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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Louise:

Thanks!  I rejoined so that I could talk with you and the *tribe* has spoken.  (Okay, and maybe because it was Easter.)  See ya, now I can get back to business . . . 

Mark

Louise,

Marvelous. The true evidence hunter doesn't mind fresh information that falsifies conjectures. This one revels in it. As a culture industry veteran, he isn't, moreover, the least bit surprised that artists, writers, directors, producers are constantly looking for fresh twists that break old stereotypes. That, however, still leaves us with two interesting questions: (1) Are all of the twists to date only different positions in the same cultural space, so that one could, in principle, specify a unique vector for every possible position, or are there radically incommensurable spaces? And (2) why do different combinations attract the different audiences they do, some large enough to form big, if nonetheless, temporary waves, while others are confined to much smaller niches? Most disappearing quickly, while a few prove more durable?

Or, instead of these half-baked mathematical ramblings, would chemistry or gardening be a more productive so source of insightful metaphors?

Not a fan's position, I know. But it doesn't mean that fans are delightful and valuable people. What would we theory hounds do without the fans to tell us when we've gone off totally half-cocked or missed a lot of stuff completely?

I don't like the term "fan." It implies a non-thinking position (although my experience has been that fans are very thoughtful about what they are involved in). I prefer to think I am embedded in the universes I study, or at least I know where the doors into it are. And to do that you have to participate (the old participant-observation thing) not just observe. 

Steampunk World's Faire, anyone? Now there is a complete and fluid universe I just love to enter. I'll be giving a talk at it, again, connecting the fantasy world with the historical one. Now that's imagination. Check it out:

http://steampunkworldsfair.com

 

“Tribe”,

Just Plain Fun

Move over Katniss Everdeen – here comes Louise!  And she has some kind of spunk:

    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.

Oh, my. 

   Peter’s last “post” (still can’t bring myself to naturalize the term) is a timely reminder that what we do should contain a large component of Fun, just plain fun, and not be unremittingly serious, grim, contentious.  Otherwise, what’s the point?  It was in that spirit that I responded to John’s request to “fill in the blanks” of his structural formula for vampires and zombies, and ended with “binary opposites and transformations be damned.”  Thinking of William Burroughs and the Collège crowd together just tickled my funny bone. 

    Peter also asked about a little parody I wrote quite a while back for what I guess you’d call the “Humor” column of Anthropology News.  Does the News still have that?  Does anthropology still have a light side?  Don’t know, haven’t exactly been a faithful subscriber.  Anyway, the section was “To Wit,” and I did what turned out to be a series of two pieces titled “Revise and Resubmit” (I and II).  These were “joke reviews” of The Origin of Species and Geertz’s essay, “Thick Description,” written in the vein of publisher’s or editor’s letters I’m sure we’ve all received, informing us that we must . . .  I’ll try to dig up the Darwin piece, along with Chris Suddick’s hilarious illustration, and download it to the Center website, www.peripheralstudies.org

    Much more important than my joke reviews, though, is where I got the idea – from Umberto Eco’s Misreadings, which is, yes, just plain fun.  He did several “publisher’s reviews” of Homer, Dante, Joyce, the Bible, and other classics, all absolute hoots.  Here’s a sample, from the Bible reviewer (sorry, over-quoting again!) – perhaps appropriate, or not, a couple of days after Easter:   

 
The Bible:

    I must say that the first few hundred pages of this manuscript really hooked me. Action-packed, they have everything today's reader wants in a good story. Sex (lots of it, including adultery, sodomy, incest), also murder, war, massacres, and so on. 

    The Sodom and Gomorrah chapter, with the transvestites putting the make on the angels, is worthy of Rabelais; the Noah stories are pure Jules Verne; the escape from Egypt cries out to be turned into a major motion picture . . . In other words, a real blockbuster, very well structured, with plenty of twists, full of invention, with just the right amount of piety, and never lapsing into tragedy. 

    But as I kept on reading, I realized that this is actually an anthology, involving several writers, with many--too many--stretches of poetry, and passages that are downright mawkish and boring, and jeremiads that make no sense.

    The end result is a monster omnibus. It seems to have something for everybody, but ends up appealing to nobody. And acquiring the rights from all these different authors will mean big headaches, unless the editor takes care of that himself. The editor's name, by the way, doesn't appear anywhere on the manuscript, not even in the table of contents. Is there some reason for keeping his identity a secret? 

    I'd suggest trying to get the rights only to the first five chapters. We're on sure ground there. Also come up with a better title. How about The Red Sea Desperadoes?

 

    Does any of this sound familiar?

