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Marginalia on Marginalism in Contemporary Times PDF E-mail

Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a gang member in Neza, a rocker in the National University, a Jew in Nazi Germany, an ombudsman in the Defense Ministry, a communist in the post-Cold War era, an artist without gallery or portfolio.... A pacifist in Bosnia, a housewife alone on Saturday night in any neighborhood in any city in Mexico, a striker in the CTM, a reporter writing filler stories for the back pages, a single woman on the subway at 10 pm, a peasant without land, an unemployed worker... an unhappy student, a dissident amid free market economics, a writer without books or readers, and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains of southeast Mexico. So Marcos is a human being, any human being, in this world. Marcos is all the exploited, marginalized and oppressed minorities, resisting and saying, 'Enough'!

–El Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos

To refuse awards is another way of accepting them with more noise than is normal.
—Peter Ustinov

The marginality of intellectuals is a myth; even in the resolutely hermetic world of Washington, their voices are heard.
–James Atlas, 19 October 2003, in The New York Times

There is a lot to ignore today. Cultural noise—advertising, movies, news, e-mails, music—comes in a constant stream. Not all need, or should, be ignored—but it must be dealt with. But what connections in this cacophony have true social consequence? Take three events: at a college party, a young man wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt is talking to a girl wearing an East German army coat; a well-known Russian mathematician refuses, and subsequently hides in his mother’s apartment, from the highest honour in mathematics; a famous French philosopher who is also a public intellectual refuses the Nobel Prize in Literature and sends a letter to an important newspaper explaining why he did so. The last two seem, at first glance, to be parallel, and the first to be a different beast entirely. But look closer at their socially recognizable meaning and a common pattern emerges. In particular, in this essay we’d like to explore the theme of self-definition by individuals and groups through acts that relegate them to a social minority–a process we call ‘marginalism.’ As we go through and analyse various aspects of this question, we’d like you to keep these three examples in mind.

Who’s in, and who’s out – maybe more importantly, who’s on the border and what to do with them? These questions are fundamental to the dynamics of any human social system. Millions of such calculations are performed at dizzying speeds by every individual each day. Some are ephemeral and situational–as in an office or family dispute or at a party— whereas others are relatively stable and marshal the forces of thousands of people, such as structures that govern labour or political organizations. For that reason we document their properties and histories, and we assign moral values to various examples.

Pre-modern accounts of society ignored the marginal elements within it. Nomads, illiterate peasants, gangsters, transvestites, homosexuals, women—none benefited from documentation. Some couldn’t write or didn’t care to, others were, and perhaps still are, too secretive or dangerous for ethnographers and historians to venture near. They are difficult to document because either they do not signal their presence or their signals are lost or misunderstood. Perhaps out of scientific curiosity, perhaps as a result of a desire for fairness, social sciences in the modern era have paid a great deal of attention to marginal elements – those aspects of societies which had been ‘invisible.’ Today, ‘marginal’ and ‘marginality’ are popular and relatively often-encountered words not only in academic but also within journalistic discourses. But are all these referring to the same concept? What exactly is a marginal person? A marginal group? A marginal idea? How do individuals or groups take advantage of the margin, the edge, the border, to redefine themselves?

Marginal vs. Marginalized

The folk understanding of marginality associates being ‘at the edge’ with the pitiable condition of those pushed away from the core of society on the one hand, and with a certain elusive and desirable quality found in progressive free-thinkers on the other. In other words, marginal status can be created consciously, or it can be forced on one by others. Thus, the quality of the marginal condition depends on how one became marginal in the first place.

Marcos’s statement on his own identification with the world’s marginalized people, and, for that matter, virtually any Marxist world-view, is based on a view of marginalism as an essentially passive condition. It is imposed by elites on the masses in order to produce advantages for themselves. But the Zapatista leader also highlights some interesting cases which essentially consist of people who are simply disconnected—housewives, artists without galleries, journalists writing fillers for the back pages, and Communists in a capitalist world. People are often lonely in the midst of others, and this has nothing to do with being economically or socially exploited, at least not consciously. Nobody profits from the isolation and the oft-quoted alienation of lonely housewives or unsuccessful artists. And yet, we can see parallels between these kinds of marginals and communists after the Cold War- namely in a certain dissonance with the surrounding discourse.

