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.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Middles (15)—Middle of Nowhere

[a] Otherworldly RF
Halloween is here, and Round and Square is noting the date in its own peculiar way. Today, we'll consider one of the most famous tales in Chinese history. There is a little mystery and intrigue wrapped into it, but it will also be readily apparent that this is not so  much a "scary" story as one that lies trapped somewhere midway...and distant between the roundness of the heavens and the square solidity of earth. If one of the most famous scenes in all of Chinese life is the final ascent up Mt. Tai—the twists and turns on a stairway to heaven—then Tao Qian's tale for this Halloween Day is surely a boat ride to nowhere. The middle of nowhere.

Although a nice, mysterious Halloween post is not the time for a Chinese studies lecture, let me at least note that this story is chock-full of references to Chinese philosophy, literature, and cosmology. In particular, the mysterious place to be found by maneuvering through small spaces into a spectacular opening, is a powerful theme in Chinese thought. This theme has been analyzed masterfully by the French scholar Rolf Stein in a book called The World in Miniature.[1]

Tao Qian
Peach Blossom Spring[2]
[b] Path RF
During the reign-period Taiyuan (CE 326-397) of the Jin dynasty there lived in Wuling a certain fisherman. One day, as he followed the course of a stream, he become unconscious of the distance he had traveled. All at once he came upon a grove of blossoming peach trees which lined either bank for hundreds of paces. No tree of any other kind stood amongst them, but there were fragrant flowers, delicate and lovely to the eye, and the air was filled with drifting peachbloom.

The fisherman, marveling, passed on
to discover where the grove would end. It ended at a spring; and then there came a hill. In the side of the hill was a small opening which seemed to promise a gleam of light. The fisherman left his boat and entered the opening. It was almost too cramped at first to afford him passage; but when he had taken a few dozen steps he emerged into the open light of day. He faced a spread of level land. Imposing buildings stood among rich fields and pleasant ponds all set with mulberry and willow. Linking paths led everywhere, and the fowls and dogs of one farm could be heard from the next. People were coming and going and working in the fields. Both the men and the women dressed in exactly the same manner as people outside; white-haired elders and tufted children alike were cheerful and contented.

Some, noticing the fisherman, started in great surprise and asked him where had had come from. He told them his story. They then invited him to their home, where they set out wine and killed chickens for a feast. When news of his coming spread through the village everyone came in to question him. For their part they told how their forefathers, fleeing from the troubles of the age of Qin, had come with their wives and neighbors to this isolated place, never to leave it. From that time on they had been cut off from the outside world. They asked what age was this: they had never even heard of the Han, let alone its successors the Wei and the Jin. The fisherman answered each of their questions in full, and they sighed and wondered at what he had to tell. The rest all invited him to their homes in turn, and in each house food and wine were set before him. It was only after a stay of several days that he took his leave.

"Do not speak of us to the people outside," they said. But when he had regained his boat and was retracing his original route, he marked it at point after point; and on reaching the prefecture he sought an audience of the prefect and told him of all these things. The prefect immediately dispatched officers to go back with the fisherman. He hunted for the marks he had made, but grew confused and never found the way again.

The learned and virtuous hermit Liu Ziji heard the story and went off elated to find the place. But he had no success, and died at length of a sickness. Since that time there have been no further "seekers of the ford."
[c] Vista RF

[1] Rolf Stein, The World in Miniature: Container Gardens and Dwellings in Far Eastern Religious Thought, Translated by Phyllis Brooks (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.
[2] Cyril Birch, ed, Anthology of Chinese Literature: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1965), 167-168. Please note that Chinese names, terms, and phrases have been modified to fit the pinyin romanization system.

Birch, Cyril, ed. Anthology of Chinese Literature: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1965.

Stein, Rolf. The World in Miniature: Container Gardens and Dwellings in Far Eastern Religious Thought, Translated by Phyllis Brooks. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Hurtin', Leavin' and Longin' (26)—I Fall to Pieces

[a] Scattered RF
There are plenty of country music icons, and we've considered several of those who have had long and rich careers. From Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn to Reba McEntire and Martina McBride, we have seen several good examples of artists who know a thing or two about extending a career. It requires patience, professionalism, and a good sense of when to sing the song you wrote and when to rely on the enormous talent all over Nashville. And it also requires a little of luck, not the least of which includes being around for a long career.

