In my case, and while on the road, 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 viruses and the like.
So, this virus has not (yet) been taught in school. More interestingly, whatever one learns about it 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 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]
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.
Learning with others is, necessarily, a political matter. Thus my insistence on writing about “polities” of practice. Still, it remains that “learning” post participation risks being taken as a somewhat automatic process in the movement towards “fuller” (political) participation. Through participation one may move from apprentice to master but focusing, as we must, on movement does not tell us much about the everyday activities of the one who moves (or of the activities of those who encourage the movement—or put blocks on the way), and particularly about the activity of sorting out what to learn (what to prioritize, what to ignore, etc.).
I thought about this in the interstices of other activities I was not able to escape these past weeks. I found myself, much against my will, and my hopes, in the position of apprentice to “next of kin” practices, first in in the neurological intensive care unit of New York/Presbyterian Hospital, and then in the regular neurological unit, and then in a rehabilitation center. At 70, it is the case that I have never been in that position, legitimately or otherwise, and that I have had much to learn even as I worried about much more than learning.
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” (https://imgflip.com/memegenerator). The definition:
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…]
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 ( 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  1993 “Father Christmas executed”. In Unwrapping Christmas. Edited by D. Miller. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 38-51
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  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 ( 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 ( 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. ( 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.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of many field defining papers by Clifford Geertz: “Religion as a cultural system” ( 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.). ( 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. ( 1973: 89)
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→
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.
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?
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).
While preparing the class I taught at the Faculté d’Ethnologie of the Université d’État de Haiti, I stumbled again on one of those sentences that make Rancière so powerful:
Language does not unite people. On the contrary it is the arbitrariness of language that makes them try to communicate by forcing them to translate—but also puts them in a community of intelligence. (Rancière  1999 : 58)
Haiti, of course, is famous for a creole forged by the need to translate what others from around the world, often with the worst of motivations, were saying and then to do whatever new conditions might allow (a successful war against a colonial power), or require (a devastating earthquake). Living together in such conditions will put people in a “community of intelligence”—and will keep them there, at work, for a creole forged by contingent circumstances will itself become a language, Creole, that is arbitrary by its very nature as a language and so cannot unite people as it forces them, again, to try and communicate, try and survive in the new conditions of which it is now a part.
I thought about all this when reading Jonathan Katz’s passionate account of the 2010 earthquake and of the many blunders of the “international community” who ostensibly “came to help” but may have made things much worse (Katz 2013). Much of what he had to say about the famous (Bill Clinton, Sean Penn) and the less famous politicians, policy makers, staff of NGOs, confirmed what I started learning through Scott Freeman’s dissertation on the role of NGOs in the non-development of Haiti’s rural population. This, I learned, is now a theme in the anthropology of NGOs and their environmental impact.
One passage in Katz’s book struck me particularly. It has to do with the figures generally quoted by the “international community” regarding unemployment in Haiti. As Katz say, most of what Haitian actually do does not count as employment. Graphically, who in this photograph is employed? (besides the photographer)
At least four of the seven people visible are clearly active making something (it is not clear what the others are doing). Everything is orderly. The garbage is bagged, debris is piled, the tires are stacked. In the background, there is what appears like a repurposed state school into an “Institut Superieur” and/or a “Centre de Formation Appliquee.” Even the advertisement of what may be an expensive mattress required extensive work to put it there. Putting it here, in a not very prosperous neighborhood, is an act of multiple arbitrariness: Who put it there? Who is the intended audience? What do the people in the photograph make of it?
Looking at the picture made me think of Kiran Jayaram’s dissertation (Columbia 2014) on Haitian migrants to Santo Domingo: determined intelligence in the worst of conditions when physical survival is immediately at stake.
About all the streets of Port-au-Prince I drove through are lined by such stands as in the photograph. Are they classified as “small businesses” rather than “employment” in certain statistics? The important thing is that the stands are there, with the people who put them up, and the people who use them, together at work. Katz reports that they reappeared in the first days that followed the earthquake even as the people were actively digging for survivors, and then reconstructing—when they were not hindered by efforts to help that create more catastrophic conditions, and more moments for the convening of “communities of intelligence.”
When the arbitrary occurs (earthquake, food distributed here but not there, diseases imported, new languages added to the mix, etc.) human beings will get together and translate. It is time to pay attention and bring out intelligence over disfunction, achievement over failure, heroic bricolage over engineering deficiencies.
Publicizing this work has to be the way to counter “culture of poverty” approaches to the plight of people in dire condition, whether in Haiti or elsewhere.
Katz, Jonathan 2013 The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. New York: Palgrave Macmillan