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.
When is coffee...just coffee? Although this scene might be considered just a bit "racy" in some parts of the globe (only half of this blog's readers are from North America), I don't think the reference to what coffee...could be is all that sensitive. Most people won't bat an eye, of course. Here's the point, though. Eyes should "bat" over the profoundity of the question ("was it really coffee?") and that has everything to do with the question's underlying social theoretical significance.
When is it coffee, and when is it something else? When is something "just a gift" or "just a little favor?" There are social and cultural minefields here that we have all negotiated, because it is not just coffee and potential midnight amorousness involved. Think about the larger implications of this little scene.
|[b] Opportunity RF|
It is hard for me to think of this scene without getting onto my social/cultural hobby horse and saying—for probably the fortieth time on Round and Square so far—that we tend to overplay the individual psychology in this sort of scene (George does set himself up for this) and underplay the wider social dynamics. Beneath the almost clinical oddities that make up George Costanza lie a very deep and real set of social issues caused by the exchange of gifts (coffee, for example) and the obligations they create.
The French social theorist Marcel Mauss (1874-1950) wrote that gifts have a way of "forcing obligation" on the receivers. Mauss has a profound point here. That dynamic has never gone away—in any society, large or small, that I have encountered. We are going to investigate, in this week's ethnographic and theoretical readings, some of the ways in which the rich dynamic of gift and obligation play out in social life. George may seem to be an isolated wierdlet, and, indeed, he is. His psychological problems, though, have much deeper roots in the way that we all go about our lives. It is why Seinfeld remains the most masterful of all television shows. Even when we can't stand to look at him anymore, George (and other characters) show us the path toward deep understanding.
During my first summer in the village this practice presented me with a problem. As long as I drank tea, I could use my foreignness to excuse my inability to smoke. However, during one period stomach problems convinced me to also avoid tea. Though tolerant enough not to be mad, my host commented "How can you both not smoke and not drink tea? If you don't smoke and don't drink tea, what do you do? I had made myself a social cripple. By not accepting cigarettes and tea, I was refusing to participate in the creation of good ganqing and hence the establishment of guanxi. I quickly learned to always accept tea, but also found it was not necessary to drink much.
From the Common Pot
|[e] Village Life|
 Marcel Mauss, The Gift [Translated by W.D. Halls] (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1990), 3.
 Andrew Kipnis, Producing Guanxi: Sentiment, Self, and Subculture in a North China Village (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 45-46.
 James L. and Rubie S. Watson, Village Life in Hong Kong: Politics, Gender, and Ritual in the New Territories (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2004), 117.
Kipnis, Andrew. Producing Guanxi: Sentiment, Self, and Subculture in a North China Village. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1997.
Mauss, Marcel. The Gift [Translated by W.D. Halls]. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1990.
Watson, James L. and Rubie S. Watson. Village Life in Hong Kong: Politics, Gender, and Ritual in the New Territories. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2004.
Wednesday, July 13th
High Stakes Betting
Jerry and George decide to flip a coin, and then the social and cultural rules of gamesmanship blow right up.