The Story of High School

Imperial Stormtrooper with two high school girls

Photo by Danny Choo / CC BY-SA 2.0

I just started watching an anime series titled Beyond the Boundary. Yes, another one. This particular series is about a high school boy teaming up with his classmate to hunt down monsters. The animation is good, though the story’s a bit clichéd on the relationship front. In the end, I like it well enough as something to decompress with after a long day.

What strikes me, though, is the realization that there are a hell of a lot of anime series set in high school. Thinking about it some more, though, I have to admit that there are actually a lot of stories – anime and otherwise – set in high school.

The Japanese high school story is distinct from the American high school story, but both versions largely elide what takes up the majority of an actual high school student’s life: academics. We are shown scenes from before class, after class, whispered conversations during class, and interruptions during homework and study after school, but simply going from what is depicted we could not appreciate that these scenes are tiny particles of a student’s personal life snatched from the all-devouring temporal maw of the modern educational system. The state desires citizens and it will keep children in a totalizing and regulated environment until something more compliant comes out. Or until something not quite fitting into the system jumps out, but that’s mostly okay too, since modern society also needs poor people to exploit.

But we move away from the central topic. Like Don Quixote’s romantic tales of chivalry, which never mention knights-errant packing clean shirts or budgeting their travelling expenses, the high school story takes it for granted that the audience understands that the dull banalities of everyday life are being handled by the characters offscreen while the interesting stuff happens front and centre.

Inherently, then, the high school story is a fantasy story, for what is modern life but a collection of dull banalities, and what is fiction but an escape from those banalities? Here is what matters, says the high school story. Here, romance blossoms and ends, friends come and tearfully go, rivals clash and compete, adventure strikes, life is lived. Here is something better than reality – here is truth.

But this truth can only be found in fiction. Who has time to investigate a mystery or sabotage a date or spy on a committee meeting or do any one of the thousand clichés found in fiction? Who has time when ever more minutes of ever more days are increasingly scheduled and regulated and penciled in? And when one has free time, one must be preparing for the period when one does not. Get enough sleep, study, wash your school and work clothes, prepare your lunch for the next day, shop for groceries to make lunch with, and so on everyday over and over.

This explains the prevalence of the high school story. High school is essentially the last period in a middle class person’s life where they’re old enough to have grown-up wishes but young enough to have free time. Not as much as in previous generations, but certainly more then they would as young adults. And unlike undergrads, should things get too bad for a high school student then they still have the psychological safety blanket of running to mom and dad for help.

We fantasize about what we do not have, and what we fantasize about is doing anything else besides what we’re supposed to. Our secret yearnings are for some rose-coloured and nonexistent past when there were enough rules to protect us but not enough to constrict us.

Most of us don’t want to do what we’re currently doing. Why else does procrastination take place, and why else should so many Youtube videos be watched in the middle of the work day? People who lived outside of the strictures and constraints of the state did not all live happy and fulfilling lives, but they certainly spent a lot less time doing things they loathed. “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” is a guiding principle for them, not an insult. If I’m hungry I eat, if I’m sleepy I go to bed, and if I’m unhappy doing something I find something else to do.

From the problem, we come to the solution. But what solution? What could a better world look like? I think it would involve less regulation, less constriction, less hierarchy. In other worlds, less of the state and more anarchism. But whatever this better world looks like, I think we can all agree that it won’t look like the one we have right now.

A closing thought to ponder on – if alien archaeologists were to find the remains of extinct humanity millions of years hence, they might erect this epitaph: “Here lies the human race. They spent most of their time grinning and bearing it.”

Alternate prehistory

I just finished reading Stone Spring by Stephen Baxter. It’s an alternate prehistory novel set in 7300 BC in the former land bridge that connected Britain to the continent, before the water from the melting glaciers raised sea levels and turned perfidious Albion into an island nation. Against this backdrop of climactic change occurs the story of the Etxelur people and how they come to build great dikes to keep out the sea and thereby changed the face of the earth itself. The book is first and foremost a novel, so the story focuses mainly on the relationships and petty struggles between the various individuals and factions and not on the admittedly dry and boring geological details.

After a small tsunami wipes out half of her tribe, Ana organizes her people and their neighbours into a labour force that works on the dikes during the abundance of the summer. Her obsession with preventing the sea from claiming more lives and land eventually leads her to buy stone and slaves from another tribe.

Essentially, this part of Stone Spring depicts the hydraulic theory of state formation in action, which proposes that states formed because people needed to organize themselves in order to build and maintain complex irrigation systems, otherwise they’d have starved to death.

