on walls and the people who bump into them

April 24, 2020

I like to quote Rousseau’s origin myth for humanity:

THE first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying “This is mine,” and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor … (Discourse on the origin of inequality p. 23)

And again:

THE strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty (The social contract I.3)

For Durkheim ([1918] 1966), and then Lévi-Strauss ([1960] 1976), these statements introduce the fundamental problematics of sociology and anthropology: there is the making of an arbitrary mark among a population, and then obedience, and then duty. I tend to agree with this, but not with the exact phrasing, or its development into the more particular problematics of the social “contract” apparently entered into by adults meeting in some neutral place who come to an agreement that this would be the grounds of their relationships. And then, it is imagined, they arrange for this contract to be enforced (for example by hiring teachers to drill students into the way a language should be spoken or written).

Marx and Lenin, Bourdieu and Foucault, like many others developed this argument by pointing out that many such agreements are not quite voluntary and many among the “simple people” have to be to be convinced, often in devious ways (say by priests or, again, teachers), that they should not believe their “lying eyes.” Jargonized as “socialization” or “enculturation,” most social scientists proceed with the assumption that people consent to social contracts (social constructions, imagined communities) even when these contracts, now downsized to “habits,” hurt them. That people consent is all to rarely examined assumption as if the answer was obvious: people consent because there is something wrong with them. Rousseau started this by qualifying the people for being “assez simple,” a not-so-polite way to say, particularly in the 18th century “naive, idiot, retarded.” Too many anthropologists fell for that when they were asked what to do about poverty in the 1960s: “culture of poverty” (having encultured oneself into what keeps one in poverty). As has been argued many times, this went against everything anthropologists might observe among the poor, but it preserved the tradition that started with Rousseau.

What I keep of Rousseau is the interactional sequence: 1) someone puts a fence and says something about it (“speech acts”) while 2) others watch and 3) take the fence and the speech into account in their own future interaction with the first person. What is the exact nature of their response (consent or resistance) is what should have remained the fundamental problematics. Poetically, the best alternate take to the making of arbitrary (not functionally necessary) walls is Frost’s. Frost who understood that “good fences make good neighbors” but that they have to be rebuilt again and again because “something there is that doesn’t love a wall” even as the absence of the wall might lead to further violence. In the poem there are at least four protagonists, three of them human: the narrator who doubts even as he complies in the rebuilding, the neighbor who appears to threaten him, and the hunters who disarrange the wall. There is also one non-human actor: the frost.

Rousseau was wrong: people are never “simple enough” as to believe someone who puts up a wall. And, for many, fear of raw power is a sensible response particularly when the mysterious unknown non-human (a virus) is compounded by a sign (wall) saying “STOP! Do not enter!” because “Stay home! Save lives!” (good distancing makes good neighbors).

References

Durkheim, Emile  [1918, 1937] 1966     Montesquieu et Rousseau: Précurseurs de la sociologie. Paris: Librairie Marcel Riviere et Cie.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude   [1962] 1976     “Jean-Jacques Rousseau, founder of the sciences of man” in Structural Anthropology, 33-43. Tr. by M. Layton. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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On Responding to Corona: modeling consent and resistance

My earlier posts were mostly about ways to analyze the evolution and spread of Corona as what Mauss called a “total social fact” ([1923] 1967).

I will now focus on the moments of encounter with Corona that are but an instance of any encounter requiring further action by those made to participate. What is it that can happen, next?

Most simply, to any statement requesting action the response can be:

  • . Yes!
  • . No!
  • . Let me think about it! (Play with it, dissemble about it, undermine it or build it up outside the box set up by the statement)

The classical case I generally use when teaching about what makes a classroom a classroom (building on Mehan 1979) involves the question “what time is it?” To this question, human beings have been documented to respond with such statements as:

  • . “it’s 5 o’clock”
  • . “it’s my watch, man!”
  • . “it’s not time yet.”
  • . “time to go to bed”

These responses are themselves statements allowing for, or requiring, a further response. All sorts of these second responses (in a third step) have been documented. Famously, the first response can lead, in a third step, to such statements as “Thank you!” or “Good (for being able to read a watch)!” In each case, the statement reveals and constitutes broader constraints, whether polite encounters with strangers in the street, routine encounters between teacher and student in a classroom, or possibly tense interactions when some decide that one has “screwed around” and need specific “instruction” (Garfinkel 2002: 257).

