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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Hi all

I am so hopelessly behind in replying to all the thoughts that my first temptation was to chuck it an disappear. But it is lonely out there in the universe of centers and peripheries so I will simply add some more thoughts, however off tack they seem.

So first, since everyone is being confession about their religions, I will state that I am s firm believer in "clear writing," the idea that we don't need to create neologisms to talk about ideas we want to share. Every time I see these new twerps, I can't help but think that someone is trying to be the One who was clever enough to define the conversation. Enough, I say,I will use teeny and tired words and not new and big one.

The reason that "clear writing" (a la Howard S. Becker, Writing for Social Scientists) is my religion is that I both study and write about popular culture in all its gory glory and if I want to communicate with the people I share the joys of pulp with, I can't be a writing snob. But, alas, it has caused major academic problems because as much as we call for writing for a general audience, most of us/you (except those of us who don't care for academic advancement) are writing for other academics. I can't do that anymore. But what I have found is that writing simpler frees me to think about cultural matters in simpler terms. Or as John says, asking "How do we know that?" or as Lee laments, maybe cultural anthropology should try to define culture, don't you think?

By the way, why are you all trying to write about a popular culture phenom (Twilight) if you don't, as your Confessionals reveal, read comics, watch movies much, and can I assume not watch tv, listen to popular music, go to cons? That's not a criticism, it is genuine curiosity since I would terrify me to enter an online conversation in an area I don't know something about.

Speaking of which, for 13 years, a small group of people has been meeting online every dang Monday night to get together and watch a movie and chat about it. These people live all aver the country and anywhere from 3 to 25 of them will sign on to the chat room, turn on their DVDs at the same time, and create a running commentary on the same movie. The theme (hold your tongues and don't shout racist, please) is Charlie Chan. I joined them three or so years ago. I do not know these people, have only met two of them in person (after a few years into it), and know little about them but that they share this passion. The discussions are both personal and about the movies, life, pop culture, and why everyone else thinks CC is "racist" (whatever that means). If you want to see another community online in action, sign on (it is open to the public) between 8:00 and 8:15 pm Eastern time and say Hi. Friendly folks, and they won't criticize you from being anthropologists. I suggest you try early to make sure your browser is configured. Does not work with Safari on Macs (try Firefox). http://charliechanfamily.tripod.com/id17.html

And, at the same time, I am supposed to be in a chat room celebrating the beginning of a week long "House Party" for people who are miniaturists, people who make miniature worlds. No idea how that dual chat will go (that group is closed). And really, I am not a chat room person and had never done it before the Chan group. Go figure. Our lives are not our own.

Reading the exchange between Lee and Mark, I am reminded of a classic tale told by Arthur Waley in his _Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China_.

Chuang Tzu (the second most famous Daoist sage after Lao Tzu) is sitting beside a river doing what Daoist sages do, fishing. Two high officials find him there and invite him to become prime minister of the kingdom. Chuang Tzu asks if they know about the turtle covered with gold leaf that sits on the high altar of the temple for the king's ancestors. Of course, they do. He then asks if the turtle would rather be dead and sitting on the altar or alive and wagging its tail in the mud. They admit that the turtle would prefer the latter. "Begone," says Chuang Tzu, "I, too, will wag my tail in the mud."
Also, for everyone's amusement, but especially Lee's, I want to mention another tale, "The Pick-Up" by Lawrence Watts-Evans, which originally appeared in 1995 in a collection of science fiction and fantasy stories titled _The Ultimate Alien_.

A girl is sitting in a bar. A not bad looking, maybe a little too plump, guy hits on her but recoils when she fingers the silver crucifix hanging around her neck. OK, he's a vampire, but he seems like a nice sort. A date is suggested for the following evening—but, no, that's the night of a full moon. Turns out the vampire was bitten by a werewolf and has a bit of a problem that way.

Girl goes home. When she gets up in the morning, she loads her revolver with five silver bullets and drops it, along with a wooden stake, in her handbag. Off she goes to the cemetery, where she opens the crypt in which the vampire is buried, empties the revolver into his body and rams the wooden stake through his chest.

The vampire then opens its eyes and says, "You shouldn't have done that."
She says, "You're supposed to be dead. I just rammed a stake through your heart.”
"No," says the vampire,"you rammed a stake through my chest, and that isn't where I keep my heart."
Then the vampire's chest splits open. Out pops a green, scaly, reptilian alien.

Goes to show, you have to be careful judging people by appearances.

