The Volume of Being

Working Papers Series #19
ISSN 2045-5763 (online)

The Volume of Being:
Reflections on an Anthropological Science

Albert Piette
University of Paris West Nanterre
Centre for Ethnology and Comparative Sociology

© 2013 Albert Piette
Creative Commons License
Open Anthropology Cooperative Press

Forum discussion in the OAC network.
Download as PDF

At the very end of The Order of Things, Foucault writes that man, being a “recent invention”, became a problem for human knowledge less than two centuries ago (Foucault 2001: 422). He adds that man is already starting to fade. On the subject of the human sciences, he points out that in any case, “not only are they able to do without the concept of man, they are also unable to pass through it, for they always address themselves to that which constitutes its outer limits” (ibid.: 413). “I believe the ultimate goal of the human sciences to be not to constitute, but to dissolve man,” wrote Lévi-Strauss (1968: 247), who searched for unconscious cognitive structures, as we know: “Structuralism reintegrates man into nature, while making it possible to disregard the subject—that unbearably spoilt child who has occupied the philosophical scene for too long now” (Lévi-Strauss 1981: 687). In this regard, we should not try to oppose the structural sciences and those of experience. Structuralism and phenomenology are the same in one respect: neither of them tackles the empirical unity that each human constitutes. Heidegger’s contempt for concrete man and for anthropology is well-known. Anthropology presented “a possible catchment area”, to which he preferred the abstraction of Dasein and the existential analytic (Heidegger 1997: 149). As for Husserl’s phenomenology, Hans Blumenberg dedicated many pages to criticising his “anthropological prohibition”, which sees “man falling, so to speak, outside of any systematic framework, or if you prefer: he passes through it” (Blumenberg 2011: 44). Then where is man able to exist? Blumenberg explained: “Husserl’s decision against anthropology is not an arbitrary or light-minded misanthropic act against the humanity of what is expected from philosophy”. Husserl saw anthropology as a “philosophical underestimation” and believed that “philosophy as phenomenology could do more. It must be able to provide a theory of every possible type of consciousness and reason, of object and world, as well as of intersubjectivity” (ibid.: 46). Will this not lead much of phenomenology to set its sights too directly on “essences” based on examples divorced from contingent details and concrete situations? Husserl has a tendency to purify his examples according to a procedure that is not empirical but “eidetic”, favouring intuitive data, even admitting imagined cases, with the goal of ridding experiential examples of their vagueness, impurity or factual contingencies.

To those who would, outside of these debates, raise the objection that the human sciences in general and anthropology in particular look directly at humans, I would answer that they do indeed look at them, but they are steeped in three decisive restrictions. First, they are restricted by homogenising operations—often very early in the social science research process—whereby humans are described and analysed as sharing a set of sociocultural traits[1]. This is a way of working on human beings without them, without each of them, in favour of a social and cultural entity that does not exist. The second restriction is the reduction of humans to a few skills (interactional, cognitive, psychological), which are themselves able to be homogenised among all members or actors of the entity that is supposed to be described and detailed: an activity, an action, an event. Each of them, absorbed along with the others, is linked to an “as”: not only as a member of a group, but also as he performs an action, as he goes through an experience, or as he is governed by a social or cognitive structure, or even as he uses one mental schema or another. Furthermore, depending on the approach, it can reach the point where the human himself is suspended and circumvented in favour of action, experience or relations that have become primary objects of intelligibility. Social and cultural anthropology, like the social sciences, practices a kind of “social-cultural-cognitive-experiential-relational diversion” of humans—I would also add “nonhumanist”, to refer to the weight that has been given to nonhumans in recent years, and to highlight that it would be a shame if, after sociocultural groups, non-humans were once again to assert themselves as subjects favoured by anthropology to the detriment of human individuals. Placing humans in sets, placing them between parentheses in favour of other entities, fragmenting them, reducing them: the methods of de-anthropocentring anthropology are numerous, combining methodological arguments (stressing the various difficulties involves in keeping the focus on individuals from the beginning to the end of the research process), political arguments (the individual as an “ugly duckling” that causes great sociopolitical and environmental harm), or theoretical-ontological arguments (positing that actions, relations, the unconscious, society or nature are key, not individuals themselves). In any case, social and cultural forms play a too preponderant role: as an explicatory factor, as a descriptive aim or exploration site, alternating between these three types of role, without ever really abandoning the first one.

For 50, 60 years or more, researchers in the human sciences have been keeping up this type of epistemology, which has been fraught with consequences. To a certain extent, it is reminiscent of an observation made by Foucault, who said that his generation’s “horizon of reflection” had been defined by Husserl, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, and that this horizon “toppled” around the years 1950-55 (Foucault 1996: 55). Only to some extent. In my view, he belongs to a generation that accepted the theoretical and methodological results of structuralism (in terms of structure and relations) and also of the social sciences (in terms of consciousness, action or intersubjectivity), these being two different ways of avoiding humans and existence as points of reference. In other words, the anthropological tradition considers the human being unimportant, and believes in working on nature, society, culture and social relations. Thus I imagine an ant specialist, a myrmecologist, turning attention away from ants in order study sand or the humans who crush them.


The extremely high level of individuation in humans is a major anthropological fact (and has been, not just for a few recent decades, but for tens of thousands of years of hominisation). Other living species do not possess it to such a high degree, to the level that defines consciousness of the self, awareness of existing as singular, regardless of any psychological, social or cultural slant that could be placed on that individuality. It is oxymoronic of anthropology as the science of human beings to homogenise these units socioculturally, since the characteristic feature of existence is that it is implacably private and singular.

As reflected in philosophy’s classic debates, an anthropology that sets out to be anthropo-focused – an individuology – cannot separate an action, connection or experience from the person who performs or experiences it[2]. Nor should this anthropology forget Aristotle: “And so one might even raise the question whether the words ‘to walk’, ‘to be healthy’, ‘to sit’ imply that each of these things is existent, and similarly in any other case of this sort; for none of them is either self-subsistent or capable of being separated from substance, but rather, if anything, it is that which walks or sits or is healthy that is an existent thing. Now these are seen to be more real because there is something definite which underlies them (i.e. the substance or individual), which is implied in such a predicate; for we never use the word ‘good’ or ‘sitting’ without implying this” (Aristote 2004: 1028a). I cannot see the action of strolling or sitting without seeing the person who performs these actions. It is this unit, this volume of being, identifiable at least in its material unity, that is the subject of anthropology. Aristotle emphasises “substances”, what we could call volumes of being, which are the primary constituents of the world: Socrates, Plato, a dog, etc. That which characterises them—their actions and relations—presupposes the existence of this volume of being.

What, then, is a volume of being? It arises from the meeting of a sperm and an ovum. This meeting produces an egg, a new cell, one that is unique, at least in terms of its genome. Having resulted from what may have started as an embrace, it is immediately more than the sum of the two: it is a unique volume of being. In utero, it develops and modifies itself from received genetic potential and according to the diverse information this volume of being integrates, first from the intra-uterine wall, then from the placenta. Before dividing, there is first a single, unique cell, which lives between twelve and twenty-four hours. This volume of being will then develop physiologically, neurologically, cognitively, emotionally, socially, culturally, from its first moments, and will thus continue its development, or what we could call its existence, until it dies.

Defining humans as relational beings seems to me to be a tautology, something obvious: it is a feature of all living organisms, including a germ cell that is not associated with a rigid genetic programme, and also has links with its micro-environment. Does this mean we must, like Jean-Jacques Kupiec, say that “the living organism comes into being relative to what it is not”? (Kupiec 2009: 209) In any case, we must not forget that “we are, each of us, bodies, i.e., embodied; each is this one and not that, each here and not there, each now and not then” (Cavell 1999: 369). The principle of anthropological science would be this: in all parts of the world, there are individuals—those ones, each one—which anyone can identify and designate as such. Anthropology would therefore be a de-linking and separation operation, an anthropo-analysis.

It is difficult to distinguish a substratum from its attributes. Let us stay with this volume of being, a concrete being connected with various characteristics, the continuation of the germ cell, with its surface and everything it contains. I do not associate this volume of being with that which exists by itself, with autonomy, nor with a permanent substratum. But it seems to me that Lalande’s definition is not inadequate for characterising a human volume of being: “that which is modified by change while remaining the same” (Lalande 2006: 1048). Francisco Varela himself noted the following: “Unity (the fact of being distinguishable from one’s environment and therefore from other unities) is the sole condition necessary for the existence of a studied field”, unity remains “a unity… independently of the transformations it may undergo” (Varela 1979: 61-62). The volume of being enables us to draw attention to the fact that properties and qualities—which play different roles in the formation of the empirical unit—as well as accidents, arise, settle and change, but they never completely change this unit. Varela also examines unity with its inner transformations, stressing that coupling points are only part of the whole (ibid.: 191). In that case, it is the coherence of “unity” that is observed, subordinate to its conservation in particular.

A volume of being is of course matter: bones, muscles, neurones, cells, blood and water, which would be of interest to a biologist. If a researcher gives attention to these elements and derives principles of causality from this or that action or experience, he is doing chemistry, biology or cognitive science. The anthropologist connects this volume to an existent individual who lives and continues living. Time lies at the heart of existence. It is what places humans, other beings or objects in the succession of present moments. It generates new moments, and makes sure that the future becomes the present, and soon the past. No one can escape time. No one can be present in any moment other than the one in which he finds himself at moment t. This gives a strong impact to Simone Weil’s words, “What counts in a human life are not the events that dominate the course of its years—or even months, or even days. It is the way one minute links with the next, and what this costs each person in her body, in her heart, in her soul, to carry out this linking minute by minute” (Weil 2002: 186-187), and to the specific task of describing the humans directly concerned by this succession of moments. All the living beings are “in the world”. Only human beings are “in the time”, knowing this succession and their death. Hence it is very important to follow and observe in the details the continuity of one individual, at a time, in this succession of situations. This detailed observation, I have called “phenomenography”.

Each individual is a unit, an identity, connected with an identifiable corporeal and mental continuity. He has his singularity, composed of infinite characteristics (which would be impossible to add up), and also containing permanent elements, genes, and relatively stable elements like physiological traits, social dispositions or psychological tendencies that gradually result from years of life. There are also circumstantial details, unimportant gestures, like words spoken here and now. Beyond these elements, which are of course constitutive of the individual, observed concrete reality teaches us not to exclude ever-abundant “accidents” and not to get hung up on that which is shared with others, or relevant in one activity, or stable in a continuity. It is at this level of detailing that I posit a singularity that cannot be interpreted in terms of relations and trajectories. Faced with the plethora of details, it is of course impossible to link every gesture to a past or future movement, to an inclination or disposition. But most importantly, it is the infinity of details in gestures, facial expressions and thoughts that makes it possible to recognise the individual as a force of singularity. Details—like an infinite surplus to be captured, like a margin that never decreases—cannot be reproduced by adding up or amalgamating past or present relations, networks, association lines or social trajectories. Details are like the ultimate sign of the being’s independence with respect to the causes and relations that preceded it.

Paul Cézanne took care to “in-complete” his paintings by taking details away from them, as witnessed by those who regularly visited the painter’s studio and saw his paintings being made (Thevoz 2003: 21). Phenomenography takes an opposite approach. It will always try to add details, in order to give nuances to descriptions, to modalise these and attempt in this way to get to the bottom of the subject. The notion of leftovers might be preferable to that of details, designating not just what many branches of ethnography do not retain, but also designating the observed people themselves. It is these leftovers, usually withdrawn, that anthropology should not relinquish. Anthropology is a “leftoverography”. Leftovers are also useful for criticising existing theories, displacing paradigms or encouraging the creation of a new discipline. Let us not forget Leonardo da Vinci: “It is a very great fault in a painter to repeat the same motions in figures, and the same folds in draperies in the same composition, as also to make all the faces alike”(Vinci 2004: 48)

Writing about Pessoa, Tabucchi said something about the phenomenographic spirit: “Avoiding the affirmative sign, repudiating prevalence. Because he understood that in every yes, even the fullest and most well-rounded, there is a tiny no, a corpuscule that bears the opposite sign.” (Tabucchi 2012: 31-32). Much of anthropological science should play out in this kind of descriptive subtlety. Anthropology-reality, one might say! It observes, describes and analyses someone in the process of existing. This leads us away from phenomenology, which analyses experiences instead of existences that continue, searching them for purified characteristics rather than the detailed complexity of presences. Nor is it sociology or pragmatic anthropology, which focuses on activities and actions. And this also presupposes not accepting the descriptive results of cognitive anthropology, which would not enable a filmmaker to provide an actor with a cognitive description and then expect the actor to produce the “real” person. It presupposes a truncated anthropology of human beings as informers, receivers, transmitters (it is not the human that exists), one that pays little attention to the different strata within a volume of being.

1. Malinowski is very clear on this subject, saying that his goal is to work on people not “as individuals” but “as members of a human community”. See Malinowski (1922: 23).

2. See my book with empirical data and methodologico-theoretical debates (Piette 2015).


Aristotle. 2004. The Metaphysics. London: Penguin Books.

Blumenberg, Hans. 2011. Description de l’homme. Paris: Cerf [2006].

Cavell, Stanley. 1999. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press [1979].

Foucault, Michel. 2001. The Order of Things. London: Routledge [1966].

Foucault, Michel. 1996. Foucault Live: Interviews 1966-1984. Cambridge (MA): The MIT Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1997. Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, [1929].

Kupiec, Jean-Jacques. 2009. The Origin of Individuals. London: World Scientific Publishing [2008].

Lalande, André. 2006. Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France [1926].

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1968. The Savage Mind. Chicago: Chicago, University of Chicago Press [1962]

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1981. The Naked Man. New York: Harper and Row [1971]

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London: Routledge.

Piette, Albert. 2015. Existence in the Details. Theory and Methodology in Existential Anthropology. Berlin : Duncker & Humblot.

Tabucchi, Antonio. 2012. Une Malle pleine de gens. Essais sur Fernando Pessoa. Paris: Gallimard [1990].

Thévoz, Michel. 2003. L’Esthétique du suicide. Paris: Minuit.

Vinci Leonardo da. 2004. A Treatise on Painting by Leonardo Da Vinci. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing.

Varela, Francisco. 1979. Principles of Biological Autonomy. Amsterdam/London: Elsevier.

Weil, Simone. 2002. La Condition ouvrière. Paris: Gallimard [1951].

Posted in Working Papers | Leave a comment

Emancipatory Politics: A Critique


Alpa EP 1b


Open Anthropology Cooperative Press
Published November 2015

© The individual contributors and OAC Press, 2015
Creative Commons License

Download as a PDF
Purchase Book

Individual chapters may be downloaded separately by clicking on each title

Citation URL:

This volume shows that organised emancipatory politics, in part or mainly reinforced by arms, is still very much alive in a range of postcolonial states. By ‘emancipatory politics’ we mean political activities that aim to end exploitation and enhance participatory democracy through which leadership can be held to account on a daily as well as periodic basis, in the workplace and beyond. Whether it be India, Nepal, the Philippines, Peru or Columbia, long-standing armed movements aiming to seize and transform state power are still burning and working for a different future. In Euro-American debate it is easy to forget those movements – some of which have a more than forty-year history – of the Maoists in India or Nepal, FARC in Columbia, or the Communist Party of the Philippines. We focus here on movements that are still very much active as well as on movements of Marxist emancipatory change that achieved state power – the Mozambican case of Frelimo and the Sandinistas of Nicaragua – whose experiences shed an important critical light on those that are still in active struggle.

These cases have been chosen to illustrate a range of reasons for embarking on and sustaining armed struggle. We show that questions of ideological, political and economic organization strongly influence the specifically military aspects of these movements. Most are adaptations of Mao’s Chinese revolutionary movement and its tenets, but some refer to other revolutionary traditions. The selection is not meant to be comprehensive, but to focus on the reasons for and history of movements of this kind, highlighting the limitations that this mobilisation and its ties to Maoist teachings have placed on their emancipatory politics.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1 Emancipatory Politics: A Critique
Stephan Feuchtwang and Alpa Shah

Part 1. Armed movements in India

Chapter 2 The People’s Will to Change to Changing the Will of the People: Reflections on the Indian Maoist Struggle
Gautam Navlakha

Chapter 3 Unconventional Politics: Prelude to a Critique of Maoist Revolutionary Strategy in India
Bernard D’Mello

Part 2. Armed movements in Latin America and the Philippines

Chapter 4 The FARC-EP and Consequential Marxism in Columbia
James J. Brittain

Chapter 5 Ups and Downs of a Contemporary Maoist Movement: Shifting Tactics, Moving Targets and (Un)Orthodox Strategy, the Philippine Revolution in Perspective
Dominique Caouette

Part 3. Armed movements and state formation in Nepal, Nicaragua and Mozambique

Chapter 6 Identity Politics and the Maoist People’s War in Nepal
Anne de Sales

Chapter 7 The Sandinistas, Armed Struggle, Participation, Democracy, Verticalism and Mass Movements in Nicaragua
Harry E. Vanden

Chapter 8 The Politics of Production, Frelimo and Socialist Agrarian Strategy in Mozambique
Bridget O’Laughlin


Chapter 9 Further Theoretical Reflections on Emancipatory Politics
Stephan Feuchtwang and Alpa Shah

Posted in OACP Books | Leave a comment

No Collar, No Master

Working Papers Series #18
ISSN 2045-5763 (online)

No Collar, No Master:
Workers and Animals in the Modernization of Rio de Janeiro 1903-19041

Nádia Farage
University of Campinas

© 2013 Nádia Farage
Creative Commons License
Open Anthropology Cooperative Press

Forum discussion in the OAC network.
Download as PDF, EPUB, MOBI.

Nádia Farage is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Anthropology, Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences, University of Campinas, Brazil. Her research interest has been in Ethnohistory and, in broad terms, in the interdisciplinary dialogues between anthropology, history and literary criticism. Her work on North-Amazonian ethnohistory in the early 1990’s resulted in a book – As muralhas dos sertões: os povos indígenas no rio Branco e a colonização, Paz e Terra/Anpocs, 1991 – and articles on the subject. Her fieldwork concerned social memory and rhetorical practices among the Wapishana (As flores da fala: práticas retóricas entre os Wapishana, unpublished PhD thesis, USP and other published articles). In recent years, she has been working on animal rights and alternative projects of nature in historical perspective.

This paper focuses the expulsion of animals from urban space during the process of modernization of the city of Rio de Janeiro, in the first years of the 20th century. On the one hand, following M.Foucault and G.Agambem, it explores the written sources of the period – the press, administrative reports and literary texts, notably by Brazilian writer Lima Barreto – in order to place the re-ordering of the relationships with domestic species within the larger frame of the modern State biopolitics, which consolidates the notions of pest and stray. On the other hand, the paper seeks to fill a historiographical lacuna and highlight the biopolitical popular resistance carried by anarchist workers, most notably affiliated to the naturist current, which brought alternative ideas on nature and inter-specific relationships to the scene of Brazilian urban workers’ struggles of the period.

At the beginning of January 1904, a note in the Rio de Janeiro newspaper A Nação reported that there had been gunfire at a city slaughterhouse and a circus.2 A laconic note that might have passed unnoticed were it not for the intriguing connection it establishes, at first sight, between disparate locations. The link between the two is the presence of animals and, from this perspective, the note is an invitation , which I take up here, to reflect upon the codification of the presence of animals in town and the consequent political conflicts during the urban reform of the Brazilian federal capital, Rio de Janeiro, in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Epidemic outbreaks of yellow fever and smallpox throughout the nineteenth century and the black plague at the start of the twentieth, ravaged the port of Rio de Janeiro, resulting in heavy losses to commerce, most notably to coffee exports. In addition to this, in the eyes of the intellectual elite, Rio de Janeiro—with its narrow streets, colonial houses and ridden with epidemics—epitomised the backwardness of the country.

Reacting to this, the newly established Republic aimed to reform the capital— following the model of Paris and, more closely, that of Buenos Aires—in order to make it attractive for foreign investment. To further this goal, the federal government designated engineer Francisco Pereira Passos as the mayor of the city and physician Oswaldo Cruz as Director of Hygiene, who had recently arrived from Paris, enthused with Pasteurian theory. Under the direction of both, the rebuilding of the central and port areas of the city was accompanied by sanitary measures to prevent epidemics. While the mayor ordered the old colonial town to be destroyed—an authoritarian process which the local population, the “cariocas,” captured in the expression “bota-abaixo” or “take it down”—hygiene officials entered the slums and fumigated or burned the few belongings of the poor. The whole set of measures – very problematic in terms of constitutional rights – was contemporaneously described as “sanitary despotism”.

In the last few decades, this process has been a topic of interest to historiography, which has emphasised the sanitisation of society.>3 However, this historiography tells very little about the impact of the sanitisation process on the animal population, which was also gravely affected. As microbes or bacteria entered the popular imaginary, so, conversely, cows, pigs, dogs and other species were, from that moment, expelled from urban space and rendered invisible to urban dwellers. The sanitary model, which came into being at the start of the twentieth century, would persist thereafter and, in its most aggressive form, would regulate the lives of animals, conceiving of them as commodities the surfeit of which would be disposable in the modern city. Intruders they would be, co-dwellers never more.

The rebuilding of Rio de Janeiro was thus a crucial moment in the establishment of a bio-politics and, for this reason, it constitutes a strategic locus by which the political and ontological disputes around the correlate definitions of animal and human in Brazilian modernity can be envisaged.

Animal co-dwellers: a sketch

K. Thomas’ classic study4 delineates the gradual movement in England, from the end of the nineteenth to the first decades of the twentieth century, which created the conditions for the subsequent industrial production of animals. Notably, it was due to the expulsion of stock-rearing farms and slaughterhouses to the outskirts of the cities, which veiled the suffering and death of animals from urban sensibilities.5 As C. Lévi-Strauss6 pointed out some time ago, social distance constitutes the symbolic operator by which the animal is transformed into an anonymous multiplicity, exactly describing the condition of animals in modern industrial societies, in sharp contrast to the domestic rearing of animals, which is based upon dense social relations between human and animal.

Such a transition can be detected in the context of the Rio de Janeiro of the beginning of the century. A brief examination of the press of those years presents a picture of a town populated by varied species of animals, mostly domestic ones: advertisements in the newspapers reveal houses with pastures in residential areas, coach houses, barns and widespread urban trade in milking cows and their calves, pigs, chicken, ducks or birds. This can be seen, for example, in the advertisements of the daily Correio da Manhã in the beginning of the year 1903:

For sale – a heifer, first pregnancy two months ago, very cheap. Contact at Catumby St, 5.
For sale – a small donkey, young and very tame. It is perfect. Price 140$000. Frei Caneca St, 200”7
For sale – excellent cows, Cerqueira Lima St, 24, Riachuelo station.
For sale – a beautiful dapple-grey horse, a young pacer. Contact at Dias da Cruz St, 35, Meyer.
For sale – a Zebu ox, to see and contact at Botafogo Beach, 170, hotel.”8

It is also necessary to mention dogs and donkeys, especially the latter, worked to complete exhaustion in public transport systems and constantly replaced.9 In addition, there were worn out cattle that crossed the town to die in the urban slaughterhouses, the cirques and even sporadic bullfighting10 in the residential area of Laranjeiras:

Tauromachy: It will be the last of the season, the bullfighting announced for tomorrow, in the bull ring at Larangeiras. The funds will be for the charity benefit of the Asylum of N. S. Auxiliadora. The public, for sure, will not leave an empty seat in the bull arena.”11

Large houses in residential areas were often advertised as including pasture for grazing, for example:

For sale […] 22$000 a house with many rooms in the centre of a expansive property, just two minutes from the Engenho Novo station […] On the property there are many fruit trees and pasture for three or four animals […]”12

And, in order to get a plausible image of the presence of animals in town the sight of the “continuous flight of insects”13 on the meat exhibited for sale at the streets must also be mentioned.

When raising so-called farm animals in town was forbidden in January 1903, a significant number of accusations and complaints was presented to the Municipality targeting piggeries, barnyards, and coach houses in residential areas of the town.14 Although the complaints may have veiled existing quarrels between neighbours, they are still telling of the conspicuous presence of animals in town.

Indeed, besides the obvious exploitation of animal labor, which fed and moved the town, we can assume that the co-residence and social proximity of animals made it difficult to reduce them, in their condition and being, solely to commodities. This is manifest in the touching description of the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro by the Brazilian writer Lima Barreto in early 1900:

The most distant streets from the line of the Central Railway are full of patches of grass and weed, on which families place clothes to bleach under the sun. From morning to evening, the terrain is populated by all kinds of small domestic animals: hens, ducks, teals, goats, sheep and pigs, not to mention dogs which fraternise with all of them.

In the evening, from every gate sounds a “gathering call”: “Mimoso! An owner calls her goat. Sereia! It is a sow that a child beckons home, and so on. Sheep, goats, teals, hens, turkeys – all enter through the front door, cross the length of the house and retire to the backyard.15

Lima Barreto witnessed precisely the multifold process which initiated the forced decline of domestic animal rearing, expelling animals from Rio’s urban space, as well as the state-sponsored systematic extermination of undesirable animals. Following Foucault,16 it would be a truism to point out that the definition of undesirable was informed by linkages of the modern medical-sanitary project and the architectural plans for the city: as a necessary correlate, the new aesthetics had a new ethical codification, which aimed to create a “clean” social space.

The pest and the stray
At the outset was the battle against flies, which had been targeted as transmitters of yellow fever. In a chronicle of 1903, Lima Barreto17 satirized the campaign, by investing the fly with a narrative voice to describe its fatal encounter with a young dandy physician with thick black hair—a caricature of Oswaldo Cruz—who, tormented by a fly for one night, had sworn eternal revenge against the species. Indeed, the campaign against yellow fever was understood as a war, which was mirrored in the vocabulary used to refer to it: as mentioned before, anti-fly squads were organized to fumigate all the slums, pensions and dwellings of the poor in central areas of the city.

At the same time, due to the black plague, a program aimed at exterminating rats and mice was put in place. Oswaldo Cruz had previously tested his techniques to combat the plague in the port of Santos between 1899 and 1900. According to his own report, he adopted the same technique deployed by the Americans in Philippines, which encouraged the population to hunt rats and mice.18 The Hygiene Directory offered a small sum of money as an incentive for each animal delivered. The purchase of rats and mice by the State, although viewed with suspicion by the population,19 actively engaged the poor quarters of the city. However, this trade in rodents left space for private rearing and brokers: a broker from the nearby town of Niterói became sadly famous for charging the Municipality the then significant sum of 8,000 Réis for the delivery of a consignment of mice.20 As early as February 1903, critical references to the bio-medical combat against mice, and the corresponding experimental bacteriological research on the plague, appear in the carnival parade: in a masquerade ball hosted by Lucinda Theatre, a guinea pig and two rats were mixed in among the clowns and Adonis and Venus callipygia.21 The carnival of 1904 took up the topic again with its polka Rato-Rato (Rat-Rat), which was a big hit that year. A rough translation of the lyrics is as follows:

Rat, rat, rat
For what reason did you gnaw my kist?
You, insolent and malevolent rascal
Rat, rat, rat
I shall see your last day
Will the trap haunt you
And satisfy my want
Who conceived of you?
No other than the devil, you’d better believe it!
Who gave you life?
It was a mother-in-law at death’s door
Who created you?
It was revenge, I guess
Rat, rat, rat
Messenger of the Jew
When the trap is sprung
You, cowardly monster,
Do not come with your kikiki, please
Old, impudent gnawing rat
Old rat, you horrify me
I will show you I am wicked
I will never release you, no matter what.

The polka was apparently inspired by the jota de las ratas movement of the famous satiric zarzuela La Gran Via (1886, by the Spanish maestros Villaverde and Chuenca), which referred to the opening of an avenue in Madrid, displacing thieves, sailors and rats. Irreverent, with an offensive anti-Semitic reference, the polka Rato-Rato simultaneously mocked both the rats and the Government. The pipe and chorus parodied the peculiar sound of the animals as well as the call of the mice brokers in the streets. One may note that the polka does not make any reference to the disease brought by the rats, but only to the losses caused by mice as co-dwellers – “For what reason do you gnaw my kist?” The mice hunt is an act of counter-revenge, but the animal – the child of revenge, the malevolence of the mother-in-law and of the devil – — turns to be , at the same time, a commodity: “My pence is guaranteed, I will never release you, no matter what.”

No debate on the matter is allowed; useless would be the protest, the “kikiki” of the rat. Indeed, a pragmatic agreement appears to be established between the scientific and popular conceptions of the rat, settling upon a common meaning, although based on different motives, for the notion of a pest animal.

Furthermore, the State’s battle against flies or rats was triggered by a demographic calculus, as the priority target for sanitary control was the quantity of animals – further mediated by invisible legions of microbes or bacteria. The war waged against animals was constantly mocked in the press, as can be seen in the satirical newspaper Rio Nu22

Public Health, with the new regulations, will comprise a division consisting of three brigades: killing flies, killing mice and killing dogs, all of them commanded by Dr. O. Cruz in the post of general. The Ministry of War is astonished”

This scornful note makes a point, however, about the alignment of the animals targeted for elimination—it highlights the link established by demography. Indeed, it seems that it is the countless number of animals which equalises different species—and different inter-species relationships—in the same classificatory position of “pest.” This is the route through which the elimination or expulsion process reached the domestic animals , those socially closer species which D. Haraway has rather optimistically designated as “companion species.”24 The reality is that from 1903 on, the demographic control of animal population in the streets— be they rats, dogs or cows—was, significantly, the responsibility of the Public Cleansing Department.

The regulation of the presence of animals in urban space was not a unique initiative of the Republican period. Indeed, a municipal by-law of September 11, 1838,25 had already set up detailed laws on the movement of cattle, their slaughter and commerce in fresh meat, as well as the movement of horses and donkeys. The same by-law forbade the rearing of pigs and goats in yards, and dogs from wandering the streets. In 1892, the Municipality of Rio de Janeiro addressed the issue of dogs once more making their registration obligatory: unaccompanied dogs should be collected by the Municipality and sent to scientific laboratories for experiments.26 The very notion of the “stray,” as one can see, emerged from these rules and political practices. The law was never enforced, however, during the nineteenth century. It was the project of urban renewal, which consolidated the modern ethical project that created the conditions that led to the fulfillment of the legislation’s attempt.

New customs, old laughter

Nicknamed “the Perfect”—a good-humoured corruption of the Portuguese “prefeito” (“prefect”, or more correctly, mayor) —Pereira Passos passed legislation governing animals as one of his first acts of governance on January 6, 1903. There’s nothing like a Kings’ Day to start a career of a vice-king, opined a “lettre d’un missiu” to the mayor in intentionally broken French.27

The decree of 6th of January, 1903 included amendments to the Code of 1838 that prescribed the rearing, the transit and the commercialization of animals, dead or alive, in town. Thus, the movement of cows in urban areas, and door-to-door milking, which was a customary practice of the time, were forbidden:

“(…) I also abolished the rustic practice of milking cows in public streets, as the cows were covering the paths with their dejecta, scenes that certainly no one will judge proper to a civilized city (…)28

Furthermore, the new regulations controversially prescribed that Hygiene Officers inoculate cattle against tuberculosis and the inspection of livestock, be it for milk or slaughter.

In the case of milk, the regulations aimed to avoid its adulteration with water—a practice that the newspaper Rio Nu playfully said to be “homeopathic dynamisation.” This was also done to prevent commerce in milk from cows affected by tuberculosis, of which there were a considerable number at the time.

The obligatory sanitary inspection of slaughterhouses aimed to both control cattle diseases and to prevent the deterioration of meat sold by street vendors. The regulations which prescribed the inspection of live animals on government premises gave rise to long judicial disputes with private slaughterhouses. Nevertheless, the official statistics29 demonstrate that cattle failed to pass the inspections not so much to transmissible diseases, but due to malnutrition or traumas from long trips on foot or in closed train wagons with no food or water for days,30 as they often came from distant estates or even neighbouring Uruguay. Many were dead on arrival.

The same regulations stipulated that the slaughter of cattle could only take place in public butcheries which were then slowly moving to the periphery of the city, in order, it was maintained, to avoid the stampede of cattle in the streets, then a common occurrence, causing the city dwellers great alarm and perhaps some concern for the terrified animals, which often sought refuge in nearby houses and even churches.31

In this regard, referring to municipal prohibitions on the slaughter of cattle and meat commerce in Rio, the libertarian periodical Gazeta Operaria32 was the only voice to boldly state:

As a matter of ideas and sentiments, we are against those who eat corpses…”

This strong stance is detailed further below.

Yet, the banishment of dairy cows from urban spaces caused perplexed, if not indignant reactions in the press. On January 7, 1903, the newspaper commented that the “Supreme Intendant” had forbidden “the cow men to deliver milk door to door, claiming that some of the tamed cows they lead might be bitten by a wild one.” The comic aspect of the comment relied upon double entendres, as in the pornographic patois of the time, “unruly cows” – or in general, “cattle”—were coquettes or prostitutes. In the same vein, johns and pimps were “marchands,” the cattle merchants; brothels were the “slaughterhouses” and, in the continued metaphor, sexual intercourse was referred to as “slaughter.” Betrayed husbands were referred to as the “oxen.”33

Sparse notes in the press reveal that the population contested the prohibition. An article in Rio Nu reports:34

(…) A few days ago a young man led his aunt’s cow to pasture (…) when a Municipal Officer decided to imprison him and take the animal to the pound, despite the fact that the young man swore that he was not a milk dealer. The zealous municipal authority would have had his way, if, while many curious assistants debated the fact, the smart boy had not run, pulling the cow along with him, to take refuge in his grandmother’s pasture, few steps from the scene of the event (…)”

Popular reaction targeted not only cows. The use of horses and donkeys for transportation, on which public and cargo transporters depended, was then taxed at three thousand Réis per head. This was undoubtedly the main reason for a coachmen and carriers’ strike in January 1904, which made waves in the city’s political waters. I shall return to this point further below. For now, it is sufficient to note that the carriers claimed that the tax made their labor more vulnerable to exploitation, as most of them were employees. It did not pass unnoticed, as stated in the press, that the tax also led to a hyper-exploitation of animals, whose owners, in order to evade the tax and protect their interests, cut back on the number of animals used to carry out their operations and even reduced their feed—whips were the only abundance these animals knew, as the owners sought to extract more work from the fewer animals available.

Finally, it is necessary to mention the rabid—excuse the unavoidable pun—campaign Pereira Passos launched against dogs in the city. Municipal regulations required all dogs in the city to be registered, upon payment of a prescribed fee. In addition, a fine was levied on owners who allowed dogs to roam freely. Sheep dogs were the only exception, which, if properly registered could wander the streets by themselves. Thus, the rules imposed yet another tax on the population; and those who could not afford the tax ran the risk of having their dogs taken from them. The data shows that the tax on dog registrations culminated in revenue of 96,701 Réis in 1903, and declined in the subsequent years,35 indicating that the population either refused or simply could not afford to pay. Abandoned dogs—classified in official documentation as vagrant dogs—were hunted down and exterminated. According to the press, 13,000 dogs were exterminated between 1903 and 1904.36 Pereira Passos reported the following for the year 1904:

[…] I ordered the urgent capture and elimination of thousands of dogs that strayed near the city, giving to it the repugnant aspect of certain eastern cities and with grave loss to public security and morality […]”37

As one can well imagine, this moral argument for the elimination of dogs on account of their mating in public provided an endless source of pornographic satire. In a chronicle published by Rio Nu on February 14, 1903, the author, pretending to hold a political office, declared in his manifesto that:

No dog may play seesaw in the middle of the streets, without previous knowledge of the municipality officer (…).

The same newspaper sarcastically reported on January 13, 1904:

Yesterday, the police arrested a couple of dogs for being united in wedlock without license of the Municipality”

The tensions created by the bio-political practices of State began to culminate and led to a riot against obligatory smallpox vaccination in November 1904, but that will not be pursued here. Let us stick to the mordacious, rabellaisian laugh of the population during Carnival, which continued beyond the period of the ritual.

In 1904, the Carnival—the acme of cultural critique of the carioca population—would once more, and with renewed vigour, take regulating animal presence in urban areas as its theme: indeed, cows and dogs were not left out of the street parades and carnival balls. It is quite amusing that the masques, incorporating animals in the ritual event, challenged the municipal prohibition and allowed them to circulate at will during the nights of Carnival. In a malicious reference to the Town Council, the Fenians, a carnival association, paraded an allegory under the name “Rats of the Council” with an array of masked dogs, mice and mosquitoes representing “the three chased species.”38 Another association, the Democrats, opened the parade with nothing less than a clarion band of masked Stegomya fasciata, the feared mosquitoes; another allegory the Democrats presented under the title “The Hunting Down of Dogs” showed a parade “defending the liberty of dogs.39 This was probably the parade of “dogs” referred to by Athayde (n.d:214), which, divided between those “registered” and “unregistered,” sang this good-humoured protest:

This beautiful cage
Which comes with no obstacles
Is the nicest invention
Of the genial Dr. Passos
From one extreme to the other of the streets
Climbing and descending mountains
Wherever it passes it gathers
Vagrant dogs
Always frenetic land
Unmatched in the whole world
Wonderful city
Long live Rio de Janeiro!

It is worth remembering the perfect symmetry between the municipal regulations that targeted animals and those targeting unemployed people or informal workers, as beggars, prostitutes, ruffians, gamblers, street vendors and slum dwellers were also arrested or removed from the central areas of the city. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the Head of Police when reporting on the street riots in November 1904, referred to “vagrants and ragged women” as coming out of “ burrows” to set the city awry. This symmetry, along with the political process of animalisation it reveals, was the object of a rather Swiftian irony in the pages of Rio Nu>40

Following what the Prefect has been doing to vagrant dogs, the Head of Police will order the caging of all minors without owners who wander the streets of the city. Well done.”

The extreme image of “bare lives,” as G. Agamben41 acutely describes it, are animal lives. Thus conceived, within the bio-political calculus that is under consideration here, “bare life” is alsoexcess life,”— the crowd in its uncontrollable numbers, whether they are human or animal.

However, from a popular point of view, bio-political symmetry seems to have produced solidarity as a counterpart: the banishment and elimination of animals invoked a range of responses, from cultural comment to popular reaction.

