Do we now live in a hierarchical society?

By Mihaela Brebenel The aim of this essay is to approach the concept of hierarchy from the point of view of representation, specifically representations of the 'other'. The argument developed throughout this paper is that the focus on the 'other' in anthropology can be looked at from an inter-disciplinary perspective, where the other is actually part of the same society as the ethnographer. I strongly believe that, in order to answer the question of hierarchy in contemporary society, we have to look at its members, how their representations of others are formed and what power relationships are created between them. Therefore, representation is understood as an image or a corpus of images formed about the 'other', which in this particular case is another member of society. Marc Auge highlights the importance of representation to anthropology, not only in its function as a social construct, but also because “any representation of the individual is also a representation of the social link consubstantial with him”(1995: 19). In other words, the formation of representations is closely related to hierarchical relations established between social groups (the rich create their representations of the poor in opposition to their own status, the educated to the illiterate, the 'civilized' to the 'uncivilized'). There is always an 'other', the different in opposition to which both the individual's representations of self and of otherness are constructed. I will further develop on the concept of 'otherness' as it addresses direct questions of representation and hierarchy. The issue of 'otherness' The notion of 'otherness' acts as a widely used instrument in creating social plateaus and defining identity, due to the constant dynamic dualism that it envelops. More exactly, there can be no 'other' if there is not an 'us' or 'we' to set it in opposition to, as “otherness serves as a constant reminder of difference” (Jordanova, 2000: 245). Whether the criteria for defining 'otherness' are 1

socially constructed or intrinsically natural within society is a question that was touched upon by a wide variety of fields of study, from philosophy to psychoanalysis, social sciences and anthropology. Within society, the notion of 'otherness' is used to create distance, becoming a term in relation to which the self can be defined. However, as Jordanova states “the sense of distance is generally made, manufactured, and then treated as if found, discovered” (2000: 250). This statement implies that identity is constructed, defined as what the other is not, cannot do or become. Our representations of the other are at once what constructs our selves and what is not part of our selves. This manner of representation is deeply rooted in a conceptual framework of opposition between self and other, subject and object, us and them. Nevertheless, if there are intrinsic differences stemming from natural characteristics, the issue is how these differences are thereafter propagated in the social sphere, giving rise to constructed representations. Another aspect is who constructs these representations and how are they appropriated by individuals on a large scale and then used as analytical tools? Is the reproduction of the dominant cultural frameworks of “them” re-creating 'us' when we are reinforcing the opposition? Anthropological work has turned a critical perspective on these questions and the entire framing of 'otherness'. As Hallam (2000) notes: Representations of cross-cultural encounters are understood as part of processes unfolding within and structured by socio-political relations, dominant intellectual frameworks and established codes, conventions and values, which work to constitute representational forms. (E. Hallam, 2000:261) In other words, if it is the dominant frameworks which create the representational forms and establish 'otherness' as that which opposes our codes, conventions and values, maybe it is the case to direct our study to these instead of the 'other'. This is arguably what Marc Auge (1995) proposes in his Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity when he shifts the focus in anthropology from the far-away other to “a renewed methodical reflection on the category of otherness” (1995: 23-24). By this new category, Auge refers to the “contemporary world itself, with its accelerated transformations” (1995: 23-24) as a field in anthropological study. Looking at the self/other dualism in contemporary society requires a contextual framing that takes us back in history to a period when Church authorities in Europe were engaged in a campaign to “eradicate what they considered to be immoral elements in public life and ritual”(Graeber, 1997:695). The works of Burke on the reform of popular culture (1978) and Elias (1978) on standards of comportment are cited by Graeber in an essay that aims to preliminary map a theory of manners. In this essay, I intend to look at Elias’ The Civilizing Process (1978) and Bakhtin's Rabelais and his World in an attempt to identify 2

representations of others that had hierarchical value and which, in the contemporary society, are challenged by individuals everyday. De civilitate morum puerilium In the second chapter of The Civilizing Process, Elias (1978) reviews the way in which human behavior was transformed in the civilizing process of the Middle Ages. Elias uses the work of Erasmus of Rotterdam, a treatise that can be translated as On Civility in Children to emphasize the importance of a self-reflexive medieval society. As Elias states, this treatise has a very simple focus, specifically the behavior of people in society, their manner of eating and clothing. Nevertheless, these manifestations of the exterior in “bodily carriage, gestures, dress, facial expressions” that make the interest of Eramus' book represent “the expression of the inner, the whole man” (Elias, 1978: 55-56). Therefore, keeping the body under a 'civilized' attitude and displaying a proper behavior at the table, in society and in relations to others is a matter of selfcontrol exercised by the mind over the body. Preparation for this should be done in early childhood, however the treatise could be addressing older members of society as well. Elias re-creates the contextual setting of the period the treatise was written in, a time when “changed structure of the new upper class exposes each individual member to an unprecedented extent to the pressure of others and of social control” (1978: 80). Facing exclusion from a social status if he did not show consideration to others, the individual has to show self-restraint and a decent behavior. However, the power relations existent at that time in society established what was considered decent. Elias notes that during the sixteenth century “a more rigid social hierarchy begins to establish itself once more”, therefore instating more rigid power relations between members of society. The decisions were of the higher upper classes on what was considered decent, acceptable or repulsive in different social situations. The pressure of these 'others' was felt by the members of the lower classes who lived by the social imperative of following the prescripts in order not to offend the 'others'. By and large, the instructions on correct behavior portrayed in Erasmus' treatise show “the standard of habits and behavior to which society at a given time sought to accustom the individual” (1978: 84). Some of these instructions seem appropriate to any contemporary book of manners, like telling the reader not to put the elbows on the table, whilst others are comical because of the obsolete nature they have today. Such an example could be the advice not to “clean your teeth with the tablecloth“ or to “fall asleep at table.” (1978:66) Essentially, this advice is part of the contemporary code of manners, however so self-implicit that it does not have to be mentioned any more.


