Alain Mueller

Anthropology, movement, and a pinch of punk rock

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Category: Ethnographic Theory

Anthropologically grasping the squat. Part 1: the squat represented and representing

Four men squatting, obviously in the Huda Sector, Ghata, Haryana, India. Source: unknown. 

For quite a long time, I have been fascinated by the squatting position. I consider the squat to be an extraordinary ethnographic “tracing element”—in Michel Serres’s sense1—to approach and explore broader anthropological questions, and anthropological knowledge itself.

I’m not the first anthropologist to be interested in the squat. In his very famous essay on the “techniques of the body,” Marcel Mauss already used the example of the squat to point at the differences in the treatment of the body and its techniques among societies, as he says2:

The child normally squats. We no longer know how to. I believe that this is an absurdity and an inferiority of our races, civilisations, societies. (…)

The squatting position is, in my opinion, an interesting one that could be preserved in a child. It is a very stupid mistake to take it away from him. All mankind, excepting only our societies, has so preserved it. (…)

You can distinguish squatting mankind and sitting mankind. And, in the latter, people with benches and people without benches and daises; people with chairs and people without chairs. Wooden chairs supported by crouching figures are widespread, curiously enough, in all the regions at fifteen degrees of latitude North and along the Equator in both continents.

When analyzing Mauss’s approach to the squat (and the squat in general as I’ll show), various approaches can be adopted. The first one, which seems to me the most obvious one, is a reflexive one. From the perspective of an Anthropology-after-Writing-Culture, this analysis would take Mauss’s analysis itself as an object of analysis, i.e. the ways the squat is represented and representing in “classic” anthropological narratives. Such a reflexive analysis says a lot about the epistemology and ontology that both traverse Mauss’s analysis and, recursively, that Mauss’s work contributed to solidify.

From this perspective, Mauss’s approach to, and accounting for the squat is a very telling example of the discursive production of what Bruno Latour calls the double Great Divide. Briefly summarized, Latour’s analysis of the fabric of the Modern epistemology and ontology shows that they rely on a radical dichotomization between 1) nature and society—the First Great Divide—and 2) between “Us” (Moderns) Vs. “Them” (Premoderns)—the Second Great Divide.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993, p. 99.

I don’t want to go too much into detail here, but it might be useful to mention that Latour builds on the notion of Great Divide as theorized by Jack Goody and his analysis of the construction of anthropological knowledge (from Lévy-Bruhl to Lévi-Strauss). What Goody does is to identify how these authors establish (essentially through the use of categories) a radical dichotomy between “We” and “They”, as he states3:

We start with the conviction that there are important differences between ourselves (variously defined) and the rest. […] We try to state the nature of these differences in very general terms – the move from myth to history, from magic to science, from status to contract, cold to hot, concrete to abstract, collective to individual, ritual to rationality.

In Goody’s perspective, the Great Divide is mainly a discursive production. This does not mean this production has no real outcome. The discourses do circulate and solidify through the mediation of socio-technical systems and quasi-objects (including, yes, books) and, consequently, become common sense.

Similarly, for Latour, the production of the double Great Divide essentially relies upon a façon de parler, that is, upon discourses, or speech acts in Austin’s sense, that are, again distributed and materialized through various forms of mediations and dispositifs (typically, academic disciplines have been institutionalized like this).

Mauss’s analysis of the squat is indeed a neat example of how anthropologists have participated (and still do) in the construction of the double Great Divide. It is very obvious when examining the categories that Mauss uses to qualify the squat as a technique of the body. He clearly opposes “We,” “people with chairs,” and a loss of the ability to squat, with “They,” “Premoderns,” “people without chairs” that have conserved the squat (Second Great Divide). Mauss’s analysis, therefore, insinuates that squatting is “more natural” (First Great Divide), less civilized.

More recently, Tim Ingold has been revisiting Mauss’s demonstration of the squat in his article “Culture on the Ground: The World Perceived Through the Feet.” Similar to Mauss, he states4

In most non-western societies the usual position of rest to adopt, while awake, is the squat […]

Anthropologists, however, are not the only ones representing the squat within a web of categories that pertains to the double Great Divide. The squat is represented and representing in ways that contribute tracing the double Great Divide in many representational settings, showing how these dichotomies are constantly produced, reinforced and becoming common sense through discourses in a broad sense, that is, through material-semiotic mediations of various kinds. In what follows, I examine a couple of examples that I stumbled upon over the course of my wanderings. Of course, they are not exhaustive in any way, but I found them very telling.

