Showing posts with label boundary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label boundary. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Suburb Mentality

A suburb is an upgraded village: a spatially bounded space where people live under the illusion of knowing each other, of feeling protected by their belonging to the community, of fulfilling the middle-class (North-American) dream. You know the dream: a Stepford wife, a little box made out of ticky tacky (hope there are no hurricanes in your area!) in the middle of nowhere (preferably in a gated community, God forbids the coyotes or the immigrants come anywhere near us!), a Bimbo box (can't help but love Neal Stephenson's nickname for the SUV) where the Stepford wife can safely anchor the car-seats of the children (at least two, cause a). it's our Christian duty to reproduce ourselves, b). we 'all know' that the only-child comes with permanent psychological damage...).

One cannot understand the suburb and its mentality until one lives in North America. The suburb is a white, sanitized and monotonous place where everyone
has to look the same, feel the same, behave the same. "We are in the Burbs, where it is better to take a thousand clicks off the lifespan of your Goodyears by invariably grinding them up against curbs than to risk social ostracism and outbreaks of mass hysteria by parking several inches away, out in the middle of the street (That's okay Mom, I can walk to the curb from here), a menace to the traffic, a deadly obstacle to uncertain young bicyclists." (Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash, 1992).

A true middle-class individual (and hey, everyone is middle-class in North America, except those who aren't, but even they are middle-class!) dreams of setting down, finding the Stepford wife (partner, to be politically correct) and buy that cardboard house with 5 bedrooms (guest rooms required!) for which they'll pay 10 times the actual price and probably 10 times what they can truly afford. A slave to the bank, a slave to the cardboard house, a slave to the bimbo box, the individual becomes a slave to the suburb mentality. The long commute downtown sucks. So many cars! The downtown sucks too: thank God we have a doorman at work, otherwise we would end up with the homeless begging right at the door of our office on the 100th floor of the prison - oops, meant office - tower. The lunch time rush to the unavoidable franchises sucks too: there are simply too many people, this city can't take any more foreigner, immigrants, minorities! We're already over-crowded!

The suburb is the place where mass hysteria grows out of conformism. Out of sanitized - yet worthless - environments, whose only value derives from the quantification of our middle-class desire: we're willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for an ugly cardboard box that is worth shit just to live in a 'good community', where your neighbors have been selected by banks based on how intensely they desire to throw out of the window the money they don't have. The suburb hysteria comes in the forms of gates, of speed bumps and 30km/h speed signs. It comes in the form of community churches with stupid signs (Jesus loves you!), strip malls along the highway and yellow school buses. And it calms down at the sight of our trusted police buying their coffee at Starbucks; their mere presence, a token of suburb conformity itself, reassures us: they're here, we're protected from the awful unknown outside the suburb.

The suburb mentality is a dangerous one. It is an essentially anti-modern mentality, based on fear and born out of our capitalist desire to segregate ourselves from those who don't have the same earning-potential (under the false belief that earning potential makes us all the same). It's the belief of the capitalist slave, colonized by capitalism so that s/he no longer feels it as an ideological yoke, but as a free choice based on hard work (work hard, and you'll reach the stars; visualize, and you'll succeed).

The suburb mentality breeds fear, ignorance and intolerance. It breeds fascism. It prepares the mind for the radical populist-nationalist politicians who will shamelessly capitalize on the suburb hysteria to propel themselves to power. It makes people afraid, but more importantly, it makes them unable to cope with an urban environment, where good and bad co-exist, where people step on each others toes and parade their difference on a daily basis.

Photo credits: ulybug

Thursday, January 21, 2010

When the French need to prove they're French...

Who decides on your race, ethnicity or nationality? What are the features you need to have in order to be placed in one of these categories? While I am usually more concerned with deconstructing such categories and with showing how unsustainable they are, this post will be slightly different.

