EASA2014: Collaboration, Intimacy & Revolution


The post human: what is it good for? Anthropological perspectives

Location A-303
Date and Start Time 31 July, 2014 at 14:00


Markus Balkenhol (Meertens Instituut) email
Nina Grube (Freie Universität Berlin) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This panel discusses anthropological perspectives on the 'posthuman', both as an empirical phenomenon and as a scholarly concept.

Long Abstract

Revolutions in technology - whether medical, military, virtual, or biotechnical - have created a new presence: the posthuman. New bodies of work are emerging in philosophy or sociology, and new fields are taking shape around the posthuman, such as science and technology studies. Anthropologists, too, increasingly extend their investigations to include (interactions with) non-human actors. The science of 'man' thus broadens the focus on humanity or humankind as its traditional object of inquiry.

This trend raises new epistemological and methodological questions. In this panel, we therefore want to examine the uses the emerging field of the posthuman can be put to for anthropological inquiry. We invite presentations from various sub-fields of anthropology (e.g. medical anthropology, the anthropology of the body, environmental anthropology, or material culture studies), aiming to explore issues like humans and medicines, race and the posthuman, or the environment and the human. We welcome both ethnographic explorations of these issues, as well as more conceptual work on the posthuman.

Discussant: Martijn Oosterbaan

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Researching human-animal relations: from classic to multi-species ethnography

Author: Orit Hirsch-Matsioulas (Haifa University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper deals with the 'posthuman turn' and its methodological outcome, the multi-species ethnography. Focusing on ethnographic fieldwork on human-dog interactions in a Greek island, the paper will reflect on different anthropological methodologies used in the research.

Long Abstract

A dog is pacing in the street, behind the dog walks a man and between them a leash is stretched, connecting the human and the non-human into one shared unit. The Classic science of 'man' focuses on one end of the leash, investigating the human subject; Zoologists trace the other end of the leash, studying about dog's movements; the 'posthuman turn' challenges this dichotomy and enables to extend the anthropological research lens, by employing multi-species ethnography. This ethnography evokes new methodological questions, like: which data collection methods can be used in order to carry out this study? How visual anthropology technics can add to the findings on the animal's effect on humans' lives? Does anthropology, as zoology, provides researchers with tools to understand the animal's point of view? And is it the anthropologist's aim to reveal the animal's feelings and thoughts?

Based on my ethnographic fieldwork on human-dog interactions in a Greek island, I will reflect on different anthropological methodologies that were used. For example, I collected symbolic interpretations of dogs in the local media and recorded anthropomorphic descriptions of dogs that were brought up in interviews. However, tracing material interactions between different species demanded other methods as well. Hence, in a case of human caring for new born puppies, I documented sounds and sights of mutual modifications and non-verbal interactions.

By focusing on methodological issues, i wish to set down conceptual infrastructures, as well as to add to the epistemological discussion in Anthropology on the 'post-human turn'.

"They can sense the soul": stray dog euthanasia debates and the use of canine cosmologies in representations of social differentiation in Romania

Author: Lavrentia Karamaniola (University of Michigan)  email

Short Abstract

This paper addresses how human attitudes towards dogs, as well as canine behaviors towards humans, have become a way for understanding the inner qualities of fellow-citizens in Bucharest, Romania.

Long Abstract

My paper will discuss how everyday interactions and discussions about Bucharest's population of stray dogs have become a mode for representations of social differentiation in contemporary Romania. Usually resulting in the reinforcement of established stereotypes about animal-lovers, animal-haters, people with a good soul, or people without it, invocations of dog senses, and the canine way of being in the world are employed by different parties, such as the pro- and anti- dog euthanasia movements, in discussing whether a city filled with strays is 'civilized' or 'European.' Such talk signifies and produces new moralities through understandings of compassion, civic responsibility, and guilt. Analyzing ethnographic material from everyday, neighborhood-level interactions, but also from the recent debate on the massive euthanasia of strays that took place in Bucharest in September of 2013, after the incident of a 4-year-old boy being killed by a pack of stray dogs in one of the capital's parks, my paper will address how human attitudes towards dogs, as well as canine behaviors towards humans have become a way for understanding the inner qualities of fellow-citizens.

Production is exchange: a Maussian perspective on post-human economies

Author: Guido Sprenger (Heidelberg University)  email

Short Abstract

Looking at economies from a post-human perspective reveals that

production in many economies is not the exploitation of passive

resources, but exchange with non-human persons.

