Public/Private Tensions in Cuba: “We Are Looking for Happiness, Not Success” 

Last July I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba with the support of the Princeton Program in Latin American Studies. My month-long trip was loaded with impressions, such as the kindness of Cubans, the not-so-great food (heavily loaded on the eggs side for vegetarians), the relative emptiness of the highways despite Cubans’ innovative use of anything that drives, the famous 50’s American old-timers you see everywhere and the visibility of the Communist regime, not in terms of military presence but more so in portraits of the Castro’s in stores, bars and food banks, revolutionary graffiti, and the political Billboard signs sprinkled besides main throughways.

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One thing that stood out for me were the stores with their rather uneven assortment. In contrast to American and European supermarkets, Cuban stores often only have one brand of anything (i.e. Cuban diet coke, toilet paper, water – yet a large assortment of Cuban rum!), if they have the specific product you are looking for at all.

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Since 2011 the government has allowed Cubans more leniency (see also here) to open up small, private companies such as restaurants, stores or other forms of self-employment. I found that these recent policy changes had interesting consequences for commercial spaces, and in particular the public /  private divide and logics we associate with these spaces.

An example is a store I visited in Trinidad, see the photo below. Prices of the goods in this store were cited in the CUC currency, the currency used for luxury goods and tourists. This picture illustrates the improvised nature of the store and the open connection with the living room in the back. The entrance of the store was through the open front door of the house, and the store lacked a display window.

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Throughout my travels in Cuba, I saw many examples of these ‘private spaces turned public.’ Another example is a restaurant where the bathroom for customers was simultaneously the bathroom still privately used by the owners: it also had a bath and a shower. In a third example at a restaurant in Vinales, grandma was sitting in a chair in the back of the room, and guests of the restaurants could look beyond her right into the kitchen, where an ordinary ‘home’ kitchen block was used for restaurant cooking. In this restaurant another open doorway led straight into a bedroom of the house, where you could see two carefully made full-sized beds with typical Cuban kitschy pink and poisonous green cover-sheets.

What do these spaces indicate? It this simply improvisation born from need?

I would hypothesize that these spaces are material expressions of a larger ambivalence that characterizes many Cubans’ stance towards capitalist entrepreneurship and the self-interested motives associated with it. My notion of the binary between ‘public’ and ‘private’ spaces is a European import: while the public is associated with the logic of the free market, the private is the space of domesticity and intimacy. They correspond to two logics of actions (i.e. monetary transaction versus domestic ‘acts of love’) that are seen as essentially different and need to be kept separate. In The Purchase of Intimacy (2005), Viviana Zelizer called this the “hostile world” thesis. Do we observe the same juxtaposition of two ‘hostile worlds’ and separation practices in Cuba? How are separation practices mitigated or reframed as a result of the communist reality of Cuba?

In “Salsa Suarez,” a privately owned restaurant in Varadero, I came across the following English restaurant motto that was announced proudly on little menu stands put on every table:

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“We are looking for happiness, not success.”  

This restaurant was quite upscale, and featured international menu items, such as seafood risotto and burritos. The target group seemed largely families of better-off Cubans and mostly European tourists, who stayed in the ‘mid-range’ hotels and recently opened casa particulares scattered around the area. This motto seems strangely out of place in such a newly capitalist place: a private restaurant in one of the most economically booming, tourist places of Cuba. Rather than trying to separate intimacy from the economic realm, it seems to try to convey a ‘domestic’ logic on their business and distance the restaurant from economic rationality.

I am aware that this type of import of domestic logics into the market is not unique to Cuba.  American companies frequently try to portray themselves as ‘family’ companies, and the hotel industry tries to position clients as guests. Nevertheless, I still think it is interesting in light of Cuba’s complex relation to capitalism.

Rather than disguised marketing strategies, these mixing of logics may indicate people’s ambivalence or political anxiety to openly embrace the ‘capitalist impulse,’ and the self-interested, destructive market motives associated with such an impulse. Hence, in this particular context, it may not only be a way of managing the tension between ‘hostile worlds,’ but more so the tension between ‘capitalist’ and ‘communist’ logics and orders of worth. In this context, happiness and success are not mutually implicated.

