Monthly Archives: May 2005

Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf

I just finished Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. I haven’t done any background reading or learned anything about the social context or critical debate, so these are untutored thoughts (fit for a notebook, which is what my blog really is).

1. A gift economy: Beowulf learns that Hrothgar, king of the Danes, is suffering from the scourges of a monster, so, unbidden, he sails to Denmark to offer his services. After he has killed Grendel (a whole day after, in fact–see line 1784), Hrothgar allows him to choose treasures from his store; Beowulf is “paid and recompensed completely” (2145). The hero sails home and gives everything he has received to his king, Hygelac (2148). Hygelac responds by giving Beowulf an ancient sword, land, hides, and a hall and throne.

None of this is negotiated in advance. The great anthropologists Bronislaw Malinoswski and Marcel Mauss showed that gift-giving is sharply distinguished from negotiation in some societies. We still have vestiges of a gift economy (for instance, our exchanges of dinner invitations and birthday presents). However, in other cultures, the gift is the main medium of exchange, the means by which goods circulate and incentives are created. As Hrothgar tells Beowulf (in Heaney’s translation):

For as long as I rule this far-flung land

treasures will change hands and each side will treat

the other with gifts; across the gannet’s bath,

over the broad sea, whorled prows will bring

presents and tokens. (1859-63)

Queens and other wives are also gifts (see 2017), which is not to say that they are powerless. Great Queen Modthryth, for instance, orders men shackled, racked, tortured, and killed for looking directly at her face.

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community research

Eleven of my undergaduate students, all from a program called Leaders for Tomorrow, are in residence on campus as of today. They are being paid, and in return they owe 180 hours of community research over the next six weeks. Each student will complete a project of his or her own–but all their work will generate products (articles, maps, video documentaries, etc.) for the Prince George’s Information Commons website. The goal is to make that site into a serious venue for information and discussion for a community (pop. 850,000) that has no independent and comprehensive news sources of its own. Once we have enough high-quality material on the site, I’m hoping that it will gain critical mass; other community groups will want to participate as well. Of course, I won’t just wait for that to happen. I will actively promote the site as a place for groups to put their work.

My students are still choosing and planning their projects, but they are likely to interview citizens about their recollections of local history; create maps with health data; develop interactive software for the site that will be open-source and available for others to use in their communities; locate all the music venues in the County and sample snatches of music to create an audio map of the musical life of the community; conduct a content-analysis of the Washington Post‘s coverage of the County over time; study the potential for free wireless Internet access; and chart changes in particularly interesting places (among other projects).

the kids are alright

The Communitarian Network posed the following question to everyone on its email list:

Many people complain about the “younger generation,” which may be seen as selfish, out of control, not interested in public life, and so on. Of course it is difficult to generalize, especially across socio-economic lines, but how do you find those young people in your social environment? If they are not quite all that they should be, what is the main source of the problem and what might be done about it?

I’m looking forward to seeing all the responses that people send in. Meanwhile, this is what I wrote:

I find it amazing that young people are turning out so well, given the often poor values and priorities displayed by the mass media, political leaders, and school systems. According to Child Trends’ collection of statistics from federal sources, the following adolescent problems have declined substantially over the last 10-15 years: fighting, carrying weapons, feeling unsafe at school, being victimized by crime, cigarette use (down by 50%), substance abuse, and unsafe sex.

Our analysis of the General Social Survey finds that today’s under-30s are the most tolerant in the history of polling (pdf). Polls also show that today’s youth like their parents, and their parents like them. They have the highest rates of volunteering of any age group today. Although some of their volunteering is required by their schools or encouraged by college admissions offices, they do participate regularly and say that it is valuable. Under-30s voted at a higher rate in 2004 than at any time since 1992. In one of our surveys, two-thirds of young people favored mandatory civics classes in high schools and middle schools.

