Category Archives: consciousness and knowledge

reflections on the consciousness of experience, whether “practical,” or “discursive” or fully “modeled.”

Saussure, thought, bodies and expression

September 20, 2021

Last week, I introduced students to the short passage in Saussure on “linguistic value” ([1915] 1966: 111-122 ). The high point of this passage is the illustration of the segmentation of thought. Saussure on the segmentation of thoughtI had always dismissed the easy and common critique for the apparent mentalism of the explanatopry paragraph. I always took all this as a model drawn to make us think (…), rather than as the description of a state of being or of some substance. Still, one cannot take Saussure literally when he writes:

 this quote about the absence of “pre-existing ideas” is the basis for the extreme elaboration  by Derrida in Grammatology,.  This elaboration may be based on a misreading and yet had a massive consequence in the development of “deconstruction” and “post-modernism.”
“Without language thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language…. Thought, chaotic by nature, has to become ordered in the process of its decomposition.([1915] 1966: 112)”

We now know, post Freud et al., as well as Bourdieu et al, that, as Geertz once put it:

“A century-and-a-half of investigations into the depths of human consciousness … have uncovered vested interests, infantile emotions, or a chaos of animal appetites, ([1967] 1973: 112)”

or a Bourdieu did, our psyches (personalities, identities) are shaped by:

“disposition inculcated in the earliest years of life and constantly reinforced by calls to order from the group, that is to say, from the aggregate of the individuals endowed with the same dispositions, to whom each is linked by his dispositions and interests” ([1972] 1977: 14-15). ”

So, our brains are not just “a vague, uncharted nebula.” But brains are not actually Saussure’s concern. What he wants us to ponder is: how are we to tell what our brains are signaling?

One student wondered, quite properly, about music as a medium possibly particularly well suited to express what we are experiencing, and better at this than words. I agreed with the sentiment, and taught the usual instance of the Saussurian (and Boasian) analysis by using our experience of light vs. the naming of the light into “colors.” Anthropologists have debated about this a lot more than about music (or the experiences produced by our other senses since we are now talking not solely about “brains” but also about “bodies”). This may be proof of anthropological “ocularcentrism” (a new distinction I just discovered in the spectrum of Western epistemological biases). As I wrote this and started thinking further about the other senses, I remembered my wonder at how specialist try to describe the taste(s) of wine . “classic expression of Cabernet Sauvignon, displaying dark fruit notes of raspberry, currant, and blackberry jam with subtle hints of cocoa.”
All our senses participate in producing our experience of life–including, and this is where anthropologists, as well as Saussurian linguists, add something essential, our experiences when finding out that we are not hearing well, not seeing some colors, or tastes when the (in-)ability has been labeled and then made consequential by a governing (hegemonic) institution or another. That is, not only do we experience what our senses are signaling but also our positions in the many social worlds we also live by.

Given all this, what is it Saussure can continue to tell to students apprenticing themselves to anthropology? That telling our experience, and imagining that of others, involve segmenting it into units that have a “form” but not a substance. “Green/blue,” “blue/red,” “(not) on the autism spectrum,” “getting an ‘A’ rather then a ‘B’ on a test,” all do much more (and much less) than communicating something about our visual acuity, our political affiliation, mental health, education.

And the segments produced by language are always:
. Arbitrary (not motivated by function)
. Arbitrary (the product of an institutional “arbiter” whether a king or obscure “authorities”)
. Drifting and in need of reconstruction
. Making history in an altogether Marxist sense

[more on this]


Bourdieu, Pierre   [1972] 1977     Outline of a theory of practice. Tr. by R. Nice.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Derrida, Jacques   [1967] 1997     Of Grammatology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press

Geertz, Clifford   [1967] 1973    “The cerebral savage.” in The interpretation of cultures.. New York: Basic Books. pp. 345-359.

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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)


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
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.


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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