Hands on the Cave Wall: the neverending human revision of inequality and community

We have been discussing the 'Archaeology of Inequality' on the OAC and as usual some of the discussion was a little chaotic, some a bit elliptical, but there were some striking insights there it, or at least so it seems to me.

Two strands stood out.

1. The trend toward inequality is ongoing and inevitable. John argued that the trend toward hierarchy in human affairs is inevitable because Pareto-Barabasi style 'winner takes all' processes appear whenever networks form and arrive at a certain scale. In this view, regardless of human intentions, whenever a resource becomes available and begins to accumulate then a relatively tiny number of actors will acquire radically disproportionate access to that resource. More broadly, when we look across a whole range of phenomena from avalanches to evolutionary adaptation, to human economic activity, we find that, once elements are networked then a few nodes will attract most of the activity (or goodies) in the network (see Keith Hart on this).

I agree that we can observe these kinds of effects at work in different human domains -- for example the more that 'money' becomes a meta-symbol that can be deployed across very distinct scenes of human value then the more the Pareto-style effect seems to take hold -- greater and greater quantities of this abstract money commodity accumulate in the hands of a smaller and smaller number of actors. Piketty and others have commented on this in depth. 

If this effect is an ever-present potential in how social relationships organise themselves into networks then it is also a potentially very dangerous one. Money, for example, isn't just an abstract symbol, it works because of trust between people about how the abstract signifier and certain things in the world connect to each other -- in other words, it effects not only what the world means to the people who live in it, but also what their own lives mean to others around them. If, for example, by merely sitting on money, by way of compound interest etc., certain people can trap huge quantities of the money-signifier rather than redistributing it back into the network then this can have drastic effects on the economic activity of (and the meaning of the world for) most other people. Similarly, (we started by talking about Graeber's paper on Shilluk kingship) if the use of violence becomes concentrated in one person's hands in a society, then society itself starts to take the shape of something inherently arbitrary and violent. 

If all this is true, then, ideologically and practically there seem to be various ways that human beings can respond to it. For example, according to Pospisil, Kapauku Papuans are (or were in the 1950s) secularist business-minded (almost Ayn Randian) libertarians, but they could nonetheless see the dangers of hoarding money (shell money, cowries, in this case) for their individualistic economic set up. So they took a drastic approach: anyone who refused to redistribute their personal money-hoard in loans to new business ventures (business took the form of raising pigs) was taken out and shot. The money, now under the control of relatives, was reissued in loans to budding entrepreneurs.

However, the Kapauku don't have a monopoly on solutions to the dynamic of inequality. Four possible kinds of response (a quad borrowed loosely from Mary Douglas) would include the following practical philosophies:

1. variants of Fatalism, Stoicism, Buddhism: you may not like it but unequal distributions of capacities and goods are inevitable--get over it, radically accept it, look inward at what you can change in your own thought processes, not outward at events over which you have no control.

2. variants of Vitalism, Libertarianism, Individualism: be the hub of your own network, revel in your own uniqueness and the inequality and unevenness of things; take delight in specificity instead of looking for order; wallow deeply in the irrationality of human intentions and the chaotic arbitrariness of how the world manifests itself.

3. variants of Contractarianism, Communitarianism, Keynesianism: acknowledge the danger of incipient unequal access to good things, but act collectively and individually to change the dynamic by all means possible-- use rational and emotional forces to educate, inculcate shared responsibility, redistributive ethics etc.

4. variants of Epicurianism, Platonism, Hinduism etc: the world is by nature hierarchically ordered; invigorate and enjoy the values of a hierarchical society -- everything and everyone can occupy a fulfilling position in the social order from which they can come to understand themselves and the world.

