From the Center for Peripheral Studies (OAC Branch). After Lance, the sky's the limit!

The papers discussed in our online seminars are often excellent, but this one is apocalyptic, as well as being an exercise in fine writing. Lee Drummond was once a Chicago anthropology PhD specialising in the Caribbean and later in San Diego's tourist attractions. He taught at McGill University for over a decade before retiring to the wilderness (Palm Springs!). July and August there are his winter when he withdraws into his airconditioned study to avoid the heat. The OAC is a principal beneficiary of this aestivation, as witnessed by the paper attached here. All I can say is you gotta read it, whether or not you participate in the seminar.

Lee's point of departure is Lance Armstrong's confession on the Oprah Winfrey show. The man who perhaps deserves to be known as the greatest American athlete ever admitted taking performance enhancing drugs, thereby triggering an intense public outcry. Lee deconstructs what he takes to be a key feature of the American ideology, the opposition of nature to culture, showing that biology and technology have been inextricably woven together throughout human evolution and even before. If it is impossible to identify the unequal influence of technology in sporting performance, what about other areas of cultural achievement, like literature for example? Should Hemingway's Nobel prize be taken away or Coleridge's poetry eliminated from the canon because they wrote under the influence of mind-altering substances?

Not content with this reductio ad absurdum, Lee then launches into a savage critique of American civilization and of the cultural anthropology it has spawned. Drawing on Marx's happy phrasing in the 18th Brumaire, he argues that the American tragedy (New World genocide) now reappears as farce (reality TV shows), one of which actually replayed the former in a grotesque reenactment of the competitive ideal. Anthropology tends to celebrate cultural achievement around the world, whereas in Lee's view, the current state of American society suggests that culture may be a disease killing off its carriers just as their ancestors once killed off the original inhabitants of what passes for the land of the American dream.

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PS I composed this while Mark and Huon were posting their last comments. So I didn't see Mark's, but it is reassuring that he too cited the behaviorists as predecessors and gave the genealogy of the cognitive psychologists as 50+ years. I am sure I didn't mention the machine environment enough for his taste, but there is a lot of common ground and I am looking forward to having a proper go at the religious contradictions of anthropology.


Yes -- I'm sure that we *do* have much at agree about . . . !! <g>

What you term "American" (and associate with the US military) is what I call ROCKEFELLER, just to put a "face" on the zone where the money and coordination came from, with a deep involvement in military/intelligence funding after the "private" money primed-the-pump.

One of the fascinating aspects of all this is how much of all this came to a screeching halt in the early 1970s, when the second (or third) Mansfield Amendment finally forced the Pentagon to stop funding anthropology etc.  Coincident with this was the *defeat* of the Rockefeller "globalist" plan when the "Atlanticists" refused to allow Japan to join the club, forcing David et al to form the Trilateral Commission on their own.

Immanuel Wallerstein correctly traces the decline of US "hegemony" to this same period. What "took over" in the social sciences beginning in the 70s was decidedly NOT American and, at least superficially, very Continental.  Bruno Latour has been mentioned hereabouts and his ANT is about as anti-human as it gets.

It was, however, to the degree that it associated itself with Marxism, prone to its own version of PURITANISM -- perhaps reflecting the Gallic antipathy towards Rome, with a dose of Engelism mixed in.

So, I suspect that the *elephant* isn't simply AMERICA but rather a more deeply-seated attempt to *purify* the world -- which is a trait that knows no tribal boundaries in the West.

John & all,   That conference I went to turned out to be amazing, a small meeting of leading thinkers on how to invent a Post2015 "new architecture" for world governance.    The keynote defining the central problem was a video by Hillary Clinton, describing how we have old order, but…  the old international order needed to give way to a multiplicity of new actors and the new actors and find a way for them to all work together, to be the leading force for averting climate change for one.   The audience was drawn from the scientists and environmental organizations that the UN has been depending on for guidance in its global effort to define Post2015 Sustainable Development Goals. 