A few days ago, TIME published an interesting story on how the French must prove they are French. The idea was that children born abroad to parents that were French nationals are having a hard time getting their nationality recognized by France. If this nationality is not recognized, then you cannot be a French citizen. However, to be recognized as such, you need to be either born out of French parents, or to be born and to have lived in France until you reach adulthood. The TIME story traced the saga of one of the children born outside of France from French parents who were working abroad at the time.

Without getting into the intricacies of the law here, it is interesting to observe the struggle around defining what nationality is, who has the authority to recognize it and by what means it can actually be attained.

Nationality is a notoriously hard to define concept. Back in the 1950s, Karl Deutsch defined it as "a term which may be applied to a people among whom there exists a significant movement toward political, economic, or cultural autonomy” (1953, p. 3). There were obvious problems with this definition, and Deutsch was the first to notice that: just how do you measure that? It is fine to say "a people with a common will to being autonomous", but just what does the 'common will' mean here? Do you count those who are not in favor of that autonomy? Do you count those who do not recognize themselves as belonging to the group in question, but still live with the group?

And even if you come up with seemingly more 'objective' features to define nationality, such as language or common history, you're in trouble again. For instance, language is not as uniform as we want to believe it. In fact, language is better understood as 'languages', where the plural emphasizes the lived diversity of spoken dialects.

However, trying to understand 'what nationality is' is by far less interesting than trying to understand 'how nationality becomes the main principle of categorization' within modern world. Since most people are social beings, they have always lived in groups. What's different in modernity is the nature of the group boundary as well as the importance of the group as an essentializing force acting upon the individual. To the extent that nationality becomes the political principle justifying the organization of the state, nationality also becomes the most important category defining who is in and who is out, who has access to resources, and who has rights or not.

The overlap between nationality and the monopoly of authorized violence (the state) is the most intriguing and the most problematic one. With this overlap, the main authority in placing you within groups resides with the state. The state takes over the possibility of negotiating this placement in everyday life and rigidifies it into a set of rules that establish your location within a system of rights and exchanges.

Photo credits: fdecomite
References: Deutsch, K. (1953) Nationalism and Social Communication. An Inquiry into the Foundations of Nationality. NY: The Technology Press of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology & John Wiley & Sons, I nc.; London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Negotiating Name-Calling

Warning: The contents of this post may be offensive. Or maybe not. Maybe it's just my political correctness. I may become 'old school': the kind of people who tried to fight consciously and unconsciously abusive labels and name-calling. But as the fight unfolded, so did a form of resistance that sought to reclaim the labels and to reinvest them with a new, empowering meaning.

The other day, I was looking for an unprotected wireless internet network that I could use for a mobile device. In the middle of a commercial area, the only unprotected network available was "niggerfaggot". I was taken aback: how should I read this? Could I read it in any other way than being utterly offensive? Did I even have the right to 'read' it in the first place, given that it most probably meant to be private? And what was I supposed to do about it? Report it? Connect to it? Ignore it?

I decided not to use the network. But my feelings didn't vanish: uncertainty, anger, wonder. Mostly uncertainty. What was the name's meaning? What was its role? We all name our technologies: my car's name is Sharky, mainly because it resembles a shark from the profile. Sometimes, the name is meant to be a joke. Which in itself doesn't mean the joke may not rest upon ethnic, racial or gender stereotypes.

We are meaning-making creatures: unless we make sense of things, we cannot move on. How am I to make sense of a network named "niggerfaggot"? What sets of criteria should I use to interpret it? Let's pretend for a moment that the name is reclaimed by someone who wants to challenge the mainstream hateful connotations of the words. Does this moment of personal empowerment matter in terms of the system? Would people sense the alleged irony or resistance?

The construction of difference is not something stable or unitary. It remains contextual: to understand, you need to know the context of the name. It also remains fluid over time: today's discrimination may be tomorrow's resistance. But most importantly, it remains historical: you need to understand the way in which the name was used throughout time to mark a particular type of difference.

Photo credits: Kelly Santos

Monday, November 9, 2009

Be polite, or we'll know exactly which group you belong to...