I didn’t like this part of the book because it felt unrealistic from an anthropological point of view.

Continue reading “Alternate prehistory”

Guardian of the Sacred Spirit

Discovering an exceptional but lesser-known work of fiction for oneself is one of life’s smaller pleasures, one made no less enjoyable for being such an ordinary experience. The story of Seirei no Moribito (Guardian of the Sacred Spirit) itself feels rather small and ordinary; instead of covering an epic struggle between good and evil, at its heart it’s about the depths of maternal love and how far a person can go to protect a loved one. The melancholy nature of the song in the video captures well the feeling of the show, much better than the opening song, in fact, which I found rather insipid in an inoffensive pop song way.

Seirei no Moribito is based on the first book of a Japanese fantasy series and it covers the story of Balsa, a female bodyguard, who is tasked with protecting a prince from his father’s own assassins. There are many things to like about the series, not least of which are the lush backgrounds as can be seen in the video. Generally speaking, it’s a lot more realistic than other anime that deals with swords and the supernatural. You won’t find arcs of blood stylishly spraying into the air or fighters shouting out the names of their attacks; rather, all of the fighting is firmly rooted in real-world martial arts.

Unusually for the genre, the anime does not deal with the samurai-and-ninjas feudal era which first springs to mind when one mentions “Japan” and “swords”. Instead, the series is set in a fantasy world based on Heian-era Japan, which is to say, Japan before the samurai. Japan was governed more like Imperial China, with the Japanese emperors wielding direct political power as the sons of Heaven. This is the opposite situation of the later feudal era, where the emperor was largely a figurehead.

It’s interesting to note that the hydraulic theory of state formation posits that states formed in early China because a centralized power was needed to organize the necessary resources that allowed complex irrigation systems to nourish rice paddies. Ancient Japan, of course, consciously modeled itself on China, and the fact that both countries relied on rice as the central staple food in their diets certainly helped keep their systems of government in sync for a while. Certainly a bunch of squabbling feudal lords couldn’t have organized things half so well.

Of course, one must then ask why feudalism arose in Japan if central organization was so necessary to keep a country of rice eaters alive. There are of course the political and historically-contingent reasons for why the strong Japanese state broke down (short story: a combination of screw-ups and bad luck for several Japanese emperors). Improvements in military technology and the resulting change in recruitment practices also gave greater power to regional leaders, and I suspect developments in agriculture also helped. A separate military class rose to challenge the power of the imperial government, a civil war happened, and slowly but surely the samurai were the new rulers of Japan.

Admittedly, all this is going rather far afield from the original topic of the anime series. What can I say, I have a certain fascination for states and state formation. Anyway, to return to Seirei no Moribito: I liked it. If you like serious anime, please try it out. Not that I hate the funny (Ranma 1/2 remains one of my favourite shows, period), but Moribito definitely deserves a larger audience, which I hope this blog post might in some small way help to provide.

Capitalism: “It might start sucking less”

From The International Herald Tribune:

On the cusp of economic history

Is economic history about to change course? Among the chieftains of politics and industry gathering in Davos for the World Economic Forum on Wednesday, a consensus appears to be building that the capitalist system is in for one of those rare and tempestuous mutations that give rise to a new set of economic policies . . .

“The pendulum between market and state is swinging back,” Pascal Lamy, director general of the World Trade Organization, said by telephone before traveling to Davos. “The year 2008 is a crucial year that could end up setting the tone for some time to come. What we need is an ideological mutation without falling into the trap of protectionism.”

One such mutation in mainstream economic policy took place after the Depression of 1929, which led to a protectionist interlude and then gave rise to Keynesian demand-side policies and eventually the welfare state. Another took place following the oil price shocks in the 1970s, which refocused policy makers’ attention to supply-side measures and strengthened those pushing for privatization and free markets as the best way to stimulate growth.

When students of economics open their history books in 2030, they might read about 2008 as the year when the groundwork was laid for a re-regulation of certain markets, a more redistributive tax system and new forms of international policy coordination, economists say.

I don’t know, isn’t this just more of the classic cycles we’re supposed to expect from capitalism?  But having said that, it would be unfair to claim that nothing has changed and that we’re stuck in a perpetual circle of death and reincarnation.  Perhaps the roller coaster is a more apt metaphor – things go up and down, but they never go backwards.  After all, the environment is in a more precarious position today and the emerging economies of China and India are far stronger than they have been in the recent past.

