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The Legacy of Colonialism: Watching the World Burn

I went with some friends last night to see an outdoor showing of The Dark Knight in DC. By now I’ve seen the movie dozens of times, and find it ultimately way too drawn out and violent for my interest. I am also familiar with the critiques – particularly of the third film of the series, which I haven’t seen – that suggest that, despite its platitudes to “heroes we need, heroes we deserve” and the like, the underlying message is essentially status quo. Regardless, it was a good excuse to sit outside and see some friends. However, I noticed something in the film last night that I had never noticed before, and that I hadn’t seen mentioned elsewhere – the subtle legacy of colonialism.

What I noticed was a fairly minor plot point – a story told by Alfred to Bruce to reflect on the character of The Joker and the limits of Batman. The story goes like this:

A long time ago (during the colonial period or maybe just after? The exact time isn’t specified) Alfred was serving as an advisor to the administration in Burma. The administration was attempting to buy the loyalty of “tribal” leaders with loads of precious stones. However, they quickly learned that the stones were being stolen by a bandit as they made their way out of the city. After six months of investigation, they couldn’t figure out who the bandit was, his motivations, or his location. One day, Alfred was out in a village inquiring about the bandit when he saw a little boy with a ruby “the size of a tangerine.” It was then that he realized that the bandit was simply throwing the gems away. He wasn’t out for any rational purpose, he simply wanted “to watch the world burn” as Alfred so famously puts it.

Later, Bruce asks Alfred if they ever caught the Bandit. Alfred says “Yes,” and Bruce asks what it took to catch him. Alfred replies, “We burned the forest down.”

Think about this for a second, and ask who it was in this story who wanted to “watch the world burn.” The bandit was stealing jewels from a colonial administration that were being used to buy off the loyalty of native leaders – potentially he killed some of these colonial cronies in the process, but Alfred doesn’t mention that. After he stole the gems, he simply threw them away, leaving them for villagers and children to find. His intention might not have been benevolent, but in comparison to the response his actions were trivial, and potentially beneficial to the Burmese natives – hold back the colonial administration, and redistribute wealth at the same time. It was Alfred and his cohort who burned the forest, not the bandit. Perhaps that’s what the Bandit wanted all along – is that what Alfred is trying to suggest? Given the history of colonialism, and the evidence offered in the story itself, I don’t think it follows that this bandit was a mad man like The Joker. Instead, this story should make us reflect on the madness of colonialism and other oppressive systems – that they would go to such extremes to protect their power and hold on to a few precious stones – and think about who it really is who not only wants to “watch the world burn” but to actually burn the world to the ground.


I’ve admittedly been putting off learning about the new movement known as Accelerationism, and I have not read enough or engaged with the idea enough to really know at all what I am talking about. So in part this is a request – tell me what I should be reading, where I should be looking, what interests you about the movement, and what you see are its limitations.

What I find compelling – so far – is simply that Accelerationism seems to push for tactics and practical strategies for building a better future rather than theorizing abstractly the hegemony of Capitalism and the recognition that it will take concerted effort (struggle, one might say) to bring about the end of Capitalist exploitation (as opposed to simply waiting for Capitalism’s “inherent contradictions” to bring about its own collapse). However the approach seems ripe for critique from feminist and post-colonial perspectives, as well as for its seemingly simplistic conception of human-technology-environment interactions. In fact, the whole thing seems overly simplistic to me – the struggle I refer to will take time, and have no certain outcomes. Struggle to me means engaging with differences, moving through them (though, perhaps, never beyond) to build a better world together. Accelerationism – in my superficial understanding – seems to prefer to ignore differences in favor of its vanguardist drive to techno-social engineering. Again, that’s my superficial, and poorly informed take on the issue.

Reading about it also brings to mind the recent film Snowpiercer.

