December 22, 2006

The Crucial Idea of Difference

The perception of difference is the groundroot of criticism (Herbert Blau).

. . . That seductive blurring of the real and its projections runs throughout George Packer’s New Yorker article on anthropologists and the developing U.S. mission for a global counterinsurgency. Clearly the goal of this particular strategy is to project our coming victory to those who can be persuaded or co-opted. We must use our knowledge of their culture—which might be reduced to their systems of imagining—to flood the enemy’s field with information that serves our purpose alone. More than crude propaganda, armed with the right knowledge of culture a military-diplomatic offensive, ever agile and directing responses, may dissuade collaboration and erode the insular networks of family, neighborhood, and community within which insurgents dwell.

After all, those networks have divisions and those divisions can be “exploited.” The understanding of culture offers a more nuanced target for carefully placed information campaigns, which in turn confuse the seeming realities with a new web of fantasy and wish.

One of the anthropologists featured in the piece has the name of a Dickens' character: Montgomery McFate. She has studied the Northern Ireland troubles, and now works within the Defense Department. She is described as drawn to “human conflict and also its realities,” as if the reality of cultural manifestations were somehow avoidable, even when being thought. It is no surprise then that her Army-sponsored apologetic article on “anthropology and counterinsurgency” should confuse the very dimensions within which she is advocating one take action. In McFate's story, in the sixties anthropology abandoned its post and subjected itself to a castrating reflexivity. For her, the knife wielded can easily be named neo-Marxism and the postmodern. These are, she suggests, unreal thought experiments that have cost anthropology its privileged role in the protection of and projection of power, a role to which it might now, rightfully return.

Her history of the discipline draws a tidy lineage of anthropology’s place within the realities of conflict while all the time advocating the operational erasure of those realities. If the esteemed Gregory Bateson could help defeat the Japanese through the dissemination of “black propaganda” or the development of “psychological pressures” what surely counts is that he was willing to take a role in the drama, creating it for the use of national interests.

Theater work found itself, in the sixties, testing its own claims of dramatic participation in realities as it faced with the shift of illusion from the stage to the stage-craft of politics and world affairs. That sense of participation remains a vital issue today, ever more as the distinction between what is real and what is illusion becomes increasingly difficult to parse, even as the anthropologists in the DoD announce their intentions. What is clear, however, is that the need to rigorously guard the distinction remains, and that is a role which scholars in the humanities might rightly inherit as others “fall prey to imitative form.”

Herbert Blau, who penned that last phrase, did so in a book called Blooded Thought: Occasions of Theatre, which appeared in the early eighties, the Cold War still enveloping and Vietnam remaining a haunting presence. He wrote then of a “radical activism” too willing to make life theater and theater life, or the real the effect of illusion, all without critical intervention. When he writes of those “excited by the duplicities, caught in the mirroring game” he was referring to artists and theorists trading tough criticism for celebratory exuberance. We can read these words as applying to the dreamers of counterinsurgency as well.

As for those who work not with discrete cultural systems but study the play of culture, even where the effects are deadly and absolutely real, perhaps what is at stake for us is found in this reminder for vigilance:

“That [duplicitous confusion of life and illusion] is not . . . the deepest game of theatre, whose ontological nature is duplicitous—which is why the most powerful tradition of theatre is to resist its own powers, distrusting its own appearances and critically testing its capacities for self-deception, sometimes by reducing the theatre in theatre and sometimes by increasing it, keeping everything in us alive to the idea of difference, lest we be too easily absorbed into the stream of fantasy.”