So, the speakers and audience were all deeply focused on the aspect of world culture we have, in discussion here, been referring to here as "thingies", that I interpret as referring to the "units of organization" we need to deal with.   I was shocked to hear Hillary speaking both as a politician where the subject is always the "wordies", and smoothly moving to speaking as a true observer, reporting on her "walking tour" of the world this past four years, and noticing the things going on and pointing out how the whole organization of world culture had changed. 

That was wonderful to hear, and be in an audience where that scope of problem assessment was on everyone’s mind, so a simple two or three sentences describing an idea for the world to shift from a "conquest model" of economic development to a "homemaking model", would be readily understood.   No one needed a lot of detailed explanation.   

As in any conference, everyone was also mostly focused on what they themselves were bringing to the conversation.    Without discussion, though, my "thingie" view of systems as physical units of organization in our world, while a bit new, was also readily understood and seemed appreciated.    So, to add to the two "not so simple questions" John offered to Huon today, I'd add:

3. What does it take to distinguish between the "thingie" and "wordie" sides

of the environment we are part of?

as to:

1. What does it mean to take the religious origins of ideas seriously?

2. What would it mean for anthropology to rediscover its own demons?

For 1, I'd say for an anthropologist to take the origin of religious ideas seriously it would take recognizing those ideas as "wordie's" that arise within a cultural context seen as a "thingie".  I'd give the same answer for 2, how anthropology can "rediscover its own demons" (whatever that means is a bit unclear but seems to be a concern a series of "wordies" of conceptual debate).

That views the verbal expressions and struggles as occurring within an associated sociological/biological culture identified by its organization, and so as an organism in its environment.  So debates considered would go beyond issues of the local language, in which the intellectual debates are raised, and relate to the physiological culture within which the language develops too.   For me it's that "thingie" use of organization to identify individualities, and clarify their boundaries, that allows one to keep from confusing the 'seasons' of one culture with those of another, and by clarifying their boundaries and separations also clarifying their connections through their common environments.   

It's only a partial answer, of course, as our own individual views of different things are hard to separate as neatly, and assumes there's some answer in particular, to #3... i.e. identifying a language to use for discussing organizational boundaries….  So, if this seems to be of interest, is #3 even a plausible question?  



    Amid a rush of interesting contributions, I will weigh in with a few specific remarks – more in the manner of ricochets than studied responses (the metaphor, if not politically appropriate, is at least timely; there has been lots of flying lead in these parts lately).  



    Thanks for your remarks about my application of the creole continuum concept to social / cultural topics.  In particular, you observe:


Take it from somebody who has made a living in advertising. The world we inhabit today isn't that world [of just three or four TV channels].  Dozens of cable channels have broken the big networks' oligopoly on available content . . .


Linguistically speaking, this [creolization] is not a new phenomenon. When I read Lee's examples from Guyana, I recall my first course in Amoy Hokkien, taught by Nicholas Cleveland Bodman, whose textbook had been written for British troops fighting Communists in Malaysia (We didn't learn how to apologise until Vol. II). I still vividly recall Bodman turning to the Taiwanese linguist who was serving as our native speaker and asking how far he would have to travel from his home to hear a different dialect. "The next village," we were told. 


    In short, we inhabit a linguistic and social world that exhibits a great deal of fragmentation.  Difference and diversity seem to be the order of the day.  It is an open question whether that fragmentation has always been there or, like TV channels, is a recent phenomenon. 

    At the same time, you add the important qualification:

But I also recall a Washington Post columnist remarking on the next to last U.S. Presidential Election that, whoever won, the voters from the other party would be sure that they had been cheated. Why? Because Democrat or Republican, they were stuck in their media bubbles, hearing only what they wanted to hear. 

