Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Speculative Anthropology Series in Cultural Anthropology

Please check out this provocative collection of papers at cultural anthropology.  Edited by Ryan Anderson, Emma Louise Backe, Taylor Nelms, Elizabeth Reddy and Jeremy Trombley (and including my own short commentary), the essays speak to the importance of SF to our imagining of alternatives.   

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Twitter Wrap-up for AmAnth2018: Hashtags and Hautalk

As I have done over the past few years (2017, 2016), I returned from AAA2018 and ran some Twitter analytics.  Here's the sociograph I came up with (click on the image to see it in its entirety):

The chart represents over 2300 users and over 6400 "edges," which include both mentions and re-tweets.  I've arranged them in groups by their hashtags.  Not surprisingly, "AmAnth2018" is the largest group.  But if you look to the upper right of the graph, you can see other, prominent hashtags, among them "#hautalk" and "#lgbt." 

If we rank the top Twitter users by "betweeness centrality" (a measure of the importance of a user in terms of their capacity to bridge parts of the graph), we can see many of the same usual suspects, but also some accounts that have become prominent over the last few weeks:


In particular, I want to highlight users like @thevelvetdays, @zoestodd, @lorenagibson, @anthro_sarah, @citeblackwomen, @savvyology, etc.  Why?  These are anthropologists who have been engaged in the debate over Hau (Journal of Ethnographic Theory) and the issues that the debate raised: racial inequality and gender inequality in the academy, institutional elitism, the appropriation of indigeneity, precarity and graduate students, sexual harassment, #metoo and gaslighting.

In actuality, this was a conference dominated by #hautalk and #refusehau.  For example, if we remove AmAnth2018, then a "worditout" wordcloud of the top 300 words in the hashtags looks like this:

Since many people included two or more hashtags in their tweet (#AmAnth2018 and something else), the prominence of #hautalk to this conference is obscured until you remove the AmAnth2018--a nice metaphor for what indeed happened.

The AAA wrongly assumed that the Hau controversy was somehow ancillary to its own practice--a scandal in a non-AAA journal with a European editor.  But the issues there cast a very deep shadow on practices within the AAA, including all of those US scholars imbricated in Hau who are, after all, institutionally supported by universities considered (by some) to lie at the core of anthropology in the United States.

If I take the original sociograph and filter the tweets for "hautalk," a different picture emerges:

Here, "hautalk" is combined with all of the critical hashtags in this conference: #refusehau, #citeblackwomen, "anthrosowhite, "destabilizingefforts, #decolonizeyourconference, #wakandau2018 and many others.

In other words, hautalk succeeded in overturning dominant meanings in a conference designed in many ways to marginalize those voices.  But will the AAA acknowledge that U.S. anthropology's "regular program" has been preempted? 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Mapping the Future at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting

"The future" (however imagined) continues to be a concern for anthropologists, and this year is no different than 2017.  But while I was content to just list the different panels in 2017, this year I decided to construct a semantic map of the session abstracts.  First, I created a text document with each of the 28 session abstracts that explicitly concerned the future as an object of research (rather than something like "the future of graduate education").  Then, I loaded up the file into Cowo, which spit out 55 words by frequency of occurrence (minus all of the stop words like "the").  Then I loaded the file onto VOSviewer, and created a semantic map of co-occurrences between terms (nodes) in the same sentences.

Here's the visualization from VOSviewer:

And here it is again in Gephi:

We can identify several semantic clusters here, but I want to highlight a few: 1). urban resistance to the neoliberal (right); 2) environmental disaster and the future of the anthropocene (bottom); 3). the utopian imagination for critical alternatives (left); and 4). human migration and human futures in an age of increasing precarity (top). 

This semantic map is a a helpful shorthand for taking the pulse of the future in anthropology right now.  Hurtling toward disaster along multiple axes simultaneously (environmental, political, demographic), anthropologists (and their interlocutors) occupy multiples sites of emergence across precarious futures. 

Are there themes that bring together these different future orientations?  Here are the top terms as defined by betweenness centrality:


This AAA promises to consider futures that impinge onto anthropological presents--that is, ecological and urban catastrophe that emerges into coeval fieldsites.  Yes - there's still a concern here for utopian promise (there's a panel on Ursula K. Le Guin!), but much of the panels in this map consider the disastrous coincidence of precarious futures with precarious presents. 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Storymapping Your Research


Over the course of a year of fieldwork in Seoul (2014-2015), I accumulated tons of photographs (and some short films) that I made all over the city: a corpus of material that, for the moment, just resides on a couple of computers and cloud drives, waiting to be deployed into publications and presentations.  With storymap, I could use these materials to trace the arc of my research through the city.  Ultimately, I tried to take what oftentimes felt like random discovery and imposed a linearity to my thinking.  Or, perhaps, the exercise helped me to connect the projects into some semblance of order.  Telling a story, after all, involves the imposition of a frame, and the one I've sketched here is about a particular strand of urban anthropology in a complex city.  

