Experiencing life and constructing a local “next”

If a “lived experience” is one that one has, personally, experienced, then I have never experienced COVID (the virus). I have experienced Corona (the cultural epoch) but, to the extent that I have never been sick from the virus, and have not even ever tested positive (so far?), then the virus is something I only know through conversational and textual means: I have talked a lot about it with many people. I have read a lot about it. And I have written about it. I have experienced the pressure to explain myself when (not) wearing a mask. In contrast, these past few months I (lived) experienced open heart surgery or, more precisely, the weeks leading up to it, and the recuperation after it: anesthesia does make it impossible to experience the surgery itself!

Various authorities requested that I be tested and this has happened such a number of times that I have lost count. Those requests (actually orders) concern, in my analysis, Corona as cultural fact. As for the virus, I’d say that my experience is, at most, “vicarious” or, in jargon, “entextualized.” I do know people who had close relatives who died. I do know people who were seriously sickened. I also know people who tested positive and showed (“experienced”?) no symptoms. But this “knowledge” is conversational—that is I was told about these cases but did not have to deal with them personally

I have, probably, been lucky (as well as possible privileged for having had access to vaccines and boosters as soon as they became available). But this kind of luck (escaping sickness and experience of the sick) opens an interesting question: what is the “next” step a person so lucky may take when confronted with any aspect of Corona (as the entextualization/institutionalization of COVID)? This question imposed itself as I drove out of Manhattan across the United States to Palo Alto and back. Once I crossed the Hudson, and until I entered Silicon Valley, masks all but disappeared—except when I traversed the Navajo Nation where large signs told people to mask up. I saw workers in one motel wear a mask. Sometimes one employee among several did. I am not sure I saw any in the various Walmarts I entered. This will not surprised those who read opinion pieces in papers like the New York Times: people in red states are said to be opinionated and fed false information about the virus. This may be true but it may ignore the possibility that many (most?) people in the United States have actually never directly experienced the virus.  One might perhaps say that there are people for whom the virus is not a “lived experience.”  In probably not so few cases, their lived experience may have been such as to settle on other next steps (mandate this or that) than what some/many might take.  Many may summarize their “lived” experience of the virus the way Eric Adams, NYC’s current mayor, once did: “I feel fine, outside of the raspy voice, I feel fine. No fevers, … I’m not tired, no aches or pains at all” (April 11, 2022). Reading this may give some a vicarious experience of what it is like to live the virus and, not irrationally, make them decide to continue disregard some mandates that appear overdrawn.

The problem for those responsible with public health (including budding applied anthropologists) is what to do with situations when the lived experience of the people, as they may themselves actually en-textualize it in local conversations with direct consociates, contradict the message as designed. “Wear a mask to protect yourself and your loved one at risk” maybe a fully appropriate injunction, but it will always be placed within broader local conversations that, in the many cases I experienced while driving across the United States, lead to people not acting on the injunction. As all teachers actually do know, most students do not act on what they teach them and not only because the students are not “learning.” As I like argue, people do learn but they also analyze and criticize that which they have learned… whether because they suspect the teacher, or because that which is taught contradicts their (lived) experience, or because they know the teacher is wrong (as keeps happening in (post-)colonial encounters with alternate “local knowledges”).

The broader issue here, and one that perhaps should become the main one, is whether facing to “lived experience” may make one doubt any explanation of behavior that relies on hypotheses about “dispositions acquired early in life” (habitus). What if what I will do next is best investigated by checking what I lived (and possibly learned) a few minutes ago (rather than decades ago)? That I speak French (but not Chinese and about any of the languages human beings have devised) has to do with my being born and raised in France. When I sign retirement papers has much more to do with what my current local “others” will make me experience in the near future.

Print This Post Print This Post

“Lived experience”: mind and words

In recent years, students have heard me wince when they talk about “lived experienced.” “Could there be ‘dead experiences’?” I quipped. But they persisted as they are well aware of the terms one must use to pass as a well-educated participant in current academic intellectual life.

For a full philosophical argument that is said to have inspired Derrida, Ricoeur and Latour, see Bachelard on fire (1949) or closets (in [1957] 1964).
Still, perhaps I am wrong in dismissing something that appeared late in my career. Maybe it is about the mystery that, after eating a banana (living the experience of pealing a banana, putting it in my mouth, chewing it, wondering whether it is under ripe or over ripe, etc.) I can talk about the eating (as I am doing now) but cannot actually tell anyone who has never eaten a banana what it tastes like. Try explaining the difference between blue and green to someone who is color blind, or the difference between velvet and silk (or the various types of silk) to someone who has never touched any of them.