    It is a demanding, difficult job for cultural analysis to sort out these two phenomena or, dare I say, perspectives.  Are the “media bubbles” which enclose and insulate large blocks of the U. S. population at all like the fluid, dynamic situations which typify the speech and social productions of individuals? As you suggest, they are not.  So how do we handle this glaring disjunction?  For openers, I would submit that both phenomena or perspectives are valid, that is, they represent what is actually going on.  The television world has fragmented into hundreds of channels, while, as you note, much of its audience has abandoned it in favor of the dubious pleasures afforded by the interactive possibilities of thousands of web sites (the OAC being a straw in that whirlwind).  At the same time, the creation of 24 / 7 cable news channels with utterly incompatible ideological positions leaves very little room for the sort of diversity you and I observe at L. A. gas stations or in the Taiwanese countryside.  For dedicated viewers of those global news networks, you’re either for us or agin us.     

    This pairing strikes me as an irresolvable contradiction; rather than paper over it or ignore it the one productive course I can see is to adopt the position that, yes, both the fragmentation and consolidation of media (and messages, with due homage to McLuhan) are fundamental properties of contemporary culture.  As processes, they move in different directions, and the undertow of their conflicting currents keeps unreflective mass audiences on the verge of conceptual drowning.  The two opposing forces pose an elemental dilemma, and you and I , John, are no strangers to those. 

    The “media bubble” you mention is all too real.  Far from being an intellectual curiosity we readers of tea leaves embrace, its effects on American politics and economy are dramatic.  Tea Party members of the U. S. House of Representatives, a stridently vocal minority who inhabit Fox News’ “World According to O’Reilly,” recently brought the government to a standstill and came close to precipitating a global economic crisis.  The world of those ideologues is far removed from our L. A. gas station and the  Taiwanese countryside.  They know for a certainty that things are a certain way, their way.  In the other camp, or world, is the liberal Democratic audience of another major news network, MSNBC.  Its viewers receive a steady diet of the kind of “news” they like to hear: climate change is real; gun violence calls for gun control; women’s right to choose is under attack by the bigots in state legislatures.  I don’t know if you and others of the cosmopolitan OAC community receive these two programs, but if so, record them and play them side-by-side: MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” and FOX’s afternoon program anchored by Megyn Kelly.  Rachel is an outspoken liberal, a lesbian on the barricades of every social cause, while Megyn is an acid-tongued conservative who may look like the girl next door, but for whom the old joke applies:  “She was visiting MarineLand and fell into the shark tank.  What happened? Nothing. . . . Professional courtesy.”    

    The co-presence of the themes of fragmentation and consolidation in American media is underscored in what I find to be a puzzling, even baffling phenomenon – one demanding a much more rigorous cultural analysis than I can supply here.  Rather than the separate-but-equal standoff in perspectives represented by MSNBC and FOX, one of the many new cable channels manages to combine antithetical elements of a corporation-dominated America with a celebration of that nation’s grass-roots diversity.  I refer to “The History Channel,” recently re-named simply “History.” 


History (originally The History Channel from 1995 to 2008) is a American basic cable and satellite television channel that is owned byA+E Networks, a joint venture between the Hearst Corporation and the Disney–ABC Television Group division of The Walt Disney Company.

It originally broadcast documentary programs and historical fiction series. However since 2008, it has mostly broadcast a variety of reality television series and other non-history related content. Additionally, the network is frequently criticized by scientists and skeptics for broadcasting pseudo-documentaries, unsubstantiated and sensational investigative programming, such as Ancient Aliens, UFO Files and the Nostradamus Effect. The channel is available in more than 80 million households around the United States. (Wikipedia)


    In an interesting about-face, The History Channel is no longer about history.  Nor is the Arts & Entertainment Network about art; it’s pure entertainment – of an unusual sort.  The old staples of American TV have largely disappeared from cable television, regardless of the channel.  Mostly gone are the sit-coms and soaps which featured dramatized but still recognizable ordinary families and relationships.  Also on the way out are occupational dramas – doctor, lawyer, cop shows which again featured hyped versions of jobs that regular people held in what was fondly called the “real world.”  On “History” the reality shows which I discussed in the Lance essay have mutated into some pretty bizarre specimens.  What this recent crop of shows have in common is a focus on the social and geographical fringes of society: they’re about some very strange people doing some very strange things.  A sample:

    Swamp People – about a couple of families who hunt alligators in, where else?, the swamp.