I went to a see a play the other day. Though marketed as a comedy, the play was in fact quite heavy: troubled relationships, troubled lives and the past haunting the present, delivered to the audience in a funny wrapping. And the thirty-something people in the audience laughed here and there, whenever appropriate. Except one. One person laughed at the... er... wrong times?

You know the type: usually in the middle of the room, this person has obviously got it all wrong. They never laugh when everyone else is laughing; they laugh on their own, as loud as they can, enjoying themselves, oblivious to the annoyance they bring upon you...

What's wrong with them, why don't they get it?

But it's so easy to get annoyed with other people, to see the wrongs in them... If only they would follow the rules... the norms... the conventions...

Because, in the end, that's all it comes down to: rules, norms and conventions. Social rules around what is appropriate behavior during a play. Social cues to be read in the play, in the actors' behavior. Social conventions defining what counts as funny, appropriate, acceptable. And laughing on your own, finding your own relationship to a play and to its meaning, that's just not 'legitimate' with us: you have to laugh when the others are laughing, and you have to clap when the others are clapping...

Have you noticed that nobody - and I mean Nobody! - throws rotten tomatoes at actors anymore? Or that nobody shouts at them "You suck! Find another job!" (only Simon Cowell still has that privilege...)? Oh, that would be funny... I fantasized about that during quite a few performances... but I would never have the courage to break the social rules of legitimate behavior. I missed my chance with some hundred years... ah, the time when audiences chatted during a play (gosh, imagine the disorder!) or when they "hooted and jeered" (Gossett, p. 174).

The unwritten yet powerful rules of politeness and legitimate behavior. We can't do without them (really, don't start throwing rotten tomatoes at people you don't like, ok?). Yet they also hide away the real lines of separation under the veil of 'appropriate behavior'. Separation along class lines or majority/minority lines, when the you just 'know' from a person's reaction that s/he's not 'well-mannered' or 'from here'.

Norms, rules, conventions, symbols, words, ways of talking - all of these form for Pierre Bourdieu the 'symbolic capital' through which we communicate. The currency we use to obtain other people's endorsement, support or even love. They position us in the social hierarchy. Our use of them reveals us as 'insiders' or 'outsiders', as 'powerful' or 'power-hungry'.

"To speak is to appropriate one or other of the expressive styles already constituted in and through usage, and objectively marked by their position in a hierarchy of styles which expresses the hierarchy of corresponding social groups" (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 54)

And it is not only speech - the choice of words, the way you construct a sentence, a.s.o - but also gestures, postures, proximities; we rely on them to communicate with others. They position us in particular nodes of power structures; and we use them as guides in interpreting other people, in positioning them within the social hierarchy.

In fairness, this time I actually enjoyed this lonely audience member's laughter. But most of the times, I resent it. It's hard to move beyond the resentment: it's way easier to study the social norms and their power dimensions than it is to actually live with them. But I suspect the hardship comes from the rather rigid boundary social groups have constructed around them. Any tresspassing of the boundary, of the 'common sense' and 'social expectations' is troubling and distressing. And it's always easier to point to the "Other" as an "Other", than to be suspicious of your own labelling of people.

Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press
Gossett, P. (2006) Divas and Scholars: Perfoming Italian Opera. University of Chicago Press

Monday, February 2, 2009

Made in US and O Canada

The new economic stimulus package proposed by the US president has been seen in Canada as promoting a 'buy-in-US' protectionism. Not that Canadians are not exhibiting their own nationalism: only recently, a New Brunswick school was ordered to resume singing O Canada each morning. A Very Public Sociologist blogs about the "British Jobs for British Workers" discourse. It looks like we're back to the old national(ist) protectionism!

