Local controls of mask (not) wearing

Nurse to other nurses (in a health care setting where nurses and patients must wear masks, but where the “office” staff, also nurses, do not consistently do);

“I do not put my mask on when I get into a store and it is not crowded. If it is crowded, then I put it on”

The other nurses gave their own stories, and moved on to other topics.

Vignette #1

As many have noted one can sort areas in the United States in terms of the ratio of masked/unmasked—whatever the local governor’s mandates. And, as mentioned everywhere, these mandates vary a lot from state to state, and from nation to nation.

I have written earlier about governor’s mandates in constituting the Corona epoch as a cultural fact (for some people) that local action by these people must take into account, whatever their opinion of the wisdom of the mandate. I will today focus further of this local action in settings where there are no immediate representative from the State to enforce mandates (or where governors have relinquished control).

That there are many such settings is well-established and regularly mentioned by epidemiologists wondering about the movement of the virus even in the most governor restricted areas. In my experience, such settings involve family gatherings, shops, offices, church services. In New York State, it is well known that people in New York City are much more likely to wear masks even after the mandates have been lifted while people “upstate” were more likely NOT to wear their masks, even when the mandates were on. Even in New York City, the people from mid-Manhattan may experience different constraints from people in the Bronx.

In my own life, I interact with people/institutions in Manhattan, the Bronx (not to mention parts of Westchester). As such I have to take into account not only the governor’s or the mayor’s mandates, but also that which my immediate consociates are doing, or might do in response to what I start. A long time ago, when conducting fieldwork in Paw Paw, Michigan, I had to sort out something similar about (not) wearing ties here or there, now or then. It seemed obvious I needed one when attending a Presbyterian service (all attending men did) but I was surprised enough to write in my fieldnotes that, the first time I attended a gathering of young working class men while still wearing my tie, it was strongly suggested that I take it off. As it was put: “why don’t you take you tie off, you will be more comfortable.” As a budding anthropologist I always followed this kind of guidance. Fifty years later, I have been known not to as I make a point to be one of the very very few who wear a tie at meetings of the Anthropological Association.

Every human being, I am sure, will find themselves in such situations where they are told (not) to do this or that. In some cases observers (including local consociates) may say that “he is a child, or a foreigner, who does not “know” and should be instructed. Or may be he has forgotten; or the instructions are contradictory. Or, perhaps he disagrees and this should be sanctioned. Every human being, I am also about sure, will at times refuse to follow the instruction they are given, whether they are about ties, hijabs, masks, etc. And yet, eventually, some order (pattern) is established that outsiders easily assume is a form of consensus.

In Europe and America, for the past few centuries, people now known as “behavioral scientists” have tried to “explain” the ubiquity of such situations of apparent consensus everywhere/everywhen human beings assemble, as well as resistance to the consensus. These explanations proceed from various postulates about where to look for this explanation. To simplify greatly:

. a clinical psychologist of a Freudian type might explore why anyone resist wearing a mask by digging into subconscious processes (hypochondria, invulnerability, etc.). Given all theories about self and masks, I am sure one could go far in directions that I will let others explore.

. a sociologist might explore correlations in demographics (race, gender, political affiliation, etc.) that might allow one to predict whether the majority of persons in this or that area are more of less likely to mask. These correlations may then be offered as explanations for “why” red males in Montana mask differently from blue males in Manhattan vs…..

. some anthropologists might be tempted to invoke “culture” (or euphemisms to the same effect) as explanation and join those who will then claim “enculturation,” “socialization,” “habitus,” etc. for a postulated inability to stand against what may be the “dominant” “powerful” version of what to do. The better anthropologists might just attempt to model the pattern rather than assume consensus among the population. At the end, we would still only be left with various different “that’s” (what I sometime call “cultural facts”) which people fact when they live in New York State rather than Florida, or the United States rather than China.

All of these “explanations” may have some use but they do not actually tell us much about how, exactly, in the here and now, an individual has to decide to (not) wear a mask given various possible sanctions by one or another of the other people also here and now with the individual. Again, it appeared easy, from Parsons to Bourdieu, to assume that individual would just do, automatically, that which they are “socialized” into. (Not) wearing would then be said to be what these individuals consider “natural” and not to be questioned. But, of course, we now know that relying on automatic responses cannot work in maintaining any pattern given the ongoing transformations of the actual triggers requiring a response here and now.

A local governor’s mandate:

“masks will become optional on campus for faculty, staff and students who are vaccinated and boosted.”

and this governor’s awareness that this opens just the kind of issues discussed above:

“ It is vital that you respect any individual who chooses to wear a mask without questioning their decision.”

A week later there were some who affirmed “I will keep my mask on” while others celebrated “mask-off day!” In one classroom everyone was unmasked, in another everyone was masked, and in still another the ratio was 50%.

Vignette #2

In general what can be summarized as the ethnomethodological critique of “normal” sociology, anthropologists (and sociologists) are left with the two fundamental questions of sciences of human behavior: how does a pattern (apparent consensus that “we” do (not) mask, in this classroom, here and now), come into being, and then how does this pattern maintain (reproduce) itself in the actual life of a set of people? The first question may appear a historical question that has led many to archaeology, including archaeologies of “knowledge” (Foucault [1969] 1972). But such archaeologies only produce an infinite regression to obscure and unknowable “first conditions.” The challenge is to imagine what acts “constitute” (make, construct) that which is consequential now, at the moment of action, in the midst of what, to borrow from one area of human action that may just be an extreme in everyday interaction, the “fog of war.” We might trace the history of masks and their use during pandemics. But that would not help us much when trying to figure out what may have come to differentiate New York State from Florida that must be continually reaffirmed—if only because the governors of both states, as well as the people, know about what is happening “over there” and can use in order to challenge what is expected to be happening “over here.”

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Ordering,Disciplining and Schooling

[with thanks to Miranda Hansen-Hunt whose research on disciplining schools triggered this post]

PROPOSITION: That the problem with schooling is not that it evaluates learning. The problem is that it records this evaluation for all to check as the School, with full State sanction, grants degrees “with all the privileges thereto attached.”

In his Learning lessons (1979), Mehan made several foundational contributions to the anthropology of schooling. The book did not just summarize a historical state —as earlier ethnographies had done when they, for example, brought out class stratification in small town high schools (Hollingshead 1949). Mehan noticed something that appeared to typify schooling.  He noticed this in “classrooms” and particularly in moments in called “learning lessons.” He dared model this feature and, in so doing, he offered a way to understand the ongoing constitution of what, at about the same time, Foucault characterized as an “epoch.”

As many have noticed, Foucault ([1975] 1978) did not specify in any detail what would be the mechanisms that maintain and develop those features that characterize the epoch, recursively, over decades if not centuries, catching in its web a larger and larger fraction of the world population.  Foucault hypothesized that the people of our epoch lived in a “panopticon” and internalized the fear of wardens, even when wardens were not visible.

