On an education into elevators (62 years into a life in modernity)

(Actually, I do not remember when I learned about elevators, or when I first operated one, so it may less than 62 years since I reached the point when I did not have to think about operational procedures—until last week)

One of the best experience of my visit to New Orleans for the annual anthropology meetings (except for wonderful papers by “my” students) occured each time I approached the elevators at my (Sheraton) hotel. On the first day, as I left the registration desk, located my elevator banked, rushed into an open elevator, turned around with hand raised to punch my floor …… I was stopped in my tracts: there were not buttons to push. Where the buttons would have been was a bolted cover. As the doors closed I made a panic exit and looked around. There, I saw a small sign (actually I noticed later that there was a large sign about “elevator upgrades” which I had ignored). It told me that operating the elevators was “as simple as 1, 2, 3″ (making me and, I believe, many others feel properly stupid). As Garfinkel told us, the problem with instructions is that there are to be instruction about the instructions. I had not gotten this instruction to look for instructions but now I had no choice. I did find the instruction and was told that, here and then, one had to punch one’s floor outside the elevator, listen to the voice telling us floor and elevator (“33, Car H”). It was not until my third or four trip that I noticed that a small panel up on the side of the door lit up to indicate the floors where the elevator would stop. Two days later all this had become routine: 1) punch your floor and listen to the instruction about the car to take; 2) locate this car and stand in front of it; 3) as the doors open check the side panel for confirmation and move confidently. I had learned!

However, telling this story as an autobiography of the movement from ignorance to knowledge, leaves asides all sorts of other performances involving many more people with whom I waited for and rode the Sheraton elevators. I was not the only one to have been jogged out of my assumptions about elevators and I found myself one of those who instructed other people, our temporary consociates, about these elevators when we suspected that they had not read the posted instructions and were just rushing into an open elevator without having entered their floor outside, or when we saw them with hand hovering over the bolted panel looking around for the buttons. By then people knew something was wrong and they took our instruction to exit the elevator and punch their floor.

But education, as I have been arguing is not only about learning, or even teaching. It is also about commenting, interpreting, placing the event into broader patterns. By the second or third day, if there were several persons in the elevator, it was quite common for impromptu conversations to start among people who did not know each other: “these are the worst elevators!” “I hate this hotel!” “How could they do this? What’s the point?”. And then there were the comments about the commenting: “Isn’t it interesting how the elevators makes us talk to each other.” And so, in the world of education we also have


commenting on instructions

commenting on comments about instruction

In this vein of commenting about commenting about commenting… let me expand on one of my favorite statement from Garfinkel: “Consider also that once you get into line persons will not therein question that you have rightfully gotten into line unless you start screwing around. Then you get instructed.” (2002: 257) This statement appears as another illustration of achieved orderliness and of the methods through which this orderliness is accomplished. But it does not directly address the cases when those who screw around with a simple task like using an elevator are engineers, backed by powerful corporations, and by unimpeachable discourses about efficiency and such (including energy efficiency, easily linked to discourses about saving the planet). Then, new conditions have been inscribed and “we,” the future members of temporary ad hoc “congregations” (in Garfinkel’s term) or of “polities of practice” (in my terms) must now make new orders. It may be that, in a few years, the Sheraton method to using elevators will have become so common as to hide its extra-vagance (Boon 1999). It will then be “as if” people were habituated into “their” culture (when in fact they are just putting up with someone else’s cultural production).

But these new orders will be required only as long as those who build the machineries of our lives (including the political, economic, classificatory, etc., machines) can maintain them against our own extra-vagance—unless of course they change them.

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