It’s easy to observe that some voluntary associations of people (clubs, meetups, housing arrangements, churches) survive forever, while others explode or implode either permanently or on a regular basis. But what distinguishes groups of the first type from groups of the second type? I’m chewing on a theory in the back of my mind, while life hums around me and provides handy (and frustrating) examples as grist for the mill.

The essence of the theory is: in order to sustain itself through the years, a group needs at least three things.

  1. Shared ideology: the members must agree on a common purpose, intention, goal, mission, philosophy, or other intangible principle or set of principles. This can be as complex as a set of religious dogmas or as simple as deciding to get together once a month for a rotating dinner party
  2. Sustainable institutions: the processes, procedures, tools, and possessions that are vital to the smooth functioning of the group have to be maintained and held in common; if there’s only one person who knows how to keep the financials in good shape, for instance, and they’re hit by a bus, that’s bad for the organization
  3. Functional rapport: if members get along well enough to work together to carry out the group’s purpose, that’s great; if there are schisms, or cliques, or people hang out so much at meetings that nothing ever gets done, the group might be on the path to no longer functioning.

Of course I’m writing this because I have a handy case study of a group that may be in the process of imploding: a small makerspace in my area.

Shared Ideology

There is a significant disagreement about the purpose and focus of the space. A certain board member believes that the space should be run like a non-profit business, while most of the members I have personally spoken with on the topic believe that the space should continue to be community-focused. There are a few well-defined points of disagreement.

  • There’s a contingent of space members who spend a lot of their time there playing computer games together. This is partly a result of the origins of the space itself, and I believe there has been a strong gamer contingent for the entire lifetime of the space. The schisming board member wishes to eject this subset of the membership.
  • The space has a sizable chunk of the week set aside for open hours, during which the general public can come in and use our tools, provided that they know how to use them. We are able to run public hours because we have some number of members who volunteer to keep the space open. They are mostly gamers. The schisming board member believes that the volunteers aren’t really important, and that we should get rid of them and focus on aggressive marketing instead.
  • There are some computers available for use in the space. The schisming board member has reportedly said that he wants to get rid of the computers — which would, of course, get rid of the gamers.

For a while there was an active power struggle going on between this board member and a particular other board member, which resulted in nothing much getting done for the entire six months they were on the board together. The schisming board member has continued to do very little work related to their actual board duties. This does not endear them to the members I have spoken with, to say the least.

The primary harmful result of this fractured ideology, as far as I can tell, is that people become jaded, fed up, and don’t want to have anything to do with the space any more. Given that the space relies entirely on volunteer work and member enthusiasm, this is definitively harmful and trends toward implosion.

Sustainable Institutions

The space does in fact have bylaws and rules that people do care about and follow. There are also, unfortunately, a few things working against us in this corner. Note that physical things also fall into this category:

  • Although the space just moved locations, the previous location had a shitty landlord who might have been trying to drive us out. The plumbing was terrible, and multiple people quit due to the persistent smell of sewage, about which we could do nothing.
  • The old location was also underground and not accessible to disabled people, which dissuaded some potential members.
  • There is, to the best of my knowledge, one person who knows how the website, the mailing list, and the board-member emails all work, and administrates all of them. I would like to know that if he were hit by a bus tomorrow the space could recover easily in terms of systems administration, but I am not certain of this.

Functional Rapport

The aforementioned pissing contest between two board members did a lot to hurt the space. The feud was complicated by the fact that a certain employee of the schisming board member made life unpleasant in many small ways for many other members, but the schisming board member refused to allow this employee to be banned on the grounds that several of the employee’s vital job tasks could only be performed in the makerspace. The series of incidents damaged a lot of people’s ability to give a shit or willingness to be engaged.

Looking Forward

It is possible that the space can recover from this collection of difficulties. Indeed, I hope it does. There’s a lot that is still good, and some number of people who are more engaged and involved than they were before all this went down. But I think that in order to recover from the low level of member engagement that I observed just a month ago, more people have to step up and put their hands on the wheel — and then agree where to steer. We have been restoring the functionality of our physical institutions by moving to a space that, while underground, has sunlight, and with working plumbing. We need still to resolve the rapport and ideological issues, however we can. If you’ve read this far, you can probably guess what solution I am leaning towards. Since I’m one of the members who’s lost the ability to give a fuck, though, I won’t pretend like I get a say. Here’s hoping it gets interesting again, fast.


