My Tomorrow’s Presentation on Life Forms

Space dogs, Moscow metro dogs explaining themselves with gestures, Siberian dogs, and robotic dogs: dogs (PowerPoint)

Advertisements

The Village of Karda, Siberia

Choy, Tim. Experimental Futures: Ecologies of Comparison. An Ethnography of Endangerment in Hong Kong. Durham, NC, USA: Duke University Press, 2011

I’d begin with stating that I am absolutely charmed by Tim Choy’s writing. I don’t know if it’s his gentle personality that accounts for that — I heard his talk at UT and was introduced to him after the talk — but actually no, his and his colleagues’ and “co-conspirators’,” to use his word, writings — I refer to Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway here — make me pause frequently and read slowly. The kind of dense durée that they create in their books (especially Choy and Tsing, Haraway is another matter, she liquefies and speeds up the time and condenses things in a different manner), speaks to the amount of effort that was invested by the authors in thinking and writing.

Soft humor and attention to detail that Choy exhibits in his writing, are especially appealing: “Not one to waste food, even of dubious genetic origin, he ate his way through the mountain of chips and candy bars while working at his desk for the rest of the day” (20). Choy portrays one of his interlocutor working on a campaign against genetically modified food. One could see behind that funny, endearing, and somewhat poignant phrase a real person, the glory and doom of his cause, and “local and translocal ecologies of gender and expertise” (14), emerging through “ongoing practices of self-care and self-comparison” (14).

An example especially speaking to me that Tim Choy gives in his book, is the plot around the village Tai O, for which the Hong Kong Planning Department had a strategy of “revitalizing.” Too often the administrations’ plans of “revitalizing” of the territories brings further destruction. In this case, the project included “the planning proposal’s suggestion that a strip of stilt homes adjacent to Tai O Bridge be demolished.” (25). It aroused the resistance, and the government drove back claiming it revokes the plans. “Then, on July 4, a runaway fire in Tai O burned one hundred families’ stilt homes to the ground.” (27)

It reminded me of the fate of the village of Karda in Siberia, in fifty kilometers from the village of Anosovo, my primary field site. The village of Karda was evaluated by the government to be a settlement with no prospects. The government provided people who lived there with apartments in tenement housing in the city of Ust’-Uda. In 2008, Karda ceased to exist. However, after different periods of living in the city, some former residents of Karda returned to their half-ruined homes. I am spending the summer of 2016 in Siberia, and I hope to uncover some of the dramas that are connected to, in a number of cases, double relocation.

The change of social practices when one moves from the rural space to the urban is drastic. How much more difficult it is, if the change is not fully voluntary? How hard it is, if there is no place to return, because the government deemed your land hopeless and decided it’s easier to deprive the village of the last care? Right now, I could only guess. Perhaps some of the meetings during the summer would bring me heavy answers to these questions.

Should we Read Sound?

How does anthropologist acquire the sense of sonic landscape, soundscape around her? According to Vannini, Waskul, and others, one of the methods at least would look like indulging into the after-dinner peaceful nap (for a non-ethnographic eye of a non-vigilant observer):

“I sit back in my chair and close my eyes, immediately elevating my awareness of my soundscape. The longer I sit with it, the deeper into my awareness of the soundscape I penetrate, as if my ability to perceive sound were a slowly
opening cone, expanding out in all directions. When I close my eyes my awareness of sound expands, and then the expansion expands, as if my awareness reaches out into the world, and after it is there perceiving for a bit, a more refined awareness expands further out ready to wrap itself around ever greater levels of detail. It is intense somatic work.” (Vannini, Waskul, others, 2010, 329)

Some might argue that the use of chair in this situation does not adhere with the methods the famous fathers of anthropology professed, and that hummock works better. There are two competing schools of thought, and no agreement on this important issue has been reached yet.