    Peter also reminds us that it is good to keep Nietzsche’s maxim in mind, that every serious thought should be accompanied by at least one laugh.  I agree.  The thing is, though, while Fritz talked the talk, he didn’t exactly walk the walk.  Have you found many gut-busters in Genealogy of Morals?  Probably not, Fritz was more an ironic-smile kind of guy – just too much Prussian disposition in his make-up.  He could have used a few sessions of Plants vs. Zombies.  But Eco on the other hand?  Wow, does that guy have range!  A master of parody, fiction, and deep, deep thought.  Do you like to curl up with a copy of A Theory of Semiotics?  Then you must enjoy the hell out of a good root canal. 

   Wouldn’t it be fun, just plain fun, if he dropped by here to talk about vampires? 

 

Brienne, Katniss, Catelyn, Tris, Arya, Sansa, Ygritte, Carol, Black Widow, Buffy, Daenerys, and Michonne gather for my  pajama party in the Red Keep. Cersei was not invited.

“You are being set up,” Michonne says, and all the other women agree, sharpening their weapons all the time. “Lady Louise,” says Brienne, “the men are using you as a foil,” a good analogy from such a fierce swordswoman. Carol rises, “When I showed ‘spunk,’ Rick sent me on my way, with a car and half tank of gas. They want us to die at the hands of the dead, whether they are dead walkers or dead writers.”

Catelyn passed the chocolates. “I got a bird from Sansa informing me of your battles. This is no longer a battle of wits, it is a game of thrones and they are defending their thrones to the death.” Sansa ate a chocolate covered cherry and added, “My mother walks with the dead now so certainly she knows.” Black Widow looked at her skeptically.

“But that’s not possible,” I say, “you can’t be both dead and alive. At least that is what They say.” Buffy snorts. “Really? tell that to all my dead/alive hunky boyfriends.” And she sticks her knife into a pomegranate. “Is this bleeding? Depends on how you define blood,” as she sucks the thick red juice. Tris nodded.

Ygritte lays back and twirls her spear overhead. “I tell Jon Snow, ‘You know nothing,’ and he never understands what that means. It means that if you wall yourself away from the world like a cold crow, or Levi-Strauss’ ravens, you cannot know what the Small Folk know.”

“Who’s Levi-Strauss?” several of the women ask at once and Arya replies, “He’s an old maester from Winterfell, before it fell. Burned the whole thing down, they did.” Daenerys looked at her but didn’t mention her dragons, at least not yet.

Katniss brings the conversation back to the setup. “They did this same thing to me, promising there would be no more games for me to play, and then they changed the rules. Get out now, get out while you can. Go to the woods, the godswood if you must, refuse to play their games.”

“But they hold the thrones,” I protested, and they all turned to me and slowly grinned. “Yes,” said Tris, “but we made them look.” “And,” added Daenerys, “we made them look the wrong way.”

Louise,

    Is “spunk” now a chauvinist term?  Perhaps.  Those boundaries are indeed serpentine. 

Still, your remark, “Marshal McLuhan was Anthony Bourdain without the airplane ticket,” is a fine piece of swordswomanship.  Your pajama party guests should be proud.

    On a different register, your suggestion that it is possible to identify a movie’s iconic status by whether lines from the movie have become a fixture of everyday speech is excellent.  May the Force be with you; Phone home; I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse; The  name is Bond, James Bond; I’ll be back (and Hasta la vista, baby); You’re going to need a bigger boat – all instantly recognizable by millions of people.  Perhaps as ecumenical as things get in this fractionated world.  This seems to justify my misgivings about Avatar, for although it’s all-time Numero Uno, I don’t think there’s a tag line to go with it.  You tell me.  

Louise,you may not be a fan; but now you have one. I can only,alas, peer in from outside that wonderful world you inhabit so fully. Were I to follow you into it, and tempting it is, indeed, I would have to give up other things I still hold dear. This Sunday, my wife and I attended a free concert by an amateur orchestra in which a new friend plays violin. Every piece they played was related to railroads. The concert's theme was chosen to celebrate the reopening of a line in the Tohoku, the part of Japan devastated by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. It became an excuse for a wonderful romp that included the theme song from the British TV show "Thomas the Train Engine," for which the members of the brass section all donned steam engine shaped hats hand crafted from cardboard boxes and marched on stage through the audience, to the delight of the kids, mostly elementary school and younger, who had been brought to this performance. There was also quite a bit of Dvorak, who was, I had never thought of that, a huge fan of railroads, a train otaku, when he wasn't writing music. I myself go off tonight to practice with a men's chorus, mostly old duffers like me (I will be seventy this August), that is trying to put together an original musical, a West Side Story parody in which the rival gangs win up living in the same nursing home fifty years after the events in the original. Meanwhile, work keeps landing in the inbox. Yesterday we were asked about translating a fifty-page research report about a collection of Japanese paintings in the Kunstkammer Museum in St. Petersburg (Russia, that is), with which Japan's National Museum of Ethnology has formed a working relationship. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Yes, I do spend an inordinate amount of time at my laptop or iPad, rattling on about anthropology, about which I'm a bit obsessive. But for me the game of thrones that the academic world has become has no particular fascination.

