On culture, free speech, and America

Once upon a time culture was everything, even the kitchen sink (Tylor [1871] 1958). And then culture became a “value-concept” (Weber [1897] 1994) or a “system of symbols” (Schneider 1980). And then the word all but disappeared from serious theorizing, to be replaced by words like “epoch,” “episteme,” habitus, paradigm, and now “ontology.” But few, over the decades, have approached what “culture” attempted to capture, at least in the Boasian tradition, the way Latour did when he wrote:

‘Culture’ … word used to summarize the set of elements that appear to be tied together when, and only when, we try to deny a claim or to shake an association … No one lives in a ‘culture’ … before he or she clashes with others … People map for us and for themselves the chains of associations that make-up their sociologics. The main characteristics of these chains is to be unpredictable–for the observer” (Latour, author’s italics. 1987:201-202)

I have been clear about this since, at least, 1987 and this has guided my work with McDermott.

I am very comfortable with this way of putting what I have been trying to say, throughout my career about “America.” I have always written that I am not concerned with “everything that can be found in the United States” and even less with “what individual Americans believe”

So, let’s translate Varenne into “Latourian” (though the actual Latour might not agree with my translation).

Note that fights about speech in France and other democracies with roots in the late 18th century proceed differently. Compare and contrast the 1st amendment to Article 11 of the 1789 Déclaration des droits de l’homme, particularly as it relates to the role of State which, on the American side, “forbids Congress to…” while, on the French side, specifically allows “la Loi” (capitalized) to respond to abuses and restrict some speech.

Let’s take a “typically American” controversy about “free speech.” I suspect people in the United States first meet the First Amendment, not in early childhood but sometimes in their school years, in some “citizenship” class many probably wished they did not have to sit through. And they may mostly forget about it until, perhaps in some College in the second decade of the 21st century, they are forced to participate in arguments about whether this or that kind of speech is protected. I suspect most college students participate at the periphery, as overhearers or lurkers in such arguments, wishing it all went away as they struggle with exams, parties, families, or any of the other controversies within which they are caught as full participants. But a few students will discover that “free speech” is, also, a machinery to stake a claim they want to make, or deny it. Free speech, in these terms, is an assemblage of discourses that morphed many years ago into institutions with a staff of people with the authority to write regulations, adjudicate claims, and mete consequences for breaches. The staff of this particular “shop floor” starts, in American universities, with administrators of special sub-offices (at Columbia, the current local staff is part of “Student Conduct and Community Standards”). The staff can then include about everybody in the university, including its president who may have to defend the university’s action in front of the Supreme Court that has the final say in controversies about adjudication. This enormous machinery is continually being reconstituted by a particularly thick and entangled network. It is not surprising that, once the machinery has been activated, “free” speech can become very expensive indeed, for those on one side or the other of a controversy, and particularly perhaps for those who might challenge the very ground for the assembling, maintenance, repair and expansion of the machinery.

Approaching American free speech as a machinery assembled over the centuries, staffed, repaired, and always available for invocation, justification, and adjudication, might allow a solution to the perennial problem in cultural anthropology. Documenting “difference” is easy. Figuring out how it is maintained over a period of time much longer than the life of an adult has been difficult, and perhaps all the more so when culture is taken as “learned,” “transmitted through acculturation” and altogether unavailable for controversy. One may, in the course of one’s life in the United States, “learn” about the particularities of “free speech” but it is not this learning that will make it consequential. What makes it consequential is the reality that it is always already there in institutions that may appear dormant but can prove themselves, at any time, not dead at all as agents of these institutions get alerted, dust off various weapons, and constitute a particular arena for another instantiation what must not be presented as just “performance” or “theater.” The stakes are just too high for all now caught.

Wondering about “culture” through the unfolding of controversy into joint action does make the analytic task easier and provide for a more solid theory of culture.

But no analysis will help with the value-laden choices involved in arguing for the centrality of “free speech” in academia or political action, in challenging the very grounds of “free speech,” or in any attempt to amend the 1st amendment in order, for example to allow Congress to pass laws (or Universities to enact regulations) about what constitutes an abuse of free speech (as Article XI of the French Déclaration des droits de l’homme, appears to allow)?

 

References

Last, First   2014     Title. Publisher

Latour, Bruno 1987 Science in action. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schneider, David 1968 American kinship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tylor, E.B. [1871] 1958 The origins of culture. New York: Harper and Row.