Long Abstract

The production of livelihood is commonly portrayed as a collaboration

of human beings in regard to non-human, passive resources. However,

recent debates on animism have revealed how a great diversity of

peoples considers processes of production as exchange with non-humans.

What seems to be exploitation of resources can thus be read as the

production of agentive beings through mutual collaboration. A major

means to do so is to entangle beings into exchanges as processes of

giving and receiving which articulate differences and identities, are

risky and often unpredictable, and are based on asymmetry and

hierarchy. The work of Bruno Latour or Michel Callon allows for

considering how a continuum of agentive beings, from objects and

impersonal forces to full human and non-human persons emerges through

exchanges which aim at the production of livelihood. This is true for

non-modern as well as modern societies. However, the recognition of

agency and personhood does not exclude relations of hierarchy and

asymmetry. I thus critique the notion of a Latourian “symmetrical”


The sky is the limit: post-human dimensions in André Rieu popular culture

Author: Irene Stengs (Meertens Institute)  email

Short Abstract

How do contemporary imaginations about the posthuman impact everyday practices of popular culture? This analysis takes André Rieu’s ambition to be the first to give a concert on the moon seriously, to present an ethnographic investigation of the significance of the posthuman in popular culture.

Long Abstract

Two questions underlie this presentation: How do contemporary imaginations about the post-human impact everyday practices of popular culture, and how to explore such imaginations ethnographically. Recent technological innovations have revived old-time fantasies of man overcoming the limitations imposed by the human body, in time (death) or in space (earth). My proposition is that the imaginative persuasiveness of these technologies works particularly well within the domain of celebrity culture. The 'stars' metaphor aptly captures the supposed superhuman achievements, qualities and potential inherent in celebrity status, whether these are attributed or self-ascribed. Freed from the butter-and-bread issues of everyday-life, the sky is the limit.

The post-human fantasy dimension of celebrity culture works most salient where it concerns celebrities' bodies. 'Celebrities don't age': plastic surgery and other anti-aging technologies fill their glamour zone. Now, with time more and more on their side, the major challenge is to overcome 'space'. Where most celebrities work a lifetime to become global, now the first seek to go extraterrestrial. This presentation will focus on the ambitions of one of the latter: André Rieu, the violist and conductor known as 'the world's King of the Waltz'. In this respect, my interest lies not in André Rieu as an individual artist, but in 'André Rieu' as a broader cultural phenomenon. My analysis of 'André Rieu popular culture' (performances, material culture, hagiography, fans) will take Rieu's ambition to be the first to give a concert on the moon seriously, to investigate the significance of the post-human in popular culture.

Unsettling experience: insights from the case of tasting for a posthuman anthropology

Author: Anna Mann (University of Copenhagen)  email

Short Abstract

Anthropologists of the senses have investigated tasting as an experience people have. Building on a material semiotic/STS approach, the paper analyses how tasting is done in practices of eating in catered events. Through the case of tasting it spells out what a move beyond the human implies.

Long Abstract

Anthropologists of the senses have approached tasting as an experience people have and subsequently studied how people living in different parts of the world perceive food multi-sensorially (Sutton 2001, Howes 2003, Holtzman 2009). Recently, an alternative approach to tasting has been developed in STS. This does not take for granted the ontological status of sensual aesthetic relations to food and, instead, studies how tasting comes to be configured in material semiotic relations (Mol 2011, Hennion 2007, Teil 2004). Building on this latter approach, the presentation will explore how tasting is done in practices of eating during events that are catered for. It mobilizes ethnographic material from different events in different Western European countries. It will show how in these events what happens in the mouth becomes related to different entities - perceptions of eyes and noses, transformations of food into body in the belly, or processes of processing of food with dentures and fingers. I will argue that experiencing, in the sense of perceiving flavours, is only one logic of tasting next to which other exist: feeding on and processing food.

Through the case of tasting the presentation will thus spell out what a move beyond the human implies and bring out the questions that open up through it.

Technological devices and autistic spectrum disorder: an anthropological investigation about virtual sociality, autistic subjectivity and post-human debate

Author: Maria C. Lo Bosco (Institute of Social Sciences - University of Lisbon)  email

Short Abstract

Technology is changing the life of autists: while computer applications and devises are thought to improve their ability to communicate and to develop social skills, Internet and social networks are at the basis of Autistic Web Activism. Is the post-human a good concept to reflect about these topics?