So, while no one can expect the abolition or even the gradual phasing-out of the capitalist nation-state system, perhaps we will see some encouraging moves towards allowing more people around the world the chance not to get gang-raped out of nowhere by economic policies they never agreed to.  And perhaps some of these people might be more open-minded to an alternative to the current political-economic system?  Hope springs eternal.

By the way, that picture of Davos just makes me even happier that I’m in Costa Rica right now.  Man, it looks cold up there (although it’s snowing so it must be relatively warm, like only -5 Celsius).

The border and the bourgeois

I’m in the middle of reading a roundtable discussion between a bunch of anthropologists of Europe talking about the New Right in European politics.  It’s from 2003, so some of their stuff is out of date, but it’s still mostly spot on.  In the middle of their discussion, the panelists start talking about the hybridity and border-crossing stuff that’s been popular recently.  They discuss two discourses on the issues.  The first speaks of border-crossing in terms of leakiness, where miscegenation–whether cultural, biological, or economic–is threatening, while the second celebrates the hybridity and cultural enrichment found from mixing different cultures.

As Jonathan Friedman asserts, though, the discourse of fear is produced by people at the bottom and middle of a society, while the discourse of celebration comes mostly from the top:


I have it very clearly. Look, I’ve never found a working-class hybrid who celebrated his mixture. I’ve never found even an example of it in ethnographies. It’s always by interpretation. There is one very, very strong kind of discourse of hybrid that’s being produced at the top. And I have hundreds of examples of it. What I’m interested in is saying, ‘Okay, these things are located, they’re positioned. They’re interested discourses in the sense that there are interests behind them’. I’m not sure exactly what interests they are, but I think they’re pretty clear. And these have nothing to do with Left and Right. The people at the top are producing hybridity: I don’t want to classify them as Left or Right. But there is a long history of colonial hybrid discourse being reproduced at the top. I don’t want to be stuck in how I represent that. I don’t want to have to represent that saying that ‘this is good, and the other is bad’.


But I’d like to challenge that, Jonathan. You’re probably right, that the people who celebrate hybridity are, as it were, middle class, I mean, members of the chattering classes, basically. The Salman Rushdies and so on. But those are the people who always open their mouths about anything, so that’s neither here nor there. Christopher Lasch belongs to the same class himself, now doesn’t he? But if you look at the people who are uncomfortable, and who present the kind of leakage that Sarah mentioned, and who are anomalies, and who don’t fit in and so on, a lot of them would belong to the lower ranks of society. I mean, all the illegal immigrants who make New York go ’round, who New York is completely dependent on in order to survive as a city. And the Pakistanis in Norway who spend three months a year in Pakistan, and who, you know, bring women back and who have this traffic in marriage and so on.


Yes, but what does this have to do with hybridities? You compare Gloria Anzaldúa, of border crossing ideology. She’s an author, and then there are hundreds of people who write about her, it’s an industry. It’s an industry of border crossing and of hybridity. But then in Lund we have people who have worked on illegal immigrants in California. Those immigrants are scared shitless of the border. There’s no celebration of hybridity, they haven’t got time for that. They’re not into those kinds of problems at all. They’re into very different kinds of issues. They’re trying to survive. Hybridity is a leisure issue.


Well, take that Appadurai.  I already had bunches of stuff critiquing cosmopolitanism, but this roundtable discussion is certainly easier to read.  After this part the panelists went back to discussing the New Right in Europe.  Anyway, it’s certainly food for thought.


”Anthropologists are talking’ about the new right in Europe’,
Ethnos, 68:4, 554 – 572


While I was egosurfing (i.e. checking out how popular Sarapen has become — admit it, you’ve Googled yourself before) I found out that this blog is apparently number 18 in Google’s results for the term “anarchist anthropology.” That’s because of these two posts about David Graeber’s pamphlet on the subject. I poked around and saw this post about the same thing but written last year. It’s rather critical of the piece, but I think it raises some interesting objections. To wit:

For I fear that here Graeber overly idealizes academia, and the discipline of anthropology in particular. Despite all his rote Foucault-bashing, and sneering at mainstream academics as “people who like to think of themselves as political radicals even though all they do is write essays likely to be read by a few dozen other people in an institutional environment” (71), he in fact buys into the authority of normative academic “knowledge” much more than I think is necessary or justified […] It’s not that Graeber doesn’t know that “the discipline we know today was made possible by horrific schemes of conquest, colonization, and mass murder” (96); but he seems to think that the “vast archive of human experience” possessed by anthropologists is uninflected by these origins, and only needs to be shared more publically in order to be efficacious.

