Category Archives: Politics

La sociologie est un sport de combat

Lately I’ve been piecing together some thoughts on what we are doing when we act in the world, what we’re reproducing, and how (or if) things could be otherwise. This enquiry brought me back to a thinker I’ve been reading for some time — Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002). His writing is extremely insightful, equally for its theoretical trenchancy and ethnographic narrativity. He was a subversive thinker, really, and he was very gifted at uncovering the mechanisms that operate in our daily lives to determine how we act, what we like, what we know, how we articulate these things, and much much more. Based on my limited knowledge, he’s also one of those thinkers whose theories are rarely put to gainful use by others, opposed to, say, the more regularly used and understood works of folks like Lévi-Strauss, Gramsci, Marx, Durkheim, and, well, many others (fill in the blanks for yourself). Some have “used” Bourdieu quite skilfully, of course — for my money, Thomas Csordas stands above the rest. But if I had a quarter for every academic paper I’ve heard delivered at conferences in which someone invokes Bourdieu and their ideas become more recondite than they were before invoking him, then I’d be flush enough to spring for lunch. This is to say, it seems like for many people Bourdieu muddies their ideas more than clarifies them.

Why is this? You read his work, and it’s so incisive…so clever…so rich. If anyone who reads this blog also reads Bourdieu, then perhaps that person can set me straight, point to some useful examples of Bourdieu put to use in fruitful and novel ways. In the meantime, I’m happy to post this clip from Pierre Charles’s 2001 documentary on Bourdieu, Sociologie est un sport de combat (“Sociology is a Combat Sport”). It offers some insights from the man himself about what makes society tick. After the clip, if you’re still interested, I offer a dump of my notes on the intellectual genealogy of one of the concepts Bourdieu put to great use in his works – habitus.

A Rough-n-Ready Genealogy of the concept HABITUS

The word habitus derives from the Latin √habere, “to have.”  Habitus is the Latin translation of the Greek hexis (ἕξις).  The verb habere was typically used in the sense that someone or some people had a disposition to act or behave in a certain way.

ARISTOTLE argued that a person becomes courageous by doing things that make her courageous; having gained the state of being courageous, resulting from the willful enactment of deeds that led to the courageous disposition—what some people might call habitual or routine—she becomes more and more readily able to act courageously. ARISTOTLE did not concern himself with the causes that might have led her to want to acquire the disposition of courage.  Rather, he focused on the development of character and the ways in which character relates to moral behavior.  So, for example, his argument is that a person trained as a pipefitter over time comes to possess the necessary disposition to act in a way befitting a pipefitter. For ARISTOTLE the locus of analysis, as well as the end of the analysis, was the individual. He did not think one could fruitfully explain the practices of the pipefitter’s union by analyzing the structures of the pipefitter’s disposition.

St. Thomas AQUINAS’s theory of habit went like this: every habit is a disposition, and every habit is that by which one acts as the result of one’s will.  One has these habits or dispositions, and these possessions operate upon the individual as principles for action and behavior.  Our actions therefore ensue from habits (e.g., science is the habit of conclusions arrived at by means of reason; hence, one who has mastered the rigmarole of a science [including the rationale it entails] may, through willed acts, do the work of a scientist).  Unlike BOURDIEU’S culturally deterministic use of habitus (see below – the one who put habitus on the map as a sociological concept), AQUINAS did not presume nor claim that the habitus, or habits of thought, present obstacles to freedom in one’s actions (free will, of course, is crucial to AQUINAS’s theological program).

With Émile DURKHEIM we begin to see the notion of habitus develop as an important sociological concept.  DURKHEIM formulated something he called the “collective habit,” which very closely resembles the habitus as employed by Pierre BOURDIEU.  The collective habit exists as expressions, or behaviors, of people and are passed on from one person to another by word of mouth, education, and the like, and becomes fixed in writing (e.g., legal and moral rules, parables, sayings, tastes, etc.).

