November 29, 2003

The first one!

Category: Personal — Biella @ 7:04 am

I can’t believe it. I wrote a dissertation chapter. I went from none to one. And though there is a lot of suckage in there (I mean how good can 60 pages written over the course of three weeks when the AAAs were going on), I feel like what I want to sayis there and there are some parts that are decent.

Most Thanksgivings of recent memory have been spent writing. As an undergraduate I usually had some paper due, which was the same for graduate school and then when I stopped doing the whole class thing, there were grants to apply for. This year, I thought there would be no reason to be working during Thanskgiving except for my own maniacal drive which after a long hiatus has kicked into high gear. I remember why I applied to graduate school. Though I really think I have problems with the English language because of my Spanish upbringing (so now I don’t have a great command of either English or Spanish language but I get by), I do like writing. And one of my favorite parts is starting with so idea and then traveling with it with your words and then all of a sudden, there is new stuff to see and new things to write…

November 25, 2003

How sad

Category: Politics — Biella @ 7:01 pm

UN’s clarion call for great apes

Looks like the great apes et al are soon to vanish… And what a shame, it looks like they just figured out dentistry!

November 23, 2003

It is over but really it is not

Category: Anthropology — Biella @ 9:58 am

Yesterday I presented a paperThe Political Agnosticism of Free and Open Source Software and the Inadvertent Politics of Contrast in a panel that Chris Kelty and I organized at the American Anthropological Association Meetings

There were many questions about the nature of politics in America that we raised in the discussion which were really interesting. One question which I have been trying to wrap my head around is how to treat the relationship between culture and politics in America right now. Anthropologists used to treat culture as something seperate from the political and then around 30 years ago there was a critique from within the field that said, “woah, we need to pay attention to the political in the cultural.” The conclusion from this critique and rightly so was that politics is always there in the cultural. This though is a conceptual argument and not historial one, and it is changing historical conditions which interest me.

But can it be that given historical conditions, that culture becomes some sort of “front” for politics (not in a bad way). That given the fact that politics is not really seen as a viable method for change, that it becomes hidden (not in an ideological sense) within or really emedded within culture so that now the relationship between culture and politics is different in certain cases for historical reasons?

I wrote my paper taking seriously the claims of many free and open source developers that FOSS is not about politics. I linked this to a free speech sensibility that is made particular through the pragmatics of programming, and the social context of Internet use. I wanted to link their political agnosticsm with a greater pollution of politics in American society more generally which I did not do (because I don’t know how to yet and there was no time) but I raise it in a footnote as a concern:

Of course there are specific histories and labor involved in these movements (FOSS does not move by magic and I can only nod to them here) but the fact that FOSS is coded as politically neutral allows for a greater type of movement and resignifications within the American political sphere, a sphere that itself allows and disallows for certain types of movements. Thus just as relevant is how this process reveals what is not and what is possible within the American political landscape.

But I did not have much of a handle of what I meant by the American political landscape. While not trying to make a broad claim about American politics, one thing that is noticeable is a sort of unwillingness to engage explicitly with things political or that “politics” just seems like a dirty activity that people don’t care to engage. Why the pollution of politics? and now how has culture as a vehicle for politics changed the way that politics are enacted?

A question that Chris Kelty raised at the end of his paper helped to clarify how I might think of the political right now. While I focused on the sort of political neutrallity of FOSS, he looked at the political distancing of the Creative Commons who choose to use a language of culture over politics.

He asks:

The creation of a “commons”–whether in intellectual property or any other material—necessarily implies the need to make rules about its use; and in complex societies, no one makes rules de novo. Instead they operate within other larger frameworks, and try to create small pockets of technically and legally defensible activities. So I end on this question: if process of designing commons—such as writing software and copyright licenses—is as essential a part of peoples’ lives today as I suggest it is becoming—should we call it “culture”?

So this made me think that though politics and culture are always co-constituted in some sort of way, this relationship is at historical level changing. FOSS and Creative Commons are just 2 examples of how culture is being deployed as a vehcile for politics worldwide (see Sahlins 1999 for a great article about this.)

But the question becomes I think how and why can’t the political be recognized or be made explict. Is this for strategic reasons, cultural, of just because politics works in some sort of weird Saussurian way in which now you tend not to designate X as being political, but the meaning of the political only gets constitued through a field of difference. That is the sign of politics gets signified by virtue of its difference from other signs. Or is culture as a trope a more powerful vehicle for making political claims?? A combination of all the above?

