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The Invisible Fist

David Gilmore writes that his interest in Spain started with Hemingway’s Spanish novels, the poetry of García Lorca and the drama of the Golden Age, flamenco music, his own family’s memories of the Civil War and the Lincoln Brigade. He found “the color of the Spanish character…so refreshing compared to my own staid surroundings.” His scholarly work in anthropology started with a reading of Julian Pitt-Rivers’s pioneering study of an Andalusian “pueblo,” or rural town, a book that was to open the floodgates for the advance of the anthropologists into the Mediterranean world—there are thirty-two studies on Greece alone.1 Gilmore’s own study, The People of the Plain: Class and Community in Lower Andalusia (1980), was conceived as a corrective to Pitt-Rivers’s conservatism, which left the pueblo a thing in itself, an isolated, harmonious universe relatively insulated from political and social conflict.

But the wheel has come full circle. We are presented in this book with “traditional community culture,” sustained by the small, introverted face-to-face society of an Andalusian rural township in the 1970s: the classic pueblo, although that emotive word can cover everything from a hamlet to the nation. Gilmore thanks the citizens of seven such towns for the help they gave him. In the pueblo, he observes, the “macropolitics” of the region or of Spain itself are considered as some sort of unnecessary aberration, an intrusion. “Underlying all poor relations” within the pueblo he found an intensely powerful emotional substructure that was “normally concealed” but was still as “powerfully pervasive as class polarization and politics.” He seems back where he started; with Romantic Spain and with the Andalusians as “the world’s greatest natural artists of the human condition.” His prose reflects his enthusiasms: always colorful, often irritating. It is certainly readable, although it often recalls feature articles in the Sunday press.

Aggression and Community is intended as more than another of the many contributions American anthropologists have made to our understanding of Spanish society since the anthropological revolution of the 1960s, which encouraged the study of the rural communities of Western Europe. In Gilmore’s view anthropologists have neglected the emotive basis of societies, the underlying connections between feelings and the social system, between affects and behavior. For functionalists like Radcliffe-Brown such considerations could be left to psychologists. For Lévi-Strauss, social structures are the product of esprit (which Gilmore translates as reason) not of the emotions of everyday life. To Gilmore this exclusion of affect from social structure seems “sheer folly.” While he recognizes that positive emotions—love, loyalty, feelings of group solidarity—have an important social function it is the negative emotions—fear, envy, sheer malice—with which he is concerned.

But Gilmore’s main concern is to challenge conventional anthropological wisdom on the function of aggression in small societies. He argues that most anthropologists have seen aggression as a sort of social poison—regardless of whether they consider aggression as the consequence of learning (the cultural determinists), instinct (Freud and Lorenz), or of the inevitable frustrations of social life, or the consequence of corrupt social institutions (Rousseau). Gilmore’s “iconoclastic” interpretation sets out to prove that aggression can, if suitably transformed by culture, make for social cohesion—and this in a small community where superficial civility hides powerful hostile tensions and where “your worst potential enemies are your friends.” Yet is there such a thing as universal free-floating aggression? Aren’t we all structured from birth as soon as the process of our socialization begins?

Gilmore acknowledges that anthropologists have recognized the “group binding” function of aggression. Georg Simmel flung out the suggestion that, if regularized by the rules of the social game, conflict could be “synthetic”—as most of us would recognize it often is in marriage. More recently this insight of Simmel has been explored by Lewis Coser.2 J. Black-Michaud, for example, argues that the tribal feud can be regarded as “a form of communicative behavior…locking opposed groups in hostile communication over shared values which are exchanged and intensified through such interactions.”3 J.K. Campbell in his study of the Sarakatsani, the migrant shepherds of northern Greece, sees the family, the kinship group, as the basic social building block. Outside the extended family all is competition and rivalry. Yet “hostility is a kind of relationship.” Provided it does not result in the annihilation of the adversary, and is regulated by convention, it creates a community of shared values.4

If his central thesis is less original than the author insists—and he does insist—the interest of his book must lie in the conviction conveyed by its illustrations of the taming or “socialization” of aggression. Much of what he describes will be familiar to students of Mediterranean societies.5 None of these societies is exactly placid. They are the theater not merely of struggle for scarce economic resources—a zero-sum game where one man’s gain must be another’s loss—but of a daily struggle for social esteem against overwhelming odds, a battle for “reputation.” It may even be that seventeenth-century Spanish political writers, who constantly harped on the importance of “reputation” as a weapon between states in a competitive international system, were merely transferring the conflicts of domestic life to a larger stage.