Mehan did not just hypothesized and interpreted.  As a good ethnographer, he went where and when inmates (students) and wardens (teachers) actually meet in that school setting that looks most like a panopticon, that the classroom where students cannot ever quite escape the gaze of their teachers.  As Mehan looked, he found something worth pondering: the continual asking of questions by the teacher, questions to which the teacher actually knew the answer. The questions were oriented towards something else than a request for information. They were intended to check whether the student knew the answer. This could be modeled as a ‘Q’uestion/’A’nswer/’E’valuation sequence. The “third” step in this sequence establishes the sequence as a particular kind of interactional, indeed political, sequence among many others (http://localhost/class/common/various/what_time.html). This “lesson” is the specific moment when people not only “learn” that which they did not know (the official account of the grand goals of schooling) but when they are also assessed, and eventually certified (through degrees and the like) as “knowing.”

In the book, Mehan also made a further essential distinction between “structure”—the state that is modeled— and “structuring”— the work of continually producing, or constituting that which can then be modeled as “the structure.” Outside of a small set of ethnomethodologists of education, it was not noticed that this emphasis on the work of structuring or establishing a particular order solved the question of “reproduction” without calling upon hypothetical entities such as a “habitus” that might be produced by a “panopticon.” Every time a teacher evaluates an answer as “good,” or a university president grants a degree “with all privileges thereto attached,” then schooling gets reconstituted as what it is to be for all involved (whether they accept it or not, or even if they are aware at any level of what is going on).

What Mehan did not quite do is explore systematically what happens next when local (classroom) QAE sequences are placed in the broader sequence when an overall ‘E’ (e.g. an end of term grade) is used as evidence for other purposes than checking a  “knowing.” As McDermott insisted, a learning lesson is not just a moment constituting schooling-as-it-is, it is also a moment when all struggle against this schooling (for example in attempts to NOT get caught NOT knowing). In a classroom all are hard a work making it, hopefully, a good day, or life, in a well-ordered world.  But all are also aware that the work might turn out to make a bad day, or a bad life. McDermott and I expanded this in our Successful failure (1998) as we focused on what happens after the structuring of the lesson when any evaluation is inscribed in the records of a student’s overall performance.

Apologists for public schooling continue to hope that well-designed examinations of prior learning can be occasions for a change in the social position of the student from “not knowing” to “knowing.” This is what is supposed to happen in the well organized “community of practice” as erstwhile peripheral participants move into fuller participation. But, unhappily, it can too often be documented that the examination leads to replacing the student in an earlier position as it appears to establish that “this student will never learn.” This can then justify all sorts of redirection (for example identifying the student as with some “disability” requiring “special education”). Again and again one can document that such overall evaluations often precede particular QAE sequences so that a “knowing” is not noticed, while a “not knowing” is dismissed as irrelevant (McDermott 1983; Varenne & McDermott 1998: Chapters 4 and 5).

Given all this ethnographic evidence, anthropologists of schooling must now going beyond adding to this evidence. Like Mehan did, they must also attempt a more formal analysis that will reveal the systemic (structural) features that produce this evidence—particularly given the efforts of so many (from teachers to policy makers to reformers) to establish something else. Re-thinking “discipline” as it is used by Foucault, might help us here. Discipline (and possibly punishment) is what constitute the consequences of local evaluations as some other thing than just confirming a learning. For example, establishing that a student knows how to read a clock is not the same thing as promoting (or demoting) the child into a new status. Consider the fate of an anthropologist noted for his critique of the Success/Failure aspect of schooling. Consider that, when challenged by a sympathetic reader, he had to acknowledge that he continues to give grades while, adding, as a kind of defense that NOT giving grades would be sanctioned (disciplined) both by his institution and by many of his students. Consider his analytic delight (?) when, several years later, he found out that his institution had been disciplined by the Federal Government of the United States of America for, precisely, being delinquent in recording grades leading the local “compliance officer” to threaten all faculty with disciplinary consequences if grades were not reported…  Disciplining is ongoing work as wardens keep finding out that inmates are not quite doing what they should.
To simplify, “teaching” many be the task of “teachers” but disciplining is the task of others I will call, with a somewhat ironic bow to Foucault, “wardens.” In a school there are those who teach, and there are those who watch—from assistant principals to record keepers to the wonderfully named “compliance officers,” and many others, including other students, parents, “community members,” who may participate in telling a teacher “No!”. Garfinkel put all this in his usual pungent fashion when modeling the constitution of ‘service lines’ (for example in a post-office): “Consider also that once you get into line persons will not therein question that you have rightfully gotten into line unless you start screwing around. Then you get instructed.” (2002: 257). It is important that, for Garfinkel, the issue is not that the participants “know” how to line up but that, at every moment every participant is checking whether the lining up is done in a way that does not require explicit discipline (which is a form of discipline) or whether the need-to-be-disciplined behavior may actually not be disciplined for any number of justifications. In the cases that most interested Garfinkel “those-who-watch” may just be “everyday persons” with no particular authority except the one they give themselves to observe and discipline. In schools (and elsewhere) there also are people with specific authority to mete consequences (reward or punish) that may affect a whole life trajectory.

This disciplining could be modeled as:
‘W’atcher (warden) -> ‘B’ehavior by the watched -> ‘D’iscipline as meted by watcher of someone else with authority.

In the world of schooling, this model can be used to understand not only what happens in a classroom, but also, what happens in the relationship between teachers (as disciplined) and administrators who are tasked to tell teachers “No!” And as administrators know well, they themselves can be disciplined and very often are by people further up the bureaucratic hierarchy, as well, in the United States by the vagaries of School Boards who very regularly fire Superintendents as well as insist that this or that book be removed from school libraries and such.

I look forward to research in the anthropology of schooling that documents further how “discipline” actually work and, in the process, re-constitute what may now be labeled “systemic” processes (those that used to be called matters of “social structure”)—that is processes that bring together people into a particularly ordered “epoch” (“culture”?).

References

Foucault, Michel [1975] 1978 Discipline and punish.
Tr. by A. Sheridan. New York: Penguin Books.

Hollingshead, A.B.   1949     Elmtown’s Youth: The Impact of Social Class on Adolescents.. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

McDermott, R. P. and Henry Tylbor   1983     “On the necessity of collusion in conversation.” Text: 3,3: 277-297

Mehan, Hugh   1979     Learning Lessons. MA: Harvard University Press.

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Getting caught

I do not remember when I started writing about people getting “caught by” when putting into words what I would have written earlier as “participating in.” When anthropologists observe some people in some setting (family dinner, school classroom, hospital recovery room), they do observe people “participating”–to the extent that all the people do will somehow respond to what others are doing there and then. In many cases, anthropologists add that that to which people are responding is “their” culture often without thinking hard whether the possessive form is appropriate. It is clear to me to no “culture” is the possession of anyone and that it is taking a huge step to say that the nice lady one is observing swaddling her baby is responsible for the manner in which she is swaddling the baby (or the color of the blanket, the style of folding, the song she may be singing, etc.)—whether this lady lives on the island once known as manaháhtaan in 1400 or 2000. I once wrote a paper to counter the misleading tendency of many anthropologists of my generation, following Geertz, to write “the Manhattanites, ‘they’…” and that “they are like [that interpretation].” I was particularly sensitive to this as I was critiqued for writing about “Americans” when it was getting clearer to me everyday (and was mostly reflected in my writing) that I was writing about people “in” America—that is, as I put it later people who participate in American institutions to the extent that they have no choice but to respond to what the institution requires (for example, give tests and grades to “students,” many of whom may be “foreign,” if not “aliens”).