During the “culture is text” Derrida moment in my anthropological career, I ranted against those who appeared to say that all is words, that there is no “center” behind the words, and so on. When eating the banana we are not eating the word even if the word is all we have to communicate with other human beings about the eating.  There is something about the world that is not constructed (at least not by the experiencing human who had nothing to do with a construction).

All this is common sense (or should be) but it leaves anthropology with a perennial problem. If anthropology, as I would argue has something to do with exploring what it is like to be human among humans (and everything else) by actually living and reporting on humans (“participant observation”), then one has to wonder about the relationship between “life” and “reports on life.” One of the classical version of all this presents anthropology as concerned with “what life means to some people.” The most principled version of this might be Geertz’s. But he could not escape the dilemma so that he ended his career in something I sometimes teach as a form of depression about the very possibility of anthropology. As he put it in one of his later paper:

Are we, in describing symbol uses, describing perceptions, sentiments, outlooks, experiences? And in what sense? What do we claim when we claim that we understand the semiotic means by which, in this case, persons are defined to one another? That we know words or that we know minds? (1976:235)

These are rhetorical questions since Geertz was always really passionate about “mind,” “point of view,” “sentiment,” and indeed “experiences”—words that were common in the mid to late 20th century. These, I’d say is what is now summarized as “lived experiences.”

But the question remains: how are anthropologists to go from “lived experience” (ours or that of other people) to not only the final text of an ethnography but to the very conduct of the (participant) observation. What are anthropologists to look at if they are fully aware of the ineffability of the experience of life.

Say that you (me) are an anthropologist who has read about Branson, Missouri, and, on the occasion of a trip across the United States decides to stop there to find out what it’s all about. Given my personal (lived experience?) association of Branson with Dolly Parton, This association was “true” for me, but otherwise false as Branson became “Branson” before Parton and the “Stampede” performance did not include anything about Parton which could be a case of false advertisement.
and finding out that there was something called the “Dolly Parton Stampede” with a show I could attend, then I drove into the still empty parking lot of the building and started walking around, passing by garbage cans, utility hookups, stables, before approaching the main entrance those who paid to attend would use and which might be the first moment in their own lived experience of the event.

As I walked the parking lot, I realized that I was doing what I have always done: start observing a setting from the “back” to the “front,” from what constructing participants (janitors, engineers, accountants) do to that participants in the intended audience (those who pay) will be shepherded to see, hear, and, in the case of the Stampede (which is organized as a dinner/spectacle) taste–as well as smell given the participation of horses. So, the night I attended, I estimated the size of the audience (a few hundreds filling the venue) and some demographic signs. Given Corona, I looked for masks (a few per hundreds unmasked), the number of phenotypically Black persons (even fewer). I marveled at the number of American flags (and at the absence of many other symbols all the more noticeable as a brief scene about people in the Plains before the European appeared particularly carefully written not to trigger any political response).

The anthropological question is: what can I say about the lived experience of anybody in the audience? What of the man on my left: no partner and two young daughters? What would the daughters remember? What of the retired couple on my right? Any phenomenologist would have to agree that each of these five people experienced something different—even though it was triggered at the moment by exactly the same performance. The phenomenologist might also note that the anthropologist’s “lived experience” of the event may be one of the more bizarre as I suspect very few people in the audience are writing analytic blogs of their experience (though there may have been writing in twits and Facebook posts).

My answer, of course, and it has remained constant through my half century of research, writing and teaching, is that I can say something about this performance (the flags, horses, bad jokes) and some of what make it possible (people who serve the food and take out the garbage). But I cannot say anything about what it is like, for anybody, to live that which others have built for one to experience. And I will never trust someone who tells me that they can tell me what they lived—even when they have lived it. I have never been worried about the answer I give to Geertz’s questions: knowing “words” (institutions, dependencies, affordances, etc.) is not only all we can do but is also essential.

On all this, I generally assign the first part of Merleau-Ponty’s Prose of the world ([1969] 1973) that concludes with the quip: “meaning is not in the words but between the words.”
Which is why I will not tell what was my own “lived experience” of Dolly Parton’s Stampede (though perhaps readers of this post will imagine it for me).

 

References

Bachelard, Gaston  1949     La psychanalyse du feu. Paris: Gallimard.

Bachelard, Gaston   [1957] 1964     The poetics of space. Boston: Beacon Press.

Geertz, Clifford 1976 “‘From the native’s point of view’: On the nature of anthropological understanding.” in Meaning in anthropology. Edited by K. Basso and H. Selby. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. pp. 221-237.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice   [1969] 1973     The prose of the world. Tr. by J. O’Neil. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Print This Post Print This Post