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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John, Mark, Peter, Lurkers,

 

An Invitation to a Cultural Analysis: The Twilight Saga

 

    In early-mid January John and I exchanged views on the cultural significance of several figures in contemporary culture, focusing in particular on the phenomenal popularity of The Twilight Saga movies and books.  To summarize, I suggested that the Saga, with its love triangle of vampire boy – human girl – werewolf boy, signals and promotes an important transformation in our concept of person.  John disagreed, seeing in this latest drama a manifestation of a deep-seated interest in human-not so human alliances.  I countered that we could both be right: Our origin myths and folktales do assign a central place to hybrid, often monstrous figures of all sorts.  However, I suggested that the contemporary human mind that produces new characters in this generic pattern is – and must be – creative: the gods and demigods of ancient Greece simply do not resonate with people, particularly young people, today. 

    To orient you to the debate, here’s excerpted he-said, he-said:

 

John: Here the anthropology needs a bit of comparative perspective. Human beings who fall in love with divine or demonic beings who manifest as animals is a well-known, could be universal trope. See Leda and the Swan. . .

    What is new about a semiospace in which the heroine has affairs with vampires and werewolves, as opposed to the ones in which, at least on the sophisticated East Coast, guys in my generation told gross jokes about people doing it with donkeys, dogs, sheep or chickens? Has the semiospace changed or the context changed around it?

 Comments, January 7, 12

 

Lee: I do think you [John] are correct in pointing out the commonality between classical, Medieval, and contemporary tales that feature inhuman or quasi-human beings in close, sometimes sexual association with humans.  That commonality springs from the fact that the human psyche is conflicted at its very roots by the conundrum of kinship vs. ethnicty; it is a hugely important example of what you and I have called “elemental dilemmas.”  However, I think you are incorrect in proposing a “one size fits all,” “seen it before,” interpretation of cultural productions as diverse as Leda with Big Bird and vampire / werewolf love in Twilight.  While both may spring from some primordial fascination with Otherness, it will not do to stop there.  If cultural analysis / anthropological semiotics is to accomplish anything, it must address the particulars of a given cultural production and its impact or repercussions on its cultural context.  I cannot begin to know exactly how the Leda narrative played out in antiquity, but I’m confident its meaning was profoundly different in content and application from the Bella-Edward-Jacob drama.  Were hordes of Athenian teens and tweens gripped by the story?  When and where (to which audiences with what degree of engagement) was the narrative related?  The phenomenon of mass culture alone, the fact that millions are moved by the story, calls for a more tightly focused analysis.  An important issue here, the one I addressed in my previous Comment, is the evolving, transforming notion of person-hood . . .  I think the ménage of Bella, Edward, and Jacob operates within and helps to fabricate a conceptual scheme, or semiospace, very different from that of Leda and other traditional figures.  As students of contemporary culture, we want to know how these recent cultural productions affect ideas and behaviors associated with the mercurial notion of the “person.”  

    Comment, January 9 

 

    I would like to propose, and invite OAC members to participate in, a concerted analysis of the Twilight Saga phenomenon – from whatever perspective you find most useful or true-to-life.  What has attracted me to this phenomenon is, first of all, the vertiginous, Kafkaesque surprise I experienced that a tale of vampire-human-werewolf love, marriage, and family should acquire such tremendous popularity.  That theme is wildly different from the creature-feature movies of my childhood, in which Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula and Lon Chaney Jr.’s werewolf terrified and repulsed audiences.  Their victims didn’t have love affairs or start families with them; that would have been unthinkable.  So what has happened in the movie-going psyche and culture?  That is the question.

    I’m especially keen to see members of OAC engage this topic, because the OAC’s international flavor adds a much-needed dimension.  The Saga is not merely a series of Hollywood movies that reflect a decadent and oppressive American society / culture; it is, as we say, totally global.  Something about the tale resonates with a collective human psyche.  The final movie, Breaking Dawn, Part II, amassed box office gross receipts of $527 million internationally versus $292 million in the domestic U. S.  market.  The entire five-movie series has grossed a total of around $3.3 billion dollars, more than the GDP of a number of countries.  The whole world is watching.  Why? 

