From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography—Introduction

[a] Social network
Part of an occasional Round and Square series, "Seinfeld Ethnography (Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific)" explores various themes shown on one of the most brilliant (and irritating—sorry) presentations of (urban) American culture in the late-twentieth century. For years, I have said that "a person could teach an entire cultural anthropology course just using Seinfeld episodes." Let's see how that holds up here. 

Each selection will include a clip and various quotations from social and cultural theorists (with an occasional cognitive scientist or philosopher thrown in to round out the picture). In fact, I'll use whatever thinkers help us understand how people figure out this thing called life...and soup.

[b] Disorder
[c] Dyad
[d] Discussing social practice
[e] The salon
Seinfeld takes ordinary situations and examines them from all angles. This is what anthropologists do, although I have never heard Jerry or Elaine utter the word "intersubjectivity" during nine full seasons.  What we see are not mere "portraits" of memorable characters.  We see, rather, characters in social motion as they come to temporary fruition in dyads or triads of action and discussion.  Perhaps the most "theoretically" interesting part of the show is what I like to think of as the "Bourdieu effect." 

It is not enough to experience and bemoan the inability to comprehend the changing rules of
social engagement. No, George and Jerry (and Elaine and Kramer...and others) have to discuss it in that coffee cup salon called "Restaurant." This is one of Pierre Bourdieu's basic points. We don't really grasp much at all about our social and cultural practices until we think them through and talk them out. The beauty and originality of Seinfeld is that the "action" (eating an eclair out of the trash, ordering soup from an autocrat, or wearing a "puffy" shirt) make up only about a third of the total story. 

 I like to think that the Seinfeld writers wanted to turn Henry James on his head. Writing teachers for the last eight or nine decades have prattled like parrots about James and the imperative to "show...not tell." Well, Seinfeld shows a little and then tells and tells and talks and talks. Most of what makes the show entertaining and ethnographically interesting (year after year, even as every scene has been etched into memory) is the way that the characters talk about everything

From "purity and danger" (eclairs) and shrinkage and yogurt to shirts and surnames and gendered pairings...the characters "tell" their stories. Showing is only a small part of it. Somewhere, Henry James is rolling. He might also be thinking that it might be worth rewriting that introduction to fiction writing. 

"What," thinks Henry, "if I had my characters do a little stuff—put on a puffy shirt or stand terrified in a soup line—and then spend the next thirty pages having them talk about it while pretending to drink coffee (sometimes wearing funny mustaches)? What if we changed the rules of fiction to resemble what people actually do—stumble through the social and cultural structures all around them (befuddled much of the time)...but then sit down with (mostly) trusted compatriots and figure it out together?

Well, people, that is the genius of Seinfeld, and that is what we will be investigating in our faux Malinowskian tribute to the show—Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Theory Corner—Introduction

[a] Arthur Rackham (just right)

Theory Corner is an occasional Round and Square series highlighting various aspects of social, cultural, and historical theory of immediate use to the practicing student of anthropology or history (not to mention other disciplines).  I see these entries as "refined flour" theoretical reflections. Like white bread or polished rice, they burn right through your system with immediate (if short term) insights.  I will soon start an accompanying series (perhaps called "Theory Dungeon") that deals with "whole grain" theory—chewy intellectual pieces, such as "Foucault Loaf" or "Habermas Braid," that take much more time to digest. 

[b] Casual theory
[c] Causal Theory
Theory Corner is based upon the short, fifteen minute presentations that I give in my historical and anthropological research classes. To grasp the scene fully, you must imagine the following. The "theorist" walks into the room; s/he is wearing a cardigan sweater and tennis shoes. Sitting down in a rocking chair, s/he smiles warmly, mumbles something about "neighbors," and begins to take the listener on a trip to a happy kind of theory-land that is not-too-hot and not-too-cold (as Lévi-Strauss might say).  It is "baby-bear" theory...that is just right.
[d] Theory Corner
[e] Cornered Theory


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Beginnings (9)—Fargo

[a] Opening scene
[b] Fargo

Fargo has one of the best cinematic openings I have ever seen. The scene begins in an understated (to say the least) manner, and then builds slowly (note the growing tympanic effects) as the scene comes into view. The music explodes, as it were, with a triumphant scene of...a car towing another car.

[c] Unintended consequences
From there, Jerry is off to meet Carl and Gaear at the King of Clubs in Fargo. The rest is cinematic reverie. It is now worth watching the entire first six minutes of the film (and seeing the triumphant car-pulling again all over again), in order to get the full effect—including the transition from Carter Burwell's opening musical composition to Merle Haggard singing "Big City." This is, by the way, one of the best soundtracks I have ever heard.

