Hervé Varenne

originally published in the Journal of the Steward Anthropological Society 22, 93-139, 1994

Et si l'on demande à quel ultime signifié renvoient ces significations qui se signifient l'une l'autre, ... l'unique réponse que suggère ce livre est que les mythes signifient l'esprit qui les élabore au moyen du monde dont il fait lui-même partie.
Lévi-Strauss (1964: 346) [ftn2]

In the beginning, a WORD of power was pronounced, and light came into the world. Better still, in French, le VERBE se fit chair in an act of ultimate power. Much later, another word, or rather quite a lot of other words, were pronounced which purported to decreate, deconstruct light to demonstrate that, ultimately, the VOID rules the center, and that no signs (words, verbs, discourses) are more likely than others to move us--in any of the "meanings" of the verb or, more precisely perhaps, in any of the aspects of experience that move points towards. As Derrida once pronounced in an essay on anthropological knowledge:

On pourrait montrer que tous les noms du fondement [dans l'histoire de la métaphysique], du principe ou du centre ont toujours désigné l'invariant d'une présence (__eidos__, __archè__, __telos__, __energeia__, __ousia__ (essence, existence, substance, sujet) __aletheia__, transcendantalité, conscience, Dieu, homme, etc.).
.....L'événement de rupture [...] se serait peut-être produit au moment où la structuralité de la structure a dû commencer à être pensée, c'est-à-dire répétée [...] Dès lors on a dû sans doute commencer à penser qu'il n'y avait pas de centre, que le centre ne pouvait être pensé dans la forme d'un étant présent, que le centre n'avait pas de lieu naturel, qu'il n'était pas un lieu fixe mais une fonction, une sorte de non-lieu dans lequel se jouaient à l'infini des substitutions de signes. (1967: 411)[ftn3]

WORD/VOID, expression vs. silence, construction vs. deconstruction, culture vs. nature? Do we have to choose? Indeed, as intellectuals, as human beings indeed, is there a choice here? Can we, practically, choose silence? And how would we tell ourselves and others that we have chosen silence, except in other words which, necessarily, bring us back into the world of culture? Could it be that the irony in the ironic stance is that it must eventually point to a reality that cannot be named but is still active in us and through us, a reality that attracts and repels us, a reality that is our very life in history-ªthe ultime signifié for which Lévi-Strauss used the word esprit?

There is a paradox here that we must celebrate because it is a challenge to listen more carefully to humanity in all the forms that it uses to express itself, that is to externalize, and thus reproduce itself--in speech and in deeds, symbolically and materially, or, in words that should bring together an unnecessary duality, in history. There is something profound in the recognition that all human activity, including anthropology, proceeds through symbolic means and that it would be fruitful for the evolution of the discipline to concentrate on these means--whatever the media in which the symbolic inscribes itself on history as word, text,[ftn4] conversation, drama or indeed society.

The recent problem, for anthropology, arose when the time came to build the next statement in the long conversation anthropologists have had with each other and with those who recognize their dependency on the new kind of knowledge anthropology could offer: What shape should the next ethnography take? If anthropology is cultural construction rather than transcultural description and explanation, then, it has been said, we have to give up on an activity that has lost its justification. Nothing can be done that will not point us back to ourselves--and we might just as well stay home and dream.[ftn5] Marcus and Fisher, among others, talk about irony and experimentation (1986). Others talk about casuistry (Shweder 1989) or parody (Crapanzano 1991). There is little acknowledgement, however, that the claim to detachment, like the earlier claim of objectivity, hides rather than reveals its own symbolic structure. As for experimentation, it is itself an act of faith in the possibility of saying some "thing." Crapanzano himself, while opposing the postmodern discourse to all forms of fundamentalism, notes that they are contemporaries and he proposes a version of the former that may in fact collapse it into the latter. After emphasizing the moral and political grounding of the postmodern discourse which takes it outside of the "criteria of accuracy and truth," he concludes:

We are confronted with, more accurately, incorporated into, a totalizing hermeneutic--a sort of epistemological antinomianism--that rejects totalization, questions the authority of any hermeneutic, and reuses any transcendental position. (1991: 435)

By emphasizing that the discourse "incorporates [us] into" itself by its very structure, Crapanzano (ironically?) seems to suggests that postmodernism is a form of fundamentalism.[ftn6]

There are other roads open to us that can reveal their own symbolic structure, constitute "new" (and experimental in the sense that they are not and may not yet become part of the disciplinary canon) ways, and still move us on. One will only despair if one holds on to an unreconstructed positivistic version of the nature of reality and of the scientific activity that will reveal otherwise hidden properties. As Bellah has put it (1970: 206) "science itself posits an unknown, a mystery" and there cannot be any "absolute separation of social science and theology." This, if one refuses the religious language Bellah uses, is not necessarily a call for "faith." It is at the very least a recognition of the inevitability of life, action, drama.

My goal here is to begin an exploration of a difficult set of texts: those produced in, around, and about, the Catholic Church in Ireland. Ireland, the Irish have told us, is a "priest-ridden" land. Priests, the Catholic Church, are, by all accounts, central to Ireland, and, by all accounts also, this area is a dangerous one to approach. It is dangerous in Ireland. It is also dangerous around America as the Catholic possibility continues to challenge Calvinistic and liberal Evangelical traditions, both in their religious and secular political incarnations. This results in an anthropology of Catholic symbolic expression that is much richer in interpretive texts deconstructing practices to reveal political, economic, and particularly psychological underpinnings than it is in expansions reconstructing what ethnography can reveal.[ftn7] This, in fact, may be changing particularly through the exemplary work of Larry Taylor (1985, 1989, 1990a, 1990b).[ftn8] He is highlighting the complexity of Catholic practices in Ireland, both in what may be the "classical period" (at the end of the 19th century), and its contemporary manifestations. There is still much work to do here, anthropological work. What do priests do, in the everyday practice of their trade? How does the laity handle in its everyday life its profound skepticism/faith about things religious? Or rather, since such a question implies a totalizing answer that we now know cannot be answered, what is it that priests, and the laity that produce them and struggle with them, can do?[ftn9]

I will give an answer to this question through the telling of an incident that involved an Irish priest and me. In the anthropological common sense that is being challenged, I could present this as a moment that revealed Irish priesthood. I could then present myself as giving a report of what another shepherd once said, while keeping his flock on some distant island.[ftn10] I could finally state--as I am in fact doing--that this is a chapter in an evolving ethnography of life in the southern suburbs of Dublin.

