[We’ve had opportunities to hear some of these arguments from Marvin Bram, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Mikhail Epstein earlier in the year. I would like now to flesh-out these points more concretely, and consider the phenomenological apperception of what one anthropologist has termed the experience of “liminality” — a state in which one’s usually well-delineated cultural distinctions become blurred, even foreign.]
By virtue of natality and the ability to act, each new individual poses a threat to civilization. The child carries barbarism with him or her. (Einer Øverenget, Hannah Arendt, 217)
Let us first agree that modern cultures, and most especially the Western Curriculum, are about making distinctions. Language, and of course writing,1 is a vital accomplice in this activity that “cuts” the world up into so many discrete entities, creating a sense of order where formerly there was just (dare we say it) ordinary stuff. The logic of a culture’s language (syntactic, grammatic, and logistic structures) will determine in large measure how these distinctions are drawn and what categories are applicable within different contexts, establishing diverse horizons of meaning.
But what is this “barbarism” in Øverenget’s above reading of Hannah Arendt? Is it true that our civilization must fight continuously to maintain its delicate conceptual hold on reality, to keep the weeds from overtaking the paved highways, so to speak? Can it be that each new human life poses such a threat to civilized culture and the well-ordered world we have created? Is there really a question of these young barbarians doing additional malice to an environment already cut-up and divided into so many pieces by the predominant culture?
Perhaps the real challenge to civilization is that the mere presence of newcomers suggests an incipient erasure or “healing”2 of those distinctions, signaling a prospective return to a more primal state of affairs in which we all found ourselves initially thrown. As we may recall, Rousseau suggested that the principal function of a civil society is the sublimation of the natural man (read ‘barbarian’) in order to recreate him or her with a new nature. In The Social Contract (II, 7), Rousseau wrote,
[The Legislator must] so to speak change human nature, transform each individual, who by himself is a perfect and solitary whole, into part of a greater whole from which that individual as it were gets his life and his being; weaken man’s constitution to strengthen it; substitute a partial and moral existence for the physical and independent existence which we all have received from nature. He must, in a word, take man’s own forces away from him in order to give him forces which are foreign to him and which he cannot use without the help of others. The more the natural forces are dead and annihilated, the greater and more lasting the acquired ones…
So here’s the story: while our pre-civilized ancestors were transformed through some act of existential surgery, thereby becoming full citizens of a new curriculum – so that we now understand ourselves and our world in terms of distinctions provided by controlling social and political institutions within our civilization’s lingua franca – the incidence of yet-un-enculturated individuals in our midst reminds us again of a paradise lost and threatens a possible Fall back into some indeterminate, more primitive mode of being.
But, not only did this civilization makeover each individual as a well-trained citizen; in this process it also remade the everyday-world-as-given into a comprehensive and apparently well-managed cosmos. Furthermore, there is a tendency in the culture-building activity of the Western Curriculum not simply to maintain but to expand the orderliness, to eradicate any possible indeterminateness (arbitrariness, spontaneity) that might threaten to dissolve our civilized boundaries and betray an underlying condition of more humble origin.
I now want to explore the quality of experience at the intersection of civilized artifice and the more inarticulate foundation of everyday existence that preceded it; an experience which might again arbitrarily impinge upon the complex organization of civilized life.
I continue briefly with this myth of origins. As Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau all suggested in slightly different formulations, the everyday state-of-nature might appear rather unpredictable, and apparently not all that well-suited to the basic needs of a civil society. So it becomes a chief objective of civilization to establish clearly articulated and well-managed institutions to orchestrate the safe pursuit of a collective life together rationally, and without fear. Through intersubjective agreement, made possible by a shared tongue (ultimately mathematics), civil society articulates novel frameworks for human community, as well as for scientific (cultural) advancement. But this new world, as Rousseau suggests, is anything but spontaneous and natural; rather, it is an artful construction of “new forces.” However, lost beneath the categorical neatness of such artifice, life’s fundamental ordinariness recedes from view but still haunts and challenges civilization’s very ability to establish, maintain, and control its well-ordered world.
As colorful as these philosophical reflections seem, we need to shift our focus and examine such speculations in light of a more readily traceable shift from the kinship-based bands of pre-urban, pre-literate humanity to our modern stratified, hierarchical, urban societies. In a very brief analysis, Marvin Bram reminded us that the 35,000-year period of genetically modern human pre-history, before the birth of civilized states, represents the “kinship era” after its unique form of social organization. As Bram stated:
Kinship means that what urban peoples call political, social, economic, and cultural arrangements are made not by specialists or professionals, usually strangers to most persons, but by the elders of clans, well-known to all clanspersons.