Yes/No/Perhaps to a request for action can be considered here as a model that can guide further investigation into what can happen when one is told “close your restaurant”

Three ethnographic vignettes (about closing restaurants):

March 16, 2020: I drove off US2 in North Dakota for lunch. Near the highway, I found the kind of dinner in which parking lot pick-up trucks predominate. I had the usual meal. I overhead men talking about Corona: “I heard that they did in … “ “Trump said….” “I read somewhere ….” As I was getting ready to leave, a lady entered the restaurant whom I recognized not only phenotypically, but through dress, hair style, etc., as a “nice” professional woman of the American Middle West. She started explaining to the dinner’s manager what changes needed to be made to the tables, what steps needed to be taken to sanitize the restaurant, and other matters related to the “virus.” She was pleasant, smiled, while the manager, the servers, and the cook, looked worried. Eventually the manager asked “are they going to close us?” To which the woman responded “not yet but we expect the decision to close to be made later today. We take our orders from above.”

[comments: what I overheard triggered what I eventually wrote in my post about education into Corona]
[comments: note the ‘they’ and the ‘we’]

March 17, 2020: Lunch in Montana: restaurants are open but, at some point during the meal, I heard a conversation between a worried manager and someone on the phone. She was explaining that she had spread out the tables and was leaving one empty table between the people she seated.

[comments: this conversation implies earlier conversations about steps to take]

March 18th, 2020: I entered Jackson, Wyoming, and found that all restaurants had been closed.

[comments; If the same decision had been taken in North Dakota and Montana, then all the people I saw were laid off and had lost their salary.]

In middle March, Corona was spreading through the Middle West. People worried as they had to face a radically transformed economic landscape. They had to sort out what to do next and particularly whether to consent or resist (perhaps, in the United States by asking a judge whether the order to close was constitutional).

I have not interviewed any one about the sequences of what conversation analysts might call “turns” that might be investigated as “life histories” of encounters with Corona. I have participated in conversations. Some about what to do next (“Is it really necessary to wear a mask in this particular situation?”). Many were interpretative (“what do you think of this newly published statistic?” “Aren’t you sick of this shit that’s going on”). On this basis, I’d say that my main interlocutors (via email and some Zoom) appear to consent to the restrictions. They say ‘yes’ to confinement. Almost all of them, particularly university professors, are secure financially, as well as their kin. I do have some kin whose response might be summarized as “Yes, but … maybe things are not so bad as ‘they’ say…” or “closing cemeteries is strange.” In recent days, it has been reported that there may be many people who say “no” publicly. This public resistance may even lead to further responses by governors. It may also lead to some who said ‘Yes’ to move to ‘No’.

We need many more reports and I hope anthropologists will soon start reporting more systematically what some people, here or there, did, with what resources, and with what consequences on themselves, their kin, and others around them. I imagine that both consent and resistance took many forms and keep evolving as the people face new information, new instructions, new forms of discipline.

In brief, all encounters with a constraint (statement, decree, remnant of earlier statements and decrees) will involve some sort of bricolage.

References

Garfinkel, Harold   2002     Ethnomethodology’s program: Working out Durkheim’s aphorism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Mauss, Marcel   [1923] 1967     The gift.. Tr. by I. Cunnison. New York: W.W. Norton.

Mehan, First   1979     Learning lessons: Social organization in the classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

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Modeling Corona pathways

This post is an exercise in imagining what social scientists need to do in order to learn about the spread of Corona, from the point of view of an anthropology steeped in the epistemology of ethnography. The appearance of Corona in all our lives is also an opportunity to understand better how real (not imagined) worlds are constructed by human beings, as well as what are the consequences of the particular worlds actually constructed on the everyday lives of people in the populations caught in that world, whether they bend to the new constraints, resist them, or (deep) play with them. In other words, for those who work off Foucault: how does governmentality actually work?

I introduced what I am exploring here in my earlier post about the speech acts which, as I drove west, closed restaurants (March 28, 2020). These speech acts traveled down pathways from some source to a local establishment where it will be experienced, say by a restaurant manager, and then lead to some response, or, rather, many responses. I first “felt” Corona on March 9, when it was announced that classes at Teachers College would be “online” only starting two days later. By the 12th, I, along with everyone else at Teachers College received a message from our president, forwarding the message that the president of Columbia had sent to all on some enormous mailing list (the “Columbia community” as it was deemed). I know less about the Corona pathways in France, I imagine that university presidents there did not have to deal with trustees, lawyers or insurers. What they had to deal with, and how they had to announce local decrees is worth investigating, particularly for those still interested in the culturing of human action
The message mentioned the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control and it made it appear as if the “University” was the acting subject. No mention of any internal mechanism was indicated in the key sentence “we now need to take further steps.” Who is “we” here, ethnographically? Given that the conversations that led to the decision are “privileged” (i.e. secret except to a few), I imagine that the participants included trustees, lawyers, insurers. I imagine conversations among the presidents of New York University, Cornell and perhaps others. And I imagine calls to the state governor or his staff.

