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, August 31, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (23)—I Can't Be With Someone If I Don't Respect What They Do

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

Click here for the reference to the "Argonauts" title, below. 
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific 
This week, Jerry gets dumped. Everything changed on Tuesday, says the woman beside him. "I just can't be with someone if I don't respect what they do." 

"But you're a cashier!" No matter, "so much fluff" just doesn't get the job done, and the relationship is over. We don't have to worry about Jerry, who will soon have other people to meet. I am more interested this week in "respecting what someone does." What exactly does that mean? Throughout world history, it has played a much more prominent role in partner choice than supposedly egalitarian Americans admit. 

This week’s readings take the Seinfeld clip you just saw and overlay it with a number of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century images. We begin with Alexis de Tocqueville’s thoughts about the nature of the marriage contract in the fledgling United States, then proceed to Tocqueville’s home country for a skillful rendering of gendered marital frustration. We complete our circuit this week with Marcel Granet’s fanciful (but theoretically rich) account of marriage in ancient China. All of the references are snippets from larger narratives, of course, and it would not be Seinfeld Ethnography if I failed to remind readers that these passages every week are meant to be juxtaposed—even read “against the grain—of the Seinfeld clip. This should not be difficult in works ranging from a political-social treatise to an iconic novel and on to ancient Chinese history. 

Alexis de Tocqueville 
Democratic Marriage (1840)  
[b] Democratic
Amongst aristocratic nations, birth and wealth often make a man and a woman such different creatures that they could never succeed in uniting with each other. Passions draw them together but social conditions and notions suggested by them prevent their forging a permanent and open union. That leads unavoidably to a great number of transient and clandestine liaisons. Nature secretly gets her own back for the restraint imposed by laws.

This does not occur in the same way when equality of social conditions has swept away all the real or imagined barriers between men and women. No girl then feels that she cannot become the wife of the man who likes her best, which makes the disruption of moral behavior before marriage very uncommon. For, however believable a passion may be, in no way will a woman be persuaded that she is loved when her lover is perfectly free to marry her and does not do so. The same cause acts upon marriage in a more indirect manner. Nothing better serves to justify an illicit passion in the eyes of those experiencing it or of the watching crowd than forced marriages or ones embarked upon by chance. 
In a country where women are always free to make their own choice and where education has taught them to choose well, public opinion is unforgiving when they make a mistake. The austerity of Americans stems in part from that cause. They regard marriage as a contract which, though onerous, must nevertheless be strictly honored in all its clauses because these have all been known beforehand and people have enjoyed the complete freedom not to bind themselves to anything at all.[1]

Gustave Flaubert
Madame Bovary (1856) 
[c] Frustration
Finally, to keep up with the times, [Charles] subscribed to “La Ruche Médicale,” a new journal whose prospectus had been sent to him. He read it a little after dinner, but in about five minutes, the warmth of the room added to the effect of his dinner sent him to sleep; and he sat there, his chin on his two hands and his hair spreading like a mane to the foot of the lamp. Emma looked at him and shrugged her shoulders. Why at least, was not her husband one of those silently determined men who work at their books all night, and at last, when at sixty the age of rhumatisim was upon them, wear a string of medals on their ill-fitting black coat? She would have wished this name of Bovary, which was hers, to be illustrious, to see it displayed at the booksellers’, repeated in the newspapers, known to all of France. But Charles had no ambition. An Yvetot doctor whom he had lately met in consultation had somewhat humiliated him at the very bedside of the patient, before the assembled relatives. When, in the evening, Charles told this incident Emma inveighed loudly against his colleague. Charles was much touched. He kissed her forehead with a tear in his eyes. But she was angered with shame; she felt a wild desire to strike him; she went to open the window in the passage and breathed fresh air to calm herself. 

“What a man! what a man,” she said in a low voice, biting her lips. 

She was becoming more irritated with him. As he grew older his manner grew coarser; at dessert he cut the corks of the empty bottles; after eating he cleaned his teeth with his tongue; in eating his soup he made a gurgling noise with every spoonful; and, as he was getting fatter, the puffed-out cheeks seemed to push the yes, always small, up to the temples.[2]

Marcel Granet
[e] Relationships
Home Life in Ancient China (1929)
The marriage of a noble girl is a quasi-diplomatic affair. It serves to maintain an old alliance or to procure a new one, for, in the instability of the feudal world, it happens more and more frequently that families, rejecting “the old relationships” seek fortune (li) by attaching themselves to another system of alliances. To enter into commerce, one must have recourse to the good offices of a go-between. The go-between, who was formerly charged with the oversight of the pre-nuptial lustrations, becomes a sort of ambassador. This obliging intermediary will become in the end a veritable match-maker whose duty it is to provide the partners and assort the households. In feudal times, his intervention seems to have been necessary, because the old rule (which was still respected, in theory if not in fact) that a marriage is only fortunate between families traditionally united by the obligation of intermarriages, survived in another form, namely, the idea that marriage is not a free contract: a girl who is asked in marriage cannot be refused without her people exposing themselves to a vendetta. This misfortune must be avoided if the two families come to an agreement through the go-between, before the formal demand. The official rites do not come into play until the agreement is concluded. The go-between then resigns his place to a qualified ambassador whom the head of the family of the would-be bridegroom sends to the family of the girl. He proceeds with the rites of betrothal, at which neither the bridegroom nor his father may be present. At each of these rites he exchanges a certain number of sacramental formulas with the head of the girl’s family…[3] 