I do not recall exactly when I started writing about people being “caught by” America as a preliminary step to “participating.” In my current autobiographical memory, I’d say that it happened when I started to ponder systematically Jean Lave’s version of the “community of practice.” I take it to be a model (in Lévi-Strauss’s sense) of social structuring that is a major transformation of the always static earlier modeling of “social structures” (or “systems”). Lave’s models a field within which people move between two positions (from “peripheral” to “full”). Leaving aside what all this implies for “learning” (as she, and McDermott, were mostly concerned with), this must make one think about movement through (rather than “participating in” or “socializing to”), what is important to me now is that the model implies that we also pay attention to other movements. I always start with the movement from [outside] into the “peripheral” position.In an early paper ([1947] 1953) David Schneider tells the story of some drafted men, assembled from many backgrounds for “basic training,” transforming themselves into an army unit a process that included reclassifying some of them as “not for the army.” This movement is essential for any “community” (“congregation” would be better) must recruit people from those who are not yet peripheral, but may have been seeking entry (or are conscripted into it). I thus imagine an “accretion” disk of potential peripheral members who might get attracted until, in some case, they pass what astronomers call the “event horizon” after which they can no longer escape the gravity well of the constituted community (though may not make it to the official “periphery”).

When teaching this I tell the story of my circling America. I remember playing cowboys and Indians as a 6 year old in a small Southern French village. I remember being awed by 1960 Buicks. I remember trying to transcribe Blowing in the Wind. Like all Europeans after the end of WWII, I was experiencing the gravitational pull of America though most did not take the step that eventually caught me. I like to say that I crossed this event horizon the day I entered the American consulate in Marseille (as everyone called it though its official name was “United States Consulate”). There, I was told what I needed to do to get the student visa which would allow me to attend the University of Chicago. Arguably, entering the consulate was the moment when America morphed, in my life, from fantasy to actuality. I had to respond to local agents of something huge and shadowy that, like millions before and after me, I could no longer escape anymore. Many have attempted such an escape after being caught. The Mormon tried moving to Utah. People from from China, or Jewish enclaves in Europe, attempted to build neighborhood institutions that might partially protect one’s children from America. In all cases, the very attempt to escape constituted what America is becoming—and all the more so when their attempts at escape were noticed by others also caught.

I thought about all this again as I entered, literally, a massive hospital in the above mentioned island for complex tests “prescribed” by fully authorized agents of this institution. Actually, “getting tested” is a step well into the gravity well of medical institutionalization. I got caught earlier, when symptoms (some peculiarities on a routine test) were transformed into a particularity (the “diagnosis” that determines treatment).After decades of adulthood, I certainly “know” what was going to happen but this knowledge does not actually say much about what I actually had to respond to as I went through the door, got my temperature taken by a guard, was directly by another guard to an office where I was “registered” before being taken to another part of the hospital where I was, after being handed over to people who took to a bed, told me to undress, hooked me to various machine, and told me to wait. At that moment nothing strictly “medical” had yet happened but a second major boundaries had been crossed when I moved from being allowed to seek an office by myself to having to be accompanied to the next. This boundary marked entry into another “community” of some practice that systematically removed the signs of my various statues as I became the pure body on which some authorized person(s) would operate after the body ha been anesthetized and thus stripped of its last status–consciousness. Much has been written about this loss of status but much less about what is actually a movement through more and more specialized statuses (“what kind of health insurance do you have?” as the first agent asked me) as others fell by the way size (university professor)—as well as the movement back until one eventually walks out the door of the building.

Detailing, step by step, the various interactional patterns (who can talk about what how; how a body is decorated by whom; who can touch which part of a body how; who has authority to alter this or that procedure; etc.) is a task for future ethnographers who eschew the tendency to jump too fast to “interpretation.” And the first thing to accept is that at no moment is participation in a particular status-setting interaction are the patterns either one’s own or escapable. They are what they are for all involved at the moment and even small improvisations on the pattern (for example, joking about a detail) constitute the setting as patterned. Take what may be the “least interesting” moment in the movement through hospital testing: registration. It is a 5 minutes event between patient-in-process and institutional agent during which “verification” is performed culminating with the printing of labels and the transition to the first medical setting. The labels are actually an essential event as they become an extension of the verified body as various parts (for example blood) gets moved into various distant settings in parallel (and for inscription in the body/patient/person’s history with future institutions including not only hospitals but also insurance companies, etc.).

And so “being caught” is the best metaphor I can currently come up with for the whole thing.

References

Schneider, David   [1947] 1953     “Social dynamics of physical disability in Army basic training.” in Personality in nature, society and culture. Edited by C. Kluckhohn and H. Murray. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 386-397.

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Wondering about “the [music] of [human beings for the last 60,000 years]”

Recently, I argued, controversially, that one type of “othering” is what distinguishes anthropology from the other sciences concerned with humanity (from neurology to sociology). Anthropology, as disciplined practice, is here to tell “us” that human beings are always potentially “other” to any generalization about them.  And a subset of “us” (anthropologists) has to keep finding ways to do this more carefully. To approach this argument from a different point of view (bias), let’s consider the classical tension brought out by Boas (and many others before and since) between, on the one hand, the “psychic unity of mankind” (all humans have the same brain bequeathed by evolution), and, on the other hand, the irreducible local and historical make of actual human conditions. This is not the case of the “universal” VS. the “particular” but rather the universality of the particularity of the human (and possibly all life). For humanity, for example, one can safely say that all human groups develop languages (most of) the people caught by them understand, and, most significant, all these languages can be learned by all humans—though it can be difficult for most.

Language is what I generally mention when teaching the fundamental concerns of anthropology, before moving on to other matters, say sex/gender or food production/agriculture (the raw into the cooked). Boas, in his general introduction (1938), mentioned various oddities in etiquette. He also mentioned repeatedly that all breaches to the expected in some group raise emotional responses among the people caught by the assembly. In my own graduate introduction into anthropology, in the late 1960s, I was taught all this through the questions raised by the multiplicity of marriage and descent regulations and practices—something that has all but disappeared from such introduction, as far as I can tell.

I’ll try today to start with something else that is a human universal: music. I will intersperse this with comments about “kinship,” hopefully to trigger some interest among current students to get back to something that remains as “real” as ever (though it may now be labeled “gender” and “class reproduction”).

I explore music because students, earlier this Fall, used music to critique Saussure and his obvious emphasis on the verbal rather than on other media of communication. I have heard many times that music can express emotions much better than any discursive effort that relies mostly on the verbal (though some would point at poetry as an argument against this). The students, perhaps unwittingly, may have been channeling Merleau-Ponty on experience and the “primacy of perception.”

