Thursday, 16 April 2015

Some more zany anthropology stuff

    I've been trying to carry on the discussion over at Savage Minds on the post I highlighted the other day, but they don't like you commenting on old posts over there. That's their policy and that's alright, but there's still stuff to say, so I thought I'd post my final comment here instead of letting the discussion end there.

    Some of the quotes here are from John Hartigan's comments and some are from John McCreery's - McCreery is a regular pundit over at Savage Minds.

domestication–a subject which, given the array of nonhumans who also practice it, needs to be rendered in less anthropocentric terms.

    I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that no other species practices domestication. At the very least, no other species practices domestication like humans do, and that's an important point.

    Humans are capable of thinking about plants and the domestication process, and that can lead to multiple instances of domestication - peanuts, manioc, tobacco, etc, in southwestern Amazonia; various tree crops, bananas, aroids, etc, in New Guinea; rice, millet, pigs, etc, between the Yellow River and Changjiang, and so on. This is because people can think about what they're doing in ways that other animals can't.

    Selectively cultivating specific plants to encourage certain traits isn't a new thing - it's something as old as domestication itself. It's why wild bananas don't look like Cavendish bananas and why teosintes don't look much like flint corn. Humans changed those species: the species did not play active roles in the changes, only passive ones. And humans saw the changes, thought about them, applied them regularly in their horticulture. This is not something a dugong does.

    Domestication doesn't need to be made less anthropocentric. It is something humans do and it's enormously different in degree, if not different in kind, to what non-humans do. Humans are the key to making sense of it, and domestication should be understood chiefly in terms of human beliefs and desires, not in terms of those of the plants.

it’s not anthropomorphizing; any organism maintaining homeostasis has a self.

    If you define the word 'self' that way, then maybe that is true. But that's not how anybody uses the word 'self' in the human sciences. A human sense of self goes far beyond homeostasis.

I feel a little bit strange having to point that out.

I’m more interested in what’s happening with the species than I am in what plant scientists think about (ideologically) as they’re working with maize. This is a significant shift in ethnographic practice, hence my stance that this is an ethnography of maize.

    That isn't a 'shift in ethnographic practice'. It's a shift into botany. And that's fine: botany is really cool.

    If you like plants, do botany. If you want to observe the workings of bee colonies, go into ethology. If you want to do ethnographic studies, where you speak to the subjects (=humans) and attempt to comprehend their societies' deepest functions through participation, observation, discussion, and analysis within, say, a cog-sci framework, then go into anthropology ('the study of humans').

Don't pretend that they're all one and the same thing. They are not.


Should we say,”You can’t do that” because it violates current conventional wisdom? Remember Galileo? Remember Darwin?

    Darwin and Galileo provided reasons to believe in what they did. They both wrote long books in plain language to explain why they believed what they did. They wrote for everybody to understand, and their arguments were good; they did not consist of spuriously conflating things that are distinct.

    Finally: Yes, I think Hartigan has endorsed the idea that plants have strategies in their interactions with humans. Look to the second paragraph, where he summarises some of Michael Pollan's ideas on the subject.

 I also posted this comment on another of Hartigan's posts on Savage Minds, here - it's another one about how non-human organisms have 'culture' because they sometimes transmit arbitrary traits to one another. The comment is still in moderation, but anyway, here it is:

You drew yourself into Al West’s “Latour is a Charlatan” bit which is obnoxious,
    Latour is a charlatan. I don’t think that’s seriously in question. It’s not a case of his having said a few silly things, but of his attempting to foist on social scientists an essentially solipsistic and otherwise metaphysically bankrupt project. It’s not obnoxious to say this: it ought to be the norm.
I think though that it is the creative side that has overtaken your project at the expense of providing a succinct way of describing what it is that you think you’ve discovered and in a manner that can convince folks like Al.
    Or, to put it another way: novelty and revolutionising have been put before finding out what is true. It’s creative, okay, but it’s wrong.

    Plants simply don’t have culture like humans have culture and you cannot conduct an ethnography of a plant in anything like the way you can conduct an ethnography of a human society. What ethnographic methods could one seriously employ in studying maize? Living as a cornstalk? Interviews with prominent cobs? Swaying gently in a Nebraska summer breeze? Being dampened, bin-conditioned, and husked?
    If ethnography is a method, it is inapplicable to maize. If it means more than just writing about imitation and social learning, and I think it does, then it cannot be employed in the way you think it can. If anthropology means that we study people and not ‘culture’ arbitrarily widely construed, and it does, then to move into studying maize is equivalent to moving away from anthropology and into botany. I can’t see a reasonable comeback to this – whether in principle or in what Hartigan has written.

    I don’t doubt that there are some smart creatures out there. But a) they are smart in different ways to human beings; b) they probably can’t be studied in the same way humans can be, largely because you’re a human and not, say, a dolphin, and you probably can’t speak a dolphin language (even in principle); c) being somewhat able to transmit knowledge and emotion is not equivalent to human oral literature or music or a dictionary or whatever else; and d) culture is not equivalent to mere transmission of arbitrary traits. Also: there are plenty of smart people who study smart animals, and they don’t need to call themselves something that they aren’t.

    Your whole shtick rests on a false equivalence between humans, or specific human traits, and other animals, and that really doesn’t fly. People are different. That’s why we have so many departments devoted to studying human things – political science, comparative literature, gender studies, international relations, socio-legal studies, paleoanthropology, archaeology, social anthropology, cultural studies, sociology, lexicography, library science, and so on.

    People are different from other animals, at the very least from the perspective of division of labour, and it’s a wonder to me that there’s so little open scepticism about this stuff from other anthropologists. I bet they’d sing a different tune if Steven Pinker said what Hartigan is saying, but no one wants to look unsophisticated in front of the trendy theorists. It’s those tailors again.

    No one’s saying you can’t study plants or animals. You can. But there are already plenty of academic disciplines for this and anthropology isn’t really one of them.


Well, I find this all a little embarrassing, as someone with a degree in anthropology. It's as if these people think funding is limitless and disciplinary reputation doesn't matter. One day I don't doubt these things will disappear from the discipline, but I have equally little doubt that they will be replaced by newer and even zanier fashions, and that's rather sad. I suppose the only strategy is to confront this stuff head on.


  1. Had you read my references to Eduardo Kohn's book, you would have came to find that trees have selves, they interpret signs (because general interpretation is much more complex than human thought processes), and they also have culture! Yes, trees have culture. Since they do then corn certainly must so too. Believe me. It is in Kohn's book: Don't ask for me to summarize the book's logically consistent arguments because there are none. It jus reads good. And good reading is all that counts. Hence, I win you lose. I think.

    a concerned reader

    1. I feel like I should pick up a copy of Kohn's book. It seems like it'll become a Latourist classic, one they cite regularly and seriously as you do in jest. I'm sure it's a laugh riot.

  2. "trees have culture"


You can post anonymously if you really want to, but I would appreciate it if you could provide some means of identifying who you are, if only for the purpose of knowing who has written what.