The conversations that led to the announcement of what “we” would do next will remain secret for 30 years at least. But they must have been all the more intense that the WHO or CDC or NY state suggestions and decrees left some matter to local interpretation and improvisation on the overall Corona theme. It is a matter of public information that universities of Columbia’s standing did speech act with different consequences for their students. On March 9th, talking with some colleagues at Indiana University we wondered about Harvard’s decision to abruptly close all student residences, with apparently little concern with whether students actually had a “home” to go back to. Eventually Columbia went a different way, “strongly urging” students to go home, but accommodating those who could not (for example the many students from China).

It will however be possible to get a sense of who and who is involved in local decisions by reading public statements such as this one from Columbia that mentions an “Infectious Disease working group” that makes local decisions about what to sanitize when and how often.

Ethnographers will rarely be given permission to take notes when speech acts affecting millions if not billions are being performed. Few of us can study “up” so we will have to find settings that will allow us to observe, collect, take notes, etc. among people relatively “down” from our status. In particular anthropologists will be able to document what some people did as they responded to decrees by governors (presidents, first ministers, superintendents, chiefs—whatever they may be called in this or that world). For a few days for example, some of us at Teachers College imagined (hoped?) that the “closure” was not an absolute one. We exchanged e-mails about whether someone could water the plants in my office. As we did, we came to understand the depth of the closure and the not-at-all symbolic strength of Corona. I do not know whether my plants are surviving though it may be that one of the few human beings who can still enter the building is watering them.

As with all ethnography, this little vignette does not seem to mean much. And yet it can be the grounds on which one can model the Corona pathways and the activity of human beings when caught anywhere in what is essentially a daedalus.

So, in summary, and in a very preliminary fashion:

— A consists of some human beings who can decree what B, C, D, n…. must do or else some punishment may ensue. The people of A meet, deliberate and then they decree.

— B (C, D, n…. ) consists of some other human beings who receive the decree and translate it so that it makes sense for them. In the process, after meetings, deliberations, etc. they come up with further decrees to those over which they have more focused authority Ba, Bb, Bc, Bn….

–Ba (Bb, Bc, Bn…) then, meet, translate, deliberate and, perhaps come up with still further specific decrees on Ba1, Ba2, Ban…

Thus:

— (A) the governor of NY state decrees that all non-essential businesses should close;

— (B) university presidents decree that all teaching would be online using Zoom (rather than Skype)

— (Ba) individual faculty members on sabbatical and traveling to give lectures must decide whether to continue driving, etc. This response is made in collaboration with children, in-laws, etc.

(Ba) is where ethnographers will be enter to the world of Corona and give evidence as to what people who had no voice in the making of some policy do as they translate the particular mandate they received into their own lives among their most significant others.

The point is that people, everywhere and everywhen, when the recipient of a decree that makes a very real world for them, will make something else with the decree that those who made the decree cannot predict or control. As I argued in Educating in Life (2019), building on Rancière, a powerful event in one’s life will lead to a whole set of “next” steps sensitive to the actual practical character of the event, the resources available, the more or less significant others with whom one will try to construct a next, and then the response to the responses by those who produced the event in the first place.

Remember Alice and the flamingo!

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on “Corona”

Again, C19 may kill you, Corona closes restaurant. (March 28, 2020)

So, what is “Corona”? In my younger days, I might have meant it as the word (Saussurian signifier) pointing to an object (Saussurian signified). This may still be common sense, even after the “ontological turn” in anthropology which, as I understand it, is meant to make us consider the “thing-ness” of a possible entity such as “Corona.” The question is actually a classical one in anthropology: when talking about something social (“social structure”) are we talking about an object or about a model built by observers to manipulate? This was the core of the debate between Radcliffe-Brown and Lévi-Strauss (1953). For Radcliffe-Brown, the matter was common sensical. He had made it simple in a foundational text:

If I visit a relatively stable community and revisit it after an interval of ten years, I shall find that many of its members have died and others have been born; the members who still survive are now ten years older and their relations to one another may have changed in many ways. Yet I may find that the kinds of relations that I can observe are very little different from those observed ten years before. The structural form had changed little. ([1940] 1965: 192-3)

We could translate it into Corona (from my experiences in Wyoming and New York City:

As I drove 2100 miles, none of the people that I met, directly or indirectly in Jackson, Wyoming moved with me. In a small Jackson grocery story, a table had been put between the cashier and the customers to increase the distance between them. In New Rochelle, another such table had been set up in a small bakery. The structural form was the same.

