Educating into Corona, in life

In my case,  about everything I have learned about the virus I learned through the media, mostly from the “traditional” media (New York Times, Le Figaro, etc.) and somewhat less traditional (Yahoo summaries, etc.). I have watched some television, mostly in restaurants where it was on. I hope that people in the medical profession, as well as various politicians and “officials” with power and authority, are learning from other sources—though we will never quite know where Trump or Pelosi, Cuomo or de Blasio, etc., are getting the information on which they base their decisions.

Obviously, no one among all those (except perhaps the medical people) learned any of all this at school, though some may remember some high school class, taken decades ago about virus and the like.

So, this virus has not (yet) been taught in school. More interestingly, whatever one learns is not verified by a more knowledgeable person (say, a school teacher). There are no tests. And one receives no diploma for whatever knowledge one has gotten. The “media” (journalists, TV announcers and such) are the main teachers. But they are not school teachers. Not only can they not give tests, they have no way to control what their “students” are learning. It is not even clear to me where their “curriculum about the virus today” comes from and who vets it (producers? lawyers? “officials”?). They are all very much “distance teachers” with little feedback about their impact.

Most importantly, the students are not isolated from each other as they might be in a test-driven classroom where their knowledge is supposed to assessed independently so that they can be sorted into more or less knowledgeable. The students (me, my family, my peers, people I briefly encountered in stores or hotels) talk to each other, and they teach each other. As soon as they hear or read something presented as “knowledge about the virus” they start discussing this knowledge in all sorts of forums with different of co-participants, etc. They dispute, disagree, criticize, suggest, cajole, enforce, etc.).

All this could be said to be “Cremin 101″ (1976) as I and my students developed it recently (2019). I will be using “teaching/learning Corona” for the rest of my career. I strongly encourage students who might be reading this as the event still unfolds to keep an “educational journal” focusing not only on themselves but on the others with whom they engage (very significant others, parents, friends, etc.).

[Note that this is the first of a series of posts I will be making over the near future in my role as senior anthropologist of education. This will be accompanied by a developing web site with notes and further elaboration. Note also that everything said here is under my own responsibility and does not in any way represent the position of Columbia University, Teachers College, or my colleagues and peers]


Cremin, Larry   1975     “Public Education and the Education of the Public.” Teachers College Record 77:1-12

Varenne, Herve et al.   2019     Educating in life. Routledge


Print This Post Print This Post

on “Hervé Varenne” as object with properties and affordances

This is going to get complex fast, and will take several posts.

This is also a development on my last post (1/3/2020) and on earlier others (“On Identity”). It is also a development on matters discussed in the coda “On collaboration” to Educating in Life (2019) as well as a paragraph in the paper with McDermott “Reconstructing culture” (2006: 8).

The question: who is writing this blog post? Answer #1: “Hervé Varenne” as an identity(-fiable) imperfect processing machine that might, in perhaps the not so distant future, be reproduced identity(-cally) by some AI that will keep churning out Varenne’s style blog posts in a perfected form. Answer #2: “I” as the radically uncapturable subject who must use HV (as “Hervé Varenne” will now appear in here) to respond to all those ‘I’ encounters and to whom ‘I’ attempts to communicate an experience other “I’s” addressed as identifiable “me’s” will then have to translate into their own experiences in an ongoing process with no end.

So, let’s sort this.

HV is multiply identified by a host of State agents, and particularly by the State agents that have made HV a State agent “him”-self (imposed pronoun as “stated”–pun intended–by identity cards, passports, etc.). This identification (that ??? is HV) HV would have been ??? before birth and can at any time become a question mark again if, as he once discovered when, attempting to travel with a passport that had “expired” a few days earlier, he lost many rights and some particularly consequential for particular purposes–for example traveling across State lines. At various times, and in various settings, noone involved, and particularly not HV, can escape his casting as father, professor, department chair, etc. These identifications could probably best be understood as “affordances” that can then played with in actual practice–but that is a matter for another post. Each of these identifications come with various rights and privileges (as well as responsibilities and limits) that can be enumerated but soon fall under the “etc.” principle.  HV can buy and sell property, grade student papers, vote on certain matters but not on others, sign wills and DNR statements.

HV is also a less regulated agent in settings that the State has not fully entered. Encounters with friends, family members, and indeed colleagues and students always involve more possible identifications than the State ones, particularly when some of those are altogether inappropriate under State strictures (that are different from State to State, and keep changing). That is, some State identifications (e.g. “father” according to HV’s children birth certificates) can interfere when they intersect with another identification (e.g. “professor”) either in HV’s office at Teachers College, or at home. To take a somewhat uncontroversial identification, HV’s age is a fundamental property multiply recorded.  All sorts of privileges are attached to it (voting, drinking, Social Security). Age is also something that the American State (but not the French State) has constituted as an un-mentionable by specific institutional agents (e.g. employers). And while there are no State regulations as to what to mention in public presentations of self (e.g. professional web sites), many of my colleagues at Teachers College do not mention the date of their doctorate, and some not even the date of the publications they list. And yet, not surprisingly, age hovers over much daily interactions, including the moments when HV, as institutional agent (department chair), must remind (or be reminded by) interlocutors not to mention age.

If HV/I understand(s) it correctly, the “conversation” about “identity” is mostly about the less regulated settings when sections of an identity seeps into the practice of another. Thus HV is classified as “White” for particular purposes by particular agents (NY State driver’s licenses do not mention race; University admission forms ask for it; the French state forbids mention of it).  But, many argue, this identification gives HV certain advantages at moment when it should not, and further handicaps others.  At birth HV was identified as “du sexe masculin,” an identification HV never disputed though ‘I’ might dispute what many would include as the ongoing properties of this identification for interactional or interpretative purposes. HV is also, in no particular order, a father, grandfather, French, a senior citizen, in overall good health (though he should exercise more), the owner of this kind of car and this kind of houses, and so on and so forth in a list that is anything but closed. HV discovered a few years ago that some would say he is “cisgender.” HV keeps being told that all this is “changing” and “negotiable.” HV is quite sure that identifications keep changing. But he keeps wondering with whom he is negotiating what, what arguments (or weapons) might be used in this negotiation, and who is to have the “final” word, that is the accountable word for interaction in some future setting.