Brain on a Stick? The Personal and Political in Academia

By Sharon Cornelissen

Now the pressing deadlines of the semester are over, it is time to reflect and make up the balance. Aside from being an ideal time for personal reflection, it is also a good moment look back at the public debates about higher education this year. These debates, which mostly took place online, centered on two topics that particularly caught my attention: the question about the disappearance of the public intellectual (with the related issue of the public relevance of social science – particularly urgent after the federal decision to cut 22% of NSF funding devoted to social science research), and the issue of the pervading stigma connected to mental health in higher education. While these debates took place next to each other, to me they point at an enduring tension in academia – the ivory tower complex with its ideal of the ‘objective scientist.’

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To what extent should we wish to keep viewing academia as insular from real world intrusions and concerns?
What is the relation between the pursuit of objectivity in science and subjective concerns (both private and public)? 

These questions hark back to Weber’s infamous twin essays Science as a Vocation and Politics as a Vocation, and Bourdieu’s somewhat cynical description of the academic field, which describes academics caught up in internal battles for power. I wondered what I could contribute to this debate.

Fieldworkers have perhaps most acutely confronted questions on the relation between objectivity and the personal and public. Within the ethnographic literature, it has long been recognized that fieldwork is highly personal, and that it is not just impossible but perhaps even undesirable to draw the boundaries between academic questions and personal involvement. The objective and subjective realm are not heterogeneous realms, essentially different, with subjective concerns constantly threatening to invade objectivity (i.e. Durkheim 2008 [1912]).

Rather, ethnography teaches us that great scientific work can often be highly personal at the same time. No ethnography is conceived of and written based on a perspective from nowhere. For example, while coincidence and contingency seem to play a large role in the selection of field sites, ethnographers often also indicate that they felt drawn to a field site by personal affinities. Elijah Anderson, for instance, said that his first ethnography, A Place on the Corner, allowed him to hang out and form adult relationships with men not unlike those whom his father associated with. His scientific project to understand the black men who hang out at Jelly’s Corner, a corner tavern and liquor store, was highly personal and allowed him reflect on his own background.

Rather than barriers to scientific knowledge, ethnographers can mobilize their personal characteristics and political outlook to better understand their subjects. Hence, rather than purifying science, ethnographies rely on reflexivity both on part of the fieldworker, and the readers who are presented with an honest account of the data collection, personal characteristics of the researcher, and the findings. Hence, ethnographic knowledge production relies on, rather than expurgates, the personal and political.

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Based on reading a draft of this blog, Winston Chou (a fellow graduate student), constructed the typology above. All colored boxes are part of the academic field proper, exemplified in the purple box ideal of the ‘objective scientist.’ The activist  (who expresses subjective concerns in the public realm) is seen as outside the field. While the public intellectual threatens to contaminate the ideal of the objective scientist by bringing in public elements, the issue of mental health should be placed in the box of the private scholar, who contaminates science by bringing in subjective, personal elements.

Consequently, the decline of the public intellectual and the mental health stigma in academia both flow from the ideal of a purified academic field, haunted by the image of the objective scientist. Both are inspired by incomplete attention to the total persons that we all are – rich in both the public and private concerns that inspired us to turn to science in the first place.

 

Durkheim on the basketball court

Princeton's nearly empty gym

Princeton’s nearly empty gym

I sometimes sit in Princeton’s steamy, ancient-feeling gym and watch as a handful of individuals organized from strangers scattered across the five full basketball courts in one large room, into two teams for one full court game in a matter of minutes. This is a phenomenon that has fascinated me since, as an undergrad at North Carolina, I would sit outside at picnic tables and watched as an empty basketball court would fill with a 5 on 5 game and a number of guys “waiting for next” on the sidelines in a matter of minutes. My  now-husband called it the “bat signal” — there were guys all over campus ready to play at a moment’s notice, and the echoing dribble of a basketball summoned them to the court.

