Myths and machines

15 January 2018

It's been almost exactly six months since my last post. You would think that being on sabbatical would have given me more than ample time to write about my experiences and my thoughts. But so far you would be wrong. I mostly blame the young kids in the house, but life has also intervened unnecessarily.

I should write about our amazing---if small and drafty---1875 farmhouse on Elihu Island. I should write about swimming through the end of October despite rapidly declining fall temperatures. I should write about the hurricane just before Halloween that pushed an immense oak tree across the only road to the island and the only power line to the island, leaving us stranded without power for days. I should write about having responsibility for my negative equity uncle's tiny estate thrust on me when it was suddenly determined that he was no longer fit to live on his own. I should write about the grounding reflections on aging that experience has engendered. I should also write about the joy my daughters express at their new school and how they have code switched into English. I should write about how full-blooded the holiday season has felt here in America. I should write about the Arctic temperatures that have frozen the cove outside our kitchen window except for a small hole where the hooded mergansers have gathered. I should write about the kids' first major snowstorms, the snowmen they built, and the sledding they did. And I should probably write about reading Ta-Nehisi Coates on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. I should write about many things.

But I have a few words about Lewis Mumford's The Myth of the Machine. Mostly I just want to announce that I've finished reading both volumes. I've been reading them piecemeal a couple of pages a day for more than a year, and I finally finished the second volume last night. The main thing that has struck me while reading these volumes is the influence he must have had on Deleuze and Guattari. It may sound a bit odd, but I am convinced of the connection. First of all, from citations in A Thousand Plateaus, I know they read him. It may only have been the essay version of The Myth of the Machine, but there is sufficient commonality to suggest a fuller reading. Prime among these is the notion of assemblage, a term Mumford uses throughout the volumes to refer to a socio-technic system for transforming the world. More specifically, D&G appear to draw their concept of the war machine from the machine in Mumford's title. For Mumford the machine is the model for the modern power complex that strives to centrally manage society as if it were a mechanical device. That is, the machine cum war machine is an assemblage for channeling living energy. For Mumford, the machine is too rigid to contain living, creative energy and is thus prone to breakdowns that open opportunities for revitalization and renewal. These openings, of course, are D&G's lines of flight.

There are also strong parallels between the history Mumford offers and that of D&G. Both parties argue that the modern state was created by hunting tribes dominating pastoral cultivators. And both highlight the role of metallurgy. I understand that D&G got many ideas from Pierre Clastres, but he is next on my reading list, so I do not want to push this potential influence further at this time.

Most striking to me now, however, is Mumford's final chapter on materialization and etherialization. These concepts parallel D&G's territorialization and deterritorialization. Materialization, like territorialization, refers the process by which pre-linguistic ideas gradually take on material form; and etherialization refers to the opposite process by which material form crumbles over time until it is hidden in our language and thought, like long lost etymologies. For these three authors, these two processes are always interacting and shaping each other in a nondirectional evolutionary process. They are also profoundly human and subject to human determination.

All these parallels suggest to me that D&G drew many ideas from Mumford. It may have been that this way of understanding the world was materializing all over and both parties simply followed the same natural course. Regardless, I believe I will have to dig deeper into history. Not to determine who influenced whom, but to read Patrick Geddes's work. Mumford consistently contributes his most fundamental understandings to his advisor, Geddes. So, if Mumford influenced D&G, then Geddes was an indirect influence. If the Mumford and D&G only moved along parallel paths, Geddes's writing should still offer a productive framework for considering D&G's writing. It doesn't hurt, of course, that I am an urban planner and Geddes was one of the most influential early planners.

Lions and robins

17 July 2017

I went over the student evaluations of my classes today. For the most part, The comments were quite positive, and I'm grateful that so many students genuinely seem to appreciate my teaching. It may sound trite, but it is one of the rewards of the job. There are always a surprising number of students who ask for more structure to the lectures and for the presentation slides or notes to be made available. It was especially prevalent in the new graduate class on international development and cooperation I taught this semester. And I have to admit that sometimes my lectures could use a bit more organization. But I don't feel that they are that bad overall, especially in the graduate class. They were challenging and sometimes rushed, but I thought they were fairly well processed.

