The Heart and Soul of a Nation

wpid-PastedGraphic-2014-04-28-12-04.pngMention Novi Sad to individuals of Serbian origins and they are likely to tell you three things pretty much all at once: (1) one of the most beautiful regions of Serbia; (2) the cultural heart and soul of Serbia; and (3) the city where, between March 24 and June 9, 1999, NATO ran thirty-one bombing sorties, destroying all communications, electricity, and transport ion in the city.

The stated purpose of NATO bombing was to compel an end to Serbian military operations seeking to maintain control over Kosovo, whose local majority Albanian population wished for independence from Serbia. Sorting through the mess of attacks and counterattacks, accusations and counter-accusations, while not fruitless, does not yield the kinds of clear answers we want; the kinds of answers, that is to say, that might prevent such a conflict in the future. Which is why I want to hold off on drawing any conclusions just yet.

Instead, I want to focus on the first two things Serbs told us when we visited Fruška Gora, Sremski Karlovci, Novi Sad and the surrounding region this past weekend.wpid-ScreenShot2014-04-28at12.51.37PM-2014-04-28-12-04.png
With the Danube wending its way through this mountainous region, there is no question about its natural beauty or why, when Orthodox monks seeking solitude chose sites for their dozen or more monasteries, they overwhelmingly preferred this region over any others. Indeed, Kirsten, the boys and I felt cheated visiting only five. Set in secluded forests, housed in ancient sixteenth and seventeenth century buildings, these communities are priceless.

Sremski Karlovci was until recently the spiritual center of the Serbian Orthodox Church. And, as several websites explain to visitors, this, combined with its beauty, makes Fruška Gora the spiritual center of the Serbian Nation, but, therefore, also the heart of Serbian nationalism. This intimate relationship between spirituality and nationality, between spirituality and nationalism, may explain why, when national revolutions spread across Europe in 1848 and 1849, Novi Sad and Sremski Karlovci provided the base from which nationalist revolutionaries launched their resistance against what they perceived as Hungarian domination. And so simultaneously both the modern Serb nation and the modern Serbian Orthodox Church were born (a point hotly contested by our guide). In any case, it was in 1848 following its successful revolution against Hungary that Karlovci’s Orthodox Metropolitan was raised to Patriarch and when simultaneously Karlovci was declared the capital of the Vojvodina, a northern region of greater Serbia that includes Belgrade.

At least administratively this would all change after World War I, when Belgrade become the capital of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. In 1920, the Patriciate of Karlovci and Belgrade merged to form one Patriciate; and the official seat of political and religious power in Serbia migrated to Belgrade. But, ask anyone, including a close friend of ours in Belgrade: the heart and soul of Serbia still lives in Sremski Karlovci.

But what does this mean exactly?

Let me first say that, since we were visiting so many monasteries, Kirsten was wearing her collar during our visits, a symbol that she was representing our corner of the Church — the Worldwide Anglican Communion — in our visits to this other corner. And let me also say that our welcome in all of these communities was warm and courteous. Yet, one particular community, Monastery Velika, was more than warm and courteous. It was enthusiastic. The brother showered us with CDs of music, photos, and a book, in English, titled Nemanja’s Heritage: Divine Liturgy, written by Mile Medić (1933- ), and published in 2010 by the Monastery.

It was only when we got home to Tuzla, Sunday night, that Kirsten began to skim through the book. This is how it begins: “A people that doesn’t have its country cannot be called the people. People is the country, my dear child. The people is not a flock of birds, nor a herd that moves from north to south, and then lands on the soil to peck or just stop by on a pasture and drink water” (5). “And remember, my child, the blood. Blood also makes the people. Blood is eternal. The blood of a newborn is one thousand years old. . . . My children, by my blood and my spirit, let it not be hatred of a foreign blood let alone of a brother. Blood of man is holy and it runs in us from one spring. It is given from God and our forefather Adam. Do not shed any blood, no matter the tribe or the people. But my child, defend your blood fiercely, for the blood of your ancestors is in it. Do not let anyone shed our blood because it is Serbian. Bring peace where there is war and wage war to bring peace. Offer love where there is love, but defend Serbian blood with blood” (8-9). “Graves, my child, graves and bones make the people” (10). “Country and the people are not the same. People is older than anything. . . . One people can be in many countries, and one country can have more peoples. And now, hear me, my child, hear me well. One people, one country, that was my plan and it remained, and I give it to you as an Oath to all from now and forever. Serbs don’t have their country but they spread in other foreign countries. Slavs pushed the land with their magnitude from north to south seas” (21).

