• Category Archives Cultural Questions
  • Sociology, the Running Conversation, and the Murder of Marc Thompson

    The Synthesis is a local weekly newspaper in small-town Chico, California, generally specialized in Entertainment news—stories of local bands, the bar scene, and arts.


    Recently, the small paper is branching into more critical hard-hitting news analysis. Emilano Garcia-Sarnoff published “Heart on Fire: The Murder of Marc Thompson” on September 29, which is about the recent death of a Chico State Sociology major found in a burning car in a remote area. Emiliano wrote about a young African-American man he knew casually from a card game, but who was dead September 3, some six weeks after the card game.


    On December 13, Ethnography.com’s Julie Garza-Withers who knew Marc quite well, is following up with a hard-hitting analytic article in the Synthesis about Marc’s death “A Season of Homicides: The Murder of Marc Thompson.” The article is about the inability of the police to conclude the murder investigation yet. Three months after his death we do not yet know how Marc died, how he arrived at the remote area, or why the killers burned his car a little over three hours after he was last seen alive. Who killed him? Why was the car set on fire? How did the person who set the car on fire leave the remote scene? And most importantly, Julie asks, why has there been so little reaction by the local press, authorities, and other opinion leaders in Butte County? There are after all only 6-10 murders per year in a County of 220, 000 people. Murder is thankfully rare—and the circumstance of being found murdered in a burning car even rarer. Can’t the police investigate this murder, which is so strange? Except for the Synthesis—which is first about entertainment, not crime—the story has disappeared from the news.


    As sociologists, Julie and I are particularly pleased that the Synthesis described the role that “the running conversation” in framing—or not framing—Marc’s death. “The running conversation” is a sociological term first developed by Herbert Blumer in the 1950s describing how societies frame and reframe particular events so that a palatable “narrative” develops. This talk, the running conversation, is shaped by people in power, not the little folk who do not have access to the bullhorns of society which in Butte County include the local newspapers, press officers from the police and university, politicians, radio stations, and a television station. In developing the “running conversation” opinion leaders frame “the story” in a way that helps society challenge its own problems. Or not—after all many stories are ignored and never framed and never become a source for social change, or anything else.


    Julie fears that this is happening in Marc’s case after only three months. The strength of Julie’s article I think is that it offers up a number of plausible frames, without forcing the reader into any single one. Why was Marc killed? She doesn’t know and is challenging the police to find out so that the greater Chico community can give meaning to what still otherwise a meaningless murder.


    The first question seems to be was race involved? Marc was a 25-year-old activist for racial justice, and played a major role in a locally produced film about the nature of race on college campuses. Only 1.8% of Butte County is African-American, and four African-Americans were murdered in Butte County and then burned up in cars in 2013-2014, which is 20% of all murders (and that doesn’t count blacks who were murdered and not found in burning cars!). Last year’s “murders in a burning car” resulted in the quick arrest and conviction of the perpetrator—or perhaps not. The same person did not kill Marc, obviously, but maybe this is a group? Or a copy-cat? We just don’t know.


    Or maybe it was a robbery gone badly, and Marc was unlucky? But then why would a car have been left in such an odd place and burned in a way that the body was sure to be quickly found? Again, we don’t know.


    And then why was Marc’s father’s name on the second report in which the fire was reported, even though he did not make the call? Such questions unnerve Marc’s family and his friends. The running conversation has of course begun on the streets, but still has not made itself into the press, a situation Julie’s article is attempting to remedy. The problem is that without the help of the sheriff and the investigative process, no one really knows, and the catharsis that is needed in the aftermath of such a horrible event slips back to only those who knew and loved Marc.


    Anyway you can read Julie’s Synthesis article yourself. Many thanks to the Synthesis for letting a concept like “the running conversation” slip into the article. Such a willingness to experiment journalistically is what keeps good newspapers alive, and communities thriving.