I think I need to re-read Sahlins.

Shalins, Marshall “Sentimental Pessimism” and Ethnographic Experience: Or, Why Culture Is Not a Disappearing “Object” in Daston, Lorraine, editor Biographies of Scientific Objects

November 16, 2003

A new model for anti-corporate activism

Category: Politics — Biella @ 8:08 am

Praveen wrote me this really interesting email about Walmart, which though not unique to launch serious FUD (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt) campaigns against its workers, it perhaps brings it to an art form and is iconic of what workers face today:

Praveen writes:
Walmart has been making considerable news lately with it’s continuing
plans to rollout mega-super-centers in otherwise untapped markets.
This article is a morbidly fascinating article on the borg like effect walmart has had
on the American economy. From a tactical viewpoint, walmart is leveraging
it’s position as a man-in-the-middle and playing by the numbers in a borg
like manner on all fronts: They are rabidly anti-union, fire workers for
any form of dissent all the while paying them sub-living wages, buying off
local governments… And then on the backend importing as much custom
cheap labor and material from overseas and decimating american suppliers.

My question: how do you stop them??

I have a provisional answer that may not stop them but it might help.

Ok, I have recieved two requests from Walmart women looking for information about the class action suit that I wrote about on my blog september

Great that they contacted me, deplorable they had to contact *ME.*When I went to do a search about the class action suit to see if there was a main webpage, there was not. It was hard to find information about it.

I makes me think that we have a long way to go before activists use the web properly not as a tool in and of itself but a tool to make stuff happen, to facilitate other activities. Just as people naturally go to the web to “click” and shop and get their news, it is key that workers of each and every company and of Unions have central sites where they go to to find out information about what the company is up to. I mean you have something like blog style which simply LISTS everything that a walmart worker might find useful, lawsuites, union organzin, etc.
More important, is that the site is run NOT my a Walmart Worker so that they don’t get FUD (that is fucked) by Walmart and that it takes on a status as a brand. People, like it or not work through brand recognition and we need to take that for our projects.

So h0mee, basically what I am saying is start that frikken site! And start a movement around the idea that EVERY company needs such a site…. Then folks can post anonymously about the shannanigans of the corporation in such a way that it shames the company and it provides frankly USEFUL information for the workers. It is thier site, a central place that people can go to which wont take too much time which is KEY because part of the reason people cant do anything is that there is NO TIME in this country. You can strike in France every other day becaue you wil still get paid. They work us to the Bone in the US so that folks as much as the will is there, the body is trapped in thre reality of time constraints.

As you know this is the tactic that I am taking with Stories of Shame which is generating some stories by University of Chicago students but it will take some offline campaigning to get folks to the website. I mean you and I are bloggers, we are IRC chatters, the net is a place of sociality for us in a way that it is not for many. We need to bring sociality to people, a form of sociality that gives them information, a type of transparency that otherwise is hard to grope for individually but using branding tactics so that there is name recognition over time.

This is Brin’s argument in The Transparent Society which I thought was quite compelling argument for openness and transparency as forms of direct political action. If they are keeping tabs on us, we then too need to keep info on then and expose it. And in such a way where it is only natural to go you your “” website.

If I were not in school right now, I think I would try to get a grant precisely to launch such a campaign. I mean I think it is a really good idea. Meet with Union organizers and activists organizers at the top 10 companies with the lousiest labor practices, teach them how to set this shit up, get a server up at the Community Colo and finally really try to join labor activism with the power of the anonymity and flexibiity of the web.

So that is my answer.

November 13, 2003

Dreaming life

Category: Personal — Biella @ 7:09 am

So yet again I had a strange dream. I won’t got into the details but basically I was on some highway overpass in Nebraska that hovered over this most beautiful crystal clear lake that at one point was just swarming with ducks, and ducks of all sizes. I mean there were little tadpole size ducks and large mama and papa sized ducks. This was all very exciting to me as I have always wanted a pet duck. And then, surprise, a two headed duck connected at the beak showed up, which floored me so I whipped out my camera, started to shoot some pictures but instead the 2 headed exploded and I had to go to the highway rest stop bathroom to clean it off me. Gross.