Strangers, bound together only by the knowledge of a common game and the serendipity of being in the same place in the same moment, become teammates. They assess each others strengths and weaknesses, develop a system of nicknames and draw on a common language of the game that helps them adapt, organize, and generate order out of what appears to be chaos.

As I watch this process, I’m often in awe of how rapidly it unfolds. I have thought a lot about sociology as it relates to sports in the conventional ways: collective effervescence and mega events, the conspicuous leisure of country clubs, and the associated refinement of tastes.

But how do we make sense of the transition of strangers into a team and then back to strangers- a process  that lasts from thirty minutes to a few hours. I was reading Robert Bellah’s introduction to Durkheim on morality right before I got to the gym which offered me a specific set of lenses for my post-run observations on the basketball court.

First, for collectives to emerge, how important is a shared moral order? Durkheim discussed a shared moral order not necessarily as a normative phenomenon but rather as the underlying assumptions and orientations that make the social fabric of a society. Durkheim himself advocated a moral order based in discipline, commitment to social groups, and individualism. We can see through the lens of Durkheim how these concepts apply to the seemingly random coalescence of players into teams in pick-up-basketball.

Teammates playing basketball together

Teammates playing basketball together

Discipline

The role of physical discipline in athletics is overt – success requires practice, which can be monotonous, the extending of one’s physical and mental limits. But what of social discipline? There exists a code: there are well known rules of the game, shared knowledge that allows the participants to respect and defer to the authority of the game. Even with no referees the players self regulate, immediately accepting blame for illegal plays by raising a single hand in the air, often placing the other hand over his chest (of course, what counts as an illegal play draws on the bank of shared knowledge and past experience and intimate familiarity with the rules.)

Those who call fouls too often though are also considered undisciplined, unable to concede to the intrinsically physically tough game or prioritize the good of the game — i.e., maintaining the flow of play  — over their own individual-level discomfort of being fouled.

Finally, as someone who didn’t play sports growing up, I had little appreciation for the level of discipline involved in team sports. This year, my first year of grad school, I played on an intramural flag football team, during which time I learned quickly how difficult it is to remain level headed in moments in which your physical and emotional senses are heightened. The amount of interdependence and cooperation required for team sports inevitably leads to conflict within teams or between them — during which individuals must self-censure and self-regulate in an especially conscious way to maintain the good of the team, the game, and the social group generally.

Players gather to begin forming teams

Players gather to begin forming teams

Commitment to social groups

This commitment to the social group is particularly interesting in a spontaneously-emerging team of pick-up basketball because the group usually has no ties to one another before or after the game. Here on the basketball court, the team is the salient group. The individuals who come together are undergrads, graduate students, spouses, faculty, staff, and spouses of any of those groups (and, rarely, members of the Princeton public or alumni). Often, friends in pairs of two will come to the gym in pairs and form the basis of the teams.

For teams to emerge, one person usually has to take charge. He’ll perhaps approach a player or pair of players “just shooting around” on another court and ask if they’re up to play. This is a pretty visible ritual in the open gym, and other individuals or pairs are usually on the lookout; if someone initiates this conversation, generally others will begin wandering — dribbling the basketball — toward the newly formed small group.

Once a quorum has been met — usually a minimum of four willing players — teams are generated. First, usually, pairs that came together are placed on the same team. Then, often teams are arbitrarily divided, sometimes based on some fortuitous coincidence of markers (for example: white shirts, team A, every other colored shirt, team B) but otherwise just more or less randomly assigned.

What is interesting is that, despite random or quasi-random assignment to teams, the individual begins to associate himself with that team; the in-group/out-group dynamic is immediately established and salient. The players demonstrate pride and excitement when they contribute positively to the team’s effort and frustration when performing poorly, hurting the team. However, when another player seems to struggle they are reassuring; gestures such as high-fives, pats on the back or butt are common, as are the “it’s all right, man” -type comments. Individuals fill themselves into niches based on the team’s needs, not their own preferences, because someone has to play the less-fun positions of defense if the team is going to be successful. The team success, rather than individual excellence, is the goal: performing otherwise leads to sanctions such as being thought of as a ball-hog or stats-padder.

