On the arbitrary and the contingent

While writing my last post on intelligence in the streets of Port-au-Prince, I tried to distinguish the contingent (e.g. an earthquake) from the arbitrary (e.g. a language like Creole, or making international help travel through NGOs).  I was attempting to distinguish the accidental (temporality or diachrony) the systematic (history as epochs in synchrony).  And put myself into an interesting theoretical bind.

It looked simple: On January 12, 2010 there was earthquake in Port-au-Prince.  Everyone had to do something that they did not have to do the day before.  “Everyone” is a very large crowd of people caught up with Haiti.  This includes “Haitians,” non-Haitians concerned with Haiti in an ongoing manner (e.g NGO staff, journalists), and those who became concerned with Haiti as calls for help were answered by people around the world.  The earthquake was, literally, a stone thrown in a lake, rippling far an wide but altogether NOT part of the lake, its shores and shoals.  The earthquake was contingent.

By contrast, all the means used by the people to deal with the earthquake were arbitrary (according to my understanding of the term).  The linguistics means (using Creole, French, English, etc.), were arbitrary to the needs of human communication.  The procedural means used to organize what happened next were similarly arbitrary to the needs of organizing emergency responses—for example the broad use of NGOs to channel much of the international help (rather than, for example, the government, religious or commercial institutions, etc.), or the manipulation of “celebrity status” (Bill Clinton, Sean Penn) to establish authority, etc..

But… a movement of the earth would not be quite “the Haiti earthquake” if … Haiti, as the arbitrary product of the history of Europe and Africa, had not existed as precisely such an entity as it was in January 2010.  The toll of the earthquake is only partially the product of its force or location.  It has much more to do with housing type, governmental regulations about housing, the complex economics of building, and a tangled network reaching across the planet and across at least two centuries.  The earthquake toll, thus, is the product of human activity, and thus of the multiply arbitrary world human beings make for themselves or, more exactly, for other human beings possibly far removed in time and space.  A stark case in point: the introduction of a South Asian strain of cholera in a country free from any cholera for at least a century (Katz 2013: Chapter 11).

Contrastively, Creole (as the product of the French slave trade, revolutions both in France and Haiti), is something that keeps happening to the island along with French, Spanish, and now English, etc.  An arbitrary act (and in humanity all acts are arbitrary) is also always a contingent event wherever and whenever it occurs: just ask those who came to help and found out that they had to get translators; just ask the Haitians who taught themselves Brazilian (or any number of other languages) in order to trade with United Nations soldiers!

So, I should probably say something like: no event is in itself contingent or arbitrary.  Any event that cannot be escaped in the temporality of the sequences within which one is made to participate  must be approached both as:
.  A contingency requiring repair, if not change in orderings.
and as
.  An ordered step within a scripted sequence.

That is: my teaching for six days last month in Port-au-Prince can be analyzed both as:

.  An event that multiply interrupted my life (and that of my family), the life of the students, that of others I met there, and probably of still others about whom I know little.  My teaching was a contingency in all these lives. We discovered what had to be done that none of us ever had to do before in quite this way.   And then we improvised, on various themes, listening to each others take, instructing, correcting, and transforming each others.

and as

.  Just the kind of event that the historical moment (epoch, culture) has kept producing in the relations between America and Haiti: an American foundation providing funds for individuals to help people in Haiti.  My teaching was, also, a scripted sequence.

This is temporarily adequate, as long as it remains clear that the response to the contingent is a struggle with all means available, not simply the application of a rule.  I will explore this in more detail in a further post.

References

Katz, Jonathan 2013 The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

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“Communities of intelligence” in the streets of Port-au-Prince

While preparing the class I taught  at the Faculté d’Ethnologie of the Université d’État de Haiti, I stumbled again on one of those sentences that make Rancière so powerful:

Language does not unite people. On the contrary it is the arbitrariness of language that makes them try to communicate by forcing them to translate—but also puts them in a community of intelligence. (Rancière [1987] 1999 : 58)

Haiti, of course, is famous for a creole forged by the need to translate what others from around the world, often with the worst of motivations, were saying and then to do whatever new conditions might allow (a successful war against a colonial power), or require (a devastating earthquake).  Living together in such conditions will put people in a “community of intelligence”—and will keep them there, at work, for a creole forged by contingent circumstances will itself become a language, Creole, that is arbitrary by its very nature as a language and so cannot unite people as it forces them, again, to try and communicate, try and survive in the new conditions of which it is now a part.

I thought about all this when reading Jonathan Katz’s passionate account of the 2010 earthquake and of the many blunders of the “international community” who ostensibly “came to help” but may have made things much worse (Katz 2013).  Much of what he had to say about the famous (Bill Clinton, Sean Penn) and the less famous politicians, policy makers, staff of NGOs, confirmed what I started learning through Scott Freeman’s dissertation on the role of NGOs in the non-development of Haiti’s rural population.  This, I learned, is now a theme in the anthropology of NGOs and their environmental impact.

