On the move

I was once starting a flight from Paris to Chicago, two of my favourite cities. I put on the headset, but I was reading a magazine and didn't look at the screen. They were running the usual stuff -- sitcoms, news, sports. Suddenly I became aware that I was tapping my foot to the music. It was an ad, but my foot got going and I realised I was on my way to America, the land where the music moves forward. It was an American Airlines plane and they had a music station called roadrunner or some such after their frequent flyers program: thirty tracks of road music, so I bopped along to the likes of Tom Petty Running down a dream. I was happy.

The Europeans can never capture the sheer drive of American popular music, that sense of going somewhere. We are stuck, surrounded by an immovable past. Hegel said that America was not a society, since if anyone didn't like it where they lived, they could just move somewhere else; and no society was ever built on a premise like that. In my heart of hearts, I feel American, not European and certainly not English. A Jamaican student once told me that we English had grown rich at the expense of his ancestors. I said, "I'm not English, I'm from Manchester".

If I don't like my situation, I first complain and then I move on. In my middle years I divided myself between Britain and North America. Now it's France and South Africa, an interesting variation on the other pair. I hate being tied down to one place. It reminds me of a sick joke: "Mummy mummy, why am I walking round in circles?" "Shut up or I'll nail your other foot to the ground."

The crisis of world society today is that we are caught between all the possibilities for movement and the bureaucratic forces that would nail us to the ground. It took me four days recently to change a local ticket with South African Airways. The guy couldn't get his head round the French credit card, the British passport, the home in Durban, the cell phone number I had just changed. He decided I must be a fraud. What is the world coming to if you can't fix people in one place? California often strikes me as being in the grip of a nervous breakdown over this issue. All those transients, yet you need a phone number to get some shirts laundered, a zip code to pay for gas. Reminds me of the movie Babel.

I divide great thinkers into two types: intellectuals of structure and intellectuals of transition. Marx is a classic example of the first. For all his talk of revolution, he fixed Victorian capitalism for ever. Lenin was the second. I love the image of him in one of Wallace Stevens' poems, brooding by the lake in Zurich, then scattering the swans. ("He was not the man for swans"). His Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899) is the best book on development ever written and his late writings after 1917, the experience of which he admits he never anticipated, deserve to be better known for their depth and honesty.

In the 70s I was uncomfortably aware that I wasn't hacking it as an anthropologist, even less as a writer. Every year I wasted my summer trying to write the book of my PhD thesis and failed. There were lots of reasons for this, I suppose, mostly to do with my attempt to merge ethnography and history and the fact that I wanted to cover up my own criminal activities. But I hit on a grander explanation.

This was the apogee of state capitalism. The youth rebellion of the 60s was built on false premises: the participants were mostly middle-class kids who could drop out and switch back into safe, well-paid jobs whenever they liked, since the economy was then at its peak. The fact is we weren't going anywhere. Even the space race was a diversion from being stuck in a groove whose contradictions began to unravel after 1973. Clifford Geertz was an intellectual of structure in the sense of capturing that moment after he abandoned his development project in Indonesia.

So I decided that I was an intellectual of a transition that hadn't happened yet. I have never had a problem with inflating my own significance. Things began to happen in the 80s, but by the time the Berlin Wall fell, Mandela was released and the World Wide Web was invented, no-one could mistake the world revolution that was underway.

I date my own rebirth as an anthropologist to a two-year stay in Jamaica in the late 80s, but that is another story. A decade later I left Cambridge for Paris and a life of world travel mediated by the internet. I asked then what future generations would find interesting in us. This was the height of the dot com boom, before the bust and the 9/11 counter-revolution, so naturally I settled on the digital revolution in communications.

The Victorians imagined they were the pinnacle of evolution. I think of us as being like primitive digging stick operators stumbling into an agricultural revolution whose culmination in Chinese civilization we couldn't possibly understand. Even so the mistakes we make will have serious consequences and that is likely to make us interesting in the future. So I wrote a book about how money and exchange are being transformed by cheap information. By now, I was having the time of my life.




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Comment by John McCreery on April 5, 2010 at 6:57am
The alliance is the past hitching a ride on a future it could assist in, not constraining the young to repeat itself.

That's a great concept and a great line. It reminds me a lot of the sort of teaching/collegial relationships that Stanley Cavell espouses in Conditions handsome and unhandsome: the constitution of Emersonian perfectonism (you may remember that from that paper of mine that you didn't like so much).

