Being Inside and Outside Social Relations

in Journal of Legal Anthropology

It is a special responsibility to incur individual readings of one’s work from colleagues. I hope the following line of thought does them justice.

Joan of Arc’s Wording

Nay Rather, an essay by Anne Carson (a translator and poet as well as a classical scholar), begins with an account of the trial of Joan of Arc. Caught in battle against the English and their Burgundian allies on 23 May 1430, a year after she had assisted a French army in lifting the English siege of Orleans, Joan of Arc was put on trial for heresy. The trial lasted from January to May 1431, and Joan was burnt at the stake on 30 May, aged nineteen. In recounting this history, Carson explains that she is particularly interested in the way in which, as she puts it, Joan was ‘distant’ from her own words. Carson (2014: 8) elaborates. Joan of Arc’s guidance, military and moral, came from a source that she called ‘voices’. She began to hear them at the age of twelve, and they commanded her style of dress, her beliefs and the revolutionary politics of her action. At her trial, her English ecclesiastical prosecutors wanted to know her voices, for Joan to name and describe them in ways in which they might understand: in terms of recognised religious imagery and emotions, and in a conventional narrative that might then be sub jected to mechanisms of theological proof.

But Joan refused this and blocked her inquisitors’ line of enquiry as long as possible. She would not ‘translate’ her voices and her experience of them into a list or a narrative or a hierarchy; she refused theological formula and abstraction. In Carson’s (2014: 10) phrasing, Joan of Arc raged against her inquisitors’ conventionalism with a kind of genius, insisting on the specificity of the voices’ advent and its newness to her.

Finally, on 24 February 1431, Joan issued a kind of summary of the matter as she saw it. She said: ‘The light comes in the name of the voice’ (In nomine vocis venit claritas). The genius in this, Carson urges, is that it is a sentence that ‘stops itself’. The phrasing is both apparently conventional in its components, and intelligible, yet remains foreign, opaque, individual. Joan’s summary is both inside and outside a language of social exchange and religious tradition. She manages heroically to retain the integrity of her experience, under extreme pressures to conform, while simultaneously appearing to offer a concession to the demands of social procedure and cultural formalism.

Anne Carson’s project is not that of the historian (such as Ulinka Rublack’s), but as a translator, she concludes, it is important to respect untranslatability: to retain a certain metaphysical silence in which an individual’s words cannot be rendered into others’ as generally ownable tokens. However, socially ‘catastrophic’ may be a general refusal to make formal sense – an entry into chaos – Joan of Arc’s negation of the conventional formulae of her time appears a ‘self-conscious’ one, an insistence that her integrity was supervenient (Carson 2014: 20). Her wording could be enunciated but not otherwise possessed, defined or made use of. To do justice to Joan of Arc is to show how she overcame the usual relation between question and answer.

The sociocultural ‘catastrophe’ of accepting the untranslatability of individual expression may also be a vital way of being and seeing – whether for a translator, or a biographer, an ethnographer, an imaginary interlocutor, a ‘scholar [who would] exercise cosmopolitan politesse at a distance’ (Strathern, this issue). One obviates the screens of concepts and categories through which, normatively, life is often conducted so as to offer a sense of an individual identity.

The Joan of Arc Pageant

In 1456, an inquisitorial court authorised by Pope Callixtus III re examined the trial of Joan of Arc, debunked the charges against her, pronounced her innocent and declared her a martyr. In 1803, Napoleon declared Joan a national symbol of France. In 1909, she was beatified by the French Catholic Church and canonised in 1920. Today, Joan of Arc remains one of nine patron saints of France.

In The Independent on 23 February 2018, there was an article en titled, ‘Mixed-Race Teenager Chosen to Play Joan of Arc Faces Torrent of Racist Abuse’ (Polianskaya 2018). An annual pageant now takes place in Orleans in which a girl is chosen to play Joan of Arc and ride on horseback through the city. To be eligible to represent this ‘national heroine’, the girl must be a Catholic, enrolled in a local school, have lived in Orleans for ten years and be accustomed to devoting time to helping others. The decision by a committee of representatives from Orleans Council and local organisations, the Church and the Army, was that for 2018, Mathilde Edey Gamassou, age seventeen, would be cast in the role (beating some 250 other aspirants). This would be the first time a ‘mixed-race person’ had been chosen (Mathilde’s father being Franco-Beninese and her mother Polish).

