Monday, March 31, 2008

The world of dockside prostitution...

Academics or not, there's a certain curiosity to peek into the 'other' side... And I found a blog which does just that. Henry Trotter's Sugar Girls and Seamen looks (in a very legit, academic manner) at the world of dockside prostitution in South Africa. I read some posts, and decided I'll add this one to my feevy blogroll. Needless to say, I'll look for the forthcoming book!

White, whiteness

There's this thing called the 'white-people's view'. Well, it's not really a thing, it's more like a perspective one has on the people and things around him/her. In a nutshell, the idea is that white people have never been collectively a subject of racism or institutionalized discrimination, and that they look at the world from a privileged position.

Regardless of individual cases (like your John Doe around the corner), white people as a collectivity are in a position of power: they do not need to deal with the complex and intricate consequences of racism. If you want to read more, try this brief
intro to whiteness studies written by Gregory Jay.

The idea of this post is slightly different. It's about my own dilemma with racism and the white perspective. I do not think of myself as white, but at times, I'm forced into it. According to whiteness studies, this is precisely what being white means: not to think of yourself in terms of race, or skin color, to think the world is skin-color-blind in a way. So, I fit the bill pretty well.

On the other hand, as someone interested in how we construct difference - in this case, visible difference based on skin color, facial features and this difficult yet suspicious category called race - I find it hard to accept that one HAS TO fit into a racial model, either empowered or disempowered. I guess one of my problems is that whiteness is, in itself, not a monolith. And as soon as one takes a micro perspective, and looks at the people in this category, lines of power and discrimination (yet not racial, I have to admit) become visible.

The other problem that really bothers me is a sense of historicism in this. Not to say that racial problems do not exist, or that history doesn't matter, I have a feeling that we are forced to bear a cross that is not ours - or let me be blunt, a cross that is not mine. I didn't think too much about race, yes. But I do think about it now. I think of racial discrimination and racialization of power lines in society. Yet, I have a hard time thinking of people as first and foremost defined by their race; so I have a hard time with the application of race to individuals. Maybe I do not make sense: I think people are racist. I think this has to do with a social setting (from education to media, from power relations to institutional configurations), not with an inner racial essence that defines people.

The other day, I attended a workshop on Canadian Native community research practices. And when the presenter said that no white person can do research into a Native community, because only a Native person can truly understand a Native culture, I had a hard time not jumping off my seat. I found it hilarious that the presenter started the presentation by outlining the values which characterize research done from the perspective of indigenous culture: respect, caring and sharing. But why does respect only works within the community and not outside it? Yes, I know about the racialized history of Canadian Natives in a white-Canada. But no, I do not agree that only Natives can and should do research in Native communities, because I do not believe one is born white, or Native, or black or pink for that matter, but one becomes so in one's upbringing. Here, now I said what has bugged me over the weeekend...

Sunday, March 30, 2008

I like Jet Li!

Yes, I confess, I do like Jet Li. A lot. So, when I saw his new movie War (2007) offered at the DVD machine yesterday, I went for it. I am a sucker for movies where the good prevails and where an individual has the determination and the strength to defeat the evil and make their own justice in this world (though, I have to admit, on a certain level this is deeply disturbing, especially if you commit yourself to the principles of the rule of law, and not the rule of the fist...).

But the curse of living your life in the academic world is that you cannot escape your critical thinking mind, not even when you watch your usual Hollywood-type movie. I could not help but notice how difference was constructed, not only in terms of the topic, but in terms of the choices movie-makers made, choices of actors, of ideas, of stereotypes. And this is what my critical thinking mind wondered while watching War last night:
  • This is a very politically correct movie: you have several visible minorities present as lead or supporting actors. But then I wondered why most movies with Jet Li or Jackie Chan have to be karate/ action movies. And I remember what a friend of mine said: "I do not like the watch movies with Black actors". Here goes the political correctness down the drain...

  • Is San Francisco a Yakuza-ruled town? And are all Asian neighborhoods dominated by the Japanese mafia? Yes, I know it's a movie. Yes, I know there's criminality everywhere. And yes, an incipient stereotype was inconspicuously born in my mind last night. A stereotype and a fear, which will make me unconsciously avoid certain places I identify as resembling the urban images I saw in the movie last night. Here goes my political correctness down the drain...

