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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