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Elites

 | 
João de Pina Cabral
, 
Antónia Pedroso de Lima

Part IV. Monopolies and Enclaves

11. Uncanny Success: Some Closing Remarks

Michael Herzfeld

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1What makes an elite? Clearly the question becomes more rather than less complex in the course of reading these chapters, and it may be that the very concept now faces dissolution or at least reorganization. Inasmuch as questions of succession reveal striking similarities as well as differences between groups claiming elite status and those in a politically marginal position, the very notion of elite succession arguably contains the seeds of its own collapse.

2In the 1960s, especially, anthropologists were much given to exercises in what we would now call the deconstruction of the key terms of their discipline (cf. for example Needham 1971, on kinship and marriage). At times such exercises seemed to have become an end in themselves, and, as such, risked producing sterile and even destructive work. But where they resulted in a credible realignment of ethnographic data, producing novel insights and provoking further research, they were both productive and useful. Anthropologists should be especially aware of the dangers of allowing the classification of their perceptual world to drift into passive stagnation. If nothing else, the authors who present chapters here have posed some serious critical issues for rethinking a concept that has long enjoyed prominence, not only in social anthropology, but also in sociology, political science, and history. By examining elites ethnographically - by probing their intimate spaces rather than relying on their formal self-presentation - these scholars have offered an ethnographically and sometimes historically rich source of ideas to discommode the received images we currently entertain of what constitutes an elite. Elites often use such images as part of their technology of self-perpetuation, a technology that is most obviously embodied - in a literal sense - in the principles and personnel of succession itself.

3Thus a chapter about (for example) Fijian chiefs may fit uncomfortably into a collective analysis of elite succession; but that discomfort then prompts us to ask what are the sources of the historical specificity of 'modern elites'. The industrialists of George Marcus's Galveston both resemble the aristocrats of Nuno Monteiro's seventeenth-century Portugal in their concern with self-perpetuation and yet depart from the latter in their ideological insistence on personal autonomy - a social sentiment that, precisely because it is social, not only turns out to be a great deal less autonomous than its adherents fondly imagine, but also links them to non-elite as well as elite groups in other places and times. As João de Pina-Cabral notes in his opening remarks, what began as a discussion of succession soon revealed the importance of choice; but choice is itself, neoliberal ideologies notwithstanding, not uniquely the product of modern Western rationalism, and the evidence that elites share with the common weal certain peculiarities of political process reveals how fragile their ascendancy may often be. While I thus remain unpersuaded of the uniqueness of modern American individualism, the seepage of such claims into our own intellectual discourse is perhaps the best evidence that a discussion of elite succession has been long overdue, as a valuable corrective to the forms of exceptionalism to which academics themselves are especially prone.

4In addressing these chapters, I shall not provide an after-the-fact reader's report. I was present at the conference, greatly enjoyed the give-and-take of the discussions that took place there, and feel that such a procedure now would be both disrespectful to the authors and boring for readers who already, at this final moment in the book, will have formed their own assessments. If as a result I do not seem to give equal weight to all the chapters, this certainly does not mean that they have not all, in various ways, contributed to my understanding of the subject. Instead, I propose to focus on several major areas in which groups of chapters converge to illuminate the nature - conceptual, pragmatic, and temporal - of elite succession, in the hope that the relationships between specific chapters and these necessarily rather generic remarks will emerge clearly for attentive readers of both.

5The first of the key topics is the relationships among knowledge, identity and the constitution of power. This is a complex arena in which we see immediately how elites can both depart from and yet also aggressively reproduce practices characteristic of the cultures within which they claim their special status. A common instance of such yoking of disparity with common concerns is the translation of kinship solidarity into other kinds of organizational practice, as in family firms. This may even work to the advantage of an ethnographer using the traditional anthropological approach of emphasizing areas of difference from one's informants: Antónia Pedroso de Lima, for example, found herself especially able to enter the secretive world of business succession because, as a non-member of the key families, she lacked any status that could threaten the interests of any one of these families, and this experience itself richly illuminated her understanding of their modus operandi.

