on “Corona”

Again, C19 may kill you, Corona closes restaurant. (March 28, 2020)

So, what is “Corona”? In my younger days, I might have meant it as the word (Saussurian signifier) pointing to an object (Saussurian signified). This may still be common sense, even after the “ontological turn” in anthropology which, as I understand it, is meant to make us consider the “thing-ness” of a possible entity such as “Corona.” The question is actually a classical one in anthropology: when talking about something social (“social structure”) are we talking about an object or about a model built by observers to manipulate? This was the core of the debate between Radcliffe-Brown and Lévi-Strauss (1953). For Radcliffe-Brown, the matter was common sensical. He had made it simple in a foundational text:

If I visit a relatively stable community and revisit it after an interval of ten years, I shall find that many of its members have died and others have been born; the members who still survive are now ten years older and their relations to one another may have changed in many ways. Yet I may find that the kinds of relations that I can observe are very little different from those observed ten years before. The structural form had changed little. ([1940] 1965: 192-3)

We could translate it into Corona (from my experiences in Wyoming and New York City:

As I drove 2100 miles, none of the people that I met, directly or indirectly in Jackson, Wyoming moved with me. In a small Jackson grocery story, a table had been put between the cashier and the customers to increase the distance between them. In New Rochelle, another such table had been set up in a small bakery. The structural form was the same.

The problem, as Lévi-Strauss saw it, is that the “structural form,” what we might now call the product of a social construction of reality, is actually not accessible to the anthropologist’s senses. Quite before Geertz told us that what anthropologists actually do is “write,” Lévi-Strauss told us that what they must do is make a model (a form of writing) based on observations (including observations of the models participants might have themselves made of their relations). That is the anthropologist-as-scientist must do something similar to what the biologists investigating C19 are doing, that is transform what they get to see using a massively cultural machinery (electron microscope and all that they entail) into something they can manipulate (for example by coloring various parts). In other words, biologists must ‘write’ C19 to manipulate it.

Given all this, what is to be modeled by an anthropologist investigating the social response to C19 that made a total institution (in Goffman’s sense) for 6.8 billion people, and its consequences?

The simple, negative, answer is: I am not going to model a “social structure” or “system.”

Anthropologists of my generation suspected that this was the case and, to a large extent, nobody writes about “social structures” any more, though some are tempted to re-introduce the concept, for example those investigating “structural racism.” Those who know my work also know that I always resisted Geertz’s pessimism (encouraged by Derrida’s ‘deconstructionism’): it is NOT all words. If something is a “social construction,” then it is VERY real, an object that stands in the way of the human beings who bump into it. In my work with McDermott we traced what makes schooling a problem by focusing on the consequences that something made to serve all children so that “none are left behind” actually identifies 50% of all children as “below average,” in need of identification, help and remediation (Successful Failure 1998). Schools in the United States and around the world are determinedly made up (cultural, artificial, arbitrary). McDermott and I summarized all this by writing about the  “School” (capitalized) as a “thing,” made up of ongoing events of some sort, for example the School is set up to weigh human beings on all sorts of statistical scales. How could that be? McDermott and I responded that it had to do with “America” in the School that it made over the past centuries.

Ten years later, Jill Koyama (2010), quite rightly criticized Successful Failure  for not tracing the mechanisms that keep re-producing the School. Pointing at America without specifying the mechanisms is insufficient, and possibly dangerous if it leads some to assume that America is made by … encultured, habituated, Americans.

To make her point, Koyama followed a subset of another one of the major pieces of the many legislations which, over the past centuries were aimed at revitalizing the public school. She looked at the life of “Supplemental Educational Services,” a small part of an act to ensure that “No Child [is] Left Behind.” Rather than “deconstructing” the act, she followed its life for some of those who could not escape it: corporate chiefs, mayors, principals, teachers, parents for whom the act was either resource to use (particularly for the large corporations that were contracted to “deliver” the services) or obstacle to navigate. Koyama was inspired in this analysis by Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory, and particularly by that aspect of the theory that insists that a “network” is never closed. A network is not a system or a structure. A network is not even really a “thing” so much as a set of pathways through which the stuff that happens, particularly government decrees, travel though a population and activate something in them.