The author presents his case by examining the workings of gossip in the towns he studied, the use of nicknames, the milder forms of the evil eye, machismo seen as the assertion of masculinity, as a modern version of Calderonian honor. All the mechanisms of “shaming” come together in his description of Carnival. While nicknaming is a discharge of aggression between individual townspeople, for the groups it is a mechanism for cultural continuity, “for punishing deviance through the fiercest form of destructive mockery.” Carnival, when the local population, disguised and masked, runs around the town shouting insults and obscenities, creates group identity through conflict; it is licensed aggression yet part of a process of collective moral cleansing. The town publicly castigates misers and spendthrifts; masked accusers, having concealed their own shame, denounce the shameless ones who violate traditional sexual norms. Like gossip, such accusations reinforce conformity. In Franco’s time the “powerful ones”—big landowners and notables—simply left the town during Carnival; it was a working-class fiesta. Gilmore suggests it had a part in increasing political awareness; “workers and peasants are forged into a class for itself.” Though not effectively suppressed under Francoism, it was banned perhaps because of this function in creating working-class solidarity. Carnival has been revived by Socialist municipalities as a popular secular alternative to the religious fiestas that flourished in the missionary atmosphere of “National Catholicism.”

Gossip in Gilmore’s argument is a form of verbal aggression; a display of “onomastic malice” that releases a violent response. It was the stuff of life in Andalusia when Gilmore lived there in the 1970s; the small society was riddled with envy—what Unamuno called the “gangrene of the Spanish soul.” Indeed, traditionally gossip was directed against the deviant to reinforce traditional mores; it represented the moral judgments of the traditional community. So powerful—and here Gilmore’s language escapes professional convention—are the “interpersonal ballistic missiles” of gossip that its objects, victims of “verbal piranhas,” may see no way out but that of packing up and leaving the community.

There has always been the outlet of emigration: in the sixteenth century to the boom town of Seville; now the extensive rural exodus to the factories in the cities, or the hotels on the coast. But emigration does more than provide for the poor and accommodate the deviant. It erodes the social cohesion of the small community. Together with TV, which has penetrated the remotest hamlet, the returned emigrant imports the values of the consumer society. The millions of tourists are harbingers of change. “If it hadn’t been for tourism” a village bank clerk told Ronald Fraser in the early 1970s, “it would have been 1980 or 1990 before we reached where we are today.”6 The days have passed when strangers arriving in automobiles were pelted with stones.7

Gilmore sees the Andalusian male as obsessed by sexuality. He must follow the lead of his testicles in a phallocentric society; “a priapic energy theory of the world which is uniquely Andalusian” drives him to a battle with his peers to sustain his masculinity. To the superficial observer this constant assertion of masculine honor must appear to be divisive. But—and by this point in the book one is familiar with Gilmore’s message—this is yet another case where aggression has a social function. It reinforces “group relations and norms”; there is no descent into physical violence. The noise that deafens one in any Andalusian bar never results in blows. Gilmore attributes this to the essential civility unique to Andalusian society; indeed those first anthropologists, the classical writers from Polybius and Strabo on, stress the contrast between “soft” Andalusia, where Rome triumphed with ease and the “hard” Celtiberians of central and northern Spain who fought to the last man. 8 J.K. Campbell observes the same characteristic lastminute withdrawals from open violence among his Sarakatsani in rural Greece.

