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Dark Earth Day


Earth Day is one of those times when – as an environmental advocate and anthropologist – I feel compelled to write something. Today I’m not going to write something new, because I can’t top this post from last year (really? I thought it was farther back than that). Here are a few excerpts:

The Earth is not your mother – is not even feminine.  The Earth is multi- and transgendered.  The Earth is queer.  S/h/it is a monstrous assemblage… no, a teeming mass of myriad different kinds of flesh intertwining in a terrifying and beatiful orgy – a consummation that is also mutual consumption.  We emerge within this teeming mass more than we exist upon it…Our bodies are as much the flesh of the Earth as are the rocks, the trees, the water, and the animals.

Earth Day is a dark holiday.  It is a reminder, not of the beauty of nature or the miracle of life, but of the horrors that we have wrought upon the rocky surface of this planet: decimation of forests, toxification of water, nuclear explosions, transformation of the atmosphere, mass genocides, and so on. Earth Day emerged from the recognition of these horrors just as the pilgrimages to war sites – the Nazi concentration camps, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, the Twin Towers, etc. – emerge from the recognition of horrifying events that took place in those places.  It is a day, not for remembering a utopic vision of a harmonious world that once (but never) was, but one for recollecting (a more appropriate term than remembering), for contemplating, for praying, for making right, and for imagining a world that could be.”

Earth Day has become a happy holiday. We wish each other a “happy Earth Day,” we plant a tree, we pat ourselves on the back for the good job we’ve done saving our “mother.” But I think it is important to remember the darkness of this holiday as well, because the earth is a dark place. If we can’t come to terms with that darkness, despair, and horrifying just as much as we can with the light, the happy, the beautiful, then we risk simply replicating our own interests. We fail to encounter the earth as it is, and as we are within it, and instead reproduce ourselves and our own visions upon it. So feel good, plant your tree, pat yourself on the back, but remember that the earth is still being destroyed every day, and that there is a lot more work to be done.

The Real Face of Anti-Government Resistance

As someone who frequently identifies as an anarchist, I often feel complex emotions when I hear about people standing up to government intervention. Generally, I don’t support these actions – but why? Why wouldn’t an anarchist support anti-government resistance? I think the Cliven Bundy situation offers an excellent example of why.

The thing is, Cliven Bundy and his supporters are not anti-government activists. But look, you might say, they’re out there putting their lives on the line standing up against government encroachment and overreach! Well that may be true, but they’re not actually trying to get rid of government control over the land in question, they’re just trying to avoid paying the fees and taxes for its use. They are more than willing to let the BLM manage the land as long as it doesn’t interfere with their own interests. If the BLM weren’t managing it – and they know this – there would be all kinds of other, larger interests coming in and trying to take over the place. If the BLM weren’t there, some bottling company could come in, build a bottling plant, and drain all of the water from the reservoirs and aquifers that feed the springs in order to supply some urban population with bottled water or soft drinks. Then the cattle would have nothing to drink, and the ranchers themselves would be displaced.

So they’re not anti-government heroes, they’re just free riders – happy to have the government take care of the resource but unwilling to pay the cost of its use (which goes to BLM staff salaries, resources, contracting, etc.). And when the government comes to collect the cost, they whine and pull out their guns to fight back. I can’t support that. If the supporters of Cliven Bundy were really concerned about government overreach, then they would support indigenous land claims, and fight for the government to return the land to the Shoshone Tribes who have treaty rights to it.

The Materials of Remembrance


Me and Tim at ages 3 and 5 respectively.


One of Tim’s Cut Brooklyn knives and image of him in his natural habitat. This will eventually have a brass plate with his name.


Things help us remember. I will never forget Tim.

A Brother’s Goodbye

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Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. If we’re not we’re missing something.

-Judith Butler, Precarious Life

At approximately 9am on Sunday February 23, I arrived at the hospital in New York City after hearing that my brother, Tim Trombley, was in the ICU suffering from acute pancreatitis and kidney failure. As I walked down the hallway towards the elevator, my phone buzzed. I answered and heard the broken voice of my mother on the other end – I knew immediately what she had called to tell me, Tim was dead.

My brother lived without fear – something I always admired and envied about him – and he reveled in extremes. The acronym YOLO – “you only live once” – applies unequivocally to the way he lived, but thinking back on his life it’s not the time he went skydiving, the partying, the tattoos, the fast driving, or any of the other extreme activities he survived that calls that phrase to mind. Instead it’s the times he loved and laughed, the connections he built with others – human and animal – and the care he gave unquestioning to everyone he met. YOLO, you only love once.

