Monday, November 30, 2009

Ideas Man Goes to Memphis Part 2A

[Note: Rather than leave such long posts with such long spaces between posting, I'll try posting in shorter chunks --- if this is annoying or breaks up the flow too much, let me know and I'll go back to bigger chunks.]

Part Two

Within seconds of entering the museum, everything was what it was again. This was a museum, and I would have loved to visit the museum, but I wasn't there to visit the museum. I didn't have time to visit the museum, and visiting hours were over anyway. We were led to the museum's comfortable auditorium, well-lit, appointed tastefully but anonymously. We should have been about 20 minutes late, but by the look of things, they must have started late themselves because the first speaker was still giving what was clearly an impromptu preamble about the conference, the setting and her visit to Memphis before launching into her paper proper.

Although we weren't that late, the auditorium was full enough, the rows of seats laid out in such a fashion, that it would be impossible to sit down without some disturbance. I bee-lined to a single seat near the back that I only had to step over a couple of people in taking. Someone else braved an empty seat up front but off to the side. The rest of our company of stragglers made do with the upholstered wall curving around the back, partitioning the auditorium from the rest of the museum, and within minutes I was beyond the comma I'd been in, beyond the shock that had roused me from that comma. I was ensconced again in the comfortable world of academia, the world I essentially grew up in and have never really left. I was ensconced in that world, but there was lodged within me the memory of what had happened, what lay outside, that bigger world of America. Heim aber unheimlich.

My last little bit of German, which I'll leave untranslated, pays homage to a whole philosophical world-view that some might recognize, but that I'll contextualize nonetheless. I hope all of you will forgive an extremely long excursus.

Excursus: Tribes and Categories

What lay outside? America? Really? America, whose parts do not all make a whole --- where exactly is that? America, where I've always more or less been. America, where I've more or less always been. The longest I've been out of the country was a five or so month stint in Mexico. Not much beyond that, a couple of three or four week trips to Italy, lots of shorter jaunts to Canada and Mexico, a ten day trip when I was ten, the first time I'd ever flown on an airplane (we estimate that at five, the world-weary Ideas Girl has already taken 25 airplane flights). I don't know whether I should count the years in my head that I've lived in Greece and in her fictional colonies, a guest of the titan Prometheus. Someday maybe I'll write about that. But perhaps that's still America. It's not as though America is a self-enclosed whole.

Let's divide groups up into tribes and categories (I'm thinking here of groups that make up parts of America, but that isn't essential quite yet). The difference between a tribe and a category is that in a tribe, there are real historical connections that tie its members together, whereas in categories there are qualities that all members of a group are recognized as having. Those of you who know Spinoza can think of this as the difference between the real modal connections (known by third-order knowledge) and attributes (known by second-order knowledge).


I think that the tribes that are the most important to me are: 1) my family, the Ideases first and foremost along with the rest of my immediate family and their kids, and a small subset of my enormous extended family. 2) the "social" subset of my colleagues, those of my colleagues who are also personal friends, and 3) a very small subset of the members of my various social circles from childhood --- and I'd extend this to college and to include a few good friends who I met in the Mormon world of Philadelphia, because and was although I didn't know them until I had lived in Philadelphia and was technically (although barely) an adult, they all turned out to be separated from the groups of my childhood by just one degree. This will be true of virtually any of a certain kind of Mormon, just as I can go to any academic conference and find someone one degree removed from my tribe #2. This is how we navigate the massive country we live in without succumbing fully to the alienation that breeds fascism. It's what had allowed me to have such a fantastic day in Memphis, a town I'd never been anywhere near before.

By the process of what structural anthropologists would call lines of alliance, I'd also include much of what are for Ideas Woman the equivalent of Tribes #1,2 and 3. By intersecting lines of filiation and alliance (lines of affiliation, lets say), I'd add the tribe forming around the Ideas Kids' social world (some of the families of my children's friends, or the people that I know in my context as a father). Because I am, after all, the titular head of the Ideas Clan, I may as well think of this as my Tribe #4.

Let's give these four tribes names. We'll call #1 The Big Ideases, #2 The SPEP Squad, #3 The Happy Valleys, and #4) The Toledottawa Hilliards. The Tribes of course aren't mutually exclusive. My colleague in the Anthropology department of my university, who I know through my kids' school, or my neighbor in Philly who is also an English professor, both belong to the SPEP Squad & The Toledottawa Hilliards, and my brother's family who live just a mile from where we lived in Philly fit into the Big Ideases and the Toledottawa Hilliards. There are the connections forged after the fact. My colleagues who got jobs at the university a mile from where I grew up and who have as colleagues some of my parents' friends and as students my siblings' friends and my old friends' siblings have the privilege of being part of the Happy Valley SPEP Squad. Then there are the truly weird connections that the Facebook reveals: that my colleague's partner got her Master in Library Science's with my cousin (Big Ideas --- SPEP Squad), that the guy whose family my family hung out with during a kick-ass parade turns out to be friends with a guy I know from graduate school and both of our first post-graduate jobs (Toledottawa Hilliards SPEP Squad). And so on.

Another thing to notice is that my Tribes mostly consist of Americans, but there are non-Americans in all 4 groups: immigrants to America, ex-pats living abroad, temporary visitors to America, foreigners who have always lived abroad and maintain only tangential tribal connections to America. We'll have occasion to think about this more later. But let's move on to categories.


I think that the categories that are most important to how I understand myself are: 1) intellectuals, 2) Mormons (even if this is by a complex relationship of upbringing, culture and rejection), and 3) the political/social/cultural ideology that I identify with, often called liberal or progressive (both terms I'm uncomfortable with), often erroneously equated with being part of the Democratic party (though the Democratic party is a much bigger tent and though this wing's loyalty to the Democratic party is by no means absolute). I'll just call it the Left for now.

Now, certainly these three categories will end up being important in manifold ways to the tribes that I listed above. They have a lot to do with how those tribes are constituted, and they tell you a lot about how I personally inhabit those tribes. But they are a different way of conceptualizing the world. Because we don't immediately present our tribes to the world (at least not in the way I'm using the term here), we will find that however much we identify ourselves tribally, others --- particularly others from outside of our tribes, unaware of all that tribal belonging entails --- will identify us categorically first.

And I'm not so naive as to be blind to the fact that I've left out three categories which are quite important to how other Americans will identify me, particularly insofar as they are the categories people are most inclined to use in anonymous contexts, contexts laid bare of any other social indicators. These categories are, in no particular order: 1) my whiteness, 2) my maleness, and 3) my upper-middle-classness (I'd prefer to say "professionalness" as a more accurate designator of the socio-economic class I'm talking about, but I'll acquiesce to more familiar, if slightly misleading, usage). Although none of these three things are inherent in me, these three things are the three things that I think most Americans will most easily "read" into me without any other cues (Some people might include my age or generation, but I don't think that's salient in the same way, at least not for our present purposes).

The reasons that I list these categories separately from the categories of "Intellectual" or "(ex)-Mormon" or "Leftist" (categories themselves enmeshed in the other categories in fairly obvious ways) is that they aren't particularly important to how I identify myself, and I like to think that they aren't particularly important to how I identify myself, while the others are. Now I'm fully aware 1) that my identification with these categories probably does in fact orient me in ways that I am unaware of --- that I probably even blind myself to; and 2) that the very possibility of not identifying with these categories depends upon the normative privilege these categories enjoy. An outsider should feel free to explain to me what 1) and 2) mean concretely. Once the outside is done with that I'll move on in Part 2B to talking concretely about my reasons for saying that I don't find my identification with these categories to be particularly important to me.

No comments: