What not (JM/CD chat)

Clyde Davenport (clyde@BUS.HIROSHIMA-PU.AC.JP)
Fri, 24 May 1996 00:54:41 +0900

Old chat between John McCreery and Clyde Davenport (12 Mar 1996 21:10:00 +0900)

CD: To my mind, though, one meaning of "going back" is to recover
pre-capitalist ways of experiencing, and communicating with, the world
through things like stories, song, dance,
eating and growing delicious food, having meaningful sex and family lives,
etc. This is its aesthetic dimension.

JM: Here I perceive the heart of your comments, a cry from a heart that
feels alienated,
bereft of "stories, song, dance, eating and growing delicious food, having
meaningful sex
and family lives, etc." The image of "going back" implies (1) that these
things are no longer available in the present or future, but have to be
sought somewhere in the past and (2) that
they did, in fact, exist in a past to which it is possible to return.

CD: You are saying much here, but I wonder if your characterizations are
correct. You
are right that I do feel alienation on occasion, but I tend to interpret
the reasons for this alienation not in terms of a lack in the sense of of a
qualitative absence but rather in terms
of a dissatisfaction I experience when I get what I want but somehow find
that it does not
fulfill my expectations (either because the expected object is wanting or
because my expectations are inflated). In other words, the commodification
process does not rob us
(bereft us) of our desired objects as much as it either cheapens them or
disallows ourselves
from matching our expectations with reality. In terms of lack, the past
(at least in the
history of the past few thousand years) was more severe than the present.
But ironically I
think the past was richer in enjoyment even in conditions of scarcity. But
I am talking too
much. So I will let you continue.

JM: Then we come to the notion that science and technology will be
retained but must be "decoupled" from the "rationalization/commodification
logic of late capitalism" and
"recover their human meaning."

CD: Oh, you mean what I said before about what to do with the
superstructure of scientific thought and technological inventions. I said
it's not a matter of either throwing all this
away or leaving it exactly as it is, as the charge of Luddite that is often
hurled at people
like me is meant to imply. Rather it is the harmonizing of these edifices
of science and technology with what gives them meaning, human life in the
context of the lived
environment. At present, science and technology both follow the rationalization/
commodification logic of late capitalism. What is necessary is for these
endeavors to be decoupled from this logic and instead recover their human
meaning. That is what I said.
And I still think it is true.

JM: Ignoring, for the moment, the implicit contradiction with the idea
that the past
was somehow more perfect than the present, let us focus for a moment on the
map in which the world is divided between humanity and something inhuman
with "rationalization," "commodification" and "logic," with science and
belonging at present on the side of the inhuman. All this is familiar
stuff. How much
of it is tenable?

CD: I don't know. That is why I write about it and listen to what other
people have to
say on this problem. If I had all the answers there wouldn't be this need
to listen to
the other, or the voice of alterity to use a now fashionable word. But you
shouldn't think
that just because I use words like this that I'm trying to be postmodern.
Levinas I don't
think is trying to build a philosophy. He's just talking about matters
close to his heart.
He uses a strange language of course. But isn't what he is saying is that
all of our
languages are in some ways private? Well, again I talk to much. Sorry for

JM: Allow me to play the devil's advocate.

CD: Please. Be my guest.

JM: (1) It is one of the joys of the late capitalist world that stories,
song and dance
have never been in greater supply or available in greater variety to
satisfy every
conceivable taste. There is no end of books in bookstores and libraries. Or
music on
CDs at my local Tower Records or HMV music stores. Should I want to play an
instrument, there are hundreds of teachers ready to instruct me, dozens of
to join. Should I feel an overwhelming urge to sing (not a good idea, given
my voice),
there is always karaoke. Delicious food? Nowhere in the world do I have at
my fingertips
a greater variety of foods, from raw to ready to eat, than living in a
modern city.

CD: Yes, yes. I couldn't agree with you more. But you have to ask
yourself the question
of what kinds of food you eat. Are they laden with agricultural chemicals
which will
give you cancer before you want to live out your natural life? Are they
taken from
different climes and so will not satisfiy the needs of your body at the
particular seasonal juncture you find yourself in (for example if you eat
tropical fruits in the middle of winter
is it really good for you?)? And what kind of music do you listen to?
Aren't you just an
old fogey who wants to seem cool but can't actually because you have a
history which is
rather ancient? I don't mean this as any kind of put down by the way. I'm
39 going on 60.
I'd like to be cool, too. I've kind of given up on this, though.

JM: It is true that should I want to grow my own, that is more
problematic. But what,
says the critic, of human relations? A marriage of 27 years, parents of
whom I am fond,
a daughter of whom I'm inordinately proud, colleagues, students, a few good
friends. I am
aware that many are not so fortunate--but at least demonstrate each day
that these
things are not impossible.

CD: Of course not. But to make the impossible possible we have to admit
the existence
of different horizons, no? And isn't this what anthropology is all about?

JM: Where is that utopia? Where or when has it ever been? My reading of
the past suggests
that, more often than not, the songs, dances, delicious food, etc. have
been accompanied
by famine, pestilence, war, low life expectancies and grossly high infant
mortality rates.
To the best of my knowledge the sex lives of peasants (who have long been
far and away the
vast majority of humankind) have been far from romantic idylls. Be they
Mexican, Chinese,
Arab or Indian, these are the lives in which patriarchy has been a dominant
factor, the
oppression of women and brutality to children both commonplace. And the
structures of oppression they represent antedate capitalism by a good many
thousand years.

CD: How many thousand of years? 2 or 3? What is the genesis of sexual
What about the other eons of human existence before "civilization"? I'll
let you continue.

JM: It is, on the contrary, the rise of capitalism and increasing
employment of women
that has, at last, led to some progress in fighting these ancient evils.

CD: Yes, and no.

JM: That highly inhuman view of the current state of science and
technology. Could it
be that we're dealing here with a view not unlike that of ancient maps
where unknown
seas are marked with "Here be monsters"? To anyone who has taken the time
to get to
know in a serious way scientists and engineers, it is all too apparent that
science and
technology are intensely human activities and frequently deeply meaningful
to those
involved in them.

CD: Yes, but you ignore the "fact" that the self-representations of
scientists are often
quite different from the actual effects that their world-views have on the
people that
are forced to imbibe them.

JM: Again, let me emphasize. None of these remarks are meant to excuse the
very real
evils abroad in the world or even to detract attention from them. They are
meant to put
some grit in the wheels of those who spin critical theories from the straw
of their own abstractions. But that, I take it, has always been the special
role of ethnography.

John McCreery
March 12, 1996

Clyde Murata
Somewhere in Hokkaido (but I'm not)

P.S. Sorry for any distortions from ripping things out of context
Nevertheless I do so..