Category Archives: on community

Who imagines nations?

I remain surprised by the continuing success of Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities ([1983] 1991). When it is was first brought to my attention I thought that there was not much there since, “everybody knew, or should know” that something like “nationalism” was a cultural construction, appearing at a certain point in time, with antecedents of course, and an ongoing evolution. While many political actors of the past two centuries have asserted that, say, “France” is an entity with full ontological reality, any anthropologist, steeped in the critique of “religion,” “social structure,” etc., would work from the stance that 1) “nation” is a native term among certain populations at a certain time and that 2) “nation” should not be reified any more than terms like “taboo,” “totem,” “caste,” etc. This would then lead to research into the actual deployment of “nation” in performances of all types, and particularly in all attempts by the States which claim “nation” to impose certain matters on recalcitrant populations, both inside and outside the boundaries imagined as those of “France,” “Germany,” or …

Recent anthropological theoretical developments would add that nationalism, to the extent that we take the metaphor of “construction” seriously, needs to be repaired, if not re-constructed, on an ongoing basis given 1) inevitable flaws in the construction and 2) the wearing down of the construction as people’s experiences with the deployment of the term will inevitably lead them to transform it in their local practices. As Lévi-Strauss put is in his inimitable way ,all systems of classification (and nationalism certainly is one) “tend to be dismantled like a palace swept away upon the flood, whose parts, through the effect of currents and stagnant waters, obstacles and straits, come to combined in a manner other than that intended by the architect” ([1962] 1966: 232). Thus the State must continually teach [nation] if [nation] is to be a thing with hoped-for consequences. In my own life, I started being taught France as a pupil in the elementary schools of 1950s France that still used books published in the 1930s and earlier. We were taught, again and again, that while France was eternal (or at least 2000 years old…), it only got to be was it was to be because of the heroic acts of individuals and kings, many of whom otherwise horrible fellows. There was Pépin-le-Bref, Jeanne d’Arc, Louis XI, Louis XIV. And there was the terrible genius of those who, in 1793, defeated the “Girondins” who were arguing for a decentralized France with semi-autonomous provinces. They lost their heads as the “Jacobins” won and established the centralized France the Third Republic eventually perfected (as I was taught even though we were then in the Fourth Republic soon to be replaced by the Fifth). I suspect that those who wrote the textbooks were specifically guided, and carefully watched,
by generations of government ministers. I am sure they expected us, pupils, to do more than repeat what we were being taught in the ongoing examinations of our “knowledge.” They must also have expected that we would accept this teaching as, we were told, our grand-uncles had done when they went singing to their death in 1914-18 to the greater glory of the French nation.

However, in the 1950s, many, if not most, pupils of French schools learned something else: nationalism had led to the deaths of too many Europeans over the earlier half century. What now was being taught, by the media and many if not most politicians as well probably by school children (and most probably teachers also) among each other, was the need to join the effort of the few who, in the late 1940s, had starting constructing something that would not be ‘France’ anymore. That which was being constructed had no name or category–or rather it had many from the “European Coal and Steel Community” to the “European Economic Community’ to what is now the “European Union.” Note the shift from ‘Community’ to ‘Union’. I am sure there was a lot of “discourse” around that!
Whatever “it” may now be, this construction is 1) not a nation, 2) very much an act of imagination leading to the constitutions of a massive assemblage of things (laws, regulations, etc.), 3) so consequential in the life of the five hundred million people it has now caught that they keep contesting this or that law or regulation. Contestation then leads to responses by those with authority to gently oblige, and maybe even coerce, the people by further entangling them in ties more and more difficult to cut (just ask the British!).

All that seems obvious to me. It may have been obvious to Anderson too who notes in passing that there are those who see nationalism as a “pathology” (p. 5) and who fear all attempts at reifying it as a concept of universal significance with political consequences about the future organization of human beings. As a political actor myself, I share these fears and will argue that any who read Anderson positively must not dismiss them. But the anthropological problem is elsewhere: Anderson is never clear as to the “subjects” who constructed nationalism. He shifts from the passive voice “the nation is imagined” (p. 7) with no indication as who is doing the imagining, to—and this is worse from my point of view—the active voice where “nations imagine themselves” (p. 7). Those who, in France, recently started using the French flag as a way to contest French State policy are imagining. The State and media who criticized them as “right-wing white nationalists” are also imagining actively and consequentially. This acrimonious “conversation” that is anything but peaceful has to be the focus of anthropological research.

