Category Archives: on anthropological theorizing

Discussions of various points in general anthropological theorizing

A coda on Corona and governmentality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6) … 7) … 8) … 9)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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On fishes, water, and consciousness

It would hardly be fish who discovered the existence of water. (Kluckhohn 1949: 11).

If we describe a community as an ecological system we describe it not as the members of that community themselves think of it. They are ignorant of a science of ecology. (Redfield 1960: 32)

Could it be that the fish do know much about just what, about water, makes the most difference as they continue swimming? (Varenne 2019: 25)

Recently, a student wondered how I could write what I did about fishes swimming in their water and quote Redfield approvingly (at least in general).

The issue is even more complicated if we add another version of the underlying issue concerning consciousness and knowledge:

The anthropologist will be dealing on the one hand with raw phenomena and on the other with the models already constructed by the culture to interpret the former. Though it is likely that, …, these models will prove unsatisfactory, it is by no means necessary that this should always be the case. As a matter of fact, many “primitive” cultures have built models of their marriage regulations which are much more to the point than models built by professional anthropologists. Thus one cannot dispense with studying a culture’s “home-made” models for two reasons. First, these models might prove to be accurate or, at least, to provide some insight into the structure of the phenomena; after all, each culture has its own theoreticians whose contributions deserve the same attcmion as that which the anthropologist gives to colleagues. And, second, even if the models are biased or erroneous, the very bias … are a part of the facts under study and probably rank among the most significant ones. (Lévi-Strauss [1952] 1963: 282)

In many ways I do not have much to add to Lévi-Strauss beyond trying to make more concrete what we might do if we are inspired by what he says about “home-made models” (a phrase I prefer to “models constructed by the culture”). How would we, anthropologists, recognize a “home-made model”?

As an easy example, I will follow Lévi-Strauss’s lead about models of marriage regulation and quote a statement about marriage by one of America most authoritative institutions, the Supreme Court:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. (2015 Last paragraph of the Obergefell v. Hodges, written by Justice Kennedy)

In my own work, and building on Schneider (1968), I used such statements in Americans Together (1978) to argue that “in America” “love” trumps all. I also emphasized that “love” is only one part of a model that also includes discourses and practices about “individualism” and “community.” I would probably write all this differently now but I would still say that, for people in the United States (the fish) experiencing their condition (water) when deciding whether to applaud or resist the Supreme Court, “love” remains the problem/solution that shapes practices and, particularly, disputes about practices. And so, I was not surprised by the Supreme Court’s decision, and even less by its justification.

Of course, many if not most social scientists, and not just Marxists, would question working with what they might label an “ideology” that masks “deeper” structural matters, and produces hidden consequences. Lévi-Strauss does argue that the same practices might be modeled differently and stresses that the differences themselves are useful for further investigation and analysis. Individualism/community/love is also neo-liberalism depending on how one models American practices.

How to handle such differences is something for another day. For now, I am just going to refer to Supreme Court opinions as an instance of (native) “discursive consciousness.” That is, writing such a statement, living with it, and resisting it, must involve and trigger “consciousness” by about any definition of consciousness. No fish swimming in American waters can fail to take into account the discourse and its practical consequences (even if, should the Marxists be right, this discourse mask properties of the water to which these fishes are blinded).

There is also what I call “practical” consciousness. This is the consciousness revealed by the actual practices of those who might not produce a discursive account of their experience. An easy example (based on something I overheard in the street):

Child (excitedly): “Mom, I singed yesterday, and it was great”
Mother (somewhat sternly): “Dear, say I ‘SANG’ yesterday.”

As all ethnographies of speaking with young children have demonstrated, parents all over the world intervene to require some change in the way the child is speaking. In other words, a parent (older sibling, etc.) will invoke some rule (and there are many!) about “speaking well” even if this parent could not produce a grammar of the language (and even less the full panoply of usage customs it would take long “ethnographies of speaking” for an anthropologist to produce).

Such moments of correction are ubiquitous and are probably the basic method for maintaining any arbitrary (e.g. ‘irregular’ verbs in English). There are many more some might find more significant as to ground any way of life. One example of this would be the generations of farmers in Bali who developed the complex agricultural practices that sustained millions over century (Lansing 2006). What exactly the farmers (and priests, rulers, etc.) “knew” about their ecology and technologies is a question that generations of colonial administrators and development specialists dismissed—to catastrophic consequences in some cases when the local populations followed the very discursive consciousness of those who esteemed themselves as experts. By every measures, the local “models” proved more useful than those developed by these others. In this case Redfield, though correct in principle as far as the “science of ecology” is concerned, is quite wrong in terms of survival requiring complex technological solutions involving a large crowd of people.