  • The Truth About Police

    Another unarmed Black man died at the hands of law enforcement on Thursday night. The NYC Police Commissioner was quick in calling the incident an “unfortunate tragedy” at the same time that the mainstream press has included that the officer was a “rookie” in most of their headlines. Akai Gurley, the 28-year old Brooklyn victim and his girlfriend were leaving her apartment via the stairwell when they ran into two officer’s who were in the midst of conducting a vertical patrol and had just entered the stairwell on the floor above. Officer Peter Liang shot Akai Gurley in the chest after drawing his gun as a safety precaution while entering the stairwell.

    Photo By Peter J. Smith

    The NYC police are saying things like “probationary officer,” “accidental discharge,” and “dark stairwell.” The kinds of things that the police will say when there is absolute certainty that the victim wasn’t doing anything wrong and they have a P.R. nightmare on their hands. They were also quick to take responsibility and talk the talk of changing police culture and conducting a full investigation.

    We’re hearing things like that from police muckity-mucks a lot these days. I hope it makes a difference but it doesn’t change the fact that another Black man is dead as a result of a brief encounter with a police officer. The circumstances don’t matter when you’re dead. All that’s left is his grieving loved ones and a righteously angry community.

    For the rest of us, it’s another opportunity to think about police authority and bureaucratic discretion. In NYC, an officer has the discretion to draw their weapon while patrolling. But patrolling in a dark stairwell while also carrying a flashlight and experiencing heightened stress seems like a recipe for disaster. I grew up with the myth (and I do believe it is a myth) that police officers rarely if ever draw their weapon. To read the mainstream press, it seems like police are drawing their weapons more often than not because they feel “afraid.” That’s a real bag of power right there, the privilege to feel afraid and brandish/fire a weapon with all the authority of someone the people hired to protect and to serve.

    That’s the rub, isn’t it? A whole lot of people already know the truth about police, this isn’t anything new under the sun. It gets a lot of press because it’s a tragedy but also because there are two grand jury verdicts we are waiting to hear. The Michael Brown verdict in Ferguson, MO and for choke-hold victim, Eric Garner. There is much fear in Missouri and calls for calm as the community there and communities across the country await the outcome. I want to be hopeful, really I do, but I know the truth about police authority and discretion.

    Video Animation by artist activist Molly Crabapple

    UPDATE: A Cleveland, Ohio police officer shot a twelve year old boy in the stomach yesterday, he died in a hospital early Sunday morning as a result of his injuries. The name of the child has not been released but he was Black and deemed a “threat” because he was holding a BB gun while playing at a local rec center. The police were following up on a 911 call that there was “A guy with a gun pointing it at people.” During the recorded call to the police, you can hear the caller say that the gun is “probably fake” twice. Per usual, the muckity-mucks are pointing out that the cop was a “rookie” with less than a year on the force. They also pointed out that the BB gun’s orange safety marker had been “scratched off,” as if that was just cause for shooting a minor at a rec center. If you read this article here (link) you can view the “Official Statement” from Cleveland Police where they insinuate the boy was trying to “commit suicide by cop.”


  • Searching for Answers: Retracing a Hmong Heritage

    Today’s post comes from Guest Ethnographer Dee Thao. This is a beautiful and honest film Dee directed and edited about her search for information and connection to her Hmong heritage and identity. Her “advisor extraordinaire” (and co-star) on this project was ethnography.com’s Tony Waters.

    Dee Thao is a documentarian based out of northern California. Click this link to read her bio and view her most recent work.




  • Privilege, Honor, and Meetings


    Cheese Squares, Olives, and Power without Responsibility. Gentry, Blue Blood, and Privilege. Max Weber’s ideas about Honoratioren, Voting Cows, and Power.

    Meetings are rituals, and rituals need symbols, and decorations. I’ve been to a lot of meetings in my time as an academic where I sat bored and confused, but still fulfilled my function as a decoration, and clap on cue. And to a large extent, that is what such ritual is about: clapping on cue about that to which you are brain dead. The most obvious place I am such a decoration is in May graduation ceremonies. I march into a stadium to a lively tune, and then sit in a hot black robe with the other faculty who all react in unison. March, clap, stand, and sit all in unison. We then sit—decorations for the larger ceremony, just like potted plants. In fact, when I sat on a stage last May at Chico State’s graduation ceremony, there were literal potted plants on either side of the stage, bookending the potted plants in the robes. The redeeming value of the whole thing was the excitement and joy that many of our students felt.