wpid-1__@__PastedGraphic-2014-04-28-12-04.pngNemanja is of course Stefan Nemanja, the 12th century founder of the Serbian state and church. But it is how he founded both state and church that interests me. Originally he was baptized Catholic. Yet, after the defeat of his kinsmen, Nemanja’s family returned to their traditional lands in Rascia where Nemanja was rebaptized into the Eastern Church. When he reached adulthood, he was awarded the princeship of several regions, but not Rascia, which was given to his brother. However, in 1166 and 1168 Nemanja rebelled against his brother and deposed him. And when the Byzantine Emperor threw together a multi-ethnic and multi-religious force of Turks, Franks, and Greeks to defeat Nemanja, Nemanja instead defeated them. Tragically his brother was drowned in the river Sitnica during the conflict. Thus did Nemanja assume the title Grand Župan of all Serbia. Following his death Nemanja was sainted by the Serb Orthodox Church. But among his best-known legacies was his ongoing war against Bogomil heresy, a synchronistic religious practice widespread throughout the Balkans, including the region that is now Bosnia and Herzegovina.

But it was Nemanja’s defeat of the Turks — or rather the multi-ethnic, multi-religious armies that included Turks — that came up repeatedly in our tour of the monasteries. This and, of course, the defeat of the Ottoman’s, an event joyfully reenacted in church pageants every year.

After our visits to the monasteries, Kirsten and I talked with our sons about nationalism. They pointed out how the United States was also guilty of committing terrible atrocities around the world; like, for example, the NATO bombing of Novi Sad. Yes, we admitted. The genocide against native north Americans was a terrible legacy as was the enslavement and murder of hundreds of millions of Africans in route to the Americas and after their arrival. But we do not celebrate these atrocities.

Nor do we believe that they are somehow a fixed feature of our blood.

As to the larger question — why did NATO run thirty-one sorties over Novi Sad — I have only partial answers. Novi Sad supplied essential fuel and ordinance to Milosevic’s forces in Kosovo; Novi Sad was home to valuable supply routes; Novi Sad continued to broadcast disinformation to the surrounding towns and villages.

But I suspect this is only part (and by no means the most important part) of the answer. I suspect that the better part of the answer is buried in the belief, the conviction, held implicitly by everyone we meet, that Novi Sad, Fruška Gora, and Sremski Karlovci are the heart and soul of the nation.

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Easter in Bosnia and Herzegovina

It happened again today. I was holding a seminar on economic history and instead of asking me about the topic at hand (The Global Economy in Historical Perspective) a faculty member instead asked me what I thought about Tuzla. Perhaps I should not be so surprised. This question always comes up, no matter where I am lecturing in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But, of course, the meaning of the question — what is really being asked — depends greatly on where the questioner is from and what she thinks of Tuzla.

wpid-PastedGraphic-2014-04-21-20-05.pngTuzla is, at present, the most cosmopolitan and the most secular, the most ethnically diverse, of cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is also (not surprisingly) the center of Plenum, a new model of citizens action similar, but not identical to, Occupy. Plenum began in Tuzla and has been duplicated all across Bosnia and Herzegovina with mixed results. It is the only movement I have experienced since arriving in Bosnia and Herzegovina last August that has provoked a response (negative) from the oligarchy. That is because everything else has not been worthy of a response. Because I am teaching in Tuzla and have been involved in Plenum since the beginning, faculty and students who attend my seminars are naturally interested in knowing what I think of (secular, multi-ethnic, radical) Tuzla.

So I have to bear in mind: who is asking the question and what (really) is the question. Today, I think, the question is about Easter. I think the question is about an economically oppressed community whose members are asking me what I think about the occupying force; who are asking me what I think about the Romans.

More importantly, I think that what they are really asking me whether there is any evidence that righteous prophets rise from the dead. They are asking me whether there is any reason for hope. So, I respond: I am encouraged when a multi-ethnic, multi-religious community works together to shift their attention from the past to the future. And I respond: I am troubled when a community (such as Sarajevo) becomes increasingly ethnically and religiously homogeneous.

