The Persistence of Difference in Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych

The sheer magnitude of Warhol’s 1963 masterpiece Marilyn Diptych – which takes up over a hundred and fifty square feet and features fifty repeated images of Marilyn Monroe’s face, half of them in black & white and half of them in stark, nearly violent colors – is meant to leave the viewer awestruck. “This is the correct way to look at the painting,” wrote critic John Yau. “Any remark or content that breaks the spell of aesthetic emotions would be a sign of the viewer’s lack of taste” (52).

This awe is symptomatic of the painting’s size, but also of what it achieves. Warhol is often quoted as saying “I want to be a machine,” but to be machinelike, for him, was not to be cold or without emotion. Warhol knew that machines have a great capacity for inspiring worship. They can create, through repetition, symbols – and in this way they create culture. In a personal nod to the power of machines to construct culture, Warhol was famous for showing up at parties, and then leaving immediately after he was photographed. Yet, he also knew the dangers of this – that the more one worships the symbol of a person, the more the reality of that person is obscured. “The kids at the office treat me like dirt,” he wrote, “because they know me. But then there was this nice friend that somebody had brought along who had never met me, and this kid could hardly believe that he was having dinner with me! Everybody else was seeing me, but he was seeing my ‘aura’” (77). His serialized images point to the divide between these two levels of existence, the reality of the thing and its ‘aura’; the serialized print demonstrates the power that technology has to saturate a space with images, to create symbols, while simultaneously debasing the subtlety and authenticity that exists behind and prior to the images. The very act of repetition in Marilyn Diptych – the quantity of images, and the facelessness of each one – lends itself to both of these ends, both empowering a symbol and trivializing the reality behind it. The two processes move in opposite directions, and are summed up in different understandings of originality: the death of one ideal, that of artistic “authenticity” or “genius,” and the birth of practically inverted one – the rise of celebrity aura.

Yet one notices, when the awe subsides, upon further inspection of the large Marilyn Diptych, a chink in this simple schema: there are mistakes. Notice that the faces on the left have slight variations in color, and that the size of their hair varies; notice the fade out on the right; notice that one half is black & white, and other is color. The existence of these differences call into questions many of the assumptions made by critics about the Warhol’s relationship to mass culture. If he indeed wished for everything to be the same – they why did he fail in his own paintings to achieve this?

Warhol was not merely nodding to the power of modern reproduction technologies to degrade the individual and create images in his stead. The difference between the frames on the canvass points to something more complex and more interesting: Warhol’s use of “difference” – which is understood here as change from image to image that is “unexpected” – in his serialized painting of Marilyn Monroe captures the struggle that the individual makes against his own symbology, against the set of myths and images that are superimposed on top of his reality. The difference points to the failure of cultural imagery to ever extinguish time, growth, decay and also the individual’s free will to choose. The persistence of difference in Warhol’s work is the persistence of the individual in a mass society.

Theodor Adorno, the German sociologist and theorist, is famous for his characterization of the “culture industry.” He argued that mass reproduction technologies had the effect of collapsing the distinction between art and everyday life, resulting in a leveling out, a heat death. “The commercial character of culture,” he writes, “causes the difference between culture and practical life to disappear. Aesthetic semblance (Schein) turns into the sheen which commercial advertising lends to the commodities which absorb it in turn…On all sides the borderline between culture and empirical reality becomes more and more indiscript” (53).** Adorno predicts that this will lead to a loss of imaginative capacity. “Imagination,” he writes “is replaced by a mechanically relentless control mechanism which determines whether the latest imago to be distributed really represents an exact, accurate and reliable reflection of the relevant item of reality” (55). The top-down production of images creates a culture of consuming images rather than freely creating them. These images are best when they are most similar. The result is total homogenization.

Warhol, along these lines, is frequently cited as saying “I like boring things. I like things to be exactly the same over and over again. If you look at something long enough, I’ve discovered, the meaning goes away.” (Wrenn 16). In an interview he responded to this:

I’ve been quoted a lot as saying, ‘I like boring things.’ Well, I said it and I meant it. But that doesn’t mean I’m bored by them. Of course, what I think is boring must not be the same as what other people think is…Apparently, most people love watching the same basic thing, as long as the details are different. But I’m just the opposite. If I’m going to sit and watch the same thing I saw the night before, I don’t want it to be essentially the same – I want it to be exactly the same. Because the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away. And the better and emptier you feel. (emphasis mine)

From this exchange we get an important characterization of the process of repetition: it is exact; it is a process of inuring one to an image until the “meaning goes away”; and without meaning, one feels “better and emptier.” Some critics point to these statements and say that Warhol has done Adorno one better: mass homogeneity is not only his prognosis but also his desire.

Warhol, it seems, captures this desire with more than just the images that he chose to paint, but also in the painting process itself. His silkscreening process is notable for its machinelike complexity. It takes place like a progression on a conveyerbelt. Steps include: cropping the image; “processing” it at a professional studio into a high-contrast negative; “burning” it onto the silkscreen; painting the color scheme onto the canvass; and finally “transferring” the silkscreen. Warhol was clearly conscious of this association with the industrial – he called his studio the Factory, after all. Warhol wrote on Picasso’s four thousand masterpieces: “‘Gee, I could do that in a day.’ So I started…You see, the way I do them, with my technique, I really thought I could do four thousand in a day” (148). In the space that once occupied only a paintbrush, Warhol added steps and processes that further divided the intention of the artist from the canvass. His painting was, in both image and in process, a commentary on the ideals of mass culture. His effect must be measured against this intention.

But one should hesitate before judging his success. Warhol in the above passage makes a fundamental division between something that is “the same basic thing” and something that is precisely the same. Warhol claims “I don’t want it to be essentially the same – I want it to be exactly the same.” Yet difference, as we will shortly explore, persists on his canvass, and persists in important, substantial ways. Likewise, if it is true that Warhol modeled his Factory on a real factory, incorporating as Adorno says “industrial forms of organization,” than the fact that difference exists on the canvass, that there is variation between images, and none are “exactly the same” must be seen as a failure of the factory ideals to replicate perfectly. Warhol attached great meaning to the process of replication embodied by his portrait; to him repetition creates symbols, and thus worship and culture and myth. Therefore, we are lead to believe that the very fact that the images in his own paintings were not “exactly the same,” where “the meaning goes away,” but rather they were, with sundry mistakes, discolorations, variations, only “essentially the same” – we are lead to believe that the true meaning of the painting is embedded in the existence of difference between frames.

To understand this meaning, we first must ask: In what sense does Warhol consider the image or the individual behind the image in Marilyn Diptych to be free? At first one might think: in no sense is she free. There is not much space between frames on the canvass, signaling constraint; the face is cropped, which indicates a moment of violent detachment between image and person; the rigid lines of the grid convey a feeling of bars and of being trapped in place. These elements point to the great power that those who “create” culture have to take hostage images, and manipulate without resistance.

I suggest that there are two senses in which Warhol’s painting indicate the freedom of the individual, residing in two examples of difference: first, the narrative structure that is created in viewing the panels from right to left and in viewing the right panel from left to right suggests change; and second, in the mistakes and variations occurring in the left panel, which show the persistence of spontaneity and thus individual choice.

First, is the individual’s capacity to change. Warhol’s decision to serialize Marilyn Monroe’s picture was prompted by news of her death. On August 5, 1962, Monroe took a deadly overdose of barbiturate sleeping pills, and it was ruled a suicide. Shortly after that, upon returning from an exhibit in Los Angeles, Warhol begins Marilyn Diptych by cropping a publicity image from her 1953 movie Niagara. 1953 was an important year for Monroe: it was the year that Niagara, How to Marry a Millionaire, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes all came out, and also a series of nude photographs that had originally appeared in the first issue of Playboy were reprinted. Monroe, by the end of that year, had been voted by the American film distributors as “the top star of 1953” (Rollyson 39-72). Thus upon her death, Warhol uses an image from the moment in which she became a star. Marilyn Diptych captures the moment when Monroe’s image was freed from her own reality, and space was opened for her symbol to engage most freely with our cultural and collective myths.

The most urgent difference that strikes the viewer is the sharp, deliberate division between the colored panel on the left and the black & white panel on the right. The title Marilyn Diptych reflects the two-ness of the image. This division reflects the division between life and death, between reality and symbol. This division is a spatial one (left side versus right side) and thus lend to the possibility of a narrative, a progression from one place on the canvass to the other that occurs like the progression of a storyboard, or of a comic strip or (one could say) of time. The diptych also reflects a change that was an important one in the 1960s media environment, from black & white to full color. Black is the mode of reality, of the past, of ink, of journalism and of fact; whereas color is the mode of a new reality, one of brands and of dreams. Everything about the left panel evokes fantasy: the vibrant, violent color scheme; the color juxtapositions; the sexual red lips and pink face; the depthlessness of the faces; its cartoonish simplicity. On the right panel, the images are more “journalistic.” They look as if they were photographs. One sees the strands of her hair and the delicate shading around her chin. The two panels are the thus two competing levels of existence. On the right, there is a black & white reality of Marilyn Monroe, which literally ended (as she died) when this painting was begun; and on the left, there is her myth, which in many ways began when the painting was first exhibited.

