Noddings and Sahlins

17 May 2018

In the midst of a middle of the night read, I was struck by a curious parallel between the moral positions presented by Nel Noddings in her work on caring and Marshall Sahlins on reciprocity in primitive society.

Nel Noddings strove to counter a masculine notion of abstract ethics based primarily on reason with a feminine notion of materialist ethics based primarily on emotion. She critiqued the view that ethics was at its most sublime when the basis for decision making was each individual's abstracted value. The result is that one should apply the same rational ethic principles and standards to one's immediate family as to those across the world. (Kant?) As the example shows, this leads to emotionally contradictory behavior. Rather, Noddings argues for a situated ethics based on caring in which one should make ethical decisions contingent upon how emotionally close a person is to you. That is, one should certainly favor one's daughter's well being over that of a stranger in a strange land. Because one cares for those closest to them (socially and emotionally), ethics should prioritize those close to the individual making the decision. Therefore, as (social) distance increases, one's ethical obligation to others decreases.

This is precisely the way Sahlins describes the ethics of reciprocity in primitive societies. Generalized reciprocity, in which resources are pooled and redistributed without demand for repayment (Mauss' gift), is morally correct for those in your household. As one moves further out along kinship and tribal lines, the moral impulsion to give weakens and moves toward balanced reciprocity, in which explicit expectations of equitable exchange prevails. As social distance increases and one deals entirely with strangers, it is often morally permissible--and sometimes even lauded--to cheat them in trade or even to outright steal from them, like Navajo horse raids. This he calls negative reciprocity. So, like Noddings' ethics of caring, primitive societies embrace stronger ethical commitments to those closest to them, and these commitments wane as social distance increases.

What makes this more interesting to me is a comment that Sahlins throws out that modern, industrial economies rely much more on balanced reciprocity to function effectively. The import, I believe, is that the mode of production drives ethics (economic structure drives the superstructure). The primitive society is a segmentary one of significant autonomy at the household (of kinship group) scale. There is little to no interdependence on individuals socially distant. The individual is primarily (more) dependent on those immediately around them. However, as the mode of production moves toward specialization and mass production, the level of interdependence increases, and moral standards of exchange shift strongly toward balanced reciprocity.

Sahlins has not (yet) spoken of how social distance and anonymity in modern economies simultaneously fosters negative reciprocity (caveat emptor). But it is clear that a change in the mode of production entails a change in the ethics of reciprocity. The fourth industrial revolution or sustainability entail the transformation of moral obligations. The question is one of causality. Can moral change can lead economic change? Or does economic change lead moral change?

Clastres and Sahlins

10 May 2018

I have recently finished reading Pierre Clastres' Society Against the State and am in the midst of reading Marshall Sahlins' Stone Age Economics. Clastre's book famously influenced Deleuze and Guattari, while Sahlin's book influenced Clastres and the whole post-development literature.

Clastres' book develops a political anthropology of so-called primitive societies, in which he draws on his knowledge of indigenous American peoples to argue that they are organized (almost rhizomatically) into small groups that are designed to limit the exercise of power of leaders over others. He concludes that states must be forced on society and should be considered an external force of expropriation that is fundamentally based on uneven power relations. Presumably this is the origin of Deleuze and Guattari's "Ur state".

Sahlins' book, on the other hand, develops an economic anthropology based in a Marxist reading of political superstructures reflecting economic foundations. He posits the notion of a domestic mode of production (DMP), in which the household (broadly conceived) is the fundamental unit of production and distribution. There is much here of relevance for development theory. Three elements stand out for me at the moment. First, the contradictory Western colonial views of so-called primitive peoples as, on one hand, living harsh lives that require them to work ceaselessly to just barely survive the day and, on the other hand, as being inherently lazy. The first view is one used to justify colonization as a bringer of civilization and wealth, while the second view is used to justify the use of force to compel indigenous people to work (as effective slaves). This is a clear ideological contradiction that I hadn't really considered before. And it is one that immediately suggests the underlying political economic goals of colonization. Sahlins' solution to this contradiction--and the second notion of interest--is to empirically show that indigenous societies are the "original affluent societies" (drawing on John Kenneth Galbraith's famous notion). He demonstrates that in those very societies that Westerners tend to see as incurably impoverished and technologically backward are actually so efficient in procuring sustenance and supplied from their environment that they only work four to five hours a day on average. That is, they do not live lives of bare subsistence. And in this way, they are better off than many proletarian workers in the early industrial revolution. Heck, they may even be better off than many of us with our eighty hour work weeks. At any rate, this observation also addresses the view that indigenous workers are lazy and prone to run away after earning some money: this is the only thing they have to do to survive on their own. People are accustomed to working until near term stocks are replenished and then relaxing to enjoy themselves. Because they can. The third item of interest is that primitive peoples (often nomadic) lifestyles do not support or require high levels of accumulation since their environmental so abundantly provides for their needs, and therefore accumulation is not a societal value. The Western capitalist mode of production, however, is fundamentally based on the believe that no level of accumulation is sufficient. While the domestic mode of production naturally imposes limits on accumulation, e.g., how much one can carry, accumulation under the capitalist mode of production is theoretically infinite. The indigenous approach has proved sustainable; the latter has not.

