The all-too-human search for meaning

When I watch this video about “religious people and scientists finding middle ground”, I find myself not only trying, in terms of my own subjective position and beliefs, trying not to “identify” with either side of this equation. This video is probably immensely helpful for people that in Western society who may be fundamentalists or avid atheists to be respectful or compassionate toward the “other side.” Nevertheless, I find certain subjectivities and certain philosophical points of view not represented here. I am not complaining about this in the interest of a kind of identity politics: far from it. If a fundamentalist Muslim were on this panel, or a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian, there would not be this much agreement or at least good spiritedness. In fact, in this panel of rather liberal-minded religious leaders and only one scientist (the paleontologist) who seems to be avidly a staunch atheist, I find the conversation going down conventional 21st century paths.

Rather, my question is: what does it mean to be having conversations like this? Is it because morality is “innate in humanity” as the paleontologist suggested? Is it evolutionarily based? Or is culture constructed through moments like this? I argue that media like this are representations of performative tolerance, our liberal ideological era’s main tenet, as philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues. And that is not necessarily, as Zizek argues, a bad thing! Perhaps pure tolerance is the framework around which these people are gathered together, but it is also an all-too-human human desire to learn from other people, to listen, to be compassionate, to feel compassionate.

But is there really such a wide birth in the subjective positions being represented here? There is more culturally in common with a pastor and a scientist than most people would care to admit. The outlier is obviously the Buddhist monk, who seems at the end of the video to capture the attention of the other listeners when talking about dying and human suffering. That immanent attention to human suffering is not a language most Westerners are used to hearing on an everyday basis. We are much more comfortable arguing whether God exists or not.

Nevertheless, I have to admit, even given my own attachments to Buddhism, that the Zen monk is not culturally as far removed from the pastor as, say, the native shaman is from any of the people represented in this video, or rather a member of a society that is isolated from modern mainstream society. Take any member of a society from New Guinea, from the isolated Himalayan village, and add them to this conversation, and one will find that the common language of discussion (not just English) and necessary cultural background for even participation in this “debate” is not present.

When a social scientist or a student of culture sees a video like this, he not only sees the cultural dividing lines between the different ideological positions being represented, but he also sees the subjectivities that are represented, the cultural backgrounds from which these people come from.  In modern society, one’s subjectivity is almost always represented by what ideology one holds, rather than what community one belongs to. In Clifford Geertz’ work on contemporary Indonesia, Geertz observed this rationalization of religion firsthand, and the increasing division between Muslim conservative fundamentalists and indigenous reform-minded traditionalists. What this growing ideological divide obscures is the fact that this growing ideological divide in modern Indonesia is contemporaneous with a much more problematic process: modernization and the uprooting of communities themselves.

What anthropologists refer to as traditional societies do not have a common language for participation in a debate like this because it is pointless. Belief in something is not as important as the shared customs and traditions of one’s village, one’s ancestors. In many indigenous societies, this kind of “ancestor veneration” goes to the extent of venerating tradition itself for its own sake. This kind of generalization can only say so much, but it is a fact that the embodied process of creating kin is more important on a daily basis for indigenous societies than belief in this or that metaphysical construct. If beliefs are held so dear by traditional societies, it is because they represent something that is very strong indeed: a seemingly unshakable bond to the way of life that has been passed for generations. This is especially strong in contemporary indigenous societies throughout the globe.

This video ends with the modern liberal tolerant mantra: “It is important to question one’s own beliefs.” This is completely antithetical to the traditional society’s own core ethic: one’s beliefs that were passed down through one’s ancestors are sacrosanct. Sure, modern indigenous people, say in the US, are exposed to all of the ideological fronts and modern forms of scientific knowledge. However, even the modern indigenous person largely stands outside of these cultural debates. Her own traditions teach something far different: that we must learn to love the people who are actually in our lives, rather than the people across the hill. We must learn to love the earth beneath our own feet. We should not seek a metaphorical model of exploration: exploration of different lands, different worlds. Rather, we should be content to be right here. It is, in Deleuzian terms, a territorialist model, rather than a model of deterritorialization.

It should be noted that there is a critique, now parroted by the political right wing, but also by philosophers like Nietzsche, that this kind of tolerance and open-mindedness leads naturally toward believing nothing at all, to a kind of nihilism. Perhaps that is not the right way to put it. The belief in tolerance as a kind of “cultural praxis” is stronger than ever, and it is performatively enacted by members of modern society, even if the pastor may be pissed off by the paleontologist, and vice versa. I believe that is because there is an underlying dimension, a cultural and therefore necessarily political dimension, to this debate that is not being addressed. The paleontologist said it best when he began by stating that he has been combating Creationism his whole career. Why is this the case? Creationism is dangerous, in this scientist’s mind, not only for spreading beliefs that aren’t “testable” (a scientist’s favorite go-to discourse), but for the fact that evolution is *empirically useful*. It goes somewhere. It reproduces invention and progresses biology and science as we know it. The scientist, by fearing Creationism, fears not only fundamentalism, but what comes along with it: lack of appreciation for the empirical work of scientists like himself, but also the spread of potentially dangerous beliefs (like vaccines causing autism). A scientist like this is concerned not only with defending things such as modern medicine, but also probably defending against the political side of fundamentalism: the increased potential to believe in authoritarian regimes. From this perspective, its very interesting to see a Zen monk being represented from a highly industrialized country with a history of authoritarianism, rather than somewhere from the “Third World.”

What do members of the Third World have to say about these defenses of modern medicine? Well, if they are in Africa, they may believe that modern medicine is a godsend, or they may secretly or openly distrust those members of the international community forcing it upon them at the same time as they are meddling in the affairs of their country. The gap between worlds here is immense, and problems like these are what anthropologists deal with on a daily basis. The debate and cultural dividing lines represented in this video seem tame, if not silly, by comparison.

From an anthropologist’s perspective, the cultural dividing lines represented here are not the real lines that divide the world. The real lines that divide the world are between the modern and non-modern worlds, the former colonies and former colonizer countries, the First World and the Third World. Where is that debate? Furthermore, even within the confines of this country, this video and debate do not get to the heart of the problem dividing religious people from scientists: it is essentially a byword for the divide between conservatives and liberals, between Left and Right. Even then, there is more in common between them that meets the eye as well. Distractions inside of distractions…

If anything, this is more evidence that it is almost impossible without training to see one’s own culture in real perspective. The reason is because it takes a difficult look at one’s own subject position and realizing what about it may be not unique, or how it may simply be the product of history. Perhaps that even extends to your personality: now that is an uncomfortable thought for many. These are the kind of tough questions we need to ask ourselves if we truly want to begin a dialogue with people who are “Other”.

A final note: what I see in this debate, even from the Zen monk, is a lot of “I” speak. Perhaps that is the language everyone feels comfortable with. If an anthropologist was in this debate, he would probably make everyone uncomfortable with a lot of “we” speak. If we are going to have debates like this one, we should realize the historical and cultural context in which it is situated: the Scopes “monkey” trial, the “moral majority”, the Puritans, just to name a few American examples. We could also reference the French Revolution and the state-sponsored Cult of Reason, and anti-clericalism in general during the Enlightenment. If anything, I just want one social scientist or historian on panels like these: someone who is used to looking at humans either diachronically or synchronically. Perhaps that is too much to ask for: what does a historian know about religion? “That isn’t the purpose of debates like this!” And so it goes on…

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Uncontacted tribes: Dispelling exoticized misconceptions

With the North Sentinelese uncontacted tribe being in the news recently because of the high-profile killing of the missionary who foolishly tried to go to the island, I feel as an anthropology student who knows a fair amount about “uncontacted” tribes that I should try to get rid of the mystique and the exoticism surrounding the label “uncontacted”.