Weber, Max [1897] 1994 “The methodological foundations of sociology.” in Max Weber, sociological writings. Edited by W. Heydebrand. New York: Continuum.

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On hackathons, machines, and flamingos

Recently, Audrey Le successfully defended a most interesting dissertation about “hackathons.” Like me a while ago you may have no idea what those would be… Well, they are events when (very much mostly) young (mostly) men play/work over a weekend at developing some “thing” (app, process, and who knows what else) that involves some computer programming (or can be analogized to computer design). Until Le started teaching me about them, I had never heard of hackathons–like I had never heard of DoItYourself biology labs, venture capitalists, equine therapies, video badge games and so many other wonder-inspiring stuff that first appeared in the late 20th century. There is indeed much “new” here for anthropologists looking for the odd human beings they thought could only encounter up the Amazon or the Congo. An anthropologist just has to go down the corridors of Columbia (Harvard, MIT, etc.) to meet never-yet-imagined “others.”

On the other hand, as Boas or Lévi-Strauss told us, what one actually finds in the jungles of Columbia (University) is … humans being themselves and, altogether not surprising. Much of Le’s dissertation is about the actual interactions during which ‘hacks’ are produced (which are not the same moments when ‘hackathons’ are produced). Then, anyone who has read Charles Goodwin (1995, 1996) and others on the moment to moment production of science will recognize the ongoing difficult efforts to make this do that. Everywhere we see the people working off the “etc.” principle (“you know what I mean”), using deictics in their speech and bodies, giving meta-instructions when noticing someone screwing around, etc. All that work sometimes produces a “thing” but, in any event, leads to a concluding statement. Hackathons are also jokes as Harvey Sacks wrote about them.

But there is something else to notice. Hackers, and the Large Multinational Corporations who fund them, are trying to produce … machines using tools like computer languages and “team work” that are very much not machines even when the people happen to treat them as if they were machines. Computer languages (C++, Javascript, Python, etc.) are not so different from “natural” languages in that they are the product of cultural arbitraries imposed by arbitrary processes. To say hello to the world one says Hello world in English. In computere one might say, in C++, std::cout<<“Hello World”;. One might say, in Python, print “Hello World”. Whether one uses English, C++ or Python depends on who has power and authority in the setting. But there is a major difference between a natural language and a human (machine) language. In English, when writing, one can put the phrase as Hello World! or Hello, World? or even perhaps as Hll Wrld. No such play in allowed in computer languages when one missing comma can make all the difference between communication and catatonic silence.

I got to ponder all this as I was reading Le’s dissertation at the same time as I was working on the concluding chapter to When is Education? and framing it in terms of Bateson’s musings about the wonderful croquet game imagined by a 19th century mathematician to amuse little girls (and very many adults). Bateson summarized the problem as follows:

F: The point is that the man who wrote Alice was thinking about the same things that we are. And he amused himself with little Alice by imagining a game of croquet that would be all muddle, just absolute muddle. So he said they should use flamingos as mallets because the flamingos would bend their necks so the player wouldn’t know even whether his mallet would hit the ball or how it would hit the ball.

D: Did everything have to be alive so as to make a complete muddle?
F: No—he could have made it a muddle by . . . no, I suppose you’re right. … It’s curious but you’re right. Because if he’d muddled things any other way, the players could have learned how to deal with the muddling details. I mean, suppose the croquet lawn was bumpy, or the balls were a funny shape, or the heads of the mallets just wobbly instead of being alive, then the people could still learn and the game would only be more difficult—it wouldn’t be impossible. But once you bring live things into it, it becomes impossible.

And then Bateson summarized the fundamental problem for all social sciences, particularly when confronting arbitrariness, learning, working out what to do next, education:

Something about living things and the difference between them and the things that are not alive—machines, stones, so on. Horses don’t fit in a world of automobiles. And that’s part of the same point. They’re unpredictable, like flamingos in the game of croquet.
D: What about people, Daddy?
F: What about them?
D: Well, they’re alive. Do they fit? I mean on the streets?
F: No, I suppose they don’t really fit—or only by working pretty hard to protect themselves and make themselves fit. Yes, they have to make themselves predictable, because otherwise the machines get angry and kill them.
(Bateson [1953] 1972:40-41)

This is very much the problem for the hacking teams in Le’s dissertation. Consider that one of the teams was trying to control flamingos (doctors) as they attempt to keep track of hedgehogs (patients) even as they themselves have to play a game (hackathon) set up by some Queen (Large Multinational Corporation) where the stakes may not involve one’s head, but could be almost as high since some of the players imagined they might join the Queen’s court, for some fun and, perhaps, much profit. In Bateson’s terms, the hackers were working hard to make themselves fit the machines they were using so that they could make a machine to which others would have to make themselves fit. After all machines can kill unwary humans.