I’m not sure if I agree, but anyway, check it out if you’re interested. Maybe I should make an “anarchism” tag, I keep bringing it up, or perhaps a tag devoted entirely to David Graeber.

Continuing on with this updating thing, I’ve found some more information about hikikomori, which relates to my post about the manga Welcome to the NHK. It’s an interview written in a journalistic style, so the article is really easy to read. It provides an added layer of depth to the hikikomori thing. I also didn’t know Italy had abolished mental hospitals, but apparently it has. I recommend Japan Focus anyway for its excellent articles on stuff relating to the Asia-Pacific region. A refereed and free electronic journal, good for whiling away the time on a Sunday afternoon.

While we’re on the subject of Japan Focus, have a gander at this article, “Invisible Immigrants: Undocumented Migration and Border Controls in Early Postwar Japan.” It certainly challenges the notion that immigration has not been a major factor in Japanese society until relatively recently and it nicely illustrates how states have the power to turn people invisible. Also interesting (and rather unsurprising) that immigration control was at first justified as a health initiative to protect the country from foreign diseases, though in actuality enacted to protect Japan from foreigners, period.

And that’s that for today. My search for a new bloghost continues, I’ll probably switch later this week.

Multi-culti: Good, bad, or ugly?

In an effort to be more environmentally friendly, I am now recycling some of my previous writings from other online forums. In this case, I have here some constructive criticisms I offered to Thomas Hylland Eriksen about his working paper on the relationship between identity and cyberspace. I rather like what I wrote, so it seemed a shame just to keep it on the Media Anthropology Network’s servers. Plus I get to back up my stuff in case of fire or some sort of apocalypse. But, onwards:

My only substantive issue with the paper is the implied position that, were it not mostly for the transnationalizing efforts of migrants aided by the Internet’s technologies, the natural trajectory of the immigrant is towards assimilation. This does not address the active and institutionalized efforts at exclusion enacted by the nation-state and by many of its native-born population towards immigrants and their descendants. Often, this exclusion is based upon an ideology of race, upon the idea that immigrants and those born of immigrants are always already Other than the authentic indigenous population by virtue of being visibly different. I recall Lisa Lowe’s point that she is always an Asian American and never just American (Lowe 2003), or as James Clifford observed, with diasporas many times being the product of exclusion, the rise of a diasporic consciousness can be seen as making the best of a bad situation (Clifford 1997:257). In other words, diasporas are one of the consequences of the political ideology of race.

This ties into a broader point I want to make about nation-states and national identity. In many ways, nationalist ideology and racialized ideology are tied together, or at least are allied ideologies. Nation-states base their legitimacy in part on being the political manifestation of the nation, or being the nation writ large. The logic of nationalism demands that nation-states have homogenous populations, else the legitimacy of the state is called into question — if a nation-state rules because it is the representative of a people, what happens when other peoples exist within its territory? The empirical answer is that the nation-state suppresses these other nations, through direct and indirect violence (think of Native Americans in the former and African Americans and their economic and geographical segregation in the latter, but especially immigrant populations as well). If a nation-state’s people are essentially the same, then those not of the nation-state and its people are essentially different, essentially Other. This talk of essential difference, of course, is linked to the pseudo-scientific discourse of race, which supplies the essentialized categories necessary for many of nationalism’s constitutive fictions (in this way, I think Nazism is really nationalism taken to its logical extreme, but that is a digression).

Now then, what is really interesting is when one considers what nation-states are like today, in light of the new era of mass migration. Nation-states claim to represent the nation, but what happens to that notion when part of the nation exists outside the territory of the nation-state? As Thomas’ paper mentions, a nation-state can try to incorporate its diasporic members into its national and political imaginary, as in the case of Chile’s 14th region, and I will add the example of Haiti’s Tenth Department too. But wouldn’t the host country of those diasporic people object to the meddling of external actors in the host country’s territory? Shouldn’t the host country object, particularly because the new (or rediscovered) ideology of multiculturalism is already attempting to incorporate the otherness of migrants within the framework of the nation-state?