I want to do more and recognize that he was also telling me, as anthropologist, something about the way I should be conducting my business. Indirectly, he revealed his understanding of anthropology and offered a cautionary tale that is particularly relevant to our general enterprise. Don't search for an unmovable center, he told me. The center is alive. It blows like the strong wind (or is it the Spirit of God?) that blew (or hovered) over the primordial sea.[ftn11] And do not forget, he reminded me, to take into account the negativity within you, your discipline and humanity in general. All human paths are crooked.

Ethnographic paths can be crooked or multiple. To help the reader, I am experimenting with a three-fold presentation. The "main" text is written to approximate scholarly standards. The footnotes contain the kind of information used to ground the statements in the main text. Appendix B provides a paraphrase of an interview.[ftn12] Each text (main, footnote, appendix) indexes the other and does something somewhat different. None of the texts remakes the temporal and experiential present of my observations in Ireland. They do not "represent" the "real" Fr. Byrne. Together, they make present to the reader something that he can no more dismiss as fiction than I could. They constitute a historical object which will resist interpretation even as it calls for it.

The frame

Once we have gotten the knack of it, nothing is easier than analyzing an ethnographic text, or an ethnographic practice, for the ideology not so carefully buried in its rhetoric.[ftn13] We have many such analyses and they are useful. This task is in fact not so different from the traditional ethnographic task of cultural translation during which we take a "native" text, underline something exotic about it, and then translate this into other words which we assume will contribute to an increase in "understanding"--if not scientific knowledge--in our audience.

This recent work has significantly built upon Geertz' reminder of the concrete product of all ethnography: The text that we write. Ethnography is something that anthropologists do, practically, in the everyday settings of our anthropological condition: the study, the word processor, the class, the lecture. A text--or more exactly a cultural performance jointly improvised by the anthropologist-as-author and the many audiences who so construct him--inevitably, can be shown to be grounded in an ideological act, even if, or particularly if, this text presents itself as an analysis of the ideological underpinnings of another text. To the extent that deconstruction has taught us anything it is that this is the condition of our activity in a world of other human beings: Any text that presents itself as an analysis-to-be-attended-to (if only because it sought and won publication) is an act that hides and reveals a particular ideology. It cannot be otherwise. As we write, we produce culture. Necessarily, the culture which we produce becomes "our" culture--even if we chose, among the registers made available to us, the "critical" mode.[ftn14] To choose this mode is not to escape Euro-America: After all, cultural criticism is one of the glories of Western civilization! The thing is that such awareness, even after it has produced all the detailed analyses of the ways we in fact reproduce our culture, does not resolve the problem that now confronts anthropology: What are we to do with this awareness of our condition?

One possibility is silence. The other is reconstruction. Deconstruction itself may not be much more than a renewal of the old analytic task of taking objects that appear phenomenologically as units of some sort, and then demonstrating the ways many parts produce the particular efficacy of the object on other objects. Ethnography-ªhowever traditional in its presentation of self--has always been deconstruction. Where it may have failed was in not looking at itself as a human product that must be analyzed using the same tools anthropology has demonstrated are useful for understanding all human products.[ftn15] It has begun to do so and it can continue without loosing the right to claim the special kind of knowledge that comes with the scientific stance. For science is not in the product, it is in the conversation that scientists have with each other and with those who give it authority.

Anthropology, as a science, must highlight its ideology and we must ask certain questions that have not often been asked. If we are to carry a more or less explicit ideology, what ideology should it be? On what grounds can we make the decision? How do we handle texts produced by another ideology than ours? How do we evaluate the contribution that such a text makes to "anthropology"? How do we decide that a text belongs to our own anthropological corpus? Eventually, it is not enough to demonstrate that Evans-Pritchard, or Leroy-Ladurie wrote about the Nuer or a 14th century village in Southern France using a pastoral rhetoric grounded in a European courtly and inquisitorial tradition (Rosaldo 1986). Is this demonstration enough to invalidate their work? What rhetoric should they have used (primitive rationalism? socialist realism? otherworldly mysticism? class struggle? postmodernism?)? What would these other rhetoric have highlighted? What would they have silenced?

Such questions have been asked. Answers have been given, often along the lines of American pluralism:[ftn16] The presentation of multiple possibilities in an uncertain world is good in itself and we cannot go beyond without falling pray to various obscurantisms (from positivism to Cartesianism). A particularly strong version of this answer is given by


[Post-modern ethnography] is not an instrument of immortality, for it does not hold out the false hope of a permanent, utopian transcendence, which can only be achieved by devaluing and falsifying the common sense world and thereby creating in us a sense of permanent alienation from everyday life as we live in constant expectation of the messianic deliverance from it that can never come, or comes only with death, and science thus encourages us to die too soon. (1986: 134)

But this answer itself is easily analyzable for its own ideology. On what ground can it be said that a permanent transcendence is a "false" hope? Is it a widely shared common sense that "messianic deliverance" never comes? Tyler himself is aware of this when he writes:

Polyphony is a means of perspectival relativity and is not just an evasion of authorial responsibility or a guilty excess of democracy, though, as Vico might say, it articulates best with that social form [...]. (1986: 127)

In a certain way, these are side issues to the actual practice of anthropology. In another way they are central as we practically construct our discipline in concert with those outside of it who are concerned with it, or whom we construct as being concerned with it (referred to in our work as the ambiguous "they" who misinterpret our work and the ambiguous "us" whom we wish to enlighten). Many fear that Tyler's answers (anthropology through literary evocation) would eventually silence anthropology as it reintegrated (or was dismissed back to) the fields of travelogues and philosophical essays from which it escaped. To claim that this move would make us "true to our condition as cultural subjects" would be disingenuous for thinkers who have difficulties with the notion of truth. Practically, the call to relative silence is an ideological call. Few will in fact heed it as they continue to struggle with the analytic imperative that humanity has evolved with what it was originally given.

