30 October 2012

Les âmes des vivants et des morts

As I prepare for a new online sociology of religion course, I have been refining how I explain the different approaches to understanding religion and religiosity.  Because sociology is an empirical science, we can only interpret and make predictions about things which we can observe.  Yet, religion is based on faith, faith in unobservable thus untestable forces, such as sacred beings and supernatural forces, after-lives and human souls.  In sociology, we can't assess the actual existence of these 'religious truths', and this often upsets or confuses my students initially, particularly those who hold religious beliefs.  My job over the course of a quarter though is to show that while sociology can't speak to the veracity of religious beliefs, it does recognize that religion is a very real social force, one which gives deep meaning and purpose to many people.  Through sociology, we can see how religion unifies people, divides them, how it interacts with other social institutions like political and economic systems, and how it remains important, even in the face of scientific or other secular beliefs.

The conflicts and misunderstandings underlying different conceptions of life and our world are all around us.  I have just finished reading the remarkable story of the living HeLa cancer cells that were unknowingly contributed by a poor black woman back in the 1950's (see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot).  I am drawn to the vastly different ways the people in this story relate to the human body, particularly to the tissue taken from one particular body.  We learn how the doctors saw the living body as something to fix, something from which they could relatively harmlessly excise tissue in order to study it (and from which they did a second time after the body was no longer living).  The laboratory scientists and technologists tried to mimic the body by creating different kinds of culture media in which to try to grow and feed the cells in the excised tissue.  In the beginning, they also sometimes transported the living cells in tubes carried in pockets near their own bodies.  The tissue itself seemed distant from the body from which it came, until one lab worker noticed the painted toenails on the body during the autopsy and poignantly recognized that the collected tissues had come from a real person.  Eventually, the propagating cells from the tissue became a wildly successful commercial product, one which unfortunately did not benefit the descendants of Ms. Lacks.  To her family, the living tissue was confusing, in part because of their deep religious beliefs; was Henrietta alive, could she be brought back to life, could she be cloned, where was her soul or her spirit if part of her body was still alive?  There was a great deal of disconnect between what the Lacks' family understood and believed, and what the researchers and their staffs did.  In part, such different understandings reflect how deeply rooted questions of faith can be, whether the faith is in science or religion or even in the market, and how difficult it can be to find common ground.

In France, conflicts between religious and other views bubble up here and there.  A secular state such as this one officially and publicly has no place for religion, and any overtly religious expression is not allowed in public settings.  As of 2011, this applies to the wearing of the burka by Muslim women.   To French women who do wear the burka, the prohibition is untenable because it forces them to go against their deepest beliefs, and so we continue to see misunderstandings between secular and religious interpretations (see French police injured in row over burka, by Henry Samuel, The Telegraph, July 26, 2012).  On the other hand, the French have been able to marry other religious elements into their secular society to some degree without too much conflict.  I have pointed out earlier how Catholic religious holidays and rituals remain important calendrical markers (for example, see Encadrement).  Coincidentally, it's La Toussaint (All-Saints or All-Souls Day) again, a convenient date on the religious calendar around which to schedule a secular two week school holiday and bank holiday.  Yet there must be some lingering religious meaning to this time of year too, judging from the persistent and popular ritual of visiting cemeteries and family burial plots to leave potfuls of mums.  (I first noticed this ritual last year, see Un week-end champignons.)  Do the French believe in les âmes des vivants et des morts (the souls of the living and the dead), like the family of Henrietta Lacks that I mentioned above?  Maybe, maybe not.  One can certainly follow rituals without attributing any religious meaning to them, and the meaning of the ritual can shift to take on less religious undertones.  It may be that it just feels good or right to remember one's ancestors, to sweep off their gravestones, and to leave huge pots of chrysanthemums in mid-autumn, without attributing any of this to a belief in these ancestors' souls.  (The photos here show the special flower market adjacent to Cimetière St. Pierre in Aix, and burial plots within the cemetery adorned with fresh pots of flowers.)  The point is that religion remains salient, whether we are in 21st century secular France, or in the acclaimed hospitals and centers of scientific research of the past century and today.  Even when religion seems overshadowed by medical advances, secular laws, and empirically based discoveries, the influence of religious traditions and the persistence of religious beliefs and behaviors show us that religion remains a potent social force, one that helps many people interpret their world and their place in it.