[b] Memorial RF
It is the what might have been factor that is at work when we consider, for example Hank Williams Sr. and Keith Whitley. Even Elvis Presley. Still, there is arguably not a more tragic and devastating what if? story in the history of country music than the incomparable Patsy Cline. She rose to the heights of fame in her twenties and, at the very peak of fame and influence—one of the first country stars to "crossover" to pop and rock audiences—was killed in a plane crash in 1963.

It is hard even to fathom how good she was. People who deplored country music as a "backward, hick" monstrosity...still loved Patsy Cline. I don't think it is going too far to call her the first "exception" of many who would follow—"I don't like country music, except for Patsy Cline." The song I have chosen for this week is a sad one on its own. "I Fall to Pieces" tells the story of how it is just a little harder to be "just friends" than some people think. Love lasts a little longer, Patsy's narrative voice implores, for people with rich, deep emotions.

[c] Fringe RF
As always, the first video is included for you to "listen to the lyrics"—really to think about them and about Cline's masterful delivery. The second one shows her onstage, and would be fascinating in any case. That it was taped just two weeks before her death makes it even more poignant. We deal, then, with hurting this week in several senses. I never "knew" Patsy Cline's music, but, imagining what she might have sung in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, I still miss her.
I Fall to Pieces 2:52
For advice on how best to "engage" the lyrics, click here.
I Fall to Pieces (Live, 1963) 2:43

        I Fall to Pieces
              Artist: Patsy Cline

              Songwriters: Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran

I fall to pieces each time I see you again
I fall to pieces, how can I be just your friend

You want me to act like we've never kissed

You want me to forget, pretend we've never met

And I've tried and I've tried but I haven't yet

You walk by and I fall to pieces

I fall to pieces each time someone speaks your name

I fall to pieces time only adds to the flame

You tell me to find someone else to love

Someone who'll love me, too, the way you used to do

But each time I go out with someone new

You walk by and I fall to pieces

You walk by and I fall to pieces
[d] Green RF
This week's East Asian poetic selection should not be difficult. Broken hearts combined with dying too young is the very stuff of poetry the world over. As readers of these posts know, the only thing I want always to avoid is the kind of derivative "echoing" of themes common to sloppy thinking, from unimaginative YouTube videos to the vast majority of screensavers. I started out by looking for a long poem "worthy" of a great, and lost, poet such as Patsy Cline. Many came close to what I wanted, but a little poem from one of the more obscure Tang dynasty poets just seemed perfect. Four lines about loss and what might have been.

       Written Upon Returning to the Mountains
       Gu Kuang (c. 727-c. 816)

          My worries: several strands of white hair;
          My livelihood: a stretch of green hills.
          A deserted grove, snow-covered, is waiting;
          On an ancient road there's no one, I return alone.
                                        —Translated by Irving Lo[1]

[e] Alone RF
[1]  Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo, Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1974), 150.

Liu Wu-chi and Irving Yucheng Lo. Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1974.

Ring of Fire
Johnny Cash's classic is not exactly sad, but it does express a peculiar form of hurtin' that is a little different from what we have considered up until now in our Sunday Hurtin' post. Join us—same time, same station—for another country music icon (and perhaps the second "exception" after Patsy Cline for general listeners—"I don't like country music...but I like Johnny Cash").

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Middles (14)—Three All

[a] Series RF
The World Series is tied at three games apiece as I write this. Before it posts a few minutes after midnight, the "middle"-like 50/50 tie will be broken, and either the Texas Rangers or St. Louis Cardinals will have won the World Series, four games to three. It might seem a stretch to put "game seven" under the Round and Square category of middles, and that is surely so. But this isn't about the deciding game at all (of course, there will be an "endings" post about "Game Seven" when it is in the NBA, NHL, or baseball news in the future). 

[b] In media res RF
Today's post examines something slightly different—getting to a tie. My point is that, once "Game Six" is over in any seven-game competitive series, we almost immediately turn our focus to the deciding game that will break the tie. I say "not so fast." Let's rather take a deep look at how we got to the crucial deciding game in the first place. It has a storied history for sports fans that usually gets buried in the sheer drama of a  series that was tied—stuck in an unsatisfying kind of conceptual middle—and is about to be altered in one team's favor (and to another team's everlasting regret). 