Here I will mention the results of the Canadian Ethnic Diversity Survey, which found that Filipinos in Canada scored highly both in their sense of belonging to their ethnic group and to Canada. They are loyal both to the Philippines and to Canada, in other words. I think this speaks to Sasskia Sassen’s observation that globalization, instead of weakening the nation-state, merely requires its rearticulation. David Graeber’s article on globalization being the re-emergence of older patterns of transnationalism is also interesting in this regard, particularly his point that today’s situation of an international elite in Europe using an international language mostly incomprehensible to the elite’s countrymen and living in cities with working class neigbourhoods composed of people drawn from around the Mediterranean echoes the situation in medieval Europe. My essential point is that what we might be observing is a new or reinvigorated transnational order, where members of a nation-state do not need to be exclusively loyal to that nation-state to be incorporated within it. So is race being decoupled from nation today? I think that race is actually still being deployed in the service of the nation-state, especially within the discourse of multiculturalism. It is, of course, an attempt to incorporate heterogeneity within a nation-state, or rather, an attempt at homogenizing heterogeneity. “Regardless of race or colour or creed, we’re all Canadian here,” is the message being promoted here in Canada. But multicultural discourse also obfuscates the differences between immigrants and already existing oppressed minorities (African Canadians and Natives in Canada’s case). It hides the historical oppression of minorities under the sameness of multiculturalism: Koreans are the same as Haitians, Ojibwa are the same as Poles, and the French are the same as Nigerians. So race still has political consequences even in the brave new multicultural world.


Lowe, Lisa (2003). “Heterogeneity, hybridity, multiplicity: Marking Asian-American differences”. In Braziel, Jana Evans; & Mannur, Anita (eds.), Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader (pp. 132-159). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Clifford, James (1997). “Diasporas”. In Clifford, James, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (pp. 244-277). Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Canadian Ethnic Diversity Survey
Statistics Canada
Now then, I’ll have to apologize but this only contains half of the information I referred to and does not have the data on Filipino’s sense of belongingness to Canada. I’m still in the process of tracking down the survey data. Actually I know where to look now thanks to my school’s librarians, but I still haven’t gotten around to getting the stuff.

Graeber, David (2002). “The anthropology of globalization (with notes on neomedievalism, and the end of the Chinese model of the nation-state).” American Anthropologist, 104(4):1222-1227.

Sassen, Sasskia (1998). Globalization and its discontents: essays on the new mobility of people and money. New York: The New Press.

Marx went away but Karl stayed behind*

Just the other day I was in the lounge of my school’s student union building minding my own business when I suddenly found myself surrounded by Marxists. It turned out that the Marxism class had been overly popular and the professor had needed to accomodate the handful of students who were unable to attend the regular class. So they were there in the student union lounge holding their own little Marxism class. I figured out what was going on and asked to sit in. The prof readily agreed after first jokingly asking if I was a Mountie spy (as in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who are essentially the national, provincial, and local police force for much of Canada, and who rarely mount anything with four legs nowadays).

It was because of this that I learned that at one point, a third of the Communist Party in the United States was composed of FBI agents. In fact, the reds in the US were to a certain extent subsidized by the FBI, since FBI agents could pay their membership dues, as opposed to many of the party’s poorer members. Of course, as the prof pointed out, it’s not easy to fake a genuine commitment to Marxism, and how well run can a Communist Party be if it can be so easily infiltrated by those hostile to it?

Now, this prof is an old school Marxist. He is all about the original Marx. I mentioned that I’d actually read more Neo-Marxism than classical Marxism (which is rather common in anthropology) and he started going on about what he called academic Marxism and how it had in practice given up revolution. Fair enough, but as he went on I was reminded why Neo-Marxists started writing in the first place. The love affair with development and progress (making it kin to capitalism), the ordering of societies along a continuum from primitive to modern, the idea of the vanguard elite bestowing Marxist enlightenment upon the ignorant masses, and the ideological commitment to violence — these were all things that stuck in my craw. I was only a guest who hadn’t read the required readings and it would have been inappropriate for me to bring in more-sophisticated criticisms when the undergrads the class was designed for were still learning the basics, so I mostly kept my trap shut (though I was actually the second-most talkative person then even despite my self-censorship).

The prof mentioned anarchism as a competing ideology contemporaneous with early Marxism. He described it as a utopian project since it mostly rejected violent revolution. Rather, anarchists set up areas where they live as if the state did not exist and by doing so hope to inspire people to give up the state system by their example. Put that way, anarchism does sound rather naive, though it’s changed quite a bit since the 19th century.

I found the professor’s remarks interesting because I’d only recently read David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. It’s a short little booklet outlining some ideas of what an anarchist world might look like given anthropological data on non-state anarchist societies. It’s not a scholarly work but a call to action and some proposals for anarchism. It really is just fragments of an anarchist anthropology and not a unified theoretical construct.