One passage in Katz’s book struck me particularly.  It has to do with the figures generally quoted by the “international community” regarding unemployment in Haiti.  As Katz say, most of what Haitian actually do does not count as employment.  Graphically, who in this photograph is employed? (besides the photographer)

food vendor in Haiti
Photo by Hervé Varenne

At least four of the seven people visible are clearly active making something (it is not clear what the others are doing).  Everything is orderly.  The garbage is bagged, debris is piled, the tires are stacked.  In the background, there is what appears like a repurposed state school into an “Institut Superieur” and/or a “Centre de Formation Appliquee.”  Even the advertisement of what may be an expensive mattress required extensive work to put it there.  Putting it here, in a not very prosperous neighborhood, is an act of multiple arbitrariness: Who put it there? Who is the intended audience? What do the people in the photograph make of it?

Looking at the picture made me think of Kiran Jayaram’s dissertation (Columbia 2014) on Haitian migrants to Santo Domingo: determined intelligence in the worst of conditions when physical survival is immediately at stake.

About all the streets of Port-au-Prince I drove through are lined by such stands as in the photograph.  Are they classified as “small businesses” rather than “employment” in certain statistics? The important thing is that the stands are there, with the people who put them up, and the people who use them, together at work.  Katz reports that they reappeared in the first days that followed the earthquake even as the people were actively digging for survivors, and then reconstructing—when they were not hindered by efforts to help that create more catastrophic conditions, and more moments for the convening of “communities of intelligence.”

When the arbitrary occurs (earthquake, food distributed here but not there, diseases imported, new languages added to the mix, etc.) human beings will get together and translate.  It is time to pay attention and bring out intelligence over disfunction, achievement over failure, heroic bricolage over engineering deficiencies.

Publicizing this work has to be the way to counter “culture of poverty” approaches to the plight of people in dire condition, whether in Haiti or elsewhere.

References

Katz, Jonathan 2013 The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Rancière, Jacques 199 The ignorant schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Tr. by K. Ross. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. (First published in 1987)

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What about these schools in Port-au-Prince?

For students looking for a dissertation topic in anthropology and education: what about all these schools in Port-au-Prince?

a school in Haiti
Photo by Herve Varenne

This may have been my second surprise after I landed in Port-au-Prince and took a walk between the Hotel Olufson and the Champs de Mars: what about all these schools?  The walk down Rue Capois is about 15 blocks.  There are about one school every other block.  There are at least as many on the parallel Avenue Christophe and, I found out many many more in the neighborhood southwest of the hotel where I was driven.  This area is but a small area of the city and so I have no sense of what is happening, school-wise, in the rest of the city.

A few of these schools are clearly marked as governmental like the Lycee Dessalines.  Others are linked to a church.  But many more do not appear to be either and they are the ones that fascinate me: who attends? Who organizes? Who set curriculum and pedagogies? Who funds? Who teaches? How are the teachers recruited?  When were they set up? How many are being set up?  How many fail?  How do the students pay? What do the alumni do? Etc.

a school in Haiti
Photo by Herve Varenne

When need ethnographies of something that should blur further the useless distinction between formal and informal education.  These are schools.  They must be formal but not quite in the same manner as state school in Euro-America must be.  They are also the product of an informal process as various entrepreneurs, and people with little access to government schools, come together they “do school” for purposes that may have little to do with “education”–as one’s skepticism makes one imagine.

While shopping for some souvenir to bring back, I had a brief conversation with a young man in charge of the store.  He spoke quite good English (but no French).  I asked him where he had learned.  He gave me the name of a non-governmental school, affirmed he had learned English in three months and that was all he needed from that school.  This made a good story I could not “verify” but it hints at processes that are more akin to those that interest Rancière than to those that interest Bourdieu: if one is to run a tourist business, learning English is essential.  This is an intelligence working at education in an altogether “informal” manner, even if it briefly involved a “formal” step (though I am very curious about the pedagogy used in the school!).

Note that someone I met mentioned the number of people in Port-au-Prince that could converse in Portuguese and other languages brought into Haiti by the United Nations.  How did they do it?

These, of course, are all very poor people who have lived throughout their lives in the most difficult conditions imaginable (very weak governments, misguided help from NGOs and the “international community,” an earthquake, a cholera epidemic, more misguided help further blurring the lines of governmentality).

a school in Haiti
Photo by Herve Varenne

So we need more ethnographies.  And we need ethnographies from other parts of the world if, as I suspect, Haiti is not unique.  Jessica Garber, for example, is doing a pilot project in Phnom-Penh, Cambodia, where she was told there may be thirty “international schools” (for a population of two millions)!  I once heard a fascinating paper on “Crazy English” in China.  I am sure there are many other examples of the ways human beings around the world are taking their conditions and producing instructional “techniques” (in Mauss’ sense) never before seen by humanity.

a school in Haiti
Photo by Herve Varenne

They will help us construct further an anthropology of the world at the beginning of the 21st century.  My hope, as some of the students I have worked with closely know, is not to stop the analysis with a simple call to “globalisation” or “neo-liberalism.”  Labeling epochs by attaching labels to them does do much.  Moralizing about greed, the will to power, or desperation does not do much either.  We must discipline our own motivations so that we can report on what human beings can do.  It will remain the pride of anthropology that it will illustrate what can happen locally when certain forms of governmentality and national sovereignty morph, and thus limit the temptation to over-generalize.