At this point one could bring to bear Ranciere on the wisdom of shoe-makers, or Gramsci on “organic intellectuals.” One might also note that there is great value in the specific form of consciousness (knowledge) developed in what is variously known as the “West,” “Euro-America,” the “Global North.”

To go back to the metaphor, it may be that the fish do not have a discursive consciousness of the water to the extent that … they cannot speak! However, everything about them, including the way they swim in the various waters this or that kind of fish might encounter, will tell much to the observer that the observer might not easily notice. And, of course, given that human beings are not fish, and that they do speak, what they say about their conditions is essential, even if it is not the last word on the matter—as they themselves might acknowledge as they dispute what they should do in some future.

References

Lansing, J. Stephen   206     Perfect order: Recognizing complexity in Bali. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2006

Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1963 “Social structure.” Tr. by C. Jakobson and B. Schoepf. in his Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books. pp. 277-323.

Schneider, David [1968] 1980 American kinship: A cultural account. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Varenne, Hervé 1977 Americans Together: Structured Diversity in A Midwestern Town. New York: Teachers College Press.

 

 

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Motivations as causes?

Six months into Corona, I “decided” to get tested for the virus I label ‘C19.’ I had no symptoms but, off the top of my head, I’d say that I was “motivated” by:
1) curiosity about the various steps in the process.
2) my employer’s mandate that I be tested if I wanted to enter the building housing the physical Teachers College (of course the College resides virtually in computers all around the world).

One might say that the first motivation was under my control while the other was not (though I could have “decided” that I did not want/need to get into the physical building). And many others might say that deep in my head other, darker, motivations may have been at play.

Whatever my motivation, three days after the test, I was told on the phone that I was “negative.” The formal detailed report stated that “COVID-19 PCR” was “Not Detected.” A whole of set authorities were listed.

This test, and Teachers College’s mandate that I be tested, came at about the same time as there appeared, in the official media, reports of an expert debate about the wisdom of testing when one has no symptoms. I assume that this was not a new debate. I assume that this debate has been going on for months among epidemiologists, the governors, the alt-media, and the familial “pods” where most of us have been living since we were told to “stay home.” But, on August 17 2020, and then again on August 30 2020, the New York Times reported what I imagine are the official conversations.

In the first report readers were told that, in many parts of the world (the Bronx, parts of Brooklyn, the slums of Mumbai, but not the tonier zip codes in Manhattan) “herd immunity” might have been achieved. Not surprisingly, not all experts agreed.

The second report told of a new (for those of us depending on the NYT for our education) debate about the sensitivity trigger for a diagnostic of “positive.” I had never thought about that! It seems, and it really should not have surprised me, that this trigger is a matter of placing a boundary on a continuum. I had been taught that the amount of the virus in a body is a continuum. I have now been taught that the process of testing for the presence of this virus is also a continuum of cycles of amplification with experts differing as to where to put the boundary: should it be 40 cycles? 37 cycles? 30 cycles? Should finding “a genetic fragment of the virus” count as “virus detected,” or not? Cultural anthropologists should always postulate that the placing of a boundary is a matter of an “arbitrary” act by some collectivity of actors.  Making marks in the sand is what human beings do.  But they do not do this after building consensus or writing a contract, as some ancestors assumed.  The mark will always be the temporary remnant of some act of authority, an act that will immediately be challenged (though most often this challenge will not be successful).

All this became all the more salient as one of acquaintances told me she had tested “positive” and quarantined herself from spouse and young child. A week later she tested “negative” and de-quarantined herself. Setting the sensitivity of a test is not purely a public health issue for our governors, it is also an intimate issue within the various “pods” we inhabit. (Not) testing (not) negative will always lead to possibly contentious precisely political debates with our most significant others. Of the two tests, which should my acquaintance have trusted? Should she test a third time?  Another of my acquaintances has been tested four times in two months (“motivated” by various others).  He was told each time he was “negative.”

As I will say, C19 will not tell us whether to get tested, what level of sensitivity makes it visible for human action, or how often one should be tested.

