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.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Seinfeld Ethnography (47)—Bathroom Book

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.
One year ago on Round and Square (18 April 2011). Management: Reviewing History

[a] Papyrus 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        Bathroom Book
Click here for the reference to the "Argonauts" title, below.
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
[b] Out RF
George feels the call of nature. Amidst the rumblings, he picks out some reading material. You see, it's going to be a while... There's nothing like killing time with a good book, so George does just that. It's a big book, too—French Impressionism. He lugs it into the bathroom, pauses, and comes out with a surprising new purchase. It's not his choice. Take a look.

"You get your toilet book outta here!"

And that got me to thinking. What is really different about a book that has been on the shelf and one that has made the journey to the dens of human evacuation? This isn't (exactly) like kneading dough after a trip to the "persons" room, is it? It's a book, after all. How do you know that the library patron washed his hands before looking up DS710 G3 and thumbing through its pages? What's going on here? This sounds vaguely...sort of...cultural.

And individual. Do you think that everyone is equally bothered by a book that has been to the bathroom? I concede that the answer may well by "yes," and that could be instructive here. do you feel about a book that someone else (George, for example) has brought to the bathroom as opposed to one that, say, you did? Is there a difference? I thought so. Why?

[c] Out-also RF
These are the corridors of purity and danger—of cleanliness and pollution. They affect every individual in every society, but in ways so different (so very varying) that they can make our heads spin. The personality-and-culture issues flow from there. Why does George feel compelled to read in the bathroom?

And why does George feel compelled to read about French impressionists in the bathroom? What are French impressionists doing near a bathroom in the first place? George's peculiar psyche is one that cannot ever properly be plumbed, and not just because he is one of the most original fictional characters ever produced. His oddity is his biography.

The social dimensions are equally perplexing. It does not require a biochemist to tell us that the toilet microbes on the book are dead. The book is safe...yet we recoil ("instinctively"). What is that all about? How and why can Elaine lovingly embrace pages that contain the works for her favorite artists in one moment and shoo it all away in another? Is it the price George asked for the book?

No, it is pollution.
[d] Reading room RF
The more we learn about the ways we think (as individuals in complex societies—and all of them are complex, by the way) about pollution, the better will we understand our worlds. Toilets tend to concentrate the attention on such matters, and this is true throughout the world (note that I have not claimed "universality," but it is close). If we do a bit of thinking, however, we can start to ferret out some intriguing examples of "pollution" in everyday life. They may not be as dramatic as George's toilet book, but we might note the similarity of rhetoric when we speak of being pure, as we often do with regard to following a sports team, a political cause, or a way of preparing meals.

You know what I mean. Purity and authenticity are linked, and the fireworks begin from there. The implications of the way we talk about these things are enormous, and we would do well to think about the small ways we speak of "impurities" in our midst(s), as well as those that are the size of a bookstore men's room.

This week's readings are meant to trigger a little of that thinking. I begin where almost every anthropologist starts these discussions—with Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger. You need to read it from start to finish (and again, if you've read it already). This is just a snippet, but Hardy's "clane cup" and George's "unclane book" are linked. We then move to an anthropological contemporary, Theodore Bestor, and his study of "fish form" (kata) in and around the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. "Purity" starts to take on further dimensions here, and that is exactly where this post is meant to lead. Finally, we ratchet up the literary discussion here. T.S. Eliot's poem is a study in impurity. It is not lost on me that Eliot continued to be a problematic creator throughout his career. For all its challenges, though, this poem is an ode to impurities.

[e] Clane ADV
Ritual Uncleanness
Mary Douglas (1966)
Our idea of dirt is compounded by two things, care for hygiene and respect for conventions. The rules of hygiene change, of course, with changes in our state of knowledge. As for the conventional side of dirt-avoidance, these rules can be set aside for the sake of friendship. Hardy's farm labourers commended the shepherd who refused a clean mug for his cider as a 'nice unparticular man':

          'A clane cup for the shepherd,' said the maltster
          'No—not at all,' said Gabriel, in a reproving tone of considerateness. 'I never
          fuss about dirt in its pure state and when I know what sort it is...I wouldn't think
          of giving such trouble to neighbours in washing up when there's so much work
          to be done in the world already.'

