Guns, 3D Printers and the Social Life of Things

The recent back and forth in Anthropology Today between Hugh Gusterson and Niklas Hultin highlighted old and new debates in anthropology. Gusterson advocated a tough anthropological stance on gun control in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook high school shooting. Drawing our attention to the political economy of the weapons industry – profits going to the rich, death coming to the poor – he argued in response to Cohn and Doukas’  work (and presumably preemptively against otherss who might follow suit) that this is no space for an analysis of the varying justifications of the NRA and other gun owners. Such analysis of rhetoric only serves to validate such arguments:

If, instead of following the rhetoric, we follow the careers of the guns themselves, the lives they take and the profits they make, we will see that guns disproportionately take the lives of the poor and of minorities while generating profit for companies owned primarily by wealthy white men. For example, the Bushmaster AR-15, the gun that killed all those six-year-olds in Newtown (and whose price is reported to have risen in the weeks since the massacre from $1,000 to $1800 or more), is made by the Freedom Group which, in turn, is owned by Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm worth over $20 billion run by financier Steve Feinberg (Gusterson 2013: 2)

In retort Hultin makes an articulate plea not to strip research on guns from the context where it occurred:

Here I would like respond to Gusterson’s editorial by suggesting that anthropology’s legacy of cultural relativism offers a distinctive and important entry point into the gun debate and that an investigation of the career of guns should not be divorced from the kind of cultural contextualization that he critiques (Hultin 2013 :23)

Here we see Boasian cultural relativism and a Scheper-Hughes-inspired ‘Primacy of the Ethical‘ position re-emerging in response to a distinctly polarising emotive debate. This debate will doubtlessly re-occur in varying iterations (I would argue necessarily so) for decades perhaps generations to come. If we take cultural relativism to be not only a moral stand-point but a methodological one, it ought to be intrinsic to our research. If we are to have anything approaching objectivity behind our research we need a starting point of attempted neutrality. Yet, if we are (even before our identities as anthropologists) first and foremost embodied agents in the field then we need to be able to respond to suffering and injustice humanely. If we see a right and a wrong then we are obliged to take sides. While I myself lean towards the second of these positions – it is with a very healthy dose of the former. Rather than taking an absolute standpoint I find myself viewing this not as a binary but as a spectrum – one I shift around within depending upon the issue at hand. In regard to this particular issue: I don’t like guns. I never will. I’m vaguely curious to know how it feels like to have that power in your hands – but I’m certain that the world is a better place when less people have it. I can understand the multitude of social or cultural reasons that lead to gun ownership – I’d still rather people didn’t have them. Particularly anywhere near me or my loved ones.

But rather than diving into this debate myself, what I want to briefly raise as an issue here is the point both authors touch upon in the above quotes – that of ‘the careers of guns’. It is a term which instantly made me think of Appadurai’s (ed) The Social Life of Things.

English: Arjun Appadurai listens to an audienc...

English: Arjun Appadurai listens to an audience member during a Q-A session after his lecture on Global Society at York’s 50-50 Symposium עברית: ארג’ון אפדוראי (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the book Appadurai (and also notably Kopytoff) argue that anthropology might un-anchor itself from research based on particular places becoming more fluid by following the biographical lives of objects. Outside of anthropology following the life of a firearm biographically is not entirely new – David Bernstein did it in this article from 2004, Jayson Blair and Sarah Weissman did it here in 2000. A more detailed, long term ethnographic study of the social life of a gun would doubtlessly be fascinating. This was the idea that was lodged in my head when the news became full of talk of designs for a 3D printable gun being made available online.

