The ultimate ignorant school master?

One of our doctoral students, Ms. Mako Miura, recently challenged me with a question I had never entertained. We were discussing Jean Lave’s model for learning through participation (1991). We were focusing on some of the examples Lave mentions that point to the asymmetry between those in the “peripheral” position and those in the “full” position. Prototypically, we have an apprentice, initially ignorant but granted the legitimacy to participate, and the master who granted this legitimacy and eventually gets the apprentice to “learn” through participation that which characterizes a particular “shop floor” (to index Garfinkel). I emphasized that Lave is building a “model” to help us through initial analyses of the “educational” (“instructional,” “learning”) aspects of the organization of any floor. And I proposed we approached the encounter between first time parents and their child as just such a floor where a very legitimate participant will be learning everything that already makes this particular “family” (to keep it simple): familial configuration, ethnic or regional particularities, language, “culture.”

As this point, Miura asked: “could we argue that, on this floor, it is the child who is at the center and the parents who are on the periphery as they will have to ‘learn’ parenting?”

I must say that, whenever I have taught Lave (& Wenger)’s book, I have never pondered whether we should also consider the possibility of a feedback learning whereas the apparently “full” person discovers what apprentices are like, how they are learning, and what these apprentices are doing with that. I do not think that Jean Lave (or Ray McDermott with whom I once participated with her in a joint seminar on “ignorance”) ever considered such a possibility. And yet, particularly if we approach the issue after reading Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster ([1987] 1999), as we did in the class, then the question is one we should take seriously.

The issue is a classic one in cultural anthropology, particularly in the Boasian traditions led by M. Mead and many others who build on what appears to be a common sense generalizations. Here is the way Geertz once put it:

One of the most significant facts about us is that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end up in the end having only lived one.” (1973, 45)

In other words related to ignorance and knowledge, one starts knowing nothing (but able to learn anything) and immediately gets taught in the language, styles, religion, etc., of one’s population, thereby limiting further and further what one can do with the rest of one’s life.  Cultural anthropology is, also, about the ongoing restriction on possibilities (and the powerful ones re-enforcing these restrictions).

I suspect any introductory class in cultural anthropology (and all related discipline) starts with a version of this and will include discussion of enculturation, socialization, the development of an identity, etc.

This is probably where I would start, if I had to teach such a class.

father changing an infant's diaper
Father and infant on an educational floor: who is teaching what to whom and how?

But, things are not so simple when one considers the “shop floor” where a child and their parents first stare at each other wondering what to do next. The parents may be quite articulate about their wonders.  They probably deliberate extensively with each other and with all the significant others with whom they are currently living or who directly impinge on their lives (parents, peers, the media, pediatricians). The infant may not be able to do much more than smile or cry but anyone who has been with a child, however young, has experienced the ongoing investigations that the child is doing (via , first, eyes, arm movements and such, and, soon, through various forms of vocalizations that turn into words). The child, we must assume, is not just “absorbing.” The child is also analyzing, exploring, testing, etc., and doing it more and more articulately as time passes (consider the 3 year-old who keeps asking ‘why?’). I am not proposing anything here about the child’s “consciousness.”  I am just suggesting that we should never assume what a lack of linguistic articulation might imply in relation to analysis, exploration, testing, etc.

One thing that is certain is that, along with anything else the child may be doing, they are arguably, imposing their will to live on bumbling parents and thereby teaching them (plural) how to deal with them (singular) while being totally ignorant of what it is that they are teaching.

The infant would thereby be the ultimate “ignorant schoolmaster”…

Food for thought for future anthropologists who will conduct research on early child development, the production of particular family styles, and such.

[this is also a message to you (EB, GR, MN) to push dis- (vision, hearing, mental) studies to take very seriously what is otherwise a pious cliche “teachers learn from their students” (as it certainly applies to me): what exactly is it that a blind/deaf/confusing/… person teach the most significant persons in their entourage (assemblage) through ongoing everyday interaction in routine activities? How do they do it and with what stuff? (The prototype that should guide any research in this line is Goodwin’s work on communication with a person with aphasia (2004))]


Geertz, Clifford   1973     The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Goodwin, Charles   2004    “A Competent Speaker Who Can’t Speak: The Social Life of Aphasia.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 14, 2:151-170.

Lave, Jean and E. Wenger   1991     Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rancière, Jacques   [1987] 1999     The ignorant schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation.. Tr. by K. Ross. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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Barbie and their people

I would probably not have gone to see Barbie (the movie) if I had not read so much about it over the past few weeks. So, here is another take, including a take on the takes.

In brief, I was entertained by what might have been intended, by movie makers, their financiers, and above all Mattel as a little bit of fluff that would make careers and money. I knew that this was not a movie for most of my sections (the list would be long)—except perhaps for one: after all I am an anthropologist of America and this movie is an event in the history of the United States, a performance that triggered many other performances (particularly by my peers in the American intelligentsia). So, in the spirit of ethnography I will first focus on aspects of the film as object, and then ponder about what future anthropologists might do with this total social fact.

The movie, it turns out, is not just fluff, It can also be “read” (watched and then written about) very seriously (if not ponderously). So, in an initial step, in the theater, and given all I had already read, I listened for all explicit tropes for “feminism” including mentions of “patriarchy,” put downs of Ken and all other men, etc. These are hard to miss and yet I noticed, as a few of the commentators did, that many of the enactments of the tropes are so heavily drawn to make
one wonder whether they were designed as caricatures. I’d say that only the speech by the one “real” woman in the movie is straight faced 21st century official feminism. Everything else could serve as opening the way to a critique of said “feminism.”