Eventually, we have no choice but to discipline ourselves and accept a duty that we assume when we accept a position as professional anthropologists: the duty to examine human activity always more carefully, and to reconstruct our practice as we are enlightened to the ways in which we have failed. Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, Arensberg, were not passive reproducers of their culture. Like all bricoleurs, they borrowed earlier literary and philosophical forms, they expanded some of their possibilities, transformed others, and performed all the acts that cultivate the world as it is given to us. In so doing, they moved our ability to preserve some properties of humanity that earlier accounts had silenced.

The recent critique of classical ethnographic work is not to be taken as a critique of the possibility of ethnographic work. It must be read as a call for more careful observations and retellings where one's participation is highlighted so as to clarify the activity of the Other as he deals with the strangeness that we may have brought with us. The power of deconstructionism, as it helped us reveal the multiplicity of human forms that are always alive, lies in the ways it challenges us to preserve this multiplicity not only in our ethnographic tellings but also in the ideological underpinnings of these tellings. Eventually, however, the challenge is the one Marx, Durkheim, Boas, and so many others, laid down for us: to uncover something about humanity that might otherwise remain hidden.

Catholic Reconstructions

As an author, it may not be possible convincingly to multiply the ideologies framing one's text without silencing what makes them particularly efficacious as cuts into our condition as human beings. A discipline, in so far as it is a society if not a community, is a different matter. The overall theory of human action that we are pursuing must take into account all partial theories of action of which it itself is one. Practically, I am concerned with the grounds on which "we" (that is the stereotypical anthropologist as constructed by, on the one hand, Geertz or Clifford as elders of the tribe, and, on the other hand, by deans, research foundations, and other political forces) recognize a text as belonging to the anthropological corpus. What are the concrete stylistic, but also ideological, features which mark a text rhetorically as anthropology first, and, next, as a particular type of anthropology?[ftn17]

I will only indicate here how we might explore further such matters. We must wonder for example how to account for the grounds that let American anthropologists, on the one hand, accept men like Lévi-Strauss or Louis Dumont as proper anthropologists and then, on the second hand, analyze their work, more or less dismissively as "French," stylistically and theoretically. Conversely, an "anthropology" produced by a Catholic theologian will be considered specifically as not part of our corpus, perhaps because it uses concepts like "sin" or "salvation" which can enter academic anthropology only as object of study (as in "I am studying the concept of sin in 19th century Irish religiosity").[ftn18] Some place in between would be an "anthropology" such as Sartre's which some disciplinary anthropologists do quote approvingly.[ftn19] The implicit anthropologies of most of the cultures we study are even more problematic as we both heap on them praises for special wisdom which it is our professional task to highlight, and radically dismiss as sources for a professional text--that is, we never write our analysis in the style of, or with the ideological underpinning of, the people whose style or ideology we may also celebrate.

In this paper, I am focusing on "Catholic" anthropologies.[ftn20] As a disciplinary anthropologist more concerned with contributing to the evolution of a tradition than in the creation of new ones--an impossible task, as far as I am concerned--, I proceed from the most local of Catholic constructions, from what one priest said on the side of a hill on the edge of Dublin. Still he made present something--an ironic affirmation of a center that only reveals itself in its negation--that other anthropologies, rooted in five hundred years of protests against many forms of this affirmation, may not be able to deal with.

Catholics in Ireland

Picture Fr. Michael Byrne, senior curate in a suburban parish[ftn21] of the Dublin archdiocese that he is wearing like a sack cloth.[ftn22] Things are too comfortable here and the people seem to have just enough to make them egoistical, closed on themselves, their immediate household and a network of friends and acquaintances that goes beyond, and thus breaks, the neighborhood in which they reside. Fr. Byrne was born in the inner city of Dublin, long before the urban renewal that destroyed most of the sites made famous by Sean O'Casey. His family was far from poor but he continues to identify with the down-trodden, for those who are loosing their jobs, moving into the "council housing" of shame, and to their 1980's incarnations, remote suburbs like Ballymun or Tallaght where an ambiguously beneficent government provides housing, but no jobs.

At 50, Fr. Byrne is still a curate when some of his peers in the seminary are now bishops. Cause or result of his relative disgrace, he drives around in a battered car, dressed in not quite clean trousers and cigarette smoke stained sweaters. Many parishioners are quite convinced that he is an alcoholic too, though some know that his apoplectic complexion is the sign of the high blood pressure which, two years after we left Dublin, one day killed him as he mowed his lawn. That was six months after he had finally made it to parish priest in a working class suburb.

My wife and I first talked to him one evening as he knocked at our door for an unannounced visit. He had noticed my wife's daily attendance at mass; he had been told about a hard-to-classify American (or was it French?) family who had settled in Greenhill and drove around in a large car with foreign license plates. There had been some wondering in the relatively informal network of people on whom he relied to keep in touch with those who often were an altogether reluctant flock. Some claimed to be in the know, others were suspicious. Fr. Byrne had to check. Was it duty? Was it curiosity? As we found out, one could be sure that he was aware of such subtleties in possible motivations, and would give answers that should never be taken as final. Certainly curiosity and duty neatly overlapped each other for our house was located in the part of the parish for which he was responsible. This was a pastoral visit and it must have shown the promise of breaking the routine of the many such visits which Fr. Byrne had conducted in his life.