UUAA Dec 27, 2015 [Backlog]

Front quote:

God did not enter the world of our nostalgic silent-night, snow-blanketed peace-on-earth sugar cookie suspended-reality of Christmas. God slipped into the vulnerability of skin and entered a world as violent and disturbing as our own.

~ Nadia Bolz Weber


  • 254 Sing We Now of Christmas
  • 256 Winter Night
  • 127 Can I See Another’s Woe?
  • 155 Circle ‘Round For Freedom
  • 241 In the Bleak Midwinter
  • 181 No Matter If You Live Now Far or Near

Excerpt from “The Slaughter of the Innocents of Sandy Hook,” Nadia Bolz Weber

Sermon Title:
“Other People’s Children”

This was a Christmas service, but a somewhat sharper one than usual. If I remember correctly, the essence of it was that just because it is not our child that suffers, does not make it okay that any child suffers. Or, “there is no such thing as ‘other people’s children.'” It probably connected the rough birth of Jesus with the plight of children who are not cared for by their families or communities, for whatever reason: refugee children, children in foster care, possibly other broad groups.

Can I see another’s woe, and not feel pain myself? The state of compassion in which the answer is “no, I cannot” is one that UUs consider good. (And there is value in being able to see the world as it is.)

I wish I remember more of the words for the silence and reflection, because I have noted down “taking next steps with old stories” and I do not remember what that is from. I do remember what it is about: we should not just retell the same old stories in the same old way. The stories we tell shape our sense of reality. We should move forward with and within and around these stories to use them to change the world, not keep it the same.

A side note: I love the hymn Circle ‘Round For Freedom. It is so fantastic. I want to teach it to protestors and sing it when appropriate. I like it a lot better than chants about “fuck those racist killer cops.” (Do I need to censor swear words? I don’t have a real audience; will swear words limit the audience I can accumulate?) It’s just super great.

UUAA service August 10, 2014 [Backlog]


If it is language that makes us human, one half of language is to listen. Silence can exist without speech but speech cannot live without silence.

~ Jacob Trapp


  • 395 Sing and Rejoice
  • 1056 Thula Klizeo
  • 86 Blessed Spirit of My Life
  • 286 A Core of Silence
  • 352 Find a Stillness

Today by Mary Oliver

Trois Gymnopedies, No. 1 by Erik Satie

Trois Gymnopedies, No. 2 by Erik Satie

I note next to “Call to Worship”: “Summer as season of rest??” So I have to suppose that the call to worship included some reading about or reference to the notion that the summer is a season of rest. Certainly it is the season in which children are released from their classes (most of them to a summer of leisure); it is also, for this reason, the season in which families take the most vacation time. It is a season in which some places of worship (such as my congregation) reduce the number of services, and do not offer religious education/Spiritual Growth and Development every Sunday for the kids. The summer holidays tend to be pretty chill, unless you are the master barbecuer at the block party, or in charge of the fireworks for your town. It is thus not entirely strange to position the summer as a, or the, season of rest.

The sermon was titled “Is Silence Weird?” and was given by Guest Minister Rev. Fran Dew. My notes offer “We seem to enjoy being busy; this is spiritually unhelpful.” Seems obviously true. In moments of quietude, we find peace. It is the rare person who discovers serenity in the rush of doing. I note that a Buddhist silent practice is to quiet the “monkey mind,” while a Christian silent practice is to fill one’s mind with God, and ask, “are these not the same?” That answer would probably depend on the individual Christian’s concept of what it means to fill one’s mind with God, whether it’s an active, imagining, thing, or more of a passive allowing one. (As I am singularly incapable of either quieting my mind or thinking meaningfully about any god, I have got no personal experience, but anyone who does is welcome to chime in.)

My last note is “the purpose of words is to create silence,” annotated “(some Buddhist myth or other).”