Sorry I misspoke and called you a "fan." Here in Japan, "fan" is a word for an enthusiast with a deep knowledge and passion for whatever they are into. Does not imply a mere spectator. My bad. I should have been more thoughtful.

Some interesting thoughts from another culture watcher. Raises an interesting question: How much does a work or a genre's popularity depend on style as opposed to the existential issues it addresses? 

We like to think that concern with existential issues drives audience interest and, thus, becoming a blockbuster hit. But, come to think of it, every story (and every piece of academic analysis) addresses, even if only implicitly, some existential issue. Dune and Starship Trooper, two film adaptations of science fiction classics, flopped at the box office. So, I read yesterday, did Johnny Depp's Transcendence. All are very, very heavy on the existential issues they raise.  If issues drove interest, that wouldn't have happened. Could Grant McCracken be right? Is style more important than we give it credit for? How do we analyze that?

Lee, Peter, Mark, Lurkers,

Before we proceed further, each and everyone of us should have a look at Louise's papers, which are easily accessible on Academia.edu, starting with the very first one: https://www.academia.edu/723534/Round_up_the_usual_suspects_Anthrop...

John,

 I second your call to look at Louise’s published work, which is, indeed, excellent and thought-provoking. In fact, in Hollywood Blockbusters: The Anthropology of Popular Movies (which I’m only bringing up to support your call, not to divert the flow toward my own work), Dave Sutton and I cite both Lee and Louise—on the same page, literally (p. 12)—as two of the best possible models for anthropological analysis of movies. More specifically, we provide a block quote from that first article you link to, “Round Up the Usual Suspects,” where Louise states, “For anthropologists, movies must engage with the habitual patterns of a culture that is always looking for ways to address its existential questions. …If movies didn’t relate to these patterns, even in a contradictory or incomplete way, we would have less reason to see them and use them.” I hope this tiny snippet gives even more reason to look into Louise’s publications, and a sense of how much all of our respective approaches dovetail and play off each other.

For example, I generally admire McCracken’s writing, and he does provide a useful corrective and reminder about “style” in that link you provide, but I wouldn’t want to create an either/or between “existential questions” (to use your and Louise’s phrase) vs. “style” (by which McCracken mainly seems to be referring to good acting, in this case in the tv show “Orphan Black”). Some of the best (though not all) blockbuster hits contain both. By the same token, no anthro analysis of a movie’s deep social or existential issues, no matter how good, will be sufficient in itself to tell you why that movie became a blockbuster. If you don’t have Brando picking up the cat, or Pacino’s steely delivery, or Coppola’s love for food, or any of the other myriad artistic touches that come together on the set in some almost mystical way, you don’t get the kind of blockbuster that people will still be quoting decades later. Different angles, but we’re all trying to figure out mysteries that lurk below the surface. Speaking of quotability…

Lee and Louise,

To confirm what you were saying about movie quotes that become woven into the culture fabric, here are a couple personal examples that I particularly enjoyed:

Yes, Harry Potter references did come up while visiting colleges this past summer with my oldest son, a high-school senior. At one college, when we walked into the wood-paneled cafeteria with long tables, I could almost hear the synapses going off as the various groups of parents and kids thought the same thing at the same time; then the tour guide said it for us, “I know, it looks like Hogwarts,” and everyone laughed and nodded in agreement.

The other one came last week, while watching an old episode of “Dirty Jobs,” the one about pressing olive oil. After this olive farm owner rattles off 8 or so different types of olives, the host, Mike Rowe, quietly repeats one of the olive names, “Luca,” and the owner, an otherwise serious guy, immediately catches the reference and without missing a beat says, “Luca, my most trusted friend,” in a fine Don Corleone imitation. It was just a tiny, passing moment (and much more easily appreciated when not typed out like this), but the cool thing was they both implicitly held the Godfather as a touchstone, more than 40 years after it came out in theatres, and the editors assumed the audience did, too, which is why they kept that interaction in among all the other heavily-edited interview footage and without even explaining that it was referring to a movie.

Of course that sort of quotability won’t be created by every blockbuster, but it is cool when it happens—one of the few things tying millions of people together—and even more remarkable in this age in which cable, Youtube, Netflix, etc. cater to smaller, niche audiences.