Fr. Byrne visited us several times. He delighted in paradoxical statements we always took at face value only to be shown that he had been pulling our leg. He explained why he always voted for Fianna F?il, and especially for Charlie Haughey, the then out of power leader of the party. Haughey was once found innocent of running arms for the IRA--something that most we talked to were convinced he had done. Fr. Byrne particularly liked Haughey's womanizing. This, he told us, proved that he was human, a real sinner whom you could trust. He had no faith in the sanctimonious leader of Finne Gael, Garret Fitzgerald, who had the disagreeable habit of pushing the wheelchair his handicapped wife sat in to campaign meetings.

And then, there is the story he once told us about a conversation with Fr. Collins, the new junior curate. Fr. Collins had, one Saturday morning, been told to report the following day to Ballinteer. This, we were told, was the normal process followed by the diocese for the assignment of all priests. He knew no one and he made what he must have felt later was an error. He asked Fr. Byrne "who were the important people in the parish?" Fr. Byrne, as he told us the story, answered "Mrs. Donovan is a very important lady." Fr. Collins, for several days, looked high and low for Mrs. Donovan. He asked around and no one knew her: Mrs. Donovan, he eventually realized, had been lying for many months in a deep coma in a distant hospital. Fr. Byrne every so often visited her. He spent, as he told us, an hour or two, quietly reciting the rosary. And then he left.

This was a good joke on Fr. Collins and his transparent desire to meet the political movers in the parish, people like Bill Smith who would soon be elected to parliament.[ftn23] It was a good story to tell in the corridor of a suburban home (for Fr. Byrne never quite let himself be captured by our attempts at constructing him as a proper visitor that would sit either in the kitchen or the living-room and be handed a cup of tea). Not only was it a good story about a joke, it was also a joke itself since it was of course told interactively, through questions that placed us in the position of Fr. Collins. Not only did we laugh at him, we had to laugh at ourselves for having been set up.[ftn24]

But this joke, as any Catholic would soon recognize was not quite a joke either. It was also a parable, a tool to remind Fr. Collins, and us as parishioners, that a woman in a coma is indeed religiously more important than a future member of parliament. It is thus not too surprising that, on the day when I videotaped a Sunday mass, Fr. Byrne's sermon expanding on the gospel passage where the disciples are told not to be afraid,[ftn25] closed on the following paragraph:

I often say that some of the most important people in our parish, in our world, in our society today, are people who incapacitated, who are of no value to society, who are sometimes thought as taking up beds in hospitals, in geriatric centers, who cannot feed themselves, clothe themselves, who have to be taken care of.
.....It is very good for us to go to these places, just go there and see how helpless people can be. And yet in this place there's dignity, and the prayer, and the powerful intercession of Holy God the Father. These are the people who are loved by God.
.....Let us now stand and recite the Creed.

And so eventually I wondered: when Fr. Byrne first told us the story in our corridor, and then when he retold its morals in a sermon where I was standing, pointing a video camera at him, who was he addressing? Clearly, he had first been addressing the fellow adult in the know who laughs at a good practical joke played on a naive third person. Eventually, he had also been addressing the Catholic. Was he also addressing the anthropologist?

Irish anthropologies

The Irish, anthropologists have found out, are quite sophisticated users and critics, of anthropological work. They certainly participated in its invention as Dublin intellectuals searched the West Coast of the island for evidence of their own constitution.[ftn26] They know all about American students who find Ireland through the mouths of old men in pubs. They know about those who focus on politicians and economic conflict. Fr. Byrne played at both of this genres. Not only did he tell us wonderful tales, albeit not in a pub, he also gave us political analyses of the social relationship between Ireland and Great Britain that demonstrated a keen understanding of the economic issues which kept Ireland dependent on its former masters.[ftn27] Whether or not Fr. Byrne had actually read the old or the new classics of Irish ethnography, he knew what kind of work I must be doing. It could be suspected that I would wrap myself in the prideful detachment of the researcher--whether the garment said "positivism" or "postmodern irony." So, he was reminding me of a truth that he knew was religious but should also be taken as the foundation of my activity: Mrs. Donovan, comatose in the hospital, should be my problem.

Of course, he never actually told me that in these words and I am expanding when I say that Mrs. Donovan, and our work with the people she was made to symbolize, must be the problem of anthropology. His medium was ironic irony. Face to face, outside of the pulpit or the confessional box, he would never let himself be caught pronouncing dogma: Every statement was so couched that he could deny its literal meaning. Every statement, story, conversation, pointed to something else and thus built an intertextual web which it has been my task somehow to reconstruct here. In other words Fr. Byrne was not centrally concerned with telling what he meant, personally and honestly in referential discourse.[ftn28] He was concerned with pointing me (and those who can listen) in certain directions. He pointed to paradoxes, contradictions, the negativity in oneself. And so you must read this text I wrote a while ago (at the time of your reading) not as an attempt to tell this particular native's mind but as a struggle to highlight all the other texts that participate in this particular construction. My story about Fr. Byrne is, obviously, a story about a story, a story about a joke that is a story about a joke, a story about a joke that collapses the political discourses of power, the liberal ideological discourses of modern democracy, and the religious discourse of an altogether conservative strain in Catholicism. To these discourses, I am adding the various specialized discourses in anthropology and other forms of cultural criticism.

The point here, and I am obviously not one who finds himself comfortable with an ironic form of delivery (or is simply that the scholarly paper is not quite a ironic genre?), is that Fr. Byrne's irony pointed beyond irony. All human manifestations had to be treated ironically: One can always find in an actual practice the twist that demonstrates that it has not achieved what it claims it was centrally designed to achieve. He never failed to point out how, say, special efforts to "reach the people," either through a folksy style or through small prayer groups and the like,[ftn29] all had the effect of producing further resistance among the laity.[ftn30] He could in fact slip from irony to cynicism as when he accused the people at whose houses he had said mass to have invited him solely for the social prestige of the thing. At such points, he would then catch himself and tell us that he was now being "negative" and that we should not take this too seriously for there was much that was positive in the Catholic lives of the people in Ballinteer.