In Fragments, Graeber discusses hunter-gatherer groups such as the !Kung, who have — or rather, had — elaborate strictures and spiritual taboos designed to prevent the accumulation of surplus and the formation of hierarchy. He also brings in cases like Madagascar, where the government is so weak that in many places there exists an anarchist social order on the ground, while officially the areas are still under the control of the state. Graeber also discusses anarchism within industrialised state societies, especially in modern activism and Zapatismo.

Now, the more I study nations and the state, the more I get convinced that the state system is too inherently unjust to keep should we truly want to create a better world. I keep going closer and closer towards anarchism. So it was fortunate that a couple of days after my encounter with Marxism, I attended a talk given by my department’s new anthro prof about the Zapatistas and Zapatismo. One thing that I found particularly interesting was the elucidation of the relationship between Marxism, anarchism, and Zapatismo. Mexican leftists are of course quite steeped in Marxist thought, so when those cadres retreated to the jungles of Chiapas to foment rebellion, they tried to use Ye Olde Handbooke of Marxist Mobilization. Which didn’t really get them anywhere with the local people. The Chiapenos told them, “We understand your words but we don’t understand what you’re saying.” They could not see what kind of relevance to their everyday lives Marxist rhetoric could have. The leftist cadres had to change their strategy. What they came up with was Zapatismo.

Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, the most visible of the Zapatista leaders, has referred to Zapatismo as an intuition. It is true that as a political philosophy it has no coherent theoretical whole. Rather, it seems to me that it is more like a set of general principles and methods. Zapatismo’s emphasis on practice over theory resembles some strains of anarchism, and its position that it will “Lead by obeying” certainly sounds anarchist (anarchy = “without leaders”). This is not surprising, since the Mexican leftists who helped found Zapatismo were also familiar with anarchism. However, the Zapatistas avowedly do not call themselves anarchists, but instead prefer to be simply called Zapatistas.

Zapatismo has of course spread beyond Mexico, becoming a symbol for the social justice movement in general (also called the anti-globalization movement by advocates of neoliberal globalization). It is not an ideological philosopher’s stone capable of healing all wounds and righting all injustices — in the talk on Zapatismo, for instance, my department’s new hire mentioned how women living in Zapatista territory appreciated the change in their lives: “Our husbands don’t drink as much and beat us less” — but I think it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Anyway, that was what I did last week.

*This is the title of an ethnography by Caroline Humphreys about her work in post-Soviet Russia. It’s a joke made by one of her informants, who was referring to the sign of the farm she did her work in — the sign originally said “Collective Farm of Karl Marx”, but the famous last name had weathered away. I’ve only read the preface of the book, which is reprinted in The Anthropology of Politics: a reader in ethnography, theory and critique, Joan Vincent (ed.), Oxford: Berg, 2002, pp. 387-98.

Invasion America, or Texas Hearts Part 2

Max Weber’s definition of the state is of “a relation of men dominating men [sic], a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e. considered to be legitimate) violence” (Rassmussen). Put more simply, a state is an organization with a monopoly on legitimate violence over a certain group of people. Note the use of the word “legitimate.” Both of the passages I discuss in yesterday’s post examine how it is that violence is made acceptable and legitimate in modern democracies. How can modern democracies break their promises of peace and still appear peaceful? Both Comay and Povinelli, then, seek an emic understanding of this democratic violence.

Comay says that “[w]ith the tennis-court oath, the ex nihilo transition of the tiers état from “nothing” to “everything” is announced and performatively accomplished: the oath both marks and makes the people’s transition from political nullity to the “complete nation” that it will retroactively determine itself always already to have been.” She’s referring to one of the major events marking the beginning of the French Revolution, when the Third Estate (the French commoners) vowed to establish a new constitution for France based on their authority as representatives of the majority of the French population. The French revolutionaries were treasonous rebels according to the laws that existed at the time of their revolution. However, according to the revolutionaries themselves, it was the French government that was illegitimate, since it did not represent the will of most of France. Therefore, the revolutionaries were the ones enacting legitimate violence, while it was the royalists that had no authority. Or as Sir John Harrington observed,

Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

Therefore, where the authority of the king made the violence of the royalists legitimate, the authority of the people — or rather, the authority conferred by claiming to represent the people — made the violence of the revolutionaries legitimate. Which is a pretty story, but wasn’t it actually the might of the royalists that conferred authority, and wasn’t it the greater might of the revolutionaries that made them legitimate in place of the royalists? Didn’t their political power grow out of the barrels of their guns?

