Category Archives: on America

While crossing Manhattan on 14th Street

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

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

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

All this came back to me as I day dreamed walking across Manhattan on 14th street. From 8th Avenue to Avenue C, I crossed what some sociologists of the Chicago school called, a century ago, “ecological zones” (a concept for understanding cities it might be worth resurrecting). Each of these zones stood out to me mostly because of variation in density of human occupation, presentation of self in dress and demeanor, not to mention phenotype and age. A very much not exhaustive list might include:

– prosperous and/or glitzy stores and businesses (particularly between 8th and Park Avenues)

– crowds of young adults probably related to the nearby universities (particularly around Union Square)

– starting on 3rd avenue street, a sharp drop in human density and then vendors spreading their miscellaneous used wares (“junk” the young adults would probably label them) on blankets laid out on the pavement in front of no longer glitzy stores. The vendors appeared mostly black and from China, as well as older.

It is certainly the case that detailed ethnographic work on that street would correct some of these initial very superficial characterizations. The only point I want to make at this moment is that, as I walked, I came close to many many “different” polities (“communities”) (re-)producing themselves in some contact with others. Whether I also came close to various “cultures” or whether I remained in “America” throughout is the question.

I finally reached my ostensible goal where a small band of musicians performed for a small audience in an East Village park. There, I was a very peripheral participant in this polity as the guest of one of the musician. As the anthropologist always fascinated with symbolic displays (identity markers?), I noted musical styles (“misc jazz/brass and Mambembé” as I was told), dress (“informal” in, to simplify, the “East Village” styles), phenotype, age, sex (actually easier to “see” than gender) and other such matters easily accessible to a casual observer. More on this in a future post, and the human complaint that artificial humans (AI) often find it difficult to identify a (wo)man as (wo)man.
I was also struck about how well organized it all was. The performances were complex and obviously well rehearsed even in their improvisational moments. And then, as I moved with my friend to another park for another performance with another set of fuller participants, In that park, various polities of performers and their audiences performed in ways that were both internally organized and externally coordinated with each other within a more encompassing polity (“HONK NYC!”) separate but dependent to the administration of New York City through its “Department of Parks and Recreation.”

Also, and most probably NOT organized by any of these polities, but still delicately coordinated with all other people together in the park, were two almost caricaturely tall blond young men throwing a football in long arcs next to and sometimes over the other assemblies.

The question that started this is: what is a cultural anthropologist to do with all this? Many (most/) anthropologists might tell me to drop “culture” (and “America”). My answer is that, as I walked and day dreamed about the multiplicities (and I only sketched a tiny number) I got close to, I remained convinced that all the people who found themselves together on that day were doing so at a particular time, in a particular way (both internally and in relation to each other), with particular affordances that both constrained them (and disabled them) and opened possibilities (both for reproduction and transformation), and that these particularities can be modeled and so that any science of humanity (anthropo-logy) needs a concept that might just as well be labeled “culture.”

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High tech creationism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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Dreaming of diverging

Movie posterFor any number of reasons, my wife Susan and I went to see Divergent last Friday.  We were, by far, the oldest people in the theater.  I was, about, the only male (except for a few fathers perhaps).  Everybody else was a 12(+-2)-year-old girl.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, then you are not into Hollywood generated mass popular culture, or middle-brow cultures concerned with “gender” either.  If “divergent” means to you something that it did not mean a few weeks ago then, as an intellectual adult (one of my readers, as I imagine them), I assume you also know that it is, among other things, the second (after The Hunger Games) of Hollywood responses to the accusation that there were no big budget, action adventure movies with girls as heroines.  So, in the kind of brief synopsis that start this kind of commentary, Divergent is about a 16-year-old girl who violently restores a threatened order and then moves on into the wilderness—and 12-year-old girls know about that.

But, of course, the movie is about much else and this is a response to Andrew O’Hehir who wrote about the movies as “capitalist agitprop” (March 22, 2014).  His thesis:

To begin with, if we accept the maxim that all fictional works about the imagined future are really about the present, what do these works have to say? They contain no intelligible level of social critique or social satire, as “1984” or “The Matrix” do, since the worlds they depict bear no relationship to any real or proposed society. Where, in the contemporary West, do we encounter the overtly fascistic forces of lockstep conformity, social segregation and workplace regimentation seen in these stories? I’m not asking whether these things exist, or could exist, I’m asking where we encounter them as ideology, as positive models for living.

Later, O’Hehir writes “Divergent is basically a high school drama.”
Continue reading Dreaming of diverging