From Round to Square (and back)

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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (11)—The Bootleg

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

[a] Bootleg   RF
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
Jerry and Kramer are in over their heads. They have no idea. They think that they are going to a showing of Death Blow, and instead they are verging on felony (and feed bags). And artistry. There is really no way to prepare you for the combination of illegality, stomach cramps, baseball equipment, and firearms without...just watching. So just watch.
Where can we begin? How about the law.The episode gives us several reasons to look the other way, even though the F-word (F-E-L-O-N-Y) is staring right at them. This is almost as serious as ripping the tag off the mattress. Almost (unless you are the consumer, and you have paid for it already, in which case it's fine).

The social analytical possibilities here are boundless, so let's just stick with a few of them. We have already covered a very wide swath of human behavior in Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific, and we have just begun. If you think about it, we have examined fashion, repression, hierarchy, overwhelm, purity, and emotion...just to name a few.

So we're sitting in the theater, waiting to see a special preview of Death Blow when a sociopath with a concealed weapon and a monster bag of jujubes starts filming it all. Remonstrance, anyone? But (I hear you cry)...there is no hierarchy here! Gun, hierarchy, gun, hierarchy...
                      Kramer: He'll understand
                      Jerry: People with guns don't understand. That's why they get guns...
                               too many misunderstandings.

Do you walk out of the theater, avoiding confrontation and legal entanglements...but miss Death Blow?  Um, no. Do you film the rest of the movie under threat of violence? Um, yes. And then it gets really weird. We move from felony to artistry.
                    The zoom-ins, the framing; I was enchanted.

It is all just a little too much, unless we think about the social-analytical possibilities wrapped up in the concept of bootleg. What, indeed, do we mean by the term, and why does it provide everything from street films and whiskey to misdirection on the part of the quarterback? What a concept. It seems to bridge individual artistry and social processes. Ah, yes. That might be why it is so interesting.
[b] Bootleg playbook   RF
We might be onto something here. Indeed (calling all young anthropologists) no one has ever studied the concept of bootleg in a thorough and analytical fashion. This is my gift to you, senior anthropology majors heading to graduate school. Examine the concept from its etymological and philosophical implications, on through its psychological possibilities, and then (the symphonic strains resound) to its full social and cultural powers.

Or we can just look at one cranky gun-wielder (without a permit, it seems), and several cowering urbanites who don't know how to react. That would be the everyday (11:00  News) way of looking at these issues, and this is one of the few examples in Seinfeld of the characters not really taking it to the next level. There is such a world of possibility here that just giving Brady the tape with Elaine dancing is almost a disappointment.

Let's not be too tough on them, though. We will always have the exquisite scene of Jerry as artist that ranks in the top hundred all-time of Seinfeld soliloquies.

I don't care about Brody. I was up on ninety-sixth street today...there was a little kid—couldn't have been more than ten years old. He was asking a street vendor if he had any other bootlegs that looked as good as Death Blow. That's who I care about. The little kid who needs bootlegs, because his parent or guardian won't let him see the excessive violence and strong sexual content you and I take for granted.

[c] Prohibited   RF
So now let's look at a little bit of "theory." Bootleg. Well, there ain't much anthrup'logical literature (as we say back home) on bootleggin'. Not much phl'os'phy, neither. Still, there is enough material surrounding it, loosely at least, to allow us to juxtapose some useful issues.  Let's give it a try with a series of philosophers from Emile Durkheim (whose training was in neo-Kantian philosophy), to Robert Solomon, and onto Bernard Williams. We'll explore legalities, anger, and morality, and then call it an episode.

Emile Durkheim
Restitutive Sanctions (from The Division of Labor in Society)

[d] Divided labor
What distinguishes [the restitutive] sanction is that it is not expiatory but consists of a simple return in state. The person who violates or disregards the law is not made to suffer in relation to his wrongdoing; he is simply sentenced to comply. If certain things have already been done, the judge reinstates them as they should have been. He speaks of law; he says nothing of punishment. Damage payments have no penal character; they are only a means of reviewing the past in order to reinstate it, as far as possible, in its normal form...