But, to play anthropologists challenging “our” common sense,…

Music is certainly one candidate for attempts to differentiate homo sapiens sapiens from other apes (but perhaps not from the Neanderthals who appear to have used flutes). All apes vocalize. Whether any sing may depend on how one defines singing. The question is the same as whether various calls made by all apes classify as language. Interestingly, recent writing about this broadening of what is to count as language or music echoes the reluctance to make humans special. Paradoxically perhaps, the best evidence against “speciesism” is the work of sociobiologists, for example that of Sarah Hrdy, an anthropologist who writes about “Mother nature” (1999).  In that book, she carefully reviews all we know about the higher apes of Africa, and particularly the females with children, without making a distinction between the species whether the original research is “ethological” or “ethnographic.” About all anthropologists I know find this approach very hard to accept and it is not taught as possible proper anthropology.

So, eventually, the initial stance regarding humans making music is that not only do they sing (talk) but that they do so in many different ways that keep changing even as they trigger strong emotions. To the extent that this is an hypothesis about a universal, one then has to look for the evidence (including evidence that some humans do not sing much differently from other apes–but this is very dangerous as it might bring us back to the pre-Boasian anthropology of human evolution).

So, I am with Boas and will postulate the “psychic unity of mankind” on the matter of music. As Boas insisted, one of the evidence has to be archaeological: there are signs that humans made music from at least 60,000 years ago based on the musical instruments that have survived. One may imagine that singing is much older but it does not leave any trace until, many millennia later, it became possible to translate singing into visual marks and notations. The other body of evidence for the universality of music is ethnographic: All human groups that have been reported to Euro-Americans do make music; they make music even in the worst of circumstances; and the music, is recognizable by all as music—even when it sounds unpleasant to many.

However…

Given the small number of basic musical instruments (wind, string, percussion) beside the voice the mythical Martian, particularly if leaning towards sociobiology and Darwinian evolutionism, arriving on earth, might not expect the multiplicity of musical genres, as well as the extent to which the musical genres of people A may grate on the ears of people B (or why some of B might adopt some genres from A even when B’s parents object). Boas, a real “other” among the Inuit, Kwakiutl and others, took the alternate route. He marveled at the multiplicity and asks us to do the same, and then to generalize. Many of his students and contemporaries in Europe also marveled at the multiplicity of kinship vocabularies and other practices. Many who followed him led the discipline into all sorts of blind alleys. But anthropologists, I am convinced, should continue to move towards the other in order to critique or justify any universal statement about humanity.

To make all this more concrete perhaps, I am linking below various examples of what human beings keep producing, musically. This sample tells more about my haphazard exploration of various YouTube rabbit holes than about anything else. I am not a musicologist but I am fascinated both by the multiplicity of the musics human can made, as well as sometimes surprised at what I “like” and what I do not… You will notice that I link here four pieces recorded in China. My idea here is that listening will lead you to ask such questions as: Are the pieces from China “Chinese”? What are your emotional reactions to any of the pieces? What are you reacting to? What do you imagine others (including the original performers) might have felt?

Lata Mangeshkar in 1955      Lata Mangeshkar

References

Boas, Franz   [1911] 1938     The mind of primitive man. New York: The Free Press

Hrdy, Sarah 1999 Mother nature. New York: Balentine Books.

 

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Counterfactuals, alt history, and the anthropological veto

Over the past few days I discovered some things that were somewhat new for me that led me to reassemble some older stuff. One piece of this stuff is a popular (though perhaps fringe) passion for “what if…” stories. This passion is often credited to Dick’ The man in the high castle where he explores how people might have responded in the United States if Germany had won WWII and occupied two third of the country.  Alt histories kind of fascinate me also as another entry into the wonders (and sometimes horrors) I feel when discovering what human beings have actually done.  An alt history is also a thought experiment about human possibilities (as is much science fiction).

In several publications from various part of the political spectrum, I found that this enthusiasm for alt histories was often paired with a discussion of “counterfactuals.” I had never encountered the word/concept but it struck me as something I could do something with. Simply put, a perpetual motion machine is impossible but steam engines have always been possible, even before any human beings thought about them. Steam engines, until late in the 17th century were “counterfactuals.” Traveling near the speed of light is a counterfactual given that we do not have any idea how it might be done. Traveling faster than light is just impossible and this limit may be a physical law.

Chiara Marletto, the theoretical physicist who wrote the book (2021) that is currently making conversations about counterfactuals … factual, does not write extensively about what concern cultural anthropologists but it may be possible to restate some of the most classical disputes in the field in similar terms. Possible words in any language that have never been observed in use would be an example of a cultural counterfactual. So tellus tellas allabouter. The why or whether she looked alloty like ussies and whether he had his wimdop like themses shut. Notes and queries, tipbits and answers, the laugh and the shout, the ards and downs. Now list to one aneither and liss them down and smoothen out your leaves of rose.  (James Joyce as quoted by McDermott and McDermott 2010)
For example “aneither” is one among many words James Joyce coined that had never been attested until 1939. At least one anthropologists (or two) have now used the word for what it can do when used for a critique of educational policy (McDermott and McDermott 2010). The concern with possible words never yet observed is an old one in historical linguistic which even developed a way of writing such words: until 1939 “aneither” would have been written *aneither with the asterisk indicating its “counterfactuality.” Of course counterfactual words are produced not only by artists (Joyce, Shakespeare and such) but by about everybody with wit—and often by children “playing” not to mention by people who learn some language late in life.

Closer to the most factual cultural anthropology, the now fact that many Americans cover themselves with tattoos was something of a counterfactual until the 1970s in the United States. Before that only a very few men, sailors mostly, had them but having tattoos was always a possibility given their ubiquity around the world (and even in European history) among many other “techniques of the body.” Even now, tattooing is not quite the same of it may be among the Maori among whom tattoos are totally “factual”—including in the Durkheimian sense. And, of course, they are now factual in Euro-America—as those who do not find them particularly appealing can attest.

One of the other reasons for this post is a comment from students echoing much that has been written by anthropologists of the past half-century on the dangers of “othering.” These were most powerfully stated by Said (1978), I understand the critique, particularly as it applies to 19th century Euro-Americans of the type who drove Boas, Durkheim, Malinowski, etc., to build a whole discipline critical of easy generalizations, if not laws, about human beings. Very obviously, (counter-)factuals in culture imply a position/point of view/bias from which any cultural trait becomes visible to others/us.
Among the many things they brought to the attention to Euro-Americans (who mostly did not listen) where such matters as the reality that tattoos are factual among the Maori and,as I put it today, mostly counterfactual among Europeans. M. Mead followed the same path when she insisted that what she observed among a few Samoan girls be taken seriously by American psychologists (Thorndike?), particularly when they imagined that they could generalize psychological processes by only looking at the people they kept in their labs. On the other side of the Atlantic, Malinowski challenged Freud on the Oedipus complex by insisting the people of the Trobriand should be taken seriously.

The students made their comment after reading Mauss on the Kula ring, the potlatch, and other ways of gifting that are not found among Europeans. I can see it is easy to miss why Mauss picked up on these, as bringing out that some counterfactuals are factual “over there” and thereby can be used to, precisely, challenge the argument that, if something has never been brought out so far among social scientists, then it is impossible. It may also be that students are yearning for what Malinowski called “the natives’ point of view”—a goal that is probably fundamentally impossible (rather than difficult or counterfactual).
This, as far as I am concerned, is one of the points of anthropology: to challenge easy generalization to “humanity” based on the observation of what, without ethnographical accounts of some “other,” would not be noticed to be applicable to only a very limited range of people. This is what Mead once called the “anthropological veto.”

