Anthropology and the feral: some further considerations about sequentiality and transformation

My last post was triggered by Michael Scroggins’ mention of feral cats in Australia. It made me think of Lévi-Strauss’s culinary triangle as a way to escape simple dualisms.  But they may not be sufficient if they induce readers to classify (some animals would be wild, others domesticates, and still other feral).  It may be closer to Lévi-Strauss’s goal to imagine that any “thing” (food, animal, marriage, blog posts) is always, as produced through humanity, wild and domesticated and feral (or imaginative/conventional/confusing).

But the power of the triangles is best revealed when we lay the three poles on a temporal frame and imagine them as a sequence involving minimally three persons (Arensberg 1981, 1982).

imagination -> convention -> confusion

Let’s stay with any blog post (as I started in my last one).  Like any other form of asynchronous expression, a post develops over a period of time, in the privacy of a writer’s room, one character at the time of a computer screen.  ‘I’ am currently doing this (a post), and do not quite know what I will write next (at this very momentary moment, ‘I’ am often suspended, wondering whether to open a new parenthesis, or not).

But all this is not accessible to anyone but ‘me’ as, a few seconds later, I discover what ‘I’ wrote and may now edit.  This next step may be taken hours, if not days, later. [note: this sentence was written on December 14, 2016; this note was written on January 9, 2017.] In other words, ‘I’ am conversing with ‘my self’, struggling with the words I must borrow, but without having to deal with anyone else who, at some future time, might tell I/me what I wrote.

And then, at some point, ‘I’ will press “Publish” and the post will escape into ‘my’ past, an uncertain future, and any reader’s present and then past.

All this, of course, is a common sense developed by American Pragmatists, most clearly perhaps by George Herbert Mead (1913, 1934), and later formalized in conversational analysis and related fields.  I paraphrase this sense in this way:

‘I’ (in the radical present) becomes ‘me’ (as remembered in a system of identifications) and is then identified for all future purposes in a third move, possibly performed by some more or less significant other, alive or dead.

As Mead put it:

It is not necessary, in attempting to solve the problem of meaning, to have recourse to psychical states, for the nature of meaning, as we have seen, is found to be implicit in the structure of the social act, implicit in the relations among its three basic individual components: namely in the triadic relation of
1)  a gesture of one individual
[and then]2)  a response to that gesture by a second individual
[and then]3)  completion of the given social act initiated
by the gesture of the first individual.
(Mead 1934: 78. I reformatted to emphasize sequentiality and added the italicized text)

Had Geertz built on Mead rather than Weber, he might have seen that his concern with “interpreting” twitches/winks is moot: the “meaning” is in a completion that is an act of power rather than of interpretation.  That is, neither the gesture nor the response determine the completion.  Rather the completion determines what happened before in that completion identifies the muscle spasm as this (rather than that): In culture causality is reversed.

Most anthropologists, of course, follow Geertz, following Weber.  Few follow Arensberg (or Mead, or Garfinkel) in his insistence on sequencing and temporality (by contrast to the more common insistence on history).  Those who did, say in the anthropology of schooling, or of science and technology, may, however, have fallen into another trap that thinking about the feral makes glaring.  This trap involves assuming that the completing act as necessarily an act of identification back into the “normal-for-the-time” (culture as organization of political power producing particular forms of suffering).  I’d now say that most of my work with McDermott could be criticized for assuming that completion silences possibilities opened by the gesture or the response to the gesture.  We complained about Bourdieu, Foucault, et al., but more for their understanding of the processes of reproduction rather than for taking reproduction as inevitable—even though, as anthropologists, we should have known better.  Even the most incessant work at reproduction will always fail.  Even the most pampered of kittens can go feral.

Why this should be so should be the anthropological problem, to the extent that we follow our roots to Boas and Saussure (as historical linguist).  I have written about “education” is this vain, but thinking about the feral as a moment rather than a category could sharpen the argument.  One should wonder: what if “completion” is more akin to an apparently ‘domesticated’ cat escaping into the streets, hills and back-country?  To the very extent that the completing act may surprise those who gestured and responded, then even an enforcement of the normal can become something to fight.  That is every “third” (identifying “completion”) in temporality, is also a “second” (suitable “response”), and then or course a “first” (“gesture” wildly open to all sorts of responses).

In brief, the classical case borrowed from Hugh Mehan on classroom lessons (1979) is generally summarized as a sequence:

1) Question (gesture): “What time is it?”
2) Answer (response): “It’s 10:06″
3) Evaluation (completion): “Good! ‘A’ on finding the time on your computer screen!”

When I teach this sequence, I then note that the evaluation places the sequence into the world of meritocratic schooling and its attendant production of sanctioned inequalities.

I do not know of anyone noticing that teaching this sequence is actually a statement in a temporal sequence.  That is, “teaching about schooling” (reporting, telling, …) is a new, altogether feral (from the point of view of about everyone involved in schooling), completing “third”:

1) Gesture: “It’s 10:06″
2) Response: “Good! ‘A’ on finding the time on your computer screen!”
3) Completion: “This is a terrible way of doing education!”

No wonder so many dismiss anthropology, or even try to silence it — like the government of Australia trying to rid the continent of feral cats!


