On Granfalloons

I’ve had a secret hobby since I was six. I didn’t know it was a thing, or that it had a name, until this morning. I’m a compulsive creator of granfalloons. A granfalloonist, if you like. Or at least, a compulsive creator of imagined granfalloons.

What’s a granfalloon? It’s a good job you asked me now, and not four hours ago!

A granfalloon is an organization that exists only to be an organization. An organization who’s members are distinguished by being members of the organization, where the organization primarily exists to define who are members and who are not. Where the primary qualification for being a member is your desire to be a member (plus payment of a nominal fee).

The organization may have a name, or a mission statement, or an induction course, that declares some purpose. Often a noble and powerful purpose. But this is just rhetoric.

I remember when I was around six or seven, being really fascinated with the idea of being in a secret society. Being a spy. Or something. Anything. Since then, at many points in my life I’ve amused myself by inventing granfalloons. Initially these shadowy organizations keeping the world safe, that nobody knew of. More recently the tendency has sprung into more ‘mature’ topics. Chatting to my wife this morning (who recognized the tendency in me immediately), she reminded me of “The Gourmand Society” that was a fun little fantasy which grew out of a game I wrote, and continued to entertain me for a couple of years (and, even now, I’m remembering it again, and thinking “where did I put the glossy brochure I made for it?”). I’ve created games built around granfalloons, and written stories about them. I’ve never believed these, never done much about them. I perhaps recruited some friends for some of the early ones, though I may have only thought about doing that. But it is certainly something that has been a big part of my imaginative life. Which is great, because now it has a name!

The name comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, where it refers to a group of co-religionists, who believe they are distinguished by sharing some part of God’s purpose, but who’s association is basically meaningless. The analogy with many Christian groups was intended.

It reminded me of the thinking I did around mega-churches (one of the most popular posts on this blog, still). Often mega-church pastors, at some point in their rise, set up an organization that they are in charge of. Often the organization only exists so that other pastors can be members of it. The organization often seeks to speak on some issue, or co-ordinate some response, or resource something or other. It presents itself as being a group of churches or pastors who share some part of what God is doing or wants to do. But none of the members need do anything, just be affiliated. Ultimately the association exists to credential its members. It is a granfalloon.

Similarly today I was looking at the huge juggernaut of pseudo-science and New Age self-help courses, where individuals attend courses to become certified in some modality, then more courses to become master practitioners, then trainers, whereupon they can set up courses to certify others, and so on. A self-propagating granfalloon based on some science-babble, excellent marketing, and a critical mass.

Most interestingly, from this morning’s reading, I’ve discovered the work of Benedict Anderson, who proposed (using different terminology) that a Nation is essentially a granfalloon. The idea that a resident of Rhode Island has some intrinsic connection with a person in Seattle, but less of a connection with another in Vancouver, for example. Or that there is some greater inherent moral responsibility to provide social security for the starving child in London, but not the starving child in Burkina Faso. Or that it is obvious the Indian citizen should vote in Indian elections, but should have no say over American elections. A nation is a granfalloon.

I can see the point, but here the fuzzy boundaries of the idea threaten to make it so indistinct as to be useless. Does it apply to every social group? Is it a meaningless category? I don’t know, I’m only two hours into thinking about it.

But, at the very least it gives me something to call what I’ve been doing since I was six. Although, to be a true granfalloonist, I suppose I need to get serious, and take my creations out into the world.

My wife went out about half an hour ago, saying ‘I expect to find a website for “The Granfalloon Society” built by the time I come back!’

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “On Granfalloons

  1. Ian, I loved your phrasing:

    “Who believe they are distinguished by sharing some part of God’s purpose …”

    All of us imbue our lives with meaning — we distinguish moments, events and more. To make ourselves distinguished is another very common activity. It is a matter of what we feel distinguishes us that is interesting. Like you said, some do it by claiming to be special agents of some god. Some do it by feeling that ‘belonging’ to a Nation adds substance and purpose to how they envision themselves.