In that perspective, “America” is an actor-network. So is Corona in my writing. That is, when I write “Corona can close restaurants,” I am asking social scientists to look for the linkages along which a governor’s decree move, as well as all the sub-decrees that various people in the network have to enact so that this restaurant here at this time is indeed closed.

Modeling Corona (in one or another of its instances) can then allow us to compare it to other such events in human history—say the School.

More on that in another post.

References

Koyama, Jill   2010     Making failure pay: For-profit tutoring, high-stake testing, and public schools.. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude   [1952] 1963     in Structural anthropology, pp. .277-323 Tr. by C. Jacobson and B. Schoepf. New York: Basic Books.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R.   [1940] 1965     “On Social structure.” in Structure and Function in Primitive Society, pp.188-204 . New York: The Free Press.

1963 .. (First published in 1952)

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Corona as culture

Corona is neither simply juxtaposed to nor simply superposed over COVID-19. In a way, Corona substitutes itself to COVID-19, in another way Corona uses and transforms COVID-19 to realize a synthesis of a higher order.

The above is a translation of the best two sentences about culture and humanity ever written by an anthropologists. In the original Lévi-Strauss ([1949] 1969: 4)) possibly meant it optimistically (Boon 1982: Chapter 4). Translated into the Corona epoch, it may or may not be so. In any event it is essential for an anthropologist to keep the virus (that is the material and biological — C19 here) distinct from the human response (that is the social and cultural—Corona here). The response to C19 produced a “synthesis of a higher order,” Corona that has caught about all 7.8 billion human beings on the planet. For the million and a half who have been identified as carrying the virus, for their kin, and for those who treated them, C19 may be a matter of direct experience. For everybody else, what is experienced is Corona in the reports by the media, in the regulations by government, in conversations among kin, friends, colleagues. As an individual, I am lucky that noone in my first degree network has experienced C19. But we all have experienced, and continue to experience, Corona.

In an earlier post (March 28, 2020) I wrote that C19 might kill you and but it cannot close a restaurant. That is, and against some who wrote that illness is a metaphor (Sontag 1977), C19 is a “thing with agency” (in Latour’s sense). Actually it is a thing that is alive and will change as human responses begin affecting it (through vaccines, etc.). The naming of the virus “Crown,” in Latin, by whomever is, of course, a metaphor based on its appearance under an electron microscope.
C19 is not a metaphor though it will remain something about which metaphor will be made—along with much else in discourse, through speech acts and other means that will much more consequential than metaphors.

media image of the C19 virus
This is not a virus

The anthropological response to Corona will have to focus minimally on two aspects of the human response: how do humans get to “see” C19 and act directly on it. Most humans will never see it or act on it except for the few whom we can gloss as “scientists.” They will work mightily on that front. Anthropologists of science may or may not be helpful there. Where anthropologists will be useful is in the analysis of the spread of Corona, its consequences, and its evolution as it will morph given what will have been done earlier, and what was done elsewhere.

Consider: on April 6, as I write this, Euro-America is days into “isolation” and “social distancing.” When the regulations for this started depends on the nation-state under which one lives. Similarly, the exact nature of these regulations and their enforcement vary here and there, even though all governors (that is those involved in making the regulations) know what others are doing. In the US itself, resistance can take many public forms: compare the Hasidic in Queens to sheriffs in Idaho
In France, for example, all are required not to move more than 3/4 mile from their house and hand the police, when asked, a written, signed, document explaining why they are out. In New York City, one can still walk or drive to a grocery store or park. In France one can be fined and even arrested for transgressing the boundaries. In New York the policy will break groups of people larger than a few. There are now reports about some governors discussing what will be the modalities of de-distancing. One can be sure that these discussions will be acrimonious, with much disagreement, and that they will produce different measures here rather than there.

In other words, as with everything else that resist human beings, human beings will make culture and will live with what they have made. That is they will make some (many) things that will materially resist them. When Lévi-Strauss wrote about “synthesis of a higher order,” he was not writing about “interpretations” that live solely in the imagination. The synthesis is not a psychological event (though it may have psychological consequences) it is a social one. It takes shape in interaction, through conversation, instruction, punishment if necessary.