    Ice Road Truckers – about men and women who drive big rigs in Alaska, where the roads are, yes, icy.

   Mountain Men – about several (mostly older) men who live in, yes, the mountains, where they hunt and trap and live off the land.

  Hillbilly Hand Fishin’ – about a few families of rural folk (shades of Deliverance) who, lacking fishing tackle, fish with, yes, their hands.

    American Hoggers – “America’s favorite hog-hunting family is back with more rivalries and family fireworks. Follow the Campbell family as they battle against each other and millions of wild boars rampantly taking over Texas.” [from the promo] 

And finally, my personal candidate for the strangest of the lot:

    The Saga of Shelby the Swamp Man – about a fellow named Shelby who lives in, yes, a swamp.  Shelby’s speech, always accompanied with subtitles, is unintelligible to all but a tiny minority of the viewing audience (I have a pretty good ear for dialects and creoles, and I have trouble with Shelby’s “English”).

    What I find baffling – perhaps seminar contributors can help me here – is, first of all, the degree and speed of this transformation of American television.  Until a few years ago there was nothing like these shows (at least that I’m aware of), and now, Boom!, they’re stacked up in the channel listings.  Second, and even more baffling, is the enormous disparity between the producers and consumers of these shows.  The Wikipedia entry above identifies those responsible for the programming as some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the field of global media.  These shows are not Indies, just the opposite.  And, as with other products of those corporations, the new reality TV apparently has a huge audience: the History Channel is beamed into more than 80 million households in the U. S..  Since total U. S. households number around 115 million, that’s better than two out of three.  Third, there is the novel theme of what I can only call “exotica at home”: these shows feature real folks, far more exotic than the tarted-up “natives” Mom and Dad and Buddy and Sis see performing in folkloric dances while on their cruise through the islands.  Yet these folks are 100% American.  Why, if a few of them come out of the bayou on election day, they probably vote Tea Party. 

    A couple of stray remarks in lieu of any sustained attempt at analysis:

  -- Whatever the History Channel is beaming to the masses, it definitely isn’t history.  Don’t even think about suggesting Marx here.  Hillbilly Hand Fishin’ and the laws of historical determinism?  Old Karl is spinning in his grave.  If the masses need their opiates, why not stick with tried and true programming: non-stop spectator sports, game shows, sit-coms, soaps, doctor-lawyer-cop shows?  Why go for El Mondo Weirdo? 

   -- Nor are these bizarre shows an insidious rewriting of history by the big corporations which, as we well know, own and control everything.  They are not Orwellian.  The Winston Smiths of our day are indeed rewriting history, or rather, re-broadcasting history: Megyn Kelly, Bill O’Reilly, and their cohort at FOX News are hard at it every day.  But Winston Smith would not be writing scripts for Swamp People or Ice Road Truckers; the millions who watch those shows are not having their knowledge of history subtly subverted.  I don’t know what they’re doing.  Ideas, anyone?

   -- Finally, anthropologists take note: Just when we thought we and the world were running out of true, bona-fide natives on whom to train our powerful lens of ethnography, along comes Shelby the Swamp Man.  Our hero and savior.  If you have disillusioned grad students casting around for a whiz-bang dissertation topic, look no further!  


It is truly a pleasure to be able to interact with you in this way, the best that intellectual life has to offer. In that spirit, let me challenge one statement.

 In short, we inhabit a linguistic and social world that exhibits a great deal of fragmentation.

What if we follow Zygmunt Bauman's lead and change it to

In short, we inhabit a linguistic and social world that is becoming increasingly fluid and turbulent


To me this more accurately represents our current situation that the notion that we are now dealing with fragments of something that was once whole. 

As a fellow admirer of Lévi-Strauss, I suspect that you can do something interesting with solid fragments vs bubbles in a fluid stream. I look forward to seeing what you come up with.