A few weeks ago during the service, Glen Thomas remarked that he feels he needs to do a good job when he provides the reflection preceding the bit of silence in our services, because for some of us it’s the only silent time we’ll get all week. That struck me. It doesn’t seem like it ought to be correct, but I can’t honestly say he’s wrong. Personally, I have access to silence, but I reflexively fill it with metaphorical noise. Anyone have thoughts about how to grab little bits of silence, here and there?

Yesterday Teaches Tomorrow: UUAA 01/31/16

Today’s front quote:

“Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” ~ Paul Gaugin

Today’s hymns (numbers from Singing the Living Tradition):
38 Morning Has Broken
187 It Sounds Along The Ages
67 We Sing Now Together
158 Praise the Source of Faith and Learning (commissioned for our congregation!)
299 Make Channels for the Streams of Love

Today’s service was quite nice. The choir did a piece called From the State of Emptiness (Catherine Dalton), which is inspired by/based on chants ofTibetan monks — I am not sure if this counts as cultural appropriation, and fidgeted uncomfortably a couple times thinking about it, but it was very pretty. The reading was a translation and excerpt of a Buddhist (Therevadan?) creation/how people became as they are story.

Quick summary: humans were originally beings that lived for 80,000 years, could fly, and emitted light from within. Then one day, one of them flew down and tasted a white frothy substance that was on the earth, and it was sweet. Soon everyone was eating this delicious food. Their bodies grew heavy, they became unable to fly, and they ceased to carry their own light. They also began to exhibit or to become aware of differences between them — some were men and some were women. Soon a couple discovered sexual intercourse, and all the others shamed them and pelted them with mud. So they built a house to protect themselves, stored rice inside the house so they would not have to go out, and became lazy. The separation created by living in houses caused people to develop greed, and theft, and things got worse until they got a king, who could enforce rule of law.

Glen Thomas, our music minister, gave the sermon, which drew parallels between this Buddhist story and the book of Genesis. He named three harmful things that people do that we can see arise in each story:

1. The use of difference to rank ourselves
2. The disposal of fairness in favor of having
3. The use of the earth’s resources, the very mud of the earth, to harm others

He also linked these three things to three problems that Martin Luther King identified with modern American society:

1. Racism
2. (Greed? Capitalism? I don’t remember exactly what he said here)
3. Militarism

He suggested that as people with privilege, it is up to us to look at these three things, and at the end of the day to ask ourselves, “What have I done about that?” What have I done about the fact that we continue to use difference to rank ourselves, continue to dispose of fairness in favor of having, and continue to use the very stuff of our Earth to harm each other?

The goal of my faith, our senior minister likes to say, is “to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable,” that is, to point out what we the comfortable don’t want to think about: that we could be doing more to help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. As calls to action go today’s was pretty comprehensive. 🙂 I wish I had written down bits of the benediction; it was something with the same sentiment as “go with love on your mind, and justice in the very soles of your feet.”

Also, it was really nice to have a sermon talk about religions besides Christianity for once. I am an atheist and was raised UU, and am only Christian in that I have generally celebrated Christmas, and by singing carols and hymns based on the story of Jesus. We’ve had more jesus and god in our sermons and hymns since Glen Thomas and Lindasusan (our assistant minister) started giving sermons and developing worship services, and it has been making me feel a little sidelined and vaguely uncomfortable.

Scraps on Labor

Today is Labor Day, hooray. Today is the day that we in the United States remember and celebrate the organized labor movement(s) in our nation’s history. (Among the myriad of other things that happen on holidays.)

Talking about Labor Day often means the valorization of Labor, that is, people performing economically productive work as employees and maybe some other refinements. To crib some history from David Graeber’s The Democracy Project, a great deal of labor organizing has been carried out without challenging the idea that work is good in itself and that more work is necessarily better. To crib some ethics from The Democracy Project, “labor is virtuous if it helps others.” Economically productive labor is not always laudable and other types of labor not typically categorized that way are inherently desirable, everything contributing to “the fact that we are all, and have always been, products of mutual creation,” which Graeber calls “the real business of human life.” So maybe I am not a fan of “celebrate the history and efforts of organized labor” rhetoric.