The next important question is, how do we describe and perceive a sonic landscape in detachment from all other characteristics of environment, to the description of which we are more attuned? Even in the article specifically focusing on “sonic charisma of the favela,” on music and sound maintaining boundaries “in the dense urban space,” Martijn Oosterbaan starts creating the affective texture of the space with “It was very hot and humid but what mostly kept me awake those nights was the loud music and the noises coming from the festivities in the favela.” (Oosterbaan, 2009, 81). Does the sense of heat and humidity add to the sound of music keeping one awake at night? Why the sound is important to us not per se but through the things it indicates? We are fascinated by “the performative dimensions of sound,” with “sounds of both the nonsemioticized and semioticized variety” which “function as acts, not unlike speech acts.” (Vannini, Waskul, others, 2010, 328), not with sound like sound. We want to read it, want to ascribe meaning to it, as opposed to be in it, as sounds suggests.

The sound, however, resist reading, is not easily explainable, not interpretable. It just is and it produces affect: “When I attend to it, I am flooded with affect and meanings which seemingly arrange themselves across my consciousness.” (Vannini, Waskul, others, 2010, 330)

References

Martijin Oosterbaan, Sonic Supremacy: Sound, Space and Charisma in a Favela in Rio de Janeiro, Critique of Anthropology, March 2009 vol. 29 no. 1 81-104

Phillip Vannini, Dennis Waskul, Simon Gottschalk and Carol Rambo. Sound Acts: Elocution, Somatic Work, and the Performance of Sonic Alignment Journal of Contemporary Ethnography June 1, 2010 39: 328-353

Siberian Soundscape

I am thinking about soundscape of my Siberian village, what it’s like, what marks it. Cows mooing, cats meowing, dogs barking, roosters coo-ca-re-cooing (this is how roosters’ cry is transcribed in this part of the world). A noise of occasional car or a motorcycle. I was thinking about problematizing “submergence” the way Helmreich problematizes “immersion” in his article (Helmreich, 2007). Before the village of Anosovo was built, several smaller villages were submerged by water. By going to the field, quite analogously to Helmreich immersion, I am going to submerge myself in life there. Submergence is also the falling deeper down in layering of time, as opposed to resurfacing. Anosovo might be called to be submerging into oblivion, nothingness, dissolving, dissipating. Falling behind, backwards, as the world goes into supposed future. Concurrently, it is very possible that Anosovo is eternal. Some zaimka – small settlement, perhaps no more than several houses – existed on these lands long before Soviet industrialization. The historic epochs could roll, eclipsing each other, somewhere there, far far away, in cities, in Moscow, in Saint Petersburg, in Paris, in Berlin, in New York, in Tokyo, but this secret, secluded, unexposed place would proceed with its quiet existence in its own enclosure.

Thinking through what Kohn calls “transspecies ecology of selves” (Kohn, 2007, 7), I strive to further understand the complexity of the interactions between humans and dogs in the village of Anosovo. The whole task of the anthropology of life, which Kohn formulates as “An anthropology of life questions the privileged ontological status of humans as knowers.” (Kohn, 2007, 6), seems to be noble enough to try to engage with, yet at the same time presents the conundrum akin the philosophical conundrum: “How can I think about something objectively, if in doing so I could never leave the limits of my own thinking process?” The anthropology of life’s task is impossible to complete from the human point of view because we never cease to be humans, and in challenging our status of knowers we never cease to be knowers who challenge their own status. When the anthropology of life could be written truly from the position of the animal or robotic agency, in that it would be truly the anthropology of the anthropos, preserving the initial disposition of the discipline, that of the gazer, who does not belong to the community, observing the community. Kohn notes that the Runa see dogs as having souls, since the subjectivity is constructed for them through the contact with other beings, humans and otherwise (Kohn, 2007).

“Through a process that Brian Hare and colleagues (2002) call “phylogenetic enculturation,” dogs have penetrated human social worlds to such an extent that they exceed even chimpanzees in understanding human communication.” (Kohn, 2007, 9). While largely it seems as if humans and dogs ignore each other in day-to-day interactions, nevertheless they depend on each other. Same holds true in regard to the Siberian village. There are understandings what constitutes a good dog and what does not. The politics of giving names to dogs, interactions, and other details, are to be defined once I am there. The Siberian village seems to be ideal place for attentive attunements to what Kohn calls “transspecies ecology of selves” (Kohn, 2007, 7), where gatherers, hunters, fishers, domesticated and wild animals, birds, insects, plants, and mushrooms form multispecies community.