    I distinctly remember when the notion of “American” slipped away from me. And I saw it slip like Marxist, Acupuncturist, Physician Assistant and more. Seeing behind the tendency to grab from ‘distinguishing’ labels can be freeing or threatening, depending on how one uses it.

    Your “granfalloon” phenomena can have a wide catchment [hospital word also used with rivers].

    Many years ago I read NLP stuff intently for about a year. I thought it was a new way to understand people. Soon enough I saw my activity as forced and stopped without coming a “believer”.

    What I found most entertaining about your post here, Ian, is that you are rounding up more folks to be excited about a meaningless word “granfallon” and trying to make it meaningful. You are trying to expand your club’s membership. :-)

    And that illustrates the wide catchment I spoke of above. Your efforts show that the catchment of “grafallon” can even include language itself.
    And hell, in my world view, the whole notion of “self” is a Granfallon.

    We are all granfalloonists — ’tis our nature.

    PS: Funny, I had to read your second sentence a few times then realized it was another Britishism: “a job job” — here we’d say “a good thing”.

    Good morning.

  2. Ian

    G’morning :)

    You’re moving the idea on in interesting ways. The idea that ideas themselves can be defined for no other reason than to exist. Good points, lots more mulling needed, I think.

    I’m still not sure on the nation as granfalloon, though. I totally sympathise with the arbitrary notion of nationhood, but I think the notion of a country or state is not arbitrary. Where we draw the borders, yes, but the group exists for more than its own existence. I’m not ready to be an anarchist, yet, and I find non-geographic ideas of jurisdiction hard to get my head around.

    But yes, I’m evangelising a term, for no better reason than the term exists! Very good point :)

  3. It has been fun to personally watch the ideas of “Chinese” in these various groups of “Chinese”:
    (1) Mainland Chinese Han people
    (2) Tibetans living in Sichuan
    (3) Tibetans living in Tibet
    (4) Taiwanese in Taiwan
    (5) Taiwanese in USA
    (6) Mainland Chinese in USA
    (7) 2nd or 3rd Generation Chinese in USA
    (8) Adopted Chinese kids in US

    It makes “Nationhood” seem arbitrary as a personal identifier. Of course I get it for tax and regulation methods for processing humans.

    Oh, I am not saying someone SHOULD be an anarchist, I am just saying that the notion is fabricated, manipulative and illusory. But so are games and we still play them because they are useful. “Nation” is useful to lots of people. But the winners of a game are often those who know the rules well, can control them and change them anytime.

    You keep evangelizing, buddy, it is in your blood! (as you wife appears to well know and still loves the hell out of you — or at least pretends to because it is useful to her to have you think so.) :-)

  4. Ian

    Sorry, I wasn’t disagreeing with any of this. I agree with you.

    I just meant that, if a granfalloon is content-free, then the idea of a state seems to cross-cut the idea of a nation. Perhaps one can totally separate the idea of a nation from the idea of a state, but that feels a little like assuming the conclusion to me.

  5. John Clavin

    Hi Ian. I think Hitler’s Germany, Scientology, and a flock of birds would all be granfalloons. The flock of birds might actually have more of a purpose than any human granfalloon. If there is an exchange of information between the granfalloon members then a collective unconscious or a higher consciousness would be created and that gets back to my definition of spirituality: An intelligent entity having their perspective and attitude changed without them being aware of it.
    So I would like to suggest the phrase, “Spiritual Granfalloon”

  6. Ian

    Hmmm. I don’t know. I start to feel the word turn to water and slipping between my fingers then… I can see what you’re saying, but isn’t everything a granfalloon then? I don’t know.

    Yes, group dynamics giving rise to higher order behavior, I agree, very key, and really central to how ‘spirituality’ works. And I can see what you’re saying, that even a granfalloon can give rise to those higher order behaviors, and have some meaning. Interesting thought process!

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