Mark,

While 1,000 posts in a single thread is, indeed, impressive and record-breaking, just as impressive are the depth and range of these posts, including your own (and let’s not forget contributors like Jessie Henshaw!). There aren’t too many chat rooms where you can find Aristotle, Godel, and Teilhard in the same post, or Haldane, Darwin, and the Easter Bunny, or Harry Potter side by side with Daoist tales, yet here things like that happen all the time.

So would you like to add any thoughts on vampires?

Happy Easter, and welcome back…

 

Lee,

I’m glad to see that humor was present from the beginning, in the naming of the Center for Peripheral Studies, just as it was in one of your very first posts in this Forum, where you cited Nietzsche’s maxim that we should include at least one joke with any serious argument. In keeping with that maxim (and your recent comment about peer review), could you supply a few lines from that parody review you once wrote for Darwin’s Origin of Species? I believe it went something along the lines of this (not these exact words): “This is diligent work…but it has far too much focus on finches. Could the author please revise and resubmit with a book about more exciting animals, such as lions or tigers?”

Picturing your “not-so-amused cat in bunny ears” also cracked me up, even though the experience probably caused the cat to doubt humans’ beneficence just as much as cats playing with mice caused Darwin to doubt God’s. What few can doubt, though, is that pets are highly valued for their cuteness nowadays in Western society. Cute is huge. If there’s a shred of doubt about that, see Animal Planet’s “Cute-a-Thon,” where kittens and puppies outdo each other with cuteness. As the show states, “Too cute!”

And of course that show reminded me of our earlier discussions about predators vs. pets. Many people are trying to see how far they can take their overwhelming love of pet cuteness… With a little faith and enough distance, even grizzly bears and other furry predators start to seem like they can be encompassed under the Cuteness Paradigm…until they go and bite the head off some other animal and blood starts spurting all over the place. That incongruity, the blood problem, does seem related to Twilight.

Oh, speaking of boundaries, Lee, I imagine you appreciate the subtitle for Animal Planet (found in ads and their website header following the title "Animal Planet"): “Surprisingly Human.”

 

 

Speaking of Harry Potter, if you have college-aged children, you are familiar with the use of Harry Potter terminology as you visit schools. Several places we visited mentioned the similarity between their library or great hall and the ones at Hogwarts. My son's college had a "Sorting Hat" page where you could learn about the house (dorm) that you are assigned to. Bryn Mawr College, across the street from us, names each class as a house (Hufflepuff, Slytherin, etc) and at Halloween many of the girls dressed as HP characters. The buildings are straight out of Hogwarts. And over 100 colleges have real Quidditch teams ( a brutal co-ed fast and furious contact sport) and there is a Quidditch World Cup (I have attended several times) that is amazing to behold.

So what is the point? The virtual world built around Harry Potter has melded with the everyday world we all try to live in. This is not the case with Twilight or for that matter any other vampire media story. You would think, given the discussion here about the importance of blood symbolism, that vamps would still be important in the popular imagination. But they are not. Goodbye True Blood, which appears to be headed in their upcoming last season towards an apocalyptic world (death to those annoying fairies). Walking Dead envy, I say. What Walking Dead and Harry Potter have in common is the possibility of taking their imagined virtual worlds into our own reality-based one and merging them. The zombie phenomenon is not abating because what it offers is a chance to actually, physically interact with the imaginary world. So, there are zombie walks and zombie arenas where you can pay to escape zombies, and zombie races, and apps to zombify yourself. There are zombie airplanes if CNN is to be believed.

Zombies are about the boundaries Lee was discussing. For us as anthropologists, boundaries are everything: who defines the boundaries, who defends them, who crosses them, who fights them. What I find interesting is research that looks at these boundaries. Right now on MSNBC I am listening to a story about fringe groups: conspiracy theorists that claim the biggest threat to all of us is the "collective over the individual." Are we on the edge of a civil war? That kind of boundary twisting is fascinating because the fringies see themselves as the center and those of us who question them as on the periphery. MSNBC is calling the story "Mainstreaming the Fringe." Almost as good as name "The Center for Peripheral Thingys"

Louise asks another nicely pointed question,

By the way, why are you all trying to write about a popular culture phenom (Twilight) if you don't, as your Confessionals reveal, read comics, watch movies much, and can I assume not watch tv, listen to popular music, go to cons?

Do anthropologists always study  cultural phenomena of which they are fans?  Does one have to be into widow burning to study suttee? Or mad about cows to study the Nilotic Cattle Complex?

But, putting snark aside, let me answer for myself. I can think of several reasons why I am involved in this conversation.