Keeping this in mind, we’d like to draw attention to a case of weakness turned to strength. In 1964, Jean-Paul Sartre refused the Nobel Prize for literature, arguing that the Writer should not be affiliated with any institutions, and causing an international scandal. Few would dare to argue that the philosopher was a humble man—but humility has nothing to do with refusing recognition and fame, because rejecting such a prize results in absolute notoriety. Had Sartre refused a small local French prize, he would at best have appeared ungrateful—the bigger the opposition, the more important one becomes. In fact, because membership to such powerful status-defined social groups, such as the community of Nobel laureates, has such a high rate of acceptance, the act of deliberately and publicly refusing to become a member has enormous status-producing rewards for the dissenter, or for the group he represents (in the case of Sartre, ‘writers’). Thus, in fact, Sartre, but not the Writer in general, becomes less marginalized and, ironically, more central, by performing a marginal act. More specifically, in the moment when a central character redefines his position as marginal, he effectively shifts the center to the margin, and vice-versa.

Reinventing oneself as ‘marginal’ as a useful strategy for success is not restricted to individuals like Sartre, who claim to be representing a group, but is often employed by ctual groups, such as the ubiquitous and quite mainstream teenage punks or goths. Any individual has the opportunity to appeal to the notion of marginality in the desired field of action, without having to actually step outside the mainstream in other aspects of his or her life. For instance, one can at the same time claim to be a marginal as a humanistic intellectual in an unimaginative and overly businesslike society and yet remain a perfectly normal consumer of capitalist goods and a well-paid writer in other aspects of life.

This is not to say that claiming marginality is hypocritical or immoral – it is a social strategy like any other. Nevertheless, in order to exploit the power of difference and dissension, cultural models that describe the dichotomy of being in and out of the system must already exist and be available for the public to examine. In Sartre’s case, the idea that humanism is being lost at the expense of political and economic interests and that the writer’s condition is threatened already existed for a long time.

But what happens then when such cultural models are not already in place? This is the truly interesting case of what we will call ‘true’ marginals, those who cannot reference frameworks of societal understanding for their position.

True Marginalism

The person living truly ‘on the edge’ of society cannot be identified – exactly because cultural categories relating to this condition are lacking. This makes the perfect true marginal, a hypothetical and essentially impossible social being. By default, the condition of being truly marginal is idiosyncratic and cannot be known by mainstream society for the time of its existence. In other words, true marginalism is not of the present, but of the past or future.

Even for groups, the actualization and definition of the marginal condition can happen simply through an interaction with mainstream discourse. Take for instance the beginnings of a nation-state. Discourses related to the process of nation-building often incorporate definitions of ethnic or national identities, which, in turn, results in majority ethnic groups and minorities, as well as groups that are entirely outside the ‘ethnic’ framework. In the case of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe, a place where nation-building resulted from 19th—century ideas related to language, religion, and the land, the Gypsy peripatetic and culturally chameleonic social structure excluded them from the system. They could not be a ‘proper’ ethnic group like their neighbours: Serbs, Czechs, Romanians, Hungarians, etc. One hundred and fifty years later, the idea of ethnicity and the concept of majority and minority within the nation-state has fully penetrated mainstream discourse – and only nowadays are Gypsies beginning to apply such cultural terms to their own groups in order to benefit from various advantages offered by national governments.

Many other examples could be given with respect to groups that today draw their identities from ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, and other social categories. In general, groups can drift in and out of a marginal position depending on the availability of changing categories for dividing up the full behavioral spectrum. But occasionally, they are able to interfere with this process of drift and actually bring about either acceptance or exclusion, depending on the desired outcome.

