Astonishment, its a cultural thing

Terrorinmumbai Pam persuaded me to watch the HBO documentary on the Mumbai massacre, Terror in Mumbai.  It is an astonishing piece of film making, and highly recommended.

There are two moments that jump out anthropologically.  The teens who come to create terror at the Oberoi hotel are for a few minutes stunned by the scale of the place, its luxury of its appointments, the size of the computer screens.  We can hear their handler in Pakistan trying by cell phone to talk them out of their astonishment and into action.  "Throw a grenade," he says.  "Just pull the pin."  But the kids are simply witless.  As products of the slums of Pakistan, they have never seen anything like this before.

In a sense, the unimaginable objects of the Oberoi "jam" their powers of action, indeed their very powers of observation.  This is how much our "perception" of the world depends on our "conception" of their world.  Here conception equals ideas in the mind and prior acquaintance in the world. 

Novelty is fine if we have fair warning.  We build a category in the mind, and when the novelty strikes us in the world, we are ready.  If we haven't any warning, that's ok, too.  Eventually, our exposure to the new will leave an ever larger "dint" in consciousness.  We will build a category out of sheer exposure.  Now we can see what we are looking at, and act on it.  We have been astonishment proofed.

A second moment shows astonishment on the Indian side.  As another group of teens burst into the railway station and begin firing, security forces installed there come to see what the commotion is.  And it's entirely clear what the commotion is.  There are kids with guns shooting and killing people.  But the security guys can't believe their eyes.  And they can't rouse themselves to action.  Some run away.  Other just stand there with their mouths open.  (Eventually, with great bravery a couple throw themselves into action.  One dies as a result.)

This shows no lack of courage.  It shows is a lack of training.  There is no precedent in conscious.  With its sound and horror, this event is too much for them.  The guards have not been proofed against astonishment. This is one reason military people are so very carefully trained.  With training, they have a category and a precedent.  Now it is possible to tell what they are looking at.  They can commit to action even when everything is strange.  Training prevents them from being taken captive by astonishment.

I think astonishment must have been at work when that couple stepped into the White House without invitation.  I expect some security guy looked at the tall, slender, elegant and very blond half of the twosome and thought, "hmm, she's gotta be ok." 

This guy had two categories at war in his head.  One was marked "trophy wife."  The other was marked "terrorist."  And given the architecture of these categories, there is no way the person who belongs to the first category can possibly belong to the second.  In this man's head, in our culture, these two categories are so defined as to be mutually exclusive.

We say things like "expect the unexpected."  But this is just brave talk.  We can't expect the unexpected, and not just for logical reasons.  We can't imagine that an elegant trophy wife is a terrorist because the categories in our heads will not allow us.  In this case, it doesn't really matter who good the training is.  That women gets to go pretty much any where she wants. 

Astonishment is a symptom that the categories in our heads have ceased to function.  And without the smooth and unwitting operation of these categories, we are open mouthed and in the extreme case incapable of action.  That at the limit is what culture is for.  As the supplier of the categories in our heads, it is the supplier of an orderly perception of the physical and the social world.  Thus does culture make the world make sense. 


For more details on Terror in Mumbai here

4 thoughts on “Astonishment, its a cultural thing

  1. Daria Steigman

    There’s a scene at the beginning of one of the Le Carre movie adaptations (I think it was The Little Drummer Girl) where a very blond Nordic-looking young woman talks her way into the home of an Israel diplomat to leave a gift for her au pair friend. The house then blows up.

    I only caught the end of the documentary yesterday, but was struck by how young and impressionable these terrorists were, and how we’d just walk by them in any other setting. That got me thinking: What would have happened if they had options, and someone had empowered them to succeed rather than to die?

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