Hans Erni “La vie sociale en Mauritanie,” mural painting (detail) 1954, Musée d’ethnographie, Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Photo: Alain Müller

This squatting position above, for instance, is a part of a larger mural painting located in what is today the cafeteria of the Ethnographic Museum of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, which shares its building with the Anthropology Institute where I teach. The mural painting was realized by Swiss artist Hans Erni, who joined Anthropologist Jean Gabus at the beginning of the 1950’s to undertake fieldwork in Mauritania. Their aim was to study craftsmanship, bodily techniques, and gestures. Here, the squatting position and its depiction denote the underlying fabric of the ‘Us’ Vs. ‘Them’ Great Divide, that is, in the (political and public) representation of Otherness and the invention it pertains to. They squat, we don’t.

Detail of a strip from Hermann and Greg, Bernard Prince, “La flamme verte du conquistador,” 1974. Photo: Alain Müller

Time-traveling to roughly 20 years later, this is another interesting illustration of a squat, this time taken from the Franco-Belgian comic Bernard Prince (I love Franco-Belgian comics and think they are fantastic tokens to question and analyze the political economies of representation). In the album “La flamme verte du conquistador,” drawn by Hermann and written by Greg (both very famous names in the world of Franco-Belgian comics) in 1974, this illustration of a man squatting serves well the narrative plot, as it contributes to trace and draw the radical alterity and wilderness of a gang of thieves, natives of Marayali, an imaginary country near Venezuela.

Let me get back to this notion of double Great Divide. In both Goody’s and Latour’s perspective, the Great Divide(s) indubitably pertains to ontological dualisms. They do not only consist of separating and splitting stuff for the sake of it. Rather, they constitute strong ontological asymmetries in the heritage of the so-called Cartesian Split. In other words, both the First and the Second Great Divide have to be understood vertically (contrary to what the above-reproduced diagram by Latour could suggest) to the extent that both the “We” and the “Culture” poles are constructed and homogenized as ontologically superior to the “They” and “Nature” ones. Ultimately, both Goody and Latour are showing to what extent such an epistemology/ontology lay the foundations for dominating and domesticating 1) Non-Western Others and 2) Nature.

This “verticality” is obvious in the Comic example, where squatting becomes the tracing marker not only of radical alterity but of a threat, a danger, at least a positionality that is negatively valued. Another very obvious example of this dimension is the subtle way the squat, “originally” a wide-spread technique of the body, became a form of stigma in regions that are currently profoundly transformed by a process of modernization. In such context, squatting slowly became a marker for stigmatization rather than solely a technique of the body, and “those who still squat” slowly became synonymous for “non-educated,” “rural,” “Premodern” populations. The squat, its representation and what it represents are now entangled within the production of a Third Great Divide (which is pretty much a hybridization of the two first divides), that is, a divide radically separating urbanity and rurality. Although I’m not a specialist of China, there seems to be such a process going on in Chinese society, where squatting became strongly associated with rural areas (while from the so-called Western perspective, squatting remains strongly associated with China as a whole—as I’ll show hereinafter—, which shows how sneaky and fluid the entanglement of the now triple Great Divide is constantly and continuously (re)structured and (re)arranged.

My colleague and friend, anthropologist Yvan Schulz, chatting with an old man in Longsheng County, Province of  Guangxi. Photo: Pierre Schulz.

The most stereotypical example of this vertical dimension, that is, the active, continuously ongoing fabric of the “They” vs. “we” divide and the asymmetry it pertains to through the representation of the squat—and the squat as a representation—is this “Toilet Rules” sign. It was spotted on the door of the bathroom of a shopping mall in Thun, Switzerland, which has the reputation to be a destination of choice for Asian tourists. “You squat, we don’t!”