The problem, as Lévi-Strauss saw it, is that the “structural form,” what we might now call the product of a social construction of reality, is actually not accessible to the anthropologist’s senses. Quite before Geertz told us that what anthropologists actually do is “write,” Lévi-Strauss told us that what they must do is make a model (a form of writing) based on observations (including observations of the models participants might have themselves made of their relations). That is the anthropologist-as-scientist must do something similar to what the biologists investigating C19 are doing, that is transform what they get to see using a massively cultural machinery (electron microscope and all that they entail) into something they can manipulate (for example by coloring various parts). In other words, biologists must ‘write’ C19 to manipulate it.

Given all this, what is to be modeled by an anthropologist investigating the social response to C19 that made a total institution (in Goffman’s sense) for 6.8 billion people, and its consequences?

The simple, negative, answer is: I am not going to model a “social structure” or “system.”

Anthropologists of my generation suspected that this was the case and, to a large extent, nobody writes about “social structures” any more, though some are tempted to re-introduce the concept, for example those investigating “structural racism.” Those who know my work also know that I always resisted Geertz’s pessimism (encouraged by Derrida’s ‘deconstructionism’): it is NOT all words. If something is a “social construction,” then it is VERY real, an object that stands in the way of the human beings who bump into it. In my work with McDermott we traced what makes schooling a problem by focusing on the consequences that something made to serve all children so that “none are left behind” actually identifies 50% of all children as “below average,” in need of identification, help and remediation (Successful Failure 1998). Schools in the United States and around the world are determinedly made up (cultural, artificial, arbitrary). McDermott and I summarized all this by writing about the  “School” (capitalized) as a “thing,” made up of ongoing events of some sort, for example the School is set up to weigh human beings on all sorts of statistical scales. How could that be? McDermott and I responded that it had to do with “America” in the School that it made over the past centuries.

Ten years later, Jill Koyama (2010), quite rightly criticized Successful Failure  for not tracing the mechanisms that keep re-producing the School. Pointing at America without specifying the mechanisms is insufficient, and possibly dangerous if it leads some to assume that America is made by … encultured, habituated, Americans.

To make her point, Koyama followed a subset of another one of the major pieces of the many legislations which, over the past centuries were aimed at revitalizing the public school. She looked at the life of “Supplemental Educational Services,” a small part of an act to ensure that “No Child [is] Left Behind.” Rather than “deconstructing” the act, she followed its life for some of those who could not escape it: corporate chiefs, mayors, principals, teachers, parents for whom the act was either resource to use (particularly for the large corporations that were contracted to “deliver” the services) or obstacle to navigate. Koyama was inspired in this analysis by Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory, and particularly by that aspect of the theory that insists that a “network” is never closed. A network is not a system or a structure. A network is not even really a “thing” so much as a set of pathways through which the stuff that happens, particularly government decrees, travel though a population and activate something in them.

In that perspective, “America” is an actor-network. So is Corona in my writing. That is, when I write “Corona can close restaurants,” I am asking social scientists to look for the linkages along which a governor’s decree move, as well as all the sub-decrees that various people in the network have to enact so that this restaurant here at this time is indeed closed.

Modeling Corona (in one or another of its instances) can then allow us to compare it to other such events in human history—say the School.

More on that in another post.

References

Koyama, Jill   2010     Making failure pay: For-profit tutoring, high-stake testing, and public schools.. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude   [1952] 1963     in Structural anthropology, pp. .277-323 Tr. by C. Jacobson and B. Schoepf. New York: Basic Books.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R.   [1940] 1965     “On Social structure.” in Structure and Function in Primitive Society, pp.188-204 . New York: The Free Press.

1963 .. (First published in 1952)

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Corona as culture

Corona is neither simply juxtaposed to nor simply superposed over COVID-19. In a way, Corona substitutes itself to COVID-19, in another way Corona uses and transforms COVID-19 to realize a synthesis of a higher order.

