Thursday, February 25, 2010

"All the World is but a Stage" Performative Theory and its Actors.

Barry Barnes, a founding member of the Strong Programme out of the University of Edinburgh has argued that societies can be be conceived of as groups who who share "self-referring knowledge substantially confirmed by the practice that it sustains."
Then there is this from GMU economist Donald Boudreax discussing what we might call economic ontology."Oil in the Earth's crust that is out of reach with existing technology is no more of a resource today than is oil on Pluto. But if and when human creativity discovers cost-effective techniques for extracting that oil, it then -- and only then -- becomes a resource. In effect, more of the resource "oil" is created."

And finally take this exchange from Bruno Latour's Science in Action, between a skeptic trying to assess the validity of a scientist's claim that: "Biological activity of endorphin was found essentially in two zones with the activity of zone 2 being totally reversible, or statistically so, by naloxone." and a related figure/diagram that claims to illustrate this assertion.

"'You doubt what I wrote? Let me show you.' [says the Scientist and]... refers to an image slowly produced by one of these devices. 'OK. This is the base line; now, I am going to inject endorphin, what is going to happen? See?!' Immediately the line drops dramatically. 'And now watch naloxone. See?! Back to base line levels. It is fully reversible.' [The skeptic] now understands that what the Scientist is asking him to watch is related to the figure in the text of the sentence. He thus realises where this figure comes from. It has been extracted from the instruments in this room, cleaned, redrawn, and displayed. He now seems to have reached the source of all these images that he saw arrayed in the text as the final proof of... the arguments in [the sentence]. He also realises, however, that the [figure/diagram] that were the last layer in the text, are the end result of a long process in the laboratory that we are now starting to observe. Watching the graph paper slowly emerging out of the physiograph, he understands that he is at the junction of two worlds: a paper world that he has just left, and one of instruments that he is just entering. A hybrid is produced at the interface: a raw image, to be used later in an article, that is emerging from an instrument."

The common link between these three excerpts is an approach to epistemological inquiry that seeks to unpack and clarify the significant semantic difficulties we encounter in creating, representing, and perpetuating, knowledge.

When we encounter assertions like "We won't run out of Oil" or "Our dependence on oil is environmentally unsustainable." it is not a trivial question to ask what they actually mean. Is "oil" here referring to a semiotic economic construct, a specific arrangement of chemical elements, or a unit of energy? Or has the term become a pejorative that references a larger set of practices regarded by some as environmentally unsustainable and morally dubious? Which societies will privilege and sustain which semiotic variation of "oil" and what role, if any, can science play in arbitrating between them? Could "oil as resource" cease to exist if "oil as environmentally unsustainable substance" out-performs it? Can knowledge, once created, ever be destroyed?

Food for thought.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Malala on Malema

Justice Malala is a witty and insightful commentator on South African politics. Here is his latest about that darling of the ANCYL, Julius Malema. Its a good, if depressing, laugh.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Into Great Silence at the 광주 극장 (Gwangju Cinema)

Today I found a fantastic little art film theater (sorry no English site) in downtown Gwangju and watched an equally good movie there. Into Great Silence has been described as "more of a visual meditation than documentary." There is no plot, and as the name suggests the vast majority of the film is silent. However it does a masterful job of allowing you to experience the lives and surroundings of the Chartusian monks at the Grand Chartreuse Monastery, deep in the French Alps. At nearly 3 hours, the general silence of the film naturally leads one to boredom halfway through,but paradoxically it is precisely at that point that it really becomes thought provoking.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

If you think Global Warming is bad...

You must not have heard about the new threat on the block, Local Warming. Watch this short (6 min) video by Yossi Vardi speaking at one of the always worthwhile TED conferences.


Snapshots of Korean History and Culture

Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul writes a great series of columns for the Korea Times about various aspects of Korean history and culture. The latest one entitled "Life of Ms. Lee" outlines the life of a "typical" Korean woman born circa 1920. He has written many other articles in this series, I also recommend reading "Foreigners" and "Daehan-minguk."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tempering Korean Nationalism

Sunny Lee, a writer at the Korea Times, writes a very thoughtful reflection here about how Korean's desire for a greater global presence may require them confront their traditional nationalism.