But let me move back from common sense to anthropological discourse itself. This vertical dimension is a bit less obvious in both Mauss’s and Ingold’s analyses of the squat that are without a doubt a bit more subtle and also with different valuations attached. Here, while represented clearly as the Others and thereof radical alterity, “those who squat” are not associated to depreciated positionalities, such as villains and/or uneducated inhabitants of rural areas, and the very ability to squat is not looked down upon; quite the contrary.

And this where it becomes a bit trickier: when dualisms and dichotomies that lay the foundation of asymmetries are (re)produced by “defenders” of the dominated and domesticated “poles.”  This is the case in Mauss’s analysis of the squat. Although his analysis clearly pertains to the double Great Divide with regard to the categories used and the dichotomies they point at, there is also a clear reversal of values intricate to Mauss’s analysis. In a sort of “reverse orientalism”, Mauss insists on the idea that it is a pity that the squatting position wasn’t preserved in Western societies. So does Tim Ingold. While taking the Divides for granted, Mauss as well as Ingold, then, are espousing the idea that the “natural,” the “Premodern” treatment of the body must be better than the chair-sitting position that it was substituted by in Modern societies.

In recent years, this positive valuation of the “squat from Premodern Societies,” has found a strong echo in new paradigms of fitness and sport training, as well as, in a larger perspective, “holistic” approaches to health. Here, the rehabilitation and the “reconquering” of the squatting position in so-called Western societies is praised, in referring to non-Western societies as models for best (or better) practices. All these communities agree and insist on the importance of squatting for the overall health of the body, drawing on several arguments such as the need to regain a restricted mobility resulting from the modern sitting positions, the health of the spine and/or the more “natural,” “anatomical” and therefore “healthier” character of defecating in a squatting position. As the categories used indicate, these discourses still pretty much reify the double Great Divide.

Kelly Starrett’s work is a very telling example for this. Starrett, a doctor of physical therapy, co-founder of the San Francisco CrossFit branch, and author of the best-selling book Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance, has been advocating for the rehabilitation of the squat for a very long time. His idea on the topic can be very well summarized by the following post he published on his social media profiles:

Taken from the Facebook page of Starrett’s Mobility Wod.  
In his video “Squatting to Restore Spinal Motion and to Poop,” Kelly Starrett explains the benefits of this position in the following words (my transcript) while sitting in a full squat position:

In our sense, and a [interrupted by one of his interlocutors] it is very Japanese. Basically, what you’re seeing is a lot of hips; lateral rotation of the sacrum and the pelvis together. And that’s important. Because a lot of time when we stand, we get stuck in sacrum in one direction and pelvis in another direction, which is called mutation. And so one of the things that happens, we get fully locked in extension all the time. Sitting like this does a couple of things: one is that it opens up the spine in the back. In fact, we don’t see any lumbar disease in any third-world country, or any country that toilets on the ground, or sleeps on the ground. And secondarily, we see no hip disease in any country that sleeps on the ground, toilets on the ground, partly is because that completely reinforces this range of motion. You’ll find that it’s not an accident that many of the best athletes on the planet have excellent hip . . . flexibility . . .

Here again, the structure of the discourse, the categories used (and suggested) and the dichotomies they refer to pertain to the double Great Divide: “They,” “Japanese” (therefore non-Western), i.e. squatting mankind (i.e. what the human body was “naturally” built for), are doing much better than “We,” “Western,” i.e. sitting mankind who lost the range of motion allowing us to “naturally” squat.

No wonder that Starrett posted the article “Why Can’t Everyone Do the ‘Asian Squat’?” published in The Atlantic, accompanied by the comment “Humans are born squatters”. Again, the narrative structure of both the article and Starrett’s comment to it are quite obvious: Humans are “naturally” squatters, but “we” have lost it. To the contrary, “Asians,” they, not only never lost the ability to squat, but all of them do it everywhere and all the time. We seem to be radically different, and the ability to squat shows it.

Ido Portal, another well-known trainer and movement practitioner, as for him, praises the value of the squat by proposing the playful “Squat 30/30 Challenge”. The challenge consists in (trying to) stay in a squat position for 30 minutes per day. The first post by Portal on the Facebook group page dedicated to the challenge is a drawing of a squatting person, accompanied by the following message:

Squat 30/30 Challenge Squat- a basic human position. Original human use: REST. Having difficulty squatting? Lets work on it! For the next 30 days spend 30 min a day of ass to grass, relaxed spine, fiat foot squat . . . and get HUGE benefits in mobility, knee and hip health, digestion and more! Join the ‘Squat 30/30 Challenge’ FB group and post your picture and experiences – support each other! . . .

