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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*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Seinfeld Ethnography (36)—Swimming in the East River

[a] Swimmingly 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 
Kramer swims for fun and chiropractic health. The problem is that the pool is like a "flabby armed spanking machine." His problems are solved when he finds the open waters (shared by only a few other floating bodies) of the East River. Take a look.

"What is that smell?"                           "That's East River."

There are several levels of interpretive possibility here. First, there is the desire to escape the "social" demands (spanking machines) of others. Second, there is the tendency for social beings to come together—to congregate, to communicate, to commune. If you've been reading social theory for a while in these posts, you have already had this thought pass through your mind, even as you thought about garbage odors in the East River.
[b] Social odor R


This is child's play for the Durkheimian social theorist. We come together in social frenzy. We get sick of each other. We disperse. And then we come back together. That is the very nature of society (and religion) for Emile Durkheim (1858-1917).

It was his nephew (and student), Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) who took it to a new level, though. Mauss spoke of the intertwined necessities of social gathering and dispersal in a seminal article on Eskimo migration. You'll "get" to read a bit of that later in this post. For now, though, let's just think about the social imagination at work somewhere in the mental recesses of the Seinfeld writers when they crafted this episode. Not unlike the spark that created a Seinfeldian social fury of candy bar eating with utensils, the individual (solo) idea of swimming in the East River—free from kicks to the face and highboard divers—quickly becomes entwined with social life.

[c] Lanes RF
Of course, Seinfeld tends to be somewhat unsubtle in its social theorizing ("I told my chiropractor and he told his patients"), but we can fill in the rest. The way it really works is that a chord is struck, and then social (and intellectual) "gathering" starts to happen in ways far beyond our comprehension. How does a tea party movement begin...and spread? Viral videos? Gossip?

As individuals, it goes something like this. It is is 1994. You live in Boston, and say "I think I'll watch the NASCAR race this afternoon." You watch the bumper-rubbing near-chaos, transfixed. You take a nap on the couch (it's a long race). You hold your breath (as though you were listening to Mahler's Ninth) as you watch the restart at the end. Exhausted, you say to yourself, "This NASCAR thing is pretty interesting," and you think that you are the only symphony listening, Gruyère-savoring, Châteauneuf-du-Pape drinking urbanite to have noticed Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, and the Intimidator...or, in NASCAR parlance the 24-car, the 2-car, and the 3-car..


Something else has been going on for some time. You just haven't noticed your individual part in it. The return to eastern seaboard urban disinterest in NASCAR (c. 2006) worked the same way. "You" got bored just about the same time everyone else who isn't from Dover, Darlington, and Talladega did. So, too, with other nineteenth and twentieth century social phenomena, such as gold rushes, hula hoops, Rubik's cubes, supply-side economics, and marathoning (26.2).

[d] Tugged RF
There is a complex relationship between individual and society, and people have been trying to understand it since ancient Greece and Western Zhou—Kramer in flip-flops and toga, asserting his individuality in a societ-sea of splashing arms.

And then there is East River pollution. That, for me, is just the Soylent Greenish backdrop for the power of social gathering and dispersal. We begin our theoretical readings this week with Durkheimian sociology (Marcel Mauss's classic essay) before moving on to considerations of Chinese river goddesses and New Guinea water education—each of which intersects in powerful ways with East River culture(s).

The East's PEOPLE(d).

Eskimo Migration
Marcel Mauss (1908)
[e] Mauss ADV
These American Indian societies are not, however, the only ones that conform to this type [of gathering and dispersal at various times of the year]. In temperate or extreme climates where the influence of the seasons is clearly evident, there occur innumerable phenomena similar to those we have studied. We can cite two particularly striking cases. First, there are the summer migrations of the pastoral mountain peoples of Europe which almost completely empty whole villages of their male population. Second, there is the seemingly reverse phenomenon that once regulated the life of the Buddhist monk in India and still regulates the lives of itinerant ascetics, now that the Buddhist sangha no longer has followers in India: during the rainy season, the mendicant ceases his wandering and re-enters the monastery.

What is more, we have only to observe what goes on around us in our western societies to discover these same rhythms. About the end of July, there occurs a summer dispersion. Urban life enters that period of sustained languor known as vacances, the vacation period. which continues to the end of autumn. Life then tends to revive and goes on to increase steadily until it drops off again in June. Rural life follows the opposite pattern. In winter, the countryside is plunged into a kind of torpor, the population at this time scatters to specific points of seasonal migration; each small local or familial group turns in upon itself; there are neither means nor opportunities for gathering together; this is the time of dispersion. By contrast, in summer, everything becomes reanimated; workers return to the fields; people live out of doors in constant contact with one another. This is the time of festivities, of major projects and great revelry. Statistics reflect these regular variations in social life. Suicides, an urban phenomenon, increase from the end of autumn until June, whereas homicides, a rural phenomenon, increase from the beginning of spring until the end of summer, when they become fewer.