6In similar vein, the affectations that Jean Lave describes for the self-consciously English port producers of Oporto suggest the persistence, in a modernist rhetoric, of ideas that lie deeply within the emergence of ideas about status and birth in early European cultures, and that become contemptuously exclusionist in its present-day manipulations of wealth. The status of the ethnographer then becomes a sort of litmus test of the reali228 ty of that wealth: the genuinely powerful new international business elite condescends, sometimes quite kindly, to admit the ethnographer, whose prying is just so much scratching on the granite rockface of its empires, while those whose only remaining capital is the symbolic capital of past glories are diagnostically defensive.

7Kinship and descent thus provide a common basis for elite exclusivity. No anthropologist would find that surprising, although, as Sylvia Yanagisako notes, we should beware of confusing the formal rules of 'structure' with the social organization of affect and sentiment-or, as I prefer to call it (in order to avoid psychologistic implications), intimacy. Such notions may be extended, as in nationalism, to large, supralocal entities; among elites they may reappear in self-rationalizing guise as 'character' (whether national or personal) and even 'race'. More generally, however, the relationship between knowledge and succession throws into relief a key tension of virtually all claims to elite identity: a tension between the notion of knowledge as acquired and that of knowledge as immanent-as residing in categories of person by divine right. And that tension seemed to play through many of the chapters. It perhaps reaches its most recognizably postmodern form in George Marcus's notion of the 'dynastic uncanny'. But there are many variations of it, and some of these are more commonly encountered in non-elite contexts as well: consider, as an especially apposite example, the tension between immanent skill and learned technique that bedevils the transmission of craft knowledge from artisans to their apprentices. For the artisans, claims to a mystique in which crafts cannot really be learned but only reveal themselves through innate ability, very much in the (elite) idiom of the attribution of 'talent' in schools of classical music (Kingsbury 1988), may mask a very deep preoccupation with ensuring some form of succession, albeit one that may as often exclude as include immediate kin. In the same way, knowledge of an arcane business or of court protocol can be used to define membership in an elite, but also to contest it, from within as well as from outside. But we should also duly note that this is not a feature limited to those groups we would ordinarily recognize as elites, except in the sense that artisans may constitute a kind of elite within a class of workers. The mystique affected by port-wine producers resembles that claimed by skilled woodcarvers in at least one important respect: both are invocations of the uncanny, of something as irreducible to description as it is alienable outside whatever is viewed as the acceptable range of successors (who presumably, because they share in this mystique, have no need to describe it).

8My second point concerns methodology. How can we study elites? The idea of 'studying up' (that is, studying those who are socially considered our equals or superiors), eloquently advocated by Laura Nader (1972) many years ago and clearly instantiated in much of the work presented here, offers an important counterweight to the elitism of anthropology itself-an elitism that paralleled the racism of a discipline that focused exclusively for so long on exotic 'others'. But it also raises another issue: whether we are not in danger of falling into a new dualism by making the distinction between studying up and studying down. Who are ordinary folk? Even keeping studying up and studying down in dialectical tension with each other does not resolve that particular problem, since it perpetuates the underlying dualism. How can we study elites without contributing to that tendency? And, conversely, if elites do succeed in acquiring distinction in Bourdieu's (1984b) sense, and if they use it to keep others out (and so perpetuate the sense of their superiority), how do we gain sufficient intimacy to be able to say anything about these people that they would not say for themselves? Was not Pedroso de Lima's inclusion itself a form of exclusion? As a member of the inner circle instead, would she have learned more or less?