While these designs have been ordered to be taken offline, Pandora’s box has already been opened. 3D printers doubtlessly provide new legal dilemmas but they also provide bizarre new patterns in the biographies of objects. To borrow from another Appadurai text, Modernity at Large, this represents physical objects (or iterations of them) flowing through the ideoscape and technoscape in ways that mirror the neo-libertarian flows of power/knowledge that are typified by egalitarian ideals of code-sharing among programmers, hacking collectives or new non-state currencies such as Bitcoin. While the initial plans were made available for profit, the subsequent sharing of the files on sites like Mega for free (although now taken down) led to over 100,000 downloads of the gun design. The gun design has been pirated or democratised, depending upon your perspective, in such a way that people all around the world who have access to 3D printers now have access to guns. And depending upon printing speed, potentially lots of guns. With such printers now costing a little over £1000 and coming down in cost quickly we have to explore the potential of these new flows of objects being one that challenges our ability to meaningfully track such objects. And if we can’t track these newly democratised plans/objects – the embargoes that have stemmed the flows of these objects will be challenged in ways it is hard to anticipate. Is it possible to control access to weapons when they can be manufactured by anyone?

In light of this, I just want to end by reiterating the position recently taken by the American Anthropological Association:

Unfortunately, in 1996 the U.S. Congress defunded research on gun safety and gun injury at the Centers for Disease Control. It subsequently imposed constraints on research on guns and public health sponsored by the National Institutes for Health. Far from fostering a better understanding of gun deaths, the U.S. government seems to be actively impeding it.

Therefore we call upon the Congress and the Administration to rescind measures that obstruct the development of empirical knowledge about guns and public safety. (AAA 2013).

What I would add to this is that technological advancement in the form of 3D printers has suddenly made research on gun control (both in regards to the political economy of gun violence and in regards to the cultural patterns underlying their use) increasingly important beyond the borders of the United States. These are now global issues that might not fit with our existing models of exchange. We need social research that is fitting for a problem of this scale.


Bolivar Trask: Marvel’s eugenicist anthropologist

I recently discovered that H.G.Wells was a eugenicist. This made me particularly sad as he was somewhat of a hero of mine. Besides writing The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds and The Time Machine he was also responsible for a letter to The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) and the subsequent lobbying of his friend President Roosevelt which lead to the resurgent idea of the ‘rights of man‘ which in turn became the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

H.G. Wells, 1910

H.G. Wells, 1910 (Photo credit: LSE Library)

To be a visionary author is a very good thing. To be one of the architects of one of the most humane things humankind has ever achieved allowed me to place him on a pedestal. Finding out that he thought the forced sterilisation of ‘degenerates’ was a cure to the world’s ills made me momentarily re-appraise my love for him. Fortunately it turned out that by the time he wrote The Rights of Man in 1940 he’d had an about turn and was advocating a prohibition of forced sterilisation. I was also pointed towards the likes of George Bernard Shaw and other social progressives having been in favour of eugenics in the first parts of the 20th century. The real world application of eugenic ideals in WWII highlighted exactly what a world looks like when such policies are implemented, but at one time it appeared to offer a real opportunity to move shape the world into a better place with less poverty and less suffering.

While I doubtlessly encountered both in other places first – the first place I knowingly encountered either eugenics or anthropology (or a fictional iteration of an anthropologist at least) was in the 1990’s animated series of the X-Men. Like Wells before him Bolivar Trask has his reasons for being a eugenicist. In the wider Marvel universe Trask is an anthropologist who sees the the spread of super-powered mutants as a threat to humanity, this is compounded by his finding out his children are mutants. Initially his activities take the form of publishing articles on ‘the mutant question‘ echoing the Nazi anthropologist Otmar Freiherr von Verscuer and Eugen Fischer’s involvement in ‘The Investigation Into The Jewish Question’ at the Frankfurt Institute.

Eventually Trask is driven to create an army of giant robots called the Sentinels who eventually decide they are superior to both humanity and mutants and go about trying to take over the world (again there are echoes of anthropological inspiration for the Final Solution). With the X-Men’s alterity allowing them to stand for outsiders and the downtrodden everywhere Trask has, since his inception in the 1960’s, variously stood as a cypher for anti-semitism, racism, homophobia and Senator McCarthy. As introductions to anthropology go, this is not the greatest. So it is a mixed blessing that Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage has been rumoured to be playing Trask in the upcoming X-Men film – an adaptation of Chris Claremont’s excellent Days of Future Past (up there with The Dark Phoenix Saga and God Loves, Man Kills as a contender for best X-Men story arc).