And that got me thinking. I think some students want me to do all the information processing for them, while I see myself more as a guide to the students own learning. While some students want me to be a robin, I see myself as a lion. When robins hatch, the parents forage for food, fly back to the nest, and regurgitate the partially digested food into the gawping mouths of the chicks. Some students are like those chicks. They want easily digestible, already broken down ideas and knowledge. I, however, want my students to learn how to break down ideas and knowledge for themselves and build their own idiosyncratic understanding of how our world works. Like the mother lion, I see my job as wounding the prey, bringing it to my cubs, and giving them the opportunity to kill it for themselves so that they can later hunt on their own.

Of course, I am aware that robins also hunt once they leave the nest. The distinction is more one of species than right or wrong. But if you want to take my class, be a lion, not a robin.

Houses and happiness

10 July 2017

Today, finally, someone bought the apartment we are renting and saved us from months of rent on an empty apartment.

Love and bosses

19 May 2017

For the last week my youngest daughter has been trying to get her mother to say that she loves her more than her older sister. She would get very upset when my wife refused to say that she loved one more than the other. It was quite confusing for us until last night. I was trying to explain to her how love is a non-rival good (through obviously in different terms) and that her mother's love for her older sister did not diminish her love for the younger one. She refused to believe me. In the midst of her tears, my daughter told that there was only so much love to go around and that her mother's love for her older sister meant that she did not love her as much. Her source? Boss Baby. The whole premise is that there is only so much love in the world and the dogs are stealing it from the babies. She totally absorbed that and applied it as a theoretical framework to understand her world. Amazing!

Theses and feces

12 March 2017

This Thursday at 5pm somewhere in the International Studies Hall I will explain to all comers how to ensure that your theses are not feces. Over about an hour and a half I will explain what makes a good thesis question, how to structure your thesis, how to avoid plagiarism, and what tools you can use to be more efficient.

You can look ahead (or behind) for my suggestions and a copy of my presentation by visiting this page. Note that I hope to update it over the next couple of days, but the substance will be essentially identical.

Peace and preparation

25 February 2017

Just watched 150 of our students graduate. Congratulations! It's always a pleasure to watch the happy and well deserved smiles that indicate the passage from one phase of life to the next. Good luck to all of you.

And it also marks a small transition for me. My chaotic winter is over and the new chaotic semester is about to begin. But before it does I have two days of solitude to reflect on the winter and re-energize for the spring. Before I came back from the Campus Asia kick-off symposium in Kobe, my wife and daughters ran off to Okinawa for a few days (that will turn out to be much less warm than they were hoping!). Though I have to get some work done (so that I can have time when the family returns), at least I will have a bit of mental space to settle...and will increase this space by going for my now annual hike tomorrow morning.

At any rate, I think I am beginning to look forward to the new semester and the excitement it will bring. I have been reading some very interesting books for my development and globalization classes. And I hope they will provoke engaging discussions. In particular, at the moment I am reading Karl Mannheim's Man and Society in the Age of Reconstruction. It keeps offering observations about mid-20th century society that aptly capture contemporary uncertainty and reconstruction. Hopefully much of my time tomorrow will be spent reading more.

Tanzania and Cambodia

10 February 2017

I am primarily just writing a note to update things since it has been so long. Since I last wrote, Trump has assumed power, protests have erupted, and Park, Guenhye's impeachment process is getting unnecessarily dragged out (presumably seeking victory through attrition).

This winter was supposed to be a quiet one with a focus on writing papers. Instead it has turned into another whirlwind world tour. I spent a week in Hanoi conducting interviews and site visits to understand the market for apartments there. It was phenomenally productive and I still have to sit down to sort out what we have learned. My RAs were amazing at organizing our meetings and focus groups. We met a number of professors from NUCE who taught us a great deal about Hanoi's urban development (though it was surely rudimentary to them!).

One of the tidbits they taught us was that Hanoi's urban planning has always been tied to humans' relation to water, specifically the Red River. Interestingly, I just returned from a GPAS/KOICA sponsored study trip to Cambodia where we learned that the story of Angkor Wat is also a story where water plays the central role. So there may be something about SE Asia and people's relationship to water that lies at the core of spatial planning.

