Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Little Korean Science Fiction: 카이와판돔의 번역에 과하여 (Concerning the Translation of Kaiwapandom)

Lee Young-do's "Concerning the Translation of Kaiwapandom" appeared in an anthology of Korean science fiction, Alternative Dream, in 2007. Like many of his sf contemporaries, Lee's work was first available online--with all the advantages and disadvantages that it implies. That medium may be ideal for the world's most wired nation, but it has also served to limit the foreign, scholarly audience for this work. Translators, after all, are less likely to invest their energies in a medium that is, by definition, shifting and protean. So it's nice when presses like 황금가지 (Hwanggeumgaji) publish these collections of stories. As for translators--well, as you see below, I'm not much of one. But I have tried to give you a sense of this interesting story. You can find another translation of the story at Crossroads, an online journal of science and culture published by the Asia Pacific Center for Theoretical Physics. And, in that vein, if you're interested in an English introduction to Korean Science Fiction, you can visit Gord Sellar's blog for a taste of his Korean sf visionquest.

Ultimately, "Kaiwanpandom" is a story steeped in anthropology--a tale about linguistics, language survival and Korean unification--and an ultimately optimistic vision of Korean cultural futures.

The obvious target of Lee's story is the blatant linguistic imperialism in mainstream US- and English sf. How many sf stories hinge on some kind of standard language spoken across a galaxy? How many stories project a future where the people of Earth speak only English? One of the many ironies of golden-age sf is that, in the act of discovering a diversity of intelligent life in the universe, people lose their linguistic and cultural diversity.

Of course, this is a common sense understanding of linguistic hegemony that writers in the US and other English-speaking countries are steeped in and rarely question, a kind of linguistic social Darwinism that not only naturalizes the present dominance of English but also projects it into a future where a monolingual world is an inevitable product of the progress into space.

It is here that "Kaiwapandom" begins. Aliens have made contact with Earth through a kind of receiver system called an "ansible". A dictionary of Galactic Standard has been compiled. But now, the work of cultural translation has begun--starting with mythology (the basics, as it were). After a disastrous attempt to translate one myth (destroying much of California), the alien governing body has initiated an exchange of mythology with the Witanians.

They have sent a kind of alien Cinderella--"Kaiwanpandom". Interpreters around the world are striving to translate cultural texts from the the alien tongue. But, here, there is already the politics of language at stake--it is the "Galactic Standard-English" dictionary that is produced first, after all. Will other Earth languages be swept aside for a single language to communicate with Galactic Standard? Especially since the stakes are so high--the transfer of unimaginable technologies.

But not everyone may view this as a spectacular crisis. As Teacher Lee--the interpreter engaged by some government body to work on the Korean translation in some undisclosed location in the mountains north of Seoul--explains to her bodyguard, Captain Bak (formerly of the North Korean People's Army), you have to take the long view:

We don't know how many viewpoints have disappeared. In reality, other language users take over; in the last century, capitalism was like that, and now it's aliens. Both don't use the languages of other people. [ . . .] When barbarians appear speaking other languages, as a rule they are assimilated or killed off. After this present resistance ends, the Earth will quickly unify under a common language. It's highly possible that will be English. (80)

But there are those that would oppose this change. There's a guerrilla resistance movement to the incursion of alien culture--the "Earthers" (지구주의자). Their goal is to advance a kind of xenophobic agenda--and they have actively tried to stop the translation of the alien myth into Earth languages.

Even though it seems like a long shot that the Earthers would be after the Korean translation, Teacher Lee explains that, since she is the only real authority on Galactic Standard in Korea, knocking her out would eliminate the whole process of Korean translation altogether. So, in the midst of her work on the translation, the Earthers attack. That's where Captain Bak comes in--jumping in defense of both Teacher Lee and of the Korean language in general.

That is, not only is Captain Bak (as her bodyguard) key to her physical survival, he also articulates the importance of Korea's linguistic survival. His first point concerns the widely held opinion (in Korea, anyway) that Korean is the most logical and scientific of the world's languages, one that Teacher Lee pessimistically dismisses.

"Suppose that it comes to light that the easiest language with which to understand Witan is Korean? What then?"

"Manx may be the closest language to Witan. Yahi or Katavaka may be as well. But in the last century capitalism did away with these languages. And there was no problem with the suitability of these languages.

