A bit of a preamble… over the past weekend, the Yale Faculty resolution aimed at the Yale-NUS College was front-page news over 2 days (April 6 and April 8) in Singapore. My reaction is as follows. It is a polemic (to match that of the resolution). It will probably make some think I’m a ‘running dog’ of authoritarian states, but I hope most readers will see that is not the point… So, here it goes…
As an American citizen, long-time resident of Singapore and National University of Singapore faculty member*, I am deeply dismayed by the widely reported resolution on the Yale-NUS college recently passed by faculty of Yale University. It is not clear what the objectives of this resolution were. Reading many articles quoting Yale faculty, there seem to have been multiple, cross-cutting reasons for their support of the resolution. Many of these have to do with internal debates over governance within Yale University. The unfortunate effect of the resolution outside of Yale, and specifically within Singapore, has been to reinforce the worst stereotypes of American high-handed arrogance and general lack of knowledge of the world beyond America’s borders.
While commentary around the resolution suggest that many of Yale’s faculty’s concerns were aimed at Yale’s corporate governance, the resolution itself says nothing of this. Rather, the resolution aims its criticism squarely at Singapore and the Singapore government. The wording of the resolution, citing a “history of lack of respect for civil and political rights” suggests that the vitriol is aimed not at contemporary Singapore, but a stereotype of Singapore’s past. Are America or any other country free from such histories? On a grand scale, Singapore would score pretty well against countries that have had systems of slavery, genocide against native populations, political repression (such as McCarthyism), and profit-driven military interventionism, just to name a few things that might make one wary of partnering with an American university that has long been a bastion of that country’s elite establishment.
Why is Singapore singled out for this criticism, when Yale has many overseas partnerships and involvements, for instance with the People’s Republic of China? Why do the Yale faculty attack Singapore’s history rather than engage with the vibrant, increasingly open society that Singapore has become over the past two decades? If the Yale faculty are concerned about civil and political rights in Singapore and at Singapore’s educational institutions, have they made any substantial attempt to engage with either the faculty at NUS or any of Singapore’s many active civil society organizations? In everything I have read on this subject, I have not come across any indication that any of the faculty members involved in proposing and passing the recent resolution have taken any such steps, beyond drawing support for their pre-conceived notions about Singapore from a fairly narrow band of writings and opinions on our city-state.
Had the Yale faculty bothered to engage with Singaporean civil society actors or their counterparts living and working in Singapore at NUS, they would have learned that their rush to judgment and aggressive resolution (at least they softened the wording from “demanding” to “urging”!) would have little effect and likely be counterproductive in Singapore’s public sphere. If their complaint is with Yale’s corporate governance, the resolution should have been about that. By making it about Singapore, it only reinforces the sense that questions of civil and political rights are issues that Westerners are bent on imposing on others, with no regard to the sovereign rights of non-Western nations to evolve their own democratic forms of governance which may not conform to the cultural liberalism of the West. Singapore and other post-colonial nations still remember a 500-year history of racist, imperial colonialism perpetrated by the West and are well attuned to hearing echoes of that history in statements such as the Yale faculty resolution. The Yale faculty, by contrast, seem largely tone-deaf when it comes to recognizing these concerns.
For those of us living in Singapore, especially Singapore citizens, I hope it will be possible to recognize that the Yale resolution is a product of the peculiarities of American political culture. That political culture values free speech – the right to say anything you want, without regard to others – over responsible, informed or constructive speech. It is also a product of American political culture’s divisive tendency to speak out against others rather than substantively engage with them. And finally, we should recognized that Americans are generally more isolated in their understanding of the rest of the world than most others and recognize that this accounts for their trading on stereotypes founded in events more prevalent decades ago rather than today. I hope that Singaporeans will not make too much of these sorts of outbursts attested to in the Yale faculty resolution. Rather, I hope that the Yale-NUS College (which is unlikely to be derailed by this or other resolutions) can develop as a viable space within Singapore where those of us with a stake in Singapore can continue to develop an independent politics, aimed at prosperity, civic duty, and conscientiousness toward others, including a balance between free and responsible speech. In the long run, I hope for the sake of Americans at Yale and elsewhere that they may learn something of these values from Singapore.
*Note: The views expressed here are my own and not meant to represent the views of Americans, the American government, Singaporeans, the Singapore government or the National University of Singapore.