    As an intriguing topical matter, I note that in 2010 the Saga movie Eclipse topped the box office in Romania for two weeks after its release there. 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_2010_box_office_number-one_fil...

 

 It would be marvelous to have an actual ethnographic account of that movie’s Romanian reception by an OAC member on the scene.  In addition to that valuable ethnographic perspective, perhaps there are a few OAC members among the thousands of Britons who have traveled to Romania to experience first-hand a bit of the Twilight adventure. 

http://www.romania-insider.com/foreign-exchange-provider-travelex-p...

    The floor is yours, and remember, there are no admissions fees or peer reviewers! 

 

Lee, a brilliant idea. I will step back for a few days to make space for others to refresh the conversation. Just one note: the success of these movies is part of trends that also include popular literature: See, for example, Anne Rice's wildly successful vampire novels. Also, the SF and Fantasy shelf at any major bookstore is full of this stuff.

Mark,

    I was surprised by the critical tone of your response to my commentary on Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings, because I found his book brilliant – but apparently not in the way you have.  Your knowledge of Wiener and his work are much greater than mine, but there are important areas where our readings of that particular book are quite different.  Omg – could the pomos have something: could a “text” merely be the assemblage of its interpretations?  I hope not. 

    I am puzzled when you write,

Wiener wrote the book (that is to say, the 1950 edition) *against* these people -- who he had specifically named in the Preface to his 1948 "Cybernetics."  By talking about probability and entropy and contingency -- particularly in the *expurgated* "revision" that you have been reading -- he was trying to warn against what anthropology was to become.  "Imitating the gods" (by trying to make a new sort of human) is the precisely the tragedy he was talking about.

because “imitating the gods” seemed to be the course Wiener recommended.  That view is tied with what he called his “tragic vision” of humanity – at its best – in which genuine scientists strive for the truth despite the awful consequences.  Hence his eulogy to Prometheus.  Failing that, the only two avenues left open to humanity was to become part of the militarist elite or to merge with the mindless public.  Hence his stirring remark at the conclusion of the book:

    However, it will not do for the masses of our scientific population to blame their appointed and self-appointed betters for their futility, and for the dangers of the present day.  It is the great public which is demanding the utmost of secrecy for modern science in all things which may touch its military uses. This demand for secrecy is scarcely more than the wish of a sick civilization not to learn of the progress of its own disease. So long as we can continue to pretend that all is right with the world, we plug up our ears against the sound of "Ancestral voices prophesying war."   

I think that view clearly distinguishes him as how I identified him: as a cultural pathologist. 

You continue with this line of thought later, when you write:

    The problem here is that some humans want to be "as Gods" (which immediately raises the question of what it means to be human.). . .

    They are what we needed to be *saved* from (i.e. our own Original Sin, based on Eve wanting to be "as God" by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.)  Jung, Bateson and Nietzsche all tried to eat from that tree, as have many others.

     Wiener wasn't one of them.  Neither was Leibniz.  Neither am I.  How about you?

                   

    Given that the two great evils Wiener warns against are the Catholic Church and Stalin’s Communism, I doubt he would have wanted to be saved from the Original Sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge.  It strikes me that his life was dedicated to the unfettered search for knowledge – unfettered by either a totalitarian government or a doctrinaire religion.  So, I do think he wanted to be “one of them.”  As do I. 

-----------------------------

Regarding “Grammar”.

     Throughout our discussions you have championed “grammar” as a sort of ultimate standard of truth, a bedrock on which is erected other, flawed ways of attempting to comprehend the world.  In an important sense, that is an accepted definition of “grammar”: as an underlying set of rules which generate, through syntax and semantics, meaningful statements. 

