Category Archives: Culturings

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

“Communities of intelligence” in the streets of Port-au-Prince

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 [1987] 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)

food vendor in Haiti
Photo by Hervé Varenne

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.

References

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

Rancière, Jacques 199 The ignorant schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Tr. by K. Ross. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. (First published in 1987)

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Crossing the street in Port-au-Prince

One thing I discovered does not happen in Port-au-Prince: traffic paralysis. How can this be given the about total absence of the traffic flow signs, lights, etc.?  Without these, one is told in Europe and the United States, cars and people cannot move in dense cities.  But they can, in Port-au-Prince!

It’s certainly not the case the traffic (cars, motorbikes, pedestrians) is light.  Quite the contrary, it may be more dense, per street area, than anywhere I have been.  The streets around my hotel were narrow, with small sidewalks on which cars park.  The layout is mostly on a grid with many crossings, and only two or three traffic lights in the about 100 square blocks I got to know.  Driving, turning, walking, all involve constantly checking what everyone else is doing who might prevent you from continuing (if not hit you).  To add to the challenge matters are major pot-holes, missing sewer grates, piles of gravel, etc.

aerial view of carrefour
Google Earth image

So what do people do at major intersections when several avenue intersect with none of the external help one might expect?

They proceed — with care I am sure !  Even a New Yorker like myself can remain intimidated.  I guess the “rules” are simple: it can be done, there are gaps between cars and motorcycles, do not hesitate or change your mind, others will interpret a movement and act accordingly (people will zip behind you if it appears clear that you are moving; they will zip in front of you in the space you have not yet reached–unless of course something is coming in the other direction to which you should also pay attention).

crossing a carrefour
Photo by Herve Varenne

Check the man on the photo. Everyone is moving. Note how he strides confidently towards the space that will soon be freed by the passing car. “Knowing the rules” will not help him.  There is no time to plan when everything is moving fast.  You have to keep crossing streets that are not quite the same at the middle of your crossing as they were at the beginning.  And yet, several million times a day, people in Port-au-Prince do it!  After several hours of walking and being driven around, I did not see an accident.  They must happen, and there is probably statistics showing that the rate of injury is higher here than elsewhere (at least I hypothesize it may be).  But modern life with cars, motorcycles, large number of pedestrians in narrow streets proceed in an altogether orderly manner.

Of course, those who read this blog should know where I am going: the next time I teach Garfinkel on driving in California, I will talk about doing it in Port-au-Prince: that is the challenge for sociology.  How do people do what they can be seen as doing in difficult, scary, life-threatening situations: they check around for what others are doing, and they do it!  At times, they even stop and wave one across!

Those who follow this post will not be surprised by the preceding paragraph.  But, mostly, when teaching Garfinkel, I leave aside “bioanthropology” (the new moniker for “Biological Anthropology”?) and sociobiology, as well as, more problematically, cultural anthropology.

So what would a sociobiologist say about crossing the street in Port-au-Prince? The urge to survive?  The need to take risks to survive?  What would our selfish genes say?

More interesting are the less theoretical sociologists and social anthropologists who might want to write about the economics (neo-liberalism?) or politics (neo-colonialism? failed state? misguided NGOs?) responsible for the absence of traffic lights at the very ceremonial center of Port-au-Prince.  True enough.  But is this the end?

Is there any place for a cultural analysis?  To the extent that the ensemble of the proximate “causes” for the conditions that make this kind of traffic pattern what individuals must struggle with now, are unique and may not last long (I saw a few newly installed traffic signals in the say 100 traffic corners I experienced), then the situation is “cultural” (historical, a matter of partial diffusion, borrowing, and refusal to borrow).  But I would like more: is the traffic pattern also “arbitrary” in the sense that it is not a product of functional adaptation, but also of some kind of collective imagination?   Are traffic lights necessary? Or are they the product of an evolutionary conceit about orderliness, separation of functions, etc.?

To answer such question, one could check what is happening in Holland.  Traffic lights can disappear.


crossing the street in Holland

Photo by Jerry Michalski.

And so, it seems that trafficking is not only a matter of instruction into not getting killed here and now.  It is also a matter of complex deliberations…

Haiti may be ahead!

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Neo-liberal (?) discursive esthetics

Cultural anthropologists must appreciate the following job description, as local (in time and place) work of linguistic
artifacting?
artificiality?
artfulness?
arbitrary?