The images on the right panel depict reality more accurately (they are more strictly adherent to it, more photographic); but they also exhibit greater difference among themselves – one notices that the images appear to fade from left to right, each subsequent column less dark than the one preceding it, until at the border of the canvass, as if about to fall off the edge, the face is barely perceptible at all. This is also a narrative, a change evocative of the passage from life to death. And then, in the wake of her death on the right panel, we see that her image reappears on the left panel. This left panel, as we said, is the realm of myths and dreams. The narrative from life to symbol is clear. And note, in addition, that the left panel lacks the systematic change of the right panel. There is thus a contrast between change on the right panel, and a stasis on the left, thus capturing the tension between mass culture’s resistance to the working of time and the inevitable passage of it, despite our attempts to the contrary.

In this beautiful narrative are two important American myths. First, the change myth: that one can become what one wishes. Second is the opposite myth, the myth of persistence: that of the hero or the icon. The confrontation of these two myths, one of change and one of permanence, is a persistent theme in Warhol’s work. In his Before and After series, Warhol depicts a silhouette of a woman without conventional beauty on the left, and then on the rights shows the line adjustments that could be made to make her more beautiful. These images show the aspirational component of change, that aspect of self-realization that so many are told is called the “American dream.” However, the prospect of change invites the prospect of destruction and decay. His Death and Disaster captures the flipside, showing the progression from life towards death. Marilyn Monroe’s life can be said to embody both those types of changes: she rose to fame, and they she fell from grace, and indeed the right panel, in fact, can be “read” in either direction: right-left to show her rise, or left-right to indicate her fall. The message is clear: accepting the reality of time opens up both a host of possibilities and a host of problems, accounting at once for Marilyn Monroe’s fame and her death. Accepting the right panel, that of change, is accepting the trappings of freedom. The very existence of the right side questions the power of the left: the persistence of time despite our attempts to evade it. Warhol forces us to grapple with the two universes, side-by-side.

There are more differences in Marilyn Diptych than just the color and black & white binary, and the fading out of the right side. These are certainly among the most “deliberate,” but there are others: on the left panel, notice that the two frames in the top left hand corner are darker than those around them; see the white spot on the Monroe’s blue collar in the center frame; observe that the shadows around the chin are darker on some faces than others; observe that the top of the hair in nearly every reproduction has a different borderline. Where do these differences come from? They are not systematic – they do not, as the difference on the right panel did, display any pattern – but rather appear to be random products of the reproduction technique. Insofar as they were not chosen can they be properly called mistakes? We cannot, of course, know how much control Warhol exerted over each frame, but there is reason to believe that much of the difference of the type just described was unintentional. Warhol is said to have remarked, when asked about his painting process: “I haven’t painted in years!” and then point to his staff. “They do all the painting” (189 Wrenn) The existence of mistakes and unintentional variation calls into question the very foundations of the mass culture industry: Despite our efforts, can difference ever be extinguished? This is the second evidence of freedom, the existence of spontaneity.

Adorno wrote that the “system of the culture industry that surrounds the masses tolerates hardly any deviation and incessantly drills the same formulas on behavior…” (66). The culture industry, he said, will extinguish difference. And the cost will be to extinguish free, individual thought as well. The cultural forces from “above,” he wrote, will cease to “tolerate any longer the tension between the individual and the universal…” (57). The individual, in this state of total similarity, is nothing but an “appendage of the machinery” (85). His relationship is entirely vertical: the individual is passive in his reception of the images, and can do nothing to resist their influence. For Adorno, the ultimate end of Western rationality was not democracy or socialism, but fascism because, in J.M. Bernstein’s words, it “continued reason’s work of domination through integration and unification” (3).

Adorno lined total homogeneity with the end of free thought – and therefore, the fact that difference exists on Warhol’s canvass indicates a skepticism about this process of industrial “domination.” It castes doubt on the association made between mass reproduction and the extinction of individuality. Some may argue that they are merely mistakes and therefore have nothing to do with freedom in the sense of individual choice. However, the existence of spontaneity shows the failure of total domination, and therefore a space for individualism to exist. It is in this margin of spontaneity that exists within the grid of Marilyn Diptych that individuals have the capacity to interact with culture. It means that culture is not a process of one-directional domination, and suggests – not overtly, but as if a promise – that instead the creation of culture is a dynamic process where the individual has the ultimate capacity to make the cultural image his own – to turn it on its head, to reimage its use, to synthesize it with other images.

Warhol called a good performer an “all-inclusive recorder” because he or she “always does exactly the same thing at exactly the same moment in every show they do.” Good performers are the repetition ideal. But he immediately rejects this. “That’s why,” he says, “I like amateur performers and bad performers – you can never tell what they’ll do next” (82). This spontaneity is what distinguishes a person from a machine; it is at the heart of the individual’s capacity to resist and create. Warhol commented that art was made up of “leftovers”: “ I always like to work on leftovers...Things that are discarded, that everybody knew were no good…It was like recycling work” (93). By leftover, he means instances when human spontaneity disrupts the efforts at mass society to homogenize a group. For example:

When I see an old Esther Williams movie and a hundred girls are jumping off their swings, I think of what the audition must have been like and about all the takes where maybe one girl didn’t have the nerve to jump when she was supposed to, and I think about her left over on the swing. So that take of the scene was a leftover on the editing-room floor – an out-take – and the girl was probably a leftover at that point – she was probably fired – so the whole scene is much funnier than the real scene where everything went right, and the girl who didn’t jump is the star of the outtake. (emphasis mine, 93)
The “leftover” is the girl whose spontaneous will disrupts the intention of a system to create synchrony. According to this framework, art exists in the discrepancy between the dictates of culture and reality of its implementation; it exists on the margin between what society intends for the use of something and the way the individual ends up using it. Art resides in differences.

The fact that each Marilyn image is slightly varied is meant, in this vein, to represent the way that individuals take cultural images and make them there own. Critics claim that Warhol espoused a breed of passive art consumers. However, his entire life embodied the ideals of cultural appropriation and re-conceptualization – the opposite of a passive consumer. Meaning was the individual’s ability to make use of the images, to change them, working within the grid.

Two things can be said about this, one about the nature of art and the other about the freedom of the individual – both closely aligned. First, this view of art as a resistance to the form that was prescribed presaged the development of (in J.M. Bernstein’s words) an “affirmative postmodernist culture,” where art is not just intended for consumption, but rather functions as direct input for more art. Art, according to this ideal, is not a finished product, but a stage in a longer stage of reinterpretation, recontextualization and resynthesis. This conception of art relies on a blurred distinction between creator and receiver. “A text,” Roland Barthes wrote in his 1968 manifesto “The Death of the Author,” “is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the message of the Author-God) but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (146). “To give a text an Author,” he later explained, “is to impose a limit on that text” because it prevents the exchange of “multiplicity” between the reader and the writer: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”

With the advent of digital culture, such “post-modern” tendencies have gained new tools and new salience. The personal computer and the internet has put in the hands of millions the capacity to receive information, reorganize it, add to it, re-conceptualize it and publish it to the world. As one theorist has put it: “In the networked information economy, the physical capital required for production is broadly distributed throughout society” (Benkler 7) The result, he says, “is a flourishing nonmarket sector of information, knowledge, and cultural production.” Lawence Lessig, a Stanford professor who has written extensively on the potential that the internet provides for a rebirth in creativity, writes of the internet that the individual can “rip creativity from culture” and resynthesis the parts into something greater than the whole. “Rip, mix, and burn.” (24) “Technology,” Lessig writes, “has thus given us an opportunity to do something with culture that has only ever been possible for individuals in small groups, isolated from others” (184). In other words, the tools of the internet are allowing people in large scale to treat cultural leftovers in the way that Warhol was doing, nearly fifty years ago.

Second, this relationship affirms the individual’s capacity to stage creative resistance against the homogeneity of mass culture. Warhol’s supposed doctrine of passivity, in what Adorno prophesied as the extinction of individual agency, is actually a doctrine of resistance: the individual should create meaning despite the rules, not according to them. Meaning is imbedded in our resistance to the grid, not our subscription to it. Theorist Michel de Certeau in his The Practice of Everyday Life identified one of the aims of those who “administer” mass culture as the “creation of a universal and anonymous subject” (94). The act of re-ordering these images is an act of resistance to the “imperialism of intention”: “[the active reader] invents in texts something different from what they ‘intended.’ He detaches them from their (lost or accessory) origins. He combines their fragments and creates something un-known in the space organized by the their capacity for allowing an indefinite plurality of meaning” (169). Such a space with an “indefinite plurality of meaning” is represented by Warhol’s left panel, where Monroe’s images is at once created by culture, but also subject to the individual’s personal creation of the significance of that culture. The individual can resist its meaning – he can pervert it, destroy it, create it. Warhol’s Do It Yourself series brings this theory into its fullest fruition. He depicted landscapes from a “paint-by-numbers” kit, but both the lines and the colors are chosen against the prescriptions of the kit. The individual must work within a grid created from above, but he can subvert that grid by choosing how to work within it. He can take prescribed images, and make them his own.