All this suggests that we have come upon a law that is probably of considerable generality. Social life does not continue at the same level throughout the year; it goes through regular, successive phases of increased and decreased intensity of activity and repose, of exertion and recuperation. We might almost say that social life does violence to the minds and bodies of individuals which they can only sustain for a time; and there comes a pone when they must slow down and partially withdraw from it. We have seen examples if this rhythm of dispersion and concentration, of individual life and collective life. Instead of being the necessary and determining cause of an entire system, truly seasonal factors may merely mark the most opportune occasions in the year for these two phases to occur. After the long revelries of the collective life which fill the winter, each Eskimo needs to live a more individual life; after long months of communal living filled with feasts and religious ceremonies, an Eskimo needs a profane existence. We know, in fact, that the Eskimo are delighted with this change, for it seems to come as a response to a natural need...[1]

The Lo River Divinity
Edward Schafer (1973)
[f] Divine ADV
The waters of the Lo River enjoyed a reputation as venerable as those of the great Ho itself, into which it ultimately empties. They appear prominently in the earliest Chinese literature and never lost their nostalgic fascination, which depended finally on the central position of the river in the ancient ancient plains civilization of the Shang. In medieval times, the metropolis of Lo-yang, on the banks of the Lo, was still a divine city, and its environs were admired as particularly favored by nature—distinguished by lovely gardens, serene river-banks, and gentle deities. The pleasant region provided an early foreshadowing of the sweet and warm new lands of the Yangtze valley.

The only goddess who literary repute as as great as those of the southern goddesses of Wu shan and the Hsiang River was the goddess of the Lo. The antiquity of her cult is not known. Classical tradition, at least, claimed that sacrifice had been made to the spirit of that river in the very earliest times. To be precise where precision is laughable, this happened in the fiftieth year of the reign of the high god and innovator of civilization, Huang Ti, "The Yellow Divinity." There is other ancient evidence of the reverence in which the river was held. But we have no way of knowing whether the river deity was pictured as a female in antiquity...

The fame of the Lo Divinity in poetry is rather late. It rests mainly on a popular rhapsodic treatment of her written by Ts'ao Chih in the third century A.D. That work owes much to the style of the ancient Sung Yü poems but lacks almost entirely the sense of reverence that informed them. Ts'ao Chih seems to have regarded the goddess of the Lo merely as a suitable romantic subject for poetic treatment, without feeling the need to commit himself to a view about her holy power or her real existence. In the introduction to his famous pastiche, he tells us that in the year A.D. 222 he was returning home from a formal visit to the court at Lo-Yang. Crossing the Lo River, he recalls the old tradition that the deity of the river is in fact Fu Fei—"Consort Fu"...The charioteer speaks of her in glowing verses, partly reminiscent of Sung Yü's rhapsody:

          As to her form—
          She flutters like a startled swan,
          She twists and turns like a roving dragon.[2]

Growing Up in New Guinea
Margaret Mead (1925)
[g] Mead ADV
As soon as the baby can toddle uncertainly, he is put down into the water at low tide when parts of the lagoon are high and others  only a few inches under water. Here the baby sits and plays in the water or takes a few hesitating steps in the yielding spongy mud. The mother does not leave his side, nor does she leave him there long enough to weary him. As he grows older, he is allowed to wade about at low tide. His elders keep a sharp lookout that he does not stray into deep water until he is old enough to swim. But the supervision is unobtrusive. Mother is always there if the child gets into difficulties, but he is not nagged and plagued with continual "don'ts." His whole play world is so arranged that he is permitted to make small mistakes from which he may learn better judgement and greater circumspection, but he is never allowed to make mistakes which are serious enough to permanently frighten him or inhibit his activity. He is a tight-rope walker, learning feats which we would count outrageously difficult for little children, but his tight-rope is stretched above a net of expert parental solicitude...

Swimming is not taught: the small waders imitate their slightly older brothers and sisters, and after floundering about in waist-deep water begin to strike out for themselves. Sure-footedness on land and swimming come almost together, so that the charm which is recited over a newly delivered woman says, "May you not have another until this one can walk and swim." As soon as the children can swim a little, in a rough and tumble overhand stroke which has not style but great speed, they are given small canoes of their own...Now that they have learned to swim a little, they climb freely about the large canoes, diving off the bow, climbing in again at the stern, or clambering out over the outrigger to swim along with  one hand on the flexible outrigger float. The parents are never in such a hurry that they have to forbid this useful play...

The test of this kind of training is in the results. The Manus children are perfectly at home in the water. They neither fear it nor regard it as presenting special difficulties and dangers. The demands upon them have made them keen-eyed, quick-witted, and physically competent like their parents. There is not a child of five who can't swim well. A Manus child who couldn't swim would be as aberrant , as definitely subnormal as an American child of five who couldn't walk. Before I went to Manus I was puzzled by the problem of how I would be able to collect the little children in one spot. i had visions of a kind of collecting canoe which would go about every morning and gather them aboard. I need not have worried. A child was never at a loss to get from house to house, whether he went in a large canoe or a small one, or swam the distance with a knife in his teeth.[3]

[1] Marcel Mauss, Seasonal Variation of the Eskimo: A Study of Social Morphology (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), 78-79.
[2] Edward H. Schafer, The Divine Woman: Dragon Ladies and Rain Maidens (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1980), 68-69.
[3] Margaret Mead, Growing Up in New Guinea (New York: Harper Collins, 1930), 24-25.

Mauss, Marcel. Seasonal Variation of the Eskimo: A Study of Social Morphology (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.
Mead, Margaret. Growing Up in New Guinea (New York: Harper Collins, 1930.
Schafer, Edward H. The Divine Woman: Dragon Ladies and Rain Maidens. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1980.
[h] Workout RF
Wednesday, January 25th
Pool Man
Structure meets function when Kramer visits the Costanzas.

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