Everything changes

One has to eat, that’s for sure and that’ll serve as the starting point for this essay. This is not directly linked to my own research, but something that I came across when reading about biopower. You can take this as a reading suggestion. It’s well recommended and I think not particularly complicated. Even if it is, it’s still well explained to the reader. I chose to write this here because it is sort of linked to the discussion of what’s organic. Anyway, not that long ago, but still already a while ago I was reading about biopower and how that concept has been extended outside the works of Michel Foucault. I remember reading about Giorgio Agamben, then Jacques Derrida, until I came across Jeffrey Nealon’s rather recent publication titled ‘Plant Theory: Biopower and Vegetable Life’.

I’ve written a bit on biopower already, covering its origins in the works of Michel Foucault. In summary, in ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’, Foucault states that biopower was “an indispensable element in the development of capitalism[.]” Moreover, he (139) elaborates that:

“[It] focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary. Their supervision was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population.”

In ‘”Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976’, Foucault (242) states that as a technology of power, biopower is not mutually exclusive to disciplinary technology of power, but rather the opposite, embedding into it. To be more specific, he (242-243) clarifies that discipline has to do with individuation, the shaping of the individual bodies through surveillance, training and punishment, whereas biopower has nothing to do with the individual body but the mass of those bodies. So, simply put, he (243) states that it has to do with man-as-species. In the first volume of the ‘History of Sexuality’, Foucault (144) summarizes biopower as having to do with taking “charge of life needs and continuous regulatory and corrective mechanisms” and “distributing the living in the domain of value and utility.” He (144) goes on to add that it qualifies, measures, appraises, hierarchizes. This is in stark contrast to the power exercised by a sovereign, far from the displays of “its murderous splendor”, as he (144) explains.

So, in summary, biopower has to do with the administration of life, for the individual, beyond the individual, with or without the consent of the individual. If it works for you, the individual, then it does. If it doesn’t, then too bad for the individual. You need to get with the program! Do not think, for a second, that you know better! Or, well, if you do, you are just wrong because the system knows better. It knows what’s good for you. To be honest, that may well be the case, but the point is that it’s not up to you. Obey! If you don’t, you can always be put through the hoops of discipline. In most cases you probably already went through those and/or still do, so it might well be the case that you are already one with the mass.

Not to forget something vital here, Foucault (136-137) adds that it may seem that this change from the arbitrary murderous habits of the sovereigns to administration of life is only a win-win situation, there’s no fear of an individual being maimed and/or killed for some obscure reasons, but somehow the body count managed to increase in the process. In his words (136-137):

“Yet wars were never as bloody as they have been since the nineteenth century, and all things being equal, never before did regimes visit such holocausts on their own populations.”

I’ve quoted this all before, but here we go with Foucault (137):

“Wars are no longer waged in the name of a sovereign who must be defended; they are waged on behalf of the existence of everyone; entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity: massacres have become vital. It is as managers of life and survival, of bodies and the race, that so many regimes have been able to wage so many wars, causing so many men to be killed.”

I intentionally used the word vital for this important bit because it has everything to do with it. The point of emphasizing this is that the body of the sovereign no longer represents the body of the people, or rather subjects. The body is now one and the same. The state represents the people. To ensure the health of the body, it may have to go to the extremes of amputating itself in order to survive. I think Gilles Deleuze (92) explains this well in ‘Foucault’:

“[T]he survival of a population that believes itself to be better than its enemy, which it now treats not as the juridical enemy of the old sovereign but as a toxic or infectious agent, a sort of ‘biological danger’.”

As I pointed out with the amputation, which doesn’t really makes sense until you understand it in the way Deleuze explains it, the body, that is the state, will do everything it needs to ensure the survival of the body. So if a part of a body, say a limb, is infected with something, for example a virus or a parasite, and it can’t be saved, that part of the body must go. Do you want to live or not? Do you? I reckon most people do want to live as opposed to not, so they’ll gladly do without a part of them if that’s what’s at stake. Paradoxically then, as pointed out by Foucault, valuing life can lead to death, en masse and with unprecedented efficiency. Like it or not, the logic is that what must go, must go.

