Marc Abeles is a brilliant writer. He suggests, in the linked essay, that a politics of survival is emerging where “what matters…is to attain harmony between humans and their future” — a problem that is much more difficult to address than a question of which economic or political system to struggle for. He asks, “how do individuals exercise agency” when a politics of survival is pressed upon people by “natural or man-made catastrophes”?

Not just the specter of catastrophe in the future, but also refugee communities, narco-warzones, ruined ecosystems — Lake Victoria.

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Abeles’ essay “Foucault and Political Anthropology” is directed toward ethnographers. He suggests that Foucault’s “blind empiricist” is a good mindset for the researcher to take — “the researcher who proceeds by trial and error and tries to make their own tools without paying much attention to their discipline.” (p 67 International Social Science Journal vol 59 issue 191)

When it comes to problematizing a situation like Lake Victoria, though, I’m not so sure that the image of Foucault — the lone subversive archeologist — as blind empiricist is sufficient for our human future. Actually, I’m not sure that a global tribe of blind empiricists — each finding their own tools for the job — would do the trick either. To me that seems to imply a free-market approach to problem solving via curiosity-driven research. When it comes to certain wicked problems that seem to be obstacles to attaining a harmony between humans and their future, we need certain kinds of blind empiricism and not others — a blind empiricism of blind empiricism conducted in groups.

Arnim Wiek, a sustainability scholar at Arizona State University, writes so beautifully about this problem. For Arnim, disciplinary boundaries need to be problematized, as do boundaries between sectors, cultures, ecologies, and just about all else. What he calls Transformational Sustainability Research combines, I think, the best of Foucault’s blind empiricism with a pragmatic realization that developing, evaluating, and implementing solution options — the intended outcome of a problematization — is one of the hardest things humans have ever had to do. Our universities are only weakly equipped, as are nation-states, international institutions, NGOs, publics North and South, et al. The wickedness of the complexity refers to a mismatch between the problem and the present institutional capacity to solve the problem.

To make the matter of attaining a harmony between humans and their future more involved, consider the discussion about transhumanism in the academy. Most academics find fault with determinist accounts of a disembodied future — too extreme a view for them, not enough ethics and agency, too many poor people left behind, and so much uncertainty! The Unabomber’s back-to-nature platform fairs no better in academia — too extreme, but useful to instigate thoughtful conversation. There is a great deal of “blind empiricism” , “audacity and imagination” happening in between the extremes, but also at these extremes.

Somehow, though, the literature I’ve come across that addresses transhumanist themes doesn’t lay bare “what deep shit we’re in”, to use Zizek’s phrase. The techno-determinists think super-intelligent machines will solve the Lake Victoria problem without lifting a finger — even while placidly napping. The academic might recoil with a trope expressed by David Collingridge in 1980: these are not just technical problems, they are human problems. What makes the techno-determinist think that intelligent machines will solve those problems? The techno-determinist often gives the impression that the exponential growth of processing power and nuanced knowledge spontaneously obliterates the blockages in the pipes of civilization.

“Attaining harmony between humans and their future” captures very nicely the major emerging plight of our time — in this I agree with Marc Abeles. However, I disagree with the suggestion that, among ethnographers, the blind empiricist is the aesthetic ideal in this fucked up situation.

*Thanks to Kelly Kroehle for linking me to Aster Aweke’s music.

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