One of the basic ideas of actor-network theory is that not only people have agency but that non-human things do as well. This is a pretty simple idea, but also one that people have a hard time getting their heads around. An example occurred to me when I was on sabbatical in Thailand and sat most mornings at a Starbucks overlooking a small shrine along the road in the Siam Square area of Bangkok. I would watch as people passed the shrine, regularly turning and bowing (wai) to the shrine.
From an actor-network theory perspective, the shrine has agency, in so far as agency means the power to act on others in a system of relationships. Actor-network theory would insist that agency lies in the shrine itself, not for example, those who errected or maintain the shrine. If we conceptualize agency this way (and I see no reason not to), it raises a question: do we need to distinguish between agency and intentionality? The shrine, for instance, has agency. It acts on passersby such that the physically turn and bow. But it would seem odd if not absurd to suggest that the shrine has intentionality (whereas intentionality could be attributed those who created the shrine).
I post this now simply because it came up the other day in a conversation about ANT and then today I happend across these pictures buried in my computer files. So, there is just another musing… and a post to keep this blog alive…
Our semester is wrapping up here – it’s all over but the final exams.
Once again, I was very pleased with how things went using the Course Wiki for SC2218:Anthropology and the Human Condition.
The following page lists some of the favorites selected by me and my teaching assistant Dina:
Although it is hard to pick out a single favorite from all of these, I would have to say it is the following video, which absolutely nails the concept of “Commodity Fetish”:
I had a bit of a scare mid-term as the host Wetpaint had some serious technical difficulties. But fortunately, they sorted it out. I’m still a bit concerned about using Wetpaint going forward, as it isn’t clear how stable their business is? If anyone has thoughts on Wetpaint or alternatives, I’d love to hear them in the comments (or email). Overall, the integrated Wiki and social networking functions on Wetpaint work very well, though the interface for editing could do with some fixes (for example, it must be possible to maintain formatting of paragraphs and such if cut-and-pasting from MSWord, no?).
Two problems with Geertz’s classic “web” metaphor of culture.
I’ve been thinking about Clifford Geertz’s oft cited web metaphor:
“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.” (The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973)
In teaching anthropology, I use that as one of the key concept of culture in the modern anthropological tradition (along with Tylors from 1871 and a few others)
Today I am reading Aiwah Ong’s article on cultural citizenship (Current Anthropology, 1996), in which she refers to “webs of power”; wondering to what extent that is a riff on Geertz (who, in turn, credits Weber)?
1. Culture and ideology generally refer to the same thing – ideation, and what Geertz is calling “webs of significance” (or webs of signification). The difference between the terms culture and ideology are not in the thing(s) to which they refer (their referent; denotation) but rather in their connotation. Culture hides or downplays power whereas ideology foregrounds it. Culture connotes the sort of taken-for-grantedness of the ways in which we think about the world; ideology makes explicit a sort of struggle over ideas (e.g. think of the difference between “advertising” – a form of culture and “propaganda” – a form of ideology). The problem is that neither of these ways of talking about ideation/webs of meaning is more or less correct. Both have some truth (value) to them, much of the struggle of “ideology” is in fact very hidden from view (“culture”); much of “culture” is actively struggled over (“ideological”).
2. One of the most important problems with the “web” metaphor is that when we think about a spider’s web (I take that to be the prototypical image) such a web has a master intelligence behind it – the spider. Spiders are singular entities, weaving their webs with specific intention and self-interest (to catch flies and eat them). But “webs” of culture, ideology and power are not spun by individuals alone by rather are complex-adaptive networks, spun by multiple agents not governed by a master intelligence or plan (unless one assumes a Diety or some such entity; but even then that is always cast as an unknowable, so for practical purposes there is not a master plan even if one believes in the existence of such in some ultimate sense). Bottom line – the “web” metaphor is a very engaging one; but misleading insofar as it implies a sort of singular agency. I do think that a lot of people (students; perhaps also scholars) project themselves into Geertz’s “web” as a singular agent – a liberal individual (spider!) who can ultimately control the web-spinning; or alternatively, the web image is taken as disempowering… we are flies caught in webs over which we have no control and from which we gain nothing. Neither of these implications of the web metaphor are correct or particularly useful.
