October 8, 2006

My Reading

Category: Academic,Books/Articles — Biella @ 6:06 am

So people may be wondering, “How does Biella pass her time in the vast, desolate Canadian north?” Thankfully there are many things to do in Edmonton proper, but I have delved quite a bit into reading so I thought I would take a break and give small reviews of the books I have read or am reading as they are all quite good. I am trying to be more systematic about my reading habits so I am back to using citeulike. I am adding anything new I read and then as I go back to I have already read (for articles), I am adding them to the list also. I hope this pays off in the future!

I started the reading bash with a book that was recommended to me over a year ago while I was still in Chicago: The Fugitive’s Property: Law and the Poetics of Personhood as it deals with the bread and butter of my own work, intellectual property, liberalism, market capitalism, and American history. I found the introduction enlivening and was sufficiently interested to continue on. I think there is not a lot of innovative work in the field of intellectual property (only because it has been covered very well) and to bring together slavery/the fugitive person and intellectual property under the same analytical lens, seems productive. Best looks at how the legal treatment of the slave and that of IP, hold striking parallels for their highly “fugitive” (formal) nature, driven and intensified by the legal/market framework that makes personhood into property. There is a lot of good stuff in there (including a fantastic discussion on legal positivism) but in the end, the labor it took to sift through some really obtuse prose was too much for me. I can’t remember the last time I languished under the heavy weight of language that was far too ornate and under sentences that just lacked clarity. This was compounded by the fact that he assumed you knew a fair bit about slave history, which I did not. My drive also escaped me and while I hope to return to it later, I took a break and turned to more readbale material.

After such heavy linguistic ornateness, I needed an antidote, QUICK, and I knew exactly where to go: William Sewell and his book I had on my shelf also nearly for a year: The Logics of History. Along with being a first rate historian he is like that black instrument popularized in the 1980s by the likes of Herbie Hancock, and Brian Eno, he is a synthesizer with an amazing ability to write clearly. Being the synthesizer that he is, he is skilled at connecting the dots between various theoretical topics like event, structure, and agency, making the theoretical implications so crystal clear you feel happy to have entered into a field (the social sciences that is) that feels awfully arcane and pointless at times. I left Stehpen Best, which was like leaving a cluttered medieval castle and into a simply decorated room filled nothing with good theoretical feng shui (I think about writing in spatial terms more than ever). He just makes reading fun, even when the topics can be less than enthralling.

Many of the essays were published previously and I had read a number of them, such as his famous essay on structure and agency. What I appreciated along with the great writing, was that he takes serious the question of plurality of social life within the net of various social, economic, political determinants. So while he assumes the existence of structure (and turns Marshall Sahlins to establish), he also is quick to show that structure, like a cultural system, can only act as partial (and unexpected determinants of social life) because of the existence and presence of events (which is really Sahlins great masterful point) but more importantly because of the plurality of structures… This was perhaps on the the central motifs in my dissertation; while I placed hacking within the cultural lineage of liberalism, in no way is this the only cultural system that hackers operate through and with; they move through a cultural domain more intrinsic to their own praxis, not to mention other systems of value that reverberate more widely among the digerati… And it is this movement between social positions that allows for forms of reflexivity and social change. I primarily used Bakhtin to make this point but now I got Sewell to add to this mix.

Here is a nice passage from the book that makes this point:

I would argue that a multiple conception of structures would make subjects cultural creativity easier to explain. If the cultural structures by which subjectivities are formed are multiple, then so are the subjectivities… Because persons, symbols, and objects of cultural reference overlap between structural realms, structurally generated rules, emotions, categories, and senses of self can potentially be transposed from one situation to another. Indeed, if actors commonly have the experience of negotiating and renegotiating the relationships between noncongruent cultural structures, it follows they should have some intellectual distance on the structural categories themselves, that they should be able to view one set of cultural categories from the point of view of others that are differently organized, to compare and critizise categories and categorical logics, to work out ways of harmonization or odering the seemingly contradictory demands of different cultural schemes. A multiple conception of structure, consequently makes human creativity and reflection an integral element in the theory of history, not a philosophically prior metaphysical assumption. p. 213

And here is a more engaged review that is a little more critical than my very short comments.

As part of a reading group organized by my tireless supervisor, I am also reading The Cultural Locations of Disability written by two of the most prolific scholars in the field, Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell. Since I am a novice in field it is hard for me to judge the two chapters we have so far read but it is a total total total treat reading a book slowly with a group of other folks from a vast range of departments.

