I am taking your lead here. There is a reason I never wrote fiction.
I really like this concept. Especially because Witness is under no obligation to reproduce the model of the university as is common today. We already have different epistemic traditions: the master-journeyman-apprentice process of the Assembly, the more orthodox advancement within the Covernant, and Libria will probably do some heavy wisdom-of-the-crowds stuff combined with knowledge gained by belonging to social or corporate constructs. Groups like the Plurality University https://www.plurality-university.org/ also come to mind.
My question is: are we limiting ourselves by positioning our thought as a reaction to universities?
+1. I am a fan. A few questions to nudge some more detail out of this:
- Who or what maintains this structure? A structure this codified implies someone or something exists to enforce it. Is this a monolith, or should it be fragmented, with people using different approaches to achieve the collective understanding we’re trying to get to?
- How did this structure come to be in Witness? Foucualt argued that the study of philosophy must begin through a close and ongoing study of history. I’d like to deviate and flip it: is there a study that arrives formless, even into a fictional world, bereft of a history?
How about a Hitchhiker’s-style field guide? A sort of hodgepodge of histories, guidance/wisdom, and myths/cautionary tales about aethnographers past?
And if I get involved i’m writing a Zoe Todd / Audra Simpson style fugitive aethnographer history, with Mbembe necropolitics and afrofuturism at its core
see relatedly UncommonFutures_HassounValentine.pdf (323.7 KB)
I was thinking a simple outcrop of academic life, plus UN involvement. Imagine someone like Giulio Quaggiotto, running a journal on top of arX.iv (as people do now) that becomes prestigious on the basis of extreme epistemic agility and tangible results on the field; and then rotating scholars from academia to the field on a regular basis. This prompts unis to pay attention (research funds!) and start interdisciplinary institutes (rather than departments). UN-World Bank style field deployment meshes well with anthro culture of field work, and practitioners develop a subculture – much like economists now can rotate between finance, government and academia, think Larry Summers, and they end up being different from pure academics doing, say, sociology.
The lore (the name “aethnography”, the mock-rivalry between theors, augurs and incanters, the martial art – upcoming!, the tradition of calling “hirschman” the heads of the institutes, as in “I am supporting Mia Hassoun in the election for the next hisrchman”) are a consequence of that. It’s a bit like the 16th century distinction between savants in general and alchemists proper: there was no “alchemy central” to give the line, it is more that the Campanellas, the Bacons etc. adopted a common set of attributes and sources, and eventually “speciated” from savants as such.
Yes please! An afrofuturist distrikt minor, borrowing from Matonge, would be a hit.
Oh hell yes.
We even have a potential seed in The Covenant which you can use or discard to start afresh:
Almost everything we know about the inner workings of the Covenant come from the works of the poet-economist Cottica. Using a pseudonym to evade the attention of censors, Cottica published a viral poem known as Tibi Deo de Purgatorio , chronicling a trip through a supposed high-fantasy world inhabited by celestial and demonic beings. Further analysis revealed a cipher in the opening stanzas that turns the names of the angels and demons within into their respective offices, and place names turn into laws and deeds; thus their grandiose, introspective statements becoming both a history of decisions made within the Covenant as well as a declaration of their political power.
Imagine her sitting by the docks, seaside, by the light of a dying sun, with a fat and angry-looking orange cat next to her. She has grey hair and a left hand that looks badly scarred. For the last so many years she’s been advising the Migrant Train Committee on the yearly train-route optimization, which at its basic level is a variant of the Traveling Salesman Problem with some political tension thrown in. I know because I serve on the same committee.
Today she has proposed a new idea: using the number of connected districts - and the radius of the train-circle -as a measure of how diverse this floating megacity is. But we both wonder whether size is a reliable indicator of diversity, given recent events; distrikts have seceded in the past, and she is deep in thought about whether there is an optimal arrangement of distrikts that enables even the most polarized of them to connect to the superstructure without fighting too much.
Every so often she looks up as the train passes by and pets the cat absent-mindedly.
The cat, of course, does not care.
- Anagram Dias, aethnographer, The Assembly
I think that fits the nature of what we’re trying to create the best. Not too dissimilar from what we go through as fiction authors, then! Various gleanings from authors retrospectively analyzing their own careers: from critics and tastemakers: from the occasional literary agent proclaiming their theory of why something works as if that is the word of God. Terms like “worldbuilding” and “iceberg theory” shift laterally among groups of peers, who take and discard theories and structures as they find useful.
We could therefore pair a Hitchiker’s-like guide with a few workshops throughout Witness that each teach different ways of approaching knowledge. What do you think?
Love this idea!
Wait, how would this work? Have opened a portal to somewhere dangerous yet?
Reading the Room (REDR)
Reading the Room, usually abbreviated in REDR (pronounced “redder”), is a martial art based on situational awareness, strategy and hand-to-hand combat. It developed as an exercise for undergraduate aethnographers, with most aethnography establishment offering courses in it.
The principle of REDR is to train the practitioner to act in the presence of severely incomplete information (“unknown unknowns”). Matches are fought not in dojos, but anywhere: parking lots, public parks, underside of bridges, private homes. Venues are revealed to fighters at the last minute, so they have no time to scope them. Additionally, fighters never know how many other fighters are in the match before the match has started. Good REDR fighters are supposedly good at incanting.