I might even dare to write that yielding this veto is only possible through the “othering” that is a primary tool of anthropologists—or, to stay with today’s theme the veto requires a determined search for what will then, after careful ethnography, cease to be “counterfactuals.” It is a difficult and somewhat dangerous tool to yield appropriately as it is very easy to fall into thinking that one’s one predilections (or dislikes) are more basically interesting. Actually, it is not necessary to travel across the globe to face that which has not yet been observed. One can go around the corner from the university as long as one determinedly look for that which has never been noticed. Many of my favorite recent anthropologists and students have brought such observations from many settings in the United States that had never been noticed before thereby expanding the boundaries of the “possible among human beings”—as well as suggesting how much work it might take to make that which is possible practically impossible here or there.

References

Marletto, Chiara   2021     The science of can and can’t: A physicist’s journey through the land of counterfactuals.New York: Viking.

McDermott, R.P and Meghan McDermott   2010     “‘One aneither’: A Joycean Critique of Educational Research.” Journal of Educational Controversy . 5, 1.

Said, Edward   1978     Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

 

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Saussure, thought, bodies and expression

September 20, 2021

Last week, I introduced students to the short passage in Saussure on “linguistic value” ([1915] 1966: 111-122 ). The high point of this passage is the illustration of the segmentation of thought. Saussure on the segmentation of thoughtI had always dismissed the easy and common critique for the apparent mentalism of the explanatopry paragraph. I always took all this as a model drawn to make us think (…), rather than as the description of a state of being or of some substance. Still, one cannot take Saussure literally when he writes:

 this quote about the absence of “pre-existing ideas” is the basis for the extreme elaboration  by Derrida in Grammatology,.  This elaboration may be based on a misreading and yet had a massive consequence in the development of “deconstruction” and “post-modernism.”
“Without language thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language…. Thought, chaotic by nature, has to become ordered in the process of its decomposition.([1915] 1966: 112)”

We now know, post Freud et al., as well as Bourdieu et al, that, as Geertz once put it:

“A century-and-a-half of investigations into the depths of human consciousness … have uncovered vested interests, infantile emotions, or a chaos of animal appetites, ([1967] 1973: 112)”

or a Bourdieu did, our psyches (personalities, identities) are shaped by:

“disposition inculcated in the earliest years of life and constantly reinforced by calls to order from the group, that is to say, from the aggregate of the individuals endowed with the same dispositions, to whom each is linked by his dispositions and interests” ([1972] 1977: 14-15). ”

So, our brains are not just “a vague, uncharted nebula.” But brains are not actually Saussure’s concern. What he wants us to ponder is: how are we to tell what our brains are signaling?

One student wondered, quite properly, about music as a medium possibly particularly well suited to express what we are experiencing, and better at this than words. I agreed with the sentiment, and taught the usual instance of the Saussurian (and Boasian) analysis by using our experience of light vs. the naming of the light into “colors.” Anthropologists have debated about this a lot more than about music (or the experiences produced by our other senses since we are now talking not solely about “brains” but also about “bodies”). This may be proof of anthropological “ocularcentrism” (a new distinction I just discovered in the spectrum of Western epistemological biases). As I wrote this and started thinking further about the other senses, I remembered my wonder at how specialist try to describe the taste(s) of wine . “classic expression of Cabernet Sauvignon, displaying dark fruit notes of raspberry, currant, and blackberry jam with subtle hints of cocoa.”
All our senses participate in producing our experience of life–including, and this is where anthropologists, as well as Saussurian linguists, add something essential, our experiences when finding out that we are not hearing well, not seeing some colors, or tastes when the (in-)ability has been labeled and then made consequential by a governing (hegemonic) institution or another. That is, not only do we experience what our senses are signaling but also our positions in the many social worlds we also live by.

Given all this, what is it Saussure can continue to tell to students apprenticing themselves to anthropology? That telling our experience, and imagining that of others, involve segmenting it into units that have a “form” but not a substance. “Green/blue,” “blue/red,” “(not) on the autism spectrum,” “getting an ‘A’ rather then a ‘B’ on a test,” all do much more (and much less) than communicating something about our visual acuity, our political affiliation, mental health, education.

And the segments produced by language are always:
. Arbitrary (not motivated by function)
. Arbitrary (the product of an institutional “arbiter” whether a king or obscure “authorities”)
. Drifting and in need of reconstruction
. Making history in an altogether Marxist sense

[more on this]

References

Bourdieu, Pierre   [1972] 1977     Outline of a theory of practice. Tr. by R. Nice.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Derrida, Jacques   [1967] 1997     Of Grammatology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press

Geertz, Clifford   [1967] 1973    “The cerebral savage.” in The interpretation of cultures.. New York: Basic Books. pp. 345-359.

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Modeling acting bureaucracies

Balzac was one of the first writers to make bureaucracy the subject of serious fiction, notably …, where he takes the un-Kafkaesque delight in its lumbering procedures. As he shows in these bureaucratic dramas which are still enlightening today, the monster was not so much malevolent as driven by almost random interference by its futile overactivity. (Robb 1994: 106)

As I like to say, only human beings can close, and then reopen, restaurants. So far I have mostly pointed at “governors” as the humans who act. One does not have to read much Latour to realize that this sketches a reality in much too broad a stroke. In real life, governors may order restaurants closed but the one person who will tell the manager that she must close her restaurant is probably a very minor employee of a local health administration. As I told it in March 2020, my first direct encounter with the virus-as-humanized was in a busy diner, by an interstate highway somewhere in North Dakota, when I witnessed an overly self-satisfied lady telling another lady and her staff around her that the county officials might order her to close the diner following orders from higher officials. Bourdieu reminded all of us, anthropologists, to note marks of distinction. And so I admired the distinction between the well dressed, coiffed, fed official who was not losing her job, and the harassed, not so well-dressed manager, server, cook who were going to lose theirs.

As usual, I am not saying anything as to whether restaurants should have been closed (or re-opened). What I am doing is pursuing the theme I introduced in my last post about “governmentality” as a label for something anthropologists must now take into account anywhere in the world, and as a dangerous concept if it leads to gross generalizations. “The State made me do it” is not an analysis even when the State, that is some governor, set the stage (animated it, directed it, etc.) for whatever everyday encounter an anthropologist may be “participantly observing.”

What I am proposing, and suggesting to the students in their quest for research topics, is a more determined investigation of “speech acts” as they reverberate, as well as the emergence of alternate governors as a major speech act does reverberate.

“Speech act theory” was a major advance in sociolinguistics, and in fact in all the social sciences as it emphasizes that about all human activity proceeds through speaking and not simply through symbolizing, classifying, imagining. Language is also the main tool through which some people get some other people to do what must/may (or must/may not) be done—or at least try to get them to (not) do it. However, the statement by a governor (president of a country, or university) “Get vaccinated, or else” is, ethnographically, an Ur-statement .  It is the first in what can be a very long chain of such statements.  Even so, it must must have occurred within an interaction between the Over-governor and some subordinate.  Anthropologists can only very rarely be allowed to observe such interactions but we can imagine that this statement actually had the form “tell the minister to tell the under-minister to tell” ….. an employee in some Human Resources to e-mail other employees to “get vaccinated or else” and then to report to her supervisor that she had accomplished the task (who then reported it back to her supervisor…).

