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, May 11, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (7)—Marine Biologist

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] Mariner   RF
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific 

Call me George. Costanza.

The sea was angry that day—the day George pretended to be a marine biologist. One might put the situation more accurately to say that he was thrust into the role of marine biologist by (relatively) well-meaning outsiders. Before I continue down the interpretive path, take a look at the clip. It has everything.

[b] Marined   RF
Today, I wish to examine a cluster of concepts that we use regularly, even though (does this sound familiar?) they are often vague, ill-formed, or discussed less than they are invoked. These all surround our roles in society, and the uses we make of them. Why did Jerry feel that "marine biologist" might sound better to the college acquaintance than "he's living with his parents?"

We are our roles, people, and, as we all know, they figure more prominently than we might sometimes like in our democratic culture. We can rail from today until next week about how "unfair" it is that we talk about people in terms of the jobs they hold, and most listeners would readily agree. Isn't it funny that we still keep talking about people through the lens, as it were, of the jobs they hold? We can dislike it, and it can make us uncomfortable, but it doesn't go away.

It's precisely those kinds of things—stuff, so to speak, that "won't go away," even though we wish it would—that I seek to explore on Round and Square.

It goes beyond roles and the way that we talk about them, though (jack-of-all trades, billionaire, Pulitzer-prize winner, scapegoat). Have you ever noticed the way that people have a way of "filling" their roles? It happens more often than we might guess. To be sure, it doesn't always happen. Without the latter, we wouldn't have the riveting narratives of failure that pepper our understanding of everything from basketball coaching to presidencies.

[c] Obstruction
But sometimes they do—sometimes people rise from relative obscurity to master the intricacies of collegiate national championships or civil wars. Sometimes people rise to the occasion. Fictional or otherwise, George did, and to my mind it raises questions of "who we are," and how unambiguously social that is.

In other words, we are wrong to look at "inherent qualities" (although this is the way we almost always talk about such matters). We need to look at the relationship between the individual and a complex array of social conditions and roles. That gets us a great deal further down the road toward understanding how a social irritant named George who lives at home in his thirties can dislodge the Titleist from the flailing, mammal.

***  ***
This week, we are going to take a rather more philosophical turn with our "theory readings." We will examine the most philosophical of American anthropologists, Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), and his now famous statement that all thinking is social (imagine "the thinker" surrounded by humanity, and you are close to his meaning). We will also read a distinguished French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005), who  will figure more and more prominently in social theoretical discussions in the coming decades, when anthropologists start to bother to read him. We will complete the discussion with a few lines from Alisdayr McIntyre's (b. 1929) Dependent Rational Animals.

Never forget, that the readings are meant to carry the discussion—like a stray golf ball arcing through the sky—in directions far beyond the original topic. Marine what?

Clifford Geertz
[d] Social thought
"Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali"

The Social Nature of Thought
Human thought is consummately social: social in its origins, social in its functions, social in its forms, social in its applications. At base, thinking is a public activity—its natural habitat is the houseyard, the marketplace, and the town square. The implications of this fact for the anthropological analysis of culture, my concern here, are enormous, subtle, and insufficiently appreciated.

I want to draw out some of these implications by means of what might seem at first glance as excessively special, even a somewhat esoteric inquiry: an examination of the cultural apparatus in terms of which the people of Bali define, perceive, and react to—that is, think about—individual persons. Such an investigation is, however special and esoteric only in the descriptive sense. The facts, as facts, are of little immediate interest beyond the confines of ethnography, adn I shall summarize them as briefly as I can. But when see against the background of a general theoretical aim—to determine what follows for the analysis of culture from the proposition that human thinking is essentially a social activity—the Balinese data take on a peculiar importance.

No only are Balinese idea in this area unusually well developed, but they are, from a Western perspective, odd enough to bring to light some general relationships between different orders of cultural conceptualization that are hidden from us when we look only at our own all-too-familiar framework for the identification, classification, and handling of human and quasi-human individuals. In particular, they point up some unobvious connections between the way in which a people perceive themselves and others, the way in which they experience time, and the affective tone of their collective life—connections that have an import not just for the understanding of Balinese society but human society generally. [1]

Paul Ricoeur
[e] Other
Oneself as Another

By the title Oneself as Another, I wish to designate the point of convergence between the three major philosophical intentions that influenced the preparation of the studies that make up this book.