These acts of appropriation, according to Certeau, subvert the “logic of production” because they create personal spaces. They create margins where spontaneity continues to exist, and individuals can move freely. “Beneath the fabricating and universal writing of technology, opaque and stubborn places remain” (229). The fact of difference in Warhol’s industrial grid, his large and awe-striking Marilyn Diptych, forces difficult questions not only of Warhol’s art, but also of ourselves. The fact of difference such as systematic change, evident across panels and within them, and the spontaneity of mistakes on the left panel – these point to the persistence of “opaque and stubborn places” of human agency and of time. They point to the survival of individuality, if not humanity itself – despite, rather than because of, our own tools.


**Warhol’s Brillo Box series, which featured boxes of Brillo soap that were silkscreened to look exactly identical to the original Brillo soap box, is in direct dialog with Adorno's claim. Authur Danto writes that, “What Warhol taught was that there is no way of telling the difference merely by looking…” (137). For Adorno and Danto, the result was an aestheticization of daily life, where art said to be everywhere and in everything. This, for him, called into question a host of modernist assumptions about authenticity and genius – because if art is everywhere, even in Brillo Boxes, is it anywhere at all?

Adorno, Theodor W., and J. M. Bernstein. 2001. The Culture Industry : Selected essays on mass culture. Routledge classics. London ; New York: Routledge.

Benkler, Yochai. 2006. The Wealth of Networks : How social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Danto, Arthur Coleman. 1992. Beyond the Brillo Box : The visual arts in post-historical perspective. 1st ed. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life [Arts de faire.]. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Klein, Naomi. 2002. No logo : No space, no choice, no jobs. New York: Picador : Distributed by Holtzbrinck Publishers.

Lessig, Lawrence. 2004. Free Culture : How big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity. New York: Penguin Press.

Warhol, Andy. 1978. Oxidation Painting Gagosian Gallery, New York, New York, United States.
———. 1968. Brillo Box Contemporary Art (Larry Qualls Archive).
———. 1962. Do it Yourself (landscape) Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne.
———. 1962. Marilyn Diptych The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.,

Warhol, Andy. 1975. The philosophy of Andy Warhol : From A to B and back again. 1st ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Warhol, Andy, and Mike Wrenn. 1991. Andy Warhol in his Own Words. London ; New York; New York, NY, USA: Omnibus Press; Music Sales Corp. distributor.

Yau, John, and Andy Warhol. 1993. In the realm of appearances : The Art of Andy Warhol. 1st ed. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press.

In the Wake of Genocide: Designing a Rwandan Constitution

Rwanda faces the dual problems of ethnic division and economic underdevelopment. In early April 1994, a coterie of Hutu elites, faced with the invasion of the Rwandan Patriot Front (RPF) and fearing a dramatic shift in power, mobilized Rwanda’s eighty-percent Hutu majority to commit genocide against the twenty-percent Tutsi minority. The killings proceeded for three and half months, at a rate of more than twenty thousand a day – five times faster than the Nazi death camps. The RPF then took power, and more than two million Hutus fled to the Eastern Kivu region of the Congo, where violence continues to this day.

The Hutu-Tutsi ethnic divide at the center of the Rwandan Genocide is old but not ancient. The two ethnic groups, ascriptively and culturally similar – sharing physical semblance, language, heritage and religion – provide a textbook example of how ethnic division can be made salient by institutional design, and then made violent by political opportunism. From the 1930s to 1961, Belgian colonizers created institutions that specifically allocated political power along ethnic lines: using a card-based identification system, they stripped Hutus of their land, created a shadow extraction government headed by the Tutsi aristocracy, and gave them exclusive rights to tax collection power and state-funded education. Then in 1960, at the eve of Independence, the Belgians held an election in which they endorsed the Hutu politician Dominique Mbonyumutwa, affecting a precipitous change in political power that uprooted the monarchy headed by Tutsi aristocracy (Lec. 8.1 Levitsky). It is the major intention of this report to consider ways to reverse the very institutional incentive for ethnic identification that helped to create and perpetuate the myth of ethnicity in the first place.

The second problem Rwanda faces is that of underdevelopment and weak state strength. Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa with hundreds of thousands of refugees currently migrating back from neighboring Burundi to the inner borderlands of Rwanda. Development and ethnic reconciliation are taking place in the condition of scarcity, raising the stakes for every individual involved.

Though reconciliation is treated as primary (for no governance at all can take place if the Tutsi refuse its legitimacy or the Hutus enact reprisals) there is no strict hierarchy of concerns. Neither the problem of ethnic conflict nor the problem of underdevelopment can be conceived of in absence of the other – effective governance will require ethnic cooperation, and in turn, there is evidence that economic progress tempers ethnic division (Lipset 229). The problems are not culturally endogenous. Despite decades of literature on the cultural and social requisites for modernization, there is a growing consensus that development can occur anywhere with a proper mixture of effective policies and a strong state (Fukuyama 255). Ethnic division, likewise, is a product both of ancient “dispositions” and incentives; ethnic identity may indeed fulfill a primordial human need for a “terminal,” unfaltering community (Horowitz 490), yet it is just as true that ethnic division is activated by external factors, unlikely to become salient or violent unless under conditions of fear, scarcity or political advantage. “Ascriptive identity,” wrote Donald Horowitz, “is heavily contextual” (Horowitz 499).

What follows is: institutions are very important. While they cannot prevent the Hutu majority in a democratic Rwanda from enacting a political recrimination on the Tutsis, institutions can allocate political power in such a way as to disincentive such behavior. Democracy, properly designed, is an ingenious tool, because as Guiseppe Di Palma wrote, “it is open and open-ended, and because none of its players lose once and for all and on all arenas” (298).

The institutional designed put forth is based on the premise that the Hutu-Tutsi division was accentuated by institutional design at its outset, and thus, to be ameliorated, must be blurred rather than rigidified by constitutional institutions. Consociational systems such as those proposed by political scientist Arend Lijphart would fail Rwanda for exactly this reason. By institutionalizing ethnic division according to political power, consociational systems – ethnic-based coalition seats, federal autonomy and ethnic veto power – would further divide an already relatively homogenous society. Arend Lijphart explains that consociationalism functions best in “segmented pluralist” (498) societies, those with “fragmented culture” and “little or no overlapping between its distinct subcultures” (501). Each group in such a society may live side-by-side, yet totally autonomously, each with “its own religion, its own culture and language, its own ideas and ways” (504). Rwanda is not, by this standard, a plural society. Whereas the divisions in Lebanon (where consociational democracy was successful employed from 1947 until 1973) between Maronite Christians and Sunni, Shia Muslims are grounded in ascriptive physical properties, history, language and theology, the Tutsi and Hutu populations in Rwanda are phenotypically similar (vice president of the current National Assembly Laurent Nkongoli has famously said: “You can’t tell us apart; we can’t tell us apart”), linguistically similar, culturally and historically united and geographically inter-dispersed.

Thus, the following constitutional arrangements pursue a strategy of ethnic accommodation based on blurring – rather than accentuating – ethnic divisions between Hutus and Tutsis. In addition, they place high priority on the creation of an effective governing body. To achieve these ends, five principles will be observed*:

- First, promote fluid, ad hoc legislative coalitions over a rigid, majoritarian party system. The Hutu majority will be fragmented and the Tutsi minority will be granted full representation through a proportional representation (PR) voting scheme.

- Second, promote moderation between the Hutus and Tutsis by creating real political incentives for cross-ethnic appeal. A semi-presidential system will be enacted that demands, on the one hand, wide, centrist appeal for the executive branch (which will be voted in by a preferential voting system), and, on the other hand, cross-ethnic coalition building within the legislature. In addition, a portion of the legislature will be made up of “district representatives” voted in by plurality at an election concurrent to that of the executive, promoting a wide-appeal coalition for these members, similar to the coalition that propelled the executive. Finally, a ten percent quota would be placed on district PR elections to prevent extremists from gaining seats in the legislature.

- Third, provide for fair representation of both Hutu and Tutsi by maintaining a low disparity between votes caste and seats awarded and by creating a number of dispersed points of power, preventing a zero-sum game or a majoritarian suppression. This will be achieved through mixed-member PR (plurality and PR) and semi-presidential arrangements.

- Fourth, create standards of accountability. The president as well as the district representatives will be directly accountable to constituents in a way that a pure Parliamentary system or a pure PR system would not allow.