After rehashing parts of my previous essay, it’s time to move on to what Nealon has to say. In the preface to his book, Nealon (ix) indicates that he got interested in the topic once the literary humanities pushed out “a torrent of books and articles” on animal studies. Now I guess you’ll be wondering how that’s something worth emphasizing. To answer that, I’ll let Nealon (ix) answer:

“[W]hile I like animals as much as the next person, the Foucauldian in me became preoccupied with trying to figure out how animality had somehow become the ‘next big thing’ in the world of humanities theory and criticism. I wanted to figure out how … a ‘today’ saturated with animal studies was different from a ‘yesterday’ when … not too many people were thinking and writing about animals.”

I think it’s worth clarifying that Nealon is not against animal rights, by no means, but wondering how it all happened and what it entails, or as he (x) puts it, putting together a genealogy of it. Oddly enough, for me, that was the case with landscapes. I couldn’t help myself. It was all too fascinating to not know things came to be. Getting back to the topic, Nealon (x) summarizes that as biopower has everything to do with human life (emphasis on the human!), animal studies can be seen as an extension and in criticism of biopower inasmuch as it elevates humans above (fellow) animals. Now that may seem to be all well and good, but as he (x) points out in reference to the title of his book, and as argued by Foucault, what really gets left behind is not animals but plants, and I assume fungi. Summarizing his own research, he (x-xi) points out that this is present in the work of Derrida, as well as Agamben. While not exactly hostile to Derrida (and in extension to Martin Heidegger), Nealon (xi) argues that “the question of vegetable life” is elided or sidestepped. Most familiar to me then, he (xi) points out having turned to Deleuze and Guattari because they are, I’d say, perhaps “the most famous practitioners of a plant-based rhizomatic mode of thought.”

Nealon (xi) indicates that the point of contention is the split to animals vs. non-animals, i.e. plants (and fungi). He (xi) summarizes that those advocating for animal rights see the sudden interest in plant life, well, I think, as reactionary to animal rights advocacy and veganism. Nealon (xi-xii) remains sympathetic to such concerns. I think I can see what the issue is, fearing that it’s just some hollow rhetoric, sophism if you will, of those who oppose them. I think Nealon sees that as well. That said, I would add, just as Nealon (xii) does, that the biopolitical frame should be extended from not only from humans to animals but also to all forms of life. Nealon (xii) statest that if that isn’t done, then it will come across as all too convenient:

“[D]ebates about ethical vegetarianism aside, animal studies’ blanket refusal to consider vegetable life within its biopolitical frame seems to function as a subset of an old practice: trying to close the barn door of ethical consideration right after your chosen group has gotten out of the cold of historical neglect.”

Nealon (xii) goes on to point out how this works with other categories as well “race, class, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, etc.” While he uses this to point out the issue with identity politics, i.e. labeling oneself as this and/or that, as a member of a group, became extended beyond humans, from humans to animals, I think he is on to something in general as well. If the discussion is limited only to humans, unlike the focus of the book, albeit very much in line with it, the question is, as Nealon (xii) puts it, who gets to claim injury. What I’m after and concerned with is that the list of those claiming injury will go on ad infinitum. I fail to grasp why one would seek recognition of equality, that is that people truly are individuals, or haecceities, and relevant to the topic that all life is valuable, through division, or quiddity. I may be missing something crucial, fair enough, but to me this seems rather contradictory to resist arborescence with arborescence, hierarchy with hierarchy, as it only results in substitution.

Going back to what’s really at stake, valuing life, as Nealon (xii) acknowledges, it may well seem that if, for example, I advocate for plant rights while eating a steak, it comes across as dishonest, in bad faith. I’m well aware of that and I’m sure Nealon is as well. If I look at what’s on my hypothetical plate, the steak, I take it means beef (which to me is luxury), and the sides, say potatoes, rice or pasta, accompanied by, say, a salad, it seems rather obvious that an animal had to perish for it. I might be having a beer with it, so no animals were harmed and/or killed in brewing it, unless, for example, isinglass was used for fining (clarification) or for some novelty reason (I once had beer that listed bacon as an ingredient…).