    However, that conception of grammar has sustained some damage over the past few decades with the appearance of linguistic treatments of creole languages.  It now appears that “grammar” is a rather slippery creature, subject to dramatic structural changes over even a short span of time.  An impressive, pioneering book on this subject is Derek Bickerton’s Dynamics of a Creole System, which analyzes Guyanese Creole English.  He finds that the “English” grammar at work there is in fact a combination of deep structural rules drawn from both “standard” English and a few west African languages.  For example, those African elements involve a distinction in tense and aspect markers between stative and non-stative verbs.  Stative verbs, such as “to know” or “to believe” are conjugated differently from  non-stative verbs, such as “to see” or “to go.”  English grammar has no such rule.  Thus, in a fine irony, Guyanese Creole English grammar is more developed and complex than the “standard English” that generations of teachers have held up as the ultimate in rigor and clarity.  If Huon is still around, perhaps he might provide related material from Jamaican Creole English. 

    So, it appears that “grammar” is part of the flow, of the moving and mixing that characterizes human populations and human cultures.  I don’t think there is any Archimedean lever out there.  

 

Lee,

You have read to the end of The Human Use of Human Beings. My attention diverted in other directions, I am still plodding through the middle. On page 57 of the 1954 edition, I find the following paragraph,

Here the reader may say: "Well, we already know that the ant as an individual is not very intelligent, so why all this fuss about explaining why it cannot be intelligent?" The answer is that Cybernetics takes the view that the structure of the machine or of the organism is an index of the performance that can be expected from it*. The fact that the mechanical rigidity of the insect is such as to limit its intelligence while the mechanical fluidity of the human being provides for his almost indefinite intellectual expansion is highly relevant to the point of view of this book. Theoretically, if we could build a machine whose mechanical structure duplicated human physiology, then we could have a machine whose intellectual capacities would duplicate those of human beings.**

*emphasis added in the original

** emphasis added in the reading

Is there anything in what you have read to suggest that when Wiener writes "Theoretically" here, he is laying the groundwork for a "practically impossible" argument? I can envision this possibility, given his later use of the telephone switching system example, where mechanical switches that require a separate line for every possible pair of callers and receivers is, indeed, hugely uneconomical. He was not, of course, aware of the digital switches and packet switching technologies used in the Internet because they had not yet been invented when he was writing. 

Lee:

Thanks!  I was hoping that my "work" hereabouts was coming to an end (whew, after 200+ posts) and, by misconstruing nearly everything I have said, you have finally confirmed that indeed it is!

1) Totalitarianism:  Not even on Wiener's Top 10 list.  What he was worried about was *militarized* ANTHROPOLOGY, and specifically Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, not Stalin.  He refused to work with them (by name), not him.  Why?  He was accused of being a Soviet agent because the only other people who were warning about the impact of cybernetics were the Stalinists.  In 1954, they termed cybernetics a "reactionary pseudo-science" and what they were talking about was Bateson (and anthropology etc), not Wiener.  And, it turns out they were right.

2) Grammar:  It's not a "conception" (which is the domain of dialectics) but rather a "perception."  When considered dialectically, of course it would sustain "some damage."  In fact, it was DOA.  It's the forest, not the trees.  Its the source of our GESTALT, the "ground" of our experience.  It's where the *premises* come from, which is to say, neither our "data collection" nor the "logical" conclusions.  Not rules (or "nominalist" name games.).  Reality.  Full-blown, fully-engaged reality. And, that's NOT what "mescaline" reveals.  Not even close.

3) Formal Cause:  You had a choice.  You faced your "Yogi moment" and you took your "fork in the road."  You could either revert to "content analysis" or you could have tiptoed into media "structure,"  As I noted, the prime example of formal causality is "The medium is the message."  You could have tried to understand the medium that produced the "Twilight Saga" or you could have stuck to the familiar and talked about the vampires.  You have have made your choice.  Warm and comfortable, right?  No threats on the horizon (you hope).

4) Knowledge: There is nothing that is more "fettered" than knowledge.  To imagine that anyone could have an "unfettered search for knowledge" is, of course, ridiculous -- bordering on the Edenic delusion of being "God-like."  As you recall, that didn't end very well.  Organizing "ignorance," as Cusa put it, is more likely.  Your "semiospace" is a phenomenal "fetter."  Have you promoted this notion because you are afraid of being part of one?  You must admit that you have a problem with "authority."  Your reaction to the refusal to publish your paper is, you must admit, a reflection of your own "issues."  That TREE was all about the knowledge of *GOOD* and *EVIL* -- which is a knowledge that mankind, being merely human, cannot have.  Wiener didn't have "two great evils," you do!  As a result, you are reduced to "con-forming" (i.e. dialectical) not "in-forming" (i.e. grammarian.)