    But potted plants are found at many ceremonies besides graduations, and usually take less obvious forms. The most common place for such potted plants—Honoratioren, in Max Weber’s German—are at meetings. In academia, Academic Senate meetings come to mind as places where esteemed faculty arrive, stand, clap, vote “aye,” and are confused (at least that was my experience when I was on Faculty Senate some years ago). Moving further afield, there are the boisterous political conventions Weber himself writes about where Honoratioren arrive to enthusiastically legitimate decisions already made behind closed doors. Student councils, annual meetings at churches, and corporate boards of directors also have such rituals. For that matter, as again Weber himself points out, there is Congress and other Parliamentary bodies, all places where honored and confused Honoratioren come to listen, vote aye, clap, provide legitimacy for pre-prepared, and finally return gloriously to their homes flattered but confused.


    Honoratioren invited for their notability and prestige, ratify decisions about which they may have little understanding. Indeed, to make such rituals work, the professional “party whips” in places like Congress make sure that everyone lines up when they are supposed to, and then mutter “aye” on cue. Weber calls Honoratioren manipulated in such ways “voting cows,” content and sated notables who are herded by “leaders” toward a new pasture (or restaurant).[1] Weber wrote in “Politics as Vocation,” that we potted plants are needed by the politicians (peacocks if we keep to our decorative metaphor), to legitimate foregone decisions that preserve the pre-existing social order and its privileges. The person chairing the meeting with such gravity (and plumage) needs us Honoratiorien to make “tough” decisions, even if we don’t really make decisions better than do the other potted plants at either end of the stage. We potted plants show up at a meeting, look busy, and ratify what we are supposed to. If you are at a university, you are then rewarded with cheese squares and olives, and then maybe even get a free dinner. Indeed, if you are really honored, you get a nice dinner at a nice restaurant, which might even cost $25.00.


    Oh yes, and then at the end of the meeting, the peacocks tell us how we all made difficult decisions, and are profusely thanked for our critical participation. The funny thing is that often not even the political peacocks really run the meetings. The ones who often really run the show are the functionaries, clerks, secretaries, and others who organize the meetings, pour the coffe, serve the cookies, and present us with information to “consider.” They pre-package such information in a fashion that means that there is one logical “evidence-based” decision to take; thus there is only one single conclusion for us to mumble “Moo” about. To do otherwise would be, we are told, be quite foolish, and beneath our accumulated dignity as Honoratioren. Oddly, at such meeting, the lower-level staff, those who Weber described the “technocratic functionaries” who served the coffee and shove files under our noses, are sometimes the real “deciders” to whom peacocks chairing the meeting effectively defer when asking them to explain, “the numbers.” The numbers inevitably spill out in their calculable and predictable beauty, and the authority of the only evidence-based decision—as determined by the person who compiled the numbers—suddenly tumbles out. The peacock chairing the meeting nods sagely, and we potted plants nod even more sagely as if our opinion mattered.


    We vote “aye” and then clap. The coffee-pouring technocrats who organize “the files,” and so readily serve up more legitimacy for the, ahem, evidence-based decision-making (we Honoratioren only make decisions with evidence!), smile wanly. But really, this essay is mostly a way of introducing the German word Honoratioren, which I plucked out of Max Weber’s essays “Politics as Vocation” and “Bureaucracy,” which my wife and I are currently re-translating from German to English. Honoratioren are the esteemed people of a community to whom others habitually defer, despite the fact that really, as Weber points they out, don’t know that much what they are doing; and are really “dilletantes” when it comes to knowing the nuts and bolts of the organization they legitimate with their sage advice. Where do you find Honoratioren? Traditionally they are from the right families and include wealthy business people, gentry, and performers of past glories. Today they include movie stars, sports figures, rock stars, and high tech Silicon Valley tycoons—i.e. the “better strata” of a community. I guess it is even me with all my seniority at the university now; a minor Honoratioren who gets trips to exotic conferences in southern California, where I dine on those cheese squares and olives, and then top it off with that $25.00 meal at a fine restaurant (without alcohol!).


