January 2nd, 2012, by § Leave a Comment

Welcome to the CASTAC blog, the official blog of the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing!

The 2014 Ebola Outbreak: How Many Deaths Will it Take?

October 20th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment


The Ebola Virus
Photo: CDC Global

When I began writing this brief statement in mid-September, 2,630 deaths had been attributed to probable, suspected, or confirmed cases of Ebola. The World Health Organization projected as many as 20,000 cases in the West African region before the outbreak could be brought under control. The epidemic had received little news coverage and felt, to many in the U.S., as yet another disaster taking place in countries reputed for their many dangers. By mid-October, 4,033 Ebola deaths had been reported by the World Health Organization and projections on number of cases had risen to 10,000 per week in West Africa. Concerns are heightening that the epidemic may be a greater threat than originally perceived. The number of news reports providing coverage on the epidemic has increased exponentially, reaching over 30 million by the beginning of October. This dramatic increase appears to be spurred by the death of Thomas Eric Ducan, the first reported death occurring outside the epidemic hotspot of West Africa, which made headline news around the world and sparked fears that the epidemic could spread out-of-control around the globe.

This tragedy highlights the current state of global health inequities and the role of discourse (in this case media initiated) in directing the actions of global health institutions. The virus has raged across the West African region since March, with the initial case linked to a child, known only by the epidemiological term – patient zero – who died in December. It took until August of the following year for the United Nations health agency to declare an international public health emergency, and admit the need for a coordinated regional response. In September, David Nabarro, UN Coordinator for the Ebola Response, announced that that United Nations system was working on a 12-step global response plan. Prior to this, local governments have been left to manage their outbreaks with limited resources and staffing, relying on international NGOs and missionary workers to assist with the ever increasing burden on already inadequate systems. Why has it taken so long to initiate these efforts? Might the outbreak have been contained, and many lives saved, if a coordinated regional response was initiated earlier? And what about the infected U.S. nurses, was it ignorance that an epidemic was taking place somewhere else in the world that resulted in inappropriate actions and poor preparation? This Ebola outbreak is yet another example of the continued global inequities that exist, not only in resource distribution, but also in whose voices are heard and how life is valued.

Ebola, like other rapidly transmitted viruses including SARS and H1N1, have provided the story line for many medical thriller movies including Outbreak (1995), The Ebola Syndrome (1996, Hong Kong), Contagion (2011), 12 Monkeys (1995), 28 Weeks Later (2007), the opening scenes of And the Band Played On (1993) and the mini-series Pandemic (2007). These fictional accounts portray the devastation of lost loved ones, the fear of the unknown, the threat of the potential (or actual) annihilation of whole societies, and the scrambling by government health institutions, as health workers, research scientists and policy makers rush to find an answer, a cure or vaccine. In these accounts the biomedical agenda takes whatever means necessary, including quarantines, trial drugs, blood transfusions, even time travel, to save the fate of entire populations.

While this is the stuff of fiction, these stories are on not unlike the current events taking in West Africa. And, as unlikely as these events seem to those of us who have experienced a disease outbreak only from the comforts of living rooms and movie theaters, they are the current reality to people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leon. Boarders have been closed. Flights from affected countries have been diverted. Certain nationals are not given entrance to other countries. A mandatory three-day lockdown has taken place in Sierra-Leon to give 30,000 health workers the opportunity to locate potentially infected individuals and distribute soap to households.


Sierra Leone — Protesting the Ebola shut down of Sierra Leone
Photo: David Holt
Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Living in such fear, it is not surprising then that public reactions to disease prevention interventions have not been positive. A team of eight medical workers were attacked and killed by villagers in Guinea earlier this month. Critics of the Sierra Leon lockdown have argued that it will destroy public trust in doctors. People are resisting going to the hospitals for fear that that is where disease transmission takes place (and in the U.S. it is). Every major Ebola outbreak has been met with local resistance, hostility and rumor. In 2002, an international team of experts fled a village in Gabon when threatened with violence. In the 1995 outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the link between the hospital and those dying of Ebola stimulated the popular rumor that doctors were murdering workers who had smuggled diamonds out from the nearby mine. In the Ugandan outbreaks in 2011 and 2012, locals believed that white people sold the body parts of the victims for profit. Consequently, western medical staff were viewed with suspicion and suspected of bringing the disease to the country.