The North Sentinelese are perfectly aware of the outside world. An anthropologist actually briefly was allowed on the island in the 1970s. They choose to be isolated from the outside world to maintain their traditional way of life. Furthermore, they are some of the most vulnerable populations on earth due to lack of exposure to viruses like influenza, and are threatened by complete demographic collapse if they are contacted again.

Amazonian uncontacted tribes in particular have had more contact than they desire with predatory loggers and cattle ranchers. Survival International states about the Akuntsu tribe that, “Just five Akuntsu survive. One of the men, Pupak, has lead shot still buried in his back, and mimes the gunmen who pursued him on horseback. He and his small band of survivors now live alone in a fragment of forest – all that remains of their land, and their people.” Pupak’s wound is a daily reminder to him of how the outside world is pressing in on “uncontacted” tribes more every day. Often times, we never hear the stories of Pupak or other members of tribes that were previously “uncontacted”, tribes like the Guayaki or Atchei-Gatu that Pierre Clastres so beautifully renders in his ethnography Chronicle of the Guayaki. 

Therefore, it is unfortunate that just when a story about an uncontacted tribe makes front page headlines, one witnesses the same exoticization and sensationalism being perpetrated by the American media. Take a look at the difference between these headlines, one by CNN and one by the BBC:

‘You guys might think I’m crazy’: Diary of US ‘missionary’ reveals last days in remote island

Andamans: US man’s death puts spotlight on ‘tribal tourism’

It is evident that the second headline from the BBC avoids the sensationalism of spotlighting the diary of the missionary and focuses on the meaning behind the death and the plight of the people who killed this man. For some reason, CNN feels compelled to emphasize the “remoteness” of the island and immediately puts the reader in the position of the white Western missionary rather than the uncontacted tribe. While tragic, this positionality is disturbed by the BBC headline and instead goes deeper than the isolated incident by framing the issue of the Andaman Islands, this tribe, and this killing within the perspective of exploitative “tribal tourism”. Tribal tourism is just one extension of the exoticization of this high-profile tribe that eventually led this man to feel the need to bring the Gospel of Jesus to these “heathens”. While one could analyze at length what this means for contemporary evangelical Christianity or its relation to the history of evangelizing indigenous tribes and colonialism, one should not forget the specifically 21st century nature of this problem and the role the media plays in perpetuating it. Exoticization of tribal people is now demonstrably a deadly thing, and outlets like CNN should be more careful with how they portray sensitive and serious subjects such as these. CNN may be 24/7 news outlet that covers entertainment stories and serious news stories, but they should not sacrifice good journalism for eye-catching headlines and lack of rigorous analysis. Unfortunately, this is par for the course for an outlet like CNN, which has been criticized for being, like Fox News, “infotainment”. All credit to the BBC for writing an excellent piece on this subject. The BBC highlights that the North Sentinelese are continually put at risk by high levels of tourism to the Andaman Islands, with over 500,000 visitors to the island per year, and meanwhile this death reveals an ongoing problem with loosening restricted permit laws for tourists on the Andaman Islands.

If you would like to learn more about uncontacted tribes, visit this link from the leading tribal rights organization in the world, Survival International. The leader of Survival International also released a statement about the Andaman Island killing, stating:

““Tribes like the Sentinelese face catastrophe unless their land is protected. I hope this tragedy acts as a wake up call to the Indian authorities to avert another disaster and properly protect the lands of both the Sentinelese, and the other Andaman tribes, from further invaders.”

Finally, one should read about the Jarawa tribe of the Andamans to understand what the North Sentinelese could become. The “human safaris” that plague the indigenous tribes of the Andamans that have stopped resisting contact have introduced more than just diseases. Rapes by tourists, poaching, and logging now all threaten the way of life of the Jarawa. Further, attempts by the Indian government to completely assimilate the tribe into “mainstream” society are underway. In conclusion, when one writes an article about the North Sentinelese without mention of the Jarawa, like CNN did but the BBC thankfully did not, you are complicit in the destruction of this tribe. Shame on you, CNN.

 

A defense of skepticism

 

As an anthropologist, I am usually a proponent of respect for “non-Western worldviews” (whatever that means). However, I noticed something problematic in the comments section of this video by the channel Genetically Modified Skeptic. This video is a deconstruction of the Gaia channel/streaming platform, which is purportedly a channel devoted to alternative medicine and paranormal subjects, but Genetically Modified Skeptic claims it is a essentially a scam. I believe he is correct, and I believe that Gaia is promoting pseudoscience.

However, in the comments section of this video, the argument that this channel is simply “counteracting scientism, which is a new religion”, trying to counterbalance Western rationalism, and promoting non-Western worldviews was prevalent. I saw almost verbatim all of these arguments being employed. I argue that there is a significant difference between counterbalancing rationalism and the Western dualistic extreme of irrationalism, and that categories such as this are a product of the Western mind and its long philosophical history of the Enlightenment vs. Romanticism, reason vs. passion, etc. Spirituality as it is understood by the purveyors of New Age spirituality and New Age pseudoscience is fundamentally different from non-Western worldviews. Furthermore, the Marxist argument of religion as false consciousness can be legitimately employed in this regard, if one takes into account the full and original purview of Marxian thought on religion.

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek talks about how leftists and legitimate intellectuals should distance themselves from the fundamentally irrationalist ideas currently in vogue among some of the “politically correct” Left. Among this crowd, the ideas of postmodernism and deconstruction have been hijacked to advocate for a kind of ecological New Age spiritualism. Funnily enough, the essence of this problematic is found in the “Gaia hypothesis”, a theory proposed by chemist James Lovelock, in which the Earth can be considered a self-regulating biological “organism”. This theory has been co-opted by advocates of New Age spirituality who interpret the hypothesis as a neo-Pagan religion. Furthermore, from a theoretical and scientific point of view, the theory has flaws. One example of a flaw in this theory is that as a self-regulating system, the earth should seemingly be able to adapt to climate change. On a purely semantic level, calling this theory the “Gaia hypothesis” opens up a Pandora’s Box of anthropomorphization and attributions of sentience to entities that do not have any. Zizek goes on to argue that the Gaia hypothesis fits within the capitalist ideological framework of environmentalism as an essentially individual problem: we must “get back to nature” rather than looking structurally at the concrete environmental struggles and policies that shape the planet. Rather than looking at the planet as simply an ecosystem, the Gaia hypothesis stretches this hypothesis and essentializes the concept of ecosystem as inherently stable and permanent, instead of fragile and vulnerable. Viewing Earth as the “providing Mother”, while it has deep roots in ancient religions across the world, is no longer tenable in the Anthropocene, in which human-induced climate change can change the very dynamics that have structured the earth on geological time scales.

The Gaia platform obviously embraces this double-edged sword of a concept. But the concept is not without its merits on a purely formal level: seeing things as interconnected is not wrong. However, the manner in which they are interconnected is ignored in favor of a holistic, largely “essentialist” spiritual worldview. Rather than seeing those interconnections as a potential problem (like the cascading effects of climate change), interconnection has become the buzzword of the New Age movement.