Or maybe we're not back - maybe 'nationalistic thinking' was always there, lurking in the background and we chose not to see it anymore because of this ultra-optimistic globalization rhetoric. Nationalistic thinking means we think about the world as divided into nations, each nation with its own state - a state meant to protect not the citizens (regardless of their characteristics), but the citizens-as-nationals, the nation. "National pride is commendable, but we can love our country without all standing to attention beneath a loudspeaker," wrote a Globe and Mail reader in today's newspaper.

Well, I never thought any type of national pride is commendable. But as I grew older, I came to realize that societies need mechanisms of cohesion, and rely on nationalism as one such mechanism. I'm still not sure such mechanisms need to encourage the 'in-group' / 'out-group' (or the Us vs. Them) thinking, but I'm still thinking this through. National pride - exactly why is it commendable? That we are all buying into it - in various degrees - has been quite well researched. We know that our 'buying into it' has more to do with the education system and mass media, then with our 'inner needs'. National belonging is not a metaphysical thing - take a child born in the Czech Republic and raise her in the US, and she'll be an 'American' (Caveat: of course,the child has to look like the mainstream definition of the nation, otherwise she'll be rejected by the group for the visible difference).

We do buy into nationalism, and we do think there are good versions of it (like the reader quoted above). We seem to believe that nationalism is benign if kept within reasonable limits. Exactly what those limits are vary of course with the circumstances: economic crisis in sight? Well, depending on whose 'national' you are, American nationalism is bad and Canadian nationalism is good...

Nationalism is not benign, but always problematic. Nationalism is a discourse: it divides the world into nations. It creates the boundary of 'our-group', links it to a territory and a state, and ascribes it an objective reality. Like any discourse which creates boundaries of difference - racism, ethnocentrism, sexism etc. - it is problematic. And particularly dangerous in the ways in which it creates different ethics for the in-group vs. the out-group. And particularly dangerous in the ways in which it becomes normalized as a method of legitimizing actions and behaviors in our everyday life interpretation of the world.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Constructing Cultural Boundaries in Academia

The main paradigm in the study of communication remains undoubtedly Western. Perspectives from African (Asante, 1980) and Asian (Chen, 2006; Miike, 2006) worldviews have challenged the underlying Eurocentrism of the values embedded in the main paradigm: control, individualism, linearity, static view.

Chen (2006) talks about the alternative epistemology offered by Asian worldviews. He first goes about the identify the 'essence of Asian Communications', then discusses the 'yin and yang of Asian communication studies' and finally he proposes the 'Tao of Asian communications'.

I have a Western worldview, and that explains why yin and yang, Tao say very little to me. My sense of them is mostly from secondary literature and not first-hand experience. It is easy to mistrust them, because the information I get from such literature is not part of lived communal experience, which heightens my tendency to resist them.

Take for instance the concept of 'harmony' Chen describes as a main feature of "Asian communication". Exactly what is harmony? And how is harmony achieved? I have had this discussion over and over again: there are no human communities which do not have power structures and do not perpetrate violence to some. So, I'm suspicious of what 'harmony', 'whose' harmony, etc. Chen writes harmony is internalized by each individual as an understanding that we all are part of the whole, and this gives us a certain responsibility. Harmony implies "hard work, respect for learning, honesty, self-reliance, self-discipline, and the fulfillment of obligations", as well as "an orderly society, respect for authority, consensus, and official accountability" (2006, p. 298). Well, doesn't it sound exactly like the discourse legitimizing the feudal system? To each their place, that they have to accept.

We are talking generalities here. I am sure there are people living in Asia who are neither accepting of the social order and the status quo, nor eager to self-discipline themselves. Maybe the trouble is the application of 'harmony'. I'm also thinking the silent half of the Western world - women - have been recuperated by feminist literature as the workers of harmony in their family. 'Harmony', as a female value, may not be a visible value in the Western system of thought (hold on, what about feminism?) - but then, just because women were silenced, does it mean their values are not 'Western'? Oh, and to complicate matters: what am I say, there are no 'women' as a homogeneous category! ...