Perhaps as a result of these past experiences, and the relationship between Ebola transmission and cultural practices from the region including burial rites that expose individuals to infected bodily fluid, international health agents initially expressed an unease interfering with the most recent outbreak. In many parts of the world the deployment of biomedicine has been met with incomprehension, suspicion, or outright resistance. Historians have documented local responses to the introduction of new biomedical approaches and the associated public health campaigns to which Africans were subjected. In East Africa, for example, local rumors of vampires were linked with anti-sleeping sickness campaigns (White 2000). Given that lymph fluid was extracted using large needles for analysis by European public health workers, the vivid imagery of blood-sucking Europeans was in fact literal not just metaphorical. In the Belgian Congo, people would flee into the bush to escape the mobile public health disease eradication teams, or persuade traditional physicians to remove their lymph nodes so that they would not be subjected to the dreaded needles (Lyons 1988).

In contemporary society, echoes of the legacy of biomedicine as an extension of the oppressive colonial apparatus continue. In northern Nigeria in 2004, a campaign to eradicate polio through universal vaccination was abandoned due to widespread rumors that the vaccine was a western plot aimed at sterilizing Muslim women, and infecting children with HIV (Jegede 2007). In South Africa, conspiracy theories suggest that HIV was developed by the CIA to kill Africans (Niehaus and Jonsson 2005). In Guinea, villagers distrust the government and international community, believing foreign health care workers are part of a conspiracy in which the Ebola virus has either deliberately been introduced, or invented as a means of luring Africans to clinics to harvest their blood and organs.

Sierra Leone: into the Ebola epicentre

Sierra Leone: into the Ebola epicentre
Photo: European Commission DG ECHO
Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Such rumors, paranoia and defiance of international biomedical expertise, to some might seem like the response of scared or ignorant people. However, we might consider these beliefs and actions an indicator of global power differentials, and the seemingly neutral technical methods of biomedicine’s involvement in maintaining these distinctions, in-line with Gramsci’s concept of ‘cultural hegemony’ (Forgacs 1988). Westerners are evacuated and treated with life saving drugs that at present have been denied release to affected countries, deemed untested and thus unsafe by global authorities. African bodies are left to suffer without treatment, their unknown fate in the hands of god (or their own body’s immune system).

This situation, even more so than the HIV pandemic, has put in sharp relief the imbalances that exist in global health, what Hӧrbst and Wolf (2014) call the unequal “medicoscapes” of current biomedicine. Diseases can no longer be regarded within locally isolated frames of reference, expected to remain in small villages where deaths of hundreds or thousands will go unnoticed. Bob Dylan sings, how many deaths will it take before we realize that too many people have died? Indeed, we are all members of a globalized state, yet as this epidemic again reveals, the lives of Africans appear to hold lower value and the voices of Africans in their appeals for help remained largely stifled and unheard until the epidemic reached U.S. and European shores. Speaking 34 years ago, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, the 1970s Nobel Prize winner for Literature, noted that “divergent scales of values scream in discordance …. Which is why we take for the greater, more painful and less bearable disaster not that which is in fact greater, more painful and less bearable, but that which lies closest to us. Everything which is further away, which does not threaten this very day to invade our threshold … this we consider on the whole to be perfectly bearable and of tolerable proportions.”



Forgacs, D, ed. 1988. An Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935. New York: Schocken Books.

Hӧrbst, V, and A Wolf. 2014. ARVs and ARTs: Medicoscapes and the unequal place making for biomedical treatments in sub-Saharan Africa. Medical Anthropology Quarterly. 28(2):182-202.