Genetically Modified Skeptic does a good job of summarizing what Gaia is all about, so I won’t repeat his assessment. Rather, I’d like to focus in on why Gaia is not promoting “non-Western worldviews”, but rather cultural appropriations of non-Western worldviews jumbled together with scientific claims that are untenable.

One of Gaia’s video categories on their streaming service is “yoga”. What hasn’t been said before about the cultural appropriation of yoga by white, Western liberals? I’ll try my best to summarize. Essentially, yoga became popular during the 1960s during the counterculture movement as more people began to explore Eastern spirituality. Because these Americans were “open-minded people”, they did not want to adhere to the strict traditions of a particular system, but rather saw yoga as a “consciousness-expanding tool”. The downside of this worldview is that what made yoga effective in the first place, as a system of meaning within a larger cultural framework, dissolved in favor of yoga as either a general spiritual “healing technique” or a purely physical exercise. Sure, the buzzwords about “enlightenment” and “opening the soul” remains, but not in its original forms. One could argue that yoga never really “worked” in this regard, but the fact remains that the proper respect to the original traditions that practiced yoga (Hinduism and Buddhism) was not given. Furthermore, the idea of practicing yoga as a person who is not a devotee of these original faiths is as alien as taking the eucharist without being a Catholic, or wearing a yarmulke without being Jewish as a fashion statement. It is basically a statement of personal choice, a hobby rather than a spiritual commitment.

Gaia enthusiasts may vehemently disagree with me when I say that they do not practice as a spiritual commitment, or may argue that they are free to practice yoga as they please, and that yoga is not the explicit property of Hindus or Buddhists. However, I argue that they are not practicing yoga at all, but rather a distorted version of it. Furthermore, I argue, at least within the confines of Tantric Buddhism, that yoga was never meant to be general practice among the general populous, but it was designed as an esoteric practice only for the most advanced adepts and solitary hermits. There is a reason for this: the original practice of yoga involves practices such as doing 100,000 prostrations, not putting your leg over your head. Yoga in its secular form has become an interesting form of exercise, but that is not the original meaning of the word yoga.

Furthermore, while modern yogis and yoga enthusiasts may claim they are combining their spiritual practice into their practice of yoga, and employ some of the same terminology including chakra, without the context of chakra within a larger Tantric worldview, which involves either devotion to a specific god in the Hindu tradition, or the realization of the body as a Buddha body in the Buddhist tradition, the word chakra and the positions of the wheels in the body is virtually meaningless. There is no heart chakra, no real physical heart chakra. It is metaphor for spiritual realization: this is evident enough in Buddhist texts. Some New Age yogic practitioners seem to think that there is some sort of real essential thing called a heart chakra, as the also believe in a real thing called the Self. This is why New Age yoga tends to veer toward the Hindu tradition: but I digress.

From this example, it is evident that New Age spirituality is categorically different from “non-Western worldviews”. There are certain patterns of thought of a Western mind are so deeply embedded that something akin to a “subconscious cultural divide” exists between Western and non-Western cultures. Even when a Western mind seeks to consciously overcome these patterns of thought, the Western cannot help but systematize, analyze, and apply rational systems to what are essentially folkloric and customary habits. I argue that it is hard for the Western mind to understand the philosophical niceties and metaphors that surround the Eastern philosophical mindset. Spirituality among Westerners has always been literal: Gods really exist, spirits are real and tangible if they want to be. From my ethnographic experience, culturally Buddhist people from Asian countries do not experience belief in the same way. Rather, a pragmatic attitude prevails about spirituality: if it works, I believe it. Therefore, there are practices related to spirits, demons, etc. but they are practical endeavors made to appease rather ill-defined malevolent beings to ensure a practical purpose: a good harvest, etc. This is the way it has always been for many traditional societies. The Western rationalist cannot help but make these organic, living breathing traditions into stale, systematized concrete ideas. For instance, the idea of a “guardian spirit” in a tree or forest prevalent among animist societies is intimately connected, as Roy Rappaport and Darrel Posey argue, to concrete traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and specific knowledge about certain environments and cycles. Rather than a vague, holistic idea of “being connected to nature” (a product of real alienation from nature), traditional societies experience being connected to nature as a pragmatic, real, and everyday reality. Knowing the cycles of the seasons is experienced directly, as a part of their practical means of subsistence, as well as their larger epistemological and cosmological framework. However, the Western project and process of abstraction of these experienced cosmologies reifies these belief systems into terms like “animism”. Therefore, the project of “neo-Paganism” “neo-animism” is in vain, because the material substrate in which these belief systems were embedded is gone.

In conclusion, New Age spirituality is a product of the alienated Western consciousness, and in many ways can be interpreted as a product of capitalism and a longing for wholeness that is not essential to the human mind. As hard as it is to swallow, the “search for meaning” that drives Western people living in industrialized countries to seek answers to philosophical questions is not a cultural universal. Where I believe this skeptic channel could adapt their argument is viewing these people not as inherently biologically “insane”, but as the product of complex cultural and historical dynamics that have been given many names: the “Death of God”, the great disenchantment, or more concretely, the rise of feelings of nihilism driven by sociological ills in capitalist society.

 

“STEM prejudice”: why biological anthropology and archaeology are more popular than cultural anthropology

This article is essentially a repost of a comment I gave to a question on a Reddit forum called r/askanthropology. I thought I pretty much hit the right points. This is the original question on the forum:

“Why does this sub lean so heavily towards physical anthropology subfields, and how can cultural and linguistic anthros get in on more of the action?

I’ve been contemplating this a lot. At my university, in 1964, the #1 requested new department by undergraduates was anthropology. Now, students have not idea what anthropology is, and if they do, it’s usually what I see in this thread — questions that assume primitiveness, looking into the past, etc.

I deeply value and appreciate archaeology, primatology, evolutionary, and all other biological or physical anthropologies. But cultural anthropology has, bar none, the best tools among the social sciences and humanities for understanding the world as we live in it today, and it seems that so many are missing out on this because of assumptions that cultural anthropologists only study “the primitive” — a concept that we almost entirely threw out decades ago! It’s like, in public perception, cultural anthro is still stuck in the 1970s.

It’s extra frustrating, because among most grad students and junior faculty I know across the social sciences, many are reading contemporary cultural and linguistic anthropology to make up for some of the shortfalls in their disciplines — I’ve met sociologists, education studies, geographers, political scientists, and historians who feel this way, and enjoy reading contemporary ethnography.

Some of it may also be other disciplines dumping on cultural anthro. I have heard folks from cultural studies, WGS, and sociology (of course) making very stereotyped tropes about the kinds of work we do, again reflecting that 1970s view of the discipline’s focus on the Other.

Part of this, I think, is the failure of the AAA and cult/ling anthros generally to do good outreach to the public. When our campus does a community outreach day, the cultural and ling anthros often don’t even bother to put up a table, because we don’t want to use racialized tropes to get across what we do. (And there’s understandable reluctance to have a presentation, on a fun day, that would run like “hey, this is what we understand about racisms, domination, subjectification, and social suffering and violence. Oh, and by the way, we understand in large part our complicity in the colonial endeavor, and here is how we’ve theoretically, and today, try to disassemble some of the structures and tropes we ourselves helped produce…”)

But surely there’s a better way to communicate our discipline in ways that excite or engage people. When students finally do “get” cultural anthropology, they’re often astounded and remain ‘anthropological thinkers’ for the rest of their lives.