The “post-kinship era,” on the other hand, is characterized by the growth of large-scale domestic groupings (cities), associated with precisely those forms of impersonal political, social, economic and institutional arrangements that we currently find operating in all modern states today. This transition appears to have made an early appearance approximately fifty-five hundred years ago in the Middle East and Central Asian Steppe.
Embracing observations by Alexis de Tocqueville in his commentary on nineteenth-century America, Bram notes,
[In a ‘post-kinship’ era] the nuclear family by itself cannot resist the impingements of modern political and economic institutions: the father, mother, and their children must be surrounded by some intermediate, protective body of persons in order to be safe from unacceptable levels of [institutional] control. In fact, those modern political and economic institutions could not have been created in the first place unless the original protective body of persons, the clan, was broken into its constituent and susceptible parts, its nuclear families. The first civilization, in the Middle East, and all subsequent civilizations elsewhere, were constructed on the break-up of their pre-urban clans. 3
This sounds like Rousseau’s presumption about the replacement of man’s natural forces with new foreign ones, without which the individual cannot long survive in a civilized state. Suffice it to say, we need only recognize that with the birth of civilization – documented now by the written word – there was a momentous transformation in how human beings began to relate to one another and to the world around them, and that whatever was lost in this transition still haunts humanity even today.
How, then, do we proceed to explore this underlying liminality — what I will call the ordinary underbelly of life — threatening to encroach upon and otherwise disrupt our safe havens of orderliness? In Transculture and Society, post-Soviet émigré Mikhail Epstein offered us a preliminary glimpse. He stated, “The ordinary can be defined as something indefinable that exits in the gap, in the pause, in between cultural categories.”4 The difficulty is that most modern urban societies seek to account for every extension of space and every moment in time, every potential variable, so that no “gaps” exist in the fabric of their socio-cultural life; no semiotic vagueness remains that could lead citizens into confusion or indecisiveness. Let us call such cultures tightly woven. Much effort may be expended by these tightly woven cultures on this objective alone, to reclaim, delete or eliminate any potentially marginal, liminal, or indeterminate extra-cultural influences; build-out and polish every centimeter of the natural world – close the borders, circle the wagons – assimilate the culturally aberrant and bring everyone and everything into the big tent in an effort to insure the sanctity and security of the civilized artifice.
My initial wager is that this vague (albeit sometimes arresting) sense of life’s ordinariness emerges from and embodies a liminal or ‘limit-experience’ in our civilized framework. It is disorienting because it pushes at the edge of our common expectations – temporally, spatially and psychically. It may, accordingly, show itself in the most mundane of circumstances where one simply loses control in an otherwise controlled world, or perhaps where something purely unanticipated occurs in an otherwise well-organized life: for example, when you awake in the morning to prepare for work only to find there is no hot water in your apartment; or when the heat suddenly goes off late at night while the temperature outside is well-below freezing. In other words, it may be something that quite arbitrarily shakes us out of this carefully constructed artifice and brings us again face to face with our own irreducible, inescapable humanity.
If ordinariness appears in these gaps of our cultural fabric, perhaps we can better recognize it by looking cross-culturally, for example, at some of my personal experiences over the past years living in Siberia. It is strange, but there is a feeling of cultural dislocation here that is quite unlike anything I have felt before, even in other parts of Europe. Of course, Russians are notorious for their love, or is it their endurance, of institutional controls, as is well represented by their daily toleration of bureaucracy (making certain that all the proper stamps are on the necessary documents, etc). Yet, there is an extra-cultural innocence here that hearkens back to a simpler world… one that may be hard to pinpoint without referring back to a time almost fifty years ago when I was a child growing-up in America.
The year was 1959 and I can still recall walking down to the end of the street from my home in our small village only thirty miles outside of New York City; from there, I can remember following various meandering paths through the woods made by the frequent comings and goings of me, my friends, relatives and other wanderers as we traversed an undomesticated wasteland just at the edge of town that spilled over into our small community. It was an unused, but not pristine wooded area: an undeveloped territory, because no one owned it or tended to it. And there were numerous unmarked, but well-wrought shortcuts through these fields that led to other small communities, shops or good sledding areas that we so loved on wintry days. For years this place went officially unrecognized by our community (except to us little barbarians); but it was never accorded the privilege of remaining undeveloped. After several years it was annexed and became part of a local urban development plan. But while we children enjoyed ourselves there, this place was unremarkable, unstructured, and undomesticated; it was what I would describe now as a place of artlessness and spontaneity, an occurrence of the ordinary within my world, without signs or cultural safeguards.
