From the Center for Peripheral Studies (OAC Branch). After Lance, the sky's the limit!

The papers discussed in our online seminars are often excellent, but this one is apocalyptic, as well as being an exercise in fine writing. Lee Drummond was once a Chicago anthropology PhD specialising in the Caribbean and later in San Diego's tourist attractions. He taught at McGill University for over a decade before retiring to the wilderness (Palm Springs!). July and August there are his winter when he withdraws into his airconditioned study to avoid the heat. The OAC is a principal beneficiary of this aestivation, as witnessed by the paper attached here. All I can say is you gotta read it, whether or not you participate in the seminar.

Lee's point of departure is Lance Armstrong's confession on the Oprah Winfrey show. The man who perhaps deserves to be known as the greatest American athlete ever admitted taking performance enhancing drugs, thereby triggering an intense public outcry. Lee deconstructs what he takes to be a key feature of the American ideology, the opposition of nature to culture, showing that biology and technology have been inextricably woven together throughout human evolution and even before. If it is impossible to identify the unequal influence of technology in sporting performance, what about other areas of cultural achievement, like literature for example? Should Hemingway's Nobel prize be taken away or Coleridge's poetry eliminated from the canon because they wrote under the influence of mind-altering substances?

Not content with this reductio ad absurdum, Lee then launches into a savage critique of American civilization and of the cultural anthropology it has spawned. Drawing on Marx's happy phrasing in the 18th Brumaire, he argues that the American tragedy (New World genocide) now reappears as farce (reality TV shows), one of which actually replayed the former in a grotesque reenactment of the competitive ideal. Anthropology tends to celebrate cultural achievement around the world, whereas in Lee's view, the current state of American society suggests that culture may be a disease killing off its carriers just as their ancestors once killed off the original inhabitants of what passes for the land of the American dream.

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Lee, readers and participants -- welcome to the 17th OAC online seminar. I will begin with a summary of what I take to be the main themes of your wideranging argument, for the benefit of those who have not yet read the paper and as an inducement to do so. Then I will ask some questions as a way of launching the discussion.

1. The paper abstract and short bio are worth the price of entry by themselves. Please feel free to ask Lee any follow up questions, just to get the ball rolling.

2. "The Lance Armstrong affair exposes deep and largely irreparable fault lines in American society". The public outcry provoked by his confession on the Oprah Winfrey show offers a lens to explore its basic values.

3. When someone crosses the line that separates good and evil, it shakes our moral certainty and sense of social order.

4. "(When) the star athlete displays his God-given physical talent and performs feats of natural prowess before the stadium throngs...he is the embodiment of The Natural".

5. "The dichotomy Nature / Culture embraced by Americans is in fact an elaborate cultural construct which owes little to the joint physical and social endowments of a human being."

6."Our bodies are the product of some three million years of an evolutionary process which mixed discrete physical abilities, technical expertise, and social skills".

7. "(The idea of) "true sport" obscures the seamless meshing of physical ability and technical expertise. The human body is basically a particular sort of artifact.

8. Testing for use of banned pharmaceuticals launches us on a slippery slope. What about the performance-enhancing effects of vitamins, special treatments, equipment, facilities to which access is extremely unequal?

9. "The performer behaves before an audience in a way that engages, excites and rivets the attention of that audience. He is the catalyst essential to transforming the humdrum doings of daily life into an event."

10. Apart from sportsmen, would we strip musicians or writers of their rewards for performing under the influence of banned substances?

11. "The extraordinary individual is both an autonomous actor and a social being subject to the laws and standards of a group composed of highly diverse but mostly ordinary individuals".

12. American society above all values competition: "we are created equal, (but) everything in life urges us to get ahead. Of course, it is impossible to get ahead without leaving others behind."

13. "American culture has generated two complementary responses to the agonizing problem of increasing inequality and wage-servitude in this land of golden opportunity: spectator sports on a massive scale; and television reality shows".

14. Freud taught us that "human society is a fabric of palatable lies, woven over the ages to disguise irresolvable conflicts within each individual psyche. Here is the reality which our new national religion, reality television, does everything to conceal".