So far I appreciate the larger arguments presented in the introduction. For example, they point to two broad categories—capitalism and modernity/enlightenment– as driving forces in a new wave of obsession with the disabled. So while capitalism’s insistence on measuring the worth of humans through an abstract and actual ability to labor, marginalizes those who cannot offer their constant labor power (and makes them an “odd” cultural object), modernity–in its desire to march forward to the mysterious plane of progress, offers a technological promise to eradicate what it designates as deviant or primitive. As they nicely sum up: “In a culture that endlessly assures itself that it is on the verge of conquering Nature once and for all, along with its own “primitive” instincts and the persistent domains of have-nots, disability is referenced with respect to these idealized visions. As a vector of human variability, disabled bodies both represent a throwback to human prehistory and serve as the barometer of a future without deviancy.” p. 31

I, think, however, they should have also included some discussion of liberalism, which in many ways, was the legal and philosophical engine that helped to naturalize capitalism not to mention it also offered a vision of person, in which self-development, expression, and discrete autonomy was deeply cherished. Seen in this liberal light, disability becomes also a type of “tragedy” that can be resolved though new technological interventions they discuss under the guise of modernity.

I have just started Michelle Murphy’s Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers, which promises to be quite a tour de force into the contentious politics of uncertainty and the play of perceptibility and imperceptibility that surround one of many many syndromes—sick building syndrome—that now are part and parcel of the medical and patient advocacy field.

Along with this I read and finished Andrew Lakoff’s Pharmaceutical Reason: Knowledge and Value in Global Psychiatry, which will make for great teaching, and has one of the nicest discussions on the way in which psychiatry’s insecure status among the other medical science was one of the driving forces toward embracing the new scientism of the 1980s that coincided with new more general neoliberal trends. Another nice move about the ethnography is that he was able to clarify some of the trends and rationalities of American and European psychiatry by examining how it was received and resisted among more psychoanalytical Argentinian therapists. Very classicial anthropological lens in that sesne.

Finally I am in the middle of Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loop and I will say more about it when I am done, which should be soon as I am tearing through it evern night. I have been waiting for this book for a long while now because Dibbell is part of that trinity (Steven Levy, Bruce Sterling, Julian Dibbell) that offers some of the best writing on hackers, the internet, and virtual worlds. And this book continues in that tradition of providing a fantastic read, a vivid ethnographic picture of the topic at hand, along with key insights into the nature of economies, money, and plau within (and outside of) virtual landscapes. What I respect about Julian Dibbell is that he took a long time to get this book out. He started the research in 2003 and then spent a few years writing up. I think there is a lot of pressure to get any material or book on “virtual whatever” out there as quick as possible but for the most part I think that is a mistake. You need to let these things brew a long while or else they won’t acquire that taste of a finished product.

October 6, 2006

On the non-being of Alzheimers

Category: Alzheimers,Health,Politics — Biella @ 8:10 am

So it has been a long while since I wrote about my mother and her Alzheimers/posterior cortical atophy. The news is not all that good. Now that she has been under this state for a number of years now, I am finding more and more of my female friends are under similar situations of having to take care, sometimes from afar, of an elderly parent. This summer I got to spend a few weeks with a friend whose mother is also slipping away due to neurogenerative disorder. We talked a lot about our and our mother’s lives. One thing we agreed wholeheartedly about was that with these types of illnesses, the past takes on a new found importance as “easier times.” Once the present starts to arrive on the scene of life and extreme dis-ease, the past seem a lot rosier than before, because well, usually things only seem to go one way: worse.

You retroactively long for the past, though it was experienced once as quite difficult but you realize that it was better than it is now. While my mom’s memory problems have not worsened that much, she has a host of new physical symptoms that really cut into her quality of life, making the past seem almost idyllic. And once you go through one or two of the phases, you can’t help wonder, constantly, how much worse will it get? In leaves you in quite an unmoored state of low-grade anxiety, because you just can’t have faith that things will get better. You only hope that the things will unravel slowly enough so that the shocks are somewhat easier to absorb for her, for me, for my sister. And all of this is hard, hard to watch someone go through, and hard to know that in some ways, this can only get worse because you just know rock bottom has not been reached and you start to wonder what will rock bottom even be? But perhaps what makes all of it far worse is how my mother is treated by ex-friends, by doctors, by society at large.

To have Alzheimer’s, is socially deadly, it is social death. Once people know of your condition, people start to treat you as if you are not really there, no longer a person, no longer able to cognize or much less understand the world around you. And indeed, it is silly to deny the existence of severe new limitations. But once you spend enough time with a person with Alzheimer’s, it is clear that they perceive (and really feel) a lot more than one first may expect. It is a grave mistake to put them behind the barbed wire of invalidity and non-being as I think seems to happen, almost automatically. Memory and language are not the only conduits for cognition yet we fetichize them so much so as they pivotal markers of “being,” that when they start slipping, we seem to mistakenly think the entire person goes with them.