    But the real habitat for Honoratioren are the boards, commissions, and so forth which ostensibly run corporations and government. Such Honoratioren may indeed, as Weber points out be dilletantes, but that is really beside the point. As long as their egos are stroked, and vanity appealed to, they (we?) lend the air of legitimacy to what really is pre-prepared. Weber’s “voting cow” metaphor is good—and of course raises the question of why do we unanimously vote “aye,” why not instead say “moo?” So what is the best translation for Honoratioren? The traditional one for Weber translators is “notables.” But, I’m thinking “potted plant” conveys Weber’s meaning better! So if you see the German word Honoratioren in our translation some day, just think, “potted plant.” And, “Moo!”   Reference: Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, edited and translated by Tony Waters, and Dagmar Waters, Palgrave MacMillan, 2015 (forthcoming).   [1] Or just maybe, as Rousseau once wrote, they may even be led to the slaughterhouse! But that is going too far for now.


  • Troping the Enemy: Culture, Metaphor Programs, and Notional Publics of National Security

    By Robert Albro

    American University


    The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) – established in 2006 in the spirit of the Pentagon’s DARPA to sponsor research for groundbreaking technologies to support an “overwhelming intelligence advantage over future adversaries” – is a little-known US agency that social and behavioral scientists (especially sociocultural anthropologists) should pay more attention to. This is because IARPA is notably social scientific in orientation and has been developing concepts in specific ways for use by the intelligence community (IC) that US anthropology in particular is significantly historically responsible for introducing to the social sciences, if in different ways, most obviously: culture, its coherence and the extent of cultural consensus, its relationship to society and to human agency.

    At its inception IARPA was tasked with developing better ways, in USA Today-speak, to “help analysts measure cultural habits of another society.” And its portfolio continues to sponsor research intended to develop big data-type tools to process the linguistic and cultural information of countries, societies and communities of interest to US espionage. While there are anthropologists who work along the frontier between their discipline and the rapidly emerging computational social sciences, it is unlikely that many anthropologists would approach cultural analysis in the terms currently pursued by IARPA. The agency’s formulations of cultural problems likely strike most social scientists as well outside of, or as at odds with, the standard or prevailing disciplinary usages of this concept, including the concept’s basic significance and what legitimately can be done with it. But, it is often the case – and unfortunately so – that there is scant traffic of any kind between academic anthropology and the IC, even when there are clearly things to talk about, like the culture concept.


    A Public Anthropology of the IC?

    In the era of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, journalists have increasingly sought to shine a light on “top secret America,” to borrow Dana Priest’s phrase. And public debate has in large part focused on the new circumstances of privacy (or the lack thereof), clandestine data collection, and the ethics of new largely internet-based and social media-derived means used by intelligence agencies to amass colossal troves of information while mining people’s online signatures. Much less often considered, if at all, is whether the sociological or anthropological theory – the tissue of ideas and concepts underwriting these programs – actually makes any sense.

    Instead, the vast majority of attention is given to extolling and further exploring the possibilities for data collection opened up by new computational and social media technologies. Too often, wide-ranging and critically grounded academic discussion and debate has played virtually no part in how these programs are conceived and implemented. A lack of more substantive dialogue about the social science informing IARPA’s programs, and the possibility of skewed or flawed results built upon misguided or unexamined assumptions, is a serious problem with the potential to negatively and mischievously – but perhaps not altogether obviously – influence intelligence priorities in the US, and if indirectly, the country’s foreign policy footprint.

    IARPA’s several culture-focused programs point to the need for more critical discussion among social scientists about IARPA-style social science and related priorities of security and intelligence agencies, a discussion which could at once address and more trenchantly appraise the particular assumptions (and social scientific world view) underwriting such projects, their limits, and the ways that questionable or debatable concepts and practices with traction in the social science of the securityscape are potentially relevant, defensible, or ill-conceived. This is a conversation that should also include the IC itself. But this is not a conversation that social scientists outside the IC either are regularly aware of, want, or perhaps even know how to have, with a few exceptions.