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Crossing the street in Port-au-Prince

One thing I discovered does not happen in Port-au-Prince: traffic paralysis. How can this be given the about total absence of the traffic flow signs, lights, etc.?  Without these, one is told in Europe and the United States, cars and people cannot move in dense cities.  But they can, in Port-au-Prince!

It’s certainly not the case the traffic (cars, motorbikes, pedestrians) is light.  Quite the contrary, it may be more dense, per street area, than anywhere I have been.  The streets around my hotel were narrow, with small sidewalks on which cars park.  The layout is mostly on a grid with many crossings, and only two or three traffic lights in the about 100 square blocks I got to know.  Driving, turning, walking, all involve constantly checking what everyone else is doing who might prevent you from continuing (if not hit you).  To add to the challenge matters are major pot-holes, missing sewer grates, piles of gravel, etc.

aerial view of carrefour
Google Earth image

So what do people do at major intersections when several avenue intersect with none of the external help one might expect?

They proceed — with care I am sure !  Even a New Yorker like myself can remain intimidated.  I guess the “rules” are simple: it can be done, there are gaps between cars and motorcycles, do not hesitate or change your mind, others will interpret a movement and act accordingly (people will zip behind you if it appears clear that you are moving; they will zip in front of you in the space you have not yet reached–unless of course something is coming in the other direction to which you should also pay attention).

crossing a carrefour
Photo by Herve Varenne

Check the man on the photo. Everyone is moving. Note how he strides confidently towards the space that will soon be freed by the passing car. “Knowing the rules” will not help him.  There is no time to plan when everything is moving fast.  You have to keep crossing streets that are not quite the same at the middle of your crossing as they were at the beginning.  And yet, several million times a day, people in Port-au-Prince do it!  After several hours of walking and being driven around, I did not see an accident.  They must happen, and there is probably statistics showing that the rate of injury is higher here than elsewhere (at least I hypothesize it may be).  But modern life with cars, motorcycles, large number of pedestrians in narrow streets proceed in an altogether orderly manner.

Of course, those who read this blog should know where I am going: the next time I teach Garfinkel on driving in California, I will talk about doing it in Port-au-Prince: that is the challenge for sociology.  How do people do what they can be seen as doing in difficult, scary, life-threatening situations: they check around for what others are doing, and they do it!  At times, they even stop and wave one across!

Those who follow this post will not be surprised by the preceding paragraph.  But, mostly, when teaching Garfinkel, I leave aside “bioanthropology” (the new moniker for “Biological Anthropology”?) and sociobiology, as well as, more problematically, cultural anthropology.

So what would a sociobiologist say about crossing the street in Port-au-Prince? The urge to survive?  The need to take risks to survive?  What would our selfish genes say?

More interesting are the less theoretical sociologists and social anthropologists who might want to write about the economics (neo-liberalism?) or politics (neo-colonialism? failed state? misguided NGOs?) responsible for the absence of traffic lights at the very ceremonial center of Port-au-Prince.  True enough.  But is this the end?

Is there any place for a cultural analysis?  To the extent that the ensemble of the proximate “causes” for the conditions that make this kind of traffic pattern what individuals must struggle with now, are unique and may not last long (I saw a few newly installed traffic signals in the say 100 traffic corners I experienced), then the situation is “cultural” (historical, a matter of partial diffusion, borrowing, and refusal to borrow).  But I would like more: is the traffic pattern also “arbitrary” in the sense that it is not a product of functional adaptation, but also of some kind of collective imagination?   Are traffic lights necessary? Or are they the product of an evolutionary conceit about orderliness, separation of functions, etc.?

To answer such question, one could check what is happening in Holland.  Traffic lights can disappear.


crossing the street in Holland

Photo by Jerry Michalski.

And so, it seems that trafficking is not only a matter of instruction into not getting killed here and now.  It is also a matter of complex deliberations…

Haiti may be ahead!

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Instruction, uncertainty, and meta-pragmatic repairing in medical education

When I teach Lave and Wenger’s (1991) altogether brief introduction to “legitimate peripheral participation,” I do not teach it as a theory of learning but as a model for social structuring in Lévi-Strauss’s sense (1962 [1952]).  But Lévi-Strauss was seeking to model a moment in the organization of a people while Lave, in a major development, seeks to model movement through social structurings when everyone and everything involved in the movement constitute this structuring as it will be available for the future.  By an implication that remains to be developed, Lave also opened the way for a modeling of culture change.

In brief, for those who do not know the background to this approach, Lave asks us to move from imagining participation in any position as dependent on earlier learning to imagining this participation itself as producing some personal learning.  Thereby she argues that a personal movement into a position is dependent on mechanisms other than learning (or socialization/enculturation).  These are the mechanisms that make the initial positioning “legitimate” and authorize the acknowledgment of movement.  Wondering about legitimacy and authorization leads to searches for the interactional, political forces that establish legitimate participation, authorize certain forms of leaning, and thus of course, refuse participation, does not acknowledge learning, etc.