Again, not so fast. Much of the drama in the history of (American) major league baseball's World Series has taken place in Game Six when a game that seems to represent a step on the path to history actually becomes the most memorable moment of all. You see, we tend to look at it as a tie as soon as the game is over, but the most fascinating dynamic is often how it got to be a tie in the first place.
[c] Game 1905 RF

Consider the situation carefully. Before Game Six begins, a series is (by definition) three games to two. One team is ahead, and can taste victory. The other team has to win in order to have a chance to play a subsequent, deciding game. The drama of Game Six, then, is that one team can almost taste it, but can "afford" to lose, at least in the sense that another game will follow. Not so for the team on the brink of elimination. For those players and fans, Game Six is everything.

Something like that dynamic—powered by jet fuel—took place last night in St. Louis. The Cardinals were down to their last strike in the ninth and tenth innings, only to find a way to claw back and tie the game each time. The Texas Rangers staff had already prepared the locker room for the victory celebration by carefully taping plastic in front of all lockers and equipment. Teams learned to do this from experience—to risk the deflating images of cutting through dry, sad plastic after losing what had become the penultimate big game. Far better, the theory goes, to take down the plastic (storing it for "tomorrow's" game) than to have celebratory sparkling wine, beer, and cola running into the cracks of every locker in the room because they were unprepared.

[d] In the Cards RF
Well, the Cardinals came back in the most dramatic of fashions, winning in the bottom of the eleventh inning and forcing tonight's deciding game. The Rangers have to get their heads together after being as close to a World Series victory as it is possible to come (one more strike; that's all that was needed—twice).

My point is that the experience of such a game is fundamentally different for each team because of the overwhelming fact that one is almost there and the other is almost gone. If exactly the same set of events were to unfold tonight, it would still "feel" different. The stakes have now changed—both teams are "middled," tied, and only one will emerge as the winner. Yesterday, the Rangers could lose and still wake up today knowing that they had another chance. Today, it's different.

And, to conclude this little reflection on competitive symmetry and asymmetry, I look back to some of the most storied Game Six drama in the last few decades. If you are a baseball fan, it is easy enough to guess most of the examples I have chosen. If you are not, but take the time to think about the "managerial dynamics" of Game Six situations, you could learn a great deal about strategic thinking. You see, Game Seven is cultural mythology. Almost nothing "in life" is like an all-or-nothing deciding game (dramatic as you might think your company meeting presentation might be next week). Game Seven is magic, luck, art, and chance.

Life is lot more like Game Six. If you can come to understand what that means, you will be on the road to "getting" this strange world in which we live. Soul-crushing despair and hope are mingled in the confusion of fate, chance, and opportunity. Just ask the teams who struggled in five riveting "Games Six." Take a look.

Same Six 2011

And one more thing about being behind entering Game Six (being "down" 3-2 is also a lot like life). If you find a way to win, you have another chance for glory, as everyone in St. Louis knows right now. 
[f] Over RF

Friday, October 28, 2011

Middles (13)—Belt Buckles

[a] Fastened RF
I can't stop thinking about Texas governor Rick Perry. It's not his debate performances, his views on gun control ("I'm for it; use both hands"), or his position on health care. No, it's his belt. There is just something about a man with a belt buckle the size of a watermelon that rivets me. I am appalled, but—like a traffic accident—I can't manage to look away.

So this got me thinking. What, exactly, is it with belt buckles among a certain cross-section of the American male population? And it is not only men, either, as we'll discuss soon enough. For now, though, let's focus (how could we do otherwise as they shine upon us?) on gendered buckles, and a certain kind of regional identification.

Yes, regional. You might have noticed that belt buckles tend to be more the size of a quarter, with room for eyelet and hook, in most parts of the country. Inconspicuous—just holding up the ol' pants. You don't need a hubcap under your stomach to hold your pants
on, if you hadn't noticed. No, something else seems to be going on with the oversize belt buckle. Holding up pants is functional. Such "functionality" can be very expensive, and tailored to exacting specifications (don't get me wrong, GQ readers). But the big belt buckle fairly shouts out to the teeming throngs "notice me."