Yes and no. Ideology isn’t just a justification for violence. It’s also a reason for it. The Third Estate rebelled because they wanted more power (to put it crassly), but they wanted more power because they thought they had the greater legitimacy.

In the passage from Povinelli, she examines how violence and liberal democracies can coexist, how violence is made acceptable in a liberal democracy. While Hegel, by way of Comay, says that democracies by their very nature demand violence, Povinelli describes the twists and turns in logic liberal democracies take to make their violence seem reasonable and rational.

It seems to me, though, that asking why democracies are violent isn’t the right question. Rather, I think it’s more interesting to ask why democracies shouldn’t be violent. All democracies are states and all states are violent, so why should democracies be an exception?

There are many theories of state formation that are empirically supported by archaeological and historical evidence. In truth, states probably formed for different reasons and for combinations of reasons. However, one of these reasons was for the organization of people for the purposes of violence — in other words, for war. In this theory, the ultimate cause of state warfare is the development of agriculture. Hunter-gatherer societies can’t accumulate material surpluses, since the resources they depend on cannot be stored for long periods. The domestication of plants, however, means that grain be stored, and more crucially, that it can be stolen. Therefore comes raiding parties to capture that grain, and therefore states are needed to both organize for and defend against the seizure of resources. Or so goes the simplified evolutionary schema taught in undergrad anthropology courses.

Just as with the birth of the French Republic, so the birth of states was also fraught with violence. State formation is not simply marked by violence; rather, it was for purposes of violence that states were formed. All states are violent and all democracies are states; therefore, all democracies are violent. Individual states may be extinguished by the violent actions of other states, or even by the violent reactions of their own citizens, but despite this, states still act out in violence. So how could one expect a democracy to act in any other way?

Asked the frog of the scorpion, “Why did you sting me in the back as I was carrying us both across the river? Now we will surely drown.” “I couldn’t help it,” replied the scorpion. “It was my nature.”

Deep in the heart of not-Texas

This post is going to be heavier than my normal writing. I can’t help it, I found something last night that tickled my fancy. I just had to write about this issue, especially since it will never appear in my thesis, even though I find it absolutely fascinating. Very well, then, onwards!

While reading s0metim3s’ blog (chock full of theory and Battlestar Galactica — two great tastes that taste great together), I came across her post about an article by Rebecca Comay [NB: link is now defunct] on Hegel’s analysis of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. This quote in particular is interesting:

For Hegel, unlike for Kant, the revolution is a block: the terror cannot be surgically excised as a local anomaly, deformation, or betrayal of its founding principles, the revolution does not splinter into essential and inessential, structural and incidental. Indeed any attempt to define the chronological boundaries of the terror — to confine it to a sixteen-month interval as a temporary deviation from the revolution — arguably only prolongs the persecutory logic that is contained (a paradox exemplified by the Thermidorian counterterrorist reaction and the virulent culture of denunciation it perpetuated: Thermidor is itself the prototype of every war on terrorism).

For Hegel, therefore, the terror proper begins not with the law of 22 Prairial, not with the law of suspects, not with the regicide in January 1793, not with the king’s arrest and trial, not with the September massacres of 1792, not with the riots at the Tuileries on August 10, 1792, not with the suspensive veto of the 1791 Constitution, and not with the storming of the Bastille. Hegel backdates the terror to the very onset of the revolution, if not before—June 17, 1789, the day the États Généraux spontaneously and virtually unanimously recreated itself as the Assemblée Nationale as sole agent and embodiment of the nation’s will.

With the tennis-court oath, the ex nihilo transition of the tiers état from “nothing” to “everything” is announced and performatively accomplished: the oath both marks and makes the people’s transition from political nullity to the “complete nation” that it will retroactively determine itself always already to have been. As structurally complete, the nation must eliminate what falls outside it as an excrescence whose existence is a contradiction: the founding act of revolutionary democracy is thus the purge (Comay 2004:386-387).

Just a quick explanation of the historical context. There you are, king of France, living high on the hog in the late 18th century, when suddenly a bunch of dirty pantsless frogs* start demanding republican representation or something. You, Louis XVI, are captured by the revolutionaries and forced to stop claiming your will is divine. You escape and almost make it to your loyal army but are recaptured and executed. Then, from your zombie afterlife, you watch as the revolutionaries start turning on each other, accusing each other of not being revolutionary enough. A campaign of Terror erupts where people are being guillotined left and right on suspicions of treason. Eventually this ends and the French Revolution keeps marching on. You, however, remain a zombie.