But I wonder, how do we get out of this rut of misunderstanding and miscommuniciation? Cultural anthropology has changed my life profoundly and forever, and I wish I could better extend that to the public. Current public engagement projects are clearly failing. Apart from introducing anthropology as part of a standard high school curriculum, how do we get even those interested in anthropology — like those that come to this sub — to look beyond physical, and extend our concepts so that we can all understand the world we live in and ourselves in better and more interesting ways? I see more questions that are right in the wheelhouse of cultural and linguistic anthropology being asked over in the r/askhistorians sub than I do here…”

 

My response:

“I think the public has made an association of anthropology with biological anthropology and archaeology. Whenever I’m in a cab and someone asks me what I do and I say anthropology, they either want to talk about archaeology or human evolution. I think good outreach to the public might have something to do with it. As a cultural anthropologist I feel particularly strong about this and have noticed this in this subreddit.

I think its partially because, for better or worse, archaeology and biological anthropology have more “scientific prestige” and create more media-friendly stories about exciting discoveries of lost civilizations and ancient hominids. And to be fair, my interest in ancient Egypt and hominids was what led me to study anthropology in the first place, but I also had a burgeoning interest in world religions and cultures.

I think the public, for reasons that cannot be placed purely on anthropology (funding is severely lacking for cultural anthropology projects) is sometimes simply not interested in cultural anthropology. I think these reasons are largely cultural. Even interest in foreign “Others” seems to be waning next to interest in the “distant past”. In Western society, the “distant past” is a place of mysteries and semi-religious wonder- it’s interesting stuff! Learning about what fuels the conflicts in present day Myanmar or changing dynamics of tribal life in Papua New Guinea is, well, more esoteric to the average person. And I think they could be interested in these cultural anthropology matters, but I think a cultural shift has to occur. You mention other disciplines dumping on cultural anthropology- I think that plays a large part. There is a growing opinion, even among some anthropologists, that anthropology has moved too far from “science” and embraced things like postmodernism. Honestly, I have even experienced this kind of prejudice from archaeologists and biological anthropologists who simply don’t understand what we are doing.

One last note- anthropology has been moving away from study purely of the “primitive”. But non-Western societies are still one of the areas of expertise of cultural anthropologists, and it is unfortunate that more people don’t show an interest in specific cultures and societies that anthropologists specialize in. Melanesianists, Amazonianists, Africanists, etc. we all languish in obscurity now that people like Margaret Meade are no longer center stage in the minds of the American populous. Meade used to write popular news columns. Now the most famous people who write on cultural anthropology subjects, like Jared Diamond, aren’t even trained anthropologists and are actually biologists.

I think there is a larger cultural prejudice against the humanistic disciplines, “STEM prejudice”, and this translates into evaporating funding and a diminishing cultural prominence as public intellectuals. I also just think the public intellectuals of today (people like Steven Pinker, another neuroscientist who feels qualified to talk about anthropology) reflect the times we live in, when the world is no longer full of colonies and anthropology’s place as the prestigious experts on primitive societies no longer exists because we live in a more globalized world where the “Others” wear t-shirts and have cell phones. As you suggest, non-Western cultures no longer have as much of the “exoticism” that led the public to be attracted to cultural anthropology in the early 20th century. I think this has actually immensely helped anthropologists become more empathetic toward the cultures that they participate with, and the dreaded “postmodernism” can take a lot of credit in this regard. “

As an addition, I’d like to add that it also has to do with the continuing rationalization of society that Adorno described in the Dialectic of Enlightenment. You could also chock it up to Western logocentrism (a la Derrida).

 

 

Difference and Repetition: John Coltrane, modal music, and the value of musical preservation

Skip in the video to 1:15, and a 40s-style big band instrumental instantly transforms into a recognizable melody you may know from “Impressions” by John Coltrane. What is most fascinating is that the lineage of this tune first passed from Miles Davis’ copying of the chord progression of the middle section of the song, and only later did Davis’ former saxophonist partially copy the melody of “Pavanne” and speed it up. In this way, one of the most recognizable standards in jazz is not only a poetic mimesis or “hard bop” version of a modal piece, but the entire basis for the modal genre is based on a simple unassuming big band tune. In this way, one realizes that, to use Deleuzian language, from an existing strata, there are deterritorializations that moves “forwards and backwards at once” as Coltrane famously said.

This is just more evidence that the cliche that “all good music is stolen” may in actuality have a huge amount of truth. There is no such thing as pure innovation, and things that ultimately seem like “gifts” from a divine or deep source, but a product simply of culture.

But what gives “Impressions” that special something, could that be the spark of something else? Maybe we will never know.

I seem to have a strange attraction to music that is lushly chordal, and sometimes the simpler and more melancholy the better. To me, the real pioneers of modal music were the ancient makers of polyphonic chant, Leonin and Perotin, in the late 1100’s!

 

 

Perhaps the most profound and numinous of all things in the world of music is the simple chord that resonates and echoes into an empty chamber. What jazz did was find the soul in the groove, in the rhythm, but perhaps modal jazz was not an innovation, but rather a reterritorialization or appropriation of the Western canon, or the harmonic tradition itself. And yes, this song by Perotin is in Dorian, just like Impressions. There is something about the Dorian mode itself, beyond what any frail human can do with it. What Coltrane did with impressions was a combination of speed, groove, and ambiance. But the essentials of beauty in music come from harmony, the realm of the sacred, while the realm of rhythm has always (in the Western tradition) been the realm of the secular. Renaissance music was essentially a combination of the bard’s dance and sacred themes, and the most ancient precursors to the jazz quartet was the roving band of minstrels (coupled with the Gospel choir, a fusion of the African dance and, again, the harmonic Western tradition).

Perhaps Miles Davis and Coltrane went back to the hymnals for inspiration? It is clear that Coltrane found new spiritual territory on A Love Supreme, with its repetitive meditative themes. But here Coltrane found an entirely new territory- the Orient, the East, which has its own sacred trance-like tradition. In jazz, inspired creativity of several disparate cultures became one. Music that touches the ineffable or sacred, despite its “all too human” origins, if it reaches excellence in the individual bodies of humans who must perform it, all of the sudden “transcends” its station. The voices of choir members suddenly are “transubstantiated”. The transcendental dimension, far from being a Platonic dimension that can be accessed by Reason, or a divine realm accessed by faith or divine providence, is simply immanently transformed into something beautiful, through the process of differentiating and being faithful to what can only be called tradition.

What is truly incredible is the remarkable human process of cultural capture and dissemination, of transmission itself. The music of the world, now that we are becoming globalized, is now being cataloged, preserved, and a new generation of musicologists born. It is our shared human heritage. Far from something that only makes culture into a museum, anthropologists and ethnomusicologists, along with regular members of society, take this shared wealth and keep it for future generations to enjoy. If it is divorced from its original context, we cannot continue to daydream and wax nostalgically about a dying past: we must do the slow and steady work of salvaging, of bringing up diamonds from the rough. So when Sonny Rollins said, when the latest John Coltrane “Lost Album” was unearthed, “its like finding a new room in the Great Pyramids”, he is not far from the truth. Rollins understands that Coltrane is part of America’s musical heritage, part of us. Without our history, our all too human, but our fascinating, noble, and beautiful history, we are nothing, we sacrifice the future.