Because I think that they are really asking about Easter. I think that they really want to believe in Easter. No. Strike that. Obviously this 98% Muslim community does not want to confess that Jesus rose from the dead. But I do think that they want to believe in a life after this death, this death that drapes itself over everything in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And so we talk about Easter. We talk about the tremendous poverty here, the unemployment, and the dis- and misinformation that convinces Bosnians and Herzegovinians that turning inwards rather than outwards is the answer. We talk about why families and traditions and local practices are important; we talk about why the seemingly ineluctable pull to Rome can and should be resisted and why a story about resistance need not be a story about ethnic or religious or cultural conflict. And so we talk about the “Sea of Faith,” the Mediterranean, where Jews, Muslims and Christians learned from and grew with one another because of the story they shared. We talked about Easter.

When my friend Anna reported about the spectacular liturgy at St Mark’s on Easter, yes, I was jealous. I am so looking forward to that liturgy next year. I really am. But I am also thinking about that first Easter. I am thinking about an occupied, colonized, impoverished and war-torn region of the globe. I am thinking about a region where Egyptian mystery religions are just as common as mainstream state-sanctioned religious practices and where a significant, dominant religious community labors under the constraints imposed by a world power — am I thinking of Rome? Am I thinking of the US? Am I thinking about the EU? Am I thinking about the World Bank? And I am thinking about my own disappointment with the days of February, visiting the tomb, seeing the bed clothes, and yet seeing no body.

I am inclined to return to Jerusalem, or Sarajevo, or Tuzla. I am inclined to fold inwards. And, yet, some women run from the tomb. They are stark raving mad. They are insane. They are saying things about Dayton that should not be said. They are inviting us to Tuzla. They are mad.

But then, I do not know why, I begin to listen. These crazed women are inviting me to recognize how the boundaries have shifted; how, instead of fighting one another, we need to take note of the occupying force. But then they say: not all of the Romans are Romans. Many of the occupiers; its just their job. They too are poor. They too are in need. And then suddenly I see that this is not about identity, but about power, not about separation or purity, but about care.

I do not know whether Jesus will rise for you. I do not know whether he will rise for me. I do not know what the future looks like. I do know that these women bear a message about Easter. They are asking me, asking you, to listen. I want to listen. But I don’t want to be fooled. Not again. So do I dare believe in, act into, this future?

But then I think: what is my alternative? I must believe in this future. The alternative is death.

Hallelujah. He is Risen. He is Risen Indeed.

Good Friday in Bosnia and Herzegovina

There is danger under all circumstances of misreading Easter, but the danger is specially great in communities that have experienced war and genocide. If Jesus was murdered and if we identify with Jesus, then who murdered Him? If Jesus rises and if we rise with Jesus, then who or what are the powers of darkness, the powers of this world, that are vanquished in His/our resurrection?

wpid-PastedGraphic-2014-04-18-07-57.pngThere is of course a purely personal, individual, and trivial way to read Easter. It was I who murdered Jesus. And mine are the dark powers vanquished in His/my resurrection with him. This of course is the reading that gained currency in the 17th and 18th centuries and that we rightly associate not only with the gospel of high industrial capitalism, but also, more recently, with the proliferation of the post-institutional, post-confessional church, in which everything revolves around my own experience, my own subjectivity, my own feelings: I am (Lukacs-like) the Subject-Object of History. This I take is not the danger of the readers of this blog.

But let us say that we take what we assume to be a purely historical reading. In this case we will focus on the Roman police state and of course on the collaborators within occupied Palestine. We will in this case be able to appreciate much better perhaps why state actors grow anxious when any movement gains sufficient power to disrupt normal state operations; and we will be able to appreciate why members of the occupied community might similarly grow annoyed when a movement risks attracting unwanted attention from the occupying force, either because the occupiers are not likely to be so discriminating in who they punish (which they never are) or because even under occupation livings have to be made which are just as likely disrupted by home grown rebels as by the occupiers. Better to leave well enough alone.