Barbie toy house
Barbie’s house (2023)

The movie opens with an hyperbolic animation of a young girl’s play fantasy (and/or a Mattel commercial) as it might be remembered, nostalgically, by adult women—unless it is a an animation of the critique of Mattel’s designs for and unto little girls. Barbie Land appears as a pink Eden (Shangri-La) as the designers imagined, with a lot of supporting evidence, little girls imagine as they play with dolls their parents/grand parents paid for. This is land from which boys (as well as parents) are banned, a land without pain … or sex (we are explicitly told that neither Barbie nor Ken have genitalia), or digestive tracks (Barbie Land would not have to worry about sewers!).

That is the setting. And then something happens: A thought startles Barbie (little girls turning into adult women?): death. This may be (or could have been a point) when light comedy entered drama. I suspect that, in many conversations about the movie, in cars driving home in various suburbs, this came up (ethnography needed!). In the movie, death was lightened by adding cellulite and flat feet as the triggers for Barbie’s exploration of the “real” world that ends with her first trip to a gynecologist (treated as a celebration!). In other words, this may be less a movie about feminism than about growing up female (person with female genitalia): it is about a young girl’s shift from a massively gendered fantasy into the material world—including the material world of mothers with boring jobs, unpleasant bosses, and another of the “big eastern syndicates” which ruin Christmas (as per Lucy in Peanuts)—not to mention sex (which is actually quite absent from the movie). It may be part of Mattel’s capitalistic genius, as a 21st century corporation that it lets itself be represented by buffoons while racking in the dollars. I’d bet there will be a Marxicist take on this movie…

And then setting and adventure (getting arrested in Los Angeles, crashing Mattel) turn into myth. The movie includes a set of scenes with the Creator (not only of Barbie, but also of Mattel–though we are not told that). These culminate with a vision in which She who Is gives Barbie glimpses of what it might be like to live in a world in which one dies—and with the punch line Jews, Christians and Muslims, not to mention Americans, will recognize: it’s your choice (free will). In that world there are many happy children smiling at you (I need to watch the movie again to see this altogether brief sequence). And no mention that, as another story of a woman’s move out from Eden put it, “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Genesis 3:16). In other words, Barbie is very much an American movie in the evolving liberal humanist ideology that imagines a future world of pleasure and community where every individual can be all they want to be (Varenne 1977).

But all this is not to be taken as implying I argue that the movie is a product of America (feminism, post-Christianity, capitalistic exploitation, or what have you), or that it is part of a grand systemic plot to “enculture” (“socialize”) young girls, or their mothers (not to mention boys and men).

Rather, and from the point of view of my kind of anthropology, such movies, like all works of imagination (even when greatly enriching stock holders), are statements within ongoing and ever evolving conversations that triggers further statements—particularly statements made by those who cannot be directly controlled at the time when they are discussing the original statements. I
imagine that most people who went to see the movie then talked about it not only with other who saw it, but also with peers, family members, friends, etc. who did not. And this makes me wonder what little girls do/did when playing with Barbie: do they wish they had breasts like hers? notice that these breasts have fascinated all critics of the doll? “criticize” (the way many older girls and women eventually do)? What do they tell each other they are doing? their parents? What do their parents tell them? I hope some anthropologist will take these questions as triggers for investigation. I am sure that one would find many cases (in notes, letters, social media posts) of something I just found out a young girl who would become very famous wrote for her siblings’ enjoyment: For 6 years, from the time she was 12, Jane Austen sketched 21 novels (2017) before composing the famous 6 for which she is famous. These “teenage writings” (like the Bronte sisters’) may have survived because of the eventual fame of their authors, but they could also be taken as evidence for what young people do with the stuff of their every day life in their social conditions, and particularly what they mock (implying that they already knew what these were, and how to mock them). Such texts (performances) should be the sources of any ethnography of the Barbie phenomenon in the United States and beyond.


Austen, Jane 2017     Teenage writings. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press


[this was initially published on September 3, 2023]


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Race Consciousness, Racism (and race?): Contradictions with consequences (culture!)

From the time when I played “les coboilles et les indiens,” 70 years ago, in the streets of small Southern village, I have experienced something, that is, precisely, a “thing” that stood in my way, that I could play with, or fear. This was called “America” by French politicians (etc) as well as five year old boys. “It” (its armies, myths, festivals) was awe-inspiring and also mysterious. After many years establishing myself as an anthropologists of ‘America,’ I would now say that that which still fascinates me is not exactly the kind of object archaeologist might find in some jungle. America, as any other culture I’d say, is more of a set of dilemmas and contradictions that move conversations-with-practical-consequences—and thus, through their consequences do make things that trigger more conversations and things.

Case in point: The recent conversations about what to do (“ask applicants,” “take into consideration,” and other speech acts) when involved in evaluating students for admission into elite colleges.

Like many in these colleges, I have been reading several documents all written by people born, raised, and schooled in the United States (natives?). I read the “Opinion” (certainly not a description of the actual speech act!) by that most bizarre (cross-culturally) of institutions: the Supreme Court of the United States. I read the Opinion, some of the concurring statements, some of the dissenting statements, and many editorials and such summarizing the Opinion and telling what it “really” meant. And so I am left contemplating the ongoing production/construction of a culture (America) that continues to fascinate me as an emergent, and now someone jaded, Franco-European(-American?).

