From Round to Square (and back)

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (29)—Coated Culture

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

Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
There's a chill in the air these days, and you just might want to be thinking about breaking out the ol' parka for the winter. Clearly, George and Elaine have been thinking along the same lines. Both of them seem unusually attached to their winter gear, as you'll see in our two (unrelated) clips for this week. Take a look.

[b] Warmb RF
"You know, there are tribes in Indonesia where if you don't take your coat off...the families go to war." Well, George's ethnographic detail may be (how can I put this?) completely deficient, but he is on to something anyway. What do we do with someone who won't observe the very basic social nicety of allowing the host to unburden the guest of her coat? It happens every (winter) day, all over North America (and much of the rest of the world). What message is sent by refusing the offer? Have you ever thought about it?

That's what Round and Square is for, after all. In this space, we do not recognize such phrases as "Hey, dude, you're way overthinking that." As I have said many times on these pages already, the whole point of this blog is precisely to "overthink" everything. That's what we're about here.

Seinfeld characters "overthink," too, and that provides the show's charm—if that word can be used for characters as "trying" as George, Elaine, Jerry, Kramer, and Newman (not to mention the parents). Their "OverThink Tank" is called "Restaurant," and this is where the analysis takes place for Ellen's coat (George's Gore-Tex is perhaps somewhat less worthy of "Restaurant" analysis, and they merely resort to punching him repeatedly).

So it seems that George is saying to Elaine, with his odd ethnographic information for rhetorical ammunition, that it is incumbent upon the guest to give up her coat to the host. Are there cultural parallels here? It is not unusual to read historical accounts in which various samurai left their swords upon entering another's domain, or gunslingers emptying their holsters to show their good will. But coats? No, that is Elaine's territory, and it remains unstudied.

This week's readings will pick up on the theme of cultural expectations, and we'll see where it takes us. I had thought to spend a little time investigating apparel and its cultural forms, but I think that we can get a great deal more interpretive mileage from a series of ethnographic and historiographcial snippets that show how anthropologists have expected one thing ("May I take your coat") only to learn something very different ("No!").
We begin with an early section in Erving Goffman's study The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. This sets the interpretive tone for "coats," as we move away from the need for them (to Bali) for a scene from Clifford Geertz's classic ethnographic essay "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight," which show how he adapted to a police raid and broke down villagers' expectations of how he would act. Finally, we skip back in time to Natalie Zemon Davis's treatment of books in sixteenth century France, and how reading processes defy man of our modern expectations of "readership."

Through it all, we have "coated culture," and the oddity of that all-important garment in our lives—at least in places where the temperature dips to, and below, freezing. The need for them is material, practical. "May I take your coat?" Well, that is cultural and, with Elaine, it is highly contingent. "No!"

Erving Goffman

[d] Self
Settings and Fronts (1959)
If we take the term "setting" to refer to the scenic parts of expressive equipment, one may take the term "personal front" to refer to the other items of expressive equipment, the items that we most intimately identify with the performer himself and that we naturally expect will follow the performer wherever he goes. As part of the personal front we may include: insignia of office or rank; clothing; sex, age, and racial characteristics; size and looks; posture; speech patterns; facial expressions; bodily gestures; and the like. Some of these vehicles for conveying signs, such as racial characteristics, are relatively fixed and over a span of time do not vary during a performance from one moment to the next.

It is sometimes convenient to divide the stimuli which make up personal front into "appearance" and "manner," according to the function performed by the information that these stimuli convey. "Appearance" may be taken to those stimuli which function at the time to tell us of the performer's social statuses. These stimuli also tell us of the individual's temporary ritual state, that is, whether he is engaging in formal social activity, work, or informal recreation, whether or not he is celebrating a new phase in the season cycle or in his life cycle. "Manner" may be taken to refer to those stimuli which function at the time to warn us of the interaction role the performer will expect to play in the ongoing situation. Thus a haughty, aggressive manner may give the impression that the performer expects to be the one who will initiate the verbal interaction and direct its course. A meek, apologetic manner may give the impression that the performer expects to follow the lead of others, or at least that he can be led to do so. 

We often expect, of course, a confirming consistency between appearance and manner; we expect that the differences in social statuses among the interactants will be expressed in some way by congruent differences in the interactions that are made of an expected interaction role. This type of coherence may be illustrated by the following description of the procession of a mandarin through a Chinese city:
          Coming closely behind...the luxurious chair of the mandarin, carried by eight
       bearers, fills the vacant space in the street. He is the mayor of the town, and 
       for all practical purposes, the supreme power in it. He is an ideal-looking official,
       for he has that stern and uncompromising look that is supposed to be necessary
       in any magistrate who would hope to keep his subjects in order. He has a stern
       and forbidding aspect, as though he were on his way to the execution ground to
       have some criminal decapitated. This is the kind of air the mandarins put on when
       they appear in public. In the course of many years' experience, I have never once
       seen any of them, from the highest to the lowest, with a smile on his face or a look 
       of sympathy for the people whilst he was being carried officially through the streets.[1]