When we put these two books together, two points immediately pop out. First, "development" and the "civilizing mission" rely on the external imposition of statehood. That is, the colonial powers had to literally force states upon indigenous peoples who wanted no such thing. To the extent that development is based on introducing economic and political capitalist relations, it is thus rooted in unequal power. Second, these books taken together imply that to achieve sustainability, we must not only find a replacement for accumulation but also reduce power imbalances in society.

I don't know if this is possible, of course. For another unexplored aspect of both books is the notion of population density and political structure. The affluent and equal society in both cases appears to depend to a great degree on low population densities, including the possibility of rhizomatic meiosis to reduce population densities. Both authors, however, leave open the question of political transformation as population density increases. This surely lies at the base of differences between anarchist and socialist concepts of appropriate political structures (cf. the debate between Bookchin and Harvey over the role of cities). Or perhaps this is a difference between the domestic and industrial modes of production?

Things done and undone

12 April 2018

What have I accomplished so far during my sabbatical? My previous post about finishing Marx's Capital has engendered a moment of reflection on my achievements during my sabbatical to date. The thoughts are amplified---as they always are---by the sense of impending endings. Though I have more than four months before I return to Korea, other endings lurk near. In about six weeks I will have to move off the island and resettle in my parents' house. During those weeks I will have to prepare my final report for research project, explaining what has and has not gone according to plan. Soon after, we plan to travel for a month, which is a new beginning but also a probably end to my scholarly work. All these closings demand a sort of reckoning. Why it has to be public, I don't know, but here it is.

Over the greater part of the last year, here is what I can say I have done.

  • Lived on a lovely island (despite the undertone of jealousy for others' wealth and good fortune and infrastructure challenges)
  • Stayed quite fit
  • Bicycled regularly in beautiful surroundings (something difficult to do in Seoul)
  • Chaperoned a number of my daughters' school field trips (unlikely in Seoul)
  • Helped my daughters with their science projects (a volcano and a water rocket)
  • Spent a lot of time with my family (also difficult in Seoul)
  • Begun to get my daughters outdoors
  • Taken the family to DC
  • Started gardening at my parents' place
  • Plan to take the family across country car camping
  • Managed my uncle's transition to a nursing home (including cleaning out and selling his house)
  • Written two and a half papers
    • Fragmented states and pragmatic improvements: Susan S. Fainstein's contributions to planning theory, an introduction to Susan's theory (forthcoming under AESOP)
    • Austerity in reverse, now in the midst of minor revisions
    • Transnational gentrification as imperial process, which is half written
  • Attended four conferences
    • RC43 in Leeds
    • ACSP in Denver
    • AAS in Washington DC
    • UAA in Toronto
  • Read some good books
    • Marx's Capital
    • Mumford's Pentagon of Power
    • Lees et al. Planetary Gentrification
    • Beauregard's Cities in the Urban Age: A Dissent
    • Thant Myint-U's River of Lost Footsteps
    • Pierre Clastres' Society Against the State (May)
    • Marshall Sahlins' Stone Age Economics (May)
  • Read a large number of articles
  • Read some novels (mainly classics of worker exploitation)
    • Dickens' Hard Times
    • Dickens' Tale of Two Cities
    • Upton Sinclair's The Jungle
    • John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men
    • John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath
    • China Mieville's The City & the City (May)
  • Rooted my old phone and tablet

Of course, there are many things I wanted to do and have left undone.

  • Write three or four more papers
    • Built Out
    • Contemporary Concessions
    • Quick quant paper comparing Vietnamese and Korean attitudes to high rise housing
    • Two or three other co-authored papers awaiting a few days of work from me :(
  • Read a gazillion more books (I shipped a whole box of books and have read practically none of them.)
  • Lay the basis for a new stage of research, which depended on reading many of the books as mentioned above
  • Read a large number of articles
  • Create graphs and tables to use for my Introduction to Development and Cooperation class
  • Cook lots of Indian food
  • Learn how to make and control robots with a Raspberry Pi

Heather Campbell (formerly Sheffield, now UBC) told me that if you accomplished half of what you planned, you have been successful. Not sure if I have been successful (academically), but I am close and I've done pretty good on the family front.

Also, I have to remember that when I return to Korea, I will be alone for four months and can live the monastic scholar's life. Of course, I won't get everything done then either!

Two years and three volumes

10 April 2018

Today I have completed a project. Over the last two years I have been reading all three volumes of Marx's Capital a few pages a day. I finished the last of more than 2,500 pages this afternoon. Time to break out the IPA.

Of course, there is Bernstein's Volume 4 and the Grundrisse that I could still read...and hopefully will eventually do so. But I have finished those volumes of Capital written primarily by Marx. And that is no small feat. So I will ignore the existence of an endless list of follow up readings and simply celebrate my accomplishment. This achievement is all the sweeter for coming just before Marx's 200th birthday on May 5th.

David Harvey once said that anyone who finishes reading Capital wants to write a book about it. I guess I'd better start.

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.