These documents are ostensibly about, “race,” “race consciousness,” or “racism.” But I am never always sure which.  My own opinion (interpretation with no authority or general consequence), is that all “justices” agree that racism is bad and that something, that is some thing (act with consequences) needs be (not) done. They are all, in the very evidence of their writing, very much “conscious” or “race” but they do not agree on what kind of “race consciousness” is a good or bad thing.  Surprisingly to some observers, they do not seem to care much about “race,” as a concept, category or thing of any sort. And so, most people in the United States, particularly actors in the elite universities, are left to their own devices figuring out what do to next in their various responsibilities as faculty, minor administrator, etc., in one of these universities.

The justices and commentators do agree that racism is bad, but the issue, as argued, is not about philosophy, ideology, genetics and other sciences of the human body. It is about institutional consequences that have direct life-long consequences on people. It is about slavery, segregation and Jim Crow laws, separate but equal schooling, limitations on voting, and such matters of state mandates. It is about what the State may allow or require of institutions and people in general. In that sense, it is about facts that constrain people (Durkheim), things with their separate agency (Latour), inevitable objects. That all these facts, things, objects, are man-made (human productions) do not make them less real. I will sometimes say that such constructions may in fact be more immediately real (to be lived and experienced) than matters like gravity or air-pressure, even if, or particularly if, they are so threatened as to continually need reconstructing.

And “race” is now something to be reconstructed in general and in the particularities of admission offices.

In very brief, the ongoing conversations start with a general agreement that America, in its State and mandates, constructed many very bad institutions in the past. It should continue to deconstruct these and construct some new ones. This is, and has been, an ongoing process. To appropriate something Lévi-Strauss once said in his usual pithy way: [America] tends to be dismantled like a palace swept away upon the flood, whose parts, through the effect of currents and stagnant waters, obstacles and straits, come[s] to be combined in a manner other than that intended by the architect” ([1962] 1966: 233). What Lévi-Strauss might have added was that this palace is continually being reconstructed—as everyone in the United States was reminded a few weeks ago.

But this reconstruction is not guided by any architect. The significant speakers/actors (the six justices of the Supreme Court who made a difference) just told any architect what NOT to build. All architects of future admission procedures will have to construct things in ongoing uncertainty without relying on any specific consensus, common sense, or tradition. The justices themselves, spectacularly, do not agree with what is exactly at stake. All use the word “race.” But only some wonder about what exactly, for this or any other purposes, is to be meant by the word. All, in their more consequential pro or con moments, appear to take it for granted. I suspect all of them might agree that the word is about a social construct of some sort, and not a thing of nature or a property of people (as it might have been in the 19th century and still lingering). The conversation is about what is to be constructed that is somehow related to race.  It will involve wondering about materials, institutional places, ecological impact on other constructions, and the imagined future use of the constructed things. On one side, six of justices agree that constructing anything with “race” is a bad thing, as it was in the past. On the other side, three justices agree that, when acting with institutional life-long consequences, those with authority may, or indeed must, make themselves “conscious” of race, using whatever definition they wish. All nine then tar each other, more or less explicitly, with “racism.”

So, what is racism at this moment in United States time: being institutionally “conscious” of race or being deliberately and institutionally NOT conscious of race? Is there anything that anthropology, through ethnography, can offer as part of an answer?

I’d say first that the very ongoing conversations demonstrate that about everyone in the United States is, practically, in their everyday life, “conscious of race.” What is less clear is what, in this everyday life of people with very different responsibilities (university presidents, interns helping sort applications), does this consciousness make happen? I suspect, given “America” that many will transform this into questions of states of mind, identity, or the like. But the Court, most interestingly for an observer, is not actually concerned with states of mind. It is concerned with the State and its statutes and mandates in the minute details of its work as it might be experienced in the everyday life of the people affected. In my own academic world, preliminary local conversations have raised such practical issues as: may an institution still ask applicants for admission to check any kind of box about race (in all its variants)? How can people be given preferential treatment on matters like financial aid? How might this preference be phrased and practically implemented by subsidiary administrators? All these are extremely concrete matters that are continually referred to “legal” since the institution does not want to be sued. All  the actors will remain “conscious of race” but that will remain a private matter. My kind of anthropologist will always look, after a cursory glance at the text of a mandate, at what the people will then do with the mandate. This anthropologist will expect that people will resist, play or, as one commentator said, actively “game the system.” As I like to say, it is by looking at such moments that one eventually discovers what is most consequential for a people—that is, for me, not so much “their” culture as the culture they cannot escape.



Lévi-Strauss, Claude   [1962] 1966/2021     The savage mind/Wild thought. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


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The end of Corona

I first mused about the end of the Corona epoch (a.k.a “COVID-19″) two years ago. I did it again a year ago. In both cases I took into account both my (lived?) experience in the various polities I usually and more or less regularly inhabit (family, church, shops, university), as well as what I found out about the evolution of governors’ mandates, including both those I had to live by in New York City or France, and those I read about. My usual examples involved restaurants, their closure, their re-opening, the mandates about masks while sitting or moving in restaurants, etc.

First, some ethnography:
At Teachers College, one could trace various endings over the past two years. The building was reopened to selected personnel, then to all. There shifts in vaccination reporting and checking, etc. And then, on April 20, 2023 we were told that, among related matters:

COVID-19 requirements and campus access:
TC will no longer link any COVID-19 vaccination or testing requirements to campus access.

