Author Archives: Rebecca Carlson

Rebecca is a visual and medical anthropologist studying laboratory research in the medical sciences and bioinformatics in Japan. She is an associate professor of Media and Culture at Toyo University in the faculty of Information Sciences and Arts.

The Many Modes of Ethnography

Download the transcript for this episode. This podcast episode talks to three anthropologists, Rachel Douglas-Jones, Rine Vieth, and Kara White, scholars working in three different parts of the world who use multimodal methods in their teaching and research. It is not a history of multimodal methods, or even a really detailed review of them; instead, it is a consideration of some of the issues they raise or resolve for ethnography. Whatever Tim Ingold has or hasn’t said about ethnography, he inadvertently offered what I think is the most compelling definition when he wrote: It is where we, “join with things in their passage through time, going along together with them, working with them, and suffering with them” (24, 2020). I’m tweaking the first part of this sentence to make it work here, as he’s actually describing the Latin prefix co- and his idea of “the gathering,” but it works for (read more...)

A complex machine of wires and red static reminiscent of an old table top radio or telephone switchboard

On Algorithmic Divination

Algorithms are tools of divination. Like cowry shells, scapular bones, or spiders trapped under a pot, algorithms are marshaled to detect and relay invisible patterns; to bring to light a truth which is out there, but which cannot ordinarily be seen. At the outset, we imagine divination is a means to answer questions, whether in diagnosis of past events or for the prediction and guidance of future outcomes, choices or actions (Ascher 2002, 5). Yet, divination has an equally potent capacity to absorb the burdens of responsibility, to refigure accountability and, in so doing, to liberate certain paths of social action. (read more...)

There is a pile of industrial garbage in two images. Mostly computer monitors, maybe a fridge. Both images are distorted by gray lines, in the first across the middle, in the second at the top, which obscure most of the garbage. A poem runs across both images linking them together. It reads: there is a sudden loss in the way all of this.

A Vocabulary for Junk in Four Movements

It was really a miracle that he was able to function. He had accumulated so much shit, it was starting to get concerning, or would have, if there had been anyone to be concerned. As it was, all he was, was being practical. Weirdos hoard shit for god knows what reasons but he was keeping a collection of spares. Admittedly, there was a tight line one approaches when one, for example, collects spares for other spares or if you’re missing the very thing to donate parts for in the first place. But he was aware of that. Each time a new thing came into the house, he would reflect on that line. It was a dotted line, like those where you’d put your signature or tear along. Which one it was, that’s an open discourse, to be negotiated anew. As of right now, there was a more practical concern. The (read more...)

What was once metal is brown and yellow with swirls of bark-like rust.

Junk Anthropology: A Manifesto for Trashing and Untrashing

It is currently held, not without certain uneasiness, that 90% of human DNA is ‘junk.’ The renowned Cambridge molecular biologist, Sydney Brenner, makes a helpful distinction between ‘junk’ and ‘garbage.’ Garbage is something used up and worthless which you throw away; junk is something you store for some unspecified future use. (Rabinow, 1992, 7-8) In the bioscience lab near Tokyo where I did my ethnographic study, the researchers taught me how to do PCR experiments. This was before Covid when almost everyone came to know what PCR was, or at least, what kind of instrumental information it could be good for. The lab was working with mouse models, although I never got to see them in their cages. But the researcher I was shadowing showed me how to put the mouse tail clippings she collected into small tubes. She hated cutting tails, by the way, and preferred to take ear punches when she could. She told me that she didn’t like the way the mice wiggled under her hand, as if they just knew. But at this point anyway, the mice are alive in the animal room and she is only putting small, but vital, pieces of them into a tube to dissolve them down (mice becoming means), to get to the foundation of what she really wants. (read more...)

Transpositioning, a Hypertext-ethnography

This is a work of hypertext-ethnography. It is based on my research of a small genetics laboratory in Tokyo, Japan where I am studying the impact of the transnational circulation of scientific materials and practices (including programming) on the production of knowledge. In this piece, I draw primarily from my participant observation field notes along with interviews. I also incorporate other, maybe more atypical, materials such as research papers (mine and others), websites and email. The timeframe for this work is primarily the spring of 2020 and the setting is largely Zoom. Although I began my research in 2019 physically visiting the lab every week, in April 2020, it—and most of the institute where the lab is located—sent researchers home for seven weeks. That included me. Luckily, the lab quickly resumed its regular weekly meetings online (between the Principal Investigator (PI) and individual post-docs for example, as well as other (read more...)

American Fans of Japanese Popular Culture as Foreign-Identity Consumers

Internet technologies are only the most recent form to provide consumers access to global images and narratives. But virtual spaces (from simple message boards to fully rendered worlds like Second Life), afford individuals the opportunity not just to watch, learn, and communicate about other people and places, but also to go so far as to assume aspects of those identities. Of course, Internet technologies not only collapse geographic space, they can also blur the physical distinctions of voice and body typically used to categorize people as different from each other. This idea has been well discussed in terms of gender, age or disability, where degrees of anonymity, or the mutability of physical presence, of online communications allows users to craft versions of themselves that may appear to have little connection to their own “real” attributes. In avatar-driven virtual worlds like Second Life, ethnicity doesn’t predetermine appearance (of course, it is (read more...)