Jegede, AS. 2007. What led to the Nigerian boycott of the polio vaccination campaign? PLoS Medicine 4 (3):e73.

Lyons, M. 1988. Sleeping sickness, colonial medicine and imperialism: Some connections in the Belgian Congo. In Disease, medicine and empire, edited by R. Macleod and L. Milton. London, UK: Routledge.

Niehaus, I, and G Jonsson. 2005. Dr. Wouter Basson, Americans, and wild beasts: Men’s conspiracy theories of HIV/AIDS in South African lowveld. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 24 (2):179-208.

Solzhenitsyn, A. 1970. The Nobel Prize in Literature 1970. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1970/solzhenitsyn-lecture.html

White, L. 2000. Speaking with vampires. Rumor and history in colonial Africa. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.


Speed-Bump, Meet Knee Defender

October 13th, 2014, by § 2 Comments

Bruno Latour’s Science in Action remains an unparalleled introduction to science studies because of its conversational style and clever use of the conventions of the “how-to” genre. And Latour has other shorter, more pedagogical, articles that show wonderfully how non-living objects are deeply embedded in complex social relations. But I sometimes wonder if his examples–the door-closer, the speed-bump, or sometimes, even the gun — are too simple. I worry about teaching these examples to savvy undergraduates in an introductory STS class. Will they just laugh it off dismissing it as obvious? Will they look at it as philosophy, as a conceptual case, rather than as anthropology? Could there be a more immediate example where the politics is not abstract, but more concrete? Where the students can use the immediacy of their own experience, but also where the stakes are higher?

So I was overjoyed the other day (I mean pedagogically!) when I read about the recent incidents on airplanes with passengers fighting about legroom and reclining space. Apparently, three such incidents have occurred recently–and in each case, this has led the flight-crew to execute an unscheduled landing. One of these cases involved a little device called the Knee Defender, created by an enterprising little company. Available for $21.95 + taxes, this little gadget “has been helping airline passengers around the world protect themselves and their things,” circa 2003. Basically, you attach the device to the seat in front of you so that it doesn’t recline and deprive you of your legroom. The use of Knee Defenders might be adding extra spice to what might just routine arguments about legroom and reclining space.

I submit that the Knee Defender might be a great test-case for an introductory STS class (right there with the speed-bump) to teach undergraduates about the relationship between technology and politics. Three reasons: there is a big-picture story about the air-line industry that undergraduates might enjoy parsing; there is a concrete material environment–the inside of an aircraft–that the Knee Defender operates in; and finally, debates over this device can be a great introduction to the vexed concept of ideology.

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Technology and Religion: An Interview with Michael Sacasas of The Frailest Thing (Part 1)

October 7th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

(Michael Sacasas is a PhD candidate in the “Texts and Technology” program at The University of Central Florida. He blogs about technology at The Frailest Thing.)

Thank you for agreeing to an interview for CASTAC. I read your blog on a regular basis, largely because you write cogently on the relationship between religion and technology. Both are traditional anthropological topics currently undergoing a renaissance within the discipline, yet they are not commonly set in explicit conversation. In contrast, you write within a tradition of thought in which technology and religion are commonly set in explicit conversation.

For example, in a February 2014 post, Traditions of Technological Criticism, you suggestively compare the place of theology as an organizing and animating principle in the medieval university to the place of technology in the modern university. Can you elaborate?

Thank you for the invitation to contribute to the conversation at CASTAC. I’m an outsider to the discipline of anthropology, but I’m glad to hear that there is renewed interest in both religion and technology. As you note, my work, such as it is, has been influenced by scholars who have enriched our understanding of technology by exploring its religious dimensions.