This was justified as [resulting] “from the ending of the COVID-19 Federal Health Emergency declaration and decreasing COVID-19 cases among TC community members and across New York City.”

All this is to happen on May 12, 2023, thereby closing the epoch that started sometimes in early March 2020 (the actual starting point could be considered either the first message about the “coronavirus” [it had not yet been named “COVID-19], or the actual physical closing of the buildings when “do not enter” signs were pasted over the doors).

The TC announcement went to every one in the “community” (faculty, staff, students, etc.) and did not cause much of a ripple. When I mentioned it in class someone retorted that she got the message on the same day one of our her friend tested positive. To persist on my theme, governors can re-open restaurants, the virus continues its life career—if viruses are “alive.” something that appears to be controversial among the authoritative scientific experts. As these same experts do tell us: whether alive or not, the virus is with us for the foreseeable future.

So “SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the Covid-19 disease” was noticed by human beings in the Fall 2019 and remains with us while “Corona” (as culture epoch) started in February or March 2020 and has been ending to the point when many now use the past tense when talking about “COVID-19,” the current, common, and apparently uncontroversial, label.

And now, to play at anthropology:
• Given that Corona has obviously been a (social) construction (by and for about the whole 9 billion human beings).
• And given that Corona will continue to evolve in narratives and other forms of discourse (art, policy, science, etc.).
Can we also say that the virus was constructed?

Both current speculations about the origin of the virus involve human activity and complex, though quite different, actor-networks. As some tell it, perhaps a worker in the local lab did not clean up quite well and carried the virus out of the lab. This leads to question about why the lab was making viruses, why it was located where it was, who funded it, etc…. Alternatively, perhaps a merchant bought an infected animal from some hunter and then sold it to some customer. This hypothesis would then lead to investigations into the traditions (cultures) that make some wild animals edibles “there and then” (though they might not be “elsewhere and elsewhen”). And then, in either case, the spread of the virus depended on much that is human (airplanes, policies, etc.).

And yet … the virus itself is not human. Humans cannot talk to it, threaten it, regulate it, teach it—or any of the other acts that human can perform on each other. At most humans can attempt to control each other in the hope that, in that fashion, they might control the virus. And this brings us back to governors issuing mandates on partially resistant populations.

In other words, human beings, when confronted to the dangerous “thing-ness” of an object in their experience will do something (culture) but the thing remains, possibly hidden but always susceptible to re-emergence … as the next virus will do.

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While crossing Manhattan on 14th Street

Half a century ago, when I searched for a catchy title for the book building on my dissertation (1972), I came up up with Americans Together (1978). I am not sure what I then meant by “Americans”—though I am sure that, from the time when I proposed the research (in 1970), I had been looking for a “pattern” or “structure” as I interpreted Benedict, Lévi-Strauss, or Dumont, to have done. But I may also have accepted that the plural “AmericanS” somewhat referred to a plurality of individuals. And thus I fell to American (patterned) common sense.

As far as I can check, I never used the plural noun again, though I continued to use “American” as an adjective and “America” as a proper, always singular, noun—and I persist. And, now, after many years teaching Garfinkel, Latour, Lave, and those inspired by them, it came to me that I should have titled the book “Together in America” which would in fact had fit better the subtitle to the book: “Structured diversity in a Midwestern town.”

This subtitle directly stated the main ethnographic point of the book that, while Paw Paw, Michigan, (“Appleton” in the book) may appear indistinguishable from thousand of such towns, it was internally (as I am sure all other such towns are) extremely varied religiously, ideologically, generationally (and probably also by all the most commonly invoked 21st century categories of race, gender, ethnicity that also appeared in my fieldnotes). But, to me then and now, the more interesting internal variability was in the organization of settings where people came together and manipulated identity symbols (as we would currently say in anthropology). One example that made it into the book is the moment when “ethnic background” briefly emerged during a round of introductions when I first partied with a group of friends of my age (1978: Chapter 4). When narrating (!) my (lived?) experiences in Paw Paw, I like to embroider my travels through the town, on a Sunday, when I started (dressed in a suit and tie) at a Sunday School then service at the Methodist or Presbyterian church (where/when all men wore suits and tie), before driving to the apartment of friends (where I was told to take off my tie), and ending the day at a Catholic mass (where the congregation was dressed in everything from dirty blue jeans to fur coats). Depending on I am not sure what, I was sometime positioned as a high school exchange student, an awkward young male with a funny accent, a doctoral students at the University of Chicago, etc. (including other things I may not have been directly told, though I remember several attempts to test my “orientation”). Eventually I was also struck by the diversity of politico/economic interests as I explored the many governing board regulating this or that aspect of everyday. This was most salient perhaps in the school board when town’s people and farmers clashed over taxation, curriculum, etc. only apparently coming together for ritual performances (football games, graduation ceremonies, etc.).
Continue reading “While crossing Manhattan on 14th Street”

on pattern recognition by humans and machines

September 16, 2022

“Pattern recognition”: inevitable though fragile (and necessarily dis-…ing?) productions on which to base some future action—or not.