Kim Fortun: Toxic Vitalism in Latour’s AIME

Hau Journal has recently published the texts of talks given by Bruno Latour, Phillipe Descola, Michael Fischer, Kim Fortun, and others at the recent AAA conference. The talks were part of a special panel on the recent interest in ontology within anthropology (which I’ve written about many times already). I am most interested in the talk given by Kim Fortun (who I am thrilled to have as an advisor on my PhD committee) in which she critiques Latour’s AIME project for its failure to recognize and account for its own externalities as well as those of global capitalism – the toxic chemicals and polluted sludges that break out of their secure confines to seep into our everyday lives.

We work from soiled grounds, in an atmosphere thick with the byproducts of fossil-fuel-intensive political and economic systems. Our anthropologies to come must work to dis- lodge the future these systems so forcefully anteriorize.”

Moving forward – composing a common world, to borrow Latour’s phrase – cannot be done without treading through these sludges (both material and discursive), and learning to cope with the ecological, psychological, emotional, and physical traumas that they have wrought upon us all (but especially on the subaltern).

Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble”

Also posted on Synthetic_Zero.

Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble”, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet 5/9/14

Hacking Finance: Brett Scott’s Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance

Reblogged from Upward Anthropology Research Community

In his book, The Heretic’s Guide to Global FinanceBrett Scott offers activists a primer on the world of finance and how to turn it to potentially better ends. Not all of the ideas Brett puts forward – and the book is full of ideas – are without critique, but the book as a whole is an excellent example of Upward Anthropology, and the uses to which an anthropological analysis of power can be put.

The book is broken into three sections: Exploring, Jamming, and Building. In the section on “Exploring” we are given a general guide to understanding nearly ever aspect of the global financial system. Scott uses his training as an anthropologist and his background as an employee at a financial firm to give a very detailed and useful map of the way financial organizations channel money, and the underlying assumptions in that process. Those who are deeply embedded or have done extensive research on the financial industry might find the examination provided a little general, but I learned a great deal from the section. Often in the activist community, the world of finance is treated as a homogeneous structure with little variation in values and interests. Scott demonstrates effectively that there are significant, though sometimes subtle, differences between hedge funds, for example, and your average retirement fund. Furthermore, he points out the cracks in the system – the spaces where it might be opened up and exploited for positive ends or brought crumbling down given the right pressures.

The following sections on Jamming and Building delve further into these cracks and explore a host of possibilities for exploiting, undermining, and even dismantling the system. “Jamming” involves using the language and culture of the financial industry to your own ends. The term was popularized by Kalle Lasn, but Scott focuses the energy into a laser-tight strategy of disruption using the very terms of discourse that financial industry insiders use to exclude the public. “Building” goes a step further and proposes alternative models for using the financial system to benefit people rather than just feeding profit to the wealthy. For example, Scott suggests creating a hedge fund that leverages investments in order to oppose unjust, unethical, and illegal corporate activities.

The book is not without critique. The very idea of using the financial system to address social problems might rub some people the wrong way. Scott addresses those concerns, but ultimately glosses over them suggesting that this kind of “hacking” is the most effective way to promote change. Whatever you call it, the actions Scott proposes are not absolved from possible harmful consequences, and it is important to remain aware of the limitations of the strategies he suggests. Nevertheless, there are many good ideas and suggestions in the book, and it is worth exploring the possibilities further – especially since there are relatively few similar examples of really practical approaches to addressing social issues.

These are the kinds of direct actions that can only come from a deep understanding of the system and how it maintains itself, and Scott’s approach is an excellent example of the potential for Upward Anthropology. We look forward to more from Scott, and more “heretical” work in other areas as well.

Living Water

Without liquid water life could not have emerged on this little rock of a planet. As the skin of the Earth is mostly water, so too are our bodies. We are made of water. More than that – we are living water. Water that built for itself a container, rose up out of the ocean to move around on land, become sentient, and fly out to the stars.

