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.