This, it seems to me was the second strand of our discussion:-

2. Hierarchy means nothing without the human capacity for symbolisation and thence the creation of a cosmological 'outside' for human experience. In a series of dazzling interventions Lee pointed to the fact that before you can have the idea of hierarchy you have to have a cosmology. And he suggested that to understand the invention of cosmology you have to recognise the drug-induced, mind-altered state of the shaman who becomes the translator of the cosmos idea for what then becomes a community. We have in other words to start with cosmological awareness itself. Rather than summarising, here is one post by Lee from that exchange:

 Regarding the “lost space” of prehistoric hand stencils:

In one way or another the 'outside' is the cosmological shell. In that respect, and I don't think anyone has remarked on this to my knowledge, these hand 'prints' are quite revealing. They are created by spraying pigment across the surface of the hand, -- the hand creates a lost space around which the pigment falls on the cave surface. Suppose that what is at work here is a reflection on the subjective inside versus the cosmological outside.
    This is an important idea that leads into the depths of an inquiry into the nature of symbolization.  The image of a human hand, its representational form, is not a concrete thing but, as you say, a “lost space,” an absence.  For me this thought evokes the foundational argument of Eco’s semiotics: communication – meaning – is an absent structure.  Recall that the first version of Eco’s (ponderous and canonical) A Theory of Semiotics was a much less formal essay in Italian, La struttura assente.  Essentially the same idea surfaces in Leach’s classic essay on animal categories, in which he argues that the continuum of animal life is broken up by conceptual gaps – absences – that demarcate traditional categories of animal (pets, livestock, game, “wild” animals).  Mary Douglas on taboo also employs that kernel argument.  I pirated the idea in framing a theory of culture in Dreamtime:   

In the spirit of Galileo, if not with his rigor, I would suggest that the anthropocentric Cartesian cogitoholds only if, invoking the principle of cultural generativity, we conceive of humanity as an absence at the center of things, a cipher to be filled with meaning through the operations of an artifactual intelligence.  The fact that people think at all, that they are cultural beings who do things and effect changes in their surroundings, is due to the pronounced uncertainty, the relentless unclarity of their lives. 


    I’ve often wondered about those hand stencils in the caves.  They are among the earliest extant form of human symbolization, but how can we begin to reconstruct the meaning they held for their creators?  As well as their intriguing “lost space” composition, I wonder about: Why hands?  Why not say, feet, or even a stenciled head (produced by another artist as the subject pressed his head against the cave wall)?  A thought I had is that the human hand is an excellent sign of both human distinctiveness and – what folks now like to go on about – agency.  In a world populated by humans, animals, and totemic spirits, the human talent to make things, our artifactual intelligence, and thereby create a whole new class of beings (tools) was hugely important. 

    The only way to go beyond speculation about the hand stencils and other cave paintings and petroglyphs is to continue in the vein of Lewis-Williams and look closely at the subject matter, context (which drawings occur together), and location (which part of the cave) of images.  Even so, there remains a thick veil between the Upper Paleolithic mind and our own (and run the clock ahead twenty or thirty thousand years, and guess what?).  So, your thought that The Sorcerer may be a monkey god, a source of hilarity is as plausible as other interpretations (I like the idea because it’s so different from my own first impression: I found the image chilling – thinking, I guess, what if I’d seen that thing coming at me in my dreams?)  

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Kristian: a crucial twin-mechanism keeping check on the accumulation of hierarchy in egalitarian social systems is (1) a cultural appreciation of autonomy, and (2) real opportunities for individuals to pull out of social relations and group formation processes if they want to.

Thanks, Kristian, for a series of thoughtful posts. This intervention is particularly helpful as a guide for for further discussion, because it puts the emphasis back on the human relationship with the categories that hierarchy produces. -- For example, how the the mana (religious-political-economic power) of the polynesian chief historically allows him to tabu (restrict spiritually-pragmatically) certain objects, practices, people, thereby setting the scene for a further increase in personal power. The autonomous ability to 'dis-commit' to the particular symbols and to the system as a whole, then becomes crucial, though more usually perhaps the struggle takes place within the mana-taboo logic (or another comparable framing). It is something I have thought and written about myself on and off and it is a very useful pointer here.