But actually I am, even though it ignores something I think is very important – the fact that we are often overloaded by labor and work too much even after the intense, violent efforts of over a century ago that won us the 8-hour work day. 8 hours is a good Schelling fence because of the slogan “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what we will” even though, counting commutes and meals, it really might be more like 8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep, 2 hours for commute, 3 hours for meals and chores, 3 hours for what we will. I would be much happier with a 6-hour work day. I would be much happier with rhetoric around labor that declared each worker’s right to really have time to do what they will and pushed for less overvaluation of paid labor. And yet! And yet. I am more than happy to celebrate these labor movements of the past and, sometimes, present.

We have the same enemy, you see. “Take all the reform you can get,” said Max Eastman in 1913 or so. Few real, lasting changes happen all at once; sometimes small slow steps will get you there much quicker than trying to take giant leaps. Pay workers more for the hours they’re currently required to put in, and their lives will be more comfortable. Remember that workers, together, have changed the face of employment in the US and around the world more than once, and can do so again. Even if I think the goal of $15 an hour isn’t enough and would rather be pushing for a six hour work day with a living wage, all goals will get accomplished more quickly if everyone against the current structure is working together. Solidarity!

All movements for labor reform are still movements for labor reform. So even though my pet ethics aren’t addressed by the kind of celebration of labor we see around labor day, I still find it worthwhile.

I Wish To Register A Complaint

If eight hours costs the stockholders nothing, seven will cost them little, six will only make them sick, five will make them hungry, and four will put them to work!–The Industrial Loafers of the World will put in their four hours with the rest. And to Society as a whole the change will still be “an economy.” It will “increase efficiency.” It will “cost nothing.”

— Max Eastman, “Knowledge and Revolution,” The Masses Vol. 5 Issue 5, February 1914

Not to mention, now, everyone who wants to work but cannot find someone who is hiring.

It should go without saying that the wages for a four-hour work day must be adequate to sustain a person. Not to subsist, but to sustain, healthy and dignified.

I am lucky. Nonetheless, I wish to register a complaint. It is not that the eight-hour workday and forty-hour workweek are sufficient to suck up all the energy I would rather partially expend on my own projects. It is not even that so many are forced to work sixty hour weeks or cannot work at all. It is more or less that it feels like any power we ever had to change the situation has been taken away. By what? Well, *puts on tinfoil hat…*

What’s in a name?

Probably the most frequent question I get is “What’s ‘Esty’ short for?” I have even gotten this question from people at conventions when all they know about me is my name badge.

Uh, well, actually it’s short for “Estelendur” (that is, this blog’s URL and my general screenname).

“So what’s ‘Estelendur’?”

Before I answer: keep in mind that when this story starts, I wasn’t even twelve yet.

It’s Elvish, as in Tolkien. Fellowship of the Ring came out when I was a little pre-teen, and the books had previously been read to me. My father wanted us to experience the books before the movies, you see. To make a long story short, I was completely in love with Middle Earth — and after the first movie came out I was completely in love with Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn. Piece #1.

At some point I went and read the Appendices behind Return of the King. When he was growing up in Rivendell, Aragorn wasn’t called by his name, because Elrond wanted to spare him the weight of being Isildur’s heir during his youth. Instead he was called Estel, which means ‘hope’ in Quenya. Piece #2.

At another point I got my hands on Ruth Noel’s “Languages of Middle Earth.” I was a little linguistics dork already, and I was positively gleeful. One feature of this book is a dictionary of many Elvish words and word-parts (I don’t recall if they are separated into Quenya and Sindarin or not). Piece #3.

There were these two suffixes. I provide here the much more nuanced definitions from the Quenya-English glossary available on Helge Fauskanger’s Ardalambion site, because it’s on my computer and the book is upstairs:

-ndil (also -dil), ending occurring in many names, like Amandil, Eärendil; it implies devotion or disinterested love and may be translated “friend” (SA:(noun)dil); this ending is “describing the attitude of one to a person, thing, course or occupation to which one is devoted for its own sake” (Letters:386). Compare -ndur. [….]

