Public Identity and the Headphone Hegemony

I started writing this post at the CBD meeting in Nagoya last October. Since I hate to leave my ‘drafts’ folder cluttered, I’m pushing it out the door–ready or not.

Institutions, broadly defined, are those rules that prescribe what counts as acceptable behavior. They may be formal laws or procedures or informal rules–like “you should stand in line and wait your turn to get to the cash register.” Institutions help to define our identity in certain contexts. They form the background for the types of social interactions that are possible in a certain setting.

At the CBD CoP in Nagoya, Japan informal institutions were in full effect. The clothing of choice is determined by the group with which an actor identifies and their role at the COP, including power skirts, suits-and-ties, business casual, indigenous attire, student chic, and rumpled academic. Within any one room, however, the key speakers were often dressed alike. In one workshop, a gentleman from Canada was talking about the planetarium in Montreal: “when you prepare to enter,” he said, “there has to be a cutoff. You take off your shoes and everybody lies on the floor. Everyone is at the same level, having the same experience.” What a wonderful metaphor for the scene in a UN contact group or assembly. Of course, people don;t all have the same experience–at the CBD or in the planetarium–but the institutional structures in place try to produce homogeneity.

Walking through metal detectors en masse was the beginning of a daily ritual that marked the CBD conference space as a type of sacred ground: where some types of speech were encouraged and others were considered profane or nonsensical. Whatever the outward clothing of an attendee, the simultaneous translation headphones perched on top of their heads marked them as members of a group. The institutions at work here–in passing through security, wearing headphones (whether or not participants were actually listening), or making clothing choices–may seem mundane, but they served to sever one portion of the attendees lives from their lives as homemakers, mothers, fathers, cooks, musicians, or amateur athletes. In doing so, the resulting discussions were constrained to an abstraction of the very visceral reality of biodiversity loss. Good, possibly, for the production of policy. My question is: does the inevitable institutional constraint in these meetings lead to policy that is as divorced from the daily bodily lives of people as the places where the policy is produced?