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Posts Tagged ‘anthropology

“Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before”*…

 

630px-Mnemosine

Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of Memory, c. 100

 

We think of memory as something internal—we remember with our minds (or, for the materialists among us, our brains). But human history is cluttered with attempts to externalize memory by encoding it onto objects and images. We have built models and systems to help us organize, keep track of, and recall information. These techniques are part of what the ancient Greeks called artificial memory. For the Greeks, natural memory encompassed those things a person happened to remember, and artificial memory consisted of recollections a person buttressed through preparation and effort. Artificial memory was a skill that could be learned and improved upon, one that had its own art: the ars memoriae, or art of memory.

The anthropologist Drew Walker reminds us that so-called mnemonic devices are not objects that stand alone but are instead “part of action.” These memory aids cannot fully store information the way writing does; they work only if you have already memorized the related material. Yet even as mere prompts or catalysts, they serve as crucial technologies for preserving and passing on histories, cultural practices, and learned wisdom.

Scholar Lynne Kelly argues that prehistoric and nonliterate cultures relied on memory technologies to preserve their oral traditions, a practice that continues to this day. Australian Aboriginal songlines record memory in short verses that are to be sung at particular places. Knowing the song helps you find your way across the territory—its melodies and rhythms describe the landscape—while its words tell the history of both the people and the land itself, describing, for example, which creator animal built that rocky outcrop or crevasse. Some songlines tell histories that trace back forty thousand years. Many are sacred and cannot be shared with outsiders. The Southern Australian Museum’s 2014 exhibit of the Ngiṉṯaka songline caused significant controversy because some Aṉangu felt the exhibit shared parts of the songline that were meant to be secret and that its curators had not sufficiently consulted with them. While songlines transform large expanses of land into a mnemonic device, other oral cultures have turned to smaller objects—calendar stones, ropes with knots in them, sticks marked with notches—to serve as tables of contents for important stories and information…

Jules Evans reviews mnemotechnics and the visualization of memory– the ways that we remember: “Summon Up Remembrance.”

See also “It’s a memory technique, a sort of mental map”*…

* Steven Wright

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As we stroll down memory lane, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that President Dwight D, Eisenhower made his farewell address on a national television broadcast.  Perhaps most famously, Eisenhower, the only general to be elected president in the 20th century, used the speech to warn the nation against the corrupting influence of what he described as the “military-industrial complex.”

But he also used the occasion to urge a long view of our America and its citizen’s responsibilities:

As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

250px-eisenhower_farewell source

 

“I think a strong claim can be made that the process of scientific discovery may be regarded as a form of art”*…

 

Science

ChaosInTheBrickyard_00c

ChaosInTheBrickyard_00d

 

Click through for neuroscientist (and accomplished comic artist) Matteo Farinella’s unpacking of a serious issue in the practice of modern science: “Scientific knowledge is drowning in a flood of research.”

* Ernest Rutherford (Nobel laureate and “father of nuclear physics”)

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As we honor abduction, we might spare a thought for a theorist supreme, Claude Lévi-Strauss; he died on this date in 2009.  An anthropologist and ethnologist whose work was key in the development of the theory of Structuralism and Structural Anthropology, he is considered, with James George Frazer and Franz Boas, the “father of modern anthropology.”  Beyond anthropology and sociology, his ideas– Structuralism has been defined as “the search for the underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity”– have influenced many fields in the humanities, including philosophy.

220px-Levi-strauss_260 source

 

 

“And then the water ran out, and they fell back, realizing too late that their prosperity was borrowed, and there would be no more coming”*…

 

lost city

Remnants of the ancient city of Cahokia, in what’s now southern Illinois

 

Not far from my grandmother’s house is a ghost city. At Angel Mounds on the Ohio river about eight miles southeast of Evansville, there are a few visible earthworks and a reconstructed wattle-and-daub barrier. There is almost nothing left of the people who build these mounds; in a final insulting erasure, the site is now named after the white settler family who most recently farmed the land.

There are traces of other dead villages along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, mounds scattered from present-day Indiana to Arkansas and Alabama. In southern Illinois, a few miles from the Missouri border, hidden among empty corn and soy fields, is the center of that dead civilization’s gravity: the lost city of Cahokia.

Cahokia was larger than London, centrally planned, the Manhattan of its day. Most people there would have come from somewhere else. There were defensive foundations, playing fields, and a magnificent temple. There would have been sacred ceremonies and salacious gossip. It must have been a very exciting place to live.

And then, relatively abruptly, it ceased to exist. We know of the city only because of the physical traces left behind. Few stories of Cahokia have survived; it disappeared from oral tradition, as if whatever happened to it is best forgotten. The archaeological record shows traces of the desperation and bloodshed that almost always accompany great upheavals: skeletons with bound hands, pits full of strangled young women.

The North American Drought Atlas, a historical record of climate conditions pieced together from the rings of old trees, provides a hint of what might have happened. The tenth century CE, when the Cahokia civilization would have developed, marked a distinct shift in the regional climate from persistent drought to rainier conditions more suitable for agriculture, centralization, and civilization.

But the good times were not to last…

Some people say “the climate has changed before,” as though that should be reassuring. It’s not: “Lost Cities and Climate Change.”

See also:  “A Quarter of Humanity Faces Looming Water Crises” and “What kind of climate change coverage do you read in the news? It depends on whether you live in a rich country or a poor one.”