Watch the scene (pardon the advertising, but this is YouTube, after all), and think about how even the earliest shreds of dialogue already start to show the unraveling ("seemed like a good idea at the time") plan and various laws of unintended consequences.
[d] Parking

[e] Scraper marks the spot

[f] End of the trail

Monday, March 28, 2011

Katakana Culture—Introduction

[a] (Kata)kana   RF
 So let's begin with the problem that most readers might have with this series of posts.

They're in Japanese.

Well, yes, that is true, and it is a bigger issue (and, at the same time, a smaller one) than you might think. To begin, I teach Chinese and Japanese history and culture, and I believe very strongly that language is absolutely integral to all study of those...histories and cultures. We'll get back to that core point in a moment. On the other hand, katakana is a perfect entry-point for any foreigner to begin to understand aspects of Japanese culture that would otherwise remain entirely obdurate. Just two hours of work, and you (no matter what your background) can understand issues in Japanese culture (one might almost say "psychology") that would otherwise take years to understand by following a "normal" curriculum. I urge you to do so, and will work with you if you want to try.

Stay with me! You can do this. I have stories in every Japanese History and Culture class that I teach of the one (or three) students who are so scared at the beginning that they want to quit BUT learn the forty-six characters and are better than most students of Japanese when they finish. You can be Devon!  Don't give up.

Please be patient, those of you who have never studied Japanese, while I take a few paragraphs to chastise those students of Japanese language who have never worked particularly hard at katakana. I will return with several posts addressed exclusively to those hardy few of you who are determined to learn the small number of sounds that will change your entire way of thinking about the world. It will be fun, so just hang in there while I set up the broader project here.

***  ***
Now let me address those of you who have been studying Japanese for two years or me. If you cannot rattle off the following phrase without pausing even for a microsecond, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves. Before I give you the phrase, though, let me soften my words slightly: many, many of us must be ashamed of ourselves. Still, read it in one unflinching effort—right now!  ライト    ナオヲ

                        カギュウケィッテ バタケシルオポトレー ゲヂサマギュンゾルン


O.k., you probably got my point ライトaway. Yes, it is gibberish.

I just hit a bunch of keys. Here's the difference between you (et moi—I am not prideful) and the native speaker/reader of Japanese. The person who grew up reading Japanese is capable of "powering through" the gibberish, and at least pronouncing everything (almost) exactly as the graphs portray. I will admit that I have tried this experiment on several native speakers, and they do get frustrated at just about the ル in the second garble of kana. That is culture, I would argue, and not linguistics. If we want to debate that point, though, it should be in another context, at another time.

Here is the point for this series of katakana posts: your katakana recognition stinks.

If I am speaking to the one person in the class of thirty who studied katakana every night—even though there were no rewards in sight on tests or anywhere in your textbooks—I apologize. If you are that person who became bored with  ボルペン and バイト, then I beg your pardon. You are my hero.

I am talking to the rest of us. We know who we are. We did what our teachers and textbooks told us, and we ignored those little bits of information we occasionally heard that "the katakana will hit you like Atlanta humidity the minute you touch down at Narita Airport; you won't be prepared for it, because it is everywhere."
[b] Marigolds    RF

Well, "they" tried to warn us. All I can say, having studied Japanese (as a non-specialist; I study China for a living) and lived there during several stints totaling a few years:

"They" were right, and we will pay the price in misery when we move to Japan.

So, what to do?

How about getting really good at katakana? That's what this series of posts is about. When I teach Japanese History and Culture, I stress katakana, because it is an excellent way of observing how words and foreign concepts "translate" into Japanese language and life. There is superb material here for cultural analysis, and it will be the foundation for a series of posts rich in imagery and practicalities.

I will take a two-tiered approach. On the one hand, I will try to address the beginner. It is possible to learn katakana without studying the rest of the language. Most people give up (or go on to study the language as a whole), but it is possible.  I would like to make it even more possible. Those of you studying Japanese, please don't disdain this "beginning" side of things in these posts. For 天's sake, can't you see that I (and others) have been doing this for years, and we are not tired of learning ways of explaining it to others? Instead of thinking "I know that" (a sign of scholarly shallowness, if I may be so bold) instead say "how would I convey this to another?" It will change your life; trust me. The sure sign of having no ideas left is the statement "I already know that."

Click/buzz.   Game over.