9Here the crucial methodological caution seems to be the importance of insisting that elites form parts of encompassing cultures. Their failure to engage that entailment would result in a complete loss of meaning for everything that constituted their vaunted superiority. This is the dilemma of the port-wine producers: should they lay claim to a Britishness now shorn at 'home' of its imperial authority, or do they dispose of sufficient distinction within the local context to maintain a separate identity in that arena more effectively? It seems that they have largely opted for the latter strategy: their rhetoric, as grandiloquent as it ever was, may be virtually all that keeps the mirage of power from imploding. Elites are in this sense like bureaucracies: if there are no clients to affirm their superiority, that superiority has no grounds; and that affirmation requires a recognition of common cultural links with the larger context, with the accompanying and ever-present threat of corrosion from such hobnobbing with ordinary people – from 'contamination'. This is the dilemma that - for the moment, at least - the Macanese described by João de Pina-Cabral seem to have negotiated much more successfully: by both moderating their exclusivism and retracting its forms to the private sphere, they have placed themselves in a relatively advantageous position in anticipation of Macao's union with China. Like the British of Oporto, they probably would not do very well 'at home', since their skills-like those of the Parsis of India-were honed on the very hybridity that, created by colonialism, seems to falter in the wake of colonialism's collapse. It remains to be seen whether, like the Parsis, they will prove to have 'lost their gamble with history' (Luhrmann 1996: 22). On Pina-Cabral's showing, at least, they seem to be facing the future buoyantly. They have moved from using Portugueseness as cultural capital to a much more China-directed position - unlike the Parsis, who pursued a path of virtue defined by their identification as the agents of the colonial power. Moreover, their engagement in the allegedly rational business of bureaucracy allows them, at least for the time being, to act as the agents, not of a faded colonial empire, but of the Weberian modernity that China clearly wishes to be thought to possess.

10Methodologically, it is important to trace the areas of cultural and symbolic commonality shared by parasitic elites with those of lesser status than themselves, if only to determine how, and with what materials, difference is constructed. Is the rationality of Michel Bauer's informants an identifiable attribute, or is it rather something that gets attributed - not the same thing at all? What kind of performance does it take to secure such an attribution? This is a key question, even harder to address in the historical than in the ethnographic record.

11When Portuguese aristocrats used the notion of the 'house' to define a conceptual unity far more durable and far more redolent of social authority than a mere residence, that specificity depended on a more general cultural reading of what made a house; José Manuel Sobral shows us that property was crucial here, even though - for a time - it could also be converted into other kinds of cultural capital. The Portuguese rural bourgeois he describes lost their gamble with history, it seems: they made some bad choices in the conversion process, although a few seem to have done reasonably well. They acquired university degrees and professional identities in a society where such things attract admiration (but also, therefore, envy); but in the process they moved away from the rural base that constituted quite literally the grounds of their authority. And they lost the last shreds of their distinction with the 1974 overthrow of the dictatorship: unlike elite Americans, republicans all, who have found ways of merging their status symbolism to the point where they can even exploit democratization for their own ends (using monarchical-sounding numbers to indicate lines of male succession, for example), these Portuguese squires have had to contend with a situation in which their class identity sets them apart. They have not emerged from the people and 'earned' their marks of distinction; and that, in a democratic system, strips them of significance. (Things could have been worse, as the wealthier peasants of preRevolutionary Russia and China could have taught them.)

12Claims on property would have availed them little. But what else did they have? It is clear that their performance, in the dual sense of self-presentation and competent management, allowed them to survive quite successfully in a more or less democratic meritocracy; but, in their home contexts, performance seems to have played a greater (and in this case more negative) role in the evaluation of their social practices than perhaps the theorists invoked by Sobral actually help us to understand. How did they comport themselves as their power slipped away? What reactions did they elicit from their once underprivileged neighbours, now possessed of the same voting power as themselves (and more, if we count numbers). The Macanese, by contrast, have clearly paid very close attention indeed to the niceties and contingencies of comportment. And those Macanese who were ill-advised enough to leave their networks and their wealth behind as they disappeared in the smoke and fire of family disputes have virtually vanished from memory. Here again, one wonders whether what they squandered was their reputation for self-control, rather than, in the first place, material property. The problem is that the archival records are incomplete in ways in which sensitive ethnography often is not.

