Pretty Strategies and Rusty Tactics

Goldie, 1971Looking for a good example of the arm wrestling match between structure and agency, between authorized systems and the way they’re inevitably contested? Then visit the University of Alabama. Continue reading “Pretty Strategies and Rusty Tactics”

Everybody Plays the Fool

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When [Walter] Kirn was just starting his novel-writing career, he met a man who was a bold financier, an art collector, a fussy eccentric, a dog lover and a Rockefeller. They became friends.

But over the years Kirn began to learn that the man who called himself Clark Rockefeller was none of that — not even a dog lover. He was a psychopath and a killer.

How did Kirn fall for the fraud? Was Christian Karl Gerhartsriter — aka “Clark Rockefeller” — extraordinarily compelling? Or was the novelist, like a lot of other people drawn to the imposter, duped by his own desire to have an attachment to a famous name?

So opens a radio story on the curious case of Clark Rockefeller — or, might we say instead, the curious case of people, such as Kirn himself, who believed his friend to be the man he claimed to be. The difference between how we approach this story — is it about Rockefeller (pictured above) or Kirn? — tells us much about the social theory used to tell the tale. Continue reading “Everybody Plays the Fool”

Isn’t That Special

restaurant sign reading "Today's special: nothing. Nothing is on special. You are not special"I found this interesting pic online not long ago and it occurred to me that the sort of alternative approach to identity being entertained at Culture on the Edge — an approach to identification that structurates and historicizes agency and intention — is likely one that runs counter to the commonsense notion of the individual, of the self, that most of us have, making this idea of the individual itself a social thing. This alternative approach therefore places emphasis on the collective situation in which our idea of the individual comes into existence as a discursive item, as a social, legal, political fiction which helps to make possible the worlds that we take for granted.

Case in point: private ownership is possible only once we have legally defined and distinguished individuals in place.

To entertain such a radically historicized and socialized notion of the self, of identification as a means to signify the self, means that we have to be willing to entertain that we, each of us, are not special, at least not how we usually think of it. Instead, we might consider that we become special to certain people, at specific times, for particular reasons. We thus turn our attention to the strategies of specialization, as an ongoing process and series of discrete practices, rather than seeing its product as a free floating, transcendental value — much like the move from expressing an identity to studying the techniques and sites of identification.

If we insist on thinking of ourselves as unique, as special, as rugged individuals who stand out from the crowd, then, it is because of the others to whom we are related, in structured situations not of our making. What makes us stand out, in short, are the shoulders we’re thrust upon.

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Secret Agent Man

a man with a plug in the back of his headThe approach to identification advocated here at the Edge puzzles some readers since it troubles the usual notion that we have of the individual who does things for certain reasons. We talk about interests and purposes, yes, but we don’t presuppose the usual sort of agent doing things in the world.

Is that a contradiction?

I don’t think so. Continue reading “Secret Agent Man”

Resistance is Futile

Manly Hall stairsOur Department is located in a late 19th century building that was originally a residence, built in New Orleans style, with balconies, wrought iron railings, and staircases on the exterior of the building. The stairs seem a little steep, so you get a work out going up.

One thing I’ve noticed here, over the past decade or so, is how this particular architecture makes certain gender ideologies evident. Continue reading “Resistance is Futile”

No There There

hand printSometime ago I realized that there was important theoretical work signaled by gerunds—verbs that masquerade as nouns; for instance, as I once phrased it, the advantage for a social theorist of the concept “social formation,” as opposed to, say, “social forces,” “society,” “group” or even “institution,” was that it “nicely represents not only the ongoing work of bringing an imagined social group into existence but also the sleight of hand in making it appear always to have existed.” So “social formation” could name a thing, of course, prefaced by an indefinite article, for example, but, simultaneously, it can also name the ongoing process whereby the supposed thing comes into being, repeatedly and continually. Singing a national anthem is therefore an event in the day and life of members of a social formation, yes, but at the same time it is a socially formative act, i.e., a repetitive act constitutive of the formation of a particular, shared idea of citizenship—one element of a never ending process of identifications we might awkwardly term citizenizing. Continue reading “No There There”

On Agency

report card from 1926-27 school yearFor Foucault, a grid of classification is an application of power that permits action on a subject, perhaps making him or her a subject of disciplinary practices that nudge the subject towards conformity with an ideal posited within the grid at hand. Continue reading “On Agency”

Structure and Agency

screenshot of video of people hikingI saw an interesting video the other day, of a woman, Amy Tso, who has climbed the “Grouse Grind” over 900 times — a challenging 3 km hike up a mountain in British Columbia that includes nearly 3,000 stairs and which takes about two hours to climb.

At the 58 second point of the video she comments, “Usually we go around this step,” while we see her walking by a rock ledge that’s just a little higher than most tired hikers would like — “save more energy,” she then adds. Continue reading “Structure and Agency”

Misplaced Agency

Reza AslanThe assumptions within the assertions of identification in the Reza Aslan/Fox News interview have received some attention this week, including Craig Martin’s “Identity Claims Play out on Fox” and Russell McCutcheon‘s “Are You Buying It?” both on this blog. A different comment from Aslan, though, grabbed my attention (unfortunately not for its uniqueness). In addition to emphasizing his academic credentials to defend his study of the historical Jesus, published as Zealot, he argues that his identification as Muslim is irrelevant because his book “overturns pretty much everything that Islam also thinks about Jesus.” Since his work is not trying to promote Islamic orthodoxy, it seems that his religious identification is irrelevant.

Continue reading “Misplaced Agency”