Individualism

While the team is the salient group, individual skill and player identity is important to the game. Players assess and diagnose each other individual — on their own team and the opposing team — for strengths and weaknesses. This has a predictive function; the players can strategize about which shots to “let” the other player take based on his odds of making it, determining which teammate to pass to for maximum likelihood of a basket, etc.

The individualism also creates a distance; there is the team (again, commitment to the team) or nothing. Players rarely bother learning each other’s names or details of each other’s lives. As an observer, this has always been striking to me. If I’m assigned to a group, my first instinct is to get to know my new group-mates: I’d want to know his or her name, department, how long they’ve been at this particular hobby, other hobbies, etc. This, I’ve been told, would be considered weird — even inappropriate — on the basketball court.

In the game I was observing, nicknames emerged such as “shorts,” “buckets,” “red,” and “blue.” Only one player’s name was routinely used — Sam — and he was easily the best player on the court; perhaps his name was known to all because of the frequency of his play or, because of his skill, the others made a point to recognize him by name.

This distance, while contributing to the group commitment by making it the more salient (indeed, the only relevant) identity, maintains an air of individualism. This isn’t, for example, a game of old friends or a time for generating new friendships. The space between the individuals is closed by participating on the same team, but returns to normal — a number of strangers who once shared the same court — once the game or series of games ends.

Over the course of the game, individual discipline enables the game to proceed smoothly, while commitment to the team encourages self-sacrifice, pride, and strategizing based on contextual experience and tacit knowledge. However it is the individualism — the anonymity of the team before and after the game — that is particularly interesting. The groups cooperate within teams and engage in explicit conflict against the other team, and then dissolve again into individuals as they leave the gym without expecting to ever play together again.

Dumpster diving and the tragedy of the commons

As I was completing a draft of a paper on dumpster divers in 2012, Emmanuel Guerisoli, a friend at the New School urged me that my case really was about the tragedy of the commons. While at the time I didn’t think too much about it, recently while reading Garrett Hardin his comment was pressed back to me.

The tragedy of the commons is a theory of collective human behavior that poses that without state regulation or privatization, people will maximize their short-term self interests and will inevitably overexploit commonly shared resources. An example is the risk of overfishing our oceans or the problem of collectively acting to tackle climate change. Garrett Hardin concluded: “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to us all” (1968: 1244)

How is the tragedy of the commons applicable to dumpster diving? 

Dumpster divers are people who collect and eat food from retail trash as a lifestyle choice, rather than being driven by necessity. Some retail establishment donate food that is about to expire – such as packaged freshly made salads and sandwiches – to charity organizations like City Harvest. The bulk of expired or about to expired food, ranging from day old bagels to vegetarian sushi, from bags full of fair trade chocolate bars to Dunkin’ donuts, however, ends up in the trash. In the United States an estimated 40% of all food goes to waste at some point of the production and consumption cycle.

In New York City, where I did fieldwork on dumpster divers in 2012-2013, retail trash is put in trash bags on the sidewalk six nights a week. As trash bags are put in public space, trash temporarily becomes a common good, not officially subject to police restrictions. The trash landscape in New York City can be seen as a common available for anyone to exploit.

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While some dumpster divers are secretive about their best spots, they don’t really have to worry about the issue of over-diving. The commons of dumpster divers in New York City get replenished 6 days a week, with stores seemingly endlessly throwing out wasted food.

Also, not everyone is as eager to stick both hands into unknown trash bags, especially not in public. Most people find the idea of eating food from the trash disgusting and the idea of doing so voluntarily rather crazy. Once at an alumni event in New York, after I told a middle-aged Dutch expat about my research, he gravely asked me how widespread mental illness was among dumpster divers.

