Tag Archives: middle ground

On the Reference I Made the Other Day to ‘The Middle Ground’

In a previous post, I said that asking creates a kind of “middle ground” where power – and everything else – is up for grabs. The concept of the middle ground is one I borrowed from a wonderful book, Richard White’s The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. It was a passing reference, and it may have been a little careless, I now concede. Here I want to talk a little about the concept as White develops it, and try to connect it with what I had to say about the power of asking in my earlier post.

In White’s book, the middle ground is both a real place – the pays d’en haut or “Upper Country” of the Great Lakes Region – and a complex human terrain where the French and the Indians created “an elaborate network of economic, political, cultural and social ties to meet the demands of a particular historical situation.” For Europeans and Indians in the pays d’en haut, the middle ground described a place of mutual agreement, exchange and concession, to conduct everything from judicial proceedings to the regulation of sexual mores to the fur trade. White calls the middle ground “the place in between: in between cultures, peoples, and in between empires and the nonstate world of villages.”

In this place, Indians and Europeans staged a creative, cross-cultural, ad hoc exchange of words, forms, rituals and practices. This conversation accomplished what force or violence could not. Or, to put it more precisely, the middle ground emerged at the limits of coercive power and violence. The Europeans in the Upper Country “could neither dictate to the Indians nor ignore them,” White writes; and where they could not conquer, command or go it alone they had to yield, concede and share. That went both ways.

The middle ground depended on the inability of both sides to gain their ends through force. The middle ground grew according to the need of people to find a means, other than force, to gain the cooperation and consent of foreigners. To succeed, those who operated on the middle ground had, of necessity, to attempt to understand the world and the reasoning of others and to assimilate enough of that reasoning to put it to their own purposes.

Understanding and assimilating the world and the reasoning of others: another word for that is translation. And that’s how White sometimes describes it: the middle ground was a place made up of “creative, but often expedient misunderstandings” – fictions – that allowed the Indians and the Europeans first to see each other as human beings, then to construct “a common, mutually comprehensible world.” They forged a new language, new meaning and a new world together: “the older worlds of the Algonquians and of various Europeans overlapped, and their mixture created new systems of meaning and exchange.” Gift-giving, calumets, the covering of the dead – all these Algonquian rituals were brought into play, but it wasn’t simply a matter of carrying old forms across languages or cultures; in the middle ground, they were transformed into something new.

It would be a mistake to think that the French and the Indians somehow deliberately set out to create this middle ground after first encountering one another. The middle ground did not emerge because both sides had dedicated themselves to a spirit of cooperation – hardly! — or because some “magical affinity” (as White puts it) or mist of peace, love and understanding hung over the pays d’en haut in the 18th century. Short-lived, fragile, often unique and irreproducible adaptations and improvisations made up the middle ground; in White’s account, it emerges and disappears then re-emerges while the French are the primary European presence in the pays d’en haut. They abandon it from time to time, resorting to force and violence (as do the Algonquians). After the defeats of the Iroquois and the French in the Seven Years war, and the ascendency of the English as a power in the Upper Country, the middle ground is all but lost.

While some readers of The Middle Ground talk about the way White’s work unravels and disassembles the concept of the frontier, I find myself moving in an entirely different direction. I tend to think of pays d’en haut as White describes it in his book almost as an Atlantis, a world residing somewhere between myth and history; or, better, as a historical world created by mythmaking. It exercises a hold over my imagination as few places have — except, maybe, the city of Naples, which is, for me, also a place both real and imagined and to which I return in my mind over and over again.

1755_Bellin_Map_of_the_Great_Lakes_-_Geographicus_-_GreatLakes-bellin-1755

On the one hand, it’s easy to see why the French Upper Country has a hold on me: here the history of the Great Lakes region (which I discovered in the course of my work on 1913 Massacre) comes together with my interest in non-coercive forms of power. So it’s not surprising that I should have made a passing reference to White in my previous post about the power of asking; in fact, it’s much more surprising to me that I didn’t go on more about it, as I have here.

