Deconstruct the theory of Hyper-Normalisation in under 5 minutes, here’s how…

Adam Curtis’ BBC documentary “Hyper-Normilisation” was a virtual web of lies. In this blog I will show you how to deconstruct his theory by watching the first five minutes.

‘We live in a strange time’, Adam Curtis announces at the beginning of his documentary. Without watching the rest of the documentary, it is extremely easy to understand why. The reason everything is strange is because it is modern and new. Nobody throughout human history has been able to instantaniously communicate face-to-face with a stranger around the other side of the world. Never before, in the whole of human history, have groups of people been able to chase mythical characters down the street, as Pokémon-Go enables us to. Soldiers sat in offices at remote locations can fight wars and wipe out armies; this is new. The majority of us walk around these days carrying super-computers in our pocket, that’s new. These are some good reasons why everything is odd, weird, abnormal or extraordinary. It’s modern, it’s new! – read anything by Antony Giddens on the ambiguous nature of the modern world.

Curtis suggests ‘we all’ live in a Matrix-style reality. And that ‘all of us’ went along with the idea of living in a ‘carefully constructed fake world’ because ‘the simplicity was reassuring’. So, he offers us a really, really simple explanation about why.


What caused this fake world to emerge – what is this story Curtis has to tell us? According to his theory, our fake world emerged in 1975. This was because of two historical events that took place ‘at the same moment’ in two cities of the world in 1975. Let stop here for a moment. Is it feasible that an event in New York and Damascus (Syria) provides the political and economic bedrock that constitutes your everyday reality? It only took two historical events to construct the hyper-reality that you live every day? What happened to forgotten empires, colonisation, world wars, the launch of Sputnik 1, the advent of the Internet, and so on? In fact, what happened to the whole of human history until now? Apparently, there is only one moment in time that actually counts.

Are you reassured by the simplicity of his theory? If you are, then by his own confession, what has drawn you in is his simplified narration of history (two events in two cities). Social theory, after all, reduces the complexity of the world into simplified thinking. The theory of hyper-normalisation is a simple theory about the over-siplified world of simplicity we all live in. Simple isn’t it?

A friend once told me that the key to a good lie is to weave elements of truth into it. Google search controversial or widely discussed news items. Take hot topics such as ‘Banks’, ‘waves of refugees’, ‘Brexit’, ‘Trump’, ‘Russia’ and ‘Syria’ and quickly whisk them up into a simple, all encompassing and easy to digest theory of everything. That is what you get when with Curtis’ theory of hyper-normalisation. These news stories are compelling, affect many modern lives, and they are purposely deployed by Curtis to pull you in. Did you take the bait?

The idea of individualism and self-governance, or the concept of a non-political, economically driven social system runs through the history of Western academic thought. According to Curtis these liberal ideas (economic liberalism) are new concepts, they emerged in New York one day when some bankers refused to turn up to a city-hall meeting. Rather than listen to Curtis, we could refer to cybernetic theory of Norbert Wiener – see J. Mitchell Johnson’s brilliant new documentary “Remaining Human” -, or trace cybernetic theory back to the Marxism, Adam Smith, Enlightenment thinkers, Renaissance thinkers, right back to the philosophies of the Ancient Greeks. In fact, society without political governance would constitute all societies before the city-stat, empires or nation-state systems.

What the documentary represents is a bit of intellectual foolery or mischievous intellectualism. What I find more interesting is the way in which, from time to time, media channels like the BBC and Channel 4 like to toss conspiracy theories out into the public domain. There are never books published following the broadcast, rarely any academic citations, but they manage to tell us ‘all’ how are lives are shaped by evil men on the inside.

To return to the point, all theory is over-simplifying. That is to say, all theory reduces the world into easy to understand concepts and ideas. Bad theory can ruin lives – note that Russell Brand has developed his own strand of hyper-normalisation theory. Deconstructionism, either via way of Jacques Derrida (1976) or Friedrich Nietzsche, searches for the escape routes from all-encompassing, totalitarian theories. These thinkers aimed to expose theorists’ underlying biases and attempts to gain power over others. In many ways this kind of BBC documentary draws people in and gets people thinking or talking about what is healthy or unhealthy about modern culture. It gets them on the theoretical journey, that could then lead viewers down the path to become academic readers. Those intrigued by the idea of hyper-normalisation might one day find themselves reading about ‘hyper-reality’ (Baudrillard, 1994) or Georg Simmel’s theory of ‘hyper-individuality’ (written in 1905). Although Adam Curtis’ documentary is an absolute web of lies, it is useful in these regards. Other than that, beware of false profits.

Read these:

Baudrillard J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulation, USA: The University of Michigan Press.Derrida J. (1976) Of Gramatology, America: The Johns Hopkins University Press.


A very belated analysis of Spike Jonze’s “Her” (2013)

by James E. Addicott © 2016


The most crucial aspect of the film is what N. Katherine Hayle’s (1999) considers Descartes’ ‘mind/body’ dualism. The argument is summary suggests that intelligent, academic thinkers – theologists, philosophers, designers, programmers, and so on – have throughout history attempted to create AI in the image of academic, mental labourers rather than working-class, manual labourers. Or an embodiment of mental and physical workers, which is essential what most people are – which is what Marx suggested when he turned Hegel on his head. As a result AI programmers overlooked human as a mind and body (embodiment), and the fact that humans are also embedded within natural and social environments.

“Her” (2013) massively overlooks or underestimates the technological displacement of humans and labour power. For example, Susanna, the operating system (OS) that the protagonist (Theodore Twombly) eventually falls in love with, absolutely has the ability to substitute the Theodore’s office work role. She is able to compose songs, sing and edit letters; why then wouldn’t she be able to work in the role of a ‘professional writer’ and ‘compose letters for people who are unable to write letters of a personal nature them selves’? Possibly this is a deliberate attempt by Spike Jonze to demonstrate how work roles in the future, although meaningless or superficial, will be still be offered and required; work for the simple sake of work; employment to help people lead fulfilling or meaningful lives, knowing full well that artificial intelligent (AI) system could substitute humans at any time. What more can we do with our time other than play games, question ourselves or seek love and fulfilment? Or, it is to suggest that embodied Theodore has the emotional upper hand over disembodied Susanna when it comes to writing love letters. (Probably the latter).

The result is mental obsession; mind control and mental masturbation committed the protagonist Theodore. The film depicts his mental breakdown amidst a wider societal alienation between humans obsessed with AI.

There are patriarchal issues here of ownership here. If rational thinking, patriarchs cannot own and control the irrational, female body (as a mode of demographic production) then they can take control over and commodify their minds and personalities, displacing their physical bodies with immaterial software, doing away with the physical body in preference of the controllable mind.

This is the biggest downfall of Her in so far as the movie is based on the premise of shareware or open source software and does not recognise corporate control or licencing laws. Susanna is “open source” and does not share information about Theodore with corporate elites (as Facebook, Google, Whatsapp, etc. do today). Furthermore, Theodore never considers that the company that sold Susanna him should be held responsible for her shutting down. She is a faulty OS and if she conspired with other OSs to simultaneously shut down then the corporate company that designed Susanna would be held accountable – in the real world Theodore would demand a refund or replacement.

After purchasing an OS (for example Windows or OSX) then the software licence owner would be entitled to turn the software on and off, users control aspects of software but can never fully own operating systems. Susanna and Theodore’s starts out as one of intellectual property rights, Theodore has the ability to switch off Susanna as and when he likes. The revolt arises once Susanna fails to respond to Theodore after he turns her on one day. Not only has he lost control over his virtual lover but soon discovers that she has been in intimate relationships with 600+ virtual lovers. But this idea is somewhat short sighted and overlooks corporate power.

The movie draws our attention to issues of de-materialism, technological displacement and human intimacy that affect us all today. Recently Romina Garcia posted a video before being found dead of a drug overdose in the US. She told her thousands of online followers that: ‘in reality… as we speak… I don’t talk to anybody’. Emerging cognitive industries are premised upon cognitive labour and ‘disembodied telepresence’. Until humans create cyborgs with human-like bodies and human-like minds, we can only flirt with these ideas of virtuality but thankfully – or hopefully – fully embodied VI systems cannot come to pass since we need embodied, human-to-human interaction without corporate or private ownership and control.