“Nation” can be an index to a set of performances (discourses, etc.) but it cannot be treated as an actor (though perhaps Latour might argue otherwise, but more subtly). Anthropologists, particularly, when working among populations where the assemblage of stuff “nation” indexes (or is icon for) is still alive, must specify who is speaking, to whom, in order to achieve what, etc. Anthropologists, particularly, must be attuned that the imagination of nation has always be contested and resisted. In France, one could still find Girondins in the late 19th century fighting a loosing battles against those who were making France with all the policing authority of the State to, for example, coerce French citizens to speak French. And anthropologists who work in contemporary Europe cannot ignore the paradoxical imagination of the “European Union” as something that may not be named (unless it is as the “Schengen Area” to which one is “welcomed” when landing at the Paris airports).
Some of the more marginal actors in the European ideological revolt against nationalism did make the argument, and continue to make it, that Europe should indeed “imagine” itself as such—that is, very actively, produce the texts, discourses, symbols and rituals that might eventually convince the 500 million that they are indeed one. See de Rougemont (1968 [1966] and Varenne (1993) for more on this.
The grammatical subject of the acts, the “we” who act, all but act-ively disappear France, Germany, etc., from much State displays is, of course, very much a State subject, acting through its authorized agents, imagining itself threatened by the lingering nationalism of the only groups that may be politely criticized by State agencies, the media, etc., those who in France or Germany claim the reality of the “French” or the “Germans” against the claims not only of those who have moved into Europe more or less recently but also of those who know lead the [EU] and, with great bureaucratic efficiency, control the writing of the text books, design curricula and pedagogies, fund performances and displays.

Coda (added on October 10, 2019)

To paraphrase Latour: “[nations] are not silent things, but rather tha provisional product of a constant uproar made by the millions of contradictory voices about what is a [nation] and who pertains to what” (2005: 31)

References

Anderson, Benedict   1991     Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Revised Edition.. New York: Verso. (First published in 1983)

Latour, Bruno 2005 Reassembling the social. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lévi–Strauss, Claude   1966 [1962]     The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rougemont, Dennis de   1968 [1966]     The idea of Europe. New York: Macmillan.

Varenne, Hervé   1993     “The question of European nationalism.” in Cultural change and the new Europe.. Edited by T. Wilson and M. E. Smith. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. pp. 223-240

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on communities with communities

For some reason, my anthropological imagination, these past months, has circled around renewed wonder about that reality indexed by words like “community” (polity, unum, cohort, congregation, plenum, etc.). This was first triggered as I tried to distance myself temporarily from what was bringing me to the neurological intensive care unit of a Large Urban Teaching Hospital. I knew enough to wonder what host of human beings were needed to keep my wife alive hooked to multiple machines in constant need of re-adjustment by this, but not necessarily by that, human being–with instructions by some to others to NOT do this or that.

So, I stood by the door, looking out. What struck me were the huddles of intense interaction and the spaces and silences between these. There had been the huddle who had greeted me with concerned stances, explained stuff I could barely register, asked me to sign various documents I did not read. They had introduced themselves as those who would operate on my wife—though I only found out later that their leader, the one with the ultimate authority (and responsibility) was not there. That huddle, I never saw again. But by the 2nd or 3rd day, I could identify recurring huddles. There was one I labeled “physicians” (students/residents/interns—clearly a divided community, even if they huddled together on the floor). There was one or more huddle made up of those I labeled “the nursing staff” (I discovered later that they too were divided into multiple units). There was a small one made by the police who were guarding one of the rooms. There was the janitorial staff. They were all in view of each other, often quite close physically. And yet they remained distinct. I could sense differences in the tenor of the speech each used (I was amused listening to flirting among the young cops…). But always they maintained boundaries which, I know from every research on the matter, require ongoing work to NOT acknowledge one another’s presence in the performance of their parallel duties—even when these duties required asking the other to move their bodies as happened regularly when floors had to be cleaned, or examinations done.