As Starrett, Portal and his followers depict the squat as “natural” for human beings and thus trace “nature” in its radical separation from “civilization” (First Great Divide). I found this example, posted on the Facebook group page dedicated to the challenge, very telling:

Taken from the Facebook page of the 30/30 Squat Challenge.  

There are many examples found online with the very same type of argumentation down to the rhetoric and narrative architecture: “We” have lost the “natural” squatting position, while “They” (broadly understood as Premoderns, such as in this example, and/or “Non-Westerns”) still use it (and they were/are right to do so!).  This last example sums it up pretty well:

A Facebook post by the French coaching service Protocole 2PM. 

Posted on a social media platform by Protocole 2PM, a French fitness and physical therapy center, this picture is accompanied by the following text (my translation):

Mankind has always used this natural sitting position to manipulate objects, to rest, to play, to urinate, or to defecate.
Besides, it’s a natural position for the baby while playing.
The use of furniture from Western culture (chairs and tables, toilets, etc.) tends to forget this position in favor of a 90-degree seat.
This is much less the case in the Asian or the African culture for instance.

As the squat and its representations serve as tracers to divide “nature” and “civilization”, as well as “We” vs. “They”, the resulting ontological dichotomies set the ground to operate as part of a boundary making and identity building process that is articulated on the mode of reversed orientalism, by reversing respectively the values attached to each pole, such as in the title Nature knows best, and, furthermore, the indexicality of who “We” and respectively “They” point to. Thus, the squat becomes a marker of who “We” are, radically different from “They” who don’t squat. The resulting identity produced is very often linked to a territory or a “culture,” such as “Asia”, as it is the case in the telling example of this video, “Why Asians Can Do The Asian Squat,” in which the very ability to squat is plotted as a strong signifier of “Asianness” among second or third generation of Asians in the United States. Note that along with this shift, there is a move from the squat as depicted to the ability to squat that becomes depicting.

I’ll leave this first part with an open question: Have you ever made the actual experience of (trying to) squatting? This is an important move—in all senses of the term—as it allows to move from a reflexive, representationalist analysis to a recursive, experiential one. Stay tuned for part 2.

Why blogging? A recursive Lesson from Hardcore Punk to Inform the Crafting of Anthropological Thinking

Publishing academic work can be frustrating. Very frustrating. Nowadays, the editorial boards of academic journals are so busy that it takes them months, sometimes more than a year even, to send you their response. The whole system is overloaded. Those conditions make it hard to circulate your ideas and to communicate about your research; and, in a larger sense, to be creative.

But recently I remembered that as a socio-anthropologist, in my research and my writings, I have been advocating for a stance that takes actors seriously; that grants them agency and reflexivity; that proposes an analysis in terms of empowerment rather than miserabilization. Time has come to grant me the same abilities. As Howard Becker puts it, as he discusses the bourdieusian notion of “field” by taking academia as an example 1:

Can your heterodox ideas be prevented from reaching some public if the ‘important people’ ignore them? That depends. I think that probably it is not really very common, although it is common for people to feel that this is what’s happening to them and their ideas. (…) Someone is monopolizing the field you want to work in? Move somewhere else and start your own field. You don’t even have to compete with the other people. You can criticize them to your followers, or ignore them, but they are not powerful enough and do not have a monopoly to prevent you from doing anything (p. 280).

Ironically, I’m trained to “move somewhere else.” I grew up in—and have extensively researched—hardcore (punk), a “subculture” that promotes DIY (Do It Yourself) as a mode of doing and making things that parallels and shortcuts institutionalized chains of production. “Build, DIY, create, or die,” as DIY was summarized, with its sense of urgency, on a blackboard at the Che Café on the San Diego University Campus, where I attended a hardcore show in 2009.

Hardcore’s pragmatics, in this sense, are very beckerian, although “emploted” in a slightly harsher vocabulary: “F%&# the world we live in today. And f%&# any m%&#er who stands in your way!”, as put for example by the hardcore band Deez Nuts in their song F.T.W.

