Monday, September 27, 2010

Out here on my own

A blog that I "follow" (i.e., glimpse its content, then occasionally read) is savage minds, a group blog of anthropologists (primarily cultural, I think) that reads like a kind of online graduate seminar. So, sometimes I find it fun (and sometimes I find it tedious), but I find it reliably interesting.

The current post, called "Owning and caring," caught my eye. In it, the blogger considers what it means that when you own, you "care" more, which in housing translates into homes that are maintained and so on. What about public housing? What happens when the state - a focus of concern in cultural anthropology - no longer owns? Does it no longer care? The blogger uses the example of the UK:

As unusual as it is to see governments trying to rid themselves of power, there are questions to be asked about the consequences of governments also ridding themselves of ownership. Does it make the state appear heartless, literally with the heart removed, or metaphorically as lacking in feeling? In practice, in the housing estates, as elsewhere, there was a strong feeling that the state failed to care for residents. A failure to care led to the relinquishing of ownership, but they went hand in hand. You don’t bother to hold on to things you don’t care about. Perhaps owning did, indeed, give the state personhood. So where will it find its personhood without ownership?

Ownership means more than calculated "investment," which is a familiar formulation of owning and caring in the Us today. In anthropology, however, "ownership" entails entire systems of obligation between persons. So, it seems to me that owning / not owning and caring / not caring are at least part of what is being decried in the US also. For example, Americans perceive that big business does not care and that big government has failed to care. Or depending on where along the political spectrum your thoughts lead you, that it always will fail to care and / or should not be relied upon to care.

The punditry on No-Drama-Obama and Clinton as the feeler-in-chief always bothered me - personally, I want my presidents to think, not feel - but I am reconsidering what this means. If the president embodies the state, then what "we" (which I also question who or what this "we" really is...) want is a state that cares. Or at least shows that it does. In other words, it is not about the president, it is about a whole, complex system in which persons feel disempowered, disenfranchised, undervalued, underserved, un-cared for... Which might be a symptom not only that our state, but our society no longer "owns" us in the anthropological sense: There is no obligation. I echo the Savage Minds blogger's question with another: Can we be persons without obligation?

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