The first intention was to indicate the primacy of reflective meditation over the immediate positing of the subject, as this is expressed in the first person singular: "I think," "I am." This initial attention draws support from the grammars of natural languages inasmuch as they allow the opposition between "self" and "I." This support takes different forms following the peculiarities of each language. Beyond the broad correlation between the French soi, the English self, the German Selbst, the Italian se, and the Spanish sí mismo, grammars diverge. But these divergences are themselves instructive...

The second philosophical intention, implicitly present in the title in the world "self," is to distinguish two major meanings of "Identity"...depending on whether one understands by "identical" the equivalent of the Latin ipse or idem. The equivocity of the term "identical" will be at the center of our reflections on personal identity and narrative identity and related to a primary trait of the self, namely its temporality...Our thesis throughout will be that identity in the sense of ipse implies no assertion concerning some unchanging core of the personality. And this will be true, even when selfhood adds it won peculiar modalities of identity, as will be seen in the analysis of promising...

The third philosophical intention—this one explicitly included in the title—is related to the preceding one, in the sense that ipse—identity involves a dialectic complementary to that of selfhood and sameness, namely the dialectic of self and other than self...Oneself as Another suggests from the outset that the selfhood of oneself implies otherness to such an intimate degree that one cannot be thought of without the other, that instead one passes into the other, as might might say in Hegelian terms.[2]

Alisdair Macintyre
[f] Animals
Dependent Rational Animals

We human beings are vulnerable to many kinds of affliction and most of us are at some time afflicted by serious ills. How we cope is only in small part up to us. It is most ofte to others that we owe our survival, let alone our flourishing, as we encounter bodily illness and injury, inadequate nutrition, mental defect and disturbance, and human aggression and neglect. This dependence on particular others for protection and sustenance is most obvious in early childhood and old age. But between these first and last stages our lives are characteristically marked by longer or shorter periods of injury, illness or other disablement and some among us are disabled for their entire lives.

These two related sets of facts, those concerning our vulnerabilities and afflictions and those concerning the extent of our dependence on others are so evidently of singular importance that it might seem that no account of the human condition whose author hoped to achieve credibility could avoid giving them a central place. Yet the history of Western moral philosophy suggests otherwise. From Plato to Moore and since there are usually, with some rare exceptions, only passing references to human vulnerability and affliction and to the connections between them and our dependence on others...

The question therefore arises: what difference to moral philosophy would it make, if we were to treat the facts of vulnerability and affliction and the related facts of dependence as central to the human condition? As does the further question: how should we begin to try to answer this question? In philosophy, where one begins generally makes a difference to the outcome of one's enquiries... This failure [to address these questions] is perhaps rooted in, is certainly reinforced by the extent to which we conceive of ourselves and imagine ourselves as other than animal, as exempt from the hazardous condition of "mere" animality... [and] we [have] become in consequence forgetful of our bodies and of how our thinking is the thinking of one species of animal.

There is also another and perhaps more fundamental relationship between our animal condition and our vulnerabilities. It will be a central thesis of this book that the virtues we need, if we are to develop from our initial animal condition into that of independent rational agents, and the virtues that we need, if we are to confront and respond to vulnerability and disability both in ourselves and others, belong to one and the same set of virtues, the distinctive virtues of dependent rational animals, whose dependence, rationality, and animality have to be understood in relationship to each other. [3]
[1] Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 360-361. Emphasis mine.
[2] Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, xxx.
[3] Alasdair Macintyre, Dependent Rational Animals (Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 1999), 1-5. Emphasis mine.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973. 
Macintyre, Alasdair. Dependent Rational Animals. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 1999.
Ricoeur, Paul. Oneself as Another. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Wednesday, May 18th
The Doorman
Roles, assumptions, social behavior. There's more to opening doors than you might think.

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for these very interesting posts, thanks also to Pat who introduced me to Round and square.
    Self as other, reminds me of Arthur Rimbaud's verse: "Je est un autre". I wonder if that wasn't always true, throughout history.