According to the latest MTV survey of 14-24s, “There appears to be no stigma attached to excelling in school. Nearly all the young people interviewed say they would be proud to tell their friends if they did really well in school.” Sixty percent said their friend “wouldn’t care” if the chose to study instead of “hang out”; 30 percent said their friends would actually support that decision. Only ten percent think that those who get good grades are “boring,” or “weird.”

It is appropriate for each generation of adults to be concerned about the civic and ethical development of youth; and this generation, like all others, can give us reasons to worry. However, complaining about them seems quite unjust. Their behavior exceeds what we have the right to expect, given how our institutions have treated them.

dilemmas of “place”

I’m at the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, where many people believe in the importance of “place.” That means (I think) that they value geographical communities that are distinctive, rather than anonymous and standardized. They believe that citizens ought to devote attention and passion to participating in the governance of such places. In The Public and its Problems (1927), John Dewey wrote that the home of democracy is “the neighborly community. … We lie, Emerson said, in the lap of an immense intelligence. But that intelligence is dormant and its communications are broken, inarticulate and faint until it possesses the local community as its medium.”

I had been thinking about “place” in a slightly different way since last Sunday, when I watched an excellent anti-violence hip-hop video produced by Bomani Darel Armah and some youth at Martha’s Table in Washington. Watching it, I thought: This is very cool. It may not have quite the slick production values of an MTV video, but it’s close enough that it could compete for the same audience. There are barriers to distributing it widely–namely, the big media companies that prefer to sell violent and prurient images of young Black people–but even a kid who was pessimistic about reaching a mass audience would enjoy making this video, because it’s so good.

So hats off to Bomani and his talented students–but what about the rest of us: teachers and students who are unlikely to produce something so cool? We can’t motivate ourselves (let alone groups of students) by promising to produce excellent hip-hop videos. Yet we need audiences for our students’ work, peers who will respect and admire what they’ve made, even if it doesn’t look or sound professional. (See my students’ work, for example.)

The solution is to create videos, news articles, artworks, and other products for communities: for groups of people who know one another and have common experiences and concerns. If a cultural artifact is addressed to a community, then it needn’t be excellent to be valuable and valued.

Affinity groups that are distributed across the country or the globe can function as communities, but only if they are small. If you’re a socialist model-train enthusiast or a gay Esperanto-speaker, you may be able to create cultural products for people who know one another even if they don’t live nearby. However, society is not sufficiently segmented to allow most of us to join such small affinity groups.

Places work better. Everyone in a geographical community can have shared experiences and overlapping social networks, simply by virtue of living or working together.

Unfortunately, many locations aren’t “places,” in this sense. We should transform large, anonymous buildings, such as standard high schools and shopping malls, into more distinctive and human-scaled institutions. There is real momentum in the movement to make high schools smaller and more communitarian.

I believe all of the above, yet I’m worried about relying too heavily on very local places as the venues of democracy. Like it or not, the scale of life has grown. Markets, governments, and institutions are big. We can’t return to a past of stable urban neighborhoods and small towns, where everyone knows your name. Although high schools should be turned into communities, students will eventually have to take their democratic skills and attitudes into the broader world, where professional expertise, slickness, capital investment, and economies of scale usually triumph. It seems to me that democratic participation at a large scale creates dilemmas that we have not begun to address.

a scheme for policy research

[On a plane from Washington to Dayton OH:] I have been fantasizing lately about a plan that I won’t actually accomplish–although it would be very fun. Imagine starting with an intensive community-research project. Members of a community (for example, all the students at one urban high school) would document their lives, their aspirations, and their frustrations, with lots of assistance from students and faculty at a nearby university. This process of documentation could continue for four or five years. It would be the basis of serious, analytical discussions about justice. What do members of the community want? Are their wants valid, or have they been somehow misled, perhaps by advertising and pop culture? What does the larger community of the United States owe them? They would discuss these questions and others side-by-side with faculty and undergraduates.

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