This led me to wonder about one limitation in the model of the “community of practice.” When I teach Lave, I focus on the power of her model to deal with classical problems in social structural analysis: the problem of the grounds of participation to a position (usually resolved by invoking “socialization”), and the problem of movement across the structure (usually ignored). Lave taught us that socialization (“learning”) follows participation (rather than being a prerequisite) and that all participation moves people. I knew that Lave was cagey about the boundary issue. She and I once had a friendly disagreement about this as she asserted that boundaries were not “real” when I countered that, of course they were, though always in need of repair. Maintaining boundaries is hard work. I have since mused about the “gravity wells” that some communities produce as they induce people to seek participation. In that metaphor, boundaries would be “event horizon” beyond which one cannot ever escape, in their future, “having been a participant” (even if one has quit, or been thrown out).

What I had not noticed is that all these theoretical developments were made in term of research in what are treated as just one entity, be it alcoholics in meeting, tailors, midwives, etc. So, of course, physicians in hospital training would be a classic “community of practice” (see dissertation by Yan-Di Chang (2017)). Nurses, police, even the janitorial staff could be advantageously looked at as polities of some sort where legitimate participants move into ever fuller positions. The paper by Magolda and Delman on campus custodians (2016) could easily be interpreted in that fashion. The question I now have to ask is: what happens when nurses, police, physicians and janitors move side by side? How are we to model the work of maintaining boundaries, particularly when the actual bodies arrange themselves in a limited physical space? To build on Yeats’ wonder about the individual and the dance, one must also wonder how, in ballroom dancing at least, the couples do not bump into each other.

Though of course, some time they do bump. On a hospital floor there are those who have not yet been in that dance even though they are now fully caught in it. Most salient probably among the newbies are probably the next of kin, in their anxious multitudes. They are in the paradoxical position of not “belonging” to any of the communities even as these communities are very ostensibly about them. I know what can happen to newbies for having been one in, eventually, five such ensembles of communities of practice, in the various “floors” and “services” of hospitals and the like. Newbies like myself keep addressing any person that passes by in often desperate efforts to get an authoritative voice to tell them something and give them hope. But how is this newbie to know which human being to address or evaluate this or that person’s authority to speak/act? This has to be a problem for all the dancers on the floor. Minimally, they must spend time instructing the newbie about who can say what about whom. They probably must resist the temptation to explain what they may not explain, or give interpretations about each other that would break the boundaries. One nurse, in one hospital, did make negative comments about one of the doctors treating my wife. I was surprised, not by the fact that she had such opinions, but by the fact that she told us about them, when, I suspect, she could have been sanctioned for doing this. As anthropologists well know, custodians may be best source of information about an institution, nurses about doctors, students and junior faculty about the elders who may, or may not, allow them to move into a fuller position. But this only makes more salient the ongoing work to maintaining boundaries against recurring challenges.

More on this another time.

 

References

Chang, Yan-Di   2017     Situated Teaching: Educating Medical Students Through Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Doctoral Dissertation. New York: Columbia University.

Magolda, Peter and Liliana Delman   2016     “Campus custodians in the corporate university: Castes, crossing borders, and critical consciousness.” Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 47, 3:246-263.

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End of community

I ended my last post with a sentence about the “body two Others-to-each-other constructed.” In parenthesis I suggested this body might be a ‘community’ or ‘polity’.

Usually, I resist the word “community,” and insist on ‘polity’ for analytic reasons. But, in this case, I will start with ‘community’, first because it is easy to write in American, and second because of its almost forgotten etymology: ‘community’ is “united with”—or, in other words, “e pluribus unum.”

That is, Susan and I, 47 years ago, transformed a plurality into a unum that has now disappeared since I cannot unite myself to the Other that was essential to this unum.

What exactly was this unum that, through continual practice, made a thing all who approached it had to contend with?

