Sunday, August 08, 2010

Genealogy vs. Context

This is more a note for future reference than a thought-out argument, so bear with me (or skip, if you prefer).

When we think about things, they have two aspects which we need to grasp. i'll call these genealogy and context.

Genealogy is where things get their identity from. I.e. the genealogy of an organization would trace it back to its origins, including name changes and changes in policy and form. Then if at its origin it had been a split from a previous organization, genealogy would trace that organization back to its origins, or if it had come out of a particular movement or campaign, then genealogy would trace that, further and further back, as far as you can or are inclined to go.

Genealogy is fun, in a geeky stamp-collector kind of way, but for the overenthusiastic it can also be very misleading. It is easy to exaggerate the importance of the scandalous, i.e. that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith used to be the Holy Inquisition, or that Levesque's PQ came out of Bourgault's RIN which at its origins included many young nationalists from Barbeau's fascist Alliance Laurentienne. Scandalous, but not incredible enlightening as to what's going on here and now, because a break can often see more left behind than carried on.

It is difficult to appreciate the relationship of a thing to its own history, which can at times be direct and important, and at other times can be nonexistent, at least for practical purposes. Those are the limits of genealogy.

The second way that things exist is context. Not just the mundane fact that everything has a context, but that things often fit into patterns that are only visible when viewing other things at the same time - often things that have no direct relationship to one another, and so which are arbitrarily selected after the fact simply based on the pattern they constitute. Things retain their identity, inherited through their genealogy, but they are also a part of a broader reality which determines much of their nature. For instance, when looking at the waves of history - for instance the postwar wave of decolonization, or the related 67-68 wave of student and youth rebellion, or the late 80s-early 90s wave of neocolonial peacemaking - clearly the players had their own genealogies and identities, but around the world something else was going on which pushed matters, and pushed the players, in particular directions. (This begs for a resuscitation of the old problem of universals...)

To give two examples: that the FLQ came into existence in the early sixties has something to do with the history of Quebec nationalism (genealogy), but very little compared to "the times", the overarching wave of anticolonial struggles (context). Similarly, that the Maoist movement in Quebec came into existence in the early 70s and fell apart in the early 80s certainly has something to do with the genealogy of communism and the left in Quebec, but a richer understanding may be reached if one also considers the rise and fall of first world Maoism in myriad countries at almost the exact same points in time.

These are obvious examples, but not all cases are so clearcut. Is the antideutsche movement the result of genealogy (a reaction against the weakness around antisemitism of the West German 70s/80s far left) or the result of context (the rise of reactionary ideology around the world in general - and racism in Germany in particular - in the 1990s?) - i'd guess the former, but it's just a guess. (& when considering specific organizations it becomes even more difficult to measure.)

Or let's take a famous case, the rise of Nazism in Germany, which has been studied at length in terms of the history of Germany, the history of antisemitism, the history of authoritarian right-wing schools of thought, and other competing geneaologies - it can also be (and has also been) studied in terms of its context, similar "shirt movements" and other fellow travelers emerging around the world at the same time, sexist and racist consciousness mutating through the traumas of World War I, the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression, anti-Marxist "socialisms" that emphasized the primacy of the nation and cross-class-unity flourishing even on the left.

The relationship reminds me that Mao had something to say about the relationship between internal factors and external factors. He took the counterintuitive view that internal relations are normally more important than external relations, that "what's out there" is of less importance than "what's inside", because it's through the strengths and weaknesses of the internal that the extrernal will be mediated. There's a lot to be revealed if you think this way, though like most things if you take it too far it can get pretty silly, i.e. if someone drowns in a lake it's not because of the water (external!) but because they're not a good swimmer (internal!) or maybe simply because they have lungs not gills (really internal!).

But i think Mao's ideas are a truly red herring in this case, as genealogy is more like history than internal reality - and what i mean by history here is that which is subjectively experienced as "internal" but in actual fact remains external to us, mediated by a bunch of factors ranging from what has been suppressed/preserved to how that is interpreted to how much is "remembered" (though in the case of social formations that is the wrong word, as the individuals within such formations do not necessarily have personal memories of much of the "history", as they were likely not even there or perhaps had not even been members or active or alive when events in question occurred).

Maybe the metaphor from physics of light being both a particle and a wave makes more sense. (At least, not having any training in physics, my ignorance allows it to seem apt.)

In any case, all i really want to say, is that when thinking about things - big things small things, important things trivial things, common things esoteric things - it's worth keeping in mind both genealogy and context.


  1. a corolllary to this is that context is that which brings together diverse genealogies, and it is through geneaogies that diverse contexts are connected

  2. but the relationship of genealogy to context is not simply the inverse of the relationship of context to genealogy... meaning...

    one context cannot be "preserved" through genealogies and brought whole into a new context, preserving its identity. they either ossify, or become diffuse - contributing to what Gabriel Kuhn has called "revolutionary momentum".

    on the other hand, different genealogies do seem able to mix and match their parts within the same context while retaining their identity. in fact, this is a part of what constitutes a "wave", the fact that people and organizations are moved to reconfigure themselves, to bring themselves from the old to the new.