[1] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003), 690-691.
[2] Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary [Translated by Paul de Man] (New York: W.W. Norton 
     & Company, 1965), 44.
[3] Marcel Granet, Chinese Civilization [Translated by Kathleen Innes and Mabel Brailsford] 
     (New York: Meridian Books, 1958), 347.

Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary [Translated by Paul de Man]. New York: W.W. 
     Norton & Company, 1965.
Granet, Marcel. Chinese Civilization [Translated by Kathlen Innes and Mabel Brailsford]. 
     New York: Meridian Books, 1958.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America [Translated by Gerald Bevan]. New York: 
     Penguin Classics, 2003. 

Wednesday, September 7th
The Exploding Wallet 
George's big wallet is central to his identity, or so he maintains. Next week we'll explore gender, money, storage, and contingency on Seinfeld Ethnography.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Styling Culture—Introduction

In the next few weeks I will be posting the text for a "volume" that I have been distributing for the last fifteen years. Back in 1997, I handed out a two-page set of instructions that I called "Rob's Style Sheet." I quickly learned that it could be a useful teaching tool, allowing me to describe the practicalities and esoterica surrounding grammar and style in the higher education classroom (and beyond). It also became apparent that it could be a useful tool for writing comments on student papers. Instead of trying to explain in the margins of a paper that s/he was using "number" in problematic ways (we'll get to that), I could write "#19," and have her know exactly what I mean. The most impressive students learned the material very well, and some of them have already gone on to be successful writers—in and beyond academia and the corporate world.
[a] Free  RF
I will be posting the manuscript that I have provisionally entitled Styling Culture on Round and Square during August and September. As you will quickly see, it is meant to be a grammar book for the anthropologist of American English. It has its prescriptive elements, to be sure (this is all explained below), but it is meant far more powerfully to be a genuinely useful guide to the culture wars surrounding grammar and usage. In particular, I have great venom for both the annoying critics who always correct people and (this is important) for the "good guys" who tell you that it doesn't matter. 

They're both wrong, and they will hurt you if you listen to them. I'm here to help you, so read on.

Styling Culture
Of School Marms and Language Mavens, Sociolinguists, Neurobiologists, Cultural Conventions, and Economic Forces (or: Why Have a Style Sheet When Language is Forever Changing…and, By the Way, Isn’t It A Bit Elitist, After All?)

I often receive veiled criticism in the form of questions about my style sheet. One of the most popular invokes Steven Pinker’s discussion of “language mavens” in his otherwise fine book The Language Instinct. I strongly recommend that you read it, and that you pay particular attention to his last two chapters, which I shall discuss here. “How dare you,” the questions seem to imply, “perpetuate an outmoded and elitist set of grammatical rules in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are arbitrary and that language is always changing?”  Let me be clear. I am in utter agreement with Pinker about sociolinguistics and the neurobiological roots of language—especially speech. Moreover, I feel that “school marms” (for me, the term is gender neutral) and “language mavens” are pains-in-the-nether-regions, and that there is no defensible set of “rules” in speech (other than those a normal brain can produce) that should be taught as the core of the English language. All speech is transformative, and writing, too, should always carry the possibility of change. Few examples are better than those found in Shakespeare’s plays, which might well have received a B- from the mavens and marms. Imagine the violence that could be done to some of the greatest lines in English literature by scurrilous wielders of the red pen.
[b] "Corrected"  RL
You see, grammar is culture.
[c] Precision  RF
My own training has centered upon East Asian languages and cultures, and I teach whole courses on the way that language truly “works” in context (including the way that banners flutter in front of businesses in Japan, advertising ランチ—something that sounds like “raunchy” but refers to “lunch”). And this is where it gets interesting, because Pinker and others are speaking and writing about…speech. Well of course speech is transformative and ever changing. Just walk into any place of business and order “raunchy.” Or turn on the radio or television and listen to…anything. Speech weaves and spins, pivots and passes, beyond any “rules” or “guidelines” that ever could be created. Even misstatements carve new linguistic paths, as Tom Brokaw did in a news report on NBC in the mid-1980s, when he described a person who fell “prostate” to the ground. We shift and shape language with every utterance as we play on words (feudal, futile; sorted, sordid), make mistakes (prostate, prostrate; idol, idle), and try to convey the “feel” for the world in which we live (“April is the cruelest month”; “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”). Speech is not a problem (we’ll get to writing in a minute). It is living language, and I agree with Steven Pinker in his criticisms of “mavens” who tsk, tsk over speech “errors.” There will still be people “judging” us over speech (they never go away), but that is another matter for another time.