Not surprisingly for those concerned with the individual (psychological) impact of not being “united with” a most significant Other—in this material life at least—, leads me often to reminesce about various moments when Susan and I made something that neither of us had experienced before. There were several “beginnings” to the construction. The first one happened, one morning at the International House of the University of Chicago, at breakfast when half a dozen of us introduced ourselves. Susan liked to recount how she thought, after hearing me mumbling my name, “well, that’s one I will never remember!”. Fifteen months later, at what could count as the last of the beginnings, we were married and she who had been “Susan Martin Brydges” became, for all State matter at a time when she could have chosen differently, “Susan Brydges Varenne” (I do not recall any discussion of this). In between she had changed from being “Sue” to earlier others to being “Susan” to all the others we gathered from then on. I was the main architect of that change.

For a classic on naming practices, see Geertz ([1966] 1973)

Anthropologists know well that naming and renaming practices are essential signs of powerful processes. The renaming marks the constitution of some boundary future, more or less significant, others will have to deal with. All unum’s are unum-for-others, as well as for those who make it.

a new unum

Another sign is the first picture of the new unum that was then shown to various somewhat significant others (parents, siblings, etc.) to alert them to something new in their lives too. Taking this picture was itself a complicated engineering feat in the days long before selfie technology appeared: the picture involved setting a camera on a chair, focusing by hand, setting a timer, taking the pose… And it involved waiting at least a week to find out whether the picture was useful for its purpose.

From a sociological distance:

In popular sociology, what Susan and I made may be labelled “traditional.” Actually, it looked like that 47 years ago also (the boundary traditional/modern has not moved much in half a century!). What we made was not at all what the “young people” of 1972 were supposed to make or be making. 1972 was the year of publication of The Joy of Sex—and certainly not The Joy of Marriage… Susan established herself as the cook (I had cooked a little earlier), I took care of all State and bureaucratic matters (Susan had done so very efficiently in the contexts of three different nation-states). I developed my career at Teachers College while Susan suspended her doctoral studies. In our first years together, as the children were born and we lived in a university building inhabited by other untenured faculty members and their wives, Susan’s women friends there challenged her, mercilessly as she sometime told it when irritated. Why, did they ask, did she “accept” something that must be forced on her? The more she was challenged, the more she was adamant that whatever Susan and I were making, it was not something imposed on her. Most of these women were moving on to their divorce in the midst of various dramas. In parallel, we were further strengthening our unum. There was no méconnaissance here, no mere acting out of “dispositions learned early in life,” no mere acceptance of norms that were not anymore anyway the norms of “our” academic, intellectual, “culture.”

From the anthropological distance:

The sociological stance, of course, is one that places the observer/analyst/critic at a distance, looking on at outcomes of invisible processes. My anthropological stance is one that places the observer/participant in the very midst of these processes. From close by, indeed from inside, what contines to strike me is, first, the difference of our unum from the other unum’s we knew, from that of our parents, to that of our siblings, friends, and later children. Many would also classify as “traditional” but that would erase all interesting differences, in the same as the labels “primitive” (or the new label “indigenous”) erase the major differences Boas taught us, anthropologists, we must pay attention to. The second thing that strikes me is that everything Susan and I build was always unfinished and, more importantly, in need of reconstruction according to plans we borrowed (and that often proved inadequate), and with always insufficent resources we had to assemble from multiple sources. This was most salient when the children arrived, and then again when Susan was officially diagnosed as seriously sick. As the doctor told us then, when speaking a diagnosis we had not paid attention to earlier: “your life is now going to change as we will have to meet every month for ongoing tests and so forth…”

Susan and I made what I wish I still could call a “culture”—an artful-assemblage-for-us that was our reality, our fact, for 47 years, and is now in the past, getting solid in history, while it had been always been fluid.

Coda:
I am writing here as if our unum was only made of two persons. In fact it was made of much more as it affected people in Michigan and France who had never, until then, had to deal with each other and with what their children had done… As our children were born, it got to incorporate three more, then three more, then seven more. Actually, as the children made their own unum things got much more complicated. I will get to this sometimes in the future, expanding on the metaphor of the “gravity well” that I have used a few times recently. Any unum (community, polity, society) catches those who approach and somehow changes their trajectory. But unum’s, particularly as they grow, also divide, seed, etc., other unum’s that can then modify the trajectory of the earliest one.

[first composed on August 5, 2019]

References

References

Geertz, Clifford   [1966] 1973     “Person, time and conduct in Bali.” in The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.

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