August 2009

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Occasionally, questions about the meaning of life pop up like toast in my life’s living, and I am forced to face myself with questions of the life worth living, the death worth dying. The whole thing, the business of life – my life – what would it choose to have been, what epitaph would it write for itself?

Here lie I: I the great, the humble, the contrite, the brave, the more than, the not quite…I. Thinking of what I have admired, a force heavy with my lost youth tells me to go out with a large bang. Some reason, some quest requited, some pay back to the gift that is my life. I push away in these moments the thoughts that life has been burdensome, difficult. I seem to want a life-experienced requiem, an ode to my own life.

Perhaps I look forward with awe to some long or short-suffering exit, and seek a way of self-justifying; a way of externalizing, blaming; a way of being sure and positive, that I can tell my self I have been worthy of life. A cause for which to die, a cause for which to have lived, some sense of right and righteousness, a life which was, in sum, deeply moral whether any force outside of life blessed it…or not. A sense for surety in a world in which, I suspect, the concept is not discoverable, much less discernible.

Just in case, I want to be ready when I hear the call; I want to be able, still, to hear the call to martyrdom: for history, for justice, for life.

There is a battle amongst those involved in the trades and markets of the downtowns and uptowns and places where the barters of life are arranged: “I am an idealist,” a number can be heard saying, “but have adjusted successfully to the exigencies and realities of life.” “Ha,” I think. “And I am a realist who tries with whatever sinews and fibers are left, to hold out a daily idealism with which to inform my life.”

The utopists, the what-if people who preach the wonder-fulness of the never-will-be and look past the whatever is, they make me feel…mundane…common. They tell me how the best of all lives would be. And I, grubbing for the roots of today, of the hows of how I got here, want to believe I am no more spoiled than I am; that I can recover, and move beyond who I am today.

Those self-proclaimed idealists, those pains in my reality, want to own idealism, want to look past today to a future which they proclaim as theirs, as if today is not happening, as if all the todays are not the future. And I, left gasping, want to know who will make this fantasy come to be, and why it is not time to begin: right here, right now!

Who are cops…the police? Mostly guys, mostly white. In the past few decades a few women, more and more “ethnic” persons: some African-American, in Minneapolis-St. Paul they reflect the recent immigrations…somewhat…as far as I know. Not too many Hmong persons, a few Latinos from various countries…

Who are we…in thinking about the police – wondering how they think about us, and what they’re “up to?” How many of us would like to be cops? Do police “like” being cops, or filled to various levels of…fear, import, wondering about each next person, in each approaching moment?

How do they get to be cops? I mean what’s inside their heads, their thinking, that we might get to understand in their terms – more than in our reactive minds?

Also important – maybe very important is the fact that they dress in “uniforms.” Uniforms seem to take individual identity and help make them all into police – cops. (Where has their “individuality” gone?)

More signs: their cars, bright flashing lights, rear seats which can be made very separate from the front ones; painted black and white (in lots of places). Quite obvious. (Except that we might forget to notice them when we’re driving a bit too fast: over the speed limit. And they can make really loud siren noises which instill us with fear and the immediate reaction to stop, and pull over.)

All this to say that the police have quite a “presence” in the world: in many/most senses they are all “alike.” Uniform…has several meanings and even more connotations. (The differences between police and the military? – has gotten a bit complicated and confusing especially in these moments driven by war, terror, fear… (Observing the RNC meeting in St. Paul last fall: the police “looked” remarkably like military – faces obscured, wearing odd/different uniforms, carrying threatening looks and clubs. Whatever it takes to “keep the peace” said the mayors!)

Sargeant Crowley and that “Uppity Professor” (from Harvard no less), “Skip” Gates. What were the exact circumstances? Never totally clear: perhaps so “obvious” to many of us, that the moment-to-moment “facts” don’t seem very important to the situation.