You see, grammar is culture.
[d] Possession  RF

If you read the last few pages of The Language Instinct’s penultimate chapter carefully, you will see that even Professor Pinker must relent when it comes to writing. In fact, the entire chapter is disingenuous in its trashing of straw (people). He treats “mavens” as pointless and silly critics with little better to do than to criticize others. While he is certainly correct in noting the pettiness of many critics, even Pinker cannot deny that there are powerful cultural and economic pressures that will not go away, no matter how many neurobiological arguments he might throw forth. From the time I began to write longer essays in high school, I heard plenty of Pinker-like people who assured me that “mavens,” professors, and literary agents who worried about “rules” were no-life-losers not even worthy of our attention. They were idiots, and I was told to ignore them.

You see, grammar is culture.

This advice was disastrous. Sure, it made me feel better for a short period of time, but it gave way to despair when I ran into the next professor or agent who (as I was assured by the Pinker-types) was petty and ignorant. The problem is that they marked papers in red, gave grades, and made judgments about whether my work was worthy of publication—sometimes for money (this was a shocking concept for someone who had originally thought of writing as a creative hobby, not a way of earning a living). They might have been narrow little “mavens,” but they had influence. I came to resent bitterly the Pinker-types who told me not to worry. They were the problem, I concluded. The forces of linguistic oppression were waiting to punish me, and Pinker-types just told me to laugh it off. It wasn’t funny. I wanted grades, or publication…or money. I wanted someone to tell me how to avoid the snakes in the grass just waiting to mock, “correct,” or send rejection slips. The Pinker-style “good-guys” sat on their desks and acted like we were equals, but they were nowhere to be found when I took their advice and was burned.

You see, grammar is culture.
[e] Two bee or knot 2b  RF
It was only later that I learned that many of the “good guys” didn’t even follow their own advice. They wrote carefully and accurately, and followed almost all of the conventions of Standard Written English that you have encountered in this style sheet. It was like being left on the front lines of the language wars while the generals enjoyed tea and buttered toast in their tents. I have never forgiven them. I will not abandon you in the same way, even if it means emphasizing several guidelines that often seem like “rules.” I resented the Pinker-types who acted like buddies until the moment I needed them to help. I didn’t need to feel good about myself; I needed to learn how the business worked. I regret that no one taught me precisely the cultural (the “mavens”) and economic (the publishing industry) reasons for knowing the conventions of English usage. I had to learn them on my own, in fragments, as this teacher or that editor critiqued my work. My style sheet is a response to that confusion. It is an introduction to those powerful cultural and economic conventions that every publisher in the English-speaking world assumes. Pinker’s weakness is that he seems unable to understand that culture and convention also exert powerful forces, even if many of us recognize—applauding him all the way—that such things as “unsplit” infinitives and the “proper” use of “hopefully” have nothing to do with normal brain activity.

You see, grammar is culture.

The style sheet criticism that I occasionally receive is particularly painful, since I spend many hours of class time explaining that convention actually matters in human culture—even against my much more powerful urge to teach the way that we “really” use language. The latter is, after all, a topic that dominates my research and teaching. Pinker and others need to be challenged on this matter, since their linguistic demagoguery ultimately weakens what could have been a fine argument. He ignores the fact that human cultures have a series of conventions that delimit the neurological possibilities of language creation. It is not just English “mavens.”  Why, I might ask Professor Pinker, do teachers of Chinese state that there is one correct way to write the character for “horse” ()?  Why, indeed, do teachers of Japanese say that there is one correct way (it is different) to write the same character?  Why do they often add (this is common) that they can tell if it was written “correctly” or “incorrectly”?  It happens every day in Chinese and Japanese classrooms all across the world. Pinker seems to forget that culture matters. The brain is a foundation, but there is more.

You see, grammar is culture.
[f] Positive  RF

Another set of examples should make the point abundantly clear. “They” want to hurt you. I have a colleague who knows the English language well. She teaches its fine points, its history, and its nuances. She has utter contempt for those who are obsessed with rules, and has a special dose of venom for idiots, as she calls them, who worry about things such as split infinitives. Yet I have another colleague who once interrupted a story (my story, which made the experience particularly wretched). It was a Revere-like tale about midnight mountain biking in a poison-ivy filled copse in central Maine, and it held the entire audience spellbound, just waiting for the itchy dénouement. Before I could reach it, she interrupted and said “I think you split the infinitive in your last sentence.” Story undermined; the knobby tires of my tale deflated, and it was all about the infinitive and an assertion of grammatical authority.

You see, grammar is culture.

