My Life as an Honored Potted Plant

Meetings are rituals, and rituals need symbols, and decorations, in other words potted plants. Ie been to a lot of meetings in my time as an academic where I sat bored and confused, but still clap on cue. The most obvious place I am such a decoration is in May graduation ceremonies. I sit in a hot black robe in May, with the faculty and react in unison with those around me. Literally an honored potted plant.

But there are many more places where such potted plants exist—decoration at a meeting where pre-prepared decisions are served up. Academic Senate meetings come to mind; but so do political conventions, Congress, and annual meetings at churches. The malaria zone office meetings I sat through when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, were the most difficult—they were in Thai which I only slowly learned, but I still clapped on cue. What all of these have in common is that I am really but a room decoration—a potted plant.

But we potted plants at meetings are needed by the important people (peacocks if we keep to our park metaphor) to show up and legitimate foregone decisions to preserve the pre-existing social order. They need us potted plants as Honoratiorien, i.e. the honored elders who think they are invited to the meetings to make real decisions, even if they don’t. But we are really only there to provide legitimacy for the experts who really pull the levers and push the buttons of the bureaucracy. We potted plants show up at a meeting, look busy, ratify whatever decisions have been pre-arranged by the organizers, eat cheese squares and olives, and then have dinner. A nice dinner at a nice restaurant. Oh yes, and then the peacocks tell us how well we made difficult decision, and are profusely thanked for our critical participation.

The funny thing is that often not even the peacocks really run the meetings. The ones who really run the show are the functionaries, clerks, secretaries, and others who organize the meetings, and present us with information to “consider.” Such information comes pre-packaged, and pre-arranged in so there is little real discretion on our part; if done well there is only one single conclusion for us to mumble “aye” on. Oddly enough, at many such meeting I was at, the lower-level staff who served the coffee and shoved files under our noses, were the real deciders to whom whichever peacock chairing the meeting turned to explain “the numbers.” The numbers then spill out, the peacock nods sagely, we potted plants nod even more sagely as if our opinion mattered. We vote “aye” and then clap.

Ultimately, tout the ones running the shows—are the technocrats who organize “the files” that are reflected in the numbers so readily tossed out to provide more legitimacy for the evidence-based decision-making (we Honoratioren only make decisions with evidence!).

But this blog is mostly a way of introducing the German word Honoratioren, which I have plucked out of Max Weber’s essays “Politics as Vocation,” and “Bureaucracy,” which my wife and I are currently translating from German to English. Honoratioren are the esteemed people of a community to whom others habitually defer, despite the fact that they are really “dilletantes” when it comes to knowing the nuts and bolts of an organization which they are called on to legitimate. Where do you find such Honoratioren? They are from the right families, wealthy business people, performers of past glories, movie stars, sports figures, local nobility—i.e. the “better strata” of a community. I guess that’s me with all my seniority at the university now; an Honoratioren who gets trips to exotic locales like Los Angeles, where I can dine on cheese squares and fine restaurants.

The most common habitat for Honoratioren are the boards, commissions, and so forth which ostensibly run corporations and government. They really do not know what they are doing, but as long as their egos are stroked, and vanity appealed to, they lend the air of legitimacy to what really is going on. Weber described them as “voting cows” being led to approve what to legitimate what the technocrats are going to do anyway; Weber’s metaphor is good—but potted plants works, too.

Occasionally Weber writes, such Honoratioren make it into some meaningful office, but then it doesn’t always work out so well—think Governor Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California; two classic Honoratioren who somehow made it across the divide into political offices where power was wielded. Perhaps they would have been better if they remained potted plants; I’ll let the historians figure out that one!

So what is a good translation for Honoratioren? The traditional one for Weber translators is “notables.” But because I was recently at such meetings, passing along my professorial imprimatur over things I knew little about, I’m thinking “potted plant” conveys Weber’s meaning better! So if you see the German word Honoratioren in our translation some day, just think, “potted plant.”

Originally posted here at Ethnography.com in May 2014.

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