Tag Archives: Didier Fassin

Universal Moral Grammar?

I imagine that most of the people who read blogs such as this one have developed their own ways of consuming digital media. One of the things that I like to do is listen to podcasts while walking to campus each morning. One of the podcasts I usually like very much is called Philosophy Bites, but the episode that came up in my playlist today left me somewhere between chaffed and flabbergasted.

It featured a scholar named John Mikhail who, modeling his approach after Chomsky’s work on universal grammar (because, you know, it was so successful) suggests that there’s a sort of pre-political, innate moral grammar that all humans share.

Now, the “chaffed” part comes from all the work that he does not discuss in making this claim: Foucault’s work on the emergence of “the human” out of a very particular political formulation, Alasdair MacIntyre’s work on the history of moral philosophy, Lynn Hunt’s (among many many others) work on the history of human rights, in fact most anthropologistswork on human rights discourse that I’m aware of–most of which illustrates not only the degree to which such notions depend on particular conceptions of what it means to be human, but also the ways in which these notions of human-ness are themselves tied to particular discursive and economic structures that are quite clearly “political” and less than “universal”.

Fine.  Scholars rely on different bodies of knowledge.  That’s part of what make contemporary universities so interesting. But the flabbergasted part comes from what he does discuss as evidence: namely, the fact that “everybody seems to agree more or less agree on human rights” (again, what can this truth claim even mean in the era of Guantanamo Bay?!  What mode of life and thought makes it even utterable?) as well as “growing anthropological evidence”. What is he talking about here? I literally have no clue. I would be surprised if someone could point out to be any member of the American Anthropological Association whose work would support the existence of a universal human grammar. I will offer a free dinner to anyone who can show me even one domain where the preponderance of anthropological evidence would support the idea.  In fact the American Anthropological Association’s Committee for Human Rights issued an official proclamation in 1999 which reads:

Human rights is not a static concept. Our understanding of human rights is constantly evolving as we come to know more about the human condition.

So there’s that, for what it’s worth. I actually think that’s it’s probably a more fruitful question to ask just what in the heck he means by “anthropological” because, whatever he does mean by it doesn’t seem to include, you know, the work of anthropologists.

Again, I just found out about this guy, so I haven’t yet been able to see what he cites for such a claim (or if, for that matter). I suppose if I were a real scholar that’s what I’d do next…

A List of Scholarly Citations Linked To in this Post (really, this is only the tip of the iceberg)

Thomas J. Csordas (2009). Growing up Charismatic: Morality and Spirituality among Children in a Religious Community Ethos, 37 (4), 414-440 D

Michael Dunn,, Simon J. Greenhill,, Stephen C. Levinson, & Russell D. Gray (2011). Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals Nature, 473, 79-82 DOI: 10.1038/nature09923

Didier Fassin (2008). Beyond good and evil? Questioning the anthropological discomfort with morals Anthropological Theory, 8 (4), 333-344 DOI: 10.1177/1463499608096642

MARK GOODALE (2006). Ethical Theory as Social Practice American Anthropologist, 108 (1), 25-37 DOI: 10.1525/aa.2006.108.1.25

Sally Engle Merry (2003). Human Rights Law and the Demonization of Culture (And Anthropology Along the Way) PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 26 (1), 55-76 DOI: 10.1525/pol.2003.26.1.55

Michael Lambek (2008). Value and virtue Anthropological Theory, 8 (2) DOI: 10.1177/1463499608090788

Saba Mahmood (2001). Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival Cultural Anthropology, 16 (2), 202-236 DOI: 10.1525/can.2001.16.2.202

ANNELISE RILES (2006). Anthropology, Human Rights, and Legal Knowledge: Culture in the Iron Cage American Anthropologist, 108 (1), 52-65 DOI: 10.1525/aa.2006.108.1.52

DAROMIR RUDNYCKYJ (2009). SPIRITUAL ECONOMIES: Islam and Neoliberalism in Contemporary Indonesia Cultural Anthropology, 24 (1), 104-141 DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1360.2009.00028.x

What is neoliberalism and how can we tell?

I just came across a neat blog called Decasia: critique of academic culture run by Eli Thorkelson, a graduate student in the anthropology department at the University of Chicago.  I started to offer a response to his though-provoking post on neoliberalism in the academy when I realized that really I was running on so long that my thoughts should be a post of their own.

In essence, Eli is trying to work through how to ask questions about neoliberalism from an ethnographic perspective–in other words, how to think through the contingencies and particularities of an object that itself traverses many such contexts.

This, of course, is one of the great anthropological questions of the past 30 years, and has been played out in everything from Eric Wolf to Arjun Appadurai to Aihwa Ong and Anna Tsing; from everything from the anthropology of globalization and modernity to the anthropology of the state to the anthropology of humanitarianism.