To a non-anthropologist like myself such behavior resembles the conduct of nesting sea birds—a great deal of noise and gesticulation define a personality as seagulls define a territory. In Mexico machos knife each other; in Andalusia, such frontierlike activities are culturally taboo. Aggression is contained in extempore song—one of the richest seams in Andalusian culture and from which Gilmore has mined some splendid examples. He makes an interesting point: machismo, seen as the public assertion of masculinity, degrades women as sexual objects, yet women are stronger in the competition for scarce wage work and enjoy a considerable degree of economic independence. Machismo is therefore compensatory bluffing, just as social and political impotence in a society controlled by the “powerful ones” is counterbalanced by a fantasy of erotic potency—“compensatory genital hegemony.”

The trouble is, once one starts thinking about sex one sees it everywhere. Thus a simple villager walks about with a candle on his head; it is for Gilmore a phallic symbol. I couldn’t help remembering that my four-year-old granddaughter, to the consternation of her parents, put a candle from the Christmas tree on her head and paraded about the room. Were we in the presence of some phallic exhibitionism? Or did my granddaughter think it was all just fun? But then fun is not a common analytic category to anthropologists for whom all actions are significant. The late John Skeaping brought to High Table at New College an Indian from Chiapas in Mexico whose village had been worked over by an occupying army of Harvard anthropologists. Why, he asked, did we hold our forks in our left hands and use a small spoon for salt; what was the significance of these trivia of our eating habits? It was the last laugh of Montezuma.

The book’s surprise comes in the epilogue. Gilmore worked in Andalusia in the 1970s. But the community which then closely inspected people’s conduct, that gossiped, gave nicknames, that came together at Carnival, is vanishing. The young leave; to replace the songs of the murgas (street bands)—filled with references to local happenings—they import rock-and-roll bands with their standardized lyrics deriving from America and Great Britain. Carnival is now like “a regular party one might encounter in any Western country.” After forty years of Francoism, social change in Spain has been extremely rapid—an acceleration of the process that began in the economic boom of the 1960s and 1970s. If one can believe opinion surveys, urban Spain in the late 1970s was one of the most permissive societies in Europe. And change affects not only the cities but the remote countryside. Only men over thirty, Gilmore argues, are impervious to these changes in the small towns of Andalusia. Romantic to the last, he argues that “the moral integuments of traditional culture are strong in the Spanish south, and after a historically brief period of readjustment, that ancient lawgiver—public opinion—will reassert itself in some new way as people tire of too much freedom.”

With the traditional community in dissolution, its moral judgments have lost their force. The deviant who gets rich quick—thus outraging traditional morality—gets reluctant approbation. Francoism, as Gilmore recognizes, was a tissue of contradictions; it inculcated an austere Christian morality and a secular “developmentalism” the end product of which, inevitably, was consumerism and the speculative get-rich-quick atmosphere of the 1970s. Franco’s deathbed agony symbolized the society he had created. He died plugged in to every device of modern medical technology with the mantle of the Virgin of Pilar and the arm of St. Teresa in his bedroom. A girl in the 1950s could be drummed out of town by gossip for wearing a daring two-piece bathing suit. She might now be elected the local beauty queen. These changes are startling in their suddenness. In a small village I knew well the local fiesta passed in one year from a religious procession where the culminating ceremony was parading from church through the streets with candles to become a procession led by drum majorettes in miniskirts. Such changes are now encouraged, especially in small municipalities with Socialist or Communist mayors. Andalusia, after all, is a bastion of Spanish socialism.

There are signs that a reassertion of traditional ways is taking place even in urban Spain, perhaps subtly induced by the difficulty of youth in finding employment in a society with 20 percent of its adult population unemployed. This forces an astonishing percentage of the age group from twenty to thirty to live at home. The customary formalized courtship, the noviazgo—rejected as a bourgeois invention by the progressives of the Sixties and Seventies—is staging a comeback in the Eighties.