George E. Marcus, who I had the great honor to have in my Ph.D. committee, already addressed the question of how much the pragmatics of hardcore had influenced and informed my own approach to anthropology, and the way I crafted my anthropological thinking. In his final report of my thesis, he wrote 2:

In a way, Mueller’s forging of this study against the structural currents of disciplinary practice parallels elements of resistance to the dominant culture in Hardcore itself. Being a member of Hardcore himself, Mueller exhibits an interesting parallel in the design of his study and in his own ‘style’ as a critical scholar to the character of resistance in the movement that he is studying.This parallel is something in which I am particularly interested and gives a distinctive personal mark to this work.”

At that time, I did not really realize the implications and ramifications of this idea, as I had been too busy at making the opposite move. Indeed, in order for me to successfully conduct my research, it had been crucial to distance myself from the hardcore logics and pragmatics, to render “exotic” familiar assumptions, logics, and pragmatics in order to reconceptualize hardcore as a radical alterity, thereof construct it as an ethnographic “object.” This ethnographic décentrement allowed me to uncover many dimensions that underlie the existence of the hardcore punk world, to engage in drawing and tracking all the networks at play in its stabilization.

But what about recursivity? In the perspective of what has been recently (re)coined as recursive anthropology (by Martin Holbraad among others), the question addressed by George Marcus could be framed as follows: to what extent can the logics, pragmatics and methods provided by hardcore punk inform the crafting and sharing of anthropological thinking, theory and writings?

It is only now, almost 8 years after the defense of my thesis, that I understand what George Marcus had recognized in my art of doing anthropology; and that I reflexively question the heuristic potential of this recursive move. Sometimes we understand the more profound ideas only a lot later.

In this light, this blog is an attempt to reempower myself.

To build.

To create.

To use this as a DIY thought-diary. And simultaneously to circulate my ideas and my thinking, submit them to collective and participative enhancement.

No matter at what stage of maturity they are. To let them just be.

Clément Rosset et la densité du réel : applications ethnographiques (première partie)

Voilà quelque temps que j’ai le projet de faire dialoguer la philosophie de Clément Rosset, avec la question centrale du réel, avec la pratique ethnographique. C’est un projet de longue haleine. Le travail philosophique de Rosset est celui de toute une vie ; je le découvre, le saisis et le comprends par bribes, fragments et soubresauts.

Tout a commencé à la lecture de son article « Les aventures du réel » publié dans Tintin au pays des Philosophes 1. Rosset y esquisse son approche du réel, dans sa densité, en contrepoint à la tradition philosophique dominante. En mobilisant le superbe exemple du fétiche Arumbaya dans l’album de Tintin L’Oreille cassée, il dit :

« Du point de vue philosophique, il est possible de construire deux types de lectures diamétralement opposées de L’Oreille cassée. Si vous vous situez dans la lignée des philosophies idéalistes, c’est-à-dire de tous ceux qui, de Platon à Hegel, voient dans le réel le règne du faux et recherchent l’Idée vraie, vous aurez une interprétation assez classique de cet album. Pour vous, le fétiche original sera le Vrai, le Réel, la Chose en soi, le Modèle, et tous les autres fétiches ne seront que fausseté et contrefaçon. Vous dénoncerez donc les doubles comme autant d’artefacts, de mensonges, au profit de l’original qui seul vous paraît authentique. Si maintenant vous vous situez dans la perspective qui est la mienne, c’est-à-dire si vous vous intéressez à la “densité du réel” beaucoup plus qu’à “l’éclat du vrai”, alors vous direz qu’aucun fétiche ne peut être tenu pour l’original ou encore qu’ils participent tous – le premier exemplaire d’Amazonie, les doubles du premier Balthazar (sans oreille cassée), les copies du second Balthazar (avec oreille cassée) – du même ordre de réalité, du même quotidien, de la même banalité. La philosophie du réel qui est la mienne voit dans le quotidien, aussi répétitif et banal soit-il, toute l’originalité du monde. S’il n’y a que des doubles, il n’y a pas d’originaux ; inversement, tous les doubles sont des originaux : voilà la conception métaphysique à laquelle je souscris» (op. cit. p. 63).