The French Revolution was supposed to bring an age of justice, but it soon turned into a bloodbath. Some historians say that this was just a temporary anomaly, or perhaps growing pains on the road to democracy. However, for Hegel, the violence of the Terror was an essential part of the French Revolution. The seeds for the Terror were planted in the beginning. “As structurally complete, the nation must eliminate what falls outside it as an excrescence whose existence is a contradiction: the founding act of revolutionary democracy is thus the purge.” The French Revolution was perhaps the event that heralded the coming of the age of nationalism in Europe. Having created itself, what was the first thing that the new French nation-state did? Violently eliminate people it saw as outsiders (i.e., those who didn’t believe in the ideals of revolutionary democracy).

This ties into my previous post about nationalism, and it’s certainly nice how things converge. Nationalism and nation-states are violent things, even or especially those nation-states that are democratic. Reading the above reminded me of a similar passage in a paper I’d read by Elizabeth Povinelli:

The temporalizing function of the horizon of successful self-correction seems an essential part of the means by which the practice of social violence is made to appear and to be experienced as the unfurling of the peaceful public use of reason. Characterizations of liberal governmentality as always already stretching to the future horizon of apologetic self-correction figure contemporary real-time contradictions, gaps, and incommensurabilities in liberal democratic discourses and institutions as in the process of closure and commensuration. Any analysis of real-time violence is deflected to the horizon of good intentions, and more immediately, as a welcomed part of the very process of liberal self-correction itself (Povinelli 2001:328).

I know, that’s some dense verbiage there. Luckily, I’ve already written a translation:

Liberal democracies present themselves as always peaceful, always good, and always right. How then is the use of violence reconciled in a liberal democracy, since using violence is never peaceful, and which many would say is never good and never right? Liberal democracies rationalize their use of violence as a necessary part of goodness and rightness: violence is always enacted in the name of peace and for the greater good of all. This of course comes up against the contradictory fact that violence is not always enacted for the greater good in liberal democracies, nor does it address the issue that what is good for the majority is not always good for the minority. Liberal democracies gloss over these contradictions in their logic by saying that yes, there are failures in the system, but everyday in every way liberal democracy is getting better and better, and by pointing out these inconsistencies you have made liberal democracy even stronger. Liberal democracy is a utopian ideology; like all utopias, the perfect liberal democracy exists somewhere else, in an unreachable future. This then deflects criticism that the ideals of liberal democracy and the practice of it do not mesh together, since eventually (but don’t ask for a timetable), liberal democracy will be peaceful in fact as well as in name. But until then, try to understand that we’re beating these protesters and arresting these coloureds and exploiting these illegal immigrants because we love peace so much. Thus is violence made rational and good in a liberal democracy.

Neither of the two papers are really about nationalism and nation-states, they’re more about violence and democracies. But I think they do a very good job of explaining how it is that a peace-loving democracy can be violent. Modern democracies are also nation-states, and nation-states are inherently violent entities. Well, to be fair, states are inherently violent in themselves. Weber, after all, defined a state as being an organization with a monopoly on legitimate violence. The difference between a state and a nation-state, though, is that while a state like the Roman Empire was content with having different people such as Greeks and Spaniards for its citizens, the nation-state of Italy can’t stand to have non-Italians such as Ethiopians and Kenyans in Italy walking around being non-Italian (though there is also a racial dimension to this discrimation). So I suppose I am disagreeing about the ultimate source of violence within modern democracies, at least those that don’t espouse multicultural ideology, which is still not a fully-established norm anyway.

You know what, this is interesting. I need to come back to this. I hate to be a tease, but I don’t have any more time to hang around the library today, so tune in tomorrow for Part 2.

And by the way, I’ve almost finished doing my interviews, so either this week or next I’ll start posting some of my preliminary findings on Filipino bloggers.

* Here I’m referring to the sans-culottes. I know, they weren’t actually pantsless frogs, I was being facetious. It was actually knee breeches that they didn’t have.


Comay, Rebecca (2004). “Dead Right: Hegel and the Terror.” South Atlantic Quarterly, 103(2,3):375-395.

Povinelli, Elizabeth (2001). “Radical Worlds: The Anthropology of Incommensurability and Inconceivability.” Annual Review of Anthropology 30:319-334.