- Fifth, promote legislative effectiveness, achieved through the important mixture of long-term policy decisions and broad coalition of the executive with the fluid coalitions of the legislature, directed by the prime minister.

These arrangements will interact in productive ways, the whole greater than the sum of its parts. In its entirety, the constitutional arrangement will involve two key institutions:
1. Semi-presidential government where the executive is elected with a preferential voting system.
2. Mixed-member proportional representation, where twenty “district representatives” are voted in by district according to plurality in an election that occurs concurrent with the presidential election, and one hundred representatives are voted in according to a proportional representative system with a ten percent quota for entrance.


First, a semi-presidential system will be implemented, where a popularly elected president (according to a preferential vote) will be, in Giovanni Sarotori’s phraseology, a “first among unequals” (446), sharing power with a prime minister. The prime minister is selected by the legislature and may be removed with a vote of no confidence. The president cannot be removed by the legislature with a mere no confidence vote (though impeachment, under certain circumstances will be permitted), and at the same time, cannot remove the prime minister. Neither branch has veto power over the other; thus there is a sharing rather than a separation of powers: both the president, who was elected by popular vote, and the prime minister, who is in his position by legislative coalition vote, share the daily governance of the county.

Pure parliamentary lacks long-term policy guidance and accountability; and pure presidential systems are crippled under the necessary (for Rwanda) conditions of multipartism. The great benefit of the semi-presidential system is that it provides for and protects against both: there is a strong executive that is broadly supported and accountable to the people, while at the same time functions well with the very fluid, divided coalitions of the legislature.

The importance for Rwanda of the semi-presidential system is grounded in the nature of the coalitions that the system promotes. Two separate coalitions sustain the president and the prime minister: the latter created after elections, according to logrolling that transpires in the halls of the parliament, while the former is created prior to elections, according to the popular vote of the people. This allows, as I will propose below, for the president’s moderate coalition to exert a directional influence on the fluid, ad hoc coalitions within the legislature, while never exerting total control over the government. Interests will co-mingle in fluid and diverse ways and accountability will be dispersed. The results will be: 1) that no one group gains a permanent majority, because the president’s support is compositionally different from the prime minister’s at any given moment, 2) compromise is promoted between two compositionally different coalitions, 3) promotes intra-ethnic competition, 4) creates a multiplicity of power sources, in both of the executive and the legislative, lowering the stakes and reducing the number of losers and finally 5) creates a strong incentive for the prime minister to create effective legislative coalitions (for he is directly accountable to the legislature for his continued tenure) and for the president to oversee good governance (because he directly accountable to the people). As a whole, then, the system maximizes coalitional cross-pollination, fluidity, representation and dispersion.

But the major concern for Rwanda remains: how to achieve a multi-ethnic coalition at all? With an eighty percent Hutu majority, what stops the president from deriving all his support from the Hutus, at the expense and potentially demise of the Tutsi minority? How moderate and cross-ethnic the winning coalition is will depend on the extent that 1) Tutsis vote as a bloc, and 2) the Hutu party splits. There is strong historical evidence that the Tutsis, having always been either in power or persecuted, will vote as a coherent whole. On the other side, there are a number of reasons to believe that the Hutu party will split. For one, the presidency is too powerful a position for there not to be Hutu internal competition for the prize. In addition, the president’s platform is by definition broad enough to cut across multiple ideological and cultural spectrums. Hutus have different financial statuses, different regional loyalties and different opinions about the nature of economic development, international relations, foreign investment and so on. The genocide itself was caused by a dissociation like this, between moderates in congress who were engaged in peace treaties with the RPF and the radical clan that was interested in holding onto power. Thus there are historical as well as structural aspects of the presidency that indicate that the Hutus will split. Finally, in accordance with Duverget’s observation about plurality congressional district and countless scholars’ statements about presidential systems, competition for the presidency will tend to promote the concentration of power into two strong parties (for example, Lijphart 485); thus the fragmentation, if it happens at all, will likely be in a two-way split.

If the above is valid, then it is likely that three groups will be important for any given presidential election: Hutu group A and Hutu group B, each of which accounts for roughly forty percent of the population, and Tutsi voting bloc C. Tutsi group C, representing twenty percent of the population, is a considerable electoral prize to win, and moderation would seem to be the answer – but only so long as Tutsis decide to vote, and if they do, are willing to vote Hutu. If they do not vote or “throw their vote away” on a minority Tutsi candidate, then they withdraw from political relevance and the moderating effect is gone. One way to resolve this is to utilize a preferential voting system, such as the one implemented (with success) in Sri Lanka. In this system, each person ranks his top-choice candidates according to preference and if no candidate in the system receives a fifty-percent-plus-one majority of “number one” preference votes in the first round of ballot counting, then the candidate with the fewest votes in the pool is removed and all his ballots are distributed among the remaining candidates according to preference. This continues until one candidate reaches a majority. Such a system is promising: by allowing everyone to vote by personal preference, Tutsis will have a reason to go to the polls and thus be kept psychologically and political integrated. More importantly, it assures that all the Tutsi votes will end up falling onto one of the two Hutu parties. The smart party, therefore, is highly vested in winning the Tutsi’s “number two” preference. The more the Tutsi’s remain as a voting bloc, the more vital efforts to win their “number two” preference become, and the more moderation and reconciliation will result. The cost of extremism would simply be too great.

For these reasons, the president’s coalition will likely be moderate rather than radicalized. It will also necessarily be broad, because it needs to account for fifty percent of the population.

The semi-presidential system promotes another type of moderation: it generates multiple centers of power, thus reducing the importance of any one place in the system. The president will owe proportionality to those Tutsis in the coalitions that helped him get elected and likewise the prime minister will owe favors to the Tutsi legislators that hold sway over his coalition building. In contrast to Juan Linz’s argument that the president, feeling that he “posses independent authority and a popular mandate” is likely to be “imbued” with “a sense of power and mission” (412), the semi-presidential configuration ensures that the president share his power with the prime minister, reducing the singular control he has over the direction of the country. On the other hand, a pure parliamentary system, Mainwaring argues, has the potentially of giving “a disciplined majority” complete control over both the executive and legislative branch. “Here, more than in any presidential system, the winner takes all” (424). By contrast, the negotiations needed between the president and the prime minister ensure that no one person has unilateral control over the direction of the country, and many people have sway.

Finally, the system provides for more effective governance within the context of fragmented parties. Linz argues that American-style presidentialism creates a “dual legitimacy” between president and legislature, where “no democratic principle exists to resolve disputes between the executive and the legislature about which of the two actually resents the will of the people” (415). Under conditions of multipartism, this leads to impasse or, more ominously, to the desire of the executive to override the parliament, as in the case of Yeltsin in Russia or Fujimori in Peru. A semi-presidential system, by contrast, works optimally under circumstances of multipartism. The presidential coalition guides the direction of the country and the prime ministers coalition provides the specific legislative majorities necessary. These divisions are precisely the benefit of semi-presidentialism, according to Giovanni Sarotori: they “enfeeble the president and force him into cohabitation with a prime minister of a different party; but this engenders a strengthened premier, who can and will fill a coalitional majority for his government. Thus semi-presidentialism can solve the problem [of divided majorities] that pure Presidentialism cannot solve” (448). In the context of a fractured Hutu majority – as outlined above for the presidency and applied to the legislature below – semi-presidential system is the best to promote accountability, moderation, and good governance.

Mixed-Member Proportional Representation

Second, the composition of the legislature will be determined through a mixed-member proportional representation system, where one hundred “national legislators” are voted in through proportional representation in the five already-established Rwandan provinces with a ten-percent quota for entrance. An additional twenty “district representatives” will be elected according to a plurality system vote held concurrently with the presidential election.

The fact that Tutsis and Hutus are dispersed evenly through Rwanda means that under a plurality system it is likely that no Tutsis would have a seat in the government. PR is practically a necessity for such a country, with a twenty percent persecuted ethnic minority widely distributed. “PR was designed to provide minority representation,” writes Arend Lijphart. He quotes Stein Rokkan as saying that “It was no accident that the earliest moves towards proportional representation (PR) came in the ethnically most heterogeneous countries” (486). Statistics show that under PR this representational fairness – the low disparity between votes and governmental representation – is much higher than under plurality systems. “There is little doubt that this is indeed the case. For instance, where ethnic minorities have formed ethnic political parties, as in Belgium and Finland, PR has enabled them to gain virtually perfect proportional representation” (487). So important is PR for ethnic minorities that even the British government, with a long, vaunted history of Westminster-style majoritarianism recognized the need to integrate the Northern Irish population into the political system through PR (Lijphart 488).

Not only is PR important for representational fairness, but also absolutely essential for fragmenting the Hutu majority. As discussed above, the Hutu majority must be split in order for the Tutsis to be integrated into the political system. The more ways this split can occur within the legislature, the less likelihood that there will be any one majoritarian coalition that could exclude the Tutsis. For example, a two-way split in the Hutu, while likely for the election of the president, would be dangerous if it existed in the legislature, for the two majority parties might compete for power on most issues, but agree to align against the Tutsis on ethnically sensitive ones. The more splits in the system, the more numerous and fluid are the coalitions, and the more difficult it is to align against the Tutsis at any one vote; and, at the same time, the smaller the coalitions, the more valuable the twenty-percent Tutsi voting bloc.