At times when a slightly drunken cynicism is de rigueur in the corridors of the hotels where anthropologists meet annually, it can be said that the goal of deconstruction is not so much intellectual enlightenment as academic advancement. In Irish pubs, even very practicing Catholics sometimes agreed that the only thing that kept priests going is the prospect of one day reigning over a parish and controlling its finances.[ftn31] Such cynicism is in fact quite disingenuous. The ultimate in deconstruction is the decomposition of death that reveals human beings for what they have never ceased being: atoms of carbon, oxygen and various metals--in one word, dust. Textually, the ultimate is silence. Actually of course, deconstruction, as reconstruction of a particular type, is an activity that affirms life and the power of the word. It cannot be cynical.

Cynicism is properly relegated to corridors and bars. Irony, well handled, does not have to be. Deconstruction through irony, in modern critical thinking as in Fr. Byrne's, does point, wittingly or not, toward a center that is not a void--though it is not a stable substance either. Modern deconstruction is rather coy about this for it continually catches itself naming that to which it points: the Empty Center, the VOID at the core. Some are clearly uncomfortable with the nihilistic implications and are identifying its major ideas with a radical form of American relativism that seems particularly commensurate with political liberalism in, as the formula would have it, "our ever changing multi-cultural society." Eventually, ideology and faith reveal themselves.

Fr. Byrne did not point us to the VOID and he was certainly not a relativist. He pointed to a comatose woman, a human being who remained paradoxically alive. She symbolized those who suffer without a voice that was taken away from them through what he did not hesitate to call our sins. And so he reminded an uncertain priest recently out of the seminary of his primary duties as a minister to people in pain. And so he may have reminded me that the science of humanity, the activity that is trying to give LOGOS to ANTHROPOS, is only justified, as a science that is a human activity, if it gives voice to the human in humanity that humanity itself hides. Or, in more disciplinary terms, anthropology is the activity which, while glorifying Culture as the center of what it is to be human, also insists that Culture is as much restriction as it is expansion, and thus must continually be in the business of reminding us of the practical presence (if not "reality") of what it is that has been obscured.

Note that the anthropology Fr. Byrne points to is not as foreign as it may initially appear. Robert Murphy once accepted a label used to classify him as he tried to explain what an "Irish Social Anthropology" might be (1975). Expectably,[ftn32] he defines it as the anthropology that "teaches that: All things real are ephemeral; all things enduring are false" (1975: 61). This was an expansion on a book which, he reminded us recently (1990), ended with the words "FUCK YOU" (1971). These were words students at Berkeley had written on placards they waved during some protest march in 1964. Together with university administrators and professors who expressed dismay at such things as "the breakdown of intellectual discourse," they affirmed and negated a norm. In the process, they revealed the fundamentally human character of both norms and their negation. "Culture, Murphy wrote (ironically?), is an illusion, but, like other illusions, it gives life" (1971: 241).[ftn33]

There is a lingering functionalism here. Culture does not "give life," it is life for human beings. This, I think is what Fr. Byrne, freed from the need intellectuals in American universities have to remain "safely secularized" as one of them once said, was pointing to. Murphy's criticism of what one might call "substantialism" (all positivisms, social structuralisms, referential theories of meaning and symbolism, etc.), and his criticisms of all idealisms and nihilisms, could have stopped at the edge. Eventually, like Fr. Byrne, Murphy acknowledged the power of life when the body is silenced (1987). There he tells us:

Death is not preferable to disablement.. For if all other meanings and values are arbitrary and culturally relative, then the only transcendent value is life itself. Life is at once both its own means and its end, a gift that should neither be refused nor cast off... Life is less a state than a process, a drama with an inevitable denouement, for quiescence and dissolution are the fate of everything. (1987: 230)

This is the language of radical atheism and it may make this statement more appropriate to an academic setting than Fr. Byrne's statements. Still he affirms that we may not transform a comatose woman--or people in an Irish suburb--to a set of words mirroring each other meaning NO-thing.

There are in fact more temperate versions of Catholic sensibilities in anthropology. V. Turner's is restrained, private, and possibly more liberal. What he called the "anthropology of experience" (1986) is an attempt to highlight the constructive force in human action which all types of structuralisms (whether British--Radcliffe-Brown, French--Lévi-Strauss, or indeed American--Parsons) appear to ignore. Above all, he and his students, celebrated the life that constructs history even as it ebbs as Myerhoff did in a series of justly famous pieces (1978, 1986).

Like Victor Turner when he struggled with the notion of communitas, like Murphy, like Fr. Byrne, Myerhoff points to a center. This Irish (?) Catholic (?) center moves ahead of us and it will not be caught by declarative statements because the statements themselves transform its historical realization. Still, a center that moves and thus leaves all human action somewhat decentered is not an absent center. It will, however, remain clouded in mystery, and this is why all the talk about life and construction must not be transformed into some socio-biological urge to reproduce. This would be a new collapse into cynicism. The struggle here is one that Bateson, among social scientists understood perhaps best to the extent that he always remained dedicated to science. As he put it, "mind" and "nature" must necessarily be one and this unity diminishes neither:

As I write this book, I find myself between the Scylla of established materialism, with its quantitative thinking, applied science, and "controlled" experiments on one side, and the Charybdis of romantic supernaturalism on the other. My task is to explore whether there is a sane place for religion somewhere between these two nightmares of nonsense. Whether, if neither muddleheadness nor hypocrisy is necessary to religion, there might be found in knowledge and in art the basis to support an affirmation of the sacred that would celebrate natural unity. (1987: 64)

But there is not much fear in this form of Californian (American?) spiritualism. Fr. Byrne would probably have dismissed Bateson as irrelevant to the presently suffering person he yearned to minister to. But he would have understood better the urge that moved someone like Myerhoff to bring out in an altogether passionate[ftn34] ethnography all the ways in which a community of very old people made themselves for themselves and for those who would not see them.