15. American cultural anthropology "tends to put a happy face on social life, elucidating in meticulous detail the symbolic composition of culture – an exercise which celebrates the intricate structure of its subject and not the discordant systems of non-meaning integral to the key dilemmas of American and any culture".

16. "It is much nearer the truth to regard culture, not as a treasure trove of a people’s vital essence, but as a disease, a virulent outbreak which infects and poisons its carriers".

17. "The tragedy of America is the story of genocide and environmental degradation on an unprecedented scale, perpetrated by Europeans turned loose on the New World and intent on enriching themselves, on winning regardless of the cost in human lives and established ecosystems".

18. "With the advent of reality television, the tragedy of America has returned as farce. Louis Bonaparte, that caricature of Napoleon, doesn’t begin to compare with the mediocrities paraded on Survivor".

19. "Our daily existence is subject to a practice that governs American life: keeping score. (Yet) there is not a single scale or even a few which adequately evaluate individual ability."

20. That's it, folks. Any ideas for getting out of this mess?

Some questions to get us started, Lee.

Is there anything important missing from the summary above?

What do you think of Edmund Leach's 1967 BBC lectures, A Runaway World? Are there any points of comparison between your analysis and his or between the US now and then? He identified a world in movement, marked by the interconnectedness of people and things. This provoked the mood of optimism and fear that characterized the 60s, when established structures seemed to be breaking down. The reality of change could not be understood through conventional cultural categories predicated on stable order.  Moral categories based on habits of separation and division could only make the world’s movement seem alien and frightening. An ethos of scientific detachment reinforced by binary ideas (right/wrong) lay at the core of society’s malaise. Leach called for an intellectual practice based on movement and engagement, connection and dialectic. In short he was calling for the reinsertion of ideas into life. What are you calling for? (Just a trailer by way of an answer will do for now. This is to lay down one marker of where I would want the discussion to go.)

In that context, I have long been fascinated by how some classes can sustain at the same time two contrasting images of the society they live in, the idea that the system of politics and law protects them and yet it is corrupt, even criminal. Nixon paid the price of forcing the American public to confront both of these ideas at once, not mainly because he was a crook, but because he was recorded swearing like one. I wonder if you and our members would like to reflect on other prominent individuals who triggered a profound moral crisis in the way that Lance Armstrong and Richard Nixon did.

I like very much your characterization of the American ideology as opposing nature to culture. I can think of other ways that nature figures in that ideology today, in opposition to history, for example, and natural science as a model for knowing. Nature is not just biology and the environment, as we tend to think, but in an older usage, that which has stopped becoming, something changeless. I would like us to open up that line if possible, along with any reflections on Levi-Strauss who is a sort of eminence grise of your argument. After we have explored it in some detail, it might be worth opening up the discussion to consider what else is central to the American ideology today.


Keith, OAC readers and seminar participants,

   First, I’d like to thank Keith for selecting my Lance Armstrong essay for OAC e-seminar treatment.  Although I’m familiar with websites and email, the world of blogs, links, threads, posts, tweets and “friends,” was wholly alien to me until about a month ago.  So please bear with me as I fumble my way through the two weeks of comments and replies that comprise this e-seminar.

    Keith’s detailed summary of the essay covers its main points very well.  Telescoping the argument in that way also brings to the forefront a feature some readers may find disconcerting, if not questionable:  How does one go from an account of a single episode – an athlete appearing on a TV talk show – to ruminations on the basic values and cultural structure of American society?  I suggest that procedure, that reach, is at the heart of cultural analysis.  One identifies a particular event or situation, in this case Lance Armstrong’s confession on the Oprah Winfrey Show, that seems somehow to stir deep waters of its host society, and to trouble those waters.  Lance Armstrong is / was iconic, emblematic, a one-person cultural symbol, and his downfall disturbed the easy flow of our daily life and thought, provoking questions that cannot be answered without venturing far from the original event that inspired them.  That is what I attempt to do in the essay.  It is also a procedure that in my view is perhaps the very best thing about doing anthropology: to combine a fine-grained ethnographic study with a cultural analytic inquiry into the foundations of human society / culture. 