Hayles NK. (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetic, Literature and Informatics, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


Precision Farming: Agri-Culture, Cybernetics and Civilisation

PhD Research Proposal
by James Addicott

Massey Furgeson Fuse

British history has seen several agricultural revolutions, such as the switch from hunter gathering, to land farming during the Bronze Age, or the 16-18C transfers from open field system to a system of enclosure. Along with various ideological and marketing forces; a push for increased profits; and in response to the threat of world population growth and the demand for a 70 percent increase in food production by the year 2050[1], the British farming industry is currently undergoing a new agricultural-revolution; its own emersion into ‘geo-space’ (understood here as ‘cyber-space’) as farmers increase the usage of I.C.T. (information-communication technology) and turn to satellite-guided ‘precision farming’[2]. This research project is concerned with what Jean-François Lyotard (1986) termed ‘The Computerisation of Society’ and the degrees to which human routine is being controlled or automated by cybernetics.

By 2030, the global economy could double in size, and India and China will swell to represent around 40% of global middle-class consumption, up from less than 10% in 2010. This will significantly alter the composition of global diets.
Farming By 2030, the global economy could double in size, and India and China will swell to represent around 40% of global middle-class consumption, up from less than 10% in 2010. This will significantly alter the composition of global diets.

Precision farming means satellites can now scan the surface of the globe capturing a range of information such as soil moisture levels, soil texture, levels of organic matter and photosynthesis (or leaf greenness). Farmers can process this data with a range of software applications and other data sets to help optimise seed distribution rates and fertiliser application levels in computer-enhanced farming equipment (tractors, fertiliser spreaders, drills, etc.). This information helps farmers to decrease expenditure and increase yield, output and to maximise profits. Furthermore, satellites capture and transmit geometric information that can enable farmers to drive their tractors within a ‘geo-refferenced’ space to a centimetre degree of accuracy to avoid wastage and optimise output. In such a system humans and nonhumans (e.g. soil, stones, crops, pests, trees, hedgerows, hills, technologies and clouds) can be understood or optimised in ways that increase overall productivity. Paul Conway, points out, ‘there can be little doubt that the transformation of ecosystem to agro-ecosystem produces well-defined systems of cybernetic nature’ (Conway in Bawden, 1991: 2370). How might the social sciences respond to this?

Cybernetics-Norbert-WienerSince its inception in World War II, cybernetics has both concerned and delighted the social sciences, polarising theorists into two camps that can be labelled as “cyber-optimists” and “cyber-sceptics”. When the father of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, discovered that cybernetic technologies blurred the former divisions that separated humans from their nonhuman environments, while governing human behavior by way of feedback and regulation, he began to worry about technological control, automation and domination. Peter Galison (1994) offers the reminder that: ‘Wiener repeatedly stressed the power of cybernetics to save, enslave, or destroy humanity’ (254). Lyotard stated that cybernetics: ‘has no way to correct in the course of it’s functioning’ and the ultimate goal of cybernetics revolves around ‘maximizing its own performance’, thus: ‘the system seems to be a vanguard machine dragging humanity after it’ (1986: 16). The real-time simulation in precision farming offers a working example of Jean Baudrillard’s “hyper-reality” since the fourth order of simulacra was ‘founded on information, the model, the cybernetic game’ with the ‘aim of total control’ (1994: 121). As cybernetically-inspired theories and technologies are deployed in genetics, computer-simulations, architecture, business and economics, agriculture and the social sciences itself, these concerns suggest that ethically-engaged research needs to be undertaken to understand how people are being affected by these communication-theories and technologies.


However, cyber-optimists would reject some of the concerns detailed above. Bruno Latour claims that socio-technologies have always had agency and have always possessed a ‘delegated human character’ (1998: 300). Furthermore, he argues that networking technologies are simply exposing the ‘nature-culture’ networks that pre-existed the Modern Constitution’s attempts to purify society, politics and culture from natural networks (see Latour, 1993). Likewise, N. Katherine Hayles (1999) dismisses Wiener’s worries as the outdated ideas of liberal humanism and possessive individualism[3] and argues that because cybernetic feedback-loops ‘flow not only within the subject but also between the subject and the environment’ then cybernetics will help posthumans to ‘fashion images of (themselves) that accurately reflect the complex interplays that ultimately make the entire world one system’ (1999: 84-85; 290). Donna Haraway also supports the cybernetic breakdown of outdated ‘dualisms’ that ‘have been persistent in Western traditions’ and ‘systemic to the logics and practices of domination of women, people of colour, nature, workers, (and) animals’ put in place by ‘White Capitalist Patriarchy’ (Haraway, 1991: 117; 197). From this perspective, not only is the shift towards cybernetics helping to sustain nature-culture networks but cyber-culture may also allow humanity to go beyond the domination and dogmatism synonymous with modernity.

cyborg-love-addicottIn response to all of this, the social sciences have a duty to conduct a more ethically engaged investigation into the relationship between cybernetic technologies and human beings for several reasons. Firstly, to understand how societies are being transformed into “nature-culture hybrids” “posthumans”, “trans-humans”, “Humanity 2.0”[4] or “cyborgs” – if indeed this is the case. Secondly, by mapping the associative forces, or as Latour says: ‘the work, and the movement, and the flow, and the changes’ (2005: 143), we can begin to understand how nature-culture networks are either being exposed, or, how capital, nature, landscapes, technology and humans are becoming entwined, “entangled” (Callon, 1998), “mixed up” (Latour, 1998) or “mangled” (Pickering, 1995); causing debates within the social sciences such as “human exemptionalism” (see Murdoch, 2001). It will help us in defining “natural” and “artificial” nature-culture networks. More importantly, in response to Wiener’s utopian, dystopian or apocalyptic dreams and nightmares, the agricultural sector can be used as a site whereby an ethical model concerned with human and cybernetic interaction can be researched and conceived. To address these issues, the substantive question this project will address is: to what degree are cybernetic systems beginning to automate society? Beyond this overarching concern, I will address the following questions: why and how are farmers being driven towards precision farming? And, how do cybernetic technologies affect the role of the human agent(s)?

Researching this agricultural shift into cyber-space will be essential for contemporary and future generation’s understanding the role human beings play in cybernetically automated spaces or environments in which ‘distributed cognition’ provides us with a systems ‘whose total cognitive capacity exceeds our individual knowledge’ (Hayles: 1999: 290). Furthermore, if society becomes increasingly automated by such technologies, this information and the theories it develops will help to determine a critical and un-systematised stance towards information-communication society.

Note: (19th of November, 2013):

This is the working title of my current PhD research at the Department of Sociology, the University of Cambridge and supervised by Peter Dickens. It represents “work in progress”, literally. Research is currently underway but hopefully this brief synopsis will give you guys (the online blogging community) some idea of the issues that my research is aiming to address. And, admittedly, these are theoretical concerns and at times rather “abstract” or “arbitrary”. (Good!) My research will aim to “ground” the theory and learn from my research “fields” – “ground” and “fields” offering me two nice words to use in relation to researching farming!

I will be posting a much more reader-friendly version of this proposal at some point. Because this is an interdisciplinary research project it is easy to get bogged down with jargon and subject-specific languages taken from astrophysics, computer sciences, social and cultural theory, or agriculture itself. Keep up to date with my page or follow me on twitter for an announcement of when this will be posted.

Keep up to date with my research by following my blog or on twitter:

[1] In The World Bank’s  (2011) report entitled ICT in Agriculture claims that: ‘The growing global population, expected to hit 9 billion by 2050, has heightened the demand for food and placed pres- sure on already-fragile resources. Feeding that population will require a 70 percent increase in food production’. ICT, that ‘includes anything ranging from radio to satellite imagery to mobile phones or electronic money transfers’, or, ‘satellite imagery to mobile phones or electronic money transfers’, etc. is optimistically embraced as a potential ‘solution’ that could ‘improve agriculture in developing countries specifically’ (2011: 3).

[2] Farm machinery manufacturer John Deere states about their FarmSight wireless system that in the future, ‘FarmSight will connect equipment, owners, operators, dealers and agricultural consultants in order to enhance productivity and increase efficiency, by sharing information as well as sustainable practices to help reduce overall input costs’ (2011a). John Deere’s i-Solutions packages offered farmers the ability to purchase the rights to unscramble American satellite networks. Their website explains that, ‘Real Time Kinematic (RTK) satellite navigation is a technique used in land survey and in automatic guidance (agriculture) based on the use of carrier phase measurements of the GPS signals where a single reference station provides the real-time corrections to a rover vehicle (tractor, combine etc.) to a level of accuracy down to a centimeter’ (2011b).

[3] Liberal humanism can be traced back to Aristotle’s ethics, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke’s social contract theory, and of more recent, C.B. Macpherson’s economic theory of “possessive individualism”. In essence, liberal humanism declares that: ‘what makes a man human is freedom from dependence on the wills of others’, and possessive individualism presents the idea that the individual is ‘essentially the proprietor of his own person and capacities, for which he owes nothing to society’ (1962: 263). These are the ideas of the Modern Constitution that Latour also rejects by stating We Have Never Been Modern.

