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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Coming at social arrangements from  different directions, the two thinkers arrive at a very similar conclusion:  The human mind and the society / culture it creates are not rational entities.    We should not pretend that they are.  

Lee, except for Mark, who here would disagree with you? Let us accept that conclusion as premise. What next? Do we simply agree that there is no further understanding to be had and shut down the discussion?

Wow, Mark, what brought that on? The fantasy-reality tension is everywhere, in our culture and in every culture. The "What is real?" question drives much of the creative tension in our lives. Every news program, newspaper issue, political manifesto, State of the Union, speech on the floor of Congress has references not only to the nitty-gritty of the real world but to some analogy based in our fantasy worlds: movies, tv, novels, amusement parks, classical mythology. Even the fact that I want to call you a "troll" for blasting our conversation here is based in a fairy tale! Have you ever gone through a day without someone referencing Harry Potter? I never have, because I pay attention to such comments and why people use them. We are not delusional, we are humans and humans base much of what they do not in economic gain or political maneuvering but in the imagination and in creativity and in fantasy and speculative worlds.

Oh, and, get a grip: you do NOT want to imagine me rolling around naked in anything! That could ruin your lust for fantasy in a nanosecond!!!

[Reply #1035]

Louise:

LUST is exactly the *correct* term for what TELEVISION tries to promote in the population, since it is a necessary component in a "consumer" economy.  Much as foreseen by Bernard de Mandeville 300+ years ago.

http://www.amazon.com/Fable-Bees-Private-Publick-Benefits/dp/086597...

For all of our lives, "popular culture" has been about PRIVATE VICE and, as a result, we are now living with a colossal lack of VIRTUE -- starting with the Cardinal Virtues of Courage, Wisdom, Restraint and Justice -- as delivered daily by TELEVISION (as it dies in a fit of *cultural* agony) . . . !!

No, the people in my life don't refer to Harry Potter every day.  They have more "important" things to worry about.  I live in a (mostly) Hispanic "working-class" neighborhood and the people I see on the bus or in the streets spent most of their time using digital technology to *connect* with their families and friends (dealing with *real* life issues), not living in a *fantasy* world.

Lee has gone "beyond good and evil."  So, has the world in which he lives (i.e. on television.)   (As has John, since that's a prerequisite of the advertising world.)  But that's NOT how most people live and its a FANTASY to imagine otherwise . . . !!

Mark Stahlman
Jersey City Heights

So I am standing in a long line at the post office and thinking about how fantasy infuses (love that word) reality and lo and behold, I see the featured stamps of the month: a circus, Charlton Heston, and ...Harry Potter. All, of course, elements of the fantasy world as well as the worlds of business and economics. Charlton Heston always conjures up both Soylent Green for me, and his appearance in Bowling for Columbine as an NRA representative (the big business of guns). He also starred in The Greatest Show on Earth, a 1952 movie about the clash of fantasy and reality that I adored as a kid. This is the brilliant interaction of fantasy and reality: fantasy helps you think about reality in different ways.

I get in the car and a news story comes on. A family in New Jersey has an encounter with a great white shark over the weekend and the news announcers says... (wait for it...), "They're gonna need a bigger boat" (Jaws reference for anyone not from planet earth). Why? Because she is dumb? No, because the entire story of Jaws (as Lee knows) can now inform and infuse this  mundane story of stupid people from New Jersey farting around with a Great White.

Don't pull the working class card on me, Mark. In my working class upbringing, fantasy was important, not as an escape, but as a way to see alternative worlds, possible worlds, opportunities. There is nothing more important than imagining something different. I never became Penny from Sky King, riding horses and flying, but I left my working class world with a sense of possibilities, having seen her gumption and bravery. I became the first person in my large, extended family to get a college degree and the only one, ever, to get PhD. Nothing was more important to that journey than Penny, or Flash Gordon's gal-pal Dale Arden, or Nikki in The Thing from Another World, or Jane Eyre which I read a million times in a tattered copy that I still cherish.

I love you, Penny, Jane, Dale, NIkki. Thanks for the fueling of my imagination. Fly high. Don't let reality be your only compass.

Penny from Sky King. Isn't she gorgeous!

Dale Arden with Flash Gordon

Nikki with Captain Hendry from The Thing. Passing time at an arctic research station.

Louise:  Don't pull that FANTASY card on me (like I said, you like to get naked and roll around in it) . . . !! <g>

Louise, great images. Brought back a lot of memories. For me it was Matt Dillon, Paladin, a whole string of knights of the West, a.k.a., honourable gunfighters. Then the strong jawed heroes in science fiction stories in Astounding (later Analog)The one's who always had a trick or an unexpected bit of technology up their sleeves. Until, that is, I read Poul Anderson's The Man Who Counts, in which an engineer of exactly that type, a beautiful woman, and a sleazy-looking businessman described in a way that makes him sound like a rich burgher in a Rembrandt crash on a planet and to be rescued have to make it half way round the planet through warring tribes of bat like aliens who live on giant rafts on an endless see. The engineer comes through with all sorts of inventions that turn the tribe our refugees affiliate with into the local superpower, while the sleazy looking businessman seems to do nothing but hang around and schmooze with the elders. At the end of the story, he is the one who gets the girl. He, with his diplomatic skills, was the real "man who counts." 