* “Thanks to the centrifugal pump, places like Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas had thrown on the garments of fertility for a century, pretending to greenery and growth as they mined glacial water from ten-thousand-year-old aquifers. They’d played dress-up-in-green and pretended it could last forever. They’d pumped up the Ice Age and spread it across the land, and for a while they’d turned their dry lands lush. Cotton, wheat, corn, soybeans — vast green acreages, all because someone could get a pump going. Those places had dreamed of being different from what they were. They’d had aspirations. And then the water ran out, and they fell back, realizing too late that their prosperity was borrowed, and there would be no more coming.”
Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife (a powerful novel)

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As we face facts, we might recall that it was on this date in 1854 that Ticknor & Fields published transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau’s reflection on simple living in natural surroundings, Walden; or, Life in the Woods.

220px-Walden_Thoreau source

 

Written by LW

August 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Home’s where you go when you run out of homes”*…

 

home

 

When we imagine the homes of the future, we can’t just think about the technologies that could alter our domestic lives. We also need to think about the changing ways that people relate to their habitats.

For the past five years, Ikea has been on a mission to better understand people’s relationships with their homes by doing in-depth sociological studies of its consumers. The company publishes its finding in its annual Life at Home report, which began in 2014. Last year’s report involved visiting the houses and apartments of 22,000 people across 22 countries to better understand what everyday living looks like in today’s world.

What Ikea found was that our fundamental notions of home and family are experiencing a transformation. Plenty of demographic research suggests that major changes in where and how we live could be afoot: For instance, people who marry later may spend more years living with roommates. If couples delay having children—or choose to remain child-free—they may choose to live longer in smaller apartments. As people live longer, we might find more multigenerational homes, as parents, children, and grandchildren all cohabit under one roof.In addition to those demographic shifts, Ikea’s research uncovered something else: Many of the people in its large study were not particularly satisfied with their domestic life. For one thing, they’re increasingly struggling to feel a sense of home in the places they live; 29% of people surveyed around the world felt more at home in other places than the space where they live every day. A full 35% of people in cities felt this way.

Ikea surveyed 22,000 people in 22 countries, and came up with six visions for the future of our homes: “See Ikea’s 6 visions for how we’ll live in the future.”

* John le Carré, The Honourable Schoolboy

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As we settle in, we might send pointed birthday greeting to Nicolas-Jacques Conté; he was born on this date in 1755.  A painter, balloonist, and army officer, he is best remembered as the inventor of the modern pencil.  At a time when the French Republic was at that time under economic blockade and unable to import graphite from Great Britain, its main source of the material, Conté was asked by Lazare Nicolas Marguerite Carnot to create an alternative.  Conté mixed powdered graphite with clay and pressed the material between two half-cylinders of wood– forming the first the modern pencil. He received a patent for the invention in 1795, and formed la Société Conté to make them.  He also invented the conté crayon (named after him), a hard pastel stick used by artists.

220px-Nicolas-Jacques_Conté source

 

 

Written by LW

August 4, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that”*…

 

light switch

 

The inventor of the light switch, John Henry Holmes, was a Quaker, member of a doctrine generally united by a fundamental belief in the ability of each person to access “the light within”. The light switch, of course, enables each person to access the light without, and has been doing so, solidly, since 1884.

At least until the emergence of the voice- or presence-activated smart home version of lights, brave solution to an unspecified problem. Unlike contemporary design patterns, Holmes’s switch is a simple design that has lasted for centuries. Still, entering an old house, we brush our fingertips over the wall in the gloom, tracing spatial memories, caressing plaster or brick or wood before your hand brushes against an early plastic, or even Bakelite. The switch itself still tends to be firm, the ever-so-slight sensation of rolling as it moves to form a circuit, one of the most pleasingly robust ‘actions’ that an industrial designer could imagine.

It means the resilient light switch, like the door handle, reveals the accumulated touch of all those gone before, a patina of presence. Juhani Pallasmaa said that the doorhandle is the handshake of the building; is the light switch the equivalent for the room? It is the most universal of everyday objects…

If we always replace touch with voice activation, or simply by our presence entering a room, we are barely thinking or understanding, placing things out of mind. While data about those interactions exist, it is elsewhere, perceptible only to the eyes of the algorithm. We lose another element of our physicality, leaving no mark, literally. No sense of patina develops, except in invisible lines of code, datapoints feeding imperceptible learning systems of unknown provenance. As is often the case with unthinking smart systems, it is a highly individualising interface, revealing no trace of others…

From dark living rooms to dark ecology– a meditation on the humble, but crucial light switch: “Let there be light switches.”

* Dr. Martin Luther King

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As we shine on, we might recall that on this date in 1824 Beethoven’s Ninth (and final) Symphony, Chorale, premiered in Vienna, with “lyrics” by Frederich Schiller (part of his “Ode to Joy”); Beethoven’s chorus concludes:

Be embraced, ye millions!
This kiss for the whole world!
Brothers, beyond the star-canopy
Must a loving Father dwell.
Be embraced,
This kiss for the whole world!
Joy, beautiful spark of the gods,
Daughter of Elysium,
Joy, beautiful spark of the gods!

Facsimile of Beethoven’s manuscript for “The Ode to Joy”

 

Written by LW

May 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

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