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, July 6, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (15)—Too Late for Coffee

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.
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
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
When is a colleague's invitation to dinner...just dinner? Does he want a favor? When is a good turn done by a friend...just a good turn? This isn't just about coffee, people, and we'll consider some of the possibilities in this week's readings. For now, though, watch George, Elaine, and Jerry. Elaine has a point when she wonders what George's parents did to him.

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.

Marcel Mauss
The Gift
[c] Gift
Among all these very complex themes and this multiplicity of social 'things' that are in a state of flux, we seek here to study only one characteristic—one that goes deep but is isolated: the so to speak voluntary character of these total services, apparently free and disinterested but nevertheless constrained and self-interested. Almost always such services have taken the form of the gift, the present generously given even when, in the gesture accompanying the transaction, there is only a polite fiction, formalism, and social deceit, and when really there is obligation and economic self-interest. Although we shall indicate in detail all the various principles that have imposed this appearance on a necessary form of exchange, namely, the division of labour in society itself—among all these principles we shall nevertheless study only one in depth. What rule of legality and self-interest, in societies of a backward or archaic type, compels the gift that has been received to be obligatorily reciprocated? What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back? This is the problem on which we shall fasten more particularly, whilst indicating others.[1]

Andrew Kipnis
Producing Guanxi
[d] Guanxi
After everyone sat down, hosts most always offered tea, cigarettes, and sometimes small snacks like melon seeds, watermelon (during the summer), and (especially at weddings) candy. Hosts did not ask guests if they wanted these tidbits, and guests were expected gracefully to accept them. The informality of asking is someone wanted something and refusing it if one didn't was reserved for everyday situations among friends and relatives. Informality implied a close guanxi [social tie]. A demand for informality from a guest was both rude and prohibited the guanxi-producing practices through which distance could be overcome. Cook Feng explained that people don't smoke and drink alone and told me a popular local saying, "wine and tobacco aren't split among households" (jiuyan bufenjia), implying that one shouldn't be too possessive with wine and tobacco. As media of ganqing [social emotions] tobacco and wine had to be shared to be effective.

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.[2]

James Watson
From the Common Pot
[e] Village Life
One must conclude, therefore, that shk puhn is quite obviously more than a simple feast devised as a convenient way to celebrate festive occasions. It is a central symbol of community life. Those who eat from the common pot are bound by a special relationship. the very act of sharing this low cuisine has the symbolic effect of obliterating class and status differences. Periodically, even the wealthiest entrepreneurs and the most exalted of local politicians shed the trappings of their class and eat with their fellow villagers—squatting on the floor with everyone else, digging in the pot, searching for a prize piece of chicken. This in my view, is why the custom is retained by the people of the New Territories: In sharing the common pot, villagers manage to negate the status differences that govern their everyday lives and create for themselves—momentarily at least—the illusion of social equality.[3]

[1] Marcel Mauss, The Gift [Translated by W.D. Halls] (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1990), 3.
[2] Andrew Kipnis, Producing Guanxi: Sentiment, Self, and Subculture in a North China Village (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 45-46.
[3] 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.

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