Fantasy? You bet. A life-shaping lesson? Absolutely.

Louise, I find myself looking at the image of Penny from Sky King and comparing with the image of Cameron from Halt & Catch Fire. I wonder how you would describe the differences between these two characters.

Here is just a visual reaction: Penny looks like she has the whole world ahead of her, like there are endless possibilities and fun adventure in her future.  Your character looks like she is facing the end of the world, like she is about to go out and slaughter zombies because that is the current threat! I don't know the show she is on but it has to do with computers, right?

John McCreery said:

Louise, I find myself looking at the image of Penny from Sky King and comparing with the image of Cameron from Halt & Catch Fire. I wonder how you would describe the differences between these two characters.

Thanks, John, for supporting the effects of fantasy.

John McCreery said:

Louise, great images. Brought back a lot of memories. For me it was Matt Dillon, Paladin, a whole string of knights of the West, a.k.a., honourable gunfighters. Then the strong jawed heroes in science fiction stories in Astounding (later Analog)The one's who always had a trick or an unexpected bit of technology up their sleeves. Until, that is, I read Poul Anderson's The Man Who Counts, in which an engineer of exactly that type, a beautiful woman, and a sleazy-looking businessman described in a way that makes him sound like a rich burgher in a Rembrandt crash on a planet and to be rescued have to make it half way round the planet through warring tribes of bat like aliens who live on giant rafts on an endless see. The engineer comes through with all sorts of inventions that turn the tribe our refugees affiliate with into the local superpower, while the sleazy looking businessman seems to do nothing but hang around and schmooze with the elders. At the end of the story, he is the one who gets the girl. He, with his diplomatic skills, was the real "man who counts." 

Fantasy? You bet. A life-shaping lesson? Absolutely.

Louise, my pleasure. Stands to reason, doesn't it? Given that H.sapiens is the only species on Earth with the ability to communicate freely using symbols (in C. S. Pierce's sense, neither icons nor indices), we are born to imagine, to dream, to fantasize. Fantasy has always shaped who we are as human beings. The media do affect how we fantasize; watching True Blood is not the same experience as sitting around a campfire listening to ghost stories. Being able to flip the channel and choose to watch Miss Marple instead of True Blood—having hundreds of channels to choose from instead of just a handful of national broadcast networks—also makes a huge difference in how our viewing experience is fragmented. But dig down to the primordial layer that Lee likes to talk about — fantasy is us.

P.S. I don't know any more about Cameron from Halt & Catch Fire than you do. I, too, have never seen the series. I saw the image in the article on "badass" women characters since the 1980s to which I pointed Lee at few messages above. What struck me as interesting is that both Peggy and Cameron are described by women who write about them as beautiful, and both are explicitly associated with technologies that were relatively new and still exciting at the time their shows appeared. Yet Peggy does seem to embody a the-future-is-going-to-be-great optimism that is totally missing in Cameron who embodies a dystopian, the-future-is-going-to-be-shit-and-we-have-to-be-tough-to-survive pessimism that seems the new normal these days. I wonder if this is just my reading based on my preconceptions. What do you think?

All,

   The concluding remark of my last Comment:

Coming at social arrangements from  different directions, the two thinkers [Frank and Freud] arrive at a very similar conclusion:  The human mind and the society / culture it creates are not rational entities.    We should not pretend that they are.

. . . has sparked some debate:

 

Mark:  Wrong.  That's exactly how we got into this mess . . . !!

FANTASY = TELEVISION.  But television is NO LONGER "center-stage."  So, neither is *fantasy* . . . !! 


Louise:  Wow, Mark, what brought that on? The fantasy-reality tension is everywhere, in our culture and in every culture. The "What is real?" question drives much of the creative tension in our lives. Every news program, newspaper issue, political manifesto, State of the Union, speech on the floor of Congress has references not only to the nitty-gritty of the real world but to some analogy based in our fantasy worlds: movies, tv, novels, amusement parks, classical mythology.   