  1. My daughter, son-in-law, and grandkids. I care about them, so I care about what they are interested in. All are heavily into movies. So I see a few when we visit them, and I try to catch up by sampling the offerings on international flights. I note that Lee's interest in Twilight also began with his granddaughter.
  2. I like Lee. I may not agree with everything he says; but he is by far the most interesting sparring partner I have found on OAC. It helps, too, that we are of an age and share some intellectual background: Lévi-Strauss, Victor Turner, James Fernandez, etc.
  3. I like the overall framing of his research. Yes, anthropologists should have something to say about pop culture phenomena. 
  4. I am particularly interested in the methodological problem of how to adapt anthropological methods to the study of large-scale phenomena. My own current research is focused on how to adapt my Victor Turner-inspired model of how to do ethnography to understanding a major culture industry, which employs tens of thousands of people doing all sorts of things. 

What I bring to the table is not a fan's deep knowledge of the detail in any particular film or or franchise, but instead an open mind, a willingness to learn (even do the obvious and look up stuff on Wikipedia or see what a Google search turns up), and a miscellany of ideas that may shed some light on what is going on. 

Most of all. It's fun.

A quick Lévi-Strauss type question re vampires and zombies: Both are undead, animated corpses. Vampires want your blood. Zombies want your brains. Blood is to brains as.....? In what semiospace?

 

John,

    At the risk of over-quoting (sure wouldn’t want to do that!), let me respond to your question,

    A quick Lévi-Strauss type question re vampires and zombies: Both are undead, animated corpses. Vampires want your blood. Zombies want your brains. Blood is to brains as…..? In what semiospace?

    On the face of it, a handy transformation would be:

Zombie : Vampire :: Brains : Blood :: Soul : Body

But, of course, this doesn’t hold water ( or certainly blood):  the Zombie isn’t at all interested in its victim’s soul; it just wants the human meat, whereas our favorite vampire, Edward Cullen, is dreadfully concerned about the soul of his intended victim-paramour Bella.  He agonizes endlessly (please, God, make it stop – I’ve now read the first two Twilight novels and may even, in extremis, turn to Keith’s pal Manny for relief from Meyer’s dreadful prose – I understand he wrote something about anthropology way back when) over taking Bella’s soul, turning her, his beloved Juliet, into a soulless monster like himself.  In the meantime, Bella and Edward (seventeen going on one hundred nine) are adolescents with major hots for each other.  They desperately want to be grousing in the goodies, humping like hyenas, going at it like mink – and let the “soul” part take care of itself. 

    When the transformational series doesn’t fit on the face of it, when the terms of the “equation” don’t match up, well then, Claude displays the finesse that made him a (fallen) icon.  There he is, in his bulletproof tweed, staring at the camera through his Buddy Holly glasses, a whole bookshelf of musty old BAE volumes behind him, and he says – immortal line! – “Ah, you say these terms do not correspond?  But, you see, mes enfants, they resemble each other through their differences.”   Oh, Claude, Bill Burroughs and his Nova Mob would be so proud!  You’ve just pulled off, with a single phrase, the Big Con, so Big that it set a generation of fire-breathing grad students off on the Quest for the Structural Reality of Everything.  And in the meantime, Bill is squatting over the stinking hole of a Tangier chiotte, trying desperately to stick a syringe of paregoric up his doodah, and l-a-u-g-h-i-n-g like a madman. 

    The thing is, Bella and Edward want each other, body, blood, and soul.  Binary opposites and transformations be dammed.  And, apparently (Oh, no!  I have to start Eclipse) they get there.  After all their mushy adolescent fantasies, it looks like it’s gonna be

Bella and Edward

sitting in a tree,

K-I-S-S-I-N-G.

First comes love,

then comes marriage,

then comes baby

in a baby carriage!


No, I doubt that Claude and his hard-charging successors at the Collège would be willing to tackle this one.  John, fellow participants, Romanian anthropologist yet to materialize,  it looks like we’re on our own.  Bon courage

 

Interesting; but here is where we evidence hunters get to be a real pain in the nether regions. Where is the evidence, in the films and books in question, or those like them, that brain=soul and blood=body?  I am quite sure that some among us (Mark? Are you here?) will reject the equation of soul and brain, and in the scene someone previously cited, when Bella asks Edward if he wants her body or his blood and he replies "both," they appear to be different things. They certainly were in the old Latin Mass, where only the consecrated priest gets to drink the wine turned to blood. We Lutherans made a big deal about every communicant being able to partake of both the wine and the bread, said to be consubstantial (not transubstantiated, you'll note) with the blood and body of Christ.