The Director of Enterprise Applications Service is responsible for application planning, development, testing, support and operations and project management of Teachers College’s application architecture and strategy. The Director of Enterprise Applications will forge sustainable relationships with IT directors in the business units and provide consultative support to the business units. This position will report to the Chief Information Officer and will interact across the academic and administrative technology services leveraging people, process, technology across the college by analyzing existing enterprise applications portfolio and define the road map for that portfolio as the college’s needs and opportunities change. This position will also be responsible for the college data warehouse and business intelligence environments.  (Retrieved from LinkedIn on February 18, 2015)

Whether the formal esthetics of this description is “neo-liberal” (as temporarily label for an epoch perhaps following “post-modernism”) or not, it will remain a product of a time and place: 2015 in some global sphere.  I suspect Teachers College has never had a “Director of Enterprise Applications Service” and that it will never have another one (as classifications and procedures change).

Reading this job description made me wonder about the form of the text.  Minimally, it would lead to examining the vocabulary (“application,” “sustainable,” “enterprise,” “Chief,” “data warehouse,” etc.) and adjectival phrases made up of nouns (“Enterprise Application Service,” “Chief Information Officer”).

And it made me wonder about a question anthropologists of neo-liberalism rarely address (if at all): what process produces such forms?  This is a different question than the one we (my faculty and student peers) debated in my graduate school days (1968-1972).  We wondered about the production of texts given a form (“structure”).  We (the students) reviewed hypotheses our faculty and their peer had developed.  Most of those now look wild, particularly when they are about the transformation of “deep” structures (matters of “competence”) into “surface” manifestations (matters of “performance”), as well as the analysis of the deep given accessible surfaces.  (And, of course, this remained the problematics in Bourdieu’s opus).

Continue reading Neo-liberal (?) discursive esthetics

The collective conscience of ‘personality’ in anthropology: 1948-1998

Ray McDermott and I were discussing, in our usual meandering way, the possible roots of Dorothy Holland’s work and what may or may not fairly be described as “psychological anthropology.”  We wondered about d’Andrade and Romney, their relationship to the Parsonians and Boasians.  As we veered into sorting out the various versions of Schneider’s writing about culture, I spotted on my bookshelves a book I had forgotten: Kluckhohn, Murray and Schneider’s Personality in nature, society and culture.  This collection of papers from the preceding decade was first published in 1948.  A second edition appeared in 1953. My copy is the thirteenth printing (dated 1971) of this edition.  All this must be a testament to its use as summary of a field.  This is not surprising given that the contributors include about everybody who was somebody then: R. Benedict, A. Davis, J. Dollard, E. Erikson, R. Havighurst, J. Henry, F. Kluckhohn, D. Lee, M. Mead, R. Merton, T. Parsons, H. Powdermaker, J. Whiting, and many others.  This is the moment of convergence that coopts Boasian anthropology  into the Parsonian scheme and transforms it into a simple concern with the shaping of personality.

In the book, there are papers on about everything that the editors classified as “determinants of personality formation”  (36 if the 46 papers).  That psychological anthropologists should worry about such “determinants” is probably what made me turn away from the field in graduate school and ever since.  It may also be what Holland and many others are fighting against when they write about multiplicities of emergent identities.

But I think there is something to learn by wondering how it made sense for so many of the most influential sociologists and anthropologists of the 1940s to teach with such authority about “determinants of personality” and the corollary impact of formed personality on future behavior.  I mention three papers.  Two may be stereotypical.  One stands outside.
Continue reading The collective conscience of ‘personality’ in anthropology: 1948-1998

Writing maps unto terrritories

Thanks to Michael Scroggins for telling us about the post by Izani about “Charting territories without maps.”

Drawing one’s own maps to tell others how to get to one has to be related to Kalmar’s (and Velasquez’s) account of people making their own glossaries to help in getting to speak in another language (Kalmar 2001; Velasquez 2014).  And it has to be under the same constraints as any attempts to give other people instructions (Garfinkel 2002: 92).