As a professional anthropologist (another of HV’s regulated identities) HV can go on and on about the interactional, communal, that is “cultural” (in HV’s terms) structuring of experience through the symbols, discourses, practices all human beings must work with. The question for this series of blog posts is: does the ensemble of symbols that can by used in conversations with and about HV, that is HV’s identity for all accountable purposes, constitute, that is make consequential for future purposes, not only HV but also the ‘I’ that all involved may imagine they have “captured”—in the sense that painters are sometimes said to “capture” the “soul” of the person they are painting.

But the word “capture” has more ominous connotations. Syntactically, in English, and all other posts by HV,  ‘I’ is an index to just “HV.”  But ‘I’ is also a symbol that may be used to point to something beyond words, some thing (of course not a “thing”) caught in a “web of meaning” in which one is not so much “suspended” as englued, waiting for the spider.

More on that next.


Print This Post Print This Post

A warning to apprentice anthropologists: on “identity” in the New York Times

The New York Times is a major adult education institution in the United States. Mostly it educates implicitly but, quite regularly, it gives mini-lectures, in the style of encyclopedia entries. On December 15th, Max Fisher posed the question “What is national identity?” And then he made authoritative statements like a college professor might do. In brief, Fisher taught “The concept [of identity], scarcely 200 years old, holds that humanity is divided among fixed communities, each defined by a common language, ethnicity and homeland. Those communities are nations; membership is one’s national identity” (New York Times, Dec. 15, 2019).

Identity, community, nation are thereby collapsed into each other, authoritatively.

What Fisher did not do is acknowledge that other professors might teach that such a collapse does not make much sense. Worse, it is altogether dangerous for students in the social sciences where these concepts are indeed very commonly (mis-)used. A professor, that is ‘I’, will first note that concepts are abstractions that cannot be the cause of anything. At best, concepts can help one look for who and what does produce history. They should make us wonder about the history of the concepts, their uses and institutional embodiments, and their consequences on the lives of those who must live by them. And thus, I would then note “nationalism” and “identity” have different histories as they were embodied in different symbols, performances, discourses and, above all, disciplining and punishing practices. These are the means by which something happened that the concepts might index, dangerously.

Classic apologists for “nation” disagree and point at signs of “national” discourses as early as the 10th century in various parts of Europe.

It is the task of historians to trace the constitution of institutions and the discourses evolved to justify them. On the basis of their work, there is a general consensus in anthropology that the modern nation (but not identity) was made up “200 years ago.” As anthropologists now teach, all nations were imagined before they became fact (Anderson 1991). They then became inescapable things for billions through determined political action led by the most powerful states of the world. Prussia and France may have started the movement. And then everyone else participated in universalizing it. The United States was a prime mover as Woodrow Wilson, and then Franklin Roosevelt more successfully, among many others, destroyed colonial empires by insisting that the world now be organized on the new principle of one people/one language/one nation/one State. For more on this see my earlier “Who imagines nations?” (October 2019) This produced, among many many other institutions, the “United Nations” that remains supposed to counterbalance the reality that “nationalism” has proved extremely explosive. That it is dangerous is now common sense among many—but that is a different story.

“Identity” has had little to do with “nationalism” — until recently. For the first half of my life “identity” indexed what makes ‘I’ unique. The basic idea is several thousand years old, constituted both through the Greek “know thyself” and through the Christian affirmation that salvation is personal. ‘I’ predates any identification that it may then be burdened with. That ‘I’ might be hidden and difficult to get at is the foundation of European philosophy as it evolved from a religion into an ideology of individualism where ‘I’ can affirm that ‘I’ is this or that. The caricature of ‘identity’ is the “cards” (passports, etc.) about all human beings must now show the powers-that-be (both State and commercial powers) when they need to do about anything or go about anywhere. Every human being must now keep proving a (unique) identity based on a set of State imposed characteristics. Up until rather recently, the French State did this by noting sex, place and date of birth, eye and hair color, and a thumb print. With computers, this has been expanded in altogether mysterious ways since all the information the State now requires is written on magnetic strips or chips only machines can read.

But something strange did happen to the word “identity.” Sometimes in the 1980s or 1990s, first in various corners of the social sciences, and soon everywhere in the political imagination of more an more people in various positions, the word started appearing in contexts where words like “self,” “personality” or “character” used to appear. Pragmatists like G.H. Mead or Dewey, building on earlier German philosophers, had affirmed that all human beings are made up in their apparent individualities. They are made up not by themselves but the many others who frame their experiences, privileges, identifications, etc. This affirmation became the foundation of about every theories in the behavioral sciences: social psychology, “culture and personality” anthropology, the Parsonian attempt to bring all this together. This affirmation took new forms through Geertz and Bourdieu (among many others). This enormous intellectual machinery was deployed against earlier theories of what makes human beings human. They have become the ideological and hegemonic consensus in Euro-America. This consensus asserts that the radical ‘I’ is a cultural illusion. There are no “I’s”, only “me’s” produced by the intersections (to jump forward 50 years) of all sorts of social encounters. That product of these encounters is now labeled an ‘identity’ which, far from capturing a uniqueness, rather captures all the ways that makes ‘me’ “identical with” many many others. Thus, Hervé Varenne’s identity is “French” (and white, male, and so on and so forth).