Freedom for piety

Indeed, not only cultural critics challenged the “sanitary despotism” of the time. Official documentation from the period reveals evidence of workers who took direct action to free captured animals. The complaints register of the Municipality for the year 1903 includes this entry:42

(…) Yesterday at about eleven o’clock, the dog collection cart arrived here, accompanied by a squad of Municipal Officers, who seized a large number of dogs, some belonging to workers in the textile factory. As they were leaving and passing the gates of the factory, the cart was attacked by the workers, who liberated all the encaged dogs. As a result of these events, the fiscal officer arrived at the place, looking for soldiers to arrest the workers, who already had returned to their work in the factory (…)

(…) At the gate of the factory, the officer insisted that the soldiers invade the factory to arrest the workers who had released the dogs and who were back at their work, which the soldiers refused to do, alleging they could not be ordered by a civilian authority.

Casern of the Sixth Policial Post in the 4th of October of 1903.

(signed) Pedro Manoel de Souza, Commander”

The coachmen and carriers’ strike in January 1904, mentioned above, is undoubtedly another exemplary instance of worker solidarity with animals. “Vira a joça” (“Dump the trash”) was the call of the strikers and the picketers as they proceeded to overturn and immobilize carts and trolleys around the city. However, it is quite significant that when the strike errupted, the first target was a dog collection cart, which was broken into to free the animals.43 It seems that the actionwas supported by the population, as the press also reported another dog collection cart being dumped and the dogs released in a different sector of the town on the same day.44

Based on the documentary evidence of the time, the practice of releasing dogs was indeed a recurrent event in those turbulent years. Even the Prefect acknowledged this, reporting that he had to order a police escort “in order to prevent the populace from destroying the carts collecting vagrant dogs.45 This case is diametrically opposed to those of the classical studies of E. P. Thompson and R. Darnton,46 where animals appear as a sign of bourgeois power in class struggle. British historiography, from the 1980’s on, had already formed strong counter examples to Darnton’s bourgeois cats, pointing out that the first actions against bull-baiting came from workers in the manufacturing city of Birmingham, and that during the nineteenth century the British humanitarian movement’s multifold struggle against cruelty to animals was deeply rooted in workers’ associations. Regrettably, British historians tended to read the humanitarian movement as a surrogate for class struggle rather than an ideology in its own right.47

In the first years of the twentieth century in Rio de Janeiro, as elsewhere, workers may have seen their own destitute lives mirrored in the persecution of animals. However, I suggest that the acknowledgment of similitude was not confined to this, but overflowed and brought about active resistance in defence of the existence of animals tout court. In other words, if bio-power symbolically equated animals with poor men, the workers’ reaction was not to negate the equation, but to creatively turn it into a struggle for life.

I argue that to a certain extent the intelligibility of such resistance relied on naturist ideas present in the workers’ circles of Brazil at the time. Naturism had its origins in French anarchism at the end of the nineteenth century and spread via international anarchist links to South America, mainly through periodicals published in Catalunya. So the very idea of interspecies solidarity was not alien to Brazilian libertarianism, as it was a pervasive assumption in all currents that, between the end of the nineteenth to the first decades of the twentieth centuries, claimed human freedom would only be attained by putting an end to production and returning to nature.

In broad terms, libertarian naturism affirmed that capitalism had corrupted the human condition by taking it so far from nature. Hence the struggle against capitalism demanded the eschewal of all technologies, generally speaking, of the artificial. Human beings, it was asserted, should go back to nature, to live side by side with other living beings. This general principle became a primary mark of difference, separating naturists from communists and even anarchists, because the concept of revolution of the latter two still retained the line of production, raising the objection from the naturists that production would always produce slaves. Returning to nature was apparent in a variety of practices such as vegetarianism (or a kind of veganism avant la lettre, refusing the consumption of all animal by-products), crudivorism, nudism, and in gathering fruits instead of agriculture.

Two periodicals in Rio de Janeiro spread libertarian naturist ideas: Gazeta Operária, published in the years 1900-1903 and 1906, and A Vida, published in the years 1914-1915. They appeared alongside the pamphleteering work of anarchist Eugenio George and writer Lima Barreto, the latter of whom was strongly influenced by Tolstoi and Kropotkin.

Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, published in London in 1902, provided a sound theoretical basis for the idea of solidarity among species, for solidarity was a factor of evolution in his argument. Far from Darwin’s idea of the predator as the most fit, Kropotkin argued that the most fit were bands of beings who helped each other against a hostile environment, an argument he held to be valid in relation to humans (be they primitive or peasant communities, or anarchist collectivities) as well as animals. The concept of solidarity in Kropotkin, as the author acknowledges, is equivalent to the notion of piety in Rousseau—a natural feeling which is present in all living and sentient beings. Inverting the poles of social darwinism, which extends nature to social categories, Kropotkin reads the relationship among species as a field of intense sociality, a solidarity network against nature, a concept he confined to climatic or geological phenomena. In this line, the author praised the small, anonymous lives based on solidarity, of animals or workers who give their lives for the sake of others.

It seems that the Kropotkian idea of a solidary network of sentient life, when transposed to the industrial and urban ambiance, found its crucial anchorage in domestic species, the ones man “encages for fun, kills for pleasure and subdues to forced labour and torture.48 In this vein we can understand one of Lima Barreto’s melancholic passages in defence of animals: “(…) it is over their suffering, it is over their own lives that we erect ours 49

From a naturist point of view, the hyper-exploitation of animal work and life was the ultimate form of slavery that still needed to be abolished. Animal slavery was also human slavery: only in the company of men, “reduced to misery, undernourished, compelled to agglomeration and dirt” do animals live a degraded existence, because human life is degraded by capitalism.50 On the eve of the war in 1914, the periodical La Vie Anarchiste reiterated that human slavery sprang from animal slavery, with the advice : “if you understand that (…) your children will not be prison-fodder.51 The expression “prison-fodder” eloquently manifests naturist reasoning of a homologous fate of animals and workers in the context of capitalist production.

In this frame, workers’ resistance to the expulsion and killing of animals in Rio de Janeiro gains full meaning as a struggle against the commoditisation of life. Alas, “piety was held prisoner in the dungeons of repression, as the Gazeta Operária remonstrates in 1906, protesting against indifference to the brutal violence towards animals and entreating: “may all living beings emancipate themselves.52

It is true that “sanitary despotism” persisted in the control of animal lives in urban space, in the imposition of more miserable conditions on their lives and the strict regulation of their death. It is also true that dogs have not freed themselves of collars, nor have workers freed themselves of masters

Nevertheless, the struggle for solidarity at the beginning of the twentieth century would endure in popular memory, as we can see in the samba by Alberto Ribeiro, a hit sung by Carmen Miranda during the Vargas dictatorship in 1937:

I like very much a vagrant dog
Which walks alone in the world
With no collar and no master

The samba points out the burden of class even for animals, while some have lunch and dinner, others have not a bone to chew. But, together with a shared class condition, an echo of past struggles can be heard: a human voice expresses affection and empathy with a vagrant dog, and the vagrant dog in the song—the dog with “no collar and no master”— pays a canine homage to the anarchist slogan “no country and no master.”


Agamben, Giorgio. The open: Man and Animal. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Alencar, Edigar de. O carnaval carioca através da música. Rio de Janeiro: Livraria Freitas Bastos, 1965.

A Nação, January, 10, 1904; February, 14, 1904. Rio de Janeiro.

Athayde, Raimundo de. Pereira Passos, o reformador do Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro, Ed. A Noite, n.d.

Bahia Lopes, Myriam. O Rio em movimento: quadros médicos e(m) história, 1890-1920. Rio de Janeiro: Fiocruz, 2000.

Benchimol, Jaime L. Pereira Passos, um Haussmann tropical: a renovação urbana da cidade do Rio de Janeiro no inicio do seculo XX. Rio de Janeiro: Departamento Geral de Documentação e Informação Cultural, 1992.

Chalhoub, Sidney. Cidade Febril: cortiços e epidemias no Rio de Janeiro Imperial. São Paulo: Cia das Letras, 1999.

Código de Posturas, Leis, Decretos e Editaes da Intendência Municipal do Distrito Federal. Rio de Janeiro: Papelaria e Typographia Mont’Alverne, 1894.

Correio da Manhã, January 3-4, 1903; January 8, 1903; February 18, 1904. Rio de Janeiro.

Cruz, Oswaldo G. Relatorio acerca da Molestia Reinante em Santos, apresentado pelo Dr Oswaldo Gonçalves Cruz a S.Ex. o Sr Ministro da Justiça e Negócios Interiores. Opera Omnia, 323-372. Rio de Janeiro: Imp. Brasileira, 1972.

Darnton, Robert. O grande massacre de gatos e outros episódios da história cultural francesa. Rio de Janeiro: Graal, 1986.

Farage, Nádia. “De ratos e outros homens: resistência biopolítica no Brasil moderno.” In Manuela Carneiro da Cunha: o lugar da cultura e o papel da antropologia. Edited by Lépine, Claude et al, 279-309. Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Beco do Azougue, 2011.

Fontenay, Elisabeth, de. Le silence de bêtes: la philosophie à l’epreuve de l’animalité. Paris: Fayard, 1998.

Foucault, Michel. Vigiar e Punir: nascimento da prisão. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1987.

Gazeta Operária. February 8, 1903; December 12, 1906. Rio de Janeiro.

George, Eugênio Loucuras da Medicina. Rio de Janeiro: Pap. Moderna, 1927 a.

George, Eugênio. O perigo das vacinas. Rio de Janeiro, Pap.Moderna, 1927 b.

Gomes Dias, J. V. O rigor da morte: abate humanitário e produção industrial de animais no Brasil contemporâneo. Dissertação de mestrado inédita, IFCH-UNICAMP, 2009.

Haraway, Donna. The companion species manifesto: dogs, people and significant otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003.

Jornal do Commercio. August 25, 1892. Rio de Janeiro.

Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. London: William Heineman, 1902.

Lansbury, Coral. The old brown dog: women, workers and vivisection in Edwardian England. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. O Pensamento Selvagem. São Paulo: Cia Ed.Nacional, 1976.

Lima Barreto, A. H. “Memórias de um stegomya fasciata.” (1903) In Toda Crônica. Edited by Beatriz Resende & Rachel Valença, vol. I:64-65. Rio de Janeiro: Agir, 2004.

Lima Barreto, A.H. Clara dos Anjos, Prosa Seleta. (1904) Rio de Janeiro: Nova Aguilar, 2001.

Lima Barreto, A.H. Contos e histórias e de animais. (1919) Coisas do Reino do Jambom. Prosa Seleta. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Aguilar, 2001.

Livro de Queixas e Reclamações da Municipalidade do Rio de Janeiro. ms. Arquivo da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro, 1903.

Pereira Passos, Francisco. Mensagens do Prefeito lidas na Sessão do Conselho Municipal. Rio de Janeiro:Typographia da Gazeta de Notícias, 1903-1907.

Perkins, David. Romanticism and Animal Rights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Rio Nu. January, 7, 17 and 25,1903; February, 14, 1903; January, 6, 9 and 13,1904. Rio de Janeiro.

Rosseló, Josep M. (Editor) Viva la naturaleza! Escritos libertarios contra la civilización, el progreso y la ciencia (1894-1930). Barcelona: Virus Editorial, 2008.

Sevcenko, Nicolau. A revolta da vacina: mentes insanas em corpos rebeldes. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2010.

Thomas, Keith. O homem e o mundo natural: mudanças de atitude em relação às plantas e os animais, 1500-1800. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1988.

Thompson, Edward Paul. Senhores e Caçadores: a origem da Lei Negra. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1997.

Turner, James, Reckoning with the beast: Animals, Pain and Humanity in Victorian Mind. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1980.


1 This paper is part of a work in progress, on libertarian naturism and anti-vivisection ideas in modern Brazil, granted by FAPESP, the Research Foundation of the State of São Paulo. I thank my students and my colleagues, Sidney Chalhoub and Mauro Almeida, for their useful comments. My special thanks to Derek Matyszak for assistance in the English version.

2 A Nação, January 10, 1904

3 Benchimol, Jaime L. Pereira Passos, um Haussmann tropical: a renovação urbana da cidade do Rio de Janeiro no inicio do seculo XX. Rio de Janeiro: Departamento Geral de Documentação e Informação Cultural, 1992; Chalhoub, Sidney. Cidade Febril: cortiços e epidemias no Rio de Janeiro Imperial. São Paulo: Cia das Letras, 1999; Bahia Lopes, Myriam. O Rio em movimento: quadros médicos e(m) história, 1890-1920. Rio de Janeiro: Fiocruz, 2000; Sevcenko, Nicolau. A revolta da vacina: mentes insanas em corpos rebeldes. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2010.

4 Thomas, Keith. O homem e o mundo natural: mudanças de atitude em relação às plantas e os animais, 1500-1800. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1988

5 See also Lansbury, Coral. The old brown dog: women, workers and vivisection in Edwardian England. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

6 Lévi-Strauss, Claude. O Pensamento Selvagem. São Paulo: Cia Ed.Nacional, 1976; see also Fontenay, Elisabeth, de. Le silence de bêtes: la philosophie à l’epreuve de l’animalité. Paris: Fayard, 1998.

7 Correio da manhã, January 3, 1903.

8 Correio da manh

9 Pereira Passos, Francisco Pereira Passos, Francisco. Mensagens do Prefeito lidas na Sessão do Conselho Municipal. Rio de Janeiro:Typographia da Gazeta de Notícias,1903-1907.

10 Bullfighting and other animal fights for public entertainment were forbidden in Brazil by Federal Decree n.16.590, in 1924.

11 Correio da manhã, January 3-4, 1903.

12 Correio da manhã, January 8, 1903.

13 Pereira Passos, Francisco. Mensagens do Prefeito lidas na Sessão do Conselho Municipal. Rio de Janeiro, Typographia da Gazeta de Notícias, 1903,7.

14 Livro de Queixas e Reclamações da Municipalidade do Rio de Janeiro, ms Arquivo da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro, 1903.

15 Lima Barreto, A.H. Clara dos Anjos, Prosa Seleta. (1904) Rio de Janeiro: Nova Aguilar, 2001, 691-692.

16 Foucault, Michel. Vigiar e Punir: nascimento da prisão. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1987

17 Lima Barreto, A. H. “Memórias de um stegomya fasciata.” (1903) In Toda Crônica. Edited by Beatriz Resende & Rachel Valença, vol. I:64-65. Rio de Janeiro: Agir, 2004, 64-65.

18 Cruz, Oswaldo G. Relatorio acerca da Molestia Reinante em Santos, apresentado pelo Dr Oswaldo Gonçalves Cruz a S.Ex. o Sr Ministro da Justiça e Negócios Interiores. Opera Omnia, 323-372. Rio de Janeiro: Imp. Brasileira, 1972

19 Farage, Nádia. “De ratos e outros homens: resistência biopolítica no Brasil moderno.” In Manuela Carneiro da Cunha: o lugar da cultura e o papel da antropologia. Edited by Lépine, Claude et al, 279-309. Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Beco do Azougue, 2011.

20 Alencar, Edigar de. O carnaval carioca através da música. Rio de Janeiro: Livraria Freitas Bastos, 1965, 77.

21 Rio Nu. February 25, 1903

22 Rio Nu. January 9, 1904.

23 Rio Nu. January 9, 1904.

24 Haraway, Donna. The companion species manifesto: dogs, people and significant otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003.

25 In Código de Posturas, Leis, Decretos e Editaes da Intendência Municipal do Distrito Federal, 1894. Rio de Janeiro, Papelaria e Typographia Mont’Alverne.

26 Jornal do Commercio. August 25, 1892.

27 Rio Nu. January 7, 1903

28 Pereira Passos, Francisco. Mensagens do Prefeito lidas na Sessão do Conselho Municipal. Rio de Janeiro, Typographia da Gazeta de Notícias, 1903,7.

29 Pereira Passos, Francisco. Mensagens do Prefeito lidas na Sessão do Conselho Municipal. Rio de Janeiro: Typographia da Gazeta de Notícias, 1903-1907.

30 For an analysis of cattle slaughter, see Gomes Dias, J. V. O rigor da morte: abate humanitário e produção industrial de animais no Brasil contemporâneo. Dissertação de mestrado inédita, IFCH-UNICAMP, 2009.

31 For the analogous case of London, in the same period, see Lansbury, Coral. The old brown dog: women, workers and vivisection in Edwardian England. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

32 Gazeta Operária. February 8, 1903.

33 Rio Nu. February 25 and 28, 1903.

34 Rio Nu. January 17, 1903.

35 Pereira Passos, Francisco. Mensagens do Prefeito lidas na Sessão do Conselho Municipal. Rio de Janeiro, Typographia da Gazeta de Notícias, 1903:21; 1903-1906)

36 (A Nação, February,14.,1904)

37 Questões Municipais, 1905, in Benchimol, Jaime L. Pereira Passos, um Haussmann tropical: a renovação urbana da cidade do Rio de Janeiro no inicio do seculo XX. Rio de Janeiro: Departamento Geral de Documentação e Informação Cultural, 1992.

38 Correio da Manhã, February 18, 1904.

39 Correio da Manhã, February 18, 1904.

40 Rio Nu. January 6,1904.

41 Agamben, Giorgio. The open: Man and Animal. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.

42 Livro de Queixas e Reclamações da Municipalidade do Rio de Janeiro. ms Arquivo da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro, 1903, 89-90.

43 A Nação, January 10, 1904.

44 Correio da Manhã, January 10, 1904.

45 Questões Municipais, 1905, in Benchimol, Jaime L. Pereira Passos, um Haussmann tropical: a renovação urbana da cidade do Rio de Janeiro no inicio do seculo XX. Rio de Janeiro: Departamento Geral de Documentação e Informação Cultural, 1992.

46 Thompson, E.P. Senhores e Caçadores: a origem da Lei Negra. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1997; Darnton, Robert. O grande massacre de gatos e outros episódios da história cultural francesa. Rio de Janeiro: Graal, 1986.

47 Turner, James, C. Reckoning with the beast: Animals, Pain and Humanity in Victorian Mind. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1980; Perkins, David. Romanticism and Animal Rights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

48 George, Eugênio. Loucuras da Medicina. Rio de Janeiro: Pap.Moderna, 1927 a,11.

49 Lima Barreto, A.H. Contos e histórias e de animais. (1919) Coisas do Reino do Jambom. Prosa Seleta. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Aguilar, 2001, 1020

50 George, Eugênio. 1927 b O perigo das vacinas. Rio de Janeiro, Pap.Moderna.

51 In Rosseló, J. (Editor). Viva la naturaleza! Escritos libertarios contra la civilización, el progreso y la ciencia (1894-1930). Barcelona: Virus Editorial, 2008, 68-71.

52 Gazeta Operária. December 12, 1906.

<hr />

Posted in Working Papers | Leave a comment

Lance Armstrong

Working Papers Series #17
ISSN 2045-5763 (online)

Lance Armstrong:
The Reality Show (A Cultural Analysis)

Lee Drummond
Center for Peripheral Studies

© 2013 Lee Drummond
Creative Commons License
Open Anthropology Cooperative Press

Forum discussion in the OAC network.
Download as PDF, EPUB, MOBI.



My quixotic career as a cultural anthropologist (anthropological semiotician) was launched when I was seven years old. Until that time I had lived with my mother and grandmother in the countryside of northern Georgia. My mother then married a Montana rancher and we moved to his ranch in a valley on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. My transformation from cracker to cowboy was accomplished in a few short, rather traumatic months (I learned to drop my r’s with a vengeance). The experience gave me a deep and lasting appreciation for the contingency of every social arrangement and, I think, predisposed me to a career in anthropology. I sometimes wonder if my experience may be applied in a general way to others who wind up in cultural anthropology: Have they, too, undergone wrenching changes, disruptions, rejections at an early age which set them to reflecting, not on the naturalness of things, but on how unlikely is any particular form of human existence? We find ourselves belonging to a wildly paradoxical group: a “community” of outsiders (I develop this thought in a brief essay, “Who Wants To Be An Anthropologist?”).

As an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon, I cobbled together a rather improbable “interdivisional major” in anthropology and philosophy. At the University of Chicago I conducted fairly traditional fieldwork in Arawak and Carib villages of Guyana, where I found people who lived with their own agonizing version of the cracker / cowboy identity crisis, only for them it consisted in an ever-shifting social and cultural process of fashioning a tribal or ethnic identity in a new, rapidly changing nation.

I was later to do somewhat less traditional fieldwork in various islands of the Caribbean (Puerto Rico, Martinique, Barbados) and what many would consider downright wacky fieldwork at the San Diego Zoo and Sea World.

After more than a decade at McGill University, I resigned my tenured post and eventually wound up as a sub-tropical man in the American sub-tropics (well, actually, barren desert wasteland) of Palm Springs, California. There I launched the Center for Peripheral Studies, still stalking the tortuous contours of that borderland separating cracker and cowboy. The Center’s mission statement and a number of essay and books may be found at


Victor Turner and others (including Arnold Van Gennep, Mary Douglas, Erving Goffman, Harold Garfinkel) have suggested that the analyst can best get to know a particular society / culture by focusing his attention on events that challenge or disrupt the normal arrangement and flow of social life. Rather than describe in meticulous detail the intricate way in which social things fit together (in tidy four-ply Parsonian boxes), one takes a close, dispassionate look at how things fall apart, at how, sometimes just for a moment, sometimes for an extended period, sometimes, in the case of revolution, forever, the fabric of society is torn and thereby reveals the separate threads of its composition. I think this approach is particularly well-suited to the cultural analysis of contemporary American society, for its 24/7 cable news networks have the nearly magical power to single out an isolated event and magnify it instantly to national or even global proportions.

It is this orientation, a predisposition to attend to the edges or boundaries of social phenomena, that fired my interest in the spectacular event of Lance Armstrong’s confession on a January 2012 airing of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Armstrong admitted the truth of long-standing allegations that he had used “performance enhancing drugs” during multiple Tour de France races. That confession, made before the millions who watch Oprah, triggered an avalanche of commentary, almost all of which was in the vein of hand-wringing, soul-searching despair and outrage: We, the great American public, had been lied to, deceived by a son of the soil whom we had elevated to the status of hero. A small army of lawyers and government agents rushed in to redress the grievous wrong with lawsuits, penalties, revocation of awards. Surveiller et punir; monitor and punish.

My essay argues that the public outcry should be regarded as a lens through which the dispassionate observer may identify and explore the basic values of American society that underlie the outpouring of righteous indignation. In the course of that cultural analysis, those values are found to be shot full of contradiction and ambivalence. Seen in this light the Lance Armstrong affair exposes deep, and largely irreparable fault lines in American society. Particular loci of those fault lines are spectator sports and the recent phenomenon of reality television.

SEVEN successive Tour de France victories, anointed four times as Sportsman of the Year by the United States Olympic Committee, countless other awards, a mound of books, magazine exposés, and newspaper articles accusing and defending Lance Armstrong of wrongdoing, a small army of lawyers launching suits and counter-suits, multimillion-dollar endorsement deals, and it all came crashing down around him that fateful day in January 2013 when he walked out and took his seat on the set of the most sacred shrine of the American conscience: The Oprah Winfrey Show.

The show is America’s Confessional, and Oprah the Grand Inquisitor. In front of millions, under the blazing studio lights, she can extract confessions of sins concealed for years by the most distinguished among us. From best-selling authors of bogus books to repentant celebrities, Oprah has them in tears, telling all between car-giveaways and painkiller commercials. The CIA could have saved all the expense and bad press over its secret prisons and waterboarding – just trundle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed out on stage and Oprah would have had him singing like a canary in time for top-of-the-hour cable news.

And what about the audience for Lance’s confession, those couch potato voyeurs who experience life as a bizarre combination of talk shows, reality TV, cable news breaking stories, sitcoms, and HBO/Showtime movies, that is to say, what about us – the great American public?

With her dramatic unveiling of Lance’s charade, Oprah bestowed the ultimate gift on that audience, better even than those fabled car-giveaways. For a few brief moments, before we had to return to our troubled, occluded lives, she allowed us to experience a true, pure feeling, hot as a poker, bright as a laser: the righteous indignation that wells up inside the American breast when we encounter a fundamental betrayal of trust, a scam far worse than Bernie Madoff’s (who merely stole from the rich), a con that subverts the balance of the way things are and are supposed to be. Lance was our ultimate athlete-hero, and in many ways our ultimate American Hero of recent times, far more impressive and sponge-worthy than a Super Bowl quarterback (for all the weeks of hype, really just a flash-in-the-pan, forgotten until next season), a muscle-bound home-run slugger, or an unlikely sort-of-black president with a lawyer’s golden tongue. Day after day, year after year, mile after torturous mile, Lance wore that yellow jersey, the leader’s emblem of the Tour de France. And – the sweetest treat of all – this gaunt, determined young Texan from the outskirts of Dallas wore it proudly through throngs of spectators right there in that citadel of anti- American snobbishness: France.

Lance’s betrayal of the public trust was especially painful because he was the ultimate underdog, the hero-image we Americans somehow manage to embrace while riding roughshod over the rest of the world. It was a modern miracle that he should have been on that bicycle seat at all, that he should even have been alive. At twenty-five, with his reputation as a top cycling competitor already established, he was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer, a cancer that had already spread to his brain and lungs. Following surgery and chemotherapy he was given less than a 50-50 chance to live. Survival, let alone a return to sports, seemed a remote possibility. Yet with excellent physicians and an innovative regimen of chemotherapy, he not only survived but three years after his surgeries won the first of his Tour de France victories. His is a remarkable story, perhaps the most impressive come-from-behind living legend of American history. And, cruelest of ironies, all made possible by that fount of life-giving, life-extending wonders, the pharmaceutical industry, which was later to strike him down.

Lance Armstrong was an athletic prodigy, endowed with remarkable stamina from childhood and, quite probably, from birth. While still in junior high school he became attracted to endurance sports – swimming, running, bicycling – and, seeing a poster for an “Iron Kids Triathlon,” entered the competition. He won. He was thirteen years old. Two years later he was ranked first in the under-19 category of the U. S. Triathlon. At sixteen, he became a professional triathlete. In 1988 and 1989, aged 18 and 19, he held the title of national sprint-course triathlon champion. Two years later he became a professional in the world of international cycling competition, and put together an impressive series of victories which culminated in his first Tour de France win in 1999. The scandal that erupted around him in later years should not detract from the remarkable gifts of a truly exceptional human being. Rather, it adds to the tragedy: that one so gifted should feel he needed an edge to remain on top.

But . . . It is precisely at this point, when our moral compass seems fixed on a steady bearing, that it is necessary to question the basis of our certitude, to question whether we inhabit a neatly partitioned social world in which some deeds and people are good, some evil, and in which we know for a certain fact when someone – Lance Armstrong in this case – crosses the line, goes over to the Dark Side. Oprah, with her enormous audience of other right-thinking Americans, does not question the premise that good and evil are clear to all, necessary anchors to secure us in a rapidly changing, often bewildering world. Nor does anyone in her parade of penitents appear to question that premise; they know the secret wrongs they have done and, under the blazing studio lights and Oprah’s doe-eyed gaze, confess all to the Grand Inquisitor. It is necessary to ask, in short, whether Lance Armstrong’s deeds violated all that is good and decent in human life or whether, just possibly, those deeds actually cast their own inquisitorial light on our basic values. In the very midst of the public firestorm of outrage, it is necessary to ask whether Lance is so awfully bad. [Do you perhaps recall the old joke circulating during the trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez, two enterprising teenagers who took a drastic shortcut to their inheritance by doing away with their parents in their Beverly Hills mansion: “So we shot-gunned Mom and Dad – was that so awfully bad?”]

When one begins to turn the Inquisition back on itself, to consider what the Lance Armstrong affair reveals about our basic values, it is at once apparent that Americans have quite specific expectations of their athletes. By far the most important, and general, of these is that the star athlete displays his God-given physical talent: he performs feats of natural prowess before the stadium throngs, the crowds lining the race course, the multitudes of those couch potatoes slumped in front of their giant flat screen HD sets. Not to get too Lévi-strauss on a readership that has mostly turned its back on the master, Americans believe in a fundamental division between Nature and Culture. And the star athlete is the embodiment of The Natural (as played by Robert Redford). His body is his temple, and anything he does to defile that temple is dealt with harshly by bureaucratic agencies established to identify any violation of that ideal. [And by high school football coaches who forbid beer – and even sex – for their Friday-night wonders] Drug tests have become the norm in professional sports: the football or basketball player who tests positive for cocaine or other mind-altering drugs faces suspension. Gone are the days when Mickey Mantle could walk up to the plate drunk as a skunk and swing for the bleachers. But far worse than these debilitating drugs is the use of drugs intended to improve performance: steroids and blood-doping chemicals of all sorts are part of a growing pharmacopeia of the Great Satan of professional athletics, the dreaded and despised performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals. These evils subvert the Natural Order of things.

The Lance Armstrong affair has put one little bureaucracy in particular in the spotlight: the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Created in 2000 to enforce strictures on drug use by Olympic athletes, its lab-coated inquisitors conduct their studies under the Agency’s slogan, “Inspiring True Sport.” Examining their goals in some detail is at least as revealing of American values as reading those fanciful documents, The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, drafted by a small group of wealthy white slave-owners in the late-eighteenth century:

To be the guardian of the values and life lessons learned through true sport. We hold the public trust to:

Preserve the Integrity of Competition — we preserve the value and integrity of athletic competition through just initiatives that prevent, deter and detect violations of true sport.
Inspire True Sport — we inspire present and future generations of U.S. athletes through initiatives that impart the core principles of true sport — fair play, respect for one’s competitor and respect for the fundamental fairness of competition.
Protect the Rights of U.S. Athletes — we protect the right of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes to compete healthy and clean — to achieve their own personal victories as a result of unwavering commitment and hard work — to be celebrated as true heroes. (

“. . . to compete healthy and clean . . .” The self-righteous obtuseness of the mediocrities who formulated these goals does justice to Ward Cleaver, that all-knowing disciplinarian who dispensed his sage advice every week to keep The Beaver in line.

What is wrong, misled, or, frankly, stupid about the pretentious goals of the U. S. Anti-Doping Agency? Why should we not look to them as an admirable statement of a fundamental morality that all the world, particularly the world of professional athletics, should embrace?

The principal problem with those goals is that they fail to recognize that the dichotomy Nature / Culture embraced by Americans is in fact an elaborate cultural construct, a contrivance which owes little to the joint physical and social endowments of a human being. The crucial fact the lab coats ignore is that there has never been a “natural” man or woman “to compete healthy and clean” in anything. Our bodies are the product of some three million years of an evolutionary process which mixed – and often mangled – discrete physical abilities, technical expertise, and social skills. If it possesses any distinguishing feature at all – and that is quite debatable – what we choose to call “humanity” is a loose and ever-shifting assemblage of biology and culture. For a few technocrats to stroll into this rats nest and begin to dispense ill-formed opinions in the guise of scientific findings is laughable, and terribly sad.

But even if we set aside these big-picture considerations drawn from paleoanthropology and cultural anthropology, the antics over at the U. S. Anti-Doping Agency appear quite limited in scope. Let us begin by granting their premise that professional athletes should be required, under penalty of exclusion from their sport, to refrain from tampering with their “natural” abilities through “unnatural” performance-enhancing measures. This proves to be a slippery slope.

For starters, how do the lab coats identify precisely which chemicals are to be placed on their Index of forbidden drugs? The American pharmaceutical industry is a multibillion-dollar enterprise devoted to creating more and more new drugs (which they tout as being far more effective than their earlier products, whose patents soon expire and fall prey to cheap generic replacements). In tandem with America’s official “war on drugs” (and we all know how well that’s going), the FDA and other bureaucracies like the Anti-Doping Agency face the impossible task of keeping up with, let alone regulating the flood of new drugs hitting the market every year. Where the general public is concerned (the trodden masses without its own army of lobbyists in the Gucci Gulch corridors of Congressional office buildings), the best these agencies can do is require the giant pharmaceutical corporations to issue disclaimers and warnings when they showcase their products in commercial spots on Oprah and the evening news: “Feeling depressed? Take our new anti-depression pill! It’ll make you feel great! . . . Well, actually, it may make you want to kill yourself. But, hey, your doctor will prescribe it!”

Closely related to the challenge posed by new pharmaceutical drugs is the burgeoning group of vitamins, minerals, and other “nutritional supplements” which, because they are deemed “natural,” fall outside the purview of the FDA and similar agencies. When Mother June sent The Beaver down to the corner grocery store to pick up a few things for supper, her shopping list didn’t include items such as acai, ginkgo, kava, bilberry, satvia, or senna. There are thousands of these substances, whose effects on the human body are known only vaguely. And when used in their purified or processed form and in an enormous variety of combinations, it is anyone’s guess what their short or long-term effects may be. Suppose that Lance and other professional athletes, rather than raiding the medicine chest, paid a visit to the local herbalist, who gave them a god-awful tasting brew compounded of berries from the New Guinea highlands, roots from the Amazonian forest, leaves from the Manchurian steppe. After a few weeks of hooking down this stuff, they went out and did amazing things on the race course or playing field. Would our little band of inquisitors at the USADA hastily revise their regulations and go forth to strip medals, return prize money, and generally insure that athletes “compete healthy and clean”? We are a little further down that slippery slope, and picking up speed (but hopefully without any “unnatural” lubricants!).

And here’s another curve ball – no shit spit: Suppose Lance et al decide to frustrate the lab coats who routinely sample their urine and blood for tell-tale traces of proscribed substances. Instead, they find a few medical technicians of their own, physicians and therapists at the vanguard of an established and expanding field: ultrasound treatment. Long used to reduce inflammation, relieve osteoarthritis, and promote post-surgery healing, innovative ultrasound treatment is found by these pioneers to strengthen muscle growth and significantly improve stamina. A few weeks of regular treatment have all the performance-enhancing effects of steroidal and blood-doping chemicals, but without the unpleasant side effects (you can still get it up!). Natural? Unnatural? Permissible? Proscribed? If the officials decide such treatments confer an unfair advantage, what will they say about deep-tissue massage? Whirlpool baths? The slope grows steeper.

On a not altogether whimsical note, we may extend this inquiry to a quite different scenario. Rather than take a risk with any physical means of improving their games, suppose that “Slammin” Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Barry Bonds discovered a remarkable sports hypnotist. Under deep hypnosis, they were told over and over, “You are a very good long-ball hitter. You will hit many home runs. You may now wake up and head for the ball park. But first, that will be five hundred dollars.” They then proceeded to hit record numbers of home runs and garner an impressive list of rewards until the whiskey-bloated lawyers in Congress, finding it unfashionable to hunt Communists, hauled them in for forced testimony that forever tarnished their outstanding careers.

Taken together these examples seriously undermine the moral certitude exuded by USADA bureaucrats, Oprah, her vast audience, and the “wrongdoers” themselves. Still, we are just coming to what is by far the slipperiest part of our downward rush, as represented by the equipment and facilities which are integral to athletic competition. Virtually every athletic event (perhaps excepting only nekked female mud-wrassling, which has not yet been designated an Olympic event, tant pis) involves the use of complex, manufactured artifacts in a specialized, often fantastically expensive setting such as the ball park or Olympic stadium. Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams is built on a tract of bulldozed urban blight rather than an Iowa cornfield, and only after the city fat cats have stuffed a whopping bond issue down the throats of the rube citizens.

Even a seemingly simple mano-a-máquina arrangement like a man on a bicycle is hedged around by a host of technical and financial matters. The bicycle itself is not two centuries old; before that the particular combination of physical ability and mental toughness required to win a Tour de France was likely expended harvesting crops in a seigniorial manor. Today’s racing bicycle is a piece of cutting-edge technology, the product of advanced metallurgy, engineering, and aerodynamic tests conducted in a wind tunnel. Lance Armstrong’s bicycle (rather, bicycles since he required a stable of them for a single Tour de France) was a $10,000 machine with incredible lightness and tensile strength. That machine was essential to his victories. Its importance cannot be overstated. Suppose that somewhere in Bulgaria, Romania, or Something-or-other-istan there lives a strapping farm lad with the metabolism of a Galapagos turtle and a dream of himself in the yellow jersey leading the pack through the tortuous course of the Tour. The only bicycles available to him, however, weigh twenty-five pounds and have tires that would fit a light truck. Unless some wheeler-dealer promoter spots the lad and plucks him out of his rural oblivion, he will grow old picking beets and riding his two-wheeled clunker around the town square.

Even when an athlete’s equipment is minimal, as, say, with a Speedo suit worn by an Olympic diver or swimmer (but not too minimal – none of those scandalous Riviera codpieces for our Natural Man), the facilities required for the sport are monumental. Greg Louganis, the Olympic diving sensation of the 1980s, grew up in southern California around swimming pools, trampolines, and diving coaches (he was later to become yet another star penitent on The Oprah Winfrey Show). The Olympic diving pool for the ten-meter platform and three-meter springboard where Louganis launched his remarkable aerial displays is at least sixteen feet deep, not exactly Mom and Dad’s backyard above-ground Target special. Had Greg grown up in Bayou country as one of the Swamp People, learning how to dive off the dock of granddaddy’s crawfish hole, he is unlikely to have perfected his signature reverse 2½ pike.

These examples could be compounded endlessly, and all underscore the crucial fact ignored by the narrow-minded lab coats of the USADA that their so-called “true sport” involves the seamless meshing of physical ability and technical expertise. It is almost certainly true that these technocrats are kept too busy compiling lab reports and giving legal testimony to keep up with the vastly more interesting scientific discoveries in the field of paleoanthropology. Tool use has long been thought to be a distinctive feature of the human species: long before language evolved to anything like its present state early hominids were feeding and protecting themselves with the help of stone tools. The human body and nervous system (including the brain) evolved to promote tool use; such is our Natural Man. Moreover, it now appears that, contrary to previous anthropology textbook wisdom, stone tool use actually preceded the appearance of the entire Homo genus. The earliest stone tool users (and possibly makers) were not humans at all, but an australopithecine lineage that flourished over three million years ago. The most famous member of that lineage (whose claim to natural-ness might now be challenged by the USADA!) is Lucy (in the sky with diamonds). Her conspecifics, Australopithecus afarensis, were using stone tools to butcher carcasses some half-million years before the appearance of the Homo line. Human evolution was in large part a consequence of tool use, not the reverse.