I am not going to repeat myself but will use the occasion to ponder something only my students will think worth pondering (if they are registered in the class I teach this semester they won’t have much of a choice as it is part of the assignments…). I hinted at where I am going when I placed “ ” around the verb ‘decide’ and word ‘motivation’ in the first sentence of this post. The current puzzle has to with something one of the ancestors of sociology once wrote:

[We understand any] particular act [when is] has been placed in an understandable sequence of motivation, the understanding of which can be treated as an explanation of the actual course of behaviour. (my italics. Weber, 1897)

If I understand Weber’s argument, C19 was “meaningless” until it entered human consciousness and triggered action by some subject who made it “meaningful” as Corona (in my language). And, most importantly, these subjects will “place their act” in different “sequences of motivations” that are more less distant from what an act might have been if the actor “had fully adequate knowledge … of his own situation.” This last comment has something to do with ideal-types as methodological tools, but I will not discuss this here.

My problem is with the sequencing of the word “motivation” in the social sciences. To me “motivation” has always been and remain a word about something psychological as I think it is for Weber. I am willing to grant various kinds of psychologists the authority to tell me that what I list as motivations for doing something may not be the “real” ones that might be buried deep in my unconscious. From Freud onward many have tried to dig for hidden motivations and I am not going to fight them on their territory except to the extent that their own vocabularies for motivations, their own sequencing of this vocabulary, in their own discourses and debates, in their own methods for establishing their authority and recruiting new members, etc., have to be deemed “sociological”—in the Durkheimian sense…

That is, I can imagine investigating what Kenneth Burkes call a “rhetoric of motives” ([1950] 1969). I even wrote a paper titled “Culture as rhetoric” (1978)’

But … reporting on the rhetoric of motives that are available to a particular population is not all the same thing as proposing that these motives actually move anybody into action. I remain convinced that Max Weber is the more dangerous of the ancestors as it is easiest to sequence him into the invidualistic ideologies so common sense in America, and so lose the sociological perspective, including the sociological perspective on individual action with all our others.

References

Burke, Kenneth   [1950] 1969     A rhetoric of motives.. Berkeley: University of California Press.

 

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More on culturing Corona

For many weeks, I was struck by the extent to which media like the New York Times, or governors like Cuomo, justified authoritative acts through a form of what my generation of anthropologists called “functionalism.” They kept telling us that the new order or regulation was the best, and sometime even only, act that would slow the spread of C19. In general, functionalism operates on the idea that, in the not so long run, everything human beings do, however odd it may appear, is the one best solution to achieve a practical, material, goal, given a particular local group (society, system, etc.) at a particular time in its history. At his most combative, Harris argued for example (1966) that cows were “sacred” to Hindus in India because they eat garbage, produce fuel and store milk, and all these tasks are best performed if the cows stay skinny and roam the streets.
Malinowski, to my teachers at Chicago, was the poster anthropologist for functionalism. In the 1960s Marvin Harris at Columbia was the most pugnacious of the functionalists.He was so sure of himself that he never hesitated to go back from effect to functional cause (cows eat garbage, produce fuel, and store milk). As Lévi-Strauss once put it in his usual pithy way: “totems are good to eat” ([1962] 1963: ).

Whether closing restaurants in March 2020 was functionally necessary, or a form of poetic deep play, is something that will be debated for years. What is certain (at least to me) is that closing restaurants (and vast empty national parks, beaches, etc.) was justified in functionalist terms: all the acts of these weeks in March and April were the best practical, functional ones our governors could think of, based on what experts were telling them. Some governors resisted. Experts disagreed. But the justifications in any debate arising at the time were consistent: this had to be done in just this way.

Attestation dérogatoire
For a few weeks, the French State required people to fill this form if they wished to go more than half-a-mile from their residence. As far as I know France is the only State to have had such a requirement.

A few weeks into the Corona epoch, what must have confused some of our most thoughtful governors was the variety of the responses other governors were giving to the same health challenge, even when following the advice of similarly credentialized epidemiologists. The virus remained the same, but what governors were doing about it was not. Without mentioning the more controversial figures, it remains a puzzle how the governors of Sweden decided on a very different road than the one taken by about every other governor in what is generally named these days “the global North.” The range of expert, authoritative, advice was the same everywhere (and similarly fast evolving) but the response was not. As I argued elsewhere,  the advice, as is the case with any speech act, is a trigger, not a cause—even though some governors at least try to say otherwise.