In Cambodia I was the senior faculty member and therefore in charge of our team's formal exchanges with Cambodian representatives. For me, this was a major learning experience and fortunately I was able to draw on what I learned by watching one of my former colleagues on a trip to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Because it was just the two of us, I watched carefully how he connected (or not) with the other parties we encountered.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I have taken from the last couple of weeks is that the world is full of endless possibilities. I may have lost some of this sense over the last few years of having kids and getting stable. In fact, it may be the very achievement of a degree of stability that has allowed me to recognize again the excitement of the world's abundance. Of course, having access to money is key to realizing many of the possibilities, but I have renewed faith that one can make things happen if one wants. Through the conversations I have had new ideas and potential projects have bubbled up and over. The move now is to choose which to act upon and realize.

Thieves and honest men

24 November 2016

This morning I read in Capital that there is an old English proverb that is often reduced to: "When thieves fall out, honest men come by their own." Marx uses it to describe the truth about the economy and labor that emerged in the early 1800s as the aristocracy and industrialists argued amongst themselves about who exploited the common person more. I wonder if this is what is happening in Korea today.

Cosmin Visan and participatory budgeting

10 November 2016

Congratulations goes out to Cosmin Visan, who today successfully defended his PhD dissertation and passed with flying colors. His dissertation, A Simulacrum of Participatory Democracy PB in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, builds on research conducted over a year in Cluj to show how local elites were able to capture a participatory budgeting initiative to provide legitimation for their own interests. Cosmin is my first doctoral student. I hope subsequent students produce equally high quality work. Here is the abstract:

In 2013, in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, a Participatory Budgeting pilot failed as a result of elite co-optation and sabotage. This was a civil society effort at deepening democracy by introducing a form of participatory democracy in the second largest city in Romania.

This study asks the question, "Can civil society deepen democracy at the municipal level?" The focus is on the city of Cluj-Napoca, in Romania and the concept of deepening democracy is operationalized as the pilot Particpatory Budget that occurred in 2013 in the district of Manastur.

The study argues that, even though the enabling conditions for success were met, the pilot PB failed because the Mayor’s Office was only willing to implement a Simulacra PB—a version they could control. They did not want to share power with the citizens, and saw PB as a consultation effort that could improve efficiency and help build party power in the district. In order to prevail, they steered the conclusions of the working group toward their ends, blocked the demands for a dedicated sum in the budget, ensured there would be no independent executive board, and applied a Latourian classification strategy in order to steer citizen demands in the direction they desired. Civil society participants could not overcome the Mayor’s Office designs for sabotage and co-optation.

The case study is embedded in a theoretical framework that provides a model according to which genuine efforts at democratization will be structurally opposed by elites in a representative democracy. This has implications for other instances where civil society advocates deeper democratization—a regime change from representative democracy to participatory paradigms. The theoretical model used in this instance proposes that elite resistance to change is a defining feature of representative systems. Given this, civil society participants need to organize better, and to share their experiences of sabotage and co-optation through international diffusion networks, in order to counteract complex games of elite manipulation.

Trump and America

9 November 2016


UPDATE: Here is Peter Marcuse's take on the situation, one that is harmonious with my own.

Explaining the election:

  1. A critical shift in the organization of the economy post 1968, from industrial to hi-tech capitalism.
  2. Leaving many dependent on the old economy hurt and at a loss, largely the white working class, hold-over racism and sexism accentuated as scapegoats. (foreclosures, evictions, bankrupcies, struggling suburban homeowners – not the really poor, homeless)
  3. They reacted with anxiety and an emotional attachment to the past Deep Story (their traditional identity?).
  4. They blamed, quite rightly, “the” establishment, although not clear as to its membership, pushed by media etc. to blame "government" (social media, TV, not press?)
  5. Trump as politician picked up on this, despite his own membership in the new establishment (motivation? pathological egotism? Business).
  6. The anxious white ex-working class built up a deep story, a vision, abetted by Trump and the media that was heavily emotional (shaping identities?)
  7. That story, built on real anxiety-inducing experience, mis-interpreted history, and built a psychological/ideological barrier that facts and reason could not penetrate (high school or less education?).
  8. Trump offered the charismatic fairy tale leader, believe me, trust me, not them, they have failed you (over 30 years? Since Reagan? since Johnson?)
  9. Hillary offered no vision that addressed the grounded anxiety (health care costs? Real unemployment levels?).
  10. But Trump’s allegiance as a businessman is and always was to the new elite establishment, and he will unify the Republican Party around it. The holdouts will be those with a personal repugnance to Trump’s personal behavior, which they will swallow. (social circles, clienteles, customers, tenants?)