Arensberg, Conrad.   1981     “Cultural holism through interactional systems.” American Anthropologist. 83:562-581

Arensberg, Conrad.   1982     “Generalizing anthropology: the recovery of holism,” in Crisis in anthropology. Edited by E. A. Hoebel, et al.. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.. pp. 109-130.

Mead, G. H.   1934     Mind, self and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mehan, Hugh 1979 Learning lessons: Social organization in the classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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Wondering about the feral

Michael Scroggins, in one of drafts of the dissertation he will soon defend, brought out something I do not remember any anthropologist ever mentioned: we all easily use the distinction wild/domesticated.  But we do not write about the feral.

(I count on Scroggins to tell me more about his sources…).

Since he brought the ‘feral’ up, I have been playing with him on how to present something with which we now can make at least three distinctions:

  • wild/domesticated
  • domesticated/feral
  • feral/wild

We started, of course, with something most powerfully developed by Lévi-Strauss.  Famously Lévi-Strauss works through oppositions:

  • good to eat/good to think (in Totemism)
  • wild/domesticated (implicit in the title to Pensée Sauvage)
  • bricolage/engineering (in Chapter 1 of Pensée Sauvage)
  • raw/cooked (volume 1 of Mythologiques)

and, perhaps, nature/culture though this is not quite so evident since he repeatedly pointed out that we cannot possibly reach the “natural.”

What would he have done with the “feral”?

Now, it is not often noticed that, while Lévi-Strauss, starts with straw distinctions, he regularly moves to triangular models.  The most famous is a short paper about a “culinary triangle” that still has a small life inspiring scholars of human eating (D’Onofrio 2004: Chapter 5).  Like for his paper on Santa Claus (mushrooms, Totemism, etc.), Lévi-Strauss starts with references to contemporary life (Italians imposing crudités as edibles, America soldiers destroying Camembert as in-edible), then gallops through historical and geographical whirlwinds, and ends with the most general of statements: “Thus we can hope to discover for each specific case how the cooking of a society is a language in which it unconsciously translates its structure or else resigns itself, still unconsciously, to revealing its contradictions.” (2008 [1965]: 43).

I am not going to complain about the use of the “unconscious.”  One of these days, I may translate this statement into something I could now live with.  For today, I will leave this aside and concentrate on the preceding step: taking the mundane (eating and drinking) seriously.

In that vein, one of my fondest memories of my field work in Michigan was the meal when four glasses of drinkables were set for me (water, milk, wine, coffee), all at the same time, to be drunk in any order, as I saw fit.  On that day, I was also offered soup after dessert.  All my expectations about sequencing of foods and associations between food and drink were challenged, and I loved it: this is why I was glad for anthropology!  And so it became part of what I wrote about “America”: individualism, loving attention to individual whims when together, and the careful display of all this in words and actions.

Coming back to Lévi-Strauss and his “culinary triangle”:

Let’s translate this into the world of animals (say cats in Australia), and transform the original triangle (as Boon did when modeling Balinese marriage into a strategic/sacred/romantic triangle  (1977)).

The error here, and Lévi-Strauss sometimes allows for it, would be to imagine the model as a collection of states of being (cats could ‘be’ either wild, or domesticated, or feral).  The model, as per Lévi-Strauss, is an analytic tool about, in this case, possibilities in any setting, at any time, when human beings get together to do anything (cooking, marrying, doing science).  Any statement (act) must be seen as “wild” AND “cultured” AND “feral.”  That is, what I am writing here is:

  • Wild (to the extent that it is an act of pensée sauvage);
  • Cultivated (to the extent that it is written in English, building on a long history of anthropological thinking);
  • Feral (to the extent that it may not be what anyone building on the same history is expecting, and may even be disturbing)

One open question, among many, concerns temporality, and I will write about it some other time.


Boon, James. 1977 The anthropological romance of Bali: Dynamic perspectives in marriage and caste, politics and religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

D’Onofrio, F Salvatore.   2004     L’esprit de la parenté : Europe et horizon chrétien.. Nouvelle édition [en ligne]. Paris : Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2004. Available at: .

Lévi-Strauss, Claude   2008 [1965]    “The Culinary Triangle.” In Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik Food and Culture: A Reader. New York: Routledge. pp. 36–43

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On educating a democratic public, democratically

Soon after Lawrence Cremin published Public education (1976), I gushed about the book to a senior colleague.  He did not like any aspect of the book because, as I remember he put it, Cremin made of education a form of “brain-washing.”  My colleague claimed Paulo Freire and, I guess, an alternate view of what it means to educate, democratically.

I must say I was astonished.  My take then, and I have not changed my mind, was that Cremin asks something surprising from us who are given the task to design education for the public.  He asks us to pay attention to what people are doing, in the streets and alleys of the world, far from the halls where pedagogy and curriculum are discussed.