In Primitive Classification (1903), DURKHEIM and Marcel MAUSS argued that cultural classification systems (specifically the classification of natural systems in traditional Australian societies) are structured by the social order.  The ways in which a society classifies things, they said, reveal a distinctive pattern of socially informed types of thought that exist in a society.  The principles of a society’s classification systems, furthermore, structure the cultural practices in which people daily partake.  DURKHEIM and MAUSS thought societies were constructed as unified entities and, as unified entities, societies impose themselves on their environments.  Accordingly, for DURKHEIM and MAUSS it was appropriate to analyze society as a cohesive body, of which the undergirding structural principle is a “conscience collective.”  DURKHEIM and MAUSS do not quite close the gap in this model between the social structure and social agency.  Clearly BOURDIEU drew upon, or at least absorbed, some the social understanding of DURKHEIM and MAUSS insofar as his later understanding of class and “specific habitus” are concerned.

MAUSS’s work on body techniques (1935) is for all intents and purposes the immediate precursor to BOURDIEU’s conceptualization and use of the idea of habitus.  For his part, it’s likely that MAUSS’s habitus belongs to the ARISTOTELIAN vein.  That is, we can say MAUSS reintroduced the Latin concept habitus, with its ARISTOTELIAN weight, into French sociological theory.  But he was also attuned to the post-Darwinian applications of the concept—namely, that society is built on the differentiation between morphology (material structure of an organism) and physiology (the nature of the organism’s functioning).  Above all, the habitus was important to MAUSS because of its incisiveness for explaining the ways in which socialization, particularly through systems of education, imposes social forms of thought and body techniques.  So-called techniques du corps became for him a “bodily habitus.”  MAUSS’s intent was to show how body techniques are powerfully and effectively formed through social education and training, and naturally that they vary from society to society.

MERLEAU-PONTY expanded HUSSERL’s social phenomenology to include habits as the embodiment of forms of classification.  HUSSERL understood habits to refer to meaningful events that are constituted in lived experience, which people hold onto and which resurface over time.  HUSSERL further understood these habits to be possessions, in the Latin sense of habitus, and they generate states in the individual that enable action.  MERLEAU-PONTY was opposed to the structuralist program, but he did concede that in the case of cultural systems there was something that structured the ways people know, produce art, perform rituals, create myths, and so on.  He hastened to add to this capitulation, however, that men, society, and history do not exist for these structures.  He felt there needed to be a “lived equivalent” to the overriding cultural systems and structures.  He rejected the notions of cultural and historical determinism.  He sought rather to promote the existentialist dictum that humans are free to choose their actions.  As such, MERLEAU-PONTY tried not to understand social codes of an abstract nature that define the human individual; rather he promoted the analysis of culture through a testing of one’s self through experiential encounters with the other (and vice versa).  In the process, the self changes itself and changes other selves, and through these changes views of nature and human being change and, in turn, cultural constructions change and develop.

The structuralist notion of LÉVI-STRAUSS that cultural productions of societies, e.g., culinary practices, marital associations, kinship, etc., are generated by codes (or grammars) greatly influenced BOURDIEU.  These codes (or grammars) are analyzable as social behaviors and linguistic features shared by people in a society, and they ultimately generate meaning in a community and find expression as they regulate and order the lives of people within a society.  For LÉVI-STRAUSS and the structuralists who adopted his view, habitus is “a generative schema in which the forms of elemental social structures come, through the process of socialisation, to be embodied in individuals, with the result that people necessarily act in such a way that the underlying structures are reproduced and given effect” (Nash 1999, 177).

Under the command of BOURDIEU, the idea of the habitus becomes “a system of shared social dispositions and cognitive structures which generates perceptions, appreciations and actions” (1988, 3, fn.2). Whereas LÉVI-STRAUSS and the structuralists were not able to account for the causal effectiveness between cultural structures, which in turn left open the role of any mediating factor between social structure and social agency, BOURDIEU’s fashioning of habitus did precisely that.  Namely, with the concept of habitus BOURDIEU wedded the structuralist theory of culture (social classification, class position) with psycho-social agency theory, or systems and agents (hence, embodied forms of classification, perception, judgment, and so on).