Fragmentation of parties occurs in direct proportionality to the magnitude of district. “The number of parties winning seats, as well as the proportionality of electoral systems, generally rises along that continuum,” states John Carey (472). The more legislators in a district, the lower the percent-based “barrier of entrance” into the legislature, and thus the higher the incentives for minority parties to formulate and run. One nasty byproduct, however, of this low barrier of entrance is that extreminist parties might be legitimized by gaining seat in the legislature. “Without PR,” notes Guy Lardeyret, “the Communists and the Nazis would probably not have been able to storm onto the German political scene as they did in the 1930s” (492). It is vital that the Hutu majority fragment, and best if this is along multiple lines; yet extremists, such as those that helped to perpetrate the massacre, should not be given a vote. To negotiate this compromise, a ten percent quota will be placed onto entrance. Ten percent is sufficiently low for full Tutsi representation and for substantial Hutu fragmentation, but sufficiently high to prevent chaos and extremism.

An additional problem with PR is that it tends to reduce the accountability of the representatives – shifting their concerns from the region to the party. “The critical distinction,” writes John Carey, “is between institutional arrangements that encourage legislators to cultivate personal reputations among voters and those that put the collective reputations of the party first” (446). Carey argues that personalistic politics is bad, because it tends to promote pork-barrel legislation and legislators without broad sophistication on national issues. These are real concerns, but less important than the benefits of having some representatives that are directly accountable to their district. The election of twenty district representatives would make sure that local issues that concern Tutsi and Hutu alike are targeted – local infrastructure, school systems, irrigation and so on. Two other reasons for accountability: one that in an ethnically polarized state accountability reduces the chances of ethnic scape-goating; and two, it allows for democracy that takes place, as Lardeyret points out, “at the level closest to the citizen” (494).

Combination of the two

The final phase of the argument for this arrangement concerns the way that the two systems interact. The mix of both one hundred national legislators voted by PR and twenty district representatives voted by plurality would reflect the mix of the president with the parliament. The plurality district representatives would tend towards a two-way Hutu split, with moderate legislators with broad-majority appeal; the PR for the one hundred national legislators would create fluid coalitions that never rigidify along ethnic lines. Likewise, the president’s coalition would be broad and moderate, negotiated prior to election; and the legislature’s coalition would be ad hoc, negotiated after election, in the halls of congress. This analogy is deliberate, and would be reflected in voting arrangements. Carey writes that, if executive and legislature are voted in concurrently, “the effects of institutional rules governing executive elections tends to spill over into legislative party systems” (473). The district representatives (plurality scheme) will be voted in concurrently with the president so that the broad, multi-ethnic coalition of the executive influence the creation of moderate, multi-ethnic coalitions within the districts. The national legislators, on the other hand, will be voted at a date separate from the executive and district representatives, helping their elections to tend towards fragmentation.

No literature [that we have studied] has explored the possibility of aligning a mixed semi-presidential system with a mixed member proportional representation system, where the plurality reps are voted concurrently with the president. The effect of such an arrangement would potentially be to create a “shadow coalition” superimposed on the fragmented legislature. The broad, multi-ethnic group negotiated by the president on a national scale, and within every district by the district representatives could provide a long term multi-ethnic framework to guide the actions of the multi-ethnic coalitions created by convenience in the legislature. Figure 1 demonstrates a conceptual framework to this. At the very least, this system confuses the lines of allegiance and disperses power points, making it difficult for the Hutus to solidify against the Tutsis. At the best, there is at once fragmentation and unity; there is long-term direction and short-term flexibility.

The above institutions reflect the national need for the gradual dissolution of ethnic divisions. There is no guarantee that the institutions outlined above will actually result in what is argued: while I conjecture that two separate groups of coalitions would be created for electing the president (broad) and for electing the PR national legislators (fragmented), Rwanda could instead create a rigid two-party system, from which it would be difficult to break. Horowitz demonstrates through Guyana’s unsuccessful attempts to maximize both representation and fragmentation, that PR cannot split a “result already entrenched in the party system” (558). On the other hand, though presidential seats tend to concentrate power, the preferential voting scheme (still novel) may incentivize the fragmentation of power because everyone gets a vote, making the president’s coalitions less broad, perhaps in unexpected ways.

The system does, however, create incentives for cross-cutting allegiances, multiple points of power, and fluidity, which in turn promotes fair representation and moderation. Moreover, the constitutional arrangements provide for a sharing of power between president and prime minister that is optimal for effective government under circumstances of multipartism. Indeed, as it is hoped with the forgoing, Rwanda may find that the very types of constitutional institutions which can be pointed to as the source of the Hutu-Tutsi division may someday be pointed to for its solution.

* These are adapted in part from Donald Horowitz’s recommendations in Ethnic Groups in Conflict (1985), course book pages 542 and 549.

Warning Out, Then and Now


You might know what dispossession feels like if you’ve ever jumped into the Charles River at night. I felt something like that, I think, throughout the year of 2008, when I was living alone. And then again, having come back to my town but seeing nothing there. And then when I left again. September 8th, 2008 the first night I slept at Harvard University, I could have told you that dispossession feels something like black water, like drowning beneath the lights of a city in September, and like feeling totally alone.

I had met a girl named Joyce who was real shy. She said her father was a diplomat so she never stayed in one place for more than a few years and had never had many friends. We walked together from the Yard to the River, the lights of Dunster Street glowing as if very wet and totally yellow, like they do. We stripped off our clothes on the dock – I remember feeling very cold – and danced a little – I spun her – and then we jumped into the water. Whooo ahhh I shouted. Someone else, a boy’s voice from the road beyond the grass, said Yeeeehaaaa. When we got out of the river, we folded on the grass and sat there, in total silence, with the air, light and brilliant – the air was very light that night – mixing with the lights of Boston beyond the river, and me, I remember thinking something like This, this is the day your slumber breaks…She asked me: Are you just going to forget about this? I smiled and she smiled too and I said: Nothing counts, you know – it’s Freshman Week.

That night, I guess, rounded something off for me. It was the first time that I wondered, real hard, whether I hadn’t just walked out the front door, when I could have walked out the back. It was that night, my looking at the city from that place on the banks, thinking about place, to be one thing and not another thing, thinking that I am a small part of something much bigger, more complex and totally indifferent, that I first began to think about homelessness. I can’t say that I know what dispossession feels like today, but I could tell you that night. Tramping back to the Yard in the soaking clothes, I thought Whooo ahhh Yeeehaaaa, what a thing it is to be here.


One of the striking things about Harvard Square is the thick, magisterial iron gate that wraps around Massachusetts Avenue, enclosing Harvard Yard.

The other striking thing about Harvard Square is the homelessness. Bowed and veiled figures sleep beneath the threshold of the bookstore, and if you stop to ask why they come they usually say that it is a safe place to sleep and that there is good money, and that the lights never turn off.

To me, the two facts of the iron gate and the homeless population are compelling evidence that if a place can be said to have deliberate design, that if communities are a product of something more than spontaneous individual desire, then the Designer must have a poet’s eye for symbols, or at least a good sense of humor.

Reckoning with homelessness requires that the two, the gated university and the homeless population, be dealt with together. They are too closely aligned, their presence here a juxtaposition too sever to absolve my story of. And me – me too, I am too much a product of my place within this world to pretend that I am something different; if I have any authority at all, it is from that place that I am given, from inside the gate rather than from the street.

The Square at night is something like a carnival. I have seen her in the dawn; she looks half-roused and ice-cold. But at night, she spins, like a lighted wheel, glitters. The lights are bright – air cold – the nights in the Square are entirely nonviolent, very happy. A man plays a saxophone. A chilly day, the lightness of autumn, the bright lights will never go out in the Square – if I look out the window at four in the morning from by bunk bed, as I often have, I will undoubtedly see a person walking through the square, from the Coop through JFK.

How does one find a homeless person? I think to myself.

It’s odd, but perhaps entirely practical, that we go first to the saddest-looking woman. We see across the street a figure sitting, leaning forward on the brick edge of a potted tree. She is in front of the stoop – like a gargoyle, very gray, bundled like a marshmallow with two gray hats. The color scheme of poverty; vibrant colors don’t seem to last; the city is in battle against chromatic vibrancy.

“Hey. I’m Max. This is Pete. How are you doing?”

“How do you do?” She was very quiet, so low that Pete never heard what she had to say. We shook hands.

“We’re from the College. We’re working on a piece about people who live in Harvard Square…”

“I don’t live here.”

“Oh?” I told her that’s OK. We’d treat her to dinner, if she’d be willing to talk a few minutes about her time.