In the post you mention, I’d begun by considering the semantic challenges that arise from the word technology. As Leo Marx noted in an article titled, “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept,” the term technology initially designated the study of human making; in time it came to designate the things that were made by humans. Marx worried that the word, which became a catch-all for all manner of human-made objects and systems, reified what it sought to name and consequently made possible, perhaps even encouraged, the attribution of agency to “technology” as if it were a force independent of human design, action, etc.

Marx raised a valid point; at the same time, as Langdon Winner has argued, the same vagueness and indeterminacy that led Marx to take issue with technology tells us something about the pervasiveness and opacity of our present technological milieu. It also suggests that we are becoming more aware of the consequences of what we make.

It’s in this context that I suggested we imagine that technology still named a field of study and, if that were the case, that it could serve the same unifying function that theology served in the medieval universities. It was a way of suggesting that technology was a thread that could be traced through most, if not all, disciplines. I imagined this in both the sense that (a) many disciplines now depend on technology for their advance, particularly in the sciences of course, and (b) that each discipline can contribute to our understanding of technology and its place in human affairs. The economist, the social scientist, the anthropologist, the psychologist, the engineer, the philosopher, and so on—each of these can tell us something important about the role of technology in society.

Additionally, as I wrote in that post, we might also think of technology as St. Paul thought of God, as the reality in which “we move and breathe and have our being.” Technology, in other words, is the material base of human culture; it is both a product of culture and that through which culture is produced.

Increasingly, I find that the study of technology is best understood as the study of human beings. The needs technology addresses are human needs. The aspirations, desires, and values expressed by and through technology are human aspirations, desires, and values. Our economic, political, and legal quandaries regarding technology are ultimately about justice for human beings. Etc.

Put all of this together, then, and we might say that all disciplines can speak to the topic of technology and in doing so they ultimately help us understand the contemporary shape of human culture.

I wonder if you can comment on some of the divergences and points of confluence between David Noble’s Religion of Technology, particularly his notion of the “prelapsarian impulse”, and David Nye’s American Technological Sublime. The first work dealing with the perfection of the individual and the latter with the perfection of the American republic.

These two works pair well together. Each considers the religious aspects of the technological project but from different vantage points. I frame their complementary perspectives this way. Noble’s approach is historical, and Nye’s sociological.

For his part, Noble insists that the relationship between religion and technology is not merely metaphorical. It is not simply that we might usefully characterize the relationship people have to their devices, for example, as something akin to worship or idolatry. Rather, it is a matter of historical fact. From roughly the tenth century onward, the advance of technology in the West has been spurred by a quest for transcendence whose point of departure was the Christian theological tradition. (I think it useful to characterize the religion of technology as a Christian heresy.) Noble demonstrated how from the high middle ages through the Renaissance, the early modern period, the Enlightenment, and on into the twentieth century, technological innovation was spurred by the impulse to transcend our natural limitations and perfect our human nature. While the explicitly Christian aspects tended, for the most part, to fall by the wayside over the ensuing centuries, the motives and aspirations driving the development of atomic weaponry, space travel, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering still reflect this quest for transcendence and perfection. The Transhumanist movement is an excellent example of the religion of technology as Noble understood it.

As you suggest, the motive forces Noble documents tend to focus on the perfection of the individual (although there is also a concurrent hope that technical advance will usher in a new society). In the formative stages of the religion of technology, technology came to be understood as a means toward the recovery of a lost Edenic, or prelapsarian, state of moral, intellectual, and physical perfection. Individuals made in God’s image, but compromised by sin and the resultant curse, could, through technical ingenuity, reverse the effects of the curse and regain their original perfection.

Nye, however, is more interested in a social phenomenon than he is in individual experience. His focus is also narrower, chronologically and geographically: he takes under consideration roughly 200 years of American history. But his conceptual tool kit is a bit broader. While Nye’s argument is grounded in historical research, he frames his investigation philosophically and sociologically. Leaning on Burke and Kant, he theorizes American encounters with new technologies of impressive scale and dynamism as encounters with the sublime (these include, for example, railroads, suspension bridges, skyscrapers, electrified skylines, the Hoover Dam, and the Saturn V rockets). And, in a Durkheimian twist, he shows us how these sublime encounters were channeled within a tradition of public ritual and ceremony that functioned as a civil religion. Furthermore, Nye argued that, in its role as a civil religion, the experience of the technological sublime became a unifying force in American culture.