-ndur (also -dur), ending in some names, like Eärendur; as noted by Christopher Tolkien in the Silmarillion Appendix it has much the same meaning as -ndil “friend”; yet -ndur properly means “servant of” (SA:(noun)dil), “as one serves a legitimate master: cf. Q. arandil king’s friend, royalist, beside arandur ‘king’s servant, minister’. But these often coincide: e.g. Sam’s relation to Frodo can be viewed either as in status -ndur, in spirit -ndil.” (Letters:286)

If I remember correctly, Noel glosses both of these as more or less “lover of __” in a way that I did not perceive as having sexual connotations.

By now you might see where this is going. “Estel” + “-ndur” + an epenthetic ‘e’ to make it sounds good = “Estelendur” = “Aragorn fangirl.” Yes. This was the name by which I chose to represent myself online at approximately the age of 12. At the time, it was completely appropriate.

It happened that I joined an online community full of kind, intelligent, amusing people around this time. Eventually people addressed me enough that they started shortening my name, usually to “Este”. Some sense of aesthetics popped up and informed me that I didn’t like that, that “Esty” was much better, so I settled into that nickname online. Around the beginning of 8th grade, I realized that “Esty” felt much more my name than the name my parents had given me. It just fit me better, somehow, and felt more correct. Thus it happened that when I started high school, I also changed names.

My conception of the meaning of the name changed as well, over time. Eventually I noticed that according to the more nuanced definitions of -dur and -dil, I should really have chosen -dil when I made my screenname. I did not mean to call myself, after all, a servant of Aragorn. But a servant of hope? I am a determined optimist, sometimes putting forth great effort to avoid becoming jaded or cynical (and sometimes failing). So perhaps a servant of hope is a thing I could be. Since that realization, I have been doing my best to live up to it. It’s nice to have something intangible to strive for, and I am only a little embarrassed by my name’s origin story.

Embodiment, Reality, and Sheer Delight (Coming of Age in Second Life book report)

Over the last several days I read Tom Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. It was very enjoyable and also fascinating! By way of commentary and response I am going to tell a seemingly unrelated story.

In August 2013 I was at the Mysterium convention in Rochester, NY. This is an annual convention for fans of the Myst series of games (which is interesting for another reason: there is a real community built around an entirely virtual place, most of which only exists in single-player mode (Avery, unpublished)). One attendee had brought an Oculus Rift. For the unfamiliar, this was an open-source 3D-display virtual reality headset (it has since been purchased by Facebook). I put it on. I looked around. I was standing in a little cabin.

“OH MY GOD I want to LIVE here!!!!” was my immediate reaction. The elation didn’t fade as I used the game controls (controller? keyboard? don’t remember, doesn’t matter) to run around, up the stairs, down the stairs, outside to the little yard, around and around the house. I spun myself around with the controls and looked the opposite direction to make myself incredibly dizzy. I tried it with my head looking in the direction of spin and didn’t feel it nearly as much. I looked up, I looked down. I ran some more. It was amazing. It was wonderful. I wanted to live in VR.

The next day the Starry Expanse devs hooked up the Rift to their real-time walk-around-in-able build of Riven’s Prison Island. It was, again, totally amazing. The only thing missing was my hands! Now, this would be a technically fixable thing: add a camera to the outside of the Rift headset, put motion-capture-marked gloves on, program some hand textures into the game. There are ways. My friend T and I immediately started dreaming them up. “Oh my goodness. I want to live here. I want to live in this game.”


Why? Why did I have such a strong positive reaction to putting on a Rift and looking around? I didn’t have words to explain it.

Thanks to Boellstorff, I now do. It comes down to embodiment.

I experience plenty of sheer joy when I’m doing intellectual work, as many of my friends will attest (my former advisor remarked that giggling while reading Marx was the sort of thing that, properly worded, *could* go in a letter of recommendation). But moments of completely transporting joy and “OMG I want to LIVE HERE” experiences? They’re all about feeling competently embodied. I’ve felt this a few times playing capoeira, when I was able to let my muscle memory and instincts take over. I’ve felt this when I was strapped into the rotating hip harness, doing ball-bearing flips on a wire. I feel this almost every time I hop on my bike. What all these moments have in common is that I can stop being conscious of the fact that I’m operating a body, and simply experience the way the body operates.