So that one may not simply make fun of France for its famous overactive bureaucracy, here is a text specifying when/where masks must/may be worn in an American, “Research One,” university.

This chain may be what the word “bureaucracy” indexes but, noticing this chain as chain opens all sorts of possible investigation about the many ways that chain might be broken, or by passed, or produce ever more complex sub-mandates (as happens in France as some middle governors get to specify categories, exceptions, etc.). The media of course is an alternate chain that partially short-circuits the bureaucracy so that the last human in the bureaucratic chain (say, the HR employee) may never have to utter the order: the employee may already have complied for whatever reason—or have initiated a protest.

But there are other chains.

I have been in a small village in Southern France for the past few weeks. Here, as probably everywhere else in the world, the politics of “Covid” (what I refer as the “Corona” epoch) are a major topic of conversation both idle (“do you know what ‘they’ said?!!”) and consequential (“how do I get that pass?”). In the village, and to my surprise, at least half of the people I met asserted with vigor that they were not vaccinated, did not want to get vaccinated, and were going to resist the latest order from the over-governor of France. Many of the non-vaccinators were “young” but I met one lady well into her 70s who was not going to get vaccinated even as her husband, standing by her, said he had been. One can imagine the conversations between the two… A vaccinated of the same generation told that he would not have gotten vaccinated if his daughter-in-law had not acted as a local governor and speech-acted: “Get vaccinated or get banned from family reunions.” One can also imagine the conversations between grand-father, son and daughter-in-law (and probably many more in the kin group)! As I also like to teach local “communities of practice” are not only cozy settings for learning but also fraught settings for political conflict and domination.

In other words I imagine (not to say “I hypothesize”) that local conversations that lead to (not) getting vaccinated parallel the conversations that led the President of France (or the Mayor of New York City as of August 4, 2021) to mandate showing a pass to enter various settings. The President or Mayor, with their police powers, certainly have more power than daughters-in-law. But the power of daughters-in-law (or the lack of power of a son/husband) cannot be underestimated.

Thus the chain from Over-governors to local enactments is “fractal” in the sense that, in any setting, the relationship between however local a governor and their subordinate is going to be the trigger of a chain of sub-mandates each of which susceptible to being expanded or resisted in imaginative ways the initial governor could not … imagine.  This model of bureaucratic “overactivity” will have to be merged with Lave’s model of movement through social structural positions also must involve such speech acts as a “full” member tell another (possibly not so full member…) “let this person work in our shop as an apprentice” and so that persons becomes, analytically, a “legitimate peripheral participant.”

References

Robb, Graham   1994     Balzac: a biography. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

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A coda on Corona and governmentality

A while ago I mused about the ending of the Corona epoch. Many parts of the world are now in transition towards this ending. As usual various governments, and subgovernments, are moving in different ways. Some remove various mandates, keep others, and make it necessary for the governed to figure out what is allowed where and when. In all cases one can observe “governmentality” at work and ponder the responses.

Continuing with my concern with sociability as sequences of triggers and responses that make conditions (facts) for the future, I keep wondering today on what people do after governors have acted to declare the end of this or that mandate. Most responses to such declarations occur behind doors that are not easily opened. But one thing is quite public: the wearing of masks. As many keep noticing, many many people continue to wear masks even after the mandates that they be worn here or there have been lifted. Walking down Broadway on June 10th, one could see people with masks, people with masks that did not cover their nose or with masks around their chins, or with no masks at all. One grocery store had a sign that “under further notices masks are required.” Down the street another store had a sign saying “those fully vaccinated to not need to wear masks.” And another had no signs at all. In another store a sign about the order to wear masks was on the door, most of the employees were not wearing masks, a customer asked, in a joking tone, “where is your mask?” to which another employee responded “it’s not required by the State anymore, we have forgotten to take the sign down.” A month later, the New York Times mused about the distinction between workers in restaurants (who wear masks) and patrons (who do not).

What is a social scientist to next? I imagine, and I may be caricaturing, that a sociologist or social psychologist would look for the “causes” of what appears a personal decisions and ask: “why do you (not) wear a mask here and now?” In designing the study one would first pick up from the literature various matters that are usually “causes” for variations in individual behavior. One could imagine that one does (not) wear a mask “because”:
. of lack of faith in governments
. to make a political statement about government mandates
. for fear of the unvaccinated
. PTSD
. of peer or familial pressure
. of fesistance to peer or familial pressure
. of habit
. Etc.
One might then design a questionaire. The questionaire would include the usual demographic information about the individual responder (sex, gender, race, ethnicity, location, education, age, language spoken at home, etc.) that would eventually allow for various forms of regression analyses. I imagine that the “findings” of such studies would be reported in the New York Times under a title like “White liberal men and women in Manhattan will continue to wear masks while others in the South refuse to wear them.”

All this will interest many and confirm much that is generally known. But those who analyze, critique, and contribute to government should notice that it does not actually tell us much about that to which individuals respond. (Not) wearing a mask only makes sense in a world where governments mandate such things and so social scientists must also investigate governments, their relationships to the governed, and all mechanisms through which “orders” (as acts) produce (dis-)orders (as historical conditions). As I like to say, the virus does not care what humans do. But those humans in government (and in all ordering positions), let’s call them “governors,” do—whatever they end up doing (and that is very diverse indeed!). Some of us, say “applied anthropologists,” might want to help. What might we point out?

To develop something I mentioned earlier, a governor (and that could be a 10 year old…) can put up a sign on a door stating “Do Not Enter!” with a guard or warden enforcing the order so that the governor can be about sure that the order will do what it is expected to do (as long as back doors are also locked or guarded). However, when the same governor puts a sign stating “Do Enter!” (get vaccinated, eat healthy foods) this governor may not get the expected results as people continue not to enter, get vaccinated, or eat unhealthy foods.

The observable difficulties governors have in enforcing what might be labeled “positive” mandates is worth exploring as a possibly fundamental limit on governmentality. It may even be more fundamental than the impossibility of governors to prevent people from resisting negative mandates (whether the people are or are not successful in their resistance).  James Scott has kept emphasizing this limit on negative mandates (2009).   The very need to post guards or wardens (school administrators, nurses, social workers) is testimony to the governors’ awareness of this limit. But the other limit may be more difficult to overcome.

Going back to mask wearing can help us notice further matters that are usually hidden by a simple reference to “governmentality” as sketched by Foucault and others. In the United States, it is well known, governing is quite divided. Simplified, on matters like mask wearing, the Federal government advises (and possibly dangles sticks and carrots), State Governors get emergency powers allowing to mandate and enforce negative mandates. These can be trumped, challenged, or amplified by local governments and also, very significantly, by non-governmental entities like, say, a private university, or a church that may require behaviors (like wearing masks or getting tested) even after the governmental mandates have been lifted. There is more: self-organizing groups within these institutions may themselves act out, if not mandate, a behavior otherwise allowed. In a church I know, about everyone continued to wear masks even after all other governmental and non-governmental entities announced that they were not necessary. Strictly speaking, in such a setting, there is no actual governor but the effect is about the same as if someone had mandated masks. I also know of extended families that remain consequential to each other even as various sub-parts impose on themselves various mandates about vaccines, masks, meetings, etc—and dispute among them what to do next

In abstract terms, I’d say that governmentality, as a aspect of sociability, is fractal rather than hierarchical. More on that another time.