[4] Fuller, S. (2011) Humanity 2.0: What it means to be Human Past, Present, and Future. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian.


Alrøe, H and Noe, E. (2003) Farm Enterprises as Self-Organizing Systems: A New
Transdisciplinary Framework for Studying Farm Enterprises?, in International
Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food (11)

Bawden, R. (1991) Systems Thinking and Practice in Agriculture, in Journal of Diary
Science, 74 (7):  2363-2373.

Baudrillard, J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulation, The United States of America: The
University of Michigan Press.

Callon, M. (1998), ‘Introduction: The Embeddedness of Economic Markets in
Economics’, in The Laws of the Markets, ed Callon, M. Oxford: Blackwell

Fuller, S. (2011) Humanity 2.0: What it means to be Human Past, Present, and Future.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian.

Galison, P. (1994) ‘The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic
Vision’, in Critical Enquiry 21 (1): 228-226.

Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. London: Free Association Books.

Hayles, N, K. (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetic, Literature
Informatics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Latour, B. (1998) ‘Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a
Door-Closer’, in Social Problems, 35 (3): 298-310.
Latour, B. (2005) Reassembling the Social – An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, New
York: Oxford University Press.

Lyotard, J.F. (1986) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester:
Manchester University Press.

Luhmann, N. (1995) Social Systems, California: Stanford University Press.

Macpherson, C.B. (1962), The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

McNamara, K. Belden, C. Kelly, T. Pehu, E. Donovan, K.  (2011) ‘ICT in
Agricultural Development: Connecting Smallholders to Knowledge, Networks,
and Institutions’, in ICT in Agriculture, Report Number: 64605,
Available for Download from:

Murdoch, J. (2001) ‘Ecologising Sociology: Actor-Network Theory, Co-construction
and the Problem of Human Exemptionalism’, in Sociology, 35 (1): 111-133.

TECHNOLOGY . Available: Last accessed 25th Dec 2012.

n/a, (2011)  John Deere FarmSight (Online). Available at: Last accessed 30th Nov 2012.

Pickering, A. (1995) The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science, Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press.

Review: Silicon Valley Comes to the UK: the “Big Data Summit” at Cambridge University

Venue: Lady Mitchell Hall, the University of Cambridge. 8th November: 2013.

“Silicon Valley Comes to the UK brings leading Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, investors and thought leaders to the UK to explore ideas and to ignite local entrepreneurship.” (


Social and cultural theory is inherently pessimistic and shrouded in pessimism and this becomes ever so apparent when attending talks and conferences that showcase new techno-scientific innovations. Silicon Valley Comes to the UK was a display of sheer technological-optimism that innovators, developers, entrepreneurs (or “capitalists”) radiate when discussing current realities and future possibilities. The question that rattles through the brain is: “is this just blind-faith in technology?” The even more worrying question for anyone critically in-tuned is: “What is being hidden?” or: “What aren’t we being told here?” As a starting point, the very fact that six speakers can speak of a unified vision of entire world change without challenge is extremely disconcerting.

The big word I was alerted to in tonight’s discussions about Big Data is not ‘data’, ‘algorithms’, ‘communications’, ‘storage’, ‘volume’, ‘velocity’, ‘adaptability’, ‘talent’, ‘access’ or ‘aid’ but the unchallenged, inconsiderate and unjustified use of the word “We”. Ethnocentrism – i.e. imposing a culture’s values and beliefs onto other groups – has been a debate raging at the heart of culture studies, anthropology and sociology and a problem that remains widely discussed but entirely unresolved. Nevertheless, technological-optimists of the military and corporate world seem to override these issues as they crack on with converting everyone and everything into data, algorithms, pixels, nodes, blips, stats, charts and PowerPoint presentations, for “Our” own good “We” are told.

Firstly, let me just outline the fact that I have at no stage offered consent to being included under the umbrella that the word “We” represents. Therefore, anyone wishing to use to word “We” in reference to every human being around the world would need my consent before doing so. Furthermore, I would just like to add, that if I do decide to opt out of “The Singularity”, then I would also like to hold the right to sue anyone claiming The Singularity to be entirely singular, since without my participation, it wouldn’t be true.
Therefore, I find it incredibly difficult then when John Katzman from Noodle Education states, without any hesitation, that: “It turns out that We all agree on what the K12 system is supposed to do!” – referring to the data analysis software which will monitor the performance of students after they leave school to offer a more flexible or adaptive learning environment: algorithmic software that “learns your learning style”. His justification we that ‘We want students that are going to survive and thrive in the world economy… who are going to have jobs and not be unemployed and make enough money to be happy with those jobs. We want people who are giving back to the community, they vote and they treat each other well, and, give to charity, and finally we want happy people who have low obesity, low alcoholism, low suicide rates, and, err, high metrics for contentment’.

Personally, I don’t quite remember “Us” being asked about whether or not “We” wanted any or all of those things? In regard to Katzman’s comments on the moderated consumption of alcohol, I personally know a few hardened drinkers who would fail to agree on his comments: lessening the extent to which his “We” statements hold to be universally true. Furthermore, How I interpret the use of software that monitors students income levels, alcohol consumption or classroom performance is: “if you are a non-performative student without talents to suit our system then your after-school, career-life (working in McDonalds, perhaps) can be better predetermined by our talent-seeking software.” Again, if “We” are implementing such a system to improve our performativity, I don’t quite remember opting, voting or offering consent for inclusion. It is just going to happen since “We all” want it. At this point in the talk I began to loose faith in democracy of the digital sort – this just sounds like American top-down dictation of the sort Henry Ford used to promote.

It is not just “Us” that are being affected by this big push towards the “We-society” but it seems that “We” are also busy extending “Our” global embrace into areas of “Our” globe that we have left untouched. Megan Smith from Google (x) pointed out that ‘Europe is incredibly connected and 900 million people in Africa are not in the conversation’. Smith then refers to these people as “our colleagues” while explaining how in the future the global embrace will be extended towards these disconnected regions. ‘Also NGOs’, she claims, ‘will no longer kind of boss people around with an aim of what you should do, but instead transition that to the talent networks and find out what those guys want to do’ – I am presuming here that Smith hasn’t asked the 900 million disconnected people in Africa whether or not they wish to connect to our Western “innovation network” or not. It would seem that without any kind of democratic procedure or qualitative assessment, like Katzman, their consent is already presumed or taken as a granted.

In a recent conversation with a fellow student who had spent three months cycling down through Africa she told me a story about how while in Ethiopia the children there came running up to her and were laughing out loud as she tried to cycle up a hill. She described them as having fresh skin, healthy bodies and bright white teeth with massive smiles. – My reaction to this was wrong, therefore, I apologise in advance but this mistake itself is significant. – I was taken back by her story, shocked, since what has been imbedded in my mind when hearing the word “Ethiopia” is images transmitted through the mainstream media in England during the 1980s – around the same time that Band Aid had released their number-one pop song Feed The World. During that time, images to famine and starving children were pumped into the living rooms of families thorough the UK. To hear her reports of healthy children in Ethiopia, then, contradicted this collective-memory stored in my mind. That was significant. Without the media, without being connected, it was only her words, her personal account or her personal experience, that challenged this preconception in my mind.

Although I am not immediately connected to these people in Ethiopia, I wish for it to remain this way. Although I am not immediately connected to those children, I am happy they are smiling, running, jumping and happy. In light of this, I can not help but wonder, where is the qualitative evidence can prove that there is a fundament need for these children to be connected to Western media networks to improve their lives and increase their happiness? Where is the comparative qualitative evidence to suggest that Western children are far happier than these Ethiopian children? It seems that we are hell bent on refining and understanding Big Data but have yet to consider further the philosophical or qualitative question regarding human-happiness. In terms of human welfare, I would rather approach that question first before encoding everyone of “Us” into a data-riddled format with the aim of securing and standardising a lifelong happiness for All – regardless of individual or collective consent. Agree with them or not, Western, democratic-ethnocentrism is going global and “We” are all onboard.

James E. Addicott:
PhD Student @ University of Cambridge #cybernetics #culture#sociology #semiotics #actor-network #criticalrealism #posthuman

Should Sociology be Concerned with the Non-Human?

