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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (17)—Motor Oil

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] Commitment  RF
 Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific 
Automobile as self. Automobile as extension of self. These are just a few ideas that this week's episode calls to mind in Seinfeld Ethnography. Since at least the 1920s, a major thread in advertising and popular culture has been "a man and his car." I have emphasized, for a reason, the highly gendered nature of this image. I make a point of it because it seemed (when I was growing up; it is different now, I think) that I was one of the few young men who just wasn't very interested in cars, except to get from place-to-place. 

This would be a kind of four-wheel sacrilege for generations born before 1960. In the old days, it was "women" who were thought to lack interest in cars. "Men" loved cars...and baseball. If you are a younger reader of Round and Square, you may think I exaggerate. Talk to your elders...or study some American cultural history—or rummage around in the attic. Seriously. I say that not to be rude, but rather to point out how much the world has changed in some of these respects. I remember finding, in my grandparents' home, a little volume (from the late-1940s) entitled A Wife's Guide to Baseball. The introduction explained that women would never be especially close to their husbands or sons if they could not understand baseball. The message was that they needed to adapt. This raised my "feminist hackles" even as a child.

[b] History  
 Anyone who has lived through or studied the changing gender patterns of the last century will have many of the reactions I have had—a combination of disgust (based on today's world) and historical-cultural fascination. It was a different world, and I am just barely old enough to sense four or five "mini-eras" of change.

All of this is different today, of course, and there is no distinction at all between men and women when it comes to cars and sports, right? Right?

Yeah, right.

The only thing I find fascinating and different about today is that all of these themes cut across and through gender lines. We have men who don't care much about cars (Jerry, moi), women who care passionately about them (Danica Patrick is only one example), and all sorts of gradations from there. There are men who don't know the difference between a shortstop and a rest stop, and women who can rattle off Derek Jeter's career fielding percentage.

All of this leads me to motor oil and gendered confusion. You see, Jerry just isn't that into his car, and it shows. Depending on how into your car you are, you may recognize just a little bit of yourself in either Jerry ("how much money is this going to cost me?") or someone you know from Everybody Loves Raymond ("I don't understand you"). 

The washer fluid is not fine!

[c] Social energy  RF
It is not difficult to see the rhetoric of relationship breakup here. The utter inability of either side to understand the other is what I wish to explore in our "theoretical" readings this week in Seinfeld Ethnography. What is the relationship between prized possessions and gender (think about the troubling subtext of the discussion in this week's episode). What is the connection between a man (or a woman) and his (or her) most prized possessions. Are there identity issues mixed into this already thick intellectual stew?

Yup, you betcha.

Let's do some reading that will stifle a little of the joy of thinking about television comedy segments. Let's break the fun (as we do every week on Argonauts) with dry, academic discourse! Remember, as always, that the theoretical readings are meant to be juxtaposed with—or even read against the grain of—the Seinfeld clip. Georg Simmel and George Herbert Mead play upon various aspects of individuality. Paul Ricoeur helps us to think about conceptual challenges in dealing with earlier historical periods (such as times when "man" and "car" were intertwined, and women "didn't understand" baseball).

All three have ways of leading us toward new questions about individuality, relationships, and...motor oil. 

Georg Simmel
Conflict in Intimate Relations
[d] Simmel
Furthermore, the refined discriminatory sense, especially of deeply sensitive persons, makes attractions and antipathies more passionate if these feelings contrast with those of the past. This is true in the case of unique, irrevocable decisions concerning a given relationship, and it must be sharply distinguished from the everyday vacillations within a mutual belongingness which is felt, on the whole, to be unquestionable. Sometimes between men and women a fundamental aversion, even a feeling of hatred—not in regard to certain particulars, but the reciprocal repulsion of the total person—is the first stage of a relation whose second phase is passionate love. One might entertain the paradoxical suspicion that when individuals are destined to the closest mutual emotional relationship, the emergence of the intimate phase is guided by an instinctive pragmatism so that the eventual feeling attains its most passionate intensification and awareness of what it has achieved by means of an opposite prelude—a step back before running, as it were.