The challenge, in the anthropological study of Corona, will consist in figuring out who, in any particular place and at any particular moment, is involved in producing what aspect of Corona. To take the one example of the closing of a restaurant in a ski resort of Wyoming, one would need to trace the acts of the restaurant managers and the consequences for the managers and employees. To take another example, on March 28, I was told by the desk person at my hotel that I had either to leave or stay in my room for 30 days starting on March 30th. I did not investigate whether this was an accurate translation of the town council resolution, nor was I present when the regulation was passed down to the hotel. But, on the basis of the statement, I decided to leave the following day.

Many anthropologists might be interested in “why” I took this decision (or “why” is was in Jackson, Wyoming, of all places). They might look into my early childhood, into my personality or character, or into my identity. Some might emphasized that I had a good car, and that I was healthy enough to make the 4 days trip back to New York. Some might wonder why I decided to go back to New York at a time when everyone was being told that things were terrible there.

All that may be interesting if you are concerned with me. However, as an anthropologists, I am concerned with particular conditions that others make for me in my peculiar conditions.

That is the problem on which cultural anthropologists must continue to work.

 

References

Boon, James   1982     Other tribes, other scribes: Symbolic anthropology in the comparative study of cultures, histories, religions, and texts.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Sontag, Susan   1978     Illness as metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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On the speech acts that are making Corona

Let’s settle one thing first. A virus can kill a body but cannot close a restaurant. Only some people can do the latter. To close a restaurant some one must speak, with authority so that the consequences follow (restaurants to close, restaurant owners to speech act to potential customers).

At some point, say in February 2020, Corona was something one read about in the media. And then it became consequential in my everyday life as the President of Teachers College told the faculty that classes would be suspended and would continue online. I was struck about his exercising an authority that is vested in him—though I was also struck that he was following what had been done by the President of Columbia. For those who do not know the peculiar organization of Columbia, the fact that Teachers College is a separate corporation means that acts like “suspending classes” must be performed twice, first by the President of Columbia, and then by the one of Teachers College. As I was driving on a lecture tour that had not yet been interrupted I mused about who these Presidents consulted and who was involved in making the closing a sensible one, as well as one that could not be contested through the usual channels. Actually, I suspect that it was not simply a sensible response, it was one they had no particular choice making. I mused about lawyers and insurance companies. But mostly I mused about de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, and Cuomo, the governor of New York State as they exercised their own authorities as the responsible governing agents.

By the time I reached my first stop at Indiana University, everything was still “pre-Corona” though it had become a subject of anxious conversations as everyone expected Indiana to also close (go on line, stop such events as lectures by outsiders, etc.). We discussed Harvard shutting its dorms. We wondered about Columbia (which decided not to, though it encouraged students to leave). And we waited for the next shoes to drop.

Three days later, all my other scheduled lectures at Minnesota, Arizona, California State, Stanford were cancelled and Corona started to directly affect my everyday life. On some matters I still had some control. So I decided to continue westward. North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, the states I was going to cross had not performed any Corona related speech acts (and New York was starting to possibly be a bad place to be—as was discussed among my extended kin). By the time I reached Wyoming, this had changed as the state closed restaurants, etc. Within these State strictures I could still make certain decisions so that, three weeks into Corona, I am settled in a beautiful place and in a hotel I can afford.

I am expanding on the original speech act theorists (Austin 1962; Searle 1965) by taking into account all that conversational analysis and linguistic anthropology has taught us: speaking that has consequences, that is “speech” that “acts,” always involves a set of earlier utterances to which the speaking respond, including a pre-figuration of what future speakers might then do.

To do this, I performed many more or less consequential quasi speech acts, from those I made to myself, to those I made when I asked for a room, etc. All of these were, at the time, sensible responses to many strictures including the new constraints imposed by various agencies, from state governors to local health authorities. These responses were performed under my own authority over myself and could thus be deemed “voluntary.” However, having to respond is not something under my control so I would, as actor, deem the whole process involuntary. In Foucault’s terms ([1975] 1978), I am now imagining myself in a panopticon, disciplining myself so that I might not be punished.

Footnote:

References

Austin, J. L.   1962     How to do things with words. London: Oxford University Press.

Foucault, Michel   [1975] 1978     Discipline and punish. Tr. by A. Sheridan. New York: Penguin Books.