Rabelais' carnival and the carnival of the everyday Bakhtin identifies a different type of body, portrayed by Rabelais' work Gargantua and Pantagruel. It is the body of the carnival, or, as Bakhtin (1984) names it, the body of “grotesque realism.” The focus here is on the body as a threshold between inside and outside, of uncertain states, and eventually, on “events and activities in which boundaries between bodies and the world, are at their most obscured and eroded: birth, death, copulation, defecation, eating, etc.” (Jefferson, 1989:166) This type of body loses individuality and transgresses the borders of self and others, making it possible, in Bakhtin's view, to create subversive representations of hierarchies. More specifically, the body of the carnival in its grotesque realism and exposure reveals that “that relations of representation can be reconstituted as relations of participation” (Jefferson, 1989: 164). This type of body does not obey the codes and instructions that good manners would prescribe. It is not, in Elias' terms placed under the conditioning and fashioning relations of power to the upper class. On the contrary, this type of body evades the norm and sets itself in a promiscuous relation to the other (both physically and as representation is concerned). The oppositional force to norms within the festival acts as a staging of subversive representational orders that could thereafter trigger real peasant revolts in the medieval period. (Turner, 2008: 153-154) In contemporary society, the carnival is not organised in a certain time and space, but replicated everyday. On the one hand, the body is the most susceptible entity to be controlled into respecting the manners and codes of behavior imposed by an upper social class; on the other hand, as Bakhtin suggests in his work, the body has the potentiality of trespassing these rules and codes and of creating representations that come in conflict with the existing social order. However, the body can achieve these subversive representational projects only by displaying its most basic functions in a public arena. As Bakhtin states: In the modern image of the individual body, sexual life, eating, drinking, and defecation have radically changed their meaning: they have been transferred to the private and psychological level where their connotation becomes narrow and specific, torn away from the direct relation to the life of society and to the cosmic whole. In this new connotation they can no longer carry on their former philosophical functions. (1984: 321) A simple observation of today's society would make us notice that we are now closer to the 'other' than we have ever been, especially in public life; yet most of our behavior which implies functions of the body has been, following a long civilizing process, kept from the public eye as much as possible. However, in societies where a mixture of practices meets, it is the application of 4

these codes and instructions that become subversive to hierarchy just because they are so bluntly opposing each other. On a bus trip in London, you are very likely to experience a person eating food with the hands, one belching after having a sandwich, another wiping their lips, none washing their hands before eating. Each of the individuals in the above examples would come from a different culture, with different norms and codes of appropriate behaviors. What Turner (2008) calls the new personality type that emerged in contemporary society, namely the “performing self” does not abide the rules of the hierarchical strata. This new personality is concerned with the relationships with others, but not as the medieval person would be. It “requires validation from audiences through successful performances of the self” (Turner, 2008: 171), even if this validation would imply subverting the codes, bothering or disturbing others. However, the category of the 'other' is different from the structured, hierarchical other of the medieval period that Elias or Bakhtin research into with the help of the works discussed above. The representation of 'other' in contemporary world is continuously re-shaping itself in accordance to the next 'other' that the individual aims at obtaining validation from. In other words, the performer is the same, but his performance and the audience are forever changing. In this new light, there can arguably no longer be the case of long-lasting, strongly founded hierarchical representations. Nevertheless, hierarchical structures exist in contemporary society but constant performances of each individual in the carnival of the everyday act to both reinforce codes of behavior and create subversive responses of the body to social structures. Moreover, this performer chooses which structure does he reinforce and which does he subvert.


Bibliography Auge, Marc (1995) Non-places. Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity London: Verso. Bakhtin, Mikhail (1968, 1984) ‘The Grotesque Image of the Body’ in Rabelais and his world Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Elias, Norbert (1978) The Civilizing Process. The History of Manners Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Hallam, Elizabeth (2000) ‘Texts, objects and 'otherness'. Problems of historical process in writing and displaying cultures’ in Cultural Encounters. Representing 'Otherness', Elizabeth Hallam, Brian V. Street (eds) London: Routledge. Jefferson, Ann (1989) ‘Bodymatters: Self and Other in Bakhtin, Sartre and Barthes’ in Bakhtin and Cultural Theory in Ken Hirschkop, David Shepherd, (eds) Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press. Jordanova, Ludmilla (2000) ‘History, 'otherness' and display’ in Cultural Encounters. Representing 'Otherness', Elizabeth Hallam, Brian V. Street (eds) London: Routledge. Turner, Bryan S. (2008) ‘Government of the Body’ in The Body and Society. Explorations in Social Theory London: Sage Publications.


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