“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Ghost dances of the superrich


George Marcus begins his comparison of the world of the Kaluli, in New Guinea, with the world of the rich, in Texas, by making a comment about the binary that has defined the modern project since the enlightenment:

“This paper is an effort to outline a major challenge (as well as opportunity) for a developing ethnography of modernity within anthropology through ironic reference to a traditional anthropological problem in the traditional arena of traditional society.”


Why an ironic reference? Because, since the philosophes, it is through irony that we understand the irrationality of dualisms – or perhaps I should say, their fundamentally conventional nature. The irony, for the philosophe, can both attack the superstitions upon which established power erects itself and, at the same time, distance itself from the rituals and schemas of the folk. When Forster writes about the frozen revolutions that have kept the serfs at an animal level, he is saying, on the one hand, that all non-democratic principalities rest on a crime against human nature, and, on the other hand, that the crime was successfully carried out – that, in fact, the serfs make sense of their world within the limits defined by the masters. This was a common enlightened view. Another German radical of the time, the influential historian August Schlözer, who conducted a passionate campaign against Leibeigenheit – “ownership of bodies”, i.e. serfdom, also concluded that the struggle for liberation had to start at the top. In a fascinating essay on serfdom and honor by David Martin Luebke, Luebke, while conceding that Schlözer burned the connection between slavery and serfdom into the consciousness of enlightened public opinion, claims that he still “underestimate[d] the fundamental role of social perceptions in the formation of early modern popular politics” – that, in other words, Schlözer didn’t see that his conclusion, that triumph of an educated brain, was being made by the serfs themselves. made the connection As Lenin would put it in 1905, a revolutionary party had to be the vanguard of the working class – and not depend on the spontaneous order of liberation dreamt up by the working class itself. The recent upsurge in studies of popular “resistance” – in which resistance quickly becomes an inflated term that applies to Britney videos and Batman movies – is, on the face of it, an attempt to reverse this long tradition. However, it almost always turns out that the ‘resistance” extracted is secondary to the theory applied – with little regard for the semiotic unit itself. Resistance becomes the booty brought home in triumph by the critic, who demonstrates not so much the expression of the ‘people’ as the amazing elasticity of the theorie du jour.

Which is another way of saying, when the people write the text, you can fuck with it any way you want to – including supposing that the people are writing the text.

But what if one supposes that the writers of the text, the managers, the bourgeoisie itself, while pitted against superstition and promoting the making of universal history in every household, are themselves hostages in a ghost dance?

But let’s go back to Marcus. After posing the question in terms of the modern, he returns to the Kaluli, quoting from an anthropologist who did field work among them, Ed. Schieffelin:

“In talking about the people of the other world, the Kaluli use the term mama, which means shadow or reflection. When asked what the people of the unseen look like, Kaluli will point to a reflection in a pool or a mirror and say, "They are not like you or me. They are like that." In the same way, our human appearance stands as a reflection to them. This is not a "supernatural" world, for to the Kaluli, it is perfectly natural. Neither is it a "sacred world," for it is virtually coextensive with and exactly like the world the Kaluli inhabit, subject to the same forces of mortality .... In the unseen world, every man has a reflection in the form of a wild pig . . . that roams invisibly on the slopes of Mt. Bosavi. The man and his wild pig reflection live separate existences, but if something should happen to the wild pig, the man is also affected. If it is caught in a trap, he is disabled; if it is killed by hunters of the unseen, he dies. [1976:96-97]”


I’m sure Infinite Thought would be intrigued by the wild pig reflection. She always knew it!

About the Kaluli, Marcus makes a very interesting remark:

Phenomenologically, this unseen world is experienced through an aesthetic of sounds and sounding, as Steve Feld (1982) has re- counted. In the richly diverse sounds of the forest, the unseen world is always present for the Kaluli. What happens is always here and there, never being fully present. In this sense, the Kaluli would be Derrida's own model of Rousseau's primitive who defies logocen- trism: they live largely without the Western metaphysics of pres- ence, and thus represent the antithesis of the desire for self-suffi- ciency, for the unqualified and the unmediated. Yet, while known by the Kaluli in everyday life in an episodic, commonsensical, and fragmented way, the unseen world is systematically imagined in rit- ual (the Gisaro) and discourse through mediums who, roughly like an ethnographer, have been to this other world and have seen what ordinary persons can only hear traces of. Communication with the unseen world and authoritative interpretations of events in the here and now world of the Kaluli thus depend on the coherent vision of mediums, who at certain moments give presence and order to Kaluli culture by creating primarily visualized representations (rather than sounded evocations) of the unseen world within the fully sensed world of the here and now. (Marcus, 1989, 115)


The shadow world – it is such a natural term. We talk about the ‘shadow financial system” in the same way – as a wholly natural entity, with rather fantastic attributes. Having a superstitious belief that numbers are a power, we are all duly impressed that the shadow amount of derivatives in the world is 500 trillion dollars. And of course, if this amouth is caught in a trap, we are disabled: if it is killed on the OTC range, we die. Or so we have been told.