13Performance is important because the position of elites is always an ambiguous one, responses to them being potentially fraught with irony. Elites may claim permanence-Helms (1998: 173) identifies this as, in effect, their defining vanity-but the permanence of any social arrangement is contingent by definition and in historical experience. When Britons speak of the 'House of Windsor', they are playing on models of dynastic succession as well as of domesticity, the latter lending an ironic potentiality to the ambiguous place of the royal family-not usually seen as a model of domesticity - in the affections of the people. This kind of uncertainty is often, as several contributors have noted, a feature of the social position of elites generally, and it means that the position of elites may be considerably more dependent on effective performance (again in the double sense) than their attempts at self-perpetuation allow them to admit.

14Popular affection is no guarantee of permanence, to be sure, and may be quite fickle. It is also not clear that elite status necessarily depends on prospects of permanence, even in supposedly 'traditional' societies, although Helms seems to suggest that elites are generally composed of those who have been more successful than most at gaining a toehold in eternity or something very like it. Society is not so obliging, however, and, as Carola Lentz points out, successional struggles were sometimes expected to entail conflict - with the seemingly counterintuitive corollary that the British colonialists' attempts to suppress conflict and 'restore' order were in fact an innovation, and not a welcome or necessarily a desirable one. This is one instance in which stabilization did not automatically mean a perpetuation of the status quo ante. On the contrary, it interfered with the local construction of authority because it removed the agonistic basis on which that authority was predicated - a convenient outcome for a colonial power that practised the principle of 'divide and conquer'. In such instances, historical context is clearly vital to understanding current readings of the terms in which elite identity is conceptualized, conferred, and transmitted.

15A related methodological issue to that of 'studying up or down' is that old chestnut of whether the insider or the outsider is likely to produce better ethnography. Here, too, one can argue in favour of a dialectical retention of both perspectives; but here, too, such a tactic also partially reproduces the taxonomic rigidity that it is intended to dispel. The distinction itself begs the important question: outsider or insider to what? For example, urban scholars studying rural populations in their own countries may be more disturbingly foreign to their informants than a true foreigner, who lacks their inhibitions about speaking dialect (and is less likely to sound condescending when doing so) and who lacks their association with a familiar idiom of often hostile power. On the other hand, someone who is located within a particular social group may be able to operate at a level of intimacy denied the outsider, not for reasons of cultural similarity, but because that kind of insiderhood entails a freedom of access that might actually be denied a local outsider even more strenuously than it would be a total foreigner (on this point, see especially Panourgiá 1995). Thus, dramatically, Nana Arhin Brempong provides a wonderful demonstration of how somebody who knows this material from within can nonetheless give a dispassionate account that is also an exercise in self-externalization. In using the language of the anthropologist, however, he also provides us with a means of identifying the relationship between chiefly succession and principles active in the larger Akan and indeed Ghanaian context. On the other hand, even as an outsider, João de Pina-Cabral sensed the importance of intimacy as defining the 'cycles of reunions' in which the Macanese elite does its supposedly rational and disinterested administrative business-the real nature of which is precisely what its members have every reason to hide. (Parenthetically, I would speculate that their gambling - in Pina-Cabral's account, a disapproved practice in Portugal but common among Chinese - may provide them with both avenues of intimate access to their new Chinese masters and a social context for defining the boundaries of their own intimate sphere.)

16A further point, at once methodological and theoretical, concerns the ethical dimension of our field. How much consideration do elites deserve? Partly in some sense because we are also members of educational elites, we may at some point be less willing to be tolerant, or may perceive that we are right to be less tolerant, of situations in which we feel elites exercise and abuse the exercise of overwriting power. But there is also the issue of the power that they exercise over us and the extent to which we feel constrained to respect their privacy: is this because, more than other groups we study, they now 'read what we write' (Brettell 1993)? Is it because the consequences of offending them are more likely to reach right back into our professional lives? Or is it empathy rather than fear that guides our sense of restraint here, because their forms of intimacy are so much more like our own?