The fun part of the post was the quote from Borges, expanding on Lewis Carroll (thanks Wikipedia!), about a map that would have the scale of one mile to the mile and how this somehow relates to Google Maps altogether quixotic goal of mapping the whole earth: who knows that, eventually, we will be able to zoom to one foot by one foot…

There is, however, an alternative that has been tried and, mostly, succeeded: writing the one to one map onto the territory.  That is, for example, on May 20, 1785, the Congress of the United States Acted that [the territory would be divided] “into townships of 6 miles square, by lines running due north and south, and others crossing these at right angles, as near as may by…. The lines shall be measured with a chain; … and exactly described on a plat” (Linklater, 2002: 73).   And then, a surveyor was sent to write the map, starting someplace in eastern Ohio. Thus one could look at the landscape to find out and tell where one was.  No need for a map when one knows that one is standing the corner of the 42nd street and the 8th avenue (Manhattan’s grid pattern was laid out soon after that which shaped the Western territories).

Before that, of course, from the Romans onward, empires and states have told the traveler (trader, army officers) how far they were from the capital.  The tire-making corporation Michelin is famous in France for its maps, and also for the ubiquitous markers telling tourists where they are and how to get to the next village.  Thereby, besides helping the German invading divisions at the beginning of the Second World War, Michelin helped write on the territory a landscape of villages and other places with visible boundaries and names that were not always “there” before and now “are always already there.”  This, of course, is what appears to be missing in Izani’s Laos: thus the need for making one’s own maps.

(So, could it be that grammars and dictionaries are, also, maps relieving us from the task of instructing each other how to find each other…: “check you GPS, man!”)

(Even more wildly: is Saussure’s “synchrony” one of the immortal, standing crap games (Garfinkel 2002) we cannot escape? Answer: Of course!)

Ima say suttin

Katy Steinmetz, a journalist for Time Magazine recent summarized “What Twitter Says to Linguists” (Time Magazine, September 9, 2013). Actually Steinmetz mostly mentions the kind of sociolinguists who like to make statements like:

the term “suttin” (a variant of something) has been associated with Boston-area tweets.

using methods such as:

researchers at Carnegie Mellon developed an automated tagger that can identify bits of tweetspeak that aren’t standard English, like “Ima” (which serves as a subject, verb and preposition to convey “I am going to”).

Personally, I would say that these methods will be more useful for a social history of the present than about linguistics.

That is, as far as I can see, both Chomsky and Labov would agree that “Ima” is a fully grammatical form of the English way to mark the future tense of the verb following: “Ima” is another way of doing “I’ll.”  Whether “Ima” derives historically from “I am going to” is interesting but has little to say about the current state of twittering English.  If it “takes” outside Twitter (and it may already have (ask Labov or his students)), new speakers will have to be told that there are now three forms of the future in English: “I shall,” “I will,” “Ima.”  And then, they will be told of the contextual “rules” that appear to govern which form to use when and with whom.

Those who know will have noticed that I have restated the (in-)famous Saussurian distinction between diachrony and synchrony—though with a twist.  The cultural question (to keep the word “social” for probabilistic statements about the recent past) is whether the new linguistic forms that continually appear–not only in Twitter, but every time someone speaks–will “take,” that is whether they will remain associated with a person, a small group, an activity, etc., or whether they will “be adopted in the collective mode” (paraphrase of something Lévi-Strauss once wrote to distinguish individual statements from myths in L’homme nu 1971: 560).

In other words, “Ima” (and the resistance against it) may become the “imposition of a cultural arbitrary by a cultural arbitrary” (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977 [1970]: 5)—unless it fails to impose itself.  In any event, the important thing about all this is the arbitrariness of the process that leads to “Ima,” its imposition (partially helped by the Time magazine article which taught people like me about the form), and its demise (as current users age out and new forms are developed).  As I have argued in other posts (9/6/2013, 9/30/2013), the future of cultural forms cannot be predicted by any analysis of the state of the present.  “Ima” is not simply “functional” in a world where statements are limited to 140 characters.  “Ill” would have worked as well.  So “Ima” is, in Boon’s terms “extra-vagant” (1999), a poetic (in Jakobson’s sense) play on grammatical/dialectal possibilities and constraints.

Note, for example, that “Ima” marks first person redundantly in a least three ways: through 1) leaving the “I” in, 2) capitalized, 3) with the first person “(a)m” form of the verb (check what McDermott and I wrote about Maxine Hong Kingston tale of her difficulty reading “I” aloud 1998: Introduction).  And may thereby signal the continued relevance of “individualism” as the field for hegemonic pratices.

Anthropology: NOT this kind of experimental science

[a follow up on yesterday’s blog entry]

Thanks to Beau Bettinger who sent me the following link (to something in the New York Times, no less) to a review of research entitled: Escaping the Cycle of Scarcity

The research quoted is “experimental” in just the way Geertz imagined all experimental research proceeded (1973: 22): given a constant (making decisions about alternatives) various conditions (prosperity/poverty) appear to make a difference thereby leading to an inference about the processes at work (cognitive overload).  Nothing about this research makes sense, whether the concepts, the operationalization, the tests, or the inference. (And we will have to continue criticizing every one of these steps in this kind of research.)

Q: So what does an anthropology grounded in Boas/Garfinkel propose instead?

A: Any versions of what the powerful team Michael Cole once assembled proposed and conducted.

Jean Lave, a constitutive member of this team, has recently (2011) given a wonderful account of the steps she took, in the 1970s, to respond to Cole’s challenges.  For several years, she re-designed alternate means of observing the activities of tailors.  Again and again she revised what she had to do in her next field trip.  And so she revealed matters, conditions, practices, that cognitive psychologists could not have imagined, that would resist conceptualization, and that, precisely, could not be transformed into a (correlational) theory–in the “grounded theory” sense.  The point was to “make work visible” in the felicitous title of recent book edited by Whalen and Szymanski (2011).  And, in the process, she also revealed constraints and possibilities in the very practical activity of conducting ethnographic research.

To do all this, one does need to imagine situations, to be shared together by the observer and the observed (i.e. ethnographic participant observation), that will reveal the kind of work, its conditions and constraints, that we cannot imagine but that we suspect, for good theoretical work, is taking place.

I have been gratified, over the years, by the number of research projects by students in our programs in anthropology at Teachers College, who have imagined such situations and revealed some possibilities of life in disability, immigration, poverty, that could not quite be imagined.  For example, to mention only one among many, when Juliette de Wolfe (2013) spent a year following “autism warriors” she did not just “make available to us answers [to our deepest questions about humanity] that other shepherds, guarding other sheep in other valleys have given” (Geertz 1973: 30).  She helped us answer deep questions about producing local and historically specific social orders when faced with dis-abling condition (that includes not only their children’s autism but a whole slew of other matters ostensibly involved in helping child and parent).

 

Islanding assemblages of haecceities

I am finishing a draft of a paper with Juliette de Wolfe on conceits and autism.  It ends with my current favorite Garfinkelian conceit: driving down the highway of life with an immortal cohort.  In the paper where he talks about immortality and highways, he writes that “immortal is a metaphor for … an “assemblage of haecceities” (2002: 92).  Ray McDermott to whom I had sent an earlier draft underlined the last word and wrote “explained?”.   It made me acknowledge to myself that I could not quite explain the word though I knew it had to do with the latin for ‘this’ and was related to everything Garfinkel has written about indexicality.  So I searched Wikipedia (no shame!).  The first indexes in the entry are to Duns Scotus and Peirce.  Then comes the references to Garfinkel with a quote from Rawls “Haecceities is one of the many words that Garfinkel has adopted over the years to indicate the importance of the infinite contingencies in both situations and practices” (2003).  So, simply (?) put, changing the clothes of a tantruming child in a public park is, always and necessarily, a unique act that has never occurred and will never recur.  There will never be another time when this child will be changed by this mother in this park in front of these onlookers.  There will never be another time when this Rosa will say “I could read it!” in this reading group (McDermott passim).  There will never be another time when some Mexican migrants develop this glossary (Kalmar 2001).

So what is the point of reporting this?  As Kalmar reminded us when he lectured at Teachers College in the Spring 2012, the Camden glossaries are unique, but they are also an instance of what many other people (missionaries, linguists, etc.) did when faced with another language they had to learn as they attempted to survive in that moment.

So, this is another musing about ethnographic methodology and its usefulness in, precisely, this political moment in the history of anthropology and its relationship to the State.

But, as I half day dreamed about the quote (which I may initially have chosen because it included the work ‘metaphor’ which was then the key word in the evolving paper), I noticed that Garfinkel wrote about “assemblage” and wondered whether this is the recently famous word.  Did he get it from Latour? from Rawls (who would have gotten it from Deleuze)?  Anyway, it fits.  This event is made up of these matters (people, things, etc.) immortalized into “??????.”

What exactly is the word to be used?  (Suspense!)