"This is natural law. It doesn't matter how beautiful or how special the languages that have disappeared are, Only power is important. Because this is natural law I don't get angry or try to resist." (84)

But, despite Teacher Lee's defeatist rendition of linguistic history, Captain Bak doesn't give up. As the two escape from the clutches of the terrorists, Bak pieces together a politics of Korean language survival in the age of Galactic standard.

That politics is premised on his own experiences of what appears to have been a one-sided reunification of North and South Korea--i.e., one where South Korea assimilates the North.

"Teacher Lee, what can you understand if you lose the Fatherland (조국) and the language of the fatherland?
[ . . .]
Now I'm Captain Bak. But at one time I was Bak Weon-jin, an officer of the North Korean People's Army (조선인민군). But it's an even more strange evil to remember that when's there's no longer any position from which to use that name.
[ . . .]
I'm sure you're right when you assert that the weak disappear and the strong proliferate. I've suffered this first hand. I'm talking about cultural language. Korean too will disappear. And some day the world and Witan too."
[ . . .]
"Captain Bak, you're talking about an even larger extinction than I was. Given that, doesn't that make it even more useless?"

"It's not so much extinction as giving up. For adults to arrive at that place you have to give up on your children." (88)

In the end, it's Captain Bak who saves them both from the terrorists. And Korean proves important, after all, in conceptualizing gender terms in Witan (92). One of the translation problems dogging them is the existence of three genders--Woman, Man(1) and Man(2)--each of which can be placed together in any combination to produce different, gendered offspring.

Then there are occasions in Witan when different [gender] combinations are possible. Two women coupled together produce a daughter and a woman coupled with a man(1) produced Man(2) sons. If a combination of three people--two women and a man(1)--is achieved, then you can have a daughter and a man(2) son; three people consisting of one woman, one man(1) and one man(2) give birth to boys of each type. Then if Witanians want to reproduce all of the genders, how do they have to combine?"

"You would need a combination of two women, one man(1) and one man(2)." (92)

This ideal combination of four people as a basic unit for reproducing all genders in Witanian society is known as a Kaiwanpandom. Translated, Teacher Lee decides on "온가시버시" (Ongasibeosi) which we might translate into English as "whole couple."

It's important here that they use "온가시버시"--i.e., combining the pure Korean "온" (on) with the pure Korean "가시버시" (gasibeosi) rather than the Sino-Korean 부부 (bubu). Somehow, this is a better translation of Kaiwapandom than one in Sino-Korean (or in English).

The obvious meanings here include both the survival of Korean in a future dominated by powerful and imperialistic hegemons (i.e., the US). But also the sense of a reunified Korea being one that brings together a combination of different peoples and different customs in order to found a whole. In other words, both Teacher Lee (the embodiment of South Korea's knowledge society) and Captain Bak (the representative of the perpetually militarized North) need to come together to found a stronger, lasting Korean peninsula. The last scene finds Captain Bak giving Teacher Lee cigarettes in the hospital--dreams of unified future, after all.

And there's an argument here for linguistic diversity in general. Implicit in "Kaiwapandom" is the idea that the world is better for the different perspectives different languages bring. And even more than this, that linguistic diversity may be one of the best resources we have for adapting to perpetually changing (and perpetually surprising) cultural futures. The other side to this argument is the acknowledgment that a monolingual future is an ultimately impoverished one.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Book review: Cory Doctorow's Makers

Cory Doctorow should have been an anthropologist; or, rather, he is--a nonce anthropologist of his corner of information society. Doctorow is a veteran activist, best known for his work in electronic media and civil liberties. His technical background, together with his considerable experience in policy and political activism, makes him the ultimate anthropological insider--few writers are as dead-on in their descriptions of geek-dom in general, and his policy writings give his work a level of accessibility that would otherwise be missing.