Maybe this is why I find such joy in water – drinking it, letting it wash over me, floating in it. When I’m with it, my mind rests, my body becomes supple, and I can’t help but smile or laugh. Holding my breath I submerge, let the water hold me, support me, flow with me – the only thing separating me from the ocean in this moment is bit of flesh and bone. I float there as long as I can until my lungs are crying out. The water welcomes me home, but then pushes me away – this body of water isn’t meant for the depths.

And when I die, my shell, my container will decay back into the Earth, or maybe it will be turned to ash and put in the ground alongside my brother’s. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But my water will flow on, join other water and make a river. Or maybe it will rise up into the air and float away on a breeze.


If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not doing it right.”

- David Colón Cabrera, on doing ethnography


Excessive comfort should be avoided.*

Comfort is fascist – it persists through radical exclusion. Don’t like the heat? Turn on the air conditioner. Don’t like bugs? Get out the DDT. Don’t like foreigners? Build a wall. Don’t like her actions? Put her in prison. Don’t like his beliefs? Pressure him to conform. If you could just exclude all of the things in the world that make you uncomfortable, your life would be so….

Boring… comfort is boring. It prevents contact, destroys the conditions for possibility, and the emergence of anything new and wonderful. Discomfort, on the other hand, comes from radical engagement with Otherness. It is the necessary condition for possibility. It might be hard, and it might not work out in the end. But it is only by engaging with Others, working through the frictions, and accepting some degree of discomfort in the process that we might “crab sideways toward the good.”

So, if your life is too comfortable, if your world is too much like you, then seek out discomfort, get out of yourself, and dance with the world.




*As with any proscription, this must be qualified and contextualized. This piece is intended for those like myself for whom comfort is an easy retreat. There are cases where a person’s existence is so uncomfortable that seeking out some balance of comfort is appropriate. I’m thinking here particularly of the oppressed, the differently abled, the traumatized, and so on. 

The Alien Around Us: A Review of Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

The Southern Reach Series consists of Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance – the last of which will be out in September. This review may contain spoilers, though it’s sometimes difficult to tell with this novel what is a spoiler and what isn’t.

As I sit on the grassy lawn of the University campus, surrounded by well mowed grass, precisely aligned trees, and squirrels digging for scraps from the garbage cans, I am reminded that there is always something about the natural world that exceeds our attempts to control it. Often, this side of nature is seen as majestic, beautiful, or sublime. But when we are confronted by the radical inhumanness of the natural world, it can also seem dark, and unsettling.

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Few books capture both aspects of nature so well as Jeff VanderMeer’s recent novel Annihilation – the first of his Southern Reach Trilogy – recounting an expedition to explore a mysterious region of the Florida coast known as Area X. The story is told from the perspective of the Biologist on the four-person expedition team. None of the characters are named, but are referred to by their occupations: Biologist, Anthropologist, Psychologist, and Surveyor. Their task, as the twelfth expedition, is to explore Area X, and specifically a strange underground “tower” that doesn’t appear on their maps. As the story progresses, the mystery of Area X deepens, and, although we learn more about the Biologist and her strange relationship to the region, we are always left with the feeling that there is something missing.

In fact, that’s the genius of the novel, in my opinion. The writing style is such that the reader feels immersed within Area X, as though Area X is leaking beyond its mysterious border into the world around us. Maybe you see it out of the corner of your eye. For all its supernatural and extraterrestrial spirit, Annihilation is profoundly natural. Area X is decidedly non-human, a space that the natural world has reclaimed for itself, but it is not the nature that we imagine, idealize, and worship. This is a nature that is as horrific as it is majestic. Through her exploration of the region, the Biologist encounters terrifying creatures – a moaning swamp monster, a gelatinous creature writing mysterious text on the tower’s walls. What’s more, she must contend with the Psychologist, the leader of the expedition, who uses hypnotic suggestion to both control and protect the other members of the expedition party. As we follow her intimately through this journey, we learn horrifying truths about Area X and the Southern Reach – the government agency tasked with researching the region – but we are always left short of learning The Truth. We become part of Area X, and as part of it, we can never really pull ourselves out enough to see the whole picture. We must be content with these half and partial truths.