War invariably frays and often breaks the already fragile fibers that connect families to their only sources of livelihood. War invites the unwanted attention of state actors whose interests are not those of the occupied community.

By the time we come to John’s reading of the Passion, the principle actors in the story have already assumed their archetypal positions. There is the detachment of soldiers, which, it turns out, is needed because the Jesus group is armed and is ready to use its arms against the state (18:3), and which bolts into action whenever bodily violence is needed (19:34). There is Simon Peter who, as a leading member of the Jesus group, appears more than ready to take up his sword to advance the Kingdom by force of arms, but, who, when faced with the likelihood of trial and death, denies any involvement (18:10,17,25,27). There is the slave, doubly oppressed, whose ear Peter severs (18:10). There is the cock, who, better than anyone else, knows what time it is (18:27). There is the woman who guarded the gate and who evidently was a member of the Temple’s intelligence network (18:16-17). There are the slaves of the police (18:18). There is the High Priest, Caiaphas, and his father-in-law, Annas, who, wishing to mitigate violence and unrest in their community, agree that one person — evidently Jesus — should be handed over to the occupying force (18:14-28). There are the police, vigilant to make sure that the occupied community fear and obey the authorities (18:18,22). There is Pilate, who, like most occupying governors, clearly has little grasp of local politics and theology, and who perhaps is wishing that he had received an appointment anywhere else but Palestine (18:28-19:16). There are the religious zealots, the crowds, to whom Pilate turns, mistakenly it turns out, to gain leverage against the official religious hierarchy (18:38-39). There is Barabbas, who had operated on the boundaries of legality, but whose usefulness to the occupiers had run its course (18:40). There are the soldiers who crucified Jesus and who it would appear were accustomed to making a little money on the side selling the clothes of crucified criminals (19:23). There is Jesus’ mother; his mother’s sister, also Mary; and Mary Magdalene — a trinity of witnesses to whom Jesus entrusts the care of the remaining community (19:25-27). There is the sponge, dipped in wine and — in the final act of direct communication with the dying Jesus — applied to Jesus’ lips (19:29-30). There is Joseph who, on reasonably good terms with Pilate, is permitted to take Jesus’ body (19:38). There is Nicodemus, representative of the local Chevra Kaddisha, who lovingly prepares Jesus’ body for burial (18:39-40). Lastly, there are Judas and, of course, Jesus; Judas who betrayed him and Jesus, the betrayed, the accused, the mute, the crucified.

All of these clearly — including Judas and Jesus — are set types. Through them and their stories, John, the gospeler, invites us to reenact the story and to take our place within it. Is it 80 CE? Is it 90 CE? For sure, the readers are aware that the setting is now gone; the Temple, the chief priest, Pilate, Caiaphas are all gone, victims of the rage of Vespasian and weapons of Titus his son. Close to a million Jews were killed. The Temple was destroyed. Until then the Jesus group had been no more than a heterodox sect within the Jerusalem Jewish community. With the Temple’s destruction and subsequent diaspora, faithful Jews expelled from Jerusalem felt it best to uphold higher standards. Among surviving Christians, indiscriminately executed and expelled with other Jews, there was significant reluctance to join Paul’s communities since they were much more ritually lax than the Christian community in Jerusalem. Clearly, then, John is not asking us to a reenactment of events in Jerusalem.

Who are the police, the soldiers, the priests, the slaves? Who is Barabbas? Who are the Marys? Who are the politicians? Who is Judas? Who is Jesus?

We are inclined to pick and choose here. We are the Marys. We are the cock. We are the slaves. We are Joseph or Nicodemus. We are definitely not Annas or Caiaphas. We are not Pilate. We are not Barabbas. (Are we Peter?) We are not Judas or the soldiers. We are not the police. But what if we are?

Walk out your front door in Bosnia and Herzegovina and it is impossible not to stumble over evidence of these types: police and politicians, petty criminals and slaves, soldiers and priests litter the landscape. So too do those who care for the dead and dying. So, where are we and who are we here? Here is my suspicion. I suspect that John did not want us to fix on this or that type, but to take in the entire scene — the Roman oppressors and occupiers, the collaborators, the thieves, the soldiers, the police, the religious — and recognize the complexity of the scene, with Jesus, the Palestinian Jew, mute, at its center. The aim is not to lay blame on one or relieve another of complicity. The aim is to understand, to recognize, the complexity. Here we are on Good Friday and all of these characters — still — are present. They are always present. And, so, what will you do? Which role will you play? With whom do you identify?