He might not however have been able to refrain from poking for the dark places Myerhoff's apparent optimism may make us miss. Myerhoff, certainly, took upon herself the political imperative of amplifying what she understood her people to say. In Number our days (1978) she was all the more effective at doing this that she emphasizes the internal controversies that drove the people to sharper performances. Still there is a problem in the constructivist traditions--particularly the various ones that evolved in sociology out of Blumer's interactionism (1969) and that was placed back closer to the center of the social sciences by Berger and Luchman (1966): what happens to these constructions after those who made them have moved on? They remain, and not only as memories. The magnificent act of Jacob Koved staging a death on the stage that had become the center of his life (Myerhoff 1978: Chapter VI) must be seen as precisely what it was: an act in history that makes something for all those who remain alive. There would be no disrespect in thinking of it in the terms suggested by Williams when he talks about "hegemony" (1977).

"Hegemony"--most commonly--is used to point to massive historical constructions that make something for masses that oppresses them in various ways that they do not control. It is not usually used for the acts of individuals in small groups, particularly when the act appears to express what the group generated out of its own activity. The human process at work in Koved's act remains the same however: Something is made in history, facted. It is now a "social fact" for those who have to deal with it. There is something glorious in such constructions. There is also something repulsive about them. In any event, something has been made, and we are now faced with "social structures," "ideologies," and such--monuments that we must inhabit.

Fr. Byrne, like Murphy, (and other Europeans steeped in the Catholic traditions),[ftn35] knew that "nature" is not benign, that "mind" is profoundly negative, and that the most magnificent of human constructions may become the more corrupt. One can only celebrate students insulting their elders in the same spirit as Fr. Byrne celebrated corruption in Charlie Haughey: it reminds us that we are all de(con)structors--he, of course, would have said that we are all sinners.

In an off-hand remark that he is now in the position to have broadcast both legitimately and for legitimation, Sartre once differentiated himself from "the American" by writing: "I believe in the existence of evil and he does not" (1962 [1945]: 108). At about the same time he wrote a famous drama in which he placed people in a Hell that may be the human condition. De Rougemont, a French intellectual who wrote at the other edge of the European culture from the one where most intellectuals stood with Sartre, once identified the negation that works along life as the Devil ([1942] 1982). He identified Him with the entropy Murphy, along with Sartre, told us is our fate. De Rougemont preferred to focus on negentropy, the tendency of creation in all its modalities to continue moving in the direction it has followed since a possibly original "big bang": towards higher and higher (more and more complex?) levels of organization and structure. Entropy is death, for him, negentropy love.

De Rougemont, like Fr. Byrne, worked at a Catholic reconstruction of a modernity which, they both knew very well, is deeply resistant to any such reconstruction. In such a paper as I am now writing, their concern cannot be mine--explicitly at least. My task, when I write as a professional anthropologist about suburban Dublin, is to reaffirm that we are at work constructing something that is part of the evolution of humanity. We have taught each other that we cannot be looking for a substantive Truth. We know that we will never arrive at a final statement about the final cause of this or that custom, that we will never find out what it all meant to this or that native.

Still, we must write as ethnographers. Everywhere around us there are people in cultural comas--that is comas that are constituted by their particular positions within cultural structures. Our task is to develop our particular voice so that it can contribute to the choir of the many other voices that are also involved in getting them out of this coma, including their own. Novelists, journalists, cultural critics, priests, and many others, present their version. We must add our own version, one that is specifically grounded in the special modes of investigation and reporting that we have developed in cooperation with, and contradistinction, to them. Eventually we must say: "this is my statement about this custom, the action of these people in their history, do take it into consideration as you make your own statements."

And so, in the spirit of Murphy as it would have been expressed by Fr. Byrne, I will close with another uncomfortable, but deeply human, imperative as I write:


Footnote 1


The research discussed here is based on ten months spent living in a southern suburb of Dublin. I want to recognize here the welcome my family and I received there. I am particularly grateful to my wife, Susan, whose faith opened doors that might otherwise have stayed closed. My debt to Fr. "Byrne" is obvious: the paper is dedicated to his memory and is founded on his continued presence. Anthropologically, my thanks are extended to Michael Moffatt, Dan Ingersoll and the other participants in the "Personal meaning..." session, Jean-Paul Dumont, Ray McDermott, Larry Taylor, Tom Wilson.

Footnote 2

"If one asks to which ultimate signified points all these significations that signify each other ... the only answer that this book suggests is that myths signify the spirit that makes them with the world of which it itself a part." (my translation)

Footnote 3

One could show that all the names of the foundation [in the history of metaphysics], of the principle or of the center have always pointed at the invariant aspect of a presence (__eidos__, __archè__, __telos__, __energeia__, __ousia__ (essence, existence, substance, subject) __aletheia__, transcendantality, conscience,

Footnote 4

The most powerful use of the metaphor of "text" for culture (rather than the metaphors of machine or organisms) is to be found in Boon's work (1973, 1982, 1990). As with all metaphors, this one may have become so routinized as to have died. Still, if we understand "text" as pointing us towards "pervasive human agonies and conflicts along with occasional harmonies and consensus" (Boon 1990: 51-52), there is still much here that is useful. The text, here, is the ultimate example of human productivity that "culture" attempts to give an account of.

Footnote 5

The reference here is to Rose's version of Lévi-Strauss's tale about an ethnographer's moment of alienation from the Other which he temporarily inhabits. As Rose tells it (1989:78), his inability to write "the ethnography that I wanted to work on" led him to a draft of "a piece of fictional poetics of life in America" which he proposes as experimental ethnography.