Interesting. This possibility suggests that equality implies autonomy. But what about vice-versa. In the free-market model of classical economics, all economic actors are autonomous and equal. In real life the price of autonomy may be a lack of social support leading to negative, and thus unequal, outcomes.

Consider a hunting and gathering band. Those who stick together and share the results of their labor may enjoy greater stability in their diets. The hunter who goes off on his own may be able to pig out on what he hunts for himself; but on days when the hunt is unsuccessful, he has nothing to eat. 

Returning, then, to education, parents who home-school their children may achieve much better or much worse results than those who send their children to a local public school. Their greater autonomy  increases the variance, a.k.a., inequality, in results.

John, these are rather unrowdy polemics. There exists no such thing as “a hunting and gathering band” (did there ever?). The reference I posted contains due documentation of how the typical economic characteristic of most small-scale social systems where state structures are relatively absent is mixed subsistence. Agricultural vs. hunting, settled vs. nomadic, self- vs. exchange-reliance are continuous dimensions. Any given ‘egalitarian’ group, then, is usually most accurately slotted in somewhere in the middle between, far removed from these extremes.

Remember Graeber’s critique of the free-market model: When we take the ethnographic perspective, we realize that it just doesn’t come real, no matter how much we believe in it. What we see instead is that in face-to-face, multiplex, committing social relations, humans naturally tend to favor communism. That’s not necessarily because humans are good at heart (they are all sorts of things at heart), but because in such relations, informal social control will inevitably play a crucial part of the equation. As Henrik Ibsen coined it: “Think about what other’s will say!”. Such everyday social control, usually founded on folk moral principles, is perhaps the most basic traditional social mechanism keeping a check on overtly self-interested individual taking over the show (i.e. keeping a check on upwards hierarchic formations). Anyone who integrated in a suburban- or village-community probably has felt its gravity. In our carefree-individualist-day, such old-school social control carries mainly negative cultural connotations. In Norwegian colloquial, it has accumulated a series of derogatory labels: “The moral police”, “The village animal”, “The neighbor hag”, “The law of Jante”.

It is from this point of view that the importance of individual autonomy for equality should be assessed. The dark flip-coin of old-school social control, namely, is majority tyranny. That is, it can produce a kind of downward hierarchy formation by way of morally stigmatizing dissenters, i.e. pariah generation. The easier it is for minorities exposed to majority-tyrannical control to simply dis-commit from the group, the less fierce such control can afford to get. Perhaps that’s why extremer forms of individual dis-commitment, such as asceticism, vagabondism, dharma-bum-ism, terrorism etc. primarily grow in the shadows strong political centers where the power of those centers is consolidated by excessive majority support...?

The aspiration of towards equality in results, as administered by state redistribution based on categorical notions of equality, though fine in principle, is a Utopian one. The examples to prove it are plenty. I'll pick one from my own field. In the 1970s and 80s, inspired by the American bilingual-/multicultural education movement, the Norwegian state granted extensive educational privileges to pupils with immigrant status: Mother tongue education, bi-cultural classes, separate culture-sensitive curricula. The idea: Culturally adapted education would foster equal long terms results, both as of school performance, but not the least also in terms of personal psycho-social development (i.e. by buffering acculturation-stress). It soon got complicated. It turned out that Norway's 'immigrant pupil'-population by then comprised more than 60 languages. How to find personnel to offer all those languages in every neighborhood school across the country? Then, there were quite some immigrant parents who preferred that their children rather learn as much as possible Norwegian, than Urdu, Somali, Arabic, Polish or whatever, to have a better chance at making it in Norway as adults (like the early 'risk-school' racial activists in the US). The anthropologist Unni Wikan documented that most mother tongue classes were given in the immigrant country lingua franca, whereas many of the pupils were from minority language groups in those countries. As ‘immigrant pupils’ became increasingly 2nd/3rd generation, they often felt embarrassed by being separated from their Norwegian classmates and friends, regularly taken out of class to receive alternative education based on an ethnic background that they themselves only partly identified with.

