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!’