Suppose we add two more observations. When a vampire bites, it bites alone. Zombies attack in mobs. Vampires bite at night. Zombies can attack in daylight. 

Thus, we have vampire = blood, solitary, night versus zombie=brains, mobs, daylight. 

To which we might add vampire=super strong, super fast, handsome or beautiful, while zombie=not strong, slow, ugly as sin. 

The vampire is a super villain, in a classic dark, aristocratic, moustache-twisting mode. Zombies are slow, stupid, slobs, members of mobs who can't help doing what they do, the lumpenproletariat of monsters.

Please carry on.

Louise:

What is the *environment* in which you live?  No, it's not the forest.  Or, the savanna.  Or, even the "mean streets."  Indeed, what is the "ground" of the culture you discuss?

What do Charlie Chan, MSNBC, "comic cons," the "mainstream" and the "fringe" all have in common?

Yes, that would be the *medium* known as television.

Could there be a "Twilight" (worth us talking about) with it?  Would we even know about all the intricacies of being "not-human" -- vampire or zomibie (or E.T.) -- without it?

Do you have to even watch television to *know* this?  Indeed, what does living in a television-saturated environment have to do with "how we know things"?

So, do you study the effects of television on the humans?  Does John?  Does Lee?  Does Peter?

No, they don't.  Why?  Precisely because it *is* environmental -- which is much harder to understand than the superficial "figures" of our daily lives.  Threatening, not entertaining.

I'm looking for some *environmentalists* who aren't afraid to look at the "ground" of their experience.  Like Edmund "Ted" Carpenter, who was the anthropologist who worked closely with Marshall McLuhan.

Might you know any?

P.S.

Japan is a *very* television sort of a place.  I've been there many times and was once the only Wall Street analyst who followed SONY from NYC.  Indeed, I have owned many Sony televisions.  I currently have 5x (3x HDTV and 2x NTSC studio monitors) plus 6x Sony LCD monitors attached to my various computers.  

I once wrote about the "fate" of Japan, in an essay titled "Pity the Poor Japanese," composed after I visited the Sony co-inventor of the CD in his laboratory in Tokyo.  He imagined that the future was "all tied up" and that he could draw a "map" of each new technology all the way to his daughter's wedding and his own retirement party.  It made me sad to watch him.

I recently watched the 1992 Bob Dylan "tribute concert" with my girlfriend, who was involved in its production.  At that time, they used all the HDTV cameras then available and were underwritten by NHK.  I was once invited to keynote a conference in Nagoya and paid 1 Million Yen in cash -- the whole point was to get some footage on (analog) HDTV.

Japan thought they would dominate HDTV.  If they had pulled it off, they would have replaced all the "square" tubes in the world with "rectangles."  It didn't happen that way.  DIGITAL beat them (along with the Koreans.)  The current state of Japan is largely a result of having lost that battle in the early 90s.  

The other day, I happened to catch a re-run of Episode 7 "Tokyo" of Anthony Bourdain's "Part's Unknown" on CNN.  In addition to the sushi and the screaming "music," he was joined by Kinoko Hijame, "a master of shibari, the art of ropes of beautiful knots, of what, for lack of a better word, we call bondage."  Hijame brought along Tomika, a "dominatrix" and this is their dialogue -- 

BOURDAIN: So how big is the sadomasochistic community? How many people are active participants? 


NAGA, TRANSLATOR: Hundred thousand people. 

BOURDAIN: A lot? 

NAGA: A lot. 

BOURDAIN: This is shibari. Translation, to buy. It makes things more confusing for those looking for a concise takeaway of comfortable reaction to what sure as hell looks pretty disturbing. Tomika, who spends most of her time ripping, burning, and generally abusing men, enthusiastically reverses roles in her longtime relationship with Hajime. 

It looks like a very delicate procedure. Does it hurt? Or does it feel good? 

NAGA: This pain change to the ecstasy [mis-read as "excesses" in the transcript]. She said when she was tied up, no need to think. Just leave it. She loved it. 

BOURDAIN: Performance art, craft, fetish, or compulsion. It's an old and shockingly omnipresent feature of Japanese popular fantasy culture. Magazines, movies, even comic books. The intricate restraint of a willing victim is -- well, it's there. Not far from the surface. 

What percentage of Japanese men are interested in either tying up women or subjugating?

NAGA: All of them? All of them. 

BOURDAIN: Well, then the question is how many Japanese men like to be tied up? 

NAGA: All of them. 

BOURDAIN: So in your experience, all Japanese men like to tie women up, but in your experience, all Japanese men like to be tied up. Who's more -- sexually, Americans or Japanese? 