[b] Sensible RF
It's difficult not to. Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney don't have big, shiny buckles (or boots). Michelle Bachman might have a sensible strap of some kind, but it matches the outfit. Herman Cain just holds up his pants inconspicuously, as do Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. But when Rick Perry walks into the room, the buckle shines like a disco ball hovering about groin-high. Lecterns are a godsend—as are tables and chairs—for those of us who would rather engage the volley of ideas and recriminations than gaze beltward. And have you ever tried to read a "living" belt buckle? It ain't easy, pardner.
***  ***
Enough of Perry and politics, though. The buckle is bigger, culturally, than even a three-term governor on a run for president. Any anthropologist of the American prairie (from Saskatoon to Corpus Christi) knows all about buckles. You can win them at rodeos, and they often combine to form a mixture of personal statement and regional allegiance. They are not, for the most part (Attention: Governor Perry) to be worn with suits. On the other hand, George Strait has made quite a career out of looking just right with pressed jeans, boots, a neat button-down shirt, and the requisite hat (at the "correct" angle that shows he is not a carpetbagging Texas wannabe from the east coast).
[c] Gender RF
And we will end this little set of belted musings by returning to the gendering of belt and buckle. In rodeo culture, the buckle is most definitely a female accoutrement, as well. If you win the calf-roping competition, you might well receive a buckle instead of a trophy or plaque, whether your name is Linda or Tom. There is even a country song or two invoking the cultural charm of "girls" with belt buckles. This is not an easy matter, and is packed with potential for cultural and historical analysis. We may well have to return in future posts to the culture of fashion and the fashioning of accessories.

[d] Kula PD
For now, though, I will just leave you with a page of vintage buckles for you to ponder. I certainly hope that a few of the anthropology students among you will see that these vintage buckles bear an uncanny resemblance—in their functionality and appearance—to the arm bands, necklaces, and shells at the heart of the kula ring in the Trobriand Islands. Ah, to own the buckle of a famous Texan, to treasure it for a few years, and then to pass it on. If you can't see the similarity between the neck band to the right and big ol' belt buckles, you must not be paying attention. This is anthropology, people, and we might well get started on an ethnographic investigation that will take us from Abilene to Houston, and Texarkana all of the way to El Paso—exchanging buckles all of the way in a torrid, cultural fit of display, status, and, well, fashion. Get your IRB permissions ready, because we are going on a journey.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Middles (12)—Through the Uprights

This song won't appear on Hurtin', Leavin', and Longin'. It's not sad at all, except in a particularly colloquial expression of English. On the other hand, it is ready made for our "middles" posts. Straight through the goalposts goes this song—one that has been called the world's only Christian football waltz. Take a listen to these lyrics and you will have no trouble seeing why it fits the theme of "middles," straight and true.

I've got the will, Lord, if you've got the toe.

Think about that. The Lord's toe. This might border on sacrilege if it weren't for the fact that the weekend has pretty much been dominated by tackle football for several decades now. Indeed, it has begun to take over even those spare "midweek" days that used to be reserved for things like Green Acres, Cosby Show, and Knights of Columbus dinners (not to mention Protestant church socials).

In any case, look more closely at the lyrics. Be a literary and cultural analyst here. You might even want to play it again while you read. 

Drop kick me, Jesus through the goal posts of life
          End over end, neither left nor to right
          Straight through the heart of them righteous uprights
          Drop kick me, Jesus through the goal posts of life

          Make me, oh make me, Lord more than I am

          Make me a piece in your master game plan
          Free from the earthly temptations below
          I’ve got the will, Lord if you’ve got the toe


          Bring on the brothers who’ve gone on before

          And all of the sisters who’ve knocked on your door
          All the departed dear loved ones of mine
          Stick them up front in the offensive line

         Chorus 2x

         Oh, drop kick me, Jesus through the goal posts of life
[b] Translation RF

On one level, the song is hardly chock full of ideas (starting with the chorus is usually a sign that there is but one key point; repeating it four times pretty much guarantees it).

Except that there is... The more you think about it, you start to sense an odd kind of telelogical theology here. 

As attractive as the idea might be of twirling into eternity through the "righteous uprights," the "non-chorus" lines might be the best of all. Imagining the heavenly kin group positioned in an ethereal blocking scheme (it's all part of the "master game plan," we are told) is about as memorable as anything I have ever encountered in the literature of my people.

Your people?," I hear you cry. Who are they? Well, rural Americans. That's who I mean. You don't think that country-western music really could have grown from a little Carter Family seedling into a globalized, commodified behemoth in any other place, do you? And it is this untranslatably American quality I wish to ponder in the rest of this post.  
[c] Good RF

You see, when I don my anthropology cap I cannot help but contemplate how this song might be translated into other cultural traditions. Master game plan? O.k., maybe...even probably. But even "dropkick" requires a kind of historiographical and cultural acuity that lies beyond a large number of American football fans. 

