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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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Seinfeld Ethnography (39)—Life Thoughts

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

[a] Circle of Life 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...         Wallet Bust
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
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
George is a broken shell of a human being. Kramer says so. Hunkered in his restaurant booth over coffee, George shrinks to fetal proportions as he answers Kramer's relentless questions about the state of his life. Take a look.

"Do you have any conceivable reason for getting up in the morning?"

I would agree that the newspaper plays a role in wanting to get up, although, these days, the Kindle, Nook, or IPad makes it easier just to stay in bed, assuming wireless connectivity. This is pretty pathetic, but then George screams "pathos" (of a sort), even when he his just plain ol' pathetic. 
[b] Up and at 'em, George RF
So that question got me thinking. Do you have any reason at all to get up in the morning? Wow. That is a bit of a "what is the meaning of life" sort of question, if you think about it in a certain way. Beyond George, or even Kramer, maybe we need to ask ourselves a calm, reflective version of that question. A whole bunch of self-help gurus think that it is a good thing to start the day with a series of questions that will power you through your day. Keep in mind, that very few gurus would recommend the negativity of Kramer's half-dozen or so questions. Empowering, they are not. Still, we ask ourselves questions all of the time, and a pretty good one might be framed by "why do we get up in the morning?" 

Think about it. A whole bunch of our social and economic lives is founded on this very question—except we usually leave it sitting in the background. This "what is life all about" stuff is a window unto our daily lives that even many anthropologists don't think about enough (and they do more than just about anyone, including analytical philosophers). I'll have more to say about this angle in coming weeks. Anthropologists and historians study life. Why don't we look at that little cultural passage, so to speak, that gets us...out of bed in the morning?
***  ***
This week, we'll read a few selections from the ethnography and philosophy...of life. These are not "obvious" readings in any way. If you are a regular reader of Round and Square you already understand this. Today, we are not going to take a "what is life" tack so much as a "let's reflect upon aspects of life" one. We will look at Arnold van Gennep's classic essay on the rites of passage. Rites of passage are all about, well, life, and this passage is all about getting out of bed and through the door (if you think about it). Our second reading is from the philosopher Hilary Putnam who reflects upon "pragmatism and relativism" in, well, life. Finally, we'll wrap up with Roy D'Andrade's thoughts about culture and psychology.

Arnold van Gennep
Territorial Passages (1903)
[c] Passages ADV
The procedures discussed apply not only in reference to a country or territory but also in relation to a village, a town, a section of a town, a temple, or a house. The neutral zone shrinks progressively till it ceases to exist except as a simple stone, a beam, or a threshold (excerpt for the pronaos, the narthex, the vestibule, etc.). The portal which symbolizes a taboo against entering becomes the postern of the ramparts, the gate in the walls of the city quarter, the door of the house. The quality of sacredness is not localized in the threshold only; it encompasses the lintels and the architrave as well.

The rituals pertaining to the door form a unit, and differences among particular ceremonies lie in technicalities: the threshold is sprinkled with blood or with purifying water; doorposts are bathed with blood or with perfumes; sacred objects are hung or nailed onto them, as on the architrave...Precisely the door is the boundary between the foreign and domestic worlds in the case of an ordinary dwelling, between the profane and sacred worlds in the case of a temple. Therefore to cross the threshold is to unite oneself with a new world. It is thus an important act in marriage, adoption, ordination, and funeral ceremonies.[1]

[d] Life ADV
Hilary Putnam
Pragmatism and Relativism (1994)
But the distinction between our values and our "compliance" is too simple, and in two different ways. In the first place, our values are not all that clear. This is the problem to which Rawls's work is addressed. In the real world, our values of liberty and of equality conflict, and the conflicts are difficult to adjudicate. In principle, I suppose, one could have perfect economic equality (equality of political power is a far more difficult notion). At one time, the more left-wing kibbutzim in Israel required all their members to have the same furniture in their apartments, to make sure that no invidious inequalities would arise. Most of us would feel that this degree of equality requires an inadmissible interference with individual freedom. On the other hand, the wide-open "freedom" of economic enterprise on which the United States and England today pride themselves has led to massive inequalities, including the inequality between the homed and the homeless.

In the second place, the massive and long-continued failure of the West's societies to comply with their own supposed values suggests that large numbers of people find them insufficient in some way...In a conversation, my old friend Sidney Morgenbesser once remarked that many philosophers confuse the notion of a "universal ethic" with the notion of a "universal way of life." Thinking about the present topic has caused me to wonder whether that confusion may not be intrinsic to the Enlightenment itself or, perhaps, even to Western philosophy itself. Aristotle's Politics poses the question as "What is the best constitution for a polis—for any group of civilized human beings?" And it is undeniable that many Enlightenment thinkers framed the question in the same way.[2]

[e] Culture ADV
Roy G. D'Andrade
Cultural Meaning Systems (1984)
There appears to be an implicit assumption in anthropology that anything that is known to involve complex psychological processes cannot also be cultural. Thus attitudes, needs, goals, and defenses, because they clearly involve complex psychological processes, are typically considered to be part of personality, not culture, no matter how shared or institutionalized a particular attitude, need, goal, or defense may be.

What is not appreciated is that most human behavior involves complex psychological processes. Take, for example, the formulation that culture is primarily knowledge. It is widely assumed that knowledge can be transmitted without involving psychological processes to any significant extent: Someone tells someone else something, then the other person knows it. Simple communication through the transmission of information has occurred. George Lakoff has discussed this metaphor of transmission in detail and has indicated some of the confusions it engenders...All these kinds of evidence indicate that there is an emotional side to meaning. Often the evocative function blends with the directive function into a powerful good-happy-like approach versus a bad-fright/anger-dislike-hit/flee attitude...In summary, the general position presented here is that meanings involve the total human psyche, not just the part of us that knows things.[3]

[1] Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage [Translated by Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee] (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 19-20.
[2] Hilary Putnam, Words and Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 182-184.
[3] Richard Shweder and Robert LeVine, Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self, and Emotion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 98-100.

Putnam, Hilary. Words and Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.
Shweder, RIchard and Robert LeVine (eds). Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self, and Emotion.  
       Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Pasage [Translated by Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. 
       Caffee]. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Wednesday, February 15th
Day of Reckoning
Newman isn't just scary. He isn't even just Book of Revelations scary. He's...well, really scary. Tune in next week to hear about revenge, response, and Newman.

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