Two recent pieces in the New York Times triggered my anthropological imagination. The first is an enthusiastic review of recent developments in “Artificial Intelligence” (“We Need to Talk About How Good A.I. Is Getting,” Kevin Roose, Aug. 24, 2022). Would you believe that you can ask, in text, for a “Black-and-white vintage photograph of a 1920s mobster taking a selfie” and you get an image that makes sense, to an aging professor and apparently many others in 2022? Roose’s piece mentions in passing that AI generated representations could be politically problematic. They have already been. A day earlier, another piece had been published that gives a sense of what can happen next when AI is let loose. That piece was titled “Capitol Drops ‘Virtual Rapper’ FN Meka After Backlash Over Stereotypes.” The piece was about “a virtual ‘robot rapper’ powered partly by artificial intelligence, who boasts more than 10 million followers on TikTok” (Joe Coscarelli, Aug. 23, 2022). As some critics wrote the robot rapper is built on “an amalgamation of gross stereotypes, appropriative mannerisms that derive from Black artists, complete with slurs infused in lyrics.”

In other words the critics recognized the image as that of a Black rapper and thereby accredited that the AI algorithms had indeed caught what in other AI contexts is called a “pattern.” This recognition confirms Roose’s evaluation about “how good A.I. is getting.” Whether this pattern should be used to produce something (not so) new is another thing altogether.

For this aging anthropologist, it all made me nostalgic for the moments, many years ago, when I first read Patterns of culture (Benedict 1934). I was caught in the wonder of what populations of humans beings could make with their world.  This wonder soon established that I would try my hand at patterning the life of people in “downstate Illinois.” I also read some critics of what one might imagine the Zuni or Kwakiutl to have experienced when Benedict was with them (An-Che 1937; Codere 1956). The critics, and many others since, prefigured the debate about patterning a rapper: one might be successful at sketching a pattern, but the pattern can, and maybe always will, caricature. The sketch will overstress certain matters, mask much, and so might mislead audiences. The critique made so much sense as it was generalized in the anthropology that then developed that the word “pattern” all but disappeared, as well as the word that, for a while, replaced it: “structure.”  In 1972 Geertz could still write, quoting Bateson and Mead, of the Balinese as “away” (1972: 413)—a pattern statement. But his concern was with “interpretation” not pattern.  Soon most of those he inspired focused on local experiences, and then on local struggles with whatever powers the people have to deal with. That these struggles might be patterned (that is that a pattern might be sketched), and that the patterning, including by the people involved, all but stopped being something to investigate—though this could change if anthropologists come to wonder how to investigate “systemic” matters (about race, gender, ideology, etc.).

Actually the word “pattern” is already essential in the enormously influential field involved in “pattern recognition.” The field is not quite new as it has been more than 30 years since David Cope started training a computer to recognize patterns in the music of Mozart or Bach so that it could produce new works that untrained listeners might identify as precisely by Mozart or Bach. What is going on here is, I believe, something anthropologists should keep returning to.

To escape the politics of the moment look at the picture of the mobster taking a selfie. Why would it be that the designers, and the journalists, and me (and probably many others) recognize it as just what was requested: a 1920 mobster? Maybe it is because it looks a little bit like Al Capone. Mobsters have of course been virtually virtually represented in similar ways in many movies of the past century. As I understand the AI process, machines watch movies (and representations in other media) and build patterns from these.  The machines conduct what was known as a “formal analysis” (Propp [1927] 1968) that is checked for its success, not on its coherence, but on its ability to produce a text (musical piece, picture) that humans can accept common sensically as just that they asked (a folk tale, a symphony, the picture of a mobster). But of course, human beings do similar tasks on a routine basis. Compare the person asking DALL-E 2 to produce a 1920 mobster to the teacher who asked students to come the next day “dressed as your ethnic identity.” The virtual computer (mother, grandfather, and child) produced this picture of a French man. It satisfied the requirement as the product was recognized as an instance of “French.” Besides recognition this product elicited laughter (and some discomfort). Virtual virtual musicians (i.e. live human beings) do this routinely and, if asked to play a song, say “Happy Brithday,” in the style of Beethoven, Mozart or Bach, they can produce something which will elicit a laughter of recognition and applause—as Nicole Pesce or Nahre Sol can illustrate. Indeed DALL-E 2 performances are also fun for the humans who attempt to make sense out of its non-sense.

Let’s go back to Benedict. As far as I can tell Benedict proceeded like its programmers make DALL-E 2 do: she read many Zuni (Kwakiutl, Japanese) myths, descriptions of rituals, accounts of institutions, and, on this basis, built a representation that those who knew the people somehow recognized as Zuni (Kwakiutl, Japanese), even if they disagreed about some detail or about the dangers of representation. But the problem is more general since it must concern the very status one gives to the “pattern,” its production and reproduction. At this point I usually mention the famous (in my generation) debate between Radcliffe-Brown and Lévi-Strauss on what we might now call the “ontology” of (social) structures. But one should also check Lévi-Strauss’s discussion of Propp (1960) in the context of Latour’s Garfinkelian new explorations of that which make “immortal facts” (patterns that will die as the participants disperse). Closer to home, check Koyama’s critique (2010) of Varenne and McDermott on “the School America builds” (1998).

There is much here to inspire apprentice (virtual virtual) anthropologists to explore new routes to represent perennial issues.


Benedict, Ruth   1934     Patterns of culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Codere, Helen   1956    “The Amiable Side of Kwakiutl Life: The Potlatch and the Play Potlatch.” American Anthropologist, 58, 2: 334-351

Geertz, Clifford   1972     “Deep play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight.” in The interpretation of cultures.  New York: Basic Books. pp. 412-453.

Geertz, Clifford   1972     “Deep play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight.” in The interpretation of cultures.  New York: Basic Books. pp. 412-453.