A white cop (likely with some ethnic background which might still be “important” – was very important a couple of generations ago – Irish Catholic? Boston, a long history of Irish Catholics bathing in money and power. But we should remember the movie, “Gangs of New York” pitching the Irish immigrants against the (then) white Protestant majority to taste those senses of their history. Tough (mostly) guys? Ethnics, culture: what sorts of culture do the police have? “White ethnicity: gone entirely or some residuals?

And an African American, in many ways “the African-American Professor” in these times when being “Black” is taking on some “new” meanings, especially as Barack Obama is our President. And Harvard: In “spite” of being at Harvard, Gates is probably the most important historian/critic of what is African-American. Read the rest of this entry »

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The news this time is that, as Orwell depicted, the thinkers of the right have learned about the power of the idea of history, especially in its rewriting. It is, deeply in our psyches, the idea of how we got here which informs our thinking about each present moment. More importantly, it is the idea of how we got here which virtually makes the reality of experience continuous. Thus the notion of revision of history, its rewriting and recasting, has a powerful effect on how we consider where we are…that we are. The notion of history is of course, rewritten or recast often in various senses.

We effectively lose time in some aspects of our lives, concentrate on particular facts to the detriment of others, forget in some ways and cannot in certain others. But we rely on the belief that it did happen and is theoretically recapturable with the right witness or upon deep reflection or study. When the belief in history is lost, when we are not certain that we were, then the present becomes very negotiable, and charisma or some “fall into belief” becomes powerfully persuasive.

We use history, rather the belief in history, to tell ourselves where we are, who we are and are not, and what meaning is. The “right” whatever else may be, is conservative, is particularly invested in history psychologically, because the conservative mind decides early in life what it is, essentially, and compares each next day with that vision of who one is. When the conservative mind learns revisionism, what measure is there to judge, to measure, to decide?

(Further notes after my first “My Teachers” post.)

Lessons from My Teachers:

Observe, observe, try to see in every moment, context, persons, relationships…I now call myself an “Anthropologist of the Ordinary.” (My sense is that many Anthropologists are more anthropologists of the …Exotic!)

Go to the field – live there for extended periods of time – take a “vacation” and return to the field, and not what (more) I see than I had before.

Went to U. Chicago for PhD – studied with linguist, N. McQuown who was supervisor in Mayan studies. U. of C. became a kind of experiential fieldwork for my own experience examining the University (“the” University). Daughter born in Chicago. Then to Mexico.

Return home (big fieldwork to Mexico was for 2 years – with J. and 5-month-old Amy). Life is a “study” of society, politics, homes, money: rich and poor, and…and…

Return home after 2 years was amazing – arrived just before Bay of Pigs, with no sense that all this was about to occur (living in Chiapas-Mayan Highlands – no newspapers, no TV, hardly any radio,  not much knowing of the world.

Whew! Life is a “whew” – mainly from Birdwhistell. Read the rest of this entry »

(Further notes after my first “My Teachers” post.)

It was at Buffalo where I began to study with George Trager, Ray Birdwhistell, and Henry Lee Smith. They arrived there in the fall of 1956: I was one of their first two students. As Trager was the essential co-author of “The Silent Language,” I include E.T. Hall’s work and thinking in my education (and current re-reading).

I continue to be their student, over 50 years later.

Ray Birdwhistell is probably the one whose ideas and practices continue to shape me most. He was the originator of “Kinesics,” the study of the Body-in-Interaction. He was a trained dancer, the best observer I have ever met: observer of the very wide contexts in which humans…are. He also tried to describe in symbols what he was seeing: arms, faces, always in-interaction. A challenging task. The body…and the mind – who and how we are.)

Teachings: how to see people (always including oneself…seeing, being, and body movements); how to note that “presence” of anyone entails (from his other student, Erving Goffman: “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”) the facts that we appear as we do in the company and contexts of others…and ourselves. There is much more to study: behind the scenes, in private alone and with others…Think about other bodies (other species) interacting socially; the power(s) in any/every relationship. And the study of context, in always broadening senses: how we know “when” we are, just to begin. (I wrote about this in the “Foundations Project.”) Different cultures (and subcultures). Read the rest of this entry »