I have had this kind of experience in third-person video games, as well. When I play the hang glider minigames in Ratchet & Clank (on PS2), I do briefly almost feel like I’m flying. I can almost play the hoverboard race minigame in the first R&C by feel, even though I get zero haptic feedback. It’s very cool.

I have never, ever, EVER had this experience playing a real-time first-person point of view video game. I rely far too much on my peripheral vision to be comfortable substituting the rectangle of a computer screen for my entire field of view. Even now I can consciously notice the place where my ankles cross on the chair, the recycling bin in the corner, the dog’s crate in the other (diagonal) corner, the white square of my power brick on the carpet, without moving my eyes from the computer screen. I feel half-blinded in first-person video games, with their narrow, flat field of view. Consequently, I’ve never adapted to the controls, and when I do play I usually bump into things, fall off ramps and stairs, can’t aim to save my (virtual) life…

The Oculus Rift let my body fall away. For the first time in my life, I was effortlessly embodied inside the head of a digital person, a virtual person. It was a virtual embodiment, but felt no less real for the pixellation of the world around me.

In fact, that the virtual and actual are both real is a major theme of Boellstorff’s book; it feels as though he returns to it over and over because he thinks that his audience is unlikely to understand and accept this. I cannot say he is wrong, either. I know the virtual is real because I, like most SL residents he discusses, have sustained friendships and loving connections by communications in virtual spaces (usually chat boxes). And now I, too, have experienced a virtual embodiment that felt as real as the actual one.

I want to go back.

But I Am Not To Blame: Witchcraft Among the Azande, Litigation Among the Americans

Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande, by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, is a classic of ethnographic literature, or so I have gathered. Although I have only read part of it as yet, I was struck by the way the Azande use witchcraft to explain misfortune, which distinctly parallels that honored American cultural institution, the lawsuit.

A disclaimer: I will be using the present tense, because that is how one talks about the contents of books, and Evans-Pritchard uses the present tense because ethnography, but he did his research in the 1920s. It is long outdated. However, as a description of ways in which human ideas and behaviors can coherently arrange themselves, I find it fascinating and still relevant today.
EDIT: Apparently they still do the thing actually! I find this more amusing than maybe I should. (Thanks to David Graeber for the correction.)

Necessary background knowledge: 1) What even is witchcraft? Basically a witch (who can be anyone, though usually men use it against other men and women use it against other women or their husbands) can psychically harm someone else, making them sick or otherwise messing things up. 2) How do the Azande use witchcraft socially in Evans-Pritchard’s account? Well, “witchcraft explains why events are harmful to man and not how they happen” (24). Evans-Pritchard describes two incidents attributed to witchcraft: a boy knocked his foot on a stump and got a cut, which became infected; and a man, while checking on his fermenting beer, accidentally lit the roof thatch on fire, burning down the hut. Evans-Pritchard points out that these are two perfectly prosaic accidents, which could have happened to anyone at any time. But it is that very fact which feeds into the explanation “witchcraft!” It could have happened to anyone, at any time, so why did it happen to those particular victims at that particular time?

What [the boy] attributed to witchcraft was that on this particular occasion, when exercising his usual care, he struck his foot against a stump of wood, whereas on a hundred other occasions he did not do so, and that on this particular occasion the cut, which he expected to result from the knock, festered whereas he had had dozens of cuts which had not festered. Surely these peculiar conditions demand an explanation. Again, every year hundreds of Azande go and inspect their beer by night and they always take with them a handful of straw in order to illuminate the hut in which it is fermenting. Why then should this particular man on this single occasion have ignited the thatch of his hut? (21)

To a Zande, witchcraft is an omnipresent possibility:

if, in fact, any failure or misfortune falls upon anyone at any time and in relation to any of the manifold activities of his life, it may be due to witchcraft. The Zande attributes all these misfortunes to witchcraft unless there is strong evidence, and subsequent oracular confirmation, that sorcery or some other evil agent has been at work, or unless they are clearly to be attributed to incompetence, breach of a taboo, or failure to observe a moral rule. (18)