PIERRE BOURDIEU said the Habitus…

[1] is an embodiment of structure (collapse subject | object distinction)
[2] provides the grounds for agency (limited arena of choice)
[3] enables individual trajectories to be studied (has a history and leaves traces)
[4] unites past and present (product of early experience yet modified by subsequent experience)
Habitus = The Principle that Regulates the Act
Habitus = Internalized Structure
Habitus = Embodiment of Objective Structure

The habitus is a generative mechanism (method?) for the structuring of social practice.  Or, social practices are produced by a particular habitus.  All social practices therefore, upon analysis, reveal the structures of the habitus that generate them.  For the social scientist, the challenge of studying the habitus is to analyze social practices in such a way that the principles (cultural categories – e.g., medicine, religion, politics, education, etc.) that undergird the generative structures of the habitus are laid bare.

BOURDIEU himself claimed to find the concept of habitus to be useful as the principle that generates and regulates the act because it at once allowed him to refer to something that is akin to habit and yet different from the notion of habit.  Namely,

habitus is that which one has acquired, but which has become durably incorporated in the body in the form of permanent dispositions.  So the term constantly reminds us that it refers to something historical, linked to individual history, and that it belongs to a genetic mode of thought, as opposed to essentialist modes of thought (like the notion of competence which is part of the Chomskian lexis).  Moreover, by habitus the Scholastics also meant something like a property, a capital.  And, indeed, the habitus is a capital, but one which, because it is embodied, appears innate (Bourdieu 1993, 86).

Do habits not have a history, too?  Are they not indelibly incorporated in the individual?  Habits do have a history, for they are acquired.  But on BOURDIEU’s view history is specifically tied to the practices of social groups (especially “classes”), such that our dispositions to act, think, and feel have both an individual and social impact and genealogy.  They are not in-built then, but “genetic” in the sense of PIAGET’S “genetic epistemology.” Jean Piaget in 1968 delivered a series of lectures at Columbia University entitled, “Genetic Epistemology,” in which he argued the we may come to understand knowledge and knowledge acquisition on the basis of its history, in particular its sociological genesis and the psychological notions and practices which inform the social formation of that knowledge.  Piaget’s genetic epistemology, moreover, attempts to take up the process of formalization in society (e.g., through education, familial relations, and so on). Habitus for BOURDIEU is acquired though one’s group associations and, importantly, it becomes something one possesses.  It’s here for BOURDIEU that habitus breaks from habit, for the habitus as genetic possession is of necessity tied to every act, and so every act is regulated by the principles that form the habitus.  Habits do permeate every action one makes.

What is more, since individuals in society embody the habitus, it develops a history by and through the practices it generates.  The process of embodiment occurs over time, during which the generation of practices continues and perdures even after the original generative material conditions that produced the habitus have disappeared.  In the process of embodiment—i.e., internalizing the habitus in individuals, families, class groups, etc.—the principle of the habitus find expression in the structuring of culture.  
[1] Habitus is arranged by the principles of the social structure(s)
—AND—
[2] Social practices are arranged by the structured principles of the habitus
—THEREFORE—
[3] From socialization individuals in a society acquire a set of dispositions
—AND—
[4] These dispositions reflect the central structural elements (kinship regulations, political ideologies, religion, etc.) of their society
—THEREFORE—
[5] Individuals in a society behave in ways that reproduce the structural elements of the habitus

For BOURDIEU, the habitus is, in gist, history turned into nature.  We generally take that which is natural to be fixed, biological, the stuff we’re hardwired with, and therefore beyond our control; that which is historical, however, we understand to be acquired, indeterminate, culturally imposed, and mapped onto the natural.  Rarely, however, do we experience the rift between these two fields.  BOURDIEU writes, “In practice, it is the habitus, history turned into nature, i.e. denied as such, which accomplishes practically the relating of these two systems of relations, in and through the production of practice.  The ‘unconscious’ is never anything other than the forgetting of history which history itself produces by incorporating the objective structures it produces in the second natures of habitus” (1977, 78-79).