 

Tales from Iceland: the savageness of nature

Finally the blog will live up to its name!

In my travels I frequently end up talking to tour guides and paying very close attention to what they say. I had an excellent guide through the Golden Circle (a circle of three important stops outside Reykjavik- Thingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gullfoss waterfall) whom I had an excellent conversation with. The guy’s name is Elvar (sic) on the Grayline Iceland Golden Circle classic tour. Great guy- Elvar if you are out there, you’re a good bloke! He had an extensive knowledge of Icelandic folklore and we had a great conversation about Icelandic culture, history, and folklore. Elvar expertly woves tales of the Ejill saga with the history of the drowning pool at Thingvellir, the law rock of the Alþingi, the war of the bishops, and of course- elves! Tourists to Iceland get no shortage of stories of elves.

If you go to Iceland, you have to do the Golden Circle tour, its incredible. We got to pet Icelandic horses and everything- and it wasn’t that expensive at all! Iceland is a travel gem- just don’t eat very much in Reykjavik! The prices are as gargantuan as the snow capped peaks. Go to the Bonus grocery stores if you are on a budget.

But back to the real reason I’m writing about Iceland: it’s culture. My guide very adeptly identified that religion for Icelanders is a complicated matter because they became Christian very late- around 1000 AD, and even still they retained much of their folk belief. For instance, the bishops had regular discussions about what to do in case of encountered a giant or troll!

That’s Iceland for you, still a relatively remote region of the world, despite its connection to the larger Scandinavian area. The rural areas of Iceland are very cut off- there are many small towns of less than 1000 people. There are still a few houses I saw tucked away all by themselves on the mountainside amidst vast tundra plains of rock and moss.

In this way, Iceland reminded me very much incidentally of Bhutan, another mountainous country in which they have many stories of nature spirits who inhabit the waters and rocks. If there’s anything I learned, its that Icelandic folk belief is almost “indigenous”, and certainly animist. Their connection to the earth is strong, as well as the sea, a mountainous island that is unique among the world’s landscapes and unique in its culture.

Iceland retains much of its ruggedness well into the 21st century. They’ve experienced a lot of deforestation, but most of it occurred during the first years of colonization a millennium ago. Power lines cross the otherwise empty landscape, but otherwise it is still mostly unspoiled. In this way, Iceland is not very much different from some areas of the Himalayas I encountered- the powerlines mark both with the sign of modernity, but retain much of its natural brilliancy. Let’s hope the conservation of Iceland’s natural splendor is taken as seriously by its people as its 100% renewable geothermal and hydroelectric energy. And lets hope tourism to Iceland does not explode out of proportion with what it the land is willing to bear.

The raw power of nature in Iceland is something that is still unstoppable. The volcanic activity is substantial: the largest single eruption in modern times occurred here in the 1700s, purportedly shooting lava plumes 1 km in height into the sky! Incredible. Nature here is still something feared and respected, and not just considered pretty or even worshiped as “mother earth”. No- Mother Earth truly is a bitch here! She was the mother of Þórr after all! In Iceland, waterfalls still rage, volcanoes roar, and you truly do feel the power and glory of unspoiled nature. 

See those glaciers on top of the mountain up there in the picture? They may not be there for long. Icelanders- if you truly are as connected with nature as you say you are, you must protect these natural treasures for everyone to come, especially the rightful owners of this land- yourselves! If anything, do it for selfish reasons! Nature can be savage, but now humanity can even fell the mighty glaciers that once covered this great land. 

Do Zizek and Peterson agree on religion?

Spoiler: no they do not.

Jordan Peterson is so fundamentally bad at making arguments that he can’t help but make the naturalistic fallacy every time he opens his mouth. Hierarchy is natural and good, religion is natural and therefore good- that’s his whole spiel, as many authors and columnists have pointed out explicitly. It’s pretty obvious when he engages in these kind of religious apologetics that his ultimate agenda is propping up conservative ideology and politics, but why does it appear in this video that Peterson is making a similar argument to one that Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek often repeats about God and the unconscious? Is it because Zizek is a closet fascist like his detractors claim?

What exactly is Zizek’s argument? Here’s a good video clip summarizing Zizek’s position on religion:

Zizek states in his works many times that the Dostoyevskyian assertion that “If God does not exist, than everything is permitted” is actually true in reverse: “If God does not exist, nothing is permitted”. Why? Because true believers or fundamentalists can violate seemingly inviolable moral law if they “fulfill God’s will” (think jihadists who martyr themselves for the cause of Islam). But why is nothing permitted to those that do not believe? Because for Zizek, they still unconsciously believe in a Big Other.

This bears a strange resemblance to Peterson’s argument that non-believers secretly believe, but not all is as it seems. Peterson is simply falling back on the old “no atheists in foxholes” argument: non-believers unconsciously believe they may be punished in the afterlife if they commit a sin.

Here Peterson commits a fundamental misreading of Christianity. As Zizek argues following Hegel, in Christianity God literally dies on the cross in the act of kenosis or becoming fully man. Thus for Christ, one’s fate in the afterlife should be inconsequential to you when considering what is right and wrong. Thus, atheists, in their conception of a moral law that is higher than God himself (if he exists at all) are more faithful to the spirit of Christianity than Christianity itself. This may seem just as obscurantist as Peterson’s claim, but it is clearly different. For Zizek, atheists who hold certain ethical standards as absolute do not do so because they believe in God, but they simply have been raised in a culture steeped in Christian history.

If Zizek were to raise this point to Peterson, Peterson might do a victory lap and claim religion, irrespective of whether it is right or not, invented art, morality, etc. However, notice how Peterson would attach a value judgement to the idea of absolute ethical standards being good. Absolute ethical standards have sometimes led to draconian laws and a perverted sense of justice – one need only mention the Inquisition. Peterson also, in proper New Age fashion, collapse in his apologetics of religion all religions into one, despite the fact that they hold vastly different moral codes. He would possibly claim that they share certain common elements, but one need only look at the moral system held by the Jains when it comes to food consumption and compare that to any religion that does not promote vegetarianism to conclude that there are complete incompatibilities between religions. If he were to claim that all religions promote love for mankind and certain basic ethical principles, I would actually agree with him- religion’s essential dimensions are the ethical and metaphysical or cosmological, which then concatenate with the social or cultural. But Peterson’s utter lack of nuance makes all of his pithy comebacks about everyone being religious “on the inside” ring hollow to avid atheists. If he were to claim that a central aspect of being human is spirituality, anthropologically I would have to agree with him. I would also agree with him if he couched his language in historicism, by claiming that the main source of inspiration for art and poetry for most of human history was the spiritual or religious traditions that were kept in a particular place and time. However, what Peterson fails to do is differentiate the existential dimension of being human from spirituality or spirituality from organized religion, thus rendering his naturalistic argument, which seems to make a claim about all future, as well as past, art and poetry, a moot point.

The problem is I know exactly where he’s coming from, from a Jungian perspective, and its actually somewhat refreshing to see the New Atheist crowd taken to task and asked some tough questions. The dialogue is actually somewhat interesting, and I’m trying to lay my political prejudices aside in this theoretical debate. But everything, every intellectual terrain, is micropolitics. There is a micropolitics inside of linguistics, inside of anthropology – perhaps to the inside observer they are more than micro!