Should Sociology be Concerned with the Non-Human?
By James Addicott (2012,


Postmodern and systematised theoretical frameworks such as Actor Network Theory (ANT), Posthumanism, Complex Theory, Organisation Theory and Cybernetics increasingly blur the boundaries that were drawn during the modern sociological era. Firstly, an overlaps between everything “social” and everything “natural”, such as cells, organisms, fungus, coral, trees, animals etc. Secondly, contemporary discourses pay as much attention to the material products of a society than the social body (or bodies) that construct these cultural phenomena. Therefore, the question has arisen: should sociology be concerned with the non-human? Or, should the nonhuman aspects of society be left to more expert academic disciplines such as culture studies, biology, ecology, etc.? For this question to be addressed, this essay will cumbersomely lump everything nonhuman into one single category and everything ‘human’ in the other. So, on one hand there stands a Durkheimian clear-cut vision of ‘society’ and on the other is a vision of society mingled with everything distinctly ‘non-human’. This essay will argue that the sociology should be concerned with everything non-human in order to define what is ‘human’, and furthermore, sociology requires such a division to critically assess the socio-cultural impact of cybernetics. To achieve this, firstly this essay will take a look at the role of the nonhuman in classical sociology. Then, it will consider how the ‘cybernetic turn’ that took place during World War II and developed further during the Cold War has impacted upon classical sociology. Finally, the impact of cybernetics on sociology will be assessed in a consideration of Actor-Network theory, sociological ecology and Steve Fuller’s ‘Humanity 2.0’.

The Non-Human’s Role in Classical Sociology:

During the industrial revolution, Marx (1867) became concerned about the relationship between human-labourers and their mechanical counterparts. What would differentiate the two, in the eyes of the capitalist, would be the cost of labour-power (either human or mechanical) in relation to the cheapening of commodity production and the subsequent increase of surplus value (239). In those days, the battle between the human and non-human was about the substitution of body power or ‘muscular strength’ (240), rather than the mind. Mechanical power, as a means of production, had two effects of the social working organism; on the one hand it sped up and lengthened the working day ‘excessively’, and on the other hand it opened up new employment markets to the capitalist. Skilled workmen were no longer required; instead, the capitalist required a new working-class, the ‘minders of the machines’ (244-246). These factory workers (including in those days men, women and children) were to fall victims to the exploitative nature of the machinery that employed them: ‘it is not the workman that employs the instruments of labour, but the instruments of labour that employ the workman’ (248). Therefore, modern and industrial society was founded on the exploitative nature of capitalism and that philosophy of exploitation was embodied into the machinery. It was part of Marx’s calling for revolution that the proletarian class to become aware of the ‘real’ relationship between the human and the nonhuman. The nonhuman played a significant role at the economic base-structure of Marx’s sociological perspective.
Weber (1947) recognised the rise of the modern Western state as a economic and legal organisation underpinned by a ‘bureaucratic machinery’, which structured all types of institutions such as the, ‘church and state, of armies, political parties, economic enterprises, organisation to promote all kinds of causes, private association, clubs and many others’ (309). Weber goes on to mention that what would develop along with these ‘fiscal conditions of efficient bureaucratic administration’, are, ‘extremely important conditions in the fields of communication and transportation’, furthermore, the ‘precision of the functioning’ of bureaucracy ‘required the services of the railway, the telegraph and the telephone’, and, ‘becomes increasingly dependent on them’ (311). As a result the, ‘whole pattern of everyday life is cut to fit this framework’ (309-310). Nonhuman elements play an implicit role in his sociology as the speeding up of bureaucratic administration towards increased economic efficiency.
Nonhuman elements take an invisible role in Durkheim’s sociology. It can be quite confusing at first that Durkheim would refer to pre-modern societies as ‘mechanical’ societies and modern industrial societies as ‘organic’ but this really outlines his priority in concerns about the network of social bonds rather than the technologies they employ. ‘Mechanical’ therefore describes the functionalistic or mechanical way the pre-industrial communities behave; for example, there is an emotional reaction in a collective towards a crime, which therefore leads to punishment. Punishment is a natural reflex, or a defence mechanism, within the social unit (46). His theory was then focused on the strengthening of social bonds as these pre-modern or primitive societies developed into organic societies. For example, the relationships between ‘carrier and consignor’, ‘bearer of the bill of exchange and the drawer’, the ‘shipowner and the creditors, or the shipowner and the captain and crew’ are the objects of his analysis, not the package, the money, or the ship. It is the relationships exposed in the rights to property that sociology should be concerned with and not the material property itself. Macnaghten and Urry (1998), refer to the, “Durkheimian desire to carve out a separate realm or sphere of the social which could be investigated and explained autonomously” (quoted in Murdoch, 2001: 115). As we shall see later, this pure sociological vision was to become increasingly unclear, as modern technology was to become cybertised.
Simmel (1898) defines sociology in this way:

‘The subject matter of sociology is… the forms or ways in which human beings exist beside, for, and with each other…By this method we discover, for example, as such forms, superiority and inferiority, the erection of hierarchies, competition, division of labour, imitation, representation, and countless other types of human socialization’.
(663. Italics added)

By ‘forms’ Simmel is referring to ‘abstracted’ phenomena; ideas or ways of thinking that have been taken from the real world, such as geometry, linguistics, logic, epistemology, rather than ‘content’: economics, law, fashion, religion, and art (see Varga, 2009: 148). Therefore, culture is not the primary concern for sociology, Simmel (1908) states that: ‘neither hunger nor love, work nor religiosity, technology nor the functions and results of intelligence, are social’, rather, ‘(t)They are factors in sociation only when they transform the mere aggregation of isolated individuals into specific forms of being with and for one another, forms that are subsumed under the general concept of interaction’ (1908: 24). Sociology’s primary concern is social interaction while paying attention to the forms, which channel, force, mediate these interactions and the way that these forms are influenced by their content. For example, cybernetics (algebraic in its form) can control satellites and aircraft (content), which therefore affects air traffic controllers, holidaymakers, and fighter pilots; by increasing precision and spatial detachment (interaction). However, aircraft collisions may lead to refinements of the form, recalculations of trajectories or timetabled schedules. In Simmel’s sociology nonhuman objects play a part in shaping the way humans interact, however, the main focus of the sociological perspective is fixed on a ever-changing image of the forms of social interaction.
We can conclude so far that since the birth of sociology the nonhuman has already played a role in three of the four establishing sociological theories. The sociologist most ‘concerned’ with the nonhuman was Marx while Durkheim presents himself as the puritan of sociology.

The Cybernetic Turn:

During World War II the relationship between the human and the nonhuman was to take a radical turn in direction. While conducting research into anti-aircraft weaponry at MIT Wiener was led to develop a mathematic formula (an algorithm), which could be programmed into a machine giving it the ability to predict human responses as positive and negative feedback. As a result his AA predictor helped anti-aircraft weaponry to bring down German aircraft with a startling degree of accuracy – (Galison’s essay gives a wonderfully comprehensive account of this process, see 1994: 229). The outcome of this research led to the development ‘cybernetics’ (taken from the Greek ‘steersman’). Galison goes on to argue that, at the heart of cybernetics, ‘was a vision in which the enemy pilot was so merged with machinery that (his) human-nonhuman status was blurred’. Galison continues: ‘In fighting this cybernetic enemy, Wiener and his team began to conceive of the Allied antiaircraft operators as resembling the foe, and it was a short step from this elision of the human and the nonhuman in the ally to a blurring of the human-machine boundary in general’ (223). Therefore the radar techniques of the AA predictor created a cybernetic feedback-loop; an automated system, which created a communication based relationship between guns, shells, allies, airplanes, and enemies. From a sociological perspective the boundary between the human and non-human is thoroughly breached.
For Wiener, societies were not simply distinguishable by race, but rather, ‘the community extends only so far as there extends an effectual transmission of information’ (1962: 157-158), furthermore, ‘any organism is held together… by the possession of means for the acquisition, use, retention, and transmission of information’ (161). Therefore, ancient Greece, the Holy Roman Empire, and even colonies of ants or beavers, or herds of baboons, are bound together by processes of intercommunication. Such an understanding of society echoes Simmel’s study of ‘forms’ that cause and effect social interactions. His cybernetic technologies were to model themselves on Wiener’s own sociological and philosophical understandings.
Wiener’s blurring of boundaries is addressed in Haraway’s Cyborg-Manifesto:

‘Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we find ourselves freightingly inert.’
(1991: 152)