In a more exalted spirit, St. Catherine of Sienna, when she felt revulsion from the wounds sh was tending, is said to have bitterly reproached herself. Sound hygiene was incompatible with charity, so she deliberately drank of a bowl of pus. Whether they are rigorously observed or violated, there is nothing in our rules of cleanness to suggest any connection between dirt and sacredness. Therefore it is only mystifying to learn that primitives make little difference between sacredness and uncleanness.

For us sacred things and places are to be protected from defilement. Holiness and impurity are at opposite poles. We would as soon confound hunger with fullness or sleeping with waking. Yet it is supposed to be a mark of primitive religion to make no clear distinction between sanctity and uncleanness. If this is true it reveals a great gulf between ourselves and our forefathers, between us and contemporary primitives.[1]

[f] Fishform ADV
Japanese Foodstuffs
Theodore Bestor (2004)
Preferences for domestically produced foodstuffs may in part stem from fundamental Japanese parochialism, but they also reflect issues of kata, or idealized form, and the inability of foreign producers to live up to Japanese standards. The ideal of perfect external form adds an extra dimension to assessing foodstuffs. The slightest blemish, the smallest imperfection, or the most trivial deviation from a foodstuff's idealized form can make a product—or entire shipment—languish unsold. That is, the outward appearance must be perfect, since imperfection outside may signal imperfection within, just as the etiquette of wrapping symbolically ensures both ritual and hygienic purity.

Even where concern over the integrity of the inner product is not directly at issue, the question of kata bedevils the international fish trade. An American lobster producer from California once told me that he had given up trying to ship lobsters to Japan; apparently his Japanese broker rejected sample shipment after sample shipment, complaining that the individual lobsters in each lot were too varied in size. "I gave up." I don't sort that carefully for anybody," the American producer told me disdainfully. Instead, he concentrates on the American restaurant market, where the normal lobster dinner is served individually and often priced according to the weight of the lobster. People dining together may indeed all order lobster, but they are unlikely to compare their individual lobsters closely; and if they do, the differences in price by size will usually account for any obvious disparities.

Across the Pacific, a Tsukiji [Fish Market] lobster trader tells another side to the story: "Hotel banquet halls buy almost all the lobsters at Tsukiji. The auspicious red-and-white clor of a lobster tail makes it very popular at wedding banquets. Everybody's plate has to look exactly like the one next to it. If a guest sees that his lobster tail is smaller than that of the person sitting next to him, everyone gets uncomfortable."

Almost every Tsukiji dealer in imported fish has his favorite horror story about the improper handling of fish by foreign producers and brokers; in retelling these tales traders return again and again to issues of Japanese preferences as they are through "Tsukiji specs," the demanding specifications with which the Tsukiji auction houses expect suppliers to comply.[2]

[g] Shroud ADV
Sweeney Among the Nightingales
T.S. Eliot (1920)

. ............. 

Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh,
The zebra stripes along his jaw
Swelling to maculate giraffe.  

The circles of the stormy moon      
Slide westward toward the River Plate,
Death and the Raven drift above
And Sweeney guards the hornèd gate.  

Gloomy Orion and the Dog
Are veiled; and hushed the shrunken seas;      
The person in the Spanish cape
Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees  

Slips and pulls the table cloth
Overturns a coffee-cup,
Reorganized upon the floor       
She yawns and draws a stocking up;  

The silent man in mocha brown
Sprawls at the window-sill and gapes;
The waiter brings in oranges
Bananas figs and hothouse grapes;       

The silent vertebrate in brown
Contracts and concentrates, withdraws;
Rachel née Rabinovitch
Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;  

She and the lady in the cape       
Are suspect, thought to be in league;
Therefore the man with heavy eyes
Declines the gambit, shows fatigue,  

Leaves the room and reappears
Outside the window, leaning in,       
Branches of wistaria
Circumscribe a golden grin;  

The host with someone indistinct
Converses at the door apart,
The nightingales are singing near      
The Convent of the Sacred Heart,  

And sang within the bloody wood
When Agamemnon cried aloud,
And let their liquid droppings fall
To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.     

[1] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), 8-9.
[2] Theodore Bestor, Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 146-147.
[3] T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (London: Faber & Faber, 1963), 59-60.

Bestor, Theodore. Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World. Berkeley: University of 
     California Press, 2004.
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.
Eliot, T.S. Collected Poems, 1909-1962. London: Faber & Faber, 1963.

Wednesday, April 25th
These Pretzels Are Making Me Thirsty
A single line in a movie brings social life to an abrupt, jealous halt. The social and cultural theoretical walls are already vibrating.

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