Appropriately, I think, Eli and friends are trying to tackle this problem through the specific case of universities: how can we make sense of what seem to be linked issues–shared problems, if not exactly shared responses–in the very nature of academic practice today?  I ran into a similar issue when developing my dissertation project on police reform in France: so much of what was going on with Nicolas Sarkozy’s reform of the Police nationale seemed to follow a set script, but it wasn’t long into my time there that i realized that the issues at stake in his “culture of results” were different than, say, what was going on in Berkeley, or London.

How to make sense of this?

For starters, Foucault’s suggestion– in “What is Critique?” and elsewhere— has suggested that “liberalism” is best understood as a form of governance which seeks its own principle of limitation and therefore its corresponding form of critique–liberal critique– is to ask the question: do we have too much government?  In other words, continual and reflexive self-limitation on the power and scope of governance is the characteristic feature of liberalism across its various manifestations.  Beyond that, however, the particular mechanism of this self-limitation is variable.

If the first part of Foucault’s formulation (liberalism as form of self-limitation by government of governance) can be buttressed by the work of everyone from Albert Hirchman to Max Weber, the second part (thinking through the various mechanisms of liberal governance) is most fruitfuly approached, i think, by a group of scholars who follow the work of Nikolas Rose.

For example, rose argues that the distinguishing characteristic of neoliberalism is not “lack of governance,” “accumulation of wealth,” “excess of greed,” or even “privatization” (all popular definitions of the term).  rather the difference between “classical” liberalism and “neoliberalism” is that whereas the former sought a principle whereby the role of government could be limited through the cordoning off of separate “public” and “private” spheres, the latter attempts to use a set of techniques developed in the Market–located, for classic liberalism within the “private” sphere–to better regulate a variety of domains–including those classically relegated to the “public sphere”.

Now, several anthropologists–Aihwa Ong and Jim Ferguson being chief among them, I think– have taken up Rose’s work here in order to focus on the myriad ways neoliberal techniques have been taken up for purposes not predicted by grander theories of economic transformation.  Their point here is, I think, that neoliberalism is  a technical toolkit that can be used in the service of a whole array of political projects.

Now, having said that, in my own dissertation I argued that, while the police reform that I was ethnographizing was indeed a form of liberalism which made use of some of the management techniques usually associated with neoliberalism in the Rose/Ong/Ferguson post-Foucaultian understanding of the term, I’m not sure that it was the sole mechanism of self-limitation.

On the one hand, I think I’m “not sure” mostly because neither were the people I was studying.  in a very tangible sense, they were trying to figure out how to delimit the legitimate violence they were entrusted with.  On the other hand, this very fact seems to suggest that there was at least some kind of experimentation with another, yet emergent, form of liberalism.

Dr. Ong and I have been going back and forth a bit about this ever since: what, for example, I ask her, would a new form of liberalism look like, if it were neither “classical” nor “neo” liberalism?  Can we see any evidence of such a thing in the world around us?  For example, in the post-economic collapse U.S. where there at least circulates the idea that market techniques are not in themselves sufficient “regulation”?

This is the terrain I think Eli & co. are on as they try to think through everything from the University of California’s current economic crisis to Mexican student protests of the 1990’s to ethnic violence at Cameroonian universities.  It is exciting territory, and I’ll be interested to see what they find…

Further reading

Appadurai, A. (2000). Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination Public Culture, 12 (1), 1-19 DOI: 10.1215/08992363-12-1-1

Fassin, D. (2007). Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life Public Culture, 19 (3), 499-520 DOI: 10.1215/08992363-2007-007

Ferguson, J., & Gupta, A. (2002). Spatializing States: Toward an Ethnography of Neoliberal Governmentality American Ethnologist, 29 (4), 981-1002 DOI: 10.1525/ae.2002.29.4.981

Foucault, M., Faubion, J. D., Rabinow, P., & Hurley, R. (2000). “Omnes et Singulatim”: toward a critique of political reason (Vol. 3, pp. 298-325). New York: New Press.

Foucault, M., Schmidt, J., & Geiman, K. P. (1996). What Is Critique? (pp. 382-398). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kearney, M. (1995). The Local and the Global: The Anthropology of Globalization and Transnationalism Annual Review of Anthropology, 24 (1), 547-565 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.an.24.100195.002555

Ong, A. (2000). Graduated Sovereignty in South-East Asia Theory, Culture & Society, 17 (4), 55-75 DOI: 10.1177/02632760022051310

Ong, A. (2006). Neoliberalism as exception : mutations in citizenship and sovereignty. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press.

Rose, N. (1999) Powers of freedom: reframing political thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Tsing, A. (2000). The Global Situation Cultural Anthropology, 15 (3), 327-360 DOI: 10.1525/can.2000.15.3.327

WOLF, E. (1999). Anthropology among the powers Social Anthropology, 7 (2), 121-134 DOI: 10.1017/S0964028299000117