Nye’s closing chapter discusses what he calls the consumer sublime, a degradation of the American technological sublime into fabricated commercial simulation exemplified by Disney and Las Vegas. In other words, the experience of the technological sublime has been on the decline. But one need only think of the gatherings surrounding the farewell tours of the retired space shuttles and the crowds that gathered for their final launches to see that bursts of the technological sublime as civil religion still occasionally present themselves. The fanfare surrounding the landing of the Mars rover, Curiosity, also exhibited some of the same qualities. On the whole, though, it seems to me that we will see less and less of the technological sublime in its role as a civil religion.

We could say, then, that the difference between Noble and Nye is this. Noble focuses on ideas or beliefs that motivate action, and Nye focuses on practices that channel and shape powerful quasi-spiritual experiences. Or, to put it another way, Nye describes the ritual shape of the religion of technology in its American manifestation.

One last point of complementary difference between both works: Noble helps us understand the forces that have driven technological innovation, and Nye helps us understand how technology has been integrated into American culture after it has been developed and deployed.

Together, they have amply demonstrated that the techno-scientific project in the West has not been the coolly rational and wholly secular affair that it is often assumed to be.

2014 Diana Forsythe Prize Winner: S. Lochlann Jain for Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us

September 29th, 2014, by § 1 Comment

The Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing (CASTAC) of the General Anthropology Division (GAD) and the Society for the Anthropology of Work (SAW) announce that S. Lochlann Jain (Stanford University) is the winner of the 2014 Diana Forsythe Prize for her book Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us (University of California Press, 2013) and that Adriana Petryna (University of Pennsylvania) has been awarded an Honorable Mention for her book When Experiments Travel: Clinical Trials and the Global Search for Human Subjects (Princeton University Press, 2009). The Prize Committee chose these books from among a remarkable set of nominated volumes.

Fashioned as a melancholic and justice-seeking expedition to and through “the kingdom of the ill” and permeated by a raw and highly evocative imagery of the ways “cancer becomes us,” Malignant is a masterpiece. It epitomizes the spirit of Diana Forsythe’s lasting feminist contributions to science and technology studies. Critical and self-reflexive at every turn, Lochlann Jain illuminates the messy, unstable, cultural-historical-biological reality of cancer. With an authorial voice at once intimate and authoritative, she breaks open expert knowledges of all kind and delivers the disturbing news that cancer is part of the American way of life, hard-wired into the operating systems of the U.S. polity and economy. Lochlann Jain also reveals the many ways in which the suffering of cancer patients, particularly women, is sanitized through a set of survivor scripts that cause their own kind of suffering. In our “laboratory of toxic waste” in which accountability is diffuse and hard to pin down, the cancer which wreaks havoc on individual bodies and lives is folded into logics of individual survivorship, statistics, medical knowledge (or its lack), pharmaceutical reason, gendered normativity, and genetic predispositions and becomes impossible to read politically. Malignant speaks expertly to the legacy of Diana Forsythe who was, like Lochlann Jain, concerned with politics behind expert systems of knowledge production and consumption. With its realism, sophisticated analysis, alter politics, joy de vivre and human force, Malignant is anthropology at its best. It will certainly continue to reach and transform multiple audiences and, in the process, open up new fields of inquiry and action.