Much of this formulation sprung from an interest in apprenticeships and it has been found to be a very useful way of approaching traditional problems generally phrased as matters of socialization into positions—for example the movement that transforms a medical student into a physician.  But there is still a need for more exact accounts of movements that might help us develop further properties of the model.

Given all this, I am thankful to Dr. Yan-Di Chang and her dissertation about a moment in the education of physicians in Taiwan.  At some point in their career, people who are moving towards being acknowledged as Mds enter what is known there as a “clerkship” where they will be, for the first time, authorized to care for a patient, under the gaze of doctors and nurses with various experiences and authority.  So what happens during various stages within this clerkship?

Dr. Chang has a good sense of what makes ethnography worthwhile and also infuriating: there is a long chapter in the dissertation about orientation day when the new clerks are told, among many, many, many things … where the bathrooms are!  Do we really need this level of detail?  Yes, if we are not going to gloss over the difficulties involved in movement across the virtual spaces of social structure.  Yes, if we are going to highlight how much work it is not only to be a “peripheral” participant but also to be the fuller participants who have the responsibility to teach what they can never be quite sure the students do not know.  The people who plan the orientation, and those who actually perform it, are faced with the “instruction manual” problem discussed by Garfinkel (2002: Chapter 6): we, the instructors, know that they, the inductees, will need instruction, we can imagine what they will need, but we cannot be sure.  So the actual moment of interaction is difficult for all, and open for much deliberation, including self-reflective deliberation by the instructors about how to do it the next time.

Dr. Chang then proceeds through several other moments when all these matters become salient.  There is the encounter with one’s first patient and how to balance his care with one’s personal life while knowing that one might make mistakes, while knowing that one should ask for advice but not necessarily from whom, while being told that one has made a mistake one had not noticed, and all the while knowing that a person well-being, if not life, is at stake.  Moving into the position of “physician” re-arranges a small crowd!

Dr. Chang then takes us into a more detailed, almost conversational analytic, look at another salient moment in the life of the whole polity: the senior doctor’s rounds when a few students (including both beginners and some more advanced) have to present a case to the doctor, in the presence of fellow students, as well as other more seasoned personnel.  Everyone is participating legitimately.  The hierarchies are multiply indexed discursively and practically, particularly by the balance between questioning, proposing answers, redirecting and sometimes actual instructing.  But the detail of the conversation reveal again and again that noone is following a script.  Everyone has to handle multiple uncertainties that cannot be resolved simply by following rules or applying knowledge.

Everyone is indeed in movement, re-constituting hierarchies which, as Dr. Chang illustrates in a later chapter are themselves subject to meta-pragmatic deliberation among the most legitimate and fullest of participants.  There the questions keep arising: how do we best prepare future doctors? Could we produce “happy doctors”?  These are the conversations that must have guided medical education as it shifted though various models in the history of Taiwan.  And they are the conversations that will participate in transforming it.

The detail in Dr. Chang’s dissertation made me think in a somewhat inchoate fashion about the interactional consequences of the instruction manual problem.  At any moment in an asymmetrical interaction (and perhaps all interactions are) one must wonder what it is that the other person does (not) know.  But, of course, this wonder cannot be settled in any definite fashion.  In any event there would be no time.  Conversational analysis has clearly demonstrated the extent of “repairs” in face to face interaction.  It is as if all conversation occurred in what, to play on Vigotsky, one might call a zone of “proximal ignorance” where all participants have to play with first, what they can make each other pass as knowing (that is they authorize each other’s participation), and, second, what some must instruct others who have exhibited allowable ignorance at this moment and about this (that is, at other moments, a display of ignorance about this might lead to status degradation).

What Dr. Chang, building on other work, illustrates again is that this is not simply a moment to moment matter that must proceed under meta-pragmatic discursive awareness (as classical theories of cultural learning have assumed).  It is also a process taking place in longer sequences where meta-pragmatic discursive awareness is very much involved.  In the day to day matter of moving students into the position of physicians experiential difficulties abound: a future doctor must find out where the bathroom are, must face her first patient along with experienced nurses, must explain her actions to other doctors.  At every moment further deliberations must occur to develop, repair, redirect what has happened before.  And these deliberations may, or may not, make moving medical students into physicians a smoother process for all involved.

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What some anthropologists who reply did, on a Thursday in February 2015

In my last post, I argued that “Applied Anthropology” is, to all of us anthropologists, a total social fact, a “thing”—both in Mauss’s and Latour’s senses.

But that does not tell us much about the actual practices of anthropologists who find themselves caught by this thing facted in a long history. So, today, I wonder about what was done, one Thursday in February 2015, in New York City, in a classroom of a Columbia building. Then and there, a bunch of anthropologists told each other what they do. What did they say?

