Thinking Science, Figuring Anthropology

How does it feel?

When I had only been in Hong Kong for less than a week, I remember being surprised by the fact that it felt like months had already passed. It feels so good to have been awarded this research opportunity–I have never been closer to what I want to understand about the relationship between how we make sense of ourselves and how science works to shape and reshape that making. But there is also this heart swollen feeling of being nowhere …of unbearable isolation. There is no village life into which I can insert myself. There are no social routines that I am a part of. There are no rituals that have shown themselves to me. There is only my white walled office and living space, the white and primary colored accents of the buildings, the white haze of clouds that blanket this green and blue island everyday. There is silence only broken by harsh winds.

There are nights when I have drinks with the scientists and engineers who I am interested in understanding. Language is not a barrier because everyone seems to live here through English. In fact, when I ask where I can learn Cantonese or Putonghua I am told over and over again that there is no need to learn anything Chinese. And this advice makes me feel that much more alone because my values and desires are so far from the people who are the objects of my stated interest …and people who I actually like.

In the social spaces where some scientists and engineers meet, I am invited to join them. I am welcome. They too have come here from distant places–from almost every continent. But I am dislocated in ways different than them. They are married and most have children–some have grandchildren. And this family life is separate from work and from drinks and from the social space of the university and bar. I have no family and I have no one here to take my leave from or to return to at the end of the day.

I wondered early on what kind of anthropologist I would be here. And I still can’t quite answer that question. But my experience so far has me wondering more about institutions all over the world rather than this particular institution in this particular time-space. I love the tropical weather and views here. I love the urban centers and the sound of the people talking in languages I do not yet understand. But would this really be the place that I would come back to in order to learn about how science proceeds? I am not so sure that I need to be tied to a place or an ‘ethnic’ people. I think that I would like to learn about scientific knowledge production and circulation across various spaces during my career. If I were to do this over the years I am not so sure it would be possible for me to pick up the “native” languages. But then again it seems that English has become the “native” language of global science. And it turns out that this native-ness is interconnected with nation building, imperialism, colonialism, and ethnocentric values set in particular histories across space–and I am fascinated by this too. Is this still anthropology? My heart says “yes,” but my mind says that no one will take me seriously. Maybe my feelings of lonely dislocation are easier to think about than all of my fears regarding the future.


Do Anthropologists $hop at Ikea?

Well the short answer is: Kanske ja , kanske nej.

First, I have to tell you that it is a tropical paradise here and there are a few pictures included throughout the text.

Clear Water Bay, Kowloon, HKUST

Clear Water Bay, Kowloon, HKUST, 14 September 2009

When I arrived in Hong Kong I was, of course, exhausted from travel and the months of preparation that it took to make this all happen. Mr. Lee held a sign for me in Area A and called a colleague to help us with all of my “very heavy” luggage—the burns on my shoulders will not argue with Mr. Lee. I arrived at the University around midnight and was surprised that my apartment was so large …although smelling of Michigan-up-north-cabin mildew. You would think that I immediately fell into the double bed that was already made up for me, but by this time I was wired with excitement, anxiety, and whatever that feeling is when you are in a safe but unfamiliar place where every detail stimulates. I oiled cabinets and drapes to improve smell, I rearranged the ample furniture provided me, and I even fully unpacked. I was finally ready to sleep.

The next day was more of a logistical endeavor. I spoke with administrative people who helped to orient me in this Kafkaesque Castle of a university—it was only yesterday that I was finally able to locate the elusive Lift 25-26. I shopped for groceries. I made lists of things to do. And I spent the evening going over the PowerPoint presentation I would give the next morning. I fell asleep early to abruptly awake with horizontal rains forcing their way through my tightly closed windows and air conditioning unit cracks, to winds that I have only experienced through “Dreams,” Akira Kurosawa’s (黒澤 明 or 黒沢 明, Kurosawa Akira’s) *amazing* magical realism film—the winds made me specifically recall his “Blizzard” dream.

Clear Water Bay, Kowloon, HKUST: Enhanced with Corel Paint Tools

After the Typhoon with Corel Paint, Clear Water Bay, Kowloon, Hong Kong

If you think that I am being a little dramatic (as I did while this was all happening), it turns out that we experienced a Level 8 typhoon—and typhoons here are rated on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the worse.

The next day, because I still believed I was making a big deal out of nothing (I mean who doesn’t have their bedroom and living area flooded on their first full day entering the field?), I headed to campus to give my presentation. It felt like a Zombie movie because there were almost no people, everything was tattered and torn, and the people who were there seemed weary and on edge.