Hurtling down this slippery slope, we at last plunge over the edge of a vast precipice (like James Bond in the adrenaline-pumping opener of The Spy Who Loved Me) into a dark and bottomless sea. We have encountered and must now face (sink or swim!) a stunning paradox: An athlete’s physical body is in fact less natural than the implements / tools / machines he employs to display his skill. For the ancestors of those artifacts created his body millions of years before all the recent hype about biotechnology engineering a race of cyborgs. The human body is basically a particular sort of artifact, which we happen to find very special (since we inhabit one).

How might this revelation affect our deeply rooted belief that Nature and Culture are fundamentally separate? If that dichotomy now appears far too nuanced and convoluted for bureaucratic dullards to comprehend, let alone regulate, what are we to make of our strong feelings, our love, of the athlete? If not a display of unblemished physical perfection, what is it about “true sport” that we celebrate, even worship?

Ironically a clue to the answer to these questions is to be found in the very language of those who regulate athletics: their goal is to detect and banish the use of “performance-enhancing drugs” because they seek to insure the integrity of performance. Anyone can ride a bicycle, but only a very few can ride at speed over the two thousand miles of jumbled terrain of the Tour de France. We like to see people who can do things very well.

But only certain things. Warren Buffet is an exceptional performer when it comes to making money, but we don’t throng the streets of Omaha to catch a glimpse of its Oracle. And we don’t award him any gold medals (since he already has most of the gold). Nor do we celebrate the people skills and networking abilities of those we send to Congress; in fact, we’d much rather tar and feather that lawyerly vermin.

What we value about performance is intrinsic to the meaning of the word: it is an activity involving display and focused attention. The performer, as an individual or member of a small group or team, behaves before an audience in a way that engages, excites and rivets the attention of that audience. He is the catalyst essential to transforming the humdrum doings of daily life into an event.

We have been hurled over the edge of a slippery slope into the sea below, but we now find ourselves in troubled waters. If we as right-thinking, fair-minded Americans insist or acquiesce in our government and its lackeys regulating the performers among us, what are we to think about the highly discrepant treatment we apply to those individuals? Performers come in all stripes. We bestow attention, even adulation, and riches on them based on their ability to engage and excite us. Some accomplish this on the playing field, some on the race course, some on the three-meter board and still others on stage, film, CD, or even, to invoke a rapidly disappearing world, through the written word. Yet if it is superb performance we value, why should we apply different standards to the outstanding performers among us? Particularly now that we have seen how intractable the Nature / Culture opposition is, and in deference to the cherished American value of fair play, should we not demand that all our performers adhere to the same standards of conduct?

Perhaps, to the delight of the bureaucrats in the USADA, we should greatly extend their mandate, tasking them with the responsibility of insuring that all our performers are “healthy and clean” exemplars to the general public and, especially, to our young people who emulate them.

Yet as the inquisitors begin their new assignment, they immediately encounter some deeply disturbing material. Having decided to begin their new studies with the performance-arts equivalent of Olympic gold medalists and, their arch villain, Lance Armstrong, they compile CDs, DVDs, and journalistic accounts of a musical group which over the decades has provided the most successful spectacles of any type of performance, including sporting events such as the Super Bowl. That group goes by a whimsical name: The Rolling Stones. The lab coats confirm persistent and shocking rumors that a prominent member of that group, one Keith Richard, is often under the influence of a variety of controlled substances and, horror of horrors, sometimes performs on stage while in that condition. Moreover, they learn that the leader of the group, a Mick Jagger, is said on occasion to do the same, prancing around the stage like the drug-crazed maniac he apparently is. Considering the blatant disregard these performers show for their bodies and, far worse, for the multitudes that idolize them, the USADA must act swiftly. Using their expanded authority, they act to strip The Rolling Stones of every musical award the group has received over the past half-century. And the bureaucrats, supported by a phalanx of lawyers, take steps to impound and seize the fortune the group has amassed through its illegal activities. They embark on the daunting task of removing the group’s songs from YouTube and other social media while confiscating any CDs and DVDs it locates in stores and online.

Having sniffed out this flagrant violation of our basic values, the lab coats are distressed to find that the stench goes far deeper than contemporary musicians caught up in the narcissistic drug culture. Additional research documents that major figures in literature were anything but “healthy and clean,” and, even more alarming, that their work is tainted by unmistakable signs of their substance abuse. On reviewing the novels and short stories of Ernest Hemingway the investigators find that all exude the strong bouquet of liquor, and that the blood-alcohol content of his later work in particular should be incorporated in its titles: Islands in the Stream (of Rum) for example. Fearful of the harmful effect Hemingway’s conduct may have on the millions of Americans required to read his poisonous books in school, the authorities make every effort to eradicate that influence by seizing copies of his books and expunging references to him in textbooks. And just as they did with Lance Armstrong and his trophies, they strip Hemingway of his Nobel Prize.

As the expanded USADA digs deeper into the field of literature, they find other cases that require their inquisitorial attention. They discover that the nation’s youth, already the victims in a raging war on drugs, are subjected throughout middle school and high school to the poetry of an especially pernicious figure: the notorious opium addict, Samuel Coleridge. Like Hemingway, Coleridge not only made no secret of his drug abuse but wove it into the body of his work with dark, disturbing images. In the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which millions of our children are required to read at a young and impressionable age, we find deeply troubling passages:

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie;
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.

I looked upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away;
I looked upon the rotting deck,
And there the dead men lay.

I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came and made
My heart as dry as dust.


All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the moon.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch’s oils,
Burnt green, and blue, and white.

Coleridge’s final outrage, which prompts the lab coats to drastic action in removing his name from the record of world literature, is that he actually composed a large part of one of his most famous poems, Kubla Khan while in an opium stupor. Even Coleridge’s decadent English contemporaries were scandalized by his audacity in publishing his hallucinations as poetry. Clearly, such behavior is unacceptable to anyone who values the integrity of performance.


The integrity of performance. At this point in our inquiry it is difficult to know just what that phrase might mean. Readers will appreciate that the previous pages have been an exercise in reductio ad absurdum (although an occasional reader with ties to the Moral Majority might endorse these arguments to the letter!), a fixture of philosophical and mathematical thought since the pre-Socratics. If we approve the punishments meted out to Lance Armstrong for his use of performance-enhancing drugs, then we must condone punishment for other exceptional performers who have done the same. If that course of action is untenable, then our treatment of Lance Armstrong is seriously in error. Something is deeply amiss in the American socio-logic.

To begin to understand what that might be, it is necessary to employ the classical reductio argument in a way that departs from the formal proofs of Russell and Quine. In the matter before us there is no unambiguous truth-value: [It is not the case that A implies B and A implies not-B] does not apply. The law of contradiction, a bulwark of traditional philosophy, is of no help here. Why? It is because the Lance Armstrong affair, like every cultural phenomenon, obeys a “logic” that owes far more to Camus than to Russell. What most Americans accept as unquestionably true – the need to assure that athletic performers be “healthy and clean” – is shot through with ambiguity and irresolvable conflict. Our moral compass is not fixed on a true course because there is no true course; an unflinching examination reveals that compass to be spinning haphazardly from one point to another. Any certain truth one proposes is therefore incomplete and mistaken, and to insist on it, particularly by legislating it, is an absurd undertaking. It is a page from Camus’ Rebel, not Russell’s Principia.

It seems the only honest approach for a cultural analysis of the Lance Armstrong affair and, by extension, American society in general, is to identify key dilemmas at the heart of our set of basic values. [For a detailed presentation of this proposal, see Chapter 3, “A Theory of Culture as Semiospace” of American Dreamtime, available at] Any credo put forward as a guide for behavior, especially the all-too-common odious variety which regulates and punishes, is inevitably skewed, a one-sided distortion of an underlying absurdity.

The key dilemma (or “elemental dilemma,” following James Fernandez) in the Lance Armstrong affair is the irresolvable conflict posed by an extraordinary individual being both an autonomous actor and a social being subject to the laws and standards of a group composed of highly diverse but mostly ordinary individuals. We value his exceptional performance yet at the same time insist that he conform to rules set by all-too-unexceptional people who want to live in a mediocre world.

The unhappy marriage between the individual and society is a fundamental feature of human life, but is particularly strained in the United States. Only in Camus’ world would the slave-owner Thomas Jefferson draft what is arguably the best-known sentence in the English language: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .” Founded on absurdity, American society over the past two-plus centuries has become a land of irresolvable contradictions (we are the logician’s excluded middle, the “or” symbol in the Principia proposition: symbols)

Nowhere is this more evident than in the matter of competition. Created equal, everything in life urges us to get ahead. Of course, it is impossible to get ahead without leaving others behind. During the first decade of the 21st century financial inequality in the United States has returned to the extremes reached during the boom-and-bust era of the late 1920s that precipitated the Great Depression:

The Wealth Distribution
In the United States, wealth is highly concentrated in a relatively few hands. As of 2010, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 35.4% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 53.5%, which means that just 20% of the people owned a remarkable 89%, leaving only 11% of the wealth for the bottom 80% (wage and salary workers). In terms of financial wealth (total net worth minus the value of one’s home), the top 1% of households had an even greater share: 42.1% (“Wealth, Income, and Power,” G. William Domhoff).

If competition for wealth and social status has now largely played out, with one per cent of Americans owning nearly half of the country’s financial resources, we non-one-per-centers are left with a burning need that has no real-world economic outlet. How can one hope to get ahead when the odds are so terribly long?

It seems that American culture has generated two complementary responses to the agonizing problem of increasing inequality and wage-servitude in this land of golden opportunity: spectator sports on a massive scale; and television reality shows. While politicians of a declining Roman republic of the 2nd century BC devised the scheme of “bread and circuses” to keep their masses from rising up in protest at their corrupt regimes, the American establishment has hit on a more stringent plan: forget the bread and concentrate on the circuses.

Sporting events have lost most of their former appeal as local affairs in which ordinary people could participate: While kids still play ball in vacant lots on occasion (when they aren’t exercising their thumbs on their iPods) and while a few oldsters still slog around softball diamonds in community parks, much of the participatory nature of sports has lapsed. Instead, enormous Colosseum-like structures have been erected in our cities, and every four years an entire sports complex – a sprawling athletic village – is built to host the Olympic Games. Those kids still playing Little League baseball are inculcated, sometimes violently by dads frustrated by their own mediocrity, with the hallowed American value of competition. Yet only a tiny fraction of those kids wind up in the big leagues, The Show that mesmerizes the herd made up of their former teammates who did not make the cut. Baseball, our unofficial national pastime, has been transformed almost beyond recognition over the past several decades. Billionaire owners trade millionaire players in a 21st century slave market and send them out to play in immense stadiums erected as municipal shrines at taxpayers’ expense, stadiums with roofs, climate control, and Astroturf for grass. Games played at night under batteries of lights with near-freezing temperatures outside have become the norm for the World Series (the exigencies of cable TV coverage demand it). And the playing season, already long, has been extended to pump up the bottom line. The team itself has become a specialized corporate unit. The boys of summer have become the designated hitters and base runners of November.

Even with their new corporate structure and big-screen HDTV appeal, however, spectator sports have taken a back seat to a phenomenon that has exploded at the heart of American popular culture: reality shows. In a sense, MLB, the NFL, and the NBA serve up sports programming that is itself a genre of reality television, since they are unscripted displays of American competitiveness in action. But the definitive shows that have completely transformed American television are much more recent than corporate-based sports. Productions of the 1970s such as The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show prepared the way for shows of the late 1990s and 2000s that took the television industry and the American public by storm. The phenomenal success of the now-iconic shows Survivor and American Idol have ushered in a new viewing environment with a myriad of shows that feature competition as the supreme value in virtually every facet of American life. Participants in these shows do not simply go on vacation to exotic locales (Survivor, The Amazing Race), enjoy singing and dancing (American Idol, Dancing with the Stars), work at advancing in the world of business (Apprentice), form romantic attachments (The Bachelor and The Bachelorette), or even, in what may well be the most pernicious of these shows, play the little-girl game of dress-up (Toddlers & Tiaras). JonBenét’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave.  Participants do none of these real world things; instead they engage in contrived and cutthroat competition to see who can do reality-show things best, who can be the winner.

As traditional religious faith and church attendance wane even in this land of Puritan ancestry, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that reality television has become the new national religion, one that engages and excites tens of millions of viewers and keeps the most popular shows at the top of rating charts. From week to week, we can’t wait to see who gets voted off Survivor and who the nasty judges of American Idol send home in tears. It is a “religion” based, not on Christian love or Islamic orthodoxy, but on raw, unbridled, in-your-face competition. However, the bitter irony of reality television is that the situations and made-for-television personalities and dramas of the shows are hopelessly artificial, distorted and contrived versions of competitive life in an American society which has already picked the winners – that tiny one per cent who own and control the bulk of the nation’s resources. The reality of American life, its stark inequality, racial hatred, rampant gun violence, perpetual war, untreated medical conditions, prisons (for-profit!) bursting with a population that dwarfs that of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag – none of this is touched on in the breadless American circuses that enthrall us. For all too many of us, the multitudes that make up the shows’ audiences, actual life is incredibly alienating and painful, and so we eagerly grasp at a fictional reality composed of the basest stereotypes and passed off as genuine.

In The Future of an Illusion Freud lays out a formidable and chilling argument in which he describes monotheistic world religions as a collective case of a self-delusion neurosis, a neurosis cultivated by people incapable of facing life’s problems without a cognitive / affective crutch. And in Civilization and Its Discontents he extends that argument to civilization as a whole: human society is a fabric of palatable lies, woven over the ages to disguise irresolvable conflicts within each individual psyche. Here is the reality which our new national religion, reality television, does everything to conceal.

In its tentative encounter with its host culture – ourselves – American cultural anthropology has paid insufficient attention to these fundamental arguments which come to us brilliantly presented in the work of Camus and Freud. Instead, that faltering academic discipline has preferred virtually to ignore Camus’ penetrating analysis of modern society and to dismiss Freud and the psychoanalytical approach as inadequate to the task of the description and analysis of social action (and incidentally has tarred Lévi-Strauss’ profound thought with the same brush). Although anthropologists may occasionally speak of cultural analysis as cultural criticism, that discussion is generally confined to economic and political topics. But the problem before us goes deeper; it goes right to the heart of the system of basic values we profess to embrace. As suggested above, a close analysis of those values reveals them to be shot full of contradiction and ambivalence. Rather than pursue that line of thought rigorously, cultural anthropology as it has developed in the United States tends to put a happy face on social life, taking as its program the elucidation in meticulous detail of the symbolic composition of culture – essentially an exercise in hermeneutics which celebrates the intricate structure of its subject, and not the discordant systems of non-meaning integral to the key dilemmas of American and any culture.

It is much nearer the truth to regard culture, not as a treasure trove of a people’s vital essence, but as a disease, a virulent outbreak which infects and poisons its carriers. To approach culture from this perspective requires the anthropologist to examine and dissect it with the cold, analytical precision of the pathologist. It requires Nietzsche’s coldness, which he advocated repeatedly to little avail. [For applications of this idea, see Culture, Mind, and Physical Reality: An Anthropological Essay, and Shit Happens: An Immoralist’s Take on 9/11 in Terms of Self-Organized Criticality, available at ] In its advanced pathological state, it is essential that the anthropologist approach his analysis of American society as a pathologist would a diseased organism, seeking out the specific toxins and tumors which are in the process of destroying it.

In that analysis, a particularly malignant tumor attached to vital organs of our society is the body of reality shows; these sap whatever creative energy survives in a sadly diminished America. Those shows are so virulent because they tap directly into the core tissue of American values: to tame the wilderness through individual effort; to make something of oneself starting with the very little available to the immigrant; or again, in a phrase, to compete and win. It is often said that American society owes its distinctive character to the experience of pioneers and settlers faced with a vast frontier which they had to conquer or die in the attempt. [See the classic work by Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth] If the grand design of American culture may be described in this way, then one might suggest that the historical theme is repeated in the host of reality shows now inundating the airways. That suggestion would come with a crucial disclaimer, however, which we owe to Marx’s famous observation in Eighteenth Brumaire:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

The tragedy of America is part of the larger tragedy of the Americas. It is the story of genocide and environmental degradation on an unprecedented scale, perpetrated by European explorers and colonists turned loose on the New World, turned loose and intent on enriching themselves, on winning regardless of the cost in human lives and established ecosystems:

The discovery of America was followed by possibly the greatest demographic disaster in the history of the world. [The Native Population of the Americas in 1492, William M. Denevan, ed., 1992]

The extent of the carnage and catastrophe was not widely acknowledged for centuries after the event, although lone and immediately discredited voices were raised from the beginning (the work of Bartolomé de las Casas being an outstanding example).  It might be hoped that the mistake would have been corrected by the young discipline of cultural anthropology, which in the United States came of age through exhaustive studies of Native American societies. [See the impressive volumes of the Bureau of American Ethnology] To its lasting shame, however, the foremost authorities on those groups, Alfred Kroeber, dean of American anthropology, and Julian Steward, editor of the canonical Handbook of South American Indians, grossly underestimated the indigenous population of the Americas. In a flagrant display of professorial arrogance, Kroeber and Stewart dismissed population figures of thirty-five to fifty million advanced by Las Casas and other scholars as the inflated and fanciful work of non-specialists. Instead, Kroeber proposed a figure of 8.4 million and Steward 15.6 million. [“Native American population.” American Anthropologist, n.s., vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 1-25. Alfred Kroeber, 1934; Julian Steward, Handbook] With their influence in the field, those numbers were not seriously challenged for decades. They provide a jarring contrast with the best current estimates of indigenous population at the time of Columbus’ arrival: 54 to 75 million. [see Denevan] Tens of millions perished from smallpox, measles, influenza, and massacres, and the response by anthropologists was to count moccasin beads and record the quaint customs of the few survivors.

On a smaller scale, the tragedy of America unfolded in an especially agonizing manner: in the Rocky Mountain west with the coming of the mountain men and their exploitation by the first of the robber barons, John Jacob Astor and his American Fur Company. Perhaps no figure in American history or legend is imbued with the independence and supreme competence of the mountain man: living by his wits in a wild and hostile land, he survived hunger, bitter winters, and Indian attacks. And not only survived, he triumphed. In the best American tradition, he won. At least for a couple of decades. Even before the beaver began to run out and European tastes changed to silk, legendary mountain men like Jim Bridger, John Colter, and John “Liver-Eating” Johnson (most definitely not the individual portrayed by Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson) felt the pressure to abandon their independent lifestyle in favor of a more regimented existence as employees of a fur company. It was a fundamental change in a nascent American culture: the freest of men became pawns in a new world of big business crafted by Astor and later robber barons such as Leland Stanford and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Astor and the others had learned the secret of capitalist alchemy: how to change the blood and sweat of others into gold for themselves.

With the advent of reality television, the tragedy of America has returned as farce. Astor and the robber barons have given way to an even more crushing economic force: multinational corporations which sponsor television shows carefully designed by media giants to bring in the circus audiences with their consumer dollars (an insidious refinement of the early Roman political palliative, with the masses now supplying bread for their masters). The most popular shows, Survivor and American Idol, have replaced immensely brave and talented personalities like Bridger and Johnson with shallow caricatures of heroes and heroines who submit themselves to the abuse of the shows’ directors and judges in return for a shot at fame and fortune. It is a pathetic charade of competition in which even the supreme American value, winning, has lost its meaning, become a minor ripple in the onrushing torrent of 24/7 cable news. Who were last year’s winners of Survivor and American Idol? Or the year before, or the year before that? No one knows; no one cares; it doesn’t matter at all; the circus opens tonight under the big top/screen with a new cast of stunted, superficial characters ready to endure any humiliation for a moment of glory. And we, the American multitudes, will be glued to our sets.

In what Nietzsche might have called an example of world-historical irony, one season of Survivor managed to take things beyond farce into sheer travesty and thereby expose a fundamental but contingent premise of American culture: competition and reward are inseparably linked. Who could disagree with that premise, which is the basis of the American experience from grade school to the grave, the underlying force at school, at work, at play, and, in its distilled essence, reality television? You compete, win, and are rewarded with trophies, money, adulation. You compete, lose, and are rejected and forgotten.

As with all previous seasons, Survivor embraced this premise in its 2009 installment: Survivor: Tocantins – The Brazilian Highlands. Set on the Tocantins River, a tributary of the Amazon in north-central Brazil, the show followed its usual format of dividing the sixteen contestants into two “tribes,” thus underscoring its adventure theme of primitive life in exotic locales. The names selected for the two tribes were Jalapao, after the region of Brazil where the show was filmed, and Timbira, the name of an actual tribe of Brazilian Indians whose survivors lived about a hundred miles from the Survivor camp. It would be interesting to know the circumstances behind the selection of the latter name; apparently it was done to add a touch of local color – American contestants playing at being actual indigenous Brazilians. The series unfolded with the usual ridiculous tasks, back-stabbing alliances, hidden immunity idols, the exile island, and elections to vote out unpopular players. The final election ended, as always, with a Sole Survivor, who took the million-dollar prize and became a television personality for a few days. Competition and reward, two sides of a coin.

The travesty perpetrated by the show’s directors on an unknowing and uncaring American audience was in selecting “Timbira” as a catchy name for one of the show’s “tribes.” For everything in actual Timbira life, with its traditional homeland a bare hundred miles away, contradicts the premise of competition-reward etched in American thought and exploited in the Survivor series. Had the directors and writers for Survivor: Tocantins bothered to do more than superficial background research in selecting a site for the 2009 show, they would have discovered an anthropological classic, The Eastern Timbira, by one of the foremost ethnographers in the discipline’s brief history, Kurt Nimuendajú.

The Timbira are one of several groups associated with the Gê linguistic-cultural stock found throughout central Brazil(others include the Sherente, Shavante, and Apinayé). [In addition to Nimuendajú’s monograph, for a thorough discussion of Timbira culture see The Dream and the Dance: A Comparative Study of Initiatory Death, available at] A prominent institution of these groups, and one elaborated in intricate detail by the Timbira, is the log race. For the race the Timbira form two teams whose membership is based on one of several dual divisions, or moieties, in the social organization of the village (age set moieties, rainy season moieties, plaza group moieties, ceremonial group moieties – theirs is, indeed, an intricate society). The teams travel several miles from the village into the galleria forest, where they cut two sections of burity palm, each weighing 150-200 pounds. The race begins with a member of each team shouldering the heavy, cumbersome log and running at full speed toward the village. When he tires the log is handed off in mid-stride to a second runner and so on until the exhausted runners reach the village and deposit their logs in designated ceremonial locations. A classic competition with a race to the finish line? A race with winners and losers (hopefully none of whom have ingested performance-enhancing drugs that could be detected by a Timbira chapter of the USADA)? No, on the contrary, the Timbira undertake the grueling competition for its own sake: it is a race in which the purpose is to race, not to celebrate a winner and denigrate the losers.

Log races form the national sport not only of all the Timbira (p. 141 f.), including the Apinaye, but probably of all Northwestern and Central Gê. None of the other numerous observances that characterize the public life of these tribes has so deeply roused the attention of civilized observers. This is primarily because, next to the girls’ dances in the plaza, log racing is the most frequently repeated ceremony; further, it stands out for its dramatic impressiveness.

And now we come to the feature that remains incomprehensible to Brazilians and leads to his constantly ascribing ulterior motives to this Indian game: The victor and the others who have desperately exerted themselves to the bitter end receive not a word of praise, nor are the losers and outstripped runners subject to the least censure; there are neither triumphant nor disgruntled faces. The sport is an end in itself, not the means to satisfy personal or group vanity. Not a trace of jealously or animosity is to be detected between the teams. Each participant has done his best because he likes to do so in a log race. Who turns out to be the victor or loser makes as little difference as who has eaten most at a banquet (Nimuendajú 1946: 136, 139).

The farce Marx chronicles in Eighteenth Brumaire pales in comparison with the travesty of Survivor: Tocantins, Had old Karl been around to view the show, it would have had him clawing at his carbuncles and begging for mercy: Stop! No more of the utter absurdity of human existence! (After all, that is supposed to obey the laws of historical determinism, not chaos). Louis Bonaparte, that caricature of Napoleon, doesn’t begin to compare with the mediocrities paraded on Survivor.


In its obsession with competition and reward, American culture manages to trivialize athletic activity beyond recognition, to destroy the inherent joy of doing. Running or riding a bicycle, along with hitting a baseball, throwing a football, swimming, and skiing may be done for the sheer enjoyment of the activity, of experiencing one’s body in concerted motion. Breath-hold diving over a coral reef, open-water swimming in Puget Sound (see Edwin Dobb’s brilliant essay, “Immersed in the Wild,”), skiing a winding mountain trail beneath a stratospheric blue sky, running for miles along a deserted country road, can be, like the Timbira log race, ends in themselves, instances of genuine re-creation that transport the individual to another realm of being. That experience is close to the exhilaration described by those 13th century Provençal troubadours, whose gai saber or joy-in-knowing/doing Nietzsche commemorated in The Gay Science, echoing his own dedication to careful experimentation (suchen and versuchen) rather than to methodical system-building. To resort to a term no longer fashionable, it is about the quest.

It becomes almost impossible for us to capture that sense of exhilaration when our daily existence is subject to a practice that governs American life: keeping score. What did you get on the Chem test? How fast did you run the mile? How did you do on the SATs? What number is on your paycheck? How big is your house? Your car? Even, for God’s sake, your dick? (Time to email that order for Viagra – comes in a plain brown wrapper! But, oops, definitely a performance-enhancing drug!). All these questions and countless others like them are distilled in what we do for fun – or have others do for us: sports. Guys who could not manage even to run the bases sit slumped in seats at Yankee Stadium, cradling scorecards they can barely see over their beer bellies, but they keep score. The activity itself, the lived experience of superbly conditioned athletes on the field is reduced to a pile of lifeless statistics, the raw material for an endless stream of other numbers that eventually lead to selecting The Winner, the Sole Survivor in American society’s reality show of Life.

These absurd questions and activities which permeate and shape all of life in America conceal a monumental irony, a cosmic joke: Our obsessive need to keep score, to identify and reward those who are very good at what they do, may well lead to missing or misinterpreting truly exceptional individuals who fall outside the limited perspectives of the all-too-ordinary individuals who pass judgment on them.

There is a story here, really an apocryphal anecdote (it is an Einstein story and, like most, probably is apocryphal). It concerns an organization that is one of the most prominent scorekeepers in the country and, increasingly, around the world: the Educational Testing Service, creator and administrator of the SATs which have impacted the lives of oh-so-many Americans. From an early age children with some intelligence are taught to dread the SATs; they are told that a high score may advance their chances of becoming a professional or a manager of some sort, and thus joining that shrinking middle class (nineteen per cent and going down) which Domhoff described (see above). A low or even average score may doom a child of a family with ordinary means to a difficult life of labor and menial jobs; he will sink into that vast pool of eighty per cent of the population who are just surviving. The story goes like this:

It seems that when the ETS was just getting organized in the late 1940s, its button-down executives were anxious to determine the effectiveness of the math section in particular – mathematical facts being irrefutable, they wished to calibrate their set of questions so that the test would accurately identify how students performed on a scale of dull to brilliant. Since the ETS was located in the intellectual Mecca of Princeton, New Jersey, someone had a bright idea: just up the road, at the Institute for Advanced Study, there was an individual who was making quite a stir in the world of mathematics and physics, one Albert Einstein. Why not have him take the SAT math test they had just put together? Certainly he would establish a benchmark against which young test-takers could be ranked. So they approached Einstein, he agreed, and they sat him down with the test. Now a major portion of the math SAT tests a student’s ability to discern a pattern in a series of numbers. A question would supply a four-number series, say 2-4-6-8 and a multiple-choice set of possible answers, say 16, 24, 10, 1. The student is required to select the answer which best fits the pattern established by the four-number series, in this case the “10.” As Einstein went through this section of the test, for each question he thought of an equation that would fit each of the multiple-choice possibilities. Then he picked the answer which gave him what he found to be the most interesting equation – almost always not the answer the test designers wanted.

This little experiment doubtlessly disappointed the ETS executives, but judging from the content of the SAT math test which has been inflicted on students for the past sixty-plus years, its results did nothing to dissuade them from their course of action. Einstein was obviously an anomaly, an oddball, and his toying with their sacred exam could safely be disregarded.

A thought which might have given them pause, but clearly did not occur to the right-thinking, compete-and-win executives of the ETS, is that if anomalies occur in so highly structured a world as theoretical physics, what bizarre deviations from agreed-on, socially acceptable norms might be found in other walks of life? In order to keep score it is necessary to have an authoritative scale, a means of ranking and grading individual performance. But there are in this life those rare individuals whose extraordinary gifts defy ranking; they go off the scales fixed by mediocrities like the executives of ETS. People are different, and a few people are so vastly different that it is senseless to tabulate, to score their performance. In a catch phrase from the failed cultural revolution of the late 1960s, now but a sad and haunting memory, there are indeed the haves and have-nots, but there are also the have-something-elses. Those remarkable individuals either go off the charts or, more often and tragically, fall between the cracks of the charts. In that case their exceptional ability, which initially establishes them as stars (or what our punitive society would call “persons of interest”) dooms them to censure and sometimes ruin when they allow their exceptional abilities, whether in mathematics (John Nash), chess (Bobby Fischer), engineering (Nikola Tesla), aviation (Chuck Yeager), philosophy (Friedrich Nietzsche), poker (Stu Ungar), or, in the case at hand, bicycle racing (Lance Armstrong), to run afoul of standards of acceptable behavior.

Even if we insist on maintaining scales to rank people, we encounter the next insuperable obstacle: There is not a single scale or even a few which adequately evaluate individual ability. Rather, there is a tangled multitude of scales which cross-cut and often conflict with one another, so that any attempt to implement one hopelessly distorts the over-arching truth of boundless difference. As a thirteen-year old Lance Armstrong already possessed an unprecedented combination of raw physical ability and mental determination. Yet everything about his society and his immediate circumstances – he was, after all, named after a star wide-receiver of the Dallas Cowboys; such was his family tradition – led him to embrace organized sport as the means of realizing his potential. And that decision, taken in the context of a judgmental and punitive society, proved his undoing. None of us can experience or perhaps even imagine the tremendous stamina and mental toughness required to stay at the head of the pack of the Tour de France, day after day, year after year, but all too many of us are quite prepared to thwart those remarkable displays, to declare them illegal, not sufficiently “healthy and clean” for the fearful and vengeful herd of non-entities that makes up American society.

A parting thought:

The vast sea of seven billion human beings awash on this fragile planet, those multitudes, are akin to the night sky – dark, without depth or substance, obscure, formless. That sea makes up a background for the stars, each star impossibly isolated from the others, alone, blazing in the dark immensity of space, each with its own history, its birth, evolution, and death. There is no race course, no set of standardized tests, no contest of any description that a star must strive to win. The star’s light radiates aimlessly, forever, illuminating the darkness of space and imparting to it whatever form it may possess. Here or there its beams happen to strike a random atom, perhaps, on the rarest of occasions, an atom in the retina of a sentient being . . . That is all there is, that is the “career” of the star. Here or there . . . here or there an individual star blazes so brightly that it consumes itself, devours its own matter, reaching the point at which it collapses in on itself in a spectacular explosion, a supernova of cosmic proportions, incinerating or scorching everything around it. Then it sinks into oblivion forever. Lance Armstrong.

porky pig
Th-th-th-that’s all folks!


Posted in Working Papers | Leave a comment

The park of 9

Working Papers Series #16
ISSN 2045-5763 (online)

The Park of 9
Street life and community in Pretoria, South Africa

Dennis Webster
University of Pretoria

© 2013 Dennis Webster
Creative Commons License
Open Anthropology Cooperative Press

Forum discussion in the OAC network.
Download as PDF, EPUB, MOBI.


Dennis Webster has a BA, with majors in anthropology and philosophy, and an honours degree in social anthropology, from the University of Pretoria. He is currently completing research for his masters in social anthropology there, and is a junior lecturer in social and cultural anthropology at St John Mary Vianney Seminary in Pretoria. Webster has ethnographic experience in the city of Pretoria, and most especially in its inner city spaces and ‘hidden communities’. His theoretical interests include social movements, anarchist perspectives on local and broader processes, pan-Africanist visions of the future, and the importance of everyday communism and the mundane in the construction and reconstitution of human relationships. He uses some of his spare time to coach high school water polo in Brooklyn, Pretoria.

Discussions of growing inequality in post-apartheid South Africa are often too broad to make room for questions of how people live under current conditions of uncertainty. The novel ways in which they respond to international and national processes, while constructing new relationships and forms of community, are often overlooked when the realities of contemporary South Africa are considered. This paper addresses how a group of men, who are essentially invisible to the state, live in a public park in Gezina, Pretoria, negotiating the ambiguities of street life and community through acts of everyday communism and illegal public gambling. The park is taken here to be a ‘conceived commons’, owned officially by the state, but informally by the men who occupy it.

Introduction: considering community in the Park of 9

Nothing could be more idle than to occupy oneself with demographic details… A sociological analysis of the city finds its proper field in the psychic forms of interhuman life in an urban environment.

Don Martindale, ‘Prefatory Remarks’ to Max Weber The City

I found The Great asleep in the park on a balmy February afternoon. He slowly stirred and turned towards me, smiling maybe at the idea that I had come back eager to see more. He told me groggily that no one had been gambling that afternoon. But after we sat a while talking, a man in leather boots and wide-brimmed leather hat sauntered off the street and towards us on the grass. The Great pushed himself to his feet, “Just wait, here comes The Cowboy. He always wants to gamble”. The two men greeted, spoke and laughed together for a few minutes, and then sat down to shuffle a deck of cards, which The Cowboy produced from his jacket pocket. Then they began. I had provided the R201 with which The Great bet and he told The Cowboy, who was offhandedly lying down on his side, that he was teaching me how to play. I lit a cigarette each for the three of us and sat back watching. Just then, a young man came from across the park, continuing with laughs and shouts a conversation he was having there. He crouched between me and The Great, quietly asking something of him. Without looking up from the hand he had just been dealt, The Great leaned forward off the large canister he was sitting on. The visitor opened the lid of the canister, rummaged inside and closed the lid again after pulling out a tea bag. He then jogged back across the park, resuming his conversation with shouts, as The Great sat down, re-ordered his hand and began to play again.

As the game continued, The Great recalled, “He hit me, here!”, slapping the side of his neck2 to signify the loss he had suffered at their last encounter, while he tossed another card onto the ground. The Great told me that no one in the park knows his real name; they refer to him only by the nicknames he gives himself, including those of well-known soccer players. ‘The Great’, for instance, was the handle of a 1980s player for the Soweto club Moroka Swallows. The Cowboy, casually reclining, quietly laughed and warned me to “Be careful of this one,” as he took a card from the deck, slowly bending it and then snapping it into his hand, exclaiming the conventional “Ei!” Examining the cards in front of him, he coolly discarded one. It was a winning card for The Great, who with a wry grin dropped his hand on the floor to show that he had won. He collected his winnings and placed his next bet. The Cowboy, no longer as cheery, pushed himself upright to respond to the bet and shuffle the deck. “You see? You see?”, he exclaimed, “Now he’s hitting me here, hitting me here [also slapping his neck]! This one, he’s a criminal.” The Great and I chuckled, as the pair began the next hand. For the time that my sponsorship lasted, ours turned out to be quite a lucrative relationship. The Great would win more often than he lost, with the two of us splitting profits 50/50; and his gambling was a quick way for me to gain access to the park.

Panoramic view of the Park of 9 from Flowers Street. Photograph courtesy of Anjuli Webster.

Panoramic view of the Park of 9 from Flowers Street. Photograph courtesy of Anjuli Webster.

A Conceived Commons

The park in question lies on the southwest corner of Flowers and Johan Heyns on the southern end of Gezina, Pretoria. During the initial stages of my research Johan Heyns Street had been HW Verwoerd Street, but has since been renamed. Verwoerd, who held a chair in applied psychology and later in sociology, was prime minister at the height of apartheid. Some of the most violent laws against blacks were passed during his term and he is often referred to as the ‘architect’ of apartheid. Even before the name change, The Great explained to me that the men in the park did not want to acknowledge Verwoerd’s name. Instead, they continue to refer to it as 9th Avenue and to the park as the ‘Park of 9’. It is for this reason that I think of the park as a ‘conceived commons’3, that is, a communal public space which the men themselves – those who use the space – have identified in their own way. The park is, in this sense, organised not by the state that owns it, but rather by the men who occupy it.

The Great tells me that there are forty men living in the Park of 9, but my own surveys would suggest that the regulars number closer to twenty five men, all black, with a further five to ten drifting in and out. It is these park regulars that I address here. I could not keep track of those who move in and out. Of the regulars, I was closer to and more familiar with some than others. Most of these men spend the nights sleeping under blankets, along with their possessions, on the street pavement outside of the Turtle and Parrot bottle store a little further down Steve Biko. A few of them also sleep underneath a steel roof structure in the park itself.

The park is where they hang out – socialising and catching up on sleep, cooking and cleaning: they eat and drink, share news, stories and jokes. They argue and sometimes fight. They leave in search of work and after work, or failed attempts to find work, they return. Uncertainty is the defining social fact of life in the park. This uncertainty takes the form of precarious living conditions, a poor sleeping situation, unreliable formal employment and a distant, but volatile relationship with the state. Most of the men in the park no longer own or have never owned identification documents: this is a hindrance to their chances of engaging in formal economic activity. Indeed, as I will show, the most genuine interactions they have with the state involve attempts to avoid the police when they raid their illicit public gambling. Gambling animates daily life in the park and is a considerable source of harassment. So a major aim here is to show how the men in the Park of 9 deal with uncertainty.