  • The second-in-command in one of the Yakuza clan was this woman, the daughter of the big boss. She the big-shot. And yet, as soon as her dad is not there, the others are challenging her lead because she is a woman. She puts them back in their places with a blade and a gun, humbles them and makes them agree with her. "Go get me a salad", she says, and the men are confused. They're not some woman's servants, but hey, she holds the gun to their head. They look at each other, and they give up. They go get her salad, but they remember to mutter: "Bitch". So, if she was a he, they would have said "Dog" or what?
Now that I got you interested in the movie, peak at the trailer, and go get War:

Friday, March 28, 2008

Nationalism a la Canada: Jocelyn Letourneau's pragmatism

I've been listening to this CBC podcast featuring prof. Jocelyn Letourneau about nationalism, Canada and Quebec. It is an interesting discussion of 'nationalism a la Canada', from the perspective of an intellectual living in Quebec.

According to the producers, Letourneau represents a new wave of intellectuals trying to move beyond the idea that Quebec - and Canada - have two and only two options: centralized federalism or independent sovereignty. Letourneau himself argues that there are always more than one single alternative, and that we should not let our past decide our future, although one has to know the past and has to realize its symbolic importance.

There is at least one argument about nationalism that caught my eye, and that has to do with the web of ideas I refer to as nationalism. There is no destiny inscribed in histories or in nations for that matter. A nation without a sovereign state is not a failed nation. In fact, a society may have different ways of self-government, and we need to explore the options that work towards keeping the future open, as Letourneau says.

Letourneau defines himself as a pragmatic. His discussion of nations and nationalisms in Canada and Quebec is imprinted with pragmatism: it's about the ways in which we can make the best of our future, without being chained by the past.
The only thing which still bothered me was the equation between society and nation, the Quebecois or the Canadians. From the same perspective as Letourneau, I'd like to ask: is the nation the only alternative? Do we have to equate society with a nation, whether ethnic, civic, multicultural or any other kind? Can we have a society premised on a different type of collective self-imagining?

I wonder if the definition of what a 'nation' is changes. I think it does, because for one, the definition of the word itself has changed throughout time. But there's still something deeply disturbing and threatening, at least to me, about any type of community which seeks to define who you are first and foremost through the communal. And I am not sure the definition of the nation has changed in this respect.

Photo credits: alexindigo

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Pregnant Man

There's allegedly a pregnant man in town - and here's what we have to say about it:

Note how in the first article, there's a need to use the inverted commas around the noun man, to indicate that there's something not quite manly there. The noun should not be taken at face value, for what we know to be a man, but with some lenience.

In the second and the third article, we have an explanation forefront: a man now, but a woman first. Now our biological knowledge (men cannot get pregnant) is safe - it's politically correct to call the person in question a man, because he had a sex changing surgery, but he is understood as first and foremost a biological she.

I am not engaging with biology here (though maybe we should - male pipefishes and seahorses get pregnant, not to mention that some fish change their sex during their lifetime - but hey, we're not talking fish here!). I'm only asking about the way in which we have constructed sex/gender difference, the difference between two (and only two) sexes, male and female. Yes, we are more open to accept a variety of gender labels, but when it comes down to biology, everything that doesn't fall in the category becomes envisaged as anomaly. It makes you wonder how we look at the living world itself - do we try to fit it into our male/female understanding? Do we choose to label a behavior as being led or driven by reproduction, while the other by the need to copulate? Are we giving biology any thought in terms of the social beliefs that motivate and frame its gaze over the world? Questions with uncomfortable answers...

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Difference comes through your senses

I recently listened to an interesting CBC podcast featuring David Abram, an anthropologist and philosopher, author of the 1997 book The Spell of the Sensuous. Abram argues that we live in a society which has 'shaped' us (some conditioning work, but also a lot of self-internalization and also resistance) to see the world through an abstraction, science, at the expenses of our direct senses.

