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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (26)—The Close Talker

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.
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
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
Objects (in front of you) are as close as they appear.

Americans find few things as disconcerting as physical proximity. There is nothing new in this observation, and it has been made in arguments ranging from the deeply scholarly to off-the-cuff-and-breezy. It is "out there," though, and you might have guessed that Seinfeld would pick up anything floating around in the cultural soup. Let's take a look at the Close Talker, and Jerry's stand-up, stare-down gamesmanship.

So what can we make of it? Are there cultural differences to "closeness" in interactive settings. Surely, there are. Are there personal preferences within cultural settings? Again, certainly. This makes it a bit of a challenge to find readings for the week's episode. As readers of Seinfeld ethnography know well by now, I am not particularly interested in finding analytical pieces that merely "echo" the episode or just speak of how different societies can be. I want to juxtapose the Seinfeld clip with materials that might well come out of the blue for readers. All will deal with the theme of "proximity," but (I hope) none will be what you "expect." Toward that end, I have chosen a little anthropology, a bit of political philosophy, and a scene from one of the racier sections of an early Chinese historical text. The latter has a number of potential readings, and my only concern is that people will see it only one way in our post-Freudian world. I think it is just as easy to interpret it in terms of palace politics, but that is a good deal less exciting than the "obvious" interpretation.

[b] Communication RF
Edmund Leach
Culture and Communication (1976)
Human communication is achieved by means of expressive actions which operate as signals, signs, and symbols. Most of us do not distinguish these three commonplace words at all precisely, and even those who do may use them in widely different ways, but in this essay they will be given specially defined meaning which I shall presently spell out. In some forms of communication, the expressive action of the sender is directly interpreted by the receiver. I speak, you listen; I nod my head, you see me do so. But in other cases the link is indirect. I write a letter and produce a pattern of signs and symbols on a piece of paper; some time later you receive the paper and interpret what I wrote.

The scope of indirect communication of this latter sort is very wide. We spend our whole time interpreting the results of the past expressive actions of other people. I can recognise that a church is not just an ordinary dwelling house simply by looking at it, but the 'expressive actions' which built in the distinction in the first place took place a long time ago. In what follows I shall assume that all the various non-verbal dimensions of culture, such as styles in clothing, village lay-out, architecture, food, cooking, music, physical gestures, postural attitudes and so on are organised in patterned sets so as to incorporate coded information in a manner analogous to the sounds and words and sentences of a natural language. I assume therefore it is just as meaningful to talk about the grammatical rules which govern the wearing of clothes as it is to talk about the grammatical rules which govern speech utterances.[1]

[c] Exemplary RF

Christopher Kelly

Rousseau's Exemplary Life (1987)
The last of the artificial sentiments to arise in Jean-Jacques is vanity. This is the passion that Rousseau most identifies with corrupt political communities. In his "Project for a Constitution in Corsica" he compares the unhealthiness of vanity with the pride characteristic of good citizens. The pride of citizens comes from sharing objects of emulation with their fellows; it points to an estimable standard beyond itself. The vanity characteristic of corrupt civilized humans comes from their desire to aggrandize themselves in the opinion of others; it comes from opinion alone and points to no estimable object.

Vanity is the most complicated of the artificial sentiments in that it depends on the most complex operation of the imagination. Both pride and anger are based on an immediate identification with someone else, and sexuality is, at base, a natural passion, what modification it may undergo because of the imagination. Vanity presupposes the ability to move outside oneself and therefore has a common root with pride and anger. It is distinguished from these passions in being less immediate and more calculating and manipulative. It is distinguished from sexuality in having no natural root whatsoever. The vain wish for others to think highly of them for any reason at all so that they can exploit them or merely enjoy their flattery. Thus, while pride can be a shared social passion, "vanity by its nature is individual." It is individual, not because it is consistent with natural independence, but because it sets people against each other and keeps them out of a social whole.[2]

Sima Qian

[d] Favor RF
Records of the Grand Historian (c. 90 BCE)
Chapter 125: The Biographies of the Emperor's Male Favorites

The gentlemen who enjoyed favour in the palace under Emperor Wen included a courtier named Deng Tong and the eunuchs Zhao Tan and Beigong Bozi. Beigong Bozi was a worthy and affectionate man, while Zhao Tan attracted the emperor's attention by his skill in observing the stars and exhalations of the sky; both of them customarily rode about in the same carriage with Emperor Wen. Deng Tong does not seem to have had any special talent...

Once Emperor Wen dreamed that he was trying to climb to Heaven but could not seem to make his way up. Just then a yellow-capped boatman boosted him from behind and he was able to reach Heaven. When the emperor turned around to look at the man, he noticed that the seam of the boatman's robe was split in the back just below the sash. After he awoke, he went to the Terrace of Lapping Water, which stood in the middle of the Azure Lake, and began to search furtively for the man who had boosted him up in his dream. There he saw Deng Tong, who happened to have a tear in the back of his robe exactly like that of the man in the dream. The emperor summoned him and asked his name, and when he learned that the man's family name as Deng (ascend) and his personal name Tong (reach), the emperor was overjoyed. From this time on, the emperor bestowed ever-increasing favour and honour upon Deng Tong.

Deng Tong for his part behaved with great honesty and circumspection in his new position. He cared nothing about mingling with people outside the palace and, though the emperor granted him holidays to return to his home, he was always reluctant to leave...Deng Tong, however, had no other talent than this of entertaining the emperor and was never able to do anything to advance others at court. Instead he bent all of his efforts toward maintaining his own position and ingratiating himself with the emperor.[3]

Note: Sima Qian's text is remarkable, and even this story goes much further in the world of "closeness." In the interests of general readership, I have concluded it in a "logical" place, but there is more from this 2,100 year old story. You have the reference (below), so look it up the rest if you wish. RL for RSQ.

[1] Edmund Leach, Culture and Communication (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 9-10.
[2] Christopher Kelly, Rousseau's Exemplary Life: The "Confessions" as Political Philosophy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), 98.
[3] Sima Qian, The Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty II Revised Edition [Translated by Burton Watson] (New York: Columbia University Press, 419-420.

Kelly, Christopher. Rousseau's Exemplary Life: The "Confessions" as Political Philosophy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Leach, Edmund. Culture and Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Sima Qian. The Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty II (Revised Edition) [Translated by Burton Watson]. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

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