By June, as the virus seemed to move away from places like France or New York State, the variation in the governors’ responses greatly expanded. On such matters as opening, or not, beaches and forests, restaurants (inside or outside), barber shops and clothing stores, the governors of various localities came up with different solutions and time lines. Some boundaries between localities remain, in middle July, still hard (e.g. between France and the US), though others are variously made porous (e.g. between France and Italy or Germany). As the virus started to pop in places that it appeared to have by-passed (say Florida or Texas) governors came up with even more variations. Noone, so far, appears to have returned to March 2020 regulations—though it would not be surprising if some governors tried.

To a cultural anthropologist steeped in the Boasian tradition, the emerging and expanding variation in the responses to C19 are something to expect and I will dare say “respect.” That is, human beings, throughout history (cultureS) have always found other ways to live within an environment. Given a challenge, from finding food in a forest, to some virus starting to kill them, human beings will find other responses that may also be “suitable” (Boas 1887) for the problem at hand. Ruth Benedict once asked us (1932) to marvel at the multiplicity of rituals on such fundamental matters as mourning a death, even across populations fully aware of their neighbors’ doing. All of them must perform the same “function” but in quite different ways, and with different costs. As Lévi-Strauss also put it, “totems are good to think” (1971: 560). Note that this is not be taken in a cognitive way. Dealing with a threatening virus will make anyone think, but eventually, only some of what people can imagine will be “adopted in the collective mode” (Lévi-Strauss 1971: 560), that is only some symbolic forms will become institutionalized by governors, enforced over a population, and resisted by some, sometime.

All this must a problem for epidemiologists and governors…

REFERENCES

References

Benedict, Ruth   1932 “Configurations of culture in North America” American Anthropologist 34:1-27.

Boas, Franz 1887 “The occurrence of similar inventions in areas widely apart.” Science 9, 224:486

Harris, Marvin   2014     Title. Publisher

Lévi-Strauss, Claude  [1962] 1963     Totemism. Tr. by R. Needham. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude [1971] 1981 The naked man. Tr. by J. and D. Weightman. New York: Harper & Row..

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on “Corona”

Again, C19 may kill you, Corona closes restaurant. (March 28, 2020)

So, what is “Corona”? In my younger days, I might have meant it as the word (Saussurian signifier) pointing to an object (Saussurian signified). This may still be common sense, even after the “ontological turn” in anthropology which, as I understand it, is meant to make us consider the “thing-ness” of a possible entity such as “Corona.” The question is actually a classical one in anthropology: when talking about something social (“social structure”) are we talking about an object or about a model built by observers to manipulate? This was the core of the debate between Radcliffe-Brown and Lévi-Strauss (1953). For Radcliffe-Brown, the matter was common sensical. He had made it simple in a foundational text:

If I visit a relatively stable community and revisit it after an interval of ten years, I shall find that many of its members have died and others have been born; the members who still survive are now ten years older and their relations to one another may have changed in many ways. Yet I may find that the kinds of relations that I can observe are very little different from those observed ten years before. The structural form had changed little. ([1940] 1965: 192-3)

We could translate it into Corona (from my experiences in Wyoming and New York City:

As I drove 2100 miles, none of the people that I met, directly or indirectly in Jackson, Wyoming moved with me. In a small Jackson grocery story, a table had been put between the cashier and the customers to increase the distance between them. In New Rochelle, another such table had been set up in a small bakery. The structural form was the same.

The problem, as Lévi-Strauss saw it, is that the “structural form,” what we might now call the product of a social construction of reality, is actually not accessible to the anthropologist’s senses. Quite before Geertz told us that what anthropologists actually do is “write,” Lévi-Strauss told us that what they must do is make a model (a form of writing) based on observations (including observations of the models participants might have themselves made of their relations). That is the anthropologist-as-scientist must do something similar to what the biologists investigating C19 are doing, that is transform what they get to see using a massively cultural machinery (electron microscope and all that they entail) into something they can manipulate (for example by coloring various parts). In other words, biologists must ‘write’ C19 to manipulate it.

Given all this, what is to be modeled by an anthropologist investigating the social response to C19 that made a total institution (in Goffman’s sense) for 6.8 billion people, and its consequences?

The simple, negative, answer is: I am not going to model a “social structure” or “system.”