How would you even begin to "translate" this idea into, say, an Islamic cricket culture such as Pakistan's? Be very, very careful. You might find yourself quickly in trouble you had no idea you were percolating. 

Theology is like that.

How about something "easier," such as a Latin American football (soccer) culture? Even there, the image of a serene arc of victory into the far corner of the goal—past a diving (devilish?) goalkeeper—still has a rural Protestant flavor that eludes clear translation.

And even for American football fans, the song presents several theological quandaries. Surely you know about the fish and the loaves. And how about all of that healing? The guy with the sacred toe could do a lot with a little. That's clear from scripture. So here's my question: 

Does Jesus really need blockers on the O-line?  

I think not.

We will conclude this little journey through imaginative ethnography and Biblical allusion with an image from the center of Christian football culture—the University of Notre Dame. There, in the heart of campus, stands a mural that is visible even from the football stadium. Called "The Word of Life," it shows Jesus, arms upraised, towering above the Theodore Hesburgh Library. Although this is common knowledge among Notre Dame students, faculty, staff, and football fans, others of you may not have heard of its more familiar name.

Touchdown Jesus.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (31)—George's New Friend

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
George's Friend        Jerry's Haircut          Face Paint             Mustachioed       Smoking              East River
Pool Man                   Dunkin' Joe              Life Lessons          Reckoning          Dog Medicine      Shower Heads
Looking Busy            George Tips             Kramer's Job          Empty Tank
Click here for the reference to the "Argonauts" title, below.
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
George has a new friend, and the glow he exudes far surpasses his usual crabbed cynicism and cluelessness. He is happy, somewhat obsessive, and even a little bit possessive. Take a look at the clip, and the we'll talk a bit about friendship and its discontents.

[b] Rocky RF
The tired and obvious "reading" of the episode doesn't even begin to tap the cultural analytical potential that can be found simply by examining gendered friendship on its many levels. There is nothing "simple" about friendship. It is a social pact, of sorts, with an array of individual and shared emotions at work. Clearly, George's investment in the relationship differs from his friend's. There's an old country song that says "there's always someone who loves a little less." That is instructive here, and we would do well to look at "investment levels" in any number of relationships.

It might well be possible to draw a diagram to show the dynamics of successful and increasingly unsuccessful relationships (or at least severely "asymmetrical" ones). One of my favorite anecdotes about "relational asymmetry," though, requires no diagram. It was spoken back in the early 1980s by a sagely elder at a big shindig held for him...and his bride of fifty-five years. This gray-haired crew-cut gentleman said something I've never forgotten:

It should always be 55-45, and you both need to feel you're giving the "55."

That, of course, can be taken a number of ways, but suffice it to say that he did not mean it to be a cynical statement. He explained that you need to try a little harder than you might normally think. It has stuck with me for three decades, but I realized quickly its limitations as a tool for understanding a wider array of social relationships beyond love and marriage. What about friendship? This is the question that George makes us consider. What does "investment" mean in friendship, and how can the dynamics of symmetry and asymmetry play out in life? A great disparity need not be problematic. We often call it "mentoring," and it is quite common. As I have argued in other posts, there is no such thing as perfect symmetry. Ever. You may argue all you want, but life is made up of relational asymmetries large and small. We would do better to engage them than pretend, as lovers of liberty, that they don't exist.
[c] Open-face RF

The day dawned bright, and sun shone warmly on the new friendship. George brought sandwiches, and the rock face glistened (this is how I imagine it). In retrospect, bowling might have gone better, though. Unless the ball would happen to fall on his friend's face, it would have to go better. Still, the issue that I can't shake—and the one that lingers for me as I look at George's lost, forlorn, puppy-dog face through Elaine's apartment door—is relational asymmetry and friendship. We'll return to that issue in future posts that will owe their inspiration to George's New Friend.
***  ***
This week's reading will explore love, friendship, and presentations of self in a variety of ways. As always, in Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific, our task is to juxtapose new ideas with the Seinfeld clip. These readings do just that. We begin with Allan Bloom's discussion of Socrates and the channeling of Eros in philosophical inquiry. As I have mentioned in other Round and Square posts, this was one of the most powerful themes in Bloom's teaching. We then proceed to an ethnography published the same year that investigates "performances" of Welsh life. In this anecdote, Carol Trosset gives us a glimpse of public occasions and the welcoming of visitors. Finally, we return to the work of Paul Riesman, who tells of Fulani notions of loneliness and their cure—company.