    I was quite astonished when Keith opened his questions with a reference to Edmund Leach’s “A Runaway World” lecture.  One of my most intense intellectual experiences was when, as a first year anthropology graduate student at the University of Chicago, I was browsing in the university’s formidable periodicals reading room and came across the text of Leach’s lecture (printed, I think, in Commentary, but I’m not sure; it was a long time ago).  Reading it well and truly sank the hook.  It was the late 1960s, the world around me was coming apart while in the Department of Anthropology it was business as usual.  Leach’s essay showed me what was possible for an anthropologist to think, what was possible for anthropology to be.  In my occasional lucid moments, I want to think I am continuing the quest Leach called for all those long decades ago.  Keith phrases that project quite well: the reinsertion of ideas into life.  I might adjust the phrasing just a little: the analysis of the seamless fit between the world of ideas and the world of things, between the world conceived as information (Bit) and as object (It). 

    On Keith’s following point: sustaining contrasting images of one’s society.  As I mentioned in an earlier Comment, that pretty well summarizes a principal argument of the Lance essay.  I inhabit and study American society, a society riven by fundamental, irresolvable contradictions.  They’re not hard to spot; one doesn’t need to look too deeply.  For starters, check out bumper stickers on cars.  Or pickup trucks.  Here’s an example of a “contrasting image”: it’s a beat-up pickup, with, yes, a gun rack across the cab window.  Its dented rear bumper has two weathered stickers plastered on it.  On one side a sticker reads “Support the Death Penalty;” on the other side, “Right to Life.”  The driver sees no inconsistency, and would become downright hostile if pressed.  Here’s the opposite “contrasting image” (careful, you may find this one a bit too close to home).  It’s a Volvo station wagon, freshly washed and waxed.  Its rear bumper also boasts two stickers:  “Repeal the Death Penalty” and “Freedom to Choose.”  Freedom to choose. . . what?  Well, whatever label we put on it (and Camille Paglia doesn’t mince words here; she calls it murder), that choice is not going to do much good for its intended object.  Ah, you see how easily we step off the shoals of feel-good sentiment into dark, clouded waters. 

     “would you. . . like to reflect on other prominent individuals who triggered a profound moral crisis in the way that Lance Armstrong and Nixon did.”  Sure, and in keeping with the topic of high-profile professional sports, I would propose Tiger Woods as an ideal case study.  Tiger was a made-for-television hero.  Young, personable, clean-cut.  Why, he was Mr. Clean.  None of those revolting tats and piercings like Dennis Rodman was flaunting.  And happily married to boot.  Well, not all that happily.  It turns out that Our Boy had been getting in on with six or seven women.  Oh, the horror, the horror!  Sports commentators and cable news anchors were aghast: How could this be?  Sponsors like AT&T, Gatorade, and General Motors dropped him like a red-hot poker (perhaps not the happiest phrasing here!).  In the midst of all the uproar, as Tiger fell from grace at warp speed, the voice of D. L. Hughley (my personal candidate for George Carlin’s replacement) was almost drowned out.  D. L. said, in effect, Well, let’s see.  Here’s a handsome superstar black athlete who’s been having sex with six or seven women.  Hell, that’s a slow week in the N. B. A.  [National Basketball Association, for non-American readers]  Double parenthesis: the N. B. A. super-superstar, Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlin did not get his nickname because he was tall. 

   OAC seminar participants can probably nominate a slew of such individuals.   


@Lee, Keith, anyone listening

I am delighted with the essay and the comments so far, but when I stare into the abyss this analysis opens up, I find myself particularly disturbed by one implication not mentioned so far.

When we undermine the nature/culture distinction do we not, at the same time, undermine the the theory of natural rights on which American democracy and similar enlightenment projects are predicated? After all, when Jefferson wrote,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

he was positing rights that were God-given, thus Natural, and unaffected by merely human institutions. The same might be said of the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, when they write,

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world

When the line between Nature and Culture is blurred, where is the firm ground assumed by both these declarations? Or, to borrow Clifford Geertz's distinction, can we have a compelling "model-for" such things as human rights and a human economy without the "model-of" that defines a moral horizon as a given separate from the play of cultural differences?

Lee, I very much enjoyed this essay, though I don't claim to know enough about American culture to judge the fine detail. Zooming in on Lance Armstrong, then zooming out to see some of the same faultlines in the wider culture is revealing.