Peterson fails to understand the lingering legacy of the European Enlightenment. The man is definitive product of reactionary elements in the Romantic movement – Peterson would fit right at home in 19th century Europe, taking what he will from disparate cultures in a hodge-podge manner and filling it out with sophistry. Peterson reminds me most of armchair anthropologists and psychologists of the 19th century like James Frazer, author of the Golden Bough and one of the primary influences of Carl Jung.

One of the gifts of the Enlightenment and German idealism is that rational thought can be decoupled from tradition. Tradition and social custom, as even Diogenes the Cynic knew in ancient Greece, are the antithesis of free thinking. Organicist defenses of social custom and tradition divorced from the content of that tradition ignores many of the ills that have been created by art and poetry throughout the ages. Art has been the most useful tool for propagandists since the rule of Hammurabi, since the dawn of the first empires on Earth. One need only read the Mahabharata or the Iliad to realize that, as Walter Benjamin said in his Theses on the Philosophy of History:

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” 

I think we haven’t grappled with the true weight of Benjamin’s realization.

 

Symbolic castration and the role of the Father- is Zizek a Father figure? Or are we Oedipalized subjects?

As my friend Landzek over at the Constructive Undoing blog has suggested, the academic propensity to continually reference what one says and back it up by an unending stream of authorities is a product of our culture, a culture that is trained to “go to the authorities”, thus reproducing power. Here I’m tempting to quote Foucault and Lacan, but I will try to “authentically” reproduce their arguments on my own, as well as synthesize them. The author, the omniscient third person narrator, conveys authority by virtue of being a kind of “wise detached figure” who replicates, in psychoanalytic terms, the detached Father figure. When authority is unquestioned by use of these micropractices, power replicates itself. To Zizek’s credit, he continues this psychoanalytic tradition by continuing to elaborate on the concepts of symbolic castration. But where does the source of symbolic castration come from? Is it a natural process that every child must go through, according to Freud? This is the heart of the anthropological critique of Freud, first made by anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski, and later theoretically by radical psychoanalyst and one-time disciple of Jacques Lacan, Felix Guattari.

The video above by Zero Books correctly locates the source of the search for a Father figure in a societal event, in the lack of authority that currently evades the “establishment” -the bumbling buffoon in the White House, but also the weak opposition of the Democratic party. But it refers, by virtue of Zizek’s Lacanian pedigree, to a Freudian theory of the universality of the Oedipus complex (which as a rule, Zizek tends to evade in his theoretical work, due to certain improvements by Lacan).

It is here that the contribution of Bronislaw Malinowski to the debate about psychology must be brought into play. In all literature on this subject, with the notable exception of Deleuze and Guattari, contributions from the field of anthropology are, as a rule, ignored. Malinowski, in his book Sex and Repression in Savage Society, in addition to presenting his own concrete ethnographic material on the psychology of peoples from southeastern New Guinea, contended that the “Freudian dogma of the universality of the Oedipus complex” obscured the diversity of familial structures that existed across time and space in human societies. Despite having certain dated aspects to the work (the word Savage in the title being the most glaring) authors like Zizek tend to forgive Freud’s 19th century underpinnings in discussions about psychoanalysis. Malinowski was a staunch advocate of cultural relativism based on objective data. Any and all philosophizing about the nature of Man without reference to anthropology is, for me especially as an anthropologist, laughable, and bound to come from assumptions driven by our culture. Similarly, we may think- “is the Oedipus complex merely a reflection of our society?”

Surely, however, Zizek would contend this debate has no relevance to contemporary psychoanalysis, which has “transcended” these issues. I would argue that contemporary Leftist intellectuals, Zizek included, have all but ignored the contribution of Felix Guattari to the field of radical politics and “psychoanalysis”. Despite Zizek’s contention that the only salvageable parts of Gilles Deleuze’s legacy is his pure philosophical works, not his work with Guattari, Guattari’s break with Lacan marks an important point in the history of radical psychoanalysis, and is fundamentally rooted in the latter’s skepticism of the political revolution of May 1968 in France, something Guattari viewed as fundamentally reactionary. That debate being too deep to go into in the context of this article, it is important to note that while Lacan shared Guattari’s skepticism about reproducing structures of oppression in a social movement, Guattari took the line of direct critique of the Stalinist French Communist Party that was unwilling to condone the actions of the May 1968 protestors.

Back to the debate about psychoanalysis. Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus contend that our culture has been “Oedipalized” by existing power structures, and that behind every authoritarian father there is a patriarchal Boss, the dehumanizing bureaucratic apparatus, the mind numbing effect of the commute, etc. etc. Truly, then, we must contend that it is OUR society that is pathological, not primitive societies, as originally contended by evolutionary colonialist anthropologists. Malinowski and later Margaret Mead were the first pioneers of this line of thought, and even greater contributors to thinking about the ramifications of this than even radical French philosophers D&G.

But what does this mean for the Jordan Peterson v. Zizek debate? Peterson admits wholesale in the video clip that he is a psychologist who believes we should defend the existing social order, thus proving wholeheartedly Foucault and D&G’s point that the true gatekeepers of society are not its policeman or the army- it is the policeman of the mind, the psychologists, the philosophers even! “The maintenance of the social order is necessary”- society must be defended from intruders, internal and external! This is the paranoid mindset that Foucault defines as the archetypal “fascist psychology”. It is this paranoia that animated the Stalinist purges, it is this that truly defines what fascism is- the paranoiac belief that the Other is coming- right outside your doorstep! The Jew, the Muslim, the capitalist roaders even- it is this paranoia that should be outright rejected, even in the face of real onslaught by forces that seek to do harm on “society”.

So we should reject all Father figures then, including Zizek, while engaging in productive discourse, not accepting the party line. We should not allow microfascisms to colonize the mind of the movement toward social liberation. But is it New Age speculation to say that we have to move beyond even the “social revolution”? What if what is really necessary after all is a change of heart, a collective change of heart? It is hear that I go beyond critical theory, anthropology, psychoanalysis, or mythology as intellectual reference points, and appeal to general compassion. Human Compassion- not political ideology or Thought- to human sentiment, to Feeling. To define what is right, we need to delve deeper into the territory of compassion, something Peterson in his pseudo-Buddhist wisdom tends to forget about Buddhist philosophy. The absolute pacifist should remember that inaction is a form of silence and passive observance of the status quo, and forgets their ethical obligation to society. But the militant should also remember that the ends do not justify the means if one hopes to create a better social order, for another form of oppression will inevitably replace the existing one. This fuzzy line should be guided by the credo of compassion.

Therefore, in the interest of humanity, we should reject all Father figures- Mao, Jesus, Buddha, Marx, Freud (notice they are all men), and maybe, just maybe, we’ll get somewhere. There is no Big Other- this is Zizek and Lacan’s lasting contribution to psychoanalytic philosophy. We should be merciless in its application.

 

Edit: I embarassingly put the wrong Zero Books video link. Now its right

We do not need a spiritual ecology- we need a political ecology

A spiritualized, Buddhistic ecology is attractive to the Western mind that fetishizes Eastern religion. Bhutan in particular comes to mind in promoting this new ideology of “Gross National Happiness”, which unfortunately comes at the expense of ethnic minorities such as the Lhotshampa. However, it is not that this spiritual ecology isn’t a good idea- it is the character of this spiritual ecology that is the question. I will use my own fieldwork in Bhutan to argue for a political ecology approach. We must, in analyzing the policies of South Asian nations like Bhutan, go beyond state ideology and get to the actual policy prescriptions, community practices, and complex ecological and societal landscape that exists on the ground.