Tim was the victim of his vices, but he was also the victim of a harsh, uncaring, and indifferent system. Working 16 hours a day 6 days a week to keep afloat in an city and industry for which he was just so much disposable labor, he turned to alcohol to ease his emotional and physical suffering. About a month before he died, he went to the emergency room for symptoms that could have indicated the pancreatitis that ultimately took his life. Faced, no doubt, with a host of other, more immediate emergencies, the staff ignored his relatively minor complaint and sent him home with pain killers. Lacking insurance and fearing reprisal from his employers, he avoided seeking help from a doctor when his pain became unbearable. By the time he got to the hospital about 12 hours before he died, it was already too late and there was nothing that could have been done to save him.

Undone. I can think of no better word to describe how I feel – how we all feel on hearing about his passing. He was a big presence for everyone in his life, and we are all undone by his loss. But it’s only the case because he allowed himself to be undone by us. He opened his life, his world, his heart to all of us, brought us in – at times despite our protests – and gave us one of those big bear hugs that hurt, but also felt so comforting. I will miss those painful hugs. I will miss you, my brother. Goodbye.

Dark Anthropology

I just came across this post from Ted Maclin on the the relationship between “dark ecology” and anthropology – The Anthronaut, the Golem, and Other Tales of the Dark. It’s so good, I just had to share it!  Here are a few excerpts, but go read the whole thing!


By crafting the neologism “anthronaut” I want to turn focus toward individuals working in anthropology as hybrids; those who cross institutional lines. Specifically I want to look at the challenges of navigating such a journey and how a relational path might benefit both the academy and the environment.

After years of study and activism, I am less enamored of purported solutions: education for sustainability, proposed policy changes, new technologies, and upscaling of local conservation efforts. More recently I embrace a dark ecology (Morton 2009, 2010), a relational practice for a time when environmental crisis can no longer be averted. Dark ecology explicitly notes that our work in the world has ecological effects, and holds each of us responsible for those effects. In the words of Timothy Morton, “the catastrophe has already occurred” (Morton 2008).

I argue that the dominant model of anthropological research is inherently unsustainable. It is premised on the sort of overconsumption that has produced much of our current ecological crisis. At the same time, it is necessary for us to understand the cultural underpinnings of our ecological and social dilemmas. So, how do we decarbonize anthropology? How do we set anthropology free from its dependence on consumption? On airfare and research budgets?

In the case of the anthronaut farmer, agriculture is a direct intervention in nature. It is an intentional meddling with ecology, an insertion of the anthropologist into the ecological world that changes ecosystems and social processes. Rather than our current interventions in nature that are directed by the tools and technologies of the discipline, the anthronaut chooses new tools.

A group of hybrid thinkers would inevitably reshape academic anthropology, if they were accorded democratic participation and a living wage. Anthronauts work against the anti-social nature of anthropology: going “into the field” to do research, then returning to the office to write in a disconnected context (Mosse 2006). In effect, they live in the field—sailing in a continual journey.

I want my work in farming, and my work in anthropology, to be forms of direct action. By farming, I am able to help build social and ecological refugia. We work with heirloom seeds and host travelling WWOOFers. We are able to work against climate change and runaway consumerism. We work with neighbors on projects—both physical and mental. We work.

I spent a recent Saturday herding pigs. Young pigs are notoriously hard to keep contained, since they will root under or through all but the most sturdy fences. In our ongoing ecological catastrophe, I suggest breaking down some fences of our own, to work in new ways, unconstrained by the tools of one discipline, anthronauts all.

Being With – Andrew Pickering

Reblogged from Synthetic_Zero - thanks, DMF!

In this short lecture, Andrew Pickering draws on metaphors from the field of cybernetics (black boxes, cellular automata, and homeostats) to explore some of the successes and failures of recent political engagements. I’m not sure – as he suggests – that stability is the quality we should be aiming for in our social systems. Something like a continual oscillation seems like it might be the best we can hope for, though he makes the point – using Occupy as an example – that such oscillation doesn’t always produce results. It may be, however, that the real value of Occupy and other such experiments don’t emerge directly from the engagements bounded spatially and temporally in the encampments, but that those space-times result in some set of oscillations and reconfigurations on an inter- and intra-personal level that might then produce results in another context. That is, we go into those spaces and are reconfigured by them and then that reconfiguration results in new relationships and potential products in other spaces. In other words, what would happen if the homeostats were allowed to travel? I’m not sure, it’s just a thought, and something that would need to be explored further – sounds like a good dissertation topic if I wasn’t already committed to one. Nevertheless, the metaphors and models Pickering deploys are good to think with.