5) Humanity: Like Nietzsche (and John), you don't much like them.  You'd prefer to think about how to "replace" them with something else (when you aren't "seducing them of their affections"). You are about to get your wish!  Genetic engineering is, as you know, making remarkable breakthroughs.  Which is why you're so fascinated with paleontology, or "how we became human."  Somewhere, outside the reach of the law, as with Dr. Moreau on his Island (along with H.G. Wells' "godson" Aldous Huxley?), someone is already making not-quite-humans-anymore.  When I find him, I'll forward your email. <g>

My work at OAC is finished (and my MIT/IEEE paper on Wiener's battle with the Batesons is nearly written, thanks, once again) . . . 

P.S. When Wiener was talking about "intellectual capacities" he was talking about that part of the human that could be mimicked by "dialectical" rules.  Fortunately, Wiener understood, largely through his Christian "upbringing" -- saturated with Leibniz and Tolstoy, as it was -- that this wasn't the most important part of what it means to be human.  We also have grammar -- which is why the machines will lose in the end, just as Wiener told my father they would!

Mark, before you go please tell us how the following statements, which on their face would appear as offensive to J. Edgar Hoover as to the Pope, came to appear on pages 103-103 of _The Human Use of Human Beings_

"The mental identity necessary for the Church's view of the individuality of the soul certainly does not exist in any absolute sense that would be acceptable to the Church.

"To recapitulate the individuality of the body is that of a flame rather than that of a stone, of a form rather than a bit of substance. This form can be transmitted, modified, or duplicated, although at present we know only how to duplicate it over a short distance....

"There is no absolute distinction between the types of transmission which we can use for sending a telegram from country to country and the types of transmission which at least are theoretically possible for transmitting a living organism such as a human being."

Thanks again for the pointer to this book. If you can suggest other works that offer a different perspective on his thought, please do.

Mark, Lee, and John,

I want to encourage you to keep the conversation going, notwithstanding differences in your interpretations of Wiener, grammar, and other matters. As John said awhile back (I’m paraphrasing here), you each bring different knowledge bases and perspectives to the table—and therein lies the enlightenment. I would add that it’s worth keeping the conversation going so you can maintain the World Record for the Longest, Most Probing, Most Far-Ranging, and Most Erudite Discussion ever carried out on a website! Seriously, this conversation has been phenomenal, and I’d hate to see it end.

I also hope others will take up Lee’s call for study of the Twilight Saga series, which does seem to cry out for analysis (many of them, actually). As small steps in that direction, I’ll throw out a couple suggestions:

Gender/Sexuality: Clearly contemporary dilemmas/tensions over gender and sexuality are at play here, which is why Lee notes that the werewolves of his childhood didn’t start families with their victims.

Fall Rituals: If we wanted to examine the interplay of myth and ritual (as Lee did in Death and the Dream, for example), we should consider “No Shave November,” in which many American males sport their inner werewolf. At the risk of falling prey to gender stereotyping (a real risk in these cases) but needing a rough starting place for such an analysis, I’ll just suggest that there’s something going on here that involves issues of male-female, human-animal, life-death. To be more specific and blunt, it seems those hairy faces are a male revolt at the more female-inflected aspects of Thanksgiving and Christmas (such as the ritual gift-giving, which studies show is still carried out more often by females than males, despite all the many and myriad gender-role changes going on).

This back-and-forth actually goes back to Halloween, which kicks off a tug of war over the pumpkin: carved and death-like outside the house for Halloween, then cooked, eaten, domesticated, and life-giving as Thanksgiving’s pumpkin pie, eaten inside the warm house, a sort of cannibalistic ritual of sacrifice in which we eat the brains/innards of poor Jack, but the great thing is that almost nobody impolitely points out the cannibalistic undertones or gender tensions.