“I don’t live here,” she repeated.

“Where are you from?”

“North Carolina.” One could detect the drawl. That drawl – passport, place-giver, what she still has.

“Do you have a family in North Carolina?”

“Yes.” She spoke quietly, in a whisper. “I’m sorry, but I’m not interested.”

“We’re trying to help. We want to tell people’s stories.”

“All I want to do is go home,” she said.

“How’d you get to Boston? Did you take a train up?”

“I got a ticket. You know how it is. I got a ticket and now I can’t get home. I just want to go back.”

“Hey, are you sure you wouldn’t be interested in having a nice dinner with us and talking a little.”

“Yes. Thank you. I’m not interested.”

“What’s your name?” She looked up. “Oh, uh, don’t worry about that – I’m Max and this is Pete.”

She turned and – thinking back I remember vividly, as you do such things – she winked and smiled.

I said: “If I see you around, I’ll say hi.”

That was the first substantial meeting I had with a homeless person in the square. That night, if it is like most that I spent in the early part of my first semester, I spent talking about Barack Obama with my roommate – we would talk about him for hours on end – and then, other than that, not talk much at all. I would walk from class to class, wave to acquaintances that I passed in the yard. And in the dinning hall, drifting slowly from the conversation, I would look around. A small girl with a fleece squints with a tray in her hand. A blonde boy and blonde girl with freckles talk about going home with over the weekend. “Yeah, it’s restorative. You just feel like that boost will give you something, and you can last until Thanksgiving.” There was one day (I remember it distinctly) looking at this place, all these people, that I realized with embarrassment mostly and a little relief, that I considered myself homeless, and that the gates did not divide nearly as much as I thought. I began this project with the question: how far is the trip from here inside the gate to the outside; how far must one travel before one can sleep on the street. Now I’m not sure. We’re all looking to be connected. I think everyone is trying as hard as they can be not to be invisible.


It is the aim of this essay to describe a part of our past that concerns the creation of community and the alienation of citizens.

Harvard Square, as I’ve said, is an odd community to walk through, because walking through it is like being on the inside and the outside at once – it is to walk into the very center of a world society, of which Harvard University is both an agent and an index, and to be with those on the outskirts of that society, the kids in the pit with joints and those panhandling on the side of the street. I think it’s accurate to imagine that in the Square there is an invisible boundary line that swoops around, separating people, cutting the space into pieces, a precipice – like an iron gate – between society and those on the outside.

The act of creating boundaries achieves both inclusion and exclusion. On the one hand, I know with whom I belong; I am like all these people, in at least one respect: I am a member of their group. Such communities are defined by the reciprocity that exists between members. I can help this man, because he can help me back. And the need that these communities thrive on is as old as Western society itself: to be thy brothers’ keeper. But such imperatives only go so far; they go as far as the boundary line. A person outside of the community is different from me; I cannot imagine his pain or his needs, because we are of a fundamentally different substance. He is a puzzle to me; he exists beyond the limits of my empathy.

The boundary line absolves the moral imperatives to aid those on the outside, while maintaining it for those on the inside; it reconciles the primordial need for community with the eminently practical, eminently human, need, borne of fear and of reason, to exclude other from that imperative – to not give everything to everyone. The history of American protest movements has been the history of the process of expanding this boundary line; it has been the history of enfranchising different groups into the American community, drawing the line of empathetic obligation to a still greater circumference –foreigners, African Americans, women, gays…

The process of psychological boundary-drawing that occurs in Harvard Square, between the homeless and us has its explicit analogy in history – it is, as we will see, one manifestation of a legal code, which is another manifestation of this process, brought by the earliest settlers from England and observed for at least one hundred and thirty years from the founding until the mid eighteenth century.

One strategy for understanding the present, and I suppose it is a theme, is to understand the past – to explore the attempts and failures we have made in divorcing ourselves from that plot of land we were handed to till. I acknowledge as a writer and a person that I cannot divorce myself entirely from my Self – that I can only explore homelessness from my place. America, as all nations, is just this way – it owes a great deal to the place it was given, like a child that owes a lot to its father. The notion that the settlers broke free from their history is as silly as the notion that any tramp coming to the Square can truly be said to have no past, no place, to be absent of identity-giving context.

We now turn to a look at the manner in which current psychological practices existed in the past as legal institutions, how our forefathers codified the practices of exclusion that Harvard Square, so many years later, portrays in sharp relief.

When the earliest settlers arrived in New England they brought with them the principles of English common law; in particular they brought with them an understanding of the town that is fundamentally different from our understanding of it today. For the English, the town was a collective property owned in part by each inhabitant; it was a private body rather than a public one. As per this status, each inhabitants of a town was responsible for the conduct and support of each other member of the town. Each member now had compulsory obligations to stave off the crime and the poverty of each other, provide bail when their neighbors were in binds and anticipate problems and enact justice – the individual towards the whole, the whole for the individual, each for all and all for each. The town as a unite of economic support. Francis Palgrave in his 1832 Rise and Progress of the English Commonwealth, writes that such a custom goes back to the principles of English Teutonic Townships. “The earliest notices respecting Teutonic Townships are to be collective from the laws of Salic Franks. A ‘Villa; was entirely the property of the inhabitants, and no stranger could settle within its boundaries, unless with the consent of the whole incorporation…”

This obligation, termed “frankpledge,” after the Teutonic law, began first as a custom. Neighbors would give money to a family that was victimized by crime, and would then search out the person who perpetrated it. After the Norman invasion, England was organized by feudal divisions, and the obligation was codified. Each town was broken up into units of ten, called tithings, and each was responsible for enforcing justice and welfare of the whole unit. One of the earliest itineration of the arrangement comes from a twelfth-century scribe who said that "It is of this sort, namely that all men in every vill of the whole realm were by custom under obligation to be (debebanf) in the suretyship of ten, so that if one of the ten commit an offence the nine have him to justice."

During the English Civil War and the confusion that followed, local governmental machinery was dismantled, and the church replaced the tithing. The “parish” took up the secular responsibility of maintaining public peace and supporting the poor. In the following years, as the population increased, towns began to increase in size, and local infrastructure was revitalized, roads built and townhouses increasingly put in roles of prominence. In 1601, when the first Poor Laws were written, the town had once again replaced the parish in its original role of providing for the mutual security of its members. The poor, affected by the inchoate symptoms of an increasingly modern England – unemployment, bad harvests, famine, disease, land enclosures, inflation, industrialization, the dissolution of monasteries, the decline of feudal families – those that dwelt on the margins of these processes – were to find relief in their towns, among their neighbors.

These were the legal foundations that the colonists brought to the new world. The town for them was a unit of support. With support, however, comes the complementary and implied right to choose to whom a town is willing to pledge it. The town support structure could not accept anyone indiscriminately, because each new member was an additional legal obligation that might potentially become chargeable to the public good. With this logic, the settlers in the New World enacted laws that strictly regulated citizen mobility. Each town in New England set up statues that defined the “right to inhabitancy,” demanding that prospective members petition for such a right before legal entrance. Towns were to be established by mutual consent, not individual prerogative –
If we here be a corporation, established by free consent, if the place of our co-habitation be our own, then no man hath right to come in to us without our consent
This “right to inhabitancy,” also called “freedom of community,” is the necessary complement to a system of mutual support. This is the necessary two-ness of boundary drawing: that the right to support implies the right to exclude. It is a fact that this asserted right to regulate inhabitancy was exercised in the New England Colonies such as New Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut and Rhode Island for reasons of religious preference, nationality, prestige of the family and economic wellbeing. Regardless of the ultimate reasons for exclusion, it is important that the moral justification was based on the premise of a community of reciprocal aid; for if members are to support each other, they must also be able to consent to the parties that they are going to be supporting.