The great apartheid of twentieth century was an apartheid of race based on an ideology of racism. The great apartheid of the twenty-first century would appear to be an apartheid of citizenship based on an ideology of nationalism. Race and racism remain pervasive. But racism is a largely discredited ideology. Nationalism is an ideology with such hegemonic power that almost no one seriously questions it. Sure, we question the excesses of nationalism. But does anyone seriously question the ideological basis of citizenship? In other words, does anyone question the legitimacy of the territorial nation-state and its right to define citizenship as currently configured? I for one have trouble imagining a world organized in any way other than through nation-states. Some social theorists have for sometime been claiming that the hegemony of the nation-state is dead or dying. They are dead wrong.
Throughout history, at least since the rise of complex agrarian societies, humanity has been divided between haves and have-nots. In the pre-modern, pre-industrial world the ideology of the divine-right-of-kings (or some version thereof) supported a social order of aristocratic haves and commoner have-nots. Over a millennium – roughly the past 1,000 years – popular democratic social movements overthrew the old order. The new order, exemplified by French and American revolutionary fraternal democracy, replaced aristocracy with democracy. The problem, however, is how to define the demos (“the people”)? In early (18th-19th century) European thinking, the people were a “nation” and a “race” (the German people, German race, German nation). Race and nation were synonymous. Race, however, became reduced to biology, in ways which have now been proven to be nonsensical. Nation and nationality took a parallel, but very distinctive path. Nationality became reduced to citizenship, at least functionally if not culturally. We still think (culturally) for example that proper Germans and French should be of “European stock” and Chinese should be of “Asian descent.” But to be a citizen – a national – of Germany, France or the People’s Republic of China is ultimately defined by one’s relationship to the government of the territorially-defined nation-state. If Germany or China grants one citizenship, then one is de jure German or Chinese.
What we see, in the world today, is nation-states becoming territorial zones of relative affluence and deprivation. In zones of relative affluence, the wealthy nation-states (crudely referred to as the “First World”), citizenship is increasingly becoming a thoroughly legitimized mode of defining social privilege and discrimination. Ironically, the meaning of “citizenship” is devolving from French ideals of fraternity (a brotherhood of man) to Greek and Roman forms of citizenship, in which citizens were a small, privileged group (of men) with standing in the city. Everyone else was a slave.
Back from sabbatical. Back to teaching…
The Anthropology and the Human Condition (SC2218) Wiki is back in action this semester. I had to give a bit of thought as to what to do with a “legacy” wiki. I decided to archive all the old materials and creat fresh pages for 2010. Much more of the course has moved “online” to the Wiki (all the assignements are there).
One innovation this term: I’ve asked all the students to use anonymous nicknames for the wiki. The idea is that everyone should feel free to contribute or comment without “losing face”. They give me (or their tutor) their nickname, so they get credit for their contributions. But they are otherwise anonymous; or at least relatively so.
Interestingly, an article just came out in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Wikis in the Classroom in Singapore. (Mike Wesch brought it to my attention… Thanks Mike!) It is pretty good and an interesting article. But I think it is much too sterotyped and sweeping in its generalizations about “Western” and “Eastern” (Asian) students. For example, it makes the claim that Asian students are particularly reluctant to edit each other’s work. I doubt very much (and Mike agreed, from experience) that American students would be much more enthusiastic about doing so. Still in all, the Chronicle article is well worth a read.
I haven’t posted anything for a long time. So here is a little rant, just to prove I’m alive…
I recently read something about the Nigerian twit who tried to blow-up his underwear, and apparently along with it a plane flying into Detriot. In the newspaper, he was described as a ‘devout Muslim’. This made my blood boil.
Just a few weeks before, I spent a few days with a dear friend of mine – Aji – on a four day holiday. He and some other friends from Malaysia came to the Netherlands on a holiday, and I happened to be there at the same time. We had a great time, touring cheese factories, windmills and generally having a great time. I shared a hotel room with Aji. Every day, he prayed five times a day without fail.
Aji has two wives and seven kids (I think it is seven, I lose count). He does all he can to provide for them. He is the kindest soul I know. He teaches primary school in a rural town in Malaysia to Tamil-Hindu kids. When they ask to say prayers to their gods before exams, he has no problem with it. He is not so weak in his own faith that he has to be afraid of the faith of others. I don’t believe everything Aji believes. But I admire him for who he is and for who he tries to be – a devout Muslim.
When I read about the idiot on that flight to Detriot, when I read the news calling him a “devout Muslim” I want to scream: All you stupid journalists, next time you call someone a “devout Muslim” don’t use that term to refer to some pathetic inept twit who thinks killing a bunch of innocent people will be a great political statement and a fast track to heaven. A devout Muslim is someone like my friend Aji. Or the hundreds of millions of other Muslims, who are simply trying to be the best men and women they can be in this world and guided by their faith on that path.