But there is more. I have another colleague, a graduate professor, who judges students (and comments openly on their intellectual capabilities) if they make “mistakes” such as splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions. He once interrupted class to say to a student “that must be the way they taught you to talk down there”—referring to the student’s upbringing in the American southwest. Beyond bad manners, these examples show the utter perversity and power that grammatical issues hold for some people. We can mock then as “marms” or “mavens,” but they often wield influence—and can make at least our academic lives difficult. My empathy lies with the colleague who deplores obsession over silly “rules.”  Yet even she does her students a disservice if she does not prepare them for the grammatical monsters lurking everywhere—especially in academia, where such obsessions are multiplied. In short, ignoring the “rules”—not bothering to learn the cultural power they hold and their potential economic sway (several of the examples above have the potential to do more than to ruin a good story)—is not an option for people who are serious about connecting with an audience and making points in the world.

You see, grammar is culture.
[g] Going  RF
Let me be clear one last time: my style sheet focuses upon the conventions of English writing in the United States. They are cultural constructions, yet almost every member of the publishing industry assumes a familiarity with them (even if there are occasional disagreements over a detail here or there). It is part of a power configuration that has consequences for everyone who studies in school (grades) or attempts to publish her work (money). It isn’t all bleakness, though. Every rule (read: convention) can be “broken” to beautiful effect. I am of the school of thought, however, that believes that one should know what one is doing to achieve that effect, and that the compounding of unwitting errors rarely results in good writing. Practice the fundamentals in your academic writing, then have fun bending the “rules” to your rhetorical purpose. A good rule of thumb would be to note to yourself that you are “breaking convention” and to be able to say precisely why you are doing so. Repeat the following on weekdays (preferably at sunrise):

I am not too cool to study grammar, yet I am free to use my native tongue 
in ways that my predecessors had not envisioned. I should, however, know 
              why I am doing so.

Or something like that.

Revise, revise, revise

Monday, August 29, 2011

Annals of Ostracism (3)—Discovered Notes

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Annals of Ostracism."
[a] Discovery  RF

I use the word “discover” in its original sense. My friend and colleague, Carol Trosset, had the misfortune (not uncommon among anthropologists, but always stressful and only pointed in places where one’s native language can be decoded) of having her fieldnotes discovered…and read…and interpreted.

As Trosset notes, this was one of the most horrible turns of fortune that could affect a fieldworker, or anyone else traveling among generally well-meaning people. I remember distinctly the day in early-1982 when I received her letter, telling me of how horribly all of this (our studies and methods, which seemed so straightforward in school) had gone wrong. Nothing could be worse, on one level, but Carol Trosset shows in this narrative and analysis precisely what can be made of seemingly impossible situations. It led her (and this is the entire point of reflexive ethnography) to deeper understandings of Welsh culture than could have been found through other means. The relationship between “head” and “heart” in Welsh culture is fascinating in its own right, but the discovered notes make it particularly resonant and analytically useful.

Carol Trosset
"Good People Are Not Objective"

A corollary of the value on emotional engagement is that intellectual detachment from other people is inappropriate and to some degree inhuman. Not only is emotional involvement with other considered desirable, but in order to demonstrate one’s humanity it is expected that emotions will be performed in some way. I had difficulty living up to these demands in my own life, and it was by violating them that I learned their cultural force. This happened when a member of one of my temporary households read my field notes while I was out of the house one afternoon. Analyzing the ensuing crisis in my relations with the community ultimately increased my understanding of three aspects of Welsh culture: attitudes toward the role of emotion in being a good person, the expectation of emotional performance, and how both of these things are situated in the Welsh social hierarchy.

Focusing on the concept of a good person, we need to ask just what people thought I had done, and how they reacted to it. My “offenses” appeared to be the following: I had said things about certain people that were less than complimentary (for example, that someone didn’t sing very well); I had written down things that people didn’t know I would write down, as they had decided (without really asking me) that I was only interested in language and music; and I had written down things about people’s private rather than their public lives (political opinions, or the fact that they had quarreled with someone). Everyone who heard about this thought that these were very bad things that I had done. It was partly because I was an outsider that it was wrong for me to criticize people in any way, though I think it would have been wrong for anyone to write down their bad thoughts as I had done. My other offenses were also enhanced by my outsider status, but were more generally considered indicative of my being a bad person. One couple tried to use this occasion to teach me the essential qualities of a good person (in Welsh terms), telling me about several highly intelligent members of the community who were widely perceived as inadequate family men. These stories were all based on the idea that the head and the heart (intellect and emotions) are separate, and that the head in unimportant, while the heart defines the person. Each example also seemed to contain the moral that people with especially well-developed intellects are more likely than others to be inadequate as people.

