Thursday, August 31, 2017

Discursive notches

There is a strange process afoot, which I suspect is easier to describe than to explain. In its most basic form, it goes something like this:

Someone has an online presence, most commonly in the form of a content creator. They describe themselves as rational, skeptic and free-thinking, often with an undertone of anti-authoritarianism. They position themselves in opposition to conservatives on a number of issues, for instance when it comes to the role of religion in politics. Their god-terms (to wit) are science, rationality and skepticism, with the corresponding devil-terms of religion and tradition.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and things have radically changed. While there might be lingering traces of skeptical roots, the overall tone and messaging have changed. If the tone was polemical before, it has now intensified and become increasingly specific. The prior focus on denouncing anti-scientific sentiments has been replaced with denouncing leftist SJW feminists, wherever these may be found. Similarly, the notion of free-thinking has been replaced with what can only be called a liturgy: there is a number of stock phrases that are used almost verbatim by members of the community.

The transition from the one type of person to the other seems contingent to me. Out of all the possible developmental paths things could have taken, this one underwent the formality of actually happening. Things could have been different, but they are not.

The question posed by this state of things is: why? What led these self-awowed critical thinkers to join the relentless chant against the so-called SJWs?

A less obvious question is why those who, today, display interest in the skeptical line of thinking tend to follow the same trajectory as those who did years ago. What compels them to undertake the same journey, even though the present-day discourse bears little resemblance to the source material? What discursive notches are at play?

There is a strange process afoot, which I suspect is easier to describe than to explain. A first step in explaining it is to notice it.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Intersectional lines of flight

In the most recent anomaly, I use the concept of international supply chains to illustrate the possibilities of intersectional analyses. It is both a joke and an illustration: a joke in that it is not a concept you would expect to see in a text on intersectionality, and an illustration in that there is no real reason why it could not be included in an intersectional analysis. One would have to make a case for including it, but that goes for every other methodological aspect as well, so it is not unique in that regard.

There are always more potential analyses than actualized ones. This is due to the fact that it is easier to come up with ideas than to go through the months long painstaking process of gathering and processing the data. There really is nothing stopping anyone from saying "hey, we should analyze x in the light of y" - the only effort involved is to have the idea in the first place. And ideas are plentiful.

If you've read your Feyerabend, you can have ungodly amounts of fun generating ideas for potential analyses about the most counterintuitive objects from the most unexpected of angles. Indeed, if you've read your Giddens, you have seen it in action; that famous introduction sure is effective in showing how coffee is not just a beverage but also a social institution, a major economic commodity, a marker of social status, and a whole host of other things condensed (and percolated) into one singular thing. There are no real limits to how many approaches you can use - in theory and in mind.

In practice, there are limits about. Some limits are related to energy - you only have so much of it. Some limits are related to genres and conventions - you are expected to follow the written and unwritten rules for how to go about things. Some limits are related to empirical applicability - some approaches simply will not work.

The first kind of limit is absolute. The second one is negotiable.

Among those who for whatever reason oppose the notion of intersectionality, it is common to make reference to the third kind of limit. "Atoms do not have genders", they might say, implying that an intersectional analysis of physics is impossible. More specifically, they imply that the objective (and thus scientific) ontic universe cannot be understood using the methods and concepts of the social sciences, and that true scientists should be left alone to pursue their important work unperturbed.

They are usually perturbed when an intersectional analysis about how 'objectivity' is a gendered concept with roots in imperialist colonial practices, and thus cannot be used uncritically to convey what they want to convey. The fact that this is a successful application of intersectional analysis is shoved aside by the assertion that no, it isn't.

Thus, we find ourselves back at the second kind of limit. Genres and conventions.

If you read enough about intersectionality, you will eventually come across appeals to include animals in the overall roster of categories. In its mildest forms, this pans out as arguments to strengthen animal protection laws; if it is unethical to let humans suffer, then surely it is unethical to let other forms of life suffer, too. In more radical forms, we find militant veganism (though, to be sure, it is likely militant vegans found their way to where they are by other routes than methodological considerations). Somewhere between these positions, there is a point where it becomes unstrategic to include animals in your analysis.

It is not difficult to come up with intersectional analyses which include animals. For instance: there is a class (or, perhaps more fittingly, caste) system in place with regards to animals. Some animals (dogs, cats) are pets, and kept around the house. Some animals are slaves to be exploited to the fullest extent of their biology (mutated, deformed fowl who live their life in dark factories). Some animals are poached for their alleged medicinal properties (tigers, elephants). Some animals are national symbols (bald-headed eagles). I probably do not need to flesh out the differences to successfully convey that there is something to be learnt by performing an analysis along these lines. Or that international supply chains might be involved somehow.


It is unstrategic to perform such analyses. They do not get funded, for one. They also do not tend to be read with a sense of delighted gratitude; more often than not they are dismissed as prattling sentimental nonsense, along with their authors. There are limits to what a serious participant of contemporary discourse can say, and it is solid strategy to be aware of these limits.

Indeed, these very limits are very rewarding to perform an intersectional analysis of. I would go so far as to say it is a good idea. -

Friday, August 18, 2017

Who and what to know

A while back ago, I was attending a social gathering where people came, discussed for a while, and left. There was no fixed topic of discussion, or other purpose than the sheer getting together and talking. It was a fluid situation.

At one particular moment, those present got to talking about family relations and relatives. There were old folks present (persons in their sixties and upwards) who talked about their relatives and relations in terms of individuals. The reference points went along these lines: he was the one who was married to her, and they had that fancy car, remember? or: remember the old man who lived on that hill back in the days - he had a nephew, who married this other person who ran that store, and so on.

For those listening in on the conversation without knowing (and thus not remembering) these particular facts or persons, this line of describing who's who will remain a work in progress. More information is required about the nature of marriages, cars, hills and other aspects of local historical memory to make sense of it all. It is a situated knowledge about a specific cast of characters, and the only way to really become someone in the know would be to stick around long enough to become situated.

After a while of establishing who's who, someone asked one of the young persons present if they knew the children of those discussed. As it turned out, they did, in a way. They knew of these persons, but had never really interacted in any significant fashion. The most succinct summation of the situation put it thusly: oh yeah, him. He was in B, so I never talked to him.

This is a distinctly different way of relating to social relations. The B in this case refers to an administrative subdivision of school populations - 6A, 6B or 6C. These are all sixth grade, but for purposes of keeping group sizes manageable, divided into three groups. Referring to B as a known fact implies knowing these administrative subdivisions and their social implications, which is a radically different way of organizing who's who than the individual-to-individual approach outlined above.

The old folks present did not know the specific implications of the letter B. But, being old and wise, they picked up the gist that this letter somehow meant that the individuals in question did not know each other, and continued the discussion armed with this new nugget of contextual information.

The difference between young and old in this case is not subtle. In fact, it seems to be taken right out of some introductory textbook on sociology, wherein it describes the gradual expansion of bureaucracy into more and more aspects of our lives. The old ones thought in terms of individuals; the young ones in terms of administrative subdivisions. It was, in a single moment, a crystallization of modernity.

It was a strange moment, and I have pondered it ever since.