Koyama , Jill   2010    Making failure pay: For-profit tutoring, high-stake testing, and public schools. . Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Li An-Che   1937    “Zuñi: Some Observations and Queries.” American Anthropologist, 39, 1: 62-76

Propp, Vladimir   [1927] 1968     Morphology of the folktale. Tr. by L. Scott. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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on the grounds of instruction into grammaticality

… scholars and other shamans might be as puzzled as two senior professors when they read the title of an edited volume by de Oliveira et al.  It goes: Multiliteracies in English as an additional language classrooms (2021).  As members of the audience addressed by this volume, they wondered whether there was a typo someplace, whether the title was ungrammatical or proof of bad editing, whether it was an attempt to Joycean play or a form of Jabberwocky.

Then a less senior professor pointed out that “English as an additional language” is to be treated as a package as it is the current proper way to say what used to be said as “English as a second language.” Thus the title should be parsed as “Multiliteracies in EAL classrooms” and is thus fully grammatical. It is also indexes that the authors are up to date in expected academic education research writing about the topic. The whole thing is normal and orderly and it allows for two senior professors to be shown ignorant and in need of an EAL teacher. And it also allows for a suspicion that they were being somewhat disorderly and in need of instruction into the appropriate.

Given that the two professors pride themselves on their work on literacy, language, culture, power, etc., they could not just stand corrected. They also had to wonder what exactly is grammatical in English and how it is established. If, as someone quipped a long time ago, a “language” is a dialect with an army—as well as schools of education, school teachers and other institutions in charge of publicizing the proper or normal (orthography, word order, pronominal usage, etc.), then one may wonder how this army exactly does its work of ordering the normal when so many keep disordering it. If, as another great man once said “here comes everybody,” what will they do when they arrive?

So, I write:
“Ignorant education research one university faculty member blog writer says…” that he expects this string of nouns to be taken as acceptable, proper, normal (as well as pedantic) and does convey that “one writer of blogs who is member of the faculty of a university famous for its research is also ignorant …” I keep seeing such strings in the titles of articles in the New York Times, as well as in scholarly publications. Stringing nouns for titles must thus be considered “grammatical” in English. However, it is essential to note that it is not grammatical in the other “language” I “know” well: in French where, for example, “faculty member” must be rendered as “membre de la faculté” (and NOT as “faculté membre”). It is also essential to note that people with decades of speaking English (one who got to it as an “additional” language, and one for whom it has been the only one) can be puzzled by such strings.

I am interested in this brief moment in my life because it can be used as another occasion to wonder about what is most general about all languages, and all ways of speaking any language. To do this I like to go back to first principles and then work my way back to the reality that, one more time, I was told I was ignorant of one special aspect of English.

My first encounter with the search for such principles occurred when I read (and re-read) Saussure’s famous book on “general” linguistics. “General” is the key word here and indexes that the book will not say much about any particular language but will outline what should be true of all human languages (as it might have been put until recently) or, better, what should be true of the grounds of all human speaking to each other (but not necessarily of other ‘speakings’-or ‘writings’ for that matter–if one wants to use the verb “to speak” for communication among animals or plants). In brief, Saussure proposed that all human speaking involves:

. arbitrary conventions

. maintained by contracts among some consociates

. about the relationship between

– an object (signified) and

– words (signifiers) produced by the vocal box of the human body
. organised as strings (“syntagms”)
. where each item can be transmuted among others (“paradigms”)

In other words that can only capture aspects of the experience of reading Saussure: when I stroke a furry animal with claws lounging on my lap, I report that I am “petting” a “cat” that can also be, in other conventions supported by a different contract, a “chat” (billee, nwamba, and many other sounds that may work here but not there). This should be “general” and thus is to be criticized when it does not handle all the cases one encounters. The critique can end either with a complete rejection (as most linguists and others do with Saussure) or with a reconstruction (as I do here).

Let’s start with petting the cat: it cannot quite be said anymore that the petting or the cat are objects. I take them to be experiences. Furthermore, these experiences can be reported not only through the vocal box, but also though the hands and face, in pictures, in music, etc. It can also be reported in various ways (“styles,” “register”) from the more prosaic (“the cat ate the mouse”) to the more poetic:

Les amoureux fervents et les savants austères
Aiment également, dans leur mûre saison,
Les chats puissants et doux, orgueil de la maison,
Qui comme eux sont frileux et comme eux sédentaires. (Beaudelaire)

This poetic register reveals and constructs (conventional/arbitrary paradigmatic) associations (between cats, lovers, and scientists) as well as allow for high intellectual play (e.g. by Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss 1962)—not to mentions popular musicals (Cats!). All this may have been packed into Saussure’s paradigms, but that is not enough.

Whether there are any cats in Cats is an irrelevant question as long as all signs in the play use conventions that signal catiness (for example “cat-face,” or yellow slanted eyes)–at least according to Anglo-American conventions about catiness.eyes from poster for the musical Cats

In all cases however, the very possibility of play with the conventions involve well established, and well defended, conventions. For example, when with others speaking in “English” then “the cate ate the mouse” and “the mouse ate the cat” report on very different experiences. In French, “le chat a mangé la souris” keeps the word order but adds gender to both animals.

As Saussure, a historical linguist, well knew, there is no way of predicting how human beings will report seeing cats eating mice—except that they will find a way as long as they practically acknowledge that only this way works at this moment for these people. Saussure wrote about this practical acknowledgment using the word “contract”—most probably quoting Rousseau and thereby establishing that his general linguistics is about social, rather than cognitive, processes. And then he left it at that.