I was deeply disturbed by what had happened, and it took some time before the shock of the incident subsided sufficiently for me to remember to compare people’s responses with other possible attitudes according to which my actions might have been interpreted differently. One place these differences in assumptions can be found is in the incident which had, inadvertently, motivated this individual to examine my notebook. I had gone, with my hot family, to have dinner with an Oxford-educated lawyer and his English wife. The lawyer engaged me in an analytical discussion of Welsh culture, which ended unexpectedly in our joint comment that most Welsh people did not seem to be very interested in international politics. This produced a storm of protest from the others, which centered on the comment, “Of course we care about the Polish people; you have no right to say we don’t care.” (This discussion followed by a few weeks the outlawing of the Polish Solidarity trade union.) To myself and to the lawyer, “to care about” and “to be interested in” neither implied nor conflicted with each other. We had been speaking of simple academic interest: wanting to know details, to figure out how events were working and why. The others, however, assumed that we were referring to their “hearts” and criticizing them as emotional beings.

I did not do a good job of explaining my actions in the days that followed, as I was temporarily absorbed in a Welsh way of thinking. This showed itself in my inability to explain why I had taken the notes. I knew that there had been a reason that made it necessary for me to record all this information, but I genuinely couldn’t remember what it was. The reason, of course, was that as a researcher I needed to know as much as possible about my informants so that I could interpret the things they told me and the ways in which I obtained information from them. I think the reason I couldn’t remember this at the time was because, from a Welsh point of view, studying people’s thoughts and feelings is wrong in itself. I was unable to invoke anthropological methodology as a motive because the whole research enterprise no longer made sense, while I was absorbed in their ideology of personhood. The fact that I was unable to think in those otherwise familiar terms is itself further evidence that the feelings I had then about my actions closely resembled the feelings of the people around me. When I learned that my field notes had been read, and was told how angry people were now that they knew what I had really been doing, I was so shocked and distressed that I almost became ill. This emotional response was taken as evidence that I really felt bad about what had happened and had not intended to hurt anyone, and because of this some people decided to maintain their relationships with me. This aspect of the incident turned out to be a good illustration of the Welsh expectation that emotions will be performed to provide evidence of genuine feeling.[1]

[1] Carol Trosset, Welshness Performed (Tucson AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1993), 155-159.

Trosset, Carol. Welshness Performed. Tucson AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1993.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Hurtin', Leavin' and Longin' (18)—Chiseled in Stone

[a] Stone  RF
So a youngish chap gets into a fight with his significant other. There are words...and tears. He heads off to the bar, feeling sorry for himself. Well, that ain't nothin' says the old man sitting next to him. You don't know nothin' about misery...until it's chiseled in stone. The message is about as direct as they come, and the sentiment is one that weaves its way in and out of country music lyrics.

It doesn't hurt that Vern Gosdin has one of the best voices ever to waft through Nashville recording studios. The harsh, cold message is delivered with mellifluous sadness that can haunt the lover of lyrics and narratives. You have probably noticed that there is a glimmer of happiness in this otherwise miserable ode—through the lessons of one person's misery comes hope for another. None of that changes the drumbeat of country misery, though. Although the message might have rays of hope, this is not likely to be played at weddings anytime soon.

         Chiseled in Stone
             Vern Gosdin
 (Max Barnes, Vern Gosdin) 
[b] Chiseled  RF
You ran crying to the bedroom, I ran off to the bar
Another piece of Heaven gone to Hell
The words we spoke in anger just tore my world apart
And I sat there feeling sorry for myself

Then that old man sat down beside me and looked me in the eye
And he said, "Son, I know what you’re going through"
You ought to get down on your knees and thank your lucky stars
That you got some one to go home to

You don’t know about lonely or how long the nights can be
Till you’ve lived through the stories that still living in me
You don’t know about sadness till you've faced life alone
You don’t know about lonely till it's chiseled in stone

So, I brought these pretty flowers hoping you would understand
Sometimes a man is such a fool
Those golden words of wisdom from the heart of that old man
Showed me I ain’t nothing without you

Repeat Chorus

An interesting array of possibilities abound in the Chinese poetic tradition. A one-to-one correspondence would probably not be possible, in any case, but various strains of the message can be found throughout the pages of Tang dynasty poetry and Song dynasty lyrics. I have chosen one with only a glimpse of the country theme. It is a lyric written by one of the greatest statesmen in Chinese history, and one about whom I have written already on Round and Square. It addresses loss in a very different way from the lines above, but in a way that provides an exquisite juxtaposition of themes.

       Plum Blossoms on Solitary Hill
       Wang Anshi (1021-1085)
[c] Solitary RF
          What shall I compare them to—
               these plum blossoms on Solitary Hill?
          Halfway between flowering and fading
               in the midst of thorns!
          A fairest woman
               leaning against briers and trees;
          A despondent statesman
               abiding in the weeds.
          Stark straight, their lone loveliness
               carries the winter sun;
          still, soundless, their fragrance form afar
               trails the wild wind.
          Too late for transplanting,
               their roots grow old;
          They glance back at the Imperial Park,
               their colors drained.[1]

[1] Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo, Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), 337.

Liu, Wu-chi and Irving Yucheng Lo. Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.