The decision, however, prompted a wave of racist abuse on social media and right-wing websites – anger that the selection was rewriting the history of the ‘white race’ – to the extent that a French state prosecutor will investigate whether this amounts to incitement of racial hatred. The president of the Joan of Arc Association of Orleans, Benedicte Baranger, explained that the decision was made based on Mathilde being ‘who she is, an interesting person and a lively spirit’: ‘We chose Mathilde not because we wanted to felt obligated to appear open, that’s not my problem, she was chosen for her skills’. Mathilde’s father, meanwhile, Patrice Edey Gamassou, observed: ‘Jeanne d’Arc was treated in her day as a “foreigner” by her opponents, she wasn’t French. We are living the same story. We want to tell them, “May God forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”‘

Category Thinking and the Individual

I juxtapose the above episodes concerning Joan of Arc because of the tangle they disclose concerning what I would see as an absolute distinction between an ontological identity and a symbolical one. Also, the pernicious effects of category thinking that the episodes reveal, when systems of symbolic classification are deployed to collectivise and homogenise, to define and limit, and so to ‘phantasize groupness’ (Laing 1968: 81). Joan of Arc and Mathilde Edey Gamassou are made to appear as essentially ‘heretical’, ‘mixed-race’, ‘Catholic’, ‘French’, ‘martyr’, ‘saint’, ‘devoted’ and so on. ‘Can what an individual is – their being – be disconnected from the given world of categories and meanings in which an individual is involved?’ (Hirsch, this issue). Absolutely it can – as a matter both of fact and of ethics. Life is individual: there is an inherent identity to individual embodiment. ‘The individual is something quite new which creates new things, something absolute; all his acts are entirely his own’, Nietzsche writes, and he goes on: ‘Ultimately, the individual derives the value of his acts from himself; because he has to interpret in a quite individual way even the words he has inherited. His interpretation of a formula is finally personal: even if he does not create a formula, as an interpreter he is still creative’ (1968: 403). ‘The light comes in the name of the voice’ is a kind of personal signature of Joan of Arc’s.

Ethically, separating the ontological from the symbolical is vital for cosmopolitan politesse as for statutory human rights. The system of symbolic classification of a society has a tendency to become a ‘morality-silencing’ force, in Zygmunt Bauman’s (1989: 174) phrasing. Or, as more personally stated by Primo Levi (1996: x): ‘I cannot tolerate the fact that a man should be assessed not for what he is but because of the group to which he happens to be assigned’. (Levi also wrote (in line with Nietzsche’s insight): ‘It must be remembered that each of us, both objectively and subjectively, lived the Lager [Nazi concentration camp] in his own way’ (1996: 56).

Identity beyond the Ascriptive

Growing up in the Gorbals is Ralph Glasser’s account, based on auto biography, of Jewish migrants who escaped Russian pogroms in the late nineteenth century to seek the gilded land of the United States. En route – their journeys facilitated by the machinery of the British Empire and the power of Pax Britannica – some found themselves disembarked in Britain, and stayed. It would not be true to say that his consociates established a Jewish ‘community’ in the Gorbals, however, Glasser observes, because the strongest bond among the collection of exiles was a negative one: to ‘close the door firmly on the past’. From poverty and oppression, they sought an ‘ultimate escape’ and eschewed sentimentalising shtetl life and semi-rural Judaism in roseate hues. ‘For many exiles, and even more so for their children, the best solution for the Jewish Problem was to cease to be Jews’ (1986: 21).

Growing up in Cardiff, among a Jewish family whose antecedents had similarly escaped the Pale of Settlement in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1890s, I experienced a similar ambition. To be ‘British’ – as against being ‘Jewish’ (or ‘Welsh’ or ‘English’) – was to escape from a ghettoised identity of inferior ascription and narrow possibilities. It was a desire to assimilate – extending in my own case to undertaking anthropological fieldwork in Britain as part of a learning how to belong (Rapport 1993, 1994) – but it was not enunciated as replacing one ‘tribal’ identity with another. To be British was to be human, a cosmopolitan, and beyond ascription. ‘Being human is a feature, not a relation. Being human is not dependent in any way on what anyone thinks of you, or how anyone treats you’, as Avishai Margalit concludes (1996: 124).