Towards the end of the 1990s, all these front-line complications with the categorical relative equality system came to serve as legitimation a radical political shift away from bilingual-/multicultural education as a state task. Ironically, the aim of ‘equality in results’ remained on the top agenda in word. The practical manual for how to achieve ‘equality-in-results’that turned 180 degrees though: Interventions would no longer target pupil categories, only individual pupils. The type of educational ‘results’ now set to prove the achievement of ‘equality’ have been named several times before.

So I’d reiterate that I think a major driver in today’s increasing inequalities is not that there aren’t enough formal regulations in place to generate ‘equality in results’. Those who head for the 1% mostly seem to find ways to avoid these regulations anyways, mostly I guess by ways subsumed by Graeber as ‘the communism of the rich’. The main effect of ever-increasing 'equality'-regulations from the top might in fact be to wind the 99% more and more into a state where it is impossible for it's individuals to socially de-commit. Hence, in the name of 'equality', I’ll throw my vote for political interventions that allow the 99% more practical personal autonomy (i.e. fewer formal obligations to the state). 

Thanks for this meticulous and enlightening account, Kristian. Perhaps a reductionist version would go:

Self-organization is often egalitarian in practice (without being actually equal), whereas

any state initiative with an egalitarian purpose will increase inequality (because both state and people are unequal)

Or many feet good, one foot bad

But then what are the limits to direct democracy in helping 7 bn of us to live together on this planet?

and what about other visions of low-level self organization (Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies)?

Dear Keith, where I live, the folks most fervently preaching direct democracy are called Pegida and Anti-Fa. I'd never have such ignorant populists run the show. The age of small-scale egalitarian organizational forms is gone. As I see it, the indirect representative models we currently have are, in principle, the best humans have come up with so far for the mass-scale organizational effort you're reminding us that we can't flee from having to design. There is plenty of evidence to say that nation states and indirect democracy has brought unprecedented wealth, health and happiness to humanity. But then, as someone told me that the Buddha supposedly said: "There will always be 88.000 problems". The looming one today is financialization (yes Lee, it's an inelegant term, but that's because we haven't grasped it yet).

Truly, the more we proliferate, the more acute in particular becomes the question of how we pragmatically organize our joint commitments to deal with sour grapes. In this, anthropology is but a modest player. What can it contribute? In a day when uncertainty assessment is king, perhaps to document rigorously the unintended effects of policy decision heuristics among the 99%. That's why I'm hopeful for the dawning return of cognitivist perspectives in anthropology.

By the way Keith, I saw Vito Laterza wrote a review of Ferguson's Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution. Would you mind to give a comment on this book in the light of your personal knowledge on it's case matter, as relevant for the current discussion?

Ferguson starts from the fact the the ANC spends a quarter of its revenues on state transfers, mainly to the rural poor. Several people have pointed out that this doesn't square that easily with the characterisation of South Africa as neoliberal. JF suggests that this is a regional phenomenon, although most governments can't afford handouts on this scale. He also suggests that it represents a shift from production for profit to redistribution as the main impulse of the political economy. I would counter this by pointing out that production and distribution are always combined and the shift to welfare is one that all the BRICS are having to make in their own distinctive way as they confront the problem of security for the masses transferred from agriculture to urban labour markets. The fact that the ANC tries to  buy off political support does not mean that South Africa's economy rests on the mechanism. It is still a highly dualistic post-settler economy whose engines of inequality are more readily evident in the Marikana massacre than in state transfers to old ladies in the Eastern Cape. It is a weakly theorised quasi-geographical attempt to discover a new paradigm that unfortunately represents the height of ambition in anthropology today. Cue in the slavish reproduction of Ferguson's pseudo-regional paradigm. As for the relevance of all this to the present thread, I leave it to you to figure that out.


School Sucks!