 

John:  Lee, except for Mark, who here would disagree with you? Let us accept that conclusion as premise. What next? Do we simply agree that there is no further progress to be made and shut down the discussion

 

    Let me begin with John’s question, What next?, which I find odd.  Since Lévi-Strauss’ early work (“The Structural Study of Myth,” “The Sorcerer and His Magic”) the best anthropological work on myth has indeed accepted as a premise that the material represents imaginative constructions (narratives, as Louise notes) which are anything but rational, coherent accounts of social relations.  I emphasize the point, not to parade a new idea, but because the contrary view, that is, that society / culture is a coherent whole informs both the work of many anthropologists and of social commentators in general.  As I’ve discussed at length in my Aliens essay, it is a common assumption that symbols carry meaning in a straightforward, explicative way, and yet that assumption is mistaken.   The rationality of the social world has long been a tenet of the discipline of anthropology: the introductory textbooks I knew and didn’t love assured baby anthros that culture is learned, shared, and adaptive.  That claim could well be called anthropology’s mantra.  Is it still?  I really don’t know.  Perhaps Louise, who is a bona fide academic, has sampled some of the current crop of those glossy, overpriced productions and could let us know.  Except for the first term of the mantra – and even there how culture is “learned” is a wide open question – the homily is less than worthless.  Our wars and prisons demonstrate the extent to which culture is “shared,” while the real prospect of global war and environmental collapse testify to its “adaptive” nature.  So when John asks who would disagree with me, outside our little group I think there are many.  The whole purpose of cultural anthropology as I see it is to chronicle and analyze the unreason of human existence, its fascinating and fateful contingency.  In that pursuit, as I note, the inseparable pair Fantasy-Reality indeed occupies center stage. 

    Mark obviously disagrees.  If we “got into this mess” by pursuing the idea that fantasy and reality are inseparably linked, then it remains to demonstrate how reality is somehow a thing apart.  Here I think it likely that Mark would refer us to a principle of formal causality which he finds immanent in existence.  Since his criticism is directed at my suggestion that there is no “system” or “formal causality” to be found in a Whac-a-Mole world, it remains for him to identify the inherent rationality pervading contemporary society.  And, please, in some detail – more fill, less shrill. 

    Louise, having called our attention to the critical importance of narrative in a world of fantasy-reality, points the way to a distinguishing feature of narrative that is key to everything we’ve discussed: mystery and surprise.  Any narrative that manages to grip us, whether classical myth or comic book, does so because it offers a puzzle, and one not readily solved.  It creates a need to know, to find out.  It makes us wonder.  And the outcome must be something unexpected, a surprise (a quality Peter Wogan has emphasized here).  Mystery has been a prominent element of culture everywhere; in the West the Eleusinian Mysteries which Mark has discussed on several occasions are at the fountainhead of our civilization, followed centuries later by the Mysteries of the Church.  From those august examples I would claim it is a direct line to the whodunits that populate our books, movies, TV.  Why must be wonder?  [And do you too perhaps wonder, wonder, wonder who wrote the book of Love?]  

    Finally, regarding my proposal to address the bizarre, upside-down nature of American ideology in major movies and political life – any ideas?  

 

 Finally, regarding my proposal to address the bizarre, upside-down nature of American ideology in major movies and political life – any ideas?  

Speaking as anthropologists who still remember our professional training we might observe that cultures the world over are filled with bizarre, upside-down things. Symbols are commonly seen as funny, fascinating, or deserving of religious awe because they invert the expectations implicit in everyday norms. Rabbits do not normally deliver Easter eggs, or wear waistcoats and carry pocket watches and pop down rabbit holes that open into magical kingdoms, or say, "What's up, Doc?" in animated cartoons. An almighty God who lets Himself get hung on a cross is a pretty weird character. Inversion of the everyday is the basic stuff of all sorts of rituals that take place in liminal moments betwixt-and-between the expectations of everyday status and role. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Edmund Leach, Vic Turner, Max Gluckman, Mary Douglas....their innumerable epigones; there are whole libraries about this stuff. That history is driven by contradiction is a given for Hegel, Marx, Stalin, Mao. In the New World it was Emerson who wrote, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

John McCreery has spent several hours in the last few days translating adoring essays about shunga, Japanese erotic images that were very popular in Edo, though periodically banned by Shoguns having fits of Confucian morality, then taboo for most of the century that followed the Meiji Restoration of 1868, since Westerners with Victorian morals found them obscene and not the sort of thing that ought to be allowed in a proper, modern society. Famous for the exaggerated, gigantic size of the genitalia involved in sex acts, they depict sex between all sorts of people and animals. If you think Bella was weird for her chaste titillation with vampires and werewolves, what about the woman depicted in perhaps the most famous shunga of all, in a series called "The Dreams of a Fisherman's Wife"?

The question is, given the richness of the resources for thinking about the question that Lee poses, can we please get beyond poses that come down to, "Shocking, absolutely shocking"? Or, "Gee whiz, it's us and them, animals and tools, life and death..." Damned straight it is, and a lot of other stuff, too. Can we get around to that, or must we confine ourselves to what we already know and pissing and moaning about it?

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