Makers is in many ways the synthesis of his work in science fiction, activism and what might best be described as self-entrepreneurship. As such it is a profoundly reflexive work: Doctorow blogs on about people who re-combine the dross of consumer society into new forms, clever hacks, ironic parodies. Makers extrapolates on these smaller-scale inventions into a description of a new economic system (the 'new work'), as seen through the eyes of the blogger who loves it (the journalist-cum-blogger Suzanne Church). At the same time, Doctorow is re-cycling and re-using his own materials in Makers, returning to Disney once again (pace Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom), and to 3-D volumetric printing (which appears in at least one of his stories, "After the Siege"). And finally, he's opening his work to re-use and re-mixing through his creative commons licensing, itself an intellectual property hack on par with the inventions of his two protagonists, Lester and Perry.

The "New Work" that Makers introduces expounds on the ethics of re-using and re-mixing, combining technologies, trash, abandoned buildings, polluted factories and everything else in a post-industrial "future" America (that exists in many places right now in the present) and using that to create something else.

It starts with Lester and Perry in their junk-yard laboratory on the borders of an abandoned Wal-Mart in Florida, but then blossoms into rapidly brachiating micro-enterprising fuelling the creative urges of an underemployed and de-skilled lumpenproletariat.

As Lester and Perry later eulogize in a "new work" theme park,




In the end, the company that was bankrolling most of the new work start-ups ("Kodacell") goes bankrupt, throwing everyone out of work again in another paroxysm of “creative destruction,” but the boys trudge on, re-using the wrack of new work in their project. The "new work" may have been beaten by specters of shareholder value, but the entrepreneurial spirit lives on!

Some of the early reviews of this work have applauded the way the entrepreneurial spirit remains unconquered--indeed, the final paragraphs of Makers find Lester and Perry, now at the end of their lives, toiling over their next mash-up invention:
The scene inside the workshop was eerie. Perry and Lester stood next to each other, cheek by jowl, hunched over something on the workbench. Perry had a computer open in front of him, and he was typing, Lester holding something out of sight.

How many times had she seen this tableau? How many afternoons had she spent in the workshop in Florida, watching them hack a robot, build a sculpture, turn out the latest toy for Tjan’s amusement, Kettlewell’s enrichment? The postures were identical—though their bodies had changed, the hair thinner and grayer. Like someone had frozen one of those innocent moments in time for a decade, then retouched it with wizening makeup and hair-dye.

Is this a celebration? Sure, there's something to the idea that human creativity perseveres despite age and economic collapse. But I don't believe Doctorow is so optimistic. The novel, after all, is not just about the "entrepreneurial spirit"--it's about the imagination trammeled under the profit imperatives of a ravenous corporate capitalism that ruins everything it touches, turning the revolutionary hack into the bland recapitulations of the same.

After all, it's the vagaries of the market that sinks the "New Work," Disney lawsuits that ravage the participatory, recombinant "cabinet of wonders", and, finally, the dictees of the market that turn 3D volumetric printing from a tool for hackers and reuse into the catalyst for a renewed era of Disney dominance. It is even the market that turns the "fatkins" treatment--a biological hack applying genetic therapy and pharmaceuticals to speed the metabolism of fat Americans--into a death sentence of organ failure and osteoporosis. At every turn, what begins as potentially liberating--or at least cheeky--techno-tinkering turns into a source of corporate profit, after which Lester and Perry move on.

This is, finally, what drives Perry out of the whole game altogether. Washing his hands of his partnerships, he becomes a bricoleur-drifter, unwilling to stay put long enough to build more tech for the commodity machine.

Lester is less of a cynic, and ends up at what appears to be a kind of Disney think tank. But there, his experiences are little better, and he ends up with the same kind of sad realizations.

“They said that they wanted me to come in and help them turn the place around, help them reinvent themselves. Be nimble. Shake things up. But it’s like wrestling a tar-baby. You push, you get stuck. You argue for something better and they tell you to write a report, then no one reads the report. You try to get an experimental service running and no one will reconfigure the firewall. Turn the place around?” He snorted. “It’s like turning around a battleship by tapping it on the nose with a toothpick.”

That is, rather than the "entrepreneurial spirit," there another spirit altogether haunting this novel: the spirit of money.

As Christopher Bracken writes (only partly in irony) of this omnipotent spirit,

It is the pure potential for appropriation. Hence it is the most powerful kind of spirit there is [ . . .] Although money is a "mere thing," still in some ways it is more human than I am. I possess only some human potentialities. Money possesses them "all." How did it come to have more "human abilities" than humans do? And how did we trade places with a thing?