Habitus, Capital, Taste

The habitus is, essentially, a set of generative dispositions that every individual body appropriates in the form of “physical capital” (NB: BOURDIEU also recognizes several other sorts of capital, e.g., cultural, economic, symbolic, etc., at play in society).  To have more physical capital than another person (or group) means that one has (or a group has) more capacity to define one’s (or its) lifestyle and body as superior and more worthy of reward than others.  This is an example of how “class” becomes embodied.  About this BOURDIEU wrote:

The schemes of the habitus, the primary forms of classification, owe their specific efficacy to the fact that they function below the level of consciousness and language, beyond the reach of introspective scrutiny or control by the will.  Orienting practices practically, they embed what some would mistakenly call values in the most automatic gestures or the apparently most insignificant techniques of the body—ways of walking or blowing one’s nose, ways of eating or talking—and engage the most fundamental principles of construction and evaluation of the social world, those which most directly express the division of labour (between the classes, the age groups and the sexes) or the division of the work of domination, in divisions between bodies and between relations to the body which borrow more features than one, as if to give them the appearance of naturalness, from the sexual division of labour and the division of sexual labour (1984: 466).

As a result, lifestyles proportionate to one’s class become invested in the bodies of social beings.  Even the most mundane physical traits, such one’s gait or gestures, in turn serve to perpetuate social inequalities in society.  Physical capital thus affects bodies, which in turn become, for BOURDIEU, bearers of value in society.

In the essay, “Plat du Jour” (1988), Michel de CERTEAU discusses behaviors of preference related to everyday things such as food, clothing, music, et cetera.  These preferences are experienced on the personal and ordinary level as individual “tastes,” yet they are ineluctably linked to society and social stratification.  For example, the lowers classes of society are and have been regularly portrayed by historians, the media, and in literature as having “vulgar tastes,” the high classes as having “refined” or “distinguished tastes.”

In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984), BOURDIEU demonstrates that each individual is assigned a position in society according to his or her class.  This position is determined by the kind and/or amount of capital in each person’s possession.  The composition and kind of capital owned by each individual is modifiable directly in proportion to the motility of one’s prospect in society as determined by the fixed place of social strategies structured to uphold the class divisions and privileges (1984, 208).  The argument is ultimately quite circular: one has a place in society; one may change out of that place to another according to the options (e.g., employment opportunities, ability to travel and relocate one’s home, etc.) commensurate with one’s capital wealth.  Since the opportunities accorded a person are homologous to his or her capital, including the opportunity to make more financial capital, the cards are stacked against a person in the lower middle class to ever experience the food, clothing, and music (the so-called behavior preferences) of the higher social classes.

Ways of operating in society, too, are homologous with various strata in society.  A social group is defined by its class position, its ways of operating born of the requisite rotation of “a set of ready-made choices, objectively instituted possibilities” (1984, 209).  Such an ordered society has a severe stifling of creativity and invention, of individuals and communities.  Situations are structured in society according to a perduring system of dispositions that standardize and influence practices by modifying them to other certain specific practices.  Consequently, genuine intentionality and inventiveness are near impossible in BOURDIEU’s system.  BOURDIEU’s primary condition for any intelligibility in social life rests squarely on homogenization of the habitus within social groups (1977, 80).  To explain variation among individuals in a social group, BOURDIEU classifies systems of homologous groups of individuals’ dispositions so that any variants from the social group habitus are considered derivations in style, taste, etc. of the norm (1977, 86).

There are and will always be individuals in society whose tastes, style, behavioral preferences deviate from the group habitus, to be sure.  But, ultimately, for BOURDIEU any improvisation is regulated improvisation, or as Thomas CSORDAS put it, improvisation that is “open-ended yet circumscribed by the dispositions of the habitus” (Csordas 1993, 152).

BOURDIEU constructed a rather closed system, whose gate is closed in advance of any creative uprising, nearly precluding anything new from arising that might influence an individual (or the group) so profoundly that she or he might expand her or his tastes—e.g., trying new food, hearing new music, wearing en vogue clothing, etc.—including a chance meeting with a new interlocutor (perhaps even if only in a book!) who might introduce to that person new cultural practices.  BOURDIEU claimed that, “as an acquired system of generative schemes objectively adjusted to the particular conditions in which it is constituted, the habitus engenders all the thoughts, all the perceptions, and all the actions consistent with those conditions, and no others” (1977, 95).