Gezina lies between two mountain ridges running through Pretoria; the one separating it from Pretoria North and the other linking the affluent southern suburbs of Arcadia, Hatfield, Brooklyn and Waterkloof. It is almost directly north of the city centre and includes its principal street, Steve Biko Road. Gezina is a mixture of suburban, semi-industrial and commercial zones, with a vast array of business establishments (pawn shops, furniture stores, fast food chains, pool halls, street vendors, petrol stations). The area is known as a hub of the automotive trade: second-hand car dealerships line Steve Biko Road from south to north. The men in the park, however, do not benefit economically from these establishments. Rather, they fashion their own forms of labour and income in the Gezina streets. Many of them, including The Great, guard cars there. A few of them sell cigarettes around the park, while some stand outside the hardware store further down Steve Biko, advertising themselves as handymen – painters, plumbers, gardeners.

My initial forays into the park were nothing if not awkward. I was immediately plagued with guilt for living in a comfortable apartment a minute’s walk away, while the park’s inhabitants, some of whom I later called my friends, faced conditions of extreme poverty. There was also a tangible sense of personal threat caused by the fairly obvious drug trade happening around me and the scarred, worn and distrusting faces of most of the men hanging out there. Later, my presence in the park became easier and more natural, thanks in no small part to the friendship I developed with The Great, who believed that I brought good luck to his gambling exploits. I do not claim that I became immersed in the cultural flux and social order of the park, but rather that after a while my presence there no longer prompted long stares and silences. Rather, I was eventually greeted with quick glances over the shoulder, with men hailing me, “Sho soldaat4, The Great hy is nie hier nie [The Great isn’t here]”, or I might be offered a cigarette or a seat by the men I now knew. I had less than a year to conduct research, so such re-definitions of roles were encouraging. I could sit and listen to conversations, but I also become involved in them – Zulu, Sotho and Ndebele were the main languages spoken, but conversations also turned towards Afrikaans and some English for my benefit. I also learned to play the card games that I had just watched at first. During this time, I undertook some semi-structured interviews with The Great and one each with Rasta – a dreadlocked and constantly jesting man in his early twenties who often added music to conversations in the park from his phone with whom I became quite close – and Madala – a wrinkled man in his late sixties whose eyes always seemed to have a smile behind his thick and dilapidated spectacles. So hanging out with the men in the park was variously informal – watching, discussing, joking and gambling – in addition to the more formal interviews. I came to reflect closely on those subtle gestures between people that are so natural to their relationships that they become almost imperceptible. These acts, between the men in the park and between them and me, are the mundane blocks from which significant relationships are built.

Before I explore these foundations of social life, however, I want to tell the story of my closest friend, The Great. I do not suppose that the reasons men live in the park can be captured fully from their own accounts. There are certainly broader processes involved. But my aim here is to provide one intimate portrait that reveals some of the realities of life in Park of 9. I offer a series of ethnographic vignettes which highlight the importance of sharing among the men in the park. This includes seemingly small acts, such as bumming cigarettes and lighting two cigarettes with one match, but also more substantial actions, such as borrowing tea and sugar, or one man buying the bones for the evening meal to be shared by all. David Graeber (2011) writes of the “sociology of everyday communism”. I hope to argue here that ‘everyday communism’ allows the men in Park of 9 to make and extend their community through time. Everyday communism, as practised by these men, also forms and maintains distinctions between insiders and outsiders in the park. Speaking reflexively, I too experienced the gestures of everyday communism in the park, along with the awkward sensation of straddling the insider/outsider distinction. This focus foregrounds a question: Who in the park has access to what and under what conditions? To answer this question we need to understand how the gambling that goes on there is one response to the sense of uncertainty the men feel. In a way they see their own lives as a kind of gambling. It is the activity in which uncertainty and risk are most visibly engaged with and talked about in the park. Gambling often has social consequences and is crucially used as a metaphor for daily life by the men in the park; they constitute their own reality through it. Is gambling also a form of everyday communism? Certainly it is an apt lens through which to view their shared situation.

The Great: the profligate pretender

As a new resident of Gezina, I first met The Great one afternoon while trying to organise a guard for some cars that would be parked outside my apartment that evening. In a rushed conversation, he introduced himself by the name he always uses for potential employers, Ernest. We agreed on reasonable remuneration for an evening’s work. After I had paid him that evening, we did not see each other for a while. A setback in my research a few weeks later, however, forced me onto the streets again, looking for an entry into the life of the suburb I wanted to research, partly because I lived there. The heat of a February afternoon yielded nothing but fruitless conversations, anxiety and doubt over whether I would ever come to grips with what was happening on streets that I had expected to be speckled with ethnographic gold dust. On my walk home, I ran into Ernest on his usual corner of Steve Biko Road and Flowers Street, languidly sitting on his paint canister guarding the cars with a newspaper rolled up in his hand and smiling furtively from under his peak cap. Driven by the suggestion in his impish grin that he knew all there was to know about Gezina life, I approached him with a cigarette and accepted his invitation to sit and talk a while. I was stunned by how lucid certain realities of Gezina became in his conversation, even if I was too anxious to take notes that afternoon. After some time, The Great and I walked to and through the park only a block away. I had barely noticed it before.

We were greeted by uncomfortable stares and silence. While I felt awkward as an outsider, I sat beside The Great and another man, whose greeting was as gravelly as the ground on which we sat, where he tossed a worn box of cards. When The Great asked me for R20 in a whisper, I realised how quickly he had taken advantage of my mention in our previous conversation of being interested in studying street life in Gezina and saw me as a potential sponsor for his gambling. Since I was in no mood to exaggerate the obvious tension my presence had created in the park, I quickly produced the money and watched how the two men dealt the cards, accumulated and discarded them while splitting and reforming the money in a host of different divisions and combinations. The Great lost my R20 in the end and walked me back to the street corner before saying goodbye. My friendship with him (I never called him Ernest again) and experience of the Park of 9 began on that clumsy afternoon.

Inside and Outside the Park of 9

On many walks around Gezina and during all the hours spent in the park since, I listened to The Great’s 42 year-old story and especially about the four years he had lived in the park. Born in Mpumalanga province, The Great lived in and around Hectorspruit for most of his life. He was 27 when his mother, with whom he lived after his father’s death, passed away. He then left Mpumalanga for Pretoria. His two sisters, both of them married, had also moved away from home. It was they who had taught him how to gamble. They were employed as domestic workers and he would visit them during the day where they worked to play card games. His remaining family felt he was not capable of running his parents’ household and gave the responsibility to “some Mozambican man” who The Great said was “looking after my daddy’s house until I can come back”. This homecoming has proved difficult, however, with The Great struggling to put together the money that would prove to his family he could run things. His efforts ranged from working at a supermarket in Garsfontein, fixing truck engines in Pretoria north, gardening at a Silverton home and doing handyman work all around the city. After spending 11 years roaming the city, never staying in one place for very long (he lived in Mamelodi, Ga-Rankuwa, Shoshanguve, in friends’ houses and on the street), he joined a friend one evening at a dice game in the Park of 9. As he started to spend more time and money gambling in the park, The Great slowly got to know the men and the social organisation there. Growing into the life of the park, which has come to be the closest thing to a home for him in Pretoria, involved employing specific devices to navigate this new and potentially dangerous – physically and socially — environment. For instance, he never used his real name with the men in the park. His introduction to the park was “very difficult and dangerous”, he said.

The Great tells a story from this time that illustrates the lengths he went to in building relationships of trust with the other men. One evening a dice game was raided by a police van driving by. The Great, who was still new to the area and not yet adept at avoiding such raids, was caught by three officers while trying to get out of the park. After being beaten up viciously and jeered at for smelling like beer, the police asked him who had been the nox-man5 of the game. Knowing that the police were looking to pin the guilt on someone quickly6 – indeed the relationship between the men in the park and the state is made clearest by the hasty nonchalance of the violence that the police inflict on them – The Great admitted to being the nox-man, although he was not. The police threatened him with prison unless he paid over his winnings. These were only about R40 he says, but he paid them over and in doing rid the park of a police presence for the rest of the evening.

The story of The Great’s false confession and bribery of the police illustrates both how he made the transition from outsider to insider among the men in the park and how relationships there are formed and negotiated through gambling. In this case, by admitting his part in the dice game, The Great placated the police who are a frequent and often violent source of disruption to life in the park. In this way he proved that he had the men’s interests in mind and could be trusted. I sat with another friend, Phillias, many afternoons while he excitedly read out the newspaper advertisements of government departments (finding them to be the height of comedy). More than once he laughed, recalling how “stupid” The Great had been to be beaten up that evening. The Great grins in his turn, but insists that only after taking the fall for the dice game did the men in the park start to accept him.

While I never went to those lengths to be accepted, I never really escaped from the ambivalence of being both an insider and an outsider in the park. Although my presence there became less awkward over time, I could still be reminded of my status as an outsider, sometimes quite explicitly. For instance, one evening in spring (I had already spent more than half of the year hanging out in the park), as The Great and I walked through the park, Eric stepped into our path from the circle around the fire and demanded of The Great, “Wat maak die wit man weer hier?” [What is the white man doing here again?]. Eric, a grave individual in his late thirties who worked as a handyman in the area and commanded a good deal of respect from the others for his no-nonsense approach and famed ability as a fighter, had never been comfortable with my being there. When The Great claimed one evening around the fire that I brought him luck, it only served to exacerbate the tension between us. And so Eric and The Great now had a heated confrontation, fuelled by the drinking that had already taken place that evening. Eric swore to kill me if The Great did not take me away. The Great was not as perturbed as I was and he led me a little distance away from the fire, where we sat down to smoke and converse. At times, however, I was able to use techniques of my own to blur the insider and outsider distinction. Sharing, for example, is a key way for the men themselves to mark social boundaries in the park and it allowed me to bridge the gaps between myself and the park regulars and build some kind of relationship with them. I shared many cigarettes during the course of my research, even with Eric with whom I sometimes discussed his work and shared a laugh. During the winter I sported a formidable beard, which he found ridiculous and mocked me for looking like a boer7. But no methodological nuance would have allowed me access to the social realities of the Park of 9 without my simple and strong friendship with The Great.

By the time I met him, he was already an authoritative figure in the park. Not long after his false confession to the police he had found a more regular source of income guarding cars outside a machinery store on the corner of Steve Biko and Flowers. While he admits to having had better paying jobs in the past, he has held onto this one for the last four years. Given the frequency of The Great’s job changes before he came to the park and his desire for more economic security, it is curious that he stuck it out on a Gezina street corner, guarding cars for less than he made elsewhere. Perhaps this is related to the community he and others built as regulars in the park, a subject to which I turn in the next two sections.

A sociology of everyday communism: sharing in the Park of 9

Small community has been the basis of human life and for this reason is of special interest in anthropology’s effort at discerning that which is basic. (Peacock 2004: 39)

A great deal of what I did in the Park of 9 involved the smoking of cigarettes. It is only retrospectively that I now appreciate what a stroke of luck it was for me as a fieldworker to be a smoker when hanging out in the park. Sharing or bumming cigarettes and matches began most of my conversations with the men in the park and of the relationships I built with some of them as well. Indeed, my friendship with The Great began with smoking. Later it became a standing joke that I smoked too much. The Great often adopted an instructor’s tone when we were together. I had asked him to teach me how to play 7-card, but his teaching extended to other issues including cigarettes. One afternoon he scoffed at me for using my own match to light a cigarette after he had already used a match to light one I had given him – “We save matches here,” he said. After that, I rigorously imitated the elaborate sharing practices that surrounded smoking in the park. Matches are always shared, as The Great taught me, by lighting at least two cigarettes with one match. A cigarette is always shared by at least two men and it is uncommon to see someone finish a cigarette alone; the last few drags are always given to someone sitting nearby. I never opened my box of cigarettes without offering them to those around me, who would always accept, and the men in the park, me included, would often buy loose draws8 for our companions if we were buying for ourselves. So natural did these types of sharing become to me while I was in the park that only on re-reading my notes did I realise how frequent they were. It was striking that this habit masked their frequency. David Graeber (2011: 89) holds that understanding the moral grounds of human life — and of anthropology — must begin with small things: actions, sentiments and gestures that ordinarily we would never stop to notice, but which nevertheless saturate everyday sociality. I agree with him.

Re-reading notes also made me notice how much of social life in the park resulted in, or was prompted by, sharing. The sharing engaged in by smokers could be seen as being universal (Graeber 2011: 97); and it has been observed amongst street people the world over (e.g. Snow & Anderson 1993: 173). Not all sociality is based on sharing cigarettes, but sharing cigarettes is a reliable mechanism for developing sociality9. Sharing in the park went further though. For instance, the old paint canisters in which many men kept their clothing, blankets and other personal items were also used to store basic food stuffs like tea, coffee and sugar. These foodstuffs, although held individually, were shared around the park to the extent that they could almost be seen as common goods. Every day I would see men jogging across the park to ask someone for a tea bag or the like. Moreover, on most evenings the men would cook pap and bones10 to be shared around a fire for supper. The pap came from one of the men’s personal stores, while another would buy the packet of bones from a man (whose name I never learnt) who passed through the park every evening selling bones and venison meat.

These moments of sharing are hard to describe because of their brevity. But the pattern is so frequent and pervasive in the park that they become the most constant characteristic of relationships there. It is most noticeable when the principle of sharing is breached. One afternoon while I was playing cards with The Great, an enraged man approached us, accusing The Great at the top of his lungs. It turned out he thought The Great – who immediately took up a defensive-aggressive posture – owed him R2 for a loose draw the man had bought him a week before. This was the only conversation I witnessed that grabbed the attention of the entire park, which went eerily quiet. While the man tried to take his R2 from the money lying between The Great and me (with which we were gambling), Phillias and two other men came from across the park, where they had been starting the evening fire, and grabbed him under his arms, pulling him away and warning him that he was out of order.

The man’s allegations against The Great and the reaction of everyone in the park towards him show clearly the communistic nature of sharing: it is astonishing and even insulting that any account should be kept of something like ‘bumming’ a cigarette. And in much the same way, no shared tea bag or cup full of pap was ever tallied or tabbed. Graeber is careful to distance his discussion of this sort of everyday communism from ‘communism’ as a utopian political project leading to the withering away of the state or to collective ownership. Rather, he identifies a more mundane kind of communism which he defines as any human interaction that functions on a principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” (2011: 94). He argues that this type of communism “is the foundation of all human sociability” (2011: 96, original emphasis) and that all social systems, including economic institutions, are built on a base of already existing communistic relations even though they cannot be organised along communistic lines alone.

My encounters in the park made me more acutely aware of the foundational importance of this type of relations. The daily activities of the men there are not shaped by the sort of market relations or interactions with state bureaucracy that are characteristic of contemporary city life – they pay no tax, mortgage or insurance, they have no bank accounts, their purchases at stores are limited to essential foodstuffs when they can afford them, and so on. Social relationships are thus less entangled with formal institutions and the communism identified by Graeber, while not the only form of social organisation, becomes far more evident. Moreover, the uncertainty that characterises life in the park calls for greater innovation when approaching day-to-day situations. Outcomes are not as predictable as they may be in a formal economic routine (Hart 2010: 142) and so the men are forced to approach them with constant invention. In a context of acute uncertainty, the men in the park, who are essentially strangers often from vastly different cultural, geographical, and even national backgrounds, become something more like neighbours or even brothers by sharing in the way they do.

In the earlier stages of my research, the only kind of relationship I could initiate, outside of my friendship with The Great, was as a donor to the men begging from me in the park. Cigarettes were given rather than shared; this kind of giving is transient and the pleasantries are superficial. There is no reason for the two parties to see each other again. As I spent more time in the park, however, this type of interaction was slowly replaced by one of sharing. The relationships were no longer one way. I was now offered as many cigarettes as I offered; I sat and shared in meals and beer around the fire. In this way my relations with the men in the park shifted from being a blatant outsider at first to something less easy to define but more intimately involved through sharing.11

I had other insider and outsider relationships in the park apart from these. There were often men there, and sometimes women, who only spent an afternoon there every now and again and yet others whom I would see for one day and never again. These passers-by visited the park usually to catch up on sleep on the grass banks or to watch the gambling and sometimes join in a game. I never once saw a regular share anything with these people, nor did any of them sit around the fire taking part in casual conversation. The drug dealers in the park, whose position outside of the community I will discuss later, also never shared with the men I hung out with; rather they smoked their own cigarettes, drank their own beer and sat in their own corner of the park. This is consistent with Hart’s assertion that communities regulate themselves internally and informally – that is, through tacit customs, conventions and regulations rather than state-made laws – and regulation in such communities usually relies on “the sanction of exclusion” (2005).

The Great once said to me that he would never make a friend in the park, because you can never truly trust someone fighting for his own economic survival; yet he often expressed familial sentiments when referring to the men in the park. For instance, my landlord, who was suspicious of the amount of time I spent in such an unsavoury public space, once asked The Great what I was doing there. He seemed to think that I had a drug problem. The Great laughed about “that fat white man” and gave me a guarantee: “We [the men in the park] will never tell. We stay together and they [anyone not intimately involved in the goings on of the park] must never know anything.” How though, in a situation where conditions are so uncertain, can this communistic ethic be maintained?

The ‘merry-go-round’: gambling in the Park of 9

The Great said of gambling that money is “like a merry-go-round; it always comes and always goes”. And if sharing is the core of relationships in the Park of 9, the most popular activity there is gambling. During the day, the park is mainly a recreational space, dotted with the occasional man selling loose draws, people doing their washing, marijuana buyers and passers-by. The most common image is of a circle of men sitting on paint canisters or spread out on the grass around a game of cards and talking. Three different gambling games are played in the park: two card games, 7-card and 13-card, and dice. The card games, which I eventually became quite proficient at, are more relaxed and conversational. Life outside the games is discussed while they are being played – soccer results from the previous weekend, retelling and joking about what happened at the weekend, complaints about the government and especially the police, stories of work or failed attempts at getting work, and so on – and I have never witnessed any argument or accusation of cheating in a card game. In fact, the only discordant moment I ever experienced was the row surrounding the loose draw I described earlier. Rather, men teasingly recall times when they had been ‘hit’ in a card game and are even willing to show their hands to other players and spectators and receive advice on how to play them.

A winning hand (‘trick’) in 7-card consists of eight cards (including the pick-up), of which six must be two sets of three which are either a run in a suit (i.e. 5,6,7 of clubs – which is called ‘currinan’ in the park, while diamonds are called ‘dice’, and spades ‘scope’.) or three of a kind (i.e. 3 jacks). Two players are dealt seven cards and then pick up (either from the deck or the card that the other player discards) and discard one card per turn until a winning hand is achieved. Each player bets R10 per hand or R5 if a player does not have enough money with him to bet R10. There is no ‘house’ or ‘bank’ involved in the betting – the only bets and exchanges which take place are those between the two players. 13-card is a very similar game, where a winning hand consists of fourteen cards, of which twelve must be three sets of four which are either a run in a suit or four of a kind, and each player is dealt thirteen cards.

Dice, on the other hand, is a high stakes game, which I never had the nerve to even consider playing, and is characterised by higher wins and losses, and a constant threat of violence: I have often seen men cut and bloody as results of brawls around a dice board. These fights are more often than not caused by accusations of cheating. Such is its complexity and the speed of play that even by the end of my time in the park I had not developed a nuanced understanding of dice. Conventionally it is played on a large carton board, roughly a metre square. There is a varying number of players (I have seen dice games between up to four players) who bet increasing amounts of money as the game progresses (the highest bets were R150, but I have heard tell of R400 bets). Each man has his turn to roll the two dice and bet money on their own rolls as well as those of other players. The different combinations rolled determine the outcome of the betting and the game. They may allow a roller to roll again, force him to pass the dice on to the next player, win him the money that has been bet or win the money bet for one of the non-rolling players. The bets are overseen by a nox-man, who also provides the dice for the game and is meant to ensure that no cheating takes place. Bets are called and agreed on through the nox-man; he oversees raises of the sums being gambled with and confirms that the players are happy with the bets. The high stakes often attract players from outside the park and more attention from police. As a result, some of the themes that I address here – the relationship between the men in the park and the state, the nature of the community of men there and the dynamic between those who belong to that community and those outside it – play out more visibly in the context of dice games than anywhere else.

Dice by Candlelight

After spending the lunchtime hours playing 13-card with The Great, Madala, Rasta and Phillias, I was invited by The Great to come and watch a dice game in the park later that afternoon. I entered the park, as I usually did, by the vendor stall on Flower Street and, after exchanging the customary gruff greetings with Big Mos (one of three marijuana dealers in the park, who commanded a good deal of authority) and Eric, I realised that the game had already begun behind the services centre (a 3m square walled structure housing the park’s irrigation systems and the like) on the western end of the park. The sounds around the dice board became apparent as I drew nearer.

As mentioned, the large square carton board provides a flat surface on which to roll the dice. This game involves a great deal more money than others played in the park, is played at an often frenetic pace and often attracts men who are not regulars of the park. As a result, it is always played under risk of accusations of cheating12 and hence of violence. The surface, which allows for fairer rolling, is thus crucial to the maintenance of order around the gambling, although this order is sometimes broken.

On arrival, I drew a cigarette and offered one to Rasta who was watching the game, while The Great, without looking at me, accepted another which I slid over his shoulder. I had not met many of the men playing and watching before and was greeted by a series of sceptical and silent stares in the first few moments, something that made Rasta chuckle quietly alongside me. Lighting my cigarette I stood back with him and some others watching the game. The men were playing dice in its most common form, a game I was then struggling to grasp. Clearly it was the highest stakes game and it attracted the biggest audiences. A quick glance at the numerous R100 notes exchanging hands across the board and the energy of the ten or so men surrounding the five intently crouched over the clattering dice confirmed this. It was entirely unlike the more deliberate, conversationalist card games I had become used to. The Great was having a bad night and his pleading with the dice as they rolled across the board, “Sweetheart! Come my sweetheart, please my baby!” were often followed by a frustrated, “Agh shit man! Shit!”

After watching for some time I met a young man, Xolani, who like me had been patrolling the edge of the game. Being similar in age and both from the Eastern Cape, conversation with Xolani was easy and, after realising we were both very new to the gambling in the park, we discussed its meaning and purpose before sharing stories about various places in the Eastern Cape. A shrill whistle suddenly interrupted us, splitting the air and stifling the drone around the dice board. In the time it took me to realise that the whistle had come from Eric perched on the fence at the bottom of the park, a position I had imagined was casual, the entire game disappeared in front of me and all the men, gathering their particulars quickly, were agitatedly glancing towards Flowers Street as they began to jog gently towards the opposite end of the park. Naively recalling that dice playing was illegal, I was the last to realise that a police van had parked on the Flower Street sidewalk.

All sense of anthropology and fieldwork immediately forgotten, I caught up with The Great who was breathing heavily and in quite a panic near the end of the park, but still laughing at me. From our position in the thick shadows provided by the wall that runs the length of the park, separating it from the apartments and businesses on Voortrekkers Road, we watched the police. He had learnt a lot about their movements since that first experience and seemed confident that they posed no real threat. While I fidgeted behind him, an adrenaline rush told me that confidence at a time like this would be reckless. The van lingered for a short while at the bottom of the park and then left. After a short wait, the men re-established their game. The Great was by now fed up with his losses and I went with him to investigate whether the police had truly left and to fetch some candles for the dice board (the dark was setting in). Along with many of the personal possessions of the men sleeping in the park, the candles are kept in the roof of a structure meant to provide shade in a play park at the southern end. Our time away from the game was dominated by The Great’s lamentations over his losses. “They’re eating me tonight. These guys, they’re stealing from me, man. I don’t know how, I can’t see them, but I’m telling you they’re stealing from me.”

On rejoining the game, which had already re-established its frantic tempo, we lit and placed some candles on the board, and stood back to join the onlookers in conversation and commentary. The Great teasingly suggested that the next time I came to a dice game it should be at night, next to a fire and by candlelight: “Now it’s not dangerous, now we just play. We eat, we eat, we eat!” I listened intently to the men crooning to their dice before they clattered them across the board, “Come now my love, my sweetheart”, clicking their fingers every time they did so and then energetically exclaiming the numbers they hoped to roll, “Eish! 3210! (a well-known model of Nokia cell phone, and reference to a roll of 3 and 2)”; “Ei! Four one!” Comments from player to player concerning each other’s play were also common – “Ja, jy, jy speel soos Bheki Cele13 nou [Yes, you’re playing like Bheki Cele now]!” and the game reached a crescendo when a young player who was doing very well – I had not seen him in the park before that evening – stood up in boisterous exhortation, “My money is my money! That is my money!” The same player, after an eventual losing streak some ten minutes later, stood up in a fluster, muttering to himself about being robbed, and left the group to go and sit alone underneath a nearby tree for a while. There he spoke to himself and gestured for a few minutes before returning to take his place at the board.


This short account illustrates some key aspects of the dynamics between the men in the park and specifically how those dynamics play out in the context of gambling. A key component of taking a risk is to expose oneself to unforeseen outcomes. As a result, the theme of exposure and concealment is crucial to a discussion of the how the men gamble in the Park of 9. Dice is in some ways an exception to other forms of betting in the park, since far more care is taken to keep the game from the view of the police. I was unaware of the extent of this care until I reflected on Eric’s strategic but casual position at the bottom of the park during the evening just described, from where he could quickly warn the players of any police presence. Indeed, on The Great’s advice, I have only attended night time Dice games since that skittish jolt in the face of the gomogomo (police).

Despite its heightened concealment, Dice is perhaps the most eagerly watched of the games played in the park. And so, concealed from the greater park, but exposed to a compact, select and eager audience, Dice remains and even exemplifies a site where complex relationships between insider and outsider in the park are negotiated and appropriated towards various ends, as I have mentioned earlier. Spectators are considered to be not involved or not fully aware of what is going on – as was confirmed by my cool reception, the minimal interaction between those gambling and those watching and the loosely established physical boundaries between crouching gambler and standing or walking observer. The audience are just recipients of the players’ performance, as when the young man stood up and exclaimed at large about his money. Players and audience are aware of the performative risks, in particular the risk of personal embarrassment.

The content of the performances themselves is also interesting. The names given to the various combinations rolled (3210) and the pleas with which the men roll the dice (sweetheart, baby), for instance, speak to how the gamblers express aspects of everyday life in the context of the game. The structure of the game and its performance are open-ended enough to allow the players to bring in elements from their lives outside. These elements are as varied as the nationalities and ethnicities of men in the park, involving contemporary politics and modern technologies14. Indeed, constant feminine references as the men roll their dice were the most explicit mention of women I heard the men make. Aside from a few conversations with The Great, when he said that he would never have a wife, only a ‘cherrie’15, and the few and intermittent visits by women to the park, the presence or mention of women there are very limited. Considering that most of the men are homeless, sleep outside the local liquor store or in the park itself and spend most of their days hanging out or working informally, the irregular presence of women in their lives surely extends beyond my observations. The men express this in their gambling in a very animated and deliberate way.

While gambling in the park involves material stakes – the risk of losing money – the simultaneous social stakes make the dice board, and to a less palpable extent the circles around card games, a location which provides insight into how the men in the park confront and make sense of day-to-day existence. These social stakes refer to the performative risks – the animated rolling of the dice, the various verbal expressions, how men deal with loss or success in the face of the other players and those watching, and so on –together with the obvious legal and monetary risks of gambling.

Performative gambling as a way of symbolically condensing everyday life and understanding it differently or of making commentary on it, is of course not limited to the Park of 9. It does, however, allow me to address why gambling is important in the park. Any gambler must ultimately confront the idea of their own eventual loss (if it were truly believed that gambling yielded net winnings, it would be a far more celebrated and engaged form of economic activity), which adds to gambling’s significance in this context.

Graeber points out the ease with which communistic relations can slip into relations of hierarchy. Under the conditions of uncertainty which characterise these men’s daily lives, such a shift is very easy. In fact, given their struggle for economic security, one would expect relations to be predominantly hierarchical. All forms of gambling there do not rely on a ‘house’, but rather take place directly between the gamblers themselves. Also, over time, the winnings and losses of any player, with some exceptions, tend to even out. While I had many conversations around card games of big winnings or losses, they seemed always to have happened outside of the park. This evening out of wins and losses is revealed by how the card games in the park work. While some skill, patience and awareness of which cards have been drawn and played are required for successful performance, the games are ultimately based on 50/50 chances. They take place between two players, one of which loses a given trick while the other wins it. In any game, one player may lose or win more tricks than the other, but the even chances translate into a general 50/50 ratio over time.

This situation is captured in The Great’s comment about gambling in the park as a ‘merry-go-round’; coming and going. Considering that the money used to gamble in the park is made either from gambling elsewhere or in their various forms of day-to-day employment, the games can be seen as a process redistributing money among the men in the park. This redistribution adopts specifically non-hierarchical forms, as evidenced by the absence from any of the forms of gambling in the park of a house or bank (which, as any statistician will tell you, always wins). Madala told me laughingly, “We have gambling. Every day we have gambling. Sometimes also we have work. So we make money and we gamble with that money; this is the way it is.” And, while The Great constantly referred to work as an essential source of income, he always maintained that what he earned guarding cars he would gamble, describing gambling as a source of “sure money” and “fast money”.

Drug dealers in the park never join any gambling activity, which says something. Of all the park’s denizens, they make the most money and consistently, offering something in constant demand not only by the men in the park, but also by an array of buyers from the surrounding area (I have seen school children, for instance, on many occasions buying marijuana in a corner of the park). They thus occupy an economically dominant position relative to the rest. Consequently, they do not engage at all with the everyday sociality of the park (characterised by sharing) nor in any of the gambling. This adds up to a sort of economic hierarchy, as when regulars often act as lookouts for the drug dealers for example; and it would interfere with the communistic ethos of the rest of the park.

It is also revealing that while all the regulars acknowledge drug dealing as the easiest way to make money, the great majority of them choose not to deal themselves. Rather, they take part in the everyday sociability of life in the park – working and earning money where they can, socialising, eating, cleaning and hanging out in the park (all of which occupations involve sharing between the men) – and gambling of course. So gambling in the park, as a non-hierarchical process with redistributive results, can be seen as the practice or structure through which the pre-conditions of everyday communistic relations there are maintained, even under circumstances of extreme uncertainty. Were the men living in the park left to fend for themselves economically speaking, they would face an even greater battle for survival on the street. I have often sat with The Great when he had earned a pitiful R100 from guarding cars for a week. Gambling in the park, however, allows the men to distribute, more or less equally, the money they make there and whatever is brought in from outside.


I have given a glimpse of day-to-day realities in the Park of 9 – of the flavour of life lived in the park – drawing on ethnographic accounts of my experiences, observations and interactions. I have tried to convey a sense of the community that exists among the men there. I have told the story of how my closest friend, The Great, came to live there, including some aspects of my own relationship with him and some of the difficulties I experienced at first, in order to highlight the distinction between outsiders and insiders in the park’s community. I have discussed how these distinctions are maintained and overcome. When the struggle for economic survival is never far below the surface, one might expect relationships characterised by dominance and hierarchy rather than sharing. This is not so. I have presented sharing in the park as typical of what David Graeber has called ‘everyday communism’ – acts and gestures so ordinary that they pass almost unnoticed in everyday relations, but which nevertheless form the building blocks of those relations. Thus the men in the park, through acts of everyday communism, change the nature of their relationships; strangers become neighbours and outcasts become brothers.

Throughout this work I have discussed the Park of 9 as a space and as a community of men. I may have implied that the social reality there is static. This is, of course, not the case. The Great’s story, especially the haphazard years of wandering he went through before arriving in the park, shows that there is nothing permanent in all this. Moreover, the transience which is ever-present in life on the street can be seen manifested in the passers-by – people who are not part of the community of some twenty-five park regulars. Towards the end of my research, even The Great, such a central feature and character in the park, was considering leaving permanently to find better living conditions. He conceded that it was a more expensive choice, but he was fed up with the hassle of summer thunder storms while living on the street. What I have presented here, then, must be seen as the product of what I was privileged to observe and to be a part of during the course of a year in the Park of 9 and not a definitive statement either about the park or the men who live there.



Gilbert, A. and Gugler, J. 1992. Cities, poverty, and development: urbanization in the Third World. Oxford: Oxford University.

Graeber, D. 2011. Debt: The first 5000 years. New York: Melville House.

Graeber, D. 2012. On social currencies and human economies: some notes on the violence of equivalence. Social Anthropology, 20(4): 411-428.

Hart, K. 2005. Notes towards an anthropology of money. Kritikos, 2: [sp].

Hart, K. 2010. Informal Economy. In: Hart, K. Laville, J-L. and Cattani, A.D. (eds). The Human Economy: A Citizen’s Guide. Cambridge: Polity, pp. 142-153

Malaby, T.M. 2003. Gambling life: dealing in contingency in a Greek city. Urbana: University of Illinois.

Mitchell, D. 2003. The right to the city: social justice and the fight for public space. New York: The Guilford Press.

Peacock, J. 2004. The anthropological lens: harsh light, soft focus. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Radford, R. A. 1945. The Economic Organisation of a P.O.W. Camp. Economica, 12(48): 189-201

Reed, A. 2011. Number-One Enemy: Police, Violence and the Location of Adversaries in a Papa New Guinea Prison. Oceania, 81(1): 22-35.

Snow, D.A. and Anderson, L. 1993.Down on their luck: a study of homeless street people. Berkeley: University of California.

Van der Vlies, A. 2013. The People, the Multitude, and the Costs of Privacy in South Africa’s Postcolony. RESPONSE, Cultural Studies, DOI:10.1080/09502386.2013.769155

Weber, M. 1958. The City. London: Heinemann.

Weber, M. 2004. ‘Basic sociological concepts’ in Whimster (ed) The Essential Weber: A reader. London: Routledge.



Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Keith Hart and Huon Wardle for their comments and guidance throughout the writing of this paper, and also to Justin Shaffner for his editorial assistance. I must also thank John Sharp, Jimmy Pieterse, Detlev Krige, and Fraser McNeill for their patience and advice throughout my research. The paper also benefited greatly from the comments of my peers at the University of Pretoria.

1 The South African Rand (ZAR)/US Dollar exchange rate was around $1 = R7.50 at the beginning of my research and was R8.60 by the end of it.

2 Being ‘hit’ is to lose money while gambling, and is always expressed by the men in the park by energetically slapping the side of their neck. Here The Great was referring to a loss he suffered against The Cowboy.

3 Andrew van der Vlies has argued – and I agree with him – that in post-apartheid South Africa there is a void in the national commons, leaving the people unrepresented, so that “they seek, in various and embryonic ways, to assert themselves as unified claimants on the commons that has been and is being denied them, to find, in often messy and imperfect ways, what it means to have something in common with the people who surround us all” (2013: 19). Van der Vlies is writing about the national commons, but a similar void has led the men in the park to claim it as theirs.

4 Soldaat, meaning soldier, is a reference to a pair of army boots and a long army coat I wore in the park during the winter months, and is a nickname I was given by The Great.

5 The nox-man provides the dice for a game and oversees the bets called by the players. While none of the money goes directly through him, his function is to keep order in the game. He handles accusations of cheating and the like and sees that it does not erupt into violence – which I show later is so often a feature of dice games.

6 The raids in the park – both those I witnessed or was a part of and those I heard of – never resulted in serious legal action. Rather, they usually ended in verbal and physical harassment of the men in the park and a bribe.

7 The men in the park use boer not to refer to farmers (its direct translation), but rather to white Afrikaners and particularly those with right-wing tendencies.

8 These are single cigarettes, usually bought from men walking around the park with a carton or from the vendor on the north-eastern corner of the park.

9 Cigarettes are the most constant marker of interactions in the park. They never made there the radical evolution in function from commodity to currency that Radford (1945) witnessed in Second World War PoW camps. But we may note that in the park too, daily life was constructed under oppressive conditions of material scarcity and vulnerability. Reed also noted the importance of sharing cigarettes in shaping the ambiguous and aggressive relations to the state of the inmates in a Papa New Guinea prison, where they are used to establish and mark associations and identities (2011: 25).

10 This is an inexpensive and filling meal consisting of a cooked bag of stewing bones with chunks of meat, eaten with pap (meal).

11 I do not claim that I ever stopped being an outsider. I mean here rather the encouraging redefinition of role expectations I referred to earlier in the introduction.

12 The accusations I have witnessed vary from men playing with tampered dice to men playing with the aid of witchcraft and muti.

13 This refers to South Africa’s former police commissioner, now under investigation for official spending irregularities, suggesting that someone’s playing looks dodgy.

14 The men in the park often identify each other’s ethnic and national differences through gambling, and I often heard stories of how “that Zulu gambler” had ‘hit’ someone, or how risky it is to play against Zimbabwean dice players. Also political references are not limited to Bheki Cele, or technological references to the Nokia 3210.

15 A ‘cherrie’ can be loosely understood as a girlfriend. Such a relationship does not however involve strict sexual commitments or loyalty.

Posted in Working Papers | 3 Comments

Negro With a Hat

Book Review Series
ISSN 2045-5755 (Online)

Huon Wardle
University of St. Andrews

© 2013 Huon Wardle
Creative Commons License
Open Anthropology Cooperative Press

Download as PDF, EPUB, MOBI.

GRANT, Colin. 2008. Negro With a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey and His Dream of a Mother Africa. London: Jonathan Cape.

Marcus Garvey. Image from the Library of Congress collection.

Marcus Garvey. Image from the Library of Congress collection.

In the summer of 1925, the most frequent play in the Harlem ‘policy’ numbers game was 19359: those were the digits that the Atlanta federal penitentiary had assigned to inmate Marcus Mosiah Garvey, recently jailed for ‘mail fraud’. African Americans across the continent had already taken a massive bet on Garvey when they bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of shares in his Black Star Line; Garvey had envisioned a fleet of ships that would rival Cunard’s White Star Line or the United Fruit Company’s Great White Fleet. The difference would be that the Black Star Liners would be manned by black seamen and give passage to black passengers; and they would carry beleaguered black people back from the Americas to their homeland, Africa. Garvey’s prosecution for misuse of the U.S. mail struck the last nail in the coffin of an already faltering Black Star Line, but curiously next to none of these multiple thousands of people who had placed their money on Garvey’s dream came forward to assist the U.S. Justice Department in his downfall. In the decades after the First World War, and well into the 1930s, millions of people across the U.S., in the West Indies and in South and Central America joined Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). He was the leader of the single biggest black internationalist movement that has ever existed, but a decade after his death in London Garvey seemed already almost forgotten: only the Rastafarians of Jamaica continued to revere the one time ‘provisional President of Africa’, as their ‘John the Baptist’.