Adriana Petryna’s When Experiments Travel is recognized and honored for pioneering the anthropological inquiry of the global clinical trials enterprise, for its rich ethnographic contributions to our understanding of health capitalism, and for its original theoretical work on “experimentality” and “ethical variability.” The book provides a rich and compelling account of the organizational cultures and labor regimes of industry-sponsored clinical research, probing scientific, ethical, and regulatory practices and thus exemplifying Diana Forsythe’s lasting contributions to anthropological research on work, science, and technology. Moving between corporate and scientific offices in the United States and research and public health sites in Poland and Brazil, When Experiments Travel documents the complex ways that commercial medical science, with all its benefits and risks, is being integrated into local health systems and emerging drug markets. The ethics of researchers, markets, and patient-subjects are a living evolving practice in which we are all implicated. Bluntly and deftly, the book exposes the contemporary problems of the instrumental use of humans for research and teases out the logic of and gaps in regulatory structures that legitimate experimentality internationally. When Experiments Travel provides academics and the wider public with a vital compass that can help us monitor and interrogate the changing scientific infrastructures of our lives.

The 2014 Diana Forsythe Prize and Honorable Mention will be awarded at the annual American Anthropological Association meetings in Washington DC, during the General Anthropology Division Awards Ceremony and Distinguished Lecture on Friday, December 5, 2015, at 1 pm in the Palladian Ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel.

The Diana Forsythe Prize was created in 1998 to celebrate the best book or series of published articles in the spirit of Diana Forsythe’s feminist anthropological research on work, science, and technology, including biomedicine. The Prize is supported by Bern Shen. João Biehl, Stefan Helmreich, and Nina E. Brown composed this year’s Forsythe Prize Committee.

For more about The Diana Forsythe Prize: http://www.aaanet.org/sections/gad/awards/

Being Watched Now: Notes Towards a Structure of Feeling

September 23rd, 2014, by § 2 Comments


Something is changing. We know it, but we can’t say what’s happening. Not yet. But there is something uneasy in the air. It’s playing out both in grand narratives and the tiny shifts of attention that stitch together a sense of the real.

There are social feelings here, emergent in a time of rapidly changing modes of connection and circulation, and the ineffable shifts in embodiment and encounter that go along with changing technological habits. Performance here is always for an unseen and unpredictable audience. What would an ethnography of this emergent feeling be like?

I want a rash of little stories here to mimic rapid fluctuations of attention, which to many of us are becoming as natural as blinking. But all these little stories link outward, to something harder to pin down. Or maybe they link back in, to something that’s always been there. Tensions between the naturalized and the strange come to the surface.

You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to believe in ubiquitous surveillance anymore. Paranoia sounds like a 20th century word.


You told me that something came over you while driving and you decided to trail the Google Street View car as it cruised your city’s streets. The Google brand was painted brightly on the doors like a pizza delivery car, and its world management device seemed gamely stuck on the car roof like an oldtime TV antenna. When you pulled up beside it at a red light, the young guy driving waved to you. You waved back and took his picture with your iPhone. His face performed a series of quick changes: first the bashful pleasure of mini-celebrity, shifting into a small frown as your act of recording him re-charged the air between your cars. You turned off that street, and went your separate ways.


There was a deer problem in the neighborhood. They were more abundant than squirrels; on an evening stroll in the neighborhood you would always encounter several groups of deer. This particular doe must have run a while before collapsing in front of my house. She was lying half on the sidewalk, half on my lawn. Her hind legs were crossed at the delicate white knees, and the front legs were bent in two symmetrical Vs, freezing the last moment of running. A raw sliver of her chin, sticking out like a beard, must have been where a car made contact. She appeared there on Saturday morning, but Animal Control could not come to remove her until Monday. By that afternoon bugs had collected on her white underside in a frantic darkening. By Sunday morning areas of the white fur had been replaced by black holes. It was odd, for the neighborhood, to watch the natural process begin. All weekend the alien deer eyes remained open and it was impossible not to try to read in their inscrutability some kind of animal knowledge about death.