Footnote 6

One of the best presentation of such a process of incorporation through discourse may have been written by Harding when she wrote about how she was almost converted while conducting research of Protestant fundamentalist churches in the United States (1987). See also

Footnote 7

In his review of academic anthropological work on Ireland, Wilson (1984), points out how limited were the grounds it covered. Starting with Arensberg and Kimball (1940), the focus remained on kinship and community organization among the small farmers of the West Coast. Religion is completely absent from Arensberg's word. When it began to get mentioned it was done in the manner stereotypically done by Messenger who, after a brief review of the major beliefs and customs claims that

It is appropriate here [in the chapter on religion, beliefs and customs] to assess the basic personality structure of Inis Beag islanders, since traits such as sexual puritanism, hypochondria, depression, masochism, conformism, and ambivalence toward authority are linked causally with religion in a very direct manner. (1969: 107)

Scheper-Hughes treats the matter as settled:

So much has been written in recent decades about the puritanical nature of Irish Catholicism and its eroding effect on Irish marriage and freedom of sexual expression ..., that I shall add only my scattered observations on the ways in which Irish body image unconsciously reflects and reinforces sexual repression. (1979: 119)

In fact "the Irish" are not so unconscious of it. Many of the sources she quotes are from Irish intellectuals with deep roots in the provincial villages and town cherished by anthropologists. The overall effect of this kind of writing is radically to devalue a particular way of symbolizing the world in practice that remained powerful for many centuries.

Footnote 8

See also the papers by McFarlane and by Szuchewicz in Curtin and Wilson's Ireland from below (1990). Turner and Turner's analysis of the pilgrimage to St. Patrick's Purgatory in Lough Derg (1978: Chap. 4) is also important. The Turner's remain "outside" Irish Catholicism as they suggest the mechanisms that might make asceticism powerfully useful both for psychological and political reasons.

Footnote 9

Note the use of "can," rather than "must," "may," "(rarely/sometimes/often/etc.) do." I am proposing here neither a value or norm analysis of the priestly role, nor a probabilistic analysis of priestly behavior. Rather I am proposing the case as illustrating a position that has actually been taken by one priest within a broader field.

Footnote 10

This, obviously, is a paraphrase of Geertz's closing sentence in the introduction to Interpretation of cultures (1973).

Footnote 11

The current official Catholic translation of Genesis 1, 1-2 reads:

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters. (New American Bible)

An older (16th to 18th century) translation read:

In the beginning God created heaven, and earth. And the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God moved over the waters. (Douay version)

The same Hebrew word can be translated as either "mighty wind" or "spirit of God." Modern exegesis has decided that Genesis 1, 2, must be read as a description of chaos in the air balancing the images of emptiness and darkness attached to the primordial earth before the intervention of God. This metaphorical uncertainty opens the way for both theistic and atheistic version of the mystery at the core: Spirit, or chaos.

Footnote 12

Appendix A gives further details about the approach to the

Footnote 13

The stereotype of such analyses may be Clifford's (1988). Geertz has also tried his hand at it (1988), though the missing figure, in his gallery of writers who hide themselves, may be the most powerful writer of his generation: Clifford Geertz.

Footnote 14

It is interesting that the greatest figures in American anthropology--that is those who have been most consistently celebrated, venerated, institutionalized and criticized (M. Mead, or R. Benedict for example) have all written in the framework of a critique of "the way we are in America." Marcus and Fisher (1986) argue that this is indeed the place of anthropology. I may as well acknowledge at this point that I place myself within the same framework-- though my critique would not necessarily lead to a revival of the fundamental value structure of America which all these figures point to.

Footnote 15

This in fact has probably been overstated in the recent critical literature. From the earliest, anthropologists have been talking about applying anthropology to anthropology. The field moved from 1870 to 1970 and the recent experimentation may turn out to be much less than they are billed.

Footnote 16

My references to "America" and its democratic, individualistic, agnostically evangelical and Protestant, ideology, could have the same rhetorical structure as those I have just criticized. I do believe that there is a particular wisdom in American constructions even when this wisdom takes us away from other kinds of wisdom to which we must also pay attention. As to the ethnographic grounding of "America," it consists on an extensive body of work--by people who were born and raised in the United States, and by others--which, over 200 years has recognized a persistent originality in the artifacts constructed, or reconstructed, under its control.

Footnote 17

While I have tried to identify some of the rhetorical devices that reveal that they have been written primordially in struggle with America (Varenne 1984), others have explored the many ways in which those who have written about "the other" two or three centuries before the official birth date of academic anthropology (conveniently placed with the publication of Tylor's The origins of culture [1871] 1958), in fact had powerful insights into the nature of humanity that later reconstructions obscured (Boon 1982).

Footnote 18

See for example the beginning of the long entry for "anthropology" in the (Catholic) Theological Dictionary:

[Anthropology] is the conscious effort of man to achieve an understanding of himself by a priori and transcendental arguments, or by a divine revelation, or through a posteriori sciences (medicine, biology, psychology, sociology, and the like). (Rahner and Vorgrimler, 1965:25).

Footnote 19

See for example V. Turner references in Dramas, fields and metaphors (1974: 236, 255).

Footnote 20

Boyarin has recently (1991) made an interesting argument for what he calls a "Jewish ethnography" that is more than an ethnography of (or by) Jews. A related point was made by Bowen in a review of a book of essays on popular religion (1993) as he asked of anthropologists that they pay closer attention to the ensemble of practices that constitute a religion, including those that appear sanctioned by authoritative elites.

Footnote 21

Dublin collectively represents itself as a series of concentric circles diametrically divided: at the center are the various symbols of Irish authenticity (working class slums now mostly urban renewed out of existence on the north side, and Georgian terraces now mostly turned into business offices on the south side). Starting with the turn of the century, a first ring of peripheral areas, then a second, then a third, was settled. On the south side, by the fifties peripheral villages like Dundrum and Rathfarnham were incorporated within the agglomeration. The estates beyond that were subdivided in the 70's and early 80's. Most of those estates were built for people of relatively modest means and many insist that they are not "middle class," which they take, probably accurately, as a term of insult. They are, however, associated with the "Southside," an association reinforced by the contemporary construction, at the northern edge of the agglomeration, of what came to be known as the worst of low income housing. Those who moved to such places have very similar personal histories that centers, in their tellings, along an initial move from a denser center, in the inner city or the country, and then a series of local moves from one estate to the next. By the late 80's most of their social ties remained with persons outside the locality. Whether they build neighborhoods or not remains to be seen.