Thinking about homosexuality

After unexpectedly attending the trial of two men in Malawi who had been arrested for being homosexuals, and after hearing about the proposed “gay-killing” legislation in Uganda, I ran across this interview by Rachel Maddow of Richard Cohen. Mr. Cohen is an unlicensed therapist who specializes in counseling people who have unwanted homosexual feelings. He completely condemns the Ugandan legislation. But the Ugandan author of the law has cited Cohen and his book, entitled “Coming Out Straight,” as a formative influence. Watch the interview.

Mr. Cohen has been ridiculed and shunned by professional psychiatric associations and of course by most homosexuals. Certainly he seems like a bit of a weirdo. In particular his “tennis racket” therapy is odd. But the vehement attacks on him by many homosexuals have been unseemly and overblown. Mr. Cohen, at least in his interview with Ms. Maddow, was certainly not your typical Christian fundamentalist homophobic bigot (although the statistics he cites, and then disavows, in the interview don’t help him any). He doesn’t say that homosexuality is immoral. Rather, if the feelings are unwanted, he treats it as psychological disorder. In the nature vs. nuture debate over the origins of homosexuality he is firmly in the later camp. Because of the historical and continuing prejudice against homosexuality it is understandable why homosexuals would be offended by Mr. Cohen’s beliefs. But I think that much of the offensive has more to do with that history of prejudice than with Mr. Cohen. I say this because I can’t imagine being offended if someone were to tell me that my heterosexuality was a psychological disorder. I would think that person was weird, uninformed, or just your average nutball, but he would hardly make me angry.

In any case, the interview prompted me to do a little browsing about the scientific consensus on the nature of homosexuality and it appears as if the jury is still largely out. Although most homosexuals believe instinctually that their sexual orientation is not a choice, attempts to find a “gay gene” have failed. Nevertheless much scientific research does seem to indicate that one’s sexual orientation is determined early on, possibly in the womb. Others like Alfred Kinsey believe that there is a continuum of sexual orientations which are influenced by a range of nature and nurture factors. Others still, who are usually but not always critical of homosexuality, think it is entirely a matter of nurturing. For a great review article of this stuff see here.

For me Kinsey’s suggestion matches my own anecdotal experiences best. The idea that everyone exists on a sexuality continuum, and that their place on that continuum is dependent upon a large number of biological and environmental factors, has a lot of explanatory power. I have met too many bisexuals of varying degrees and of both genders, to believe that everyone is either straight or gay. I have also witnessed people going through phases of being homosexual and of being heterosexual, so the idea that environmental and even psychological factors, play no role doesn’t seem credible.

What do you think?


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Battlestar Galactica

As usual I am late to discover any worthwhile media related production. So for most of you this will be old news. However for those hibernating sci-fi fans like myself Battlestar Galactica is my latest find and one that you should definitely check out. Apparently there was a much older tv series by the same name but the Battlestar to which I am referring aired for 4 seasons from 2004 (2003 including the mini-series) until 2008. I'm currently finishing up season 2.

The best part of this series is the level of character development and the fairly successful balance that the writers have managed between presenting us with an array of deeply flawed characters while still maintaining the audience's sympathy for them and the hope that everything will be alright in the end.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Culture Matters

The eminent cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz once stated that "The debate over the patterns of social change...has recently taken a strongly 'economistic' turn, either in the form of Neomarxist 'modes of production' theory or Neoclassical 'rationalisation of factor use' theory. This has led to the 'externalisation' of the cultural dimensions of change as 'mere ideology' or forceless social decor and to a heightened indeterminacy in our picture of what is now happening. Only the restoration of interest in the cultural dimensions of change can correct this development."

