For interdisciplinary scholars, it’s always a challenge to decide which conferences to attend and which to forgo. The problem is particularly acute when the conferences are held at the same time, as occurred last week with the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and American Academy of Religion (AAR).
As I’ve been attending both of them off and on for years, the decision hinged for me around the fact that I had organized the Latour session at the AAR.
Latour himself, however, would be attending the AAA. (We tried to get him to bilocate, but didn’t succeed.) And it turns out that his session, “The Ontological Turn in French Philosophical Anthropology” — featuring an all-star cast of Philippe Descola, Marshall Sahlins, Michael M. J. Fischer, Kim Fortun, and Latour — was scheduled for the very same time as our panel.
Bruno Latour fans will know that the French anthropologist’s long-awaited follow-up to 1991′s game-changing theoretical provocation We Have Never Been Modern was released in its English translation just a few weeks ago. The book is called An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence (and is becoming better known by its acronym “AIME”), and it provides a state-of-the-art summation of Latour’s project of producing an “anthropology of the moderns” — that is, of us.
Most interestingly, it does this as a multi-phase exercise in “interactive metaphysics,” which includes a participatory online web site intended to fill in the details and elicit commentary, debate, and refinement.
Hard-core fans will also likely have heard about Adam Robbert’s online AIME research group, which will be conducting a group reading beginning next week. The group currently involving several dozen participants (including myself — so you will be hearing about it here), but it is open to the public.
I don’t yet have an electronic version of my closing chapter, “Religious (Re)Turns in the Wake of Global Nature,” but I’d be happy to share a pre-publication version of it upon request. An excerpt of it can be found here.
Anderson has cross-posted the piece, plus a readers’ poll, at Daily Kos.
(This could become a little like my Environmental Thought and Culture graduate seminar, where we do a survey of how different social science and humanities disciplines are meeting the eco-critical challenges of the twenty-first century. Next stop: philosophy? sociology? English lit? communication studies? I’ll leave those to others, for now.)
(Note: (polo)(blogo) bears no relationship to bolo’bolo. But maybe it should.)
(findings, briefings, reports, call them what you will… I’m in an Agnes Varda mood, which is helping me deal with the loss of several weeks of gleanings in the hard drive crash that will define my life as “before 11/20/10″ and “after” it)
Irish humanities academics called upon Irish humanities academics to help save the country’s sinking economic ship. Worldchangers sadly jumped their own ship, with barely a whimper. Anthropologists convening in the shipwrecked city of New Orleans slugged it out over whether or not they were scientists. Graham Harman and Steven Shaviro got ready to slug it out in the middleweight neo-realist philosopher category of the international thought-wrestling society. (The heavyweights are mostly dead, though their thoughts persist, and a few of them linger on.) A heavyweight of another kind, Chalmers Johnson swam away from it all quietly.
(More on the Harman-Shaviro showdown, as well as other object-relational matters, soon. And of course I’m being facetious with my terms here. Both are great intellectual role models, among the best and most public and genuine of the new breed of philosopher-metaphysicians, and I eagerly await the results of their deliberations. You all know which of them I agree with more, but the debate has been truly invigorating, and has been the main cause of my own interloper’s slide into philosophy sui generis – or so I hope that it’s generis. Wish I could be there at the Whitehead conference.)
(Note: After a query from an editor friend, who is unfamiliar with recent research on affect, I’ve decided I should preface this post by saying that no, I don’t mean “effects” with an “e,” but “affects,” accent on the “a.”)
It’s been fascinating to watch the unfolding public conversation about Avatar (much of which, come to think of it, my early review had anticipated): environmentalist celebrations of how it portrays the Earth rising up against the megamachine of capitalism and patriarchy; critiques of how the film perpetuates the stereotyping of indigenous people and reiterates tropes of their salvation by white male messiah figures; the Vatican’s and religious right’s denunciations of its pantheism; the film’s advance of technological wizardry into the domain of a virtual hyperreality, like The Matrix but replacing that film’s gnosticism with a pantheistic new age science of networks and neural systems; and debates over the balance struck in the film between good spectacle (the high-tech stuff) and bad narrative (poor writing, flat characterization, stereotypes all over), or between bad spectacle (Spielbergian gee-whiz stuff) and good narrative (such as the film’s allegorization of global capitalism’s destruction of indigenous communities). Film Studies for Free has usefully summarized the various allegorical readings of the film proposed so far, many of which get articulated in conversations and comments by viewers in various blogs, op-ed commentaries, and social networking sites.
The religious debate has been interesting in part because of the negative reactions that have greeted some of the conservative commentators like Ross Douthat and others who lament the film’s pantheistic nature spirituality and its associated “anti-Americansim” and “anti-humanism”. In his New York Times op-ed, Douthat wrote that “the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.” About 90% of his 146 commenters disagree, sometimes vehemently, with his assessment, generally by sympathizing with the film’s pantheism and seeing in it either something deeply American (in Transcendentalism’s line of descent), much more broadly religious (such as “panentheism” or some mixture of animism and stewardship), or just eco-pragmatically commen-sensical. And while some of the Christian movie sites that typically like to bash Hollywood liberalism do trash Avatar, others (reviewers and commenters alike) are surprisingly positive about the film. Defenders can also be found among more sophisticated conservatives, like the localist Front Porch Republic, and even the libertarian Cato Institute has defended it as an argument on behalf of property rights, the very foundation of capitalism.
What’s more surprising and interesting about the film, however, is how it’s not only breaking box office records around the world, but also may be setting off waves of emotional contagion in its wake — from spurring the launch of numerous fan groups and blogs to providing encouragement and fuel for environmental and indigenous activists as widely dispersed as South America, South and East Asia, and Palestine (portrayed above), to creating something that’s been called “post-Avatar depression.” But let’s start with the politics.
Over the past several days I’ve gone from the cool wetness of Alaska’s southeast coast to the high dryness of north-central New Mexico. The first was pure holiday, accompanied by loved ones (including those who generously funded it) and featuring glaciers, salmon, a black bear (devouring one of the salmon), a ride on one of the most scenic train routes in the world, and the ambiguous eco-ethics of spending a week on a cruise ship (but I decided not to look such a gift horse too closely in the mouth). The second has been a kind of work vacation involving a week of conversations on the topic of science, nature, and religion, generously funded, hosted (and wined and dined — there’s even a book about their culinary tradition) by the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe.
The SAR has been funding anthropological research, hosting seminars and residencies, publishing books, and working alongside Native American artists to collect and preserve art and material culture for over a hundred years now. Its campus, a former artist’s colony called El Delirio and cheekily referred to as an “anthropologists’ resort,” is just outside downtown Santa Fe, which, at 7000 feet, is a deceptively uncitylike state capital; buildings are restricted to three stories and a limited range of variations on deep-cream-colored adobe (or adobe-style) architecture. The late summer days here heat up, albeit sweatlessly, but the mornings, evenings, and nights swell up invitingly into the big starry sky, with sweet summer smells of lush semi-desert vegetation (pinyon pine and juniper, cottonwood, fruit trees, yucca, Russian olive blossoms, cholla cactus), layers of soft cricket chirpings, and the occasional coyote chorus or quite (but communicative) prairie dog (see above) scurrying around in the grasses. The city is greener than I remember it from a brief visit in 1994, and it seems to be dealing with its water issues reasonably well (water being the limiting factor in these parts). It feels good to be in the southwest again (having visited this part of the country only briefly a few times since my fieldwork in Arizona in the mid-1990s).