As a journalist for the New York Times noted: “As I read her statement, my eyes lingered over one line in particular: “‘We never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way — and that is on us,’ Ms. Sandberg wrote.” (Kevin Roose, NYT Sept. 21, 2017). I am not sure that it is “on them,” designers of machines who will never have the power of preventing human beings … from being alive!

References

[1953] 1972 “Metalogue: Why do things have outline?”. In Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine Books. pp. 37-42

Goodwin, Charles   1995     “Professional vision.” American Anthropologist 96:606-633.

Goodwin, Charles   1996     “Seeing as a situated activity: Formulating planes: ” in Cognition and communication at work. Edited by Y. Engestrom and D. Middleton. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 61-95.

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This is ‘NOT play’

This semester I had the good fortune to accept a request from a student: “Could we have a seminar on play?”  So, first, thanks to Miranda Hansen-Hunt, Andrew Wortham, Michelle Zhang.

We started with the obvious: Bateson on “this is play” (1955), Geertz (1973) on “deep play,” Boon on “extra-vagance” (1999), Bakhtin on Rabelais ([1936] 1983), Garfinkel on trust (1963).  One thing became salient as we proceeded: each of these authors start with accounts of public displays, without the attending interviews that too much anthropology now comes to rely upon.  Some of the authors write in terms of psychological states (having fun, learning, trusting) but they do not investigate the states as such.  Rather, and however abstract the argument, they work off anecdotes more or less grounded in ethnographic or historical accounts.  So we are asked to imagine:
•    puppies roughing it
•    men betting to the point of threatening their status (or climbing extremely dangerous mountains)
•    men and women parading as kings and queens during a festival while every one is laughing.
•    people responding to certain moves in tic-tac-toe

All this is great fun for a cultural anthropologist altogether optimistic about humanity.  But it left this anthropologist, as the seminar ended, with the question: when is “this is serious”?
•    when is a bite NOT a play bite?
•    when in climbing a mountain NOT an extreme sport?
•    when IS a king?
•    when is a game of tic-tac-toe (greeting, explanation,…) played seriously?

Or, more precisely, when would an anthropologist recognize that this is not a game, that “this is NOT play”?  What are the performative markers than might confirm to an observer that this is serious?

It ought to be well known that the anthropological thread that Bateson activated started with his noticing how interesting it should be, for general communication theory, that, when puppies bite each other, only some bites are followed, sequentially (temporally),  by NOT play behaviors.  Bateson assumed that his readers had seen dogs fighting and could tell the difference.  He was trusting on some routine common sense.  There actually is an ethnographic literature on insults that document the always possible shifts from laughter after a particularly well crafted insult to snarls if not fists,  knives or guns (Labov 1972, 1974).  Bourdieu’s writing on the practice of honor in Algeria also fits here (1966).  One can start a climb up Mount Everest as a sportsman, as paid Sherpa, or as a professional saving a sportsman or Sherpa in mortal danger (Ortner 1999).  There is deep play and NOT deep play—though both can end in death.

The fundamental question in all sociologies, as Garfinkel pointed out in the “trust” paper, is not so much order and systematicity as “the phenomena of ‘alienation,’ ‘anomie,’ ‘deviance,’” (1963: 237).  As it might be put, playfully:

We can all recognize that a duchess might be as disappointed at a failure to receive an invitation to have tea with the queen as a chimney sweep might be at losing an opportunity to be the queen’s sweep. (Moore & Anderson 1963: 186)

The recent concerns with tensions over race, gender, etc., are versions of the same concern with all activities that maintain and challenge order including what may “just” be playful carnival (that ends at midnight) or dangerous riot (that never quite ends but is sometimes followed by violent repression if not revolution).  If anthropology is to be sensitive to the travails of human beings, how can anthropologists tell whether this performance is fun or hurtful, an extravagant hyperbolic performance or a deeply hurtful insult?