He was talking about development and social change in Indonesia over twenty years ago, but I was reminded of his words while reading this and this post, and the responses to it, over at the very helpful Anthropologyworks blog. If you want to keep up a little with what is going on in the world of cultural anthropology this is a great place to stop by.
These two posts however reminded me of the diversity in the field. In them Dr. Miller (the blog's author) collectively highlights three op-eds about Haiti's "problems." Two of them deal primarily with Haiti's culture while the other one fits pretty well into Geertz's "economistic" category. Both of the culturally focused articles argue that certain aspects of Haiti's culture, voodoo for one, are "progress-resistant." While the last article focuses on the effects of the drug trade and corruption on Haiti's development.
Surprisingly Dr. Miller praises the last one and finds much fault with the more culturally focused op-eds. I say surprising not because she disagrees with their assessment. From my point of view neither op-ed is particularly persuasive, though I know next to nothing about Haiti. Rather I was surprised by Dr. Miller's reaction because she seemed offended at the very suggestion that culture matters. And therefore that Haiti's culture could be damaging (or helpful) to its development prospects. Instead she preferred talking about how the real culprits for Haiti's desperate situation are drugs, imperialism, capitalism, etc. Now certainly these factors had a (large) role, but why, as a cultural anthropologist, would you be disparaging of people who are interested in looking directly at the role that some other cultural practices, such as voodoo (or whatever) might have played?
And if you are skeptical of their conclusions, why not simply point out why with supporting data rather than accuse them of participating in the "destruction.. of cultures through economic, political, and cultural imperialism."

That kind of talk is a good way to scare away a lot of inquisitive minds.

Perhaps another "restoration of interest in the cultural dimensions of [social] change..." is in order?


From Coordination to Integration to Centralization, a slippery slope?

Integrated Coastal Management generally favors coordination over centralization. ICM's call for greater integration is often used to express this preference. However the term 'integration' in the ICM literature is almost ubiquitously used, much like 'sustainability' is used in most environmentally-concerned literature. Accordingly, its meaning is often fuzzy. In practice, and sometimes in the literature, integration activities have more often involved the reorganization, and centralization of various governmental institutions under one, new, umbrella institution. In the USA this umbrella organization is the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and in South Korea it is the MOMAF (Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries). The reason for this centralization, as opposed to true interorganizational coordination is quite simple. Coordination is hard, centralization relatively easy. This very helpful article by Seoung-Yong Hong talks about how Korea found this out while attempting to reshape it's coastal management systems in line with ICM principles.

The only problem is that one of ICM's central tenants is that centralization doesn't work.

So the question is, after 25 years has ICM managed to really change the methods and principles by which we manage the coasts or has it simply given traditional coastal management methods a terminological makeover?

It's not the filibuster.

Clive Crook, whom I have recently discovered, is a very worthwhile political commentator who writes for the The Atlantic Monthly and Financial Times and was formerly at the Economist. His thoughts on why the Democrats can't pass any legislation are spot on. Check it out.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The First Marine Biologist

So who looks more like the first Marine Biologist?

Edward Forbes (1815-1854), a Brit (on the right), is widely considered to have been the first marine biologist. However from what I have just read, it looks like we should be reconsidering that assessment.
Koreans, like people of most nations, love being able to claim that one of their compatriots was the first to do something, anything. For instance they our quite proud of the the fact that a Korean was the first to invent a device that measured rainfall. So they should be quite proud to be able to call another one of their countrymen the first marine biologist. One Chang Yak-Chon (not the guy on the left actually, but you get the idea) traveled to Heuksan Island (where I currently live incidentally) in 1815 in order to study the marine life there and wrote a "Record of Heuksan" which detailed the characteristics of 155 different marine species. I haven't been able to find a copy of it but in all likelihood it was written in Chinese so I wouldn't be able to translate it. Anyone have ideas where I might find a Hangul version if it exists?


The Fray

I am hopelessly and chronically out-of-date when it comes to music. So when I find a new band that I like it is quite a rare occasion. The Fray is my latest find. Think American Keane and you'll have the general idea. Check them out.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Pentagon wants Spidermen

Check out this article at about how the Pentagon is funding research that will allow people to scale walls just like Peter Parker.