Anyway, it seems to me that a good place to start is the classic ethnographer's position when investigating a new group, or its modern equivalent, interacting with all sorts of people on the Web. The starting assumption should be that, since none of us knows more than a tiny fraction of what there is to be known, we start all conversations knowing not much at all of what others may know or have in mind as the conversation unfolds.
Comment by Keith Hart on April 4, 2010 at 9:54am
It's not just that the master knows what needs to be done, but that if the apprentice does what he's told, he'll get a job for life to which the master is the gatekeeper. We know that the latter part of this bargain is now in ruins. But I never bought the notion that my students had to learn what I know. Teaching for me is trying to inspire them to become what only they can be. Part of this is that they can go places I couldn't dream of, since they are the future and I am the past. So I ask myself what can I give these people that might persuade them to let me hitch a ride on their lives. The basis of a new inter-generational alliance thus might be that we each give the other something they couldn't get by themselves. The young offer the old a toehold in the digital revolution that they are making and we can only hope to adjust slowly to. It turns out that we can offer them a vision of history and the results of experience that they would find it hard to discover by themselves. So the alliance is the past hitching a ride on a future it could assist in, not constraining the young to repeat itself.
Comment by John McCreery on April 4, 2010 at 1:39am
This contains the seeds of a potential inter-generational alliance built on principles very different from those of the guild. This is interesting. Could you say a bit more?

I am assuming that the principles of the guild are those concerned with passing down the craft from master to apprentice, the assumption being that the master knows what needs to be done. How do you see the alternatives?
Comment by Keith Hart on April 3, 2010 at 10:14am
The OAC is the most complete realization to date of my wish to take anthropology online and to the widest possible public. In the 90s I formed Prickly Pear Pamphlets and the amateur anthropological association (small triple a). I oscillate between two positions: 1) that academic anthropology, especially in the main imperial centres, is a busted flush and about to be replaced by new approaches and methods of anthropological education, of which the OAC might be one 2) we need to walk on two legs, moving forward while keeping one foot in the academic bureaucracy and one in the market (which is increasingly online), shifting balance in response to circumstances. I am acutely aware that I have made my reputation and many young people would like a chance to make theirs. Or put it another way, the universities are like flies on a window: those on the inside are trying to get out and those on the outside are trying to get in. This issue is substantially a generational one. It is a paradox that the old are more experienced and often progressive and the young are often conservative, because of the appalling labour market conditions they encounter and you and I did not (relatively speaking). Yet the latter have the mastery of the new technologies at their fingertips. This contains the seeds of a potential inter-generational alliance built on principles very different from those of the guild.
Comment by John McCreery on April 3, 2010 at 1:39am
That's a "kindly" perspective on the stick in the muds. My frustration isn't so much with the individuals as it is the sense that the field isn't going anywhere. If I compare anthropology to the IT technology that is now an indispensable part of my life, the sense that the one is ancient history while the other is advancing by leaps and bounds can be overwhelming.

I do realize, of course, that this is partly a question of field definition. As I've noted before, the study of Chinese society and religion, which is where my anthropology started, has made substantial strides during the last few decades. A lot of solid work, largely cross-fertilized by interactions between anthropologists and historians, has created a body of scholarship of enduring value that is still continuing to evolve.

Am I right to be cheered by the thought that OAC is for you, what it is for me, that virtual college I've talked about, with all sorts of interesting colleagues I would never have otherwise met?
Comment by Keith Hart on April 2, 2010 at 4:23pm
I wonder if you find as frustrating as I do colleagues who are stuck in the ruts they entered at a certain point in their lives and not only revisit perennial issues (a good thing) but have little to say about them but the usual clichés back up by references to those they take to be authorities (frustrating in the extreme).

The short answer, is that I don't have colleagues any more, especially after retirement, but really ever since I deinstitutionalized myself by leaving Cambridge in 1997. Far from being frustrated by the stick-in-the-muds, I feel confirmed by them in my life of movement and discovery.

And yet... My friend who never moved from LSE his whole life had a mammoth retirement party, as I didn't; and he still enjoys the benefits of accumulation in a position. I pine for some of that, but then realise I can't have everything.
Comment by John McCreery on April 2, 2010 at 3:21pm
Fascinating. I especially like

us as being like primitive digging stick operators stumbling into an agricultural revolution whose culmination in Chinese civilization we couldn't possibly understand.

I think one thing we share is that, having bounced around enough and have things turn out pretty well, we can still be looking for new things to do, new ideas to play with, new friends to enjoy. I wonder if you find as frustrating as I do colleagues who are stuck in the ruts they entered at a certain point in their lives and not only revisit perennial issues (a good thing) but have little to say about them but the usual clichés back up by references to those they take to be authorities (frustrating in the extreme).

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