This will provide a crumb of comfort for Professor Gilmore. How, he asks, can the enforcement of moral behavior by “shaming”—by the “invisible fist of public opinion”—that operates in the small face-to-face community be adequately replaced in the anonymous mass society where all is left to the dictates of the individual conscience or the legal code? Private freedom often means public misconduct—for example the mugging, the housebreaking, much of it drug-related, that assumed epidemic proportions in Spain in the 1970s. Such hooliganism has provided a bonanza for security agencies and private police forces while laments at the collapse of public order have become the preferred weapon of the right to discredit the new democracy. There was no mugging, they say, under Franco. In the old days you could leave your house on the coast unlocked; now no amount of expenditure on locks and grilles will save you from vandals.

Just as those who prospered under Franco regret the passing of a society in which social controls protected their property, so anthropologists tend to lament the passing of the small face-to-face community that provided them with a convenient case for study. As R.G. Collingwood observed of historians, what matters is the question you ask. The danger is that you will find what you are looking for—and some anthropologists have found the moral unity of the pueblo, rather than its bitter social conflicts. It is noticeable that most recent anthropological studies on Spain have concentrated on rural communities—pleasant places for prolonged research—rather than on the bleak barrios of the great cities. Yet in these hostile environments—created by modern architects who have replaced the horizontal society of the street with the vertical society of the high-rise apartment block—a community struggles to exist. We need to know more of the values it seeks to sustain. How far, for example, do the immigrant colonies of the Barcelona suburbs retain the values of the pueblo? Spain is now a predominantly urban industrial society and its study should not be abandoned to sociologists. Anthropologists tend to be more humane; they do not elevate human beings to the level of numbers.9

Gilmore acknowledges that he omits the positive emotional rewards of the small community and concentrates on its capacity to make use of aggression, envy, malice, and so on, which, it must be emphasized, he sees as free-floating emotions structured by civilization. But even with such positive rewards built into it, the small enclosed society was an oppressive, stifling place riddled with suspicion and obsessed by prestige with one’s sexual prowess, where the virtue of one’s wife was the staple food of neighborhood gossip. It is a curious example of cultural continuity that some trends in Spanish anarchism have looked to the libertarian community to replace the State and the Church as the guardian of sexual morals. In this anarchist conception, the deviant who deserted his “companion” would be ostracized, sent to moral conventry, as was the deviant of the Andalusian town. I have always found this unacceptable. If I committed adultery I would prefer to be fined or imprisoned rather than be cold-shouldered by my neighbors. Far better to be left to the tortures of individual conscience or the administrations of a psychiatrist than to receive the blows of the “fist of public opinion.”

  1. 1

    The People of the Sierra (University of Chicago Press, 1961).

  2. 2

    The Functions of Social Conflict (Free Press, 1956).

  3. 3

    Cohesive Force: Feud in the Mediterranean and the Middle-East (St. Martin’s Press, 1975), p. 208.

  4. 4

    Honour, Family, and Patronage (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1964), p. 211.

  5. 5

    For example, in the essays in Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society, edited by J.G. Peristiany (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1965).

  6. 6

    Ronald Fraser, The Pueblo (London: Allen Lane, 1973), p. 219.

  7. 7

    Such an incident is described in the socialist-realist novel of J. Lopez Pacheco Central Electrica (1958). It describes the reactions of a remote village to the installation of an electric power station.

  8. 8

    The hostile stereotype emphasizes the weakness of Andalusian resistance to foreign invasion from the Romans and the Moors to Soult’s campaign in the Napoleonic Wars. Livy considered the inhabitants of Lower Andalusia as notoriously unwarlike, employing Celtiberian mercenaries to stiffen their armies. The favorable stereotype emphasizes Andalusia’s “generous,” “absorptive” capacity—see for example Jose Manuel Cuenca Torbio’s Andalucía: Historia de un pueblo (Madrid, 1982). Andalusians smother the intrusive invader in their embrace, just as the Greeks “conquered” the Romans.

  9. 9

    When studying Puerto Rico I found Oscar Lewis’s La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty (Random House, 1966), a study of a Puerto Rican slum, immensely illuminating. The same is true of F. Candel’s polemical books on the suburban working-class barrios of Barcelona, Ser obreroes ninjuna ganga (1968) and Los otros Catalanes (1964).

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