At first, inhabitancy rights were granted only to those families that the town was prepared to give land to; in time, rights were given to any family that could arrange to buy a plot of land. The Puritans, like their predecessors, regarded land as the basic unit of power, and considered any well-functioning government to be grounded in land ownership. In November, 1634 John Winthrop made a general proclamation that he and the six other chief council of the town should have the right to allocate land to newcomers at their discretion
It is agreed that noe further allotments shalbe graunted unto any new comers, but such as may be likely to be received members of the Congregation: That none shall sell their houses or allotments to any new comers, but with the consent and allowance of those that are appointed Allotters.
In Boston, March 1640 the following was issued, illustrating the connection between land and inhabitancy –
John Palmer, Carpenter, now dwelling here, is to be allowed an Inhabitant, if he can gett an house, or land to sett an house upon (it being not proper to allowe a man an Inhabitant Without habitation)
Town councils made additional restrictions on the flow of visitors. On December 29, 1657, Derman Mahoone was fined twenty shillings for apparently “intertaining two Irish women contrary to an order of the towne, in that case provided and is to quitt his house of them forthwith att his perill” The problem of guests became so bad in Boston that on June 13, 1659 a general proclamation was given:
Whereas sundry inhabitants in this towne have nott so well attended to former orders made for the securing the towne from charge by sojourners, inmates, hyred servants, journeymen, or other persons that come for help in physick or chyrurgery, whereby no little damage hath already, and much more may accrew to the towne. For the prevention whereof Itt is therefore ordered, that whosoever of our inhabitants shall henceforth receive any such persons before named into their howses or employments without liberty granted from the select men, shall pay twenty shillings for the first weeke, and so from weeke to weeke, twenty shillings, so long as they retaine them, and shall beare all the charge that may accrew to the Towne by every such sojourner, journeyman, hired servt., Inmate, &c, received or employed as aforesaid.
In these laws, we see an early American expression of social “pre-destination,” the notion that individuals inherit a place a within a structured social order. This is a very old conception of the world, indeed, dating back to Aristotle, who wrote that society was divided by birth and predisposition between those who are among the ruling class and those who are to be ruled; but the exact nature of pre-destination that the early settlers expressed was less about restricting access to positions in a lateral hierarchy – between the ruled and the ruling – than it was about placing one into a spot, and keeping one there. People were not entitled to move freely from one place to another; they were bound instead to the town that they happen to be born into, or happen to gain admission into.

One important American narrative is the myth of mobility – to move up and to move out, to gain in statured or get up and leave. Early inhabitancy rights expose some of the falsity of the American mobility narrative. They present us with a choice: either stay in the spot of admission or be free to move, not true freedom but the false freedom of homelessness. Early America was based on a permanence of place, and contemporary institutions, Harvard for one, indicate that the conceptual framework for a society based on admission has not been entirely shaken.

The word “hierarchy” here is not entirely appropriate. Puritanism, based as it is on a democratization of the individual’s role in religion, replaced catholic hierarchies, which mirror governmental monarchies, with town meetings and the individual’s relationship with the text. Yet Puritanism called for a different sort of rigidity. Max Weber called “the central dogma” of the puritan faith, the reliance on a society arranged according to the individual’s calling --
The only way of living acceptably to God was not to surpass worldly morality in monastic asceticism, but solely through the fulfillment of the obligations imposed upon the individual by his position in the word
The Puritan religion bound the individual to his “position” in the world. The Calvinists went further, arguing that from this positions one was predestined for to be saved or to be damned – any resistance is ultimately futile, for an individuals fate is inextricably bound up with his origins. This concept of calling is a particularly American one. In Emerson’s famed essay “Self-Reliance” he argued for a radical individualism based ultimately on an acceptance of his unique place within a complex and diverse society. It is often overlooked that this doctrine was not about freedom, but rather about a version of obedience. The individual was bound to his place, and it was from here – and only from here – that can he live as truly fulfilled
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age…
Trusting “thyself” is an act of acquiescence. One must “accept the place [that] divine providence has found for you.” He uses a metaphor about land – in parallel to the land requirements of inhabitancy rights – to make the point
[A man learns] that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.
Self-reliance, then, is the act of obeying a “Self” that was given from above; it is to take “for better, for worse” the “plot of ground” that one was given. Emerson did not think that this was a dreary prospect. For him, the Self was imperial, it was the source of great wealth and beauty. The individual Self – like the young country that he was writing for – must accept the virgin soil that it had, by the preference of God, been given, if it was to be true to its actions, and grow up in full.
The settlers based their ideals of community on these conceptions of place. The individual was born into a spot in the world, the “calling” in the words of the protestants, the “self” in the words of Emerson, and it was expected that that was where one would remain. The inchoate admission society, based on exclusion and power, which would flourish with the growing prestige of Harvard University and a diversified country with increasing divisions of labor, can be see in Cambridge (then Newtowne) at its very earliest. Here is the writ of admission that John Harvard himself received in 1637 – the first admit to Harvard College, being Harvard himself –
Mr. John Harvard is admitted a Townsman with a promise of such accommodations as wee best Can…

When I said that the colonists did not break from the past, it was meant to illustrate the continuity of laws between England and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But there is greater significance, in that the laws that they inherited directly pertained to the manner in which people define themselves by the past. One’s past – according to the inhabitancy laws put forth – was the best and strictest way to determine one’s future, for it was only that spot towards which you were necessarily entitled. Accept that place and know your future.

The towns of the Massachusetts Bay not only had the capacity to enforce inhabitancy rights, but were bound to do so by early colonial law. In May 17, 1637, the General Court of the Massachusetts Colony issued the following law –
It is ordered, that no towne or pson shall receive any stranger, resorting hither wth intent to reside in this iurisdiction, nor shall alow any lot or habitation to any, or intertaine any such above three weekes, except such pson shall have alowance vnder the hands of some one of the counsell, or of two other of the magistrates, vpon paine that evry townse shall give or sell any lot or habitation to any such, not so allowed, shall forfet 100s for every offence, & evry pson receive any such, for longer time than is heare expressed, (or then shalbe allowed in some special cases, as before, or in case of intertainement of freidns resporting from some other parts of this country for a concenient time,) shall forfet for evry offence 40s [shillings]; and for evry month after such pson shall there continew 20s; provided, that if any inhabitant shall not consent to the intertainment of any such person, & shall give notice thereof to any of the magistrates wthin one month after, such inhabitant shall bee liable to any part of this penulty
In 1638 the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony wrote that constables
Should informe of newe comers, if any be admitted wthout license; & to that end warrant to bee sent out to the cunstable of each town, to infome the Court of Assistants, wch is to consider of the fines, whether to take them or to mitigate them.
In June, 1650, the colony issued the following. We see in it a characterization of the “wandering poor” as those that had chosen to break the binds of community and the ideals of the “calling” –
Whereas wee are credibly informed that great mischeifes and outrages have binn wrought in other plantacon in America by comanders, and souldjers of seuerall qualitjes, and other straingers issueing out of other parts, vsurping power of gounement ouer them, plundering of their estates, taking vp armes, and making great divisions amongst the inhabitants where they have come, to prevent the like mischiefe in this jurisdiccon, this Court doth order, and it is hereby enacted, that henceforward all straingers, of what qualitje soeuer, above the age of sixteene yeeres, arriving here in any portes or parts of this jurisdicon in any ship or vessel, shall immediately be grought before the Gounor…

These were the statutes of Colonial law, yet they were on the wrong side of history. Throughout the 17th and 18th century, New England’s economy continued to diversify, and the need for labor – artisans, farmers, goods peddlers, clergy, even doctors and lawyers – to flow from one place to another increased. Warfare, such as the King Phillip’s War of 1675-76, an Indian uprising that wreaked havoc on the Massachusetts’s countryside, provided the first instance in America of large-scale homelessness. Pious Bostonians noted in 1675 that “the sin of idleness (whc is the sin of Sodom) doeth greatly increase.” It became practically impossible for towns to enforce laws banning newcomers; and thus, impossible to prevent those that are likely to become chargeable to the town for relief – “the wandering beggars and rogues” – to become taxing on the towns support mechanisms.

With the increase of population and individual mobility as the backdrop, towns passed legislation that allowed them to legally “warn out” newcomers who had entered the town, telling them to leave immediately or else stay without the privilege of public charge. In other words, the towns passed legislation that allowed them legally to exclude those living within the town the benefits of communal support. They enacted legal mechanisms of boundary drawing.
In November, 1692, the following act was passed in Massachusettes, to provide for the legal exclusion of certain people, keeping a record of their name, and using a court for the purpose –
If any person or persons come to sojourn or dwell in any town and be there received an entertained by the space of three months, not having been warned by the constable, or other person whom the selectmen shall appoint for that purpose, to leave the place, and the names of such persons with the time of their abode there and when such warning was given them retunrd into Court of quarter sessions, every such person shall be deemed an inhabitant of such town and the proper charge of the same in case through sickness, lameness, or otherwise, they come to stand in need of relief to be borne by such town. Unless relatives be of suffiencient ability to do so &c.
March 14, 1700 a further act was passed, which recognized warning out, stating that no town shall
be chargeable with the support of any person residing therin who has not been approved as an inhabitant by the town or the selectmen…[unless they had] continued their residence there by the space of twelve months next before and not been warned in manner as the law directs to depart and leave the town, any law, usage or custom to the contrary notwithstanding”
These laws were taken seriously, from the early 1600s to the 1700s when warning out provisions were passed until finally, in February 11, 1793, when new settlement rights were drafted for the town of Massachusetts, erasing all provisions for inhabitancy rights and warning out.

Warning out reconciled the Christian imperative towards the beggardly figure who is Christ-like in his humility, with the basic capitalist and Puritan imperative to affirm the importance or work and self-sufficiency. William Perkins, a Calvinist minister at the time, warned fervently against that “wandering beggars and rogues” who were not only a financial plague, but a religious one, who should “bee taken as enemies of this ordinance of God.” The American founding was a dialectic between these two impulses: the Massachusetts Bay Colony established as a religious refuge, and the Jamestown established because of entrepreneurial desire. By warning out a family, a town could continue to fulfill their obligations towards their spiritual brothers, while also respecting the autonomy of the individual who earns his keep and deserves what he receives.