Minority games

The French post-structural anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu discusses the uses of a differentiating mechanism –the accepted dichotomy of high culture and popular culture for instance— by various societal subgroups in order to gain status and privilege. In Bourdieu’s concept of distinction, cultural elites are constituted through differentiation from the mainstream in conjunction with their ability to attract elements within the mainstream to participate in elite activities. For instance, members of the commercial classes perceive going to the opera or attending avant-garde art openings as conferring upon them an aura of distinction and superiority, despite the fact that their own tastes would naturally align elsewhere. Where our argument on marginalism departs from Bourdieu’s is that the a priori distinction that marks different classificatory categories is in fact a universal motor behind social alignment.

If a classificatory dichotomy is already present—and these dichotomies can be simple, as in dark-light, or complex, such as bohemian-bourgeois—it can be picked up irrespective of its intrinsic properties, and manipulated in such a way that the category that is less frequent becomes the desirable one. Recent experiments with heterosexual male subjects’ preference for hair colour in women showed that men often prefer the color that is least frequent. However, in our case, we are more interested in pursuing an explanation of minority behavior. This kind of phenomenon is very frequently observed in fashion trends – where clothing styles and haircuts are explicitly linked to circulating notions of taste, decency, sexuality, and political orientation.

For a less obvious example, let us pick sport. Today, sport, and especially team sport, is hailed not only as an important part of the physical regime required for good health, but also as character-building and useful for teaching young people cooperation and teamwork. In this case, sport is linked to the discourse that dichotomizes people in sportive/active/cooperative/rugged on the one hand, and fat/lazy/selfish/soft on the other. Given the current state of both physical and mental health in many Western industrialized societies, this dichotomy puts the practitioners of team sports in the minority. But it was not always so. In the popular 16th century etiquette book The Courtier , Baldassare Castiglione describes team sports such as rugby as beastlie furye practiced by the common people and unfit for a gentleman. In Castiglione’s context, the dichotomy is class-based. By definition almost, those involved in individual sports such as fencing, running, and swimming were the aristocrats, and team games were for the peasants to amuse themselves communally. In this case, the former are seen as individualistic/strong/refined and the peasants as communal/brutish/rough. Again, by default, this dichotomy, which, in the case of The Courtier, is partly a result of self-justification on the part of the ruling classes, puts the minority in poll position.

The object of the above example is not to demonstrate the cultural relativity of sport as a concept, but to show that any dichotomy can be exploited either way, so long as those who are in the minority are regarded as superior. Thus, what is cultural and completely relative is the classificatory framework itself and the distinction it proposes, and what is universal is the frequency preference we describe here as marginalism.

The essential quality that gives power to a minority group is simply marking within discourse. The presence of extra-symbolic associations with a group attracts attention and suggests that the group follows a different social strategy from that of the mainstream. The crucial element is that marking implies a frequency that is not negligible –or else it would go by unnoticed— yet is less than the rest of the central group. It suggests stability at low frequency, which in turn means that the success of the strategy and the frequency of players are inextricably linked. Such frequency-dependent selection types occur in nature all the time, and the ability to correctly mark or signal the difference is an essential part of making the strategy work. It must be noted however, that taking advantage of minority marking within pre-existing discursive frameworks is actually a privilege – simply having access to a large enough variety of discursive forms in order to be able to manipulate them is a considerable advantage. Conversely, lacking such access constitutes one of the main reasons why individuals with non-standard social strategies are often truly marginal in the sense discussed here.