The best analysis I’ve ever seen of this pumpkin symbolism is Tad Tuleja’s essay “Pumpkins,” especially the section titled “The Signifying Pumpkin,” where he analyzes Nature-Culture, Raw-Cooked, Life-Death symbolism in Halloween and Thanksgiving. Tad’s analysis could dovetail nicely with some of the discussion here of Lance and werewolves, especially since, like Lee,Tad also improves on Levi-Strauss by showing that these binaries aren’t just “logical” contradictions; they’re emotional ambivalences based in real social relations (his essay appears in Rooted in America, edited by Wilson and Gillespie, 1999).

So I agree werewolves are not just arbitrary pop phenomena, and would love to hear other thoughts on the matter.

(By the way, Lee, I still don’t know why symbols have to stand for anything; that’s just the way I’ve always heard that word used, but I certainly agree that, whatever word we use, symbols can and often do simply point to inchoate experience.)

WHR Rivers: OK, if we really want to pursue symbolic analysis to its farthest ends, to see which cultural tensions/dilemmas are truly compelling and disturbing to real individuals at any given time, we should do what Rivers did long ago with Owens, Sassoon, and others—look at what people are dreaming about at night. As Nietzsche said somewhere: “How do I feel about them? I can’t say—I’ve never dreamt about them.” (Something like that—can’t recall the exact wording.) Yes, now I sound like I’m dreaming myself. How dare anthro ever break down the wall with “psychology”? We want thick description, but not that thick!

But while we’re dreaming and breaking down walls, we could even combine Rivers-style intensive, qualitative research with basic quantitative analysis of patterns found in large dream databases, to get some broad brushstrokes and quick indicators that we’re on the right track. For example, I read that reports of dreaming in color have risen dramatically in the same decades when we moved from B&W to color movies. So how have dreams about animals or chasing or spatial relations changed over time, and could those patterns serve as another piece of the puzzle, even as "evidence"?  

I know, none of this is likely to go over well in an anthro that must vigorously defend a specific concept of itself in these troubling times of academic turf wars and disappearing tenure lines (hence some anthros' desperately "more ethnographic than thou" stance), but I do think Rivers fits in here, and could be a huge help on a lot of levels. Book titles alone are suggestive: Conflict and Dream (Rivers) and American Dreamtime (Drummond).

I’m also inspired by something Keith said about Rivers back on September 13:

I see Bateson as the direct successor of WHR Rivers, the great anthropologist and psychologist who was sidelined out of the genealogy of British social anthropology by the epigones of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. (See The Cambridge Torres Strait Expedition and British social anthropology). The interesting thing about Benedict, Mead and Bateson in their prime is that, like Boas, Rivers and Mauss (the real founders of anthropology in their national traditions), they were deeply engaged in trying to shape public awareness and to make a difference where it counts.

Reading that comment, I can’t help but fantasize where we’d be today if Rivers (and Bateson) had shaped modern anthro more than Malinowski and R-B.

Liking and Disliking Humanity: Finally, I want to respond to this recent comment that Mark directed at Lee:

Humanity: Like Nietzsche (and John), you don't much like them.  You'd prefer to think about how to "replace" them with something else (when you aren't "seducing them of their affections").

Mark, While I think I can see where you’re getting this view, I also think it’s not entirely fair. It’s true that Lee’s Lance essay is quite critical of American mass society, as Lee himself openly acknowledged in his comments about being a Nietzschean pathologist, and as John flagged early on in his comments about “doom.” However, that one essay gives an incomplete picture. If you look at Lee’s analyses in American Dreamtime and elsewhere, or Lee’s many jokes and gentle, fun-loving comments over these past months, you see (or at least I do) that Lee is infused with a yes-saying, fond regard for others and their cultural productions. I mean, would Nietzsche have declared that he loves Bond movies?!

I’m actually guessing that you and Lee have a lot in common in this regard—hence your own frequent use of <g> and exclamation points. Those things aren’t trivial, either, especially in a flat medium like this—the tone and jokes give us a needed glimpse of someone’s entire outlook on life. At least that’s the way I’m reading them, in the absence of other clues.