In the end, this looks to me like an interesting way to do a research prospectus for a job application or a tenure and promotion file.  It allows you to locate your research in space and narrate connections between otherwise disparate projects.  I could extend this to my research in Baltimore as well and create a storymap that could introduce work I've done over the last 20 years.  

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Remembrance of SETI’s Past

(I participated in a workshop organized by two anthropologists studying SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence): Claire Webb and Michael Oman-Reagan.  The topic called for us to think broadly about the future in relation to SETI.  My own contribution revolves around the SETI/METI divide and the question of time.)

As Pioneer crafts hurtle off into interstellar space with their plaques celebrating Eurocentric, heteronormative humanity atop a school-child’s depiction of the solar system, people have inevitably thought of better things they could have sent to the stars.  These have been the subject of numerous discussions and Kickstarter campaigns.  But all of these concerns and alternative plans reflect on one of the chief obstacles to communication with ETI—coevalness.  SETI doesn’t take place in coeval timespace; even signals to (or from) nearby systems (e.g., Proxima Centauri) take a few light years to reach there.  Their past is our present; our past is their present.  Whether we are listening for “their” signal, communicating “ours” or some combination, we do so through a time machine that denies the coevalness of the encounter.  SF writers have utilized a variety of devices to surmount these temporal obstacles, e.g., Le Guin’s ansible (first appearing in her 1966 Rocannon’s World), but the problem of communication (rather than just signal detection) remains.  More recently, SF fiction and film have gravitated back to the question of coevalness, notably in the 2016 film Arrival (based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 “Story of Your Life”) and the 2014 film Interstellar.  And even though these mark a departure from the ansible-like plot devices, they ultimately revolve around questions of coevalness. In Arrival, Louise Banks learns an alien language that is premised on strikingly different temporalities—past, present and future circle back on one another in a non-linear way.  And with her language acquisition, Banks becomes aware of the future (remembered as her past), in such a way that allows her to intervene in the present.  With Interstellar, it’s the protagonist, Cooper, who falls into a tesseract which allows him to manipulate the past in order to allow his daughter to develop the technologies that will liberate humanity from a dying Earth.  Strictly speaking, the alien is ancillary to both of these films.  In Arrival, we see aliens through a translucent screen and, in Interstellar, Cooper’s daughter misrecognizes the dust patterns as a ghostly, alien-like communication.  Really, it’s the humans that matter.  In Arrival, the plot hinges on very human problems of war, aggression and cooperation—with the aliens remaining enigmatic and part of the film’s mise en scène rather than active agents.  In Interstellar, of course, the dust patterns and the watch-face manipulations come from Cooper himself.  However: the importance of these films is not their novel approach to communication with ETI; it is, simply, the importance of communicating with ourselves across temporalities.  In other words, finding a coeval timespace to communicate with the alien is a symptom of our own problems communicating between human futures and human pasts and, in the process, coming to terms with a present in which both the past is interpolated into the future, and the future in the past. 

With Pioneer and Voyager, our future contact is premised on our past assumptions about science, philosophy, aesthetics and political economy.  They are—strictly speaking—communications with our past that lie in our future, with an “us” that is already alien(ated) to us.  Is this inevitable?  Or is it (pace Arrival) an artifact of Western temporalities that position past, present and future along a line like the solar system in the Pioneer plaques?  How can we think about that in a way that doesn’t reproduce “the future” as superannuated past?

Why would this matter?  Here, the Other we encounter is our past--the assumptions we make about ourselves and the assumptions we make about extraterrestrial intelligence.  Even if we concede that others whose signals we might detect labor under the same time machine conditions that we do, there is no certainty that the face the same problem of coevalness.  Ours is a product of Western ethnocentrism, modernity and, perhaps, the duration of the human.  But even Earthly species experience markedly different temporalities than the scientists who search signals from other places and other times.  It seems likely that the problem of coeval timescapes doesn’t look the same elsewhere.  


Sunday, April 22, 2018

Tracking the conversation from Displacements

The joint SCA/SVA "Displacements" conference has come to an end (although the archived presentations will remain up until the end of the month).  By all accounts, this virtual conference has been a success, but I wanted to probe the extent to which the conference brought together people across diverse locations.  Although we have some sense of this from the "Nodes" (local groups of face-to-face meetings and events surrounding the conference), Twitter may be a more important index, since that social media emerged as the most generative form of communication over the past few days.

Using NodeXL, I downloaded tweets with the #displace18 hashtag, and grouped them by timezone.  Here is the sociograph I generated:

And here's a key to the groups (which may help with some of the smaller ones in the lower, right-hand corner). 