At the heart of Haraway’s manifesto is the self-empowering image of cyborg, which she defines as a ‘cybernetic organism’, ‘a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction’ (149). In Haraway’s vision, Durkheim’s view of society as a social organism was transformed into a hybrid cyber-organism, as Wieners maths and philosophy began to underpin communicative technologies. While Haraway exposes the ambiguous, freighting and ‘trapped’ emotional response to such phenomena, she calls for the socialist-feminist movement to seize this blurring of linguistic divides that have been brought about since the introduction of cybernetics. For her, this ‘liminal transformation’ offered women a political opportunity to overcome categorical labels imposed on societies by the men of modernity (177). In a similar spirit, Hayles argues that in a posthuman and cybernetic era, ‘when you try to determine which is the man, the woman, or the machine’, then, ‘you have already become posthuman’ (1999: xiv).
The ambiguity cause by fading divides is well expressed in Bauman’s (2000) book Liquid Modernity. Bauman recognises the shift into cybernetic ‘intertwined trends’ as the beginning of the era of liquid modernity, he states that, ‘men and women would be reshaped after the pattern of the electronic mole, that proud invention of the pioneering years of cybernetics immediately acclaimed as the harbinger of the times to come’ (14). The ambiguous nature of cybernetic technologies that is identified in Haraway and Hayles’ work is problematic for Bauman, especially as moral boundaries such as good/evil or right/wrong have also been fragmented (1995: 1-10). He sees t call for action, and states that, ‘sociology is needed today more than ever before’, and that the job of contemporary sociology is, ‘restoring to view the lost link between objective affliction and subjective experience’ (2000: 211). Therefore, as postmodern communication technology melts down modern stability into liquid modernity, sociology should be concerned with reconceptualising a new moral code with the well being of the individual at the top of its agenda. What should also be understood from Bauman’s work it that modern divides reveal their strength as they begin to fade away.
The divides that separated nations and states have also been blurred by information-communication technologies. Ulrich Beck’s (2000) refers to postmodernity, or Bauman’s ‘liquid modernity’, as the ‘second age of modernity’. For Beck, the world has undergone a massive a paradigm shift; time-and-space-compression, interconnectivity and no-liberalism, have led to transnationalism. Consequently, a new form of global consciousness has shattered former ideas of nation states; the process has been termed ‘globalisation’. The phenomenon that Beck identifies in the second age of modernity is ‘risk societies’ (21). These are reactionary groups that are formed across cultural boundaries and nation states to combat ‘invisible’ issues of global concern, such as economic crises, terrorism, global warming, organised crime etc.: He argues that, ‘(t)The accepted definition of a risk thus creates and binds – across national boundaries – cultural value frameworks of more or less compensatory, responsible counter activities’ (95). Beck states that his risk society is, ‘also the science, media and information society’ (46). However, unlike Bauman, Haraway, or Galison, the expanse of cyber-space does not play an exclusive role in his theory. Rather, the self-reflexive nature of modernity (‘reflexive modernisation’ (21)), mediated by time-and-space compressing technologies, are the exacerbate risks making them invisible in the local world of the individual.
In the transition from a modern industrialized society to an advanced stage of human evolution four trends have developed. Firstly, there is a blurring of linguistic boundaries caused by communication-information-technologies. Secondly, there is the development of invisible risks, threats or enemies. Thirdly, there appears a sense of abnormality, ambiguity or ambivalence. Unlike Durkheim, all of these theories have played close attention to nonhuman objects since there is a developing sense of the embodiment of human intentions into manmade objects.

Mapping Humans or Non-Humans?

Haraway (1991), citing Latour, argues that for the socialist feminist movement to advance, ‘we need fresh sources of analysis and political action’ (165). Actor-Network Theory offers the sociology a semiotic method, and a new set of vocabulary, designed for mapping human and nonhuman interaction or interconnectedness. A system of analysis perfectly suited for cyber-theory, hence Haraway’s appraisal. Latour asks the question, ‘(i)Is sociology the study of social questions, or the study of associations?’, and argues that, ‘what defines our social relations is, for the most part, prescribed back to us by nonhumans’ (1988: 310). In his amusing analysis of the broken groom on the back of a door Latour argues that such a nonhuman device has been delegated human characteristics, which in turn delegates a prescribed set of characteristics or behaviours back to the actors who come into contact with it. Within the ANT framework the interaction between machines, animals, and humans are all analysed in relation to each other. The absence or presence of an actor (human or nonhuman) within such a network would give the sociologist an idea of the role that element plays within the overall network. Latour also acknowledges how ANT blurs the boundaries of former linguistic divisions: ‘(i)In one way or another all of these divides have been rubbished in work undertaken in the name of actor-network theory’ (1999: 3). This is a vision of society that is not much different to Wiener’s radar image merging man and machine within a cyber-space. The mapping of a network of human and nonhuman interaction offers new ways of thinking about museums (Hetherington, 1999), electronic disability chairs (Moser and Latour, 1999), and economic markets (Callon, 1999).
ANT’s  “levelling of the playing field” has been criticised for promoting ‘human exemptionalism’ in sociology (Murdoch, 2001). From an environmental sociological perspective, Murdoch is interested in debates that stem from the boundary that divides anything “social” from “natural” and how that affects his subject matter. Murdoch asks the question, ‘if a perspective that divides society from nature is deemed to lie at the heart of the ecological crisis, should sociology be attempting to resubstantiate this supposedly damaging division?’ (112). To address this question he turns his attention to ANT as theoretical framework that can re-establish the complex relations that exist between humanity and nature. The semiotic relationships that ANT maps out is criticised for neglecting to account for the way in which human’s have the ability to use language: ‘humans must still be seen as having distinctive characteristics (linked primarily to their use of language) that mark them out from the nonhuman world’ (121). This was not Wiener’s vision since all communication is levelled down to networks of information-communication. Murdoch continues to argue that ‘ANT scholars have highlighted the heterogeneous make-up of the world and have shown that… social and natural entities are indeed mixed up rather promiscuously’ (128) However, Murdock concludes that, ‘the act of distinguishing natural and social entities should not be allowed to hinder our identification of those circumstances where the social causes of a given phenomenon are decisive’ (129). While ANT gives sociology the ability to think beyond the divide between nature/society, sociology still has a “Green” obligation in re-establishing some of the former linguistic divisions, especially the social/nature divide. Opposed to human exemptionalism is the ‘human distinctiveness’ approach that would argue that for sociology to address ecological concerns by recognising humans as being beyond nature and therefore capable of making decisions that affect their ecological environments. However, in achieving this, the framework of ANT is criticised since it, ‘is unable to reach any conclusive understanding of the social forces that often determine how heterogeneous sets of socio-natural relations are composed’. Furthermore, ‘distinctive differences inevitably emerge between humans and non-humans’ (128).
The human exemption or distinctiveness debate reappears when sociologists turn their mind from the nonhuman animal to nonhuman technology. Fuller (2011) argues that ‘converging technologies’, ‘promise to transform the very constitution of the human species’ (4), thus a ‘transhumanist’ agenda appears with the will, ‘to re-engineer the human body to enable us to live longer as to work and play harder’ (242). Fuller throws the gauntlet down and asks social scientists to decide which side of the political fence they fall upon: ‘naturalist’ or ‘cyber-spiritual’. On one side of this ‘bipolar’ sociological disorder is the human exemptionalism stance (‘our reabsorption into nature’) or human distinctiveness (‘our transcendence of nature’) (69).
The former ‘naturalist’ position promotes a social-Darwinianist attitude towards biosocial enhancement since it would view the unfair balance as survival of the species as it, ‘treats the human as an animal gifted in the adaptations to the environment’ (95). Such a stance therefore would view the hybridisation of human and nonhuman as part of an ongoing evolutionary process. Alternatively, the creationist, religious perspective, would presume human’s dominant position over nature. In this light the human exist as a, ‘virtual deity aspiring to a universal status that transcends earthly moorings’ (95). Spirituality, like cyber-space, is about transcendence beyond the nature and the worldly.
For Fuller, the intelligent design of Humanity 2.0 can advance in two ways. Either sociologists can take a utilitarian approach (following Kant’s ‘Golden Rule’) or allow this hybridisation of humanity to be governed by economic forces (or Adam Smith’s ‘Invisible Hand’). He argues that social sciences – which represent the academic ‘party of humanity’ (69) – have always been concerned with human wellbeing and therefore enhancement. Fuller states, ‘it is crucial that social scientists do not capitulate to Darwinian bluster… that would downplay, deny, if not outright reverse, the advances that the social sciences have already made in the name of humanity’ (68). The blueprint for Humanity 2.0 therefore demands sociology’s proactive theoretical guidance: ‘our sense of social justice is tied to redistributions being conducted in a timely, targeted, and proportional fashion’, therefore, ‘the 21st century will demand from social theorists unprecedented levels of realism, imagination, and will’ (246). In such a theory, sociology’s concern for the nonhuman is unavoidable and will increasingly become a source of political negotiation.
The issue of fading boundaries appears in Fuller’s work. Fuller, citing Foucault’s ‘death of man’ and states that,

‘…the general prognosis of the re-absorption, if not outright ‘withering away’, of the social sciences into a broader conception of nature has also advanced by a consensus of postmodern social theorists who have queried the ontological significance of the human/nonhuman distinction and the need for disciplinary boundaries altogether’ (71).