As I go on and read Chen's arguments, I'm resisting the idea of an 'essence of Asian communication'. I take his points that alternative worldviews have different normative universes; but I'm also thinking we do a gross generalization when we speak like this. Chen also recognizes the dilemma: "With such a vast geography and a great variety of cultures, and religions, it is extremely risky to generalize the essence of a so-called 'Asian communication'. However, in addition to the internal variety of Asian communication, evident similarities as well exist in it" (2006, p. 296).

And here is where he makes a choice, a choice based on his values and purposes: to talk about the 'essence of an Asian worldview', even when such an enterprise is problematic because of the internal diversity. Chen has a project - and it is that project which prompts him to draw the boundaries. He criticizes the imperialism of Western knowledge, and to do so, he needs to do two things: 1). to generalize Western knowledge; 2). to oppose to it an equally powerful generalization: Asian knowledge. As much as this is the source of empowerment (the source of the forcefulness and legitimacy of the argument), it is also the demise. The problem lies also in the underlying visions for generalizations: what are the criteria we choose to generalize? Based on what?

We always choose to see the similarities across some borders, across some geographic and linguistic boundaries, and not others. Indeed, the power structures in which we live prohibit us from this: there is a power (im)balance - or rather a power negotiation - between those boundaries Chen invokes (and thus constructs). But the reverse - there is always a reverse - is that we end up placing essentialized entities in opposition and conflict (going precisely against what Chen calls the 'essence' of Asian communication, namely achieving harmony).

Asante, M.K. (1980) "Intercultural Communication: An Inquiry into Research Directions." In D. Nimmo (Ed.) Communication Yearbook 4: 401-410
Chen, G.M. (2006) "Asian Communication Studies: What and Where to Now," The Review of Communication, 6(4): 295-311
Miike, Y. (2006) "Non-Western Theory in Western Research? An asiacentric Agenda for Asian Communication Studies," The Review of Communication 6(1/2): 4-31

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Do Nationalists Have a Sense of Humor? Check Out Entropa...

I'd say no, nationalists have no sense of humor when it comes to that abstraction they hold so dear to their heart: the nation. An abstraction, true, but with a hard-to-deny material presence: the nation-state. So, whenever they come across stereotyped images of their beloved nation - negative images, I should stress - nationalists get even more obnoxious. They complain 'the Others' don't understand them (well, how could they, given that they are 'the Others'). They find themselves collectively humiliated and feel the bitter taste of what they do to 'Others': they're lumped together under a label they dislike.

Entropa does just that. A modern art exhibition recently opened in the heart of Europe, it dares to depict Bulgaria through an installation of oriental toilets, France as a continuous complainer, Italy as a collective soccer-obsession and so on, and so forth. Oh, and it dares to skip the UK altogether... My oh my, what courage. Of course, the Bulgarian government gets all offended and presses for an official reaction. Ironically, in so doing, they only play within the boundaries of the stereotype: an oriental (put your Western glasses on, and read 'backward' - apologies for perpetuating the violence yet again) 'nation' with conservative views. Constipated? (Disclaimer: I don't mean to pick on any one in particular, but these are the actors of this story...).

I, for one, would like to congratulate the artist for his resistance, for his wit and for his humor.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Phone Etiquette

Julian Hopkins blogs about being introduced to phone etiquette in Malaysia:

What things were very different for me here?
• Not introducing oneself at the beginning of the call.
• Asking for personal information – what was ‘Mrs Wong’ doing, what’s her handphone number.
• The lack of polite niceties, such as ‘Hello’, ‘please’ and – in particular – putting down the phone without saying goodbye! That one took a lot of getting used to :-O I eventually learnt that conversations usually end with the end of the matter in hand, and a word such as ‘OK’, or ‘Thanks’.