Neglect of these rules is not even punished diffusely. The defendant who has lost in litigation is not disgraced, his honour in not smirched. We can even imagine these rules differing from how they are now without any feeling of distaste. The idea of tolerating murder makes us indignant, but we quite easily accept modification of the law of inheritance...As these prescriptions do not correspond to any sentiment in us, and as we generally do not know scientifically the reasons for their existence, since this science does not exist, they have no roots in the majority of us...It is proof that rules with a restitutive sanction either do not at all derive from the conscience collective, or are only feeble states of it. Repressive law corresponds to the heart, the centre of the common conscience; purely moral rules are already a less central part; finally, restitutive law originates in very marginal regions, spreading well beyond. The more it becomes truly itself, the more removed it becomes.[1]

Robert C. Solomon
Getting Angry 
         The Tahitians say that an angry man is like a bottle. When he gets filled up he
          will begin to spill over. (Tavana, quoted in Levy 1973: 285).

[e] Culture, theory
The metaphor is so pervasive, it so dominates our thinking about our feelings, that we find ourselves unable to experience our emotions without it. We find it in philosophy and medicine as well as in our poetry, and we find it too in other cultures. Consequently, we believe what the metaphor tells us instead of recognizing it as a metaphor, a cultural artifact that systematically misleads us in our understanding of ourselves and, in anthropology, our understanding of other peoples.

The metaphor, captured succinctly in the Tahitian simile that an angry man is like a bottle, is the hydraulic metaphor. It presents the image of emotion as a force within us, filling up and spilling over...The theory received its classic formulation by William James (1884), in "What is Emotion?" James answered his question with his theory: An emotion is the perception of a visceral disturbance brought about by a traumatic experience, for example seeing a bear leap out at you or coming across a bucked filled with blood. The theory (developed simultaneously by C.G. Lange in Europe) is not appropriately called the "Jamesian (James-Lange) theory of emotion." It is, I shall argue, as misleading as it is pervasive.[2]

[f] A moral
Bernard Williams
The Amoralist
However, we need a distinction here. In one way, it is possible for a man to think it "all right" for everyone to behave self-interestedly, without his having got into any distinctively moral territory of thought at all: if, roughly, "it's all right" means "I am not going to moralize about it." He will be in some moral territory if "all right" means something like "permitted," for that would carry implications such as "people ought not to interfere with other people's pursuit of their own interests," and that is not a thought which an amoralist can have. Similarly, if he objects (as he no doubt will) to other people treating him as he treats them, this will be perfectly consistent so long as his objecting consists just in such things as his not liking it and fighting back. What he cannot consistently do is resent it or disapprove of it, for these are attitudes within the moral system. It may be difficult to discover whether he has given this hostage to moral argument or not, since he will no doubt have discovered that insincere expressions of resentment and moral hurt serve to discourage some of the more squeamish in his environment from hostile action.

This illustrates, as do many of his activities, the obvious fact that this man is a parasite on the moral system, and he and his satisfactions could not exist as they do unless others operated differently. For, in general, there can be no society without some moral rules, and he needs society; also he takes more particular advantage of moral institutions like promising and of moral dispositions of people around him. He cannot deny, as a fact, his parasitic position; but he is very resistant to suggestions of its relevance. For if we try saying "How would it be for you if everyone behaved like that?" he will reply, "Well, if they did, not good, I suppose—though in fact I might do better in the resulting chaos than some of the others. But the fact is, most of them are not going to do so; and if they do ever get round to it, I shall be dead by then." The appeal to the consequences of an imagined universalization is an essentially moral argument, and he is, consistently, not impressed by it.[3]

[1] Emile Durkheim, Selected Writings [Edited and translated by Anthony Giddens] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 135-136.

[2] Richard A. Shweder and Robert A. Levine, Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self, and Emotion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 238.

[3] Bernard Williams, Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 5-6.

Durkheim, Emile. Selected Writings [Edited and translated by Anthony Giddens]. Cambridge: Cambridge 
          University Press, 1972.
Shweder, Richard A. and Robert A. Levine. Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self, and Emotion
          Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Williams, Bernard. Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

***  ***
As a special reward for those of you who actually read all of the philosophical reflection...all of the way to the end, I have the rest of the context for the strange ending to Cry, Cry Again.

Wednesday, June 15th 
Jerry "marries" Courtney Cox. It's all about dry-cleaning, maple syrup, and tension. 
And theory.

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