But this, again, is clearly not enough and the experience that triggered this post can help move beyond “contract” (or “social construction”). Someone who has worked for many decades with the “contract,” someone who “speaks English” having learned it as an additional language (or not), can still be told that he is ignorant, be disciplined for the ignorance—and then be somewhat unhappy about it all. How is this to be dealt with, in general?

And so, Garfinkel to the rescue: speaking is not only a matter of having learned a language and then using it mechanically and thoughtlessly, it is a matter of continual work with, and against, one’s consociates. Speaking is always social (interactional, communal, political). Speaking is not simply a matter of encoding experience, and then trying to reconstruct an experience on the basis of what one has heard about someone else’s experience (generally referred to as “decoding”), it is also a matter of checking around what the other humans involved are doing. Starting with Jakobson wondering, already, about pronominal use ([1957] 1990), noticing this social work has, or course, been the task of what is now known as “sociolinguistics” and “conversational analysis.” “Knowing” a “language” is never enough for speaking. As Ofelia Garcia (2014) may have been the first to codify, the very idea of A language in multilingual settings hides the reality of the work of settling on a form associated with one language for part of a utterance or conversation when the others might be settling on another form. So she wrote about “translanguaging.” If one adds to all this the possibility of multiple registers used alternatively within some conversation, the complexity of “speaking with” must involve a continual process of construction, correction, instruction, assertion of authority to correct and instruct, resistance to correction that will be more or less successful and reveal power differentials in meting consequences.

The last sentence is an initial attempt to get back to “general” linguistics, and particularly that of Saussure’s. What Saussure (and before him Rousseau) failed to develop is what Garfinkel said in so many different ways: drawing and maintaining a contract is necessary hard word but having to renegotiate every aspects of the contract would lead to paralysis. Take this fragment from Joyce’s Finnegan’s wake about (I think) “idendifin[ing] the individuone in … regattable oxeter (Joyce, J. Finnegan’s wake 1939: I.3.81). It may be fun, but would not work well in everyday life when reporting who is coming towards you…
it is essential for reports of cats eating mice that the audience does not question what a cat might be, whether it was a male of female cat, an old one or a young one, ETC. And yet of course, the contractual normal and orderly is actually fragile and in need of continuing instructional work. To restate Saussure, the “langue” (A language) is that which contractual work is attempting to maintain even as it is threatened by the “parole” (play, resistance, etc.)

And so, I would now rewrite the earlier summary of Saussure to say that speaking always involve:

. arbitrary conventions

. developed by ongoing ordering work among some consociates

. about the relationship between

the (“lived”) experience of the world and

– performances founded on the affordances of the human body (vocal chords, hands, faces, brains, etc.)
. organized as strings in time
. where each item can be transmuted among others thereby allowing for multiplying relationships and compounding the work of (dis-)ordering conventions

And now to play, if I say, “never was there ever a cat so clever as magical mister Mistoffelees” I am not just saying something, in English, about a cat, I am also indexing at least two poets (T.S. Eliot and W. Lloyd Weber), my own education into both high and middle-brow poetry, and most probably my ignorance (or yours) of much that can also be triggered by the statement: I “knew” that Mephistopheles is a name for the Devil, but just “learned” (thanks Wikipedia!) that the name is based on a German demon, based on a Greek construction, who appears most famously (before T.S. Eliot) in Goethe’s Faust (itself a retelling of an older legend). I suspect some would also find in the statement about a magical cat an index to European domination of current popular culture while Lévi-Strauss—as he did once with Santa Claus ([1952] 1993)—would start jumping around the world looking for other associative conventions between cats and …


García, O. and L. Wei 2014 Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism and Education. Basingstoke, U.K: Palgrave Macmillan.

and C. Lévi-Strauss 1962 . “« Les Chats » de Charles Baudelaire,” In L’Homme: tome 2 n°1. pp. 5-21.

Jakobson, R. [1957] 1990 “Shifters, verbal categories, and the Russian verb., in On Language. Edited by L. Waugh and M. Monville-Burston. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Russian Language Project. pp. 386-392.

Lévi-Strauss , C [1952] 1993 “Father Christmas executed,” in Unwrapping Christmas. Edited by D. Miller. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 38-51.

de Oliveira et al., eds 2021 Multiliteracies in English as an Additional Language Classrooms Methods, Approaches, and Lessons. The University of Miami School of Education and Human Development Series.

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Experiencing life and constructing a local “next”

If a “lived experience” is one that one has, personally, experienced, then I have never experienced COVID (the virus). I have experienced Corona (the cultural epoch) but, to the extent that I have never been sick from the virus, and have not even ever tested positive (so far?), then the virus is something I only know through conversational and textual means: I have talked a lot about it with many people. I have read a lot about it. And I have written about it. I have experienced the pressure to explain myself when (not) wearing a mask. In contrast, these past few months I (lived) experienced open heart surgery or, more precisely, the weeks leading up to it, and the recuperation after it: anesthesia does make it impossible to experience the surgery itself!

Various authorities requested that I be tested and this has happened such a number of times that I have lost count. Those requests (actually orders) concern, in my analysis, Corona as cultural fact. As for the virus, I’d say that my experience is, at most, “vicarious” or, in jargon, “entextualized.” I do know people who had close relatives who died. I do know people who were seriously sickened. I also know people who tested positive and showed (“experienced”?) no symptoms. But this “knowledge” is conversational—that is I was told about these cases but did not have to deal with them personally
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“Lived experience”: mind and words

In recent years, students have heard me wince when they talk about “lived experienced.” “Could there be ‘dead experiences’?” I quipped. But they persisted as they are well aware of the terms one must use to pass as a well-educated participant in current academic intellectual life.