Initially, I would find myself being distinctly disgruntled at such calls, in particular the perceived rudeness of (for me) cutting off a conversation without proper disengagement. I learnt to deal with it, and now often don’t say goodbye, depending on who I’m talking to...
From my own experience, I know it is hard to deal with such 'differences' in everyday life. Since such etiquettes are tied with notions of politeness and proper behavior, the easiest way of dealing with them is to label them as 'improper'/ 'rude'. I remember several instances when I was annoyed - if not irritated - with people on the other side of the phone: some seemed (to me) to 'demand' things. Others would never say 'hi' or 'goodbye'. And yet others sounded harsh and insisted on something that I had already explained was not the case or was not possible.

Writing this post, I'm thinking how all these emotions and reactions have to do with that complex boundary which delimits the norm from the difference. The 'right' ways of doing things are definitely embodied, connected to our emotions as well as our chemical responses (yeah, the rush of adrenaline when I feel pissed off). This only makes the feeling that 'this is right/ wrong' stronger: after all, we 'feel' it.

The hardest thing when moving from one context of practices to another is understanding that yours are by no means the best or the righteous. But I feel there is quite a gap between rational understanding and enacting the consequences of realizing this in everyday life encounters.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

No Ingles aqui: When does language become political?

One of the best things about cities is the bistro. That small bistro, squeezed between a shoes shop and a travel agent, loudly featuring a lunch menu for 9Euros. Last week, we had lunch in one such bistro in a fairly touristic area of Barcelona, right by Placa d'Espanya. I do not speak Spanish (at least not enough to understand the various types of food available), so I asked for an English-language menu. "No Ingles aqui!", the waiter shouted harshly and left the table. Shocked more with the body-language than the actual statement, we started talking. But we didn't speak English among ourselves, and as soon as the waiter in question noticed that, he came back with a big polite smile on his face and handed us the English-language menu.

There's something so 19th century about this... The debate on English as an imperialistic language aside, I kept on wondering just what makes us turn language into a political issue in everyday life encounters. I know we cannot fully divorce this from the power context, but I've always wondered about the irony of trying so hard to create and distinguish languages from each other instead of rejoicing the benefit of being able to communicate. When I was young, I couldn't possibly understand why Serbs and Croats would insist on building two separate languages - Serb and Croat, out of the Serbian-Croat linguistic field. I remember the mix of envy and amazement I felt when my Armenian friend started negotiating the price with the Bulgarian merchant in Plovidv. I couldn't do that; but here were people who shared one or two words or sentences, who were communicating.

But in modern times, language is not about communication. It is about politics. Language authorizes speakers: to be listened to, to be respected, one has to talk in the right language. The clever politician talks in Catalan in Barcelona, in Spanish in Madrid and in English in London. We frown upon 'improper' uses of language. Just what the heck is 'whadda' or 'kinda'? We insist on the 'right' way of talking, on constructing grammatically correct sentences, and, occasionally, on avoiding the use of imported words. Au revoir email, bien venue courrier electronique. Language sets symbolic boundaries and symbolic borders. It differentiates between 'us' and 'them', between 'natives' and 'second-language' speakers. We are taught, from an early age, that our language defines us. That's where you can find the metaphysical connection to your soul: in the language which makes you more profound, more sensitive, more poetic or more rational (depending on the national rhetoric...). Romanian-born and raised writer Emil Cioran refused to speak and write in Romanian after he set his residence in Paris. Maybe he instinctively knew what Bourdieu had to say about language: that it not only confers symbolic power. It becomes the locus of such power, and thus a political issue.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Does philosophy have a nationality?

ABC's Philosophers Zone podcast this week was "Gavagai", a part of a series on translation issues in philosophy. In "Gavagai", Alan Saunders (the host) talks to Jean-Phillipe Deranty, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Macquarie University, about none other than Foucault and the difficulties of translating him into English.

In a nutshell, the discussion gets an interesting focus on whether philosophy is intrinsically connected to national cultures/ national thought, because it is done in and through a particular language. At the core of the question is, of course, the idea that language frames both reality and thought (and is framed in return by them), with the less examined corollary that language and national culture are one and the same.