Let’s stay with the disappointed duchess and the queen.  We have two human beings tightly linked in an asymmetrical relationship.  And we have information about the psychological state of one of them.  The link is constituted, on a day to day basis, by a series of rules that may be specified with even more details than the rules for chess and might still miss much that will remain unspecified until controversy arises (the “etc. principle”).  Yet, any actual performance of the relationship, in a routine temporal sequence of statements/actions (“speech acts” such as “I invite you tea”), is, at crucial moments, dependent on the trust that neither duchess nor queen will play the game wrong when “playing the game wrong” is actually a common move in the relationship even as calling out “this is a wrong move” is itself a powerful and dangerous move that either closes an argument, or escalates it.

What makes all this serious is not only the status that may be at stake among the key participants, but the status of many more people: the duchess/queen/tea/disappointment package is actually a package assembling a crowd of people (in the court, among the servants), a crowd of possible events (dinners, balls, hunts, etc., and also marriages, career advancement, etc.), a crowd of motivations and other psychological statements (including satisfaction among some at the duchess’ disappointment…).  This mess of an assemblage working practically at accountable and enforceable division (Hetherington and Rolland 1997; Gershon 2012) is not, by almost any definition, a “community.”  But it can be referred a “polity.”

As I see it today (and all this will have to be developed), what makes this  serious is it’s placing in a temporal sequence that is not, in any simple way, a frame.  By contrast, even the most dangerous of deep plays are framed with marked beginnings and ends, with statement such as “I will climb Everest this summer” followed later with “I climbed Everest last summer.”  The best detailed ethnographic account of such a sequence may be Sacks’ “joke’s telling” paper (1974).  By contrast (not) being invited to tea or, for that matter, (not) being asked to tell a joke, or play a game, may not have a clearly marked starting point and may never quite end, perhaps even after the people have died depending on the stakes involved in the (not) being asked.

So, let’s say that a duchess/queen/tea/disappointment package is NOT play, not a game, nor a play on a stage with specifiable rules, personae and roles (chess pieces).  It is not NOT play because it is alive so that the unfolding of the event may actually change the rules, the personae, the roles. Consider how the package made sense, in the France of the first half of 1789, and did not make sense anymore four years later when the queen did lose her head, literally.

I have recently been writing about cultural arbitrariness necessarily raising the kind of practical consciousness that leads to culture change.  Consider the ongoing struggles around the rules for gender markers: what are, now, the taken-for-granted, unconscious, routine, “rules” as they might be written by a visiting anthropologist from Mars?  I would now add that what Saussure, Bourdieu, and I, refer to as “arbitrariness” is directly related to the “etc.” principle.  The speech act “it’s turtles all the way down,” in practice, is a challenge to a challenge (colonial subject irritated at colonialist condescension).  “Yada yada” is not only a call to common sense (“you know what I mean!, Right?).  It is also a warning: this play insult may become serious if you continue.  All this is inevitable because of the very affordances of any symbolic system: it cannot handle all possibilities for experience is always richer and evolving, thereby leaving everyone with serious problems.

A final comment on the unruly properties of specified rules when things are NOT play.  When doing fieldwork in a New Jersey high school, I had to insist to see the book of “rules and bylaws” (Varenne 1983: Chapter 8)  It was gathering dust high on a filing cabinet in the principal’s office and he wondered why on earth I might be interested.  As he put it “most of the rules have never been written down.”  This was the case.  There were pages of rules about this or that that were no more than titles.  But, when things got serious, perhaps because the principal was trying to find a way to fire a teacher, then a rule might be written down, perhaps even after the event.  Writing a rule after an event, and then invoking it, is, of course, inappropriate: there are rules about rules about rules (all the way up?).

NOT play does not have rules.  It is about making rules, and then not following them whether for resistance or the assertion of power.  This is serious.

References

Bateson, Gregory   1955     “The message ‘This is play’.” in Group processes: Transactions of the second conference. Edited by B. Schaffner. New York: Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation. pp. 145-242.

Bakhtin, Mikhail   [1936] 1983   Rabelais and his world. Tr. by H. Iswolsky.. Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press.

Boon, James   1999     Verging on extra-Vagance: Anthropology, history, religion, literature, arts … showbiz. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre   1966     “The sentiment of honour in Kabyle society.” in Honour and shame. Edited by J.G. Peristiany. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 193-241.

