinion.  It is a distinct space-time of assembly and belonging and as such a distinct topological entity.  It is not just a different scale.

Strategy

Strategy’ is a political technology that aims to persuade by establishing the spatiotemporal and other background conditions of a debate. A common strategy is public ‘consultation’ which aims to establish a ‘pubic will’ extracted from a population that legitimates a political course of action and/or the exercise of power. Power is not always exercised strategically, but even whimsical applications of power, if consistent, can be described as part of a strategy.

Tactic’ is the deflection of strategies, in the absence of control over the spatiotemporal and other dimensions of the context of a situation or of the exercise of power (cf. DeCerteau).

Influence,’ the multiplicity of powers, means that strategy is not closed off from the public or subaltern groups, or even individuals that act through social media as ‘influencers’.

Social media technologies and platforms have created new manifolds or spaces of power that exceed the reach of sovereign territories. These technologies are political and their strategic use for disinformation, persuasion has reconfigured the terrain of politics and the reach of these social media actors in general. For example, influencing the US election, extended Russia’s reach into the processes of the US sovereign state as well as into American territory.

Why? The reach of a topological sensibility

All this is more quickly grasped if one has a topological sensibility, looking to dimensions and influences rather than fixed actors such as “the State”.  This approach allows us to move from understanding positions of strength in a debate, project or struggle toward how to actualize that position as effects, to understand its reach; or to put it simply, to understand the power of the position explicitly.

Bearing the topological qualities of power in mind allows us to compare in one plane, so to speak, between power-geometries that are fixed, and to see the operation of power-topologies that stretch or bring new dimensions to the exercise of power. It allows a point-to-point comparison that pinpoints the effectiveness of the transformation that has occured despite the differences in appearances or the complexity of any resulting folded, stretched, involuted or flattened topologies.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Addendum

Comparison with Michel DeCerteau’s notion of tactics and strategy from The Practice of Everyday Life (translated from French 1984)

Strategy: “the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an ‘environment.’  A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper (propre) and thus serve as the basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it (competitors, adversaries, ‘clienteles,’ ‘targets,’ or ‘objects’ of research). Political, economic, and scientific rationality has been constructed on this strategic model”(Certeau xix);
Tactic: “a calculus which cannot count on a ‘proper’ (spatial or institutional localization ),nor thus on a borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality. The place of a tacticbelongs to the other.  A tactic insinuates itself into the other’s place, fragmentarily, without  taking  it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance…”(Certeau xix).
Operations: goes along with tactics as actions that form a “network of an antidiscipline”(Certeau xiv-xv).
Trajectory: “suggests a movement, but it also involves a plane  projection; a flattening out… a graph… a line that can be reversed” (Certeau xviii).

Works cited:

de Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

de Certeau, M. (1985). Practices of Space. In M.Blonsky (Ed.), On Signs (p. 134ff.). Oxford U.K.: Basil Blackwell.

Media, Religion and Gender: Key Issues and New Challenges – Book Review by Nadine Suliman Abdelrahman

 Egyptian army soldiers arrest a female protester during clashes at Tahrir Square in Cairo on Dec. 17. Stringer/Reuters/Landov
Image of “the girl in the blue bra”; a prominent picture from the Egyptian revolution in 2011, referenced in page 1 of the book. Tahrir Square, Cairo. Dec. 17 2011 (Stringer/Reuters/Landov) Click to link to video.

Mia Lövheim Media, Religion and Gender: Key Issues and New Challenges (London Routledge 2013)

Dominant religious institutions have, historically, had strict normative boundaries, especially when it relates to gender. Technology and globalization, through the media, may have instilled what would be referred to as “unorthodox” religious views and perspectives on gender and its preexisting constructs. Focusing my argument on Islam, present day media outlets have certainly impacted the voices of different genders and potentially their roles, creating a “modern Islam” that is better adapted with the world and views from around the world. It is worth noting, however, that the media has consecutively created wider space and reach for religious authority and political religious authority, as will be elaborated further in this book review. Capturing such opposing roles the media plays relative to gender and religion remains a challenge.

