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, October 26, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (31)—George's New Friend

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
George has a new friend, and the glow he exudes far surpasses his usual crabbed cynicism and cluelessness. He is happy, somewhat obsessive, and even a little bit possessive. Take a look at the clip, and the we'll talk a bit about friendship and its discontents.

[b] Rocky RF
The tired and obvious "reading" of the episode doesn't even begin to tap the cultural analytical potential that can be found simply by examining gendered friendship on its many levels. There is nothing "simple" about friendship. It is a social pact, of sorts, with an array of individual and shared emotions at work. Clearly, George's investment in the relationship differs from his friend's. There's an old country song that says "there's always someone who loves a little less." That is instructive here, and we would do well to look at "investment levels" in any number of relationships.

It might well be possible to draw a diagram to show the dynamics of successful and increasingly unsuccessful relationships (or at least severely "asymmetrical" ones). One of my favorite anecdotes about "relational asymmetry," though, requires no diagram. It was spoken back in the early 1980s by a sagely elder at a big shindig held for him...and his bride of fifty-five years. This gray-haired crew-cut gentleman said something I've never forgotten:

It should always be 55-45, and you both need to feel you're giving the "55."

That, of course, can be taken a number of ways, but suffice it to say that he did not mean it to be a cynical statement. He explained that you need to try a little harder than you might normally think. It has stuck with me for three decades, but I realized quickly its limitations as a tool for understanding a wider array of social relationships beyond love and marriage. What about friendship? This is the question that George makes us consider. What does "investment" mean in friendship, and how can the dynamics of symmetry and asymmetry play out in life? A great disparity need not be problematic. We often call it "mentoring," and it is quite common. As I have argued in other posts, there is no such thing as perfect symmetry. Ever. You may argue all you want, but life is made up of relational asymmetries large and small. We would do better to engage them than pretend, as lovers of liberty, that they don't exist.
[c] Open-face RF

The day dawned bright, and sun shone warmly on the new friendship. George brought sandwiches, and the rock face glistened (this is how I imagine it). In retrospect, bowling might have gone better, though. Unless the ball would happen to fall on his friend's face, it would have to go better. Still, the issue that I can't shake—and the one that lingers for me as I look at George's lost, forlorn, puppy-dog face through Elaine's apartment door—is relational asymmetry and friendship. We'll return to that issue in future posts that will owe their inspiration to George's New Friend.
***  ***
This week's reading will explore love, friendship, and presentations of self in a variety of ways. As always, in Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific, our task is to juxtapose new ideas with the Seinfeld clip. These readings do just that. We begin with Allan Bloom's discussion of Socrates and the channeling of Eros in philosophical inquiry. As I have mentioned in other Round and Square posts, this was one of the most powerful themes in Bloom's teaching. We then proceed to an ethnography published the same year that investigates "performances" of Welsh life. In this anecdote, Carol Trosset gives us a glimpse of public occasions and the welcoming of visitors. Finally, we return to the work of Paul Riesman, who tells of Fulani notions of loneliness and their cure—company.

[c] Eros Blooms
Allan Bloom
The Ladder of Love (1993)
I began this book with Rousseau, the most erotic of modern philosophers; I end with Socrates, the most erotic of philosophers, period. Of the many beautiful Socratic dialogues, perhaps the most beautiful is Plato's Symposium, which was an inspiration for lovers throughout the ages. especially in those fertile moments of return to classical antiquity that so marked our past, the Renaissance and Romanticism. Socrates says that he is an expert in the science of erotics (177d), which must mean that he knows something that very many people think is important. But Socrates is also the prince of the skeptics, the man who said, "All I know is that I know nothing." This is contradiction is usually resolved by taking Socrates' assertions about erotics to be an example of the famous Socratic irony, a kind of joke. This is a solution, but not a very satisfactory one, since it only fits our own sense of what a man like Socrates could take seriously, instead of being based on anything Socrates himself actually says. It is at least possible that what he says about knowledge of ignorance is ironic. He insists most on his ignorance in the most public of contexts, his trial for impiety and corrupting the youth. By contrast, he speaks about his knowledge of erotics in much more intimate situations, understandably, because a man who claims he can teach erotics to young men would seem to be vulnerable to the charge of corrupting the youth.