Assuming everything else in front of me is non-animal, let’s narrow it down and go thought the process of how that meat came to be on that plate. There is a certain distance to it, eating meat. You buy (into) it. Some argue that if you are not willing to kill animals yourself, you shouldn’t be eating them. Fair game, that’s a good point, at least then one is taking the responsibility for that. You aren’t washing your hands of it. It’s rather obvious that these days you don’t actually have to kill whatever ends up on your plate yourself. That said, you probably wouldn’t even get to do that, not even if you wanted to. The meat just appears on the shelf in a shop and you pick it up. Then it ends up on your plate, after cooking that is. It’s very convenient and, in a Foucauldian sense, very efficient, which is probably why you wouldn’t even get to kill the animal yourself, even if you wanted to. Even killing has to be efficient and so the standard is set high. It’s better that not everyone goes on killing for food, or well, that’s the logic anyway. It is said that killing must be swift and dignified, as in humane, in order to avoid unnecessary suffering, yet somehow I find myself more convinced by the efficiency angle in which the standard is necessarily high so that it is in the benefit of the corp… I mean dignity, dignity. It’s not that these two are mutually exclusive, but still, I lean more to the latter than the former. Then there’s also the angle that permitting people to kill their own food could and/or would lead to there being no animals to eat after a while and that’s bad for business that banks on that. It would also increase safety hazards to other humans, resulting in more injuries as well as casualties, which, again, would increase healthcare costs, meaning it’s bad for productivity and efficiency. We can’t have that now, can we?

Of course there are those who actually do not contract someone else to do their bidding, but that doesn’t mean that they get to ignore the standards set for killing. Ask a hunter what kinds of administrative hurdles they have to go through to in order take the responsibility of killing something that is to end up on their plate. There is this idea of a clean or humane kill: one shot, one kill. If you can’t guarantee it, pass it up instead. There’s two ways to look at it. You can point out that it’s to avoid suffering. That’s the humane angle. The other is the pragmatic angle. You don’t want to end up having to track the wounded animal for hours. Additional shots needed will also lead to less meat. The idea is not to end up with an animal full of holes. That’d be a waste of meat, as well as ammunition. Of course, once again, one doesn’t exclude the other, yet I reckon it has more to do being practical than anything else. In a way efficiency creeps up there as well.

Would I kill for my meat? Well, there’s the thing. I’ve never fired a gun at an animal, unless you consider humans animals. I know that may seem bad at first, but I did do military service. Shooting at people (with blanks of course!) in the distance comes with the territory. Even without ammunition, looking at things, or people, through the sights wasn’t that out of the ordinary. There were also live fire exercises, shooting at human shaped pop up targets. Loading up three magazines that fit 30 rounds each, boy that felt strange, followed by an even stranger sensation when you and the others had about 90 rounds each to go through. You probably don’t get it, how that feels, unless you’ve been there and done that. Anyway, so if I’ve gone through it, being taught how to kill fellow humans, albeit in a dehumanized manner as enemies, typically in service of what was and possible still is dubbed as the yellow state, it seems rather pointless to wonder whether I would or wouldn’t kill an animal for food. Now relevantly here, I could opt to stop eating meat, of course. I could come to my senses, or so to speak, and in a way I have, but in an above and beyond kinda way. Washing my hands of this and then asking for forgiveness seems all too convenient, like an easy way out, not having to dig deeper. What if, what if my understanding of life is, in itself, too limited?

Back to Nealon, who (xiii-xiv) points out that the question of value of vegetative life has not been entirely ignored and that there has been a surge in plant studies in both natural and social sciences, even if, I guess, it’s still rather minuscule when compared to studies relating to animal and human life. Rather than summing up Nealon’s book chapter by chapter, which would ruin it for whoever reads this, I’ll jump to the end part of his book instead. With more and more research indicating that plants are, in fact, rather aware of what goes on around them, as well as able to adapt accordingly based on what has happened before, as indicated by Nealon (xiii-xiv, 111), one will eventually have to extend all life into the biopolitical frame, which means that in the end there is no moral high ground. You have to eat something, but when everything is, at least potentially, worth protecting from being harmed or killed, you end up having to choose something which is harmful to life. No, killing yourself is not a workaround either as that ends up extinguishing life as well. Nealon (111) states that there is nothing easy about this, no sufficient pre-existing answers:

“I choose to eat only plants, or things without a central nervous system, and that makes me a better, more responsible person. Maybe, maybe not.”