Margalit is an Israeli, born in 1939 in Afula, during the British Mandate for Palestine. Professionally, he is a philosopher, and author of The Decent Society (among other works that endeavour similarly to find philosophical concepts from empirical cases). Decency, for Margalit, is a concept situated between loyalty and justice: affective yet universalizable. A ‘decent society’ is one that would, above all else, avoid its members being humiliated, and finds mechanisms to achieve tangible results. Accompanying his philosophical conceptualisation, Margalit has worked to extend ‘decency’ through concrete measures. As a student in the 1950s, he helped immigrant children to assimilate to Israel following the Holocaust and the mass expulsions of Jews from Arab countries that followed the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. In the 1970s, he participated in founding the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace and led Peace Now; and in the 1990s, he served on the board of the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.

Why do I recount all this? As much as has been the history of ‘Joan of Arc’, I know I am personally implicated in the collectivisation of identity (ethnicity, religiosity, nationality) as a language-game or discourse. I am under no illusions as regards the personal conflicts of conscience to which I am party – such as loyalty to Israel (Rapport 2012:199-207) – nor the seemingly intransigent social barriers to ‘agonistic group identities [being replaced by] an inclusive, disinterested humanism’ (Eriksen, this issue). Assimilating to ‘Britishness’ did not lead me to escape experiences of anti-Semitism in Britain, then or now. The legacy of the British Empire – whether in Mauritius, PNG or Israel – has, equally, not paved the way to cosmopolitan forms of social integration and solidarity, of recognition and justice, that transcend more traditional versions of ethnic, religious and national identities, and the seemingly structural inequalities that they incur. How to institute an acultural or supracultural dimension to social (and legal) life? ‘[Cosmopolitan] notions of justice and law seem ‘well nigh impossible at present’ (Hirsch, this issue); ‘There is no easy way out of these dilemmas’ (Eriksen, this issue).

Zionism and Cosmopolitanism

Instrumental in founding the Zionist Organization in 1897, aimed at establishing a legally assured home for Jews in Palestine and promoting Jewish immigration, Theodor Herzl had originally been an ardent Germanophile. An admirer of German culture as apogee of civilization, Herzl had once believed that through assimilation Jews might shake off the shameful characteristics of long centuries of exclusion and impoverishment. However, amid the unrest over national identities that was to lead to the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire – and experiencing first-hand the anti-Semitism of the Germanic lobby – Herzl realised that the Jews too were ‘a nation’ and should aspire to a nation-state of their own. In The State of the Jews ([1896] 2012) he argued (presciently) that assimilation to German culture and society would fail: anti-Semitism could not be defeated or cured – only avoided. Through establishing a Jewish state, anti-Semitism’s effects might be obviated and Jews could express their culture without hindrance. (Herzl Day is now an Israeli national holiday.)

Cosmopolitan politesse is imagined, alternatively, as a form of social integration and solidarity that depends on neither nationality nor ethnicity nor religiosity, nor any other symbolic construct of collective sameness as founding principle. ‘We are all human and should treat each other decently and with respect. Don’t take more specific classifications seriously’, I find myself often quoting from Ernest Gellner (1993: 3). This is an idealistic call – but perhaps no more so than Herzl’s nineteenth-century one for a Jewish nation-state (cf. Steiner 1997: 59–63).

As a founding principle, cosmopolitan politesse recognises our common humanity and individuality only. It insists on these, indeed, and would refuse any ‘culture defence’ for objectionable practices (Demian 2008). Accompanied by the legal framework of a civil society of human rights – but extending such rights ‘beyond the public arena of the state and its bureaucracy, and thus in “other” kinds of social space’ (Strathern, this issue) – cosmopolitan politesse eschews ‘specific classifications’ (Gellner 1993: 3): eschews claims substantively to know the Other and to define them by emplacement within a system of symbolic classification. It promulgates notions of personal preserve and advocates a certain social distance (and ignorance) – not out of indifference, but rather out of respect. Cosmopolitan politesse is far from a form of moral indifference or political quietude, but its inclusivity is based on respect for the essential ‘secrecy of subjectivity’ (Levinas 1985: 78; cf. Rapport forthcoming). The Other is simply Anyone.