So how’s that for some focus on the medium? <g>

Either way, it’s been an amazing conversation, thanks in large part to your contributions, and I’m glad to hear your Bateson paper is ready to go.

As I’ve said before: keep this party going!

Peter, thank you for stepping up and asking us to continue the conversation. It has been great fun. We are, however, as I see it, at a crux. We have held out far longer than most online conversations last. We have not, however, escaped the usual process in which the number of participants dwindle, positions harden, and one or more of the regulars decides enough is enough, reducing the critical mass below the level required to sustain activity.

Lee has take an important step, suggesting a joint project, which, if it flies, will bring new life to the conversation. Mark appears to be gone. What, then, of me? To continue in any serious way I will have to read the Twilight novels, watch the Twilight movies, and spend additional time thinking about their details. Is this the best way to spend more than the self-indulgent half hour to an hour that I currently spend here? I am tempted, but I need to be persuaded. My life is already a midden of projects in various states of disarray,waiting for my interest to return to them, and I still have the business that provides my livelihood. We seem to be enjoying a surge of profitable work to do. Much as I love OAC and admire Lee's work, that has to come first.

So what I am proposing is that we switch roles. You do the heavy lifting of working with Lee on the Twilight Saga, and I will tag along, kibitzing when I have questions to ask. Will that work for you?

John,

Sure, that’s more than fair, especially since you have already done so much heavy lifting yourself—opening up new angles, taking others seriously, questioning, bringing it back to specific anthro texts. If it weren’t for you, the conversation wouldn’t have gotten as far as it did, so you certainly deserve to take a breather, if you feel the need. And I can understand what you’re saying—keeping one’s day job does have advantages!

I myself have that constraint as well (tomorrow, for example, I’m collecting drafts of senior theses to grade, taking a guest speaker around campus, and so on), and we share another constraint: I’m also going to have to catch up on the Twilight films to be able to keep up with this analysis, let alone have something useful to contribute.

So I think this is a perfect time for others to jump in as well, and maybe to slow the pace down a bit. But this is not the end. We’re just regenerating and gearing up for the sequel! And I hope that you will continue to contribute as we enter this next phase.

Thanks again for helping make this such an amazing conversation. Onward (even if slowly).

Mark,

    Glad to be of service, if only as a foil. 

     I – and I’m sure other discussants here – would certainly be interested to read your Wiener-Bateson essay.  From what you’ve written about Wiener’s conflicts with the FBI, the essay could be a valuable piece of recent intellectual history. 

    Regarding the “grammar” and “environment” you have emphasized throughout our discussions (after your rejecting the term I won’t call them “concepts” and can’t bring myself to call them precepts), I do think it is necessary to explicate them in one of two ways.  When you write about “grammar” that:

It's the forest, not the trees.  Its the source of our GESTALT, the "ground" of our experience.  It's where the *premises* come from, which is to say, neither our "data collection" nor the "logical" conclusions.  Not rules (or "nominalist" name games.).  Reality.  Full-blown, fully-engaged reality.

that’s really a statement of faith, which is one way to go.  The forest, the gestalt, the ground are all metaphors for an idea that is basically ineffable, that defies discursive, rational examination.  “Grammar” as you use it seems kin to other notions of all-pervading but unidentifiable entities such as the cosmic “ether,” “phlogiston,” the Vedic “atman,” and a traditionally religious “spirit.”  And if “grammar” or “environment” are indescribable in that way, then one should certainly not attempt a description.  Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.

    The other way to go would be to pursue your description of grammar as the “ground” of our experience, where “premises” come from.  That’s not inconsistent with the common usage of the term as denoting a deep-seated, underlying structure of things.  For language, Chomskyian transformational grammar follows that course, as does Lévi-Strauss’ pseudo-logical/mathematical treatment of myth.  But since you explicitly reject the notion that “grammar” is a set of rules, I doubt you would ally yourself with those thinkers. 

    That leaves the course of regarding “grammar” (and “environment”) as a statement of faith.  As a take it or leave it sort of thing.    