Reflections on Garvey typically reach for the word ‘enigma’, ‘enigmatic’. Speaking for myself, I first noticed him when I began fieldwork in Jamaica early in the 1990s. There he was, a self-repeating presence amongst the many murals painted on the zinc and chipboard walls of house-yards in downtown Kingston: always the same image – the bullish, proud face in semi-profile and, of course, the striking bicorn hat plumed with ostrich feathers. I am late, though, in reviewing Colin Grant’s biography; originally published in 2008 there is now a Vintage edition where he adds a forward explaining his choice of eponym -‘negro with a hat’ – a title I have not been alone in finding odd. The choice of phrase, he suggests, was deliberately aimed at alienating the reader: the author describes his experience at an exhibition where a photograph of a white man was simply titled ‘man with a hat’, while a black man became ‘negro with a hat’. Was not the ‘negro’ also a ‘man’? Thus explained, his aim becomes more obvious – is it possible for us to see beyond Garvey, the ‘negro with a hat’? At over five hundred painstakingly researched pages, including nearly twenty of bibliography and footnotes, this is clearly the definitive biography and has been widely praised. As we read, the protagonist takes different shapes on the page, engages in varied, sometimes mundane, sometimes strikingly eccentric, acts (making an unannounced visit to the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, for example).

Exploring Garvey’s mass support

Grant shows in comprehensive detail how a flood of money and support enabled the UNIA’s diverse projects; from black run laundries and restaurants in Harlem to black crewed ships and black aviators. The UNIA was backed by a complex coalition of refugee sharecroppers, Central American plantation and industrial workers, longshoremen and New York urbanites who offered money, and in many cases idolization, and to whom Garvey answered in his famously orotund way. There are gaps in the discussion, however. Garvey and his UNIA was above all an intrusion of the utopian and the fantastic into the actually existing American society of the time: explaining this in turn calls out for a type of socio-cultural interpretation that this book perhaps avoids engaging in.

Understandably enough, the bulk of the text is taken up with the period just after the First World War until the mid-1920s when Garvey’s fortunes were rapidly transformed and his ideas began to be treated seriously, even religiously, within a mass movement. Arriving in New York in 1916, one more clever, book-learned West Indian, leader of an obscure ‘association’ for ‘negro improvement’ with a hand full of followers, Garvey’s carefully nurtured skills as an orator abruptly caught the public attention of Harlem. Harlem was itself in a process of change beyond recognition due to ever increasing black immigration both from the Caribbean and from the U.S. South. Southerners were coming in great numbers to escape racist violence, Caribbean industrial workers were arriving too, often en route from the recently completed Panama Canal, while educated middle class West Indians were here establishing an income and an outlet for self-expression; all converging on what would become, for a while, the unrivalled artistic and intellectual epicentre of black social life in the Americas. Just a few years after his arrival from Jamaica, Garvey, initially by way of relentless soapboxing, had gathered tens, then hundreds of thousands of followers for his UNIA; much to the irritation of eminent black sociologist W.E.B. Dubois who already ran the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Dubois increasingly viewed Garvey as an upstart foreign nuisance who was damaging the cause of black social progress in the U.S. Coming from the West Indies, where colour and class were understood differently, Garvey saw Dubois as a member of the brown elite, as someone whose interests were allied with the whites in power.

We can gain some sense of the chord Garvey struck by looking at his speeches, of which he sold phonograph recordings, along with his newspaper Negro World. Garvey personifies an era in which political charisma could fuse with mechanical reproduction and trigger a mass response. Listening to or reading his words now is a curious experience, because the message is a strange mix. A central motif is the ballad of the self-made man: Garvey tells his audience that they too can succeed by their own efforts, and here he uses language that Benjamin Franklin would surely have approved of. Much discourse is given over to berating his fellow blacks for using rude language and being discourteous to those around them. This is the conservative narrative of ‘improvement’ that remained at the core of the UNIA; a clear reflection of Garvey’s upbringing in colonial Jamaica where ‘discipline’ and ‘manners’ were of the essence. The second theme, closely following from the first, was that all human beings have the same capacities and potentials, people of the black race the same as people of the white: this was of course far more controversial. While in the British West Indies lip-service would have been paid to this idea so long as the preeminence of ‘things English’, the culture of Shakespeare and the de facto rule of white Britons was maintained, in contrast, in the U.S. of the 1920s, this kind of thought was uncontained gasoline waiting for a match. Here, white supremacy, both in politics and the human sciences, was orthodox. During the 1920s the scientific racism of the Galton society was only beginning to be challenged by figures such as Franz Boas.

The third pillar of Garveyism was inflammatory in a different way; this was the idea of Africa for Africans ‘at home and abroad’. If Whites and Asians had their homelands, why should negroes not have theirs – Africa? The anti-imperialist entailment of this idea was of relatively little concern to white American politicians – on occasion they even supported it. In contrast, the notion of returning the African colonies to black people was deeply seditious from the perspective of the British colonial office; in response they tried as far as possible to ban Garvey’s massively successful newspaper Negro World from entering any of the British territories. Despite the great appeal of Garvey’s vision for blacks in the American South and in the Caribbean, the truth is that Garvey himself knew little of contemporary Africa. In part this was because he was barred from visiting the continent by the British, but his ideas were fundamentally a loud echo of a religiously framed ‘Ethiopianism’ that had existed in the West Indies since slave emancipation and before. Africa in this vision was the biblical Ethiopia from which emancipated slaves had long drawn hope and to which they might some day return – ‘Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God’ was the phrase repeatedly quoted by Garvey. This is why UNIA documents refer interchangeably to Africa and Ethiopia and why the Rastafarians would later focus their beliefs on repatriation there; no Rastaman would die before he reached the promised land of Ethiopia. When Garvey channeled thousands of UNIA dollars in arranging transportation of American blacks to one part of the actual Africa, specifically Liberia, the results were a fiasco. Likewise, when Garvey declared himself ‘provisional President of Africa’ (an idea he borrowed from de Valera, then ‘provisional President of Ireland’) this was plausible to him, as to those around him, because Africa was significantly a blank slate and a potent myth.

Perhaps what drew more attention to Garvey’s movement – including astonishment and ridicule – than anything else was the mass pageantry of the UNIA. UNIA members often war quasi-military garb, with sabres and epaulettes for officials and black serge uniforms for ordinary members. Garvey would parade as a Professor in a gown and mortarboard, or as a Potentate in a turban, or, most recognizably, as an imperial Governor (or perhaps as Toussaint L’ouverture) in his cocked hat and braided uniform. This carnivalesque quality of the UNIA surely had West Indian roots. Marcus Garvey was no more a university professor than the 1960s calypsonian Lord Kitchener was an English lord, but there is more to the symbolism than either a cheeky inversion of the established order or an expression of a stereotypically colourful Caribbean parade. This aspect of the phenomenon of Garveyism asks for further explanation, but to interpret it we need to know something more about the West Indian colonial culture than we can gain from this book. Within the colonial situation, while acknowledging official power with its offices, rituals and uniforms, colonial subjects developed parallel frameworks that mimicked the official hierarchy appropriating some of its symbolic forms. But again, behind that fact, we also need to recognise how, by the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the Caribbean had become a society of migrants who, wherever they arrived, reorganized their social situation in particular ways.

The Imperial Emigrants

After slave emancipation in the 1830s, anglophone West Indians had quit the sugar plantations en masse and many thousands began to migrate abroad, both to secure subsistence for themselves and their families, but also as an act of escape and defiance. Migrant work came in the form of massive engineering projects – first a French organized railway across the Panama isthmus in the 1850s, then the first French attempt at a trans-oceanic canal completed by the U.S. in 1914, then a sequence of mostly U.S.-led railway projects in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and Peru. Britain and the U.S. had rival interests in the South America, but a symbiotic relationship developed in which anglophone West Indian labour became crucial for the development of U.S. capitalism in South America. A case in point is the notorious U.S. company United Fruit which is unlikely ever to have existed in the form it took had not Jamaican workers supplied labour first on Minor C. Keith’s railways, then expertise in growing and cropping his Costa Rican bananas.

Work on these projects was deadly; thousands of West Indians died building the railways and in the three gargantuan industrial projects in Panama. Workers were blown to pieces in dynamite explosions, buried in mudslides, contracted pneumonia from sleeping week after week in the same clothes in the rain. Official medical intervention focused on diseases, particularly malaria, that killed whites disproportionately, but against which islanders often had good resistance.1 West Indians looked to practitioners of folk or ‘bush’ medicine and avoided the hospitals where they feared contracting TB and other diseases. The Americans imposed strict racial segregation on labour to the extent that, in Panama, white workers were ‘gold people’ because they were paid in gold, while black workers were ‘silver people’ because they worked for Panamanian silver dollars. Their status as West Indians offered them very little; certainly not remunerative employment, of which there was barely any to be had on the islands. They could, however, claim to be ‘British Subjects’; and in principle they could appeal to the British Consul for help. The figure of the West Indian threatening to complain to the British Consul became something of a stereotype and a joke. For its part, the colonial government put aside money for the repatriation of migrants to whichever island they came from, and had established savings banks and a postal order system so that remittances could be transferred home – a lucrative source of investment for otherwise impoverished island administrations.

On the one hand, West Indians treated their status as ‘British Subjects’ with gravity. White visitors of the period often comment on West Indian adults and children introducing themselves ceremoniously as ‘fellow Englishmen’. On the other, they created a parallel value structure. In 1910, Sir Roger Casement was investigating atrocities in the Peruvian Amazon. West Indian workers affirmed that the British Honorary Consul in Iquitos was in the pocket of the rubber tapping company that was organizing the killing and mutilation of Amerindians there, however, they had their own ‘Barbadian Consul’ – an elderly migrant called Carlton Morris.2 In the same year, Jamaican workers on the banana plantations of Costa Rica struck in protest at withdrawal of wages and the use of torture by overseers. One of the leaders of the strike was Jamaican Charles Ferguson; referred to as the ‘Consul’ – he was also an obeah man or sorcerer.3 Others involved included Jamaican migrant J. Washington Sterling accused in Limon of practicing medicine illegally – he was almost certainly likewise a ‘medicine man’, a sorcerer. Marcus Garvey arrived in Costa Rica in 1910, aged 23, to take up a position as a banana plantation ‘time-keeper’. He was quickly recognised by the authorities as a subversive, largely because of his criticism of local arrangements to celebrate the coronation of emperor George V, and his attempts to organize more elaborate festivities without consulting the British vice consul.

Notably, Garvey spent some of the first years of his adult life travelling across Central America, going as far south as Ecuador to visit West Indians railway workers there; a journey of nearly two thousand miles from Jamaica by steamer. On his way he published pamphlets and newspapers for the emigrant readership. These years in his career take up just a few pages of Grant’s biography, reasonably enough because relatively little is known about his travels: nonetheless, what we do know for sure is that, not only did the Central American workers become an indispensable cornerstone of support for the UNIA, but Garvey and Garvey’s wife Amy Jacques made repeated visits to Colon and Limon with the aim of re-gathering support there. In return, as Grant shows, they received staggeringly large sums of money, usually donated spontaneously at mass public meetings.

Reconfiguration in Harlem

In Harlem, the initial support for the UNIA was solidly West Indian. As Grant points out, West Indian migrants stood out in Harlem in the 1920s: here they were nicknamed ‘monkey chasers’, ‘King George niggers’ and ‘cockneys’. They were ‘incredibly addicted to waving the Union Jack in the face of their American cousins’ recalled the Jamaican poet Claude McKay (Grant 90-91). The islanders viewed themselves as the better educated and culturally superior subjects of a global empire: in turn, the pageantry and hierarchy of the UNIA mirrored imperial performances. Elsewhere, West Indian migrants had their black consuls and doctors, here Garvey paraded as an imperial official or a Professor. There were recitals of stirring poetry and Garvey often adapted lines from Shakespeare for his speeches. UNIA membership cards offered black people a new ‘flag of empire’; an ‘Ethiopian’4 one with a black hierarchy regarding which those ‘at home and abroad’ could be proud, and aspire to join. If Dubois’ movement was ‘national’, Garvey’s was ‘universal’, but the incipient model for his internationalism was the diaspora of West Indian colonial migrants. When the Chaplain of the UNIA, Antiguan born George McGuire, decided to canonise Jesus Christ as ‘the Black Man of Sorrows’ he was carrying this logic in a direction that Rastafarians would elaborate more fully, but he may well have adapted the idea from a figure already popular with West Indians in Panama – the ‘Black Christ of Portobelo’ – a statue processed in Catholic pre-Lenten carnival there. Either way, as Garvey reiterated; if whites can see god ‘through the eyes of whiteness’ then ‘we are going to see him through the eyes of blackness’ (Grant, 389).

The race politics that pushed U.S. blacks into espousing UNIA goals is laid out much more fully in the biography. Terrorism against freed African Americans had been ongoing from slave emancipation in 1865. In the thirty years before Garvey arrived in the U.S. more than three thousand southern blacks had been lynched; many more had been burnt out of their homes and forced into exile. These conditions, the devastation caused by the boll weevil on cotton harvests, and the search for work, propelled them North. Post-war demobilization, combined with a major economic downturn, triggered rioting by whites in many U.S. cities; the rioters attacked the black population, particularly black soldiers who some claimed were spreading Bolshevik propaganda.

Many joined Dubois’ NAACP, but Garvey’s movement was now visible too, offering an organizational structure and even employment prospects. Grant suggests that the difference in success between Dubois and Garvey derived from the fact that Dubois was an analyst and social philosopher whereas, quite simply, Garvey was charismatic, a visionary and a stupendously talented orator. We can still catch a glimpse of this in his writing, his rhythm and style are evangelical: looking back, people who joined the movement describe something akin to religious conversion. The U.S. government quickly took it that Garvey was a potential Bolshevik threat and they appointed a fresh-faced Edgar J. Hoover to investigate. From then onwards the UNIA was subject to surveillance and covert sabotage by the Bureau of Investigation.

If the only authenticated recording of him to survive is anything to go by, Garvey never lost a very distinct, highly polished, Jamaican accent. He and the other West Indians were doubly outsiders, in as much as geographical mobility had become so elemental in their worldview. The American blacks who joined UNIA were often exiles too – outsiders in their own country, drawn to Garvey’s utopia out of a different set of social facts. Importantly, then, the success of the UNIA was about the similarities but also the contradiction between West Indian and U.S. viewpoints. In both sites race hierarchy was an inescapable fact, but people of the Anglophone Caribbean had lived in societies where most people were black, where colour prejudice was muted in accord with the need to preserve colonial order, and where race/colour was a complex hierarchic continuum intermixed with class standing and ideas of ‘Englishness’. In the U.S., people were either white or they were black but that stark duality made little sense in the West Indies. The coalition and fusion of these alien perspectives amidst the oratory and pageant in Harlem is surely a crucial dimension of why Garveyism was so spectacularly successful. Garvey’s movement created an extraterritorial adventure, an anti-structural vista, inside which UNIA members could hold office at every level of the social hierarchy while belonging to their own empire, Africa.


Despite the best efforts of J. Edgar Hoover, who cut his teeth destabilising the UNIA, there never was any plausible evidence of illegal activity on Garvey’s part. Garvey was a visionary with no capacity, or seeming interest in, the day to day accountancy of his multiple enterprises. Unfortunately, few of his rapidly put together leadership showed any greater competence than him. The U.S. government eventually recognised that the best method of solving the problem of the UNIA was not by by keeping Garvey in prison but to deport him to Jamaica; which they did in 1927. For its part, the British colonial authorities were coldly efficient in closing off contact between Garvey and the UNIA’s network of supporters across the empire. He was successively banned from visiting other British colonies and kept out of Panama and Costa Rica. In Jamaica, he was as successful as ever, putting on large scale spectaculars on the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture and other themes. He also founded Jamaica’s first political party – the People’s Political Party. Legal means were used to remove him from his elected seat as a city councilor; ironically or not, the barrister who prosecuted him would later become the leader of the People’s National Party and prime minister of Jamaica, Norman Manley.

In the mid-1930s Garvey moved to London – one of the few big cities he could now freely visit, but support for the UNIA was already dwindling. A new generation of pan-Africanists including CLR James and George Padmore had by now come to the fore: they were socialists and for them Garvey’s quasi-imperialist pomp was a ludicrous distraction. Having lost his organizational base, Garvey struck an increasingly strange and lonely figure in London. In 1940 he died of a stroke. In his absence from the U.S, the UNIA in Harlem had engaged in a chaotic sequence of internal battles and went into decline and the international network fragmented and ultimately disappeared. Costa Rica remains the last place worldwide where a UNIA branch has continued to exist as a functioning institution.

What then was Garveyism? The fact that I was still asking myself this question when I had finished reading Grant’s biography was what prompted me to write this review. Certainly Garvey is still with us as a range of significant ideas and images, like the pictures of him that re-occur on the walls of house-yards in Kingston, Jamaica. Some years ago, walking through my fieldwork site in Kingston, I was pursued by a local eccentric, Upsetter; ‘My Lord, My Lord!’ he called after me, trying to catch my attention. Two youths shouted at him reproachfully as he followed this white man up the street ‘what happen to you man – you forgot Marcus [Garvey]? you forgot Malcolm [X]? There is a great deal more, though, that could be said about the contradictory worldviews which briefly turned Garveyism into a mass social movement. The sudden explosive growth of the UNIA is an instance where an submerged nexus of utopian ideas and values briefly pierce the membrane of what actually exists and acquire a reality of their own.


1 Chomsky, A. West Indian Workers and the United Fruit Company. Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press.

2 Casement, R. 1997. The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement. Dublin: Anaconda Editions.

3 Chomsky, A. ibid.

4 Bourgois, P. 1989. Ethnicity at Work. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, page 85.

Posted in Book Reviews | Leave a comment

Tuff City

Book Review Series
ISSN 2045-5755 (Online)

Francine Barone
University of Kent

© 2012 Francine Barone
Creative Commons License
Open Anthropology Cooperative Press

Download as PDF, EPUB, MOBI.

Dines, N. 2012. Tuff City: Urban Change and Contested Space in Central Naples. New York: Berghahn. 344 pp.

Ah, Naples! Capital of the Italian South, historical port city and Italy’s third largest metropolis. Sprawled beneath the looming shadow of the slumbering Mount Vesuvius, it is the birthplace of the Neapolitan pizza, Capodimonte porcelain and actress Sophia Lauren. Exports aside, the name brings to mind a chaotic, but vibrant, street life. One envisages a tangle of narrow, cobbled streets hung with linens and densely packed with tourists and locals; a loud hum of activity from animated, gesturing Neapolitans; and the disorienting buzz of Vespas dodging and darting between impressive ancient piazzas. In the tourist literature, from guidebooks to newspaper editorials, foreigners love to wax poetic about Naples. For instance, here is a brief snippet of cultural advice from the New York Times:

Neapolitans love their traditions and rituals: stores close for the midday pausa, cappuccini are not drunk after 10 a.m. and grated cheese never goes on top of seafood pastas. And on weekends, residents take to the streets for their daily passeggiata, or stroll. If the weather holds up, everyone walks toward the Gulf of Naples, alongside the Villa Comunale park. It’s a runway show of sorts: children lick their gelatos, women saunter arm-in-arm in their Sunday best, and men discuss what men in Italy always discuss: politics. It’s a true slice of Naples (Santopietro 2008).

What a stunning image of Mediterranean urban life! Like the Spanish paseo and Catalan passeig, subjects of my own urban ethnography of space and place (Barone 2010), these communal social performances look quaint and idyllic from the eyes of wealthy holiday-makers.

However, this romanticized scene is only part of the urban experience of Naples. It is the darker side of Neapolitan existence that graces the international news and has made the city renowned as backward, disorderly and plagued by social woes. Tourists and locals alike lament a maze of streets clogged with endless traffic and the jarring noise of impatient car horns reverberating through the city center. One imagines a cloud of smog heaving past museums, ensconcing hapless sojourners at quaint sidewalk cafés and adhering black soot to classical monuments. Time, natural disaster and neglect have seen many of Naples’ architectural gems crumble in haphazard chaos. Today, Bourbon palaces stand alongside dilapidated tenement buildings sinking into their dangerously decaying foundations. And it just gets worse from there: Pickpockets. Beggars. Endless piles of rotting, uncollected trash. Corruption. Seedy Mafia bribery. An arresting and lively city, it is no exaggeration that Naples is better known for its organized crime and pollution than its culture.

And so Naples’ reputation precedes it almost everywhere in the world. Indeed, Italian-Americans and their pop culture representatives are familiar with the vulgar expression used within Sicilian-American communities: va fa Napoli (“Go to Naples!”). It can be loosely translated for family audiences as “go to hell” – but likely euphemistic for va fanculo (f— you) – as if there were no worse punishment in life or death than condemnation to the forsaken city. The irony of one mafia stronghold asserting superiority over another is not lost, but it nonetheless attests to some longstanding divisions within and between Italian communities, cross-cut no doubt by class consciousness and levels of education and strong enough to carry over to the new world.

Dines’ ethnography shows that similar sentiments about Neapolitan inferiority are fairly common within Italy, too. Naples is situated against northern Italian cities as socially and culturally inferior in the popular imagination of locals and as well as in the minds of politicians looking to bring the city up to “European standards”. Recent criticisms from Italian Leftist academics and journalist levied at failed urban regeneration projects throughout the 1990s (detailed in this book) argue that Naples – and by association, Neapolitans – never changes (p. 295), which is to say it will never improve or progress towards being civilized (p. 289). Such an attitude explains away the sources of failure in urban regeneration projects and obviates the need to find potential solutions for an ailing city (p. 295). The city and its inhabitants are simply labeled anomalous, destined to remain in a state of festering decay and left to live up to this predestined reputation.

Challenging the presumed moral destitution of Naples, throughout the book, Dines draws his attention directly to the ignored and the disenfranchised members of the city who are otherwise only mentioned when the subject of salacious headlines. It would seem nearly impossible to expel the reader’s first impressions of heaps of garbage blighting the urban landscape and the Camorra profiteering from the urban ruin that lay at its feet. And yet somehow its two most distasteful icons can be made somewhat incidental to the story of the Neapolitan people presented here.

Through public spaces and contests over place and identity, Dines takes an alternative look at the city, challenging both local and outsider preconceptions about what it means to live in Naples. Part 1 of the book introduces the reader to the city of Naples with local historical and political information necessary to grasp the political climate of 1990s Naples and upon which the case studies of urban regeneration will be framed. Parts 2, 3 and 4 are devoted to the ethnographic snapshots of significant social spaces in Naples.

The three distinct public realms chosen as case studies – two central piazzas and one reclaimed neighborhood park/civic center – together offer an authentic portrait of contemporary urban life in the European south. The choice of three very different locales all within the center of the city highlights the diversity of Naples and the difficulty of relying on stereotypes to make sense of its urban landscape. Dines provides both synchronic and diachronic reading of the places under examination, thereby framing the entire historic center as a “battleground of competing claims and interests” (p. 15).


Like most Mediterranean cities, Naples is made up of a patchwork of smaller neighborhoods or quartieri. Designated by imperfect physical or imagined boundaries around, for instance, historical expansions of the city, iconic spaces, architectural styles, social class or ethnic identity, these neighborhoods have unique local histories and interrelationships which together make up the urban whole. Expansions in all directions from the old historic center over the centuries – and continuing today – have left an eclectic mix of architecture and peoples inhabiting Naples.

Throughout the text, the author follows the path of the city towards a contestable future. In addition to snapshots of three significant urban places, Dines traces the policies of the local administration which seek to rid the city of its poor international reputation as the “urban outcast of Europe” and, in turn, reclaim its cultural and architectural patrimony (p. 2). The program of urban renewal throughout the decade sought to “clean” the city in a number of ways (see below). The cruel fate that a mere decade later Naples’ image would be severely marred by yet another Mafia war (2004) and the ongoing garbage crisis (2007) adds a sad, dramatic irony to the storyline.

In 1993, newly elected Mayor Antonio Bassolino embarked on a project of rehabilitating the physical appearance of Naples to restore a sense of heritage and decorum. In this process, the historic center (centro storico) was re-imagined and repackaged as the “heart” of the city, imbuing in its inhabitants a shared sense of belonging (p. 82). The objective from above was to eradicate the sense of anarchy and disorder that had long befallen the city and inspired its poor reputation, hoping to transform its public face by building “places of collective identity” (p. 88). This reworking of the tapestry of the urban landscape through ambitious planning was meant to correct the behavior of wayward residents and “civilize” them to European standards. Neapolitan culture was presented by city officials and journalists as something singular and in need of preservation. As such, in regenerating Naples, the city would have to – intentionally or unintentionally – go about remaking Neapolitans.

Dines draws on the spatial theories of Lefebvre (1991) and Bourdieu (1977, 1984) to present the framework for analysis of “contested spaces” in the city of Naples (pp. 99-105). The ethnographic focus of the book is the piazza: “The piazza is one of the most distinctive and emblematic features of the Italian city. […] Across the centuries, these ‘organized voids’ have stood as measures of urban beauty, order and harmony” (p. 106). A piazza’s symbolism is built upon enduring bonds between citizen and city space. However, the concept of the piazza in Italy, like the plaza in Spain or plaça in Catalonia, is popularly depicted by intellectuals and local pundits as being under threat from TV, the Internet, cars and modern lifestyles (p. 111), even though empirical evidence suggests otherwise (pp. 91-92). Ideologically, an empty piazza heralds the decline of society. As a result, the past two to three decades has seen a push towards a revival of the piazza or piazza-like culture (throughout Europe as a whole) in an attempt to restore a sense of urban place and memory and to rejuvenate cities with welcoming and enticing spaces for gathering (p. 111).

Through selected piazzas of Naples, the reader is given a look into complex uses and representations of these traditional city spaces. Dines’ first ethnographic case study of contested space looks at the Piazza Plebiscito (pp. 115-118). Prominently located in the center of the city, the enormous space had habitually been used to hold large cultural and political events (pp. 119-123), but by 1990 it had been converted into a de facto car park and bus station due to the city’s perennial problems of congestion (pp. 123; 126-8). After an intense clean-up in the mid-1990s, suddenly the newly empty space was awarded the lofty status as an historical icon and urban emblem representing the city on the international stage, no longer to be tarnished with cars or filth (pp. 139-141). To maintain its sterile beauty, the piazza was intentionally left devoid of any structures or organizational elements like benches or flowers, apart from temporary modern art installations or special events approved by government officials. But public spaces in the Mediterranean are never empty or devoid of meaning, as desolate as they may appear to bystanders.

The restoration of the space and its new “rules” neglected existing Neapolitan life in the piazza for some of its longtime patrons whose patterns of use became visible transgressions of the space (p. 166). Discourse on public activity in Piazza Plebiscito was naturally blind to the hurried youths on Vespas, daytime street vendors, raucous children playing ball games, occasional protesters, petty criminals and nighttime drug users (pp. 151-153), all seen as peripheral to the New Naples. Where actual practices, however longstanding, conflicted with the new image of a beautiful and inviting city, the behavior was seen as inappropriate and inauthentic. What planners overlooked in remaking the so-called civic identity of this place is the personal histories attached to what may seemingly look like empty gaps in the urban landscape to others. Dines shares some of these personal attachments through interviews of city residents (pp. 155-164), including fond memories of the piazza in past years as well as many conflicting ideas of what constitutes “appropriate” or “desirable” behavior within its boundaries.

The second case study focuses on Piazza Garibaldi, the railway station and environs, which is recognized by city residents as the most dangerous, disorderly and crime-infested part of the city (even though this is factually inaccurate, p. 189). The space has historically undergone more than one period of redevelopment, but by the 1980s it was relegated to the “immigrant piazza” known for its hotels, bars and migrant-run marketplaces (p. 171). Dines’ ethnography shows that on closer examination the Piazza Garibaldi is now a multifunctional polynational space. It is not simply the domain of immigrants, drug dealers and sex workers, but is governed by overt and unspoken spatial and ethnic divisions (pp. 212-219). As opposed to Piazza Plebiscito, so socially and culturally peripheral is this space that by the 1990s it was no longer even seen as Neapolitan (p. 207). Yet the immigrant social and economic activities taking place there make it closer to an approximation of a traditional Neapolitan piazza than the carefully staged Piazza Plebiscito.

The author’s analysis brings to light the class politics of urban planning. It is clear that the local government did not intend to increase the rates of use of public spaces in the city, which were already being utilized in different ways by many groups of residents, but to reconstruct behavioral guidelines within the spaces (p. 98) to fit with new models of Neapolitan identity. A lack of agency on the part of some inhabitants (namely immigrants) greatly restricts their involvement in urban development (p. 85). At the same time, however, those denied a public voice are still able to powerfully contest their place vis-à-vis other citizens and the urban space itself, carving niches in its landscape, running its most prolific street economy, forming relationships with other natives, transients and locals, and passing their own value judgments on the city’s public spaces.

Finally, the last contested urban space under examination is the social center and park complex known as DAMM in the quartieri of Montesanto (p. 265). Once a decayed zone in a depraved and neglected outlying neighborhood (labelled a “slum”), it was reclaimed by local residents and turned into an active civic center in 1995. Entirely self-run, the many successes of the civic center include bringing together the local community, regenerating the park and keeping it safe for local children (pp. 271-277), all without the assistance of the local government who continued to ignore demands to renovate the park. While much of the city’s governing classes demeaned this community and its residents (p. 278) and literally feared entry into the area, DAMM cleaned up the park and instituted a number of vibrant social and after-school programs. The local volunteers took it upon themselves to remedy the neglect of their working-class residential neighborhood while expensive, superficial renovations of touristy piazzas took priority for the Mayor. This example contests the very ideas of urban “degeneration”, “inclusivity” and “civic participation” (p. 283) and represents an ethnographic vignette of real Neapolitan experiences that can be easily lost in the broad strokes of political debate over the past decade.

Dines calls for “measured, critical analysis” (p. 295) of this period in Naples’ recent history. He is clear on the inconsistencies and imperfections in policy-making as well as mixed popular perceptions of the Mayor’s attempts at reforming Naples. The account is highly class-conscious and particularly sympathetic to the underrepresented. Thus, in all three case studies, Dines draws his attention to those citizens of Naples who are not likely to find their streets in tourist guidebooks; to the kids who defiantly climb on art installations (pp. 142-3); the street hawkers who smoke hashish under cover of the colonnade in the Piazza Plebiscito at night (p. 164); and the Eastern European migrants or Senegalese traders that carve niches in the Piazza Garibaldi, making use of the tried and true survival tactics of Neapolitan life (p. 217), whether or not they are denied the label of official citizen.


Tuff City is as much a history of the political Left in Naples as it is an analysis of everyday Neapolitan life. A sizeable portion of the text is devoted to Neapolitan and Italian political historiography, especially of Left-wing and communist parties, which may be taxing to follow for those not conversant in the specific events of Italian history. That said, the case studies, interviews and vignettes of space and interaction in the city make powerful statements about immigration, crime, degeneration, social exclusion and a number of other themes that produce a strong ethnographic text for Mediterranean and urban anthropologists alike.

Mediterranean anthropology is not as fashionable as it once was. Perhaps scholars think that the region has been “done” for some time or that cheap flights to sunny resorts have ruined the mystique. But this book offers a necessary contribution to the field: a recent take on a Mediterranean city that many people might rashly presume to know by reputation alone. Naples, the shameful, uncontrollable and uncontrolled metropolis is certainly prime fodder for anthropological study. At the same time, and helpfully for urban anthropologists, Dines seeks to dismiss Naples’ exceptionalism, presenting it instead as an “ordinary city” (p. 17).

Without diminishing the power and pervasiveness of corruption, the role of the Camorra, or masking the clear inefficiency of local administrators, Dines treats the reader to an authentic story of the Neapolitan people that is more inclusive than the reworked, pre-packaged notions of citizenship bantered by local politicians. One cannot help but conclude that it is perhaps their permanently stigmatized and downtrodden state which inspires in Neapolitans a stubborn perseverance in the face of its many detractors. In Tuff City, we learn that the persistent failure of Naples to “civilize” has likely confounded both local and international observers because the debate frames hyperlocal realities in absurdly foreign terms.

Even though it “was born out of the particular field of Italian studies”, the author hopes that the text will “contribute to a more general meta-methodological critique of how we write about the contemporary city” (p. 25). He achieves this by utilizing public spaces as windows to the city, and by interweaving alternative, personal narratives into the wider story of Naples’ stagnating development. Thankfully, it is not just another pretty story. We read little about the passeggiata except in nostalgic flashbacks. The reader quickly discovers that what passes as a harmless blurb in a NY Times travel guide is actually teeming with contradictory and conflictive symbolism: by no means is “everyone” in Naples represented in the leisurely stroll in the Villa Comunale. In light of this book, such a romanticized scene instead comes to reflect another aspect of exclusionary politics and the powerful divide between “us” and “them” in Naples.



Barone, F. 2010. Urban Firewalls: place, space and new technologies in Figueres, Catalonia. PhD Thesis. United Kingdom: University of Kent, Canterbury.

Bourdieu, P. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, P. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London: Routledge.

Lefebvre, H. 1991. The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Santopietro, J. 2008. 36 Hours in Naples, Italy. The New York Times, April 27., accessed September 25, 2012.

Posted in Book Reviews | 2 Comments

In and Out of the State

Working Papers Series #15
ISSN 2045-5763 (online)

In and Out of the State
Working the Boundaries of Power in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Patience Kabamba
Marymount Manhattan College

© 2012 Patience Kabamba
Creative Commons License
Open Anthropology Cooperative Press

Forum discussion in the OAC network.
Download as PDF, EPUB, MOBI.


Patience Kabamba has a BA from the Jesuit School of Philosophy in Paris, a Masters Degree in Economic Development from the University of Kwazulu-Natal in Durban, an MA in Philosophy from The Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, and a PhD in cultural anthropology from Columbia University, New York. He was a Senior Lecturer in the department of Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg before moving to Marymount Manhattan College as Assistant Professor of International Studies. Kabamba has intensive ethnographic experience of emergent social formations when states disintegrate in war-torn Africa: in DRC, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. His theoretical interests include the dynamics of conflict, new state formations, transnational trade networks, ethnicity and global political and economic governance. His publications include: “Ethnic Alternative to the Post-Colonial State: Case of Nande from Butembo and Luba from Mbuji-Mayi in the DRC” (Canadian Journal of African Studies, 42(1), 2008); “Where does the value added go in the Rebel Controlled Territory of the DRC?” (Congo-Afrique, 2004); “Heart of Darkness: Images of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and their theoretical underpinning” (Anthropological Theory, Vol. 10 (3) September 2010); “Economic Empowerment without the State: Lessons from the Nande,” (Africana Vol. 5 (2), June/July 2011); “Articulation of modes of political production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo” (Congo-Afrique, N. 456, June 2011). His forthcoming book with CODESRIA Press is Business of Civil War: New forms of life from the debris of the Congolese State.


The idea that power usually flows top-down from a state monopoly is increasingly questioned in an era of networks fuelled by interactive decision-making processes that include non-state actors. Power theoretically understood as potentia – the elementary power through which human beings deploy their productive capacities and creative possibilities – is ontologically prior to power expressed as an obsession with order that is often repressive (potestas). Granting precedence to potentia over potestas inevitably leads us to question the conceptual centrality of the state. The Congo (DRC), which has long stood – and stands today – as a symbol of the antithesis of social order, offers much material for reflection on this issue. This paper considers how people negotiate the boundaries between state and non-state power in the contemporary DRC.



When asked to name the conflict that has claimed most lives in Africa during the last decade, most of my American students cite Darfur or Somalia. They are surprised when I show that the Congo conflict has accounted for 4 million deaths (IRC 2008), while that in Darfur on a conservative estimate claimed at most 400,000 deaths (United Nations 2008). Students of contemporary Africa are often surprised that the media have little to say about the Congo conflict. Mahmood Mamdani (2004) believes that the reason for the media’s near silence on the DRC conflict is that two of the major protagonists there, namely Rwanda and Uganda, are friends of the United States. It would be embarrassing for the Western media which makes of Rwanda’s post-genocide president Kagame of a new Moses to accuse him of murdering so many Congolese people. Indeed all attempts to make Kagame and Museveni accountable for the Congo conflict have met with resistance from the US and Britain in the United Nations. But this line doesn’t really work, given that a number of scholars have begun to criticize Kagame’s handling of power in Rwanda recently (Reyntjens 2006, Pottier 2000).

The real cause of the media’s relative silence about the main African conflict today, which has claimed the most victims of any conflict since the Second World War, is that it goes far beyond the categories we usually use to define such conflicts. In the Congo there are no easily identifiable good guys and bad guys, no regular armies fighting against non-uniformed belligerents. Our usual categories do not work there. This partly explains why journalists, especially foreign journalists, who are used to constructing conflicts according to a binary logic, can’t understand one which involves a government army, a dozen Congolese rebel militias, a dozen foreign rebel groups and UN peace-keepers. The complexities of the Congo war defeat the normal categories of our understanding. We need to find other ways of theorizing not only this type of conflict, but also the types of states that house them, and the notions of power we use to conceptualize them.

We need new concepts if we wish to understand power in Africa. The traditional ways of conceptualizing power and sovereignty do not help us to grasp the dynamics of state formation there, especially when we attempt to understand what is being produced at the local level beyond the state’s reach. I examine here the emerging forms of society where the state’s traditional monopolies – welfare, prosperity and security – are increasingly replaced by non-state actors. To understand what is happening in countries like Congo, we must move from conceiving power only as a kind of repression undertaken by the unchallenged authority of a government or ruler manifested in a territorial state. We must also see power, following Spinoza, as potentia, the productive and creative capacities of the human species. The notion of sovereignty needs to be conceived as an ontological attribute of humanity that is anterior to state sovereignty (De Genova 2002).

Spinoza made a distinction between power as potestas and as potentia. The concept of ‘power’ reified in notions of the state is defined as potestas – the unchallenged authority of a despotic ruler. The power of the sovereign state captures and cannibalizes its subject. Power as potestas characterizes the state of exception where the sovereign power of the state gives itself the right to dehumanize its subjects and turn their lives into ‘bare life’(Agamben 1998).