So that is my rant for the day. I don’t have the faith of my friend Aji. But I pray to God that all of us of good will, devout or not, can come together to overcome the evils of the world. To non-Muslims, I can tell you, devout Muslims are not idiots trying to blow up planes. Devout Muslims are kind and generous people, who wish nothing more than to make this a better world.
There was a very nice write up about Wang Gungwu in the Straits Times today. I was struck by the following:
ST: His first love was literature… (but) he was left to choose between economics and history… Economics, with its abstract models, he found too theoretical. “I was more interested in unique things and things that actually happened,” he explained. So he chose history.
This resonates with some points I’ve been thinking about regarding ‘assemblage’ theory. We in the social sciences create an overly sharp divide between abstract models and singular events; but the difference is important. If we take the idea of ‘assemblage’ to include temporality and not only spatiality, then history in the sense that Gungwu is talking about refers to assemblages across time (which are very important to understand; and which the Deluzean metaphor of “territoriality” in describing the structure of assemblages does much to obscure). Descriptive history (so badly and wrongly dismissed by some who fetishize hypothesis testing methods of knowledge) provides us with invaluable “assemblages” of events over time. This is unique and important knowledge, irreducible to “systems” (which are a necessary condition for and limit to hypothesis-testing itself… just because you can’t hypothesis-test a unique event doesn’t mean it is not ‘a thing that actually happened’!).
One of the most important contributions of the Complex Adaptive Systems revolution in systems theory is that it makes the systemic approach of “social science” entirely compatible with the reality of unique things and events (and texts and such) of the “arts” or “humanities”. A fundamental way in which dynamical (complex) systems work is that they produce unique things (unique gene sequences; unique individual humans; unique books; unique works of art; unique world leaders). Our understanding of reality can be reduced NEITHER to the system NOR to every unique event, person, or thing.
Example 1: The Malaysia political system is very likely to produce a Malay Prime Minister. The Singaporean political system is very likely to produce a Chinese Prime Minister. It is important to understand the system and to understand why. But no matter how detailed one’s understanding of the system, there would be no way to predict (except with a very short time horizon) that the system would specifically lead to Mahathir or Lee Kuan Yew being Prime Minister of Malaysia and Singapore respectively. A purely systematic (e.g. hypothesis-testing-science) approach to knowledge will never allow one to fully understand the important influence of those unique individuals. At the same time, a purely interpretive or descriptive approach (e.g. political biography) will not provide a complete (or even very good) understanding of the systemic processes of Malaysia or Singaporean politics.
Example 2: The Sejarah Melayu or Shakespeare’s plays would never have appeared as such without the systemic regularities and patterns out of which were produced Malay court chronicles and Elizabethan theatre. Each of those general fields is well worth studying as a system (or assemblage, if you like). At the same time, it is of particular value to read the Sejarah Melayu or “Romeo and Juliet” specifically - one will never understand their importance fully just by understanding the “systems” that produced them.
So, those are just a few thoughts for the day…
Kudos to Professor Wang Gungwu on his award of an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by Cambridge University (the main subject of the ST article).
These are a few notes on reading Bruno Latour (2005) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory.
On pp.141-156, Latour (as professor) recounts a conversation between himself and a graduate student (click on link for the entire dialog); in which he pulls the negativist (in contrast to ‘positivist’) trick of simply negating any attempt at any positive constructive statement. The conversation goes on over more than 15 pages, but discursively consists of something like this:
Student: “So, by Actor-Network-Theory, do you mean X?”
Professor: “No, I do not mean X.”
Student: “So then, you mean Y?”
Professor: “No, I mean not-Y.”
Student: “So you do not mean X and you do not mean Y?”
Student: “So what do you mean?”
Professor: “I just told you!”
Et cetera, et cetera, and so on forever. This is the argumentative equivalent to the martial arts of Tai-Chi or Aikiko, in which one (the Professor) never makes any positive statement and does not meet”force with force”, but rather uses a negative construction to deflect every attempt (by the student) to attempt to understand and construe that which is being talked about (ANT) in a positive way. This is very effective in defeating an attacking opponent (either in martial combat or discursive argumentation). But, it is also empty meaninglessness that brings nothing positive into the world (and in martial arts, is criticized for being purely defensive). As an exclusive, sole tactic, it is purely deconstructive, not constructive; uncreative (dis-creative? de-structive?), not creative.