In the first few minutes of the conference, Ray McDermott put it this way: “when someone says stupid or mean things about kids, I want them to know I will be at their door the next day.” This, he said, is “reply anthropology.” Replace “kid” with “mothers,” “haitian farmers,” or whomever is talked about in stupid ways, and variations on this presentation of self were made. Some argued that McDermott was simply saying, colorfully, what may have been the presentation of anthropology by Boas in the United States, Mauss in France, Malinowski in England, and many others: when someone says stupid, or at least mis-informed things, about human beings, anthropologists will notice, shudder, bring out obscure, and often actively obscured, practices through painstaking observation. They argue among themselves on how to interpret the observation and what observations to conduct next. Then anthropologists reply. And now, they examine the replies to their replies as others continue to mis-represent their work and, more significantly, the work of the people about whom the conversations are held.

On that Thursday, the replies, and the replies to the replies, took many forms. Those who replied did it from the variety of positions in which they find themselves given the vicissitudes of their careers. Paige West talked to us about the work she has been conducting, somewhat under the academic radar, with colleagues in Papua New Guinea culminating with her “co-founding … the PNG Institute of Biological Research, a small NGO dedicated to building academic opportunities for research in PNG for Papua New Guineans.” Terrence D’Altroy and Brian Boyd talked about the extra-archaeological work needed to allow for the doing of archaeology in complex contemporary conditions. Scott Freeman told us about Haitian farmers have been doing. And he showed how this work keeps being obscured by the constraints under which local NGOs must operate. I’d say that West, D’Altroy, Boyd, Freeman, Oliveira, Baines, Hudson, that is “we,” anthropologists, were replying to what others had been saying. We asked our others, mostly from outside anthropology, to look further at the people whom they want to help, and particularly to consider the exuberance of the people’s activity around professional or state-sponsored activity. That is, to the extent that there we were saying something useful to our professional audiences, we were saying it because of what we have learned about the social conditions of all human activity, including professional activity. And, by analyzing the conditions of our work reflexively, we were also developing anthropological theory.

Jean Lave generalized all this by telling of her experience building an institution within another institution: a Ph.D. program in Social and Culture Studies in Education within a School of Education within a university priding itself on its international status as a research university. Her experience as an anthropologist willing to build new institutions within old ones is one the participants in the conference recognized: as conversations with colleagues proceed, we are told either that we are not anthropological enough (next statements by anthropologists in research positions) or that we are too anthropological (next statements by colleagues in the professional school).

I hope that the conference will help us turn the tables: 1) replying to those whose work obscures human activity is what anthropology does, and 2) replying effectively requires more anthropology.

First, as anthropologists, we go where people work and learn about it through that work. These days, many people work in and around (N)GOs particularly when these involve dangerous matters in their lives. How they work, and how this work is organized, is a core issue in anthropology. As Lave reminded us, quoting Gramsci, we must assume that, among the people there are “organic intellectuals,” and thus complex organizational processes producing their position, its local authority and discursive forms. Giving new accounts of all these complex processes, including the relationship among all intellectuals (organic or not), is a profoundly theoretical task.

Second. Facing the ethno-methodology of everyday work in professional settings requires more rather than less anthropology. Professional activity of the non-organic kind, that is the activity of professors and other professionals, whether working with/in or with/out (N)GOs, is also everyday activity that requires the kind of practical intelligence which allows all involved to recognize that this (that we are doing or see being done) is just what “we do.” But all work on such activity, in any setting, including the work of “scientists” (Kaplan on “logic-in-use” 1964; Latour on science 1987) and other licensed professionals (Wieder 1974), has demonstrated that the formal problematics of the activity (as it may be stated in mission statements, flow charts, program descriptions, etc.) is but an aspect of the activity itself that can easily obscure other aspects of the practice, whether the practioners are “aware” or not of the gap between what we are known as doing and what we just did. Bringing out the possibly contradictory constraints of that gap is what anthropology offers. Workers in schools, hospitals, development agencies, government offices, etc. should require that more anthropology, at its most disciplined.

References
Kaplan, Abraham
1964 The conduct of inquiry: Methodology for behavioral science. Scranton, PA: Chandler Publishing Co.
Latour, Bruno
1987 Science in action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Reply anthropology (?)

After the end of the February 26, 2015 conference on “‘Applying’ anthropology,” Jean Lave wondered whether we had not “reified” applied anthropology by discussing what became, discursively, an “it” that stood against another “it” (unmarked, regular, academic, ivory tower anthropology).

Reification is of course the trap all critical discourses fall into, willy nilly: the more people say “I am (not) an applied anthropologist,” the more they affirm there is a such thing even when the object is to criticize IT.