For BOURDIEU, the fact that tastes (e.g., such as food behaviors – what one likes to eat, how to prepare it, and how to eat it) and practices come from such “early learning” and are not (usually) taken up again later in life (e.g., in secondary school or college) makes them just as, if not more, immobile in one’s habitus throughout life (1984, 78-79).

REFERENCES
BOURDIEU, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Richard Nice, trans. Cambridge:   Cambridge University Press.
—-1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Richard Nice, trans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
—-1988. Homo Academicus. Peter Collier, trans., Stanford: Stanford University Press.
—-1993. Sociology in Question. London: Sage Publications.
DE CERTEAU, Michel, Luce Girad, and Pierre Mayol. 1998. The Practice of Everyday Life Volume 2: Living & Cooking. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
CSORDAS, Thomas.1993. “Somatic Modes of Attention.” Cultural Anthropology, Vol.8, No.2 (May): 135-156.
DURKHEIM, Émile and Marcel Mauss. 1903. “De quelques formes primitives de classification: Contribution à l’étude des eprésentations collectives.” Le année sociologique.
MAUSS, Marcel. 1934. “Techniques du corps.” Journal de psychologie normal et pathologique. Paris, Année XXXII, 271-93.
NASH, Roy. 1999. “Bourdieu, ‘Habitus’, and Educational Research.” British Journal of Sociology of Education, vol. 20, no. 2: 175-187.

The Next President of the United States

Obama?  Meh, been there, done that.  Romney?  Yeah, right…like I’d actually vote for someone who looks like the dude in every picture frame I ever purchased.  No, the next President is Mr. Vermin Supreme.  Congress, you might as well get working on the repeal of the 22nd Amendment, because President Supreme will be serving more than two terms.

God Bless C-Span.  The greatest channel ever!

Be Clean For Gene

This cute rhyme has been rattling around my brain since I viewed the YouTube video of Peashoot’s former student.  The phrase has no current meaning and only can be found in the footnotes of history books analyzing the tumultuous year 1968.  But the quip played a significant, though not dominant, role in toppling the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.

In 1968, as the Vietnam war raged, anti-war sentiment finally gained national traction.  The surprise attack known as the Tet Offensive rebutted administration claims that the US had “turned the corner” in Southeast Asia and their optimistic promises of seeing “light at the end of the tunnel”.  That the Tet Offensive failed militarily for the communists mattered little; it was an enormous political victory that demonstrably altered public opinion about the war in the US.

With Robert Kennedy refusing to mount a primary challenge to LBJ fearing charges of splitting the party, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy stepped into the race with peace in Vietnam as his foremost issue.  College students flocked to him, but recognized a significant problem: image.  Although public opinion trended against the war, the anti-war coalition polled equally poorly with the American public.

To assuage the public’s apprehension and persuade voters, young McCarthy volunteers came up with the “Be Clean for Gene” strategy.  In order to defeat Johnson, McCarthy needed to win the primaries which required a strong ground game in the voting states.  His volunteers cut their hair, shaved and generally behaved as though they were auditioning for the church choir.  The notion was average Americans would be more receptive to hearing them out as they went door to door if they were “presentable” and “respectful”.  It worked.

McCarthy stunned LBJ in the New Hampshire primary garnering forty percent of the vote.  Like the Tet Offensive for North Vietnam, it technically was a loss, but an equally enormous political triumph.  The president’s vulnerability exposed, RFK jumped into the race and days later LBJ formally withdrew altogether.  Hubert Humphrey, also from Minnesota, outlasted McCarthy and the assasinated RFK to win the nomination.

So what does this have to do with Occupy Wall Street and the aforementioned video?  Well, I think the young lady in the video personifies the “be clean for Gene” principle nicely.  She’s polite, articulate and respectful.  People might disagree with her, but she certainly gives no offense and, more importantly, offers the undecided no easy reason to dismiss her.  While demonstrative displays of chanting, swearing, taunting might arguably have its place, ultimately it does not persuade the independent voter and most often turns them away. 