I was astonished that my colleague had not noticed that Cremin was asking us to look at the crowds around us and was criticizing the John Dewey of Democracy and education ([1916] 1966) for not imagining any other educational institution than than the State sponsored school.  I could see how a very unsympathetic critic might notice that Dewey, as a philosopher who also read the psychologies and social sciences of his time, was quite sure as to what to teach the masses settling in the United States that they should learn to participate in an American democracy.  By Chapter 7, Dewey, unapologetically, claims an aim, a “Good Aim.”  In brief, in language Teachers College still uses (though we might wonder about mention of a “social ideal” and the measurement of “the worth of a form of social life”):

Since education is a social process, and there are many kinds of societies, a criterion for educational criticism … implies a particular social ideal. The two points selected by which to measure the worth of a form of social life are the extent in which the interests of a group are shared by all its members, and the fullness and freedom with which it interacts with other groups. An undesirable society, in other words, is one which internally and externally sets us barriers to free intercourse and communication of experience. A society which makes provision for participation in its good of all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible forms of associated life is in so far democratic. Such a society must have a type of education which gives individuals a personal interest in social relationships and control, and the habits of mind which secure social changes without introducing disorder. (p. 99)

It is probably the case that Cremin would not have disagreed with this.  Cremin’s concern was with Dewey’s next step, when he gets to assume that the institution of desirable education is the public school.  I was then starting my career in a department soon to be named “Family and Community Education,” that Cremin had been instrumental in creating and which he strongly supported.  With Hope Leichter, Paul Byers, Ray McDermott, we had to wonder about what might count as education in families and communities.  I do not remember us wondering much about who might control this education, assess the worth of the design, or worry that the education parents given their children, each other, friends and consociates, might not be desirable.

Thirty years later, I was introduced to the work of Jacques Rancière who, in many ways, is a scorched earth critique of philosophers-with-an-aim, particularly philosophers of education.  Rancière starts with the Plato of the Meno.  He sides with the various shoe makers whom generations of philosophers have used as example of people who should not be involved in what we know call “knowledge production,” and even less in the teaching of this expert knowledge.  Rancière keeps asking philosophers to pay attention to, and respect, shoe makers

Rancière’s work, like Cremin, is very congenial to the generations of anthropologists who have tried to tell other social scientists and philosophers that all human being produce knowledge, pass on knowledge, transform other forms of knowledge they may encounter and, of course, make different value choices about aims, and are ready to fight for these.

Rancière is also writing about “democracy and education,” but from the point of view of a radical democrat,  Rancière’s hero is a teacher who refused to teach his expertise because he believed teaching what one knows will always be a form of “stultification,” brain-washing—particularly if the “learner” is assessed as having (not) learned just what she was supposed to learn not only as knowledge or skills but also as dispositions (beliefs, attitudes, values).

And so, whether one deplored or celebrated what happened last week, we, as the philosophers of education we cannot help but be, must ask ourselves: what is our business.  Is it convincing or is it allowing people to make up their mind?  And what are we to do with people who do not make the choices we make?

As we ponder the questions, we must face the fact that philosophers cannot control people, even when they are very influential on matters of state authority.  That, I’d say, is what a century of anthropological research has demonstrated.  Radical democracy may be the human condition.

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What might Chomsky make of Halloween and Santa Claus?

A few times over the past week, I had to face the reality that Lévi-Strauss is mostly summarized as being concerned with Man rather than human beings, with deep Human Nature rather than the messiness of culture (Geertz [1967] 1973).  Lévi-Strauss, it would seem, is just another Cartesian.

I must acknowledge that he has written much that justifies what used to be a called a “reading” of his work, and can now be called a “translation.”  Other translations are possible.

In any event, yesterday, an interview with Noam Chomsky was published in the New York Times:

Journalist: It will soon be 60 years since your first book, “Syntactic Structures,” was published. Where was the study of linguistics then and what did you see that could be done?

Chomsky: The belief at the time was that languages can vary arbitrarily, so when you study a new language you should come to it without any preconceptions. Such views are still held, although the evidence to undermine them, I think, is simply overwhelming. Studies have shown that the diversity and complexity is superficial, while the internal system, which yields the fundamental properties of language as a system of thought, may be close to uniform among humans — basically following very simple genetically determined properties and general laws, like principles of computation. Some of the most exciting work in the field is going in that direction.
(November 5 2016 –)

A faculty colleague in linguistics who had been a student in Chomsky’s department at MIT once told me that, “of course, we do not do transformational grammar the way he did it.  We now use machines to directly view the neurological activity.”

I do like Chomsky’s using the fundamental word in Saussurian linguistics, “arbitrary,” to dismiss Saussure and concerns with variation or history.  Diversity is “superficial,” the “fundamental properties are … uniform … genetically determined.

Boasians (and I include Lévi-Strauss in the group I am assembling here) need not complain here if we take Chomsky to be writing about what Boas’ “psychic unity of mankind.” As far as I can tell, Boas wrote about this as an open potentiality, and did not directly investigate what it might be.  Boasians are concerned with what happens next after the potentiality has been activated.  Boasians may be willing to ignore what MRIs, CTC scans and other machines tell us about neurology, but they will not ignore “diversity.”

Now, there is no evidence that Lévi-Strauss, either, ever actually investigated deep structures, Man, or Human Nature.  At least, he never looked for his material where it makes most sense to find it (as Chomsky and his students do).  He read ethnography and, most spectacularly, took the details of ongoing diversification and its consequences more seriously perhaps than any other anthropologist.  He took it so far as never stopping at the intermediary moment when diversification patterns, the moment Saussure wrote about as “langue,” and American anthropology as (a) “culture” (later transformed into words like “epochs”).