But what were we to do? in the active practice of a particular critical discourse? in the second decade of the 21st century? within the confines of a State authorized institution dedicated, by statute, to “Applied Anthropology”?  I thought we would spend more time on alternate qualifiers.  Actually, we did not, much.  The fundamental issue, I guess we all agreed, is not a matter of qualification but one of whether there is anything to qualify.  In that sense at least, we all feared what Lave said we did do, and that is reification through questions about the classification of many different kind of actual research and publishing practices as, more or less, “marked anthropology” and thus NOT [unmarked] anthropology. [Ftn 1]

The fear of reification is not irrational, or matter of feelings or beliefs.  We all know that reification blinds, can lead us to make mistakes, can be used against us.  Reification puts us in a place that is no less real for being the cultural production of a time and population.  But we, as the kind of anthropologists who participate in a conference on “‘applying’ anthropology” cannot really NOT stay in this place we fear.  We must stand our ground (to develop the geographical metaphor) if only because acting on this fear could send us back (or be pushed back) into small ivory towers of irrelevance—and that would be ironic indeed since [applied] anthropology may have been, at times, a response to calls by students and others for relevance (engagement, etc.)!

But standing our ground does not mean that we cannot struggle towards some reconstruction, if not relocation.  To that end, I’d say we were giving examples of our practices over longer or shorter careers as professional anthropologists, and we were examining more carefully how these practices, as they are publicized, link with other practices both within and without the discipline.

Of course, reviewing old practices open the classic anthropological questions about happenings, history, myth, and politics.  We started with several retellings of the origin myth of the creation of the “Joint Program in Applied Anthropology” at Columbia.  Something happen in 1968.  This is part of the history of Columbia.  But what is done, at any retelling, in any particular place or time, is not self-evident and would probably require the kind of analysis George Bond conducted about the use of this ethnographic publications in the Parliament of Zambia (1990).  Still, the myth as I have heard it told many times is interesting for me as it is told about a form of conversation among students, faculty, and administrators.  There was a call (by students, “for relevance”).  And then, in some temporal process, there was a response.  So, I’d say there is much to Ray McDermott’s quip during the conference that what we were doing is “reply” anthropology.  I find it powerfully evocative of where we should go in analyzing our situations and contemporary practices in preparation for future responses to the various calls from inside and outside the discipline.  To apply (!) a theoretical argument I have been making, practical activity (to bring together Lave and Stanton Wortham on the topic), at any moment in temporality, should be approached as a statement replying to an earlier statement within an overall conversation with any number of participants, whether directly involved or simply, and powerfully, indirectly involved through the network links binding one setting (polity if not community) to others.

I will not attempt to trace all those who call me to respond whether I wish to respond or not (since refusal to respond in the terms of the call can be interpreted/accounted for/evaluated/further acted upon as a particular response).  In a future post, I will however give my sense of the calls to which the papers in the conference could be seen as replies.  Perhaps, in this manner, we can figure out what are some of the current practices that anthropologists engage in that might be classified, for certain purposes, as “applied anthropology.”

But I want to comment today on a (total social) fact: Applied Anthropology was reified institutionally a long time ago.  We have no choice but to face a fact we did not make.  Now, when confronted with such a total social fact, what has been called a “community of practice,” or, as I have suggested, a “polity” of practice (to emphasize the political aspects of what some have also called a “field”), one can run away.  One can attack it, from outside or from its periphery.  And one can move through it as I have from the time, 25 years ago, when I found myself attached to the programs and later have been made administratively responsible for it and found myself … organizing a conference to face doubts and possible transformations.

Footnote 1: For those unfamiliar with the semiological concept of “markedness,” the Wikipedia entry is not a bad place to start. [Back to text]

Bond, George 1990 “Fieldnotes: Research in past occurrences.” in Fieldnotes: The makings of anthropology.  Edited by R. Sanjek. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.  pp. 273-289.

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Neo-liberal (?) discursive esthetics

Cultural anthropologists must appreciate the following job description, as local (in time and place) work of linguistic
artifacting?
artificiality?
artfulness?
arbitrary?

The Director of Enterprise Applications Service is responsible for application planning, development, testing, support and operations and project management of Teachers College’s application architecture and strategy. The Director of Enterprise Applications will forge sustainable relationships with IT directors in the business units and provide consultative support to the business units. This position will report to the Chief Information Officer and will interact across the academic and administrative technology services leveraging people, process, technology across the college by analyzing existing enterprise applications portfolio and define the road map for that portfolio as the college’s needs and opportunities change. This position will also be responsible for the college data warehouse and business intelligence environments.  (Retrieved from LinkedIn on February 18, 2015)

Whether the formal esthetics of this description is “neo-liberal” (as temporarily label for an epoch perhaps following “post-modernism”) or not, it will remain a product of a time and place: 2015 in some global sphere.  I suspect Teachers College has never had a “Director of Enterprise Applications Service” and that it will never have another one (as classifications and procedures change).

Reading this job description made me wonder about the form of the text.  Minimally, it would lead to examining the vocabulary (“application,” “sustainable,” “enterprise,” “Chief,” “data warehouse,” etc.) and adjectival phrases made up of nouns (“Enterprise Application Service,” “Chief Information Officer”).

And it made me wonder about a question anthropologists of neo-liberalism rarely address (if at all): what process produces such forms?  This is a different question than the one we (my faculty and student peers) debated in my graduate school days (1968-1972).  We wondered about the production of texts given a form (“structure”).  We (the students) reviewed hypotheses our faculty and their peer had developed.  Most of those now look wild, particularly when they are about the transformation of “deep” structures (matters of “competence”) into “surface” manifestations (matters of “performance”), as well as the analysis of the deep given accessible surfaces.  (And, of course, this remained the problematics in Bourdieu’s opus).

