Size Doesn’t Matter

prayOn my way home from walking my dog I sometimes pass a house and each time I pass by it occurs to me to snap a pic. Which I finally did the other day.

But why?

ontelevisionThat question brings to mind some lines from Pierre Bourdieu’s little but, I think, nonetheless important book, On Television (1998: 21), lines that I’ve quoted a variety of times in print or online:

There is nothing more difficult to convey than reality in all its ordinariness. Flaubert was fond of saying that it takes a lot of hard work to portray mediocrity. Sociologists run into this problem all the time: How can we make the ordinary extraordinary and evoke ordinariness in such a way that people will see how extra-ordinary it is?

What do we make of the pic, above, to which I’ve drawn your attention — and what do we make of the fact that I wanted to snap it, maybe write something about it — if this is how we approach our work in the academy?

That is, instead of dropping into some well worn truisms of our own in-group, adopting and using distinctions familiar to all of us, systems by which we sort this or that item in our environment, classing it with these things or distinguishing it from yet something else, all in an effort to make ordinary, humdrum, reality seem significant and habitable because it is demarcated in a certain sort of way —  well, what if, instead, we made our object of study that very system of distinction itself, examining the conditions of identity formation, the structure that allows us to know what’s worthwhile, sophisticated, interesting, or legitimate to study…, and what isn’t? The study of the ordinary.

So I return to that opening question: Why did I take that picture of a sign?

But wait, which sign do I mean?

Because there’s two in that pic, right? Did you “see” both?

One of those signs presupposes our culture-wide distinction of religious/secular in order to “see” it as something worth paying attention to, while the other presupposes the culture-wide distinction of legal/illegal in order to “see” it as something worth paying attention to.

The better question to pose, then, is which pre-conditions do we so normalize, so take for granted, that we may not even see something as a sign of anything in particular?

I find that too many colleagues are adept only at using the commonsense taxonomies with which they are already thoroughly familiar, since they constitute the soup in which these people already live and move — making one of those signs stand out as a “religious object,” I guess, presumably posted in the front yard as part of some culture war against godless secularists who may drive by or live across the street. For all I know that’s what I’d learn if I interviewed the people who live there — it’s not unlikely that this might be how they perceive it, because this is how they divide up and thereby order their world. And it’s likely that’s why it would stand out for the scholar who happens by on his way home with his dog one morning. But just because we both live in the same city, drive on the same side of the road, and probably set the table in much the same manner, doesn’t mean that, as scholars, we’re limited to understanding the world in the same fashion. What sets scholarship apart, I’d say, is that we tend to turn things on their head when we get ahold of them, problematizing the local and the taken for granted; for we’ve done a little comparative work, we’ve been around the block a few times, we’ve listened to other local and no less sincere and ardent but dramatically different self-reports, interpretations, and rationales, and so we likely understand that things aren’t always done or understood the same elsewhere. Our motto is “Things could be different,” and they often are. That’s the attitude that, I think, helps us to see signs in a new light — as the tips of prior, often unacknowledged conditions that make just some of them worth noticing, worth writing a dissertation about, worth teaching, or worth devoting a career to studying.

But how to tweak the way colleagues approach the commonsense, the familiar, the local? How to suggest to them that either sign can be equally interesting for a whole new set of reasons — and that it is their responsibility, as scholars, to bring that view to the table, and not simply to adopt the one that’s at hand, the one already up and running with the people whom they happen to study, happen to live among, the one that prompts many only to see the “Pray” sign as standing out?

It has long struck me that the best technique to teaching a new idea — for this is all pedagogical, no? — is to come up with a simple example, so simple that the self-styled sophisticated reader will be tempted to dismiss it as uninteresting, unchallenging, commonplace, written merely for undergrads or non-specialists, perhaps. I’ve often used

whalesuch examples (in class and in previous posts elsewhere) as early 19th century debates over whether a whale is a fish or a mammal to prompt students to complicate their own taken for granted view of the world by suggesting to them that their commonsense was once pretty uncommon, likely impossible to think (i.e., whales have been known as really big fish for a lot longer than they’ve been seen by us as mammals).

So how do we account for the current obviousness of seeing a whale as a mammal, then? Can we unsee it as being “like us”? (For it does share an awful lot of traits with fish too.) It’s not an easy task, of course, for it requires calling to attention our taken-for-granted view of a lot more than just whales — in fact, it involves examining who we think we are and how we think we’re related to other things in the world.

What’s therefore crucial to “get” is that the question of “fish or mammal” is not really about the whales — it’s never about the e.g., and so this post is not about the signs — but about us and how we try to manage to make the world manageable; so the example, no matter how ordinary, is always an opening onto a far larger topic, one that encompasses the study of how we order and maintain our worlds — our place in it and our relationship to everything else as well — thereby making them seem to be sensible, predictable, move-around-within-able.

So while the examples, and even the posts, at Culture on the Edge may often be pithy, even mundane, I’d like to think that, like Bourdieu‘s little but nonetheless important book, they’re not to be judged by their size but by the new questions that they help to make possible — by what we do with them. For although they may sometimes seem like softball lobs — whales? Fish or mammal? That’s his example? Really…? — there’s nothing softball about trying to figure out how identification works at any site.


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