A match lasts ten minutes, after which referees award fighters a score from 2 to 128 points. The fighter with the highest score is awared victory. In tribute to the pluriversity principle, referees of REDR have no fixed criterion to attribute points. At the end of each match, referees have to produce a written statement justifying their scoring of each fighter. This trains referees to produce accountable decisions in the presence of epistemic fluidity. Good REDR referees are supposedly good at auguring.
Any non-physically harmful move is allowed in REDR, including refusing to fight. Sean Tanugraha once persuaded all fighters in a match to imprison the referees in the hirschman’s office, refusing to let them go until they awarded every fighter the maximum number of points. The referees were so impressed by his ability to mobilize cooperation that they recommended Tanugraha, then still an undergraduate, for teaching a course in Incanting 101.
The Pluriversity Project
The Pluriversity Project was a pre-Sundering initiative to improve the cooperation between academics from various disciplines and political, business and civil society leaders. It played an important role in the emergence of aethnography in social sciences.
The Pluriversity Project started as an initiative by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Wishing to promote a tighter integration between academia and the practice of government – economic development above all – UNDP did two main things.
The first was to start a journal, New Approaches, dedicated to “tangible results on the field”, obtained on the basis of “extreme epistemic agility”. The idea was to offer an outlet to the production of knowledge from field activities, like policy making and evaluation, that, being close to an inherently messy reality, do not fit elegantly into academic silos, and are therefore hard to publish. UNDP thought this was keeping some academics from engaging with development work, at a time where donors and practitioners were both frustrated for that work’s lack of impact. UNDP stroke a partnership with the most established academic publishers, persuaded some very high-profile academics to join New Approaches’s editorial committee, ensuring that its impact factor raises quickly.
The second thing was to launch an extensive programme of grants, open to everyone but tailored to cross-disciplinary academics. These grants paired grantees with field interventions, as planned by UNDP partners, initially mostly national governments of developing countries. The grants covered the field work itself, but also the process of reflecting upon it, typically in the form of one or more academic publication on New Approaches or other journals.
Some spectacular early successes provided a lucky break for Pluriversity. Soon, the most important private donors asked UNDP to join in the programme; other international organizations (the [African Union](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Bank#World_Bank_Group, the World Bank Group and especially the European Union, the world’s largest donor at that time) followed suit.
The Pluriversity project appears to have been defunded well before Project Viking started- New Approaches is still being published in modern-day Witness. Its current publisher is the Graeber Institute.
Wow, I’m absolutely loving this!
And Alberto, Alberto! Your naming choices were on point, brother!
The part that hit me the hardest was the introduction of the incanters, the direct-action aethnographters! What a fascinating concept.
I’m here thrown into an imagination rabbit hole trying to imagine what sort of training these people have to properly execute this function: public speaking, rhetoric, a huge chunk of applied aethnography for sure — but I’m also seeing them leaning poetry, fashion, hair-styling, comedy!
Unbound by the slowness of academia, incanters can focus on what works: and if having white teeth is proven to help you in negotiations, even if minimally, they can embrace it without a second thought.
They’re probably the most charming, most center-of-the-party individuals — and different incanters would be deployed to the different parties they most fit in. And incanters can take pride on their side-skill (like dancing or being a chess master or a renowned chef) because they end up opening doors that facilitate the real work, which is changing society for the better applying the latest aethnographic research.
Just like their craft, they must be incredibly adaptable, improvisational even.
It’s a great vision for the future of activism — running away from a room full of long beaded man and towards the direction of golden tickets inviting you to secret parties where you find swimming pools of milk and performers spitting fire.
I like the domains of application as being fairly consistent across Distrikts, but I don’t think we should have one lineage of the discipline. Can this lineage be connected to each Distrikt instead, different for each (shared across some, if people prefer)? The Mauss/Geertz lineage is a highly specific lineage of anthro that a lot of people reject even today (including myself, frankly). I can’t imagine an afro-futuristic or afro-pessimistic aethnographer tracing their history back to Mauss or Geertz, or through a UNDP project. Scott and Graeber are cool for sure (both have been well-critiqued as well), but every person named in the Aethnography origins right now is a white man. For a discipline whose history is imbricated in the colonial project, it’s not what I’d imagine for my futuristic sci fi world! Talal Asad, for example, is someone who’d make a great “founder”, or Zora Neale Hurston. St. Clair Drake, Edward Said. Zoe Todd and Audra Simpson as indigenous aethnographers.
I’d happily contribute to writing the lineage for other Distrikts!
I love this! Perhaps the Cottica lineage describes the Covenant interpretation?
In fact, aethnography is already quite splintered across Distriks. @yudhanjaya made the questionable decision to name the Avantgridian flavor of aethnography after yours truly. I would be really interested to know @amelia - if a future society started using ethnography as a key element for keeping track of and understanding a decentralized governance model with almost complete autonomy, who would be the patron saints of that lineage?
Amelia - go for it! If needed, we can very easily modify the canon so that the Library of St. Benedict holds the collected archives of thought of all these thinkers (essentially an analogy for the Internet), so that we need not be limited.
Given the diversity of cultures within Witness, I think aethnography can and should have different lineages. Which is why I made Avantgrid’s flavor the energy-counters, given that that a) particular culture would inherently be thinking so much about energy needs in their daily lives and b) it is splintered from the mainland in terms of access, and so would have added incentive to evolve its own thing.
What I would suggest is that we first see if more roots can be added to this definition of aethnography, possibly clustered under schools of thought with some shared core. If they can, I can work that into the political history of each relevant state (I’m thinking of the Theravada-Mahayana splits in Buddhism here).
Tl;DR: do it! I will be happy to stand by and provide narrative support.