This paper promotes another theorization of African state power in general and the Congo in particular as potentia. This is the sort of power Foucault is concerned with when he writes: ‘Power is something that is acquired, seized, or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away; power is exercised. . . . Relations of power . . . have a directly productive role, wherever they come into play. Power comes from below’ (1996[1980]: 94). In rejecting a focus on sovereignty and state, Foucault contends that these are merely endpoints or crystallizations of power relations that are understood to be ubiquitous and elemental and therefore must be seen from the bottom-up.

Human subjects deploy their productive capacities and possibilities through potentia . This sort of power is an elementary aspect of human possibility and capability. It is ontologically prior to and ultimately autonomous of the reified power of the sovereign state that captures it. This theorization of power brings us to the fundamental sense of power expressed in the tradition of social contract. In the midst of chaos, some people have demonstrated their creative ability to escape the ‘bare life’ the Congolese State sought to impose on them. Here I will focus on the Nande whom I have studied. Through their transnational activities, Nande people resisted the cannibalizing power in trying to control their own destiny. Butembo is a city in Northern Kivu, an area ravaged by the Congo civil war. The organization and regulation of public goods such as roads, universities and health provision there are taken care of by an alliance of merchants, the Catholic Church and a militia whose coercive power is combined with the patronage of traders. They taught me a new way of conceptualizing not only power, but also the notion of sovereignty which is attached to it.

Theorized as potentia, the notion of sovereignty may be redefined as not belonging to the State, but rather as an inalienable attribute of human beings. As an ontological attribute of the human species, sovereignty is anterior to state sovereignty. From this standpoint, sovereignty is never a monopoly of the state. As we will see, the Nande people in eastern DRC exercise their inalienable sovereignty by taking control of their wealth and destiny in the face of the DRC state’s predatory power.

This paper first discusses the traditional ways state power has been conceptualized in Africa. It analyses a body of academic literature on the state and its sovereign power that has generally been conceptualized as potestas. Second, in empirical support of this theoretical claim, it provides an ethnographic account which calls for a re-conceptualization of the state and the notion of power in central Africa,. Finally, it discusses the implications of understanding power to be not only repressive, but also productive. This new understanding of power may help us better to grasp the dynamism of African state formation today.


African state power: the debate

The conceptualization of power in Africa has been traditionally skewed towards what Deborah Bryceson (2011) called “cultural essentialist thinking which identifies African power with patrimonialism, informality, deviance and, in some cases, criminality or with neo-patrimonialism, shadow, failed, collapsed, or in decay” (Clapham 1996, Erdmann and Engel 2007, Reymaekers 2004, Zartman 1995, Reno 1999, O’ Brien 1998, Bayart, Ellis and Hibou 1999, Chabal and Daloz 1999). As Bryceson accurately observes, this sort of analysis refers to cultural repertoires, registers and rationalities that convey the notion of a distinct African culture of power in contrast to universal (Western) standards of bureaucratic and legal practice. In most cases power is understood as potestas exercised by the government which according to these authors has a universalistic claim. Indeed for them Western forms of state are the universal standards which should work across time and space.

Inside Africa, the debate among African scholars is oriented towards understanding the structural reasons why power in many African countries has come to be understood as it is. A consensus amongst them points to what Mamdani refers to as ‘paradigm of state-civil society’ (1995 and 1996). For him, the key to understanding the state in contemporary Africa is the historical fact that it was forged in the course of colonial occupation. The colonial state was then organized around a central and overriding dilemma: “the native question”. How can a tiny foreign minority rule over an indigenous majority?

Colonialism created different institutions that made minority rule possible. Instead of racializing the colonized into a majority identity, as did nineteen-century direct rule, twentieth-century indirect rule dismantled this racialized majority into many minorities. Furthermore, indirect rule in colonial Africa meant that the linkage between state and society was constituted by African collaborators, whether they were ‘native’ authorities or new rulers created by colonial administrations. For most of Africa, Mamdani argues, the ‘decentralized despotism’ of chiefs was the unique mediating linkage with the colonial state that shaped access to resources through the state’s patronage. Thus, the political authority that emerged from the national independence process inherited the role played by chiefs during the colonial period. The new class of rulers, not bothering to articulate a social dream, was concerned primarily with maintaining ethnic and regional patronage. The colonial world has only been turned upside down without being changed. True, there is a state collapse, but it is just not any state that is collapsing; it is specifically what remains of the colonial state in Africa that is collapsing. For Mamdani, postcolonial African elites are predators like their colonial masters rather than real leaders interested in political reform of the state inherited from colonialism (1996:179). Why were post-independence leaders more interested in their political position than in profound reforms?

Claude Ake (2000) has a better answer to this question. Ake argues that the colonial powers could only justify colonialism with the fiction that Africans were less than human and could not be entitled to the amenities of civilization, especially democracy. In the colonial era, political discourse excluded not only democracy but also the idea of good governance. After political independence, the African nationalist leaders continued this legacy by turning against democracy. Independence in Africa changed the manager of the State, but not the state’s arbitrary and totalitarian character. Ake explains that the African elites who came to power decided to exploit the colonial system they inherited for their own benefit rather than transforming it into a democracy. The use of force increased the mutual alienation of the elite and the masses, so that rulers relied even more on coercion. Franz Fanon (1963) characterized the African post-colonial elite as an “envious man.” “The look that the native turns on the settler’s town is a look of lust, of envy; it expresses his dream of possession – all manner of possession – to sit at the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possible.” And Fanon warns that if Africans want to move away from envy, from an appropriation without understanding, they must turn over a new leaf and work out new concepts. This paper is one response to Fanon’s invitation long ago.

I generally agree with these analyses of the post-colonial state by African scholars. But they focus on the state’s actions without much information about what it means to be on the receiving end of these actions. In order words, this body of African literature on the construction of order and authority in post-colonial states accurately understands and conceptualizes the role of imperial power conceived of as potestas (Mamdani 1996, Zegeye 2004, Mbembe 1992, 2000, Ake 2000, Fanon 1963). But there is a lack of research on the initiatives of non-state agents in this post-colonial period, especially on the production of cross-border social order and economic management. I have sought to address this omission by examining the transnational activities of local “ethnic” communities and by reformulating power as “potential”. In this way I hope to make sense of Africa’s social transformation today.

Indeed, in places like the DRC, nation-state competence in any Western meaning of the term has all but disappeared (Reno 1998). Mobutu’s strategy of building political authority through market control increasingly impinged on local non-state agents who then used access to illicit trade to help themselves and their neighbors weather the collapse of state institutions. Janet MacGaffey (1990) has shown how in the 1980s and the 1990s, some community trade networks developed ways of avoiding the predations of Mobutu’s political network. In the 1990s, while the formal economy was collapsing in Zaire, the Eastern part of the country prospered as a result of cross-border trade by the Nande with Uganda, Tanzania and Dubai in the Gulf (MacGaffey 1997). With the collapse of the shadow state and precarious security in the mid-90s, local strongmen emerged with ties to warlords from Rwanda and other neighboring countries who started the war that overthrew Mobutu. According to MacGaffey, many Nande entrepreneurs had to deal with local strongmen whose predatory powers rose after the state collapsed.

With the demise of normal state functions and use of any remaining state apparatus just to enrich its personnel in the interests of the powerful, the ‘second economy’ virtually replaced the official recorded economy. In other words, the decline in government revenues in the long economic crisis and pervasive corruption and clientelism among government personnel led to the devastation on the economic and transport infrastructure, with widespread food shortages and the virtual disappearance of public health and education. For the general population, rampant unemployment and impossibly low wages meant that town dwellers had to find the means for survival and essential supplementary income outside formal wages. Using their capacity to think and to fight not only for survival, but also for prosperity, people responded by ‘informalizing’ society. The Nande turned to informal transnational commerce. These processes provided the material basis for reconstitution of the state or, to be precise, for new kind of social formations whose success was linked to the absence of state structures. Does this transnational economy imply the end of state or is it the expression of people’s creative capacities to reinvent the state in new ways when faced by the failure of what went before?



The anthropological literature on transnationalism focuses particularly on the related mobility of labor and capital, on the globalization of capital and labor. Leslie Sklair (1995) recognizes that the central feature of the idea of globalization current in the social sciences is that many contemporary problems cannot be adequately studied at the level of nation-states, in terms of national societies or international relations, but need to be theorized in terms of global (transnational) processes, beyond the level of the nation-state. Global system theory is based on the concept of transnational practices that cross state borders but do not necessarily originate with state agencies or actors.

The keenest disagreement between globalization theorists and their opponents, however, concerns the extent to which the nation-state is in decline. This entails disputes over the relevance of terms such as “informality,” “illegality” in the new context of transnationalism, given that in African countries, for example, people have developed informal strategies of survival or even prosperity in the absence of formal structures associated with the developmental state. To call these actions ‘illegal’ maintains the fantasy of the state in its real absence and ignores the point that ‘illegality’ is a constructed form of social relations which has limited historical scope and holds sway only when the conditions of its objectification persist. Why should citizen of the Congo pay taxes when the state that collects them provides no return in terms of public infrastructure? A sort of ‘natural’ resistance has risen from the local, not so much as a weapon of the weak (Scott 2000), but resistance emerging from the inner capacity of human beings to pursue their aspirations through the best social arrangements they can produce. The potestas of the government does not exhaust our human creative capacity to organize power. The Weberian idea of the state as a monopoly of force is just one among others. It may or may not work for the West, but it remains a colonial anomaly in the countries formed by empire.

People often do not primarily identify with the state they live in; it is not for them the most significant ‘imagined community’. Identities derived from regional and local associations are usually more significant in people’s daily experience, especially in a world where globalization at one level and regional autonomy movements at the other challenges the nation-state’s raison d’etre. Globlization may be defined as a process whereby the constraints of geography on social and cultural arrangements recede and people become increasingly aware that they are receding (Waters 1995:3). As Appadurai puts it, “deterritorialization is one of the central forces of the modern world, since it brings laboring populations into the lower class sectors and spaces of relatively wealthy societies, while sometimes creating an exaggerated and intensified sense of criticism attached to the politics of the home state” (1986:301). The social relations emerging from these contemporary developments are not confined within the borders of nation-states. Thus, they may be regarded as transnational, a term which indicates a relation over and beyond, rather than between or inside nation-states.

The debate on transnationalism in anthropology opposes those for whom the state has lost its relevance to those who think the state is still important. Work on transnationalism raises the question whether life across borders involves resistance to the nation-state and allows previously marginalized groups to challenge the social hierarchy (Lewitt 2001). In my opinion, transnationalism, as a search for more creative ways of organizing the social contract, is more likely to stimulate a transformation of the nation-state as it is rather than to make its functions and existence disappear. MacGaffey has shown that Nande traders benefit from the borders of the DRC state when organizing their cross-border activities. Drawing inspiration from her, I spent more than a year of ethnographic fieldwork in the Nande region of eastern DRC.


The Nande of North Kivu: an ethnographic account

I carried out ethnographic field research among Nande people for 14 months in Butembo in the north Kivu territory of Beni-Lubero (Kabamba forthcoming). Briefly, in the past decade endemic conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has precipitated the collapse of public authority and the brutal disintegration of the formal state. The facts are well known: four million dead, entire zones of the country controlled by foreign armies, and the withdrawal of the state from an effective presence in several regions. In the midst of this chaos, however, certain ethnic groups have been able to take advantage of the state’s absence to prosper and institute new forms of order and development.

In the next pages the paper will describe an empirical example of power understood as potentia in that a group of Congolese traders took the destiny of their region into their own hands in the midst of war. In the absence of effective state sovereignty and national government and in the presence of numerous armed contenders for power, Nande traders have managed to build and protect a self-sustaining, prosperous transnational economic enterprise in eastern Congo. But why them and what gave the Nande the capacity to extract their population from despotic and predatory rule, from the exercise of power as potestas?

North Kivu is predominantly inhabited by the Nande in northern Beni and Lubero, by the Banyarwanda (primarily Bahutu and some Tutsi) in Rutshuru and Masisi, and the Hunde in Walikale. There is no linguistic relation between these groups. The name Nande is of relatively recent origin. Elderly people in the region do not remember the term being used in their youth, and it is thought to have been introduced by the Belgians, or possibly by Arab slave and ivory traders who penetrated the northern Mitumba Mountains region at the end of the nineteenth century. The term Yira was used to speak of the Kinande-speaking people in general, but this term took on derogatory connotations during the colonial period, when it was used to refer to backward, uncivilized persons. Yira sometimes refers to the lower social strata of the population (Bergmans 1970:8). Rather than adopting a cultural definition, anthropologists such as Bergmans and Remotti (1993) see the term Yira as a reflection of a triple opposition. First against the Hima pastoralist ruling class (this division is also present in other traditional Interlacustrian kingdoms, such as Toro, Ankole and Bunyoro); second, as agriculturalists in opposition to the land-owning aristocracy (in Nande traditional society); and finally as primitives in opposition to civilized in the context of colonial society. This socio-economic status was also traditionally linked to the customary authorities’ tolerance of others engaging in private commerce. Such acceptance of private initiatives apparently stimulated a spirit of ‘constructive competition’, which allowed individuals to measure their success to that of others (Sarata 2002:40). This was in sharp contrast to surrounding communities where the customary chiefs had the tendency to strangle merchant initiatives. In the Hunde community from Bwiti and Bwisha in North Kivu, for example, a vassal was not allowed to be richer than the local chief (Mwami)(Kasay 1988).

The common language used by Nande people –Kinande – is shared with the Konjo people living in the foothills of the Ruwenzori Mountains in Western Uganda. Oral tradition in the region suggests that there were successive waves of migration from the Ruwenzori region across the Semliki Valley to the Mitumba Mountains since the end of the sixteenth century (Packard 1981), while the Yira traced their origin to the kingdom of Kitara in today’s Uganda.

The result, in Packard’s opinion, was a social organization only loosely based on descent, with clans having “very little corporate identity” as they are neither “geographically cohesive, nor are they totemic or exogamous units”. The forms of territorial leadership that emerged seem to have been based on ritual control of rain-making using rain stones. This was in turn altered, at least in the Isale region studied by Packard, when Hima-Bito pastoralists (who apparently had been able to survive an earlier famine in the valley) began migrating into the mountain regions during the early part of the nineteenth century. Packard documented in the Isale region a history of alliance-building rather than open conflict, whereby pastoralist groups, using their cattle as a greater economic resource and co-opting the support of existing ritual leaders (rain chiefs, original clearers of the forest, diviners, and healers), were able to broaden their spheres of political control. Tribute payments were the primary form of link between dominated groups and ruling classes. The rights of the original occupants (Bakonde) continued to be respected, annual tribute payments were maintained, and the ritual authority of rain chiefs continued to be a factor in politics. To this was added a system of tribute payments to the new chiefs (Bwami) and an enhanced ideology of their consolidated ritual control over nature and the wellbeing of society.

It is important to note that the Yira never seem to have organized themselves into a centralized government. On the one hand, their community remained historically divided between the Nande and the Kondjo, two branches of the Yira community that live respectively in the DRC and Uganda today. On the other hand, the Nande community is also divided between several clans or sub-clans: the Nyisanza, Bashu, Baswagha, Batangi and Bamate. This political dispersion resulted in the maintenance of a certain degree of local autonomy, even though they were integrated into a single kingdom. For Bergmans (1970), the Nande political system contains in itself the seeds of a fragmentation of power. The Nande political system also contained important centrifugal tendencies that were directed more towards expansion and conquest than territorial consolidation (Raeymaekers 2007). This illustrates how the claim of ‘sovereignty’, rather than being an expression of a single ruler or actor finds its expression in a system of codes and rules that govern a particular social domain. In the Nande community, ‘sovereignty’ was traditionally instituted in two figures: the Mwami, the chief, and the ‘Mughula’, a kind of anti-power figure who intervened in crucial phases of the Mwami’s life. Indeed, this ‘sovereignty’ is expressed specifically in the “vast network of tributes” that made it possible to individuate particular links between different clans and persons (Remotti 1993: 45). This “vast network” of tributary relationships finds its contemporary expression in the Nande’s economic organization, as I will show. Ultimately, the informal economic activities taking place currently should be understood above all as a particular expression of the social dynamic of the societies that have developed them. Economic agents mobilize and use resources for economic development as a function of their insertion into a plurality of social networks, primarily of family and kin, but also friends, neighbors and other members of the community.

Through their transnational trading activities, Nande people today have produced and organized themselves around a historically specific social arrangement based on a reconfiguration and mobilization of kinship, as well as ethnic ideologies and practices identified with “Nandeness” (an ensemble of social relations in which human productive powers and creative capacities are paramount). Indeed, Nande people have managed to insulate themselves from the chaotic conditions around them and maintain a framework of public order centred on trading networks reflecting the structures and values of indigenous Nande society as well as to the history of their incorporation into international networks and structures. The Nande’s capacity to exercise their potential today has its origins in what Packard identified as the centrifugal tendencies in their traditional social organization.

I will explore here the origins, reproduction, and conditions of possibility for the emergence of a network of transnational traders in Butembo, who have gradually captured the social and economic surplus within the Nande society. This group includes at the top of the commercial hierarchy in Butembo and its hinterland a dozen import-export traders who are millionaires. They import from East Africa, the Persian Gulf, Southeast Asia and China containers of goods ranging from motorbikes, automobiles and spare parts to textiles, medicine and many other commodities. They export agricultural products including coffee, potatoes, beans, papaya latex and other vegetables, in addition to minerals such as gold, coltan, wolfram, and cassiterites. The group maintains a high level of internal cohesion and trust between its members.

If you stand on any hilltop of Butembo, you can observe the growing wealth of the city. New villas, constructed by traders, are rising up all over. In the central commune of Bulenghera (12 kilometers square) these properties proliferate. According to Raeymaekers (2007) these new buildings each cost around USD 300,000. A shopping center, “gallery Tsongo Kasereka”, reportedly cost around 3 million USD to build. The total value of new real estate in Butembo is roughly 20 to 35 million USD. Prices have skyrocketed in recent years. A friend of mine, the son of a prominent Butembo trader who holds a bachelor’s degree from a school in Boston, is building a mansion that will cost USD 400,000 when it is finished next year. All the construction materials are imported from China. His swimming pool will be one of the biggest in the city.

The first question is: where does the money come from? How do they accumulate so much? Before I try to answer it, I would argue that the emerging property market in Butembo comes from economic activity that is ‘embedded’ in the local community. Unlike the capital flight we see from some DRC politicians who are anxious to establish a stake abroad, in Butembo houses are built at home and only some abroad, while profits are invested in the same environment where they are being made.

Butembo commercial traditions predate the current era of globalization. Vwakyanakazi (1982:2) noted, already in the 1970s, that 75 to 80 percent of households in Butembo were selling goods ranging from agricultural foodstuffs to small household necessities. Today, on every corner of Butembo, there are mini-shops, boutiques, and galleries offering cell phone cards at $1 or $5 apiece, high-quality computer equipment, motorbikes, etc. Market women usually sell foodstuffs like onions, beans, tomatoes, or ‘araque’ (alcoholic maize drink). These small trades usually reflect domestic needs for petty cash to cover a family’s immediate concerns or school fees. The retail trade in cars, computers, textile, or electric engines is no different from what is taking place in the globalized world, except for the level of bargaining involved. Everything in Butembo’s market, from the quality of the product to delivering the merchandise, is subject to endless bargaining between vendors and their clients.

The Nande trading association, a branch of the Federation of Congolese Entrepreneurs known by its French acronym FEC, regulates how traders tend each 50 km of road they are in charge of. This involves running the tollgate and using the revenue to mend the road. This is the only part of the country which has good roads beside the minerals region of Katanga. When one of the sections of road is not functioning, the trader in charge has to answer to other users of the road. Local social control can be quite effective.

This part of the region is also the only one with a school system that works. The University of Graben (UCG) for example, an institution of higher education in Butembo, was created ten years ago by the Roman Catholic bishop, Monsignor Kataliko, with the help of Nande traders. The UCG is among the best institutions of higher education in the Congo. Despite the trouble that has afflicted the Congo from 1996 to this day, UCG has continued to function with its four faculties of law, civil engineering, medicine and political sciences. Most of the auditoria were built with the help of traders. The bishop gave each trader a list of 100 books to buy for the university library. They were proud to provide the books the bishop asked for. Many of the books come from a link between UCG and the University of Grenoble in France. The university also has a nutritional center and medical students practice at the Matanda hospital run by the Catholic Church. Medicines for the nutritional center and Matanda hospital are imported by Nande traders. To solve the problem of personnel, the university flies in professors from all over DRC and many Nande professors who live in Europe come back to regularly to teach at UCG without compensation. Before the creation of the Catholic University, students had to travel to Kisangani in Oriental Province or to Kinshasa for their higher education. The rector of the UCG, Abbé Malu-Malu, was chosen to organize the 2006 DRC general elections, the first democratic election for 40 years. The university is involved in the development of the city’s electrification and traders are employing engineers from the UCG to that end. Butembo maintains a sort of social cohesion thanks to an alliance between traders, who are in charge of economic production, the Catholic Church in charge of development sector and the militia responsible of the exercise of coercive power. Militias are in fact junior partners to traders.

When power as potestas is absent, we have been led (from Hobbes onwards) to assume that selfishness will reign; thus, a ‘failed state’ adversely affects the lives of all who continue to believe in its aegis, and its weakness ensures suffering for anyone who does not manage to circumvent the system. These circumventions are understood not only as corruption, but as criminal acts from which only a few will benefit. The economy is inseparably linked to this model of the state. A strong state survives because it can regulate production, trade and profit (through taxation, etc.), thus sustaining itself (and the society as a whole). Accordingly, when a state is politically and economically unstable, weak, or absent, it is commonly supposed that all will suffer. The informal economy is particularly irksome because its works outside state (and taxation) structures. As a symptom of the state’s ‘weakness,’ therefore, a thriving informal economy is identified with the poor health of the society at large. Power as potestas is fetishized in our political theories and popular beliefs.

Within the territories of Beni and Lubero, the state is surely very weak, even absent. Yet the Nande have thrived in this context. To call their actions ‘corrupt’ is to apply a one-dimensional view to a very complex picture with a complicated history. The paradox of this situation is that the Nande traders are rich, yet the entire area prospers; they amass fortunes and they feed them back into the community. As a result, this is one of the few regions in the DRC with a flourishing economy, decent schools, and health care. They do not rely on the nation’s ports but rather have strong ties that take them regularly to the Middle East and East Asia. The potentia begins with trade and is carried on within the region by social organization outside the framework of the state. Transgression of frontiers through this transnational move is fuelled by a creative capacity to free oneself from the territorial impositions of despotic rulers, exercising potestas.


A transnational network

Nande people do not identify primarily with the DRC state; it is not their most significant ‘imagined community.’ Their identity derives from belonging to networks that are more significant in their daily experience. The transnational production of Nande community through ‘illegal’ or ‘informal’ cross-border trading activities shows that these are not only strategies for survival, but also “spaces of resistance against the violence generated by the failure of a postcolonial mode of accumulation, the state’s dictatorship and its episteme of leadership” (Mbembe 1992:3). Hence, even the concept of “illegality” becomes questionable. Laws which make actions legal or illegal are indeed forms of social relations objectified or codified under certain conditions. If the conditions of the codification of the law disappear, the law loses its relevance. Legality or illegality are, in my view, ‘dependent variables’ whose value depends on the continuing existence of the conditions which led to social relations being codified as law.

The Nande’s construction of a peaceful trading community in the midst of war shows how their particular form of transnationalism and ‘ethnic’ insularity colludes with internecine (even genocidal) violence in its seemingly remote home on the distant borders of a “collapsed” state. Horrendous civil wars like the Congo’s may provide opportunities for a cynical restructuring of global capital accumulation where effective access to valuable resources is what matters to capital and the lives and limbs of those who inhabit that particular corner of the planet is utterly expendable. Seen in this light, the Nande’s newly found desire to keep government at a distance while relying on governance through local communitarian mechanisms could be said to articulate a kind of neoliberalism: one where a weak national state serves as a hollow shell, providing minimal security and stability for unhindered capital accumulation, and the so-called free market is entirely unencumbered; where local communities and networks are free from the onerous regulations, interference, and impositions of a state that might otherwise, if only occasionally, be an impediment to plunder.

The Nande do not desire full autonomy or complete separation from the DRC state nor anything resembling a Nande ‘national’ self-determination; but rather they welcome attempts to stabilize the national state, but only in a relatively weak and unobtrusive form that would leave them unencumbered by intrusive state surveillance and excessive taxation of their transnational and cross-border trade. In short, they prefer an arrangement not very different from the situation that has persisted in various forms throughout recent decades (even back into the Mobutu era). The Nande capitalist class welcomes the same sort of frail neoliberal national state that appeals to the agenda of global corporations interested in the DRC’s resources. At the same time, a pernicious armed conflict in this region, the Kivus of East Congo, has claimed 4 million lives or more.  The Nande case is ostensibly outside or exempted from this horrific calamity, but it actually underlies and helps to explain its persistence.

What I have just said is true, but so too is the observation that, in all the DRC’s troubles, Butembo offers a glimpse of a new emergent African society. In more stable countries with prosperous cities like Dar es Salaam or Luanda, Accra or Dakar, a gradual transformation is taking place in the hands of an emergent ruling class where money-making is linked to state contacts at home and abroad; but the economic and political spheres are not so starkly demarcated, given continuities with a past from which there has been no violent break (Freund 2009).  This is an Africa that is slowly divesting itself of the neo-colonial ties that dominated the years after independence. The Nande offer a sharper image of the direction in which Africa is really moving. The horrors of war in the eastern Congo may not just block what we wish to think of as ‘development’; they might also be speeding those processes along.

The Nande case shows the ontological primacy of power as potential – creativity and productivity – over power as repression or potestas. We urgently need new theorizations of power that can grasp a context where state is neither the necessary core nor the only unit of analysis. The map below illustrates this situation.

Is this an example of a failed state?

The concept of a failed state does not capture what is really happening in places like Butembo which is an island of prosperity in the DRC’s civil war. There are three principal flaws when applying the concept to Africa. First, it conflates failed government and failed governance (Reymaekers 2007). William Zartman (1995) equates state collapse with the collapse of the society, yet the Nande case shows that non-state agents – in this case the trader networks — have taken over the role played by the state and provide security and economic well-being. The failure of potestas does not necessarily means the failure of potentia. The second flaw is that non-failed states are presented as being normative. The United States might be an example of a non-failed state when seen from Silicon Valley or Wall Street. But it is a failed state when seen from the perspective of those who live miserably around Moore House College in Atlanta or faced the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Finally, the theory of state failure is misleading because it gives an impression of something that was once integrated and is now falling apart. No African state ever reached this sort of social integration since it was imposed by colonial empire and never took root to grow organically from the bottom up. In sum, talk of failed states simply reproduces the same essentialist and hegemonic paradigm that has always accompanied the projection of western state power into the world.

Moreover, the Nande case shows that the state is never the only and exclusive form of social relations, which are rather “always un-predetermined, agonistic, and unresolved.” These “relations of struggle” entail a “full panoply of contests over the objectification and fetishization of human productive powers as alien forces of domination” for which “the state tends… to be the hegemonic manifestation” (De Genova 2007: 442; see also Holloway 1994). The Nande region is one of many places where the state is continually experienced and undone through the illegibility of its own practices, documents, and words. Unlike in the rationalized world of Weberian abstractions, the DRC state, as seen from its margins, is inscrutable, incoherent, unpredictable, and unreliable. But to characterize these features as “failure” is merely to retain and recapitulate the illusion of inevitable state dominance.

I have tried in this paper to dissolve the state as a rigid category while seeking to understand the state as a social form, as a form of social relations (Holloway 1994). By defining the state as a social phenomenon, as relations between people, I hope to recognize the creativity, fluidity, unpredictability and instability of this category. Indeed, these relations have been solidified as certain forms that have acquired their own autonomy, their own dynamic. The semblance of rigidity accorded the state in some classical conceptions lends it the appearance of being a given and positive fact. The notion that African states have failed or collapsed is part of the same drive to reify and fetishize the colonially imposed model of statehood. The state in Africa is a colonial abnormality which needs to be rethought in the light of the local creative and productive capacities of Africans themselves in order to build de-centralized social arrangements from the bottom up that are more suited to the realities of struggles on the ground.


The consequences of understanding power as potentia

The Congo situation begs for new categories to understand its situation and to break the silence around its predicament. In the absence of state sovereignty and the presence of numerous contenders for coercive power, Nande traders have managed to protect their self-sustaining and prosperous transnational enterprises in eastern Congo. Perhaps their example reflects the direction towards which 21st century Africa is really moving. In order to understand this Africa, we need to abandon old theorizations of power and sovereignty. The Nande case shows us that, before being an attribute of the state, sovereignty is an ontological and inalienable quality of human species. Power in this context is fundamentally an elementary aspect of human possibility and creative capacities. Reified and rigid notions of state power and sovereignty confront and are contradicted by the flexibility of human relations and by the productive capacities inherent in human nature unleashed by a theorization of power as potentia.

The ethnographic case study shows that in a chaotic situation or one of protracted, fragmented and proliferating violence, it is always possible to construct political and economic order, relying on agencies of governance other than the state. Indeed, new kinds of regulation and governance practice, which have emerged from the retreat of state power, are shaping the ongoing formation of a genuinely postcolonial state.

This is an Africa that is slowly divesting itself of the neo-colonial links which seemed dominant in the years after independence. The horrors of war in the eastern Congo may block what we wish to think of as ‘development’, but they might also be speeding the process whereby power as ‘repression’ is giving way to power as ‘production.’ Efforts by some scholars such as Zartman (1995) to restore the “pre-failed arrangement” only guarantee the failure of their own policy recommendations.

The current situation in the Congo can only be understood if the way we think of power refers back to individual creative and productive instincts. Since many scholars cannot go beyond the Westphalian categories of power and sovereignty (potestas), they see the Congo as nothing more than a desperate “failed state”. If this is so for many Western scholars, their journalists are running out of categories to define the Congo conflict. It is a conflict that blows up the division between good guys and bad guys (terrorists or enemy combatants) on which their traditional construction of conflict is based. In the Congo case, the local militias, government soldiers, Congolese rebels, Ugandan, Rwandan or Burundian rebels and the UN peace (or war) keepers all share a social space where mineral extraction remains the common denominator and women’s bodies constitute the front line of the conflict. Imprisoned in their binary logics, the western media are rendered speechless by a linguistic repertoire wholly inadequate to address the complexity of the DRC’s predicament.



Agamben G. (1998/1995) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford: Stanford University Press

Ake C. (2000) The Feasibility of Democracy in Africa, Dakar: CODESRIA

Appadurai A. (1996) Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Bayart, J.F. Ellis, S. and Hibou, B. (1999) The Criminalization of the State in Africa. Oxford and Bloomington: James Currey and Indiana University Press

Bergmans, L. (1970) L’histoire des Bashu, Butembo: Editions ABB

Bryceson D. (2011) Birth of a market town in Tanzania: Towards narrative studies of urban Africa,”Journal of Eastern African Studies, 5 (2), pp. 274-293

Clapham C. (1996) Africa in the International System: The Politics of State Survival, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Chabal P. and J.P. Daloz (1999) Africa Works: Disorder and Political Instrument, Bloomington: Indiana University Press

De Genova N.(2002) Migrant illegality and deportability in everyday life”, Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 31, 419-47

De Genova N. (2007) The production of culprits: From deportability to detainability in the aftermath of “homeland security”, in Citizen Studies, Routledge

Erdmann G. and U. Engel (2006), Neopatrimonialism revisited: Beyond a catch-all concept,” Working paper in

Fanon F (1963) >The Wretched of the Earth, New York: Grove Press

Foucault M. (1980/1996) Power/Knowledge, New York: Pather Books

Holloway J. (1994), Global capital and national state, in Capital and Class 52

Kabamba P. (forthcoming) Business of War: New forms of life from the debris of the Congolese state, Dakar: Council for Development of Social Sciences in Africa (CODESRIA)

Kasay L. (1988) Le pays Banande au Kivu Septentrional (Zaire): Dynamique des populations et organization de l’espace en milieu equatorial de l’altitude, Dissertation, Diplome d’Etudes Superieures en Geographie, Faculte des Sciences, Universite de Lubumbashi

MacGaffey, J. (1987) Entrepreneurs and Parasites. The struggle for indigenous capitalism in Zaire, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

MacGaffey J., Vwakyanakazi et al. (1991) The Real Economy of Zaire. The contribution of smuggling and other unofficial activities to national wealth, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Mamdani M. (1996), Citizen and Subject, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Mamdani M. (2004) Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, New York: Patheon

Mbembe A. (1993) Afrique indocile, Paris: Karthala

Mbembe A. (2000) On the Postcolony, Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Packard R. (1980) Social change and the history of misfortune among the Bashu of Eastern Zaire in Karp I. and Bird C. (eds.) Explorations in African Systems of Thought, Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Pickard R. (1981), Chiefship and Cosmology, Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Pottier J. (2002) Re-imagining Rwanda: Conflict, Survival and Disinformation in the late XXth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Raeymaekers, T. (2007) The Power of Protection. Governance and transborder trade on the Congo-Uganda frontier, Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Ghent University

Remotti, F. (1933) Etnografia Nande, Vol.1: Societa, matrimony, potere. Torino: Il Segnalibro

Reno, W. (2006) Congo: from State Collapse to “absolutism” to state failure. Third World Quarterly, Vol. 27, 1: 43-56

Reyntjens F. (2004) Rwanda, ten years on: from genocide to dictatorship, African Affairs

Salim A. I. (ed.) (1985) State Formation in Eastern Africa, New York: Saint Martin’s Press

Sarata P.B. (2002), L’industrialisation de la ville de Butembo: un dynamisme freine par les guerres dites de liberation, Parcours et Initiatives, N.1 (Aout) : 36-53

Sklair L. (1995) Sociology of the Global System, London: Prentice Hall

Spinoza B. (1883/2008) The Ethics, Forgotten Books,

Southall, R. (2004) The ANC & Black capitalism in South Africa,” Review of African Political Economy, N.1000: 313-328

Van Acker (1999) La Pembenisation du Haut-Kivu: opportunisme et droits fonciers revisités, L’Afrique des Grands Lacs, annuaire 1998-1999, Paris: L’Harmattan

Vwakyanakazi, M. (1982) African Traders in Butembo, Eastern Zaire (1960-1980). A Case Study of Informal Entrepreneurship in a Cultural Context of Central Africa, Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Waters, M. (1995) Globalization, New York: Routlegde

Zartman, W.I. (1995) Collapsed States. The disintegration and restoration of authority, Boulder: Lynne Rienner

Posted in Working Papers | 2 Comments

The Good Life: Values, Markets, and Wellbeing

Working Papers Series #14
ISSN 2045-5763 (online)

The Good Life: Values, Markets, and Wellbeing

Edward F. Fischer
Vanderbilt University

© 2012 Edward F. Fischer
Creative Commons License
Open Anthropology Cooperative Press

Forum discussion in the OAC network.
Download as PDF, EPUB, MOBI.



Edward F. Fischer is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Vanderbilt University. He has written and edited several books, including Cultural Logics and Global Economies, Broccoli and Desire (with Peter Benson), and (forthcoming) Cash on the Table. He has conducted long-term ethnographic fieldwork with the Maya of highland Guatemala and middle-class consumers in Germany, focusing on issues of political economy.


Here I make a simple proposition: the ends of the economy, as well as politics, should be provisioning the good life for people as they conceive it. The rub is, of course, that while we may all want to live the good life, we differ widely on just what that entails. Yet, everywhere, the good life implies more than mere “happiness”: it implies wellbeing, fulfillment, the meaningful existence Aristotle termed eudaimonia. An adequate income is absolutely necessary, but alone is insufficient, for overall wellbeing. Health and physical security, family bonds and social relations are also important. My research points to several additional key elements of the good life: aspiration and agency, opportunity structures, dignity and fairness, and commitments to meaningful projects.


The Good Life: Values, Markets, and Wellbeing

This paper is a précis of a larger project and monograph: German Eggs, Guatemalan Coffee, and The Good Life: An Anthropological Look at Markets, Values and Wellbeing.

The genesis of this project, as with so many ethnographic endeavors, began with a chance encounter: in this instance, a reproachful look from the owner of a small cinema. I was in Hamburg with my family over the Christmas holidays, and my seven year old son wanted desperately to see the recently released Harry Potter movie. We had come to Germany to visit family but also to take a breather from the frenetic commercial pace of stateside holidays. Still, Johannes had cheerfully attended all of the gemütlich feasts and gatherings, and so we felt that we could hardly deny him such a simple, easy pleasure. Thus, on Zweiten Weihnachtstag (the second day of Christmas, December 26th, a public holiday), we looked up the schedule in the newspaper and discovered that a neighborhood cinema had a showing at 5:30 that evening. With good German punctuality, and led by my good German wife, we arrived a few minutes after 5:00, only to find a long line already stretching from the ticket window. We took our place at the end of the queue and arrived at the window just in time to buy three of the four remaining tickets, much to the dismay of the family behind us.1 As the woman counted our money, I asked why she did not offer earlier matinees since there was obviously a demand. She looked at me over half-rim glasses—reproachfully pausing for a moment as if she did not know where to start—and replied that during the holidays kids should not be inside watching movies, rather they should be at home with their families or playing in the park. She was pleased with my surprise—it seemed to be the effect she was going for—that a small business owner would voluntarily support a notion of common good at the expense her own material gain, a moral position at odds with the rational expectations of much economic theory and a stance that would be foreign to many American entrepreneurs.