Sunday, September 4th
Two Doors Down
Dwight Yoakam will tell us next week about a barstool of memory...two doors down.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Annals of Ostracism (2)—The Crime of Cephu

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Annals of Ostracism."
[a] Cooperation  RF
Small hunting groups rely on cooperative spirit more than tale can tell, at least until tales start telling of people who seek personal advantage despite the group’s call for civility. I recall one of my students at a northeastern college telling me what happened to a lobster fisherman who went it alone. I shivered at the cold, remorseless telling of his fate (and won’t retell it here). There is no way, however, of avoiding the fact that harsh endings have awaited the advantage seeker since the beginning of human society. The Grog who sought to keep the mastodon’s share of food for himself (and his nuclear family) was met with disapproval (at very best) and much worse by other tribal Grogs.

The forested world of the BaMbuti Pygmies is no different and, as Colin Turnbull relates, “Hunting…is a co-operative affair.”

Colin Turnbull
The Crime of Cephu
I remember one morning in particular when we went to kindle the Fire of the Hunt outside the camp, because it was the day that old Cephu committed one of the greatest possible sins in the forest.

I doubt if any of us had managed to snatch more than two hours’ sleep, and we were all quiet while preparing for the hunt. In a Pygmy camp this is the surest danger signal of all, for usually everyone is talking and laughing and shouting rude remarks from one end of the camp to the other. It was not only that we were tired, but of late Cephu had refused to contribute to the molimo basket, and that morning he had been heard to call out, in his loudest voice, that he was fed up with the molimo of “that camp over there.” Even though he always made his camp a short distance off it was close enough to be thought of as the same camp, and whether or not we appreciated his presence we thought of his camp and ours as being the same. Even his unwillingness to participate in the molimo was accepted, to maintain some semblance of unity; but his sudden statement made it impossible to ignore Cephu’s feeling of rivalry any longer. Rather than cause an open breach, everyone in camp kept his thoughts to himself and was silent…

…As we sat around waiting for others, one or two couples passed by. They were going ahead so they would have extra time for gathering mushrooms on the way. They paused to chat and then walked on, swiftly, and gaily. Before long the main body of hunters arrived and asked where Cephu was. We had not seen him. It seemed he had left camp shortly after us but instead of passing by the hunting fire had followed a different path. Someone suggested that he was building a fire of his own. This brought cries of protest that not even Cephu would do such a thing. There was much shaking of heads, and when Ekianga arrived as was told what had happened he stood still for a moment, then turned around, looking in all directions to see if there was any sign of smoke from another fire. He said just one word, “Cephu,” and spat on the ground…

…I tried to find out what had happened, but nobody would say. Kenge, who had been sleeping, came out of our hut and joined the shouting…I heard him saying “Cephu is an impotent old fool. No, he is an impotent old animal—we have treated him like a man for long enough, now we should treat him like an animal. Animal!” He shouted the final epithet across at Cephu’s camp, although Cephu had not returned. The result of Kenge’s tirade was that everyone calmed down and began criticizing Cephu a little less heatedly, but on every possible score: The way he always built his camp separately, the way he had even referred to it as a separate camp, the way he mistreated his relatives, his general deceitfulness, the dirtiness of his camp, and even his own personal habits…

…Ekianga leaped to his feet and brandished his hairy fist across the fire. He said that he hoped Cephu would fall on his spear and kill himself like the animal he was. Who but an animal would steal meat from others? There were cries of outrage from everyone, and Cephu burst into tears. Apparently, during the last cast of nets Cephu, who had not trapped a single animal the whole day long, had slipped away from the others and set up his nets in front of them. In this way he caught the first of the animals fleeing from the beaters, but he had not been able to retreat before he was discovered.

I had never heard of this happening before, and it was obviously a serious offense. In a small and tightly knit hunting band, survival can be achieved only by an elaborate system of reciprocal obligations which insures that everyone has some share in the day’s catch. Some days one gets more than others, but nobody every goes without. There is, as often as not, a great deal of squabbling over the division of the game, but that is expected, and nobody tries to take what is not his due.

Cephu tried very weakly to say that he had lost touch with the others and was sill waiting when he heard the beating begin. It was only then that he had set up his net, where he was. Knowing that nobody believed him, he added that in any case he felt he deserved a better place in the line of nets…Cephu knew he was defeated and humiliated. Alone, his band of four or five families was too small to make an efficient hunting unit. He apologized profusely, reiterated that he really did not know he had set up his net in front of the others, and said that in any case he would hand over all the meat. This settled the matter, and accompanied by most of the group he returned to his little camp and brusquely ordered his wife to hand over the spoils. She had little chance to refuse, as hands were already reaching into her basket and under the leaves of the roof where she had hidden some liver in anticipation of such a contingency. Even her cooking pot was emptied. Then each of the other huts was searched and all the meat taken. Cephu’s family protested loudly and Cephus tried hard to cry, but this time it was forced and everyone laughed at him. He clutched his stomach and said he would die; die because he was hungry and his brothers had taken away all his food; die because he was not respected.