    Perhaps we can take it as given that one example of what Kristian describes as “new emergent forms of inequality” is the application of the audit culture to schools: kids are tested, tested, tested, and their scores seriously impact their lives along with those of their teachers and school administrators.  In its American version the message to the twelve year-old is clear: Everything is about competition, you have to perform to get ahead, this endless battery of tests will move you in the right direction.  Of course, those teachers and administrators don’t level with the kids, don’t tell them that all their work and anxiety will have limited returns when in a few years they enter what was once billed as the Great Society.  If a kid has well-to-do parents who spend quality time with him, send him to a private school and a super-expensive university, he may have a one in a hundred chance of becoming a member of the nation’s elite (hence, the One Percenters).  His chances of just living a fairly comfortable life are considerably better: about one in five to spend his life as a manager or professional (doctor, lawyer – I won’t say “Indian chief” because those guys own casinos and drive Bentleys).  But for eighty percent of those struggling test-takers, their lot in life is a wage-laborer or service job.  Burger flippers, in short, living from paycheck to paycheck, or, if they slip and fall as so many do, there awaits the yawning maw of the underclass: unemployment, chronic illness, food stamps, rent subsidies, homelessness. 

    Yes, it’s a grim (if realistic) picture.  But perk up!  The kids, a lot of them anyway, aren’t buying into it.  They’re on to the scam!  There seems to be something about the human spirit (there, I said it, and you thought I was a nihilist!) that inspires kids to reject the doctrine teachers feed them from a tender age, something that rejects and rebels (enter Camus and metaphysical rebellion).  How do I know this?  Because the powerful undertow of myth – movie myth – surges through a prominent feature of  American culture: Fo’git about Suits and Downton Abbey – here come School Flicks. 

    While the American educational system was tightening the noose around its young charges (just as the American elite were doing with adult Ninety-nine Percenters), Hollywood has been turning out school flick after school flick – and all of them reject the school experience as irrelevant or downright oppressive.  They are a classic genre of American culture, an aspect of its Main Vein, which the thoughtful social critic should not ignore. 

    This is a huge and, I think, worthwhile topic, but I’ll spare you a long essay treatment.  A kaleidoscopic view will have to suffice here.  By the way, all the movies mentioned below are icons of popular culture, with a life (often international) of their own. 

    Start with Rebel without a Cause.  1955, post-war America.  Back to work (for those who made it back) and, for the kids, off to school to pursue the hard-won American Dream.  But for Jim, Judy, and Plato, Dawson High School is no more than a restrictive and punitive backdrop to their real lives outside. 

    Jump to The Graduate (1967) and American Graffiti (1973).  For graduate Benjamin, school is behind him and nothing promising lies ahead; it was a pointless experience.  For the Graffiti bunch, school is a sideshow of laughs and pranks, a meaningless diversion set against life spent in souped-up cars cruising  the drag. 

    On to Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).  Attention K-Mart shoppers, we are beginning to see a trend (Aisle 4?):  the school is losing its funhouse aura and becoming a prison.  The punitive disciplinarian teacher (Mister Hand, Assistant Principal Vernon, Principal Rooney) now represents the enemy who stands in the way of students realizing their ultimate goal: More Fun Today. 

    But it gets worse, way worse for the kids: The Twilight saga (2008 – 2012) and The Hunger Games series (2112 – 2015).  The fangs of American neoliberalism have now sunk deep into all aspects of society, particularly schools, spreading their venom of the audit culture.  Now it is not the teachers (and administrators who are, in fact, the real villains) but fellow students themselves who are the enemy.  They are competing with You, and you know how slim your odds are of getting ahead.  In Hunger the classroom itself is transformed into a virtual-game style gladiatorial arena.  Kids killing kids.  In Twilight not all the kids at Forks High School are out cruising the drag.  Some are, well, not really kids at all, but vampires and werewolves.  Yes, we’ve come a long way from the hijinks at Ridgemont High and Ferris’s madcap day (you may decide in which direction).  And what do the kids of America think of all this?  No need to fret over “dialectical constructs” or “financialization” processes here, the box office tells the story.  The kids love it, can’t get enough of the gruesome stuff. 