Searle, John   1965     “What is a speech act.” In Philosophy in America, ed by Max Black. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. pp. 221–239

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Ignorant School Teachers

Rancière is altogether optimistic about “ignorant school masters” ([1987] 1999 ). He advocates for a radically “democratic,” non stultifying education that is not about students repeating what they are told by some teacher. As Joseph Jacotot has demonstrated, anyone can teach anything they do not know… as long as they do not invoke knowledge. The best school master is the one who is ignorant of what the students under his authority are trying to learn through exercising their intelligence in community with others also doing it. Rancière is tempted by Jacotot’s radical revolutionary democracy as it was dreamed up by the young French of 1789 (who also produced the Terror). He is tempted to doubt any claim to knowledge, expertise, etc. from philosophers, particularly when they are also placed at the service of some political cause or State.

One can seriously doubt whether this is something that is to be “applied” in the case of anything that involves the medical care of our bodies by modern medicine (vaccines, viruses, traumas, etc.). In such cases it would be hard to claim that we do not need expert teachers, who were taught by fully knowledgeable teachers, and who keep learning from such. We might also hope that some of them will think beyond the various boundaries set by their teachers so that they can actually find something no one else could have taught them. But that is a boundary case.

But one should not doubt the importance of Rancière’s major point: that people continually teach each other what they do not know as well as exercise their intelligence to figure out what to do next given their conditions, including all the advice others, and particularly experts, give them. This is something everyone should take into account, and particularly people with power and authority leaning on experts. “Official” education is always going to be challenged by the non-official.

This is very general, and, as I teach it, completely in line with the most classical forms of cultural anthropology. Humans would not be where they are, anywhere in the world, if they had not continually been involved in challenges to any order established earlier.

Now, in the particular case of Corona, we have a different kind of “ignorant school masters.” As I argued in my earlier post, most of the population of the United States (France, Italy, etc.) learned about COVID-19 from the media, that is from announcers or journalists translating what others had said, including politicians and experts. They continually invoke authoritative knowledge (as well as play on the emotions of their audience). “Stories” generally include reference to the “CDC,” a Dr. X “expert from [famous] hospital,” etc. How these stories are written, by whom, under what kind of control is something that specialist in media studies might teach me. But I strongly suspect that the experts themselves do not control the final wording (that is the curriculum) or the manner of the delivery (that is the pedagogy) of the education dispensed by the media. And I am about certain that the journalists themselves are not expert, or have any decision making authority such as those of governmental officials. The media people are teachers, but they are of the most ignorant type.

In the past few days, I have gotten further teaching documents that many if not most will never get. I have statements from university presidents, some colleagues, and such. They are statements by people outside the media that the media people may translate into their stories. The anthropologist Mica Pollock, for example, sent anthropologists of education these links from Ariadne Labs at Harvard: This is Not a Snow Day and #KidsHomeSafe: Advice on Social Distancing for Families. Here is expertise over expertise reiterating, or being the source of, action by the State.  Again, education from beyond the school

But the social reality remains the same, and is sometimes hinted at in these documents. If one has to be told that this is NOT a snow day, then it is probably because the author of this title is aware that many do take the current regulations as equivalent as snow days, vacations from school or work during which one should also have some fun with friends and family. Most medical doctors know well that many patients do not follow their advice, leading to a huge literature on the matter.

For an anthropologist of education/knowledge, the questions remain. Outside to the realm of experts, and the politicians who listen to them, what becomes accepted knowledge among a certain group? That is a social question since, as an anthropologist, I am less interested in individual knowledge than about communal one. I am interested even more in the establishing of (probably very temporary) agreements about what to do next. I can imagine some mother reading the texts produced by Ariadne Labs and then trying to establish what to do over the next day that husband, children, neighbors, etc. will actually implement.

It is about these processes that cultural anthropologists may have some expertise.  On the basis of this expertise, we can criticize another story from Ariadne Lab titled “Resistance and change” (about some surgical procedure). The post starts with “ Humans resist change. Maybe it’s a survival mechanism from our evolutionary past.” The reality is, of course, that humans continually change, that their conditions and resources for survival change, so that, actually and eventually, modern medicine does evolve over its past and towards some uncertain future.

 

References

[1987] 1999 The ignorant schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Tr. by K. Ross. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

 

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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 be 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]

References

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

 

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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 privileges.is 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.

 

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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.

References

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

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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.

References

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.

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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)

References

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

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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.

 

References

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.

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