‘A society is a structure which consists of beings who stand inside and outside it at the same time’, counselled Georg Simmel ([1916] 2005: 13–15), continuing, ‘the social environment does not surround all of the individual’ and ‘life is not entirely social’. A cosmopolitan anthropology sets out to describe this empirically, explain it theoretically and secure it morally.

References

  • BaumanZ. (1989) Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).

  • CarsonA. (2014) Nay Rather (London: Sylph).

  • DemianM. (2008) ‘Fictions of Intention in the “Cultural Defense”‘American Anthropologist110 no. 4: 432442.

  • GellnerE. (1993) ‘The Mightier Pen? Edward Said and the Double Standards of Inside-Out Colonialism’Times Literary Supplement19 February34.

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  • GlasserR. (1986) Growing up in the Gorbals (London: Pan).

  • HerzlT. [1896] (2012) The State of the Jews (North Chelmsford, MA: Courier).

  • LaingR. D. (1968) The Politics of Experience (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

  • LeviP. (1996) The Drowned and the Saved (London: Abacus).

  • LevinasE. (1985) Ethics and Infinity (trans. R. Cohen) (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press).

  • MargalitA. (1996) The Decent Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

  • NietzscheF. (1968) The Will to Power (ed. W. Kaufmann) (New York: Random House).

  • Polianskaya A. (2018) ‘Mixed-Race Teenager Chosen to Play Joan of Arc Faces Torrent of Racist AbuseIndependent23 February. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/joan-of-arc-mixed-race-role-racist-abuse-orleans-france-mathilde-edey-gamassou-a8225421.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RapportN. (1993) Diverse World-Views in an English Village (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

  • RapportN. (1994) The Prose and the Passion: Anthropology Literature and the Writing of E. M. Forster (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RapportN. (2012) Anyone: The Cosmopolitan Subject of AnthropologyOxford: Berghahn.

  • RapportN. (forthcoming) ‘Anthropology through Levinas (Further Reflec tions): On Humanity, Being, Culture, Violation, Sociality and Ethics’Current Anthropology.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • SimmelG. [1916] (2005) Rembrandt: An Essay in the Philosophy of Art (New York: Routledge).

  • SteinerG. (1997) Errata: An Examined Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).

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  • BaumanZ. (1989) Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).

  • CarsonA. (2014) Nay Rather (London: Sylph).

  • DemianM. (2008) ‘Fictions of Intention in the “Cultural Defense”‘American Anthropologist110 no. 4: 432442.

  • GellnerE. (1993) ‘The Mightier Pen? Edward Said and the Double Standards of Inside-Out Colonialism’Times Literary Supplement19 February34.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GlasserR. (1986) Growing up in the Gorbals (London: Pan).

  • HerzlT. [1896] (2012) The State of the Jews (North Chelmsford, MA: Courier).

  • LaingR. D. (1968) The Politics of Experience (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

  • LeviP. (1996) The Drowned and the Saved (London: Abacus).

  • LevinasE. (1985) Ethics and Infinity (trans. R. Cohen) (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press).

  • MargalitA. (1996) The Decent Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

  • NietzscheF. (1968) The Will to Power (ed. W. Kaufmann) (New York: Random House).

  • Polianskaya A. (2018) ‘Mixed-Race Teenager Chosen to Play Joan of Arc Faces Torrent of Racist AbuseIndependent23 February. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/joan-of-arc-mixed-race-role-racist-abuse-orleans-france-mathilde-edey-gamassou-a8225421.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RapportN. (1993) Diverse World-Views in an English Village (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

  • RapportN. (1994) The Prose and the Passion: Anthropology Literature and the Writing of E. M. Forster (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RapportN. (2012) Anyone: The Cosmopolitan Subject of AnthropologyOxford: Berghahn.

  • RapportN. (forthcoming) ‘Anthropology through Levinas (Further Reflec tions): On Humanity, Being, Culture, Violation, Sociality and Ethics’Current Anthropology.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • SimmelG. [1916] (2005) Rembrandt: An Essay in the Philosophy of Art (New York: Routledge).

  • SteinerG. (1997) Errata: An Examined Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).

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