The kumamolimo was festive once again, and the camp seemed restored to good spirits. An hour later, when it was dark and fires were flickering outside every hut, there was a great blaze at the central hearth and the men talked about the morrow’s hunt. From Cephu’s camp came the sound of the old man, still trying hard to cry, moaning about his unfortunate situation, making noises that were meant to indicate hunger. From our own camp came the jeers of women, ridiculing him and imitating his moans.

When Maisi had finished his meal he took a pot full of meat with mushroom sauce, cooked by his wife, and quietly slipped away into the shadows in the direction of his unhappy kinsman. The moaning stopped, and when the evening molimo was singing at its height I was Cephu in our midst. Lime most of us he was sitting on the ground, in the manner of an animal. But he was singing, and that meant that he was just as much a BaMbuti as anyone else.[1]

[1] Colin Turnbull, The Forest People (New York: Touchstone Books, 1968), 97-108

Turnbull, Colin. The Forest People. New York: Touchstone Books, 1968.

Discovered Notes
If you are a skilled ethnographer, you can learn a great deal about yourself and the people with whom you live when they surreptitiously read your fieldnotes.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Annals of Ostracism (1)—Alone in the Arctic

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Annals of Ostracism."
[a] Cool  RF

Today, I want to examine a section in Jean Briggs’s superb ethnography on her life with the Utku in the Canadian Northwest Territories. Hers is one of the first (and best) truly reflexive ethnographies, and her work combined with that of one of my teachers, Paul Riesman, and several other anthropologists doing fieldwork in the 1960s to create a movement within the discipline that would bring the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the ethnographer back into the picture. Briggs is unflinching in her description of how difficult was her transition to life in and beyond the iglu.

Although today’s passage appears about three-quarters of the way through the book, it brings to a head the perceptions she ignored and the Utku suppressed during seventeen months of fieldwork. I have already stated on Round and Square how important I think it is for anthropologists to “tell stories on themselves”—to relate moments of real frustration and pain, when they often are not at their best. I call this a “rhetoric of humility,” and it is plays a more prominent role in ethnography than in just about any other discipline. I find it to be one of cultural anthropology’s very reasons for being, and will have more to say about it as we progress.

Jean L. Briggs
Persona Non Grata: Ostracism
That incident [of confusion and frustration with outside visitors] bringing to a head, as it did, months of uneasiness concerning my volatility, marked the beginning of a new phase in my relationship with the Utku. Some days passed, however, before I became aware that I was ostracized. My work seemed somehow more difficult than usual, I felt tired and depressed; “bushed,” perhaps, I thought, in need of a vacation. There was certainly reason enough why I should be tired; the strain of the summer, the long isolation without mail, and the frustrations engendered by the presence of the unlikeable kapluna men, my impossible role as mediator—all had taken their toll. Now that the men were gone, I spent a great deal of time alone in my tent, typing notes, writing letters, and trying to analyze my linguistic data. I felt little desire for company and was grateful when the smiling faces that appeared from time to time between the flaps of my tent entrance withdrew again without entering. I noticed nothing unusual in the behavior of anyone toward me.

Realization came suddenly and from an unexpected source. Autumn was upon us. The kaplunas, fearing to be weathered in for the winter, had departed precipitously in a sudden snow squall the day after my outburst—an unfortunate coincidence, I am afraid—and the able-bodied members of our camp, released from their fascinated vigil around the kapluna camp, had gone off to hunt caribou, leaving, as usual, the infirm, the immature, and the school children behind in camp. Pala, his daughter Amaaqtuq, and I were the only adults who remained. Knowing that the school plane was expected imminently, I wrote letter after letter to send out. There might be no opportunity to send out mail again until November.

Pala also wrote a letter to be sent—to Nakliguhuktuq—and, smiling warmly, he gave it to me to keep until the plane should come: “So I won’t forget to send it,” he said. The letter was in syllabics, of course, and, moved by I know not what amoral spirit, I decided to read it—to test my skill in reading Eskimo. It had been written ten days earlier, the day the kaplunas left. It began, more or less as I had expected, by describing the bounty of the kaplunas and how much they had helped the Eskimos. Then it continued in a vein I had not anticipated: “Yiini is a liar. She lied to the kaplunas. She gets angry (ningaq) very easily. She ought not to be here studying Eskimos. She is very annoying (urulu), because she scolds (huaq) and one is tempted to scold her. She gets angry easily. Because she is so annoying, we wish more and more that she would leave.”