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

Geertz, Clifford 1973     “Deep play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight.” in his The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books. pp. 412-453.

Gershon, Ilana   2012    No family is an island: Cultural expertise among Samoans in diaspora. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kevin Hetherington and Rolland Munro, eds..   2014     Ideas of difference : social spaces and the labour of division. Oxford ; Malden, MA : Blackwell Publishers/The Sociological Review

Labov, William   1972     “Rules for ritual insults” in Studies in social interaction. Edited by D. Sudnow. New York: The Free Press. pp. 120-169.

Labov, William 1974 “The art of sounding and signifying” in Language and its social setting. Edited by W. Gage. Washington, D.C.: The anthropological Society of Washington. pp. 84-116.

Ortner, Sherry 1999     Life and death on Mt. Everest. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Varenne, Hervé 1983     American school language: Culturally patterned conflicts in a suburban high school. New York: Irvington Publishers.

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On the importance of reading footnotes

Those who know my work know that I am a great admirer of the historian Lawrence Cremin whom I happily coopt not only as an anthropologist, but also as an anthropologist ahead of his time even as he channeled the Boasian tradition he was taught at Columbia while a graduate student.

What I found this morning is a wonderfully clear critique not only of most definitions of education, including common ones from anthropologists, but, most impressively, of most definitions of “culture.”

This is the footnote:

Bailyn advances a definition of education as “the entire process by which culture transmits itself across the generations.” Yet, as Werner Jaeger made clear in the introduction to Paideia, until the word “culture” is clarified, such a definition remains obscure. “We are accustomed to use the word culture,” Jaeger noted, “not to describe the ideal which only the Hellenocentric world possesses, but in a much more trivial and general sense, to denote something inherent in every nation of the world, even the most primitive.” He was referring, of course, to the concept as developed by the social scientists-a usage he saw associated with “the positivist passion for reducing everything to the same terms.” By Bailyn’s definition, “education” is ultimately synonymous with “enculturation,” as that term is used by the anthropologists, notably Melville Herskovits. I myself am sympathetic to Jaeger’s insistence that true education implies the deliberate, self-conscious pursuit of certain intellectual, ethical, and aesthetic ideals, though I am perfectly ready to grant that nondeliberate influences are often, if not always, more powerful and pervasive and that the educational historian must be concerned with both. For a statement of a similar problem of definition that has long bedeviled literary historians, see Howard Mumford Jones, The Theory of American Literature (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1948), pp. 59-61 and passim. My reference to “the architecture of contemporary education” is taken from the lectures of my colleague Martin S. Dworkin in his course at Teachers College on “Education, Ideology, and Mass Communication.” (Cremin 1965: 75)

Note the attack on reductionism and enculturation; note “granting nondeliberate influences” as a kind of exception to “deliberate, self-conscious, pursuit” (aka, in my current vocabulary: practical meta-discursive work).

about Facteur ChevalNote also Cremin approving of a metaphor not be taken as “constructivist” but rather as a prefiguration of Latour’s ANT: the ‘architecture’ of education.  I am not sure what Cremin would have done of my added comment that the building, as an assemblage of rooms and corridors assembled on the basis of competing blue-prints with much cracks papered over would look more like the buildings that delighted Lévi-Strauss ([1962] 1966: 17): Cheval’s villa, or Mr. Wilmmick’s suburban villa as imagined by Charles Dickens (who must have seen versions of it!). And, among many others, a Texas version… Not to mention, from the ridiculous to the sublime, the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

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On thriving children and the hegemony of psychology

I always wonder about the way research on interaction gets reported in the media only (or about always) when it is conducted by psychologists.  Easy to chalk to “American individualism,” as institutionalized, and to its sub-forms like “culture of poverty,” or “child development.”

This time, my antennas were agitated by an interview in the University of Chicago glossy publication for alumni.  It is titled “Little scientists” with the descriptive subtitle “Think of children as pint-sized psychologists, says parenting expert Erica Reischer, AM’96, PhD’00.”