For those who have never read Lévi-Strauss, I suggest they start with a little paper on Santa Claus ([1952] 1993).  The paper begins with an ethnographic anecdote (a Catholic bishop hanging and burning Santa Claus in effigy) and moves fast through a history of Christmas celebrations in France.  And then the Lévi-Strauss of La pensée sauvage ([1962] 1966) and Mythologics asserts himself as he talks of “very old elements … shuffled and reshuffled” and takes the reader around the world:

Father Christmas … expresses the difference in status between little children on the one hand, and adolescents and adults on the other. … He is linked to a vast array of beliefs and practices which anthropologists have studied in many societies …. There are, in fact, few societies where, in one way or another, children (and at times also women) are not excluded from the company of men through ignorance  of certain mysteries or their belief carefully—carefully fostered—in some illusion that the adults keep secret until an opportune moment ….  At times these rites bear a surprising resemblance to those considered here.  For example, there is a startling analogy between Father Christmas and the kachina of the Indians of the south-west United States. These costumed and masked beings are gods and ancestors become incarnate who return periodically to visit their village and dance. ([1952] 1993: 43-44)

when dead children come to life, and the even more clearly defined initial quest of the season, that of Hallow-Even, which was turned into All Saints’ Eve by ecclesiastical decision. Even today in Anglo-Saxon countries, children dressed up as ghosts and skeletons hassle adults unless they reward them with small presents.

What is universal is the making of difference, the production of culture, with the consequence that human worlds are necessarily tamed, domesticated but never for good among any population at any time as the tamed goes feral and requires wild thinking to tame it again, temporarily. (with thanks to Michael Scroggins for making me thing about the “feral”).

Deep syntactic structures (and other physiological matters) may be necessary to play with Santa Claus, but they cannot produce Santa Claus, in any of his actual manifestations.

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Culture: Inheritance vs. islanding?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of many field defining papers by Clifford Geertz: “Religion as a cultural system” ([1996] 1973).

Last week, I asked students to read it.  As I prepare the class, I saw again a quote I had marked but saw in a slightly different light as I also read the final draft of something I am writing with Michael Scroggins currently titled “Does (a) culture recapitulate itself?”.  It is actually about the Phoenix like nature of the “culture of poverty” argument. The paper starts with a complaint I have made elsewhere against the move among the leaders of anthropology to distance themselves from “culture” (concept? ideal-type?). I had not noticed that Geertz was already complaining about what may then have been the beginning of the distancing:

The term “culture” has by now acquired a certain aura of ill-repute in social anthropological circles because of the multiplicity of its referents and the studied vagueness with which it has all too often been invoked. (Though why it should suffer more for these reasons than “social structure” or “personality” is something I do not entirely understand.). ([1996] 1973: 89)

More importantly, I had not noticed what follows as Geertz develops what looks very much like a definition:

In any case, the culture concept to which I adhere has neither multiple referents nor, so far as I can see, any unusual ambiguity: it denotes an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life. Of course, terms such as “meaning,” “symbol,” and “conception” cry out for explication. ([1996] 1973: 89)

Note that, for Geertz, the difficult words are “meaning,” “symbol,” and “conception” (he could have added “knowledge,” “attitude”). These are words which, to me, connote a state of mind. Geertz, after all, worked with Parsons’s understanding of Weber as codified in Toward a theory of action (1951). Thus the phrase “cultural system” in the title of the paper.

But it is the other words (“transmission,” “inheritance,” and “embodiment”) that I noted last week.  They are the words that may have had the most powerful life in the following decades, starting with Bourdieu’s development of habitus, and continuing with the literature on “embodiment,” all in the name of “history.”

If these words did not “cry out for explanation,” then it is no wonder that Oscar Lewis’ response to various calls for cultural anthropologists to address “poverty,” the major policy issue of his days (and ours), should have taken the form of hypotheses about the embodiment of attitudes transmitted and inherited through symbolic forms.

If that is what “culture” is to be all about then good riddance! And good riddance to “embodiment of inherited conceptions.”

But, as McDermott and many others keep arguing, “culture” is not about reproduction but about wild thinking in cantankerous collectivities hashing out disagreements about what to do next. In the process, as Boas, and then Garfinkel (even probably Lévi-Strauss), tried to teach us, the unimaginable by university professors appears in history.  The unimaginable then become, for a while, and for a population, a thing, event, fact that they must deal with, even if they deplore it. In a recent post I wrote about “Islanding assemblages of haecceities” (February 2016). This was in homage to Ruth Benedict, Bruno Latour, and Harold Garfinkel, whom I like to bring together. I think I could go even further into reconstituting culture as whatever arises when human beings get together into “community of intelligence” (Rancière [1987] 1999 : 58) and propose something like “temporary immortal and islanding assemblage of consequential haecceities” to add the historical and political aspects of making this particular fact with those earlier facts for this population to deal with in these circumstances.