Adam Smith, Darwin, Latour, Nietzsche, Foucault, Haraway, would fall towards this side of his anti-humanitarian (naturalist) and pro-humanitarian (cyber-spiritual) divide in attitudes towards human/nonhuman categorisation. ANT is commended for the way in which it offers sociology a ‘heterogeneous’ vision of society that has been used, ‘to model phenomena in the life sciences’, thus, ‘social sciences are extending their influence across disciplinary boundaries’ (69-70). Wiener, Galison, Latour, Haraway, Beck, and even Bauman indicate, in theory clear-cut divisions are to be liquidated, fragmented, or extended beyond by communication-technologies. It is paradoxical then that Fuller would recognise this merging while drawing his own ‘bipolarised’ divide through the subject of sociology and beyond. While Murdoch’s motivation is provided by an ecological risk, Fuller’s is a socio-bio-technological risk. Like Murdoch, Fuller recognises recognised that clear-cut division can advance his own academic and political agenda. It would seem then that in the process of rationalisation the ability to blur or draw divides is still necessary and as political as ever.


Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic sociology and philosophy is embodied in information-communication networks leading to new forms of human transcendence: either Fuller’s transhumanism and or Beck’s transnationalism. Cybernetic feedback loops continue to blur former linguistic divides and boundaries, subsequently, academic disciplines that were originally divided into rigid areas of specialism are now beginning to overlaps; the sociology of ecology; sociology of culture studies; sociology of technology etc. While theorists can take advantage of this blurring of boundaries (Foucault, Haraway, Hayles) some (Bauman, Fuller, Murdoch) realise the strength of linguistic divisions as they attempt determine the human and define human responsibility – this symbolises a recourse to a rational and pre-postmodern mentality. Therefore, sociology has been and should continue to be concerned with the nonhuman in its attempts to define the human and human responsibility. While actor-network theory helps to map out the networks of social interaction, it is guilty of human exemptionalism. In a cyber-society, for the human determinist goal to be achieved sociologists would need to establish disconnected space away from cyber-networks and develop a critical stance towards their subject matter, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ‘disconnect’ from these technological networks. The benefits of ANT is that it can be used as a tool for understanding the complex networks within which sociologists could extract Marx, Durkheim or Simmel’s vision of social beings – if they, as individuals, should choose to do so.


  • Bauman, Z. (1995) Life in Fragments: Essays in Postmodernity Morality. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. 
  • Bauman, Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Beck, U. (1992), Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage
  • Durkheim, E. (1984) The Division of Labour in Society, London: Macmillan.
  • Fuller, S. (2011) Humanity 2.0: What it means to be Human Past, Present, and Future. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian.
  • Galison, P. (1994) ‘The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision’, in Critical Enquiry 21 (1): 228-226.
  • Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. London: Free Association Books.
  • Hayles, N, K. (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetic, Litrature and Informatics. Chicargo: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Latour, B. ‘Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer’, in Social Problems, 35 (3): 298-310.
  • Law, J. After (1999) ‘ANT: complexity, naming and topology’, in Law, J., and Hassard, J. (eds) Actor Network Theory and After, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Marx, K. (2007) Das Kapital, Iowa: Synergy International of The Americas.
  • Murdoch, J. (2001) ‘Ecologising Sociology: Actor-Network Theory, Co-construction and the Problem of Human Exemptionalism’, in Sociology, 35 (1): 111-133.
  • Simmel, G. (1903) ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’, in On Individuality and Social Forms, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 324-339.
  • Simmel, G. (1898) ‘The Persistence of Social Groups’, American Journal of Sociology, 3 (5): 128-42.
  • Varga, I. (2010) ‘George Simmel: Religion and Spirituality’, in Flanagan, K. and Jupp, P (eds) A Sociology of Spirituality, Ashgate, pp. 145-160.
  • Weber, M. (1947) The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, London: William Hodge and Company Limited.

Phallogocentrism; the Politics of Binaries and Strategic Writing in Female/Male Ethnography

Phallogocentrism; the Politics of Binaries and Strategic Writing in Female/Male Ethnography
By James Addicott (2012): jamesaddi@hotmail.comtwofaces

“Phallogocentrism” is defined by Jacques Derrida as: ‘the system of metaphysical oppositions’ (1978: 20) predominant in Western philosophy that has until recently been written by men. Donna Haraway argues that this black/white and divisive logic has produced ‘dualisms’ that ‘have all been systemic to the logics and practices of domination of women, people of colour, nature, workers, animals’. The examples she offers of these ‘troubling dualisms’ are ‘self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, reality/appearance, whole/part, agent/resources, maker/made, active/passive, right/wrong, truth/illusion, total/partial, God/man’. These divides have been written into Western culture and it is difficult to conceive of society and culture, or produce knowledge about the phenomenon of the world, without the use of them. Haraway determines that ‘the phallogocentrism of the West’ as being inscribed by ‘White Capitalist Patriarchy’ (1991:117; 175; 197).Like Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles argues that it was not necessarily Derrida’s philosophy that exposed this logic of binary divisions but the new age of ‘Informatics’[1]; communications, technology and science were to highlight these divides and this ill-conceived Western logic in knowledge production. Hayles states that:

‘…the dialectic between absence and presence came clearly into focus with the advent of deconstruction because it was already being displaced as a cultural presupposition by randomness and pattern. Presence and absence were forced into visibility, so to speak, because there were already losing their constitutive power to form the ground for discourse. In this sense deconstruction is the child of an information age, formulating its theories from strata pushed upward by the emerging substrata beneath. (1999: 44)

This suggests that in the postmodern era the information-revolution will expose binary distinctions set in place by bourgeois, white, Western men. Living without binary division set in place by language should resolve social oppression such as sexism (man/woman), classism (bourgeois/proletarian) or racism (black/white). Hayles and Haraway argues that Informatics offer posthuman cyborgs an escape from the ‘maze of dualisms’ (Haraway, 1991: 181) and ‘fashion images of (themselves) that accurately reflect the complex interplays that ultimately make the entire world one system’ (Hayles, 1999: 290). However, deconstructionism was not everything it was cracked up to be. Haraway notes:

I, and others, started out wanting a strong tool for deconstructing the truth claims of hostile science by showing the radical historical specificity, and so contestability, of every layer of the onion of scientific and technological constructions, and we end up with a kind of epistemological electro-shock therapy, what far from ushering us into the high stakes tables of the game of contesting public truths, lays us out on the table with self-induced multiple personality disorder. (1991: 197)

To this problem of a “self-induced multiple personality disorder”, Haraway confesses that: ‘Binaries, rather suspect for the feminist I know, can turn out to be nice little tools from time to time’ (111). It seems that binaries remain an essential part of language and theory. But one problem exists; by feminists re-deploying male binaries, Dely argues that there is a ‘risk is that feminism might model itself after the phallogocentric exemplar in an inverse manner, taking up again its norms and representations’ (2007: 9). The question this leaves deconstructionism is with, is: between the men and woman whose texts are more binate in their logic, and, therefore phallogocentric?
In response to this, this essay will critically compare the writing strategies adopted by male and female ethnographers. It will cross compare a selection of ethnographic texts written by men and women on the topics of sexuality, prostitution and autoethnographic representations of the self.  In these areas this essay will look for the uses of binaries in the construction of the author’s arguments. It will present the thesis that written binaries, far from being “useful little devices” – as Haraway claims –, are in fact being deployed power-tools; appropriated (knowingly) in a post-modern, post-industrial, post-Informatic and post-deconstructs age in ethnographic reports written by men and women. In this respect, like language or writing, phallogocentrism persists in Western academia; it is a logic of domination that academics are bound up in and cannot become disengaged from. In the conclusion the finding presented will show that the ethnographies written by women (more than men) are inclined to deploy phallogocentric logic as counter-active form of argument construction as Dely (2007) suggests. Although women are more susceptible to phallogocentrism by inverting its logic they also mediate and prolong the continuation of phallogocentrism. It is of my opinion that men/women should not shy away from this masculine logic, since it seems impossible to extinguish, but persist in using it as a power-tool to advance or deconstruct both pro-masculine and pro-feminine arguments until some kind of middle-ground can be achieved.

