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:

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (18)—Downtown

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] Downtown?  RF
 Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific 
Where's "downtown?" What does the word even mean? Most of us have not stopped to consider such matters, but our ethnographer friends on Seinfeld always do, as they sit around that great campfire called "Restaurant" and tell the tales of the days just passed in work and worry. This week, George and Jerry ponder a little conundrum called "downtown." This is many times more difficult in New York City than it is in, say, Grinnell, Iowa, which has fewer possibilities for confusion with Midtown, Uptown, and other geographical, cultural, and economic markers.

Through the whole clip, which you will see below, runs a 1965 hit that the Seinfeld gang revives three decades later. Petula Clark's song is worth a listen (and look—this is a video you have to see, if only for its historical contrast) before we consider Jerry and George tracking the elusive prey they call downtown.

[b] History  RF
I have a particular fondness for the song, because my dad would always play Petula Clark (as well as Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Joan Baez, and Carly Simon) on the trendy reel-to-reel operation that kept him company while reading for his anthropology exams in graduate school. I would wake up briefly in what I considered the middle of the night back then, and hear Petula's music winding its way up the staircase.

Dad and I weren't the only ones listening, either. The song has become a minor chord in American (and Commonwealth) cultural life, and it forms the heart of a riddle that George Costanza just cannot crack.

So, you see, we are confronted here with problems of definition (what, or where, is "downtown," and how is it to be differentiated from other "towns," be they "Up..." or "Mid..."?), of interpretation (what does it mean?), and—by extension—the manner in which definitions have changed over the past thirty years. Just contrast Petula Clark in 1965 with George and Jerry's already dated discussion, and you will see that historical understanding is a little more complicated than just knowing "what happened."

Those are the "theoretical" issues we will examine today. Umberto Eco will guide us through a reflection on definitions. Next, R.G. Collingwood will discuss "historical imagination" in a snippet from one of the most creative works on historiography ever written. Finally, Claude Lévi-Strauss will describe historical and cultural contrasts in urban landscapes. As always, I will remind you that the "theoretical" readings are meant to touch upon the Seinfeld scene ever so gently—to juxtapose intellectual issues that can be seen in a new light when contrasted with the Seinfeld episode. I have begun adding original publication dates for writers whose work has been reprinted or translated (and for which the dates in the bibliography might be confusing).

Umberto Eco
Kant, Peirce, and the Platypus
[c] Eco
But at this point Kant still has not said how he can bind the variables: why do I perceive A as sun and B as stone? How do the concepts of pure intellect intervene to make me understand a stone as such, distinct from all the other stones in the heap, from the sunlight that heats it, and from the rest of the universe? Those concepts of pure intellect that are the categories are too vast and far too general to enable me to recognize the stone, the sun, and the heat. It is true that Kant assures us (CPR/B: 94) that once a list of primitive pure concepts has been drawn up, it is "easy" to add the derived and subaltern ones, but, since his task was to deal with the principles of the system rather than with the completeness of the system, he saved this integration for another work. In any case all we need do is consult the manuals of ontology and thereby nimbly subordinate the predictables of force, action, and passion to the category of modality. But even then we should still be on such a high level of abstraction that we could not say This B is a stone.

Therefore the table of categories does not allow us to say how we perceive a stone as such. Concepts of the pure intellect are only logical functions, not concepts of objects. But, if I am unable to say not only that this A is the sun and this B is a stone but also that this B is at least a body, all the universal and necessary laws that the concepts of the pure intellect guarantee me are worth nothing, because they could refer to any datum of experience. Perhaps I could say that there is an A that heats everything, whatever empirical concept I may assign to B, but I wouldn't know what this heating entity is, because I would not have assigned any empirical concept to A. Concepts of the pure intellect have need not only of sensible intuition but also of objects to which they may be applied.[1]

R.G. Collingwood
The Historical Imagination (1946)
[d] Collingwood
Secondly, what is in this way inferred is essentially something imagined. If we look out over the sea and perceive a ship, and five minutes later look again and perceive it in a different place, we find ourselves obliged to imagine it as having occupied intermediate positions when we were not looking. That is already an example of historical thinking; and it is not otherwise that we find ourselves obliged to imagine Caesar as having traveled from Rome to Gaul when we are told that he was in these different places at these successive times.

This activity, with this double character, I shall call a priori imagination; and, though I shall have more to say of it hereafter, for the present I shall be content to remark that, however unconscious we may be of its operation, it is this activity which, bridging the gaps between what our authorities tell us, gives the historical narrative or description its continuity. That the historian must use his imagination is a commonplace...but this is to underestimate the part played by the historical imagination, which is properly not ornamental but structural. Without it the historian would have no narrative to adorn. The imagination, that 'blind but indispensable faculty' without which, as Kant as shown, we could never perceive the world around us, is indispensable in the same way to history: it is this which, operating not capriciously as fancy but in its a priori form, does the entire work of historical construction.[2]

Claude Lévi-Strauss
Tristes Tropiques (1955)
[e] Lévi-Strauss
Some mischievous spirit has defined America as a country which has moved from barbarism to decadence without enjoying any intermediary phase of of civilization. The formula could be more correctly applied to the towns of the New World, which pass from freshness to decay without ever being simply old...In the cities of the New World, whether it be New York, Chicago or São Paulo (and the last two have often been compared), it is not the absence of traces of the past which strikes me; this lack is an essential part of their significance...In the case of European towns, the passing of centuries provides an enhancement; in the case of American towns, the passing of years brings degeneration. It is not simply that they have been newly built; they were built so as to be renewable as quickly as they were put up, that is, badly. 

When new districts are being created, they are hardly integral elements of the urban scene; they are too gaudy, too new, too gay for that. They are more like stands in a fairground or the pavilions of some international exhibition, built to last only a few months. After that lapse of time, the fair closes and the huge gewgaws lapse into decay; the façades begin to peel, rain and soot leave their grimy trails, the style goes out of fashion, and the original layout disappears through the demolitions caused by some new building fever. The contrast is not between new towns and old towns, but between towns with a very short evolutionary cycle and towns with a slow evolutionary cycle. Certain European cities sink gently into a moribund torpor; those of the New World live feverishly in the grip of a chronic disease; they are perpetually young, yet never healthy.[3]

[1] Umberto Eco, Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition (New York: Vintage, 2000), 73-74.
[2] R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History [Revised Edition] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 241.
[3] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (New York: Penguin Books, 1973), 95-96.

Collingwood, R.G. The Idea of History (Revised Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Eco, Umberto. Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition [Translated by Alastair McEwen]. New York: Vintage, 2000.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Tristes Tropiques [Translated by John and Doreen Weightman]. New York: Penguin Books, 1973].

Wednesday, August 3rd
Code Cracking
Kramer wedges his interpretive crowbar between George's tight-lipped secret code.

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