Folk smartness

Date of publication
10.6. 2021.
Translated by
Jelena Kupsjak
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The insist­ence on the sci­entif­ic nov­elty of SARS-​CoV‑2 has con­trib­uted not only to the glob­al bewil­der­ment at the con­sequences of its spread, includ­ing the belated reac­tion of the West after fix­at­ing on its “exot­ic” and “ana­chron­ist­ic” char­ac­ter, but also to mul­tiple nar­rat­ives that have ten­ded to under­stand the state of the glob­al “quar­ant­ine” as a kind of zero state of the world. However, not only in the com­mon inter­pret­a­tions that have since flooded the media and pub­lic space, but also in the emin­ent human­ist­ic insights, this nov­elty has para­dox­ic­ally settled into obsess­ive cul­tur­al and epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al pos­i­tions. Instead of the expec­ted “syn­cope,” a salut­ary moment of float­ing in the uncer­tainty and arbit­rar­i­ness of sci­entif­ic know­ledge, the far-​reaching pro­jec­tions of the as-​yet unfore­see­able implic­a­tions of the post-​pandemic age have been imme­di­ately launched and soon landed in com­prom­ise and the mean­ing­less term of “new normality.”

Is there, then, any­thing truly new in the daily records of spec­tac­u­lar pan­dem­ic cul­ture, any nov­elty that has entered the world 1Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. Routledge, 1994. that might “sur­prise” the nor­mal­iz­a­tion of cul­tur­al change as an inev­it­ably con­ser­vat­ive fea­ture of both intel­lec­tu­al and every­day dis­course? What, in oth­er words, are the con­di­tions of res­ist­ing the phe­nomen­o­logy of the new to be tamed in terms of cul­tur­al and then polit­ic­al “old­ness,” repet­it­ive­ness, and circularity?

The impli­cit tend­ency towards neut­ral­iz­ing cul­tur­al nov­elty is also very much in the epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al back­ground of the cul­tur­al anthro­po­lo­gic­al stance, which insists on estab­lish­ing, or just con­firm­ing, the structural-​systemic pro­ced­ures of pro­cessing the, how­ever “spon­tan­eous,” con­tin­gent cultural-​historical con­tent for which it is in con­stant search.

Such double con­di­tions of per­form­ing a trans-​subjective, open, and sec­u­lar, but at the same time self-​regulated mech­an­ism of under­stand­ing, also con­struct the epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al per­spect­ive of the cul­tur­al sub­ject known as the ordin­ary man. And, with the prop­er metaphorical-​rhetorical fuses and the pro­ver­bi­al use of quo­ta­tion marks, it appears here under the name of “folk smart­ness,”2The read­er is advised to under­stand “folk” as a term in the usu­al sense of people, which includes the mean­ing of pub­lic and pop­u­lar. serving as a coun­ter­part to the phrase folk health 3 None of these trans­la­tions can con­vey the mean­ing giv­en in “Narodna,” as used in this text for smarts, health, wis­dom, and thought. For example, “nar­od” can be trans­lated as people, folk, or nation, but there are sig­ni­fic­ant dif­fer­ences in mean­ing based on the choices there; they are not the only pos­sible ones. Folk is the most appro­pri­ate one, but since the concept to which the author refers is related to the concept of “nar­odno zdravlje,” as developed and used by Andrija Štampar, a sci­ent­ist, epi­demi­olo­gist, doc­tor, and pub­lic health ideo­logue, the mean­ing of “nar­odno” is least related to nation and most related to folk or people, but also to pub­lic. The syn­tagm “nar­odno zdravlje,” when trans­lated as “folk health,” does not cor­res­pond to the mean­ing to which it refers and has been trans­lated and used gen­er­ally in the mean­ing of “pub­lic health.” Since the con­cepts are con­nec­ted, it would be unwise to uncouple them by giv­ing them trans­la­tions that remove their con­nec­tion, but by simply assign­ing them the mean­ing of folk, some­thing of “nar­odno zdravlje” is miss­ing. Hence, the intro­duct­ory remark to con­sider folk as a multi-​layered concept, encom­passing both the pub­lic and the pop­u­lar. from the nowadays re-​updated her­it­age of Andrija Štampar.

One of the chal­lenges of the cultural-​anthropological stand­ard of put­ting one­self in the shoes of a com­mon cul­tur­al sub­ject is that it also implies a severe lim­it­a­tion on its eval­u­at­ive capa­city. And it is cer­tainly a more com­plex prob­lem when encoun­ter­ing the slip­pery ter­rain of pop­u­list ini­ti­at­ives, which are enorm­ously agile nowadays, not to men­tion pan­dem­ic issues, while shar­ing not only an ety­mo­lo­gic­al but also, to some extent, an epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al kin­ship with “folk smart­ness.” Such a silenced pro­fes­sion­al voca­tion requires a self-​regulation of one’s ethico-​epistemological pos­i­tion that insists, above all, on under­stand­ing the sources, motives, mod­els, and pos­i­tion­ings of all the products ori­gin­at­ing from the reser­voir of thoughts, in which, nowadays, the dif­fer­ent sub­jects of both author­ized and sec­u­lar know­ledge find them­selves dia­lo­gic­ally aligned in the same stream of exist­en­tial difficulties.

