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.

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