    As noted in the previews, the kids may endure the ordeal of endless standardized tests designed to slot them into a society in which there are a diminishing number of slots, but deep down, in their heart of hearts, they know it’s a con.  They don’t have to wade through the mostly incomprehensible prose of Burroughs’ Ticket; they take their suspicions to the blockbuster movies, and voila! there it is, spread before them in living color and Dolby Surround Sound. 

    The thing is, the possible hope for American society, is that kids mostly get it: School sucks (and in Twilight so do some of the students). 

    Still, we can’t give kids all the credit for seeing this coming.  That honor goes to an individual who possessed (he left us a few years ago) an outstanding academic credential: the University of Chicago’s Department of Anthropology rejected his master’s thesis and dismissed him from its graduate program.  The thesis was an analysis of the myth of Cinderella.  The Department found the student “not anthropologist material.”  The student was Kurt Vonnegut. 

    Years later, in 1970, Bennington College – a bucolic little liberal arts place in the Green Mountains of Vermont where very well-healed members of the Eastern Establishment send their kids so they can go to classes in barns and milk cows – made the mistake of inviting Vonnegut to give its commencement address to graduating seniors.  It is a modern classic (not easy to find, but you must read it):    




Kurt told the kids not to swallow the line about working hard and succeeding, but instead to spend time with their friends, travel, hang out on beaches, and do things that help people.  He said they were too young to try to change the world, and besides, that wasn’t gonna happen.  Then, toward the end of his address, he delivered a line that would go viral today.  Head for the beach, enjoy life now, because “everything is going to become unimaginably worse and never get better again.”

    It wasn’t a supercilious remark.  Having survived the fire-bombing of Dresden and returned from a Nazi prison camp just in time for Hiroshima, he justifiably feared for the future.    

    So those crowds of kids pouring through the movie turnstiles may be onto something.  

Audit culture becomes the outer shell of meaninglessness in a worldview that demands social engagement at all times alongside conformity to symbols of equality that overdetermine the meaning of equality as lived at a human level. The experience of autonomy is being hollowed out because there are no longer fail safe boundaries on the convertibility of abstract money-time into every aspect of life. It is a pretty bleak picture. Luckily it doesn't map one to one with how people actually diversify and value their relationships.

Yet, as Keith pointed out, how do you organise a world society of going on 9 billion people? Perhaps this is the best that global social structure can achieve. But the possibilities for being a human are very varied, so there are surely alternative models of equality and autonomy to be had. We have seen some of them in this thread already.


Huon:  Audit culture becomes the outer shell of meaninglessness in a worldview that demands social engagement at all times alongside conformity to symbols of equality that overdetermine the meaning of equality as lived at a human level. The experience of autonomy is being hollowed out because there are no longer fail safe boundaries on the convertibility of abstract money-time into every aspect of life.


    In our discussion about equality vs. inequality in today’s world, audit culture appears to have a growing negative impact on personal autonomy (which I prefer to call “freedom”).  Lately Kristian and I have aired our concerns about audit culture’s inroads in education; in what follows it seems that invasiveness has been extended to medicine: 


The Panopticon is Good for You

(title of a recent blog by David Rosenthal)



    First, just so we understand the reference:


“The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The concept of the design is to allow a single watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behaviour constantly.”  (Wikipedia) 


    Rosenthal’s blog focuses on Stanford University’s annual “Big Data in Biomedicne Conference,” whose latest theme is “precision health.”  It seems that physicians, having employed technology to develop “precision medicine” – understanding more and more about, say, the interaction of a pharmaceutical with the body’s immune system – now hope to extend their success using Big Data to the individual before he shows up at the clinic.  They want to promote “precision health.” 



    To realize this goal of precision health, health care providers will need to look beyond medical data to behavioral data.  Here are a couple of highlights from the Conference: 


“By monitoring 24/7 which room of one’s home one is in at any given minute over a 100-day period, you can detect key changes in behavior — changes in sleep-wake rhythms, for instance — that can indicate or even predict the onset of a health problem.”

