Tuesday, July 8, 2008


The study of persons implicates places. What we call a person is actually a great bundle of relationships and memories, codes and meanings, influences and perturbations. These hang together in what we call the person. And of course not everything hangs together. We are a ragged species. As I go into this project I have assumed that the way people think about, talk about, and represent spaces in their lives will trigger stories about their lives, and that these stories will indicate the cultural models they must have in their heads to make sense of the kinds of things they do and say.

I think there is a false duality in the way I am describing the dynamic of persons and places. It may be a necessary dualism – necessary for discursive clarity. But it is this duality that I actually aim to challenge with the research. Places create people and people create places, and what I mean by “people” or “places” actually includes the other. It is as if all things were in a great field of interaction, coursing into one another, colliding, careening off in new directions, patterned not only by the last collision but by subsequent ones as well.

We locate persons in bodies but they are in fact more complex than that. Consider Michael Ondaatje’s recounting of painter Lucian Freud’s observation about the human condition: “Everything is biographical, Lucian Freud says. What we make, why it is made, how we draw a dog, who it is we are drawn to, why we cannot forget. Everything is collage, even genetics. There is the hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly. We contain them for the rest of our lives, at every border that we cross” (in Divisadero, p16, emphasis in original).

If it is to say anything meaningful about the human condition, anthropology must try to capture some of these biographies, these strands or webs.

Perhaps the problem is one of delimiting borders. Lucian Freud seems to have been talking about an individual, psychological set of conditions, unique to each person, while most anthropologists talk about public, social-cultural networks.

Is there really a difference? Are these different systems -- individual and collective -- not just different levels of complexity, orders of magnitude, but essentially the same matters? What influences me (the being-time constellation I call myself) is also likely to influence those near me in similar ways, so there are patterns, aggregates, that span across groups of individuals. We are still talking about the same sorts of processes: stuff kicking around in the field, influenced by other stuff, influencing other stuff in turn.

A related note from the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty: “When one says simultaneity, is it time he means or is it space? That line from me to the horizon is a rail my gaze may move upon. The house on the horizon gleams solemnly like a thing past or hoped for. And inversely, my past has its space, its paths, its nameplaces, and its monuments. Beneath the crossed but distinct orders of succession and simultaneity, beneath the train of synchronizations added onto line by line, we find a nameless network – constellations of spatial hours, of point-events. Should we even say ‘thing,’ should we say ‘imaginary’ or ‘idea,’ when each thing exists beyond itself, when each fact can be a dimension, when ideas have their regions? The whole description of our landscape and the lines of our universe, and of our inner monologue, needs to be redone. Colors, sounds, and things – like Van Gogh’s stars – are the focal points and radiances of being” (in Signs, R. McCleary, trans., p15).

Thus, Merleau-Ponty is saying that time and space, being and duration, content and process, are actually the same, a single unfolding process, each caught up in the other. We make these distinctions between time and space, but when we talk about time we imply space and when we talk about space we imply time. And Merleau-Ponty’s statement echoes something crucial in Dogen’s essay on Being-Time:

“An ancient Zen master said: ‘Being-time stands on the topmost peak and in the utmost depths of the sea, being-time is three heads and eight elbows, being-time is a height of sixteen or eighteen feet, being-time is a monk’s staff, being-time is a fly-whisk, being-time is a stone lantern, being-time is Tom and Dick, being-time is Harry, being-time is earth, being-time is sky.’

“‘Being-time’ means that time is being. Every existent thing is time...” (loosely from Three Pillars, p309).

Dogen, writing 800 years ago, anticipates Merleau-Ponty, and both echo the spirit of Lucian Freud and anthropology: all apparently static things are actually embedded in dynamic processes, and that dynamic processes are shaped by the things in their flow, and everything is swirling around.

It sounds hopelessly difficult to understand. But Dogen offers hope: "One has to accept," he wrote, "that in this world there are millions of objects and that each one is respectively the entire world -- this is where the study of Buddhism commences." I think it's also where anthropology begins, why anthropology turns to the ethnographic case for insights about humanity. Our minds may not be able to wrap themselves around all of it, but they may be able to wrap themselves around parts, and in the parts get a glimpse of the whole.

1 comment:

Greg Hankins said...

Hey John!

I had a couple of thoughts reading this:

First, I seem to recall that William James had a very interesting description of the "social self." It's probably in his Principles of Psychology, and it's been years since I read it. The image I took away at the time was of a self that could be "diagrammed" as concentric circles of relationship, in which the rings nearer the center exerted the stronger influence -- were more a part of the self -- and the outer rings were less strong, but still part of the "self."

So one's immediate family may be a stronger part of the social self than the political party to which one belongs, but both are part of the "self."

Second, I was listening to a priest/astronomer the other day in a conversation about science vs. religion on some talk show and heard him remark that he believed the books of the Bible were inspired, he just wasn't absolutely sure what he meant by "inspired."

I think religious language, the language of faith, "god-talk," is always like that. It's an essential characteristic of faith-talk that, when we use it, we don't know what we are talking about. It's always a pointing to something that the language can't quite completely encapsulate or express -- maybe something that we can't fully comprehend, maybe even something that is essentially unknowable.

Seems Dogen and Merleau-Ponty think most of our language -- or at least the language we use when we are really trying hard to understand ourselves and our world -- is like that.

I think even the language of the physics of very small and very large things shares this kind of imprecision, this pointing quality, this piling up of metaphor and simile and symbols and invented words to take a hard run at the truth we are trying to speak.

Realizing at some point that, however close we came, we nonetheless fell short of the mark, we gather up our bag of words and take another run at it.

Love the blog; keep up the good work.