On Responding to Corona: modeling consent and resistance

My earlier posts were mostly about ways to analyze the evolution and spread of Corona as what Mauss called a “total social fact” ([1923] 1967).

I will now focus on the moments of encounter with Corona that are but an instance of any encounter requiring further action by those made to participate. What is it that can happen, next?

Most simply, to any statement requesting action the response can be:

  • . Yes!
  • . No!
  • . Let me think about it! (Play with it, dissemble about it, undermine it or build it up outside the box set up by the statement)

The classical case I generally use when teaching about what makes a classroom a classroom (building on Mehan 1979) involves the question “what time is it?” To this question, human beings have been documented to respond with such statements as:

  • . “it’s 5 o’clock”
  • . “it’s my watch, man!”
  • . “it’s not time yet.”
  • . “time to go to bed”

These responses are themselves statements allowing for, or requiring, a further response. All sorts of these second responses (in a third step) have been documented. Famously, the first response can lead, in a third step, to such statements as “Thank you!” or “Good (for being able to read a watch)!” In each case, the statement reveals and constitutes broader constraints, whether polite encounters with strangers in the street, routine encounters between teacher and student in a classroom, or possibly tense interactions when some decide that one has “screwed around” and need specific “instruction” (Garfinkel 2002: 257).

Yes/No/Perhaps to a request for action can be considered here as a model that can guide further investigation into what can happen when one is told “close your restaurant”

Three ethnographic vignettes (about closing restaurants):

March 16, 2020: I drove off US2 in North Dakota for lunch. Near the highway, I found the kind of dinner in which parking lot pick-up trucks predominate. I had the usual meal. I overhead men talking about Corona: “I heard that they did in … “ “Trump said….” “I read somewhere ….” As I was getting ready to leave, a lady entered the restaurant whom I recognized not only phenotypically, but through dress, hair style, etc., as a “nice” professional woman of the American Middle West. She started explaining to the dinner’s manager what changes needed to be made to the tables, what steps needed to be taken to sanitize the restaurant, and other matters related to the “virus.” She was pleasant, smiled, while the manager, the servers, and the cook, looked worried. Eventually the manager asked “are they going to close us?” To which the woman responded “not yet but we expect the decision to close to be made later today. We take our orders from above.”

[comments: what I overheard triggered what I eventually wrote in my post about education into Corona]
[comments: note the ‘they’ and the ‘we’]

March 17, 2020: Lunch in Montana: restaurants are open but, at some point during the meal, I heard a conversation between a worried manager and someone on the phone. She was explaining that she had spread out the tables and was leaving one empty table between the people she seated.

[comments: this conversation implies earlier conversations about steps to take]

March 18th, 2020: I entered Jackson, Wyoming, and found that all restaurants had been closed.

[comments; If the same decision had been taken in North Dakota and Montana, then all the people I saw were laid off and had lost their salary.]

In middle March, Corona was spreading through the Middle West. People worried as they had to face a radically transformed economic landscape. They had to sort out what to do next and particularly whether to consent or resist (perhaps, in the United States by asking a judge whether the order to close was constitutional).

I have not interviewed any one about the sequences of what conversation analysts might call “turns” that might be investigated as “life histories” of encounters with Corona. I have participated in conversations. Some about what to do next (“Is it really necessary to wear a mask in this particular situation?”). Many were interpretative (“what do you think of this newly published statistic?” “Aren’t you sick of this shit that’s going on”). On this basis, I’d say that my main interlocutors (via email and some Zoom) appear to consent to the restrictions. They say ‘yes’ to confinement. Almost all of them, particularly university professors, are secure financially, as well as their kin. I do have some kin whose response might be summarized as “Yes, but … maybe things are not so bad as ‘they’ say…” or “closing cemeteries is strange.” In recent days, it has been reported that there may be many people who say “no” publicly. This public resistance may even lead to further responses by governors. It may also lead to some who said ‘Yes’ to move to ‘No’.

We need many more reports and I hope anthropologists will soon start reporting more systematically what some people, here or there, did, with what resources, and with what consequences on themselves, their kin, and others around them. I imagine that both consent and resistance took many forms and keep evolving as the people face new information, new instructions, new forms of discipline.

In brief, all encounters with a constraint (statement, decree, remnant of earlier statements and decrees) will involve some sort of bricolage.


Garfinkel, Harold   2002     Ethnomethodology’s program: Working out Durkheim’s aphorism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Mauss, Marcel   [1923] 1967     The gift.. Tr. by I. Cunnison. New York: W.W. Norton.

Mehan, First   1979     Learning lessons: Social organization in the classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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Modeling Corona pathways

This post is an exercise in imagining what social scientists need to do in order to learn about the spread of Corona, from the point of view of an anthropology steeped in the epistemology of ethnography. The appearance of Corona in all our lives is also an opportunity to understand better how real (not imagined) worlds are constructed by human beings, as well as what are the consequences of the particular worlds actually constructed on the everyday lives of people in the populations caught in that world, whether they bend to the new constraints, resist them, or (deep) play with them. In other words, for those who work off Foucault: how does governmentality actually work?