    When academic social scientists do address the social science of the securityscape, the prevailing approach is to take issue with the politics and ethics of social scientific involvement with the present version of the military industrial complex, advanced from a position well outside this work and often at a considerable distance from the specific details – and many of the implications – of it. But we also need more grounded and zoomed-in discussion about the epistemologies, research designs, data, analysis, and conclusions drawn by this work, and associated implications, which take account of the ways this realm of social scientific ideas and concepts also drives IC priorities and outcomes in ways sometimes constructive but perhaps at least as often, problematic.  If such discussions sometimes do take place, they need to be broader, deeper, more inclusive, and sustained.

    A program to measure cultural habits suggests a quantitative approach to a hermeneutical problem, which, at the very least, takes for granted a very different conception of culture as a source of insight than the various ways that anthropologists usually engage with this concept. These differences are not trivial. “Culture” is a concept from which US anthropology notably retreated in the 1990s and which the discipline has continued to qualify in multiple ways, while for the IC interest in “socio-cultural factors” – often as cultural intelligence and as enlisted in exercises of prediction – has been notable since the mid-2000s, if to various ends. The reasons why the IC and academic anthropology appear headed in opposite directions vis-à-vis the culture concept would certainly be a timely discussion.


    Metaphor for the IC

    Several of IARPA’s programs have attracted at least some journalistic attention of late as well, such as 2011’s Open Source Indicators program. But here I consider instead IARPA’s Metaphor Program, also launched in 2011, because it is a particularly revealing example of the recent technologically-enhanced version of the cultural turn by the US intelligence community. Most simply, a “metaphor” is a linguistic relationship of similarity, where one experiential domain (the target) is understood by way of reference to another (the source). Astronomer Fred Hoyle coining the term “big bang” to refer to one theory for the origin of the universe is a case in point. IARPA’s program aspires to provide decision-makers with a more systematic understanding of the “shared concepts and worldviews of members of other cultures” by compiling a given culture’s metaphors and making these available to intelligence analysts.

    My questions about this objective are several, if connected: As part of a larger IC project for culture, what does “metaphor” currently mean to the US intelligence community? And, given what “metaphor” means for the IC, how does this understanding influence the ways the IC might conceptualize specific cultures or foreign publics of interest? And what, in turn, might this mean for the footprint of the US intelligence community, as it offers policy decision-makers a particular account of global geopolitics, at least in part informed – if indirectly and in ways most likely invisible to any given decision-maker – by programs like this one?

    IARPA’s solicitation for its Metaphor Program promotes the goal of a better understanding of “the tacit backdrop against which members of a culture interact and behave,” or the patterned “cultural norms” which compose the “worldviews of particular groups or individuals.” And metaphors are the program’s choice because they are both “pervasive in everyday language” and, IARPA assumes, metaphors “shape how people think about complex topics.” More importantly, IARPA understands metaphors to “reduce the complexity of meaning” because their usage is patterned.

    As the program’s manager, Heather McCallum-Bayliss, observed, “Culture is a set of values, attitudes, knowledge and patterned behaviors shared by a group.” IARPA’s conception of metaphor is assumed to be a key to understand cultures, in large part because cultures, in turn, are understood – channeling the ghost of Ruth Benedict – as patterned and shared group behavior. Such a preference for disciplinarily obsolete but hyper-coherent conceptions of culture like Benedict’s in the broader military and security environment is far from unique. And a consistent preference for such starting points is telling about IARPA’s objectives and the computational steps it intends to take to achieve them.

    IARPA is investing in research on metaphors because it is convinced such research has the potential to uncover the “inferred meanings,” “conventional understandings” and “underlying concepts that people share,” thus allowing the intelligence community to gain better analytic purchase on identified “cultures of interest,” but more importantly for the agency, on the “decision-making and perception of foreign actors.” To this end, IARPA’s approach to metaphor is largely derived from one influential story about metaphor most closely related to the species of cognitive linguistics associated with George Lakoff and colleagues. And Lakoff, it turns out, is not coincidentally, a member of a research team now working to develop a multilingual metaphor repository with IARPA funding from its Metaphor Program.