If that is all there is to scholarship, ultimately, nobody isn’t talking about nothing, which makes for a rather boring, meaningless conversation; one that I lost interest in a long time ago… at least when done purely for its own sake. It is useful to be able to engage in this sort of emptying out of all meaningful signification, if one is engaged in deconstructing something such as a theory of race or system of sexism that really should be done away with altogether. But mere deconstruction, leaving nothing in its place is useless when creativity is called for (e.g. in creating public policy or put forward suggestions for ethical action in the world). Deconstruction alone is a belief in all yin and no yang.
To Latour’scredit, in this book, he is working toward a “reassembling” of the social; but the long interlude in the form of conversation in the middle of the book reminded me of too many annoying, pointless conversations I’ve had with “po-mo” professors and colleagues, who seem to think that deconstruction exclusively and for its owe sake is useful (or even more annoyingly, that it makes them look clever).
As for Latour and ANT, the main contribution of ANT is to afford agency to non-human actors (or ‘actants’ as Latour prefers). That is a rather useful contribution, especially for those who are interested in attending specifically to understand systems or “assemblages” involving both human and non-human elements/actors. Although, for myself, since I draw my own understandings or models for systems-theory from Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) theory of the Santa Fe Institutesort, and since most of the systems they deal with are non-human systems to begin with, there is nothing very surprising (or even all that interesting or original) in conceptualizing systems in which non-human things can be actors/agents. (Fully mapping out the parallels and divergences between Latour’s assemblages and CAS theory would take a lot more than a blog post!)
I also find Latour’s argument about “the social” very weak. He seems to setup a straw-man type argument by presenting the common sociological understanding of “the social” as a very vague sort of “context” (in his formulation, “the social” as used by sociologists becomes something of a Derrida-type ‘supplement’; a constitutive outside or context to positive constructs such as economics, law, politics, etc.). While it may often be used in such an undertheorized, weakly constructed way, I would not expect that is how most sociological theorists see it (I’m still trying to figure out what sociologists actually think “the social” is; Giddens’ “structuration” model, for example or Bourdieu’s “habitus” are more substantively defined than mere supplemental “context”).
Latour’ssubstitution of ANT as a means of tracing out ties or significant relationships of things (human and non-human) to identify “assemblages” is fine. But it does not strike me as necessarily substantially different from empirical systems theory. Except, perhaps, in that ANT (correctly) does not assume that the ties we trace will lead us to find a “system” (relationships exhibiting some degree of efficacy, regularity and persistence over time). However, CAS theory (for example) does not assume that either. In fact, CAS theory explicitly includes states (or relationships) of “chaos” which can be described mathematically (insofar as I understand the math involved) but do not produce systemic regularities. Complex adaptive systems are themselves defined as “far from equilibrium” systems that approach (are at the ‘edge of”), but do not become chaotic (i.e. they are not ‘purely random’ patterns).
A final question: From a social science point of view, such “chaotic” (non-systemic) assemblages may be of interest as descriptive histories, but if we are trying to understand power (for example) or efficacy, are not chaotic relational states defined by the absence of both? Isn’t power and efficacy (cause-and-effects), by definition, a systemic state in which outcomes are at least theoretically or probablistically predictable? Is it not just as incorrect to assume that all assemblages are not “systemic” as it is to assume that all relationships and assemblages are?
And, finally, just because I’m interested in studying and understanding systems does not mean that I assume everything is a system any more than just because I’m an anthropologist interested in studying humans means that I assume everything is a human being! It amazes me how often I encounter criticisms – of my work or of others – of the sort that would imply if you are doing systems theory (or any X theory) you are assuming everything is a system (or everything is X).
P.S. – After writing all this and ‘googling around’ the web for ‘social assemblages’… I came across A New Philosophy of Society by Manuel DeLanda. Skimming it for about 2 minutes, it looks like a good introduction to this whole idea of “social assemblages”. More lucid and ‘postively’ constructed than Latour’s Reassembling the Social.
- On the Yale Faculty Resolution Criticizing Singapore
- Agamben’s Errors
- The Agency of Things
- Anthropology Wiki Favorites 2010
- The Tangled Webs We Weave
- Is Nationalism the New Racism?
- Anthropology Wiki 2.0
- Devout Muslims
- Wang Gungwu and Histories of the Unique
- Discursive Tai-Chi and Social Assemblages
- The Brief Life of “Squeezy”
- Wiki Wiki Boom Boom