We identify with Jesus not against any of these others; but with Jesus with all of these others. He is not pointing any fingers. He is not leveling any judgments. He is demanding the death of no one.

Teaching Thucydides in the Former Yugoslavia

Last night I had the pleasure of holding a seminar for the Philosophy Faculty at the University of Zenica. And since it was a new audience, I presented my Gymnasium in a Box. Gymnasium in a Box covers 2500 years in 90 minutes, exploring the leading conceptual tools students in the social sciences and humanities will need if they hope to grasp anything written over twenty-five years ago. Because it doesn’t really matter who they are reading — Freud or Foucault, Weber or Baudrillard; if they aren’t familiar with the classical canon, these writers will remain opaque. So I dish it up — freedom/necessity, mind and matter, private and public, economy and politics — 2500 years of it, in 90 minutes.

But by far one of my favorite texts is Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. It is among my favorites not only because Thucydides shows us how the Peloponnese rose from piracy and brigandage to empire and back again, but because he shows why the questions raised by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle have perdured.

Yet reading these texts in the former Yugoslavia is a special treat. For it is here that we read of rulers who use democracy instrumentally to seize and maintain power; how they deploy rhetoric upon communities eager to hear what they want; but also the good sense and wisdom among those who, often much older, are less inclined to use violence to obtain their ends. One of my favorite passages is where Pericles fears that his friend Archidamus, the opposing general, might not lay waste to his estates after all. What would his fellow Athenians, who have lost everything, think about his good fortune. Pericles and Archidamus are cut from the same stone. Their families vacationed together. They shared meals. They and their kids all went to Yale. Of course, everyone here thinks of George Bush and the bin Ladens.

And when Greek society begins to unravel and become polarized, when critical reflection and moderation are cast as qualities of men without courage or conviction, unwilling to fight and die, everyone here knows that Thucydides is talking about the polarization and collapse of the former Yugoslavia.

Or when we follow Socrates into the streets of Athens where he accuses both Pericles and the Athenians of being fools, everyone cringes because they know that no one should be so truthful as Socrates. They understand why lying and deceit are necessary in order to successfully navigate a sick society. And when Alexander dies and the Athenians begin their pogrom against Macedonians, they feel their own hearts break again as Aristotle sneaks out of Athens and returns to his family home where in less than a year he will die. They understand Aristotle’s heart-break, they feel his depression and hopelessness.

It is all so tragic, so unnecessary, but also so seemingly inevitable.

And, yet, I point out, here you are in the former Yugoslavia reading Thucydides and really, really getting it. You understand it. You know what Thucydides is saying. And that’s where the hope lies, doesn’t it?

