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A message to students graduating under Corona

Our department decided to improvise a graduation Zoom event. I was asked to say something about “COVID-19” (as it appears to have gotten to be labeled) and developments in anthropology. The audience was to be mostly non-anthropologists and perhaps some significant others. The setting was both a classical ritual moment in the history of humanity in its American version, even though the staging had never been done this way. And I had to keep the comments to less than three minutes. I interpreted this charge as follows:

A most classical issue in anthropology is about the relationship between the human and the non-human, between nature and culture, between the triggers to human action and what human beings do with these triggers. This issue remains fundamental to anthropology. Many anthropologists have criticized the making of the distinction between nature and culture. Some have said that the non-human is itself something that is made up by humans. I have always resisted this critique. It seemed to deny the reality of what hurts human beings which human beings, in their every day lives, do not control. The Covid-19 virus is just one of the many things that do hurt us. It belongs to the ultimate in the non-human. It is true that none of us will actually “see” the virus but many have experienced its violence on human bodies. It is just this violence that will lead human beings to do something about what is happening to their bodies, to the bodies of their loved one, or to the bodies of those for whom they may be responsible. We have already seen that different governments react differently to the challenge. We have experienced our own attempts at finding solutions, particularly when those closest to us have different opinions about what we should do next. In these processes, the virus is transformed into that which we now experience. Culture has been made out of nature. How this is done will be a question that will trigger much new research. Some of this research will be done by some of you who are graduating today. I look forward to it.

Clearly, a challenge and not a time to be overly didactic. So I said a version of what I have been saying all my anthropological life about “culture” and “life.” I have said it in many different ways (including in my April 8 2020 post [1]). Today, I mostly want to annotate the statement for those who may not catch the references I was making. The first sentences are direct echo of a very classical statement— and a favorite of mine. They are also an echo of what was said by an about forgotten American anthropologist I just discovered:

Man is a biological being as well as a social individual … But it is not always easy to distinguish between the two… Culture is neither simply juxtaposed to nor simply superposed over life. In a way, culture substitutes itself to life, in another way culture uses and transforms life to realise a synthesis of a higher order. (Lévi-Strauss 1969 [1949]: 4 )

Human culture, on this basis, may be defined as the process and product of the cultivation of the potentialities of human nature and the natural environment … The cultural process thus provides the instrumental means as well as the normative ends of social life; it is a process of creation and discovery by which men live as well as an ideal for which they live. (Bidney 1946: 535)

I am not going to quote the many versions of the critique I refer to. My sense is that this critique emphasize the outcome of the process of cultivation: that under which human beings live is something created (Bidney), a synthesis of a higher order (Lévi-Strauss).

Event though it may not be quite couched in this way, I take Latour’s insistence that objects have “agency” as the beginning of a return to something that must have been self-evident to both Bidney and Lévi-Strauss. Both of them (and Marx and many others before them) did say that human beings live by what they have made. But they insist that they do not make that which they then I emphasize ‘then’ to index one of my most recent themes that much of anthropology should be rewritten in terms of sequentiality: this THEN that. More on this elsewhere.
transform. Human beings do not create “ex nihilo” (as the Christian God is said to have done). They “create” with other stuff, some that they trip over, most of which they inherit, and some they have recently made.

All this is obvious to me, and perhaps to most of colleagues in anthropology.  It may appear unnecessary to find new ways of stating it.  I do not think so.  The fundamental puzzles remain.  One is the relationship between what any of us inherit, the words which we borrow (Bakhtin [1965] 1981), and that which we then say (Merleau-Ponty [1969] 1973  ). But working out this puzzle should not make us lose sight of the more fundamental puzzle: the relationship between objects (even some other humans have constructed in our past) and the work that we then have to do with these objects to make them fit in our lives. This the fundamental question that the C19/Corona event must make us, anthropologists, face again. The virus (even if it was made in a laboratory and “escaped”) is a real object that kills some of us. Orders to “Stay Home” are cultural productions that become, for most of us another real object that trips us and requires something, in some future next step.  That which is done by a local collectivity may then become another “synthesis of a higher order,” a “culture.”

I have asked students to keep journals about their personal experience with Corona [2] and I will ask them, next Fall, to pay attention to the culture that they, along with their significant others, made with what Corona has given them (orders about not entering, distancing, etc.) even as it evolves. I hope that few of those I teach will have had direct experience with C19 itself—though, as the anthropologists of science and medicine will tell them—even that experience will have been mediated by a particular medical machinery enforcing this or that advice in this or that language.

Note also, in my statement above, the sentence about “those for whom we may be responsible.” Given that I teach in a professional school, in a program in anthropology of education approached as a form of applied anthropology, my responsibility and that of our students is something that keeps concerning me: what advice would I, would you, give to a governor or mayor about allowing people to sun bathe on a beach? What advice would we give about what human beings do with orders to (not) enter this or that space? What would you say to the governor if its staff told you anthropologists are not public health experts and need not be consulted? What would you do if your understanding of collective human action was used better to control human beings?


Bakhtin, First  [1965] 1981 The dialogic imagination [3]. Tr. by C. Emerson and M. Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bidney, David   2014    1946 “The concept of cultural crisis.” American Anthropologist 48, 4:534-552.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude   [1949] 1969  The elementary structures of kinship [4]. Tr. by J. Bell and J. von Sturmer. Boston: Beacon Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice   [1969] 1973     The prose of the world [5]. Tr. by J. O’Neil. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.