For those of you just starting out, look for the "beginner" posts. For those of you who are perfecting your skills, there will be plenty of material for you here at all levels.

Remember the lesson of the Zen archer (look them up—there are hundreds). In every case, it is all about preparation, focus, and resilience. Arrogance (how many of you really ought to be arrogant about your katakana ability?) has nothing to do with it. And brush your teeth, while you're at it (in any language).
[c] Language...culture?   RF
Katakana—Let's begin!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Beginnings (8)—Beginnings Said

Edward Said, Beginnings

He wrote the (a) book on beginnings. I also like the word-play possibilities (“Said Beginnings”).—华
[a] First Lines

[b] Said reading (Said)
The problem of beginnings is one of those problems that, if allowed to, will confront one with equal intensity on a practical and on a theoretical level. Every writer knows that the choice of a beginning for what he will write is crucial not only because it determines much of what follows but also because a work’s beginning is, practically speaking, the main entrance to what it offers. Moreover, in retrospect we can regard a beginning as the point at which, in a given work, the writer departs from all other works; a beginning immediately establishes relationships with works already existing, relationships of either continuity or antagonism or some mixture of both. But the moment we start to detail the features of a beginning—a moment likely to occur in examining many sorts of writers—we necessarily make certain special distinctions. Is a beginning the same as an origin? Is the beginning of a given work its real beginning, or is there some other, secret point that more authentically starts the work off? To what extent is a beginning ultimately a physical exigency and nothing more than that? Of what value, for critical or methodological or even historical analysis, is “the beginning”? By what sort of approach, with what kind of language, with what sort of instruments does a beginning offer itself up as a subject for

[1] Edward W. Said, Beginnings: Intention & Method (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975), 3.


[c] Edward Said Memorial Lecture, 2011

[a] First Lines (courtesy of Ann Davies, 1999)
[b] Reading
[d] Last Lines
[c] Edward Said Memorial Lecture
[d] Last Lines (courtesy of Ann Davies, 1999)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Breaking the Vessel (6)

Click here to go to section one of "Breaking the Vessel."
Click below for the other "Breaking the Vessel" posts.
1         2         3         4         5         6         7         8         9         10          11          12

Outside Looking In

[a] Yingzong r. 1064-1067
Sima Guang was talented, highly educated, and a little lucky. By the 1060s, he was ready. After a long climb up the “ladder of success” in Song dynasty China—complete with reflective sabbaticals that deepened his skills and fulfilled his familial obligations—he was on the verge of greatness. Forty springs after he was said to have rushed from his books to save his little friend from a watery, cylindrical grave, Sima Guang found himself in another study—that of the emperor himself.  The immensely talented Sima held the prestigious position of chief tutor to the emperor Yingzong (r. 1064-1067). It was a sure route to the premiership—the highest civilian office in the empire. He had arrived, and he had a plan.

His official task was to explain the lessons of the past in a way that could help his listener function smoothly in difficult political and managerial situations. He could assume that his pupil was well trained in the classics, and he was asked to draw the lines, so to speak, between classical principles, historical examples, and current events in the mid-eleventh century. While there were no precise parallels in classical literature to the challenges he and Emperor Yingzong faced, he was confident that the lessons of history—framed by the teachings of antiquity—provided a road map to the present.
[b] The Comprehensive Mirror (fragments)
Forty years earlier, while explaining historical lessons to his own family members, he was said to have made such points quite effectively.  In fact, the following lines actually appear right before the “breaking the vessel” story in Sima’s biography. The full quotation from the Song Dynasty History explains it in the rich tones of hagiography:

When Sima Guang was seven years old, he already appeared to be a highly accomplished individual.  He would hear the classical histories recounted by the family tutor; he admired them, and explained their contents to his family, all the while highlighting the broad outlines and teachings for them.  From that day onward, he was never without a book in his hands—to the point that he paid no attention to hunger or thirst, heat or cold.
A group of children was playing in the courtyard when one child climbed onto a large, decorative urn.  His feet slipped and he fell into deep rainwater in the vessel.  The other children fled in fear and confusion, but Sima Guang grasped a stone and broke the vessel, saving the child’s life.[1]

[d] Letter by Sima Guang
Now, in 1066, a mature Sima Guang highlighted the broad outlines of the classical histories not for his family, but for the person known in China as the Son of Heaven.  He distilled the lessons from China’s tumultuous past as a way of commenting upon how government should be managed in the present. He argued for caution in governmental matters and concern for the welfare of the people through policies that were as unobtrusive as possible.  He had spent a lifetime in study, and throughout that life had constantly sought to translate those studies into meaningful results in the world around him. He felt that history left clues for managing self, state, and society, and that the best statecraft was guided by the past.  Even as an adult, it might be said—echoing the quotation above—that Sima was never without a book in his hands or a perspective on contemporary leadership in his heart.

