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. 

1 comment:

  1. Robert -
    Check out the conversation on Twitter:!/WennerGrenOrg/status/182893493331570688

    Kate Harding