Marcus uses Schieffelin’s language for his own project. He has been doing field study in Texas, among the wealthy. Just as the Kaluli world gets on quite well with the infinite deferral of presence, and depends on a “discourse through mediums who, roughly like an ethnographer, have been to this other world and have seen what ordinary persons can only hear traces of,” so, too, the Texas wealthy have something out there called their “wealth”, a brother/sister shadow wild pig, with which they must communicate in some way. It is impossible for LI to resist quoting the ever mad Ben Stein’s column in today’s NYT in relation to these mediums:

NOT long ago, a woman in California called me for advice. She is divorced, with two children, and has a series of interlocking financial problems.

She lives in a lovely home in a stylish inland enclave. It has an interest-only mortgage of about $2.2 million that requires a payment of $12,000 a month, very roughly. It was last appraised at $2.7 million, but who knows if it’s now worth anything remotely close to that price.
The woman, whom I’ve known since she was a teenager, has no job or other remunerative employment. She has a former husband, an entrepreneur whose business has suffered recently. He pays her $20,000 a month, of which roughly half is alimony and half child support. The alimony is scheduled to stop this summer.
She has a wealthy beau who pays her credit card bills and other incidentals, but she is thinking of telling him she is through with him. She has no savings and has refinanced her home repeatedly, always adding to indebtedness and then putting the money into a shop she owns that has never come close to earning a dime. Now she is up all night worrying about money. “Terrified,” as she put it. She wanted me to tell her what to do.
What could I say? I did the best I could, but I had to tell her that she was on very thin ice.”

Cut away to Marcus:

“The ethnographic treatment of the Kaluli thus brings me to the very edge of a methodological and theoretical problem in the prac- tice of ethnography in societies of self-styled modernity and progress, to which I now want to turn. Unseen doppelganger worlds, the equivalents of that of the Kaluli, are equally as consequential for groups of ethnographic subjects in modern societies, yet they really are unproblematically capable of conventional definition and em- pirical investigation. What becomes of the focused, local order of culture in ethnographic research when it is understood in terms, like the Kalulis', of at least dual, spatially distanced, complexly con- nected, and mutually determined simultaneous worlds? Does the ethnographer remain, as he is obliged to do among the Kaluli, with here and now accounts of these worlds, or does he move to grasp them empirically and, in so doing, to reconfigure the fundamental ground upon which ethnographic narratives and representations of cultural order have traditionally been made? How does the ethnog- rapher in his/her own academic culture, rather than the Kaluli in their here and now world, handle a subject that is never definitively or self-sufficiently present anywhere, but is continually and partially constructed in parallel, simultaneous, but separate contexts?3 Such is a subject like the contemporary dynastic rich, among other late 20th-century Americans. The dynastic fortunes that I have studied in Texas over the past few years are complex creations of various kinds of experts and of lineages of descendants two to four generations away from founding entrepreneurial ancestors. A dynasty is commonsensically a family, but after much experience with this form of social organization, I find that it is primarily a fortune instead. Concentrations of old wealth, however, have no one particular locus or materialization; in short, they have no presence. Rather, a fortune has multiple, simultaneous manifestations within a variety of interconnected but isolated social contexts that encompass the long-term fates and daily lives of literally hundreds of people. In initiating my research, I followed common sense and took the family-literal flesh-and-blood descendants, and particularly those who seemed to be leaders or in positions of authority-for the dynasty. I soon discovered in their here and now lives the profound influence of the equivalent of the unseen world among the Kaluli-the complex world of highly spec- ialized expertise that through an elaborate division of labor, not only structured the wealth but, also, created doppelganger facsimiles of the descendants-roughly similar to the Mt. Bosavi wild pig reflec- tions of Kaluli persons-variously constituted as clients, benefici- aries of trusts, wealth shares in computerized strategies of invest- ment, and accountants' files. While the unseen world is richly reg- istered through sound and imagery in the here and now of the Kaluli, it distinctly is not among the descendants within dynastic families. Being true to the metaphysics of presence that shapes their individualism, they always presume that they are self-sufficiently in control of their lives, while being vaguely aware, more so than other Americans probably, that they are constantly being moved about and determined as bearers of wealth and credit in worlds of money and finance.”


The poetry of quotations overwhelms LI. Excuse me for a minute while I get my handkerchief – tears of sorrow and tears of laughter are leaking from my eyes. In the meantime, you can listen to this.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

LI, this is quite the question you pose:

But what if one supposes that the writers of the text, the managers, the bourgeoisie itself, while pitted against superstition and promoting the making of universal history in every household, are themselves hostages in a ghost dance?

And this is quite the quote fom Marcus:

While the unseen world is richly registered through sound and imagery in the here and now of the Kaluli, it distinctly is not among the descendants within dynastic families. Being true to the metaphysics of presence that shapes their individualism, they always presume that they are self-sufficiently in control of their lives, while being vaguely aware, more so than other Americans probably, that they are constantly being moved about and determined as bearers of wealth and credit in worlds of money and finance.

I'm should not try and develop this tonight as I've already gotten shot to pieces by smart Parisians over this already today. But the soundtrack of the shadow world has been accompanying me walking around. So thanks for the poetry of quotations!
And that is some Neutral Milk Hotel song!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fm2WYwUPmLQ

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJXzsAyu5QU

Amie

Anonymous said...

LI love your increasing turn to anthropology. our field gets no respect from people who underestimate its powers to blend creativity, magic, politics, history and practice in speaking about humanity.

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