That obscure object of identity – or, how to exploit the danger of marginalism
Let us return to the Sartre example: imagine that Sartre had been a chemist or a biologist. Intellectual independence stands at the roots of Western academia, yet no one would even so much as recognize the logic in a chemist’s refusal of the Nobel Prize on grounds of independence. Why is this? Simply because the institution of Science is not in the least threatened or ‘marginalized’ in contemporary Western culture. On the contrary, it is hegemonic. Sartre is, in fact, wrenching the humanities, and in particular, the arts, out of the framework of the academic world of results, dissemination, and reformulation. In essence, this act is exploiting an existing binary distinction that is rarely taken seriously in intellectual circles, and exaggerating its terms in order to achieve an extreme position, where a prize turns into an insult. As outcasts, writers are neither accountable to the Swedish Academy, nor to the U. S. National Science Foundation, nor to the Soviet Government, nor to Hollywood producers. From being useless members of society, they become dangerous possessors of ultimate freedom. Self-defined outcasts are scary and unpredictable – and it is exactly those qualities that can be exploited in order to gain influence. As the French philosopher Jacques Derrida stated in a 1989 piece with a colossal title, Some Statements and Truisms about Neologisms, Newisms, Postisms, Parasitisms, and other small Seismisms: “Monsters cannot be announced. One cannot say: 'here are our monsters', without immediately turning the monsters into pets.”

The best recent example of this is the media exploitation of the famous German cannibal case, which is one of the most esoteric acts to be publicized in the last few years. Armin Meiwes and Bernd Jürgen Brandes met on the internet, and Brandes agreed to be killed and eaten by Meiwes. It is almost as impossible to imagine how anyone could accept such a proposal, as it is impossible to understand how Meiwes sat down at the dinner table and shared with his victim the latter’s cooked penis. However, the incident immediately caught media attention, and rather than the actual act and the true inclinations of Brandes and Meiwes, it was immediately reproduced through media elements, such as the song Mein Teil, which would translate into my part or my penis, by the German metal group Rammstein. By integrating a completely marginal act to their music making, they immediately transformed the cannibalism of Brandes to a consumable, non-marginal, cultural product.

We said earlier that we would not expect scientists to refuse recognition in the same way as Sartre. And yet, a little more than a year ago, a Russian mathematician, Grigori Perelman, refused the Fields Medal—mathematics’s Nobel Prize. However, unlike Sartre, he not only refused the official recognition, the prize, but also refused publicity. He does not talk to the press, lives with his mother, has returned to work for an institute in Russia for very little money and he seems to be sincere in his attitude. Still, the media continue to exploit his story, forcing him into the stereotype of the marginal crazy scientist genius—and neither he nor any group of like-minded individuals are profiting from this. In this case, we might be dealing with a real marginal—one whose actions are incongruent with currently available discourse. Whatever Dr. Perelman’s motives may be, our point is not to make speculations about them, but to give him as an example of the iconization of marginal behaviour.

Individuals or groups on the road to self-definition as marginal often rely on an easily recognizable and often exaggerated iconism in order to make the marking stand out. It is not a coincidence that most of these stereotyped marginal symbols, behaviors and actions are distorted copies of their true marginal counterparts—many of which were responsible for significantly offending mainstream society. Violent acts, sexual immorality, cultural and economic disturbance immediately draw attention—but not all press is good press. In a world of symbolic overload, it is far easier to substitute a token in order to affiliate oneself with a movement or a group.

Take, for instance, communism and the image of Che Guevara. Within American society, actually subverting the capitalist machine and advocating the dictatorship of the proletariat is considered at best ideologically alien and at worst downright dangerous. But Che is also a handsome and dreamy idealist physician at the same time as a murderous communist revolutionary. This is partly responsible for his public notoriety in comparison with, say, Fidel Castro or Kim Jong –Il, neither of which appears on college students’ t-shirts nearly as often as Che. The compatibility of Che’s image with a score of young idealist would-be world-changers, both real and fictional, permits those who wish to vaguely affiliate themselves with politically radical marginals to employ this kind of iconism. But the process is a two-way street—the effect is on both sides—Che is nowadays taken less seriously as a revolutionary, and the bearers of Che t-shirts are, as per their own desire, understood as playful mavericks of mainstream society. The irony behind the commercialization of Che’s image perfectly illustrates the process we have repeatedly mentioned, namely the distortion and reinvention of the marginal identity as a minority within the mainstream.