By the way, while using Google to get to my post on islanding, I discovered that “islanding” is a verb used in electric power grids where it is often a difficult to diagnose problem to be detected and repaired. Among many see “Islanding detection…” This does sound like something human beings would produce!


Parsons, Talcott et al   1951     Toward a general theory of action. New York: Harper and Row.

Geertz, Clifford   [1966] 1973     “Religion as a cultural system.” in The interpretation of culture. New York: Basic Books. pp. 87-125.

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on parents challenging schooling

Those who follow my work know that I look for evidence (empirical? evidential?) that Bourdieu’s hypothesis about habitus driving (mis-)consciousness is wrong as written. In this search, I prefer detailed ethnographic evidence (the kind sociologists dismiss as “anecdotal”). But descriptive statistics have their place as evidence opening routes for further exploration.

So, I am thankful to my colleagues Oren Pizmony-Levy and Nancy Green Saraisky for their report of a national survey they conducted on who opts out of standardized testing and why (Who opts out and why, August 2016). The media, particularly in New York State has been reporting on something that is often presented as new: parents (mostly prosperous) refusing to have their children take some high-stake tests. This may be a cultural innovation, either because more parents are doing it, because they have found out that opting out is actually possible, or because the media started paying attention, or for other political reasons. Historical research is needed. I would also relate this movement with other movements of parents organizing to do something those with official pedagogical authority (in Bourdieu’s phrase) wish they did not do. In New York City, Mayor de Blasio and others found out that their efforts to rein in charter schools would fail as parents, mostly inner city parent financially struggling, found a way to stop the reining in. At about the same time, other parents, many recent immigrants from China, many who could not speak English, appear to have stopped another movement by those with authority to change the admission requirements to the most academic public high schools. Elsewhere in New York City, other parents organize to home school their children, while others compete mercilessly to enrol their children in astronomically expensive pre-schools.

Whether all this is good for the children, for their parents, for the State, or for humanity is something else altogether. In any events, parents keep demonstrating that there are ways to resist the school-as-is, or the school-as-some-want-it, even as they participate in the evolution of schooling into un-imaginable forms.

Bourdieu and other structural-functionalists who keep Talcott Parsons alive might mark all this as a failure of early socialization into the practical acceptance of pedagogical authority. It could be that the schools have failed at reproducing whatever made Western schooling so successful for so many years and across the world. We may have a failure in maintaining homeostasis!

But it could also be that reproduction will always fail however determined the efforts to keep alive what was. It could be that (social) life will always be about constituting the heretofore unimaginable.

And so, as I like to say, we need a theory of culture that starts with the impossibility of cultural reproduction and sets aside concerns with enculturation. Instead, we need to pays close attention to the ongoing efforts both to preserve and innovate (Varenne 2007, 2011).

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NotSpeaking as communal achievement: emergence and termination shocks

Imagine a situation (from experience in a small town in Southern France):

Person A announces “I do not speak to person B” which, in French, might be reported by A to X, Y, or Z, as “On ne se parle pas.”  “On” here is an indefinite pronoun often used in French for “we.”  The declaration constitutes a community of A, B, X, Y, Z with the rule “A/B do not speak when they encounter each other.”  The rule is both description and prescription, or perhaps more precisely differentiated instruction about the meta-pragmatics of an interactional style.

NotSpeaking is a complex speech act, and a trigger for further speech acts.

NotSpeaking requires instruction since, everything else being the same, it is performed at a moment when the two could and should speak, as, say, when walking by each other in some parking lot.  In rural Southern France, at the turn of the 21st century, such moments start with an expression of acknowledgment that the encounter has started (smile, re-organization of the body, etc.), possibly preliminaries, then “la bise” (three “air kisses” on alternate side of the head with no body contact), and then either developments that might last very long, or else a brief comment about being in a hurry, leading to various closing statements about, say, “having aperitif before we leave.”  NotSpeaking, as speech event, involves turning away of the head at the time when the expression of acknowledgment should have appeared (or other bodily movements as, for example, turning away into a side street).  NotSpeaking ends after the two bodies have passed and return to their earlier state.

As Bourdieu explained in one of his best passages about ritual insults in the Mediterranean ([1972] 1977: pp. 10ff), Maussian gifts (of which NotSpeaking is a peculiar case)  do place obligations on both participants but the response is not automatic.  Much is involved.  For example, one or the other of the party might make an exaggerated display of greeting by directly looking at the other and saying something like “Bonjour!”, perhaps with a smile.  In this case, not NotSpeaking may actually be an insult, whether in intent or in subsequent assessment.   In any event, the field is very well organized indeed for what is definitively hard work!

In brief, NotSpeaking happens within what has also been called a “community of practice.”  But this is not the nice, cosy “community” of Wenger (1998).  It is a dark place as many, in the Summer of 2016, have found, whether in Paris, Nice or other such sites of interaction and political violence.  I prefer to us the work “polity” for the groups that emerge as someone or other starts doing something to others that what was not until then part of their “normal” but now becomes inescapable.  One cannot make war by oneself, and one cannot not respond to acts of war.  Anthropologists will have to think further about this.