    Lakoff’s Tristes Tropes

    So, first we need to know a few things about the Lakovian approach to metaphor, since there are other contenders in the scholarly field of trope theory. If beginning with his influential Metaphors We Live By, co-authored with Mark Johnson in 1980, in recent years Lakoff has also established a reputation as a public intellectual of sorts, applying his metaphor-heavy analytic hand to the US political landscape. In his most recent incarnation, Lakoff has used his approach to metaphor to support the progressive cause, and has often presented his work in the form of guides, handbooks and toolkits instead of as research. But, while Lakoff’s heart might lie with progressives, his conception of metaphor is deeply conservative, as I make the case below. And this has direct consequences for IARPA’s program, taking for granted as it does the Lakovian world view on metaphor.

    Here’s Lakoff’s take on metaphor, in a nutshell. As he explains, conceptual metaphors – which typically employ a more abstract concept (e. g. politics) as a target and a more concrete topic (e. g. family) as a source – shape the ways we think and act, and underwrite a system of related metaphorical expressions that appear more directly on the surface of our language use, which Lakoff calls linguistic metaphors. If much more can be said about this, here’s the rub so far as IARPA is concerned: conceptual metaphors are the key for understanding how speakers – typically, members of the same “culture” – systematically map relationships between conceptual domains. Mapping in the Lakovian mode refers to the patterned set of correspondences that exist between source and target domains.

    While there is good reason to assume that the map is not the same as the territory, one imagines that IARPA sees potential in such a mapping exercise because maps promise empirical predictability. Another probable attraction is that Lakoff’s work on metaphor has, in recent years, become increasingly slanted toward neuroscience. He now describes “neural metaphorical mappings,” where metaphors are “fixed in the brain” along “pathways ready for metaphor circuitry.” Lakoff’s marrying of cognitive linguistics to neuroscience has transformed a woolly term from the humanities – metaphor – into a building block for a new “neural theory of metaphor,” now presented as a scientific tropology, in ways conversant with a growing obsession across US military and security agencies with the potential of neuroscience.


    Machines Learning Metaphors

    IARPA’s Metaphor Program is, essentially, about combining emerging techniques and technologies in computational modeling with cognitive linguistic theories of metaphor like Lakoff’s. At the Proposer’s Day brief explaining its new metaphor program, IARPA described linguistic metaphors as “realizations of the underlying pattern or systematic association of abstract concepts” – a set of relationships IARPA assumes to be “defined by mapping principles.” IARPA would like to be able to data-mine online textual data on a large scale, as a “rich source for identifying cultural beliefs” about key societies of interest, and to develop new automated techniques to identify, map and then analyze the metaphorical language of entirely online native-language text. (I won’t take up here why online text – as a particular technological platform, set of expressive conventions, and kind of performance – is unlikely to be unproblematically representative of peoples’ cultural beliefs.)

    What is critical for evaluating this project is making sense of the conviction that the relationship, for example, between a given metaphoric target and source (e. g. understanding “government corruption” as a “disease”) is conventional and predictably mappable; or that the development of unsupervised machine learning of such metaphor mappings is possible; and that this will then enable computational metaphor identification and categorization, as part of a “metaphor repository,” a database IARPA would build and maintain for a given language; against which analysts will eventually and ideally be able to compare “real-life statements” to predict intentions of people who may represent a threat to the US. (The agency has identified American English, Farsi, Russian and Mexican Spanish as initial languages of interest.)

    For IARPA’s program to be successful, a basically Lakovian approach to metaphor has to be uncritically accepted as correct: linguistic metaphors, assumed to be representative and available in large numbers at the surface of online native-language texts, will be massively mined; their relationships of source to target, it is further taken for granted, will be able to be sytematically reliably mapped; these analogical maps, goes the reasoning, will enable identification of more fundamental conceptual metaphors among cultures of interest; and this will allow analysts to infer relevant cultural patterns informing the behavior of foreign nationals; and perhaps even to help predict their likely decision-making on complex topics.