The Marginal Intellectual: a Product of Identity Politics in Academia?

This essay itself brewed within the basic fear of being ‘out’. We, the writers of this piece, identify ourselves as intellectuals, and we are trapped between an obsession to differentiate ourselves from the general public—simply because we want to be recognized as intellectuals—and, at the same time remain a relevant group. The intellectual pursuit is increasingly evaluated by its relevance to immediate contemporary issues, especially within American public discourse. Thus, despite the fact that the marginality of intellectuals is indeed a myth, intellectuals are losing their identity as a self-defined group and are being redefined by public opinion. The reason we are not heard is because of our failure to engage with the popular discourse and because of our own dissonance within public discourse. We are understood only when ‘intellectualism’ is ‘in’ or relevant to contemporary political concerns.

Last year, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), chair of a panel that oversees the National Science Foundation, the U.S.-government-funded agency that sets up and distributes funds for scientific research, asked the following rather blunt question to the Director of the NSF: “Why is the National Science Foundation (NSF) funding a study of a women's cooperative in Bangladesh?...Why are U.S. taxpayers footing the bill for efforts to understand Hungary's emerging democracy? [...] And why are social scientists even bothering to compile an archive of state legislatures in a long-gone era when those legislators chose U.S. senators?” She proposed later to cease funding for certain social science departments, such as anthropology and political science. She even suggested the expulsion from the NSF of fields such as anthropology. However, part of the reason why she did not find the results she was looking for was exactly due to our refusal as intellectuals to explain what we do to the greater public.

Thus, whether or not we believe James Atlas, the marginality of the intellectual within academia and of academia itself within the realm of human productivity is an acute problem today in most industrialized societies. When intellectuals allowed knowledge production to be subsumed within production in the broader sense, they did not realize that they would one day be judged according to very unfamiliar criteria. For our own selfish reasons we have allowed the public to construct the ivory-tower metaphor, and to consider us elites. More importantly, we, in anthropology, have allowed other sciences to be misinformed about what we do, and we have not strived to create connections with things that concern others in other fields. American academia then has become a kind of strange space of marginalism—where the humanities and arts continue to exist largely because they have made a successful pass at defining themselves as marginal with respect to the sciences. But, as the social sciences and humanities continue to distance themselves from the public and ever-growing relevance of ‘hard sciences’ to the global discourse, they slowly became truly marginal—in true dissonance with all other discourses. This is a hardly enviable position—but one cannot help wondering if we have not ourselves created this dissonance in the above-mentioned process of self-promotion.

Voluntarily trapped in our Ivory Towers, which, once conceived and perceived as mysterious and complex, have been redefined by society as alien, elitist, and snobbish we are now nerdy at best, sometimes arrogant, and, worst of all, irrelevant. But as the battle for relevance rages on, all hope is not lost. As Michel Foucault once observed:

There are more ideas on earth than intellectuals imagine. And these ideas are more active, stronger, more resistant, and more passionate than "politicians" think. We have to be there at the birth of ideas, the bursting outward of their force: not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggles carried on around ideas, for or against them. Ideas do not rule the world. But it is because the world has ideas (and because it constantly produces them) that it is not passively ruled by those who are its leaders or those who would like to teach it, once and for all, what it must think. (via Didier Eribon)

Last Words

We have tried to describe the process by which socially marginal entities, from individuals to large groups, arise, are picked up by the ever-changing mainstream discourse, and eventually institutionalized socially, culturally, and, last but not least, economically. We do not wish to paint a depressing picture of true counter-cultural innovation being eaten up and iconized in Hollywood movie posters that adorn the windows of every world cinema—marginal thoughts, ideas, individuals, and groups, are not simply safe pockets of controlled anti-culture, but also serve the essentially creative function of defining the boundaries of the mainstream.
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