Long Abstract

Internet, social networks and mobile devices represent nowadays a particular set of technological instrumentations that integrate our daily life. My research is based on Autistic Web Activism in Portugal and on the uses of technological devices in therapeutic context by people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (such as apps or specific programs for computer or iPad).

In my presentation I will reflect on both ethnography of web activism and with the issue of embodiment in relation to technological instrumentations, the so-called non-human actors.

In particular, I will focus on virtual networks and technological devices as two interesting objects of investigations, starting from the debates they are producing both in academic and public spaces, about the processes of transformation of subjectivity as well as about the phenomenon of virtual sociality.

Moreover, I will tackle the ways in which anthropological knowledge faces the relation between disability and virtual devices as well as the phenomenon of the social networks as virtual spaces where activists have found a way to achieve social and political visibility and a vehicle to organize social mobilization.

The point at stake is thus to reflect on how the post-human emerges within the field on medical anthropology and on how can be considered an useful concept to think about the interactions between people diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, their relatives and technologic instrumentations. Can the post-human be a good theoretical concept to reflect about autistic subjectivity, web activism and enhancement technologies?

The dataistic self: unpacking personal analytics

Authors: Minna Ruckenstein (University of Helsinki)  email
Mika Pantzar (University of Helsinki )  email

Short Abstract

The paper explores personal analytics, specifically focusing on the Quantified Self -movement, as it is presented in the Wired-magazine. Four interrelated themes (transparency, self-optimization, feedback loop, and biohacking) are identified as formative for the epistemological claims made.

Long Abstract

A field of personal analytics has emerged around self-tracking practices, including the measuring and analysing physiological reactions, individuals' movement, and their activities. This paper explores personal analytics, specifically focusing on the Quantified Self -movement, as it is presented in the Wired-magazine. The dimensions of the QS movement are brought to the fore by relying on a Kuhnian disciplinary matrix. Four interrelated themes - transparency, self-optimization, feedback loop, and biohacking - are identified as formative for the epistemological claims made. The unpacking of the Wired discourse suggests that the QS-movement is a peculiar mix of theories of knowledge, ranging from behavioral economics, engineering, sports and data analysis. Together they rely on the notion of dataism, suggesting that at the heart of the QS-movement is a belief in data-driven everyday lives. Personal data is seen as suggestive and agentive, in the sense that it pushes forward new modes of relating and knowing. Consequently, a dataistic view to life advocates a shift in the way we approach ourselves, others, and everyday lives; self-knowledge becomes impossible without data. In this data-driven world, people together have less agency than self-tracking devices and data. Not coincidentally, the Wired-discourse is intimately aligned with the interests of the market: people need smart technology in order to be able to engage in self-discovery. Without technological devices, they would not be able to learn, or develop. Smartphone applications, monitoring devices and sensors that act as mediators and translators of knowledge in the new era of dataism.

The posthuman anthropologist: integrating ethnography with artificial intelligence

Author: Eduardo Albrecht (Pukyong National University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper looks at how anthropologists can interact with automated data analytics technologies; and, more specifically, how to deal with the issues of scale that arise in dealing with millions of informants simultaneously. The paper puts forth a posthuman solution which envisions integrating and co-calibrating algorithmic analysis with ethnographic experience.

Long Abstract

The use of artificial intelligence technologies is allowing our generation to more easily tap into vast online databases and find patterns that can help us better understand human behavior. Marketers, financiers and medical doctors are increasingly relying on these tools to make advances in their relative fields. Where does anthropology stand in relation to these technologies? There is an obvious lack of intimacy here that daunts many practitioners and makes them reluctant to use these technologies.

Yet, this paper will argue that the phenomenon is now so vast that anthropology cannot avoid being influenced by, and engaging with, this "new connectedness". The approach put forth here proposes to do so by 1) modeling our epistemological frameworks into the technology's models, and 2) constantly problematizing the models' outcomes against local knowledges. A conventional ethnographic appraisal of the knowledge systems involved is, in fact, fundamental to the continual recalibration of a model's heuristics, effectively transforming the concept of machine learning into one of human/machine learning.

The paper illustrates this approach with some examples, in addition to exploring issues such as the relation between the anthropologist and artificial intelligence, the implications of gathering information without a physical presence, how we can compensate for that absence, and how we can define the field when the field is essentially just an enormous quantity of data. The paper also reviews recent debates in anthropological theory surrounding the issue of artificial intelligence and the broader role of the anthropologist in contemporary digital sociality.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.