Category Archives: of Corona

relating to the responses to the spread of the COVID-19 virus in 2020

On the speech acts that are making Corona

Let’s settle one thing first. A virus can kill a body but cannot close a restaurant. Only some people can do the latter. To close a restaurant some one must speak, with authority so that the consequences follow (restaurants to close, restaurant owners to speech act to potential customers).

At some point, say in February, Corona was something one read about in the media. And then it became consequential in my everyday life as the President of Teachers College told the faculty that classes would be suspended and would continue online. I was struck about his exercising an authority that is vested in him—though I was also struck that he was following what had been done by the President of Columbia. For those who do know about the peculiar organization of Columbia, the fact that Teachers College is a separate corporation means that acts like “suspending classes” must be performed twice, first by the President of Columbia, and then by the one of Teachers College. As I was driving on a lecture tour that had not yet been interrupted I mused about who these Presidents consulted and who was involved in making the closing a sensible one, as well as one that could not contested through the usual channels. Actually, I suspect that it was not simply a sensible response, it was one they had no particular choice making. I mused about lawyers and insurance companies. But mostly I mused about de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, and Cuomo, the governor of New York State as they exercised their own authorities as the responsible governing agents.

By the time I reached my first stop at Indiana University, everything was still “pre-Corona” though it had become a subject of anxious conversations as everyone expected Indiana to also close (go on line, stop such events as lectures by outsider, etc.). We discussed Harvard shutting its dorms. We wondered about Columbia (which decided not to, though it encouraged students to leave). And we waited for the next shoes to drop.

Three days later, all my other scheduled lectures at Minnesota, Arizona, California State, Stanford were cancelled and Corona started to directly affect my everyday life. One some matters I still had some control. So I decided to continue westward. North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, the states I was going to cross had not performed any Corona related speech acts (and New York was starting to possibly be a bad place to be—as was discussed among my extended kin). By the time I reached Wyoming, this had changed as the state closed restaurants, etc. Within these State strictures I could still make certain decisions so that, three weeks into Corona, I am settled in a beautiful place and in a hotel I can afford.

I am expanding on the original speech act theorists (Austin 1962; Searle 1965) by taking into account all that conversational analysis and linguistic anthropology has taught us: speaking that has consequences, that is “speech” that “acts,” always involves a set of earlier utterances to which the speaking respond, including a pre-figuration of what future speakers might then do.

To do this, I performed many more or less consequential quasi speech acts, from those I made to myself, to those I made when I asked for a room, etc. All of these were, at the time, sensible responses to many strictures including the new constraints imposed by various agencies, from state governors to local health authorities. These responses were performed under my own authority over myself and could thus be deemed “voluntary.” However, having to respond is not something under my control so I would, as actor, deem the whole process involuntary. In Foucault’s term, I am now imagining myself in a panopticon, disciplining myself so that I might not be punished ([1975] 1978).

Footnote:

References

Austin, J. L.   1962     How to do things with words. London: Oxford University Press.

Foucault, Michel   [1975] 1978     Discipline and punish. Tr. by A. Sheridan. New York: Penguin Books.

Searle, John   1965     “What is a speech act.” In Philosophy in America, ed by Max Black. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. pp. 221–239

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Ignorant School Teachers

Rancière is altogether optimistic about “ignorant school masters” ([1987] 1999 ). He advocates for a radically “democratic,” non stultifying education that is not about students repeating what they are told by some teacher. As Joseph Jacotot has demonstrated, anyone can teach anything they do not know… as long as they do not invoke knowledge. The best school master is the one who is ignorant of what the students under his authority are trying to learn through exercising their intelligence in community with others also doing it. Rancière is tempted by Jacotot’s radical revolutionary democracy as it was dreamed up by the young French of 1789 (who also produced the Terror). He is tempted to doubt any claim to knowledge, expertise, etc. from philosophers, particularly when they are also placed at the service of some political cause or State.

One can seriously doubt whether this is something that is to be “applied” in the case of anything that involves the medical care of our bodies by modern medicine (vaccines, viruses, traumas, etc.). In such cases it would be hard to claim that we do not need expert teachers, who were taught by fully knowledgeable teachers, and who keep learning from such. We might also hope that some of them will think beyond the various boundaries set by their teachers so that they can actually find something no one else could have taught them. But that is a boundary case.

But one should not doubt the importance of Rancière’s major point: that people continually teach each other what they do not know as well as exercise their intelligence to figure out what to do next given their conditions, including all the advice others, and particularly experts, give them. This is something everyone should take into account, and particularly people with power and authority leaning on experts. “Official” education is always going to be challenged by the non-official.

This is very general, and, as I teach it, completely in line with the most classical forms of cultural anthropology. Humans would not be where they are, anywhere in the world, if they had not continually been involved in challenges to any order established earlier.

Now, in the particular case of Corona, we have a different kind of “ignorant school masters.” As I argued in my earlier post, most of the population of the United States (France, Italy, etc.) learned about COVID-19 from the media, that is from announcers or journalists translating what others had said, including politicians and experts. They continually invoke authoritative knowledge (as well as play on the emotions of their audience). “Stories” generally include reference to the “CDC,” a Dr. X “expert from [famous] hospital,” etc. How these stories are written, by whom, under what kind of control is something that specialist in media studies might teach me. But I strongly suspect that the experts themselves do not control the final wording (that is the curriculum) or the manner of the delivery (that is the pedagogy) of the education dispensed by the media. And I am about certain that the journalists themselves are not expert, or have any decision making authority such as those of governmental officials. The media people are teachers, but they are of the most ignorant type.

In the past few days, I have gotten further teaching documents that many if not most will never get. I have statements from university presidents, some colleagues, and such. They are statements by people outside the media that the media people may translate into their stories. The anthropologist Mica Pollock, for example, sent anthropologists of education these links from Ariadne Labs at Harvard: This is Not a Snow Day and #KidsHomeSafe: Advice on Social Distancing for Families. Here is expertise over expertise reiterating, or being the source of, action by the State.  Again, education from beyond the school

But the social reality remains the same, and is sometimes hinted at in these documents. If one has to be told that this is NOT a snow day, then it is probably because the author of this title is aware that many do take the current regulations as equivalent as snow days, vacations from school or work during which one should also have some fun with friends and family. Most medical doctors know well that many patients do not follow their advice, leading to a huge literature on the matter.

For an anthropologist of education/knowledge, the questions remain. Outside to the realm of experts, and the politicians who listen to them, what becomes accepted knowledge among a certain group? That is a social question since, as an anthropologist, I am less interested in individual knowledge than about communal one. I am interested even more in the establishing of (probably very temporary) agreements about what to do next. I can imagine some mother reading the texts produced by Ariadne Labs and then trying to establish what to do over the next day that husband, children, neighbors, etc. will actually implement.

It is about these processes that cultural anthropologists may have some expertise.  On the basis of this expertise, we can criticize another story from Ariadne Lab titled “Resistance and change” (about some surgical procedure). The post starts with “ Humans resist change. Maybe it’s a survival mechanism from our evolutionary past.” The reality is, of course, that humans continually change, that their conditions and resources for survival change, so that, actually and eventually, modern medicine does evolve over its past and towards some uncertain future.

 

References

[1987] 1999 The ignorant schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Tr. by K. Ross. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

 

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