I think it’s worth emphasizing that only eating plants or whatever isn’t able to feel pain is not the issue itself. That may well be accurate. However, it might be that we are missing something, which might be crucial. It might be that as beings, as easily enumerated (me, you, one, two, three etc.), our understanding of something that isn’t like us is simply beyond our comprehension, at least for now. We can call a plant an entity, one unit, just like an animal, but plants are remarkable in the sense that they are decentralized, meaning that they are less reliant on their totality, meaning that if something goes missing, it’s not the end of the world for the plant. It just regenerates. I’m not a biologist, so how much can go missing, I don’t know, but I guess that depends on the plant. Anyway, animals don’t have such luxury. Once a cripple, always a cripple. Then again you can find animals that are baffling when compared to what we tend to come across in everyday life. For example, not only can some fungi and plants reproduce by fragmentation, that is by severing parts which then (re)form on their own to be a separate entity, but some animals can do this as well. How does one creature become two creatures? Plants, okay. Fungi, aha, still obscure enough. Animals, wait what? I’m sure that’s hardly baffling for biologists, but I keep thinking that … it’s … just so … unlikely, so counterintuitive. It makes you wonder how well taxonomy represents life. Anyway, back to Nealon. Examining the works of Deleuze and Guattari, he (83) elaborates the complexity of the issue in reference to rhizomes:

“[R]hizome is: multiple, intense, subterranean, resistant, connective, smooth, molecular, a block of becoming.”

Adding that (83):

“And thereby we also know what it’s not: totalized, extensive, arborescent, compliant, closed, striated, molar, block of being.”

Now, if you have not read anything by Deleuze and Guattari, you are out of luck with the wording used by Nealon. The point is, roughly speaking, that rhizomes are a-centered, extending from … somewhere to somewhere, having no beginning and no end, always in the middle of something, changing and shifting, becoming something which it isn’t, yet. For example, turmeric and ginger are rhizomatic. In contrast, me and you, or that hypothetical dog in my room, are numerable blocks of being, or so we like to think anyway, which is quite literally what their book ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ is all about. It’s not that all of the above, me, you, the dog, turmeric and ginger, aren’t different, indeed they are, no doubt about it, but rather that they’ve become what we take them to be through difference rather than identity. We like to think of ourselves as having certain qualities that mark us as something, like a genus, a group, a group of … beings, as this and/or that, while that’s just secondary. What we perceive to be is not what we are. As I’ve discussed in an earlier essay, or I guess I should say essays, the individual is indivisible, a haecceity, if you will. What we have in common is quiddity, but that’s post hoc attribution. It has it’s uses, fair enough, but it slips to reverse the order, being before becoming instead of being what you’ve become. I think it’s worth emphasizing that, as explained by Nealon (85-86), becoming is not opposed to being. You always are, whatever you are, at that very moment, if you think of it, but being is always linked to becoming, which is a process, leading to being. It’s sort of obvious really, so what matters is that identity emerges from difference, not the other way around. Anyway, back to the topic, the point here being that whatever is perceived as distinct, as this or that, like you and me, or that dog, are considered valuable, not because they are (of) life, but because life understood as bearing similarity to one another. Those unlike us are, of course, I mean surely, not worthy of our consideration. Simply put, it’s easy, as well as rather unsurprising, to extend rights, first and foremost attributed to humans, to those are deemed as like us. Nealon (109-110) refers to this as a matter of charisma, some judged as having it, others not: “bonobos yes, sunflowers no.” The problem with that is, as Nealon (110) points out, that what is deemed worthy, as life, is taken for granted, this counts, that doesn’t, just because. Going back to what was stated in the preface, the increased interest in plants, Nealon (111) states:

“Given recent research on plant intelligence, for example, it’s becoming clearer that most if not all of the things that are said when it comes to protecting animal lives from harm – animals have senses, can size up their territory, respond to threats, communicate, compete, remember – can likewise be said of plant life, but how (if at all) does that translate into a human ‘political’ stance toward plants? Is the analogy to the human (how much any given entity is like or unlike us) still the only kind of ‘posthuman’ criterion we can conjure for thinking about viable forms of life?”

