From Round to Square (and back)

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (16)—High Stakes Betting

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
Fate, luck, chance...and social interaction. Those are some of the topics I wish to investigate today on Seinfeld Ethnography. Why do we sometimes give our futures over to games of chance (as Jerry and George do over the question of who gets an apartment)? Why do we sometimes say "no way" and find an alternative? Most importantly, why do we insist on do-overs? You know what I mean. Most of us have insisted on a "repeat" (perhaps long-long ago) that we might just as well have let slide had we, say,...won. Take a look at George, Jerry, and Elaine in the midst of a peculiar social dynamic.

"You didn't call 'no interference'..."

What does that even mean? The give-and-take right after the coin hits the "obstruction" is priceless. Notice that George checks the result before calling out its unfairness. If you have even been on either side of such a debate, I suspect that you will agree that it is not only George ever to take the low road in these matters. Lofty and admirable behavior, it is not.

So, how do the hands of justice,  fate, and contingency merge with testosterone, anxiety, and uncertainty? The episode is another classic view of just how deeply Seinfeld goes into the oddities of the everyday. Have you ever noticed that men tend to do these kinds of things a little more often than women (the contests of chance mixed with skill and the arguing)? Why? I am not sure that the answer is as easy as some interpreters of gendered behavior might think. Have you ever noticed that a certain kind of loser (I use the term in the widest sense) is overcome with recriminations and self-loathing after the fact? Why?

[b] Chance
As always, this is quintessentially social behavior. We tend to focus on the individual peculiarities of winners and (especially) losers, but the very power of the interaction is profoundly social. The gendered dynamic with Elaine makes it all the more palpable. This is not a loner playing solitaire. There are real stakes, and human beings are interacting.

The only thing missing is twenty minutes of analysis over coffee. Of course, that would be impossible in this case, even on Seinfeld, because George and Jerry take the "fairness" of the oracle (such as it is) quite seriously, expressing doubt only the way that it plays out in its particulars. Having read a great deal of material over the years about divination, I am struck by the similarity of assumptions taken by primitives such as Jerry and George, on the one hand, and thinkers such as the Azande (see below), on the other.

In future posts, we might look more deeply into the "rhetorics of fate and future" that intersect with plain ol' living in countless ways. For now, though, let's just think about the very social nature of winning and losing (and of being a "winner" and a "loser").

***  ***
 This week's readings run the gamut from classical anthropology to sinology (China studies) and Greek philosophy. They are meant, as always, to be juxtaposed with the Seinfeld scene. In each case though, they provide a useful lens through which to view fate, skepticism, and—I am thinking of George Costanza here—remorse.

Martha Nussbaum
Luck and Ethics
[c] Fragility
This book will be an examination of the aspiration to rational self-sufficiency in Greek ethical thought: the aspiration to make the goodness of a good human life safe from luck through the controlling power of reason. I shall use the word 'luck' not in a not strictly defined but, I hope, perfectly intelligible way, closely related to the way in which the Greeks themselves spoke of tuchē. What happens to a person by luck will be just what does not happen through his or her own agency, what just happens to him, as opposed to what he does or makes. In general, to eliminate luck from human life will be to put that life, or the most important things in it, under the control of the agent (or of those elements in him with which he identifies himself), removing the element of reliance upon the external and undependable that was captured in the plant image. And my general question will be, how much luck do these Greek thinkers believe we can humanly live with? How much should we live with, in order to live the life that is best and most valuable for a human being? This question was, as I have said, central for the Greeks. I have already suggested that I believe it to be important for us as well. But in some periods of history it would have been thought not to be a genuine question at all...[1]

Richard J. Smith
The Ways of Wind and Water
[d] Fortune
Geomancy shared with traditional Chinese medicine a concern with maintaining a harmonious yinyang equilibrium in the midst of constant change. A given location, like the human body, represented a microcosm of the universe, which naturally required a balance of cosmic energy or qi for proper functioning. Any disruption in a geomantic system brought the functional equivalent of illness in human affairs; that is, misfortune. As specialists in siting, geomancers, often known as fenshui masters (fengshui xiansheng), were, in effect, "doctors of the earth." They often employed medical metaphors to explain their ideas, and in fact, a great many specialized in traditional Chinese medicine. Before any significant building took place, geomancers determined the proper time and place for the construction, in order to assure maximum benefit to the parties concerned. If necessary, they prescribed "treatment" for an area, such as the erection of a pagoda, or the razing of a poorly-located structure. Quite often their clients sought second opinions. But whereas the influence of medical doctors was confined primarily to individuals, the pronouncements of geomancers could affect entire families, clans, villages, towns and even cities. As a result, fengshui specialists often found themselves in the midst of social controversies.

E.E. Evans-Pritchard
Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande
[e] Oracles
Furthermore, only certain types of question are regularly put to the oracle: questions relating to witchcraft, sickness, death, lengthy journeys, mourning and vengeance, changing of homestead sites, lengthy agricultural and hunting enterprises, and so forth. One does not ask the poison oracle about small matters or questions involving minute precision with regard to time. A man would not ask such a question as: "Will I kill a bushbuck if I go hunting tomorrow?" and since men do not ask that sort of question they do not receive immediate detailed instructions which might go amiss and expose the falsity of the oracle.

Indeed, as a rule Azande do not ask questions to which answers are easily tested by experience and they ask only those questions which embrace contingencies. The answers either cannot be tested, or if proved by subsequent events to be erroneous permit an explanation of the error. In the last resort errors can always be explained by attributing them to mystical interference. But there is no need to suppose that the Zande is conscious of an evasion of clear issues. In restricting his questions to certain well-known types he is conforming to tradition. It does not occur to him to text the oracle experimentally unless he has grave suspicions about a particular packet of [oracle] poison.[3]

[1] Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 3-4.

[2] Richard J. Smith, Fortune-Tellers and Philosophers: Divination in Traditional Chinese Society (Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1991), 131.

[3] E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande [Abridged by Evan Giles] (London: Oxford University Press, 1976), 160-161.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande [Abridged by Eva Giles]. London: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Nussbaum, Martha. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Smith, Richard J. Fortune-Tellers and Philosophers: Divination in Traditional Chinese Society. Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1991.

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