I suspect that Fisher was taught in college that the word “identity” does refer to what makes people the same rather than what makes them unique. Thus “French” is MY “national identity.” I capitalize ‘MY’ to suggest that there is something bizarre in making a State controlled matter (whether or not I am a French citizen) something that I own. It is all the more bizarre that there is an evolving consensus (certainly among the writers and readers of the New York Times) that there are many French citizens who are not ‘French’ in the same way as I am. Some are Muslim, some are queer, some speak German and arguable they all have separate identities… And yet they are also all citizens of France for most State purposes around the world. They carry the same “identity” card that, by law in France, do not mention any of the matters that, in the imaginations of some (including journalists), actually shape their “identity.”

Since I first noted, somewhat in the mid-1990s, the morphing of “identity,” I have protested—totally unsuccessfully. Colleages and students listen but they are caught, just as ‘I’ is by the hegemonic powers of those who keep trying to make ‘me’. I hope that the next generation of anthropologists will be more successful.


Anderson, Benedict   1991     Imagined communities. New York: Verso. (First published in 1983)

Print This Post Print This Post

On the danger of “indigenous” as an adjective

While looking at archives from my childhood, I found what may be my first “ethnographic” text. It is a few paragraphs, written 60 years ago, when I was 11. It was a kind of school report of the type “what did you do last summer?” I had been on a family trip to South India. We had spent two days in Pondicherry. I wrote that the town was really “two towns”: “la ville indigène et la ville blanche.” On reading this, I first cringed at a language that, soon after I wrote this, I learned was an echo of French colonial racism at its most common sense and, most importantly, was not to be used again. And then I recognized that my use of “indigène” might not be insulting any more. The connotations of the word appear to have flipped as it may now be the preferred term for those who, in Pondicherry, were not “white.” Even so, I have mentioned to some of my students and colleagues my continuing discomfort with the word “indigenous,” particularly when it is used as an adjective rather than as a quote from some of the people about whom my colleagues are writing. The final trigger for this blog post was a review of a book about the East Asia Company in the New York Times (Morris Sept. 12, 2019). I read it at about the same time I read my account of Pondicherry and I found myself propelled back to 1960. I have not read the book but Ian Morris, the reviewer, wrote as it were a matter of course among the sophisticated readers of the New York Times that one could talk about “the indigenous Mughal Empire” and wonder whether changing anything would have permitted “native rulers” to survive.

“Indigenous Empire,” “native rulers,” what do the adjectives hide? In this case, they hide the history of invaders from Central Asia, descendants of Gengis Khan, imposing their rule on a population they defeated through military superiority, and doing this at about the same time Europeans were imposing their own rule in the Americas. The “Mughals” (they also go by other names) were actually the next to last (so far?) of many invaders of India. These included, a few centuries earlier, those who institutionalized in India a major religion “native” to the Arab peninsula but with world-wide ambition. Like the other religion also “native” to the northern part of the peninsula (what is now “Palestine” or “Israel”), it did eventually spread around the globe. Both of these religions had actually arrived in India centuries earlier. As for Hinduism, the religion most specifically associated with India, there is every evidence that it came to the place along with other invaders who, several thousand years earlier, imposed it, along with their language, on populations that were already there—or at least had been there for the preceding tens of thousands of years when members of what some call the most “invasive species” on earth crossed the Khyber Pass on their way east (Dennell 2017), as so many did in the following millenia.

All anthropologists will credit Boas for a negative achievement: demolishing the argument that “race” is something that could explain human variability. They are more reluctant to credit him for a positive achievement, particularly when they summarize it as “culture.” But Boas argued for much more than “culture.” More subtly he argued that humans make their doings “suitable” to the conditions they face and thereby making themselves a-new—not reproduction but history. Thus, as I teach it, Boas’ most important work consisted in making those interested in human variability notice matters like “diffusion,” “borrowing,” “appropriation,” etc. as well as the making of that which is borrowed “suitable.” As Ruth Benedict later noticed when she wrote about “islanding” (Varenne 2013), interaction with some “other” may actually lead to a refusal rather than a borrowing. Which is why I now wonder about the act that must precede borrowing, and that is noticing (or being made to notice) some trait (objects, ritual, discourse) as potentially suitable. First the encounter and then (sequentiality here is central) either “making it suitable” through forms of “appropriation” or rejecting it (possibly violently). Given all this, I am sympathetic to the anthropological critique of any kind of claim to the “authenticity” of some trait as if any could be “owned” by any population and copyrighted as another form of capitalistic property.

But, and this a big “but,” anthropologists, in their own encounters with the other human beings they are concerned with, do meet people who make a claim to ownership of some trait, to its authenticity as theirs, and to the subsequent claim that all others should respect this claim. This is a major dilemma for anthropologists. In many cases they feel obligated to respect such claims and broadcast them (say, if they are made by people who claim “the Amazon”). In other cases they feel obligated to “de-construct” them (say, if they are made by people who claim “Germany”). In both cases they are caught reconstructing the very dichotomy within humanity anthropologists have been fighting against (and criticizing each other for reproducing). There is what “we” do (as the form is used by the New York Times when criticizing the United States or Europe) and then there is “them,” the “indigenous” people whom “we” respect, or deconstruct.

There may be no way out of the dilemma. The best advice I can give students and colleagues, is to tell them that, if the people they get to know have appropriated the (European) word “indigenous” for themselves, and made it suitable in their political struggles, then we have no choice but to report on this claim in our ethnographic writing without criticizing it as appropriate, or not.

Thus my discouragement at the October 2019 issue of Anthropology News featuring “Indigenous Languages” and, not so implicitly, contrasting them to non-indigenous languages (as if there were any), thereby encouraging students and journalists to dichotomize.

At the same time, we must take care not to “theorize” the word and transform it into some ideal-typical (in the Weberian sense) “it” that might then be studied across populations who may not even make the claim, possibly leading to a book titled “The Mind of Indigenous Man” (to paraphrase Boas at his most easily criticizable). Minimally, we must fear any use of the term, particularly as an adjective. In the review which triggered this piece, to qualify the Mughal Empire as “indigenous” added nothing but might mislead readers into not noticing its own historicity (and their own). The same for the word “native” (which is of course but another way of saying “indigenous”). Those who inhabited the Red Fort in New Delhi when the East Asia Company attacked it may have been born there, but that is the least of what makes them interesting.