Cultural Production and Practice

20140402-131947.jpgOne of the drawbacks of university instruction is that the activities that produce and reproduce universities as institutions are often explicitly in tension with the content students believe they are learning and that professors believe they are teaching. Nowhere is this perhaps more the case than in programs that explicitly aim to form scholars who enjoy an expertise in interpreting cultural production. This is because the very practices themselves — writing, reading, and textual criticism — that occupy students of cultural production ignore how these practices themselves are situated in departments and institutions whose practical regimes conceal the culture they are producing in the lecture hall and seminar room. However it is equally important for us to grasp why classrooms, texts, reading and writing might be specially poor vehicles for helping students to grasp precisely what cultural production is and how it works.
Which is why Jean Lave’s lecture was particularly salient. By showing us how apprenticeship works in Monrovia, Liberia, Professor Lave invited us to critically interrogate the practices that compose our teaching and learning here in Tuzla. What are we learning in these front-to-back, text-based, question-answer, content-focused venues called lecture halls and seminar rooms? If what Professor Lave’s research shows us is correct, then we may neither be teaching nor learning cultural production. To teach and learn cultural production we would have to engage in a far more practical, interactive, hands-on set of practices than those that usually engage us.
More generally, however, Professor Lave was also inviting us to reflect more critically about how knowledge itself is formed. In academia it is customary and even believed desirable to segregate the “knower” from the conditions that shape what she knows — to show why and how that knower stands above and outside of the object of her research. Insofar as we are always intimately shaped by the conditions under which we know — and teach and learn — explicit cognizance of these conditions and how they form us is absolutely central, and not at all peripheral, to the academic enterprise. Situated learning is not only the goal of competent instruction and learning; situated learning is happening whether we like it or not. The only question is: what is the situation from which we are learning and what is this situation teaching us?
But this is also a question we can raise with respect to the fields we are exploring? Where did Joseph Conrad come from? Where was he? What was he learning? Where is Doris Lessing? What situated learning informed Franz Fanon? And what relationship do we bear to their situations?
In his eighth thesis on Feuerbach, K Marx notes how “all social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.” This is not a recommendation that we behave more practically or that we turn from theory to practice. Rather is it an observation — overlooked in much theory, including pedagogical theory — that we are all already always engaged in practice. Our challenge is to comprehend the practices we are already performing. What do they mean? What do they do?
Short of this kind of critical interrogation of practice, we are not engaged in critical scholarship. We may be memorizing something or mastering a system of power relations composed of humiliation and adulation, punishment and rewards — an “A” or a diploma. But we are not engaged in critical scholarship.
Listening to Jean Lave reminded me once again why critical scholarship is so engaging and fulfilling. I am hoping that the students from Lit VI, Cultural Production in Great Britain, and Cultural Production in Modernity grasped why and how Professor Lave’s work in Monrovia impacts directly on their critical scholarship here in Tuzla.
If you would like to view another version of Professor Lave’s lecture, here is a link: Everyday Life and Learning

Bacon, Waffles, and Empire

wpid-PastedGraphic-2014-04-1-09-13.pngAs everyone knows who has spent any length of time living out of country, there are, as Pierre Bourdieu might put it, many habits, rhythms, and “structures” that “go without saying” when you are within your habitus, but which, when you are out of country, loom large. Perhaps not surprisingly, since we are material beings, meals and meal time habits form a large part of those things that “go without saying.” Euro-Americans are likely to already feel somewhat alienated by a British or French or German breakfast. I know I do. But then as we move east, that feeling grows. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, it is almost impossible to find a cafe that serves both coffee and a pastry. It is difficult to find a cafe that serves both coffee and Burek, the customary meat-filled pastry consumed by Bosnians and Herzegovinians between 9 am and 11 am. And it is impossible to find Bacon and Waffles; or Bacon and Maple Syrup. This is not because Muslims make up roughly eighty percent of the population; there are, after all, roughly 10 percent each of Catholics and Orthodox. And there are plenty of pork butchers; 3 within 5 minutes walking from our home. Rather do I think that it is a matter of habitus; but, what is that?

As many of you know, over the past few months I have been criss-crossing Bosnia and Herzegovina holding seminars on economic history in departments of economics. One of the topics we have found ourselves talking about during these seminars is the macroeconomic preconditions to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) joining the global economic community. In brief, macroeconomic theory holds that local customs, laws, institutions, traditions count as impediments to “normal” market behavior. That is to say, in order for BiH to join the global economic community, they will have to replace their habits, the practices peculiar to BiH that “go without saying,” with practices more in line with the habitus of Austria, Germany, France, England, Japan, and the US.

If BiH really wants to join the global economic community, it is high time for breakfast joints to litter old town Tuzla serving up bacon, waffles, and maple syrup to a steady stream of international consumers, buyers, and sellers.

Is that how it works? No, not exactly. A good part of the twenty-four fold difference in wages and the fifty-fold difference in employment between BiH and the EU owes itself to corruption, cronyism, and the lack of the rule of law. (And, no; sprinkling friends in police uniforms around the country is not the same as the rule of law.) At the same time, there should be no doubt but that international capital could perform far better in BiH were there no “here” there; i.e., were BiH indistinguishable from any place else in Europe or the globe. Keep the funny hats, shoes, dances, and songs to entertain the tourists. But in all other respects adopt “universal” culture.

This places my bacon, waffles, and maple syrup in an entirely different light — the light of empire. Do I really want Bosnia and Herzegovina to disappear? Do I want its particularities to melt away? Do I want it to adopt “universal” culture? Or is that simply my habitus — global capitalism — talking?