    I think that approach is unfortunate, because your basic point about a new digital environment fundamentally transforming human experience is an excellent one.  But what does one do about it?  Where does one go from there?  If “the medium is the message,” as you profess throughout our discussions, then what is the medium?  If one isn’t content simply to affirm and reaffirm that that is the case, then how does one go about investigating the nature / structure of “the medium”?  The one path open to the cultural anthropologist here is to examine the tangible productions of that medium in order to try to figure out how it’s put together.  Admittedly, a typically American approach:  How does it work?  What does it do?  Where is it going?  That’s what cultural analysis is about: taking a cultural production which is important enough to attract a great deal of interest (the lowly Twilight Saga, for example), and trying to get at the source of its appeal – and thereby discovering something (hopefully) important about the culture that created it.  If we truly want to get at the nature of  “the medium,” that’s what will be required.  Otherwise, it remains a statement of faith, of which we cannot speak. 

    You’ve been critical of the figure of Giordano Bruno, and of my positive remarks about him.  I’d like to suggest that Bruno has a good deal in common with a figure about whom you’re not at all critical: Norbert Wiener.  It may be true, as you claim, that Bruno had a political agenda that put him at odds with the Italian Catholic hierarchy of the late 16th century.  I don’t know.  What is true is that the Articles of Inquisition drawn up against him were about his deviations from Christian dogma, and in particular his refusal to repudiate his claim of the existence of other worlds.  So, he was both a (possibly) political and an intellectual figure. 

    In your account of Wiener you emphasize his opposition to the Cold War militarization of science and to McCarthy-era political oppression.  You gloss over Wiener’s early contribution to the war effort: his development of homeostatic programs for aiming anti-aircraft guns doubtlessly saved the lives of many people.  In that work, Wiener acted as a true patriot-scientist.  His work also resulted directly in the deaths of numerous enemy airmen.  He had blood on his hands; Bruno probably did not (but, again, I don’t know).  At any rate, like Bruno (?) he was politically involved.  When, after the war, he refused to do further military research, he was ostracized by his colleagues and denied research support.  Like Bruno, he made original, important contributions to the science of his time, despite working under a cloud.  There the resemblance ends.  Although ostracized, Wiener remained a full professor at M. I. T. until his retirement – not a particularly onerous punishment.  Bruno was imprisoned for seven years by the Inquisition and, with Cardinal Robert Bellarmine as his principal judge, burned at the stake.  He paid a somewhat higher price than Wiener for his insubordination to the powers-that-be.   

    The lack of resemblance goes further.  McCarthy, symbol of the government that persecuted Wiener, made the mistake of taking on the U. S. Army and soon fell into political disgrace; he experienced ostracism first-hand. 

    And Cardinal Bellarmine, Bruno’s Inquisitor?  He continued to rise in the Church hierarchy throughout his life.  Centuries after his order condemning a brilliant scientist to a horrible death, Bellarmine was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930. 

    Making Bellarmine a saint was a repugnant, unforgivable act that has forever stained the fabric of humanity.  It would be like awarding the Nobel Prize in Medicine to Josef Mengele. 

    Incidentally, it’s not true that I “don’t much like” humanity, but I do hate what certain humans do to humanity.  Bellarmine, for example. 

 

John, Peter, Lurkers,

    Thanks very much for your positive response to my proposal to conduct a cultural analysis of the Twilight Saga on OAC.  You’ve started things off in high gear, with several productive ideas and references to the “professional literature” – including the Anne Rice novels and Tad Tuleja’s essay, “Pumpkins.” 

    It would, indeed, be a good idea for us to take some time to research the corpus of books and movies with the aim of putting together analytical sketches of the Twilight phenomenon.  At the same time, however, I’d like to suggest that we augment the usual academic protocol of  [review of the literature > original research > writing up results] in an intriguing way:  We might use the OAC forum as an ethnographic method in its own right.  Rather than say to the thousands of OAC members, “Ok, if you’re interested in participating in this study, then go read some or all the books and watch some or all the movies – make yourself an expert on the subject – then painstakingly compose an erudite essay analyzing the cultural significance of the Saga,” which would probably stop us in our tracks before we got started, let’s consider something else as well.