Dennell, Robin   2017 “Human Colonization of Asia in the Late Pleistocene The History of an Invasive Species”  in Current Anthropology, vol. 51, 17: S383–S396.

Print This Post Print This Post

Who imagines nations?

I remain surprised by the continuing success of Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities ([1983] 1991). When it is was first brought to my attention I thought that there was not much there since, “everybody knew, or should know” that something like “nationalism” was a cultural construction, appearing at a certain point in time, with antecedents of course, and an ongoing evolution. While many political actors of the past two centuries have asserted that, say, “France” is an entity with full ontological reality, any anthropologist, steeped in the critique of “religion,” “social structure,” etc., would work from the stance that 1) “nation” is a native term among certain populations at a certain time and that 2) “nation” should not be reified any more than terms like “taboo,” “totem,” “caste,” etc. This would then lead to research into the actual deployment of “nation” in performances of all types, and particularly in all attempts by the States which claim “nation” to impose certain matters on recalcitrant populations, both inside and outside the boundaries imagined as those of “France,” “Germany,” or …

Recent anthropological theoretical developments would add that nationalism, to the extent that we take the metaphor of “construction” seriously, needs to be repaired, if not re-constructed, on an ongoing basis given 1) inevitable flaws in the construction and 2) the wearing down of the construction as people’s experiences with the deployment of the term will inevitably lead them to transform it in their local practices. As Lévi-Strauss put is in his inimitable way ,all systems of classification (and nationalism certainly is one) “tend to be dismantled like a palace swept away upon the flood, whose parts, through the effect of currents and stagnant waters, obstacles and straits, come to combined in a manner other than that intended by the architect” ([1962] 1966: 232). Thus the State must continually teach [nation] if [nation] is to be a thing with hoped-for consequences. In my own life, I started being taught France as a pupil in the elementary schools of 1950s France that still used books published in the 1930s and earlier. We were taught, again and again, that while France was eternal (or at least 2000 years old…), it only got to be was it was to be because of the heroic acts of individuals and kings, many of whom otherwise horrible fellows. There was Pépin-le-Bref, Jeanne d’Arc, Louis XI, Louis XIV. And there was the terrible genius of those who, in 1793, defeated the “Girondins” who were arguing for a decentralized France with semi-autonomous provinces. They lost their heads as the “Jacobins” won and established the centralized France the Third Republic eventually perfected (as I was taught even though we were then in the Fourth Republic soon to be replaced by the Fifth). I suspect that those who wrote the textbooks were specifically guided, and carefully watched,
by generations of government ministers. I am sure they expected us, pupils, to do more than repeat what we were being taught in the ongoing examinations of our “knowledge.” They must also have expected that we would accept this teaching as, we were told, our grand-uncles had done when they went singing to their death in 1914-18 to the greater glory of the French nation.

However, in the 1950s, many, if not most, pupils of French schools learned something else: nationalism had led to the deaths of too many Europeans over the earlier half century. What now was being taught, by the media and many if not most politicians as well probably by school children (and most probably teachers also) among each other, was the need to join the effort of the few who, in the late 1940s, had starting constructing something that would not be ‘France’ anymore. That which was being constructed had no name or category–or rather it had many from the “European Coal and Steel Community” to the “European Economic Community’ to what is now the “European Union.” Note the shift from ‘Community’ to ‘Union’. I am sure there was a lot of “discourse” around that!
Whatever “it” may now be, this construction is 1) not a nation, 2) very much an act of imagination leading to the constitutions of a massive assemblage of things (laws, regulations, etc.), 3) so consequential in the life of the five hundred million people it has now caught that they keep contesting this or that law or regulation. Contestation then leads to responses by those with authority to gently oblige, and maybe even coerce, the people by further entangling them in ties more and more difficult to cut (just ask the British!).

All that seems obvious to me. It may have been obvious to Anderson too who notes in passing that there are those who see nationalism as a “pathology” (p. 5) and who fear all attempts at reifying it as a concept of universal significance with political consequences about the future organization of human beings. As a political actor myself, I share these fears and will argue that any who read Anderson positively must not dismiss them. But the anthropological problem is elsewhere: Anderson is never clear as to the “subjects” who constructed nationalism. He shifts from the passive voice “the nation is imagined” (p. 7) with no indication as who is doing the imagining, to—and this is worse from my point of view—the active voice where “nations imagine themselves” (p. 7). Those who, in France, recently started using the French flag as a way to contest French State policy are imagining. The State and media who criticized them as “right-wing white nationalists” are also imagining actively and consequentially. This acrimonious “conversation” that is anything but peaceful has to be the focus of anthropological research.

“Nation” can be an index to a set of performances (discourses, etc.) but it cannot be treated as an actor (though perhaps Latour might argue otherwise, but more subtly). Anthropologists, particularly, when working among populations where the assemblage of stuff “nation” indexes (or is icon for) is still alive, must specify who is speaking, to whom, in order to achieve what, etc. Anthropologists, particularly, must be attuned that the imagination of nation has always be contested and resisted. In France, one could still find Girondins in the late 19th century fighting a loosing battles against those who were making France with all the policing authority of the State to, for example, coerce French citizens to speak French. And anthropologists who work in contemporary Europe cannot ignore the paradoxical imagination of the “European Union” as something that may not be named (unless it is as the “Schengen Area” to which one is “welcomed” when landing at the Paris airports).
Some of the more marginal actors in the European ideological revolt against nationalism did make the argument, and continue to make it, that Europe should indeed “imagine” itself as such—that is, very actively, produce the texts, discourses, symbols and rituals that might eventually convince the 500 million that they are indeed one. See de Rougemont (1968 [1966] and Varenne (1993) for more on this.
The grammatical subject of the acts, the “we” who act, all but act-ively disappear France, Germany, etc., from much State displays is, of course, very much a State subject, acting through its authorized agents, imagining itself threatened by the lingering nationalism of the only groups that may be politely criticized by State agencies, the media, etc., those who in France or Germany claim the reality of the “French” or the “Germans” against the claims not only of those who have moved into Europe more or less recently but also of those who know lead the [EU] and, with great bureaucratic efficiency, control the writing of the text books, design curricula and pedagogies, fund performances and displays.