[e] Culture
Clifford Geertz
The Raid (1973)
Of course, like drinking during Prohibition or, today, smoking marihuana, cockfights, being a part of "The Balinese Way of Life," nonetheless go on happening, and with extraordinary frequency. And, as with Prohibition or marihuana, form time to time the police (who, in 1958 at least, were almost all not Balinese but Javanese) feel called upon to make a raid, confiscate the cocks and spurs, fine a few people, and even now and then expose some of them in the tropical sun for a day as object lessons which never, somehow, get learned, even though occasionally, quite occasionally, the object dies.

As a result, the fights are usually held in a secluded corner of a village in semisecrecy, a fact which tends to slow the action a little—not very much, but the Balinese do not care to have it slowed at all. In this case, however, perhaps because they were raising money for a school that the government was unable to give them, perhaps because raids had been few recently, perhaps, as I gathered from subsequent discussion, there was a notion that the necessary bribes had been paid, they thought they could take a chance on the central square and draw a larger and more enthusiastic crowd without attracting the attention of the law.

They were wrong. In the midst of the third match, with hundreds of people, including, still transparent, myself and my wife, fused into a single body around the ring, a superorganism in the literal sense, a truck full of policemen armed with machine guns roared up. Amid great screeching cries of "pulis! pulis!" from the crowd, the policemen jumped out, and, springing into the center of the ring, began to swing their guns around like gangsters in a motion picture, though not going as far as actually to fire them. The superorganism cam instantly apart as its components scattered in all directions. People raced down the road, disappeared headfirst over walls, scrambled under platforms, folded themselves behind wicker screens, scuttled up coconut trees. Cocks armed with steel spurs sharp enough to cut off a finger or run a hole through a foot were running wildly around.

On the established anthropological principle, "When in Rome," my wife and I decided, only slightly less instantaneously than everyone else, that the thing to do was run too. We ran down the main village street, northward, away from where we were living, for we were on that side of the ring. About halfway down another fugitive ducked suddenly into his compound—his own as it turned out—and we, seeing nothing ahead of us but rice fields, open country, and a very high volcano, followed him. As the three of us came tumbling into the courtyard, his wife, who had apparently been through this sort of thing before, whipped out a table, a tablecloth, three chairs, and three cups of tea, and we all, without any explicit communication whatsoever, sat down, commenced to sip tea, and sought to compose ourselves...

The next morning the village was a completely different world for us. Not only were we no longer invisible, we were suddenly the center of all attention, the object of a great outpouring of warmth, interest, and most especially amusement. Everyone in the village knew we had fled like everyone else...above all, everyone was extremely pleased and even more surprised that we had not simply "pulled out our papers" (they knew about those too) and asserted our Distinguished Visitor status, but had instead demonstrated solidarity with what were not our covillagers. (What we had actually demonstrated was our cowardice, but there is fellowship in that too).

[f] Society
Natalie Zemon Davis
Printing and the People (1975)
It is especially important to realize that people do not necessarily agree with the values and ideas in the books they read. For instance, M. Mandrou concludes from the fairy stories and saints' lives in the Bibliothèque bleue that it functioned as an escape literature for the peasants, an obstacle to the understanding of social and political realities. Perhaps. But without independent evidence, can we be sure of how a rural audience took its tales of marvels, especially at a period when people might dress up as ghosts to teach children a lessor or might protect peasant rebels by saying they were "fairies" who came from time to time? When a peasant read or was read to, it was not the stamping of a literal message on a blank sheet; it was the varied motion of "a strange top" (to use Jean-Paul Sartre's metaphor for the literary object) set to turning only by the combined effort of author and reader.

Thus we can best understand the connections between printing and the people if we do two things: first, if we supplement thematic analysis of texts with evidence about audiences that can provide context for the meaning and uses of books; second, if we consider a printed book not merely a source for ideas and images, but as a carrier of relationships...This essay, then, will consider the context for using printed books in defined popular milieus in sixteenth century France and the new relations that printing helped to establish among people and among hitherto isolated cultural traditions. Were there new groups who joined the ranks of known authors? What was the composition of "audiences"—those who actually read the books—and of "publics"—those to whom authors and publishers addressed their works?[3]

[1] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1959), 23-35.
[2] Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 414-416.
[3] Natalie Zemon Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975), 191-193.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973. 
Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1959.
Zemon Davis, Natalie. Society and Culture in Early Modern France. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975. 

Dinner Party
Frank and Estelle Costanza bring life (as it were) to a dinner party. The "minor" characters on Seinfeld are just as well-formed (and powerfully irritating) as the main ones. Take a look, next week on Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific. 

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