As a result of this ordinariness,

When misfortunes occur [a Zande] does not become awestruck at the play of supernatural forces. He is not terrified at the presence of an occult enemy. He is, on the other hand, extremely annoyed. Someone, out of spite, has ruined his ground-nuts or spoilt his hunting or given his wife a chill, and surely this is cause for anger! He has done no one harm, so what right has anyone to interfere in his affairs? It is an impertinence, an insult, a dirty, offensive trick! (19)

The Zande thus attribute a social cause to all misfortune; anything bad that happens to them is a result of someone else’s malice (for all witchcraft emanates, of course, from a witch, whether they are consciously aware of it or not [this is one of the more fascinating facets of Evans-Pritchard’s ethnography, but outside the scope of this blog post], and obviously one would only use witchcraft against someone upon whom one wishes ill). Evans-Pritchard cautions the reader:

We must not be deceived by their way of expressing causation and imagine that because they say a man was killed by witchcraft they entirely neglect the secondary causes that, as we judge them, were the true causes of his death. They are foreshortening the chain of events, and in a particular social situation are selecting the cause that is socially relevant and neglecting the rest. If a man is killed by a spear in war, or by a wild beast in hunting, or by the bite of a snake, or from sickness, witchcraft is the socially relevant cause, since it is the only one which allows intervention and determines social behavior. (25)

There are two kinds of intervention possible. In the case of death, vengeance or compensation can be demanded or taken; the identity of the witch is determined via use of oracles. When Evans-Pritchard was writing, demanding compensation from a witch for a death was no longer legally possible, nor was execution of a witch by a prince, because the European-imposed legal system did not recognize the testimony of oracles as valid, while the Azande considered it the only relevant evidence. So during his fieldwork, a death was paid for with another death, but this was accomplished in secret. It is therefore less relevant to my argument.
In the case of imminent danger, or when a situation can still be gainfully improved, the procedure is thus: the name of the witch responsible is determined by use of oracles, as before. Then the witch must be asked to stop doing his witchcraft, and the usual procedure is to get a messenger to bring to the witch a wing of the bird that died to the oracle, to which the witch responds that he was unaware that he was causing trouble, that he’s very sorry, and that he wishes the victim health and happiness and so on, and blows water on the wing (41-42). Evans-Pritchard argues that the customary nature of this procedure, the customary politeness, and the layers of factors reducing potential friction between witch and sick man’s relatives, all combine to prevent violence and ongoing ill will between the parties. This is advantageous because after all they have to keep living as part of the same community, as long as the sick man doesn’t die.
In that way, then, witchcraft simultaneously creates and defuses frictions within the community, by providing someone to blame in the event of misfortune but also a way to repair the breach that results (and which probably existed previously, since nobody would use witchcraft against someone they weren’t upset with).

What does all this have to do with the American legal system? I find particularly striking the idea that all death is due to witchcraft. I’m hardly surprised, these days, when a news story about an accidental death is accompanied by a news story about a lawsuit. In some sense I even expect it.

There was a case in which two university students were fighting in the vicinity of a fraternity party; both had been drinking underage and if I recall correctly both of them had knives of a kind not permitted on campus. Certainly one of them had a knife, and killed the other. He was found not guilty of second degree murder by reason of self-defense. The father said after the trial, to a reporter, that he had offered the defendant’s mother congratulations (that her son was not going to prison); that he believed the defendant was not a murderer, but a coward; that he believed the judge had to go, on account of not valuing citizens’ lives; and that he wanted to get the university to adopt zero-tolerance policies on underage drinking and weapons on campus.

Two years later, the deceased’s parents sued the university, the fraternity, and the other boy’s parents, collectively, for over twenty million dollars. Their lawyer said, approximately, that when people suffer a traumatic experience, they deserve compensation, and this is the purpose of the legal system.

If compensation can be made, it must be that someone is responsible.