As an anthropologist, my only critique of the novel is that I would have liked a more substantial role for the Anthropologist character. I say this not merely out of pride in my discipline, but because I know that anthropologists confront this kind of otherworldliness all the time, and the story resonates with many of the post-human and multi-species ethnographies that anthropologists have been producing recently. Aside from that, I think Annihilation is an excellent read, and a substantial contribution to both the literature of nature and weird fiction. Books like this can push us to reflect upon our own strange relationships with the natural world, and remind us that we are always already embedded within it. That’s why nature will always exceed our attempts at control.


Miéville and Utopia

Video courtesy of Synthetic Zero

“The radical critique of the everyday is undermined not one iota if we choose not to append an alternative… And we can go further. If we take utopia seriously in the sheer scale of that fundamental reshaping, definitionally we cannot think it from this side. It is the process of making it that will allow us to do so, and it is therefore fidelity to utopia that might underpin our refusal to try to turn it into a road map or to expound it thus.”

We should utopia as hard as we can… because we will never mistake those dreams for blueprints nor for mere fanciful absurdities. Utopias are Rorschachs. We pour our concerns and ideas out, and then in dreaming we fold the paper and open it again and reveal startling patterns. And we may pour with a degree of intent, but what we make is beyond any such planning.”

And a quote from one of my favorite utopian novels:

“There has never been a society in which most good doing was the product of Good Being and therefore constantly appropriate. This does not mean that there will never be such a society or that we in Pala are fools for trying to call it into existence.”

-Aldous Huxley, Island – The Old Raja’s Notes on What’s What


Laura Nader on “Studying Up”

Reblogged from the Upward Anthropology Research Community.

See the full text of Laura Nader’s article “Up the Anthropologist: Perspective Gained from Studying Up”

“The study of man is confronted with an unprecedented situation: never before have so few, by their actions and inactions, had the power of life and death over so many members of the species.”

“Maybe these are attempts to get behind the facelessness of a bureaucratic society, to get at the mechanisms whereby faraway corporations and large-scale industries are directing the everyday aspects of our lives. Whatever the motivation, the studies raise important questions as to responsibility, accountability, self-regulation, or on another level, questions relating to social structure, network analysis, library research, and participant observation.”

“Studying ‘up’ as well as ‘down’ would lead us to ask many ‘common sense’ questions in reverse. Instead of asking why some people are poor, we would ask why other people are so affluent? How on earth would a social scientist explain the hoarding patterns of the American rich and middle class? How can we explain the fantastic resistance to change among those whose options ‘appear to be many’? How has it come to be, we might ask, that anthropologists are more interested in why peasants don’t change than why the auto industry doesn’t innovate, or why the Pentagon or universities cannot be more organizationally creative? The conservatism of such major institutions and bureaucratic organizations probably has wider implications for the species and for theories of change than does the conservatism of peasantry.”

“If anthropology were reinvented to study up, we would sooner or later need to study down as well. We are not dealing with an either/or proposition; we need simply to realize when it is useful or crucial in terms of the problem to extend the domain of study up, down, or sideways.”

“A democratic framework implies that citizens should have access to decision-makers, institutions of government, and so on. This implies that citizens need to know something about the major institutions, government or otherwise, that affect their lives. Most members of complex societies and certainly most Americans do not know enough about, nor do they know how to cope with, the people, institutions, and organizations that most affect their lives. I believe that anthropologists would be surprisingly good at applying their descriptive and analytical tools to a major problem: How can a citizenry function in a democracy when that citizenry is woefully ignorant of how the society works and doesn’t work, of how a citizen can ‘plug in’ as a citizen, of what would happen should citizens begin to exercise rights other than voting as a way to make the ‘system’ work for them?”