Anthropologists of my generation suspected that this was the case and, to a large extent, nobody writes about “social structures” any more, though some are tempted to re-introduce the concept, for example those investigating “structural racism.” Those who know my work also know that I always resisted Geertz’s pessimism (encouraged by Derrida’s ‘deconstructionism’): it is NOT all words. If something is a “social construction,” then it is VERY real, an object that stands in the way of the human beings who bump into it. In my work with McDermott we traced what makes schooling a problem by focusing on the consequences that something made to serve all children so that “none are left behind” actually identifies 50% of all children as “below average,” in need of identification, help and remediation (Successful Failure 1998). Schools in the United States and around the world are determinedly made up (cultural, artificial, arbitrary). McDermott and I summarized all this by writing about the  “School” (capitalized) as a “thing,” made up of ongoing events of some sort, for example the School is set up to weigh human beings on all sorts of statistical scales. How could that be? McDermott and I responded that it had to do with “America” in the School that it made over the past centuries.

Ten years later, Jill Koyama (2010), quite rightly criticized Successful Failure  for not tracing the mechanisms that keep re-producing the School. Pointing at America without specifying the mechanisms is insufficient, and possibly dangerous if it leads some to assume that America is made by … encultured, habituated, Americans.

To make her point, Koyama followed a subset of another one of the major pieces of the many legislations which, over the past centuries were aimed at revitalizing the public school. She looked at the life of “Supplemental Educational Services,” a small part of an act to ensure that “No Child [is] Left Behind.” Rather than “deconstructing” the act, she followed its life for some of those who could not escape it: corporate chiefs, mayors, principals, teachers, parents for whom the act was either resource to use (particularly for the large corporations that were contracted to “deliver” the services) or obstacle to navigate. Koyama was inspired in this analysis by Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory, and particularly by that aspect of the theory that insists that a “network” is never closed. A network is not a system or a structure. A network is not even really a “thing” so much as a set of pathways through which the stuff that happens, particularly government decrees, travel though a population and activate something in them.

In that perspective, “America” is an actor-network. So is Corona in my writing. That is, when I write “Corona can close restaurants,” I am asking social scientists to look for the linkages along which a governor’s decree move, as well as all the sub-decrees that various people in the network have to enact so that this restaurant here at this time is indeed closed.

Modeling Corona (in one or another of its instances) can then allow us to compare it to other such events in human history—say the School.

More on that in another post.

References

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

Lévi-Strauss, Claude   [1952] 1963     in Structural anthropology, pp. .277-323 Tr. by C. Jacobson and B. Schoepf. New York: Basic Books.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R.   [1940] 1965     “On Social structure.” in Structure and Function in Primitive Society, pp.188-204 . New York: The Free Press.

1963 .. (First published in 1952)

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Corona as culture

Corona is neither simply juxtaposed to nor simply superposed over COVID-19. In a way, Corona substitutes itself to COVID-19, in another way Corona uses and transforms COVID-19 to realize a synthesis of a higher order.

The above is a translation of the best two sentences about culture and humanity ever written by an anthropologists. In the original Lévi-Strauss ([1949] 1969: 4)) possibly meant it optimistically (Boon 1982: Chapter 4). Translated into the Corona epoch, it may or may not be so. In any event it is essential for an anthropologist to keep the virus (that is the material and biological — C19 here) distinct from the human response (that is the social and cultural—Corona here). The response to C19 produced a “synthesis of a higher order,” Corona that has caught about all 7.8 billion human beings on the planet. For the million and a half who have been identified as carrying the virus, for their kin, and for those who treated them, C19 may be a matter of direct experience. For everybody else, what is experienced is Corona in the reports by the media, in the regulations by government, in conversations among kin, friends, colleagues. As an individual, I am lucky that noone in my first degree network has experienced C19. But we all have experienced, and continue to experience, Corona.

In an earlier post (March 28, 2020) I wrote that C19 might kill you and but it cannot close a restaurant. That is, and against some who wrote that illness is a metaphor (Sontag 1977), C19 is a “thing with agency” (in Latour’s sense). Actually it is a thing that is alive and will change as human responses begin affecting it (through vaccines, etc.). The naming of the virus “Crown,” in Latin, by whomever is, of course, a metaphor based on its appearance under an electron microscope.
C19 is not a metaphor though it will remain something about which metaphor will be made—along with much else in discourse, through speech acts and other means that will much more consequential than metaphors.

media image of the C19 virus
This is not a virus

The anthropological response to Corona will have to focus minimally on two aspects of the human response: how do humans get to “see” C19 and act directly on it. Most humans will never see it or act on it except for the few whom we can gloss as “scientists.” They will work mightily on that front. Anthropologists of science may or may not be helpful there. Where anthropologists will be useful is in the analysis of the spread of Corona, its consequences, and its evolution as it will morph given what will have been done earlier, and what was done elsewhere.