It reminded me, though, since my research focus has been on the West Indies, that you come out of studying the 'creole' culture of the Caribbean --and have put forward one of the most influential theories for understanding it. Your key insight was that there is no one culture, more an openended continuum, but the continuum is mediated by individual and group action - people aggregate their own cultural intersystems, micro-climates if you like, within the wider continuum of possibility. At least, that is how I have always understood it. I would add that part of the freedom to make intersystems has, arguably, to do with the relative weakness of the state in these places to establish institutional conformity.

Historically, the U.S. avoided thinking of itself as a creole society preferring to align itself symbolically with the 'natural' freedoms of the indigenous peoples in situ (L.H. Morgan etc.) against decadent Europe. So the word 'creole' wasn't used unlike elsewhere in the continent. Albeit, it took a civil war to unify the political system, but subsequently the U.S. managed to incorporate a staggeringly diverse flow of immigrants into its body politic while still retaining a coherent natural rights view of how the polity should work, how it should incorporate people.

OK, a rather loose, meandering and tentative preamble before moving to some kind of question. 

It seems only in the last decade that these deep-seated cracks in the American cosmology have begun to show up; is this a recent change or is it evidence of a much longer process? Has it got to do with a change in state power, or is it grass-roots? In other words; if it is something new, then what kind of process is it?

Also, you are highly critical of the ability of cultural anthropology to say anything useful: how should cultural anthropology shift in order to regain some kind of, dare I say it, authentic stance?



    You have an instinct for going right to the heart of the matter.  My little essay, with all its humorous asides and, as them French fellas say, bone motes, does require the perceptive reader to stare into an abyss, an abyss in which cherished values and deeply held ideals dissolve before one’s eyes.  And we both know what Fritz said about gazing too long into an abyss: it gazes back into you.  Here’s a photograph of that effect (post-breakdown), one of the most chilling images I’ve ever seen:





You ask if eroding the Nature / Culture dichotomy as it operates in contemporary American society doesn’t also undermine the theory of natural rights (of humans) which many of us hold sacred?  Good question, tough question. 

    I think the question has to approached from the two perspectives I mentioned to Keith earlier: the ethnographic and the cultural-theoretical.  Here I must defer the latter issue to another time, when we might open a discussion of political philosophy.  In the essay I claim that a close inspection, that is, an ethnographic account, of the Lance Armstrong scandal leads to identifying irreparable contradictions in American society.  One of those contradictions is our simultaneous embrace of an ethic / ideology of equality and a popular culture (organized sports and reality television) based on an ethic of competition-reward.  On being, usually vicariously, a winner.  I think the ethnography, glimpses of which are provided in the essay, indicates how that struggle is going.  

    It is necessary to frame an ethnographic account of natural rights in an eyes-wide-open look at a particular situation, in this case early 21st century America.  I’ve been a (somewhat reluctant) ethnographer of that society for quite a while.  Here are a couple of salient facts that must be confronted.  First, while we may be “created equal” in Jefferson’s famous words, one American adult in thirty-two is either locked up or on probation or parole (what our jailors at the Department of Justice call being under “correctional supervision”).  


That disheartening fact, however, is not as alarming as documentation regarding how our imprisoned population is “recruited”:


By age 23, almost a third of Americans have been arrested for a crime, according to a new study that researchers say is a measure of growing exposure to the criminal justice system in everyday life.


This information comes to us from the New York Times : 

Solzhenitsyn would be stunned; Stalin’s Gulag was a fraction of that now being operated in “the land of the free.”   


    If United States domestic policy challenges an official ideology of natural rights, the government’s foreign policy indicates that ideology does not rank high on the list of American exports (it is one of the few items that is not being out-sourced).  Consider that U. S. military expenditures exceed those of the other ten countries that spent most on their military.  The other ten countries’ expenditures combined.  That money does not go to securing the basic needs or human rights of the wretched inhabitants of Darfur or the millions swelling refugee camps and occupied territories around the world.

    I think the virtue of an anthropological approach to any question, here that of the status of natural rights, is to fix the matter firmly within a specific, ethnographic setting.  Wider implications of that process may then be pursued. 