I pored over the crudely formed syllables for some time, unwilling to believe that I was reading them correctly. Perhaps I was inserting the wrong consonants at the ends of the syllables; the script does not provide them. But I was not. There was only one way to read the characters. So there was a reason why my work was going poorly! And my depression was not due to the fatiguing summer. What shocked me most was that, in thinking over the ten days since I had spoken to the kapluna guide, I could recall no change in the habitually warm, friendly, considerate behavior of the Utku. Though I had had few visitors, I had attributed that fact to my obvious preoccupation with typing; I had assumed that it was I who was withdrawing from the Eskimos, not they from me…

…I did my utmost to appear unperturbed, to appear not to notice. And so covert were these small withdrawals that at times I succeeded in persuading myself that they existed only in my depressed imagination. The illusion that all was well, however, never lasted for long. I felt myself in limbo, and I fumbled for a way to break out. I wanted to confront my punishers with my knowledge of their feelings toward me, and to explain why I had acted as I had toward the kaplunas, but I feared that I would only shock them the more by my directness. I considered the advisability of leaving on the school plane when it came; it was expected any day. I had not intended to leave for several more months, but since my work had come to a standstill anyway, perhaps there was no use in staying on. There were other inner voices, however, which told me to stay. I feared I had not gathered adequate data for the dissertation that was supposed to result from this field trip; and I did not wish to admit defeat before those who had said at the outset that Chantrey Inlet was too difficult a place for a white woman to live…[1]

[1] Jean Briggs, Never in Anger (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), 285-289.

Briggs, Jean L. Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.


The Crime of Cephu

Colin Turnbull relates the cooperative nature of hunting among the BaMbuti Pygmies, and the outrage of Cephu, who went on alone.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Annals of Ostracism—Introduction

[a] Alone  RF

I have been thinking about ostracism for the past few days. I wish I had a more inventive reason for it. Some people haven’t been especially timely in replying to my e-mail messages, but I think that has more to do with calendar than calumny (I think). It so happens that I have been reviewing a number of classic ethnographies as I prepare to teach ANTH 206: Social and Cultural Theory this term, and the subject of booting people from the comfortable womb of sociability keeps appearing. So, in this series of posts, I am going to banish us to the hidden world of social anguish called ostracism. 

Here is a workable dictionary definition from Miriam-Webster (online) that we will surely begin to refine as we proceed:
verb \-ˌsīz\
os·tra·cize os·tra·ciz·ing
transitive verb
1: to exile by ostracism
2: to exclude from a group by common consent
She was ostracized from the scientific community for many years because of her radical political beliefs.
The other girls ostracized her because of the way she dressed.
Greek ostrakizein to banish by voting with potsherds, from ostrakon shell, potsherd—more at oyster     First Known Use: 1649

[b] Isolated RF
Ostracism is not easy to write about, not the least if it is one's own. If it is someone else's isolation, the problem lies "merely" in understanding the psychological, cultural, social, and often economic subtleties of the situation. But if it is us being kicked to the curb of social interaction, it is difficult to make a persuasive defense. It often sounds, well, defensive. Only a few people have done it well, and in every case they are honest with themselves and their readers. A larger point is buried here; it is important for ethnographers to acknowledge—indeed, engage—their presence in the ethnographic encounter. That the "student" is part of the social dynamic is so obvious that it hardly needs stating, right?


Tell that to a half-century of writers who hardly acknowledged their own presence or—this is much more common—did so in a way that gave them enormous "narrative control" (many of these ethnographies remain at the very center of the discipline, and are called "classics"). One author's works have been described as a "slide-show," implying that the main thrust of his books is geared toward what is on the screen, and not the person working the controls. This Wizard of Oz-like image is a telling characterization, and it would seem obvious that ethnographers need to write about how they felt and how they reacted in fieldwork encounters. Right?

It is obvious...except for one thing. 

The temptation to make it all about me is so great that all but just a few masters of the genre have succeeded without degenerating into id embracing ethnobabble. Suffice it to say that the writers I will be quoting in the vast majority of Ostracism posts have done this well—blending their stories with precise linguistic data and analysis of the social and cultural dimensions of the experience. 

[c] Ritual center RF
Not everyone does it well, though. I prefer not to name names here (although I am ever so sorely tempted). It takes enormous skill to write as clearly and analytically (while still telling a riveting story) as Jean Briggs, Colin Turnbull, Paul Riesman, and Carol Trosset do in the posts that will follow. Instead of describing people who do it very badly (you can imagine the hand-wringing self-absorption), I will rather retell an old anthropological joke about a postmodern anthropologist. I tell this, over-and-over, to students in my classes as I implore them to analyze, and not just to splatter their “feelings” on the page. Indeed, I warn them of my version of “(sic),” which is used (as many of you have probably noticed) to point out mistakes of grammar or syntax that are not those of the quoting author. I call my version “SIC,” and it stands for “self-indulgent-crap.” Please avoid this, I say. 

Here’s the old joke (with my expanded telling of it):

A thoroughly trained postmodern anthropologist finds a meandering path into the depths of a forest society and, in time, is introduced to rituals, dancing, and other wonders of ceremonial life. S/he watches fires crackle and listens to the feats and travails of the ancestors, who felled great beasts and painted their stories on cave walls. S/he listens, takes notes, and follows the instructions learned from many years of anthropological study, always dutifully mapping and transcribing. 

Finally, s/he can’t take it any more. S/he knows that s/he is a part of the very social fabric here. She has read her Foucault and Derrida. 

[d] Apart RF