This morning I was a little distrubed again. But one of the things that I think are really cool about dreams is that they are in some ways a sort of Buddhist or postmodern meditation on the relativity of social forms and well life in general. Dreams are about the malleable, the creative, your being taking off to places that it could never imagine to do in waking consciousness. But dreams may be a spring board to cultivate that creative flexibility as you move through life awake. If you can enter into a domain of such creative flexibility, then it might exist as part of life more generally, so why not aspire to a dreaming life?

November 12, 2003

Nightmares about free speech

Category: Research — Biella @ 7:59 pm

So last night I had probably one of the strangest dreams that I have had in a long time. Sadly I don’t remember the contents but I do know that I had a visceral nightmare (you know, my heart was pounding when I woke up) about “free speech.” Ok, I know that sounds preposterous but I had an honest to god nightmare about some aspect of free speech. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I am reading critical theories of liberalism such as Marcuse (Repressive Tolerance), Fish (There is No Such Thing as Free Speech) and Brown (States of Injury) as I deal with the question of free software and freedom. But a nightmare about it??

Clearly I need some distance from my school work or some of the old malaria medicine, Lariam, that I took years ago is leehing out of my system wacking out my already wacked dreams.

November 9, 2003

Ikea (a.k.a. the promisory psychology of consumerism)

Category: Anthropology — Biella @ 9:30 pm

The desperation of lack of chairs and lights finally drove us to the mega super storie of low cost wooden furniture, plastic knick-knacks, and Swedish meatballs, Ikea located in the far north suburbs of Chicago. It was a trek from Hyde Park and whenever I find myself in the land of blue and yellow, I feel like I in fact have traveled to a far away land, yet it is still that of America just one in which certain dynamics become more apparent than in the normal humdrum of life.

Young couples shacking up for the first time are ubiqutous at Ikea, picking out furniture with this “great anticipation” and glee in their eyes reflecting the innder psychology of the commodity–that this cool new couch and dresser will make their domestic lives that much easier and… better in the near near future.
Of course they find out, like most of us do, that in fact the shiny new x does nothing to save some loveless relationship from a path of spiriling loathing and destruction (I did not share this with them as I did not want to ruin the few moments of safe comfort they did have)…

But it is that dynamic of hoping that those little and big things (a knife, a new toaster, a chair, some great pots and plants, the perfect pen) will bring about some greater ease and comfort in your life. At least I think that is the very hope and justification built in the act of buying, especially since if that one thing does not work, there is, just around the corner, gobs of more stuff that can be bought to *hopefully* fulfill that function of greater ease, comfort, and happiness.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am caught up in this process as much as I really can’t stop thinking and theorizing about it. Today I bought what I hoped will be a desk chair that will provide extra comfort to me, which I am sure it will given that my last chair, in a word blew to the nth degree. But what is amazing is how that initial idea of “greater happiness” creeps out from a relatively conservative thought (like this is more comfortable) into encompassing other wishes and desires like perhaps that chair will make *the difference* between writing a shitty dissertation and writing a most excellent one. I mean, I may be deluded (that is no one except me might fall into this trap) but I think it is hard not to be seduced into the very pyschology of the commodity in which it promises to do something better for you. And though it might (there is nothing like a sharp knife for cutting veggies compared to a dull knife), it seems to extend off in areas that it should never go. And since there is just such a sick abundance of stuff in the west, especially America where it is simply easier to get a new toaster than to fix one, people are caught up into this psychology in a daily way.

But that is why I think going to Ikea can be so paradoxical. It makes apparent this dynamic, this psychology even as everyone is behaving under its powerful influence in this one huge blue and yellow building located in some thankless suburb. It is the fact that we can see everyone under the spell that its very dynamic becomes almost palatable. In other words, Ikea ain’ just a place to get some furniture and deformed Swedish meatballs but it is an exursion into the very heart and soul of the promisory phsychology of consumerism, a promisory that seems to have no limits in the eyes, minds, and bellies of American consumers

November 7, 2003


Category: Uncategorized — Biella @ 10:25 pm

I just got back from watching Ravi and Anoushka placidly rock out on their sitars at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Sitting down playing that large hunky instrument of wood and many strings did not look at that comfortable for them but the music soared. Most of the pieces started off slow and a bit disjointed (at least for my flaccid western ear) but then everything collapsed together in an haromic frenzy. It was beautiful.