This was one of those “ah-ha” moments of participant observation and ethnographic fieldwork that Willis and Trondman (2000) write about, when a pervasive yet subtle pattern crystallizes for a moment in a concrete interaction. The cinema incident reminded me of experiences from my years of fieldwork in Guatemala, those many economic anomalies (and yet cultural consistencies) in which social concerns trumped self-interested rationality. Once while living in the Kaqchikel Maya town of Tecpán, some friends from there (who had studied abroad and gotten good jobs working for international organizations in Guatemala City) came home for a visit. My wife and I were pleased to see them and gladly accepted when they invited us to go with them to the land they kept in one of the surrounding hamlets. Getting there was a trek—we drove about five kilometers and then hiked over a small mountain for the last few kilometers. While I had thought we were just going to check the land out and maybe clean up a little it, as it turned out we worked all day–with a break to eat tamale-like chuchas reheated over a fire—to harvest the remains of what was missed when the hired hands gathered the crop. In the end, we wound up with a few paltry net loads of maize (corn is often carried in large nets on one’s back). I was surprised, and frankly a little aggravated, at having worked so hard for such a small reward, and that my friends would take time off from their relatively high-paying jobs since, in economic terms, the maize we harvested that day was not worth nearly what they could have made working. Given the opportunity costs, spending our time this way did not make economic sense, or at least was not rational. I said as much to our friends, and they responded that it was not just about the money, the monetary value of the corn, but the fact that this corn came from their ancestral plots; that the corn from there tastes different, better; and that, in any case, it is xajan (taboo) to waste maize (one is taught as a child not to drop it or step over it). Most important, they stressed, are these affective ties to the land, a connection with the collective weight of history and the generations of relatives who had worked this land, a value that could not be measured in monetary terms. Here land and its produce embody familial and social values that coexist with, and sometimes trump, their value as an economic asset.

A final introductory example comes from closer to home, from a cab driver who picked me up at the airport in Washington DC a few years back, just before the city switched to a dashboard meter system. Arman owned the Lincoln Town Car that he drove, and he had it arranged like a car service car, with the front seats moved all the way forward to give more leg room in the back and a newspaper tucked into the seat-back pocket. He obviously took pride in his vehicle, and when I asked him about it he said that he could drive an old beat-up taxi and charge the same fares, but that he liked the professional style. He went on to say that he studied maps and monitored traffic so that he would always know the best route around the city. When I asked him about the switch to meters, he was opposed. I protested that the zone fare was such an opaque system for visitors, and that I always had the vague feeling that I overpaid for cab rides. He said that he never overcharged—when his fare looks like they have money, he charged the normal full fare, but for needier passengers he often reduced the zone price to give them a break. He would work out, in the blink of an eye, a complex algorithm, taking into account all the subtle signals of dress and speech that a passenger conveyed, the destination and so on, to come up with what he judged to be a fair and just amount. He took great pride in achieving excellence at his trade and he stressed the value of having a sense of control over his life that meters would partly take away.

In each of these stories we find folks motivated by culturally embedded conceptions of “the good life.” They envisage particular sorts of futures for themselves and the world—the agency to control one’s own destiny, the meaningful obligations of family and friends, the delicate balance between private interests and common goods. We see individuals giving meaning to their economic activities, seeking the good life, each in their own way, and often in ways that directly counter their immediate material interests. I explore here what the good life means in different places. As we see in the stories above, wellbeing is not simply seen as material affluence, and these are not simply rational, self-interested automatons like Homo economicus. We see in these cases individuals making decisions based on culturally particular and deeply-held values: valuing—materially—something other than narrowly defined self-interest. These are economic decisions embedded in moral projects and conceptions of the good life.


A Simple Proposition

I have a simple point to make: that we should understand the ends of economics, as well as politics, to be provisioning the good life for people as widely as possible and as they themselves conceive it. While we often talk about them as such, markets and political systems are not naturally given orders. They are contrivances, technologies, tools for us to achieve ends that we value collectively. Understanding conceptions of the good life, then, allows us to document diverse values and aspirations on-the-ground and to evaluate market forces and regulatory structures as mechanisms to promote not only material wealth, but greater overall wellbeing (see, for example, Hart, Laville, and Cattani 2010).

But what is the good life? We often use “happiness” as shorthand to denote wellbeing. Researchers who study these sorts of things generally distinguish two types of happiness. There is “hedonic” happiness, that everyday contentment (and the cheeriness the term calls to mind in common American usage). Then there is a broader sense of “life satisfaction,” judged by the criteria of “wellbeing” and “the good life” (Watermanm Schwartz and Conti 2006).

Some would also call this second condition simply “happiness,” but it is not the sort of giddy jolliness so often associated with that word. Rather, it has more of the classic Aristotelian sense of the ultimate end of human existence: a fulfilled life, a meaningful life, eudaimonia. Eudaimonia comes from “eu-,” signifying “well” and “daimon,” which is the same root as demon, signifying benevolent power over one’s destiny. In this sense, the good life is about having the power to construct a life that one values, equivalent to what we tend to call “agency.”

Striving for the good life involves the arduous work of becoming, of living a life that one deems worthy: creating meaning, aspiring for something better, the act of becoming the sort of person and living the sort of life one desires. The good life is not made up of simple happiness, as John Rawls (1971) reminds us. The good life requires trade-offs, often forgoing hedonistic pleasure. Perhaps the good life is not a state to be obtained, but, as Aristotle suggests, it is the aspiration and act of becoming, the pursuit, and the journey that gives meaning and fulfillment. Robert Nozick (1974) famously posed the question of whether it would be preferable to live in an “experience machine” that could give one any experience one desired (indistinguishable from real life) or to live one’s up and down real life. Nozick, argues that most folks would choose real life. He posits that the ups and downs of real experience and struggle give value to the ends enjoyed and that folks are driven to be certain sorts of people (not indeterminate blobs). Similarly, Neo is faced with a blue pill/red pill dilemma in The Matrix, and clearly the scary reality of the red pill is the right, and virtuous, path to take even though it is the antithesis of blissful ignorance.

Wellbeing and the good life involve much more than just hedonic happiness. As we see in what follows, the two sorts of happiness—hedonic and eudaimonic—can well be at odds with one another, a tension crucial to understanding economic behavior and the role of public policy. Daniel Kahneman and others have shown, for example, that income has a very different impact on the two sorts of happiness; he concludes that “being poor makes one miserable, and that being rich may enhance one’s life satisfaction, but does not (on average) improve experienced well-being” (2011: 397).

For Aristotle,2 fulfillment comes from pursuing ends for their own sake (not as an instrumental means toward other ends); that there is virtue in the purity and sincerity of such pursuits. For example, it is virtuous of me to write a book because of a desire to write it (a desire to develop thoughts and express them), not because I want to make some money (and that is a good thing, too, given the state of academic publishing). Aristotle recognized that we must have the material resources to enjoy such virtuous pursuits (and this is a very big condition indeed), but his contribution comes from stressing the values that go beyond just material resources.

While, words like “moral” and “virtue” are often used in popular discourse to denote timeless, essential cultural prescriptions, our perspective here sees them as the product of ongoing processes of socially situated negotiation, continually enacted through the dialectic of everyday social life and yet strongly conditioned by path dependencies and the weight of history and tradition (Fischer 1999; Sayer 2011). Living up to the expectations of particular values is in many ways the stock in trade of human existence; and it is this forward-looking, aspirational quality to the internalization of culturally produced virtues that drives “agency.” Jens Beckert (2011) writes of the power of daydreams and imagination of the future in the construction of consumer identities. Elsewhere, Peter Benson and I (Fischer and Benson 2006) have made a similar argument for the role of understanding desire in producer identities, and Arjun Appadurai (2004) has looked as the role of aspiration in terms of the capabilities approach to development.

Happiness and Wellbeing

Since the late 1990s, there has been a boom of research around issues of happiness and wellbeing. In the U.S., Germany, and the developed world, this generally goes under the rubric of happiness studies and builds on innovative work coming from psychology and economics. For the developing world, a parallel field has emerged through multidimensional models of poverty and Amartya Sen’s (1999) influential “capabilities” approach to development.

It is clear from this work that income, wealth, and material resources are necessary but insufficient prerequisites of the good life. Happiness studies and multidimensional measures of poverty show that income is crucially important for one’s ability to achieve a good life, but it is insufficient alone. In fact, happiness increases level off dramatically after a relatively low threshold of income. People need financial and material resources, no doubt, but perhaps not in the proportion we might first imagine.

Studies have shown that family, education, social ties, and dignity are all powerful predictors of one’s life satisfaction (Layard 2005, Gilbert 2006, Veenhoven 2000, Graham 2011). People who feel that they contribute importantly to a larger project, those that possess the agency and power (daimon) to effect change, are more satisfied with their lives. Alan Krueger (2005) observes that “worker satisfaction depends at least as much on social aspects of work, and having a sense of meaning and interest in work, as it does on material rewards.” Dolan, White and Peasgood (2008) find that strong corollaries of subjective wellbeing include health, meaningful employment, having a spouse or partner, and a degree of social contact.

Wealthier people are on average happier than the poor, but there is no neat linear relationship between income and happiness. The Easterlin Paradox observes that between countries, average happiness does not rise with income although the wealthier within a country tend to be happier than the poor (Easterlin 2001). Easterlin’s findings have been challenged by Stevenson and Wolfers (2008), but it still seems that, at least above a certain point, income is valued relative to the income of ones peer group and others; Layard (2005: 44) writes that “income is much more than a means to buy things. We also use our income, compared to others’, as a measure of how we are valued and (if we are not careful) a measure of how we value ourselves.” Robert Frank (1999) has argued that the ways the affluent tend to spend additional income (on positional goods and conspicuous consumption) adds little to collective happiness.

Perhaps there is a hedonic treadmill of adapting quickly to upward mobility. Although, as David Clark (2009) notes and the recent financial crisis reminds us, adaptation can occur either through adjusting aspirations upward or by adjusting them downward. Layard (2005), Kahneman (2011) and others argue that there is a curvilinear relationship between income and happiness: more income produces proportionate advances in happiness up to a given point. Kahneman (2011: 397) reports that above household incomes of $75,000 in high-cost areas in the U.S., there is no increase in experienced well-being with income increases. Kahneman and Deaton (2010) argue that while hedonic happiness is not tightly associated with income, broader measures of life-satisfaction do have a linear relationship. Graham (2011) summarizes the research: “more money does not necessarily buy more happiness, but less money is associated with emotional pain” (36).3

This all suggests that, while poverty alleviation policies are necessary to promote the general welfare, they are but one component of wellbeing. And if we are to talk about holistic human development, income serves as a fruitful means to an end, but, beyond basic subsistence, it is ultimately unrewarding as an end in itself.


Elements of the Good Life

What are people’s visions of what the good life should look like? And how do they engage markets in pursuit of the good life as they conceive it?

My recent work has looked at German eggs and Guatemalan coffee, cars and broccoli—things to which we attach aspirations and desires for a good life, both extraordinary and mundane. I have looked at how the good life is conceived and pursued in Germany and Guatemala, how folks as both producers and consumers engage their circumstances to work toward the good life as they see it. In these cases, we find that ideas about the good life are morally laden—replete with ideas of value, worth, virtue, what is good or bad, right or wrong. It is clear that we give (and take) meaning from our many market interactions. Think of the moralities around consumption—not only the overtly ethical question of fair trade and organic goods, but also the ways consumption embodies values of thrift and generosity, family obligations and social relations, and a whole host of other personal and cultural virtues.

To understand the good life we have to take seriously not only material conditions but people’s desires, aspirations, and imagination. We need to value what people say the good life should look like (what economists often discount as merely “stated preferences”), acknowledging that these projections often take long time horizons and give significant weight to pro-social behavior and other elements of eudaimonic wellbeing. Such stated ideals may well be contradicted by actual behavior (revealed preferences): what we say and what we do may be two different things. Yet, we still need to give due weight to what we say we would like to do (as well as what we actually do) if we are to understand what our shared aspirations will allow.

In line with other studies of happiness and multidimensional poverty, I find that Adequate Material Resources (“adequate” as based on a relative and socially positional baseline), Physical Health and Safety, and Family and Social Relations are all core and necessary elements of wellbeing. Further, my research shows that wellbeing is tightly linked to several other key dimensions:

  • Agency and Aspiration
  • Opportunity Structures
  • Dignity and Fairness
  • Commitment to Larger, Meaningful (Moral) Projects

My study focuses on how these elements of wellbeing are expressed by German consumers and Maya farmers, what this means for their visions of the good life, and what they can tell us about wellbeing.

In both places, we find that wellbeing requires a sense of agency—the ability to exert at least some degree of control over one’s own destiny—and the material resources and social and political opportunity structures through which to exercise that agency. Notions of the good life orient the aspirations of agency and provide a dynamic framework through which to interpret one’s own actions and those of others, all the while bound by the realm of what is seen as possible (what Pierre Bourdieu (1977) termed “doxa”). The market is a key venue through which to pursue the good life, and a sizable percentage of German middle-class supermarket shoppers explicitly link their buying choices to supporting certain sorts of ecological and social ideals. Similarly, we find Maya farmers actively engaging and changing the coffee market in Guatemala in pursuit of their particular aspirations for the good life.

Yet, the effectiveness of agency is often limited by available opportunity structures (the social norms, legal regulations, and market entry mechanisms that delimit, or facilitate, certain behaviors and aspirations). The will is important, but there also has to be a way. Opportunity structures encompass not only market relations but also formal and informal social norms; ethnic, gender, and other systematic biases; the principles and practice of legal rights; and the whole range of institutional factors that define the space of the possible. Individual agency acts on choices, but those choices are structured through political-economic processes that transcend the individual. In situations where agency far exceeds available opportunity structures, we find the condition that Bart Victor and I (Victor, Fischer, and Vergara n.d.) term “frustrated freedom.”

Ample evidence shows that relative valuations of fairness and dignity play a central role in work satisfaction and overall wellbeing. This involves freedom from discrimination, but also the more positive value of respect. What is considered “fair” varies across cultures—for example, playing the Ultimatum Game in Guatemala, we find folks willing to pay significant sums to punish others perceived as playing unfairly. But, wherever one draws the line, the respect of others and the self-respect that flows from mastery of a practice is crucial to subjective wellbeing. At great expense, the German system of “co-determination” promotes the dignity and professionalism of working-class trades, and a sense of fairness permeates German middle class discourses of solidarity. Among Maya coffee growers in Guatemala, we find notions of dignity linked to control over land and productive resources and strong local social norms that attempt to limit inequality to levels considered fair and just.

Finally, having a larger purpose and being part of a meaningful project are central to wellbeing among both the affluent and the poor. At first blush this might seem to be the exclusive purview of the affluent, the luxury to pursue fulfilling life goals. But I suggest that it is more broadly human, an important part of wellbeing for all but the most severely deprived. Management research has shown that for employees to feel that they are part of a meaningful project can be more important for wellbeing than even income. In fact, Robert Frank (2010) finds that the more morally satisfying a job is on average, the less it pays. We could see this either as having to pay a premium for folks to stretch their morals or as some jobs being compensated in non-financial ways. The importance of being part of a meaningful project to one’s sense of wellbeing is not restricted to the well-off, as our look to the desires and aspirations of Maya farmers makes clear. Nor do meaningful projects need to be what we might classify as positive: they encompass hate group ideology as well as religious fervor, the mastery of a skill or profession as much as mastery of a video game. Moral projects have to be meaningful, but their meanings are not determined by any absolute code and span the range of political and social leanings. We will see that many German shoppers buy free-range eggs to support the environment and good working conditions, a moral value they articulate as “solidarity.” In turn, Maya famers envisage a better life for their kids, they want to provide more opportunities for them to flourish and not to be bound to subsistence agriculture. These are meaningful life projects as well as visions of the good life.


Development, Income, and the Good Life

Inspired by the work of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen (1979), a capabilities approach sees the goal of economic development as freedom: the capability for individuals to pursue the lives that they themselves value. This requires income, but also, as with the relatively affluent subjects of happiness studies, agency, the capability to act with intention, to envision and make changes in one’s life, to aspire.

Income may be a useful measurement of development, and we have long ranked countries by GNP per head. But such averages are at best imperfect measures of wellbeing. For one, they hide inequality: a country may have a high GNP per capita with a small clique controlling most of the resources and the vast majority living in poverty. (If Bill Gates walked into a soup kitchen in Seattle, the average annual income of people there would skyrocket—but that wouldn’t tell us much about the distribution of wellbeing among individuals.) In response to the shortcomings of national income measures, and inspired by the work of Sen, in 1990 the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) introduced its now widely used Human Development Index (HDI), which incorporates measures of health and education as well as income.4

The idea of looking at happiness and wellbeing in addition to standard economic metrics to measure the success of public policies has taken hold not only in Latin America, Africa, and the developing world, but in Asia and Europe as well. China’s overarching policy goal of promoting a “harmonious” society melds Confucian principles to multidimensional measures of wellbeing. Bhutan famously has adopted a Gross National Happiness index to orient public policy and measures the country’s development in terms of wellbeing. France (Stiglitz, Sen, and Fitoussi 2010) and Britain (Dolan, Layard, Metcalfe 2011) too have explored ways to move beyond GNP as a measure of economic and political success.

The HDI and other multidimensional measures are a big improvement over GNP rankings, but they remain very blunt measures for overall wellbeing, eudaimonia. The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), led by Sabina Alkire, has introduced more holistic measures. Alkire (2005, 2007), James Foster (Alkire and Foster 2011), and others (Alkire and Santos 2010; Alkire, Comim and Qizilbash 2009) at OPHI have identified five key missing dimensions of poverty (from employment, freedom from shame, agency, safety, and subjective wellbeing.

While differently categorized, the dimensions that emerge from my study overlap significantly with the OPHI list. For example, what I label fairness and dignity includes employment conditions and the ability to go about without shame; what OPHI includes as agency, I have broken down into aspiration, agency, and opportunity structures. My categories are adapted to the particular cases at hand, but note that they seek to approximate the same conditions indexed in the OPHI scales.

The OPHI missing dimensions are not meant to be an exhaustive list of the conditions of poverty, but they do an impressive job of covering key areas and possess the great virtue of being practical in an operational sense: these are items that can actually be measured with surveys and available data. The OPHI approach points us toward a fruitful new way of documenting the multiple and interrelated dimensions of poverty and its antithesis, wellbeing.

Martha Nussbaum (2011) offers a more expansive list of what she considers to be the ten central capabilities (“not just abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment”) required for the good life. Also intended as an open and revisable list, Nussbaum’s dimensions extend the scope of wellbeing to include emotions, practical reason, play, and imagination. While harder to operationalize, Nussbaum’s concern with the subjective experience speaks to our own present focus on desires, aspirations, and ethnographic conceptions of the good life.

No matter how long the list of items, accounting for such missing dimensions of poverty and wellbeing allows us to find correlations we would miss from income data alone. For example, Graham and Lora (2009) find that friends and family matter more to the happiness of the poor in Latin America, while work and health matter more to the wealthy.

And here is the rub: We may all want to live the good life, but we also differ widely concerning just what that entails, on what the good life might look like and the best means to get there. Conceptions of the good life are furthermore laden with deeply-held moral valuations, the various meanings behind a “meaningful life.” These can be culturally specific and even idiosyncratic, but they share a common concern with values (what is important, what is really important, in life) and an orientation toward the future.


The Moral Provenance of German Eggs

Let’s start with buying eggs. That might seem an odd place to begin a discussion of the good life, but a lot of wellbeing is linked to precisely such small moments that fill our days. Buying eggs may be one of life’s more mundane tasks, something most of us do without much thought beyond occasionally comparing prices. But egg shopping in Germany compels one to make an explicit moral decision with every purchase, to lay bare the price one puts on certain values. This presents us with a natural experiment to help answer the question of what price we are willing to pay to be virtuous.

Since 2004 the European Union has required all eggs (the packages and the individual eggs themselves) to carry a numeric code. (This could be a set-up for one of the commonly heard jokes about the more absurd and intrusive EU regulations, such as the specifications for cucumber curvature.) The first in the string of digits denotes how the chicken was raised, followed by a two letter code for the country of origin (DE for Germany), and then a unique identifying number for the farm and packing company. The designations for how the eggs were handled are 0 = organic and free range, 1 = free range, 2 cage free, to 3 coop raised, also sometimes termed pejoratively “KZ” or concentration camp eggs, a strong analogy indeed for Germans, who tend not to joke about the Holocaust. These designations are posted over display shelves, putting front and center details on the conditions of production and forcing a morally laden decision about how much to pay for the social values embodied in different sorts of eggs. There is a price to pay for perceived virtue, and it is a decision one has to make every time one buys eggs.

From 2006-2008 I conducted fieldwork with middle-class supermarket shoppers in the Südstadt neighborhood of Hannover, Germany. I focused on the eggs they buy and the reasons they gave for their selections. We find a broad concern with the provenance of eggs, facilitated by mandatory labeling. Shoppers often explained their choices in term of valuing a (somewhat nebulous) environmental commons and frequently invoked the relevance of social “solidarity.”

The point I want to make here is that moral values affect the choices we make, even in mundane supermarket purchases. German egg choices tell us about the difference between “revealed” preferences (what people actually do) and “stated” preferences (what people say they want). In the consumer realm, stated preferences are more likely to be concerned with what I call the “moral provenance” of goods—positive and negative externalities, the impact of commodity chains on the environment, social relations, and our views of a just world.

In the 2008 Hannover surveys, 3 in 5 of the supermarket shoppers interviewed reported buying free range or organic and free range eggs. Those who bought eggs from a farmer at a local market (also a sort of socially conscious purchasing move) or did not eat eggs were another 14%. Only 1 in 4 bought the cheapest eggs


Egg type Reported purchasing Average price (€ per egg)
0 = organic, free-range 27% 0.38
1 = free-range 34% 0.20
2 = cage-free 12% 0.16
3 = battery-cage 13% 0.14
local market 9% 0.25
don’t eat eggs 5% —-


Given the significant price differences, these data are surprising. They reveal an apparent willingness of German consumers to pay a big premium for moral preferences—almost three times as much for organic compared to battery-cage raised. And this pattern holds true across socio-economic groups.

These German consumers are willing to pay a premium for what James Foster and I (n.d.) term “moral provenance.” Moral provenance refers to the social conditions embedded in commodity chains and the social, economic, and environmental externalities implicated in transactions; that is to say, it represents the elements encoded in the value chain beyond price. Moral provenance manifests itself in consumer behavior as a willingness to pay a premium for positive externalities and to punish companies for (perceived and actual) negative externalities. It appeals to some consumers’ sense of the good life and to their imagination of a better world. As a distinguishing attribute and a competitive advantage, goods that reflect moral provenance allow consumers to (voluntarily) place a monetary value on intangibles such as justice, solidarity, thrift, and environmental stewardship. Looking at moral provenance allows us to see how consumers are driven to pursue moral values and at what economic cost. At the same time, it is often difficult to separate moral from other considerations. Moral provenance, for example, is often linked to quality (e.g., associations with a geographic region or a more artisanal model of production): as one Hannover shopper told me, “it is important to support one’s own region, country. The quality is better—you know what you are getting.”

Among Hannover supermarket shoppers, a broad range of respondents were willing to pay a significant premium for some eggs as well as for other organic and fair trade products. The Südstadt supermarket shoppers who preferred “bio” eggs tended to invoke broad notions of fairness and social solidarity, environmental concerns, and civic obligations, all of which blur together into a general sense of the common good. They used a language of social obligation and moral values. For many, this was not much more than a vague and abstract idea of the common good, sometimes glossed as “solidarity.” When pressed to clarify, they would mention environmental concerns, animal rights, eradicating unfair work practices, and generally safeguarding common resources. For all of them, however, these values were an important motivating force: an ideal, even if only broadly defined, that requires action in the real world. Such moral projects give meaning to life—and, along the way, bestow meaning on markets and on things.


Word and Deed

Yet, what we say is not always what we do. There is a whole set of folk admonitions about the slippage between word and deed (inevitably privileging the latter: “it’s not what you say, but what you do,” “all talk, no action,” and so on). This is not just a question of bad intentions and duplicity: we are very capable of cognitive dissonance, holding contradictory ideas and desires. We sometimes do not know what we want (as marketers understand so well), and our notions about what is best change. Paradoxically, it may even be the case that what we (truthfully) say we want may not be what we actually choose. I want a cinnamon roll but I also want to lose weight; what do I really want? Sometimes there are difficult trade-offs between short-term, hedonic happiness and long-term wellbeing.

Economists distinguish between “stated preferences” (the sometimes crazy things folks say they want) and “revealed preferences” (what they actually do). Revealed preferences are taken to be more real: it is thought that when the rubber hits the road and the cash changes hands, one reveals one’s true preferences. There are also good empirical reasons for focusing on revealed preferences, for they are what can actually be measured (and in dollars and cents, no less). Yet, I argue, we should also take seriously what people say they want; folks’ stated preferences reveal their desires just as truly, and are often more attuned to longer-range and more pro-social values.

An anthropological perspective naturally takes stated preferences seriously, for we place great value on what folks tell us. Stated preferences imply an intention to enact those preferences at some point in the future. This is to say that stated and revealed preferences are not mutually exclusive; it is also the case that people often do what they say. At the same time, less constrained by the exigencies of daily life, stated preferences have the freedom to express more social interests and to give greater emphasis to long-term goals and moral projects, common goods and the common good. Revealed preferences also reflect such desires, but they result from cost/benefit analysis embedded in a market logic expressive of more immediate material concerns.

Stated preferences may sometimes contradict the deeds of revealed preferences, but it does not follow that they are any more real or important. In fact, we must take into account the hopes, desires, and aspirations of stated preferences in order to understand how wellbeing is pursued in socially embedded market transactions. We may well find that, given the desires expressed in stated preferences, regulations and norms that reduce choice may in some contexts not only act to protect common goods but also to improve individual wellbeing overall.

With that in mind, let us return to our survey of Hannover supermarket shoppers. Over 60% of our sample reported buying either organic or free-range eggs; but sales data show that the national proportion of eggs sold is less than half that figure. So, assuming that our sample was not wildly atypical, what are their real preferences? Revealed preference presumably values price over moral provenance and quality (more battery-cage raised and cage-free eggs are actually bought), and yet their stated preferences are just the opposite. Both tell us something important about consumer values.


Egg type Sample purchases5 National sales
0 = organic, free-range 31% 7%
1 = free-range 40% 24%
2 = cage-free 14% 40%
3 = battery-cage 15% 29%


There would appear to be a strong dissonance between what folks say they want and what they actually do. But we should not take their revealed preferences as self-evidently what they really want. I would suggest that they also really want what they say they want, and this reveals a great deal about their ideals and values, the sort of person they imagine themselves to be and the sort of world they would like to live in. Such aspirational values orient our long-term goals, and yet we often also succumb to short-term expediency at the expense of longer-term aspirations or feel compelled to pursue individual versus collective interests so that we do not fall behind in relative terms because collective action problems.

Price theory privileges “true” or “revealed” preferences over “stated” preferences. This claims to be an empirically rigorous approach, with preferences being revealed through documented behavior such as purchases made or votes cast. At the same time, the importance of the cultural and institutional contexts of decisions are discounted—the fact that choices are limited by structural conditions, as in the common scenario we face in the grocery store aisle and the voting booth to choose between the lesser of two evils. What if real preferences (as expressed in moral projects, for example) are not addressed by the market and competition diverts preferences toward goals with less overall utility? There would then be real values on the table that can only be realized through regulatory structures shaping collective action.

It is a fundamental axiom of marketing experts that folks do not really know what they want. This pliability is what makes their job possible. Many of our daily economic encounters (in the supermarket, shoe store, online) are orchestrated by companies drawing on extensive behavioral research to make us “freely” choose in certain ways. While this isn’t surprising, we don’t actively consider such matters in the course of these transactions. Of course, we are not completely malleable, we are not puppets, but we are manipulated all the time in ways that should make us question our cherished beliefs concerning free will.

Revealed preferences tend to be framed by what Gudeman (2008) calls calculative reason—the cost/benefit analysis of perceived utility as represented in dollars-and-cents. The symbolic (and sacred, McCloskey’s [2006] “S” variables, including the solidarity of social obligations and convictions of moral value) is often undervalued in such monetary conversions. Revealed preferences are highly sensitive to contextual and structural constraints, a necessary and pragmatic concern with what is possible. They are also influenced by what behavioral economists term “hyperbolic discounting,” a bias towards immediate and short-term rewards expressed by discounting future values (Thaler 1992).

Stated preferences, on the other hand, are less bound by the practicalities of time-horizons and collective action problems. They are able to consider “what if” possibilities: what kind of person one would like to be, what sort of world would we like to live in. Even with stated preferences, we find disciplined aspirations developed in a cultural and social context of what is possible (Li 2007, Bourdieu 1977, Carrier 2010).

In the German case, we find a strong stated preference for “quality” and “solidarity” and yet revealed preferences that value price frugality over these qualities. We might expect supermarket decisions to be especially susceptible to hyperbolic discounting: money will shortly change hands in the checkout line (and in Hannover it is most often a cash transaction); one must decide the value of an immediate savings versus other, perhaps more distant, preferences for quality and solidarity.

We should not ignore the importance of stated preferences if we seek to understand what motivates economic behavior. These tend to value broad, long-range ideals and unveil a concern for common goods that often remains hidden in the immediacy of revealed preferences. As the case of moral provenance of German eggs suggests, we might do well to promote economic structures that help us realize our stated preferences and not just cater to the quick buck of hedonistic revealed preferences.


A Word about Morals and Virtues

The word “moral” carries many connotations, but I use it here in a specific way. Morals are often thought of as prescriptions and proscriptions on behavior, telling you what you should and should not do. I take a broader, more ecumenical and ethnographic, approach, recognizing the multitude of moral codes extant in the world. I use the term descriptively, to denote those cultural (and psychological/ethical) processes that deal with valuations of what is good and bad.

We may, following Arthur Kleinman (2006), define the moral as what matters most to folks. This perspective has the advantage of not judging whether or not a particular moral stance is right or wrong, good or bad; rather it calls attention to what folks themselves value in their lives (Sayer 2011).6

For present purposes, “moral” implies (1) a conception of good (and thus a value judgment), (2) a concern with others (and how one’s actions affect others) and (3) an affirmation of what matters most to us. We may then view virtues as the positive expression of shared moral values—living up to the moral expectations of particular values and visions of the good life. In the Aristotelian sense, virtue, from the Greek arete, is moral excellence, the learned capacity to do something well. Alasdair MacIntyre (1984) defines virtue as excellence within the domain of a given “practice,” a perspective that moves away from the universalizing tendencies of cardinal virtues and allows for greater cultural latitude. In a MacIntyrian practice, one finds something in an endeavor beyond oneself, something to be valued for its own sake and not just the means to satisfy an end. He writes that:

any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended. (1984:187)

In short, moral values and culturally salient virtues reference visions and valuations of what the good life—excellence, in this neo-Aristotelian view—could and should be.


Economic Preferences, Moral Values, and the Good Life

Moral values inform economic behavior. On the face of it, this is an unassailable proposition. Think of the often spiritual appeal of consumer goods or the value-laden stakes of upward or downward mobility. Think about the central role that moral questions regarding poverty, access to healthcare, the tax code, property and land rights, and corruption play in the shaping of modern governments, societies, and social movements. The moral aspects of the marketplace have never been so contentious or consequential.

Despite this, the realm of economics is often treated as a world unto itself, a domain where human behavior is guided not by emotions, beliefs, moralities or the passions, but by the hard calculus of rational choices. Many economists recognize “the limits of the self-interested, rational actor as a proxy for human decision making” (Goodenough 2008: 228). The recent financial crisis led even true believers such as Richard Posner and Alan Greenspan to question some of their axiomatic principles. But, as Paul Krugman (2009) has pointed out, a simplified view of Homo economicus has come to dominate in much scholarship, public policy, and popular media, basing explanations of why humans behave as they do on rational, self-interested, utility-maximizing individual behavior in natural “free markets”.

There are ethical and political consequences of such models of economic behavior. If humans are assumed to be unwaveringly driven by self-interest, then the economy is best managed by isolating moral questions and concerns. Judging economic behavior and public policy becomes not a question of good or bad, but rather of efficient or inefficient, of how to best maximize utilities (Becker 1996, Becker and Becker 1996, Samuelson 1976). In this view, trade restrictions, national borders, political corruption, religious values, and other such issues are seen as barriers to and distortions of a fluid marketplace. Efficiency is championed as the ultimate moral practice—producing the most goods for the most people (even if distribution is seen to be handled by the fundamental fairness of a free market).

The attraction of such an approach rests in its parsimony, translating the chaos of everyday life into a metric system of numbers and models. Applying scientific rigor to behavior, economics has come to rely on mathematical modeling based on assumptions about equilibrium and maximization as expressed through utility functions (Carrier 1997, Fullbrook 2004; Stiglitz 1993). Textbooks liken the workings of markets to natural forces, distancing themselves from the field’s historical roots in philosophy and ethics. Popular books like Freakonomics, Discover Your Inner Economist, and The Undercover Economist convey a message of ethical agnosticism about human behavior (just let the facts speak for themselves) and fuel the conceit of the brand of economics associated with Milton Friedman, Gary Becker, and the Chicago School.

This trend tragically popularizes a certain variety of economics as the field’s public face just when economics witnesses a proliferation of new and innovative behavioral and empirical approaches that not only recognize but embrace the classical model’s anomalies. In fact, economics has a good deal to offer anthropology and the other social sciences, especially with its sophisticated models of preferences and utility maximization, attention to macro forces of political economy and corporate behavior, as well as the systematic analysis of rational and non-rational behaviors.

Behavioral economics is working to redefine the limits of rationality, and to document systematic “biases” that subvert rationality (Thaler 1992, Ariely 2008, and others); and a growing number of academic economists work on issues touching on the role of cultural values and moral concerns. For example, George Akerlof examines the ways identity affects commitment and performance within organizations (see Akerlof and Kranton 2005). Robert Frank (1988 and elsewhere) documents how economic decisions are informed by a sense of identity and narrative life history. Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler (1991) champion experimental methods and behavioral observation to show how psychology influences rationality. The list goes on. On the margins of the discipline lies a vibrant Heterodox Economics movement and a vocal minority calling for a “post-autistic” approach (to use the 2000 rallying cry of rebellious French students) that moves beyond the “uncontrolled use” of mathematics and better engages with empirical realities ( These revisions open up the possibility of a more complicated picture of subjective components of economic behavior, especially moral values, that have long been bracketed within utility functions.


Moral Economies

Moral and cultural assumptions about what is good and bad, right and wrong, fair and just are inherent in all economic institutions and systems. Even neoclassical economics inevitably introduces moral premises into its models and explanations; the methodological individualism of rational choice theory is itself quite parochial and moralistic (McCloskey 1998:47). In fact, the free market model is itself a kind of morality that embodies assumptions about who deserves what and what kinds of citizenship are valuable to the national product and national future (Hart 2005). For all its claims to moral agnosticism, such extreme economistic thinking has itself become a form of theology (Nelson 2001), laden with unchecked cultural assumptions and confident about making the world in its own secular image and converting fables about behavior’s natural causes into everyday commonsense.

John Kenneth Galbraith (1998 [1958]) presciently observed that, “In the United States, as in other western countries, we have for long had a respected secular priesthood whose function it has been to rise above questions of religious ethics, kindness and compassion and show how these might have to be sacrificed on the altar of the greater good. That larger good, invariably,was more efficient production” (215). As Galbraith makes clear, this is not just a matter of economics, but also one of morality. Similarly, Fourcade and Healy (2007: 304) write that markets are “actively moralized by the deployment of practical techniques, whether self-consciously (as in the case of social responsibility) or in the name of neutrality and objectivity (as in the case of efficiency).”

The idea of a “moral economy”, made famous by the work of James Scott (1977, 1985), typically refers to the continuing force of pre-capitalist traditions – especially moral values about fair prices and economic practices – in the face of capitalist development and expansion (Thompson 1971). For Scott, local moral values are an expression of subaltern resistance to capitalism, enlivening everyday forms of resistance and thwarting the consolidation of consensual, hegemonic power.

I follow Andrew Sayer’s (2011) expansive understanding of moral economy. For him morals are not external to the market, but internal to all economic orders. This is to say that all economies are “moral” in the sense that they embody and reproduce values. Economic systems are built upon assumptions – often taken for granted and naturalized assumptions – about what is good, desirable, worthy, ethical, and just. These are culturally informed and historically particular assumptions, even though some actors (say, policymakers, neoclassical economists, or human rights advocates) struggle to codify certain values as “universal.”

Shared moral values undergird economic systems, including, and perhaps even especially, anonymous market exchange. As Kenneth Arrow (1974) has shown among others, trust, loyalty, and honesty have clear economic value and indeed are essential to the efficiency of the economy. Indeed, pursuit of the intrinsic rewards of a value-based system (virtues) is necessary for the workings of free and fair exchange. Businesses would crash if employees only did what they were explicitly told to do (or were explicitly paid to do); work-to-rule strikes can virtually stop production simply by following rules to the letter. Likewise, economic systems built simply on the enticement of extrinsic rewards often fail in the long run (see Stout 2010).

Values may also stand in opposition to market relations. Debra Satz (2010) looks at “why some things should not be for sale,” arguing that markets should explicitly be organized around principles of justice as well as efficiency. Most folks accept the prohibitions on markets for human organs, sex, and freedom are just incursions on the free market. Richard Titmuss (1970) even found that paying for blood instead of relying on donations actually decreased the quantity and quality of blood, indicating that folks have a deep preference to give rather than sell certain items. And Michael Sandel (2012) points out that often what is most important is precisely what money can’t buy. And we have The Hitman’s Dilemma of where to draw the line between impersonal calculation and human obligations (Hart 2005).

To reduce moral and cultural values to an individualistic and monetary “utility” is to miss an opportunity to understand the fundamentally social and contextual dimensions of human behavior. That morality matters in ordinary people’s economic decisions and attitudes, and that values and norms are historically particular, is contradicted by a market fundamentalism that views morality and moral beliefs as superfluous, nothing more than secondary explanations that detract from an objective account of natural laws: “morality represents the way we would like the world to work and economics represents how it actually does work” (Levitt and Dubner 2005:50).

In fact, how we want the world to work is just as important as how it actually does work if we wish to understand what drives us toward a particular future, what informs visions of the good life. Understanding the empirical complexities of economic behavior in a globalized world demands a kind of economics that is also a science of moral sentiments, a project of ethical reflection. It demands a kind of economics that goes beyond regression analysis and moves into the real world of people living in diverse circumstances, of what they want or do not want, how they see themselves and who they hope to become.



Akerlof, George and Rachel Kranton. 2005. Identity and the Economics of Organizations. Journal of Economic Perspectives 19(1): 9–32.

