In the depths

I have hit, I think, something approaching the bottom. I have lost almost all confidence in my work and my overall project. People ask “what is your thesis about?” and I despair at ever providing a succinct summary. What are my objects of study? So far, mostly stupid, relatively inconsequential things: some blogs and the way they kind of found and discovered one another; a fairly novel and amusing comment thread that I am banking on demonstrating some abstract point about the role of nonhumans (literally anything except a person) in discourses of responsibility; and two case studies of activist tactics/tropes, one a group of people who flarf on facebook, the other tumblrs by feminists poking fun of men in fedora hats. Everything else that I have looked at or worked on or tried to document pretty much fails the “so what?” test.

So thats it, that’s my thesis (unless I think of something miraculous to discuss). No real “fieldwork”, most of my interviews tended to tell me very little of importance or that anyone else would care about (much as I care about them, and the people who said them incredibly dearly), certainly no really important topic, just a bunch of reading and theory and possible connections. Somehow I have to pull that together (by late July-ish) so that it tells a coherent story.

There was a period where I thought I was going to actually solve some kind of problem, but right now I’m not even convinced that my description of the problem itself is either a) correct, b) solveable, or c) even in need of solving.

I am very demoralised right now. What the fuck am I doing?

Well this is weird: twitter account swapping

So Sam Crisp tweeted the following a day ago, and I only just saw it:

Who wants to run my twitter account for a week? See what happens lol

I thought it was a good idea, and something I’ve been interested in ever since discovering semi-public account @crashtxt, but I thought we could do one better – what about if we swapped twitter accounts? What the hell would that do? Would we both lose followers in the confusion? Or would we gain interested new fans and observers? How do I navigate the fact that Sam’s account is protected? Who will show up in Sam’s stream that I don’t follow, or worse, who is protected that I would not normally get to see?!

And what about the threat of “missing” important things (insofar as anything at all ‘important’ happens on twitter) that happen on my timeline? How will I cope with the more relaxed pace of Sam’s quite minimal 158 following count?! If I tweet at my normal rate, am I going to box all Sam’s followers out? Likewise, what will Sam think of my very disrespectful 666 following stream, one that I long ago gave up following with any particular attentiveness?

I’m writing a big thesis chunk this week (I wrote about 2-3k words yesterday, which felt great and was an important boost) so will I appreciate the lessened distraction of twitter, spend more time lurking the profiles of the people I most interact with, or just spend it on Facebook instead?

This comes off the back of a week on Facebook in which my 2x housemates and their circle of friends all “stole” my identity on Facebook (a pic of Tony Abbott sipping out of a pink child’s teacup) and assumed some form of variation on my name. It was all very confusing and chaotic and excellent for a while there. I should post about that exercise but it requires a bit more detail.

David Graeber on Ethnography

Taken from the Preface to his 2009 book ‘Direct Action, An Ethnography’ all about the 2000/2001 protests and riots against the WTO, etc., pages vii-viii:

Call this book, then, a tribute to the continued relevance of ethnographic writing. By “ethnographic writing,” I mean the kind that aims to describe the contours of a social and conceptual universe in a way that is at once theoretically informed, but not, in itself, simply designed to advocate a single argument or theory. There was a time when the detailed description of a political or ceremonial or exchange system in Africa or Amazonia was considered a valuable contribution to human knowledge in itself. This is no longer really the case. An anthropologist actually from Africa or Amazonia, or even some parts of Europe, might still be able to get away with writing such a book. Presently, the academic convention in America (which a young scholar would be unwise to ignore) is that one must pretend one’s description is really meant to make some larger point. This seems unfortunate to me. For one thing, I think it limits a book’s potential to endure over time. Classic ethnographies, after all, can be reinterpreted. New ones-however fascinating-rarely present enough material to allow this; and what there is tends to be strictly organized around a specific argument or related series of them.

 …

Anarchists and direct action campaigns do not exist to allow some academic to make a theoretical point or prove some rival’s theory wrong (any more than do Balinese trance rituals or Andean irrigation technologies), and it strikes me as obnoxious . to suggest otherwise.

Is this review of David Graeber’s new book a performative demonstration of his correctness?

Well, I wish it were, but there’s one good reason why I don’t think it is. But let me back up: I read this extract from Graeber’s new book (I’m guessing it’s probably from the introduction?) which is just fantastic. There’s something about Graeber’s perspective that just evinces the totally real reasons for having a hope for the future, today. It’s not a deferred or speculative hope-for-hope (aka “hoping for hope”), but one grounded in a particular perspective the presente (heavily informed by the past, naturally). The key part relevant to the Guardian review is this:

Normally, when you challenge the conventional wisdom—that the current economic and political system is the only possible one—the first reaction you are likely to get is a demand for a detailed architectural blueprint of how an alternative system would work, down to the nature of its financial instruments, energy supplies, and policies of sewer maintenance. Next, you are likely to be asked for a detailed program of how this system will be brought into existence. Historically, this is ridiculous. When has social change ever happened according to someone’s blueprint? It’s not as if a small circle of visionaries in Renaissance Florence conceived of something they called “capitalism,” figured out the details of how the stock exchange and factories would someday work, and then put in place a program to bring their visions into reality. In fact, the idea is so absurd we might well ask ourselves how it ever occurred to us to imagine this is how change happens to begin.