References

Scott, James   2009     The art of not being governed: An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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Chimpanzees, culture, diffusion (and ode to joy?)

This post was triggered by something in the New York Times about “Julia,” a chimpanzee in a sanctuary in Zambia so named by the observing humans. chimpanzee with grass in earThe humans noticed her sticking blades of grass in her ears and this being adopted by other chimpanzees in the same sanctuary, and then passed on in further generations even after she died (Natalie Angier “Meet the Other Social Influencers of the Animal Kingdom” May 7, 2021). The original paper by Andrew Whiten (“The burgeoning reach of animal culture.” Science April 2, 2021) worked off a definition of culture ” as all that is learned from others and is repeatedly transmitted in this way, forming traditions that may be inherited by successive generations.” This was presented as part of the argument against human centeredness. “Culture” must have universal evolutionary advantages for all life forms as it allows “traits” (such as “grass in ears”) to move “horizontally” (through discovery/learning/teaching) among adults and their descendants as well as “vertically” (through genetic drift and biological reproduction).

I will leave the evolutionary implications to the authors of the various articles quoted by Angier, and translated into NYT speak. What fascinates me is the production of the trait in the history of the group. Van Leewen et al. who first reported on the case emphasize that they could not find anything functional to the behavior. They titled their paper “group-specific arbitrary tradition”—an excellent definition of “culture” (and a better one than Whiten’s). Interestingly, no one in the small crowd indexed by the journalist appears to have looked for the origin of the behavior, thereby suggesting that it was an “original.” Someone who commented on the first reporting of the case in the Smithsonian Magazine wondered whether Julia had picked up on something she saw a human do, e.g. wear earrings. But we are not given any evidence on the (pre-)history of the behavior. So, we are told of a behavior (“grass-in-hear”) that is, as Lévi-Strauss once said, subsequently “adopted on a collective mode” (1971:  560) and thus becomes a “trait” somehow distinctive (Bourdieu 1977 [1970]:5) of the group.

As a cultural anthropologist, I also want to emphasize that the trait is not “good to eat” (useful in some functional way) but appears to be “good to think”—to play with another one of Lévi-Strauss’s pithy sayings (1963 [1962]: 89). I would translate it to say that it was “good for fun” or “good for beauty” and perhaps also, more darkly, “good for domination.”  In any event it is good to make a further future.

Van Leenwen told a journalist that keeping a blade of grass in one’s ear is no mean feat. Those who attempted it, including the observing human, found it painful and they struggled before succeeding. This is actually true of all “techniques of the body” whether they involve cuttings, piercings, colorings, reshapings, etc., of this or that part of the body. Displaying oneself as somehow appropriate is almost always difficult, if not painful and expensive. But it may also make you beautiful. It is not really chance that the main form of body reshaping surgery in Euro-American culture is labeled “aesthetic.”

History and ethnography is full of accounts behaviors that transform into traits. This may be ubiquitous matter, but it is not always, if ever, a peaceful one. Almost all new traits, on their way to become part of a “tradition,” are resisted by at least some in the population who find it unpleasant, disgusting, dissonant. One wonders whether some among Julia’s peers laughed at her, unless she was an emperor in new clothes that made critics cower… But maybe noticing her new ear ornament was just an occasion for other leaders, including the humans who inscribed the event, to celebrate a “breakthrough” produced by a “genius” artist. Given the criticism of invocations of “genius” in the historical production of a trait, say of something like the four movement symphony in 18th century Europe, it makes more sense to imagine a long process of proposals, demonstrations, developments, etc. Beethoven’s 9th symphony does not arise out of nowhere (de Nora 1997).  And it did not remain the distinctive tradition of a (European) group (population, congregation, assembly…).  Over the past two centuries it has become a pan-human trait that may not be solely the product of it being beautiful.  In my exploration of various YouTube rabbit holes, I have become fascinated by the extent of European style music and instruments in China, as well as its vicissitudes from a time when Mao Zedong attempted to “island” (Benedict 1932) China from “foreign” influences to the time when “flash mobs” are organized to play the “Ode to Joy” in a Chinese mall (August 12, 2013). As far as I can tell, a lot of fun was had by many—literally a thousand in a Japanese yearly  performance by a choir reunion (Jun 7, 2017).  Boasian anthropology was at its strongest when it emphasized such borrowing and diffusion, as well as rejection of what others, in other valleys, had said and done.

Unless of course some of those who sing the “Ode to Joy” are coerced, directly or indirectly. This brings me to the second trigger for this post: a student exploring in detail Bourdieu (and Passeron)’s most powerful line: “All pedagogic action is, objectively, symbolic violence insofar as it is the imposition of a cultural arbitrary by an arbitrary power” ([1970] 1977: 5). I never hesitate to assign it to students with the injunction to translate “pedagogic action” to any act that may trigger another act whether the original act was intended to teach or not. All acts are potential “pedagogic” and so was Julia’s sticking grass in her ear. But the importance of the quote lies in the dual use of “arbitrary,” first as a noun referring to some tradition, and then as an adjective modifying acts of imposition (whether intended or not). “Cultural arbitrary” indexes the Boasian tradition as transformed by Lévi-Strauss. Adding an emphasis on the process of maintaining a tradition in a population is Bourdieu’s central contribution to culture theory. So he (and maybe Foucault also) asks us to wonder what led the other chimpanzees in Julia’s troupe to imitate her. Did any of their peers resist (think of the reaction of parents of my generation to their daughters coloring their air pink and shaping it into a Mohawk…)? pink Mohawk hair styleDid the trait become fully institutionalized and consequential for future advancement in the group? Did it fade as an ephemere fad or did it become part of some canon (think of jazz moving from the periphery, to being the soundtrack of a generation, to its installation in an institution like “Jazz at Lincoln Center”)?  I also found on YouTube the climactic scene of a Chinese movie about students in a school of music fighting each other through their musical instruments: those who played pre-European instruments won.

Is Beethoven fun or is it imposed?  When writing about “culture as disability,” McDermott and I emphasized the imposition.  When I put together Educating in Live (2019), I looked for all the wonderful things people might do even in very difficult situations (girsl improvising conversations about bullying! Other girls organizing single-sex proms!).  But, of course, when confronted to a tempting fabricated dichotomy one should chose, as McDermott and McDermott argue, quoting James Joyce, “‘one aneither’” (2010).

And so I will end today with Lucy’s doubt when she argued: “Beethoven wasn’t so great … You’ve never seen his face on a bubblegum card, have you?” (Schulz, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” 1965) thereby giving evidence that even children can resist influencers (Schroeder) even as they may fall victim to others (the capitalists who sell bubblegum), even as they make clear both are real consequential in their lives as they are always already there and remain there.