More than the straw man villains who harry our protagonists (a vengeful journalist and a Disney executive), it is this money spirit that swallows up everything the inventors produce. It is the "third man" in Doctorow's novel--the genius loci that hastens the entropy of ideas. Kettlewell, the venture capitalist, opines in the opening paragraphs of the novel,

“Capitalism is eating itself. The market works, and when it works, it commodifies or obsoletes everything. That’s not to say that there’s no money out there to be had, but the money won’t come from a single, monolithic product line. The days of companies with names like ’General Electric’ and ’General Mills’ and ’General Motors’ are over. The money on the table is like krill: a billion little entrepreneurial opportunities that can be discovered and exploited by smart, creative people.

But, in the end, capitalism is still eating itself. And Lester and Perry manage to hold out longer than most (416 pages in the printed edition!), but they succumb to death and the bottom-line in the end, just like everyone else.

So, in a way, this is Doctorow's most bleak novel yet (and he has drawn on the dystopian muse before)--not the triumph of ideas, but the triumph of capitalism and commodification over ideas. And while we’re meant to feel empathy for the two inventors, there’s some finger-pointing here as well. Why can’t Lester and Perry see that their nerdy coke-can computer ultimately strengthens the system it was supposed to poke fun at? Why don’t they ever come up with a really new work, one that doesn’t end up on a balance sheet? And what would that mean? Can we even conceive of intellectual creativity outside of the market?

Bracken, Christopher (2007). Magical Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Networked Rise of Network Society: A Review of This is Not a Game by Walter Jon Williams

We all know we live in a network society. But what does that mean? And what does knowing that mean for networked society? In his latest novel, This Is Not a Game (Orbit Books, 2009), Williams explores several themes, among them massive alternate reality games (ARG) and global capitalism, all in the context of the well-known "small world" thesis--the idea (pioneered by Stanley Milgram, among many others) that all of us our connected to each other along short chains of acquaintances. There have been other novels exploring the "six degrees of separation" idea, of course, but this is the Web 2.0 release--think David Lodge's Small World with more computing power and less spleen.

In Williams's novel, four friends who gamed together at Caltech--Dagmar, Charlie, Austin and BJ--find their futures revolving around a massive alternate reality game called The Long Night of Briana Hall (or, alternatively, Motel Room Blues). The details of the game itself are somewhat obscure. Pace ARG's in general, players traipse across real and virtual space to discover clues, all under the direction of Dagmar in her role as game designer and "puppetmaster" pulling the strings of this emergent narrative.

But, of course, there are problems--Dagmar's boss (and old friend) Charlie seems to be bent on micromanaging her game for his own ends, Austin is mercilessly gunned down by a Latvian assassin, BJ again becomes part of Dagmar's life. In other words, the logical extension of the "This Is Not a Game" design ethic:
TINAG--this is not a game. The game only worked when both players and puppetmasters acted as if everything was real. (138)

But although ARG's are nothing new in fiction (and their presence here is testament to Williams's own experiences and skills as a gamer and game designer), what is interesting in this novel is the way Williams harnesses the network itself as a deus ex machina and novum for his story--the network made up of "millions" of players, an unbelievably tiny number of whom post rather unbelievably literate postings on the game's discussion board, "Our Reality Network".

Here, Williams develops the other idea underlying much of contemporary interest in networks: the strength of weak ties. In a virally popular paper originally published in the American Journal of Sociology, Mark Granovetter argued that the intimate circle of friends with whom we ordinarily "network" is not really useful for something like gaining employment. Your friends are, after all, most likely in the same lousy boat you are viz. employment. Instead, what you rely on are "weak ties"--acquaintances only weakly connected back to your network. And this makes complete sense; after all, opportunity doesn't knock every day. And 'seizing' opportunity involves, by definition, some kind of risk.

This insight becomes especially important in the age of Facebook, when social networking sites stimulate the multiplication of weak ties. In Williams's book, the Long Night of Briana Hall creates a vast network of weak ties to be mobilized by Dagmar for various, utilitarian purposes--saving her life in the first pages of the novel, solving the mystery in the final pages. This is what Dagmar thinks of as:
the Group Mind, lots of little autonomous agents out in the world, each with a skill set and a knowledge set, each with her own motivations, her own joys, her own alternate reality, all networked together in the great gestalt, the great becoming, that was the world. (365)
That is, the online network created by the ARG allows Dagmar access to "short chains" that connect her with resources around the world--highly proprietary financial information, contact with Indonesian para-military groups, etc. Dagmar's network folds and connects in more-or-less believable ways--players know someone who knows someone, resources are mobilized and the plot moves along.

