Small Things: An #AmAnth2016 Panel Review

Small Things

Organizer: Sareeta Amrute (University of Washington). Presenters: Nick Seaver (Tufts University), Susanna Fioratta (Bryn Mawr College), Gretchen Bakke (McGill University), Meg Stalcup (Université d’Ottawa), Sareeta Amrute (University of Washington). Discussant: Dominic Boyer (Rice University). Sponsored by: Society for Cultural Anthropology.

A small pocket flashlight imported into Guinea from China. A microscopic virus and a wide-eyed baby afflicted with microcephaly, carefully being bathed by his mother in a bucket. A grandmother’s simple shoe peeking out from under a beautifully ornate sari. A carefully hand-picked and personalized playlist of music. The fleeting substance of “mere nothings” that constitutes the smallest scale of differences, the grounds on which relationality and complexity are sustained.

Following such objects, this invited session foregrounded the work of scale and the cascading intricacies hidden within the contextual relations and interactions that emerge when small things become insinuated into daily lives, conjuring matters larger than life. Rather than valorize the power of small things against the increasingly overwhelming weight of the big or reinvigorate positivist claims of anthropologists’ singular attunement to the minutiae of daily life, the panel traced the mutual inextricability of the small and the large, teasing out the conceptual challenges and potentialities of their knotted expressions in both contemporary and historical registers. In an experimental performative gesture, the coordinates and trajectories of aggregation that typically manifest themselves in a conference panel were also decoupled. More of a playfully impromptu workshop than a formal and linear panel, each of us, audience members and presenters, were asked to sit in a circle while the panel participants took turns offering critical readings of each other’s work. For simplicity’s sake, however, this panel review foregrounds the papers that were presented, regrettably touching only briefly on the insightful comments that were given.

Susanna Fioratta’s paper demonstrated the ways in which small Chinese commodities (such as a miniature flashlight, an off-brand cellphone, or a pair of flip-flops) crop up in the daily lives of Guineans, anchoring counternarratives to a familiar story about globalization as entrepreneurs travel to China to buy and send products home. Big dramas and grand narratives of neocolonial extraction and development are inverted and disrupted through the generation of ordinary affects at local scales, in the small stories and jokes that consumers tell about the small and shoddy products imported through semiformal commodity flows.

Gretchen Bakke’s paper on Slovene information philosophies focused on the ways in which perceptions of difference figure in the recognition of complexity. Placing the figure of the minimal difference, developed by Lacanian philosopher Alenka Zupančič, in conversation with Gregory Bateson’s notion of information as “a difference that makes a difference,” Bakke revisited and reflexively mused on a ten-year-old conversation with her friend, Slovene theater director Dragan Živadinov, to contemplate evil as the accumulative practice of collapsing differences, of denying and refusing others their complexity and multiplicity.

Nick Seaver’s fieldwork among the software developers behind the personalized music recommender “The Yams” examines the ways in which care can become materialized, rather than merely attenuated or short-circuited, as it is enacted at scale. Engaging with the labor-intensive development of individualized and personalized music playlists, Seaver demonstrated how the embodied work of curation emerges through narratives of authenticity in contradistinction to the putatively disembodied and dehumanized mechanics of algorithms. However, Seaver suggested that such categories potentially elide the care with which programmers materialize algorithms, and the extent to which human music recommenders themselves rely on algorithms. His work pushes back against an overdetermined spirit of suspicion about scale as merely extractive, reimagining scalability as a matter of technosocial context and a potential site for emergent and more responsive symbioses.

Noting the difficulty of capturing the cultural dimensions of conspiracies in the making, Meg Stalcup demonstrated experimental approaches to engaging ethnographically with those new media through which rumor and counternarratives now circulate and gain momentum. Her paper examined the ways in which images and stories, like the viral photograph of a newborn infant afflicted with microcephaly being bathed in a bucket, not only precipitate crisis but also come to stand in for the structural failings and corruption of the Brazilian state. Coupled with extensive fieldwork among Brazilian residents, activists, and health researchers, she integrated data from the social media research platform MediaCloud to develop a richer understanding of how decentralized explanations for the unforeseen effects of Zika generate and proliferate in real time. I was left wondering about the sociotechnical logics through which this platform renders and visualizes counternarratives. What are the orientations of the ethnographic representations to the emergent conspiracy as object of study (that is, are such visualizations a higher-order counter-counternarrative?)? And what modes of archival and digital maintenance are in place to preserve the dynamic and turbulent potentiality of the visualizations themselves? With the continued convergence of ethnographic representation with new media, this will continue to be a matter of concern with few clear answers.

Sareeta Amrute’s paper contemplated the uses of smallness in anthropological representations by decentering and decoupling the conceptual relations of ethnographic parts to wholes. Critically examining techniques of what she terms “op-art anthropology,” a flattened mode of representation that attempts to “show how small things aggregate into big things” by zooming up and down through linear two-dimensionality, she wove a story of her grandmother’s shoe as an instance where a small thing resists aggregation: that is, fails to stand in for larger, preconceived forces articulated through social theory. Through a portrait of her grandmother, Amrute suggested that the narrative trends conjured through op-art anthropology are too rigid in the telling of her grandmother’s story of widowhood and migration. The traces left by a small and simple shoe in a deeply complex story suggests that gestures of ethnographic aggregation from the small to the large potentially elide other crucial dimensions of scale’s reach, consequence, and import. Just as the complex narratives surrounding her grandmother’s shoe refuse a flattening representational encapsulation, I appreciated the ways in which Amrute’s performative examination of approaches to scale resisted clearly demarcated methodological paths, blooming into open questions and uncertain relations between theoretical parts and wholes.

The final dimension of this panel that I wish to mention is the ambivalent figure of smallness and the uses of scale within academic leftism. In my own research on the biopolitics of digital infrastructure design and emergent crises of expertise coalescing in North American “open science” movements, material-semiotic attachments to issues of scale seem to percolate among the anxieties of interdisciplinary groups of cognitive laborers. For many of these developers and metascientists, relationships between the parts and wholes of data and information are at once irritatingly indeterminate (what, for instance, distinguishes metadata from “just data”?) and subject to automated normalization and apprehension through big, ostensibly autopoietic things, such as artificial intelligence. The panelists helped to crystalize some of the potentialities and limitations implicated in foregrounding uses of scale among interlocutors like mine. They also collectively brought into relief increasingly relevant potentialities embedded within figurations of the small. As discussant Dominic Boyer suggested, noting the coincidence of the interest in scale and the crisis of liberalism represented by the recent U.S. presidential election, deeper appreciation for small-scale relationality and affective planes of existence might continue to present a more fruitful ground upon which to build alternative leftist politics than those desires to swell and become big in hopes of counteracting the overwhelming forces of (neo)fascism. The critical work of building relationships toward collective well-being demands that we continually interrogate, reimagine, and materialize new ways of being implicated in seemingly small stories.

Special thanks go to Sareeta Amrute for organizing the panel, and to all the panelists for graciously sharing their exceptional papers in order to help make this review possible.