17These are not questions to which I would presume to suggest an answer. They are intended, rather, as goads to an examination of what, for want of a better term, we might call the political and moral economy of respect. Elites command respect: when they lose it, they are no longer elites. Our own responses to the constraints they set on our work are thus something of a gauge of the limits of their power as well as of the resources on which they draw in order to maintain it. When we defamiliarize their world - when, for example, we recognize in Texas industrialists' concern with the parallels between the transmission of physical and psychological properties of the person on the one hand and material property in the form of real estate or money on the other the very similar concerns of peasants in southern Europe (compare Marcus 1992: 173-87 with Vernier 1991) - we also potentially threaten that power, so that the extent of their defensiveness in response to our probing presence may actually be an effective measure of the fragility of their grasp of status. That may be a poor compensation to the ethnographer who has been shut out of their lives; but it is nonetheless a useful ethnographic nugget in its own right.

18One of the major ways in which elites perpetuate their grasp of the present and future is by monumentalizing the past. (Nationalism is in this sense a mass popularization of elite tactics.) Establishing the age of the 'house' is a means of representing its lien on immortality - again, one step on the road to what Benedict Anderson (1983: 18) has noted as a particular feature of nationalism, the submersion of individual mortalities in a collective, permanent, and ageless resurrection of the body politic. The emergence of deep unilineal clan structures, for example, is often, and in many parts of the world, tied to the consolidation of noble status (cf. for instance Shryock 1997): the reproduction of an underlying sameness in the midst of generational change is the foremost proof of that fundamental claim to perpetuity. As we conducted our deliberations in a hall decorated with portraits of the present Marquis de Fronteira's illustrious ancestors, several of us were struck - apparently to his pleasure - by a recognition of the dynastic uncanny in our midst: the conjuring trick of monumental portraiture overlays the passage of time with the paradox of an unchanging temporality. And only the present Marquis's own generosity and intellectual curiosity made it possible to discuss this cogent illustration of the workings of the uncanny - an invasion of his house to which he was genially responsive, but of which one felt that at least some of the frowning portrait busts must have disapproved. Let us note, however, that resemblance is to some extent culturally constructed: thus, the rules for perceiving dynastic continuity in the phenotypical representation of successive generations are themselves part of a larger cultural context that simultaneously validates and challenges elite pretensions.

19The relationship between elites and their surroundings is thus fraught with paradox; and that paradox is perhaps best illustrated by the idea that they are the 'elect'. As George Marcus noted in discussion, etymologically the terms 'elite' and 'election' are related. But elites are not usually elected by popular mandate (although there are exceptions). Christina Toren shows us, in a Hegelian mode she derives from her Fijian informants rather than from her own intellectual training, that equality and hierarchy can be dialectically related to each other. This is especially interesting in that it reveals the tension that lies at the roots of the huge semantic swathe cut by 'election', with its intimations of both popular participation and exclusivity. Her insistence on recognizing her own informants' contribution to her theoretical formulation, moreover, is both instructive and exemplary.

20We are indeed beginning to get to the point in anthropology where we are much more comfortable about acknowledging that the people we study are often the sources of our theories about them. We must be prepared to extend that generosity to the discussion of elites, as Toren does here. But we must also remember that, to the extent that we (or our informants) find it useful to acknowledge the existence of a distinction between elites and others, non-elite members have theories about elites. This dimension perhaps deserved greater exploration than it has received in these chapters, because - aside from the issue of intellectual acknowledgment - it would have revealed a great deal more about the ways in which elites maintain their status, or lose it.

21But such omissions are revealing in themselves. As academics we are, willy-nilly, participants in an elite culture ourselves. Moreover, our own elite culture is riddled with inequalities inherited from other domains of social life - race, gender, class, and many other factors. Our workshop was, for example, a somewhat heavily one-sided conversation from a gender perspective, in one direction in terms of who participated, but strongly in the reverse direction in terms of the people discussed. Women may dislike their subordinate status, as is clear from the Macanese case, but they have little choice if they are to continue to belong to an elite - a situation that is likely to be reinforced by new patriarchal structures, we may surmise, with the arrival of the new administrative arrangements. The reasons for such imbalances, however, do not only reside in the cultures we study; they also reside in our methodologies. Indeed, Sylvia Yanagisako's paper is an exception to the general rule in an important sense, for, although she primarily talks about male succession, she does so in order to show how under conditions of legal liberalization the 'cherished projects' of women not only mount a credible challenge to those of men but also offer a potentially more effective means of achieving family solidarity under the new conditions of life.