With this came the first class of American untouchables. From the middle of the 18th century to its completion, more than nine thousand people were warned out of Boston, with more than two thousand people in the year 1791-1792 alone. These numbers not only reflect a propensity for warning out, but a need to do so in the first place, a reflection of a class of migrants that had emerged in America, traveling largely from the countryside to the cities in search of labor. When they entered a city and were warned to leave, many of them did. Forty percent of those warned out in Boston in 1780 were not there in 1790. Entire families were legally expelled from towns, left to wander in search of a fixed abode. Such a class has never left us.

One of the first homeless men that I met in Harvard Square was named James. He had biked from Minnesota to Boston, and now lived on the streets of Cambridge. We had invited him to eat lunch with us at Unos, just a block from Harvard Yard. James looks like Charlie Manson, though, as he pointed out: “I don’t have a Nazi tattoo on my forehead and I don’t have blue eyes and anyways Charlie Manson was a total bastard.” James had signs that he wrote on lined notebook paper. He showed them to people who passed by, and sometimes they gave him money. He said that he was doing God’s work – Just Walk Away, said one of the signs. “That’s what the Jews did in Egypt. All you’ve got to do is to walk away.”

We see in the practice of warning out in the towns of New England an early genealogy of distinctly American narratives: the value and utility of work, life on the road, the limits of kindness, the conceptions of community. The first American underclass was not only poor, but literally expelled from a community oftheir peers; whatever aid they received was because of altruism rather than community, founded on a distinction between classes, rather than reciprocity and mutual help. And such a class is still with us, continuing to perpetrate a violence on the myths of our country. The ways that our Christian forefathers elected to categorize people, through the process of inhabitancy rights and warning out, is not entirely distinct from the manners that we attempt to do the same, creating titles (victims, lost souls, deviants, waste products) for the men and women sleeping on the ground tonight, in Harvard Square, outside of the gate this very night.


“Being homeless is not some sort of club.”


“I went to college in Maryland, dropped out. I became a carpenter and now I don’t have a job, so I sit here during the days. There, that’s my story.”

His voice was very steady, authoritative, commanding – it pierced through, like something very shameful in myself had been exposed.

“Well, you know, I just thought if you’d be interested in talking, then we –” The other man started to grab at my shoulder. He smelled of hard alcohol and his eyes were wild.

“Yeah, I know what you want,” he said, drunk, clearly, with a voice that was high and hard.

“You’re going to write this up in some special school report. I know exactly what you want. Yeah, I know you.”

“Look,” said the man sitting on the ground, with a hat on and the guitar in his lap, “look, I’m sorry, I want to be able to help you out – it’s just I’m tired, you know, some girl came the other day and she was talking with us. You know, I just don’t want to do another one of these interviews.”

“We’re freaks. Yeah, freaks. I’m a vet, you know that.” He put his arm around me. “Wanna go into that store over there, buy me something.”

“I’m not 21.”

“Of course he’s not,” said the steady man on the ground.

“I’m sorry to bother you guys – the point, I guess, was to try not to be, you know, stereotyping, to tell the story very plainly.”

“I’m sorry not to help you with your report,” the man on the ground.

“No – what, don’t be sorry.”

I left feeling great shame in myself, the shame of a voyeur, or a person who had committed something – I would later think – of a great act of dehumanization: I felt like I was treating people as types, the same anger in myself that flows from Baldwin to Stowe. He wrote that she had was dehumanizing by sentimentalizing, that she had turned African Americans into caricatures – and types, no matter how grandiose, can never, after all, be fully human. “The mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel” was how Baldwin wrote of sentimentality.

To step forward into Harvard Square, is to open myself to hearing other people, is to enter a hailstorm of self-reprisal, to question the nature of human interaction and the limits of human empathy. To be at Harvard is to be at the very center of society; to be homeless is to be outside of it. What is the path that one takes to get from here to there?

To put this question of limitations another way: am I going to live my entire life within that small subsection of humanity that I was born into – will I ever be anything but the Self that I was given?

“How does it feel?” Bob Dylan asks. Well maybe to have no home is the opposite of the feeling I get every time I walk to the Square. Every time I see someone I am not, I realize that I am someone. Homelessness lives in that limitation of traversing empathy. It exists in the boundaries between people. It says: I can go anywhere; I can do anything.

Homelessness lives in that limitation of traversing empathy. It exists in the boundaries between people. It says: I can go anywhere; I can do anything.

But is this freedom, the freedom of searching – the search is for somewhere to stop, it is not endless. It is defined by its negative, by the search for the home, the road extending only so far as it must, before you find somewhere called Forever that smiles back.

I went up to my room. A girl was there at my desk doing a problem set with my roommate, and she didn’t even look up when I entered. I sat for a while without saying much and then I went through a blizzard of arguments with my self and my roommate, who could not finish his problem set. The girl, as it were, did not even look up as I spoke.

“There is nothing wrong,” I said. “Simply, nothing wrong with trying to understand people. Yeah, they don’t want to be observed under a microscope. A disorienting disruption of the paradigm,” I said loudly, now, gesticulating. “It’s a class thing, a class hierarchy that is being confused, the collapse of two supposedly autonomous spheres in society. I walk to Pinocchio’s and they sit and beg. We are different – I see that, but I reject the premise, I reject the premise that divisions are autonomous, totally final.

“There is nothing wrong with noticing. That is all. I want to understand people. Certainly our world would be better if we could extend empathy farther, and the 20th century, surely one of the most deadly in history, would be much different if we could walk out to Harvard Square and understand each other a little better.”

A yearning to be a part of a place, to be a citizen again, is, I believe, the ultimate connection between people.


In the end, if this period of my life, which I believe in some ways is ending, when I thought a lot about homelessness, and I had pretentious to believe that there was something I could say about dispossession – if it is judged as a failure, then I have to believe it is because I feel like shit about it, because I feel like a failure about it, and because I have been inured to believe that feeling like shit is reciprocally bound with failing, that feelings are twisted together with reality like ribbons in a rope and the rope either pulls you over the side of the boat or that slips through your fingers and lets you slap down to the water.

I don’t know much about the relationship between feelings and reality, but I think that it is a key to my place in this community. For a lot of people, life is a hell of a lot harder than it is for me, and they manage to feel pretty good. Some of the people I met in the course of doing this project had the whole world conditioning their own self-loathing, and they barely showed it at all. Where does the feeling of shame exist? And love? Is it in God? is it in our hearts? is it outside, floating in the streets? does it dwell on the lips of girls? I don’t know much about the answer to that, either. But I think – I’d like to think – that feelings exist as a collective. That every feeling exists as some big force between people, that we take when we need it, that we all share, a big bowl above us, from which we all eat, existing in the sky…

Let’s just for a moment, for the sake of those more-destitute people, think of the feelings rather than the fact, and accept that all the virtues of the latter rest ultimately on the existence of the former. That a man cries and that he wishes to act, and the way that the world is refracted within the prism, is due to his having feelings, and let us just accept that fact.

If this period of my life was a failure it was because I am too cowardly and not nearly creative enough, and because my heart is too small, and, ultimately, because I couldn’t feel enough. I feel like shit about it, but that alone does not mean I have failed. In fact, that’s the only success I’ve had in four months since I jumped into the Charles. I feel ashamed – good, piercing, shame.

Works Cited

Benton, Josiah H. Warning Out in New England. Boston: W. B. Clarke company, 1911.
Boston (Mass.). Registry Dept, and Boston . Record Commissioners. "Records Relating to the Early History of Boston." (a).
---. "Records Relating to the Early History of Boston." (b).
Bridenbaugh, Carl. Cities in the Wilderness : The First Century of Urban Life in America, 1625-1742. New York: Knopf, 1960.
Coser, Lewis A. Men of Ideas : A Sociologist's View. New York: Free Press, 1965.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays. Vol. 3. Boston, New York: Houghton, Mifflin and company : the Riverside press, Cambridge, 1904.
Kulikoff, Allan. "The Progress of Inequality in Revolutionary Boston." The William and Mary Quarterly 28.3 (1971): 375-412.
Massachusetts, Nathaniel Bradstreet Shurtleff, and Massachusetts. General Court. Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England. New York: AMS Press, 1968.
Morison, Samuel Eliot. "The Founding of Harvard College." (1995).
Morris, William Alfred. The Frankpledge System. Vol. 14. New York: Longmans, Green, and co., 1910.
Palgrave, Francis. The Rise and Progress of the English Commonwealth. : Anglo-Saxon Period. Containing the Anglo-Saxon Policy, and the Institutions Arising Out of Laws and Usages which Prevailed before the Conquest. London: J. Murray, 1832.
Weber, Max, and Stephen Kalberg. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with Other Writings on the Rise of the West. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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