Coda (added on October 10, 2019)

To paraphrase Latour: “[nations] are not silent things, but rather tha provisional product of a constant uproar made by the millions of contradictory voices about what is a [nation] and who pertains to what” (2005: 31)


Anderson, Benedict   1991     Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Revised Edition.. New York: Verso. (First published in 1983)

Latour, Bruno 2005 Reassembling the social. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lévi–Strauss, Claude   1966 [1962]     The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rougemont, Dennis de   1968 [1966]     The idea of Europe. New York: Macmillan.

Varenne, Hervé   1993     “The question of European nationalism.” in Cultural change and the new Europe.. Edited by T. Wilson and M. E. Smith. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. pp. 223-240

Print This Post Print This Post

on communities with communities

For some reason, my anthropological imagination, these past months, has circled around renewed wonder about that reality indexed by words like “community” (polity, unum, cohort, congregation, plenum, etc.). This was first triggered as I tried to distance myself temporarily from what was bringing me to the neurological intensive care unit of a Large Urban Teaching Hospital. I knew enough to wonder what host of human beings were needed to keep my wife alive hooked to multiple machines in constant need of re-adjustment by this, but not necessarily by that, human being–with instructions by some to others to NOT do this or that.

So, I stood by the door, looking out. What struck me were the huddles of intense interaction and the spaces and silences between these. There had been the huddle who had greeted me with concerned stances, explained stuff I could barely register, asked me to sign various documents I did not read. They had introduced themselves as those who would operate on my wife—though I only found out later that their leader, the one with the ultimate authority (and responsibility) was not there. That huddle, I never saw again. But by the 2nd or 3rd day, I could identify recurring huddles. There was one I labeled “physicians” (students/residents/interns—clearly a divided community, even if they huddled together on the floor). There was one or more huddle made up of those I labeled “the nursing staff” (I discovered later that they too were divided into multiple units). There was a small one made by the police who were guarding one of the rooms. There was the janitorial staff. They were all in view of each other, often quite close physically. And yet they remained distinct. I could sense differences in the tenor of the speech each used (I was amused listening to flirting among the young cops…). But always they maintained boundaries which, I know from every research on the matter, require ongoing work to NOT acknowledge one another’s presence in the performance of their parallel duties—even when these duties required asking the other to move their bodies as happened regularly when floors had to be cleaned, or examinations done.

This led me to wonder about one limitation in the model of the “community of practice.” When I teach Lave, I focus on the power of her model to deal with classical problems in social structural analysis: the problem of the grounds of participation to a position (usually resolved by invoking “socialization”), and the problem of movement across the structure (usually ignored). Lave taught us that socialization (“learning”) follows participation (rather than being a prerequisite) and that all participation moves people. I knew that Lave was cagey about the boundary issue. She and I once had a friendly disagreement about this as she asserted that boundaries were not “real” when I countered that, of course they were, though always in need of repair. Maintaining boundaries is hard work. I have since mused about the “gravity wells” that some communities produce as they induce people to seek participation. In that metaphor, boundaries would be “event horizon” beyond which one cannot ever escape, in their future, “having been a participant” (even if one has quit, or been thrown out).

What I had not noticed is that all these theoretical developments were made in term of research in what are treated as just one entity, be it alcoholics in meeting, tailors, midwives, etc. So, of course, physicians in hospital training would be a classic “community of practice” (see dissertation by Yan-Di Chang (2017)). Nurses, police, even the janitorial staff could be advantageously looked at as polities of some sort where legitimate participants move into ever fuller positions. The paper by Magolda and Delman on campus custodians (2016) could easily be interpreted in that fashion. The question I now have to ask is: what happens when nurses, police, physicians and janitors move side by side? How are we to model the work of maintaining boundaries, particularly when the actual bodies arrange themselves in a limited physical space? To build on Yeats’ wonder about the individual and the dance, one must also wonder how, in ballroom dancing at least, the couples do not bump into each other.

Though of course, some time they do bump. On a hospital floor there are those who have not yet been in that dance even though they are now fully caught in it. Most salient probably among the newbies are probably the next of kin, in their anxious multitudes. They are in the paradoxical position of not “belonging” to any of the communities even as these communities are very ostensibly about them. I know what can happen to newbies for having been one in, eventually, five such ensembles of communities of practice, in the various “floors” and “services” of hospitals and the like. Newbies like myself keep addressing any person that passes by in often desperate efforts to get an authoritative voice to tell them something and give them hope. But how is this newbie to know which human being to address or evaluate this or that person’s authority to speak/act? This has to be a problem for all the dancers on the floor. Minimally, they must spend time instructing the newbie about who can say what about whom. They probably must resist the temptation to explain what they may not explain, or give interpretations about each other that would break the boundaries. One nurse, in one hospital, did make negative comments about one of the doctors treating my wife. I was surprised, not by the fact that she had such opinions, but by the fact that she told us about them, when, I suspect, she could have been sanctioned for doing this. As anthropologists well know, custodians may be best source of information about an institution, nurses about doctors, students and junior faculty about the elders who may, or may not, allow them to move into a fuller position. But this only makes more salient the ongoing work to maintaining boundaries against recurring challenges.

More on this another time.



Chang, Yan-Di   2017     Situated Teaching: Educating Medical Students Through Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Doctoral Dissertation. New York: Columbia University.

Magolda, Peter and Liliana Delman   2016     “Campus custodians in the corporate university: Castes, crossing borders, and critical consciousness.” Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 47, 3:246-263.