But we rarely discussed the question of the production of the form (whether this form reveals or hides something else) in a temporality that produces a new history.  The one exception may have been Milton Singer who, when teaching “Comparison of Cultures,” taught us about the Boasian interests in diffusion and what was not yet called “hybridity.”

Forty five years later, I am now interested in this question of the production of forms particularly when they make facts for a larger or smaller collectivity, and for whatever intent or purposes.  In time, something is made, and it is now available for people like me to observe and wonder about it.

So, once upon a time, a job description gets written in a particular form that must have currency among some people, but is unintelligible to many others (including me who has been trying to translate it).  Questions: who wrotes this job description? Where, when and for whom does it make sense? Could the form of this description be predictable on the basis of earlier job descriptions (as written 5, 10, 50 years ago)? Could we predict what the next form will be? In five years? Twenty years? A century?

I, of course, am quite sure that such forms, in all their factuality at a particular time, among particular people, could not have been predicted, and that we cannot predict what the next forms for such descriptions will be.  I am quite sure that these breaks in what has been taken as causality chains are not the product of the lack of information or “data.”  Breaks in the prediction chains are fundamental laws of human evolution. (See my For a defense of cultural anthropology as science)

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Is this what neoliberalism is all about?

In a recent post on whether this post is “mine,” I puzzled the apparent devolution by the “Sovereign” (people, nation, state) of some of its political controls onto alternate “non-governmental” agencies, such as Corporations instituting Policies over their “Employees” (rather than laws over their citizens).

Is this what people who rant against “neoliberalism” intuit (even when they use the word simply as the kind of generalized insult where my generation used “capitalism”)?

Most people actually rant against a few politicians (Reagan, Thatcher, Pinochet) and a few university professors (Hayek, Friedman, etc.) who, as it is told, destroyed an earlier world to the profit of a very few.  That professors might be so influential, or even so useful for whatever purpose, is flattering to one among them.  But there has to be more.

I have another history for neoliberalism in which the economic actually yields to the political in the never ending deliberations about what to do about the catastrophic consequences of earlier political deliberations.  Thus, greatly to caricature, the glorification of the “people” and its “nation” typical of the 19th century leads to the 20th century 30 Year War (1914-45) that starts with four Sovereigns and ends with a version of man-made global devastation human beings should work not to reproduce.

This is a fast summary of the history I learned, though I was not quite taught it in school: France, Germany and Great Britain had greatly misbehaved themselves and their sovereignty, that is the sovereignty of their people as it can be manipulated by local (“national”) forces, should be reigned in.  I continue to admire Jean Monet (and de Gaulle and Adenauer) for having started a political process that involved manipulating the economic to produce massive political change: the end of France (and Germany, etc.)!  Monet succeeded in getting French and German politicians to create the “European Coal and Steel Community,” a supranational organization to which was devolved a small piece of national sovereignty.  This would lead to the founding of the Common Market, more devolution, and then the European Community and the Euro.  Half-a-billion people now find themselves in an unprecented political entity: an empire with a huge bureaucracy of policy-makers, and no emperor!

Two points here: 1) in 1950, the general population did not care about coal and steel, few saw where it might lead, and there was no serious political opposition to the subsequent devolution of sovereignty—until recently; 2) this devolution opened new opportunities for many interests that may or may not have been hampered by national sovereignty—particularly multinational corporations that could now operate more broadly around Europe and then the globe by using supranational organizations and policies as weapons against national organization and their politics.  If this is correct, then Thatcher, General Motors, Apple did not produce a current order that was a political response to a political problem.

Many critics in Europe do not think this is correct.  The more vociferous European critics of neoliberalism and globalization argue all this is the product of American imperialism (Zemmour 2014).  Whether the American generals and others who led all international meetings in the 1940s could foresee all this, may be besides the point.  The devolution of the national State to Supranational organizations (including, of course, the IMF, the World Bank, but also the ever multiplying “Non-Government Organizations,” big ones and small ones who now mediate much effort to make the world a better place) has been good to the United States (not to mention China, etc.).

It has also been good to the huge number of people who were able to move across the globe to fend for themselves whatever new difficulties they might encounter when they settled among more or less welcoming populations.  As one of this number, I appreciate the “freedom” (that is partial release from some constraints) that has allowed me to make a career and family in America.

So, I remain skeptical about any simple rant against neoliberalism that does not take into account the conditions within which its production has made sense.  Still, seventy-five years into what morphed, for much of the globe, into what might be called the post-nation-state era, the exact mechanisms of this era cannot just be imagined.  They must be investigated at the local levels dear to anthropologists.

What are the constraints (and possibilities) that ongoing cultural production of the devolved state, make real, concrete, and factual over future action?