But, in absence of proof, as a preliminary working hypothesis, one might equate the two apparently contradictory assertions. Socrates' statement that he only knows he knows nothing could be interpreted to mean that philosophy is impossible and that it is not worth going on. But Socrates interprets it in the opposite direction: knowledge of ignorance means that one's life must be dedicated to finding out the things that it is most important for man to know. If Eros, put most generally, is longing, then the philosopher who pursues the knowledge he does not have could be considered erotic. He longs for knowledge. If the need to know is what is most characteristically human, then such philosophical Eros would be the privileged form of Eros. Moreover, it is generally agreed that Eros is connected with pleasure, a very powerful pleasure, and this would account for the philosopher's continuing in his uncompleted quest, which might appear to be very bleak without such accompanying pleasure.[1]

[d] Performance
Carol Trosset
Welshness Performed (1993)
As a foreigner who had learned Welsh, I was unusual enough that I was often publicly welcomed at formal gatherings. People consider it important that visitors be welcomed, and if they have a guest who will be attending some public function, they may arrange in advance for a welcome to be given. One weekend when I was staying with a family and attending two local hymn-singing festivals, my hosts asked me if I had been welcomed at the first one. They seemed displeased that I had not been, but excused it when they remembered that no one had known I was there. To prevent this from happening at their own chapel's festival, they phoned the minister to tell him about me, on the grounds that he would be uncomfortable if he met me afterwards and had not given me the proper public welcome. This turned out to be a very public welcome indeed (the festival was attended by about five hundred people). During some break in the singing, the director said (all this was in Welsh) there was someone in the congregation from Ohio, and made the usual joke that I had come all the way for that particular occasion. He said he didn't know which of us it was, and would I please stand up.

This welcome was unusual in that after I had stood and sat back down, the director then said he had heard I was learning Welsh, and he asked me several questions I had to answer: when I had started learning Welsh, for how long was I in Wales, and was I enjoying myself. People sometimes asked me whether being publicly welcomed made me uncomfortable. It usually did, although most public welcomes were in front of smaller groups and did not require me to say anything. I have already noted the discomfort of an English couple repeatedly welcomed as guests at Welsh chapel services, but apparently Welsh people can also be made uneasy in this way. I was told that one society president, when she had to welcome or introduce someone, would find out all about them and go into such detail that they often found it embarrassing, so much that they would even say so when they got up to speak.[2]

Paul Riesman
[e] Company
The Experience of Loneliness and Its Cure (1974)
To feel alone is, according to the Fulani, one of the most painful emotions. In Djibo and Ouagadougou, people who had come with me from the bush would say to me spontaneously, "Yeeweende warii kam do (Solitude is killing me here)." This term, like semteende and yurmeende, is created by a process of derivation from a verbal form. It is yeeweede, a verb in the passive voice, which means to feel abandoned, to feel alone. It is an emotion so painful for the Jelgobe, that they prefer never to be alone, as far as possible. That is especially true of children and young people, who keep each other company sometimes even when they go into the bush near the wuro to defecate. This anguish also seizes grown people who are in a state of vulnerability, such as women who have just given birth. Such a person never goes into the bush alone to take care of his or her needs but is always accompanied by someone, if only a child. The explanation the Fulani themselves give for this practice is that such a person is more susceptible to being seized by a djinn. Loneliness is doubtless the most difficult of emotions to control since it is only in old age that men begin to manage it—and then perhaps only by necessity.

The term that means "to dissipate solitude" is yeewtude, whose usual English translation is "to converse," "to chat." This is quite significant, for we have seen, in speaking of greetings, that it is by means of the spoken word that society is maintained from day to day. Here we see another aspect of what speech does, namely, preserve people from solitude. But while women are thought to be more vulnerable to the dangers of solitude, it is men who must pass more time alone. This is not only because of the kind of work they do but also because of the more rigid separation between the generations...

Yeeweende is not merely the absence of people; it is the absence of those we love and who love us. This can clearly be seen in the songs and also in the fact that the greatest loneliness is often experienced in the town rather than in the bush. Loneliness appears, then, to be the other side of love, for to admit that one is lonely is to admit that one needs the love of others. This need is normally concealed in public, and it is only in songs that it is freely confessed. Besides, it turns out that the evening gatherings where people sing these songs are only held in the bush and sometimes in the riimaaybe villages (debeeje) but never in the wuro. Within the wuro men seek to control their needs and thereby to maintain their superiority over women, but in the bush they may express their desires; this expression admits the implicit superiority of women at the same time that it attempts to touch them by arousing their yurmeende.[3]

[1] Allan Bloom, Love and Friendship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 431-432.
[2] Carol Trosset, Welshness Performed: Welsh Concepts of Person and Society (Tucson AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1993), 99-100.
[3] Paul Riesman, Freedom in Fulani Social Life: An Introspective Ethnography Translated by Martha Fuller (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 220-221.

Bloom, Allan. Love and Friendship. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
Riesman, Paul. Freedom in Fulani Social Life: An Introspective Ethnography Translated by Martha Fuller. 
     Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.
Trosset, Carol. Welshness Performed: Welsh Concepts of Person and Society. Tucson AZ: University of 
     Arizona Press, 1993.

Wednesday, November 2nd
Jerry's Haircut
Jerry gets clipped, and looks like an aging character from the Little Rascals. We'll do a little thinking about the theoretical implications of week on Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.

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