Print This Post Print This Post

End of community

I ended my last post with a sentence about the “body two Others-to-each-other constructed.” In parenthesis I suggested this body might be a ‘community’ or ‘polity’.

Usually, I resist the word “community,” and insist on ‘polity’ for analytic reasons. But, in this case, I will start with ‘community’, first because it is easy to write in American, and second because of its almost forgotten etymology: ‘community’ is “united with”—or, in other words, “e pluribus unum.”

That is, Susan and I, 47 years ago, transformed a plurality into a unum that has now disappeared since I cannot unite myself to the Other that was essential to this unum.

What exactly was this unum that, through continual practice, made a thing all who approached it had to contend with?

Not surprisingly for those concerned with the individual (psychological) impact of not being “united with” a most significant Other—in this material life at least—, leads me often to reminesce about various moments when Susan and I made something that neither of us had experienced before. There were several “beginnings” to the construction. The first one happened, one morning at the International House of the University of Chicago, at breakfast when half a dozen of us introduced ourselves. Susan liked to recount how she thought, after hearing me mumbling my name, “well, that’s one I will never remember!”. Fifteen months later, at what could count as the last of the beginnings, we were married and she who had been “Susan Martin Brydges” became, for all State matter at a time when she could have chosen differently, “Susan Brydges Varenne” (I do not recall any discussion of this). In between she had changed from being “Sue” to earlier others to being “Susan” to all the others we gathered from then on. I was the main architect of that change.

For a classic on naming practices, see Geertz ([1966] 1973)

Anthropologists know well that naming and renaming practices are essential signs of powerful processes. The renaming marks the constitution of some boundary future, more or less significant, others will have to deal with. All unum’s are unum-for-others, as well as for those who make it.

a new unum

Another sign is the first picture of the new unum that was then shown to various somewhat significant others (parents, siblings, etc.) to alert them to something new in their lives too. Taking this picture was itself a complicated engineering feat in the days long before selfie technology appeared: the picture involved setting a camera on a chair, focusing by hand, setting a timer, taking the pose… And it involved waiting at least a week to find out whether the picture was useful for its purpose.

From a sociological distance:

In popular sociology, what Susan and I made may be labelled “traditional.” Actually, it looked like that 47 years ago also (the boundary traditional/modern has not moved much in half a century!). What we made was not at all what the “young people” of 1972 were supposed to make or be making. 1972 was the year of publication of The Joy of Sex—and certainly not The Joy of Marriage… Susan established herself as the cook (I had cooked a little earlier), I took care of all State and bureaucratic matters (Susan had done so very efficiently in the contexts of three different nation-states). I developed my career at Teachers College while Susan suspended her doctoral studies. In our first years together, as the children were born and we lived in a university building inhabited by other untenured faculty members and their wives, Susan’s women friends there challenged her, mercilessly as she sometime told it when irritated. Why, did they ask, did she “accept” something that must be forced on her? The more she was challenged, the more she was adamant that whatever Susan and I were making, it was not something imposed on her. Most of these women were moving on to their divorce in the midst of various dramas. In parallel, we were further strengthening our unum. There was no méconnaissance here, no mere acting out of “dispositions learned early in life,” no mere acceptance of norms that were not anymore anyway the norms of “our” academic, intellectual, “culture.”

From the anthropological distance:

The sociological stance, of course, is one that places the observer/analyst/critic at a distance, looking on at outcomes of invisible processes. My anthropological stance is one that places the observer/participant in the very midst of these processes. From close by, indeed from inside, what continues to strike me is, first, the difference of our unum from the other unum’s we knew, from that of our parents, to that of our siblings, friends, and later children. Many would also classify these as “traditional” but that would erase all interesting differences, in the same as the labels “primitive” (or the new label “indigenous”) erase the major differences Boas taught us, anthropologists, we must pay attention to. The second thing that strikes me is that everything Susan and I build was always unfinished and, more importantly, in need of reconstruction according to plans we borrowed (and that often proved inadequate), and with always insufficient resources we had to assemble from multiple sources. This was most salient when the children arrived, and then again when Susan was officially diagnosed as seriously sick. As the doctor told us then, when speaking a diagnosis we had not paid attention to earlier: “your life is now going to change as we will have to meet every month for ongoing tests and so forth…”

Susan and I made what I wish I still could call a “culture”—an artful-assemblage-for-us that was our reality, our fact, for 47 years, and is now in the past, getting solid in history, while it had been always been fluid.

I am writing here as if our unum was only made of two persons. In fact it was made of much more as it affected people in Michigan and France who had never, until then, had to deal with each other and with what their children had done… As our children were born, it got to incorporate three more, then three more, then seven more. Actually, as the children made their own unum things got much more complicated. I will get to this sometimes in the future, expanding on the metaphor of the “gravity well” that I have used a few times recently. Any unum (community, polity, society) catches those who approach and somehow changes their trajectory. But unum’s, particularly as they grow, also divide, seed, etc., other unum’s that can then modify the trajectory of the earliest one.

[first composed on August 5, 2019]



Geertz, Clifford   [1966] 1973     “Person, time and conduct in Bali.” in The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Print This Post Print This Post

On leaning on an absent Other

Today [July 9, 2019]] is one of these exceptional days in Aumage with almost steady rain, interspaced with rumbling thunder and sometimes a patch of blue sky. There are always two or three of those among the many bright dry summer days that are what one expects of the region. So, this exceptional is normal.

What is missing for me this summer is the Other to whom I addressed, for 47 years, statements of the obvious: “isn’t the ray of sunshine beautiful,” “look at the sheets of rain across the valley, they are coming for us,” “well maybe it will stay over there,” “it’s raining harder now,” “I hope it’s finished by tomorrow because I have a big wash to do,” “of course it will be over! And it will be much cooler.” Nothing of this carried much information. It ranged from the obvious, to the cliche, to the repetitive. And yet this “no-thing” was most salient as some, mysterious, perhaps indicible, Thing on wich I leaned—mostly without noticing it.