[c] Eros Blooms
Allan Bloom
The Ladder of Love (1993)
I began this book with Rousseau, the most erotic of modern philosophers; I end with Socrates, the most erotic of philosophers, period. Of the many beautiful Socratic dialogues, perhaps the most beautiful is Plato's Symposium, which was an inspiration for lovers throughout the ages. especially in those fertile moments of return to classical antiquity that so marked our past, the Renaissance and Romanticism. Socrates says that he is an expert in the science of erotics (177d), which must mean that he knows something that very many people think is important. But Socrates is also the prince of the skeptics, the man who said, "All I know is that I know nothing." This is contradiction is usually resolved by taking Socrates' assertions about erotics to be an example of the famous Socratic irony, a kind of joke. This is a solution, but not a very satisfactory one, since it only fits our own sense of what a man like Socrates could take seriously, instead of being based on anything Socrates himself actually says. It is at least possible that what he says about knowledge of ignorance is ironic. He insists most on his ignorance in the most public of contexts, his trial for impiety and corrupting the youth. By contrast, he speaks about his knowledge of erotics in much more intimate situations, understandably, because a man who claims he can teach erotics to young men would seem to be vulnerable to the charge of corrupting the youth.

But, in absence of proof, as a preliminary working hypothesis, one might equate the two apparently contradictory assertions. Socrates' statement that he only knows he knows nothing could be interpreted to mean that philosophy is impossible and that it is not worth going on. But Socrates interprets it in the opposite direction: knowledge of ignorance means that one's life must be dedicated to finding out the things that it is most important for man to know. If Eros, put most generally, is longing, then the philosopher who pursues the knowledge he does not have could be considered erotic. He longs for knowledge. If the need to know is what is most characteristically human, then such philosophical Eros would be the privileged form of Eros. Moreover, it is generally agreed that Eros is connected with pleasure, a very powerful pleasure, and this would account for the philosopher's continuing in his uncompleted quest, which might appear to be very bleak without such accompanying pleasure.[1]

[d] Performance
Carol Trosset
Welshness Performed (1993)
As a foreigner who had learned Welsh, I was unusual enough that I was often publicly welcomed at formal gatherings. People consider it important that visitors be welcomed, and if they have a guest who will be attending some public function, they may arrange in advance for a welcome to be given. One weekend when I was staying with a family and attending two local hymn-singing festivals, my hosts asked me if I had been welcomed at the first one. They seemed displeased that I had not been, but excused it when they remembered that no one had known I was there. To prevent this from happening at their own chapel's festival, they phoned the minister to tell him about me, on the grounds that he would be uncomfortable if he met me afterwards and had not given me the proper public welcome. This turned out to be a very public welcome indeed (the festival was attended by about five hundred people). During some break in the singing, the director said (all this was in Welsh) there was someone in the congregation from Ohio, and made the usual joke that I had come all the way for that particular occasion. He said he didn't know which of us it was, and would I please stand up.

This welcome was unusual in that after I had stood and sat back down, the director then said he had heard I was learning Welsh, and he asked me several questions I had to answer: when I had started learning Welsh, for how long was I in Wales, and was I enjoying myself. People sometimes asked me whether being publicly welcomed made me uncomfortable. It usually did, although most public welcomes were in front of smaller groups and did not require me to say anything. I have already noted the discomfort of an English couple repeatedly welcomed as guests at Welsh chapel services, but apparently Welsh people can also be made uneasy in this way. I was told that one society president, when she had to welcome or introduce someone, would find out all about them and go into such detail that they often found it embarrassing, so much that they would even say so when they got up to speak.[2]

Paul Riesman
[e] Company
The Experience of Loneliness and Its Cure (1974)
To feel alone is, according to the Fulani, one of the most painful emotions. In Djibo and Ouagadougou, people who had come with me from the bush would say to me spontaneously, "Yeeweende warii kam do (Solitude is killing me here)." This term, like semteende and yurmeende, is created by a process of derivation from a verbal form. It is yeeweede, a verb in the passive voice, which means to feel abandoned, to feel alone. It is an emotion so painful for the Jelgobe, that they prefer never to be alone, as far as possible. That is especially true of children and young people, who keep each other company sometimes even when they go into the bush near the wuro to defecate. This anguish also seizes grown people who are in a state of vulnerability, such as women who have just given birth. Such a person never goes into the bush alone to take care of his or her needs but is always accompanied by someone, if only a child. The explanation the Fulani themselves give for this practice is that such a person is more susceptible to being seized by a djinn. Loneliness is doubtless the most difficult of emotions to control since it is only in old age that men begin to manage it—and then perhaps only by necessity.

