n the most recent edition (38.3) of American Ethnologist, which I’m just getting around to reading, I see this very interesting notion of the state as a metonym for the self.

It is worth considering the subjectivity that informs an understanding of one’s actions as heroic. I believe it is best described by what Gayatri Spivak (2004) calls the ability to “metonymize” the self, to imagine the self in an active relationship with the state, the opposite of subalternity.

The topic at hand is elite Israeli commandos who turn against the state and its “fragile” project of hegemony.  I’m not so convinced about this argument towards fragility, but I am deeply interested in the idea of an “identification” with the state that could be compared to metonymy.  For me, the question is whether or not social workers can square the relative “rightness” of the state’s distributional practices with their own participation in the economy at large.

Unfortunately, the underlying Spivak text is actually a public lecture, the fate of which I don’t know…

Update: here is the link to the talk.  Speaking very much off the cuff Spivak comments on the metonymizing of her self as “the part by which I am connected to that abstract whole so I can claim it.”  Start viewing around 28 minutes in to the presentation.

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Comment by John McCreery on February 2, 2012 at 1:55am
Kenneth, allow me to join Keith in thanking you for this contribution. As I read what you and Keith have written so far, two thoughts pop into my head. The first, which always pops up when I hear talk about selves, is the model proposed by Robert Bellah, et al, in Habits of the Heart, a book about American individualism. This model posits four types of selves, all ultimately related to the Protestant disengagement of self from social entanglements that intrude between the self and it's source of value. Historically speaking that meant getting the Catholic Church out of the way and replacing its mediating role with a direct relationship between believer and God. Anyway, the four types are divided into two categories. Classic selves orient themselves to a source of value perceived as external to themselves, to God or to the Nation. In two rode recent types the source of value is the self itself, a calculating self dedicated to rational pursuit of self-interest and a creative/therapeutic self dedicated to self-expression, with value located in feeling rather than the results of rational calculation. Given this model, it seems that heroes are classic selves, willing to sacrifice themselves for God or Nation.

We should, however, remember that the model assumes the Protestant disentanglement of self from social entanglements. This brings me to a proposition that is seen by the military as common sense. Soldiers do not sacrifice themselves for their country. They sacrifice themselves for each other, for those who fight beside them, in the same squad, platoon, company or regiment. It is only after the fact that some of the sacrifices are selected and ceremonially consecrated as sacrifices for the Nation or, depending on ideology, God.

I haven't read the AE piece. Do any of these sorts of considerations get mentioned?
Comment by Kenneth McGill on February 1, 2012 at 11:53pm

Yes, it occurs to me that people can imagine an "active relationship with the state" in all sorts of ways, but that doing so requires some disparate beliefs--among other things, that one has a say in how the state operates and that the state is indeed a fixed "state of affairs" that includes oneself.  Spivak also says that perhaps it is better to talk about this relationship as synecdoche, rather than metonymy.  I'm not sure we need one or the other literary device as our descriptive handle, but the relationship here is an interesting one.

Comment by Keith Hart on February 1, 2012 at 11:44pm

Thanks for posting this very interesting thread, Kenneth and welcome to the OAC blogs. You have touched on something I have thought about for a long time, but never pursued. That is, the state is a state, not movement or a process. So the part of the self that identifies with the state is opposed to change. I was once shocked at a seminar when the paper giver gave a convincing account of how local ritual leaders in a South Indian region ran rings round the central bureaucracy, diverting monies to their own purposes with impunity. I made what I thought was a sympathetic suggestion. I asked, Do you think perhaps that the idea of the Indian state is a fiction and the social reality is all these different local interactions with it? The speaker exploded (maybe it helped that I was an old friend and sparring partner): "I don't want to listen to this postmodern Gandhian crap!" I have reflected on this outburst ever since and I came to the conclusion that what threatened him was the notion that the state was not something real and fixed out there, somewhere to stand. And, as the precarious intellectual that we all are, he preferred to find a mirror of his own desire for stability, even permanence in that image of the social whole.


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