In my locality, in an American College, I keep wondering—as I have been doing in several of these posts (4/18/2013, 4/23/2014).  Anthropology, some anthropologists like to say, was the handmaid of the national colonial State.  What if this State has faded? Who should support anthropology materially?  To be crass, who should pay for it and on what basis?  Is academic anthropology, after all, (intellectual) “property” (human capital) to be evaluated in the market place (for example on the basis of the willingness of young people to indebt themselves to pay tuition?)?  As I put it the first time I actively engaged with the issue does a College have a value? Or is it a price? (Varenne 2000)

Zemmour, Eric
2014     Le suicide français. Paris: Albin Michel.

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Is this blog “property”?

Is this blog “property”?  If so, whose? And who controls the answers to these questions (and the consequences thereto attached)?

Once upon a time (let’s say about three months ago), I thought the answers obvious enough: “in America,” this blog is “mine.” It is expression which I could transform it into property if I decided to commercialize it and/or sell it.  It all had to do with “freedom of expression” and particularly “academic freedom,” privileges granted by the Constitution to individuals.

And then I was taught about “work for hire laws.”  As summarized in a work for hire document written at the request of a corporation developing a “policy on intellectual property” (note the word “property,” not “knowledge”) the law says:

Under the Copyright Law, the copyright to a work created by a person in the course of his or her employment is Work for Hire, which belongs to the employer rather than to the individual creator.

I remembered reading something about this around issues of whistle blowing in large corporations, but never thought much about it, assuming that this was other people’s problems.

I was wrong.  The paragraph continue:

The law provides, therefore, that works created by faculty members in the course of their teaching and research, and works created by staff members in the course of their jobs, are the property of the College.

Note the “therefore.”  This blog is the property of the College, by law.

But not to worry:

It is traditional at this College and other colleges and universities, however, for books, articles and other scholarly writings by a faculty member to be deemed the property of the author, who is considered to be entitled to determine how the works are to be disseminated and to keep any income they produce. This tradition reflects the College’s commitment to encourage members of the community to write and to publish what they wish. In recognition of that longstanding practice, the College disclaims ownership of Traditional Works of Scholarship.

Over the past several weeks I have pushed and prodded the people involved in writing and re-writing all this, that is in transforming ideas into potentially authoritative texts for which they are being paid but which will never be considered “theirs” (deans, lawyers, other staff).  In the process (besides making myself somewhat obnoxious—and I apologize for unnecessary outbursts!) I got to think further about an issue I could not quite figure out.  Over the past years, many on the faculty have complained about the movement of the College towards a “corporate model.”  Two years ago, the controversy swirled about the College’s President sitting on the board of directors of a Large Multi-National Corporation.  But I was not quite sure whether this was a complaint about individuals or about something broader.

What is, interactionally, the “corporate model”–leaving aside the values, beliefs, interests, etc. of individuals who may benefit from it, or who may resist it?

One answer lies in taking seriously what I was told again and again when I objected: “Herve! This is the law! There is no choice here!”  the College is a corporation, no different from Apple or Google (in another generation one might have written “no different from General Motors”)! You are an employee!”  And I was reminded that all my emails (all that I receive from colleagues, students, etc.) are archived at the College (actually, they are physically on Google servers) and may be read at the discretion to the College.

The corporate model, then, has to do with the reality (non-negotiable) that my personal life, as employee, is largely at the discretion of the College.  Technically, in recent anthropological jargon, the College is a Latourian agent who (to quote from above) “deems,” “considers,” “encourages,” “disclaims.”  The College (speech) acts.  All this is controlled, allowed and enforced by “the law of the land,” that is by the College’s Sovereign who grants Corporations certain privileges.  That is, the Law does not require that my blog be deemed property of the Corporation.  The Corporation may disclaim.  But the Corporation is now the Active Subject that speaks through internal policies, sub-regulations, etc.  The Sovereign (State, nation, people) has stepped back.  A preamble may state that a “policy” regulates rights:

This copyright policy retains and reasserts the rights of faculty members for books, monographs, articles, and similar works as delineated in the policy statement.

Politics (the protection of expression and academic freedom) has been devolved to policy.  State actors yield to corporate management.  We are more fully than I thought in the world of the “Non Governmental Agency” (and, of course, the word “agent” has to be taken in all its many meanings) with its specific properties (affordances).  This world has been coopting broader and broader areas of everyday intervention around world.  For example, in my world, what used to be considered major decisions about, for example, the control of public schooling has been devolved to various corporate bodies with various, more or less delineated, right to participate, authority to regulate and mete sanctions.  I wrote about this when the teacher education programs at TC had to yield to NCATE (and produce a lot of “work-for-hire” intellectual property) (Varenne 2007).  I was fascinated by report from Steven Brill in the New York Times about the web that has been entangling the aftermaths of the No Child Left Behind Act.  The report was about the wonderfully awfully named “Race to Top” program.

So, one might answer the questions about property, ownership, and control of my expression, with a quip: the Benevolent Billionaire Barons of the 21st century!  This, of course is too simple as it does not specify the mechanisms that makes this blog “deemed” my own by Teachers College (and I thank the Corporation for its generosity).

More on that another day.

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