But there's something disingenuous here as well, as one of the posters to "Our Reality network" reflects:
We're used to following the whims of puppetmasters, but puppetmasters with real-world policies are another matter. Is this a good idea? Should we follow anyone who provides what they say is entertainment, even if it comes with an ideology? (365-66)

That is, the vast networks of weak ties that people cultivate today are their own raison d'etre. Do people accumulate hundreds of 'friends' on Facebook with an agenda? Is there an underlying purpose to working on one's room in Cyworld?

As a plot device, the social networking that Williams describes works well, but still, I think, doesn't capture the semi-altruism of social networking, i.e., that it is an end in itself. Or, rather, Williams just gives us one side: the neo-liberal social networking where all of us our reduced to obsessively chasing down our network contacts on LinkedIn, nonce Willy Lomans employed in selling ourselves. But the other side is a strange altruism, where weak ties are their own reward, and where social networking seems to take on the kinds of importance once granted to kinship (not that kinship isn't shot through with utilitarianism).

To me, it's this circular logic that's the most interesting (and perhaps most profound) dimension to social networking. People accord importance to the cultivation of weak ties; they develop countless software applications helping people to cultivate, maintain and and manage weak ties; these networks of weak ties confirm the importance of weak ties.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Book Review, The City and the City: China Mieville and the Revival of Anthropological Science Fiction

I have often suggested that China Mieville is the best new writer of anthropological science fiction, although appending the word "anthropological" to his stuff suggests the extent to which anthropology has changed in the time since the concept was coined in the 1960's. (Although, see a March 2009 interview Mieville did with Ursula K. Le Guin (posted on her website in the MP3s section)). Mieville's Bachelor's degree is in social anthropology (at Cambridge), and reading King Rat or Perdido Street Station makes me think of Marilyn Strathern's work, with a thick dose of Donna Haraway: lots of hybridity, fecund sites of emergence of new forms of life that combine biological and machinic into fantastic topologies, all shot through with a sense of postcolonial theory and a strong grounding in Marxism. Chad Oliver (my favorite anthropological science fiction ancestor) would, I think, not really have liked his stuff, and I'm not even sure that Mieville himself would particularly identify his work as anthropological. He certainly doesn't in a 2003 interview in Science Fiction Studies with Joan Gordon. There, he includes among his influences 1) his teenage fascination with RPGs; 2) his interest in postcolonial writers; and 3) his commitment to socialism. If anything, anthropology is presented as a negative dialectic leading him to reject postmodernity (then still fashionable in anthropology), and embrace a broader critique of capitalism.

But readers of The City & The City will find this his most anthropological to date--theoretically rich, critical, and ultimately subversive of contemporary militancy. The story (and I will not include spoilers here) concerns two cities (Beszel and Ul Qoma) that co-exist, one interpellated into the other at various, fractal places. Not surprisingly, a variety of institutional orders exist to police the sites where the two cities "cross-hatch," including educational programs to "unsee" the other city as well as a mysterious, vaguely para-human force (breach) to police unlawful incursions into one place from another.

That this is absolutely believable is testament to the 21st century explosion of "spaces of exception"--all of variously enfeoffed "zones" that proliferate along the edges of capital and empire, marking off places for foreign capital investment, for the suspension of one governing system for another (think Kaesong industrial complex at the border of North and South Korea), for the suspension of citizen rights or even (after Agamben) human rights: refugee camps, the chicanery of international "internship" visas, etc. When we hear, as we have now daily for years, about Bagdhad's "Green Zone," Guantanomo on the edge of Cuba, occupied territories, what we're really doing is witnessing the ability of law and politics to create hybrid spaces within nations--what Mieville calls in the context of his novel "interstitial" spaces.