The photo I mentioned in my earlier reply apparently didn't transmit.  Here's a link to its page. 

So out of context now, sorry.  



   As with John’s earlier comment, yours seems to operate on a general and specific level (or perhaps that’s just my mind-set after replying to John).  The general level is how we might apply the notion of a creole or cultural continuum to social processes fueling the Lance Armstrong scandal.  On that level, let me just say that I’ve come to regard the notion as a fundamental property of every cultural system (that later, grandiose view is developed in the long theoretical chapter of American Dreamtime).  On the specific level, that is, on the level of ethnographic description and analysis, I didn’t invoke the cultural / creole continuum theory in trying to piece together what was involved in the Lance affair.  As a theoretical construct, American society past and present would incorporate creole processes.  However, when we switch our focus to specifics, I think you’re right that the pace or amplitude of those processes has increased dramatically in recent times, say post-World War II.  In the late 1980s I put together a paper called “La La Land and the Dawn of the Fourth Great Awakening, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Teriyaki Tacos.”  There I argued that a sort of cultural dawn, something on the order of American historical religious “Great Awakenings”  had been underway for some time. Only this time around individuals’ heightened awareness stemmed from interacting and inter-thinking in a complex multiethnic milieu rather than from traditional religious fervor. Los Angeles and its environs is such a dynamic mix of people from all over the world that its new world of teriyaki tacos (they exist) makes the creole processes of Caribbean societies look rather staid. 

    Your final question really puts me on the spot: Since I’m highly critical of American cultural anthropology, what do I propose to do about it?  On any kind of historical scale, I’m not sure there is a happy solution; it may be that the enterprise of cultural / social anthropology has about run its course.  But on the scale of the here-and-now I would like to think that the activity you, Keith, John, and others have been engaged in – the lively exchange of ideas in the open forum of the OAC – is a ray of light, a breath of hope (all those positive metaphors) that may encourage original thought.  That in itself is a positive, meaningful shift away from the tedious business of academic anthropology.  Let’s hope (‘til hope creates from its own wreck the thing it contemplates).     

Thanks you Lee Drummond for a great read (who said anthropologists aren't engaging in what and how they write). Just a few thoughts to begin

'Kant separated things that we can know empirically from things that are the province of God, and thereby helped to section off all but efficient causes to epiphenomena that could be safely ignored. This concept of ordered science triggered a massive growth in human knowledge and extended over many disciplines.' (thankyou to John for the article which is sort of about something else but this quote captures something about Kant quite nicely).

This quote came to mind when you mention 'Only in Camus’ world would the slave-owner Thomas Jefferson draft what is arguably the best-known sentence in the English language: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .” Founded on absurdity, American society over the past two-plus centuries has become a land of irresolvable contradictions' 

It made me think of a friends work on Kierkegaard and the absurd, in its contemporary relevance where a reading of Kierkegaard might suggest that absurdity is rife in social life when there is no 'Eternal' barometer (province of God) with which people can weave their part in existence into a more eternal and thus immmortal meaningful narrative, thus creating a void filled by absurdity in which the 'reality moment' that flickers becomes absurdly centre stage as people try to metaphorically generate a huge spike on a plodding graph of linear time that does not feed an eternally 'outside of time' meaning - God, while simultaneously clawing at 'The Natural' to fill the void for something more 'eternally' permanent that fits on that linear line. 

Where I am going with this is simply the dichotomy mentioned many times here and (un)solved by Durkheim with his 'action preceeds thought' and other variations (e.g. vica versa) of this. Which is the possibility that because what people say is less wrapped up in a strong narrative of the 'Eternal' that is directly connected via religious doctrine to what and what you cannot do/act - what people say now sits a little more detached from what they do - although the clawing to 'Natural' narratives is an attempt to remedy this in society. Ironically 'Science' has not benefitted from this as it has failed to deliver the necessary 'permanent authority' of the 'Eternal' because no matter how basterdized science can be it is by default all about non-permance - cos its all models not facts. Which perhaps has something to do with peoples frustration with Armstrong because he blantantly demonstrated that 'nature' is not a fact and that society -social sciences included- evidentally has no meaningful pragmatic model by which to understand and weave what we say, think and do into a 'whole' narrative without God and so the social backlash come from being confronted with your life as a complex weave of lieing to oneself about the links between action/thought/saying and confronting the reality of 'momentary spectacle and gratification' as non-eternal (unmythical) and therefore meaningless in a society that values immortality in whatever form.