One way to start is to wonder about the emergence of temporary polities when people become significant to each other (whether in love or war).  The question of emergence does lead to questions about beginnings and ends, as well as questions about participation.  NotSpeaking may start when one of the protagonists decides not to speak to the other the next time they met.  And it may be that this next time is when B finds out that A does not speak to him anymore—and that may be the “start” for B.  One could even look for the instructional moments when A asserts to B, in body movement if not in words, “I do not speak to you anymore” (or the reverse as these things do change).  Conversely, the actual performance of NotSpeaking can be said to start when the two notice each other and to end a few seconds later.  What is central to me here is that NotSpeaking is specific to particular persons at particular times and requires the setting up of the encounter as a NotSpeaking.   Not speaking to billions of strangers is not relevant here.  Only NotSpeaking to a non-stranger is relevant (whether the non-stranger is an erstwhile intimate, or an erstwhile total stranger).  NotSpeaking, at the turn of the 21st century, in Southern France, is a syntagm that inscribes something in history.

There may be a way of thinking about the emergence of a new polity in history (or the re-organization of an old polity) that I have never seen used in anthropology.  It would involved borrowing from physics what is called “termination shocks.”  I learned about those a while ago in an article in Discover Magazine about Voyager 1 entering interstellar space.  Termination shocks are ubiquitous (check you bathroom sink where you can make one by running water hard into it).  NotSpeaking, (making war, falling in love) similarly arises in the interaction between contradictory forces that makes something very real: a boundary marking different kinds of normal, and difficulties when crossing the boundary.  NotSpeaking catches people who may be hurt by it.  And then its effects fade into inter-communal space where the tiny drama can be safely ignored.

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Forms, affordances, innovation: the making of a cultural fact

Sagrada Familia pillars in the nave
I had always been fascinated by what I read about Antonio Gaudi’s Basilica of the Sagrada Familia: a late 19th century Gothic church without flying buttresses! Culture! Structure! Transformation!

Finally, this summer, my wife and I were able actually to enter what Gaudi refers to as the “Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family.” As it approaches completion, it was recently dedicated by Pope Benedict XVI as a basilica, that is as a particularly sacred place for the Catholic Church.

I will leave aside for this current purpose the reality that the space is a powerful religious artifact, exactly as Gaudi intended.

I will just focus on the reality that, like all utterances, all acts, sequences, complex collective production, the basilica is a never-has-been-done-before. And it will never be done again, though it is also credited to have had much influence on later architecture.

“When” was uttered the statement that is the basilica is an interesting theoretical problem. Normal histories start with Gaudi taking over as main architect and re-designing what would have been a normal neo-gothic church. This happened in 1883 when the overall plans were drawn. What was proposed was immediately noticed as an innovation, a daring move many interpreted as a major mistake.

Gaudi also understood that translating the drawings into stone would require much education of those who might fund it, object to it, have authority over it, and so forth. In every way the building is a political, as well as architectural, artistic, or religious act. It, literally, speaks volumes. Over its unfolding, some have seen it as an insult to the developing intellectual ideologies of the 20th century and came close to demolishing it during the Spanish Civil War. Interestingly, they left the building standing but burned most of the plans.

Today, unfinished, the basilica’s “when” is still ongoing even as its interlocutors have morphed: one Pope dedicated it, others see it only as a tourist trap. I see it very much as a moment for education about much, including culture theory.

Now, as Michael Scroggins reminded me, elucidating how such statements as Gaudi’s (and the architects and artists working with his unfinished plans) arise in human history is the central goal of Boasian cultural anthropology. What a century of such anthropology should have established is that historical (archaeological) investigation can help trace the source of the shreds and patches used for putting together what is to happen next. But such investigations should never present themselves as “explaining,” “reducing,” or otherwise making the new unique disappear as, precisely, new and unique, the work of human hands and yet fully factual as a new object inscribed over the earth.

Trunk and main branches of a linden treeThat which has never been said/done before, of course, always has a history, including a personal history about the “author,” whoever one decides to credit as such. We are told, for example, that Gaudi was sickly as a child, kept away from early schooling, and taken on walks by his mother where he became fascinated by trees, animals, plants. The fascination with trees led to the massive columns of the nave with their multiple branches. Later, Gaudi became fascinated by mathematical and geometric forms that are directly and explicitly translated into the building. By putting the two together, he found out how to angle trunks and branches so as to eschew the need for the flying buttresses that keep vaults from spreading out and collapsing in classic gothic churches.

Now, of course, the personal history of a speaker can never explain why personal or intellectual experiences would translate into this rather than that building. If …. and if …. and if … so many things had not also been the case, then Gaudi might have remained an obscure crank. Among the many “ifs” that might make a difference: such a provocatively Catholic building might not be allowed by the Catholic Church of the current Pope.

And yet, this personal history points at another fundamental process in the culturing of earlier life, what Lévi-Strauss wrote as the wild working of the human mind (my paraphrase). A tree, plant, animal, does not impose its own classification, and even less its classificatory scheme (Lévi-Strauss, [1962] 1963; Chapter V). Human beings name trees, animals, plants. And at least one of them taught many others, to this day and probably a long time to come, that trees are also marvels of architecture from which one can learn how to build transformed gothic.