Consider: on April 6, as I write this, Euro-America is days into “isolation” and “social distancing.” When the regulations for this started depends on the nation-state under which one lives. Similarly, the exact nature of these regulations and their enforcement vary here and there, even though all governors (that is those involved in making the regulations) know what others are doing. In the US itself, resistance can take many public forms: compare the Hasidic in Queens to sheriffs in Idaho
In France, for example, all are required not to move more than 3/4 mile from their house and hand the police, when asked, a written, signed, document explaining why they are out. In New York City, one can still walk or drive to a grocery store or park. In France one can be fined and even arrested for transgressing the boundaries. In New York the policy will break groups of people larger than a few. There are now reports about some governors discussing what will be the modalities of de-distancing. One can be sure that these discussions will be acrimonious, with much disagreement, and that they will produce different measures here rather than there.

In other words, as with everything else that resist human beings, human beings will make culture and will live with what they have made. That is they will make some (many) things that will materially resist them. When Lévi-Strauss wrote about “synthesis of a higher order,” he was not writing about “interpretations” that live solely in the imagination. The synthesis is not a psychological event (though it may have psychological consequences) it is a social one. It takes shape in interaction, through conversation, instruction, punishment if necessary.

The challenge, in the anthropological study of Corona, will consist in figuring out who, in any particular place and at any particular moment, is involved in producing what aspect of Corona. To take the one example of the closing of a restaurant in a ski resort of Wyoming, one would need to trace the acts of the restaurant managers and the consequences for the managers and employees. To take another example, on March 28, I was told by the desk person at my hotel that I had either to leave or stay in my room for 30 days starting on March 30th. I did not investigate whether this was an accurate translation of the town council resolution, nor was I present when the regulation was passed down to the hotel. But, on the basis of the statement, I decided to leave the following day.

Many anthropologists might be interested in “why” I took this decision (or “why” is was in Jackson, Wyoming, of all places). They might look into my early childhood, into my personality or character, or into my identity. Some might emphasized that I had a good car, and that I was healthy enough to make the 4 days trip back to New York. Some might wonder why I decided to go back to New York at a time when everyone was being told that things were terrible there.

All that may be interesting if you are concerned with me. However, as an anthropologists, I am concerned with particular conditions that others make for me in my peculiar conditions.

That is the problem on which cultural anthropologists must continue to work.

 

References

Boon, James   1982     Other tribes, other scribes: Symbolic anthropology in the comparative study of cultures, histories, religions, and texts.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lévi-strauss, Claude   [1949] 1969     The elementary structures of kinship. Tr. by J. Bell and J. von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press.

Sontag, Susan   1978     Illness as metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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on “Hervé Varenne” as object with properties and affordances

This is going to get complex fast, and will take several posts.

This is also a development on my last post (1/3/2020) and on earlier others (“On Identity”). It is also a development on matters discussed in the coda “On collaboration” to Educating in Life (2019) as well as a paragraph in the paper with McDermott “Reconstructing culture” (2006: 8).

The question: who is writing this blog post? Answer #1: “Hervé Varenne” as an identity(-fiable) imperfect processing machine that might, in perhaps the not so distant future, be reproduced identity(-cally) by some AI that will keep churning out Varenne’s style blog posts in a perfected form. Answer #2: “I” as the radically uncapturable subject who must use HV (as “Hervé Varenne” will now appear in here) to respond to all those ‘I’ encounters and to whom ‘I’ attempts to communicate an experience other “I’s” addressed as identifiable “me’s” will then have to translate into their own experiences in an ongoing process with no end.

So, let’s sort this.

HV is multiply identified by a host of State agents, and particularly by the State agents that have made HV a State agent “him”-self (imposed pronoun as “stated”–pun intended–by identity cards, passports, etc.). This identification (that ??? is HV) HV would have been ??? before birth and can at any time become a question mark again if, as he once discovered when, attempting to travel with a passport that had “expired” a few days earlier, he lost many rights and some privileges.is particularly consequential for particular purposes–for example traveling across State lines. At various times, and in various settings, noone involved, and particularly not HV, can escape his casting as father, professor, department chair, etc. These identifications could probably best be understood as “affordances” that can then played with in actual practice–but that is a matter for another post. Each of these identifications come with various rights and privileges (as well as responsibilities and limits) that can be enumerated but soon fall under the “etc.” principle.  HV can buy and sell property, grade student papers, vote on certain matters but not on others, sign wills and DNR statements.