In this article, I will not be providing many references to scholarly articles, but I am basing my argument on my fieldwork and knowledge of the scholastic literature about Bhutan found in sources such as the Journal of Bhutan Studies and work by Bhutanese researchers at the Ugyen Wangchuk Institute of Conservation and Environment, the primary national research center for the environment, where I did my research in 2013.

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan currently guarantees that its national forest cover remain at 75% to protect biodiversity and the natural heritage of the country. However, this progressive policy, while in contrast to Western nations that continually exploit their own remaining national parks and wild areas, is partially due to pure inertia- the landscape of Bhutan is notoriously mountainous, and some parts of Bhutan are very essentially inaccessible. The primary economic motivating factor in preserving biodiversity in Bhutan is to promote ecotourism and ensure the continued sustainability of industries such as logging and hydroelectric power. That being said, it is not as if the logging that does take place is 100% sustainable- actual figures are hard to come by, but during my time in Bhutan, I noticed that large swaths of forest had been granted by the government to logging companies to provide timber for construction in the growing capital city of Thimphu. This rapid urbanization is exacerbated by the rapid migration from rural areas by young people who want to escape a life of farming. In addition, the hydroelectric power which provides the main source of electricity for Bhutan is not without its ecological effects: by damming up entire rivers, hydroelectric plants affect the riverine by negatively impacting aquatic biodiversity levels and disrupting fish migration patterns. Some studies have been directly done by UWICE on the ecological effects of dams, but during 2013 the focus of research was on community forestry, and my team of students were sent to assess the impact of recently enacted community forestry policies on communities and the environment.

I was on the socioeconomic team of the assessment of community forestry in the Chumey geog or district. The results of our interviews and observations were multifaceted as to the results of these policies, but a broad picture emerged during my stay. Community forestry was an attempt by the government of Bhutan to decentralize power and return some power to the communities in terms of their own forests after the forests were nationalized in the 1970s. However the boundaries of the community forests around the agricultural villages were still small and did not represent the extent of forest available to the villagers prior to the 1970s. In addition, my inquiries about dying traditional agricultural practices with local villagers revealed that villagers felt the insistence by the government on demarcating land for forests and agricultural land contrasted with traditional practices of shifting agriculture or sokshing, which is now illegal under Bhutanese law. Finding a small amount of literature on sokshing or Bhutanese shifting agriculture, I tried to find more evidence of what research into traditional management practices could bring to the Bhutanese people.

I found that UWICE has already had a renewed interest in protecting sacred natural sites. Sacred natural sites, or SNS, are local landmarks such as springs or entire forests that, by virtue of local beliefs that such sacred sites should not be disturbed, act as a de facto biological cornerstone for the environment. These sites are areas of the forest that are not cut down by default, by the villagers own volition. Anthropological studies from other contexts reveal that such beliefs may act as a unconscious reinforcement mechanism to insure a stable and sustainable environment, for instance with Native American beliefs about not overfishing or using every part of an animal to eat. When I talked to Bhutanese people about these sites, they were very eager to talk to me about these old tales. While on a hiking trip, news that I was interested in such things carried ahead of me, and a villager in a remote location gestured to me the location of one of these sacred sites where a spirit was said to dwell. Despite the fact that many people I talked to didn’t speak English, they enjoyed telling me about their culture, their beliefs in spirits of the mountains and rivers, guardians such as Kibu Lungtsen, a guardian who was depicted on the wall of a monastery near the village I studied. His dwelling was considered to be on a nearby mountain.

In addition, I uncovered a connection between these beliefs and the folklore regarding the Buddhist saint Longchen Rabjampa, the 14th century Tibetan teacher who journeyed to Bhutan and founded many monasteries throughout the country. Longchenpa was said to have purified the surrounding area of evil spirits and located the source of water for the nearby village, a sacred spring which is still venerated to this day.

Sacred landscapes abound in Bhutan, and are associated with the distinct local beliefs, history, and traditions of each area. This is the true spiritual ecology of Bhutan, not the manufactured government ideology of Gross National Happiness. What I found in Bhutan was a distinctly local, spiritual kind of relationship to the environment, one bound up with ideas about ones ancestors, Buddhist teachings, and guardian spirits. I did not hear anyone but government officials talk about Gross National Happiness, especially among rural villagers.

Instead, the villagers conveyed to me their desire for progress. One man told me about how his life was much easier now that he had a gas powered plow. Another told me how the paved road brought in more trade. Some told me they missed some things about the old days, but just as many told me they liked their life how it is right now.

I can’t help but think that this kind of balance between the modern and tradition is beginning to break down in Bhutan. Already rapid urbanization is leaving rural villages mostly populated by elderly people who do not have enough help with manual labor. The government does not place high priority on agricultural education, and the social prestige of farmers is, well, absent. All the young people I talked to want to become government workers, doctors, and professionals- not farmers. I conveyed this to some older people, and they largely agreed with me that the old Bhutan is dying.

In conclusion, the rich natural wonders of Bhutan, its vast forests and rushing mountain rivers, may be threatened by forces outside the control of standard conservation. Through a political ecology lens, we can begin to see the effect of generational changes to the landscape, such as the emergence of cash crop farming, pressures on local geography, urbanization, and unsustainable logging, in addition to government policies out of step with the reality of living a rural life in the remote Himalayas. Governments that are concerned about sustainability and economic viability of rural peasant economies should not prioritize the environment over people. Attempts to ameliorate both situations at once, like promoting ecotourism ventures, in my view, do not work as a long term strategy, and strategies such as PES schemes only put the ecological fate of landscapes in the hands of the market.

Both ecoutourism and PES schemes were proposed in the case of the village we studied. In both cases, I was the dissenting voice to the government panel. I argued for the continued viability of some traditional management strategies. My argument fell on deaf ears of some government officials that I found were heavily prejudiced against “uneducated peasants”. Not everyone I talked to felt this way, but I was very discouraged by the response among the Bhutanese elite.

Image may contain: sky, tree, grass, plant, outdoor and nature

Meanwhile, the respect for the environment lives on in Bhutanese folk tradition. Above is a water driven prayer wheel, built above a stream, said to bring good fortune and blessing at every turning of the wheel. Spring water from prayer wheels such as these is said to be holy.

Image may contain: 1 person, standing, tree, outdoor and nature

Meanwhile the government has developed a variety of environmental protection strategies, such as the one in the picture above. Behind me is a tree nursery, 0.16 hectares, an experimental venture in reforestation.

Image may contain: mountain, sky, outdoor, nature and water

As you can see in this picture, even urbanizing locations such as this town in Bumthang are surrounded by essentially untouched mountains.

This is just a general overview of the political ecology of Bhutan, which is complex and would take years of proper study to elucidate, which I endeavor to do hopefully during my anthropological career in the future.

For now, tashi delek and stay tuned for future posts about Bhutan!

 

 

The Downfalls of Relationship and Life Coach blogs

 

https://www.leadpages.net/blog/types-of-blogs/

I was thinking of writing a post that considered more of the debate surrounding string theory, and discussing my recent foray into Roger Penrose’s absolutely stunning and fascinating book Shadows of the Mind, but I decided to put that off to talk about another subject that I hope won’t offend too many people, but then again, I don’t really care. It’s just an impression of what I’ve seen on the blogosphere, or more specifically, WordPress. Namely, that its all emotional drivel, relationships, and “seekers”. In other words, ideology at its most pure.