Answering his own questions, he (111) states that it is conundrum alright, do or die. You have to eat something, otherwise you’ll perish, so something else has to be harmed and/or killed instead. If we set limits based on taxonomy, it allows us to draw borders between different forms of life, this as more worthy than that. It’s probably very convenient, offering a reassuring foundation, that can be granted, but it’s arguably intellectually dishonest, a cop out. Why? Going back to the drawing board, I’m going to leave you hanging if you aren’t familiar with Deleuze and Guattari, but as emphasized by Nealon (86) and stated by Deleuze and Guattari (274):

“If we interpret the word ‘like’ as a metaphor or propose a structural analogy of relations … we understand nothing of becoming.”

The point I want to make here is, if it goes by you, that judging some forms of life as worthy and others as not worthy tends to be based on being as a fixed, stable or preset identity, one that Deleuze and Guattari oppose, arguing against such as … well … stifling. As explained in ‘Difference and Repetition’, Deleuze (34-35) is against arborescence, of which taxonomy is as good as an example as there can be, on the grounds that it starts from identity, setting this and that apart on the basis of difference that is in turn judged on the basis analogy, resemblance or opposition. Now, interestingly, the way I understand Deleuze and Guattari, and how it relates to the topic at hand, the issue is not about extending qualifications of life from animals to plants, to blades of grass as Nealon (98) puts it, or fungi but to rethink/rework life in general. Perhaps our taxonomic distinctions fail us.

Using the prior example of me and my hypothetical plate of food, accompanied by something to drink, following Deleuze and Guattari, the question is no longer is it okay to eat plants but not animals. Once you obliterate the taxonomy, you now longer have a foundation to rely on, but have to think for yourself, starting from scratch. It might well be that, say, plants and fungi don’t matter at all, but it also might not be the case. Even if were to ignore Deleuze and Guattari, or anyone with similar ideas, it still leaves me wondering how much our understanding of life, as classified taxonomically, grants as a foundation that may be off. For example, fungi used to be classified under the plant kingdom, but they are now their own kingdom. What if they had been assigned to the animal kingdom instead? No more Quorn burger for you! Anyway, consulting a biologist would probably be helpful here and by the looks of it, just based on a quick search, how different forms of life are to be categorized seems to be a contested issue, which, I think, only shows that life is more complicated than offering protection to bonobos but not to sunflowers, or only eating plants but not meat. Going back to Deleuze and Guattari, if take their (22) statement “all we know are assemblages” seriously, we have think of life that way too, as noted by Nealon (114). So when we ponder about using land for growing crops instead of grazing, it’s not as simple as stating that growing plants on that piece of land is the only solution. Opposing growing crops somewhere does not mean that one is then in favor of grazing. Of course it can mean that, but whatever we do, it has consequences to assemblages. Simply put, a field of crops limits the uses for and by other forms of life that might otherwise make use of that land as the conditions are then not suitable for them. It also works the other way around. All changes in the environment, or assemblages, are beneficial to some, while detrimental to others. I forgot to take this into account initially, this comes some five days later of the posting date, but when actually discussing this, I was reminded that there is also the matter of collateral damage that incurs when harvesting crops. In the Finnish context harvesting crops is typically done with a combine harvester, which, well, mows not only the crops, but also anything that is in its way, typically rodents and amphibians, by the bucket. Then there’s also the matter of insecticide. Also just tilling the soil is harmful to animals. Anyway, thinking life as assemblages makes things far more complicated than a choice of this or that.