Take a conventional topographic narrative--say Dickens' Tale of Two Cities--and then fold it on itself like a Mobius strip. That's the theory behind Mieville's novel (although his narrative takes a more familiar, linear form). But, in a real sense, it's also exactly the situation for much of the world's population today, all of whom, and with varying degrees of choice, shift between legal, political, social and cultural orders in a world where borders are mobile, but still very real. So: in the grand tradition of sf dating back to at least More's Utopia, Mieville describes the present through his oeuvre. And really, only through sf is this kind of description of hyper-reality possible (Mieville, I think, would not appreciate the Baudrillard reference).

The underlying message in this is the question of the ends of interpretation, the goal of analysis. Should we frolic in the interstices of global capitalism (a la postmodern jouissance) or should we solve its crime. It's no whim that leads Mieville into this uneasy amalgam of sf, fantasy and detective fiction. The city, as Poe and Benjamin knew, demands a detective--the desire to follow the thread of the crime back to its source. In the figure of Inspector Tyador Borlu lies the moral imperative to expose the workings of power beneath the phantasmagoria of interpenetrating boundaries and identities.

It is a clarion call for us to investigate the interstices of our own cities--to "breach" the ideologies that naturalize the logic of exception, and follow the crimes back to the powerful forces behind them.

Friday, March 6, 2009

My interest in anthropological futures

My own entry into anticipatory anthropology started with my dissertation work, research that forms the basis for my forthcoming book, Library of Walls: Contradictions of Information Society at the Library of Congress. In the 1990s, the Library of Congress was just beginning its “National Digital Library” program, involving, among other things, the large-scale digitization of multimedia collections and their placement online. This was a technically formidable project, but it also served to telescope the hopes and fears of Library staff and users at the Library for the future. Examining my informant’s narratives about what the coming “digital library” would mean for their work and research revealed a great deal of ambivalence about both the project’s viability and its relationship to information society in general. But these did not simply fall into neatly contained categories of “computopian” and “computropian” (these are David Hakken’s terms), optimistic technophile and sullen Luddite. Instead, people were keenly aware of both the new connections this experiment in information society would enable as well as the ways in which it would lead to new forms of inequality and disenfranchisement. This was a much more complex projection for information society—considered not as the autochthonous development of information technologies but as multifarious shifts in work, social life and culture—an ultimately deeply contradictory prognostication that, over the past ten years since my original field research, has largely come to pass.

I have taken this more nuanced approach to the future of information society in a variety of settings. One of the most fruitful has been my collaborations with computer scientists and robotics engineers—researches undertaken to utilize anthropological ideas to interrogate and critique linear and one-dimensional models of technologically-informed human futures. Our lives are being profoundly shaped (albeit not deterministically) by our interactions with a variety of non-human agents—including the many variously intelligent agents that guide (or goad) us along in the Internet. And yet, most working on the development of these non-human agents have utilized only crude (and even procrustean) models of human behavior grounded in what they believe to be “universal” attributes (cognitive, psychological, social and cultural) of Homo sapiens. One of my goals in collaborating with these engineers has been to act as a catalyst for the generation of alternative (e.g., less ethnocentric and less androcentric) models of the human in order to suggest new human agent/non-human agent hybrids, hybrids that we begin to explore in Handbook of Research on Agent-Based Societies.

In my mind, this is one of anthropology’s greatest resources—the ability to question (if not entirely overcome) hide-bound assumptions in order to open up the space for the imagination of alternatives to an ethnocentric present people assume will continue into an endless future. Accordingly, I began to explore the way anthropology has dealt with the “future,” not just as a theme in anthropological writings, but as a site for the interaction of anthropologists with non-anthropologists in futurology, political science and public policy. The result is my All Tomorrow’s Cultures: Anthropological Engagements with the Future, part historic review of anthropological futures, part plea for redoubling our efforts to impact the ways the future is imagined in government, international relations and other parts of the academy. Whether I’m discussing Margaret Mead’s or Reed Riner’s contributions to anthropological futures or critiquing nineteenth century “survivals” in anthropological writings on the future of race and multicultural society, my goal in the book is to both demonstrate the centrality of the future to anthropology and to salvage some of the our insights in order to stimulate futures premised on difference and diversity.