And it is precisely such experiences that you still find so frequently in Siberia today, where
…the insufficiency of mapping, of cultural demarcations, makes life more dangerous and uncomfortable than it is in the West. You do not know where you are, on the edge of a forest or on the site of a future building: nature is polluted and culture is diffused. But this is what creates ordinariness.5
On a recent summer day in the Altai region of Russia, my wife Anna decided we should go for a leisurely stroll. Walking out of the driveway from our apartment block, she led me off the main road and across an open meadow (well, not quite a meadow, rather an untended and sparsely forested field) at the far-end of which was a deep cropping of birch trees. As we wandered into this unused parcel of land, there was a dirt footpath haphazardly winding through the tall grasses leading indirectly to the out-cropping of trees. We followed that path into the trees, at which point we entered a densely wooded area interspersed with some discarded evidence of civilization, where we could hear sounds of unrest – both natural (small animals perhaps), and human (children playing in the trees). Emerging on the other side of this wood, we found ourselves at a clearing with several shops positioned before us.
Obviously, this was a well-worn path through an undeveloped and ill-defined parcel of land, connecting two different urban communities. It was not the planned way of getting from here to there, articulated neither by roads, curbs nor street signs; but it was the way that many local feet had trodden, perhaps hurriedly at times on colder winter days; and it perfectly reflected how this feeling of ordinariness could penetrate everyday life here.
My first impression of this and similar incidents was that Siberia was simply less developed than what I was accustomed to in America; and that was certainly true. But this preliminary assessment did not quite capture what I was experiencing here. Furthermore, it begged the question of why (as I would later discover) there was a preponderance of such ‘gaps’ within the cultural fabric, spatially, temporally and psychically. It seemed to me that there was more going on here, but because it was so unfamiliar to me conceptually it was not until I accidentally happened upon Epstein’s own analyses and his comparison with what he found in America that I was able to grasp this indeterminate feeling more clearly.
[In Russia] when you go through a meadow you always find several narrow paths that were not designed by the developers of this territory but spontaneously created by people who need to make a shortcut from one village to another. While walking these paths you feel the blessed meaning of the ordinary that does not belong to any category, which spontaneously emerges and remains arbitrary…6
This seemed to describe more adequately what I was experiencing; there was a palpable unpredictability and carefreeness not only on such meandering paths but elsewhere in daily life, betraying a freedom from the structured machinations of encroaching civilization, a source of spontaneity lodged somewhere within the far recesses of the Russian experience. As I came to realize, the quality of my own feelings in these situations was reflected as well in the way in which such occasions were met with, accepted and even cherished by the local population; not just by children, but by people of all ages, income levels, educational and professional backgrounds. No one was exempt from wandering these backpaths and recognizing the quiet whimsical feeling they evoked. And, as people here enjoy pointing out, there is an abundance of space and much time in Russia, enough space and time to walk even without a specific destination in view. And, in the Russian language there is a term to denote such aimless walking around, gulyat, which connotes that such activity has no definitive purpose or objective – just walking.
This same attitude can be evidenced, as well, in how they deal with other rather fluid moments in life here: for example, spending time at a modest dacha or country cottage resting, fishing or cultivating a small plot of land; spending time in the vast Siberian forests – perhaps mushroom-hunting; or even time at a local banya – more than just a steam bath – relaxing with friends or family. In each instance one gets the unspoken message that now we will enjoy a cultural “time-out,” a break from the recognized orderliness and noise of a routinely civilized existence. Even that term gulyat (‘just walking around’) has a more colloquial meaning — “to have a day off from work,” “to make merry,” or “to live it up.” Again, this betrays an affinity in the Russian experience between physical meandering and the psychic spaciousness of a more relaxed, less-structured existence. And if you ask anyone about this fluidity, about the apparent abundance of “gaps” in the ordering of life here, they will tell you that it makes life more interesting. Indeed, they will tell you how difficult it is to make plans in Russia because life may suddenly (spontaneously, arbitrarily, artlessly) intervene and disrupt your plans. Perhaps what we have here is a more loosely woven cultural fabric, dictated in part by the specific gravity of the Russian soul.
Suffice it to say that such experiences cannot be forced into simple categorical dichotomies like nature v culture, or disorder v order; such categorizations would certainly lead to misunderstanding the lived-experience. Rather these incidences are ordinary in the sense of remaining artless or capricious, if you will; disclosed in the subtle dissolution of hard conceptual distinctions, in that gap where the normal chatter of civilization is broken by a preeminent silence.