References

Helmreich, Stefan. “An anthropologist underwater: Immersive soundscapes, submarine cyborgs, and transductive ethnography.” American Ethnologist, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 621–641. 2007

Kohn, Eduardo. “How dogs dream: Amazonian natures and the politics of transspecies engagement.” American Ethnologist, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 3–24, 2007

Archeology of the Robotic

The archeology of robots unfolds robotic creatures as an object traversing spaces and time; humanoid robots are nostalgic objects. Employing Donna Haraway’s (1991) notion of cyborg, I ask where is the division between human and non-human, alive and dead, animate and inanimate, is situated now, in the anthropocene eschatologies? Where do we transgress these digressions, with our fascination with phones, which create the affect of interconnectedness with the world but simultaneously alienate us from what might be called “real” experiences of presence? How do we interact with robots?

The phones and other devices, starting with electronic pet prosthesically standing for the figure of lack and allowing to become a caregiver of nonbiological entity, like Tamagotchi (Allison, 2006, 2013), account for our fascination with self-representation online, including the practices of selfie-taking and checking-in-ing in the places visited and consumed. By constructing identity through the means of sharing and reblogging and thus co-authoring of the content, we are thoroughly less (or more) or rather otherly human than we were but twenty years ago.

However, robots already existed at the time, if not constructed, than envisioned. They went through the epochs changing appearances, gender, and sexuality: androgynous, manifestly feminine, like early “maids,” and exageratedly masculine, like transformers from the planet Cybotron. Racially, contemporary robots are overwhelmingly “white,” which corresponds with the politics of racializations and power dynamics.

Cyborgs emerge as a response to disability in cases of the transplantation of artificial heart or employing prostheses. Robots still belong to the future, yet they visibly mark our presence. The transformative power of the machines, toys, gadgets, tools, has been long employed by humans in order to enhance the capacities of the body and increase production of goods. Humanoid robots were envisioned as forms intendedly anthropomorphic, and pet robots are often caninomorhic (see BigDog).

The feeling of mysterious horror, which robots excessively resembling humans, trigger, is known as uncanny valley; a poetic and space-related metaphor. This is the affective state where curiosity, fear, dread, and denial are mixed together.

Robots challenge our understanding of moral and become the subjects in courts, changing practices of law and producing precedents (Calo, 2016). Robotic disembodied voices, like Siri, are interrogated by users to fulfill erotic fantasies, and become the absolute geisha in the frustrated dreamworlds of unattainable desires.

Robots explore the surfaces of planets and depths of the oceans, are used in military actions, droids become the ideal apparatus of surveillance embodying state sovereignty, driverless cars and planes provoke fear, spell checkers influence writing, ubiquitous video cameras entice paranoia, agglomeration of devices serve as the machinery of collective memory and archives. This is the nascent world we are inhabiting, technology creating infrastructure and shaping interactions merging public and private into what I would call pubvate. As is often the case, while science, computational and engineering technologies build towards creation of the anthropomorphic robot, the quick, liquid imagination of mass culture generated tremendous amounts of multifarious robotic creatures.

Robots are hypothesized to replace the whole clusters of human laborers which were previously considered within the realm of human creative genius, such as doctors (Cohn, 2013) and translators, and even writers, lately, with a program having written a novel metapragmatically called “The Day A Computer Writes A Novel.” As during the industrialization the machines had replaced the weavers, dispossessing human workers, the new wave of technologization might dispossess the new clusters of workers. Additionally, biomimicking robots start replacing animal agents in scientific research, including medicinal. What does the world of the future look like, with the the increasing presence of robots and humans’ drift towards becoming more cyborgian, and how this vision of the future influences and shapes our presence?

References

Haraway, Donna. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century. Springer Netherlands, 2006.

Allison, Anne. Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. University of California Press, 2006

Allison, Anne. Precarious Japan. Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2013

Calo, Ryan. Robots in American Law. Talk at the University of Texas in Austin, 3/22/2016

Cohn, Jonathan. “The Robot Will See You Now.” The Atlantic, March 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/03/the-robot-will-see-you-now/309216/ [retrieved 4/2/2016]