I have tried to do the same thing in the classroom, and have utilized a variety of methods (including simulations and highly abbreviated forms of Delphi and Ethnographic Futures Research) to elicit narratives about the future from my students, texts that we then have used less to actually predict than to critique the kinds of assumptions people bring to their expectations for the future, assumptions that rest on remarkably homogeneous ideas about the continued geopolitical dominance of the United States and the inevitability of Huntington’s “clash of civilizations”. Moving towards possible alternatives means interrogating these assumptions for what they are—bland recapitulations of the ideological present imprisoning us in ethnocentric (and tempocentric) assumptions that have already proven disastrous for our world.

Here, my experience in the classroom has informed my current research: ethnographic futures research on Korean reunification. I ran similar future elicitations with college students and adult informants in Seoul when I was there on a Fulbright from 2006-2007. Those narratives revolved around the possibilities and pitfalls of reunification and, in particular, the kind of imagined future of a unified Korea, a future with one leg in an imagined past. Examining these narratives suggests the idea of a nation grounded in the “old” Joseon Dynasty (that last dynasty before the Japanese colonized Korea in 1910) while at the same time projecting a new, national space where “distortions” introduced in the colonial era will be resolved and Korea will (re)attain its rightful place among nations in the world. While the policy work and economic studies of institutions such as South Korea’s Ministry of Unification are, of course, vital to the success of a united peninsula, it is, I believe, the quotidian imagination of a unified Korea which will have the greatest impact upon the eventual shape of a north-south agreement, conceived, not just as a treaty or a series of policy initiatives, but as a social fact.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Tomorrow, Networks!

Laney reaches up and removes the bulky, old-fashioned eyephones. Yamazaki cannot see what outputs to them, but the shifting light from the display reveals Laney’s hollowed eyes. “It’s all going to change, Yamazaki. We’re coming up on the mother or all nodal points. I can see it, now. It’s all going to change. (William Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties, 1999, p. 4)

Two of William Gibson’s science fiction novels—Idoru and All Tomorrow’s Parties—feature Colin Laney, a online researcher whose particular talents allow him to identify networks on the cusp of becoming, the “nodal points” where people, ideas and technologies from disparate corners of the globe come together in surprising, paradigm-shattering ways.
Gibson’s networks are the speculative shadows of the more quotidian networks capitalized on by entrepreneurs of computer mediated social networking, each of whom attempts to cash in on the “network” as an object to be constructed, maintained. And yet, as the Gibson quote suggests, “networks” always simultaneously exist in the penumbra of becoming—we can attempt to describe their parameters, but their ultimate configuration is in a process of continuous becoming. From the perspective of activists trying to intervene in the world in order to bring together
“Networks” are the perfect example of the “boundary object” for the information age. They are “real” in that we can characterize them qualitatively and quantitatively, but they are also shifting, protean, temporary and chiasmic. “Networks” are the preferred form of social life and social interaction in an ICT-mediated world, yet they represent utopian alternatives to the present arising “from below” and self-organizing through horizontal chains rather than more vertical forms of governmentality. In a world still dominated by verticality, networked socialites represent possibilities for other kinds of realities—at once more participatory and more democratic.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Previewing Post-Capitalism

How many books are there (in anthropology and elsewhere) describing/advocating/conjuring up "post-socialism"? I'm looking at one right now entitled, appropriately enough, "Post-Socialism" by Maruska Svasek (Berghahn Books, 2006). But, as lay-offs continue and plans to nationalize industries multiply, where are the texts on "post-capitalism"? I don't know about you, but it's sent me scurrying to my bookshelf to re-read my Kim Stanley Robinson! For most, "post-capitalism" refers to a miscellaneous theories for either "next" stages (a la Drucker), or alternatives to corporate capitalism (like various tracts on "participatory" economies). But perhaps the more anthropological take on this would be an economy of "shreds and patches" (to commit unspeakable violence to Robert Lowie) made up of the residue of dominant capitalism together with a thousand heterogeneous practices that make up the barely sublimated unconscious of economic life--in short, just the sort of bricolage that anthroplogists explicate every day in the lives of actual people who find themselves on the receiving end of IMF structural adjustments and other forms of economic violence.

This is the kind of post-capitalism I'd like to see elaborated, and, despite Robinson's own penchant for utopian system-building, not far off from what he does in the Mars triology, which--in a kind of Baconian way--takes the kinds of reciprocities and exchanges common to scientific communities as a starting point for a Martian economy.