Hergé, L’Oreille cassée | Source:

De cette philosophie du réel, Rosset avait établi les bases dans son ouvrage Le réel et son double : Essai sur l’illusion, paru initialement en 1976 2.

De la lecture de cet ouvrage, qui commence par une invitation à « accepter sans réserves l’impérieuse prérogative du réel », je retiens au premier chef l’analyse de ce que Rosset nomme « l’illusion métaphysique ». Cette « illusion philosophique par excellence » qu’il retrace dans la philosophie dominante de Platon à Hegel, repose sur une prérogative selon laquelle « le réel immédiat n’est admis et compris que pour autant qu’il peut être considéré comme l’expression d’un autre réel » (op. cit. p. 55).

Au fil d’une analyse fine et rigoureuse, Rosset dégage ainsi ce qu’il nomme les deux impossibilités de la duplication qui participent de la structure métaphysique : « d’une part l’impossibilité pour l’objet sensible de se dupliquer en un autre objet sensible qui serait en même temps lui-même (…) ; d’autre part l’impossibilité pour l’objet sensible d’apparaître lui-même comme le double d’un modèle réel et suprasensible (…)[,] (c’est-à-dire l’Idée, ou le réel absolu) (…) cet autre Réel qu’il est incapable de doubler. » (op. cit. p. 58-59) La structure métaphysique, de ce point de vue, repose sur un « refus de l’immédiateté » puisque le réel absolu participe de l’Idée et le réel immédiat, lui, relève d’un « caractère décevant ».

En contrepoint de cet héritage, l’invitation de Rosset à approcher le réel dans sa densité me semble entrer en grande résonance avec certaines idées développées en anthropologie. On pense notamment aux questions liées à l’authenticité. Chez Clifford par exemple, l’authenticité des objets n’est pas donnée d’avance. Au contraire, rien ne distingue l’artefact authentique de sa copie, et l’authenticité est, de ce point de vue, approchée comme le résultat d’un travail dont il s’agit justement, pour l’analyste, de rendre compte3. Dans ce cas, l’illusion métaphysique semble largement distillée dans le sens commun, qui travaille à son maintien, et c’est à l’anthropologue de re-densifier le réel. Mais les anthropologues se sont-elles-ils elles-eux-mêmes vraiment affranchi-e-s de la structure métaphysique? Je ne le pense pas, et je vois d’autres questions relatives à l’épistémologie (et l’ontologie) de la pratique ethnographique auxquelles la philosophie du réel de Rosset apporterait un nouvel éclairage:

La question de l’ethnographie virtuelle premièrement. Je l’ai moi-même éprouvé au contact de chercheur-e-s horrifié-e-s, l’idée d’une ethnographie qui pourrait être engagée en ligne – « hors-là » – suscite une profonde défiance ; celle-ci aurait intrinsèquement moins de valeur analytique puisqu’elle adresserait un réel un peu moins réel, et donc un peu plus décevant, que le réel immédiat qui, rappelons le, approché dans la tradition métaphysique dominante, ne pourrait être doublé puisqu’il est unique. Je souscris pour ma part à l’idée de Rosset selon laquelle le réel doit être approché dans sa densité : avatars, échanges en ligne, réalités virtuelles, tous ces doubles sont des originaux ! Peuplant désormais nos quotidiens, ces êtres méritent d’être approchés à l’aune d’une ontologie horizontale, et d’une ethnographie qui accepterait sans réserves l’impérieuse prérogative du réel dans toute sa densité.

La question du sensible et sa légitimité ethnographique, deuxièmement, une thématique que j’aborde dans mes travaux depuis un certain temps déjà (voir par exemple ici pour des premières pistes). Dans la pratique ethnographique telle qu’elle s’est construite, développée et inventée, l’expérience vécue dont participe l’engagement ethnographique, et le réel immédiat auquel elle donne accès, ne sauraient se doubler au véritable réel, celui des idées et des représentations, de la « culture comme un texte » chère à Geertz. En découle, dans la pratique ethnographique telle qu’elle est conçue dans sa propre tradition, un processus de tri qui participe d’un abandon du corps, d’une purification de toute forme d’expérience des « données ethnographiques » ainsi objectivées.

Des pistes à explorer… stay tuned!

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