Pacific Time (US & Canada) 0, 12, 96 Disk     Pacific Time (US & Canada)  
Eastern Time (US & Canada) 0, 136, 227 Disk     Eastern Time (US & Canada)  
London 0, 100, 50 Disk     London  
Central Time (US & Canada) 0, 176, 22 Disk     Central Time (US & Canada)  
Atlantic Time (Canada) 191, 0, 0 Disk     Atlantic Time (Canada)  
Quito 230, 120, 0 Disk     Quito  
Arizona 255, 191, 0 Disk     Arizona  
Amsterdam 150, 200, 0 Disk     Amsterdam  
Sydney 200, 0, 120 Disk     Sydney  
New Delhi 77, 0, 96 Disk     New Delhi  
Hawaii 91, 0, 191 Disk     Hawaii  
Greenland 0, 98, 130 Disk     Greenland  
Paris 0, 12, 96 Solid Square     Paris  
Istanbul 0, 136, 227 Solid Square     Istanbul  
Jakarta 0, 100, 50 Solid Square     Jakarta  
Wellington 0, 176, 22 Solid Square     Wellington  
Edinburgh 191, 0, 0 Solid Square     Edinburgh  
Chennai 230, 120, 0 Solid Square     Chennai  
Mexico City 255, 191, 0 Solid Square     Mexico City  
Berlin 150, 200, 0 Solid Square     Berlin  
Seoul 200, 0, 120 Solid Square     Seoul  
Tokyo 77, 0, 96 Solid Square     Tokyo  
Bogota 91, 0, 191 Solid Square     Bogota  
Casablanca 0, 98, 130 Solid Square     Casablanca  
Mountain Time (US & Canada) 0, 12, 96 Solid Diamond     Mountain Time (US & Canada)  
Alaska 0, 136, 227 Solid Diamond     Alaska  
Helsinki 0, 100, 50 Solid Diamond     Helsinki  
Brisbane 0, 176, 22 Solid Diamond     Brisbane  
Melbourne 191, 0, 0 Solid Diamond     Melbourne  
Ljubljana 230, 120, 0 Solid Diamond     Ljubljana  
Vienna 255, 191, 0 Solid Diamond     Vienna  
Athens 150, 200, 0 Solid Diamond     Athens  
Lima 200, 0, 120 Solid Diamond     Lima  
Taipei 77, 0, 96 Solid Diamond     Taipei  
Dublin 91, 0, 191 Solid Diamond     Dublin  
Singapore 0, 98, 130 Solid Diamond     Singapore  
Beijing 0, 12, 96 Solid Triangle     Beijing  
Stockholm 0, 136, 227 Solid Triangle     Stockholm  
Tijuana 0, 100, 50 Solid Triangle     Tijuana  
International Date Line West 0, 176, 22 Solid Triangle     International Date Line West  
Brussels 191, 0, 0 Solid Triangle     Brussels  
Muscat 230, 120, 0 Solid Triangle     Muscat  
Tehran 255, 191, 0 Solid Triangle     Tehran  
America/Los_Angeles 150, 200, 0 Solid Triangle     America/Los_Angeles  
Europe/Brussels 200, 0, 120 Solid Triangle     Europe/Brussels  
America/Montreal 77, 0, 96 Solid Triangle     America/Montreal  
Nairobi 91, 0, 191 Solid Triangle     Nairobi  
Buenos Aires 0, 98, 130 Solid Triangle     Buenos Aires  
Santiago 0, 12, 96 Sphere     Santiago  
Perth 0, 136, 227 Sphere     Perth  
Hong Kong 0, 100, 50 Sphere     Hong Kong  
Brasilia 0, 176, 22 Sphere     Brasilia  
Mumbai 191, 0, 0 Sphere     Mumbai  
Pretoria 230, 120, 0 Sphere     Pretoria  
Bangkok 255, 191, 0 Sphere     Bangkok  
Midway Island 150, 200, 0 Sphere     Midway Island  
America/Belem 200, 0, 120 Sphere     America/Belem  
Bern 77, 0, 96 Sphere     Bern  
UTC 91, 0, 191 Sphere     UTC  
America/New_York 0, 98, 130 Sphere     America/New_York  
Abu Dhabi 0, 12, 96 Circle     Abu Dhabi  
Europe/Amsterdam 0, 136, 227 Circle     Europe/Amsterdam  
Irkutsk 0, 100, 50 Circle     Irkutsk  
Asia/Singapore 0, 176, 22 Circle     Asia/Singapore  
La Paz 191, 0, 0 Circle     La Paz  
Madrid 230, 120, 0 Circle     Madrid  
Prague 255, 191, 0 Circle     Prague  
Europe/Rome 150, 200, 0 Circle     Europe/Rome  

What we can see here is some significant traffic between different zones, particularly (but not exclusively) between North America and Europe.  Traffic is generally in the form of re-tweets. I was pleased to see the lively Quito node!

I'm still processing my thoughts about the conference, but I am steadfast in my belief that this represents a real alternative to the disciplinary mega-conference.