Apart from the fact that, in the worst out­comes, the cred­ib­il­ity of pro­fes­sion­al, i.e., sci­entif­ic and gen­er­al intel­lec­tu­al dis­courses, seems to be severely dam­aged in this tor­rent, the recent impres­sion is that the flow of pro­ver­bi­al folk wis­dom has also partly turned towards irra­tion­al spaces and poten­tially destruct­ive beha­vi­ors. Thus, we are now instruc­ted in the addi­tion­al self-​regulation of the dis­com­fort of the anthro­po­lo­gic­al oblig­a­tion of under­stand­ing, the pos­i­tion already known and veri­fied as Romantic-​Enlightenment con­tro­versy: on the one hand, admir­a­tion for the cre­at­ive and mean­ing­ful poten­tial of “folk smart­ness,” and, on the oth­er hand, the awaken­ing of edu­ca­tion­al, mono­log­ic­al impulses for estab­lish­ing the sens­it­ive lim­its of such a wit.

Although the sever­ity of the pan­dem­ic situ­ation was also sup­posed to estab­lish the mit­ig­at­ing cri­ter­ia for this pro­fes­sion­al trap – by lim­it­ing the free­dom of the “romantic,” in poten­tially threat­en­ing the life of its “enlightened” sub­ject – recent nego­ti­ations over its pos­sible solu­tions have blurred the cer­tainty of even this strong­hold. By arguing the col­lat­er­al life-​threatening effects of exist­ing safe­guards, con­ceived as life-​saving, they encroach not only on the effic­acy but on the core ration­al­ity of the factual-​performative con­tin­gent from which the instruc­tions have been formed. From the very level of supreme arbit­ra­tion, the con­firm­a­tion of such a twist­ing point has come in an unex­pec­ted state­ment of the Constitutional Judge of the Republic of Croatia, when eval­u­at­ing the anti-​pandemic meas­ures of the National Headquarters in the midst of the corona crisis. Despite the rest of the decision, which con­firmed the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity and pro­por­tion­al­ity of the sanc­tions and recom­mend­a­tions of this body, in a dis­sent­ing opin­ion, he ret­ro­spect­ively con­cludes on the man­date of the Headquarters in the fol­low­ing Aesopian-​Mandarin terms:

the dachshund weighs 10 kg, and the grizzly bear 500 kg, i.e., it weighs 50 times more. Both can bite a man, and surely no one wants to be bit­ten. But it is unusu­al to have all the meas­ures ready to defend against grizzly bears, and then – as neces­sary – to look for some urgent new meas­ures when the dachshund appears. The SARS-​Cov‑2 vir­us is, without a doubt, a dan­ger­ous vir­us, but, for­tu­nately, it is infin­itely less dan­ger­ous than some oth­er vir­uses for which we already have rules of con­duct. It is hard to shake off the impres­sion that the fly was first made into an ele­phant, and then sold to ivory.4DB. “Što piše u izdvo­jenom mišljen­ju tro­je sudaca: ‘Neobično je imati spremne mjere za obranu od griz­lija, a onda tražiti nove kad se pojavi jaza­včar.’”, 24 Sep. 2020, — 621520.html. Accessed 28 Sep. 2020.

The state­ment came at the moment of awakened cri­ti­cism of gov­ern­ment anti-​pandemic meas­ures as excess­ive and prone to repress­ive mech­an­isms of state con­trol, lat­ently sup­port­ing the grow­ing inclin­a­tions towards looser and more demo­crat­ic mod­els pro­moted from the niche of the so-​called busi­ness intel­li­gence, i.e., economic-​statistical ana­lyzes and mod­els by experts with mostly neo­lib­er­al agendas.

The dis­trust in the tent­at­ive and con­tex­tu­ally groun­ded epi­demi­olo­gic­al con­clu­sions, with their poten­tial or actu­al turns into the domain of daily polit­ic­al prag­mat­ism, is now replaced by the trust in a “more exact” pro­fes­sion­al know­ledge. Devotion to strict quant­it­at­ive meth­ods should be able to ensure a depar­ture from all ideo­lo­gic­al impacts and, togeth­er with the coin­cid­ent­ally much more optim­ist­ic per­spect­ives of their cal­cu­la­tions and pro­gnos­is, con­firm the ele­ments of mass decep­tion: intim­id­a­tion and exag­ger­a­tion in the ser­vice of vari­ous hid­den agen­das and with unfore­see­able con­sequences for phys­ic­al, psy­cho­lo­gic­al, and pub­lic well-being.

At the half-​time of the pan­dem­ic nar­rat­ive, we are thus wit­ness­ing what in nar­ra­to­logy is called a tele­o­gen­et­ic point, a vant­age point from which a whole series of pre­ced­ing events can, or must be, ret­ro­spect­ively grasped, in accord­ance with the revealed coun­ter­point of the plot.

