anthropology’s shades

Me, wearing the anthropologer's shades 8)
Among the qualities which the issues anthropologists take up and belabour have, there is one which stings and delivers a lot of pain, again and again, during the whole process from shaping your project and defining the particular subject to writing the final text: No matter what topic you struggle with, sooner or later it appears to be integrally connected with a shipload of other issues and aspects. There is always the itch to scratch beneath the surfaces of this other aspects, to widely read around, to learn more new things. If you completely give way to this impulse you will end up with something the size of Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’, or you will never find an end. It’s up to you, to decide if one of this two possibilities is better or worse. Personally I deem both of them to be impossibilities. The art of the craft lies not only in doing, but in restriction as well. Sensible, thoughtful restriction. There is a powerful, ultimate tool able to help you in finding the right measure of restriction. I am speaking of your topic, your hypothesis, the central question you want to answer by the argument you design. That is the benchmark, the yardstick in the light of which you have to scrutinize every step you make, every method you apply, every piece of literature you read, every path or trail you are seduced to follow.
    During the last days, or is it weeks already, I dwelled a lot within cyberpunk, a literary and movie genre, but a movement as well. Seen from a distance this may well seem to be a manifestation of escapism, backed-up by the half-hearted legitimation of it being a part of my research project. The legitimation is far from being half-hearted, and all but a subterfuge. The first half of the substantiation I gave within lo tek nexus, I guess: The influence of cyberpunk fiction on the shaping of technology and cyberculture. Sometimes you are inclined to see certain works of cyberpunk as self-fulfilling prophecies. But it’s a mutual thing, and now I found the other half. Yet another rationale for my dealing with cyberpunk fitting the yardstick’s scale, for it indeed being an indispensable part of my endeavour.
    Inspired by SFAM’s collection of elements defining a cyberpunk movie, and by Collins’ academical work (Collins 2002 and 2004) which not only tries to define, interprete, and analyze cyberpunk, but hooks it up with industrial music as well, I now re-read Bruce Sterling‘s preface to the anthology ‘Mirrorshades’ (Sterling 1986) and his ‘Cyberpunk in the Nineties’ [if not stated otherwise, all quotes below are taken from the former]. While reading it struck me that cyberpunk and contemporary anthropology have much in common.
    Anthropology’s main focus once was on those non-european societies, which were envisioned as lacking scripture and ‘modern’ state-structure. This ‘field’ was dramatically expanded. Nowadays virtually every design of leading, managing and coping with life created by human beings is or can be subject of anthropological work. Anthropology has opened itself up to modernity and the reality of the global.
    Take Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s call to arms ‘Engaging Anthropology’ (Eriksen 2006):

From identity to multicultural society, new technologies to work, globalization to marginalization, anthropology has a vital contribution to make. While showcasing the intellectual power of discipline, Eriksen takes the anthropological community to task for its unwillingness to engage more proactively with the media in a wide range of current debates, from immigrant issues to biotechnology.

Anthropology has arrived in the present day, it deals with what happens now, within the world of which it is a part itself, and the ‘cyberpunks are perhaps the first SF generation to grow up not only within the literary tradition of science fiction but in a truly science-fictional world. For them, the techniques of classical “hard SF” extrapolation, technological literacy—are not just literary tools but an aid to daily life. They are a means of understanding, and highly valued.’ And the cyberpunks ‘aim for a wide-ranging, global point of view.’
    With anthropology taking up globalization as an issue, concepts like hybridization, creolization, and syncretism arose or re-arose. The concept of cultural appropriation prominently came into focus.
    ‘The cyberpunks,’ like anthropologists, ‘being hybrids themselves, are fascinated by interzones: the areas where, in the words of William Gibson, “the street finds its own uses for things.”‘
    ‘The Eighties,’ when cyberpunk was born, were ‘an era of reassessment, of integration, of hybridized influences, of old notions shaken loose and reinterpreted with a new sophistication, a broader perspective.’:

Traditionally there has been a yawning cultural gulf between the sciences and the humanities: a gulf between literary culture, the formal world of art and politics and the culture of science, the world of engineering and industry. But the gap is crumbling in unexpected fashion. Technical culture has gotten out of hand. The advances of the sciences are so deeply radical, so disturbing, upsetting, and revolutionary, that they can no longer be contained. They are surging into culture at large; they are invasive; they are everywhere. The traditional power structure, the traditional institutions, have lost control of the pace of change. […] And now that technology has reached a fever pitch, its influence has slipped control and reached street level. […] the technical revolution reshaping our society is based not in hierarchy but in decentralization, not in rigidity but in fluidity. […] Science fiction—at least according to its official dogma—has always been about the impact of technology. But times have changed since […] when Science was safely enshrined—and confined—in an ivory tower. The careless technophilia of those days belongs to a vanished, sluggish era, when authority still had a comfortable margin of control.