Finally on Monday morning, a man from Animal Control came out in an old unmarked pickup, dragged her by the hoofs into a lowered truckbed and drove her away. There were a lot of fawns around our neighborhood, and usually if you saw fawns you would see a doe too, watching them from across a short distance. Then one day the fawns were wearing collars. Scientists from a university in another city were tracking them. Occasionally one saw the small white science truck, with its tracking device stuck on its roof like an oldtime TV antenna. We didn’t know what kind of data they were collecting exactly, but the exploding deer population was controversial and obviously it was necessary to track them. Quickly, for the residents, the animals changed from seeming wild to not-wild. The collars were a dull pink shade, with a large buckle at the throat, making the fawns look uncomfortable but dapper. A single wire stuck up from the back of the collar. The collars with their wires didn’t surprise people anymore. This is what fawns looked like, now.

I thought it must be the dead doe’s orphan I saw a few times, ambling alone in yards with little branches and twigs stuck in its collar; it looked at first glance as if the tracking wire had begun to multiply, but really this orphan fawn was just getting tangled and stuck in the suburban bush.


For a long time, I listened with an ethnographic ear to people talk uncanny conspiracy theory. They told of surveillance by the powers that be. I heard disenfranchised social feelings and a mourning for nature entangled with overarching plots and underlying structures, all centered on a covert panopticon. In people’s intellectual beliefs and gut instincts, they – the nameless, faceless they — were always watching us. They tracked the moves of the little man, while they shifted powerful global agencies and destroyed nature, negotiating with space alien agendas to follow and abduct people. As they gathered medical and intimate information, discourses of intertwining knowledge and power tumbled out of a Foucaultian dream, grew legs and wings and nested in roofs. The huge black animal eyes of the alien evoked endless hidden watching. They sometimes emerged from the all seeing Illuminati but morphed into new coalitions behind the surface, as things sped up towards an end. I wanted to get a vernacular theory of power. It emerged in small communities of UFO experiencers and uncanny theorists, describing a power that was too big to see in its entirety but whose effects made patterns you could follow. People kept saying in many ways: something’s coming. Something’s changing. Something’s been lost.

Of course, all that covert government watching and listening stuff came true.


Back then, surreptitious watching, listening and tracking were imagined as the sole provenance of enormous, uncanny power. But as modes of surveillance also integrate down into the techniques of the ordinary, and to saturate the fabric of things, their association with power both splinters and intensifies in ways we still can’t sum up.

John Jackson Jr. (2012) muses on the vanishing of an ethnographic “backstage,” recalled as a place to test scholarly ideas in an oral talk before the finality of publication, since any academic talk (or classroom lecture, or seminar) will now most likely be recorded on a phone and posted online to sustain a “potential afterlife” (Jackson 2012: 494). Now the context of any performance, including the performance of an anthropological talk, shifts into the unknowable, making it impossible to plan for its reception; Jackson wonders, “does [the] ethnographer talk about his project the same way in the academy as he does when he’s … representing himself and his work to his subjects?” (Ibid).

Anxieties of an unknown audience transcend the disciplinary ethics of anthropology. We’re not just anthropologists immersed in our discipline’s longstanding concern about the power implications of representing others. We are also just subjects of the same changes in technology and circulation as everyone is; we are not above any of it. Reflections on unknown audiences resonate as much with vernacular discourses about shifting power and surveillance as they do with thinking specifically about writing culture in the digital age. Ethnographic authority and its dilemmas then play on more widely unpredictable channels of circulation, the permanence of the seemingly throwaway moment, and the ubiquitous anxiety of being tracked from above or below…

A shift in the air drifted from the margins to the center of things. It went along with a habitus shifting in subtle ways, a glimmer of perceiving rapid change – about bodies in relation to devices, to information, and to each other as we speak.


My middle school nephew sits on the couch, laptop open, while adults drink tea. He looks up with a quick nostalgic smile, the kind we use for shared memories, and says, “Remember when everyone used to get all upset because the N.S.A. reads our email?”