Let me recount another brief example – a trip to Lake Balkhash in the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan from the small town of Tekeli. This was an adventure in uncle Volodya’s car (one that just barely ran), with one of his friends following closely behind. The two-hour drive down old patched roads to a turn-off at an unmarked dirt intersection led our small entourage into a crisscrossing set of paths through massive sand dunes, slowly leading us further into an untamed desert area. There were no signs, no concrete byways, no parking areas, and no vendors selling towels, souvenirs or frosty cones; there was just unmarked dune after dune, with an occasional broken down vehicle along the path that evidently could not finish its journey.
At the end of this drive, with many false starts and wrong turns – like on the back of a two-humped camel – we arrived at the edge of an enormous lake; again no signs, no demarcation, no designated parking areas. Several more spins around the last dune left our two cars vying for position close to the water, but parallel to each other so that we could make camp by throwing a tarp over the two cars and creating a shelter in between them. Again, for me this was just such an irreducible experience of life’s ‘ordinariness’ breaking-through a rather large ‘gap’ in the fabric…
And as Epstein suggests, such occurrences are all but absent in the American experience today, where
even islands of spontaneity such as natural parks and preserves are carefully demarcated; their very naturalness is the object of cultivation… so that even nature is reduced to the sign of nature (“wildlife refuge”). [I]n American national parks or wilderness areas the boundary between culture and nature is drawn very strictly with an exactitude of several centimeters. There are special trails that delineate the route of penetration of culture into the domain of nature. But neither cultural nor natural areas in themselves create the feeling of ordinariness. 7
Having lived the majority of my life in America, including twenty-years in Colorado, I can verify his assessment; our approach to nature in the USA is to enculturate it – map it out, clean it up and deodorize it – so that it becomes part of the plan; an easily accessible piece of Nature that everyone can enjoy while still comfortably ensconced within a seamlessly organized world.
Now, what makes the Russian vantage point so compelling here is the archeological and anthropological evidence suggesting that the Altai Region of Siberia represents perhaps one of the most primitive and independent origins of human habitation some half-million years ago; the location of some of the earliest kinship groupings known to modern research. So, as we think about the birth of civilization and myths of origin, we might imagine that the prehistoric incidence of simple “band egalitarian societies”8 in the Altai Mountains of Russia could represent the factical location of those very transformations of our pre-urban ancestors into post-kinship civilized persons – with the attendant sublimation of a more primal experience of human dwelling that underlies and haunts our civilized artifices. And it might even be argued that throughout Russia’s long and arduous history one can see an unrelenting affection for this obscured aspect of our common humanity, as demonstrated by the continued inherence and influence on the Russian psyche of the simple and perhaps un-civilizable, but well-mythologized, peasant soul. 9
Moreover, the very severity and vastness of this great Siberian terrain militates against a comprehensive ordering of the natural, encouraging such spontaneity and providing ample opportunity for the chance emergence of the ordinary within the world-as-lived.
In Russia there are huge semi-developed territories where culture and nature are so confused and diffused in each other that one feels this inordinate place is the true place of the ordinary.10
One final, but not insignificant example is the typical Russian experience of waiting in endless queues, be they at the bank, the train station, the phone company or the local housing registration office. And again these queues seem to emerge spontaneously because as you enter a room people are not necessarily lined-up, single file, one behind the other; rather they may just be sitting haphazardly around or meandering about the room. So you must inquire as to who is the last person in the queue, even though no queue visibly exists; yet everyone seems to know where his or her place is in this queue. Milling around, waiting in these long (but not quite identifiable) queues, “you can feel life… so slow and empty that reality reveals its authentic substance and duration.”11
As Epstein concludes, “what makes the ordinary so precious is the spontaneity of human actions, the growth of the natural out of the cultural.”12 And this is perhaps what the above reading of Hannah Arendt may be suggesting; that each yet-unsocialized person bears within him or herself an “excess of existence that does not fit into any existing cultural model” and cannot be easily assimilated into the civilized milieu – a surplus of just being,13 which his very presence can bring crashing down upon us at any moment, thereby disrupting our otherwise secure cultural artifice.
So how are we to make sense of this experience if there is really no easy way to grasp it in terms of our common, shared cultural categories? Is it like knowing we are in the presence of the Sacred, which according to most religious traditions also cannot be described adequately in everyday language? Perhaps there is something embedded deep within human genome, and in the nature of the symbolic systems we create, that always presents us with the possibility of recovering this experience within (or out of) the cultural, anywhere at anytime.