The above is a translation of the best two sentences about culture and humanity ever written by an anthropologists. In the original Lévi-Strauss ([1949] 1969: 4)) possibly meant it optimistically (Boon 1982: Chapter 4). Translated into the Corona epoch, it may or may not be so. In any event it is essential for an anthropologist to keep the virus (that is the material and biological — C19 here) distinct from the human response (that is the social and cultural—Corona here). The response to C19 produced a “synthesis of a higher order,” Corona that has caught about all 7.8 billion human beings on the planet. For the million and a half who have been identified as carrying the virus, for their kin, and for those who treated them, C19 may be a matter of direct experience. For everybody else, what is experienced is Corona in the reports by the media, in the regulations by government, in conversations among kin, friends, colleagues. As an individual, I am lucky that noone in my first degree network has experienced C19. But we all have experienced, and continue to experience, Corona.

In an earlier post (March 28, 2020) I wrote that C19 might kill you and but it cannot close a restaurant. That is, and against some who wrote that illness is a metaphor (Sontag 1977), C19 is a “thing with agency” (in Latour’s sense). Actually it is a thing that is alive and will change as human responses begin affecting it (through vaccines, etc.). The naming of the virus “Crown,” in Latin, by whomever is, of course, a metaphor based on its appearance under an electron microscope.
C19 is not a metaphor though it will remain something about which metaphor will be made—along with much else in discourse, through speech acts and other means that will much more consequential than metaphors.

media image of the C19 virus
This is not a virus

The anthropological response to Corona will have to focus minimally on two aspects of the human response: how do humans get to “see” C19 and act directly on it. Most humans will never see it or act on it except for the few whom we can gloss as “scientists.” They will work mightily on that front. Anthropologists of science may or may not be helpful there. Where anthropologists will be useful is in the analysis of the spread of Corona, its consequences, and its evolution as it will morph given what will have been done earlier, and what was done elsewhere.

Consider: on April 6, as I write this, Euro-America is days into “isolation” and “social distancing.” When the regulations for this started depends on the nation-state under which one lives. Similarly, the exact nature of these regulations and their enforcement vary here and there, even though all governors (that is those involved in making the regulations) know what others are doing. In the US itself, resistance can take many public forms: compare the Hasidic in Queens to sheriffs in Idaho
In France, for example, all are required not to move more than 3/4 mile from their house and hand the police, when asked, a written, signed, document explaining why they are out. In New York City, one can still walk or drive to a grocery store or park. In France one can be fined and even arrested for transgressing the boundaries. In New York the policy will break groups of people larger than a few. There are now reports about some governors discussing what will be the modalities of de-distancing. One can be sure that these discussions will be acrimonious, with much disagreement, and that they will produce different measures here rather than there.

In other words, as with everything else that resist human beings, human beings will make culture and will live with what they have made. That is they will make some (many) things that will materially resist them. When Lévi-Strauss wrote about “synthesis of a higher order,” he was not writing about “interpretations” that live solely in the imagination. The synthesis is not a psychological event (though it may have psychological consequences) it is a social one. It takes shape in interaction, through conversation, instruction, punishment if necessary.

The challenge, in the anthropological study of Corona, will consist in figuring out who, in any particular place and at any particular moment, is involved in producing what aspect of Corona. To take the one example of the closing of a restaurant in a ski resort of Wyoming, one would need to trace the acts of the restaurant managers and the consequences for the managers and employees. To take another example, on March 28, I was told by the desk person at my hotel that I had either to leave or stay in my room for 30 days starting on March 30th. I did not investigate whether this was an accurate translation of the town council resolution, nor was I present when the regulation was passed down to the hotel. But, on the basis of the statement, I decided to leave the following day.

Many anthropologists might be interested in “why” I took this decision (or “why” is was in Jackson, Wyoming, of all places). They might look into my early childhood, into my personality or character, or into my identity. Some might emphasized that I had a good car, and that I was healthy enough to make the 4 days trip back to New York. Some might wonder why I decided to go back to New York at a time when everyone was being told that things were terrible there.

All that may be interesting if you are concerned with me. However, as an anthropologists, I am concerned with particular conditions that others make for me in my peculiar conditions.

That is the problem on which cultural anthropologists must continue to work.

 

References

Boon, James   1982     Other tribes, other scribes: Symbolic anthropology in the comparative study of cultures, histories, religions, and texts.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lévi-strauss, Claude   [1949] 1969     The elementary structures of kinship. Tr. by J. Bell and J. von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press.

Sontag, Susan   1978     Illness as metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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