NAGA: Same. 

Maybe she says you need to be tied up. 

BOURDAIN: A little late for me.

"No need to think."  What ECSTASY!  

Perhaps, in the way that we "religiously" ignore our environments, we are all interested in being "tied up," just like Tomika says we are . . . ??

Earlier in this conversation I was going to state that I now understood why you were exploring Twilight. The impulse to connect to the same universes that your loved ones inhabit is, I believe, a universal human trait so that humanizes all of you. But then...

Dudes, what planet are you on (that is an environmentalist question)? I just tell you that I am in two chat rooms at the same time, watching a movie on the computer screen at the same time, having MSNBC playing in the background (only need it for the sound), checking email while this is going on, placing a bid at an online auction (great movie posters), straightening the papers on my desk, texting with my son, reading this conversation, eating popcorn, uploading old comic books to my Dropbox, and drinking wine and you say to me, TELEVISION? I'm not a 20-something female, I am surely older than most of you, but my "environment" hasn't been "television" since the days of I Love Lucy. I'm not a TV hater, I love it as ONE of our great storytelling machines. It's just that classical TV is such a small part of our environment these day (and for decades). You are Dudes. Don't you play video games, Instagram (or whatever is the latest sharing platform), read comic books, old or new? Plants VS Zombies, anyone? Online gambling? Shopping for all kinds of stuff? Even, seriously, Facebook (you can get all the cuteness you can stand there)? WALKING DEAD??? GAME OF THRONES??? "You know nothing, Jon Snow," you and your crows (or ravens).

I love Levi-Struss, and analogy, and difference. My post-structualism is built on structuralism, it doesn't knock it down. But you have to start with the correct components of the analogy, ole Claude would remind us, or it looks like CNN searching for that airplane. I flip endlessly, when I have TV on in the background (usually while working on my miniature plants), between MSNBC and FOX. Structural dualism at its best! Television does not provide the other component of dualism CL-S suggests: the thing that mediates between these opposites. I try to study exactly that: the mediations between opposites (that we construct), the boundaries put around each.

The walking dead (vampires and zombies, as well as ghosts, spirits, hallucinations, memories, dreams, video games, movies, television, etc) are aspects or examples of the same analogy, not totally different things. Whether the duality is "correct" or not, we use it all the time. It is at the moments or during the stories that the duality of living/dead do not hold up that the fun begins. 

Now, you suggest that zombies and vampires are about the following:

        Thus, we have vampire = blood, solitary, night versus zombie=brains, mobs, daylight. 

         To which we might add vampire=super strong, super fast, handsome or beautiful, while zombie=not strong, slow, ugly as sin. 

Based on what? Vampires in Twilight hunt in packs, even the pretty Cullens. They seeks food which just happens to be blood. Do you know that the premise of True Blood (the HBO series) is that synthetic blood has made it possible for vampires to come out of the closet and integrate with humans since humans don't have to be food anymore? And that I have several bottles of "Tru Blood" (the human version, a horrible tasting orange soda) in my basement (because , remember, people want to integrate the fantasy world with the real. That's why having Bella's room decorations makes sense. Let me say, I was tempted to buy that J.C. Penny's bedspread, too).

Zombies eat brains in "Plants vs. Zombies," one of the most poplar video games ever. Even grannies play it. But zombies don't eat brains anywhere else. And they are not just slow and ugly. The ongoing controversy in zombieville is whether zombies should be fast or slow. Conversations around whether the zombie in Walking Dead have gotten faster are rabid and ever changing (must be that Southern weather). World War Z? Those zombies were damn fast, as they were in 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later. Slow zombies in Zombieland and in Shaun of the Dead (two of the best Zombie movies, both very funny). Haitian zombie movies and Night of he Living Dead, slow zombies. Zombies do not have watches so attack day or night. Vampires in True Blood seek fairy blood so they can kill during the day. Warm Bodies, a 2013 movie, features a zombie boyfriend (move over Edward Cullen). Shaun of the Dead features a best friend chained up to a video game, pretty much the way he was before the zombie attacks. It goes on and on. That is the environment these stories reside in. There is no television because that infrastructure (to cite Levi-Strauss) is long gone. Television is the first thing to go.

Anthony Bourdain gives anthropology a bad name. That nonsense is what people think we do. Marshal McLuhan was Anthony Bourdain without the airplane ticket. I have no use for his sort of environmentalism.

And Lee, my sympathies. Yes, you must read Eclipse, but I have never met a person who did not throw it against the wall a million times before they finished. Buy lots of spackle.

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