 Work Cited

Jackson Jr., John. 2012. “Ethnography Is, Ethnography Ain’t.” CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, Vol. 27, Issue 3, pp. 480–497.


“Let it Flow Down the Long Grey Line:” The West Point Class Ring Memorial Melt

September 15th, 2014, by § 3 Comments

In a light-industrial district of Warwick, Rhode Island stands a long low concrete building. It is much like the surrounding buildings, with shipping bays, offices with windows, numerous vents, and a large chimney, but with a more spruced-up presentation than its neighbors and a sign in front discreetly announcing its business: Pease & Curren Refiners. Pease & Curren has served jewelry makers, pawn shops and dental laboratories since 1916. It receives jewelry, plate and scrap from these clients and refines them to extract gold, silver, platinum and palladium.

On February 24, 2014, Pease & Curren provided its refining service in a rather different context, hosting the 14th Annual West Point Class Ring Memorial Melt. Each year since 2000, West Point graduates and the families of deceased graduates have donated the gold rings to be melted down and joined with a gold sample from which future class rings are forged; so far 322 rings have been donated. The industrial process of turning solid gold into liquid and back again is a central part of the ceremony. « Read the rest of this entry »

Note from the Field: Charting Territories without Maps

September 9th, 2014, by § 2 Comments

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) does not have postal codes, street addresses, or mail delivery. Streets rarely have codified names. Since I started doing fieldwork in Laos in 2012, I have been fascinated by the ingenious maps that people make to navigate a country without codes. Every day, people make-do by making their own maps. Map making technologies (like GPS, digital mapping software, graph paper) are also important tools for my informants in the bomb clearance sector, where I do much of my fieldwork. Here, as well, people learn to make do by making their own maps. The present writing, however, is the first time that I have consciously tried to chart the source of my fascination.

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Knowledge Transfer, Transparency, IT: An Infrastructure Report from Co-Chairland

August 31st, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

“Does CASTAC still serve a purpose?” “Should it continue?” This was the discussion at the first CASTAC meeting I attended at the 2006 AAAs in San Jose. It was like coming upon a cadre of fascinating people who share your intellectual proclivities only to hear tell of how this had been a most excellent and renown party—a veritable Cambrian explosion of Anthro-STS—but that was back before you got here, and there was beer. « Read the rest of this entry »

John Hartigan on Multispecies Ethnography

August 26th, 2014, by § 1 Comment

Many scholars in anthropology and science studies have sought new ways to engage social life beyond commonsense nature-culture divides, which obscure how humans and non-human life forms like animals, plants, and microbes live with and impact one another.  One approach to these cross-species relations is multispecies ethnography, which, to quote a recent article by S. Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich, explores “the host of organisms whose lives and death are linked to human social worlds.” The “multispecies turn” has given rise to fruitful collaborations between anthropologists and scholars in biology and the natural sciences, producing new knowledge about the world and its possibilities. Research on naturecultures and biocultures has demonstrated that what we take to be human nature is actually an interspecies relationship (Tsing 2010), born of countless interactions across different forms of life. At the same time, it offers crucial perspective on the ways in which human action impacts the world with (often devastating) consequences for the biosphere, compelling us to consider what forms of harm and care we live with and propagate on a daily basis.

I recently asked anthropologist John Hartigan how he makes use of such approaches (and, more broadly, of the concepts that inform multispecies thinking) in his own work at the intersection of anthropology and science studies. As Director of the Americo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, John has long used cultural analysis to engage questions of race in contemporary American culture. He is now working increasingly in Latin America and Europe, where he employs cultural analysis and science studies perspectives to explore cultures of plant cultivation, including corn in Mexico and botanical gardens in Spain. One of his current projects is a weblog entitled Aesop’s Anthropology, where he thinks through a variety of multispecies topics, interweaving ethnographic description with classical and emergent social theory.  John was recently featured alongside other ethnographers and artists in a webcast by the Multispecies Salon entitled “How to Interview a Plant,” which can be viewed here.
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