In a broad­er sense, such a frame­work enables the mark­ing of the dynam­ics that divided the “Croatian corona-​scenario” into two dis­tinct, almost unex­pec­tedly dif­fer­ent, states of pub­lic com­mu­nic­a­tion of expert know­ledge about the infec­tion togeth­er with the leg­ally reg­u­lated recom­mend­a­tions for its con­trol. Concerning the mech­an­isms of for­get­ting the stress­ful times of the then freshly intro­duced state of emer­gency, as well as “revi­sion­ist” inscrip­tions that fol­low the recent rad­ic­al turn of action, we will have to address the first, quar­ant­ine phase, which ended some time ago, almost in the mode of the polit­ics of remem­brance that is oth­er­wise char­ac­ter­ist­ic of rethink­ing his­tor­ic­al times.

Namely, it is plaus­ible to speak about this first peri­od of crisis-​regulation both as suc­cess­ful (almost idyll­ic in invok­ing motifs such as the renew­al of nature, equal­ity, solid­ar­ity, trust in expert­ise and insti­tu­tions, etc.), and as an ini­tial sys­tem­ic error, an equally failed assess­ment of epi­demi­olo­gic­al know­ledge that opens space for Fearmongering, that is, the delib­er­ate evoc­a­tion of fear from the cen­ters of ideo­lo­gic­al manip­u­la­tion, wherever they may be.

We have reached a point where the frantic accu­mu­la­tion and mutu­al annul­ment of forces and sources of dif­fer­ently qual­i­fied know­ledge cul­min­ates in the cognitive-​emotional empty­ing of an aver­age con­sumer who is left with the decept­ive choice between the repres­sion or free­dom side of the pan­dem­ic con­di­tion, while real­iz­ing that both imply, in their own way, the con­sequences of social injustice or privilege.

In an age already marked by the excess­ive pro­duc­tion of insights and opin­ions, not to men­tion nar­rat­ives and oth­er “raw mater­i­al” which some ant-​worker will prob­ably col­lect and sys­tem­at­ize years later for the mys­ter­i­ous pur­poses of digit­al archives, and in an age when any new opin­ion might remain as a spec­tac­u­lar deni­al of the pre­vi­ous one with far-​reaching implic­a­tions, the pro­cess of exact sci­entif­ic know­ledge is par­tic­u­larly exposed to cri­ti­cism, doubt, and even ridicule. Faced with the unknowns of a new form of patho­gen, the race against time, unex­pec­ted reversals and muta­tions, and the impossib­il­ity of clear pro­jec­tions, this slow, pro­trac­ted pro­cess, insuf­fi­ciently sup­plied with com­fort and instant solu­tions, has been replaced by anoth­er, more agile and seem­ingly wiser “dis­course of enlight­en­ment,” a gro­cery bag fit for every­day consumption.

And where the insights and pre­dic­tions placed from elev­ated intel­lec­tu­al pos­i­tions have often ser­i­ously failed, the need for rudi­ment­ary the­or­iz­ing and anec­dot­al point­ing, much like the pro­ver­bi­al folk wis­dom, per­sists. At some point, they have met in the same line of the long-​term, rou­tin­ized social cri­ti­cism, form­ing the joint place of the cun­ning intel­li­gence trained in read­ing between the lines and auto­mat­ic­ally recog­niz­ing, for example, the threat to civil liber­ties in what have been presen­ted as meas­ures to save lives. A pathet­ic cry for (per­son­al) free­dom sent out by the assum­ingly pro­gress­ive intel­lec­tu­al stances at the very begin­ning of the move­ment restric­tions (which were then aimed at the bare pro­tec­tion of exposed med­ic­al staff) could thus also stand as an announce­ment of the per­sever­ance of future pop­u­list ini­ti­at­ives, how­ever repuls­ive and obstinate.

The intel­lec­tu­al com­mit­ment to under­stand­ing the “irra­tion­al” and some­times truly out­rageous con­sequences of the bewildered “folk smart­ness” that char­ac­ter­izes pan­dem­ic times should also remind us that, at one point, what was at stake for both high cul­tured and com­mon cul­tured per­spect­ives was adher­ence to a few simple pro­tec­tion meas­ures cap­able of sav­ing lives and provid­ing rel­at­ive exist­en­tial security.

The break­down of self-​regulatory, “smart” mech­an­isms in expres­sions of the “com­mon man” will, nev­er­the­less, hand us over to a sav­ing arsen­al of ana­lyt­ic­al inter­ven­tions able to plaus­ibly con­clude that what has happened was a cul­tur­al trans­fer of a lay taboo:  the com­pens­a­tion of incom­pet­ence in the dis­tant expert issues through the car­ni­val­iz­a­tion of what turned to be their sur­pris­ingly simple and often seem­ingly “stu­pid” per­form­at­ive out­come of a few anti-​contagion measures.

Still, and des­pite the “romantic” sat­is­fac­tion for the defray­al of justice which was thus sym­bol­ic­ally exhausted, the fact that such man­euvers of “folk smart­ness”  entail forms of social beha­vi­or that may pose an exact pub­lic health risk indic­ates the alarm­ing need for enlightened inter­ven­tion in ana­lyt­ic­al con­di­tions aimed at their con­des­cend­ing understanding.

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