I found myself thinking about how we become trained to see difference and the role of science in this. Cynthia Eller made the point that the general social consensus is that science should not be used to prove the existence of race, because society as a whole has decided that this is racist in itself and much of a dead-end precisely because of the politics of race (even if individuals themselves might still be caught into this, see for instance the latest discussion around James Watson's claims).

Yet, Eller says, this is not the case of gender: people still use science to prove that gender exists - and surprisingly it seems like it succeeds in doing so.
The problem for Eller - and for Abram too - is that science is an abstraction, and a self-circular one. It is not outside the social realm - and if you are embarking on the road of proving the existence of social categories with scientific means, chances are you'll construct the method and the results in accordance to your goals.

Science makes us see the world as a mechanic device and prompts us to distrust our senses. For Abram, science is only a pair of lenses we choose to wear to see the world. And in so doing, we forget to see the world's complexity and creativity, its power to self-create itself and its interconnectedness. We think we are the only holders of truth, the only ones speaking and the only ones with agency. I wonder how we would construct difference in people if we would live in a world of the sensuous, rather than the scientific. Not that I think a sensuous world would be necessarily a more just one; but I'm just wondering.

Photo credits: woodleywonderworks

Thursday, March 20, 2008

On nations and homes

I've been re-reading Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities and I found his idea of communities as imagined extremely appealing. It might be because I obsess a lot with nationalism, trying to figure out how it is possible that - in Anderson's witty formulation - "in an age when it is so common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals (particularly in Europe?) to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other", people still buy into this idea of a nation... (yes, it seems patronizing, and you'll say I miss the empowerment dimension of nations, but this is yet another story).

I like Anderson's argumentative thread that the nation is only one possible form of imagining the community - yet the most accepted one in modernity. We live in a world of nation-states, and in spite of the claims that other communities such as regions or the cities (the metropolis) are emerging, there's overwhelming evidence that the nation (with its accompanying state) remains the ultimate model of socio-political organization (On a side note, there's really no surprise that Kosovo opted for a nation-state model, just as there's no surprise that Serbia perceives this as an amputation. The surprise would have been the creation of another type of political organization!). But there's an interesting question as to what the nation, as a model, gives us in modernity. And Anderson's answer seems to me quite convincing: the idea of a nation provides us with a mechanism of dealing with and making sense of the new social conditions (like mobility or capitalist relations) and anxieties (like loneliness, life and death).

I was thinking today about this idea of a 'home'; the vocabulary describing the nation, says Anderson, is strikingly similar to the vocabulary we use for our homes and families. The nation itself is a homeland, a father/motherland. Like your own home, it gives you a feeling of security. It's the place where you can be yourself, among your relatives who care for you and so on, and so forth.

Not only that this idea of family is quite of recent origin (see the work of Philippe Aries), but the whole concept of the family as love and blood ties is often far from our everyday realities. The times of communal life are gone - at least in the Western world. Urban planning, architecture, banks, education - they are not communal, but individual based. Take birth and death; they now take place in the hospital, not in the home surrounded by your extended family. Atomized individuals have to lead an individualistic life: we - more or less - earn our own money for our own work which we use for our own lives.

It occurred to me today that the nation may as well be a solution to the unintended consequences of Enlightment's view of the human being. How can one be a fully independent, self-aware individual and still part of a community? How can one live knowing s/he can only think, feel and act in an individual manner? How to cope with being alone in the world, inescapably moving from birth to death? Nationalism, argues Anderson, has to be thought of closer to 'religion' than 'political ideology'. It gives us answers to our why-questions and it tames the burden of individualism.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Constructing gender difference with stats and graphs

I've been reading on the Learning as Enabling blog about the UN's release of data records and I was curious to see what's out there. Lots of stats, and I am by no means a figures person. But I was still curious, more about the idea that visualizations of social science data may provide new insights into social processes (also check this blog post).

Out of the UN data, I decided to pull out the table on the minimum legal age for marriage, which provides data for both women and men, including data on possible exceptions or further ammendments to the legal age (which I've totally ignored in creating the graph below). My computer skills are low, so the only thing I could experiment with was an excel graph:

After I looked at the graph, I thought about what were the things one could pull out of it: like the fact that women seem to be deemed as more 'able' to marry legally from an earlier age than men. But how to interpret this against the 'common wisdom' that women mature earlier than men? Is the data in the graph yet another proof of this? Is it a consequence?