For a full philosophical argument that is said to have inspired Derrida, Ricoeur and Latour, see Bachelard on fire (1949) or closets (in [1957] 1964).
Still, perhaps I am wrong in dismissing something that appeared late in my career. Maybe it is about the mystery that, after eating a banana (living the experience of pealing a banana, putting it in my mouth, chewing it, wondering whether it is under ripe or over ripe, etc.) I can talk about the eating (as I am doing now) but cannot actually tell anyone who has never eaten a banana what it tastes like. Try explaining the difference between blue and green to someone who is color blind, or the difference between velvet and silk (or the various types of silk) to someone who has never touched any of them.

During the “culture is text” Derrida moment in my anthropological career, I ranted against those who appeared to say that all is words, that there is no “center” behind the words, and so on. When eating the banana we are not eating the word even if the word is all we have to communicate with other human beings about the eating.  There is something about the world that is not constructed (at least not by the experiencing human who had nothing to do with a construction).

All this is common sense (or should be) but it leaves anthropology with a perennial problem. If anthropology, as I would argue has something to do with exploring what it is like to be human among humans (and everything else) by actually living and reporting on humans (“participant observation”), then one has to wonder about the relationship between “life” and “reports on life.” One of the classical version of all this presents anthropology as concerned with “what life means to some people.” The most principled version of this might be Geertz’s. But he could not escape the dilemma so that he ended his career in something I sometimes teach as a form of depression about the very possibility of anthropology. As he put it in one of his later paper:

Are we, in describing symbol uses, describing perceptions, sentiments, outlooks, experiences? And in what sense? What do we claim when we claim that we understand the semiotic means by which, in this case, persons are defined to one another? That we know words or that we know minds? (1976:235)

These are rhetorical questions since Geertz was always really passionate about “mind,” “point of view,” “sentiment,” and indeed “experiences”—words that were common in the mid to late 20th century. These, I’d say is what is now summarized as “lived experiences.”

But the question remains: how are anthropologists to go from “lived experience” (ours or that of other people) to not only the final text of an ethnography but to the very conduct of the (participant) observation. What are anthropologists to look at if they are fully aware of the ineffability of the experience of life.

Say that you (me) are an anthropologist who has read about Branson, Missouri, and, on the occasion of a trip across the United States decides to stop there to find out what it’s all about. Given my personal (lived experience?) association of Branson with Dolly Parton, This association was “true” for me, but otherwise false as Branson became “Branson” before Parton and the “Stampede” performance did not include anything about Parton which could be a case of false advertisement.
and finding out that there was something called the “Dolly Parton Stampede” with a show I could attend, then I drove into the still empty parking lot of the building and started walking around, passing by garbage cans, utility hookups, stables, before approaching the main entrance those who paid to attend would use and which might be the first moment in their own lived experience of the event.

As I walked the parking lot, I realized that I was doing what I have always done: start observing a setting from the “back” to the “front,” from what constructing participants (janitors, engineers, accountants) do to that participants in the intended audience (those who pay) will be shepherded to see, hear, and, in the case of the Stampede (which is organized as a dinner/spectacle) taste–as well as smell given the participation of horses. So, the night I attended, I estimated the size of the audience (a few hundreds filling the venue) and some demographic signs. Given Corona, I looked for masks (a few per hundreds unmasked), the number of phenotypically Black persons (even fewer). I marveled at the number of American flags (and at the absence of many other symbols all the more noticeable as a brief scene about people in the Plains before the European appeared particularly carefully written not to trigger any political response).

The anthropological question is: what can I say about the lived experience of anybody in the audience? What of the man on my left: no partner and two young daughters? What would the daughters remember? What of the retired couple on my right? Any phenomenologist would have to agree that each of these five people experienced something different—even though it was triggered at the moment by exactly the same performance. The phenomenologist might also note that the anthropologist’s “lived experience” of the event may be one of the more bizarre as I suspect very few people in the audience are writing analytic blogs of their experience (though there may have been writing in twits and Facebook posts).

My answer, of course, and it has remained constant through my half century of research, writing and teaching, is that I can say something about this performance (the flags, horses, bad jokes) and some of what make it possible (people who serve the food and take out the garbage). But I cannot say anything about what it is like, for anybody, to live that which others have built for one to experience. And I will never trust someone who tells me that they can tell me what they lived—even when they have lived it. I have never been worried about the answer I give to Geertz’s questions: knowing “words” (institutions, dependencies, affordances, etc.) is not only all we can do but is also essential.

On all this, I generally assign the first part of Merleau-Ponty’s Prose of the world ([1969] 1973) that concludes with the quip: “meaning is not in the words but between the words.”
Which is why I will not tell what was my own “lived experience” of Dolly Parton’s Stampede (though perhaps readers of this post will imagine it for me).



Bachelard, Gaston  1949     La psychanalyse du feu. Paris: Gallimard.

Bachelard, Gaston   [1957] 1964     The poetics of space. Boston: Beacon Press.

Geertz, Clifford 1976 “‘From the native’s point of view’: On the nature of anthropological understanding.” in Meaning in anthropology. Edited by K. Basso and H. Selby. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. pp. 221-237.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice   [1969] 1973     The prose of the world. Tr. by J. O’Neil. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

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