I introduced what I am exploring here in my earlier post about the speech acts which, as I drove west, closed restaurants (March 28, 2020). These speech acts traveled down pathways from some source to a local establishment where it will be experienced, say by a restaurant manager, and then lead to some response, or, rather, many responses. I first “felt” Corona on March 9, when it was announced that classes at Teachers College would be “online” only starting two days later. By the 12th, I, along with everyone else at Teachers College received a message from our president, forwarding the message that the president of Columbia had sent to all on some enormous mailing list (the “Columbia community” as it was deemed). I know less about the Corona pathways in France, I imagine that university presidents there did not have to deal with trustees, lawyers or insurers. What they had to deal with, and how they had to announce local decrees is worth investigating, particularly for those still interested in the culturing of human action
The message mentioned the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control and it made it appear as if the “University” was the acting subject. No mention of any internal mechanism was indicated in the key sentence “we now need to take further steps.” Who is “we” here, ethnographically? Given that the conversations that led to the decision are “privileged” (i.e. secret except to a few), I imagine that the participants included trustees, lawyers, insurers. I imagine conversations among the presidents of New York University, Cornell and perhaps others. And I imagine calls to the state governor or his staff.

The conversations that led to the announcement of what “we” would do next will remain secret for 30 years at least. But they must have been all the more intense that the WHO or CDC or NY state suggestions and decrees left some matter to local interpretation and improvisation on the overall Corona theme. It is a matter of public information that universities of Columbia’s standing did speech act with different consequences for their students. On March 9th, talking with some colleagues at Indiana University we wondered about Harvard’s decision to abruptly close all student residences, with apparently little concern with whether students actually had a “home” to go back to. Eventually Columbia went a different way, “strongly urging” students to go home, but accommodating those who could not (for example the many students from China).

It will however be possible to get a sense of who and who is involved in local decisions by reading public statements such as this one from Columbia that mentions an “Infectious Disease working group” that makes local decisions about what to sanitize when and how often.

Ethnographers will rarely be given permission to take notes when speech acts affecting millions if not billions are being performed. Few of us can study “up” so we will have to find settings that will allow us to observe, collect, take notes, etc. among people relatively “down” from our status. In particular anthropologists will be able to document what some people did as they responded to decrees by governors (presidents, first ministers, superintendents, chiefs—whatever they may be called in this or that world). For a few days for example, some of us at Teachers College imagined (hoped?) that the “closure” was not an absolute one. We exchanged e-mails about whether someone could water the plants in my office. As we did, we came to understand the depth of the closure and the not-at-all symbolic strength of Corona. I do not know whether my plants are surviving though it may be that one of the few human beings who can still enter the building is watering them.

As with all ethnography, this little vignette does not seem to mean much. And yet it can be the grounds on which one can model the Corona pathways and the activity of human beings when caught anywhere in what is essentially a daedalus.

So, in summary, and in a very preliminary fashion:

— A consists of some human beings who can decree what B, C, D, n…. must do or else some punishment may ensue. The people of A meet, deliberate and then they decree.

— B (C, D, n…. ) consists of some other human beings who receive the decree and translate it so that it makes sense for them. In the process, after meetings, deliberations, etc. they come up with further decrees to those over which they have more focused authority Ba, Bb, Bc, Bn….

–Ba (Bb, Bc, Bn…) then, meet, translate, deliberate and, perhaps come up with still further specific decrees on Ba1, Ba2, Ban…


— (A) the governor of NY state decrees that all non-essential businesses should close;

— (B) university presidents decree that all teaching would be online using Zoom (rather than Skype)

— (Ba) individual faculty members on sabbatical and traveling to give lectures must decide whether to continue driving, etc. This response is made in collaboration with children, in-laws, etc.

(Ba) is where ethnographers will be enter to the world of Corona and give evidence as to what people who had no voice in the making of some policy do as they translate the particular mandate they received into their own lives among their most significant others.

The point is that people, everywhere and everywhen, when the recipient of a decree that makes a very real world for them, will make something else with the decree that those who made the decree cannot predict or control. As I argued in Educating in Life (2019), building on Rancière, a powerful event in one’s life will lead to a whole set of “next” steps sensitive to the actual practical character of the event, the resources available, the more or less significant others with whom one will try to construct a next, and then the response to the responses by those who produced the event in the first place.

Remember Alice and the flamingo!

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on “Corona”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on that in another post.


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

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

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

1963 .. (First published in 1952)

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Corona as culture

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

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

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

media image of the C19 virus
This is not a virus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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On the speech acts that are making Corona

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

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

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

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

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

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



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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Educating into Corona, in life

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]


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

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

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

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What am I to do with “”memes”“

Should anthropologists 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?

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.

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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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