What is now missing, technically, is what is called “phatic talk”—a horrible word usually associated with beginnings of communicational sequences (phone calls, e-mail messages) when two parties establish that they are indeed in communication, and that they have now made a “community” of sorts, however briefly. The phatic phase is usually presented in the literature on communication as a brief moment in the movement towards saying or doing “why” the sequence was started in the first place.

But phatic talk (I do need a better word for this!) between long married husband and wife (I am sure this is true of many other relationships) is something else altogether. It still has the property of being actually about “nothing” in that no new information is being passed, and nothing specific gets done. Which may be why it is a kind of talk that is easy to miss … until it is not possible to do it, when the other, in her absence, truly stands out as the most “significant” Other she was for so long. Like what I have read about lost limbs that one still feels, the absent person remains a presence one keeps noticing at the times when one finds oneself leaning on the person, when one turns to her to state the obvious, a fleeting thought to externalize, a commentary on something that just happened.

What does one do, next, when the absence of such very particular, and very significant, Other is noticed, again?

I now understand why some visit the tomb of their now absent Other to tell her, perhaps aloud, of one’s day, of what so and so said or did, of the wonders or horrors in the latest news. This may appear saner than “talking to oneself” (in such a way as to being noticed by others, less significant others, that might become significant if they decide to sanction what they noticed). I know I will be told to find another other with whom to say nothings comfortably. Some will advise me to find concrete things to do (hobbies, bricolage) that will cancel the urge to phatic talk: spending 2 hours getting IIS to work on my Windows computer did work that way. I am likely to follow that advice.

But the dulling the pain, or layering it over, does not negate the reality of the movement of a whole body towards an Other who will never again be there, in the other room, surfing the web, reading theology, compiling shopping lists, calling family members on the phone. This movement may be an old habit (though its exact form changed a lot over 47 years), a “psychological” event for he who is doing it.  But I insist that the movement also reveals the external reality of the other as irreducible presence standing actively and resisting any “social construction” of this Other. Such others (and that there are many who may be more or less significant) are not a figment of the imagination, a social construct imposed by “my culture” (whatever that would be!!). Others who make such a difference that they are missed like severed limbs are both “subject” and “object” of action (“agents”?). They cannot be reduced to psychological shadows or to the historical properties of the “body” (community, polity) that two Others-to-each-Other did construct over their history together.

Print This Post Print This Post

Fearing the social deconstruction of the body

Those who follow this blog will notice that the last posting was more than a year ago. They may correctly surmise, given the pre-text for that last post (the need for a “next of kin” to make decisions for a “significant other”), that the lapse has to do with the suffering of that “other,” my wife of 47 years who died on May 26, a month before her 77th birthday.

A year ago, scared but hopeful, I wondered how to learn to ask what I kept discovering I did not know and from whom. I wondered about the ignorance revealed by having to act at a moment I had never experienced. This happened to be the theme of the book on which I had been working and which is now available (Educating in life. Routledge, 2019). My experiences in the neurological floor of Columbia Presbyterian hospital, and then the Wartbug Rehabilitation Center, White Plains Hospital, etc. could have become another ethnography of a very challenging new normal (the sub-title to the book). But the last two months pushed these concerns to the background. The then new normal has become moot. In the past two months, what became salient is the power of the body to resist all social and cultural attempts to reconstruct it as a living body. While watching the impressive efforts of the medical professionals, and the spiritual and emotional turmoil of all other bodies affected, I remembered Robert Murphy’s powerful tale of such a struggle told by an anthropologist experiencing his, and all others’, impotence as they confronted what Murphy called, in his book a “body silent” (1987). At the same time, I had to read several student papers struggling with queer and gender theory. Looking at my pile of unread books, I noticed Judith Butler’s Bodies that matter (1993) and started reading it for this blog—expecting to be provoked.

I was not disappointed. First, is the fact that “I” “am” an “anthropologist,” not a “philosopher” (the scare quotes are actually citations to linguistic forms Butler “critiques” as “ontologizing” such social categories as “being” “anthropologist” and “I”). Butler is not an anthropologist but she directly challenges what I do and what I teach anthropologists must do. And she challenges it from a reading of anthropological work she inherits and expands from one now quite traditional reading of their early work, particularly those of the Saussurian (through Lévi-Strauss) and Boasian traditions. This reading is grounded in Derrida’s interpretation of Saussure, and particularly of Saussure on the arbitrariness of the sign, and on the social conventions that link signifier to signified, and arguably (as many in this tradition have done) thereby arbitrarily (in the political sense) constitute this signified. Thus the word ‘sex’ (always surrounded by scare quotes in Butler’s writing) “functions as norms” and is “part of regulatory practices” (Butler 1993: xii). That may be true in the many political activities within which the word appears. But there is no evidence that this function exhausts what the word may also do for those who use it. When teaching this, I first mention another philosopher, Merleau-Ponty who, when facing Saussure, went in a different direction from Derrida’s. It is not that there is “nothing at the center” but that the center 1) cannot be reached and 2) all attempts to reach it must proceed through words (symbols, discourses, practices) that will, not so paradoxically, succeed in giving a glimpse of the center through the silences between the words. And then, when teaching all this to ethnographically inclined anthropologist, I invoke the act of ☞ (indexing) that I learned from Garfinkel.