Americans are tired of bailouts.  In the past few days I’ve read many an editorial or blog post noting – ironically – that the Tea Party and OWS share some common ground.  I’ve also seen many Ron Paul supporters referenced as attendees at OWS.  But I’ve also read descriptions of boorish behavior that should be unacceptable.  I guess it comes down to a choice: do you wish to persuade and perhaps change, or do you wish to disrupt and topple?  President Obama, VP Biden and Rep. Pelosi have all offered their support of OWS believing the movement seeks to persuade.  The influential liberal publication The New Republic repudiated it, suspicious of its motives (http://www.tnr.com/article/96334/how-occupy-wall-street-will-hurt-liberals).  If OWS wants to influence the outcome of the 2012 elections, I would suggest they take a page from another divisive and unsure time in American history and “be clean for Gene”.

“The unholy nexus between police, politicians and criminals”

If you’ve been reading the international news of your local daily, you’ll know that for the past two weeks or so there’s been a tidal wave of protest and support for longtime social activist Anna Hazare’s hunger strike against corruption in Indian government and society and the passage of “strong anti-corruption” legislation via the Jan Lokpal Bill.

Anna Hazare
“I am Anna Hazare” – supporters in Pune

Hazare has many supporters across the country, many of whom are donning the white khadi clothes and hats Gandhiji made famous, many of which are emblazoned with the slogan, “I am Anna Hazare.”

But corruption in India is not as straightforward as one might think listening to Hazare’s clearly inspiring speeches and demands.

Alongside the waves of Hazare supporters, vehement anti-“Team Anna” voices have been cropping up in op-eds and across the blogosphere, some coming from powerful intellectuals and social activists.

Arundhati Roy
Madhu Kishwar

Among the critical dissenting voices to Hazare’s Lokpal movement (lokpal = “protector of the people,” e.g., an ombudsman) are the highly provocative social activist and exceptionally talented writer, Arundhati Roy and the well-known Indian academic, Madhu Kishwar.

Writing in the English language daily, The Hindu, Roy pulls no punches in criticizing Anna Hazare’s demands and calls the supposed anti-corruption Jan Lokpal Bill “draconian.” Roy has written about Indian politics for a long time, and she’s very sensitive to the corruption problem in Indian society. So, if you don’t get a chance to read her op-ed in the The Hindu, I’d rather not be Anna,” it’s important to point out that she’s not suggesting corruption isn’t an issue that needs attention. Instead, she takes a broader, longer view of the present situation and presents a strong case against Lokpal, suggesting this bill will reinforce corporate India and augment, not correct or replace, the current, broken judiciary machine in the country with a kind of über-police force that is no less corrupt. What’s more, she calls Hazare on his associations with the RSS and major multinational corporations over the years, which, when read through the lens of Roy’s writing, begin to make Team Anna look like a big-business-fueled, anti-social-welfare rally. One wonders if the jingoistic flag wavers are aware of the backstory. Madhhu Kishwar’s piece on the blog Manushi, Lokpal Bill – Need to Look Beyond Magic Wands Exaggerated Expectations Might Boomerang,” is also highly skeptical of the Team Anna plan. But Kishwar’s piece is perhaps a bit more even handed in it’s critique. No less forceful than Roy, and like Roy, Kishwar is aware that Lokpal seems to represent not a solution to corruption in India but the proposition of another bureaucratic institution that will be accepting bribes and taking advantage of those with little to no social or political capital. She also offers some useful examples from India’s legislative history from which she thinks Team Anna could draw some useful lessons, such as the house tax laws in India and the unjust laws that for a long time penalized rickshaw owners/drivers and street vendors, forcing them to pay bribes to stay in business.