   Here’s a rough outline of my idea.  Since the Saga is a global phenomenon, there’s a good chance that many OAC members know about it.  Maybe they’ve not read one of the books or seen one of the movies, but they’ve read news articles about them or perhaps seen TV spots or movie previews.  Maybe they’ve thought about that, wondered about the popularity of the Saga.  What did they think about it on that basis?  Perhaps they were intrigued.  Perhaps they were repulsed by the shallowness of this pop culture phenom.  Perhaps they found the whole vampire-werewolf thing morbid and unrelated to the real problems of the real world.  Whatever.  Put those thoughts together in note form and post it on the forum.  Those reactions / opinions, spread before everyone interested in dropping in on the discussion, will serve as ethnographic material for further reflection by anyone interested in reflecting. 

    And here’s an important further step.  If an OAC member, who by definition has an anthropological inquisitiveness, has begun to wonder about all the fuss and bother over Saga, perhaps he or she has a friend or family member who is a fan, who has seen two or three of the movies, maybe read one of the books.  That is a situation perfectly suited for the practice of ethnography.  The OACer has a chat with said fan, asking what he or she liked about the movie/book, which was a favorite character, which he or she identified with, what he or she thought about the development of the story, about the concluding episode of the hybrid human-vampire family.  Those with a social media bent might sample and discuss Facebook and Tweeter comments on Saga.  Hey, we’ll be doing “audience reception studies”!  When have I ever been accused of that? 

    Life keeps overtaking fantasy.  As I was thinking about my proposal to do a cultural analysis of Saga on OAC, along came, yep, the latest Breaking News on cable TV: the mystery of Malaysia Air Flight 370.  As I write, the DigitalGlobe website has begun a “crowdsourcing” search for the stricken plane: hundreds of thousands of Websters have deluged the site, crashing it for a time, eager to participate in finding the plane.  I’m suggesting we “crowdsource” Saga, in search of its cultural significance (if any – the jury has not even convened). 

    If we get a flow – even a trickle, nothing like the hordes who’ve turned out to search for the missing plane – then we will soon compile a substantial set of ethnographic notes, which anyone interested can then use to formulate further ideas about the Saga corpus. 

    The activities of posting opinions and composing notes or mini-ethnographies of fans’ reactions can go on side-by-side with developed pieces of analysis by anyone who cares to write.  I think we’ve got a good start already, that we’ve seeded the clouds of crowdsourcing, just with my remarks in earlier Comments and with John’s and Peter’s perceptive observations.  The important thing at this point is that, if you’re interested in pursuing the whole Saga phenom from an anthropological perspective, just jump in and post something.  Remember, nobody’s going to grade your contribution, there’s no entrance requirement, it won’t reflect on your promotion or tenure review (we hope!), and you don’t have to plow through an extensive set of books /  movies before writing a word.  Just give it a try.  Who knows, it might be fun – a word not much spoken in academe, and would anyway give you an opportunity to vent on a subject that’s a little more part of the world than, oh say, “the ontological turn.”  

Lee,

Great idea. Have you already had a look at the Wikipedia entry, which is very large and has lots of links to other sources? It would be particularly interesting if, when reading the books, watching the films, and talking with family or friends, we kept our eyes and ears open for information not already compiled here.

From this one source, however, it is already clear to me that the Twilight Saga is only one popular take on human-vampire relations. The author Stephenie Meyer is quoted as saying,

 it's so not like the other vampire books out there–Anne Rice's and the few that I've read. It isn't that kind of dark and dreary and blood-thirsty world. Then when you say, 'It's set in high school,' a lot of people immediately put it in another pool. It's easy to pigeonhole with different descriptions.[14]

If one obvious comparison is with the "dark, dreary and blood-thirsty world" of the Anne Rice novels (which have also sold tens of millions of copies), the "set in high school" points to another: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was enormously popular on TV. At least these two additional series will need to be considered in any adequate analysis of the semiospace in which they are set.

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