Mining and me

15 October 2016

I forgot that I should self-promote. An article I wrote with one of my current PhD students, Alexander Constantine Lupilya, has just come out in the Journal of International Development. Entitled ‘You have hands, make use of them!’ Child labour in Artisanal and Small-scale Mining in Tanzania, it looks at the socio-economic drivers of child labor in artisanal and small-scale mining in Tanzania. Here is the abstract:

This paper examines child labour in artisanal mining through ethnographic research in Tanzania. The poverty hypothesis argues that households send children to work to bolster household income. The sociocultural approach suggests that child mining offers valuable vocational training. This paper builds on a growing literature that complicates these approaches' straightforward claims by illustrating how household fragmentation is generated through the encounter of traditional cultural practices with mining's culture of consumption. This encounter exacerbates household fragmentation, which in turn increases child poverty and labour. These findings suggest that policy interventions should also address these mediating factors rather than poverty per se.

Marx and planetary urbanism

12 October 2016

This semester I taught that part of Lefebvre's Urban Revolution that introduces the emergence of the urban society as the urban incorporates the rural, as the town consumes the country. Additionally, in preparation for my ACSP paper, I have been reading the debate over planetary urbanism, in particular Richard Walker's response to Brenner and Schmid in City (19: 2-3). In his response, Walker argues that Brenner and Schmid have an unclear notion of the "urban" and often conflate it with capitalism in general. He argues that this all-inclusive treatment of the urban eviscerates the word of any tractable meaning. Instead, we should continue to use both concepts in a dialectical fashion. It is not enough, Walker says, to say that the urban is incorporating the rural; rather, we must also consider ways in which the rural is incorporating the urban. I think he has in mind urban gardening, rural-urban migrants, perhaps fashion choices, and so on.

This dialectical relationship seems to make sense, and my recent trip to Ethiopia suggests as much. Here is a picture of a sheep market on the edge of Addis Ababa. Farmers, I presume, bring their herd to this roadside in the hope that a butcher will purchase them.

Sheep market in Addis Ababa

But what has prompted me to write is a chance encounter with Marx and cities as I was reading Zerzan's Twilight of the Machines. He includes a quote from the Grundrisse (p. 479): "the modern [age] is the urbanization of the countryside, not ruralization of the city as in antiquity." Though I have yet to read the material preceding the quote, this is almost certainly one source of Lefebvre's inspiration for the urban society notion. The question Walker would then have to pose is whether Marx is letting go of the dialectical relation in this quote or if Lefebvre, Brenner, and Schmid have pushed Marx's concept beyond dialectics. And then I suppose one would have to ask if letting go of that dialectical framework is useful or not.

I don't think so.

Guns and love

7 October 2016

My trip to Ethiopia under KOICA's auspices is coming to a close...and a wonderfully fulfilling one at that. Thanks to Prof. Lee, Jin-Sang's extensive experience and consequent network in Ethiopia, other professors and I enjoyed dinner in the home of Ethiopia's Speaker of the House of People's Representatives, Abadula Gemeda. For me it was an incredible learning opportunity. Here is a man who started his adulthood fighting against the Derg in the bush with Meles in a Marxist-Leninist parth, rose to the head of the Ethiopian military, and is now Speaker in an actively capitalist government.

He shared a few bits of wisdom. The first was that if you can run a military, you can run any machine. The logic was that decisions in the military concern the most precious thing, life. He is certainly responsible for the loss of life, but he genuinely appears to care. I cannot imagine that he took decisions lightly. The second tidbit reinforces this thought. He said that the only way to win a war is with love. He argued that an army can't win by destroying the enemy (or at least trying). That only creates new enemies. The only way to win is to love the enemy. Give them water and food when they are captured. Talk to them. Teach them. Turn them into friends that you can live with. Further to this is that you cannot understand yourself without understanding why your enemy sees you as an enemy.

The last perhaps was that one must take every opportunity to live life. That is why he volunteers on the weekend. That is why he has adopted several children (despite being 60!).That is surely why he invited us over to dinner. And I'd like to think that is why I went.