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.).
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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.


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

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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 continues 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 these 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 insufficient 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.

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]



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

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On the ongoing production of “conscience individuelle”

So, it is not so much whether the “conscience individuelle” (in its moral or cognitive sense) is full of “vested interests, infantile emotions, etc…,” nor even of habits, dispositions, etc., but that these are not the motors of human culture at work anywhere or at any time. Interpreting local knowledge may be useful for, I dare say, an applied anthropology confronting other collective representations. But it will no take us where both Lévi-Strauss and Garfinkel, in different but very related ways, want us to go: a science of the mechanisms that make possible human variability in orderings. Given that human orderings do vary, and in the process transform the world to which one might want to reduce them, this variability, rather than its possible remains in individual brains, should be our object.

By socializing the Cogito, Sartre only changes prison. From now on, the group and the epoch will make it its intemporal consciousness. … Descartes, who wished to provide a foundation for physics cut Man from Society. Sartre who pretends to provide the foundation for an anthropology, cuts his society from other societies. (Lévi-Strauss 1966 [1962]: 249-50)

When seen as a set of symbolic devices for controlling behavior, extrasomatic sources of information, culture provides the link between what men are intrinsically capable of becoming and what they actually, one by one, in fact become. Becoming human is becoming individual, and we become individual under the guidance of cultural patterns, historically created systems of meaning in terms of which we give form, order, point, and direction to our lives. (Geertz 1973 [1966]: 52)

These are two wonderful statements about the foundations of anthropology: what are we to do when we accept, as we have since Boas, that humanity in general, and human beings in the most particular of circumstances, are irreducibly different in the worlds they encounter and the worlds they make.  And, of course, these two statements are irreducible to each other though they respond to each other quite antagonistically.  Lévi-Strauss answers Sartre but also prefigures a critique of the still emerging anthropologies for which Geertz, building on Weber, remains the towering ancestor.  Geertz responded to Lévi-Strauss in similarly polemical style.

After a century-and-a-half of investigations into the depths of human consciousness which have uncovered vested interests, infantile emotions, or a chaos of animal appetites, we now have one which finds there the pure light of natural wisdom that shines in all alike. (Geertz 1973 [1967]: 359)

When looked at together, such exchanges can tell us about a (mutually and interactionally constituted) “collective conscience” about anthropology that brings back possible intuitions about, precisely, the collective into a matter of “becoming individual … under the guidance of cultural patterns,” that also produce “dispositions” (a word I found again Geertz also uses in several papers of the 1960s).

But each could also be used as an instance of the “conscience individuelle” that Lévi-Strauss (as well as Garfinkel et al.) imply by, precisely, never quite making of its production the topic of their investigations.  Lévi-Strauss wants to free the human from those who, on the basis of their own social scientific research, would put the human, either in psychological or social prisons  He asserts that examining the ethnographic record in all its wealth of variation and difference should lead the social scientist in the reverse position: neither “natural” nor “cultural” prisons can hold people for long.

On a related tack, conversational analysts insist that one cannot reduce the movement of a conversation to the intentions or motivations of those made to be participant in this conversation.  I’d go so far as to say that all research into conversation reveals that all participants, however willing, must still doubt, seek, interpret, resist, what has just been said.  And then they must start over when they find out what was made with their statement.  Lévi-Strauss came close to saying this when he wrote, like Garfinkel later, his statement about driving on a highway where “small variations in the distance that separates [the objects/subjects that are all the cars/drivers] has the force of a mute command” (Lévi-Strauss 1966 [1962]: 222).  That is, driving (standing in line, writing anthropology) in a cohort, and maintaining its order, is a matter of calls that are also responses.

So, it is not so much whether the “conscience individuelle” (in its moral or cognitive sense) is full of “vested interests, infantile emotions, etc…,” nor even of habits, dispositions, etc., but that these are not the motors of human culture at work anywhere or at any time.  Interpreting local knowledge may be useful for, I dare say, an applied anthropology confronting other collective representations.  But it will no take us where both Lévi-Strauss and Garfinkel, in different but very related ways, want us to go: a science of the mechanisms that make possible human variability in orderings.  Given that human orderings do vary, and in the process transform the world to which one might want to reduce them, this variability, rather than its possible remains in individual brains, should be our object.


Geertz, Clifford “The impact of the concept of Culture on the concept of Man.” in his The interpretation of culture. New York: Basic Books. pp. 33-54. 1973 (First published in 1966)

Geertz, Clifford “The cerebral savage.” in his The interpretation of culture. New York: Basic Books. pp. 33-54. 1973 (First published in 1967)

Lévi-Strauss, Claude The savage mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1966 (First published in 1962)

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