But, what could this be? Well, perhaps it is not so mysterious after all. If the artifice of civilization creates our basic sense of reality, with conceptual prejudices to protect us from oblique experiences and extracultural apparitions, then surely there are certain limit situations where this feeling might burst through unabated. Obviously, these would most likely be culturally confusing circumstances where our normal conceptual frameworks come into question or simply do not function properly, conditions that breed cultural ambiguity.
But whether the specific cause of such ambiguity be rooted in more personally unsettling moments of loneliness, anguish, suffering, madness and boredom, or perhaps born of more structured (shared) experiences of disruption, like foreign travel, emigration, cross-cultural exchange, or more dramatically perhaps, threats of terrorism, a consistent element in all these limit situations is the sudden or even subtle experience of marginality or strangeness: an incipient feeling of difference, Alterity, either in the sense of being-beside-oneself, coping with the otherness of a strange world or a stranger in our midst, or even an emergent awareness of the otherness of our own cultural landscape.
Let us briefly gloss two views of the stranger in sociological theory, to suggest both the interiorized as well as the exterior face of such otherness.
The stranger, like the poor and sundry ‘inner enemies,’ is an element of the group itself. His position as a full-fledged member involves both being outside it and confronting it… 14
The cultural pattern of the approached group is to the stranger not a shelter but a field of adventure, not a matter of course but a questionable topic of investigation…15
And, while we are all strangers to ourselves because we are artful products of prior cultural reconstruction, we are also strangers to our culture “because we come to a given society from our childhood [read ‘barbarism’], from our loneliness, from those extracultural and countercultural niches that are common to the majority of people all over the world.” 16
For the stranger then, either within or outside of us, the normal categories of the group become marginalized and problematic. And it is in this respect that otherness (Alterity) and strangeness become likely protagonists in the experience of the ordinary, because they are fundamentally liminal elements haunting each individual and making us aware of our own mundane humanity, our finitude, our temporality, our own facticity. In this respect, the outsider in our midst or the stranger within positions us face to face with a vision of what we are not, but what we might have been…our own potentiality for being other than we are or never having been at all, in other words, the possibility of our own non-being.
Whenever we are confronted by such marginality or have the feeling of being adrift without the safety and security of our civilized world (psychically, semiotically or physically), it is precisely in these gaps that we may be struck by the life’s ordinariness. And this experience uniquely possesses the capacity to expose both the relativity and arbitrariness of our own existence, because it is in the face of this marginality – where we rub up against the limits of normal cultural controls – that we are most apt to recognize the accidental nature of our own culturally defined world, and so become dumb-struck by life’s simple extension and duration.
Perhaps wherever individuals come face to face with their own facticity — the raw embodiment and temporality of simply being in the world — demonstrating a “bare courage and patience to be,”17 perhaps this is what it means to experience life’s ordinariness, offering us but a glimpse of that barbarism that always lies beneath the surface of each enculturated citizen, as a potential event and a haunting reminder of both our temporal origins and our pending demise!
And perhaps this is why the barbarian in our midst or within poses such a threat to civilization, because a citizenry so exposed would be very difficult to control indeed.
1 See Walter Ong, The Presence of the Word, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981) and Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978)
2 Marvin Bram, “On Distinctions,” Geneva Peace Symposium (www.genevapeace.org), December 15, 2006
3 Marvin Bram, “The Violence Directed to the Children’s World,” Geneva Peace Symposium (www.genevapeace.org), January 18, 2005. See also Marvin Bram, The Recovery of the West, An Essay In Symbolic History, (Xlibris Corporation, May 2002)
4 Ellen E. Berry and Mikhail N. Epstein, Transcultural Experiments, Russian and American Models of Creative Communication, (New York: St. Martins Press, 1999), p. 110
5 Ibid, p. 111
6 Ibid, p. 111
7 Ibid, pp. 110-111
8 Morton H. Fried, The Evolution of Political Society, An Essay In Political Anthropology (New York: Random House, 1967), pp. 51 et al.
9 Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance, A Cultural History of Russia (New York: Henry Holt, 2002), pp. 220-287
10 Ellen E. Berry and Mikhail N. Epstein, Op. Cit., p. 110
11 Ibid, p. 111
12 Ibid, p. 111
13 Ibid, p. 112
14 The Sociology of Georg Simmel, trans., ed., KH Wolff (New York: Free Press, 1950) pp. 402-404
15 Alfred Schutz, Collected Papers, II, Ed, A Brodersen (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964) p. 104
16 Ellen E. Berry and Mikhail N. Epstein, Op. Cit., p. 104
17 Ibid, p.111