HV is also a less regulated agent in settings that the State has not fully entered. Encounters with friends, family members, and indeed colleagues and students always involve more possible identifications than the State ones, particularly when some of those are altogether inappropriate under State strictures (that are different from State to State, and keep changing). That is, some State identifications (e.g. “father” according to HV’s children birth certificates) can interfere when they intersect with another identification (e.g. “professor”) either in HV’s office at Teachers College, or at home. To take a somewhat uncontroversial identification, HV’s age is a fundamental property multiply recorded.  All sorts of privileges are attached to it (voting, drinking, Social Security). Age is also something that the American State (but not the French State) has constituted as an un-mentionable by specific institutional agents (e.g. employers). And while there are no State regulations as to what to mention in public presentations of self (e.g. professional web sites), many of my colleagues at Teachers College do not mention the date of their doctorate, and some not even the date of the publications they list. And yet, not surprisingly, age hovers over much daily interactions, including the moments when HV, as institutional agent (department chair), must remind (or be reminded by) interlocutors not to mention age.

If HV/I understand(s) it correctly, the “conversation” about “identity” is mostly about the less regulated settings when sections of an identity seeps into the practice of another. Thus HV is classified as “White” for particular purposes by particular agents (NY State driver’s licenses do not mention race; University admission forms ask for it; the French state forbids mention of it).  But, many argue, this identification gives HV certain advantages at moment when it should not, and further handicaps others.  At birth HV was identified as “du sexe masculin,” an identification HV never disputed though ‘I’ might dispute what many would include as the ongoing properties of this identification for interactional or interpretative purposes. HV is also, in no particular order, a father, grandfather, French, a senior citizen, in overall good health (though he should exercise more), the owner of this kind of car and this kind of houses, and so on and so forth in a list that is anything but closed. HV discovered a few years ago that some would say he is “cisgender.” HV keeps being told that all this is “changing” and “negotiable.” HV is quite sure that identifications keep changing. But he keeps wondering with whom he is negotiating what, what arguments (or weapons) might be used in this negotiation, and who is to have the “final” word, that is the accountable word for interaction in some future setting.

As a professional anthropologist (another of HV’s regulated identities) HV can go on and on about the interactional, communal, that is “cultural” (in HV’s terms) structuring of experience through the symbols, discourses, practices all human beings must work with. The question for this series of blog posts is: does the ensemble of symbols that can by used in conversations with and about HV, that is HV’s identity for all accountable purposes, constitute, that is make consequential for future purposes, not only HV but also the ‘I’ that all involved may imagine they have “captured”—in the sense that painters are sometimes said to “capture” the “soul” of the person they are painting.

But the word “capture” has more ominous connotations. Syntactically, in English, and all other posts by HV,  ‘I’ is an index to just “HV.”  But ‘I’ is also a symbol that may be used to point to something beyond words, some thing (of course not a “thing”) caught in a “web of meaning” in which one is not so much “suspended” as englued, waiting for the spider.

More on that next.

 

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A warning to apprentice anthropologists: on “identity” in the New York Times

The New York Times is a major adult education institution in the United States. Mostly it educates implicitly but, quite regularly, it gives mini-lectures, in the style of encyclopedia entries. On December 15th, Max Fisher posed the question “What is national identity?” And then he made authoritative statements like a college professor might do. In brief, Fisher taught “The concept [of identity], scarcely 200 years old, holds that humanity is divided among fixed communities, each defined by a common language, ethnicity and homeland. Those communities are nations; membership is one’s national identity” (New York Times, Dec. 15, 2019).

Identity, community, nation are thereby collapsed into each other, authoritatively.

What Fisher did not do is acknowledge that other professors might teach that such a collapse does not make much sense. Worse, it is altogether dangerous for students in the social sciences where these concepts are indeed very commonly (mis-)used. A professor, that is ‘I’, will first note that concepts are abstractions that cannot be the cause of anything. At best, concepts can help one look for who and what does produce history. They should make us wonder about the history of the concepts, their uses and institutional embodiments, and their consequences on the lives of those who must live by them. And thus, I would then note “nationalism” and “identity” have different histories as they were embodied in different symbols, performances, discourses and, above all, disciplining and punishing practices. These are the means by which something happened that the concepts might index, dangerously.