It's interesting to see that in most countries of the world, the legal age for marriage is 18 for both women and men. But what does the graph say about the singular case where the marriage can happen at 12? (For your curiosity, this country is Equatorial Guinea) Does that mean most people get married there a lot at 12? Is it a paradise for perverts and pedophiles who can go and just legally marry a very young person? Or maybe the category of 'pedophiles' is differently defined there? Why 18 is so big for legal marriage age, but 19 is not? How come in the Central African Republic, men can legally marry at 22, but women at 18?

Of course, many problems derive from the choice of the graph as well (yes, I am not skilled with visualizations, nor with computers). But there's something so compelling about 'seeing' things, 'seeing' the differences, 'seeing' the aggregations, which I find quite scary. I am not sure we have the literacy necessary for understanding and dealing with such visualizations. I am not sure if my graph above doesn't actually construct gender as a woman/man binary, and the categories themselves as something given, with intrinsic features. I am also not sure the explanation lies in the graph - but rather in the eye of the beholder.

It's great that we can do so many cool things with statistical data; but we should not forget its limitations. And we should not forget that even if the visualization is created through some complex software, it is still a matter of the researcher's position and assumptions which frame the data gathering process, the selection of categories and ultimately the interpretation proposed.

Does philosophy have a nationality?

ABC's Philosophers Zone podcast this week was "Gavagai", a part of a series on translation issues in philosophy. In "Gavagai", Alan Saunders (the host) talks to Jean-Phillipe Deranty, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Macquarie University, about none other than Foucault and the difficulties of translating him into English.

In a nutshell, the discussion gets an interesting focus on whether philosophy is intrinsically connected to national cultures/ national thought, because it is done in and through a particular language. At the core of the question is, of course, the idea that language frames both reality and thought (and is framed in return by them), with the less examined corollary that language and national culture are one and the same.

For anyone obsessed with nationalism studies, like myself, such assumptions have long been debated and fought over in the field. From
John Hutchinson's theory of cultural nationalism, to Anthony D. Smith's discussion of the link between ethnicity/ shared symbolic universes/ language/ culture, to Gellner's discussion of the necessity for communication to become nationally bounded because of the requirements of industrialization, to Benedict Anderson's discussion of the role of print vernaculars in the formation of nations - and the list goes one - both modernists and ethnosymbolists have stumbled in some way on the question of language and 'national' universes of thought and expression.

Take this discussion between Saunder and Deranty, in which both get convoluted in the question of the national borders of thought (where national becomes equated with linguistic):

Alan Saunders: Is there moreover, something about English that just makes it inhospitable to Continental ways of thought? ...Does that make English ill-equipped for expressing philosophical concepts from German and French?

Jean-Phillipe Deranty: Yeah it's a fascinating question. ... the, I think, undeniable feel that there is something different about writing philosophy in English, or something different about the way English-speaking people and English people perhaps, write philosophy as opposed to Germans and as opposed to French. And again here of course we are back with the problem of cultural difference and this complex interaction between language and culture.

The idea that philosophy is different in England than in Germany or France seems intuitive. After all, it's not only the different educational contexts, but the different life contexts which are shaping our thought. And, as a previous podcast has discussed, language too may do just that - especially when looking at the different structures between Indo-European and Asian languages.

But here is also where the problems starts: the assumptions that living in England makes you an English(wo)man, buying into a homogeneous English cultures and one given English language is simply a nationalist one. Nationalism studies post Gellner have problematized the idea of a homogeneous cultural space, even if there is a 'national media system' (in James Carrey's formulation) and a 'national education system' (in Gellner's formulation). Not even such systems are unitary and fixed, in spite of their nation-building over-arching goal.

Furthermore, as a trip around the world will show, there is no such thing as one English language! And I am not referring here to the difference between Australian and British English, but the differences between the way in which one speaks in London or in Nottingham; or even more, the differences between the fancy London neighborhoods and the rather poor ones.

