Category Archives: on anthropological theorizing

Discussions of various points in general anthropological theorizing

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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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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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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What might Chomsky make of Halloween and Santa Claus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Culture: Inheritance vs. islanding?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

 

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On anthropological impotence

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

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

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

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

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

Cause -> intervention -> effect.

or:

They did, we do, and then they will.

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

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

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

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

Anthropologists can be depressed for other reasons.
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