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.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (5)—Poppie's Pizza

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.
Click below for all "Seinfeld Ethnography" posts: 
Marine Biologist         The Doorman          Opposite George   Newman's Mail   The Bootleg         Marriage
Just Dessert               Sleep Desk             Late Coffee            High Stakes        Motor Oil              Downtown 
Code Cracking           Nonfat Yogurt          Bad Boy                 It's Not You         I Can't Be...          Exploding Wallet
Elaine Flies Coach    The Close Talker     The Alliance           Broccoli               Coated Culture    Dinner Party

Click here for the reference to the "Argonauts" title, below.
[a] Pizza civility
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
[b] Debating "pizza"

Today's post in Seinfeld Ethnography deals with concepts and classification in practice. The key scene (less than a minute in length) has Kramer creating his (the definition has yet to be worked out, although he thinks of it as a pizza). But when is it a pizza? When it comes out of the oven (Kramer), or when you "put your fists in the dough" (Poppie)? Yes, the episode points (brilliantly, I might add) to larger socio-political issues, but I prefer to stick to social and cultural analysis. When is it pizza? This is an important question. More to the point, however, what is a pizza? The issues of cultural classification and division are, to my mind, the most interesting. Is cucumber Is Cap'n Crunch sushi...sushi? Think about it. What are the limitations of what you (yourself) consider "food?"

[c]When it becomes pizza.
Let me give some examples, and then we'll proceed to our theoretical readings for the week (remember, Seinfeld Ethnography has been created to pique your interest with fascinating scenes and questions, and then bury that interest under a blanket of academic a fun way).

So, back to the topic. "Food" is a cultural construction. Don't even try to tell me that there is anything absolutely "natural" about what we consider "food." Yes, I will concede that most societies consider igneous rock "non-food," but you would be hard-pressed to come up with a meaningful list of items that are properly considered "food" in all societies. And that is before we take the very great culinary-cultural step of juxtaposing food items. Just think about the following culinary possibilities, which are nowhere near the interpretive limits—lutefisk tacos, eel-stuffed olives, spaghetti smothered in peanut butter, or, well, cucumber pizza. I have enjoyed several of these.

[d] Flies
Take a serious look at the quotations from Claude Lévi-Strauss, Marshall Sahlins, and Mary Douglas, below. Horse? Dog? The land of the sacred dog? What does food classification even mean? On top of that, how do we define "when" it is food? This is the significant second question raised in a Seinfeld episode to which we will return in future posts. Is swimming tuna food? Is flying eagle food (careful with your answer, Americans)? And, no, I am not going to ask the William Golding question (look it up, but think about it).

I ask only the following (directly flowing from the pizza scene below):
Is it food?  Is it pizza?  
And, on top of all of that...when does it become food?

The episode is brief, but it is full of fertile concepts.  Oh, and read to the very end of this post.  You need to.

The theoretical readings may seem to be far distant from conversations of cucumbers (or visions of sugar plums). Think them through, though. The cucumbers are closer than you might imagine. This is, in short, more about classification than "animal, vegetable, mineral." Think about it.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind
[e] Oops
To sum up: birds and dogs are relevant in connection with human society either because they suggest it by their own social life (which men look on as an imitation of theirs), or alternatively because, having no social life of their own, they form part of ours. Cattle, like dogs, form part of human society, but as it were, asocially, since they verge on objects. Finally racehorses, like birds, form a series disjoined from human society, but like cattle, lacking in intrinsic sociability. If, therefore, birds are metaphorical human beings and dogs, metonymical human beings, cattle may be thought of as metonymical inhuman beings and racehorses as metaphorical inhuman beings. Cattle are contiguous only for want of similarity, racehorses similar only for want of contiguity. Each of these two categories offers the converse image of one of the two other categories, which themselves stand in the relation of inverted symmetry.[1]

Marshall Sahlins, Culture and Practical Reason
[f] Land of the sacred dog
To adopt the conventional incantations of structuralism, "everything happens as if" the food system is inflected throughout by a principle of metonymy, such that taken as a whole it composes a sustained metaphor on cannibalism. Dogs and horses participate in American society in the capacity of subjects. They have proper personal names, and indeed we are in the habit of conversing with them as we do not talk to pigs and cattle. Dogs and horses are deemed inedible, for, as the Red Queen said, "It isn't etiquette to cut anybody you've been introduced to." But as domestic cohabitants, dogs are closer to men than are horses, and their consumption is more unthinkable: they are "one of the family." Traditionally horses stand in a more menial working relationship to people; if dogs are as kinsmen, horses are as servants and nonkin. Hence the consumption of horses is at least conceivable, if not general, whereas the notion of eating dogs understandably evokes some of the revulsion of the incest tabu...Edibility is inversely related to humanity.[2]

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (see "pizza hands," below)
[g] Cultural hygiene
The book proceeds by developing two themes. One presents taboo as a spontaneous device for protecting the distinctive categories of the universe. Taboo protects the local consensus on how the world is organised. It shores up wavering uncertainty. It reduces intellectual and social disorder. We may well ask why is it necessary to protect the primary distinctions of the universe, and why are taboos so bizarre? The second theme answers this with reflections on the cognitive discomfort caused by ambiguity. Ambiguous things can seem very threatening. Taboo confronts the ambiguous and shunts it into the category of the sacred.[3]

Why are we talking about dogs and horses instead of cucumbers and cheese? Because it's about the juxtaposition of categories, not salad.

Sacrality has nothing to do with hand-washing, does it? Does it?

And when is it a pizza? When?
"It's a pizza when it comes out of the oven."
"It's a pizza the moment you put your fists in the dough."

Oh, and wash your hands. Please.

[1] Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 207.

[2] Marshall Sahlins, Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 174-175.
[3] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966), xi

Wednesday, May 4th
Mr. Bookman, Library Detective
[h] Monsieur Bookman

History, authority, order, and even the panopticon (well, of a sort) combine to bring Mr. Bookman to Jerry's door, asking about a 1971 library book...and freeze-dried coffee.

Theory?  Oh, yeah, there will be theory...plenty of it.

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