The same can be said about the idea of a French culture, of which - for instance - Foucault is taken to be representative. Just whose culture are we talking about? There are many types of cultures co-existing under the label of French, some more legitimate (like for instance the different cultures of intellectual elites and those of peasants), some less legitimate (from a nationalist point of view, like for instance the different cultures of immigrants to France). Class, race, age, position - all of them undermine the mere concept of a unitary cultural national space.

Last, but not least, I am bothered by the idea of national philosophical universes - with the annoying implication that "it takes one to understand one" (you have to be French to truly understand Foucault). What about philosophers who are mobile, living in several national contexts, where would they fit? And are German intellectuals living today sharing the same intellectual universe with Heidegger - or is the metaphysical national bond giving them the extra skills to truly understand him? Does that mean that all those who do not read an author in the original cannot grasp its ideas? (There is here another discussion about what and where meaning is and a glimpse into other disciplines, like communication studies could be quite useful!).

For me, such a discussion shows that Wimmer & Schiller's 2003 article on methodological nationalism remains quite relevant for social science research: one of the forms of methodological nationalism is to take nations for granted and to focus analysis on nationally-bounded social spaces. For Wimmer & Schiller, this form of methodological nationalism is so pervasive precisely because of:

“... the compartmentalization of the social science project into different ‘national’ academic fields, a process strongly influenced not only by nationalist thinking itself, but also by the institutions of the nation-state organizing and channelling social science thinking in universities, research institutions and government think tanks” (2002: 306).

Reference: Wimmer, A., Schiller, G. (2002) “Methodological Nationalism and Beyond: Nation-State, Migration and the Social Sciences,” Global Networks 2(4): 301-334.

Photo credits: cuspace

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Return to the Authentic Community: Gellner's Critique of Sartre

My friend is writing on issues surrounding a Native population, the Metis in Canada. This post has been inspired by our discussion on the topic. As with all colonized groups, sooner or later the question of empowerment - and what it means to be empowered in the context of colonized groups - emerged. And we did talk about the pitfalls of the concept, as well as its virtues.

One of the themes that came up was that of the dichotomy in which colonized groups are being pushed:
- be colonized, give in to the new ideologies and structures, and adapt, but loose 'yourself' in the process;
- return to their authentic self, the 'noble savage' or the 'exotic Other' (ie. 'wear your feathers, show us your dances, throw your tomahawks, but please stay in your reservations and accept your fate').

Like most other dichotomies in social thought, this one is false. There are many assumptions embedded in it, betraying particular ideologies at work (like for instance, the idea that all people in Native groups are defined by whatever we take as the essentializing and homogenizing traits of the group; or that there are only two choices, progress
and under-development). But the point of this post has to do with the second option, that of the return to the authentic self. Just what is authenticity?

In his 1964 oldie but goodie book Thought and Change, Ernest Gellner compellingly illustrates the fallacy of the concept. Authenticity, he charges, is at the core of Sartre's existentialism (and, we might add, a close kin of Marx's alienation). For Sartre, says Gellner, to be authentic means to strive to be who you are - and that is mainly taken as a core, as an essence defining you.

"An 'authentic' X - writes Gellner - is ... a man (sic) who wills himself to be an X, freely and without the illusion of X-hood being some brute and contingent and externally given fact..." (p. 62, ftn.1)

There are three problems with this view, Gellner asserts:
- first, an assumption of identity as fixed, rigid.
- second, an assumption of identity is rooted within us, outside the influence of any external forces.
- third, an assumption that we change from being authentic to inauthenticity because we are forced by external circumstances (like colonization processes), and that the return to authenticity is desired by and intrinsically good for everyone.

"Could one not also accept authentically, the more complex role of minority-member-not-wishing-to-be such?" asks Gellner " And so on? Anything can be 'authentic', even self-rejection." (p. 62, ftn. 1)

When talking about colonization processes, and about empowerment strategies for colonized groups, it is important - I think - to question just what type of ideology is hidden behind our vision of empowerment. What is it that we seek? How is it that we look at the past? Were the social structures of the groups we seek to liberate really without fault? And for whom? Are there only two options, as the dichotomy would prompt us to think? Can we be ourselves without any recourse to a group past? Why is it that the group and its past haunt us? What makes them so relevant? And so on...