The inverse phenomenon shows the same form: the deepest hatred grows out of broken love. Here, however, not only the sense of discrimination is decisive but also the denial of one's own past—a denial involved in such a change of feeling. To have to recognize that a deep love—and not only a sexual love—was an error, a failure of intuition (Instinkt), so compromises us before ourselves, so splits the security and unity of our self-conception, that we unavoidably make the object of this intolerable feeling pay for it. We cover our secret awareness of our own responsibility for it by hatred which makes it easy for us to pass all responsibility on to the other.[1]

George Herbert Mead
The Fusion of the "I" and the "Me" in Social Activities
[e] Mead by Cook
It may be only on certain days of the week and at certain hours of the day that we can get into that attitude of feeling at one with everybody and everything about us. The day goes around; we have to go into the market to compete with other people and to hold our heads above water in a difficult economic situation. we cannot keep up the sense of exaltation, but even then we may still say that these demands of life are only a task which is put on us, a duty which we must perform in order to get at particular moments the religious attitude. When the experience is attained, however, it comes with this feeling of complete identification of the self with the other.

It is a different and perhaps higher attitude of identification that comes from working with others in a certain situation. There is, of course, still a sense of control; after all, what one does is determined by what other persons are doing; one has to be keenly aware of the positions of all the others; he knows what the others are going to do. But he has to be constantly awake to the way in which other people are responding in order to do his part in the team work. That situation has its delight, but it is not a situation in which one simply throws himself, so to speak, into the stream where he can get a sense of abandonment. That experience belongs to the religious or patriotic situation. Team work carries, however, a content which the other does not carry. The religious situation is abstract as far as the content is concerned. How one is to help others is a very complicated undertaking. One who undertakes to be a universal help to others is apt to find himself a universal nuisance. There is no more distressing person to have about than one who is constantly seeking to assist everybody else...The sense of team work is found where all are working toward a common end and everyone has a sense of the common end interpenetrating the particular function which he is carrying on.[2] 

Paul Ricoeur
The Historian's Craft and the Objectivity of History
[f] Ricoeur
We expect history to have a certain objectivity which is proper to it. The way in which history is born and reborn confirms this; it always flows from the way in which traditional societies rectify the official and pragmatic arrangement of their past...But who is to tell us what this specific objectivity is? The philosopher, in this respect, cannot enlighten the historian; for it is always the very exercise of a scientific profession which instructs the philosopher. Thus we must first listen to the historian as he reflects on his craft, for he is the measure of the objectivity proper to history, just as his craft is the measure of the good and bad subjectivity implied by this objectivity...

We should be grateful to Marc Bloch for initially using the word "analysis," instead of "synthesis," to designate the historian's activity of trying to explain. He is ever so right in maintaining that the historian's task is not to restore things "such as they happened." For history's ambition is not to bring the past back to life but to recompose and reconstruct, that is to say, to compose and construct a retrospective sequence...

Understanding is therefore not the opposition of explanation; on the contrary, it is its complement and counterpart. It bears the mark of the analysis or the analyses which made it possible. And it retains this mark to the end; the consciousness of an era, which the historian tries to reconstruct within his most far-reaching synthesis, is nourished by all the interactions and varied relations he has won through analysis. The full historical fact, the "integral past," is properly an Idea in the Kantian sense, that is to say, the never attained limit of an ever more extensive and complex effort to integrate. The notion of the "integral past" is the regulative idea of that effort...

No "master conception," moreover can encompass the whole of history. An epoch is still a product of analysis. History will never propose to our understanding anything more than "total parts" (in the words of Leibniz), that is, "analytic synthesis" (which is a bold expression from Kant's "Transcendental Deduction"). And so history is thoroughly faithful to its etymology: it is a "research," [historia]. It is not an anxious interrogation on our discouraging historicity, on our way to living and sliding along in time, but rather a reply to this "historical" condition—a reply through the choice of history, through the choice of a certain knowledge, of a will to understand rationally, to build what Fustel de Coulanges called the "science of human societies" and what March Bloch has called a "rational enterprise of analysis."[3]

[1] Georg Simmel, On Individuality and Social Forms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 92-93
[2] George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self, and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934), 275-276
[3] Paul Ricoeur, History and Truth (Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press, 1965), 22-25.

Mead, George Herbert. Mind, Self, and Society [Edited by Charles W. Morris]. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934.
Ricoeur, Paul. History and Truth [Translated by Charles A. Kelby]. Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press, 1965.
Simmel, Georg. On Individuality and Social Forms [Edited by Donald L. Levine]. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.

Where's that? Petula Clark, George, and Jerry team up to explore memory, commerce, and geography on Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.


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