‘The tools of global integration—the satellite media net, the multinational corporation—fascinate the cyberpunks and figure constantly in their work. Cyberpunk has little patience with borders.’ Studying-up, organizational and corporate anthropology, multisited-ethnography, diaspora and transnational communities, media and urban anthropology anybody … ?
    [Cyberpunk writers] often use an unblinking, almost clinical objectivity. It is a coldly objective analysis, a technique borrowed from science, then put to literary use for classically punk shock value.’ Here I have to disagree slightly, as I do not see that cyberpunk fiction analyzes coldly, clinical, and objective, but emotional, evocative, and humane. Just like post-writing-culture experimental ethnography strives to. Cyberpunk has more in common with the humanities and state-of-the-art anthropology than with science.
    ‘In pop culture, practice comes first; theory follows limping in its tracks’—in modern anthropology, practice comes first; grounded theory follows limping in its tracks.
    ‘Cyberpunk is widely known for its telling use of detail, its carefully constructed intricacy, its willingness to carry extrapolation into the fabric of daily life.’ Ethnographical detail, and beyond, up to ‘thick description’—or what has become of it—still is important within anthropology, anthropology definitely is occupied with the fabric of daily life and with Geertz’ web of meaning, being an extrapolation par excellence when written down. Cyberpunk ‘writers prize the bizarre, the surreal, the formerly unthinkable.’
    In the end anthropology is about making sense of the ways to think, and in consequence to act, of ‘the Others.’ At first the described cultural practices and realities more often than not appear to the reader exotic, bizarre, surreal, sometimes even unthinkable. Would that not be the case, there would be no need for anthropology.
    Since about the beginning of 1982, mirrored sunglasses have been a common symbol, a ‘totem’ to cyberpunk, to ‘”the Movement”—a loose generational nexus of ambitious young writers, who swapped letters, manuscripts, ideas, glowing praise, and blistering criticism.’. Chromium plated mirrorshades pretend to be perfect silver, so perfect nothing that their only remaining ability is reflecting everything, distortions added. But producing purely descriptive ethnography is not only an illusion, but far from being part of anthropology’s state-of-the-art—alas, reflection is. So I was somewhat relieved when I learned from Mr. Sterling that the cyberpunks’ shades could have been of a matte black, too. Matte black mirrorshades are a way better metaphor. They still reflect, but they are not solely smoke’n’mirrors [Yes, it’s me on the pic above. Cute, ain’t I?], and matte black shades are more honest, as from a certain angle, in certain settings of light, you still can see the eyes. They do not hide the anthropologist completely, but they are there, the shades themselves can be seen and signal to the one who sees: that one is seeing differently.
    Sometimes we anthropologists of my age are so preoccupied with attaining tenure, because we have to make a living, because there of course are the power structures, that we bow down to the pressures. Pressures stemming from ill-advised bureaucracies, policy makers, and backward academical establishments, ‘normal’ academia. One day it may well turn out that what I am doing right now is utter rubbish, and it may well be that I agree then, but till then I want to do anthropology as I see, or even envision it through my shades. Like Wikipedia encourages hesitating contributors: Be bold, be brave. “By hiding the eyes, mirrorshades prevent the forces of normalcy from realizing that one is crazed and possibly dangerous. They are the symbol of the sunstaring visionary, the biker, the rocker, the policeman, and similar outlaws.” One reviewer said, that William Gibson “has tapped right into our collective cultural mainline”—a current anthropologist’s dream, isn’ it?
    When university is full, the anthropologists will walk the streets.

  • Post a comment

    Threaded commenting powered by interconnect/it code.