Alkire, Sabina. 2005. Measuring the Freedom Aspects of Capabilities. Working paper for the Global Equity Initiative, Harvard.

Alkire, S., M. Qizilbash, and F. Comim. 2008. Introduction. In: The Capability Approach: Concepts, Measures and Applications, pp. 1-25, F. Comim, M. Qizilbash, and S. Alkire (eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Alkire, Sabina, and James E. Foster. 2009. Counting and Multidimensional Poverty Measurement. OPHI Working Paper 32. Oxford: Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative.

Alkire, Sabina, and Emma Maria Santos. 2010. Acute Multidimensional Poverty: A New Index for Developing Countries. OPHI Working Paper, 38. Oxford: Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative.

Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Appadurai, Arjun. 2004. The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition. In: Culture and Public Actions. Vijayendra Rao and Michael Walton, eds. Pp. 59-84. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Appiah, Kwame A. 2008. Experiments in Ethics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Ariely, Dan. 2008. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions New York: HarperCollins.

Arrow, Kenneth. 1974. The Limits of Organization. New York: Norton.

Becker, Gary S. 1996. Accounting for Tastes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Becker, Gary S. and Guity Nashat Becker. 1996. The Economics of Life. New York: McGraw Hill.

Beckert, Jens. 2010. The Transcending Power of Goods: Imaginary Value in the Economy. MPIfG Discussion Paper 10/4. Köln: Max-Planck-Institut für Gesellschaftsforschung.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Brickman, P., D. Coates, and R. Janoff-Bulman. 1978. Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1978, Vol. 36, No. 8, p. 917-927

Carrier, James G., ed. 1997. The Meanings of the Market: The Free Market in Western Culture. Oxford: Berg.

Carrier, James G. 2010. Protecting the Environment the Natural Way: Ethical Consumption and Commodity Fetishsim. Antipode 42(3): 672-689.

Chen, S., and M. Ravallion. “The Developing World Is Poorer than We Thought, But No Less Successful in the Fight Against Poverty.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 125.4 (2010): 1577-625.

Clark, David A. 2009. Adaptation, Poverty and Well-Being: Some Issues and Observations with Special Reference to the Capability Approach and Development Studies. Journal of Human Development and Capabilities 10(1): 21-42.

Dolan, Paul, Richard Layard, Robert Metcalfe. 2011. Measuring Subjective Wellbeing for Public Policy: Recommendations on Measures. Special Paper No. 23. London: Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics.

Dolan, Paul, Matthew White, and Tessa Peasgood. 2008. Do We Really Know What Makes Us Happy? A Review of the Literature on the Factors Associated with Subjective Well-Being, Journal of Economic Psychology 29: 94-122

Easterlin, R.A. 2001. Income and Happiness: Towards a Unified Theory. Economic Journal 111: 465-484.

Fischer, Edward F. 1999. Cultural logic and Maya identity: Rethinking constructivism and essentialism. Current Anthropology 40(4): 473-499.

Fischer, Edward F. and Peter Benson. 2006. Broccoli and Desire: Global Connections and Maya Struggles in Postwar Guatemala. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Fischer, Edward F. and James E. Foster. n.d. “Provenance and Value,” unpublished ms.

Fourcade, Marion, and Kieran Healy. 2007. Moral Views of Market Society. Annual review of Sociology 33: 285-311.

Frank, Robert H. 1988. Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions. New York: W. W. Norton.

Frank, Robert H. 1999. Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess. New York: Free Press.

Frank, Robert H. 2010. What Price the Moral High Ground? How to Succeed Without Selling Your Soul. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fullbrook, Edward, ed. 2004. A Guide to What’s Wrong with Economics. London: Anthem.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1998 [1958]. The Affluent Society. New York: Mariner Books.

Gilbert, Daniel. 2006. Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Knopf.

Goodenough, Oliver R. 2008. Values, Mechanism Design, and Fairness. In: Moral Markets: The Critical Role of Values in the Economy (ed. Paul J. Zak). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Graham, Carol. 2011. The Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well-Being. Washington: Brookings Institution Press.

Graham, Carol and Lora, Eduardo. 2009. Paradox and Perception: Measuring Quality of Life in Latin America. Washington: Brookings.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2007. The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology. Science 316: 998-1002.

Hart, Keith. 2005. The Hit Man’s Dilemma: Or Business, Personal and Impersonal. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Hart, Keith, Jean-Louis Laville, and Antonio David Cattani, eds. 2010. The Human Economy. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kahneman, Daniel and Angus Deaton. 2010. High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Kahneman, Daniel and Richard H. Thaler. 1991. Economic Analysis and the Psychology of Utility: Applications to Compensation Policy. American Economic Review 81(2): 341-46.

Kleinman, Arthur. 2006. What Really Matters: Living a Moral Life Amidst Uncertainty and Danger. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Krueger, Alan 2005. “For Workers, Happiness is next to Productivity” International Herald Tribune 14 December, p. 14

Krugman, Paul R. 2009. The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008. New York: W.W. Norton.

Layard, Richard. 2005. Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. New York: Penguin.

Levitt, Steven D., and Stephen J. Dubner. 2005. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York: William Morrow.

Li, Tania M. 2007. The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Durham: Duke University Press.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1984. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press.

McCloskey, Deirdre N. 1998. The Rhetoric of Economics, 2nd Edition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

McCloskey, Deirdre N. 2006. The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nelson, Robert H. 2001. Economics as Religion. University Park: State University of Penn. Press.

Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books

Nussbaum, Matha C. 2011. Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Cambridge: Belknap Press

Pinker, Steven. 2008. The Moral Instinct. New York Times Magazine.

Ravallion, Martin. 1994. Poverty Comparisons. Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic.

Ravallion, Martin, and Dominique Van De Walle. 2008. Land in Transition: Reform and Poverty in Rural Vietnam. Washington DC: World Bank.

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard Univeristy Press.

Samuelson, Paul A. 1976. Economics. 10th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Sayer, Andrew. 2000. Moral Economy and Political Economy. Studies in Political Economy 61:79-104.

Sandel, Michael J. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

Satz, Debra. Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Oxford UP, 2010.

Sayer, R. Andrew. 2011. Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scott, James. 1977. The Moral Economy of the Peasant. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sen, Amartya. 1979. Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory. In: Scientific Models and Man, H. Harris, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sen, Amartya. 1999. Development as Freedom. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

Stevenson & Wolfers. 2008. Economic Growth and Subjective Well-Being: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 39(1): 1-102.

Stiglitz, Joseph. 1993. Market Socialism and Neoclassical Economics. In: Market Socialism: The Current Debate. P. Bardhan and J. Roemer, eds. Pp. 21-41. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stiglitz, Joseph E., Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi. Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up : The Report. New York: New Press.

Stout, Lynn. 2010. Cultivating Conscience: How Good Laws Make Good People. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Richard. 1992. The Winner’s Curse. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Thompson, E.P. 1971. Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century. Past and Present Society 50(1): 76-136.

Titmuss, Richard M. 1970. The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Veenhoven, Ruut. 2000. The Four Qualities of Life: Ordering Concepts and Measures of the Good Life. Journal of Happiness Studies 1: 1-39.

Victor, Bart, Edward F Fischer, and Alfredo Vergara. n.d. “Frustrated Freedom,” unpublished ms.

Waterman, Alan S., Seth J. Schwartz, and Regina Conti. 2006. The Implications of Two Conceptions of Happiness (Hedonic Enjoyment and Eudaimonia) for the Understanding of Intrinsic Motivation. Journal of Happiness Studies 9:41-79

Willis, Paul and Mats Trondman. 2000. Manifesto for Ethnography. Ethnography 1(1): 5-16.



1 The little cinema neatly captures some stereotypical German traits: an usher takes one to assigned seats; there is a shelf for drinks and snacks; beer is, of course, sold at the concession stand. The Harry Potter movie was subtitled, although most foreign fare on television and at the movies is dubbed, and the German dubbing industry is renowned. Some dubbing voice performers have become well-known celebrities, with their own fan clubs. The dubbers work to make the German fit the mouth movements of the English or Swedish or Russian or whatever language is being spoken. A long way from the arbitrary dubbing of 1970s kung-fu movies, it is difficult to tell that the top German work is dubbed at all—you have to look closely to catch the occasional gap between what you see and what you hear. It is a point of national pride.

2 References to Aristotle here are to his Nicomachean Ethics (circa 350BCE) as translated by W.D. Ross and available at

3 In fact, as Graham (2011) and others suggest, instability and uncertainty seems to significantly decrease happiness (at a national level in economies undergoing rapid transition and individually with life changes). But we adapt more quickly than we think to even catastrophic disabilities (e.g. becoming paraplegic) and great fortunes (as in winning the lottery) (Brickman, Coates, Janoff-Bulman 1978).

4 The World Bank defines two categories of poverty in absolute terms: extreme poverty is living off less than $1.25 a day (in purchasing power parity terms) and moderate poverty at less than $2 a day (see Ravallion 1994, 2008; Ravallion and Chen 2008).

5 Excluding local market purchases and those who don’t eat eggs.

6 Morals are socially constructed, although some (e.g. Haidt 2007, Pinker 2008) have argued that there is a core set of universal moral predispositions such as not harming others, group loyalty, and deference to legitimate authority based on evolutionary predispositions. Appiah (2008) also seems open to the notion of a recurrent set of basic virtues.

Posted in Working Papers | 3 Comments

An Amazonian Question of Ironies and the Grotesque

Art of Anthropology Series #1
ISSN 2045-578X (online)

An Amazonian Question of Ironies and the Grotesque1
the arrogance of cosmic deceit, and the humility of everyday life

Joanna Overing2
University of St Andrews

© 2012 Joanna Overing
Creative Commons License
Open Anthropology Cooperative Press

Forum discussion in the OAC network.
Download as PDF, EPUB, MOBI.


1. The place of humour.

My strongest memories of Piaroa people of the Venezuelan Amazon Territory involve experiencing their humour. The ludic was vital to their everyday life. These were people who were lovers of slapstick and witty, outrageous play on words. There was their punning, their satire and irony, where the use of the apt and mischievous trope was given especially high value. It was through hilarity that I felt I actually understood my Piaroa teachers. It was then that I felt at one with them.

I will dwell upon the connection between this love of slapstick, the apt pun and their  egalitarian antipathy to hierarchy, rules and regulations. To begin to understand this link between a love of laughter and the feeling for social and political equality of both men and women, it is necessary to consider the absurd grotesqueries of creation time hubris, which the Piaroa shaman unfolds through his singing narrations of mythic time, as he conducts his daily healing ceremonies. My main interest is in this telling of the monstrous modes of power set loose in creation time by the creator gods – and of course their repercussions. We find that the stress upon the grotesque in these healing narratives is strongly related to the shaman’s thorough understanding of the dangers in the present day of the monstrous modes of power unleashed by the gods when they created the world. It is through exploring these mighty, but highly dodgy, powers of creation time that we (as anthropologists) can begin to understand their connection to the rich social philosophies of folly that are attached to the egalitarian practices of Piaroa people as they interact in ‘today time’ sociality.

Along the way, I shall unfold the two diseases of folly and madness that Piaroa people may experience in the course of everyday life. The names of these two illnesses are ki’raeu and ke’raeu. The former, ki’raeu, was a comparatively minor disease of social irresponsibility which could lead to such errant behaviour as crazy laughter, promiscuity, wandering at will – and also diarrhoea. Sufferers of such symptoms are considered victims, led to their waywardness (such as their excessive use of orifices) by the social irresponsibility of others who perhaps taunt, or are unduly arrogant toward, them. The taunter blatantly displays a lack of regard to familial matters and good etiquette, which leads their victim into a state of minor madness.

Ke’raeu – in contrast to ki’raeu  – is a much more serious threat to the social fabric: its symptoms involve more violent display, such as accompanies the madness of hubris, paranoia, extreme arrogance – and also murder. As happens today, characters in mythic time also fell foul of both illnesses, with behaviour becoming truly grotesque when ke’raeu seriously set in. We find a major irony here. These stories speak of the original violent creation, acquisition and stealing of grotesque powers that would allow for the culinary arts. However, it was these very toxic powers that led eventually to the creation of beautiful, but dangerous culinary skills that enable Piaroa people today to achieve the sort of life that they could consider to be human.

2. Sociology, Political Anthropology

It is important to note that my exploration of Piaroa understandings of the grotesque and other modes of power is intended as a foray into political anthropology. For instance, I find that certain comparisons of modes of power can be highly enlightening. For example, in Greek myth, Zeus, who becomes sovereign of the whole universe, gets away with hubris and excessiveness, while Wahari (the creater god of Piaroa people) does not. Why this difference? To answer such a question, we need to widen our horizon of concerns greatly to understand its importance. Obviously, the cultural context (for instance, the aesthetics of living together) and histories (within which modes of power are enacted) vary considerably with regard to matters of social and political value. It is certainly legitimate to question the worth of comparing the political values of a Greek city state with those of an Amazonian village. On the other hand, with our horizons expanded, we might well find gold. In comparing the political concerns of the citizens of Thebes with those of a Piaroa village I discovered that they shared a number of egalitarian values and practices. For instance, in both cases it is particularly the women, as chorus, who take responsibility for unfolding to the people the irresponsible actions of a tyrant – or a shaman  – gone mad.

Perhaps we need to understand that an aesthetic of living may well play a large part within most political agendas. For quite a long time political anthropology has been deeply in need of new sociological ways of thinking, talking, examining – and most importantly imagining.

Exploration of this kind is needed to open up sociological categories and ways of thinking and even to begin to understand the extraordinary political repercussions (and lessons) emerging from the respective fates of these two creator gods – Zeus and Wahari. The former is king of hierarchy, teaching its ‘wonderful attainment’. As for Wahari, it originally was his desire to create for his world a moral order comprised of equals. However, it was his plight that he was foiled in following through with his plan. On the other hand, he did succeed in creating a people who held tight to his original dream of creating a moral order of equals. They also had the intelligence to understand how difficult it is to actually achieve this state of existence – one capable of creating beings who were actually human.

3. Modes of Power:

I shall begin by sketching some of the basic characters within Piaroa cosmology and the modes of power attached to each:

First there is Tapir/Anaconda: This monstrous, almighty, subterranean Tapir/Anaconda let loose all those mighty powers that eventually allowed for an animated existence on earth. The great granite outcrops of the ancient Guianese landscape are the result of his defecation: Lying beneath the earth, he propelled his waste upwards, like worm casts, to sit on Earth’s surface. His granite shit became the source on earth for all ‘life force’ of a sensual sort: it thus plays a crucial role in the empowerment of each Piaroa individual: the casing for their beautiful, interior ‘beads of life’ is made of these potent defecatory granite upcastings of Tapir/Anaconda. It is this casing that allows for their ‘life of the senses’ and thus all of their physical capacities. When the terrifying and violent Tapir/Anaconda wandered along the earth’s surface, s/he wreaked mayhem in his/her wake.

Next there is Kuemoi: Tapir/anaconda was the father of Kuemoi who became the Master of Rivers and Lakes. Tapir/Anaconda grew Kuemoi within the womb of the Mistress of the lake, feeding him with wildly poisonous hallucinogens from the rust of the sun and the centre of sky down of the sun. Through these hallucinogenic powers from the dreadful heat of the sun, Kuemoi became the father of all cultivated food. He was the creator of all those forces that belong to the culinary arts: gardening, hunting, curare, cooking fire. He is also a tyrannical, grotesque, little madman and is portrayed as a diabolical buffoon, raucously laughing with each plot he hatches, shrieking in outrage when foiled: he stamps his feet when foiled: a figure of high comedy, not tragedy. When overtaken by total madness, he runs endlessly around in circles. (He reminds me of Robert Nye’s depiction of the devil in Merlin: “He grins like a fox eating shit out of a wire brush; the Devil is ‘snoring as loud as a pig’; ‘he giggles and he writhes’”). This is the hilarious, absurd and mockable side of wickedness.

The main aim in life for Kuemoi is to gobble up as many beings of the domain of the jungle as possible. Coming out of water, he was the evil cannibal predator of all beings of the jungle. He stalked all jungle beings as food. He lusted after their meat. He devoured them raw, he ate them cooked. To catch them used cunning and an odious use of guile and sorcery. He was the master of horrid traps! The king of stealth! The trap he enjoyed most was his own daughter, ‘Maize’. When she was sleeping, he filled her womb with piranha fish and electric eels – as a seductive trap for the handsome young men of the jungle, who then became his meal at night. He created all creatures nasty to jungle beings, each as a trap to catch them for a meal: the jaguars and all other cats, ticks, biting insects, the stingray, poisonous snakes. He is the father of opossum and electric eel, the grandfather of bat, vulture, quarrelling, sting ray and boils.

He was the owner of what the Piaroa call the ‘crystal boxes of tyranny, treachery, and domination’. He epitomizes excessive power – the power of the true tyrant. Kuemoi released all the horrors from these boxes of primordial powers full blast into this world. Kuemoi was the owner of the ‘crystal boxes of Night’. It was he who in great glee released night and all its dangerous creatures into earthly space. All of these vicious beings are Kuemoi’s weapons. In fact all of Kuemoi’s creations serve as his weapons, including the culinary arts. All have powers either to kill or to poison. He transformed himself during his escapades as jaguar, vulture, mudfish or anaconda.

Through all this he achieved the clothes of physical might. A small, but monstrous two-headed figure, Kuemoi had one head to eat meat raw, and one to eat meat cooked. Kuemoi is the archetypically evil figure of creation time – and its most ridiculous. This very foolish god who has all the knowledge of the culinary arts speaks nonetheless to a highly sophisticated theory of ethical behaviour and to the side of human nature (as the Piaroa perceive it) that gives all human beings the potential for odious and wicked behaviour. A deep cruelty drove Kuemoi and the use of his might. The power of his thoughts, that had their source in the poisonous hallucinogens he took, though sufficiently mighty to create the culinary arts, continually poisoned his will. Overtaken by total madness, Kuemoi always acted without reason. He had no dignity. Evil here is clearly associated with knowledge and thus with too much power. Kuemoi had far too much of both. He ever experienced an extreme poisoning of his emotions (the disease that the Piaroa call ke’raeu – paranoia, hubris, the desire to murder). This condition of suffering poisonous unmastered knowledge is firmly attached to an imagery of madness and buffoonery. The political lesson is clear.

Then there is Wahari: The greatest adversary of Kuemoi in creation time was Wahari, the Master of the Jungle, and the creator god of the Piaroa. As such, Wahari was the opposite side of the coin to Kuemoi’s evil – at least at the start of creation time. Wahari, who was also created through Tapir/Anaconda’s efforts, was fed on different hallucinogens from those given Kuemoi. Wahari was given the power of earthly space, of the day, light and sociality (although in the end it all went wrong). He with his brother, worked together to create many of the aspects of terrestrial space that made it habitable. They took the sun and moon from their homes beneath the earth, and jumped with them into the sky to give themselves light by day and night. Wahari created air, breeze and the skies for the comfort of the earthly creatures of his domain. He created all branch animals and birds of the jungle. The hummingbird, eagle hawk and the lapa were the most important manifestations of his power. They were his transformations, his thoughts and as such his sons. He used the force of the hummingbird to fly above and beneath the earth in his flying canoe. He, like Kuemoi, had mighty powers of transformation. He too had the power of cunning, guile and the arts of trickery, combined with mighty sorcery.

But Wahari had the benevolent desire to create a good life for his inhabitants of the jungle. He wanted to provide them with the civilised conditions for a human life on earth, including the culinary arts, and the capabilities for civilised sociality and social virtue. He spoke the principles of a moral social life for his people. Certainly at the beginning of creation time, he was the god of unity and accord, including that which should hold within the family. But Wahari strongly wanted to capture the culinary arts from his father-in-law, Kuemoi. With this desire began a treacherous cosmic comedy of errors. None of Wahari’s benevolent desires were accomplished in creation time – and that is its tragic irony. The narrations tell how

Wahari begins mythic time with the gift of social finesse, but the moment he tries to trade with Kuemoi, cosmogenesis becomes a bag of tricks, a high comedy (then tragedy) of errors. The genre of the bawdy grotesque slips in the end to true tragedy.

4a. Creation Time Hubris and its Landscape of Monsters.

This we can gather through the tales about creation time and the shaman’s skilled performance of the hilarious, bawdy, grotesque episodes of mythic time through which the ludicrous conditions of being human are disclosed. The narrations disclose the subtle lessons of two-edged folly – that which is good, engendering health and well-being, and that which is disastrous. Erasmus’ sermon on Lady Folly would fit well here.

Creation time, much as with Sophocles’ Oedipus cycle, moves from a kind of naughty irony, filled with crazy jokes such as reversing heads and buttocks or grabbing a penis hovering in the air in order to create men. They also tell of mistakes that lead to intentions backfiring, for example when putting up the sun and moon, and in the antics of monkeys. Finally, a more grotesque, dark place of the tragedy of hubris emerges, where excess pride, arrogance, greed tend to lead to the ruin of the transgressors. We here find similarities with Foucault’s reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus, whereby the downfall of Oedipus is caused not by innocence, but a monstrous excess of knowledge, and too much power. This rings true with the experiences of Wahari. There are also similarities to the often erratic destiny and suffering found in the historical tyrants of Sophocles’ time, with their tendency to rely on their own solitary knowledge, rather than solving problems by conversing with ‘the people’ and other ‘knowledgeable’ advisors. Such lack of regard can lead easily to ‘real’ tyranny, which is associated with the tendency to excess. This in turn leads to the hubris and asociality of tyrants who misuse power. In dwelling on these problems, classical Greece comes up with democracy as a solution.

All of the vignettes from the shamanic narrations below come from the cycle on the origin of the craziness disease, k’eraeu. This disease gives you delusions of grandeur and paranoia. It is the ‘fall down’ disease, the ‘go round and around disease’, the ‘twirling circles’ illness. K’eraeu is the most deadly illness you can get and the most destructive malady of folly imaginable. It leads to deranged intentionality. You can die from it and with it you are very likely to damage and kill others.

Here is the history: Creation time becomes the battleground between the two powerful creator gods, Wahari and Kuemoi, and ends with a cannabilistic war of all against all. Wahari tries to trade with Kuemoi, to acquire his powerful hunting spells and powers for the cultivation of plants; in turn, Kuemoi tries to poison Wahari with his powerful hallucinogenic drugs, in order to capture and eat him. So Wahari stealthily tries to steal from Kuemoi the means to civilised life. He tries to rob all the edible fruits and vegetables from Kuemoi’s great tree of life. But suffering from the poisons of Kuemoi’s spells, Wahari instead becomes desperately ill, thirsty; he lusts after women and spends many years chasing after foreign beauties. He becomes insufferably arrogant, destroying all of his personal relationships with kin. He sells his sister to the Master of White Man’s Goods for 6 boxes of matches; he sodomises her, an event that leads to the birth of his son Diarrhoea, whom he tries to kill. He suffers hubris: his mockery infuriates his relatives, who take revenge, by further zapping him with Kuemoi’s disease, k’eraeu, the craziness illness: his head hurts, he runs in circles. It makes him want to kill. The terrible twirling circles of k’eraeu really captures Wahari: maddened, he announces that all of his own creations (people) will suffer this disease. He wanders in the world, lost, arrogant, beautiful. However, he returns again and again to steal Kuemoi’s powers for civilised eating. He manages to steal Kuemoi’s daughter (after cleaning her womb of piranha fish). Next comes a god-awful series of battles between Wahari and Kuemoi, where they both indulge in villainy, thievery, trickery, deceit and disguise, traps and general mayhem. In hilarious episodes, Wahari often outwits Kuemoi because he foresees his intentions. He manages to give Kuemoi diarrhoea and causes him to rape his own daughter (Wahari’s wife). Kuemoi runs round and round in circles.

Wahari becomes crazier and crazier as he becomes increasing zapped by Kuemoi’s poisons. On one occasion Wahari becomes locked in the midst of a k’eraeu circuit comprised of the narrow translucent streams of k’eraeu descending from four of Kuemoi’s mountains. He then falls into Kuemoi’s trap of poisoned hunting charms, filled with vulture down, sky rust, centre of the sky down. He goes off hunting and then fishing, through yet other traps set by Kuemoi, and manages to kill, not a deer, but his much beloved old grandmother. He cries and wails at this mistake.

4b. Wahari then decides to create his own culinary arts:

He tries to create his own fire, his own sweet and wild fruits and hunting paraphernalia, but he fails badly, These are tales usually told with rather hard-edged slapstick comedy. Each and every creation was false and perverse because of Kuemoi’s poisoning of his will, making Wahari crazy. At one point he tries to kill his own brother. The more he tries to create the culinary arts, the more Wahari proclaims his own greatness – as master of the universe, the jungle, and the rivers. It was his hubris that created the forces of a monstrous, perverted culinary arts. His ‘fire’ blossomed as skin disease, burns, and boils, a fire that scorched but could not cook; his cures backfired on the user and became the miscarrying of women and the bleeding of adults from the mouth, the anus, the vagina; his hunting charms became paralysis, his fish hooks, sore throat… All these useless, poisonous creations became the diseases that human beings suffer today and not the useful artefacts for civilised living that Wahari so desired for them. These creations today impregnate human beings with disease. As in Greek myth, life for human beings is not easy; the gods made it so.

5. How do humans receive all these horrors? This is the story:

It was when Wahari invited most of the people beings of the jungle to a great feast. He gets them drunk and then transforms them into animals, to become game for him to hunt and eat. He takes away all their powers for thought and intentionality and gives them instead all of his perverse creations. The animals will not suffer them, but instead they will pass them on to human beings. Piaroa people thus do receive Wahari’s artefacts, but in the form of diseases given to them by the animals. Wahari, the star of mythic time, becomes its worst villain, all due to his mistakes and his arrogance.

Today, human beings (ironically) have to use the dangerous forces for the culinary arts that were originally let loose by Kuemoi, not Wahari. All of Wahari’s efforts turned out to be useless. In fact, it is only earthly human beings who can use the powers created by Kuemoi. There are all sorts of dangers there for folly (their intentions can so easily be poisoned by Kuemoi’s deadly powers). Today, human beings must, through everyday hard work, manage the culinary arts on their own, transforming the ugly and dangerous powers for the hunt and the gardens into beautiful forces, safe for a civilised life. They must cleanse their vegetables and fruit from the poisons of Kuemoi and all their game and fish from those of Wahari. And, they must deal with the fact that the game they eat is really human in origin.

6. The relation between the culinary arts and the arts of conviviality:

This everyday work of the culinary arts and civilised sociality is at the same time accomplished through a good deal of practice in the comic arts. Indeed the practice of the arts of conviviality become a sign that the powers they use are those of civilised eating, a practice which keeps hubris at bay. The wisdom of folly is highly valued.

On the other hand, there is no resolution of the great conflicts of mythic time. The villainy of the ludicrous, ironic, treacherous practices of creation time generate the ambiguous conditions for the humans who live today on earth – civilised eating, civilised sociality – are all to be acquired at great cost, with great difficulty, with great suffering, and with a good dash of treachery. We who use the powers of the cannibal god, Kuemoi, can also be poisoned into greedy, arrogant behaviour. The domesticated Piaroa can hardly separate themselves in any absolute way from the animal other. As human beings they are hardly innocent. This takes us to the genre of the grotesque, that genre that retains to the bitter end its unresolved conflicts and ambiguities.

7. The Genre of the Grotesque: the mythic narratives and the unresolved incongruities of history:

Mythic imageries of the grotesque and the absurd are not unusual. The French scholar, Vernant, speaks of the robust, multi-layered imagery of mythic narrations, their hilarity and the intellectuality attached to them. And, we may add, their strong connection to particular social philosophies, to distinctions of moral worth, to treasured ways of doing things. He calls for deeper cross-cultural comparison of mythic styles (with which I strongly agree). Is there a particular style of mythic presentations? I suggest that the genre of the grotesque is one such widespread style. The powers sufficiently mighty for creation are typically violent dramatic stories, as we see from Vernant’s own disclosure of the ancient Greek mythology, and ours from Amazonia.

The story of creation time is one of poisoned intentionalities, of cosmic follies: it is a story of greed, hubris and mental derangement.

The genre of the Grotesque is calculatingly used by the narrator of Piaroa myths in unfolding, disclosing, evoking the deep absurdities of human existence and its pre-conditions as played out in creation time. Wisdom depends on understanding the message of the grotesque. We need to pay attention to such messages.

The 18th and 19th centuries had a pejorative view of the grotesque, judging it a vulgar species of the comic, deprived of the serious. In general it was viewed as a genre of ludicrous exaggeration, a genre of the fantastic. However, more recent responses (Kayser 1963, Thomson 1972) have understood it otherwise, stressing its power to speak to reality. They note that its explosive force serves to make us see the real world anew. It jolts one into a transformation of perspective on what reality might be.

Some relevant points with regard to this re-assessment of the genre of the grotesque to our understanding of the mythic narration performances are the following:

1) The genre of the grotesque (also read as the genre of mythic narrative) is more attached to realism than fantasy. It is extravagant, but not fantastic. However strange the grotesque world is, it is also our world. The mythic narration, in partaking of this genre, has as its first and foremost aim to express the problematic nature of existence, and its preconditions, to unfold the absurdities of our life, its ambivalences, as played out originally in the ironic grotesquery of creation time.

2) The comic is necessary for the genre of the grotesque to work. There is its playfulness and its terror, its confusion and interplay of heterogeneous elements: the monstrous and the ludicrous; humans, animals, and vegetables. There are its paradoxes and ironies (the creator of fire devouring meat raw), and also its shock tactics (Wahari eating stew discovers he is eating his own son). We react to the slapstick experience of such horror with glee, as opposites continually clash. We laugh at the tale of deceit, trickery, mischief, hubris, illness, death, cannibalism, treacheries, greed, general mayhem. Part of the glee comes from the question ever rising over ‘who are the victims? who the victimisers?

3) There are the physical deformities, the (bawdy) bodyliness of it all (see Bakhtin). We have the 2-headed god of culture; the huge sexual organs, male and female (Think of Cronus’ enormous member). Wahari, creator of people, transforms himself into the monster supreme deity beneath the earth, the dangerous chimerical Tapir/Anaconda, preying intently on his own kinsmen.

4) The most distinctive trait of the grotesque, according to Thomson (1972), is the unresolved nature of grotesque conflict, separating it out from neighbouring genres (e.g. the absurd). In Piaroa myth, this grotesquery of the origin of culture is never resolved – Wahari did not succeed (Zeus did, but earthlings didn’t). Thus, the forces for creation continue into today as the uncleaned product of the deadly hallucinogens that the creator god of the culinary arts withdrew from the rust of the sun andthe heart of the armadillo. The gods were creators and as such, killers. 5) The emotional and intellectual tension continues through the story: it is one of poisoned and poisonous intentionalities. Despite the human capacities of Piaroa people (their capabilities for the culinary arts, for reasoned intentionality and therefore sociality), there remains this deep ambiguity to being human. For as humans they are hardly innocent. Their reflections upon alterity recognise that the violence of foreign politics demands from the start an unleashing of poisonous forces from themselves not so very different from those of exterior others – or the gods (Overing 1996).

8. Ironic practices of the everyday

How should we as anthropologists interpret the Piaroa reactions to their absurd universe? We have then the ironic performances/rituals of everyday life among an egalitarian people who love their freedom and also their sociality. These are a people who are very fond of the comic; they find the practice of folly essential to their well-being: a very Amazonian way of thinking. My interest is how such a cosmogenesis and the philosophy of the absurd that comes from it (as understood by the Piaroa) are linked to their social psychology and to their egalitarianism. As we know, our own social theory of the comic is indeed weak, as too that of the grotesque.

For insight, we might be wise to turn to the likes of Vico on the political use of tropes (the more hierarchical people’s values the more literalness is approved of) and Kenneth Burke on true irony being attached to a deep humility with regard to our own frailties. We need to think about an irony that does not make us ‘superior’ to the enemy, for we have some of the same attributes as he/she – and indeed we are indebted to this enemy. (For Piaroa – the gods are cannibal predators, and so are the Piaroa themselves).

Perhaps it is with lessons from the Taoist Monks (e.g. see Peter Berger) that we might begin to understand the comic as a mode of knowledge. Thus perhaps the Amazonian case is not totally alien. Let us look at the connections:

1) The role of the jokester shaman leader has much in common with the raucously laughing Taoist Monk. For both, the comic is a mode of knowledge.

2) The humour of both is forthcoming from a profound sense of the incongruities (lack of reason) of the universe, and of human behaviour within it.

3) There is a strong use of tropes. According to Peter Berger, the Ch’an/Zen way of teaching is through parables, through riddles, and most solutions are in the form of jokes.

4) What is more, a self-mocking humility is taught. The Piaroa shaman is the teacher of this attitude of the world – he starts with the children when they are five years old. Success in the ability of not taking oneself seriously is a good test of whether liberating, true learning has taken place, one that is conducive to the deconstruction of reality, with the disclosure of all its incongruities – albeit the shaman’s job, but to a lesser, yet important extent by each individual.

Berger lists these components of a comic philosophy (as followed by the Taoists):

1) The diagnosis of the world as a mass of incongruence

2) The radical debunking of pretensions of grandeur and wisdom (the breeder of hubris)

3) A spirit of mocking irreverence

4) A profound discovery of and appreciation of freedom

Such a list fits as well the attitudes and teachings of the Piaroa shaman who teaches of the importance of humility – in light of the enemy within – and stresses at all times the craziness of the expression of anger and arrogance, true signs of a tyrannical temperament destructive of the accomplishment of a human sort of life. These are the lessons of the two diseases of craziness: k’iraeu and k’eraeu.

These are also philosophical insights that lead to a stress on the immense importance to sociality of the accomplishing affective comfort. The hierarchical and the literal are both too direct for affective comfort and well-being. The hierarchical and the literal can too easily and treacherously poison intentionality.

9. The comic, the social and the creation of a counterworld

Finally, a word on the notion of comedy as a counterworld and as ‘anti-rites’. See M. Douglas and others on the notion that jokes are an intrusion of the comic into everyday life. They see jokes as ‘anti-rites’, rebellious of ordained patterns of social life. They understand the comic as a temporary suspension of social structure!

However, for many Amazonian peoples, folly lies at the heart of the social. Far from the comic as an intrusion into everyday life, the view is that the human social condition can only be accomplished through the spirit of folly. Through an understanding of an ironic, grotesque cosmogenesis, Amazonian peoples tend to stress the value of playing out in social life a sociable ‘humble irony’. For example, with Piaroa, ludic practices allow for sociable living and working together. They enable the bringing up of children, feeding them, curing them, and most important, teaching them the arts and decorum of Folly. In other words, ironic practice allows them to deal with the poisonous forces within that are at the same time conducive to a human way of life. These are a people who recognise well the happiness of foolery, its poetics and also its necessity, its health-giving properties.

In Amazonia often the achievement of the social forms a counterworld that protects against all those absurdities of the universe. Thus the ironic practices: a spirit of mocking irreverence, a debunking of all those pretensions of grandeur and wisdom, but coated with a good dose of well-considered humility in the face of it all. For those absurdities not only always intrude upon the everyday, they also rest within each person, corporeally so to speak. At any moment, and you never know, anyone can suffer k’iraeu (promiscuity, crazy laughter…) and any shaman could be attacked by k’eraeu (paranoia). This is the misery of cosmic Folly. It is the comic as a mode of knowledge that provides insight into this downside of folly: by knowing it, and practising in its light, we can, for a time at least, fool the cosmic comic incongruities of existence and of this world on earth. The latter being an environment created by means of poisonous, deadly hallucinogens.

Some Bibliography:

Bakhtin, Mikhail (1968) Rabelais and his World, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Berger, Peter (1997) Redeeming laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience, New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Douglas, Mary (1975) Implicit Meanings, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Fernandez, James & M.T. Huber eds (2001) Irony in Action: Anthropology, Practice, and the Moral Imagination, Chicago: the University of

Chicago Press.

Kayser, Wolfgang (1963) The Grotesque in Art and Literature, Bloomington.

Meyer, Michael (1995) Literature and the Grotesque, Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Overing, Joanna (2000) ‘The efficacy of laughter: the ludic side of magic within Amazonian sociality’, in Overing & Passes (below), The Anthropology of Love and Anger.

—— (2006) ‘The Stench of Death and the Aromas of Life: Poetics of Ways of Knowing and Sensory Process among Piaroa of the Orinoco Basin’, Tipiti, Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America,Volume 4, numbers 1& 4, June & December.

Overing, Joanna & Alan Passes eds (2000) The Anthropology of Love and Anger: the aesthetics of conviviality in Native South America, Routledge.

Thomson, Philip (1972) The Grotesque, Methuen & Co.

Zijderveld, Anton (1963) On clichés: The supersedure of meaning by function in modernity, Routledge & Kegan Paul.


1. Paper originally presented in Santiago Chile, July 2003.

2. Joanna Overing is a Social Anthropologist, and a Professor Emeritus at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. Her fieldwork and interest, since 1968, has been with Piaroa people, who live in Venezuela along tributaries of the Orinoco. A broad research concern has understanding ‘egalitarianism’ and ‘individualism’ as these are understood by the indigenous peoples of Amazonia. Her work attempts to spell out the understanding and philosophy of power, modes of equality and materiality expressed by Piaroa people in their cosmology, shamanic exegesis and in daily practice, discourse, and rhetoric. A second area of research has centred on the problem of translation in anthropological analysis. Her overall concern is to wed issues usually dealt with separately by ethnography, philosophy, and social linguistics. Her recent research deals with sensory ways of knowing, and their relations to the genres of the grotesque and the sublime – as used in Piaroa narrations of myth – and, most important, their accomplishment of a ‘human’ sort of society. Her books: 1975, The Piaroa: a People of the Orinoco Basin: A Study in Kinship and Marriage. 1977, Social Time and Social Space in Lowland South American Societies (ed.). 1985, Reason and Morality, ASA Monograph 24, (ed.) 2000 and 2007, Key Concepts in Social Anthropology, with Nigel Rapport. 1999 Anthropology of Love and Anger: the Aesthetics of Conviviality in Native South America, (ed. with Alan Passes).

Posted in Art of Anthropology | 2 Comments