I was working on the paper when, last week, I taught one of my favorite pieces from one of our disciplinary grandmothers: Ruth Benedict’s “Configurations of culture in North America” (1932).  Note that ‘configuration’ is pluralized, not ‘culture’ (Benedict is a Boasian, not a Geertzian).  What struck me this time is her use of the unusual gerund “islanding” to evoke the historical reality that differentiation (say in death rituals–her main examples) is not based on geographical isolation (see also Louis Dumont on the ideological differentiations between France and Germany in the 19th century (1994 [1991])).   Burying a close relative among the Zuñi requires different displays than it requires among the Cheyenne.  We were taught in graduate school to ridicule Benedict from tagging the first set of displays as “Apollonian” while the others would be “Dionysian” and to suggest that these ??? somehow “explained” the displays as if they were psychological causes.  I now read these labels as temporary heuristics that may have helped at the time establish the unique this-ness of a historical moment in the plains and high plateaus of a continent when human beings lived side by side, pushed and pulled each other, faced new conditions (e.g. the horse), and assembled themselves and their practices into some immortal thing (configuration, culture, pattern, epoch, system, [your word for a historically produced, powerfully enforced, differentiated and differentiating unique thing]).

Now, I have complained elsewhere that Garfinkel does not have an explicit theory of culture, unless, as I suggest, facing immortal assembling of haecceities is precisely such a theory–which is my point.

Thus, our scientific task is more akin to physicists disputing “gravity” (islanding, culture) than to medical researchers looking for the cause of autism, or the better therapy (technology, development).

[See also an earlier post on the Boasian revolt against classifications by function and causes]

Moral order, moralizing, and making it a bad day (the American way)

In my earlier post about some of my experiences at the 2010 meetings of the American Anthropological Association, I talked about the elevators with a parenthesis about students from our programs at Teachers College.  I am now opening the parenthesis to develop something that came to me when listening to the paper by Linda Lin.  Right after listening to her paper, I introduced the session Gus Andrews and Sarah Wessler organized and that they titled “The dark side of legitimate peripheral participation.”  The continuity was striking.  Of course, I liked a title that evoked both Jean Lave and Darth Vader making it a bad day for a galaxy, far, far away (that is the galaxy right around the corner from Teachers College (Columbia University)–if not Teachers College itself.

Darth Vader is my addition, extra-vagantly.  Students have to be more sober and they were.  One cannot take lightly investigations into the ways through which cultures disable.  Andrews, Hung, Kabat, Wessler, wrote about “degradation ceremonies” some “successful” (Garfinkel 1956), some failed, some joking, some even possible restorative of a broader order.  The later is actually an optimistic, if not extra-vagant twist on the pessimism easily triggered by Garkinkel or Lave.  Children yell at each other and call each other names that are direct commentary on their status within the polity.  They can even yell at adults with authority over them, and call them name—all while playing video-games and making it a good day all around.  I have been fascinated by the relationship between play and culture and this is something we will have to pursue.

Linda Lin’s was the darkest of the papers I heard that morning.  She provided another instance of moments she has written about elsewhere (2007): moments in the life of the people in an institution dedicated to helping people talk about race and racism when they themselves do talk about race, and get into serious trouble.  Regularly, their own talk about racism escalates into conflict, hurt feelings, resignations from the institution.  As she showed, conflict while discussing race is extremely orderly given American categories and rhetorical or performative forms.  It is also so painful that one understands why race talk should be so rare.  Touching hot stoves and getting burned is so orderly a process that its consequences can be predicted.  Given this kind of orderliness, it is not surprising that we try not to touch hot stoves, and teach our children not to do so.  It is similarly understandable that I should not want to engage in race talk, and that I should find Lin’s work so daring.

In this paper, Linda Lin also stressed something else that is equally daring.  She argues that one central mechanism in the production of conflict and pain during planned and institutionalized race talk is the moralizing that is an integral part of this talk.  When such talk is indeed planned within an institution, it is generally introduced as something “we” should do because it is the good thing to do.  The introduction develops into how bad it is not to have such talk.  And so on.  Linda Lin, interestingly, was attempting to distinguish moralizing from what sociologists, from Durkheim to Garfinkel, have written as the moral implications of social ordering.  Social ordering produces morality, and thus (this actually is an empirical generalization) breaks in social orders produce calls to moral accountability.  These calls can then take the form of a moralizing that can itself lead to further and more serious breaches (in a process related to what Bateson called “schismogenesis”).