One of few books that relate media, gender and religion while taking into account social constructs on sex/ gender similar to Butler’s1 concepts of regulatory materialization of gender and gender performativity, Mia Lovheim’s “Media, Religion and Gender” can be considered a breakthrough across several distinct but overlapping fields. Drawing on historical concepts and theories, the book is an attempt to bring third wave feminism and gender into front centre of its research that is rooted in academia yet based on participatory and reflexive research. This book had an overarching goal of challenging research gaps on the interrelations between gender and its cultural/ societal constructs, religion and the media. Contributors to the book covered a wide range of topics including theoretical perspectives as well as more detailed case studies of different religious views in the media; drawing on examples from various parts of the world.

Continue reading Media, Religion and Gender: Key Issues and New Challenges – Book Review by Nadine Suliman Abdelrahman

The Social Life of Infrastructure

Rob Shields, October 27 2017.  Space and Culture Research Group

On October 27 Rob Shields presented asking, ‘What are the social effects of built infrastructure?’ Changing public interaction with civic infrastructure accumulates to changes in Canadian social forms. Infrastructure affects social integration, accessibility, and inclusiveness. Infrastructure choices affect the relations of core and periphery, and the exercise of sovereignty and Canadian values.

 Reflection notes

1. Infrastructure as representation of the system and program of the city?

Infrastructure has often been believed to reflect how the city creates its system and manages natural resources. However, that is not necessarily the case. Sometimes infrastructure functions in a way that is not planned or expected. For example, we may find many built infrastructures such as bridges that were designed to provide a new passage over an obstacle or adjust the traffic flow/density. Instead, they are now being used mainly as venues for festivals, markets, or more stationary activities. In this sense, infrastructure may not necessarily be “broken” or “dysfunctional”, but it sometimes evolves or is re-purposed by the local residents to serve different or even multiple functions.

Continue reading The Social Life of Infrastructure

Review: Violence in Place. Cultural and Environmental Wounding

Kearney, A. (2017). Violence in place, cultural and environmental wounding. New York, NY: Routledge

Violence in Place, Cultural and Environmental Wounding takes on a specific type of human-generated trauma: cultural wounding. Cultural wounding is the intentional harm and violence (physical and symbolic) against members of a culture, as well as their way of life. It is enacted from a motivation to destroy or damage beyond repair the past, present, and future of a culture. In this volume, Kearney specifically locates cultural wounding in place, where place is a “relational co-presence envisioned as a vital shaping element in human life” (p. 1). Using this definition, place is imbued with its own agency and even sentience. In moments of trauma and cultural wounding, place is not just the setting; it is witness, participant, and victim. Indigenous epistemologies of place are said to demonstrate this hyper-relativist perspective, and Kearney sets out to argue that, in the wake of colonialism and neo-liberalism, a return to a kincentric ecology of place is necessary rectify the Western dualism of nature and humanity.

Generally, Kearney’s goal is to present a conception of cultural trauma that relies on the actions and interactions of humans and place. More specifically, Kearney provides accounts of 15 years of ethnographic study with an indigenous group in Australia, Yanyuwa, to show how colonization destroyed the kinship between people and place. She uses these observations to develop a phenomenological approach to diagnosing “patterns of place harm” in order to “recognize their presence in contexts all over the world and track back from this awareness to examine the axiologies that support not only cultural wounding, but also its greater effects as violence and trauma in place” (p. 95). To avoid criticisms of romanticism or anthropomorphizing, Kearney sets out to develop a methodology informed by indigenous epistemologies and decolonizing principles, acknowledging our inability to ‘listen’ outside of its relationship to humanity. Place has its own emotional geography that humans within place can relate to and read, and Kearney claims that trauma narratives told in place carry more weight and offer more opportunities for understanding across culture because of this emotional geography.

Continue reading Review: Violence in Place. Cultural and Environmental Wounding

Over the Land

An accompanying video to Phillip Vannini’s 2017 article in Space and Culture:  ‘These boardwalks were made for bushwalking: Disentangling grounds, surfaces, and walking experience’.   Video by April and Phillip Vannini (2015).

EMAC Ethnography.Media.Arts.Culture Network, is a group of students and scholars based at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C., Canada. For more information, see: publicethnography.net

Phillip Vannini (Royal Roads University)