22Conversely, however, the overall gender imbalance in the human population of these chapters should prompt questions about how the exclusion of women from some areas of power in some societies, or men's control of women as symbolic resources in others, provides models of political organization that actually become exaggerated when a particular group attains great authority. Equally, where this does not appear to happen, we might use this circumstance to open up questions about professions of equality as a symbolic resource - as evidence of 'rationality' and 'development', not unlike the preservation of non-Western monuments by Western town planners as evidence of their liberal superiority over the despotic, oriental creators of those monuments. It is clear from Sylvia Yanagisako's account, for example, that some deployments of la liberazione delle donne can provide manipulative men with a rhetoric for asserting their own authority on the grounds of an assumed modernity. That, in turn, should lead us to re-examine persistent disparities between our own rhetoric and the actual direction of our conceptual energies. Why do these otherwise fine chapters appear so slanted in terms of gender and other 'internal' hierarchies? Jean Lave offered excellent advice: to imagine everyone in the ethnographic frame as equally important. That we have failed to do so is disturbing, but it can now be turned to good account: it should move us to ask what such exclusions tell us about the ways in which elite exclusivity parades its internal hierarchies as models-of, and also as models-for (Geertz 1973: 93-4), hegemony in general?

23Ultimately, however, we can only do this if we return to the peculiar insistence on intimacy that is the hallmark of good ethnography - on exploring those private spaces in which, for example, our informants recognize explicitly that the marginalization of women from positions of authority, or the dismissal of the observations of children, actually happens. What we seek is not so much the basis of the dynastic uncanny as some understanding of what it is used to support: the uncanny success, as it were, of elites in perpetuating themselves. (That is, to be sure, something of a truism: as the more historical chapters presented here demonstrate, it is the capacity for self-perpetuation that, over time, creates a sense of elite identity, and thus creates elites themselves.) When we succeed in achieving the necessary level of intimacy, our own practices become a subversion of elite exceptionalism, opening it up to the realization of its human - indeed, its common - properties. It is not only in remote places that we can appreciate how the very act of ethnographic observation necessarily contaminates the imagined (and sometimes carefully constructed) purity of the observed. If it is 'contamination' that elites fear, they have a great deal to fear from anthropological examination. But if we fail to study them and to recognize that their means of self-perpetuation are not, after all, so very far removed from those we encounter in the more traditional stamping grounds of our profession, we shall merely perpetuate the exoticism that, in our predecessors' work, we have already dismissed as a betrayal of our common humanity.

Auteur

D.Phil. (Oxon. 1976, D.Litt. (Birmingham 1989) is Professor of Anthropology (and Curator of European Ethnology in the Peabody Museum) at Harvard University. Recent lectures include the inaugural Distinguished Lecture in European Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (1996) and the Munro Lecture at the University of Edinburgh (1997). A past President of both the Modern Greek Studies Association and the Society for the Anthropology of Europe, he is currently editor of American Ethnologist. He is the author of Ours Once More (1982), The Poetics of Manhood (1985), Anthropology through the Looking-Glass (1987), A Place in History (1991), The Social Production of Indifference (1992), Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State (1997), and Portrait of a Greek Imagination (1997). He was a co-winner of the Chicago Folklore Prize for 1981. He has also been awarded the J. B. Donne Prize on the Anthropology of Art (1989) and the Rivers Memorial Medal (1994) (both from the Royal Anthropological Institute, London), and the J. 1. Staley Prize (School of American Research, 1994). In 1997 he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

© Etnográfica Press, 2000

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