I often think that writing should be that way. Start off slow and a little lost but somewhat enticing till then you get sucked in, unable to escape as the words, sentences, and meaning become alive so allive that you can’t take so you read, read till the end, nearly without breathing. And then are satisfied, satisfied that you not only read something but experienced a piece of beauty that enraptured, fully and totally. I have fantasies about writing anthropology like that but that is exactly NOT to do (or so I am told). The style should be all clear from the start, and you should hold a steady, rhythmic pace, never really jolting the reader but just holding her steady from clear point to clear point. That is the form of writing I am not so good at but am trying… Maybe I can at least have one chapter of harmonic frenzy… I will just suggest that my advisors listen to Ravi and Anoushka while they read it. Then it will make sense and be a totally engulfing aesthetic experience…

November 6, 2003

Stumbling onto a blog

Category: Tech — Biella @ 1:10 pm

So every once in awhile, I find a commnet on my blog from a stranger, like my now friend Niels from the Netherlands. He posted some comments before I went to the Netherlands for a month last year so we ended up meeting up and going on a nice though slightly coolish three day bike trip, which I am very fond of despite the rain and the bum knee.

Just yesterday someone unknown to me posted a comment on what is probabaly one of my favorite blog entries ever Life of the Mind, UHHH, I mean thigh which is apparently the first hit on google if you type “Life of the Mind” and Chicago.

So I wrote her and asked how it is she found my blog (as it is very strange and fascinating to find out how people navigate through such a space) and here is her response:

“How does DO I get sucked into voyeuristic web reading??? I DON’T KNOW. If I
did, I’d find a way to stop it. Seriously though, I was being very U of C, and
decided to look up the phrase “Life of the Mind” on google…because I was
bored. People who are active, physically accomplish things. I look up phrases
on Google. It’s the U of C way, really. So that’s how I stumbled on to the
log, and the precor bit was just hilarious. Actually, your blog is much larger
venture than I expected. It’s like the matured form of my high school website
on European History”

Little adventures and random connections. It is what makes a lot of the web still fun for me though I am do feel like I am battling time, time to keep up with it all…

November 2, 2003

The aesthetics, politics, and techniques of writing

Category: Research — Biella @ 9:18 am

This weekend I wrote my AAA paper for the American Anthropological Association conference meeting that will be held here in Chicago in the middle of November. In six pages I gave an overview of my whole vision of how the politics of Free and Open Source Software are enacted and how connect with a tradition of free speech liberalism in the American sphere. It is a lot to wrtie in 6 pages but I decided to go that route as opposed to one-argument-really-fleshed-out-well-in-6-pages-route. I want to see whether I can write my vision in 6 pages and anyway, writing it out in 6 pages is helping me think of what I need to say in 2 of my dissertation chapters which is on that subject. As we get close to the AAA I will post the paper.

The paper is only 6 pages not because I am sadistic but because each presenter only has 15 minutes, which I think is a totally raw deal. Such a format rewards those who are magical writers and those who are magicians of bull shit. But there is one good thing that does come out of it. You are forced to say a lot in a little, and can come up with some really tight sentences that are hopefully clear but bursting with meaning(s). I can use a bit of that because I tend to have what I call a Russian aesthetics of writing tossed in with forms of female insecurity. I like to be very obvious and beat points to the ground. While this can be good from time to time, it can also be a drag to read and I write 4 sentences for what can be said in 2. So going through these short paper writing excursions affords an opportunity to be sparse and clear and teach me techniques that will shorten my disseratation.

I almost can’t believe how much of time I spend writing these days. Emails, blogs, papers, and my dissertation. It is all consuming yet I sometimes feel so alienated by it. There is so much I want to say but putting all the pieces all together can be so hard. I never thought I would spend so much of my life writing and in front of a computer.

Nearly losing the entire contents of the recent hacking attack was also a really disturbing experience. It is hard to lose anything you create but since this also acts like my journal (I stopped jounaling when I started blogging which is not that bad of thing as I could get quite mopey in my journal), I felt I would have lost a sense of self in time. I forget my life easily. No seriously, I forget what I say, what I did, what I wrote (not as bad or as funny as what’s here name? :-) in Saving Nemo) and so traces are important to me.

It made me think a lot about digital storage. I like the fact that I have hard copies of my journal even if a fire can burn them to oblivion (though I do have a digital copy too) but until this episode I never really had much anxiety over the fact that all my stuff is on some server out in Freemont California. Not only is digital stuff perhaps not seemingly tangible inscribed but it is not necessarily proximal to you. Anyway, I am glad that Micah was making backups of all my stuff, the ever mindful system administrator that he is…