Getting caught

I do not remember when I started writing about people getting “caught by” when putting into words what I would have written earlier as “participating in.” When anthropologists observe some people in some setting (family dinner, school classroom, hospital recovery room), they do observe people “participating”–to the extent that all the people do will somehow respond to what others are doing there and then. In many cases, anthropologists add that that to which people are responding is “their” culture often without thinking hard whether the possessive form is appropriate. It is clear to me to no “culture” is the possession of anyone and that it is taking a huge step to say that the nice lady one is observing swaddling her baby is responsible for the manner in which she is swaddling the baby (or the color of the blanket, the style of folding, the song she may be singing, etc.)—whether this lady lives on the island once known as manaháhtaan in 1400 or 2000. I once wrote a paper to counter the misleading tendency of many anthropologists of my generation, following Geertz, to write “the Manhattanites, ‘they’…” and that “they are like [that interpretation].” I was particularly sensitive to this as I was critiqued for writing about “Americans” when it was getting clearer to me everyday (and was mostly reflected in my writing) that I was writing about people “in” America—that is, as I put it later people who participate in American institutions to the extent that they have no choice but to respond to what the institution requires (for example, give tests and grades to “students,” many of whom may be “foreign,” if not “aliens”).

I do not recall exactly when I started writing about people being “caught by” America as a preliminary step to “participating.” In my current autobiographical memory, I’d say that it happened when I started to ponder systematically Jean Lave’s version of the “community of practice.” I take it to be a model (in Lévi-Strauss’s sense) of social structuring that is a major transformation of the always static earlier modeling of “social structures” (or “systems”). Lave’s models a field within which people move between two positions (from “peripheral” to “full”). Leaving aside what all this implies for “learning” (as she, and McDermott, were mostly concerned with), this must make one think about movement through (rather than “participating in” or “socializing to”), what is important to me now is that the model implies that we also pay attention to other movements. I always start with the movement from [outside] into the “peripheral” position.In an early paper ([1947] 1953) David Schneider tells the story of some drafted men, assembled from many backgrounds for “basic training,” transforming themselves into an army unit a process that included reclassifying some of them as “not for the army.” This movement is essential for any “community” (“congregation” would be better) must recruit people from those who are not yet peripheral, but may have been seeking entry (or are conscripted into it). I thus imagine an “accretion” disk of potential peripheral members who might get attracted until, in some case, they pass what astronomers call the “event horizon” after which they can no longer escape the gravity well of the constituted community (though may not make it to the official “periphery”).

When teaching this I tell the story of my circling America. I remember playing cowboys and Indians as a 6 year old in a small Southern French village. I remember being awed by 1960 Buicks. I remember trying to transcribe Blowing in the Wind. Like all Europeans after the end of WWII, I was experiencing the gravitational pull of America though most did not take the step that eventually caught me. I like to say that I crossed this event horizon the day I entered the American consulate in Marseille (as everyone called it though its official name was “United States Consulate”). There, I was told what I needed to do to get the student visa which would allow me to attend the University of Chicago. Arguably, entering the consulate was the moment when America morphed, in my life, from fantasy to actuality. I had to respond to local agents of something huge and shadowy that, like millions before and after me, I could no longer escape anymore. Many have attempted such an escape after being caught. The Mormon tried moving to Utah. People from from China, or Jewish enclaves in Europe, attempted to build neighborhood institutions that might partially protect one’s children from America. In all cases, the very attempt to escape constituted what America is becoming—and all the more so when their attempts at escape were noticed by others also caught.

I thought about all this again as I entered, literally, a massive hospital in the above mentioned island for complex tests “prescribed” by fully authorized agents of this institution. Actually, “getting tested” is a step well into the gravity well of medical institutionalization. I got caught earlier, when symptoms (some peculiarities on a routine test) were transformed into a particularity (the “diagnosis” that determines treatment).After decades of adulthood, I certainly “know” what was going to happen but this knowledge does not actually say much about what I actually had to respond to as I went through the door, got my temperature taken by a guard, was directly by another guard to an office where I was “registered” before being taken to another part of the hospital where I was, after being handed over to people who took to a bed, told me to undress, hooked me to various machine, and told me to wait. At that moment nothing strictly “medical” had yet happened but a second major boundaries had been crossed when I moved from being allowed to seek an office by myself to having to be accompanied to the next. This boundary marked entry into another “community” of some practice that systematically removed the signs of my various statues as I became the pure body on which some authorized person(s) would operate after the body ha been anesthetized and thus stripped of its last status–consciousness. Much has been written about this loss of status but much less about what is actually a movement through more and more specialized statuses (“what kind of health insurance do you have?” as the first agent asked me) as others fell by the way size (university professor)—as well as the movement back until one eventually walks out the door of the building.

Detailing, step by step, the various interactional patterns (who can talk about what how; how a body is decorated by whom; who can touch which part of a body how; who has authority to alter this or that procedure; etc.) is a task for future ethnographers who eschew the tendency to jump too fast to “interpretation.” And the first thing to accept is that at no moment is participation in a particular status-setting interaction are the patterns either one’s own or escapable. They are what they are for all involved at the moment and even small improvisations on the pattern (for example, joking about a detail) constitute the setting as patterned. Take what may be the “least interesting” moment in the movement through hospital testing: registration. It is a 5 minutes event between patient-in-process and institutional agent during which “verification” is performed culminating with the printing of labels and the transition to the first medical setting. The labels are actually an essential event as they become an extension of the verified body as various parts (for example blood) gets moved into various distant settings in parallel (and for inscription in the body/patient/person’s history with future institutions including not only hospitals but also insurance companies, etc.).

And so “being caught” is the best metaphor I can currently come up with for the whole thing.

References

Schneider, David   [1947] 1953     “Social dynamics of physical disability in Army basic training.” in Personality in nature, society and culture. Edited by C. Kluckhohn and H. Murray. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 386-397.

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