For anyone obsessed with nationalism studies, like myself, such assumptions have long been debated and fought over in the field. From
John Hutchinson's theory of cultural nationalism, to Anthony D. Smith's discussion of the link between ethnicity/ shared symbolic universes/ language/ culture, to Gellner's discussion of the necessity for communication to become nationally bounded because of the requirements of industrialization, to Benedict Anderson's discussion of the role of print vernaculars in the formation of nations - and the list goes one - both modernists and ethnosymbolists have stumbled in some way on the question of language and 'national' universes of thought and expression.

Take this discussion between Saunder and Deranty, in which both get convoluted in the question of the national borders of thought (where national becomes equated with linguistic):

Alan Saunders: Is there moreover, something about English that just makes it inhospitable to Continental ways of thought? ...Does that make English ill-equipped for expressing philosophical concepts from German and French?

Jean-Phillipe Deranty: Yeah it's a fascinating question. ... the, I think, undeniable feel that there is something different about writing philosophy in English, or something different about the way English-speaking people and English people perhaps, write philosophy as opposed to Germans and as opposed to French. And again here of course we are back with the problem of cultural difference and this complex interaction between language and culture.

The idea that philosophy is different in England than in Germany or France seems intuitive. After all, it's not only the different educational contexts, but the different life contexts which are shaping our thought. And, as a previous podcast has discussed, language too may do just that - especially when looking at the different structures between Indo-European and Asian languages.

But here is also where the problems starts: the assumptions that living in England makes you an English(wo)man, buying into a homogeneous English cultures and one given English language is simply a nationalist one. Nationalism studies post Gellner have problematized the idea of a homogeneous cultural space, even if there is a 'national media system' (in James Carrey's formulation) and a 'national education system' (in Gellner's formulation). Not even such systems are unitary and fixed, in spite of their nation-building over-arching goal.

Furthermore, as a trip around the world will show, there is no such thing as one English language! And I am not referring here to the difference between Australian and British English, but the differences between the way in which one speaks in London or in Nottingham; or even more, the differences between the fancy London neighborhoods and the rather poor ones.

The same can be said about the idea of a French culture, of which - for instance - Foucault is taken to be representative. Just whose culture are we talking about? There are many types of cultures co-existing under the label of French, some more legitimate (like for instance the different cultures of intellectual elites and those of peasants), some less legitimate (from a nationalist point of view, like for instance the different cultures of immigrants to France). Class, race, age, position - all of them undermine the mere concept of a unitary cultural national space.

Last, but not least, I am bothered by the idea of national philosophical universes - with the annoying implication that "it takes one to understand one" (you have to be French to truly understand Foucault). What about philosophers who are mobile, living in several national contexts, where would they fit? And are German intellectuals living today sharing the same intellectual universe with Heidegger - or is the metaphysical national bond giving them the extra skills to truly understand him? Does that mean that all those who do not read an author in the original cannot grasp its ideas? (There is here another discussion about what and where meaning is and a glimpse into other disciplines, like communication studies could be quite useful!).

For me, such a discussion shows that Wimmer & Schiller's 2003 article on methodological nationalism remains quite relevant for social science research: one of the forms of methodological nationalism is to take nations for granted and to focus analysis on nationally-bounded social spaces. For Wimmer & Schiller, this form of methodological nationalism is so pervasive precisely because of:

“... the compartmentalization of the social science project into different ‘national’ academic fields, a process strongly influenced not only by nationalist thinking itself, but also by the institutions of the nation-state organizing and channelling social science thinking in universities, research institutions and government think tanks” (2002: 306).

Reference: Wimmer, A., Schiller, G. (2002) “Methodological Nationalism and Beyond: Nation-State, Migration and the Social Sciences,” Global Networks 2(4): 301-334.

Photo credits: cuspace

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Stats on everyday racism in Canada

According to some recent surveys (read CBC full story), 1 in 6 Canadian adults have been subjected to racism, while 1 in 10 didn't want people from a different race as next-door neighbors. I am not a supporter of surveys, but I do realize that the power of numbers can sometimes be thought-provoking. While the numbers came from different surveys, and we do not know much about their methodology, I do see them as - at least on an anecdotal level - being supported by my everyday life environment.