Classic apologists for “nation” disagree and point at signs of “national” discourses as early as the 10th century in various parts of Europe.

It is the task of historians to trace the constitution of institutions and the discourses evolved to justify them. On the basis of their work, there is a general consensus in anthropology that the modern nation (but not identity) was made up “200 years ago.” As anthropologists now teach, all nations were imagined before they became fact (Anderson 1991). They then became inescapable things for billions through determined political action led by the most powerful states of the world. Prussia and France may have started the movement. And then everyone else participated in universalizing it. The United States was a prime mover as Woodrow Wilson, and then Franklin Roosevelt more successfully, among many others, destroyed colonial empires by insisting that the world now be organized on the new principle of one people/one language/one nation/one State. For more on this see my earlier “Who imagines nations?” (October 2019) This produced, among many many other institutions, the “United Nations” that remains supposed to counterbalance the reality that “nationalism” has proved extremely explosive. That it is dangerous is now common sense among many—but that is a different story.

“Identity” has had little to do with “nationalism” — until recently. For the first half of my life “identity” indexed what makes ‘I’ unique. The basic idea is several thousand years old, constituted both through the Greek “know thyself” and through the Christian affirmation that salvation is personal. ‘I’ predates any identification that it may then be burdened with. That ‘I’ might be hidden and difficult to get at is the foundation of European philosophy as it evolved from a religion into an ideology of individualism where ‘I’ can affirm that ‘I’ is this or that. The caricature of ‘identity’ is the “cards” (passports, etc.) about all human beings must now show the powers-that-be (both State and commercial powers) when they need to do about anything or go about anywhere. Every human being must now keep proving a (unique) identity based on a set of State imposed characteristics. Up until rather recently, the French State did this by noting sex, place and date of birth, eye and hair color, and a thumb print. With computers, this has been expanded in altogether mysterious ways since all the information the State now requires is written on magnetic strips or chips only machines can read.

But something strange did happen to the word “identity.” Sometimes in the 1980s or 1990s, first in various corners of the social sciences, and soon everywhere in the political imagination of more an more people in various positions, the word started appearing in contexts where words like “self,” “personality” or “character” used to appear. Pragmatists like G.H. Mead or Dewey, building on earlier German philosophers, had affirmed that all human beings are made up in their apparent individualities. They are made up not by themselves but the many others who frame their experiences, privileges, identifications, etc. This affirmation became the foundation of about every theories in the behavioral sciences: social psychology, “culture and personality” anthropology, the Parsonian attempt to bring all this together. This affirmation took new forms through Geertz and Bourdieu (among many others). This enormous intellectual machinery was deployed against earlier theories of what makes human beings human. They have become the ideological and hegemonic consensus in Euro-America. This consensus asserts that the radical ‘I’ is a cultural illusion. There are no “I’s”, only “me’s” produced by the intersections (to jump forward 50 years) of all sorts of social encounters. That product of these encounters is now labeled an ‘identity’ which, far from capturing a uniqueness, rather captures all the ways that makes ‘me’ “identical with” many many others. Thus, Hervé Varenne’s identity is “French” (and white, male, and so on and so forth).

I suspect that Fisher was taught in college that the word “identity” does refer to what makes people the same rather than what makes them unique. Thus “French” is MY “national identity.” I capitalize ‘MY’ to suggest that there is something bizarre in making a State controlled matter (whether or not I am a French citizen) something that I own. It is all the more bizarre that there is an evolving consensus (certainly among the writers and readers of the New York Times) that there are many French citizens who are not ‘French’ in the same way as I am. Some are Muslim, some are queer, some speak German and arguable they all have separate identities… And yet they are also all citizens of France for most State purposes around the world. They carry the same “identity” card that, by law in France, do not mention any of the matters that, in the imaginations of some (including journalists), actually shape their “identity.”

Since I first noted, somewhat in the mid-1990s, the morphing of “identity,” I have protested—totally unsuccessfully. Colleages and students listen but they are caught, just as ‘I’ is by the hegemonic powers of those who keep trying to make ‘me’. I hope that the next generation of anthropologists will be more successful.

References

Anderson, Benedict   1991     Imagined communities. New York: Verso. (First published in 1983)

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