For a further introduction to Ballinteer where the research was conducted, see Varenne, 1994.

Footnote 22

"This is the worst parish I have been in, the hardest. I don't know what good I am doing. The church is the most beautiful. It's cleaner. Others have concrete floors, there is vandalism but the people are honest." "Here, the milk man is a 'creamery distributor'."

Throughout the interview Fr. Byrne distinguished between the poorest working class parishes where he had spent most of his life and Ballinteer where people had moved to escape the tight communities of their youth. This was also expressed as a distinction between "Dubliners" and "people who came from the country" to Dublin and its suburbs.

Footnote 23

In the interview, and quite apart from any discussion of this case, Fr, Byrne put it this way: "I hear the young priests talking about architects and engineers in their parish and so and so. I wouldn't know these people at all. We [middle aged priests] wanted to disassociate ourselves from the professionals in the parish." This came in the middle of a sequence introduced when I asked him how well he knew the men who run the dominant local businesses (the supermarket, the pubs

Footnote 24

While Fr. Byrne appears to have held himself in check during the interview, we went through this sequence several times. For example, a series of serious exchanges about how religion is a private matter for "the Irish," he came out with the statement "Remember that in Ireland we are the only country where the people turn away from each other for the sign of peace." At another time, he explained the virtue of explaining the mass on occasions and how people had come to tell him afterwards about how they now understood what it all meant. We acknowledged seriously that this was indeed a good idea, to which he retorted, talking about understanding the mass: "that's more than I do, you know." Another time he recited to my wife the "Irish" Our Father: "My father who is heaven, Hallowed be my name, My kingdom come, My will be done..."

Footnote 25

The text of this Gospel passage is:

'So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing covered up that will not be uncovered, nothing hidden that will not be made known. What I say to you in the dark you must repeat in broad daylight; what you hear whispered you must shout from the house-tops. Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. Fear him rather who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

'Are not sparrows two a penny? Yet without your Father's leave not one of them can fall to the ground. As for you, even the hairs of your head have all been counted. So have no fear; you are worth more than any number of sparrows.

'Whoever then will acknowledge me before men, I will acknowledge him before my Father in heaven; and whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven. (Matthew 10:26-33)

Footnote 26

I outline the complexities of this construction elsewhere (Varenne 1990).

Footnote 27

At the beginning of the interview, for example, he linked trends in liturgical change in the Irish church to an "inferiority complex" among the Irish that derived from the fact that political freedom from England was not accompanied by economic freedom, This would lead the Irish to accept uncritically any innovation if it comes from such places as America. Variations on this themes are common in the Irish media and in much scholarly research that plays on the fact that Ireland can both be looked at as the first Third World, neo-colonized nation and as a province of England and the United States.

Footnote 28

During the interview he briefly criticized "those young priests" who greet their congregation during weekday masses and give details about how they are feeling that day. He was sure the people do not care and that it was his job to give them what they need at that time--whatever his feelings.

Footnote 29

This was a recurrent theme in the interview. In the following passage, Fr. Byrne sets us up to laugh with him and other lay people at young priests of an earlier generation:

Fr. B.:

I was at an ordination last year, and whereas ten years ago all the young priests appeared in jeans and in spikes and they were in touch with the people and they were grand.


What does that mean 'being in touch with the people'? how do you understand that?

Fr. B.:

knocking around. They talked about knocking around with youngsters and coming on a bicycle to the youth club. It was a false thing they talked, because young people would say 'did you leave you car at home, father?'

Footnote 30

As he put it in the interview:

I can see my own sisters and brothers-in-law, and all the rest, 'leave us alone, we are going to mass, we are bringing up the children' you know, 'what was good enough for our parents, is good enough for us, we know where we are going. Don't be giving us these confirmation meetings and pledging this and faith friends.'

Footnote 31

A colleague who works in Ireland pointed out to me that Irish priests have another route to local fame, and that is the route to a reputation as a saint--which may have been Fr. Byrne's motivation (as told on the cynical mode).

Footnote 32

"Expectation" refers here to long history of texts summarizing "Irishness," generally as seen from a British point of view that is generally taken for granted both in Ireland and the United States. In a letter to James Joyce, H.G. Wells once summarized the difference between the two of them:

Your mental existence is obsessed by a monstrous system of contradictions. You really believe in chastity, purity and the personal God and that is why you are always breaking into cries of cunt, shit, and hell. ([1928] 1982)

In the language of modern cultural criticism that affirms what it denies:

Most writers on Ireland sooner or later put forward one trait that they see as definitive of the "Irish mind" or the "Celtic consciousness." This characteristic is thought to reproduce itself throughout the cultural fabric across time and space. Hence, the Irish are variously linked to a fatal divisiveness and "emotional oscillation," a "split-mindedness" that becomes a genius for "dispersion and disconnexion" as well as an "incapacity to generalize." (Herr 1990: 6)

Footnote 33

For another expansion on this approach, look at McDermott's work (McDermott and Tylbor 1983; McDermott 1985, 1988).

Footnote 34

Jules Henry so described a famous work on America that begins with the italicized statement "This is not an objective description of America" (1963: 3).

Footnote 35

see Sartre. It would an act of productive irony to see how Murphy and Byrne come together on the issue of radical (a-)theism, how Sartre, like de Rougemont--and at about the same time, at the height of the Second World War--, found themselves writing about the devil and hell, and to contrast this with an Anglican British optimism amplified by America in its Californian