[e] Plum Blossoms
He was what we call today a teacher-scholar; he instructed the emperor by day and worked on his historical project by night. He presented the five chapters of the Chronology just at Emperor Yingzong came to power, in 1064. Two years later, he brought forth the eight chapter beginning of the Comprehensive project. His student and "boss," Emperor Yingzong, was impressed with the work, and gave him the imperial command to compile a history of "events of rulers and ministers in successive ages." The Comprehensive Mirror was on its way—only 280 "chapters" to go.

As his biography makes clear, Sima Guang had been taught the great histories from an early age, and developed a lasting interest in their "managerial lessons" for the present. He wanted history to make a difference for rulers, and felt that the writings of previous dynasties was deficient. In particular, he considered the official histories written in imperial times to be hollow and bureaucratic documents. They were, he felt, a jumble of biographies and event-lists that were unable to convey the deeper meanings of the past, not to mention advice for the future. He wrote of his own goal with historical writing:

Since my youth, I have perused the various histories; it appears that in the standard historical form, the text's characters are diffuse—although learned specialists read them time and again, they cannot understand them as a whole.  It is still more difficult for the emperor, having myriad daily concerns but desiring to know comprehensively the gains and losses of past events.
[f] Henan
I have always desired to compile, roughly following the form of the classical histories a chronological account entitled Comprehensive Records beginning with the Warring States and continuing to the Five Dynasties [a period of almost 1500 years].  It would select from books other than the standard histories, and concern the state's flourishing and decline, with its consequences for the people's good and ill fortune.  It will include those events that it is necessary for rulers to know—good can then be emulated, and evil shunned.[2]  

This statement contains the essence of Sima Guang's historical writing: a wide use of sources, an eye cocked toward problems of government management, and an unswerving emphasis on traditional Confucian values—from protection of the people to the maintenance of heaven's mandate.  Emulating classical histories, Sima wanted his Comprehensive Records to furnish "models and warnings," taken from China's history, which would guide rulers toward virtuous government. He wanted to create a management text based on historical teachings.

[f] Four social virtues
So, on that day in 1066, Sima was the chief tutor of a still-young emperor who—in his mid-thirties—seemed to be just coming into his own under the guidance of the decade-older wisdom of Sima Guang. Even for the eleventh century, they were a youthful power-team that appeared to have a clear ruling path ahead of them. The challenges were formidable. The Song government was paying large amounts of silk and silver to northern powers that seemed poised to attack the northern territories. Agricultural income was unstable, taxation was uneven, and there was no sure resolution to the structural problems that caused them. The talented premier-to-be and emperor saw the coming decade as fundamental to the vibrancy of Song dynasty rule. They had a plan, and Sima was convinced that the state could regain stability and prosperity under his tutelage. All he needed was time to put the plan into action.

And then the luck ran out.

[h] Zhong Kui, alone and contemplative
In 1067, Emperor Yingzong died, and his eldest son succeeded him as Emperor Shenzong (r. 1067-1085).  Sima Guang’s message of careful reflection and slow growth had appealed to the new emperor’s father, but he quickly learned that he would have a difficult time convincing the twenty year-old son about his careful and methodical approach. The young emperor was now in charge, and intent on effecting rapid change in China’s society and economy.

Sima Guang redoubled his teaching efforts, yet it was for naught.  A year later, his influence was on the wane and his chief rival, Wang Anshi, was given the premiership over him.  Sima Guang, whose entire career had been marked by enormous success in all spheres, suddenly found himself on the outside, unable to convince the new ruler of his teachings.  He had used every argument he could muster, both publicly and privately, yet he had lost. Rapid reform was in the air, and Sima could only protest respectfully and step aside. Things had changed dramatically in the space of a year, and it was not his government anymore.

Monday (4/11)—Exile and Response
After a fortnight's break—and the development of many new "departments" on Round and Square—we will return to the rest of our story.

Sima Guang reluctantly left the center of power and began a life in self-imposed exile in the ancient capital city of Luoyang. The same situation that crushed his political dreams opened the opportunity to finish one of the world's greatest historical texts. Working with five assistants, the project would take the better part of two decades. All the while, Sima harbored a well-couched resentment that he channeled into the historical project. The Comprehensive Mirror can in some respects be seen as ten-thousand pages of "I told you so" aimed at his political opponents, in a book that leaders would read many hundreds of years after his time.