Lee,

 Thanks for the hilarious Umberto Eco review, and I’ll look forward to re-reading your own parody reviews. I agree with you, too, about Nietzsche not walking the walk when it came to his maxim about a joke accompanying every serious argument. Still, we’d probably both agree that, given what Nietzsche was up against, including that Prussian disposition and the distinctly unfunny writing style of almost every other Western philosopher before him, he did get off some good lines. Also, contradiction was a way of life for him, ruthlessly subjecting his own thoughts to constant self-critique and revision. As Karl Jaspers said, you haven’t understood one of Nietzsche’s points until you find the other place in his writings where he contradicts himself. But contradictions and all, he’s still worth it. To alter his famous sayings about only believing in a god who knows how to dance, I say, I wouldn’t want a philosophy that can’t crack a joke. Again, I don’t imagine you’d disagree with any of this—this is just what comes with the territory with Nietzsche, who we both admire.

Here’s more support—not that it’s needed, but just for fun or future reference—for the value of humor, in this case from a recent New York Times review of a book about scientific studies of humor:

—“Laughter literally loosens up our blood vessels, promoting healthy circulation, in a way similar to aerobic exercise.”

—“[In one study] subjects who watched funny movies after surgery requested 25 percent less pain medication.”

—“Subjects also performed better on cognitive tests, such as word-association problems, after reading funny jokes and watching videos of Robin Williams performing stand-up comedy.”

Oh, and this is no joke, just want to let you all know that I’m going to be disappearing for the rest of the week because I’m heading off to the Economic Anthropology conference in Austin, Texas, to give a posterboard on a Mexican-American experience with casino slot machines (long story…but let’s just say it attempts to tie together Simmel and Graeber, dreams and money).

Let the good times roll…

Lee,

Wait, I just realized (i.e., looked up) who Katniss is—the hero in The Hunger Games. (OK, as I’ve said before, I’m no expert on teen movies or books!) So now I have to ask: Don’t you think Louise was offended not just by your use of the word “spunk,” but also the comparison to a teenage girl?

I’m still just hoping that you and Louise can patch things up and keep the dialogue going...

Reading Louise Krasniewicz's "Round Up the Usual Suspects," I am struck by the clarity and insight with which she proposes bringing anthropological methods to the study of film. She doesn't stop with the observation that films address such questions as who am I? who are we? or the meaning of life.  She goes on to ask,

If movies already provide useful, necessary, and flexible narratives, why do we bother with all the peripheral merchandise and activities that develop around them?. . .

Stories have never been a passive cultural artifact for anthropologists. One thing to learn from traditional story forms, such as myths and folktales, is that while they tell us why and how the world is, they also invite us to act out these ideas and to dramatize them so that we ourselves embody the message of the study.

This anthropologist instantly thinks of watching Gunsmoke and playing cowboys and Indians (way back in the 1950s, mind you), but also his grandkids dressing up as Galadriel (the 5-year old girl) and Radagast the Brown (the 7-year old boy), two characters from The Lord of the Rings, for Halloween this year. The boy's choice of Radagast is particularly interesting. Why the eccentric wizard whose first love is the creatures of the forest instead of Gandalf or Aragorn?

But  Krasniewicz has only begun. "But," she writes,

just combining a narrative analysis of movies with an archaeology of their cultural fallout will not develop the anthropological study of films far enough. 

She sees movies as evidence of patterns — persistent categories, cultural themes, interpretive strategies, integrated sets of symbols, and world-views. She continues,

The way to see these habits and patterns is to look at how the movies and their related artifacts are used to define, create, and challenge cultural categories. 

She notes that,

We [human beings] may push the boundaries of our established categories, showing what holds them together and what can make them fall apart, but we cannot avoid categorizing altogether.

She concludes,

An anthropological approach to movies would require a new way of judging the quality of a film—the best films would be those that stimulate us to think about our habitual categories. Movies provide lessons about how categories do and don't work. This may at first sound boring, but this is exactly what makes movies entertaining. During a movie's classification of an unruly world, things that don't fit neatly into established categories become much more obvious. Ambiguous things are disturbing but also very interesting. It is not surprising that fantasy, science fiction, disaster, detective stories are excellent venues for presenting "liminal" or in-between things. These types of stories are especially good at explicitly threatening the boundaries of cultural order, stepping in and out of order and chaos, in and out of established categories. . . .

Popular movies may thus have an important role to play.

While we may have little individual control over our categories, it is the work of the human mind to think about changing them, fitting in new things, throwing out old ones, and squeezing and stretching the boundaries which only occasionally will break. But in the meantime we confirm what we think it is to be human, what our reality is, and what values we do or don't share with our fellow citizens.

This is a program with which everyone here can agree. I certainly do. If I raise questions about it — and I certainly will —it is not to reject but instead to enrich and enlarge it. 

For today, enough said.

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