Not too surprisingly, the editors of the magazine chose, to illustrate, a picture of a child, writing in a notebook.  Many will notice that the child is a boy, white, with auburn hair, wearing a blue t-shirt.  I notice that he is by himself.  If there were a caption, it might be “the scientist at work”…

Irony aside, the underlying work is one I wish I could use when writing about family education.  The story starts with a common place: obedience class for dogs is really about training humans.  Having just been working on Jennifer Van Tiem’s chapter on horses and human (for our When is education), I know now how extensive the anthropological literature on animal/human interaction has become.  But, of course, the editor quotes Reischer for saying something about “teaching us how to think like a dog … so that [the dog] would learn positive behaviors.”

Note the emphasis on thinking for the human, behavior for the dog, and a causal link between separate entities.

On to children, analogically.

“What we really need … is pay attention to our children’s behavior”  (as if any human being could NOT pay attention) …. “[then] we can make choices about what we are going to do about [it]” (as if NEXT acts, in an improvised sequence, could ever be matters of choice under separate control).

Most interesting is the metaphor of the scientist (a conceit, really) Reischer proposes and the editor uses as title for the piece: “Kids are doing experiments because they have to figure out how the people in their lives work. I sometimes say, ‘Pretend your kids are wearing little white lab coats, and carrying little lab notebooks, and making notes all day long about what works and what doesn’t work with you’.”  Now that could have developed into something Rancière or Garfinkel might have written as instructions to researchers (and parents): notice intelligence at work; notice the noticings and the improvisations on suggested themes given tools and affordances.

Except, of course, that the editor goes back to the atomistic, individualistic, narrative and the “secret sauce” [sic] to happy parenting: Learn how to manipulate your child like a trainer manipulates dogs.

Pavlov? Skinner?

I have not read Reischer’s book.  So I am not sure how close the magazine story comes to what she wrote, what she “believes,” or what she could be shown to do when face to face with her own children if we had videotapes of the interaction.  My experience with the editors of such magazines is that their priorities are not mine, and may not have been Reischer’s.  Public relation editors must translate for their audience: alumni who are mostly not scholars, but may be imagined to be most comfortable with stories about human interaction written in terms of causation between separately acting (free) individuals.

And yet, one might go back and rewrite the story, the book, and maybe even the research (though there many not have been any in this case) to show how the child is indeed, a “scientist” with (ethno-)methods for figuring out what happened in collaboration with (and thus in struggle with) parents as consociates as, together, they improvise the family that will have been.  One cannot be a scientist by oneself.  And researchers who specialize in individuals will never understand humanity (or why psychology is hegemonic in America).

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High tech creationism?

One of the many after effects of Trump’s election has been an altogether astonishing flowering of high fallutin exercises in cultural analysis.  I particular enjoy those who play with popularized (populist?) deconstructionism.  So, let’s join the (deep?) play.

Most of my own intellectual education has been plagued by the fundamental mis-readings of Saussure and Lévi-Strauss led by Derrida ([1967] 1978) and others.  In various ways if have tried to write against deconstructionism, sometimes specifically (1994),
and mostly by implication.  And yet, I have also felt party to many of these debates, particularly when they involve plays with “facts” and fiction, truth and relativism, history and narratives, and indeed the nature of reality (ontology?).

So, when the New York Times, as it regularly does, plays with “truth … that is always changing” (NYT, “How to fix the Met,” 3/1/2107) I could not resist tweeting and playing with the Times nemesis (and vice versa)—the author of the wonderfully truthy “truthful hyperbole.”

Sam AltmanWhat I then found out in another exercise in cultural analysis was worth more than a chuckle. It involves an extended metaphor on Silicon Valley idealistic and nihilistic ontology (as reflection on the nature of being, existence, and reality).  This one comes from one of these mythical young white men that can claim, as does his Wikipedia page, that “the total valuation of Y Combinator companies has surpassed $65 billions”(read on March 2017). This young man is Sam Altman and the piece was written by Tad Friend of the New Yorker (October 2016 issue).

A few sentences from this piece were picked up by multiple media outlet under such titles as “Tech billionaires think we live in the Matrix and have asked scientists to get us out” (CNBC, 10/7/2016) or “Many of the world’s richest and most powerful people, including Elon Musk and Bank of America, think that we live in a simulation of the real world” (Independent, 10/6/2016)

I found this thread after coming to a not clearly authored page where the writer wonders about such “bizarre events” as the mistake at the Oscars, this year’s Super Bowl, and, of course, Trump’s election.  So, he (I will caricature him as male, but I am not sure) wonders whether:

“we are living in the Matrix, and something has gone wrong with the controllers. This idea was, I’m told, put forward first and most forcibly by the N.Y.U. philosopher David Chalmers: What is happening lately, he says, is support for the hypothesis that we are living in a computer simulation and that something has recently gone haywire within it. The people or machines or aliens who are supposed to be running our lives are having some kind of breakdown. There’s a glitch, and we are in it. [Such events] makes no sense at all in the ‘real world’.