    Lakoff on metaphor, in other words, has to be coded into the computational tools to be used to build the repositories before any such metaphors are even collected. And Lakovian-type metaphorical maps seem to be the extent of IARPA’s data-mining game. This is to say, the theoretical starting point and technological requirements of IARPA’s metaphor program are largely determinative of what “metaphor” can mean in this case. But, since a scholarly consensus about metaphor eludes us, and since one could choose to emphasize other features of the diverse work of metaphor, IARPA’s choices tell us perhaps more about its own world view than about anyone else.


    Metaphor through the Looking Glass

    Each metaphorical mapping in a given repository, we are told, will be validated using metrics designed to confirm “native-speaker knowledge of the metaphorical relations.” Such an idea works only if each language were a reliably monoglot standard, underwritten by conventional metaphoric associations recognized as such and in the same ways by any typical and competent native speaker. And so, each metaphor is at once culturally-specific – let’s set aside that languages and cultures are not the same – but also culturally entirely conventional. Yet the idea of native competence is an increasingly suspect one among linguists.

    IARPA’s choices have consequences. As with its consistently topographical conception of culture, where patterned cultures can be organically decomposed into constituent and mappable relations of figure to ground, IARPA seemingly relies almost entirely upon the conventionality of metaphor. A consequence of its peculiar approach to metaphor and to culture as a limiting condition upon how people think, is that IARPA’s working conception of its notional publics – the people it is trying computational to figure out – is seriously limiting. IARPA is all in with a conception of metaphor, we might say, as stuck in the mode of mechanical solidarity, giving its attention to what are otherwise called “dead metaphors,” which, it can be argued, are in fact no longer really metaphors at all.

    IARPA’s metaphor repositories would be cross-cultural collections of metaphoricized commonsense, that is, composed of already recognized and accepted metaphoric relations, informing the predictable parameters – maybe more accurately, limiting frames – of analogic reasoning of members of a given culture. This has the potential to be perversely conservative, since IARPA would understand decision-makers as drawing upon an identifiable cultural aggregate of figurative relationships which are always already assumed to exist. Such a situation makes of prediction, paraphrasing Yogi Berra, an exercise in déjà vu all over again.

    Given Lakoff’s fashionable redressing of his approach to metaphor in the terms of neuroscience, and the ways a technologically-enhanced culture concept is being engineered by IARPA’s Metaphor Program as a difference engine keyed to cultural consensus, the conventional, and metaphoric persistence, it would not be hard to imagine analysts, as beneficiaries of this data and when considering how the people they study make decisions, adopting an analytic shorthand to refer to the “Russian brain” or “Farsi brain,” in ways reminiscent of a Cold War era fascination with American, Russian or German “modal personality types.” For many anthropologists, research scenarios like these are troubling because they raise a Levy-Bruhl-like specter of “how natives think,” troubling because also aggressively “othering.” A cynic might go even farther to suggest programs such as this one are developing technologies for “enemy-making.”


    Metaphor’s Multiple Futures?

    Ignored or sidelined in IARPA’s efforts are competing conceptions of metaphor. Ricoeur, to pick one, emphasized the ways that metaphors creatively transform language by revealing new ways to conceive of a referent. Metaphors generate and regenerate meaning. Black  explored the open-endedness of metaphors, which he understood as too unstable to function referentially, but as introducing previously unavailable meanings in the dynamic interplay of figure and ground. Davidson remained unconvinced that metaphors could function as propositional at all, insisting instead that it was a mistake to assume metaphors possess any particular or stable “meaning.” These several conceptions of metaphor point to the limits of consensus around the conventionality of metaphor and the ways that backward-looking exercises in mapping and archiving metaphoric relations can fail to anticipate the future.