[1]  Songshi [336], 10,757.
[2]  Li Tao, Xu zizhi tongjian changbian, 208.2b. Italics mine.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Beginnings (7)—Rosebud

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series "Beginnings."

Beginnings—Rosebud (Citizen Kane, 1945)

[a] A rosebud
 This may be the most famous beginning in film history. I have never understood why the film is always ranked first ("beginning") in every poll of film critics. Don't get me wrong, it is an excellent movie--inspiring and first with a bevy of wonderful innovations. But first? Of all time? All of the time?

[b] "Rosebud"
First, fifth, tenth, thirtieth (it couldn't be lower)—all of that is irrelevant here. There is no better (or more famous) movie beginning—ever.  If you have never seen it, and you still think that "rosebud" refers to, well, a rosebud...then you really have to watch an American classic (the whole thing, once-a-week for fifty-two weeks). But that is another story for another time.  Just watch the opening clip. I have included a few links below, for context.

The Beginning
 The key (short) clip:

The full sequence (with annoying advertising):

Classic Scenes (Ignore the poster's distractions—they total twenty seconds):

[c] Rosebud

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Beginnings (6)—World Chess Championship, 1972

[a] Spassky-Fischer  Reykjavík, 1972
[b] Match of the Century
World Chess Championship, 1972, Game 6—
Reykjavík Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky
For a brief period during my youth, everyone seemed to play chess. I thought it was a natural part of making one’s way through school, whether one particularly liked the game or not. Chess sets were common holiday gifts in the early 1970s, and I got my first board with plastic pieces then. It turns out that I took for normalcy what was really a short-lived historical anomaly. Most Americans seem not to have liked chess much before 1972, and don’t seem to be very interested today, either.

For one shining period, though, almost everyone paid attention. When Robert (Bobby) Fischer played Boris Spassky, everyone was a chess fan. I remember a conversation overheard at the Quality Bakery in Northfield, Minnesota that summer. A table of middle-aged men in overalls and wearing bright seed company caps debated Fischer’s “weak play with white” in game four, as well as his impressive victory with black to even the series in game five. The only time that I ever hear such conversations today is during Olympic years, when Americans suddenly become discerning experts on figure skating and gymnastics.

[c] Popular culture c. 1972
Back in the summer of 1972, however, even those not much interested in chess were drawn to the “American versus the Soviet” angle. It is hard today to imagine how powerfully the months of July, August, and September would sear themselves into our memories. The Munich Olympics began in late-August, Fischer was crowned champion on September 1, and any certainties we held about the world would pause on September 5, with the Munich hostage crisis. Somehow, through this whole time, there was a little break-in at the Watergate complex. No one who ever lived through it will forget that summer.

[d] World Chess Championship, 1972
The World Chess Championship began on July 1, with Fischer nowhere in sight for the opening ceremonies. He was demanding more money for the prize purse. The American was volatile and annoying, and I found him to be a spoiled brat (an opinion that many children express with the confidence of youth). Spassky was more dignified, and I struggled to look at the match through a lens not as crudely shaped by the Cold War as most press coverage was.
Back in Reykjavik in July, Bobby Fischer got off to a flawed start, to say the least, and his behavior matched his play. By the fifth game, though, he had leveled the match, and the next game would prove pivotal. Although I say that in retrospect, most of us “knew” it even before the opening move.
[e]     1 c4 (pawn moves two squares forward)
And what an opening move it was. Fischer had never played it before in competition. Ever. There were gasps in the audience, and even Spassky was said to have betrayed surprise. I tried to imagine the conversation the next day at the bakery. No one saw it coming. It was truly a beginning to remember.
Fischer, playing white, moved his Queen’s bishop’s pawn two squares forward.

[f] Beginning to end(game).
Fischer's standard opening (with a few small exceptions depending on the situation) was the “Ruy Lopez” opening of e4—the king’s pawn moves two squares forward. One of the criticisms of Fischer had been that his openings were just too predictable. It was as though he had been waiting for just the right moment to unleash something new.

What a beginning. 

Even if you don’t play chess, click “play” when you reach the link below, and watch the game unfold (Queen's gambit declined). It is one of the greatest games ever played, and Boris Spassky publicly applauded his opponent for masterful play—an act that even Fischer regarded as classy. Both Fischer and Spassky regarded it as the best game of the match.