Of course also, transformed gothic churches, as imagined, would not be inscribed on the earth if they were not fully respectful of what we now call the “affordances” of physics (gravity and mass), materials, technologies, social organization. It is interesting that one of the first completed building in the basilica compound is a school for the children of the workers who actually and physically build it. But affordances, like the trees that inspired Gaudi, do not name themselves. Translating noticed affordances into design and then literal construction is a task for human beings.

Hyperbolic Paraboloid
Actually, one of the most mysterious aspect of wild human thought is something that also fascinated Gaudi and is translated in all aspects of the Sagrada Familia: mathematics. The building is also a statement within a centuries long puzzled conversation about the mathematics of gothic arches. The Sagrada Familia is a specific play on platonic forms to which “nature” only hints (helicoids, hyperboloids, hyperbolic paraboloids,  etc.). As Piaget taught me ([1968] 1971), mathematics is a strictly human project that can develop unfettered by natural affordances. Piaget gives as an example equations from the 19th century that imagined a negative time. The equations were “elegant” … and were later proved useful in 20th century physics. Other elegant equations are similarly explicitly referenced throughout the Sagrada Familia, not only for their architectural necessity, but also for their esthetics, and religious, power.  Whether platonic forms are “discovered” or “made up” is an ontological question anthropologists need not answer as long as they remain clear that once noticed, they are, for possibly a very long time and large populations, fully factual.  Think about the history of ‘0’.

To paraphrase from my favorite quote from Lévi-Strauss on culture (1969 [1947]: 4), the Sagrada Familia stands as “a synthesis of a new order,” only possible because “culture … uses [nature].” I take this to say, of the Sagrada Familia to exemplifies, that reality is not constructed as much as it is uncovered and then possibly transformed. Human action in history cannot change the affordances of physics, materials, technologies, or probably not even social organization. But human action can use them to say/do something that has never been said before, and that will then become a succor or a reproach to this or that person, a confirmation of a stance, or a provocative insult.

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Peirce on habit: another ancestor for normal anthropology?

Seth McCall, a student in my seminar on the production of culture, commented on Garfinkel by bringing in something Charles Sanders Peirce wrote about doubt.  It sounded as it could neatly balance Garfinkel on trust (1963).  One could argue that the very need to trust has to be related to the (ethno-)methodological suspicion that one should always doubt, even if one does not mention, at the time of the interaction, the doubt given the competing need not to stop the development of an interaction.  In brief, trust allows for the pragmatic (“let’s do this!”) without a call to the meta-pragmatic (who is “we” here? What is “this”?) even as this call is always ready to be activated as another form of “screwing around” (as all those who have tried to perform one of Garfinkel’s “experiments” have experienced).

So I went looking for Peirce paper. To my disappointment, but not necessarily surprise (given my prejudice regarding the implicit psychology of the pragmatists I have read), in this 1905 paper, Pierce has more to say about habit than about doubt:

The writer of this article has been led by much experience to believe that … every master in any department of experimental science has had his mind molded by his life in the laboratory to a degree that is little suspected. The experimentalist himself can hardly be fully aware of it, for the reason that the men whose intellects he really knows about are much like himself in this respect. With intellects of widely different training from his own, … he will never become inwardly intimate, be he on ever so familiar terms with them; for he and they are as oil and water, and though they be shaken up together, it is remarkable how quickly they will go their several mental ways, without having gained more than a faint flavor from the association. [411]

Belief is … a habit of mind essentially enduring for some time, and mostly (at least) unconscious; and like other habits, it is, (until it meets with some surprise that begins its dissolution), perfectly self-satisfied. [417]

There are versions of these comments in John Dewey’s Chapter 1 of Democracy and education (1966 [1916]), or in many of G. H. Mead’s lectures in Mind, self and society (1934).  Peirce echoes the overwhelming successful idea that “we” (each and everyone human being since the beginning of human times a few hundred thousand years ago) are “molded” by “life” “to a degree that is little suspected.”  This is the foundation of “culture and personality” in all forms of anthropology, including much that is critical of the specific sub-tradition known by this phrase.  It is the foundation of that Parsonian grand attempt for a “general theory of action” that grounds the social order in socialization. And, of course, it is the foundation of Bourdieu’s  habitus (and possibly also of Foucault depending on how one reads the passages on the panopticon in Discipline and Punish).

A case in point: I must not hint that Peirce, Parsons, Bourdieu, etc., play out their habitus but rather that they hurry through something they trust their audiences will not doubt as they develop what they really want to do: Peirce is criticizing philosophers, Parsons is concerned with the regulation of large scale societies, Bourdieu with the place of class privilege in political action. None of them care much about the psychology of habit, the self, or identity!

The problem, as I now see it, is starting with the socialized adult (man…) as “he” conduct “his” everyday life.  I always contrast this to Durkheim writing about the “constraints” (but not the determinants) of their life as the people find them.  Durkheim (Garfinkel, etc.) starts with people at work given an order that requires them to keep working. This starting point remains agnostic as to the role, if any, of previous experiences.  People working out any order may look “habituated” to foreigners (e.g. anthropologists of the most other) or critics (adolescents, revolutionaries, artists, professional skeptics) but there is no reason to assume that they have, as a infrastructural property of their selves, determinant personalities, identities, or what have you.