While Canada is officially pursuing a policy of multiculturalism, the unofficial truth is that race or accent do raise barriers among people (and I am not referring here to the impossibility of communicating in another language, but to those barriers we construct when we decide that a person with an accent or from another race cannot possibly understand or adhere to the 'Canadian' lifestyle). I have heard on so many occasions people arguing that it is 'hard to work with Chinese' or that 'living in a building where there are Africans is unsafe'. I have heard immigrant students complaining that they do not understand their professors because of their accent. And I have heard people congratulating others for having 'such a good accent in English'.

While racism may be rejected officially, there is a long way from having a policy of multiculturalism and bragging about it, and actually having multicultural communities, where people do not relate to each other through their race or accent, but rather relate to each other as human beings first and foremost. From my own experience, I have found that having friends who share similar values and preferences has nothing to do with race, ethnicity, language, accent.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

To exist is to differ?

Reading Latour, I came across this quote from sociologist Gabriel Tarde on difference:

"To exist is to differ; difference, in one sense, is the substantial side of things, what they have most in common and what makes them most different. One has to start from this difference and to abstain from trying to explain it [...]" (Tarde (1985/1999) Monadologie et sociologie: 73)

There's a point here which I take: to exist is to differ. That's true, we are all different. For Luhmann and system theorists, difference is the source of existence, as something comes into being by drawing boundaries around itself and, in this process of boundary-drawing, it sets the difference between what the system is and is not. My favorite example: a nation (pick one) comes into being not by virtue of historical necessity, but by delimiting itself along particular lines such as ethnicity, religion, language, territory. In this process of defining who the nation is, it sets the boundary separating it from who the nation is not.

But that's also not that obvious: why do we see the difference? To what extent our individualistic culture is not a source of seeing the difference, obsessing with it? Why are we different first and foremost, instead of similar (for instance, because we have one heart, one pair of lungs, one mouth and so on)?

I guess this comes down to the old constructivist debate: why do we see the tree as an individual unit and we do not see 'tree' as a whole, including the soil in which its roots are, the air which the leaves breathe etc. In other words, what is the principle of classification which informs our vision?
From this perspective, I have to side with Foucault and Skeggs (cited in last post): the principle of classification is always partial, always connected to a particular distribution of (access to) resources in society (sorry Latour, I guess I am not an ANT scholar). And I wonder to what extent our principle of classification is not difference as a source of mistrust and different moralities?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Defining difference?

After the aggressive advertising campaign to make my blog known to the outter world, a friend told me "the issue of difference, on your blog, has not been properly introduced---it is just too vague, hanging there without a context, YOUR context" (ah, do I love the academics...)

Today's post is just about that: defining difference. My friend wrote:

"First. There are differences which are not fundamental-- all too superficial-- and those one should let the others worry about them. It may be more fruitful for your discussion to narrow down the differences which seem fundamental to you.

Second. It may be worth to probe into the source of someone's interest in difference. This concern with difference, obviously, can spring from various wells. On a most widespread scale, I would say, from negative feelings such as fear, jealousy, envy, "redneckness", ressentiment and so on. In very rare instances it can stem from strength, "objectivity," a sense of justice (as Nietzsche understood justice)---in a word, from positive and active attitudes."

These are good, valid points. But I'm coming from a qualitative tradition, one which asks not what difference is (the definition) but looks for the ways in which the definition might emerge out of trying to understand how difference is. I'm gonna let difference undefined, cause definitions belong to dictionaries. Everyday life makes and unmakes definitions.

The question of interest here is what difference counts as significant, and why? To quote from one of my favourite professors in this big small world, how is the boundary being drawn? And what is the relation between the drawing of this boundary and social structures, power, inequalities, choice and so on?
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