There may be not merely a glitch in the Matrix. There may be a Loki, a prankster, suddenly running it. After all, the same kind of thing seemed to happen on Election Day: the program was all set, and then some mischievous overlord – whether alien or artificial intelligence doesn’t matter – said, “Well, what if he did win? How would they react?” “You can’t do that to them,” the wiser, older Architect said. “Oh, c’mon,” the kid said. “It’ll be funny. Let’s see what they do!” And then it happened. We seem to be living within a kind of adolescent rebellion on the part of the controllers of the video game we’re trapped in, who are doing this for their strange idea of fun. (crystalinks.com 2/26/17)

As written by Ted Friend, the statement attributed to Sam Altman on “two tech billionaires have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation” is a paraphrase rather than a quote, and is not the main point of the piece.  But it is the sentence that caught the eye of many journalists in the United States and England.  I guess, it is “fun news” (somewhere on the continuum towards “fake news”).

Actually, it may be “fake news” that Sam Altman, or any of the other billionaires mentioned, actually “believe,” in the strong sense of the verb, that we are living in a Matrix-like simulation, whether run by wise aliens or trickster adolescents.  No sane person would believe that, would they?  Maybe Altman was just burnishing his image as not only a monument to successful greed but also as Silicon Valley seer and (pop) philosopher.  America has produced many such billionaire seers.  Altman will not be the last.

What is more interesting to me is that Altman is channeling a long and very real strain in Western philosophy: the idealism most extremely stated by Bishop George Berkeley in the early 18th century.  Most analysis of the Matrix movies prefer to mention Descartes (Plato, etc.) but Cartesian doubt was about epistemology (how to we know?) rather than ontology (how is ‘is’?).  In the 20th century, the early Derrida proposed a new version of classical ontological idealism when he wrote that, and I paraphrase, “there is no center that can escape the play of discourses” (1967: 411).  All is discourse (language).  There are no “hors-textes” (outside text) that might take us away from language.  Popularized, this late 20th century idealism can be developed in further texts affirming that we cannot be sure that an experience of snow falling outside a writer’s window has not been “written” by some very clever programmer and fed directly into some imperceptible artificial reality goggle: the Matrix.  Reality IS a text, written in mysterious algorithms.

There is of course no way to, rationally, disprove this hypothesis since the very arguments against it could have been written by the clever programmer.  The hypothesis seems to me equivalent to the biblical creationism that estimates the age of the universe at something like 6000 years: all the evidence that it is older (dinosaurs, echos of the Big Bang) could easily have been written by God into what only looks like a record of earlier events.

Now, of course, there are other ontologies that are well captured by Saussure’s wonderful, and easy to mistranslate, diagram about the segmentation of continuums ([1915] 1966: 112). Saussure on segmentation of realityThere, the wavy lines are an attempt to capture the mystery that language imperfectly reveals as it works at representing this mystery using the vagaries of human affordances (vocal box, faces and arms, etc. Not to mention a peculiar brain).  If any of this was “designed” it was not by an efficiency expert.  As Merleau-Ponty once said, and I paraphrase and expand, “meaning is in the silence between the words” ([1969] 1973: 43).  Mystery is not empty.  Stuff (good and bad) happens.  Or, as another wise man put it:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Hamlet to Horatio Hamlet (1.5.167-8) ).

References

References

Derrida, Jacques   1967 [1978]    Writing and difference. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

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

Saussure, Ferdinand de   1966 [1915]     Course in General Linguistics. Tr. by W. Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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

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

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

imagination -> convention -> confusion

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

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

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

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

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

As Mead put it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

 

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Wondering about the feral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would he have done with the “feral”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

D’Onofrio, F Salvatore.   2004     L’esprit de la parenté : Europe et horizon chrétien.. Nouvelle édition [en ligne]. Paris : Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2004. Available at: https://books.openedition.org/editionsmsh/723: .

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

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On educating a democratic public, democratically

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What might Chomsky make of Halloween and Santa Claus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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