On the other hand, I recognize that this is all very problematic. White is a historian, describing as meticulously and carefully as he can the cultural politics of the Great Lakes region in the 18th century; I’m reader of history, and I tend to take what I read and start imagining things. I’m familiar with Philip J. DeLoria’s warnings against “oversimplification” of White’s work, and his worry about misreadings that make White’s middle ground “analytically portable” to the point where it becomes “simply a trope for human give and take.” But there is, there has to be, something portable in everything that one reads; the act of reading is itself a carrying back and forth, an exchange, an importing and exporting. It’s an act of give and take, as DeLoria himself wryly admits.

This is not just to say that White’s study of the middle ground echoes themes found in, say, James C. Scott’s work on the Upland peoples of Southeast Asia, or Pierre Clastres’ work on the Indians of South America, and that there’s some common trope that all these books describe. It might be to say that reading itself is an exercise of non-coercive power, an act that involves transference, translation, transmutation and creation of new meaning, a kind of dialogue between author and reader, the practicing historian and the images we make of history.

Not much new in that thought: for the moment, I simply want to offer that I seem to have carried my interests, imagination, intellectual habits and stories into White’s work, assimilated it, and now I seem to be putting it to my own purposes, as an illustration of what can be accomplished through the exercise of non-coercive power. It remains to be seen how that illustration will help advance or complicate my thinking on this point. But I guess it’s pretty clear that all this situates the act of reading in the territory of cultural production White describes in The Middle Ground.  I say that knowing full well that I am probably going to be accused of misreading.

A Follow-Up to Hitchings’ Follow-Up Post on “The Ask”

Shortly after I posted my thoughts on his Times opinionator blog, Henry Hitchings promised me  a “follow-up blog” on “the dark side of nominalization.” Yesterday that follow-up blog (wait – isn’t “follow-up” a nominalization?) appeared. There, Hitchings echoes what I’ve said about asking:

I touched previously on “What is the ask?” As an alternative to “What are they asking?” or “What are we being asked to do?” this can seem crisp. It takes an aerial view of an issue. But it calculatedly omits reference to the people doing the asking, as a way of keeping their authority and power out of the question.

At the same time, by turning the act of asking into something narrow and impersonal, “What is the ask?” repositions a question as a command. It leaves little or no room for the “ask” to be refused. As a noun, “ask” is pretty much a synonym for “order.” Even when we retain details of agency — as in “What is their ask of us?” – the noun ossifies what could and should be a more dynamic process.

It’s good to see that Hitchings has relented and come around to the view that “the ask” is an insidious and sinister piece of jargon — a view I’ve been developing since my first post on “the ask” just a little over a year ago (and in subsequent posts, here and here, for example).  The other day Hitchings seemed to admire the “distancing” effect the nominative ask creates, and I feared he was advocating doing unpleasant things in order to achieve “polemical or diplomatic” ends. Now he is on the side of “a more dynamic process” in which, I gather, the “authority and power”of the person doing the asking will be openly acknowledged.

I’m all for transparency, attributions of agency and the give and take of dynamic process, but the real power of asking lies elsewhere. Asking transforms power itself; it involves the exercise of a non-coercive power. We tend not even to think of this as power, as Pierre Clastres pointed out in Society Against the State. Instead, we are used to associating power with force (which subjects others to labor, or worse) or commands (which prompt others to do our bidding). But when it comes to asking, nobody’s really in charge — at least as long as someone is making or responding to the request. It’s a moment when things are up for grabs.

The authority and power vested in a person, their title, position, influence over our lives — if any of that is being brought to bear on a request, then we are simply being ordered about with commands disguised as questions. Asking marks a different point of departure — a place where you and I are on equal footing, and we start something, together. It creates “middle ground” between the petitioner and the respondent: not just an area of compromise, but an area that is open, shared, and which nobody can claim entirely as his own.