I have asked what it means to take religious origins of ideas seriously? Let me add a few thoughts.

First, we may not  want to take them seriously. We take seriously Newton's physics because it led to science as we know and practice it today. We do not take seriously either Newton's alchemy or his effort to calculate the age of the Earth by collating Biblical chronologies with those in other classical authors. We have good reason to believe that both have proved to be nonsense. A good case can be made that the origins of ideas have no necessary bearing on whether we should take them seriously today.

But, putting that aside, there are several scenarios in which it might make sense to take the religious origins of ideas seriously.

As an anthropologist, we can respect ideas without embracing them. Thus, in my 1995 article in american ethnologist, I write,

I start with a working assumption, nicely stated by Erving Goffman, that applies as well to the presentation of self in ritual as it does to everyday life:

"When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. They are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess, that the task he performs will have the consequences that are implicitly claimed for it, and that, in general, matters are what they appear to be [1959:17]"

I assume, then, that the healer is doing, in fact, what he seems to be doing: negotiating with demons. He is neither charlatan, preacher, nor pedagogue; nor is he an actor performing a play that he and others know to be fiction. He is what he says he is: a magician, trying to achieve a certain effect in the way he knows best, by magic.

In other words, we follow the advice of Confucius, who in The Analects says that a gentleman performs ritual as if the spirits are actually present but doesn't concern himself about the question whether they actually exist or not.

This stance will, of course, be unsatisfactory to the true believer or prospect for conversion to whom taking the religious origins of ideas seriously would mean opening oneself to what the prospect believes is The Truth and the prospect hopes might be The Truth. 

So for you, the model of the anthropologist is a confucian rather than an anglican. That is fine by me, it seems to come to much the same. by the way, the word 'origins' is yours, not mine.


The INTERNET.  That's the answer to your questions. Simple -- if you know how to analyze what happened as "self-programmers" (with 500 channels) started to "interact" with each other.

Television (and, in particular, cable television -- an industry I worked in circa 1980) has been displaced over the past 20 years by a newly dominant MEDIUM, forcing it to change because its audience has changed.  That's the "ecology" that needs to be studied.

Understanding how these *social* changes occur can be greatly helped by reading the McLuhan's 1988 "The Laws of Media" and becoming proficient in the use of their TETRAD -- examining how the effects of technological change happen in FOUR "dimensions" at once.

Newton Minow knew there was no place for actual *history* on television!  The channel, however, took advantage of the "high-minded" interests of those who license the cable operators to get into the basic lineup and have "morphed" appropriately since then.


Ah, but the ORIGINS do matter!  Newton's "engineering" was totally-of-a-piece with his Biblical speculations (as I've been trying to describe in this conversation.)

To dismiss all of what Newton did as "nonsense" opens people up to *ignorance* about their own history -- a past which is, no matter how "secular" one's own biases might be, remarkably RELIGIOUS.

Interpreting that passage in the Analects (outside of its own context) in terms of "modern" Western secular bias is, shall we say, probably not the *anthropological* thing to do, <g>

"Value-free," as we all know, is a cruel joke.  Start with your own biases!  Understand where they came from.  Understand how they have changed and why!  Otherwise, why take any of this "seriously"?



"In the beginning was the WORD."  We are, as a species, nothing without our *words* . . . !!

How we use them, of course, changes.  These changes are at the heart of our *communications* technologies.  If you don't understand those technologies, then you won't understand what we do with words and, therefore, who we are as humans.

Rats and monkeys live in a world with only "thingies" and without any "wordies."  That's why it is a *fundamental* ERROR to try to "model" humans on rat and monkey behaviors.  As best I can tell, that's why (some) cognitive psychologists appear to be attacking anthropology.

The relationship between "thingies" and "wordies" -- which only occurs to HUMANS, since we are the only mammals who live in a world of *words* -- is what we were earlier calling "metaphysics" and more recently have been calling "religion."  The humans have these concerns.  Nothing else does.