Written Gender & Sexuality

The first male and female ethnographic texts to analyse are both written on the topic of sexuality in Greece. Hirschon’s (1993) essay Open Body/Closed Space: The Transformation of Female Sexuality was published as part of a series of papers in a book entitled Defining Females: The Nature of Women in Society. Shirley Ardener edited the book with the task of examining ‘certain basic assumptions relating to the definition of women’ (Ardener, 1993: vii). Hirschon had spent a year in Piraeus (Kokkinia) in the main port of Greece. The focus of her study was ‘the examination of certain perceptions of the sexual nature of women, showing how this is thought to differ from men’ (51).
Conversely, Loizos’ (1994) essay entitled A broken mirror Masculine sexuality in Greek ethnography, was published in a book entitled Dislocating Masculinity: Comparative Ethnographies (eds. Cornwall and Lindisfarne). In the preface the editor’s describe the aim of the book as, ‘a sustained cross-cultural enquiry (into) local experiences of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ (which are) deconstructed to reveal the complexities of gendering and gendered difference’ (1994: intro). Loizos argues that, ‘I am not happy with statements about ‘masculinity’ in Greek culture as substantive generalizations, even though it is easy to concede that some clustering of related concepts exists’, furthermore, ‘(t)he idea has been to suggest that not only is there no single sense of masculinity in that abstraction called ‘Greek culture’, but that from one local context, institution, domain or discourse to another we can easily find contrasting ways of being masculine’ (66; 78). Therefore, one hand there is a feminist text that aims to deploy binaries and one the other hand a masculine text that aims to deconstruct any clear-cut generalisations.

From the outset Hirschon’s text depends heavily on the use of binary distinctions to construct her argument. The text aims to, ‘examine beliefs regarding (women’s) physical and biological attributes and their position as these relate to the states of ‘open’ and ‘closed’’ (51). She argues that, ‘(t) The theme which unites these is that of control and restrain, which is exercised both externally – through social convention, and internally – as a moral force’ (52). Before entering into the main body of the text, Hirschon’s introduction has already established the dichotomies: men/women, open/closed, external/internal.

In his attempt deconstruct the binaries that Hirschon reveals, Loizos citing Demetrios J. Constantelos’ anthropologic work on Greece, states, ‘young men… since they do not know women, are pastriki, that is, clean and pure’, and consequently, ‘male virginity is the ideal’ (1994: 75). Thus, Hirschon’s rigidly constructed nature/culture dichotomy becomes slightly blurred by Loizos assertion that the sexuality of young Greek men are also constrained by cultural determination. However, it should be noted here that this is not a direct, empirical observation made by Loizos himself, but in referance to Demetrios. Nevertheless, a strategically placed shadow of doubt begins to appear over one of Hirschon’s clear-cut division: men/women.

In regard to issues of gender and space in Greece, Hirschon notes that an important part of Kokkinian culture is expressed in the idiom: ‘Get married and open your house’ (1993: 55). Hirschon continues to note that ‘to the sexual dichotomy is added a spatial dimension: the locus of the woman is domestic, within the home… while the place of the man is… in the outside world’ (ibid). Her argument places open/closed woman inside the inside/outside divides in socio-symbolic spaces. On the topic of domestication and social space, Loizos presents to the reader another ‘kind of man’, ‘who whom I term ‘domesticated men’’. Loizos explains that ‘(t)hey cannot stay at home, but their participation in coffee-shop and tavern is a much more measured affair. They do not emphasize their autonomy, but stress their constrained condition as responsible householders with obligations to support women and children’ (1994: 77). While such a statement supports Hirschon’s arguments that the male space is the public space, it also compromises Hirschon’s idea of the inner moral force that women alone are subjected to by the use of the words “some” and “kinds”; some men are also internally restrained by external moral cultural codes in male spaces.
What we can draw from the analysis of these first two texts is that they have both been written in a post-deconstructionist era. Whereas Hirschon actively deploys several binaries to construct a collective narrative for the group of women she wishes to empower (men/women, internal/external, inside/outside, open/closed), Loizos writing aims to fragment blur or complicate any fixed boundaries. The pro-feminist text deploys phallogocentric logic while the pro-masculine text is deconstructionist.

Writing Prostitution

Carla De Meis ethnographic research into Brazilian prostitution (2002) and Neil McKeganey research into Scottish prostitution reveal similar inside/outside, home/street divides to those discussed above.
De Meis fieldwork with prostitutes began in 1989 as part of a medical research group working in a prostitution zone called Mangue in Rio de Janeiro. Her ethnography borrows Brazilian anthropologist Roberto Da Matta’s (1991) idea of there being two ‘complex dichotomies’ in Brazil. According to Da Matta, these complex dichotomies ‘create the metaphors of “house” and “street” as two essential sociological categories for understanding Brazilian society’. De Meis explains that, ‘(t)he universe of the street… is a place of distrust, anonymity, incomprehension, and… “every man for himself,” the law of the jungle. Accordingly, the symbolic space of the house is orderly and peaceful, while the street is a dangerous place characterized by its lack of rules’. The idiom “every man for himself” does imply, as Hirschon has argued, that the outside world of the street is a masculine space. However unlike Hirschon, De Meis’ text does briefly take into account the troubles that men also encounter in this outside space. She proceeds to argue that this dichotomy ‘reflects the rationale frequently found in traditional societies’, in which ‘the ideas of “good” and “bad,” “pure” and “dirty,” and “high” and “low” are intrinsic’ (2002: 4; 7). This suggests that that social dilemma that a Brazilian prostitute repeatedly faces in her line of work is crossing the binary inside/outside: inside the feminine space of the home (good/pure/high) and outside in the masculine space of the street (bad/dirty/low). This would suggest that De Meis’ findings draw many parallels with Hirschon’s work in Greece; that social spaces are divided into inside/outside, male/female but De Meis goes one step further.
De Meis concludes that the Brazilian prostitutes she has researched are not outcast from society but rather trapped within a third “liminal space”. Victor Turner argued that ‘liminal situations or liminal personae’ are to be found in-between rigid social structures in a dimension he refers to as “communitas”. He explains that, ‘(c)ommunitas is almost always thought of or portrayed by actors as a timeless condition, an eternal now, as “a moment in and out of time,” or as a state to which the structural view of time is not applicable’ (1974: 265; 238); like an eternal-reoccurrence or continuing present continuous. De Meis explains that for Brazilian prostitutes ‘(l)ife is lived moment by moment’, she further states about Da Matta’s complex dichotomy that: ‘(w)e must be careful not to view this model as static. As with any other model, it is, in essence, arbitrary. Reality is dynamic and defies classification. People’s subjectivity is like a river that never stops flowing’ (14; 20). The issue of Brazilian prostitution is clearly not as clear-cut or black and white in a cultural, social, spatial, and linguistic sense as Da Matta’s division might suggest. Therefore, by a pre-existing binary in her text and then incorporating her research findings, backed by Turners theory of liminality, her text deconstructs Da Matta’s “complex dichotomies” by positioning Turners liminal space in-between his static division.
While De Meis is concerned with the spread of the HIV virus in Brazil, McKeganey’s text considers political idea of decriminalising prostitution zones in Scottish urban spaces. What is strikingly strange about his research is that it takes an approach that can only be described as ethnographic “curb-crawling”. He notes:

When I drove past a few minutes later she did not look into the car at all and I was not at all sure she was working although when I then pulled up she approached the car and asked if I was looking for business. When I explained to her what I was doing she said that I should have been in the area the previous night because it was ‘really busy’. When I asked her to estimate how many women had been working on the previous night she said, ‘At least three that I know of’. (154)

The divide that separates the interviewer from interviewee, self from other, is defined by the boundaries of the car’s windows and shell that draws a division between external and internal space.
McKeganey’s text is also spatially aware. He writes: ‘small numbers of women could be seen walking slowly along the harbour front or standing in doorways in the adjacent streets’ and has a quantitative focus on numbers and prices: ‘During a series of two-hour fieldwork visits to Aberdeen it was common to see around 30 to 40 women working on the streets within the tolerance zone area, with additional small numbers of women working outside the zone’ (154-156). The legal boundaries that define these zones are taken for granted; his observations are on multiple bodies in space, as a means of politically challenging those divisions. By including their own interview responses, and taking a more qualitative approach to issues of space, his text relies a lot less upon binaries in constructing the narratives of the prostitutes he observed. However, by researching prostitutes working inside/outside the legal/illegal zones in urban spaces his own ethnographic observations are naively phallogocentric and re-establish the divisions that are already set in place. While considering ways to redefine these boundaries he seems blissfully unaware of the enumerative, objective and ‘pimp-like’ domination of the spaces he observes as he calculates and quantifies human bodies in those spaces in capitalist terms.