I also recommend the series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace:

Consuming the Academic Bubble

Cross posted at Savage Minds.

Sometimes I feel as though I’ve been swindled. Not by anyone in particular but by an institution that is relentlessly trying to prop itself up despite its progressive decline. That institution is the academy – once a public good devoted to the free production of critical knowledge, it has become in the last few decades a corporatized factory for the production of capitalist consumers and wage slaves. More than that, it has become itself a product for consumption where what’s for sale is the facsimile of intellectual freedom and integrity. Like so many extravagant island resorts, universities offer manicured landscapes, leisure activities, freedom from the wage clock – all for a price and all safely sectioned off from the harsh realities outside. But the price is going up, and students – the consumers of this image world that they are being sold – are taking on increasing amounts of debt to pay it. What’s more, they’re told this is “good debt” – like buying a house, right? Remember when owning a home was the “American Dream” – a symbol of financial security? Now that bubble has burst – the academic bubble, I believe, is not far behind it.

Bubbles happen when a sector of the economy becomes delusional – when those who take part in it believe it to be free from the economic rules upon which our world is constructed. Academia has become such a delusion. But bubbles are not accidents – they are an inevitable part of a system that seeks the maximization of profit as the ultimate value. Speculators dive in, drawn by promises of wealth and freedom only to be crushed by the inevitable collapse of the delusional space. The speculators are consumers themselves, buying into a vision sold to them by the real beneficiaries – the banks, insurance companies, and, in the case of academia, the Universities. In this case, the speculator-consumers are the students – drawn in by the lure of “good debt”, stipends, the image of freedom and intellectual engagement, and the promise of a good job when it’s all over.

The academic bubble is a particularly tricky one for several reasons. First, it is housed within institutions that are ostensibly public. The corporatization of the University has proceeded as a vampyric draining of public resources, replacing them with the spirit of capital accumulation. Thus the monster maintains an outwardly appealing form. Second, what’s being consumed is not a product or even a lifestyle, but a livelihood. Students enter with the intent of finding a career path, and often get sucked in to a long-term commitment because they find upon graduating that they can’t do anything with their degree and need another degree to supplement it. Third, this isn’t one large bubble waiting to burst. It’s more like putting bubble bath in a hot tub. What you get are thousands of bubbles piling on top of one another moving up and up and then outward. The result is not one all-encompassing burst, but thousands of tiny bursts as students move out into the world and find themselves unable to find jobs, and unable to pay their debts.

I am not as bad off as some – it could be worse. My parents have always made a reasonable living, but never enough to set aside a college fund for my brother and me. I worked for five years as a child care assistant before going back to undergrad. In order to make that transition, I had to take out a private loan because I earned too much (about $25k) the year before to qualify for financial assistance, but too little to have a significant savings. I spent two years at a community college, paid for by a combination of that loan and federal and state grants. When I switched to the University, I began taking out federal loans to cover my cost of school (I was out of state, so tuition was high for the first year) and living. I worked, but didn’t earn enough to live. I received one small scholarship thanks to a helpful professor at the University, but mostly I paid for my BA through loans. For my Master’s degree I was offered one year of funding, and then was lucky enough to get the second year covered by a grant that my professor was working on. Neither of these covered the cost of summer courses that I was required to take, so I took out more loans to pay for those. Furthermore, the stipend in our department is roughly $16,000 per year (for a 9.5 month GAship – the 12 month GAships are hard to come by), which is not nearly enough to live on in the DC metro area. As an example, I pay half of my income in rent for a small room in a shared house; food, bills, and other common expenses quickly eat up the rest of my paycheck. If it weren’t for loans and the extra work I do on the side, I wouldn’t be able to make it, and I don’t lead an extravagant life by any means.

Currently my student loan debt is in the five-figure range, but edging close to six. In addition, I have a few thousand in credit card debt (the result of a couple of unexpected expenses, including one medical issue that wasn’t covered by my insurance). I dread the day I have to begin paying those loans off – in part because I’m not sure I’ll have a job with the income to make the payments and still have enough to live on. Frankly, I’m terrified, and I can only hope that things work out when the time comes.

