Category Archives: Culturings

Comments that produce associations and properties for the identification of human beings in terms of race, gender, religion, etc.

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.



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.



[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]


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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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.

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What am I to do with “”memes”“

The double scare quote marks should index my puzzlement. I am not wondering about “memes” but about what my puzzlement should be about. Genetics? Popular culture? Some polity (with boundaries policed by various agencies)? These questions are also indexes to my ignorance, and actually to my discovering, again, that I am ignorant of something “every one else” appears to know. “Every one” includes all those who use the word “meme” without quote marks, as something that does not require explanation or teaching. I will assume that some of those are quite sure they know what “memes” are about (for example those who coded a “meme generator”), and, of course, those who do not know but, for one reason or another do not mention their ignorance, perhaps hoping that no one will notice and make fun. As for me, I started noticing the word in the New York Times. For a while I could not quite figure what they were talking about though it seemed to be about social media, the young and cool, … and the readers of the paper to whom the editors did not explain what a “meme” might be. I was irritated, and also amused by my irritation since the whole experience confirmed for me how the media educates: by shaming readers into accepting whatever new conventions the editors deem necessary for everyone to accept as proper.

More optimistically, it may be that the NYT and other such powers educate by gently coaxing those who do not know and get them to find out for themselves. I guess this is what I am now doing after I found myself using the word as I put the final touches on the book still known as When is education (forth). I wrote; “Words have a history. They bring to mind other words in what was called the “paradigmatic” dimension of synonyms, antonyms, associated cliches, memes, poems, myths, etc.” And then I wondered whether “meme” belonged to this set that I was constituting. I was expanding the strict definition of “paradigm” in Saussurean linguistics that focuses on, to simplify, the synonyms of a word. I wanted to index any text that built further connotations for a word, somewhat like the word “belief,” related as it is to “faith,” and “creed” might be charged with the Christian Creed—something that no other religion has in quite the succinct way around which Christians have fought and continue to fight.

So I went where everyone of our generation now go: Google who provided a helpful dictionary-like definition, a link to Wikipedia, and to a “Meme Generator” ( The definition:

my first meme

noun: meme; plural noun: memes

an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.

a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc., that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users.

I checked the “Meme generator” and quickly came up with “my” first meme (why are all the proposed images so ugly?). And then I tried to see whether I could make something serious and related to what I have been saying “in so many (many!) words.” [I will gladly accept instruction as to whether my proposed memes are “actually” memes…]

my second meme

The Wikipedia entry was more interesting. I had absolutely no idea that the word was a neologism proposed by … Richard Dawkins of Selfish Gene fame. When I asked students in my class last Tuesday what they knew about ‘memes,” 13 out of 15 were familiar with the word but only one mentioned Dawkins. Ignorance? Or actually an instance of what Dawkins appears to have proposed (or has been taken to have proposed: there appears to be developing controversy about all this): Internet ‘memes’ would be a meme (no scare quotes), a bit of “culture’ released, and then morphing.

Now, of course, when the word ‘culture’ appears, my hackles rise and I wonder about other areas of my ignorance. Why have I always dismissed the little I knew about Dawkins? Why is there so little of the kind of anthropology about Dawkins and memes a professional anthropologist cannot completely miss? As I wrote this, I thought I’d better check. Maybe I was missing something (like I missed Latour for the first 10 years of his transatlantic fame [does his travels make him into a meme?]. I looked in vain for ‘meme’ in the index to three of Latour’s major’s work (and in Deleuze and Guattari’s opus). Where else might I search? What am I missing? Or is it anthropology that is missing something? Would Boas have investigated what people in other, parallel, disciplines were doing with matters fundamental to the understanding of humanity? Would Boas have asked his students to rise to the challenge?

I will have to investigate all this. I hope some of the students in anthropology who read this post will also investigate what may (or has already) become a major challenge to our authority to teach about humanity. I may be wrong, but I think the New York Times quote Dawkins and those inspired by his work much more often than they quote Geertz or Latour (has the paper ever quoted him?). The challenge lies in that some of what is proposed makes sense in the very Boasian sense some of us are attempting to reconstruct: bits of cultural facts do travel, diffuse, hybridize. Some are accepted and incorporated. Others are transformed. And some are more or less violently rejected. In my first encounters with American cultural anthropology, I was taught by Milton Singer to notice the travels of parcheesi into and out of India, blue jeans from Nimes to San Francisco to Hollywood and across the world. One of the most wonderful, or caricatural, of Lévi-Strauss’s paper is the one on Santa Claus Daniel Miller resurrected ([1952] 1993]. Parcheesi, blue jeans, Santa Claus are, if I read the little I know correctly, ‘memes’.