The Azande lived in a world that, although it was shaped and marked by human hands, was mostly made of the stuff of nature, inhabited by nonsapient creatures, and controlled by chance, physics, and biology. Nonetheless they found ways to attribute chance misfortune to human agency, albeit often (usually? always?) unconsciously controlled. How much easier, then, to identify the human agency whose malice or negligence causes misfortune when nearly everything we touch on a daily basis is made and controlled by human hands, human rules, human agency. Almost any misfortune includes a myriad of choices that could have been made differently. It is not so hard, then, for us to find the entity or entities who are ideally situated between culpability and ability to compensate (that is, there’s no point in suing someone who’s broke).

So what’s the argument? Both Azande beliefs about witchcraft and American use of lawsuits share these features: anything bad that happens must be someone else’s fault, and I can figure out who’s to blame if I care enough. Furthermore, if I can get good results from confronting them and demanding compensation/repentance, then I should do that thing.

Evans-Pritchard notes, “a man never asks the oracles … whether a certain man is a witch. He asks whether at the moment this man is bewitching him” (4); in other words, “a Zande is interested in witchcraft only as an agent on definite occasions and in relation to his own interests, and not as a permanent condition of individuals” (4). Similarly, Americans often only care about corporate culpability when it’s negatively affecting them, and it’s hard to get them to pay attention to issues like whether corporations create unsafe work conditions, as long as nobody they know is in danger as a result.

Any cultural institution that’s sufficiently present is going to leave its mark in some way. “Witchcraft is ubiquitous. It plays its part in every activity of Zande life; …; its influence is plainly stamped on law and morals, etiquette and religion; it is prominent in technology and language; there is no niche or corner of Zande culture into which it does not twist itself” (18). Similarly, litigation has left its influence visible everywhere. Any non-crime-related rule that exists governing use of public or private space is probably in place because somebody died or was injured, and somebody else got sued. Warnings on peanuts that they contain peanuts? Somebody had an allergic reaction, and successfully argued in court that they should have been explicitly warned in the same place every other piece of food packaging has allergy warnings. Neighbors reluctant to watch your kid? If your kid got hurt under their care, you could sue them. No climbing on the trees in the park? Someone, somewhere, fell out of a tree and successfully sued the municipality that owned it. There is a maze of legal rules and precedent determining what is and is not a valid lawsuit; most people aren’t willing to risk it, and quite understandably.

The Azande do not blame everything on witchcraft, of course: “Incompetence, laziness, and ignorance may be selected as causes” (29). However, because people are people wherever you go, “in all these cases the man who suffers the misfortune is likely to say that it is due to witchcraft, but others will not say so” (29). Similarly, some lawsuits just will not succeed, such as the several alleging that consumers were fooled into thinking that Froot Loops or Crunchberries contained actual fruit.

In at least one area, I suspect the Zande implementation of “how to blame other people for your problems for fun and profit” is, hmm, let us say more reasonable.
“As soon as a witch is today slain by magic, or in the past had been speared to death or had paid compensation, the affair is closed” (5). Some Americans, on the other hand, never give up.

A Wild Ethnography Appears

During the final semester of my undergraduate career, I worked on a small ethnographic study of the housing cooperative I lived in. I can’t actually publish it (I think) but I’m fond of the analytic structure I set up.

I analyze continuity of organizations on three axes:
Continuity of Ideology: the organization should maintain interest in and keep working towards its goals, based on shared beliefs and values.
Continuity of Institutions: the community passes along rules, procedures, history, traditions, and objects.
Continuity of Fellowship: members maintain goodwill and friendliness among themselves.

I argue that in order to persist optimally, a community or organization must have healthy instantiations of all three types of continuity; a lack of any one can obviously cause problems, but each can also be realized in what I call “toxic modes.” For instance, the type of doctrinal rigidity that characterizes schisming religions is a toxic type of ideological continuity.

The bulk of the ethnography analyzes problems in “Squirrel Burrow” through this lens, showing how difficulties with all three continuities were interconnected by the effects they had on members’ interactions.

And here it is.

Following the analytical part, I have included some advice to the community based on the problems I lay out, including an excerpt on consensus decision-making from David Graeber’s Democracy Project (I also draw on his work to make my arguments in the body, so it was close to hand).

My hope is that the analytical framework I’ve set up can be useful to communities and organizations outside my sphere of experience. 🙂