Did I make the wrong choice? Should I have stopped at the BA or Master’s degree? I don’t think so. I believe strongly that everyone should have access to the education that they want. I knew from the moment I returned to college that I was going to pursue a PhD, and I don’t regret that choice at all in spite of my accruing debt. Maybe I should have taken time off in between degrees to work and achieve some kind of financial stability. Perhaps, but there’s no reason to think that I would have found that stability in the current economic market, so it might have been years before I was able to pursue my intended career. I certainly could have tried other routes and made better financial decisions. However, if the result of these discussions about academic debt is merely to blame the students for not making the right choices, then something is seriously wrong.  If we condemn students for going to grad school when they can’t afford it, then the only people who will go to grad school and get PhDs are those who can. This will only exacerbate the inequalities that have become increasingly apparent in our current economic system (see here for an interesting breakdown of the inequalities of academic debt). Instead, I think we have to turn our attention to the much larger (and much more difficult) issues that make students go into debt, that encourage departments to take on more students than they can fund, and that make finding adequate employment on graduation difficult.

I don’t pretend to understand all of what’s going on, but here are some of my own observations. First, there are probably too many students going into graduate school. They simply cannot all be funded, but who gets in shouldn’t come down to those who can afford it – graduate school and funding should be available to anyone who wants to pursue an academic career. However, I think that many of the students would be content to stop at the BA or Master’s and pursue other careers, but instead they go into and remain in graduate school beyond what they feel necessary in part because they don’t feel like they can get jobs with anything but a PhD. They graduate from undergrad and find that they have no choice – the only way to get a decent job with the degree that they have is to get another degree. Second, I think departments feel compelled to accept these students (those who meet the academic qualifications, at any rate) because of a moral obligation to provide students with education, but also because they themselves are under economic pressure to demonstrate their value to the universities. Taking on graduate students – funded or not – is one way to do this. Regardless of the motivation, finding funding for the students that they accept should be a top priority for every department. Finally, all of this takes place within an economic system in which the universities themselves are increasingly driven by corporate, profit maximizing logic (in spite of the fact that many of them are not for profit institutions).

What are the solutions? I’m not an expert on this issue – but I have a few ideas.  First, we can (as my friend Michael says) militantly defend the university as a public institution whose benefit is more than just the production of laborers who fit an economically prescribed niche (e.g. pushing engineering, computer science, business, etc. as the only worthwhile disciplines, the only ones students should consider taking on debt to pursue) – an institution that produces a critically informed public, which benefits everyone. Higher education should be freely available to everyone who wants or needs it. That would address some of the larger economic issues that underlie the debt bubble. Second, we can work on making it easier for people with BAs and MAs in anthropology to find economically stable jobs. This would make it easier for people to take time off and achieve some degree of financial stability before entering graduate school, and would also give those students who don’t want or need to attend graduate school an outlet to pursue another kind of career – not because they can’t afford it, but because they’re not interested in becoming academics. Finally, we can focus on giving students at every level the tools they need to be successful in the current economic system (this is a weak solution since it plays into the flawed economics that cause this mess, but it is still a viable option and should be considered). That means less focus on teaching exotic topics and more on teaching useful and marketable skills. To me that means more methods education at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Ethnographic methods are highly sought after right now despite the decline of interest in anthropology and ethnographic subject matter, and teaching them will help students find the jobs that will give them a solid start in life after college.

I know that I haven’t been swindled. I made my choices, I knew what I was getting into (though not necessarily the extent or intensity of the problems), and I’m glad that I’m working towards the PhD that I always wanted. I hope that someday I will come out of school, find a decent job teaching and doing research, and that I will be able to gradually pay off my debt while living a reasonable lifestyle. That’s all part of what I signed on for. Still, I think many students come into and remain in graduate school unnecessarily and without full recognition of the costs they might face. We all need to work on making it easier for people to pursue the education that they want without accruing massive debt. Deflating this academic bubble will make all of us better off in the end.

A Little Comic Releif: Chomsky on Dating

After all the intense discussion around the “Pluralism Wars” I thought posting something we can all get a little chuckle out of might be in order:

Original source:

… Makes me wonder if I should convert Struggle Forever! into an advice column…

Ontology Politics

Saying that something is real is not the same as saying that something should be real, right?

If the racist ontology were reducible to a “world view” then it would be easy to exterminate – simply do away with the problematic “world view” and you’ve done away with racism. But it isn’t that easy because that “world view” has very real – material and discursive – effects.