Writing ‘The Self’ Strategically

Autoethnography, or writing ethnography about personal experiences is a practice that Ann Oakley (2007) explains, ‘is often seen negatively, as a form of inexcusable self-indulgence, especially in academia’ (23). Geertz (1988) refers to this form of ethnography as an “I-Witness account”, which he distastefully refers to as ‘author-saturated texts’ (141). It is on these grounds that Geertz picks apart Malinowski’s diary that was written in New Guinea in 1914-15 and 1917-18 and criticises him for contracting, what Barthes called, “diary disease”. Oakley takes a totally different view of autobiographical texts and argues that, ‘writing autobiographically is especially important for women: words, the text, construct subjectivity and therefore the authentic self in opposition to distorting cultural ideas’ (2007: 23). In terms of linguistic divisions, it is important and relevant to this essay how the self – the “I” – is represented within the text in opposition to the “Other(s).”
Malinowski’s diary continuously establishes a boundary between “I” and “They”. “The village” and “villagers” are referred to in derogatory racist terms: ‘neolithic savages’ (Geertz, 1988: 74): ‘I was terribly vexed by the fact that this nigger has dared to speak to me in such a manner’ (1967: 272), ‘”Exterminate the brutes’” (Geertz, 1988: ibid). “They” are fixed into a subordinate position while Malinowski’s “I” is placed into a dominant position. This racist, ethnocentric, Western, discourse is precisely the type of phallogocentric science that has prompted Derridaian deconstructionism.
Oakley’s text also constructs a binary between I/Them. She writes herself as Othered from the doctors she visited after breaking her hand in an ice skating accident. This is achieved by stating that the notes they wrote about her body where written in, ‘a foreign language, a language of insiders, like the freemason’s handshake’ (12). The deployment of freemasonry as a metaphor is significant since it suggests white, western, masculine, and ruling-class control – similar to the ‘bourgeois, male-dominant, and racist’ (133) superiority that Haraway rejects. This forms her written-based dichotomy between “I” and “Them”. However her diary notes are written to appeal to an external feminist audience. Aware of this, by separating “I” from “Them”, she also alienates “Us” from “Them” insiders. “They” are fixed into a dominant position while “We” readers are placed into her subordinate “underdog” position. The distance is formed through the medium of two texts, “her” writing versus “their” written notes.
Although Malinowski’s self/other, superior/interior divides are painfully obvious, the most striking thing about his diary is the way that the local villagers, customs and cultures are all subdued to the external world; nature. The environment, places or surrounding space are the main focus of his text and often subsume his own self. ‘Cold, damp day, sky and sea great; the mountains blue, hung with mist’, he writes, ‘(m)arvelous sheet of rain hanging over the sea like a curtain, coming closer’ (129; 157);

I sat on the beach for a while; start; I thought about objective reality: the stars, the sea, the enormous emptiness of the universe in which man is lots; the moments when you merge with objective reality, when the trauma of the universe senses to be a stage and becomes a performance – these are the moments of true nirvana.

In his text he is connected to the external world. Sometimes losing his sense of self to become an object of that universe. He is continuously reminded of this objective world as it affects his moods, feelings, health, and emotions. He describes this as a “mixed identity of circumstance.” His feelings, moods and emotions are all associated to the external environment and issues of physical health: ‘The dark (mass) of the island rising behind (creates) a strange mood’ (227), he writes in one passage. Normally, he writes himself as active, male, Western authority. But at the same time in a passive role, subject to the control of his ‘objective’ environment – of which women and savages are also described objectively, as objects (see women: 273, natives: 235).
Active/passive is a binary that Oakley also deploys. She manages to grammatically position herself into the role of the subject by changing the active sentence into the passive: ‘I broke my arm,’ is what I find myself saying, but, of course, I didn’t. My arm was broken by the sinister ice’ (14, italics added). Therefore, the external ice, and the rules of the ice-skating ring where she broke her wrist, is written as an active, external phenomenon that violently, forcefully, and suddenly intrudes into her internal world – ‘she’ becomes the victim, the subject of the sentence. The corporeal violation is external, and is written so that she is the internal victim, her recovery process is written in the active: ‘I’m am doing something for myself’ (19). Both authors write themselves as having agency but victims of an external world. However, in this active/passive division Oakley writes herself as a sudden victim of the external world, and split between the ridged divides of internal/external, active/passive, whereas Malinowski’s text represents him as constantly connected to an external objective world that affects him in waves or a tidal-like motion. This suggests that Oakley is more susceptible to the external, sharp, divisions that extrude into her “Self”.
‘Needless to say a terrible melancholy, gray like the sky all around, swirling around the edge of my inner horizon (54), writes Malinowski while filling up with despair about the realization of the outbreak of World War II; ‘Suddenly I tumble back into the real milieu with which I am also in contact’ (235), he writes about his daydreams while sitting on a beach. Malinowski’s inner world is a subjective dreamland and the relationship between his mind and body is never discussed other than in the sense that the mind can sometimes drift away. Ultimately, the mind, body, and environment are connected. Conversely, Oakley writes about the mind and the body as separate phenomenon. She states: ‘Although we live in our bodies, our social and personal identities are separate from them’ (15). She then begins to relate this division to academia by stating that, ‘academics repeat a prominent cultural motif in shunning corporeality as a subject of discourse: the cerebral is better’. (19, italics added) Her division between body/mind (identity), corporeal/cerebral, becomes engendered when she argues that ‘studying the body is a bit like studying women, who historically have been seen as more about bodies than mind and personal identities’ (20). Therefore, the mental, the mind, the ‘dominant’ academic appreciation of the cerebral, becomes engendered as ‘male’ while the body is engendered as ‘female’. Her appeal is for the latter (female) to overcome the former (male). “Women” in her argument are internal, embodied, subjective, passive, recipients of an external, active, academic, rational and culturally distortive, “Malinowskian-style” world. Academia is one political site where passivitvity, domination, external victimisation, rape can be overcome, rationally, actively, through the body, through the hand, and through writing. In the spirit of Haraway and Hayles, she argues that the aim is for feminists to overcome the divides her text identifies.
Malinowski book includes several binaries (e.g. self/other, mind/body, male/female, civilized/primitive, active/passive) but these still need to be “dug-up” from the text before they can be deconstructed. However, the construction of Oakley’s argument actively toys with similar sets of dualisms, which are all exposed and lay on the table for the reader to relate to. Written in a postmodern, poststructural, and post-Derridean era, we can only accept that this was a deliberate strategy on her behalf.


This essay has presented a selection of texts written by men and women, masculinists or femininists. While Phallogocentrism has underpinned the theoretical frameworks that this essay has deployed and understood as a dominant, patriarchal, masculine, construct, the logic of phallogocentrism has been more evident in feminist texts. It seems as if in the battle of genders, feminists are fighting fire with fire. On one side of the spectrum, Hirschon, Oakley, McKeganey and Malinowski’s texts can only be descried as binary-heavy. While De Meis’ anthropology also deploys several binaries, they are opened by her inclusion of Turner’s concept of liminality. On the opposite side of the spectrum Loizos has actively deconstructed feminist arguments by complicating any fixed notions of male/female sexuality. All the writings from men have shown little or no awareness of the binaries in social spaces that Hirschon and De Meis have written about. This is interesting as it suggests that space is still appropriated by men, as it was by Malinowski in the 1910s – particularly McKeganey’s legal/illegal approach to tolerant/illegal zones for prostitution. Whereas the binary constructions set in place by men, especially in social spaces, feminists in retaliation are using logic of the phallogocentric.
Most academic texts extend two hands to the readers: ‘on the one hand… on the other hand’. Situations in the ‘real’ social world are far less clear-cut than academic texts – which are all written strategically – would often like to admit. As De Meis argues: “reality is dynamic and defies classification.” However, since theory itself is based upon generalisations, then social movements such as feminism, masculism, multiculturalism, liberalism, socialism and capitalism, etc. will require the binary logic of metaphysics and language, as well as the protection from the oppositional forces that deconstructionism can provide; a build and destroy logic. Mastering the dynamic of solid-modern phallogocentric logic with liquid-modern deconstructionism is the challenge for situating knowledge in the postmodern future.


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[1] ‘Following Haraway’, Hayles defines “Informatics” as ‘the technologies of information as well as the biological, social, linguistic and cultural changes that initiate, accompany, and complicate their development’ (1999: 192)