The United Nations was the product of a particular "religion" -- which just happens to be the same one that gave rise to "modern" social science.  "World Peace" is a *religious* idea.  Understand that religion (and its origins and, indeed, its failure) and, I suspect, all sorts of other matters will start to fall into place.

Ah, but the ORIGINS do matter!  Newton's "engineering" was totally-of-a-piece with his Biblical speculations (as I've been trying to describe in this conversation.)

As information, this is interesting. The question is relevance. 

To Einstein, developing the theory of relativity to account for data not adequately explained by Newtonian mechanics, the origins of Newton's theory are utterly irrelevant.  Ditto for an engineer considering Newtonian mechanics while designing a new machine.

What is at stake here appears to be an historical claim, that the religious context in which Newton developed his physics has an enduring and significant impact on powerful people today who see Newton as a model for the way the world ought to be. But, first, this claim is ambiguous. Are we being told, for example,

1. That in the sacred caves of Skull and Bones and similar organizations Newton's alchemy is taken as seriously as his physics or, more to the point, the expectation of an imminent end of things along the lines described in the Book of Revelations informs policy making. (This sounds like a novel by Robert Ludlum or Dan Brown or others of their ilk.)

2. That the Calvinist distinction between the Elect and the Damned continues to inform current thinking about the relationship between the Elites and the Masses, allowing the Elite to simply write off the miseries of the Masses as the damnation to which they are preordained. (This strikes me as a relatively plausible idea.)

3. That Newtonian physics remains a model — a deeply flawed and treacherous one — for societies of human beings who are not, in fact, simple clockwork machines. (Couldn't agree more.)

Lurking behind my thinking here is the late Joseph Levenson's classic Confucian China and Its Modern Fate: A Trilogy. Levenson draws a useful distinction between the historic (of enduring relevance to the present) and the merely historical (just what it sounds like, an antiquarian curiosity). The trilogy is devoted to tracing the usage of several key terms from Neo-Confucian philosophy from their origins to their 19th and early 20th century uses, showing how terms that were once essential components of a fully integrated world began to be used in different senses as that world fell apart, and were, by the time that Levenson was writing, largely reduced to curiosities studied by historians studying the history of Neo-Confucianism—an esoteric hobby with no particular bearing on current politics. (That was, of course, pre-Deng Xiaoping, capitalism with Chinese characteristics, and a renewed interest in Confucius as a possible complement to Marx, Lenin and Mao. It is certainly plausible that new generations may find inspiration in texts that preceding generations have written off; but that is another story.)

Mark; the reason I said 'sources' and not 'origins' is that 'origins' is loaded with ideas and images about historical determination. So, I saw John's paraphrasing as very convenient for the position he wants to take.

I took my word, 'sources', from Bergson's 'Two Sources of Religion and Morality' - his argument, which I think is a worthwhile one to think with, is that the urge to knowledge has a religious basis in a broad intuitive-aesthetic-emotional sense. He points out that religious intuition is present everywhere in our knowledge-making - when we wave our hand at the roulette wheel to 'make it' stop at the right number, that is religious intuition at work. There are 'two' big kinds - one is 'closed'; it is a religious intuition that concerns closure - closing and fortifying the categories that support our view of the world and the other is 'open' - it comes from an intuitive attempt to embrace (in a way that looks mystical) other possibilities for knowing. Any kind of knowledge, including anthropology, has an intuitive feel to it at a certain level; the resistance to thinking about religious bases for knowledge is not, then, a matter of 'rationality' it is simply an attempt to close the circle of what counts as adequate knowledge.

If we use 'origins' we become mired in rhetoric like 'some of phlogiston theory was good, the good part we kept, the bad part we jettisoned when Lavoisier 'discovered' oxygen'. If we become stuck at the grand scale historical - 'our world results from puritanism' we stick at that level of debate and rhetoric. There are ways of talking about how knowledge is generated in the present which do not require us to always look for some larger than life ethical archetype for an explanation.



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