On a side note that is why it is important that fieldwork not be confined to semi-structured interviews - which happens too often.

My thoughts are not yet clear (as can be seen) but Keith suggested putting in a marker and your article kicked off something which I hope to make into a clearer question soon.

 I think I get some of what you are trying express, Avi. It's about finding a place to stand that isn't itself moving. The idea of eternity is simply that we can carry on as we are indefinitely. For example, I think of myself as a writing machine and plan my days routinely as if I could carry on doing what I do forever. Then I get diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and suddenly I start asking, if I have only a few months to live, how do I want to spend the time? Probably with my daughter on the beach, but certainly not meeting the deadline for a journal article. Once time ceases to be eternal, daily routines get screwed up.

As you say, Kant replaced God with science which is both eternal and transient at the same time. It is linked to the idea of nature in the sense of an objectively known and stable truth . Simmel argued in The Philosophy of Money that money appears to us to be stable because we exchange everything else through it. We know at another level that money is not stable, but relative (its value changes over time). Inflation is destablizing because it abolishes the certainty of money's fixed nature. "Scientific laws" are presumptively eternal until we have to change them.

Heidegger built his late metaphysics around three concepts: Solitude, World and Finitude. Solitude is the idea of an independent self which is of course impossible in practice, while World is everything relevant to that self conceived of as a unity which is equally impossible. Nevertheless the idea of self-in-the-world is metaphysically powerful and shapes what we actually do. Finitude says that we each start from a position and movement in real timespace (quantum mechanics: you can't measure position and movement at the same time and, when you measure something, you change it). The three terms combine as a dialectic in which Solitude/World and Finitude modify each other. But of course people, especially in the anglophone world, don't understand dialectic, even though they practice it unconsciously. They prefer analytical empiricism. (This is why mainstream economics is so hard to shift: it embodies the metaphysics of anglophone people's ordinary thought).        

All of this may or may not help you figure out what you meant to say. But for me it is mainly just an excuse to introduce my pet (and patent) diagram, the T-Bar.    


                                                                Time as a T-Bar


                                                     Past -------- Present --------> Future





Think of this as an upright stuck in the ground with a cross-bar on top. The first constructs the past and present as the same, eternal or timeless. The second corresponds to the arrow of time, past-present-future. Present time is where the two intersect. So imagine that you are perched at the intersection, caught between irreconcible ideas of time. It seems to me that most people look solidly downwards and can't cope with the notion that the present is transient between a past and future that are necessarily different. This is not a stupid idea. Normal life would be impossible without it. Only professional revolutionaries live for it and society would be in a lot of trouble if they had their way all the time.

Americans can't contemplate history, first because they escaped from it (unlike the Europeans who stayed behind, stuck in a gloomy retrospective), then because it is so nasty to contemplate and now because it points to them being on a slippery slope. Cultural analysis, in Lee's hands, seems partly to depend on bringing a historical sensibility to what would otherwise be represented as a nature understood as eternal or known by scientific laws (these may be in contradiction). If American society is natural, then it cannot fall into the dustbin of history, since everything is and always has been the same. Hence the current fad for evolutionary cognitive science. We can show them their history until we are blue in the face, to no avail. For, as Henry Ford insisted (and he ought to know), history is bunk.

Dear Friends,

Our conversation has taken a familiar turn. We are stumbling into the Slough of Despair. In an effort to turn us around a bit, I offer the following remarks by one of my favorite American philosophers.