So, perhaps, anthropologists should pay attention to “memetics” and see if any of it may be useful. Have those in that field reached the point Benedict got to when she insisted that a borrowed bit would be both transformed and transformative as it got borrowed—thereby her concern with “configurations” and “culture”? Or is memetics caught in the atomism that plagues those who reduce culture to “traits”? Can there be a sociological memetics, or is the field collapsing into another cognitive psychology (as it appears to have done)?

Or can we, anthropologists, safely ignore all this?

What do you think?



Lévi-Strauss, Claude   [1952] 1993  “Father Christmas executed”.    In Unwrapping Christmas. Edited by D. Miller. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 38-51

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What might Chomsky make of Halloween and Santa Claus?

A few times over the past week, I had to face the reality that Lévi-Strauss is mostly summarized as being concerned with Man rather than human beings, with deep Human Nature rather than the messiness of culture (Geertz [1967] 1973).  Lévi-Strauss, it would seem, is just another Cartesian.

I must acknowledge that he has written much that justifies what used to be a called a “reading” of his work, and can now be called a “translation.”  Other translations are possible.

In any event, yesterday, an interview with Noam Chomsky was published in the New York Times:

Journalist: It will soon be 60 years since your first book, “Syntactic Structures,” was published. Where was the study of linguistics then and what did you see that could be done?

Chomsky: The belief at the time was that languages can vary arbitrarily, so when you study a new language you should come to it without any preconceptions. Such views are still held, although the evidence to undermine them, I think, is simply overwhelming. Studies have shown that the diversity and complexity is superficial, while the internal system, which yields the fundamental properties of language as a system of thought, may be close to uniform among humans — basically following very simple genetically determined properties and general laws, like principles of computation. Some of the most exciting work in the field is going in that direction.
(November 5 2016 –)

A faculty colleague in linguistics who had been a student in Chomsky’s department at MIT once told me that, “of course, we do not do transformational grammar the way he did it.  We now use machines to directly view the neurological activity.”

I do like Chomsky’s using the fundamental word in Saussurian linguistics, “arbitrary,” to dismiss Saussure and concerns with variation or history.  Diversity is “superficial,” the “fundamental properties are … uniform … genetically determined.

Boasians (and I include Lévi-Strauss in the group I am assembling here) need not complain here if we take Chomsky to be writing about what Boas’ “psychic unity of mankind.” As far as I can tell, Boas wrote about this as an open potentiality, and did not directly investigate what it might be.  Boasians are concerned with what happens next after the potentiality has been activated.  Boasians may be willing to ignore what MRIs, CTC scans and other machines tell us about neurology, but they will not ignore “diversity.”

Now, there is no evidence that Lévi-Strauss, either, ever actually investigated deep structures, Man, or Human Nature.  At least, he never looked for his material where it makes most sense to find it (as Chomsky and his students do).  He read ethnography and, most spectacularly, took the details of ongoing diversification and its consequences more seriously perhaps than any other anthropologist.  He took it so far as never stopping at the intermediary moment when diversification patterns, the moment Saussure wrote about as “langue,” and American anthropology as (a) “culture” (later transformed into words like “epochs”).

For those who have never read Lévi-Strauss, I suggest they start with a little paper on Santa Claus ([1952] 1993).  The paper begins with an ethnographic anecdote (a Catholic bishop hanging and burning Santa Claus in effigy) and moves fast through a history of Christmas celebrations in France.  And then the Lévi-Strauss of La pensée sauvage ([1962] 1966) and Mythologics asserts himself as he talks of “very old elements … shuffled and reshuffled” and takes the reader around the world:

Father Christmas … expresses the difference in status between little children on the one hand, and adolescents and adults on the other. … He is linked to a vast array of beliefs and practices which anthropologists have studied in many societies …. There are, in fact, few societies where, in one way or another, children (and at times also women) are not excluded from the company of men through ignorance  of certain mysteries or their belief carefully—carefully fostered—in some illusion that the adults keep secret until an opportune moment ….  At times these rites bear a surprising resemblance to those considered here.  For example, there is a startling analogy between Father Christmas and the kachina of the Indians of the south-west United States. These costumed and masked beings are gods and ancestors become incarnate who return periodically to visit their village and dance. ([1952] 1993: 43-44)

when dead children come to life, and the even more clearly defined initial quest of the season, that of Hallow-Even, which was turned into All Saints’ Eve by ecclesiastical decision. Even today in Anglo-Saxon countries, children dressed up as ghosts and skeletons hassle adults unless they reward them with small presents.