“Ontological pluralism” (from my standpoint) recognizes that the racist ontology is more than just a “world view” – it is a very real material-semiotic assemblage that has very serious consequences for a lot of people. There is a “regime of attraction” that keeps the racist ontology from going away simply by telling people that it’s false. The same goes for the homophobic ontology, the sexist ontology, the Capitalist ontology, the environmentally destructive ontology, etc.

However, recognizing that these multiple harmful (and other not-so-harmful) ontologies actually exist is not the same as saying that they should exist. If a reality is constructed (through a combination of discourse and material assemblage) then it can also be deconstructed, disintegrated, or destroyed. Does that sound like “tolerance” or “politeness” to you?

We might never manage to get rid of all of the harmful ontologies that exist in the world, but it’s a struggle I’m ready to take on for as long as it takes. A struggle, I think, we can only take on if we recognize that these ontologies are real – that they are more than just “world views.”

Pluralism, Ontology, and Composing a Common World

In the last couple of days there have been a flurry of posts referring back to mine on “The Value of a Turn.” The response isn’t so much a response to that post, but a discussion of ontology and pluralism sparked by Levi Bryant’s posing the question here - how do we reconcile pluralism with any kind of realist perspective? It’s an important question for the recent interest in the ontological turn in anthropology, since anthropologists are interested in making space for the ontological claims of others who are generally left out of the ontological discourse (their views are seen as merely cultural representations of a unified Nature while we Westerners have the luxury of unmediated access to that Nature by way of science). However, if we grant that a reality to the ontologies of the Shuar or the Kayapó or other indigenous groups, then it seems we must also grant a reality to the ontologies of Christians, climate deniers, Capitalists, and so on. How can we reconcile these two opposing agendas?

As I said, there have been a few posts on the subject. Here, Phillip outlines Latour and Stengers’s approach to ontological pluralism, and James Stanescu has another detailing William James’s pluralism. I’m still trying to process these, so I can’t go into any kind of huge discussion here, but I do have some thoughts that might put a different spin on things. (See also, Levi’s response to these two posts)

The project, as Latour, Stengers, James, and others have described it, is to compose a common world. What pluralism recognizes is that, in this project, we all start from different places – Latour’s relativity rather than relativism. The goal, then, (and it has to be recognized that this project is always contingent and prone to failure) is to make these different positions converge, but in a way that doesn’t impose one upon the other as the Modern Nature/Culture dichotomy tends to do. Why should we avoid imposing one on the other? In part because it’s the right thing to do – by imposing we remove or reduce the agency of the other. The claim to unmediated access to reality makes us invulnerable – no other claim has that grounding, and therefore we can never be wrong. But we are wrong – the science of the Enlightenment gave us climate change, environmental destruction, imperialism in the name of rationality (indigenous peoples removed from their land and taken to reeducation facilities where they were taught “rational” economic activities such as farming), and so on. It removed us from the world and placed us above it – the God’s eye view.

But it doesn’t work that way, and here is the other reason why we need to engage in this common world-building project: because it’s not just about building a common world with other humans, but of building a common world with other kinds of beings as well. We’re not just trying to come to terms with the ontologies of the Shuar or the Kayapó, we are trying to come to terms with the realities of CO2, ocean acidification, sea level rise, arctic ice sheets, endangered species, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires, deforestation, factory farms, genetic engineering, cars, airplanes, invasive species, computer models, and an almost infinite number of other beings that inhabit our worlds and have effects on us. To position ourselves outside of Nature undermines their agency as well. It posits them as a passive background that we can manipulate and mold to our social wills. But that’s not the case – these beings push back, they resist, they impose themselves on us. Not intentionally, of course, but they do nevertheless.

So we have a project – composing a common world – (which is an unending project, thus the “forever” in the title of this blog), and we all start from different places. And we are not simply composing a common world with other humans, but with other beings as well. That’s where an ontological pluralism positions us. From here we can begin to move forward, not from a common ground, but from a mess of contingent spaces – overlapping, intertwining, etc. We move forward as beings within a world, not viewing from above.

In this effort to build a common world, certain positions will fail. The climate deniers will fail to build a common world with CO2, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and so on. Others will continue to prosper, but it’s not our place, I think, to predefine which will prosper and which will fail – this once again pulls us out of the common world and back into the God’s eye view.

This is my take on ontological pluralism – it’s more about where we start from and where we’re heading than an accurate description of the world. Maybe we don’t need “ontology” to get us here, but the ontological discourse has been effective in some ways at conveying the pluralist mentality. For that reason, I think it’s a good project, a good turn, and I’m interested to see where it will take us.