It’s a fascinating time in India right now. Longtime sociopolitical problems are being tossed into the open and no one with an interest or ounce of investment in the country can afford not to pay attention. Kishwar’s closing statement on Team Anna, Lokpal, and what she calls “the unholy nexus between police, politicians and criminals” is a fine way to conclude:

Lokpal can at best play the role that antibiotics do when our bodies catch an infection. But antibiotics work only if delivered in emergencies in judicious doses, or else the body becomes immune to them. An overdose can act as a toxin and even kill the patient. It cannot produce genetically incorruptible officers but it can easily become a Frankenstein monster if it is given the role of super cop and saddled with an unrealistic load and mandate. Even the best of Lokpals cannot curb routine corruption and tyranny if the ground rules don’t change. It will work only if each government department shifts the balance of power in favour of citizens, providing them the clout to demand transparency and accountability. Most important of all we need to break the unholy nexus between police, politicians and criminals by carrying out far reaching police and judicial reforms in order to give confidence to citizens that they are not risking their very lives by taking complaints of extortion rackets to the Lokpal. Shifting power from existing cops to a new institution of super cops will not do. We need to change the nature of power in India.

Friday Film Feature: “The American Ruling Class” (2005)

I saw this movie, The American Ruling Class, directed by John Kirby, a few weeks ago and loved it. It’s utterly contrived, to be sure, but it works. And Lewis Lapham, long time editor of Harper’s Magazine, is perfect for the on-camera narrator role. He’s great, actually. The film follows two freshly minted Yale graduates, Jack Bellamy and Mike Vanzetti, as they move to New York City and experience “the corridors of power.” Lapham is their wizened guide for the two young men throughout the film as they hobnob with the rich and famous and very powerful. It’s a sobering and candid look at what seemingly (nay, really) makes the wheels of this country turn. It’s a semi-musical, too, with a terrific bit by Pete Seeger at the end. And there are superb cameos by folks like Barbara Ehrenreich, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Walter Cronkite, Bill Bradley, Robert Altman, Howard Zinn, and many, many others. Here’s the trailer:

The film is available to stream on Netflix, if you got it, as well as on Hulu for the masses (who have access to the Internet). Check it out. Report back.

A.B. Breivik and Religious Terrorism

Reasons for the recent attack and murder of dozens of people in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik are slowly but surely coming to light. If you’re really assiduous and interested, and indeed wise enough to bypass commentary from the media’s talking heads about what happened, you’ll go straight to the source, Breivik’s 1500+ page manifesto, 2083: A European Declaration of Independence (read it here). No doubt some enterprising sociology or religious studies grad student somewhere has already digested most of it and is preparing a dissertation prospectus based on it.

The academic don of all things religious and terrorist, Mark Juergensmeyer, has already scripted a piece on the striking parallels between Norway’s Breivik and the U.S.’s McVeigh over at Religion Dispatches. Check it out and report back, dear reader(s).

What I’d like to point out in this blogamarole is some news I recently came across about Breivik that really drew me in. Namely, the following two articles present some very interesting material for anyone interested in the long and winding historical relationship between religion and politics across the Indo-European world, Indo-Aryan invasion theories and, more generally, religious terrorism:

“Norway massacre: Breivik manifesto attempts to woo India’s Hindu nationalists,” Christian Science Monitor (25 july 2011) 

“Varanasi, Hindutva link in Norway mass murderer’s manifesto,” Star News Bureau (26 July 2011)

 

The India connection revealed in these articles comes as no surprise. Breivik clearly had been closely following the history of Hindutva (Hindu Nationalist) rhetoric and violence against Muslims in India, and he has no doubt bought wholesale the long ago debunked Indo-Aryan socioracial theories championed by (mainly, but not exclusively) northern Europeans in the 18-20th centuries that could lead any unwitting blond-haired, blue-eyed übermensch from Scandinavia to the Himalayas. Having taught some of this history to college students over the last few years, it’s always a challenge to get young folks new to South Asian Studies to understand how the linguistic and religious histories of places like Iceland and India can be related. Breivik presents us with a case in point, a tragic one, to be sure, and one unlike I’ve seen in recent history. I do not want to give this guy a virtual podium from which to spout his hate speech and fascist rhetoric, and I’m highly dismayed by the massive growth of religious extremism in northern Europe over the past two-three decades, some of which has become institutionalized in the political machines of that land’s “progressive” countries.  And yet, I also recognize that from a strictly academic perspective this event is so historically significant. It will be be brought up in classrooms and in publications on religion and politics and cultural studies for a long, long time.