The term that means "to dissipate solitude" is yeewtude, whose usual English translation is "to converse," "to chat." This is quite significant, for we have seen, in speaking of greetings, that it is by means of the spoken word that society is maintained from day to day. Here we see another aspect of what speech does, namely, preserve people from solitude. But while women are thought to be more vulnerable to the dangers of solitude, it is men who must pass more time alone. This is not only because of the kind of work they do but also because of the more rigid separation between the generations...

Yeeweende is not merely the absence of people; it is the absence of those we love and who love us. This can clearly be seen in the songs and also in the fact that the greatest loneliness is often experienced in the town rather than in the bush. Loneliness appears, then, to be the other side of love, for to admit that one is lonely is to admit that one needs the love of others. This need is normally concealed in public, and it is only in songs that it is freely confessed. Besides, it turns out that the evening gatherings where people sing these songs are only held in the bush and sometimes in the riimaaybe villages (debeeje) but never in the wuro. Within the wuro men seek to control their needs and thereby to maintain their superiority over women, but in the bush they may express their desires; this expression admits the implicit superiority of women at the same time that it attempts to touch them by arousing their yurmeende.[3]

[1] Allan Bloom, Love and Friendship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 431-432.
[2] Carol Trosset, Welshness Performed: Welsh Concepts of Person and Society (Tucson AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1993), 99-100.
[3] Paul Riesman, Freedom in Fulani Social Life: An Introspective Ethnography Translated by Martha Fuller (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 220-221.

Bloom, Allan. Love and Friendship. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
Riesman, Paul. Freedom in Fulani Social Life: An Introspective Ethnography Translated by Martha Fuller. 
     Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.
Trosset, Carol. Welshness Performed: Welsh Concepts of Person and Society. Tucson AZ: University of 
     Arizona Press, 1993.

Wednesday, November 2nd
Jerry's Haircut
Jerry gets clipped, and looks like an aging character from the Little Rascals. We'll do a little thinking about the theoretical implications of week on Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Styling Culture (16)—So and Such (Write Complete Sentences)

Click here to read the introduction to the Round and Square series "Styling Culture." 
[a] So(w) and Such RF
In the next few weeks I will be posting the text for a "volume" that I have been distributing for the last fifteen years. Back in 1997, I handed out a two-page set of instructions that I called "Rob's Style Sheet." I quickly learned that it could be a useful teaching tool, allowing me to describe the practicalities and esoterica surrounding grammar and style in the higher education classroom (and beyond). It also became apparent that it could be a useful tool for writing comments on student papers. Instead of trying to explain in the margins of a paper that s/he was using "number" in problematic ways (we'll get to that), I could write "#19," and have her know exactly what I mean. The most impressive students learned the material very well, and some of them have already gone on to be successful writers—in and beyond academia and the corporate world.

I will be posting the manuscript that I have provisionally entitled Styling Culture on Round and Square during the autumn and into the winter. As you will quickly see, it is meant to be a grammar book for the anthropologist of American English. It has its prescriptive elements, to be sure (this is all explained in the introduction to the series), but it is meant far more powerfully to be a genuinely useful guide to the culture wars surrounding grammar and usage. In particular, I have great venom for both the annoying critics who always seem to be correcting people and (this is important) for the "good guys" who tell you that it doesn't matter.

They're both wrong, and they will hurt you if you listen to them. I'm here to help you, so read on.

16. So and Such (I Would Prefer Complete Sentences)

“So” and “such” are, when left alone, not adequate intensifiers. They require “that” to complete the sentence. You don’t like country music “so much.”  That is an incomplete sentence, and it is (see #34—Incomplete Sentences) a serious problem. You like country music so much that you own every Merle Haggard CD, and that you feel that tonight the bottle let you down. You are such a country music lover that you have begun to respect the college dean, and to see that football’s the roughest thing on campus (not to mention that beads and Roman sandals won’t be seen (see #21—Passive Voice). Start to notice this mistake. Go ahead and use it in speech, if you must, but strive to erase it from your academic prose. That would make me so happy and be such an improvement. By the way, if you have "gotten" every musical reference above, you deserve a trip to Nashville.