From Richard Rorty (1998) Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 3-4

National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement. Too much national pride can produce bellicosity and imperialism, just as excessive self-respect can produce arrogance. But just as too little self-respect makes it difficult for a person to display moral courage, so insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely. Emotional involvement with one's country—feelings of intense shame or of glowing pride aroused by various parts of its history, and by various present-day national policies—is necessary if political deliberation is to be imaginative and productive. Such deliberation will probably to occur unless pride outweighs shame.
The need for this sort of involvement remains even for those who, like myself, hope that the United States of America will someday yield up sovereignty to what Tennyson called "the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World." For such a federation will never come into existence unless the governments of the individual nation-states cooperate in setting it up, and unless the citizens of those nation-states take a certain amount of pride (even rueful and hesitant pride) in their governments' efforts to do so.
Those who hope to persuade a nation to exert itself need to remind their country of what it can take pride in as well as what it should be ashamed of. They must tell inspiring stories about episodes and figures in the nation's past — episodes and figures to which the country should remain true. Nations rely on artists and intellectuals to create images of, and to tell stories about, the national past. Competition for political leadership is in part a competition between differing stories about a nation's self-identity, and between differing symbols of greatness.
In America, at the end of the twentieth century, few inspiring images and stories are being proffered. The only version of national pride encouraged by American popular culture is a simpleminded militaristic chauvinism. But such chauvinism is overshadowed by a widespread sense that national pride is no longer appropriate. In both popular and elite culture, most descriptions of what America will be like in the twenty-first century are written in tones either of self-mockery or of self-disgust. 
I offer for our consideration that proposition that our critiques, while valid, even "apocalyptic," are excessively one-sided. They feed an addictive anger and despair. We have reached the end of the pendulum, whose opposite extreme was the polyanna preached by functionalism, that things would always be for the best in our, albeit culturally specific, best of all possible worlds. There remains a lot of room in the middle, where a realistic appreciation of both contradiction and of mechanisms for masking or ameliorating contradiction's effects make it possible to think of imperfect but survivable futures. We even have anthropological models to begin with, if we choose to look backward a bit. On Savage Minds, Daniel Rosenblatt has posted a link to a paper titled  An Anthropology Made Safe for Culture: Patterns of Practice in Ruth..., which has some interesting things to say about American anthropology's neglected Boasian ancestors. I think, too, of the work of the Manchester School in UK, with the notion of conflict and contradiction contained/ameliorated by ritual. There is work to be done before we let ourselves sink into the Slough of Despair's all too tempting quicksand.



    Thanks very much for your kind words about the essay. 

    Regarding the passage you cite about Kant taken from The new dynamics of

strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world (the article on the Cynefin system for decision-making cited by John):  Although I never know where to jump in in a discussion about Kant (to be honest, one of my least favorite philosophers), the ideas in that article are exciting.  I’ve been intrigued by complexity theory for quite a while, and have incorporated it in some of my work.  I’m particularly keen on a key concept of that theory: self-organized criticality.  Every complicated situation – which takes in just about all human existence – operates on the verge of catastrophe; there are just too many elements in too fine a balance for that situation to remain “stable.”  [Complexity theory is the functionalist’s nightmare: things become highly organized only to fall apart].  In thinking about the Lance Armstrong scandal this was, in fact, in the back of my mind.  Armstrong had faced allegations of drug use throughout most of his cycling career; there had even been a couple of major exposés.  And still he went on, winning race after race, retaining a small army of lawyers to deal with all the flak he kept getting.  Then one day, seemingly out of nowhere, he walks onto The Oprah Winfrey Show and confesses all.  Why there?  Why on  that particular day?  I write these words on the evening of September 10.  Twelve years and a few hours ago, airliners began slamming into buildings.  Literally, from out of the blue.  Although hordes of commentators of every stripe rushed in to fill the air with explanations, none seemed ready to entertain what might have been the most terrifying explanation of all: it just happened.  [I develop this argument at some length in “Shit Happens: An Immoralist’s Take on 9/11 in Terms of Self-Organized Criticality at – perhaps not a felicitous title, but I am simply quoting Forest Gump]

    Regarding my invoking Camus: In a world one might characterize as systematic randomness, his work has a lot to recommend it.  In the essay I asked how it is that Camus receives so little attention in social / cultural analysis.  Here’s an ethnography of social thought project for someone with an institutional affiliation and access to the Social Sciences Citation Index: check out citations of Camus in all our usual journals.  The results could be revealing. 

    Regarding your final comment that fieldwork should not be confined to semi-structured interviews:  I agree.  Hey, life is fieldwork. 




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