Photo credits: Kathycsus

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Obama, MySpace and the question of rights and governance in cyberspace

Well, this is not my usual obsession with constructing difference. This is about the question of rights and governance on the internet, and about the controversial discussion on whether and how the internet should be regulated.

It all starts with two seemingly unrelated events:

1. I had just finished a delightful book on the social dimensions of virtual worlds like The Sims Online and Second Life.
As a researcher and resident in Second Life, I practically devoured Peter Ludlow and Mark Wallaces 2007 book The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid that Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse. Far from being your usual (read boring) academic book, this one is at the interface between academic concerns with virtual worlds and 'lay' audiences. It does a beautiful job, I think, in popularizing some of the major questions researchers have had since the explosion of the internet, while at the same time keeping a very personal tone and refraining from offering all-inclusive explanations or solutions.

For reasons that will become obvious later on, I'll quote here a passage which will move us to the next unrelated event that prompted this post:

"...the question of who was suppressing freedoms - a government or a software company - was entirely beside the point... threats to freedom need to be resisted wherever they come from.... But cyberspace has complicated the issue. By creating a place that exists outside the boundaries of nations, and thus outside the reach of national laws, the Internet has come to be regarded as a place where everything goes. The legal world does not yet have a comprehensive model for regulating what goes on in cyberspace, consequently few of its denizens feel they have the right to object to anything that goes on there" (p. 233)

2. As soon as I put the book aside, I tuned in to listen to the latest CBC podcast Search Engine. Coincidence? The first item was the story of Barack Obama's campaign row with Joe Anthony over a MySpace fan site of Obama's (May 2007). Apparently, Joe Anthony - a user like you and me - had created a fan site for Barack Obama, his favorite at the time, and managed to attract enormous interest from the MySpace community, with some 30,000 friends in 2007, according to the Guardian's coverage of the story. Now, I'll fast forward the details of the row, which you can read online (here and here), to the point where Anthony and Barack Obama's campaign, interested in taking over the site to control its message, do not come to an agreement. What happens next is the exact case in point for the above quote - Obama's campaign staff asked MySpace to close down Anthony's fan site arguing that:

... it became clear that we needed to have MySpace point people at something we had at least basic access to -- immediately. In MySpace, politicians, musicians, and other public figures have the right to their own name (,, etc.), and so we asked MySpace for use of that URL and to ensure that any promotion of "official" profiles for candidates be directed to the new profile our team created.The community of the 160,000 still exists, and we've made sure that MySpace will let Joe have access to the community he helped build. And we hope we can continue to work with him to make that as effective as it can be. (From Joe Anthony's blog reproducing an official statement from BO's campaign)

Why was it becoming clear that control over MySpace was needed, and from whose perspective? Was the problem really the fact that the URL contained BO's name? If public figures have the right to URL's containing their own names, does it mean that nobody else is allowed to use them? Does this apply to books as well, let's say, if I print a book called "Barack Obama" then I should be Barack Obama? I remember once learning in school that public figures have to realize that the public status means they will always be in the public's eye (so the boundaries of their privacy are always an issue). And why is it that the campaigners did not make a true effort to resolve the problem with Joe Anthony, but jumped over his head and asked MySpace to 'give them something that was rightfully theirs'?

What follows next is predictable: MySpace gave control of the URL to Obama's campaign, then returned control over the URL to Anthony. But this is less important for this post. The important lesson to learn here is that indeed, decision-making on the internet - and in the computer business at large - needs to be questioned by each and every one of us. Is it possible that you give up all your rights onlly because you signed the Terms of Contract? Do you even have a choice? Lawrence Lessig's book
Code and Other Laws of the Cyberspace argues that software engineers and companies make their own laws. And that such Terms of Contract cannot have any legal power because there is no true choice to negotiate their terms.

So what about freedom of speech? What about cyberspace as a tolerant, respectful, democratic place? How can these be achieved if users have no control, no self-governance mechanisms and are relinquishing any rights they may have under real life law by checking a box in a pop-up window? Who comes to control this cyberspace?

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