Flawed                                                             Better
He liked to go to football games so much.       He liked to go to football games.
She was such a good performer.                     She was a good performer (superb, excellent, unsurpassed).
He liked NASCAR so much.                            He liked NASCAR so much that he watched every race.
Julie has such promise.                                   Julie has such promise that she is likely to go far.
Fido was such a cute puppy.                           Fido was a cute puppy (or "an adorable puppy").

***  ***
[b] Such a sow RF
Chalk up another one for the power of speech. You will recognize almost all of the items above in ordinary conversation, and there is nothing particularly wrong with conversation. Even there, you will encounter an occasional quibbler (undercover grammar police), but it is speech, after all, and I think we need to recognize that there are so many reasons to, may I say, extend the life of a phrase in conversation. It is such fun.

It won't cut it in writing. You need to write complete sentences...most of the time. There are always rhetorical reasons to alter the game a little and shake things up with an odd phrasing or incomplete sentence now and then. Even (occasionally) in academic writing. See? There is no excuse for cluelessness, though, and I suspect that lack of clues lies behind almost every misuse of so and such in prose composition. Maybe you are quoting your great aunt who loves to speak with gushing strings filled with such-and-so ("He was such a good little boy, and so smart!"). Go right ahead—you are quoting speech and honoring Aunt Hilda.

When writing a paper for your history class, however, you are probably not quoting your great aunt, or even Queen Victoria (who wouldn't have been found speaking (such) a shoddy incomplete sentence, in any case). Let's face it, you are usually writing incomplete sentences without any idea why you are doing so...or even that you are doing so.

"But it just sounds right."

[c] Sow/reap such a lot RF

I hear that one a lot. Well, many things that don't work in precise writing "sound right." Incomplete sentences often sound pretty darned good, too. That doesn't mean that they should form the foundation of your prose style.

I must admit that this is one of my grammatical hobby-horses, so please bear with me for a paragraph while we examine it. What do you mean when, especially regarding writing, you say "it sounds right?" What does that mean?

This is one of those places in which the crisis of reading and writing—which I mentioned the other day—comes to the fore. Most people don't read enough, or enough diverse material written in all sorts of genres, to have any idea at all about what "sounds right" in prose discourse. I often hear people praise a certain kind of writing with these lines: "It reads just like s/he talks." Now, don't get me wrong. Developing an ability to replicate speech on the page is a significant skill, and I am all for it. It is one sharpened arrow to have in your literary quiver, but just one. We should aspire, perhaps, to a little bit more diversity with our writing. If you are only able to write "like you talk," you are going to have problems.

So, "it just sounds right" won't cut it unless you have been reading Orwell and Atwood (and Spenser and Geertz), and those would just be yesterday's reading. Today you would spend a few hours with Liebling and Carlyle (and Shakespeare and Sahlins). You get the idea. "It just sounds right" needs to be reconsidered in light of your experience. If you just read the Twilight series, The Onion, and the instruction guide for Madden NFL12, you might want to dip your compositional toes a little deeper in the literary pond before you say "it just sounds right."

If you read and write and write and read, you might well get to the point where you say the same thing, but with a profoundly different meaning:

It just sounds write.

[d] Suchosaurus RF
On that note, we'll conclude this little introduction to incomplete sentences (we'll return to the topic in earnest many sections from now). In closing, I will note again that, although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the words "so" and "such," the best reason to eliminate them (or at least severely curtail their use) is that they often are "lazy." This is a theme that winds all of the way through this guide, and almost always trumps any "rule" that you might hear ("don't use such"). No, don't use lazy language. Have a little more self-respect. What you want to say is important, and your word choice is equally so. Eschew on that, and learn to enjoy the English language and its possibilities. And be wary of "rules." They are almost always flawed. Always work for active, lively, and engaged language. The rest, such as it is, will take care of itself.

Yes, I am playing with the coined word. We will take a week or so off from our Styling Culture posts. When we return, though, we will examine some Important Stuff. Some people like to Capitalize many Words. This is Problematic, as we'll Discuss.