What is universal is the making of difference, the production of culture, with the consequence that human worlds are necessarily tamed, domesticated but never for good among any population at any time as the tamed goes feral and requires wild thinking to tame it again, temporarily. (with thanks to Michael Scroggins for making me thing about the “feral”).

Deep syntactic structures (and other physiological matters) may be necessary to play with Santa Claus, but they cannot produce Santa Claus, in any of his actual manifestations.

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Culture: Inheritance vs. islanding?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of many field defining papers by Clifford Geertz: “Religion as a cultural system” ([1996] 1973).

Last week, I asked students to read it.  As I prepare the class, I saw again a quote I had marked but saw in a slightly different light as I also read the final draft of something I am writing with Michael Scroggins currently titled “Does (a) culture recapitulate itself?”.  It is actually about the Phoenix like nature of the “culture of poverty” argument. The paper starts with a complaint I have made elsewhere against the move among the leaders of anthropology to distance themselves from “culture” (concept? ideal-type?). I had not noticed that Geertz was already complaining about what may then have been the beginning of the distancing:

The term “culture” has by now acquired a certain aura of ill-repute in social anthropological circles because of the multiplicity of its referents and the studied vagueness with which it has all too often been invoked. (Though why it should suffer more for these reasons than “social structure” or “personality” is something I do not entirely understand.). ([1996] 1973: 89)

More importantly, I had not noticed what follows as Geertz develops what looks very much like a definition:

In any case, the culture concept to which I adhere has neither multiple referents nor, so far as I can see, any unusual ambiguity: it denotes an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life. Of course, terms such as “meaning,” “symbol,” and “conception” cry out for explication. ([1996] 1973: 89)

Continue reading Culture: Inheritance vs. islanding?

Forms, affordances, innovation: the making of a cultural fact

Sagrada Familia pillars in the nave
I had always been fascinated by what I read about Antonio Gaudi’s Basilica of the Sagrada Familia: a late 19th century Gothic church without flying buttresses! Culture! Structure! Transformation!

Finally, this summer, my wife and I were able actually to enter what Gaudi refers to as the “Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family.” As it approaches completion, it was recently dedicated by Pope Benedict XVI as a basilica, that is as a particularly sacred place for the Catholic Church.

I will leave aside for this current purpose the reality that the space is a powerful religious artifact, exactly as Gaudi intended.

I will just focus on the reality that, like all utterances, all acts, sequences, complex collective production, the basilica is a never-has-been-done-before. And it will never be done again, though it is also credited to have had much influence on later architecture.

“When” was uttered the statement that is the basilica is an interesting theoretical problem. Normal histories start with Gaudi taking over as main architect and re-designing what would have been a normal neo-gothic church. This happened in 1883 when the overall plans were drawn. What was proposed was immediately noticed as an innovation, a daring move many interpreted as a major mistake.
Continue reading Forms, affordances, innovation: the making of a cultural fact

On anthropological impotence

Experiments by Professor Shafir at Princeton and others have documented how poverty itself leads people to make self-destructive decisions, perhaps by forcing them to focus attention on satisfying immediate needs to the exclusion of other considerations. (New York Times, February 24, 2016)

The American culture of the “culture of poverty” is alive and well. New York Times journalists still quote approvingly professors who tell them: “The poor lack two things: money and cognitive freedom.” And it appears that a major State actor, “the Obama administration,” relies on such experts for designing policies aimed at changing the behavior of those who do not act according to economic rationalism (e.g. do not save more for old age).

We, anthropologists in my network, know all this.  We see “governmentality” at its most hegemonic (though not necessarily unchallenged as the current presidential campaign suggests) when networked media, academia, and State reinforce each other’s common sense, make alternatives disappear, and more importantly, transform “understandings,” “representations,” (“ontologies”?) into action with massive consequences. “Poverty is a sickness” is not only a metaphor we live by (Basso 1980). It is also a conceit endlessly developed in discourse, policies, debates within the conceit, new discourses, regulations, requests for action by others subjected to them, etc. It is not surprising, then, that the journalist develop the report by saying that Shafir’s understanding

shifts the onus onto those with power over poor Americans — employers, government — not just to design their application forms, their business hours, their policies in a way that takes into account the restrictions poverty imposes, but also to shift real resources to where they would make the biggest difference.