As I pondered Peirce on habit, I came to to wonder whether Ray McDermott and I should rephrase our conclusion in Successful Failure.  We wrote: “we [social scientists] must above all accept that to make it a better day for [any human being], the first and perhaps only step is to turn away from [them] and to trust [them] to work with us while we examine what all others, including ourselves, are doing around him.” (1998: 217)

We could now write that one must start, not with the apparently habituated adult, but with the suffering (or playing) body amazed at what it has to endure and indexing in the here and now where we should start our investigation of what others did, nor are now doing, to make this body suffer (and, in some happy cases, have fun or profit).

What has made Rancière so appealing to me (and McDermott, and many others) is that he does start with the puzzled body.  He asks us to notice what he calls the “intelligence” of the people, what Boas and those among his students who did not fall into the “culture and personality” trap wrote as “making sense.”  And this is what some of us planning a book currently titled “when is education?” want to explore further.

And then, to my delight and but not necessarily surprise (given what I also know of the pragmatists as one of the sources of what is most powerful in anthropology these days), I found something else from Peirce that will now be one of my favorite epigraphs.  It’s about, precisely, surprise:

In all the works on pedagogy that ever I read — and they have been many, big, and heavy — I don’t remember that any one has advocated a system of teaching by practical jokes, mostly cruel. That, however, describes the method of our great teacher, Experience. She says,

Open your mouth and shut your eyes
And I’ll give you something to make you wise;

and thereupon she keeps her promise, and seems to take her pay in the fun of tormenting us. (1903: CP 5.51 Cross-Ref:††)

A Google search suggests this is a famous quote and I am surprised (!) I had not seen it until a few days ago.  It will now be part of my personal canon as another way to introduce education as the deliberate work of dealing with surprises (“when  is education?” “all the time!”).

And it will also developed my wonderings about the centrality of ‘play’ in life–both fun play, deep play, and the many cruel jokes of our experiences.


Dewey, John      1966 [1916]     Democracy and Education New York: The Free Press.

Garfinkel, Harold 1963 “A conception of, and experiments with, ‘trust’ as a condition of stable concerted actions.” In Motivation and social interaction. Edited by O.J. Harvey. New York: The Ronald Press. pp. 187-238

Mead, George Herbert    1934 Mind, self and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Peirce, Charles      1905     “What pragmatism is.”     The Monist15:02:161-181.

Peirce, Charles      1931 [1903]     “Lecture II: The universal categories.” In The Collected Papers, Pp. 1686-1697. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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On anthropological impotence

Experiments by Professor Shafir at Princeton and others have documented how poverty itself leads people to make self-destructive decisions, perhaps by forcing them to focus attention on satisfying immediate needs to the exclusion of other considerations. (New York Times, February 24, 2016)

The American culture of the “culture of poverty” is alive and well. New York Times journalists still quote approvingly professors who tell them: “The poor lack two things: money and cognitive freedom.” And it appears that a major State actor, “the Obama administration,” relies on such experts for designing policies aimed at changing the behavior of those who do not act according to economic rationalism (e.g. do not save more for old age).

We, anthropologists in my network, know all this.  We see “governmentality” at its most hegemonic (though not necessarily unchallenged as the current presidential campaign suggests) when networked media, academia, and State reinforce each other’s common sense, make alternatives disappear, and more importantly, transform “understandings,” “representations,” (“ontologies”?) into action with massive consequences. “Poverty is a sickness” is not only a metaphor we live by (Basso 1980). It is also a conceit endlessly developed in discourse, policies, debates within the conceit, new discourses, regulations, requests for action by others subjected to them, etc. It is not surprising, then, that the journalist develop the report by saying that Shafir’s understanding

shifts the onus onto those with power over poor Americans — employers, government — not just to design their application forms, their business hours, their policies in a way that takes into account the restrictions poverty imposes, but also to shift real resources to where they would make the biggest difference.

If poverty is a sickness then … and then … so that… The progression to action is inexorable.  I’ll pick up just one issue and note the last phrase “make the biggest difference”: “those with power” can do things to the poor that will make a difference among the poor.

Cause -> intervention -> effect.


They did, we do, and then they will.

In this perspective, “poverty is a sickness” is also the first statement in a most powerful speech act that limit dissenting responses to “poverty is NOT a sickness” thereby maintaining “sickness” as the issue.

I point out this process of development of an idea into a conceit because of an apparent paradox in the New York Times story.  The paragraph quoting Shafir is followed by another that goes:

That understanding might act as a corrective for the belief that poor people are mostly to blame for their poverty.

I am not sure that talking about “lacking cognitive freedom” is not “blaming the victim.” But it remains a form of classification and identification of an individual shortcoming. Poverty remains what it has been: something to cure individuals from through targeted programs.  Michael Harrington said much the same thing in 1962. He may then have been optimistic that his pleas would find an echo in the Federal Government, as they did. He might now be depressed that half-a-century of targeted programs do not appear to have much of a dent.

Anthropologists can be depressed for other reasons.
Continue reading On anthropological impotence

Musings about possibilities in the scholarly life of a professor of education and anthropologist