“An expert in analyzing conversations, [Intel fellow Eric] Dishman recounted how he’d learned, for example, that ‘understanding the opening patterns of a phone conversation can tell you a lot,’ including giving clues that a person is entering the initial stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Alternatively, ‘the structure of laughter in a couple’s conversation can predict marital trouble months before it emerges.’” 


    How is such close monitoring possible?  As a Conference speaker noted, there are some 700 million smartphones in use today, which already generate lots of the data required to effect precision health.  As a recent ad for Capital One asks, “What’s in Your Wallet?”; we only need to edit that to “What’s in Your Pocket?”.  If it’s a smartphone, you’re all ready for precision health! 

    So when a social worker or marriage counselor shows up at your door, you can rejoice in the latest triumph of the audit culture. 

     As Rosenthal asks, with this remarkable advance underway, “What could possibly go wrong?”  

Re autonomy -- complete autonomy implies complete indifference to others and, thus, the absence of any social element in human life. In asserting this proposition, I follow Georg Simmel, who observed that both reciprocity and hostility entail the social, whose essence lies in regard for others. Indifference is the antithesis of both. I also recall the hippie communes of the 1960s, which fell apart largely over issues like who would clean the bathrooms and put out the trash, which rapidly revealed the difference between those willing to except basic responsibilities and those who expected to be free of all responsibility. I recall with particular repugnance, housemates given to things like leaving used condoms on the window sills and the output of huge bowel movements required by their macrobiotic diets unflushed in the toilet. 

Re the emerging information panopticon — Here I observe that the panopticon is a nightmare for those who retain a strong desire, common in adolescence, to escape the parental gaze. Now, however, I live in an apartment complex, built in 1972, seventy percent of whose residents are aged 65 or older, with 50 of the 440 units occupied by widows or widowers living alone. The possible benefits of medical information systems that will instantly recognize severe problems and summon needed assistance look pretty good. 

A few questions/comments:

Keith, could you please elaborate a bit on exactly on what you see as "the engines of inequality" in SA?

Lee, you apparently invest a lot of faith in counter-cultural forms and practices of ritual inversion. Much social theory, however, seems to conclude that in the bigger scheme of things, the function of liminal expressions and activities is to patch together the pragmatic glitches between the lines of cultural conventions (e.g. Bakhtin, Turner). Hence it ultimately works to stabilize existing social orders. Can you specify cases where such phenomena have been, to borrow Keith's metaphor, "engines" in leveling out social systems?

Huon: I personally much support specialist anthropological discourse, but I'm loosing you in your latest post. Seemingly relying on the various case matter presented on the contemporary state of mass education, you pose some quite sweeping generalizations to which I am not sure that I concede. Can you specify more concretely how, in audit culture:

- "symbols of equality [...] overdetermine the meaning of equality as lived at a human level"

- "The experience of autonomy is being hollowed out because there are no longer fail safe boundaries on the convertibility of abstract money-time into every aspect of life"

As well as example implications of:

- "Luckily it doesn't map one to one with how people actually diversify and value their relationships"

John, I very much appreciate your reference to Simmel's law of small numbers. It cuts straight to the very mundane core of how social power works in cultural life. What he said was that when you're alone, you can do pretty much what you want; fart, pick your nose, binge-eat pizza. As soon as you engage with others however, you are forced to compromise this personal autonomy on behalf of collective ideas about how to behave [i.e. 'think about what others will think']. Simmel's crucial power distinction goes between dyadic- and group relations. In dyadic relations, individuals can always kill the social by simply dis-committing (we all know the power of passive aggression in close relationships). In units of three or more however, one member leaving scene poses no existential threat to the social, and, by extension, the cultural system that it convoys. To exert cultural power in groups, hence, individuals are forced into alliance building. Simmel's law of small numbers reverberates well with the thesis in the book on anarchic solidarity that I mentioned, that the relative power of turning ones back on the group changes with its size. To my knowledge, no one have tried to explore more systematically the practical significance of this insight in social units that accumulate to mass scale- and size. Here, I think, lies another promising venue for anthropological research into the matters at hand.

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