Why do I say this? Am I not heavily invested in a relationship? Yes I am, with my girlfriend, soon to be fiancé, that is the love of my life. But why is it necessary to broadcast one’s emotions for everyone to see online? And moreover- why do other people find it actually engrossing, downright fascinating, to read about other people’s deepest emotions and problems?

Granted, most of it isn’t purely like a public diary, but some of it really is! This is what’s referred to as the “Tell-All” type of blog (#8 on the list). There are all kinds of blogs of course- “niche” blogs, blogs related to cooking, etc. But here is something I noticed, and I have verified that it is something people do on purpose, probably as a way to market themselves and make money before they have any interest in the subject- the “Life Coach” blog. Here is a quote from an article about the 10 types of Popular Blogs (link above):

Blog Type #6: The Guide
The Guide writes posts that help readers with their personal lives. Many bloggers utilizing this blog type discuss topics like personal development, life coaching, and/or spirituality.

What can I say? This is ideology at its purest, what Eva Ilouz has referred to as American therapeutic culture, or what I prefer, self-help culture. The amount of self-help blogs I see being advertised is phenomenal! And newsflash: 90% of them are a waste of your time and mine.

Q: “But Stephen, some of these people are licensed professionals. And even if they aren’t, they have good intentions”

Actually no, I don’t know if they have good intentions, as content on the internet nowadays is driven by likes, followers, and subscribers. I am pretty much driven by only my desire to get ideas out there I think are important and to find others out there with good ideas. Unfortunately, ideas aren’t sexy. Perhaps that is the name of the game. In other words, the Life Coach bloggers are also at the same time the Personal Brand bloggers, in the ceaseless logic of self-marketing that Deleuze talked about in the Postscript on the Society of Control (a piece that changed my life).

Q: “Stephen, your critique of the dominant mainstream culture only serves to reinforce it by the model of transgression. Being upset at the mainstream culture just reveals that you are motivated by either jealousy or at best your critique will only serve to reinforce the opinions of people that already agree with you”

I believe in the concept of changing people’s minds. As the old saying goes, one can only change one’s own mind. But I don’t accept that at all. Whenever I am presented with new information, I try to keep a very open mind generally. If I find that someone has superior reasoning than another person I respect, I accept that superior reasoning (rather like what is happening to me while I’m reading Roger Penrose, but that’s another story).

In short, self-help blogging and self-help culture, the social media culture of sharing stories about love and life, are part of the ideological glue of capitalist society. It tells us that stories always have happy endings, that we are good no matter what we do, that we can always be forgiven, to be positive, and most importantly, never ever ever ever bring up politics. I’m referring to a certain strand of (mature) person in America that really does have this kind of naïve optimism. I’m not referring to the largely new phenomenon of social media self-obsession- I’m referring mainly to what is called “New Age” culture, or rather the sanitized, capitalist, new equivalent of New Age culture (actually New Age culture was really a counterculture originally- I’m serious!).

I have too much self-esteem already to have other people tell me how to live my life. Even giving someone advice to me always comes with a degree of suspicion- why do you think you know what’s best for me? Perhaps their really is a self-esteem problem in America in a way, and everything that is being done to fight it by “positive reinforcement” isn’t helping.

Now, I’m not going the way of internet reactionaries, the “Red Pill” crowd, who tells you to grow up and stop being PC and stop being a special snowflake. In a way, I’m targeting people who I believe are mostly sincere, good people. But that’s not my point. My point is simply that one should maintain critical distance towards these things. Many of you already do, and for those that do- congratulations! But I would argue we need to (as always) delve even deeper into these social phenomena- much good anthropological work is being done on medical narratives and self-help narratives. Arthur Kleinman and Susan Sontag come to mind, particularly Susan’s book Illness as Metaphor. Even though its a work of critical theory though, deep in history and actual cultural analysis, even Sontag’s book could be co-opted into some kind of “self-help” narrative. I won’t give a full argument for that here, but its enough to know that good anthropological and sociological scholarship is being done now on self-help culture. Eva Ilouz stands apart as a pioneer in this field of research, with very remarkable results.

There is another blog type that is also fascinating to me- #7 “the Homer”:

No, the Homer is not a label reserved for blogs about doughnuts, nuclear power, or Duff beer.
It’s reserved for bloggers who write posts of epic proportions — posts that take readers on a 2,500+ word journey every time.

My friends have told me my posts are very long- I just checked the word count of this one- around 1,100 words so far. Not bad- not on Homer level apparently! Is this article trying to say this blog type is the “intellectual” type? No not exactly, its referring to the Odyssey -badly, they don’t mention the Odyssey, or Iliad, don’t use any metaphors about a journey, and just that Homer just wrote big books. Thus, it doesn’t matter what kind of words you use or the topic! Granted, they may be a little less pedestrian (see the example given in this section, from the blog Johnny B. Truant “The Universe doesn’t give a fuck about you”).

Well, take Johnny’s blog. Its about a big existential question- do we matter in the grand scheme of things? Maybe just to us. But he doesn’t say it this way- in fact he says it in the most pedestrian simple way possible that makes it into a self-help message-simultaneously!

“There is only now. If you have power, it’s now. If you can change anything, you have to do it now. If you want to be or to have that next great thing, be it. Have it. Take it. Own it. Do it. Become it.
Be awesome. Do epic shit.
Do it now. The clock is ticking.”

I’ll admit its funny, a little tongue in cheek. But I can’t help but be jaded at posts like these. This is a slightly more pedantic version of #YOLO, to be frank. It’s also ripping off the Power of Now (look it up- its New Age bullshit masquerading as Buddhism).

This is why in terms of REAL self-help, I can’t recommend this book enough- and I haven’t even read it! But I know that Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is a very great master of the Buddhist tradition- and its his book Not for Happiness. 

Woah! Not for Happiness- a book about religion! Then what is it for?? Spirituality that is. Well, in short, wisdom. I’ll give a link to an academic talk that discusses this in further depth:

I hate to be a “Buddhist jihadi” as Khyentse Rinpoche likes to say, but I do believe that what people are searching for is really even deeper than what unenlightened beings have to say. The leap is to believe that what the Buddha had to say came from an enlightened perspective. But this is not necessary actually. One should come to one’s own conclusions about this, but I believe that people should not ignore these ancient wisdom traditions in favor of a watered down version of it that may be diluted by desires for material gain or whatever.

I will say though, that there is no guarantee of finding what you desire in Buddhism as well. There is such a thing as Buddhist fundamentalism and fanaticism:

Revisiting the Crisis in Burma and Buddhism’s Role in it

So for me, the Buddhadharma has been so helpful to me in helping me through life. But at the end of the day, what’s needed is love for other people. That is the true antidote to suffering. So are the perpetrators of genocide in Burma “true Buddhists?” Of course not, to claim otherwise would be unfair to Buddhism, ” not any more than ISIS is true Islam or the KKK is true Christianity” as Buddhism Controversy blog states.

I hope I haven’t digressed from the original point at all, but I believe I can wrap it into a coherent framework. Instead of more self-care, self-love, what this world needs is more Other-love, and Other-care. The self-obsession one sees among the younger generation in the West is just a byproduct of Western individualism. Thus we need the antidote, and what is the ultimate antidote? Trying to alleviate the suffering of others- this is true road to happiness.

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness

May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering

Homage to Great Compassion!