The “tragedy of the commons” in the case of dumpster divers, rather, seems to be expressed in a shared commitment to responsibly managing the commons. For instance, I was dumpster diving alone at the Trader Joe’s on Union Square in Manhattan on a Wednesday night in September 2012:

As I am looking into another trash bin, moving white trash bags around to look one layer beneath the trash bags on top, I see an Asian, perhaps Japanese looking woman in her late thirties, bend over to close a trash bag full with packaged boxes of breaded, roasted chicken. She must be around 1.60 m and is wearing a cotton dark blue cap, her shoulder-long hair in a tiny pony tail. She is not carrying a handbag or other bag and is dressed in a grey hoodie with the name of a bar on it. I approach her and she introduces herself to me as Rachel, telling me somewhat later that she is a jewelry maker and sells her jewelry online. 

She tells me that she is closing the bag in front because otherwise the Trader Joe’s may get a fine. When I ask her whether she works for the Trader Joe’s she says hat she used to but not anymore. I tell her that I left the bag open intentionally, hoping that other people may find it and take some of the breaded chicken. She answers: “The people that come here know where to find it” (Field notes, September 19. 2012)

She is probably right in pointing out my naive idea that random New Yorkers would casually “stop by and take some chicken” upon seeing an open trash bag on the street. More interesting is that she takes the stand of Trader Joe’s and enacts the norm of closing bags and not leaving behind a mess: even going as far as cleaning up after people who neglect to do so. This norm was enacted and expressed by all the dumpster divers I followed – and evidenced by how unknown others ‘left behind’ trash they had just dived at, leaving behind legible signs such as an occasional lost glove or loosely retied knots.

Why did they do so? What can we draw from this short example? I think it is quite interesting that without formal regulations, with vague group boundaries and a weakly developed sense of ‘groupness,’ most dumpster divers in New York shared a normative commitment to the responsible self-management of the commons. Rather than “bringing ruin,” as Garrett Hardin’s model might have predicted, they work together with many anonymous others to maintain ‘their’ commons.

“Getting intimate” online

By Sharon Cornelissen

Most of our urban public interactions with strangers are not particularly intimate, except perhaps when being pressed way-too-intimately against anonymous bodies in the subway during rush hours. Even then we try to maximize personal space such as through the unspoken rule of maintaining distance when picking seats on transit. We also like to play with our phones, which helps us to avoid catching the eyes of others. This seems to have replaced the role that newspapers once played.

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Online we relate to strangers quite differently. Consider the popular blog Humans of New York, which has over 2 million followers on Facebook alone. The blog is a collection of snapshots of urban strangers, accompanied by a short personal story or wisdom shared by the individual portrayed. Below is an example of a picture posted on January 9, 2014:

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“What was the saddest moment of your life?”

“When my mother died.”

“What’s your fondest memory of your mother?”

“When I was 13 years old, I had an accident and was in a body cast for 6 months. I couldn’t even sit up. She would come in my room everyday, turn up the radio, and sing in my ear.”

Two days later, the post had already received over 65,000 likes on Facebook and more than 800 comments. Reading through 100 comments, 16 out of 100 commenters said the post made them cry, 19 people addressed the unnamed person in the picture directly (addressing him as ‘dude,’ ‘honey,’ ‘sir’ or ‘my friend’) and 38 mentioned their own mother and shared a fond memory. One user left the following comment:

The worst moment of my life, was also when my beloved mom passed away, just a few short months ago… I’m glad you have strong, wonderful memories of your mother… it’s a sad club, the “No Mom” club, but I truly believe that we are a testament to our mother’s strength and love and I know I will live well in her memory. XOXO to you, sir!

How are our online interactions with strangers different from offline interactions? Why do these commenters seem to identify so readily with this stranger? What is the nature and depth of this form of online intimacy, and on what basis is it established?