    To take a case in point: Genetics historically has been a field shot through with metaphors. Metaphors describing the work of genes are particularly ubiquitous, including: map, code, blueprint, and recipe, where DNA is understood to “write” the hereditary possibilities for our biological future. The biologist Richard Dawkins’s influential concept of the “selfish gene,” for example, promotes a gene-centric theory of evolution, where human beings are mere vehicles for successfully self-propagating individual genes, as the architects of natural selection. But the success of Dawkins’s selfish gene metaphor is beginning to obscure the changing meaning of “gene,” including a growing variety of technical usages.

    Researchers now emphasize the idea of a “post-genomic” biology, where combinations of networks of less selfish and more managerial genes are also influential, where “writing” can be less important than “reading,” and the relation of heredity to the environment appears increasingly complex and dynamic. But there are as yet no convincing off-the-shelf metaphors to describe what we continue to learn about the behaviors of genes. In other words, even given the technical and highly shared vocabulary among evolutionary biologists, the shape-shifting of genes under scientific inspection eludes easy description. And whatever might follow the selfish gene story is still emergent as a set of metaphors that cannot be mapped without significant distortion.

    If sharply divergent from IARPA’s starting point, what these several conceptions of metaphor share is an attention to the arguments at the center of culture, to the work of metaphor for social shape-shifting, and where identity is always in motion in relationship to – paraphrasing William James – the blooming buzz of experience. They attend to the translational and problem-solving work of metaphor, and to the ways metaphor might animate new inquiry. Conceived in such ways, metaphors do not so much express similarity but create new relations among “unlike things.”

    Accounts like these foreground the properties of metaphor as extensive rather than conventional, and as emergent rather than underlying. Concerned as they are with the ways that metaphors, in the words of anthropologist James Fernandez, are strategic predications upon the inchoate – that is, predications upon frontiers of life and experience that elude our ready classification – these offer alternatives to the conception of metaphor currently being reinforced in the social science of national security. And these alternatives run devastatingly counter to any possibility for a predictive tropology of the near future.


  • Generosity and Culture

    An interesting commercial has been released in Thailand which emphasizes the importance of giving in life.  As a number of Facebook friends have pointed out, it is a real tear-jerker whether you are in Thailand or anywhere else.


    Being Thai, this is undoubtedly inspired by Buddhist concepts of karma.  But the story, for different reasons, also perhaps reflects Calvinist ideas of pre-destination, or what is sometimes called “theology of works.”

    Bottom line, however you look at it, giving is a good thing.  So be generate habits of generosity in the fashion described in the film!


  • The All-Time Stupidest Question to Ask a Language Learner: Did You Understand what He/She said????!!!!” (Repeated loudly)


    I’ve been living in Germany for the last nine months.  One of my goals is to improve my German skills, and guess what, I am getting better.  But still my German is still far from perfect.  Occasionally I will be in a conversation (ok more than occasionally) and I will try to guess about meaning.  Sometimes I guess kind of right, which means that I will make a kind of odd response to a question.  This situation tends to right itself in a normal conversation as your conversation partner realizes how stupid you are, and graciously guides you to what was meant.  Or, if that doesn’t work, you walk away thinking you understood when you really didn’t, and do if you were asking directions you get lost again as a result.  All normal language learning foibles.

    Unless, of course, you have a spouse who is a true bilingual in German and English, and quickly catches on that the conversation puts her at risk for getting lost again on the way to the Post Office.  At which points, she turns to you and loudly asks (in English): “Did you understand????!!!!”  And the answer is of course I think I understand, even if I didn’t.  So the answer is always yes, I do understand, even if I didn’t understand, because I think I understood.  It is kind of like when former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said

    There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.

    There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.

    But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.

    Asking me whether I understand in German or not is asking me about unknown unknowns.  Unknown unknowns are really important in language learning—but please don’t ask me if I understand them or not—I don’t, or otherwise they would be known knowns, and I wouldn’t be in trouble in the first place.

    Rumsfeld is not the only one to help me think about my German problem.  Two older blogs dealing with this same problem from Erving Goffman’s perspective are below.



    Wow, that means both Donald Rumsfeld and Erving Goffman are mentioned in the same 400 words!  Who would have thought?