This marking of non-being is everywhere. Most of her friends and family have dropped off the face of the universe; when I take her to church, “churchgoers” will make sure she takes the holy communion but otherwise treat her as if she can’t understand at all, instead of trying to going the extra mile to share in the ways she clearly can, and then there is her doctor. He is the worst.

He just tends to treat her as some clay lump, putting her in situations that clearly make her feel bad but of course, his medical gaze can’t register it at all. For example, every time she goes in, he makes her attempt to “draw” some squares and circles and houses…. And I am not sure why he does this because she has not been able to do it for years. When he makes her do it (and she gives in because well, you are supposed to follow doctors orders, right?) she is clearly embarrassed that she can’t do it, so what is the purpose? To confirm what is already plainly obvious, and remind her in BOLD EMPAHSIS of a new limitation?

He is not overly fond of me because I tend to be well-informed and as result finds me annoying and threatening. Last time my sister took her to the doctor, I had her bring a list of possible medications that may help control her excessive saliva, which is one of these new symptoms that is ruining her life. Though they were taken as suggestions (not as demands) and because he did not take this symptom seriously last time, he told my sister that just because “your sister has a PhD, does not mean she knows anything about medicine.” And he is right I don’t in the way he does, but it is by being well-informed that my mom was diagnosed in the first place and how we have averted other problems. I guess he selectively forgot that it was I who brought in the Olive Sacks article from the New Yorker on Posterior Cortical Atrophy that directly led to her diagnosis (after 2 years of trying to figure out why she could not see anymore and everyone just treated her as batty) and it was I who finally figured out that one of the medicines he had prescribed, Razadyne, was severely aggravating her saliva problem (he apparently never took her first concerns over her saliva very seriously, otherwise why would he prescribe a medication with saliva production as one of the known side-effects)…

Finally look around you… People with Alzheimer’s are rarely taken out of their house, if they still live there and surely not out of the nursing homes where many spend their last years. In fact, when my sister and I take her out (and we do quite a bit), you should just see the look on people’s faces. Their eyes light up, I think because, it is a rare sighting, and they just can’t believe how great it is that we have SACRAFICED to take her out. It is as if they saw Mother Teresa, back on earth, in some great act of benevolence (ok and she is pretty cute too, especially without her dentures).

She has about 2 friends who do make an effort to keep in touch. One is her oldest friend from Venezuela, who calls at least every month and then the other is an artist friend, who lives in PR and has known his fair share of tragedy, and as result is perhaps more empathetic. When they call or visit, she is overjoyed. Of course. You can joke with her quite easily and she loves to tell stories (though she get really frustrated at times when she has problems saying words). Not only is it a nice distraction, a form of entertainment, a moment of connection, making you forget the pains, psychic and physical, that saturate your life under Alzheimer’s but it is also a powerful social and moral message. It states that you still matter, are worthy even as other forces in life are tugging away at your being.

To be more generous, I understand why some of her friends, especially those who are older, avoid her. Her presence is a powerful signpost for their possible future. It is easier to exist in denial than to be empathetic, patient, and have to at some level confront a very existential question about a future that awaits all of us. It is like a more raw form of Sartre. But this is perhaps the very reason why sequestering those with this condition is a grave social mistake. It is worth facing it, contemplating it some, otherwise it will be impossible to forge more empathetic responses.

October 4, 2006

More videos, Open Minds

Category: Academic,Mad Movement,Politics — Biella @ 11:31 am

So so so, I finally hit a friend with a Mac to start getting the videos from the Open Minds conference is a compressed state and up online.

So far, I only have David Oak’s keynote speech up in part one and part two.

The sound quality is variable. Since the output from my camera was broken, when I was taping, I was not sure if it was a problem with my sound input, or microphone so I will fiddling with it. I started taping without my external microphone and then I used it and then I stopped and then I used it again. But you can hear it despite the changes in volume!

I may make a higher quality version available later for download for a short period of time.

Since I am “Macless,” it will take a while for me to get the others up. But here at U of A a new fancy Mac Lab will soon open and I will get an account and get at least one video a week up. Or perhaps I will get motivated and do most in one sitting.


October 2, 2006

Cultural Studies Finally Releases Issue on IP

Category: Academic,IP Law,Politics — Biella @ 2:12 pm

When Cultural Studies released an issue on intellectual property last spring, I was somewhat annoyed and surprised that the issue was not made more freely available, given the topic of the issue. What was more frustarating was the CS has a lag policy for e-access so they don’t make available, even to subscribing institutions, issues until one year has passed. I think this is just a bad move in this day and age. If you can’t download it, well, you will lose a good percentage of your readership. I even ventured to the library 3x to get the issue but alas, it was out every time.

So today I was thrilled to read on Sivacracy that the issue is now available for download. The lineup is great and I look forward to delving in this week.