References

DeNora, Tia 1997 Beethoven and the Construction of Genius : Musical
Politics in Vienna, 1792-1803
. Berkeley: University of California Press

Main, Douglas   2014   “Some Chimps Are Putting Grass in Their Ears For No Particular Reason”  Smithsonian Magazine: June 2014

van Leeuwen, E.J.C., Cronin, K.A. & Haun, D.B.M. 2014 “A group-specific arbitrary tradition in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes).” Animal Cognition 17: 1421-1425. Publisher

Whiten A. 2021 ” The burgeoning reach of animal culture.” Science. Apr 2;372(6537):eabe6514. doi: 10.1126/science.abe6514. PMID: 33795431

(further links about the other authors quoted here can be found here)

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Constructing the virus and the defense against it in the Corona epoch

On March 5 2020, I left New York City headed for California. I was to give a series of lectures along the way. I had recently read about a virus that was agitating the media. My university announced that “nonessential events … would be cancelled.” Three days later I did lecture at Indiana University, and then at Wisconsin and at a college in Minneapolis. And then I was told that all other lectures had been cancelled. I continued driving West, noticing how various governors were responding. On March 29th, as I was threatened with having to spend 30 days in my hotel room, I drove back home where I locked myself up in my house. I was by then fully caught into what I will keep calling the “Corona” epoch officially known, in American Corona speech, “the Covid pandemic.”

A year later to the day, I received the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. In one year, the world population went from “discovering” (experiencing for the first time, bumping into…) something new to finding a way to live with that which was discovered so that it does not hurt too many people any more. But, of course, to talk about “world population” is to beg all questions about who did what when for me (and now hundreds of millions of humans) to get vaccinated. Who would do what had to be distributed on the basis of earlier distributions. Sorting out this distribution and its synchronization, is something that should not be guessed or assumed. It must be investigated, in details.

So let’s play at modeling as a guide for future research:

1) let’s assume that, in January 2020 only a very few human beings had an inkling as to what to look for which was making people sick on a large scale. I am not sure of their exact specializations (though I suspect it is already multiple). I will call them “research biologists.” They, based on their “knowledge,” suspected and then demonstrated to their satisfaction that this was a “Corona virus” they labeled “the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2” I imagine many of them worked in universities and research labs

2) Soon, some of these, let’s call them “biological engineers” starting working on a vaccine. This should be restated to acknowledge the “culturing” of Corona since my model probably only works “in America,” and not in other fields with different organizations of legitimated engineering. I imagine those to be mostly employed by large capitalistic corporations like Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, etc. who are now well known for their vaccines.

3) at some point the management of these corporations started to organize those who would actually produce the vaccine in their factories. The management also had to organize the lobbyists who would converse with various governments agencies, the financial people who would converse with the banks, “legal” who would converse with those who might challenge this or that part of the process, etc.

4) in parallel the engineers in charge in testing for efficacy had to recruit volunteers, as well the writers for the reports to the various government agencies who would approve the vaccine.

5) another parallel activity must have started to ensure the production of the little bottles that are the concrete form of the vaccine and then its delivery to various distribution sites (even before one knew where these would be).

6) … 7) … 8) … 9)

1000) at the most local level of my own vaccination, all this activity by this crowd also required the hiring of the parking attendants who  ensured that a usually very sleepy parking lot could handle hundreds of cars moving in and out: the dance of these men (and they were all young black men) was amazing!

Amazing is the word to use for the emergence of the machinery that put a needle in my arm a year after I found out about that which required this needle.

By every account, each sub-activity, as well as the overall one, is an “achievement” (even, or particularly, in the ethnomethodological technical sense). These “achievements” have to be constructed on an ongoing basis by human beings who may never had constructed it, even if they had some mastery (in the Lave sense) in this kind of construction. One of the evidence of this human production is the variety of what was actually constructed. At every point the scientists/engineers/administrators had to select one possibility among others (one dose vs. two doses, extreme refrigeration vs. regular, etc.) thereby taking an arbitrary step (e.g. make a power move constituting this reality for this sub-population) that produced an arbitrary solution to a communication problem. The current vaccines work, but they are not simply “functional” or the only possible. They are also “poetic.”

I emphasize the (social) “construction” of the vaccine (“reality”) to counter one misplaced interpretation of what is now known as the “sociology of science.” I like to quote Bourdieu’s dismissal of early work in ethnomethodology as it emerged in the 1970s. Bourdieu feared that demonstrating how scientists “constructed” their “facts” would undermine the authority of science. In certain versions of this now not-so-new tradition, “reality” is dissolved as “mere” construction. I regularly warn students that they should not follow any author who leads them in that direction—for example when discussing the “body” and its processes (including the reaction of bodies to viruses). But, of course, tracing how some scientists come to see and represent some thing outside themselves does not, as such, say anything about the factual reality of that thing or the usefulness of the particular (cultural) “scientific” construction of that reality. One may be initially bothered by the way Garfinkel writes about the discovery of pulsars (1981), or by the way Goodwin writes about air controllers “constructing” air planes out of thin air (a pun I cannot help making) in order to land real planes and their passengers safely to the ground (1996).  But one need not be bothered that, for the controllers, the “plane” is only blips and condensed text on a screen as long as the plane is landed safely.  That human beings can actually do this, through language and complicated practices, is what remains amazing.

This argument applies to what humans did with the virus I call C19 (in order to resist the arbitrariness of the more “correct” label). It must have started as an hypothesis (“these symptoms look like they are produced by a virus), “confirmed” by a set of steps using complicated (culturally produced) machines leading to a fuzzy picture that led to the pretty picture that allows “us,” the non-biologists, to “see” the virus. That neither representation captures the virus-as-is (that is the indefinite number of “actual” viruses that infect) is besides the point. The important thing, for the overall achievement, was the construction of the model of the virus that allowed for future action.

I will conclude for today with a return to my last post about fishes and the water. What is clear is that the initial metaphor is based on an extremely limited model of all life in which only one kind of fish (native) is shaped and blinded to only one kind of water (culture). Given a volume of water, it will be inhabited by many fishes that will experience different versions of the water (depending on depth and light, salinity, predators, etc.) as well as, most importantly perhaps, each other. So the fishes will have not one model of the water they inhabit, but many that may or may not look much like each other. The biological model of the virus used by biologist engineers to make the vaccine is clearly a very particular one very few among the world population could understand. Most of us will never experience the virus as an object (even when we experience the disease encounter with the virus may produce). Each of these models, in the not so long run (a year!) will do something that needed done.

1979 Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts. (with Steve Woolgar)

References

Garkinkel, Harold and M. Lynch, E. Livingston   1981     “The Work of a Discovering Science Construed with Materials from the Optically Discovered Pulsar.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences. 11, 2:131-158.

Goodwin, Charles and Marjorie Goodwin   1996     “Seeing as a Situated Activity: Formulating Planes.” in Cognition and Communication at
Work.
edited by Y. Engeström and D. Middleton. Cambridge, Cambridge University
Press: 61-95.

Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar 1979 Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts. New York: Sage Publications.

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