13 October 2012

Who is barmy over what?

This week, an article in the NY Times suggested that Americans are sprinkling their speech with ever more British English phrases.  (See Americans are Barmy over Britishisms, by Alex Williams, Oct. 10, 2012.) The author attributes this in part to the coolness factor, that it's posh these days to sound British.  Also, we have more knowledge of the hippest British vernacular given the proliferation of media available on so many personal technology gadgets, and we mimic the expressions and fashions of American celebrities who have settled in Mother England.

I know another place where British things are posh, and that is in France.   Here, all the way down in the south, department and home furnishing stores peddle lamps and dishes and throws and knick-knacks with Union Jacks or pictures of British teapots or cute British phrases printed on them.  I know it's not the British ex-pats in town who are buying these up!  American symbols are also extremely popular here, especially on clothing.  In this regard, the Stars and Stripes trumps the Union Jack, I'm afraid.  I've seen more people wearing Stars and Stripes t-shirts here in Aix than I ever did in Seattle, and I've seen a few red-white-and-blue bikinis on sale in town and worn at the beach.  I have even seen U.S. flag scarves(!) wrapped carefully and elegantly around the graceful necks of older French women.  (I don't love this last fashion, but somehow the French seem to pull it off, as usual).  Anglophonia is popular here too, but limited mostly to the kind of vernacular one might pick up from American and/or British music videos, like the f-word that is spouted frequently around town by the younger set.

While I can't say for sure if Americana is equally popular in the British Isles, I am realizing that the popularity of Britishisms and British symbols is at least matched by the popularity of French symbols and expressions in Britain.  The effect on language is the most obvious, from my vantage point.  We certainly use French phrases here and there in U.S. writing, but the dropping of French expressions seems especially common in British writing (and I've been reading a lot of British authors lately).  This week I finished reading a serialized novel by the entertaining Scottish-Zimbabwean writer Alexander McCall Smith (44 Scotland Street, 2005) whose fictional portrayal of daily life in Scottish capital was quite interesting to me given my limited knowledge and I learned some new Britishisms although I wondered if these were in fact Scottishisms?  (Do you know what a coeval is?  Someone of the same age; we'd call them contemporaries in American English.)  I was struck by two other things: a discussion between two characters about how revered the Americans are in Scotland, because they are seen as a 'special race', and the many French bon mots (witticisms, literally good words, here I'm using this to refer to simply French phrases) sprinkled throughout the installments.  (Smith explains that one character liked to use French phrases, but I felt that the use of these began to extend even beyond just this character.)   I somehow did not expect to read such a sentiment about Americans nor did I expect to find so many French expressions in a Scottish novel.  Actually this is a bit silly of me, especially in regards to the latter; I often have to remind myself that here in France, my family really is relatively close to the British Isles (much closer than we've ever been), and the history of the countries and nations there, Scotland included, are inextricably linked to the French in ways that I have not adequately appreciated earlier.  In U.S. schools we learn about the ties between Britain and the U.S. which perhaps gives one a mistaken sense of the singular importance of the U.S. to Britain when in fact, the French have always been the ones right here, across a much smaller pond.  And, even though the world is much more accessible to more of us, thanks to a digital shrinking of the social and cultural,  if not the physical, distances, it's still physical proximity and history that perhaps matter the most.  A French college student can buy that cool Union Jack coffee mug in France, but even better, she can spend just a few hours actually going to Great Britain, and the French have been doing that for centuries.  (Remember William the Conqueror?)  And the Brits have been coming south for an equally long time, to enjoy French food, wine, culture, sandy beaches, etc.  Evidemment (obviously), it's not just the Americans who are barmy...