Linda Lin, building on my work with Ray McDermott, dares to write about “America” as a label for the conditions that, in our work, make bad days for people caught within the gravity of the galaxy (I am hereby trying a new metaphor to add gravity to the metaphors about networks and webs we have been using).  America can be fun.  American can be great.  But America, as a field for politics from the most global to the most local, also has a dark side.  And all the papers explored this dark side even if, at times, the darkness is only a temporary tension as the social orders of fun and games is re-established.

All this fits well with my insistence about ongoing practical awareness of social orderings (as against still too common cultural anthropological bromides about culture being shared and unconscious, and as against the usual uses of the concept of habitus).

[For further readings about all this, see “Culture as disability” (McDermott and Varenne 1995) and Successful failure (Varenne and McDermott 1998)]

on researching autism as “cultural fact”

There is a cliche in the sentiment that one of the best part in being a professor is being faced by great students challenging one’s pet ideas.  But a cliche can also be true as I experienced again when Juliette de Wolfe, at the end of a seminar, told me that she was anxious about using one of my favorite conceits.  For close to 20 years, McDermott and I have been writing about such matters as learning disabilities as “cultural facts.” De Wolfe, who is starting a project on the processes for the identification of autism, and who had used the phrase in her proposal, was worried that she was caught in something, that was “static.”

On the spot, my answers were weak and not convincing–certainly they were not convincing to me as I thought about them later.  I had mumbled something about the adjective “static” being possibly an attribute of a research analysis, not of a concept that could be used in any number of ways, that emphasizing “change” is much easier said than done, and that those that claim that they do not want to be “static” mostly produce analyses that end up extremely static.  Had I not been interrupted, I probably could have gone on in this defensive/offensive mode without quite answering a very proper concern about the very justification for social science research, particularly in its anthropological version.

McDermott and I devised the phrase (“cultural fact”) to index our roots in Durkheimian sociology (as reinterpreted by Garfinkel) and in American cultural anthropology and pragmatism.  Earlier I had pointed de Wolfe to the pages in Successful failure (1998) where McDermott and I developed the phrase “cultural fact” we had introduced earlier (McDermott & Varenne 1995).  But these passages are not enough.

To stay with de Wolfe’s concern, let’s say that we are interested in children who are having a difficult life and particularly with those who have, or are caught with, something now labeled “autism,” something that was discovered-as-such in America and in the 1940s.  It is something that was fully institutionalized starting in the 1970s.  Autism may be some thing that has always been there in humanity, though until recently this thing may have been labeled something else, or institutionalized differently.  Just putting the issue this way should make it clear that I am taking here the classical cultural anthropological stance (Benedict 1934).  I make the noticing of autism as a thing with specific personal, interactional, and political consequences, a historical event.  In other words I place autism “in its historical context,” or, more jargonistically, I “historicize” autism.

All this is well and good, but it actually must leave our apprentices in confusion.  What are future anthropologists to do next, after we have historicized autism, or any one of its sub-practices (e.g. the meetings where a child gets officially labeled)?  What is the point of historicizing something?  Actually how do we know that we have actually historicized “it” or that we have conspired in reconstituting something that should never have been constituted in the first place?

I argue that our duty, as anthropologists, is to provide future practitioners (parents, teachers, etc.) with a more systematic account of the constraints which they will not be able to escape.  This, I think, is what Durkheim meant when he wrote of social facts as “imposing themselves,” or what Latour now means when he writes about objects as having “agency.”  What easily disappears in these statements as they have been taken for more than a century is that these are statements about the future rather than the past, or even the present.  As McDermott and I put it “Culture is not a past cause to a current self.  Culture is the current challenge to possible future selves” (2006:8).  As I would put it today, technically, a cultural fact is a model for the set of (dis-)abling properties of the present that make a difference in some future.  The task of the cultural analyst is to discern these properties and report on them in a way that makes sense to at least some of the practitioners.

Thus the task for de Wolfe, as she starts observing teachers and students in an “autistic classroom,” is to build a model of those matters that make a difference as the people she meets build a life together and, in the process, instruct her as to what actually does make a difference.

This is what I advise her to do because this is what all those who care for the children need from an anthropologist: a different account of their experiences that may provide them with new resources for the future they will make with each other.

And we should not worry if this account looks to some as a “synchronic” account.  The account, if it is well done, will of course be synchronic in the Saussurian sense.  Others can write about the history of autism and trace its diachronic evolution.  But history, however interesting, is not quite useful because human evolution, including its cultural (linguistic) evolution is not a rational process in the narrow sense.