If poverty is a sickness then … and then … so that… The progression to action is inexorable.  I’ll pick up just one issue and note the last phrase “make the biggest difference”: “those with power” can do things to the poor that will make a difference among the poor.

Cause -> intervention -> effect.


They did, we do, and then they will.

In this perspective, “poverty is a sickness” is also the first statement in a most powerful speech act that limit dissenting responses to “poverty is NOT a sickness” thereby maintaining “sickness” as the issue.

I point out this process of development of an idea into a conceit because of an apparent paradox in the New York Times story.  The paragraph quoting Shafir is followed by another that goes:

That understanding might act as a corrective for the belief that poor people are mostly to blame for their poverty.

I am not sure that talking about “lacking cognitive freedom” is not “blaming the victim.” But it remains a form of classification and identification of an individual shortcoming. Poverty remains what it has been: something to cure individuals from through targeted programs.  Michael Harrington said much the same thing in 1962. He may then have been optimistic that his pleas would find an echo in the Federal Government, as they did. He might now be depressed that half-a-century of targeted programs do not appear to have much of a dent.

Anthropologists can be depressed for other reasons.
Continue reading On anthropological impotence

On the limits of human rationality when confronted to human practical intelligence

The programmers at Google (mostly human, I will grant) have a problem: how to make their robot (car) make eye contact with non-robotic drivers so the robot does not get paralyzed at four way stops.

Actually, some humans (particularly of the French kind, at apéritif) are sure all humans must have this problem since it rationally impossible to determine who has priority when four cars approach together a four way stop.

Practically, of course, there is no problem: humans, in each case, make up a way to solve the “problem,” one four way stop at a time, using all their tools (eye contact, inching forward to assert right of way, withdrawal to avoid possible confrontation, etc.).

Anthropologically (in the broadest sense of finding out what humanity is all about), all this is about the tension between rationalism and pragmatism: do human beings act from rules or do they make it up as needed?

More than a century ago, this is a tension that must have haunted Durkheim and led him to give a full course on it (“Pragmatisme et sociologie.” Cours dispensé à La Sorbonne en 1913-1914).

As I understand it, Durkheim granted pragmatism what it said about the ongoing constitution of humanity and its local and temporary truths (culture) but returned to scientific rationalism as the ground for saying that, precisely, pragmatism (cultural anthropology, ethnomethodology, etc.) must be granted primacy when the goal is systematic understanding. Affirming that, on the basis of a century of research, it is more likely that human beings “make it up” rather than they follow rules learned earlier, is an act of scientific rationalism. (The development of scientific rationalism being by this very research a historical product of attempts to deal with new conditions from the ‘0’ to the printing press to the … robot car!)

Where does that leave the Google programmers?

And how are we to talk about the many who, soon I suspect, will want to prevent error-prone, “irrational” if not criminal humans from driving now that rationality (in the guise of Google programmers) has triumphed?

The first question is a question about communication theory that it will a lot of fun to ponder and discuss.  The robot car is also an ethnomethodological experiment to delve more deeply into the conduct of everyday practical life on the highways of life (hint to doctoral students: there are many dissertations here).  But first the programmers will have not to blame humans for not following the letter of the law…

Which leads to the second question and the probable development of new forms of arbitrary forms enforced by new forms of arbitrary powers-that-be.  Among these:

. Insurance companies keen to lessen their losses (“bonuses” for people who let their cars drive);

. Advocacy groups for a safer world free from “bad” drivers (get ready for much moralizing);

. State agents reacting to the others and developing authoritative regulations for what is to count as bad (if not now illegal) driving.

. Lawyers, …………….

Along with all this, imagine the many forms of resistance.  Imagine what will happen when resistance gets institutionalized.  Imagine the resulting rules, regulations, customs that transform what happened earlier and become, for a population, that which is the real they must now deal with (see for examples the multiplication of the responses to global warming across the globe)…  Negotiating the institutionalization of robots will not be a rational process, but one more akin to driving through a four way stop, and, for a few seconds, making a uniquely adequate and multiply arbitrary immortal social fact (culture).

Coda to my earlier post about non-robotic driving in Haiti: Dany Laferrière on his friend driving a new Jeep in Port-au-Prince (1997: 171-72)


Laferrière, Dany 1997 Pays sans chapeau. Montréal: Lanctôt Editeur


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