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, October 19, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (30)—Dinner Party

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.

[a] Social 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.
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
George and his fiancée spend an evening with their parents. The food is excellent, the wine sublime. The conversation...less so. Take a look at a few of the interactions that should make any "structural-functional" theorist (or just plain optimist) look to "conflict theory," for interpretive relief. Frank and Estelle Costanza are among the best "minor" characters in the history of television, and we will be exploring their odd worlds in many Seinfeld Ethnography posts in the coming months.

"If I had a dime...for every book he's actually read...I'd be broke." "Merlot, I've never heard of it; did they just invent it?" "Let me understand; you've got the hen, the chicken, and the rooster..."
[b] Exactly RF
It was a tough evening, and it is not difficult to see where it started to go wrong. I am thinking of the very idea of having the parents together for dinner. It is one of those social expectations that most people dread, and hope to get through with a minimum of trouble. Of course, most people are not Frank and Estelle Costanza, so the strike count was 0-2 pretty much from the moment the invitation was sent.

All of this got me thinking. When such events—even in the best of situations—are awkward, difficult, or worse...why do we have them? I understand weddings (big, sizable, ethnic, or otherwise). There, the necessity of social gathering dominates and we pretty much have to adjust, usually sitting in our comfortable tribal configurations as we assert our unity with bride or groom. But why is the "personal touch" something that many, if not most, couples and their parents endure? There is certainly enough understanding of this in the larger culture (I am thinking of American culture at the moment) to make almost everyone understand its stressfulness. The social-analytical opportunities here are legion. We have gender, sexual preference, life experience, class (in at least two meanings of the term), generation, and more.

[c] More RF
The parental dinner party could easily be the subject of a groundbreaking work in social history. It is one of those awkward social engagements in which a clear success is a dull evening in which—while no one has much fun—nothing goes particularly wrong.

Why do we do it?

What kinds of social forces lead us down the path to having dinner with the Costanzas, even when we know better? Think about it. If you have been around the block a time or two, you have probably had similar, or parallel, experiences (here I am thinking about meeting the significant other's close friends). If you are old enough, you might have been through this situation in different roles. It is amusing to think, for example, of a similar dinner forty years years earlier, with Frank and Estelle's parents. Think about it. That might not even be fit for radio.

So where can we go from here? I have chosen an array of texts for this week's "juxtaposition," and they may not be quite what you were thinking. That's the whole point of Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific, after all. We begin with the early "anthropological" classic (the word has quotation marks only because anthropologists are slow to accept their own history), The Golden Bough, first published in 1890. In this passage, Sir James George Frazer discusses elements of social interaction with visiting strangers. Next, we will look at a mythical "stranger meeting" from the third volume of Claude Lévi-Strauss's four-part classic, Mythologiques. Finally, we will examine a passage from a more recent ethnographic work dealing with Chinese banquets and seating orders.

[d] When it breaks...RF
Sir James George Frazer
Taboos on Intercourse With Strangers (1890)
It is probably that the same dread of strangers, rather than any desire to do them honour, is the motive of certain ceremonies which are sometimes observed at their reception, but of which the intention is not directly stated. In the Ongtong Java Islands, which are inhabited by Polynesians, the priests or sorcerers seem to wield great influence. Their main business is to summon or exorcise spirits for the purpose of averting or dispelling sickness, and of procuring favourable winds, a good catch of fish, and so on. When strangers land on the islands, they are first of all received by the sorcerers, sprinkled with water, anointed with oil, and girt with dried pandanus leaves. At the same time sand and water are freely thrown about in all directions, and the newcomer and his boat are wiped with green leaves. After this ceremony the strangers are introduced by the sorcerers to the chief.