While these questions merit more attention, one of the interesting features of HoNY is the eye-contact between viewers and subject. The prolonged eye-contact with the unnamed stranger represents a contrast to everyday urban interactions in which a person’s gaze is usually averted. The connection is established for at most a fleeting moment. In the essay Sociology of the senses: Visual interaction Simmel analyzed the unique significance of eye contact in social interaction. He argued that it establishes a temporary union between humans and represents perfect reciprocity:

By the glance which reveals the other, one discloses himself. By the same act in which the observer seeks to know the observed, he surrenders himself to be understood by the observer. The eye cannot take unless at the same time it gives (Simmel 1921: 358)

HoNY plays with this experience, the sense of mutual disclosure and openness we associate with it: see also viewer’s reactions to Marina Abramovi’s artwork. HoNY enables viewers to see and meet the eyes of strangers, without being seen seeing. The pictures offer viewers a glimpse into urban strangers’ eyes and minds. The frozen-in-time prolonged glance we can sustain with the strangers of HoNY creates a sense of intimacy and exposure: exactly the sense of exposure we seek to avoid or minimize in everyday interactions with strangers in public settings.

So what explains the seeming contradiction between our ease of ‘getting intimate’ online and our everyday avoidance of intimate interactions with strangers offline? The mediated form of eye contact that HoNY facilitates gives us a hunch. In contrast to Simmel’s description of eye contact as perfect reciprocity, the intimacy of HoNY is largely one-way traffic. HoNY offers viewers ready-to-consume intimate moments with anonymous New Yorkers. While viewers leave behind strikingly moving and personal comments, which hints at the intimacy HoNY creates for some, this online way of relating remains transient and anonymous. One could say HoNY facilitates the intimacy of the onlooker and enables a type of online voyeurism into the eyes and minds of strangers.

Caring as Invisible Work

By Samantha Jaroszewski

Feeding the Family

Over winter break, I read Marjorie Devault’s Feeding the Family: The Social Organization of Caring as Gendered Work, a book Devault argues that those responsible for the caring work of the family, usually women, deploy a vast store of tacit knowledge to perform their work, specifically feeding the family. Devault discusses this work as “feeding” work rather than merely food preparation because of the processual ways in which caregivers are constantly considering, calculating, negotiating, and preparing for the nourishment of their families. Feeding work constitutes part of reproductive labor, the daily or oft repeated tasks that reproduce the ability of household members to contribute to society. This usually includes feeding work, childreading, home economics, and other domestic sphere tasks without clear boundaries or definitive ends, summed up in the idiom, “A woman’s work is never done.”

I liken this work to a computer running with a high powered program running in the background. Writing this post, I had R Studio running on my desktop, a handful of annotated pdfs and eight Half.com tabs open in Chrome. The mental space my computer dedicated to these background tasks cannot be allocated to running whatever foreground program I needed at the moment. Similarly, Devault argues, women engaged in housework, work without clear boundaries and no actual “end,” impinges on their capacity to dedicate their mental CPU to other tasks.

In our roles as students, too, we have this constant background noise of the “reproductive labor”  of our schoolwork. There is always more to read, more to write, more to do. There are always four talks a week that we wish we could have gone to, but couldn’t spare the time that would be better spent getting our own stuff done. There are the paper and conference deadlines that loom above our heads, making it difficult to ever take a full break from work. These tasks garner us no positive reinforcement, no awards or praise. Its just part of the job. Similarly, there is much work and constant effort exerted towards feeding the family that just gets noticed when it doesn’t get done. We develop systems of tacit knowledge and routinize the tasks at hand in ways that perhaps we can’t articulate. Many of Devault’s interlocuters had trouble putting their routines to words, the ways that they made the decisions about food based on the preferences, schedules, tastes, and resources of each member of the family unit.

Devault’s book and her theoretical framing of mundane reproductive labor as gendered and inseparable from emotion-work for the women who perform it, has helped me reflect on my own practices and behaviors. It also reminds me to be thankful for the caring work that my husband does — not least listening attentively to my mundane stories about the lecture in my theory class — and the devalued caring work of many traditionally gendered occupations: mothers and child-rearers, teachers, nurses, cooks, housekeepers and secretaries. When I think of the women in any of those roles, I recall their warmth, their care. As people who care — not just gendered persons — Devault offers us a useful map of the caring landscape: the work that goes into feeding a family and organizing the care of a household.

  • What ethnographies, studies, or theories made you reflect on your own everyday practices?
  • What are other examples of invisible labor?