Head of Canada's health care system goes to America for heart surgery.

Because this can be a very heated topic, let me state that the American health care system, which is the only one I know about in some anecdotal detail, is deeply flawed. Furthermore I do not know enough about other health care systems to make any educated comparisons between them and America's system. But that brings me to my question. If the American health care system is so deeply flawed (which again I think is the case), why are so many foreigners, including the head of Canada's health care system, coming to America for surgery? This is a genuine question not a rhetorical point.
Are the flaws with America's medical system primarily matters of economics and equality and not quality of service? And if the quality of service in America, especially for the high-end operation is better than other countries, why is that so, and how are the proposed health reforms going affect that quality?


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Christopher Hitchens on North Korea

Here is Christopher Hitchens' review of B. R. Myer's book on North Korea, The Cleanest Race. He likes it. Although Hitchens has become too much of a one-issue man these days with his incessant, though usually still insightful, pieces on global terrorism, he is still worth reading. Myer's book may be worth a read as well.


Silmido, released in 2003, quickly became the most watched Korean movie in Korea's history, although it has since been surpassed. The film tells the true story of Unit 684, a secret, elite, 31-man, Korean fighting force that was tasked with assassinating North Korea's president Kim Jung Il in 1968. The formation of the Unit was prompted by a similiar North Korean Unit's attempt to assassinate South Korea's then president, Park Chung Hee. However, without giving away to much of the story, things did not go as planned. The standard dramatic licenses were taken in this film that are taken in most war films but the basic plot line is factual.
It is definitely recommended.


Monday, February 1, 2010

The Korean New Year; to bow or not to bow, that is the question.

As the Korean New Year approaches I have a decision to make. Traditionally on this holiday Korean families bow to the patriarch or matriarch of their family and in return recieve a token amount of money. This activity is not reserved merely for children although they are allowed to bow to multiple elder relatives in order to "earn" more money. All family members are expected to bow. Furthermore the bow is not merely a small bending of ones head or hips, but consists of fully prostrating oneself, nose touching the ground.
When I first met the matriarch of my girlfriend's family, her grandmother, I was asked to, and did, bow to her in this manner as a gesture of cultural understanding. However since that time I have questioned the wisdom of that decision and whether or not I should bow again at the upcoming Korean New Year family get together. Besides a personal distaste for bowing to anyone, I fear that by doing so I am sending a message to my girlfriend's grandmother that I do not actually agree with. Bowing, to my mind, indicates to her that I assent to being part of, and controlled by, the strict hierarchal family structure of which she is the head. However I do not assent to such a relationship and do not wish to send that message Therefore I am inclined not to bow.

Nevertheless my girlfriend, under pressure from her family, but also equipped with an interesting argument that has been corroborated by numerous other Koreans, believes that I should bow. Her reasoning is as follows. In a similar vein to
my previous post on the orthopraxis, as opposed to the orthodoxy, of Korean culture, Koreans often do not see an important contradiction between acting in accordance with socially expected norms while at same time disagreeing with those norms on a personal level.
Westerners have a lighter version of this. When someone asks "how're you doing?" he/she is rarely expecting a real response, and indeed would probably feel awkward if in reply they received anything but a vague positive statement such as "I'm fine" or "Great."
However I would argue, or more correctly it has been argued to me, that Korean culture has a much higher level of tolerance for these kinds of "white lies." Generally they prioritize maintaining social harmony over honoring one's personal values. Accordingly my reservations about sending the wrong message by bowing, from a Korean perspective, misses the point. The point of bowing is not primarily to send a message of fidelity, but again simply to maintain social harmony. It is done because grandmother expects it, period. Furthermore my unwillingness to place myself under grandmother's authority is for the most part unproblematic and tacitly respected to the extent that she does not make any real demands on me except for this bowing show once a year.
I must say although the argument is interesting, I don't find it entirely convincing. What do you think?