The next events: Gave presentation to one person, was introduced to the few faculty who showed up, enjoyed a lovely lunch with two professors and an accounting student, learned where to obtain a phone and hair dryer, fell asleep early, woke up early.

Clear Water Bay, Kowloon, HKUST, 17 September 2009

Clear Water Bay, Kowloon, HKUST, 17 September 2009

So by my third day, I headed into town to obtain a cell phone and hair dryer only to spot Ikea. For about $200 US I obtained new bedding (including a quilt), some new curtains, an additional clothing rack, a small table, sugary-smelling candles with holders, a cutting board, and shower curtains. Not only do I feel like I have this enormous apartment, but now feels a lot more like “home.” Is this an anthropological way? I might not have servants like Margaret Mead or sexual fantasies about “the natives” like Bronislav Malinowski, but something feels a little wrong about shopping at Ikea. And then this has me thinking about how I am going to conduct anthropology here and about what kind of anthropologist I am becoming. For now, I leave you with this as I prepare my next entry…

uDesire @ Telford Plaza II, Kowloon Bay, Hong Kong

uDesire @ Telford Plaza II, Kowloon Bay, Hong Kong, 16 September 2009

Not Thinking Science

A recent conversation between Stephen Colbert and Neil deGrasse Tyson has had me thinking about the many ways we make sense of science through the ways that we make sense of how we belong, or don’t belong, in relation to this system of knowledge, method, and practice.

Stephen Colbert + Neil deGrasse Tyson June 28, 2009

Stephen Colbert + Neil deGrasse Tyson June 28, 2009

The following exchange was of particular interest to me:

Stephen Colbert: So what is Nova Science Now? Why do we need science now? Why not science later?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: If not now, then when?
Stephen Colbert: How about Nova Science Then where we explain science like Alchemy and leaches?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yeah, that wouldn’t be science. That’s somethin’ else.
Stephen Colbert: It was back then.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: And that would be a whole other kind of society in which we live.
Stephen Colbert: Well, the society I live in doesn’t think about science that much.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Except that science drives all the cameras and technology of the studio …allowing the Colbert Nation to exist at all.
Stephen Colbert: Yeah, but we don’t have to think about it.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Laughs
Stephen Colbert: Right? We got guys like you who like thinking about it.

Daily conversations that I hear, unending corporate-induced mediations, and practical rationality all communicate very similar messages: Science, with a big “S,” belongs here and we must have some kind of relation to it, but we don’t really belong within it because it is not recognizable as human. Thus, Science becomes suspiciously (a)kin to magic and trickery, promise and failure, hope and revenge. It is a total system—a collective organizational force of procedures and regulations that manage activity of us-and-it.  But while the ways we might feel managed or regulated through materialized Science are tangible, whether It is managed is open to question. Here, Science becomes both total system and Other—it knows us, but we don’t know it. And it’s too big to think about so we align ourselves with this force while dissociating particular human relations by not thinking Science.

Thinking-Figuring Relation

Writing about myself should be elementary …what else could I have more knowledge of? But in the last three weeks of blog-anticipation, writing myself has been anything but basic. How do I avoid notorious self-indulgence—or self-pity—to negotiate an engaging chronicle of my continuously evolving relationship with science and anthropology? For now, I have decided that one way of navigating some scientific and anthropological coordinates is to consider the ways that they animate my sense-making of both self and world. By “animate,” I refer to the ways that science and anthropology possess and give life through their mediations—and these mediations may be perceived as abstract exercise, practical reason, applied, imperial, heretical, sacred… However we think about or figure this complexity, mediations move. And it is my experience and observation of this movement that I hope to share with you as I am motivated by and as I proceed through domains of science and anthropology—doors of action and perception.

I cannot make any promises by taking this approach because this is less a practical method than a savage articulation. I have overly-indulged in books and ideas and visions and dreams for well over three years and I feel like I am already so far away from everyone who I love and from every cause that I dedicate my life to. It feels like I have lost myself within a strange woodland where the trees have transformed into penned parchment, the creatures into theoretical tricksters, and the environment into a fallen-through impenetrable looking glass. And I feel so lost because in thinking science and figuring anthropology I have dissociated from values and laws of relation.

This blog is my chronicle of a journey in thinking science, figuring anthropology, and developing connectedness within a fragmented self, with those who I know but rarely see, and with anyone compelled to join us along the way.