There’s also something that at times bugs me about when people speak of animals and their need to kill. I keep wondering if animals only harm and/or kill to protect themselves and/or to feed. In stark contrast it is often stated that humans are inherently good, just led astray to kill, for sport or so to speak, meaning there is no grounds for such behavior. If we are to believe, for example, Jane Goodall, Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, as argued in ‘We, Too, Are Violent Animals – Those who doubt that human aggression is an evolved trait should spend more time with chimpanzees and wolves’, in response to such claim by Marc Bekoff, then humans are not unique in this respect, sharing a habit of forming territorial coalitions to fend of outsiders from encroaching on territory while trying to gain more territory. I believe ants do this as well. In other words, territoriality is a big deal because. Of course, not everyone agrees, so there’s that. Then again one has to wonder if that has to do with some view in which humans are outside of nature instead of making the best of it just like other animals. One way or another, I’m actually more interested in my initial statement in this paragraph, whether some animals are thrill seekers, going for the thrill of the kill, on top of the necessity of having to eat. Among the oddities on record, that we know of and that I could find more about, include dolphins attacking porpoises for no apparent reason. Of course we can’t exactly ask animals what motivated them to do something, so we are left guessing. So, interesting, but a bit of a dead end.

Concluding this essay, not the topic itself, I have to clarify that I have no beef (no pun intended) with what people choose to eat. If anything goes, fine. If you eat only this and/or that, fine. There may be some moral high ground in not making use of, harming and/or killing animals, but it may also be the case that there is none. For me, it’s all too convenient to rely on a set system of classification on the basis of what one can eat and what not. It ignores the complexity of life. It relegates forms of life we don’t even understand that well and/or struggle to understand to unimportance only because they are so very different to us. Now, I can see merit in opting for plant only diet, in the sense that the aim is to have food for everyone and have it last in the long run rather than do the opposite and eat steaks all day everyday. Then again, even then one has to wonder who benefits from that? Now, by that I don’t mean which corporations benefit from it, albeit that’s also a good question. I mean that if we opt to only grow crops, fruit etc. we are not doing it for other forms of life, namely animals, but, as the use of first person plural pronoun already indicates, we are doing it for ourselves, humans. Then it’s humans claiming to be concerned about nature when in fact they are concerned about humans. That’s what it’s about. I have to add that I’m not exactly against that, in the sense that it doesn’t surprise me that all things concerning humans tend to concern humans, I mean, obviously. No …, what did you expect? Nealon (116-117) addresses this by pointing out that coming up with a more inclusive understanding of life does not mean that anything goes, say bacteria, viruses, parasites or cancer cells, not to mention that such approach should be embraced, not that we even get to have a saying, considering your body will do its job, or at least attempt to do so, like it or not, in order to get rid of such forms of life that seek your death. I think Nealon (117) puts it quite nicely:

“Thinking robustly about life isn’t to say that all life is the same, nor is it a ploy to make you feel bad about your cancer treatments. It is rather to suggest the opposite – that an untainted moral high ground is impossible when it comes to thinking about meshes of life. Undecidability complicates decision; it doesn’t make decision impossible.”

I think meshes of life is particularly apt, especially if you are familiar with assemblages. The following paragraph after what is in that quote contains some particularly hilarious reading, but I won’t spoil it for you, just read it yourself. I think Nealon has earned it me not conveniently quoting it but you reading his book yourself. To be serious again, I think Nealon (118) nails it when he states:

“[I]f life is a constant modality of emergent individuation (a harmonious territorial mesh of refrains or subroutines), then any ‘individual’ entity or living thing is already a ‘trans-individual.’”

I was actually discussing something similar with my brother, who has never read Nealon, nor Deleuze and Guattari (nor anyone cited in the book for that matter and probably never will) and might call such hippie drum circle type of stuff, and he agreed, which is quite remarkable, considering that I would characterize him as … serious (when it comes to his work) natural scientist. Thinking that life is only this or that, ignoring the meshing or intertwining of life forms, co-evolution if you will, not to mention the role of the inanimate, such as minerals, in the mix, fails to grasp the complexity of … everything, how everything is connected, inasmuch as it is. As the final sentence of this essay, following Nealon (119), albeit in a rather colloquial way, Linnaean taxonomy needs more dynamite than it does a Nobel.


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  • Foucault, M. ([1997] 2003). “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–76 (M. Bertani and A. Fontana, Eds.; D. Macey, Trans.). New York, NY: Picador.
  • Goodall, J., R. Wrangham, and D. Peterson (14.1.2013). We, Too, Are Violent Animals – Those who doubt that human aggression is an evolved trait should spend more time with chimpanzees and wolves. New York, NY: The Wall Street Journal.
  • Nealon, J. T. (2015). Plant Theory: Biopower and Vegetable Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.