Now, cut to this silly review of the book it is extracted from:

…the weakness at the heart of The Democracy Project, both the book and the movement it reflects, is that while it may know what’s wrong with the world, it seems to have little concrete grasp of how to put it right. The author discusses the disappointments that have accompanied President Obama’s terms in office. The relationship between power, money and influence in Washington DC is as before. Obama’s record on domestic civil liberties is no better than Bush’s. Yet it is too easy to cavil. A glass a third or a fifth full is better than no glass at all, particularly when the alternative was Mitt Romney.

Graeber’s unwillingness to set out credible economic and political alternatives is curious.

Graeberfacepalm.gif

I wish it were a case of trying to perform Graeber’s point for him, except that there is no shortage of examples of this tendency. Why add to it? It doesn’t make sense to do so, so sadly The Guardian’s reviewer has just missed the point. Oh well. At least the extract in The Baffler is fantastic.

The differential gear, explained

Watch the following video, there’s a lot to unpack beyond the sheer impressiveness of explaining complex engineering:

The most amazing thing to me is its tacit expectation about the audience’s ability to comprehend. This is seriously complicated engineering and it shows. Particularly worth noting, as Michael pointed out on the Facebook post about it I made, is the moment when the narrator speaks the name of the gear at 1:18 – you can hear the pride in his voice, and it is appropriate pride. This is an incredible achievement and to the uninitiated feels something like breaking the fundamental rules of space and geometry once comprehension sets in. Completely understandable, yet also inspiring of awe and wonder… is this video an act of carpentry? (The fact that this is an edit of a longer video that cuts out some irrelevant introductory material suggests that it might be.)

In spite of its obvious complexity the producers have enough faith in the ability of their audience to comprehend it, so long as it is explained sufficiently well. This is truly mind blowing to the modern viewer, and I couldn’t help seeing it as something of an indictment of the contemporary lack of faith in audiences that many (even most?) producers have (with the HBO-types the exception). Granted, the 1950s had their own share of stultifuyingly cut-rate explanations, but even these completely boneheaded simplifications had their own child-like naiveté or innocence about them. See the bewilderingly horrible/laughable 1950s “educational” video on homosexuality for an example which, while remaining utterly, contemptibly wrong in its understanding and explanation of the causes of paedophilia (wrongly attributing it to homosexual deviance), still comes at it from a place of unacknowledged ignorance instead of from a position of condescension and low-regard for its audience.

Consider: what contemporary producer would dare to show minutes at a stretch of nothing but moving mechanical parts, along with the clear, methodical narrated precision of an engineering textbook? No one would take the risk, perpetually terrified as they are that their audience would switch over to MTV or something with more flashing lights, more naked flesh – less challenging fare. Almost no one has the same faith in their material, either.

And why should they? The technical feats most richly rewarded in the 21st century are not those that overcome tricky engineering problems in ingenious ways, but instead those that overcome tricky economic problems. The kind (and amount) of mental work that goes into being able to imagine the solution to the problem presented by car wheels moving at different rates is certainly more impressive than the work involved with structuring debts and investments; the kind of actuarial acumen involved with making stacks of cash. And the trouble is, outside of the small class of economically literate people, no one even cares that you made a hundred million dollars in collateralized debt obligations last month. No one cares in the slightest, because it’s just not that impressive. There’s no pride in being a part of the grifter class (as Matt Taibbi has labelled it) that hoovers up cash like it’s going out of fashion.

So it is a complicated kind of takeaway – the way impressive mental feats of creativity involved in science and engineering (after all, what is engineering but imagining-into-being something never before envisaged) have few contemporary friends. Along with the desuetude from taking pride in suitable feats (like the differential gear) a kind of ‘boosterism’ has arisen to take its place. Think of the obsessive elevation of science and engineering (the raising of the LHC to the status of icon or idol is typical) as an attempt to recapture some of this lost pride, but instead it falls completely flat by virtue of overreaching. Carl Sagan’s studious and sober appraisals are far more compelling than the obsessive hype of contemporary emulators like Brian Cox.

Jacques Ellul has a thesis that whatever force destroys the power of the sacred takes on that mantle of being sacred itself, for obviously this foce of desecration is more powerful. Ellul argued that technology took the place of religion, which it demystified and deserated, but perhaps that image is incomplete. Perhaps it was engineering technology that did so. Presently, it seems that financial technology (‘financial instruments‘) might be following the same dynamic.

Sorry clever engineering, you’re just not making enough cash to be impressive…