Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Humility to Humiliation

So last Sunday, I was at a party in the street, since the Multimillionaire Bingo was cancelled due to rain (unfortunately in Guaraníes, not dollars, but still). Lots of people dancing and drinking heavily with music pumping out from pickup trucks outfitted with large stereos. I ended up standing around on the side next to some friends and was introduced as an American. One drunk Paraguayan asked me suddenly, "Why are we always humiliated?" I didn't know what he meant so he explained that Paraguayans were humble and poor. He used both words and talked about how poor all Paraguayans are. I told him that not all Paraguayans are poor, especially in Asunción, there are several extremely rich Paraguayans that have lots of money. But he said that all Paraguayans were humble and poor and they are always humiliated. I wish I could have recorded him, but it struck me how he was alternating between humilde and humillados, especially in reference to being here, where there are many, slightly more affluent Brazilians. His friend started a fight with some people he thought was Brazilian and one of my friends hinted that he might have a gun. In fact, a man with a gun rode by on a motorcycle and shot into the air, but I am more used to that now, so I wasn't worried. But humble and humiliated.

Paraguayans in the countryside are often proud of being "humble" or praise others for being humble people. "Ese señor es humilde" I have heard as a point of praise over and over about various people, and a Brazilian living here noted to me with a sense of shock perhaps that Paraguayans were proud of humility. Pride, humility and something akin to both privacy and shame seem to be highly prized qualities. But neither are they so innocent, as they have a political dimension that is rarely commented upon.

The CP (Colorado Party, in power a bit longer than the Chinese Communist Party) has effectively used "humility" and the peasant ideal as a powerful image that helped co-opt a large majority of Paraguayans into the party ideologically, while high-level Party operatives have effectively helped themselves to the riches of the State and society in classic kleptocratic fashion. And the constant monitoring of everyday bodily grooming under the Stroessner regime has created or at least heavily reinforced certain ideas about masculinity and the body that are only slowly changing (no long hair or beards for men--especially beards, since Castro had a beard--beards might also mean you are Jewish (oh my). If you were a young man with a beard or long hair, you could and would be picked up by the police and forcibly shaved and given a haircut.

But back to humility.


Hi all. Decided to put up a blog to do something during fieldwork, currently in the department of Canindeyú, Paraguay near the border of Brazil and downtown Asunción, the lovely and underappreciated capital of Paraguay. At the moment I'm in Canindeyú. I'll be here until December 8, 2005, thanks to the marvellous Wenner-Gren foundation (wennergren.org).

My current and overriding interests: Sertanejo and polka music (they are big down here), Peircean semiotics, language ideologies, dialogic emergence of culture, "ethnicity" and the ethnopoetics of everyday interaction, cultural contact, avoiding gunfire (just last Sunday...), trying my hand at basic French cooking, avoiding the large and small insects that live in the ocean of air in my little house (pictures to be uploaded soon), listening to community radio here in the subtropics, social theory, and...what I hope to be reading soon once I get back to the US, On the Problem of Empathy, by Edith Stein, one of the top students and assistants to Husserl who developed a phenomenology of the Other (apparently similar to Levinas but without the murderous desire) and who later became a Catholic saint after dying in Auschwitz (St. Teresia Benedicta ad Cruce). My hope in reading her is to see what connection there may be between her vision of embodied empathy and an socially informed theory of semiosis....hey, it's my blog. It won't all be like this. I also love listening to the BBC, which, alongside the Internet is a major distraction from going out and talking to people.