Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Norwegian professor: we have to deconstruct the majority

Thomas Eriksen is a professor of anthropology. In a recent interview, he was asked what topics Norwegian anthropologists should research more thoroughly. He replied:

The most important blank spot exists now in deconstructing the majority so thoroughly that it can never be called the majority again, to follow up on some of Marianne Gullestad's research from the last ten years. Something like this could contribute to both understanding and liberation.

Which raises the obvious question: why would Professor Eriksen want to deconstruct his own ethnic group?

The basic answer, the one I often put forward, is that liberalism insists that we must self-determine who we are. But we do not self-determine our ethnicity. Our ethnicity is based (at least in part) on an inherited culture, race, ancestry, kinship, descent etc. Therefore, liberals view ethnicity as as an impediment to individual freedom; they see it as something the individual should be liberated from.

There's some evidence that this is Professor Eriksen's view of things. First, he is a committed liberal, having stood as a candidate for the Norwegian Liberal Party. Second, he states that deconstructing the Norwegian majority would contribute to liberation. Third, he recommends the work of Marianne Gullestad and she focuses on the "problem" that Norwegian identity is connected to a common culture and kinship (i.e. ethnicity). For instance, Marianne Gullestad writes that,

My argument is that there is currently a popular reinforcement of the ethnic dimensions of majority nationalism, with a focus on common culture, ancestry and origin. In particular, the national imagined sameness rests on the metaphor of the nation as a family writ large.

... History, descent, religion, and morality are intertwined in this form of nationalism, ethnicizing the state as an expression of collective identity.

I'd like to add another possible explanation for Professor Eriksen wanting to permanently deconstruct the Norwegian majority.

Once humanism became part of Western culture there was no longer such an emphasis on a pre-existing, pre-determined good already put there for us to discover and live by. Instead, the focus turned to what man could achieve and determine for himself. It was this that became the source of value.

It then began to make sense to see social change, or what liberals call progress, as a value in itself. What mattered was an open-ended possibility for change, so that man could apply a deliberate direction to his own affairs. It was a case of "man makes who he is" and "man shapes his own destiny from his own resources".

This then has several further consequences.

First, the humanistic philosophy will appeal especially to secular intellectuals, as they will be the ones to create and to lead schemes of human progress. As John Stuart Mill put it when discussing the views of Auguste Comte:

I agreed with him that the moral and intellectual ascendancy, once exercised by priests, must in time pass into the hands of philosophers.

So Professor Eriksen gets to see himself as the guide of humanity in his status as a public intellectual.

Second, the allegiance of these "philosophers" won't be to their particular, historic communities but to "man", as it is on the capacities of man to direct his own fate and to secure his own good that their outlook is focused. So they will tend to look to the global, to "humanity", rather than to particular nations or ethnies.

Third, they will not want a "block" to schemes of change. They will prefer what is fluid and complex, to what is concrete, fixed or stable. It is better for them to have a blank canvas to work their schemes on, and so they will prefer to start with the idea of man as a blank slate and existing entities or identities as being mere social constructs.

So there are reasons for Professor Eriksen, as a liberal, to regard the existence of the Norwegian majority as a nuisance and a hindrance. The Norwegian majority has an identity which is relatively stable, distinct and definite. It fits individual Norwegians within a structure which can't be easily manipulated or directed by intellectuals bent on social change. It also impedes a shift toward a focus on man (humanity) rather than on distinct nations (Eriksen considers himself a "transnationalist").

A couple of other points occur to me regarding liberal humanism. There is a certain tension between the idea that man should be self-directing and determine his own conditions of life and the idea that man should apply a deliberate direction to his affairs through schemes of social reform directed by public intellectuals.

The tendency of those advocating schemes of reform will be to find an ideal form of social organisation, one which achieves a total transformation of man into his ideal condition of being, thereby bringing history to an end.

This, though, would then bring to an end the very thing that liberal humanists believe make man so great: his ability to self-direct and self-create. It would bring about a totalitarian society in which the room for individual self-direction would be limited.

Perhaps that's one reason why individual autonomy is emphasised so strongly within liberal culture. It's an antidote to the real possibility that a liberal humanism will lurch into totalitarian schemes of social reform.

Perhaps too it explains why some liberal humanists are much more comfortable with the destructive task they have set themselves (getting rid of traditional institutions which hinder a process of change), rather than a clear, positive view of what is going to constitute the future society.

Professor Eriksen, for instance, was asked during his interview "You said once that someone should study what holds society together?". The issue of what holds society together is treated here as little more than an afterthought.

And when Professor Eriksen is asked about "the greatest challenges in research", he says,

The greatest challenge is to accept that no final solution exists. We must find out that ... we "make the rules as we go along". The dream of something stable and finished is widespread, but society will never be finished.

So it's a permanent revolution, in which having a clear idea of where you're going isn't so important (we "make the rules as we go along"). We should not aim at a stable social arrangment, claims Eriksen - we have to accept instability leading on to an unending process of reform.

That's certainly one logical position for a liberal humanist to take; in some ways it's preferable to the alternative of a total, finished scheme of social reform bringing history to an end.

But what if we don't want to permanently banish ethnic Norwegians? Then we have to step outside the logic of liberal humanism. It becomes a matter of pushing past the debates generated by a humanist philosophy and taking the argument back to first principles.

Professor Eriksen's desire to deconstruct the Norwegians is a radically destructive position; we should in turn be seeking to deconstruct the philosophy which led to such a view.


  1. And that blasted heteronormativity, the sooner that goes the better, we'll have to get Disney involved in its deconstruction.


  2. Would you mind defining "deconstruction" in this context? How does it differ from "destruction"?

  3. Thank you for explaining the why of all this: power for a few die hard practitioners. If only their adherents knew what they are likely to be in for in such a society.

    "rather than a clear, positive view of what is going to constitute the future society."

    I think most postmodernists agree on a shared vision, they just don't want to admit to the general public what it is. Occasionally they do let it slip. People absolutely will not conform nicely to this vision of forced equality.

    "we should in turn be seeking to deconstruct the philosophy which led to such a view. "

    Yes, this is inevitable. I hope at least.