02 October 2012

Les manifestations

The French are well known for their grèves (strikes), and we've experienced a few strikes by teachers, airport personnel, and railroad workers, as they protest working conditions, or labor agreements, or salaries.  Manifestations (demonstrations) are also popular here, among students and the general public who march in the streets.  Today was a big day of manifestations it seems, as I noted that two of my regular radio stations FRANCE INTER and FRANCE INFO were going to go off the air for an hour this morning to protest salaries.  A solemn marche blanche (white march) was planned for today near Grenoble to raise awareness of the savage killing of two youth last week.  And, to my surprise, I came upon a local manifestation on the street in front of the nearby lycée (high school) in Aix this morning on my way to meet a friend.  Four garbage bins blocked the middle of the road, two were set on fire, while students chanted nearby.  Two buses were unable to move forward, and finally, the police followed, the fires were extinguished, students dispersed, and I continued on my way.  The friendly police municipale (local police as opposed to national police) re-directing traffic told me that it was a manifestation about 'planning'.  Further down the road, some of those students swarmed a local grocery store around another lycée to steal eggs and tomatoes to throw at police.  It seems that students at two schools coordinated their demonstrations over the dissatisfaction over les emplois du temps (class schedules) and summer vacations schedules. (See newsarticle here.)

Demonstrations and strikes are tools that social groups may use to try to bring attention to social grievances and hopefully effect some kind of social change.  Many times these activities capture the attention of the public or the media for a short time, but it is relatively rare that they alone will bring about definitive change because there are so many other factors that come into play.  The social conditions and political climate have to be receptive, the social groups need to be well-organized, financed, and connected, etc.  In France though, social protests via strikes and demonstrations are popular ways for the citizenry to express its discontents, given that French citizens do not have a great deal of power to change things through other means in this highly centralized state.  They vote for their President directly, unlike Americans, but they do not vote in many of those who represent them, such as the prefects who hold a great deal of power, and citizens can't challenge the constitutionality of laws here as they can in the U.S.  So, manifestations and grèves give the common French a voice, and on occasion, this is loud enough to spur changes by those who have the power.

Coincidentally, over the past few weeks, I have been engaged in a bit of a personal manifestation myself, also over class schedules (just like those high school students above).  The issue has been that some of the foreign students at my children's public school now have regular French class in addition to their French as a Foreign Language classes (8 hours per week, a hefty load!), and the latter classes conflict with other essential classes like math and history.  I duly attended the early school meetings introducing parents to teachers, wondering how to proceed with my concerns about missed classes.  I gingerly approached the English teacher who was outraged on our behalf (and we weren't the only unhappy ones).  She encouraged personal and collective action.  I was skeptical, because 1-I don't speak French well, 2-we are not French, 3-the French school system is very centralized, authoritarian, and feels relatively inflexible.  I used my strongest protest tool (not tomatoes or fire), and I wrote, with a little help, two letters, in French, which outlined our concerns directly, clearly, and concisely, and I emailed these directly to the principal, acting deputy principal and the teachers whose classes were affected by my kids' absences or troubles.  While I received prompt and supportive emails from four teachers, I heard exactly nothing from any administrative staff for two and half weeks.  In the meantime, other concerned parents began organizing a planning meeting tomorrow for some collective action.  Then, out of the blue, on this day of nation-wide manifestations, I received a phone call and had a brief face-to-face meeting with the deputy principal, and the foreign middle school students came home with new, improved (but not perfect) schedules.  All this time, the administrators were working on addressing our concerns, yet they never directly acknowledged this until now, after the fact.  That is the difference between me and the French I suppose, this directness, and I suppose I shall have to cap this effort with one more letter, thanking the administrators directly for their efforts.  In the meantime, there is discontent among the very students affected, as the new academic schedules are grueling to be sure, but the bigger problem appears to be that these schedules cramp the social schedules of the students in this household.  Already there have been some manifestations here protesting parental interference in academic affairs....