Archive for November, 2010

Moral order, moralizing, and making it a bad day (the American way)

Friday, November 26th, 2010

In my earlier post about some of my experiences at the 2010 meetings of the American Anthropological Association, I talked about the elevators with a parenthesis about students from our programs at Teachers College.  I am now opening the parenthesis to develop something that came to me when listening to the paper by Linda Lin.  Right after listening to her paper, I introduced the session Gus Andrews and Sarah Wessler organized and that they titled “The dark side of legitimate peripheral participation.”  The continuity was striking.  Of course, I liked a title that evoked both Jean Lave and Darth Vader making it a bad day for a galaxy, far, far away (that is the galaxy right around the corner from Teachers College (Columbia University)–if not Teachers College itself.

Darth Vader is my addition, extra-vagantly.  Students have to be more sober and they were.  One cannot take lightly investigations into the ways through which cultures disable.  Andrews, Hung, Kabat, Wessler, wrote about “degradation ceremonies” some “successful” (Garfinkel 1956), some failed, some joking, some even possible restorative of a broader order.  The later is actually an optimistic, if not extra-vagant twist on the pessimism easily triggered by Garkinkel or Lave.  Children yell at each other and call each other names that are direct commentary on their status within the polity.  They can even yell at adults with authority over them, and call them name—all while playing video-games and making it a good day all around.  I have been fascinated by the relationship between play and culture and this is something we will have to pursue.

Linda Lin’s was the darkest of the papers I heard that morning.  She provided another instance of moments she has written about elsewhere (2007): moments in the life of the people in an institution dedicated to helping people talk about race and racism when they themselves do talk about race, and get into serious trouble.  Regularly, their own talk about racism escalates into conflict, hurt feelings, resignations from the institution.  As she showed, conflict while discussing race is extremely orderly given American categories and rhetorical or performative forms.  It is also so painful that one understands why race talk should be so rare.  Touching hot stoves and getting burned is so orderly a process that its consequences can be predicted.  Given this kind of orderliness, it is not surprising that we try not to touch hot stoves, and teach our children not to do so.  It is similarly understandable that I should not want to engage in race talk, and that I should find Lin’s work so daring.

In this paper, Linda Lin also stressed something else that is equally daring.  She argues that one central mechanism in the production of conflict and pain during planned and institutionalized race talk is the moralizing that is an integral part of this talk.  When such talk is indeed planned within an institution, it is generally introduced as something “we” should do because it is the good thing to do.  The introduction develops into how bad it is not to have such talk.  And so on.  Linda Lin, interestingly, was attempting to distinguish moralizing from what sociologists, from Durkheim to Garfinkel, have written as the moral implications of social ordering.  Social ordering produces morality, and thus (this actually is an empirical generalization) breaks in social orders produce calls to moral accountability.  These calls can then take the form of a moralizing that can itself lead to further and more serious breaches (in a process related to what Bateson called “schismogenesis”).

Linda Lin, building on my work with Ray McDermott, dares to write about “America” as a label for the conditions that, in our work, make bad days for people caught within the gravity of the galaxy (I am hereby trying a new metaphor to add gravity to the metaphors about networks and webs we have been using).  America can be fun.  American can be great.  But America, as a field for politics from the most global to the most local, also has a dark side.  And all the papers explored this dark side even if, at times, the darkness is only a temporary tension as the social orders of fun and games is re-established.

All this fits well with my insistence about ongoing practical awareness of social orderings (as against still too common cultural anthropological bromides about culture being shared and unconscious, and as against the usual uses of the concept of habitus).

[For further readings about all this, see “Culture as disability” (McDermott and Varenne 1995) and Successful failure (Varenne and McDermott 1998)]

On an education into elevators (62 years into a life in modernity)

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

(Actually, I do not remember when I learned about elevators, or when I first operated one, so it may less than 62 years since I reached the point when I did not have to think about operational procedures—until last week)

One of the best experience of my visit to New Orleans for the annual anthropology meetings (except for wonderful papers by “my” students) occured each time I approached the elevators at my (Sheraton) hotel. On the first day, as I left the registration desk, located my elevator banked, rushed into an open elevator, turned around with hand raised to punch my floor …… I was stopped in my tracts: there were not buttons to push. Where the buttons would have been was a bolted cover. As the doors closed I made a panic exit and looked around. There, I saw a small sign (actually I noticed later that there was a large sign about “elevator upgrades” which I had ignored). It told me that operating the elevators was “as simple as 1, 2, 3″ (making me and, I believe, many others feel properly stupid). As Garfinkel told us, the problem with instructions is that there are to be instruction about the instructions. I had not gotten this instruction to look for instructions but now I had no choice. I did find the instruction and was told that, here and then, one had to punch one’s floor outside the elevator, listen to the voice telling us floor and elevator (“33, Car H”). It was not until my third or four trip that I noticed that a small panel up on the side of the door lit up to indicate the floors where the elevator would stop. Two days later all this had become routine: 1) punch your floor and listen to the instruction about the car to take; 2) locate this car and stand in front of it; 3) as the doors open check the side panel for confirmation and move confidently. I had learned!

However, telling this story as an autobiography of the movement from ignorance to knowledge, leaves asides all sorts of other performances involving many more people with whom I waited for and rode the Sheraton elevators. I was not the only one to have been jogged out of my assumptions about elevators and I found myself one of those who instructed other people, our temporary consociates, about these elevators when we suspected that they had not read the posted instructions and were just rushing into an open elevator without having entered their floor outside, or when we saw them with hand hovering over the bolted panel looking around for the buttons. By then people knew something was wrong and they took our instruction to exit the elevator and punch their floor.

But education, as I have been arguing is not only about learning, or even teaching. It is also about commenting, interpreting, placing the event into broader patterns. By the second or third day, if there were several persons in the elevator, it was quite common for impromptu conversations to start among people who did not know each other: “these are the worst elevators!” “I hate this hotel!” “How could they do this? What’s the point?”. And then there were the comments about the commenting: “Isn’t it interesting how the elevators makes us talk to each other.” And so, in the world of education we also have


commenting on instructions

commenting on comments about instruction

In this vein of commenting about commenting about commenting… let me expand on one of my favorite statement from Garfinkel: “Consider also that once you get into line persons will not therein question that you have rightfully gotten into line unless you start screwing around. Then you get instructed.” (2002: 257) This statement appears as another illustration of achieved orderliness and of the methods through which this orderliness is accomplished. But it does not directly address the cases when those who screw around with a simple task like using an elevator are engineers, backed by powerful corporations, and by unimpeachable discourses about efficiency and such (including energy efficiency, easily linked to discourses about saving the planet). Then, new conditions have been inscribed and “we,” the future members of temporary ad hoc “congregations” (in Garfinkel’s term) or of “polities of practice” (in my terms) must now make new orders. It may be that, in a few years, the Sheraton method to using elevators will have become so common as to hide its extra-vagance (Boon 1999). It will then be “as if” people were habituated into “their” culture (when in fact they are just putting up with someone else’s cultural production).

But these new orders will be required only as long as those who build the machineries of our lives (including the political, economic, classificatory, etc., machines) can maintain them against our own extra-vagance—unless of course they change them.