In Afghanistan and in some parts of Persia the traveler, before he enters a village, is frequently received with a sacrifice of animal life or food, or of fire and incense. The Afghan Boundary Mission, in passing by villages in Afghanistan, was often met with fire and incense. Sometimes a tray of lighted embers is thrown under the hoofs of a traveller's horse, with the words, "You are welcome." On entering a village in Central Africa Emin Pasha was received with the sacrifice of two goats; their blood was sprinkled on the path and the chief stepped over the blood to great Emin. Sometimes the dread of strangers and their magic is too great to allow of their reception on any terms. Thus when Speke arrived at a certain village, the natives shut their doors against him, "because they had never before seen a white man nor the tin boxes that the men were carrying: 'Who knows,' they said, 'but that these very boxes are the plundering Watuta transformed and come to kill us? You cannot be admitted.' No persuasion could avail with them, and the party had to proceed to the next village.[1]

Claude Lévi-Strauss
[e] Mannered RF
The Young Girl and the Sun (1968)
Myth #459 in Lévi-Strauss's sequence
The first ancestors of the Mandan emerged from under the ground at a certain high point on the ocean shore. There were four of them, and they brought corn up with them. Their chief was called 'Good-Furred-Robe'. He had two brothers, the elder of whom was called 'Cornhusk Earrings', and the younger 'Uses-His-Head-For-A-Rattle'. The three men had a sister called 'Waving-Corn-Stalk'. The chief was Corn medicine man and he taught the people how to raise corn and to celebrate the corn rites. He possessed a coat which only had to be sprinkled with water for rain to fall. Good-Furred-Robe taught the inhabitants of the earth to clothe themselves, build villages and cultivate the fields. He laid out the lodges in rows like rows of corn, and assigned the plots to each family. Then he distributed corn, beans, gourd and sunflower seeds to each family.

In those days the sister would be out in the fields all day overseeing the work. One day a stranger came and wanted to talk to her but she would not see him. He came four times to see her but each time she refused. That man was the sun. When he left for the last time, he said that the young girl would never harvest what she planted. The next day when the sun came up the air was so hot that the corn wilted. After the sun had set, the young girl ran through the fields with her robe, singing the holy songs. The corn plants revived. Four times running Sun scorched the fields, but each time the young girl revived them with her robe and her songs.[2]

Andrew Kipnis
[f] Hosted RF
Guest/Host Etiquette and Banquets (1997)
All banquets present the problem of determining who sits where. The local term for banquet, yanxi (used widely throughout China), itself illuminates this importance. The second character of this word, xi, means "seat" or "place" at a formal gathering like a banquet or in a political organ like the People's Congress. The convergence of banquets and politics here reflects the importance of banquet seating to negotiating hierarchy, social relations, and power...Whenever I saw two guest families seated at the same table, serious negotiation took place. The guests milled about the table, discussed who should sit where, and tried to understand each other's intentions. Arguments about distance from host, age, and positions within family were all offered. Host reps sat in the seventh and eighth chairs and tried to mediate. On one such occasion one family had two representatives older that the eldest of the family. The negotiations became particularly tricky. Should the eldest two men at the table occupy the first two chairs or should each family's representative occupy the first two chairs? The families argued for more than five minutes and I had to leave before the issue was resolved. Because the expressions of respect embodied in seating order could be interpreted in terms of age hierarchies, distance hierarchies, and guanxi between families, the issue was complex and ambiguous.[3]

[1] Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough [Abridged 1922 edition] (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 227-228. 
[2] Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Origin of Table Manners [Translated by John and Doreen Weightman] (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1978), 309-310.
[3] Andrew Kipnis, Producing Guanxi: Sentiment, Self, and Subculture in a North China Village (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 47-49.

Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough [Abridged 1922 edition]. New York: Touchstone, 1996. 
Kipnis, Andrew. Producing Guanxi: Sentiment, Self, and Subculture in a North China Village. Durham NC: 
          Duke University Press, 1997.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Origin of Table Manners [Translated by John and Doreen Weightman]. New York:
          Harper Colophon Books, 1978.

George's New Friend
George is very taken with Elaine's boyfriend, and shows glimpses of a sensitive, caring, progressive...and, well, possessive side. We'll explore the social and cultural dimensions of week on Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific

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