X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills

X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I am a disproportionately pleased to of see anthropologists appear in films (I’m currently watching the last few findable films in an attempt to watch every fictional filmic representation of an anthropologist – no doubt more on this in future blogs)  I can’t help feeling that we’ve come along way in all the the many branches of anthropology that inferring connections between our discipline and eugenics might not be fair in the 21st century. Possibly for exactly this reason Trask’s academic background has become increasingly hazy. It was always slightly odd to categorise a man capable of inventing super-intelligent giant robots as an anthropologist anyway. But being that my first exposure to anthropology was through Trask and I still became an anthropologist maybe I’m overthinking this. Maybe it’s just nice that the Marvel universe has an anthropologist – even if he is a bad guy.

The meaning of ‘Bork’ – the Swedish Chef and cross-cultural translation.

While living with the Swedish owner of the only Irish bar in Guatemala, ‘Johan’ mentioned that first thing he ever remembered finding funny was the Swedish Chef. To the undiscerning eye the Swedish Chef might appear to be a joke at the expense of Swedes. But as a child  ‘Johan’ had understood the Swedish Chef for exactly what Jim Henson intended it to be – a joke about the things that translate oddly in transcultural and translinguistic exchanges.

For those of you who have never experienced the Swedish Chef it is perhaps best to watch a snippet before going any further:

The Swedish Chef is primarily a slapstick take on TV chefs. Central to each sketch is his inability to successfully cook the dishes (largely consisting of a still-living animal or vegetable puppet that gets the better of him and survives death) while he sings a song which ends each verse with ‘bork, bork, bork!’ This is conducted with unconventional cooking equipment which he generally throws around while cooking. He speaks in what is best described as Chef-speak – a nonsensical Swedish strewn with occasionally identifiable English words making it near comprehensible in a way that replicates that uncanny feeling of nearly understanding what’s being said while listening to people speaking another language.

Swedish Chef

Swedish Chef (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘Bork’ in this context is just a word that when said in a heavy comedic Scandinavian accent sounds funny. But the repetition of ‘bork’ over and over again makes you question what it means. The fact that this is gibberish lends it the meaning an unknowability that gives the word ‘bork’ an ineffable charm. It is a word that is purely nonsensical, but in a loving way that points towards a childish joy in the fact that people speaking other languages sound funny. The Swedish Chef is not a joke about Swedes being funny but about the liminally alien nature of other cultures being funny. Similar comedy can be seen in The Simpson’s Bumble Bee Man (a riff on the cross cultural oddness of El Chapulin Colorado from Mexican TV).

Roberto Gómez Bolaños as El Chapulín Colorado

Roberto Gómez Bolaños as El Chapulín Colorado (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Occasionally such humour can lead to accusations of racism. The more articulate accusations thrown at Sasha Baron Cohen’s comedy foreigner Borat closely echo the criticism Chinua Achebe made of Joseph Conrad – “To use me as a symbol may be bright or clever, but if it reduces my humanity by the smallest fraction I don’t like it” (Achebe interview with Caryl Phillips 2003).

But as a child ‘Johan’ saw Henson’s sentiment in it’s totality: in recognising ‘that’s what Americans think Swedes sound like’ came the recognition that there is something profound lost in cross-cultural translation. I would add the anthropological addendum that trying to minimise this loss is profound, interesting and very often funny in itself.

It is for this reason that this blog has the syncretic name ‘The Golden Bork’ – one part Frazer’s The Golden Bough married with an equal part nonsensical Muppet-Swedish. Here we take ‘bork’ to mean the ineffable, light-hearted funny side of cross-cultural exchange – while Frazer stands for something loftier.