That is, words like ‘sex’, the ‘body’, ‘death’ are very much “part of regulatory practices” that … fail to capture and dominate that which they do desperately attempt to control. More graphically, when a body is captured by a hospital, it immediately (as in the first seconds of approaching an emergency room) becomes an object for an immense network of practices (in laboratories, universities, state regulatory agencies, insurance companies, etc.) embodied by the highly differentiated, controlled, regulated, bodies who are the medical staff one encounters from the moment when an attendant tells you to park not here but there, to the time when a physician “pronounces” one dead (itself quite a moment of cultural hubris as if the body had waited for the pronouncement to die). This process is well summarized in what should be required reading for all anthropologists of the body, the paper by Barney Glaser and Anself Strauss “Temporal aspects of dying as a non-scheduled status passage” (1965). This is powerful ethnography even if it fails to state the obvious: the ongoing re-identification of a body by the professionals, the changes in their demeanor, or the formal transfers from some professionals to other (e.g. from oncologists to hospice doctors) is occasioned by bodily processes over which the hospital has no ultimate power.

In brief that which words like ‘body’ (sex, death) index is NOT a (social) construction, even though it always is, by every evidence we have ethnographically and experientially, a trigger for constructions (such as words, norms, and regulatory practices) that are essential to human life even though they will always fail to capture it. Dismissing the struggle of all when confronting the ever mysterious and ineffable that some humans index as ‘the body’ is the ultimate act of disrespect towards the human.



Butler, Judith   1993     Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of “sex”. New York: Routledge.. Publisher

Glaser, Barney and Anselm Strauss   1965     “Temporal aspects of dying as a non-scheduled status passage.” American Journal of Sociology 71: 48-59.

Murphy, Robert   1987     The body silent. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

Print This Post Print This Post

What is there to learn now, here, under maximum stress? (a problem for learning theory?)

Learning with others is, necessarily, a political matter. Thus my insistence on writing about “polities” of practice. Still, it remains that “learning” post participation risks being taken as a somewhat automatic process in the movement towards “fuller” (political) participation. Through participation one may move from apprentice to master but focusing, as we must, on movement does not tell us much about the everyday activities of the one who moves (or of the activities of those who encourage the movement—or put blocks on the way), and particularly about the activity of sorting out what to learn (what to prioritize, what to ignore, etc.).

I thought about this in the interstices of other activities I was not  able to escape these past weeks. I found myself, much against my will, and my hopes, in the position of apprentice to “next of kin” practices, first in in the neurological intensive care unit of New York/Presbyterian Hospital, and then in the regular neurological unit, and then in a rehabilitation center. At 70, it is the case that I have never been in that position, legitimately or otherwise, and that I have had much to learn even as I worried about much more than learning.

There were the not so trivial matters.  Where on earth is “177 Fort Washington Avenue”? Such an apparently non-deictic specification is altogether useless in New York City where major hospitals do not advertise their address on their majestic fronts! After one instance of re-directing instruction, I found myself having the figure out the security system, the floor, the location of switches to open doors, the “family waiting room” (including, later, its rhythms and accommodations to being told, or not, to wait there).

All this may appear minor as one learns with the help of instructing people who tell where one should (not) be (not) doing this or that, now but not necessarily then, along with meta-instructions about the range of possibilities for not triggering further instruction about (not) standing here or there, now and then, or the kind of apologies that might quiet criticism for messing around (and not give authorities the occasion to label one “confused” in a place and at moments specifically dedicated to identify, measure, and treat altogether real “confusion”).

Much less minor, when one first enters the emergency room, is the semi-circle of surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, (and what else?), “explaining” (teaching?) emergency procedures and asking for various permissions and signatures. At that moment of highest stress, there is not much room for wondering what to learn. This, actually, may be just one of the moments when one must rely on previous learning with all its pre-judgements (aka “prejudices”) about what to do next (“trust the experts and sign whatever they place in front of you!”). At such a moment there is no time or occasion to review, analyze, discuss judgments that must be made right here, and right now—not after 10 minutes of consultation with family, friends, Google, etc.

And then, there is the wait…… Now one can review pre-judgements, wonder about possibilities (“did I tell them that …”), alternatives, paths that might open, one of which will have to be taken into a completely uncertain future. This is the time when one realizes that one does not know what, of all that one has learned earlier in life, is going to be useful and so must, once again, figure out, perhaps with trustworthy (or not) guidance, what one will have to learn—and whether it is to be needed only for the short term (I hope I am never on that hospital floor again), or for the longer term (new diets? limitations? handicaps and their mitigation? other hospitals for other diseases or conditions?).

And then, there is the matter of leaning about what one needs to learn about rehabilitation centers….

In the mean time, someplace between the trivial and the not so trivial given life in the 21st century, is the matter of figuring out how to get the Apple iPad to do what it is supposed to do.
I was convinced by a significant other that it would help the recovering body whittle away the time.  And so I bought my first Apple product.  As I expected, I found the iPad an irritation (though hopefully not for much longer). For someone raised on Vax VMS (who knows what that is?!) and Microsoft Windows, the pictograms at the bottom of the iPad were an initial mystery (as well as aesthetically challenging). Yes, it is a wonderful machine, but in what direction does how swipe, and when? What just happened to what I was looking at? Why doesn’t Siri take dictation (so that I could write this blog), or is it that I have not found how to get her to take dictation?

More importantly, it turns out, not too surprisingly, that the recovering body actually cannot handle the iPad.  It cannot hold the thing,  its fingers swipe, but not quite with the required dexterity.  So endless instructions: “do no put your finger here,” “you touched something at the bottom of the screen,” “you need to swipe twice from the bottom of the screen.” On and on the need for instruction arises, as well as for wondering whether to learn/teach this, and if so, what to learn/teach next.  Eventually, there is the matter of the will to take instruction, practice the instructions, discover new forms of ignorance.  Is there really a need to learn one more set of trivial matters? Perhaps there is.  But convincing the recovering body, or her most significant other, is no easy task.

Here again, for analysts concerned with the reality that the world, whether man-made or not, is not an open book, the issue to investigate should not be what or how people “learn” (and teach).  The issue should be the work that people perform as they figure out what to learn/teach, and as always, who might help/hinder that search: child, trial and error, warning message, instructions from some programmer who imagined that this might require instruction (but not that)???

Print This Post Print This Post

Musings about possibilities in the scholarly life of a professor of education and anthropologist