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, September 7, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (24)—Exploding Wallet

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

[a] Caution Explosive RF
Click here for the reference to the "Argonauts" title, below.

Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
What is it about big wallets, anyway? I know, I know. It doesn't take a "paging Dr. Freud" call to get an idea. But really? Really? I don't think that's the whole story. I suspect something closer to an archival imagination at work when I see someone struggling with a wallet the size of a Russet potato. I immediately think to myself, "I can just imagine his garage." I suspect that the same person might dream secretly of walking around with the baddest tool belt in Home Depot or a golf bag that might take two caddies to lift (except in this case he wants to carry it himself).

This is gendered stuff, people. You know before I even say it that a purse is not even close to being equivalent in this discussion (purses need their own discussion, and will have it in due time). So do book bags. Today, though, we will consider gendered Georgeness and the possessive fury of a Costanza-bred raccoon. You see, George saves everything (although the raccoon might well wash it better). Take a look.

I am inclined toward the packrat angle. George carries his archive in his pants. The readings today cover a range of topics, though. The eminent French historian Georges Duby writes of the pleasure of perusing documents. Imagine George pondering the record of the past in his wallet. We then move on to Ruth Benedict's famous portrayal of Kwakiutl culture, and very public displays of wealth and power on the Northwest Coast. Finally, we end with A.R. Radcliffe-Brown's discussion of "joking relationships" in various societies, and their mix of friendship and antagonism should recall much of the action on Seinfeld. Let me stress here, as I do every week on Seinfeld Ethnography, that the readings are only meant to touch upon the clip from the show. They start with a little strand of similarity and quickly move in another direction. Some of my best insights over the years have come from just this sort of juxtaposed reading, and I am working on articulating it as a "method." Stay tuned.

In the Archives
Georges Duby
[b] Archival
Most of the far rarer original documents are collected in the archives of Saône-et-Loire. The archivist at the time was one of those who saw himself, as sometimes happens, as the owner of the records placed in his charge. He rid himself of intruders any way he could. I was obliged to circumvent his cantankerous vigilance. In the end I was disappointed. I had hoped to find a vast repository of documents; very few turned up. Nevertheless, I had some truly pleasurable moments in the tiny readings room attached to the archives.

I was alone. I had finally managed to have a carton brought to the table. I opened it. What was this box going to turn up? I withdrew a first packet of documents. I untied it and slipped my hand between sheets of parchment. Taking one of them, I unfolded it, and already I felt a peculiar pleasure: these old skins are often exquisite to the touch. Along with the palpable delight goes the sense of entering a secret preserve. When the sheets are opened up and flattened out, they seem to fill the silence of the archives with the fragrance of long-vanished lives. One can almost feel the presence of the man who, eight hundred years earlier, took up his goose quill, dipped it in ink, and began to form his letters at an unhurried pace, as if engraving an inscription for eternity—and the text is there, before one's eyes, as fresh as the day it was written. In all the intervening years, who else has set eyes on these words? Four or five people at most—a happy few. Another pleasure, and an exciting one, is that of deciphering the text, which is in fact nothing more than a game of patience. At the end of the afternoon, you come away with a handful of facts, a small haul. But they are yours alone, for no one else knows how to ferret them out, and the hunt matters more than the quarry.[1]

Accumulation of Goods
Ruth Benedict
[c] Arch rival
The ultimate reason why a man of the Northwest Coast cared about the nobility titles, the wealth, the crests and the prerogatives lays bare the mainspring of their culture: they used them in a contest in which they sought to shame their rivals. Each individual, according to his means, constantly vied with all others to outdistance them in distributions of property. The boy who had just received his first gift of property selected another youth to receive a gift from him. The youth he chose could not refuse without admitting defeat at the outset, and he was compelled to cap the gift with an equal amount of property. When the time came for repayment if he had not double the original gift as interest he was shamed and demoted, and his rival's prestige correspondingly enhanced. The contest thus begun continued throughout life. If he was successful he played with continually increasing amounts of property and with more and more formidable rivals. It was a fight. They say, 'We do not fight with weapons. We fight with property.'[2]

On Joking Relationships
A.R. Radcliffe-Brown
[d] Joking
The joking relationship is a peculiar combination of friendliness and antagonism. The behaviour is such that in any other social context it would express and arouse hostility; but it is not meant seriously and must not be taken seriously. There is a pretence of hostility and a real friendliness. To put it another way, the relationship is one of permitted disrespect, Thus any complete theory of it much be part of, or consistent with, a theory of the place of respect in social relations and and social life generally. but this is a very wide and very important sociological problem; for it is evident that the whole maintenance of a social order depends upon the appropriate kind and degree or respect being shown towards certain persons, things and ideas or symbols...[3]

This paper deals only with formalised or standardised joking relations. Teasing or making fun of other persons is of course a common mode of behaviour in any human society. It tends to occur in certain kinds of social situations. Thus I have observed in certain classes in English-speaking countries the occurrence of horse-play between young men and women as a preliminary to courtship, very similar to the way in which a Cherokee Indian jokes with his 'grandmothers'. Certainly these unformalised modes of behaviour need to be studied by the sociologist. For the purpose of this paper it is sufficient to note that teasing is always a compound of friendliness and antagonism.[4]

[1] Georges Duby, History Continues [Translated by Arthur Goldhammer] (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 17-18.
[2] Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (New York: Mariner Books, 2005), 189.
[3] A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, Structure and Function in Primitive Society (New York: Free Press, 1952), 91.
[4] Ibid., 104.

Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. New York: Mariner Books, 2005. 
Duby, Georges. History Continues [Translated by Arthur Goldhammer]. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. Structure and Function in Primitive Society. New York: Free Press, 1952.

Wednesday, September 14th
Elaine Flies Coach
Jerry gets a first-class ticket; Elaine doesn't. It is a world of privilege, comfort, stress, and discomfiture (full of theortical potential) next week on Seinfeld Ethnography.

1 comment:

  1. Your thread regarding Ruth Benedict and "Accumulating Goods" reminds me of "The Gift" by Marcel Mauss. Specifically, it brought up the thought of the circumstance of obligation to repay or return favors, services, and gifts for a person.

    What is the appropriate quantity, time, and value of reciprocal capital (goods, services) needed or desired to compensate for this capital? How much power and status can one attain from any given transfer of greater reciprocal capital?

    This brings into question the whole concept of reciprocity. If one provides goods, services, and gifts to another and the other person compensates an equal value of capital, is there any need to continue their relationship?

    Given that these two individuals are not family members, under what circumstances should they continue their relationship other than punctuated and unbalanced reciprocal capital exchanges between them?

    They may be in what George M. Foster calls "The Dyadic Contract."


    A concept worth exploration.

    - Best Regards, Eric Koenig